Archive | April, 2013

Spring 2013 Review: Rectify

29 Apr

Rectify ItHoly shit, a show about something different.  And it’s good!  Rectify is the story of a man exonerated from death row twenty years after being convicted of murdering a woman, when he was in high school.  Daniel was convicted, sentenced to die, and thanks to some new DNA evidence and the dogged work of his family and attorney, he’s being set free.  Twenty years in prison, in solitary confinement without even a window is a long time, and the adjustment is obviously difficult both for Daniel, and for his family, who have lived the past two decades without him and aren’t sure how to reintegrate him back into the family even though they want to, or at least some of the family does.  The family includes his mother, who is happy but doesn’t know how to behave, his sister, who is most enthusiastic and did most of the leg work, and his brother, now a teenager who is trying his best to get to know the brother he’s never met.  It always includes the step-dad his mom is married to now, his step brother, who isn’t a big fan of Daniel, and more relevantly, is concerned  his notoriety will sink the family business, an independent tire store started by Daniel’s real dad, and his step brother’s wife, who is religious, innocent, and more enamored with Daniel than her husband.  These difficulties  are compounded by the fact that this is the small town south (Georgia) and everyone knows everyone and a large number of those people, fancy schmancy legal terms or not, still think he did it and that he’s guilty as sin.  They’ll go through any trouble to make his life hell on Earth if he can’t be put into hell underground.

Now, just in case you worry it’s too focused on simply human emotions and the difficulty of people relating with one another, there’s a nice little intrigue plot to keep those who need a little suspense in their TV humming right along. Some prominent politicians are convinced of his guilt and also don’t like even the possibility of admitting they were wrong and put the wrong man behind bars and on death row for 20 years.  They want him back in jail with a retrial.  Additionally, although we don’t know for sure whether Daniel did or didn’t do it, people who may have actually been responsible for something then, are not thrilled that he’s out on the street again, throwing the events of the night in question, into, well, question.

The small town south is having its moment in the media, led by Winter’s Bone and Justified, but with others, like the recent movie Mud, coming up as well.  As I’ve written about Justified before, this culture is simply an interesting vantage point for me, as a big city/suburban northeasterner, as something that I’ve never been exposed to.  While Rectify doesn’t feature the organized crime angle of the first two southern comparisons, it does place a large forcus on the way things change but stay the same in the small town, and that way that people are harassed for things that their family did now, or decades ago.  As god of all small town southern writers William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  The small town community leaders are determined to sew up their legacies by making sure Daniel doesn’t spent a second longer than he has to after prison.

Daniel’s difficulty in coping with life outside initially is both confounding and understandable from the point of view of the people closest to him.  He’s harassed for not seeming excited enough about his innocence, and his family treat him hesitantly.  He’s unfailingly polite but mysterious and terse.  Every experience is so new and vivid to him, no matter how simple, sitting down on the grass, or staring into the sky.  It can sometimes be slightly difficult to watch, but never cringeworthy.

This is almost certainly the best pilot I’ve seen so far in 2013, and since I’m updating this part of the review after I just watched two more episodes, probably has a slight lead on The Americans to be my favorite new show of the spring season.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I will.  In fact, I already have by the time this is posted, so this is even surer than most.  If you can figure out where the hell the Sundance channel is on your TV, you should absolutely watch it; there are only six episodes this season, and it’s new, seriously interesting and different TV, which is something I, for one, can never get enough of.

Six Shows I Stopped Watching, Part 2

26 Apr

Part 2 of a brief list of six shows I actively decided to stop watching.   Part 1 and a full intro can be found here.


Beep beep

The only show on this list that I truly harbor no ill will towards.  24 was just doing its thing, year to year, and yeah, that thing got kind of, well, extremely repetitive (there’s always a mole) but it didn’t materially deviate from the promise that it made it great in the first place.  It just kind of got a bit worse doing the same, and at least part of that worse is that the writers were just out of ideas; if the last season was first, it might have seemed better, because repetitiveness was a problem that was harder to avoid in 24 than even in most other long-running shows.  Eight seasons is a lot.  I watched the vast majority of the seventh season and then missed the last few episodes due to circumstance, and just noticed as I went through that summer meaning to click on remaining episodes which were safely stored on my dv-r that I never really had the desire to.  Every time i sat down to, I instead decided to watch something else.  I then didn’t see most of the eighth season, but like with Lost, I also watched the finale, this time with a much greater sense of closure and merely saying so long to Jack Bauer (and Chloe, let’s not forget Chloe) without the vitriol that powered by viewing of the Lost finale.  I only vaguely understood what was going on, but that was fine.

As I’ve said, I don’t really hold any real animus towards this show; unlike with Lost, the inferior later seasons didn’t retroactively bring down the quality of the earlier seasons for me.  I still harbor great love for the first few seasons and the first season in particular, and the joys it brought me to see every 24 trope for the first time, and then to root for the tropes as they happened the new few times after that (Jack:  It’s not the right play!, Kim is kidnapped again).  The one later plot point that did particularly rub me the wrong way was the resuscitation of Tony Almeida who for all intents and purposes had been dead for seasons and now was a super evil bad guy for some reason.  I get how they could be very 24-y but it just did not work for me; very few characters in the pantheon outside of Jack actually mean something, and Tony was one of them.  If they had to decided to make him come back and go all revenge-y soon after, it would have been one thing, but to have him lay dormant for years and then bring him back was too much.

