I Like to Watch

"Jericho" is molested by an angel, "Men in Trees" gives Anne Heche some northern overexposure, and "Smith" tries to catch a "Thief"!

Published October 8, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

The TV business doesn't make any sense to me. Writers spend all this time and energy on a pilot -- coming up with a riveting story, making the dialogue clever and snappy, hinting at interesting relationships between compelling characters -- in order to sell either a half or a whole season's worth of shows. Once a network or cable station bites, the champagne corks fly, the actors embrace, a staff of writers, many of whom weren't involved in the pilot, are hired, and everyone hopes that the show will get good enough ratings to stick around.

But just as you can't judge a book by its cover -- unless its cover features a woman in a corset being ravaged by a steely-jawed man in very tight pants -- you can't judge a TV show by its pilot. Just like first dates, pilots are often much better or much worse than subsequent episodes end up being. No matter how alluring and provocative a pilot might seem on your first date with it, no matter how you swoon and giggle and program it into your TiVo, looking forward to a lifetime together -- OK, maybe just a season or two; let's not get ahead of ourselves -- there's no guarantee that by the second or third episode, you won't find yourself sullenly staring at the screen, thinking, "What did I ever see in this loser?"

Skeet shooting
That's how I felt after watching the third episode of CBS's "Jericho" last week (8 p.m. Wednesdays). I really loved the pilot, what with all of the mass hysteria and the voice messages from dead parents and the mushroom clouds billowing in the distance. I loved the apocalyptic gloom that hung in the air, and the way that the townspeople gasped in horror at every new bit of information that trickled in from the outside world. Atlanta and Denver, both flattened by nuclear bombs, and no news or radio or Internet reports about what happened or who could be responsible for such widespread destruction.

Sure, there were little, nagging signs that the show might not hold my interest. Our hero, Jake (Skeet Ulrich), had sort of a blank, wide-eyed, open-mouthed look on his face throughout the entire pilot, which made watching him like staring at a cartoon face that's missing a few crucial features. His love interest, a blond ex-girlfriend named Emily (Ashley Scott), seemed unburdened by a discernible personality, and his second-string love interest, a more regular-looking, down-to-earth schoolteacher named Heather (Sprague Grayden), showed a remarkable lack of flair and spirit, considering that the end of the world was looming ever present. Mom (Pamela Reed) and Dad (Gerald McRaney) didn't have much to do beyond fussing over Jake and fussing over the town, respectively. But every time I started to think, "Hmm, this seems a little dull," someone would have a spectacular meltdown, or folks in town would loot the local grocery store, or someone would end up walking down a freeway covered in dead birds, and those deliciously ominous moments sort of erased the dull moments from my memory.

Still, the second episode was far worse: Criminals from a local prison escaped and took Jake's ex-girlfriend hostage, resulting in some cheesy slow-motion gunplay so badly directed and edited, you'd think you were watching the student film of a Quentin Tarantino fanatic -- you know, the kind of guy who communicates entirely by quoting scenes from "Reservoir Dogs"? Then the nuclear storm clouds threatened, which meant that all of the townspeople had to crowd into a clinic shelter and a mine, and then the mine was (perhaps foolishly?) sealed off with an explosion on purpose, I suppose in order to kill most of the people inside so that they didn't have to die slowly and painfully from radiation sickness. Meanwhile, a local teenage girl dodged the horrors of radiation simply by taping a plastic tarp to the front door of her big house and spending the day with the local misfit kid. Why didn't all those townsfolk go to her house instead of crowding into a dusty mine? Well, because, that would prevent the popular teenage girl and the resident weirdo from playing a game of cards and becoming, like, sorta like friends!

As bad as the second episode was, though, I still had hope that Skeet and his one-note pals could rebound in the third episode, perhaps with more gruesome deaths and nuclear blasts in the distance and a few well-chosen signs of fresh horrors to come. After all, how hard is it to make a nuclear holocaust dark and suspenseful? Look how morbid and disturbing the nuclear attacks have been in "Battlestar Galactica" or "24."

Much to my disappointment, the third episode of "Jericho" was sort of like that third date where you both already know you're not meant for each other, but you're trying to determine if you can stand each other's dull talk and slightly unpleasant physical appearance enough to sleep together once or twice, so at least your investment of time and energy has some (albeit meager) return. But halfway through that third episode, the cavalcade of clichéd characters and situations, coming one after the next, was way too much to bear.

The rain stopped, and the townspeople huddling in the mine were rescued in one of the worst scenes I've seen on television in a long, long time. As a shovel busted through a pile of black spray-painted Styrofoam "rocks," the crowd cheered and everyone lifted their hands above their heads in unison like they were auditioning for the next Super Bowl halftime show. Lackluster Second-String Love Interest discovered that one of the guys in the mine, a pal of hers, had a heart attack, but the Old, Surly Guy With Something to Hide with him didn't tell any of the doctors present. When Lackluster Second-String Love Interest asked why, Old, Surly Guy With Something to Hide warned her not to poke her head in where she's not wanted, Scooby-Doo style. What could be worse than pumping up the drama and suspense with pointless "mysterious" distractions that have nothing to do with the crisis at hand?

