Friday, July 30, 2010

Mad Men: My Two Cents

Earlier, while taking a look at SyFy Channel's first year in my July 20 posting on that matter, I said I'd get in my two cents on the admittedly off-topic subject of Mad Men.

I haven't actually seen all that much of the show (which at the time of this writing is settling into its fourth reason). In fact I made a point of ignoring it for quite a while.

I had my reasons.

Frankly, I was annoyed that AMC was adding yet another original program to its line-up. (What ever happened to the Classic Movies that were supposed to be running on American Classic Movies?)

I was annoyed by the idea of yet another TV show about an ad agency. Simply put, it seemed to me like just more of the media's solipsistic obsession with (or perhaps, utter ignorance of anything outside of) itself--most conspicuous in the abundance of TV shows and movies about people making TV shows and movies, for instance, but also extending to the abundance of TV shows and movies about people in the ad business. While I do not suggest that such works are inherently uninteresting, very few say anything worthwhile about a subject which is, if anything, overexposed, or use their premise as a starting point for an investigation of something more compelling.

I was annoyed by the near-unanimous critical praise, which always makes me skeptical, especially when it's being lavished on an original cable drama--as this has come to seem to me a good sign the thing being praised is wildly overrated. (That's certainly how I felt about The Sopranos, which the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, just happened to have worked on. The Saturday Night Live sketch which presented a commercial parodying the critics' breathless anticipation of the show's season two premiere was only too accurate in its take on the hype.)

I was especially annoyed that even as I kept hearing about it, it was hard to tell from the praise just what made it "the best show on television," or even just good watching (which is exactly the kind of thing that reinforces my skepticism). As far as I could tell, the characters smoked and drank in it. They engaged in sexual banter. They wore stylish retro clothes and sat in stylishly retro rooms, evocative of a time when hotel stays and airline flights seemed more glamorous.

Was that all, though? It didn't seem like much--and certainly, nothing we couldn't have got out of the old movies the channel was supposed to be running in the first place.

The pop cultural attention seemed all the more disproportionate given that not very many people were actually watching the show, so that any "impact" it had, regardless of quality, was presumably among the actual residents of TV land (other Hollywood people, critics and the like), rather than the broader viewing audience. Personally I've never regarded popularity as proof of quality, but that a show is actually seen seems a prerequisite to, for instance, declaring its protagonist (Don Draper) the most influential man in the world in 2009 (a declaration that instantly got a 700 comment-long thread going, one riddled with the words of the ridiculous, the disgusting, the just plain stupid and even the legally actionable).

Nonetheless, I eventually gave in and watched some of it. Most of the episodes I saw were from season two.

I saw that the show does indeed do a lot of the superficial stuff well. It is interesting to look at the period sans Technicolor and the old Production Code. But as for story, the show's focus in those season two episodes seemed to be on Don Draper's wife acting out in reaction to his philandering.

What's new here? I wondered. What's special? What merits all the gushing praise?

It all seemed familiar, run-of-the-mill stuff, and rather slow too. Not dull exactly--just slow. Contrary to what all the celebrants said, it didn't seem to be the "good" slow that sometimes (though not always) marks substantive storytelling--just the bad slow where everything's drawn out because NOTHING'S HAPPENING.

Yes, Draper's mysterious past means a bit of extra complexity. Of course, that could be the point--the dark things hidden under the glossy surface, the packaging of ourselves the way we package products to make ourselves acceptable to the world. (How many times an hour do career counselors tell those they advise to "sell themselves," apparently oblivious to the undertone of these words?) Still, I'm not sure the show geled for me as a treatment of this theme. At least where Draper's not actually being Draper is concerned, the story seems more like soap opera-style outlandishness than anything else, at odds with just about everything else in the drama--as if the writers themselves find their premise so limited that they have to go to extremes to find a compelling twist.

