Archive | January, 2014

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 16-13

31 Jan

Three comedies, two of which air back to back, and one seven episode miniseries that has just about as much lack of humor to counter act all three comedies combined. 16 through 13 below.

16. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Andy Samburg and the gang

The best new comedy of last year, Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn’t perfect but it is far ahead of the curve for where most good sitcoms are at this point in their runs. Created by Parks and Rec veterans, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the work of writers who know what it’s like to start slow and build from there with the great Parks & Rec, and many of the errors from that show’s first season and a half aren’t present here. There’s still building and character establishing to do; it be nearly impossible for there not to be with a first year sitcom. But the elements are there, the jokes are fresh and funny, and the actors are good. Andre Braugher as I continue to shout to the world, is a national treasure whose presence should be, well, treasured wherever it is.

15. Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake to you, Elizabeth Moss

This is a seven episode miniseries, but that already means it’s longer than the 2013 output of some other recurring series on here so I’m including it. This is definitely a series that when I finished it, it both made me want to watch it again instantly because it was dense, confusing, and complicated, and never again because it was shocking and disturbing. Elizabeth Moss gives a bravura performance, as does Peter Mullan. If New Zealand is really like this, it’s a far scarier place than I had ever imagined. The mood is eerie, and it just feels like there’s something off with every character and every series of events, and I don’t mean off in a bad way, I mean rather like they’re not quite kosher. There’s seediness lurking everywhere, and Moss can’t rest for a second without risking someone turning on her, whether it be someone she knows or someone she does. It’s creepily meditative; before there was True Detective’s Rust Cohle, there was Holly Hunter’s GJ, spouting quasi-philosophical possible nonsense. All writing this makes me realize is that I really do need to see it again.

14. Bob’s Burgers

The Belchers

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Bob’s Burgers makes me smile. That’s about all there is to it. Don’t get me wrong, it also makes me laugh. In particular though, what makes Bob’s Burgers stand out amongst my favorite comedies is that there’s no show I’d rather watch before bed after a tough, stressful, or depressing day (or even a happy day, but there’s more leeway than). There’s no way that has the ability to change my bad mood and put me on the road towards pleasant dreams. I like dark humor, and I like cutting humor, and I like uncomfortable humor in different extents when done well. Sometimes though it’s nice to watch a comedy like Bob’s Burgers  that dispenses with any of those; that’s fun and zany and light, even when our favorite family is losing and Jimmy Pesto is putting it to Bob once again. The show has ramped up over the years, and the formula shows no signs yet of slowing down. I’m only sorry I didn’t jump on this bandwagon earlier, but I’m glad that the show keeps getting renewed without much stress.

13. New Girl

It's Jess! And friends

It’s been an interesting run for New Girl. The second half of the second season last spring featured a mind-bogglingly killer run of episodes that, had I been ranking right then, would have almost certainly put New Girl in the catbird seat for the highest ranking comedy, as it was last year (the second season was just really good overall). The third however, has had a higher share of fits and starts as the show tries to figure out how it’s going to handle Nick and Jess romance and deal with Schmidt and his relationship missteps. It’s still a first tier comedy, and almost all episode have laughs, but it’s seemed a little more inconsistent episode to episode. I’m still hopeful. It’s a good show with good actors by good people; they’ll probably figure it out. But a yearly review couldn’t be written without mention of its occasional third season struggles.

Advertisements

Spring 2014 Review: Rake

29 Jan

Greg "Rake" Kinnear

First things first. Rake is not named Rake. Well, there is no Rake. The main character, Greg Kinnear’s Keegan Deane is not even nicknamed Rake, nor is it his middle name. This, first and foremost doomed the show in my eyes, but I tried my best to give it a fair shake from then on.

