Comfort Viewing Special: Bones, Castle, Criminal Minds, NCIS

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While it probably appears from this blog that I write about every last thing I see, read or hear, the truth is that there’s a whole class of television programs that I watch on a reasonably regular basis but which I rarely engage any critical faculties toward. Mainly US crime shows, they are ‘comfort viewing’ programmes or possibly more accurately wallpaper shows – things that are on but which normally wouldn’t get a mention on Taking The Short View. I thought might just this once make an exception… Read the rest of this entry »

What I’ve been watching (May 3-9)

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Sometimes I’m asked how I decide what to review on this blog, and the answer’s pretty simple – it’s whatever I happen to have watched, read, seen or listened to that week. I never choose to watch something purely to review it, which at least means that everything I review here is something that I actually wanted to see and why a negative post is usually a function of genuine disappointment rather than because it’s not my sort of thing in the first place.

But I don’t review everything I see/hear/watch in a week – I do have a life, strange as that seems to me as well I’m sure as to you. I cherry-pick the things I have something (new) to say rather than just churning out the same comments on an ongoing series for the sake of it. However, I thought as a one-off experiment, what I’d do here in this Very Special Post is run through the disturbingly long list of things that I have watched on the screen in the last seven days just to put a little context around the posts that did make it to the big time so far in May … Read the rest of this entry »

JAG S8 E20/21 – Ice Queen/Meltdown

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I’m feeling under the weather this week, which might explain why I’m taking refuge in some old TV viewing while sniffling and sneezing my way through the day. Hot on the heels of yesterday’s review of the pilot episode of the ultimate comfort viewing series Murder, She Wrote comes another US pilot – that for NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service (as it is officially known), currently the top-rated drama series on American TV amazingly enough.

As opposed to a traditional stand-alone pilot project, this actually appeared as a two-part instalment in a different series called JAG: we’re more used to seeing this today, with the CSI franchise launching spin-offs with a story in the parent series used to set up the new series, and Criminal Minds has recently done the same – as has NCIS itself with its new LA-set offspring. JAG itself never really made much of an impact here in the UK (although it circulates through on cable channels such as Hallmark/Universal, so at least the episodes do air occasionally as part of the normal run of episodes as opposed to the rarely-aired Murder, She Wrote pilot) partly because it was always very militaristic and then after 9/11 cranked up the ultra right-wing patriotism to full-on bombast which played very poorly outside the American heartland. Fortunately NCIS reigned this sort of thing in, although in this pilot there’s still some whooping and hollering by the series regulars at a display of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in action and some interrogation involving keeping a prisoner naked and chained, which is uncomfortably fascist.

The two episodes are very strange indeed as instalments of JAG: despite being in the episode credits as usual, that series’ regulars barely appear in the first episode, which instead follows the NCIS investigation of the death of a pregnant naval lawyer. The first of the two parts is almost exactly how NCIS was formatted when it started to air in its own right, and most of the characters are present and correct from the start: David McCallum’s Ducky is a little creepier and more of a skirt-chaser than the amiable eccentric uncle he would become; Pauley Perrette’s Abby is toned down and less confident; Michael Weatherly’s DiNozzo is younger, more casual and less of a smart-ass. But Mark Harmon’s Gibbs arrives fully formed and lends credence to the idea that the series was always a vehicle specifically created for him after his popular turn as Secret Service agent Simon Donovan in the 2002 season of The West Wing the preceding year. The pilot also includes Alan Dale as the NCIS director, indicating that his role in the eventual series was expected to be rather larger than it proved to be.

The one character that really, really doesn’t work is Robyn Lively’s former FBI agent Vivian Blackadder, who is humourless and grates badly not to mention screwing up a vital mission. No wonder she wasn’t invited back and got replaced by Sasha Alexander’s much warmer Secret Service Agent Todd (until she too was replaced by Cote de Pablo as Ziva.) The other major change is that the “corpse-eye view” sequences depicted in a 60s psychedelic false colour – which are really odd and off-putting – are fortunately dropped before NCIS went to series.

