February 23, 2004

The Handler bums me out

This TV season sucks rocks. I thought it was going to be okay, a grand total of two new shows to watch (Joan of Arcadia and The Handler) but now I’ve reconsidered. The Handler went from impressive to imbecilic in record time. Is this the first time a show jumped the shark before the first thirteen episode run ended? Because it did. I’m still in shock. Wondering who was responsible, how that went down. I know someone who works on the show, maybe I could ask. But can you imagine that conversation? “Hi, I haven’t spoken to you in a while, how’s it going?” Bla bla bladee bla. “Oh yeah, sounds great. Hey, I’ve been watching your show. Yeah. It started out so great, what happened?” What do you mean, what happened? “Well, why does it stink now?” Bla anger bladee bite me bla bla go away and never call again.

So maybe not. But really. The pilot and at least half a dozen episodes after that were terrifically crafted hours. The show is about an FBI team that goes undercover on a regular basis to uncover and nail criminals in the act. It dealt – at least at first – with the bigger issues like going so deeply undercover you lose your real identity, like becoming over-fond of the bad guys, like being asked to do something by the bad guy that is morally repugnant and then what do you do? And, most compellingly, being afraid every single second that you’ll blow your cover and end up dead.

The situation is inherently fascinating: actors who take on roles as real-life people. How do you do that? How do you make it believable in every improvised moment? What toll does it take on your life and your psyche? Add to that a stable of good storytellers and you’ve got the makings of something memorable.

But the last few episodes, something’s happened to the sharpness, the darkness, the intensity of it. It’s all gone. A recent episode involved a woman going undercover as an Irish nanny in a house where the previous nanny had gone missing, presumed murdered. Was it the dad or the teenage son? Why was the younger son so scared? It had its moments, but it all felt like a cookie cutter whodunit mystery, with a screamingly obvious answer. All that was left was a bit of creepiness all around and some oddly flat characterizations. Plus an affecting moment – just one – with the little boy. That was disappointing enough, but every show has a clunker every now and then. The one after it was a little better, though also terribly obvious and not all that interesting. In it, a senator accused of having an affair with and then murdering an intern sends his lawyer to give the intern’s roommate hush money. Was it what it seemed? Could they find out what really went down? Do I care? I don’t watch this show for the mysteries, I watch it for the characterizations, the depth, the scares. And the last episode, something about putting down horses for the insurance money, that one was downright bad. Obvious plot setup, repeated dialogue, tons of exposition and very little of anything else. Bad.

When Dan is between shows – that is, when one series ends and he’s out of work till he finds a new gig – we end up watching a lot of different series. Every time he gets an interview we (or at least he) tries to catch up on the series (or in the case of a new show, sit down with the pilot). It’s a reminder of how very much bad TV is out there. Pedestrian. Obvious. No subtlety, no surprises, no freshness. Is it that writers are under-trained or is this what the networks think they want? It obviously doesn’t work, judging from the trail of cancelled shows this season leaves in its wake. HBO trumps the competition every year at the Emmys for a reason. A Sex and the City or a Six Feet Under is so different, so much more engaging than a District or a Tarzan. Monk was fun and fresh and actually funny the first season but then hit the predictables in its second season when it turned into a Murder She Wrote style unravel-the-mystery serial. It’s just not that interesting. Nor is another new soap opera a la Melrose Place (The L Word, The OC). Nor is another new law show following the path trod by LA Law and the many shows that came after it. Meet the plaintiff, hear the emotional story, but oh, it's unwinnable, but wait, a twist: a witness breaks down on the stand. Yeah, fascinating. The first time you see it. After the umpteeth show, not so fascinating anymore.

I’m pissed that The Handler is turning into a clunker. I wish it had kept the promise it made with the pilot. A promise to be daring, a promise to ask hard questions and thrill me. I want good TV, damnit. And there’s hardly any to be found.

Posted by Tamar at February 23, 2004 10:06 PM

Do you get "This is Wonderland"? It's by far my favorite new series - smart, funny, and thought-provoking. It follows Alice as a young lawyer in the Toronto system - but instead of the usual big TV crime cases, she's dealing with domestic disputes and psychiatric issues and minor assualts and just all the usual little weirdnesses of life.

Posted by: darby at February 24, 2004 04:17 AM

They don't air it down here, more's the pity. Maybe I'll ask my mom to tape it for me. I want more good TV!

Posted by: Tamar at February 25, 2004 08:46 AM