Anatomy of a Failure: Why NBC's Bionic Woman Is Na-Na-Not Working
As one of the most-anticipated new shows of the season, NBC's Bionic Woman remake has become a symbol of the oddest TV season in recent memory. Never have so many mediocre shows crowded TV screens for so long, testing viewers' patience with a steady stream of substandard material.
Since its debut, according to Nielsen ratings figures corralled on TVByTheNumbers.com, Bionic Woman has lost 5-million viewers, plunging from a high of 13-million viewers at its debut to 8.3-million last week. Watching this show's slow disintegration -- like any good sci fi fanboy, I have been TiVo-ing every episode in a vain hope things would get better -- is like seeing a fish thrash out its last moments on a muddy beach. It's also a bitter parable for what ails most new TV shows this season -- even series such as ABC's Pushing Daisies, recently picked up for a full season.
Here's what I think ails NBC's marquee show:
It's the writing, stupid -- Producers have had a hard time balancing all the different story elements they put in play from the very first episode. There's Jaime's rivalry/sisterhood with the first bionic woman, played by Battlestar Galactica alum Katee Sackhoff; Jaime's friction with the super-secret organization which bankrolled her upgrades; implications that her romance with the doctor who built her bionics was calculated from the start; Jaime's conflict with her high school-age sister, who she cares for; Jaime's struggle to figure out how her new abilities work; and the menace posed by the father of the doctor who built Jaime, who seems to be a calculating bad guy trying to sell bionics to the highest bidder.
Stir in weekly adventures which may or many not have anything to do with any of these core plotlines, and you have way too many storylines bouncing around which can't possibly be serviced by a coherent script. Which explains why so few episodes are coherent, making viewers feel abandoned.
Gloomy visuals do not equal realism -- The Battlestar Galactica reboot which Bionic Woman David Eick helped lead works because producers have created a gritty world filled with ambiguity, brutality, pain and near-insurmountable obstacles -- which always make heroism and triumph stand out even more. But Bionic Woman doesn't reflect that same merciless realism -- how can a woman who is supposed to be taking care of a high schooler vanish for days with no real explanation, for example? Instead, the series counts on moody visuals and hip-looking actors to convey an new attitude. But there's no there, there. It's like The Matrix with cheesier fight scenes.
Too many powerful actors underused -- Producers haven't yet figured out how to juggle all the great acting talent they have shoehorned into the show, from Sackhoff and Crossing Jordan alum Miguel Ferrer to Third Watch's Molly Price, Thief's Will Yun Lee and, of course, fallen Grey's Anatomy star Isaiah Washington. Washington, in particular, seems forced into the episodes, brought to the project in a casting coup from new NBC entertainment head Ben Silverman. But making a character which was supposed to be a minor note into a major theme has taken its toll, pushing Price's character in particular into the background.
Too much nonsense onscreen -- Cute as it was to see the British actress playing Sommers revert to her original accent for this week's episode, where BW was pretending to be an exchange student from Oxford, how does the character come up with a letter-perfect British accent when needed? And why doesn't anyone else on the show question it? Every episode is filled with these niggling questions: Why exactly does Jaime Sommers feel compelled to make nice with the first bionic woman, which killed her boyfriend? Why exactly is she working for a super secret company which may was observing her for years before the car accident which required her bionics? Each query is a tiny nibble from the show's believability, which makes watching episodes almost painful.
It's not the actors, stupid -- Much as some fans are trying to blame Brit import Michelle Ryan for the show's problems, that's a bum rap. She's a game actress, vaulting into indulgent fight scenes and non-sensical dialogue with equal gusto. But producers have failed her, like a pit crew which doesn't put a race car's tires on tight enough. Ryan is stuck in special effects scenes where she is clearly flailing at the end of a wire or working through clumsy fight choreography. In a post-Matrix, post-X-men world, lame-o special effects only adds to the feeling of watching a clunker hit the skids before viewers' eyes.