Gravity

Gravity debuts tonight on Starz at 10:30 p.m. EDT.

It's been a rough few months for Hank, thinking it would have to end up the worst new show of the 2009-10 season. And, yeah, it was a near thing, going all the way to late April and not being pushed from its throne. But, readers, there's a far, far worse show coming up tonight on Starz. Hank can breathe a sigh of relief, because compared to Gravity, it's at least a D.

It would be really nice if Gravity were good. There's nothing I would like more than to have another network that's supporting brave, uncompromising television, and between the slyly great Party Down (the best comedy about giving up since Taxi) and the good, cheesy fun of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Starz is heading in the right direction and developing an identity as the cheaper, scruffier HBO or Showtime. It does all of the things those networks do, but it looks like it does them for about $5 and whatever it could buy with the Jo-Ann Fabrics gift card it got for Christmas. Party Down is legitimately one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and Spartacus has a daffy faith in its own convictions that I can't exactly appreciate but I can definitely respect (all the while seeing why some people are so nuts for it).

Furthermore, Gravity is exactly the kind of show that a network like Starz should be airing. On a conceptual level, it'd be cool to have a dark comedy about a suicide support group that made occasional visits over to poignancy. Plus, it's an idea that can be pulled off for relatively little cash, which would benefit a network that's looking to do interesting things on a budget. It's got Krysten Ritter as a lead, coming off of a turn on Breaking Bad that proved she could act and wasn't just a pale, pretty girl with the air of a disaffected hipster. Hell, add in Ving Rhames as a damaged man in a wheelchair, and you've got a show that could be darkly funny or oddly perceptive about people who reach the end of their rope or sweetly charming. Gravity takes stabs at all of these tones. Gravity also fails at all of these tones.

And that's for one very good reason: Gravity starts out as a show about an attempted suicide survivors support group and ends up as a show about one of its co-creator's massive egos. The show is the latest from Eric Schaeffer, mind behind the awful movie If Lucy Fell and the largely awful TV show Starved (as well as assorted other cinematic atrocities I've never seen, though if you get either Scott Tobias or Nathan Rabin started, they'll never stop). Schaeffer's bio in the press kit for the show contains the sentence "After merely starring in the NBC series First Years and the CBS series Century City, he created, wrote, directed and starred in the 2005 FX series Starved, a comedic look at the romantic and personal lives of an eating disorder support group." Merely! At first, it feels like this might be atop the Schaeffer ouerve, simply because, though he's cast himself in the thing, he keeps himself mostly out of the way in tonight's first episode. Tonight's first episode isn't GOOD, mind, but it doesn't have an overdose of egotistical asshole. So that's nice.

Here's the thing, though. Schaeffer's character, Detective Miller, has no good reason to be in a show about a suicide attempt survivors support group. He's a DETECTIVE, who has no natural reason to be in the show after the scene when he first visits the members in the hospital. But, of course, he's stalking the female lead, Lily (Ritter), stealing her panties and crazy stuff like that, and doing so for most tangential reasons. This might be OK as a sideline to the main storyline, but by the third and fourth episodes, major plotlines are turned over to Miller for no goddamned reason whatsoever, and the episode capsules for future episodes of the show all start with "(Insert character X) and Miller ..." It sure seems like Schaeffer sold the show as one about a support group (probably run by the other co-creator, Jill Franklyn) and then just decided to turn it into yet another show about how his assholish behavior is somehow witty and charming. There's no reason for any of this, and it gets in the way of the more promising material.

But, y'know what? The reason this show is awful is not solely to do with the fact that Schaeffer thinks he's the most fascinating man on Earth, all evidence to the contrary. The show would be fucking awful without the Det. Miller character, simply because the suicide support group scenes are all written in as pedestrian a fashion as possible. Rhames sits at the head of the circle and offers cliche bromides about how bad suicide is, then the other characters all behave like broad, comic stereotypes that jolt from one place to the other with little to no sense of character arcs. Every episode opens with a flashback to how one of these people tried to commit suicide, and a few of these feign in the direction of being interesting before returning us to a land where everyone is an over-actor and the characters are all one-dimensional types. There's a man who's insecure about his tiny penis, a buttoned-up housewife who realizes her perfect life isn't so perfect, and the world's foremost manic pixie dream girl (played by Ritter), a woman who moves through her life as something like the ultimate male  fantasy of a girl who just doesn't give a shit and will always fall for mopey losers. Her name is LILY CHAMPAGNE, for fuck's sake. That's not a person. That's a girl in a bad Hold Steady song.

Factor in to all of this the fact that the show is shot for the aforementioned $5 and a Jo-Ann Fabrics gift card and looks like it. I'm willing to forgive shoddy production values if the show turns them into something of a virtue, as Party Down is doing right now and the early seasons of both It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Buffy the Vampire Slayer both did. Gravity looks like one of those trailers for a hyper-earnest independent film that's shot by a couple of college kids in their dorm room for $100, one of those trailers with little-to-no sense of editing or pacing and bad lighting and bad film stock that gets picked up by Videogum or something and laughed at, even though all involved clearly thought they were doing something great. Having a small production budget is not a problem if you know what to do with it. But not even trying to hide it or use it as a conscious aesthetic choice is just unconscionable, especially when everything else here is as shitty as this one is.

I really hate writing about a show I just didn't like. I gave Gravity a fair shot, watching all four episodes Starz made available to critics. And there's enough stuff in here that almost threatens to turn interesting that I thought maybe the show would turn good, so long as the creators got out of its way. I like some of the actors, and I like some of the concepts, but the series never gets out of its own way enough to leave anything here worth recommending. Congratulations, Hank. There's a new bottom of the barrel.

Stray observations:

  • The other ostensible male lead is someone named Ivan Sergei. He is really bland, but he has a nice face. So I see why he was cast. Every so often, Jessica Walter turns up as his mother for ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING REASON WHATSOEVER. Seriously. She's in, like, a total of five shots in the first four episodes. If you're going to hire Jessica Walter, you'd better ... gah.
  • If you really want to get a taste of how awful this show is, stick around for the first minute after Party Down tonight. The whole sequence feels like a previously on featuring footage from several episodes we haven't seen, as the editing cuts pell-mell from place to place with little sense of rhythm or pacing, leaving you completely discombobulated. The series is doing this to keep a pretty lame twist under wraps, but it doesn't excuse the whole "What the fuck is going on?!" factor. (I don't mean that in a good way, either.)
  • Also, there's a major plot point where Lily meets a man in heaven while she's dead and he's her dream lover. Lily is an atheist. The man is an Irish grifter. What the fuck?
  • The housewife character, Carla Frick, may be the most annoying television character of the year. It's one overacted mess of a stereotypical conceit, and the second episode, prominently featuring her, is unusually painful.
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