Archive | August, 2013

Show of the Day: Playmakers

30 Aug

These are the PLAYMAKERS

Controversy ensued recently after ESPN announced it was pulling out of a partnership with PBS over a special report on Frontline on concussions in football.  ESPN was accused by many of being at the beck and call of its NFL overlords, who don’t take kindly to negative talk of any variety about their product.  While ESPN vigorously denied these claims, the allegations were more believable because ESPN has a history of giving way to the NFL in the past, most notably when it stopped production of ESPN original series Playmakers.

Playmakers is one of only two original series ESPN ever produced (the other is a poker series called Tilt, produced at the height of the poker boom, though that’s a story for another day).        .  Playmakers was the story of a professional football team, named the Cougars, from an unnamed city (my friend and I tried to make some educated guesses by eliminating the homes of the rival teams they played but we didn’t make a whole lot of headway) which plays in “The League,” similar too but not explicitly titled the NFL.  The show revolves around the players of the team are the main characters are as follows: the hard-boiled coach, Coach George, put under all kinds of stress by an old, rich owner who expects to win, Leon Taylor, an aging running back who is seeking financial security while concerned about losing his playing time and his effectiveness, Demetrius Harris, a younger up-and-coming running back who is having a hard time separating himself from ill-meaning friends from his prior thug life, Derek McConnell, a cocky quarterback who pops anti-inflammatories like candy, and a Eric Olczyk, a middle linebacker dealing with depression and insecurity.

Nearly every scandal and controversy that can befall an NFL team or befalls someone or other in the eleven episodes of Playmakers. There’s domestic abuse, a gay athlete (which the NFL still hasn’t gotten to deal with with yet itself, at least publicly), cheating on piss tests (a la Onterrio Smith, which hadn’t happened yet), abuse of anti-inflammatories, regular old drug abuse, weight issues, brutal constant injuries, involvement in shootings, difficulties staying away from potential bad influences from childhood , and so much more.   Football is the star of the show; while it’s not so much about the games themselves (it’s got to be expensive and difficult to film football scenes), every outside aspect of the players’ lives displayed on the show is relevant in as much as it relates to their careers on the field.  Romance and off-the-field drama is subjugated to the gridiron.  During the season football is a 24/7 occupation and it dominates and permeates all of the players’ lives.

Playmakers is not a particularly great show or even a particularly good show but it is both an interesting artifact due to its place as one of only two ESPN original series, and for really being the only scripted show to ever focus on professional football.  Considering pro football is such a popular topic, and has been the subject of many movies, it’s a little bit surprisingly that there’s never been another show about on football on this level.  Friday Night Lights tread over some very similar ground, issues-wise, with high school football players with much better characters and writing, but if you like football, there’s definitely something worthwhile about an 11-episode show about pro football.

The Wikipedia page for Playmakers is very strange. It’s missing some extremely basic data that would be quite helpful but it partially makes up for that loss with some incredibly fun and random information.  Someone somehow has put together the entire roster for the Cougars, including the kicker, the punter, and three tight ends.  It has no section for “reception” but has a remarkably complete list of what foreign channels the show was displayed on.  There’s very little character biographical information, except the mention of what school the main characters graduated from, and what year this is for them in the league (Example: elder statesman running back Leon Taylor is in his 9th year from USC).

Playmakers was fairly well-rated for ESPN but the NFL made its might felt and basically told ESPN to shut it down because it didn’t like the way football was being portrayed.  Sensitive, much, really? Playmakers pretty much tread on stories that happened in real football, and it’s not like it was a big secret that these happen, or that people don’t know every scandal that engulfs the league.  Nor that any Playmakers viewers, likely to be big NFL fans, would mistake reality for fiction.  I’ve my problems with NFL over the years and this is certainly a good example of why.  There are serious issues to solve (concussions, anyone?) and ESPN’s worried about a TV show hurting its brand, the most popular league in the richest country in the world. This cancellation could have lead to classic Streisand effect;. It clearly didn’t and most people who weren’t there don’t even remember that this show ever existed, but for one fall, before ESPN actually had football it was a minor deal. Wikipedia linked to a New York Times article describing the NFL’s putting the kibosh on Playmakers which contains the following hilariously un-prescient sentence, “”We proved that we could succeed in doing a dramatic series,” Mark Shapiro, the executive vice president of ESPN, said.”  Hence the many successful dramatic series ESPN has produced since.

Summer 2013 Review: Broadchurch

28 Aug

Broadchurch Broadchurch is a British show about the investigation into the murder of an 11-year old boy in a small beach community in England. Broadchurch’s premise immediately made me think of The Killing and The Bridge, and the three of them combined over the past couple of years officially makes there an early 2010s trend of very serious season-long (or longer) murder investigation series.  I’m getting tired of the premise, largely because there are so many other interesting show ideas that aren’t getting made because of them (different generally > same, all else being equel) , and because these shows have inherent limitations. Because the murder investigation is the thing in these shows, it’s kind of hard to figure out what to do once the murder is solved, and if, because of that, you can’t solve the murder for a long time, that can lead to some problematic forced stretching it out, as fans of The Killing learned once upon a time.

That disclaimer said, I should also mention I appear to be a sucker for these shows.  Or maybe they just seem to start off particularly well.  The Killing drew me in, The Bridge drew me in at least well enough that I’m still watching it even while feeling somewhat ambivalent about the show, and while I was initially skeptical of Broadchurch because of the premise, I liked it enough that I find myself rationalizing that I’ll at least give it a couple episodes so hopefully it doesn’t break my heart with some terrible twist and huge anticlimax.

So, Broadchurch.  We start with what seems like an ordinary family in a bright little seaside community.  Mum, dad (I don’t know what British for dad is), grandmum, and older sis go about their morning routines only to realize later in the day that their son/grandson/brother Danny is nowhere to be found. He never went to school or to his daily early morning paper route, the paper route being why it would be normal for his family not to have noticed him missing right away.  Soon, it turns out the worst of all possible outcomes is the one that transpired.  Danny’s dead, lying on the beach.  The two lead detectives on the case are a grim-faced veteran who is apparently trying to make up for an embarrassing scandal of some sort of that we haven’t learned about yet and a local detective whose son was best friends with the dead boy and who is having a particularly hard time because of her close relationship to the case and because it seems to be her first murder case of any kind (I’m not positive on this; I’m guessing from context, but be aware I’m possibly reading it wrong).

