Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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?

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