25 March 2008

Review of Miss Guided that Includes Many Words and Phrases

I really wanted Miss Guided to be good. Judy Greer stars; she was uproarious in Arrested Development as George Bluth’s flash-happy secretary, Kitty (“Say goodbye . . . to these!”), but has failed to turn that potentially career-making role into any kind of stardom, repeatedly stumbling on weak scripts (American Dreamz, the dreadful television bomb Love Monkey) while occasionally doing good work in smaller roles (a guest shot on My Name Is Earl was particularly funny). And while creator Caroline Williams’ name may be on the worst episode of The Office, given the way sitcoms are written I’m sure she did her share of good work on one of my favorite shows. Chris Parnell has been great in a recurring role as Dr Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock. These are the ingredients for a good sitcom. Unfortunately, they just aren’t working.

Greer plays dippy but sweet-natured Becky Freeley, a high school guidance counselor who has the misfortune to be employed at her alma mater. Becky appears to be popular with students, but she’s an incurable dork, and stumbles around her social life like she never left the tenth grade: Her best friend is the beautiful English teacher Lisa (Brooke Burns), who has all the markers of one of the popular girls -- vain, perhaps a bit mean -- and who doesn’t seem to be aware of Becky’s existence much of the time; she has an incurable crush on Spanish/shop teacher Tim (Kristoffer Polaha), who is a beefcake but more than a little bit dim; and she has conversations like these in the teachers’ lounge:

LISA: Guys get intimidated by me. It’s actually kind of annoying.
BECKY: Are you sure he likes you? Maybe he likes someone else.
LISA: Like who?
BECKY: I don’t know who he likes.

The show is punctuated from time to time with private moments in which the teachers address the camera head-on to tell you what they’re thinking. Most of these come from Greer, though Polaha and Parnell get in on the act a little bit. Though I can see what they’re supposed to be -- much like the “talking heads” in The Office, they serve to pace the show and provide punch-lines to scenes that might have difficulty providing one otherwise -- they feel overused and frequently fall flat.

The pilot features Ashton Kutcher as Beaux, a “traveling educator” (read: substitute teacher) who threatens Tim’s position by teaching Spanish, well, competently. Beaux also makes like a bee for Becky instead of Lisa, tossing Becky’s life into a bit of a turmoil until it turns out that he’s a crackpot hippie who doesn’t have a college degree and is encouraging students not to get one, either. This bit of stunt casting has been pushed very hard by ABC (his name has been tacked on as an Executive Producer, and all the spots seem to want you to believe he’s either [a] the head writer or [b] the star), and by coincidence or design, he gets the bulk of the laugh lines. Unfortunately, there are only two of those (“you don’t need a degree to sub for music, art, or PE -- or to just hang out” being the best), and though Greer pours all her considerable talents into her role, not much comes of it. I liked Becky, I just didn’t think she was funny.

The second episode, which aired directly after the first last Thursday, has a clever concept, but repeatedly misses the mark in what could have been a funny episode. A student has started a website, LindsayLopez.com (“a blarg”, in Becky’s terms, modeled on Perez Hilton but covering only the school), that includes a “most doable teacher” list. Becky is 18th on the list, a concept that, if you’ve seen Judy Greer and remember high school (and your high school was anything like mine), is kind of ludicrous, but hey, it’s TV, let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment. When Lisa places first, Becky tries to climb the charts -- only to dress like a colossal dork circa 1987, and then, through a series of unfunny slapstick antics, get injured and end up in a neck brace, in the process plunging to last place. The big twist that gets her to number one is dirty but not very funny, which is weird -- the show is, for the most part, sunny and clean, if not hilarious; in that moment it is none of those things.

Miss Guided has potential, and I’ll be giving it a run again this week, in case it’s just having some growing pains at the moment. It’s the kind of show that could break out. The actors are funny, and when they have good lines they hit them hard. The “sit” part of the sitcom is well-defined and funny in the abstract if not in practice -- Parnell’s Vice Principal Bruce has an “office aide” who functions as essentially a butler, which is a funny idea that could be further explored; Becky’s crush on Tim is silly but not the sort of will-they-won’t-they drama that gets old quickly; and the concept of a high school at which the teachers are more like teenagers than the teenagers are could turn out to be very funny. But it’s got one more week. Right now, to be perfectly frank, Miss Guided sucks. But it might get better.

