Sunday, September 30, 2012

Summer's Original TV Series

farewell to summer, and all its glories! for tv lovers, one of those glories has been evenings  relaxing in front of a tube mercifully spouting not only reruns [which have themselves long since morphed into year-round options], but, on the cable channels, new, summer-only series.  we've gotten some wonderful summer dramas in the past few years--though these can be as shaky as network regular season shows.  I miss several of these series, especially those permanently gone: there was  'In Plain Sight,' which seemed to me to have potential for two or three more seasons, but ended last year, and especially the brilliant 'Saving Grace,' which broke through numerous taboos to create a gorgeous vehicle for holly hunter but which lasted only  2 1/2 years, ending in 2010. the odd thing about the latter loss is that the show's ratings were good; TNT cancelled it because it had poor international sales and dvd sales.  the last season had some awful writing, but that was pretty clearly because they knew it wasn't being renewed, and weren't bothering to keep up the consistent intelligence and sophistication of the first two seasons.  'Saving Grace,' if you don't remember, was about a hard living, heavy drinking, promiscuous cop who was provided with a quirky guardian angel.  In spite of sounding like a Touched by an Angel' spinoff, this was one of the most serious, thought-provoking, daring shows i've ever seen on tv.  when it touched on spirituality--as it did surprisingly often--it was with complexity, intelligence, warmth, and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. mostly, it was a crime procedural, set in the grim surroundings of  Oklahoma City in the years following the bombing of the federal building. hunter was magnificent in it, as was leon rippy, who played the scruffy, beer-guzzling, overweight good-ol'-boy angel out to save her from damning herself.

                                             drop dead diva

which actually wasn't what i started out to write about, since it's been gone for 2 years.  but it leads to the first of the three i most miss, now that this summer is over.  The girl-and-her-guardian-angel theme had reemerged in 2009, while grace was still going strong.  Given that this is hardly a common tv  premise, its existence was surprising in itself.  what is even more surprising is that the two shows had almost nothing in common, except for strong heroines and usually fine writing.  Diva which has just finished its 4th season, is a dramady whose characters fall comfortably within the parameters of early 21th century conventions.  its heroine isn't averse to the ocassional love affair, but she's hardly promiscuous, and the viewer certainly never gets the impression that jane, unlike grace [who finds multiple uses for her handcuffs], is especially  kinky.  jane's problem, as i discussed in an earlier post, is simply that she died briefly and returned in another dead woman's seriously zaftig body. even jane's guardian angels are less complex, and God is rarely mentioned. but the shows certainly have shared one unfortunate quality. the last episode we saw of either show was lousy.

with 'grace,' it's clear that this was because of quick and probably indifferent writing, leaving us with its heroine dead in the process of saving humanity, and with myriad inconsistencies.  lord knows why season 4 of 'diva' ended so badly.  it wasn't trying for closure, but for cliff-hanging. but it really stunk.  it was entitled 'jane's getting married,' and previous adverrtising promised us that jane was indeed getting married in the season finale, but boy would we be surprised by the show anyway.  fans were having a lively time speculating that she would end  up marrying not owen, her fiance, but grayson, her old boyfriend, whom she had yearned after from the season's beginning.  or maybe she and owen would flee their big wedding and elope.   well, the big surprise was that the promos were deceiving us: jane didn't get married to anyone, though she was about to. all wedding-gowned, in the moments before the ceremony, jane and grayson kissed, which owen saw and promptly died of a heart attack.  since we knew he had a potentially fatal heart condition,  much as i love the character of owen, i might be able to forgive that part of the plot by itself. but it was worse.  the soul of the original jane had been hanging out in the anteroom of heaven [which looks a giant sauna room about to go out of business].  one wonders why she didn't just go into heaven, which i understand from my catholic schoolgirl days is supposed to be a cool place. but we are told that she chose to stay in the sauna room to watch how the new jane has lived the jane-life. and she doesn't like it. hence she's been waiting for a body to inhabit so she can go and get even, and poor owen's death provides one. this is a tad confusing; we know from episode 2 that old jane is unhappy with new jane's life; surely in the intervening years numerous people have died while old jane moped in the chill waiting room.

