Fringe: "Olivia" and "The Box"
Matthew J. Brady
The strange thing about Fringe is that it's enjoyable enough while I'm watching it, but trying to analyze it for a write-up like this just exposes all its glaring flaws and inanities. Maybe those should just be accepted by this point, but it's hard not to focus on the minuses when the pluses are less than satisfactory. However: this season starts out on a pretty compelling note, with Olivia stranded in the other universe, with villainous versions of Walter, Broyles, and Charlie trying to brainwash her into thinking she is the alternate version of herself, and in addition, the alternate Olivia is in "our" universe, spying on the team from within. Not a bad concept, although the machinations that get "good" Olivia to her mind-controlled place in which the writers apparently want her are as silly as usual, something about injections containing her evil alternate's memories taking over her mind (a nice chance for paranoia as she questions what is real, but with a near-instantaneous transformation that kind of ruins the buildup), so she can be placed back on her old team for some reason. If the show is going to bounce back and forth between universes each episode, going on its usual course of weird cases each week, that could be pretty interesting, and might be a good chance to explore the differences between worlds (hopefully beyond the oh-so-clever gags like a taxi advertising the musical "Dogs"). Evil Olivia's adventures on this side of the vibrational barrier seem neat too, although Anna Torv is stretching the limits of her acting abilities with her attempts to seem sinister. But, she does shoot a guy execution-style, then makes out with Peter to distract him from the blood slowly pooling under her bathroom door; that's always fun. The rest of the plot is sillier, regarding the discovery of some mysterious box related to evil Walter's doomsday machine; it emits brain-melting ultrasonics whenever anybody opens it, but some guy survived it, and the team has to find him. Any guesses as to how he did it? If you said because he was deaf, even though that's not the way sound waves work, you've earned the satisfaction of being able to predict the silliness of the show's pseudoscience. Also, you get to enjoy some random guy's head exploding, which is another thing that's always fun.
So, Fringe: still pretty dumb, but enjoyable enough to stick with, at least out of hope that something silly will happen, ridiculous science will be proffered, or the characters will be goofy enough to keep from grating against the walls of unbelievability. Here's hoping for a season that's dumb enough to almost seem smart.
Sons of Anarchy - "Turning and Turning"
While Sons never truly transitioned from being a moderately interesting show featuring some incredible performances by a few minor characters, the rhythym of the show eventually caught me. It's an interesting trick that the show played in its second season--teasing out the satisfactions of justice postponed, and then delivering said justice (in full commitment to FX's extreme taste for onscreen violence) with the gusto the weeks of waiting for it demand. This season may be working the same method out once again--episode after episode, building its way towards the fists and blood conclusion that will see Our Man Jax find His Son Abel in That Country Ireland--but if it isn't, then the show had best come up with an explanation for why it's sidelining every episode into a whiny subplot machine. It's the same problem the show experienced in the previous seasons middling episodes--when there isn't violence to be had, Sons doesn't seem to know what to do with itself. Irritatingly, it seems to think that it has something to say, be it about the economy (it's bad), brotherhood (it's good) and girls (such a headache). The last season's music video conclusion, where Jax collapsed in the gang's arms while watching his kidnapped son disappear in the distance while his mother ran from a Federal murder charge frame-up, was a bravura moment all around, the sort of pulpier-than-thou conclusion that so many of these shows strive for. But now, with the gang running in place in California while a swath of recognizable Irish actors cryptically mumble in second-unit Belfast scenes, those moments are absent of impact, even in memory. To make it worse, the emotional demands of a kidnapped baby have stolen any screentime the non-leads might get, leaving only token head-nods and "we're with you brother" lines to its secondary players, all of whom are more compelling than Kurt Sutter (the show's creator) seems to realize. While Katey Segal's performance remains the sort of praiseworthy adventure that results in Emmy campaigns, she's working in service of killing time.
All that being said, the nice thing about this sort of entertainment--the pulpier, macho porn kind of entertainment--is that it won't have to do much to right the ship. Like season two, the show could easily fix itself with one or two damn fine episodes. If what's being teased by plot comes to bear, that could be the sight of Jax, Chibs and Opie walking the streets of Belfast--the IRA on one end, and untold carnage in wait between them. Here's to hope.
One of the reasons why doctor shows are perennially popular is that people secretly hate and resent their doctors, and not-so-secretly relish the prospect of seeing them humiliated and humbled. It's not rocket science - or even brain surgery - most people have neither the ability nor the patience to be doctors, even the fake doctors who talk about Hegel to stoned undergraduates. Therefore we loathe the fact that some dudes and dudettes had the wherewithal to flush their twenties down the toilet in exchange for a massive payday beginning sometime in their mid-thirties and proceeding thereafter until the day they die. (Or, at least until Obamacare takes over and all the MDs are driving tractors on the commune like the rest of us.) Which isn't to say that all doctors are Brainiac 5-level mental giants, but even the most mediocre opthamologist in the world was still able to stick it out through the decade-or-so of grueling study and labor necessary to become a board-certified physician. So I guess that entitles them to be dicks and lord it over everyone else around the table at family reunions?
