Friday, October 21, 2011

Fall Preview III: Up All Night, Prime Suspect, Terranova and the topic of originality

Up All Night-I am about as interested in this TV show as I am listening to some couple at a family reunion showing me baby photos and talking all about the cute little boy. Yes, I understand this show inverts that notion and explores how parenthood can be surprisingly difficult but that's not exactly news either.

Personally, I would much rather see Will Arnett taking creative risks with Mitch Hurwitz ("Running Wilde" is just on hiatus #Holdingout), even if the results aren't entirely satisfying. Arnett just feels creatively neutered here in generic sitcomland.

If the show is going to be this generic, my sensibilities might be less offended if a laugh track were put in. As it stands, the single camera format communicates to me that the show's creators think that what they're doing is edgy.

The show breaks from the A-premise occasionally with a B-premise that centers around new mom Christina Applegate as a production assistant at an Oprahesque talk show. Oprah is predictably played by Maya Rudolph (although it's nice to see her on TV again). The show would be better served by devoting more time to this world, except for the fact that you could then criticize "Up All Night" for being a lesser clone of "30 Rock" or the film "Knocked Up."

I hear other critics being quick to praise this, but the show doesn't show much promise to me.

Prime Suspect-Just like comedy, TV dramas like to play it safe. They stick to the same kind of professions for their characters (doctors, lawyers, and cops, oh my!) and emulate the style of other successful shows in that format. These shows are commonly referred to as "procedurals."

Procedurals create a marketing paradox of sorts: You don't want to advertise yourself as being entirely different from the other cop/lawyer/doctor shows but you don't want to make it look like the writer simply cut and pasted a script of Grey's Anatomy and just changed the names around.

What they usually do to navigate that different/same dichotomy is to present themselves as the same concept with edgier characters. The start of this trend might have been "The Closer" which presented itself as (imagine Don LaFontaine saying it) "A cop show..featuring a detective who's pretty, female, and tough and if that weren't enough, she has a southern accent."

Look at Prime Suspect's promotional materials on the NBC website:
"The series stars Maria Bello ("A History of Violence") as tough-as-nails NYPD homicide Detective Jane Timoney, an outsider who has just transferred to a new squad where her new colleagues already dislike her. Jane is confident and focused - and also rude, abrupt and occasionally reckless. She has her vices, and rumors of a questionable past follow her everywhere - but at the end of the day, she's an instinctively brilliant cop who can't be distracted from the only important thing: the prime suspect."

Mario Bello's Jane Timoney is far from the first or last character to copy the same sets of attributes of another successful character. USA Network has built a factory of shows modeled on Monk: Exiled [Profession: spy, doctor, cop, lawyer, investigator, white collar worker] who has [obsessive compulsive disorder/too much of a conscience/a crazy dad who scarred him/an unknown enemy in the CIA who burned him] which prevents him from entering his profession in the mainstream, so he must resort to doing his job on a freelance basis outside of the establishment while discovering [the identity of his wife's killer/how to build a better relationship with his dad/how to connect to his brother and find love again/the identity of the man who burnt him] so he can be complete again.

Ultimately, "Prime Suspect" exists so that you can pass an hour in front of the TV without expending too much brain power. It's like eating a protein bar in lieu of a homecooked meal (for this analogy to work, I'm suggesting the goal here is eating a hearty and tasty meal and not a nutritional goal. The protein bar could very well be more healthy for you than the meal).

Terra Nova, on the other hand, has an ambitious concept. That's already a step up from a procedural. The show initially takes place in the year 2149 where the planet has been sufficiently ravaged by environmental destruction due to the pressures of overpopulation. The frontier in this show isn't space but time. A portal is discovered in space-time that allows people to travel back several million years to the Mesozoic Era where our protagonist family goes to begin a new life. The theme of redemption is especially fitting for the father, a former cop who went to prison for overpopulating the planet (A wonder Lionel Richie hasn't already been arrested for this *rimshot*) (the max in this universe is two kids, he had three. Why the mother didn't also go to prison, I'm not sure).

With this blog post centering around the discussion of procedurals and originality, I find two things ironic about the dad figure. First, he's a former cop and in one of the three episodes I've seen him in, he's solving a murder. Second, the character is played by Jason O'Mara who's credits have consisted largely of procedural shows: "Life on Mars" (although that show did have a time-travelling twist), "In Justice," and "The Agency." If my thesis is that procedurals are bad for TV, I'd have to add a corollary that while it's bad for TV viewers, it's financially the opposite for the networks so it is touch to avoid getting a high-concept sci-fi show like this on the air without working in elements of a procedural.

Somewhat. It's family-centered but doesn't have a very strong family. Of the three children, middle child Maddy (Naomi Scott) seems the strongest so far. She's charming on screen and in terms of plot dynamics, she's believably inquisitive which can add tension in plots. In one episode in particular, Maddy was an effective Nancy Drew character. Other than her, the younger child doesn't have much to do except be cute and precious and the older child (Landon Liboiron) is the typical rebellious son who exposes his father's weaknesses.

What is intriguing is the concept, but I hope the show picks up the pace in terms of captivating plots and makes the family element more exciting.

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