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December 2005

The 2005-2006 TV Season Report Card: Genre Hits & Misses

Media Commentary By John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5The TV season is half-over, and the “genre invasion” I wrote about in this space a few months ago is marching forward. There have been some casualties in this campaign, to be certain, but science fiction and horror on TV continue making significant in-roads with the networks, sometimes with surprising success.

The first genre casualty of the 2005-2006 season was ABC’s Thursday night drama, Night Stalker, a glitzy re-make of the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker series from 1974. Only six episodes of the series aired (though nine were produced), and ABC had the audacity to rip the program off the air in the middle of an unresolved two-parter called “The Source. “

Although the purists rabidly disliked this program produced by X-Files alum Frank Spotnitz, it wasn’t lacking in merit. In the brief time Night Stalker was broadcast, it addressed issues of journalist responsibility (and right in the middle of Patrick Fitzgerald’s CIA leak investigation, to boot!), and dealt with an interesting recurring theme: sin manifesting itself as “monsters” in a de-humanized but overpopulated modern metropolis. ABC could have shown a little more patience before killing this one.

The second casualty came this week: CBS’s Threshold. This was one of the big three “alien invasion” series reported on in the press, brethren to NBC’s Surface and ABC’s Invasion. In the final analysis, the right one got axed.

Threshold starred Carla Gugino as Molly Caffrey, the gorgeous leader of an “elite” team of alien hunters. It was her job every week to prevent a “bio altering” alien signal from infecting human beings and re-writing their molecular structure, transforming them into alien sleeper cells. That sounds like a potentially interesting story, but Threshold boasted no forward narrative momentum, and every story was virtually the same as the one before. Worse, the series was frightfully implausible. To wit: the aliens never tried the same plan twice, to their own detriment. In one episode, they attempted to upload their deadly signal onto the Internet, but were stopped. You’d think they’d attempt that gambit again...maybe launch a simultaneous attack on the Net from several countries around the world, but that kind of strategic thinking was not only beyond the purview of the (invisible) alien invaders, it was beyond the skill of the writers.

While not strictly a genre effort, ABC also announced the upcoming demise of Alias, the Jennifer Garner spy series that’s been on the air for five seasons, since 2001. Created by J.J. Abrams, the talent behind Lost and the director of the upcoming Mission: Impossible 3, Alias never really achieved the spectacular ratings ABC anticipated, though it has a second chance with reruns in syndication. Thematically, the show petered-out after the second season, when the SD-6 threat was taken down and Sidney Bristow went to work for the real CIA.

So there you’ve got your losers, the series that flunked the ratings test with viewers. But are there any winners in the genre invasion? Well, as of this half-way mark (the holiday season; post November sweeps), WB’s Supernatural, CBS’s Ghost Whisperer, Surface and Invasion remain on the schedule; and more so, will be around for a full order of twenty episodes. Favorites such as Lost and Medium are also doing very well, the former boosted by another shocking death amongst the stranded islanders, and the latter by a spiky 3-D episode introduced by none-other than the late, great Rod Serling.

Of the new series, the supernatural programming on the big networks is undeniably weak stuff, even if it survives for now. Ghost Whisperer is just the sort of treacly, maudlin melodrama geared towards overweight housewives with angel fetishes. The series concerns a young woman, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, who receives messages from the dead. Unfortunately, these messages tend not to be scary, disturbing, or even particularly interesting. Instead, they’re morally “uplifting.” Spirits straggle around on the mortal coil, it seems, just until Love Hewitt can pass along Hallmark card sentiments like “He forgives you.” Or “He never got to say he loves you.” Or “Your mother is very proud of you.” This is the sort of nonsense that makes one miss Touched by an Angel.

Supernatural isn’t much better. This program concerns two brothers facing monsters of the week, and has been (optimistically...) described as Star Wars meets Route 66. More like Smallville meets Kolchak, but the big problem isn’t the format, it’s the underwhelming characterizations. Here, the hunky leads played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are virtually interchangeable. And since we don’t care about them, the episodes don’t feel particularly scary, let alone suspenseful.

One bright light on the supernatural front is the Discovery Channel’s A Haunting, a pseudo-documentary program (airing Friday nights) that concerns a different haunted house each week. Now, I’ll be the first one to say I don’t believe any of this stuff, let alone the “eyewitness” testimony, but these shows are edited with an eye towards horror imagery, and a frenetic pace. If the viewer looks at A Haunting as a horror anthology rather than a documentary, one that features up-to-the-minute movie techniques (including CGI, and the documentary format), there’s a lot of fun, and not a few chills, to be had during the average episode.

The two new sci-fi shows, Invasion and Surface, are not the blockbusters hoped for, but they’re both doing well enough to merit a renewal. Let’s hope so, anyway. Invasion is the latest effort from American Gothic creator Shaun Cassidy, and it concerns aliens using a hurricane in Florida as a smokescreen for colonization. The show is well-cast, entertaining, but in the final analysis, slow as molasses. Like Lost, it’s somewhat hit or miss from week-to-week. Some episodes are absolutely riveting, and others feel just average, like they’re marking time until the next big sweeps week.

Perhaps Surface on NBC is the most enjoyable and the most improved of all the “invasion” dramas. It started off weak and diffident, but now moves with (the admittedly brainlesss...) grace of a big-budget summer blockbuster at the movies. The series focuses a new species in the ocean...a species of giant sea-going lizards. So far, Surface has genuflected visually to Godzilla and Jurassic Park (with startling monster attacks...), and thematically to Close Encounters (with one character obsessively experiencing visions of a crater beneath the sea...), E.T. (with a young boy befriending one of the little beasties...), and The Abyss. It’s a derivative effort, but thanks to the Pate Brothers and the writers, it’s routinely entertaining. Despite your better judgment, you’ll find yourself continuing to tune in.

Half a season down; half to go! Will Surface and Invasion be left standing come next May, or will we be stuck with just Ghost Whisperer and Supernatural come next September?

Now that’s a really scary thought...

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