  the original deb-in-jane's-body story was fine to set the premise of the show, but it was enough.  increasing heaven-to-earth traffic just looks silly--will we end up with a series about wholesome zombies?  this is further confused by publicity that has promised a contnuation of the grayson-owen rivalry for the love of deb-jane.  one of the things we've been wondering about on the fan page [yes, friends, karen is on a fan-page now--2 , actually,  if you must know] is how the fact that owen is now old-jane will affect that rivalry. if he makes a pass at deb-jane, does that constitute a peculiar form of masturbation? if he doesn't, what does that mean for the great rivalry?  if owen-turned-old-jane now exists only to torment her,  where does that leave grayson?  true, it will give a splendid actor a chance to play a very challenging role [for that matter it's been fun seeing elliott play both janes,with very different affects].  but i do hope they don't keep that up too long; it will get very old very quickly.

that's if they keep it up at all.  the real cliffhanger here turns out not to be the plot, but the show itself. so far, it's not clear whether or not lifetime is renewing diva, though they have announced the renewal of at least one of its other shows.  if nothing else, this has kept our fan pages buzzing. it seems hard to imagine that with its great ratings we could lose the show.  nor does one poorly-written and -conceived episode suggest the fate of "saving grace'; that finale tied up loose ends, however badly. this just opened up a new bunch of even looser ends.  it would be a pity to lose diva. diva may lack the depth of saving grace, but it has been moving, comical, and at core socially responsible: in a tv universe defined by mega- thin women, brooke elliiott's flirty, self-confident jane has been a breath of  continually fresh air.

                                 the closer

One compelling subtheme of diva has been the ironic double love story.  Deb is not allowed [for some unclear reason] to tell anyone who she truly is, including grayson, with whom she works in the law firm.  so being with him daily, she yearns hopelessly for him.  he, at the same time, is deeply mourning the woman he believes to be dead: deb herself.  so although not a love story, the show has love as a strong subtheme.  So, actually, does the closer, though of a very different sort.  true, our heroine, brenda, falls in love with and marries a nice fbi agent, but there's nothing especially compelling about that story.  in this show the important love is neither sexual  nor romantic.  but it is wonderfully moving and effective.  our hero, brenda leigh johnson, is a 30-something cop with a genius for getting confessions out of guilty criminals, thus closing the case.  so she is put in charge of  the Priority Homicide team, a small brotherhood of policemen who have worked together for years, have a strong cameraderie, and are not interested in being ordered around by a newcomer--especially not a female one. the guys themselves are a fairly diverse crew--from 20-something sergeant gabriel to the cantankerous, no-one's-making- me-retire Lieutenant Provenza [played the the marvelous g.w. bailey];  one is black, one asian-american, one hispanic.  each uses his background in their crime work when it's called for.  their temperaments vary from cynical to passionate to gently idealistic.  but they have years of shared experience behind them, and it becomes clear from the start that their newest shared experience is a hearty dislike of brenda.  it doesn't help that this is los angeles, and brenda is from georgia, her style a perfect steel-magnolia sugary and sarcastic sweetness [one of her leitmotifs is an exaggeratedly polite 'thank you so much.']  within the first two seasons, they all come around when they realize both brenda's skill and her strong loyalty to the men under her command, and the affection and mutual respect becomes central.

brenda hereself is quirky and eccentric.  she hides a drawerful of candy, which she feels ashamed of but which provides her outlet when a case or a personal problem is getting to her.  she is a bit clumsy.  her genius and her commitment to the law are always stronger, however, and as she and the team grow together her essential warmth becomes far more evident.

