I took a break yesterday and watched the second episode of “Bionic Woman” on my trusty TiVo. Actually it’s a DirecTv DVR and not a TiVo proper, but like “Kleenex” the name “TiVo” seems to be used for any TiVo-like DVR. But I digress…What is it about remakes that gets Hollywood on board to redo just about any TV show or film that had even a glimmer of success, or even a second life in syndication? My guess is that the reason is twofold. First, there is the recognizability of the property. “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman” were prime examples of 1970’s kitschy television, but they are genuine pop culture phenomenons. People still recognize the characters or at least the premise, and that recognizability is a shortcut to marketing the remake. The second reason is nostalgia. We 70’s children are going to tune in just to see an updated (upgraded?) Jamie Sommers getting bionic on someone’s ass, listen for the 70’s ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch sound and see if slow still means fast. I admit that’s what got me to tune in, so I guess at least in my case it works. The problem is they still have to deliver something good to keep the audience watching, and with “Bionic Woman” they might have hit a soft blooper to right… it was surely no home run. I wanted to give “Bionic Woman” two episodes because frankly I wanted to like it and the premiere didn’t exactly grab me. I will say the second episode showed more promise, but overall I do not think this is going to be a very successful show unless the writing and acting really pick up.
I expected the show to reinvent the origin and background of the original Jamie Sommers, and I was not disappointed. However I did not expect them to completely throw it all out the window and have virtually nothing in common with the original show. Other than the lead character’s name, and that her bionics were forced on her by a love interest (in this case one of the inventors of the technology, not Steve Austin) via a covert high tech organization, this is not your parent’s Jamie. I like the new premise in general… especially the idea that Jamie didn’t ask for this, yet she now has to deal with it. There is some potential there for some deep emotional upheaval. Certainly it’s better than her being a tennis pro hurt skydiving.
In this reincarnation, Jamie (Michelle Ryan) is a college dropout bartending for a living and raising her teenage sister in San Francisco. She’s a bit of a mess emotionally, and romantically involved with a professor and surgeon named Will Anthros (Chris Bowers). After revealing she is pregnant to Will at dinner… to which he responds with a marriage proposal… on the way home they are hit by a semi truck (we quickly find out it happened on purpose). Jamie is seriously injured. In order to save her life, Will brings her to the secret facility he works with and replaces both legs, her right arm, right eye and right ear with “bionics”, some form of biomechanical prosthetics. These are later revealed to give her superhuman abilities. Initially she’s horrified when she wakes up, and struggles with what she considers being “a freak”. The organization behind the bionics program, the Berkut Group, wants her to repay them for her new life by joining their cause as an operative. We are also quickly introduced to Sarah Corvus (Katee Sackhoff), the first bionic woman, who is now a murderous escaped renegade (or is she?). There is deceit and secrets within the organization and between the players, as well as intrigue from Corvus and her apparent support group that is somehow connected to Anthony Anthros (Mark Sheppard), Will’s father and the originator of the bionics technology… an apparently dangerous man held secretly in prison. Will is killed by Corvus, leaving Jamie alone with her new abilities.
That premise sounds pretty interesting, but so far unimaginative writing and dialog, bad pacing and some pretty rough acting have brought the show down. Starting with Ryan, there is little pathos or connection with her character at all. Partly the fault of the scripts, we never got to know her at all before the accident, and since then she still seems cardboard deep. There is a chance for some real struggle with her sudden transformation, but other than some dirty looks and a weepy eye or two, we get no insight into her psyche. I don’t mind at all that she’s flawed (she gets drunk in episode two and goes into a bathroom to have sex with a stranger, only to accidentally break his ribs) but those flaws are not very well described either via storytelling or acting. She went from bartender to super-hero with barely a shrug. Apparently a 10 second shot of her crying in the shower is all the emotional reaction we get. I have no idea from what I’ve seen so far if Ryan is a good actress or not… she’s gotten little to work with.
The other characters fair little better. Katee Sackhoff chews the scenery so badly as Sarah Corvus I’m surprised she doesn’t have splinters in her mouth. Miguel Ferrer plays Jonas Bledsoe, the head of the Berhut Group very low key and straight laced with barely a pulse (would it have killed them to name his character “Oscar Goldman?”… just kidding). Will Jun Lee is Jae Kim, a covert operations badass. He does a pretty good job infusing some confusion and mystery into his character, who has a past with Corvus. Molly Price is Ruth Truewell, a high-ranking operative in the Berkut Group. She hasn’t had much screen time but seems to play a hardass with a lot of experience and a possible chip on her shoulder. Lucy Hale plays Jamie’s kid sister… and if she is supposed to make her character so annoying, whiny and lame that you want to slap her hard, then hand her the Emmy right now. Ugh.
The pacing on the show is so odd that it’s distracting. Everything happens too fast and we have no time to get to know characters, understand motivations or even let what are obviously meant to be key plot moments build any tension. One thing happens after another and sudden decisions are made or actions taken by the characters with no feeling of motive. They need to slow down and let some of the story and characters build themselves a presence. It sounds funny coming from someone who has been bitching about how we get nothing but character insight and no plot advancement in “LOST“, but here we have the anti-LOST… too little of the character empathy needed to make the plot advancements mean anything.
I’ve never seen an episode of “Alias“, but I’ve heard this show compared to that one… butt-kicking babe in covert agency, missions, sex, cat-fights and more butt-kicking conflict. It is shaping up to be like that. There are obviously conspiracies and dirty secrets that are in the wings. There are lots of unanswered questions about Anthros Sr., Corvus, what the Berkut Group really is and other plot lines. Hopefully things will slow down and we will get a chance to build some anticipation for the answers. Right now I don’t really care about any of it.
As far as the geek factor goes, the new bionics are very different from the 70’s robotic limbs. It’s not entirely clear whether the new prosthetics are machined or “grown” i.e. biotechnology, but there is definitely more to these bionics than just better, stronger, faster. As a part of the procedure, some kind of biomechanical nanites or something similar were introduced into Jamie’s blood. Presumably they act as a translator of sorts for the new bits, but they also add extras like healing powers and disease protection (Corvus reveals she can smoke all she wants… no lung cancer). It is also revealed when Jamie suddenly displays advanced combat abilities that some computer chips were placed in her brain and she has some hardwired skills she didn’t previously possess. They don’t always work, though… Jamie had a lot of trouble beating up a soldier in episode two, when she made quick work of a would be mugger and even Corvus in episode one. There are some real possibilities in that plot device, though. Corbus mentions how her murder spree might have been a result of being ‘hacked’. Jamie also gets a bionic eye as well as the traditional ear. The special effects are low key but well done.
So far the show has not lived up to the hype, but many a show starts out slow and then finds it’s legs, bionic or otherwise. Maybe the writing will improve and some of the actors will get a chance to make their characters more interesting and engaging. Time will tell.
755 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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