Fashionable Horrors

December 15, 2006

The TV series Criminal Minds highlights a team of FBI profilers who fly all over the country looking into unusual cases. It's a fairly entertaining program, mainly because of the interactions of the team members. The crimes they investigate are the ordinary gory stuff, dealing mainly with tortured, unbalanced minds which have been pushed into psychopathology.

Recent revelations of unethical sexual relations between priests and boys seem to have gone a long way towards obsessing and unhinging television writers. The people responsible for Criminal Minds are no exception.  This week the episode dealt with a false charge brought against one of the team members when he was back in his old neighborhood visiting his family. While he was there a teen age boy was killed. The murder reinvigorated the suspicions of a local cop who had disliked the agent since he was in his teens. The team from Virginia immediately flew in to defend their colleague, which they could do effectively only by solving the crime.

It turned out the boy was killed by a local "hero," the founder of a youth center where the agent had gone when he was a boy and had been subjected to unwelcome sexual behavior. In the final confrontation, all the drama -- and the agony -- was concentrated on the sex. The fact that the youth worker had also killed at least three boys  seemed to slip into the background. Maybe my moral compass is out of order, but it seems to me that murder is a far worse crime than  unpleasant sexual advances.  You wouldn't get that sense, though, from watching recent television melodramas.

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Maybe I shouldn't admit it, but I'm glad to see the fall TV season get underway. I can't say the series melodramas are of sterling quality but they're so much better than what's been on since spring that they seem almost to sparkle. Last night, for example, I watched Bones, Justice, and Kidnapped. No one of the three was stupendous. Yet taken together they offered insights into contemporary culture which are worth mulling over. One is the fascination with clever serial murderers. It's as though the public is drawn to the idea of completely amoral people, as though they have achieved an appealing freedom. They're horrible, of course, but the notion of escaping the burden of morality is tempting.  Another recurring theme is the combined rush and regret that comes from killing a bad guy. Temperance Brennan of Bones had to deal with that, and we were left wondering how it actually worked out for her. Justice is mining the theme of people who are not exactly guilty but not very innocent either. The crimes this crack -- and sarcastic -- team of defense lawyers have to address are murky and gray. They work to get their clients acquitted but, being knowing attorneys, they don't always identify with them. The overall message is that life is complicated. Another plot line which will, evidently, underlie the entire season of Kidnapped, is that crimes are often not what they seem. There's a lot of other stuff going on than just bad people doing bad things and being defeated the champions of justice. TV seems to have grasped a truth that politics can't yet admit. In conflict, there are many ways to look at things. Who knows? Perhaps some of that subtle understanding will slip into social life. And that wouldn't be an entirely bad thing.  (Posted, 9/21/06)

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There are so many clench-jawed guys on TV nowadays I'm surprised there isn't an epidemic of toothlessness. Most of them are fighting terrorists, or are terrorists. The category doesn't seem to matter much. As one of the heroines of The Group -- perhaps the most clench-jawed extravaganza on the airwaves -- said in the show's opening episode, "Sometimes you just gotta take sides." That captures fairly well the underlying ethic of clench-jawedness: it's of minor consequence what you're fighting for as long as you know whose side you're on. The repeated motif of the featured outfit on The Group is, "You cannot trust anyone outside this unit." The result is that sometimes they fight just about as hard against the bureaucratic slobs in other parts of their government as they do against their professed enemies. But that's all right, because as long as they keep their jaws clamped shut, they're living by the code. All of these guys take themselves more seriously than God takes his own creation, which means that though they're supposedly committed to a tough-minded view of the world, their shows are sloshed through with sentimentality-- never openly expressed, of course, but amply demonstrated by swelling background music. All this is okay for melodrama, if one knows it's melodrama. But I'm beginning to suspect that guys who work in government take these programs as models for behavior. If I find out that Donald Rumsfeld has been watching The Group, I'm going to get even more worried than I have been.  (Posted, 9/20/06)

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Now on 24 it's Jack Bauer against the president. I'm betting on Jack. Exactly what the president thinks he's doing has not been revealed. But we do know it involves breaking the law and murdering numbers of innocent citizens, including one former president of the United States. It's not the sort of thing a president could get away with overtly. The part of the mystery that's hard to understand is what the president's relationship was with his former chief of staff. The latter was clearly caught up in an illegal plot. But was it the same plot the president was engineering? We've been led to believe it wasn't because when the president found out about the chief of staff's actions he was shocked and dismayed. We're moving into the wee hours of the night, and when morning comes it will all be over. There's a lot to be stitched together between now and then.  (Posted, 4/11/06)

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What would happen if a president of the United States became either so corrupt or so fanatical he was willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of his fellow citizens in order to carry out a pet project? That seems to be the question that is explored by this season's 24. Shortly after Jack Bauer confided to CTU head Bill Buchanan that the plot they are trying to unravel may reach father into the center of the government than they had ever imagined, we find out that President Logan is in communication with the chief villain Henderson and is urging him to get rid of Jack forever. Charles Logan has been a suspicious character all through the series, but till now we have been led to believe that he was simply too weak and too fearful of blame to be an effective president. Now, it seems as if he's something beyond that, or beneath it. This may be a first in television history -- when the motives of a president become not just egotistical, but clearly criminal. We should wonder what effect the plot will have on people's thinking about actual public officials.  (Posted, 4/4/06)

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Not having read up on the series, I thought, perhaps, that this week's The West Wing would tell us who won the presidential election. We were taken through the whole of election day, with lots of talk about exit polls, but in the end, we didn't find out. The main development was that Josh and Donna have, finally, got together, adopting sex as a stress-relieving technique, which sometimes it is. The episode ended with the discovery that Leo McGarry had died. Since John Spencer actually died we've been wondering how his character's death would be announced on the show. Now we know. But since the death occurred as the polls were closing in most states, it shouldn't affect the outcome. It does raise an interesting question, though. If a vice-presidential candidate were to die during the campaign, would it hurt his running mate? Might it help him? I suppose some of that will be explored next week when, surely, we will find out who won.  (Posted, 4/3/06)

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On NCIS this week we had a profile of a malignant narcissist, a naval officer who knew about a nuclear shipment kidnapped and stuck in the trunk of a car, the whole team showing up in their personal clothes because it was Sunday, and, perhaps, the most pedestrian writing on TV. Why this series which has some interesting characters cannot come up with better plots and better dialogue remains one of TV's mysteries. It's difficult to escape the horrible suspicion that the producers and writers for the show have about the same level of maturity as the characters they have created. Of course, it could be the case that the way these supposedly highly-trained investigators talk is in line with the way actual people talk in workplaces around the country. In that case, NCIS is not a crime drama, it's a horror show, one designed to show us ourselves as we actually are.  (Posted, 3/29/06)

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The counter terrorist thriller 24 is a good melodrama but I wish it would get off the torture kick. It almost seems the series is more about whether someone should be tortured, and how, than it is about stopping the guys who are trying to spread nerve gas around America. This week the torture victim was Audrey Raines, daughter of the Secretary of Defense, Jack's girl friend, and all round heroine. But one of the bad people claimed she helped on the plot and everybody around the Counter Terrorist Unit went nuts. Jack, though he, himself, used what might be termed strenuous methods of interrogation on Audrey, managed to head off the full-scale torture about to be employed by the new boss lady Karen, and then set off to blow up a natural gas pumping station where the nerve gas had been released. The series would do well to let Jack spend his time chasing the plotters and finding out who inside the government has been assisting them and stay away from torture-laden false leads.  (Posted, 3/28/06)

