Underrated TV: NBC’s Mercy

August 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm (Review) (, , )

It’s a bold statement, but I’ll make it: NBC’s hospital drama Mercy was one of the best shows on television last season.

This isn’t, apparently, a very popular opinion. The show, which chronicled the lives of three friends working as nurses in a Jersey City hospital, had consistently low ratings and failed to be renewed for a second season — an especially disappointing state of affairs, since season one ended on a major cliffhanger. But the DVD boxset of the first season comes out this week, and I’d like to provide a handful of compelling reasons for picking it up, if you’ve got cash to spare.

1.) The cast. I decided to watch Mercy before I knew anything about the premise, simply because of the cast. Michelle Trachtenberg, best known as Dawn on Buffy, plays Chloe, the newest nurse in the hospital, and I’ve always been fond of her. Those who were annoyed by Dawn would be smart to give Trachtenberg a second chance, especially here, in her first truly mature role. (Where “mature” means “playing a responsible adult with a job,” not the few sex comedy roles she took to prove she wasn’t a little girl anymore.) Jamie Lee Kirchner, meanwhile, is an actress I was extremely impressed by when I saw her in Broadway’s RENT (as Mimi), and she’s fabulous here as Sonia, the protagonist’s best friend. I hadn’t previously heard of Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays the show’s main protagonist, Iraq veteran Veronica, but she turned out to be fantastic, and her mom is played by the always-amazing Kate Mulgrew. The ensemble is great, too — Guillermo Diaz as another nurse/friend of the protagonists, Diego Klattenhoff as Veronica’s husband, James Tupper as Veronica’s wartime fling, and James LeGros as an arrogant doctor. If you can stand James Van Der Beek’s role as an antagonist in the later episodes of the series, the cast is pretty much perfect.

2.) The feminism. What impressed me most about Mercy, from day one, was the way it was structured around three women who were actually believable friends, rather than catty, backstabbing rivals. The show always passed the Bechdel Test as the women talked to each other about work, about their families, about their hobbies, and, yes, about the men in their lives. And while romantic plots existed (and were hit-or-miss), they were never the focus of the show. Unlike the characters on Grey’s Anatomy, these characters never seemed to be spending time talking about their sex lives when they could have been treating patients — they saved that for the bar after work. Mercy is a show about nurses doing their jobs, and while I can’t comment on the accuracy of the medicine, I always appreciated that the show never implied that nurses were in any way “lesser” than doctors. In fact, the show reminds us, they’re the ones who really do the hard work.

3.) The protagonist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a protagonist like Veronica Callahan. First and foremost, she’s a female war veteran with very obvious, and acknowledged, post-traumatic stress disorder. She may have been primarily on the medical side of the war, but the show acknowledges that even those in the “safer” jobs in the military are under enormous amounts of stress and danger in such unpredictable battlefields. Veronica is a mess — she has flashbacks and fears, she has a temper that gets her in trouble, and she’s an alcoholic on top of everything else — but she’s also strong-willed, stubborn, and determined to do her job. Her love triangle plot, while handled better than it would be on most shows, is almost a disappointment, simply because it’s the least interesting part of her character. The much more interesting narrative is that of a young woman trying to make a place for herself in the world after trauma, and luckily that’s the narrative the show focuses on.

4.) The sense of place. Mercy is set in Jersey City, a major city in my own home state, so I feel qualified to say that the way in which the show uses its location is more akin to shows like Homicide: Life on the Street or New York cop shows than to medical dramas like last season’s abysmal Pittsburgh-set Three Rivers or House (which exists in a Princeton, New Jersey I don’t recognize at all, as a 4-year resident of the town). The Jersey City of Mercy feels absolutely real and absolutely integral to the plot, from the race and class tensions to Veronica’s Irish-American cultural identity to the bars they hang out at after work. While others might not have the same feeling of identification with the setting, anyone can appreciate the show’s strong sense of place, which only serves to make the universe richer and more believable.