It’s hard to tell who else will become main character besides the family and the cops but it appears the leading candidates are the female detective’s nephew, a young hungry local journalist who sees this story as a possible way to move himself up in the world, and a big city female journalist who convinces her editor to send her out to the country to write about the case. Towards the end of the episode, the head detective (played by David Tennant, of erstwhile Dr. Who fame), gives a press conference where he asks for information and lets the killer know there’s nowhere to hide, and we see lots of people all around town watching.  The killer could be anybody, this reminds us, as well as that small towns hide lots of secrets. There’s always dangers of potential cliches when it comes to tv cops, and by far my biggest initial concern is Tenant’s possible cardboard cutout serious-police-officer-looking-to-make-up -for-a-major-mistake-in-the-past .  However, at least in the first episode, ; even though I knew it was a tripe, it surprisingly didn’t bother me too much while watching.  This is the type of problem that could wear on me over time; I’m hopeful the character is invested with some depth and that Tennant is equal to the challenge.

It’s really hard to end these type of mysteries in a satisfying way, particularly since no matter how much it’s supposed to be about the journey and the experience, a disappointing ending that either comes out of nowhere or is too obvious or is simply unsatisfying puts a disappointing sheen on the entire series.  Additionally, this concept doesn’t necessarily play well over multiple seasons, which was the problem The Killing had; it’s hard to not feel like the show is being artificially lengthened after a point, or there’s one too many red herring, and the viewers simply feel jerked around. The small coastal town is a beautiful setting and the element present in the small town mystery here, unlike in the big cities in which The Killing and The Bridge are set, is the everybody-knows-everybody angle.  The first episode showed a smart amount of restraint and hopefully Broadchurch can maintain the difficult balance between moving the plot along at a fair pace while holding on to the emotional core and avoiding melodrama.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I’m going to.  It looks pretty, the acting is solid, and it has the most basic element that got humans reading and watching mysteries once upon a time.  Whodunnit?  Hell, I want to know.  I hope I will care this much about who did it halfway through the season. It’s not close to the most unique or different show I’ve seen and I’m hesitant for the reasons I’ve mentioned to get too confident that Broadchurch will keep it up, but it passed the all-important I-want-to-watch-the-second-episode-right-after-I-finish-the-first-episode test.

Summer 2013 Review: Graceland

26 Aug


We’re gong to Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, as Paul Simon might say.   Actually check that – Graceland  in this context is instead is the nickname of a gorgeous beach house in sunny Southern California seized by the Feds from a drug lord that is now home to a panoply of young, hot, federal agents from the FBI, DEA and Customs.

Graceland starts with the new kid, recent valedictory FBI graduate Mike Warren, moving into Graceland to take the spot of Donnie Banks, a DEA agent who was recently shot after a drug deal gone wrong.   Mike, who thought he was sticking in DC, has to learn the ways of sunny SoCal quickly, studying up on his Spanish and getting a crash course in how to surf and wear flip flops by the other guys of the house.  The ostensible leader of Graceland is the legendary FBI agent Paul Briggs, whose training scores in school and quick rise through the system is well known by agents far and wide.  Briggs does his work to the beat of his own drum; another agent tells Mike that Briggs was once suit and tie but took a leave of absence can came back all zen, kind of llike a non-bank robbing Patrick Swayze in Point Break.

Mike’s first assignment is a reverse buy, where he sells drugs to a low level guy vaguely affiliated with a Russian gang. It goes right, wrong, right, wrong, and then right again, until both him and the guy are arrested, with the idea that the guy will not realize he’s been played if he sees Mike get arrested too.  All that hard work does not pay off when an idiotic officer brings the perp right through where Mike is stationed after he’s back in his FBI jacket.

The poor low level perp is in big trouble when the big bad Russian gang tells them his family will be basically kidnapped and held hostage to ensure his not talking;, but there’s a possible out.  The perp panics and claims Mike, rather than being an FBI agent, which could get him and his family killed, is instead the perp’s brother-in-law, and if Mike does a favor for these Russians, well then, maybe the family will be safe after all.

Mike’s first day just got a whole lot more difficult.  Mike, now posing as the junkie brother-in-law, convinces the Russians to let him murder someone for them in exchange for releasing the family, and gently guides the FBI to his location by speaking clever cues through a transmitter on his watch (Horace Greeley would not approve, means he’s going east – the opposite of Greeley’s famous “Go West, Young Man”).  Trouble nearly strikes again when it turns out the man they want him to kill is Banks, the agent whose room he took, and a sticky situation Is resolved when Mike convinces Banks that he’s FBI, even though he’s not carrying a badge.

Mike fires six shots into the floor, tells the Russians he’s done the deed, but they’re oddly suspicious, something’s not right, and just in time Agent Briggs sprints in from out of nowhere and after trying to convince the Russians to put their hands up, shoots both Russians.  At the very end of the episode a major twist is revealed; int turns out Mike was actually sent there by the FBI to spy on Briggs, who they believe might be dirty, or at least up to something fishy.

Graceland follows the USA formula to a T. It features the young and the good looking working in sunny locales  for the forces of good.  Lawyers, cops, and doctors are the three big procedural professions, and USA loves all of them.  The characters bond; everyone’s in it for each other even though they might get on each others nerves occasionally in the heat of battle.  They work hard and they play hard.  They all have nicknames, and I would imagine some love will brew between Mike and one of the two female agents. There’s a lot of style, not a ton of substance, and the style is a USA house style; slick, glossy, bright and fun.  There are moments of extreme tension but there’s never grime; the dark grays and browns of many FX shows have no place on USA. The characters in USA shows often seem the same; the flawed genius/savant that House MD made huge again is a favorite, and the mysterious Briggs looks like he’s going to fit that role here.

