Thursday, October 26, 2006


Prefect SlogLast time it was all about drama. This time, comedy.
Comedy is something Doctor Who can do perfectly well of course, but it'’s also something it can do very badly. It tends to work best when it arises naturally out of the characters and situations (Leela at Litefoot'’s dinner table in Talons Of Weng Chiang, "“Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!"” in Revenge Of The Cybermen, Sarah Jane'’s run-in with Rose in School Reunion, or any number of situations featuring Leela or Harry). And, contrary to popular belief, it tends to be at its poorest when consciously sending itself up (the *cliff* *hanger* in Dragonfire, the Master'’s ludicrous disguises, anything with the Slitheen). But essentially I'’m oversimplifying there for the sake of brevity. The main point is that Doctor Who -– Classic or New -– has had a variable comedy career, ranging from satire to panto, stand-up to sit-down to fall-on-its-face. Season 17 was even something of a sitcom, albeit a poor one with more than the usual number of set locations. And the New Series, to be fair, has had its share of laugh out loud moments, the vast majority of them intentional -– because, unlike its Classic predecessor, there are no hubcap spaceships, CSO caverns or Action Man tanks on the chuckle menu.
Its flaws and failings, where they aren'’t easily forgiven in the good tradition of Doctor Who viewing, are more likely to elicit groans. That'’s the nature of both the business -– i.e. there'’s really no excuse these days for poor visuals and amateur fx etc -– and the flaws/failings in evidence -– i.e. they'’re generally script-related.
But in case anyone imagines my disappointment in the New Series is the result of a senseofhumourectomy, I thought it might be worth taking a look at some of the comedies that have tickled me lately and earned their inclusion under this Better Than Doctor Who banner.
Between seasons of New Who, my wife and I got ourselves Freeview -– as an integral feature of our Hard Drive recorder -– which gave us access to everything abc1 has to offer. Hmm. With its endless rotations of Home Improvement (ugh), Hope & Faith (!) and Rodney (?) this might have been like a season pass to all major traffic accidents -– but luckily it led to our chance to sample Scrubs right from the beginning and to our discovery of SportsNight. Double whammy!
Scrubs would seem like a certain winner for me, what with my love of ER, but like a lot of other potentially good TV, it had simply managed to slip me by until this year. (As I'’ve said before, there's just not enough time to watch everything!) John Wells has said of his ER staff: "“If you have been in an automobile accident and you are in the back of an ambulance, when the doors of that ambulance open and you'’re coming out on the gurney, these are the people whose faces you want to see."” Not so the staff of Sacred Heart -– they'’re all neurotic, for starters. Still, within its half-hour slot (clumsily chopped up with ad breaks on abc1) Scrubs manages to pull off quite a balancing act, slipping seamlessly into passable medical drama between all the craziness, and as much as a friend of mine drew attention to the weekly helpings of schmalz, I haven'’t found that at all off-putting so far. '‘So far'’ being two seasons at this stage. Whatever sentimentality or moral message it chooses to pitch, I'’ve found more than enough bedpan humour, tickled ribs and belly laughs to mitigate all that. In fact, it all seems to combine successfully as part of the series'’ charm. It'’s never been so mawkish as to have me reaching for the sick bag.
And just as the show can veer off into surreal humour (mostly courtesy of its central character'’s daydreams) and still pull off a human story or two, the characters are wonderfully exaggerated while still remaining honest-to-goodness, well-drawn characters. JD and Turk who, if it weren'’t for their respective medical careers, would surely be revelling in some lowly Men Behaving Badly existence and even then they do okay as far as that goes, aided and abetted by their stuffed dog, Rowdy. Elliot, whose face you might want to see when wheeled out on a gurney, but all the same you really wouldn'’t want her taking care of your physical well-being. At least not in any medical sense. Carla, as the more sensible of the four, you might trust with some light nursing duties, but you'’d want to be aware of whatever boyfriend troubles she'’s currently having -– she'’s with Turk, poor girl. Then there's the uber-sarcastic, hyper-neurotic Dr Cox, who makes ER's Benton look the most laid-back of taskmasters, scary Dr Kelso who is, I suppose, the Kerry Weaver of this outfit and his whipping boy, the long-suffering lawyer who's part of an a cappella quartet in his spare time. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the predatory Janitor, who lurks on every hospital corner and stalks JD like some mop-wielding Freddie Kruger with a heart of gold -– or so he'’d claim. Whatever, it'’s all played to perfection and there'’s a great energy and chemistry to the whole thing.
