That Certain Something -

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That Certain Something

Just what is it that makes some TV shows so damn good?

By David Michael Wharton     November 08, 2004

Eliza Dushku stars as Tru Davies in Fox's TRU CALLING.
© Fox Television

I come not to praise TRU CALLING but to bury it.

In case you hadn't heard, former Slayer Eliza Dushku's GROUNDHOG DAY/RUN LOLA RUN hybrid went down for the big dirt nap a while back. I can't imagine that even the cast and crew were terribly surprised: the ratings last season weren't exactly enough to raise the dead, and this season's order had been cut from 13 to 6. And while I'm sure the show had die-hard fans, and with all apologies to the "save-our-show" campaign that is no doubt already well underway, for most of its run, TRU wasn't exactly blazing new grounds in speculative fantasy.

I watched it; I sometimes quite enjoyed it; but more often than not, it fell prey to the formulaic nature of its premise. Somebody died. Tru got the Big Rewind. It turned out that what Tru thought she was supposed to do wasn't actually what she was supposed to do, and she scrambled during the last act to clean up the mess of the first couple of acts. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

But the short life and sudden demise of TRU CALLING got me thinking about a phenomenon that seems to be peculiarly common amongst genre shows. Because there towards the end, TRU CALLING had That Certain Something.

Plenty of crappy sitcoms survive long past their sell-by date and even have people that watch them week-in, week-out, but these people aren't running websites devoted to them. They wouldn't be upset for more than a few minutes if their shows got cancelled. They certainly wouldn't rally a nationwide save-our-show campaign. Yet even mediocre genre shows inspire all this and more. They inspire people to compile episode guides and dress up like the show's stars and pen dodgy fan fiction. You probably won't find anyone engaged in heated eBay bidding over memorabilia from STARK RAVING MAD, but I'm sure somebody somewhere has organized an ADVENTURES OF SINBAD convention at least once. Some x-factor in our geek makeup makes us more likely to give genre shows the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it's because we're so desperate for quality genre material; maybe it's because we know that when genre gets it right, it can be truly amazing; maybe it's because we're all gluttons for punishment.

Sometimes that devotion works out. In 1993, I sat through the shaky pilot episode of BABYLON 5 and saw something amongst the wooden lead and bad puppets that intrigued me enough to stick through the first season when it premiered the next year. As a result, I got to watch an engrossing, five-year novel unspool on television, something that really hadn't been done on American television at that time. I also hold bragging rights over my friends who bailed out and then regretted it when the quality of later seasons lured them back in. On the other hand, 1993 also saw the premiere of short-lived SF action series SPACE RANGERS, which for some reason most likely involving blackmail starred Oscar-winner Linda Hunt and featured lines like, "Hold onto your jockstraps, boys." Even at the tender age of 15, the odor wafting from SPACE RANGERS was unmistakable to me.

These days, my wife and I still watch SMALLVILLE, four seasons in. It's a bizarre relationship we have with SMALLVILLE. Half the time we tune in, we spend the episode making snarky comments about what superpowered mutant the Kryptonite-Villain Generator (patent pending) has vomited out this week, or how the writing staff has decided to yet again waste 45 minutes putting Clark and Lana back on the "will they or won't they" merry-go-round.

But what keeps bringing us back, week after week, is when they get it right. The relationship between Clark and Lex, so full of portent, doomed from the beginning to end in tragedy, but never quite clear as to how it will arrive at that destination. The unique take on the mythology of Krypton and Clark's powers, which--love it or hate it--has made this decades-old tale feel fresh, and which has captured the imaginations of a brand new generation. The moments that cash in the collateral of all the baggage we as viewers and fans bring to the table: the future-flash of Lex standing in the Oval Office...the first time Clark takes flight...the chill-inducing first meeting between Clark and Dr. Swann (as played by the late and much-missed Christopher Reeve), as the strains of John Williams' classic SUPERMAN score seep in over the dialogue. These are the moments that, for me, outweigh all the tiresome Kryptonite silliness, and that keep me coming back. These moments make up That Certain Something.

SMALLVILLE has it. BABYLON 5 had it. Even TRU CALLING had it, or at least eventually developed it, but not soon enough. So what was that "certain something" for TRU?

Believe it or not, it was Jason Priestly.