23 March 2008

Lost: Episode 4.08, “Meet Kevin Johnson”, or: I’d Like to Put His Face in a Foreman Grill

Let me tell you about Michael Dawson: to hell with Michael Dawson. Ever since Harold Parrineau’s name popped up in the credits of Lost earlier this season, I have been dreading his return. You remember the part in The 40-year-Old Virgin when Paul Rudd says, “If I hear ‘Ya Mo Be There’ one more time, ya mo burn this place to the ground”? That’s how I started feeling about Michael by the time he was mercifully allowed to put-put off the island with WAAAAAAAALLLLT! in tow, leaving Lost to annoy me with Sawyer and Kate instead. If I had heard that guy shout MY BOY! one more time, I was going to do an Elvis on my television. A pointless act, I know, but a man driven to the edge of his sanity, with no power and no recourse to higher authority, will act out by harming himself.

So it was with mixed trepidation and anticipation that I approached “Meet Kevin Johnson”. When the previouslies included a shot of Michael bobbing in the darkened ocean screaming the name of his oft-wayward son, I giggled. When he stood on his mother’s stoop in a flashback and started talking about “a father’s right” with that special edgy keening that he seems to keep in reserve for when he wants to send your eyes spinning back in your skull with annoyance, I began to worry that I was going to have to stop watching Lost again, which would be a shame, because what else is a fellow to do of an evening if not rot his mind with the boob tube? God forbid I should pick up a book.

Well, all’s well that ends well, and while my feeling is that a good ending for Michael would be a couple of hours with Sayid and some bamboo spikes, followed by a good being killed, at least it appears that Walt has made his last appearance for a while.

The Wayback Machine: Michael (flashback)

Nearly three quarters of “Meet Kevin Johnson” was spent in flashback -- and the flashback was contiguous -- but somehow it felt like not enough. I know some people expected more of Michael getting off the island (there had been speculation that he had never got back to the mainland at all). I expected more of him on the boat. As I said last week, I’ve been waiting for boatbacks that gave us proper introductions to the latelamented Minkowski (Fisher Stevens) and Regina (Zoe Bell); instead we got a brief exchange with one, and none of the other. If we don’t start seeing more of Fisher Stevens pretty soon, I’m going to have to append “criminally underused” to his name. But I’m not convinced that we’re done with boatbacks, so we’ll leave that for another time.

So it turns out Michael and Walt made it back to New York. How they had time to get off the island in that dinky little boat, sneak into the country without alerting to the world to the fact of their existence, cross the country, take up residence in New York, reestablish contact with Michael’s family, and have a falling out all within a few days -- that would take years of my life -- remains a question, but hey, it’s television, and it’s television in which there is time travel, so I’m not too worried about it.

The trend with the people who get off the island seems to be that ultimately they don’t flourish. Hurley ends up institutionalized, Sun trying to play single mother, Kate raising another woman’s baby, Jack drinking and drugging and trying to commit suicide, Sayid backsliding into violence. Michael joins Jack in the ranks of the suicidal, though his first attempt seems not unlike something a Bond villain might cook up: he writes a note to Walt, and purposefully crashes his car out on the docks. It doesn’t work. I know that’s supposed to be mystical and all, but my guess would be that this method of suicide is neither popular nor particularly effective.

Haunted by visions of Libby, one of the women he killed, Michael tries to make contact with Walt, cannot, and just as he hits bottom, good old Tom -- Mr Friendly, to longtime fans of the show -- pops up with an offer and some info: Michael’s suicide attempts will continue to be futile because “the island isn’t done with [him]”, and the Others would like to offer him some work.

This island mumbo-jumbo (the island has powers when you’re not there anymore? Is the island part of a secret cabal that controls the universe? Quick! Someone call the Illuminati!) might explain something: Way back in the last episode of season three, Jack stood on the edge of a bridge, ready to hurl himself into the abyss beyond, only to be interrupted by a fortuitous (for lack of a better word) car wreck. Is the island not done with Jack, either? Is this a clever device to explain all the inexplicable deus ex machina that seems to be at play in the flash forwards? I’m not sure it is. I think it’s a mistake to assume that, because the island wouldn’t let Michael kill himself, that it gives a crap about Jack’s possible suicide. The option is open, but I wouldn’t start building complicated theories based on this idea.

