Miscellaneous Programs

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I've been watching Bones on Fox because I know T. J. Thyne,  who plays one of the secondary characters. I'm not sure I would have gotten into it on its intrinsic merits, but now that I have I've begun to get interested in the main character -- a young forensic anthropologist played by Emily Deschanel.  She is so intensely concentrated on her work she's almost completely unaware of the culture in which she exists. Mention a popular song to her, or a TV show, and all you get is a blank stare. She is very frank, very scientific and completely unaware of how she affects ordinary people. Her closest relationships are not with the living but with the bones she examines amorously. Nothing other people would regard as icky or gruesome bothers her in any way and odors which leave her coworkers gasping waft by her unnoticed -- unless, of course, they offer scientific evidence. She is not a cuddly character but I think over time she could become fascinating. And whether she does will determine the success of the series.  (Posted, 11/30/05)

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Can Nim really be dead? That's the question those of us who watch the intermittently silly and fascinating series Surface on NBC must be asking ourselves after last night's episode. Nim got shot in the hospital after having tried to heal Miles's wounds. When somebody in the group I was watching with asked, "Why did he shoot him?" somebody else answered, "Because he's a cop with a gun and that's what they do." I thought this was a mistaken analysis because if the actor had been behaving like a real cop he would have shot Nim forty times. In any case, Nim, the strange little creature from the sea, is now in the morgue and a scientist is about to perform an autopsy on him. I have hopes, though, that he will revive himself just in time. Meanwhile Laura and Rich have been rescued from  the cold and raging sea by a helicopter crew. But have they really been rescued or have they fallen into the clutches of the diabolical renegade CIA agent? I suspect the latter. In shows like this, the CIA is scarcely ever a heroic outfit.I have faith, nevertheless, that virtue will triumph, though I think it will happen very slowly.  (Posted, 11/29/05)

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The Fox medical drama House -- named after the main character -- is notable for only one reason, but that reason is fairly significant. Dr. House has not one smidgen of sentimentalism in his makeup. He is not smarmy about children, not Hallmark Cardy, not respectful of family values, not weepy about medical tragedies, not impressed by piety of any sort. One can imagine him not growing soulful at the mention of the term "nine-eleven." This is a wonderful quality and seeing it portrayed on the screen is like taking a potent antacid when one is in the grip of a terrific stomach ache. It reminds you of how much we are pressed down in America by the torrents of rhetorical saccharine which sweep over us every day. American addiction to overweening pathos almost constitutes a violation of the First Amendment and it's ironic that we are getting a slight restoration of lost freedom from a series on the Fox network.  (Posted, 11/23/05)

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The NBC web site says that Surface is  "entertainment for all ages in the tradition of ET and Close Encounters." Well, maybe. But the "all ages" part strikes me as dubious. When you have a new form of sea creature slicing men to bits and when a renegade Defense Department official is murdering anyone who might reveal its presence, it might be a bit much for the six-year-olds in the audience. I've watched the series from the beginning and I still don't know just what to make of it. At times it seems intriguing and at others impossibly tedious and silly. One plot line has a stubborn fourteen year-old boy who has made a pet of one of the creatures -- which resembles a small dragon. But the other plot line has revealed a deep hole in the bottom of the ocean where versions of the creature considerably bigger than the boy's pet are spawning like bunnies. Maybe the whole business can turn out innocently but at the moment I don't see how.  (Posted, 11/22/05)

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I resisted for a while the new adventure drama, E-Ring, starring Benjamin Bratt, but now that I've watched it a couple of times, it has drawn me in. I have to say that I generally like counter-terrorist organizations more on TV than I do in real life, and in this fictional version of the adventures of the Delta Force-- a kind of army swat team -- the producers have managed to generate some of the old-fashioned faith in the goodness of U.S operatives we used to have before we knew what was going on. It's not that the series is childishly naive, in the mode of Walker, Texas Ranger, or anything of that sort. In fact, it projects inter-agency struggles in rather vivid terms, and is not above depicting venomous C.I.A. officials and fatuous F.B.I. agents. But the particular army team at the core of the show is made up of hard-headed realists who do what is right out of a gritty self-respect, regardless of how well it conforms to official policies. Benjamin Bratt, as the leader of an action team, rises above the boyish charm he has shown before and becomes the kind of guy you really wouldn't want to go up against if you had done something wrong. And he's well supported, particularly by Dennis Hopper as the kind of commanding officer every soldier wishes he had, and by Kelly Rutherford as a ravishingly cool Pentagon lawyer who's willing to look the other way when she needs to.  I haven't heard how the show is doing so far. But it deserves more viewers than most of the adventure yarns on TV.  (Posted, 11/17/05)

