Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fall Pilots 2011: A Gifted Man/Suburgatory and those two I couldn't watch all the way through

The "An [Adjective] [Noun]" title has cropped up far too frequently in recent years, to the point where I can never properly remember the title to this show.  Perhaps if I write it down a few times it'll stick.  But the show's name is the least of A Serious.. A Beautiful.... A Gifted Man's challenges.  It's chief obstacle is in it's curious genre mix of medical drama, ghost story, with a sprinkle of romance.  It's House meets Ghost Whisperer but it takes itself more seriously than the pithy former series and strives to avoid the campy melodrama of the latter.

Patrick Wilson plays what he plays best, a bastard (although he did manage to swing sympathetic in Watchmen), and it's no surprise that he's really good at it.  He's also pretty good at letting his bastard guard down in moments too, showing clearly that his character is able to come out of his own ego.  It's a chance encounter Dr Michael Holt has with his ex-wife, Emma, which triggers this transformation, having not seen each other for nearly 8 years since he left her doing clinic work in Alaska for NYC where he's become a preeminent neurosurgeon.  His high profile clinic has led to high status clients and the show is effective at establishing his organization, establishing his type of clientele, and establishing his talent.  It's a little clunkier in establishing the other aspects of his life, specifically the introduction to his sister, his problem-child teenaged nephew and Emma, all who enter the show rather abruptly, though each serves a distinct purpose in how Michael relates to the world.

Obviously Michael is the focus character of the pilot, but there's little room for any other characters to make an impact.  The actors involved include the great character actress Margo Martindale as Michael's long-suffering personal assistant, and Pablo Schreiber as Anton Little Creek, a spiritual adviser set loose on Michael by his flighty sister (Julie Benz) are both highlights in the cast but, again, in supporting roles only.  There almost seems to be no room for anyone else in the pilot or the series, which is also loaded with no less than four cases for Michael to juggle in the midst of perhaps losing his grip on sanity once it's revealed that Emma died two days before he had his chance run-in with her.   Jennifer Ehle as Emma is the weakest link of the show.  Her choice to play the ghost as somewhat patronizing, perpetually sympathetic, a little cloying, and always painfully smiling is kind of grating, and I kept hoping there would be a more sinister twist to her attachment to Michael, and intent that would have been made painfully clear during Michael's "treatment" with Anton.

The pilot was directed by Jonathan Demme so it has a rather cinematic feel to it, but that cinematic aspect really makes me wonder why this wasn't a motion picture, as it seems like the idea of a spirit guide to personal transformation would suit a 2-hour screenplay far better.  I wonder how long a series about a man talking to a ghost can last without getting repetitive especially when the only journey for the show seems to be Michael's spiritual transformation.  I'm not certain what the week-to-week episode format will be or if it will be at all interesting, though hopefully it does something more interesting than a case-of-the-week slant (which judging by the synopsis of the second episode, it's not going to).  I'm intrigued by the show, but I think I'm only going to be let down.

While Cougartown is on hiatus ("EHHHHHHHHHHH" - Abed) Suburgatory is the substitute, a single camera sitcom about a teenaged girl and her single dad moving from NYC to the surreal suburban wasteland of plastic people.  The setting has been mined by films and television since the days of Clueless, so it doesn't feel familiar, but practically exhausted.  And yet, Suburgatory has found an angle that I haven't seen yet, that of the single father, having raised his daughter on his own after her mother abandoned her shortly after birth.  Of course, the show is realized from the perspective of Tessa (Jane Levy who just may be the next Emma Stone), but it's her father (a wonderfully cast Jeremy Sisto) as the handsome, single dad (fresh pickin's in the suburban jungle) that the show finds energy, for as unfamiliar as Tessa is with her surroundings, it's George that's even more out of place.

The cast is bolstered a host of comedic actors and actresses including Curb's Cheryl Hines, Firefly's Alan Tudyk, SNL's Ana Gasteyer and Mad TV's Arden Myrin, though it's the father-daughter chemistry between Sisto and Levy which is its strongest aspect and hopefully is utilized more than it was in the pilot.