5.) The stories. While Mercy does have a tendency to dip into melodrama, its stories are, on the whole, tight and compelling. While Veronica is clearly the protagonist, Chloe and Sonia both get clear arcs over the course of the season and important stories to themselves, and the ensemble is always well-used. (And diverse — Guillermo Diaz has great scenes as a gay, Hispanic male nurse, and Malaysian actress K.K. Moggie does an excellent job as an initially unsympathetic doctor whose layers emerge as she interacts with the other characters.) The medical plots are, I’m sure, as inaccurate as any TV medicine, but the emotional moments with the patients always feel earned, rather than hokey or a little too conveniently related to the characters’ personal dramas. Because the focus is placed so much on the fact that the characters are nurses, those stories serve as character moments in and of themselves, instead of as manipulative parallels.

If anything I’ve talked about piques your interest, I highly suggest checking out the first season on DVD. You can find it here on Amazon or in any local retailer. I doubt DVD sales will rescusitate the show, but if just a few more people got to experience the joy that is season one, I’ll consider my advertisement a success.

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Learning to Appreciate Dancing with the Stars

May 26, 2010 at 11:38 am (Analysis, Review) (, )

For the past five years, I’ve mocked my parents relentlessly for their love of Dancing with the Stars. I’ve rolled my eyes fondly when my mom has called me at 9:00 on a Monday night with an exhortation to dial a certain toll-free number and give more votes to her favorite contestant. I’ve laughed derisively at the antics of the judges and hosts as I’ve passed through my living room on the way to my own preferred entertainment options. You could say, quite fairly, that I didn’t see the appeal of a cheesy dancing competition filled with D-list celebrities — for myself, or for the millions of viewers who apparently watched it every season.

Then, this winter, a few things happened in quick succession: I watched the Winter Olympics, I got sucked into the world of figure skating fandom, and gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek was announced as a contestant on season 10 of Dancing with the Stars. And suddenly I had a dilemma — would I watch this thing I’d always mocked, just for a celebrity I enjoyed?

The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes. Oh, sure, I tried to justify it at first, to mitigate the shame. “Oh, me? I’m just watching this to mock it. “For the lulz,” as they say on the internets. I’m watching it ironically. I just want to see how goofy Evan is, with his long, awkward limbs. And Buzz Aldrin! How can you not watch an octogenarian former moon-walker attempt to dance? Besides, it’s nice to have a reason to sit down with my parents twice a week. I’m doing it for the sake of family bonding!” I started voting for Evan — first with my phone, then with increasingly numerous e-mail addresses — and claimed I was only doing so because I worried his ultra-competitive personality would lead him to have a nervous breakdown if he got kicked off too early. As a final defense, I swore I’d only watch until Evan left — which, since he just earned second place on the finale last night, turned out to be a moot declaration. But about halfway through the season, I began to realize that I probably wouldn’t stop watching even if Evan was kicked off — because I’d begun to truly enjoy the show.

It’s pretty common for geeky people to react like I initially did to something like Dancing with the Stars. In a world where our geeky hobbies (comics, sci-fi, video games, etc.) are regularly derided as the childish trash entertainment of socially-stunted individuals, we frequently become defensive to the point of elitism, declaring our hobbies to be worthwhile and the entertainment of the masses to be worthless drivel. When you combine this geeky tendency with the tendency of high-minded academics (with whom I was surrounded for four years) to dismiss low and popular culture entirely, you can see how, despite all my best efforts, I found myself falling into the trap of dismissing entertainment with mainstream appeal without ever giving it a second thought. American Idol? Bleh. Two and a Half Men? Oy. And Dancing with the Stars? Oh, whatever.

