Archive | May, 2013

Summer 2013 Review: The Goodwin Games

31 May

Goodwin Games The Goodwin Games, which is being released at a time of year which virtually ensures the show will be cancelled shortly, is a Fox series from How I Met Your Mother creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays.  How I Met Your Mother relies on a storytelling gimmick, but a gimmick that, while dictating the way the story is told, doesn’t necessarily materially affect every episode.  The Goodwin Games’s gimmick is far more high concept and integral to the show.  The Goodwin patriarch, Benjamin (played by Beau Bridges) whose death leads to the events of the show, was an eccentric single parent who alienated his children over time through his strange parenting style.  He attempts to make up for his failings in life after his death through an extensive series of video tapes which catalog what amounts to a kind of hyper-complicated scavenger hunt for his fortune, which unbeknownst to his kids, is over $20 million.

The kids are three.  First, Scott Foley plays go-getter Henry who is a very busy surgeon who makes time to give back to the community and has a fiancé.  He’s brash, arrogant, patronizing and kind of a dick, but very successful, and his biggest crime seems to have been leaving a long-term girlfriend that his siblings loved from his hometown.  Middle child Chloe is a popular girl in high school turned wanna-be actress played by Becki Newton who seems to be relatively care free and possibly their father’s favorite, as her knowledge of Morse code wins her prizes from him in the past and present.  TJ Miller plays the youngest, idiot screw up Jimmy, who means well but has been in and out of jail due to a compulsion for thievery.  He has a daughter whom he loves, and who loves him, and who he sneaks up into her to see behind her mom’s back.  They’re all called back to their quaint New Hampshire hometown for the funeral, and they are invited for a reading of their dad’s will, which is a video tape.  This video tape provides the rules for the titular games; the three of them, and a random dude, will compete in a game of Trivial Pursuit for his millions.  Unfortunately, this family has a reputation for not being able to finish a game of Trivial Pursuit without breaking out into a game-ending fight, and this ensues doubly when they discover the game is a special edition composed of questions about themselves.  When everyone except Chloe forfeits, the proper video of their dad says they’ve all lost, but after they decide to finish the game out for dad at the local watering hole, someone at the bar passes them a card that lets them know the game is not just over (that would have been a really short series otherwise).  Apparently half the people in this town are in on The Goodwin Games.  The three kids leave the pilot episode reinvigorated, ready to play their dad’s game, and find out the first requirement is that they all move home.

It’s hard to tell if this was simply in my head the whole time because I knew who the creators were, but similarities with How I Met Your Mother were abound.  The humor was wacky, the dialogue was crisp, and it was all told with an undercurrent of sentimentality which has always been my primary hang up with How I Met Your Mother (in the early seasons, when the show was funny).  I don’t think the pilot for The Goodwin Games was particularly funny, but I could imagine how it could be, and some lines hit, or at least make me slightly smile.  It will never exactly be my cup of tea, but there’s a level of craftsmanship there that I can recognize when How I Met Your Mother is working, and I can imagine The Goodwin Games having the same.  It’s not even there yet, but as I’ve said often, a lot of watching a comedy pilot is not judging what it is, since very few comedy pilots are very funny, but trying to judge what it has the potential to be.  That said, while I think this could be very decent, I think there’s also very low probability it could ever be great, and unlikely very good, though I suppose decent is still a pretty good get for a comedy these days.

Will I watch it again? No.  It’s probably going to be cancelled because of when it’s airing, but even beyond that, as much as I hate to hold old shows by the creators against a new one, it’s hard not to.  I have a like-hate relationship with How I Met Your Mother that’s veered towards hate over the years, and since I’m long done with that show, unless Goodwin Games really knocked it out of the park, it would have been pretty hard to get me on board.  It wasn’t bad, it was kind of cute, but my standard was higher for this one.

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End of Season Report: The Americans

29 May

Two Americans, Two Soviets

The Americans has been one of the most rewarding new shows of the year, cementing the very solid FX brand name by putting a season together more than worthy of the promise shown in the first episode.

A quick caveat before I begin:  I understand this show could potentially pose a problem for people who prefer likeable protagonists, and even for some that can tolerate somewhat unlikable protagonists, but have a limit.  While main characters Elizabeth and Philip are not necessarily unlikable personality-wise or in their behavior towards their family, they are agents working for the Soviet government against the United States, and they not only spy but commit violent acts, sometimes against innocent victims.  Unless you’re a hardcore ol’ Commie, you’re not going to be rooting for them to succeed.  That said, if you can get used to having a complicated relationship with the protagonists, rooting for them in limited circumstances, while against them in others, you’ll do just fine, and I think that attitude is necessary to fully enjoy several excellent TV shows that have appeared over the last decade.

