Archive | October, 2013

Fall 2013 Review: Betrayal

30 Oct

Betrayers and James Cromwell Sometimes you watch a show,and you ask simply, “Why?” Not because it’s so bad, though you wouldn’t ask it if it was good. Even with bad shows you can often see why they were made, or the path they took and where it went wrong, or who they were trying to appeal to. There was a plan, and whether it was intended to be good, or simply popular with one particular demographic of television viewers, you can guess what it was, even if it doesn’t get there in the end. No, what I mean are shows that make you ask “Why” because they seem pointless and forgettable and you wonder why they kept getting moved through all of the many stages required to get a show from idea to production to on air. A show so forgettable and just whatever that you’ll probably not remember anything about it within an hour of viewing it, and that absolutely no one will remember its existence even a couple of months after its debut.,

Betrayal is such a show. If I had to guess at the thought process, I would suppose that ABC was probably making another attempt to imitate vastly slowed down first season hit Revenge, but the only reason I’m suspecting that is the two shows share one world title that are pretty similar. Here’s your Betrayal primer, nevertheless, so you know all you ever need to know about the show and more. Sara Hanley (Hannah Ware, who played the daughter, the worst character on Boss) is a successful magazine photographer married to Drew, an ambitious and busy prosecutor. Jack McAllister is a talented lawyer stuck working for his father-in-law in a possibly shady business. He’s married to Elaine, a marriage he fell into young. Both Jack and Elaine have kids, and after meeting at a gallery displaying Sara’s art, they find they have a spark that they simply can’t ignore and begin an affair.

I’m sure they both have perfectly good reasons to be unhappy in their respective marriages but the spark is certainly hard to discern from a viewer perspective. Jack feels stuck being around his family all the time at work and at home, and feels totally controlled by his father-in-law. Sara, well, her husband is really busy I guess and doesn’t have time for coffee when she shows up in his office in the middle of the day without calling ahead. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel sympathetic towards them and empathize with their infidelity, or more than that, at least feel swept up in it even if we don’t think it’s moral, but I didn’t feel anything. Feeling that they were both wrong is not necessarily bad but feeling nothing at all certainly is. Both felt guilty after Sara received a phone call from her husband right before they were about to consummate their affair and they decide to break it off. Later in the episode, however, Jack made a surprise visit to Sara’s studio.  They decide, at this juncture, that even though they’ve spent just about a day with one another, that they can’t possibly live without one another and have sex right then and there in the studio. I don’t really get it and more than that as mentioned before I just don’t care.

The shin hits the fan when Jack’s brother-in-law, his boss’s son, is considered a prime murder suspect in the death of his boss’s brother-in-law, who his boss suspected of shady dealings against the family interest which Jack discovered. That’s a long complicated sentence which I could have spent more time parsing out but it’s really not worth it. The important upside is that coincidentally or maybe not, Sara’s husband is the prosecutor, who believes that a conviction of Jack’s brother-in-law could make his career, setting up a run for political office. The episode ends with Sara breaking down after finding this out, her infidelity reducing her to a pile of guilt.

Betrayal really is probably going for something in the Revenge sphere, but it’s so far off that I have a hard time believing it. Revenge was trashy, soapy, fun. Betrayal, well, it’s soapy if soapy just means being about people having affairs, but it’s not at all fun. It’s super duper serious, ponderous, and uninteresting.

I entirely forgot to mention that the show tries to grab you with my least favorite plot device, the flash forward (which Revenge used as well), which appears at the beginning of the episode, but which I forgot about by the end, when it reappears briefly.  In the flash forward, Sara is shot and well, I couldn’t tell what else happened, and I didn’t really care to watch the scene again to figure it out. This device is intended to let me know big, interesting things are going to happen, because you might not realize that after one episode, but it always misses the point. If you can’t interest people in some aspect of your show after one episode, you’re not doing a very good job. A cheap trick won’t help.

Oh, I should probably mention James Cromwell plays Jack’s father-in-law. That’s pretty cool.

Betrayal is not as bad as a bad comedy because bad dramas usually aren’t as bad as bad comedies. It was a frustrating, sub-mediocre watch, but it wasn’t out and out laughably awful. It was merely pretty bad. Again, I ask. Why?

Will I watch it again? No. Betrayal is so anonymous that you probably won’t remember it exists if I ask you about it tomorrow. That’s not a good thing.

Fall 2013 Review: Welcome to the Family

28 Oct

I want that panda

Yes, I know, this is my first review of an already cancelled show. There will be more. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Every show that makes it to air deserves the dignity of being thought about for one half hour.

