Short Television Review: Treme

The new series from David Simon (The Wire) is good stuff for people looking for something out there in TV with some actual meat on the bone. If you’re expecting “The Wire: New Orleans Edition” (as Dick Wolf would have titled it) you’ll be a bit disappointed. The Wire was an exploration of crime, corruption, the nature of life in an American city, and the institutions we ally ourselves with (be they the police, unions, gangs, schools, etc.), Treme is almost a love story about New Orleans and music.

Set three month after Katrina you can be sure Simon will include plenty of swipes at FEMA and Bush-era politicians, but Treme seeks to tell a story not of institutional failures, but of the lives of several musicians living in the New Orleans neighborhood of Treme. Given that most of the major character are musicians, music unsurprisingly plays a major role in Treme, and even a musically illiterate person such as myself can enjoy what they offer the viewer. In some ways Treme lacks some of the punch of the Wire, whereas Simon burned with a love/hate relationship with Baltimore, it almost feels like he might not be much more than a New Orleans fanboy. On the other hand, I find some of the of the storytelling is much richer and more interesting. Many of the stories focus on the lives of the characters and their families, a motif that was pretty lacking in The Wire except for examples of failed families. I also enjoy that the over arching story is still interesting without the tension and conflict of the active case from each season of The Wire.

So, I’d watch anything David Simon puts his name on, but I’d recommend Treme as being more accessible and closer to The Wire than his other post-Wire piece: Generation Kill.

Short TV Review: Glee

People kept recommending Glee to me last year—a sitcom/drama/musical about a high-school glee club, the tension of high school hierarchies, and the faculty advisor’s tangled love life—often with the caveat, “It’s stupid, but it’s still really good.” Well, I just finished the first season, and I’d contend it’s one of the smarter comedies on television.

While it does stumble in places (particulary when it focuses on self-contained episodes over the overarching story), and perhaps never again really achieves the same level of savvy satire found in the director’s cut of the pilot, it’s still painful enough to be believable, and ridiculous enough to be funny. It’s also relatively daring as network TV goes, with love triangles hinging not just upon adolescent crushing (though there is plenty of that), but upon issues of marital fidelity and pregnancy. The defensive remarks that it’s “stupid” probably refer to the soap-opera trappings in its storyline, if not the patent absurdity of the way that musical numbers are worked into each episode. Still, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that when it’s stupid, it’s stupid on purpose, and usually effectively so. Plus, you will have an a capella cover of “Don’t Stop Believing” stuck in your head for days, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Short Television Review: Kings

*Kings* was an ambitious, well-made, unique piece of television and thus, doomed from its very start to cancellation at the hands of the network. As such it still wins my choice for best show of the season, an (dubious?) honor it shares with past ventures such as [*Pushing Daisies*](http://doombot.com/2007/10/23/watch-this/) and [*The Middleman*](http://doombot.com/2008/07/22/short-television-review-the-middleman/). At turns biblical, Shakesperean, with a dash of both *The West Wing* and even *Carnivale*, *Kings* was a complex epic set in a world that sported many of the trappings of our own whilst maintaining a distinctly alien feeling. The complex relationship between King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane), a once-honorable man who united his nation, and David Shepherd (Christopher Egan), the young hero who is destined to succeed him, twisted and turned, but portrayed a bond that was believable and even, at times, touching. The show was further enlivened by supporting performances such as Eamonn Walker as man of God Reverend Samuels and—my personal favorite—Brian Cox as Silas’s deposed predecessor.

*Kings* carved itself a difficult path: some speculated it was the heavy biblical allusions that were the problem, but I give the show kudos for being willing to take on the role of religion in a way that was neither sappy and sentimental nor out-and-out castigating. While the series at least got to complete its 13-episode first season, the final episode left plenty of room for the plot to continue onwards (in that, it reminds me of another early-cancelled NBC shows, *Kidnapped*). The show’s poor ratings made it hard to justify its renewal—though the *cause* of those low ratings could be laid at least partially at the feet of poor marketing by the network—but it does make me wish once again that more viewers *and* networks would take a chance on something that’s not just a police, medical, or legal procedural.

Short Television Review: Torchwood: Children of Earth

*Torchwood* always had trouble finding its bearings. The first season was wildly uneven—there were some very promising episode (to my mind, [“Countrycide”](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countrycide) remains the series’s creepiest episode to date)—but for the most part the show was a solid “meh.” Still, I stuck with it through the second season, which improved notably, especially with the three-part arc of “Reset”/”Dead Man Walking”/”A Day in the Death.” Apparently I wasn’t the only person who thought there was promise in the series, as it as renewed for a third season. Instead of a full 13 episode run, however, the BBC commissioned a five-part miniseries, *Children of Earth*, to be broadcast over the course of a week.