And, at the end of the day, any show that features Men At Work's Colin Hay strumming away, performing an acoustic version of "Overkill" all the way from admittance to the morgue merits full attention. And, since that'’s in a Series 2 episode, Scrubs had won mine well before that.
Then there'’s SportsNight. I hate sports, I do, but I'’d heard good things about the show and it has Felicity Huffman in it so I thought I'’d give it a whirl and, what do you know, it turns out that the fact that I hate sports doesn'’t even enter into it. I mean, okay, some of the sports-related banter goes -– whoosh! -– straight over my head, but a) so did a lot of the medical jargon in ER until I made an effort to gen up on it a bit, b) I just know I'm never going to make that kind of effort where sports are concerned and c) I zone out when some of my mates talk about football but they'’re still friends.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its credentials, SportsNight is an ensemble piece absolutely loaded with the same sharp-witted, fast-paced office patter that characterizes The West Wing. Unlike its Whitehouse-based cousin, I warmed to most of SportsNight'’s characters fairly immediately, but that'’s to be expected -– or at any rate, hoped for! -– from a comedy: these people are making you laugh on a more frequent basis. As with Scrubs, it walks the line somewhat between comedy and drama, but -– how shall I say -– the tightrope is closer to the ground. The tone is more that of a drama and the characters more grounded, and it has enough of a soapy element to hook you into the ongoing story, but it's all done with *class*. Not only is there Felicity Huffman (did I mention?), but hubby, William H Macy shows up at one point. This is almost certainly not the way this show came about, but it'’s like when a friend is relating all the insane, frenetic things that go on at their workplace and says "“someone should write a sitcom about this place"” -– where sometimes you nod but know it's just never going to happen and if it did there'’d possibly be enough material for a pilot but never six whole episodes, or somebody goes ahead and writes it and it becomes The Office (meh) or The Brittas Empire (oh dear god), or you get a SportsNight.
It clicks. I love it. And -– fairly naturally, given that -– it only ran for two seasons before it got canned. Added to which, owing to abc1'’s erratic system that some TV channels would refer to as a schedule, I'’m still not sure I've seen all the available episodes or, for that matter, in the right order. There are gaps to be plugged, I'’m sure, and I intend to plug them, because when there are only two seasons'’ worth of such a quality show you really have to see them all.
And while we'’re on the subject of comedy, I should also mention My Name Is Earl (which I mentioned before I had been enjoying) which, with its great collection of Coen Brothers characters, completed a consistent, successful first season and did manage to leave me wanting more. Now, whether it can deliver and whether the good central concept has the legs to run for very long (and here, sorry, but I can'’t prevent the picture of Earl'’s one-legged shotgun-toting ex springing into my mind) remains to be seen and like many a good thing, given the choice, I'’d rather have it end before it took a fall. I'’ve thought the same about Doctor Who (yes, even the Classic series!) before now. Suffice to say, as it stands Earl had a great sit and plenty of com, which is what you want.
Anyway, the less said the better in a sense. For one thing, I'’d rather enjoy comedy than subject it to an in-depth analysis and for another I'’d best not jinx anything by saying things like "“I hope Earl'’s just as good next year"” or "“I hope Season 3 Scrubs is as good as what I'’ve seen so far."” That would just be tempting fate, eh. Also and perhaps more to the point, given the subject header, we'’re very nearly at the point these little articles have been leading to all this time. Yes, Next Week On... Better Than Doctor Who, our New Who Season 2 overview and some sort of conclusion to all this nonsense. Even if, in writing it, I have no fresh insights to offer there should at least be a few laughs, intentional or otherwise.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Prefect Slog
As imaginative a child as I was, one of the many things I never imagined was that I’d get more enjoyment out of mundane drama than Doctor Who. Of course some people might look on that as a sign of growing up, but through a combination of books, audios and, principally, more of that imagination of mine, Doctor Who grew up with me and I never saw myself growing out of it. I’m not sure that’s what’s happened in the wake of the New Series, but the fact is there are dramas that I enjoy a good deal more.
