5 out of 10
(NBC, Mondays 8/7c p.m.)

Premise: Something’s out there, it lives below us … and it is hungry.

When it comes to science fiction programming, NBC’s track record has been hit-or-miss – usually miss. In fact most people would be hard pressed to pick out a culturally significant sci fi show on the network since the mid-1960s when it debuted Star Trek.

As you may recall, after NBC’s short-sighted suits booted Trek to an early grave, its sci fi offerings included such dubious treats as Misfits of Science and Manimal.

There was a glimmer of hope in May 2004, as NBC merged with Universal Studios and gained the USA Network and the Sci Fi channel. With that move, the network also gained an outstanding legacy of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Since the 1930s and 1940s, Universal films made cultural icons out of such fantastic creatures as Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and Frankenstein. Universal also is the home of E.T.

The USA network has had repeated successes with The 4400 and Dead Zone, among others. With Sci Fi, the name of the channel pretty much speaks for itself.

One of the first moves of the new NBC Universal was to green light a Sci Fi channel remake of the 1978 series, Battlestar Galactica. And it is good – very good.

So, with this influx of sci fi know-how from Universal and the programming talent of its new cable channels, the question before I plopped my butt in front of the TV for the first episode of Surface was: Does NBC now have what it takes to make a hit science fiction TV show?

From my first impression, the answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong. Surface does have its good points. The fact it replaced the god-awful Fear Factor alone has me hoping Surface grows and thrives with a healthy audience for years to come.

As a work of science fiction, the series shows promise. Some of the special effects are blended flawlessly into real footage, especially the underwater footage. The acting is topnotch. The dialogue is spot on.

But there is a problem. In general, although I love science fiction and I love TV, for some reason I don’t love Surface. There is no single big factor for this lack of love. The series is good, yes. It’s just not great.

The show does have some fixable flaws:

  • The subplots: Most likely inspired by Lost, the producer/writers of Surface are keeping audiences befuddled and teasing them with possibilities. That is good. But, the filler subplots are meandering and downright boring.
  • The casting: First, I want to applaud the producers for picking a cast who looks like normal folk in any (predominately white) neighborhood. The lead female character, “Laura,” is played by Lake Bell (Boston Legal, The Practice) [makes one wonder if she has siblings named Dinner and Cow].

    Bell is attractive enough and believable as a hands-on academic. But, the way she portrays Laura left this viewer detached. A lead actress needs to be able to make an audience feel her pains and actually care about her as a person. Sadly, Bell fails at this.

    I haven’t been this turned off by a lead character of a new sci fi show like this since the first Season of Babylon 5, where the bland Michael O’Hare played “Commander Jeffrey Sinclair.” His ho-hum acting made me tune out of that show after just three airings. (Like many others, I later came back to the series once he was replaced.)

    Then there is 14-year-old Carter Jenkins (Bad News Bears) as “Miles.” His interactions with the beasties are played as comic relief. I found myself more than once wishing the hungry critters would turn and devour him, his friend and his entire boring family.

    Speaking of the family, there is one continuity error with Surface that I cannot forgive. In the pilot episode, Miles mother is played by the very recognizable Jessica Tuck (the neurotic “Gillian” on Judging Amy), then in a soap opera-type switcheroo, by the second episode the talented Tuck was chucked for a new, and probably cheaper to pay, actress.

    Now Tuck’s part was very small in the first episode, I can’t figure out for the life of me why the producers didn’t just re-shoot those scenes in the pilot with the new actress. This kind of wife-swap just looks unprofessional, especially to fans of Tuck. Hrmph.

    One bright spot in the cast is the character “Rich Connelly,” as played by Jay R. Ferguson (Dr. Todd Hooper on Judging Amy). Ferguson hits all the right notes, is empathetic to the audience and is eclipsing Bell as the heart of this show.

    My one reservation about Ferguson is that he doesn’t look like a leading man. His face is nice to look at, but he is rather on the pudgy side as far as TV folk’s bodies go. Maybe that was a conscious decision of the producers, being that his character is from the rural Louisiana bayous.

    I guess we’re supposed to assume that all the physically fit people in the U.S. live in the big city.

