A month into the 2007-2008 TV season, there are few bright spots. Fall isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, as spring now brings major hits like 24 and Lost and the former no man’s land of summer has become the training ground for more experimental fare. But fall debuts get the most hype and network attention, and I can’t imagine anyone spends the week in breathless anticipation of the next episode of Cane or Women’s Murder Club (I want a sitcom spin-off titled Men’s Comedy Committee).
I’m most disappointed by shows that sound good on paper but are aren’t so good in practice. Bionic Woman is a “re-imagination” from one of the guys who so brilliantly re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, aided by members of the creative teams behind The X-Files and Friday Night Lights, and featuring a villain played by BSG’s beloved Katee Sackhoff. NBC gave the show a massive promotional push that suggested they had a potential classic on their hands. What could possibly go wrong?
Basic things, apparently. Things like words. The dialogue on Bionic Woman is atrocious to the point that we get philosophizing like, “I once had a wolf; a wolf only makes a good pet when he thinks he’s a dog,” or expository dialogue that reduces 20 years of backstory into, “I’m a bartender and a dropout, you’re a teacher and a surgeon.” Battlestar Galactica is the most overtly political show in the history of television, so I thought Bionic Woman would have something going on beneath the surface. But the battles for survival here are resolved in a single episode, sometimes a single scene. The executive line is that the season- and series-long story arcs that drive BSG to thematic and critical success are anathema to audiences who prefer compact CSI/Law & Order-style resolutions, but judging by Bionic’s rapidly declining ratings they’re not feeling this either.
I had much less faith in Viva Laughlin, but I was eager to champion the first musical TV show since Cop Rock (which I’ve never seen, and neither have 99% of the people who use it as a punchline) and I’m a big fan of Hugh Jackman, who executive produces and has a recurring role. It profiles the travails of a upstart casino owner (Lloyd Owen) as he deals with iffy creditors, a flashy rival (Jackman), dead bodies in his office and the advances of a widow played by Melanie Griffith who’s supposed to be so sexy and irresistible that she tempts him away from his gorgeous wife (Twin Peaks’ MÄdchen Amick) but is actually a terrifying argument against plastic surgery who looks like those human-cat hybrids from The Island of Dr. Moreau.
The show isn’t nearly as bad as most critics have suggested. The New York Times said, “It may well be the worst new show of the season, but is it the worst show in the history of television? It certainly comes close.” As long as Lifetime exists, that statement will ring false. Most of Viva Laughlin is inoffensively bizarre. The central conceit of the show just doesn’t work, or it at least lacks the team needed to make it work. For most of its running time it’s a standard-issue bran muffin CBS drama, except with a casino instead of a hospital or police precinct. But the musical numbers are handled terribly. Instead of having actors sing over an instrumental track as in every other musical I’ve ever seen, they sing over the pre-existing recordings of the songs. For example, when Hugh Jackman’s character sings The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” he’s singing along with The Rolling Stones’ recording of “Sympathy For The Devil”, with Mick Jagger as a de facto backup singer. To make matters worse (and the concept of a weekly musical drama more palatable to the mainstream I suppose), only about a minute of each song is used and they’re cut up so sloppily that any chance we could actually get into songs we’ve heard a bazillion times is blown. But the worst part of the musical segments of the show is that the songs only further the plot in the shallowest way imaginable. “Sympathy For The Devil” is one of the best songs ever written, but it’s about Satan, not some casino owner. When Jackman sings the line about killing “the czar and his ministers” it’s hard to believe that his character would even know what a czar is. It doesn’t help that the choreographers don’t seem to have any ideas beyond getting the leads do the Cha Cha Slide on top of a craps table.
The news isn’t all bad. ABC’s Pushing Daisies has been consistently wonderful and The CW’s Reaper has me in stitches every week. But the networks will have to try harder than this if they want to reverse the slow decline of TV viewership.