Keegan Deane is a talented lawyer who doesn’t have his life together. He’s also a charismatic cad. The most critical of his faults, which appear to be many, is gambling. His gambling problems have put him in debt to a very serious man, an employee of whom threatens to hurt Rake (I’m calling him that from now on; it’ll be easier on everyone even if not technically true) if he doesn’t pay up and fast. Right after that conversation, Rake hooks up with an attractive woman and brings her back with him to some sort of outdoor club with drinks, and then leaves her to herself after he gets hooked in a card game. He then brings her back to his best buddy’s place, who has a family and kids. Rake is staying there because he’s broke and homeless at the moment. Although this buddy goes back a ways with Rake, he’s getting tired of having Rake live with him, passing out all over the house and bringing back women. The woman Rake brings back, mind you, still wants to continue seeing Rake, and tries to relay her phone number after she’s being kicked out and told to jump the fence, because Rake and friend need to get her out before friend’s wife sees her. Rake’s more of a one-night stand kind of guy though.

I’m not going to break down the whole episode in that level of detail, or I’d just be rewriting the script of Rake, but you probably get the idea. His talent and charisma endears him to others while his attitude and vices drive people away. Seen this on TV anywhere lately? (Everywhere is the answer, but particularly I’ve been calling Rake lawyer House for weeks before it appeared, and though there are certainly noteworthy differences in the details, it’s more or less spot on).

Rake, the character, and in some ways the show is like a middle school boy who thinks the way to get someone to like him is to be mean and make you not like him first before winning you over. Rake’s a jerk, yes, that’s pretty much the premise, but well, he really cares deep down and he’s a good lawyer, so we should care about him anyway and cut him a wide swath to do kind of lousy things to his friends and associates.

There are some shows that seem to authentically not care whether or not you like the main character or characters, and that’s something else entirely, but it’s not Rake. Rake desperately wants us to like him; to grow frustrated with him, but ultimately to come around to his side. There’s hope for Rake yet. Optimally, even more than like him, you’re supposed to want to go out on this adventure with him, and while there are certainly characters who make up for their negative qualities with wit and charm, the balance is off here.

The point of all this, which I haven’t said outright but which you might guess is just well, I don’t care. I find it hard to care about Rake, and hard to root for him. He’s kind of a jerk. I’ve always had a problem with jerk main characters, but sometimes they’re redeeming and sometimes it’s okay that they’re jerks; Don Draper is a huge asshole, but that’s okay; the show doesn’t try to pretend otherwise.

Other than that, well, there’s not a lot to say. And that’s really also the story. Rake isn’t bad as so much as it’s mediocre; it’s a story and characters you’ve seen before. I thought House got tired, but House was better. There’s no element of Rake that puts it above average or makes it worth cutting out time in your busy schedule to watch. Some shows you just can’t read after one episode; they could be disasters but there’s a small chance of brilliance. Here, well, for better or worse you know exactly what you’re getting just about right from the first scene.

Will I watch it again? I think I’ve had my fill of Rake; I knew it ever since he wasn’t named Rake. It’s not awful, but it’s more of a same that’s been a little rammed into the ground of late, and there’s nothing about it to make it stand above the fray.

 

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 20-17

27 Jan

It seems like we’ve just started but we’re more than halfway there. Two hour longs, and then two half hour comedies in this edition, 20-17.

20. Orphan Black

Orphan Black

There’s a lot to like about Orphan Black, but there’s really one thing first and foremost. That’s actress Tatiana Maslany, who owns the show in a way few other lead actors and actresses can own the television shows they star in, largely because she plays not just the main character, but several other characters, ranging from major characters to fairly small roles. She is fantastically wonderful and makes the show work in a way that very few actors or actresses could. She’s so expert at her portrayal of different people that when watching, I, just for a moment, questioned whether it really was the same actress, so different were the looks, voices, and expressions, of each character. So beyond that, Orphan Black is a sci-fi show about a crazy conspiracy involving secret clones; it’s the kind of storyline that makes a little less sense the more you think about it, but in this case, just don’t, and you’re bound to enjoy the roller coaster ride – unlike say, a Lost, Orphan Black doesn’t feel bloated with the weight of its own pretension. It’s just fun.