How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother

It’s almost a tribute to how much I like certain aspects of this show (namely, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel) that I stuck with it for as long as I did considering how much this show seems like it was designed to bother me and me alone.  I know plenty of people who like the show, and plenty of people who don’t, but almost no one who is as irritated by the same aspects of the show that irritate me.  Just about everyone I know would agree the quality has slipped from the show’s second or third season peak, but how much is an open question.  What the show has going for it at its best is the cast, and, well, the jokes; it can actually be quite funny, and you’d think for a comedy that should be enough, and sometimes it is.  The show had an awful narrative device, and I just hated its tone, which I found moralizing and patronizing, trying to tell lessons that seemed uncalled for (see “Nothing Good Happens After 2 A.M.).  The show constantly told, rather than showed – it wasn’t enough to display some lessons through the events of an episode, but rather, narrator Bob Saget had to hammer the message home just in case you couldn’t follow along with the complicated narratives that How I Met Your Mother provides.  I stuck around for a fair time because it was funny, but when the later seasons became to seriously lack the funny, I was out.

I had threatened to leave for a long time before I did, coming back to the show, figuring it was only 20 minutes of my time, even if I didn’t really enjoy it.  This is, until I watched Season 7’s Symphony of Illumination, which had Robin narrating the show, presumably to her children, from the future, instead of Ted, and ended with the twist that she was just narrating the story to her fictional kids in her head, because she can’t have children (and I guess couldn’t have possibly adopted kids).  I just hated, hated, hated everything about it, and if I had been going back and forth about leaving the show for a season or two (in hindsight, I can’t believe I waited that long), that make it a quick and easy decision, and I haven’t seen an episode of the show since.  I always hated the idea of Barney and Robin getting together (not that it violates any key precept of the show, I just personally didn’t like it) from day 1, when it seemed inevitable (I still don’t understand how this isn’t weirder between Ted and Barney), so I didn’t particularly mind missing their engagement, though I suppose I’ll follow close enough to at least find out who plays the mother if they ever do get to that.

Spring 2013 Review: Cult

24 Apr

Cult members

Warning:  I am going to use the word Cult in this review more than I ever have before, and hopefully more than I ever will again.  Let’s go.  Cult.

Everyone knows TV shows, like movies, come in twos, and Cult shares a lot of territory with Fox show The Following.  While The Following is created by Kevin Williamson, Cult shares some of the meta aspects that were the hallmarks of Williamson’s first big hit Scream.  The Cult’s meta-ness lies in that it’s a show about a cult based on a scripted tv show about a cult called Cult.  I thought originally Cult was going to have some of the cheeky meta sense of humor that Scream has, but it really doesn’t. For a show that’s so meta, there’s really almost no sense of winking irony at all.

The Following is about a crazy serial killer/cult leader who organizes a shadowy US-wide network of disciples posing as ordinary people in every walk of life who would do anything no matter how gruesome or despicable at a whim for their leader.  Cult is about a cult which features a wide network of disciples posing as ordinary people in every walk of life who would do anything no matter how gruesome or despicable at a whim for their leader.  In Cult, however, the added hook is, as previously mentioned, there’s a popular cult (yes, I know) television show named Cult, about a cult, and which many fans are completely obsessed with, looking for hidden clues and messages throughout repeated viewings of each episode of the show.  The real life cult is super secret and is based on and through the show, somehow involving its creators, presumably, and by way of these messages being submitted through the show.

The added level here that The Following lacks is that of a conspiracy drama (which is shares more with fellow cancelled show Zero Hour).  While the cult in the Following is out in the open, this one is deep underground; no one believes in it, and anyone who claims they do appears crazy, even as bodies apparently turn up regularly and people are abducted.  Our main character is a sensible ex-prominent journalist (apparently he Jayson Blair-ed it, but for noble reasons) whose off-the-rails brother goes missing after trying to convince the main character of his crazy conspiracy theory involving a cult around Cult.  The key conversation comes at a diner where sinister music and camera shots make it appear everyone around them is an shady cult member, watching and listening (a la Homer on The Simpsons, “But listen to the music! He’s evil!”) The main character, with the help of a production assistant (or something, I don’t know what her job is on the show but it’s apparently not that important because she can leave for long stretches of time) on the show investigate the brother’s disappearance and find a disturbing amount of clues leading to the show Cult, and when he finally runs into the person his brother told him to ever contact if he got into trouble, she, dressed as a Cult character, kills herself, saying the magic words from Cult that people says on the show when they kill themselves.

He eventually finds a disc which, when he puts it in his computer, will put him on Cult’s radar, letting them steal his information and become a target, but may also be the only way to ever see his brother again, so he takes the leap.  The detective who searches both his brother’s apartment and shows up after the woman commits suicide is ridiculously accusing of him and just a general mean person, but this may be all explained by the fact that we see a Cult tattoo on her at the end of the episode.  She’s in on it!

Basically, if you’re watching this show, it’s for the conspiracy.  The writing isn’t anything to, er, write home about, and as mentioned before, there’s a surprising lack of humor or irony considering how meta the concept is.  The film-work isn’t particularly expert and I doubt it’s going to be a ton of sense if you think too hard about it.  It’s a pure thrill ride, and it’s not exactly thrilling enough to reach the levels it needs to, but it could be a lot worse too.  I’m at least mildly intrigued, though not a whole lot more.  It’s the kind of absurd idea a couple of people on controlled substances could arrive at late at night (“what about this! a cult based on a cult show about cults!”) that doesn’t sound as good in the morning but doesn’t sound half bad either.

Will I watch it again?  No.  It’s not really that bad, all the issues listed before considered.  It’s already cancelled for one, so the story is probably not going to resolve.  The premise is not wholly uninspired.  It wasn’t incredibly gripping, but if someone told me I had to watch all of Cult, I wouldn’t hate them for it.  Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have watched another one, but I might have at least thought about it for more than a second if the show wasn’t cancelled.  The possibility of a good edge-of-your-seat plot, while rarely realized, can make up for a lot of sins.

