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Maureen Ryan


'Fringe,' 'Copper' Space Operas And More: Answering Your TV Questions

Posted: 08/17/2012 10:23 am


Thanks for all the great Ask Mo questions submitted by readers and tweeters -- let's get right to a few answers, shall we?

Lou: Where do you stand now on "Fringe"? Will you be watching the final season. Please say it's so, Mo!
Mo says: Sure, I'm going to watch when the show returns Sept. 28. I wasn't really a fan of the overall storyline the Fox show pursued in Season 4; it had its moments, but in the end, it didn't ultimately have the emotional resonance or cumulative power of Seasons 2 and 3. I wrote here about the problems I had with Season 4, but I will stick around to see how Peter, Olivia and Walter's journeys end. I still have a fair amount of investment in the characters, a great deal of admiration for the cast's skills and respect for the show's willingness to take chances in pursuit of the adventurous ways in which it examines relationship dilemmas through the prism (or fractured portal, if you will) of sci-fi stories.

Annie: Has "Torchwood" come back on Starz or will it come back this year?
Mo says: There are no current plans to produce additional episodes of "Torchwood" at this moment, on Starz or anywhere else. But you know Captain Jack, he never dies (really!), so he might be back one of these days even though nothing's in the works at present.

Diane: I currently follow many TV critics on Twitter and enjoy the interaction between them, but I'm old enough to remember the pre-Internet days of the newspaper business. Each major paper had a TV critic who probably didn't interact or was even aware of what the other critics at other papers were thinking about the same programs until much later, assuming they read other papers at all.

Do you think the modern-day interaction of TV critics has created more of a "groupthink," where pretty much the same shows are focused on and the same shows are ignored across the spectrum of criticism? I'm not implying everyone has the same opinions on the shows themselves, but it seems everyone talks about the same shows at the same time.
Mo says: Awesome question. I can't speak for anyone else, but I have a strict policy of not reading other reviews of a show that I plan on writing about until my own review is posted. For the very reasons you mention, I don't want to know how others have fully assessed a particular program, because it is easier than ever to be influenced these days.

Having said that, for anyone who follows more than a couple of critics on Twitter, it's very hard to avoid the first impressions that trickle out when media people start watching the advance DVDs they've been sent. There isn't necessarily groupthink when it comes to those first impressions; for instance, I recall opinions being mixed about "The Newsroom" episodes as various people began watching them. But I do think it's hard to avoid knowing what the early buzz about a high-profile show is (and it usually is the high-profile shows that you tend to hear about -- if there was a pre-premiere buzz about "Longmire," a perfectly decent -- and successful -- show, I missed it).

So I might sit down to write a review knowing or having gotten hints about what several other critics I respect think about a show. I don't really think that influences me one way or another, though I can say that if a lot of people I respect say a particular pilot was absolutely terrible, and I was undecided on whether to review that show, it's a lot easier for that show to fall off my to-do list. New and ongoing shows rise and fall on my list of priorities based, in part, on the feedback I get about them from readers and critics; that ability to engage in and respond to an ongoing conversation about various programs is one of the side benefits of our super-wired age.

As a natural result of all that, those of us who write about TV often have debates on Twitter, and this year has provided a bumper crop of those, whether the subject is "The Newsroom," "Girls" or the Daniel Tosh situation. It's exciting to be able to have real-time debates with critics and TV fans whose intelligence I respect, though of course it's not always possible to have a nuanced debate within Twitter's limitations. But we certainly know when we disagree, and it provides valuable perspective to have lively debates with those on the "other side," so to speak. I don't know that we ever settle any debates on Twitter (and why would we?), but often I come away from those conversations at least understanding the other perspectives a little more, even if I don't necessarily agree. In any event, I'm not afraid of groupthink; if anything, Twitter just allows us to air our ornery but good-natured disagreements more publicly.

One danger I do see in our social media immersion is that it's possible for a fast-growing online response to fan the flames of either hype or hate in ways in which nuance, depth and perspective can get lost in the shuffle. For example, last year, the meme about the Season 1 finale of "The Killing" settled down to "people hated that the killer wasn't revealed in the finale," when many, many people who disliked the finale had far more complex things to say about it. But was I among those stoking the "Killing" flame war at times, with sarcastic comments and such? Sure, but I wrote a longer piece a few weeks after the finale to explain why I was irritated by the both the show and the sometimes unsubtle descriptions of the response to it. I don't regret anything I wrote or tweeted, but I'm aware of Twitter's power to channel strong reactions into brushfires that become hard to control (for example, anything that descends into personal namecalling, whether it emanates from showrunners, commenters or critics, is not cool). So I try to be aware of when I may be starting to beat a dead horse and steer clear of piling-on when possible.

