Sunday, 31 January 2010

Television reviews: Fringe #211: 'Johari Window', #212: 'What Lies Below', #213: 'The Bishop Revival'

211: 'Johari Window'

Wr: Josh Singer
Dr: Joe Chappelle

Synopsis: The Fringe team travels to the town of Edina to investigate the nearby murder of three state troopers. They discover that many of the residents are disfigured, but have managed to hide their deformity... and some will to go to any lengths to ensure their secret.

Review: Fringe lapses back into its all-too-familiar Pattern (hah! See what I did there? With punctuation? No? Philistines...) with the frustratingly renamed 'Johari Window' (what was wrong with 'Edina City Limits'? Hmm?), sending Olivia and the Bishops off in search of some scientifically perplexing, but entirely inconsequential, curiosity-of-the-week while the infinitely more interesting arc plot is left to stew in its own juices for another four weeks... you know, just in time for the episode that will precede the mid-season break. This format of compartmentalised storytelling has become so transparent at this point that, honestly, it would be a safe bet for you to tune out until the last hour before the next scheduled hiatus and not really miss anything. And perhaps we wouldn't mind this so much if the stand-alones weren't so gosh damn lazy. To be fair to the writing staff, there has been something of an upturn in quality recently, 'Snakehead' and 'Of Human Action' being two examples that immediately spring to mind, but sadly, this latest offering feels a little lacking.

That's not to say Josh Singer isn't trying, of course. At its core, his script contains a plethora of inherently intriguing ideas. It is certainly refreshing to be served a story that doesn't contain a parasitic virus or rampaging genetic monster as its conceptual antagonist, with a shady government official or barking foreign scientist utilising either to wreak havoc. Instead, the 'genetic anomaly' trope is effectively turned on its head as the narrative steers away from using it to demonstrate an impending threat, and, instead, makes it a lamentable and irreversible consequence of a series of events that occurred long ago. As a result, the plot feels less like a traditional slice of stand-alone Fringe; the emphasis is not on dramatic event, but on explanation and understanding. In the end, we have no villain to arrest, no conspiracy to uncover. For all a portion of the townsfolk - including the sheriff - are prone to unwarranted murder, this is given very little fanfare and is dealt with as swiftly as possible, rendering it largely unforgettable. The main focus, pleasingly, is the crushing moral dilemma that Bishop presents to Broyles: the question of whether the inhabitants of Edina should be allowed to maintain their collective disguise. This works quite well as a minor allegory on physicality and the psychological and social machinations of human perception: the question of whether life is better lived as is, with deformity on show to the rest of the world, or if it is best to remain within one's comfort zone, literally seeing past the disfigurement and living 'as normal' (for want of a better phrase), is a very astute one and, refreshingly, Singer does not take the moral high ground and offer the 'be who you are' resolution. Edina's decision to remain internalised, as it were, is far, far more believable than, say, an epiphianic mass exodus and, as such, the narrative's pay off, in this respect at least, feels somewhat rewarding.

Unfortunately, the manner through which we get to this point doesn't offer quite as many treats. While the narrative is refreshing for its lack of standard dramatic drive, it also falters under the weight of its level of exposition. A large proportion of what we're dealing with is historical; while it's interesting to discern exactly what has caused the townsfolk to become disfigured, the need to relate the explanation through dialogue, through the literal telling of events, makes the reveal seem a little dry. If this had been a recent development, and the people of Edina were trying to figure it out themselves, the story would perhaps have acquired a little more flavour. Unusually, the structure of the narrative feels rather disjointed in this regard. Walter and Astrid arrive at the truth well before Olivia and Peter, and as we flit between two separate strands, it becomes considerably frustrating to see Torv and Jackson poring over questions that have been answered fifteen minutes prior. What is more, it's fairly obvious to everyone with a few functional brain cells that at the very least the sheriff, if not the entire town, has the genetic deformity - when you're lingering on the guy using unusual slow shots, having him pause before he responds to Olivia's questions and information dumps and soundtracking his appearances with eerie, ominous music, it sorta gives it away, you know.

It is also becoming rather tiresome to see Walter having a personal investment in literally every case that comes flying through Fringe Division's door. Once again, he just so happened to work on the exact project that has caused this strange turn of events and yup, he knew the guy who is ultimately responsible for it as well. This sort of plot development just makes it horribly easy for Singer to slot together the pieces of the narratalogical puzzle, to join the theoretical dots, and frankly, it's becoming insulting. Would it kill the writing staff to put together a story in which none of the protagonists have any historical connection to the exterior players involved? Honestly guys, it wouldn't limit your opportunities for character development or make the overall narrative seem any less entertaining. If anything, it would probably make a great number of us want to watch more. Yes, fine, Walter's personal investment in this particular case is used as a springboard to explore his state of mind in the aftermath of his ordeal at the end of 'Grey Matters'... but it needn't be. Find another way. Get creative. God knows, you've got one hell of a blank slate there writers, and a central concept fit to burst with possibility. Use it.

'Johari Window' does try to offer something different to Fringe's standard 'curiosity-of-the-week' fare and, at times, it succeeds. Unfortunately, there just isn't enough here that proves truly engaging, especially in the wake of a beast like 'Grey Matters.' Singer's script falls back on too many familiar dramatic devices and plot tropes in its execution, which hampers the effectiveness of its admittedly rather nifty allegory. Sorry to have to say it again guys but... must try harder. 6.8

212: 'What Lies Below'

Wr: Jeff Vlaming
Dr: Deran Serafian

Synopsis: While investigating a case in an office building where a man's blood literally burst from his arteries and veins, Peter and Olivia are trapped in a CDC quarantine when it's discovered that the blood carries a deadly pathogen.

Review: With each passing stand alone episode of Fringe, it becomes ever more apparent that the show's writing staff spend their weekends drinking beer and possibly smoking the ol' funny cigarettes at each other's houses while watching hours upon hours of X-Files re-runs, mining them for creative ideas. If last week's 'Johari Window' was a curious mis-match of 'Home' and 'Our Town' (look 'em up kids, they're both a million times better than the Fringe attempt was), then 'What Lies Below' is a glorious bastardisation of 'F. Emasculata', 'Ice' and probably more than a few others that don't immediately spring to mind right now. The latter episode in particular is the closest comparative: in it, Mulder and Scully travel to the Arctic where a geological team are bashing each other's brains in after having drilled down to the Earth's core and inadvertently unearthed a parasite that has a penchant for infecting humans and desperately looking for new hosts before killing the current one. These lovely creatures are believed to have been dormant in the ice for thousands upon thousands of years. Everyone, including Mulder and Scully, is quarantined and the episode is spent focusing on finding some form of solution while also worrying about the possibility that the protagonists may be infected. Hmm. Glen Morgan and James Wong, methinks you may be owed some royalties. Actually, scratch that, 'Ice' is just a rip-off of The Thing anyway. Oh well. Originality is a myth and all that.

The crucial difference in 'What Lies Below', of course, is that one of our protagonists actually does become infected with the oh-so-deadly, super-misbehaving and remarkably intelligent virus, and then spends the better part of the episode stripped down to his Rab C. Nesbitt vest, throwing furniture at windows. Neither Mulder nor Scully ever sunk to that low, as far as I'm aware (although the lack of clothing is another matter...) Anyway, this would be fine if it allowed Joshua Jackson some room to maneouvre, or the opportunity to further explore the machinations of Peter's character, and his relationship with Olivia, when placed in dire peril. This is exactly what the aforementioned episode of The X Files does so well, as the focus is not on the intricacies of the virus/parasite plot but is instead on the interplay between the quarantined individuals, on the way that their relationships with one another break down when trust begins to dissipate. The essential concept on offer here gives plenty scope for this sort of thing but sadly, aside from a few choice glances and dramatic pauses between Olivia and Peter when he slips in the dead guy's blood, and some stock hysteria from the trapped office workers, the onus is squarely on the identification and obliteration of the virus. It's more than a little disappointing; arguably, the script would be better served by keeping Astrid and Walter in the background, with only the occasional glimpse into their work, and allowing Olivia and Peter's ordeal to take centre stage.

Even more problematically, as with virtually all television writers, Jeff Vlaming seems to think that the best way to keep us all in suspense, to have us biting our fingernails as the story unfolds, is to threaten the life of one of the show's regular characters. Yes, because it isn't obvious that Joshua Jackson has a permanent contract until at least the end of the season, if not beyond, and that therefore, there is absolutely no way that he is ever in any danger of becoming a victim of the virus. Why not throw Astrid in there with Olivia? Infect her? That way, we might actually buy into the drama of the situation... hell, the actress would get a chance to showcase her talents too and maybe, just maybe, a little character development. But no; instead, Vlaming takes the obvious route and it's very difficult to buy into. It certainly doesn't help that the solution is magically hypothesised (the show's favourite word, that) by Walter in around ten seconds flat, when he suddenly makes the incredible logic leap from knowing nothing about the virus at all to understanding its inhernet nature after just a few short words with Astrid... just in time to save his son and prevent the evil, evil CDC from laying everyone in the place to waste. Phew! What a stroke of good luck, eh? How this sort of unforgivably lazy writing is allowed to make it to screen is frankly beyond me.

