Monday, November 16, 2009

I AM NOT A NUMBER! The Prisoner, Smallville, The Simpsons, and MORE!

Back from the weekend, and getting ready to power through what should be a long but interesting work week. In any case, I've got a truckload of TV reviews to kick off the week, so, here we go:


- I'll start by talking about last night's premiere of the AMC reimagining of THE PRISONER. Let me give some background, some of which I'm sure I've covered before here on the blog, but, oh well. So I'd heard of The Prisoner on and off growing up, though like many of my generation, I had heard bits and pieces about the cult British series, and later became somewhat familiar with the concept thanks to the hilarious Simpsons episode that spoofed the show, "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes." (it even featured original Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan in a cameo). Later on, once Lost became a big hit, you'd often hear the show's creators reference The Prisoner as an inspiration. Anyways, at some point a couple of years ago, I saw the DVD box set on sale on, and made the purchase. I quickly became a fan of the show's surreal 1960's vibe, and could easily recognize that The Prisoner was indeed the precursor to many a modern story about being trapped in a strange place that makes you question basic notions of freedom, individuality, and even reality itself. So I went into this new version of The Prisoner already a fan of the original series. At the same time, even though I often bemoan the glut of remakes and reimaginings in Hollywood, I was actually pretty excited about this new version of The Prisoner. For one thing, I feel like the original is, more than anything, a show about ideas - and I felt like those central themes, applied to modern issues and sensibilities, could make for a really compelling story. For another thing, I read a script for the Prisoner pilot (back when it was being planned as an ongoing series) a couple of years back. I went in skeptical, but was actually fairly blown away by what I had read. Even though the version of The Prisoner that ultimately got made was a bit different (it's now a miniseries, for one), a lot of that older version still made it intact. In any case, a new Prisoner with some smart writing, a modern take on a cult-classic, Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel in the lead roles ... sounds to me like a recipe for a success.

So I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to see a slew of somewhat negative reviews of the new Prisoner. It made me wonder where, exactly, this new version had gone wrong. Luckily, as I watched the first two hours of the six-hour miniseries last night, I came away in large part reassured. In fact, while there were some rough patches, I thoroughly enjoyed AMC's latest.

I thought THE PRISONER did a pretty nice job of combining smart, thoughtful writing with some really weird, trippy scenes. There was a really nice atmosphere of "okay, what, exactly, is going on here?" that permeated through the first two hours, and I thought that Jim Caviezel, as the new #6, did a nice job in the lead. Sure, his character was a bit more measured and soft-spoken than the more over-the-top original played by McGoohan, but I thought that he did a nice job of anchoring the out-there premise. The real highlight was definitely McKellan though, who brought a huge, commanding presence to his role as #2. Whereas the original show was known for each episode mysteriously having a new person filling the role of #2, this new version has McKellan in the role for the duration - and when you have an actor with Sir Ian's talent, you want to give him room to breathe and really explore this strange and mysterious character. Some of McKellan's scenes thus far have been totally transfixing. Awesome stuff.

I realize at this point I should probably sum up the premise of the show. In the original version, the classic storyline goes that #6 was once some sort of James Bond-esque British secret agent, in possession of many a national secret. When he decides to resign from his job, he is kidnapped and whisked away to a mysterious island on which exists "The Village." The Village is a quaint yet ominous place in which people have no proper names, only numbers. The villagers have jobs, live semi-normal lives, and seem happily oblivious to the fact that they are prisoners. In the original series, it was implied that the other residents of The Village were other former intelligence agents, who over the years had been brainwashed and conditioned to spend their lives in blissful ignorance (or else fearful denial) of their plights. The Village is ruled by the devious #2, who is hellbent on extracting #6's secrets through all manner of mindgames, head-trips, and other, more sinister methods of persuasion. #6, meanwhile, is hellbent on escape, though he can never be sure quite who to trust, what's real, to how, exactly, to get away from The Village (wandering villagers who trespass past the city limits are often gobbled up by mysterious, giant white spheres that surround The Village). And who is #1? Well, that might be the biggest mystery of all.

Anyways, the new Prisoner tweaks the old formula a bit. The Village may still be an island, but it appears, at least, to be a remote outpost in the middle of some endless desert. Not only that, but in this version, the Villagers are completely *unaware* (or at least pretend to be) that any other place other than The Village even exists.