After the first episode of the two-parter, Ice Queen, which ends in the arrest of JAG series lead character Harmon Rabb for the murder, the story then defocuses from the NCIS team and takes time to establish the lawyers for Rabb’s trial – the OCD defence attorney played by Alicia Coppola and the laid-back, disorganised prosecutor played by Michael Muhney. Its odd that these two get such screen time which is already bursting at the seams trying to fit in both JAG and NCIS cast and makes you think that maybe the original idea for NCIS had more of a “law/investigation” and “order/trial” format in mind. (Coppola’s character did indeed make three appearances in NCIS.) And even then, the trial is wrapped up with 10 minutes to spare to allow the NCIS team to retake centre stage for an overseas anti-terrorism raid in Tunisia which suggests that this sort of guns-blazing undercover strand was intended to be a big part of the NCIS series (instead of having to wait for the LA spin-off to pick this action thread up in any depth.)

Pilots are always interesting to see “where it all began” and also what worked right away and what didn’t. Plenty about NCIS exists right from the first scenes but there’s enough distractions around the periphery to make you think that it could very easily have gone off in totally the wrong direction if they hadn’t been careful – or at least lucky.

Hawaii Five-O – all pumped up and nowhere to go

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Although I was too young to be interested in the original series of Hawaii Five-O, like everyone else the iconic theme and title sequence are seared into my memory and I was keen to see what they would do to it with this reboot helmed by many of the people behind the recent successful reinvention of the Star Trek franchise. Happily the theme tune is present and correct, nicely spruced up; and the title sequence has some similar nice updated touches where new shots of familiar tourist sights from the original series’ credits are to be seen; but sadly they botch the iconic “fast zoom” to the lead character standing on a tower block balcony, which is eviscerated and lost in otherwise clichéd hyperactive titles. And there’s no canoe.

The show’s undoubted strength is Hawaii itself, and the locations are gorgeously photographed; some scenes seem to exist just to fulfil an obligation to the Hawaiian tourist board, but what the heck when it looks this good. And there’s an impressive cast with strong cult credentials – Alex O’Loughlin (Midnight), Scott Caan (Ocean’s Trilogy), Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica) and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, 24, Crusade) – but unfortunately they’re rather lost in the programme’s bombast. This is a show with the volume constantly turned up to 11, with colleagues yelling at each other as fiercely as they scream at the criminals. The McGarrett/Danno relationship is meant to be a budding bromance but despite some genuinely funny lines (“What’s with aneurysm face?”, Danno asks his terminally constipated boss) the exchanges are shouted so humourlessly that it’s like being forced to watch a particularly acrimonious parental divorce. The plots, too, suffer from the same overdose of testosterone and gym time as the main characters and have ended up similarly pumped up and misshapen as the show trudges through an hour with much the same strange, lumbering gait as McGarrett and Danno use to galumph through scenes.

Overall, this is a show that resembles a compilation trailer of all those 80s actions films, but lasting a full hour. My brain starts to ache and my suspension of disbelief collapses after around 20 minutes, at which point I tend to wander off and do something else with the TV on in the background; I really don’t think I’ve missed anything important yet as a result.

Sky One have paired this up with NCIS:LA on Sunday nights, and it’s an interesting comparison. The NCIS spin off inhabits a similar all-action world of gunfights, explosions and chases and has its own line-up of bromance (and indeed another of budding romance); and yet here’s a show that knows how to do humour, how to vary the pace, how to create likeable characters that can bicker and argue and yet that you still feel like each other underneath. Most of all it’s a show with plots that are worth watching and even raise interesting issues (this week’s featured a secret Navy project to chemically ‘tag’ people with an isotope so they can be tracked from orbit – only to find it used on Americans by an expert convinced the US is soft on terror.) Hawaii Five-O could learn a lot from it if it wants to have a longevity anywhere near that of its illustrious predecessor (12 seasons, since you ask!)