I caught some of season three as well, which seemed like more of the same. The episodes had a bit more zip, but they weren't much more substantial. The storyline about a British takeover of the firm in particular annoyed me with its anachronism (especially given the endless praise for the show's meticulous recreation of the past). The show is set in 1963 after all, and foreign direct investment in the U.S. was comparatively infinitesimal, that sort of multinational corporate activity virtually an American monopoly at the time. Additionally, FDI in the tertiary, service sector was a much smaller share of the whole back then than it is today. Indeed, assuming the Leo Burnett agency really is one of the show's inspirations, it's worth noting that the company didn't become a foreign property until the turn of the twenty-first century. So it really seems like a matter of reading today into the past, and no, I don't buy the New Historicist line that that's the only thing we ever do.

Again, it occurred to me that the writers were having trouble coming up with ideas.

Still, Mark Greif's take on the show in the London Review of Books has since struck me as more compelling, and certainly more substantive, than any of the others I've come across (though admittedly Amanda Marcotte's more favorable piece for The American Prospect contained some interesting ideas).

As Greif puts it, the show's all about "Now We Know Better," with a veneer of "Doesn’t That Look Good"--which is to say less-than-perfectly-honest self-congratulation about how much more enlightened, how much healthier and less bigoted we are now than fifty years ago, combined with a guilty pleasure in how much fun that yesteryear was for members of the more privileged groups. ("The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children!" as Greif put it. Admittedly, they're good for a laugh every once in a while, like the roomful of smoking, coughing tobacco executives in the series premiere.)

Of course, this too is common enough stuff. Most history's self-congratulatory, after all; it's the more evenhanded stuff, the more critical stuff that's the exception. And this certainly carries over to historical fiction, which tends to rely on a touch of "Doesn't That Look Good" anyway, especially when examining past eras easily deplored for their mores--which I suppose is just about all of them. The particular appeal of Mad Men may be the degree to which it plays up that combo, and its setting them in a time and place much nearer to our own, much more familiar, and more directly relevant (it's the 1960s rather than the Regency era or ancient Rome, for instance, that living people still remember and which remain meaning-laden reference points in our culture wars) in a sleek package. This was then parlayed, through outstanding publicity, into a bandwagon feedback loop which has people saying this is the best show on TV because people are saying it's the best show on TV.

That sounds to me like exactly the kind of thing this advertising-themed show could explore, but like a good many other things, probably won't.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling

New York: Del Rey Books, 2009, pp. 304.

"Caryatid" is a term from Greek architecture referring to supporting columns sculpted in the shape of women. Like those stone women, the principal characters of Sterling's novel are expected by Balkan war criminal and "mad scientist" Yelisaveta Mihajlovic--who has closed them from himself and raised them in a bunker on the Adriatic isle of Mljet--to bear up the weight of a world ridden with ecological crisis. There were seven sisters originally; four of these remain, namely Vera, Radmila, Sonja and Biserka.

The novel is structured around three roughly contemporaneous stories involving them, capped off by an epilogue, AND an afterword giving us still other views of them, all structured to give us strategic glimpses of key forces around the world in the 2060s. There is Vera among the Aquis, a sort of supersized, ultra-high tech ecological NGO (worldwide, but with its base in Europe), Radmila among the media-capitalists of the Dispensation (headquartered in Los Angeles), and Sonja on the fringes of the enduring nation-state of China, the last on Earth to really count for anything (and which has gone beyond totalitarian to "ubiquitous" in reasserting its power), while Biserka, a nihilistic terrorist, crops up here and there.

There isn't much in the way of plot. Of course, Sterling generally doesn't offer tightly plotted stories traveling along clear arcs. However, this time around the rather scattered storytelling results in a particular disjointedness that one of Sterling's characters actually comments on herself in the afterword. And at the end of it all, none of it seems to have mattered very much--less in the sense of the project that created the sisters being a failure (as it could only have been; how could the Caryatids have possibly done the job asked of them?) than in its becoming irrelevant as the world moves on. So there we are on page two hundred and ninety-five with a piece of future-oriented science fiction dismissing future-oriented science fiction except as a matter of "telling stories," in what can easily be taken for a cop-out at the end of the long, meandering journey--as well as a dismissal of the catastrophe he spent so much time describing since we just somehow got out of it.

