Television

Lacking Intelligence?

Over the course of five seasons, Chuck was the kind of science fiction dramedy fitting of a premise as ridiculous as it presented. An underachiever in life, Zachary Levi’s Chuck Bartowski is given near super powers when he is accidentally implanted with a super computer that houses intelligence and encoded data. With his new found upgrade, Chuck was able to learn martial arts, hack into spy secrets and gain access to information reserved for those with only the highest of clearance. Surrounded by sidekick buffoonery, easy-going humour and a great cast, the show was able to breeze along its more paramount subjects without being burdened by the weight of taking itself too seriously.

Fast forward two years after Chuck’s final sign off and we’ve got CBS’ latest science fiction entry in the Josh Holloway (Lost), Marg Helgenberger (CSI) starring Intelligence. The show’s premise? An overachiever in life, Holloway’s Gabriel Vaughn is given near super powers when he is purposefully implanted with a super computer that houses intelligence and encoded data. With his new found upgrade, Vaughn gains access into spy secrets and information reserved for those with only the highest of clearance. His advanced martial arts, weapons and combat come courtesy of his years in the military.

The crux here however, is that Intelligence is a very serious show about serious things. We learn in the pilot that Gabriel Vaughn’s spy wife has been missing for 5 years and is feared turned into a jihadi sympathiser. This provides much of Vaughn’s angst and drive to accept the responsibilities of having the world’s most intelligent computer in his head. While Vaughn is Chuck Bartowski 8.0, he is still given a guardian of sorts, someone to keep an eye on him and protect him much like Yvonne Strahovski did for Chuck. Meghan Ory (Once Upon A Time) plays Riley Neal, the Secret Service Agent assigned to the task. She’s beautiful, smart, skilled, and has a past (just so she’s got some sort of edge). While she’s great, she seems a little out of place next to Vaughn’s seemingly indestructible self, posing the question as to why she needs to be there in the first place.

Helgenberger’s turn as the director of US Cyber Command (which, it turns out, is a real thing) is your textbook inner antagonist amongst the so-called “good guys”. She’s the brains behind the operation but you can’t help feel that maybe she’s not showing all her cards just yet.

The first two episodes plod along nicely, with much of a muchness we’ve seen in current shows like Person of Interest and Almost Human. We’re given advanced overlays of what is happening in Vaughn’s computer charged head on the screen. We travel to exotic locations and we’re given the kind of friction between male-female leads we’ve seen countless times before in such well-to-do fare like Bones and Chuck.

Yet, it’s hard to come to terms with the silly premise without thinking of Chuck Bartowski. Why? Because it’s just so damn dumb that it seems even more ridiculous without the abject silliness that surrounded the colourful characters of the Buy More. The plot twists in the first episode of Intelligence alone are quite silly, and while much of the show is done well and by the books, it rarely does much to stand out amongst the current palette of successful science fiction.

The route its producers/creators have taken saddle the show with the burden of having something real to say, and in an age where cyber intelligence continues to be on the forefront of discussion, you’d better have some real gravitas to it.

Intelligence airs Monday nights on CBS.

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Few words are needed really, but Michael J. Fox is back on TV. After his humorous cameo stint on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Michael J. Fox returns to network television with his first show since Spin City in the aptly named The Michael J. Fox Show.

The show is part of NBC’s new line up for next season. It’s great to see Fox back on TV in a starring role.

 

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Featured, Television

In Defence of AMC’s The Killing

Disappointment at a television series’ mismanagement is nothing new, this year I’ve invested my time to several that in a palpable existence would have lasted longer than their actual life spans. I was never a fan of any Stargate series until Universe and was bitterly disappointed that for once, a bunch of people jumping through giant stone hoops was both thrilling and engaging- only for it to get axed after it really got going (2 seasons worth). Then there was FOX’s ham fisted treatment of Shawn Ryan’s The Chicago Code (cancelled after 13 episodes), while restrained due to it being on FOX instead of FX, was easily the best procedural police drama on TV this year.

So now we come to AMC’s The Killing, whose season finale (or as we all thought, the series finale) came to its rather unfruitful conclusion this past Sunday. One of its most vocal critics, ESPN/Grantland’s Bill Simmons, has written a lengthy piece about its “hackery”, its broken promises and unserved dinners. He’s not wrong; I too was rather dumbfounded by the way it unraveled. After so much promise and poise through the season, we neared a much-needed resolve to the murder of Rosie Larsen, but all we got was trickery and overplayed season-ending cliff hangers (the creators of Dallas will forever be blamed) that bordered on justifiably throwing your remote through the television.

Bordered on, but not quite. As frustrating as it was, I’m here to defend The Killing and the way it ended, not so much the contents of the ending itself, but that the potential for the show and all the good things AMC did with it, warrants a second chance.

