Sloppy Seconds

March 7, 2012

For a variety of reasons – most of which I won’t go into, but one is that work on my book has reached a stage that requires some advanced procrastination skills – I’ve been revisiting some current series that I’d originally decided to abandon after my first visit with them: the second seasons of Nurse Jackie and The Good Wife and the third season of Fringe.

When I first wrote about Fringe, I called it a “zero.”  But I’m still watching, so the show must be doing something right, right?  By now, I’d say it’s moved up to a one.  The elaborate “mythologies” that these cult occult shows are their secret weapon; they can build up interest even when the original premise, and its execution, aren’t so good.  Lost – like Fringe, an outpost in the wide J. J. Abrams fanverse – had built-in flaws in its structure and casting that it never overcame.  But it got better as it went along, because once the basics had been laboriously laid out, the writers could keep throwing in new twists on the old twists, and casting better actors than the stiffs they hired before the show was popular.

Fringe works on this level, now that it has grown from the “Pattern” of X-Files-y events into an elaborate map of multiple universes, with most of the cast having fun playing dual roles.  At the end of the third season, the show seems bent on shifting again, this time into a time travel paradox.  The more Fringe keeps moving, the better it gets.  The show’s best sections remain the cool, conceptual sci-fi gimmicks; my favorite in the third season was the spooky electric typewriter that conveyed messages between universes.  It’s a shame that the dictates of plot require the show to chew through these ideas so fast.  The enigmatic Sam Weiss (Kevin Corrigan, not one of my favorite character players, but suitably inscrutable here), a humble bowling alley owner who’s also the keeper of centuries-old knowledge, was given a patient, three-year buildup.  But then all that got thrown away in a rushed, season-ending, save-the-world climax that rattled off Sam’s secrets faster than an auctioneer’s spiel.  It’s amazing that my favorite character, corporate-executive ice queen Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), still has most of her mystique intact.  If Fringe knows what it’s doing, it’ll keep Nina in reserve and make her the key to its endgame.

Don’t get me wrong: Fringe would be much worse had it committed to stasis instead of evolution.  The series has attracted some surprisingly top-level names for a low-rated show, too,  among them screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and indie horror director Brad Anderson (Session 9).  But the influx of talent hasn’t stopped Fringe’s pilfering from older, better shows.  Just as the first season brazenly duplicated the formulas of The X-Files, the third season’s doomsday machine plotline was a lazy rewrite of the much richer Rambaldi mystery from Alias (also an Abrams creation).  Then there’s the spectral presence of Leonard Nimoy, which now seems like a serious error in judgment.  When he cameoed at the end of the first year as William Bell, an answerer of riddles ensconced in a corner of a still-standing alt-world World Trade Center, Nimoy lent great authority to a shaky freshman fantasy.  Brought back in action-hero mode for year two, Nimoy seemed ridiculous and sadly frail.  For the third season, Nimoy’s now-obligatory cameo, heralded by creaky Star Trek in-jokes, took especially bizarre form: first in a silly body-transference plot that referenced “Spock’s Brain,” complete with a truly misguided Spock impression from the series’ game star Anna Torv (usually, the only reason to keep watching this mess), and then, without explanation, as a cartoon avatar.  I’m guessing the animated sequence in “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” was an elaborate, klutzy write-around for an ailing actor – Nimoy suffers from emphysema, and announced his “retirement” from the Trekkie circuit last year – who couldn’t travel to Vancouver.  I’m as much a Spock fan as anyone, but I wish they had gotten Christopher Lee.

*

Nurse Jackie has drawn a reasonable amount of acclaim (Edie Falco won an Emmy for the first season), but it has plateaued as one of those mid-level performers that doesn’t turn up on many end-of-year best lists.  The show has yet to master that awkward half-hour dramedy format for which The Wonder Years remains the gold standard.  The comedy in Nurse Jackie often skews too broad, like the occasional pratfalls, or just forced, like the unfunny running gag with Michael Buscemi (Steve’s soundalike brother) as a man who thinks he’s God and harangues passersby from an upstairs window.  The drama, or at least the self-contained storylines involving hospital patients, feels familiar; welcome as their guest shots are, Marion Ross as an abused senior citizen and Barbara Barrie as a bitchy VIP might as well be leftover ER vignettes.  There are some fine actresses in the cast – Falco, of course, but also the grand Anna Deavere Smith as her boss and, playing a young nurse, Merritt Wever, a true eccentric who surprises me with every off-kilter line reading.  But the men, save for Falco’s Sopranos castmate Paul Schulze as a mopey pharmacist who can’t get past his affair with Jackie, are forgettable.