Elizabeth and Philip were sent to America as mere teenagers to build a fake life as a cover story so that they could spy for the USSR and commit all sorts of espionage without being discovered.  Of course, it’s hard to build a really convincing fake life without building somewhat of a real one in the process, a new problem created by the existence of longterm undercover agents.  Elizabeth and Philip love their kids, and their kids, a responsible teenage girl and a younger boy, love them back. They don’t at all, as far as we know, suspect anything about their parents true work (the parents claim to work together as travel agents), which if they ever found out, would probably drive them to decades of psychiatry or violence or, well, who can know just yet, and maybe we’ll find out.  Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage is tested over the course of the season, but their mutual devotion to their kids remains constant.  This devotion tests their loyalties to their country.  They, or at least, Philip, kind of like it in America, and as much as they feel a responsibility towards their jobs, there may be limits in how far they’re willing to go for work, in order to keep their kids safe and in the dark.

Next door neighbor Stan Beeman is an FBI agent with a background in counter intelligence, having gone undercover as an Aryan radical before relocating to DC to help fight Commies.  He’s undeniably skilled at his job, and his instincts often prove correct, including when he suspected Elizabeth and Phillip as possible agents right away, before cooling on them when they were able to diffuse his suspicions just in time.  However, his abilities are compromised by his emotional vulnerabilities and damaged family life.  His wife, tired of his late work hours and endless devotion to the job over his family, turns away from him, and at the same time, he begins an affair with his charge, a Russian agent he was able to turn.  The joke’s on him later in the season when the Russian agent turns back and becomes a double agent, using Stan for information, but he’s too emotionally compromised and invested to see it.  She may have turned against him due to finding out he killed an innocent, or as innocent a Soviet agent who works for their spy agency can be, Soviet in cold-hearted revenge and frustration from the death of his FBI partner.  The spy game is an endless cycle of people using one another and it’s very difficult to develop genuine emotional bonds when they’re formed out of manipulation and the mutual need for information.

The Americans pays close attention to the value of loyalty, to both family, and to country, and to what happens when they collide.  Loyalties more than directly conflict, they get tangled up in complicated webs.  When Elizabeth and Phillip were assigned to be a couple as teens in the USSR, they didn’t love each other, it was part of the job.  Years later, they have kids.  Is their loyalty to their kids more important than country?  It seems to go back and forth a couple of times during the season.  Historically, eunuchs were highly trusted by leaders because they could never have kids, their loyalty to whom would preempt their loyalty to the state.  The USSR had no such plan.  Early in the season, it seems as if Philip is ready to defect, and the only factor preventing him is his love of his wife, who is far more devoted to the cause.  Her devotion is tested throughout, most explicitly, when Soviet agents kidnap and torture Philip as a test, but also when she feels like she is frequently being used her handlers for missions which present an unreasonable level of risk, potentially endangering her children.

The Americans is packed with layer upon layer of deception. Philip and Elizabeth are constantly disguising themselves for their job, but correspondingly separating themselves from their identities as well, offering them a chance to play different roles.  When your primary identity is based on a lie, maybe it’s not necessarily truer than any other disguise.  Is Philip more real than Clark, the guise he takes in order to seduce and later even marry a lonely FBI employee who proves an important source? Neither is his actual name.  The source loves him, for real, and more or less unconditionally, compared to Elizabeth, with whom his relationship is far more complicated, but more honest as well. Halfway through the season, Phillip meets up with an old flame from the homeland in New York, and has a brief affair with her.  This is the last straw that drives him and Elizabeth apart for the remainder of the season, especially when he lies about it.  Between the deceptions and the lies, it’s not hard to see where both parties are coming from.  Philip has been far more devoted to the relationship for years and, after learning that Elizabeth may have been more in love with American left-wing convert Gregory for years, he feels like he’s tired of giving too much.  Elizabeth in her own time, is finally coming around to have genuine feelings for Philip, and just when these feelings are starting to coalesce, her belief is broken by not just his affair, but by his lying to her face about it.  It’s hard to have trust in a marriage between spies whose job is to lie for a living, not to mention have sex with other people, or even longer-term affairs, as Philip does as Clark.  They’re also constantly subject to manipulation by their superiors – it was their handler that let Elizabeth know that Phillip was cheating, and it becomes ever more difficult for everyone in the show to tell what’s true and what’s not.  Constantly at issue is who can be trusted, and why, and not just among the main characters.  There’s Gregory, a true believer, whom Elizabeth believes is trustworthy because of their relationship, but about which others disagree. The spies rely on men in gambling debts and other misfortune, with whom they have leverage to prevent them from going to the authorities.  Elizabeth’s devotion, as mentioned earlier is absolute at the beginning, but begins to waiver.

There’s plenty of action and suspense as well.  This is a spy show, after all.  There’s plenty of chases, lots of cool spy gadgetry and some exchanges and secret rendezvous.  Of course, the majority of these are on behalf of the red menace against the United States, but that doesn’t make them any less cool.  There’s more wigs and costume changes than a Nicki Minaj concert (Hey oh!).  Some borrow from some of the famous spy operations of the past (the poison umbrella tip borrows from a famous assassination of a Bulgarian journalist), and some are wholly invented by the writers, which can detract from the story in some instances, but in this instance I’m willing to grant some leeway from exact reality for the purposes of plot.  Also, I’d like to give a shout out to the solid period soundtrack, which doesn’t simply overuse the songs from the time which are most well known now, picking solid second tier hits like “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash.