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I am of mixed mind about Commander In Chief. I like it because of the general personality of Geena Davis, but the situations the writers put her into as president strike me as contrived, and the actions of some of the people around her don't make sense. The worst thing is the president's having to deal with two bratty teenagers who are so obnoxious they raise questions about her abilities as a mother. Why has she not taught them better? And, then, there's her husband. Sometimes he seems like a reasonable man and at others he behaves like an idiot. Last night, for example, he persuaded his wife that he needed an official position in order really to be of use to her as a advisor. So, she made up a title for him, and brought him into a meeting of her close advisors. An intelligent person, in that position, would be quiet for a while and defer to others who had been in their jobs long enough to know what's going on. But not this First Gentleman. Right from the start, he began to pop off and seriously offended the president's chief of staff. It would be very hard for a person to function as this character is trying to function. At the very least it would require immense discretion on his part. But instead, the producers of the show are having him portrayed as a man with no political sense at all. They need to get him straightened out if the series is not to become irritating. They also need to figure out who the Speaker of the House is. Sometimes he's so diabolical he seems subhuman. At others he is shown to be a moderately sympathetic character -- I guess. The whole series has too many glitches. But it remains good enough to keep me watching for a while. (Posted, 11/16/05)

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This seems to be the science fiction TV year and most of the new series in that vein are fairly limp. The notion of alien invasion has so invaded the minds of TV writers they seem unable to think of anything else. The series Surface is a  good example. Creatures from space have plummeted into the ocean. It's hard to know what their nature is, except that they can bring up from within themselves immense amounts of energy. This is all very well but the humans who are trying to figure them out are not very entrancing. There's the sexy young woman scientist who first saw them, and a Louisiana guy whose brother got dragged away by one, and a kid who found one of the creatures' eggs and hatched it. The kid is not too bad, although his actions are inexplicable and he's part of the dopiest family TV ever set forth. The others are merely droopy. This may be the only report on Surface you'll ever get from me. I'm not sure I'm going to watch it anymore.  (Posted, 10/4/05)

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I happened, recently, to see one of the episodes of ABC's depiction of the early Roman Empire (July 19, 2005). I don't understand the purpose of such productions. Its relation to the actual history of the period is so remote it's almost nonexistent. The depiction of Octavian -- or Augustus as he came to be called --  is about as opposite to the historical character as can be imagined. The Octavian of history was an intensely ambitious young man who struggled determinedly for fourteen years to become the de facto head of state. ABC's version, by contrast, is a dreamy boy who would like to forget about politics. Tinkering with history might be all right if the consequence was impressive drama. But this is about as flaccid a story as can be imagined. Who can care about it? Who can enjoy it? It's a thoroughly empty endeavor.

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If we can believe TV and movies lately, idealistic young Americans who go to Africa and get mixed up in politics there will be turned into radical assassins. That was the theme of the final Without a Trace of the season (May 18, 2005). It was actually a pretty good episode, but seeing it was the last one, it had to end with a cliffhanger. In the final ten seconds, the two young male agents of our heroic FBI team seemed to be blasted to bits by a ruthless, fascist African security team. Are they both dead? We'll have to wait till next season to find out. I don't know how much of my summer I'm going to spend wondering about it. I like them both, fairly well. And, yet, their continuation is not a vital issue for me. They do raise the question, though, of what would happen if foreign "policemen" came here and killed American policemen. Maybe it has already happened and we just don't know about it. If we can credit TV, we don't know even a tenth of what's going on among the widespread law enforcement agencies of the world. And I suspect the average citizen places more trust in TV depictions than anybody official can imagine.

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Whenever TV screenwriters can't think of anything else they fall back on dreams. It's not a device I particularly like. On Without A Trace,  one of the recent plots lines deals with the personal problems of FBI section chief Jack Malone. He has been recently divorced and his wife has taken his daughters to another city. In the episode for May 12th, we find Jack searching for an elderly man who looks surprisingly like himself in heavy makeup. That's because it is him in heavy makeup. As the story proceeds, we find Jack doing bizarre things and, gradually, the thought enters our heads, that this can't be real. And, it's not real; it's a dream. Jack's subconscious is projecting his fears for the future, when his daughters will be grown-up and leading miserable lives because he deserted them. In the end, he is led to a kind of revelation and he wakes up, supposedly healed in some way. I don't think the revelation is very good. But maybe that's because I don't think dreams are hidden wisdom. Just shows how psychologically skeptical I am, I guess.