I also wonder about the Libby-visions. Why is Michael not haunted by visions of Ana Lucia as well? Because nobody liked her? Just because she was a fascistic beyotch doesn’t mean that Michael didn’t murder her in cold blood, as well. Anyway.

Turns out more incontrovertible proof of Michael’s invulnerability crops up when he tries to shoot himself and it doesn’t work -- at exactly the same moment as a news report comes on detailing the recovery of Flight 815. Michael goes to find Tom at his hotel (and OMG Tom is teh gay!!!!), and Tom has quite a bit of possibly false information about Charles Widmore, owner of the freighter, and perhaps the man who faked the 815 crash site. Michael’s job? To go undercover on the freighter and search for the island. Michael is reluctant, for lots of obvious reasons. But then Tom says this:

You’re not going on that boat so you can swab decks, Michael. You’re going so you can kill everyone on board.

Yeah. Okay. He’s already riddled with guilt about the two murders he committed in his semi-righteous quest to retrieve Walt from the Others, and this is supposed to convince him to take up this line of work? Apparently so. I blame time travel again. How? Maybe Michael went to the future and met an alternate-reality Michael who convinced him that it was going to be awesome. Don’t ask me, I just work here.

Arriving in Fiji, Michael is greeted by Minkowski briefly, has a little flirty-flirty with Naomi over her admittedly sexy accent, and then is told by Miles that his name isn’t Kevin, which . . . okay. So Miles’ psychic abilities aren’t limited to dead people, eh? Also, there’s a bomb that he’s supposed to set off in a few days. Apparently the reason he’s supposed to do this is to save the lives of the people still on the island. That’s cool and all, but if I were Michael, I might be a little wary of the people who put me up to murder in the first place. Michael, however, was not overburdened with brains, and he goes ahead and sets off the bomb. Tries to, anyway. Turns out to be a fake.

Then Ben calls. That’s a ballsy move. But when Michael tells him he tried to set off the bomb, Ben seems surprised: “You actually activated the bombs?” Sounds like even Ben didn’t think Michael would be this good a helper. Anyhoozy, Michael agrees to sabotage the boat, and Ben says, “Consider yourself one of the good guys.”

Queue whooshy noise, and the world’s longest flashback is over.

Meanwhile, back on the Island . . .

Very little island action this week, mostly because we had to spend the whole episode finding out how Michael came to be the dude who was sabotaging the boat. What we get is essentially a Locke ploy to keep the natives from getting restless: He finally takes that grenade out of Miles’ mouth (took a while), and trots him out for Claire, Hurley, Sawyer, Rousseau, and Ben to examine. What does he say? Not only is he there for Ben, but when Ben claims that their orders are to kill everybody else, he doesn’t deny it.

Claire’s response (and Claire seems to have gotten uppity of late): “What, he’s one of us now?” Good point. It goes unanswered. Locke’s crew do find out about Michael, though. You know what? I don’t think Locke’s leadership is meant to last long. He’s a psycho. And sure, plenty of psychos have run plenty of governments for plenty of years, but those psychos had armies and stuff. All Locke has is a big-ass knife and an overblown “connection” to the island. Every week, it seems less and less as though Locke’s connection to the island is unique: Hurley’s seen Jacob’s cabin, Michael can’t kill himself, Rose, too, has been healed, Jack and Kate have both seen visions . . . yeah, Locke’s not connected to the island any more than anybody else; he just wants it more.

The real action takes place at the end of the episode: Ben sends Rousseau, Alex, and Alex’s low-functioning boyfriend Karl off to look for “The Temple”, which is apparently where the Others (oh yeah, the Others) are hiding out. In the jungle, they’re ambushed by an unseen person with either a silenced rifle (why?) or a really awesome blowgun. Karl and Rousseau are both shot in the chest, and the episode ends with Alex, hands in the air, shouting, “I’m Ben’s daughter!”