So what good is there in 'What Lies Below'? Well, the production values are top notch as usual; the visualisation of the effects of the virus is particularly effective and genuinely unnerving, and the sequence in which the infected lady leaps to her death out of the seventeenth (or whatever) story window is superbly executed. John Noble gets a chance to shine again as he verbally lays waste to the CDC's head honcho, and puts in a beautifully fearful performance when he's testing his son for the virus. And, from the looks of the latest communicative misstep from Walter, it seems like we might be approaching the big revelation about Peter's parallel universe past... you know, sometime before the end of the season. Or it would be nice, at least.

'What Lies Below' suffers considerably as a result of its premise. Effectively, this is a rip-off of a rip-off, owing far too much to The X Files' 'Ice' (which owes a great deal to The Thing, in turn), 'F. Emasculata' and countless other episodes of numerous science fiction shows for it to maintain the viewer's interest. We really have been here and done that so many times before that, in order for the episode to really entertain, Vlaming's script needs to contain something refreshing, a offer a new twist to the tale but sadly, it never comes. Instead, we are expected to buy into the possibility that Peter may die when it is glaringly obvious that it will never happen, and a boatload of opportunity for character development between he and Olivia is wasted in order to have Walter magically put all the pieces together in no time at all. This feels very much like Vlaming was struggling to come up with a concept and fell back on a standard without really thinking the logistics through. Come to think of it, didn't the guy write for The X Files back in its third season? Yeah actually, I think he did... 6.1

213: 'The Bishop Revival'

Wr: Glen Whitman & Robert Chiappetta
Dr: Adam Davidson

Synopsis: Unseen killers target a wedding with a toxin that targets specific individuals, and Walter discovers that the case may be tied to a branch on the Bishop family tree.

Review: One day, Fringe will present its viewers with a case in which no one, not Olivia, not Peter, not Broyles, no one, has any connection to the events in question or the antagonist responsible whatso-bleeding-ever. Since the show returned from its Christmas hiatus, we've had Walter just so happen to have worked on Project Elephant, the experiment that ultimately laid genetic waste to the town of Edina, Peter and Olivia have become trapped in a building containing a deadly virus, thereby amping up the stakes for Walter as he tries desperately to rescue them, and now, as a barking mad Nazi tries to 'purify' the human race and create Das Herrenvolk through the means that science has now opened up to him, we discover that it was actually Walter's father, the esteemed Roger Bischoff, who conceived of the science and technology that would be involved in the first place! Honestly, the amount of significant scientific discoveries and important milestone projects that the Bishop family have been involved in collectively over the last sixty or seventy years is bloody astounding. They should give them some sort of Guiness Book of World Records entry or something.

And of course, I jest, but it would be nice to see a story in which Walter has no previous connection to any element of the plot whatsoever, if for no other reason than it would force the writing staff to start thinking outside of the box and not allow them to simply pull out the 'Bishop knows something!' card every time they write themselves into a corner. And to be fair, its inclusion in 'The Bishop Revival' actually isn't all that bad. Unlike in certain recent episodes, it does open the door to some interesting character development, particularly for Noble. This is the first time we've seen Walter this deeply invested in something for a considerable amount of time; to the extent, in fact, that he becomes furious with Peter when he learns that his son sold the books containing the theoretical formula. This is a beautifully written scene, full of anger, regret and remorse, and pleasingly, it runs continually as an undercurrent in all of their subsequent scenes, until paid off in the closing moments. Jackson and Noble have such incredible antagonistic chemistry that it's a surprise they don't do this sort of thing more often... although it's looking likely that a similar sort of situation will arise once Peter finds out that, actually, he's totally from another dimension or something. There's also a great deal to be said for Walter's ultimate decision to murder the man responsible for the series of killings; this is a new and very dark development for the character but refreshingly, it seems to fit. The viewer understands his motives and appreciates the conclusion, however predictable it may be (as soon as Walter starts looking shiftily around that basement, it's perfectly obvious what he's going to do.)

Similarly, while it is clear from the moment that the 'Holocaust survivor' trope is married to the 'brown eyes' experiment that the objective is to create the Aryan race, the predictability factor is offset somewhat by the horror of the central concept. Once again, the writing staff work wonders with the teaser sequence, keeping the outcome fairly oblique but maintaining an undercurrent of inevitable tension that is brought to fruition wonderfully when Nana starts choking to death while walking down the aisle. Setting the scene at a wedding is a wonderfully macabre, twisted touch, and the District 9/Cloverfield-esque flitting between handheld recordings and steady camera (metatextuality and textuality) gives it an unsettlingly realistic feel. Subsequent scenes in the coffee shop and at the abandoned back alley are also well executed, harbouring enough dramatic weight and grizzly shock value to keep everyone satisfied. The key problem, though, is that these scenes never feel quite enough. Even with the addition of a link to Walter's past, and the barrier this throws up between father and son, the episode often feels like it's treading water, biding its time before the conclusion can be reached. There are nice set pieces, sure, and the character development is spot on, but both viewer and protagonist reach a complete understanding of events way too soon, so the plot simply shifts to auto-pilot before the big denouement. It's a shame really, since the story has the makings of a very good stand alone; it's just a shame the writers couldn't take that next step.

'The Bishop Revival' is a definite improvement on Fringe's recent stand alone offerings. There is a genuinely intriguing concept at the heart of the story that is executed well and provides much opportunity for discussion, while the additional scope for character development that is offered to both Walter and Peter pays dividends since it allows us to see aspects of both characters that haven't previously been explored in great detail. Where the episode falters is in both its reliance on a connection to Walter's past, which has been greatly overused of late, and, more importantly, in the lightweight aspects of certain elements of the narrative. At times, there just isn't enough here to keep the momentum going and as a result, the viewer's attention inevitably wanders. Still, this is certainly a good effort and at least it isn't just ripping off The X Files again. Probably. 7.2

Television review: 24 #805: '8pm - 9pm'

805: '8pm - 9pm'

Teleplay: Alex Gansa & Evan Katz
Story: Howard Gordon
Dr: Brad Turner

Synopsis: Four explosive hours after being unwillingly drawn back into action, Jack Bauer reteams with a risky Renee Walker to track some very dangerous leads. Meanwhile, back at CTU, a desperate Dana Walsh faces tense and untimely circumstances, and emotions escalate when President Taylor learns of a larger looming threat that jeopardizes the peace accord with President Hassan.

Review: After a somewhat bumpy start to the season, 24 is thankfully finding its feet again, delivering a well-constructed and refreshingly open-ended episode that proves eminently rewarding. The vast majority of the narrative strands in '8pm - 9pm' are distinctly scant, featuring little in the way of intricate minutiae. Key information is crucially withheld - the story behind the 'good brother's infection, details of the events in Kamistan, the nuances of Renee's history with Vladimir (well, until Jack unearths some of it, that is) - and as such, the stories feel loaded with possibility and, in several instances, unpredictable. Such surface-scratching steers the narrative away from inevitability, around obvious conclusions and pay-offs, and helps to disguise the fact that this is, in essence, a transitional hour, which is something that the show's writers have notoriously struggled with in the past.

As is perhaps to be expected, the episodic highlight is undoubtedly the continuation of Jack and Renee's undercover operation. Annie Werschung is outstanding throughout: whether she's convincing Zia that sawing off his thumb is a good idea (credit, once again, to Joseph Hodges for a wonderfully grizzly visual depiction of the horror of the situation), confronting Vladimir for the first time in however many years, begrudgingly confessing her troubled past with the guy to Jack or proving herself to her would-be assassins at hour's end, the actress pitches every single line beautifully, with just the right mix of stern-faced cold-heartedness and introspective melancholia to delineate the character's fragility. Kiefer effectively takes back seat to all of this, acting as her foil, and it's clear that he's quite willing to do so, given that this is truly brilliant stuff. Indeed, it's somewhat refreshing to have the microscope turned so vividly on a character other than Jack Bauer; over the course of the show's eight years, our superhuman hero has been put through the emotional wringer so many times, and with so much gusto, that it's hard to imagine what more there could possibly be to maintain our interest. The effect this life has on his family? Been there, done that. Emotional tiredness from all the sick and twisted things he's done or been subjected to? Meh, old news. The morality vs. expediency debate? Please, change the channel. What is intriguing though is the focus on another, less well explored, character and through this, the effect it may have on our protagonist.

It is a stroke of absolute genius to turn Walker in this manner, and in such a starkly contrasting fashion to the woman we knew in the previous season, because really, 24's never done it before. There is a palpable feeling of uncertainty running the course of the narrative: you just don't know where they'll go next, how Renee's instability will manifest itself. The first confrontation with Vladimir is loaded with tension precisely because you feel like she might snap and start slitting throats at any minute. And then there's her potential death; now, rationally, it's clear that Walker is not going to snuff it, given that the likelihood of the production crew bringing back an actress of Werschung's calibre for a meagre two hours is about as great as the Pope declaring tomorrow International Orgy Day, but credit to both she and the writing team for making it seem entirely possible, even if only for a split second. From a storytelling perspective, the uncertainty is considerable. It feels entirely like she could go the way of Zia, unceremoniously dumped into the sea (how awesome, by the way), at any moment, even when she's delivering her harrowingly psychoanalytical monologue. This is truly stellar stuff, wonderfully written and executed, cutting right to the heart of the character's agony without ever seeming extraneous or forced. The scene is considerably moving, and the added increment of Bauer's quietly desperate observation only intensifies its power. His coda, "they bought her cover", provides the perfect episodic period on the situation, summarising the scenario in beautifully understated fashion.

