Archive for February, 2011

NCIS is one of those rare shows that’s well enough made that it hardly ever has a genuinely bad episode. To be sure, a lack of ambition helps in this regard; the longer you throw, the easier it is to miss your target, after all. But the clip show episode from a couple of weeks had tremendous miss potential, and the the show still pulled it off by taking an especially unambitious form and actually getting ambitious with it. After that, I was pretty much convinced NCIS could do no wrong. And then they go and give us “Kill Switch,” which plays like it was written by a guy who read a cyberpunk novel once and hated it.

All the characters in NCIS are types, and it spends a lot of time (more time than most shows) making sure the audience remembers precisely which types they are. The writers have developed running gags for each character based on their types that show up at least once in every single episode. Tony likes movies, so half his dialog is composed of old movie quotes. Ziva is foreign, so she has trouble with American idioms. Gibbs is a gruff, father-knows-best type; characters ask him stuff and he just stares at them. Abby is unique in that she’s a cross-type: she’s a goth, but she’s also adorable. (Some, like me, would say too adorable.) She does something adorable in every episode. Ducky is old and learned, so he spouts historical facts nobody else cares about. And McGee is a computer geek, so he talks about computer stuff and Tony makes fun of him for it. (Tony is also kind of an asshole.) “Kill Screen” is a McGee episode, so I’ll give you one guess what it’s about.

Most of the episode is pretty bad, but not terrible. In the course of investigating the murder of the week, McGee meets an attractive blonde woman at the laser tag arena. (McGee loves laser tag, of course, because he’s a nerd and that’s the kind of thing nerds love.) I can’t remember this character’s name, so we’ll just call her Mary Sue, since this is her defining characteristic. McGee becomes smitten, and she does too, what with it being the whole point of her existence and all. They spend the rest of the episode flirting awkwardly while discussing MMO games, because they’re nerds and that’s how nerds flirt.

As it turns out, the killer is really looking for Mary Sue and just killed the original victim–Mary Sue’s ex-boyfriend–by accident. Mary Sue is really good at video games–because that’s the kind of thing nerds are good at–and recently reached the kill screen of a game, the title of which I also can’t remember, so we’ll just call it “Generic Shoot-Em-Up.” Unfortunately for Mary Sue and the victim, that kill screen contains a program designed to break down the Pentagon’s firewalls. And so someone now wants to kill Mary Sue because she knows too much … or something. Considering that she’s completely clueless about what she’s seen until someone tells her about it, it’s never entirely clear to me why she has to die. But regardless of why, someone’s definitely trying to kill her.

Around half-way through the episode, the team becomes convinced that someone is Crazy Beardo (yeah, I’m not great with guest character names), the programmer of “Generic Shoot-Em-Up.” Crazy Beardo is crazy, and his diaries are full of the insane, conspiratorial rantings of someone who has watched far too much Glenn Beck. It becomes clear that he created the kill screen program, but when the team goes to arrest him, they find that the real killer has already gotten to him.

As all this is going on, Deep Voice (played by Jason Beghe, putting his deep voice to good use), an internet security contractor employed by the DOD, has come into the NCIS office to investigate what appears to be some hacking into various government agencies. McGee is, of course, the hacker–because he’s a nerd and that’s the kind of thing nerds do–and he spends much of the episode worried about getting caught. Abby even starts up a legal fund for him in a giant jar, because the writers felt like that would be a sufficiently adorable thing for her to do. Long, not terribly interesting story short, the team figures out that the hacking thing is just a pretense for Deep Voice to gain access to the investigation, as he is the actual killer. He killed the victim and Beardo and tried to kill Mary Sue to prevent anyone from find out that he sucks at his job. But now everybody knows, because he sucks at murder too. At least he still has an awesome deep voice.

If the episode had wrapped up at this point, it would have been unmemorable, but ultimately still low-end mediocre. Most of the problems with the episode to this point are things that are inherent to the structure of the show, just done worse than usual. But it didn’t wrap up. Instead, it threw one more twist at us that really takes it into the forsaken land of terrible: Beardo had apparently set up the program to execute itself if ever he failed to enter the password into the system on any given day. Being dead, Beardo obviously misses a day and the program goes into action. For whatever reason, it’s up to NCIS to solve this problem. One would think the government would have actual computer professionals able to handle a crisis like this, but maybe Deep Voice was the only one. In which case, poor government planning there.