I don’t really mourn Rousseau’s death, and I’m not really surprised by it. She was interesting for a while, but she’s just sort of been there, saying weird things, ever since the first season. Once she was creepy; now she’s an afterthought. Ah well. Not everybody can last forever. And Karl? That kid has water on the brain. His name might as well have been Dead Meat.

Can’t Hardly Freight

Even less happens on the freighter this week than happened on the island. Sayid and Desmond are awakened in the night to find Captain Gault administering a public beating to a couple of extras, saying, “Nobody leaves this ship without my say-so!” (There are a lot of people on that freighter, man.) Then there’s the flashback, then Sayid turns Michael in to Gault, calling him a “traitor”. Of course, one man’s traitor is another man’s hero, and I’m not sure traitorousness is one of those immutable personal characteristics.

The Mystery Measure: 6 out of 10

The episode glided over some stuff I had wanted to see (Michael’s actual rescue, life on the boat), but it did provide some answers, to questions like, “How dumb is Michael?” (Answer: Not as dumb as Kate, but pretty dumb.)

The big cliffhanger is the question of Rousseau’s death. Is she really dead? Who killed her? Why? Did she look weird in those regular clothes, or what?

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: On Good and Evil and the Queer Question

One of the things Ben keeps saying is that he’s one of “the good guys”, or that the others are “the good guys”, or whatever. On some level that seems hard to believe. He’s manipulative, and he did commit an enormous mass murder to gain a position of power. But it is true that the Others qua the Others have actually only ever committed one murder, and attempted one other. (That I can remember, anyway.) Meanwhile, the Lostaways have killed, among others, Ethan, Goodwin, and Tom, and attempted to kill Mikhail many times. There have been individual acts of violence within the Other community, but in the context of conflict, they do seem to keep the lethal force to a minimum.

This week, Ben draws a distinction between himself and Charles Widmore, “A killer without conscience or a greater purpose. . . . When I’m at war, I’ll do what I need to do to win, but I will not kill innocent people.” Well, yeah, kinda, except when he gassed a whole bunch of people, but maybe those were the mistakes of youth.

What it comes down to is that “the good guys” and “the bad guys” are almost always synonymous with “my tribe” and “their tribe”. In any situation in which two groups of people come into lethal conflict, each side does terrible things to the other, and feels that the things they do are justified, while the things that the other side has done are not. It’s the way of the world. Lost seems to understand that, and as we get to know the Others better, we are given another set of people who seem willing to act against all people on the island, thereby redefining the Others as part of “our tribe” for the viewer. The fact is, however, that there are no good guys, as far as I can tell. Heck, the Boat People could be the good guys, if we had just watched four seasons worth of a show about someone searching for a magical island only to find it inhabited with hostile castaways. You’d think that Michael would understand that better, having himself done terrible things in the name of achieving an ostensible good. But then, you’d be thinking, which isn’t Michael’s specialty.

Beyond Good and Evil, we have the question of Tom’s sexuality. In fact, in the context of the show, it’s almost a non-issue: we get a glance at a boyfriend (possibly a high-class gigolo -- I mean, have you seen Tom’s butt?), and then it’s off-screen and never mentioned again. I wouldn’t even bring it up, except I keep seeing comments here and there about how it’s “unnecessary.”

I’m sorry, but that’s horseshit. If Tom had had a girl in his room, the word “unnecessary” would have come up exactly never. But since it’s a guy, people who are afraid to display their homophobia in an outright way try to pretend as if they object because it’s not germane to the plot. Well, guess what, people? It’s part of his character. The thing that differentiates Lost from lesser shows is that it gives its characters contours and details that make them interesting. One of Tom’s appears to be that he’s gay. They’re not making a point, not at all. In fact, I think that it’s a sign of progress that this sort of thing can just be slipped into the show without a big deal being made out of it: there was no very special episode, there were no speeches, there was no classless homophobe inserted to learn a lesson. Tom just happens to be gay, like millions of other people on the planet.