There are two things that Nurse Jackie does well.  The first is an oft-used (really, overused) story template in which Jackie, a seen-it-all ER nurse, marshals her indignation and charges into the bureacracy on behalf of some patient who would get lost in or turned away by the system without the benefit of her experience.  In one episode, for instance, she lays it out for the loving wife of a brain-damaged football star that the only way to avoid bankruptcy in paying for his care is to divorce him.  It’s a fairly cheap wish-fulfillment fantasy – the medical professional as masked avenger – but one that can’t help but resonate in the pre-Affordable Care Act era, where those of us who can’t afford the health care we need don’t have many advocates above the pay grade of ER nurse.

The other thing Nurse Jackie does that I haven’t seen before is present a kind of no-nonsense, non-judgmental idea of addiction.  The series is free of the kind of moralizing or melodrama that have dominated the alkie/druggie genre since The Lost Weekend.  That’s not to say that Nurse Jackie is making even a covert argument on behalf of drugs.  It isn’t, but it also has too much integrity to condemn the choices made by its heroine, even though almost all of them are self-destructive.  The show avoids those cliched scenes in which an addict endangers or embarrasses herself with out-of-control behavior.  The painkillers on which she is dependent don’t make Jackie any less of a skilled or even heroic caregiver; there are, Nurse Jackie reminds us, many functional addicts walking among us.  When the show does dramatize the consequences of addiction, it’s in ways that are fresh.  When Jackie opens a statement from the secret bank account she uses to make purchases at a half-dozen pharmacies, Falco’s eyes widen in silent terror; Jackie knows she can’t sustain that kind of spending forever.  The second season ends with an inevitable intervention that I had been dreading.  But there was an unexpected epilogue to that scene, an exquisitely liberating burst of secret profanity from a defiant Jackie.  It gave me some hope that the third season (which has already been broadcast and released on disc, so some of you know the answer to this) will avoid the schoolmarmish recovery/redemption tack taken by, say, John Carter’s (Noah Wyle) pill-popping doc on that other show, the shadow of which Nurse Jackie will never outrun.

*

When The Good Wife premiered two seasons ago, I called it The Mediocre Wife.  It scanned like a kitchen sink filled with ideas from half a dozen different shows: courtroom theatrics, office politics, marital conflict, political scandals and conspiracies, even teen melodrama.  Some of these elements were uncertain or derivative, and most played out with the lassitude and predictability of all the procedurals on The Good Wife’s mismatched network, CBS.  The political stuff was pointless after The Wire, and the legal maneuvering and interoffice backbiting couldn’t compare to the pre-burnout writing of David E. Kelley on The Practice and Ally McBeal.  (Even Kelley’s signature contribution to the genre – the wacky judge! – is recycled regularly in The Good Wife, most memorably in the form of the sanctimonious liberal idiot played by Denis O’Hare.)  I’m not sure what changed to make The Good Wife so much more compelling in its second year – it’s now my favorite non-cable drama – but it’s worth noting that The Good Wife’s husband-and-wife showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, wrote or co-wrote twice as many teleplays in the second season as they did during the first.  Often the creators of a hit show dash off to make more deals and write more pilots, but in this case the credits read as if the Kings stayed around to help their creation reach its full potential.

At the center of The Good Wife are Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), a homemaker who revives her law career after a long hiatus because her husband, Cook County State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) has just been jailed on a corruption rap and their family suddenly needs income.  The only job she can get is as a junior associate working for her old law school flame, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), who’s still nursing a crush.  None of this was terribly promising at first glance.  Noth is one of those stolid TV actors without much personality and Margulies, while technically proficient, projects a standoffish, judgmental quality.  Cast as a victim of infidelity (Alicia’s husband was banging hookers, too), Margulies immediately takes the character into martyr territory.  I still have problems with Margulies, but Noth wakes up a bit in the second season, turning the character into a short-tempered asshole, his eyes flicking impatiently at the other characters.  As television’s Harrison Ford, he’s found himself.