Six Shows I Stopped Watching, Part 1

22 Apr

For years, I had a serious sense of commitment about my TV.  If I started watching a show, I finished it down to the bitter end (and it was sometimes quite bitter).  Cast changed?  Head writer  left?  Show just started being all out terrible?  Too damn bad.  I was there until the finale.  I can’t make a commitment to anything else in life, but I made a commitment to a television program, and I was going to follow through on that at least.  I scorned friends who didn’t feel the same way.  Quitters, I’d say.  You owe it to the show, it might get better.  And then came the first show on my list, which got so bad, so quickly, that it simply broke my system in one fell swoop.  It made continuing watching it so painful and pointless that not only did I stop watching that show, but my sense of television commitment was shattered forever.  I still didn’t do it with ease, but now I was free to discard a show that cried out for discarding, a show that hadn’t plateaued or become simply mediocre but which had become bad or actively irritating and was counting only on my lifetime of viewing to keep me watching.  That show I could now simply neglect without feelings of regret, because screw it.  Sometimes it was a conscious instant decision to stop watching from one point, but more often it just came about because I noticed myself simply not catching up to a show even though the episodes were on my DV-r or on Hulu and every time I thought to myself, I really should catch up, and then thought, I don’t really want to and put it off for later. At some point later officially becomes never.

Without futher ado, here are the first of six shows I quit.


We can be Heroes

The show that taught me how to say no.  Find a person who started watching Heroes in the fall of 2006, and you’ll find a person who stopped watching Heroes before its fourth season (!) ended; just ask them when and they’ll respond in a disgusted manner with when it was, and how it still took them too long to quit.  After utter obsession with the first half of the first season, which seemed like fascinating can’t-wait-for-the-next-episode new tv as characters with powers gathered together and found each other to take on villains Sylar and the mysterious Linderman, the foundation started to crack as quickly as the second half of the first season.  I remember reading that Heroes allegedly had a plan in place for five or six seasons, but if they did, boy, it was an awful one.  The ending of the first season was terrible, and it didn’t get any better from there.  I watched the first half of the second season, which was kind of structured into two halves, and I was officially out.  For the first couple of years afterwards I talked about the lost promise of Heroes, how a show that started out so strongly fell so fast, due to mismanagement of a brilliant premise.  Later on, I decided there was nothing brilliant about it at all; it was a good premise sure, but brilliance doesn’t become quite that bad, quite that fast, and my only regret was that I had gotten that involved to begin with.  My brother stuck around a lot longer than I did and would tell me tales of future seasons which only made me laugh and be thankful that I was no longer spending my time with them.



There’s probably no show I’ve spent more words of frustration on, orally or written, than Lost.  No show built me up and then knocked me down more fiercely.  I’ve always said about Lost that I despise Lost only in a way that you can only hate something that you once loved.  Lost is one of few shows I was truly obsessed with, if only for a short time.  I marathoned most of the first season and was obsessed in the second half of the second and early in the third, reading internet forums and trying to figure out what the hydra and the arrow and other stations might mean.  It’s hard to remember in hindsight exactly when things began to go wrong, but by the fourth season, our honeymoon was very clearly over.  The more Lost spiraled out of control, the more I felt I had lost what we had, and the magic was gone.  Ironically, this was at least partly because the magic was full on – time travel in particular may have been the switch that sent me over the edge.  Because I had been so in love with the show, I stayed on well after I seriously thought we had no chance of a future together.  Still, in the gap between seasons 5 and 6, even though I knew it would be the last season, I made the extraordinary decision to stop watching.  I had to.  I had no other choice.  I still read the wikipedia episode summaries, because yes, I had to know what was going on in Lost’s life, but I couldn’t be there with it. The more I read, the happier I was to be apart.  The flash-sideways were the single worst thing to happen to Lost, and that’s saying a lot.  Just for purposes of closure, I sat down with my friends, who hadn’t stopped watching like I had, and watched the finale, live.  I”m glad I did, because I got to know what everyone who hated it was talking about and was able to more knowingly complain about how stupid everything about the show had gotten.  To this day, I can rant about Lost for hours and days, and want to punch everyone who tells me it’s about the journey or the characters and not the plot or the questions being answered.

Spring 2013 Review: Bates Motel

19 Apr

Norman and Norma

Bates Motel reminds me of fellow new show Hannibal in some ways.  It’s an earlier time in a story we all know well; in Hannibal, we know Hannibal Lecter will get caught as a cannibalistic serial killer, while Bates Motel tells the story of the teenage life of Norman Bates, who we know will go on to become a psychotic serial killer later in his life, and interact with and dress up as his deceased mother.  Knowing where the story leads is both limiting and empowering; it means that to some extent, the audience knows how the story ends, and there’s really nothing the creators can do about that, but there’s a lot of leeway in how they get there.  The writers can always place winking clues to where we know the story leads.  Like in Hannibal, Bates Motel takes place in modern times rather than around when the story originally took place.

Unlike Hannibal, in which the villain, Lecter, is already well into his serial killing ways when the show begins, Bates Motel features a normal-ish Normal who while facing some very serious issues and badly in need of a psychologist, doesn’t appear to have seriously contemplated killing anybody quite yet.  Like the Star Wars prequels, Bates Motel attempts to take an incredibly famous villain and explain how he got from being a regular person to an evil, or crazy, killer.