Welcome to the Family is a very much in the wanna-be Modern Family vein, as NBC attempts to imitate ABC’s fairly successful brand of comedies . One way in which Welcome to the Family mimics Modern Family’s approach is by starring a big family which is not normal in the traditional nuclear family way, but by portraying abnormal as the new normal approach. In this case, it’s the merger of two families by an unlikely marriage. Mike O’Malley is Dan and In Plain Sight’s Mary McCormack is his wife, Caroline. They’re thrilled that their hard-to-control not-the-sharpest-tool-in-the-shed daughter Molly somehow made it to high school graduation and is about to go off to Arizona State, letting them have some valuable them time, getting in shape and having sex again, etc, etc. Meanwhile, Miguel and Lisette are thrilled that their son Junior is about to graduate high school as valedictorian and be off to a much deserved spot at Stanford. Everyone’s plan changes, however, when it turns out that Molly is pregnant by way of Junior, her boyfriend, and they decide to keep the kid and stay home to raise him rather than travelling to school, irritating both sets of parents who were look forward to their kids going away for different reasons.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that Dan and Miguel had a run in earlier in that same day that did not end well. Dan brought a coupon for a free boxing lesson to Miguel’s gym, which Miguel refused to honor because he thought Dan was just going to waste his time and never come back (let’s note that Miguel is clearly in the wrong here – no one made him put out the coupon – that level of customer service is truly appalling and I hope Dan writes a terrible yelp review). So while the son and daughter love each other, the two dads hate each other, and the moms are just trying to make everybody play nice while being stunned by the entire situations. When Junior and Molly decide to get engaged, the families realize that like it or not, they’re going to have to get a long if they want to be part of their children’s lives.

Welcome to the Family is a thoroughly mediocre show.  A note about mediocre shows before I go on, though.

I don’t want to sit around defending a mediocre show, but when you watch every new network television show in the course of a month you get to really know the differences between the really bad shows and the simply mediocre.  In this context, mediocre shows don’t look that bad, not because they’re any better, but because you realize just how difficult even mediocrity is to achieve. It’s a surprisngly high bar. Especially for comedies. It’s much easier to make a mediocre drama than it is to make a mediocre comedy. Most dramas are at least vaguely tolerable, but many comedies are not.

Welcome to the Family is certainly of the mediocre rather than the truly terrible variety.  It’s surprisingly well meaning. The characters are mostly likable, and while the son and daughter are a little cartoonish – the daughter in particularly is disturbingly empty-headed – it’s largely amusingly so. I didn’t really laugh much, but I my face creased into a slight smile a few times in the episode. Mike O’Malley has grown on me over the years and was one of the best parts of Glee during the brief period I was still watching Glee for some reason. The acting is competent, the premise is fairly sound and the writing is certainly not cringe-inducing.

Is it funny? Well, no. It misses the mark. Just because it’s not so bad doesn’t make it good. Some comedies are good without being funny, because of the excellent characters, writing, filmwork, or plot but while there’s nothing wrong with it, none of those pieces are incredibly compelling in and of itself. If it was funny, it’d be good, but there’s not a whole lot going on that would make it worth watching without the humor. Oh well.

Will I watch it again? It’s a mediocre show, not a terrible one. There’s really no reason to return to the show but I’m glad I watched one so I can give it credit for the mediocrity it managed to reach.

Fall 2013 Review: Sean Saves the World

25 Oct

Sean saving the world

Sean Saves the World stars Sean Hayes as a gay single parent. A show starring a gay single parent is not nearly as groundbreaking as a gay main character was on Will & Grace, the show on which Hayes originally gained fame, and that’s a good thing.  It’s a great thing that a gay single parent doesn’t even move the controversy meter much anymore; there’s none of the uproar from conservative affiliates pulling the show from their stations en masse.  I’m sure the real fringe doesn’t like it, but the vast vast majority of America couldn’t care less. What’s more remarkable about Sean Saves the World is that its featuring a gay single parent is really the only modern aspect of the show.

Sean Hayes stars as well, Sean, a single dad, who now has full custody of his 14-year old daughter after her mother moves away to take a new job. He wants to be the best parent he can be, and his stressed about his lack of full-time parenting experience. Luckily, he has the help of his overbearing mother, played by Linda Lavin, who starred as Alice in Alice some years ago. All that’s getting in the way of his planned daddy-daughter post-work bonding time is his new cartoonishly terrible new boss played by former The State member and Reno 911 veteran Thomas Lennon who specializes in cartoonish over the top characters (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse). Sean is continually stressed in his attempt to lead his coworkers and succeed at work while making time for his daughter.

Sean Saves the World is a sitcom in the classic, old-fashioned vein. It’s a sitcom with a capital S. A Sitcom. . Sean Hayes would be an absolute star in the days in which Sitcom stars were king, an era that didn’t end that long ago. Sean Saves the World immediately feels like a Sitcom in format with its laugh track and multiple camera set up, but even aside from these basic background factors, Sean Saves the World buys into every part of the formula that went into making those old Sitcoms.  The humor here is based on the humor that inspired those Sitcom. There’s no fast talking or quick cuts or subtle jokes and looks that require multiple viewers to really appreciate.  There’s blatant, obvious laugh lines, followed by long pauses.

Compared to small s sitcom acting, Sitcom acting relies on loud unsubtle gestures and extreme looks which last an inordinate amount of time to make sure every last viewer has seen them. If sitcom acting is more similar to film acting, Sitcom acting is akin to theater acting. Every joke has to be accentuated to make sure the audience gets it, every facial expression has be to clear and overwrought so that even the viewers in the far back rows can get the idea.  Every bit of physical comedy is overplayed so you know exactly what’s coming next. At one point in the episode, Sean is trying to escape his work through the bathroom window so that the boss doesn’t see him leaving. He steps on some furniture to help him reach the window. The second he gets up on that furniture it’s clear that the furniture is going to break while he’s stepping on it, but the audience has to wait until Sean’s finally making progress for the furniture to break and Sean to fall and injure himself in a comical manner. There’s plenty of shoddy wordplay which is a staple of any old fashioned Sitcom, overwritten dialogue that might instantly seem clever, but really isn’t. It’s borscht belt humor, hamming it up left and right.

If I was reviewing Hayes’ ability as a Sitcom actor, well, he’s a pro. His mother is also. They’re both quite good at what the show is clearly going for, whether it was their decision or not. Unfortunately that style just leeches the humor out of every situation. We’re a long way away from the domination of that era, when there were three networks and those were the only comedies on television and I don’t ever want to go back.

Will I watch it again? No. It’s quite good at being something that I don’t care for at all and not good at anything I like.  So, in short, I don’t like it, it’s not funny, and I’m not going to watch it again.

Fall 2013 Review: The Crazy Ones

23 Oct

Robin and Sarah Michelle Crazy

Robin Williams stars as Robin Williams. That’s the first and most important thing you need to know about The Crazy Ones. This is one of those shows where whether you like it or hate it will be determined by how much you like the main actor, as the show is built mostly on him simply being himself. There’s a few of these star-based sitcoms every year, that are shows essentially built around a single actor or actress. They usually star comedians, who, unlike actors who are supposed to be able to slip into a role, generally are chosen for their particular comedic style and stage personality and more or less play an exaggerated version of themselves.

Robin Williams plays Simon Roberts, a once legendarily charismatic ad-man who has lost his edge over the years, a la Robin Williams the comedian (have you seen Man of the Year or RV?). Sarah Michelle Gellar plays his more serious daughter who both loves his father and is constantly frustrated by his flights of fancy and refusal to be professional.  She’s recently been added to the name of the firm; Roberts and Roberts.  The cast is rounded out by an artist named Andrew who does just about nothing in the first episode, an assistant named Lauren who does very little, and James Wolk, Man Men’s Bob Benson, as Zachary, who seems to be a fast-talking Robin Williams protégé and gets the most to do after the two stars. While poor Gellar is frequently stuck as a nag, Wolk gets to have fun with WIlliams, and attempt to exchange what they seem to think is hilarious banter.

Speaking of Mad Men, it doesn’t help that this Wolk is there to remind me of Mad Men, the biggest and best advertising agency-based show of this era. While The Crazy Ones, a sitcom, is going for a very different tenor and vibe than Mad Men in almost every possible way, it’s hard to listen to Robin Williams pitch the clients without thinking of how inferior everything about the pitch scene is to similar scenes in Mad Men. Admittedly, that’s pretty unfair; no show is going to be Mad Men. What’s not unfair is to mention that the scenes, and the show, are not the least bit funny or really amusing.

It’s also worth noting that the episode seems kind of like a giant commercial for primary Roberts and Roberts client McDonald’s, which gets mentioned a remarkable amount of times in The Crazy Ones’ twenty two minute running time.

Honestly that’s a fairly terrible example of blatant product placement but that’s just one episode. What really bothers me is that there’s just  so much Robin Williams shtick. He does impressions, he changes voices, he’s so fucking wacky and painfully so. He’s off the wall, and it’s implied that this is part of both the success and the failure of Williams’ abilities as an ad man, and that rings true for his career as a comedian as well. Can’t he turn it off? Do people really like this? Is he talented? Well, it’s definitely a talent. That doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly annoying. I spent the entire episode feeling really bad for Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character who has to be the constant irritant to Williams, slowing down his imperfect creative mind to attempt to make him be serious. Everyone else on the show cracks up at his antics, while Gellar, like myself, was constantly frustrated, wanting him to get it together. There’s an important client there, can he act like he cares at all?

Of course, that’s what Williams is going to do. That’s what you hire him to do generally, even though his best roles in the last two decades have been the creepy dramatic persona he unveiled in One Hour Photo (I still shudder) and Insomnia. If he kept up with his dramatic acting I’d be extremely interested, but he hasn’t, and I’m not.

Will I watch it again? No. It wasn’t funny. I haven’t found Robin Williams funny since around Aladdin, and nothing changed my opinion here. More than not funny, his bits get on my nerves after a while; twenty minutes can pack a surprising amount of Robin Williams.

Fall 2013 Review: Mom

21 Oct

Two Moms

Mom stars Anna Faris as Christy, a mom of two kids, a teenage daughter and a younger son, from two different fathers. Christy is a recovering alcoholic, who entered AA fairly recently and is desperately trying to put her life together and be a better mother to her kids than her mom was to her.  She works as a waitress at a fancy French restaurant run by a pretentious jerk of a chef named Rudy, played by French Stewart (French restaurant, French Stewart – makes sense, right). Her boss is Gabriel (Nate Corddry, who served briefly as a Daily Show correspondent at the same time as his older brother Rob), who she’s dating. Unfortunately, he’s also married to the daughter of the restaurant’s owner. At home, her teenage daughter Violet is sleeping with her idiot boyfriend Luke, while her son’s stoner dad Baxter (Matt Jones, Breaking Bad’s Badger) hangs around obnoxiously trying to spend time with her son, Roscoe. Into these already messy times, comes her mom, Bonnie, played by Allison Janney, a recovering alcoholic herself. , Bonnie taught Christy all of her bad habits, and Christy blames for her many of her problems. After being prodded by her daughter on charges of hypocrisy, Christy reluctantly tries to renew her relationship with her mother. Frustratingly, it seems like Bonnie’s prickly personality hasn’t changed a bit even though she’s kicked the booze and the drugs.

Anna Faris has long been a talented comedic actress who simply couldn’t find the right role. She starred in several movies, most of which were mediocre at best, and a television show has long seemed in the offing as a natural use of her talents. Amy Poehler is the go-to example of an actress who found her home as a TV lead, but there are others. Unfortunately, this show isn’t Faris’ Parks and Recreation and does not take full advantage of Faris’ abilities..

When I talked about the failings of The Michael J. Fox Show, I talked about how it has all the elements required to put together a solid sitcom outside from good jokes.  Mom is about two elements behind The Michael J. Fox Show on the road to sitcom glory.  It’s significantly better than the worst shows of the season, The Millers, and Dads, but it’s still significantly behind being worth watching.  Faris and Janney are talented and the show is well meaning.  The premise is a solid one as well, and there’s a lot of potential humor, pathos and characterization that could be built out of that set up, and with those actresses particularly at the heart of it.

Unfortunately it’s both not funny and not built in a style which allows it to be funny. It’s way too hammy. It has a laugh track, which you may know if you’ve ready any of my reviews, is basically a non-starter. This laugh track is particularly insufferable, as is the low moment of the episode, when CBS star Jon Cryer shows up as a diner at Christy’s restaurant, and the laughs turn to loud cheers, just to make sure you know that a fellow CBS sitcom actor should be celebrated.  This is the 21st century; I expect better.  Television is now being taken more seriously as an art form as ever before, and part of the reason why is because it’s shed things like laugh tracks and hackneyed humor with long pauses that give the audience time to catch up. All these pieces reek of the days TV was considered obviously inferior to film.

If you strip away both the jokes and the style, there’s a potentially good sitcom here. But it’s buried deep underneath the canned jokes and canned laughter, far too deep to see the light of day.

Will I watch it again? No. That a Chuck Lorre sitcom isn’t awful is a fair backhanded compliment; Mom is not awful. It’s not good enough to watch though. Try harder.

Fall 2013 Review: Ironside

18 Oct

Bob Ironside Robert Ironside is a detective who life was dramatically altered after he was accidentally shot by his partner a couple of years before the show takes place.  He was paralyzed and now resides in a wheelchair. He also runs a special squad of hand-picked detectives who take on select cases.  Somehow through a lawsuit Ironside got the right to choose this detective squad, and this is mentioned but not really explained as well as which cases he gets, though it’s not particularly important.

Ironside is a remake of a ‘60s show starring Raymond Burr, with a similar premise, and I do want to at least mention how ridiculous it is that a guy in a wheelchair just happens to have the name ironside.  I thought it was a nickname at first, but it’s not. Whoever thought that up must have thought they were really clever. Ironside, as you might imagine, in an unconventional cop who plays by his own rules.  He doesn’t believe in the ordinary rules that govern most detectives. He’s learned a lot from having to deal with being stuck in his chair. I wish I had kept track of how many times he talks about how he sees life differently from his new vantage point, but it was several, both figuratively and literally. The most blatant example is when his superior asks him how he sees a gun hiding under a pillow, and Ironside answers, “I got a different view of the world from down here” in the most literal sense possible, and it felt like his boss only asked the question so Ironside could deliver that answer. (I vastly wish he had instead said something like, “My line of sight is significantly lower because I’m sitting in a wheelchair,.”).

Ironside frustrates his immediate superior by constantly refusing to follow rules, which seems like it should be a bigger deal than Ironside makes it out to be.  In the first scene, he blatantly disregards procedure to try to persuade a suspected perpetrator to reveal the location of a little girl he thinks the perpetrator kidnapped. When his by-the-book superior reams him out for basically destroying any legal case they’d have against the offender by not reading him his Miranda rights correctly, Ironside points to the fact that his methods worked, but that misses the point completely. It’s a seriously disturbing attitude to have that a positive result justifies a corrupt process. Ironside as a show or a policeman is not particularly concerned with the profits. In the eyes of the show, what he does is a cool, badass thing to do to a terrible a criminal who shouldn’t have any rights anyway, and if there was any question at all, they were answered when Ironside turned out to be right. Ethiical and moral questions are far outside of Ironside’s purview.

After all, he’s not the same cop he was before the injury,  As mentioned, he sees things different now physically and metaphorically and isn’t particularly worried about treading on either criminals or his superiors in his pursuit of doing things his way, which is the right way. There are many shots of Ironside thinking, either as he sifts through evidence or while he’s at home just sorting the entire case out in his head. He comes up with intuitions and forces his team to think differently, outside of the box. They’re his proteges, and while he frustrates them with his attitude on occasion, they all seem to realize they’re working with a special unorthodox mind from whom they can learn.

Part of the episode deals with the sad state that Ironside’s old partner has fallen into, full of grief due to his accidentally shooting of Ironside.  Ironside is handling it a lot better and is frustrated with his ex-partner’s inability to deal, even though Ironside was the one who got shot. I’m not really sure where this plotline fits in the show. It seems like an attempt to imbue Ironside with more emotion than is present in a typical police procedural. It just feels off and out of place though. Toward the end of the episode is a scene of his former partner attending an AA meeting, where Ironside watches from afar briefly, before rolling away. There’s supposed to be some sort of meaning here but I found it difficult to care.

There are also couple of strange allusions to how much of a ladies’ man Ironside is, which it felt incredibly out of place in the episode. At the end he gets together with a woman who may or may not have been the woman he was with earlier in the episode.

Overall, the show felt disjointed, cliched, poorly thought out, humorless, over the top, and, well bad.The more I thought about it the more I changed my opinion of the show from merely a below average police procedural to, well, a much below average police procedural. At least CSIs and NCISs have a sense of self-aware humor about their tropes which Ironside badly lacks.

Will I watch it again? No.  It’s a police procedural, so I wouldn’t watch it anyway, but it’s a bad one at that. I’d watch CSI or more likely Elementary or The Blacklist if I really want to watch one.

Fall 2013 Review: The Michael J. Fox Show

16 Oct

Michael J Fox

The Michael J. Fox Show tells the tale of Mike Henry, a legendary New York local television newsman who retired due to Parkinson’s disease with the added benefit of spending more time with his family. He misses work and his family is getting sick of him being around all the time, waking them up early and bothering them in other ways. Thus, his wife and his old producer conspire to convince him to come back to work.

His family consists of his loving wife, Annie (Breaking Bad’s Marie, Betsy Brandt), his Cornell drop out college aged son, Ian, his teenage daughter Eve, his youngest son Graham, and his sister Leigh.  Characters at work include his veteran producer Harris (The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, better known as Bunk), and his new young, nervous, segment producer Kay.  The characters are not cookie cutter outside of the extremely obnoxious Aunt Leigh, who is the feisty single middle-aged women constantly striving to act and look younger.  She could get real tired real fast; I wanted her to go away in just about every scene she was in.

In a lot of ways, the Michael J. Fox Show is admirable.  It starts with the classic family sitcom model which reigned supreme on television from the 1950s to the 1990s and largely updates it to get with the 21st century.  There’s no laugh track, the dialogue is quick without those awful long sitcom pauses, and the characters, the aunt aside, are not ridiculous cartoons.  In addition, it brings the actual warmth and love that were at the heart of traditional family sitcoms, that still resonate even when everything else feels horribly dated in those shows. The family actually seem to genuinely like one another. Michael J. Fox is already a larger than life television personality that many of us feel like we saw grow up over 30 years on television, and making him a local news anchor smartly captures that angle of Fox; regular New Yorkers feel like they know Fox’s character in the same way. The show does a good job with its handling of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease; we know it’s going to be used for good-natured humor immediately, with a handful of jokes about Fox’s condition in the first episode. Also, I’ll award the show extra points for actually being filmed in New York, which does make a difference.

Unfortunately, though, for all these positive qualities, the problem with the Michael J. Fox is a deceptively simple one. If the jokes were funny, the show would be good. I know that sounds like the most obvious diagnosis for a bad comedy ever, but it’s really not.  Most bad shows have something wrong in their DNA that goes well beyond the jokes not being funny – the structure is broken.  The cast is bad, the laugh track, the look of the show, the tone – the whole idea behind the show is broken deep within its foundation.  That’s not the case here.  The idea is solid, the characters, outside of the wacky aunt, are well-built, the acting is good, the look and feel are fine.  The jokes are read correctly and given room to breathe.  They’re just not funny jokes. Someone needs to go down this script, even keep the same overall structure, and just tweak the dialogue all over the place.

I was expecting another lazy CBS-like effort with, if not a laugh track, tired characters and tropes. The Michael J. Fox Show isn’t that which is absolutely to be praised.  Now, if it could only take that last step and be funny, there’d be a really good show here.

Will I watch it again? It was better than I thought it would be.  Still no. The blueprint is there for this to funny, but it isn’t now. It’s close but not close enough.

Fall 2013 Review: The Millers

14 Oct

Three of The Millers

The Millers stars Will Arnett as Nathan Miller, a successful local newsman ( oddly, one of two new Thursday night comedies where the main character plays a local newsman, along with The Michael J. Fox Show) who was recently divorced but has been holding back that information from his overbearing parents.  He instead confides in his sister, Debbie, played by Glee’s Jayma Mays, and her husband, Adam, played by Nelson Franklin. His parents, Tom, played by Beau Bridges, and Carol, played by Margo Martindale, show up at his place after his father accidentally floods the basement of their home. Will is forced to finally spill the beans about his divorce, and in response his father all of a sudden decides he wants a divorce also, ending his parents four decade long marriage. Tom goes to stay with Debbie while Carol stays with Nathan. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s JB Smoove plays Nathan’s coworkers and friend Ray. Thus, the setup for The Millers.

Broad comedy, which was once more descriptive, has become such a pejorative term, trotted out in a negative fashion to describe Farrelly Brothers shtick and the like. In both the descripve and possibly unfair pejoriative usage, The Millers is more or less a broad comedy.  The jokes are often physical and almost always stupid. Respect for their viewers’ intelligence was not something the creators of The Millers had in mind. The jokes are incredibly obvious and there’s a laugh track which lets you know when to chuckle if you somehow weren’t able to figure out from the blatant big laugh lines.

Maybe the’s is a better term for The Millers; the onion AVClub called it fart-com. There were not one but two fart jokes in the episode, and the worse part about those is that they may have actually been the best part of the episode.  Hey, farts can be funny, which is already more than you can say about anything else in the episode.

On top of the stifling laugh track, the show is chock-full of incredibly stale stereotypes and character tropes.  The dad, Tom, can’t figure out how to use technology; he continues to put metal in the microwave and he can’t understand how to use the television remotes.  Television remotes can be complicated, it’s certainly true, but if the writers really thought they had the first inkling to make an old-guy-can’t-figure-out-television-remotes joke, I’m afraid they’re sorely mistaken.  Carol, the mom, is an overbearing nag who pushes advice nobody wants and constantly overshares inappropriate information. Inappropriate parents are hilarious! Ray and Nathan have an unoriginal time-to-hit-up-the-dating –scene. There’s absolutely no care put into writing these jokes. When Tom can’t figure out how to use the remotes, for example, that’s the joke. There’s no even attempt at clever wordplay or something different to keep an old joke even slightly fresh or new.

Eventually, the episode finally gets to its dramatic conclusion. Nathan’s holding a party at which he thinks he’s found a woman willing to sleep with him while his mother is doing everything in her power to prevent that, unintentionally. Nathan, seeing how broken up his mother is, decides to abandon all hope of getting laid to cheer up his sullen mother with a creepy dance rendition of Dirty Dancing. What a sweet kid. It’s supposed to be heartwarming except all of these people both feel like not only classic types but terrible versions of those types. I’m not cheering for anyone and the scene is awkward without being funny. The characters have all gotten on my nerves in just twenty two minutes.

Everything in this show feels like it’s been done a thousand times before. It’s crass, it’s unfunny; I’m not sure who watching this thought this was good. I know I’m constantly surprised but I’d like to find someone who walked out of a test screening of The Millers and thought this was funny. Honestly, I’d like to know if the executives who put this show on the air actually think it’s funny or just are cynically judging the sense of humor of the American people, which to be fair, they may not be wrong about. Good shows I laugh at, mediocre sitcoms I stare at unmovingly, and really bad shows I cringe at. The Millers has certainly earned itself a place in that lowest category. The jokes are not only not funny, they’re dumb and insulting. This show wastes a number of talented actors, and I hope it gets cancelled quickly so that those actors can put their abilities to something of higher quality.

Will I watch it again? No. It’s an instant contender for worst new show of the year, up there in the Dads category. The only think it has going over Dads is the lack of insulting racial stereotyping. It’s so unfortunately that so many talented actors are wasted on this monstrosity.

Fall 2013 Review: Hostages

9 Oct

The four Hostages

Hostages, a rare CBS serial drama, is an action suspense series built on the raison d’etre of ratcheting everything up to 11. The show opens with FBI agent Dylan McDermott taking over a contentious bank hostage situation from the local police.  While the police are tentative and willing to negotiation, McDermott barks orders, demands the kidnapper release most of the hostages, and has the balls to shoot first and ask questions later when he suspects the kidnapper has switched his dress with one of the hostages.  Basically, he’s aggressive, risk-taking, and a badass.

From there, It takes 15 minutes to get to the basic premise that anyone who has seen the trailer already knows. The president of the United States needs surgery. He’s chosen a highly trained female surgeon played by Toni Collette to perform the operation, which is invasive but routine. The night before the surgery is planned for, three men and a woman come into her house and take her and her family hostage with an ultimatum. She will kill the president while performing the surgery in a seamless, impossible-to-detect method they’ve already devised, or they will kill her family.

Boom.  There you go.  The president may be assassinated by a prestigious surgeon, whose family is held hostage by a shadowy group of highly-trained operatives, all in about two commercial breaks.

High enough stakes for you?


How about this? The conspiracy goes all the way to the top. Dylan McDermott, the heroic, daring FBI agent, who certainly seemed like a good guy, is the leader of the kidnappers. Better yet, his reason for heading up the kidnapping may be because someone has threatened his daughter.  He receives a call from his father, who is sitting at his home watching McDermott’s daughter, sitting next to someone who wants to know about McDermott’s progress in the kindapping.  That person? The president’s chief of staff, who we saw earlier in the episode questioning the president’s decision to use Toni Collette as his surgeon. Whoa.

Not to mention every member of Toni Collette’s family, being held at their home by the surprisingly gentle and gentlemanly (and gentlewomanly) terrorists, has a secret. Her husband, played by Tate Donovan, is having an affair. Her son is dealing pot. Her daughter is pregnant with a shady boyfriend who her parents have never met.

The terrorists consistently anticipate every move that the family makes, as to consistently demonstrate that they’re very good at this.  The ultimate show of this is when Toni Collette sets off the silent alarm.  McDermott and crew not only recognize the alarm going off immediately and threaten Collette’s husband so that she’ll tell the security company that nothing’s wrong, but the security company man who comes to their house just to check is actually working with the kidnappers and presents Toni Collette with a threatening photograph that reveals just how much the kidnappers know about the family.  Damn, they’re good. They’ve got everything covered – how is she possibly going to keep her family alive without killing the president?

That’s the big question and it is a big question.  The problem is that by the time the episode ends, my desire to know that get to the answer of that question should be a lot more urgent than it actually was.  The stakes, strictly in a political sense, were as high as almost any first episode of a television show.  Still, I didn’t feel compelled to see the next episode or all that interested.  Aside from the the high-stakes premise, none of the backing factors such as well-defined characters or well-written dialogue were present to invest me in the dire situation.

Hostages seems like a very poor man’s 24, albeit with more tension and less actual action. There’s suspense with no substance. The show hits the ground running, hoping to draw viewers in from the get go for the super tense action, but the show forgets that in order to get people involved in a television show, you need them to care somewhat about the characters and the situation. Unlike an action movie, where you can watch 88 minutes of people kicking each other’s asses for no reason and just enjoy it for that, to follow 20 40 minute episodes a season of television you need to come up with a little something more. 24, which was the master at action television, at least in its early years before it ran out of ideas, got viewers involved early with its gimmick and high stakes, but supplemented that with characters we cared about (President Palmer!), and taut suspense scenarios in which it never mattered how much they defied logic. More than that, 24 was fun. It wasn’t funny, but it was fun to watch. Hostages really isn’t. Hostages is a drag.

Will I watch it again? No.  It wasn’t absolutely awful. There will be a lot of worse shows, and the worse dramas are rarely as bad as the worse comedies. Still, not worth your time. Watch the first season of 24 again for action and watch the first season of Homeland for suspense if you want better examples of what this show is trying to be.

Fall 2013 Review: The Goldbergs

7 Oct

Three of the titular Goldbergs

There are many problems with The Goldbergs, but many of the biggest of these stem from one central misunderstanding about comedy. Every moving part in The Goldbergs screams this one great big lesson of comedy entirely unlearned: the value of subtlety.  Nothing, and I mean nothing in this show is subtle, at all.  None of the over the top jokes, which largely don’t work because they’re so obvious and over the top, have any room to breathe, which would starve them even if they were actually funny.

This direction starts with the choice of time period.  The 80s, at least the stereotypical 80s that we imagine now when we think of the decade, with Rubik’s cubes, and A Flock of Seagulls, and Starter Jackets, are loud, Outrageous.  You choose the ‘80s if you want to be absurd and up front.  Shoulder pads, the list goes on – in fact, just in case you don’t think of these images offhand, The Goldbergs actually starts with a montage of major ‘80s pop culture references to jog your memory, along with the narrator mentioning that it’s the 1980s, just in case you’re having trouble following along.

That’s the second point of mind-blowing un-subtlety. The narration.  Patton Oswalt narrates as the adult voice of youngest Goldberg, Adam (based on real life creator Adam Goldberg). Narration in television, and comedies in particular, is 90% of the time a bad idea.  Watching poor narration so far this TV season has inspired me to eventually write a post on all its faults, and here the problem is one of the most common for narration.  The narration serves no purpose.  It explains everything that happens in the show, events which need absolutely no explanation. It patronizes its audience without adding anything either funny or poignant. This happens again and again and again over the course of the first episode. Jeff Garlin’s dad character, Murray Goldberg is one of the top five types of television dad characters (now there would be a good article), the angry father who yells a lot and doesn’t know how to express his love for his children, but actually feels it deep down.  We’ve seen this character dozens of times and can identify it right away without Patton Oswalt’s commentary explaining it to us.

The worst gimmick of the episode follows the same thought process as the narration, and is yet another paean to the gods of un-subtlety. In order to understand Murray, Oswalt narrates, you have to speak Murray. Murray then yells something crude with network-approved faux curse words, after which subtitles appear on the bottom of the screen translating what Murray really means in pixelated 80s-style font (It reminds me of one of my least favorite How I Met Your Mother bits, where a character would say something, only for narrator Bob Saget to tell us “what he really said was this” and we find out the character said pretty much the opposite.  Half the time Murray will yell something indecipherable and it translates to something mean but in English, and half the time he’ll yell something mean, but he actually means something decent or nice. The show seems to think it’s funny because you’d never figure out what Murray’s saying without the hilariously helpful translations. Yes; that’s basic ironic humor.  Someone says one thing but means the opposite.  But we’ve seen Murray many times before. We know exactly what he’s saying. That character has been a television staple for decades and the translation bit just emphasizes what a cliched type Murray is in addition to not being funny.

Oswalt keeps trying to tell us how different his family is from ours. Even though they all love each other, they’re all crazy and yell at each other and fight all the time.  For many of us that’s not that hard to fathom as is. But even if it was not our personal experience, it’s been our television experience over and over. That joke is just not sufficient. There’s a lot of references to ‘80s things, a lot of generational gap humor where the kids will be speaking a different language than their parents or grandfather. It’s pretty boiler plate all around.  It’s not an embarrassment, but it’s generic and forgettable.

Will I watch it again? No.  It’s hardly insultingly bad, like Dads, but it’s just not very good and shows a very basic misunderstanding of what makes jokes and characters funny.