I’m not going to claim that ten weeks spent with Dancing with the Stars completely cured me of this tendency toward elitism. I’m also not going to pretend it’s suddenly become my favorite show. But it did make me appreciate the value of entertainment that isn’t necessarily thoughtful or competitively rigorous. Is the game fixed from the start? Of course it is. Is it unfair to put people with absolutely no dance or athletic experience, like actress Niecy Nash, up against people who are, essentially, professional dancers, like Pussycat Doll and winner Nicole Scherzinger? Of course it is. But that’s not the point. The point is to enjoy the goofy, low-budget, good-natured fun of it. Since they’re all celebrities who are getting paid to be there and act as caricatures of themselves, it’s hard to really feel bad for any of the contestants, and the show does an amazing job of framing them to be likeable. I came into the show for Evan, but through the dances and pre-taped “packages” I found myself loving Niecy and Buzz and Pamela Anderson and football player Chad Ochocinco and sportscaster Erin Andrews and even Bachelor Jake Pavelka. (Reality star Kate Gosselin still managed to come off as consistently unlikable, but DWTS’s editors can’t exactly perform miracles.)

The show has its flaws, of course. The singers who perform covers of hit songs for the celebrities to dance to are frequently terrible, and not in a fun way like the bad celebrity dancers — I found myself covering my ears on the high notes of their shrieking cover of Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment.” The results shows are padded far past endurable levels with commercial breaks and fluff, and in the two-week college dance team competition held toward the end of the season, the show made the unforgivable decision to pit the ballroom dance majors of Utah Valley University against the Rutgers University dance team that had formed on a whim four months ago. Mismatched celebrities competing against each other is one thing, but it’s quite another to embarrass normal, earnest college kids like the Rutgers students, and I found myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

But when some of the most-lauded dramatic television is full of unlikeable characters doing awful things (The Sopranos, Mad Men, half the characters on Glee), sometimes it’s nice to just watch a bunch of people who don’t take themselves too seriously acting silly and learning to dance — or, in the case of the judges and hosts, reacting to those dances. And while the dancing from the celebrities is rarely good, the show does make a conscious effort to showcase the art of dance, with the professional dances performed during the weekly results shows. (They also make an effort to showcase professional singers during those shows — Melissa Etheridge’s appearance was a highlight of the season.) Dance competitions, as a recent Entertainment Weekly article pointed out, are as old as the medium of television itself, and they tap into a cultural well that runs deep. There’s something about watching pretty people in glitzy, glittery costumes moving across a dance floor to music that charms even my jaded, geeky soul. And that’s not even taking into account the social aspect of the show — discussing the dances and contestants with friends and family, yelling at the judges and/or voters for making “bad” calls, and voting your heart out for the contestant you hope will take home the tacky, over-the-top Mirrorball Trophy.

I’m not sure if I’ll watch DWTS next season. It’ll depend, I’m sure, on the cast, and if there’s someone I can root for as enthusiastically as I rooted for Evan this season. But I’ve finally come to understand and appreciate the show’s popularity, and I hope to carry that lesson with me the next time I encounter a piece of entertainment it seems so easy to dismiss.

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Finding Myself in 90s Kids’ TV

February 26, 2010 at 10:28 am (Reflection) (, )

(Crossposted to Murmur.)

Recently, I wrote about my experiences with teen television, and how I’ve never been quite able to identify with TV adolescents, due to a general lack of diversity that doesn’t reflect my own high school memories. I still stand by that statement, but at the same time I know there have been teenage characters I’ve related to on television — particularly teens on shows made for younger children who I found myself trying to emulate when I was in elementary or middle school. So when frequent Murmur.com contributor Dave Carr asked me to share some of my experiences with early 90s children’s television, I was happy to take him up on the offer and talk about two of those aspirational characters — Clarissa Darling of Clarissa Explains it All and Doug Funnie of Doug.