the show began in 2005, and kept its great ratings, but kyra sedgewick  has decided to move on.  with plenty of preparation time, the show moved gracefully into a smooth finale.  the producers had decided to try and keep the rest of the cast together, with a few concept changes, into a follow-up show, in which the division becomes the larger Major Crimes Division.  Replacing the irreplaceable brenda leigh is another woman, a character who had been integrated into closer in the last seasons.  captain raydar [mary mcdonnell] is also a tough woman, whose style is different from brenda's and who has been brenda's enemy turned supporter.  the problem with the new Major Crimes is that it is inevitably a repetition of the closer, however much it claims not to be.  we even start again with the crew's hostility to the new boss, though this time they don't object to her gender, and even have a new female cop in their division.  but mcdonnell, a fine actor in her own right, isn't different enough from sedgewick to make this work.  the producers were in a bind: if the new leader were male, they would surely be accused of sexism.  still, to change the dynamics enough to avoid being brenda-light, they could have made other choices. what about an older woman--think kathy bates in the sadly short-lived Harry's Law?  or even hire a problematic male, and put more women into the crew itself.  the man could, for example, be clearly gay, and talk comfortably about his husband.  there is some precedent now for gay characters in tv; yet most of our detective friends from the closer would probably be different shades of homophobic. or someone overtly vulgar--leon rippy, late of saving grace, would be a great type. in any case, Major Crimes'  few episodes have been okay, but not much more.  maybe by next season, it will have grown into its own identity and become more intriguing. But i think closer fans will always miss brenda leigh.


the new kid on the block this summer has been Perception, which has already been renewed for a second season.  this is a thoroughly fascinating procedural.  it raised, for me at least, two major questions. how would star eric mccormack work as a character dramatically different from his charming, wittily sophisticated gay Will of Will and Grace fame? and how would audiences react to this character? Dr. Daniel Pierce is paranoid schizophrenic  who is also a brilliant neuroscience professor frequently recruited by the FBI. He has a brilliant understanding of the human mind, which his own disease has actually heightened.  when he remains on his medication, he usually functions well.  when he's off the meds, he has fairly constant hallucinations. but while he is tormented by his illness, he actually cherishes part of it. many of the hallucinations are useful aspects of his own unconscious, which help him work out cases.  a long, friendly chat with joan of arc, for example, reveals the motive of a killer.  he's fine with that, and doesn't realize until mid-conversation that she isn't really there. 'wait a minute, why am i talking to joan of arc?' he suddenly asks her.  'okay, so you're an hallucination. so you think...?'  but his hallucinations aren't all joan of arc, and none of them make sense to other people, who see him walking along the campus comfortably chatting with someone who isn't there.  he is lonely and isolated, afraid to risk friendships with people who might themselves be hallucinations, or, being real, are likely to be alienated by his craziness.  the people he usually does see are his teaching assistant, a perennial student whose real job is baby-sitting pierce; and his former student, an fbi agent who has recruited him.  then there's his best friend, natalie, who spends a lot of time hanging out with him: we realize, though he doesn't until the season finale, that she is the strongest of his hallucinations, invented by his mind from a woman he has seen only once in his life.

i was a bit reluctant even to watch the show at first: fortunately, i'm no schizophrenic, but i am a chronic depressive, and was in the midst of a nasty, prolonged episode when the show began.  i wasn't quite sure how i'd handle something not exactly close to home, but not totally foreign either.  it turned out harmless and possibly helpful; if dr. pierce could restrain his craziness enough to be an excellent and coherent teacher, i could certainly function with my own much  smaller problem.  i could even convince myself briefly that i too was a genius. [only briefly, alas; i never lose that much touch with reality]. and there is an honesty in the program that neither glamorizes nor degrades mental illness and that i think is protective to shaky viewers.  the exaggerations are those of all crime procedurals, or for that matter of any tv or or other fictional formulas--but it is never with the character's condition. it's very well done, and mccormack has certainly proved himself as talented a dramatic actor as a comic one.  I'm glad to know that this show, at least, will return to us next summer.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Poem from Way When

it's been a while since i've posted; there are things i want to write about: some tv shows, and the aenead , in particular, but it's being a difficult time to think things through clearly.  i've been going through a long medium-strength depression that creates in its kinder moments a  numbing lethargy.  at the same time, the stars must be up to something unpleasant, because in very different ways many of the people i care most for are also going through varieties of unhappiness.  i keep remembering the words of a poem i wrote many many years ago, but one i've always cherished. so i've been searching for wherever i keep old, pre-computer poems, with no luck.  still, i've got it pretty clear in my  mind, though this may be more of a rewrite than i'd intended. but it may have meaning to some of you, so here it is.