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The Vinnick-Santos campaign on The West Wing is approaching its end. With only five days left to go, the Santos campaign, which was the only one we saw this week, has descended into chaotic sleeplessness. Everyone is worn out. Nobody quite knows what to do. The candidate has to be kept away from serious topics because to discuss them would be disastrous. And, meanwhile, poor Toby, who is advising from the sidelines, is about to be thrown in jail by the U.S. attorney investigating his leak of classified information. It's all a bit much, but I confess, I'll be sorry to see the show go. It probably doesn't give us a realistic view of politics, but at least it gives us a sense of how politics might be if most of the top players were both intelligent and desirous of helping the country. I don't know that a television program can help us move towards that condition, but right now it seems as good a possibility as anything else at work in our public life.  (Posted, 3/27/06)

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Bones this week explored the social world that supposedly exists in the tangle of tunnels, abandoned reservoirs and concrete chambers that exits under the streets of major American cities. The bones of a rat devoured young reporter were found sixty feet beneath the National Cathedral in Washington at the bottom of an air shaft. Who killed her and why? It turned out that this was a buried treasure story. The federal government was said to have stored vast collections of archives, art and precious metals in underground repositories and, then, over the course of years forgot where some of them were. But when they were discovered by some of the denizens of this shadowy world, the result was murder. I don't know if there are  subterranean societies beneath our urban sprawls. But if there are, I have a hard time believing they are as well organized as Bones tells us they are.  (Posted, 3/23/05)

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On 24 this week, Jack got out of the nerve gas laden CTU headquarters and back on the trail of the terrorist chief Bierko, who is now determined to kill 200,000 Americans, not because he really has anything against them but because the U.S. government thwarted his plans to strike at the Russians. Jack, with the help of a German undercover agent, captured a woman who sold Bierko schematics  of the building where he intends to release the rest of the nerve gas. But when the woman, who negotiated a deal, told Jack where she got the secret data, it turns out that it came not only from the Defense Department but from Jack's girlfriend Audrey Raines. This is likely to be a serious impediment to romance. The underlying premise of the series from the start has been that somebody high up in the American government has been in on the terrorist plot. We have been led to believe that it was the president's chief of staff. But now he's dead, and the support appears to continue. So, what's going on? And who can Jack trust? It seems as though Chloe O'Brien, the CTU data analyst, is the only person who will stick with him through thick or thin, no matter what. She has emerged as a rather strange, pouty heroine. But she grows on you. I don't, however, envision an intimate attachment between her and Jack. But, then, on this program, you never know.  (Posted, 3/21/06)

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On The West Wing we have now reached the final two weeks of the campaign. And just as either Santos or Vinnick seems to surge into an insurmountable lead something happens to put his prospects in doubt.The key event this week was the finding of Santos's briefcase by Bruno, Vinnick's campaign manager. And what was inside? A check book with stubs showing a monthly check to a young mother who formerly worked in Santos's office. The obvious conclusion is that Santos is paying child support. Should Vinnick use the information that fell into his hands? That was the moral dilemma. To use it would be dastardly and opposed to everything Vinnick stands for. But, on the other hand, it could make him president, or at least so Bruno tells him. The campaign manager is a skilled polemicist, but when his arguments are examined carefully, they become disgustingly sleazy. He seems to be modelled on Dick Morris. Vinnick chooses what might be called a middle tactic with respect to the purloined information. And how his maneuver will work out we'll supposedly learn next week.  (Posted, 3/21/06)

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NCIS had a more diverting show than usual last night. A lonely high-school student appeared to have armed himself with bombs and to have taken his home room hostage. But through high fallutin NCIS analysis it was discovered he wasn't a villain at all. He had been fitted out with a bomb by terrorists and sent into the school in order to try to flush his mother out of hiding. She had testified against their boss who was a drug lord.The trigger the boy was holding during the whole episode wasn't even connected to the bomb. The terrorists retained control of when it would be exploded. There were several occasions when the boy could have been shot by snipers, supposedly cancelling the threat. But cool heads on NCIS prevailed. The boy was saved along with all the other students, and the bad guys were caught. That's the way things are supposed to turn out in terror world nowadays.  (Posted, 3/15/06)

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Bones was a little off its feed this week. First of all, the team failed to solve either of the two main mysteries it took up. And, second, neither of them was particularly interesting. The high point of the show was feeding a frozen pig into a wood chipper to check out the distribution of the fragments -- a pig, you know, having bones and tendons similar to those of a human. And evidence had been able to determine that the human fed into the very same chipper some years earlier was frozen solid. The episode played on on Temperance Brennen's repressed emotions relating to the disappearance of her parents under circumstances somewhat similar to the disappearance of the guy who was thought to have been fed into the chipper. It turned out, though, that the chipper victim wasn't who they thought he was and was, rather, done in by a rather ordinary crime. I guess the idea was to show that even geniuses get it wrong sometimes. That was okay. But we knew it already.  (Posted, 3/10/06)

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CSI continues its assault on supposedly weird sexual tastes. They all, you know, lead to horrendous crime. This week the spotlight was turned on people who make a fetish of feet. A guy starts out wanting to look at and caress feet and, then, unaccountably he graduates to wanting to kill the owners of the feet. Why the latter happens is not explained and that's the most creepy feature of the show. It doesn't need to be explained because it's put forward as self-evident. You can be fascinated by some other parts of the body all you like. That's just good healthy fun. But if you're drawn to feet, you've got to be a monster. The episode was advertised as an examination of what happens to crime scene investigators when a reality TV crew shows up to document their activities. That did produce a few light moments, the best being Grissom's remark that there are too many forensic science shows on TV. Still, it was the fetish that was king. The evil of being excited by feet showed in all the actors' faces and each seemed to be trying to outdo the others in their conveyance of horror. Maybe we need a Society for the Protection of Feet Against Nauseous Portrayal. But if we got one, CSI would probably make the president the biggest and most vicious serial murderer of all time.  (Posted, 3/10/06)

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A friend told me recently that if you watch too much schlocky TV it will canker your brain and turn you into a bitter cynic. I don't know if I agree with him completely but there's probably something in what he says. I had it in mind last night watching a made for Sci Fi movie titled Painkiller Jane. It's a story of yet one more scientific scheme run amok and the government fouling up in trying to make use of it. In this case, Jane, an army captain, is genetically altered in a way that makes her virtually immune to injury. Bullets pumped into her stomach are automatically ejected and the wounds heal over in a matter of minutes. It sounds pretty good but, of course, the alteration may be leading to her premature death. So she has to be rescued not only from viciously ambitious agents but also from pathological mutation. I leave it to you to guess what happens. The whole business is amazingly dreary and so lacking in imagination you think it must have been written by a computer. There was a time when it seemed that mindless entertainment offered us recuperative relaxation. But television may be knocking that notion in the head.  (Posted, 3/8/06)

