The Husband:

It happens every year. Just like the film industry, ideas seem to come in packs of two or three. In 2004, Lost fever infected the networks, and three deep mystery science-fiction shows were unveiled for the 2005-2006 season. Two made it a full season before being unceremoniously canceled (Invasion and Surface) while one didn’t even make it to midseason (Threshold). The quality of these shows are unimportant, because they were created to either capitalize on a trend or a repair a hole missing from the schedule. This works in the film world, too. In 1998, we had both Armageddon and Deep Impact. In the same year, we had both A Bug’s Life and Antz. In 2005 we had both Capote and Infamous (one was pushed back to 2006, can you guess which?). And this is not a new concept in Hollywood. I can trace back to most years started with the studio system and can point out virtually identical films coming out within the same few months. But with television this year, two things happened:

1. CBS tried once again to give us their version of what they think draws people into Grey’s Anatomy, but on their own network. That show is called Three Rivers.

2. After a staggering 15-year run, ER finally came to a close last season, and NBC frantically tried to recreate its medical drama glory. But this time, they decided split the show in two to hedge their bets but take up too much room on a schedule already reeling from one man named Jay Leno.

If you don’t feel like listening to my half-assed television history lesson for the remainder of this article, let me just break it down for you. So far, NBC’s Mercy has aired three episodes, NBC’s Trauma has aired two, and CBS’s Three Rivers has aired one. And how do they rank in terms of quality? The exact order I just put them in, with Mercy almost head-and-shoulders above Trauma and Three Rivers, with only a single episode, drudging the bottom of the lake.

The title is probably ironic.

The title is probably ironic.

So about that splitting ER into two parts. It’s really not at all complicated. Mercy is the character drama, and Trauma is the action show. Put together, these elements apparently made some of the best ER episodes of all time, but on their own, it can be a struggle. So far, however, Mercy is a remarkably competent (big praise, I know) slice-of-life story about the unsung heroes of hospitals — the nurses. This year they have come back in a big way, and while I haven’t seen an episode of similarly themed Nurse Jackie and Hawthorne (two other nurse dramas, unseen because I don’t have Showtime and I avoid networks like TNT and USA like the plague), I can tell you that it’s a refreshing change of pace. Surgeons get all the glory, but nurses are the backbone of any hospital. Taylor Schilling leads the show as former army nurse Veronica Callahan, and she is in the top five best new characters on television this season. Tough and hard-edged but sympathetic, she seems like a real woman doing an unappreciated job, and her quiet energy is such a welcome respite from the outwardly emotional hysterics that populate Seattle Grace and Oceanside Wellness. She is a true find, and her personal life storylines (her troubled marriage, her drunk family, her affair with Men In Trees‘s James Tupper) help the very reality-skewing Jersey City-set show and are handled by the writers with what at least appears to be a great deal of honesty.

I haven’t been able to get a handle of many of the remaining characters, but Guillermo Diaz (he of Weeds and Half Baked) does well playing against type, and while the casting of Michelle Trachtenberg as rookie nurse Chloe Payne brings the wrong kind of tone to the character, casting a lesser known and more sullen actress would have made the character completely unimportant. My favorite element, oddly enough, seems to be the reversal of roles, as James LeGros’s doctor character, Dan Harris, is mostly seen on the outskirts of storylines, much how most nurses are treated on nearly every other hospital drama. (You know how Nurse Olivia was just let go from Seattle Grace at Grey’s Anatomy? It took me a good thirty minutes to remember that she was the one who gave George syphilis after getting it from Karev way back in the early seasons.) And, almost more than anything, I appreciate the fleeting comparisons the show finds between Jersey City and the warzone of Iraq. Both are lost places in their own way, and it’s haunting without being obvious. This is definitely staying on my Season Pass list, and I hope that its unfortunate placement Wednesday at 10 (it belongs later, but thanks to The Jay Leno Show, half of NBC’s schedule seems misplaced.)

HOLY SHIT THIS IS EXPENSIVE! AND ON FIRE!

HOLY SHIT THIS IS EXPENSIVE! AND ON FIRE!

