‘Kings’ is dead, long live ‘Southland’?

Saturday's highlight reel
Neither Macaulay Culkin’s return to the screen nor Sarita Choudhury’s sexy back was enough to save Kings from its Saturday night ratings plunge. According to the Futon critic and Raked, the modern retelling of the tale of Saul and David is now officially on hiatus ’til June. Thanks, NBC, for blueballing us again. Seriously, thanks. I’ve been meaning to finish up a dissertation, and this frees up some time.

Luckily, this week’s episode (which posted an abysmal 0.6 rating), didn’t exactly leave its dwindling audience hanging. The political uprisings of last week were seemingly all forgotten with the pageantry of “Judgment Day,” David’s martyr-happy brother has lived to annoy us another day, and everyone still loves Silas. Well, almost everyone. The king’s icy judgment over Dr. Nayar’s (Ajay Naidu) case and stone-walling of his illegitimate son’s mother (Choudhury) should come back to haunt him, in the end. A few questions go unanswered: for one, why was Macaulay Culkin banished at all? ‘Cause of a latent shoe fetish? For tea-bagging the crown (like his old man would)? My bet is it was something much more nefarious; Culkin’s brief appearance was creepy enough to make Jack look like the good son.

A thing you'd as soon not see ruined or in cinders.Still, despite the show’s flaws, Kings’ hiatus-slash-cancellation is a tough blow not only for the few of us who tuned in week after week, but for network dramas, period. If NBC is willing to put its chips down on a derivative cop procedural like Southland, but not have the sand to give Kings a decent weekday slot, then expect a whole lot more of the same-old on network television. Honestly, if America can’t appreciate a Swearengen-Langrishe reunion, then I don’t know what to tell them.

– Thumbu Sammy

TV pet peeve #3: Overthickening the plot

One could be pardoned for forgetting that once upon a time, Prison break was actually pretty entertaining.  The original premise — loosing the bonds of incarceration via the bonds of fraternal love — strikes a weird chord with me, and if we can forgive the predictable Fox-isms, that first season did fulfill its narrative promise rather satisfactorily.  Insofar as the first part of the second season attempted to deal with the consequences of the first, it wasn’t too far off the mark, either (although the Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell character did wear out his welcome well before that).

I think everyone can agree that the unapologetically racist third season — Prison break: Pandemonium in Panamá! — was an unmitigated failure.  (Not even the finale’s ill-advised inclusion of Rebekah del Rio’s Vini Reilly-less version of “Crying” could do much to redeem it.)  It’s been downhill for the brothers Scofield and their merry band of felons ever since, and there’s a very simple reason why: the conspiracy’s just too goddamn thick.  I’m not complaining about the show’s lack of verisimilitude so much as its writers’ total disregard for compulsively recurring to the same improbable emplotments: living relatives keep finding themselves held as collateral, while estranged and/or presumed dead relatives keep coming back to life; enemies keep becoming grudging allies, and steadfast allies either defect from the cause or become embittered enemies.  Whenever the flip-flopping gets too confusing to follow, the writers just add a greater, previously unimagined threat to the mix.  After season one, the antagonist function is tossed lazily around like a lukewarm, unappetizing potato: Brad Bellick, Alex Mahone, Paul Kellerman, Gretchen Morgan, General Krantz, Donald Self… Who cares, really?  By now we know to expect each villain’s badassery to be trumped as we move up (or laterally across) the conspiratorial ladder of The Company.

Things didn’t have to turn out this way — narratively, I mean.  Granted, the fugitive angle was inevitably going to get tedious, but there are always going to be metaphorical prisons these characters would have had to confront, right?  But because Prison break is on Fox, such musings are pretty worthless.  (Wentworth-less, even!)  Instead we’re left with a sticky mess of half-baked characters and their competing interests.  Not even the tepid Scofield-Tancredi romance manages to sweeten the pot (impassioned fan art notwithstanding).

Not exactly llorando, is he?
I preferred his ink sleeves.

And because we’re talking about Obama-era Fox here, we’ve also got to contend with the suddenly formidable figure of Michael and Lincoln’s mother, of all people.  Not unlike Renee Walker on 24, I’ll venture that her being a very well-produced Woman With Boobs is meant to defer criticism of the show’s politics.  Not that I can make out a coherent political message from Prison break, other than maybe a vague, delusional libertarian anti-government posture.

Since I’m growing increasingly skeptical of Miami-based series, I’ll go ahead and point out that we can now add Prison break to the tally.  Maybe Dexter can help Michael and Linc get Scylla?

– J.C. Freñán

Donna Martin, Pirates, and GOP Tea-bagging: This Week’s Unsuccessful Attempts at a Comeback

Who could forget one of the most memorable teenage tv moments of the 90’s? The year was 1991, and Donna Martin had just been caught drunk at the West Beverly prom and was consequently banned from her own high school graduation. Because Donna, played by Tori Spelling, daughter of Executive Producer Aaron Spelling, was the learning-challenged virgin that every character on the show inexplicably adored, the whole school walked out on finals in protest and chanted in demand for her freedom: “Donna Martin Graduates!” And she hadn’t even gotten a boob job yet.

90210v1

This moment of triumphant teen rebellion marked the peak of the ten season run of Beverly Hills 90210, a show that spanned the entire decade of the 90s. In its first three seasons, the show enjoyed some admittedly great tv moments (Brenda Walsh’s Cherry Pop at the Spring Fling, Brandon Walsh’s accidental “Euphoria” trip, Color Me Badd’s goateed serenade.) Make no mistake, Seasons 4-10 were nothing short of horrendous, each season progressively sadder and balder than the one before. But the show sparked my love affair with teen tv dramas, and everyone who knows me recognizes that I have a hard time letting go of the things I love. I watched the gang through college, and grad school, and colonoscopies.

