Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Old Square Eyes Is Back

Prefect Slog

My god, I seem to have been watching a lot of telly lately. And for once, none of it is Doctor Who. Yes, I’m as keen as the next fellow – who presumably would have to be Colonel Mustard, hence the well-known expression ‘as keen as…’ – to see the return of DW and find out what Russell Davies and friends have in store for us in the new season. But a change is as good as a rest, they say, and to be honest there was a greater danger of my feeling a big ‘Lost’ shaped hole in the schedules after early January. Despite the fact that, quite obviously, ‘Lost’ really tries my patience and can’t possibly deliver anything resembling a satisfactory resolution equal to the mysteries presented and the questions asked.

I mean, if it doesn’t get prematurely canned and if it answers all the questions and if it ties up all the tangled threads come the end, it’s going to have to come up with something so impossibly amazing that the fear of a big let down accompanies the watching of every episode. And yet I continue to watch. And will continue to do so when it returns. What can I do. It’s got me hooked.

Maybe they are making it all up as they go along, but it’s good telly. And it’s so far fetched it’s about the furthest thing from reality TV you could wish for. And with snatches of Celebrity Big Brother infesting all the recordings of my favourite C4 or E4 shows lately, that’s such a good thing. Big Brother - like sports - should be confined exclusively to its own channel and never allowed to leak over into the mainstream televisual environment. Radical, I know, but there it is. Meanwhile, thank heavens for some good telly as a counterpoint.

Of course, since a good proportion of it is on either E4 or C4, as well as small but painful doses of Big Brother, you have to be prepared to put up with 118-118 sponsorships, an increasing frequency of annoying ad breaks and relentless ‘First Look’ and ‘It’s a 9 Thing’ trailers. Flog your shows, by all means, Channel 4, but really, do you have to flog them to death?

Really, because the ones I watch, managed to sell themselves after an episode or two.

‘ER’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’ are back, of course. And where would we be without them. It says something that after only one season – well, if we’re being honest, long before that – the latter show qualifies as essential viewing. It was great to welcome it back, and it has a comforting familiarity to it, while it forges ahead with its new season storylines, and such a lot of warmth for a show so loaded with cynicism. I have to wonder just how sustainable it all is, and how much life there can really be in the series, but other shows have gone a surprising distance and maintained the standard. Like ‘ER’, for instance.

Okay, I’m a fan and therefore biased. But at the same time, I recognized a noticeable dip in Season 10 when they clearly had no idea what to do with Elisabeth Corday and exhibited some of their laziest writing ever, not doing the character or themselves any favours. The series bounced back in Season 11, seeming to find its legs again with a real sit-up-and-take-notice opening episode and some terrific stuff firing on all cylinders throughout the season. So with the current one, Season 12, I’d be the first to admit I found the beginning pretty subdued and pretty much delivering to standard. Essentially, nothing special for ‘ER’, but still better than most shows. (And part of it is having to adjust to a cast that, with even Carter now departed, feels just a little too new and a little too thoroughly young. If the average age gets any lower, it’ll be ‘Doogie Howser MD’ all over again. On top of which I now have to get used to the idea that the new chief of nursing is not in fact an alien from Third Rock From The Sun.) Still, it says something that when ‘ER’ is merely delivering to standard, there’s the potential for disappointment. But that’s basically because we’ve been spoilt over the years. Four episodes in, and after that initial lukewarm response, I’m getting more into it again and I’d like to see other shows maintain that standard for that length of time.

Although, clearly not including ‘Lost’. That would just drive me nuts. ‘Lost’ really needs to wrap things up a long time before Season 12.

So, what else has been squaring my eyes lately? Well, there’s been ‘Invasion’, ‘My Name Is Earl’, ‘Surface’, to name the ones that I’ve sampled and so far stuck with. An eclectic mix, but variety is the spice of life, even if some of them might only turn out to be a mild korma.

Or karma, in the case of ‘Earl’, of course. Of the three, it’s the more immediate success. A great and superbly daft idea, well realized, with a touch of the Coen Brothers about it, the opener left me with a definite desire to see more, rather than the more common sense of, well, I might keep watching that to see what it’s like.