This is where thigns get tricky, as the new series walks a fine line between being completely abstract and surreal, and being more logical and down-to-earth. It's a problem that a show like Lost faced often, especially in its early years. If you have the characters ask too many questions and get too logical or analytical about their strange circumastances, you risk ruining the mysterious and surreal atmosphere of the show. But if no one questions anything or asks the kinds of questions that a normal person would, you end up with frustrating, manufactured drama that feels like a cop-out.

In The Prisoner, like I said, it's a fine line. They have #6 question the villagers on how they can possibly believe that no other place exists (ie "Well okay, then who invented the light bulb?), but stops short of taking this line of questioning to its logical extremes (for example, why wouldn't he say "Well okay then, why do people here have different accents? Why are there black people and white people?" etc.). It can get a little absurd if you think about it too much, but it's not so bad when you think about it as all being one giant mind-$&#$ at #6's expense. To me, the key turning point is when (SPOILERS), #6's "brother" (a guy from the Village who #6 is told is his brother, even though #6 knows he isn't), admits that he isn't *really* what he said he was. This was a great moment, because it hinted that indeed, all of the illogical behavior and randomness of the villagers is, moreso than anything else, just a way to reall mess with #6's head.

I think that there are some other places where The Prisoner has faltered so far. Scenes that show a TV soap opera that's broadcast in The Village (sample dialogue: "I love you #587, but I slept with your brother, #588!), are just too goofy given the tone of the rest of the show. I'm also unsure about the fact that #2 has a befuddled teenage son and a sickly wife (who is kept sickly due to #2's own scheming). It's one thing to give #2 personality and depth, but I could see how these slightly more soap opera-y plotlines could be a hindrance to the show. We shall see.

I did like flashback scenes that depicted the fateful night before #6 got brought to The Village. We learn that this #6 was no secret agent, but instead an information gatherer - a guy who monitors CTV footage and watches for shifting patterns in human behavior. This new backstory was actually kind of cool, and I'm curious to see how it comes into play later on. Anyways, these flashbacks show how Caviezel invited an enigmatic but alluring woman back to his apartment, only to find that she was more than she initially seemed. Kind of cool - again, curious to see how it all ties together.

Now, I think the other main issue here is the pacing. At times, the first two hours did kind of feel like plot threads from an ongoing series were mashed-up to fit into a six hour mini. The problem is that there's not really enough time for #6 to just be shocked and outraged at his plight as a prisoner of The Village. Fans of the original series recall that McGoohan's 6 was basically in a constant state of anger over his situation, and was basically a man of action. He never became complacent in The Village, and tried to escape at every chance he got. Caviezel's 6 is a bit more passive, and even though the two hours end with him frothing-at-the-mouth angry and confused, it feels like his temprament is all over the place prior to that point.

Still, I thought that this new version of the Prisoner had enough going for it to make it a really interesting ride that seems to be well worth taking. The acting was superb, and there is definitely an intelligence and philisophical bent to the writing that makes this stand out from most fare on TV. Plus, even though this one was more subdued and less over-the-top than its inspiration, there were still some really fun moments and callbacks. We got the giant white spheres, Caviezel doing a nice scream of the classic "I am not a number!" line, etc. And to top it off, the look of the show, with some really epic, feature-film like cinematography, was pretty spectacular at times. To me, this is one that's well worth checking out, and I'm very anxious to see where things go from here.

My Grade: B+

- Whew. So, let's talk SMALLVILLE. It was going to be hard for this week's ep to live up to the previous week's way-better-than usual installment, but surprisingly, Smallville churned out a pretty decent little episode. The storyline really pushed ahead on the whole Clark Kent as public superhero thing. And that's both good and bad. It's good because it makes for some new and exciting storylines, and it forces Clark to be more and more Superman-like, which is always fun to watch. The bad is that all of this stuff still feels like a giant tease. By any storytelling logic in the universe, Clark should be Superman by now. They've brought him to the brink many times now, and this episode brought him closer than ever. In fact, the setup was all right there for Superman's huge public debut. Lois in danger and dangling from the Daily Planet rooftop, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered below, and Clark on the roof, forced to either let Lois fall to an untimely and grisly death, or else show off his powers and make a stunning debut as Superman. Of course, this being Smallville, the resolution was ultra-contrived and further dealyed the (should-be) inevitable. In an homage to the old Superfriends cartoon, this ep introduced Zan and Jayna as two teenaged would-be heroes who are huge fans of Clark's alter-ego, the Blur. Carrying out a number of super-powered acts of heroism in the Blur's name, these reimagined Wonder Twins end up bungling a bunch of big saves, damaging Clark's rep in the process. Of course, they also serve as a deux ex machina in the end, creating a distraction so that Clark can save Lois from that building without revealing his powers to her or the world at large. All of this was pretty well done, and Clark did have some real "super" moments, even if he's still just plain old Clark Kent. But come on already, how long can they take two steps forward and three steps back with the show's lead character? Get him in the blue and red already!

