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caught between mars and a no place
television's new watch worlds
by mike julianelle
11.15.04
pop culture

I haven’t watched much TV since May, aside from the Red Sox's triumphant march to immortality. I even sat on a gaggle of Netflix DVDs for several months, essentially negating the value of the entire service. But when it’s 80 degrees and sunny till 9, I’m sure as hell not watching three hours of George C. Scott auditioning for the Hollywood Meat Parade.

But, now that the election is “over” and the greatest baseball season since I got to second base with Brenda Pcolka has ended, it’s time to get back on the boob tube (TV, not Brenda) bandwagon. This fall, the bandwagon is lacking in passengers. "Alias" and "24" aren't on til January, and aside from HBO ("Wire" "Wire" "Wire" "Wire" "Wire"!), there's little else to hang your hat on. But I have found two diamonds in the rough.

I am not, nor will I ever, waste time praising overbaked melodrama like "Desperate Housewives", so fear not, male readers. Instead, I am going to sing the praises of "Lost", JJ Abrams' latest hodgepodge of sci-fi, fantasy and who-the-hell-knows, and "Veronica Mars", a teen-centered drama about a Nancy Drewish high schooler that’s a hell of a lot better than it sounds. Snicker all you want, but good TV comes in all shapes and sizes, and the demographics of the characters have little to do with the overall quality of the enterprise (not to be confused with "Enterprise", which is of no quality). "Veronica Mars" has quality in spades.

The show shares some similarities with the late "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", but trades in that classic show’s irony for a sharp, cynical edge. "Buffy" capitalized on the dichotomy inherent in a ditsy blond cheerleader possessing super powers and responsibilities that are irreconcilable with her slight frame and carefree existence, but "Veronica Mars" is more straightforward than that. Nothing magical here.

The main character was once, like Buffy, a carefree member of the popular crowd, until the murder of Lilly Kane, Veronica’s best friend and the daughter of the town’s most illustrious citizen, streaming video mogul Jake Kane (Kyle Secor, of "Homicide" fame). Daddy the Sheriff ("Just Shoot Me"’s Enrico Colantoni, put to far better use here) targets Big Daddy Kane relentlessly, convinced he is to blame for Lilly’s murder. Eventually Daddy's devotion to playing Abel to Kane gets him the boot from his job, his marriage, and his country clubs. Veronica’s world is similarly flipped upside down: one cold shoulder in, one mom (who has her own past with Big Daddy Kane)out, one roofie-rape flashback provided, and Veronica’s old life is suddenly in orbit somewhere around, well, Mars.

But she and her dad stick together, and she earns street cred by helping him investigate local sordidness as part of his new P.I. gig (a convenient avenue through which to continue investigating Lilly's murder). Sure, she occasionally seems too capable for a high schooler, but lead actress Kristen Bell employs pitch perfect line readings and sells the character’s impressive self-confidence and supreme problem-solving skills while tempering those qualities with the occasional waft of little-girl lost vulnerability that comes with being abandoned by one’s mother in the midst of the most trying time of your life. "Hi, my best friend was murdered and now I’m a total outcast, but it's cool cuz when I go home, it's broken."

Bell was previously in the little-seen David Mamet flick Spartan, and also had a short stint on HBO’s phenomenal "Deadwood", in which she played a diabolical trickster using her girlish looks to manipulate and swindle people far more diabolical and tricky than she. She is a fascinating actress, flinty-eyed and cute, fierce and fragile, and she sparkles with sass and smarts; FYI, this all adds up to HOT.

The show itself is a clever mix of "Buffy", "The O.C." and something far more cynical that I can’t come up with. It’s Bell's performance, along with the tone and the writing -- which is a bit too liberal with flashbacks and occassionally gets bogged down in the Mommy's Gone storyline -- that carries it off. I hope UPN knows what they’ve got on their hands (apparently they do, as it's just been given a full season order); it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than Taye Diggs and a baby.

Speaking of interesting, let’s get "Lost". Here's the gist:

Plane crash. You've seen the ads. Approximately 48 survivors, a handful of them important enough to have backstories which are parcelled out one episode at a time. Jack the hero doctor with a secret; Kate the self-sufficient Kate Beckinsale clone with a crime in her past; Charlie the drug-addicted bassist of Driveshaft; Locke, the island's resident hunter/psycho/miracleman; Sawyer, a me-first redneck with a penchant for nicknames; Sayid, a member of Iraq's Republican Guard and a tech wiz; a pregant lady; an estranged father and son; an estranged husband and wife who don't speak English; a bickering brother and sister; a polar bear; an unseen behemoth in the jungle; and a mysterious radio transmission that implies death and despair for anyone unlucky enough to land on a strange island in the middle of nowhere that may or may not possess magical qualities and gigantic, inexplicable monsters.