19. Orange is the New Black

Orange;New Black

The secret is out by now: While House of Cards initially draw attention to Netflix original series, and not without reason, Orange is the New Black is sneakily the better show.  No show features more pathos for people typically overlooked in television. In most of the TV and movies we’ve watched, the people in jail are the bad guys, or they’re actually innocent and there unjustly; Orange is the New Black attempts to demonstrate that they may be there for a reason, but that doesn’t make them the bad guys (well, girls, but bad girls conjures up a whole set of images) at all. The backbome of the success of Orange is the New Black is the perfect combination of humor and drama; without the humor, the drama would feel overbearing and occasionally too on the nose, while the drama contextualizes the humor and adds heft making Orange is the New Black more than just a wacky prison show. Orange is the New Black loves its characters (well, except the guards, one of my few major complaints) and it comes through in a big way, making us love its characters as well.

18. Archer

Archer

It’s a strong time for animated half hour programs, and Archer is one of the strongest. The members of a freelance secret agency Isis, Archer, the best secret agent they have, is a giant asshole, and son of the agency head who is a drunken asshole herself, who also happens to be occasionally cavorting with the head of the KGB. Of course, everyone in this show is an asshole, and half of the characters are idiots, and while that would probably not be a successful formula for a particularly enjoyable drama, it makes for great comedy. Layered within Archer by last year’s fourth season are a dense array of repeated inside jokes – so much so that every Archer fan has a particular favorite, mine is probably Archer’s yelling of “phrasing” every time someone says something that could be interpreted in a more awkward and innuendo-filled way. All said, this wasn’t its strongest season, and was weaker than the genius season three, which is why its dropped a little bit lower than last year. Archer sometimes runs the risk of going over the same schtick too many times, and while it hasn’t gone over it so many times it’s tired, it did last season just enough to make it a little bit inferior to the season before. Still, it’s one of the best comedies on TV and last year featured strong episodes as well; the condemnation is merely relative.

17. Arrested Development

The Bluths and co.

Insane hype and eager anticipation for the long-awaited Arrested Development reunion quickly turned to polarization as many of the uber-fans of the original came away disappointed with the new product. I may have been in that camp to start, but by the time I finished, I was firmly a champion of the fourth season. Those expecting a repeat of the first three seasons are bound to be disappointed, and I understand why; that was great, and this isn’t that. What this is though, is something no comedy, and really no television show has managed to do before, something literally unprecedented which is incredibly rare in TV even with all the great shows on now. The season is 15 episodes meant to be taken as a whole; rather than simply serial they’re overlapping, returning to the same events over and over again through different characters, with later renditions of similar events adding layers of humorous meaning. It’s for this reason precisely that I beg viewers of the fourth season not to grow discouraged in the first couple of episodes, the meanings deepen, and jokes come back again three and four times in new ways, meaning the last few episodes are funnier than the first few, but the groundwork laid early was essential for the show to work late. It’s not perfect by any means, but that’s sometimes the price of great ambition. There’s something to be said for dreaming lower and reaching that ceiling, but there are few shows that dreamed as big as Arrested Development’s fourth season, and for getting astonishing close to reaching that ambition even if it fell short, it should be applauded.

Spring 2014 Review: Looking

24 Jan

Looking indeed

Looking is a show about three gay friends in San Francisco and their quest to find love, sex, and just, you know, life. It’s a show that seems to be largely engulfed in realism and I think that’s an admirable pursuit; there aren’t enough TV shows that aspire to realism these days, and it can be really enriching to watch people’s lives that feel real rather than mythological or epic or far-removed from reality.

They hang out, they date, they look for love. One of the main characters, Patrick, played by Glee actor Jonathan Groff, gets a botched handjob in a park at the beginning of the episode, but that turns out to be a bit of a false flag; that’s more salacious than the show actually is and aspires to be. All he really wants is to find someone he really likes to get along with; the centerpiece of his episode storyline is an incredibly awkward date with a pretentious doctor, in which he deals with the consequences of a failed attempt at escaping loneliness. The upshot is he meets a less well-credentialed, but gentle bouncer on the way home on the subway, and after quickly bailing and calling it a night, he decides to go to the party the guy mentioned and take a chance. It’s an optimistic ending to a show that seems to have a well-meaning bent.

His two friends, Agustin and Dom have their own dating issues. Agustin decides to move in with his boyfriend Frank, and Dom is frustrated at the restaurant where he works, and considers attempting to hook up with an ex.