Archie Panjabi, who won a freshman-year Emmy as the law firm’s cold-eyed, manipulative private investigator, also struck me as stiff and, with her tiny frame and poorly suppressed British accent, wildly miscast.  But the second season had a smart idea: it gave Kalinda an unscrupulous but hunky rival eye (Scott Porter).  The competition that took root between them allowed Panjabi to delineate Kalinda’s edgy self-contempt, and her capacity for danger, in ways that were startling, compassionate, and at long last plausible.  The producers also fixed the political arc by sidelining Noth in favor of the lively Alan Cumming, added to the cast as Peter’s brilliant but ethically slippery campaign manager, and reworked the unsustainable contest between Alicia and her weaselly junior-associate rival Cary (Matt Czuchry) by moving Cary to the state’s attorney’s staff.  I thought that switch would slide The Good Wife into another lawyer-show cliché, with Cary turning into a Hamilton Burger figure, a hateable weekly rival for Alicia and company.  But in practice, Cary became an unpredictable agent of shifting loyalties, and a self-hating villain: Czuchry, with his slow pothead smirk, hit his stride playing the character against type, as a young man whose ambition often overcomes a basic decency.  (It’s probably no accident that Cary’s last name, Agos, sounds like Iago.)  These transformations are relatively minor – a rearrangement of the chess pieces rather than an arm sweeping across the board – but collectively they are shrewd enough to have turned a tedious show into a gripping one.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a great “bottle show” – an episode of a usually sprawling series that confines itself spatially and temporally – but The Good Wife pulled off a remarkable one with “VIP Treatment,” in which the Lockhart-Gardner lawyers have only a few hours to decide for themselves whether to believe the story of a masseuse (a terrific Natalie Knepp) who claims she was sexually assaulted by a Nobel Prize winner.  Another nail-biting race-the-clock episode, “Nine Hours,” manages to find a new vein in the most mined-out of legal cliches, the last-minute death-penalty appeal.  (An anonymous law clerk offers only the slightest hint that the appellate brief lacks an argument that will sway one of the judges, and Alicia must somehow figure out which judge and what argument without exposing the clerk’s breach of protocol.)  Nearly every episode has some clever, authentic-feeling wrinkle like that.  Taking its cue from early David E. Kelley, The Good Wife finds its best stories in arcane aspects of the law that strike us laymen as novel or counterintuitive.

If there’s anything that puts The Good Wife within the range of greatness, it’s the way in which the Kings have developed the Alicia-Will-Peter love triangle.  This arc seemed to hit an irrevocable climax at the end of the first season, when Will professed his love for Alicia via voicemail.  But the writers managed to defer a resolution for an entire year, and did so without making the viewer (this one, at least) feel cheated or short-changed.  One of the narrative tricks used to push this simmering storyline along – the deletion of the message by another character in the second season opener – was clever, but another – Alicia’s discovery of the lost text in a way that prevented her from doing anything about it – was one of the most ingenious plot twists I’ve ever encountered on television.  Neatly, as it returns at last to the Will-Alicia romance, the second season ends where we had expected it to begin.  I hope The Good Wife, in the third season that’s in progress now, hasn’t ducked this storyline again; the second time, it would feel like a cheat.  But then again, that may not matter, because in the last few second-year episodes The Good Wife detonated a bomb in the friendship between Alicia and Kalinda, one that daringly “ret-conned” much of the first and second seasons, and set up the third as an unmissable event.

Top: Parking garage, cell phone, baseball bat – the stuff of The Good Wife.

Infringement

October 15, 2010

It’s that time of year again.  Time to max out the DVD recorder with the new fall shows, and then try frantically to sample all of them before (a) nobody’s talking about them any more, and therefore everyone will care even less about what I think of them than they might have a short time earlier, and (b) the DVD recorder fills up.

But not this year.  This year I’m celebrating the new fall season by canceling my cable.

I’ll catch up with the season’s survivors on DVD, and as for the ever narrower roster of shows that flop so ignominiously that they don’t net a home video release … well, c’est la guerre.  It’s only mid-October and so far there are three goners – Lone Star, My Generation, and Outlaw – that will probably never resurface outside the private libraries of obsessive collectors.

