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Friday, September 28, 2012

A Question of Character (NOT an Election-Related Post)

Lately, DOS has been complaining about--well, it would probably take less time to list the things he HASN'T been complaining about.  The internet has only so much space, after all.  Where was I?

Well, ONE of the things he has complained about is the tendency of television producer types to mistake a good premise for a movie for a good premise for a television series.  Take, for example, last season's "Terra Nova."  Now, I never actually watched the show, but the premise, as far as I can tell, was essentially "Jurassic Park," except with people travelling to the time of the dinosaurs instead of the dinosaurs coming to us.  Sounds like a decent premise for a miniseries or a movie--perhaps they could call it "Jurassic Park"--but it won't necessarily work as an ongoing TV series.  Because where do you go with it?   "On this week's 'Terra Nova,' people run from dinosaurs!"; "Stay tuned for scenes from next week's all new 'Terra Nova,' in which. . . people run from dinosaurs!"; "Don't miss the season finale of 'Terra Nova.'  People run from dinosaus. . .AND SOMEONE DOESN'T GET AWAY!!!!"

DOS has a point, but I don't think the problem with these shows is exactly (or solely) a problem of premise.  Consider "Homeland," which just won the Emmy for best drama, or even "Breaking Bad," which should have won.  Both shows' premises sound more appropriate for feature films than ongoing series: "American POW returns to the US as terrorist sleeper agent, and only a mentally ill CIA agent suspects the truth."  "Cancer-stricken chemistry teacher starts cooking crystal meth to provide for his family and ultimately becomes the kingpin of the southwest drug trade."  Yet both shows work (although, admittedly, it remains to be seen if "Homeland" can keep things going beyond one season).  And the annals of television history are filled with series that had decent premises but couldn't find an audience.

What makes shows work--regardless of the inherent strength of concept--is character.  "BrBa" and "Homeland" work because characters like Walter White, Jesse Pinkman Carrie Matheson, and Nicholas Brody are richly drawn and beautifully portrayed.  What made "Lost" work to the extent that it did--and "Lost" is probably the archetypal example of DOS's complaints about movie-premise for a TV show--was the fact that the show devoted, literally, as much time (about 50% of every episode) to character development as it did to moving the plot--such as it was--forward.

Which brings me to this season.  Over the last two days I've watched the premieres of "Revolution" (yes, I know it started two weeks ago--I'm backed up, OK?!?) and "Last Resort."  "Revolution" is the latest J. J. Abrams vehicle.  In it, the world has suffered a massive and irreversible blackout.  Not only has the electricity gone out permanently, but apparently the physical laws that allow people to generate power have gone kerflooey as well: no more internal combustion engines, and--I guess--no more ability to boil water to create steam-driven engines. .  .?  OK, the premise doesn't really bear much looking into.  Anyway, 15 years after the blackout, humanity has more or less adjusted, and there is a revolution (hence the title) brewing against a warlord who has taken control (at least of a large portion of what used to be the midwest).  In "Last Resort," the crew of a nuclear submarine, after refusing an order to fire missiles at Pakistan (an order that was highly suspect to say the least), is in turn attacked by the US Navy.  The crew of the Colorado then takes shelter on an island and threatens massive nuclear retaliation against anyone who attacks them.

So how are they?  Well, considering the limtation of both premises (where do you go with them?), the shows' success or failure will depend largely on their characters.  In this regard, "Last Resort" would seem to have more potential.  Andre Braugher leads the cast as the captain of the Colorado, and he clearly portrays a man on the horns of an impossible dilemma.  "Revolution" seems mostly populated by characters who could have come straight from the cast of "Lost," right down to the scruffy, former bazillionaire trying to survive in a totally unfamiliar world.  Still, I've only seen one episode of each, so we'll wait to pass final judgment for at last a couple more weeks.  Ultimately, whichever one (if either) produces a character or two whom one wants to spend time with every week will be the one that lasts.

1 comment:

  1. "Lost" has a lot to answer for. It was a unique experiment that worked for close to half its run, mostly on the basis of its uniqueness (and NO, it DIDN"T have an "ending", merely a finish!)
    Since then, every network has tried to get another "Lost" and has failed... miserably.
    But none have approached it with the tenacity of NBC which, each year, sticks a new tehthered goat in that Monday slot. Each year starts off with great ratings. And, each year suffers defeat... BECAUSE THE PREMISE DOESN'T SUSTAIN A SERIES!
    It is a perfect example of Einstein's definition of madness.
    Oh, and don't tell me about the JJ Abrams connection.
    Believing he is a major force on the weekly show is like believeing that James Patterson actually writes all the books he puts his name on.