It’s not bad by any means, it’s just, well, the same.  While I’m watching, I want to see what happens to the drug bust gone wrong, but when it’s over, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.  And that’s potentially fine, not every show has to have you racking your cranium for days.  Still, when you’re choosing shows to watch for that kind of visceral fun without the heavy big ideas, there are better choices than this (might I suggest Orphan Black?).  Very watchable should not be enough to get our viewership in this day and age with so many good shows on so many channels.

Quick note: There’s a bizarre scrolling text opening describing the origin of the house Graceland, which is both entirely unnecessary and, which gives it kind of s ‘70s feel.

Will I watch it again?  No.  I’ve seen well more than my necessary lifetime share of USA shows, and I don’t mean that begrudgingly, but until they do something different it’s hard for me to get very interested.  Graceland is very decent; I enjoyed watching the first episode well enough, but it’s hard to see a lot of payoff going forward.  I would watch an episode or two with my dad if the occasion comes up or if it’s on TV as I’m falling asleep/just waking up but I’m certainly not investing the time to watch every episode of a show that I’ll pretty much forget about after I watch.

Summer 2013 Review: The Fosters

23 Aug

Foster has two meanings

Deep in the bowels of ABC Family Channel, where males and people above the age of 30 don’t venture very often, we may have on our hands, if it goes in the best possible direction, a potential successor to Friday Night Lights.  Not plot-wise, as The Fosters has absolutely nothing to do with football. What I mean, rather, is a successor to the type of emotionally honest, compelling, and heart-wrenching relationships between teenagers, their family, and their friends that Friday Night Lights mastered more than any show in recent times.

The Fosters is about an interracial lesbian couple, Stef and Lena, (shout out for seeing that on TV – pretty awesome) who live with a son from Stef’s previous marriage, Brandon, and two Hispanic twins, Jesus and Mariana, they took it when the twins were around 6 or 7, I’m guessing, based on the timeline given, and whom they eventually fully adopted.  To this already busy home, comes a new teenage girl, Callie, who may be troubled, is coming out of juvenile detention, and needs a place to say.  Lena, who is an assistant principal at the charter school which her kids attend, sees something in Callie’s eyes and can’t resist taking her in just for a few weeks until she finds a more permanent home.  The first scene of the entire series is of this poor girl, Callie, having her ass kicked in in an absolutely brutal fashion, devoid of context, in juvenile detention, by girls jealous that she’s getting out.  Stef, the relative hard-ass of the marraige, is a cop.

Everyone in the family is a little bit thrown by the new girl, and Stef is not thrilled that her wife made such a major decision, inviting a stranger into their home, without discussing it first (Lena called Stef a number of times, but she was busy and din’t answer).  Callie seems troubled; she may have issues after all, and she calls the lesbians dykes right out at the dinner table on her first night, not generally a way to get welcomed into a new home. Fortunately, the family sees it for what it probably is, a teenager trying to antagonize and takes it in stride.  The main episode plotlines from here are two fold.

First, in the A plot, Callie wants to go back to where she was from, for someone named Jude, who she calls, and who sounds like may be a boyfriend.  She gets ready to ditch school after lunch, and the Brandon, who has a musical performance that evening, decides to come with, to watch her back if nothing else.  It turns out she wants to go back to her old foster home to save her brother from a violent foster father.  Callie and Brandon get into some trouble there, and the father seems like a genuinely bad dude in the two minutes we see him, but eventually everyone finds them and they end up okay, and the brother is safe and coming home with the family as well, at least for now.

In the B story, the female twin, Mariana, wants to meet her birth mom.  Mariana early in the episode is seen by the viewer and Callie stealing some of her bother’s pills. While Lena was supposed to be arranging this, interaction between Mariana and her mother, Mariana was talking to her mom on the internet with no intermediary.  Her and her mom arranged to meet and it turns out that the birth mom asked Mariana for money, which she sold some pills to put together.  Her brother finds out and reams her out – their birth mom abandoned them and he can’t understand why she, the smart one, doesn’t see that. When she finally meets her mom, she’s disappointed; instead of someone who seems to really care, her mom seems like someone more interested in the money.  She goes home to be with her real family and takes part in the heartwarming moments that follow.

Now, getting back to the FNL comparisons, here’s more on why The Fosters reminded me. of FNL  The people feel like real people, and the family feels like a real family.  The writing isn’t amazing in the sense of hyper crisp plotting or brilliant lyrical dialogue, but it is in the sense that within just one episode the show assembles an entire set of character which all feel authentic.  Similar to FNL, it looks like there are very few bad guys; there isn’t a major antagonist character – every character who spends at least some time on screen is largely decent, if sometimes deeply flawed, even when it may seem like they’re no good at first blush.  This is exactly the The Fosters was up to with Cassie, who seemed like a bad girl running home to a boyfriend, but instead was out to save her brother from abse.  First impressions are misleading; people are usually not as bad when you give them a chance.

Like in FNL as well, I can imagine a penchant for occasional mildly overdoing it melodrama; emotional moments are everywhere, and the show is going to tug your damn heartstrings a lot.  But what that mostly says is that they have the ability to pull those heartstrings.  What’s remarkable is that I felt really moved during the climax scenes that occur near the pilot’s end, and in a way that didn’t feel cheap or emotionally manipulative like most shows would if they made you actually feel feelings in the first episode.

Quick unrelated note – can we cool it with the in-show hashtags, ABC Family?  When Mariana was stealing pills seven minutes or so into the show, a #MarianasSecret came up in the corner, before I even really remembered Mariana’s name.

Will I watch it again?  It’s still not an instant yes, for circumstantial reasons as much as anything else.  The fall is coming, and that’s busy tv season; I probably should have watched this months ago. But I’ll say yes, because this deserves to be a yes, (I know that’s cheating a little bit – but hell I usually don’t know for certain that I’ll watch any show again except in rare circumstances, this time I’m just being honest).  This is not in the first tier of shows I particularly loved this year like The Americans and Rectify or even Orange is the New Black but it is good. It’s often the type of show that’s not particularly up my alley, so I think the fact that I cared for a good amount may say even more.