  • Plot holes: Aside from some seriously questionable science, the show has quite a few gaping plot holes which I will not go into now to keep from spoiling the series for folks who have yet to see it for themselves.

    Let’s just say that Surface has its fair share of “skiffy,” an old term among science fiction fans to point out very weak science and inplausable physics, or just bad writing.

Some adult themes and violence.

Overall: 5 out of 10
V-Chip Rating: TV-PG
Genre: Science Fiction.
Sex: None.
Violence: Some bloody hospital-type wounds, off screen deaths.
Special Effects: Heavy use of CGI with mixed results.
Eye Candy: With a bland outdoorsy woman prone to plaid, a pudgy guy and a 14-year-old boy as the leads, the eye candy factor is low.

IMDB listing

Lake Bell … Laura Daugherty
Jay R. Ferguson … Rich Connelly
Carter Jenkins … Miles

Below are the TV ratings from the week of August 24 – September 30.

[#1 = Most-watched show that night]

Saturday, 9-24-2005
– “Shrek (2001)” (households: 3.6/7, #7; adults 18-49: 2.1, #4)

Sunday, 9-25-2005
– “Charmed” (households: 2.6/4, #19; adults 18-49: 1.9, #18)

Monday, 9-26-2005
– “CSI: Miami” (households: 11.2/18, #1; adults 18-49: 5.5, #1)
– “Medium” (households: 8.9/14, #3; adults 18-49: 5.0, #3)
– “Surface” (households: 6.1/9, #10; adults 18-49: 2.9, #11)

Tuesday, 9-27-2005
– “Supernatural” (households: 3.1/4, #15; adults 18-49: 2.1, #15)

Wednesday, 9-28-2005
– “Lost” (households: 13.4/20, #1; adults 18-49: 9.4, #1)
– “Invasion” (households: 8.0/13, #4; adults 18-49: 5.4, #2)
– “CSI: NY” (households: 8.6/14, #3; adults 18-49: 4.3, #4)
– “Lost” repeat (households: 7.3/12, #5; adults 18-49: 4.1, #5)

Thursday, 9-29-2005
– “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (households: 17.1/26, #1; adults 18-49:
9.1, #1)
– “Night Stalker” (households: 4.8/7, #9; adults 18-49: 2.7, #9)
– “Smallville” (households: 3.5/6, #T12; adults 18-49: 2.6, #10)
– “Alias” (households: 5.4/9, #7; adults 18-49: 2.4, #11)

Friday, 9-30-2005
– “NUMB3RS” (households: 7.6/14, #1; adults 18-49: 3.2, #1)
– “Ghost Whisperer” (households: 7.4/14, #2; adults 18-49: 2.6, #2)
– “Threshold” (households: 5.7/10, #4; adults 18-49: 2.3, #5)

Just Like Heaven

6 out of 10
Just Like Heaven (2005)

15 years ago, a little fantasy film about love conquering death called Ghost, starring Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg stole audience’s imaginations an went on to become of the the biggest blockbusters of 1990.

Now in 2005, DreamWorks has re-worked the idea into a romantic comedy where recent widower David (Mark Ruffalo), a San Francisco-based landscape architect, falls in love with Elizabeth (Witherspoon), the spirit of a nearly-departed doctor who used to live in the San Francisco apartment David is subletting.

This film does work as a romantic comedy with a supernatural twist. Witherspoon and Ruffalo are both top-form actors who portray characters compelling and sweet enough to make the most jaded heart swoon.

The plot and writing seem to be a throwback to romantic comedies of the 1950s and early 1950s, where smart dialogue and compelling characters told a story that speaks to an audiences heart and soul. The film avoids the potty humor that has become a hallmark of recent comedies and because of this has a very classy feel to it.

Overall: 6 out of 10
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Sex: None (Although implied light sexual situations)
Violence: Slapstick
Special Effects: Well done
Other: A definite “chick flick” that is appropriate for parents to bring children

Reese Witherspoon … Elizabeth
Mark Ruffalo … David Abbott
Donal Logue … Jack
Jon Heder … Darryl
Dina Spybey … Abby
Ben Shenkman … Brett
Ivana Milicevic … Katrina
Rosalind Chao … Fran