It’s difficult to know how many gay people there are in the world. Religious groups have studies that say as low as 1% (still 60 000 000 people on earth); gay rights groups claim it’s as high as 10% (600 000 000 people on earth). Even splitting the difference, we’ve met dozens of people on Lost, and not-a-one of them has been homosexual. I’m not accusing the show of homophobia; I’m just saying that it doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense for a cast this large to include zero people with alternate sexual practices. To have gay character is to reflect reality. They’re not pursing a liberal agenda, trying to be PC, or any other thing. They’re just evening out the demographics.

Subtle homophobia -- the kind that takes form, not as gay-bashing or violence or explicitly homophobic legislation, but as an ill-disguised desire to pretend gay people don't exist -- is probably not as damaging as overt discrimination, but it is perhaps more insidious, because people think they can get away with it. To call Tom’s moment “unnecessary” is to imply somehow that the whole practice of homosexuality should be kept out of the public eye unless you have something to say about it. In that way, it is kept “other”, marginalized, and allowed to maintain its stigma. I reject that. The right of gay people to be gay is not about liberal or conservative, any more than the right of black people to be black is, or the right of Jews to be Jews, or the right of old people to be old. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see it, because you know what? It’s not up to you, any more than it’s up to gay people to tell straight people that they don’t want to see straight sexuality practiced in public. So “unnecessary” this, buddy. That’s what I have to say.

And Now, Your Moment of Jackface

Sadly (or happily, for the Jack haters out there), there was no Jack in this episode. So instead, I’ll leave you with a Moment of WAAAAAALLLT!

“Oh man, am I going to have to find something else to do with my Thursday nights?”

21 March 2008

One Word Review of Miss Guided


Corner Gas and Other Disconnects

So, there's this show that's been popping up on WGN of late. It's called Corner Gas. I'd never heard of it, so I thought I'd give it a run. It's amazing the gems one will find by tuning into random crap on television. I thought I might get lucky.

Instead, I got Canadian. That's right, Corner Gas is a Candian single-camera sitcom in which the joke appears to be that there are no jokes. And not "no jokes" in that BBC Office kind of way. Nope, there are just no jokes, not that I noticed. It was all sit, no com. In fact, there were many situations: two people sit at a counter discussing something. Let's say it's another person. That third person enters the room. The two people at the counter cease to discuss the third person.

Hilarity ensues, right? Not as far as I can tell. The topic just changes.

A little research indicates that Corner Gas is like, an award-winning Canadian show and all. Maybe I've seen the wrong episodes. But let me confess something to you: I've seen a lot of episodes of Corner Gas. Five or six, maybe. I find its total lack of . . . anything . . . kind of entrancing. I can watch it in the same way that I used to stand in my living room and watch that channel that gives nonstop traffic updates in a mechanized voice while flashing a series of images from the mountain passes. The ODOT channel. Corner Gas is like the ODOT channel: quiet, repetitive, hypontic.

Far be it from me to judge from place of ignorance. I willfully admit that our neighbors to the north may find this show legitimately hilarious; it wouldn't be the first time that something notionally funny from a foreign land struck me as completely baffling (including but not limited to Falwty Towers, the majority of Monty Python, and that Australian romcom I can't remember the name of). So what am I missing?

I think there are a few disconnects here. First: maybe I'm just not nice enough. One of the defining features of Corner Gas, much like Canada as a whole, is that everybody seems to be a completely swell guy. The show is, above all things else, gentle. Perhaps I've been weaned on American edginess, and I just can't handle anything that doesn't have a political bent or some good killin'. Maybe I want my comedy to be mean. Is that all right? Is it possible to be too nice? I think so. I mean, when was the last time that the Canadians won a war single-handed, like the United States of Freedom has done every time we ever fought one ever including when we fought one against ourselves? Second: Perhaps I am spoiled by a superfluity of choice. Last time I was in Canada . . . actually, I was in Toronto, and it was totally awesome. But the mental image I have had of Canada since I first became aware that there were whole other countries on this planet (at the age of twenty-three or so) was of a place where people were stuck inside all the time without a lot to do. Toronto regardless, I choose to cling to that notion now as an explanation for why Corner Gas is such a huge hit up there in the Great White North: when all you have is a pair of snow shoes and a couple of old Guess Who records, Corner Gas must seem like the sweet, sweet humor of the gods.