I think the first season of The Americans accomplished a lot.  I look forward to see what Joe Weisberg and crew can do with the second.  I think there’s plenty of places to go both plotwise, and exploring a lot of the issues and characters that have made the first season such a fun ride.

Summer 2013 Review: Family Tree

27 May

Family Tree

Family Tree is a new HBO show from Chris Guest, the man behind cult mockumentary style films Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, and For Your Consideration, as well as his most famous but most different from the others, This is Spinal Tap, which came several years before the rest.  Many directors and writers have recurring elements and favored actors and actresses, but Guest is much more consistent than most in both of these matters.  Basically all of his films, and this TV show, are satirical documentaries, with people talking to the camera, and a high rate of overall silliness and bizarre characters, just taking on different subjects – a reunion concert of folk bands, a film festival, and a dog show, for example.  In addition, he’s developed a full repository of actors who appear in all of his films; Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, and others.

Family Tree is also co-produced by the BBC so we know that Britain or British people will be involved somehow, and indeed England is where we begin.  The premise of Family Tree, advertisements and trailers have told me,  is that it’s about a young Englishman searching for and discovering his crazy family, full of Christopher Guest players, in Los Angeles.  However, I would never have known that from the first episode which doesn’t even get out of Britain.  Family Tree is the only show I can think of which doesn’t actually get up to its ostensible premise in the first episode.

What does happen is this.  Chris O’Dowd (Kristen Wiig’s love interest in Bridesmaids) plays a young man who has been kind of depressed of late, having lost his job and his girlfriend in the past few months. He and his sister meet his dad for dinner, where he finds an old photograph in a chest left by a deceased family member as part of a shabby inheritance.  He begins to investigate the photo, taking it to an old expert on these things who lets him know that the photo is not of his relative, but rather was taken by his relative.  That’s where we end up. Presumably that somehow leads to his eventual family history trip stateside as he continues to learn more information.

What this does contain is many classic Christopher Guest elements.  Every single character, with the exception of our straight man, played by O’Dowd, is extremely bizarre and quirky.  His sister is a ventriloquist who must carry around a monkey puppet at all times to ensure her continuing mental stability; we see a quick scene of her working at a bank with the monkey.  Their dad, portrayed by Michael McKean is a very strange dude who retired to begin his life’s work of creating a great invention.  All he has so far is a shoehorn attached to a fan which keeps your shoes cool on a hot day before you put them on.  The man to whom O’Down is directed to bring his photograph for research purposes is a very odd older gentleman with his own distinctive strange mannerisms, and he creates landmarks in a bottle, which he considers vastly superior and more interesting to ships in a bottle. O’Dowd watches ten seconds of a fake TV show Tudors rip-off, The Plantagenets.  Even the minor characters are a bit off.  O’Down is set up on a date with a seemingly nice girl who seems to believe the Loch Ness monster is real.

It wasn’t mostly laugh out loud funny, though there were a couple of solid moments, but I did enjoy the experience overall.  If you like Christopher Guest movies, you’ll probably like it, if you don’t, there’s a good chance you won’t.  Chris O’Dowd is an extremely likable straight man, and I think his presence may increase the chance of people liking the show who don’t like Christopher Guest movies, as those sometimes don’t even have any normal characters to center them.  It wasn’t quite as exciting as I was expecting right off the bat, but it’s a promising enough beginning.  It doesn’t promise at this juncture to be an overall classic but it seems like some solid programming.

Will I watch it again? Yes, but at least as much based on the track record of the people involved in the show than on the quality of the episode alone.  That’s not to say it was bad; rather it felt more incomplete than nearly any other show I can remember watching.  More than most pilots, this felt like the first half hour of a movie, or at least a miniseries, rather than a self-contained episode pitching a premise for an ongoing series.  I look forward to revisiting the whole when it’s all done and seeing how it stacks up.

Re-watch: Arrested Development, Season 2

24 May

Season 2

I’m rewatching, like many in America and throughout the world (but mostly in America, surely), Arrested Development, straight through, to get in the spirit for the new episodes appearing this weekend.  I talked about season 1 here; a bunch of scattershot notes about season 2 now.

A few words on Buster’s hand being eaten by a seal.  Cutting off a character’s hand is one of the most insane character changes to ever happen in a comedy (people occasionally die on the more serious comedies (M*A*S*H) but I’d argue this is more insane in a way), and while I think it’s super awesome, my first reaction (and I doubt I’m the only one) was what the fuck.  This reaction was doubly so since his hand came off not in the main episode, but in a “on the next Arrested Development” section at the end, which makes it easy to not pay attention to, since only about half of events in that section actually come true.  What makes it even better is both the foreshadowing of Buster losing his hand which occurs multiple times in the second season before it happens, which I certainly didn’t notice, because a character having his hand bit off by a seal is not a possibility you think to look out for. I also enjoy that the show offers an easy potential return to the status quo by mentioning that if the hand was found, it could be reattached, but then that’s a fake out and the hook stays. Just a brilliant and ballsy move all around.

