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.

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