The lyon, the witch and the war zone

Sunday Herald, UK
June 26 2004

The lyon, the witch and the war zone

TV: The Lyon’s Den (Tuesday, Five, 9.55pm)
The Shield (Tuesday, Five, 10.50pm)
Wife Swap (Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm)
By Damien Love

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: devote the next three
months to watching a somewhat hokey American drama about lawyers with
problems, which has already been cancelled in the States, and which
you therefore know is destined to come to an abrupt end, never to
That’s where we are with The Lyon’s Den, the series Five is
parachuting into the void left now that Law And Order: Criminal
Intent has shambled off on its holidays. Incentives for watching
might not seem great, but it might be worth sticking with it,
precisely because of that. The Lyon’s Den was axed in the States
after only six episodes had been broadcast, while cast and crew were
still filming. The last seven episodes remain unaired in the US, but
Five will be broadcasting the 13-part series in its entirety, and so
we have this prospect: once we get to around nine or 10 weeks in, we
will be watching a programme made by people who actually know there
is no point in making it.

That throws open a tantalising possibility: maybe, just maybe, some
hints of the disappointment, depression, bitterness, anger and
cynicism swilling around might show up onscreen. It might not happen,
but since these are conditions seldom done well by – indeed, usually
denied by – American television, even the slightest chance of seeing
them is a rare opportunity.

For fans of disappointment, depression, listlessness, bitterness,
anger and cynicism, incidentally, the good news is that The Lyon’s
Den is paired with the return of The Shield. There was something
naggingly unsatisfying about how the bad-mood LA cop-show ended its
second series. After an awesome few episodes, it lost its apocalyptic
momentum. The writers went alarmingly soft on the murderously
screwed-up side of Michael Chiklis’s demon-dog cop, Vic Mackey,
killed-off what looked like its greatest villain – that Satanic
Mexican ganglord with cooker rings burned into his face, and let the
rogue cops’ climactic money train heist go off far too quietly.

As it turns out, however, when The Shield ended last year, it wasn’t
really ending, it was merely pausing for breath. This week, we are
right back among it. The money train story has only just begun, and
is about to get very messy. Most promisingly, it also looks like a
far more threatening villain might appear, or, rather, reappear.
Devotees will recall, back in series one, a fleeting Armenian psycho
who dressed like Jesus and delivered the immortal line: `Delicious
feet.’ Well, this week, dead Armenians are turning up all over … with
their feet lopped off.

The Shield still suffers from an unfortunate tendency to have all its
characters constantly explain to each other (ie, to us) exactly what
they’re doing, and exactly why, but at least they tend to be doing
interesting, scuzzy things, and move quickly while doing them. The
stark contrast between its crummy, dirty, speedy pace and the
civilised flow and ebb of The Lyon’s Den makes Five a schizophrenic
zone on a Tuesday night. It’s like walking from a dimly-lit
conference room into a car crash.

Rob Lowe stars in The Lyon’s Den as the stoutly-named Jack Turner,
saintly lawyer man-boy with principles and hair that says: `That’s
right girls, I still like a bit of grunge.’ He’s turned his back on
his amazingly powerful family connections and the high-powered,
high-paid jobs for which his brilliant mind is clearly suited to
instead work in a small legal clinic for poor clients. However, dark
wheels are turning, and, to ensure the future of the clinic, he is
forced to dirty his hands by becoming a partner at the parent
company, a gargantuan legal firm full of unhappy backstabbers
interested only in money and power, and not in helping save selfless
refugees from being stoned to death, like he is. In short, he must
enter the lion’s den.

The experience of watching The Lyon’s Den crumble toward oblivion is
made all the more potent if you are aware this is the series Lowe –
who also produced – made after he’d quit The West Wing in a bit of a
huff. Perish the thought that he ever entertained visions of taking
on The West Wing in a war for the hearts and minds of that show’s
fans. Still, in the first episode he does make a meal of referencing
his old programme. `I have zero interest in politics,’ he quips at
one point, managing not to wink at the camera.

Particularly, deliciously, sad, however, is the opening. The Lyon’s
Den is set in Washington DC, and begins with images of Lowe out for
an heroic morning run, lit by the amber dawn’s early light, and
dressed like Rocky. First time we see him, he is pointedly framed
with the White House behind, so he appears to be running away from
it. It’s hard not to read a sly, triumphant statement about
stretching his wings.

Unfortunately, this sequence is intercut with a man committing
suicide by throwing himself from a high window and splatting on the
ground. Given what we know of Lowe’s show’s fate, it alters the
visual metaphor rather drastically.

`You are a dickhead and a wanker and a cocksucker, I hate you and
your kids.’ Not my words, but the words of Lucy from Feltham, one of
the first wives to be swapped in the new Wife Swap, which is back and
exactly the same, if somewhat more self-conscious about it.

Lucy and husband Tony, who are happy to let their children run riot,
seem to have modelled themselves after the slobs Harry Enfield and
Kathy Burje used to do, which is their right in a democracy. Lucy
exchanges lives with Pat, who, along with husband Spike, runs her
house like a prison (Pat and Spike both work in the prison service),
with the added condition of shoving God down her kids’ throats at
every opportunity. In short: Lucy and Tony are the sort of people you
wouldn’t want living next door; Pat and Spike are the sort of people
you wouldn’t mind living next door, so long as you never, ever, had
to speak to them.

They still call this Reality TV, but in reality, these people would
never exchange a `hello’ – let alone lives. Observing an event does
indeed change it, and through the selection processes, editing,
music, and such techniques as the posing of leading questions (to
which we only ever hear the answers), this is as authored as any TV
fiction. Of course, it is far easier to produce, given nobody has to
fork out for sets, writers, decent cameras or actors. The Reality
rash which dominates both sides of the Atlantic probably has a lot to
do with why programmes like The Lyon’s Den now get binned midway
through their first run. Lowe’s series isn’t that bad. After all, it
took The West Wing a year to strike the balance between syrup and
salt, while institutions like Frasier, even Friends, didn’t really
hit their particular strides until into their second seasons. At the
moment, though, the big American networks (as opposed to the smaller
cable channels, which, less dependent on selling advertising, provide
homes for the likes of The Shield) seem interested in neither the
long term, nor nurturing talent.

Still, that’s not specifically Wife Swap’s fault. In terms of people
shouting, it remains as good as you’ll get this side of insulting a
strange couple in a pub on a Friday night. If still not quite as