I don’t really have strong feelings about the first episode. I think there were some good things; but there was nothing compelling; nothing that made me instantly want to tune in again for a second episode. Admittedly, that’s a serious danger of a show that’s just about, you know, life – there’s no big hook of a murder or large science-fiction conspiracy to keep you glued, and it’s not a comedy so while there’s some humor, there aren’t whole lot of jokes or enough laughs for that to be the sole reason to watch.

It was well-produced and acted and it’s obviously a competent show. I’m just not sure it’s a must watch either. Although I admire and do want to reward Looking for its promising realism, I wasn’t hooked, and I feel relatively ambivalent going forward. It’s a show that could easily be rewarding by season’s end, but it’s hard to get a sense of how rewarding it might be from the first episode in and of itself; it doesn’t make any sort of grand statement about the direction of the show, and while that may be the point, and a valid one, it also makes it feel less like immediate required viewing.

Will I watch it again? Not right now. In baseball there used to be something called a draft-and-follow, where you could draft a player and then wait and see how they do before you decide whether you want to sign them.. I’m not so invested after one episode that I’m going to keep watching week to week, but I’ll wait and see how the buzz comes around, and then watch them later on if I hear good things.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 24-21

22 Jan

Four more shows, one comedy on its way out, one underlooked comedy that keeps on producing successful seasons, and two hour longs. Keep it going, below.

24. Happy Endings

Happy Endings

File Happy Endings away as a show that I didn’t appreciate enough until it was gone.  Well, not quite. I appreciated it not when it was gone but when, in the third season, it seemed as if its chances were grim. I savored each of the last few episodes, apologizing to my television for only really loving the show once it was already out of my grasp. It took me a while to really enjoy Happy Endings, because superficially it has markers of sitcoms I don’t particularly like, particularly Friends in its set up. When it comes down to it though, it was a consistently funny show with a fantastic cast with great chemistry that really seems like they’re enjoying themselves. The writing was sharp to begin with, but the cast made jokes work that some other combinations of actors wouldn’t have, through their timing and physical reactions. Not every episode was a gem, but by the end I was far sorrier to see it go than I had ever realized was possible when I started watching. Happy Endings with its no frills simple style, would have been a perfect fit on a cable network which makes its cancellation a particular shame.

23. Broadchurch

Broachchurch

A local boy is a small English seaside vacation town is murdered and a couple of detectives, one local, one Scottish, have to solve it. It’s a simple enough premise, but Broadchurch delivers on with surprisingly solid execution. The ending, which matters a lot for shows like this, satisfies; it’s heartbreaking and surprising but manages to not feel completely out of nowhere or too ridiculous. Broadchurch is only eight episodes long and the British desire to keep it short plays a large role in its success, preventing it from straying too far off the course with loads of red herrings and keeping a relatively tight focus. It’s not an all-time must watch but it’s surprisingly good and it’s a great eight episode pot boilder for weekend marathon viewing. Like with a good mystery novel, once I was halfway through I couldn’t stop until I got to the finish.

22. Masters of Sex

Mastes of Sex

Lizzie Kaplan and Michael Sheen play revolutionary sex researchers Masters and Johnson in this Showtime series set in 1950s St. Louis. Rather than feel just like another drama set in the past (which seem to be a possibly Mad Men-inspired cottage industry these days), Masters of Sex feels fresh and if anything is too ambitious; sometimes it summons ideas without having any plan what to do with them. Overall, though the ambition is admirable, and a surprisingly high percentage of Masters of Sex’s efforts work, more in the second half of the season than the first. The show discusses love, sex, and gender roles in an engaging way and features an assortment of well-built characters that stand to be enriched in future seasons; hopefully Alison Janey and Beau Bridges, who played recurring characters who star in bad CBS sitcoms, will be back. The future looks bright and this is a show that I think has no reason not to be even better next season.

