Saturday, September 30, 2006

Book Review: The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther

The bonds between parent and child, past and preset are explored in Yasmin Crowther's The Saffron Kitchen, the debut novel of the Anglo-Iranian author.

The story is told through the eyes of Sara and her mother Maryam, whose relationship is threatened after a violent outburst causes pregnant Sara to lose her baby. She retreats to her home, taking comfort in her husband and taking charge of her orphaned cousin Saeed, and maintains a connection with her mother and her heritage through a project to paint her kitchen.

Maryam flees to the Iranian village she left as a child, after a violent break with her father and family. Only by reconnecting to the past can she mend - or reconsider - the relationships of her present. We're introduced to her first love, Ali, in flashbacks, while her husband, Edward, and daughter are left to piece together a part of her mysterious past through photos and poetry she left behind.

The Saffron Kitchen is lyrically written, only slightly marred by the occasional jarring transition between the present day and flashback narratives. While Sara and Maryam are our guides through this emotional story of catharsis, the other characters are given just enough personality to add depth and flavour to the story of coming to terms with the past in order to live fully in the present.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

TV Review: House - "Lines in the Sand"

"Lines in the Sand" is one of those beautiful House episodes that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, with the overall picture right there in the title.

Ten-year-old Adam is the patient of the week, and the episode opens with some nifty direction and effects to give us his autistic point of view. His weary parents have even more to stress over when he starts choking and screaming. It's probably not a happy time for him, either.

That part's not funny. The rest of the episode is, with House at his theatrical best, spouting witty remarks and pop culture references, facing a litany of stupid clinic complaints with a look of utter desolation on his face, and even talking in couplets, though not quite the kind that would make Shakespeare proud: "Go up his rear and get a smear."

As usual, best line reading of the night goes to Hugh Laurie, in a small voice after trying and failing to get all Dog Day Afternoon on Cuddy: "Attica?"

House is rebelling against her horrifically cruel decision to replace the blood-stained carpet in his office, and he refuses to work in there until she relents and puts the old one back.

"You think you can get me to do anything you want no matter how stupid it is?" she asks, thinking - not unreasonably - that it's one of House's games. He plays along by doing the differential diagnosis meetings in the clinic, in Wilson's office (where he plays with one of those Zen sandboxes - CLUE!), in an office Cuddy had booked for her own meeting.

The TV guide description makes the connection between the case and House explicit for us, though the episode lets the connection build slowly. Oh well, at least the show treats its audience like they have a brain, even if the marketing department doesn't. Though Cameron's first guess is that the carpet obsession is a power play, she starts to wonder if House's actions aren't just a little autistic. Wilson eventually reveals to Cuddy that House's unusual connection with the boy is rooted in his belief that House might have Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that makes people socially inept and uncomfortable with any change in routine. Wilson believes House is trying to help himself through the kid, but dismisses it as an actual diagnosis:

"You're not autistic. You don't even have Asperger's. You wish you did. It would exempt you from the rules. Give you freedom. Absolve you of responsibility. Let you date 17-year-olds. But most important, it would mean that you're not just a jerk."

Yes, one of those lines in the sand House would like to cross is the jailbait/only-inappropriate-age-difference line, since his teen flirtation, Ali, is back this episode, trying to convince him that the line between 17 and 18 is arbitrary and meaningless. She has definitely crossed the line into stalkerdom, but House's withering putdowns seem to wither in the face of 17-year-old breasts.

Cuddy points out the girl called 15 times, which is not quite normal:

Cuddy: Your mother's not that interested in you.

House: Maybe I'd be better adjusted if she was. ...

Cuddy: She's dangerous.

House: She's not dangerous.

Cuddy: She's pretty.

House: She's pretty.

Cuddy: Men are stupid.

House: I'm with you so far.

So he knows it's stupid, but he's having fun, and House is all about the fun. Except when he's about the misery and the crushing of hope and the solving of puzzles.

This time, the puzzle fits together through a collection of symptoms that, of course, don't add up - because if they did, this would be the shortest episode ever.

Foreman, the neurologist, starts out with a solid theoretical understanding of autism that makes him dismissive of any other explanation than simply that. He then demonstrates a complete lack of practical understanding of autism when he ignores the parents' warnings and take the kid's electronic game away from him in order to do the MRI House requests. Having learned his lesson the hard way, he sweet-talks Wilson into doing the subsequent lymph node biopsy, forgetting to mention the patient's tendency to writhe and scream.

That gives House the opportunity to connect with the kid while actually being in the same room with him. He demonstrates the anesthesia mask on himself in order to get Adam to follow his lead - and leading to a hilariously dopey and flirty House in the next couple of scenes.

He dismisses the parents' hopes that their son has made a human connection with a curt "Monkey see monkey do. Your kid is just as messed up as when we admitted him."

The crucial piece of the emotional puzzle is filled in afterwards, when House explains his connection with the kid in his own terms to a pitying Cameron:

"See, skinny, socially privileged white people get to draw this neat little circle, and everyone inside the circle is normal and anyone outside the circle should be beaten, broken and reset so they can be brought into the circle. Failing that, they should be institutionalized or, worse, pitied. ... Why would you feel sorry for someone who gets to opt out of the inane courteous formalities which are utterly meaningless insincere and therefore degrading. ... Can you imagine how liberating it would be to live a life free of all the mind numbing social niceties? I don't pity this kid, I envy him."

Wow. Can you imagine a House who is living free of all the mind numbing social niceties? Now that would be a cable show.

When Adam's case eventually starts to look like poisoning, House explains in unsentimental terms why the parents might be driven to poison their own child. "They are everything you'd want in a parent. Unfortunately, their kid is nothing you'd want. When a baby is born, it's perfect. Little fingers, little toes, plump, perfect, pink and brimming with unbridled potential. Then it's downhill. Some hills steeper than others."

It's a nice tie to last season's "Daddy's Boy," where we discover that House keenly feels his parents' disappointment in him, and confides that in Cameron. Here, he's both more and less revealing, since afterwards he dismisses her with: "My parents love me unconditionally. Get out of here."

When the usual suspects - the parents - seem to shockingly not be poisoning their child, House realizes the kid might have eaten something poisonous by accident. So he tries to get Adam to communicate by choosing from pictures of things in the back yard, including a Polaroid of the weed they suspect.

This is where the title was a detriment to the story, because when Adam's hand wavered over the images, I realized it must be the sandbox. I thought House got that, too, especially when Adam actually picked the sand. So the next scene, where House hilariously preaches to his diagnostic disciples in the chapel, confused me a little, until I cleverly realized he hadn't been quite that clever. Someone should have told him the title of the episode.

House is finally convinced to speak to Ali to crush her crush, so he goes into melodramatic Casablanca mode - "the problems of two people don't add up to a hill of beans" - and she eats it up, crying for her noble lost love until her milky tears become a clue. House realizes that she's infected with spores that are affecting her brain. It's a mirror image of a senior citizen clinic patient from season one, Georgia, who fell in love with House due to syphilis.

While he's moping over that - and, maybe, the case - a glimpse of the squiggly lines Adam had been drawing clue House in to the final piece of the puzzle. Worms in the sand Adam ate have been causing his symptoms. After he's cured, House watches the family being discharged.

"First tongue kiss, an 8 on the happiness scale. Child being snatched back from the brink of death, that's a 10. They're clocking in at a very tepid 6.5 because they know what they have to go back to," he tells Wilson.

But then, as Wilson points out, they hit a 10 when Adam thanks House in his own way, by handing over his game and making eye contact.

The guy who can't see the value in Wilson's keepsakes from former patients can not only see the enormity of Adam's gesture, it's the perfect language between the game-obsessed, socially withdrawn boy and the game-obsessed, socially withdrawn man. He can't dismiss the wordless thanks the way he did the parents' effusive thanks, and maybe - but probably not - sees that hope is not, after all, futile.

Still, it's obviously a blow to the poor man's ego that he was a symptom rather than a cause of Ali's condition, but at least he's still got Cameron. She watches with him as his old, blood-stained carpet is reinstalled - Cuddy finally relented, after facing the fact that House is just that screwed up - and gazes at her boss meaningfully. "All change is bad? It's not true, you know."

"Lines in the Sand" was either a great way to enter the baseball hiatus on a high note, or a mean way to enter the baseball hiatus by making us wait with even more anticipation for the next one.

House returns on Tuesday, Oct. 31. I'm uncomfortable with the change in routine.

Monday, September 25, 2006

TV Review: Smith

The biggest buzz for the stylishly shot Smith is around star Ray Liotta of Goodfellas, brought to TV again in the starring role of a crime boss that emphasizes some of his Goodfellaness. The cast is full of other recognizable faces, including Oscar nominees Virginia Madsen (Sideways) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog, 24) as well as Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting), Simon Baker (The Guardian, The Devil Wears Prada), and Amy Smart (Crank, Felicity).

Given the likable, talented cast and the pounding music that presumably indicates high drama, it's hard to believe how boring the show is. I have to admit I was bored before even seeing it, since the premise of a group of motley thieves getting together for a Hustle - or is that a Heist? - is starting to seem far too familiar. But then I don't understand the proliferation of CSIs and their clones, either, and they seem to be doing just fine without me.