BlueMoose1: I'm really missing the type of sci-fi that "Battlestar Galactica" represented -- broad allegorical takes on current issues and problems (or relatable life issues and problems, a la "Buffy") done in an escapist genre. Basically television that you can think about, but that you don't necessarily have to -- enjoyable on the surface, too. Am I missing something out there? Is anything on the horizon? Is the climate just wrong for good science fiction?
Dan Sigal: Hi Mo. Like you I'm saddened by the total absence of a space opera currently airing new episodes on TV. Do you think that a premium network can do for sci-fi what HBO has done for fantasy with "True Blood" and "Game of Thrones" (revive the genre on TV, bring it into the mainstream, and garner critical/award recognition)? I had initially thought Showtime would be the perfect network to do this, as HBO's primary premium network competitor. While I have high hopes for Steven DeKnight's "Incursion," I don't know if Starz has enough credit in the industry yet to accomplish this type of revival.
Mo says: I'm on board with the concerns Blue Moose and Dan raised in their questions, and I wrote about the sad lack of outer-space shows in an Ask Mo column last year. There are some solid sci-fi-flavored shows on the scene, I'm glad to say, including Syfy's "Alphas" and TNT's "Falling Skies," but like quite a few readers, I want more. I want to boldly go somewhere, in other words.

As far as the lack of space opera goes, I think there are a few things going on: As the economy contracted and as viewership totals for all networks continue to shift and/or erode (at least as far as certain kinds of Nielsen ratings are concerned), I think there's been a general conservatism across the board when it comes to non-Earth-based science-fiction. It appears to be perceived as a more expensive genre that tends to appeal to a smaller demographic. We can certainly have a debate about whether or not that's true (special-effects costs are coming down every day, and some of the most successful films of all time have been space-based, after all). But what matters, in the end, is not what you and I think, but what network executives think, and my opinion is that they think space-set shows or ship-based shows would involve an outlay of money that wouldn't be justified by the returns.

Also, there's this somewhat timid tendency to have everything as relatable and Earth-based as possible: "The Event," "FlashForward" and "V," among other relatively recent shows, didn't ultimately work because their mythologies weren't that interesting and the shows spent a lot of fruitless time trying to build up Earth-bound characters that never became all that compelling. "Terra Nova" represents the sum total of all these risk-avoidance tendencies: Sure, the network spent a bundle on it, but the show couldn't been a more abject and frustrating example of storytelling cowardice. By trying to please everyone, the ended up annoying or boring almost everyone it set out to win over.

So yes, I certainly did a jig of glee when I heard that Steven S. DeKnight is developing a show called "Incursion" for Starz. DeKnight is a product of the Joss Whedon School of Storytelling; he's one of its most disciplined and energetic graduates, in my opinion. At its best, his other Starz creation, "Spartacus," has been a bewitching blend of action, suspense, sly humor and heartbreak. Anyone who hasn't watched a full season of "Spartacus" is likely to make fun of its body count and acres of bare skin, but fans know just how intelligent, compassionate and well-structured the show is on a week-to-week basis. A lot of the best sci-fi shows have been made on a relative shoestring by those working on the margins of the television scene, which is why I think Starz is a good fit for DeKnight's story of space soldiers fighting a war far from home. Let's keep in mind that it may not work out -- Starz hasn't promised to take the show to series, but my Spidey senses tell me things are very promising on that front -- but even if it does, I'd still love for someone to make a TV show out of John Scalzi's "Old Man's War" series of novels. Their snappy pace, intelligent conundrums and briskly winning characters would make for some damn fine space opera, in my humble opinion. Or how about a "Star Trek" reboot on TV (which, the more I think about it, is what the fall series "Last Resort" strongly resembles -- substituting a submarine for the Enterprise, of course).

Swohsemag: I'm enjoying "The Newsroom" simply for the "Sports Night"-esque "Sorkin appeal... [It] got me thinking about Ken Finkleman's series "The Newsroom" and his body of TV work with the character George Findlay. Is that worth investing time into watching?
Mo says: I am not familiar with Finkleman's other work, but I'm a fan of the Canadian series "The Newsroom" (though I must admit that I didn't see all of it -- the PBS station in Chicago, where I live, did not air every episode that was made). It's a very dry, enjoyably low-key take on the politics and egos that lurk in any news operation, and it works even if you're not steeped in journalism culture. And in case anyone's interested, I made a list of 10 "behind-the-scenes" shows that are really worth your time; another Canadian program, "Slings and Arrows," is on that roster, which is below.

