| Image by ABC.com In case you don't pay attention to network television, J.J. Abrams's three-card monte confidence game of a prime-time drama series Lost returns tonight with a two-hour fifth season opener. And while the daily paper TV critics do their part to fluff a fanbase already guaranteed to tune in, could anybody please inform me what the point is to this program? I have to admit I've tuned in since the beginning, since it started out like a prismatic way to explore characters, but somewhere during season two and three it became this convoluted joke of a narrative with no punchline in sight, a vehicle for dangling plot lines and twists, flash-forward and backward detours, and a never-ending conspiracy without a center. Now, I don't feel interested in any of the characters at all--well, save Naveen Andrews' Sayid, but that has more to do with being a fan of the actor than the character--and the program feels more like a blunt delivery system for anti-climatic surprises. Lost these days feels like a story being told to you by a breathless friend who is trying to hold your interest purely by telling the story with as much hyperbole as possible. What am I missing here?
Meanwhile, January 2009 has witnessed some hit/miss returns of some other favorites. Both Nip/Tuck and Damages have returned to FX, although both are only a few episodes into their seasons. Nip/Tuck is off to the more brazen start, if only because it's hard to top a season finale that featured Cagney & Lacey's Sharon Gless repeatedly stabbing Dylan Walsh's Sean McNamara in the operating room suite. Ryan Murphy's soap opera about a pair of plastic surgeons is American TV's true telenovela, with more over-the-top story arcs and a naughtier--and queer--sense of play and pith than anything else on the air, and so far this season walking erection Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) battles breast cancer and undergoes a mastectomy, a post-stabbing and wheelchair-bound McNamara scores sympathy pussy and gets literally babied, and the McNamara/Troy surgical office takes on teenaged plastic surgeon whiz kid Dr. Raj Paresh (Adhir Kalyan). As with the first season of Damages, being only a few episodes into the season leaves viewers with very little clues as to what the hell is going on. Unlike Lost, however--at this point, at least--Damages' topsy-turvy editing entirely serves characterization, establishing and contradicting loyalties and motivations. And my biggest question mark right now is why Timothy Olyphant's Wes, who meets the series ostensible heroine Elle Parsons (Rose Byrne) in a grief support group, maintains such an impressive arsenal of firearms.
Sadly, my neo-con TV faves have thus far dropped the ball this season. While it was refreshing to see 24 locate its new season's threat in a shadowy conspiracy inside a new American president's administration--and start the new season off with the anything-for-god-and-country über-agent Jack Bauer (Keiffer Sutherland) appearing before an Congressional investigation and flatly refusing to apologize for his actions--the show thus far has too quickly fallen into its usual routines. Fun stuff this time around: Janeane Garofalo as a FBI computer wonk and an almost unrecognizable Rhys Coiro--Entourage's filmmaker freakshow Billy Walsh--as the same. Woof.
The less said about the return of The Unit, though, the better. The addition of the female special-ops ass kicker Bridget Sullivan (Nicole Steinwedell) was a nice touch, but the introduction of some vague outside threat-qua-conspiracy has been clumsily handled. Series creator David Mamet works best when his characters can look the person turning the proverbial screws in the eye, not when threat comes from nebulous forces working outside the story, and The Unit thus far has felt even more unbelievable than when it was a mere ends-justify-the-means, might-makes-right fantasy.
Battlestar: Galactica? So far, so good.
With only one episode aired, it's difficult to get much of an handle on A&E's The Beast, especially since that debut episode felt way too much like Training Day redux. But its frosty Midwestern noir setting in Chicago and Patrick Swayze's gritty turn as an undercover FBI vet who may or may not be working both sides of the law makes The Beast worth checking out for a few more episodes.
The sleeper hit of the new year by my count, though, is TNT's Leverage, an unabashedly silly show. The pilot saw Timothy Hutton's former insurance investigator get duped into heading a team of top-notch crooks on a one-time only scam to right a wrong, only their employer tried to con--and eliminate--them in the process. They team up to burn the man who tried to burn them, setting up a series about this loose team--muscle for hire Eliot (Angel's Wolfram and Hart lawyer Christian Kane), quasi-psycho thief Parker (Beth Riesgraf), whiz computer hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge), and confidence woman Sophie (Gina Bellman)--using their powers for good instead of evil. It's a Robin Hood set up on which the BBC comedy-drama Hustle trades, wherein each hour-long program involves a new con game, only Leverage welcomes a much more ludicrous sense of humor. And in New Zealander Bellman, Leverage boasts a small-screen actress with a lethal one-two punch: a stunning dark-eyed brunette who can almost nail any number of absurd accents and has impeccable comic timing to boot.