The execution of the tired concept in the pilot episode didn't cover any new ground, with mostly bland characters in a convoluted but not terribly interesting plot to stage a robbery.

It's easy to focus on onscreen talent and wonder what went wrong and forget that people behind the camera have something to do with quality, too. Smith is the new series by executive producer John Wells, whom I have a grudge against for ruining The West Wing and ER. (It's debatable whether he's actually to blame, but life's not fair, is it?) 

Like his other shows, Smith has a substantial focus on the personal, not just the professional, with the tension-filled and secretive marriage of Liotta's Bobby Stevens and wife, Madsen's Hope Stevens, Baker's Jeff the womanizer, and Miller and Smart's characters' history and continued attraction. It's not quite enough to bring the characters to life yet, and while I'm sure there are a million heists that could bring these characters together over and over again, I've definitely seen enough. 

It's possible I'm not really thankful

I've written before about my tragic Canadianness, but I am literally the poster child for politeness now. At work, we've got a new Be Nice to People policy to communicate to employees, and I happened to be at my desk when my colleague decided to coordinate a photo for the Be Courteous poster. So there I am, opening a door for another employee with a cheesy (but polite) smile plastered on my face. I believe my royalty cheque is in the mail.

This weekend, I took a quick trip to Kelowna and achieved another milestone in my life as a driver: I got my first traffic ticket. It's for something that not only am I quite certain I didn't do, but that I didn't even know was an infraction (Disobey Yellow Light at Intersection - he meant those flashing orange lights warning you the upcoming traffic lights are about to change, not even the yellow traffic light itself).

When the RCMP officer handed me the $167 ticket, I thanked him. Then I laughed at myself. Then I was baffled.

I'm going to dispute the ticket, appealing to the fact that I don't believe I did the deed, neither does my passenger, I'm a nice polite driver who's never had a ticket before, based on the volume of people being pulled over I suspect they might have been a little overzealous, and I'm really sorry officer for doubting your word and thanks for your time.

Disputing just seems so ... discourteous. How will I live with seeing myself on those posters now? Good thing Avoid Gossip is coming soon to take their place. I can do that. I've got no dish on the Kelowna RCMP.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had critics and fans in a lather before its premiere last week, some obviously anticipating the Second Coming. When clearly it's the Third, after Sports Night and The West Wing.

But seriously, what show could live up to that expectation? The most frequent criticism is that by focusing on behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, the stakes are far too low to sustain the series.  

I'm not sure how or why people expected Sorkin to raise or even match the stakes of The West Wing. It seems to me the options would be limited. Perhaps a drama about idealists in the United Nations? Or he could have gone galactic, exploring contemporary issues in a futuristic setting. Maybe on a ship of some kind, like a battlestar.

The pilot sets up the premise, that Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) are brought in to save a Saturday Night Live-like show after the producer has an onair meltdown, railing against the state of television because a sketch called "Crazy Christians" has been cut by Standards and Practices.

Though there are more quality shows on TV now than in The West Wing's prime, did anyone wonder what shows Judd Hirsch's character could possibly have been talking about when he referred to eating worms or screwing sisters? Did anyone futilely cast their minds over the TV landscape to find examples of the meanness and bitchiness he spoke of?

The comedy show Albie and Tripp take over isn't about to change the face of the world or even the face of television, but with the support of new network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), it is making a stand. It's a stand that's still relevant even in a golden age for television, considering an FCC that fines stations for showing Janet Jackson's nipple but not a slashed throat, with watchdog groups that claim to be offended by shows they haven't watched, with parents groups who complain about adult programming aimed at adults instead of bothering to learn about parental controls, like the V-chip, or taking the TV out of their kids bedrooms.

The anti-television rant in Studio 60, then, seems to be more about the power of television being a power we give it, not a power it has over us. I'm not sure how many freedom of speech and artistic responsibility arguments the show can slip in, but so far it feels more character driven than issues driven. And you don't have to be writing about world politics to have something to say about human issues.

The two central characters are obviously based on Sorkin and his collaborator Thomas Schlamme, who brings his distinctively swooping directorial style to Studio 60. The lush, overlapping dialogue crackles with personality and wit, and the heart of this show is bound to be the friendship between Albie and Tripp.

Chandler Bing miraculously casts no shadow on Matthew Perry's performance, and while it's an adjustment to see the former Friend (and West Wing guest star) alongside Bradley Whitford as someone other than Josh Lymon, they seamlessly fit into their roles as long-time partners with a deep bond, and instantly made themselves welcome again in my living room.

Sorkin's greatest strength is to create idealistic characters who genuinely care about each other, and it's a warm counterpoint to the cynicism and body count of those shows we thought of during Hirsch's top-of-show speech.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Anatomy of a mistake

Yesterday I was going to write something brief about what I've cleared off my PVR this week so far, focusing on my disappointment in the Grey's Anatomy season premiere. I thought it went from the overwrought season finale to the, er, underwrought glossing-over of Izzy's grief, and the Chief's marital troubles, and Meredith's love triangle. I'm usually multitasking while watching the show (translation: not paying full attention), but even so, it seemed disjointed.

But then I got the memo (literally - none of the networks actually target news releases to the TV, Eh? site, so I get everything they send out, applicable or not). Turns out, I hadn't seen the season premiere, but the second episode of the season, because of a glitch with the satellite feed provided to CTV.

The news today is full of stories quoting fans vilifying CTV, and while it's hard to have sympathy for a corporate entity, it wasn't actually their fault - a fact that's buried in some of the articles. My media relations colleagues are shocked that journalists might run with the sensational, bad-guy story instead of the balanced facts.

I do think it's a mistake for them to air the premiere at its usual time next Thursday, though. They could placate fans by trying to schedule it earlier, though I suppose they're worried about cannibalizing their ratings for the regular timeslot. It's jarring to see a serialized show in a jumbled-up order, but there's nothing they can do to change the fact that most Canadians will for these two episodes. There is something they could do to be a little more apologetic, though.

Coincidence, or psychic flash?

Today came word that Deepa Mehta's Water is Canada's official entry for the best foreign film Oscar. Last year's was C.R.A.Z.Y., by Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee (it wasn't nominated; we'll find out in January if Water gets a nod). I've gotten away from reviewing films, so it's funny that the two I'd done over the past year were Water and C.R.A.Z.Y. Crazy.

I'm covering the Vancouver International Film Festival soon, so there'll be more to come ... and I'm looking forward to it. I still kind of miss Movie Girl.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

By the end of the month. That's it.

I work so much better on deadline. I was the freakish university student who never turned in a paper late, and never asked for an extension. At work, I create my own deadlines if there isn't a built-in deadline, because that's how I prioritize and stay motivated. But I have a rule with the blogging thing - to never let it interfere with actual life. So life keeps interfering with my plans to catch up on some review materials, and creating deadlines just isn't working. Maybe publicly shaming myself will.

I've been trying for weeks to write the season two House DVD review, and I finished my ramblings on the extras (pretty good) and technical quality (sooo much better than season one) and was trying to get away with writing just a brief blurb about major storylines from that season and why the show is worth watching. But I got stuck. Because I'm completely, hopelessly, utterly incapable of writing a brief blurb about what makes the show worth watching. I'm not sure I understand this concept: brief? I was going to write it without rewatching all the episodes, since I'm reasonably familiar with season two already, but then I wanted to see them with fresh eyes, and then I got hooked on watching it again anyway, and then I started writing, but now I'm away again this weekend and ... yeah. Before the season three DVD is out, I will get it done.

And as I said in my PVR Worthy? post, I wasn't going to even watch Smith, but then yesterday, I got a screener of the first episode. I'm not sure I can watch it and write a preview by the time the show premieres... two days ago. But I suppose I will watch it and write something up before next week's. I'm never home when the courier comes, and I've had a spate of deliveries lately I've gone to pick up at the depot, and I find it a little embarrassing that the DHL counter guy knew my name when I walked in yesterday, and left a message today saying "we have a delivery for you ... again." I have no idea what this one is, either, but I'm sure it will be one more thing I'll decide needs to get done soon or I'm a bad, bad person.

I have a book review I need to write, too, and a couple more books to read before I can even start flagellating myself for not reviewing them promptly. And I'm trying to get an interview-based article done but was a little derailed after getting stood up for one of the two interviews involved. And I have a couple of things sitting on my TV that I didn't request, so am not obligated to review, but they're sitting there making me feel guilty anyway.

No sympathy required (good thing, right, because I can't imagine anyone feeling sorry for me about self-created pressure) but there's nothing like procrastinating about writing by writing a pointless post to make myself feel better about having too much else to write about. And making me wonder how I started turning fun into deadline anxiety.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

TV Review: House - "Informed Consent"

Episodes that leave me feeling lukewarm, like "Informed Consent," are the hardest to write about. It was fine. There was a lot thrown out there to think about, though the episode did most of the thinking for us. There were some funny moments - including a volleyball joke, cementing my already-cemented love for Dr. House - though not enough for my insatiable sarcasm thirst. There were some nice moments, along with a way-too-nice moment. But three episodes into season three, and I'm not quite feeling my usual love for the show yet. Hang in there, though, doctor - we'll get through this together.

