Once Upon a Time (ABC, 2011)
Once Upon a Time is a show that doesn’t know what to do with itself. It is trying to be several shows at once – a strange combination of Lost and TruBloodby way of Stephen King. The problem is, you can’t do sexy, goofy, over the top camp and a dark fantasy mystery at the same time. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
The pilot is a campy, too serious mess. The “real-world” sequences were fine and, over enthusiastic 10-year old aside, often created a good sense of mystery and tension. That feeling wouldn’t stay with you, however, for you could count on it being dissipated by a campy, terrible fantasy sequence with in a few minutes. Those sequences are inexcusably awful – typical, television fantasy trash. For a show with this budget, cast, and creative pedigree such low quality television is unacceptable. Often watching the pilot of Once Upon a Time was like watching an episode of Lost interspersed with sequences from an fairy tale infected episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The episode could have jettisoned most of those scenes and lost little.
Despite the awfulness of the pilot, this show has some potential. The cast is strong – especially the Wicked Step-Mother and the dude playing Rumpelstiltskin as a serial killer. The Wicket Step-Mother has the right mix of the sinister and the sensitive and “Mr. Gold” was appropriately disturbing. I still like Jennifer Morrison a lot, despite the efforts of the last season of How I Met Your Mother to make me feel otherwise. The 10-year old boy needs to rein it in it, but he is far from the worst child actor on television. The executive producers of this show are, obviously, survivors of the Lost writers room. Which means they know how to write a good science fiction/fantasy tinged mystery and create compelling and interesting characters – even if they don’t know how to make an ending really work.
To make this show work going forward, what’s needed is to make a choice. Do they want to go the love-it-or-leave it campy or love-it-or-leave it fantasy mystery route. These are mutually incompatible creative directions, as the pilot clearly shows. The raw materials of Once Upon a Time are solid. It is in the hands of the writers as to whether this show will succeed or end up on the growing pile of failed shows from the 2011-2012 season.
How I Met Your Mother: Season Seven (CBS, 2011)
It sort of bothers me that I am always writing mean things on the internet about How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). What rubs me the wrong way about all of the negative things I’ve said about this show is that, at the end of the day, I really do love it. I own all of the seasons on DVD. The girlfriend and I have a subscription via Zune for the newest season on my X-Box. Who doesn’t want a weekly dose of Jason Segal and Neil Patrick Harris? I really do love HIMYM.
My enjoyment – my love – of this show has always been contingent. There is much awfulness at the core of this show – often open misogyny, the jock-humor, the CBS sitcom related awfulness, the shallowness of the female characters, the more often than not “too cool for school” attitude, off-hand homophobia, the misogyny. All of that does even account for the sometimes awful writing – the Barney/Robin debacle still grates.
The double whammy season premiere brought all this to the front and center by having Barney recount so many of his racist and misogynistic pick up attempts (did they really need to bring up the lesbian one again? Ack!). But even worse, the hour long season starter suggests that the show has begun to cannibalize itself.
Call-backs have always been a standard comedic trope on this show. HIMYM’s “framed narrative” makes possible and Carter & Bays often use such call-backs to great effect (in fact the season premiere as a good set up for a couple of Marshal related ones). But the return of – SPOILER ALERT – Victoria at the end of the season opener and the recent pumpkin related announcement portents that Carter & Bays have moved beyond the call-back and begun to cannibalize their show’s own past.
The return of Victoria goes beyond the occasional return of Ted’s exes because of her place in the show’s history. Besides Robin (who shouldn’t count because she’s a main character and Cobie Smulders is awesome), Victoria is the best and most likable of Ted’s girlfriends (in fact Carter & Bays planned for her to be THE MOTHER if they didn’t get a second season). Bringing her back should mean something, it should mean that the overall story of this show is moving forward. But, I remain doubtful. Carter & Bays have promised such movement before and little has come of it (fool me once shame on me, fool me twice…).
Since, at least, the third season Carter & Bays have been promising forward movement on Ted’s character arc – that he finally will get his shit together – but again and again these promises have amounted to nothing. Instead, the show has stagnated and gradually Ted has gotten gradually more and more unlikable. Think about it; in the four seasons since Ted and Robin broke up where has his character gone? Pretty much nowhere.
Now Carter & Bays have been talking about how they are entering the “end game” of the show and the character himself has once again promised he’s going to get his shit together and move forward but it seems that the show is going to go backwards yet again. Like an abused spouse I am willing to give Carter & Bays another chance to push their show forward but, after a season where they managed to make Jennifer Morrison (who I like a lot) unbearable, I remain skeptical.
The above should not be read to mean that I hated the season premiere. I’m glad they are taking Barney out of his played-out Lothario role. The two Marshall B-plots in these episodes were hilarious. Marshall and Lily as parents promises to be both hilarious and touching. Carter & Bays have repeatedly promised good story-lines for Robin this time out.
In the end, this season has a lot of promise but sadly, because of all of the wasted potential of recent seasons, I remain skeptical.
The New Girl (Fox, 2011)
The New Girl is a deeply disturbing show.
Zooey Deschanel plays a character born out of a sort of nightmarish romantic comedy netherworld – a strange elixir of the most homogenized image of hipsterdom (the glasses!), a B sex-romantic comedy heroine, the worst sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl that Zach Braff could dream up, and a sort of half-baked parody of third wave feminism. She delivers each line with a forced quirkiness that slowly chips away at one’s ability to take human language seriously. Deschanel is always strongest as an actress (of sorts) when she silently plays the wispy sort of MPDG that many a sensitive man in his twenties could fall obsessively in love with (see the best scenes of 500 Days of Summer). But here, in The New Girl, - a show driven entirely but its dialogue and supposed cleverness – she is forced to relie on her ability to deliver a line like a human being. And she fails to the point in which by the end I felt sorry for her – and myself.
Oh and the dialogue. The dialogue. At the ten minute mark I found myself wondering if there was a sort of rom-com Necronomicon from which the writers – and I use that term here provisionally – drew their terrible dialouge and plot from. The core of this show is a sort of examination of the supposed gender differences between men and women (girls are flighty! men want to get laid). But there taken on this feels stale even if this was 1983. In the end the show feels like a sort half-baked version of Three’s Company + 1.
I blame How I Met Your Mother, which showed that domesticated sex comedy could work on national television. But HIMYM’s many wannabes have failed to acknowledge two key facts about that show (a show which I enjoy a great deal). First, that it is constantly teetering on the edge of collapsing under the weight of its own gender troubles, high CBS sit-com cheese, and misogyny. Second, HIMYM’s cast was always stronger than the material the writers gave them. Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segal, and Cobie Smulders are legitimately funny people, which always comes through no matter what awfulness Carter & Bays make them spout.
And yet, when you stare long into the darkness the darkness begins to stare back into you. There were moments of true humor in The New Girl and, perhaps, a few truly relatable moments. The sort of things that make a sit-com work. A few times Deschanel’s strained line readings are over come by the humor, and not the other way around. The show makes good, if painfully quirky, use of her excellent singing voice.
In the end, The New Girl is not likely to be the worst new show in 2011 (that honor is likely to go to some cop show with pornographic murders of pretty girls). I am glad that this season the networks have decided to come out with several shows driven by young female leads. But that does not make The New Girl a good show. Just a disturbing one.