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April 18, 2004

  • Sexing It Up, Dumbing It Down
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    There’s an episode this season of The Eleventh Hour that opens with a middle-aged guy having an erotic dance performed for him by a nearly-naked woman. It’s certainly stirring. You wonder if the episode is going to be about the sex trade industry or something like that.

    It turns out it wasn’t actually real. The guy was giving a sperm sample for in-vitro fertilization. The lap dance we just witnessed was a masturbation fantasy. Completely non-essential, in fact irrelevant to the story, the misdirection was simply added T & A value for the viewer.

    And that, to me, is symptomatic of the problems with The Eleventh Hour this season.

    CTV, as Canada’s premier private broadcaster, was faced with quite a dilemma last year. The Eleventh Hour was a critical success. It won lots of Gemini awards that DaVinci’s Inquest had a lock on previously. But it was a ratings disaster, even in the world of Canadian television where ratings are measured often in the hundreds of thousands. (Hockey and Corner Gas seem to be the only things that ever crack a million).

    I was one of the show’s small but dedicated fan base. Last season, I thought that The Eleventh Hour was the best show on Canadian television. The premise of the show was a brilliant one: a procedural series, like Law & Order, but only examining the process of getting stories on air for a television newsmagazine, called The Eleventh Hour. As with procedurals like Law & Order the show was not about getting from point A to point B but how point A leads to B, which leads to C, and suddenly takes a blind alley with D, but recovers and get to E—and eventually the show ends around point Q or R. The world of investigative journalism, particularly with the ethical, political, and legal minefields that it faces (think The Insider done as TV), seemed as natural as the legal system for this kind of a show.

    It was compelling viewing. And it helped that it had a fantastic cast who played interesting, often un-sexy, characters. Waneta Storms chalked up a Gemini for her portrayal as geeky, compassionate, producer Isobel Lambert, who never wore anything other than jeans and a t-shirt to work.

    But it all changed. It seemed the vast populace disagreed with me about how brilliant a procedural show about making TV was. And so, while the series was renewed for another season, the most dreaded word in television came to visit The Eleventh Hour:

    Retooling.

    I still remember the first time I saw a retooled television show. It was Mork and Mindy in its second season. I was nine and I thought the first season was the funniest television I had ever witnessed in my young life (I still do). Robin Williams was let of the leash and he was surrounded by an ensemble that worked well with him. I remember watching the second season with abject horror: Williams was no longer making huge tangents from the scripts, which were consequently no longer funny. There was this sudden desire to include an overt “message” to every episode. They got rid of Conrad Janis and Elizabeth Kerr, who were two of the best things about the show, and replaced them with unfunny, uninteresting characters.

    To this day, I have no idea why ABC retooled the show. It was a ratings hit. Fear of its popularity with kids? Just general meddling? Whatever the case, I saw what had happened as a nine year-old and I was appalled. It wouldn’t be the last time I would feel that way, even this television season (one word: Boomtown) The Eleventh Hour just gave me yet another opportunity to reconnect with my inner, disgusted, nine year-old.

    Thankfully, The Eleventh Hour didn’t actually commit that great retooling sin of adding new cast members; but they did get rid of quite a few characters (particularly John Neville’s wonderfully acerbic Mike Wallace-ish anchor) and hemmed it in to small core.

    But then they followed the following mantra: sex it up, dumb it down.

    The producers of the drama series The Eleventh Hour think they’re pretty clever by making it a running joke in the series that the news show The Eleventh Hour is looking for “sexier” stories to keep their ratings alive. And if the eye candy was used for the purposes of story—as they did with the season opener set in the world of Eastern European sex trade workers in Toronto—then I wouldn’t mind so much. But when you have gratuitous T&A just to illustrate a masturbation fantasy, I think a line has been crossed. And sexing it up just doesn’t extend to T&A. Suddenly they’ve got Waneta Storms wearing skirts, and while I don’t necessarily have a complaint about seeing Waneta Storms in a skirt, I do have to force myself to question why the camera has to linger on it so damn much.

    Sexing it up is just kind of annoying. My main problem with this season of The Eleventh Hour is with how they’ve dumbed it down.

    Gone was the procedural aspect that made the show so unique, where you started you at point A and ended at point R. Gone is the subtle storytelling, the interesting dance of working through leads and issues. If you’re lucky these days you might get to point E, but usually it’s a straightforward ride to point B with a little twist. Most of the stories are so clear-cut it should be part of an anti-logging demonstation. It’s akin to telling the producers of Law & Order to be more like NYPD Blue and winding up with a remake of Vegas.

    Take last week’s episode: there’s a search on for a missing woman believed to be abducted. Dennis Langley, one of the producers of the news-show-within-the-show just happens to find her in a parking lot at a hotel he was visiting. But soon it’s revealed through a series of twists (which keep reversing itself) that she’s not what she seems, and that she was never abducted. The problem is the twist isn’t that big because a) they show her bumping into Dennis in the hallway (and go to the trouble of doing this with a little bit of slo-mo and enhanced sound effects) and b) it’s freaking obvious a mile away that she just wouldn’t happen to stumble across a news reporter.

    Having taken away the procedural aspect, the series has ramped up the soap opera element of its regular characters and then tended toward that staple of Canadian TV, issue-driven stories. But this ain’t DaVinci’s Inquest or even the first season of The Eleventh Hour: subtlety is not spoken here. Consider the episode where Dennis and on-air personality Kamal investigate the beating of a man who had been incarcerated for possessing child pornography (stuff he had written and drawn himself). The big twist here is that the man actually has real kiddie porn and he’s a sexual predator. Shock. Horror. Take all the ethical gray areas and make them as black and white as possible.

    Don’t get me wrong; the series is still watchable. The dialogue is still fresh and snappy. The performances are still outstanding. And, heaven help me, I like some of the soap-opera aspects. Ratings have been up for The Eleventh Hour this season, so maybe the plan is working. And yet, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the suits had just left well alone. DaVinci’s Inquest suffered some of the same liabilities as The Eleventh Hour in its first season—subtle, different storytelling; a largish cast, critical acclaim but not necessarily higher ratings—and it went on to become a ratings success (for Canadian TV, anyway) and one of Canadian television’s most popular dramas. Perhaps if CTV had treated The Eleventh Hour like CBC did with DaVinci’s Inquest the show might have grown an audience through good word of mouth and respect for quality.

    Or perhaps not. With television these things are always crapshoots, and sometimes series need to be retooled. But part of me thinks that in going in this new direction, we lost out on having, instead of a good Canadian TV series, one of the truly great Canadian TV series.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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