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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

T.V. SETS: BEYOND THE ORDINARY -- DVD review by porfle

Another of CBS/Paramount's sampler sets containing premiere episodes of various TV series, T.V. SETS: BEYOND THE ORDINARY takes us back to our first encounters with the sci-fi and paranormal shows "Star Trek: The Original Series", "The 4400", "Medium", and "Joan of Arcadia." Actually, "ST:TOS" was the only show that I'd previously encountered, making this a journey of discovery which proved quite enjoyable--mostly.

As any Trekker worth his high-water pants can tell you, "Star Trek: The Original Series" had two pilot episodes--"The Cage", starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, and "Where No Man Has Gone Before", which introduced William Shatner as Captain James Kirk. The show's television premiere, however, was "The Man Trap", chosen by NBC to introduce the series to the world because it had a scary monster in it.

It's also one of the most glum and dreary of the first season episodes, telling the story of husband-and-wife archeologists on an alien planet who, for some reason, resist getting their annual physicals from Dr. McCoy and clearly don't want any outsiders around. The woman, Nancy Crater (Jeanne Bal) happens to be an old flame of McCoy, who acts like a lovesick puppy around her. The man, Dr. Crater (Alfred Ryder), is hostile and evasive.

Strangely enough, although the doctor still sees Nancy as the young woman he once loved, Kirk perceives her as a graying middle-aged matron while the security man accompanying them (Michael Zaslow) sees her as a hot babe he once had a fling with on Wrigley's pleasure planet! When this doomed "red shirt" follows her outside and later ends up dead, with every trace of salt sucked from his corpus, Kirk deduces that something's up. As the episode progresses, more sodium-free bodies begin to pile up until finally our heroes have a showdown with the grotesque, sucker-fingered "salt vampire" that's now loose on the Enterprise.

I've seen this episode roughly, oh, ten-thousand times, but it's nice having this crystal-clear remastered version. It's also interesting to watch since it's one of those revamped episodes in which the original special effects have been digitally "improved." I've been curious to see what this process looks like and now I have a better idea, although "The Man Trap" doesn't really feature any space battles or other effects that warrant the George Lucas CGI makeover treatment. Mainly we just see new, improved shots of the Enterprise circling the planet. The new stuff looks neat, but I'm old-fashioned and like the original effects better.

"Medium" begins with the words: "There really is an Allison. Really." And indeed, Allison DuBois is credited as the technical advisor for the show. Who is she? As we discover in the pilot episode, Allison (Patricia Arquette) is a happily-married mother of three who is an intern in the district attorney's office and wants to be a lawyer. She also happens to be a psychic who communicates with the dead. The latter, as you might guess, proves to be a hindrance to her professional ambitions until her abilities are recognized as genuine and she is allowed to utilize them to their fullest extent. This, however, comes later.

She gets her first chance to prove herself when a dubious Texas Ranger named Captain Push (FULL METAL JACKET's Arliss Howard) reluctantly requests her help in the case of a missing child. Howard, who seems to have actually listened to how Texans talk before taking the role, gives his usual strong performance and goes from hostile skeptic to amazed believer in plausible fashion. Arquette herself does a nice, low-key job in the lead role and it's gratifying to see her character's self-confidence pay off as her visions are proven correct again and again. This is a self-contained episode with a satisfying resolution, and I can see how it would make for a successful series.

Not so promising is the 2003 pilot for "Joan of Arcadia", about a teenage girl (Amber Tamblyn) who suddenly starts getting stalked by God. That is, various strangers begin approaching Joan and claiming to be God in different guises, and giving her "errands." Why Joan? Beats me, since she's just your typical angsty, emo teenager. I guess God couldn't resist the bad "Joan of Arc" pun and she was the closest candidate. But it seems to me that the original Joan had to do more than a few errands to rate the title.

The first sign that this show isn't going to be on my favorites list is the use of that awful "God on a bus" song by Joan Osborne as its theme. Then we get Joe Mantegna in full smarm as Joan's police chief dad at a crime scene where a serial killer has dumped a body. Are we eventually going to have serial killers dumping bodies on every freakin' TV show? There's also Mary Steenburgen at her most irritating as Joan's mom, and Jason Ritter, who was recently pretty good in Fred Durst's THE EDUCATION OF CHARLIE BANKS, as Joan's wheelchair-bound brother Kevin. Joan's most important accomplishment in this episode is to inspire Kevin to look for a job and get his life in gear again. Which is great, but on a Joan-of-Arc level it ain't.

Joan's conversations with God are on the cutesy and coy side. "I don't answer the 'why' questions," God tells her after she grills Him with stupid questions. "So, what if I don't do what you tell me to?" she asks. "Am I going to burst into flames?" George Burns and John Denver already did this routine a long time ago, and better. The best exchange in this vein is probably when Joan asks to see a miracle as proof that the guy she's talking to is really God, and He points to a tree.

Speaking of which, what's the "point" (see, I can make bad puns, too!) of this show? God tells Joan to get a job in a bookstore, working for the guy from GALAXY QUEST who worshipped the Alan Rickman character (Patrick Breen), so I guess this will be part of her divine task--helping people who like to read. I know, it's just the pilot and it sets us up for what will probably be a grand life adventure for Joan. But this episode is all I have to go by, and it just doesn't give me that vibe. Now, if the series ends with this Joan actually getting burned at the stake, then I'll take it all back.

Since I live on that weird planet filled with strange alien beings who don't have cable TV, I'd never seen an episode of "The 4400." The premise always sounded fascinating to me, though, and it was a distinct pleasure to watch the feature-length first episode in which a huge, comet-like ball of fire blazes its way to Earth and then comes to a stop over a lake, whereupon it deposits exactly 4400 people who have mysteriously disappeared over the last sixty years or so.

To them, it seems like they've only been gone for an instant, but the fact that years, and in some cases several decades, have elapsed means that their personal lives have been pretty much destroyed. And in addition to that, they're viewed by the government and the public at large as a potential threat. This fear proves somewhat well-founded when, one by one, the 4400 begin to display strange and sometimes destructive new powers. So, in a way, it's a little like "The X-Men" but without the spandex.

Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security gets into the act. Head guy Peter Coyote pairs up a couple of mismatched field agents, rumpled loner Diana (Jacqueline McKenzie) and deeply troubled Tom (Joel Gretsch), whose wife is divorcing him and whose son is still in a coma after witnessing the abduction of his cousin Shawn (Patrick Flueger) three years earlier. This odd couple supplies fun and quirky character moments together while investigating the latest scary and weird events surrounding the returnees.

This is an awesomely intriguing idea for a series with lots of potential for good stories. The premiere episode is handled very well and features several dramatic and suspenseful subplots. Michael Moriarty is great as a man whose anger over the various injustices resulting from his 35-year absence manifests itself as lethal waves of energy. Conchita Campbell plays eight-year-old Maia, who was gone the longest (since 1946) and can now see the future. Her strangely serene character is mysterious and compelling, like most of the characters and events in this gripping story, and it's frustrating that the episode ends just when it's getting interesting. So, just as those sneaky people at CBS/Paramount intended with this sampler DVD, I now want to buy the first season of "The 4400." Or at least borrow it from somebody, heh heh.

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