Of course, the likes of ER and Desperate Housewives are only ‘mundane’ in the sense of being free of sf frills. Each has its own brand of magic and, well, age before beauty they say, so we’ll take a look at ER first.
ER is one of those very rare shows that managed to work its way into my adulthood affections to a degree comparable to the way Doctor Who won me over in childhood. In terms of fondness, it’s my closest adult non-sf equivalent and, having recently started rewatching the series from the beginning on DVD, I’m reminded that it’s even old enough now for nostalgia to be a factor. (And on a personal note, it carries some special significance in that I only embarked on the series in the first place while keeping my Mum company while my Dad was away on business trips.) It represents something of a medical miracle, since I never cared for and don’t like medical dramas in general. It was like one of my rules.
A rule always supported by the fact that I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to blood and bones and, well, squishy internal things, but that just lent ER something else in common with Doctor Who, in that I’d watch some bits through faintly parted fingers. Not, it must be said, from behind the sofa – my parents always had their sofa up against the wall, leaving a space accessible to cats but not to small children.
These days, I suppose, ER may not stand out so much, but that’s because it played a major part in setting the drama standard, and back then it was really doing something different. As with DW, there’s not one specific quality I can put my finger on as the thing that drew me in and held my fascination for so long. It’s the mix, just one of those 'Master Chef' moments where all the ingredients come together.
It’s a cocktail of tragedy, warmth, humanity, humour; it can go from laugh to cry in the blink of an eye; it’s brisk and busy and it crams a dozen or more stories into the space of an episode, coming and going with the patients, and there’s a sense of urgency you just don’t get from the staff of Holby City. Throughout the connecting threads are the stories of the staff – the main cast and a small army of supporting regulars – and they, chief of all, were probably what won me over.
They’re not only attractive, they’re charismatic (and, in Season One, astonishingly young), and it’s one of those ensemble casts that really click from very early on. And yes, I fell in love with Susan Lewis, but it was one of those higher, Sarah Jane sorts of love. Nothing sordid.
Anyway, although she departed midway through Season 3 (sniff – see, I’m tearing up already, because I remember it at least as clearly as Sarah Jane being so cruelly dumped at the end of The Hand Of Fear), for the purposes of my DVD collection I’ve limited myself to the first six seasons. Not because I think it drops in quality at all after that but because, economically, I have to have some cut-off point and enough of my favourite cast members had departed by the end of that series to make a difference. That said, I have continued to watch since – and pretty avidly. As far as I can see, the only significant dip in quality came in Season 10, where I believe there was some inexcusable mishandling of Elisabeth Corday’s character, as though the writers really didn’t know what to do with her once Mark Greene was gone and she was ready to move on. But a dip in quality in ER, as I’m sure I must have said before, still leaves it in a respectable position above the competition. I miss Mark Greene, and I miss Elisabeth Corday, but – and I say this with unashamed bias – it came back strong in Season 11. And I fully expect to continue watching new ER until they finally draw the curtain. I’m an addict, what can I say, and plenty of them turn up at the ER every week looking to get their fix – why should I be any different.
Meanwhile, arriving the same year as New Who, Desperate Housewives offered the promise of a new addiction, and a very welcome one at that. Of course, all fresh and new, it doesn’t have nostalgia going for it, but it’s at least comparable to New Who in that it has thus far run for two seasons and has currently left us in a similar between-series break, where we can look forward to a third season with breathless anticipation, expectation and excitement.
Well, for one of them at least.
Actually, that’s not quite as true as it should be even for Desperate Housewives. Both shows dropped the ball somewhat in their second seasons, showing trends towards the ordinary. For me, New Who dipped below the line into just-another-TV-show, while Desperate Housewives was saved by virtue of starting out at such a higher level and slipped only a notch or two, trading in its glass slippers, as it were, for a less fanciful pair of three-inch heels.
Life in Wisteria Lane was always going to be difficult after the exceptional first series. At the end of that, they had resolved their central mystery, laid the groundwork for a new one and left us on a cliffhanger – hitting all the right buttons. And all they did wrong, really, in following up, was fail to integrate their second big mystery into the community, so we were left following separate multiple threads as per a soap opera. The thing is, the mystery surrounding the Applewhites was not one tailored for integration and it was perfectly in character for Betty (the brilliant Alfre Woodard) to maintain her distance from the other Housewives, but it falls down in comparison to the fate of Mary Alice who committed suicide leaving so many questions at the heart of the community, while staying around to narrate. And of course, with the mystery of her life solved, we do have to wonder why she’s still lingering on to offer further commentary, other than being one of the signatures of the show.