In some ways, this is the perfect format for *Torchwood*: there’s no time for filler episodes or extraneous plot details—everything is focused on a single story arc: cutting down both the number of episodes as well as the main cast means that the show is much leaner, and that lends it strength. The plot of the miniseries involves all of the world’s children, which begin speaking in unison about what appears to be an imminent alien invasion—an invasion that someone really doesn’t want *Torchwood* investigating. *Children of Earth* is at turns funny and dark; the final episode includes at least two very powerful, disturbing scenes that made me shudder, and leaves off with an uncertain future for the series and its eponymous team.

Killing is the Other Half of the Battle

GI Joe Resolute is a (not-for-kids) resurrection of the old toy/cartoon franchise at Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, penned by cantankerous comics writer Warren Ellis. Cory Doctorow describes it on Boing Boing as “reimagining the infra-dumb 80s toy-sales vehicle as a serious war comic.” I think calling it “serious” is kind of a bit much—it’s more violent, but at the end of the day, what I’ve watched so far is still a subtext-free action story about ninjas and army men.

I find it somewhat amusing that these are being written by the same fellow who once ranted to comics fans, “No-one’s listening to you. Because whenever anyone asks you what you think, you ask them to bring the fucking Micronauts back.” (Though, to be fair, he also acknowledged in the same piece, “I am part of the problem. Fuck you.”)

I can’t help but wonder, though, whether this is a sort of subtle revenge against nostalgic fans. What better way to tug at nerds’ heartstrings than by murdering their beloved childhood icons? For the ultimate poke in the eye, I’m hoping they get the writers of The Wire to revive the old C.O.P.S. cartoon. Come on, guys—crime’s a-wastin’.

Television Review Revisited: Life on Mars (US)

How many reviews of *Life on Mars* must a man write in life? If the late, great Douglas Adams is to be believed, 42. So: only 40 to go. The American version, cancelled by ABC, concluded with a 17th episode, lasting one episode more than the BBC series that inspired it. Now that it’s finished, it’s interesting to see how two shows with the same exact premise ended up differing so wildly.

As I said in a comment to [my original review](http://doombot.com/2008/10/18/short-television-review-life-on-mars-us/), a strange thing happened as the British show went on: it became more about Gene Hunt than protagonist Sam Tyler. In fact, Gene became so central to the show that when they concluded the series, they immediately spun him and compatriots Ray and Chris off to [a new show](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashes_to_Ashes_(TV_series)).

By contrast, the US version always kept its focus on Sam and his predicament. Here, Gene is just another supporting character, a piece of the vintage scenery, and though Keitel’s performance grew (and grew on *me*) over the course of the series, Gene never became the same show-stealer that he did at the hands of Philip Glenister (I did appreciate the tip of the hat that the US series creators gave him in a later episode, naming a police bar “Glenister’s”). Keitel did much better when he wasn’t treading in Glenister’s footsteps, allowing the American version of Gene Hunt to become his own character rather than the pale imitation of another man’s performance.

To my biggest surprise, by the end of the series I found myself liking the US version of Ray far more than the original’s. In the British series, Ray always came across as two-dimensional: the dimwit caveman comic relief who acted as Gene’s contemporary counterweight to Sam’s modern-day influence. The US version’s Ray, on the other hand, is a surprisingly complex character: he’s painfully aware that the world he knows is in the process of changing all around him, whether he likes it or not—and he most assuredly does not. I came to enjoy his ribbing of Sam—his constant taunt of “spaceman”—and his complicated relationship with female liberation in the form of Annie.

From a story perspective, the US version also attempted to turn itself into a mythology show in a way that the UK series never did—by comparison, it was more cerebral—a psychodrama. The UK shows always felt very tight, very claustrophobic, somehow conveying an atmosphere that we were all in Sam’s head and it was very much reflected in the way that the show eventually came to a close.

Meanwhile, the US version tried to insert hints of a deeper meaning, of archetypal conflicts between good and evil, light and darkness, and even between father and son. I think that attempt, to make Sam’s struggle *larger* than just himself, is somewhat emblematic of an American storytelling ethic in a way that it isn’t for the British—but perhaps that’s an investigation for another time.

