Animation and improvisation doesn’t always go hand-in-hand much like live action riffing but this first batch of returning shows highlights the ability to work both sides of the line. “South Park” is the most prevalent of these with the ability to turn headlines within the week though its dramatic subtlety is becoming more defined as time goes on while “Archer” while smaller in its amount of episodes is becoming more highly ironic. “Community” is moving into left field with some great elements of spontaneity but needs to find its inner focus while “Fringe” has purely reinvented itself while keeping everything that has made it an exceptional show.
Archer Coming back with an abridged mini-season in a three-episode arch entitled “Heart Of Archness”, our oft-maligned and inspid hero has vanished for a couple months after the death of his Russian fiance. We find him on an island screwing newly honeymooned women until Rip (played with Peppard accuracy by Patrick Warburton) comes at the request of his mother to take him back. Archer makes the seaplane crash and they are capture by pirates. Archer ends up killing alot of them on an ambush back to their fortress island and he becomes “Pirate King”. The progression of that is what we come to expect from Archer: ideas that might work in a feature film but perverted to a point as to make it totally ludicrous.
South Park The continuing intensity of off-shot humor especially where Cartman is concerned knows no bounds except when it takes a toll on his mental health. Whereas Kenny will always be the poor kid, Cartman is coming face to face with his own mortality on more than one occasion. While Kyle is dealing with a more homeward-bound problem, Cartman is having to deal with more deep seated personality issues. While this element of poverty, reliance issues and “Assburgers” are all done in jest, the intermittent darkness seeping through the cracks is making the show all the more dexterous in its ability to tackle pretty exceptional drama under the guise of comedy.
Fringe Perceiving the idea of life without Peter Bishop does alot to reset the stakes of what is possible in the universe, even parallel ones. In creating this new paradox, the series has done something undeniably clever: reset the clock in terms of mythology as well as romantic and dramatic tension. The alternate universe creation might be resolved but the problems within the personal structure in terms of Walter and Olivia are not because they don’t understand or embrace what Peter is. Meanwhile new alliances are formed and Fringe level events still go on without the worry of disbelief. Peter Bishop is the man out of sync with the world and yet he is the only one who knows what is going on. Succinct storytelling is exampled but with an innate sense of keeping the audience on edge.
Community The team seems to innately run more in the stratosphere but not with the same creativity they have showed in the past couple years though the moments of levity still come quick and unabated. It is almost as if they know how far they can go so the line isn’t as much of a taboo thing anymore. Consequently the stories tend to lean more towards morality tales which the participants perceive as “dark” though the climactic paintball episode last year stretched the limits. The series has undeniably set characters now that the audience can run with but without a structured base of where they need to go, their lives may or may not be complete.
Those drama/thrillers that survive their first season jumps require either a sense of foreboding or story structure that interrelates their true nature. Whether based in a heightened universe (as most are) or in dealing with the moral ineptitude of life, the following shows examine the life in-between.
Fringe As the idea of the collapsing of two universes continues to gain credence, the conception of the Olivia/Peter relationship falls into almost the pairing that can undo the universe. In creating this structure with the alternate Olivia (with a very soapy but plausible functional plot twist), the idea of what is the greater evil becomes much more defined. Why and how certain things will happen obviously works in congruence with the show’s mythology which is now so deep that it will be hard for first time viewers to actually impede into the world. For example, the supposed ghost episode is highly interactive in terms of the battle between two worlds and works exceptionally because of it but reflects into the reality that the show provides. The densely structured character work especially with John Noble and now, to a high regard, Anna Torv works exceptionally well without losing sight of what the series actually is: a journey.
Stargate Universe Playing with the idea of self interplays with how the true nature of man unfolds. While the beginning of this on “Universe” begins predictably enough, the evolution of what the show begins to explore extends its esoteric potential. The only hesitation with someone like Dr. Rush is that Robert Carlyle plays his genius with disdain for everything else that it almost overcomes what the young character of Eli Wallace wants to perceive. The idea of a life within the cyberstructure of the ship, which is explored in one episode, truly draws the characters out but the race to the finish line to at least structure some closure leads to a parallel story structure which, while interesting, tries to cram too much information into a short progression of time.
Batman: Brave & The Bold The key in creating a more interesting and core Batman is to go dark which might stagger the actual possibility of good ratings. “Brave & The Bold” understands the necessity to go the other way placing the animated ode at an odd angle between something like “Batman Beyond” and “Superfriends”. While undeniably tongue-in-cheek for its own good, moving in different style directions, both artistically and narratively, has served it well. While the form has provided screen-time from everyone from Hawkman to Superman to new introductions like BatMite, the most egregious at times are the ones that border on silly like Bat Boy which, like the full musical episode last season, may be a little over the line. Batman is an institution and being able to poke fun is definitive to its structure while maintaining a decor of ethos. That said, having other superheroes try to play Batman while the Caped Crusader is injured on an orbiting space station ,did have its great moments.
The Event Accelerating the possibilities of the show revolves around the fact of trying to create new narrative elements that are seen in a different way and create an awe factor. Despite a distilled production structure, this series seems to play the ideas by the numbers. Disappearing on buses after taking down the Washington Monument almost plays too B-movie. The character structures resound flimsy as well with the Vice President almost too cartoonish to exert any real threat especially against the head of intelligence and a bunch of co-opted CIA agents. While the inset of the season, especially with the presence of Hal Halbrook, seems to indicate a bigger mythology, the eventual crux of that story line fizzles especially in relation to Jason Ritter’s vendetta fueled lead who ultimately comes off as more weak than resolute.
Law & Order: LA When shake-ups brewed inevitable in terms of personnel shifting on the series, the question became how involved would an audience be in the changing of the overall structure. If this kind of action were taken at the end of the second season, it might have had more power. The reality is that TV shows are on a much more restricted timeline in terms of delivery progression. While the movement of Alfred Molina to the detective side after Skeet Ulrich’s character is assassinated creates a structure of rich drama, it is not used to utmost effect because the investment is not quite there despite best intentions. The character that represents the most possibility is Corey Stoll though his emotional turmoil hasn’t manifested to a boil. That is the story line to watch.
The standard progression of every action and/or thriller series is to make the audience care for the people being put into harms way. As a series progresses into its second or third season, the maintenance of this kind of tension becomes harder and harder to elevate. If the character builds created initially don’t hold up or offer differentiating perspectives, the series won’t last. The importance with series as diverse from “SGU” and “Fringe” is the idea of using what you know while surprising the audience with what they don’t.
Stargate Universe The punctuation last season rested as those usually do on the plight of life and death. Using a structure not undue to “Battlestar Galactica”, the call becomes one based in faith. The balance here is based in the idea of science versus fiction and which way the idea strains the limits of believability. The changing of roles within the teams especially between Rush and the General creates a paradox from the first season but also keeps one going in terms of which side to adhere to. The additional of the unseen alien element, which is more foreboding than in past endeavors, adds to the sense of dread in a series that is more prevalently darker than the ones before it.
Chuck With Chuck vowing not to bring himself back into the spy game and still trying to date Sarah, one knows his will power will disappear mighty quickly. What is interesting in an overall sense much like “Fringe” following it is that the dynamic of the romantic relationship especially in the modern age is evolving into something that is quite different than the ones before creating a conflict in the basic human emotional software. Some people turn it off. Some turn it on. The aspect of the Buy More being turned into a CIA substation is just window dressing. The question is how do you create the progress of new viewers without alienating the old ones. Bringing back some of the old crew makes the idea work but supplants and pushes the boundaries of believability. Adding the structure of a relationship that needs to run its crash course in TV time sometimes pushes the buttons too hard which is what it feels like here. Good guest stars including the mythos building Linda Hamilton as well as action stalwarts like Dolph Lundgren and Lou Ferrigno shows the fan structure but Chuck’s time might be waning despite its inherent likability.
Fringe The paradox of this series is maintaining the mythology and the intent without relieving any of the tension. When the cross-over elements first came into play, the question was how do you personify two sides of the Id. While seemingly problematic in terms of placing the ideas, the writing team has found a very interesting way to deaden the senses and move the story with an ability that is quite riveting. They space the worlds with different cases which reflects different parts of Olivia Dunham’s personality whether in the alternate world or ours. Granted the implementation of memories is slightly far fetched but in an alternate universe certain liberties can be taken. Truly what this creation does is take the focus off Peter in terms of importance and make Olivia a surrogate for change in a mythic sort of way. “Fringe” always displayed a tinge of “Lost” in its possibilities and is the closest thing on TV to it right now. By creating ghosts per se and the perception of a world lost, the bigger themes are starting to come into play organically which makes for especially mind-bending television. Following the structure can be difficult for those not interwoven in its ideas but the functionality of the ideas starting this third season continue to show the progression of a series on the edge.
NCIS: Los Angeles The ideas of trust maintained figure specifically into the idealization of this series. With the compromise of Erik Christian Olsen’s character Deeks, the needs and composition of the team needed to change while creating new tension. While O’Donnell and LL Cool J need to operate their character constructions on an overall track to provide consistency, the other supporting characters can seem to move with a lot more freedom now in terms of comedic intentions and love stories. The burgeoning push-and-pull between Deeks and Daniela Ruah’s Kensi provide effective comic relief while understanding the stakes being created. Consecutively Barrett Foa’s Eric Beale, always relegated the office, volleys with Renee Smith’s Nell who gives compliments and off-handed flirts as quick as she can hack a mainframe. These crisscrossing textures are what keeps the series moving at a clip with Linda Hunt as “Hetty”, the leader behind the operation, racheting everyone to their toes at every single point. It is this character-based vaulting within the stand-alone narratives that provides the series with bite.
Discussing the finer points of hubris and the collective unconscious with John Noble who plays Walter Bishop in the highly effective and popular series “Fringe” on FOX would be interesting even in the quietest of circumstances. But huddled against a pillar inside Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier during Fox’s All-Star Summer Television Critics Party is something else entirely with bells and whistles flinging off in every direction. Ironically, this is something that would quite literally make Dr. Bishop nuts. However, coolness prevailed with the ever focused Noble discussing the notion of morality within the confines of the mind, the collective unconscious and the simple emotional connection between a father and son.
Could you talk about the evolution of Walter’s morality versus his emotionality?
The moral issue is being examined constantly in “Fringe” through Walter as much as you can. [It is about] what happens in simple terms when you play God. Taken into a more mundane, how does [one] crack and depending how much [pressure] is given, how much does [one] crack. Those issues we have certainly dealt with. We don’t lay them on [too heavily] because not everyone cares. We will however continue to look at that morality because it is important in the world we live in to look at bigger issues.
How heavily does academia play into the creation of this character or does that angle become secondary to the emotional angle?
I’d like to think that the work we do leaves a legacy for everyone. If people are people are interested in [the academia] and we make reference to it, [they can] say “These are intelligent people….they thought about that!” [In this way] it can go beyond being entertainment. I certainly think about those issues and, on occasion, we question our work if it is slipping away from that. All the people involved [in this series] are sensible enough to know that. I use the word “legacy” because it’s nice to think that perhaps college kids watching this show are saying “It’s nice to think they [the characters] are talking about stuff we do in Psyche 3”.
But also, in terms of “legacy”, applied in a more literal term, people might be able to look at “Fringe” in 20 years and say “They were ahead of their time”.
(laughs knowingly) Isn’t that the way science fiction is…if that is what we are. [At times] I don’t know what we are. I guess so, if it has that longevity, people will look back [at our show] and look as a curiousity to some extent. And they’ll [probably] laugh at some of the things we think. [However] what we try to do with our science, and with the morality [of the characters], because we do talk about that, is make everything that needs to be done within the possible [and] the plausible. Human characteristics, for me, [require] that I need to find a reference point somewhere…God knows there’s plenty of them…for all mass behaviors, genius or not. All these things I reference deliberately.
When we talk about plausibility in terms of human behavior, can you discuss Peter’s forgiveness of Walter in last season’s finale?
We are examining what happens when trust is broken. How does that compare? With a breach in anything, it can be repaired [and] it can be made stronger…but it will never be the same. Josh Jackson and I talk about this all the time [in terms of] “How are we going to go ahead?” I was [even] talking to him about this today because we want to get it right.
How much then does the notion of the unconscious and the sub-conscious assimilate themselves into who these people are?
I don’t think you can play multiple characters without dealing with that.
Are you making reference to the alternate universe in “Fringe”?
I am talking simply about modern characters. I am talking about anything. We’re all multiple characters…you and I. We all have many personas. What we see in Walter Bishop is a man who is more overt in all of these things but also [in the fact that] Walter-nate is what he could have become with a turn of the screw 20 years ago. This is fascinating stuff in intellectual terms. I certainly think that.
How many levels [of consciousness] do you think are possible within Walter?
With a character you might or might not have to take them all the way but you have to keep digging. It is what I like to do as an actor anyway. If you are doing Shakespeare, that is what you do…you grapple…you’re dig deep. For me it is not “a day at the office” but something I like doing.
What has Walter allowed you in playing his persona to learn about your own observation of human behavior?
This is interesting. [For me] the best thing about playing Walter as he has developed is that his appeal has crossed the complete spectrum of our audience…from the kids who think he is a wonderful old grandad to people in their 60s or 70s who say “I understand him”. That is me. That is my concern.
The returning aspect of genre shows a couple series trying to find that strain to be able to keep their impact pertinent while still having enough stories to tell. “Burn Notice” still has that edge to it but with Michael being in Miami almost three years and running out of excuses, the idea looms. With Chuck, it is similar but has the small miracle of reinvention with a new challenge. “Fringe” has the most still moving because it allowed the most mysteries yet to be solved. While not “Lost”-sized, it does give enough, although Walter is starting to be normal. Still good writing across the board on all three show a wonderful quality.
Burn Notice The aspect within Michael Weston is his ability to create change. The split season adheres to this with Fiona almost losing her battle with both the affections of her spy as well as her life. The interim of more spy mercenaries keeps the barbs coming but the essentials of what keeps Michael in place ultimately will come down to Fi. The aspect of her almost being killed should have affected him more but something truly needs to come to a head. Sharon Gless’ mother character is becoming more aware giving the piece a boost from another area (especially when Tyne Daly, her Cagney & Lacey co-star) shows up in an episode. With the importance of his burn starting to wane, despite the show still moving with pace, the question becomes one of an end date unfortunately, because like LOST, “Burn” needs a goal to reach for which will allow for an intention of purpose since, because its characters are not ones to wait, seems a forgone conclusion.
Chuck With the limitations of our intrepid bungling hero getting his training wheels taken off, one would figure that the possibilities were endless. However two things need to give cadence to prudence. And this lies in the budget because taking Chuck further requires more creativity. While he doesn’t turn out to be the spy in motion everybody hoped he would be because his emotions got in the way, the dynamic has changed somewhat because he is now gaining a little bit of respect while still saying all the wrong things. The best thing to keep moving is the Sarah/Chuck romance which always needs that “will they/won’t they” possibility to keep it going. While the Rachel Bilson romance had possibilities, the show runners decided to keep it Sarah centric. However in flashback mode, we learn that it was Chuck that placed a kink in letting work get in the way of his dream girl. Ultimately a new play both for Chuck and Sarah comes into play that creates an interesting dichotomy even though it might be one to alienate some of the viewers. However, the casting of Superman Returns’ Brandon Routh is a smart movie but for him and the show because it gives a rival suitor that can supplement overt genre fans. The question of course is where to go. “Chuck” still does have a story to tell but is it enough to keep NBC from cancelling it. After all “My Name Is Earl” was just starting to hit its stride when the plug was pulled so nothing can be taken for granted.
Fringe With the aspect of the other side being relegated away from the forefront and Agent Dunham’s limp moving more and more away, the connection of mythology has been playing lighter with subtle hints unlike last season where we saw a tinge of her powers on top of the building. The one realization that is not even subtle anymore is the fact that Walter actually seems to have brought Peter back from the other world since he seemed to have died there. This is not spoken outright but the conclusions seem clear. Walter, as played brilliantly by John Noble (who deserves an Emmy nomination) seems to becomiing more congnificent which drives down the elements of comedy but make him more resilient character since he is now starting to realize what he has wrought over the years. The aspects of the past and essences of time travel are now being examined but not truly brought to light although the interim images are now having pertinence with the seahorse mentioned directly in passing.