Though obviously a convention of the high school comedy genre that it's exploring, Tessa's narration I found to be a tad overbearing in the pilot, serving the purpose of exposition often but not adding much to the comedy.  It's not an essential but if the show learns how to use it as a stronger comedic voice then it can become a stronger facet to the show.  Hopefully though the high-school aspect is less prevalent than Tessa's observations on the adult world around her

It's a good looking production, with set design and wardrobe aiding much of the humour's execution.  Bringing it back, it's actually not far off from where Cougartown started in its first few episodes, which isn't to say we have another Cougartown on our hands with Suburgatory (because some might construe that as an insult) but it's strong, funny and charming and hopefully develops a more unique voice from its cinematic predecessors (see also Mean Girls, Easy A).

And in my final (for now) pair of pilot peeks, I watched about 8 minutes of Pan Am before I just couldn't stand to watch anymore.  The show obviously had a good chunk of money sunk into replicating sets and costumes of the era, while digitally recreating the planes and cityscapes of the 1960s, but where Mad Men (its obvious inspiration) lives in its environments, nudging the era's gender politics and naive advancements towards the audience, Pan Am throws them in all in the audience's faces.  It's just so overbearing and, frankly, unbelievable.  It's definitely trying for a lighter, loftier tone than Mad Men, but in not taking itself seriously (introducing one of the Pan Am girls as a spy, and having another encounter her lover's family on her flight) I lost all interest.  I don't want another substandard, ridiculous soap opera, I already have Ringer.

Terra Nova, I was expecting to hate more than I did, and managed to last ten minutes longer through the pilot than I thought I would.  The network sci-fi shows (basically anything that's not on Fox) have rarely succeeded in the past 20 years, from Jeremiah to Dark Skies to Earth 2 to V, all cancelled within 2 seasons, while the sci-fi (and fantasy) shows that run on Fox, or the CW seem to be granted a much longer shelf life.  In North America, sci-fi and fantasy, no matter what the box office returns tell you, are niche products, specifically those that partake in long-form storytelling.  Why Transformers 3 and Super 8 make boffo cash at the box office is easy, spectacle, something which the genre programming on television can't afford to provide on a week-in, week-out basis.  On a network willing to take risks, which isn't the big three of NBC, CBS, or ABC, you will get a show with a focus, or at least a showrunner with a vested interest in the final product.  On the "big three" networks you get a product that's trying to satisfy executives perceptions of what the show should be as well as what network executives think the public wants to see.  What the public wants to see, I tell you now, is not Terra Nova.

Jason O'Mara, having survived another short-lived genre show (Life on Mars) is a cop in a dying future, where overpopulation has finally taken its toll and the ecosystem of earth in on the verge of total collapse.  O'Mara and his wife are busted with a third child (immediate guess, give his extreme over-protectiveness, is that the child isn't actually his and he's overcompensating) and he's scuttled off to 22nd century jail.  His wife gains a pass to Terra Nova, where the future of all mankind is set to inhabit a new civilization a few billion years in the past, coexisting with the dinosaur times.  O'Mara's wife orchestrates his jailbreak and he escapes with them to the past, where he's found out as a escaped con, but kinda sorta pardoned because his doctor/scientist wife is something of a big deal.  The future setting is intriguing, but poorly realized and ultimately disposable (we spend no more time there than we absolutely have to), while the dinosaur world looks, well, kind of like so many other major network sci-fi sets: dull and expected.  There's some interesting seeds of drama but none of the actors seem either skilled or invested enough in delivering them with anything remotely approaching subtlety.  Having seen a dozen other shows with a settling in a strange new world vibe, I basically felt like I've seen the show before and I knew where it was heading.  Shows like these are meant to be familiar, unchallenging, and, I believe, are purposefully unexciting, giving an audience who doesn't know any better something that will pass time quickly and without any fuss.