Clarissa Explains it All, which premiered in 1991, wasn’t about much of anything, really. Unlike the high-concept shows that seem to populate tween TV today (Hannah Montana is secretly a regular high school student! Zack and Cody live in a hotel!), the shows of my childhood were largely about regular kids who were only remarkable in that they had a TV show about them. There was a comfort to that, a feeling that you could BE those characters, without too much effort. Clarissa Darling, in particular, was the kind of person I wanted to be. On the surface, we had a lot in common: two parents who loved each other and their children, even if they didn’t always understand them; an exceptionally annoying younger brother; a friend who was a boy, but with whom she didn’t have any sort of romantic attachment. She wanted to be a journalist (and would have become one, had a planned spinoff/final season actually happened), and she was always a little weirder than average. I related more than a little.

However, she was also ridiculously cool. She wore the sort of insane outfits that didn’t even make total sense in the early 90s when the show was created, including those floppy denim hats with the big flowers on the front (yes, I had one). She had a pet baby alligator and hubcaps on her wall and she was unapologetic in her weirdness. Every episode she talked directly to the audience (the main gimmick of the show) and enumerated her problems, always coming up with the most creative solutions to solve them. (Half the time, the problem was her Alex P. Keaton-esque younger brother, Ferguson, and I refuse to confirm or deny whether or not I ever used one of her “solutions” to defend myself against my own annoying sibling.) And she frequently designed computer simulations to illustrate her problems, something I yearned to do myself. (It would be a few years before I even got a computer of my own, and that was an already-ancient-at-the-time Commodore 64 with DOS.)

But perhaps the best part about Clarissa is that the show never left the confines of the Darling house. We knew, from Clarissa’s narration and interaction with the other characters, that a world existed beyond her front door. She went to school, she went on vacations, she went shopping. But we never saw her do any of those things. We only saw her house, her family, and her best friend, Sam, who entered her house by climbing a ladder and crawling through her window (complete with window seat — how I coveted that!). If the show had a guest star, it was because someone (another friend of Clarissa’s, a relative, etc.) was visiting. And perhaps because we never saw the outside world, it was easy for me to imagine that her world was my world, that her school was my school and her other friends were my other friends. Clarissa represented an ideal that young girls could actually aspire to, filling in the blanks with their own lives and histories, and the show, which began the year I started Kindergarten, still means a lot to me to this day. Sometimes I even wonder where the characters would have ended up as adults. How quickly would Ferguson’s political career with the Republican Party have gone up in flames when his lefty journalist sister blew open a political scandal? I’d love to see the 15-years-later for those characters.

Doug, a cartoon about an everykid and his adventures in a new town, Bluffington, premiered the same year as Clarissa, and was one of the first three NickToons on Nickelodeon. (The other two being Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy.) Before the show moved to ABC (and fell drastically in quality), Doug was a staple of my Nickelodeon viewing, and I couldn’t help forming a resonant attachment with its shy, awkward hero. Sure, Doug was a boy, but otherwise he was a lot like me — stuck in his ways (he wore the same clothes every day), slightly gullible, nervous in social situations, and a thoughtful dreamer who recorded everything that happened in his diary. He had an anthropomorphic dog named Porkchop, a wacky best friend named Skeeter, a frenemy named Roger, and an idolized love interest named Patti Mayonnaise, in addition to his parents and drama nerd older sister, Judy. Unlike Clarissa, which succeeded largely because of its focused domestic setting, the best part of Doug was its placement in a very real-seeming school. I identified with Doug’s anxieties about homework assignments and evil vice principals and looking foolish in front of his crush, and with the idea of having friends who would just as soon torture you as support you. (3rd through 5th grade were tough.) And sometimes I even envisioned myself as a superhero, as Doug did — he secretly drew comics in his bedroom about the adventures of Quailman, a version of Doug with a cape, a belt around his head, and underwear over his pants. (Perhaps my eventual descent into comic book obsession was inevitable.)

