A summer of lead in this so-called golden age of television

Big names, big stars, but very little pleasure in news shows

July 18, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

We are supposed to be living in a new golden age of television. But you would never know that from the new series this summer.

Despite months of hype about all the big names like Steven Soderbergh and Halle Berry who were going to be behind and in front of the cameras, none of the series even feels like silver at the halfway point of the season.

Big names alone do not make for golden TV. In fact, sometimes the big names are only using TV to pass off inferior work that couldn’t get big-screen funding. Some actors and actresses choose to do TV because it fits their lifestyle at the moment — keeping them near home and on a fixed schedule rather than on a far-flung location making a film, for example.

But no critic wants to call out the creators and stars of the new shows. Who wants to be the one voice challenging the “golden age” consensus? That might make you look like you’re out of it.

The on-screen evidence, though, is overwhelming. And the more I look at all the talent and money invested in these series, the angrier I get about the mediocre-to-wretched results.

Feature film director Guillermo del Toro’s “The Strain” had a lot of buzz in advance of its debut on FX last week. But the buzz all but went away after 2.99 million viewers saw this series about a ghost plane and a guy in a pawnshop who has something in a jar in his back room that lives on human blood and is supposed to be real scary.

It felt laughable to me. And I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 12 being impressed.

Really, “The Strain” felt to me like Saturday-morning programming aimed at boys in an earlier era.

And then there was Berry’s heavily publicized debut two weeks ago in the CBS series “Extant” as an astronaut who comes back to earth after 13 months of supposedly being alone in space to find out she is pregnant. And, oh yeah, the “child” she already has, a robo-boy created by her engineer husband, is starting to act ... well, let’s just say kind of freaky and mean.

“Extant” not only boasts Berry, it also has another Oscar winner producing it in Steven Spielberg. Berry is good enough that even when she is walking through a role, as she is here, she makes her character credible. But that’s about the nicest thing I can say about Berry, her character or this flat, lifeless series.

Reviews elsewhere have been mixed, but outside of one or two, they are driven by a general tone of disappointment.

“Extant” drew an opening-week audience of 9.56 million viewers, making it the most-watched series of the week. But being the most-watched series of a week in July isn’t anything to get excited about — especially when a series gets the kind of promotional push this one did.

Let’s not waste too much time on “Halt and Catch Fire,” which debuted in June on AMC and was supposed to be to the computer industry and the 1980s what “Mad Men” was to the advertising business and the ’60s.

Right.

Actually, I am glad “Halt and Catch Fire” caught no cultural mojo — as punishment to AMC for cheapening the first season of “Mad Men” by comparing it to such superficial fare. I hope the people who run AMC know the vast difference between these two series and were only trying to trick viewers into watching the new series with their outrageous comparison.

And what about FX’s “Tyrant,” which has been hyped as the new “Homeland”?

Gideon Raff, the creator of the Israeli series on which “Homeland” is based, invented this series about a pediatrician from California who is drawn back into the heart of warfare, terrorism and tribalism upon the death of his father, the ruler of a small Middle Eastern country.

It’s an intriguing idea, and the pilot was steeped in action and violence, but the leap of faith the viewer was asked to make with this return-to-the-tribe premise was too large — and Raff never made us care a whit about the primary American character, the prodigal son, played with clenched jaw and not much else by Adam Rayner.

The news only gets worse: What is yet to come in this hitless summer isn’t any better.

On paper, no summertime title looked more promising to me than “The Honorable Woman,” a miniseries starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the head of a company and foundation deeply engaged in West Bank politics. The British-made miniseries debuts July 31 on Sundance.

Hugo Blick wrote and directed the series, and he surrounds Gyllenhaal with a superlative British cast that includes Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan. Rea is outstanding as a jaded Brit spymaster.

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