Saturday, September 29, 2007

Three Times To The Well

Sometimes you wonder about where TV producers get their ideas. At least I do. I recall reading a supposedly humorous story about a writer who wrote TV scripts based on working his way through a book like Leonard Maltin's Movies on TV and adapting the synopsis to whatever project he was working on at the time stripping off whether it was a comedy or a drama. I can't help but wonder if producers sometimes go through a guide to previous TV series and saying "there's a good idea for a new show. We can tart it up a bit take away some elements and add others and we've got a great new show." I mean sometimes it's pretty blatant; the source of the new series Bionic Woman can't be more obvious if you used the title of the old show – oh wait, they did – but at the same time they managed to knock off some aspects of the old show and graft on others. But this isn't about Bionic Woman (I'll get to that show before it's cancelled, I hope) it's about Moonlight and about how I think the producers managed to shave off the key elements of two shows that I really liked, in my mind to a less than salutary effect.

Moonlight is the story of Mick St. John. Mick is a private detective. Mick has a secret. Mick is immortal but not in a good way (like John Amsterdam on that show that Fox decided to postpone New Amsterdam). Mick is immortal because he's a vampire. Mick is pretty young in vampire circles. He's only been undead for about 60 years, which to his vampire friend Josef Constantine means that he's barely past infancy; of course Josef is 400 and one of the oldest vampires in Los Angeles even if he looks like he's not quite 30. Mick is a private detective who helps people because... well, the because part is one of the elements of both Angel and Forever Knight that the producers of this show decided to shave off. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We meet Mick in a dream – his dream to be exact – where he tells us the basics about being a vampire in this show. The dream is in the form of the interviews that have been used to promote the series. He sleeps in a freezer, not a coffin. A stake through the heart doesn't kill a vampire, neither does holy water, and garlic only repels his dates, not him (it's good on a pizza though). He doesn't like sunlight, but it doesn't make him burst into flames either. The only way to kill a vampire is with fire or by cutting their heads off. He personally doesn't take the blood of women or children or innocent people, but if you're a bad person, around him you're fair game. Of course he can't say that. The ordinary people would regard him as a monster and if there's one thing Mick doesn't want to be thought of it's as a monster. Something happened about 22 years ago and since then he's been protecting the mortal ones from his own kind. He has an interest in an online journalism site and it's on that site that he finds out about a woman who has been killed in a manner that seems like a vampire. He goes to the murder scene where he meets up with online journalist Beth Turner. Beth seems to recognise him but she doesn't know from where. While Beth goes off one way to investigate, Mick checks in with Josef. Josef is concerned that a vampire attack where the victim's body is found by mortals will cause people to believe that they do in fact exist, which will in turn lead to their destruction. Josef wants the news coverage to stop. Mick's next stop is the city morgue where morgue attendant Guillermo supplies him with information on recent murders...and blood. The supposed vampire victim has puncture wounds in the neck all right, but the woman bled out and the evidence suggests that it was a needle that punctured her neck, not fangs. Instead of a vampire this is the work of someone imitating a vampire.

Meeting up with Beth at the murder victim's funeral Mick discovers that the young woman was taking a class on ancient mythology and lore from a professor who claimed to be a vampire though Mick's heightened senses detected nothing of the vampire about him. Beth learns more about the professor and his class from a former friend of the victim's. Mick talks to the professor and his wife in his job as a private detective. He discovers that while the professor claims to be a vampire his definition tends to be different from either classic definition of a vampire or real vampires like Mick, although from the man's wife he discovers that the vampire angle is a very good way for the professor to get his female students to have sex with him. Meanwhile Beth has decided to find out more about the Professor and his "vampire sex cult" by joining his class as a late enrolling student and getting invited to the professor's special study sessions. She's brought to the study session by one of the professor's male students. They arrive late, just as the class is finishing, all the better for the professor to seduce her. Which is what he tries to do right up to the point where he discovers that she's wearing a wire in her bra. She manages to escape and asks the male student if he has a cell phone. What he has is a hypodermic with some drugs to knock her out. He's the vampire killer, a misogynistic disciple of the professors who believes that the vital "Pranic Energy" (it's a real concept – it apparently means life force) must be gathered and stored not "wasted on women." In other words while the professor is basically pushing the idea that he's a vampire to get laid by nubile young college students, his male disciple is killing the women he's doing it with. Maybe there's just the slightest hint of a bizarrely realised homosexual crush perhaps? Mick of course is focussed on the professor; he's found the body of the woman that Beth had spoken to before along with an artefact from the professor's collection. He arrives at the boiler room where the professor was holding his study group and for the first time shows his true face to a mortal. It's not overly impressive – his eyes get a sort of bluish white glow and his incisors grow into fangs – but it's enough for the professor to say that this can't be happening. Mick replies, "You're right; vampires don't exist," right before he throws the professor across the room into a wall. Having determined that the professor isn't the killer and that Beth isn't there, Mick comes back to the street where his hypersensitive sense of smell picks up her scent. He chases down the car – apparently not only do vampires have all their senses heightened beyond mere mortals but they are also able to run faster than the posted speed limit. He manages to get the car to crash but is stunned as a result. The killer is able to get a knife, presumably to kill Beth, but before he can do anything like that Mick grabs hold of him. The killer stabs Mick in the belly, which he expects is enough to kill him. It makes it all the more shocking when Mick not only stands up but smile before hurling him about 15 feet up against a light pole.