Despite their differences, the shows weren’t totally dissimilar. As both progressed, they became more about the idea of a man out of time than about the mystery of *how* he’d come to be there. We derived our entertainment from the dramatic irony of viewing the past through the lens of our present, while the 1973 inhabitants are stuck in the dark ages. While the ongoing mystery of how Sam came to be in the past was the hook that kept us coming back for more, fed by occasional breadcrumbs scattered through the episodes, it’s not *really* the reason that we tune in. Part of that was, of course, a matter of necessity—for Sam to find out how he’d gotten to the past would have robbed us of our impetus to watch—but part of it was because we, like Sam, start to *like* 1973 a bit more than the present.

And so it’s little surprise to me that the US ending, like its UK counterpart, is a bit of a letdown. In the US case, you can blame it on the show’s premature cancelation—I don’t know if this is the ending they’d planned had they gone for a longer run, and it’s undeniably a bit silly and cutesy—though not entirely in a bad way. I’ll give them credit for this: I sure as hell didn’t see it coming. If nothing else, I applaud the creators with letting their imaginations run wild. As with many serial dramas—[*Battlestar Galactica*](http://doombot.com/2009/04/01/short-television-review-battlestar-galactica/) comes to mind—the real interest in *Life on Mars* turned out to be in its journey, not its destination.

Halls of Montezuma, Dubbie!

middleman.jpgIt is a fact that my love for [*The Middleman*](http://doombot.com/2008/07/22/short-television-review-the-middleman/) knows no bounds, corporeal or spiritual, so despite the fact that the show is—in [the words of its creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach](http://themiddleblog.livejournal.com/41963.html)—”hibernating in a high-tech vat, or a sac filled with a translucent amniotic fluid”, I can still rest secure in the knowledge that come July, I will be able to own all twelve episodes in [one handy DVD package](http://www.amazon.com/Middleman-Complete-Matt-Keeslar/dp/B001XW7ICW/). Not only that, but arriving at the same time is a graphic novel that concludes the storyline from the TV show (which, if you’ll cast your mind back to more carefree days, you’ll remember was itself based on a comic series).

To my mind, *The Middleman* is undoubtedly the best prematurely-cancelled show since *Firefly* walked upon England’s mountains of green—and let’s be fair: I watch a lot of shows that get cancelled. I could almost be the patron saint of cancelled television shows—well, except for that whole “performing miracles” business. Then again, *Firefly* already got revived once, so maybe if a couple more shows I liked come back from the dead, that’ll count.

Basically, this is all a long way of saying that you should really watch *The Middleman*. This is, after all, the show that brought us fish zombies, vampire bat puppets, and five intergalactic dictators masquerading as a boy band. Matt Keeslar as the eponymous Middleman is a square-jawed, all-American hero in the vein of pulp heroes of old, and Natalie Morales’s Wendy Watson is probably geekdom’s best heroine since Veronica Mars. If you like the show *half* as much as I like it, well, I’ll have liked it twice as much as you.

And that’s logic you can’t argue with.

Short Television Review: Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica‘s “re-imagined” series is winding to a close, and I say one part good bye, one part good riddance. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed lots of individual pieces, such as the first season-as-mini-series, the short “occupation” arc in season 3, the odd episode here and there, and the finale. Unfortunately, there was a lot of material in there that just shouldn’t have been there. Filler material is to be expected on TV, but I was more bothered by the twists and turns that ended up becoming plot holes so deep even the writers themselves can’t seem to answer many common questions clearly. A lot of the twists in the show’s story feel out of the blue and insufficiently foreshadowed, probably in large part because the writers went into it without enough an overarching plan and just made stuff up as they went along. Fans allege this of TV writers all the time, but it’s not just speculation in this case; Ron Moore himself has mentioned in interviews about how certain decisions were made well into the series, such as the oft-maligned “these humans turn out to have been cylons all along” revelation(s). This can be chalked up to the fact that they didn’t actually envision it as a finite, self-contained series from the outset, but as an “open ended adventure,” according to executive producer David Eick. (Shortly thereafter they announced a definitive end in sight, though one gets the sense this was due to negative response following both the “open-ended” comments and some really rotten filler episodes.) Overall, I think this show is a great example of both how great TV can be and how stupid and pointless it can be. Overall, Battlestar Galactica could have been a truly, singularly excellent thing in sum if only they’d planned it that way from day one.

