Friday, September 30, 2005

TV Review: Ghost Whisperer

Mmmm. Jennifer Love Hewitt in HDTV...

Too bad it's terrible and ought to be cancelled after only one episode (if only it were on Fox...).

Jennifer Love Hewitt's recently married Melinda can whisper, and yes, even talk, to ghosts. What follows from this simple concept is tacky, annoyingly bad television.

If someone is going to be talking to dead people, it's going to take a bit of effort to establish credibility. Credibility not just with the other surrounding characters but credibility with the audience. We must be introduced to these powers, we must accept them as strange and wonderful, blessing and curse. We must be willing to suspend our disbelief and get caught up in the story.

Thus, Ghost Whisperer begins its pilot by introducing us to a young Melinda, using her powers for the first time, guided by her all-knowing grandmother. Together they attend the funeral of a stranger and console his grieving widow. Fine.

Fast forward to Melinda's wedding day where she's finally trying to put this ghost whispering thing behind her. But, of course, she can't. Fine, hard to have a show if she throws in the towel permanently. But she - and all her friends (all two of them at least) - have already come to believe in and accept her "gift" at face value.

Unfortunately the viewer isn't there yet. We're left thinking, "when is the husband going to show a sign that he's being supportive, but he really thinks she's crazy." But that never happens. Both he and Melinda's best friend accept her talent without doubt.

Funny thing about suspension of disbelief: we'll believe it if the main character can talk to ghosts, but it's asking too much of us to believe that her friends are 100% cool and accepting of it.

It also misses a golden opportunity - what the viewer needs is to see the convincing of the friend. We need someone to be skeptical and challenging, right off the bat (the person-to-be-consoled-du-jour does not count). As that person slowly becomes convinced, we the audience will slowly be convinced that this might be possible in the real world. Without it we are left with a ridiculous characature of a world without skepticism.

Now the consolee-du-jour does of course strike the "how dare you try to exploit me" attitude when Melinda tries to explain that she's been chatting with his dead father. Finally we get that skepticism, only it comes at the most obvious, cliched moment.

And worse, it exposes the underlying problem of the show: It's just plain tacky to tell surviving friends and family what their dead loved one thinks - even if the messenger really is communing with the dead. This show might be temporary wish-fulfillment for someone in mourning, but to the rest of us it'll always just be tacky.

The pilot episode's tearful resolution shows another problem with this conceit:

"Tell him I love him."

"He loves you."

"And tell him A, B, C, and especially D."

"He says A, B, C, and he really wants you to know D."

"Tell him I'm getting tired of having to tell you everything so that you can then repeat what I said so you can tell it to him."

"He says this show is getting really boring. And the viewer has already heard what Mr. Ghost wants to say but I'm going to have to repeat it anyway because that's how we designed the show. Maybe this was a bad idea."

"Tell him this was definitely a bad idea."

"Yeah, Mr. Ghost agrees. Bad idea. ..I do look good in HDTV though."

[both Mr. Ghost and Mr. Alive Son] "F*cking-A, you do!"

Another problem is that there are only three characters. Melinda, her husband, and her best friend. Check out any successful show on television and count the number of main characters (the people whose names are in the opening credits). All of them will have more than three. Generally in the five-to-seven range.

This means that every scene must be one of: Melinda alone; Melinda with husband; Melinda with best friend; Melinda with person we just met and don't really care about; and, rarely, husband with best friend. The possible character interactions are trivial - a triangle, and not a love triangle either. That isn't a web of interactions. It's merely the simplest two-dimensional geometric shape.

What's also sad is that this show is meant to replace the excellent Joan of Arcadia (she spoke to God instead of ghosts). While much more of a hot potato (and perhaps inherently heretical), Joan was a vastly superior show and resulted in star Amber Tamblyn's much-deserved Emmy nomination for Best Actress. Weak, declining ratings did Joan in after the close of its second season.

Finally, there's the title: "Ghost Whisperer"?

It's horrible that the title immediately calls to mind Redford's "The Horse Whisperer", but it's even worse that the comparison is unnecessary. She talks to ghosts. She doesn't whisper to them. Sure "Ghost Talker" is a lame title too, but that doesn't mean there isn't something better out there than "Ghost Whisperer". I wonder if they also considered "A Ghost Talker Named Wanda", "The Hunt for Ghosts in October", "The Princess Ghost Bride", or for the BBC version: "The English Ghost Patient"

Ooohh, wait: This one hits upon the salient features of both ghosts and Jennifer Love Hewitt's appeal... "Ghost Busts". "Who you gonna call," indeed.

TV Review: Invasion

And finally we reach the best of the three new Lost wannabes, Invasion.

ABC, home of the original trendsetter Lost, wins the mystery evil invasion derby with Invasion (which also wins the award for having the best title of the three).

Invasion does two things correct, right from the start.

First it centers the drama around outsiders. Unlike CBS' Threshold, the Invasion characters are pretty average folk trying to survive a Florida hurricane. They do not have Men In Black-esque high tech labs and equipment. They do not have satellite photos and all the resources of the Pentagon behind them. As a result they are more familiar, more accessible to the audience. More human. In this regard Invasion bears a closer similarity to NBC's Surface.

