Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bionic Change

I wonder whether or not it's fair to render judgment on Bionic Woman. The show's numbers are holding up pretty well and, four episodes in, we have at least some sense of what the show is. And while that could change, what it is right now is pretty unappealing.

Bionic Woman has all sorts of problems. Some of them, like the tacked on little-sister storyline, are understandable. Some of them, like the underwritten and not-terribly-charismatic lead, are structural. And some of them--like the incompetent editing, poor scoring, and laughable f/x--are incomprehensible. (Battlestar Galactica and Heroes have raised the bar to point where there just shouldn't be any compromises made in f/x on TV.)

That last category of problems is readily fixable given a talented, engaged showrunner. Some of the other problems are less easily fixed.

Take the lead, Jaime Sommers: As written, Sommers vacillates widely, from na├»ve over-achiever, to hardened bad-ass, to dim, struggling parental surrogate. Who is she really? So many shows have grappled with strong female leads in recent years—Buffy, Karen Sisco, Alias, Veronica Mars—that if you can’t get this basic characterization right, then you might was well fold up shop.

Instead, with Sommers, we get a muddled mess. We’re told that she was bright enough to go to Harvard, but she’s always seven steps behind everyone else in thinking through problems.

The “Harvard” backstory is indicative of the series’ overall tell-don’t-show approach. Instead of showing us a brilliant girl mysteriously trapped in a dead-end bartending job, the writers tell us that she got into Harvard—the broadest possible shorthand for “smart”—as if this information releases them from the need to show Sommers acting with any striking intelligence.

Tell-don’t-show is always annoying, but it can be fatal if it prevents the characters from earning payoffs.

That’s the biggest problem with Bionic Woman. Jaime Sommers went from innocent (but secretly special) bystander to human weapon in the pilot. That episode concluded with her menacingly telling Miguel Ferrer’s character to stay away from her because she “knew what she was capable of” now and that if he sent people after her, she’d “bury them one after another.”

I was kind of thrilled to see this dark tone; the sentiment—a bionic woman who’s a reluctant killing machine—is intriguing. But none of her transformation was earned: She’d had one short fist fight. She actually had no idea what she was capable of; it was never clear that she was cold-blooded enough to take a life.

The pernicious problem with lazy character writing is that it undermines and makes ridiculous even sound plotting that takes the tone of a series in the right direction. This is everywhere on display in Bionic Woman.

(I’m sure no one else is bothered by this, but I also don’t get the crypto political references to “Halliburton” or “Hillary Clinton.” It’s as if the writers are trying to signal some ideological leaning in what they think is the most obvious code in the world, but it comes across as non sequitor. Have we reached the point where all you have to do is have a character say “I’ll call Halliburton”—out of nowhere—and audiences are supposed to think that he’s a scary man who puts ends above means?)

The one bright spot has been the prototype bionic woman, Sarah Corvus. She’s all motivation, and it’s both reasonably consistent and quite interesting: Corvus became bionic, lost control, and started killing people. She didn’t really mean to, it seems, but she thought the source of her weakness was her remaining human parts, so she started giving herself more bionics. Now, it seems that her bionics may be killing her. And she doesn’t want to die. (This is all way more engrossing than the Jaime Sommers storyline, but it doesn’t hurt that Corvus actually gets clever dialogue and is played by Katee Sackhoff, who’s the most interesting actor on the show.)

The simple solution would be to make a radical switch: turn the show into Sarah Corvus: Bionic Woman and move Jaime Sommers to the backburner. Obviously, that won’t happen. But I wish something drastic would.


Jeff Westcott said...

My biggest worry is now that Jason Katims is running the show Friday Night Lights begins to suffer, all so NBC can save a show that doesn't deserve saving.

Unknown said...

Things may be bad now but they could be worse. The original show had
plots such as "Jaime goes undercover as an airline stewardess...", "Jamie goes undercover as a country singer...", "Jamie goes undercover as a beauty queen...", "Jamie goes undercover as a nun..."

Every 4th episode contained either aliens, bigfoot, bigfoot controlled by aliens, or a mystic indian.

That being said, this version has plot holes you could drive a bionic truck through.

Anonymous said...

I've likened this show to something I'd expect of Xena.

Anonymous said...

There is a reason why these shows ALWAYS fail or fall apart: Buffy, Xena (which lasted on the star power of their leads), and particularly Veronica Mars.

The writers can't figure out the most interesting things about their characters: they are fairly feminine women inhabiting a very masculine role and landscape.

Consider Jaime Summers: from ordinary model-actress-waitress whatever to suddenly having to act like a male hero. Allowing the most interesting exploration from a woman's perspective of what it's like to be a man: responsibility, restraint, risking death, being scared, shutting down emotions to do the job, etc.

Not "dark-edgy" cliched crap which has been done to death. Nor the blatant status-seeking and power-trips that characterized both late-run Buffy and Veronica Mars (bagging the socially dominant male and acting like a hotter Leona Helmsley).

Consider the Harvard thing. That as much class-status as any "smart" indicator. Which would have been MIT or Caltech.

These female empowerment shows fail because they lack enough straight-out soap opera status-climbing like Grey's Anatomy/Desperate Housewives to compete on the female-dominated TV landscape, and do things that turn off their natural audience: ordinary guys.