There's also the possibility that I really have just seen the wrong episodes of the show. But you know why I doubt that? I'll tell you why: The Red Green Show. Go ahead. Watch a few clips of The Red Green Show. I'll give you a minute.

[Sings a few bars of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up".]

See what I'm talking about? I mean, if there's a culture that finds that funny, Corner Gas must be a true titan of laffs. Barrel o' monkeys and that whole bit. 

Anyway, I kid. I cannot truly recommend Corner Gas, however, because it is mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly unfunny and boring (though it does star a dude named Brent Butt). And it does make me wonder if a couple of synapses might not be firing right in the collective brain of them up there in Canada. (Then again, given that Two and a Half Men is the #1 comedy here in the United States of Justice, I probably shouldn't be talking.)

I give Corner Gas two bottles of maple syrup out of a possible gallon.


20 March 2008

In which there are some thoughts on Lost, and some links to boot

Tonight's episode of Lost took place almost entirely in flashback, telling the relatively straightforward (straightforward for Lost, that is) story of how Michael Dawson became Kevin Johnson. I was worried that they'd play the WAAAAAAALT! card again, but luckily that unfortunate boy remains in New York, in the care of his grandmother. Though I don't feel that it's adequately explained why, exactly, Michael doesn't feel like he can tell his mother where he's been for two months, that nixes my fear that I was in for an entire season of Michael shouting, "MY BOY! I have to get my boy! I will kill because of my boy! WAAAAAALT! YOU CAN TELL I'M WORRIED ABOUT WAAAAAAALT BECAUSE I HAVEN'T BEEN SHAVING!!!"

Still a little unclear on the timeline: Michael has been gone for something like a month, but it seemed as though he'd been back in New York for a while when Tom (who, it turns out, is not of the heterosexual persuasion) came to find him. Anyway. The boatbacks I had been anticipating provided less detail than I expected, and we didn't see Zoe Bell once, which leads me to believe that there may be more boatbacks -- possibly from Charlotte or Frank or Miles, but my money's on Faraday -- in the offing. It's weird to realize that we'd be halfway through a regular run of the new-structure Lost, and past the halfway mark for the strike-shortened variety. The presence of the Others was finally mentioned in this episode, so I wouldn't be shocked to see them come back into play -- to make a ploy for / attack on Ben? -- pretty soon.

Caught a quick reference to Kurt Vonnegut on the game show that played in the background as Michael attempted to shoot himself. Vonnegut is the author of the sci-fi classic Slaughterhouse Five, which is the most obvious inspiration for Desmond's time-pilgrim act. That's more an Easter Egg for fans than a clue, but there you have it.

Stay tuned in the next couple of days for a more in-depth recap. In the meantime, some links to tide you over . . .

  • After the recent unpleasantness, I found my interest in Lost redoubled, partially because it's been the only new thing on that wasn't mind-numbing reality drek. To that end, I went seeking a podcast, and eventually settled on this one, put together by husband-and-wife duo Ryan and Jen. They attempt to recap episodes in just 8 minutes (quite literally a breathtaking feat), and then spend the meat of their show on analysis, both their own and others'. As Hawai'i residents, they're also able to peek in on filming from time to time. The spoilers are light, the atmosphere is fun, and the production quality is high.
  • A personal hero of mine is Mr Stephen Fry, the British actor, novelist, game show host, and all-around person of wit. Turns out he has a blog. It's not updated every day, but it's usually worth a gander when it is, especially if you're into technological geekery.
  • Good for a giggle.
And now, with my NCAA Tournament bracket in tatters (damn my faith in the Pac-10), I move to try to claim the five bucks I bet somebodyorother that Portland State wouldn't come within 20 of Kansas. I leave you with a video, starring Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead fame:

19 March 2008

John Adams, Episode One, or: A-Hunting We Will Go

The United States is a nation of laws, not of men. -- John Adams

Or somesuch. I’m having a hard time finding an actual source for that little tidbit, perhaps the most misunderstood (and definitely the most oft-quoted) bon mot from a man who was nothing if not a master of the short, cutting remark. To take it on its face, it seems like the sort of thing to which one must react with shock: what kind of nation would it be if it did not acknowledge the existence of the humans who comprise it it? My god, the damage such a state could perpetrate.