Which is more where ‘Invasion’ (C4) and ‘Surface’ (ITV) come in. They’re not bad. In fact they’re pretty good, dishing out a reasonable slice of sci fi drama each episode, with their respective takes on aquatic menaces. One is more localized, the other more global, each is seasoned with enough domestic drama to make sure it stretches at least a whole season. They take the ‘Lost’ approach, in that they’re both in for the long haul, keeping an ongoing arc up in the air by virtue of some soap opera seasoning. And why not if it keeps the audiences following faithfully along. Although to be honest, neither would seem to have more than one season in them, at least without stretching their respective plots past the point of elasticity, but this far into them ‘Invasion’ may be the one to continue further.

‘Invasion’, with its ‘American Gothic’ style evil Sheriff, thus far doesn’t seem to be telling us anything especially new, but at least it’s telling it well. There are enough interesting characters in its soap opera mix and it’s got the measure of the cliffhanger all right. The challenge is going to come when it has to eventually reveal what it’s all about. What’s the big twist that sets this one apart from every other invasion story? The best guess I can come up with is that it’s not an alien invasion at all, and is either the result of some military marine experiment or the creatures have some more natural(ish) origin, as I think must be the case in ‘Surface’. There are no aliens and there’s just something funny in the water making some of the residents of Florida go doolally. It’s possible. Otherwise, it’s your standard aliens taking people over scenario, and to be honest, it’s going to struggle to survive – and struggle even harder to impress – if that turns out to be the “big secret”. The makers must know we’ve seen all that before, surely.

They must also know that after how many episodes of orange lights in the water we are basically dying to see an alien. Show us one now, people.

The ecologically themed ‘Surface’ scores better in that respect. We’ve seen the creature. Lots of them, from the little bitty baby one in the ever-so-ET-like boy-adopts-creature-as-pet plot thread to the massive boat-swallowing grown-up sea monster. And it’s inherently more interesting because on the surface, haha, at least it appears to be doing something a bit different. Even if the characters are generally less compelling and some bits are a little too blatantly stolen from things like Close Encounters – there was a guy this week obsessed with the whirlpool shape featured in the previous episode, and his wife takes the kids and leaves him, driving off while he hangs on the car. I mean, come on, you may as well have him sculpt Devil’s Tower, Wyoming in his mashed potato. Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr these people are not. It also suffers somewhat in that the programmers are under the impression that, like a shark, the show has to keep swimming around the schedules in order to stay alive. Which is the opposite of the truth.

What I’d have preferred to see in either of them was some of the wit and sparkle of ‘Desperate Housewives’. Certainly ‘Invasion’ could have been offering something very different given that slant. But it’s in the nature of these things to take themselves seriously. Every time.

Still, for all their respective flaws, they both remain watchable and there’s enough of a hook to keep me hanging on.

Of course, what with ‘The Avengers’ on BBC4, and ‘UFO’, ‘Space:1999’ and ‘Homicide: Life On The Street’ (assuming you can find it in the schedules) on offer, some potentially good TV inevitably falls by the wayside. We gave BBC’s ‘Life On Mars’ a shot, for instance, and it was an average idea well told – some sparkling scripting in evidence, great dialogue and John Simm is an effective lead. But. I don’t know, it just didn’t grab enough – as an idea it feels like the only way someone could bring back ‘The Sweeney’ and get away with it in this pc day and age, and the alleged mystery as to whether he’s travelled back in time or is in fact in a coma is no mystery at all, as far as I can tell. So between an overall average British show and an overall average US one, I’ll apparently pick the American contender.

My lack of patriotism aside, I’m a self-confessed sci-fi fan, so you’d expect the sci-fi shows to fire my enthusiasm much more, but of all the series currently on parade, I’d have to say that it’s ‘Desperate Housewives’ that stands head and shoulders – or is it Herbal Essences – above the rest. It’s early days for ‘My Name Is Earl’ but that one’s a solid hit already, and all it has to do now is to keep hitting those home runs for a full season.

With such things to keep us entertained until March, it’s easy being patient for the return of ‘Doctor Who’ and I’m not that bothered about what happens next in ‘Lost’. Honest, guv. Some of it’s average in a lot of respects, but average seems pretty good at the moment.