Archive | February, 2014

End of Season Report: The Returned

28 Feb

The Returned

I’m about to say something I don’t say particularly often about a season of television.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything remotely like the first season of The Returned. Different aspects of the show do resemble other pieces of culture, but all put together, I can’t put a finger on anything that similar. It took me several episodes before I could even attempt at all to pin down the show’s mood and genre – it was a horror show, then it wasn’t, then it was, then it wasn’t, until, well, very clearly at the end it was.

That being said, I’m not sure how much of a boon its level of uniqueness was, and how much of it was a show that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and maybe lost something because of it. I do like the show, and I do think there’s a lot worth watching for, and especially in the first few episodes, I started to really want to dig further and further into the world.

However, as the show went further on, I wasn’t sure whether I liked the direction it was going in – I liked some decisions, not as much others. The final episode that put me back as unsure of how much I like the show as I was after the first episode, as the events of that episode totally reset the calculus for what to expect going forward. The first season finale could be a completely mysterious stand alone ending, but as there seems to be a second season, I have absolutely no idea where exactly this show is going.

Let’s take a step back. The Returned is about a small French town in which dead locals start coming back to life. The primary “returned’ we see are Camille, a teenager who died in a bus crash, Simon, a depressed man who killed himself on his wedding day, Victor, a little boy, and Serge, a serial killer, who was buried alive by his brother after the brother found out what Serge did.

The four come back, and reengage with their former families with varied results. A lot has changed since each of them has gone, and there’s a lot of old wounds reopened. It’s equally difficult for both the returned and those who remained alive the entire time;. It’s certainly not the fault of the the returned that they’re coming back, and that they’re made to feel like they’re now screwing up everybody’s lives which have finally moved past their tragic deaths seems overly cruel. At the same time, the return is difficult to grapple with for the living. On top of simply making peace with the supernatural angle and lack of science behind the dead returning, the living are afraid to get too close, because they don’t know what’s going on or how long it will last. In the case of Simon, his ex-fiance only learns for the first time that he killed himself, changing the entire way she views his death, which she had thought of merely as an awful tragedy rather than him leaving her in the lurch. In Serge’s case, his brother Toni feels horrible for killing him, even knowing what he’d done, and views his return as some sort of payback/chance to make amends.

On top of this emotional reconnection and family drama, there’s plenty psychological trauma, which is tense and thriller-esque but not necessarily straight out horror. Camille tells parents whose children died as part of the same crash that their children are well and looking forward to seeing them in the afterlife, which leads two of the parents to hang themselves, hoping to reunite with their child. A recent addition to the town, Lucy Clarkson, who came out of nowhere and worked at the local bar (the delightfully named Lake Pub – two of the only English words spoken in the series), communications with men’s dead relatives while having sex with them (that that premise doesn’t come off as as goofy as it sounds is a tribute to the sedate and ominous mood of the show – humor is not an element even in the slightest in The Returned). Hundreds of dead animals have turned up, drowned, after running away from something unidentified, but scarier than the possibility of drowning.

And then, well, there’s the straight out horror. Victor, the little boy, has some sort of ability to make people see visions and inflict pain upon themselves – he’s a version of the horror trope of the creepy kid with powers. Most importantly, the final episode ends with the returned, led by Lucy Clarkson, possibly now a returned herself, after being attacked early in the series by the Returned Serge. The power’s gone out in the town, and the townsfolk, along with Camille and Victor, are gathered in the local shelter for those in need. The returned demand that the townspeople hand over  Camille and Victor. The townspeople, disappointingly comply, without a fight, led by police officer Thomas, my least favorite character in the show who I was constantly rooting against. After they’ve handed them over, the townspeople buckle down inside the shelter, while policemen guard on the outside. When they open the door after a tumultuous night, they find the policemen all gone and the town entirely flooded. Season over.

I repeat, I have absolutely no fucking idea what to make of this series. I am pretty sure I prefer the first two dynamics I mentioned to the out and out horror – the ending is creepy as all fuck, but less satisfying to me, though admittedly I’m not a horror junkie. I like the show best when it’s playing on the deeper emotional themes stirred by the returned. I did enjoy the first leap towards darkness – the parents’ hanging themselves gave me exactly the sort of chills which I was looking for here, which was a horrific image rooted in a somewhat understandable reaction. The supernatural mingles with the real, and there’s an affecting punch that really resonates. The horde of dead come to claim their brethren from the living? It’s terrifying but it doesn’t really work with those themes I enjoyed from the early episodes about the powers of time and loss..

I’ll be watching the second season, if only to know where this is going and what’s coming next. Less so directly next, in a cliffhanger fashion, and more in, just what direction is all of this headed in. The Returned was interesting, very original, and very ominous; I just wish it had held back one degree from going full horror, which I would think would have made for more nuanced and ambiguous place for the show to live.

Spring 2014 Review: About a Boy

26 Feb

About a Boy

So About a Boy was first a book by Nick Hornby. Next, it was a film adaptation starring Hugh Grant and Toni Collette. And then, several years later, we get a television adaptation starring David Walton (of Bent, New Girl, Perfect Couples) and Minne Driver.

