Sunday, October 7, 2012

Vegas, Revolution, and Elementary: Something Old, Something Borrowed, Something New

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 7, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller star in Elementary, a new drama series on CBS

The 2012 fall television season is in full swing – most of the new TV series have premiered and many old favourites are back with new episodes. Back at the beginning of September I have to admit that I was far less excited about the new shows than I have been in many years. Few jumped out at me, and for the first time in a while, there wasn’t a single standout show I was eagerly awaiting (as I had anticipated The Walking Dead and Awake in years past). It seemed like if anything, Fall 2012 was destined to be a season of more-of-the-same: a post-apocalyptic story with conspiracy undertones reminiscent of Lost and Terra Nova, an Americanized Sherlock, at least two Modern Family-inspired sitcoms, a new ode to Justified complete with a gun-toting cowboy/sheriff who plays by own rules, and yet another Matthew Perry comedy!

To my delight and surprise more than a few of these shows have far exceeded my admittedly low expectations. Today I’m looking at three network dramas – Vegas (CBS), Revolution (NBC), and Elementary (CBS) – which, while classic examples of some well-worn television tropes, have so far turned out to be remarkably rich variations on those themes. (Next week, I’ll weigh in similarly on some of the networks’ best new comedy offerings.) 2012 may not be a year for creative risk, but it may turn out to be the year of slow and steady, with more than enough solid network fare to keep you warm throughout the fall.

Dennis Quaid (top left) and Michael Chiklis (right) star in Vegas, on CBS

Inspired by the true story of Ralph Lamb, a rancher who reluctantly ends up sheriff of Las Vegas during its most volatile era, Vegas (CBS) is a period crime drama set in the early 60s from writer Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas). Vegas stars film actor Dennis Quaid (The Right Stuff) in his first ever regular series role as Sheriff Lamb and Michael Chiklis (The Shield, No Ordinary Family) as Vincent Savino, a Chicago mobster whose casino seems to be at the centre of most of the local intrigue. Also on board is Canadian Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) as Katherine O'Connell, an Assistant District Attorney with long ties to the Lamb family who seems largely unaware of the corruption in her own office.

We arrive in Las Vegas in 1960 – with its newly-minted Gaming Commission, an ambitious mayor eager to grow his city, a corrupt sheriff, and an even more corrupt District Attorney – a community on that liminal threshold between what it was and what it is about to become. (As one character describes it: “Sometimes I feel like there's a thousand foot neon wave on the other side of that ridge that's gonna crash down on us.”) Enter Ralph Lamb – a WWII veteran who just wants to keep his ranch safe from the casinos and organized crime, but is instead tapped by the mayor to step in for the absentee sheriff. The situation is actually refreshingly uncomplicated, with Lamb in the classic noir role of the operative with his own moral code, whose mere presence disrupts the status quo: the man with no agenda in a town where everyone’s got an angle. Quaid inhabits the role seamlessly, having grown even more into his grizzled Harrison Ford-esque looks, and he seems right at home on the small screen playing the loner sheriff with a permanent scowl on his face.

Even without the cowboy hats, this mixture of classic Western and crime procedural with a touch of noir would remind anyone of FX’s Justified, Graham Yost’s often sublime adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens stories. (Justified’s much anticipated fourth season will begin in January). Vegas, with twenty-two episodes a season to Justified’s thirteen, is more likely to invest in the episodic nature of the genre, and the show doesn’t (yet) boast characters with the rich quirkiness of Justified. Still, Vegas burns slow, and burns steady: a solid crime procedural with good atmosphere, and above par acting, writing, and cinematography. Vegas is better than other comparable shows and seems committed to the procedural formula, while still remaining invested in the show’s internal continuity.

And so far Vegas has resisted the temptation of that too-cute-for-words set dressing that often makes Mad Men so, well, maddening (‘Look Ma, I’m playing with plastic bags!’). Last year’s twin 60s-era casualties, Pan Am and The Playboy Club also both seemed to privilege the period setting and locations over story and character. In Vegas, the setting is clearly a stage for the action, and the show is essentially a crime procedural, rather than a period drama. Still, when the show steps into the time and place, it does it well: there’s a shot in the pilot episode of Lamb and his horse galloping down the Vegas Strip in pursuit of a fleeing biker that’s alone is worth the price of admission.