Trauma, so far, is just a big, slick, expensive version of Emergency!, a spin-off of a spin-off (Dragnet to Adam-12 to…) which ran for several seasons back in the 1970s (six seasons plus a handful of TV movies). From the several episodes I’ve seen of that show (starring a young Kevin Tighe, a.k.a. Locke’s father on Lost), I really can’t see much of a difference between the two programs other than its location and its budget. I complained that I couldn’t get too much of a handle on Mercy‘s characters, but at least I can give you a general impression of their internal monologue. Not so on Trauma, which is as surface-level as one could get outside of a CW primetime soap. New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis is, so far, the only character with any personality (unfortunately, it’s a shitty one) and the rest get lost in the shuffle.

What Trauma has going for it, though, is a whole lot of money behind it, something that could cause it to be canceled very soon. Paired up with the fledgling Heroes, Trauma continues to represent how NBC is hemorrhaging money and viewers, and by not putting the show at a proper 10 p.m. spot, it’s getting crushed by the two CBS Chuck Lorre sitcoms. But oh man, does it ever get saved by its big action sequences. Nothing has been spared in the high-octane situations that structure the show, from the mostly unnecessary season opener that blew up part of a building to what can’t be cheap San Francisco location shooting. But with an HD DVR and a 52″ HD LCD Eco-Series Bravia television, I’ve never missed my old stomping grounds of the San Francisco Bay Area more. I’m staying to watch this show just from how much is shot there, how [mostly] accurate the set-ups are, and even its inclusion of mayor Gavin Newsome’s actress wife in the supporting cast. My wife can tell you more about the show’s focus on North Beach, where she worked for two years.

My issue, though, is seemingly contradictory. The action is what makes the show work, but it’s a chore sitting through a single episode. It’s fun to yell out “Trauma!” whenever something terrible happens, but in the second episode, we had four separate cases of trauma including the Embarcadero Street Fair getting pummeled by a car piloted by a man having a stroke. This is enough for three episodes on Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s almost a sidenote here. It’s too much action in a show that desperately needs it to survive. But goddamn, does it look expensive. And that expense kind of negates the verité style it’s going for, so I don’t know what to think anymore.

I would rather see Alex O'Laughlin do anything else.

I would rather see Alex O'Laughlin do anything else.

Three Rivers has only aired one episode, and this is after it was heavily recast (which happened to Alex O’Loughlin’s last show Moonlight as well) as it was decided to air the second episode first. No matter, because the show helped drop CBS to one of its lowest-rated Sunday nights ever, being paired up with Cold Case. (All the family viewers and young professionals pretty much abandon the channel after The Amazing Race is over.) It’s not long for this world, and for good reason. It thinks that we want to be preached to right off the gate, and so this drama about an organ transplant facility in Pittsburgh just doesn’t work. It’s unfair to judge it based on one episode (and one that isn’t the damned pilot), but when a show starts off talking down to us, it’s not a good feeling. ABC’s Grey’s started off as a much frothier show (I would even call it a dramedy) and only later fell into its soapy rhythms, but Three Rivers doesn’t seem to have time for that. A major problem: I understand its decision to include the story about where the organs are coming from in order to humanize the situation, but it’s mostly unnecessary and I hope they abandon it, because it makes the characters back at the facility complete ciphers, just going through the procedural motions. Even O’Loughlin, as famed surgeon Andy Yablonski, isn’t enough to draw me back for much longer, and I once again fear that Alfre Woodard is one of the most misused actresses of her generation. It’s not the worst new drama of the season, nor is it the most obnoxious (so far, that seems to be the tonally misshapen The Forgotten), but if it doesn’t pick up soon, it will be canceled before I even give up on it. (Remember CBS’s hospital drama 3 Lbs.? No? It was on less than five years ago. Still don’t remember it? Exactly. But I watched all three episodes.)

So give Mercy a chance, and I don’t think you’ll regret it. Its cases, while mostly unoriginal, are handled delicately, and the characters feel like actual people. The other two shows? If you’re not into high-definition cinematography of San Francisco or learning about the intricacies of putting new hearts into pregnant women, they probably won’t work for you, either.

The Wife:
I worry about Mercy‘s necessity. Fundamentally, I like the show. And I really didn’t think I would. When NBC was promoting Mercy, they almost entirely glossed over the fact that this show is a narrative about an Iraq war veteran struggling to reintegrate into civilian life, instead using its promo time to make it look like some slick, glossy glorification of nursing (which indeed deserves such glory) and the bonds of female friendship. Case in point: even if Veronica’s background as a soldier was included, what I remember from those promos is the shots of the girls at the bar together, drinking and smiling.

The hurt backpack.

The hurt backpack.

