Torchwood S4: Miracle Day — “The New World”

The fourth season of Russell T. Davies’ magnificent Dr. Who spin-off Torchwood kicks off with a new world for the characters on the show, and for the show itself, as it transitions from the UK to the US.

Evolution is part of Torchwood‘s DNA: the show has changed channels with every season. It started on BBC3, moved to BBC2, then BBC1, and has now touched down on Starz. It stays alive, much like its immortal, omni-sexual hero Captain Jack Harkness, and, in the premise of this new season, like everyone else in the world. For this is the concept of Miracle Day: no-one dies.

Russell T. Davies has always been one of the greatest chroniclers of the human heart on television, from his earliest days working with that other titan of British TV, Paul Abbott (Shameless, State Of Play). But as Davies’ career developed, he became something else as well: the true master of the big idea.

It first showed most overtly with his TV miniseries Second Coming, where future ninth Doctor Who Christoper Eccleston played an ordinary man living in an ordinary part of Manchester who truly believes he is the messiah, the second coming, come to save humanity. This show clearly marked the new phase in Davies’ progression: marrying the big idea to street-level emotional reality. It’s since become clear that Davies’ signature across the wide variety of his work is this: huge, paradigm-altering concepts with complex emotional ramifications, handled with humanity, grace, humor and heart.

His massively successful relaunch of Dr. Who took this combination to another level, and his creation of sister show Torchwood continued the evolution.

From its earliest incarnation as a monster of the week show for adults, like Dr. Who but with more sex, violence and horror (the more visceral content was why it started on the more experimental channel BBC3), Torchwood has quickly and steadily evolved into something greater.

Amidst the thrills, the scares and the laughs, the show always dealt head-on with melancholy and loss, and with the horror of its events from the human perspective. Seasons One and Two were great, a huge amount of fun laced with heart-wrenching drama, as Davies blended the episodic approach with more lightly serialized story arcs. Always, he allowed the darkness to build and the implications of his narratives to really hit home for the characters and the viewers.

Season Three, which for the first time had a title, Children Of Earth, was magnificent, monumentally so. Ironically, having fewer episodes and a tighter framework allowed Davies to realize his jaw-dropping big idea in a much bigger and far more emotionally devastating way. It marked a new era and template for the show: the broad-format, one-story miniseries.

Torchwood: Miracle Day continues that new direction and hits the ground running, in true Davies style. The big idea, that on this day, the miracle day, no-one dies, is deployed almost immediately, in two creepily effective ways: in the opening moments of the show, a convicted child murder (an astonishing Bill Pullman) receives a lethal injection, while a CIA agent (a perfectly grandstanding Mekhi Pfifer), gets a lethal impalement. Neither of them die, and very quickly, the world realizes that no-one else is dying either. Something has happened to humanity, and at the very moment it occurs, the word “Torchwood” appears on CIA servers; just as quickly, all traces of it disappear.

In the hands of some showrunners, that might be the entire first episode. For Davies, who has a brutally fast-moving, story-burning approach similar to that of Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec on The Vampire Diaries, it’s just the first five minutes.

From there, the episode races in powerful, muscular fashion through the rapidly evolving chaos that ensues. It introduces Alexa Havins in a sweetly soulful performance as CIA agent Esther Drummond. It reintroduces John Barrowman’s charismatic but tortured Captain Jack from the darkness. And it finds generous amounts of time to catch up with the show’s other lead, the incredible, legendary Gwen Cooper (played brilliantly by the never-better Eve Myles), fangirl and fanboy favorite, and one of sci-fi’s greatest female characters — in fact, allow me to apologize for even mentioning gender there — one of sci-fi’s greatest characters, period. Her relationship with husband Rhys (the always awesome Kai Owen) encapsulates everything that is great about this show, and Davies: a myriad of small, intimate, truthful human moments laced with blistering humor amidst the vast sci-fi darkness that threatens to engulf us all.

The move to Starz was a mouth-watering prospect: Davies’ huge vision coupled with a much larger budget than the show had ever had before. And the results are in: Torchwood made with extra dollars works wonderfully. The enhanced production values are in full effect, and the direction is breathtakingly exciting. All the way through to the thrilling helicopter chase at the end, the show is popping and humming and exploding off the screen.

In fact, speaking as a true connoisseur of helicopter scenes in TV shows and movies (I loved Airwolf a little too much as a kid), I can say with authority: that chase scene kicks major ass. It also, thanks to Davies’ frankly brilliant writing, simultaneously serves to throw Phifer’s agent into the Torchwood mix, and is also the scene that brings Jack and Gwen back together for the first time. Davies always does a great job blasting out scenes that work on multiple levels, and this is no exception.

This first episode does an awesome job of setting up the arc of the show, reintroducing the major characters and deftly reaffirming the Torchwood concept for first-time audiences (with some nice callbacks for existing fans, including numerous ‘456’ references, and Harkness using ‘Owen Harper’ as his fake FBI identity). It also has some great Wales jokes (“the British equivalent of New Jersey”).

