News Column

The Buffalo News, N.Y., Jeff Simon column

October 13, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 13--"Homeland" blared forth the Sept. 30-Oct.6 cover issue of TV Guide. "Inside the Explosive New Season."

The accompanying picture on the cover was of Damian Lewis, the Emmy-winning star of Showtime's much-honored and much-praised series.

To the magazine's credit, the accompanying story inside mentioned quite prominently that cover boy Lewis' character, Congressman Brody -- suspected of involvement in the worst American terrorist destruction since 9/11 -- wouldn't appear in the first two episodes of "Homeland's" new season, In fact, he is slated to make his seasonal debut on the show this evening, for those missing him.

What we've had instead is the show's exhumation of its bipolar heroine's travails when she goes off her meds, which are by no means small. Along with them we've also seen the understandable teenage problems of Brody's daughter after her father's public exposure as a suspected terrorist led her to a suicide attempt in the bathtub.

Lewis told TV Guide that when he read the script for those first two episodes he didn't miss his character at all. I must confess that as an ardent fan who's watched the show from the first episode of its first season, I didn't either. Claire Danes' performance as the show's deeply disturbed CIA agent heroine is riveting on its own -- especially in consort with Mandy Patinkin as her CIA boss, who is both her protector and betrayer. At the moment God only knows which role comes first.

God isn't the only one who knows where the show is going, of course. The show's writers do too. As a TV watcher who's about as experienced as you can be in the living room and water cooler art of psyching out TV series, I haven't a clue.

Not a clue.

Good for the "Homeland" writers, I say. That's the way it should be. The reason that Hollywood community adoration of "Breaking Bad" grew to such a deafening crescendo before its series finale is that as season after season unfolded everyone caught on to a basic fact: No one could outguess it from one week to the next.

Pity the poor TV series writer -- especially if the shows we're talking about are the cream of TV's series crop.

They are in the weekly business of battling two of the deadliest enemies of creativity everywhere: boredom and insecurity. They're either trying to hook and keep an audience for ratings and seasonal renewal's sake. Or they're trying to keep the show from becoming a hopelessly stale snooze for their own sakes.

Take, for instance, this season's "Castle." Or "The Good Wife," so far.

Please, as Henny Youngman would say.

I'm partial to both series. But when "Castle" separated spoiled narcissistic Rick and smart, gorgeous Beckett while she went off to Washington to work for the attorney general, everyone from Malibu to Mombasa knew there was no way they could keep the series going in two different cities. So with no word coming out of Hollywood about the firing or quitting of those in the cast playing Manhattan cops, Beckett's permanent association with a job in Washington was bound to end quickly -- or at least be curtailed greatly.

And so it seems to have been on Monday.

That's what aimless writerly boredom gets you. You try to do something a little fresh to keep yourself and your co-workers awake and you wind up just wasting everyone's precious time with preposterous TV.

On tonight's "The Good Wife," we're going to be into the third installment of "Will Alicia Leave the Firm or Won't She?" which is shaping up to be an escalating bore for a series that has been anything but up to now.

We're now into suspicions of terrorist threats, industrial espionage in the legal racket and all manner of baroque hoo-ha that seems to be the mark of crew of writers bored to tears and happy to invent any stuff at all just to keep themselves awake.

All it made me think about, sadly, was this: whether there would be any difference in the "The Good Wife" if one of its sibling executive producers, action film maestro Tony Scott, hadn't committed suicide. (His brother Ridley's new film, "The Councellor" is set to open at the end of the month with a script by Cormac McCarthy.)

To keep a marathon-running prime-time champ like "Law and Order SVU" magnetic to viewers this season, they once again, subjected Olivia, the toughest and most soulful cop in Manhattan, to protracted torture and bondage and the threat of rape after earlier in the show's history having her raped in a basement.

There is nothing the slightest bit amusing about the subject matter of "Law and Order: SVU." But I'd bet the farm that if you sat around having beers with its writers, producers and cast members, they'd have plenty that was hilarious to say about the weekly perils of Olivia, as grippingly filmed and performed as they usually are.

So, as I said, pity the poor dramatic series writer, especially those who write TV's best long-running dramas.

Unless, of course, they're the wondrous and altogether singular Shonda Rhimes, who has figured out in "Scandal" that one way to keep a terrific TV series going with suitable attention is to threaten to blow it up every week.

And to think how cunningly conservative we thought Rhimes' essential game plan was when the series started -- a fictionalization of the life of Washington fixer Judy Smith (who was just in Buffalo) that would, like any other well-trained series, give us a different case to be handled weekly and a different weekly client to be served in a witty and ultra-smart series that would neither soil the carpet or demand to taken out for a walk at inconvenient times.

Instead, Rhimes quickly served notice that she's been in the business of blowing her series to smithereens on a regular basis. So what we've had so far is: our "fixer" deep in an affair with the president, who has survived an assassination attempt mounted by a sitting Supreme Court justice, who is then dispatched by that very president murdering the justice as she lay in a hospital bed dying of cancer.

And then, at the end of last season, we had our series heroine dragooned into a limo as long as a football field where she comes face to face with the biggest villain in the entire series. As she sees his face, she says "Dad?"

More threats to blow up the whole show began the season as well as a wonderful opportunity for the actor who plays the story's ultra-villain -- Joe Morton -- to show some acting chops he's never been allowed to show anywhere before, delivering lines that virtually drip with the most carefully brewed venom on network television.

Pity the poor writers who aren't writing for "Scandal," one of the nuttiest TV series that most of us have ever seen.

I'd advise you to watch or DVR it for sure on Thursday nights but frankly at this point, I'm not sure you could possibly catch up to how truly nutty this show is.

So let me say this: Just give it a try. We'll see how it goes.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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