And three episodes in, we're already back to the same old House with no real character take-aways from the sudden cure and uncure of his leg, which he doesn't want to talk about, or the epiphany that reason isn't the only master. He's still all about the puzzle, and can't rest until it's solved, damn the patient's wishes, and yeah, we get it already.

One thing the show does extremely well, and demonstrates again here, is making a persuasive case for the adorability of rodents. Except when they're being vivisected. Or chewing on the man doing the vivisecting. But then you can't really blame them for that, can you?

Our patient of the week is Dr. Ezra Powell (Joel Grey), a researcher House admires - so we're told, anyway - who collapses during his rat experimentation. Before the gang can find out what's wrong with him, he begs them to end his suffering. It lost some impact by coming so early in the episode - and by being the one-line description of the episode. At only 15 minutes in, with the character barely defined, it just didn't seem that dramatic, insufferably swelling music aside.

What follows is an example of one of my least favourite types of scenes, which the show uses too often for my taste. The team gathers in the conference room, and each picks a side to an ethical issue and gives their 30 second PSA, just so we understand the issue involved. In this case, Chase believes in helping patients end their lives with dignity, Foreman is adamant that he could never condone euthanasia, and Cameron objects but can see both sides to the issue. The fact that whatever he has might be curable, if they can only figure it out, makes the euthanasia arguments more tenuous and therefore less interesting.

David Foster, the doctor writer, wrote season one's "DNR" as well as this one, which pales in comparison to that earlier exploration of patient rights. Both have House promising to help a patient end his life if he can't solve the puzzle, but here, he has to actually act on his promise. Of course, being House, that action isn't what the patient expected. When the self-imposed deadline arrives, House injects him with enough drugs to put him in a coma and intubate him so that he can continue experimenting on him against his wishes.

A morally outraged Cameron refuses to work on the case further, though she does hang around enough to glare a lot. "You do know you can't really pierce me with your stares?" House says at one point, and the drama king calls her a drama queen. As Foreman points out, though, she's running away from the situation rather than standing up for her point of view - because she doesn't quite seem to know what it is, except disapproval.

Cuddy finally appears in this under-Cuddied, under-Wilsoned episode to be minimally supportive about House's stunt (or is that assault?). Maybe she really is pregnant, to be so mellow about something that would have her blowing a gasket in another episode, or maybe House is right - she can't lie to him to teach him humility and then object to him lying to a patient to keep him alive. (Lie, experimentation without consent, same thing, right?)

Cuddy: We're doctors. We treat patients, we don't kill them.

House (speaking into Cuddy's breasts - that is, make-believe wire): Right you are Dr. Cuddy, and we also don't pad our bills, steal samples from the pharmacy, and fantasize about the teenage daughters of our patients.

Cuddy: True, better be true, and you're a pig.

House points Cameron to journal articles that prove Dr. Powell experimented on babies without their parents' consent, probably causing cancers ... but in the process discovering techniques that saved other lives. Hey, that rationale sounds familiar. Cameron even throws out a couple of examples - Tuskegee and Willowbrook, but wisely stays away from the Nazis, who just ruin every argument they get injected into. She rebukes House for thinking that she'd think more of House's methods if she thought less of the patient, but then, acting in anger, she ends up taking a skin sample against Dr. Powell's wishes, with no anesthetic. Remember, she's the nice one.

House's lesson seems to be more than that, though. If Cameron believes that patients have a right to have control over what happens to their bodies - that informed consent is a golden rule - then that should also apply to Dr. Powell. "You either help him live, or you help him die," House says. "You can't have it both ways."

The key to the case comes from the panties of the daughter of House's clinic patient. I love that Hugh Laurie has chemistry with every woman on screen, some of the men, and the occasional inanimate object. But do I really want to see him flirting with a 17 year old? No, no I don't, thanks anyway. It was almost worth it for the scene where Cameron finds House befuddled by the attention of someone even younger and arguably hotter than she is, but ... not quite. Besides rats, the show also has a thing for red thongs. This time they're not Cuddy's, but the teen's, and they make House think of Congo red, a dye test that proves Dr. Powell has terminal amyloidosis.

So once he's diagnosed as terminal, the idea of euthanasia seems less unlikely, and sure enough, Cuddy demands to know if House knows why his patient died suddenly overnight.

The reveal of who administered the lethal dose was telegraphed in advance, with shots of a pondering Cameron loitering in the change room, so the final scenes lost some impact. House finds Cameron-the-apparently-non-atheist in the chapel and places his hand on her shoulder - at which point I was getting a little choked up at his uncharacteristic but well-placed empathy. But then he ruined the moment by saying "I'm proud of you," with no sarcastic chaser. Stay tuned next week, when House buys a puppy. And, apparently, deals with a 17-year-old with a bad case of puppy love, if the calendar marking down the days until a certain girl turns 18 is any indication.

The case helped Cameron discover which side of the euthanasia issue she comes down on in reality, not just theory, but the episode's path to that discovery wasn't particularly compelling. It's an interesting concept, that we may not be aware of our own beliefs until they're actually challenged, but most of the interest of this episode was unfortunately in concept, not execution.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

TV Preview: Jericho

Jericho is an oddly optimistic apocalyptic drama, with sinister overtones overshadowed by a can-do, in-it-together attitude.

Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) returns to his small Kansas hometown after a mysterious absence, where he's embraced by his mother, Gail (Pamela Reed), but not by his disapproving father Johnston (Gerald McRaney), who's the town's mayor, or by ex-girlfriend Emily (Ashley Scott).

When a mushroom cloud appears in the general direction of Denver, and power and communications go out, the town is isolated and unsure if there are other survivors, or what led to the devastation.

The pilot sets up the characters and relationships, such as that between the estranged father and son, and a potential love triangle with Jake, Emily, and teacher Heather (Sprague Grayden). She adds some of the only bits of humour in the mostly earnest and slightly contrivevd drama, with Ulrich in particular constantly wide-eyed and frantically rushing from heroic act to heroic act.

Since a mushroom cloud just isn't high-stakes enough, Jericho adds additional menace through prisoners on the loose, children in peril, and the mysterious pasts of Jake, who is both an impossibly self-sacrificing hero and a possibly shady failure, and Robert Hawkins (Lennie James), who seems to know a bit too much about nuclear disasters in general, and shares a bit too little about what he knows about this particular one.

There are enough engaging characters with enough hinted-at backstory to fill a series, but the real test will be to see how the show settles into a weekly format while maintaining the suspense. The first couple of episodes set up the premise and some of the characters well, but the story is lacking a sense of urgency when you take into account that they're not all likely to die as soon as the cloud reaches the town - unless CBS planned a quick cancellation from the outset.

Still, while Jericho is not the kind of show I'd watch regularly, it is a show I'd recommend - with some reservations - for others looking for action and suspense with mostly intriguing characters.

Jericho premieres Wednesday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

PVR worthy?

It's going to be a busy week, for my PVR if not for me. I've already checked out new shows The Class (premiering Monday), Jericho (Wednesday), and Shark (Thursday), but won't be adding them to my record list. I'll catch Shark live when I can, but Thursdays are pretty crowded already. Here's what I'm watching or recording this week:

Tonight is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - hurray for CTV for airing it on Sundays instead of simulcast with the American feed on Mondays (because of a scheduling conflict for them, but I'll take it as a personal favour to me). I'll be watching live for sure.

Monday, I've got the PVR set for The Smart Woman Survival Guide, though I haven't watched last week's episode yet, which isn't a good omen for it remaining in my recording schedule.

Tuesday ... you have to ask? House, of course. Its temporary 8 p.m. home isn't great news for me, because it means the Eastern time zone feed airs before I get home. Waiting sucks. I'm also not fond of Standoff, which took its timeslot, though I had high hopes for a romantic comedy/Moonlighting-type show. House is supposed to be back at 9 p.m. after the October baseball break ... which is also the timeslot for Intelligence starting Oct. 10, which means in November when House is back, I'll be grateful for the FOX Eastern time zone feed again.

Wednesday, the PVR is recording Kidnapped, though that's one I won't kill myself to find time to watch if I don't happen to catch it live. It sounds like it's supposed to be good, but I have commitmentphobe issues with overly serialized shows, I'm not usually a big lover of crime shows (see Intelligence exception), and this list is already getting way too long.

Thursday is a mess, and will get worse next week when Ugly Betty premieres. This week, it's the season premieres of The Office, My Name is Earl, and Grey's Anatomy, plus the series premiere of J.J. Abrams' new show, Six Degrees (as executive producer, though, not writer). We'll see how long my interest in Grey's lasts this season - I've been very hot and cold on the show - and I've heard mixed reactions to Six Degrees. My Name is Earl was expendable but enjoyable viewing last season, though I hear they're changing it up a bit this season and not relying on the list as much, so it might be interesting to see what they do with it.

Coming up in future weeks, I want to at least sample Brothers and Sisters (next Sunday), Heroes (next Monday), Friday Night Lights (Oct. 3), Rumours (Oct. 9), 30 Rock (Oct. 11), Jozi-H (Oct. 13), and The Knights of Prosperity (Oct. 17).

Smith premieres this week too, though I'm not interested, and Men in Trees debuts in its regular timeslot on Friday, but I wasn't hooked by the little bit of it I saw ... and I'm a sucker for a romantic comedy and loved Northern Exposure, which it keeps getting compared to.

Just looking at this list is exhausting, but as usual, I'm sure only a few will end up being can't-miss shows for me.

What's on or off your list?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

TV Preview: Shark

There's a familiar feeling to this half-procedural, half-character driven show centred around a cantankerous, cynical man who has minions who do his grunt work and take his abuse. Even the snappy banter is reminiscent of House, with Sharkisms like "there's no team in I." But while Shark is clearly a cousin of the FOX medical drama, it isn't a clone.

James Woods is impressive as Sebastian Stark, a cut-throat lawyer who discovers his conscience after a horrific outcome to a successful defence. He crosses the fence to bring his sometimes unethical tactics to the prosecutors office under D.A. Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan).

Besides Stark, the only character to come alive even slightly in the pilot is his daughter, Julie (Danielle Panabaker), who acts as his moral compass. Stark is genuinely a jerk, but he also genuinely cares about his daughter, and, when he tries, can genuinely care about justice rather than simply winning a case.

The central case is a pop singer accused of killing a man after he threatens to leak their sex tape, an act she says was self-defence. We don't get a lot of meaningful contact with people involved in the case, so the main conflict is centred around the personalities - Stark and his family, Stark and his minions - as well as the conflict within Stark himself, between his desire to win at all costs and the desire to be a better person.

Directed by Spike Lee, the pilot demonstrates its strength through the powerful performance by Woods and the tension between his work life and his personal life, with each affecting the other. The weakness is that everything else is overshadowed by those elements. The case is only moderately interesting, and the supporting characters are not even that yet. Ryan especially seems superfluous, and the many junior lawyers barely distinguish themselves beyond very broad strokes.

Still, even if time doesn't develop the plots or secondary characters much more, Shark is well worth seeing just for the complexity of the central character and the sight of Woods sinking his teeth into that intriguing role.

Shark premieres Thursday, Sept. 21 at 10 p.m. on CBS.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A preview of my weekend of previews

As you can tell by the last couple of posts, and there will be a couple more (Jericho, Shark), it's TV preview time here at Unified Theory. At least, CBS TV preview time. Besides putting many of their shows online before their initial broadcast, like all the networks seem to be doing, they're really courting bloggers to launch their new series in particular. I can't decide if they can afford to put so much effort into promoting via bloggers because they're the number one network, or if they're the number one network partly because they play the publicity game better than the others. Chicken? Egg?

In my experience with the TV, Eh? site so far, CTV is by far the best network overall at publicity (shows with their own, good publicists trump them, though). Hmm, guess who's the number one network in Canada?

I'm not saying it's simple cause and effect, but it isn't coincidence, either.

Anyway, it's been a long, rough week, and all I want to do is curl up with a bottle of wine and a bucket of Cherry Garcia Ben & Jerry's and wallow. Except I'm a lightweight - a couple of glasses of wine and I'd be asleep (I could do the ice cream, though). Except for one eveningful of plans, I'm hoping for a quiet weekend of catching up on all the projects I've piled onto myself and haven't managed to climb out from under yet. First , in the absence of ice cream, I need a corkscrew.

TV Preview: The Class

I had high hopes for The Class, which premieres Monday on CBS. It's the new comedy from co-creator David Crane, who also had a hand in a little sitcom called Friends. I'm not ashamed to say it: I loved Friends. Well, I loved Friends right up until the 47th time Ross and Rachel got back together. I often thought it was cleverer than it got credit for, because it was so completely mainstream and popular.

The Class, unfortunately, is not clever, though it is mainstream and it remains to be seen if it will be popular. With a cast of eight main characters of almost every type - except, you know, ethnicities other than white - its philosophy seems to be to throw many types of characters at the wall and see what sticks. But it's only sporadically as funny as it thinks it is, filled with a lot of like-a-jokes instead of actual jokes.

The premise is that a 27-year-old man, Ethan, throws a surprise party for his fiancee, whom he met in grade three - so he invites his entire grade three class. When she dumps him in front of the room of strangers they once knew, connections are made that will presumably keep the show going, though some of them feel very forced.

Jason Ritter, in a huge departure from the moody, disabled, sex symbol teen of Joan of Arcadia, plays Ethan, a nerdy pediatrician who bonds with cynical photographer Kat (Lizzie Caplan). Her flaky sister, Lina (Heather Goldenhersh), finds romance with Richie (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a non-English near-clone of that tall, skinny - and above all, depressed - redhead in The Full Monty. Many of the best jokes in the first few episodes involve his averted attempts to commit suicide.

Holly (Lucy Punch) is the shallow reporter with the obvious-to-everyone-but-themselves gay husband (boy, that setup never gets old, does it?). She's also harbouring a grudge against Kyle (Sean Maguire), who ruined prom night by turning out to be as straight as her husband. Then there's the cool guy, Duncan (Jon Bernthal), who's made uncool life choices and lives in his mom's basement, and who reconnects with his first love, Nicole (Andrea Anders). She is almost happily married to a former football star, and torn between her feelings for her ex-boyfriend and her feelings for her husband's money.

The plots are fairly uninspired sitcom setups, and many of the characters are unlikable, annoying, or - worse - forgettable. I saw three episodes and still couldn't remember some of their names. But it does show more promise as the series goes on, with sharper jokes and more familiarity between the characters.

If I were to try to predict success, I'd say The Class will barely pass. It is a decent, generic sitcom that might find a reasonable audience during CBS's Monday night comedy block, which includes How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, and The New Adventures of Old Christine.

The Class premieres Monday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

TV Preview: How I Met Your Mother - "Where Were We?"

Monday's upcoming season premiere of How I Met Your Mother, appropriately titled "Where Were We," picks up from, well, where we last were at the first season finale, with Ted and Robin finally hooking up, and Marshall and Lily sadly breaking up.

That sets us up for an episode revolving around the two most annoyinig stages of a relationship for outsiders to watch - the gooey happy stage and the mopey dumped stage. Of course when they're played for humour, they're a lot more bearable. This pleasant but not stellar show relies as much on character as laughter, but Ted and Robin don't get quite as much focus as I'd expect, given the build-up to their relationship.

Lily, who we see here mostly as a figment of Marshall's imagination, is in San Francisco discovering herself while her ex-fiance sits on the couch until Ted, Barney and Robin take turns trying to cheer him up. Ted and Robin sink comfortably into their new relationship over a summer babysitting their depressed friend.

With the season premiere, How I Met Your Mother is venturing into slightly risky territory. We know that Robin is not The Mother, and we also know that series where the sexual tension is resolved early on can lose their charm.

Audiences, bright as we are, know we're not going to get a quick resolution of the title promise, but it may not be easy for us to stay invested in a romantic relationship that is, presumably, doomed - though that doesn't mean some laughs and some story progression can't happen along the way, and we get that here. But another risky step is in the separation of Marshall and Lily. Combined, we had two of the central relationships altered dramatically in the season finale, which makes the second season premiere feel like a transitional episode.

How I Met Your Mother premieres Monday, Sept. 18 on CBS.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

TV Review: House - "Cane & Able"

What would a showdown between House and Mulder be like? Would Hugh Laurie caustic win over David Duchovny sardonic? "Cane & Able" feels almost like the promise of such a showdown, with the case of a little boy who's terrified of being abducted by aliens, then, before our very eyes, seems to become a guest star on The X-Files, presumed anal probe and all.

While I didn't believe for a second that House, a show that's a valentine to science, would have alien abduction as the resolution to a case, it was fun to see the clues build up towards that result and wonder what could possibly fit the symptoms.

So, yay, the fun as well as the funny are back to the show, after a disappointing season premiere. House was back making gleeful fun of his underlings and Cuddy's breasts. He believes in his patient's UFO theory: Unidentified Flowing Orifice. When they discover a chip at the back of the boy Clancy's neck, he tells his team the lab couldn't identify the metal, or confirm that it's terrestrial. "Really?" ever-gullible Chase asks. "No you idiot, it's titanium, like from a surgical pin," House replies. When Clancy ends up having "alien" DNA – genetic material that doesn't match his own – well, House is more stupefied than jokey, but then that's just weird.

I still found the Wilson-Cuddy plot to trim House's wings preposterous. Last episode, they decided not to let House know that his theory had cured a patient because he just "got lucky" and they didn't want it to go to his head. If I went through all the transcripts of the past two seasons, I would be demonstrating that I have way too much time on my hands. But my real point is that I would find he "gets lucky" nearly every time, with a diagnosis so crazy, three or four or five doctors disagree with him until he's proven right. We've even heard the exact phrase "he got lucky" more than once before. So, I find the plot not so much ill-conceived of Wilson and Cuddy, though it is that as well, but ill-conceived of the writers.