Amongst all of this incredible material, it's easy to forget about the episode's other myriad highlights. The journey that the Brothers Grimm take to the hospital, in order for the guy who's been Rod Stewarted to receive some snappy treatment, is an interesting little C-storyline that benefits greatly from its obliqueness. As mentioned earlier, we know little to nothing about these characters, which makes their interplay all the more believable and intriguing. It is definitely good to see a familial verismilitude amongst the 'bad guy' element, if you will, that isn't simply an unknowing, innocent lover or mildly misguided son who has second thoughts about what he's doing. Speaking of relations, Farhad's slippery, slimy descent into 24 villaindom continues apace as he shows little to no sympathy for the Roded one, communicates with fellow insurgents and anti-Omarists in his home country of the unbelievably-made-up-and-laughably-named Kamistan (which, it should be noted, is a nice touch in itself, allowing the viewer to appreciate the story's wider socio-political context) and then bags himself a couple of willing prossies to boot. Nice work if you can get it, eh? His brother doesn't get quite such a break, however, as he's hauled over the coals by President Taylor for rounding up and executing those that he believes to be a threat to the stability of his regime back at home. Again, this adds a much welcome political dimension to the show that is actually grounded in factual event. All too often, 24 tends to gloss over the consequences of attempted terrorism by foreign interests on US soil for the countries involved. Here, we get to see a head of state being proactive and making a response, and that it is a morally murky one only adds to the brilliance of the concept. This is highly complex stuff, and the writers treat it with the respectful ambivalence that it deserves. There is no right or wrong answer; the viewer empathises with both Kapoor and Jones and is able to appreciate the gravitas of the whole situation. This sort of thing is far, far more welcome than the sort of internal backstabbing and nepotism or emotional blackmail that has dogged the Presidential storyline in seasons past. More please.

The only weakness in '8pm - 9pm's well-woven tapestry is the furtherance of Katie Sackhoff's extraneous storyline. While the actress' general all round brilliance has been sufficient to keep this element of the show afloat for the past few episodes, now that it has opened up to reveal some of the detail behind past events and has been given more than the occasional minute and a half of screentime, even this cannot disguise the fact that the whole thing is utterly and hopelessly irrelevant. Sure, the cast involved all do a fairly admirable job of playing their respective roles, even if Dana amounts to little more than a wet fish and Kevin is a one-dimensional loutish stereotype, but come on... do we really need to press pause on the progression of the central, super-intense, edge-of-your-seat dramatic narrative in order to find out that Dana was in prison for accessory to murder when she was a minor? And to have her psycho ex-boyfriend push her around and threaten her life if she doesn't get him, "mwah ha ha ha, 1 million dollars!" (or some such)? Guys, this is all resolutely uninteresting, the sort of soap opera filler that would do well to maintain the interest of an As The World Turns viewer, never mind a 24 one. The narrative trajectory doesn't look particularly promising either; what are the odds that the next episode is spent scrambling for the money, then Ortiz'll find out what's going on, episode seven will see him struggle with her lies and by the end, he'll promise to stand by her and 'sort it out' (without telling her what that means), and then in episode eight, he'll gun down Kevin and his layabout friend, dump the bodies and pretend he just convinced them to fly to Bermuda for an extended vacation? Actually, maybe that's wishful thinking. That would only take the story to an additional three episodes. We're gonna spend at least half the season on this gumf, for sure.

Aside from the regrettably lengthy and thoroughly uninteresting nature of poor Katie Sackhoff's plot, '8pm - 9pm' is a considerably solid episode of 24. The script is mostly taut and occasionally unpredictable, and has a great deal of forward momentum that bodes well for the direction that the central narrative looks set to take in the next few episodes. Kiefer Sutherland and Annie Wershung continue to steal the show with a series of absolutely stellar scenes between Jack and Renee, and the writing staff's decision to intricately explore the tortured nature of Walker's character pays off exceptionally well. All that and very little Brian Hastings to boot. Win! 8.3

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Television reviews: 24 #801 - #804 (4pm - 8pm)

801: '4pm - 5pm'

Wr: Howard Gordon & Evan Katz
Dr: Brad Turner

Synopsis: Jack is drawn back into the homeland-security business when Middle Eastern leader Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor) comes to the U.S. on a peacekeeping mission as the eighth season opens in New York.

Review: Jack's back to save the world and get no thanks for it until it's too late AGAIN in this, the debut episode of Fox's flagship edge-of-your-seat, bite-your-fingernails-off-in-crazed-anticipation type show, 24. Jon Cassar, showrunner and principal director, may have abandoned ship at the end of the seventh year, but you wouldn't know it from this melting pot of unnervingly wonky camera work, crazy angles, ludicrously OTT technology and ridiculous dramatic effects (come on, don't tell me Cassar wouldn't have creamed himself at the chance to shoot that rocket launcher sequence). Brad Turner picks up the mantle beautifully, reminding us all just how unique this show is visually and creatively, maintaining its stylistic integrity. Joseph Hodges is on fine form too, doing a wonderful job of creating a bleakly contrasting production. The outside world, Jack's New York, if you will, is all murky blues and greys, which gives the action a refreshingly realistic quality. The new CTU, meanwhile, is like something out of Battlestar Galactica (well, Katee Sackhof DID play Starbuck, you know...), with its gigantic video-screens for arial drones, weird flashy lights, minimalist desktop 'stations' and stark primary colours recalling certain aspects of Cylon decor. It looks ace though, and reminds us that we ARE watching a show that's set several years into the future now due to its between season timelines.

Howard Gordon and Evan Katz's script is ultimately pretty standard 24 fare. Once again, Jack has disassociated himself from any ties to the government, choosing instead to spend time wallowing around on the couch with the young brat, sorry, his beautiful grandddaughter. But naturally, due to a situation far, far beyond his control, he's roped back in and despite the fact that he continues to affirm that he's going to have nothing further to do with events, you just know he's gonna be hampered by circumstance time and time again. It's a little frustrating this, since the beat has been played out so many times in 24's season openers that it's practically a given, and the writers really are fooling no one with their constant attempts to convince us that no, he's going to fly to Los Angeles with Kim to happily ever after. Don't be ridiculous. There's a season to deal with first. It really wouldn't hurt just to have Jack - shock of all shocks - be working in a role that naturally ties him into events (a la seasons three or four). At least it would feel more organic. The means by which he is ingratiated into the plot are quite a nice touch - the informant concept adds verismilitude, and there's a nice continuity reference to season three thrown in for the attentive viewer - but how the story plays out is ultimately just a retread of last season's debut episode, as the guy with all of the important information is tragically murdered just before he can blurt out the most important details by the central villain: yeah, that's exactly what Almeida did last year. Exactly. A little lazy, don't ya think?

Of course, there's plenty to enjoy here too. Jack's execution of the men in pursuit of his informant is absolutely top notch, with Turner's camera angles as the gentlemen falls down the stairs providing some of the best shots in the show's long history. For once, Elisha Cuthbert is actually enjoyable to watch in a role, and it's largely thanks to the organic nature of her dialogue with Sutherland. It's great to see Cherry Jones back, slotting right back into Madame President's shoes effortlessly, conveying a sense of formidable poise during her interactions with the President of a Conveniently Unnamed Islamic Country That Wants To Better Itself. Oh look, he's the guy from Slumdog Millionaire! Well, I never. He's great here though, matching Jones's composed portrayal like-for-like, and convicingly putting across some of the more ambivalent elements of his character. The script benefits greatly from allowing us into the private life of this man, witnessing the disagreements with his brother over certain political decisions, as well as the strain in his relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife and the effect this is having on his daughter. It humanises the character and gives a refreshing perspective on a plot device that has been used several times before (good Islamic guy renounces terrorism/nuclear capability in order to establish better ties to the West). Of course, the affair with the reporter is hardly groundbreakingly original either, and the idea that she may be a mole is enough to make you want to chew your own foot off, but at least there seems to be sufficient evidence to suggest that this is a red herring. Doug Hutchison's got someone else on the inside, you mark my words. His casting (and I never thought I'd say this) is actually somewhat questionable, simply because, having been in so many other shows playing characters with American accents, it's hard to buy into his cod-Russian twang. Would it have killed the writers to either have cast someone for whom this is natural or simply made the villain not be from the same damn country as virtually every other bad guy in every other American production since about 1950? At least Freddie Prinze Jr. manages to surprise everybody and be pretty damn great as Bauer-lite Agent Ortiz. In fact, almost all of the newbies at CTU are very strong, particularly the aforementioned Sackhoff who will undoubtedly be the highlight of this particular strand in weeks to come. The only player who really disappoints is Brian Hastings, whose shoulders-haunched stance, perpetual half-smirk and unemotional delivery make every scene feel forced. His disapproval of poor Chloe's progression rate is just going to irritate too, I can tell...

