Sunday, December 07, 2008

And all the roads that led you here are winding

So after looking forward to it for months, I finally got to see some of the commercial free premiere of LEVERAGE tonight:

So SAUL RUBINEK walks up to a pretty drunk TIMOTHY HUTTON in what is apparently a sizable airport bar that is inexplicably empty except for them and the bartender. RUBINEK blathers a lot of data-dense dialogue telling us HUTTON's character's name and background. HUTTON's character, Nathan Ford, threatens to hit RUBINEK in the neck eight or nine times. RUBINEK says he's not there simply to spout off a lot of obstreperously expository dialogue, but also to offer FORD a job. The inebriated, belligerent FORD... looks interested. CUT TO CREDITS.

I found myself wondering, what airport bar of that size anywhere in the world is completely empty at any time of the night or day? It struck me as a budget issue -- here's a show that doesn't have enough money to build a set and fill it with extras -- which brought home to me that this was a TV show even more intensely than the crappy expository dialogue already had.

I realize that the whole bit may have been meant to underscore the bitterness and alienation of Nathan Ford. But I think it would have worked better for the writers of the show to set the scene, not in an airport bar, but in a large, otherwise empty auditorium, or, maybe, a large otherwise empty movie theater. Rubinek and Hutton's dialogue could only have been improved by more shadows and a cheesy movie of some kind flickering up on a big screen in the background. And it would have made Hutton's character seem a lot lonelier, and been a great deal more plausible all the way around.

So Ford takes the job and Rubinek earnestly explains that he's hired three other people, the best there is at what they do (But What They Do Isn't Very Nice), to steal some stolen airplane designs back for him and he needs Ford to supervise these people, as Ford is honest and these people are not. There is some more expository dialogue about how these three other people are all prima donnas; solo acts who hate to work with others, and who are only doing it on this job for $300,000 each, a price tag which Rubinek will double for Ford's participation. And I'm thinking to myself This guy is shelling out $1.5 million bucks to get his stolen airplane plans back? Okay, the designs must be worth a lot of money to him but gee it's a good thing this is a TV show because otherwise the idea of spending $1.5 million on a bunch of felons who have all already been caught at least once (or you wouldn't know who they were in the first place) and putting them under the supervision of a belligerent drunk would probably be a non-starter for most if not all successful businessmen/women in the real world.

Not to mention the fact that no single legitimate businessman as desperate as this guy seems to be can move $1.5 million in cash without leaving some kind of paper trail, and the last thing in the world you want, after you've hired felons to steal your airplane plans back, is for the corporate rivals you stole them from to be able to prove you did it.

Again, it reinforces to me that this is a TV show. On TV shows and in the movies, people routinely stage elaborate schemes and/or put on productions that would cost millions if not billions in the real world, said schemes and/or productions which often if not always have little realistic chance of success. If Saul Rubinek were a real life business tycoon, the last thing in the world he would ever do is spend $1.5 million dollars hiring crooks to steal his plans back, because the odds of them actually doing it are insanely poor and the odds of it blowing up in his face derangedly high. He certainly wouldn't hire a belligerent drunk who was threatening to hit him in the neck eight or nine times to do such a thing, no matter how sorry for the belligerent drunk Rubinek might be, and last but not least, he certainly wouldn't initiate the illegal transactional conspiracy in a fucking airport bar. I mean, jesus christ.

Now, I admit at this point, I'm four minutes in and this is already looking horrible and in another 11 minutes I'm going to call it a night and go back to watching the fifth season of WEST WING on DVD. So maybe at some point in the 45 minutes or so I didn't see, it turns out that at least some of this makes more sense. Maybe Rubinek is conning Hutton and the other three for some reason. Maybe he isn't going to pay them. Maybe he has the psychic ability to read the script and see that it's all going to turn out okay. I don't know. But in the following 11 minutes before I turned this horror off, here's what I did see:

There's this black guy and apparently he's some kind of electronic whiz kid thief/con man. We see that a number of years before, he scammed a major hotel into giving him a luxury suite and charging it to Mick Jagger's credit card number. And the hotel management breaks in to the suite and this black guy is in there with a couple of chicks and they're having a duel with toy light-sabres and the black guy waves his hand and says "This is not the suite you're looking for". Which is kind of half-lame, half-clever, but, honestly, cutesy STAR WARS dialogue? Ralf. Plus, maybe it's really hard to steal Mick Jagger's credit card number, and I just don't really get that the way I should, but, honestly, I'm not impressed. If the guy was really good, he'd never have been caught, right?