Vegas has the pacing and confidence of a much more mature production, and the tension between Chiklis and Quaid has already begun to simmer. It just feels right, and with Pileggi at the helm (and with writer/producer Greg Walker, formerly of Without a Trace, on board as show runner), Vegas may well be the most promising new network drama of the year.

Billy Burke, Elizabeth Mitchell, Giancarlo Esposito, & Tracy Spiridakos in Revolution, on NBC

Created by Eric Kripke (Supernatural), produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), and with a pilot episode directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 and 2), NBC’s new post-apocalyptic science fiction drama Revolution certainly seems to have the right pedigree. But for all that behind-the-scenes star power, there’s something about the series that still feels just a little too familiar, and though I do recommend it, that recommendation comes with a few reservations. The show’s conceit – a stark portrayal of what our world might become if, overnight and for no apparent reason, all the electricity suddenly went out – was certainly compelling enough to draw me in for the first episode, but time will tell whether or not the series has the writing and characters required for it to have any staying power.

I should confess up front that though most examples of the post-Lost genus haven’t much interested me, Revolution has been growing on me with every passing episode. It is a lot more swashbuckle-y than most shows of this sort (the choreographed swordplay and acrobatic hand-to-hand fight scenes are really quite fun), and I am getting less distracted by some of the more gaping inconsistencies in the show’s basic premise. Most flagrantly: the show seems to have forgotten that human civilization progressed just fine prior to the commercialization of electricity in the 1880s, and it is difficult to me to swallow that only 15 years after its disappearance we would be thrown back to mores and technology essentially out of the Middle Ages: has no-one ever heard of the steam engine? The non-electric telegraph? Besides, didn’t colonial powers succeed in conquering the world and establishing orderly—if oppressive—empires without the need for airplanes, satellites, or two-way radio? (Also, how does everyone’s hair – men and women alike – look so darn coiffed? If all electrical impulses are being dampened, why would the human brain continue to function? These are only a couple of the fun questions that might make you want to change the channel.) It is frustrating of course when a series can be so smart on the one hand, and so unthinking on another, but as the story moves forward, I find myself more and more able to tamp down those screaming voices. The voices aren’t quite stilled yet, however, and I do generally prefer my science fiction not to require checking your brain at the door – though these scenarios that are only half-thought through seem to have become a lot more common since Lost. But in terms of that new SF TV, which sometimes seems to veer into speculative fantasy, there is much in Revolution to enjoy.  While the weird science behind the power outage will no doubt remain the show’s driving mystery, so far Revolution’s best moments are when it feels like The Walking Dead, without all those pesky zombies.

Billy Burke is outstanding as Miles Matheson, the ex-Marine turned unwilling revolutionary, uncle to young Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), and bearer of swords and secrets. And Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) is perfectly menacing as Captain Neville, a former insurance adjustor turned enforcer and all around post-apocalyptic badass psychopath. The least compelling of the cast so far as  those young characters who came of age after the technological collapse (Charlie and her brother Danny, played by Graham Rogers), but hopefully they too will find their voices as the season progresses.

A couple of moments already stand out in Revolution’s early episodes. In a world in which ones memories are stored almost exclusively as digital information, the poignant image of Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips), who has been  trapped for 15 years thousands of miles away from her children, staring intently at her long-dead iPhone, rang particularly true. And I was surprised myself at how powerful was the show’s suggestion that the Stars and Stripes might become once again a symbol of revolution, rebellion, and resistance, decades after the collapse of the U.S. government.

Ask me again in 19 episodes what I think, but for now, I’ll be tuning in. It is always risky to invest in a new series when there’s a long story at stake, and I admit I often do with great care. I am fearful that inconsistencies in the story and premise may alienate the show’s potential viewers, and that it will not be picked up for a second season. While, as my colleague David Churchill suggested in his review of Invasion, sometimes there can be some solace in a single great – if open-ended – season cast in amber by a too-early-cancellation, there is something uniquely frustrating about devoting time and energy in any story that’s only ever gets half-told. TV may have grown more comfortable telling multi-season stories in recent years, but the life spans of most television series are still agonizingly exposed to the whims of ratings systems and network executives. That said, the ratings for the first episodes of Revolution have so far held up and it was recently picked up for a full first season by NBC, so there’s hope that its fans will be able to see this story told all the way through. 

Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary

Elementary is CBS’s answer to the phenomenally entertaining and successful BBC series Sherlock, optioned after the BBC’s Steven Moffat flatly turned down the network’s offer to remake his own series. Although on paper Elementary seems destined to be a pale reflection of the British series, in practice it is much more. It has none of the literary ambition of Sherlock, but Elementary might be all the better for it. Long before Moffat explosively brought Sherlock Holmes back to television two years ago, variations on Conan Doyle’s oh-so-smart but impenitently misanthropic consulting detective has been living just beneath the surface in a number of mystery procedurals on American television. Just a few of the characters inspired by Conan Doyle’s detective are Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk (who came complete with a Mycroft Holmes-inspired older brother in Ambrose, played by John Turturro), Charlies Eppes (David Krumholtz) in CBS’s long-running Numb3rs, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) on The Mentalist, and Hugh Laurie’s surly Dr. House. (And that’s just on the small screen: Holmes also still lives on in movies and on the printed page.) Clearly, we have no shortage of Sherlocks, and it is not immediately clear why television would need another. But Elementary does something remarkable: it gives us a top notch procedural in the US network style, and still offers a brand new riff on the old character. It is hard not to compare it to Sherlock, especially in the early episodes – I’m still having a hard time keeping myself from doing it! – but the show has a clear voice of its own, and it seems to be moving confidently down its own path.

Set in present day New York, the story begins with disgraced-surgeon-turned-caretaker Joan Watson (Lucy Liu  Charlie’s Angels) going to meet her new client, the recently-released from rehab and surprisingly tattooed Sherlock Holmes (the British-born Jonny Lee Miller of Eli Stone and Frankenstein onstage in London, opposite Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch).

But character names notwithstanding, Elementary is not Sherlock: NYC: whereas Moffat is clearly proffering a ‘contemporary adaptation’ of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Elementary clearly falls into the ‘inspired by’ category of homages. Sherlock’s writing consistently rewards avid fans of the Conan Doyle books, digging deep into the canon to bring those beloved stories and themes into the 21st century. But Elementary plays fast and loose: not only in the most obvious way by casting Liu as Watson as a woman (compared to the gender-switch the fact that Watson is now Asian is fairly unremarkable), but also with Holmes’ implied back story which sets up his arrival in New York City, and with the show’s clear intention to take Holmes’ famous drug addiction much more seriously than most Sherlock-centred endeavours. And I have to admit, there is something in the suggestion of Sherlock Holmes doing his shtick in the same world as Law & Order lives in that is actually fun to imagine in itself.

Most of the discussion over the summer (on the blogs, at the conventions) focused on the gender-blind casting of Liu in the sidekick position, and perhaps rightly so – it was a bold move and certainly designed by the network and creator Robert Doherty (Medium) to draw just that kind of attention to the new series. Fortunately for us, there’s more to the series. Miller brings a manic charm and voracious energy to the lead character, and he and Liu develop a believable on-screen chemistry that so far has been thankfully devoid of any sexual tension. (Ironically, it could be the case that casting a female Dr. Watson might actually put to rest any implication of an unexpressed romance between Sherlock and Watson: after all, if sexual preference isn’t keeping them apart, then perhaps we can finally trust the deeply Platonic nature of that relationship?) Also in contrast to the canon., Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn), Holmes’ contact in the NYPD and Elementary’s equivalent of Inspector Lestrade, is refreshingly competent – and contrary to usual Holmes mythos, not at all resentful or jealous of Holmes. In fact, he seems a unique combination of impressed and amused by Sherlock’s antics.

Like Vegas, also on CBS, Elementary is a procedural-plus – happily at home in the US network universe, but a clear notch above most of its regular offerings. Definitely worth checking out, whether you are a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes or not.

If you yourself weren’t immediately impressed by the new shows premiering this season, your instincts probably aren’t too far off. But do at least take the time to check out these three shows – I expect you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Revolution airs on Mondays on NBC (U.S.) and CityTV (Canada).
Vegas airs on Tuesdays on CBS (U.S.) and Global (Canada).
Elementary airs on Thursdays on CBS (U.S.) and Global (Canada).