I do think Mercy, as a show about a female Iraq war veteran, an Army nurse not unlike my mother (who once made her non-military living as an OR nurse), is utterly necessary. It is important for us to experience narratives of soldiers returning from conflicts overseas and to understand what it’s like for them to try to carry on with all the horror they’ve experienced. And it’s especially critical that this is a narrative about a female soldier. For all the women who fight for this country, too many artistic renderings of soldiers focus on the men and their experiences. I even applaud the decision to focus this story around the life of an Army medic, a crucial military position I think many forget about. My mother never (thankfully) saw conflict. But when I hear Veronica talk about setting up field hospitals, I can’t help but think of my mother. She knows how to do that, and has done so many times in her life. I’ve seen what those hospitals look like, as we always went to the family day at the end of the Army Reserve’s two-week summer training exercises where her medical unit practiced setting up those hospitals. So this character is perhaps doubly unique to me. I know the women that she is drawn from, my mother and her friends, and that alone makes her utterly real to me.
But although I think Veronica is a starkly unique character and its important for us to have a narrative of a female Iraq war veteran, I do think that gets lost in the way NBC advertised Mercy and its inevitable pigeonhole as just another medical show. I don’t care so much about the cases Veronica deals with, but I care deeply about her inability to share her wartime experiences with her no-longer-estranged husband. Seeing her hold his head in her hands so that he cannot face her when she talks about losing her friend in the field was truly effective, and I hope those of you who watch Mercy continue to tune in for those stunning portraits of a soldier coming home to a world she no longer knows how to navigate.

As for Trauma, the best parts of the show are screaming “Trauma!” when something traumatic happens, and realizing that I probably walked through the set dozens of times when I worked in North Beach. In fact, there was a scene filmed on Green St. between Grant and Broadway in the second episode that I know I’d walked through during tear-down one day when my coworker and I were heading up to North Beach Pizza for lunch. (I was extra impressed that they got a shot of the new location of North Beach Pizza, which only opened in April or May . . . directly across the street from its former location.) This scene happened to feature a homeless drug addict trying to scam the EMTs into giving him morphine, and I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if the show stumbled upon some of North Beach’s actual colorful homeless people. I will keep watching simply to see restaurants I used to frequent and, hopefully, a glimpse of Knifey Knife (a homeless woman who once threatened my friend at the bakery across from my old office with a pumpkin carving knife) and Charlotte (a kindly homeless woman who enjoyed wigs and often sat outside my office, complimenting me on my shoes). Hell, if one of my couriers, Junior, made it into B-roll on Anthony Bourdain’s San Francisco episode of No Reservations, he might even turn up in a long shot, riding his bike down Columbus.

There is really nothing good about Three Rivers.

Advertisements

The Wife:

While I don’t recall ever watching the original run of Rob Thomas’ Cupid back in 1998 with Paula Marshall and Jeremy Piven, I admit that I am the kind of person who would be drawn to such a premise. I love Greco-Roman mythology and I enjoy seeing modern adaptations and spins on it, and offering my “I’m friends with a Classics professor so I totally know what I’m talking about” judgments on whether or not those adaptations succeed. (Although the CW’s Valentine, about Greek gods living in L.A., just didn’t seem to pique any level of interest in me at all. Nor in anyone else, apparently.) So being that I don’t recall ever watching Cupid in the 90s – which I realize now was probably because it was airing on Saturday nights, which just means ABC wanted it dead from the beginning and that I was also probably too busy going to sleepovers, being dared to call boys I liked and read them bedtime stories, to tune in – I figured I would give the reboot a chance.

And you know what? That show totally doesn’t suck.

The generosity accorded to Rob Thomas to reboot his formerly failed series by ABC, however, was not as generous in its feelings toward this show as I am. The original run of the series produced 15 episodes, and aired 14. This run was only 7 episodes, intended as a try-out for fall, because that’s how television producers work these days. ABC killed a few great things this year, one of which might rhyme with “Smushing Lazies,” and I think that left viewers a little mistrustful of anything new ABC had planned to debut in the spring. In the Motherhood, while admittedly not great, was interesting simply for the fact that it was a female-led show about an issue that nearly every woman on the planet can relate to (if she isn’t currently a mommy, she certainly had one once), and had a lot of potential to grow and further explore the current parenting climate (which in the last ten years has switched to the kind of stay-at-home-and-do-everything-right-and-organic-and-be-totally-involved-and-honest-with-your-kids idea embraced by Jessica St. Claire’s character) in relationship to other models (the working mom, the cool mom who raised her kids counter to any advice and everything turned out just fine). But it never quite found its footing and so failed its try-out. Better Off Ted is lucky its quirky mcquirkfest survived. Cupid should have.