Then there's Christian Kane, you know, Lindsey from ANGEL. His character is supposed to be this really deadly mercenary/fighter type, and we see that several years before, he walks into this room and says he's there to get a package, and he has no weapons out at all, and about fifty guys pull guns and point them right at him, and then we cut to the outside of the building, and we see and hear a lot of gunshots go off, and then we cut back to the room and he's standing there and the air is full of gunsmoke and the fifty guys who were pointing guns at him can't be seen any more and the one other guy who is left alive quickly takes something out and puts it on the table. (It's a baseball card, which is, y'know, another 'ohhhhh that's so cuuuuuuute' touch like the STAR WARS reference that makes me want to hurl.) And my reaction is, are you fucking KIDDING me? FIFTY GUYS HAD THE DROP ON HIM and somehow he KILLED THEM ALL? There's no way. There isn't a gun with that much ammunition. It's impossible. He'd have to be from the planet Krypton, or have got chomped on by a radioactive mongoose in his youth, or something.

I understand that the character is supposed to be mythic and larger than life, I do. But he's also supposed to be at least nominally human, right? I mean, he's not a mutant superspeedster or a vampire or anything, right? This isn't that kind of show, correct? So... seriously, dude, what the fuck?

But here's the best one. There's this petite blond chick who's halfway decent looking and she's supposed to be a con artist or a re-acquisitioner or a thief or something. And in her flashback/origin background sequence we see her at the age of 9 or thereabouts, and some asshole -- maybe her father -- is yelling at her, something about a stuffed bunny and didn't she think he'd find it and if she wants to get bunny back then she needs to be a good girl or, at least, a better thief. And somebody else, maybe her mother, is crying quietly in the background. And we see her, this 9 or 10 year old little blonde girl, walking away from the house empty handed, and she looks kind of expressionless, and then THE HOUSE BLOWS UP BEHIND HER, and she pulls the stuffed bunny out from under her coat, and smiles.

And we're supposed to be like, WHOA, dude, she's a fucking psycho! But here's what I'm thinking and/or feeling -- these characters we are being introduced to are supposed to be, more or less, the kinda-sorta heroes of the dealio, they're supposed to be modern day high tech ROCKFORD FILES type Robin Hoods, robbing from the rich and stealing from the poor, and despite their outlaw natures we are supposed to like and admire and sympathize with these people, and this 9 or 10 year old girl BLEW UP HER PARENTS TO GET HER STUFFED ANIMAL BACK!

It's the kind of thing you'd expect to see Heath Ledger's Joker do in a flashback scene; it's NOT the sort of thing that makes you like and admire and sympathize with a character. Plus, I myself am also thinking that, in addition to the fact that this is one terrifying little blonde, well, how does a 9 year old girl arrange for a house to blow up, anyway?

And then all these characters were all doing the robbery-dealio and Christian Kane's character called the blonde creature "Twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag" which is such a gigantic phlegm-wad of truly execrably bad dialogue hawked and spat right out of the TV screen into my lap that I had to stop a minute and reset my brain, which was good, because the really cheesy 70s caper movie soundtrack running behind all the incredibly cliched 'seen this a few billion times before with better actors and a bigger budget' plot up on the screen was giving me a headache anyway.

Occasionally when I'm watching an episode of BUFFY or ANGEL on DVD I'll kick up the commentary track and Joss Whedon or David Greenwalt are always right there talking about how BUFFY and ANGEL had, in addition to fabulous writers and a tremendous cast of actors, an incredible crew -- from the set design guys to the lighting people to the folks who cast supporting characters to the ones who wrote and even performed the background music, everybody involved in those shows was just brilliant. And you listen to that and if you don't really know what goes into these shows you kind of nod and say "yeah, but they're just being professional, they're not going to complain about the people they worked with, they're going to say nice things about them".

