"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Review: Other things I would change

I was a little rough on Jericho last week. That's only because I had high expectations for this new drama. This season offers more than just one new show to try, however. I found at least a couple of these that might end up winners, at least in my book. Followed by, of course, my own humble opinion regarding potential 'repairs.'

Monday night: In the middle of ESPN's still-rough football event, I've carved out a chunk of time to surf over to watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I believe the entire crew from the recently-retired West Wing steers this wonderful Aaron Sorkin drama. On a ten-scale, it's a ten. What would I change? Very little. I'd lighten-up some of the low-light scenes. I mentioned this current fascination with darkness in my long review of Jericho. Maybe I'm getting old, but I do like to see who's doing what to whom. My only other nit-pick with Studio 60 concerns the busted love affair between Matthew Perry's character (head writer Matt) and his leading lady, Harriet (Sarah Paulsen). I know you gotta have conflict; that's a given. Let's not dwell, though-- 's all I'm saying.

Tuesday night: I'm a football fan. No shame in admitting that. So I'm psyched about Friday Night Lights. Loved the movie. I'll have to read the book, too. For the TV version, I've got the same small criticism about the over-use of ambient lighting (or the lack there-of). One big question in my mind: why, tell me why, didn't the network schedule this show on Friday nights?? No, that's not a stupid question! This show ain't knocking the ratings dead, by any means. Any little help-us-find-it might matter! Other than that, this is an eleven out of ten.

Special mention goes to Boston Legal. This delightful/devilish show is in a league of its own. Might even have to give it a twelve on that scale of ten. What a fine and surprising save for a series that started out as the sappy and forgettable The Practice. Outstanding.

Wednesday night: Getting past Jericho brings me to Lost. Probably the most creative show on network television. Deserves its own review, too. Everybody talks about this show, especially on the net. Personally, however, I'm getting lost trying to track the hundreds of unanswered questions in Lost. The cast keeps shrinking, as well; and most of the cuts appear to be more contractually-forced than plot-driven. I love reading mysteries, so I should enjoy the endless twists presented by this exceptional drama. I need some answers here, and soon. Otherwise, I'm simply gonna lose interest. In the late slot, I really like what little I've seen of The Nine. Looks like a dynamite premise, very well executed. I'll have to watch a couple more episodes and revisit that one.

Thursday night: I have to put Survivor on my list of shows I can't live without. The cast changes every year, of course; but the set-up and host remain the same. What other show could last this long (is it ten seasons? nine? I'm not sure, off-hand), without making wholesale changes? Even the music has held up over time. You can speculate about producers interfering and creative/deceptive editing and so on. I still love this concept. No other so-called reality show offers Survivor's intriguing blend of social interaction, team-building, and awesome sight-seeing. The only beef I can think of is actually a compliment: why not show reruns during the summer, like every other successful network show does? Then I could miss a few episodes on first-run.

More Thursday night: Obviously, this is THE night for the networks. I can't explain it, but I can accept it. Suddenly, Grey's Anatomy is number one--even pitted directly against the mighty (yawn...) CSI. I've only watched sporadically, so I'll offer this impression: title character Meredith Grey--played by the wispy, weepy Ellen Pompeo--bothers me. She makes me nervous. She's lovely, in an edgy LeAnn Rimes kind of way (it's in the eyes, I think). But she always appears to be on the verge of tears. I can't stand the preachy synopsis she has to deliver every week, either. That's just me, though, folks. How can you argue with Number One?
We watch ER, despite its advanced age. Almost no one from the original cast remains, and the current newcomers often have little new ground available to them. I miss Carter. I even miss the old Carrie Weaver. I hardly ever find myself emotionally involved anymore, either. But we still watch, waiting for those ever-rarer magic moments. We don't get to watch My Name is Earl, or The Office, however. Those are two of the funniest shows on network TV, but they run opposite Survivor. Since Survivor never shows re-runs, we're forced to wait for the summer season to catch up with Earl and Office. They're still all-out hilarious all those months later, though. I'm not nearly smart enough to offer any suggestions for improving either one.

Friday night: After Thursday's must-see schedule, we're stuck with Friday's who-cares offerings. Since my wife and I are boring old married people who don't regularly drink, dance, or gamble, we find ourselves looking for something to see on this dead-zone night. Fortunately, the dead-zone has ghosts! We love Ghost Whisperer, and not just because we can watch it with the kids without being embarrassed. Jennifer Love-Hewitt always looks spectacular, of course. (Will she ever look older than nineteen? Could she show any more cleavage and still be shown on camera?) I'd ease off on the outrageous eye make-up, if only so JLH can hold her eyes all the way open more easily. This show suffers from the dreaded dark-scene syndrome, too. I know: it's scarier that way. I get it. Still bugs me, though. Other than the ghost show, I have to admit that my wife loves Men in Trees. Good for her; hope she enjoys it right up to the time they cancel it. Maybe the WB or TBS will option this one. Otherwise, it's doomed. That's just my opinion.

The weekend brings blessed relief, especially in the fall. No matter what else might be on, I can always find a great football game or NASCAR event. Who needs dramatic plot twists when you can have option roll-outs or botched pitstops? As long as colleges play on Saturday and SuperBowl Sunday remains in the future, then life is good. All the rest may come and go, but football and racing just keep going and going. That's what keeps me sane. Until next time...

Wither goest thou, Jericho?