In the opening scene, Bates’ father dies.  We then flash forwards to six months later, where Bates’ mom, Norma (Vera Farmiga), is driving him to their new home, a motel, which they will now run, and is destined to be the fabled Bates Motel.  Norman is already a little bit of a weirdo, and it seems like that’s due mostly do his super controlling, passive aggressive and seriously fucked up mother.  His mom keeps moving him around and is pretty much the only person he communicates with on a regular basis, and she seems to do her best to ensure that he doesn’t develop any other relationships.  Some girls who live nearby want to hang out with Norman, but his mom keeps trying to prevent it, and she tries to caution Norman against joining the track team, which his adviser recommends.  It’s a field day for looking out for potential signs of what could drive him bonkers, from the behavior of his mother, to his behavior with the girls at school, but since this is a TV show without a set number of episodes it’s going to take a while to get to crazy Norman presumably.

The show also has sort of an American Horror Story feel.  In the first episode, a creepy and irate W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority from Deadwood) comes up to the motel and reams them out, explaining that the motel was built by his family and is, and will always be, his.  He pops up again later on, invading the motel at night, tying up and raping Norma, until Norman, arriving late because he had snuck out and was at a party, hits him over the head.  When he comes to, Norma stabs him to death out of rage, and insisting that no one would ever stay at the motel if this went public, convinces her son to help her wrap up the body and dispose of it.  Mother of the year, right?  Later the police, led by a sheriff played by Drug of Nation favorite Nestor Carbonell wonder by the motel randomly, and almost walk into the body, hidden in a bathtub, before it’s disposed of.  Norman finds some creepy and strange notebook under some carpeting him and his mother are pulling up.  Also, in the last couple of seconds, there’s a mysterious flash to some person being held capture and injected with something without any way to put that scene into any context.

As mentioned before, there’s a limiting factor to knowing the kid is going to grow up to become a serial killer, but there’s certainly room for an interesting journey getting there.  I enjoyed the episode more than I thought I would.  It was sometimes a little bit difficult to watch the way poor Norman is treated by his mother, who seems like the real villain of the series so far.  It definitely combines a potential high school show with a horror show, which is an interesting combination, and I’m honestly just curious in what direction the show leads, because I don’t think it’s obvious, in terms of what aspects the show focuses on, or how gory versus psychological it gets.

Will I watch it again?  I’ll say yes, because I think it’s worth a second episode, but it’s far enough down on my queue that I can’t be sure I actually will.  It’s jumped above The Following on shows I had said I would watch again but don’t feel like immediately watching (admittedly influenced by the fact that everyone I’ve talked to says The Following gets way worse).  I liked it overall, but I didn’t feel, like when I watched Americans, that it had the potential to be great, or like with Hannibal, that I immediately wanted to watch the next episode.

Power Rankings – Will and Grace

17 Apr

Will, Grace, Karen, and Jack

Sometimes, we pick a show from the 70s, with a giant 15 person cast, and run a three day long power ranking.  Sometimes, we take a show that ended seven years ago with four main cast members and it’s a little shorter.  It’s the latter today, where we work with the cast of Will & Grace, but they’ve made it easier for us but all staying pretty damn busy in the seven years since their show ended in 2006.  I never cared for Will & Grace as a show, but I suppose it played an important role in handing the first leading role on broadcast TV to a gay character, so absolute kudos for that.  Either way, it’s certainly earned its own Power Rankings.

4.  Sean Hayes (as Jack McFarland) – Hayes played Kenneth’s cousin in an episode of 30 Rock, and was in two episodes of Oxygen sitcom Campus Ladies (which apparently featured Jonah Hill).  He was in The Bucket List and Soul Men.  He was in an episode of Hot in Cleveland, and episode of Portlandia, and played a Indiana journalist who despises Pawnee in an episode Parks and Recreation.  He played Larry in the Farrelly brothers version of the Three Stooges.  Hayes was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in Broadway musical Promises, Promises, and voiced Mr. Tinkles in Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (I wish I had made up that title).  He was in four episodes of Up All Night and three of Smash.  He’ll be voicing a character in the upcoming Monsters Inc. sequel,  Monsters University.  He’s done quite a bit to get saddled with last, but he’s the clear choice for last here, which says more about the competition than it does about him.

3.  Eric McCormack (as Will Truman) – McCormack did some theater immediately after the end of Will and Grace, appearing in off-Broadway Neil LaBute play Some Girl(s), and producing (though his production company Big Cattle Productions) a sitcom for Lifetime called Lovespring International, about employees at a California dating agency, which failed quickly (and starred Jane Lynch).  He starred in A&E’s Michael Crichton miniseries adaptation of The Andromeda Strain.  He appeared in the 100th episode of Monk and one of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.  He co-starred with Tom Cavanagh in TNT’s Trust Me, as a Creative Director of an advertising firm, and the show was cancelled after one season.  He was in sci-fi film Alien Trespass and six episodes of the fifth season of The New Adventures of Old Christine (it is absolutely mind boggling that there are five seasons of that show).  He has been lending his voice since 2010 to kids’ cartoon Pound Puppies and starred in a lifetime TV movie based on infamous impostor and kidnapper Clark Rockefeller, the creatively titled Who is Clark Rockefeller?  As of last summer, McCormack is starring in TNT’s Perception, as a brilliant but vaguely crazy scientist who helps the FBI solve difficult cases (sounds more like a USA show, but I guess the networks aren’t that different).  Perception’s second season will air this summer.  The three non-Sean Hayes actors are so close that there could essentially be a three-way tie for first.  McCormack gets third because while he is the main character in Perception, no one cares about or watches Perception.