It was only with the introduction of Jack, the mysterious morgue attendant, that things really started getting interesting. And it was only with the season-ending revelation that he possessed the same gift as Tru, but that he was her equal but opposite--where she sought to save lives, he maintained the balance by trying to ensure that those who died once stayed dead--that the show revealed its potential to become an excellent show. Forget the corpse of the week, here was the potential for real drama, for using genre storytelling to do what it's supposed to do: to use the tropes of fantasy or science fiction or horror to ask the hard questions and explore our own world through the prism of others unlike ours. When Jack entered the picture, the show was no longer about how Tru could do what she did; it was about whether she SHOULD do what she did. It asked, amazingly, "What if Tru is really the bad guy?" And that, my friends, is the sort of question that could have carried a show for many seasons to come.

But now it never will. And maybe that's for the best. As it is, we're left with more questions than answers, but sometimes that's better than getting answers you don't like (some would cite the conclusion of the Shadow War in B5, though I don't agree) or having the questions answered with a never-ending string of more questions (see later seasons of X-FILES).

Maybe shows like TRU suffer from the structures of American serialized television. Everyone is expected to fill 22 episodes of story per season (assuming a full-season pickup), but what if your story doesn't merit 22 episodes? If the writers of TRU had known from the beginning that they'd only have, say, 11 episodes to work with, would they have introduced Jack earlier? Would they have spent more time focusing on the underlying mythology of the show, of the nature of Tru's powers and her legacy, and on the questions of morality that her powers suggested? Would they really have spent an entire 45 minutes on a "beauty pageant" episode? Would they have found That Certain Something sooner, rather than later? Rather than too late?

So what about you? What shows have inspired you to suffer through the muck to get to the diamonds? What shows make you giddy when they soar, and make you curse them that much more when they fall back to the easy road, to the "villain-of-the-week"? What are your own personal TRU CALLINGs or SMALLVILLEs? Shoot your thoughts to, and I'll run the more interesting responses in a future column.

Would we all be better off if we were harsher critics of these silly little shows we love? Probably. But I can't help but think that if I didn't listen to the instinct that told me there was more to this BABYLON 5 thing than the pilot let on, I would have missed out on one of my favorite shows of all time. And that's not a trade I'd care to make.

Keep your head and hands inside the television, folks...



TRADING SPOUSES: MEET YOUR NEW MOMMY (7 PM CST, Fox) Even though it's on Fox, this actually doesn't have anything to do with "the lifestyle."

FEAR FACTOR (7 PM CST, NBC) The show's 100th episode broadcasts from New York, where contestants get a bellyful of rat stew. And that's just from a street vendor before filming even starts.

ROSWELL: FINAL DECLASSIFICATION (7 PM CST, History Channel) Turns out it was a weather balloon after all.

THE SWAN (8 PM CST, Fox) If you've ever wondered whether humanity is inherently evil or inherently good, this should answer your question.

LAS VEGAS (8 PM CST, NBC) "Two of a Kind." Part two of a crossover with CROSSING JORDAN sees Danny and Jordan infiltrating a swinger's group. Wow, that's two swingers references in the same week.

PILOT SEASON (8 PM CST, Trio) "Hope Springs Eternal." Sort of THE OFFICE as set in the L.A. entertainment industry, this mockumentary series follows talent-less talent manager Max as he tries to survive pilot season.

$25 MILLION DOLLAR HOAX (9 PM CST, NBC) Like MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS FIANCE before it, this show hinges upon the contestant lying to, deceiving, and otherwise convincing her family that she's a vile human being.



REBEL BILLIONAIRE: BRANSON'S QUEST FOR THE BEST (7 PM CST, Fox) Billionaire Branson tries to trump Trump.

GILMORE GIRLS (7 PM CST, WB) "The Party's Over." Dean decides he's not good enough for Rory, after he arrives at an uppity matchmaking party Emily and Richard have organized for their granddaughter. I'll be honest, I don't know who any of those people are. But this is supposedly a great show, so there you are.

WEST SIDE STORY (7 PM CST, TCM) Sure, the Crips and Bloods may have the edge when it comes to drive-bys, but can they choreograph elaborate dance numbers? I think not.

SCRUBS (8:30 PM CST, NBC) "My Malpractice Decision." The docs are afraid to treat the father of the "scariest malpractice attorney in the city" (played by guest star Julianna Margulies).

VERONICA MARS (8 PM CST, UPN) "The Girl Next Door." Veronica becomes suspicious when a pregnant girl in her apartment complex vanishes. UPN just ordered several more scripts, which can only be good news for this sharply written show.

