Last time, I covered some recent entries in network television and comics that managed to get just about everything important wrong. Shows and stories that managed to elevate the stupid to a plot point that the show couldn't live without; eliminate the people acting brainlessly, and the story either collapses or comes to a dead end, because actually behaving reasonably undercuts the narrative engine. This time, I cover one last show that's gotten just about everything wrong this season—though there are slight signs of improvement—and a few that have gotten a lot of things right.
That said, there's a bit of an unexpected twist in what I'd planned to cover. Seems that, apart from a seeming distaste for speculative fiction in general, which is nothing new, people have a very specific distaste for stories that try to get it mostly right. Of the ones I'd planned to talk about, several have sailed off into the network twilight, and others are clearly endangered and not likely to survive this season. It seems that people like their speculative fiction with just a little bit of stupid, after all. Strange, that.
A couple of caveats: I haven't seen, nor do I have an ardent desire to see, ABC's Life on Mars or Fox's Terminator Chronicles. Neither the BBC original of ABC's show nor the original Terminator movies proved to be my particular cuppa, so I really haven't had much interest in checking them out.
Poster child for the stupidsphere
This season's poster child for stupid plots a-go-go has to be NBC's Heroes. The "Villains" arc was just . . . well, where do I begin?
First, let's talk about the spectacular overpopulation of the series. Because NBC wouldn't let the creators follow the original game plan and kill off almost everyone, starting with a mostly new cast each season, we've had a steady upward creep in numbers, the cast getting ever more numerous. If the series had the sort of space that a daytime serial has to just ignore certain characters and storylines for a week—which is to say, five full episodes—that might not be so bad. However, the nature of the types of stories Heroes tells means not only do they have to check in with most characters each week, but all of the independent storylines have to feed into the main storyline at some point. Parkman wandering in the outback has to connect up with Mohinder's machinations in New York so that they both contribute. Hiro's perambulations through time and space have to connect to Peter's antics somehow. The cheerleader must be saved from practically everyone, repeatedly. It all has to hang together. Making the story do so puts a lot of stress on the storytelling engine, as well as giving us so many characters to follow that it's difficult to keep track of who they are and what they're doing and just how they're connected anyway. Add to that the understandable network/producer reluctance to permanently kill off characters that connect with the audience—including, most improbably, an unregenerate serial killer—and the superhero story tendency to resurrect characters Just Because We Can (and we will not speak of the character for whom that is a major manifestation of her abilities—apparently Claire has a muted version of Jean Gray's Phoenix Force, minus the occasional "let's destroy a planet or ten!" moment), and you've got character chaos. That's an overall structural stupidity that causes problems.
Let's examine some of the major stupid strands specific to this season:
- ITEM: Hiro somehow winds up as president of his father's company, which strongly suggests that the producers completely forgot about a really lovely set of episodes from the first season, where Hiro's father Kaito Nakamura demands that he come back to Japan to learn to run the company, and Hiro guides him to the realization that not only is Hiro not really a good choice to do so, but that Hiro's sister is. And yet, there's no sign of her, no evidence that she was even considered, no explanation of what happened to her, just Hiro sitting in his father's former office, being miserable. Then Kaito, an otherwise very bright and capable man, sends his son a video from Beyond The Grave, saying essentially, "So, that safe you haven't really even noticed or thought about? Yeah, the contents are very dangerous. Don't open it." Because, of course, that's the sort of thing that would make you never want to open it. Even better, the safe has a biological key component that has to be specifically matched, and which Kaito would have had to enter himself; all he would have had to do to keep Hiro from opening the safe is not have the biological information programmed into it, and Hiro couldn't have opened it. But of course, Kaito did program it, so Hiro does open it, takes out his half of the "create your very own hero!" formula—the paper's been torn in two parts, thanks to Hiro and some zippy manipulation of the space-time continuum, and he only has half—and of course the bad guys have been watching him this entire time, with not a break in their vigilance, expecting this very thing, and they immediately take the formula. (We will ignore, for the sake of sanity and time, the part of the stupid plot that had the otherwise very smart if somewhat evil Angela Petrelli moving her part of the formula from where it had been safe these past few decades, for no apparent reason, thus also putting it in a position to be stolen.)