'4pm - 5pm' is another strong debut for 24, successfully introducing the key plot tropes and players of the season and throwing a truckload of tension and suspense at us to boot. While there are certain elements that raise a few eyebrows - particularly some of the more familiar aspects of the plot - on the whole, this is an enjoyable little romp. It may not be anything particularly original but hey, you'll be on the edge of your seat all the same. 8.0

802: '5pm - 6pm'

Teleplay: Manny Coto & Brannon Braga
Story: Howard Gordon
Dr: Brad Turner

Synopsis: Jack is drawn back into the homeland-security business when Middle Eastern leader Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor) comes to the U.S. on a peacekeeping mission as the eighth season opens in New York.

Review: As hour two of the eighth longest day of Jack Bauer's unhealthily chaotic life kicks into gear, the poor guy's still trying to kid himself that there is even the remotest chance that he will manage to pop off to Los Angeles to live happily ever after as some sort of kooky granddad in White Suburban Heaven with his cougar-baiting daughter. While our hero's unrelenting insistence that he wants nothing to do with the disaster that appears to be unfolding around him is at the very least a logical stance, it doesn't exactly pique the viewer's interest. Ultimately, it's a redundant plot point: we all know Bauer's going to stick around for at least another twenty or so episodes yet, so what's the point in pretending? His stubbornness just becomes irritating since it works in direct contradiction to the natural flow of the narrative. Jack is effectively an obstacle to story development, a hurdle that needs to be overcome in order to allow events to unfold, and in a show that's as heavily dependent on plot as this, that isn't exactly going to endear him to anyone. Thankfully, once Chloe starts to blubbing a bit towards hour's end, and Kim actually develops a functional frontal lobe (who saw that coming? Cougar-gal giving good advice? Is that a pig I see outside my window?), Bauer mans up, grows a pair, develops a conscience and returns to what he does best. But he's only in it to resolve the immediate problem, mind. No sticking around as bigger conspiracies unfold. Honest. Sigh.

Speaking of the Rajskub, Ms O'Brien's struggles continue apace here as the infuriatingly conceited Brian Hastings refuses to acknowledge that she may have some semblance of a point when she questions the ease with which CTU have exposed the 'mole'. Once again, our protagonists are thrown up against workplace conflict when there really is no need for it; for the umpteenth time, everyone who hasn't had prior contact with Jack, Chloe and just about every other character who's played a part in 24 history refuses to believe them when they basically reveal the truth, choosing to ignore the fact that in every prior instance, they've always been right (a quick look over the case history of the place would be enough to make that one apparent...) But you see, it just wouldn't be 24 if the central characters weren't marginalised; I mean, where WOULD the drama come from? How could the writers possibly generate conflict? It's as much of a mystery as Mykelti Williamson's casting. Really, this guy sticks out like a sore thumb amongst this litany of thespians. He makes Hastings even more of a caricature with every forced line and pseudo-sinister turn of the head. At times, it's difficult to watch him hamming it up, pissing all over everything Mary Lynn's trying to do with her character's fairly average storyline.

At least we get celebrities (well, ish) of Katee Sackhoff's calibre to rectify the balance. While the season's first dose of personal relationship, out-of-hours fluff threatens to cross the line into complete irrelevance, and only doesn't because the outcome could directly impact Dana's role at CTU, Sackhoff's portrayal of a character desperate to put her past behind her, struggling with having to face her demons as they quite literally present themselves at the Counter Terrorist Unit gates, is astonishingly convincing and manages to turn what would normally be an excuse to make a cup of tea into must-see television. Her confrontation with her ex-boyfriend is actually one of the best scenes in the episode and it's no small feat to make it so. Naturally, a great many of the hour's other highlights fall in the Presidential camp. Omar Hassan is proving to be a wonderfully three-dimensional character, a far cry from Hollywood's prototypical representation of Middle Eastern politicians, and the revelation that his brother is the insider comes as a pleasing, if not entirely unexpected, twist. It's also something of a relief to see Doug Hutchison return to his actual accent, if only for the delivery of a few lines, and his portrayal remains a distinctly sinister one.

'5pm - 6pm' contains much that is commendable, particularly the presence of an interesting personal story for a peripheral character (those are like gold dust in this show, honestly) and the considered representations within the Middle Eastern storyline, but sadly, it suffers somewhat from the rather lazy nature of much of the writing. There are far too many beats here that became tired several seasons ago, the most notable of which is officials at CTU acting as roadblocks in the progression of the narrative, which does absolutely nothing other than thoroughly piss the viewer off. If the writers spent a little more time brainstorming and a little less time gazing at their navels, perhaps 24 could be a thoroughly amazing show again, and not just a somewhat enjoyable one. 7.3

803: '6pm - 7pm'

Wr: David Fury & Alex Gansa
Dr: Milan Cheylov

Synopsis: Jack Bauer becomes further involved in preventing an assassination attempt on visiting president Omar Hassan. As the crisis continues to escalate, the crew at the newly upgraded CTU is challenged by some unexpected complicated circumstances. Meanwhile, tensions run high when an explosive event jeopardizes international security, and Jack is reunited with Agent Renee Walker

Review: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the most transparent display of stalling for time ever broadcast on primetime television. How David Fury and Alex Gansa ever thought the discerning public would buy into this sorry excuse for a plot device, we'll probably never know. Just in case there's any doubt as to the nature of this atrocity (which, quite frankly, there can't possibly be), I am talking, of course, about Jack Bauer's little trip to the poorly-lit, dingy household basement and his subsequent maltreatment at the hands of Side-Splittingly Abysmal Caricature #302. Come on guys, do you take us for fools? Jack finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place as NYPD officers show up just as he wanders into the household that Doug Hutchison slaughtered only moments ago and despite calmly illustrating his innocence and using the kind of langauge that only ex-government officials and general all-round trustworthy hard-asses would in order to demonstrate his credentials, he's beaten to a bloody pulp by an officer who decides that this moment, right here, is the one at which he's going to let out his pent up frustration at years of what he perceives to be injustice against his co-workers? Oh please. This is truly laughable stuff, a lorry-load of cringeworthy contrivance that attempts to justify itself by proporting to be socially relevant (guys, legislation is too namby-pamby! All these cop killers quite literally get away with murder!) but actually just turns out to be thoroughly embarrassing. And not only that, but it's hopelessly predictable too. In one corner, we have the bent copper stereotype, thuggish, irrational and frankly idiotic, and in the other, we have his doubting partner, who, quite convienently for the show's timeline, takes the majority of the episode to pluck up the courage to do the right thing and put an end to the absurdity that's taking place right in front of him. It's yet another example of appallingly lazy writing, reliant on the sort of conventions and tropes that take meagre seconds to pluck out of thin air. Frankly, it's insulting to think that the writing staff expect us to buy into this crap. And then, that they expect us to be perfectly okay with their penchant for representational stereotypes. Oh yes guys and gals, the one-dimensional ciphers don't end here. Moments prior to the beginning of this strand, Bauer manages to acquire Hutchison's most recent location from a thoroughly intimidating group of young men playing basketball, who threaten to cause him significant injury simply because he's trod on their turf, or some such garbage. Well, the idea that da yoof are a bunch of disrespectful hooligans would be bad enough but just to an even greater dollop of prejudice into the mix, these ruffians are all African-Americans. Thugz from da hood. And what does it take for Jack to get the info? Bribery! Well I never. Those crazy black kids will do anything for a quick buck. Honestly, what IS the point in all of this? What purpose does this horrible display serve, other than to offend? Why couldn't Jack simply have acquired the information from a couple sitting on a park bench? Would that really have been so bad? Why did we have to resort to racial stereotyping? 24, what the freaking hell are you doing?

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the remainder of the episode is decidedly uneventful and, as a result, it's difficult to overlook either of these contrivances. CTU continue to ignore pretty much everything that Chloe (and through her, Jack) says, which just makes you want to throw sharp objects through the television, Mykelti Williamson proves shockingly unconvincing as the interrogator of Hassan's mistress, taking a massive dump all over the tried and tested good cop/bad cop dichotomy (what's with all the guerning? Seriously. Is this guy even aware of the word 'subtle'?), and even the Presidential storyline seems to lack some of its prior sparkle. We do get a nice sequence in which President Hassan confesses his affair to Hastings which actually proves that Gansa and Fury can occasionally surprise, but for the most part, things seem to be squarely on auto-pilot... until the last five minutes of the episode, that is. Yes, in true 24 style, after spending 7/8 of their time putting the brakes on, the writers suddenly accelerate down the highway faster than a speeding bullet as all hell breaks loose at the UN and we flit back and forth between the CTU detail, President Taylor, Jack, Hassan's motorcade, dastardly Davros (I'm sorry, but I can no longer take Doug Hutchison's character even remotely seriously now that the 'previously' sequence has revealed this to be his name... I half expect him to yell 'EXTERMINATE!' every time he appears onscreen, or be followed by a couple of hundred Daleks) and the even more dastardly Farhad, as the plot to kill Omar comes to fruition. It's a brilliantly breakneck sequence and one that is genuinely engaging because the outcome is never clear. Agent Ortiz's ultimate sacrificial attempt to save Hassan's life is a thrilling piece of television, superbly executed by the production crew, and goes some small way to redeeming the episode. But only a little.

