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"The Torchwood Institute Was Created To Combat The Threat Posed By The Doctor And Other Phantasmagoria" ... But What Happens When "Torchwood" Itself Is The Problem?

By Seth Freilich | TV | July 25, 2011 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | July 25, 2011 |

The first season of “Torchwood” (and to a lesser extent the second season as well) was not great. It had its good moments, but there were a lot problems. But Captain Jack was (and is) such a great character that many of us stuck with the show through its growing pains. As many of you know, those who stuck with the show were eventually rewarded with the third season/miniseries, “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” which was not flawless, but was really phenomenal. Scary, funny, dark, sad and smart, everything we want from a show like this.

It was so good, in fact, that it resulted in high expectations for the new season, “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” despite concerns about Starz’s partnership and the ensuing Americanization. When Dustin reviewed “Torchwood: Miracle Day” after its premiere, he concluded that “it would take one colossal cock-up to keep us from watching ‘Miracle Day,’ and there are none of those in sight.” Well, two episodes later, the cock-ups abound. I long for the crappy days of the first two seasons because, while a lot of other people seem unwilling to admit this for some reason, this current incarnation of the show is atrocious.

I can’t remember the last time I was this angry, sad and disappointed about a television show. There are so many problems, and I have so many frustrations with it that I barely even know where to begin. A good place to start is the heinous overly-acted melodramatic duo that is Mekhi Phifer and Bill Pullman. Holy shit. From moment one, Phifer has offered almost nothing more than a high school theater workshop version of “now play angry.” Part of that is the writing, to be sure (more on that, trust me, in a bit), but even with the words he’s being asked to read, he could try to offer a little nuance. Instead, we get irritability and anger that doesn’t seem to really come from anywhere. Every time Phifer is on screen, I cringe and jitter in anticipation for the scene to end. “Torchwood” has a well established tradition of killing off major characters and Phifer’s CIA agent can’t go soon enough. As for Pullman, I can’t really figure out what the hell he’s doing. It’s not the same type of overacting as Phifer, at least insofar as it’s not out-and-out scenery chewing, but it’s no less annoying, with his gravely voice and scrunchy face. It’s brutal to watch, man.

As bad as both actors are, I’m not sure there’s much that could be done even by Royal Shakespeareans. As an actor, you have to work with the words that are given to you and the words here are bad. There are two problems. One is the characters. Phifer’s character has this ridiculous intolerant rage. Three episodes in and they’ve established a pretty solid routine for him — he’s angry, he’s in pain and talks about needing drugs, he’s flippant towards Jack and Gwen, he’s distrustful, he plays along anyway because they’re his best options, he’s angry, he’s in pain …. I’ve seen reviews suggest that the most recent episode “softened” his character but that’s not really true. Just because he got laid doesn’t make his character any less insufferable or infuriating. In fact, it’s completely inexplicable and unbelievable that his doctor would let him put it inside her, another piece of evidence for the lack of legitimate characterization here.

Pullman’s character, meanwhile, makes no sense. Strike that — his character makes sense, but what doesn’t is this idea that in a mere matter of days, he’s gone from a reviled pedophilic killer to a PR man and borderline-deity. I get that this is, to some extent, Russell T. Davies and company trying to comment on how readily the American public forgives our villains, but this is beyond all credibility. While it’s possible that a well-written show could make such a development credible, we’ll never know because the writing is atrocious.

The overall storytelling and pacing is also weak. It feels more like the early days of Season One, when it was simply a bad show. The pacing is off, the main story arch isn’t nearly as compelling or interesting as the things on the periphery (i.e., I almost don’t care about this big evil Pharma company, but would like to see a hell of a lot more of the bits about how society is being impacted as a result of the Miracle), and the tone is missing. The early seasons teetered a fine line between fun and dark. “Children of Earth” decided to go full-on dark and scary, with some black humor tossed in, and it worked. “Miracle Day” doesn’t have any of that. At Comic-Con, the showrunners said the season gets dark at the end of Episode 5. Great. On the one hand, I wish it would’ve started dark rather than waiting until halfway through the series to go that way. On the other hand, if you want to start one way and then go dark, that’s fine, but start with something. If it’s not going to be dark, it’s gotta be something. So far, it’s been bland. No style, no real energy, and only the barest hint of comedy (at least, actually amusing comedy, as opposed to cheesy nonsense or making fun of the differences between England and America).

But even putting all of that aside, there’s the dialogue, some of the worst I’ve heard in years. It’s as though the writers decided that, now that they’re in America, they can’t have any respect for their audience. Virtually every line out of anyone’s mouth is a blatant, on-the-nose version of “we’re holding your hand and explaining this to you very carefully so you don’t get lost.” It’s not good. And when the dialogue isn’t about the story, it’s bad.

That even goes for our dear Captain Jack. There’s something off with his character, and it’s not just the missing quips. I get that they’re not properly addressing the past and how he left at the end of “Children of Earth” because they want the show accessible to newbies. But they’re also not back to the old fun-loving Jack, so you’ve got this weird mush of a character who isn’t the Captain Jack we all know and love.

In fact, about the only thing the writers have gotten right is Gwen. Love her or hate her (I’m in the “love her” camp, but I get why some don’t), she feels like the same Gwen from the past series. As a result, she’s maybe what makes me the most angry and disappointed. Because goddamn it, how could they get Gwen so right, and get the rest of it so wrong? There is a good show around the periphery of “Miracle Day,” trying to break through. But it’s bogged down by the weight of a thousand problems. After the first episode, I hoped it would self-correct, but a third of way through the series now, I’m less hopeful. I’ll keep watching, but like Phifer’s character, it will be in a constant state of anger.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.