Sunday, October 29, 2006

TV: Kidnapped by the Water Cooler Set

When the fall season was starting and we (Ava and C.I.) were headed to DC in September, a number of friends were kind enough to provide us with copies and scripts of shows that would be airing. Some shows take time to find their footing. That's a given. Some shows just suck.

We watched two episodes of NBC Kidnapped (fast fowarding) and read over some of the scripts. The show sucked. There was no hope for it.

We called the friend who'd provided us with the Kidnapped material and conveyed that message. We were told the 'arc of growth' had only just begun. (Leaving us to wonder if we were dealing with a Carpenters fan?) We checked with a friend in programming at NBC. We were told "solid hit." We were told the network is fully behind it.

When we got back from DC, we checked again because any time a network's "solidly" behind a show, that's either a momentary thing or they're flat out lying.

We were being lied to. But on the post-DC call, we were still being lied to. NBC, we were told, was strongly behind the show and saw it as a tent pole for the season. Why, didn't we realize that if we panned it, we'd be a minority voice in the same company as The Wall St. Journal?

We're not fond of The Journal but we're really not concerned about calling something crap when it is just that. While we were checking with friends working on the show to find some reason or some excuse to hold out hope that the show might improve, NBC yanked it.

Not only have they yanked it, they're now burning off the original episodes (on Saturday nights) and it's clear to all involved with the show that there is no second season.

So what happened? It's a story of a bad show, it's also a story of the Water Cooler Set.

Wanting to be an attention-getter but playing with all the suspense of Bridget Loves Bernie, Kidnapped was supposed to be NBC's chance to ape Fox programming by offering a 'real time' show of their own. Each season, they were planning so far ahead before the first ratings came in, would revolve around a kidnapping being solved.

The show had a "movie look" was the talking point stressed by NBC. It looked like a film! It actually looked like a film by Sidney Lumet who is not really known for his visual sense. What he is known for is those moments of snap, those moments when an actor (Jane Fonda in The Morning After, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon) grabs you on screen. Lumet's films offer strong performances (he's an actors' director), they just don't offer much visual and, when they try, movie goers are left with the likes of The Wiz.

Lumet usually films in New York City. This allows for shots of imposing buildings and a monochrome palette of hues. Dark suits, dark shadows. In that regard, Kidnapped did have a "film look."

Timothy Hutton has stumbled around onscreen. In Daniel, Ordinary People and Q&A, he's actually located the heart of a character. Two of those films (first and last) were directed by Lumet. Watching Hutton strain for a character from scene to scene of the first episode was enough to clue you in that not only was Lumet not directing this TV series, no one was.

What critics were ooh-ing and aah-ing over wasn't direction, it was set design. Any performer reading over a review knows to shudder when a review of a play opens with talk of 'strong sets.' It's usually a clear indication that the critic has nothing to nice to say about anything else. When Kidnapped reviews started coming in raving over "the look," everyone should have been concerned. We think all that time hanging around the mythical Water Cooler has allowed too many of today's TV critics to develop water on the brain.

How else do you explain critics zooming in on "the look" without realizing that very few people ever watch a show for "the look"?

People watch to be engaged and there wasn't and isn't a damn thing engaging about the show. Timothy Hutton stands around a lot and answers when someone says "Conrad" or "Mr. Cain." Dana Delany poses -- far less beautifully then she did during China Beach. While making Exit to Eden, some made the mistake of describing her as "plush" and she's stuck with that look. A mistake because her "plush"ness means her angular face (and any evidence of cheek bones) got buried.

Delany's not a great actress. The final seasons of China Beach convinced some that she was. In movies, she's mainly been awkward. With China Beach, she was as well -- playing the priss Colleen Murphy. What saved her from the purge that befell the Vietnam drama early on was the spark she had in scenes with Marg Helgenberger. Helgenberger played KC but you can consider her "the Fonz." KC wasn't intended to be a leading or driving character. However, Helgenberger's talents (which are immense) meant that post-purge, KC was one of the main characters.

As time went by on the Beach, Delany got to warm up. Conflict and warm moments with Helgenberger made her seem a better actress than she was. (She's always been the TV equivalent of Ann Archer -- someone she physically resembles more and more with each year.) All those years and the bits of detail they provided meant that when the show went out with its we're in the 60s, no, we're in the 70s, no, we're in the 80s, it gave the (false) impression that Delany was able to play haunted and scarred.