Anyway, like Cameron, I am all about the forgiveness and love, so I'll just go with it. The contrived drama (oops, right, I'm going with it starting now ...) of whether House has gained a leg at the expense of a brilliant brain is played out in "Cane & Able," and it starts to seem like he's going to be left with neither. Despite writing his own prescription for Vicodin last time, he's experiencing worsening leg pain and beginning to limp again. He even has fun with that, though, taking advantage of Cuddy's concern to fake her out with a pretend stumble.

Cuddy and Wilson debate over whether they've done the right thing (here's a clue: no) when they wonder if the pain is psychological, a symptom of his depression over not solving his last case, and therefore something they could alleviate with the truth, or a sign that the ketamine treatment is not going to last. He refuses to be tested in order to determine the truth, so hypocrite Wilson, the hider of knowledge that doesn't make himself happy, accuses House of "running away from knowledge that won't make you happy."

Then, when Cameron encounters last week's formerly vegetative patient in the clinic (looking for "a bucketful" of Viagra – it's sweeter than it sounds, really), she's in on the secret and pushes them to tell House the truth. When Cuddy tells her they're trying to teach him a glimmer of humility, Cameron objects. "Why does he need that? Because other people have that? Why does he need to be like other people?"

It's a good question. I'd like to know, too. But at least in this episode, it was clear without us being simply told so that House wasn't attacking the case with his usual reckless abandon. Cameron was the only one throwing out the brilliant theories, as Foreman pointed out, taking malicious delight in pointing out House's not-perfect track record every chance he gets. And instead of testing out his atrophied bedside manner, House is back to hiding from the patient and his family, who, by the way, are nicely realized people, with little touches of characterization that last week's patients lacked.

A more disturbing sign that House isn't House is that after determining Clancy suffers from a clotting disorder and hypertensive episodes, and zapping the alien DNA that's causing most – but not all – his symptoms, House is going to discharge the still-hallucinating, seizing patient without having solved the puzzle completely.

That's enough to make it seem like he'd been turned into a pod person, so Cuddy finally steps in to tell him he had, in fact, solved his last case. When she confronts him in the parkade to convince him to continue diagnosing the boy, House continues with his persistent jokes about her being pregnant (she denies it – do we believe her, or the master diagnostician?). That's when he has the kind of medical epiphany that makes him House.

Clancy, who was conceived through in vitro fertilization, has a twin absorbed into his body, not a teratoma – old hat to medical show watchers – but something called chimerism. Though he solves the case through his own brilliant deduction, his leg pain gets worse, to the point where he digs his cane out of the closet. Episodes like "Skin Deep" last season implied that the pain has always been at least partly psychological, and interestingly, we still don't know if his relapse is psychological or physical. We do know that he's preserving his own lie about being drug-free, and refusing the test that would distinguish between the two.

These last two episodes helped me define the line where I lose all sympathy for House. I love him while he tortures patients, displays shocking insensitivity, treats patients against their will. And maybe that's wrong, but ... OK, it's just wrong and I'm a bad person. But as in last season's "All In," I have no patience with the suggestion that he can't psychologically handle not solving the puzzle. If his self-worth hinges on him being infallible ... well, sorry, House, that's where you lose me. Besides, as he said so astutely in the season ending "No Reason," he's "almost always eventually right." That doesn't sound like a man who thinks he's God, despite his occasional fun with that concept, so I refuse to believe he believes it.

And it turns out, he doesn't, really. He spots Wilson's influence on Cuddy's decision to hide the truth from him, and confronts him. "What was the plan? That I'd feel so humble by missing a case that I'd re-evaluate my entire life, question nature, truth and goodness, and become Cameron?" Wilson explains that it was for his own good: "I was worried your wings would melt." House's reply: "God doesn't limp."

So House doesn't believe he's God, or even a god, and unlike Icarus, he's aware of his physical limitations. And he's back to being a medical genius, though far from an emotional genius. While there were rumours it had returned last week, now it seems that both House the show and House the character are really back.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Book Review: JPod by Douglas Coupland

I found myself irritated by Douglas Coupland's JPod. Irritated with these selfish, unrealistic characters in over-the-top scenarios. Irritated when I had to read one more chapter, and then one more, until it was way past my bedtime, until I read the entire 500+ page book in a few days so I could find out what crazy thing would happen next, and what outrageous character would pop up (like, say, an irritating, smug author named Douglas Coupland).

JPod is the story of six twentysomething co-workers whose names end in J and who were alphabetically assigned to the same cubicle pod at a Vancovuer gaming company. Ethan Jarlewski is the protagonist who spends more time tormenting and being tormented by his work friends than bonding with his dysfunctional family, including marijuana grow-op owner mom, wannabe actor dad, and shady real estate agent brother. Ethan's extracurricular activities, when he's not avoiding actual work, is to plan a violent Easter egg - a hidden program - in the insipid game they're being forced to create, to help his mom collect drug debts and bury incriminating evidence, and to aid his dad with his girlfriend and marital issues.

JPod isn't as quotable as previous Coupland books, like Generation X or Microserfs, which seemed to scatter pithy and funny insights throughout that nailed the voice of a segment of the population. His latest doesn't feel like he's got the pulse on a generation in the same way. Though I'm not of that generation, so I'm not the definitive judge, plus that's a bit much to expect from any book, never mind every book by a single author.

Ethan and his friends are the Google generation, their lives tied to computers and data and the manipulation of data in intricate ways. They may be amoral, but they are loyal. Ethan reluctantly assists his family with every odd or illegal request, particularly his parents, who are more in need of guidance than their children. The six JPodders form their own community of semi-friends, even though they were assembled by chance, not choice, and their means of relating is through mockery, exaggeration, and lies.

Coupland, a Vancouver-area native, plays with stereotypes of the city, especially its pervasive pot culture, as well as computer geek stereotypes and gaming culture stereotypes. It's fun, and entertaining, and even experimental. JPod is full of stylized writing and caharcters and pages and pages of text as almost graphical elements.

But it's also indulgent and, yes, irritating. There are pages of pi printed with one digit wrong, pages of prime numbers with one non-prime number embedded, random Google results and spam e-mail phrases sprinkled in. Even more indugent should be the fact that Coupland has injected himself into the book, though it's a less-than-flattering portrayal, which makes it more of an inside, self-deprecating joke for his fans.

Those fans will likely eat this up, and newcomers to Coupland's charms might find, like I did, that there's something compelling about these unlikeable, unbelieveable characters that makes their story compulsive reading, even as it's irritatingly over-the-top.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Guest Blogger Brother on House's "Meaning"

I seem to have not just succeeded in getting my brother to watch House, I've infected him with my own brand of nerddom - the need to dissect the show. Serves him right, since I blame him for the fact that I know more about Dr. Who and Linux than I should. Anyway, he sent me an e-mail after my review of the season opener, because we also share the longwinded gene and he thought it was too much to be a comment to my post. Instead, I'm handing this post over to him because he's a funny boy. Kinda smart too. And I'm sticking in some of what I responded to him, too, because it's my blog, dammit.

Oh, and now that he actually reads this blog, you won't tell him all the nasty things I've said about him in the past, right? So here he is, Big Brother Steve:

Like a lot of others, I was pretty disappointed. It's funny how some of the things that bothered you bothered me as well. [Me: Not so funny, since I'm always right.] I normally like Wilson, but wanted to punch him in the face when he started going on about the "levels of happiness."

I was a little taken aback by him jogging (though I actually liked the choice of Gorillaz for music). Ya, that seemed a little over the top, but isn't it possible for the muscle to grow back? I can see it atrophying from lack of use while he was in pain, but once the pain is gone and he gets physical therapy, wouldn't he regain some function? Not a rhetorical question, I don't know if surgically removed muscle can regenerate.

[Me: I'm not a doctor, I just play one on my blog. But ... some function, maybe, but completely limp-free two months after the pain goes away? He used to limp no matter how much or little Vicodin he'd taken. In "Three Stories" there's a line where he says "because of the extent of the muscle removed, utility of the patient’s leg was severely compromised," and in "Skin Deep," Wilson did an MRI on his leg and said "MRI looks exactly the same as it did two years ago. Nerves don’t seem to be regenerating."

Maybe it shouldn't bug me that much, but the character has been defined by that disability, not just pain, and now it seems like they're changing the rules. It's not good to redefine one of the defining traits of your main character. It just seemed cheap, and they don't usually go for cheap. They don't usually lose me that badly on things just because they might be unrealistic, but it seemed a betrayal of the character, too.]

And yes, he did have a big change of character, but I was able to buy that (I didn't like it, though). He's experienced a huge change in his life, and has an outlook on life that isn't filtered through a shroud of pain and painkillers.

As for not flirting with Cuddy, I guess one could attribute that to a change of character, although you'd think it would be easier to flirt when you're not in excruciating pain. You could argue that he just wasn't in the mood, he just had a revelation on a patient's condition, and was focused on that.