For those uninitiated, The Killing is AMC’s adaptation of the Danish series Forbrydelsen, a crime drama that took an entire season (20 episodes) to solve its one case. Much of the plot is kept the same; a young girl is murdered to the backdrop of a hotly contested Mayoral race as audiences get a harrowing look at the emotional and physical turmoil the events cause to the family of the victim, the suspects, and the law enforcement officers meant to solve the case.

– SPOILERS AHEAD –

Did this guy kill Rosie Larsen? Maybe, maybe not…

It is a slow moving drama, punctuated by shady characters, ambiguous morals, and some heartbreaking pain- like a good BBC slog through the rainy streets and woodlands of Seattle. We are peppered all through the season with suspects- ranging from obvious to more obscure. I had money on candidate Darren Richmond, his sniveling campaign adviser (both of them), the teacher Bennet Ahmed, a potential terrorist that Ahmed was involved with, Belko and even detective (Sarah) Linden’s fiance who spent all his time trying to get her to move down the coast. All were potential killers- at least that’s the way the plot unfolded- often giving you hints that this particular character had an uncovered layer that led you to believe he or she was capable of such a crime.

By the penultimate episode, we are dropped the bombshell that the killer is evidently future Seattle mayor Darren Richmond. And we expected the final episode to see him finally put to rest as this long winding road finally came to a halt. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As Simmons points out in this piece, the series was recently picked up for a second season, and with this in mind, the brain trust at AMC must have decided to hell with the viewers, let’s stretch this thing out beyond what we initially planned for reasons that most definitely have nothing to do with the artistic integrity of the original series. So came the plot twists and new facts conveniently seeing the light of day as time expires derailing the show’s last hour. It’s like if a band were to re-record Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run and leave off “Jungleland”, or if they remade it as a, God forbid, dance/electronic number. They’ve done everything well up to this point, how could they possibly conduct the conclusion with the panache of a DJ horrendously remixing a really great song? Everything had been done the way terrific European television would for the majority of the series, but the show’s American producers decided to end it the way a trust fund kid would torpedo his/her father’s Fortune 500 Company. Sometimes you just have to end your journey the same way you began it. The Killing did not, and they’re getting their just criticism for it.

– END OF SPOILERS –

However, to write off the show and what it did up to the last episode would be unfair (mostly to people like myself who refuse to end it on a note like this) because of all the good they did do. So what’s left? A chance for television redemption. What if AMC took a cue from short run English dramas like Luther and structured the proposed second season as no more than 4-6 episodes? What if they wrap it up and give audiences the ending they hoped for within this short run, a riveting, gritty but concise ending? It’ll prove that AMC still care about the integrity of quality television and aren’t just another television studio playing the ratings game. I think it worked for The Walking Dead, why wouldn’t it work for The Killing Redux? Let’s not drag this case out longer than a few more episodes. Please.

So don’t write off The Killing just yet, and don’t write off AMC. The show is still leaps and bounds better than what any CSI or Criminal Minds can offer. And after watching the first episode of Game Of Thrones, I can stay that at least The Killing is not so uncomfortably ostentatious (medieval breasts are immediately nullified by gratuitous incest). AMC and the show runners made a mistake, but one they can fix if they get what happens next right.

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Highlights, Television

Covert Affairs: When Bad Television is Good Television

I can’t remember the last time I saw Piper Perabo, but I’m sure it was around the time of Coyote Ugly. If you remember that film, it was where she played a small town girl who came into the big city chasing dreams only to end up dancing atop a bar. It was a terrible film. That was probably the last time I saw her anywhere (okay, that’s a lie, I saw her in Cheaper By the Dozen but I’d like to pretend that never happened either), until this past summer where she’s been heating up the USA Network’s summer schedule with the Doug Liman produced Covert Affairs.

The series is, for all intents and purposes, a lighter less-heady version of previously popular spy drama Alias. Perabo plays Annie Walker, a fresh out of school recruit whose immense language skills has earned her a spot at Langley. Through the series, she trots around the globe doing spy things- exchanging information, extracting people, kicking people, and generally getting out of sticky spy situations. Her immediate team includes Auggie Anderson (a blind operative helping Walker from the desk, played by Christopher Gorham), Jai Wilcox (a fishy CIA officer who appears to have more than one secret) and the husband and wife director team played by Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett.

It is the pairing of Matchett and Gallagher as CIA directors (with Gallagher’s character being Matchett’s superior) that proves to be the series’ unique character relationship. While Walker’s cover means she often lies to her sister and family, it is the strain between Gallagher and Matchett’s respective characters that proves to be the most interesting. How does a married couple possibly live and cope as two high-ranking CIA operatives? How do you possibly take that friction and disagreement home to bed? Not a bad set up for summer fare.