- ITEM: Meanwhile, back in the US, Mohinder—who has, to date, displayed no particular desire to be among the superpowered—suddenly goes power-mad, deducing the formula to create a hero, and, without having the slightest notion of what a good dose would be or whether you might need to repeat the dose or trying it out on a test subject of any species, injects himself with the formula. Needless to say, this goes quite wrong, and eventually he turns into something like an evil hard-shelled spider creature that cocoons people. But of course, if he hadn't done such a blame-fool thing, he wouldn't have needed to throw himself into the embrace of the bad guys to figure out how to fix himself, and they wouldn't have had another missing component of the make-a-hero formula.
- ITEM: Cynical Nathan Petrelli decides that because he survived an assassination attempt, he has become chosen of God. This despite the fact that, oh yes, just last season, he was given an infusion of his illegitimate daughter's miracle healing blood that, you know, might have been responsible. But no, clearly, it's a message from God. Never mind that God's messenger appears to be Linderman, a rather vile man whom Nathan hated and who, as far as anyone knows, is one of the very few people to have died and remained dead in this show.
But the best part of the stupid plot came from Arthur Petrelli, father of Nathan and Peter. For his is the guiding hand behind the master plan. And what was that plan, you ask? Why, just to have half the world gain superpowers, while installing his son Nathan as president of the US. Leaving aside the latter part—Nathan was not exceedingly fond of his father, for very good reason, and was politically very damaged goods at that point, despite having been installed as a puppet senator—on what planet does it make the slightest sense to have half the world gain superpowers? Not this one, that's for sure. As initially presented, you couldn't easily control anything—not necessarily who got the powers, not necessarily which powers, not the people themselves, nothing. Given what we've seen of the people who've gained powers so far, it would be roughly equally divided between those who somehow become better people for getting those powers—who very likely would rebel against the evil people trying to control them, which sort of defeats the purpose—and those who were pretty bad to start with, and who become much much worse—which potentially also defeats the purpose. Lots of people like Sylar, like Maury Parkman, like Arthur Petrelli himself. The world would, unfortunately, be far more likely to turn into something like Rick Remender's End League comic book (good guy accidentally kind of kills half the population of the planet, thereby giving half of the remaining people superpowers, world goes pear-shaped), or like the current much-destroyed post-apocalyptic DC's Wildstorm Universe, with superpowered people rampaging across the globe, taking what they could, visiting revenge upon their enemies. Terrorism and other crimes would become appallingly more effective. And why in the name of sanity would anybody with a brain want to be president during that? An altruist might, to try to fix things, but even after—maybe especially after—Nathan's religious experience, he's certainly no altruist. The Department of Defense gets involved—hey want super soldiers, because doesn't every army?—and the fact that they would be impossible to manage is conveniently ignored. (Besides, that's not Arthur's real plan anyway.)
To be fair, the "Fugitives" arc is hanging together a bit better than "Villains," so far. The motivations and actions of everyone, with the exception of Nathan Petrelli, are a bit more coherent. Unfortunately, Nathan's character has never recovered from what was done to it during "Villains," so the fact that he's willingly handing his brother and daughter over to the government to do nasty experiments on—and serenely ignoring the fact that logically, the government should not trust that he and his mother aren't as dangerous as the rest of their family (to be fair, so are the show's writers) and that they should also have been on the Hunter's hit list. Since Nathan is, in large part, driving much of the narrative engine for "Fugitives," there's every chance that it will develop a few stupid-plot-driven problems, but one can hope. They have, after all, brought in Bryan Fuller, who wrote one of the show's best episodes in "Company Man" to work on it.
Them what gets it right . . . mostly
Unfortunately, Fuller was available because one of the shows that got its speculative engine right was also one of the shows so damaged by the writers' strike that it couldn't survive—though there's an open question about whether it would have survived anyway. Pushing Daisies had one and only one real "god point" and one and only one real rule governing that. Ned the pie maker could raise the dead, no matter how they died. One touch brought them back to life, a second touch brought them back to death, and it didn't matter how long they'd been up and around. However, if the resurrected person lived more than 60 seconds, someone else had to die in their place, and that person couldn't be brought back. Ned raised his mother from the dead with terribly unfortunate results—his friend Charlotte "Chuck" Charles lost her father when Ned's mother stayed alive again for more than 60 seconds, then his mother died again anyway when she kissed him good night. He brought Chuck herself back after she'd drowned, thereby dooming a nearby slightly crooked funeral home director. He raised Chuck's father and accidentally kept him raised (because Chuck lied to him), thereby dooming someone who turned out not to be a nice fellow anyway. And he also turned out to be the best exterminator in the world when he raised Chuck's bees from sudden hive death and thereby killed off a raft of cockroaches. Each week, Ned used his power to raise a person of interest for that week's case—and, of course, they pretty much never knew who killed them, else there'd be no case to solve—and then he and Chuck and Emerson Cod would try to solve the case, while keeping his abilities secret from his restaurant's waitress and his formerly close friend, Olive Snook. The show kept its narrative point simple: raising the dead for profit and investigation, and the complications that ensue while trying to hide that ability from practically everyone else. They didn't really explain how he got that ability; it just was. The show's extreme primary colored palette, a tendency to have its characters break out in musical numbers now and again, and a certain overall preciousness did take getting used to, it's true. Nonetheless, keeping the central point simple kept the storyline from drifting into stupid territory, and the personal side notes gave the episodes more gripping interest. Pushing Daisies was certainly very unlike anything else on television, and it's too bad that it's gone.