I can't imagine him asking for permission for a simple injection, though. He's lied to get patients transplants, done procedures without consent, human experimentation (poor coma guy).

I had a huge problem with the ending. He "got lucky"? He's been getting lucky for years (yes, that was an unfortunate phrase). Why all of a sudden do they feel this is different?

Anyway, the biggest problem I have is not the rationale behind House's change of character (I'm not even going to start with everyone else's change of character), but the fact that they've changed it. Like it or not, shows are written with formulas for a reason. We get comfortable with the characters and situations and enjoy seeing them explored. The best shows surprise us with believable twists to the characters (I'm not phrasing this well, but I hope you know what I mean). To change a main character's character makes him no longer relevant to the reason we decided to watch his show week after week.

[Me: Exactly. I don't care if this is part of a longer story where he discovers things about himself and ends up with the leg pain and limp back again or whatever, and he gets back to the same old House. If that's what they do, fine, that could be interesting. I can't see them have him be pain free and limp free and just a plain old drug addict, but maybe they could make that work. But whatever they do, TV isn't about getting to an end point that's interesting, it's about each episode being interesting along the way.

Like you said, it's not that I don't buy that he might be more sober after a life-changing experience, but sober House is not why I watch the show. I don't care if it's reasonable to think he might have changed, it's not reasonable to expect the audience to want to watch a character drained of what made him interesting. ]

I don't want to watch "nice" House. I liked sarcastic, funny, flirty House. If I want nice, I'll watch the spin-off show: "Wilson".

The good news is, it won't last. The bad news is, how long do we have to put up with this?

It was doubly disappointing because the season ender was so good. It was really anti-climatic.

[Me: Yeah, I got tired of writing the review - I find it hard to get into them when I don't like the episode - and didn't put in some stuff I meant to say, like that this one was actually written by the same people as the finale (plus a couple more. Maybe that explains why it was a bit of a mess). So even more shocking that it was so disappointing. Especially with the title ("Meaning" vs. the season-ending "No Reason"), I expected it to be more of a sort of bookend to it. We didn't really get much about what meaning House took away from his big epiphany that it's not all about rationality.]

And what happened to big-tongue guy?

[Me: Hopefully his testicles didn't explode and his eye didn't squirt out of its socket and House didn't gut him, and they cured him.

Someone took my comment about the shooter as a criticism, but I actually meant that I'm glad we didn't get closure. It's possible they'll bring it up as a plot again, though I don't think so for some reason. And in any case, I think anything they do with him would be a letdown after how interesting his role was in the hallucination. I don't need to see him brought to justice or anything.

I guess same with big-tongue guy - he wasn't really the point, so it might seem weird to bring him up again long after he should have been either cured or killed.]

Thanks guest blogger bro! Soon I'm going to get you obsessed with Canadian TV, right?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Intelligence offers smart, sexy entertainment

CBC is facing a new television season without coroner-turned-mayor Dominic Da Vinci for the first time in eight years – but not without the mind behind Da Vinci's Inquest and Da Vinci's City Hall. Intelligence, the new series from creator, writer, and executive producer Chris Haddock, debuts Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 9 p.m., following the Sept. 26 rebroadcast of last year's two-hour movie.

Despite dipping into the crime genre again, Intelligence is miles away from Da Vinci in tone and subject matter, with a focus on espionage and the drug-running underworld. But it's not just spies versus gangsters, it's also spy versus spy, and the criminals are occasionally more honourable than the agents trying to bust them. Both spies and spied-upon live in a shadowy world, figuratively and literally in the stylishly shot series.

Perched on stools in the downtown Vancouver strip club that doubles as the show's fictional Chickadee club, Haddock and I chatted in surroundings that, under the bright TV lighting, were almost disappointingly unseedy in person, but look suitably gritty onscreen.

"I'm trying to borrow from the noir style, because I think we're in similar kinds of times as when noir was born, post-WWII when the world was anxious and a little bit cynical about the experience of world war, and still anxious from the bomb," Haddock explained while keeping a sharp eye on the on-set action. "We're starting to hear conversations about the bomb again, and there's so much war, and so much anxiety and uncertainty in people's lives. I think it's psychologically similar."

Recently nominated for five Gemini Awards, the Intelligence movie set up the intertwining stories and rich characterizations, particularly of the two leads, whom Haddock refers to as antiheroes. "There's good in the bad guys and bad in the good guys," he said. "And I think that's true to the nature of humanity. I think we're also in times where people are looking for the kind of heroes that are a little less certain in their moral decisions."

"I think when you can clearly identify with the adventures of the heroes and the antiheroes, you can really have a good time, and that's entertainment. So I'm mixing it up. There's times when you can sign on completely with the adventure, and there's other times when you think, 'wow, would I do that?'"

Played winningly by Ian Tracey (Da Vinci's Inquest, Milgaard), crime boss Jimmy Reardon is "a good bad guy," a devoted father who struggles with the violence and deceit of his criminal activities. He's fiercely protective of his family, which is both his most endearing quality and his biggest vulnerability.

"He plays this hard guy to perfection, but he's also got a lot of empathy, so he's really easy for people to identify with, that essential good nature of him," Haddock said of his charismatic leading man.

He was similarly full of praise for Klea Scott (Brooklyn South, Millennium) as spy master Mary Spalding. "I was looking for somebody who could really represent the struggle it is for a woman of colour to work in a bureaucracy and rise to the top and not be held to a lower level of competence, and really evolve into a leader."

The head of Vancouver's Organized Crime Unit, she is vying for a promotion to CSIS, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. She'd landed Reardon as her prized informant by the end of the Intelligence movie.

The series will explore that precarious relationship, as Reardon uses the information she feeds him to his advantage, and Spalding tries to balance her need for Reardon's cooperation with the possibility of giving him too much power.

Despite the intricate plots and numerous supporting characters, Haddock isn't worried about losing an audience who might not want to make the commitment to a serialized show. "People will watch it for the characters, and the plots are not the first and foremost and only thing about the show," he said. "I made a conscious decision to write it in a certain style so it's more about the characters and their lives than it is about the specific details of the plot. But it does have a taste of the procedural in it, because we're talking about intelligence and the criminal world."

It's meaty subject matter, and particularly relevant in a country whose intelligence activities are regularly questioned in the media. Though he's not aiming to take storylines from yesterday's headlines, he said "we're writing parallel to events that are in the public consciousness."

Intelligence is the culmination of years of research based on Haddock's interest in the world of intelligence, "both as a genre of drama and also because of my personal interest in the daily events of the intelligence in the world abroad."

"I've done a great deal of research on my own but I also have a very good advisor, who's run intelligence operations and has done that kind of large-scale police work," Haddock continued. "He's able to tell me the legal ramifications and the practical ramifications and the overall dramatic reasonableness."

A series centred partly around a sympathetic, compelling drug runner might seem contentious, but Haddock says CBC and everyone involved have embraced the material. "They're all quite excited, because it seems to be so contemporary, and it seems to be unique, and it seems to come out of a true place," he said, while acknowledging that "there's a certain taboo about this. It's been prohibited to talk about drugs on television for a while."

Intelligence may not be completely PC – thank goodness – but it's very BC, representing a darker side of the province than its usual granola-crunching reputation. Personally, I moved to Vancouver because I fell in love with the pretty surroundings and casual but vibrant city. Haddock has a slightly different take. He calls the home of BC Bud, of the gritty streets of Intelligence, "a far-flung outpost, so people hide out here, do things in a clandestine manner here. It's just one of those overlooked spots where there's a lot of action."

Pointing to the area's history of involvement in liquor and now drug smuggling, Haddock has provided Reardon's family with that same history. A third-generation shipping magnate and smuggler, "Jimmy's carrying on the family tradition, both the good and the bad."

Also the creator of the short-lived CBS series The Handler, Haddock is known for crafting thoughtful entertainment. "I'm not interested in making critically acclaimed failures. What's the point in that?"

What's on screen is anything but formulaic or contrived, but Haddock's talents include the ability to consider the commercial potential of his show without compromising his vision. Attractive leads? Check. Multiple genres for maximum flexibility and added interest? Check. Appeal to a wide range of demographics? Check. Engaging the audience is his primary concern, but he does it by appealing to an audience's brains and hearts, by carefully pacing his plots, and by adding edginess and sex appeal.

"I feel this is adult material that I'm engaged with that people will find satisfying," he said. "It's that kind of espionage/thriller sensibility that we used to get in movies all the time, but now the movies are going for a much younger demographic, and finding adult material is harder. Television is where it's going to be at."

Despite Haddock's past successes and instincts for hooking an audience, he's painfully aware that nothing is ever certain in television, especially Canadian television. "You have to do whatever you can to draw the viewers in," he added. "It's a really, really tough landscape out there to attract audiences to shows, especially new shows."

Thanks to the Gemini-nominated movie, the show can already boast critical acclaim. Based on the quality of that movie, it should blow the plethora of generic crime shows out of the water, as a compellingly character-driven show incorporating intricate, intelligent plots. It just remains to be seen if audiences get wise to the appeal of Intelligence.