I HATE MY JOB (8 PM CST, Spike TV) Eight men compete for their respective dream jobs. Hosted by Al Sharpton. You heard me.

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (9 PM CST, NBC) "Conscience." SPECIAL AGENT DALE COOPER ALERT! Kyle MacLachlan guest stars as the psychiatrist father of a murdered boy. And let me just say, this is a damn fine cup of coffee.

NYPD BLUE (9 PM CST, ABC) "That Vision Thing." A pair of stabbings and a burglary as Jimmy Smits returns as the ghost of Homicide Detectives Past.



THAT '70S SHOW (7 PM CST, Fox) "Mother's Little Helper." Art mirrors life as Wilmer Valderrama's girlfriend Lindsay Lohan guests as a girl who shuns Kelso for Fez. If art continues to mirror life, next week she'll put out a crappy, overproduced pop album.

LOST (7 PM CST, ABC) "Confidence Man." When Shannon suffers an asthma attack, Jack and Sayid think Sawyer might be hoarding medicine. And anybody else think there's significance to the fact that Sawyer's been reading Watership Down for the past few weeks?

SMALLVILLE (7 PM CST, WB) "Spell." Clark

Lois, Lana and Chloe are possessed by the spirits of witches in SMALLVILLE's "Spell" episode, and we're not complaining about it.

makes it to the final round of the Smallville spelling bee, but his competitor smuggles in some kryptonite and stumps him on "antidisestablishmentarianism." Actually, Lana, Lois, and Chloe are possessed by witches and get all Goth-y and tarted up.

MYTHBUSTERS (8 PM CST, Discovery) "Boom Lift Catapult." Adam and Jamie build a 60-foot catapult. And any show with a 60-ft catapult is worth your valuable time.

THE WEST WING (8 PM CST, NBC) "Liftoff." Jimmy Smits may be dead over on NYPD BLUE, but he's alive and kicking here, as he begins his stint as a Texas congressman (and possible Presidential candidate when Bartlet's term is up).

JACK & BOBBY (8 PM CST, WB) "Chess Lessons." Grace gets in a row with Missy's father and Bobby learns chess. Because it just wouldn't be presidential enough if he learned Chutes and Ladders.

GHOST HUNTERS (8 PM CST, Sci Fi) Man, do I love this show. I'm as skeptical as they come, but how can you not love the adventures of plumbers-by-day, paranormal-investigators-by-night?

PETER PAN (8 PM CST, Starz) Not many folks saw last year's surprisingly wonderful (and dark) adaptation of J.M. Barrie's classic. As Captain Hook, Jason Isaacs is no Dustin Hoffman (and I mean that in a good way). HOOK this ain't.

CSI: NY (9 PM CST, CBS) "Outside Man." A human leg is found near a loading dock and a severed finger in a freezer. Doctor Pretorius is brought in for questioning.

SOUTH PARK (9 PM CST, Comedy Central) "Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes." The townsfolk are lured in when a giant store brings promises of incredible bargains. And since it's Wall-Mart, I'm sure all the profanity will be bleeped out of this episode.

PROOF POSITIVE: EVIDENCE OF THE PARANORMAL (9 PM CST, Sci Fi) UFOs and psychics and poltergeists, oh my!

FILMFAKERS (9 PM CST, AMC) "The Mukashi Code." A fake Japanese comic is adapted into a fake Hollywood movie by a fake crew with real (and unwitting) actors.

DRAWN TOGETHER (9:30 PM CST, Comedy Central) Princess Clara is worried that her impromptu make-out sessions with Foxxy may have gotten her pregnant. After two weeks, this show is already starting to be more annoying than funny, but the Disney-esque musical number from the premiere has earned it at least another week's worth of goodwill from me.



PITCH BLACK (6 PM CST, Sci Fi) Watch this and pretend that whole CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK thing never happened.

THE O.C. (7 PM CST, Fox) "The Way We Were." Seth and Ryan head back to school, while Hailey plans to move and pursue her fashion ambitions.

CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION (8 PM CST, CBS) "Formalities." The murder of a teenage girl during a private homecoming party in a luxury casino suite uncovers the disappearance of another girl, possibly the victim of a kidnapping. Viva Las Vegas.