Anyway, the result is a thoroughly ridiculous climactic sequence, in which McGee shuts himself up in some never-before-seen room that has several computers and at least three giant, wall-sized computer screens. It looks like a rejected Tron set. Gibbs, meanwhile, goes back to Beardo’s lair, because that’s where the motherboard is or something. Beardo has evidently rigged his lair with deadly traps, which seems pretty inconvenient for Beardo himself, but I guess he knew his way around. McGee for some reason has access to the map of Beardo’s death maze (complete with little skulls-and-crossbones marking each of the traps) and proceeds to guide Gibbs through the labyrinth of death, only almost blowing him up once. When Gibbs finally reaches the central computer–with just moments to spare!–McGee tries to talk him through the process of shutting it down, but Gibbs doesn’t go for that nerd shit, so he just shoots the fuck out of it instead. You know, like a real man. The bullet that finally takes out the computer is one that goes through the monitor, because that’s how computers work and stuff.

It’s impossible to describe how poorly this final sequence plays out, but it’s impressively bad. There’s a moment when McGee actually says, “This isn’t a video game. No, wait … it IS a video game.” He actually says this. Out loud and everything.

More distressing than the ridiculousness of the climax, though, is the way McGee spends basically the entire episode getting repeatedly humiliated in what is ostensibly his showcase. He’s embarrassed when people recognize him at the laser tag arena. He’s nervous around pretty girls. He might go to prison for hacking into government databases. Even during the climax, when he’s supposedly in his element, he’s pretty much useless, mostly just getting in Gibbs’ way. And then in the coda, Tony has to make a date for him with Mary Sue, because he’s just too scared to do it himself, thus completing his victory/emasculation. This is not how a show should treat one of its main characters. But then again, he is a nerd.

Loose ends:

  • There’s just something about supercomputers that doesn’t really make for good television. A big part of the problem might be the difficulty in creating a fake computer that actually looks advanced. More often than not, they just end up looking cheesy, which is definitely how the computer portions of “Kill Screen” turned out. Other examples of terrible supercomputer episodes include Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “I Robot, You Jane” and two episodes of The X-Files, “Ghost in the Machine” and “First Person Shooter.” And those were great shows. It could be that this sort of thing is just difficult to pull off.
  • The X-Files did manage to do at least one good cyberpunk episode in “Kill Switch,” which still mostly holds up.
  • Speaking of The X-Files, every once in a while I’m reminded just how indebted the CBS-style procedural is to that show. This NCIS is obviously comparable to The X-Files’ cyberpunky excursions, and the CSI promos appeared to feature a mad scientist who reanimates corpses.
  • One thing I will always respect about NCIS is its consistent portrayal of torture as an evil and shameful thing. In tonight’s episode, the victims were all tortured to death, and the killer was a former military interrogator. This is a very patriotic sort of show, with a conservative-leaning audience, so its stand against torture seems fairly significant.

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There seems to be a bit of a cottage industry these days of people bemoaning Charlie Sheen’s behavior and the terrible example he’s setting for our children. My favorite comes from my local paper:

The news was saying Charlie Sheen was carried out on a stretcher from the place where he was staying. Our 11-year-old great-granddaughter and her two friends looked at each other, got giddy, and put on a wry, knowing, “what’s up” look. They huddled and discussed what was going on with one of their favorite TV people.

What’s going on is we’re enabling Sheen — who, from what I can see, is hard not to like — to continue promoting a lifestyle that is largely immoral and sometimes illegal…

CBS won’t do anything except make him stay at some spa for a few days.

Lawyers, probably, are keeping the police at bay. I’m not hearing anything from politicians or other performers. I think we should call our political representatives to help us end what we’re enabling.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that Sheen really is setting a terrible example for young people. His list of unsavory activities is long and unpleasant: He smokes crack cocaine. He parties with porn stars. He drinks dangerous amounts of alcohol. He’s sleeps with prostitutes. He beats women. Sometimes he does all of these things simultaneously. Those close to him are openly fearing for his life. His show has now been shut down. There were rumors that when it resumed production, it would have to forgo a studio audience because Sheen apparently just can’t handle being around other human beings. But now Sheen’s taken to calling into daytime talk radio shows and ranting incomprehensibly about how awesome he is and how terrible the people he works for and with are. So the show has been shut down for the season and potentially forever. It’s sad and horrifying and I obviously don’t think it’s a good idea for children to emulate his behavior.