21. Childrens Hospital

Childrens Hospital

I’ve been a long-time backer of Childrens Hospital and the fact that its this low says, as I find myself repeating a lot during this list, more about how much good television there is now, than anything about the lower quality of Childrens Hospital itself. That said, this probably wasn’t its best season yet, but there were definitely some classics. “Country Weekend,” a locked room mystery written by David Wain was a highlight, as well as “My Friend Falcon,” posed as a documentary with David Wain interviewing Childrens Hospital cast member Just Falcon, as played by Ken Marino. It’s the silliest and gentlest of the Adult Swim live action parody shows (basically, this, NTSF, and Eagleheart), and the most well-meaning – its satire is always in good fun rather than cutting. I honestly have no idea why Childrens Hospital has never caught on with a bigger cult audience and I recommend it frequently, as it’s usually safe to assume that people who I speak to about television, haven’t watched it. Give it a shot today, if you haven’t.

Spring 2014 Review: True Detective

20 Jan

Two true detectives

I didn’t know what to expect coming in, but I’ve long been a fan of the season-long anthology format for television and was excited about any show that starred  the long underrated Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in the middle of his epic comeback. After actually watching the show, even those high expectations didn’t prepare me for how much I liked the debut episode.

True Detective is posed as a season long murder mystery, a format we’ve seen a few times in the last decade, but this isn’t your grandfather’s season long murder mystery. While it’s an obviously intriguing format (there’s a reason Agatha Christie sold so many books), I’ve been biased against it ever since the somehow still alive disaster known as The Killing broke me in the final two episodes of its first season (like thinking of the Lost finale, bringing up The Killing’s first season finale is the best way to instantly anger me). The Killing has made me come into any season-long murder mystery with a wary eye, perhaps unfairly, but there’s a part of me just waiting for a let down at every step. Broadchurch, a British season-long murder mystery being adapted for an American audience was a very pleasant surprise, surprising and satisfying without being ludicrous and over the top. It was, however, a fairly typical murder mystery, investigating all the players one by one, and everything that happened in the series pretty much revolved around the murder which took place in the first two minutes of the show.

True Detective is not that and it’s much the better for it. True Detective is a murder mystery, sure. There’s a murder at the beginning and presumably the show is going to take us through on the way to solving it. But it’s much more than that and only kind of about that.

The show is told through an interesting framing device. Two cops in 2012 are interviewing two ex-cops who thought they had solved a murder 17 years ago, in 1995, in rural Louisiana. As the two cops are interviewed separately, they each take us back, through their descriptions, into the past. Scenes of them taking to their interviewers in 2012 are interwoven with much longer scenes of their investigation in 1995, overlaid with narration, which is what they’re telling the interviewers. I’ve often complained about framing devices and narration that feels gimmicky, useless, cheap, and detrimental, but this is not that. This is a clever framing device that besides being plot relevant – it seems like events related to the murder will actually happen in 2012, rather than simply being a point from which to look back – presents interesting narrative opportunities. There are lots of unreliable narrator issues – the two cops, who we learn, haven’t spoken in ten years, remember the case and each other different, and have very different perspectives of the case and of each other. The ex-detectives, neither of whom work for the police anymore, have changed dramatically over the years.

The two primary detectives, as hinted at above, are played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, with McConaughey marvelously playing against type. Woody Harrelson is the good old boy partner, just trying to do his job and fit in, while McConaughey is the loner, intellectual who isn’t from Louisiana to begin with and doesn’t really belong. Unlike other shows, which would portray the McConaughey character as a reclusive genius who is brilliant at his craft but can’t fit into society (See House, Bones, and well a billion other shows), McConaughey is just another detective. He’s certainly a good one; Harrelson, who resents McConaughey for a number of reasons, certainly acknowledges that much. But he’s no genius; when he does figure out important case information it’s because he works all night because he can’t sleep. Harrelson is no dummy either and he puts up an aura of just working the job but he certainly takes his job seriously enough as a professional. The 2012 interviewers bring McConaughey and Harrelson through the details of the 1995 case but also into seemingly irrelevant details about the detectives’ relationship and personal lives, including a dinner at Harrelson’s house where McConaughey shows up drunk.

That’s the thing about True Detective. It’s about the murder mystery and it isn’t. The two detectives didn’t get incredibly far along their path to solving the crime in the first episode and I didn’t really care. Their chemistry, the charge and interaction between the two partners keeps the show moving while they slowly get around to the actual case. The show often feels more like a rumination than a murder mystery, and while the focal point is supposedly the case, it sometimes seems to fade into the background for stretches of the show, hiding behind the interplay between the two detectives.

