Posts tagged ‘Defying Gravity’

Fear The Walking Dead

Fear The Walking Meh, more like.

I’ve said several times before that I’m a sucker for a zombie apocalypse.  Part of me was really looking foward to this show.  I assumed from comments that Robert Kirkman made about the comics a long time ago that he would never bother to revisit the beginning of his zombie apocalypse.  For that aspect at least, I was intrigued.

And then they cast Kim Dickens.  Yay.  I adored her in Deadwood and Tremé.

The result?  Yawn.  Yawn The Walking Dead.

Problem #1: Boring zombies.

Problem #2: The main reason that they’re boring is that Kirkman & co. are using them in the pilot to threaten main cast members.  Anyone following the development of the show or being exposed to the myriad previews knows that those characters will survive the pilot.  Yawn.

Problem #3: Are any of these main characters likeable?  As much as I adored Kim Dickens in Deadwood and Tremé … um, no.  Except possibly Travis, depending on what more we see of him in the next five weeks.

Problem #4: Kirkman & co. have a built-in audience who knows exactly what this apocalypse evolves into years down the road.  Do we hit the ground running here in full-on outbreak mode?  Um, no.  Instead we spend the first hour trying to figure out if an unlikeable oh-someone-please-spare-me-by-feeding-him-to-the-zombies-now junkie is hallucinating or insane.  Yawn.

I understand the desire to go with a slow burn style of storytelling, possibly to differentiate it from the original series, but it just didn’t work for me.  From the moment we saw a flash of Cal’s gun, I knew exactly how the rest of the story was going to play out … until the damn show ended and I was left shaking my head and swearing at my television (“What the fuck, was that it?  Was that all?  They’re ending it there?!?”).

So … I’ll still tune in for the next couple of weeks to see how they end up trying to tell the story, but I am less than impressed.  I have seen the occasional bad-to-mediocre pilot end up becoming an awesome series in the past, but that’s usually an exception to the rule.  And how much faith can I possibly put in a showrunner who was a writer and creative consultant on something as insipid as Defying Gravity?  Ew.

 

Programs Vs. Programmes

Two things inspired this far-too-long post. The first is a comment that a friend of mine made in response to my comments about The Cape. He said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he’s pleased by how little stupidity comes out of his television because he never turns it on. The second is a question that my son asked me, which I’ll get to further below.

A little background first. My kids watch a lot of British television programmes. And it all started with Doctor Who.

I grew up watching a lot of British television. Thank you, PBS. Back in the ’70s, PBS was my main source of edutainment — Sesame Street, The Electric Company, ZOOM, etc. And then two things blew open the doors of my TV-viewing mind.

The Doctor and Jo Grant walked in on the Doctor and Jo Grant …

“This won’t do at all! We can’t have two of us running about.”

… and a dissatisfied Mr. Praline tried to return a parrot to a pet shop:

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. ‘E’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!”

PBS introduced me to Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and I’ve never been quite the same since. Those were my gateway drugs for British drama and comedy. Doctor Who led to Upstairs Downstairs, I Claudius, Danger UXB and other BBC dramas repackaged under the Masterpiece Theatre banner. Monty Python’s Flying Circus led to Ripping Yarns, Fawlty Towers, The Two Ronnies, and Dave Allen At Large.

I ended up watching so much British television as a kid that one of the first things my first dorm roommate in college asked me was, “Are you British?” Nope, born and bred in the Windy City. But then again, he got into college on a wrestling scholarship, so he wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Even in my childhood viewing habits, I started to notice a difference. Episode by episode, I enjoyed the British series a whole lot more than what I was seeing produced by American studios. There appeared to be an ephemerally higher level of quality running through the majority of the British programmes I watched that was lacking from most (but, to be fair, not all) of the American programs I watched. The occasional American episode would hit that level of quality, but they were fewer and further between compared to what I was seeing on PBS.

This was really driven home by failed attempts to adapt British programmes for the mainstream American viewing audience. My father was a big fan of All In The Family. Thus, I got to know and appreciate Bea Arthur as a comedienne through her work on Maude. When I heard she had a new series called Amanda’s, I eagerly tuned in. Imagine my surprise when I realized I was watching an adaptation of a Fawlty Towers episode, with some dialog sections lifted literally word-for-word out of the original script. Only … it was exceedingly poorly done. The characterizations weren’t there. The comic timing wasn’t there. It was godawfully painful to watch. Which is rather appropriate considering CBS tried again with John Larroquette in the ’90s in the aptly-titled Payne. That didn’t last either, for many of the same reasons.

Some more recent failures? The BBC’s amazingly engaging Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets became ABC’s amazingly dismal Defying Gravity. But I think I’ve ranted enough about that one already. And we can also blame ABC for having the gall to try to produce an American version of the BBC’s brilliant Life On Mars. The less said about that, the better. And nobody in our family holds out any hope for SyFy’s new version of the BBC’s Being Human.

