TV rehab

There are shows we love even when they don't love themselves. For them, Salon staffers stage an intervention.

Published September 3, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

ABC's "Lost"
"Lost" once built suspense through twists, turns and big questions that lingered unanswered. But as the twists, turns and big, unanswered questions piled up over the course of three seasons, they started to feel increasingly pointless and empty. Instead of explaining, say, the Dharma Initiative, or that black smoke cloud, or the polar bears, or the island's electromagnetic qualities, the writers milked each mystery for all it was worth, and then sent us off on another wild goose chase. "Look over here! The Others are actually scientists -- scientists with dungeons!" "Look, a boat, filled with bad vigilantes with big guns!" "Look, 'Jacob' is rocking back and forth in his chair, saying spooky things!" "Look, Ben is good! He's evil! He's good! He's evil!" "Hey everybody, look! The entire island has disappeared into thin air!"

It's time for the writers of "Lost" to explain some of its major mysteries. It wouldn't hurt if we found out, once and for all, the purpose of the Dharma Initiative and exactly what went wrong there. We could find out what Penelope's dad and the Hanso Foundation have to do with anything, we could understand what Ben's mission is in the wake of their rescue from the island. Really, pick any three or four threads and resolve them. What harm does it do? Instead of killing the golden goose, explaining a few things might give the rest of the story more life, and provide a platform for newer, richer story lines.

On top of that, the flash-forward device needs to disappear and leave the survivors in the present, grappling with their lives post-rescue. We have enough loose ends to navigate with these characters without the constant vertigo of flashing forward. This would also eliminate the rather disheartening effect of seeing unhappy endings before we know how they took place. Is it really so surprising to see that Jin dies when the tanker explodes, since we've known for weeks that he would die, thanks to a sad flash-forward where Sun and Hurley visit his grave? The flash-forwards have contributed to "Lost" becoming an increasingly frustrating, depressing, relentlessly dark show with no relief in sight.

It's time to return to the deep satisfaction, the resolutions and the focus on character development of the first two seasons. Make a few characters happy for a few episodes, at least -- there's no real dramatic conflict when everyone is miserable all the time and no one even seems to catch a glimpse of a better life, on the island or off.

It's time for a big change. We don't want empty, connect-the-dots plot twists. We want characters who feel whole, who strive for something greater than themselves and either fail or take a small step toward a new life. You can say that "Lost" isn't a character-driven show, but in its first season it most certainly was, and it should return to those roots now if it wants to overcome its current Mobius strip of empty, endless mystery. -- Heather Havrilesky

MTV's "The Real World"
The only thing more clichéd than the panty-dropping, Jagermeister-sponsored escapades of "The Real World" is complaining about how unrealistic the show is. Yes, it's scandalously true: MTV's bacchanal bonanza is not accurately titled. After 20 seasons and roughly a gazillion wanton hookups, the show is not likely to go away; it's like herpes, blistering up seasonally despite your best hope that it will fade. So how to set those seven strangers straight? It's painfully obvious: Give them a stiff shot of what their lives so desperately lack -- reality. "The Real World: Baghdad"? Now that I might actually watch. Send them to boot camp. Enlist them in a war we cannot win. Or, fine, less dismal: Get those bingeing boozehounds to actually assemble the IKEA furniture in their luxury mansion. I'm dying to see how the Angry Cast Member (trademarked, since 1992) deals with 20 planks of plywood, an Allen wrench and some Swedish cartoon diagrams. That's a slap-down I would TiVo. -- Sarah Hepola

Showtime's "Californication"
When David Duchovny announced last week that he was pursuing treatment for sex addiction, the news couldn't have come as much of a surprise to viewers of his Showtime drama "Californication," which he stars in and executive produces. Duchovny's preoccupation with sex -- OK, his character's obsession, but it's pretty clear that the lines here are blurred -- is not just the engine that drives the show; it is the show.

Which is a big part of the problem with "Californication." Sure, it's entertaining for a while to watch women throw themselves at Duchovny's character, Hank Moody, a washed-up bad-boy novelist who is in love with his ex-girlfriend and intermittently concerned with their adolescent daughter. But after a few episodes of women (young women, slightly less young women, women he meets in bars, gyms and bookstores, women who drive up next to him at traffic lights, women who are desperate after a divorce or trying to make careers in porn) begging him to take them home and make sweet love to them, it gets kind of old. Hank drinks too much and fights too much, but more than anything, he fucks too much. And when he's not fucking, he's talking about fucking. And when he's not doing either of those things, one of the other characters is.