Anyway. The cast of Grey's, as you are probably aware, is almost entirely made up of doctors. Whenever characters from other professions are introduced - even supposedly similain-scope professions such as nursing or lawyering - invariably these characters get swept under the rug in short order. Why? One big reason is that this show usually does a great job of ignoring one big icky bit that often comes up in peoples' relationships with their doctors: class. A lot of people resent their doctors simply because doctors make a lot of money, and if you're a doctor reading this now who wants to leave an angry post in the comments to the effect that you don't make that much money, remember that you still make a lot more money than me, and probably more than I ever will, so shut the fuck up. Grey's likes to persist in the fantasy that doctors - not even just interns or residents, but real full-blown physicians - do things like share apartments and live in trailers in the woods. The best part was when the chief of surgery (not Chief Weber, but Derek when he was chief last season) was sharing a house with a handful of residents. (One of those residents was his fiancee, but still.) If you're the chief of surgery at a major metropolitan hospital you're making a lot of money, and it stretches credibility beyond the breaking point to believe that someone making probably in the high six figures, if not more, is going to be sharing a bathroom stall with surgical residents for any reason. I can stretch my suspension of belief to encompass the idea that a forty-foot tall humanoid in purple pants flies around the universe with a silver herald eating planets, but I'm just too much of a Marxist to ever fully believe that people who make that kind of money would slum for any reason.
So what the hell am I talking about? Last season - you might recall - ended on a really big high point. For those too lazy to click, the last two episodes of the most recent season ended on a complete tonal break, with a psychotic shooter on a rampage in Seattle Grace. Before the episodes were over he had killed or wounding a bunch of people, including a few established cast members. It was absolutely crazy: for the space of two hours, the anodyne prime-time soap opera was transformed into a merciless, Jack Bauer-esque bloodbath. Characters lived, characters died, epiphanies were reached and a number of long-standing plotlines were resolved with brutal suddenness. I give Grey's a lot of crap for being an awful, cliched, predictable and stone-dumb show (that has somehow managed to get its hooks into me nonetheless, which says more about me than it), but I had to give completely unironic props: they flipped the script on the audience and I was riveted to my seat. It was awesome.
But then, what do you do after you blow everything up? How do you wrench a show like Grey's back into it's tried-and-true format after having first wrenched it so violently - and effectively - out of shape?
The answer: not very easily. "With You I'm Born Again" is, obviously, the "aftermath" episode. For the clearest analogy, think "Family," that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation right after "Best of Both Worlds," wherein Picard returns to his family estate in France and tries to come to grips with the fact that he was mind-controlled by a race of evil cyborgs and used as a weapon in an attempt to enslave or annihilate every living being in the Alpha Quadrant. Or, closer to home, how about all those old issues of Uncanny X-Men right after some big crossover event that featured all the main characters moping around and reflecting on What Just Happened, while in the background a few things were unobtrusively done by way of setting up the next year's worth of subplots. Usually they involved Jubilee as a viewpoint character talking about everyone's feelings in some capacity or another.
The difference is, of course, that Grey's Antomy isn't Uncanny X-Men. It's one of the longstanding conventions in superhero comics that people are remarkably resilient and able to deal with even the most devastating Crisis with unmatched equanimity. One issue half the southern hemisphere is eaten by Brainiac, the next issue we're supposed to care that Toyman is sticking hypno-rays into Barbie dolls as part of a plot to sabotage Fashion Week or something. That's life, we try to pick up where we left off. Only, really, that's not quite how that works in quote-unquote "real" life: people who don't wear spandex get caught in tragedy and changed by trauma in ways that cannot easily be swept under the rug. This is actually one of Grey's evergreen themes, with characters struggling hard to overcome past hardships and traumatic events. One of Grey's oldest rules is the idea - not unique to the show but certainly hammered to death over the last few years - that people can't be in successful relationships until they get past their own problems. Which, OK, I'll concede that this is strictly true, but it usually doesn't stand in many peoples' ways in real life. (In my experience people usually get into relationships when they want to, whether they're a good idea or not, and sort it all out later.)
That's one of the reasons - maybe the biggest reason - why the cast of Grey's is so universally insufferable: they all have a constant finger on the pulse of their own feelings, and are able to articulate every vicissitude of their emotional state with pinpoint precision. Usually once or twice an episode. They broadcast their emotional status in laborious detail at every opportunity: they are all the most self-involved little pricks on God's green earth. And as the series progresses, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that these people are no longer perky, likeable young striplings, they are becoming close to actual medical professionals. Meaning they've grown from raw interns to hardened residents without learning a damn thing about keeping their mouths shut and not acting like crybabies. Meaning you want to punch them in the face all the damn time. Is this how doctors are in real life, all running around having cathartic monologues every five minutes because they've discovered Feelings? if so, I'm going to stick to sacrificing goats to Ahura Mazda as my primary means of keeping testicular cancer at bay.
Now, of course, they all have real reason to discuss their Feelings at the drop of a hat. Now everyone on the show has PTSD, not just Kevin McKidd's Dr. Ginger McTavish. Speaking from a purely mechanical standpoint, the short-term gain of the awesome season finale might just not be worth all the long-term trouble, because unless they plan to sweep everything under the rug (and the only thing Grey's ever truly sweeps under the rug is unwanted cast members), the long-term shape of the show becomes the laborious recovery of a close-knit group of PTSD survivors. Which sort of puts a downer on things. This week saw the marriage of Yang and Hunt (pictured above) which, while certainly not unexpected, is still the direct result of having survived a recent near-death experience. The question remains as to whether or not a marriage made under these circumstances can survive past the initial euphoric mood. The writers this week sure went out of their way to foreshadow the fact that the new marriage will be a rocky one, and perhaps a short one as well.
The question lingers, as yet unanswered, as to whether or not the series will ever really be the same again. If it really follows through on the whole massive cast-wide PTSD storyline, then it could be pretty grim for the foreseeable future, and without any kind of lightness the series is going to get pretty damn awful. Because, let's be serious, Grey's isn't really any good if we're actually going to get out our ruler and measure "good" and "bad" according to anything remotely resembling a logical standard - at its best, it can manage 'fun and frivolous." When it manages to get over, it usually does so through charm and momentum. Based on this first episode, the new season looks to be short on charm and momentum. We could be in for a hard slog.
-Matthew J. Brady, Tucker Stone, Tim O'Neil, 2010