A quick note on the “On the next Arrested Development” segment: it’s a brilliant idea, having a fake next on, making fun of the ludicrous three suspenseful promises made on these segments across television, and I’m surprised no one did it before (or maybe they did and I don’t know about it which is very possible).  What’s partly brilliant is that while the events shown are never on the actual next Arrested Development, sometimes they’re actually canonical events which impact the next episode, like Buster losing his hand, and sometimes they have nothing to do with anything and are inconsequential.

I love that they can use the “next on” device in multiple ways.  They can use it for a cheap joke, a non-sequitur vaguely related to the current episode that there was no room for, or as a way to quickly and succinctly wrap up a plotline from the previous episode in a line or two without having to waste any actual episode time on it.

The second season definitely starts getting a little bit more out there than the first, a process that will go even further in the third.  One example of this is Maeby’s plotline, working as a movie studio executive, a position she conned her way in to.  The plot is incredibly ludicrous, and it would bother me a lot more if it wasn’t also my favorite recurring Maeby bit in the series.  It gives her a chance to also use my favorite recurring Maeby line, “Marry Me!”

One of the second season bits veering off into ridiculousness is the introduction of Gob’s puppet Franklin.  I love Franklin, but it’s definitely kind of insane, especially the way it seems to have a mind of its own, which takes over Buster when he’s using Franklin as well.  Also, the introduction of Mrs. Doubtfire/Mary Poppins clone, Mrs. Featherbottom, the faux British nanny Tobias dresses up as to be closer to his kids when he’s kicked out of the model house by Lindsay.  Did I mention one of the characters has his hand eaten by a seal with a taste for mammals?

After a season in which George Michael is solely focused on his cousin, Season 2 is the season of Ann, which leads to some of my favorite jokes of the season, and severs for a platform for banter between my two possibly favorite characters from the season, Michael and George Michael.  From the debut of the absolutely disgusting mayonegg, to Ann-hog, to simply many repeated, “hers?” and “I don’t like Ann,” it never really gets old.  George Michael gets a chance to show off some genius physical comedy in episode Good Grief, when, after Ann breaks up with him, he returns to the model house with his head down and crumbles into a mess on the floor.

Gob has some serious winners as well.  “Michael, if I make this comeback, I’ll buy you a hundred George Michaels that you can teach to drive,” as a response to Michael when Michael says he needs to help out his son rather than do something for Gob.  After he tells Michael he runs a pretty tight ship as President of the Bluth company, Michael notes he put in a pool table.  “It’s a gaming ship,” Gob replies pithily.

Favorite episodes.  Good Grief, The Immaculate Election, and Afternoon Delight stand out quickly as serious contenders.  Good Grief has the aforementioned George Michael fetal position scene, as well as some solid Ice the bounty hunter.  The Immaculate Election and Afternoon Delight both feature some excellent Gob work.  The Immaculate Election has Gob’s wonderful election tape for George Michael “the girls like him just fine, young and old – it doesn’t matter in the dark,” while Afternoon Delight has the recurring, “Come on” as Gob continues to increase the value of his suit to demonstrate how much he doesn’t care about his employees.

I thought I’d be more certain of whether I liked this season or the first better, and I’m still not sure.    If I could make a season out of the second half of the first season and the first half of the second, that would probably be the winner, but it’s all pretty good.  Good show.  Looking forward to season 3.

Snap Judgments: ABC Upfronts

22 May

I thought Fox had a lot of upfront trailers and it did, but ABC blows it out of the water.  There’s 12. so this is kind of an epic preview but I arbitrarily decided not to break it up.  Honestly, there’s virtually no difference in quality from about 5-12, and I’d make it a virtually tie if I could, but that’s no fun.  None of them looks like anything I’d want to watch, but there’s nothing quite Dads-level cringeworthy either; it’s still a slight cut above CBS as well.  Dramas, as always get the edge, simply because dramas, as a general rule, never look as bad as comedies in trailers or first episodes.  The arbitrary rankings differences basically come down to how much I like this or that cast member. So, loads of forgettable shows, but as a teaser, there’s actually one show I definitively want to watch coming up at the end, so something to look forward to.

12.  Mixology

I hate the name.   It’s actually a decently clever pun on high end cocktails which are currently trendy and people getting together but I still don’t like it.  Anyway, Mixology is super high concept, probably more so than any new show, and especially noteworthy for a comedy.  Ten single people, one night, at a bar, trying to hook up.  For a whole season.  How is that going to last?  I have no idea.  I doubt it’s going to work, I’m not sure it can work, and it certainly doesn’t  seem like it will, but I kind of appreciate the balls of attempting it.  I don’t like the song that plays during the trailer.  The people mostly seem obnoxious and cliche, and honestly it’s not only probably not going to be very good but I would guess cancelled within six weeks.  That said, keep trying high concepts people!