A tendency to have characters break out in song also defined Eli Stone, a show that asked the question (sometimes musically): what would happen if God decided, here and now, to put a prophet on this earth? What would that look like? How would people react? How difficult would it be to get people to believe? The premise takes a known, real condition—a type of brain aneurysm that causes musical hallucinations—ramps the type of hallucination way, way up, and then posits that the malformation may also make it possible for people to receive messages from God. The show put together a complex web of interdependencies—Eli discovered during the abbreviated second season that acting on his prophecies in ways unapproved of or unexpected by God resulted in changing the future, as seen by those visions. Interestingly, it seemed clear that, because Eli could change the future, God was neither omniscient nor omnipotent. God may or may not also have been George Michael. On the other hand, Sigourney Weaver was very clear that she was not God, but instead God's messenger or attendant—an angel sans wings, more or less—and she was also quite ruthless. She forced Eli to choose to take his curse, as he understandably considered it, back upon himself in order to keep his brother from being inflicted with it. She also forced him to declare, in open court, that his visions came from God as a final condition to keep his brother vision-free. (His brother's life got thoroughly destroyed anyway.) You can argue, as many did, that the musical production number visions were a bit excessive. Nonetheless, the creators showed a consistent approach, consistently carried out. The characters grew and changed in ways that made sense, given the conditions. To be sure, they had a lot of leeway; after all, how would you handle it if you were suddenly gifted, if that's quite the right word, with visions from God?
Chuck, of NBC's show of the same name, is by contrast gifted with visions by technology. Thanks to an email sent to him by a former friend, if that's quite the right word, who worked for government intelligence, Chuck's brain now contains the entirety of the Intersect, the government's computer designed to contain all of the intelligence from all of its intelligence services, allowing greater coordination between them. The concept, it's true, requires a lot of handwaving. I mean, an email that downloads information into your brain when you open it, without any special equipment needed? The government being loony enough to contain all of its intelligence information in one relatively accessible, easily destroyed location? (We know that it's easily destroyed because the Intersect computer actually has been destroyed. Twice. It blowed up real good! Twice!) The interesting thing about Chuck is that its creators clearly know where at least some of its stupid points are, and address them. For example, the logical thing to do with Chuck, given that they can't get the information out of his head, would be to turn him into an analyst, stick him in a building in DC, and leave him there with lots of protection. That said (see "Intersect go boom! Twice!" above), a building in DC is clearly only very limited protection, if any. Moreover, the Intersect part of Chuck's brain doesn't seem to operate well except in the field, where he can see the various elements in context. They've even addressed the issue of updates—one of the things we've learned about intelligence in the real world in the past few years is that it stales quickly and you need to have frequently updated information. Now, granted, Chuck doesn't get frequent or regular updates. However, more than once, his brain has been updated—once when his former friend Bryce put a chip on his glasses with updated intelligence, entirely without Chuck's knowledge or consent, and it got downloaded into his brain, and once when he was in the presence of the Fulcrum (the bad guys) version of the Intersect, and he just hoovered everything up. Seems you have to have just the right type of brain for this to work, or else your head explodes. (Apparently the bad guys are dumb about technology in exactly the same way as the government. Comforting, I suppose.) And the bad guys have even noticed that, for some reason, all their schemes come to ruin in Burbank, of all places, and they've been trying to find out what's going on. The creators and writers are clearly aware of the show's weak points, and have been tapdancing past them in a really impressive way. The one weak point they haven't reasonably addressed—because it would take away a good chunk of the personal drama—is Chuck's work situation. Given that Burbank in general and Chuck in particular are such a nexus of activity, it baffles the mind why the government hasn't simply bought that particular Buy More franchise and staffed it with a few more agents.