For more of my conversation with Chris Haddock, see the Q&A.

Q&A with Intelligence Creator Chris Haddock

My interview with Intelligence creator Chris Haddock was slightly chopped up while he kept an eye on shooting (letting me peek over his shoulder - cool), but here's the slightly edited transcript of our conversation that was the basis for the Blogcritics article "Intelligence Delivers Smart, Sexy Entertainment."

(The picture, by the way, is not me and Haddock, but Camille Sullivan as Francine Reardon and Ian Tracey as Jimmy Reardon.)

How many episodes are you shooting for the season?

We have 13 ordered and this is the middle of our fifth episode. I'm madly writing the seventh. Generally I like to keep two or three scripts ahead, always at this point in the season. Especially when you're starting your first year, I like to stay pretty close to what's happening on stage. I don't want to get too far ahead. I know where I'm going over the length of the season, and approximately what episodes certain milestones have been reached, but I like to be loose to respond to what I'm seeing on stage and in the rushes and so on so I can write to the strengths.

You have one season ordered?

Yes, we're season by season, with 13 ordered. With the CBC, they won't order until the new year. But I think they should be happy with the show, so I'm anticipating a pickup. But again, with Da Vinci it was year to year, you never knew, you were on pins and needles in the new year until you got the news. No matter how you've done critically or in the ratings, it's just the nature of our broadcaster.

How would you describe the tone of Intelligence compared to Da Vinci?

Very, very, very different. Da Vinci evolved as a shambling, loose, very realistic procedural, but it was still a procedural. A lot of it was about the issues and the cases being unravelled at the same time, with a bit of character in there. This is shot stylistically in shorter scenes, with a different dynamic. I'm trying to borrow from the noir style, because I think we're in similar kinds of times as when noir was born, post-WWII when the world was anxious and a little bit cynical about the experience of world war, and still anxious from the bomb. I think we're living in a similar time where we're starting to hear conversations about the bomb again, and there's so much war, and so much anxiety and uncertainty in people's lives. I think it's psychologically similar, so stylistically we're doing a bit from that.

It seems you're very comfortable with moral ambiguity ...

I am, I'm extremely comfortable with it.

Do you think audiences embrace that more now than they used to?

I think they do. I think audiences need a little bit of a pattern to something before they'll commit to it, so they know they'll get some satisfaction. So I think there's a little more of that than there was in Da Vinci, where I really did leave it all out there to let the audience to decide how something was to be resolved. I thought it engaged people because there's so little of it, and there's so much moral certainty in the media now. I think a little moral ambiguity could be a welcome resting place where people can engage themselves and not have all the answers.

This show is character driven, it's about gangsters and spies, so it's very different.

But it's not good guys versus bad guys.

No, there's good in the bad guys and bad in the good guys. And I think that's true to the nature of humanity. I think we're also in times where people are looking for the kind of heroes that are a little less certain in their moral decisions, so I think this is going to appeal to that.

I think you could better describe both the leads, both Ian Tracey as the gangster and Klea Scott as the spymaster, as antiheroes. Klea's character is fighting the system that she's within, so she's an outsider trying to upset the status quo. So that's what makes her a bit of an antihero. Same with Reardon, he's an antihero because he lives outside the law, but even though he lives outside the law he must be honest. He's kind of a good bad guy. He really struggles with some of the things he comes up against, in terms of threatened violence, threats to his own security, things like that. I think we mix it up pretty good and really get people engaged but also thinking about what decisions would you make if you were in those shoes.

Because ultimately I guess that's the thing, is to try to create characters that are charming enough, appealing enough that audiences identify with them strongly enough to want to come to spend some time in their shoes. I think when you can clearly identify with the adventures of the heroes and the antiheroes, you can really have a good time, and that's entertainment. So I'm mixing it up. There's times when you can sign on completely with the adventure, and there's other times when you think, "wow, would I do that?"

Have you had cooperation from law enforcement agencies, or what is your research like?

So far, yeah. A lot of my research has been cumulative over the years, trying to keep an eye on intelligence both as a genre of drama and also because of my personal interest in the daily events of the intelligence in the world abroad, but also particularly Canadian intelligence or the lack thereof - the lack of capability thereof - which seems to be present in the news every day. When I created Da Vinci, I wanted to create a show where I'd be able to open a newspaper and be able to see stories that were completely compatible with the stories we were writing, so somewhere there was a shared reality, a shared common ground.

I didn't set out to do that exactly with Intelligence in the same way, because I was looking at social issues with Da Vinci and I'm looking at different issues in this. But now I open the paper and it's the same thing. So we're writing parallel to events that are in the public consciousness.

So I've done a great deal of research on my own but I also have a very good advisor who's run intelligence operations and has done that kind of large-scale policework. So I have a really good on-the-ground practical advisor who I can call up and say hey, how would we exactly hang some wire in this particular situation, and he's able to tell me the legal ramifications and the practical ramifications and the overall dramatic reasonableness. So I feel like my bases are well covered there.

You don't exactly show the postcard version of Vancouver. What's your view of the city here?

I think the view they'll get through Intelligence is that it's a city with a lot of interest to criminals and intelligence agencies, because for one it's a west coast port, where there's a lot of coming and going of stuff from around the world. It's also a city very much under the radar, with the west coast of lawlessness out here, so there's certainly a lot of people who want to conduct business under the radar. It's that kind of a far-flung outpost, so people hide out here, do things in a clandestine manner here. It's just one of those overlooked spots where there's a lot of action.

Historically, Vancouver and the west coast were active in the liquor prohibition period and also the dope prohibition period, so those are parallels I'm drawing on, with the history of Reardon's grandfather as a booze runner, and building the family shipping business and what came out of that, and the crash of that, and now the resurrection of it. He's battened his bank account by building a legitimate shipping business. So Jimmy's carrying on the family tradition, both the good and the bad.

How is the series going to be different from the movie you did as the pilot? Is there a different driving force?

No, it's pretty much the same. The series steps directly off the movie. When I was writing the movie, I was very conscious of using that movie to establish much of the look and the feel and the tone, and test a bunch of ideas we had. I was very happy with it, and it was also very critically well received, so we're really just stepping right off from there.

How hard was it to gather everybody again for the series once it was picked up?

Not at all, everyone was thrilled to come back. I've been guaranteeing them, saying - except you just don't say it - it's good, it's going to be good, it's going to go.

You have a pretty good track record.

I've got a good track record, but it's still delicate times. There's nothing ever guaranteed. Certainly not in the realm of what I want to do, which is to continue to produce TV, continue to work in Vancouver, try to do stuff that's specifically Canadian. That's all kind of a rarity, and a privilege, really.

What were you looking for in your leads, and what did Ian Tracey and Klea Scott bring to the roles?

With Ian, I had developed the show for him. I had been wanting to develop a show for Ian and got the network on board to support that idea a couple of years ago. And they wanted me to develop a show to replace Da Vinci when it eventually retired. So I brought Ian to them and they said yeah, great idea, so I started thinking about ideas for him for a long time ago. What he brings is he plays this hard guy to perfection, but a guy who's also got a lot of empathy, so he's really easy for people to identify with, the essential good nature of him. I thought that was an essential quality. When you're playing a bad guy, you have to find a place for people to find empathy, and Ian had that cornered. He's a guy who has a lot of charisma as a leading man. He's a handsome guy and he's got a legion of female fans who find him easy to watch. So all those things wrapped up, it's a pretty good package, and he's a great guy and a good friend of mine.

Finding Klea was more difficult. I was looking for somebody who could really represent the struggle it is for a woman of colour to work in a bureaucracy and rise to the top and not be held to a lower level of competence, and really evolve into a leader. I knew it was going to be a bit of a tough find, to find somebody who could rise to the challenge. We looked in Vancouver and found a couple of good actors locally, and went to Toronto and put a couple more in the race, then we went to Los Angeles to find Canadians living in Los Angeles, and got Klea Scott's demo tape from the casting director the day I was leaving LA. I met with her subsequently and talked her into taking the role.

You had to talk her into it?

No, not really. Klea herself had said she'd told her agents to pass on law enforcement roles because she'd done a few of them and found them limiting. But she read the script and didn't find it limiting, found it intriguing, and quickly after she read the material she said yeah, I'm in. For her, she'd had a successful and thriving career in Los Angeles so I think it was a bit of a commitment and a roll of the dice for her but it turned out well.

So you wrote it as a woman of colour, that didn't come out of casting her?

I really wanted that challenge and I felt it was important to throw that out there and deal with it, because it's rare to have a female lead, or leads of any kind, that are any ethnicity but white. I thought I was kind of obligated to have one of the leads of a visible minority, and seeing as I'd already written the thing for Ian, I'd sort of left that one path. I'd seen all kinds of actors, a wide spectrum of great people, but Klea just really won it on her incredible acting skills. You see it every day - she can really deliver the stuff. And again, she's also a very attractive, sexy woman, so that doesn't hurt either, that kind of component.