Somebody needs to grab David Fury and Alex Gansa by the scruff of their grubby necks and remind them that 55 minutes of stalling and 5 minutes of accelerated action do not a good episode make. Especially not when the stalling consists of the kind of plot that is not only insulting to our intelligence, but is also somewhat prejudicial. Bent coppers, delinquent youth, gang-like and disrespectful African-Americans... these sort of stereotypes should be a thing of the long-forgotten past, not a part of a forward-thinking 21st Century drama series. Sorry guys, but this just isn't good enough. Must try harder. 5.8

804: '7pm - 8pm'

Wr: Chip Johnannessen & Patrick Harbinson
Dr: Milan Cheylov

Synopsis: Jack Bauer becomes further involved in preventing an assassination attempt on visiting president Omar Hassan. As the crisis continues to escalate, the crew at the newly upgraded CTU is challenged by some unexpected complicated circumstances. Meanwhile, tensions run high when an explosive event jeopardizes international security, and Jack is reunited with Agent Renee Walker

Review: A massive improvement on the previous hour, '7pm - 8pm' manages to turn the rusty cogs of the arc plot with enough gusto to maintain the show's forward momentum while simultaneously holding enough back to maintain a comfortable level of intrigue. Now that the assassination attempt's been thwarted and poor Davros has bitten the dust (still can't bring myself to type those letters without my sides splitting) - which, by the way, is somewhat refreshing to see, given the penchant of American television programmes to stall for as long as humanly possible - things begin to take a turn for the more grandiose as Farhad attempts to make good on a deal he was brokering during the whole messy 'let's kill my brother, yeah, that'll be a good idea' thang. While suggestions are made that hint at the guy's motive, specifically in relation to his brother's policies on nuclear disarmament, there's still plenty room to breathe here, with a sufficient lack of clarity to ensure that the viewer remains invested in the storyline. Of course, there is a potentially negative aspect to this; the low-key nature of the central threat arguably lent the first three episodes a certain strength, couching them in the down-to-Earth. Amping things up again could threaten to take the story into the realms of the ridiculous and, perhaps more worringly, into all too familiar territory. What with the wealth of rehashed tropes we've already seen so far this season, the last thing 24 should be doing is subjecting us all to more old material. To be frank, the prognosis isn't a good one. All signs seem to be pointing toward something radioactive in nature, most probably nuclear, given the minutiae of Hassan's narrative. And no matter how the writing staff choose to dress it up, calling the dastardly devices 'rods' and such like, it'll still feel like the plot of at least two other seasons of the show. Unless, that is, they mean these sort of rods...

Now how cool would that be, huh? Slaying the infadels one at time with 'D'You Think I'm Sexy?' Now THAT's a season of 24 that I'd pay good money to see.

For all the portentous nature of these developments, Harbison and Johnannessen manage to do a great deal of good with them. Casting Heroes and Alias' David Anders in any capacity is a truly marvellous idea and from the looks of the role he plays here, it seems we'll be seeing a lot more of him (in case you didn't know, he's the doubting son of the faceless businessman). And then we have the truly spectaculr scene in which we are introduced to the guy's other son... you know, the one who was careless with the ROD STEWARTS and is being left in a room to rot. The dialogue is absolutely spot on in its callous brevity; it magnifies the power of the visual, making it all the more horrific, and leaves a definite impression, providing the discerning public with the first proper 24 water cooler moment in eons. And then, about half an hour later, we get another bloody one as Renee Walker goes postal on her Russian friend and proceeds to slice off his hand. Slowly and brutally. It's a thoroughly sick and twisted sequence, made all the more terrifying thanks to Annie Werschung's stunningly convincing portrayal of the former agent's character turn, and recalls the infamous 'are you Marshall Goren?' scene from the show's second season. It's certainly as effortlessly cool and instantly memorable and will undoubtedly provide much fodder for discussion in the weeks to come. It's a nice idea on the part of the writing staff to have Walker be at the place that Bauer found himself earlier in his career and it certainly showcases Wershung's talents. Hopefully, this will lead to some really interesting interaction between the two now that they're invested in their cover. This, in itself, is good to see, since 24 does this sort of thing so damn well, and the last time we saw a good prolonged undercover operation (that I can recall, anyway) was waaaay back in Salazarland in year three. Here's hoping this whole shebang lasts for a good stretch, eh?

Elsewhere, it's certainly refreshing to see Hassan simply accept Farhad's betrayal and not flat out deny the possibility, thereby sparing us a few episodes of pointless convincing. Omar is turning out to be a really well-rounded and likeable character, refreshingly multi-faceted, which could arguably be the key to the season's success. Katee Sackhoff is also excellent again, demonstrating a very impressive emotional range as she struggles with her ex and his meandering through her apartment, and, to be honest, she's the only thing keeping this personal gumf afloat. But boy is she doing a good job. It's just a bit of a shame that we're still being subjected to Brian Hastings, no matter how satisfying it is to see him have to swallow his pride and commend Chloe on a job well done, since Mykelti Williamson really can't act his way out of a paper bag. Or not in 24 land, at least.

After the last hour's dip, it's good to see 24 back on form with this well structured episode. As the focus of the central narrative changes, the show demonstrates a great deal of promise for the next part of the season, while successfully paying off certain plot strands and character beats from the earlier hours. And of course, we get hardass Renee to boot. Easily the best instalment of the two day special feature. 8.5

Friday, 22 January 2010

Television review: Fringe #122 (bonus episode): 'Unearthed'

#122: 'Unearthed' (bonus episode)

Wr: Andrew Kriesberg & David H. Goodman
Dr: Frederick E.O. Toye

Synopsis: A teenage girl awakens after an incident leaves her brain-dead... but she now starts reciting submarine launch codes in Russian.

Review: Well. What WAS the point, eh? Exactly what were the network bosses thinking when they decided to air this previously canned reject from season one without really explaining to anyone that no, it doesn't form the latest part of the series' ongoing canon? Sure, it was broadcast on an unusual day, effectively as a 'bonus', but that doesn't automatically make Joe Public, who doesn't really care to check the intricacies of the online Fringe forums on a regular basis, think that it isn't supposed to be taken as the logical follow-on from #210. Of course, there areplenty of signs. Walter and Peter's disregard for each other, for one (well, compared to where they are currently at). Astrid's hair for another. Oh and there's the small matter of Charlie Francis hanging around the crime scene, despite being chronologically dead. Naturally though, the lack of clarity has led to all sorts of outlandish theories, the most interesting of which is that this hour is told from the perspective of the parallel universe which would be a somewhat neat idea if it weren't for the fact that, well, Peter doesn't actually exist in this reality. Ho hum. But anyway, kudos to whomever came up with that one... Abrams and co., you really should take note. It's something of a lovely idea.

Putting aside the absurdity inherent in even airing this without any clarity (and also the issue of exactly why it was omitted from the season one schedule to begin with), one still has to question why they even bothered. It's hardly as if 'Unearthed' is anything particularly special. This is a bog-standard independent hour, bereft of any relevance to the arc plot, from Fringe's early days when the 'curiosities of the week' weren't up to all that much, really. Admittedly, there is a neat little idea at the episode's core and the plot moves along at a steady enough pace to ensure that the viewer isn't necessarily fully aware of what is going on eons before the rest of the characters, but the execution, in places, is hopelessly hamfisted. For starters, the pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo is off the chart here, with Bishop offering patently ridiculous and half-arsed explanations as to how the guy with the ridiculous name's consciousness is able to transfer into the poor young girl's head. Oh sure, Fringe has gone far beyond the plausible by now but we could do without having any 'scientific' explanation at all. It just cheapens the narrative. Call it science-fiction, for God's sake! And then we have the small matter of the teenage girl lapsing into her 'deep man voice' every time the military guy takes over. The actress just can't pull it off and instead of being Excorist-spooky, it's Jeepers Creepers-laughable. And what exactly is the logic behind this anyway? If this happens to her automatically, as a result of the guy taking over, then how is he able to disguise his voice in order to convince Peter that he's her? (A horribly predictable turn of events, by the way). It's something of a niggle, sure, but coupled with the actress' hopelessness, it really grates. When she confronts the woman who had 'her' executed at episode's end, the delivery is horribly awkward and the direction seems to waver in conjunction, as if Frederick Toye's heart just wasn't in it.

Sadly, due to the relatively underwhelming stand-alone nature of the plot, it's rather difficult to overlook these problems. 'Unearthed' may have been a fairly decent bonus for the discerning viewer had the crew cast a better leading guest star, or Kreisberg and Goodman explored something a little more refreshing in their script. As it is, it's disappointingly average. 6.1

Television reviews: Desperate Housewives #612 'You Gotta Get A Gimmick' and #613 'How About A Friendly Shrink?'

612: 'You Gotta Get A Gimmick'

Wr: Joe Keenan
Dr: David Grossman

Synopsis: Susan turns up the heat for Mike, whereas Lynette discovers Tom's true intentions. Gabrielle is forced to examine feelings she's suppressed regarding her heritage, and Bree learns it'll be hard to undo the hurt she's caused Orson. In the meantime, Ana is more determined to land Danny.

