Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Miracle Day" is a Mess

I planned to wait until the Starz run of "Torchwood: Miracle Day" had finished before watching it, but I was in the position to marathon the first half of the season while I was visiting the folks (who have satellite with a Starz package), so I thought, what the hell? Readers of this blog know that I enjoyed the "Children of Earth" miniseries that British sci-fi series "Torchwood" got instead of a third season. "Children of Earth" attracted so much attention and good ratings, the "Torchwood" gang got to follow it up with a ten-episode series titled "Miracle Day," which is set mostly in the United States and co-produced by Starz. With a bigger budget, bigger scale story, twice as many episodes, and some high profile new additions to the cast like Bill Pullman and Mekhi Phifer, "Torchwood" got a rare opportunity to expand on the success of "Children of Earth." And so far, they've really blown it.

And it's a shame, because "Miracle Day" has so much going for it, from stellar acting talent to a wealth of interesting ideas. The crisis at the heart of "Miracle Day" is a wonderful science-fiction "what if" scenario. What if, one day, everyone on Earth stopped dying, people survived even the most grievous injuries and illnesses, and humanity apparently entered a new age where the entire populace became immortal? Initially the halting of death is hailed as a miracle, but soon unforeseen problems begin to compound. Hospitals are swamped with the injured and infirm who should have died under normal circumstances. Executions can no longer go forward. Resources are strained. Simultaneously, the two remaining members of Torchwood, a secret paranormal investigation team, are being hunted by sinister forces.

Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is living in hiding with her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and baby daughter. The normally invulnerable Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) discovers that while everyone else on the planet has become immortal, he has suddenly become very mortal. New characters in the mix include CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins), a young CIA analyst in over her head, Dr. Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur), a doctor at the center of the new medical crisis, Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), a convicted pedophile and child murderer who survived his execution, and Jilly Kitzinger (Laura Ambrose), an ambitious PR go-getter for a drug company. Genre fans will also appreciate the appearances of Wayne Knight, Dichen Lachmann, John de Lancie, and Nana Visitor, among others.

So it's a real shame that the writers don't manage to give any of these characters much depth and the plot is a jumbled mess. Initially the series is off to a decent, if bumpy start when it looks at the individual responses to Miracle Day and sets up the negative consequences that the series will be dealing with for the rest of the season. "Miracle Day" at its most interesting when it's at its most brainy, rewriting the rules for emergency room triage in a world where nobody can die, or figuring out how to concoct an antidote for arsenic in the middle of a transatlantic flight. However, as the story focuses more and more tightly on uncovering who the culprits are behind the Miracle, the series loses its edge. Ten episodes feels like five too many, because there's a lot of padding in the story, and a distinct sense of every mostly-good episode being followed by one that is mostly-bad. The pacing stumbles constantly. The narrative will speed along one minute, then falter and meander, or just come to a dead stop, undercutting all the tension that came before.

I never saw the early seasons of "Torchwood" with their monster-of-the-week simplicity, but I have to wonder if the team was as incompetent and undisciplined as they frequently are in "Miracle Day." There are moments of Gwen and Captain Jack being badasses, but there is also an awful lot of bad planning, emotion-driven decisionmaking, and general stupidity on display. This cropped up in "Children of Earth" as well, but that series was so tightly plotted and had so many other excellent moments, that the mistakes were forgivable. In "Miracle Day," while I like many of the story threads and themes in play, there are too many things that don't work at all. Chief among these is the ascent of Oswald Danes, who becomes a media superstar but is still despised by enough of the public to leave him feeling constantly persecuted. This is an awful man freed on an absurd technicality, and though Pullman tries his best, it's impossible to feel sorry for him even when it becomes clear he's only being used as a pawn by others. And though he's a vital cog in the story, after six episodes Oswald just seems to be treading water, waiting for the rest of the characters to catch up.

I have so many conflicting feelings toward "Miracle Day." On the one hand, I love the prevalence of strong, interesting female characters. On the other, they all have the terrible habit of getting on soapboxes at a moment's notice and delivering browbeating, morally superior speeches. It's great to see Captain Jack be able to indulge in a few sex scenes, thanks to the looser standards of premium cable, but they're so gratuitous you suspect the writers only stuck them in to kill a few minutes. One thing I sorely missed from "Children of Earth" was a character like the government toady Frobisher (Peter Capaldi), who had a direct hand in the morally bankrupt policy decisions that caused so much trouble for Torchwood. In "Miracle Day," we only hear about extreme new directives being handed down from on high without any insight as to their genesis. Despite all the different characters and the frequent globetrotting, the new series is lacking in scope. There isn't even a man-on-the-street character to keep us updated on the mood of the general public, unless you count Gwen, who filled that role last time to much better effect.

And yet I want to keep watching "Torchwood: Miracle Day," because I'm hoping the series can pull itself together in the second half and develop all these ideas it has into something more cohesive and focused. On the whole I think this series is going to be seen as a misfire, but at least it's a very ambitious, uneven, interesting misfire. I'll go into a little deeper analysis in my next post on "Miracle Day," after I finish the series.

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