It's Lifeboat after the lifeboat, with a dash of The Prisoner thrown in. Every episode is like a piece of a puzzle that may or may not collapse under its own weight (see "The X-Files"), but so long as it keeps its head above water, it's like nothing else on the tube. It encourages thought and attention to detail, something few network (read: not HBO) shows even attempt, and every tossed off comment about a character's pre-crash life becomes fodder for rampant speculation. Just visit the boards at television without pity and weep at the imagination, and free time, being spent there. Are they in Purgatory? The Bermuda Triangle? Another dimension? The Neverland Ranch?

As a loyal viewer of "Alias", I'm accustomed to Abrams' penchant for frequent plot twists and overreaching mythology. But I worry that the viewers are going to get ahead of the writers, and if this show is handled in the same slick-ass, Persian bazaar, fast food manner with which Abrams occasionally handles "Alias", it might devolve into something mightily uninteresting and anticlimactic. Either way, I don't see how it can last longer than a season or two and remain satisfying; no one needs another Bruce Banner-type situation in which the characters get one step closer to rescue but never quite make it.

So far, though, so good. Engaging characters, intriguing mysteries, a provocative premise, an awesome title sequence, a few hotties thrown in for good measure, and lots of room for viewer speculation.

Of course, if thinking ain't your thang, you can watch teenagers talk to the screen on Life as we know it. Wait, what am I doing, steering you towards that garbage? I'm such an IDIOT!


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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COMMENTS

tim lockwood
11.15.04 @ 3:40a

Because you described "Desperate Housewives" as overbaked melodrama, I can only conclude that you haven't really watched it, at least not very closely. Yes, there is a certain amount of stereotypical suburban hausfrau angst and the predictable activities that follow, but there is more than a bit of mystery going on in the storyline as well, and I'm dying to see how it unravels. Mrs. L. says it's comparable in feel to "Twin Peaks" - happy and shiny on the surface, but with that distinct feeling something is very wrong underneath. I wouldn't know, "Twin Peaks" was yet another pop-culture icon I strolled right by without ever noticing its existence, but I assume such a comparison is a good thing.

As far as "24" goes, Fox is going to need much better contestants on its lead-in "American Idol" than they had this past season, if they expect me to stay tuned afterwards. They barely kept me from flipping the channel in disgust several times.

mike julianelle
11.15.04 @ 9:31a

I'll grant you the fact that I haven't seen much of the show, but please don't compare it to Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was cinematic where this is sitcomy, Peaks was a drama with quirks, DH is a farce.

mike julianelle
11.15.04 @ 10:51a

Somebody else watches these shows! Talk to me!

tracy urquhart
11.15.04 @ 12:25p

The O.C. is the best show on television.

Kristen Bell was also in a made for tv movie that was produced by Britney Spears loosely based on her life. It was horrible.

[edited]

mike julianelle
11.15.04 @ 12:27p

HA! It's certainly entertaining...

jael mchenry
11.15.04 @ 1:38p

You forget to mention that the actor who plays Sawyer (Josh Holloway) is supertasty, and the actress who plays Kate (Evangeline Lilly) has a full repertoire of three and a half facial expressions.

Kristen Bell's best line reading ever was in response to "Flat?" "As God made me."

mike julianelle
11.15.04 @ 2:33p

So, you think Jack is gay? And I inadvertently called Jack, "the hero doctor with a secret", by Matthew Fox's Party of Five name.

michelle von euw
11.15.04 @ 2:47p

Come on, Mike -- Desperate Housewives rocks. Cheating wife sneaking out of husband's ritzy party to mow the lawn so the gardner she's banging doesn't get fired? Comic gold! Plus, Terri Hatcher is surprisingly appealing.

I refuse to watch a UPN show ever, ever again, so that rules out Veronica Mars for me. Liked what I've seen of Lost, but I'm not home on Wednesday nights, so for now, it's Lost on me.

mike julianelle
11.15.04 @ 2:53p

I've heard of this crazy new invention called a VCR. have you?

I hate Marcia Cross.

tim lockwood
11.16.04 @ 2:23a

I was on the verge of hating Marcia Cross, too. At first, I thought her character in "DH" was going to be a cardboard cutout Martha Stewart clone - that's why her husband leaves her in the first place - but she is given a good portion of meat in her script and she comes across as being very deserving of empathy. Most ordinary TV scripts would have you siding with her husband at every turn because of her impossibly perfectionist ways, but you actually find yourself rooting for her.