Review: Felicity Huffman, where would Desperate Housewives be without you? Up poop creek without a paddle, that's where. While we find ourselves hopping onboard the endless Scavo merry-go-round of job acquisition for the seventeen millionth time, as Tom decides that he knows what's best for Lynette and informs Carlos that she won't be returning to work when the baby is born, Huffman rescues the whole thing from being another dead-end, eye-rolling rehash by delivering a star turn when Lynette breaks down and confesses her true feelings about the loss of her other child to her husband. It's a beautifully harrowing sequence, full of heartbreakingly believable emotion. It's a shame that Teri Hatcher can't muster up a similar range in order to salvage her car crash of a B-story, which is predicated, yet again, on her penchant for over-reaction. Sure, the idea that she now owns a strip club is enough to raise at least a smirk, but the direction that the writers choose to take the story in is probably the most Housewives achingly obvious anyone could dream of. And that pay-off... if any single member of the viewing audience actually buys into that, I'll eat my hat. Actually, scratch that, I'll eat my entire wardrobe. "Yeah, I know, Susan'll show Mike how upset she is by working the pole herself! Yeah, that'll raise a titter... and get the dads shifting uncomfortably in their seats too! PHWOOOOOARRR!" Euck. There's nothing like sacrificing believability for a few cheap thrills, is there?

Elsewhere, the writers take the Orson/Bree dynamic down the road most expected, but at least Cross and MacLachlan have enough chemistry to keep the thing afloat and allow the audience to actually invest in their relationship. Let's hope things don't miraculously improve for them in the space of a few episodes. Gabrielle and Carlos actually get something remotely interesting to do as someone finally realises the potential inherent in having, you know, some diverse ethnic representation on the Lane. Well hell, at least it isn't just Gabrielle being selfish for once. And then there's Ana's quest to 'land' Danny, a storyline that is made all the more depressing by the fact that it only seems to take a mild change in tone to turn him round to her feminine wiles, despite showing absolutely no prior interest. Oh well, young love is fickle I suppose. But does anyone actually care about these two? They're so underused and underdeveloped that it's hard to muster up a shred of interest in their burgeoning romance. Especially when it comes at the expense of, you know, actual plot progression on that most important of points that is being squarely ignored: who the hell strangled Julie Mayer? 'You Gotta Get A Gimmick' is a bit of a nowhere episode, nudging a handful of narratives forward but couching the rest in fairly meaningless fluff (Susan/Mike, I'm looking at you). And where was Shawn Pyfrom, huh? He's in the 'guest starring' credits but unless I blinked and missed it, nowhere to be found onscreen! Now THAT would've improved things somewhat... 6.6

613: 'How About A Friendly Shrink?'

Wr: Jason Ganzel
Dr: Lonny Price

Synopsis: Lynette balks at the idea of seeing a couples' therapist. In the meantime, Katherine is seeing her own psychiatrist, whereas Gabrielle and Susan are determined to find out which of their kids are in the smartest math group at school, Orson makes life harder for Bree and Angie disapproves of Danny's new girlfriend.

Review: Oh yay, Katherine's back. Whoopdie do. Here's to another three or four weeks of irritatingly unbelievable batshit kookiness. Or not. Instead, Desperate Housewives takes the road less travelled and actually dares to give the poor gal some of her dignity back, albeit at a rather fast pace. Oh wait, she's on some form of miraculous medication that's keeping her from believing that she's talking to people who aren't there. Yeah, that makes it okay. Still, no matter. Everyone and their uncle would probably rather THIS Mayfair was knocking around Wysteria Lane instead of the one whose mere presence in the frame was enough to make you start throwing your well-cooked dinner at the screen. Refreshingly, we actually get a well written
insight into the inner workings of the poor woman's mind as she confesses, on the psychatrist's couch, just what exactly what is going on up there since Mike kicked her battered and bruised heart to the kerb. That final scene, in which Mrs McLuskey brings the Wysteria gals to the hospital, can be forgiven its hideous predictability and mawkishness because, well, it just makes you feel all warm inside, doesn't it? No? Okay...

How about Bree and Orson's relationship, eh? Kyle MacLachlan proves himself a master of comedic timing and nuance here, perfectly pitching his outbursts for optimum laughs. Just check him out as he's fuming over his food or accusing his wife of domestic abuse. Priceless. And the subsequent pay-off, in which he confesses his frustrations while soaked from head to toe, in the front garden, in his bathrobe, is positively heartbreaking. It's a shame the other stories couldn't be this delightfully written: Susan and Gabrielle's jealousy-fest is thoroughly excerable, a pointless exercise in over-the-top oneupmanship that does absolutely nothing for either character and is about as believable as David Cameron's prospective election campaign. Does anyone in their right actually believe that a school would go so far as to hide the true nature of the ability level groups that children have been placed in from their parents? Isn't that just asking for trouble? And shouldn't Susan know better, given that, you know, she's a bloody teacher? I don't know about you, but I had her pegged as a woman of honour and trust, not one that balks at the very sign that her son might not be a sodding genius.

What else? Oh yes, Lynette and Tom. The never-ending cycle of marital bliss/strife/bliss/strife/bliss/strife continues to play itself out, although with the added bonus of a 'thoughts journal' that raises a few smirks and a nice little scene in which Lynette is tricked into getting herself down on the psychiatrist's couch. While this may lead to somewhere remotely interesting (possibly), it all seems rather ineffectual for now, reliant yet again on tropes that are sorely lacking in originality. Not the most outstanding of episodes, then, but at least we can put that sorry 'Katherine is loopy' business to bed. Hopefully. Now if only we could say the same about Danny's sudden about-turn with Ana. Come on... poetry? Please. Get that boy in his birthday suit and feed him to Shawn Pyrom. Now. 6.9

Television reviews: Heroes #415 'Close to You' and #416: 'Pass/Fail'

415: 'Close To You'

Wr: Rob Fresco
Dr: Roxann Dawson

Synopsis: While Hiro and Ando attempt to save Suresh, Bennet tries to expose Samuel's weakness in his attempt to defeat the carnival leader.

Review: 'Close To You' benefits greatly from its decidedly solid narrative structure. While this season has seen a much-needed reduction in the amount of story that's packed into an individual episode, with writers preferring, instead, to take some time out to concentrate on those important little things like character development and thematic exploration, this hour is probably the most stripped-bare yet, only featuring three plot lines of any actual consequence. Hiro and Ando's mission to rescue Suresh is a little superfluous, descending once again into farce and raising more than a few eyebrows (especially when Mohinder magically realises what is needed to cure Hiro of his geekspeak fixation and lo! It just so happens to be exactly the thing that his best buddy can provide!), but thankfully, this is very much the B-storyline. The real meat of the episode is Bennet's quest to locate the Carnival, which allows us to be introduced to Vanessa, Samuel's former lover, played to perfection by the absolutely wonderful Kate Vernon (you know, she of Battlestar Galactica fame). Oh sure, the process through which this is facilitated is more than a little suspect - all of a sudden, just as Noah and Lauren are about to give up all hope of ever getting anywhere with their pursuit, she happens upon a connection to this Vanessa woman and is able to pull up photos connecting them instantly - but what the hey, we'll forgive it for what it ultimately leads to. We get some great two-handers between Bennet and Matt, two characters who should be thrown together more often, and the impact on both of their characters is made palpable throughout. There's a rather nice undercurrent of resignation running throughout this strand, as Bennet pointedly refuses to seek out his estranged daughter's help, while Parkman refuses to go that extra mile to involve himself in the machinations of the whole Carnival shebang. While these reach some form of resolution by hour's end, their minutiae feel real, the concerns believable.

And then, of course, there's Samuel Sullivan himself, whose leadership of the Carnival is called into question by Lydia, who attempts to contact Peter in order to bring him in and initiate some form of change. However, this process only leads to a confrontation of sorts between he and Emma as, having acquired his mother's power, Peter begins to understand that she is to be used by T-Bag for a distinctly macabre purpose. This is a much welcome development, coming essentially out of nowhere and silencing those naysayers who bemoaned Emma's supposedly redundant nature earlier in the season. It adds a refreshing twist to the show, imbuing the arc plot with an ominous sense of foreboding, recalling the impact of the nuclear threat from the show's debut year but not resorting to amateur dramatics to achieve the desired effect. On the whole, this is another promising episode, taking its time to set things up and pay certain things off, that remains a thoroughly enjoyable watch throughout. It's just a shame that no one seems to want to do anything of worth with poor, poor Hiro... 8.0

416: 'Pass/Fail'

Wr: Oliver Grigsby
Dr: Michael Nankin

Synopsis: Sylar visits Claire, while Hiro's past decisions manifest subconsciously due to his brain tumor. Meanwhile, Samuel tries to impress Vanessa, his long-lost love, but things don't go as planned.

