Tuned In

Bionic Woman: Needs More Beta Testing

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NBC Photo: Alan Zenuk

Judging by the accumulated comments over the summer, Bionic Woman looks like the most anticipated show among the Tuned In community. A Battlestar Galactica producer taking another ’70s staple and putting a darker, modern, BSG-style spin on it? ’70s transistors upgraded to nanobots? How could it not rock?

All I can say is: lower the expectations, people. Lower the expectations.

If you’ve been following the Bionic Woman story over the summer, you know that the original, middlingly received pilot got an overhaul, with new producing talent, some new casting and recutting. (We can rebuild it! We have the technology!) The new pilot, however, is if anything, slightly worse than the original.

The premise is the same: Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) is nearly killed in a car accident. Luckily, her boyfriend (Chris Bowers) is a research scientist who arranges to have her body rebuilt using cutting-edge nanotechnology and computer chips. Unluckily, he works for a secret, and sinister, military program, has arranged her surgery off the books and therefore turned her into an expendable experiment: a “freebie,” in the words of his cynical boss Jonas (a deliciously cold Miguel Ferrer). Plus, she has a custom-built enemy in the form of the evil bionic woman 1.0, Sarah Corvus (BSG’s Katee Sackhoff).

Nothing wrong with that premise; the problem is the execution. To “humanize” Jamie, or something, the story saddles her with a teen sister whom she’s raising. In the original pilot, little sis was deaf and angry; now she’s just a whiny brat who threatens to turn the show into Bionic One Tree Hill whenever she appears. The dialogue is turgid and melodramatic (reviewers have complained that the show is too “dark,” but really it’s just too lifeless). And the acting is spotty: Ferrer is captivating, his associates less so, and Ryan? Let’s just say she needs an upgrade or two before she can compete with Sackhoff, whose seductively sneering performance blows the diodes of Ryan’s every scene they share screen time. And the pilot falls back on that old pathetic-fallacy cliche of using rain as a substitute for emotion.

The bright side is, there’s a good show in here somewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with Bionic Woman that can’t theoretically be fixed, maybe even Ryan’s performance. She pulls off a nice scene in which she giddily leaps from rooftop to rooftop to test her strength, which is good to see in a season of reluctant heroes like Chuck; darkness is all well and good, but you need some sense that having bionic strength is, y’know, cool. The show does an unsettling job of conveying how agitating and overstimulating having bionic senses can be. And the pilot at least sets up questions I’d like to see answered. What’s the government’s game plan with its bionic program? What is Sarah Corvus so pissed off about? And why does computer-enhanced eyesight in movies and TV always display flashing red and green labels–like “POTENTIAL ATTACKER”–that look like they were programmed in 1980? Why not a nice, eye-pleasing Aqua interface?

I, and I suspect a lot of you, will be pulling hard for them to turn things around. If only there were a brain chip that could harness the power of wanting a TV show to be good and translate it into creative energy to make the show actually be good! Unfortunately, we still have to rely on old-fashioned technology for that one.

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