Sunday, October 09, 2005

TV Review: Threshold Surpasses the Audience's

One definition of "threshold" is the point at which something is true or will take place. Another definition of the term is a beginning. We don't believe either applies to CBS' Threshold which airs Friday nights.

How can it be a beginning when it's so obviously recycling every TV show that's come before?

To clear things up at the outset, the show does not star Courtney Cox. Carla Gugino, the Wal-Mart version of Cox, stars in Threshold. We understand the confusion because she does sound a little like Courtney Cox and even looks a little like Cox on the first season of Friends when no one knew what to do with Monica's hair.

No one knows what to do with Gugino's hair either. We'd suggest washing it with a product that would strip away all the filmy buildup. Gugino, in 1996, lasted half a season on Spin City, it's debut season, and left under circumstances so sour that when the show began repeating during it's first season, she was stripped out of every episode her character Ashley had previously appeared in. Is it the hair?

We don't know. We know she wore it up, we know she wore it pulled back in a pony tail and we know she wore it loose in a "style" that appeared to be comb free because a comb-through would have taken out some of the stiffness from the overly generous application of hair spray. (They appear to use several "coats" of hair spray.)

The pilot was so bad that they reworked it before airing it. (Screeners of the original pilot are still in circulation.) What they haven't reworked thus far is "dirty head" which appears to be the look Gugino's promoting. She also promotes her breasts. Not just via plunging necklines but via an annoying habit she has of leaning forward and digging her upper arms into her chest to make the breasts pop out when she wants to ask a favor.

For instance, in one talking head scene, the following exchange occurs between Gugino and Peter Dinklage.

Gugino: Ramsey, I need to tap your expertise.

Dinklage: Oh I knew you would eventually. The answer is yes.

Gugino: Excuse me?

Dinklage: Women always come to me for sexual release like I'm some machine.

Gugino: I was referring to your language skills.

Dinklage: Your loss. How may I be your linguistic bee-o-tch.

The scene's offensive for many reasons. For instance, we wonder how anyone could forget the criticism that greeted Chevy Chase & Carrie Fisher's Under the Rainbow -- after which, you'd think trafficking in stereotypes about short people* would be something most would avoid. (Dinklage is four feet and seven inches.) But Gugino's Dr. Caffrey, who is supposed to lead the team and be the boss, really doesn't deserve that dialogue. Until you notice that for half the above lines, she's thrust out her chest and dug her upper arms in to frame those breasts. Gugino's obviously been studying acting with tutors Suzanne Sommers and Jennie Garth, but where did Dr. Caffrey graduate from -- Hooters Med?

In scene after scene she shows up with one plunging neckline after another (bra optional) and you're left to wonder exactly what sort of clothing strikes the doctor as "casual dress"?

Gugino's the "piece of ass." Just like she was in the failed Karen Cisco. She can't be anything else because she's unable to convincingly perform as anything other than a TGIF hostess. Where the dialogue and the scene would require Gugino to get angry, she smiles. As a beauty contestant, she might have a future (provided someone washes that hair). As an actress, Spin City may be all she's ever known for at this rate.

Not knowing anyone on the show, we worked the phone lines (The New York Times would call it "reporting") and here's some of what we learned. The show's already tanking in the ratings, CBS brass was reportedly never happy with the promised fixes to the pilot that they don't feel were added, the show's creator has lived in spec script hell and only recently emerged with a legitimate "credit." If you consider Average Joe a legitimate "credit" -- we don't.

One friend told us, "We thought we were getting the X-Files and ended up with Stargate." That wasn't intended as a compliment.

So what's the show about? We'll tell you quickly before the show's gone or retooled (both options are reportedly being seriously explored).

Each show begins with Gugino doing a voice over. She explains that she's in the field of worst case scenarios, but before you doze off, she's not working for State Farm. She works for the federal government and seems to have spent her time prior to the start of the fall season playing long games of what ifs? -- your tax dollars at work. On September 16th, she tells us, a naval carrier encountered an extra terrestrial. Now it's all changed and there's no time for musing or hair washing.

Gugino: They will strike any time, any place, anyone. Their goal? To turn us into them. But I have a plan to stop them. That plan is called Threshold.

Not exactly "Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy," is it? But they're currently stuck with the voice over because no one's watching and the show's structured in such a way that the opening scenes will rarely involve the regular cast members so they have to inform anyone who might happen by what the show is about.

There's hope that Brian Van Holt might be a "breakaway" star. Considering that Holt was perfect for the film House of Wax, we doubt that will happen due to his acting. The hopes are pinned on his looks and before you get too curious, let us advise you that Van Holt is a stockier, more square jawed version of Peter Berg (both are the same height) and Berg hasn't exactly sent most of America into a frenzy. But on this show, Van Holt passes for "eye candy."

So we've got piece of ass and sour eye candy. What else? Really nothing. Quirks don't make for characters and bad acting doesn't make for riveting TV. Charles S. Dutton glowers a lot. He's not used that much. It's a weaker version of the Morgan Freeman role in an Ashley Judd film.

The show tries to create excitement via really bad cross cutting. At one point, there's a device that will harm the entire city in Baltimore's subway. Gugino and a man under her try to disarm the device before it goes off while Van Holt and others chase down the guy who created the device, while Dutton screams for them to get out of there. Back and forth, back and forth.

Cross cutting, editing in fact, requires something more than "let's go check in on ___ who we haven't seen in a few seconds." You need a transition. That can come via a visual or an audio, but you need a reason to go from one location to the next.

Apparently the rules of reality TV are now infecting dramas and no one's benifitting.