A generally solid episode, thanks largely to its refreshingly considered focus on the show's most sorely mistreated Japanese supergeek. Finally, Masi Oka gets the chance to prove that he's not just a cutsie-wutsie face with a penchant for ludicrously overused catchphrases. Give this man something with weight, a storyline that has some actual bearing on the arc plot and manages to deliver a whack-load of character development to boot, and he'll outshine the lot of 'em. As with season three's once-in-a-blue-moon 'Our Father', 'Pass/Fail' dares to treat Hiro as something other than comedic foil and reminds us all precisely why we fell hopelessly in love with him in the first place. For all the makeshift trial is pseudo-fantastical gumf (it's all in his head! Wait... his mum's there! She heals him! Is it all in his head? Is there something more going on? Is it all just symbolic? We'll never know!), it has its hrt in exactly the right place: it helps us to put Hiro's actions in the past season into a wider context and carefully outlines the somewhat murky moral dilemma that inevitably arises when presented with the responsibility of control over the space-time continuum. It also gives us a chance to marvel at the woefully-missed acting talents of good ol' David Anders, whose turn as Adam Monroe, Metaphysical Prosecutor, is right on the nose, and, indeed, at George Takei who, despite having only a handful of lines and just bashing a salt-shaker a bit, is one of the best things to happen to Heroes in ages. It's a shame that the denouement, in which Hiro engages in a symbolic battle with His Inner Conscience (sorry, Kensei), falls rather flat; there is never any question of the character actuallysuccumbing to his illness so while the point is not exactly moot - he still needs to re-learn the moral lesson, if you will - it still lacks the dramatic punch that it perhaps could have packed. Elsewhere, there's a nice little turn between Kate Vernon and Robert Knepper, who act their tiny socks off with every passing scene in order to present the impression of a couple with a tonne of history. Their dialogue, interactions and nuances make the whole thing lift off the page with a delectable sparkle, disguising the fact that the story is distinctly conventional. By hour's end, when Vernon snubs T-Bag as he presents her with his fantasy, you actually feel resca shred of empathy for this dangerously manipulative character... and then he goes and levels an entire town and ruins it all. The episode's other strand, Sylar's quest to understand what draws him to Claire, is passable but nothing particularly spectacular. We've been here before (for a great deal of season three, it should be noted) and while, once again, Zachary Quinto is absolutely marvellous, delivering each line with just the right level of quiet menace, the whole story feels distinctly inconsequential. Still, Claire gets a nice go at Sylar's eye and we get the chance to witness the Heroes writing staff's desperate attempt to channel the ghost of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (come on... Claire and Gretchen want to be Willow and Tara so badly, it's bloody
embarrassing). Oh, and that Quantum Leap reference made my year. 8.3

Sunday, 17 January 2010

POKE January setlist (15/01/10)

Althea and Donna: Uptown Top Rankin'
Blondie: Heart of Glass
20th Century Steel Band: Heaven and Hell
Q: Voice of Q
Tears for Fears: Pale Shelter
Carly Simon: Why?
Feist: My Moon My Man (Grizzly Bear Remix)
The Raincoats: Lola
Snow Patrol: One Hundred Things You Should've Done In Bed
Manchester Orchestra: I've Got Friends
The Upper Room: Black and White
Silversun: Lava
Brakes: Porcupine or Pineapple
Stellastarr*: Robot
Manic Street Preachers: Marlon J.D.
Biffy Clyro: Born on a Horse
Placebo: Teenage Angst
Sonic Youth: Kool Thing
Death from Above 1979: Romantic Rights
Vampire Weekend: Walcott
Bloc Party: Pioneers
Noah and the Whale: 2 Atoms in a Molecule
Kings of Leon: Crawl
David Bowie: Suffragette City
Talking Heads: Nothing But Flowers
Tori Amos: Riot Poof
Dresden Dolls: Girl Anachronism
Hot Chip: One Life Stand
Bjork: Earth Intruder (Spank Rock Remix)
La Roux: Quicksand (Mad Decent Remix)
Gang Gang Dance: Housejam (Hot Chip Mix)
Joakim: Add Me
Editors: All Sparks (Cicada Mix)
Muse: Uprising
Biffy Clyro: The Captain
Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Gold Lion
The Pixies: Here Comes Your Man
Joy Division: Love Will Tear Us Apart
Maximo Park: Going Missing
Pulp: Babies
The Smiths: There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
The Arcade Fire: Keep The Car Running
Weezer: (If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To
The Gaslight Anthem: Old White Lincoln
Friendly Fires: Kiss of Life
Les Rythmes Digitales: Jacques Your Body
Royksopp: This Must Be It
Chicks on Speed: Yes I Am
TV on the Radio: Golden Age
Ou Est Le Swimming Pool: Dance The Way I Feel
Ida Maria: Oh My God
The Knife: One Hit
!!!: Must Be The Moon
Peter, Bjorn and John: The Chills
Devo: Whip It
White Lies: To Lose My Life
Editors: Bullets
Interpol: Slow Hands
Queens of the Stone Age: No One Knows
The Undertones: Teenage Kicks
Buzzcocks: Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)?
Ramones: Sheena Is A Punk Rocker
Blondie: One Way or Another
Hole: Celebrity Skin
We Are Scientists: Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt
The Futureheads: Decent Days and Nights
The Strokes: Juicebox
R.E.M.: It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run
Passion Pit: Folds In Your Hands
Blur: Song 2
Gorillaz: Dare
White Denim: Shake Shake Shake

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Television review: Desperate Housewives #611: 'If...'

611: 'If...'

Wr: Jamie Gorenberg
Dr: Larry Shaw

Synopsis: In the aftermath of the plane crash, the residents of Wisteria Lane reflect on what their lives might have been had they made different choices: Susan contemplates a life with Karl had he not walked out on her, and Bree considers life without Orson. Lynette thinks about a future with her unborn twins, whereas Gabrielle imagines her daughter Celia aspiring to become a superstar actress, and Angie ponders the consequences should her secrets be revealed.

Review: The producers of popular, long-running television shows often like to pose the question, ‘what if…?’ What if the central protagonist didn’t marry the love of his life in a fairytale wedding? What if one of the crazy twins was gay? What if Jonny decided to piss off to the Bahamas instead of completing his Law degree and spent a decade living off nothing but weed? The concept gives writers room to breathe, a chance to free themselves of the self-imposed restrictions placed on them by the narrative decisions made throughout the show’s history. It’s liberating, as well as bloody fun… usually mostly for the actors. Desperate Housewives is the latest primetime smash to try the gimmick on for size and, to be honest, the results are something of a mixed bag.

Where the episode succeeds, on a superficial level at least, is in the crucial qualification of the central idea. The postulations, the ‘what if’s, are interwoven into the standard plot by using them as re-imaginings of the characters’ making. Lynette thinks of what it would be like if she had a disabled child. Bree imagines life if Karl had survived the plane crash. As a consequence, the stories can arguably be as outlandish or as exaggerated as possible as they are the characters’ perceptions of themselves. The ridiculous fat suit thrown on Teri Hatcher might seem utterly laughable at first but this is Susan’s imagination, her view of the extremities of what could happen to her. As such, its tackiness seems rather fitting and there is a certain smirk-inducing humour to the scenario. Similarly, the rather half-arsed attempt to make Gabrielle look like an old granny (throw a wig on her, give her a few moles) and the OTT nature of her destitution would be nothing short of atrocious in ‘real time’ narrative but here, as a fantasy of sorts, it becomes perfectly acceptable. The stories themselves aren’t that bad either. Thankfully, we don’t fawn over Karl for forty five minutes; instead, his death is blunt, to the point and, interestingly, off-screen. Of course, in itself, the removal of the character is screamingly predictable; as Richard Burgi is a guest star and Kyle MacLachlan a series regular, it was quite obvious who was going to get the chop. And in any case, Desperate Housewives wouldn’t be Desperate Housewives if quick fixes weren’t firing out of every fetid narrative corner, desperate to return everything to the bland, tired old status quo. Let’s face it – in this most conservative of stories, Bree was never going to remain with Karl. The perceived demographic, ‘happily-ever-after’-philes, just wouldn’t allow it. No, better to quickly remind everyone of how bloody lovely Orson is and how deep down, you know Bree’s secretly pining for his Madame Butterfly addiction.

The other deaths are as expected too. The loss of one of Lynette’s children became fairly obvious from the moment she started reaching for her stomach in the hospital waiting room, while Mona’s removal from future ‘guest starring’ credits was written in the stars two or three episodes ago, when she first started poking her nose around Angie’s story. Speaking of which, we don’t exactly get very much new to chew on here; the court room scene is conveniently tactile, featuring a load of dialogue that treads on its tip-toes, speaking in riddles in order to disguise any potential developments. It’s starting to become a little frustrating… almost as much as the actresses hired to play Ceila Solis, possibly the most insipid character in the show’s history. Honestly, does anyone really give a crap? It would help if the individual portraying her twenty-odd year old incarnation wasn’t as wooden as a Trojan horse, a fact that pretty much consigns Gabrielle’s entire story to the scrapheap.