Other than divinely or technologically inspired visions, mad science is all the rage this year. Fringe and Eleventh Hour both share a similar premise, people investigating reports and artifacts of science gone weird and wrong. However, they handle their mad science in very different ways.
In the case of Fringe, it's all about the Pattern. The science—or at least the scientist—is quite literally mad, having spent the last 20 years in a mental institution. In his younger days, Walter Bishop did all sorts of research and created all sorts of . . . things, for lack of a more precise word, all related to the Pattern. (Which may or may not be related to an invading multiverse with an Earth that wants to take our place.) More and more, as FBI agent Olivia Dunham and Walter's son Peter—kept on as an interpreter for his father, whose approach to sanity is still somewhat irregular—investigate various Pattern-related cases, the more it seems that it was all Walter's fault. Fringe brushes right up against the edge of the stupid in how some of its concept is executed. For example, just how much could Walter have done in his younger days? How many fields was he researching in? So far, biology and some impressively complex genetics, medicine, computer science, mechanical engineering, and various flavors of physics have all made an appearance, as well as astronomy, and it's all stuff Walter's researched and done terrifying things with. Remember, too, he lost about 20 years in an institution, so his early life was insanely busy and diverse. And, of course, it's turned out that Olivia has been part of the Pattern since shortly after her birth. Fringe shows almost exactly the same strength/defect in its story as The X-Files did—a highly insular plot that, when it works, works very well, and when it doesn't, leaves you little else. Unfortunately, unlike The X-Files, Fringe has shown little inclination to broaden out its world beyond the Pattern; to date, there has been one and only one non-Pattern related case, and that had a comparatively very weak story. Fringe doesn't seem to know what to do with non-Pattern cases, in part because the task force was set up to deal with just that. And yet, if there were enough Pattern related cases to keep an entire FBI task force busy all the time . . . wouldn't you think that people would have noticed? Not just people in the FBI, which seems not to have quite realized that this startlingly well-equipped task force is investigating the oddest things, but people outside. It really does seem like the critical mass of cases that could be explained away or hidden from the press should have been reached long ago, given how much the Fringe task force has already had to deal with. They're trying desperately to avoid the X-Files trap—a task force dedicated to investigating the weird will by definition be considered weird, and will be accordingly marginalized within the organization—but avoiding it makes it stand out all the more.
By contrast, Eleventh Hour keeps its science a bit closer to reality. Dr. Jacob Hood, special science advisor for the FBI, investigates "scientific crises and oddities" in the company of Special Agent Rachel Young, who provides the investigative cover and occasional firepower. The first episode dealt with human cloning, which went disastrously wrong, and never even once succeeded as intended, as would likely happen with cloning at this point in time. In that episode, the series also introduced the series villain, a woman with the code name Gepetto; unlike Fringe, Eleventh Hour doesn't seem to want to make that sort of thing too much of a running theme, waiting until its 13th episode to have her appear again. (It does appear that Gepetto's cloning techniques have improved somewhat over the past few months.) Other episodes have dealt with, for example, the government's efforts to create a soldier who didn't need to sleep—it drove him quite insane—and another doctor's efforts to cure a specific type of autism through brain surgery on unwilling subjects that he kidnapped. It's stuck close enough to reality that the Biotechnology Industry Organization has set up the Eleventh Hour Facts weblog to discuss and debunk the science presented, as the blog Polite Dissent does for the medicine presented in House. They also avoid the X-Files trap more or less by embracing it; they're always out in the field investigating, so they only infrequently have contact with the FBI office out of which they operate. Granted that I've seen only about half the episodes, but the impression I've been left with is that they don't even have a base office. Keeping the science more limited and keeping them out of regular or frequent contact with the rest of the FBI may make Eleventh Hour less fanciful than Fringe, but also means that it's less likely to do things that just plain don't work.