Putting a Name with a Face: Patrick Fischler

patrickfischler.jpgThis installment of Putting a Name with a Face comes to you at the behest of fellow Doombot contributor Tony. **Patrick Fischler** is another one of those guys who seems to pop up in every show I watch—last summer I saw him on three separate series within the space of a couple weeks. The distinctive-looking Fischler, 39, started [his Hollywood career](http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0279209/) in 1993—his second role was as a guard in an episode of *The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.*—but here’s a few other places you might have noticed him lately.

* Most recently, Fischler has donned a Dharma Initiative jumpsuit to appear in several episodes of *Lost*’s penultimate season as Initiative member Phil, who Sawyer—in typical Sawyer fashion—describes as a dimwit.
* Last year, he also appeared in one episode of the dearly departed *Pushing Daisies* as the The Waffle Nazi. “I do not speak a vord of German. I speak English *mit* a German accent.”
* Over the past summer, Fischler appeared on the second season of the acclaimed *Mad Men* in one of his most prominent roles, that of the somewhat creepy, somewhat pitiable comedian Jimmy Barrett.
* Fischler also played a character named Jimmy in the second season premiere of *Burn Notice*, where he, like protagonist Michael Westen, found himself on the wrong side of the mysterious conspiracy.
* Around the same time, Fischler appeared in an episode of *The Middleman*, playing an alien doctor (which, along with *Burn Notice*, makes two series he shares with last week’s subject, [Mark Sheppard](http://doombot.com/2009/03/25/putting-a-name-with-a-face-mark-sheppard/)).
* In a season three episode of crime-drama *Bones*, Fischler played a character whose high school friend showed up dead inside a recently unearthed time capsule.
* Fischler also appeared in the third-season episode of cult-classic *Veronica Mars* that wins my award for the series’s best episode title, “Weevils Wobble But They Don’t Go Down.”
* And a few old-timers might recognize Fischler from his recurring role on the late ’90s Don Johnson vehicle *Nash Bridges*, where he played Pepe, the secretary at Nash and Joe’s detective agency.

Fischler’s also appeared in several feature films, including *The Shadow*, *Speed*, *Twister*, *Mulholland Dr.*, and *Ghost World*, as well as episodes of *The West Wing*, *Angel*, and *Star Trek: Enterprise*, and the both the unaired and aired pilot episodes of the short-lived Nathan Fillion series *Drive*.

Putting a Name with a Face: Mark Sheppard

For some reason, my brain’s always been wired pretty well for recognizing faces, and given I watch as much TV as I do, I frequently see familiar faces show up in guest star roles—especially when they then appear the next week on a *different* show. So as a public service, I’m thinking of providing this semi-regular feature where I tell you where the hell you’ve seen that guy (or gal) before.

marksheppard.jpgToday’s candidate? __Mark Sheppard__. I’m guessing many of you will know Sheppard from his recurring role on *Battlestar Galactica*, but I swear to God, every time I tune into a show it seems like he turns up eventually. Here are a couple of other places you might have seen the prolific 44 year-old London-born actor (that’s right, ladies: the accent is *real*), who usually plays villains and characters of questionable morality.

* On *Battlestar Galactica*, Sheppard plays Romo Lampkin, the lawyer who defends Baltar in his trial at the end of season 3, and turns up in a couple of later incidents (including ascending to auspicious post in the series finale).
* You also may have seen him pop up recently on *Dollhouse*, where he plays FBI Special Agent Tanaka, rival to fellow *BSG* alum Tahmoh Penikett.
* On TNT’s *Leverage*, Sheppard played the recurring role of antagonist Jim Sterling, who had taken over the former job of Timothy Hutton’s Nate Ford. And, in the last two episodes, Sterling’s chief henchman is played by [Alex Carter](http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0141450/)….
* …who also played opposite Sheppard in an episode of *Burn Notice*. Sheppard played a bank robber; Carter reprised his role as federal agent Jason Bly.
* Over last summer, Sheppard also showed up in my favorite show of the year, [*The Middleman*](http://doombot.com/2008/07/22/short-television-review-the-middleman/), with a two-episode stint as mogul Manservant Neville.
* In 2007, he played the mysterious inventor Anthony Andros in the short-lived revival of *Bionic Woman*, although he only appeared in two aired episodes.
* And most of you probably first saw Sheppard in his memorable two-episode stint on Joss Whedon’s cult-classic *Firefly*, where he played Mal’s underworld contact with the very fine hat, Badger.

Of course, Sheppard’s got [an extensive filmography](http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0791968/) dating back to 1992 with additional roles on *Star Trek: Voyager*, *Charmed*, and *24*, so the chances that you’ve seen him somewhere else are damn good.