Bionic Woman Struck Dead - a PostmortemBionic Woman, the show that Entertainment Weekly called "one of the highlignts of the new fall season" (while really, really high, apparently) has finally been officially cancelled, though it's been presumed dead since the writer's strike started. Needless to say, I think EW was a bit off the mark, and there is some objective quality standard issue at play over this show (i.e. the show sucked, and that's not an opinion). This was the first show since Medical Investigations (see the first couple of months of this blog) that I found myself watching solely because of the spectacular wrong-headedness of the whole enterprise. The problems with the show were sub-total but the show's big problem to me was the fact that it seemed written by people who didn't understand what this kind of show is (i.e. they weren't really up on the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, and maybe felt like they were slumming it – underestimation of the demands of genre writing is probably the second biggest issue with TV writing in general after the fact that too few people can write comedy well). The writers/producers didn't appear to be aware when they did something that has been done a hundred times (and better) or the damage that some decisions did to the credibility of the set-up.
Specific problems included:
1. Hopeless miscasting of the lead - I think there is probably a lot of agreement on this. The actress was inert, and demanded no interest when she wasn't in action. She wasn't the right actress for the quiet drama, which this show had waay too much of.
2. She's just so special - A little Mary Sue-ishness plus a little screenwriterey "everything has to connect" bullshit, which the character couldn't support. The show abandoned the idea of the main character being randomly pulled into the situation as soon as the pilot was done (I think her "files" were found within 15 minutes of the following episode). There is virtually no criteria that a super-elite government agency attempting to build a perfect agent could have that would include this woman. She's personally encumbered, indecisive, avoids sucess, and has a problem with authority.
3. Speaking of indecision – every action scene seemed to start with an extended moment of assessment on the part of the lead as to whether to do anything or not. This is Bionic Woman, not Hamlet. The tortured thing is fine as a backdrop, but come on.
4. Just fire her already - Given point 2, the "agency" would never have chosen her in the first place but, given they did, why would they have tolerated her constantly defying orders, setting her own mission goals mid-mission, letting people go, kicking the crud out of her superiors when they get in the way, etc. This pushed things way over the believability cliff (an aside - she was, incidently, most often WRONG when she went maverick, and it is difficult to see how, if the show had survived, she could have learning curved her way out of that without changing the message of the show to "submit, they were right" or by her suddenly doing things right, which will seem like the writers skewing the outcome). I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but it was too much, and the other aspects of the show didn’t earn it.
5. The James Joyce thing - Don’t get me started on the self indulgence of the “I want to sip coffee and read James Joyce” stuff. It rang incredibly false, the writers didn’t even know what the Dead and Ulysses are about, and it put a lie to all her lunches with her “successful” friends (the tone of these lunches was a sepperate problem in and of itself). And the Dead, although it may be published as a free standing unit today, is not a book, it is a longish short story, not even a novella. That’s a credibility issue when they tried to sell her as a great mind who knows her stuff. As with point 2 above, the writers wanted us to believe she was awesome, but flawed, and it seems they chose to elevate her to the standard of "I was kept from being a lit professor by the cruel machinations of fate," which was wrong on many levels. This is a primary example of the self indulgence of the show - you can do as much unique and individual work within the confines of genre, and give people whatever quirks you want, but the framework needs to be strong enough to support it, and the stuff has to make sense.
6. Stupid technological details - it was stupid for her to be walking around talking on the cellphone. If they didn't bluetooth (or direct cell) her replaced ear or give her a more sophisticated internal com, the super uber govt' tech guys just suck (when they make these mistakes, they often tried to paper over them later with flimsy appeals to her rejection of authority).
7. The british accent - in that one episode, her speaking in her natural accent (the actress, as everyone knows, is british) seemed a little to unearned-inside-baseball for me. They assume the show's audience would get this joke, but the "show's audience" (I'm talking genrephiles here) was mostly pissed off by that time, and saw this as too cute by half. If it wasn't supposed to be a joke, then the only possible other explanation is lazyness (the actress was tired talking in an American accent).
8. Her character just didn’t work in the framework of the show - related to my writer’s quibble above, I think she’s the character that the show’s creators wanted to write about shoehorned into a context that didn’t fit her. Everything about her relationship to her environment was unbelievable or (at best) required a leap as to what’s going on (e.g. some of the sister and friend stuff might have worked if we believed that Lindsey was really not capable of succeeding and was hiding behind her sister as an excuse why she didn’t make it, which would make the Joyce errors clever – she’s a person who enjoys the idea that she had been kept form what she wanted by the outside world, while really it's just that she couldn't be bothered to understand – or possibly even read – the books she was supposed to have wanted to “study”).
You will see the repeating issues above of self-indulgence, bad character/actress decisions, and difficulties with the premise/framework. These, I think, most likely stemmed from the above mentioned idea that the show was worked on by a writing staff that was unfamiliar with the type of material (and the importance of fundementals of world-building) and didn't know how to make their voice heard in a fluid way in this genre specific structure. And miscasting the actress, of course.
The only way the show could have ever worked for me would have been to pull a Miracleman on it – i.e. overhaul the whole reality of the show. My vote would have been to end the first season by increasing the things that didn’t make sense, killing off characters left and right, then ending with a cliffhanger that looks like certain death for the lead character’s death, only to start next season with the lead character leading a normal life (unexplained at first) with no powers, but having “dreams” or flashes of first season things happening. She would begin to see people she has some recollection of, and eventally would be contacted by some "crazy" guy who suggests these may be more than hallucinations. At this point, she investigates her way to finding that the project from season 1 was real but was discontinued, with the units (including her) sent back to some version of their lives, memories wiped, and their powers locked with a keyword necessary to revive them (she could even be living the life that season 1 told us she wanted, giving the whole thing a Last Temptation of Christ overtone).
This would culminate in a scene where she finds the lab of someone who has continued the work (someone from season 1, not necessarily in the same role… this is a Wizard of Oz type deal) where there is a woman in a tank with surrounding TV screens showing a scene identical to some memorable scenes in season 1, but with the woman in the tank in Lindsey’s place. It is thus revealed that much of season one was a VR training exercise in her head, but with real people in the roles. This explains the inconsistencies (and their increase at the end of the season) – the interaction between native psychologies and the program are unpredictable, and impossible to program flawlessly. Now she knows the score, somehow gets hold of the keyword (turning off her strength governors and regaining her “powers”), and the agency has to get rid of her. This puts her on the run, but she wants to find her sister, and her “dead” boyfriend, who (if they ever existed at all, or if they were actually her sister and boyfriend) may not be dead.
This premise would have fit the actress’s talents better, the first season would not have to be completely “written out” (the actors could show back up, even the dead ones, in roles that could be tweaked however necessary, and even the events could have been based on something, partially on her own memories of events that did happen to her) but the trick is figuring out what was real and what wasn’t. If you could have gotten David Lynch to direct a key episode or two of the transition, it might have worked.