RED PLANET (8:30 PM CST, Sci Fi) Part of the Turn-of-the-Century Crappy Martian Movie Trifecta (see also MISSION TO MARS and GHOSTS OF MARS). If you crave the angry red planet, pop in your TOTAL RECALL DVD instead.



JOAN OF ARCADIA (7 PM CST, CBS) "Friday Night." Joan prepares for her first date with Adam (does Eve know about this?).

STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE (7 PM CST, UPN) "The Augments." Genetically engineered hottie Malik shaves his mullet and starts a band called "The Augments," embarking on a whirlwind concert tour of the Neutral Zone. Their premiere album "Khan Get Enough of Your Lovin'" goes triple platinum and the band looks set for ongoing success, until Malik is disgraced in a scandal involving six green Orion slave girls, Ricardo Montalban, and 1,700 tons of rich, Corinthian leather.

MOSQUITO ATTACK! (7 PM CST, History Channel) This sounds like a Sci Fi Pictures original, but it's actually about World War II's De Havilland Mosquito bomber, nicknamed "the Wooden Wonder."

A BUG'S LIFE (7 PM CST, Disney) The Pixar film nobody ever mentions, but one of which I'm quite fond. And it's certainly better than ANTZ.

NIGHT OF THE TWISTERS (7 PM CST, ABC Family) A battalion of genetically engineered Chubby Checker clones escape from a government testing facility and menace a small Nebraska town. (Actually, it's a bunch of tornadoes, but doesn't my version sound more fun?)

MEDICAL INVESTIGATION (9 PM CST, NBC) "Little Girl." The titular little girl is stricken by a noncontagious killer called "aplastic anemia." Which sounds like a disease of action figures.



MEN IN BLACK (7 PM CST, NBC) This original is way better than the crappy remake (I think they called that one MEN IN BLACK II).

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR'S STONE (7 PM CST, ABC) If you haven't seen this yet, I automatically know one thing about you for sure: you don't have kids.

THE CLUBHOUSE (7 PM CST, CBS) Haven't seen this baseball drama, and probably never will, but it does star Superman (Dean Cain), Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), all in one show. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II (7 PM CST, ABC Family) And hey, speaking of Doc Brown, here he is now.

TEEN TITANS (7 PM CST, Cartoon Network) "Haunted." Cinderblock breaks out of jail, and Robin wonders if Slade is really gone. And Ron Perlman voices Slade "The Terminator" cool is that? (Repeat)

JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED (7:30 PM CST, Cartoon Network) "The Greatest Story Never Told." Booster Gold takes center stage in as he works crowd control while the big guns battle Mordru in Metropolis. But whither Blue Beetle? (Repeat)

APOCALYPSE NOW (7 PM CST, AMC) Or you could Tivo this and have APOCALYPSE LATER-ISH.

MAXIMUM VELOCITY (8 PM CST, Sci Fi) A big honkin' storm threatens North America. Not to be confused with MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, where a big honkin' truck threatens Emilio Estevez.



FINAL DESTINATION (6 PM CST, Sci Fi) Best use of John Denver irony ever.

MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (6:30 PM CST, Fox) "Buseys Run Away." Dewey leaves the special needs class and Hal becomes the alpha male of a group of slow-witted bodybuilders.

THE SIMPSONS (7 PM CST, Fox) "All's Fair in Oven War." Bart turns his treehouse into a bachelor pad and attracts guest star James Caan. CAAAAAAAANNN!!!!!!

CHARMED (7 PM CST, WB) "Charmed Noir." The girls get zapped into a 1930s pulp detective novel to investigate the murder of a gnome. Didn't Dennis Potter already write this?

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (7:30 PM CST, Fox) "The One Where They Build a House." By the time this episode airs, I will probably still be laughing from the season premiere's line, "I blue myself."

MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS BOSS (8 PM CST, Fox) This is reality programming I can get behind: the people being humiliated are greedy MBAs. In this ep, they're challenged to sell hot chicken soup on a warm summer day.

CATEGORY 6: DAY OF DESTRUCTION (8 PM CST, CBS) Last night Sci Fi had superstorms threatening North America. CBS's version focuses on Chicago, but it also stars Brian Dennehy. Checkmate.

JEEPERS CREEPERS (8 PM CST, Sci Fi) Pretty creepy until the Creeper takes off his trenchcoat and reveals himself as...a guy in a bad rubber suit.


TV Wasteland is our weekly Television column.


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