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The  two-hour extravaganza of 24 last night didn't give us twice as much for our viewing energy. Both episodes were lively and engrossing, but when they were over there was no feeling of having got a lot more than we do after a regular show. Jack returned to his shooting people in the leg mode. It didn't work this time. The former security agent Henderson remained mum even after Jack plugged his wife, which wasn't the most chivalrous moment in Jack's career. The daughter Kim returned and was characteristically sullen to find that her father was still alive. Any happiness she might have experienced was more than overcome by pouting over Jack's failure to tell her that he had to go underground. And then, to top off a stretch when the good guys aren't scoring many points, a terrorist, using an identity card belonging to former boy commander Lynn, got into CTU itself and set off a canister of nerve gas that seems to have killed about half the people in the place, including good old bewildered Edgar, who went down right in front of Chloe, who hadn't always been as gentle to him as she might have been. So, things are in a mess and at the moment there seems no easy way to get out of it. All of this took us to the halfway point of the adventure. We have to assume there will be some turn-arounds before many more hours pass.  (Posted, 3/7/06)

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Numb3rs had a pretty good episode last night. That was partially because the mathematical nonsense was downplayed. But it was mainly because the badness of the old FBI and the goodness of the new FBI was played up. About the badness of the old there's little doubt. The goodness of the new is a less certain proposition. But, on TV at least, the new represented by Rob Morrow's Agent Don Eppes, is willing to look askance at the old's practice of instigating a bombing that killed two people in order to arrest the person who actually carried it out (which, by the way, wasn't accomplished until the new got on the case thirty-five years later). It reminds one of the old joke from the 1970s about how a majority of the American Communist Party was made up of FBI agents spying on one another. If life does, indeed, imitate art, then maybe the FBI can improve itself by watching fictions which show it to be an honorable enterprise. We can hope, at any rate.  (Posted, 3/4/06)

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Somebody should do an academic dissertation about how often Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy of Law and Order has been a force for justice and decency and how often, out of ideological rigidity, he's been a complete monster. I would guess the split would come out about 60-40. This Wednesday, he added to the 40% by relentlessly prosecuting a woman who clearly did what she did out of a sense of both helplessness and social responsibility. She performed a terrible act, it's true. She killed her son. But she did it after long experience taught her, beyond doubt, that he was a sociopath who would, among other things, kill the young woman he had got pregnant. It came out during the trial that he had shortly before murdered a man in a stick-up after the man had given him the money he asked for. But none of this made any difference to McCoy. In his mind, murder is murder, and no matter who's going to be hurt by it, somebody's got to go to jail for a long time. After all, putting people in jail is what he believes in. It's what he spends his life doing. The horrible thought arising from watching him is that, as prosecutors go, he may be one of the better ones and that in many others the ratio would be, at least, reversed.  (Posted, 3/3/06)

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There have been less-than-flattering depictions of American presidents on TV before, but none has come close to Charles Logan, the current fictional president of 24. You keep thinking every week that this guy can't get any lower and then he surprises you with something even more despicable. And, yet, the genius of the program is that Logan's not a cardboard villain. He is made to seem believable in his dastardliness. Last night he decided, somewhat reluctantly, to let terrorists blow up his wife as part of a bargain not to launch an attack against the public. But when, government security forces on their own discovered the assassination plot and rescued the first lady, along with the president and first lady of Russia, Logan's first thought was to let it be known that his wife was in the car with the Russians so that nobody would suspect he was in on the scheme to kill them. He's a real politician, as we say nowadays. It's fascinating to speculate about where this is all going. It's hard to believe that Logan will make it all the way through without being discovered. Already, many of his staff know what a disaster he is. Meanwhile, Jack is hot on the trail of the nerve gas canisters, and despite almost being blown up himself, seems to be getting closer. Next week, we have two hours on the same evening, so maybe we'll catch a glimpse of where the plot will take us next. It's a part of the show's amazing appeal that most viewers will probably be glad that a double dose is coming up.  (Posted, 2/28/06)

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Science Fiction on TV is generally no more than standard melodrama with a few futuristic tics. But Stargate Atlantis this week achieved something a little beyond the ordinary. A young officer returns to consciousness in the Atlantis infirmary to discover he has no memory whatsoever of his previous life. He is assured that his memory may return, and that he lost it while was being held captive by the Wraith, a race of demons who seek only to kill and eat the inhabitants of Atlantis. Over time, however, because of the curious way he's treated by his companions, he becomes suspicious that they're not telling him everything they know. And, is he ever right about that. It turns that he is, himself, a Wraith who has been treated with an experimental drug to turn him into a human. The Wraith are hybrids composed of human and insect components, and the new drug suppresses the insect elements of the mixture. Finding this out, he gets angry and feels he has been betrayed. And this, in turn, appears to revive his Wraith characteristics. The episode plays on the deep-seated human fear that we are not what we tell ourselves we are and that we may, in fact, be something that would horrify our conscious selves. One wonders where that phobia comes from. But in this case, the origin is clear, and the plot turns on whether the young man's seemingly humane impulses will be able to win out, at least momentarily, over his bug infected self. The underlying question is whether the conscious mind has any control over us at all, or whether we are really just bundles of savage impulses. It's a query history has yet to resolve.  (Posted, 2/25/06)

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There are many flawed ideas in the world and every now and then, one of them grabs hold of an entire industry. American television at the moment is deluded by the notion that creepiness always makes for exciting entertainment. The concept was at work last night in an episode of Criminal Minds, a series which has some good acting and interesting characters but, right now, not much else. The show is based on the premise that the FBI has a team of ingenious profilers who can think like criminals think, no matter how twisted the evil-doers are. Consequently, the team members themselves are not what Mr. Average Guy (that mythical creature) would call normal. In this case, they dug into the mind of a triple murderer in a small Tennessee community and discovered that he was a "nice" kid who had, unfortunately, gone seriously crazy and thought that he was delivering an angel to his hometown by killing and eviscerating people and, perhaps, drinking their blood. Viewers were, of course, treated to much of his artistry and quite a few fuzzy shots to indicate that his mind wasn't exactly clear. Whether there are such people doesn't make much difference. The issue for TV is whether they can be made fascinating, and in this instance the boy was simply bloody and pathetic, leaving one with the sense of having eaten too much at a very bad dinner.  (Posted, 2/23/06)

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On Monday night, 24 presented us with another gripping episode. The underlying tension this season is being served up by a craven president of the United States who seems willing to do anything to escape blame. He has supplied anti-Russian terrorists with the information they need to assassinate the Russian president and his wife as they drive to the airport to return home after the signing, of all things, an anti-terrorist agreement with the United States. The American president's wife, however, knowing what her husband has done, jumped in the car with the Russians to ride with them to the airport. We can't be sure whether she has faith that her husband will divert the cavalcade in time to thwart the ambush. Meanwhile, Jack Bauer is scurrying around trying to find the nerve gas which caused the president to give in to the terrorists' demand. So, the episode ended with much uncertainty. There has been a good deal of speculation about whether Jack's unorthodox techniques in fighting villains signals support of the Bush tactics. But since President Charles Logan is clearly a Republican, it's hard to say that the program is slanted in favor of the current administration. 24 is an exciting program, but I hope no one is taking it as a guide to either national security or foreign policy. That would lead to a serious distortion of reality which already is more distorted than we can stand. (Posted, 2/23/06)