It’s not that I think new television is bad and old television is good and you should all get off my lawn now.  As I think I’ve said before, I had always planned to fudge the definition of “classic” and write about modern television on this blog, too.  I’ve done that once or twice, but the networks foiled my plans somewhat by taking a bit of a dip creatively just I was planning to start reporting here on the new fall seasons.  Other than Mad Men, I haven’t seen many new series that are as energetic and intelligent as some of the shows that bowed out around the time this blog debuted in 2007: The Wire, The Sopranos, Veronica Mars, Boston Legal, The Shield.  Since the very beginning, the relative density of good television has been cyclical – and I think that right now we’re in the middle of one of the dry spells.

Also, I’m kind of busy these days, with (among other things) some projects that will be noted here in the coming months.  I try not to let real life intrude upon the watching of television, but the threat looms.

*

That’s a partial explanation for why I’ve only just started on Fringe, which is now entering its third season.  The other part is that since I’ve shifted to watching new stuff on DVD rather than “live,” I have fallen behind to the point that I now define “new” as “less than three years old.”

By that arithmetic, Fringe is Fox’s “new” clone of its big hit from the nineties, The X-Files.  It was created, if that’s the word, by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.  All three were writer-producers on Alias, a clever genre series that recombined the DNA of a dozen or so espionage, fantasy, and serial melodrama shows into something original.  So it’s a disappointment and a surprise that their latest effort is so uninventive.

Fringe is shocking in how extensively it copies from a single antecedent.  It is also surgical in its skill: it manages to remove the best things about The X-Files and replace them with new things that don’t work at all.  It’s as if Abrams et. al. took some old X-Files scripts and tried to play that Price Is Right game with them, the one where the contestant tries to match a bunch of price tags to a set of corresponding prizes.  Then he or she runs over and pulls a lever, and a big sign next to Bob Barker lights up and indicates how many prices are correct.  If it’s less than all four, the contestant hurries back and switches the tags around before the clock runs out.  In the worst case scenario, a contestant might start out with three right and end up with zero.  Fringe is a zero.

(That game is one of my favorite television-derived metaphors for life, incidentally.)

Fringe centers on two crime-solvers, a female FBI agent and a “consultant” with a checkered past, who investigate mysterious phenomena as part of the Bureau’s “fringe” division.  Some of those phenomena appear to be related; these are collectively referred to as “the Pattern,” and they may trace back to a conspiracy involving the government and a sinister Microsoft-like corporation called (ever so subtly) Massive Dynamic.  Unspoken sexual tension flourishes between the two leads.

I told you: it’s The X-Files with the nametags switched.  In the second season premiere, there’s a throwaway line which establishes that the Fringe division “used to carry the X designation” – in other words, the writers have puckishly placed both shows in the same fictional universe.  That is what we goyim call chutzpah, and unless cameos by Mulder or Scully or even Walter Skinner are in the offing, it was a very bad idea.

I realize now that one of the key ingredients of The X-Files was that Mulder and Scully operated alone in the darkness.  They had no anchor to anything consistent or comforting, at least not that we saw.  Mulder had a backstory, but the supporting characters in the series – like Agent Skinner, Mr. X, and the cigarette-smoking man – were introduced gradually, and always as part of the ever-expanding conspiracy plotline that made up the show’s “mythology.”  And there was a high mortality rate among these characters.  Their purpose was to up the stakes, to insist that we remain invested in material that was, after all, the stuff of supermarket tabloids.

Perhaps in an attempt to mitigate their blandness, Fringe burdens its Mulder and Scully wannabes, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), with a large roster of full-time tag-alongs.  There’s an FBI partner, an FBI boss, another FBI partner who may or may not be dead (long story), a lady from Massive Dynamic with a spooky robot hand, a lovably eccentric scientist, his adorable lab assistant, and so on.  A few of these characters prove so disposable that the writers kill them off.  Others exist mainly to offer comic relief of a variety so persistent, repetitive, and unfunny – the mad scientist has a pregnant woman’s weird food cravings, only it’s a different craving in each episode! – that they would be better suited to Scooby Doo.

