Through the magic of electric space message telegraphs, I have the pilot episodes of new American network tv series SHARK and JERICHO here.
SHARK (which comes in at a healthy 44 mins, something I’ll return to in a minute) is the first of the post-HOUSE shows. He’s old, he’s brilliant, he’s a thoroughgoing prick, he has a single person in the world who likes him and who he treats miserably. He’s a tired-looking James Woods, a defense attorney whose last successful defendant turns out to be a mad killer after all. James Woods’ friend the mayor offers him a way out of his personal meltdown by making him the head of a high-profile special prosecutorial team, against the wishes of the DA, who’s played by Sixty of Nine from STAR TREK: VOYAGER. Actually, that’s not fair: Jeri Ryan’s knowing, laconic performance isn’t bad. She just gives up verisimilitude to setting up James Woods’ lines. Which isn’t a bad choice, given that Woods has rarely met a bit of scenery he hasn’t wanted to chew the shit out of. There are three reasons we like to watch James Woods. One, he’s super-verbal, and seeing him work a good script is a joy. Two, he’s always a charming scumbag, so he’s fun to watch. And three, he always gets crushed, and gets that look like someone’s just slit open his chest and ripped out his heart, and we like that because he kind of deserves it. This being network tv, we get all three, but in the Lite flavour. He just looks tired, a lot of the time, and the writers refuse to take their guts in both hands and give us a real double-barrelled blast of James Woods inside what network tv will bear.
Only once does Woods really let it out of the box. He’s got a fake courtroom built under his home, where he hones and perfects his arguments. To illustrate a point, he puts one of his team of attractive young
doctors lawyers into the witness box. He turns away from her, faces the camera, takes a deep breath — and suddenly his eyes go utterly dead. The barest glimpse of what it’s like to have an honest-to-god fucking actor on the stage.
SHARK’s going to be ordinary. It’s going to be HOUSE with lawyers, with a production team who seem not to have the bravery of HOUSE’s. If they find their balls, I bet you James Woods will wake up a little bit. If James Woods’ attention was fully engaged by words he could dance with, this would be a brilliant bit of entertainment.
JERICHO clocks in at 38 minutes. This is for an hour-long show. That’s a full six minutes shorter than SHARK. That’s six minutes more ads for you to sit through in order to glean something from this thin little show. The first two minutes are beautifully photographed. After that, sadly, people start to talk. Skeet Ulrich is impersonating Adam Sandler for no reason I can see, as a thirtysomething ex-army indigent returned home to screw his inheritance out of his dad’s clutches. Dad is George Hearst from DEADWOOD, so you know that’s going to go badly. And, frankly, after a minute or so of Skeet’s whining, I was hoping Dad would produce the pickaxe that took off Al Swearengen’s finger.
Everyone in Jericho, Kansas hugs each other. A lot. It’s because it’s a nice place full of nice, well-meaning American people. Skeet doesn’t get the cash, and pisses off out of it.
And then a mushroom cloud appears in the distance.
It appears that at least two nuclear devices have been detonated in the continental United States. The nearest knocks out power in Jericho, but with no hard flash, radiation or shockwave. All contact with the outside world is lost and everyone shits themselves. Except at the end George Hearst, who is the mayor, gives a little speech and everyone hugs again.
JERICHO is a post-LOST show: a microcosm of (American) humanity in a sealed geographic location. You could in fact call it LOST for Middle America, without any of those troubling Iraqis or Koreans to distract. It does seem at this early stage like it’s going to be a paean to the indestructibility of the common man and the small town. It could pretty easily turn into a survivalist anthem. One of the dodgier choices is that the sole black face I saw could well be an absconded prisoner whose transport crashed when the power went out.
It annoyed me that Pamela Reed, who’s just a terrific actor, had next to nothing to do. But what annoyed me more was that pretty much bugger all happened. There was very little meat, and very little virtuosity to distract me from that — I have no problem with lack of linear plot progression if you’ve actually got something to show or tell me. And that’s partly, I suspect, down to some idiot hacking the thing down to 38 minutes so an extra six minutes of ads could be sold.
SHARK might get two seasons if someone there works out what they’ve got. JERICHO doesn’t even raise the hope that PSYCH did — PSYCH being a show that really really bloody wants to be good but doesn’t know how. JERICHO is a show full of misused talent that commits the worst sin in storytelling — it’s just fucking boring.