Last Week in TV Land

Probably not many people believe it's possible to project one's thoughts fifty years into the future and make contact with someone living then. But credibility isn't the point of the NBC drama, Medium. This week, heroine Alison BuBois came across a film clip from 1959, showing a therapeutic session with a mental patient in which she claimed to be living in 2005 and, not only that, but also claimed to be Alison DuBois. Naturally that initially gave the real Alison the creeps, as it would almost anyone. But, gradually, she came to see that it was a message from the woman to herself asking her to get involved in a situation that was occurring in 2005. So, that's what Alison did, and everything turned out happily. The premise of the episode, of course, was that time is not really what we conceive it to be. What it actually is has been a great philosophical puzzle down the ages.  Medium is unlikely to solve that problem. But the show is to be congratulated for playing with it. It makes for more ingenious plotting than we usually get from TV melodrama.

The State of the Union Address can be seen as a public spectacle, quite independent of anything the president actually says. And when we view it that way, the question becomes:

Was it a good show or not?

We have to admit that the attendees were all dressed fairly neatly and seemed to have paid careful attention to their make-up. They didn't look quite as good as the audience at a Hollywood awards event but they didn't look bad, either. The cameras panned around actively, showing scores of famous people in a single sweep. That, of course, was a thing to make the public's heart go pitty-pat. There wasn't much overt humor, but occasionally we would see someone smiling broadly as though he or she were in on an inside joke. Senator Clinton did that several times and it was moderately entertaining. Some drama was introduced by showing who got up and cheered when the president made a point and who sat looking glum, or at least, thoughtful. That seemed, mainly, to be done by blocks rather than by individuals. In an outbreak of spontaneity, Senator McCain did applaud more vigorously than most others when the president mentioned the evil of earmarks. And that, though not climactic, was marginally interesting. The show went on for a little more than an hour and by the time it was winding down it had begun to get a little repetitive. It wasn't a complete dog of a program but it wasn't boffo either. Rating it, we could say it was better than NCIS but not nearly up to 24, perhaps about in the Desperate Housewives range. Whether it should be renewed is a real question. It's on the cusp.

The Door In The Floor, now running on HBO, was released in 2004, and directed by Tod Williams from a novel by John Irving. It's the kind of film that leaves you wondering whether you've seen something moving or just pure schlock. Maybe that's because there's some of both in it. Ostensibly a story of grief, it tries to incorporate so many other elements the grief can appear to be no more than a device to move the other stuff along. The plot involves a summer internship for a teenage boy as assistant to a famed children's story writer. But when the boy arrives on the New England island where the writer lives he finds himself projected into family dysfunctions well beyond the capabilities of his experience. The writer, played with near over-the-top brio by Jeff Bridges, and his emotionally paralyzed wife, who nonetheless is given a fine warmth by Kim Basinger, are in the process of dissolving their marriage. The boy becomes the wife's lover and the writer's confidante, of sorts, as the libertarian employer pursues peculiar and, perhaps, degenerate sexual adventures with the island's women. So, there is plenty of sexuality, which always gives a film a lift if it's well done, as for the most part it is here. The couple is still in shock over the deaths of their two teenaged sons some five or six year previously in a terrible automobile accident. The horror of that event lends the story substance but, still, we end up wondering who these people are and whether they should evoke our sympathy. The acting is good and the scenery wonderful, but like anything coming from Irving, the story has a made-upness which is always being shoved in our faces.

The biggest change in television over the past several decades has been the increasing willingness of popular entertainment to acknowledge that life sometimes is unfair and results only in hideous and irreversible mistreatment. That was the theme of this week's Without A Trace. A marine, under the threat of having his mother slaughtered, was forced falsely to confess to raping a Japanese woman. Then, after he got out of prison, he was habitually harassed by the police and eventually murdered by the man who actually had committed the rape. There was no upside to the story, other than the mother's finally getting proof that her son was the decent man she had always thought him to be. It's curious that television melodrama is often more ready to portray what really happens to people than television news is. We're willing to grant a more expansive reality license to fiction than we are to genres that supposedly deal in fact. And, more and more, TV series like Without A Trace are taking advantage of the grant. We can hope they're having an effect on how people think politically. But, perhaps, that's too much to expect.

Probably the best adventure series on cable TV is the Sci Fi Channel's Stargate SG1. Now in its ninth season, the show tells of a highly secret Air Force base created to make use of technology which permits instantaneous space travel. The pertinent device is a "Stargate," invented not by humans but by an ancient race which scattered replicas of the instrument throughout the universe. People can travel from one Stargate to another virtually instantaneously, defying the previously understood laws of space and time. SG1, the intrepid team which travels offworld to explore and to try to protect the world from intergalactic villains, seems to encounter in the vastness of space the same kinds of political and moral problems that unsettle things here on earth. This year, the new bad guys are the Ori, a race of beings with super technological powers who are trying to convince the universe that they are gods. And the worship they demand is of a distinctly fundamentalist variety -- no questions asked, so to speak. On other worlds, they always seem to find disciples whose minds are already disposed toward Ori-type devotion. So, far they haven't managed a breakthrough into earth, but if they do it's not hard to image a religious revival of epic proportions. It's curious how on TV, people who think logically and critically are heroes, whereas in the political arena they tend to be denounced as soreheads. The influence of shows like Stargate SG1 may not be as potent as we have supposed.

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