Not that we haven't seen this before in Sterling's work. Like his short story "The Sword of Damocles" (perhaps the one I enjoyed least) The Caryatids plays the familiar po-mo game of telling a story by finding ever-more elaborate ways of telling us that it can't tell the story, not really. Admittedly this approach has its merits where the apocalyptic is concerned (as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrated in Slaughterhouse-Five over four decades ago). Nonetheless, po-mo is all too often a rationalization of evasion, and even an excuse for sloppiness, which we do see a surprising bit of here at the sentence-level. The stylistic excesses common to '80s cyberpunk--the sentences heavily freighted with flashy sciency-techie jargon and neologisms, the emphasis on description that is at once image-dense and oblique (which irritated me to no end when I first started reading it; early on I mentally compared it to reading Ezra Pound in neon lights)--can be exhilarating when done well. There are times when it works here, but the necessary editing has fallen short, a point particularly evident in the tendency to repeat a key detail within the space of a few pages.

As much of an issue as the manner of the telling are the intellectual tools that po-mo offers. Sterling has long drawn on a blend of two particular strains of postmodern thought--the corporate-globalizing, libertarian, "New Economy" outlook of Wired magazine and the Davos World Economic Forum, and the "linguistic turn"-shaped approach to cultural studies fashionable on university campuses in recent decades. It's a rare combination, but a natural one, given the underappreciated commonalities between them. Alas, neither has much to offer that's of real use in dealing with the book's central problem, with the result that there is more dancing around and dismissal of the problem of climate change than genuine grappling with it. Some interesting ideas do crop up here and there along the way, and the book is never dull, but as a statement "of faith in the power of human intellect, creativity and spirit to overcome any obstacle" promised in the blurb on the jacket, let alone a treatment of this particular subject, The Caryatids is underwhelming.

The SyFy Channel: Year One

It has been over a year since the Sci-Fi Channel rebranded itself The Syfy Channel. (The changeover, about which I had plenty to say last year, happened on Tuesday July 7, 2009.) The new direction appears to be simply more of the same-which is to say, more of the channel giving science fiction fans the finger.

Of course, fans had cause for complaint a long time before that, particularly regarding the original programming. Entertainment Weekly in fact carried an open letter back in January 2008 lamenting the lack of quality content.

The letter's author, Marc Bernardin, asked simply why in this "Age of the Geek, where pop culture has finally come around to our way of thinking," when the audience could not be more primed for material like television adaptations of "the Foundation saga, or Ender’s Game, or Footfall, or The Man in the High Castle, or The Forever War" the channel is not so awesome, instead "offering them Ghost Hunters International and crappy 'original movies' like Mansquito?"

Bernardin's complaints in the letter are a milder version of sentiments that seem unanimous among those who haunt the channel's comments pages, not that the network pays them any heed--perhaps even taking the disapproval as a sign that it's on the right track and should stay the course.

After all, I've long been giving two answers to questions like Bernardin asked. The first is that it is easy to make too much of the "Age of the Geek," the hardcore audience for quality speculative material remaining comparatively limited—so much so that the life of science fiction shows on network television is almost always short and tenuous.

In short, geeks are still not regarded as an attractive market by broadcasters.

The second reason is that just about every other cable channel has long since abandoned the occupation of a niche to pursue a bigger audience--generally by straying wildly from its ostensible specialty, and typically through the cheapest (and most synergistic) programming possible. The History Channel, for instance, is now largely devoted to pop science shows that may "pass" as natural history but would really be more at home on the Discovery Channel, disaster porn, documentaries about the paranormal (e.g. UFOs, cryptozoology and apocalyptic prophecies), Masonic conspiracies, and reality television about pawn brokers and the like (the slogan being "History Made Everyday"). American Movie Classics (or AMC) no longer runs old movies, just the same stuff you might catch on FX, USA, TNT and the rest of the basic cable line-up, while prominently featuring an original TV show that looks like the movies it used to run-the costume drama Mad Men (the big draw of which seems to be the chance to laugh at how crassly bigoted and unhealthily self-indulgent people used to be, while envying them for it--more on which in a future posting).