Louise12: Is there anything interesting coming from BBC America and/or PBS? I'm thinking of shows like "Case Histories" or "The Hour." Also, are there more six- to eight-episode miniseries-type shows in the pipeline, a la "The River" and "Political Animals"? What do you think of that format for American television?
Mo says: BBC America premieres a new scripted drama -- its first original -- Sunday, and though the first two hours of "Copper" didn't bowl me over, I'm going to keep watching based on the creative pedigree behind the show (director Barry Levinson and "Oz"/"Homicide" executive producer Tom Fontana are among the producers of this show). "Copper" is 10 episodes long, as it happens, and I'm actually wondering if the show's pace and energy would have gotten a jolt from a shorter season, but we'll have to see about that.

As for the format in general, I think it definitely should be tried more, and there does seem to be more flexibility about season lengths and formats these days. In a perfect world, the length of a show's season would expand and contract based on how long it needed to be, and while that isn't realistic, I think trying out a six- or seven-episode miniseries as a test run for possible ongoing dramas (as was done with both "The Walking Dead" and "Political Animals") makes a lot of sense; the storytellers have to pretty much know the story from beginning to end before they begin writing, and I think that briefer stories are sometimes more fun and less intimidating than a possible 13 or 22 episode commitment. Would "Homeland" have been as good at 22 episodes? Dear Lord, no.

Having said that, six hours of commercial television isn't a lot time, and the generally fine UK series "The Hour" tried to do a lot in its short first season, and not all of it flowed as well as it could have, in part due to the fact that the show had to leap toward its conclusion almost right after it had set up the storylines and established its world. Similarly, last year "Luther" seemed a bit hampered by its abbreviated 4-hour running time.

The bottom line is, I think more networks should be flexible when it comes to season lengths and the movies/miniseries formats, and just because "The River" didn't live up to its potential doesn't mean another show won't downstream.

Oh, here's a Brit drama to keep an eye out for: The retro drama "Call the Midwife," a well-reviewed UK show about midwives in a low-income London community, premieres on PBS Sept. 30.

J. Maggio: Besides HBO's "Girls," what other shows--if any--pass the Bechdel test regularly?

Mo says: For those not familiar with it, the Bechdel Test originated with a comic strip created by the artist/writer Alison Bechdel (and if you haven't read her memoir, "Fun Home," please do that as soon as possible). The test consists of the following three questions applied to filmed entertainment (originally it was applied only to movies, but it's certainly worth applying to TV shows).

To pass, a movie or TV show: 1. Has to have at least two women in it, 2. They have to talk to each other and 3. They have to discuss something other than a man (a popular variation of the test says that the female characters have to have actual names). You'd be surprised at the number of high-profile films that fail it.

Off the top of my head, here are some scripted shows that regularly pass the Bechdel Test: "Parks and Recreation," "Mad Men," "Awkward.," "Lost Girl," "The Closer," "Game of Thrones," "Cougar Town," "Spartacus," "Girls," "Political Animals." But my list of shows that pass is far from exhaustive, given that I'm just compiling a short list on the fly and it's not possible for me to watch every episode of every scripted show on TV.

Got any suggestions to add to the "TV Shows That Always or Frequently Pass the Bechdel Test" List? Let us know in the comments.

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  • "The Larry Sanders Show," 1992-1998

    Hey now! A peerless satire of the egos that populate late-night TV, "Larry Sanders" is one of the gold standards of the behind-the-scenes genre. The show didn't just lampoon the characters' grandiosity and feuds, it took the time to show us their insecurities and the tangled histories of their fractured relationships as well. The parade of famous faces who guested as themselves helped create a realistic vibe, and cast members Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Janeane Garofalo, Rip Torn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Penny Johnson and Jeremy Piven did some of the best work of their careers on this consistently excellent show. It's available on DVD and Netflix Instant.

  • "30 Rock," 2006-Present

    An absurd, amusing trip through the backstage of a late-night comedy program, "30 Rock" still manages to find humor in the confident arrogance of Jack Donaghy, the insecurity and tenacity of Liz Lemon and the straight-up but somehow lovable crazy of Tracy Morgan. The show's not necessarily a model of consistency and the characters don't really deepen over time, but "30 Rock" supplies a steady stream of knowing one-liners, subversive media criticism and pop-culture-infused comedy. If nothing else, we can thank the show for reminding us to never go with a hippie to a second location and to live every week like it's Shark Week.

  • "The Dick Van Dyke Show," 1961-1966

    What is there to say about this classic? Except that if you haven't seen the writers for the fictional "Alan Brady Show" at work, then you're missing out on an essential part of American television history. A snappy pace, erudite humor, surreal excursions, smart dialogue and a gifted ensemble -- this Carl Reiner creation had everything you'd want in a backstage comedy. And as comedy writer/director <a href="" target="_hplink">Ken Levine once observed</a>, "People think of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' as a sophisticated comedy and it certainly was. But the show also featured plenty of inspired slapstick. For all his many gifts, Dick Van Dyke is a truly brilliant physical comedian. And Mary Tyler Moore ain't bad either." And the show's not hard to find: It's on Hulu, Netflix Instant and YouTube.