2.  Debra Messing (as Grace Adler) – Messing’s been very busy since Will & Grace.  (not relevant for these purposes, but immediately before landing Will & Grace, she was in a  failed sci-fi series called Prey; I think I am one of maybe half a dozen people to have seen it).  In the year after Will & Grace ended, she was in Ed Burns indie Purple Violets and Curtis Hanson-directed Lucky You.  The next year she was in the film The Women, and in highly successful USA network miniseries The Starter Wife, where she played a woman whose high-powered Hollywood husband recently left her for a younger woman.  Popular enough to be turned into a regular series, The Starter Wife then lasted for one season before being cancelled.  She appeared in a failed tv pilot Wright vs. Wrong (she was Wright) and got another main cast role in NBC’s much ballyhooed and made fun of Smash as lyricist Julia Houston.  Her role in Smash is not as important as McCormack’s in Perception, but Smash, unlike Perception, had a public moment, mostly a bad moment, but still, a moment.

Megan at a convention 1.  Megan Mullally (as Karen Walker) – She was in episodes of How I Met Your Mother, Boston Legal, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and voiced Honex Tour Guide in Bee Movie.  She appeared in the main cast of short-lived ABC Chelsea Handler sitcom In the Motherhood, and in the remake of Fame.  In 2010, she replaced Jane Lynch in the second season of Party Down, playing Lydia Dunfree, a mom with an aspiring actress/singer pre-teen daughter.  She was in indie film Smashed in 2012 and co-starred in the ill-advised second season of Christian Slater high tech security firm sitcom Breaking In, which was cancelled soon afterwards.  She’s been in all four seasons of Adult Swim show Childrens Hospital, as Chief, the crippled leader of the hospital.  She was in three episodes of 30 Rock as a representative of an adoption agency, and has been in six episodes of Parks and Recreation as Ron’s second ex-wife, the crazy librarian Tammy (Mullally is Offerman’s wife in real life).  She’s voiced Linda’s crazy sister Gayle in six episodes of Bob’s Burgers and Rose Stevens in one season of IFC cartoon Out There.  She’s also played Penny’s song-and-dance hyper mom Dana in Happy Endings.  The tie-breaker here is really that Mullally has been in more projects that I like, including Party Down, and Childrens Hospital, both of which are more acclaimed than anything Messing or McCormack have been in recently, as well as playing Tammy 2 in Parks & Recreation, which would win the tiebreaker all by itself.

Spring 2013 Review: Red Widow

15 Apr

Guess which one is the Red Widow


Red Widow begins with a super double episode to really attempt to hook us in.  Red Widow herself, Marta Walraven, lives in a swanky Bay Area house with her husband Evan and three children, a older high school boy, a younger high school girl, and a 10 year old or so boy.  Her father, and her family in general have some sort of Eastern European mob ties, and her husband Evan, who wears his long hair like a cool European soccer star, joined the family business, mobstering, when they were married, working with her brother, Irwin, and a third friend named Mike.  They mostly participated in light mobstering, namely importing and exporting pot (ie the good drug).  Marta knew, but she was busy housewiving it up and raising three kids, and in the near term, helping her sister on her wedding.

This is all going swimmingly until Irwin decides their middle-brow marijuana business just isn’t making the grade anymore.  He recklessly rips off 85 kilograms (“keys” in drug lingo) of cocaine from reputed super druglord Schiller, killing a couple of Schiller’s guys on the boat where the coke was stored, in the process.  We know this is bad news right away because, before Irwin kills one of the dudes on board the ship, the dude warns Irwin that if he goes forward, him and his family and his family’s family and so forth will die in revenge for the theft. Evan is not at all happy to hear that Irwin risked everyone’s lives by stealing from Schiller and is now terrified.

After her youngest son finds Evan’s gun, and threatens someone at school with it, getting expelled in the process, Marta demands that Evan leave the business now, but he warns her the only we he can is to leave everyone and everything they know behind completely, like completely completely.  Fine, she says.  She’s got three kids to protect, dammit. That night is her sister’s wedding, and everyone’s there.  Irwin goes to unload the coke and gets arrested by the FBI.  Mike and Evan have a fight.  Evan is murdered the next morning, which was only a matter of when, because otherwise the Red Widow show name would be incredibly misleading.  We suspect Schiller was involved because of his threats. Before the body is cold in the ground we find out that Evan had made a deal with the FBI.  When he promised to keep them safe if they left everything behind, it’s because he got them witness protection in return for dropping a dime on everyone.  Marta’s son is not impressed; those are family criminals he was turning on, and even if a deadly mobster was out to kill them, Mom would have found another way.

Marta’s bro lets her know that now she has to take on the debt (thus turning her into the RED WIDOW), and return the cocaine to Schilller to try to save her family.  This once lowly housewife must now take on the duty of navigating the mob while still protecting her children.  Schiller (Goran Visnjic of ER) is an enigmatic mega-gangster who lets her know with constant bits of cryptic wisdom that she will have to help him get some shipments through the port, and perhaps by helping him, he will deign to let her and her children live. She has ol’ Mike teach her the biz, and starts to slip into the world of illegal activity, trying to convince the right people to take bribes to get the shipment through.  She’s concerned she could get caught and have her kids go to jail, but she sees no other way. She tensely awaits the call from Schiller with the details of her job, at the end, she gets it.  Here’s the time and place.  The game is afoot.

Honestly, it’s a pretty mediocre action show.  Red Widow is not that interesting and not that captivating.  The plot in general could be interesting, but there’s no reason to think it will be.  It’s not awful.  It goes.  If it was a movie, you’d watch it on a plane and feel like you hadn’t wasted your time, since you were going to be on the plane anyway, but you certainly wouldn’t see it in theaters.  There’s less a lot to say bad about it, than nothing to say good about it.  It’s got some sub par or at most par action and suspense scenes; you could do a lot worse, but you can also do a lot better.

Also –  why is she a Red Widow?  The widow part is obvious.  I assume the Red is in reference to Russia.  She’s clearly supposed to be eastern European, though it wasn’t clearly whether Russian or not.  Red, I had thought, referred to communism, so I don’t know that post-Commie Russia would be red.  Is the red a reference to something else?

