Sunday, January 21, 2007

TV: The new Steve McQueen?

Crossing Jordan opened season six last Sunday with Jordan (Jill Hennessy) determined to prove she didn't kill her lover. She's no wallflower, Jordan Cavnaugh. When the show was about to debut and in its earliest days, NBC promos would feature Garbage's "I'm Only Happy When It Rains" and if a character can be summed up in song, that was a perfect match.

I'm only happy when it rains
I'm only happy when its complicated
And though I know you can't appreciate it
I'm only happy when it rains

You know I love it when the news is bad
And why it feels so good to feel so sad
I'm only happy when it rains

That is medical examiner Jordan Cavanaugh, the heart of the show. All things rest on Hennessy's shoulders and whether you're supposed to buy that Jordan may have committed murder or whether you're supposed to buy her approach to sex (get your clothes off, get on my bed, get busy, now get out) or whatever, Hennessy makes it believable.

Created by Tim Kring, Crossing Jordan delivered what earlier shows (Dear Detective, Mrs. Columbo) had only hinted at, a complex female character in the lead. Some have called it a CSI rip-off. They're the sort that see a man with an acoustic guitar and start screaming, "Next Dylan!" Crossing Jordan's not a cookie-cutter show. It's more like Quincy than it is CSI. Like Quincy, Jordan can become so fixated on a case, that it threatens her own career (and, frequently, her own life). She pursues clues with all the zeal of a Talmudic scholar. There's no time for niceties or office politics which is why she is frequently not working.

For a show that's danced around NBC's schedule repeatedly, Crossing Jordan has managed to deliver some solid ratings. Its thanks for that was similar to the thanks given Emmy winner Patricia Arquette's Medium, pull it off the schedule. The schedule was announced last spring and then everyone started fretting that Studio 60 Yada Yada Yada couldn't hold its own on its announced night (Thursday). What followed was monkeying around and both Medium and Crossing Jordan were benched. Is it underlining the obvious to note that both shows are the only hour long programs NBC has starring a woman?

Is it carping to note that the Water Cooler Set is attempting to come to the rescue of the ratings failure, audience rejected, Studio 60 Yada Yada Yada by telling you that the 'genius' has solved the problem: ROMANCE! The show just needed romance!

(What the show needed was someone to cut the dialogue by about two-thirds and get to the point.)

What NBC needs is new blood in the offices. Doesn't have to be young blood, but it needs to be new. They've trashed their schedule, trashed their ratings. Of the big three, they have the most to be ashamed of for Fall 2006. They had no faith in Heroes (which is why we grabbed it for our first review). They refused to heed warnings that reality wouldn't sandwich in between ER and an hour of comedies (even though The Apprentice had already made that point quite clear). And they've acted like little boys, not men (it's a very male network today, behind the scenes) because boys might need their own club house, but a network is in the business of making money which means bringing in lots of viewers -- not just men.

It was hilarious when they turned down the ad for the Dixie Chicks documentary (Shut Up and Sing) by falling back on the nonsense that they couldn't afford to offend when they had done nothing but offend as they took the formerly number one ranked network to the bottom of the barrel. They were warned, there were many loud arguments, but they knew best. So they cleared the women off the schedule (Hennessy and Arquette) and rushed in one male starrer after another. (Don't tip them off, they really think 30 Rock is Alec Baldwin's show.) It's as though the current crew can't recall the names Courtney Cox-Arquette, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Shelly Long, Lisa Bonet . . . and seem to believe that the recent glory streak for NBC revolved around, and was due solely to, men.

If you don't get what happened, note ABC added Ugly Betty and Men In Trees. Note that CBS has The New Old Christine and women carrying their end on the new sitcoms. NBC? Well if you live for helpmates, you might be able to take comfort in the fact that Studio 60 Yada Yada Yada and Friday Night Lights feature women as helpmates.

And how stupid, really, how stupid do you have to be to think a full season of new episodes can revolve around high school football? Forget whether the show is good or not, football's an old man's sport. Basketball long ago overtook it as the sport for young men. But when you've got men who never accomplished as boys, they're all over the idea despite the TV track record the football setting had. You might also note the obvious trash cluttering the schedule (with more due shortly), the 'reality' TV. The Apprentice was never a blockbuster. The only reality blockbuster NBC ever had was Weakest Link. For a season, it was all over the place. The very strange female host was weirdly compelling. But the Men To Boyz of NBC couldn't grasp that, even when it was pointed out to them repeatedly, so they go with male comics.

Make no mistake, no network disowns their female driven hits as often as CBS. But no network's ever had a team as hateful towards women as the current crew at NBC. Discussing meetings, women will voice the complaints that they were ignored and dismissed. Well why should life in the offices be any different than what makes it onscreen?

They're in panic mode now and they should be. They've destroyed the network. They thought if their aged, White, male tastes liked it, surely it should draw in all viewers, especially that coveted 18-40 set. It didn't quite work out that way.

So after all the male driven shows crash and burn, the NBC 'brains' realize they have to do something. They rush Medium back to air, they go after the show about the casting of Grease and, oh yeah, they toss Crossing Jordan back on air.