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Every new episode of Invasion now gives us more information about why the series has the title it does. We learned last night that when a person "goes into the water" he or she not only gets new body with rearranged and transformed organs. There is also implanted a kind of cyst which on a MRI scan can look like a tumor but which is in reality a pouch of eggs. Exactly what these eggs are and how they're going to be hatched we don't yet know. But, we're fairly sure there's something ominous about them. We're also finding out what going into the water does to a person mentally. It seems to liberate deep-seated characteristics. It doesn't make everybody bad, but if one had psychotic impulses which had formerly been held down by social pressure, those restraints are loosened and, mostly, disappear. Going into the water can turn a person into a monster, but that's not an inevitable consequence. In this respect, the program is developing an interesting complexity which goes beyond the white/black conflicts that normally drive TV melodramas. We can't yet say that the complexity will be handled intelligently. But, at least at the moment, we can have hope.  (2/16/06)

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Last night 24 returned to its traditional tautness, with a false dilemma being resolved by Jack Bauer's decisiveness. The issue was whether to sacrifice everybody in a shopping center -- about 800 people -- through death by nerve gas in order to maintain a chance to get the remaining nineteen canisters of gas before they could be sprayed on defenseless populations. The vacillating president allowed himself to be talked into thinking it was a matter of losing 800 lives in order to save tens of thousands, and went along with the plan. But Jack knew the 800 were certain whereas the thousands were theoretical. And he's not one to let theory cause the killing of little children right before his eyes. He was right, of course, but the episode achieved its drama by the audience's knowledge that there are people in government right now who are willing to spend lives in pursuit of hopes and theories. I doubt we have men like Bauer in our actual security forces, but, at least, it's good to have him on 24.  (Posted, 2/14/06)

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In Justice last night took up the issue of government agencies ruining the lives of innocent people for the presumed purpose of protecting more people. In this case it was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who helped one of its informers frame a man for bank robbery and murder in order to keep the mole inside a white supremist group which called itself the "True Patriots." It turned out that the informer was the actual murderer, but that didn't bother the agents who wanted to get his intelligence from the inside. The rationale was that it's more than justified to jail an innocent man in order to thwart the actions of an organization plotting to kill hundreds. Casuistry of this sort is becoming more and more common on TV. One wonders if it reflects what's actually happening in law enforcement agencies. The curious thing about the TV script writers is that they seldom have a good answer for the argument that one must do wrong in order to do right. The heroes go ahead and combat the wrongdoing, but it's almost as if they don't know why. The childishness of basing action on hypotheses instead of responding honorably to reality is seldom explored. It's good for popular entertainment to raise this sort of issue. It would be better if it dug into it more deeply.  (Posted, 2/11/06)

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CSI continues down the road of the bizarre and sensational. Last night a young woman's body was found in the desert outside Las Vegas. As is so often the case on CSI plots, it had been mutilated. It was missing a hand and had been supplied with a male eye. What could this all mean? It gets a little more mysterious when Lady Heather, Grissom's old friend shows up and takes a strong interest in the case. As you might well imagine, it involves a neo-Nazi twin brother who does somewhat weird experiments in a basement lab beneath the living room of his sibling, who, by the way, he has killed and tucked away in a freezer. He seems to consider himself some kind of scientist and is in search of the perfect human being, who can be achieved by a bit of nipping, tucking, and transplanting. The episode concludes with Grissom driving into the desert where he finds Lady Heather in the process of whipping the enterprising scientist to death, because the murdered young woman was her daughter. Grissom persuades her to desist, and then they embrace as the night lights of the desert glow gently. Just another regular day in Las Vegas and its environs. Is this entertaining? Hard to say.  (Posted, 2/10/06)

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One of the mysteries in television is why episodes of series are given the titles they are. I don't suppose it matters a lot because nobody pays much attention to them but, still, it is a curiosity. Last night's number of Invasion, episode 14, is called "All God's Creatures."  It's hard to know if that's supposed to be a hint. In any case, we were impelled deeper into the mystery of the shining sea creatures who are able to regenerate drowned humans, but for what purpose we can't yet say. The strange thing is that all the main characters know that some of them are regular humans and others are the regenerated variety, which they generally speak of as being "hybrids." But they don't want that knowledge to spread among the general population because they are frightened. Yet, we aren't sure exactly what they are frightened of. Sheriff Tom Underlay, who clearly is a hybrid, and has been one for ten years, continues to tease us with his moral status. Is he good or bad? He's always doing suspicious things, but he may be driven by a virtue we don't yet understand. It's a somewhat silly show but nonetheless moderately watchable, with enough uncertainties to keep some of us tuned it.  (Posted, 2/9/06)

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The medical drama House last night on Fox took up the issue of self-induced illness, which is probably a bigger problem than is generally publicized. In this case, a woman was taking both fertility medication and birth control pills, a dangerous combination which physicians generally don't think of as going together. She wanted her husband to believe she was trying to get pregnant and yet, she herself, wanted no more children. It put House's medical team through quite a few hassles to find out what was really wrong with her, and it wasn't until House asked the question, who is this woman really? that they began to get on the right track. It was a fairly lively episode and it raised a socially interesting issue. How much illness comes from foolish or secretive behavior? At the end, the team was wagering on whether the marriage had a chance to last. The woman still had not told her husband what happened and because of confidentiality requirements they couldn't tell him either. The consensus was that the relationship didn't have a bright future.  (Posted, 2/8/06)

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The season's finale of Surface was a surprisingly draggy ending for a science-fiction thriller. The whole episode was taken up by the main characters' attempts to escape from a tsunami set off by a villain-caused seabed eruption. We didn't learn any more about the bad guys other than that they were able to escape the flood waters through a tunnel leading down towards the center of the earth. If the series returns next year the tunnel will doubtless be a major figure for examination. The main characters did, at long last, get together. Rich and Laura, downtown in a deserted Wilmington, managed to flag down Miles and his girlfriend who were fleeing the onrushing wave. After the contrivance of having their car run out of gas, they fled to a church tower and emerged on the roof to see the whole area beneath them under water. And that was the end. It has been a frustrating series, good enough to make one wish it had been better, but marked by a variety of silliness. If it comes back, we can hope it will do better.  (Posted, 2/6/06)

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24 ran seriously off the tracks last night. In order to push the plot along, the episode included two deaths that were so far from realism they were laughable. And being laughed at is not what the producers of the series need. The president's chief of staff, who had been shown to be in league with terrorists and had been taken into custody, somehow managed to hang himself from a light fixture in the presidential headquarters in California. And then, a captured major figure in the terrorist network, who knew how to arm the stolen nerve gas cannisters and was about to reveal their location, was shot by an abused fifteen year old girl in a room full of counter-terrorist agents. She had concealed a gun in her dress. These incidents were so outlandish nothing else that happened could be given much attention. I hope the series can pick itself up from this atypical foul-up and return to the taut melodrama it has previously been. Slapstick comedy has no place in a show of this kind.  (Posted, 2/7/06)

