Bionic Woman (2007) You’ll Believe a Woman Can Run . . .

on August 7, 2007 in Uncategorized

I’m going to preface this review by saying that what was presented at Comic Con was a shortened version of the pilot that will debut this Fall on NBC. Some scenes are going to be re-shot, and some story elements will be modified. I also want to point out that pilots are generally rushed and rarely satisfying.* Even with shows that turned out to be phenomenal the pilots themselves were simply promising (think of Buffy, or even, Heroes which had intriguing premieres, but weren’t necessarily engaging until mid-season). The purpose is to give a taste of the forthcoming series—hopefully enough to convince an audience to come back and see storylines fleshed out.

I say all this because I expected more from the Bionic Woman preview. I’m disappointed and I’m reminding myself to give it a chance.

Executive Producer, David Eick, has stressed that Bionic Woman is a reimagining of the 1970s series-NOT a remake. The name is merely a starting place, much it was with Battlestar Galactica. But where BSG was a complete revisioning of a much loved cult property, with a clear understanding of premise and character, BW feels like a rehashing of late 20th century “grrrl power” topoi, rather than an original take on feminine heroes.

Clichés abound in the initial narrative. We see: the identity crisis, the marriage proposal, a life-changing decision made without a woman’s consent and the subsequent manipulation of her new power, vulnerability!, a heavy-handed (even if cute) grrrl power moment, a smack-down of an alley predator, a secret government agency, and, of course, a catfight oozing with sexual tension.

What a surprising and unfortunate lack of innovation.

Here’s a quick rundown of the premise. Warning! Light spoilers.

Jamie Sommers (Michelle Ryan of East Enders) is a 24-year-old bartender. She’s become responsible for her deaf teenage sister, Becca,** after the death of their mother (woe to female heroes and their dead moms). Though she’s gorgeous, sassy and smart she says to her boyfriend, “I’m a dropout and a bartender. You’re a professor. Why would you want to be with me?” Female insecurity abounds in the pilot, but I’ll get to that further down.

Jamie and Dr. Boyfriend are in the middle of a romantic dinner when she announces she’s pregnant. They’ve only been dating for five months, but it’s true wuv, so Dr. Boyfriend asks her to marry him (after her tells her the exact number of days, hours and minutes since conception—weird and kind of creepy).

On the car ride home a Mack truck slams into the passenger side of Dr. Boyfriend’s vehicle causing it to flip repeatedly. Next thing we know, Dr. Boyfriend is performing experimental surgery on his loved one RIGHT AFTER THE ACCIDENT.

Jamie wakes up in her hospital room. The crash has killed the embryo, but Dr. Boyfriend assures her that she will be able to conceive again. (Is there a bionic baby in Jamie’s future?) This is when Jamie discovers that much of her body has been replaced by nanobots called “anthrocytes” which have not only repaired her body, but “made it better.” (A metaphor for plastic surgery? Regardless, the anthrocytes have also fixed Jamie’s post car crash/surgery hair and makeup—if only I had nanobots that reapplied my lipstick as needed.)

Dr. Boyfriend’s superiors are pissed that he performed the surgery without their permission and are keeping Jamie imprisoned in their super-secret military facility until they can figure out what to do with her and the 50 million dollars worth of their technology she is carrying. You see, this experimental surgery had been performed once before on another woman—with disastrous results.

Sarah Corvis (played by Katee Sackhoff) was The First Bionic Woman. But while the anthrocytes made her physically superior, Corvis was emotionally unstable. With her new power she murdered a slew of military and medical personnel and before being shot by her lover (the very cool Will Yun Lee of Elektra). As he pulls the trigger she asks him desperately, “Do you love me?”

Of course, Sarah isn’t dead, and she’s pissed. She’s also emotionally damaged, insecure, dangerous, predatory, and out for revenge. She’s a sexy psychopath a la Glen Close in Fatal Attraction. She’s misunderstood and just wants to be loved.

But back to the narrative . . .

Dr. Boyfriend helps Jamie escape from the secret military hospital. As she runs away her pace accelerates to Clark Kent speeds and we get our only “homage moment.” As the camera pans inside her body to show the technology working it’s magic we hear a faint, very faint, nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.

This is also the scene where we get our over-the-top feminist! flashing arrow.

As Jamie runs faster than a speeding soccer mom’s car, a young girl in the back seat, perhaps aged 6 or 7 exclaims, “Mommy, there’s a girl out there running really fast – – as fast as our car is going!”

