Sunday, January 15, 2012

TV: The head scratchers

Last week's theme seemed to be confusion. Whether watching NBC or listening to NPR, America was blurting out a collective, "Huh?"


On NBC, three hours were spent introducing the new drama, an update of John Grisham's The Firm. A lot of money went into this show and CBS, still insisting that NBC stole the series from them, has a lawsuit against NBC that's easier to follow than the onscreen drama. With all that money involved, how does the show come off like a seven-year-old trying to tell a knock-knock joke?

"Knock-knock -- Wait. Wait. Knock -- Oh, somebody says -- Say, 'Who's there?' Peaches. Wait! No, lemon! No, uh, orange! Orange you glad I didn't -- wait! Say, 'Orange who?' Go ahead. Say it now."

If you're not getting the problem, you didn't watch. Back in 1988, Justine Bateman hosted Saturday Night Live and took part in a Family Ties skit which found the Keatons going into a flashback, then into a flashback within the flashback, then . . .

The Firm is a thriller. Or it's supposed to be. It picks up ten years later -- from the novel and the Sydney Pollack directed film. If you've forgotten, Mitch and Abby moved to the south when Mitch went to work for 'The Firm' -- a law practice so ruthless that it made the mob look good. In fact, Mitch enlisted the help of the mob to put away 'The Firm.'

In the TV show, Mitch (Josh Lucas) and Abby McDeer (Molly Parker) are informed by the feds that the mob is now after them -- seems the feds went ahead and prosecuted the mob which now wrongly believes Mitch must have ratted them out. Mitch tells the feds to shove their witness relocation program offer but Abby tells him she's pregnant and they decide to enter the program. Then, years later, the mobster dies and Mitch and Abby (and daughter Claire) leave the program -- against the fed's recommendation. Then Mitch starts his own law practice with his private detective brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie) and office manager Tammy (Juliette Lewis). And then Ray gets an offer to joina firm. He doesn't want to join a firm. Even Abby tells him, Mitch, you don't want to join a firm, you like being your own boss. But he joins the firm. And apparently doesn't notice all the repeat looks between his friend and his new boss. And then he ends up with someone with the firm as a witness to something and he and the man are trapped in a hotel room and someone's banging on the door and screaming "Hotel security!" but Mitch says if they're really hotel security they'd have a key and not be yelling "hotel security" so don't let them in and the man tells Mitch he can't take it anymore and the man jumps off the balcony to his death and . . .

And if you followed all of that, first, congratulations. Second, you might not have followed it on TV. All of that -- and so much more -- was told in a non-linear manner. The show started with Mitch 'modern day' phoning Abby and telling her they were going to have to go on the run again. What!!! Flashback to the hotel. Then flashback to an earlier time. And on and on. Quantum Leap didn't skip around this much.

It's meant to keep you guessing and maybe it will work for some people but it also runs a risk of alienating the audience. If, for example, you're curious about the case where Mitch is defending a young boy who may have killed a school mate, if you're really interested in that, you're not going to want to jump around in the pilot to a hundred other story strands and never have that one developed. Or maybe, in the pilot, you were more interested in the young woman accused of murdering an elderly woman, another one of Mitch's clients, and felt like the show should have provided some resolution there -- or to either legal case. Or maybe you just don't like jigsaw puzzles.

There are a hundred ways the storytelling on the show can alienate and the ratings proved that something did. The two hour pilot debuted last Sunday and it lost viewers each half hour.

Something was pissing them off. Maybe it was the look of Josh Lucas?

Lucas has startling blue eyes and was, one would guess, hired in part because he's good looking. In Sweet Home Alabama, for example, he was very good looking. On The Firm, not so much. And if you read comments on the show (we checked out viewer response after a friend with the show passed on four critical pans of it), a lot of people are attempting to fix Lucas' look. Most think the problem is that he needs a shave.

That may be. It is true that if you're on trial for murder, you really don't want your lawyer -- assigned by the court or not -- showing up to defend you with two-day old stubble.

But we don't think that's the problem.

The problems are the camera and the wardrobe. Let's start with the latter. Does no one know how to dress men on this show? Lucas is wearing suits that look off the rack and as if they didn't fit him in the store. Every jacket he wears tends to be too large and makes it appear he has a bustle under the jacket. They're also lousy fabric (in terms of filming) and lousy colors (ibid). Now for the camera work.