And yet I have  a difficult time taking all the moralistic hand-wringing seriously. It presumes, first of all, that there was some period of time during which Sheen was something other than the worst role model in the world. A Charlie Sheen Golden Age, if you will. Like all golden ages, this is mythical. It is, in fact, perhaps the most mythical golden age of all. A well-behaved Charlie Sheen makes talking animals and magic trees seem outright plausible by comparison. In reality, Sheen has been beating women and smoking crack since before I was born. But until a couple of weeks ago, we were all perfectly comfortable with him selling us our underwear.

Moreover, most of the people complaining about the poor example Sheen sets for children seem to have no awareness whatsoever of the character he plays on television. In Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen basically plays Charlie Sheen; the show just calls him Charlie Harper instead. The line between Fake Charlie and Real Charlie is remarkably thin, its girth amounting to little more than the standards and practices the FCC and CBS inflict upon Chuck Lorre and his team of writers. Two and a Half Men has been on a long time, so one would assume that people would have at least a basic idea about what kind of show it is. Its main sources of humor are contempt and dick jokes, and it’s almost certainly the meanest, filthiest sitcom ever to air on network television.  A typical episode goes something like this:

Everybody wakes up. Berta the maid says terrible things. Alan does something humiliating. Fake Charlie says terrible things to him. Jake does something stupid. Fake Charlie says terrible things to him. Dick joke. Dick joke. Dick joke. Fake Charlie bangs a hooker. Dick joke. The end.

If your child is watching this show, they’re not getting a great role model anyway, no matter what Real Charlie does in his spare time.

Given this, I’m inclined to think that the hand-wringing on display the last couple of weeks has less to do with our children than it has to do with us. I made a joke on Twitter the other day that when Real Charlie bangs hookers, it ruins the good, wholesome fun of Fake Charlie banging hookers. But I think there’s actually something to that. A big part of what makes Two and a Half Men successful–aside from its extremely competent structure*–is the escapism of a world in which a character can do whatever the hell he wants without any consequences at all. The entire premise of the series is that Alan has been excommunicated from the world of adult responsibilities and into Fake Charlie’s world of hedonistic alcoholism. Alan keeps trying to get back into the grown-up world and is continually punished and humiliated for it; within the world of the show, his efforts to grow up are precisely what mark him as a loser worthy of our derision. Fake Charlie, on the other hand, is the hero of this world, doing all the things we sometimes wish we could do: Barely working, but living in affluence. Drinking to excess with nary a side-effect. Having sex with anyone he desires whenever he desires. Saying terrible things to the people who annoy him. And so on, in general just living out everybody’s worst tendencies and getting rewarded for it through sheer je ne sais quoi. As that letter writer says, he’s “hard not to like.”

(*This is CBS, after all.)

There is, of course, a darker reading to the show. Rather than a hedonistic paradise, the show could be said (and has been said) to depict a sad, lonely world inhabited by broken people who have given up on their lives. Fake Charlie, in this reading, fills his life with empty pleasure to dull the painful pointlessness of his existence. It’s clear from his acidic demeanor that whatever ridiculous things he does, none of them actually make him happy. He masks his depression in alcoholism and is a corrupting influence on all he comes in contact with. Alan’s desperate attempts to reclaim a life of meaning are a Sisyphean battle for respectability; each time it seems as though adulthood might once again be in his grasp, he is rejected and tossed back into Fake Charlie’s depressive swirl. In the end, his only option is to give in to Fake Charlie’s world and take whatever pleasure he can from it. Jake–the half-man, as it were–is the innocent being raised in this unfortunate morass of a culture. In the early seasons, perhaps we could hold out hope that he could escape it; but now, as the show has gone on and Jake has gotten ever stupider, we see that’s never to be. Berta the maid, meanwhile, has become hardened by her years of thankless service to such a spoiled man-child; all she can do now is crack joyless dick jokes while frying Fake Charlie’s eggs. This is what the characters are, and they have no hope to be anything else. They have completely and utterly given up. In this reading, Two and a Half Men is a nihilistic horror show of sad broken people spiraling toward death. It’s not that there are no consequences; it’s that the whole show is consequences.

