Sunday, November 04, 2007

TV: Beware the Reaper

Apparently learning somewhat from their highly public embarrassment of embracing Studio 60 Yada-Yada-Yada last fall, the Water Cooler Set decided no more praise for high brow crap and instead went in search of low brow crap. In the CW's Reaper, they found it. We'd say viewers should run from it but, as with the 'brain' child of Aaron Sorkin's, they already have.

Long before Nikki Reed got cut from the show, Reaper was obviously going to be crap. Even the premise was questionable. As we noted last May: "

As bad as that is, nothing is as hopeless as the CW which wants to offer both an update of Dakatari (entitled Life Is Wild -- but without the cross-eyed Clarence or Judy the chimp) and Touched by an Angel in reverse: instead of working for God, the lead works for the devil (Reaper starring Bret Harrison) by retrieving evil souls that have escaped from hell. We question the premise of the latter -- not only because just titling the Robert Blake vehicle Helltown was too much for some viewers but also because why would Satan be despondent that evil souls were making it back to the earth and doing bad things? Lucifer with a soft spot? We've only met the Dark Angel's female approximate, so maybe we're missing something.

But the more Kevin Smith got involved, the crappier it became. The show now plays like the musings of its "creative consultant" Smith. In other words, viewers are likely to feel like they'd been slipped a "chocolate covered pretzel" that was anything but.

Though his participation is truly minimal the entire thing plays as if someone's attempted to channel him and therein lies the problem because Smith is not that talented and to call the Opie & Anthony regular "vulgar" is to understate the problem. Like Quentin Tarantino, Smith showed up on the indie scene a "boy genius" with far too much love of words and far too little common sense. What carried Tarantino onto a career was the visual talent. Smith has none as film after film has demonstrated. It's as though you're watching cutting room floor left overs from old Hal Roach Studio one reelers only instead of physical comedy, the characters just talk and talk. His first film Clerks came at a time when too many Syd Field devotees had dropped characterization for on-the-nose dialogue propelling plot points. It was refreshing and, along with Chasing Amy, remains not only his best work but a strong credit. The rest has been one horrible experience after another. Salma Hayeck is reduced to nothing in Dogma because he has no visual sense and, like Mallrats, depends upon sh*t humor that is neither funny nor original. It does make audiences uncomfortable and weaken anything else he has to offer. From there he went to self-parody (Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) less than a decade after his career started, imitation John Hughes (Jersey Girl) and finally a sequel to Clerks. None were hits commercially and all were badly shot films buried under a weight of excessive dialogue. In fairness, we might need to note that he's also made a strong foray into bad TV -- guesting on such offerings as Yes, Dear and Moronic Mars.

Reaper rips it all off but most closely follows one of Smith's critical hits, Clerks. Chasing Amy was a one-time offering from Smith, who may be most famous for attempting to insert a rape storyline (of Black Cat) in Marvel comics (instead of making it a storyline, he made it a character 'detail' under pressure from Marvel). Women are regularly reduced to the smallest of stereotypes in his work unless they can suffer violence. Chasing Amy came about because he was on the indie lecture scene with the director of Go Fish and Smith got confronted with the reality that, no, lesbians do not want to sleep with men. It was such a huge blow to his ego that he penned Chasing Amy and made sure his alter-ego didn't suffer the same harsh reality he did. Credit for what made it onscreen goes primarily to the actors (Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck and Jason Lee -- especially to Joey Lauren Adams) and to David Klein who was responsible for the look of the movie while Smith was interested in other things on the set.

Smith's attitude for women is channeled and reinforced in Reaper. But Clerks is the template. In that film, two clerks, Dante and Randall, are caught in dead end jobs. All the excitement and joy comes from Randall and his explosive, free association rants. In bad news for Reaper, they go with sad sack Dante whom they name Sam Oliver.

Reaper is one of two new shows being billed "slacker" this season. Slacker, Clerks and Reality Bites were the best of that film crop with only Reality Bites actually bothering to create characters (in fairness, it had Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke in the cast). Though all made a profit, none were considered blockbusters and the slacker theme either disappeared from most films or was pushed off on supporting characters. Despite those realities, TV has spent over a decade trying to work the theme.

