Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Emotionally Satisfying, But Objectively Inferior, Wonder Woman The Complete Series Stagnates

The Good: Some fun stories, Moments of concept, Feminist aspects
The Bad: Erratic storytelling, Formulaic plots, Reworked multiple times, Almost no real character development
The Basics: Wonder Woman is a great concept for a television series, but the late-1970’s version of it, now on DVD, illustrates how much trouble the studio and writers had with adapting the source material.

For those who have not read my many, many, many reviews, I love Wonder Woman. In fact, I devoted a year to reading Wonder Woman graphic novels when I started yearlong studies of various super heroes and superheroines. So, as I sit down to contemplate the 1975 – 1979 television series Wonder Woman, it is not a lack of appreciation for the source material that leads me to be critical of the series. I’ve also taken some flack (in reviewing the original season sets) because I fail to acknowledge the quality of the show at the time. I am not watching Wonder Woman in the 1970s and I am not recommending/not recommending it to viewers in 1975; I am viewing it through 2013 eyes. However, it is worth noting that in my rating system, effects only account for one of the ten points I used when evaluating a visual work.

So, things like the cheesy looping and unnecessary jumping is not what brings down Wonder Woman down. When contemplating a complete series on DVD – and, to be fair, Wonder Woman The Complete Series is just a simple bundle pack of the three seasons’ DVD sets – consistency is a fair element to consider. Wonder Woman is one of the most retooled series’ I have ever watched and while its initial reworking is after the first season, the second and third seasons are in a state of near-constant reworking as the writers and producers desperately try to find the winning formula that will get and retain the audience. This makes for an overall unsatisfying viewing experience, even if viscerally, Wonder Woman is fun to watch.

Wonder Woman The Complete Series is a simple bundle pack of:
Wonder Woman - Season 1
Wonder Woman - Season 2
Wonder Woman - Season 3

The series begins with Steve Trevor, a U.S. Air Force colonel in World War 2, crashing his plane on Paradise Island in the Bermuda Triangle. Kept unconscious by the female population there, Trevor’s injuries are healed and a contest is performed to see who shall be the emissary sent to Man’s World to return Trevor to his people. The Queen’s daughter, Diana, is chosen and she takes up the mantle of Wonder Woman with a belt that gives her superior strength, bracelets of feminum (an indestructible metal that allows the super-fast Wonder Woman to deflect bullets with her bracelets), and a lasso that compels those tied within it to tell the complete truth. Diana returns Steve Trevor to the Air Force and decides that the conflict the United States is in against the Nazis is a just one and she adopts the alter ego of Diana Prince to serve with Steve Trevor on missions to save the U.S. and help win World War 2.

After returning to Paradise Island, Diana meets Steve Trevor, the son of the man she served with in World War 2, when terrorists hijack his plane over Paradise Island. She accompanies Steve Trevor back to the United States where she goes to work with him at the Inter-Agency Defense Command, an anti-terrorist intelligence organization in the United States. In thwarting spies, alien invasions, and con men, Diana Prince and Steve Trevor grow close, though Trevor never puts together that Diana Prince is Wonder Woman. When Steve Trevor is promoted to be Diana’s boss, the agents rely increasingly on a wisecracking computer and help that Diana finds while on missions. After the promotion, Diana finds herself increasingly without Steve Trevor and more and more performing missions in Los Angeles.

Wonder Woman is loaded with weird production problems – and I’m someone who has very little problem with the temporal reboot – that make for occasionally baffling programming. For example, multiple guest stars appear over the course of the series in different roles looking virtually identical to the character they initially played. And yet, some of the recurring guest characters are recast (constantly, in the case of the Queen, who is played by three different actresses over the run of the series!), sometimes in ridiculous or problematic ways. So, for example, in the first season, Wonder Woman helps save the Earth with the help of an alien who is part of a species that is judging humanity. In the second season, that character returns, recast with a younger actor in his place. And yet, Vic Perrin, who played him the first time around comes back in that season as a completely different character!

In the second season, especially, Wonder Woman is plagued by poor direction. As I say, if you can tell the producers are using the first take, they aren’t doing something right! The second season is a rough transition season: the show starts out following the formula from season one, only set in the 1970s, with Diana and Steve Trevor going on missions together, before replacing their human boss with a talking computer (and, eventually, a little remote controlled robot) and then promoting Steve Trevor out of the main action. When Diana goes solo, usually to Los Angeles episode after episode, the show becomes formulaic and stale and never quite recovers.

At its best, Wonder Woman acts as a “buddy” action show, with Steve Trevor relying quite a bit on Diana Prince and, especially, Wonder Woman. While Steve and Diana keep things entirely platonic, Steve is Diana’s superior officer in the Air Force and then at the IADC, which does undermine the feminist message some (personally, I would have been impressed if Diana had been promoted above Steve at the IADC and episodes became him going out on missions and needing Diana and Wonder Woman to continually bail him out!). When Steve is promoted, the chemistry of the buddy action dies a quick death.

On screen, Lyle Waggoner and Lynda Carter have decent chemistry, portraying Steve and Diana as professionals and the intellectual equals of one another.

At the heart of Wonder Woman is Lynda Carter. It is hard to imagine a better portrayal of the character, especially from performers of the time than Carter. She is articulate, able to convey compassion and resolve, and looks great in the bathing suit-style outfit that defines the iconic Wonder Woman.

But, despite the incredible portrayal of the character, Wonder Woman is a deeply flawed television show. The main protagonist does not grow or develop. The biggest changes Wonder Woman, as a character, has is in her use of her tiara as a boomerang, two different body-hugging outfits (one for swimming and one for motorcycle riding), and the way she starts using her lasso to alter minds as the series goes on. Her resolve never weakens and she is never sufficiently challenged to either doubt her mission or her ability to do it. She never illustrates higher senses of justice or reasoning; she simply goes from one spy caper to the next until the series abruptly ends.

On DVD, Wonder Woman has a few commentary tracks for three or four episodes, none of which are unique to the Complete Series pack. Each season has a featurette on Wonder Woman in the larger mythos or pop culture. It is fun to see and hear Lynda Carter and Douglas S. Cramer (Executive Producer and Director) talk about the show on the commentaries and bonus features, but Lyle Waggoner’s absence is obvious (and his presence and input is missed).

Wonder Woman is fun vintage television, but it is hard to take it seriously as more than that, given that the show is too-frequently put together in a sloppy or inconsistent manner. Perhaps the reason Lynda Carter is considered such an iconic actress as Wonder Woman has less to do with how impressive she is in the role (though she is!) and more to do with how she remains the only constant in an otherwise chaotic production.

For other live-action DC superhero works, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight Trilogy
Green Lantern
Jonah Hex
Superman Returns


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the shows, seasons, and series’ I have reviewed!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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