Ode to the Fall Schedules

Ah, autumn. “The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it. The season of “where the hell are my ratings?!” as American TV executives would doubtless say.

Yes, the fall schedules are on us again. A time of renewal (or not), maturation and the birth of hopeful new shows, their shoots emerging tentatively into a cold, unsympathetic field of Nielsen ratings.

Already growing strong is ABC’s FlashForward, being vaguely touted as some kind of spiritual successor to Lost. With that show coming close to its end, ABC have sown the seeds of a thematic cousin, hoping to harvest ripe ratings.

Actually, FlashForward has sod all to do with Lost. True, it stars Sonya Walger (out of Lost), Dominic Monaghan (out of Lost) and John Cho (out of, er, Harold and Kumar). Oh, and one episode featured an ad hoarding for Oceanic Airlines. But none of this can disguise the fact that it’s not Lost you’re watching.

It’s got a similarly tricksy structure though, a puzzle that will obviously be unravelled over time. Which will become more convoluted if it’s successful and the network want to extend its lifespan.

The premise is simple but interesting: everyone in the world blacks out simultaneously for a bit over two minutes,  experiencing, in that time, a ‘flashforward’ to what they’ll be doing for a bit over two minutes in exactly six months time.

This gives plenty of scope for drama. FBI hero Mark Benford (Britain’s own Joseph Fiennes with a surprisingly good American accent) knows that he will be hot on the trail of what caused it all, but people will be trying to kill him while he battles his recurring alcoholism. His wife Olivia (Sonya Walger out of Lost) knows she’ll be involved with another man. His partner Demetri (John Cho) won’t be doing anything at all. Because he’ll be dead. Oh, and their boss will be reading the paper while having a dump. I’m not making that last one up, honestly.

The usual philosophical questions surrounding this kind of time paradox are already rearing theit heads. can the future be changed? One character chooses the most direct way to find out by killing himself, ensuring that his flashforward will never happen. That’s that one answered then. But for me, the most obvious question is – how come everyone’s flashforward didn’t consist of them all saying “hang on, this is what I saw during that blackout six months ago”?

FlashForward shows promise, but, tenuous Lost connections aside, is a totally new show and therefore a risk. Network execs don’t like risks. Much safer to take something you know used to be a success and ‘re-imagine’ it. It worked for Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, didn’t it? Let’s just try to forget the attempted revivals of Knight Rider, The Night Stalker, Flash Gordon etc, etc.

With this in mind, a brace of remakes (sorry, ‘re-imaginings’) have landed on our screens. Literally, in the case of ABC’s V. Yep, those water-stealing, flesh-eating alien fascists from the early 80s are back.

And the results are not too bad. In common with other ‘re-imaginings’, the show’s been cleverly retooled for a new era. Gone are the overt allusions to Nazi Germany, replaced by an intriguing plot thread that many of the Visitors have been here for years, infiltrating – like terror cells, geddit? And the admittedly implausible idea of their human disguises being flimsy rubber masks has been supplanted by a covering of synthetic mammal flesh to hide their scaly features. Joan Collins-alike alien commander/super bitch Diana has been replaced by the more reasonable seeming alien demagogue Anna, whose dress sense extends beyond New Romantic style orange fascist uniforms. But the central thread remains the same – they’re only pretending to be our friends, and by the time we realise that, it’s going to be too late…

Again, though, we can’t be trusted to know we’re watching a cult sci fi show without a little guidance. So the casting gives us a helping hand. It stars Elizabeth Mitchell (out of Lost, again), Joel Gretsch (out of The 4400), Rekha Sharma (out of Battlestar Galactica), Laura Vandervoort (out of Smallville), Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk (both out of Firefly). Safe to assume it’s a sci fi show, then.

Still, it looks like an intriguing update, and already commentators (Republican ones) are interpreting it as a damning indictment of the Obama presidency. The Visitors keep using words like ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and offering universal healthcare. No wonder they’re a threat to humanity.

The other big remake isn’t a network show at all, being offered by cable guys AMC. And it should be far more political than it is, but somehow it’s not. Yes, disturbingly someone has decided to remake The Prisoner.

The original Prisoner is very much a product of its time and location. There’s something quintessentially British, and inescapably late 60s about it, to the extent that one expects any re-imagining of it to be doomed to failure like that mind warpingly awful film of The Avengers in 1992. And yet, this doesn’t do as badly as you’d think. It’s flawed, sure, in the way that it can’t quite decide whether to be entirely new or nick wholesale from the original, but it’s getting the themes and the atmosphere right.

Jim Caviezel, an actor surprisingly devoid of charisma considering his previous big role as Jesus Christ, is our hero, 6. Note, not ‘Number 6’; the denizens of the new Village are referred to by number alone. And at least as of part 1, no-one’s asked him anything about resigning. In this sense, the new version seems to be deliberately even more obscure than the original. Going into it with memories of the original might be a red herring, because as of part 1, we don’t know who 6 was or what he did. Maybe he was some kind of a spy, but it’s not been stated. All we know of his backstory is that he used to live in New York City and he resigned from something (by spraying ‘RESIGN’ on his office window – letters must be too subtle these days). And as yet, no-one in the Village has mentioned it to him; in fact we have even less idea than the original why he’s there or what ‘they’ want with him.

‘They’ is personified by Ian McKellen as 2, who seems avuncular enough, what with his bedridden wife, gorgeous teenage son and genial manner. That’s another weird change in this new Village – the inhabitants have families. There’s also plainly a lot more of them than in the original show – 2’s son has the number 1112, while none of the inhabitants of McGoohan’s Village had numbers higher than double digits. The most curious thing of all is the new twist that no-one in the Village is aware that anything exists beyond it or before it. They just look blank at the very idea.

The new Village – shot in Namibia – is distinctly different than the 1960s Portmeirion setting, but seems determined to retain the eccentric, off-kilter feeling as a location. The houses all seem to be identical wooden triangles, while 2’s grand palace is plainly some kind of old British colonial building. In keeping with the automotive theme from the original, the cars are rather peculiar, though they’ve gone a bit over the top with that one. Rather than the original’s ubiquitous Mini Mokes, we’re presented with a panoply of 1960s European classics. The taxis are all Renault Dauphines, and a Morris Minor with incongruous alloy wheels endlessly circles the Village to make it look like there’s more odd cars than there actually are. For an American audience, these small, odd-looking autos are presumably very freaky.

So far, then, no idea what’s going on. In that respect, it’s like and unlike the original. A mysterious explosion rips through the Village cafe. “These things just happen. Then it all goes back to normal” comments one character. 6 sees things that either aren’t there or invisible to everyone else – very Life on Mars. And mysterious twin towers glitter glassily in the distance, looking unmistakably like the ones that used to grace the New York skyline. Just when you thought it couldn’t get more peculiar, old faithful watchdog/weather balloon Rover turns up. Only in this version, he’s fifty feet wide.

So it’s like they ignored the early, spy themed episodes of the original series and went straight for the abstract, “what the bloody hell is this about?” later ones. A nice idea, but unlikely to win it many new fans. Still, I’ll be interested to see where it goes in its short, six episode run. (Six of one…)

It’ll be interesting to see how these new crops develop in the harvest of Nielsen ratings that is the fall schedules. All are worthy of further growth, but which will end up as compost and which shrinkwrapped in the veg section of HMV?

(NB – Yes, I know I took the ‘autumn crops’ metaphor too far.)

One thought on “Ode to the Fall Schedules”

  1. Have you given the following a watch yet Cougar Town, Eastwick, Stargate Universe, Glee?

    Cougar town is… its like a grown up friends where monica has divorced chandler after 18yrs an is getting on with her life as a single woman (with teenage son) in her late 40s

    Glee… its … its fucking fantastic, camp as bits, but in a good way, got the best music of any tv series EVER


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