It would be easy to say that this show stays with me because it came of age when I did. But, 90210 was not relatable in any way to my teenage life or probably anyone’s. (But that doesn’t seem to be the draw of teen dramas.) The show’s main characters, Minnesota twins Brenda and Brandon, were sorting out their mid-western identity clashes with their new Beverly Hills lifestyle. Maybe it mirrored my own East meets West drama,  maybe I wanted a moody alcoholic boyfriend that looked ten years older than my friends, or maybe I thought Jason Priestley’s Canadian tuxedo was hot.

At the same time, I found the overpowering moral compass of the show, the Walsh family’s dogmatic ideals of right and wrong, so irritating. The first few seasons were driven by an issue-of-the-week plot line—dealing with issues regarding teen sex, diet pill addictions, drug and alcohol abuse, accidentally shooting yourself in the stomach, or dating your Mexican maid’s daughter, with each episode ending with some form of a bedside chat where the twins learn the difference between right and wrong. The parents, Jim and Cindy, who were far too average-looking to ever make it on tv now, always steered their gratingly earnest kids in the right direction and provided three nutritious meals per day.

Despite all of its lameness, the show enjoyed a period of brat-pack fame, and frankly, touched a place deep inside. But why? Was it that Darren Star wrote characters that I somehow cared about, even if I thought they were painful and embarrassing and stupid? Brenda and Brandon did seem to have a touching closeness. Dylan and Brenda’s relationship is one of the more heartfelt teen love affairs ever to be illustrated on the small screen, with all the drama and significance of your first boyfriend.  Just think of the inadequacy of modern day comparisons – The O.C.‘s Ryan Atwood and Marissa Cooper enjoyed a strong start but fizzled out because  she died (and they didn’t even have sex until the third season), Gossip Girl’s Serena VDW and Dan Humphrey’s on and off-screen relationship could not be more tedious; and don’t get me started on the trash-whores on One Tree Hill, who always seem to be knocked up. (Does anyone even watch that show?)

One of the biggest differences between teen dramas of the 90s and the 21st Century is the swap of focus: where Aaron Spelling provided moralistic life lessons with a side of sex and back-stabbing and scandal, today’s shows focus entirely on the hyper-sexualized good stuff without the tiresome finger-wagging and pedantic conclusions, and even give the adults the same sex-driven plot lines as their kids. To be clear, I would much rather watch the MILFs on Gossip Girl sleep with a new guy every 6 episodes than listen to Cindy’s Walsh’s recipe for pot roast and clean living. But, the loss of a moral center seems to come at the expense of my not giving a crap about what happens to the characters on Gossip Girl, Privileged, or on the new 90210. Maybe it’s good to let go of one’s overwrought past and just enjoy the network filth.

Don’t Call It a Comeback

90210 v. 2.0 aired on the CW in late 2008, going for a stylishly updated take on the original. But, like Bobby Jindal’s national address which was meant to put a younger, fresher, browner face on the GOP, Version 2.0 is an unmitigated disaster. Like the original, the new incarnation follows a family of four from the mid-west that moves to Beverly Hills, with a son and a daughter of the same age. This time around, though, one of them is the puny, cutesy, and insipid Annie, who sounds like she smokes a pack of Winstons every day, and an adopted black son, Dixon, an unacceptable new role for The Wire’s Tristan Wilds (though it is funny to see him calling Full House’s Lori Loughlin “Mom” and Arrested Development’s Jessica Walters “Grandma.”)

2.0

The adopted black kid is a pretty fascinating update of the original. Did 2.0 choose this direction to make the mid-westerners seem less like hicks and more like benevolent, color-blind liberals? But color-blindness is so 90’s. Perhaps it is a purposeful and stark departure from the original, which sported just one black character in the first few seasons, who incidentally dressed like Malcolm Jamal Warner, (which was mitigated by his being admitted to Yale, dating the ugly chick Andrea,  and only being on two episodes.) Despite being less obvious about his blackness, Dixon’s race isn’t completely ignored either, as he feels a bit odd in this new Whitey McWhiterson World (which has to be more diverse than Kansas, I would think, but whatever, I’ll take it for the actual race recognition.) Most likely, in ‘Jindal v. the Pork Volcano’ fashion, making a person of color a main character is so pioneering that it automatically makes a show (or a party) seem like it is in a new, hip, and politically relevant era. This way, the engineers of the re-branding can rehash old characters and tired story- lines and think no one will be the wiser because we are so mesmerized by inter-racial relationships, blogs, sexting, brown guys, and tea-bagging.

"Hey Kel, check out how neither my face nor my hair moves even with the top down."

Along with the rehashed story lines, the key component of the failed comeback (and the reason I keep watching) is the return of the West Bev, circa 1990, BFFs. Kelly Taylor is now the guidance counselor who has mothered deadbeat dad Dylan’s baby, Brenda Walsh is the drama teacher who has returned from England where she was exiled after the fourth season of 1.0, and Donna Martin just arrived on the scene this week as a fashion designer, only big in Japan, and if possible, seems even more drag-tastic and mentally challenged than her younger self. Jennie Garth has held up kind of well, but the rest, including Nat who still runs the freaking Peach Pit, look like they should have stayed out of the California sun and not spent so much time at Botox Betty’s. At least they haven’t gotten Andrea Zuckerman out of her nursing home to play the gym teacher. At this point, the show is starting to seem like fan fiction, and just like with the crazy people who write that weirdness, you wonder what these writers are smoking.

More pirates, teens, and tea-bagging to come.

– Emily Valentine