Since-again-geeks are not a highly sought after market (perhaps because of their intelligence as well as their small numbers), SyFy was particularly quick to do this. The most obvious sign of the shift was a turn to reality programming such as Bernardin mentioned--by definition, something the channel should have had nothing to do with. It's been over a decade since the channel brought on Crossing Over With John Edwards (yes, it actually premiered way back in 1999) and the hidden camera show Scare Tactics (2003-). Unfortunately, the trend only accelerated, so that the channel gave over many of its Tuesdays to such programming (as well as wrestling, which in its current incarnation at ten P.M. enjoys by far the most stable slot in the whole line-up), while fully devoting its Wednesdays to Ghost Hunters and spin-offs and variations thereof.

Additionally, while there has long been a tilt toward the formulaic in the channel's movies-of-the-week, the variety on offer has shrunk, and low-grade horror (e.g. Mansquito) has been grossly overrepresented in the resulting mix. (I thought at first that my not being a horror fan made the genre seem irritatingly ubiquitous. The enormous number of hours devoted to frequent reruns of lengthy miniseries based on Stephen King properties--like The Stand, or The Langoliers--for instance, are a particular pet peeve of mine (as are the numerous hours also devoted to movies about serial killers, psycho killers and the like, their thematic appropriateness shaky given that they contain no actual speculative element at all). However, clearly it has occurred to others because the question "Why so much horror on SyFy?" actually appears as number five on the channel's FAQ. The not-terribly-informative answer is an acknowledgement that "there is a lot of horror programming on Syfy," though they also "try to maintain a balance between sci-fi, fantasy and horror in order to present a wide variety of programs in these related genres.")

The monster movie, particularly the kind where something in the woods or the water menaces a small town, the kind where mad and bad scientists get killed by creatures they have created or unleashed or pursued and couples are attacked during intimate moments, is the principal staple--and of these it suffices to say that the sequels to Anaconda aired here (parts three and four in 2008 and 2009) actually make the 1997 original look like a masterpiece by comparison. Occasionally there's a spin on the material, the writers bumping the monster to a more exotic setting--perhaps a historical one, as with 2008's Warbirds--or combining it with a different plot--for instance, an archaeological mystery, as in 2007's Sands of Oblivion, or 2008's Monster Ark. Nonetheless, it comes to the same thing in the end, most of the time.

Less common, but certainly conspicuous among the offerings are disaster films where earnest scientists are earnestly trying to persuade earnest government and military officials to earnestly DO SOMETHING, and/or disparate strangers suddenly come together to confront a common danger and all end up being better people for it--like 2006's Earthstorm, or oft-rerun miniseries like 10.5: Apocalypse (alas, a far cry from the real-life responses we've seen to events like Katrina).

Every once in a while we get an effort to do something more (Rafael Jordan penning a fair number of these, like 2009's The Immortal Voyage of Captain Drake). Nonetheless, such exceptions are just that, exceptions, and even the big "event" miniseries reflected the same tilt toward simpler material these past several years--5ive Days to Midnight (2004), The Triangle (2005) and The Lost Room (2006) rather than the two miniseries based on Frank Herbert's Dune novels (2000's Dune and 2003's Children of Dune), which seem to have represented the channel's high-water mark.

Now? The ubiquitous Ghost Hunters are moving from dominating Wednesday nights to a good many daytime line-ups as well, with the channel's marathons of reruns during weekdays, and even holidays (like the Halloween marathon last year)--some channel executive obviously thinking that every day should be Ghost Hunter's day (as opposed to absolutely no days, as many viewers would prefer). Thursday too is being given over to reality television as well with Mary Knows Best, and Fact or Faked--still more airtime given over to the daily life of a family of shameless nit-wits, and to people talking about videos they found on the Internet, respectively.

Meanwhile, the channel increasingly revels in with self-consciously bad offerings like MegaPiranha (2010) (apparently intended to top last year's MegaShark vs. Giant Octopus), and the channel's more recent "Become a B-Movie Mogul" gimmick. There is, too, the heavy reliance on the output of Asylum Films--the primary audience for which seems to be, apart from those who seek out Kickpuncher-style risibility, video buyers and renters who confuse their titles with those of the better films they're ripping off. ("Was it Transformers, or Transmorphers? I always get those two confused!")

The latest miniseries have not fared much better. The recent takes on Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld (which struck me as less intriguing and epic than the two-hour pilot the channel presented but never followed up seven years ago, despite a couple of interesting twists) and classic comic strip hero The Phantom (disappointingly flat) seem to represent the current standard.