11.Super Fun Night

It’s the Rebel Wilson show.  There you go, to start.  The premise seems to be that three friends, Wilson being the leader, haven’t either had sex, or at least much sex, and are looking to put their inhibitions away and get it going on.  Really though, it’s largely at least about how much you like Rebel Wilson.  A lot of people in the comedy world think Rebel Wilson is a riotous talent.  I mostly don’t really get it.  I don’t think she’s entirely untalented by any means, and I thought she did a pretty good job in Pitch Perfect.  That said, her comedy is just so over the top; there’s no subtlety, and while it’s certainly cool that there are comedic actresses who aren’t, let’s say, the traditional size of actresses, not every joke or gag Wilson makes has to be about her size, which is sometimes to me how Rebel Wilson comes off.

10. Back in the Game

It’s always great when the trailer has the main character delivering the premise, in forced exposition, to another character, rather than having to have a narrator do it.  Terry (Psych’s Maggie Lawson)  just moved from Michigan, having lost everything in a messy divorce, and she’s living with her father who crippled her emotionally growing up.  Due to a bunch of unfortunate circumstances (well, her son wants to play little league to impress a girl, but he’s not good enough to get on the team, so some folks start their own team, and they don’t have a coach), Terry must coach her child and a group of misfit kids in Little League.  James Caan players her emotionally distant old-school father.

9.  Killer Woman

We’re in cop show self-parody city here.  BSG’s Tricia Helfer is Molly Parker, a Texas Ranger who does things her own way, a lone wolf on a largely male force.  And don’t take my word for it.  As the trailer’s narrator says, “She follows the law, but not the rules.”  Really?  Come on.  Seriously?  She fights for justice.  She doesn’t damn care that there’s very little chance of making it out alive, or that they might all die in Mexico, or that if she’s wrong she’ll lose her job.  There’s lots of violence and sex and superiors telling her what she can’t do and she telling them what she can. It’s not good.  I considered moving it to the bottom, but dramas just can’t be as bad as comedies, because rather than not being funny, there’ll just be a bunch of guns shooting bad guys, and that can only be so bad.

8. Resurrection

Finally, our first supernatural show. Unlike the supernatural show coming up on this list, which seems at least somewhat dark, Resurrection seems uplifting and heartwarming, kind of Touch-y.  A boy who went missing thirty years ago shows up as the same age he was when he went missing, and we have to try to figure out how in the hell this happened since it’s not, you know, physically possible.  This sounds more like a movie than a show to me, as I’m not sure where they go with this for a full season.  It’s feel-good and that’s cool and all but it seems a little too fate-y for my liking; the trailer lets me know it will make me question EVERYTHING I believe!  I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.

7.  Betrayal

At first I thought it was going to be soapy, but by the two minute mark, it looked more weepy.  It seems very Nicolas Sparks-y.  A married female photographer has an affair with a perfect seeming man, then guilt and/or conflict lead to complications.  They seeming having something magical, but it could all come tumbling down.  Since it’s called Betrayal, I kept waiting for it to go action-y or creepy Fatal Attraction or A Perfect Murder-style, but it just seems like a serious show about romance and love and I guess betrayal.  More than most shows, this really isn’t for me, straight from the get go, so I’m hesitant to judge it too well or too harshly.  This group of shows is all about the same grade, as mentioned above, so this is just stuck in the middle and I bumped it ahead of Resurrection at the last second.

6. Trophy Wife

The Trophy Wife trailer is mercifully short but not particularly promising.  A stacked cast it has, with Bradley Whitford as a serial marrier now on his third and significantly younger wife, played by Malin Akerman.  Akerman has to contend with two of Bradley’s exes, played by Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins, each of whom have kids with Whitford.  Dysfunctional families, angry exes, Akerman doing silly things to try to fit in and gain the respect of the kids and their mothers.  This is primarily here because I didn’t want to put all the dramas in a row and I like several of the cast members.  It doesn’t look very funny, though.

5. The Goldbergs

This sounds exactly like the beginning of the trailer to Chris Meloni’s ‘sitcom set in the ’90s, Surviving Jack, except set in the ’80s.  They didn’t have the internet or twitter or Kimye!  They had all the culture you remember and love, like Alf and Wang Chung, and REO Speedwagon which comes up twice, including a extended scene of Jeff Garlin singing along to “Can’t Fight this Feeling.” Patton Oswalt is the narrator, telling the tale of his childhood from our present and starring Garlin as an old-school ’80s dad.  Oswalt’s narrator is the youngest of three and his special gimmick is that he captured the family on that new ’80s technology, video tape.  Garlin’s angry dad Murray is quite the character, dispensing tough love to his kids, and never knowing how to actually tell them how he really feels. There’s plenty of ’80s period music, but it’s a little obvious for my preference.  They trailer is at least 2 minutes longer than it should be. I like the people, but I hate the concept.  I’m sorry Patton and Jeff, but it looks terrible, and the only reason it’s this high is because of the involvement of those two.