Image hosted by Webshots.com BY STEVEOETTINGIt's been fifty-seven years since Pat Frank wrote Alas, Babylon. Would Frank approve of the new CBS drama Jericho? Both book and show use the same premise: regular people in an isolated small town cope with the aftermath of a major nuclear attack on the United States. Babylon is regularly taught in colleges around the country. I'm not sure that Jericho can last long enough to matter that much. (If you haven't read the book, and you like post-Apocalyptic stories--like Stephen King's The Stand--head for your favorite used-book outlet now!)

My wife and I saw the long trailer for CBS's hot new television show at the movie theater. I'm not sure how many TV properties get that level of promotion, but it certainly indicates strong network support for this one. Jericho looks like a high-quality drama with solid writing and a big budget. Let's face it: this is a major undertaking, on the level of the old mini-series. Huge cast, lots of potential sub-plots, expensive location shots--this kind of show requires a serious commitment. That also means this show needs a big audience, and it needs to attract and retain that audience right out of the gate.

Tall order for executive producers Jon Turteltaub, Stephen Chbosky, and Carol Barbee: find and keep a big enough following to justify the big investment. I'm sure they know we're out here. By "we" I mean those of us who cannot stomach even one more iteration of CSI: Wherever or Law & Order: XYZ. "We" are the ones who've faithfully watched the better shows that TV Guide inevitably labels "the best show you're not watching". Which is, of course, nearly always the kiss of death. Those programs have large ensemble casts, talented writing teams, stories that evolve from week to week--and big budgets. Much bigger than the paltry sums required to stage so-called reality shows, but not larger than the costs involved in the legal and medical dramas. These other, non-formula dramas are always riskier than the copycat groups. There's no existing audience ready and waiting for a "something different" offering. The investors have to woo this elusive viewership with aggressive marketing campaigns, like running promo's among the trailers for upcoming theatrical releases. Then they have to convince us to stay. That's the tricky part.

What do "we" really want? That's the question guys like Turteltaub hope they can answer. Based on some of the elements I've seen in alternative-premise shows, here's a sampling of answers to "what we want":

  • Stories that aren't about lawyers or doctors or forensics. (Lost, for example)
  • Intriguing sub-plots that span several episodes. (As in the amazing Alias)
  • Multi-cultural ensemble casts. (Lost, again)
  • Mysterious circumstances and un-answered questions. (Lost and, especially, Alias. Whatever happened with those Rimbaldie manuscripts, anyway?)
  • Hesitant romances slowly kindled between unlikely, but appealing, partners. (Every successful drama in existence. And when the two cast members finally hook-up, start the count-down to the "unforgettable final episode of...")
  • Unfamiliar and interesting locales. (well, there's Lost, for example!)
  • The constant threat of impending doom. (Same example shows...)

Now let's consider what else these same successful producers seem to think "we" want:

  • Protagonists with assorted problems and issues.
  • Female leads who are so hot they should be models, not small-town characters.
  • Ditto for secondary male leads, who all apparently forget to shave every other day.
  • Unlikely developments that keep things interesting, whether believable or not.
  • More hot women in very tight clothing.
  • Adorable kids doing precocious things, despite their issues or problems.
  • Darkness, dark rooms, low light. (Saving electricity? Film noir?)
  • Characters with mysterious pasts and enigmatic responses to inquiries from old friends.
  • Very hot women who are sort-of interested in above mysterious menfolk, or vice-versa.

Ok, maybe I'm being a bit too cynical here. The above-listed items can be worthy conflicts and valuable eye-candy for even the most serious, high-class shows. But--big but: let's not focus on these trivial adornments. Let's make a show about something. (Yup, opposite of Seinfeld. As in: drama is the opposite of sit-com.) Jericho offers a wonderful premise on which to build a nearly endless procession of sub-plots beneath the main story-line. Friends, Americans, countrymen--can you even imagine what the hell you'd do if you saw a mushroom cloud on the horizon?? Who needs silly, trivial elements when you have 'nukuler' explosions nearby?? Seriously.

I watched Jericho, episode one with huge anticipation. I wasn't entirely disappointed. This could be a great show, a blockbuster hit. But do we need a bumbling mayor and an incompetent sheriff to make it work? Did a schoolbus full of kids on some weird field trip have to crash? Did a freakin' prison bus have to crash, too? And why is it always dark? (Sure, the lights are off; but the sun isn't broken.) Why does the mayor's son have to be a mystery-boy? Could "where-have-you-been?"-boy's former girlfriend be any hotter? Do we really need a nerdy and troubled teenager, and the hot-girls who hate him? This isn't a daytime soap, after all. Jericho can, and should, be a riveting drama. Simply pose the question--what would you do??--and answer it, one week at a time.

We're up to episode three now. The citizens of small-town Jericho are figuring out how to cope, and alliances are emerging. There's surely trouble a-brewing: Who else is out there? What will these people eat when the food runs out? How will they all keep the peace, despite their natural differences? Is the government gone? Is the air safe to breath? Some of these questions have already emerged, as expected. Some may even get answered. Mingle a few smaller mysteries into the main plot. Feature a couple of fine-looking lasses, among the normal mix of real and regular females. Allow the mayor and the sheriff an occasional triumph. Maybe an ordinary working guy can help solve a problem or two; he could even be a few pounds overweight and recently-shaved. Let the sun shine for at least half the show's sixty minutes. Draw the eager audience into the authentic terror of a post-apocalyptic America. No condescending distractions required. The story would speak for itself, and the ratings would be huge.