Thankfully, Marcia Cross manages to be bloody excellent as usual in every scene she’s given when trying to emote over a (potentially) dead Orson, and so the ultimate eye-rolling pay-off of Bree’s narrative – that Mr. Hodge could be paralysed which, obviously, in Housewives world, means he’ll be back on his feet in two months – doesn’t allow her story to suffer the same fate. Predictably though, it’s Lynette’s narrative that proves the most rewarding, featuring another stunning tour de force from Felicity Huffman as a put-upon, struggling mother of a disabled child. The actors playing him certainly aren’t half bad either, and there’s a decidedly tempered portrayal running throughout the whole thing. The scene in the kitchen is bereft of music and shot at odd angles and with unusual close-ups to convey Lynette’s sense of frustration and confusion, but they never veer into dangerous territory that might ‘other’ the character and demarcate him as somehow less than the show’s non-disabled players.

Generally, this is quite an enjoyable little diversion from the norm. The adoption of a different format refreshes the narrative, giving the housewives a chance to flex their muscles and do something a bit different, and there are some very memorable, complexly written scenes to enjoy too. The episode falls down somewhat in the resolutions of the various ‘what if’s: Angie’s story effectively goes nowhere again (no, that clue about the mysterious guy that she’s running from isn’t enough), Orson being paralysed is rendered completely unbelievable by Carlos’s previous miraculous recovery from blindness, the deaths are the kind that could be foreseen by Mystic Meg and Gabrielle’s entire story is well, a bit shit. Still, ‘If…’ is a definite improvement on ‘ Boom Town ’ and, sing it to the heavens, there isn’t a single ounce of Katherine Mayfair. Huzzah! 7.4

Television reviews: Heroes #413 'Upon This Rock' and #414 'Let It Bleed'

413: 'Upon This Rock'

Wr: Carlos Coto
Dr: Rob Underwood

Claire joins the carnival but begins to suspect Samuel has a secret agenda. Hiro returns to find his friend Ando, but is disoriented and has trouble communicating. Samuel seeks out Emma to help him recruit someone with the special ability he needs to make his dream of a homeland a reality.

Review: Heroes achieves the nigh on impossible this week and actually does something productive with Emma's character. After weeks of pontificating over bizarre colours, oohing and aahing at her ability to see sound but ultimately achieving nothing other than giving the cinematographers something different to do, Carlos Cota actually bothers to make her story relevant to the ongoing narrative, doing something more with her than simply pointing and exclaiming at how gosh darn cute she is. As suspected, good old Samuel was responsible for sending her the cello and while we're still unclear on how it managed to crack a hole in the wall of her apartment, at least now we're aware that Emma can do a whole lot more than just make the screen look pretty. That she is a siren should have been screamingly obvious from the earlier park scene but its underplaying did a deft job of disguising the fact. Refreshingly, Cota actually explores the possibilities inherent in her deafness too, using sign language rather than lipsynching and attempted dialogue, which feels far more natural than the conversations she's been having in her previous appearances. It makes the viewer work to appreciate the scenes and adds a potent level of believability, strengthening our investment in her character.

The other crucial development this week concerns ol' Clairebear, whose trip around Carnyville (see what I did there?) actually proves to be more than passingly interesting. It's intriguing to follow the day-to-day activities of the occupants of the place and acquire a different perspective on their way of life: Doyle's dialogue in particular gives us an opportunity to understand just how much the notion of togetherness, of community, can mean to people. Once again, David H. Lawrence XVII is tremendous as the illustrious puppet master, proving endearing and bloody freaky in equal measure. Further airtime for Lydia and Eli proves to be nothing other than a good thing too: the latter is particularly eerie in his continual observation and pursuit of the young Bennet, while the tattooist just generally fascinates, enveloping Samuel's world further in murky shades of gray and allowing someone, anyone, the opportunity to finally see a little of what T-Bag might be planning. It is never quite apparent what will happen to Claire, whether or not she will choose to stay, as developments twist and turn continuously, flipping her onto opposing sides of the decision. This lack of predictability is certainly refreshing and the fact that the choice is only stalled by Nathan's death really strengthens the storyline.

As was probably to be expected, this is treated with great sensitivity, steering clear of the mawkish and overly emotional. Petrelli's funeral is a sombre affair, with surprisingly little dialogue. Peter's speech is short and sweet, a perfect tribute to the world's most schizo brother, and the use of military procedures adds a nice lump-in-the-throat touch. The cinematography is wonderful too, all fitting greys and blues, giving everything a solemn hue. It's a rather nice decision to use it as a bookmark to the hour, having no other reference until the thirty five minute point, as it qualifies all that has gone before, adding a strong sense of perspective. The only slightly disappointing element of the episode is Hiro's descent into ridiculousness, which does threaten to veer too greatly into cringeworthy territory at times (especially as he's rescuing the 'maiden' or whatever), but given that his dialogue is effectively a fangeek's wet dream, loaded with intertextual references, we'll forgive it.

A solid return for Heroes, then, continuing the strong balancing act between character development and plot progression that the show has been pulling off so far this season. Tropes move forward, characters acquire new significance and insight and Masi Oka gets to reference Battlestar Galactica. Let's just forget about those horrible child actors and their side-splittingly awful attempts to pull off an Irish accent, shall we? 8.5

414: 'Let It Bleed'

Wr: Jim Martin
Dr: Jeannot Szwarc

A restored Sylar seeks out the carnival to obtain a new batch of powers, but discovers a new weakness. Meanwhile, Claire and Peter try to resolve their emotions at Nathan's wake, and Noah and Lauren capture Edgar and try to determine what he knows.

Review: While 'Let it Bleed' maintains the methodical pace established by 'Upon This Rock', the episode somehow feel less satisfactory. There is something lacking here, a missing component needed to really elevate it beyond the realms of the bog-standard. It isn't a bad hour of television by any stretch of the imagination; there just doesn't seem to be enough to sustain a suitable level of forward momentum. What we are given doesn't exactly come kicking and screaming off the page, demanding that you spend at least an hour of your following day talking about it behind the bin sheds where you go to smoke at school or work. HRG's sluggish crawl towards doing something, anything, about the Carnival picks up a little and then loses all of its gusto through the abduction, rehabilitation and subsequent frankly ludicrous loss of crazy British knife-wielder Brett Riverboat, sorry, Edgar um, whatever his name is. The execution of this is actually quite neat to begin with, allowing Jack Coleman a chance to come into his own in a few tame, but suitably impressive, torture/interrogation scenes. It's good to see the composed fella losing it a little bit and being reminded by his new found lover that he needs to maintain a level head. The dialogue between the two is once again replete with references to events that we weren't privy to during their time at the Company, which continue to add a much welcome element of verisimilitude to proceedings. If it weren't for the ridiculously telegraphed escape of the 'prisoner' (conveniently enough, along with all the information he'd written down for them about locating the Carnival! Would you believe it?), this might actually have come out smelling of roses.

It's the same story with poor old Zachary Quinto who, despite still being the best damn thing about the show, is lumbered with a frankly eye-rolling pay-off to his very brief time at the Carnival. It all begins spectacularly enough, with a delightful special effects sequence in which Samuel smites him, and then moves to pastures refreshing and interesting with the integration of Lydia and the idea that the poor boy just needs someone to love him (a decent piece of psychoanalysis, to be fair). Sadly, all of this is shot to shit by the events at hour's end, in which we find out that Sylar's big destiny is... to bother himself with the cheerleader! Well strike me down with a ten tonne hammer, that's something we've never seen before! Sylar and Claire?! Their lives intertwined?! What will they think of next, eh? And regardless of whether or not this means that he's going to try to slice open her head again, or we're going to be treated to some more pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo about their similarities, it just feels like a massive cheat, an opportunity sorely wasted. We could have seen Quinto thrown together with characters he's had little exposure to, given a plot that wasn't just a complete rip off of pretty much everything he was doing for like, two seasons straight. We really don't hold out much hope for this one.

And then, of course, we have Peter and Claire's mysterious mission to the besieged office block, a highly subtle comment on young Petrelli's precarious mental condition in the wake of his brother's death. Hah. This one couldn't be more obvious if it strapped a great big banner to its head reading 'I'M SCREWED UP.' To be fair to the writing staff, this is, at the very least, an interesting place to take the character, to make him reckless enough with his life that he doesn't care enough to even acquire Claire's power when he's attempting to save the lives of the gunman's hostages. And of course, this lends itself to some nicely written and surprisingly insightful interplay between the two characters, particularly in the pay-off as Peter is about to be wheeled into the ambulance. It's just a shame that the set up is so contrived, feeling far too sudden and forced. Mind, that's a nice nod to the show's continuity in the references to West and Peter's appropriation of the boy's power is completely logical and well-handled. And then, ladies and gentlemen, that's it... the episode offers no more narrative strands, choosing instead to linger longingly on each of these rather threadbare ideas. Throw in Hiro again, give us some Mohinder... where the hell is Matt Parkman, for God's sake? There are so many things in the air, so many stories being juggled that we are just dying to find out about, that it's a bit of a shame when they choose to focus squarely on the ones that just aren't all that engaging.

'Let It Bleed' does try its hardest to be a good episode, giving us a great big wad of much welcome character development for some of the regulars, a lorry load of insightful and well written dialogue and some genuinely excellent individual sequences. It's just a shame that it seems to drop the ball to a greater or lesser extent with every plot strand on offer. By no means the worst Heroes has ever served us up, but it's hardly a three course meal, is it? 7.0