The mother replies with a condescending, “Sweetie, what did I tell you about making things up?”***

Discouraged the child says, “I just thought it was cool that a girl could do that.” ****

Yes, it IS cool. And it’s something we need to see. But for the love of Goddess show us, don’t tell us. And show us often. Show us diversely, and with complexity, but please respect your audience. Know we are savvy enough to “get it.” We certainly don’t need to be spoon fed—especially with dialogue more in line with a 1970s cultural consciousness.

The climatic moment of the pilot (and I say “climatic” with oodles of lascivious pun intended) is the fight scene between the two Bionic Women which could easily be summed up with this famous exchange from the Seinfeld episode “The Summer of George.”

Elaine: What is so appealing to men about a cat fight?
Jerry: Because men think if women are grabbing and clawing at each other there’s a chance they might somehow kiss.

Sarah has already preyed on new girl Jamie back at the bar, held her hair back as she vomited, stroked her comfortingly, told her it’s uncomfortable when the anthrocytes come online and that she’ll be okay. But in order to truly get Jamie’s attention she shoots Dr. Boyfriend with a sniper riffle. Catfight ensues.

Cue wet t-shirts, long drags on cigarettes, close-ups on stiletto heels, and Jolie-esque quivering lower lips. Are your naughties tingling yet? Might they, could they, kiss? Get prepared for future slashtasticness.

During the TV Guide Hot List panel, David Eick salaciously said of his two leading ladies, “Early in the season they’ll develop a very special relationship.” Though considering the mention of bionic parts “going online” I suspect this relationship will be only metaphorically lesbian in nature with suggestive references to “plugging in” and the “sharing” of technology. I’ll download your files . . . and that sort of thing.

After viewing the pilot and panel, I’m not convinced that the producers are really clear on what their narrative goals are yet. David Eick told Variety last year that the series is “using the idea of artificial technology as a metaphor for what contemporary women sometimes feel is necessary to do everything that needs to be done.” I’m not really sure what this means, but from the very beginning of the episode—even before her transformation, Jamie’s life is presented as accelerating. She’s a young woman, shouldered with unexpected responsibilities while still in search of her identity.

Michelle Ryan noted at Comic Con that she’s interested in playing this character who is “Young, strong, feisty and vulnerable.”

*Sigh* I’m really tired of hearing “vulnerability” listed as an asset for women. It implies that if women are tough without also being visibly emotional that they aren’t admirable. They’re intimidating. Which is why Jamie’s nemesis and sometimes mirror, Sarah, is portrayed as psychologically damaged. She reveals she’s made her own upgrades stating, “I’m cutting away all the parts of me that are weak.” She’s insecure and so she’s enhancing herself. (Again, I wonder is this a metaphor for plastic surgery?) Rather than these two women coming from a place where they accept themselves, they are presented as physically tough, but emotionally insecure. What is it Eick & Co. think women feel is necessary to reach their goals?

Eick also explained that “this is a story about a woman who is not out for this” and that it’s a “Peter Parker ethos told through the eyes of woman.” But the “Peter Parker ethos” has been a staple of subsequent heroes—there was Peter Parker ethos in the angsty Buffy Summers and in the tempestuous Sydney Bristow. The search for identity and the reconciling of “different lives” is nothing new.

I guess what bothered me most was that the writers and producers came off as thinking that their character was original—when she’s not. And I wish she was. Bionic Woman could be a great show, but La Femme Nikita, Dark Angel, and Charmed could have been great shows. These later three had great ideas, but suffered in their execution. BW has capable actors, producers, and writers, but where the pilot fails is in its lazy ideas. Eick & Co. may not want it to be related to the original, and that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be a rip-off of other series. Hopefully, this will be corrected, and I’m certainly going to give it a chance. But to be honest, I’ll be paying more attention to Heroes and waiting for Sarah Connor Chronicles to premiere.

*(The only truly satisfying pilot I can think of was for Alias, which J.J. Abrams treated as more of a movie than a television preview.)

** The role of Becca Sommers was played by Mae Whitman, who was as awesome here as a rebellious teen as she was in her role as Egg, I mean, Anne, on Arrested Development. Unfortunately, Whitman has been replaced by the more Hollywood pretty Lucy Hale—a mini version of Michelle Ryan. The character will also no longer be deaf.

***There is a similar line in Superman The Movie where a young girl runs into the house after Kal-El saves her kitty from a tree. “Mommy, Mommy I just saw a man who could fly!!!” (paraphrased). The mother scolds the child for “making things up” and then we hear a very un-PC smack—yikes.

****The implication is that the mother did not grow up in a world where she saw images of girls doing cool things, even though the woman depicted was young enough to have grown up with the original Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Alien & Aliens—not the range that her daughter has been exposed to (or that hopefully her granddaughters will one day have) but some.

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