Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fall Pilots 2011 - Person Of Interest/The Ringer

Some nights, my evenings don't start becoming <em>my</em> evenings until shortly after nine, which means, if I'm lucky, means I can cram in two sitcoms and a drama, or two dramas, or four sitcoms, or most of one movie before physiological imperative requires that I get into bed.  As such, much (most) of my television watching doesn't happen as it happens.  My cable company provides an "on demand" service, which has been essential for watching ... pretty much everything.

Of course "on demand" isn't a flawless service.  It doesn't cover every channel, it doesn't have all the programs I'd like to see on demand, and it takes 2 - 3 days to update with the new episode of a new show.  It frequently has problems loading the show, doesn't let you bypass the commercials, and, as is the case with one new episode this week, just stops abruptly partway through the show and won't continue.

But still, for a value-added service which doesn't cost anything extra, it's something I take advantage of more times than I can count (it's especially handy for children's programming), plus it's allowed me to catch up on some fall pilots that I was interested in watching that I would have otherwise missed.

Person Of Interest is the new JJ Abrams-produced show starring JJ Abrams-produced Lost alum Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel, best known for his role in the father-son time-travel ham radio drama Frequency (oh, and for playing Jesus in some film called Passion of the Christ).  The show isn't however an Abrams show, but instead is the brainchild of Jonathan Nolan, co-writer of many of brother Christopher Nolan's films (oh, like, say, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento).  It's not Batman, magic, or memory loss, but at the same time it does have genre trappings which are almost an essential to differentiate itself from any other sort of investigative or procedural show out there.  In a way it's a throwback to the 80's style of action TV, where there's a hero, or heroes, who avail themselves to the helpless out of the goodness of their heart(s), ala The A-Team or Knight Rider.

Caviezel is Reese, an ex-Ranger who decided to quit the business to be with his lady love, only to have 9-11 happen and draw him back in.  At some point his lady is killed, he becomes despondent and winds a transient, and it is at least implied that he's wanted for assaults all across the country.  In New York, he comes to the attention of Finch (Emerson) who devised an anti-terrorist Big Brother supercomputer for the government that monitors all public cameras, seems to tap all cellular conversations, but in the process of looking for bigger picture security concerns, it also started identifying smaller crimes as well.  Having programmed the computer to ignore the smaller items, guilt, or something else started weighing on Finch and, through a backdoor, he's retrieved the simplest of clues, social security numbers of people either potential victims or perpetrators of crimes.  Finch enlists Reese, needing the both the job and focus, though Reese isn't quite satisfied with how private his new employer is.

There's a third player in the mix, though less consequential and could be written out altogether with next to no impact on the weekly operation of the show at all. Detective Carter, played by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, has taken an interest in the vagrant who got in a fight on a subway and now seems to be cleaned up and helping others out, though in an extremely violent manner.  While I can see the need for setting up a third party interested in Reese's well-doings, Henson is, frankly, not a great actress, or at the very least completely ill suited for the tough cop role. She reminds me of Hooks from Police Academy in her delivery, which isn't much of a compliment at all.

The pilot episode was weak, but gain strength the further it progressed.  All the characters still seem like husks, ill defined, though obviously there's intent behind each of their motivations which will be explored as the series progresses, but it makes it hard to connect with them immediately.  Once Reese turns the corner from confused and skeptical and into complete badass mode, the show actually takes flight in a darkly humorous way.  Reese seems to enjoy hurting people, and it's difficult to tell whether he's aware of that or not, and equally difficult to see if Finch is scared of it.

The show uses to interesting (though occasionally annoying) effect cuts from remote video feeds, security cameras, and the like to really hammer home the Big Brother is watching, but I have to also question whether or not this isn't a story element, that "the machine" that Finch designed taking an interest in and observing Reese and co.  I should also add that Nolan, in The Dark Knight  touched on similar themes when Batman and Morgan Freeman utilized a system which tapped into everyone's cel-phone feeds in Gotham to locate the Joker.  It's no doubt something Nolan has on his mind, about just how private are we anymore.

It's not a bad show, and it fits well into an episode-of-the-week format, like a big network's answer to the surprising success of Burn Notice,  but it needs something bigger, but it (after two episodes) hasn't really shown room as to where a bigger plot could seed itself through.  

Now The Ringer, on the other hand, is pure trash, absolute lunacy, ridiculous and bad to such a degree that its earnestly entertaining.  The cast in the show includes ex-Buffy Sarah Michelle Gellar, ex-Mr. Fantastic Ioan Gruffudd and ex-Bat Manuel Nestor Carbonell (how Carbonell, having appeared in both Lost and Dark Knight wound up here instead of Person of Interest is beyond me) and its pilot features a script that seems like a condensed version of three seasons of a soap opera.

Explaining all the plot twists and turns of the pilot would take up numerous paragraphs, suffice to say ther are a lot, each building upon the last in a delightfully absurd fashion.  The basic premise finds Gellar`s ex-stripper/recovering crackhead Bridget fleeing from protective custody to her estranged twin sister's mansion on the coast, discovering that Siobhan has in the intervening five years done really well for herself.  They decide to go for a boat ride where Siobhan drugs Bridget unconscious and then fakes her suicide.  Bridget, naturally, seeing opportunity, becomes Siobhan, only to learn, and learn and learn again, that Siobhan's life is more fucked up than her own.  And the pilot ends with a hitman coming to kill Bridget-as-Siobhan, only to learn that an escaped-to-Paris Siobhan sent out the hit.

Let's face it, it's trash TV.  The show alternates from looking pretty good to looking cheaper than the original episodes of Doctor Who.  The boat ride takes place old-school, on set imposed onto a backdrop with stagehands splashing water up the side.  It's beyond terrible looking, but it's exceptionally fake touches like that which work for the show.  In fact the hammier, the uglier, the more absurd it got, the more I found myself enjoying it.  It's over-the-top camp that strives to be little more than what it is. I can't say I'll be watching it week-to-week, but I can't say that I wont either.