In the denouement we finally learn the details of Mick's relationship with Beth. Years ago a child was abducted by Coraline, Mick's ex-wife and the woman who made him a vampire on their wedding night. She took the child in an insane effort to get Mick back, to create a family for them – with a child – just like mortals. In a fight that had some definite sexual overtones Mick subdued Coraline and after taking the child left her locked in the room...which he had set on fire. The child was Beth.

Where to begin with this show? I think at its heart there might be something here but I don't think it's well realised in execution. We've seen the "good" vampire fighting crime in the past. Forever Knight was a serious romantic drama while Angel took the brooding "vampire with a soul" from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and giving him his own quirky supporting cast. What both shows had in common – besides the good vampire working against crime/evil – is that both Nick Knight and Angel were both seeking redemption and to restore their humanity. They were penitents trying desperately to exorcise their remorse for the acts of evil that they carried out for most of their existence as vampires. With Mick St. John I have absolutely no idea why he made common cause with the "mortal ones" (as Josef calls them) anymore than there's a real reason why one wouldn't want to be a vampire. I somehow get the feeling that the producers wanted to somehow create a film noir (or maybe neo-noir) detective who just happened to be a vampire; the voiceover being a frequent element of the genre. That, I think, could be a really intriguing jumping off point for a series. I'd like to see someone do it sometime because it's not what we got from Moonlight. The characters aren't particularly well formed and the dialog was less than sparkling. There were occasional moments – as when Guillermo wonders why Mick likes the A+ blood when the Type O has a much nicer finish – but they were few and far between.

The two leads, Mick and Beth are played by Australian actor Alex O'Laughlin and British actress Sophia Myles respectively. Neither particularly excited me. It didn't seem to me as though O'Laughlin was showing much in the way of real emotion while Myles was more animated as Beth. I fell know connection with either of them, nor did I feel a real connection between them. The most animated and interesting of the characters was Jason Dohring as the young looking 400 year vampire Josef. He had the energy and authority that I thought was lacking from either O'Laughlin or Myles. In the scene were Mick goes to talk to him about the first killing there's a moment that shows his total amorality. That's when he offers a Mick a drink of the "'84" – "it" is a young woman who seems to be quite content to let Josef feed off of her. Josef can't understand why Mick, or any other vampire for that matter, would want or even prefer to drink blood recovered from corpses or taken from blood banks rather than "the good stuff." The problem is that I don't get any sense from O'Laughlin about why it's bad to be a vampire beyond the fact that people would think you're a monster. Certainly there's no real sense of menace or evil from Josef; there is from Coraline (played by Shannyn Sossamon) in those moments when we see her, but it seems fairly obvious that she's insane (or perhaps just a delusional woman scorned).

Moonlight is disappointing. It's not that it's a bad show. That would be fairly obvious. Rather it's disappointing because it's mediocre; someone at CBS settled for mediocrity now rather than really good later and then clung to it even after the mediocrity was noted. With the exception of O'Laughlin the major characters were all recast – Myles replaced Shannon Lucio as Beth, Sossamon replaced Amber Valletta as Coraline, and Dohring replaced Rade Sherbedgia as Josef. David Greenwalt (who was the co-creator of Angel) was briefly associated with the project before leaving for "health" reasons (I suppose one has to wonder whether the "health" in question was the health of his career after seeing this). I get the sense that with more time in development and with the right people in charge this show's concept could have been better realised than it is. And the worst part (well besides the fact that CBS cancelled Close To Home which was
relatively successful in terms of ratings to put this show on) is that while there's a sense that some of this season's shows will improve, this show won't get much better than it is. As I say, it's a shame because I think a well crafted show about a vampire who happens to be a detective in the Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe mode has the potential to be a bigger success than this show is likely to be.

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