  • "WKRP in Cincinnati," 1978-1982

    There was a late-'70s coolness to this show, a laid-back yet mildly rebellious vibe that would be impossible to replicate now. This fine comedy followed the staff of a radio station in the title city, and it's a testament to the versatile cast that I remember Venus Flytrap, Andy Travis, Dr. Johnny Fever, Herb Tarleck, Jennifer Marlowe and the inimitable Les Nessman as well as I do today. "WKRP" captured the rock 'n' roll feel of the '70s and still had a little whiff of '60s-style bohemianism, and I'm betting if you're of a certain age, you can still hum the theme tune. Thanks to music licensing issues, only Season 1 is out on DVD (but the good news is, that entire season is available on Hulu as well).

  • "The Newsroom" (Canada), 1996-1997 & 2003-2005

    Before Aaron Sorkin came along, Canadian Ken Finkleman created this dry comedy, which poked knowing fun at a network news program, its perks-obsessed executive producer and its pompous, self-absorbed anchor. As I wrote when it aired on some PBS stations several years ago, "Being in the news industry helps one appreciate 'The Newsroom's' merciless take on the narcissism and ineptitude of some journalists, but it's not necessary. An appreciation for bone-dry satire will suffice." "Newsroom" DVDs are available via Netflix, and you can also find full episodes on YouTube.

  • "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," 1970-1977

    This show would have been groundbreaking simply for its subject matter -- a single woman committed to her career at a time when such characters were rare on television -- but the show's depiction of the goofball ad hoc family at at a Minneapolis news station is what puts it firmly in the "classic" category. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is peerless character-driven comedy, it's simple as that. Not only did Mary Richards' fellow tenants (Phyllis Lindstrom and Rhoda Morganstern, who launched her own spinoff) make the home front memorable, her co-workers -- Lou Grant, Sue Ann Nivens, Murray Slaughter and the blowhard anchor Ted Baxter, among others -- are some of the most indelible TV characters of all time. It's out on DVD, but many episodes have also been posted on YouTube.

  • "The Hour," 2011-Present

    Set among television journalists trying to create one of the U.K.'s first serious news broadcasts, "The Hour" is stylish, atmospheric and smart, if occasionally a little too ambitious for its own good (the first season's spy plot got a bit convoluted). But it's well worth watching and not just because Dominic West (who plays the plummy anchor Hector Madden) looks pretty damned swell in a retro suit. The entire ensemble is excellent, and like the great U.K. miniseries "State of Play," this drama actually gives you a good idea of how much fun it can be to work with other bright, ambitious newshounds. Season 1 is worth tracking down on DVD, and Season 2 arrives on BBC America later this year.

  • "Slings and Arrows" (Canada), 2003-2006

    "Slings" follows a theater troupe attempting to stage Shakespearean classics, along with more commercial fare, and if there's a little too much about the relationship between wild-man director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) and actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), that's easy to forgive, given how many other priceless characters and stories "Slings" offers. Cast members Gross, Don McKellar (as an uber-pretentious director) and Mark McKinney from "Kids in the Hall" are among the sensational players in the core cast, and Rachel McAdams, Colm Feore, Sarah Polley and the awe-inspiring Shakespearean actor William Hutt rotate in for terrific seasonal runs. This show is not only witty and knowing, it helps you understand why these people give their hearts and everything else to the theater, and Hutt as Lear will make you weep. It's on YouTube and Netflix Instant. <em>Correction: This slide previously misidentified William Hutt as "Richard Hutt."</em>

  • "Extras" (UK), 2005-2007

    The first season of this show was more or less Ricky Gervais prevailing upon famous fans of the U.K. "Office" to do an episode of his subsequent show, which followed the cramped life of an extra who dreamed of big-time showbiz success. The second season of "Extras" was something else altogether; a much more substantial show that was filled with pathos, rage and razor-sharp humor as Andy Millman (Gervais) actually achieved his dreams, possibly at the cost of his humanity. Also, this awards-ceremony scene has me laugh until I cried more than once.

  • "NewsRadio," 1995-1999

    One of the most underrated comedies of its era (or any era), this NBC show had a terrific cast and a wonderfully askew vibe; the best seasons of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" owe this show a great deal. NBC always treated the show badly, but, if anything, the show's reputation has only grown over time. Speaking of time, there's no better use of yours than heading over to Hulu to watch complete episodes. And if you are able watch Jimmy James read from his autobiography in this clip without laughing, I don't want to know you.


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