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NBC last night featured a two-hour rerun of Law and Order: Criminal Intent which first aired on November 11, 2005. When I saw it last year, it bothered me but I wasn't quite sure why. A second viewing brought me closer to understanding. The plot involved the disappearance of a teenage girl from Iowa visiting New York on a school trip. She wandered into a nightclub, was picked up by a young philanderer, and was eventually murdered. But who did it? There were twists and turns and false leads, but in the end it turned out to be the mother of the boy, who wanted to protect him against a charge of statutory rape. The boy was only two or three years older than the victim, who was sixteen. And yet his mother was so fearful of what would happen to him as a result of having sex with an underage girl, she was willing to make the girl go away -- forever. There were contributing factors. But that was the essential story. I'm not sure it was credible, but consider what it took to make the audience even begin to accept it. People had to believe that the consequences for a nineteen year old boy who had sex with a sixteen year old girl would be so terrible his mother would do anything to protect him against them. If we accept the premise of the episode, we have to accept that the severity of statutory rape laws are so frightening a girl got murdered because of them. Now, this was just a TV show and maybe had no relationship to actual life. Yet it made me wonder whether the contemporary frenzy about young people and sex has got so overheated it may be having unintended consequences of the worst sort. After all, the attorney general of Kansas has suggested that any kind of sexual activity involving a person under sixteen is criminal, even if the partner was also under sixteen. Presumably, two fifteen year old kids on a hayride who fondle one another are both breaking the the law. This is nuts and will lead to serious harm, maybe not as bad as depicted on Criminal Intent, but, who knows?  (Posted, 2/5/06)

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Probably the best adventure series on cable TV is the Sci Fi Channel's Stargate SG1. Now in its ninth season, the show tells of a highly secret Air Force base created to make use of technology which permits instantaneous space travel. The pertinent device is a "Stargate," invented not by humans but by an ancient race which scattered replicas of the instrument throughout the universe. People can travel from one Stargate to another virtually instantaneously, defying the previously  understood laws of space and time. SG1, the intrepid team which travels offworld to explore and to try to protect the world from intergalactic villains, seems to encounter in the vastness of space the same kinds of political and moral problems that unsettle things here on earth. This year, the new bad guys are the Ori, a race of beings with super technological powers who are trying to convince the universe that they are gods. And the worship they demand is of a distinctly fundamentalist variety -- no questions asked, so to speak. On other worlds, they always seem to find disciples whose minds are already disposed toward Ori-type devotion. So, far they haven't managed a breakthrough into earth, but if they do it's not hard to image a religious revival of epic proportions. It's curious how on TV, people who think logically and critically are heroes, whereas in the political arena they tend to be denounced as soreheads. The influence of shows like Stargate SG1 may not be as potent as we have supposed.  (Posted, 2/4/06)

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The biggest change in television over my lifetime has been the increasing willingness of popular entertainment to acknowledge that life sometimes is unfair and results only in hideous and irreversible mistreatment. That was the theme of last night's Without A Trace. A marine, under the threat of having his mother slaughtered, was forced falsely to confess to raping a Japanese woman. Then, after he got out of prison, he was habitually harassed by the police and eventually murdered by the man who actually had committed the rape. There was no upside to the story, other than the mother's finally getting proof that her son was the decent man she had always thought him to be. It's curious that television melodrama is often more ready to portray what really happens to people than television news is. We're willing to grant a a more expansive reality license to fiction than we are to genres that supposedly deal in fact. And, more and more, TV series like Without A Trace are taking advantage of the grant. I hope they're having an effect on how people think politically. But, perhaps, that's too much to expect.  (Posted, 2/3/06)

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More and more it seems that the Fox Network has something valuable in Temperance Brennan, the main character on Bones. Her complete divorce from the  the ordinary concerns of the world continues to make for fascinating scenes on the series. Last night, for example, she was being interviewed by a gushy blond TV hostess about her novel, which is selling in great numbers. She was asked how she was able to turn out popular literary works and also keep up with the demands of her challenging job. And she answered that sometimes she did one and sometimes the other. The flummoxed look on the interviewer's face was superior to 95% of what we get on TV. It has taken a while for Brennan's character to develop. In the beginning, she seemed inexplicable and, maybe, just silly. But gradually a wonderful eccentric is emerging who also has strong sex appeal.  It's not a combination we see often. Her research team at the fictional Washington science center which employs her is also coming on. Dr. Hodgins, played by T.J. Thyne, has developed most markedly in recent weeks. Last night, his ejaculation to a government security agent -- "We're not swearing any damned loyalty oath" -- made for a fine moment. The question now is whether the nature of the characters can get through fast enough to a mass audience to insure a second season. I hope very much that they make it.  (Posted, 2/2/06)

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Surface took a decidedly dark turn last night. Miles, infuriated by a high school bully, turned on him and used his new electrical powers to spread burns over two-thirds of the guy's body. This got some of the residents of Wilmington so excited they showed up at Miles's house in the form of a lynch mob. Goodness knows what would have happened if news had not arrived that the bottom of the ocean had exploded in the Caribbean, sending a tidal wave towards the southeastern coast of the United States that was going to inundate Wilmington. So, all the would be lynchers ran away. Meanwhile, Rich and Laura made their way to Wilmington where they explored a huge manufacturing plant operated by the mysterious corporation. Laura was about to be exterminated by chief villain Davis Lee when the thought hit him that the cat was out of the bag anyway. So, he let her go. Next week is the season's finale. I suspect the principal characters are finally going to get together and form a rescue team of some sort. But how it can be effective is hard to imagine, given what has already been set afoot.  (Posted, 1/31/06)

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Last night, Jack Bauer's story on 24  took a slightly unexpected course when Walt Cummings, the White House chief of staff admitted to President Logan that he had, indeed, helped terrorists steal a big batch of nerve gas, which they were going to transport to Russia through the Middle East. But Walt had arranged to have it exploded while in the Middle East to confirm the president's claim that there were weapons of mass destruction there. This he viewed as an act of deep patriotism. Jack, however, didn't agree with him and after threatening to cut out Walt's eyeballs managed to persuade the chief of staff to explain what was going on. President Logan, after halfway agreeing to go along with Walt's plot because he didn't think he had any means of stopping it, finally came round to Jack's sense of things and had Walt arrested. One of the good things about 24 is it makes you wonder. Are there people in government so fanatically committed to confirming the government's story that they will do literally anything to make it seem true? I'm not one for taking TV plots as real life but, on the other hand, evidence that percolates out from the government makes me suspicious that this plot was not as far-fetched as it seemed. In any case, the series continues fast paced and exciting and it probably now the most watchable program on mainstream television.  (Posted, 1/31/06)

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I don't suppose many people believe it's possible to project one's thoughts fifty years into the future and make contact with someone living then. But credibility isn't the point of the NBC drama, Medium. Last night, heroine Alison BuBois came across a film clip from 1959, showing a therapeutic session with a mental patient in which she claimed to be living in 2005 and, not only that, but also claimed to be Alison DuBois. Naturally that initially gave the real Alison the creeps, as I think it would almost anyone. But, gradually, she came to see that it was a message from the woman to herself asking her to get involved in a situation that was occurring in 2005. So, that's what Alison did, and everything turned out happily. The premise of the episode, of course, was that time is not actually what we conceive it to be. What it actually is has been a great philosophical puzzle down the ages. I don't think Medium is going to solve that problem. But I do think the show is to be congratulated for playing with it. It makes for more ingenious plotting than we usually get from TV melodrama.  (Posted, 1/31/06)