Gugino's in a lot of scenes. Not all of them, but most of them. She's in the scene, for instance, where a guy won't talk so she threatens to send him to Guantanamo Bay and when he doesn't reply, orders the military to take him away. He cracks then.

Apparently someone finds that humorous.

They also, no doubt, find it humorous when an African-American is grabbed on the streets by two white guys and thrown into a van, then whisked off in the van and abused in the van. To make sure no one's offended, Threshold takes a page from the Bully Boy playbook and fronts a person of color to do the dirty work (in this case a guest star who happens to be both African-American and female -- Condi Rice, you have impacted society!).

There are other scenes that end, for instance, charmingly enough with the words, "Marines, take him away!" Or how about the opening interrogation scene where a person is speaking Korean (though Dutton says he doesn't know what the guy's speaking) and instead of providing a translator to explain that they're about to take a blood sample, they hold the guy and scream at him (in English)?

Dutton: Take it easy! I don't know what the hell you're saying but if you don't calm down right now, we'll just take a blood sample off the floor!

Not convinced by how offensive the show is yet? How about this, the Condi Rice? She's a cop. Her partner Blake was killed (she apparently checks his locker daily since his death) but she's convinced that the killer would get an easy deal/plea bargain. So she lists him as dead.

What does she do to him?

Let's let Condi tell it:

I figured if cargo pods were good enough for smuggling people, they were good for holding them.

This show is full of ugly people. Ugly to look at, ugly on the inside. Maybe it's supposed to be some larger statement on the current climate in this country? If so, it makes sense that "Condi" suffers no consequences for holding a prisoner in cargo pod down at the waterfront instead of taking him in, booking him and letting him have access to a lawyer or even a toilet.

Is that how ugly America is? We don't think the country's that bad. Call us optimists or maybe just note that we didn't make money off of making America look ugly via Average Joe. Reality TV is nothing but the guests of Jerry Springer kept around for a full season. So it's not surprising that Threshold, created by the Average Joe behind Average Joe, would attempt to portray one vile scene after another, without even grasping how ugly this whole thing is.

Maybe he missed the story of Mexicans dying in a trailer (cargo pod?) when they attempted to enter the country illegally? Or maybe Bragi F. Schut thinks that's "ripped from the headlines" and is too dense to grasp that when you take that approach, you need to have some clearly identified "do gooders" around. Law & Order can do the perp walk over and over (and over) because some viewers will buy the regulars as concerned with larger principles.

This show's only principle is the Alan Dershowitz inane "ticking time bomb" argument. In this case, the time bomb is a series of audio frequencies that aliens are using to take over the planet. (Which of course means America because people behind shows like this think the world begins and ends in the United States.) This "ticking time bomb" argument leads to, next week, jokes about bombing Miami. Are we getting how ugly this show is?

This isn't gallows humor, it's not developed or thought out enough for that. This is a weak premise that tries to combine several X-Files episodes and the mini-series and short lived television show V into one combo and tie Dershowitz around it. Honestly, he should get royalties for the DVD set that will no doubt be issued when the show is cancelled -- the real ticking time bomb everyone involved in this show should worry about.

If a theme's emerging so far this season, we suspect it may be "the public is a bunch of losers who can't be trusted." You can see that with Prison Break. On this show, you see it as well. You're told that the public (which would be you and us) can't be told of what is happening because they'd "panic." You're told, by Gugino, "Historically speaking, the public can't function in a crisis."

That justification doesn't work in an open society. But like Bully Boy, Gugino's happy to tie al Qaeda into anything. On this show, it's aliens. Instead of letting "Condi" know, at the end of the episode, that they've been going up against aliens, Gugino let's her think it was al Qaeda.

"Condi": I really underestimated al Qaeda. I mean I never dreamed guys living in caves could be so scientifically advanced. Inventing a weapon to turn us into maniacs?

Gugino: They may live in caves, but they have the money and connections to buy what they need and the less they know about what we know the better our chances of stopping them.

Gugino's lying to "Condi." Fortunately, when Condi walks off with a "no one could have guessed" look on her face, another character explains Gugino lied -- explains to Gugino (!) because even the cast doesn't trust that the audience can follow her "acting" choices. Every line's delivered the same -- with her looking at the person she's speaking to in the same way. She's the Henry Kissenger of acting. No, she didn't bomb Cambodia, she's just stunk up two networks so far (ABC and now CBS).

Until CBS pulls the plug (or an Acting Crimes Tribunal is created), Threshold will be around for a bit more. Catch if it you want to see a very ugly view of America. An ugly view that's endorsed and encouraged. This isn't a critique of society, this is a "Yee-haw!" get on board, drink the Kool Aid production.

No one's reputation will emerge intact from this show. (Sorry, Dutton.) We wondered if we were missing something in the show. So we consulted self-described sci-fi friends who assured us this show was a dog with fleas and the mange. We watched two episodes Friday. Not once but several times. First, we watched them the normal way. Then we watched them with the sound off. Then we watched them with the audio on but not looking at the TV. We were hoping to find something, anything to suggest that this was a send-up or a critique.

It's not. This is Bragi F. Schut's view of the world. We're confused as to whether or not Schut has a relationship with the Alpine Group Inc. (out of New Jersey) but we're not surprised that he traffics in a show that promotes fear of the other, hysteria and disregard for rule of law. He established that as his "stock in trade" when he established his "credit" with Average Joe.

[*Note: We're not sure which term Dinklage uses to self-describe. We were told by two people that it's "short" so we've used "short people." Our apologies to anyone, including Dinklage, who uses or prefers another term.]

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