That's really no surprise when you consider that the male slacker is a stereotype who can't connect with women, lacks direction in life and serves as little more than a function. Those attributes describe the bulk of TV characters in any era. This season NBC offers Chuck (which, as Mike noted, we really think is a show worth watching) and CW offers Reaper with the Water Cooler Set billing both as slacker shows. Like the title character, Chuck has ambitions and the series succeeds. Reaper's Sam Oliver has no ambitions and the show just sits there on the stained couch aimlessly.

The backstory is that Sam's parents promised their first child to the devil for a favor. At 21, Sam is informed of the promise and that he's now laboring for Satan when not working at a Home Depot-esque store. Sam whines a lot and mopes a lot and he never gets anything accomplished other than shooting the breeze with his all male posse which is even more immature than he is.

But, as the non-stop TV ads tell you, critics are hailing it. What exactly are they hailing?

Male riffs. Don't call it banter. Tired lines on tired topics that make one long for the non-insight of Dawson and Joey. It's hard to watch the series and not grasp how little the CW knows their audience. The WB and UPN merged to form CW and UPN really had nothing to offer. That didn't stop CW from turning Friday nights over to faux wrestling killing any excitement for the net-lette. And they've been working overtime to run off women. A self-described female geek at ABC told us on the phone Saturday that despite a huge crush on one of the leads, she had to give up watching Supernatural this year because it was just too angry. (She noted that the boys now strip often so we might need to update our joke about Supernatural being like gay porn where the leads forget to undress.) She couldn't understand what was going on?

What's going on is nothing new and has been going on at all the networks but may be most notable with CW which, in its WB incarnation, had a strong female base of viewers. Part of the reason for that was characters like Buffy, Jen, Piper, Phoebe and, of course, The Gilmor Girls. Those women drove their own lives. These days, it's all like the really lame cell phone commercial where the father attempts to bluster and intimidate a young man going out on a date with his daughter. The whole depowering and devaluing of women has so taken over the culture that it's even used in marketing.

On Reaper, there's really just one 'main' female character: Andi Prendergast. She's played by Missy Peregrym and it's difficult to determine, even after reading the scripts, whether it's her bad acting or the lousy writing that are to blame. But knowing some of the details of Nikki Reed's brief involvement with the series, we'll give Prendergast a pass because even if she does have talent, it won't show up on this show.

What does show up is an aimless, tired streak that would turn off all viewers -- as well as the CW's thinking they can cheat their core audience by casting a too-pretty boy lead and that's enough to interest female viewers. As if, week after week, women will tune in to watch a Ken doll and go weak in the knees.

The only slacker film with heat was written by a woman (Helen Childress) and Ethan Hawke's character Troy not only slept around, he fought a battle between his desire for Winona Ryder's Lelaina and his fear that a sexual relationship would destroy the only real friendship he had. Sam Oliver is Dante moping around and mildly excited about someday dating Andi. In one episode, when she invites him out (yes, that is how pathetic he is, he can't shut up about her but he can't do anything about that) and makes it clear they will be spending the night alone, Sam looks not excited but nervous. You sort of picture him rushing off to purchase a blow up doll for practice.

Like everything else about Sam and the show, the date doesn't happen. This allows Sam to whine to Satan about not having control of his weekends but it's not like Sam would do anything with them if he could. He doesn't do anything with the time he does have. He spends it with his male cheerleading section of supporting characters. His type actually appears in a more complex manner on Chuck, but it's supporting character Morgan.

And that's why the NBC show succeeds where Reaper fails. Chuck works for a number of reasons but largely because there is heat between Zachary Levi (Chuck) and Yvonne Strahovski (Sarah) onscreen and an actual impediment to the two becoming a couple (as opposed to cowardice on the part of Chuck -- the kind of cowardice that is a hallmark of Sam Oliver). Like 30 Rock last year, there's enough support at the top of NBC that we can wait to review the show but we've got to mention that Strahovski did more with one word ("Ann") in a scene full of tension than most performers do with a lengthy monologue and we also have to note that Monday's broadcast is a must-see.