Will I watch it again?  No.  I try to really think about why I like or don’t like a show, but I also try to give some credence to my immediate visceral reaction, sometimes compared against other shows I’ve watched.  I watched Hannibal recently and wanted to watch a second episode immediately after I finished the first.  I finished Red Widow, and I didn’t feel like I wasted my time, but I was closer to being glad it was over (being a double episode doesn’t help) than wanting to put on the next.

Re-watch: Season 2 of Breaking Bad

12 Apr

Jesse and Walt taking a break

Warning:  This post is about Season 2 of Breaking Bad.  I will not be revealing specific spoilers from later seasons but I will allude to them generally, so watch out if you’re not up to date.

I re-watched Season 2 of Breaking Bad recently with a friend watching it for the first time, and I appreciated it a lot more than I remembered appreciating it the first time through.  There were a couple of plotlines I had forgotten about completely, and a couple that occupied less or more time than I had thought.

In particular, I forgot what a different show Breaking Bad is in Season 2 than it becomes in Season 3 and especially in seasons 4 and 5.  Breaking Bad Season 2 is the show as its most human; the characters are still regular people, and not superheros with special meth-peddling, empire-building, abilities.  Season 4 of Breaking Bad was one of my favorite seasons of TV in a long time, and I’m really looking forward to watching the next couple of seasons all the way through a second time, but only after watching Season 2 again did I realize the starkness of the differences.

Season 4 has suburb pace and direction, and it’s a brilliantly plotted and stylized suspense movie with deep characters and themes, but the characters pop out of the real world as super characters who have special abilities regular people don’t.  Season 2 has at least some of all these characteristics of course, because it’s the same show at heart, but it’s much less densely plotted, and it’s much more about dealing with our characters as regular people.  Notable super characters Mike and Gus are not yet really present, and this is before the full transition to Heisenberg; Walt is still a science teacher and only a part-time druglord.  Walt still lives a more or less ordinary suburban nuclear home life.  Walt is uncertain; he lies constantly but he rarely acts on the reserves of power and ego that he builds up in the later seasons.  Only once, when he comes onto Skyler from behind when she’s in the kitchen, and Walt Jr is about to come home, does it really feel like he’s acting out his power fantasies and attempting to rise above the rules that apply to regular humans.  Other than that, even though he loves the way his can dominate the meth market in a way he could never the law-abiding science world, he’s much more committed to evasion than exercising his power.  He absolutely hates the idea of laundering his money through his son’s charity site in a way that doesn’t let them know the money is coming from him, but he eventually accedes.  Saul, while helping him and Jessie, who, he correctly notes, are terrible at dealing drugs, also acts as a cheap therapist occasionally where Walt, unafraid of being caught, can vent his frustrations before going back and lying in the real world.  Walt’s biggest god moment in the season is actually a moment of inactivity, when he lets Jesse’s blackmailing and methhead girlfriend Jane, choke on her own vomit and die.  It’s a stepping stone in the timeline of Walt’s comfort level with violence and his own power, but it signifies where Walt is at at the moment; the extent of his power is doing nothing.

Walt is less confident here in these early seasons.  He lies but he doesn’t really know how to do it yet, and he still cares whether Skyler believes it.  I forgot how quickly into the show Skyler didn’t quite trust Walt; it was the first great lie, the fugue state that Walt fakes after being kidnapped by Tuco in the second episode, that sets off her radar.  She very soon doesn’t buy the fugue state explanation, and the second cell phone gnaws and gnaws at her until it finally returns in the last episode when Walt, doped up before surgery, alludes to his having multiple phones.

I’ve said for years that the second episode of the second season was what really hooked me on the show (not that the earlier episodes weren’t excellent, but this was the confirmation to me that this show was really on to something).  It’s still brilliant,though the non-Walt and Jesse parts aren’t quite as good as the Walt and Jesse parts alone with Tuco and Tio, and his bell, in the desert.  Excellent segments I forgot about included Jesse’s attempt to “take care” of the methhead couple who robbed Skinny Pete, which is just a fantastic piece of film-making.  Breaking Bad also, as always, has the best montage sequences in television, managing to convey quickly ideas and plots which take days and weeks in stylistically elegant and informative ways, such as showing Badger, Skinny Pete, and Combo selling the blue meth and expanding their territory.

I can’t talk about this brilliant season of television without mentioning the one ploy that doesn’t work at all, the plane crash.  I’ve never met anyone who disagrees, and I don’t really want to waste time talking about the single bad part in an otherwise great season.  Still, it’s a shame it happens at the very end.  My theory, and I forget whether I’ve read anything that confirms, or at least informs this view, is that by the time the writers got to the end of the season, they realized that the plane crash didn’t work the way they had intended, but since they had committed themselves by having those occasional flash forwards from the first scene of the season, they felt like they had no choice, and could only minimize it’s relevancy.

Jesse gets a lot more real meat this season than he did in the first season, and we see how human and vulnerable he is.  Also, an underrated aspect of Walt that I think is not properly appreciated is on display.  Walt, for all his bluster, actually does care for Jesse.  He may have a strange way of doing it, and it may be locked up into his own selfish reasons, but he puts himself on the line several times for Jesse, including making sure Tuco doesn’t kill him early on.  When he asks Jesse to go to rehab, sure, it’s better for business, but I think he’s not wrong that it’s better for Jesse too.  I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority here, but I think Jesse running away with Jane would have been a drug-addled disaster.  I’m not sure if in the long run staying with Walt will be better for his health, but I don’t think the Jane option at that point would have been brilliant either.