It sounds potentially exciting, I'll grant you. And the heartbreak is that some of the supporting characters and story lines have real promise: "Sex and the City" alum Evan Handler, as Hank's agent Charlie, and Pamela Adlon, as Charlie's wife, Marcy, did their darnedest to make their ménage à trois subplot seem kind of fun. But alas, these characters aren't ever allowed to step out of Hank Moody's slouchy-sexy shadow. And Duchovny gets all the good lines. (That is, if you think a guy waking up shouting "Kiss the tip" is a great line.) So Natascha McElhone, as Hank's ex Karen, is reduced to showing off her astounding cheekbones and looking radiant as she utters witty ripostes like "shut up" to Duchovny's dull needling. "Shut up" is also a frequent response from Hank's daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin), who delivers all of her lines in an infuriating monotone I guess is supposed to telegraph disaffected teen. And, if you think the dialogue is bad when these female characters talk to Hank, you should hear them talk to each other. Do the show's writers really think grown women sit around (on their wedding days!) talking about their fiancés' "baby arms" or advising each other to have anal sex with their husbands to keep them from straying? Is there a recovery clinic for rotten dialogue?

If "Californication" really wants to seduce us, it needs to roll back the male fantasy factor, increase its female writing staff, and let its supporting players get up off their knees. -- Amy Reiter

NBC's "Heroes"
How will "Heroes" get its superpowers back after a disappointing second season? Less talk and more action! Instead of navigating high-pressure situations, last season the heroes of "Heroes" strolled around in pairs and ... talked. They talked about who was behind this or that evil plot, they talked about Sylar, they talked about mysterious antidotes and deadly viruses. But what actually happened, really, other than the dozen or so times everyone's eyes turned black and they almost died? And what circumstances changed permanently by the end of the season? Every time a character died, that character was brought back to life again (except for Nathan's assassination at the end of the finale -- although, didn't he appear to die at the end of the first season finale as well?). How can we care about the high stakes involved, when every major plot turn is reversed and the whole season feels like a red herring?

These modern-day Super Friends need to stop pacing around at the Hall of Justice once and for all and start tackling big, complicated problems out there in the world. While it would be nice to leave behind oversimplified questions like "Is he good or evil?" or "Am I good or evil?" or "Who can I trust?" for more nuanced character studies and layered, intriguing mysteries, above all the focus should be on keeping up the action and the suspense this season. Look to "24" for pointers: If those writers can recycle the same old terrorist scenarios over and over again and make them seem fresh, surely "Heroes" can whip up some high-stakes plots to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Also, it's time to get rid of Sylar or make him a second-tier bad guy to some other, more intimidating ultimate eeevil. We've seen Sylar's bag of tricks and it's getting old. Remember when he sawed people's brains in half, and no one knew it was him? Now that was scary. Back then, Sylar was demonic enough to make even Jack Bauer shake in his boots. But lately Sylar has lost his flair. Let's find another, even more demonic monster to fill his shoes.

Finally, don't bring Niki Sanders back to life! She's the least interesting character of them all -- her story lines are unspeakably corny and bad. Leave her in the burned-out ruins of Season 2, where she belongs.

It's easy to have big hopes for the new season of "Heroes." After all, there's no way it could be any worse than last season. As long as they kick the action and suspense up a notch and put all that talk on the back burner, we'll be up for the ride. -- Heather Havrilesky

Showtime's "The Tudors"
Unlike great recent historical dramas like "Rome" and "Deadwood," which drenched themselves in startling (and sometimes grotesque) historical realism, "The Tudors" takes the lush but lusty route. It's all elaborate costumes and pale, heaving bosoms -- oh yes, with some political power struggles and religious stuff going on in the background. (Reformation, you say? What's that?) A fascinating era gets boiled down to romantic scheming and translated into a contemporary soap opera framework, missing a chance to show us a world that is, in so many ways, truly alien to us.

Although the show does a reasonably good job with the diplomatic intrigues and geopolitics of 16th-century Europe, it fails to bring alive the religious discord of the era. Why were some people so pissed off with the Church of Rome that they did the almost unthinkable and broke off to form their own branch of purified Christianity? The power of abstract ideas to send martyrs on both sides of the divide to the flames is something remote (and yet completely pertinent) to today's faithless liberals.

If the series weren't so concerned with showing that the Tudors are just like us, it might actually be able to portray what's interesting and strange about the period. There are all kinds of ridiculously modern touches thrown in -- like the way Henry VIII's mistress Anne Boleyn echoes Princess Diana when she whines, "You can't have three people in a marriage." Or the bisexual high jinks of wispy romantic composer Thomas Tallis, whose sexuality has not been noted in history books.

"The Tudors" may be crammed with fine English actors like Jeremy Northam (as the pious Sir Thomas More) and Peter O'Toole (as Pope Paul III), but the show would be vastly improved if the writers conjured characters that went slightly deeper than the frills on their bodices. The exception is Henry himself: As he's raucously played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, we have watched him mature and grow increasingly corrupt and bloated by power (though he has not grown hideously fat just yet). The rest of the cast barely exists in two dimensions, like the treacherous Sir Thomas Boleyn and his daughter, the nostril-flaring seductress Anne, who was played by Natalie Dormer as a torrid Miss Piggy with no clear motivation. But the show is whipping so quickly through characters that there's hardly any time to get attached to them. In the second season, the series severed ties (and sometimes heads) with no less than three central figures (including two wives).