There was also a surprisingly vulnerable moment as she made a surprise revelation from her past to the neighbor kid whose mother recently committed suicide. This little secret brought out the reasoning behind her perfectionist tendencies and really helped to explain why she is the way she is.

Another show I love is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. There's a show that not only appeals to me as a homeowner who dreams of winning the lottery and having his house completely rebuilt and remodeled with all the latest toys, but it also appeals to my altruistic side. Yes, I know Sears is making out like a bandit with the good PR this show generates, but who cares? In the show, good and decent people who have been kicked hard by life have something wonderful and life-changing happen to them, which hardly ever happens to most people in that situation. It uplifts the spirit, which is awfully rare for any TV program.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 9:06a

BAH! Reality!

jael mchenry
11.16.04 @ 9:28a

I love VM, but apparently The Amazing Race will be competing in the same time slot. But I suspect this TAR won't be as good as the last; too many pretty people, not enough interesting ones. But we'll see.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 9:34a

I don't get why everyone sings the praises of that show. What differentiates it? And VM is off this week, Vibe Awards.

jael mchenry
11.16.04 @ 10:57a

TAR is awesome for many reasons: the exotic locations, the thrill of competition, the really spectacular editing. The way they edit it gives the whole thing a very rapid pace, full of reversals and suspense. You know how much I enjoy being surprised with something original: TAR always does that. I'll tune in tonight and see how the characters look.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 11:08a

But it's REALITY! So I assume it falle prey to the same crap as all other reality shows.

jael mchenry
11.16.04 @ 11:16a

Very little, really, when they do it right. (Like I said, I'm concerned about this season not being as good as the last.)

The same things exist as they have on Survivor and Big Brother and those shows -- alliances, "real" people as characters -- but the emphasis isn't on them. No matter who you are or how you scheme, if you can't dig up the scarab hidden in the sand, you might be eliminated. And although there are occasional stunt eating contests, it's not like Fear Factor: there's a big difference between eating sheep eyes because they're disgusting and bolting two pounds of caviar because you're in Russia. The emphasis is on the race itself. And the locations. Getting along with the locals, identifying the flag of the Philippines, tunneling into the Pyramids... well, it's not like other reality.

heather millen
11.16.04 @ 11:52a

Come on, Mike -- Desperate Housewives rocks.
I suspect that i could really like this show. Just haven't gotten a chance to watch it yet. Still just making time each week for The OC, but otherwise, the new season is Lost on me as well.

tracey kelley
11.16.04 @ 11:54a

There's an Iowa chick on TAR this time.

Like I care.

Sorry, Mikey, don't watch these. I'm just a West Wing/ CBS Sunday Morning/Queer Eye gal these days, with a little,

wait for it,

Enterprise thrown in, simply because they wrap up the universe's problems so easily in 48 minutes, and I think the guy that plays Tucker is a hottie.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 12:25p

West Wing is DEAD!

As is the entire Star Trek franchise. DH is too campy for me, even if Teri Hatcher has regained a measure of hotness she lost while slumming for Radio Shack.

daniel givin
11.16.04 @ 1:13p

There are studies that show that television viewing is the single greatest source of mind reactors.
Also, preliminary studies indicate that even writing about television can cause second-hand mind reactors.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 1:14p

Are you talking Scientology again? And if so, are you hitting on me?

daniel givin
11.16.04 @ 1:15p

No, just practicing safe conversation. I found my latex dictionary.

jeffrey walker
11.16.04 @ 1:48p

Given my former pieces on television love, you'd think I'd have something nice to say. Saddly, no.

Lost I watched once. It has a large and varied cast, but I can't seem to care. DH I watched twice; it's nothing but a soap opera with slightly more detailed writers and actresses with careers other than soap operas. And smutty -- I can't believe right-wingers who complain that gays are ruining the meaning of "marriage" while these sluts whore themselves out weekly for all of America to see.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition - this I do like, and it is a "feel-good" show, and I like that despite the fact that I usually don't like it. But they do really nice things for deserving people -- I only wish I could do something so rewarding for a living.

[edited]

jael mchenry
11.16.04 @ 2:16p

And smutty -- I can't believe right-wingers who complain that gays are ruining the meaning of "marriage" while these sluts whore themselves out weekly for all of America to see.

Politically I agree with you, but on the DH front I have to point out that in none of the episodes I've seen does anyone have any sex with anyone she's not married to.

Except the model girl. So, that's one. She's married and sleeping with the gardener. And about to be punished for it, which is good.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 2:29p

She's hot.

jeffrey walker
11.16.04 @ 3:16p

They're all pretty hot.

There's also the one who wanted to kill her husband? Maybe not cheating, but not the epitome of good married life.