The jury's still out
I'm really not sure about Reaper. It wound up being a surprisingly meh series for something with such an interesting concept. After all, what would you do if you found out that your parents sold your soul to the devil? And yet I just wandered off near the end of the season and I'm not sure if I'll wander back again when the second season starts in March. It's not so much that it was stupid—though there was a sufficiency of that in different ways. It was just very, very dull to watch. The show kept hitting the same story beats again and again until near the end of the season; it seemed to take it that long to quite figure out what it was about, or if it should be about anything. Now we've got a revolt in hell brewing—possibly aided and abetted by heaven, of all places—it's not clear whether Sam's father is the man who raised him or the devil himself, and oh, yes, his "father" isn't human. The storyline that's emerged is surrounded by the demon-capture-of-the-week plot, and while individually, each of those stories may have something to recommend it, they're mindnumbingly dull when you see it over and over. Part of the problem is the way the supporting cast are written. For example, NBC's Chuck has a bunch of friends who are socially inept and dumb in the way that only very bright but limited people can be—but Chuck spends most of his time actually deceiving or avoiding them, so they usually aren't involved directly in the main story of the week. By contrast, Sam's friends Sock and Ben are his sidekicks as well as his best friends, so they're intimately involved in each week's storyline, both personal and demon-capture . . . and man, that's a whole lotta dumb to deal with on a regular basis on something that isn't a sitcom. Sam's sorta kinda girlfriend Andi isn't dumb, and the gyrations the series had to go through each week to keep her from finding out about him achieved a certain class of stupid all their own. The show seemed to decide, eventually, that keeping Andi locked out was unsustainable, so now she knows, and that's cost Sam dearly at the moment. The writing has been wildly uneven throughout, but overall . . . not so much stupid as just not great. Which is a pity, because Ray Wise's performance as the devil has been very entertaining on its own.
I don't know yet if Dollhouse achieves or avoids the stupidsphere. After all, as of this writing, only the pilot has aired, and pilots have such huge exposition dumps that they often seem disconnected from what follows. Catherine/Echo handed herself over to the dollhouse after having done something as yet unknown, but which clearly had some very bad consequences for her. She gives herself to become one of the "dolls," mindwiped regularly and then turned by technology into whatever their clients want. But the dolls really don't make sense for much other than prostitution. In the first episode, Echo gets turned into a hostage negotiator, with flaws that could not be removed which then (of course) showed up at the worst possible time. Neither half of that equation makes sense; why would you go to an agency to create a hostage negotiator for you from scratch? Even if you don't want law enforcement, wouldn't you want someone who hadn't been created from scratch an hour or two ago? (Where do you even find professional hostage negotiators?) Why would the agency allow flaws in their "dolls" that could—and did—interfere with an "engagement"? The dollhouse itself is obviously thoroughly illegal; personal services contracts that amount to slavery are simply not allowed in this country. So the dollhouse is being investigated by a very obsessed man in the FBI, and he's been warned off—given that the dollhouse operates with/for people with obnoxious amounts of money, it seems likely that it has connections at the highest levels of government. There's also an extremely high "ick" factor, given that the dolls are forced to offer their bodies up for they-know-not-what, and retain no memory of what happened. Echo comes back from an encounter with a damaged knee, and has no memory of how that occurred. Given that prostitution is one of the express functions of the dollhouse, I'd rather not imagine some of the other issues and injuries that may occur. The series will clearly struggle to balance out the stupid and the ick into something that people are going to watch regularly.
In the end, it may not matter how well these shows are written, or if they manage to avoid the stupid traps that are so easy to fall into in speculative television. For some reason, there seems to be strong resistance to speculative stories achieving a large audience on network television. Of the above shows, the only ones that look likely to survive to next season are Heroes, Fringe, and Eleventh Hour. (And yes, I'm including both Life on Mars and Terminator Chronicles in the list of the likely to be cancelled. Neither is doing terribly well in the ratings these days.) Heroes is basically a live action comic book, and that format has always gone completely around the prejudice against much speculative fiction by simply not being recognized as such. Eleventh Hour hides its weird mad science deep inside a procedural cover, and may also not really be recognized as science fiction. Fringe may be, in an odd way, the one to watch. Yes, it hides inside a procedural format, but very weakly. The cases being investigated wear their weird science proudly, wave their freak flag high! On the other hand, it's a J. J. Abrams-produced science-fiction serial, and those have become infamous for profoundly irritating their audience—see also Alias and Lost. The question is whether or not those producers and writers can avoid those particular pitfalls and make the show succeed against the odds. It may well be that speculative fiction on television is such a specific type of show that it can only survive well on cable, where the audience is smaller in the first place, so the expectations (and accompanying budgets) are lower.