Were that true, there would have been something, anything, in her performances that followed. Instead she was strident in House Sitter (as a woman Steve Martin had a crush on his entire life -- which, when you consider the age difference, left a huge ick factor) and all that followed. She didn't wander back to TV because she never really left. So every few years, she gets to be a lead in a TV show and it's quickly cancelled.

We think she's very lucky that so few have caught on thus far.

While Hutton can't find his role (and no one's helping him), Delany knows just what Ellie Conrad is: a priss. She's such a priss that when the "help" (people looking for the kidnap victim) are around, she often resorts to speaking French with her daughter. What some writer must have thought would play 'clever' just left viewers even more uninvolved.

Leopold is the kidnap victim and, with a first name like Leopold, he was born for tragedy or at least playground teasing. Leopold is fifteen-years-old. Despite having a bodyguard, he's kidnapped.

Leopold not only has a bodyguard, he has a French speaking mother. Yes, Dana Delany is the mother. You don't care about her, you don't care about him, you can't care about Hutton's character (though you may feel sorry that a strong actor, when provided guidance, is showing up in this crap).

But somehow, water cooler critics felt, this was the show to watch, the show that would have the country talking. It wasn't, it didn't. Even NBC has lost faith in the show. But has the Water Cooler Set issued their mea culpas yet? No.

In a way, what the Water Cooler Set did was their version of covering the lead up to Iraq. They didn't use common sense, they didn't report on reality. They just told you what they wanted to. They told you it was a great show (it was a flea bitten dog from it's first opening). They told you it would be a hit. They praised it through the roof. They waxed on so hard and heavy that you almost expected Colin Powell to step foward to vouch for the show.

Ratings alone do not determine whether or not a show is "good." Many a great show has been cancelled. (And many an awful show has become a hit.) There are programs that never find a wide audience. With those shows, they do have a core following. They flood the networks with letters, e-mails, phone calls and faxes in order to attempt to save their favorite shows.

No such action is taking place for Kidnapped. No such action will. It won't be hailed as "one of the best shows you're not watching" because, outside of the Water Cooler Set, no one was watching after the first episode. (Actually, we're told ratings tanked at the mid-way point of the first hour aired.)

So what was going on?

The water cooler set responded to the 'trick,' to the notion of 'a puzzle.' Sometimes those can hook in an audience but rarely on TV. (The play Deathtrap hooked in a crowd, the film, directed by Lumet, sent audiences fleeing.) Kidnapped was never a TV show. It was a TV conceit. The kind of thing tossed off by Tony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim while sailing one weekend. (Apparently, we only thought we'd seen the last of Sheila.)

It wasn't that it was 'too clever for it's own good' (there is nothing clever about the show), it was that it thought it could break every rule -- and critics liked that. Now, as a viewer, you're not tuning in to see what show is going to go out of its way to bore you, but to the Water Cooler Set, this was seen as 'innovative.' Maybe they've been in the biz too long?

Maybe they're so bored that they get off on a show that will punish the audience? That's what Kidnapped does. 'Color' to the monochrome world was to come via the supporting cast. That was where the excitement would be!

But audiences don't watch an hour show for eight minutes of bits. Audiences need to care about the characters. Ellie and Conrad Cain were too rich, too removed (the reaction to the kidnapping played as though Leopold had brought home a C in conversational Italian), and, most importantly, too boring for anyone to care.

Without A Trace is the show Kidnapped's often compared to. They're nothing alike. But a film in the 80s of the same title, has similarities. That film starred Kate Nelligan and no one gave a damn about her character (the mother of a kidnapped child). The only life in the entire muddled movie came via Stockard Channing in a supporting role. Audiences didn't flock to that film because they didn't care about it. The same is true of this series.

It takes a lot of stink to come in dead last for the week, but that's the 'honor' Kidnapped achieved recently (dead last of the big four). Somewhere post-post modern, the water cooler set stopped caring about the audience and got a little too clever for their own good. That's also the story of Kidnapped. You can see how the show got aired to begin with. Many an exec would identify it. They'd also identify with a show-wife (Delany doesn't even qualify for 'trophy wife'). But viewers wouldn't and couldn't.