Killing off characters is one way of keeping the series fresh -- but judging from the past, it may just be a way of keeping things hot and superficial. Instead of letting us get too intimate with Henry's docile third wife, Jane Seymour, word is that the fourth wife is already waiting in the wings for next season, to be played by singer Joss Stone. Which leaves only one final trick for "The Tudors": Cast Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan as Henry's two remaining wives and let the regal spectacle go out with a bang. -- Joy Press

Fox's "American Idol"
With ratings slowly eroding, particularly among the 18-to-49 demographic, and with producer Nigel Lythgoe leaving for greener pastures, now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of "American Idol." Here are some modest proposals for pumping new life into an old gourd.

Ditch the mentors. I love Dolly Parton, but she added about as much to the performances in her guest-mentor week as Sarah Palin adds to the Republican ticket. With the exception of Mariah Carey and Andrew Lloyd Webber, not a single éminence grise from Season 7 contributed a remotely helpful hint or betrayed even the slightest interest in the job at hand. There have to be better ways to sell an album.

Quit with the Fox cross-promotions. Jim Carrey is in a new movie. We get it. No, we get it. No, we really get it.

For the love of Mary, scissor down the results show. And while you're at it, enough with the stools of shame for the Bottom 3. It's bad enough they have to sit through a dozen commercial breaks to learn their fate without being made to feel like they wet their pants.

Can Randy. When was the last time you talked about Randy over the water cooler? "I don't know, that was just aiight for me ... Yo, yo, yo! You worked it out! That was hot, dawg!" Pretty much every contestant over the past seven seasons has received some variation of the above lines, which makes Randy, for all his amiability, pretty damned meaningless. Even his famous "pitchy" wand is now being waved willy-nilly. Time to find this dawg a new home.

Let Simon be Simon. Love him or hate him, Simon is the only judge who seems to be listening most nights. My friend calls him the "franchise player," and it's true that no one is wittier or more on-point -- or more starved some nights for airtime. After Paula's done bloviating, there's sometimes less than 10 seconds left before the music cues come washing through. Invective is Simon's native medium; give him room to create.

Let Paula be Paula. Look, I grant you Paula contributes absolutely nothing of substance except pharmacological suspense. But by far the comic highlight of Season 7 was hearing Paula stammer out a critique of a performance she had yet to see. Do not -- repeat, do not -- pour out Paula's juice cup. It's the show's last remaining wild card.

Factor in the judge's scores. "Dancing With the Stars" does it. Why the hell doesn't "American Idol"? What's the point of hiring three magi in the first place if their rulings don't amount to a hill of beans? (I say this, knowing full well that if the judges had had their way, David Archuleta would be the reigning Idol, and I would have given up on the show once and for all.)

Light a Roman candle under the old formula. The audition sequences are getting seriously old, and bad singers are, like happy families, all alike. How about a special combined episode of "American Idol" and "Survivor," in which the judges have to jump through the same hoops as the contestants? It might be the only way to get Paula to sing live. Come to think, it might also herald the end of civilization. Either way, great ratings. -- Louis Bayard

Bravo's "Project Runway"
"Project Runway" used to be the single best reality show on television. Its competitors were talented and interesting, the challenges were exciting, and Tim Gunn was ... well, let's just say that on particularly hard days at work, I used to daydream about him calling me up for a pep talk. The series was also laudable for its portrayals of genuinely unique gay men -- a group that's too often stereotyped on prime-time TV. Season 1 winner Jay McCarroll was chubby and pithy, and balanced creativity with intelligence; its third runner-up, Austin Scarlett, was a gender-bending character straight out of a Jean Genet novel.

But the show keeps getting blander with each passing season. Gunn, who quit his job as a professor at Parsons to devote himself more fully to his celebrity, has become little more than a robot. "Make it work," he beeps, over and over again, failing to dispense any kind of useful advice. Too many challenges rely on the added star power of guests like Natalie Portman and Brooke Shields, whose lack of knowledge about fashion often taints the judging. And like so many other reality shows, "Project Runway" now casts types, instead of individuals. This season's Blayne fills the "young and stuck up" spot left vacant by last season's winner, Christian; Season 3 victor Jeffrey openly admitted to aping the intimidating behavior of his friend, the previous season's Santino. Had McCarroll auditioned for the show in its current incarnation, would he have been cast? I doubt it.

But "Project Runway" wouldn't be hard to fix -- it just needs to go back to basics. I'm pretty sure the producers had no idea, at first, how big a hit the show would be, so they didn't bother to beat all semblance of originality out of it. And it worked. "Project Runway" should ditch the celebrities, stop with the just-add-water contestant stereotypes, and start coming up with new, fresh and surprising challenges. And, for heaven's sake, let Tim Gunn be the smart, insightful, empathetic guy we fell in love with in Season 1, instead of editing him down to a series of overplayed catchphrases. -- Judy Berman

By Salon Staff

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