I'm honestly trying to make this thing successful, and in order to do that you have to do whatever you can to draw the viewers in. It's a really, really tough landscape out there to attract audiences to shows, especially new shows, when you don't have the incredibly deep pockets of an American network to promote something. Especially Canadian material in Canada, whether it's feature films or TV, getting any kind of decent promotion with all the noise out there is tough. I'm trying to do something that appeals commercially to people, because I want this thing to run for a few years. I'm not interested in making critically acclaimed failures. What's the point of that?

I don't feel I'm compromising. I feel this is adult material that I'm engaged with that people will find satisfying. It's that kind of espionage/thriller sensibility that we used to get in movies all the time, but now the movies are going for a much younger demographic and finding adult material is harder. Television is where it's going to be at.

It didn't feel like you'd compromised.

I've found there's much more creative authority for the writer and producer in television. With feature films, unless it's a writer/director, the writer is one of perhaps many writers the studio or director will hire to tailor a script, so you don't have that ongoing authority over the material. That's what I want these days. I believe you have to stick with the material and shepherd it through all its stages to achieve what you intended, or achieve even more than you intended.

Do you worry about losing the audience, because it's so intricately plotted?

I don't. I've learned over the years that there's a line where people will go with you, and there's a line where you might start to lose them. And this is really a character drama. People will watch the show for the characters, and the plots are not the first and foremost and only thing about the show. I made a conscious decision to write it in a certain style so it's more about the characters and their lives than it is about the specific details of the plot.

But it does have a taste of the procedural in it, because we're talking about intelligence and the criminal world. I've mixed up a couple of genres. Most of it's gangster, which is a genre, and there's espionage, so that's two genres in there I can go to when I need structure and to pick up the pace again and keep the narrative really humming along.

Who do you see as the audience for the show?

I think it's going to be the same audience that's attracted to criminal procedurals, and also the CBC core audience. But I think it's going to reach into a male and female demographic. Ian has great sex appeal, and I think he's going to help draw more of a female audience. And I think that the nature of the story, being gangsters, is going to appeal to younger men. It's dealing with weed gangsters, and there's a certain taboo about this. It's been prohibited to talk about drugs on television for a while.

CBC didn't have a problem with that?

Nobody has any problem with the material. They're all quite excited, because it seems to be so contemporary, and it seems to be unique, and it seems to come out of a true place.

You worked in the American industry, too, didn't you?

Yes, I did, I created a show for CBS called The Handler which was a huge critical success for the first four episodes, and then we started to decline rapidly.

What were the differences between the American and Canadian systems?

In the American system, there's a lot more bosses. And there's a lot more concern about using recognizable actors to draw the audience in. It's a vastly different system of promotion and rewards. If the show, like mine did, had any sense it could be a breakout hit, they really throw a lot of money at it. The ability of the American system to fan the spark of a potential success is great. The Canadian thing is you can fan it as much as you want, but there's really a limited penetration of the Canadian market you can make without really, really throwing enormous amounts of dollars at it, which we don't. We choose, the networks choose, to put the dollars into the actual making of the show. That's the more important thing, ultimately, or you don't have anything to promote. That's unfortunately where it is.

But the creative autonomy—in casting the leads on the show I did in Los Angeles, I had very little say in terms of picking the list from which the cast was chosen. There's a pre-set list of approvable leads, and there's some startling people on there you wouldn't think would be on there. So you have to wade your way through some really poor suggestions.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

TV Review: House - "Meaning"

Running? Running?! Are you freaking kidding me?

Season three of House picks up a couple of months after "No Reason," where the dyspeptic doctor got shot by a disgruntled former patient. It's full of scenes of Dr. House jogging to work, skateboarding around campus, and in general having fun with his newfound mobility, from cartoonish end runs around Cameron to athletic displays you wouldn't expect from a man whose physical fitness routine seemed to revolve around exercising his thumbs with a GameBoy and iPod.

So, obviously, the ketamine-induced coma he requested for his gunshot surgery worked, relieving him of the chronic pain caused by his long-ago infarction. And, apparently, also curing the nerve damage and missing thigh muscle we've been told was the result of his leg surgery.

I usually ignore any potential medical inaccuracies in the show, even in the rare cases where I think I spot them, because I don't want to work hard enough to fact check, plus people who look for accurate medicine from a TV show should be forced to be treated by a doctor who got his license by mail order after watching a lot of Discovery Channel.

But they're not just asking for willing suspension of disbelief on this one, they're looking for magical levitation of disbelief.

Perhaps this is still part of House's season two ending hallucination, and next season will begin with Hugh Laurie limping out of the shower to discover this entire season was a dream.

Deep breath. OK. I'm willing to let it go now and focus on the rest of the episode. (But ... running?!)

We're given a throwaway line about House's shooter getting away, which gives us either a plot thread waiting to be picked up at any moment, or the only resolution we can ask for that wouldn't be anti-climactic after the can't-top-this-for-interesting hallucinated resolution.

The rest of the episode deals with House taking on two seemingly straightforward cases of two paralysed patients.

The first case, of yoga girl who is inexplicably paralysed, is dispatched quickly, with House initially believing she's faking her symptoms, then realizing she's suffering from scurvy. The second, of a man whose brain cancer surgery had left him all but a vegetable, and who drove his wheelchair into a swimming pool, is first an exercise in simply increasing his quality of life.

It's a previously unheard of goal for House, and he finds that he's not able to get satisfaction from the family's gratitude - a "thank you" earned when he puts a Housian yet positive spin on the possibility that the swim was a suicide attempt, saying that at least it shows there's something left to kill - that something remains of the husband and father.

"I wasn't sure what I was supposed to feel," House confesses to Wilson, who reminds him that those emotional muscles have atrophied from lack of use, as well as the leg muscle.

When House begins to try to cure the incurable patient, Cuddy, Wilson, and his team think he's trying to create his own puzzle by needlessly complicating the case.

Wilson: You really don't give a crap, do you?

House: Does that make me evil?

Wilson: Yeah.

Wilson is unusually tiresome in this episode, telling House "the reason we crave meaning is because it makes us happy" and following him around spouting about the levels of happiness (House: "Seventh level - you going away.")

He also encourages Cuddy to lie to House when House's theory works and causes the man to regain meaningful consciousness. The rationale is that they don't want to encourage House to be reckless with a patient and base his theories on no medical evidence. Because that would be different from half the diagnoses in most of the episodes ... how? Often the only reason he's excited by a theory is because it fits the symptoms, which this one did, no matter how he came to embrace it.

While cooling off in a fountain after a job, House has the epiphany that the paralysed patient might have been trying to do something similar. Proof of the theory would come from a simple injection, but despite the fact that there's no downside to the treatment, Cuddy refuses because he has no rational reason, and she believes his motive isn't to solve the puzzle, but to create one. The fact that she later administered the injection herself makes her a hypocrite on top of an idiot for yet again refusing a reasonable request from the admittedly unreasonable man.

"For the first time in years I've got no opiates in my system, and now you question my judgement?" he asks. The entire non-House cast is treating him like he's lost his medical mojo, like in his hallucination except he knows basic anatomy this time.

But later, House tells Wilson that she was right to refuse, saying he had "no objective reason to think I was right."

That's the most interesting thing about this disappointing episode - House's doubts about how to find meaning in his medical decisions and in his life, when he can no longer define himself by his disability, his pain, his misery.

There's a scene where he asks Cameron to go for a drink, maybe dinner, and she turns him down. He's not disappointed, making it seem like simply a test - of her or him, I'm not sure. Perhaps he was trying to exercise some atrophied muscles again and see if he'd respond differently to her now. Or maybe he wanted to see if she'd refuse him when he's no longer the wounded puppy for her to take care of.

But that was always the meaning he gave to her interest in him, not necessarily objective fact. And she - reasonably - explains that she's refusing because he's just recovered from surgery and isn't himself. She also adds in reservations about the employer-employee relationship, which didn't seem to phase her before, but her general babbliness shows the poor girl was thrown by the question and can't be expected to give airtight testimony.

More tellingly, House tells Wilson he's beginning to feel leg pain again and asks for a prescription for Vicodin. The man who's dulled his emotional pain and created highs for himself through medicine - both ingested and practised - is finding life has lost some meaning without those highs.

He probes his patient's wife to find out why she insists on taking care of her husband instead of putting him in a facility, what she gets out of caring for him herself. Finally, he realizes:

Taking care of him doesn't fulfil you, make you happy. But not taking care of him would make you miserable.

If happiness is out of reach, then, the closest you can come is the absense of misery. And for a man whose happiness muscles have atrophied, the closest he can get seems to be numbness. He ends the episode by writing himself a prescription, on Wilson's pad. Wilson may have annoyed me, but I'm not sure he deserved that.

There were the usual amount of laugh out loud lines in "Meaning," but it seemed devoid of the usual gleeful, joyful nastiness of House. He didn't even make a single sexist, flirtatious comment to Cuddy when he saw her in her skimpy PJs. I miss sexist, flirtatious House. The show may be back for another season, but I don't quite feel like the character is yet.