4. Mind games

Christian Slater is in the Kyle Bornheimer/Will Arnett group of actors constantly starring in failed shows, having starred in and failed in Breaking In, My Own Worst Enemy, and The Forgotten in recent years.  Steve Zahn and Christian Slater play a pair of quirky brothers, one bipolar, one an ex-con, who try to use their particular sets of skills to change people’s minds through manipulation.  From Steve Zahn’s explanation of their activity halfway through the trailer, it sounds like this is a humorous USA version of Inception, except they implant the ideas externally rather than inside people’s brains.  Again – how is this not on USA?  It’s got two characters who are great at what they do, but have personal problems, and they’re very much capital C characters.  In fact, it seems like I’d like it about as much as most USA shows.  It’ll be fun, light, fairly enjoyable, but not particularly interesting and could get old after seeing a couple of seasons of the same thing.  Still, that’s easily good enough for the fourth spot.

3.  Lucky 7

6 lucky misfit co-workers, all poor and down on their luck and scrimping and saving every penny to get through the day, win the lottery.  One seemingly smart co-worker who saved his money instead of putting it in the lottery pool apparently doesn’t (sending a terrible message that it’s advisable to spend money on the lottery).  Drama ensues.  It’s pretty non-descript and I doubt it will be good because it’s a network TV show but it’s actually not a bad idea for a show, and while it doesn’t look particularly good, it doesn’t look particularly bad either.  There’s potentially something here, and there’s several routes the show could depending on what tone they’re going for, but I’m guessing middle of the road drama.

2. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

Once Upon a Time is one of a few network dramas that other cool people like that I don’t (also: The Good Wife, Scandal).  Because of that, ,I  have very little confidence in this show going forward because of its connection to the original.  That said, it would also be unfair not to note that, judging from the trailer, it looks significantly darker and better potentially than the original.  The concept, in which it seems like Alice is being held in a psychiatric facility because her father believes she’s insane, due to her stories about seeing and meeting supernatural places and people, is actually a pretty great one. I have a hard time believing that people who make one show I don’t like much would spin off a show that I like a lot better, but based on the trailer this belongs here.

1.  Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Dare I say I’m actually excited about a show?  It feels weird to be writing a nearly entirely positive review of a trailer, but that’s what happens when Joss Whedon is involved.  I’m a full fledged Whedon-ite, and while it doesn’t mean that everything he touches will be exemplary, it certainly improves the chances greatly.  It looks good, it’s got some patented Whedon dialogue and humor, which always lightens the earnestness and self-seriousness often present when superheroes are involved.  I could go on, but it’s been a long entry and I don’t want to ruin a clear cut number one.  I’m in.

Re-watch: Arrested Development, Season 1

20 May

The San Francisco Chronicle loves it!

So I’ve started the moderately ambitious project that I’m sure many more around the country have as well, rewatching every episode of Arrested Development to prepare for the new episodes coming out next week.  I’ll be discussing some general thoughts on the first season and the experience of rewatching it here.

I’ve seen some of these first season episodes probably ten times but most of them (I’ve caught a couple of episodes here and there on IFC) not in at least three and probably more like five years.  However, after just a couple of minutes, most of these first season episodes come right back, even though it’s been a while.  It’s like quoting a bicycle.  The most surprising moments are when I see the occasional joke or scene that I have totally forgotten about.

I was ever so slightly concerned that the appeal of Arrested Development would have dimmed over the years, and that years of hype, some of it propagated by myself, would have built up the show in my mind to a level that the show couldn’t possibly actually meet (this was aided by a couple of friends who watched the show much later on and described it as good, but not great).   Fortunately, it turned out I had nothing to worry about.  Almost from the get go, Arrested Development again proved itself one of the best comedies of all time, and not just because all the jokes came streaming back into my mind (though it’s hard to watch a show like this with truly fresh eyes, I’m sure I was at least influenced somewhat by my memory).

The pilot episode is solid enough, but it, like many comedy pilots, is a bit weighed down by needing to focus extra on premise and exposition.  It’s the second episode, Top Banana, where the show’s genius really becomes to come together.  Top Banana’s key plotline, as the title suggests, involves the Bluth frozen banana stand, and particularly, its burning down.  The miscommunication that makes up many of the show’s best jokes is in play, as the line, which George Sr. tells Michael, that, “There’s always money in the banana stand” is tragically misinterpreted.  Michael believes he simply means the banana stand turns a profit, while, we and Michael learn later on that there is quite literally hundreds of thousands of dollars lining the walls of the stand.

An unlikely show I think Arrested Development has a lot in common with is The Venture Bros.  Both shows pick up on offhand moments and mentions from earlier episodes and flush them out later on, making it appear as it was always the plan to incorporate these references.  Of course, sometimes it probably was always the plan, and Arrested Development’s incredible foreshadowing is like no other comedy on TV.  What’s more remarkable is that Arrested Development was doing this in 2003, making serial comedy in a way where ordered viewing was important and re-watching was valuable, at a time just before DV-r and Netflix and internet viewing really came to the fore.  I’ve often wondered if Arrested Development was always doomed to be cancelled, or whether, if it had come out a couple of years later, the cult popularity would have been enough to keep it going longer.

The elements that make the show so good are all here pretty much from the beginning.  Many of the show’s great recurring bits and lines start debuting in various first season episodes episodes, including Gob’s “I’ve made a huge mistake,” the prison’s “No Touching” policy, the cornballer, and the chicken dance.   Memorable recurring and single-episode characters start appearing too, such as Tobias’s muse Carl Weathers, Steve Holt, Lucille Austero, and George Sr.’s twin brother Oscar. The chemistry between family members in palpable immediately, and the one on one interactions between different family members, often speaking on different levels to one another are an important part of the show from the beginning.

The Pier Pressure/Public Relations back-to-back about halfway through the season may be my favorite two consecutive episodes of the season.  Pier Pressure contains classic one episode character J. Walter Weatherman, a one-armed man who worked for George Sr. and was tasked with teaching the children lessons by terrifying them during their youth (his popularity resulted in another appearance a couple seasons later).  It also contains Gob’s wonderful enthusiastic pitch to George Michael, “All right, kid…let’s deal some drugs!”  Public Relations, in which Michael hires a cute public relations woman to help reshape the Bluth family image, has many fine moments, but my favorite may be the simple scene where crazy PR woman Jessie walks away from Michael, and as she’s leaving the house, Michael just says, “Jessie.”  When she turns around and attempts to figure out what Michael wanted, Michael awkwardly replies, “No, I was just saying your name as you walked away…I didn’t…I have no follow up.”  It doesn’t necessarily seem like it should be a funny line but Jason Bateman exclaims it with the perfect level of “Why did I just say that?” emphasis, a frequent occurrence for Michael.

The biggest change in my impressions from re-watching the season in order was in my personal character ranking.  As I want to leave open a possible character ranking post, I won’t go into too much detail about my overall standings, but, during this re-watch Lucille shot up, while Tobias fell down a bit.  Tobias’s he’s gay but doesn’t realize it gimmick is a bit much and gets a little old; there’s only so many ways to keep harping on it, and not all of them work.  It’s a credit to David Cross that he wrings as much out of sometimes obvious or too over the top material than he does, as well as the physical humor, which is all Cross.  Lucille on the other hand was a revelation.  I’ve always liked every major character, but I’m not sure why I didn’t like her more before.  Her recurring hatred of Gob always makes my day, and her cruel  one-liners to her family are constantly a joy.  Michael and George Michael also remain very high in my rankings, particularly due to both of their levels of compelling awkwardness, but I’ll have more to say on that when I talk about season 2.

I think it’s interesting to note that at least half the cast seems to be pretty much playing the role they played in Arrested Development in their work after the show was cancelled.  Tony Hale (Buster) on Veep, Will Arnett (Gob) in 30 Rock, Michael Cera (George Michael) in Superbad, and Jessica Walter (Lucille) in Archer all seem to be playing very similar characters in the listed movies and TV shows as well as others which have come out since.

I’d like to end with one of my favorite non sequitur Arrested Development quotes of all time, from the episode Not Without My Daughter, when George Michael says to Gob, “You know, say what you will about America. 13 bucks still gets you a hell of a lot of mice.”  Truer words have never been spoken.

Snap Judgments: Fox Upfronts

17 May

We’re ranking each network’s upfronts.  NBC was first, with a longer intro, because it was first, and CBS came next.  Now it’s Fox’s turn.  There are the most yet here, nine shows, to rank, and I would say, on the whole, the quality is better than NBC and CBS.  There might even be one show here I’ll end up watching.  Not to worry though, there’s plenty of bad and even more mediocre to look forward to. Let’s get on with it.

9.  Dads

Oof.  Seth MacFarlane has his issues, but he has to be better than this.  My friend and I are almost convinced this must be some sort of brilliant anti-comedy, because, I mean, come on.  Family Guy may be many things, but it’s at least occasionally funny even in the lesser episodes.  The racism in this trailer is pretty bad.  Real bad.  But beyond that it’s just mind-blowingly unfunny and cringeworthy.  The scene where the two dads go back and forth over the bill at the restaurant may be the worst, or where the Chinese businessmen snap photos of Brenda Song dressed like a Japanese schoolgirl.  There’s so many to choose from.  Yikes!

8. Us & Them

I don’t know enough about British TV series Gavin & Stacey to know that this was a remake, but it is, so there’s that (I keep wanting to type Ned and Stacy, the old Debra Messing show).  Jason Ritter and Alexis Bledel are apparently online contacts forming a long-distance romance who finally meet in person in New York, hoping to find love and happiness and all that, but with the drag of their craaaazy friends and family.  Yet, even through all the obstacles, love seems to prevail.  These obstacles, in the form of their friends and family, are supposed to be hilarious but are really more hard to watch in the trailer.  A boy and girl, each with crazy families, falling in love, is not exactly the most original idea, and it can be funny but it’s certainly not looking great here.  Jane Kaczmarek is RItter’s mom, and character actor Kurt Fuller portrays his dad.

