Friday, September 28, 2007

Bionic Woman - "Pilot" (1x01)

The Fall TV season is upon us, and over the course of this weekend, I’ll be posting a bunch of articles about the shows I’ve watched so far. To date, I’ve watched two new shows, Reaper and Bionic Woman. One was pretty good, one was pretty shitty. Which one was which? Read on.

I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about Bionic Woman so far, but the presence of Battlestar Galactica producer David Eick and Katee Sackhoff is enough to earn at least a sample, and I think the first episode was solid, far from perfect, but good enough to earn at least a few more episodes. It’s tough to watch a show when it first airs because you have no context for what it will become. When I watched Buffy, the show was already over, and I knew to stick with it through the weak first season because it was going to become something better. Same for Babylon 5, there’s no way I would have made it through that first year on TV, it was only the knowledge that it would become better that got me through the dark times.

But, with a new show, you have no idea what it’s going to become. Bionic Woman could become the next great show, and grow beyond this solid, but unexceptional pilot. Or it could run one unremarkable season and be cancelled. Plus, inherent in the enjoyment of any pilot is a fear about what the show will become. If they do too much story in the pilot, where does the show go? A pilot’s goal is to get you to the next episode, and in that respect, this one is successful.

I’ll start with what works here. As almost every review said, Katee Sackhoff owns this show. She’s saddled with some really cheesy lines, but she just sells them, through a curiously zen villain delivery. She’s not the sparkplug of rage that Starbuck is, she’s more a coiled operative, fueled by fury that remains beneath the surface. Every time she came on screen, I was happy to see her, and even in the final fight scene, which is supposed to mark our heroine’s birth, all I could focus on was Katee’s Sarah.

That fight scene was exemplary of a lot of other things that worked about the show, primarily the visual style. Like Galactica, this is a very dark, gritty looking show. It doesn’t have the full on documentary flavor of BSG, but it manages to make ordinary cities look just as oppressive as the cramped confines of the Galactica. There are a lot of iconic visuals in the pilot, none more so than Sarah’s anime villain style hair when she’s standing in the rain on the roof top. Looking like Cowboy Bebop’s Vicious, it was a perfect visual moment. Even her “Time out, time in” speech didn’t ruin it. It was weird seeing her so made up earlier, but I could go along with it, even with her 80s Drago’s wife in Rocky IV style hair near the start of the pilot.

You may have noticed that I haven’t written at all about the actual central character of the show. Jamie is put through so much here, it becomes impossible to relate, that she would go from ordinary person to bionic woman in one episode strains credibility. Wouldn’t it make more narrative sense to have her get beaten by Sarah here, and then train for a rematch over the first few episodes of the season? Now, she has nowhere to go, she’s already proven she can fight Sarah, and we have nowhere to go with their conflict. Getting beaten so thoroughly would also give her more motivation to join the organization, she’d need them as much as they’d need her.

A bigger issue is the lead’s total lack of charisma. It’s magnified next to Katee Sackhoff, but it just makes me wonder why the coolest character can’t be the center of the show? I guess they don’t want the moral ambiguity of Sarah at the center, but I feel like that’d be a better show, or possibly a split lead.

The dynamic between Jamie and her boyfriend reminded me a lot of Grant Morrison’s Bulleteer. That was about a disturbed guy who wanted to turn him and his girlfriend into superheroes. He used an experimental procedure and encased them both in metallic power goo, which accidentally resulted in his death. Alix, the heroine of that series, had an inherent conflict in the fact that this was done to her against her will. That conflict is present here, but it’s less vexing, she had no legs at all, so wouldn’t you rather have bionic ones than no legs. It feels like he gave her a gift, admittedly an initially disturbing gift, but she really has no downside here. It’s better to give your character a lot of internal conflict, and I just don’t see that here.

