Better off dead

For TV viewers, April really is the cruellest month. Not only is it time for the last of this year’s crop of pilots, the very weakest, nerdliest of no-hopers, to be allowed out into the open for the briefest of flirtations with the public before they’re all cancelled, but it’s the moment when many struggling shows finally get the brush-off from execs. This year’s doubtful cases include Chuck, Terminator and Dollhouse, none of whom, at time of writing, seem particularly likely to see September. The usual blithering is going on from networks, who are spinning out the will-they, won’t-they discussions in the hopes that a few more people will be moved to watch the antics on offer. Fans, meanwhile, are engaging in their annual complaint on the theme of good shows dying young, the general public not knowing what’s good for them and Heroes’ repeated renewals in the face of its steadily decreasing quality being indicative of some kind of hideous pact with Satan.

I grant that, at times, the discontented tend not to realise that there may be a possible connection between viewing figures and quality. Prison Break, for example, ran out of believable plot two and a half seasons ago, and though Dollhouse may have vastly improved on its first three lacklustre episodes, they were so very dull that I’m not surprised no one stuck around.

Such a one is Castle, the new crime procedural from ABC. Nathan Fillion (Firefly) is Rick Castle, a narcissistic crime writer who (in a turn of events which will be a shock to nobody) is forced to team up with the NYPD after someone begins to kill people using plots from his novels.

The pilot is reminiscent of a very bad Law and Order episode, which should be enough to condemn it, but it’s truly hampered by the presentation of its two main characters. Castle is an unpleasant man who, if the opening montage is to be believed, spends his time signing women’s breasts and having one-night stands. His partner, Kate Beckett, is a lesson in how not to write a female character. Not only is she constantly portrayed as a loser – during the very first scene the coroner advises her to put on some make-up, because, clearly, a successful career is time badly spent if it means you don’t hook up every night – she seems to have a script better suited to an idiot. At one point, without a touch of irony, she asks a corpse to identify itself, and so slow is she that Castle frequently has to remind her about basic procedure. It’s all fairly moronic, and though I may just be feeling vindictive I’ll be extremely pleased when this particular creation is no more.

However, it’s difficult not to be miffed when you find a really excellent show consigned to the rubbish bin. That, sadly is the story of ABC’s Better off Ted.

Americans, though they have many good points in their favour (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Barack Obama spring to mind), are crushingly earnest as a race. While contestants in a British reality show, when questioned about the value of their experience, will generally reply along the lines of, ‘it was good, yeah,’ their American equivalents are able to eloquently describe their personal journey of discovery. Even in the funniest moments of most US comedies there’s an undercurrent of bashful morality that’s distressing to many Brits, who automatically distrust morality on the grounds that it may lead to emotions. It’s rare, therefore, to find an American comedy that’s likely to make the British laugh, and so my joy at unexpectedly coming across Ted was great.

The show is about the inner workings of a super evil, super powerful corporation, Veridian Dynamics, manufacturer of everything from desk chairs to weaponised pumpkins. Ted, the Head of Research and Development, supervises misfit scientists Lem and Phil and kleptomaniac product tester Linda as they all try to make the world a better place by growing beef without cows and sending ovens to Iraqis. In tone and execution it’s strongly reminiscent of Arrested Development (even boasting Portia de Rossi as uptight uberboss Veronica). Its dark, deadpan humour is perfectly timed, its characters well drawn and it’s mercifully free of a laugh-track. And of course, because the universe has a sense of humour, its premiere boasted the lowest ratings for a new show in five years. Cancellation is just around the corner, making Development’s run, by comparison, look positively excessive. But nevertheless, it’s still a gem, and the measly six episodes in existence are definitely worth a look.

After all that, it’s a relief to discover a show that is neither brilliant enough nor awful enough to be facing cancellation. Harper’s Island is a gung-ho attempt to turn the slasher movie genre TV-friendly. At first sight it looks as successful as much of its source material.

It may not win any awards for technical excellence but it’s a perfect way to pass the time if you’re looking for something gently enjoyable (and you happen to enjoy the sight of someone missing their lower half) you couldn’t do better than Harper’s Island. It stars Brit actress Elaine Cassidy (The Others) as a girl who, having survived a serial killer once, decides to return to the scene of the crime for the marriage of her friend. Slaughter, of course, ensues, and a fair amount of questions are raised, as always, over why the characters all show such fondness for wandering about alone and half-naked in dark woods. The murders, though are suitably gruesome and the whodunnit element not yet guessable. Admirably silly stuff.

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