And instead of dispatching to remote corners of Vancouver (er, I mean, the fifty states), these characters converge in a warmly lit, comfy-looking basement laboratory on the Harvard campus.  The show’s reliance on this inviting stationary set dulls the edge of any eerie atmospherics that the writers and directors try to get going.  (Remember, Mulder and Scully spent very little time at home or in the office).  It also requires that most of Fringe’s unexplained happenings occur within driving distance of Boston, a nagging implausibility for which the show has yet to offer a solid explanation.  At least Scooby Doo worked out of a van.

I’ve seen dumber ideas and more generic sets of characters come to life in the hands of the right creative people.  But Fringe is saddled with a dull cast, and felled by one crucial performance that is so wholly ill-conceived and executed that it becomes sort of fascinating, like a forty-some hour train wreck. 

John Noble (pictured above), an Australian expatriate known mainly for a role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, portrays Walter Bishop, the father of the male investigator.  Walter is Fringe’s one multi-faceted character, and one of the problems with Fringe is that the writers have appended just about all of the show’s facets to a single character.  Walter is the Frankenberry-munching buffoon I ridiculed above; he’s also a brilliant intellectual, a man with a tragic family history, a repentant villain, and the keeper of a lot of secrets that are doled out now and then as the series unfolds.

It’s an unplayable role, but there are a few actors who could probably pull off the wild swings between intensity and silliness that it requires; Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol (both late of Chicago Hope) come to mind.  Noble doesn’t get hold of either end of the character.  His craggy face and deep baritone form an unusual barrier between himself and the audience.  Noble might be fine doing Gilbert and Sullivan on stage, but he has none of the approachability that most successful television actors develop. 

Noble could have opted to hide behind his natural stoicism (or, dare I say it: nobility) and let us guess what he’s thinking most of the time.  (William Hurt and William Peterson often hold back in this way.)  Instead, Noble veers the other way, toward a bathos that smothers all the father-son scenes.  Maybe because it’s the most external aspect of the character, he fixates on Walter’s uncertain mental health, deploying an exhausting repertoire of twitches, facial tics, and goofy expressions.  (To be fair, some of this, such as Walter’s incessant humming and singing, is scripted.)  Noble is so bold in his bad choices that I’ll bet he has some passionate fans; but all I can see is an actor far out of his depth.

On the other hand (pun intended), the robot-arm lady, Nina Sharp, is played by Blair Brown, and she’s totally captivating – sinister, sensual, mysterious, and matronly, all at once.  Nina is the only major figure on the show whose motives are at all hidden or ambiguous (another smart thing about The X-Files is that it had a ton of these characters), and Fringe mostly wastes her as a purveyor of exposition.  There are shows where casting doesn’t matter as much, but since almost nothing in the narrative or the look of Fringe is novel, I find myself tuning out the details of each week’s x-file (’scuse me, “fringe event”) and getting stuck on how good Brown is and how bad all of the other actors are.

Fringe succeeds in one and only one area.  It offers an acceptable substitute for the extraterrestrial invasion that structured the mythology of The X-Files.  By the middle of the first season, Fringe has shown most of its cards in this regard: it posits the existence of a parallel universe, and the ongoing storyline explores the potentially disastrous consequences of contact between it and our own.  (Is it piling on to point out that the pattern by which Fringe alternates between self-contained “monster” episodes and fan-servicing “mythology” episodes duplicates a strategy worked out by The X-Files?)

The theory of parallel universes actually exists in quantum physics, and so it opens the door to do “hard” science fiction of a type that none of the major American fantasy series have attempted.  Fringe hasn’t availed itself of this possibility nearly enough, but its few imaginative ideas have all come out of it: a mummified madman (Jared Harris) teleporting himself, and the occasional motor vehicle, through space using a set of souped-up surveying equipment; a strange bald guy (Michael Cerveris) with futuristic spyglasses who seems to pop up at important moments throughout centuries of human history; a great second-season time-paradox episode about a grief-stricken scientist (Peter Weller) who turns himself into a cyborg time-machine; and the circumstances and setting of the long-deferred initial appearance of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), the Massive Dynamic founder who is (sort of) the mastermind behind everything.

But those are fleeting pleasures, and in between them Fringe is just video-methadone for sad addicts who have done without an X-Files fix for close to a decade.

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