Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Save the cheerleader, save the world.

The TV schedules, both terrestrial and extraterrestrial (ie Sky), are packed with classy US imports these days. In fact, next week sees the launch of two more in the shape of medical drama, 3lbs (Sunday, 10.50pm, BBC1), starring the always excellent Stanley Tucci (Big Night, The Daytrippers), which was pulled from the air by CBS after just three episodes and Kidnapped (Tuesday, 10pm, Channel 4) which has one of the most impressive casts for a new drama that I've ever seen, with roles for Delroy Lindo, Timothy Hutton, Dana Delany and Jeremy Sisto among others. It seemingly couldn't fail but it came up against House in the States and was roundly whupped in the ratings stakes, leading to its cancellation after just one season.

I'm not going to talk about either of those just yet though, having not seen them, but I do want to talk about two of the more recent US dramas (both of which, coincidentally, emanate from the NBC stable) to be launched on this sceptred isle; one of which doesn't really need the publicity but the other could do with every push it can get.

I'm sure that, by this point, every man and his illegal crossbred fighting dog has told you about how good Heroes is. Or does it just feel that way? Heroes (Monday, 10pm, Sci-Fi Channel, Sky Channel 129) has received one of the biggest promo drives I've ever witnessed, but it's tucked away on the Sci-Fi Channel, so only people with Sky subscriptions can see it at the moment. It comes to BBC2 in June, when it should become the must-see programme for the summer, but for the time being, those of us privileged enough to enjoy the status symbol of having a clunky old black mesh dish stuck on the side of our houses can see what all the fuss is about.

Anyway, all those people prattling on about it at the watercooler or whatever your workplace's equivalent is are right; Heroes is really very good indeed. I was initially a little suspicious due to its superficial similarities to Lost and the lazy journalists who used this comparison as a crutch. Not that I don't like Lost, I do, I was just understandably apprehensive as to whether we needed another puzzling, sprawling, vaguely paranormal thrillfest clogging up our schedules. Thankfully, Heroes isn't that show. Admittedly, it's a little on the hokey side, but after just four episodes I've been well and truly sucked into its barmy/plausible miniverse.

Heroes is big, brash and more than a little daft, but its major saving grace is that its completely aware of this. Taking cues from a multitude of comic books and movie and TV adaptations of comic books (most notably X-Men, Smallville and Unbreakable), its like watching a distillation of everything that's brilliantly silly about the superhero myth but, because creator Tim Kring acknowledges that the mere premise of the show requires a sizeable leap of faith from the audience, he rewards that by creating a credible world and relatable, if archetypal characters.

So we get cutie-pie cheerleader, Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere), who just happens to have developed the ability of tissue regeneration, meaning that whatever scrapes or accidents she manages to get herself into (and they come with astonishing frequency), she just picks herself up and goes about her business. Rushing into a derailed train on fire to save a trapped man? No problem. Throwing herself off a 70ft bridge onto the ground below? A walk in the park as long as she pops her shoulder back into place afterwards. Being roughed up by the star quarterback before falling head first onto a log? Well as long as the pathologist pulls a twig from said log out of her cerebellum, it's just a case of throwing on a lab coat and getting the fuck out of the morgue.

Then there's Hiro (Masi Oka), easily the most likeable of the principles. Blessed with the ability to monkey around with the space-time continuum, he's spent most of the time so far grinning from ear-to-ear and enthusing about his newfound powers like the comic geek he is. This is in wonderful contrast to the rest of the characters' brooding and, let's be honest, if you found out that you could manipulate the world to your benefit (the excellent story strand in the third episode showing Hiro and his incredulous mate, Ando hitting Vegas and cheating at cards was a great example of this, Rain Man homage and all) and the benefit of others, you too would be laughing your arse off all the time.

There's also schlubby LA beat cop, Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg, who finally gets a crack at playing lead schlub after being the sidekick type for years in shows like Felicity and Alias) whose knack for reading people's thoughts comes in handy when catching the bad guys, struggling NY artist, Isaac (Santiago Cabrera) who can paint the future as long as he is strung out on smack (although it must be said, he can't manage to convince someone to buy his shitty etchings), and Vegas-dwelling web stripper, Niki (Ali Larter - sex on legs), who seems to be developing her own ultraviolent alter ego, Ms. Hyde type.

Filling out this motley crew are brothers Nathan (Adrian Pasdar - who can fly) and Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia - who can take on the other heroes' powers as long as they are in the vicinity). Their story hasn't quite taken off yet (pun totally intended) and this is largely due to the sleepwalking Ventimiglia, although the end of the fourth episode hints that he may have more to get his teeth into in the future. It's nice to see the underrated Pasdar get a little exposure though and he plays Nathan as half Jim Profit, half Caleb from Near Dark - slightly oily (he is a congressional candidate after all) but he clearly loves his brother.

Tying them all together we have Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy), a genetics professor from India whose geneticist father hit upon the existence of the superheroes before his sticky end. It's unclear yet what part Mohinder has to play in proceedings and the scenes in which he stands in his father's old dimly-lit NY apartment, spouting clunky exposition are the only times when Heroes drags a little. Maybe that's Mohinder's power; telling us all what we already know in a patronising manner.

Even though Heroes' faults are often glaringly obvious, it rattles along at such a pace that they are easy to overlook. It's a remarkably adult slice of popcorn entertainment too with an often startlingly high level of grue and gore. When you have a big chunk of your ensemble being stalked by a killer intent on lopping off the top of your head and stealing your brain however, a bit of bloodletting is to be expected. This being on a major US network though, swearing is out of the question. Sure, you can have a lead character wake up on a mortuary slab with her insides showing, but there's a swift edit just as she starts to let out the understandable "Oh shit!".