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As In Justice rolls towards the middle of its season, a curiosity emerges. Getting wrongly convicted people out of jail may not be a theme that resonates strongly enough with the public to carry the series. One senses a lack, and it may be that it comes from undoing punishment rather than seeking it. Americans are a punitive-minded people and live in a punitive-minded culture. Could it be that a crime drama which doesn't concentrate on punishment will be unable to hold the public's interest? The episode this week had a few new twists. It involved a husband who tried to kill his wife, didn't wield his crowbar vigorously enough, and then in the immediate aftermath of the trauma convinced her she had been attacked by a black man. The cops then took over, showing her a picture of a black man repeatedly until she gave in and said he was the guy who did it. He was nowhere near the crime scene. In fact he was in bed with his girlfriend. But she wouldn't say so because she was supposed to be the girlfriend of a big mobster and was afraid of what he would do to her if he found out she had been with another man. You would think there's more than enough here to rouse the audience's indignation. Yet, somehow, it's probably not happening. One gets the sense that in the American mind the notion that "somebody's gotta pay" supercedes the desire to insure that the right person is convicted. That seems to be the case with a significant percentage of public prosecutors and maybe they're doing no more than reflecting the sentiments of the public they serve.  (Posted, 1/28/06)

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Faye Dunaway guest starred this week on CSI. She's now sixty-four years old and has the look of an aging actress trying to maintain her glamor. It's an old but smooth facade which suggests extensive plastic surgery, which I don't know that Ms. Dunaway has had. Since she was playing an aged actress working to hold on to the appearance of her glory days, maybe she was simply made up to look that way. In any case, she was the whole show, both the murderer and the murdered -- if one can say that someone has been murdered after she has talked a good friend into shooting her to escape being devoured by cancer. The notion of a grand lady of show business casting an aura in her later years is difficult to make appealing. There's something so egotistical about it the sense of courage and determination tends to get washed away. Life behind the scenes is not a thing the entertainment business should emphasize, even on a TV show. It's best to let the illusion remain the whole thing.  (Posted 1/28/06)

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Whether plastic surgery, as practiced in Hollywood, is a good thing was the topic taken up last night on Bones. Temperance Brennan, our eccentric anthropologist heroine is convinced it's an abomination, destined eventually to be seen in the same light as the deforming of feet in China or the stretching of necks in Africa. At any rate, she and her FBI partner poked all around Los Angeles seeking the murderer of a girl who had become addicted to plastic surgery. It turned out the young woman was killed by a victim of the  same compulsion but who was motivated by the traditional passion of jealousy, another emotion our heroine probably wouldn't be able to understand. It remains to be seen whether Temperance and her team will jell into a unit that's highly bizarre yet ultimately noble. But striving for it is an effort that could well pay off.  (Posted, 1/26/06)

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It's hard to know where Invasion is going. . The "hybrids," that is, people who get dragged out into the sea and come back transformed somehow, may not be all bad in the way we have been led to believe they were. It's beginning to appear that Tom Underlay, the sheriff of Homestead, who is clearly a hybrid, may also turn out to be a hero. Last night, he was shot three times in the hall of his own house by a guy who obviously is not a hero. We don't know, for sure, who the assassin is. But he may be a former federal agent who has gone berserk. The shooting would have killed any ordinary person, but one of the good things about hybrid physiology is that it's a good deal more sturdy than the kind most of us have, a definite upgrade. Consequently, it looks like Tom will recover. It's hard to see how this is all going to be wound up in the final episode of the season which leads to the suspicion that it's not going to be. Maybe we'll finish the year not knowing a great deal more about the hybrids than we do already. And if that's the case, we'll have to wait till next fall to find more of what they're up to. And, I'm pretty sure that's what ABC is hoping we'll do. I guess it'll be worth the wait. The idea of transforming humans in a way that still leaves them, essentially, what they were is a concept that may be especially suited for our time.  (Posted, 1/26/06)

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NCIS is not, generally, a good series. The criminal investigation team headed by Mark Harmon behaves, most of the time, like a clique of squabbling teenagers. Their remarks to one another are supposed to be cute and clever. But they are neither. Occasionally, however, the program does come up with a plot sufficiently interesting to make the episode watchable. And that was the case last night Two Korean women, wives of marines, are found shot in the chest. There is the usual suspicion of people who didn't do it before the discovery is made that some of the women are agents of the North Korean government, plotting to detonate a huge bomb in the United States. The twist is that one of the women has fallen in love with her husband and can no longer stand the thought of carrying out the attack. And, so she turns against her confederates. The notion of sleeper agents, who live normal lives for years before they are activated is fascinating in itself. It raises the question of how a person can resist current emotions in order to remain loyal to previous commitments. And this episode did a decent job of exploring that issue. We have to give credit where it's due.  (Posted, 1/25/06)

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The fifth hour of 24 last night continued to move briskly. The chief villain of the moment, the president's chief of staff Walt Cummings, is doing dastardly deeds throughout the government. He even has an agent inside the Counter Terrorism Unit itself, who assisted, somewhat unknowingly, in an attempt on Jack Bauer's life. Jack, of course, was too quick for them but he does seem to have ended up with a cracked rib. I must say that if the major security agencies of the U.S. government are really as permeable as 24 suggests, we're in deep trouble. Jack now knows that Cummings is a bad guy, and being Jack, is going after him right away. I expect the sixth hour to bring Cummings's fall, and then we'll have enter more deeply into the layered system of evil that's threatening the world on this fictional day. It may be that the villains this time round are not so much evil as fanatical nationalists intent on extracting their country from the grasp of Russia. But, we'll have to wait to see about that.  (Posted, 1/24/06)

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The mysteries are gradually being unravelled as we approach the end of the season on Surface. We now know that the electricity-charged sea creatures which are invading the world are not products of nature but come from a super-secret corporation which has more money than any other entity in the world. Have you noticed how ruthless, secret corporations have joined corrupt government agencies as the principal villains in TV melodramas? It sparks the thought that, for all their fantasy, television series may give us a more accurate picture of the world than the front pages of our major newspapers. Miles has been transformed from a guileless teenager to a Pied Piper who has the power to lead the creatures away from human victims. How that's going to work out for Miles we'll have to wait for the final two episodes to reveal. I worry that he may be offered up as a noble sacrifice. I will say for Surface that as it has gone along it has, despite fairly silly characterization, managed to build a fascinating story.   (Posted, 1/24/06)

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The West Wing last night had a fairly accurate portrayal of how public disasters create hysterias which destroy all rational debate. The event in this case was overheating at a nuclear energy plant in California. The Republican candidate -- a candidate who, by the way, is very different from real Republicans -- has been an advocate of nuclear energy, and all the arguments in favor of it, which he has laid out energetically in the past, have now been swept aside by panic. The arguments are still just as good as they ever were. But a state of fear has made them unutterable. A TV series mocked up a political climate in which fear destroyed reason and may have made the very thing people feared more likely. And, in doing so, it came dangerously close to depicting how we as citizens behave in this nation.  (Posted, 1/23/06)