Adams meant it in fundamentally a different way, however. What the revolutionary Americans rebelled against was in fact a nation very much of men -- the key distinction was that it was a nation of a very few men, which ruled over a great many. The law, as such, must have seemed nebulous to a man who lived thousands of miles from the halls of power. The law could change at the caprice of men -- of one very specific man, the King of England. Adams envisioned a country in which the law, very nearly immutable, ignored the petty desires of any individual and treated all the same. The blind mistress justice and all that.

Whether that turned out to be what we got, and if so, whether that’s a good thing, is a debate for another forum. But I’ve just recently watched the first episode of HBO’s John Adams, based on David McCullough’s fascinating (if somewhat fawning) biography, and it’s set me to thinking. The difficulty with a history of the United States is that it must be, by its very nature, the history of a system. But stories want to be about people. And therein lies the problem.

In Which We Recount What Happened

I suppose it would be a mistake to start a miniseries called John Adams with anything other than John Adams. And television, let’s be clear, is not history. So perhaps the creators of John Adams the show can be excused for shoehorning John Adams the man into a situation in which, as far as we know, he took no part: Adams comes riding into Boston on a frigid night in 1770, and no sooner than he has greeted his wife than the call goes up that there is a fire, and he barrels out into the cold and dark to help. As he pounds toward the source of the disturbance, it becomes clear that something altogether different is happening: gunshots, and then a wave of fleeing people rushing up an alleyway. Seconds later, Adams wades knee-deep into the aftermath of the famous Boston Massacre: bloodied British troops stand surrounded by dead New Englanders, and no less a personage than Adams’ cousin Sam (also not there, and noted mostly today as progenitor of a famous if not particularly awesome beer) shouting that they are murderers. Suffice it to say that neither man was likely present for this event, but hey, it’s television, and the Massacre qua a court case did turn out to be pivotal in the life of John Adams, so what the heck, why not.

When Adams, saying, “Counsel is the last person a person should lack in a free country” (but not missing out on the fact that the case will raise his profile), agrees to defend the soldiers, the first episode of John Adams becomes a courtroom drama. These scenes, to say the least, drag a little bit. Though the court, in certain ways, does not resemble any court you’re likely to see on Law & Boredom or Boston Legal, in other ways viewers of those shows will feel right at home. Witnesses quite literally stand at a bar behind the lawyers, as do the defendants, surrounded by a rabble. The lawyers wear comical white wigs and gowns that look not unlike what you might have worn to your college graduation. But the structure of the scenes: the truthful witness, the lying witness, the unlikely witness who sucks it up to tell the truth despite the external pressures not to do so, the final closing flourish in which the good guy out-shines his opponent with rousing oratory . . . you’ll be wondering where Sam Waterson is.

More effective are interstitial scenes that punctuate this action, in which Adams discusses his career prospects with Jonathan Sewall, a powerful friend but a Tory, and the case with his wife, Abigail, whose chief function seems to be to act as a drag on his ego. When he wants to quote every great thinker from history in his closing statement, his wife reminds him that convincing people that he is smart and convincing people that his clients are not guilty are not the same thing.

After his victory in court guts his practice, Adams is presented with a choice: Sewall has offered him a job working, essentially, for the king’s government. His cousin Sam wants him involved in politics -- first local Massachusetts politics, and then, later, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia; Sam Adams believes that John Adams’ presence will lend his ticket gravitas: a man who would defend British soldiers but also oppose British rule must be a fair and bright man indeed, goes the reasoning.

Adams’ inner turmoil is played out before his eyes: standing at Boston Harbor, he watches as an incensed mob tars and feathers a British ship’s captain who would unload taxable tea. (Let me tell you something: I had always thought about tarring and feathering as a kind of humorous thing. Well, it appears it was not at all. I hadn’t really thought through the consequences of hot tar on naked flesh, but it appears that it was quite disgusting.) Discussing this scene with his wife, Adams says, “The people are in need of strong government, Abigail. Restraint. Most men are weak, and evil, and vicious.” While I agree with the latter part, it is unclear, at this point, what Adams means by the former.