There has been a similar (if subtler) reorientation in the dwindling number of dramatic series on offer, away from the risky choices occasionally seen in past years (a show like Lexx or perhaps even Farscape would today be unthinkable) toward safer bets; from exotic (e.g. futuristic or otherworldly) settings, mind-bending concepts and large-scale, epic storytelling to "everyday," contemporary milieus, and conceptually lighter fare intended not to win deep loyalty from sophisticated SFTV viewers, but to attract as much of a more general audience as it possibly can. (In short, Syfy seems to make its choices more like the major networks do.)

For the time being let's set aside the British imports on which the channel has increasingly relied like Dr. Who and Primeval (as the channel really doesn't have much to do with them, and often isn't even the first to air them in the U.S. market), and the deservedly short-lived Outer Space Astronauts (every bit as cheap as it looks). The two most conventionally "science fiction-al" series are of course Stargate: Universe, and Caprica, but both reflect the pattern. Each is a spin-off of well-established franchises Sci-Fi/Syfy has run successfully in the recent past, and go on treading a well-beaten path (even when it's a different well-beaten path).

When I first heard about SGU my first thought was of Star Trek: Voyager. When I first saw the promotions, I changed my mind--in contrast with the two earlier series, which hewed as closely to Star Trek-style conventions as any television space opera I can remember--likely the reason why the Stargate franchise came closest to Star Trek in terms of durability and popularity--the Stargate concept was being redone as "Galactica Lite."

I don't think I was far off the mark there. The basic similarity in the setup aside, the episodes focus on the protagonists' grim struggle to survive, the tensions among the ship's dominant factions and personalities, and the baggage of the central characters, which is so heavy that it often feels like the writers are just piling it on in the name of Drama. This is all the more problematic as few of the characters are really compelling, which was also a frequent problem with BSG (where the writers often seemed to confuse simply unlikable with complex).

Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) never becomes more than a raving, bullying egomaniac, the attempts to show "another side" to him never quite geling while at the same time the attempts to draw the viewer into his obsession--arguably key to making the character really work--fall flat. (And frankly, isn't it sad that the anti-intellectual xenophobia implicit in making the "mad" scientist a foreigner remains so strong? Then again, I suppose a working-class Scot is less of a cliché than a contender for the "Upper Class Twit of the Year" Award, or worse still, a Central European with a thick accent.) The stereotyped geekiness of Eli Wallace (David Blue) comes across as a patronizing attempt to pander to what SyFy chiefs visualize as their justifiably disgruntled "traditional" audience. Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith) is a wimp and a nut and a jerk. His hold on the affections of not one but two women who appear as stable as anyone else in this interstellar mental hospital--Elyse Levesque's Chloe Armstrong and Julia Benson's underutilized Vanessa James (recently recognized by a Leo Award and one of the few genuinely sympathetic characters in the group)--seems utterly incomprehensible.

Ming-Na said in early interviews that her character Camille Wray might well prove to be the bane of the series for many a viewer. In this company Camille would have to try a lot harder to accomplish that.

Additionally, there can be only so many episodes about someone trying to take over the ship, a trope that was wearing thin by the end of Galactica, and has already been heavily used here. (I'd hate to think the show will go in the same direction as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, in which just about every possible spin on this was tried, including leprechauns and giant alien brains. But I can't rule it out at this time.)

Still, the writers get more out of their premise than might be expected, supplying a number of entertaining (if not always plausible) plot twists, starting with the way they got Wallace on the ship in the first place. Dr. Rush's games with the rest of the crew proved cleverer and more engaging than I'd expected. While I'm still waiting for the show which will handle the body-switch trope with the wit the great Robert Sheckley managed a full half-century ago in classics like Mindswap, SGU handles this part of its situation with comparative intelligence, getting more than the usual cheap laughs out of it. And while I admit to missing the Golden Age galactic empire fun of English-speaking aliens played by actors in rubber masks and giant space battles (after the pilot episode, we never see one until the second half of season 1), the show takes a more nuanced approach to its alien encounters, with fair results (legacies from the two previous Stargate shows, like the Lucian Alliance, apart).