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The Sci-Fi thriller John Doe is based on an interesting premise. A man wakes up on an island in the Pacific, off the northwestern coast of the United States, not knowing how he got there. He shortly discovers he knows virtually everything there is to know -- except his own identity. Unfortunately, the production is not up to the underlying idea. What does the man do with his extraordinary knowledge? He wins a lot of money gambling and playing the stock market. He buys an elegant furnished apartment. And, then, he begins to help the police solve crimes. So, at the end of the first episode, we have a smart guy solving crimes. Wow! The series may play on the mystery of who John Doe is as it goes along. But it needs to play more artfully than it did in the opening chapter.  (Posted, 1/21/06)

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I'm growing weary of TV shows that won't allow their characters to say what any sane person would say in order, artificially, to heighten and prolong a mystery. The worst offender now on TV is Lost, which is carrying the device to goofy levels. Last night, the survivors of the airplane crash finally confronted the "others" on the island. And not a single question was asked about who the latter are, where they came from, what their motives are, how long they've been on the island, and what they intend to do. Kate was even captured by them for a while, but nobody asked her what happened while she was with them, what she observed, or where they live. The effect of this conversation ban puts the main characters into an almost catatonic state, and if it's pushed much farther, a good portion of the audience will cease to care about them. Bizarre conversational habits have been a part of Lost from the beginning, but now they're becoming so strange they're hilarious.  (Posted, 1/19/06)

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Commander In Chief is an entertaining series, but it is relying too strongly on tricked up plots. Last night, we had a crisis with North Korea which supposedly threatened a nuclear conflict. And what caused it? An American submarine had run into an undersea mountain slightly inside the twelve mile limit off the Korean coast. The North Koreans supposedly knew they were being spied on all the time by American vessels. But an attempt to save the lives of American sailors was going to cause them to launch a devastating war which would, clearly, result in their own destruction. If countries were really that crazy, we'd have a new war everyday, and the world would have long since been incinerated. But the program wanted to show the president handling a crisis so they concocted one that made no sense. You can get away with that kind of thing now and then, but if it becomes the stock in trade of the series, the audience will shortly get weary.  (Posted, 1/18/06)

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The pace of events slowed considerably during the 3rd and 4th hours of 24 last night. . Jack was hidden in the airport during most of the time while the terrorists held sixty hostages and began to kill them one by one. It seemed CTU could never get its forces in place to make an assault. But, finally, the assault was made and because of Jack's secret message, it was made successfully. Now it turns out, of course, that the villains really had something else in mind than what seemed to be the case. They had hidden a huge supply of nerve gas in the airport, and now they're about to release it. On 24 if it's not one thing, it's another. The Nixonian president gets ever more ego-maniacal, and his disloyal chief of staff ever more evil. There's plenty to look forward to next week, especially the mechanism by which Jack will return to directing the effort to smash the plot. The twists and turns are a little frustrating -- and more than  little improbable. But, they do hold one's interest.  (Posted, 1/17/06)

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The first two hours of the new 24 got off to a rousing start, with former President David Palmer being gunned down in the first ten minutes. It seems he knew something about a terrorist attack on a meeting between current President Charles Logan -- a big jerk, by the way -- and the Russian head of state. Jack Bauer, presumed to be dead, got drawn back in because the terrorists tried to frame him for the former president's murder. They knew, somehow, that he was still in the land of the living. I'll say this for 24:  it manages to sustain an atmosphere of excitement and crisis that exceeds anything else I've seen on TV. It's hard not to get wrapped up in it. A good part of the effect is the personality Kieffer Sutherland has brought to the lead character. Jack Bauer has been a godsend for him. It's the most gripping role on TV right now, and Sutherland is mining it for all it's worth. The idea of setting an entire series in a single day -- suspect and weird at first -- has turned out to be a notion of genius. (Posted, 1/16/05)

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I can't say that In Justice is distinguishing itself with its stories. It's a shame, too, because the theme is moving and the acting is good for a TV series. Last night, we had Cruz Delgado in jail for eight years after having been convicted of second degree murder. The trouble at the beginning was that the crime, as painted by the prosecutor, was not murder but reckless manslaughter. And then, as we went along, there were lots of other inconsistencies and improbabilities. Would you think, for example, that within hours the police could find the house from which a call to a cell phone was made eight years ago? And were cell phones in general use eight years ago? Cruz, of course, got released at the end. And there was lots of hugging. But I don't think that's enough to keep a series like this viewable.  (Posted, 1/14/06)

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CSI last night continued down the vein of cruelty it has been mining lately towards those with divergent tastes . The oddity in this case was infantilism, which my dictionary of psychology defines as "regression to a level of behavior more appropriate to an early stage of development." The victim of this episode was a guy who liked to wear diapers and sleep in an enlarged baby crib, which elicited paroxysms of disgust from the puritanically normal investigative team. And did the guy who practiced these habits have a graceful, or even ordinary, body? Not on CSI. He was a huge, blubbery man whose unclothed body would have brought gasps of repulsion from normality even if he hadn't exhibited peculiar desires. Furthermore, in his non-secret life, he was one of the most ruthless and vicious power mongers of Las Vegas. I don't guess it would do to have aberrant actions linked with sweetness. The only redeeming aspect of this trend is that it gives Grissom the chance to emit barely audible, ironic, quips of empathy. But they pretty well get washed aside by the torrent of buttoned-down sensibility the rest of the characters display with smug superiority. Maybe we're building towards some hidden revelation here. But, I doubt it. (Posted, 1/13/06)

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The science fiction series Invasion on ABC is getting into serious revelation now. We know, for sure, that Sheriff Tom is a hybrid of human and something else, and also Tom's wife, Mariel -- although her transformation beyond the human occurred more recently than Tom's did. Consequently, she's not acquiescent about what she has become and has vowed to fight against it. Whether her human part will win out will be one of the themes of the show henceforward. For quite a while we were uncertain whether the non-human entities were bad, but it's beginning to be pretty clear that they are. Even Tom, who put on a fair show of human virtue, seems about to run off the track. This is one of the ongoing conumdrums of alien invasions: will they be benign or evil? The nature of television commands that evil will be the ruling dispensation. In this case, so far, it's a creepy sort of evil that has been effective enough to maintain a dramatic tension. The characters, themselves, aren't particularly beguiling. But their situation is. Now the challenge will be to finish the story off in a way to avoid silliness.  (Posted, 1/12/06)

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The new White House drama, Commander In Chief,  continues to be marginally effective. It has too many flaws though. The strain between the president's chief of staff and her husband is getting tiresome. She should have learned by now that Chief of Staff Jim Gardner is loyal to her and can be trusted. Also, her teenage daughter's sulking is a distraction that adds nothing to the series. Why anyone should care what this silly girl thinks is a bit beyond me. In the resumption of the series after the holidays, the sinking of a U.S. submarine off the coast of North Korea provided the main plot. The president was rightly incensed that she didn't know the submarine was there. Her not being informed was an aspect of the dubious loyalties of people who were carried over from her predecessor's administration. That's a sub-theme worth some mileage, but needs to be concluded fairly soon. Bringing the speaker of the House so often into White House operations may add to the drama, but it's highly unrealistic. I suppose Donald Sutherland has established himself as such an intriguing character the producers feel they have to use him a lot. The president herself continues credible and likeable. The more the series concentrates on her, the better it's likely to be.  (Posted, 1/11/06)