Also inherent in Alix’s story was a meaningful discussion of male power over women, which is the theme here, but in the most obvious way. If you looked up idiotic in a video dictionary, you’d find that scene with the girl in the car right next to it. As with Buffy, the female empowerment is inherent in the premise, when someone outright voices the theme, it feels goofy. Plus, I’m not sure what the empowerment is here, a male run organization is using her power to do their work, could one read this as an allegory for child birth, men using a woman’s unique gift to forward their own agenda?

Regardless, I’d like to see some of the pervy insanity of Alix’s husband come in here. Does Jamie’s boyfriend have some kind of odd sexual thing for her new bionic self? Sadly, they make it clear that all her women parts are intact, but wouldn’t it be crazy if he said that they built her a new bionic vagina, and he likes that a lot more than the real her? There’s already a clear violation of her body, why not push that further and explore the way people perceive her as an object? That’s what Bulleteer did so wonderfully, that was a pretty much flawless treatment of the concept here, and I hope to see some of those themes appear here.

Sadly, it looks more like we’ll be dealing with villain of the week, Jamie stopping them for the organization, while dealing with some overall conspiracy and cheesy personal drama. That could work, but I really hope to see the layered plots and character growth of BSG emerge as the series goes on.

But, I liked the show a lot more than most TV pilots just because of the visual style. The shots popped and it felt exciting and new. Even something like Heroes, which featured great effects, never innovated in terms of shots. This had a very specific visual language, and it just felt cinematic.

In terms of music, the show made some great and some dodgy choices. It felt like a violation to use Sia’s “Breathe Me,” Six Feet Under owns that song, it should never be used in another film. No matter how good the scene, it’s not going to top Claire’s drive through the future. The Explosions in the Sky style track that cropped up occasionally, notably during the fight scene, was great, but I would have liked it to build more, not just pop up all of a sudden. That was my major issue with the music, every couple of minutes, a big track would come in. That drew attention to the music, I think layering it throughout and varying dynamics would have worked better. You build that guitar track, then crescendo it where you want the impact to be.

So, there’s a lot of flaws, but I’ll stick with it. It looks great, has a killer Katee Sackhoff performance and enough other interesting stuff to keep my attention. We’ll see where it goes.

7 comments:

porcalina said...

I had the same exact reaction when "Breathe Me" came on. It should never ever be used again on a show or movie. Six Feet Under is one of my favorite shows ever and that song just tugs at me every time.

I saw stick with Bionic Woman. It's hard to believe Jamie as a bad ass but hopefully that will change.

Patrick said...

Yeah, Jamie's the weak link. Hopefully they'll recognize that, and give more room to the supporting cast, or at least get a good amount of Katee Sackhoff in each episode.

crossoverman said...

Does Jamie’s boyfriend have some kind of odd sexual thing for her new bionic self? Sadly, they make it clear that all her women parts are intact, but wouldn’t it be crazy if he said that they built her a new bionic vagina, and he likes that a lot more than the real her?

Geez, it's not a David Cronenberg movie? ;-)

But I basically agree - Sackhoff rocked (even with cheesey dialogue) and the lead actress sucked.

Patrick said...

Now that you mention it, this would be a perfect Cronenberg project. They could use a little more of that horror/attraction to body modification that Cronenberg indulges in. I'll give it a couple of episodes, as long as Sackhoff's in, there's something worth watching for. And, the Friday Night Lights showrunner started consulting on the show at some point, so maybe it'll pick up then.

MJ said...

Sorry for the late post, but man, I got totally PO'd over the Sia usage as well. Even blogged about it on my pre-Tivo Queen site:
http://mjceci.blogspot.com/2007/09/waste-of-remake.html
It was also used in another doomed SF based show - The Evidence.

micheal said...

It should never ever be used again on a show or movie. Six Feet Under is one of my favorite shows ever and that song just tugs at me every time.I saw stick with Bionic Woman. It's hard to believe Jamie as a bad ass but hopefully that will change.

Patrick said...

Well, there's not too much incentive to stick with it when the show was unceremoniously cancelled. But, I'll stand by my thoughts on the first episode, there was some promise there, but the show went rapidly downhill afterwards.