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What's New?

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 30, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

New TV: Bionic, Journeyman, Life

It's hard to tell when a new television season starts.

Not that many years ago, networks started every show within a few weeks in September. I remember all the hooplah -- you'd think it was the event of the year. And, for popular culture, it was.

That's still the official start of the season -- for the big three networks and the CW.

But Fox rolls out its big guns in winter, with 24 and American Idol.

Some of the networks run some of their best shows through the summer doldrums when nobody else has anything new -- which is why So You Think You Can Dance got such good ratings (for a summer show).

Then there are the shows with deferred openings, like Lost.

Still: If you want to see what the networks think are their best new shows, you have to be paying attention in September and October. Because at the rate failing shows get killed, if you don't see it now, you may not see it at all.

And, just in case you don't know it yet, "failing in the ratings" does not mean "bad." It just means that for whatever reason -- a bad title, the wrong night or time of night, promotion on the wrong network, the national mood -- some great shows have been axed before they had a chance to breathe.

We're lucky when a network holds on to a show that by ratings alone should be canceled. Think of Friday Night Lights, which is getting a second year when higher-rated shows were pulled out of the schedule. In other words, sometimes network executives really believe in a show, believe that word of mouth and critical raves will bring a larger audience -- or perhaps its merely the vanity of an elite show. As long as it's not losing money, they can be proud to have it on their schedule. I don't care the motive: Just keep the good shows on!

This year, there are some shows that deserve a quick mercy killing. Kelsey Grammar is a charming performer, even when he's not playing the Frazier Crane character that originated on Cheers and then ran forever in a spin-off series Frasier. But Grammar's new show, Back to You, is a stinker.

The performers do their heroic best, but the jokes all manage to be somewhere between dirty and smarmy without ever brushing up against funny. I have no objection to ribald comedy as long as it's funny -- case in point: Two and a Half Men, which for years was my favorite sitcom.

The characters in 2.5 Men were exuberant: They wanted something.

The characters in Back to You are merely snippy and mean. If they want something more than to irritate each other, I haven't detected it. The premise is weak; the writing is weaker. But because Kelsey Grammar has been so important to television, and because an affectionate audience may keep trying to watch the new show, Fox may keep it on for six or seven weeks, maybe longer. Gone by Christmas, though.

Bionic Woman is one that my wife and I turned to out of mere curiosity. I never watched a single episode of the Lindsay Wagner series back in 1976-78, so I have no nostalgia for it. Indeed, as a sci-fi writer, I snobbishly thought the idea was so deeply stupid (Six Million Dollar Man, too) that I wouldn't waste my time.

The stupid part is this: It doesn't matter how strong your "bionic" arms and legs are, they have to leverage against something. For anything like the effects they show to take place, you would have to replace every bone in the person's body, not just the limbs, because otherwise, these feats of acceleration and force would tear their hips and spine and shoulders to bits.

So I have to give the new series, starring Michelle Ryan as Jamie Sommers, some points for making a real effort to try to gloss over the fundamental stupidity of the premise. There is a mechanism to explain how her body heals quickly and without scars; likewise, there's an explanation for why a woman who has lived a nonviolent life suddenly knows how to fight.

But when it came down to a confrontation between Jamie and an earlier (and dark-side-serving) bionic woman, the writers still resorted to standard movie-fighting stupidity ... plus. As long as any original organs remain, these women would have been killed or at least hospitalized by many of the blows we saw them endure.

We're not supposed to care about that, though. Ultimately, we just have to accept the premise and go along for the ride.

And apart from the bionic stuff, the premise is very strong. Jamie is in love with a doctor who is working on a secret project -- the bionic project, of course -- so when she is shattered in a traffic accident, he puts her back together against the will of the other people in the project. Jamie also has a bratty high-school-age sister that she takes care of.

What's good is that the relationships are well-written and well-performed. The characters' actions make sense. And there's a whole villain subplot involving that Sarah Corvis (that earlier bionic woman), the doctor's imprisoned father, and an evil assassin who gets the father out of jail.

All the actors are good, and all the relationships are well realized. Katee Sackhoff plays Sarah Corvis so passionately and well that she absolutely steals every scene she's in -- so I assume she'll get killed off in the next episode so that Michelle Ryan doesn't have her own series stolen out from under her.

So I recommend Bionic Woman to those who want an excellent dark fantasy thriller with a not-as-silly-as-usual premise.

But I won't be watching.

Why? Because life is short, and I'm getting old. I can't watch everything, and so why should I give an hour a week (ok, 45 minutes on TiVo or DVR) to a show in which I don't actually like any of the characters? In this case I recognize excellence, without wanting to fill my memory with the resulting storylines.

If I want dark, powerful storylines, I'll watch The Unit, which is even more brilliantly written and acted and connects far more believably with the real world.

Journeyman is an obvious remake of Quantum Leap. Both shows have a guy getting hurtled back in time in order to make changes that improve the world or at least some people's lives. But I liked Quantum Leap, and so why not give this show a chance?

I'm glad I did. Because in some ways this show is a significant improvement on QL.

Let's start with the premise. Where QL had its hero permanently cut off from his own real life, Journeyman plunges Dan Vassar (Kevin McKidd, whose face is familiar from countless films and TV roles) into the past but continually brings him back to the present.

While he's in the past, he's physically missing from his family -- so he gets fired from his job, his friends think he's on drugs and try an intervention, and it's only through some clever maneuvering that he's able to convince his wife that his time traveling is real.

In QL, the hero went back to the past and then stayed in one continuous time segment until he made the necessary change and then jumped to the next scenario. But in Journeyman, Dan is sent back for much briefer stints, seeing the same person at intervals sometimes separated by years or decades. Thus he intervenes several times in the same life.