It's a dull thing, courage.
Its myth shines, like bette
davis in the last scene of dark victory,
denying herself the comfort of her old dog's love
walking to death radiant as a sunlamp.
Its reality is different.
Courage whines and snivels, it huddles in dark corners, crying,
begging for help.
It takes whatever it can get.
Infrequently, it glows.
But its essence is the essence of the eagle's flight
and the worm's slow crawl.  For us it is, simply,
the most efficient way 
to move.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


i wrote here last may about drop dead diva, before the new season began. now the season is about to end, and there is no certainty that it will  be renewed.  it would be a pity to lose, not only because it was already a good show, but because this year it included a new character, briefly introduced at the end of last season but far more integrated into this year's shows.

for those who don't know DDD, a brief recap. when it began 5 years ago, it had a fairly novel premise. on the same day, two women are killed in different circumstances.  due to a mixup in heaven, one of them, deb, was not fated  to die, but her body is presumably too messed up to return her to, so she ends up in the body of the other woman, jane.  deb has been a narcissistic young wanna-be model; jane is a brilliant, somewhat drab  lawyer in her mid-30s.  jane is pretty, but fat, and when deb comes out of her coma she is less thrilled to be alive than horrified by her new body.  her guardian angel joins her to set up the rules, one of which is no one is to know that she's deb in jane's body [heaven, presumably, can't handle bad press.] but by the time he lets her in on this, she has already told her good-hearted but bubble-brained best friend, stacy.

jane has worked in a law firm whose other employees include deb's fiance, grayson. so part of the ongoing tsuris is that while grayson mourns his lost love, jane/deb mourns  her loss of grayson, who can never be told the truth.

the show has always been one of those on-the-edge dramadies--serious, but with a touch of humor about itself.  for me, and i think many other fans, the major joy has been that rarity, a fat heroine.  brooke eliot has been close to perfect in the role.  having always been thin and gorgeous, the new 'jane' simply doesn't know how to be an appropriate fat girl.  she sashays everywhere , flirts outrageously, and flips her hair around like a shampoo-commercial model.  luckily, jane's brain being part of her body, this newly blended woman has all of jane's legal knowledge [though none of her personal memory] and the savvy to recreate what she doesn't remember.  watching her morph into the hybrid jane has been one of the most charming experiences over the months of the show. the fact that it takes grayson 3 seasons [within what we assume to be the fictional time frame of a year or 2] before he recognizes aspects of deb in jane has been telling.  nothing about this fat woman with so much of deb's personality ever seems to remind him of his beloved fiance.  he was in love with a gorgeous babe, not an intelligent woman. it's only at the end of season 3, last summer,  that he begins to get a glimmer of something going on.  significantly, he kisses stacy, because she reminds him so much of deb. stacy starts to tell him the truth, finally supplying the hint that will start him looking at his pal jane differently.

stacy has been a great, if sometimes annoying character.  she is completely golden-hearted and loving, and nearly completely stupid. so she is always a present reminder that deb has been lucky in her peculiar re-incarnation.  it has caused deb to grow emotionally and intellectually, while continuing to appreciate the kind of savvy and idiosyncrasy of the untutored model.  the casting, in fact, has been wonderful all along, including that of  the boyish guardian angel, sent to watch over 'deb' but falling in love with stacy. [they've just dumped the character this season, replacing him with a meaner, more macho angel--possibly to give us a better foil for jane's defiance of anyone who tries to tell her what to do.]

all this has been grand. and then--enter owen.  introduced at the end of last season as a colorful and somewhat arrogant judge who takes a fancy to jane when she defies him in court, owen has created possibly more potential than the show can handle.  they have chosen the perfect actor for him, in a fairly surprising way.  everyone on the show is standardly gorgeous, even fred-the-angel, except for jane herself. Lex Medlin is appealing looking, much in the mold of john goodman.  he's a bit stocky, and not especially handsome, and owen dresses in outfits that suggest a fairly indifferent approach to fashion. he's neither suave nor stylish, in many ways less of a storybook character than any of the others.  and yet in a sense he's the most romantic character the show has yet had--a funky prince charming who matter-of-factly sweeps jane off her feet.  when he is at the airport on his way to a year's training for the america's cup, a lifelong dream, and sees that she's there too on her way to a couple of weeks in italy, he blithely shows  up in her airplane, and as she stammers about the america's cup, he just shrugs and says he can always sit on a boat but may never again have the chance to show her around italy.  she acts pleased; he acts pleased that she's pleased, and the whole thing takes place so smoothly that it takes a moment for the viewer to grasp that he's just given up a lifetime dream to spend two weeks with her.  pure, high-level romance, presented as a likable gesture of affection.  and we know that he is totally besotted with her.