Both of these readings are accurate, but I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the show’s massive audience sees it in the former way and not the latter. Shows predominantly about soul-crushing despair don’t generally become enormous hits, after all. But this is precisely the problem with Real Charlie’s behavior. When we see someone acting in real-life the way Fake Charlie acts on the show, it’s not at all appealing, because it is removed from the artificial context that allows us to view those actions as inconsequential. So when, all of a sudden, it becomes difficult to ignore all the ways that Real Charlie is like Fake Charlie, it breaks down the barrier between the two Charlies and destroys the fantasy. Now when we see Fake Charlie being awful, we see Real Charlie being awful too, and we know instinctively that there are consequences to that, something along the lines of one of Lorre’s recent vanity cards:

He felt dead inside.

No matter how hard he partied, he could never escape that simple fact — inside, dead.

And that was his life.

Running from a feeling.

At least until he could run no more.

Exhausted, spent and beaten, when the end finally came, he welcomed it.

With life ebbing from his wasted body, he was suddenly swept up in a transcendent state of joy that was pure and complete.

Moments later he felt dead inside.

In other words, Real Charlie’s actions and the destruction of the artificiality of the character force us to see the latter reading of the show. That vanity card acts almost as a kind of confirmation: “Yes, this is what you’ve been laughing at all these years. Didn’t you know that?”

But lots of people didn’t. Jokes about dicks and hookers are good honest fun when they don’t mean anything, but they become something altogether different when it’s clear that they’re part of a narrative of nihilism and despair. All those years we laughed mindlessly at them suddenly become incriminating; perhaps we use those jokes like the characters do, to blunt the casual meaninglessness of our own lives. As if his actions wouldn’t be bad enough on their own, Real Charlie metaphysically implicates us through the Fake Charlie we’ve sometimes wished we could be. Real Charlie’s awfulness is all the worse, then, because it reveals the awfulness in ourselves.

In the face of this, people become moralistic and lash out at the actor, but not the show. Because to lash out at the show would be to admit to all of this. Instead we keep watching with fingers in our ears and beg for someone, anyone to make Real Charlie behave and rebuild the walls of artificiality so that we can escape back into them. Not for our sake, of course–certainly not!–but for the sake of our children.

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It is not without a certain amount of shame that I confess the following: I kind of like clip shows. I’m sort of a sucker for early-season nostalgia, and if nothing else, clip shows have that in spades.

This is not to say that I’m immune to the usual fan complaints, however. Clip shows tend to recycle largely random old clips with only a very thin plot thread connecting them. They’re often inserted awkwardly into the season with no warning, and thus fans feel cheated when they get only a small amount of generally subpar new material surrounded by a bunch of stuff they’ve already seen. (Clip shows fare especially poorly now because fans have access to all of that old material all the time.) But the biggest problem with clip shows is that they’re usually just lazy, with the people making the show having just as little interest in the episode as the fans.

This makes some sense given that the only reason clip shows exist in the first place is because some executive somewhere realized they were a good way to save money on production costs. But the same could be said about bottle shows, and as Community and Breaking Bad have recently shown, those can make for some terrific episodes. There’s no reason the same can’t be true of clip shows, and last week’s NCIS basically proves as much.

“A Man Walks Into a Bar…” is maybe more than anything else indicative of the supreme confidence NCIS is working with right now. This confidence is unusual enough in any series, let alone a series in its eighth season. Most shows by this point in their run are well into their decline stage. And when a show this old does a clip show, it usually doesn’t go over particularly well. (The Office used one towards the end of last season, for example, to disastrous results.) And “A Man Walks Into a Bar” definitely feels like an old show using a clip show. But the difference between this episode and so many other clip shows is that the writers clearly took the narrative connecting the clips seriously and selected the clips specifically for that narrative. That is to say, the episode is actually about something.

The episode’s conceit (all clip shows need a conceit) is that a psychiatrist has come into NCIS to examine our Elite Team of Crime-Solving Professionals. So far, so nothing–any clip show could start this way. But in an unlikely coincidence, the psychiatrist assigned to the unit also happens to be the sister of an NCIS character who was killed in the line of duty way back at the end of season three. This is what makes the episode work.

All clip shows are ostensibly about characterization. By looking at old clips, we see characters the way they used to be and–if executed decently–how they came to be the characters they are now in an abbreviated fashion. It’s part of the reason I like most clip shows, even the lazy ones. “A Man Walks Into a Bar” isn’t any different from most clip shows in this regard.

What sets the episode apart is the way it grounds all of this standard clip show stuff in the central tragedy of Kate’s death. Every clip and every intimation of character evolution is set against that backdrop. Additionally, in dealing with Kate’s death, the writers have taken the opportunity to clearly lay out and close out one of the show’s longest continuing storylines. Put all of this together and what you end up with is a clip show that acts as a kind of mythology episode, which is a pretty brilliant way to use a clip show.