Sam Oliver has lots of words. Too many, in fact, and no one ever tells him to shut up (a function that Chuck's Major John Casey fulfills). So audiences are left to play that role. The easiest way to shut Sam up is not to watch and the ever declining ratings suggest that's the option most are going for.

Actor Bret Harrison played verbose and sexually stunted on The Loop as well and that was cancelled. The thing that made the sitcom watchable were the female characters (played by Mimi Rogers and Joy Osmanski) who seemed to grasp that when playing opposite an actor reciting lines with no concept of backstory or meaning, they could easily steal the scenes (which they did). Apparently to prevent Harrison from being upstaged, the other roles have been cast in what we like to think of 'irregulars.' Like the cheap socks and shoes in strip malls because they really aren't up to the quality required for full price. Chief among them is Ray Wise who plays the devil and seems to think he's this decade's Dean Stockwell when the reality is he only demonstrates why this is the biggest role of his entire career.

So why the praise from the Water Cooler Set? The ads list Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and a host of others. Tim Golden (San Francisco Chronicle) took to pimping it again this week and proved especially dense about the decline in ratings for network TV when, as examples of outstanding cable shows, he quickly names The Closer, Saving Grace and Damages. Apparently good at checking out the overall numbers but lousy at checking out the demographics, Golden failed to notice the audience make up or the fact that all three star women playing strong characters. Where are the strong women on broadcast TV?

The reality is Reaper is crap just as last year's pimped show from Sorkin was crap. Anyone looking to enjoy an hour won't enjoy Reaper but the Water Cooler Set hasn't known how to sniff out a hit in years. Kevin Smith's name got attached to this show and the Water Cooler Set started drooling. Film critics wouldn't. Film critics are well aware that with the Weinstein's nixing everything he's offered of late, TV is the natural refuge for Smith. But the Water Cooler Set hears "Kevin Smith" and thinks "hot property." It's another 'boy genius'! And if he's really done little on the show, what does that matter when he's so obviously responsible for its birth? It's also true that the Water Cooler Set cares very little about women. Occasionally Alessandra Stanley will call out TV's lousy opportunities for women these days, but that really doesn't get picked up by the Water Cooler Set and you sort of picture the (male) majority rolling their eyes. Stanley came to TV criticism from another beat while the majority of the Water Cooler Set begin professional life in the roles and will die in them. They started out pimply, adolescent males desperate to see themselves on the small screen and that desire still explains the reception they give to most shows. You get the feeling the mini-series genre died in part because the set had trouble thinking past a one hour segment.

They're there for the boys, always. Which is why Katie Couric attacker Bill Carter was fawning over Brian Williams in The New York Times Saturday. Bri-Bri, such a news "man," was hosting Saturday Night Live and wasn't it wonderful and proof of how Regular Joe he was? No, it was an embarrassment. Fire fighters who caught the broadcast will no doubt pay closer to attention to his news reading on them since his portrayal was so patronizing, Democrats (and Republicans) will note the smarmy sketch he participated in (Mike Gravel plots to kidnap Hillary and the other Dems are in quick agreement!), one offense after another. Carter, so quick to carry NBC's water for them in the Katie attacks, is still carrying NBC's water and can't point out the obvious that a news anchor doesn't sully the anchor chair by doing sketch comedy. (In a sidenote, Amy Poehler has improved immensely as anchor this season. We promised friends with SNL we'd note that at some point so there it is.) Could you imagine the pile-up if Couric decided to host either SNL or Mad-TV? From both the Docker Boys and our media watchdogs like CounterSpin?

In the 80s, women began disappearing from the TV audience in large numbers. They're disappearing in droves again. It took Susan Faludi, and not the Water Cooler Set, to explain why. As with most things, they're working without a net and without a brain.
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