If there’s a grand narrative to just the meth sales aspect of Breaking Bad, it’s the constant back and forth between Jesse and Walt trying to sell it themselves, and then failing for some reason, and then distributing through someone else, and having that not work for some reason, and repeat, as their production operations get bigger and bigger. This season, after Tuco’s death, is them really trying to do it themselves on a decent -sized scale the first time.

I couldn’t end this write up without another salute to the entrance of lawyer Saul Goodman. I didn’t initially realize he would be a frequently recurring character, but he was a fantastic addition to the show, giving Walter a reality check quickly, and adding some much-needed humor to a show that could easily be dragged down by overbearing seriousness and tension.  Humor is a sometimes underrated element of Breaking Bad; the show can be laugh out loud frequently funny, often by way of Saul or Jesse, and that helps the writers keep their feet to the pedal of the dramatic aspect of the show without it being overwhelming.

Lastly, I’ve always adored the passion and concern Walt exudes when telling his son and wife that their house has rot in the tenth episode of the season, “Over”.  I might be the only one, but I quote those lines over and over.

Spring 2013 Review: Hannibal

10 Apr


I initially thought Hannibal was on cable, instead of NBC, and although I’m not sure why I thought that, after watching the show, it makes a lot of sense that I would think it.  It feels like a cable show.  In fact, in a highly unusual arrangement (and perhaps an auger of the future), NBC has agreed to continue to air seasons of 13 episodes if the show is successful, which has become the default cable format.

The show was created by cult TV veteran Bryan Fuller, who has been behind Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Mockingbird Lane, none of which I have seen, and none of which has been particularly successful, but most of which have dedicated small followings.  Unlike what I know about those shows though, nothing about this show feels particularly cult-y, and I mean that in neither a bad or good way.  Rather than dissect that further though, let’s get into the meat of the show.

The title Hannibal in question is Hannibal Lecter, and thus this is a story that just about anyone who’s been around pop culture for the past 25 years knows pretty well.  Lecter, we know, is a famously cunning and psychopathic cannibal who, while in captivity, helps Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling solve a major serial killer case in Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal takes place well before Lecter has been captured.  The show stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, a character we know from the mediocre Silence of the Lambs prequel Red Dragon, where he was played by Ed Norton.  Here, Will Graham is a veritable super analyst, who has remarkable observational abilities, and more importantly a type of perfect empathy which allows him to relate and take the vantage point of even the most psychotic killers.  His abilities have the negative side effect of making him particularly vulnerable to being mentally destabilized, and Dancy does a very good job of seeming on edge the entire episode. We learn he is not a full FBI agent because he couldn’t pass some sort of stability tests but he is lecturing and helping out with random assignments.

His boss is Jack Crawford, head of FBI Behavioral Sciences, played by Lawrence Fishbourne here, and by Scott Glenn in Silence of the Lambs.  Crawford convinces Graham to take some time to help him out with finding serial killers, even if it means subjecting his psyche to serious angst.  Crawford is the level-headed boss who may not have the intuitive smarts of Graham but knows how to manage and direct people, and he’ll probably have a lot on his hands this season overseeing Graham, and the third member of our key trifecta.

This third member is none other than Hannibal Lecter himself.  Lecter is a renowned psychiatrist, as well as a brilliant psyopath,and  is brought in by Crawford to help develop psychological profiles on cases, including one in the pilot involving a cannibal who is kidnapping college aged girls and killing them.

The show’s critical dynamic is the tete a tete between Graham and Lecter.  Graham knows how to see into the mind of criminals, but only at great vulnerability to his own psyche. Lecter, who, without emotions, can’t be emotionally manipulated himself, knows how to push Graham’s buttons, and how to unnerve him. In this first episode, soon after it is discovered that the killer they’re tracking is a cannibal, there’s another killing that seems to fit the profile.  Graham immediately recognizes the work as that of a copy cat, and describes the killer as an intelligent psychopath who will show no pattern, has no feeling, and will likely never be caught.  Only we, the viewers, know that Lecter in fact committed this crime, and that Graham, unbeknownst to himself, is profiling Lecter perfectly (well, except for the never being caught part).  Lecter toys with Graham, but it seems to possibly be at least partly out of respect.  In fact, whether it was Lecter’s intention or not, it was seeing the incredibly wrong copy cat crime scene that allowed Graham to figure out the correct profile for the killer.

We also have to suffer through knowing Hannibal is super evil while the characters keep bringing him on board to help them on investigations, placing him in an ideal position to sabotage their cases. In the first episode, he warns their killer, right before they get to him, giving him a chance to kill his wife and severely injure his daughter.

Hannibal has a lot of procedural aspects.  I would guess, without knowing for sure as I’ve only seen the first episode, that each episode at least initially will involve the investigation of a new serial killer.  I was drawn in more than I usually am by procedurals.  Part of this was perhaps due to the high stakes of psychopathic serial killers, and part may have been due to the cinematic qualities of the pilot. One episode felt more like a suspense film than, say, a CSI episode , and the thirteen episode format might help protect that per episode special-ness more than a longer traditional network format.  I think a successful Hannibal can share aspects of two of my favorite current shows, Sherlock and Justified.  Sherlock has the same case per episode format with a more cinematic feel (it helps that Sherlock episodes are double length) and the same genius investigator type in the lead.  Hannibal looks like what Sherlock might be like if Sherlock and Moriarty were working side by side before they were official arch enemies.   Justified began as a rough procedural but morphed in a more and more serial show. The extended arcs made it significantly better but even the individual procedural episodes were a notch above the average, due to the strong character profiles and style built into the show.