Through the clips, the episode reconstructs the character of Kate. We see how she came to work at NCIS. We see what her relationships with the various characters were like. We see how those relationships evolved over time. We see the fairly shocking way she died. We see how all the characters reacted in the immediate aftermath of her death. We see how her killer was brought to justice. And finally we see how all the characters have dealt with her loss in the intervening years.

Kate’s character arc is essentially wrapped up through her sister, Rachel, who falls asleep in the NCIS office after she thinks everyone has gone home. Gibbs finds her and takes her back to his house, where he stands her in the exact spot her sister’s murderer was himself killed. And he tells her–and us–that this is what closure feels like. And it is.

But while the arc is closed out, the show itself of course goes on. The episode is acutely aware of this. While it fails to start any new plot threads, it takes the time to imbue the end of the episode with a certain sense of dread, hinting at some sort of vague, potentially internal threat to the team down road.  The episode title is taken from the old riddle about a man walking into a bar and asking for a glass of water. The bartender pulls out a shotgun. The man thanks the bartender and leaves a tip. Turns out the man had the hiccups. Rachel tells Gibbs it’s all about reactions. Later, in her evaluation letter to Vance, she expresses concern that the team works too hard and suppresses too much. While it might be working for now, it might catch up to them in the end.

Interestingly, the threat that’s been hinted over the last few episodes is the rather meta notion that while the show goes on for now, it will come to an end at some point. Within the show itself, this plays out as concern on the part of various team members that the team has been together an awfully long time now and it really wouldn’t be surprising if people started moving on. The episode ends with a montage that–again, in a very vague sort of way–foreshadows what might be to come for the characters as the show continues or even after it ends. This foreshadowing doesn’t really have anything to do with plot, but is instead about character arcs, which is for the most part how serialization works on CBS-style procedurals. It just suggests how the characters might react to potential plot events in the future.

One of the effects of all of this is that it imbues all the standalone episodes that came before and will come after with a deeper seriousness, which is precisely what a good mythology episode in a serialized series should do. Bob Newhart’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted former medical examiner, for example, no longer seems like just a tragic story for a one-off guest star; now that character represents Ducky’s potential future. Gibbs’ gruff exterior is no longer just a character quirk; it’s a coping mechanism for the tragedies he’s lived through. And so on.

This subtext always existed, of course. But this episode grounds it in something specific. Most clip shows don’t work because they lack stakes. This one works because it actually raises them.

Loose ends:

  • I didn’t mention the case of the week once. This is because I have no recollection of what happened in the case of the week. I’m going to go ahead and say it doesn’t really matter in this instance.
  • There’s an odd bit of product placement in this episode. What makes it odd is that it occurs during the fairly pivotal scene when Gibbs finds Rachel asleep on the floor. During their conversation, he lifts a Starbucks coffee mug to his mouth and the camera centers on it for a few seconds. Right in the middle of a conversation about Rachel’s dead sister. I normally don’t mind product placement, but this kind of took me out of the scene.
  • For leisure, Abby apparently makes sandwiches for a shelter and drives for a food bank. She’s already the most popular character in history, show. You don’t need to try so hard.

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At first–and maybe even second–glance, The Mentalist would seem like any other CBS cop show. It opens with a grisly murder. It ends with the killer brought to justice. In the middle, an Elite Team of Crime-Solving Professionals works tirelessly to bring about that outcome. Everything about the show is extremely competent,* and for its efforts it is rewarded with a massive, CBS-sized audience. But what makes The Mentalist better than every other show on the network–with the obvious exception of The Good Wife, of course–is its subversion of the CBS cop show tropes.

(*There are no The Capes on CBS. Only NCIS: Los Angeles really threatens incompetence.)

“Blood for Blood” is pretty representative of this subversion, though there’s one element it doesn’t really touch on: Patrick Jane’s distaste for gore and violence. The Mentalist is a violent show, but its violence is more in the tradition of Law & Order; there are dead bodies and much more implied violence than actual depictions of violence. Contrast this with something like Criminal Minds, which is a basically a slasher anthology, or CSI, which pores over dead bodies as though they were fetish objects. And it’s significant for the main character of a hit show on a network that wallows in excessive violence to consistently express disgust over that kind of violence.*

(*I should also probably acknowledge that this is far from an original trait for a crime-solving detective sort. Jane is awfully similar to, say, Monk in this regard. And in a lot of other regards.)

