Sunday, September 30, 2007

TV: Moronic Woman

The Bionic Woman

NBC kicked off "Bionic Wednesdays" last week with the two hour debut of Bionic Woman which honestly reminded us of the Mad magazine parody "Moronic Woman." It's easy to see why NBC was stricken with panic after viewing the pilot (one role was recast, that did not fix the problems). It's less easy to grasp how another press created genius thinks he's done anything original.

Executive producer David Eick told Variety, "It's a complete reconceptualization of the title. We're using the title as a starting point, and that's all." Your brain dead Water Cooler Set went along with that fantasy and a great deal more last week.

It's impossible to talk about Bionic Woman without talking about the seventies The Bionic Woman because, despite Eick's claims, they've ripped off pretty much everything and what they didn't rip off, they've watered down.

Where to start? How about the phoniness of it all, having a British actress play an American woman living in San Francisco while the show is shot in Canada?

We're reminded of Joan Crawford's infamous quote about Greer Garson (after Garson won the Oscar) but we'll move on.

Bionic Woman appears to exist solely to demonstrate how much truth Lou Reed can pack into one line -- specifically "Sweet Jane"'s "Those were different times."

Indeed they were. The bionic woman began on The Six Million Dollar Man as a character for a two-part episode in 1975 meant to round out Lee Major's Steve Austin. The network wanted to get across the message that The Six Million Dollar Man wasn't a show for children only. Jamie Sommers, brilliantly played by Lindsay Wagner, bumps into Steve when he returns to his hometown, Ojai, California. (An actual city, it's where Dennis Kucinich was speaking last weekend.) They rekindle their high school romance. Tennis pro Sommers is in a skydiving accident. Steve pleads for Jamie to be given bionic parts and she's s given a bionic ear, a bionic arm and two bionic legs. As part of the deal Steve makes, Jamie will also be a government agent which he attempts to back out on. (Pay attention, these details matter in the current version.) Jamie's body begins rejecting the bionic parts and she dies at the end of the two-parter. The reaction from viewers was huge so another two-parter ("The Return of the Bionic Woman") was prepared in which it turns out Jamie was really cryogenically frozen and then brought back to life without her memory. Why no memory? She was still a temporary character. Universal did not grasp what they had with Wagner from the start. While filming the first two-parter, Wagner's contract with Universal ran out and Harve Bennett (executive producer of The Six Million Dollar Man) had to fight with Universal to get the contract extended for a few days so that filming could continue. The filmed two-parter meant nothing to Universal. They didn't grasp what had been created until the letters started arriving. Wagner was not under contract to Universal and was in Canada (filming Second Wind) when it was decided to bring Jamie back to life. Ron Samuels, Wagner's agent, took the network to the cleaners for the two-parter. As The Six Million Dollar Man moved into the top ten, Fred Silverman (then head of ABC) ordered a spin-off and insisted on Wagner in the lead.

Kenneth Johnson was responsible for the writing of both two parters (and would become producer of The Bionic Woman) and has always explained Jamie died in the first two-parter because there wasn't a need to put Steve Austin in a relationship and Jamie lost her memory in the second for the same reason. (Johnson also created the mini-series V and his update of that, in book form, V The Second Generation, is released next month. ) The audience reaction to Wagner is what drove the character of Jamie Sommers into her own show.

All of that is important. Universal wasn't keen on Wagner, that's why they let her option drop. They weren't keen on having her back for the second two-parter. They thought she was "flat chested" and that audiences couldn't relate to anything but big breasts. They also thought, at five feet and eight and half inches, she was too tall. Michelle Ryan, who plays the current Jamie Sommers, is an inch and a half shorter and, though acting is a challenge for her, men can't shut up about her breasts.

In other words, all Eick's done is prove that he 'can rebuild her, he can make her shorter, breastier and younger!' and that's supposed to pass for better. Wagner's character was a professional tennis player who, in the spin-off, would be a teacher when not spying for the government. In a 're imagining' that strikes us similar to what the creators of The Days & Nights of Molly Dodd set out to do (trash the character of Mary Richards -- as they publicly and repeatedly bragged), the current Jamie Sommers has been downgraded from professional athlete to scantily-clad bartender. Call it Eick Ugly. Or as the original Jamie Sommers herself said in the first episode of the spin-off over a fake disagreement with the government regarding her salary (they knew bad guys were listening in, don't ask), "What do they think I am? Some kind of bionic cocktail waitress?" Apparently Eick did indeed.

Remember how boyfriend Steve, following Jamie's accident, had her implanted with bionics to save her life? The remake makes boyfriend Will Anthros (Chris Bowers) a college professor and a doctor! -- a bionic doctor in a super secret program -- who implants the bionics himself.