It's not because they're "dumb" or "stupid." It's because they don't take delight in watching cheese mold (slowly) on screen. If they're going to watch a show called Kidnapped, they expect to see characters with real emotions, parents who (unless they're involved in the kidnapping) will fall apart the way any person they know would.

Hutton's performance seemed to indicate what Donald Sutherland demonstrated in Ordinary People. Sutherland's performance got across to the audiences. But he was playing a man shattered before the film began. The scripts of Kidnapped are lousy so Hutton probably did about as well as any actor could have in that non-role.

Lousy writing is when you don't bother to establish any kind of a relationship for the characters in the moments before the kidnapping. When they don't care about each other, the audience doesn't care about them.

But the Water Cooler Set appears to get off on it -- in their post-post-modern daze. They turn cold when presented with Men In Trees but drool over this nonsense. They want to intellectualize a medium known for immediacy, not detachment.

The story of Kidnapped is the story of all that is wrong with TV (women as objects being the most obvious) and it's also the story of today's TV criticism which offers a lot of a stand-offish people the opportunity to pen reviews that require more work than the staid shows they're supposedly scrutinizing.

These days, we're back to filmed sitcoms, sitcoms without an audience, and that's part of the general detachment as well. We reviewed Twins (which aired on the WB) intending for it to go up here but pulled it at the last minute when we were informed that week would be a theme edition. (It ran in the print version of The Third Estate Sunday Review and also in the gina & krista round-robin.) As we said in the review, we really couldn't believe the hatred and scorn heaped on that show. Melanie Griffith was the most appealing she'd been since Working Girl. Sara Gilbert was shaping, episode by episode, her character (Mitchie) into an actual character and not just a mouth for one liners. As the CW (UPN and WB merged) struggles with their night of comedy (moved from Sunday to Monday with no real ratings increase), they might be struggling less if they'd realized the value of some of the shows they cancelled. (Eve and Twins among them.)

But how could they stand by Twins when the Water Cooler Set panned it? They couldn't. It didn't have ratings (though it had higher ratings than the CW's sitcoms) and it didn't have critical support. We noted before how what passes for TV criticism today (in print) harms television. Twins wasn't 'clever' enough for them. There was no detachment. There was no built-in conceit they could marvel over. There were four lead actors doing some of the most appealing work they'd ever done. (Mark Linn-Baker truly surprised us.) But instead of addressing what the show had to offer or its mistakes (and it did have mistakes), they focused on Melanie Griffith's lips. Apparently, they'd been hurting for the last twenty or so years while Griffith doing film work prevented them from weighing in on her cosmetically enhanced lips?

They were storing a lot of anger and they let it all out on Twins. As we wondered in our review, was this due to the fact that it was a show that revolved around women? Or, for them to tell if a scene has meaning these days, does it need to come with a voice-over?

Hey, let the anger out, we're all for it. Reviews should be passionate, alive. We can disagree strongly with the opinions of a review but still enjoy it for the passion on display.

We're also aware that our opinions are our opinions and someone else's opinions are their opinions. Opinions are personal. But we think if you've praised and hailed both Kidnapped and Vanished this year -- two of the worst dramas -- there's something strange going on.

There's no art in either and audiences haven't responded to them (for good reason). So we do wonder that Anne Heche (who is doing an outstanding job in Men in Trees) is this year's Melanie Griffith (punching bag) and at a time when women are the ones 'vanishing' from TV in leading roles, we think it's rather strange that bad television in the form of Kidnapped and Vanished is greeted with praise from the Water Cooler Set while they save their anger snits to go to town on women.

Bad writing, bad & non-existant acting, gets a pass because they like the 'puzzle.' A woman like Heche, who should be a contender for an Emmy this year, becomes the pinata as all the boys and some of the girls grab their 'sticks' (real and wished for) to strike with.

Opinion is opinion but there is such a thing as "goes to pattern." And we're seeing a pattern where a show that has a female lead or leads not existing to bolster the male lead's (fragile) ego
bring out the clock tower sniper in the Water Cooler Set while they give a thumbs up to everything else that comes down the line. Maybe they're reflecting the times?

All we know is that the "look" of Kidnapped told them the show had "class." It's not just TV that's gotten worse in the last few years, it's also the Water Cooler Set and their judgements.
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