The stage is fully set for the remaining nine episodes, and there is so much to look forward to: watching Phifer’s awesomely irascible agent Rex Matheson get on board with the Torchwood team, seeing how Pullman’s arc plays into the larger narrative. There is also the glorious prospect of great future episodes from fantastic TV sci-fi writers, including Jane Espenson and Doris Egan.

Above all, thanks to Starz, we get to see Davies really turn up the volume on his terrifying and thrilling vision.

The pedal is well and truly to the metal, sending us headlong into the darkness.

I can’t wait for more.

Shamelessly Brilliant

On Sunday 1/9/11 at 10pm ET, the Warner Bros./Showtime remake of the wild, raucous and charming British show Shameless will begin.

Overseen by the prolific and talented John Wells (ER, Southland), and the show’s original creator Paul Abbott (State Of Play), the pilot episode does an extraordinary job of translating the anarchic heart of the original, transplanting it successfully from a run-down Manchester district into a raw, snow-covered, beaten-down Chicago setting.

It’s hard to overstate how much the original show meant to me when it aired seven years ago in 2004. It was unlike any other British show at the time: unflinching, inspiring, heartfelt, emotionally brutal and bloody funny – much like family life, no accident as Paul Abbott was always upfront about how shamelessly autobiographical the show was meant to be. The show centers around alcoholic patriarch Frank Gallagher, father of six kids of various ages, abandoned by their mother, and left to fend for themselves. Frank dedicated himself to getting as drunk as possible, leaving oldest child Fiona to hold it all together. Out of these dark events, Abbott created an incredibly charming, outrageous and moving comedy drama, which just happened to be hilarious, and heartwarming, with its biting, whip-smart humor and belief in the power of family.

British shows don’t always, or even often, fare well when they get remade for American TV. For every success story like The Office, there are others that miss the mark. I have to admit to a sense of trepidation with Shameless: the original was so… original, and raw. Would it be possible for an American channel, even a cable network like Showtime, to pull this off?

Hell yes.

From the very beginning, this new incarnation barrels along, sharper and harder than the original, and any doubts about the show getting softer in its transition to the US are decisively kicked aside with a razor sharp sense of abandon that is wielded with hysterical precision. The script by Wells and Abbott crackles with a new electricity: the show is invigorated with its new setting and cast. Yes, the cast. The cast of the original was one of the most charming, likeable and funny collection of rude, stick your middle finger up at authority misfits. How would this aspect of the show translate?

Again, brilliantly. The cast feel instantly at home inhabiting these characters, managing to normalize their good looks to the extent that you realize that Shameless is our Hamlet, a great play waiting to be reinvented for a new era, and these are the latest players to bring it to life. They do it with utter conviction. Three in particular have their work cut out for them: William H. Macy as Frank, Emmy Rossum as Fiona, and Justin Chatwin as chancer Steve, who in the first episode tries to win Fiona’s heart with charm, wit, and a new washer. Macy does a great job of taking over from David Threlfall’s iconic version, embodying Frank’s “to hell with the world while I have a drink” mentality, and is perfectly at ease with the many physical tics and mannerisms that seem to make up Frank’s existence. Likewise, Chatwin steps up manfully to the unenviable task of taking over from the frankly legendary James McAvoy, whose career was launched with this role: it’s great to see how easily Chatwin handles the challenge, bringing a new level of charm, wit and cheekiness to Steve.

But Emmy Rossum is the true star of this show.

In the original, Anne-Marie Duff brought a raw, fragile roughness to the character. Rossum goes one better, exposing Fiona’s delicate mix of in your face attitude, desperate vulnerability, her longing for more from life, and her overwhelming desire for things to be different. Rossum embodies and evokes all this beautifully, with a raw, real, sensual honesty. I’m not the first to say it, but an Emmy for Emmy seems assured.

The show benefits hugely from its transition to the tough, unyielding urban setting of a decaying Chicago neighborhood. It’s excellently directed by original Brit director (here a co-producer too) Mark Mylod, and perfectly shot by DP extraordinaire Jimmy Muro in a gorgeously crisp and sharp style, with outstanding location choices that enhance every exterior scene. Its use of loud, raucous songs kicks up the joyous, crazy energy. And its handling of a teen struggling with his sexuality is commendably done.

As soon as the pilot ends, you want more, lots more. You want to binge on the rest of the episodes like Frank with an open tab at the bar. It takes everything great about the original, makes it better, and adds new outrageous and heartfelt elements, while easily sidestepping sentimentality. It moves faster, hits harder: it’s even more uncompromising than before, and more brilliant for it.

Simply put, Shameless is the most thrilling, exciting TV drama debut of the 2010-11 season. Watch it.