Sunday, 17 June 2007

Painkiller Jane Gives Me A Headache

Kristanna Loken headlines as Jane Vasco in Sci-Fi's Painkiller Jane. Her world is a dystopian future, almost identical to the one portrayed in Dark Angel. As a DEA agent Jane and her partner Maureen accidentally stumble across a covert government agency that is tasked with tracking and neutralising "neuroes", or mutants to you and me. Jane and Maureen wind up working for this agency and along the way discover that Jane cannot be killed, in fact her healing ability rivals that of Wolverine or Heroes' Claire Bennett.

Eight episodes into the twenty two commissioned by the Sci-Fi channel and I'm amazed at this series' ability to survive the most mortal woundings by critics, audience dissatisfaction and chronically low ratings. Unlike Jane herself though, this time it's the viewers who are feeling the pain.

The problems start with the scripts. The initial premise isn't just derivative it doesn't have a single original idea. The plots manage a neat double act, on the one hand they're hackneyed and cliched beyond belief, while on the other they're so full of inconsistencies and holes you start to wonder how much experience the writing staff have actually got. The dialogue is so riddled with technobabble it becomes nonsensical, and there's a lot of it.

The characters are one dimensional and pretty unlikable. Jane's only given a smidgen of depth by the annoying and preachy monologues that bookend each episode. It's not that the acting is bad, it's just uninspired. Between the first and second episodes Maureen went from Jane's closest friend and partner at the DEA to another background grunt who's only there as animated scenery and to spout off exposition whenever the writers feel it's her turn to infodump.

The tissue thin plots do offer some scant character development, but this confused me at first. Andre, Jane's boss, seems tough and distant from her initially, then they seem to grow closer. My problem was that each week their relationship seemed to hopscotch between the two extremes. It was only after a little digging on the show's homepage that I realised Sci-Fi were showing the episodes out of order. It says a lot about this series that darned few people seem to have noticed this and no one at all seems to care. Including me.

Episode 2 Toy Soldiers

In which the team get to protect the president with all four (count them, one two three four) of their field agents. They neutralise a neuro with the power to raise and control the dead, and the series' budget is revealed as being pitifully small, even for a story of such limited ambition.

I think most folks are probably aware of Miss Loken's sexuality, it's not exactly broadcast around but it's not a state secret either, which gives the scenes she has with her new next door neighbour a little extra humour.


Episode 3 Piece of Mind

In which we learn that a working knowledge of quantum computing and high energy physics are now prerequisites for being either a train driver or a signalman. The Neuro-Of-The-Week has the ability to mess with memories the way most people treat their MP3 collection. He can rewind, erase, copy, upload and download memories.

It's an interesting ability but it's a shame it's wasted in such a gob smackingly ludicrous plot. The ending has one of those twee, happy slappy we're all great mates types of ending that went out of vogue with The A-Team. Watching it made me a little sick in my mouth.


Episode 4 Catch Me if You Can

This one's not too bad. Team Tylenol are given a warning by a precog neuro that three of them will die in a few days if they try to apprehend him. This neuro's a good guy though, he's warned the authorities of various impending disasters in the past only to be ignored every time. Andre insists he should be taken down, Jane thinks otherwise and their conflict plays out against the ticking clock of the fatal prediction.

There's some missed opportunities in this story, the ending's too trite to be satisfying and there's some really overwrought melodrama to contend with. It does make an attempt to address pre-determinism as well as some of the ethical issues this series builds itself on.


In the Final Analysis...

This episode more than any other is a text book example of why this series is failing so utterly to win either the fans or the critics. They've forgotten who their target audience is. SF fans tend to have more liberal views, we root for the underdog and we like to see someone stick it to the man. Why do you think the X-Files was such a runaway success ?

With Painkiller Jane though our sympathies are obviously supposed to be with the government and Team Tylenol. In Ep4 Andre says the pre-cog has to be neutralised, despite his track record of trying to help, because of what he might do in the future. The rights of their targets as well as those of their friends and family are completely ignored. Even bystanders aren't immune, Jane attempts to browbeat a power plant manager without telling him why, simply telling him she's a federal agent and she's giving him an order. She offers him no proof or even a means of verifying that she is who she says he is, the audience is expected to believe that the mere fact that she's a federal agent giving him an order should be all he needs to bow to her seemingly outrageous demands.

So why is this series being allowed a full season's run when we've seen a lot of high quality shows being dropped since last Autumn ? Why is the Sci-Fi channel backing a program which is so obviously a bad fit with their target audience ? Maybe we should ask General Electric, the owners of the Sci-Fi channel. A company that has profited massively from the "war on terror", from the Patriot Act, from Homeland "Security" and from the Bush regime in general.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but all forms of broadcasting (by which I mean one-to-many in this case) are viable forms of propaganda. SF fans, like geeks, tend to be mavens, so if you can win their hearts and minds, they will evangalise for you.

Or maybe it's just a crappy TV show.