A lot of the Water Cooler Set were either too stupid to know how to work in the backstory from the previous show or just trying to be cute but Somers was not The Six Million Dollar Woman in the seventies. In fact, before there was Jamie Sommers, there was Barney Miller (played by Monte Markham -- and not connected to the sitcom character) who was the seven million dollar man. Obviously, the price of technology had risen. Whether, as people with the show often joked (predominately Richard Anderson who played Oscar on both The Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man), she cost less because the parts were smaller or more due to inflation (and, not stated, the ear which was a new part) can be debated but she was not the six million dollar woman. It should also be noted that her body rejecting the first set of bionics would require additional work further raising the price the government paid 'rebuilding' her.

What was Jamie Sommers in the seventies? A pretty advanced character though the Water Cooler Set seems determined to sneer 'feminist.' Well, remember, they have a natural aversion to women. Somers used her bionic powers to disarm and throw her opponents off balance. The corpses didn't pile up the way they did on The Six Million Dollar Man. Which is not to say that Sommers didn't get into some serious battles. There was of course, pay attention New York Times, the Fembots.

The Fembots did not come along with Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me. They were robots with super strength. Those Water Cooler Critics who, while sneering that the first Jamie was a feminist, wanted to then play the last defenders of women by expressing shock that the new Jamie would battle another bionic woman obviously need to do a little more research before typing. Our 'research,' by the way, consisted of phoning people with the original production as well as the one currently airing.

The alleged 're imagining' has watered down the character's strength which did include a sense of humor -- something the Water Cooler Set couldn't tell you about -- apparently, in their minds, feminists can't be funny. What you're left with is Ryan who had two emotions to convey -- wide eyed wonder and hungover.

While her emotions are limited, she has been saddled with a sister (played by an 18-year-old actress who pouts and then pouts some more). This isn't new either. The spin-off brought on Max the bionic dog and that's basically all the new Jamie's sister is. (Though some may see her as the Dawn that destroyed Buffy The Vampire Slayer). Not content with saddling the new version with a kid sister (when the character herself can be described as a "kid"), they also saddle her with Daddy issues. Daddy's into politics and a drunk. While that will play into future storylines, it's a bit like biting the hands that feed you for Ryan's Jamie to sneer about their father's excessive drinking at a bar when that is in fact where she works. ("Oh, the layers!" a half-wit thought.)

What was most amazing about the two hours is how uninteresting it was. We kept waiting and waiting for Ryan's character to do something bionic and that was honestly because the character is so uninteresting. Listening to her put herself down (self-esteem issues hopped onto the saddle as well) to her boyfriend the professor (and government doctor!) or announce she was pregnant just left us bored. The big car accident came quick (thanks to the reassembling of the pilot -- and reshooting scenes with the recast role of the sister). Then you waited and waited.

She was supposed to be angry upon learning she was bionic and then about being held against her will. All you could do was wait for the bionic powers because Ryan lacks the ability to act the part of the character (who, in fairness, is badly written) and it was like watching a really bad summer pop corn flick where the set pieces had been structured too far apart.

More importantly, they scavenged three seasons to get their two hour pilot. The 'darker' Jaimie Eick is so proud of is actually season three Jamie who is called a freak by kids on bicycles. The constant cuts in the two hours were needed because Ryan and the writers have yet to create a character that's actually interesting.

At the end of the episode, after she'd battled a bionic woman who preceded her (and had turned bad), she's supposed to toss off a light piece of dialogue to Miguel Ferrer's Jonas Bledsoe. It was a bad move for a number of reasons including the fact that Ryan can't handle light dialogue. But mainly it served to remind us of the show that was cancelled to make way for this crap -- Crossing Jordan which Ferrer was also a part of. Jordan was a full grown adult (played magnificently by Jill Hennessy) while Jamie strikes us as a child acting out.

We don't visit Crapapedia but two people with the original series find the Crapapedia entry offensive and in need of corrections (citations would probably also be a good idea). The illustration we're using for this commentary is from the show's merchandising which included far more than Crapapedia lists (we checked after the complaints were conveyed). In addition to the cards, there was also a board game. There was also quite a bit more. Crapapedia is known for its sexism (we know a female singer who is contemplating suing Crapapedia over the way they portray her sex life -- they make her -- but none of her male partners -- out to be a whore while treating men who had many more relationships than she did as 'cool' -- that, more than the many factual inaccuracies about her, has her ticked off and we don't blame her) so it's no surprise that, yet again, when it comes to anything to do with women, Crapapedia doesn't know what the hell they are talking about.

Maybe the Water Cooler Set runs Crapapedia? They slammed the original Jamie Sommers for being a feminist. We'd gladly agree the show was a feminist statement because so few women at that time solo-ed in hour long dramas and, if they did, hello Angie Dickinson, they usually spent a great deal of time undercover as hookers or something else that would require being scantily clad. What we feel the Water Cooler was railing against were advances. They were to be found throughout each episode of the original series, even in the teaching scenes, Jamie had the students circle up and taught in the round. What the remake celebrates is regression. Jamie's saddled with Daddy issues, a kid sister, low self-esteem, a dead end job and episodes that rely solely on gimmicks either because the actress in the lead has nothing else to offer or the writers don't believe she does.

In the ratings, it lost out to the spin-off from Grey's Anatomy. Like the current character, we expect the ratings will regress as well.
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