In QL, the audience (and sometimes the hero) got to find out key information from some characters who were observing the whole thing, so we knew what the purpose of everything was. In Journeyman, nobody has a clue, except there's one constant: Whatever Dan thinks he's supposed to do, he's wrong. In both episodes I've seen so far, whatever he imagines his purpose to be, the real result turns out to be something much different and, arguably, more important, more valid.

The result is that Journeyman actually has stronger spiritual overtones than QL, because the mechanism is invisible. Dan's old girlfriend, though, keeps showing up as a fellow time-jumper; she seems to know just as little as he does. There's something just a little creepy about Dan being so emotionally connected to a woman he once loved who he thought had died, and then coming home and also being deeply involved with his wife, the mother of his son.

But unlike the dark Bionic Woman, every character in Journeyman is one I can care about. I especially like Dan's cop brother, Jack (we needed another "Jack" on television, there being such a shortage lately), played by Reed Diamond, who is not only credible physically as Dan's brother, but is also a charming leading actor in his own right. (You may remember him as the fiancé with a kilt from Judging Amy.)

Oh, and did I mention that Jack used to be in a relationship with the woman who is now Dan's wife? Just in case things weren't complicated enough.

It's a good cast, and the individual episodes are intriguing. I don't know that I'll watch fanatically every week, but I do look forward to each episode.

(And I appreciate the lack of explicit sexual situations; this is a show for grownups who don't have to be titillated in order to be entertained, as well as for teenagers who can deal with real life relationships without having to see the private moments on screen.)

I have saved the gem of this season for last. Life has a premise so stark that I almost didn't bother watching it: Where can they go from here? thought I.

Here's the premise: Charlie Crews was a straight-arrow cop who was framed for a murder and sent to prison for life. Ten years later, DNA testing revealed that he could not possibly be guilty. As part of his settlement terms, he gets a huge but unspecified amount of money -- and his old job back.

What they can't undo is the ten years he lost, the beatings he endured (ex-cops don't fare well in stir), or his wife's divorce and her marriage to somebody else.

The premise is ok. Here's what makes this one of the most brilliant series ever on TV: The writing and the acting.

The acting is a no-brainer, really. Charlie Crews is played by Damian Lewis, who played the icy cold Soames Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga miniseries, and then the deeply loveable Major Richard D. Winters in Band of Brothers. In both those parts -- and in this one -- he keeps his face almost expressionless, so you never see him acting. But he is alive every second, investing his speeches with layers of meaning, and giving us glimpses of wit and rage and cynicism that keep us always on our toes.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, but it's Damian Lewis who owns the screen and our hearts. I don't think the writers actually give him all the best lines -- he just makes his speeches so brilliantly that it sounds like his part is better written.

But that brings us to the writing. The "series writer" credit goes to Rand Ravich, who wrote and directed The Astronaut's Wife. He also executive produces (usually, in television, the top writer credit) along with Daniel Sackheim, who directed The Glass House and exec-produced House; David Semel, also involved with House, as well as directing episodes of shows from Buffy to The Practice to Heroes; and Far Shariat, who has only a handful of producer and executive producer credits, which may imply that he's the guy who's actually doing all the work, or merely that he's a junior partner brought along for the ride ... or both.

Whoever is writing what, here's what counts:

The dialogue is genuinely smart. It's not just flippant, or clever, it's actually intelligent, with resonances that reward you for thinking about what gets said.

The characters are conflicted in honest, believable ways. They all seem real; the actors aren't fighting the scripts in order to create their characters, they're fulfilling the scripts.

Charlie Crews is a kind of magical figure. Quoting Zen (and also trying to live by its principles), he seems to be clowning, until you realize he means it. He is sometimes oblivious to things that other people regard as obvious; at other times, he notices things so obscure that you can't help but wonder if something supernatural is going on. But it isn't -- or at least so far it isn't.

Of course, all I've seen is the pilot episode. Can they maintain it? Or will it devolve into repetitions of the same gags? You can never know until you watch the series play out.

But this is the new show that I love, the show whose episodes I refuse to miss. May there be many others who feel the same way ... please! I don't want this one to go the way of Firefly and disappear before it has a chance to find its audience.

Meanwhile, there's just one more observation I have to make. My wife actually noticed it first, but it came after a trip where in hotel room after hotel room, with hardly any channel selection, we always seemed to be able to find an episode of something from the Law and Order franchise -- episodes of the flagship show, or of L&O: SVU or L&O: Criminal Intent (which, by the way, has moved to USA network with original new episodes as well as reruns).

What we realized was this: Never in the history of television has there been a group of shows that has run so long with no discernible drop in quality. No matter which cast of L&O you happen to see, you know that the story will be well-written, the parts will be well-acted, and the show will wrap up in a satisfying way -- even if the bad guy gets away with it, the show meant something.

It always feels like time well spent.

With other long-running shows, it matters from which season a particular episode comes. There are good years and bad years -- and usually the bad years are everything after year two. (Though with Cheers, it was the coming of Kirstie Alley that brought the best years of the series; and other shows peter out after the first year.)

It looks like Law and Order will live forever, and my wife and I are glad of it.

Folks, I've said it before, but I'll say it again. This is the golden age of television. As the movies flail about trying to find a way to get good writing and good stories past movie studios interested only in spectacle and stars, television has become not just a writers' medium, but a place where good writing can actually get on the air -- not always, not even most of the time, but often enough that you can spend hours a week watching some of the best dramatic art in our culture.

No, let me put it differently: Most of the best dramatic writing and performance in our culture today appears first on television.

So it's a darn good thing we've got cable and satellite and TiVo and DVR so that there's simply no excuse for missing the best shows.

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