Friday, October 07, 2005

The E-Ring - Poor Television

The new NBC series E-Ring isn't bad. It's poor. As in poor writing, poor plotting, poorly drawn characters, and a poverty of creative ideas which on the episode level leads to reliance on the oldest trick in the writer's book - coincidence or "deus ex machina" - and on the series level leads to rehashing the same old concepts that have been used before. Given Jerry Bruckheimer's other TV products, I expected something better. Indeed Criminal Minds, a show which shared a time slot with E-Ring for about a week is more of a Bruckheimer show in style than the actual Bruckheimer show.

Benjamin Bratt plays Major Jim Tisnewski, although for some reason he plays the role with a vaguely southern accent. JT (as he's called) is a former special forces officer who is now assigned to a planning post at the Pentagon. The show's title refers to the outer ring of the Pentagon's five concentric rings where his office is and where, we're told, all the "big" decisions are made. His boss is Colonel McNulty, played by Dennis Hopper. McNulty's a maverick officer who gets things done. He has to be a maverick because, given Hopper's age (and more importantly the age that he looks to be) there's no way that he'd only be a Bird Colonel if his career hadn't been stopped dead. Also working with them is Sergeant Jocelyn Pierce played by Anjanue Ellis who is not only by the book, she's memorized the book (frankly she's the only character I even halfway like). Her job is to keep McNulty and JT from trying anything too far out while at the same time protecting their scrawny asses. Also in the cast are Kelsey Oldershaw as JT's girlfriend Allison, an analyst for the CIA, and Kelly Rutherford as Samantha "Sonny" Liston, a woman with whom JT has had some sort of relationship in the past. (This was actually a major cause for early concern about the show. Like a lot of people I knew there was a problem when I learned that Sarah Clarke - late of 24 - who was to play the Benjamin Bratt character's wife was dropped from the show after a focus group of women said that the character shouldn't be married. If a decision making about other aspects of the show was left to focus groups, it's no wonder there are problems.)

The episode that aired Wednesday night was in some ways unusual for the show, mainly because it gets one of the main characters out of Washington for once. McNulty sent JT to do some personalized ass-kicking to the commander of a special forces team in Iraq which has been getting good results but has been playing fast and loose with the definition of the Iran-Iraq border in order to do it. JT flies into the unit's camp by helicopter and delivers the requisite ass-kick, but then for reasons surpassing understanding - unless you're a script writer devoted to Deus ex Machina - he returns to Baghdad by road, travelling with a patrol in a couple of open vehicles. Naturally the patrol is ambushed and while some of the soldiers make it out alive JT is knocked unconscious and captured. He comes too in the back of what looks like a Toyota pickup which has stopped for some reason or other. He over powers and kills one of his captors with the guy's own knife and then wipes out the other three or four using the first guy's AK-47. Then he uses the bad guys' own radio to contact an AWACS plane which manages to establish his location ... inside Iran.

Meanwhile back at the Fort (for those of you who don't know, the Pentagon is basically the shape of a "star" fort of the sort that was common in the 19th Century for harbour and river defense) McNulty is making the argument for getting JT out of Iran, the big point on his side being that JT knows too many secret things and no one can stand up to the torture forever. A civilian from the State Department makes an argument for not rescuing him or at least trying a diplomatic solution. The idea is complicated by the political power situation within Iran, which is such that an approach to the Iranian UN ambassador will do nothing because the Iranian government has no power, it's all in the hands of the religious leadership. There is someone at Georgetown University who can get to the Ayatollahs, but he hates America so much that the only way to approach him is through the French, who are ticked off at America for a lot of reasons (being called "surrender monkeys" all the time may be a big one) but it can be eased by opening up a contract to Airbus Industries. Through these various back-channel methods McNulty and the Pentagon manage to put together a rescue operation using the French, only to have it fall apart because during the escape and evasion process JT has had to kill several Iranian soldiers, and the civilian who was leading them on his trail. The Iranian army is catching up to JT and he's in a firefight with them but after he uses his one grenade and his AK-47 either jams or runs out of bullets it looks like he'll be captured. Suddenly the "cavalry", in the form or the Special Ops unit that JT was sent to administer an ass-kicking to, arrives and drives them off. They had of course been sent, or rather put in a position to break the rules, by McNulty who knew they would break rules.

In the B plot, McNulty has to deal with a woman representative of a defense contractor who is trying to push a product that doesn't work on the military. While he's trying to deal with JT's situation he suddenly finds himself confronted with a sexual harassment complaint. This stops at least one rescue attempt and hurts McNulty's credibility. Using the Marine Corps Sergeant-secretaries network inside the Pentagon to find out the, Pierce confronts the contractor's aide who brought the complaint. She's pursuing her bosses' agenda but McNulty did call her stuff like "Honey" which she finds degrading. Pierce then recounts for her in graphic detail real sexual harassment which happened to her in training. This causes the contractor's assistant to withdraw her complaint.

The things that are right about this show are outweighed by the things that are wrong. The series has an excellent cast, but it is wasted playing characters who are basically cardboard cutouts. Pierce is the stereotypical by the book type who has to rein in her superiors. McNulty is the usual one time renegade who tries to work within the system but usually finds himself falling into his old ways. And of course Tisnewski is the typical hotshot with a fast rising career brought into the head office to season him and show him how things really work for his next promotion. Most of the plots are complicated but are usually bad ripoffs of Tom Clancy and similar writers, condensed to fit an hour time slot. And then there's the coincidences. Of course JT decides to drive back to Baghdad after flying in, and of course he survives an attack on his truck by people who take him back to Iran. That's acceptable enough. But then there's the string of coincidences that follow. He just happens to encounter an Iranian goatherd who speaks fluent English so that there can be a discussion of why the USA isn't a threat to Iran. An Iranian patrol happens to come by forcing JT to tie the kid up and making him more of an enemy than he already was (the guy was praying when the patrol arrived) to the point where, when he's attacked by the small patrol later in the episode the kid is leading them and carrying a pistol, forcing JT to kill him. The Iranians discover the patrol (and the kid) that JT killed just as the "French" (probably really Americans with fake accents) are about to send in the extraction team and revoke permission for the operation. And so on.

If shows like J.A.G. and NCIS tell us anything it is that it is possible to make reasonably good and enjoyable programming with a military theme. After all J.A.G. was about military law - with excursions into other areas of the military culture such as fighter pilots and operations in the field - which is scarcely the most compelling subject in the world. NCIS is about investigators who work for the U.S. Navy. Again, not the most compelling subject but it has been made to work and provided good television. I'm convinced that it is possible to make a good TV series about the workings at the top levels of the American military command structure, particularly if you bring an approach similar to a show like The West Wing (which E-Ring replaced) or one of the Law & Order series. You could probably even make a good series focusing on exactly what this show focuses - planning and execution of special operations. The problem is that the producers, the directors, the writers and yes, even the actors aren't giving us that sort of effort. They are settling, and frankly for me that's just not good enough. In my book, poor TV is sometimes worse than bad TV. At least with bad Television you know they think they're doing their best. I can't say that for the people responsible for The E-Ring.

No comments: