The Screen Gets Smaller

October 21, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

When it comes to today's TV sets, bigger is better. Gone are the days when a 28" set was admired far and wide. Now, such a television is relegated to basements and back rooms where the neighbors can't see it. So it's ironic that the bigger the televisions get, the smaller the programming designed for them becomes. I won't claim to have seen everything or even nearly everything the networks are offering this year, but here's an encapsulation of my reaction to those shows I have sampled.

I suppose now would be as good at time as any to post a spoiler warning, although I'm not going to go into detail about anything...

With respect to returning shows, two of my "regulars" aren't airing in the fall, so I can't comment on them. Based on recent history, Battlestar Galactica should return with a bang in January (although I am looking forward to the November movie, Razor). BSG has a history of strong season premieres and, with the same creative team in place, there's no reason to expect that to change. The situation with 24 is less certain. The program started to show cracks during the bloodbath season of 2006. Early this year, it imploded spectacularly. I stuck with it to the bitter end - a mistake that won't be repeated next year. Bringing back Tony (as the villain?) is a step in the right direction, but only the first step. What 24 needs more than anything else is good plotting; we won't know until January whether that will be accomplished. If it's more of the same, it won't be taking up space on my DVR.

So, as far as the autumnal entries are concerned, the only returning show I regularly follow is House. For better or worse, the formula hasn't changed, but I don't watch House for its medical mysteries. The show works because of character interaction and witty dialogue. One Wilson/House scene is worth a dozen missed diagnoses and MRIs. The best element is that there hasn't been an attempt over the years to soften Hugh Laurie's character and turn him into a grouchy teddy bear. He's as unpleasant and misanthropic as ever. The show's episodic mysteries are merely filler.

In early September, I picked up the DVD boxed set of Heroes' first season. After returning from Toronto in mid-September, I went through the episodes at the rate of about three per day. With apologies to the program's passionate defenders, I must admit that I found the quality to inconsistent. The moments of brilliance (the alternate future episode) were counterbalanced by those of extreme stupidity (the sword quest). Good acting warred with hammy, over-the-top performances. And the final episode was as big a letdown as anything this side of 24. I was left bewildered by all the praise the series had garnered. Nevertheless, I decided to start watching series two. Three episodes in, I gave up. Rather than fast forward through two-thirds of an episode, it was better to give up. There aren't any characters I care about any more and the storyline would be hard pressed to be less interesting. Heroes may get better, but I won't be along for the ride.

Now for the new shows. I have seen enough episodes of three to offer opinions, and that doesn't count HBO's limited Tell Me You Love Me, which I would qualify as an erotic soap opera. It is well-written but not well-plotted. There's a difference. The program really doesn't go anywhere; you can miss an episode and the characters will be in pretty much the same place they were a couple of weeks ago. HBO's placement of Tell Me You Love Me as part of their on-demand offering makes it difficult to avoid. It's always easier to watch something on my schedule rather than on a network's.

Journeyman may have the best premise of any new show, but the execution has thus far been spotty. I'm still watching out of an increasingly forlorn hope that the writers will wake up and do something interesting. There are endless rich possibilities but the show has thus far stuck to a limited and uninspired formula. My patience is running thin - if the program doesn't start taking a few risks and pushing the envelope, it will lose me around the time that 24 and Battlestar Galactica return. Maybe the writers of Journeyman should sit down and read The Time Traveler's Wife.

Back in the '70s, I used to watch The Bionic Woman (although I will admit having a preference for The Six Million Dollar Man). I'll be the first to admit that it wasn't the best written show, but at least it had Lindsey Wagner and those oh-so-cheesy special effects. The '00s recreation of The Bionic Woman lacks Wagner and the bad special effects (not to mention Oscar Goldman, Max the Bionic Dog, Bigfoot, and the fembots). It has no heart, no charm and, most depressing of all, it boasts worse writing than its predecessor. If this show survives a full season, it will be proof of how low the expectations are of those who sit down to watch programs on a weekly basis.

But there is hope. My new favorite show is Pushing Daisies, a quirky romantic comedy/mystery about a guy who can raise people from the dead with one touch then send them back down the River Styx with a second one. Although it's only a few episodes in, the program has done what Journeyman has failed at: maximize its potential. In a strange way, Pushing Daisies reminds me of Twin Peaks. Both shows are offbeat, don't fit into a comfortable mold, and are surprisingly funny. Of course, there haven't been any dancing little people in Pushing Daisies - at least not yet. Let's hope this show is able to sustain its magic for longer than Twin Peaks did and, in the process, hold on to a large enough audience that it can stick around for a while.