 this is decent writing and directing, but above all it's medlin's acting.  he has an expressiveness of voice and especially of facial and bodily carriage that is remarkable. much of their love affair is reflected in his face.  from the very beginning, when he matter-of-factly tells jane from the bench that he has reserved a table for them at a local restaurant, hr reflects combinations of emotion. in this scene his casual bravado suggests a genuine interest in jane, a genuine self-confidence, and a slight, nearly imperceptible turn of  the lines between his eyebrows that suggest a  fear she might turn him down.  much later down the line, as the now-engaged couple are house-hunting, jane expresses her  appreciation of a house's big back yard, which she says will be perfect for a swing set for the kids. owen flashes in a minisecond a look that shows surprise [they had evidently not discussed this aspect of marriage], joy at the realization, and pure shining love for jane. the awkwardness of his proposal to jane is wonderful, and slightly underplayed: they had earlier talked about the institution of marriage, which jane cherishes  and he finds intrusive in a relationship.  his proposal reflects his willingness to do anything to please jane and to keep her with him, and at the same time a tiny hint of the fact that it isn't what he would have chosen on his own.   there are dozens of such textured emotions in owen's face throughout the episodes.

as i said, the problem with the owen character is that the show may have to heighten its own standards to embody what he, in combination with jane, has to offer it.  their relationship has bumps, but they are solved with the surface ease of an old love boat episode.  given the seriousness of his intellect, owen is not a character who would shrug off his beliefs against marriage in a brief time.  it's an interesting idea, rarely dealt with in tv fictions, and  worthy of characters who are both loving and reasonable enough to talk it over, get to the depths of each other's feelings, make decisions that involve an awareness of compromise. when, soon after he preposes, he suffers a near-fatal heart attack and decides he can't marry jane after all because of what it would do to her if he died from the next one, it's as though his earlier dislkie of marriage never happened. he tells her he has changed becasue of his near death, she says all the right but non-profound things about being lucky to have each other as long as they can, and he changes his mind.  yet here is a woman who herslf has nearly died, must have some deep sesne of her own about mortality, and has as well the intelligence to know that there aren't just the choices of marry soon or break up.all this rich human stuff, could make some great episodes, maybe even a full season of seeing their relationship deepen while working out its dynamic.  and none of that would take away from the rest of the things on the show that are fun and funny.

there is finally the puzzle of their physical relationship.  like all melodrama and most  comedy,  much of being in love in DDD is expressed in the sudden, mouthn-working, hip -grabbing kiss.  indeed jane's trip to italy takes place becasus she has seen such a kiss between stacy and grayson, and misunderstood it, not only running off  just when grayson is beginning to realize the similarities between her character and deb's, but also sharing the information with guardian angel fred, who is in love with stacy  and who now runs off back to the afterlife to escape his pain.  yet as she and owen clearly become closer, with stacy helpfully discussing with jane whether owen's interest is in 'dating' or being 'just friends', the Kiss, of any sort, barely materializes.  they do hold hands, they laugh and smile and delight in each other's company; they 'have chemestry.' to some extent, this is a welcome releif from the obligatory mouth guzzling body clutching boy-this-is-serious kiss.  reading owen's eyes, and to some extent jane's, is nice for a change.  but there are  moments one starts to wonder if they should just get adopted by the same parents.  this has been mentioned by fans on the various cyber venues--the show's face book page, the actors' facebook pages and tweet pages, Lifetime's own show gossip pages. i loved the deeply felt though highly inelegant post by one fan, discussing the scene when jane convinces the post-heart attack owen that they can and should be together, and he reacts with relief and excitement and puts the discarded engagement ring back on her hand. "He should have been kissing the crap out of  her!' wrote the disgruntled fan. indeed he should.

ah well, the season finale is sept. 9--the wedding day of jane and owen--and whatever cliffs that keeps us haning from, we can hope for a deeper and juiciier expansion of jane and own next summer.......