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House, the new medical drama on Fox, has some elements that could make it into an entertaining series. The lead character is irascible and sardonic, always refreshing qualities on American TV which tends toward overdoses of Hallmark Card sentimentality. But, on the other hand, he's silly, and that's a feature unlikely to play well over time. On the episode for May 3rd, he saved the life of a twelve year old athlete by refusing to accept the conventional diagnosis of hepatitis, discovering that she was afflicted by a rare disorder associated with pregnancy -- a condition not normally suspected in a girl of that age. In the process, he insulted everyone he encountered, childishly and uselessly. I suppose the producers are trying to show that diagnostic genius isn't necessarily linked to a sparkling personality. But they could do it effectively without turning their hero into a twit. And, then, they might get a series that would last for a while.

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Perhaps I shouldn't admit this but I sat last night (March 17, 2005) for two hours and watched a movie on the Sci-Fi Channel about a man who got turned into a mosquito. I wouldn't go so far as to say you can't make a good film with that theme, but I will say this wasn't it. The problem with this man-mosquito was he lacked interest. All he did was go around killing people, and though he was very good at it he never varied his method. So after a while, he became a big bore. In the end, he got electrocuted, which, I suppose, was the only way to do away with him because he got shot about fifty thousand times and not a one of the bullets fazed him. I guess you could say this was one of those going-farther-than-man-was-meant-to-go films. They've been a favorite of Hollywood for many years, though whether they've discouraged actual man-mosquito mergers I can't say. At any rate, if you have a choice between this movie and Wife Swap, you may want to go with the latter. (When, by the way, are they going to get around to a real wife swap? I'd watch that).

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I had fallen into the habit of regarding Friday night at ten o'clock as a TV garbage dump. But, gradually, NBC's offering, Medical Investigation, has begun to win me over -- at least a little bit. It's about a team from the National Institutes of Health which goes out to investigate mysterious illnesses the local medical authorities can't decipher. One the good things about the program is that the heroes are intent on saving lives rather than taking them, and that's getting to be a rarity. The program last night (January 14, 2005) involved an outbreak of smallpox in Montana. Where could such a thing come from? Smallpox is supposed to have been eradicated. The first suspect was thought to be a domestic terrorist, who had somehow figured out to produce a strain of the smallpox virus in his lab. But when he was finally found, it turned out that all he was doing was making illegal drugs. The break though came when it was discovered that one of the victims, a Native American, had indeed been afflicted with smallpox. But he had been dead for more than two hundred years. His body was found along a stream bed, where it had been deposited after being washed out of a glacier in the mountains above. I'll admit that it seems questionable that the smallpox virus could remain lethal for two centuries in a frozen body. But, still, it was an intriguing explanation and it demonstrated how false leads can take over an investigation and blind people to the actual problem. That's an important scientific truth. Medical Investigation has enough going for it that it deserves watching now and then -- that is, if you don't have something really good to do.

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I decided that in 2005, I ought to become more systematic in my TV watching. So, on Sunday morning, January 2nd, I sat down with my newspaper's television guide and went through it to see which programs I really wanted to see over the coming week. There weren't very many, only four, with two others I thought might be bearable. Problem is, two of the four run at the same time. Consequently, there will be only three shows this week that I'll watch because I actually want to (I don't have TIVO). What are they? On Sunday night on NBC there's American Dreams. I know it's soap opera but, still, I've gotten interested in the family and I want to see how JJ will respond to being home from Vietnam. On Wednesday come the other two, both on ABC. First, there's a new episode of Lost, which I admit is a guilty pleasure, and, then, at nine, the season opener of Alias. Why I want to see it I'm not sure, except, perhaps, that Jennifer Garner has taken the female action hero in an interesting direction. And, that's it. I'll watch more, of course, idly. There may be a movie on HBO to catch me up. But TV has actually little vigorous appeal. Nobody was ever more right about anything than Newton Minnow was. And not much has changed since he got it right in 1961. That we regularly watch so much bad programming may be the most telling thing about us in this first decade of a new century.