Breaking Bad and Unpredictability

21 Aug

Bads Will Break

Breaking Bad is a great show for many reasons, but for me, one major lesson the show has taught me is how to properly handle unpredictability on television.

There are two optimal ways to keep a TV show unpredictable.  The first, easier way, is what I call anonymity unpredictably.  Anonymity unpredictability basically involves having a decent sized cast where in everyone is for all intents and purposes completely equal and in a similar position so that anything could happen to any of them at any time.  Examples of this executed correctly are in horror movies when a group of people are being chased by some supernatural enemy, or action or military movies involving squads or teams.  The actors have to be of a roughly equal level of fame; having one or two be more famous will entirely change expectations.  Siberia, currently, for now, airing on NBC, as a fake reality show, is an example of, so far, anyway, well-executed anonymity unpredictability – there’s an equal cast of actors and actresses who aren’t famous, and there’s no reason to have any preconceptions about how will or should survive or make it until the end.  This is hard to sustain over a scripted television series. Actual reality television thrives by way of anonymity unpredictability, though of course, that’s easier when the results are actually not predetermined, and it’s largely this reality show dynamic that anonymity unpredictability in scripted form at its best tries to mimic.

The more difficult second type is what Breaking Bad has mastered, as is what I’ll call predictable unpredictability.  The genius of Breaking Bad is in its realization that the best kind of unpredictability comes not from having no idea what could possibly happen, but from having so many plausible theories of what could happen as to make predicting virtually impossible.

Too many shows result in too predictable unpredictability, which is generally a choice between two outcomes.  24 was often guilty of this. Either he dies or doesn’t. Either the guy and the girl get together, or they don’t.  When push comes to shove, there’s one key binary choice the viewer is anticipating, and you know the result is either A or B.  The show tries to build suspense, build suspense, build suspense, until it’s up against the wall and one of only two things can happen, most often, a character dying or not, or two characters getting together or not.

If it’s not A or B, in one of these situations, it then often what I call unpredictable unpredictability – a twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere and leaves you unsatisfied because the result couldn’t have possibility been anticipated. Generally it’s not even just a slight difference from something you could have put together, but rather something you could never have possibly guessed at (Lost did this a lot).  Sometimes these shows try to trick you into making you think you could have seen it coming but didn’t, and sometimes there’s subtle foreshadowing but it still doesn’t make the twist feel on point.

Breaking Bad eschews both of these approaches.  Instead, it takes the path that a show like Lost would have liked to take, but wasn’t successful at.  It treads carefully, builds its characters, and lays out lots of different potential options, many of which can be used later on in the show as potential plot points, but wouldn’t feel like they were missing if they weren’t.

Breaking Bad made its own large structural mistake by locking itself into the plane crash in season 2, but in the subsequent seasons the events have unfolded in ways that consistently seem both unpredictable but plausible.  At many points in seasons three and four, it didn’t seem clear or obvious which way the show was heading, but rather than seeming like there were only one or two ways out of the corner the story was in, it seemed like there were a world of possibilities.  Even more impressively, in the little moments when there were seemingly binary choices (because it’s nearly impossible to avoid them completely), creator Vince Gilligan used the character motivations and elements of the world he had put together to resolve the situations without them feeling cheap or like cop outs. This is a very difficult line to walk, and Breaking Bad has achieved it better than anyone (Homeland’s first season did a great job, it’s second not as much).  Two great examples of this when Walt and Jesse are trapped in the trailer and Walt decides to have Saul’s assistant call Hank pretending to be the hospital, and the second four finale, when Walt finally kills Gus.  Both of these involves situations, where you probably know what’s going to happen in as much as Walt is not going to get caught that easily at that point in the show, and Walt is not going to die at the end of the fourth season when the show is coming back for a fifth.  Still, these situations work because first, Breaking Bad is surprisingly enough, that there’s always at least a small possibility that the unlikely would happen (I call this the original Law & Order principle – Jack McCoy loses a couple cases each season, just enough to keep the suspense alive for the 90% of cases he’ll win), and because even though the expected happened, they happened in interesting enough ways that both made sense and were non obvious. The plausibility is every bit as important as the surprise.  An implausible surprise is a cheap trick.

Going forward, there are plenty of elements in place for Breaking Bad to play upon, but which it doesn’t have to. Ted, for example.  That’s a card in the deck.  He could come back in some way and play a role, but if he didn’t, the show wouldn’t feel like it was missing something. The cartel could come back in some way and play a role, but if they didn’t that would be fine also.  It’s so much more complicated than this, of course, but just think about what happens to Walt.  It’s not he dies or he doesn’t.  He might die of cancer, he might get shot, he might die with his family knowing, he might die without them.  He might survive and go to jail, he might escape persecution, he might have to live the rest of his life on the run.. That’s just Walt’s very end game.  All of these possibilities are out there, and none of them would by nature feel cheap because Breaking Bad has done such a good job laying the ground work.  Breaking Bad’s spent its seasons wisely, carefully building plausible possibilities.

There are a couple of musts from Breaking Bad; plot points that need to be approached or they would feel unfulfilled (you know, like why the Others made such a big deal about Walt in Lost, which felt like it had to be answered at some point…).  The ricin cigarette, in particular, has been harped on too much to not come up again.

The one failure of unpredictably, if you want to call it that, in Breaking Bad, is the fact that since it’s Walt’s show, Walt probably can’t die until at least the final season.  That’s a limit that all single character led shows have, and it’s a cost that has to be borne to unpredictability if one ever wants to have those shows.

This is the genius of Breaking Bad and it is a lesson for every TV show going forward that gets in trouble trying to surprise and keep viewers guessing; viewers should be able to guess what’s going to happen.  But there should be so many potential guesses that no one knows which one is right.  If the viewers couldn’t have guessed it, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Power Rankings: Friday Night Lights, Part 2

19 Aug

All your favorite Lions/Panthers

Part two of the 16-actor long Friday Night Lights power rankings.  Check out part 1, along with the introduction here.

9. Minka Kelly (as Lyla Garrity) – She had a spot role in (500) Days of Summer right after leaving FNL’s main cast.  She was in The Roommate, Just Go With It, and appeared in nine episodes of Parenthood. She starred in the short-lived and ill-conceived Charlie’s Angels remake and plays Jackie O in current movie The Butler. She’ll costar in Fox sci-fi crime drama series Almost Human this fall with Karl Urban and Lili Taylor.

8. Grey Damon (as Hastings Ruckle) – The only main character who only appeared in the fifth and final season, Damon appeared as a main cast member on ABC’s Family’s one season The Nine Lives of Chloe King. He was in six episodes of The Secret Circle and five of Twisted.  He appeared in this year’s Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (with or without the Olympians, we’ll never know).  He’ll recur in this season’s American Horror Story edition, Coven, will be in the American remake of Oldboy and is set to appear aside Aimee Teegarden in CW midseason replacement series Star-Crossed.

7. Jurnee Smollett (as Jess Merriweather) – The unfortunately named Smolett starred in controversial Tyler Perry movie Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (she was said marriage counselor).   She was a regular on one season Jim Belushi – Jerry O’Connell legal show The Defenders (somehow, it was not on TNT), She was in two episodes of The Mob Doctor and two of Do No Harm, participating in the two shortest-lived doctor shows of the past season and was most recently in 8 episodes of True Blood as Sam Merlotte love interest Nicole this season.

6. Gaius Charles (as Brian “Smash” Williams) – He has small roles in The Messenger, Salt, and Taken.  He was on individual episodes of NCIS and Necessary Roughness.  I had honestly through Charles would be much lower in these rankings, and he would be if he hadn’t become a recurring character on Grey’s Anatomy in season nine who will be bumped up into the main cast in this upcoming tenth season (crazy, right?) as Dr. Shane Ross.  While Grey’s Anatomy isn’t exactly in early season form when it could send songs to the top 40, it’s still quite a popular show, and that’s a really good get for Smash, as I value main cast roles on successful shows quite highly.

5. Scott Porter (as Jason Street) – He voices Cyclops on the dub of Marvel Anime: X-Men.  He was a recurring character in the second season of The Good Wife as investigator Blake, appearing in fourteen episodes.  He played Aubrey Plaza’s love interest in this summer’s The To-Do List.  He was in Nicolas Sparks-based weeper Dear John and was in eight episodes of Sci-Fi’s Caprica.  Currently, he is a main cast member in Hart of Dixie on CW, entering its third season this fall.  Obviously Hart of Dixie is not as noteworthy as Grey’s Anatomy or True Blood, but hell, he’s going into his third season, and he has a nice little profile outside of that show.

4. Jesse Plemons (as Landry Clarke) – He appeared in alien comedy Paul, blockbuster Battleship, as as the titular character’s son in The Master.  He was in an episode of Childrens Hospital and appeared as a regular cast member in failed but actually not terrible midseason replacement Amanda Peet comedy Bent.  He currently appears as wannabe-meth-maker protégé Todd as a regular cast member on the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad. It’s a very solid resume for one of the non-obvious actors to breakout, but let’s not kid ourselves – his being placed above cast members with similar resumes is due to his role on Breaking Bad.  Todd’s so polite!

3. Taylor Kitsch (as Tim Riggins) – Hollywood saw a leading man in Kitsch and chose him to star in what ended up as two of the biggest flops of 2012, alien action pictures John Carter and Battleship.  He appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, and will appear this year in The Last Selection and Lone Survivor, from FNL creator and Battleship director Peter Berg.  Next year, he’s been cast to appear in Ryan Murphy film The Normal Heart.  In a couple of years, if his career doesn’t work out so well he may fade, but still starring in two blockbusters is a pretty big deal, even if they weren’t exactly successes.

2. Michael B. Jordan (as Vince Howard) – Of course this doesn’t count here, but I’d be remiss without a quick reminder that he played Wallace in The Wire. He’s been trending gradually upwards since FNL ended.  He was in an episode of House as well as 16 of Parenthood. He was in Red Tails and surprise hit Chronicle in 2012. He voiced Victor Stone in animated kids video Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and will be appearing in rom com Are We Officially Dating? This year he drew rave reviews for his portrayal of a real life murder victim in Fruitvale Station and may get some love come award time.   The recency and acclaim of his role in Fruitvale is what positioned him over the failed blockbusters of Kirsch or everyone else’s television roles.

1. Connie Britton (as Tami Taylor) – Mrs. Coach jumped right from FNL into a starring appearance in the first season of American Horror Story, which went on to be a major success. She currently starts in ABC first season success story Nashville as a country singer undergoing a mid-career crisis, one of the most successful and acclaimed new network shows of the past year.  She appeared in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World as well as this summer’s Aubrey Plaza starring The To-Do List and is set to appear in next year’s This is Where I Leave You.  She wins top honors for getting top star billing (or included among two equal top stars in each) in two shows that were both relative critical and commercial successes.

Power Rankings: Friday Night Lights, Part 1

16 Aug

Friday Night Lights!  Landry! Landry!

(Power Rankings sum up:  we’ll pick a television show and rank the actors/actresses/contestants/correspondents/etc. based on what they’ve done after the series ended (unless we’re ranking a current series, in which case we’ll have to bend the rules).  Preference will be given to more recent work, but if the work was a long time ago, but much more important/relevant, that will be factored in as well.)

This is a new power rankings land speed record, as it’s only been two years since the show bowed out.  However, the cast, validating the talent they displayed on FNL, has been so damn successful on the whole, that I think they’ve warranted this unexpectedly early Power Rankings treatment .  The entries may not be as long as some, because of the little time, but there’s a huge cast, so it’ll be divided into two parts.  A couple of actors left earlier in the show and thus had more chance to build their resumes, but those extra years didn’t seem to necessarily give those actors a step up. This list was nearly impossible to rank.  Everyone’s done something, and everyone besides poor number 16, has had at the minimum a recurring tv role, and most have had much more.  There’s some fairly arbitrary judgment calls pure and simple ,and I can’t think of another power rankings in which not just two or three were close together but so many of them.  But rank somehow we must; perhaps we’ll come back again and revisit these rankings and find the order changes in another couple of years.  As a heads up, I tended to give edges to more prominent shoes over less, larger roles in shows and movies, and acclaim never hurts along with popularity.

16. Brad LeLand (as Buddy Garrity) – he somehow earned his way up to main cast status by the end of the show, which was a not unfair triumph of simple attrition and perseverance; he has the sixth most appearances of any actor on the show.  He was in an episode of Parks and Recreation, two of Veep, and is going in to be in some movie called The Bystander Theory.  Easy last, things start getting more difficult from here.

15. Madison Burge (as Becky Sproles) –  She was in Robert Duvall film Seven Days in Utopia and in three episodes of ABC Family’s The Lying Game. She was in an episode of Southland and currently has a recurring role on the final season of Dexter as Vince Masuka’s daughter Niki.

14. Aimee Teegarden (as Julie Taylor) – Among the least busy of the FNL cast members, Teegarden is still only not higher due to being hurt by timing as her films Prom and Scream 4 appeared just before FNL finished airing.  She was in web series Aim High and movies that did nothing Love and Honor and Beneath the Darkness. She starred in a CW pilot, The Selection, that didn’t get picked up, but she’ll get another chance as the star of 2014 planned mid-season CW series Star-Crossed.

13. Zach Gilford (as Matt Saracen) – Since leaving FNL’s main cast, he’s been a main cast member on two failed dramas, 2011 Shonda Rhymes-produced medical drama Off the Map, and 2012’s Fox failure The Mob Doctor.  He was in nothing movies In Our Nature and Answers to Nothing and will appear in Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer The Last Stand as well as Devil’s Due.

12. Matt Lauria (as Luke Cafferty) – He was a regular on the reasonably well-liked by short-lived Chicago Code and appeared in episodes of Burn Notice and Person of Interest.  He was in three episodes of CSI and in 10 of Parenthood, which, as it was created by FNL showrunner Jason Katims, and will be showing up several times on this list.

11. Adrianne Palicki (as Tyra Collette) – She would have been Wonder Woman in the David E. Kelley pilot that failed to get picked up.  She was Lady Jaye in Gi Joe: Retaliation which I’m guessing you didn’t realize grossed 371 million worldwide.   She co-starred in 2012’s Red Dawn remake which was actually filmed in 2009 but took three years to see the light of day.   She was a main character in 2010’s Lone Star, but the well-reviewed show was cancelled mind-mindbogglingly quickly.

10. Kyle Chandler (as Eric Taylor) – Coach Taylor himself, Chandler, as one of the few adult cast members (three, and Buddy Garrity is kind of a technicality), was logically a lot more successful before the show than most of the youngsters.  He’s kept quite busy since, appearing in a number of supporting roles in prominent movies.  Right after FNL ended, he was in spooky JJ Abrams film Super 8, then appeared in Best Picture winner Argo and Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty.  This year he was in Broken City, teen love indie The Spectacular Now, and will appear in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

We’re just under halfway there.  Part 2 coming up shortly.

Summer 2013 Review: The White Queen

14 Aug

She's white, and a Queen

Here’s the best thing about The White Queen.  In an incredibly bizarre coincidence, the first episode was written by a writer named Emma Frost, the pseudonym of Marvel character White Queen.  Now the not as good.

The first episode of The White Queen, in short.  The series takes place during The War of the Roses, beginning when Edward IV has just been crowned king. A recently widowed woman whose family is on the Lancaster side of the conflict meets the Yorkist king.  In about five minutes, they fall in love, and he loves her so much in these five minutes that he proposes marriage.  She can’t tell her parents, who are wary of her even seeing the king.  He’s on the wrong side, and even though Romeo and Juliet wasn’t invented yet, opposing loyalties are powerful and all that.  She accepts, because, fuck, he’s the king, and he’s handsome to boot, and they get secretly married.  The show then basically spends the last thirty minutes going back and forth between whether the secret marriage was just a ploy by the king to have sex with her or was a legitimate marriage, and it turns out it was legitimate, although the King’s cousin and closest adviser and the king’s mom are both opposed to the marriage, which presumably will lead to trouble later on.

As previously mentioned, The White Queen is a piece of historical fiction about the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner, and King Edward IV during The War of the Roses. While the White Queen is historical, and Game of Thrones is fantasy, Game of Thrones, like most fantasy, is set during quasi-medieval times, and in particular based some of its conceptual framework on the War of the Roses  White Queen may not actively be attempting to imitate Game of Thrones, but  some of the ideas and characters and themes seem similar enough to look kind of like the original, but a version that came out all twisted and broken.

Examples of similarities include a young king who halts a potential kingdom-making royal marriage to marry a commoner he’s smitten with, dueling royal familie, with people switching sides depending on which way the wind is blowing, a strong maternal female character who is the brains behind her family’s oafish male counterparts, and even some magic.   I won’t get on the show too much for not looking as good as Game of Thrones because of the probably production budget differences, but it doesn’t.

The White Queen is like Game of Thrones without all the parts that make Game of Thrones good.  That’s probably too harsh for the sake of being snappy and concise but it’s not off point.  The biggest single condemnation I can make of the show is that feels hollow. Everything that happens feels like empty exposition with nothing behind it and I struggled to find a reason to care or invest myself.  Obviously it’s hard to create a ton of characterization in the first episode of a series, but I don’t feel like I know the characters at all.   The characters felt like written descriptions rather than actual characters.  Not only do I feel like I know nothing about the new queen and king, but they didn’t sell me at all on their unlikely love that is supposed to get this story going.   She’s supposed to be such a mind-mindbogglingly charismatic commoner that the king would swear off a smart foreign marriage for her, and I don’t get that here. The episode felt largely artless; even outside of the characters there was no sense of direction, writing, or aesthetic that gave me reason to want to step back into this world for another episode.

When I finished the episode, I just didn’t care, not about the forbidden love, not enough to root for the king, or the White Queen, or the queen’s practical, possibly magic mother, or, well, anything.  It’s not compelling, and in a post Game of Thrones world, it’s hard for me to not watch this fantasy show without making the comparison, which as mentioned above does not suit The White Queen well. I’m not sure whether the mere existence Yorks and Lancaster is supposed to make us feel the charge of how forbidden this love. Maybe in England, you can just say Yorks and Lancasters and you automatically get the sense of instant rivalry that North and South in the Civil War would bring in America.  I understand historically that Yorks vs. Lancasters was a big deal, but I would like the show to convince me of that through storytelling rather than mention it a couple of times and have it assumed so due to historical context. There’s a real cheap attempt in the last two minutes to keep prolonged interest in the show when the new queen sees a possibly magical vision of her own blood, but other than that I’m not sure what I have to look forward to.

Will I watch it again?  Nope.  Honestly, the best I can say about The White Queen is that it reignited my interest in the War of the Roses. I know I’m a history nerd, but it’s probably not a great sign if I enjoy the reading about the real life characters on Wikipedia more than I do watching the show.

Summer 2013 Review: Low Winter Sun

12 Aug

Stanley Tucci-lookalike Mark Strong

Here’s what I know about Low Winter Sun after one episode.

There are two main plot strains, both diverging from a detective, Brendan McCann, who is killed in the first scene by two other detectives, Frank, and Joe.  They kill him and then attempt to make it look like a suicide, handcuffing his arm to his car, and driving his car into a lake.

The next day, Internal Affairs comes into the Detroit office of these two detectives asking all sorts of questions about Brendan.  It turns out Brendan was super dirty, though we don’t know the exactly details, and Joe seems to have been involved somehow, leading him to want Brendan, a notorious drunk who could give him away, dead.  Frank, who seemed to want Brendan dead as part of some sort of revenge, seems to honestly know nothing about Brendan’s dirty history and is outraged at Joe for failing to mention these selfish motives.  Soon, the cops find Brendan’s body, so far think it’s a suicide, and also find a body in the trunk of Brendan’s car that Frank and Joe know nothing about.  Frank’s boss puts him in charge of looking into it, which could be problematic since Frank was the one who killed him.

The second strain involves some guys involved with drugs who were paying off Brendan to do some shady stuff for them.  The primary drug plot guy, whose name might be Nick, killed another drug dealer in an early scene, stole some drugs, and is trying to figure out whether Brendan double crossed him or simply didn’t show up because he was drunk when he finds out that Brendan’s done.  There’s some drugs and some major organized crime and some family drama going on, but it’s hard to tell where this is going from the first episode, as this strain is a lot less well defined than the police plot.

It’s grimy, dark, bleak, depressing.  It takes place in Detroit, which is probably the best place currently to set a show if you want to give off that feel, but it feels less like Detroit than the idea of Detroit, or maybe more accurately ’70s urban America when it seemed like every big city was overrun by crime and corruption and on the verge of collapse.  Everything’s super seedy and shady, with that ’70s urban noir French Connection type feel – this is a lousy place to live that’s more seedy underbelly than well, upright overbelly.  Any cop might be on the payroll, and it seems like corruption may be more the norm than the exception, as the boss figure mentions that several people in his position have gone down due to corruption in recent years.  This pervasive atmosphere of a place where the American dream got lost a long time ago down some gutter is the most consistent feature of the show, guiding it when we’re not sure exactly what the show is about otherwise.

Where Low Winter Sun is going – I’m not exactly sure.  Frank clearly has some sort of tragic history involving a woman, who I’m guessing died.  He’s going to dig deeper into whatever the big corruption situation was, particularly involving Joe, who he’s now tied to, thanks to their collective murder. As for the drug plot, it’s less clear.  That story didn’t quite feel like it belonged, except for its tie in with the atmosphere and the dead cop, but I imagine the two stories could meet at some point as Frank investigates.

Yeah, it looks totally hopeless.  There is absolutely no humor or levity of any kind. Yes, it could easily descend into cop clichés. It’s a cop show, and it’s hard for cop shows not to fall into that, and Low Winter Sun certain dips its toes into the cliche pool on more than one occasion.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think we need another cop show right now, and i think the world would be served by a five year moratorium on new cop shows.  Low Winter Sun certainly seems to be another in the middle-aged-white-male-antihero subgroup of dramas, started by Tony Soprano, and promulgated further by Don Draper and Walter White, (and several more lesser versions since including Boardwalk Empire) a genre that’s definitely in danger of jumping the shark.

Still, while I’m not sure there’s potential for greatness here, I do think there’s potential for goodness.  Mark Strong has made a living playing villains and he gets to play a character who seems to be at the least not entirely evil, which for him is a step up on the morality scale. The choice of casting someone as associated with villainy as Strong helps set the tone for the show, along with having the protagonist commit murder in the first scene of the series which seems potentially gimmicky but which I found somewhat compelling. Frank is already morally compromised within five minutes of the series beginning.  Unlike with Draper and White where the instinct is to root for them until you get to know them better, when Frank kills someone right away, the instinct is to root against him.   All he has going for him is that it seems like it’s instinctual to root against everyone in this show, which may make him the good guy in a very relative sense. The show is mightily grim and it certainly begs the question, Is there such a thing as too grim?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I may have a higher tolerance for grim-ness than most.  It’s so far a fairly one note show, built around this atmosphere and tone.  But I don’t think it’s necessarily such a bad note.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah, I think I might.  It was certainly not an instant winner but the abject bleakness appeals to me more than it might to others, and while its attitude could get tired fast, especially depending on how close It sticks to the traditional cop formulas, I think I’m willing to give it a couple of episodes to see if it does.  I didn’t immediately want to watch the next episode which is the sign of a pilot that really does its job, but it passed the minimum test of giving me at least one aspect that I find intriguing, which is the tone.