Will I watch it again? Yes, for sure. This gets a gold star for most promising, and seems like an instant must-watch, which only comes along a couple times a year. It’s the early favorite for best new show of the spring season.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 28-25

17 Jan

Here we go – first, a drama, that like Sons of Anarchy, has been consistently good but not great and had a comeback season this year. Next a couple of comedies that aired back to back but don’t have too much else in common, and finally a show that was impossible to figure out where to place because it debuted with three episodes. Here we go.

28. Boardwalk Empire

Nuckie and Omar

I spoke about this most recent season of Boardwalk Empire at length, which you can read here and then here if so interested. Basically, I think the fourth season was a big step up from the rather one-dimensional third season. Boardwalk still sometimes struggles with figuring out what makes it stand out from the other major dramatic anti-hero shows that have dominated the TV landscape in the past decade and in bringing more of its side characters into more fully realized form, and sometimes it spreads its wings too wide in terms of including more characters and locations rather than focusing more time on fewer great ones. Still, this paragraph should be more about praise than condemnation; this was the second best season of the series, and very close to the second season, the other contender. I didn’t love the Chicago plots, but other non-Nuckie characters stepped in a big way, as the writers created situations more interesting than everyone-against-Nuckie. As always, the filming technique and direction in Boardwalk is gorgeous. Scenes are lovingly rendered and fantastic angles and shots and drama and pathos no matter the characters, plot, or dialogue.

27. Veep

Selena and Staff

Veep’s second season was a noticeable if not revolutionary improvement over the first. It went from a show I watched but was hesitant to recommend after the first season to one I proudly throw out as ideal for relatively quick viewing after the second. Everything is tighter, the characters are surer in who they are, and because of that, the actors know how to better play each of their roles. The first season was defined by one large scale joke – that life for the Vice President, the second highest office in America, was as boring, mundane, and pointless as the lives of so many other cubicle-inhabiting Americans. The second season let the show breathe and allowed that one joke to merge more fully for the show’s love of Curb Your Enthusiasm-like situational awkwardness and miscommunication. Every one of the characters gets a couple of chances to shine, along with recurring guests Gary Cole, Kevin Dunn, and Dan Bakkedahl.

26.Girls

Four Girls

Girls second season was by and large a huge improvement over its first. Toned down was the fervor, both the extremely positive and negative levels that accompanied the first season, which may have been in the show’s best interest. In its place emerged a more fully formed show, that dealt with the characters in more mature and interesting ways. All four primary characters are caricatures to some extent; but they’re not that far from real people and their battles and conflicts often feel authentic (which I complimented in my article about Treme as a place that’s surprisingly hard to reach). I didn’t like the last episode which featured a couple of sappy, forced happy endings which felt like a flash-forward from what the show dissected so powerfully in the second season’s middle episodes, but I still remain quite hopeful for the third season.

25. Rick and Morty

Morty and Rick

Many times during this list I had no idea where I wanted to place shows; this basically refers to numbers maybe 6 through 39. Still, this may have been the trickiest, primarily because it’s hard to figure out how high to rate a show that has aired only three episodes not only in the year, but ever, and not three hour and a half Sherlock episodes, but three 20 minute episodes. So here it is; I probably have liked what I’ve seen enough to have it higher, but I was hesitant on how high to put a show with three episodes. Now on to why you should watch this show if you’ve never heard of it before. Rick and Morty is an animated Adult Swim show about the science fiction adventures of grandfather Rick and grandson Morty, who have a perverse Doc Brown and Marty McFly-esque relationship. Rick is an alcoholic mad genius, and Morty is a loving kid who is a awkward and not the smartest chip on the block. Rick drags Morty throughout space time on all sorts of wacky adventures, while their family, Morty’s parents and sister, occupy often equally hilarious b stories.  It’s funny and it’s short and you don’t have to watch the episodes in order, but you might as well because there aren’t that many of them and they’re good. If you start with just one of the first three though, make it Anatomy Park which combines Jurassic Park, Fantastic Voyage, and John Oliver. Oh, on top of that it’s co-created by Community once-and-future head honcho Dan Harmon.