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Most of the time, it's fairly easy to maintain an emotional separation between melodrama and actual experience. But the episode of Cold Case on Sunday night (November 21, 2004) dragged the two uncomfortably close together. The past crime in this instance was a murder from 1953, which had not been investigated very carefully because it was assumed at the time that the victim was a Communist and, therefore, probably deserved what he got. As the story unfolded, it turned out that the murdered man was not a Communist but an idealistic school teacher who attended several desegregation meetings in Philadelphia. That was, then, enough to make him a very suspect person and a target for the House Un-American Activities Committee. After he received a subpoena to testify, his life began to unravel. It was the subpoena which led directly to his death. We are such a self-congratulatory people that we don't like to be reminded that things like this have happened over and over, and over in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And when we do hear about them, it's usually about something from the past. I wonder how many years we'll have to wait before a popular TV show offers a depiction of a life ruined by the actions of the outgoing Attorney General of the United States?

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On Sunday night (November 14, 2004), I got lured into watching the CBS movie Category 6: Day of Destruction. I say "lured" because I didn't know that the episode on Sunday was just the first part of the film. I began to be apprehensive when I noticed there were only a few minutes left and the multitude of sub-plots were nowhere near being wound up. This is a natural disaster film and in most respects it conforms to the norm. It tells us little stories about people who are in the path of Mother Nature in a bad mood. Yet, it does have one note of distinctiveness. It makes the point as effectively as I've seen that our social and technical networks are at the point of overload and breakdown. And, it also says, unmistakably, that the reason for their condition is greed. A film pushing that message across to the public deserves a certain respect despite its employment of standard, hackneyed melodrama.

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In the movie land of my youth, it would have been unthinkable to see a woman get punched in the face by a man's fist. Even when men got punched there were no discernable results -- certainly no blood or bruising. We've advanced monumentally since those times. Last night on Without a Trace (November 12, 2004) FBI agent Samantha was tied to a chair and beaten so viciously by a drug lord that I'm sure any real woman would have been killed. As it was, Samantha was left looking a bit of mess but certainly not as mangled as would actually have been the case. She, of course, got to kill the guy a little bit after the beating, which was sweet. I'm left wondering whether the depictions of violence in the present are more realistic than the depictions in the past. Then, human faces were impervious to bruising. Now, human bodies, though readily bloodied, are often impervious to being killed. Is this what we call progress?

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I predicted that the conflict between Vivian and Jack was going to continue as a story line on Without A Trace,  and last night (October 14, 2004), at least, my prediction was borne out. Vivian, in the car alone with Jack, delivered one of the harshest comments  a TV hero has ever made about another. Jack, for the moment, appears merely saddened and bemused. But surely, at some time, he'll get fed up and point out that Vivian may not have a complete monopoly on indignant rectitude. I suppose we should await his response with interest, but, meanwhile, another issue rises -- does this psychological exercise in hurt feelings add to the quality of the program?

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The crime drama Without a Trace is, among other things, an attempt to humanize the FBI. The agents are shown as vulnerable people who are troubled by ambition and not at all sure about their personal relations. The hard faced, nothing-but-business-guys have no place on this team of missing persons experts. The closest to the tradition image is Martin Fitzgerald, but as played by Eric Close, he presents such a little boy persona it's difficult to think of him as a tough guy. To get the season off to an intriguing start there was a question about whether Jack Malone would continue to head the team. If he didn't, his place would be taken by Vivian Johnson, who is very desirous of having it. But in the episode for October 7th, that issue was resolved and Jack is back in the driver's seat. How Vivian will respond will be left for future programs, but we can be pretty sure her resentment will constitute a sub-theme in the near future. A realistic factor of the series is that the team doesn't always save the person they're seeking. Last night, she was a former abortion clinic bomber turned nurse, who had to die as a function of cosmic justice -- or something like that. And, the really bad guy seems to have got away.

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A deep vein of juvenile sensibility runs through modern TV melodrama. Nowhere is it more evident than on Navy NCIS, a series about a team of naval criminal investigators. The two main assistants to team leader Jethro Gibbs -- Caitlin Todd and Anthony DiNozza -- regularly behave like spoiled brats, and their relationship to one another is similar to squabbling kids in the back seat on a long car trip. This is supposed to provide comic relief. All it actually provides is silliness. The only adult relationship on the program occurs between Jethro and his lab scientist Abby Sciuto, a neo-Goth with other than conventional tastes. Jethro respects her work and she's not interested in bowing down to anybody. So, when they talk to one another they make sense. The plotting on the series is generally competent. Some of the cases they take up are actually interesting. But the childish interplay between two of the principals is constantly threatening to make the program unwatchable.