Pollack, for the film, gave Tom Cruise a different look in the role of Mitch. His cheekbones and forehead were more prominent and it added to an energy for the film. Pollack had the camera angle down to capture Cruise (and others in the film). The film's unique look (which tended to make many look like a Bratz doll) is not translating to the TV show successfully and Lucas, already wearing a too-large and unflattering suit, is coming off rat faced and fat as a result of the angles. (Lucas is not fat, he is not rat faced. He is a very attractive man -- though watching the show you might not ever guess that. We're not making fun of his looks, we're noting that the worst camera angle possible is being used.) It's so bad, the casual viewer might wonder if NBC has rebranded Cannon and discovered the new William Conrad.

The pilot was really bad because, in two hours, you have a right to hope at least one of the multiple storylines might be resovled. Thursday, the show moved to NBC's last hour of prime time and piled on even more starter stories but did actually manage to resolve two minor storylines (a man who had falsely confessed to one murder had, in fact, murdered before and Abby handled a student's cheating on a test without implicating her daughter Claire who saw the cheating). But though that was a tiny step forward, the episode itself was a huge step backward.

In the first regular episode, Molly Parker moved to forefront. Parker is very pretty but, as Shirely MacLaine notes in Terms of Endearment, "pretty isn't enough." The writers haven't created a compelling character for Molly and her little teaching story isn't just a distraction, it's a bore. Sorry but people aren't watching a thriller where one man's jumped to his death and we now know that Mitch's boss is attempting to have him killed so that they can watch middle school children cope with testing and home work.

The only one with a strong handle on a character from the start of this show was Juliette Lewis. She's taken over (from the film) in the Holly Hunter part. That's the most difficult part there is. In the book, it's underwritten and an embarrassment (as most Grisham females are). In the movie, Holly Hunter just created it out of scratch. She flooded the nothing role so much that not only was Tammy a full bodied human being, but you forgot about all the criticism that had dogged the various rewrites of the script and how Meryl Streep had turned down the rewrite that her as a partner in the film because it was so underwritten despite being promient in terms of screen time.

If Juliette Lewis had just decided to mimic Holly Hunter, that would have been a treat all by itself. Instead, she's put her own mark on Tammy and its original and interesting and you always feel like when the director's said action, Tammy didn't just come to life. That she was in the midst of sharing a dirty joke or planning a hook up with Ray or some such business right before the scene started. She comes across real and alive. And Thursday night, she was barely on the show.

If the show gets an axe -- barring a miracle in the ratings for this Thursday, that's very likely -- it should at least serve as a TV jumping point for Juliette Lewis. We have been very lucky over the years to note some of the most gifted performers in shows that got the axe. We championed, for example, Ty Burrell when the Water Cooler Set ignored him. We noted his comic chops. Now, of course, he's the lifeforce of Modern Family. We're not recommending the show be pulled, we think the problems are fixable. But if it is pulled, Juliette should get credit for being the one thing that worked on the show.

How do you fix the show?

If NBC is serious abot the show, if they're willing to stand by it and give it a second season, they need to do something bold that indicates they'll take risks and that they're not your standard procedural. Meaning someone needs to die at the end of the first season. In terms of impacting Mitch, it would have to be Abby or Claire. A thriller that requires your lead characters to go on the run? We'd argue Claire's the baggage there and point out that Abby (in the film) was far more interesting once she was assisting with the plots (drugging Avery on the island, for example). So kill off Claire. Let Mitch's actions have consequences. Demonstrate this isn't The Practice with gunfire twice an episode.

And when Mitch, Abby, Ray and Tammy start over, stop being so damn genteel. Mitch can't pay the lease on his storefront law offices but he's living in a huge house, tastefully decorated? And this is before he goes into partnership with the new 'Firm.' That might have played in the 90s, but in the midst of an economic recession, the country's not really buying it. (Check audience reaction, we did.)

Plot longterm storylines. Slow reveals are not longterm storylines, they are storylines you tease out. Longterm storylines are stories that effect the characters and change everything. If NBC wants to stand by the show, season two should be Ray's betrayal of Mitch. The show needs to be taking major chances with the characters (and giving the actors material worth digging into).

Immediate fixes? Get Lucas in some clothes that fit with colors and fabric that film well, stop shooting overhead and start resolving at least one case in a single episode.

Will we be listened to? A number of you feel we were listened to last week. The second half of "TV: The misguided Water Cooler Set" addressed NPR's live coverage of the Iowa caucus. New Hampshire was last week and All Things Considered was back with 'special' live coverage. A number of you noted how great it was to have Melissa Block as anchor after last week when Robert Seigel anchored and women were barely part of the proceedings. Melissa as anchor did improve things. With her as anchor, every segment had a woman in it, true. That was a huge improvement after last week which, over five hours, featured only three women (Mara Liasson, an Iowa public radio employee and Debbie Wasserman Schultz).

But mainly, Melissa acted as a concealer, not a fix.