My Grade: B

- Man, I was kind of dreading last night's episode of THE SIMPSONS. A long while back, I wrote a spec script for the show that I've retooled and refined over the years, and I've been proud and relived that the show has never really done a script with a similar premise to mine in all these years. But when I heard about the plot for this one, in which Marge poses for surprisingly suggestive photos for a charity calendar, well, I got kind of nervous, as the premise was uncomfortably close, in theory, to what I had written. But, once I saw the episode, I was a.) relieved that the plot so quickly veered away from the whole calendar thing, but b.) disappointed that the episode felt like the worst kind of Simpsons episodes from the last several years. It was disjointed, totally ADD, and, in the end, was yet another riff on the "Homer and Marge have marital problems that they ultimately resolve" trope that has popped up WAY too often in modern-era Simpsons. It sucks too, because there was the hint of a potentially very-funny plotline here, with Homer becoming Carl's assistant, after Carl gets a promotion at the nuclear power plant. Why oh why wasn't this the main plot of the episode, and just given more time to play out and be funny? Instead, the whole Marge-as-calendar-pinup thing transitioned into a lame story in which a newly-amorous Marge turns to Flanders for companionship, after Homer is tired / absent all the time thanks to his new job as Carl's bitch. Um, what? Why did this episode have like ten different plotlines? And how did the episode, with a couple of potential keepers, devolve into yet another Homer-Marge romance thing? It didn't help that the laughs were few and far between. This was a bottom-of-the-barrell Simpsons ep, made all the more annoying due to the fact that there was a lot of potential buried somewhere underneath.

My Grade: C-

- FAMILY GUY was also pretty mediocre last night. There were some funny one-off moments (Peter doing karaoke with the ghost of Ronald Reagan ...), and some of the stuff involving Stewie making a dumber, subserviant clone of himself (aka "Bitch Stewie") was also kind of chuckle-worthy. But the main plot here mostly fell flat, as Quagmire finds a baby on his doorstep that is his, and reluctantly ends up accepting the role of father to this little girl. I don't know - personally, I can't really buy into any "serious" storyline on FG. For most of its existence, the show has completely avoided having a serious or emotional side to its storytelling, so it's hard to treat these characters with the same kind of legitimacy as you would the characters on a King of the Hill or The Simpsons. Quagmire in particular is pretty much a gag character (giggity!), so how am I supposed to get involved in a storyline about his newfound baby daughter that is looking to tug at my heartstrings? Family Guy backed itself into that corner a long time ago, so come on FG, don't go getting all soft on me. And also, be funnier!

My Grade: C

- A solid episode of THE CLEVELAND SHOW was about all that kept FOX's Sunday night lineup from being completely absymal. Lately, I'm liking Cleveland because it's basically a funnier, slightly toned-down, and more consistent version of Family Guy. I mean, remember what I just said about FG's characters being incapable of being in more serious storylines at this point? Well, Cleveland definitely skews a little less wacky (despite its talking bears and such) and a little more, um, "mature" I guess would be the right word? That said, last night's ep was somewhat hit and miss - particularly the main storyline involving Cleveland's wife and her desire, post-marriage, to reconnect with her single friends. That one was alright, but nothing amazing. But there were a couple of funny running gags (loved Cleveland's reactions everytime his wife came home from a girls' night out), and lately, everything with Cleveland Jr. is pretty awesome. This show is still only "pretty good" at the end of the day, but it's been way more consistent than FG since it premiered.

My Grade: B

- Alright, that's it for now: in my next post: a review of 2012~!

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