Having said all that, for an episode of The Mentalist, “Blood for Blood” features quite a bit of violence for Jane to be disgusted by, and some of that violence is pretty darn manipulative, as violence involving children and revealed in shocking twists tends to be. At the end of the episode, Jane reveals (Jane is big on the big reveals) that the murderer is in fact the victim’s daughter (played by Kaitlyn Dever in a nice turn). As Jane explains, the victim was an abuser who murdered his wife, and when his daughter found out and confronted him about it, he threatened her with a gun. There was a bit a of a struggle, the girl and the gun wound up on the floor and when her father lunged at her, she shot him in the chest.

As I said, this is all shamelessly manipulative, especially since the case had appeared all wrapped up until all of this last-minute exposition. But at least the show doesn’t simply use the twist for shock value. Rather, it uses the admittedly manipulative ending to raise questions about the efficacy of the criminal justice system. After all this exposition, Lisbon takes out her handcuffs and prepares to arrest the girl. Because that’s the law and therefore the right thing to do. But Jane disagrees and rather eloquently argues that the system doesn’t always work and will cause nothing but damage in this particular circumstance. By this point the audience is siding with Jane and against the process of law and order, which is not a common development on a CBS show. And so, in one last bit of manipulation,* Lisbon takes the girl downtown for booking, but at the last minute lets her go. Because, after all, Jane’s right.** The system really is broken. Putting this girl through it would only make things worse. What she needs is help, not punishment.

(*Seriously, enough with that, show.)

(**Note: Jane is always right.)

But in case you haven’t noticed, The Mentalist likes to have its cake and eat it too. And, indeed, there is a healthy dose of violent punishment before we all learn this valuable lesson about how punishment isn’t always the answer, at least in the case of adorable little girls. All episodes of The Mentalist are mostly about Jane, but some episodes are at least ostensibly about other characters too. “Blood for Blood” is a Van Pelt episode and opens with her working a witness protection gig. Unfortunately, she gets knocked out on a sweep of the perimeter and the witness becomes the victim. Fast forward through the requisite number of red herrings, and we discover (falsely) that the murderer is Righetti’s witness protection partner, who has in fact been performing hits for the drug dealer the witness was set to testify against. At what seems like the end of the episode, before the twist about the girl at the end, Righetti shoots the supposed murderer in the chest. Around six or seven times. He dies, and she seems content with that.

This obviously represents a certain amount of hypocrisy on the show’s part (violence is bad; here’s some violence! Punishment is bad;  here’s some punishment!), but it makes more sense once you realize that The Mentalist’s Elite Team of Crime-Solving Professionals that’s always doling out violence and punishment is more like a parody of what an Elite Team is supposed to be. In most cop shows (both on CBS and on other networks), the Elite Team does important stuff and solves crimes and whatnot. But in The Mentalist, the Elite Team fucks shit up and is just, in general, useless.

Van Pelt’s arc in this episode doesn’t seem that unusual, for example: she screws up at the beginning of the episode and redeems herself at the end. That’s the sort of thing that could show up on any other show. But this is The Mentalist, so she doesn’t just screw up some evidence or something; she is, in fact, indirectly responsible for someone dying. And she “redeems” herself by horrifically murdering the wrong person. Of course, as Jane says later, he was a bad guy anyway. But this is not what redemption is supposed to look like.

This is basically what the Elite Team is like all the time: they screw up a lot and never actually solve any crimes. In fact, the best way to figure out the murderer in any given episode is to just assume it’s whoever the actual police officers haven’t  listed as a suspect. Odds are, Jane’s already concocted some elaborate trap to get them to confess. The team’s just there to do busy work, have some humorous and/or dramatic interactions, provide a couple of red herrings and, most importantly, get roundly mocked by Jane and the show for sucking at life.

Given that the show’s subversive perspective and gimmick are both entirely wrapped up in the central character, it seems obvious that everything that makes The Mentalist so successful is largely unrepeatable. Which is kind of too bad, because I’d much rather have two Mentalists than two Criminal Minds. But on the other hand, that’s maybe the show’s biggest joke at its network’s expense: it’s unfranchisable.