All In The Family, however, is an example of a British adaptation that actually worked. All In The Family was a groundbreaking American sitcom that worked so well I never knew it was an American version of Till Death Do Us Part until many many years later. But this level of success in crossing the pond seems to be a rarity.

Another comparison that comes to mind is how our different entertainment sources treat the same subject matter. Let’s take, for example, a disaster story involving a volcanic eruption. In 1997, Hollywood produced Volcano and Dante’s Peak. (Yes, I know, these are movies, not television programs, but bear with me here.) Volcano was just plain stoopid. Dante’s Peak was somewhat more accurate scientifically, but was still full of dippy characters and unrealistic action sequences. Eight years later, the BBC airs Supervolcano, which was well-written, well-acted, scientifically down-to-earth, and (as my boys both admitted) downright scary.

Or nuclear war. ABC hyped The Day After as something nobody should watch alone, so I did. In a darkened dorm room. I thought it alternated between being dead boring and unintentionally hilarious. The single moment that came close to getting under my skin was the few minutes they spent depicting the bombs going off. That, and Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz saying to the other talking heads (Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, William F. Buckley) in the post-miniseries discussion, “The only reason we have for keeping nuclear weapons is to see to it that they are not used.” The very next year, the BBC unleashed Threads on the world. Threads scared the hell out of me. Just thinking about it still gives me a shiver up and down my spine as I type this. And recently, I finally saw The War Game, which the BBC essentially shelved for 20 years. Shivers, again.

In 2005, Doctor Who came back on the air. I had tried to get my kids interested in that programme for years. My daughter never could stomach the low (compared to today) production values of the old classic Doctor Who episodes. As much as my boys liked Daleks, they could take it or leave it. The programme’s 2005 regeneration, however, sucked all of them in. By the time the third episode ended, they were die-hard fans. I still remember how angry my daughter was when Christopher Eccleston left the programme; she absolutely hated David Tennant. As Tennant’s first season progressed, she started to adore him as the Doctor. Then when Tennant left the programme, she was angry again and absolutely hated Matt Smith. Now, after having seen Smith’s first season, she adores him. It’s so refreshing to see her experience what I experienced decades ago with Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, and Peter Davison.

In 2009, in anticipation of David Tennant ending his reign as the Doctor, we had our own BBCish Christmas. Doctor Who: The End Of Time, Nan’s Christmas Carol, The Gruffalo, The Turn Of The Screw, and Doctor Who-based episodes of QI and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. I also sat the kids down to show them Ghostwatch, which is a style of program that I haven’t seen done well since NBC’s Special Bulletin in 1983.

Around this time, my son asked me a question that I couldn’t answer: “Dada, why is British television so much better than American television?”

In addition to the titles I’ve already mentioned, my kids love Red Dwarf and Primeval. My boys love Sapphire & Steel. My daughter loves Coupling. My wife loves Blackadder. I love Blake’s 7. Shoutouts to Occupation, The Stone Tape, Karaoke/Cold Lazarus, Jekyll, Edge Of Darkness (Bob Peck can kick Mel Gibson’s ass any day of the week), Dead Set, and Sherlock.

That’s not to say that I think 100% of British programmes are 100% fantastic. I was less than impressed with the recent BBC adaptations of The Day Of The Triffids and The First Men In The Moon. I never could really see why people thought Benny Hill was funny. As fun as Space: 1999 was, it had more than its fair share of dumb moments, as has my beloved Doctor Who. The new Survivors was an unnecessary remake, but it was engaging enough to be watchable. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy loses a lot in its translation from radio serial to television, but it’s still funny (and significantly better than the big-budget film adaptation). I can’t help thinking the average level of quality of British programmes appears to be significantly higher than the average level of quality of American programs.

So I’m going to open this up … why is British television so much better than American television? Or is that just a fallacy on my part? Does it have to do with the the BBC being funded by license fees and American television being funded by blatant consumerism? Does it have to do with cultural differences relating to how the viewing public expects to be entertained? Are British producers shooting for a higher lowest common denominator than American producers? Or is it some sort of cultural or perceptual filter, where only the better British programmes are making their way across the pond? (That may have been true in the ’70s & ’80s, but given how ubiquitous the internet and torrents are today, I see that as being unlikely.)

How should I answer my son’s question?

Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets

The original two-part BBC miniseries that inspired ABC to develop their insipid Defying Gravity. Damn, I wish they had expanded this instead. Extremely compelling, with a decent take on modern space travel. No stoopid magnetic artificial gravity or real-time communications. No dippy extraterrestrial whatsits or banal caricatures. Yet another excellent example of how American television fails to understand (and, therefore, fails in adapting) British sources. And Ron Moore must’ve watched this, because aspects of this seem to have influenced Virtuality as well.