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A country house near the English sea coast.. A mother who had an affair with the doctor while her husband was dying. A son who found out about it and years later is still bitter. A younger son who is hooked on cocaine. And murder. These were the ingredients of an Inspector Lynley Mystery, which I saw last night (September 19, 2004) on PBS. It was moderately entertaining, perhaps because I've been to several of the places in Cornwall shown in the film (or, at least, to places very much like them). I'm not sure, though, what a young American could make of it. The grand lure of traditional England, which was the most exciting thing I could imagine when I was a boy, may be fading. It's too bad, in a way. There was something amazingly solid about it, even when the most kinky and bizarre stuff was going on. That, indeed, was the fascination of the England of my imagination -- a combination of the weird and the respectable, and never being able, quite, to sort them out. I eventually had the chance to spend quite a few nights in country houses, and the experience was one of the few things that lived up in reality to what I had anticipated.

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I went to the Netscape TV page (May 28, 2004) where I was confronted immediately with this question: "Who's the Hottest Crime Fighting TV Babe?" Naturally, I had to know. So I clicked the link. But when I got to the page, there were no names. Instead, I discovered that I'm supposed to name the woman who will head the list. I did find out, though, that all the qualifiers will have certain attributes. They're tough as nails. They kick butt. They take names. I'm not sure what's involved in taking names but I guess the first two are fairly clear. For some reason, all this reduced my compulsion to know about the hottest crime-fighting TV babe. I'm not sure I care any longer who she is. Yet, somebody must care or else why would a web page be devoted to the subject? The main suspicion the World Wide Web has planted in my thoughts is that I may not be with it.

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I watched the final episode of The Practice.  It wasn't bad. The legal case involved a wheel chair fetish, which I thought was appropriate. If The Practice has had any redeeming social value it lies in reminding us that not only are there such things as fetishes but that they can have their charming aspects. My dictionary informs me that a fetish may interfere with "complete sexual expression." The Practice  told us that might be a good thing. It has been an entertaining series, though it did sag a bit in recent years. But if I could count on having something as good as The Practice in the evening when I turn on my TV, I would do it with considerably more enthusiasm than I do now.

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The Practice (ABC, Sunday night) has recently introduced a new character who may be as confusing to other people as she is to me. Her name is "Sally" and she is a junior attorney at Alan Shore's new law firm, the one headed by Denny Crane. Sally likes to dress in a provocative (and tacky) manner that most people wouldn't consider lawyerly, and to dance, partially undressed, on the top of a bar at a local nightspot. I don't suppose this is unheard of, but the thing about Sally that's hard to grasp is that she can't understand why her colleagues would frown on it. She was supposedly a brilliant student in law school, yet she is incapable of imagining that there are such things as social customs. It's not that she wants to violate custom in order to establish her free-spiritedness. She wants there to be no such thing as custom. And when she's told, repeatedly, that there is, she looks both dismayed and confounded. One wonders if there is anyone this stupid. Alan Shore, of course, is taking advantage of her stupidity to confuse and confound her even more, for what purpose we can't be sure. Alan isn't a person who's always easy to gage. But I doubt that the developing liaison between them is likely to lead to glory.

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On The Practice, a series one might say is in extreme renovation, William Shattner’s recurring role as Denny Crane may be one of the most memorable of his long career. There are touches of Captain Kirk in it, and it’s probably true that unless Captain Kirk is somewhere in the background, nothing Shattner does is of much account. I don’t like it that Crane, as the eccentric head of a ruthless law firm, is supposed to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is such a hackneyed prop in TV that it has become almost as tiresome there as it is in life. But everything else about Denny Crane I do like. He’s funny. He’s effective, he’s peremptory, and he’s noble in a curiously crazy way. The interaction between him and James Spader’s Alan Shore gives the series a charge that has lifted it out of the dreariness that swamped it last season. I don’t know how long this can keep going. It’s the sort of relationship I doubt can be maintained indefinitely. But while it persists, it’s a thing worth watching.

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