Then there was the Guy Who Knows Too Much, who put on a special fallout suit and took his U-Haul out to a storage unit, where a 50-gallon drum of some unknown but scary substance was stored. As the Guy Who Knows Too Much was cementing the drum of something-or-other into his basement, his wife (let's call her "Come Back to Bed, Honey") descended the stairs and asked if the kids could go to the party in town. (The townsfolk were cooking steaks to brighten everyone's mood in the wake of the apocalypse.) TGWKTM replied "No damn way," or some such, and suddenly (speaking of pointless mysterious distractions) we were once again trapped in Betty Applewhite's basement on "Desperate Housewives."

That's not even the worst of it. There were all of these rapid-fire scenes that lasted only a few seconds each, in which one terribly lame plot after another was introduced: Jake's brother (the Jerk) was revealed to be cheating on his wife with a local bartender (the Other Woman). Jake's mom (Worrying Mom) wanted Jake's dad (Workaholic Mayor) to slow down and rest because he was sick, but Workaholic Mayor said there was just too much to do right now, damn it! Meanwhile, Popular Girl's friends showed up at her house, saw Weirdo Kid and said, "What's he doing here? Skyler, wait! That guy's a weirdo."

Of course, we're feeling the same wave of disgust over "Jericho," our good date gone horribly, horribly bad. And the worst part is that the whole trite, predictable mess is wrapped in a faux-warm, all-American, community-spirit, "Go Team!" vibe that takes all of the potential for ugliness and inconsolable weeping and gloom and sugars it up with disingenuous touchy-feely dorkiness. Forget "Jericho," they should call this stinker "Molested by an Angel." You can scrub and scrub, but you'll never feel clean again.

Yes, we probably shouldn't have had four margaritas and bedded this dud on a whim, but who knew? All that's left to do is gather our clothes and sneak out the door without waking up the dog.

Revenge of the Smith
In contrast to "Jericho," CBS's "Smith" (10 p.m. Tuesdays) didn't have me at "Hello, I'm Ray Liotta and I'm a high-stakes criminal living a double life." But it did have me at "Hello again, this is Ray Liotta, remember me? I'm very conflicted about my double life, and my wife, played by Virginia Madsen, is suspicious of me, even though she cheated on me with a dentist, of all people." I guess I was a little bit preoccupied by the fact that AMC's "Hustle" and FX's "Thief" also feature teams of misfits pulling off high-profile burglaries when they're not having heated, spitty discussions about whether to kill the weak link in the chain whose recklessness is threatening to drag the whole group down with him. "Hustle" is slick and polished, "Thief" is almost too dark and depressing to bear, so what could Liotta and Amy Smart and the rest of the "Smith" team possibly be bringing to the big-heist picture that we haven't seen before?

Upon a second look at the pilot, the answer seemed to lie in the quiet moments of "Smith," when Bobby (Liotta) is playing jazz piano in his house and his wife, Hope (Madsen), walks in and just looks at him, trying to figure out what he's hiding from her, or when Bobby and his team send the body of their fellow conspirator off in a motorboat laden with explosives, but not before cuing up that melancholy Imogen Heap song first. Even though we don't know Bobby very well yet and we're not sure why he would risk his seemingly good life for a big pile of extra cash that he can't even show to his wife, there seemed to be a good pairing of dynamic, suspenseful sequences with more contemplative scenes that use the heavy stakes of the criminal's life as a metaphor for the heavy stakes of modern family life.

Or it looked that way, at first. The second and third episodes mostly felt like a retread of the pilot, with the same alluring but dangerous heist to execute, the same planning session between key players, the same conflicted feelings and suspicions. During the third episode, Bobby's crew stole a massive automatic gun from a military base, and then carried out an elaborate plan involving several stolen vehicles in order to commandeer an armored truck, which they're going need to pull off their next heist. But would it really make sense to steal several vehicles right before you're planning a major crime? Doesn't that sort of increase the chances that you'll get caught before the big event goes down? And if you're going to hijack an armored vehicle or break onto a military base, why not steal a truck full of cash and gold, or lift some pricey weaponry to sell to terrorist high rollers while you're at it?

I'm not one to quibble with realism if the stakes are high enough and everyone's having a good time, or at the very least, their hands are sweating uncontrollably. But unrealistic subplots that don't even get your heart racing? That's like making out with a throw pillow.

