Last Week in TV Land

Let's see, where do we stand on Desperate Housewives now? Bree is a drunk. Gabrielle's mother is just as awful as Gabrielle has always said she was. A hit man has been sent to kill Paul Young. Susan has got married -- to her old husband -- not for love but for insurance. Lynnette and Tom continue to be the most idiotic parents ever seen on the planet. And we, the viewers are warned to be wary of those who are eager to help us. The last part we can accept without reservation. But what about the rest? There's no humor in it, and no horror either. And if bizarre behavior is to hold our attention, it seems like there ought to be either a little humor, or a little horror, in the mix. Soap operas depend on catching the audience up in the lives of the characters. But the hooks here are very weak and very brittle.

This week, 24 presented us with another gripping episode. The underlying tension this season is being served up by a craven president of the United States who seems willing to do anything to escape blame. He has supplied anti-Russian terrorists with the information they need to assassinate the Russian president and his wife as they drive to the airport to return home after the signing, of all things, an antiterrorist agreement with the United States. The American president's wife, however, knowing what her husband has done, jumped in the car with the Russians to ride with them to the airport. We can't be sure whether she has faith that her husband will divert the cavalcade in time to thwart the ambush. Meanwhile, Jack Bauer is scurrying around trying to find the nerve gas which caused the president to give in to the terrorists' demand. So, the episode ended with much uncertainty. There has been a good deal of speculation about whether Jack's unorthodox techniques in fighting villains signals support of the Bush tactics. But since President Charles Logan is clearly a Republican, it's hard to say that the program is slanted in favor of the current administration. 24 is an exciting program, but I hope no one is taking it as a guide to either national security or foreign policy. That would lead to a serious distortion of reality which already is more distorted than we can stand.

The fascination of Hollywood for oxymoron is probably eternal. It's very much in evidence in The Upside of Anger, where the contradiction in terms is the title itself. The acting, though, is pretty good. Joan Allen as a woman more angry than any human has a right to be does manage to present us with something really terrifying. And Kevin Costner as a retired baseball star manages to deflect her anger in a style that's almost believable. The plot involves a woman who thinks her husband has run off to Sweden with his secretary. The fantastic feature is that over the course of several years neither she nor any of her four daughters tries to get in touch with the deserter, even at times of serious illness. Along about a quarter of the way through the film any conscious viewer begins to suspect that the husband isn't in Sweden or anywhere else, for that matter. And, at long last, his body is found in a well behind his property into which he fell while walking in the woods at night. And, then, after a brief moment of grief, everybody is very happy -- the wife, the four daughters, and the former major leaguer, who will now be able to move into the family with less threat of the hysterical outbreaks he had to endure up till the discovery. And this happiness is, what? The upside of anger? At least, nobody used the term "closure" and for that we can be grateful. It's not a bad movie if you set aside the premise on which it's based.

There are many flawed ideas in the world and every now and then, one of them grabs hold of an entire industry. American television at the moment is deluded by the notion that creepiness always makes for exciting entertainment. The concept was at work this week in an episode of Criminal Minds, a series which has some good acting and interesting characters but, at the moment, not much else. The show is based on the premise that the FBI has a team of ingenious profilers who can think like criminals think, no matter how twisted the evildoers are. Consequently, the team members themselves are not what Mr. Average Guy (that mythical creature) would call normal. In this case, they dug into the mind of a triple murderer in a small Tennessee community and discovered that he was a "nice" kid who had, unfortunately, gone seriously crazy and thought he was delivering an angel to his hometown by killing and eviscerating people and, perhaps, drinking their blood. Viewers were, of course, treated to much of his artistry and quite a few fuzzy shots to indicate that his mind wasn't exactly clear. Whether there are such people doesn't make much difference. The issue for TV is whether they can be made fascinating, and in this instance the boy was simply bloody and pathetic, leaving one with the sense of having eaten too much at a very bad dinner.

Dancing With the Stars seems to have turned in a squabble between the judges and the TV audience about whether Jerry Rice is a good dancer. And the judges have the better of the argument. Rice was a very good football player and he has an engaging personality but as a dancer he leaves something to be desired. Is he better than the average guy who likes to enjoy himself on the dance floor? Perhaps. Does he approach professional skill? Not even close. He's too stiff and uncertain to create the illusion that good dance demands. But, he is popular, and on this program popularity matches judgment in determining who will win. The whole thing will be over by the weekend and nobody needs to anguish over it. Jerry Rice will certainly be a Hall of Fame football player and that should be enough to keep his ego charged over the coming decades.

Science Fiction on TV is generally no more than standard melodrama with a few futuristic tics. But Stargate Atlantis this week achieved something a little beyond the ordinary. A young officer returns to consciousness in the Atlantis infirmary to discover he has no memory whatsoever of his previous life. He is assured that his memory may return, and that he lost it while was being held captive by the Wraith, a race of demons who seek only to kill and eat the inhabitants of Atlantis. Over time, however, because of the curious way he's treated by his companions, he becomes suspicious that they're not telling him everything they know. And, is he ever right about that. It turns that he is, himself, a Wraith who has been treated with an experimental drug to turn him into a human. The Wraith are hybrids composed of human and insect components, and the new drug suppresses the insect elements of the mixture. Finding this out, he gets angry and feels he has been betrayed. And this, in turn, appears to revive his Wraith characteristics. The episode plays on the deep-seated human fear that we are not what we tell ourselves we are and that we may, in fact, be something that would horrify our conscious selves. One wonders where that phobia comes from. But in this case, the origin is clear, and the plot turns on whether the young man's seemingly humane impulses will be able to win out, at least momentarily, over his bug infected self. The underlying question is whether the conscious mind has any control over us at all, or whether we are really just bundles of savage impulses. It's a query history has yet to resolve.

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