But then you watch nearly anything else that's ever been on TV and you realize, it must all be true. Because LEVERAGE won't be considered to be bad TV by most people who watch it, or even most critics. But it is. It's crap. It's poorly written, the direction is amateurish, the sets look uninspired, the acting is wooden, the dialogue is clumsy and flailing two thirds of the time and self consciously psuedoclever the other third.

But that's what most people expect from TV, and it's why, I guess, I can bring myself to watch so little TV, why I could only bear 15 minutes of LEVERAGE before turning it off, even after I'd anticipated it for months. Because as flawed as BUFFY and ANGEL were, or as any of the other shows I've watched and loved were and are, they were epochs, quantums, orders of magnitude better than LEVERAGE, so much better, in fact, that they really weren't TV at all. And LEVERAGE is just, you know, normal TV, maybe slightly above average TV, which means, it's really, really, really bad, and horribly unoriginal, and terribly cliched, and still, a lot of people are going to watch it and maybe it's going to be a hit.

Like, apparently, that dreadful godawful piece of shit RAISING THE BAR is a hit.

But I'm not going to watch it, and, honestly, I don't even know why I was looking forward to it. John Rogers writes a pretty entertaining blog, when he's not squealing and thrashing and pissing his panties in his comment threads because somebody he doesn't know typed in something he erroneously perceives as being mean to him. But what has he actually written, professionally? THE CORE and CATWOMAN and a first treatment for THE TRANSFORMERS movie and several episodes of THE COSBY SHOW. I mean, based on that crap, why in the world would anyone expect another TV show he co-created and co-wrote to be any good at all?

Although he is, apparently, living proof that in the entertainment industry, it's much more important to be lucky than good.

LEVERAGE was half of what I was really looking forward to watching on TV this weekend. I have to hope that the Bucs-Panthers game, on ESPN's Monday Night Football later tonight, will work out better for me.


  1. eh. i liked it. It's not like Ocean's 11 was any less stylised.

  2. B,

    Thanks for stopping by. While I wasn't exactly thinking of any of the OCEAN movies while watching LEVERAGE -- and that's a pretty colossal failure of perspicacity on my part, since the OCEAN movies seem to be the direct inspiration for the TV series -- nonetheless, I'm not on about the style of the show. I like the idea of an ongoing caper series. It's just that this one is written badly and mostly seems to have crappy acting, even from good actors like Rubinek and Hutton.

    As I said, bad writing and lousy acting are much more the norm than the exception in TVland, and wretched though both are (or were) in what I could stand to watch of this show last night, I'll admit it's still marginally better than what you'd find in most other TV. But while that's certainly adequate to the needs of the vast majority of TV viewers, I am not of that number. I can't watch crap.

    Being a regular reader of Rogers' blog, I'm aware of just how much work a great many professional and no doubt talented people have put into this program, and it gives me an idea of just how much work many professional and no doubt talented people put into EVERY TV show or movie, no matter how godawful the actual result is. And, as noted, it also makes me aware of just how rare a truly exceptional TV show like BUFFY or WEST WING or NYPD BLUE or DEADWOOD actually is.

    But what the difference seems to be largely and overall is, I guess, the writing. Rogers is an affable guy and very entertaining on his blog (when, as I mentioned, he isn't letting his 6th grade level insecurities get the better of him in the comment threads) but he's just not somebody who can write on the level of a Whedon, a Milch, or a Sorkin. And, hey, hardly anyone is; that's why those guys win all the awards. But it's also why I watch those guys' TV shows (sometimes, JOHN FROM CINCINNATI didn't do a thing for me, just for one example) and why I won't trouble myself with Rogers' attempts any more.

    Even the OCEAN movies were much better written and acted than LEVERAGE. Which you'd expect; one was a major motion picture while the other is small budget TV on a knock off network.

    Yet BUFFY had all those limitations, too, and we see how that went.

    'Style' has nothing to do with it. Talent, on the other hand, has everything. But I'm very picky; people have been complaining about that for decades now.

    Again, thanks for stopping by.


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