It’s not quite the big deal it was when I was a kid, but we still get jazzed in our household for the fall television premieres.
Part of it’s probably a hangover from what TV was like when I was growing up. There was no such thing as on-demand home video of any kind back then, so the September premiere (NEVER October; that still feels vaguely blasphemous to me) of all the new TV shows was a huge deal. They didn’t stagger them either, so it all rolled out in one glorious week of New Stuff. With no way to record shows, we would agonize over which one to watch– I vividly remember what a dilemma Friday night was in my household in September of 1975, when my brother and I had to decide if the new Planet of the Apes on CBS outranked The Six Million Dollar Man‘s second-season premiere on ABC or not– they overlapped by half an hour, and we had to choose one or the other. (We went with Planet of the Apes, then the last half hour of Steve, until Apes was canceled. We were able to catch up with the bionic man in reruns so it all ended well, but my God what an argument that was.)
Not to mention the other Friday night battle my brother and I had that fall of 1975, this one with Mom: to be allowed to stay up till eleven PM to see Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Not only was it past our bedtimes but, our mother insisted, it was full of Scary Things that Might Give Us Nightmares. We did eventually get her to cave, mostly just because we were relentless, and as we kept reminding her, it wasn’t a school night. (Today, of course, Julie and I have all of those shows here on DVD and can watch them whenever we want and stay up all night doing it if we feel like it. God it’s good to be an adult sometimes.)
….sorry, got lost in my memories there for a minute. Anyway, both Julie and I are of that generation when fall TV was a big damn deal, and we still enjoy trying out all the new shows to see which ones we like enough to stay with. Even today, when there are five hundred cable channels and streaming internet video and DVDs and Netflix and everything else, we still get a little charge out of network premiere week– well, weeks, really, because you don’t get that solid one week’s blast the way you used to. Still, we’ve been sampling all the new stuff that’s in our particular nerd wheelhouse, or nerd-adjacent, anyway.
Of course, the one we were most interested in was Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
You’d think this would have been a lock. It’s Joss Whedon, it’s Marvel, it’s coming off the biggest-grossing superhero movie in the history of ever… but to be honest, we thought it was kind of underwhelming.
We really like the cast. Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is walking a line between dorky and tough that is great fun, and Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May is cool too. The younger folks like Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennett are trying hard with what they’re given.
The trouble is that it just doesn’t feel like there’s very much there. There’s way too many scenes of people standing around explaining things to each other. The humor often feels forced, and the ‘quirky’ science geeks are just about getting on our last nerve. (This is no fault of actors Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, whose personal charm is the only reason we can stand the Fitz and Simmons characters at all.)
Just as an aside, I think it’s about time that we declared a moratorium on quirky science-geek sidekicks for at least five years. We’ve had Marshall on Alias, David Krumholtz on Numb3rs, Masi Oka on Hawaii Five-0, that pigtailed girl on NCIS, and now these two. The first couple of times, okay, it’s fun, but now it’s become a cliche.
What’s frustrating about the show is that we can see a really fun series underneath this one trying to get out. But so far they are coasting on the goodwill of the Marvel movies and the charm of the cast. The stories are by-the-numbers TV adventure plots with some snark thrown in, and always with a clearly-telegraphed life lesson attached– i.e., when Grant expresses his doubts to Agent Coulson about the group’s ability to work as a team, we know that in the next fifteen minutes they will face a threat that will force them to learn to work as a team. And so on. It’s not a bad show, it’s very competently executed, but there’s just not much there for us to invest in.
Honestly, we feel like we did watching the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation— we want to like it better than we actually do. We’ll hang in there a bit with it though, mostly because we enjoy watching Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen. They are clearly having the time of their lives (their Twitter feeds are endearingly exuberant about the new gig.) I just wish more of that fun was coming across in the actual show.
On the other hand, Sleepy Hollow on Fox has been a pleasant surprise.
I’ll just tell you up front, the premise is completely nuts. Ichabod Crane is a Revolutionary War spy for the American rebel forces, reporting directly to General George Washington, until one day in battle he beheads a Hessian soldier that is in actuality Death, the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Now-headless Death is only slightly inconvenienced by this and would have killed Crane then and there had not Crane’s wife, secretly a witch-priestess of a cult that has been fighting to avert the impending end of the world, placed both Crane and the Horseman in suspended animation for a couple of centuries, until both awaken in the modern era whereupon Crane teams up with a tough lady cop on the Sleepy Hollow PD to fight occult crime.
That’s just the first twenty minutes of the pilot. It gets even crazier from there. There’s John Cho as a reanimated corpse, and a used-car salesman who’s also a practicing shaman with a secret warehouse full of Native American occult artifacts, and of course the Headless Horseman himself, who’s only too happy to abandon his battleaxe once he discovers what a machine gun can do.
The cast is terrific and really sells it– half the fun of the thing is watching Tom Mison as Crane and Nicole Beharie as exasperated lady cop Abbie Mills playing off each other. (My favorite so far is when Crane fires a pistol at a demon and, the shot proving ineffectual, drops the gun and runs. “Why did you drop the gun?” Abbie yells as they flee for their lives. “It was empty,” a bewildered Crane replies, to which Abbie squalls, “Today guns can fire MORE THAN ONE BULLET!”) We spend our time watching about evenly divided between laughing in delight at the sheer deranged audacity of the thing, and snorting “oh, come ON!” The internal logic is intermittent at best, historical accuracy is nonexistent… but damn it, it’s fun. It’s got a Kirbyesque hell-for-leather narrative drive that’s just irresistible. Or maybe it’s Bob Haney-esque. Somewhere between the two, I guess. Let’s say that if you’re the sort that gets bothered about historical facts being wrong or there being holes in the plot, then this is not the show for you; but if, on the other hand, you have a taste for Hammer films and old Irwin Allen adventure series like Time Tunnel, then you will adore this, because it’s basically a mashup of the two. But with better effects and a wickedly wry sense of humor.
We couldn’t even get through the first ten minutes of The Tomorrow People on the CW. Just not good. At all.
For God’s sake, my kids in Young Authors know better than to do the kind of clunky, exposition-heavy conversational recap scenes that opened this turkey, and the warmed-over X-Men premise of a secret mutant underground society of homo superior ripped-and-hawt tormented twentysomethings wasn’t interesting enough to make it worth our time. Even Mutant X was better TV than this. Maybe it’ll turn into something good– stranger things have happened– but we won’t be sticking around to see.
Speaking of my kids in Young Authors, the vast majority of them this year are bright young nerdgirls who love to argue about Dr. Who and know all the words to the songs from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and the premiere they have been anxiously awaiting was just last night– Once Upon A Time In Wonderland.
The girls already are devoted to the parent show it’s spun out of, Once Upon A Time (so is my bride, actually, and I rather like it myself– it’s got Jane Espenson writing for it, which is enough to get my interest) so we figured we would check it out, if for no other reason than I’ll probably end up talking about it in class on Monday. It was… okay, I guess. Truthfully the pilot was mostly all about setting up the rest of the series, which appeared at first to be a story about Alice’s return to Wonderland after years in an asylum; she’s brought back by the White Rabbit and the Knave of Hearts to rescue her true love, an amiable genie named Cyrus, from the clutches of the evil Red Queen. Except it turns out that the Red Queen is only the employee of a far deadlier menace…
…the evil wizard, Jafar. Yeah, from Disney’s Aladdin. You can groan now.
Honestly, if they’d called him ANYthing else we probably would have liked it better. It was the kind of jarring product-placement moment that took us right out of the story. But Sophie Lowe gave Alice both a vulnerability and a determination that we could believe in, and it is Jane Espenson. As long as the crossover/Disney product-placement stuff doesn’t get too crass, we’re in. Anyway, it took most of the pilot just to get all the players in place. We’ll see how it goes when they start telling real stories.
Of the returning shows we pay attention to, a lot of them are starting to look tired, especially Revenge. I’ve noticed in recent years that there’s a number of television series built on premises that seem to me to be unsustainable for any length of time: the problem they pose for the protagonists is too limited, it’s too finite a setup for an ongoing TV show. Revenge, Lost, Last Resort, The Killing, etc. (To a lesser extent, this is true of Once Upon A Time and Sleepy Hollow, as well.) This is all very well if you have a specific arc you intend to execute over a set number of episodes, like Last Resort ended up doing, but if you get renewed year after year and your writing staff turns over, somewhere along the way viewers get pissed off at how you’re just dragging the thing out. Revenge is definitely hurting over that right now; they’ve just about run out of ways to hit the reset button.
On the other hand, a show I was originally ambivalent about, Arrow, has turned into something very fun and cool.
If you’re a DC purist, it’ll make you crazy, but I’m not, and I enjoy the various little comics-related Easter Eggs that pop up without worrying about how ‘accurate’ the show is. A large part of the show’s appeal for us is the delightful Emily Bett Rickards as computer geek Felicity Smoak, who not only gets all the best lines but also serves as Oliver Queen’s conscience a lot of the time.
We are also intrigued by the appearance of the Black Canary this season, and I hear the Flash is on deck as well. Of course, it’s the CW network, so there’s lots of hawt ripped twentysomethings obsessed with relationships and dating and whatnot, but it’s at least done with smarts and humor and it’s not at the expense of the superhero adventure, the way it ended up being on Smallville.
And we like how Oliver is slowly, reluctantly, learning how to be “the hero the city needs.” It’s working for us. We’ll be sticking around for this.
(It doesn’t really fall under the category of SF/comics/fantasy-type nerd TV or even nerd-adjacent TV, but we quite like The Blacklist, as well. You’d think it was Silence of the Lambs from the ads but really it’s much more of a Robert Ludlum vibe. Totally my kind of thing.)
If I am honest, though, I have to admit that when it comes to nerd TV, the most fun we’ve been having is on the internet. We invested in an HDMI cable to connect the computer to the television and we’ve found all kinds of nutty stuff. Just the other night I eschewed what the networks were offering in favor of Exo-Man, a failed 1977 pilot that was very much the same idea as the M.A.N.T.I.S. TV series on Fox that came along a decade later: a brilliant physicist invents a super-suit in order to go after the criminals that crippled him. And also a bunch of Star Trek fan films.
Exo-Man was mostly nostalgia– I had a vague memory of liking it when I was a kid, and I was amazed at finding it at all… but it was really pretty awful. On the other hand, the Starship Farragut shows I stumbled across were very impressive and a lot of fun. Better written and more character-driven than some of the professional Trek efforts have been. Julie is the Trekkie in our household, and she loved them, for what that’s worth.
The truth is we get more entertainment on our television out of the HDMI internet connection than anything the networks are doing. As much as we enjoyed reliving the childhood fun of “premiere week,” an internet full of near-infinite TV choices in the here and now is WAY better.
See you next week.