Bobby Cannavale: Right on the mark as Cupid.

Bobby Cannavale: Right on the mark as Cupid.

Why am I so gung-ho about this show? For one, I think Thomas found the right lead in Bobby Cannavale and was smart to move the show from Chicago to New York. Cannavale is good-looking in an Italian Mama’s Boy sort of way, and incredibly affable. It makes perfect sense that he would be the kind of person strangers would invite into their lives if he offered to help them, and it makes perfect sense that he’s the kind of person clever enough to manipulate social situations to facilitate his matchmaking. In short, if Bobby Cannavale asked me to fly to NYC from New Orleans to cater a party as his Trevor Pierce (renamed from the original Trevor Hale) did in one episode where he reunited a Cajun caterer with her high school Iraqi war vet sweetheart, I probably would. As for the move from Chicago to NYC, NYC is often a space that invites fantasy in many popular stories. I’ll name only one example here that should serve as the paramount one: Miracle on 54th Street. It’s a city with its own mythology and a long history of being a dreammaking place: for immigrants, for actors, dancers and musicians, for artists and also for writers. It’s also a city in which people move and mingle with others numerous times a day, but promotes the isolation of modernity in that while its denizens inhabit mutual spaces, they don’t often connect with each other. I buy it as a place a god would try to turn into matchmaking central, especially because his therapist’s single’s groups prove to be an integral part of how the show’s main and peripheral characters, and how they are all trying to break away from the isolation of modernity and connect with others. There was talk in the production process that Cupid would relocate to Los Angeles, and while Francesca Lia Block has convinced me that L.A. can be a space of magical realism, I don’t think it would have worked nearly as well as New York did.

Furthermore, I like the idea of a show that believes in the concept of true love. We live in an age where the CW exploits people’s relationship issues on national television with Hitched or Ditched, where we look at the tabloids every day to see if John & Kate are going to fall the fuck apart (uh . . . yeah, that’s probably going to happen since the couple has a very special “announcement” pending; and I hate that I don’t watch that show and know about this), and where hookups have somehow replaced dating.  We all know that the divorce rate is high, and we all know that my home state has leveraged a terrible and oppressive measure against its non-heterosexual residents that bar them from even daring to challenge that statistic with their same-sex relationships. When I look at the divorce rate and the disappearance of date culture, it seems like a good number of us have given up even trying to sustain a partnership; that we prefer to be alone, save for a brief interaction every now and again that we don’t have to put any further energy into. While I wouldn’t say that having a life partner is right for everyone, I certainly like having someone to watch TV with every day. It makes me feel like this big, giant world is less lonely. That isolation of modernity thing I was talking about? Having someone to go through life with certainly makes me feel less isolated.

So when I see so much negativity toward relationships in the reality television world and in the real actual human world, I can’t help but be smitten by a scripted show that tries to remind us of the good parts of being in a relationship with someone, and how fun it can be to take that plunge. Cupid may only be a string of meet-cutes, but it’s also about love overcoming obstacles. None of the matches Cannavale’s Cupid makes in the 7-episode run are easily procured, and, somehow, through his crazy/divine providence, he is able to unite these couples in the promise of everlasting love. I’ve already mentioned the Cajun caterer and the Iraq veteran, which came to a bittersweet ending as the vet announces that he’s getting stop-lossed and sent back for a third tour of duty, something he planned to avoid by running away to Canada and never coming back – only to change his mind and do his tour of duty, knowing that if he lived, his Cajun caterer would be worth coming home to in order to live out their days under the willow trees in their hometown in Louisiana.