Loose ends:

  • Jane’s collection of dainty teacups is endlessly amusing, especially for the way he always manages to gain access to one, no matter where he is.
  • I shouldn’t have concluded on that note. In a couple of years, there’ll probably be four different spin-offs set in cities all over the world and WON’T I LOOK RIDICULOUS THEN.
  • Yes, I am aware that “unfranchisable” is not a word.
  • And yeah, the title of this piece is sort of a joke. According to the ratings and a million hacky jokes, The Mentalist is very much your mother’s crime procedural.

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Speaking of critically disdained mindless entertainments, hey look, it’s The Cape. Now, the chief criticism of The Cape is that it’s AWFUL, which, well, yeah, it really is. The acting is awful, the writing is awful, the direction is awful, and the premise is just INSANE. But I kind of like it anyway.

Part of the reason I like it is that, as I thought was the case with Off the Map, The Cape knows it’s awful and leans into the curve, which is pretty much the only way a show like this could work. If it tried to be self-serious, it would be unbearable. This is a show about a guy who wears a magic cape, after all. He lives with a circus. The circus is also a crime syndicate. For a network television series, this is just crazy, crazy shit.

Instead of shirking from the crazy, the writers have decided to amplify it. This week’s episode, for example, featured a giant radio-controlled robot bug thing that a pair of assassins tried to use to murder The Cape (Ben Lyons). The Cape, for his part, escaped by smashing it with his magic cape. Because that’s how The Cape escapes from every situation.

The writers’ acceptance of ridiculousness extends beyond plot points and into the dialog, which is almost always bizarre and frequently incomprehensible. Consider the following exchange, from the final scene in “Scales”:

The Cape: I just got Scales on tape outing Chess … and no one cared. They just laughed. I got nothing.

Orwell: You got scales and Fleming at war, the secretary of prisons wants to be your Tonto, and you saved hundreds of lives. It may not get you home, but that’s not nothing. [short pause] Everything we just went through, here you are wrapping a birthday gift for your son. Why do parents love their kids like that?

The Cape: They just do.

Orwell: Do you think anything could ever make that love go away?

The Cape: No.

[short pause]

Orwell: Your kid’s birthday next year, you’ll be home.

The Cape: Yeah. And where are you gonna be?

On the one hand, it’s not hard to see what’s going on here: Orwell (Summer Glau) is reaffirming The Cape’s hope. On the other hand, huh? The general point is understandable, but the specifics are just weird and whatever subtext the scene is supposed to be carrying is entirely impenetrable. It’s as though the characters are speaking in a secret language only they can entirely understand.

For the most part, the actors play all this stuff straight, which given the lunacy of the material may not be the best option. Glau and Lyons don’t come off particularly well, which is a problem, since they’re the leads. Lyons, in particular, appears to be something of a charisma vacuum, though running around in a thoroughly unimpressive looking superhero outfit probably does him no favors.

The Cape’s family, meanwhile, seems as though it’s been transported in from another show, which I’m sure is by design. The family is there to remind the viewer of all The Cape has lost. Unfortunately, the family is mostly just annoying, which somewhat undermines its purpose. Jennifer Ferrin is mostly fine as The Cape’s grieving widow (she’s unaware that her husband is still alive and fighting crime with the help of a magic cape), but Ryan Wynott as The Cape’s son is, well, I feel bad criticizing child actors. Suffice to say, Wynott receives far more screen time than he’s capable of handling.

Keith David, as the circus’ ringleader and The Cape’s mentor, and James Frain, as The Cape’s nemesis Chess, come out the best here, taking every ridiculous line thrown at them and spitting it out in an even more ridiculous way. In general, the circus characters* and the villains are the best part of the show, reveling in all the comic book wackiness the others seem trying ever so slightly to keep at a distance.

(*Also known as the Carnival of Crime. No, seriously.)

And it’s that comic book wackiness that appeals to me. The trend in modern super hero stories these days, regardless of the media in which they appear, is toward genre deconstruction. Sometimes this works (Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise) and sometimes it doesn’t (Heroes), but either way it sometimes gets tiresome.

The Cape has none of this deconstruction. The Cape is a guy in a silly costume and a magic cape who goes around fighting crime. Chess is a guy in a silly costume who goes around causing mayhem. Scales is a guy with whose skin is covered in scales. The Carnival of Crime is a circus that robs banks. That’s just the way things are. Nobody really questions it.* Sure, The Cape was a little confused for a minute or two in the pilot, but he got over it quickly and now he’s just concerned with doing a montage every now and then so he can use his magic cape more effectively. This is the world of the show. The good guys fight the bad guys, and we have no doubt that the good guys will eventually prevail. It is a straightforward spectacle of good vs. evil, in which the guys in magic capes and silly costumes act as larger-than-life stand-ins for the good and evil we see in the world and in ourselves. It is, in other words, an old-school comic book.