It helps too that SGU abandons (or at least downplays) much of what I disliked most about Galactica--its one-dimensional hewing to Frankenstein complex clichés, its mashing of political buttons (especially its clumsy, sensationalist attempts to exploit the "War on Terror" in its storylines), and (with a few exceptions) its nonsensical religious elements. Instead the channel saved those things for the Galactica prequel, Caprica, which is founded completely on those things--starting with a scene of private school uniform-clad teenagers engaged in rather dark play in a virtual-cyberspace setting, right after which we get a religiously-inspired suicide bombing, events that dominate everything which follows. On top of this, it totally chucks the space battles (the thing the show actually did well, even if it only means so much when nothing else is working), going for television's first "science fiction dynastic drama"--a nighttime soap opera where the characters simply happen to call their alcoholic beverages "ambrosia." To its producers' credit the production is slick and stylish, and full of able actors, but I found "Crapica" an irritating waste of time.

Something of that spin-off quality is also part of Sanctuary as well. Not only did it originally air as a web-based series, but it also happens to be largely the work of the same team which made Stargate, most visibly a now dark-haired Amanda Tapping as Dr. Helen Magnus, head of an international organization working to protect (and in cases, contain) mutant Abnormals out of fortress-like "Sanctuary" compounds around the world.

I enjoyed Sanctuary's touch of steampunk, and increasingly, the flexibility with action and setting afforded by the computer-generated imagery, but found it hampered by many a bad script. While sometimes coming up with interesting bits, the writers don't seem to have ever met a cliché they didn't find irresistible, resorting to many particularly overdone ideas very early on--a "we're stranded in a desolate place and one of us is a killer" episode ("The Kush"), the inevitable "underground mutant fight club" episode ("Warriors"), and in season two, a "we meet hardened post-apocalyptic versions of ourselves" episode ("Pavor Nocturnus"). I'm also staggered by how bad some of the acting is. (Robin Dunne is often embarrassingly awful as Dr. Will Zimmermann, and I really don't care for Jonathan Young's Nikola Tesla.)

Still, as stated above, SGU and Caprica (and even Sanctuary) can best be taken as representative of the channel's earlier direction. Sci-Fi, after all, picked up the Stargate franchise back in 2002, the remake of BSG in 2003. By contrast Eureka and Warehouse 13—currently the flagship, launched on the day of the channel's name change—are more strongly reflective of the new thrust.

Echoing parent channel USA's fondness for crime shows, the format common to Eureka and Warehouse 13--and also the new Haven--is as follows: a law enforcement officer stumbles into an out-of-the-way place full of eccentric characters and little mysteries which supply the plots of the episodes. In Eureka, it's Federal Marshall Jack Carter (whose name I suspected was a lazy combination of the names of the leads in Stargate: SG-1) stumbling into the job of sheriff of the Global Dynamics corporation's company town/research center in the Pacific Northwest. In Warehouse 13, it's Secret Service agents Peter Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly) who stumble into jobs at a secret government archive storing historical artifacts of magical significance (this show's fantasy apparently a foil to Eureka's "hard" science). In Haven it's FBI agent Audrey Parker (Emily Rose) winding up in the town of Haven, Maine, where just about all the locals seem to be touched by the supernatural in one way or another. (Even Sanctuary, with its stronger action-adventure and science fiction elements, follows the pattern, its story starting with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Zimmerman being recruited to the team of the titular base.)

Eureka was the first of the bunch of course. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future has already arrived in the titular town, but just not been distributed beyond its limits, and just about every resident is the would-be hero of their own quirky Edisonade. Given the show's reliance on a notion of technological R & D which was already looking outdated as the Victorian era drew to a close, Eureka is mostly a pile of nonsense. And predictably many of the residents of this "smartest little town" are irritiating--the insufferable Nathan Stark (Ed Quinn), the smug Tess Fontana (Jaime Ray Newman) and Zane Donovan (Niall Matter), the nebbish Douglas Fargo (Neil Grayston). Still, the show does manage the occasional entertaining gimmick, and not all the characters fare so badly. Joe Morton, by this point an old hand at playing science guys, pulls off the friendly mechanic/all-around scientific genius act with aplomb, and Salli-Richardson-Whitfield fares well in her role as Allison Blake. Colin Ferguson is appropriately clueless as Jack Carter, and Jordan Hinson as his daughter Zoe manages to be difficult without being wearying.