It's painful to watch the new episodes of Crossing Jordan because you'll grasp just how good the show is and realize just how out of touch the network is. For starters, the show has a stronger look than it ever has. They're using new camera angles and give credit to the hair department. The biggest beneficiary there is Jerry O'Connell. The new angles give his character Woody a bearing that he doesn't have when your using standard angles and standard lighting and the work hair's doing (also noticeable especially on Hennessy). . . . We're not joking here about the hair. We watched on Sunday and Monday morning were calling to find out what hair product was being used. Jerry O'Connell always look better than he films but for the first time on the camera, he actually looks more than 'boyish.' That's the new visual look of the show and that's the work of the hair department.

If you think we're making too much of the visuals, check it out yourself. It's got a stronger look than anything else NBC offers. It's a professional look and, you better believe, it's one that others will copy. This isn't the flat look of all the shows Dickie Wolf squeeze out, this is the sort of quality visual look you expect from a film.

Telling a friend we wanted to see if the look worked on regular TV (we're aware that not everyone has HighDef), we got a copy of another episode and the look works on regular TV as well. Not only should Crossing Jordan have made the fall schedule because it's an audience favorite and a strong show, anyone with a brain would have put it on just to note the look. They would have sold the look as a hook.

Along with the look, you've got a strong cast. It's not an ensemble because Hennessy is the lead. A character can leave on any of the CSI's and the shows will continue. You can't have Crossing Jordan without Hennesy, even if you try to change the title. Without the gravity she's given Jordan, the others wouldn't work. (We'd argue that was proven when the series did an episode without her character.) But in the supporting roles, you've got a group of people who've meshed perfectly onscreen. The camera can go anywhere and they're in character. Whether they're the focus of the shot or caught on the edges, you see them as Bug, Lily, Nigel, Garret. As Lu, Leslie Bibb has already manged mesh and is doing the kind of strong work she's not done since Popular.

When the show got bumped for the fall, our first question to friends with the show was, "How bad is it?" Now in its sixth season, it would be normal if the program was lagging. We were told that wasn't the case and, a very rare thing, if you check out the show you'll see that wasn't hype.

You may wonder why The Apprentice preceeds it but, if you do, just remember der Donald has picked a public feud with a woman and, in its earliest stages, the NBC brass just knew that would be a ratings pick me up for the tired show. (Hasn't worked out that way and NBC should have long ago repeated Trump's catch phrase back to him.)

Last Sunday, Jordan was trying to find her lover's killer. Lu was trying to get her busted, Woody was suspended and under investigation (Lu and Woody are both police officers) and Garret, Bug, Nigel and Lily were trying to help Joradn prove she was innocent. Jordan confronted a dirty judge about the bribes he'd taken, the judge killed himself, Nigel managed to use forensics to track down the real killer, whom Jordan was already confronting, the whole thing involved a mining company attempting to cover up their own crimes, you had two locations utilized throughout (Boston, the show's setting, and DC, where Jordan had gone, with Garret following, to find the killer) and you had a new character introduced. If that seems like a great deal, it was. And we didn't even mention Lily's having to explain the wedding that wasn't.

All of that (and actually more) went down without it feeling forced, without exhausting you. And that's a testament to everyone in front of and behind the cameras.

A friend who acts on a cookie-cutter crime drama asked mid-week what we were reviewing and we said we'd probably tackle Crossing Jordan. She couldn't stop marveling over Hennessy's peformance in the role and, noting our review of Moronic Mars, insisted we point out that Jordan, like Moronic, has the weight of the world on her shoulders but, "when you have a real actress," the audience never forgets that fact "because the actress doesn't." Our reply was we wish she hadn't said it so we could claim it as our own. (She said go ahead, but we'll give her credit.) That really gets to what keeps the show compelling. Hennessy's doesn't pull the punches in a scene that makes Jordan come off bad. (Jordan can be rude, she can be self-involved.) She's committed to the character. It's the type of character a woman rarely gets to play as lead. Every now and then, something along these lines will come up for a guest role and then they'll bring the actress back due to audience response only they'll water her down because if she's popular that must mean the character is "likeable."

For six seasons, Hennessy's played the character without seeking short cuts that say, "I'm really likeable. Honest." She hasn't played to the audience. Early on in the show, there was an icy scene with her maternal grandmother, she let the audience feel sorry (and possibly stunned) for Jordan. American audiences can see a complicated female character . . . on PBS when Prime Detective airs. Not a whole lot of other times.

We asked our friend if she'd ever told Hennessy how much she enjoys her performance and she responded, "I wouldn't dare. She's like the Steve McQueen of TV." And we think that sums up Jordan almost as well as "I'm Only Happy When It Rains."

If you're a fan of the show you're probably already watching (unless the bouncing all over the schedule left you dizzy). If you haven't, carve out just five minutes on a Sunday night to check out the new look of the show.

Finally, last week we reviewed Ugly Betty and Ty has noted how many e-mails came in on that. If you're one of the ones who enjoy the show or just interested in reading another feminist take on it, please check out an article on Ugly Betty by Yeid M. Rivero (Ms. magazine). It's in the Winter 2007 issue which just went on sale.

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