The show’s lighthearted veneer is both an asset and a hindrance. It’s relatively easy going and the missions and plotlines do their best not to complicate any of the characters. A former CIA agent troubles Walker, a previous lover (played by Eion Bailey), but this story line tends to falter more than it shines as it fails to do anything other than give some back story to why Walker will at times seem troubled (she at least, cries much less than Sydney Bristow did). The aesthetics and cinematography borrows more from the CSI school of television than it does The Wire, with pretty people abound and a glossy shine cast over the locales. Viewers shouldn’t expect season-long story arches and multi-layered complexities that lingers long after the show is done either. Through the season we’ve seen her travel to South America, Europe and across North America to diffuse situations like protecting a boy-genius, leaks in the Senate, suspicious art and an escaping Iranian defector who as it turns out, just wants to get back with his childhood girlfriend. Not exactly stopping a nuclear holocaust.

Yet you can’t help but enjoy the 40+ minutes it’s on every week. For one, Perabo is absolutely fantastic in it. She was born to play a lovable, but slightly troubled, beautiful spy whose world of espionage is both engaging and interesting, but only slightly dangerous. Her command of foreign dialects is believable and her earnest character makes her one of the best on television at the moment.

Summer fare rarely pushes deeper than the immediate surface. With Perabo proving the goods however, Covert Affairs has been the perfect antidote to television doldrums and a show to watch as it traverses past the singular season mark. If anything, Covert Affairs just wants to have a good time and to be well liked, both accomplished with stylistic aplomb.

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Covert Affairs airs Tuesdays on the USA Network. The double episode season finale airs September 14th. The show has been renewed for a second season. Covert Affairs airs in Australia Mondays, 9.30pm on Channel 7.

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Television

Why American television needs John Luther

John Luther is not a man of great style, he is not a hero, he is not a soldier, and although he is a brave man, he is not a man of great bravery. Unlike Dexter Morgan, the voices of demons in his heads are the voices of real people, in their flesh that torment his waking hours. He is not a serial killer but at times, he wants to act like one. He is intelligent, haunted, but a good detective, one who battles as many demons as criminals, and he would be perfect for American television.

Luther is a BBC produced television series that aired in the UK this past May, a brutal, distinctly British examination into the life of a murder detective and the evil within and around. Starring Idris Elba (American audiences will be familiar with him from The Wire and more recently, The Office) as John Luther, the series does not hold back from the always difficult life of a police detective- juggling his disintegrating private life (a crumbling marriage) with that of a crime fighter. While topically familiar, it is the method in which this 6-part series plays out that makes it truly memorable. Like The Wire, there is an honesty that paints a picture of grit and turmoil, an underlying imperfection that plagues Luther as a man. When the series begins, Luther is recovering from a botched assignment in which his mental well-being is put into question. Suspension from duty leaves him with nothing but his thoughts to contend with and from here, we see the character’s many layers unfold.

Through circumstances (details withheld to prevent spoilers) he meets a psychopathic woman named Alice Morgan (played with an eerie brilliance by actress Ruth Wilson) that serves as a catalyst for Luther’s constant battles with himself. Alice tortures him mentally, and the fragility of his mind comes as the cost of those around him (most notably his wife Zoe (Indira Varma). His struggles to maintain these pieces gives him an edge over more noted American television characters- who while are dealt with certain turmoil, are never quite taken down a path so dark that we, as the audience, feel genuine fear and sympathy. Unlike the Horatio Caines of the television world, the series creators seem unsympathetic towards Luther- making him strong one moment and distinctly weak the next, almost crippled. Dexter Morgan is perhaps the most similar character on television- except his demons aren’t real- they manifest themselves in his head from ghosts of his past. John Luther however, is tormented by someone who will call him on a miserable afternoon to torture for pleasure.

Procedural television series (CSI, Cold Case et al.) will sometimes have longer story arcs that prevail over the course of the season or over a few, but they will linger, leaving the audience rather exhausted over the 22 (or how ever many) episodes. Luther however, gives you 6 in which all the drama plays out with great urgency. Much of the series is beautifully shot amongst London’s monolithic cityscape. There is great use of light and momentary pauses that enhance the atmosphere of the show. Unlike the machine gun editing of their American counterparts- Luther benefits from the slower, more natural scene-to-scene transitions that rely on a little patience and imagination to hold the viewer’s attention.

Tony Soprano is long gone and time will tell whether the new series of Dexter (does Rita become another ghost in his head?) will hold as much as the previous, American television needs another strong, multi-faceted but fragile leading man. Compelling dramas like Luther come every so often to HBO, series that leave the audience with a sense of accomplishment and intrigue. The ground may have already been covered before but rarely has it been done with such conviction.

BBC America has announced that Luther will premiere in the United States October 17th.

[xrr rating=4/5]

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