The most impressive thing about Heroes thus far is that it has found its feet and its rhythm in double-quick time. There's been more incident already than there was in the whole first season of Lost and its time-hopping structure feels less like unnecessary padding than that show's incessant flashbacks. Like I said though, they're different shows and it's unfair to measure a fresh, new series against one that's had time to grow frustrating. I'm confident though that, in time, Heroes will be considered the better show, mostly because it is more concerned with taking the viewer on a wild ride than the evermore baffling chicanery of Lost, where the only people truly enjoying themselves anymore are the writers.

Kring has hinted at a five season run for Heroes and, who knows, that may be stretching the point a little. Something tells me though that we're going to have a lot of fun finding out.

I don't like American football - rugby for softarses, as I call it - one little bit. It's too slow and contains far too much unnecessary jargon for my liking. So why have I fallen head-over-heels for Friday Night Lights (Wednesday, 8pm, ITV4, Sky channel 120)? You would think the fact that I feel so strongly in my dislike towards gridiron that I would steer clear of it, but the fact is, I hate the sport but I love to watch films and TV about it.

From the fondly-remembered, albeit admittedly shit Goldie Hawn vehicle, Wildcats, which seemed to be on telly every school holiday during my childhood through to Oliver Stone's balletic paean to the sport and the money men hellbent on ruining it, Any Given Sunday, I don't think you can underestimate the knack that America's film and television makers have for turning this most sluggish of sports into something approaching high art. I guess it's the stop-start nature of American football that makes it translate so well into nail-gnawing drama. Watched live it's coma-inducing, but edited down to the highlights, then it's heart-stopping.

Friday Night Lights is a spin-off from the Billy Bob Thornton film of the same name and claims to be "inspired by" the H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger novel on which that movie was based. The names have been changed but the spirit remains the same. We're still following the fortunes of a small town, Texan high school football team (this time, the Dillon Panthers) and the effect that those fortunes have on the community. We even get snatches of that film's score from TX post-rockers, Explosions In The Sky and Connie Britton reprising her role as the coach's long-suffering wife and calming influence.

It shares the film's vibe of poetic elegance and slowly-unfurling, Altman-esque character study. The principles in FNL actually talk like real people do, most of the time, with the odd bit of grandstanding bombast thrown in for good measure (the nature of its subject allows for a little bluster though). It also looks beautiful; the scorched, sun-drenched palette giving each frame an ethereal glow.

Most of all though, it's a smartly-written and brilliantly acted show. The deus ex machina of having QB1, Jason Street (Scott Porter) sever his spinal cord in the opening episode doesn't feel too forced either, as it allows nervy, insecure back-up quarterback, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) to take centre stage and his lack of faith in his own abilities are mirrored by the Dillon citizens' own apprehensions.

Faith is the operative word here as the writers have hit upon a winning way of making the show's religious overtones more palatable, partly because belief, both in God and in the Panthers, is constantly being tested, but also because this is America's bible belt and considering how much of a hot button religion is these days, FNL's central themes end up taking on a deep resonance. When all's fucked up, you turn to God, but where do you turn when even He forsakes you? That's the lingering question posed here and even though the answers may seem pat (believe in yourself, take control of your own destiny, yada yada yada), the tangible sense that, to the townsfolk of Dillon, religion and football is all they have (echoed in the brilliant opening sequence of the second episode which shows various church congregations all across town praying for the wellbeing of their starting QB) is what anchors these cliches in believability.

Like I said, the cast is invariably excellent, with Kyle Chandler as conflicted everyman coach, Eric Taylor being the heart of the show and a master of understatement, while both Gilford and Taylor Kitsch essay different ends of the insecurity spectrum - Gilford's Matt Saracen is an introverted stranger to self-confidence while Kitsch's Tim Riggins over-compensates for his self-loathing by carousing and boozing away his talent or feuding with motormouth, egotistical running back, Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles). Connie Britton also brings surprising grace notes to what could have been a thankless role.

It's early doors yet for Friday Night Lights, but the signs are that this could be a classic. NBC have shown enough faith in it to commission a second season despite faltering ratings. Elegiac, poised and powerful, you owe it to yourself to give it a try, even though they do wear all that namby-pamby padding.

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Blogger Cindylover1969 said...

Friday Night Lights hasn't actually been renewed for a second season (yet), and I can't see it catching on in the UK (leaving aside it being on ITV4, there's the understandable resistance to American football plus the fact that the film flopped over here). I'm tempted to give it a go, but if I did I might have to start watching a British sports drama to balance it out, and I have an aversion to anything involving football (UK or US).

10 March 2007 at 23:48  
Blogger James said...

Whoo! First comment!

Anyway, according to Wiki, FNL has been picked up for a second run. You never know with Wiki though. It's hardly infallible.

Thanks for the comment though and avoid all British sports dramas like the plague. They're pretty much all shit.

12 March 2007 at 14:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should there be a Salary Cap in Football?
Personally I think there should be! It’s just getting to be stupid money in football at the top of the premiership!
It’s always the same teams at the top proving that football success is based purely on money which ruins the idea of it being a sport! They’ve done it in rugby, basketball, hockey and American football and it makes the sports more competitive and better to watch!
I do a little Spread Betting from time to time and most matches don’t hold much surprise who is going to win, its boring! I want to see a team at the bottom pulling off an amazing season beating last seasons winners in a close fought battle!
Make things fair! It shouldn’t be about money!
All there is all that money in the premiership and barely any of it stays in the UK so it’s not even helping the economy!
From my Spread Betting, if I ever win big (which is never, I’m unlucky) it’s still nothing compared to the average premiership players weekly wage!
This Rant was brought to you by Spread Betting Spike.

11 April 2008 at 06:09  

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