The show is a little gimmicky in the way it shows Graham thinking about crime scenes, as he imagines himself as the criminal, and has him covered and blood and guts as he figures out how the criminal acted.  I normally don’t care for this type of gimmickry, but for whatever reason, it really didn’t bother me here.  Also, Gillian Anderson appears as Graham’s therapist, who tries to warn Crawford off from putting Graham too close to the edge.

Will I watch it again?  Yes.  Again, I normally stray from procedurals, but, if this is in at least part a procedural, it’s certainly not a typical one.   The Lecter – Graham relationship is electric right off the bat, and from the extra-curricular notes I’ve read by Fuller, I think he’ll do well to move the plot along during the seasons, rather than than have Lecter and Graham’s relationship in a perpetual status quo, which is a good thing.  It’s often hard to move a show along when you have something good in the present, because you risk having something worse in the future, but staying in the same place can often be just as bad.  My visceral reaction to finishing the first episode was to want to immediately put on the second, and while that doesn’t always bode well for the long term, it’s always a good sign for a pilot.

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Richard Kind

8 Apr

One of a Kind

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

Playing largely portly, often anxious and neurotic characters might seem to limit the roles an actor can get, but in Richard Kind’s case, as the go-to for the type, it means he gets a lot of them.  He’s done plenty of movie work as well, including a spot in 2012 Best Picture winner Argo, but we’ll be focusing on his TV work, the medium in which he’s had his biggest successes.

Kind, born in 1956, had his first role in TV movie Two Fathers’ Justice in 1985 as District Attorney.  He appeared in a failed sitcom pilot called the Bennett Brothers as one of said brothers, an odd couple, whose other member was no less than George Clooney.  He was in single episodes of Hooperman, My Sister Sam, Mr. Belevedere, Empty Nest, 21 Jump Street, and Anything But Love.   He was a regular on eight episode 1989 NBC series Unsub, a sort of proto-Criminal Minds about an FBI team which tracks serial killers, where he appeared alongside  David Soul and M. Emmet Walsh.

He began the 1990s as a regular role player in Carol Burnett one season sketch show Carol & Company, in which he acted aside future luminaries Peter Krause and Jeremy Piven. He then traveled along with Carol when a new version of The Carol Burnett show was produced for CBS in 1991, which also didn’t last long.  He was in episodes of Princesses, Stand by Your Man, Great Scott, and The Building, and in 1992 finally got his breakthrough as a recurring character in smash success Mad About You.  He appeared in 37 episodes of the series as Dr. Mark Devanow, who left his wife, and Jamie’s best friend, Fran Devanow to see the world.  He later reconciled with his wife, converted to Buddhism  and worked at a grocery store.

Richard Kind started to get regular appearances in main casts of failed sitcoms around this time.  He starred with Julia Campbell and Stephen Tobolowsky in Blue Skies in 1994 about two guys who operate a mail-order business in Boston.  Soon after Blue Skies’ cancellation the same creators imported some of the same actors (Kind, Campbell, and Tobolowsky, now with Corbin Bernsen and John O’Hurley) to work on A Whole New Ballgame in the same time slot, about an ex-ball player who becomes a sportscaster for a local Milwaukee TV station.  The show failed equally quickly.  Kind also appeared on six episodes of the Michael Chiklis-led The Commish.  In the mid-90s, he lent his talents to individual episodes of Nowhere Man, Space: Above and Beyond, Something So Right, The Lionhearts, and Strangers with Candy.

Delivering the Spin

In 1996, he got his next big break, and the part he is most famous for, as Paul Lassiter in Spin City.  Kind is in all 145 episodes of the show, including the two Charlie Sheen seasons, after Michael J. Fox left to cope with his Parkinson’s disease. Kind’s Lassiter is the Press Secretary for the New York City Mayor’s office, and is known for being gullible, subject to practical jokes, and a bit of a cheapskate.

He lent his voice to episodes of The Wild Thornberrys and Oswald, and appeared in Disney Channel’s Even Stevens.  He began the ’00s by showing up in two episodes of Still Standing (did you know every Still Standing episode title began with the word “Still”?  I sure didn’t) and individual episodes of Just Shoot Me!, Miss Match, Girlfriends, Oliver Beene, The Division (one of his first drama appearances) and Less Than Perfect.  He narrated a series of Disney interstitial programming known as Go, Baby! which featured two babies playing with one another.

He appeared in four Scrubs episodes as hypochondriac patient Harvey Corman.  He went back to kids TV to show up in episodes of Sesame Street and a voice role in five episodes of Kim Possible.  He also lent his voice to two episodes of famously failed adult animated series Father of the Pride.  In 2002, he made his first of four memorable appearances on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry’s irritating Cousin Andy.  He famously asked Larry for money to fund his wife’s cosmetology school after Larry offered to pay his child’s college tuition.

Larry and Cousin Andy

He was in TV movies Genetically Challenged and The Angriest Man in Suburbia and single episodes of series Head Cases, Reba, Psych, Three Moons Over Milford, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, as well as two each of E-Ring, Stargate: Atlantis, and All of Us.  He was in a Two and a Half Men, Trauma, ‘Til Death, and Harry’s Law, and multiples of Burn Notice, Leverage, and Mr. Sunshine as well as voice roles in American Dad! and The Penguins of Madagascar.

He co-starred in ill-fated but underrated David Milch HBO series Luck as Joey Rathburn, an agent for jockeys.  Within the last year since Luck was cancelled, he’s appeared in NYC-22, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Kroll Show, and Golden Boy, where he plays an interviewing journalist in the pilot.

We salute you for your work, Richard Kind.  The next supporting role for a slightly rotund man proud to live up to the occasional Jewish stereotype is just a call away.  Before we go, I’d like to additionally give credit to his work in the hugely underrated Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man, and note the interesting trivia fact that his best man at his 1999 wedding was his fellow Bennett brother George Clooney.