We listened to four hours (we believe there were more hours, but we were streaming, we were in London, and our stream went out and we couldn't get the stream back up -- and don't get us started on the time difference). In addition to the various GOP candidates making 'victory' speeches, here are the voices we heard.

1) Melissa Block (NPR).
2) Ari Shapiro (NPR).
3) Mara Liasson (NPR).
4) Bob Smith (Republican politician, Newt Gingrich endorser)
5) E.J. Dionne (Washington Post columnist)
6) Matthew Continetti (Weekly Standard columnist)
7) Tom Ridge (Republican politician, endorser of Jon Huntsman)
8) Robert Smith (NPR)
9) Don Gonyea (NPR)
10) Andrew Kohut (Pew Research Center)
11) Charlie Bass (Republican politician, endorser of Mitt Romney)
12) Tovia Smith (NPR)
13) Jennifer Donahue (New Hampshire Institute of Politics)
14) Ron Elving (NPR)
15) Andrea Seabrook (NPR)
16) John Sununu (politician, Mitt Romney endorser)
17) Ben Philpott (member station KUT)
18) Tim Scott (Republican politician from South Carolina)
19) Frank Guinta (Republican politician from New Hampshire)
20) Doug Wead (Ron Paul adviser)
21) Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Democratic US House Rep.)

Over four hours, we heard 21 voices and only six of those were women?

Yeah, that's an improvement from 3. But we do get that 15 of the voices were men? While it's good that we learned NPR does have women covering individual campaigns (in Iowa, they had to use an Iowa public radio person because NPR had no one assigned to Michelle Bachmann's campaign), we noted, yet again, that opinion columnists sharing 'analysis' were all men.

We noted that, also yet again, every Republican politician was a man. Where was Nikki Haley? Her office told us NPR didn't contact her. But, you insist, Haley is the Governor of South Carolina. This was the New Hampshire primary. Ben Philpott was on to discuss South Carolina (specifically how it was make it or break it time for Rick Perry with that primary). Tim Scott is a politician from South Carolina. Why wasn't Nikki Haley even sought as a guest? She's weighed in. She endorsed Mitt Romney some time ago.

After last week's piece went up, we heard from a Republican consultant. We know her. She e-mailed us via this site and said, "Call me to discuss the coverage." We did. Though she's often on TV commenting, she wasn't asked to appear on NPR and she's noticed that other Republican women aren't. Her argument is that NPR is purposely leaving women out of the coverage and attempting to subliminally suggest that women do not vote Republican.

We've often noted NPR's sexism on air (such as, with Ann, that women made up only 18% of Terry Gross' guest list for 2010 on Fresh Air). So, to us, it doesn't seem that NPR needs much prompting to go sexist and under represent women.

But she asked us if we'd talk to other Republican women? She arranged for us to talk to ten other Republican women -- including two office holders. They're not joking. They honestly feel this way. They honestly feel that NPR is slanting the coverage, purposely presenting an abundance of men to ensure that their largely female audience is left with the impression that GOP equals male party (and that women in the audience, therefore, will not be tempted to vote Republican in November).

Again, our own opinion is that NPR needs no excuse to go sexist. For example, we weren't at all surprised that with Renee Montagne on leave (her father passed away at the end of last year, our condolences and sympathies), NPR has decided to team Steve Inskeep up with David Greene. The last thing NPR needs is two male hosts in the morning and the last thing the increasingly 'jovial' Inskeep needs is an on air roll dog. But that's NPR which is sexist every damn day, on every damn program. If it ever had a functioning ombudsperson, this issue would be loudly called out. (A woman who lies that she can't call out Fresh Air because it is not produced by NPR is not a functioning ombudsperson. Especially when NPR ombudspersons have always been happy to rush to defend Terry Gross in their ombudsperson space, such as when Terry used the n-word on her show repeatedly.)

But that's our opinion. Our opinion is not the only opinion or the supreme opinion or the ruling opinion. It is one of many competing to be heard.

The Republican women we spoke to have an opinion. It deserves to be heard and evaluated as well. And they're seeing conflict of interest.

NPR's guidelines don't just require that NPR avoid conflict of interest, the guidelines require that they avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

They've got the appearance right now with several Republican women. They need to address this issue. Out of 21 speakers on your live coverage, ten of -- at least ten -- should have been women. Their failure to ensure that was the case creates not only the appearance of a conflict of interest but also confusion.

The Republican consultant who asked us to call her and then set us up with ten other women was worried we might drop the issue because "you're Democrats." Yes, but let there be no confusion on this point, we are feminists and we do not support sidelining women, not because of their political beliefs, not for any reason.
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