Barking up the wrong trees
Speaking of games of make-believe, the notoriously imaginative Anne Heche has her very own drama this fall called "Men in Trees" (9 p.m. Fridays on ABC). In this "Sex and the City" meets "Northern Exposure" romp, Heche plays Marin Frist, a relationship expert who discovers her fiancé is cheating on her while she's visiting a small town in Alaska. Instead of returning home to her life in the big city, Frist decides to stay in Alaska and bug the living hell out of all of its quirky, yet lovable residents. Frist is stubbornly determined to wash that man right out of her hair, so she puts on her boots (the ones made for walking) and hums "Goodbye to You" to herself while hurling her wedding dress over the nearest cliff. OK, maybe she doesn't wash her hair and put on boots first. Maybe she screeches at a raccoon that's stuck in her room at the hopelessly quaint but zany bed and breakfast where she's staying -- you know, the one that's run by the liberated whore?

Are you starting to get the sense that this show gets on my nerves? I just hate that spunky gal character who alternates between her plucky plans and occasional adorable breakdowns, where she screeches or giggles or collapses in a heap on the floor, and someone needs to give her a hug or a kick or a romp in the sack. It's so Ally McBeal, so Carrie Bradshaw (yes, one of the writers from "SATC" created this show), the latest peppy modern incarnation of Audrey Hepburn from "Breakfast at Tiffany's." But what's fantastic about Holly Golightly, both in the movie and in Truman Capote's novel, is that she's downright odd and it's tough to tell if she's headstrong and independent or just deluded and desperate. Bradshaw and McBeal both walked that line, but not nearly as gracefully or as charismatically as Golightly did, partially because Golightly was odd and obsessive and risky in ways that Bradshaw and McBeal never managed to be.

And Heche's character is the least provocative of all, reduced to stompy tantrums and coyness and fits of grandiosity, all better suited to a teenager. She's brash and gutsy and strong-willed, sure, but she needs help catching a raccoon in her room and moving the furniture around. She needs a man, gosh darn it! And that would be fine, if she weren't so exasperatingly cute about it; as if, in order to be charming, she's forced to do her best impression of a small girl. Why can't female characters be daring and weird instead of cheeky but slightly pathetic? Why can't our heroine be ever-so-slightly freakish and curmudgeonly, or quick to anger, or shy and contemplative, or pissed off in a less kittenish way? The only lead female characters on TV I can think of who fit the bill are Starbuck and President Roslin of "Battlestar Galactica" and Felicity Huffman's Lynette of "Desperate Housewives" (the only remotely realistic housewife of the lot).

The point is that when you build a show around a female character or a group of female characters, there's no reason they have to alternate between delusional independence and hopeless vulnerability. Great women, from Katharine Hepburn to Joan Didion to Alanis Morissette to, well, Felicity Huffman, have a way of exuding strength and vulnerability at the same time. Why can't we write more of our modern heroines that way? Why can't a female character struggle with her emotions and reveal that inner conflict through angry remarks (Huffman), through slightly antisocial, intimidating behavior (Didion, Hepburn) or through boldly confessional outbursts (Morissette)? Why does she always have to sigh and shrug and end up with a cute little dab of chocolate pudding on her button nose instead?

Free falling
But my expectations are always too high during the early weeks of the fall season, let's face it. So many pilots show potential, only to disappoint. I suppose if you never troll the online dating sites or the pages of TV Guide, you never have to peruse so many potentially irritating or catastrophically dull ways to spend your nights. But without a little research, how will you ever meet the drama series of your dreams?

Even though I've had a problem with its smug attitude and smartass remarks from early in our first date, I'm still holding out hope for NBC's "Studio 60" (10 p.m. Mondays) (and no, I don't think that Amanda Peet's Jordan McDeere is colorful or believable enough to fit the bill of strong but complex female heroine, although she's head and shoulders above most of the other kewpie dolls). I also have some hope for ABC's "The Nine" (10 p.m. Wednesdays) and "Shark" (10 p.m. Thursdays) and I want to strongly recommend that you watch NBC's "Friday Night Lights" (8 p.m. Tuesdays) because I think it's odd and dynamic -- and it's not getting good ratings so far, so it might disappear without getting a decent shot.

I know, I know. Your dance card is already full. But, like a friend of mine always says, "The right plane can't land if the wrong plane is blocking the runway." The same goes for TV pilots and first dates. If you spend all of your nights with that smarmy pug from marketing, you're never going to find the Laird Hamilton meets Jonathan Franzen meets Johnny Depp of your dreams. Likewise, you have to dabble in a lot of new dramas to find the one that will tickle your fancy, and dabbling depends on your ability to overload your DVR with potential time wasters. It's laborious, sure, but who knows? Maybe someday you'll find yourself curled up with a drama that doesn't bore you with its repetitive stories, overwhelm you with its trite observations or irritate you with its arrogance and swagger.

Yes, it looks like it's time to rent all five seasons of "Six Feet Under" again.

Next week: "Lost," "The Nine," "Shark" and the rest of the dramas I've callously forsaken my weekly reality fix to watch. Also: The joys of Sundance's "Iconoclasts."

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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