In the US: Sundays, 9/8c, ABC In the UK: Not yet acquired
Virtually everyone who goes to prison in US TV dramas deserves it. In fact, frequently, they don’t get enough prison and it’s clear that by the end of the episode they deserve more of it; there also plenty of people who deserve to be in prison but who aren’t because of ‘technicalities’ such as no evidence, yet the cops know they should be.
Why don’t we just let the prosecutors and the cops do what’s right and stick anyone they think is guilty of a crime in jail forever and ever, hey? That would sort out the crime problem, wouldn’t it?
Well, trouble is, not everyone found guilty of a crime – or even suspected of a crime – is actually guilty, as John Oliver recently pointed out:
A few TV shows have faced up to this reality, including Life, Rectifyand most recently ABC’s Secrets and Lies. But largely, the accused-but-innocent man, while guilty of something like adultery, isn’t guilty of anything too bad.
So you’ve got to at least credit The Family with addressing moral ambiguity in a deeper way than before. Here we have former Brat packer Andrew McCarthy coming out of partial acting retirement to play a man accused of kidnapping, murdering and probably raping the young son of his neighbours, aspiring politician Joan Allen (The Bourne Supremacy, Manhunter) and her husband Rupert Graves (Sherlock). When they find videos on his computer of children being abused, it seems like an open and shut case for rookie cop Margot Bingham (Boardwalk Empire, Matador), and McCarthy is sent away to prison.
Ten years later, Graves and Allen have separated and the children, who include The Newsroom‘s Alison Pill, are all grown up. Then the son they thought had died turns up on a road, having been kidnapped and imprisoned Room-style for close to a decade. McCarthy may be a paedophile but he is innocent of the murder, so is released back into the community.
Can the real kidnapper be found? What will happen to the family now the son has returned? How will the community treat McCarthy once he’s among them again? Can McCarthy be a nice man who’s kind to kids and should be allowed to be around them, even if he does have some rather nasty videos?
These are just some of the interesting questions the show poses, even if it answers none of them well. However, another question is: “With such an interesting subject matter and strong cast, how can it be so astonishingly dull?”
In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, CBS In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Watch. Starts October 29
CBS is, of course, the king of the police procedural in the US. Police procedurals of all ilks dominate its schedules and the ratings, and arguably it does them better than any other network.
However, for years, it’s tried to extend its procedural dominance into the medical realm, with a seemingly neverending stream of shows that quickly turn out to be low-rated, instantly forgettable one-season wonders: Three Rivers, 3 Lbs, Miami Trauma, A Gifted Man.
In fact, I’ve written pretty much this exact same intro to every new medical procedural CBS has come up with every year, so much so I’m bored of it. Maybe you are, too.
Trouble is, I fully expect I’ll be writing it again next year since CBS’s latest medical procedural, Code Black, is a yawnfest that’s almost certainly going to get cancelled by the end of the season. It’s based on Code Black, a 2013 documentary about LA County General, which is one of the largest and busiest teaching hospitals in the US, employing more than 1,000 residents at a time. The name ‘code black’ refers to when an emergency department’s resources are so overstretched by an influx of patients, it can’t take it any more, and while most EDs in the US only experience four such events a year, LA County General experiences it 300 times a year.
Time for more resources, obviously. Except that wouldn’t make for a great TV show.
And neither would Code Black, in which a whole bunch of competitive, disparate, highly dull medical residents all learn how to be ED doctors at the hands of ‘dad’, aka Marcia Gay Harden (The Newsroom, Damages), ‘mom’ being Luis Guzmán (Narcos), the senior nurse who looks after them all. Harden’s a bit hard and lacking in bedside manner following ‘an incident’ three years previously, something that concerns caring, sharing fellow doctor Raza Jaffrey (Elementary, Homeland, Spooks) but not so much hospital administrator Kevin Dunn (Samantha Who?), since Harden’s abrasive training produces the best doctors.