7. Surviving Jack

Surviving Jack is yet  another sign of the coming of the long-awaited ’90s revival.  Taking place in 1991, Christopher Meloni plays a man who, when his wife returns to law school, is placed in the role of full time parent to his teenage son and daughter for the first time.  Hijinks ensue.  He doesn’t really know how to deal with kids, resulting in some awkward moments, such as putting a box of condoms in his son’s bag on the first day of high school.  Oops. He loves his kids but he just doesn’t know how to relate. I love Chris Meloni, don’t get me wrong, and I’m sure he’ll do his best, but hopefully it’s better than this.  Period music can only take a show so far.

6. Almost Human

Amazing.  Kind of.  A human cop with a robot partner.  Of course, he doesn’t trust robots, because in his personal past, a robot, making a Spock-like logical decision, chose to save others with a better chance of surviving rather than save the cop’s partner.  In order to get back on the force, because he’s a crazy and depressed and special cop, he must take a robot partner, which are mandatory now.  However, when he sabotages the current model, he gets one of the past discontinued robot cops that were taught to think and feel like humans instead of robots.  Can their partnership work?  Can they both learn a little bit from each other? Can they save the city of the future?  Only time will tell.

5. Enlisted

Geoff Stults (of starring in the cancelled Finder, and appearing in a few Ben and Kates fame) stars as a military officer who returns from Afghanistan to a military base where he’s in charge of a group of losers and misfits, two of his are his brothers.  The trailer is a little disjointed – the main topic of the first half of the trailer is the family aspect of three misfit brothers surviving in the military, but the familial aspect is seemingly forgotten about in the second half in favor of Stults leading his group, as if the show changed premises mid-trailer. It reminds me of the premise of Go On, someone a little less misfit-y leads a band of misfits he has to relate to. The jokes are a little bit obvious and not particularly well-crafted, but I kind of like Stults, and I can imagine a world in which, if the jokes were better, this show could be not entirely awful.  To be fair, when you lead with, if the jokes were better, you can say that about almost any show.

4. Gang Related

Gang shows always seem to take place in Los Angeles (or at least California), and there’s always different ethnicities and races battling and beefing for turf.  I think the premise, though this is not explicitly spelled out, but based on the trailer and the title, is that some members of this elite gang task force have familial relationships with members of the city’s gangs, and that these relationships pose both a challenge and potential benefit for the task force members.  The trailer notes it’s from someone behind The Fast and the Furious and that makes a lot of sense based on the quick look, as it’s all style, cops tough guy interviewing gang members, talking about cocaine shipments and getting ready to do action-y things. It probably won’t be great, but may at least be watchable.

3. Sleepy Hollow

A modern day Sleepy Hollow.  Ichabod Crane goes to sleep and wakes up in the present day, and is shocked by things like cars, the end of slavery, and Starbucks.  Unfortunately, it looks like his great nemesis, the headless horsemen has returned to Westchester as well, and is wreaking havoc, committing murders all over the neighborhood.  The stakes get raised halfway through the trailer when we learn that the headless horseman is in fact, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (pestilence, maybe?), and his resurrection could have dangerous consequences for not just Dobbs Ferry, but for the entire world.    This conspiracy dates back to none other than George Washington, and the show has a little Da Vinci code in it, finding secret symbols and signs all over old documents.  I don’t see how you can keep this up for a whole season, or multiple seasons, and it seems too over the top, but the trailer was mostly watchable.

2. Rake

Rake, or Lawyer House as I call him, doesn’t do things that way you’re supposed to.  His personal life, the trailer quickly lets us know, is a mess, between gambling debt, alimony payments, and an ex-girlfriend who tried to stab him (and may be out to stab him again).  The one thing he does have, is that, House-like, he’s better at his job than anybody else.  This job is being a defense lawyer, and the big case that will save him in this instance is defending a cannibal (Denis O’Hare) who doesn’t deny having eaten someone.  I’m not sure if this is just an example of the type of case he’ll be taking every episode, or whether this will be a big multiple episode case, but either way, he’ll take the cases no one else wants, because he can and because he has to, and trying to use his professional success to get a handle on his personal misery.  It’s cliche all the way, but Kinner is good, and House was pretty good for some time even though it was largely cliche.

1.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I wanted to in general laud Fox for better trailers than CBS, in terms of getting less cute with the format, and this one is a particularly classic trailer, without any voice overs whatsoever, no interviews with cast members talking about how innovative the show is, or how every cast member cracks every other cast member ups.  After watching a ton of these trailers, I really appreciate that.  It’s from Michael Schur, Parks and Recreation creator, and stars Andy Samberg as a cop who, as described in probably the worst line of the trailer, is great at everything except growing up.  Still, it’s got pedigree. The trailer is hit or miss, but occasionally funny, which is already more than most, and it stars, in addition to Samberg, Andre Braugher as his new hard-nosed captain, as well as Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti, and Joe Lo Truglio.   No one is more suited to turn Samberg into a network star than the people who did it for Amy Poehler.  I’m actually minorly excited about the show!