Where it differs from and improves upon Surface are the characters' interrelations, the setup that binds them all together and goes beyond what their individual day jobs or backstories happens to be. This is the second thing it does right. The Invasion characters are a modern extended family: divorced parents sharing custody of the kids; both parents are remarried and building new families. This offers plenty of dynamic tension between almost any combination of characters. Surface nor Threshold can offer that potential level of character interaction, complexity, and mixed emotions.

Of course the extended family unit has to be comprised of interesting characters itself - an interesting domestic situation with boring people would still be boring. Invasion's father/park ranger character (Eddie Cibrian) is a legitimate leading actor that anchors the piece. The kids in the middle of the family situation are a mixed bag - the adorable, insightful little girl is a bit overdone while her caring older brother is spot-on and endearing.

The remaining leads are carried by the mystery element, with the show clearly implying that the ex-wife's new husband, William Fichter as the town sheriff, is one of the bad guys clearing the way to usher in the invasion. They're setting up a life and death struggle between us and the aliens while playing it out through a life and death struggle between the two households. The kids of course provide innocent victim fodder caught in the middle and I'm sure as the weeks progress we'll see them in greater and greater danger. This is all a good start.

The evil alien conceit in Invasion is also more finely crafted than the other two shows. Two episodes in we haven't really seen them yet (that's good - Surface's silly sea dragons should have kept to the shadows for a couple weeks longer), but their effects are slowly being felt. Mystery is building in a generally appealing way.

There's also nothing laughable about this concept, unlike Threshold's silly "oh no the aliens are flashing their simple-yet-insidious logo at us!". And Invasion's as-yet unseen aliens avoid the laugh-out-loud crappy CG sea dragons of Surface.

The most laughable element is intentionally laughable - the conspiracy theorist brother-in-law. This is clever - the best way to pass off a hard-to-believe situation is to have the characters ridicule someone who completely believes in it.

It's a bit like declaring something "not cool" that may actually be cool, but you're not sure, so rather than seeming "not cool" yourself, you make a pre-emptive "not cool" strike against said item. The show is offering a potentially ridiculous storyline, but tells you that it knows it's potentially ridiculous by ridiculing a character who doesn't think it's ridiculous. This magically exonerates the show from being ridiculous. You think I'm being a smart ass, but it's true.

It also helps that all the other characters are reasonable and extremely skeptical. We like that. The show's creator, Shaun Cassidy (whose mom and half-brother David were part of TV's Partridge Family!), was wise in this regard.

As with the other two shows, Invasion is presented in spectacular HDTV with 5.1 surround sound.

With Lost's second season as the lead-in for Invasion and Invasion's clear superiority over the other two evil menace shows, it's a lock. Invasion wins by a mile.

TV Review: Threshold

Threshold is the second of the three new Lost wannabes. And it owns the middle ranking for quality and viability. However it has the worst title (the title doesn't help you remember which of the three shows is which, whereas "Surface" tells you its the sea creature one and "Invasion" tells you its the one with the best chance because it got the best title).

Threshold is CBS' offering. In a surprise to no one, the show feels very much like CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, NCIS, Cold Case, Without A Trace, and probably Numb3rs and Criminal Minds. CBS has had so much success with procedural crime dramas that the network is now pathetically incapable of fielding anything else.

Therefore the story is told from the perspective of a high-tech, unlimited budget government agency with a super team of quirky geniuses and experts in various fields (all with shiny equipment in ergonomically tragic, yet visually stunning labs). There are of course victims who have mysteriously died (due to exposure to some alien signal) and each body and location must be examined in CSI-like fashion (or should I say "CBS-like fashion"?).

And since this is yet another CSI clone, there's no point talking about characters. The fact that it has slick, superb production values (and looks spectacular in HDTV) and fits comfortably into the CBS procedural landscape means that it will find modest if not spectacular success.

What irks me most (other than the transparent CSI-with-aliens conceit) are the silly ways the alien menace manifests itself. A big pulse exposes people to some weird alien condition. Fine. But then watching a videotape of that pulse also affects the viewer ala The Ring? Come on. And then, as a fast food security camera films one of the affected people thrashing around, the video feed goes a little fuzzy and displays an "alien fractal pattern". But it looks more like a video overlay - like the CBS logo that happily lives in the corner of the screen. Video interference is one thing, but projecting a symbol - unintentionally no less - is ridiculous.

As long as they keep finding excuses for people to keep dying while the alien mystery deepens, CBS has another auto-pilot procedural hit on its hands. Snore.

TV Review: Surface

The new television season rounds up its second week and I've been keeping an eye on a few of the new shows.

Surface is one of three new Lost wannabes that tries to play off the same "unknown mysterious menace" territory that studio execs think explains Lost's enormous appeal (more on this in a subsequent post). In true Hollywood fashion, all three major networks are desperately trying to latch onto Lost's success, even if they don't fully grasp what it is that made Lost succeed. The result is an interesting look at the approach and sensibilities of each network.