And that’s it, really. It’s basically ER but busier, not taking the time to do more in terms of characterisation rather than have people explain who they are and how totes awesome they are, before performing perfunctory acts of dickery. It’s just blood on the floor to blood on the floor, while a camera unsuccessfully rushes around to try to convey the impression of the original Code Black documentary. Nice, if you like medical porn, dull if you want an actual drama.
The trouble is if you just rush all the time in an attempt to convey pressure, you’re not going to end up with tension. You’re going to end up with confusion. And then boredom.
The camera goes here, the camera goes there, while the cast mumble their lines or shout them so that you never hear them. All you’ll really know most of the time is that people are ill and the doctors are trying to help them. Learn much about the US medical system from it all? Grow to love a character? Probably not.
There are scenes, almost all of them involving Dunn, where the show is allowed to breath and for characters to grow. But they’re few and far between, and sometimes oddly positioned, such as when Dunn starts talking about his eczema in the middle of surgery, to emphasise the point that people are spending too much time on characterisation and need to get back to some advanced doctoring.
But, ultimately, Code Black is just procedure with very little human interest. See you back here next year with the intro?
It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.
The usual “TMINE recommends” page features links to reviews of all the shows I’ve ever recommended, and there’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV – they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.
Can you feel it? Can you? It’s coming. It’s nearly here. It’s the Fall 2015-16 US TV season! Hoorah!
But not until next week. Not properly, anyway, which is why the only new US TV show I’ve reviewed this week is FX’s The Bastard Executioner and the only regular US shows I’ll be examining after the jump are the season finale of Impastor and the latest You’re The Worst. In desperation, I even went back a few weeks to give Patrick Stewart’s new August-debuting series a go, too.
Blunt Talk (US: Starz) Patrick Stewart plays a former British marine turned US chat show host whose ratings are on the down turn. He ends up high on drugs and alcohol, and in the arms (and bosom) of a young, transgender prostitute, and is promptly arrested – well, once he’s stopped beating up the cops. What will happen to his career now?
This is a comedy by the way. It’s not one of those crazy old-fashioned things with jokes, but instead mainly seems to get by on seeing Stewart not being a ‘English gentleman’. This might amuse Americans, unused to English people doing such things, but as Stewart himself points out in the show, we’re a bit more used to idiosyncratic Englishmen here.
The only rays of hope in the show are the moments Stewart has by himself with Adrian Scarborough (Gavin & Stacey, Plebs), his former Falklands batman, which are actually pretty good fun, even if filtered through a strange US prism.
Overall, by the end of the first episode, I really wasn’t sure what the point of the show was. It’s not satirising anything, it’s not doing a The Newsroom or a The Larry Sanders Show. It’s just Stewart being a mild-mannered, self-harming dick.
Here’s a trailer.
But that’s it for US TV. Oh well.
However, there’s more to the world than America. Indeed, elsewhere, I’ve reviewed the first episode of Australia and New Zealand’s new 800 Words, and after the jump, I’ll be looking at the continuing adventures of Canada’s Continuum and the return of Wales’ Y Gwyll/Hinterland. There’s lovely, hey?
And as if all that wasn’t enough, I broke a rule and took a look at some Greek TV.
The Island/Το Νησί (Greece: Mega) The reason for my rule-breaking is that this year marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of Victoria Hislop’s The Island, a novel set in the first half of the 20th century on the Greek islands of Crete and Spinalonga. On Spinalonga is a fortress where Greece used to send people with leprosy until a cure was discovered in the 1950s and the story is about various love affairs, some of which involve people who end up on the island, and how that affects their families.
As well as a Q&A with Hislop, the night featured an airing of the first episode of Το Νησί, Greek television’s 2010/11 24-part adaptation of the novel, which despite being made for €4m and a couple of bottles of raki, is actually very lavish and emptied the streets when it aired. Indeed, it has only ever been beaten in the ratings twice, both times by sporting events, one of which was the opening of the Athens Olympics.