Also interesting, though perhaps more thorny, was the fact that other than Doug himself, who was Caucasian, all of the characters on Doug had skin and hair of colors not found in nature and heavily exaggerated/cartoony/impossible hair and features. This meant, essentially, that race was hard to pinpoint in the Doug universe, and while this sort of post-racial world/elimination of race concerns can be problematic in itself, it was easier for me to see my non-white friends in Doug’s universe than it was in similar shows of my childhood with explicitly all-white casts. For a show about a white, male, middle class protagonist, Doug was at least a tiny bit more progressive than most.

I could go on about other shows I related to, the shows that helped to define my childhood. I could go on for pages about Boy Meets World, possibly my all-time favorite show, and the ways in which I’m essentially the lovechild of Cory and Topanga. But I think I’ve revealed enough about myself for one day, and I want to encourage others to talk about the shows that defined their childhood — particularly the shows in which they saw reflections of themselves. What do you remember?

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Olympics in the Twitter Age

February 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm (Analysis) (, )

I’m watching the Olympics.

I’m aware that this does not make me unique. Half the world is currently watching the Olympics to one extent or another. But this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever watched a single Olympic event all the way through, much less glued myself to the TV to watch as many events as I possibly can. It’s really unusual for me, and I’m still trying to figure out how this happened.

Sports have never been my thing. I can objectively admire athletes’ talent and dedication, and while I’ve never been a real athlete myself, I can understand the appeal of playing sports – the rush of adrenaline, the fun of competition. I played floor hockey in middle school and had a great time, terrible as I was at it.

But watching sports, I’ve never really understood. Part of it is my need for a verbal narrative in my entertainment. I get as little enjoyment from dance, foreign language opera, and cooking shows as I do sports. I need a script, words I can understand and follow, driving the narrative, and sports commentators aren’t enough when the action is so visual/physical and essentially wordless.

My other problem is that I’m a delicate flower with a bleeding heart and I can’t stand watching people lose. It’s hard for me to take pride and joy in someone’s victory when I know it means loss and failure for someone else. Add that to all the injuries and falls that inevitably happen in most sports, and I spend most of my sports-watching time cringing.

But I’m watching the Olympics.

Part of the reason, I’m sure, is the point in my life I’m at. I’m living with my parents, working a job I don’t have to think about when it’s over each day, preparing for grad school in the fall. I have access to cable TV and no after-work obligations, and since my parents enjoy the Olympics they’re likely to be filling the living room anyway. That’s how I wound up watching the Opening Ceremonies – I came home, and they were on, and I settled in on the couch to enjoy my parents’ company and watch Wolverine play the fiddle in a canoe on the moon.

But the word “company” is key there. Because, however much I’m enjoying watching the Olympics, I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much if my parents weren’t watching. Or if my friends weren’t watching. Or if dozens of the people I follow on twitter who live all across the world (from Canada to Australia) weren’t watching. Olympic fever has swept up everyone I know, and in the face of that enthusiasm and chatter, it was pretty much inevitable that I’d wind up watching too.

And I like it. I like that this is an event, a common thread between almost everyone I know, from close friends to distant acquaintances. As I’m writing this post, my father has just interrupted me to tell me how he spent half of a meeting at work today talking about yesterday’s curling competitions with his coworkers. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. None of these people actually cared about curling (the most mockable Olympic sport), but the momentousness of the Olympics compelled them to watch, and this gave them all new common ground the next day.

They say the Olympics are meant to bring the world together, and I’m not sure if that actually happens. Certainly there’s plenty of political controversy involved that may, ultimately, outweigh the good the games bring. But I do know that the Olympics have succeeded in bringing common ground to some very uncommon people, helping me to get to know acquaintances better and making me feel like part of a huge, ongoing, international dialogue. It’s a really nice feeling.

I’m still not sure I actually care about any Olympic events. Not even figure skating holds my interest intrinsically. But I do care about the community feeling the games have spawned, in the age of Twitter, and I don’t for a moment regret the time I’m spending on my couch right now, watching women’s snowboarding.

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