His decision is essentially made for him when British troops roll into Boston en masse and the King declares, essentially, that the rule of law cannot be enforced in Massachusetts, and that disturbers of the peace will be taken to England for “fair” trial. That seems to be the last straw for Adams, the great believer in law (and, lest we not forget, his own abilities in that field), and, in the final moments of the episode, he packs himself onto a horse to ride with the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The Good

Though deeply flawed, the first episode of John Adams does bring ample pleasures. Chief among these is the performance of Paul Giamatti, who has turned out to be one of the very best American actors in the business. His Adams is at times like a bear disturbed from hibernation: hunched, growly, powerful. Other times . . . . well, he’s always a little growly, but in the wake of a big legal victory or caught up in the pleasure of his work, he is energetic and comical, vain and self-conscious but also charismatic. Giamatti lacks the cannon-like voice so often associated with long-dead founding fathers, but his gruff (not to say grim) honks lend Adams reality that he might night have had in the hands of a trombone-voiced Shakespearean.

Flowing from Giamatti’s performance, the characterization of Adams himself is more complicated than one might expect. His flaws are not glossed: Adams is self-regarding and short-tempered, blatantly favors his older children at the expense of his middle son, Charles, and if principled certainly seems not to object when those principles align very closely with his ambition. He is independent, opinionated, stubborn to a fault -- American. The real John Adams was descended from many generations of Americans, and was not in any sense an expatriated Briton; John Adams seems to grasp that intrinsically.

The cinematography, art direction, costumes and set direction are all very fine as well, and communicate in a way that almost nothing I’ve seen before has the reality of life in the late 18th Century. In many period pieces, everyone comes off as perhaps a little too coiffed, every hair in place, as if the fact that they wore wigs and spoke an unfamiliar dialect means that life had no dirt on it. Not so here. Director Tom Hooper employs handheld cameras and tight close-ups, communicating to the viewer that life in Massachusetts in 1770 was neither easy nor clean.

Though this technique is common in cop shows and war movies, I’ve never seen it employed in a period piece, and it’s very effective. No expense has been spared in the attempt to make 1770 feel real to us. The camera work does not violate that.

The Bad

A niggling aside, but let’s get it out of the way first: The accents are . . . well, it’s hard to figure them out. I’m not sure that anybody has any real grasp of what an American might have sounded like 240 years ago. Would a colony still under British control have had something closer to what one might today call a British accent? Would Adams, a small-town Massachusetts man by birth, have sounded like a character out of a Stephen King novel, a backwoods New England hick? As an educated man, would he have spoken with that flat Kennedyesque brogue? Danny Huston, as Sam Adams, seems to have shot for a tempered British affect. Giamatti and Linney seek to split the difference, with the result that they both seem to wobble a little bit, especially early on. After an adjustment period, however, Giamatti seems to hit on something consistent if not accurate, and it’s good that he does: Since Adams is a seminal American figure, it is necessary that he sound American. Though Giamatti doesn’t sound exactly American, but he certainly doesn’t sound English.

Beyond that, the real problem is with the characterization of everyone other than Adams. Because he is the hero, the show has an obvious investment in making Adams seem principled and strong, as no doubt he was. Unfortunately, it suffers from a variation on what I like to call Teen Moron Syndrome.

A movie that suffers from Teen Moron Syndrome has a main character who is bright, teenaged, and frequently socially outcast. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t trust the audience to notice that our hero is smart, so all of the teenagers around him must be slavering idiots by contrast. (For a classic example, see the otherwise excellent War Games.)

John Adams does not make Adams’ contemporaries stupid, it makes them morally reprehensible. In an attempt to make John Adams seem like a voice of reason, it portrays Samuel Adams as a rabel-rousing, cutthroat ruffian, whose eye very nearly glints at the sight of a riotous crowd covering the nude body of an innocent man in hot tar. It makes Sewall a clueless stuffed shirt, and his wife a tittering simpleton. Bloodthirsty masses abound. Witnesses at the trial of the soldiers are little but bewigged savages. After a while, this becomes tiresome.

The Ugly

I have the feeling that John Adams is going to provide us with a lot of ugliness before all is said and done, but the ugliest thing about the first episode has to be the image of a tarred-and-feathered man being ridden out of town on a rail.

I’ll be back before long with a review of the second episode of John Adams.