But perhaps my favorite of these divine matches came in the final episode, featuring adorable Broadway ingénue Kerry Butler as a working-class masseuse from South Boston in love with a man above her station (whom she broke up with because he never let her meet his family because of her wicked pissah of an accent). Cupid’s therapist, Claire, tries to find out his origin by hiring a linguist (one of her patients, as well) to listen to him speak and determine his origins. The “using linguistics to discover Trevor’s origins” plot was recycled from the show’s first incarnation, but the My Fair Lady angle was entirely new to this version of the series. But Cupid performs a bait-and-switch, setting up Kerry Butler with illocution lessons in exchange for massages, during which she forms a friendship with the linguist over several delightful My Fair Lady-esque diction lessons. Butler’s character is almost ready to give up, and declares that it doesn’t feel right to her to hide herself just to impress a guy, at which point her linguistics tutor reveals that he, himself, has been lying for most of his life. He, too, is from South Boston, but wasn’t taken seriously on his first day at Princeton because of his accent and worked very hard to eliminate all traces of his working-class roots from his speech. After sending Kerry off to meet with her ex at a fancy, uptown party, Trevor realizes in talking to the linguist that, perhaps, he’s been guiding Miss Butler toward the wrong beau and disguises the linguist as a waiter to crash the party and tell Kerry how he feels. After making a scene in which Butler’s intended’s parents reprimand “the help” for being so clumsy, Kerry throws off the upper-class accent she’s worked so hard for and embraces who she really is, as well as the Henry Higgins who reminded her of that.

If I had one complaint about Cupid, it would be that Sarah Paulson’s Dr. Claire McCrae never quite felt real enough – and not for Paulson’s lack of trying. She’s a great actress, with a lot of range, and if you want to see how great she can be, please watch her arc as a Pinkerton on Deadwood and her completely stunning comic performance in Peyton Reed’s 1960s screwball romance send up, Down with Love, in which you will also be treated to Ewan McGregor’s delightfully Ewan McGregor-y Southern accent. Paulson never got to break through her material here, and always seemed too stiff to fit into this world, which is only justifiable in the fact that her awkwardness in the role highlighted the irony that she, single and totally uncomfortable with people, should be in charge of teaching people how to find love through commonality. I think, if the show had gotten more of a chance, Claire would have eventually felt more real as her own walls started to break down and we learned as much about her as she does about Trevor Pierce.

I’ll miss this show, and I’m sad that we live in a world that’s unaccepting of its existence. But I’ll cherish that “My Fair Massuese” episode, if only because linguists are awesome and the following line is one of the best things I’ve heard on television recently:

“Nothing says ‘Thank You’ like the phonetic alphabet on cupcakes!” – Kerry Butler


The Husband:

A few points of interest:

1.) I adore Sarah Paulson, but between this and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, she’s gaining quite a few detractors. She’s not to the point of being an absolute show-killer just yet, but her dedication to her craft, which allows her to make very interesting decisions with very intense and sometimes unlikable characters, tends to give her a bad wrap, at least on television. But I can assure you that she’s one of the most versatile actresses of her generation, including her deeply strange performance that I saw in 2005’ Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, also starring Jessica Lange, Christian Slater and Josh Lucas.

2.) I started noticing this right around the time that Kidnapped, Six Degrees, The Black Donnellys and 3 lbs. were all canceled in the same television season, in that unless a show was a Law & Order or a CSI, any show that filmed in New York was about 90% guaranteed to be canceled. And this year, that trend came back in a big way. With no exception this year, no show that premiered in the 2008-2009 television season and was shot (not just set) in New York was renewed for another season. (And Castle doesn’t count, because it’s shot in L.A.) This would include Life on Mars, The Unusuals and now Cupid. (And last year’s Lipstick Jungle, which moved on into this year, couldn’t survive either. But hell, at least it got a second season unlike the majorly similar Cashmere Mafia.) A part of me wants to say it’s the distancing location that seems to turn many non-New York viewers off, as if these shows take place in a world far too unlike the viewers’ that it simply doesn’t pique their interest. But, more than anything, it’s the fact that it’s so goddamned expensive to shoot in NYC, so even when ratings are doing okay, the networks use the expenses as an excuse to shut down production. I’m amazed Gossip Girl got renewed for a third season, since the ratings are so abysmal, but it’s definitely a pop cultural flagship for the network, so canceling it would just make the CW lose more viewers.

A book recommendation for ANYONE who liked the Left of the Dial episode of Cupid: Rob Sheffields Love Is a Mix Tape.

A book recommendation for ANYONE who liked the "Left of the Dial" episode of Cupid: Rob Sheffield's Love Is a Mix Tape.

3.) While I loved almost every episode of this show, my favorite, simply from a dramatic perspective, was “Left of the Dial,” in which a down-on-his-luck radio deejay tracks down his favorite caller and starts a relationship with her and her two children. It was the sweetest, least negative and most realistic episode of Cupid’s altogether too short season, and it’s a shame that not enough people stuck around to even watch the episode.