It's terribly confusing to watch three brand new shows all dealing with a mysterious menace of some sort. They are: Surface, Threshold, and the aptly-named Invasion.

Surface is NBC's offering. It is also the worst of the three. However it does have the second-best title since this show's evil creatures are deep sea dwellers and "Surface" helps us remember this fact (unlike "Threshold").

None of the characters are interesting. And the ensemble is just wide enough to make sure that no one character gets the opportunity to become interesting.

There's the slightly off-kilter, sexy but kind of geeky Lake Bell (that's the actress's name, not a place) playing an oceanographer with a young son. The son is completely token and her scenes with him fail to endear her much to the audience. She loses her research grant and is essentially unemployed. Boo-hoo. We know this is an evil creature invasion drama, so we don't much care about her research grant anyway. Besides these are just facts about a person. They don't make for a character.

Bell's appeal is in her wide-eyed, youthful quirkiness - not dissimilar to Amanda Peet. But Peet has the wisdom to stick to comedies where it can be put to good use. In a serious drama Bell just seems depressed and reigned in.

Moving on. There's the not-quite-a-hick guy whose brother was killed by one of the beasites and wants revenge. Boo-hoo. More facts and setup. Still no character.

There's the government scientist in the expensive high-tech lab where they're studying the beasties. Oh yeah, he has a foreign accent. Guess what? He wears glasses too. Lame.

There's the rich suburban kid who found a beastie egg and is raising the hatchling as a pet. This at least is interesting - he thinks it's an iguana - but all his antics just make you wait for the kid or his friend to get eaten.

The evil creatures themselves look like seagoing dragons. They also look like low budget computer-generated pixels (I'm watching the HDTV offering, perhaps it looks better on a regular TV over rabbit-ear antennae). It's just hard to be menaced by something that looks less photo-realistic than Shrek (especially when 100% of the scene is digital, not just the beastie).

It's also difficult to build much of a mystery about sea dragons. They're not some super-intelligent alien race, hell-bent on conquering earth. They're just some big new lizard that will cause problems for us. We're still smarter than them, so even though they can eat a fishing boat in a single gulp, we still have F-16s, GPS, and microwaveable frozen fried chicken.

So the problem where can you go with a setup like this? They've started to imply that the beastie blood has odd effects on people. Okay, if they're wise they'll make this all about the affected people taking over. At least people - turned evil and super-human by beastie blood - can be smarter than big lizards. And more evil. And create lots more problems for our heroes.

Because the alternative - basing a show around fighting off attacks by low budget CGI monsters - is just fruitless.

Weak concept, non-existent characters, no hope.

If NBC wants to save face, I recommend they accelerate the storytelling and immediately make an end-run. Wrap up the story in one season (or less if the ratings are truly sad) and play it off like it was more an extended miniseries than an actual new TV show.

Slate's Seth Stevenson: why he should keep his mouth shut

My favorite site for intelligent opinion and analysis is (which also co-produces pieces on NPR). Today they ran an article by Seth Stevenson titled "Joss Whedon: why he should stick to television".

Now anyone who knows me will recognize that this statement is tantamount to heresy (especially in light of today's box office debut of "Serenity", Joss' resurrection of his cancelled "Firefly" TV show).

However anyone who knows me should also realize that I'm good at keeping an open mind.

So I clicked on the article, fearing that Stevenson would be right, that he would lay out a damning analysis of Whedon's inherently television-based approach to storytelling that just doesn't work on the big screen. I expected the observation that nine main characters works great for TV, but cannot work successfully in a two-hour movie. I expected a discussion about how "Serenity"'s impossibly small buget ($40 million) forced the movie to look like a modestly glitzed-up episode of a modest budget TV show.

Instead, within the first two paragraphs, I got a huge spoiler. Not only is it a huge spoiler, it's one that occurs "toward the end of the film".

It's my fault for reading the article before seeing the movie right? I mean I was just asking for it, yes?


Read a review by Roger Ebert. See how he avoids spoilers while still discussing whatever he feels is worth discussing. Read a review by any reasonably professional writer and you'll see how they avoid spoilers. And if spoilers do appear, they are always preceded by the warning "spoilers ahead". It's common courtesy to those who may not want major surprises spoiled (thus the basis for the word "spoiler").

I'm the kind of guy that doesn't watch the trailer for movies he's looking forward to seeing (yes, I can look forward to seeing a movie without ever seeing the trailer. I'm special that way). I loathe the silly fansites that seek to unearth every possible spoiler and rumor they can find.

So my only mistake was in trusting Slate.

I assumed that all of their writers adhered to the highly professional, extremely intelligent standards that the vast majority of their articles convey. I thought: moreso than any other site, I can trust Slate's content to be wisely considered - and considerate.

I did email Stevenson and asked him to add the spoiler warning. And I didn't even cuss him out.

But man am I pissed.

Stevenson may still be right in his assertion about Joss. But I can't risk reading any more of his article until I see the movie tonight.

Bloody hell. I've been looking forward to this movie for two years and have carefully avoided all spoilers and now - on opening night!! - a huge, never-would-have-suspected-it surprise is spoiled. ARRGGGGHHH!!