So, as with ER at one point, a measurable dip in quality, but that disappointment has to be measured on the Desperate Housewives scale and against anything else, it still retains its essential sparkle and is as vibrant and entertaining as ever and, crucially, more engaging than many another show. It may have become more like a soap, but it was still Daz, with all the brightness that implies.
And not just brightness either. Despite aforementioned (comparative) deficiencies in story, the writing still sparkles well enough and the tone is always delightfully evoked by Danny Elfman’s score, but the whole is laced with some pretty dark material, more than enough to qualify it as drama, and of course it’s that which holds the attention far more than all its polish. If the writing is good, then the performances are superb: the hapless Susan (Teri Hatcher) who, for all the comedic value in her life, had me crying with her when she was standing in the middle of the road in her wedding dress; Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), who manages to combine selfish and manipulative with likeable and commanded similar sympathies when she had her hard-won adopted (well, all right, stolen) child taken from her; obsessive compulsive Bree (Marcia Cross), whose storyline was probably the most tragic of all and commanded at least as much sympathy again, despite her being a bigot and a paid-up member of the NRA; and Lynette (Felicity Huffman), whose storyline was (until the question of her hubby's fidelity was raised) perhaps the weakest – somewhat ironically given that she became empowered and liberated etc as the principal breadwinner of the household, but who, by virtue of her virtuoso performance remains my favourite Desperate Housewife.
So, all in all, Desperate Housewives remains a must-see for me and I’m very much looking forward to the third season – not least because I understand the writers have promised to address the faults cited in the second series. Would that the New Who people were as accommodating and attentive to their own product.
Even if Desperate Housewives doesn’t manage to pick up that dropped ball and match (dear oh dear, far too many football references for my liking) the quality and appeal of its opening season – a fairly tall order, after all - there are always, of course, other ‘mundane’ dramas that despite not being covered in any detail here, would lodge very comfortably under the same Better Than Doctor Who banner.
The West Wing is one obvious and, for me, current example, given that More 4 have been nice enough to start showing them all from the beginning – purely for my benefit, I might imagine. It was just one of those shows that slipped past me simply because of that age old problem of not having enough time to watch everything as well as having a life. I confess I’ve not found it as immediately engaging as ER was, but it’s all very slick and smart and witty and so clearly outclasses New Who that it scarcely matters that it’s taken me a handful of episodes to develop anything like an attachment to more than a couple of the characters. It bears the stamp of quality all over it, like a great big eagle-centric emblem on the floor of the Oval Office and so I’ve felt it deserves my continued attention, so here I am, sticking with it and letting the characters grow on me in their own good time.
Then there’s Homicide: Life On The Street – which kind of goes without saying – but I haven’t watched any of that very recently and my DVD collection is still in its relative infancy as far as that series goes. Still, that is a situation that may well have changed after my next trip to the US – since distributors haven’t seen fit to make it very available in this country. That was a show that C4 always used to shunt around the schedules something rotten – and I gather they accorded The West Wing similar treatment, although probably not to the same extent.
One show C4 are generally kinder to is Lost, and I would be tempted to include that one here, but for the fact that, having stayed with it for two whole seasons now, I am highly cynical about it. Rather too much of its measure of success will depend on its ultimate resolution and a) whether it delivers and b) whether I’m still hanging around to see it deliver. However, in terms of its ability to hook and tease continued interest out of even deeply cynical viewers – always just one episode away from giving up on it – like me, still puts it above New Who which really begins to look very ordinary the more I reflect on it and all these other shows.
And I haven’t even mentioned Deadwood. Until then. But the list is, if not endless, really quite long and I suspect there would be more dramas on it if I had the time to accommodate them in my viewing schedules.
It’s perhaps understandable that anyone might prefer to spend time with Teri Hatcher or Felicity Huffman rather than David Tennant, but when you feel you’d rather be in hospital – even if it is County General - than in the TARDIS, you know something’s not right. And I’ve checked my vital signs, and it’s definitely not me. Maybe I should get a second opinion. From Susan Lewis.