End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 5 – Part 2

9 Aug

Jesse and Walt doing what they do

Part two of my notes on the first half of Season 5 of Breaking Bad.  Part one is here.  Moving forward.

After stating forcefully that he’s unwilling to sell his share of the methylamine even though the potential buyers have told them it’s all or nothing, Walt succeeds in doing nothing but pissing everybody off until he actually comes up with a solution that requires him to do the other thing he does best besides make math;.  His plan is dependent on him bringing his braggadocio to convince someone of something, in this case, convincing the drug dealers that he is the legendary Heisenberg.  What once was a lie, has now become the truth.  While Walter White is a helpless, cancer ridden science teacher, Heisenberg is a master chemist who killed drug dealer extraordinaire Gus Fring.  What started off as an idea, has become a reality.

Walt is incensed when Jesse won’t stay with him in his meth operation, and refuses to give him his share of the money, as he’s resentful of Jesse’s choice to abandon him.  Obviously, Walt is clearly in the wrong here, but it’s just another go around in the complicated father – son type of relationship Walt and Jesse have.  Walt, with Jesse, can be proud about himself in a way he can’t be with his own son, and Walt cares about what Jesse thinks; Jesse’s inability to rationalize the shooting of Drew Sharp is a shot directly across the bow of Walt’s ability to do so.  Even though it’s certainly in Jesse’s best interests to step away from more illegal activity, I think Walt really believes what he’s saying, that this is something Jesse does well, and that this will keep Jesse, who really didn’t have a lot going for him before Walt came around, from using.  The rush of being the best may not have the same appeal for everyone that it does for Walt, but for Walt, that’s what this is all about. In a perverse way, Jesse, like, Walt, was better at cooking meth than anything he had ever done before, and it’s unfortunate there’s no legal way for him to take advantage of that.

At the end of the second to last episode, Walt brings Mike’s go bag to him, and insists that Mike gives him the names of his guys in jail.  Mike, of course, won’t, and Walt, feeling helpness and out of control, clumsily shoots Mike.  It’s an obviously poor choice by Walt, reacting to his lack of control over the situation which Walt can’t deal with, and he realizes it afterwards, though that doesn’t do Mike much good.  Mike, without blaming the victim too much, could have gotten away with his life intact if he didn’t take it upon himself to ream out Walt for everything Walt did to screw up Gus’s operation.  We had a good thing going with Gus, Mike insisted, until you had to go and blow it up.  Of course Walt did not have a good thing going with Gus, at least towards the end when Gus wanted him dead, and it wasn’t actually Walt who screwed it up to begin with, which is hard to remember, but Jesse, when he decided to try to kill a couple of drug dealers who used kids.  Still, Mike just has to rub it in, and while that doesn’t make his death his own fault by any means, he should know Walt well enough by this point to know that he’s temping fate to say the least. Mike who’s so cool, calm, and collected for the vast majority of the series lets his emotions get the best of him here and it leads to his death.

I had forgotten just how much time passes in the final episode of the first half of the fifth season.  Walt enlists Todd’s uncle to kill all of Mike’s henchmen in prison at the same time.  Murder for hire is pretty vicious for certain, and it’s an incredibly brutal series of deaths, but any sympathy I feel for these henchman is nothing compared to what I feel for Drew Sharp, the boy killed by Todd in the desert.  After all, practically, Walt was right.  Without their hazard pay, several of these guys were going to talk, as we saw.  It was a cruel thing to do, but something Gus Fring or any other person in Walt’s boss of a drug operation situation would have agreed necessary to keep on.  Again, that doesn’t make it right or good, but it’s business rather than evil; these people didn’t deserve to die but they were hardly innocents.

Skyler shows Walt all the money that Walt’s acquired, which she’s placed in a storage locker, to point out that for all the money they have, they could never launder it all in a million years.  She’s right, but it’s unclear whether or not it matters to Walt.  Walt is only partly doing it for the money; he’s wants to do something he’s the best at and be the boss.  Still, maybe he sees a way back to his family here, an opening left by Skyler, and he decides, not unwisely, to take it.  Of course, if this was a different series that could be the end – Walt realizes he’s got more than he could ever need, decides to retire, and the family more or less goes back to normal.  In this show, though, at the same time they’re having dinner, as Walt’s retired, and Skyler seems for once to not despise Walt with ever fiber of her being, Hank comes upon a copy of Leaves of Grass in the bathroom, sees it inscribed to “W.W.,” similar to a copy of Leaves of Grass found at Gale’s apartment, and what the W.W. really stood for hits him.

I don’t particularly like the last scene for a couple of reasons.  First, I don’t think Walt would be so careless to leave a gift from Gale lying around in the bathroom.  Second, Hank’s a damn good cop – if he figures out Walt, I’d vastly prefer it to be from a positive act, rather than simply stumbling upon it.  Third, I hate the reminder after Hank sees the “W.W.” that reshows the scene where Hank is trying to figure out what W.W. means; we’re all obsessive Breaking Bad watchers, we either remember the earlier scene or can figure it out.

Every season, I talk about a couple of individual scenes that I adore outside of their context. This season it’s the first scene in Madrigal, where after watching a test of dressings (Franch clearly the best) a Madrigal executive locks himself into the bathroom and kills himself with a defibrillator.  Just beautiful; the clinical science lab, the sharp coloring, the bizarre suicide method. Additionally, I’ve also often said no show does montages better than Breaking Bad, and the final episode’s Crystal Blue Persuasion montage as Walt and Todd make meth is fantastic; it’s as if the show was waiting to use this song for five seasons just for this moment.

For every complaint I make, it’s worth stating that this is Breaking Bad we’re talking about.  Like Mad Men, it’s great, even when it’s not.  Even the weaker moments, are pretty brilliant, and even when I disagree with a choice, I know a ton of thinking and work went into every single decision.  No choice was made willy-nilly or just offhand, or just happened because no one thought about it.  I liked the fifth season more the second time I watched it. Although I’m not sure how the show’s going to end, nor how much impact the ending, for better or worse, will have on my opinion, Breaking Bad is currently one of my five favorite hour long shows of all time.