The other evening I had the very weird experience of watching a very good, smart TV show followed immediately by watching a very bad, stupid TV show. And, admittedly, it may have been a study of contrasts; the latter may have suffered in comparison to the former and come off worse than it is. On the other hand, at that point in the evening, I had several (okay, four) beers in me, so I should have been predisposed to enjoy the show.
But instead of hootin’ and hollerin’ with delight (as I’d done for the first show), I was hootin’ and hollerin’ with derision about how mindlessly, utterly stupid the second show was. As it turns out, critics seem to agree. On Metacritic, the first one has 21 positive critic reviews, nine mixed and only one negative. The second show? Only four positive, 15 mixed and five negative reviews.
So this is a good news, bad news situation, and I’ll start with the bad news so I can end on a positive note. That means we begin with Scorpion, and we can start with the show’s title. You see it displayed in the image to the left. And I suspect that anyone who has worked with HTML might figure out where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a clue: back in the days of George W., I used to have a large sign in my cube that just read: </Bush>.
I’ll give you the punch line and then explain the joke. The sign in my cube translates as (to anyone who “speaks” HTML): end of Bush. And this TV show’s title translates as: end of Scorpion. I can only hope that turns out to be prophetic!
For those of you who don’t speak HTML, here’s a brief explanation:
What you need to know about HTML to understand what a stupid mistake the show’s title is involves how HTML represents, for example, bold or italic text. Let’s say I wanted these three words to be in bold. The HTML for that looks like this:
...wanted <bold>these three words</bold> to be...
The trick is the two HTML “tags” (highlighted in red). Your browser sees these tags as instructions. In this case, the instruction is to show text in a bold font. The first tag turns on the bold, the second tag turns it off. You’ll notice the two tags are identical, except for the slash in the second one. It’s that slash that means “end of” something.
Note: For the sake of clarity, I’ve cheated ever so slightly. The actual tag for bold is
<b> in “old style” HTML and
<strong> in modern HTML. The difference is that
<b> (“b” for bold) is a specific markup command, whereas
<strong> is a generic one. One ethic of HTML is to be as generic as possible and to allow the user to have some control over what “strong” text might be.
No doubt the show’s creators thought the title looked hyper-smart and computer-ish, but instead, for anyone who actually knows HTML, they made a really strange choice.
And, I would argue, a really stupid one.
But then it’s a really stupid show, so perhaps it’s not surprising. And, as I said, I can only hope the show’s title predicts the show’s quick fate.
The show announced its vacant stupidity in the very first scene: Apparently it takes three helicopters, a bevy of heavily armed soldiers and a convoy of ground vehicles to take down one lone hacker (a child who was just trying to get plans of the Space Shuttle for his bedroom walls). But I guess it makes a nice “sound and fury” opening.
And it never got better from that point on. The plot of the first episode was idiotic in the extreme. Did you know that the software for LAX is only backed up in one place? And that there is no version control, so new versions of software over-write older ones? And that there is no quality control, so that major — system disabling — bugs just slip through and aren’t caught until they shut down the entire airport? Or that airplanes apparently carry a copy of the software that runs the airport?
Or how about the idea that planes just have no way to land without the software (which also disables their radios), so all they can do is fly around until they “fall out of the sky.” Or that Air Traffic Controllers on the ground yell, “Mayday! Mayday!” as a way of resuming communication with airplanes?
The writers obviously know nothing about software, nothing about computers, nothing about airports and nothing about airplanes. Every aspect of the show just reeked of sheer, mindless idiocy. The show was (and I really didn’t think this was possible) even stupider than Intelligence (also CBS), last year’s most ironically named show (now mercifully gone).
To quote from the Washington Post review (on Metacritic), “It’s a show about geniuses that gets stupider and stupider until it explodes.” Yep. Another irony from CBS.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s turn to Madam Secretary, which impressed me as much as Scorpion (excuse me, </Scorpion>) depressed me.
Now, full disclosure, I’ve always liked Téa Leoni, and it turns out three other actors I like also appear on the show: Željko Ivanek (always a great “bad guy”), Tim Daly (who starred in the fun Wings) and Bebe Neuwirth (I had a minor crush on Lilith Sternin in Cheers). So that’s already a leg up.
More to the point, the writing is smart, and there was no mindless action or pointless gun play to be found. The resolution of the crisis (two American kids imprisoned in Syria) was handled diplomatically, not with gun play and attack helicopters.
It’s not just the writing that is smart. The characters are smart. Both Leoni’s character and her husband are highly educated, very capable, intelligent people (and so are both their kids). God, that’s refreshing. And such a contrast to the pseudo-smart wannabes on that other show.
Madam Secretary reminded me every so slightly of one of my most favorite TV shows: The West Wing. An element that detracts from that comparison is the addition of the standard “deep, dark government conspiracy” element.
TV shows today seem to rely less on their own quality of storytelling and more on season-long (and in some cases multi-season or series-long) arcs designed to entrap the viewer in an unfolding story. Remember that the primary mission of television is to sell commercial air time, and sucking in viewers is key to that.
The show’s creator, Barbara Hall, is a fairly fresh face in Hollywood. She was associated with the Showtime series, Homeland (which I thought was pretty good) and has worked on Northern Exposure, Chicago Hope and Judging Amy (all good shows).
So my final tally: CBS served up a gem and a turd. I’ll definitely be watching Madam Secretary. It’s dubious that I’ll give </Scorpion> another chance.
A couple of final notes: NCIS (my favorite show currently on TV) is back for its twelfth season. The first episode was very good, I thought. Over the years, McGee has completely matured out of his whiny stage and that’s nice to see. The computer virus bit was unrealistic in all sorts of ways, but wasn’t key to the plot. (Kind of funny that NCIS has software that shows all their computers in green (not infected) or red (infected), but I feel you have to allow a couple of “gimmes” in any plot.)
I was hoping, hoping, hoping that this one would follow the JAG and NCIS modes and not the NCIS: Los Angeles modes (of excessive gun-play and a mostly useless eye-candy female cast member). And it seems I got my wish! (Hooray!!) I thought the first episode was pretty good, and I’m looking forward to seeing more. Mark Harmon is attached to the show, and that may account for it being a true child of NCIS.
And, by the way, Morgan Freeman is attached to Madam Secretary, which I take as a good omen. And we can hope he appears in the show at some point, which would be fun. (It’s almost odd that he’s not the president, but that would actually be both a bit cliché and maybe a little too on-point given that Leoni is clearly mirroring our former Secretary of State and next president, Hillary Clinton.)
And lastly, credit where credit is due: </Scorpion>, for all its idiocy, is a reasonably inoffensive show (other than being offensive to my brain cells).
No guns were fired, no bombs exploded, and there was only one car crash. All the planes were saved, and no one had to appear in their underwear. And the idea of the value of misfit highly capable geeks isn’t a bad one. It’s just a pity the show is so stupid for all that it’s supposedly about geniuses.