The promos for season four hint that the protagonists they've gone back to the '40s for a bit of dieselpunk/atompunk and the stylish noir-swing look and feel that still has a powerful hold on pop culture, which may yet extend such interest as it has (though frankly the show has already done the tweaked timeline thing before).

In Warehouse 13 the principals don't have a town full of characters to play off of, but the artifacts gathered in the titular building instead. Unfortunately the literary and historical allusions are as shallow as they are abundant. The show has been criticized by many as highly derivative of Friday the 13th: The Series, and while I can't comment on that, not having seen a single episode of that '80s-era show, Warehouse certainly does reuse some well-worn plots, some of them recently used by other SyFy Channel originals--as in the recent "Mild Mannered," in which the duo go after a geek whose playing superhero has become a danger to the public (a story Eureka told not long before in "Phased and Confused"). Where the execution is concerned, the goofy sloppiness of episodes like "Magnetism" is rather more common than the inventiveness and depth of "Resonance," and the results are rather forgettable on the whole.

Where the main characters are concerned, what we've got is the same odd couple cop set-up we've all seen a billion times before, complete with a counterstereotype that is by this point just another stereotype (namely the well-worn "twist" that it's the man who's intuitive and the woman who's logical, a combo pulled off more sharply by Mulder and Scully way back when). It doesn't help that Lattimer so often seems oafish--and even just plain dumb--rather than "intuitive." Still, in their favor it can be said that Joanne Kelly displays genuine charm as Myka, the two don't spend their whole time irritating the hell out of each other, and the writing and acting rise to the occasion during the odd couple's periodic moments of human connection, in which there's an actual chemistry and warmth. (Most of the other core cast and characters are all right too, excepting Allison Scagliotti's snarky Claudia Donovan, whose every zinger is a clinker. Personally, I blame the writers.)

The result has so far been watchable in a "turn-your-brain-off" kind of way, but the second season premiere makes me wonder if things will get worse rather than better. While the characters and their relationships acquired a bit more nuance as the series proceeded, little else has, and the Big Surprise--that "H.G. Wells is a woman--and a villain!"--struck me as particularly stupid. (Admittedly I've never been able to work up much interest over "Did Shakespeare really write his plays?"-style authorship games, and my familiarity with Wells' work--I actually devoted a fair chunk of my dissertation to it--may make me overcritical of the lobotomized, just-making-stuff-up way this was all handled. But I can't be the only one who felt this was especially witless.) That the writers seem to be setting Ms. Wells (Jaime Murray) up as not just a recurring character, but a nemesis for the protagonists, strikes me as unpromising indeed.

I have less to say about the newest entry into the line-up, Haven. I'm not familiar with the source material, Steven King's The Colorado Kid (though I'll admit to having been less than thrilled when I first heard that King will get still more air time here). Additionally just two episodes have aired to date, apparently out of order. (The second, "Butterfly," is listed on the Internet Movie Database as the season's third.) However, it appears to be more grounded and less flashy than Eureka or Warehouse 13 (the titular town--yes, I'm using "titular" a lot here, but that does seem to be the pattern--puts me more in mind of Northern Exposure or Picket Fences than Eureka), while also having crisper writing and some darker touches. It also appears to be working its way toward an arc.

In sum, at the end of Year One there is still some entertainment for genre fans, but it's buried in an increasing amount of dross, while the range of product has continued to narrow in favor of more "mainstream" fare (as the course taken from Eureka to Haven demonstrates) at the expense of the sorts of stuff hardcore fans want and reasonably expect from a channel ostensibly devoted to the genre. Airlock Alpha writer Dennis Rayburn recently commented (in response to the decision to bump the original dramas from their longtime Friday night slot in October to make room for channel's real pride and joy, wrestling, when the WWE's Smackdown arrives there),
when SciFi Channel made its famous, (or infamous depending on how you look at it and study it), name change to Syfy, many writers on the Internet predicted that this was the first step toward turning the channel into another USA network and away from the vision that created it. I fear we are seeing it happen, one hour at a time.
Can anyone really dispute that now?

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon