Monday, October 20, 2008

One of NBC's Better Seasons?

In his review of Crusoe, the television critic Robert Bianco at USA Today proclaimed this NBC's worst season since the days of Manimal and Mr. Smith. Now if NBC had only produced shows like Kath and Kim and Knight Rider (let me say now that there should be a moratorium on revivals of Glen Larson shows--what's next, Alias Smith and Jones?), I could agree with him. But Bianco included My Own Worst Enemy with these two pieces of trash. And it was clear from his review of Crusoe, he doesn't consider it much better. Now maybe Bianco would be more than happy if the airwaves were filled with garbage like Eli Stone (yet another lawyer show that tries too hrad to be hard to be quirky), Grey's Anatomy (shallow characters, bad writing, bad acting, and an unoriginal premise--Dr. Kildare with sex), and Sex and the City (a half hour dirty joke for women with some of the most shallow characters ever created for television), but some of us have tastes. And some of us just happen to be men who like good action-adventure shows with well developed characters and not shallow automatons.

Indeed, looking at the four networks, I would say CBS has the worst season in years. The Mentalist is a blatant rip off of USA's Psych, albeit done more seriously. Eleventh Hour is an American adaptation of an ITV series, but here it comes off as an odd combination that rips off House, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and The X-Files in equal measure. Worst Week, although funny at times, is basically Meet the Parents: the Series. It seems to me that CBS is continuing its downward spiral.

On the other hand (Kath and Kim and Knight Rider not withstanding), it seems to me that NBC is on the ball. The past few years they have produced two truly great comedies (the American version of The Office and, best of them all, 30 Rock) and one fairly good one (My Name is Earl). As far as action-adventure series, they have produced Heroes (brilliant at best, mediocre at worst) and Chuck (not really that remarkable, but entertaining enough). This season out they have produced two very good action/adventure shows, contrary to what the tasteless Bianco of USA Today might think.

Indeed, if its pilot was any indication, My Own Worst Enemy could be one of the best spy shows in years. It has a starkly original concept. To create the perfect covers for its agents, a top secret government agency has intentionally created split personalities in its agents. While on the job these agents are spies deadly efficient at their jobs. While not on the job they are just average guys, not at all aware of their double lives. All of this works fine until their best spy, Edward (played by Christian Slater) begins to go haywire. At the worst times possible, he will wake up as his alter ego Henry, a mild mannered efficiency expert with no knowledge of the spy game. Worse yet, Henry will suddenly wake up as Edward at inopportune times as well. Unable to fix the problem, the agency must accept that their best agent will have to deal with this difficulty in his own way.

What makes My Own Worst Enemy a great show is primarily the performance of Christian Slater. Many movie actors performing on series television often phone in their performances, making no real commitment to their characters. This is not the case with Christian Slater. He is surprisingly earnest as both Edward and Henry, two characters who are nothing like he has ever played before. There are none of the usual Slater mannerisms to be seen, none of the sarcasm Slater borrowed from Jack Nicholson to be heard. Beyond Christian Slater, however, the show is very well written and well thought out. In fact, it reminds me of some of my favourite spy shows and thriller shows from the past--The Prisoner, La Femme Nikita, and Nowhere Man. If the rest of the series is as good as the pilot, I suspect it will go down in history as one of the better spy dramas. As to action, well, there is no shortage of it. If you love spy dramas with plenty of twists and turns, gun play, intrigue, and explosions, this is definitely the show for you. And, quite frankly, you have to give credit to a show who tip their hat to the great Robert Louis Stevenson (Edward and Henry take their first names from his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

As original as My Own Worst Enemy is, Crusoe is even more so. In fact, it is something American network television has not seen since The Buccaneers left the air in 1957 and The Adventures of Robin Hood left network television in 1958--a good, old fashioned swashbuckler. Like the Daniel Dafoe novel upon which it is based, the series centres around Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on a desert island. If viewers are expecting some loyalty to the source material, however, I will say they will be sorely disappointed. Creator Justin Bodle has made Crusoe its own animal. Robinson Crusoe is a tormented hero, living with the agony of a man separated from the woman he loves (his wife in England). He is also a skilled inventor who has not only created a treehouse that makes the one built by the Swiss Family Robinson look like a flophouse, but has an array of period gadgets and mantraps scattered about the island. As to Friday, he is not Crusoe's servant, but his own man--Crusoe's friend and equal. Friday also happens to be one of the deadliest heroes ever seen on television. Put a bow and sword in his hand and you had better not get on his bad side. And neither character is a cardboard cutout made to go through action scenes. Crusoe and Friday (wonderfully played by Philip Winchester and Tongayi Chirisa) are erudite men who not only skilled in combat and tactics, but who can engage in some very thoughtful discussion.

As to the show itself, it is the sort of series that little boys and the little boys that still reside in most men (except maybe Robert Bianco and a few other TV critics) will love. Although the plot of the pilot was somewhat thin, it was filled with twists and turns, not to mention the sort of nonstop swashbuckling action that little boys and not so little boys crave. In the end Crusoe succeeds in what it has set out to be--an adventure series whose primary focus is swashbuckling action and nonstop adventure, spruced up with some very good character moments. Because of this it is starkly different from anything else on network television right now. And the sort of thing a lot of men have probably been waiting to see for a very long time.

To sum everything up, forget what Robert Bianco and his ilk have to say. I gave up on television critics long ago (let's face it, they ripped both The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island to shreds--those critics are forgotten, but those two shows are still on the air...). If it's good action and adventure you crave, it looks like NBC is the place to be this season.


J. Marquis said...

So far, Earl and the Office have been really hilarious. I also like Life but it's being moved to Friday night and that usually means it's probably done for.

Mercurie said...

Yeah, I like Life, but it's the Friday Night Death Slot now. Not much life left there now....

Anonymous said...

And people wonder why I dumped cable a couple of years back. Now I only watch on DVD from Netflix. I'm always a couple of seasons off, but I get to pick the best of the previous couple of years. Next up... The Wire.