Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Or Maybe It's All a CIA Trick to Put Someone in Place to Tell Cheney to Stop Smoking and Lay Off the Fatty Foods While There's Still Time

My wife has had many careers, many turns in the road, many battles lost, more battles won -- as that necklace of human ears she wears around her neck underneath her power suit more than attests.

But I am glad that long ago in a galaxy far far away she was a junior high school teacher. One day she came home with this conversation:

Wife: "What's your favorite television show?"

Student: (passionately) "Mod Squad."

Wife: "I've never heard of it."

Student: (earnestly) "Oh, it's not on yet. But I saw the commercial."

You must understand that the idea of the meme, the cultural virus, was not yet a staple of our national conversation. I think most of us back then, as ponderous as the dinosaurs, wanted to sample the wares before declaring allegiance. Not like now, where those on the inside of the cultural Dyson sphere are already bored with Snakes on a Plane even though the movie has yet to rise on its coils. They are bored with the inevitable SOP sequels, the novelizations, the Ben and Jerry's ice-cream flavor and the SNL parody, none of which yet exist. What they are excited about is the segment in the 2009 installment of the Wayans Brothers Scary Movie series. All the 21st Century boys and girls are ahead of the curve, way out there where it's still a straight line.

Having said all that, I have to say that BBC's Life on Mars has been my favorite television show for a good three weeks now, ever since I saw the four-minute preview on Comcast On Demand. Last night it had its U.S. premier.

Most excellent.

It's 2006 in Manchester and our cop is chasing a serial killer who has snatched his cop girlfriend, but then out of nowhere a car whacks him and he wakes up as a cop in Manchester in 1973 in bell bottoms, and, of course, he's in a coma in 2006 because -- on his black-and-white TV or just out of the thin air -- people are talking to him in his coma about his coma, but life in 1973 seems real, gritty and painful when he's punched -- there's a lot of punching in 1973 -- and it turns out the same killer is killing people....

There is a balance in creating and maintaining this kind of narrative ground. Your protagonist needs to ask the obvious questions as they become obvious. He must fight against the premise. But -- catatonia making very bad television -- he must also live in his new universe, responding to it and learning its rules. And the people who write the show must control their fertile imaginations and keep the introduction of new ideas and new complications from turning the show into some kind of maze out of which the viewer concludes he will never find his way.

I've sampled The 4400 and Lost. Like the X Files, so much business, so many red herrings and loose ends are piled up that the enterprise becomes a puzzle more than a story. Viewers spend too much time poking around in the background and too little in the foreground where the human action takes place. No resolution can possibly be an adequate explanation for so much complication, so many inexplicable things. You like the show, but you begin to worry at some point you won't like what it becomes.

Maybe "Life on Mars" will go down that road, and soon I won't be able to sort out all the possible explanations of what!?! and why?!? without a scorecard, 17 fan websites and a "Gospel According to...." book by an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

But the first episode of LOM stopped somewhere short of full-bore baroque. Kill yourself and break the coma says a guy with a beard to our hero. But the guy with the beard is -- probably is -- the ex-boy friend of the really cute female cop from 1973 who is willing to listen to crazy cop's tales of time travel without concluding he is hooting 360 degrees of nuts. On the other hand, the male cops of her period treat her contemptuously, and he doesn't. If that's crazy, maybe she'll take some more.

"Maybe you are here for a reason," she says. (One hopes it involves hugging and kissing and partial nudity. She's really cute.)

Let's see how it plays. I'm counting on the British to keep the number of episodes to a minimum. If that's the case, the odds increase the plot won't become exponentially opaque, as each episode has its new and surprising clue to keep the game fresh. Maybe, like The Prisoner, there will be a nice handful of episodes and then a final installment just obscure enough.

Maybe, like Mod Squad, it will have a final episode that transcends what has come before.

I am referring, of course, to Prince's Purple Rain, also known as Clarence Williams III's finest hour.

No comments: