Archive | November, 2013

End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 – Part 2

29 Nov

Nuckie in Florida My thoughts on the recently ended fourth season of Boardwalk Empire ended up reaching an unseemly length, so I decided to slice them in two. The first part is here.

Gillian’s plotline was one of the triumphs of the season. It was, unlike many of the other plots,largely self-contained within this season, and dealt with her trying to put her life back together and ultimately gain custody of Tommy, Jimmy’s orphaned son. My one reservation about her story was that it felt a little ludicrous to have this ridiculously long con run on her successful by a private detective solely for a confession to killing someone no one seems to really even care that much about. Still, if I’m willing to buy that, it was compelling, Gillian has always been one of my favorite side characters and Gretchen Mol manages to play her in a way that it’s hard not feel sympathetic for her by the end of the season even after all the terrible things she’s done.  She’s so tragically broken from the way she was abused as a girl that her warped sense of relative morality has made her at times successful, twisted, and oblivious. Ron Livington’s character had a limited role, nursing Gillian back to health only to break her later but he ultimately appreciated by the end of the season, as we did, the strength of Gillian’s character and her abilities, in spite of the endless immoral and criminal acts we know she committed.

Nuckie trod largely on familiar territory which makes it difficult for his plotlines to feel new or exciting. This is largely because the character is stuck in a status quo where he can’t get too big for his britches outside of Atlantic City, but can’t lose all his power either, unless the show is willing to make a much more radical change that I’m giving it credit for. Still, if one could put aside for a minute the negative I’ve already mentioned of going somewhere we’ve already gone before, the season handled it well.

Particularly, we’ve seen this Nuckie and Eli dance before, in season two, when Eli was part of a cabal, along with the Commodore and Jimmy, who worked to overthrow and ultimately kill Nuckie. Nuckie forgave Eli, but not Jimmy, and Eli had been a fairly loyal soldier until this year, aside from the constant sibling squabbles between the two. As I mentioned, unsurprisingly, I’m not usually a fan of repeated storylines, and I’m not here, but again, if we accept that Eli betraying Nuckie is going to be a repeated plotline, it’s done as well as could be expected.

I’ve always though Eli (like Gillian) was one of the stronger side characters and that his relationship with Nuckie was a fairly realistic portrayal of a sibling relationship, amped up in a violent way because of their positions as gangsters. With Nuckie as the protagonist, Eli can seem grating when he’s constantly rankled by Nuckie’s constant looking out for him and his family. It’s difficult, though, for Eli to constantly be under his brother’s thumb, not only at work, but often even within his own family at home, even if he ultimately loves his brother deep down, which i still think he does. Eli has a more convincing reason for betrayal his time, and I actually liked that in the end, at least this season, Eli wasn’t killed, which would have been the obvious move even though his actions clearly deserved it by the rules seen in this show.

The extra layer here was that the betrayal could have been avoided if the sibling rivalry didn’t run so deep. Agent Knox blackmailed Eli regarding his son’s murder charges, and if Eli had gone to Nuckie right away, the situation might have been resolved without endangering anyone in the family. Eli was too proud and ashamed to go to Nuckie, and Nuckie had to play big brother and patronize Eli by hiding his son’s actions from him in the first place, generating the understandable resentment from Eli. These are basic sibling conflicts that follow siblings everywhere, but they’re played out writ large due to the numerous murders and federal crimes which they’ve both been a part of. The family connection comes into play again in the decision of Nuckie not to kill Eli, as all of the rationales on both Eli’s and Nuckie’s sides are wrapped up in their complicated family web along with Eli’s son Willie, whose seemingly unnecessary and somewhat irritating (Willie is not my favorite character) actions early in the season set up the ground for Eli and Nuckie’s struggle.

I loved Patricia Arquette’s character,Sally Wheet, and she played a huge part in keeping Nuckie interesting for another season. I do think Nuckie is a good character overall, and has layers of depth and moral complexity that have shown over the course of the show, but it’s getting tough to keep him interesting, as mentioned earlier, without ever having him win or lose completely. He wants out of the gangster game, and the stress and the violence, but then he doesn’t because of his need for money and power, and around again we go. Arquette was a genuinely believable and compelling romantic interest that made me invested in Nuckie’s love life in way I didn’t feel was particularly likely before the season. Florida didn’t add a ton besides plot conveniences outside of Arquette, but she alone made it worthwhile. Florida was built up in the early seasons, only to largely fall away towards the end of the season, leading me to believe we’ll be back in the Sunshine State sometimes in season five.

Nuckie’s ex-wife Margaret largely sat this season out, for which I was grateful, as she’s my least favorite character. Her two scenes with Arthur Rothstein I enjoyed though; perhaps there’s much more potential for her now that she’s fully out of Nuckie’s life and in the show in limited doses.

Real life gangsters Rothstein, Charlie Luciano, and Meyer Lansky each had minor roles in the season, each befitting the size of characters throughout this series, but each added color, character, and fine acting, in the smaller roles they inhabited. They were like basketball three-point specialists, making the most out of their limited time on screen, injecting little bits of character into smaller parts without needing the ball to have an impact. Mickey Doyle, another character whose actor gets listed in the main credit sequence even though he has a relatively minor role, is the type of character who can be grating with all but the slimmest parts, but in short bursts adds a much needed bit of levity to a show that can easily get overserious. Rothstein and Lansky are about the only other two who ever seem to show any sense of humor, and both faced more serious situations this season that prevented them from being at their most lighthearted.

Antagonist FBI Agent Knox wasn’t my favorite part of the season. He was largely fair in his handling of Eli, but his unnecessary beating of Eddie left me cold and somewhat unsympathetic. He’s clearly on the right side ethically and legally, relative to the show’s protagonists, but because they’re protagonists our natural sympathies lie with them, so the relatively more moral FBI agent needs to be legitimately clean to win us over. Knox, to his credit, isn’t corrupt, and he is certainly on the side of right, but I think he could have been even more convincing and relatively more likeable, which would have shone a brighter light on the fact that the characters at the center of the show are no-good criminals.

This report wouldn’t be complete without nothing that Nuckie’s servant Eddie got some serious work to do and excelled in his final episodes mid-season as he’s cornered by the FBI and then takes his own life. His last scene was brilliantly acted and wonderfully filmed.

Overall, this season was a positive step for the show. Side characters were fleshed out. Plots came together somewhat, but not entirely, and wrapped up some season long plots while leaving a lot hanging for next season. The antagonists were more complicated and enticing than Season 3’s Gyp Rosetti, who was a fun sociopathic villain but not a particularly interesting or complicated one. I’m looking forward to what the writers and creators come up with next.

End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 – Part 1

27 Nov

Nuckie and Narcisse

Boardwalk Empire may never quite rise to the status of truly great show in the annals with the Mad Mens and Sopranos and Breaking Bads of the world, but this fourth season was  a a movie in the right direction, very good season of television, in the tier just below great. The fourth season was a distinct rebound from the so-so third season, back to the heights of the second, which was previously (and still may be – I’d have to think on it more) the best season of Boardwalk Empire.

The third season of Boardwalk was sharply focused but was stifled by a concentration on a villain who, while gleefully diabolical, was uninteresting and one-dimensional. Bobby Cannvale did all he could with his psychotic gangster Gyp Rosetti, and it made from some breathtaking and brilliantly violent individual scenes that jumped from the screen. In terms of narrative arc, however, his irrational antagonism left the entire arc around with the season was built often lacking.

Season four on the other hand, managed impressively the very difficult task of knowing when to pull plots apart and when to push plots together, keeping the season focused enough to mostly not feel disparate while finding time to focus more on non-Nuckie characters than ever before. Additionally, season four found antagonists that if not entirely as rich in character as they could be, were more layered than Rosetti, who may have started out simply as a wronged businessman, but by the end was a nut hell-bent solely on Nuckie’s destruction.

Season four also is by far the least seasonally-oriented season of Boardwalk. While the finale had some huge, series-changing moments, major questions and plotlines remain in the air in ways that felt far less settled than after each of the show’s previous three seasons. The two biggest arcs of the year, Nuckie’s and Chalky’s were left somewhat unfulfilled, and Eli, whose death would have been a classic seasonal wrap up, lives and moves on to Chicago for now. There’s nothing wrong with leaving plot strands open ended for next season, and in fact, it can have many benefits, but it does make it harder to evaluate the season in a vacuum.

I’m now going to roll through each of the major arcs and make some comments.

Chalky’s arc was very strong. There was one major issue I had, which was his relationship to Daughter. I never found Daughter’s character compelling or charistmatic, and that meant I never was quote on board with Chalky’s infatuation with her. It could be explained simply as a mid-life crisis with a younger woman, and that’s fine, but the show made it out to be more than that. That said, Chalky’s battle with Narcisse was largely compelling. Chalky faced a problem which Nuckie has in the past, having his leadership challenged, and struggled to maintain supremacy in a world that was changing faster than he was ready for it. On top of this, he doesn’t know who his allies are in his community or outside it, and must go it alone until he can figure out how his real friends are. Chalky made many mistakes along the way, but came out of his battle with Narcisse easier to root for in some ways, and harder in others, a more complicated character. His daughter getting caught in accidental cross-fire aimed at Narcisse was brutal luck which should have a debilitating effect on Chalky going forward.

My one other complaint is that I think there was an interesting potential dichotomy set up for Narcisse; his support and fight for his race, while at the same time participating in organized crime, and particularly drugs which harm the community. There could have been a way to really explore Narcisse as a character with an internal battle between these sides, but instead Narcisse was pretty much just an antagonist who was kind of a blowhard rather than having any working principles.

The Chicago plot lacked the gravitas of the other arcs. Boardwalk Empire is always filmed with care, and the cinematography and film-making is beautiful as always, even when the writing and characters can’t match it. Watching Al Capone’s rise, through the eyes largely, of Nelson van Alden ne George Mueller ne Nelson van Alden was absolutely entertaining at times but felt more like a way to stage a version of an interesting episode in history rather than necessarily fit in with the other segments of the show. It was fun to watch the sociopath Capone move up the ladder in his local organized crime family, but it didn’t really have the same emotional or character weight of some of the other arcs. I think Michael Shannon is a great actor and any depth I get from Van Alden I credit to him, because Van Alden has always been one of my least favorite characters on the show. I’ve always felt Van Alden was just a little bit too odd, and particularly that his transition from uber anal prohibition agent to unhinged salesman to gangland enforcer never quite worked. Still, if I allow myself to try to disregard the history from before this season, Van Alden, in this season alone strangely often plays the role of the viewer seeing the abilities and the weaknesses of Capone, the most well-known and infamous real character on the show.

Richard Harrow’s death makes sense in a lot of ways. He’s a fan favorite so his death would carry an emotional impact that many of the characters’ potential deaths couldn’t hope to match. Harrow was also kind of out of plot. While everyone wanted more Harrow, it seemed clear a couple of episodes into this season that the writers didn’t exactly know what to do with him.  He appeared in extended segments in early episodes and then featured in less and less screen time as this season went on. His plot slowed down to a crawl to make sure it didn’t outpace what the writers could actually figure out to do with him. In the last episodes, a period of stasis arrived. Richard got control of Jimmy’s kid and was with the girl he loved, and Nuckie had given him a job, but it’s still not clear what it was or why. There seemed to be two obvious options for what to do with Richard: either let him go off an be happy and largely off the show at least temporarily (with the caveat he could show back up at anytime if the writers could think of a reason) or kill him off tragically. As (BREAKING BAD SPOILER) Breaking Bad fans know, letting your wife know everything is all wrapped up for the best and you’ll be home is all but a death warrant.(SPOILER OVER). The final scene was a poignant but fairly inevitable death for an excellent character. Richard Harrow couldn’t just get away and live a happy life, certainly not after leaving so many bodies in his wake, even if it was often done with the best of intentions. This isn’t that type of show. There are tradeoffs in life, and some good can’t necessarily outdo a lot of bad. Still, the final scene of the season was beautiful and no character deserved to go out in that memorable way more than Harrow.

Fall 2013 Review: Almost Human

25 Nov

Almost Human after all

So, it’s the future. The future in Almost Human looks exactly like a science-fiction future is supposed to look, a conception which hasn’t changed much since Bladerunner, which sort of redefined the genre in a way that still holds sway today. There’s huge funny-looking skyscrapers and people flying around in vehicles while our main characters are still driving on the ground. In great sci-fi tradition as well, a short burst of text sets up our premise at the very start of the episode. The future is crazily crime-ridden as gangs outpace police, technology-wise, and in a desperate effort to combat skyrocketing crime, police offers are paired off with androids to combine the best capabilities of both humans and a computers.

Within this future resides our hero, John Kennex, a cop who was injured when an evil crime syndicate (just called the syndicate) somehow learned of a planned police operation and infiltrated it, killing his partner in the process. Kennex was in a coma for nearly two years after the injury,and has had trouble readjusting to life after waking up. He struggles with the events that led to his coma, constantly consulting a black market memory doctor (I don’t know the technical term) who uses technology to help John replay the events of the night he got injured over and over, hoping to learn something about the syndicate and how they found out about the operation deep in his memory.

Eventually, his chief pulls him, partly against his will, back to the job, and he finds things are both different and the same. While everyone else plays ball with the current police protocol, John, as television cops are wont to do, plays by his own rules. He gets quickly tired of the new android model he’s paired with and purposefully destroys the one he’s given when the android threatens to report on his activities., Instead, ’John is paired with an older model that feels and has emotions like humans, when compared to the cold and calculating new androids. While the emotional and sensitive android drives John crazy initially, it turns out he may just be exactly what John needs in a partner, as this android’s ability to go off book lets it operate outside the box, like John, and not necessarily follow protocol.

There are other characters but they’re not really important in the first episode, as the core of the show is the relationship between John and Dorian, the android partner. John is a classic television old school cop, just this time he’s old school in the future.  John doesn’t follow protocol, he disobeys orders, and he’s simultaneously the most broken cop on the force and the best damn police officer the city has. I know why this character exists – it’s more exciting, and he gets things done. Still, it’s a relatively tired type – why can’t television celebrate a detective who plays by the rules?

There’s some appeal to the show. The future may be dangerous but it’s also fun and the action is well-paced. I always find it a treat to examine different renditions of the future, and I enjoy seeing what types of technology people dream up. At its heart, though, Almost Human has relatively conventional premise stuffed within a science fiction universe that doesn’t really alter the essential story behind the show. The primary characters don’t offer enough in one episode to make me want to watch again, and the plot isn’t exciting enough to watch on that alone. The characters, writing, or filmcraft have to be strong to pull me in when the premise no longer does, and none of them are. I’d guess that every episode will have a stand alone crime, while progress is slowly made towards solving the greater mystery about the evil “syndicate” as the season moves along, but Almost Human could potentially be more serial. Still, while the chase to figure out what happened to the syndicate could be interesting in the details, the simple mystery itself doesn’t grab a viewer from the get go.

Will I watch it again? No, I don’t think so. It wasn’t bad, but I’d like something a little bit deeper and more original to go with my science fiction. Forget even more interesting overarching themes,  all the commercials tout the show as being about the relationship between the two characters, and John in the first episode is a relatively uninteresting cop character that has been seen dozens of times before on television. I don’t get a spark between the two major characters that makes me want to keep going.

Fall 2013 Review: The Tomorrow People

22 Nov

Four Tomorrow People

In my review of Reign, I talked about the way the CW really hones it on its target demographic and has been developing a consistent brand. The Tomorrow People is another perfect example of this CW philosophy.

The main character is Stephen, a high school student who really looks like he’s 25 (which he is, and I know in most shows, high school students are played by older people, but at least often they look somewhat younger than they are). Stephen has some serious teen problems. Although he used to have friends, he’s become an outcast. This is mostly due to his deteriorating mental condition highlighted by what appear to be sleepwalking problems in which he’s fallen asleep and woke up in his neighbors’ house. He’s alienated all of his friends but one due to his issues, all of which has him feeling particularly insecure.

It turns out of course that he hasn’t been going crazy. Instead of problems, he actually has a gift, super powers that come from a genetic mutation. He is discovered by a couple of other super powered individuals, who have formed a group of their kind.  They track him down and bring him into their secret lair. He’s special, they explain, because like them, he can use the powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation. There’s only one problem: big government doesn’t like the idea of people with powers on the loose, so an evil ultra-secret government program called Ultra is out to get every single one of them and neutralize them, which is why they’re hiding in this dank underground lair in the first place.

This is a CW show, so combined with the powers, we naturally have some more real-teen-dealing-with-real-problems aspects that grounds the show.  We had been led to believe that Stephen’s father had abandoned his family after going crazy when Stephen was younger, leaving his wife and sons to find for themselves. Stephen’s always understandably resented his father for this and has some serious teen angst related to the man. It turns out, however, that the father also had powers and went off on a mission to find a safe place for all the super powered people and also because him sticking around with his family would endanger the entire family with Ultra out to get him.

Now, the super powered group try to convince Stephen that his father wasn’t so bad after all, and that he should join them to help try to find the great safe haven their father was after. On top of all this it turns out that the evil head of Ultra is Stephen’s uncle, his dad’s brother. While the underground group tries to convince Stephen to join them and leave his entire life behind for his own safety, Stephen, sensing a better path, eventually accepts a job offer from his evil uncle, with the goal of getting some info about his dad from the inside, helping the good underground folks while posing as an Ultra agent.

This is a CW show again, so let’s not forget a romance angle. There’s presumably going to be some sort of love triangle. The male and female head of the hidden super humans are an item as the show starts, but the female has a weird mind meld connection with Stephen, and her boyfriend seems jealous of her and Stephen’s connection from the get go.

Tomorrow People didn’t hook me. I like shows about superpowers well enough, but the characters and set up was pretty underwhelming. It didn’t help that the sides appeared so blatantly black and white; the clear good vs. evil set up was less intriguing than one in which the battle was even a little more ambiguous and gray. I’m not saying show can’t have villains but the head of ultra just seems so really unnecessarily evil for a character that could at least have some nuance.  The main character wasn’t particularly charismatic and I wasn’t particularly invested in his quest to find his dad by the end even though I tried to be. This is a show that should be funnier than it is. There’s room for a sense of humor that isn’t really present. At times the show seems like it wants to be funnier, but doesn’t quite put in the requisite amount of effort.

I’m a little tired of the set up that normal, regular, people can’t accept people with powers and thus they have to be hidden underground. This happens in Heroes, in Harry Potter, in X-Men. Us normal people without powers will simply be unable to ever handle the possibility of people different than them and thus the only options are either having these special people segmented off or annihilated. What made True Blood’s premise so interesting, is that for the first time, the set up was the opposite; people with powers were finally coming out into the light and mingling with regular people, rather than hiding. The idea that these special people who are so much better than us normals (this theme is actually hammered home in Tomorrow People; the people with powers are simply more advanced and superior to regular huamns) can’t let anybody know for our and their own good because people can’t handle it is a little bit grating.

There’s a lot to deal with being an outcast, and no one deserves to feel like their in it, whatever it is, all alone. Going from outcast to finding out that you’re the most powerful super human seems like a bit of a cheat though, even if it comes with its own set of difficulties.

Will I watch it again? No. It wasn’t that bad but Reign was the slightly better CW show. Still neither of them have intrigued me enough to go in for seconds. If I continue watching a CW show, it’ll probably be trying to start up Arrow.

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Mark Pellegrino

20 Nov

Mark Pellegrino

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

Some of the people we induct into the Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame are actors who most people would instantly recognize because of their long, prolific television careers, or character actors remembered in particular for one stand-out main cast role in a much-loved television show. Some however, are less well-known, and can only be pinned down by most people as “the guy who played” one character from a couple of episodes of a couple of shows. Well, Marl Pellegrino is one of the latter, but I think if you’ve watched a lot of television in the ‘00s, you’ll likely recognize at least a role or two he’s played. In particular, he has appeared in one all-time recurring role of a character much better remembered by name than for the amount of screen time he gets in the seven episodes in which he appears. But we’ll get there. First we start at the beginning.

Pellegrino’s first IMDB credited role is as “punk” in an episode of L.A. Law. Next was an appearance in TV movie What Price Victory, followed by one-shots as “Dude” in Doogie Howser, M.D., an episode of Hunter, and as “Punk” again in a Tales From the Crypt. He ran through the entire decade of the ‘90s appearing in single episodes of many television shows, some of them popular, including, Northern Exposure, something called The Hat Squad, The Commish, Viper, Renegade, Deadly Games, ER, Nash Bridges, The Sentinal, Brimstone, and The X-Files. In X-Files episode “Hungry” he played a murder suspect, Derwood Spinks, who gets eaten by the true murderer and self-hating monster Rob Roberts. He also appeared in TV movies Class of ’61, Knight Rider 2010, The Cherokee Kid, and Born Into Exile. His best known role of the decade, however, may have come as an unnamed blond Jackie Treehorn thug in The Big Lebowski. He dunks The Dude’s head into the toilet and drops the bowling on the tile, breaking it, towards the beginning of the film (“Where’s the money Lebowski?,” he asks).

In the ‘00s, Pellegrino’s career began to pick up with some recurring roles. He was in three episodes of The Beast and four of NYPD Blue. He was in single episodes of The Practice, The Unit, Burn Notice, and Grey’s Anatomy, and two of Without a Trace, along with TV movie NYPD 2069.

Paul from Dexter

In 2006, he got the first television role for which he’s frequently recognized. He played Rita’s sketchy ex-con ex-husband Paul Bennett in eight episodes of the first two seasons of Dexter. Bennett is extremely possessive, and after he gets out of jail he comes looking for Rita and her new boyfriend, who is, of course, Dexter. Bennett was an abusive husband who beat and raped Rita, which got him to jail in the first place. Rather than simply kill him, per Dexter’s m.o. Dexter sets him up with some heroin and gets him shipped back to prison, where Bennett gets killed in a prison fight.

After getting killed off on Dexter, Pellegrino spent some more time as a TV nomad. He appeared on episodes of Women’s Murder Club, K-Ville, Knight Rider (remember that reboot?), Criminal Minds, Fear Itself, Ghost Whisperer, The Philanthropist, and The Mentalist, and two each of Prison Break and CSI.

Jacob from Lost

Soon, though he was to land his next extremely recognizable recurring character as the infamous Jacob from Lost. I don’t even begin to actually understand much of Jacob’s story, but he was a legendary figure talked about and heard but not seen long before his backstory was revealed. Jacob was the long-time protector of the island. He had a centuries-long feud with his brother, the nefarious Man in Black who also took the form of the Smoke Monster, and also killed their mother (Yes, Lost makes absolutely no sense; as someone who watched most of it, I can’t even imagine how ridiculous this sounds to someone who has seen none of it). Jacob was worshiped by Ben Linus, he was the one who made Richard immortal and he eventually anointed a successor to his place from among the survivors of the Oceanic crash.

Pellegrino was in TV movie Locke & Key (as Locke), a CSI: Miami, and a Breakout Kings, before guest-starring in six episodes of TNT hit The Closer as Gavin Q. Baker, a lawyer who represents Brenda in whatever the Turrell Baylor lawsuit is. He’s described by Wikipedia as flamboyant, astute, clever, and brutally honest.

He appeared in two Chucks and a Castle. He got a pretty choice recurring role as Archangel Lucifer on Supernatural. He has appeared in that role for 10 episodes over the course of seasons 5 through 7 and is the primary antagonist of season five, when, after breaking out of his prison in hell, he attempts to get Sam to be his vessel who he can inhabit (I don’t really know what that means either. Maybe I’ll watch you one day, Supernatural).

He appeared in the TV movie Hemingway & Gellhorn and in episodes of Grimm and Person of Interest.  He was a main cast member in the first season of the American Syfy remake of British supernatural show Being Human, in which a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire live together and try to make it in modern day society. He played James Bishop, a vampire, turned in the 15th century, who now works in the Boston Police Department.

Pellegrino played Jeremy Baker, a member of the Monroe Militia in four episodes of Revolution. Currently, he’s starring as the antagonist in the CW’s The Tomorrow People, about a near-future where some people have genetic super powers. He plays the head of the villainous government organization Ultra, charged with rounding up and disabling all the people with genetic mutations.

Before, he may have just seemed to be “the guy who played Jacob in Lost,” but he’s so much more. Welcome to the Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame, Mark Pellegrino.

Fall 2013 Review: Reign

18 Nov

Queen and Duaphin

In a recent review of the ABC show Betrayal, I wondered how that show every made it through all the steps that go from conception to airing, considering not simply just how uninteresting and pointless it was, but how it didn’t seem to hold any possible appeal or have any obvious hook that would make network people keep moving it up that ladder.

CW shows, and Reign, in particular, are the exact opposite. CW has a much tighter, clearer, and more cohesive brand than any of the other broadcast networks, which makes sense because the CW airs fewer shows and draws a lot fewer overall viewers. Additionally, the CW has a niche; they hew to a base demographic of around 18-34 year-old females. CW shows focus on young people, often teens, but sometimes twenty-somethings and feature these wide-eyed youths exposed to new situations, with complicated love lives. These shows are generally slightly more earnest than soaps, but more fun than dark. They’re not particularly humorous, but they try to refrain from being too stiff as well.

Every single scripted show the CW airs is smartly targeted towards this demographic, and even those that don’t work don’t fail because they didn’t make sense theoretically but simply because of the execution or they don’t catch on. Emily Owens, MD was cancelled, for example, but it fit the CW’s core focus to a T. There’s certainly plenty of arguments to make on the value of a brand this consistent and similar versus a brand with little bit more variety, but I certainly appreciate the CW’s approach, as a network in a unique position of being compared to the much larger networks but only airing a few new shows every year.

Reign fits perfectly within this pattern. The main characters is a teenage Mary Queen of Scots, just escorted from the nunnery she was being kept at for her own safety to the King’s court in France. She’s betrothed to the future king of France, Francis, son of current king Henry II. It’s a perfect CW spin on historical drama. It’s about a teenage girl who faces lots of problems every teenage girl deals with – figuring out who your true friends are, finding love, and finding acceptance while feeling like out of place, simply with the added twist that she’s Queen of Scotland, in constant danger from potential English assassins, and one day to be married to the king of France.

There’s already a potential love triangle from episode one. Mary’s betrothed, Francis, is charming, standoffish, romantic and coldly practical in equal parts towards Mary in the pilot. He tells her that he doesn’t think they should marry for strategic reasons, but intimates that just maybe he kind of wants to marry her, which warms Mary’s heart. Us viewers also know that he has another woman in his life. On the other side of the triangle is Francis’s bastard half-brother, Sebastian, who is mysterious and charming, a bad boy who gets to ride around doing what he wants because he’s a bastard who no one cares about while Francis, with the future of a country on his shoulders, must stay in the castle under guard at all times. Mary, of course, knows that marriage in her case is about alliances, but she wants true love at the same time.

Mary has a difficult relationship with her friends, her ladies’ maids, because she wants to frolic and play with them, but she’ll always be above them in statute and that’s not always easy for her or them to deal with. She’s a target, while they’re not, and she’s treated with a level of respect that they aren’t by others. Many CW shows have a queen bee, but this one just has a queen (There’s a tagline for you, CW. You’re welcome). Most CW shows have figurative backstabbing, but in Reign, it’s a literal possibility. A man attempts to rape Mary in the first episode, forced by a mysterious plotter to despoil her so she would be unfit to marry the future king.

King Henry may be the king, but the show implies that the real power lies with Queen Catherine de’ Medici. While Henry seems to sleep with every woman with a pulse in the court (we know at least two, but it seems likely there are more), it’s Catherine’s money that keeps France running. Catherine consults occasionally with the seer Notradamus who ominously warns her that marrying Mary will lead to her son’s death. In the last minutes we find out it was indeed her behind the plot to rape the Queen.

Reign is very good at what it does, being a mash up between a historical drama and a typical CW show about teens growing up, which doesn’t mean it’s good. I’m not the intended audience and I can appreciate what it has qualities that the primary CW demographic might enjoy. Still, it’s a little gooey and flowery for my tastes when it talks about love and a little stilted when it talks about intrigue and politics.  There’s nothing here that pulls me in, and the two boys seem more like 16th century takes on two boys that occupy any CW love triangle rather than full-blown characters. It’s not bad; it’s merely mediocre.

Queen Mary is so wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, confused and confounded at every new experience and there’s plenty of places the show can go with both romantic subplots and political angle. Reign feels like a teen soap hidden behind the intrigue of a historical drama. It feels that way because it’s supposed to, but the too styles don’t really mesh exactly right. The romantic teen angle takes a little too much edge off for a show in which the main character faces potential death in the first episode, and the darker political subplots feel out of place with the ladies’ maids dancing that feels like a montage from any high school movie.  I’m not sure if there’s a way to match these two styles correctly and convincingly. The writing isn’t convincing enough to make me buy in to most of the characters’ motivations or to seamlessly transition from teen soap to high stakes historical politics.There are two separate shows taking place over the same hour, and neither is really bad, but neither is quite good enough on their own and the combination doesn’t really work for me.

Will I watch it again? No. It was fine, I certainly wouldn’t advise specifically against it, and there are people out there who will like this. Those people aren’t me, though.

Fall 2013 Review: We Are Men

15 Nov


Here’s the premise of We Are Men. Carter, a young man with his life seemingly all together sees it all fall apart when his fiancé (Wilfred’s Fiona Gubelmann) leaves him at the altar. His heart is broken, and he’s also newly unemployed as he worked for his fiance’s father. He freaks out, naturally, and eventually moves into short-term housing where he befriends three single dudes of varying ages, who show him the zen of being single and worrying about yourself for once. The three men are: (I’ll just use their actor’s names because you’re not going to remember their characters anyway) First, Tony Shalhoub, a four-time divorcee who is a bit sleazy but seemingly manages to consistently bed women far younger than himself thanks to his charisma and confidence. Second, Jerry O’Connell, a doctor and two-time divorcee, who is engaged in a long-term settlement battle with his second ex-wife. Third, Kal Penn, the only one of the three who still pines for his ex, who left him when she caught him sleeping around.

Anyway, basically the pilot is a battle for Carter’s soul between bromance and romance. Carter is beginning to really like the guys but also desperately misses his ex. He enjoys hanging out but quickly tires of their free and easy goal-less lifestyle. Kal Penn convinces Carter to make a grand romantic gesture to get his woman back. He does, and it works, and the marriage is back on. However, the guys realize that being with his fiance is actually killing Carter’s dreams, and they come in and interrupt the second wedding, convincing Carter to abandon his fiance at the altar this time to bromance it up and focus on making himself happy.

We Are Men is a bad show for a lot of the usual reasons (bad characters, bad writing) but what struck me in particular was the portrayal of women. Carter’s fiancé really is bad for him, in the show’s world, and for certain, anybody can get stuck in a bad relationship and some people just suck. Still, no woman in this show comes off as anything more than a male trope. His fiancé is holding him back from having fun and hanging out with his friends and wants him to work for her dad rather than pursue his dream job, which O’Connell helped arrange an interview for. The strangest complaint of Carter’s is that his fiance always makes them eat at the farmers market, which absolutely mystified me.

We Are Men tries to celebrate guydom and bromance and all those wonderful men-hanging-out-together qualities that so many shows have tried to celebrate over the last few years (probably due to the success of some combination of Entourage and The Hangover, but that’s another article). While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating male friendship, and I think it’s a great theme that was overlooked before a couple of years ago, sixth degree poor man’s iterations of that theme like “We Are Men” make me feel kind of disgusted for my gender. Certainly guys have been known to bash women as a gender occasionally, and there’s nothing wrong with idly complaining to some extent to make a guy feel better after a bad date or breakup, etc. It’s also silly to harp on one episode of a twenty minute show to bemoan the show’s point of view; it’s hard to fit a world view in less than a half hour. Still, it’s not an arbitrarily chosen half hour, it’s one you know your show will be judged and chosen by. Dads writes and creators balked at accusations of sexism and racism by claiming that later episodes would make the characters more complex, and to some extent it’s fair to note that most characters feel like tropes after an episode.   But maybe don’t put that much racism in it either. I would have absolutely no problem if the first episode featured just men; there’s nothing wrong with shows for men, by men, and they could introduce women in later episodes when these characters were more fleshed out. What I do have a problem is how the limited number of women are portrayed. His fiance is portrayed as a naggy impediment to his dreams. The other female character who gets a minute is Shalhoub’s daughter, who seemed like kind of a male fantasy, as the cool, sexy chick, who gave him tips on how to hook up with women. It’s not that other shows don’t feature women mostly as merely objects for men to ogle and hope to have sex with, but for whatever reason this show felt more boorish than most.

If Entourage is the male fantasy show you dream after a booze-filled party, We Are Men is the reality when you wake up groggy in the morning, hungover. Everything that seemed so great the night before now appears kind of ugly. While hanging out with cool successful guys and sleeping with a lot of hot chicks was fun in Entourage, it was less so when you realize that those guys were kind of sketchy and leering at women feels much more uncomfortable.

Of course guys look at attractive women, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with portraying that reality but I felt really creepy watching the four guys in We Are Men ogle women from their poolside. Probably the single worst shot without which it might not have stuck out as much is when the camera follows a bikini-glad young women, and Carter, narrating, tells us, well, we’re showing you that, just because. They do this in Entourage all the time, but somehow that show seemed separated from reality in so many ways, and it was strangely easy to enjoy the fun fantastical times Entourage provided while laughing away its approach towards women.

Anyway, bad show. Also worth noting were the cameos by Alan Ruck, who has also appeared in a couple of episodes of Masters of Sex this year, who shows up as the priest officiating Carter’s wedding, and Dave Foley, who is in the show for approximate ten seconds as Carter’s dad.

Will I watch it again? I again could only watch one more even if I wanted to, but I don’t. America got one right and decided they collectively ddin’t want to see any more of this claptrap. Smart call.

Fall 2013 Review: Lucky 7

13 Nov

Four of the Lucky 7

Here’s the only thing you really need to know about Lucky 7: ABC has outdone most TNT and USA titles by conceiving of a title achieves the rare triple pun (for another example, see the album cover for Rush’s “Moving Pictures“). First, Lucky 7 applies to the titular group of seven employees who win the lottery (actually six do, and one doesn’t technically, but they’re still the seven described in the title). Second, it’s a reference to the 7 train which goes through Queens, where the show takes place. Third, seven is the final digit of the six numbers that the group plays in their weekly lottery pool, which wins them the jackpot. So, there. If you want to stop reading now, you now know the best thing about the show, the triple pun title.

Moving on. Because the show takes place in an outer borough rather than Manhattan, the seven are real New Yorkers, and not urban hipsters or bankers. You can tell because they have extremely noticeable accents.  The seven main characters work together at a gas station, in different roles. They are:

Bob – the boss, played by the only particularly well-known member of the cast, Isiah Whitlock, who played The Wire’s Clay Davis. He and his wife are looking forward to his retirement but doesn’t have the funds.

Antonio – a hard-working Hispanic mechanic had been saving away his lottery money instead of putting it into the pool as the most responsible member of the cast. When his responsible decision making is not rewarded, he seems to take it relatively well considering he’s still poor while his friends are all instant millionaires.

Denise – she works in the store and is worried that her husband is cheating on her after finding out that he’s sent hudnreds of text messages to a number she doesn’t recognize. She’d rather not find out the truth and she feels guilty because she’s gained a lot of weight since their marriage. On a subjective note, I found her accent extremely irritating.

Mary – a young mother who is struggling to provide for her daughter. She works in the store.

Nicky – an ex-con having somewhat of a hard time staying straight. He has a thing for Samira (who we’ll get to in a moment).

Matt – Nicky’s law-abiding brother. He’s living with his pregnant wife in his mom’s house, which is driving his wife crazy.

Samira – she’s a Julliard student with an incredibly stereotypical Indian dad who claims Julliard is useless compared to math or medicine and tries to set her up with Indian guys.

So basically,  they win the lotto towards the end of the episode, which we all know is going to happen because it’s the premise of the show (how great would it have been though if they didn’t win, and everything in the trailers about the premise was just a lie). The major plotline apart from simply winning the lotto involves the brothers. Nicky, who needs money to pay off some old criminal associates, convinces Matt, who desperately needs money to move out, to stage a fake robbery of the gas station store. Nicky will wear a ski mask and rob Matt, working at the register, and the insurance will take care of the loss. As you might guess, this does not go as planned.

This sequence contains of my least favorite narrative devices. Nicky suggest pulling off the robbery to Matt, who immediately turns him down, which is exactly how he should and would react as a non-criminal who has never considered robbery as an acceptable option at any point in his life, no matter how easy or potentially foolproof. However, right after Matt turns his brother down initially, his wife, who just gave birth, warns him that she’s going to move out to her sister’s place until he can get them a place of their own, because his mother is awful to her. All of a sudden, with that one new piece of information, Matt’s in for the fake robbery. I get it, the writers have done their due diligence, and checked off the “motivation” checkbox by letting us know how desperate a situation Matt is in, vis-a-vis his wife moving out temporarily. And credit for at least checking it off, but it still feels lazy, easy, and not convincing that this law abiding citizen would agree to commit a pretty serious crime a minute after learning this extremely disheartening, but not life-threatening news.

Anyway, they attempt the crime, but it all goes awry when Bob walks in, and Nicky hits him over the head as a quick reaction move, putting Bob in the hospital with serious injuries. We don’t know for sure from the events in this episode, but we’re certainly led to believe that the police are going to be pretty suspicious about this potential fishy inside job pretty quickly.

The only other major plot element of this episode was that, since Matt borrowed money to joint the lottery pool the week they won, the other lottery winners have to vote on whether or not he gets a share. This seems beyond shady to be. It basically means that, according to this rule, if they lose, he still owes the money, but if he wins, he might not get it. That makes no sense and I’m curious if it’s actual lottery policy, but not quite curious enough to look it up. A just awake Bob casts the tie-breaking vote to give Matt his share after the other four are deadlocked.

I forgot to mention there’s a flashforward at the very beginning of the episode in which the brothers are being chased by the cops and one of them ends up throwing a whole bunch of money out of the car, and says something to the effect of that it was the money that caused all their problems.  Did I also mention how ridiculously tired I am of flashforwards?

It’s not a good show. There’s a good premise lurking there underneath everything, and definite points for ethnic diversity, but demerits for the ethnic stereotyping, like Samira’s Indian father. The characters feel hackneyed. Instead of showing complicated, deep, working class characters, Lucky 7’s characters mostly feel right out of the book of what well off people think of good-hearted down-on-their-luck working class Americans. The writing isn’t sharp, and some of the characters, particular Nicky, the ex and current criminal, are particularly grating. Any chance generated by the potentially fascinating premise is wasted by settling for the obvious and uninteresting.

It’s not truly terrible; I’d rather keep terrible to use for worse shows, like Ironside. It’s just regular bad. Still, there’s no reason to feel much sympathy for its quick cancellation.

Will I watch it again? I won’t and I could only watch one more even if I wanted to. I still think this premise could have some juice to it if done well, but this certainly isn’t that.

Fall 2013 Review: Dracula

11 Nov

The D is for Dracula

Irishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers, best known on television as Henry VIII in the Tutors, plays the namesake British vampire in this extremely loose television adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. After being woken from a years (or possible decades, it’s hard to tell) long sleep in the first moments of the pilot, Dracula decides to masquerade as an American industrialist, complete with a terrible yahoo-ish American accent. He’s got a trusty assistant named Renfield, who helps conduct his affairs; how he came to know Renfield and enlist him into his service is unclear. We know that he’s putting on the American industrialist act but we not why until the second half of the episode where the crazy conspiracy underpinnings of Dracula began to come to the fore.

Dracula’s primary goal is revenge on the secret Order of the Dragon. The Order of the Dragon is a powerful organization which has apparently been committing various clandestine acts for centuries, with the killing of vampires being at least one of their duties. We know they’re a big deal because a couple of their leaders let us know that they offhandedly concocted the story of Jack the Ripper to keep the vampiric truth behind some London prostitute murders under wraps.

Dracula holds a huge gala to introduce himself, as the American Alexander Grayson, to fashionable society with the hope of bringing out members of the order on which he wants revenge so badly. The order is composed of seemingly normal upper class Britons. In addition to killing vampires, the order retains its strength through controlling wealth by way also sorts of trading schemes, which Dracula wants to attack, while also attacking the members of the order physically and you know, doing the whole vampire biting of flesh sucking of blood routine.

Also attending his gala is an ambitious journalist, Jonathan Harker, who is accompanied by his lady friend Mina Murray. Both the names are recognizable as characters in the classic Dracula story though it doesn’t seem like this version feels particularly obliged to hew too closely to the original. As we let the crazy continue to seep out little by little over the course of the episode, it turns out that Mina is a reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead wife who just so happened to be killed by members of that same sinister Order of the Dragon.

There’s no obvious rooting interest; Dracula is our protagonist but he kills at least a couple of people mercilessly in the first episode. While the Order of the Dragon does seem like they could be pretty evil, it’s not clear Dracula is any better except relatively. Journalist Harker may be the closest the viewer has to an analogue, though it’s unclear how quickly and how much he’ll learn about all the underlying conspiracies in the next few episodes.

In terms of new TV horror shows, everything Sleepy Hollow is, Dracula isn’t, and vice versa, but in a good way for both. Let’s call Dracula a British take on Sleepy Hollow; where Sleepy Hollow wears its insanity on its sleeve, Dracula keeps its crazy repressed below a prim and proper Victorian exterior. It’s not as straight forwardly outlandish as Sleepy Hollow, but it’s deeply embedded with centuries old conspiracies and all manner of supernatural. The combination of crazy conspiratorial and repressed and tense gothic kind of works. Dracula is largely devoid of humor but it feels like horror spooky and over the top rather than weighed down with seriousness the way more important dramas can (Boardwalk Empire and Homeland for example). The whole Order of the Dragon is a little goofy not quite enough to not laugh at. It’s, like Sleepy Hollow, as if the show knows is winking with its seriousness; even though what’s on screen is by all accounts completely earnest, viewers aren’t meant to take it too seriously.

Maybe Dracula in an odd way is the true successor to ABC vengeance soap Revenge. Like Emily Throne, Dracula appears to have come back in an unrecognizable form years later to seek revenge on a group that harmed someone that he loved. Of course, it’s not the attempted carbon copy of Revenge that several of the shows ABC paired with Revenge were (Betrayal, Deception), but the gothic horror setting is as good a home for some soapy behavior as the high class / low class setting of the modern day Hamptons. After all, what are both the Victorian era and Dracula about if not repressed sex?

Will I watch it again? I might. It’s not top tier, so I probably won’t get around to if I do until at least the initial torrent of fall television has slowed down, but I liked it a lot more than I thought I would and I was honestly intrigued. The plot may not have been the most original, but the new take on a gothic vampire story felt strangely fresh for a tale that’s been told in one way or another so many times.

TV’s Golden Age Not Necessarily Over Just Yet

8 Nov

The Four PIllars

Andy Greenwald wrote an article on Grantland which probably wasn’t intended to be trolling, but it came off that way to me, and I felt the need to refute it, particularly because people constantly make arguments like this, if not as specific as this in particular. His argument in short is that television’s “Golden Age” is over. I’m very skeptical of the concept of a “Golden Ages” in general; it reeks of nostalgia for times that weren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other, but seem that way in memory, but I’ll follow along. I willing to accept in principle that certain eras aren’t necessarily as good as others, and that all seasons of television are not equal. However, I think both that his argument in broad strokes is wrong and that the claims he makes to get there are wrong a swell. I’ll break it down in further depth below, but quickly, the biggest issue is that his judgment of the entire previous golden era is particularly rendered less valuable because he’s only judging by using the shows at the very top. He then goes out to knock the “medium-level” shows he calls them in this era, without naming the examples of medium level shows that made the Golden Age great.

He uses what I like to call, or will probably start calling after this, the Four Pillars of TV Greatness (TM). These four are in order of airing: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. They’re four undeniable great shows, and if you asked for the greatest dramas of all time, there’s a better than even chance they’d finish as the top four of any poll of enough critics or knowledgeable TV viewers. He talks about a Golden Age, but to be clear, he’s talking about these four shows.  He speaks as if he means to cover a greater swath, as if those four just provided cover and inspiration for a flourishing run of good-but-not-as-good shows beneath their wings, but not a single other show is named after the those four, and while there are others that could easily qualify (Deadwood and Six Feet Under, at the least), I think it’s important to mention that these are the ONLY FOUR he mentions to represent what he describes as the Golden Age.

Greenwald then goes off and reels off several current shows that don’t meet his standard for Golden Age inclusion, whether because they’re simply not as good (Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, and outside of Homeland’s legitimately brilliant world-class first season, you’ll get no argument there from me) or much more strangely because they are great but they’re genre show, in the case of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Orphan Black), which somehow don’t qualify as Golden Age-worthy because they contribute to other negative trends in television, regardless of their own quality.

The show he most associates with this gilded age of television is The Walking Dead, which he backhandedly notes that even though he’s not a fan, he acknowledges it’s the most important and influential show of the past five years. Without speaking on the quality of the show, on which I stand somewhere in the middle, I disagree strongly with his assertion. While that same statement may yet be true in five years, it really isn’t; Walking Dead’s influence is only beginning to be felt as we still wade our way out of the Age of the Antihero, which still, though waning, dominates television (three of the Four Pillars are antihero shows – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with Boardwalk Empire, Justified, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, and plenty of lesser fare). Honestly, whether true or not, this is really off-topic from the central argument so we’ll move back in that direction.

Greenwald goes on to talk about how networks aren’t taking chances anymore, and that’s surely true, but that was also very much true five or ten years ago. None of the Four Pillars were network shows. Four shows got through the cracks and struck gold. He claims it’s systematic failure that as many quality shows aren’t coming through the pipeline, but I’d claim it’s just odds and not enough time.

Let’s not forget as well that one of the Four Pillars is still on, with two seasons to go, and one ended a mere month and a half ago. Game of Thrones is an admittedly great show, and I’m not sure why it’s a knock that it’s a genre show or that it’s based on source material, especially just because in influences other less good shows (first, something every new and interesting show does, second – is it a knock on Pearl Jam that so many lousy bands were influenced by it?). Shows come in waves, and influence of the biggest and best play a large part, for better or worse. Mad Men was very much influenced by The Sopranos. Greenwald complains about a prestige mad libs, and he’s by no means incorrect, but that’s also exactly what Mad Men was. You can give Mad Men credit for inventing that formula, but as mentioned, it stole plenty from The Sopranos.

Logical complaints aside, I’d argue that he’s not looking closely enough to find the good stuff. Last Spring alone saw the debut of four new dramas, each with the potential to be great, and although the odds are against any of them becoming an all-time great, that’s true for any show, and promise is really all you can ask for.

Rectify, the best, airs on Sundance channel, and stands in particular contradiction to Greenwald’s claims as it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes Greenwald is complaining about. Rectify is about a man exonerated from death row after twenty years imprisoned back into the small Georgia town in which he grew up. It’s a small show in the way Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are big, and it’s exceptionally, moving, human, beautiful and heartbreaking in different degrees.

The Americans admittedly kind of fits Greenwald’s prestige formula, but it transcends it, and even Greenwald acknowledging The Americans as the best new series of last year.

Orphan Black, Greenwald already acknowledged as well as an excellent show, and, though it’s a genre show, it certainly doesn’t fit into either the prestige or the bigger is better formula.

Hannibal, admittedly, it less new and interesting than the other three, and probably will end up as good and not great, but it’s especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography and its compelling psychological battling between protagonists Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter which elevate a cop show above the norm.

Remember, if we’re to match his Golden Age, we only need four. My point is not that these four shows are great and replacements for the Four Pillars, but that if even one of them can become great, than really all we need is one new great show each year. I could name lots of good but flawed shows a la Boardwalk Empire from the Golden Age – Lost, Alias, The West Wing, True Blood, 24, and more but it doesn’t matter, because there were some great ones. Now, some people may like some of the good ones better than others, but that’s always the case. Additionally, people will and have always copied successful shows. Lost spawned a thousand attempts at supernatural mystery shows, not one of which has really become successful (Heroes was the closest) and The Sopranos has directly led to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and less directly many others.

There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Age is over because there are a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. There are always a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. All there have to be is a couple great ones. There are, and there’s no systematic reason that a few more won’t appear in the coming years.