The adaptation is pretty faithful to the book, right down to the modern-day London bookending, which features a pre-DowntonAbbey Dan Stevens. It’s all very lavish and well made in Greek terms, too, although equally, it’s very Greek and emotionally drawn out, too. Acting’s pretty good, with Evgenia Dimitropoulou playing a double-role of both the modern day Alexis and her own aunt Anna – as Alexis, she does a good job of playing a British-Greek girl who doesn’t speak Greek that well (hers is about as good as mine, in fact), although she seems to understand an awful lot, even some quite obscure words such as λεπρός (leper), when she winds up in Crete.
The series has never aired in the UK, surprisingly, although I’m sure BBC Four will get round to it some day. However, you can watch all of it on YouTube, albeit without subtitles, if you hunt around.
There were a few celebs among the audience at the Q&A, including Patrick Barlow and Robert Young, but one in particular pretty much stalked me all over Blackfriars and at the Q&A the entire evening. He made his bilingual acting debut in the first episode of the series, which I’ve embedded below – see if you can spot him. I’ll give you a clue – he first appears at the 3m59s point.
A lot of things can be learned from Matt Nix. Well, three at least. Nix, of course, is the creator of USA Network’s Burn Notice, for years the network’s most popular show. What lessons can we learn from him?
Collaboration is important
Not everything needs to be a procedural
Dark and gritty may not always be a good thing
When Nix first pitched the idea of Burn Notice to USA, it was a dark misery-fest set in New York. Then USA said that maybe he should lighten the whole thing up a bit and set it in Miami. The result was a show that lasted for 111 episodes and a movie. However, I and many others gave up on the show after the fifth season because it had stopped innovating and had become a formulaic procedural.
Now we have Nix’s Complications, in which ER doctor Jason O’Mara shoots a gang member to save both his own life and that of his patient, the child of a gang member. Events then start spiralling out of control as he has to keep protecting and caring for the child or else the gang will kill him, his family, etc.
The show reads as what Nix might have made Burn Notice had he been left to his own devices. It’s dark and gritty, there’s almost no fun or engaging characters, and there’s mysteriously a procedural element to the show as well, with O’Mara having to deal with a ‘dark and gritty’ case of the week in each episode – domestic violence, foot amputation, etc, etc.
And it’s barely watchable. I sat through all 3-4 episodes (the first is a double-episode so your counting system might vary) wondering when it was going to get good. I sat through O’Mara doing all kinds of stupid things, able assisted in this by a somewhat criminal nurse Jessica Szohr. I sat through any number of scenes of poor old Beth Riesgraf (Leverage) having to play Generic Wife 3 – you know, the one who spends all her time nagging the husband, who can never tell her his deep dark secret, even if it means he might destroy his marriage?
But it never got good. Almost the show’s only redeeming feature is gang ‘fixer’ Chris Chalk (best known from The Newsroom but about to be a regular on Gotham as Lucius Fox), who quite rightly gets all the show’s good lines.
The show thinks it’s saying something. And if you watched the first episode, you might think it was going to say something, too, something interesting even – perhaps about what happens if a doctor ‘breaks bad’ or what it means for a doctor to ‘first, do no harm’, with O’Mara working through with psychiatrist Constance Zimmer (UnREAL) all the possible other permutations of medical morality and what happens when you introduce it to the real world. I’m sure over the course of the season, Complications is going to come back to all this at some point at least, but it doesn’t within the next two episodes to any appreciable degree.
Instead, all it does is show you semi-plausibly how to commit some really stupid instances of medical malpractice and get away with it. Even then, it does so in an utterly implausible framework and without any joy, excitement or attempts to engage the audience.
As I remarked earlier this year, USA has had such faith in the show that it’s effectively kept it in a box for a year. Now it’s dumping all the episodes as quickly as possible. I’d say that’s actually a pretty astute move on their part, since for a summer show, Complications is about as enjoyable as septicaemia contracted from some broken glass you stepped on on the beach.