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Now, we discover that the electricity-spouting sea monsters on Surface are neither natural phenomena or creatures from outer space. They were engineered into existence by a team of scientists. Why this was done remains unclear. When Laura asked one of them -- a strange woman who contacted her surreptitiously and took her to a hidden laboratory -- why they had constructed such a thing, she answered simply, "Because we could." But, we have reason to suspect it was more than that. The super-secret "Agency of Strategic Intelligence" is mixed up in it somehow. Thus does television promote the belief that many sections of our government are doing weird things we have no knowledge of. Meanwhile, Miles is getting really worried about being turned into something resembling his buddy Nim, the engineered creature with whom he has bonded. The latest evidence was that when he embraced his girlfriend, his hands put out a sticky solution which formed webs between him and the girl -- horrifying them both. I don't know whether any girl's affection can stand a development of that sort. This all has to be wound up in only three more episodes. I suspect that once we know what the creatures really are and how they were made, a "cure" will be found for Miles. What's going to happen to Nim is anybody's guess. (Posted, 1/10/06)

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John Spencer had his final appearance on The West Wing last night and it was a good one. As Leo McGarry, former White House chief of staff and now vice-presidential candidate, he surprised everyone -- except the millions in the audience --by coming off well during a debate which he was expected to turn into a disaster. The McGarry role has been a rich one for Spencer. He informed millions who had never before thought about it, that the president's chief of staff does exist and plays a big role in the decisions of the nation. And he created a believable and memorable character in the process. Leo was the soul of the Bartlett White House, and when a fictional heart attack took him out of the administration, the whole operation lost focus. It's a cruel irony that a real heart attack has now taken Spencer out of life. I'm sure the producers are scrabbling to decide how to deal with Leo now that Spencer's not around to keep him going.  It's a sad thing that he's not.  (Posted, 1/9/06)

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Among the various television series called Law and Order the one I like least has the subtitle Special Victims Unit. It starts off bad right at the beginning every week by informing us that crimes carried out because of sexual motivation are considered particularly heinous. This is intoned as though the reason for it is obvious, but why it should be the case I've never been able to fathom. Why, for example, are murders done out of greed less heinous than those done because of sexual passion? Is that supposed to be self-evident? Furthermore, the series stretches to concoct fantastic misdeeds, I suppose to increase the audience's sense of horror and disgust. Last night, for example, we had a young couple who had adopted a black child and raised him, presumably for years, so they could arrange to have him shot after taking out a large insurance policy on his life. At the end, they objected to the charge of racism and insisted they did it just because they needed the money. I don't know whether anything of this sort has ever happened but it's pretty clear the producers didn't choose the plot because of its likelihood in life. They want to shock in a egregiously icky way. And if that draws an audience  I suppose they have the right to do it. But it doesn't draw my admiration.  (Posted, 1/8/06)

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Having seen the second episode of In Justice,  I still think it's a pretty good melodrama, and I very much like the theme of showing that our criminal justice system imprisons innocent people. But I think the writers have to tighten up their plots if the series is to reach its potential. Last night, the team from the National Justice Project got a guy out of prison on evidence that would not be accepted in the courts. The clencher, as far as I could tell, was that they persuaded an eye witness that he might have been mistaken. If you think that's going to result in the nullification of a conviction, you haven't been paying much attention to the prosecutorial system in America. Some might say it's just a TV show and consequently doesn't need to make the kind of cases that would actually be effective. But I think that sloppy plotting on a program like this can gradually wear away the sympathy of the audience. So I hope the producers will start putting more effort towards the credibility of their stories.  (Posted, 1/7/06)

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CSI, which for some reason remains one of the nation's most popular TV series, has made a near fetish out of treating bizarre people, or those afflicted with bizarre conditions. Last night, the topic was extreme hairiness, or hyper-trichosis. I don't know if there are people suffering from such excessive hair growth as the characters depicted on this program. If there are, I'm sure it causes them much trouble, although there must be more remedies than CSI was willing to explore. But remedies don't fit with the CSI plots. The characters have to be caught in such a hopeless condition that something horrible will emerge out of it. In this case, the horror was the murder of the hairy guy by the brother of the girl he was going to marry. The murderer didn't want his sister to run the risk of producing more "monsters," since hyper-trichosis is an inheritable  condition. Maybe I'm wrong to think this is exploiting human misery in a nauseous way. But that's what I was left feeling after watching the program last night.  (Posted, 1/6/06)

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Law and Order last night was a rerun -- Episode 350 from the first of the season -- but since I hadn't seen it before, I watched it just like it was new. And it was one of the better episodes I've seen because it brought Prosecutor Jack McCoy into direct conflict with his boss District Attorney Arthur Branch. The issue was whether to let a criminal go -- and a vile one at that -- in order to save a little girl's life. McCoy wanted to do it, and Branch didn't -- bad precedent, you know. The best line occurred when McCoy told Branch that rescuing the girl was what the law was about and if they didn't realize that they may as well close up shop. But it didn't faze Branch. He was ready to let the girl die -- if necessary. McCoy defied Branch and at the end, though Branch didn't fire him, he did tell McCoy that he didn't have what it takes to be a district attorney. I guess that was supposed to be a horrible reproach. Fred Thompson is so good as Branch because he gives the sense that he really believes what his character says, which his career in the Senate would cause one to believe he does. James LeGros was very effective playing the the slimiest villain I think the series has ever had. But the main thing was the struggle between McCoy and Branch.  (Posted, 1/5/06)

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The science fiction drama Surface on NBC has only four more episodes to go. It has been a spotty series so far, with some intriguing elements but with too much bad writing and silly behavior by the characters. The episode that aired on January 2nd has Rich and Laura finally getting notice of the lethal sea creature out on television but in a way that makes it seem like a Loch Ness type hoax. The internet, however, seems to be coming to the rescue, with thousands of hits on the site where the two heroes posted their deep sea pictures. Meanwhile, the renegade CIA guy is still after them for some reason not yet revealed. Miles's "pet" Nimrod has returned to life after being shot in the hospital where he went to spread healing balm on his friend. But now Miles has begun to exhibit some characteristics of the creature, so goodness knows where he's going to end up. I suppose it all can be brought to a patched up conclusion but it'll probably leave us with a not thoroughly satisfied feeling.  (Posted, 1/3/06)

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The initial episode of the ABC drama In Justice didn't get a good review from USA Today critic Robert Blanco, but I think he's being too harsh on it. Anything that brings attention to cases of people falsely convicted of crimes can't be all bad. The American people's relative indifference to prosecutorial misconduct is one of the more dismal features of our society at the moment and if a TV show can wake up a few of them it would be a good thing. The first story was about a young woman who had been in prison for eleven years for shooting her father. She didn't do it, of course. That's the premise of the show. And the plot explains how she was made to look guilty, or, at least, guilty enough for a jury to toss her in jail. The heroes of the program are members of the fictional "National Justice Project," headed by Kyle MacLachlan and Jason O'Mara, which works to get innocent people released. I don't think the characters assigned to them are as droopy as Blanco does. They seem okay to me. And if they get good stories, they should be able to carry the series fairly well.  (Posted, 1/2/06)

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Television Drama in 2006

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