TV Roundup

In my ongoing quest to pick out new TV pilots cluttering the internets that may be of interest, here's a few more that I've managed to see over the last few weeks.

It's not unusual for people to have the same idea at the same time, resulting in this particular case in two TV shows with a very similar premise. However, I'm not referring to the much vaunted similarities between Studio 54 on the Sunset Strip and Chris Rock is 30 (more on these later). I'm talking about two shows that have recently shown up basic cable channels here. In both cases the protagonist has an almost preternatural ability to notice details and know when someone is lying. But these two shows take this in very different directions. In Angela's Eyes, Angela is an FBI agent who uses her skills to solve rather tedious "ripped from the headlines" mysteries of the week. These are entertaining enough, but to keep our interest alive, it is deemed necessary to graft on a couple of b-plots focussing on her personal life: one, centered around the fact that she is married to her job, and despite her ability to detect a lie, also lies constantly to her friends and lovers about what she does. In Episode 1, she barely convinces her latest beau to stay with her after revealing that she has been spying on him; in epsiode 2, he dumps her because he couldn't stand the lying any more. Not sure how long this is tenable. The other plot revolves around her family: her parents, in a very Alias reminiscent move, are convicted double agents, or triple agents, or perhaps just single agents. It's not very interesting, but there's an attempt to get some excitement here as her estranged father tries to get her to rake up the past and hints that all may not be as it appears. Yawn.

Probably the strangest thing about this show is its home: it lives on the Lifetime network, a "women oriented channel", which more usually shows movies sponsored by Hallmark Cards and harrowing dramas of the week with titles like "When he's not a stranger", "From homeless to Harvard" and "High on the school run". Amongst this exploitative dreck, the show does stand out, but otherwise it's only moderately compelling.

Meanwhile, the protagonist of Psych has pretty much the same abilities, and a similarly poor relationship with his parents (although, in this case his dad is a cop, not a traitor). In this case, the protagonist (he has a name, but it isn't particularly memorable) is an itinerant drifter, who finally finds his calling by pretending to be a psychic in order to solve crimes. Since every Holmes needs his Watson, he is accompanied by Charlie from the West Wing. A lot of the West Wing characters are appearing in other shows now in new careers, presumably since they were traumatised by the dramatic assassination of President Bartlett in the dying moments of the final episode. Charlie now works for a big pharma company, and conveniently the first two mysteries tackled together have rquired the use of pharmacological knowledge. Difficult to know how long that can be kept alive, since apart from that Charlie doesn't really have much to except to act as the straight man to "Psych"'s antics. This show is also on cable, on the USA network, and it shows after another programme starring a detective with an uncanny eye for detail, Monk. However, Monk is getting somewhat stale in its fifth year, while Pysch is still quite fresh, and worth a look.

I should also mention Studio 60, the new Aaron Sorkin show, while it's still clear in my mind. It's a little complicated. Judd Hirsch has moved out of the house he shares with his mathematician genius son, and taken over a SNL clone show that airs on a friday night. However, it's all a bit too much of change for him, and he has a meltdown live on air during a particularly weak Bush/Cheney parody (something of a direct snub to SNL for those that pay attention to these things). It's quite eerie how little they've bothered to change, and how directly the show within a show is modeled on the "not as funny as it used to be" SNL. This whole bit is lifted wholesale from the movie "Network", and Sorkin seems to think that if everyone on the show mentions this similarity, this will make it all right.

So, the network brings in Josh Lyman from the West Wing to meld his high-falutin' DC intellectual high speed humour with that of the comic genius of... er... Chandler Bing. Apparently. It's all quite confusing, since everyone seems to have been sleeping with everyone else (this is, after all, hollywood), but it sort of makes sense in the end.

The problem with this show is exactly the same as the central problem with the West Wing. Everyone is so damn reasonable. The West Wing gave liberals an excuse to retreat from the real world into a fantasy land where Bush never existed and Bartlett managed to blend the intellect of Gore, the charisma of Clinton, and the patriotism of all of the founding fathers rolled into one. It was seductive, and dangerous, as it sapped and coddled the people who instead should have been apoplectic with rage over the dismantling of the country. Now Sorkin is doing the same for network television: from the initial tirade against the common-denominator lowering trash pumped out in the name of "reality" television and so-called celebrity, he quickly creates a world of honest, decent people with honourable intentions and high-minded ideals. People who are prepared to defend the right of television to show us carefully crafted sketches that... er... mock devout christians. And that's where it falls apart. At least in the West Wing we could believe that these were good people doing important work, whether it was preventing civil war in Elbonia or fighting Big Tobacco, even if most episodes were actually focused on trivia such as the continuing Josh/Donna-- will they/won't they, or whether CJ can remember where she left her glasses. It's hard to feel that in this digital, multi-channel, youtubing, ADD world that any one television show really matters any more, least of all a weekly sketch and musical entertainment show. I had a hard enough time believing that the events depicted in "Goodnight and Good luck" had any impact, so why should we believe that a colorful hour of glitter and gags really matters outside a tiny group of self-deluding self-important overpaid TV execs?

I will of course keep watching the show when it officially airs in the autumn, and keenly compare the more sit-com focused effort from Tina Fey. It has the sharpness of writing from the West Wing, and a few killer lines. But as the 20th century concept of "network television" goes through its extended death throes, and new shows can get cancelled before the first episode has finished airing, it's hard not to feel this Studio 60 jumped the shark before the opening credits even ran.

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