And not that I care about marriage; I'm just noting the right-wing's selective upsetness regarding marriage and family life issues.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 3:20p

The redhead ain't hot. Marcia Cross sucks.

As for Extreme Makeover, I've heard how uplifting it is, which is great and all, but I'd much rather watch something scripted with style and intelligence than some Oprah-style drama meant to make me cry.

jeffrey walker
11.16.04 @ 4:02p

I like watching home improvement shows because I own a house and I like to work on it. I like getting ideas for new projects much more than stories about make-believe lives of fake people.

[edited]

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 4:07p

Right, makes sense. I don't like doing home improvement stuff, so I don't like watching others do it. Simple as that.

jeffrey walker
11.16.04 @ 4:11p

I used to love well scripted shows. don't get me wrong. I just am not as drawn in anymore. I don't think shows are getting worse - on the contrary. I just think I don't care anymore.

Which, by the way, HBO has this ad campaign about watching their shows so you can participate in the discussion around the "water cooler." I've found that now that I watch less TV, don't listen to mainstream music and don't watch sports, I have little to talk about with a lot of people. Not that I mind.

mike julianelle
11.16.04 @ 4:22p

Yeah, pop culture crap certainly does fill a large conversational void for people. It's much safer to talk about than politics or religion, and everybody has something they watch/listen to. There's always some kind of common ground. I bet you could have a nice discussion with the Amish.

juli mccarthy
11.16.04 @ 9:40p

I don't generally suffer from conversational voids, but I do find that I am mystified by TV talk for the most part. Unfortunately, the shows I get interested in are almost never the ones anyone else gets interested in. I tend to watch more HGTV, History Channel and Discovery than anything else. A&E somtimes, too.

robert melos
11.17.04 @ 12:30a

Mike, give Desperate Housewives a chance. I know that sounds like dating advice. Anyway, it's off the wall enough to be interesting. I won't post any spoilers, but there are some scenes well worth your time.

And I never liked Marcia Cross either, but she's really tearing up the screen with this. And Teri Hatcher has a renewed appeal to me.

Now Lost. At first I didn't like it, but I gave it a couple more chances, and I'm hooked. Charlie the stoned band guy is my favorite character so far. Although Vincent the dog is also up there.

The Korean couple are very interesting. Especially after seeing the ep of their back story. The invisible monster thing kind of annoyed me at first, but now I'm okay with it.

I figure I'll give Veronica Mars a shot in reruns. There's only so much I can watch. And this season of Enterpirse has picked up a lot. Maybe I'm just desperate for a scifi fix.

mike julianelle
11.18.04 @ 9:40a

So, anyone watch Lost last nite? Sayid's backstory and some more creepy goings on?

[edited]

jael mchenry
11.18.04 @ 10:04a

Awesome, and not what I expected. I only wish the actress who played the key figure in the present were half as good as the actress who played the key figure in the past.

mike julianelle
11.18.04 @ 10:25a

I was thinking that the Frenchy was a lot like Syd's mom on Alias. I liked the end a lot too. They keep adding more weird, supernatural stuff and not giving us any answers!

mike julianelle
11.18.04 @ 11:09a

Oh, and some of the stuff mentioned reminded me of The Thing.

mike julianelle
12.7.04 @ 3:49p

For whomever it was that just critiqued this article, the ending is a quote from the horrible commercials for that "Life As We Know It" show, in which they showed one of the teenagers scream into the camera "I'm such an IDIOT!" FYI.

michelle von euw
8.31.05 @ 1:22p

It only took ten months to prove myself a total liar! Due in no small part to the magic of TIVO, I'm now hooked on both Veronica Mars and Lost. Damnit, Mike was right -- great shows, great writing, great characters, lots of action.

jael mchenry
8.31.05 @ 1:27p

I'm catching up on VM in reruns, and it is simply awesome.

Also, Logan is really hot.

russ carr
8.31.05 @ 1:38p

The VM finale was the best finale on TV last spring. Lost and 24 paled by comparison.

ETA: Where was I last year that I didn't contribute to this thread, when these were two of only three shows I actually watched?!

[edited]

mike julianelle
8.31.05 @ 2:41p

You were prolly mad at me for stealing your thunder with the column.

As Russ informed me, Joss Whedon himself has caught the VM bug and WORSHIPS the show and has taken to openly praising it in interviews and on his site.

michelle von euw
8.31.05 @ 3:23p

Jael, not at all surprising, but I'm on the Logan bandwagon too. The kiss was squeal-worthy. And Russ -- no spoilers, please! I don't want to know anything about what happened on VM until I get to watch it myself.



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