(*The only hint of deconstruction comes from The Cape’s family, where grieving widow Dana refuses to believe her son is actually being visited by the superhero from his The Cape comic books. Not coincidentally, this is also the part of the show that works the least. But even here, the very tame deconstruction is used mostly for the very straightforward sentimentality of a father-son relationship.)

If anything, The Cape is too faithful to its comic book heritage for its own good. The premise, after all, wouldn’t really be that crazy for a comic. But as a weekly drama, it just seems like the most insane thing ever. Likewise, the bizarre dialog full of feverishly mixed metaphors and direction full of quick cuts and skewed shots feel very comic booky. But this sort of campy, candy-colored spectacle feels out of place in a network television landscape composed mostly of dark, putatively realistic crime dramas.

Which is, well, it’s not too bad, exactly. The Cape really is terrible. But given that it’s terrible in a fun way, I’d sort of prefer it stuck around.

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Despite widespread and deserved critical disdain, I rather enjoyed the first couple of episodes of Off the Map. It’s clearly not a GOOD show, but it’s a show that’s extremely effortless to watch. Many have aptly described it as Grey’s Anatomy on an island, but it’s also sort of what Lost would have been like if every character were early-season Jack and the smoke monster was a whole bunch of sick people with odd ailments.

Even more so than on those other shows, the cast is composed entirely of beautiful people (there’s not even a token fat guy for comic relief). Like Lost, the background scenery is consistently breathtaking, which combined with the cast makes the show very easy on the eyes.

Most importantly, Off the Map seemed to know what it was. The first few episodes provided an oddly satisfying, if admittedly stupid, mix of melodrama and ridiculousness. Sure, some people scoffed when the second episode centered around a guy who was in the process of being squeezed to death by a giant, extremely fake-looking anaconda. But to me, that’s just good dumb fun.

Likewise, the pilot featured Michael McKean attempting to spread his dead wife’s ashes over a particular, glow-in-the-dark* lake. But then he hurt himself! By the end of the episode, he was patched up, but still in need of urgent medical care. So the beautiful doctors sent for a medevac helicopter. As the beautiful doctors wheeled their patient to the helicopter, he woke and started complaining about not getting to spread his wife’s ashes. The beautiful doctors responded to these complaints by … making the helicopter wait and rowing McKean to his special spot. Which is completely absurd and nakedly manipulative. But who really cares? The lake was pretty! Michael McKean cried! Happy endings all around!

(*Because of bugs. Or something.)

The danger in combining this sort of over the top melodrama with ridiculous, sensational situations lies in taking any of it seriously. For the most part, the first three episodes avoided that temptation. The fourth episode, on the other hand, um, didn’t.

For those of you who may have for whatever reason missed it, “On the Mean Streets of San Miguel” was mostly doing fine until until the beautiful blonde doctor uttered the always troublesome line, “He’s a Nazi.” And she didn’t mean a metaphorical Nazi, which would be problematic enough. As she pointed out later to her handsome male doctor coworker, “My patient is literally a Nazi.” OK then.

The Nazi in question was an old fellow who had fled to South America so as to avoid prosecution for war crimes. He regretted the misguided Naziness of his youth and had built for himself a respectable, even altruistic life as a beloved teacher to poor South American children. Golly, Off the Map, people sure are complicated, aren’t they? The remainder of the story centered on the beautiful blonde doctor’s decision to keep the dying former-Nazi alive so he could face some sort of vague authority instead of mercifully letting him die.

Now, is it possible for a show that had just featured a giant, extremely fake-looking anaconda to do a story like this? Well, probably not. But Off the Map did a wonderful job of compounding the problem by leavening the Nazi A-plot with subplots involving lightly comic relationship drama and a patient with a large, painful erection. Because nothing goes together better than Nazis and dick jokes.

As you can probably imagine, while the episode was going for something meaningful, it came off as somewhat tasteless.  In the case of Off the Map, it would probably be better off forgoing any attempts at meaningfulness altogether.

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Boring First Post

This is Late Reviews. Where we review things. Usually late.

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