Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bad TV

These past two weeks, I've been reminded as to why I try to avoid getting too attached to any programme that screens on Channel Nine.

I started watching Fringe, an X-Files-esque show--in the sense that it involves the investigation of unexplained or fringe phenomena--but it disappeared off the schedule and I have no idea where it went. It wasn't especially riveting television, but given that it was science fiction, that it starred Joshua Jackson (Dawson's Creek) and Lance Reddick (The Wire), and that JJ Abrams (Alias, Lost) was one of its creators, I was willing to give it more than a chance to grow on me.

There was something vaguely interesting emerging around the fate of John Scott (Mark Valley, Boston Legal), who we thought died in the first episode but, as we learned in the second, was still alive on some kind of life-support at the behest of an Evil Corporation. As well, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) was of some tangential interest to my thesis; he had been in a mental institution for years, before he was released into the care of his son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), to offer his insights into the various strange phenomena under investigation by FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv).

While I concede that the word on the IMDb message boards was that Fringe was not so great (although this is contrary to its critical reception summarised at Wikipedia), this still doesn't mitigate my ongoing annoyance at Channel Nine for pulling programmes without sufficient warning or explanation. I would have continued to watch Fringe in the original time slot, but I really can't be bothered to guess where else it might appear in the schedule, if anywhere.

The problem of Channel Nine's mercurial programming practices saw me missing another new show that I've been giving some time to lately: The Mentalist starring Simon Baker (The Guardian). While Channel Nine did broadcast a number of announcements before they shifted this programme from one night to another, I still managed to miss this week's episode because the TV guide that I consult was printed and distributed before the station made its changes.

The thing is, that while I started watching The Mentalist because of Simon Baker, who really is a very fine actor and who I enjoyed so much in The Guardian--

--the character he plays in The Mentalist, Patrick Jane, is not nearly so interesting.

The Mentalist
is in the mould of recent dramas that feature a central male investigator who is maverick and in possession of a singular talent. This character type is usually extremely cocky about his talent, but he is afforded emotional depth by way of a personal tragedy in his past. In The Mentalist, Jane consults for law enforcement in California using acute observational abilities that were honed in a former life where he masqueraded as a television psychic. His wife and child were murdered by a killer who took offence at some comments he made in a television interview.

Other recent programmes in this vein include Life and Burn Notice. In Life the lead character was working as a police detective when he was framed by his partner and wrongfully imprisoned. He has since been vindicated and returned to work for the police, his life made comfortable by the multi-million dollar compensation payout he received in a law suit against the state. While he was in prison he got religion, but Zen Buddhism rather than any denomination of Christianity.

Burn Notice follows a similar trajectory: the central character is an intelligence officer disavowed by the US government; out of a job he applies his talents as an investigator to help others in trouble, all the while seeking to reinstate his good name by finding and punishing those who have worked against him.

I think much of the problem with these shows is that the attempt to invoke an emotional response from the audience for the central characters is done in such a paint-by-numbers fashion. On the one hand the character embodies wise-cracking, laddish masculinity--perhaps to appeal to the male audience--and on the other he is also drawn to have elements of the SNAG or 'new' masculinity--perhaps to appeal to the female audience. The trouble is that rather than achieving any complexity in the characterisation, it simply feels manipulative; shallow, sentimental and unconvincing.

In The Mentalist, for example, the moments of emotion are incongruous amid the innocuous banter and all-knowing arrogance of Patrick Jane. On the one hand Jane knows at the beginning of every murder case on which he consults who the killer is. There seems to be little purpose for any of the law enforcement agents with whom he works, except as a foil for Jane's brilliance of which he is fully aware. Then, when everything is resolved, he goes home to the empty house he once shared in idyll with his wife and child, to sleep on a single mattress placed on the floor beneath the bloody smiley calling card left by his family's killer.

I'm not against emotion in my television viewing. The depth of emotion is what I so enjoyed about The Guardian; Simon Baker's ability to convey the extent of Nick Fallin's deep-seated anger was extraordinary. And I think The Guardian is one of the few programmes to represent anger as the corrosive and silent force that it so often is.

Perhaps that's my difficulty with The Mentalist--and Life and Burn Notice too--is that the range of so-called emotions is so limited or rendered in such a cynical manner that I just don't believe these characters, never mind like them.

And it is in this frame of mind, that the hiccup in Channel Nine's scheduling of The Mentalist is reason enough for me to give up on it, even with a talent like Simon Baker in the starring role.


dogpossum said...

We've been watching Fringe too.
I'm watching it as: XFiles for people who don't have any patience; TwilightZone sortof; Bones for people who're tired of boys-as-brawn and like the thought of a female FBI agent matched with a male scientist/carer. It's not a problem-free program. But it's still pretty interesting. I'm especially caught by the way the 'wacky' sf stuff is all very violent. I'm not sure how I feel about the protagonist. Should I like her?

fyi the word verification word for me to post this comment is 'nobum'.

Kirsty said...

So, maybe you can tell me? Where has Fringe moved to?

As for the female protagonist, well, I can't judge either since I haven't had the opportunity to get much sense of her.

Anonymous said...

Since you seem to know about IMDB I am surprised you did not just look at the Fringe series page.
You will see that the first few episodes have been shown in the US but the next ones are only scheduled for release this month. The US network execs only decided to continue with the show recently. You will find this is always the problem. The Oz TV companies have no control over what happens in the US.
Channel 9 showed all the episodes it had avialable.
Derek Smith

Kirsty said...

Hi Derek, thanks for your comment. It looks like I didn't read the relevant page on IMDb. On the one hand I probably should have done the research, on the other, well it would nice to be informed of such things--just a brief announcement before, during, and at the end credits, where they usually make announcements about the next show.

I don't know that I'm convinced that show pulling and erratic scheduling is always a result of Australian TV being subject to the whims of the US execs, though. I guess I'm working here with a history of erratic scheduling of shows like The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Six Feet Under.

JahTeh said...

I believe Channel 9 is bringing back Fringe for the summer season to build a following for next year.

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