June 09, 2005,
Last month’s network season finales may have signaled the close of the traditional TV season. But cable typically introduces new programming in summer, and Fox (which premiered The O.C. to great success in August a couple of years ago) has been experimenting with untraditional timing. Most of what you’ll see now is junk just like the rest of the year. Here, though, are three new shows worth your time: How politically correct is Into the West, the epic 12-hour miniseries about pioneers and Indians that premieres Friday (with multiple repeats every weekend) on TNT? Not as much as you’d think! The sprawling Steven Spielberg production, which cost $50 million to make and another $50 million to promote, takes great pains to be authentic all around but particuarly with the Native American actors, who were all forced to learn Lakota. But any film that shows Indian hunters stampeding hundreds of buffalo off a cliff, as Into the West does in the first episode, isn’t being particularly delicate about portraying them as ecological saints.
Alas, the Indian scenes (and there are many) often drag; I think it was about the 37th time that the boring shaman character Loved By the Buffalo was pulled by his nipples while dancing round some sort of mystical circle that I thought, OK, enough already. But that’s an inherent problem with the historical facts: Naturally there’s going to be less drama showing people just trying to hang on to their way of life than those fighting over gold in California, getting massacring in free-state vs. slave-state disputes, galloping around for the Pony Express, etc. Hang in there, though. Into the West may take a little while to get going, but is quite gripping once it does with action, adventure, romance and a history lesson that goes down easy. I’ve seen the first six hours and can’t wait to see six more.
The Comeback, which premiered Sunday, is not only HBO’s funniest new dark comedy since Curb Your Enthusiasm but brings us an entirely new Hollywood character the has-been diva as lovable loser, rather than traditional Norma Desmond-style monster. Lisa Kudrow, who cowrote the script with Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, plays Valerie Cherish, the former star of a fictional early ‘90s sitcom called I’m It who can’t quite believe how far she’s fallen. Relegated to playing the matronly landlady of four rutting twentysomethings in a new sitcom that looks like a porn version of Three’s Company, Valerie doesn’t realize at first that she’s been eclipsed by the show’s half-naked blonde starlet, whom she’d been addressing with kindly condescension as “baby girl.”
Eventually, of course, the truth dawns: Expensive perks are left out of her gift bags, she has to shell out for her aging hairdresser’s airline ticket out of her own pocket. This isn’t how things were on I’m It, Valerie complains to the sitcom producer. “You know what?” he says with devastating accuracy. “You’re not it anymore.” The Comeback is also laser sharp about the degrading misogyny of so much TV now: In next week’s episode, Valerie watches in horror at the upfronts as her network promotes two new shows: in one, newlyweds hit each other with boards and shovels; in the other, women compete to be American’s next porn star.
What saves all this from being just another Theater of Cruelty exercise is that Kudrow plays it as a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress morality tale, and so far Valerie has resisted at least some temptations to sell her soul. Kudrow shows her considering it, though you can see Valerie thinking about sending the hairdresser back to coach when they learn at the airline counter the studio hasn’t bought him a seat (“Business is sold out, huh?”) but in the end she takes the high road and springs for the $4,500 first-class ticket. Pratfalls down chutes are inevitable here, of course; still, you do root for Valerie whenever she manages to climb a tiny ladder.
Watching Fox’s The Inside, a sort of C.S.I.-meets-Silence of the Lambs that follows the grim adventures of FBI agents in their pursuit of serial killers, reminded me that close-ups of pickled hands in jars or a murder victim’s bloody peeled-away face weren’t always standard primetime fare. Who’d have thought a show about dead bodies and the crime-scene investigators who dissect them would revolutionize the police procedural drama? Certainly not most TV critics. When CBS sent out press screeners for its fall 2000 season, C.S.I., which introduced phrases like “anal swab” to the airwaves, was one of the least buzzed about new network shows. Now it’s hard to think of a crime drama that doesn’t display its influence.
For those lacking strong stomachs, this isn’t always a fine thing. I’m a big fan of executive producer Tim Minear, whose recent work includes the cult hits Wonderfalls, Firefly, and Angel. And I appreciate the fact that The Inside, which debuted Thursday night, is the first piece of Hollywood product I’ve seen where a sneering reference to John Ashcroft is actually made by a bad guy. But smart as it is, with enough cleverly written plot twists to divert your attention from the real killer until the very end of each episode, The Inside is probably too gruesome for my particular taste, at least on a regular basis.
Minear makes no apologies for that “Oh, it will be so gross,” he said happily at the Fox press conference. “It’s gonna be cool!” but noted that he doesn’t pile on the gory details for their own sake: “If you don’t have incredibly compelling characters, then it just becomes pornography at some point.”
The traumatic past of main character Rebecca Locke, at least, is quite compelling: Rebecca was once gritty ten-year-old kidnapping victim Becky George, who managed to escape from a perverted maniac after being held by him for 18 months. The central conceit of the show is that this experience gave Rebecca special inside knowledge of how the minds of victims as well as predators work. Newcomer Rachel Nichols, a self-described “shy girl from Maine,” is (like Lisa Kudrow) that rare young actress who’s actually believable when the camera zooms in to show her thinking; her career began when a modeling agent discovered her in New York, where she was a double major in math and economics at Columbia.
Unlike Minear’s past shows, The Inside is, so far at least, entirely free of fantasy except perhaps in its unsettling notion that in Los Angeles serial killers are common as grass. But he sees the show as imbued with a certain fairy tale aspect anyway. “In a way we’re doing The Wizard of Oz,” Minear said, with Rebecca character as Dorothy and her mysterious, ruthless boss (played by Peter Coyote) as the Wizard.
Oh, and here’s a fun summer TV fact for readers who remember Tim Minear’s comment to me a few months ago that “children are gutted on my show from stem to stern, but I couldn't have a serial killer say the word 'retard' because that would have been insensitive." This is what the serial killer ends up saying instead: “Handicapable.”
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.