It’s easy to see why someone might want to adopt this again. There’s a lot to like. Frankly, just in terms of basic sitcom set up, About a Boy has a different layout than most. The main character are a single guy, a kid, and a single woman, the kid’s mother. The central plot thread is a non-creepy heartwarming friendship that develops between the  kid and the single guy. And if you didn’t know better, and you read this,  you’d naturally assume the guy and the woman have a will-they, won’t-they, eventually-probably-get-together relationship. Except one of my favorite things about the About a Boy story (and I love Nick Hornby and the book, so there’s a bunch) is that there isn’t. They become friends, but they’re never any sexual tension between them and that’s thoroughly refreshing for its different-ness. I’ve written about sitcom incest before and one of my favorite things about this story and what looks to be true from the premise is that the single guy and single woman can get along and learn to be friends without any romantic interest. Amazing!

Anyway, so I suppose I need to actually review this show instead of just talking about the premise. Will, the lead (Walton), is a single guy, who is essentially financially set for life and just hangs out. In the original, Will’s dad wrote a Christmas song, from he collected royalties; in the show, he earned royalties from his former band’s Christmas-related one-hit wonder. The boy, Marcus, and his hippie-esque mother, Fiona, both having a tough time in their lives, move out to San Francisco, right next to Will.

The precocious Marcus, whose best friend is his mother, clearly doesn’t have the social skills to fare well at school. He ends up running in Will’s place to save him from some kids chasing him when his mom isn’t home. Will, on the other hand, initially irritated by the kid, finds the arrangement to his benefit when he can pretend Will is his to hit on hot single moms. They hang out and bond in montage fashion, getting to know each other.

The show tries to stuff the basic events of the movie into the episode, in what basically follows the rom com format, but rather than a romantic relationship, it’s a relationship between Will and Marcus, as Will and Marcus meet cute and start to become friends. At a dinner with the two and Fiona, Will and Marcus get into a fight when Will is unwilling to call himself the Marcus’s. Feeling guilty, Will comes to save the kid from an absolutely disastrous talent show performance of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” (rather than “Killing Me Softly”).

The episode suffers a little bit from having to stuff a bunch of necessary premise plot points into 20 minutes. This is particularly on display in the one scene that Daily Show correspondent Al Madrigal, as Will’s friend Andy gets.  Before Will saves the kid at the talent show, after he had his fight with Marcus, Andy lays out Will and the premise is an incredibly on-the-nose fashion, pointing out that Will hasn’t ever tried to commit to anything, and this kid actually liking him is an opportunity to have a meaningful relationship.

At the end, it seems like we can actually move on with the established fact that Will and the boy are buds without having to explain the actual character development of why this guy would possibly want to spend time with this kid.

None of this yet answer the question about whether the show is funny, and the answer is sort of. It’s not hilarious; I didn’t laugh too much, and there’s nothing that made me immediately want to come back for more. That said, I did smile, and it was heartwarming (About a Boy, after all, is from Jason Katims, of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood), so I came away with a somewhat positive feeling even if i didn’t laugh a lot. I think the personalities are likeable, and I think there’s potential for the show to be funnier, but it definitely has at least some ways to go. That said, in particularly I liked it enough that I’m curious to see whether an episode that doesn’t have to spend as much time establishing the premise, is funnier, and then I’ll have a better idea of how I feel about the show.

Will I watch it again? I think I probably will, but the show is about on par with other similarly decent comedy pilots that I didn’t watch again. If I do, it’s largely because it has the good fortune to come out at a time where there isn’t a lot of new show competition, because I like About a Boy, the book and movie, and because I’d like to see an episode that doesn’t suffer the weight of premise explanation.

End of Season Report: House of Cards, Season 2

24 Feb

What are the two?

I enjoyed season 1 of House of Cards but it had some serious problems which kept it ranked fairly low on the list of shows that I watch. In season 2, those problems are exacerbated rather than fixed. I’ll probably still watch season 3 and I can’t quite say I didn’t somewhat enjoy my marathoning through the 13 season 2 episodes. It was still on the side of more pleasant and less of a chore (which is always one of the signs before I drop a show). Still, it was a somewhat disappointing season fraught not just with problems that are somewhat inherent to the formula of House of Cards, but with problems that could have been fixed through better planning.

Since unfortunately this review is more about House of Cards’ problems, than its successes, I’ll break down those problems in the two categories I briefly mentioned above. First, the issues inherent to the formula established by House of Cards. Frank Underwood, and to some extent his wife Claire seem virtually omnipotent. Simply put, they always win and get what they want. Sure, it’s not actually that easy, and they face crisis after crisis, but they’re just smarter and more visionary than everybody else, and even more than that have an uncanny ability to manipulate everybody to do exactly what they want, wittingly or unwittingly. The president was putty in Frank’s hands, and even when he suddenly woke up and saw what Frank was doing, Frank won him right back over after a brief respite. You can’t beat Frank and Claire, and at some point that takes a toll on the tension of the show. Sure, there’s something to watching our protagonists come up with a plan and execute it successfully, but this is more than that – it requires so many things to go right that it strains credibility even within the universe of the show where I’m willing to give it some decent leeway.  This was more tolerable in the first season when Frank seemed to play the scrappy underdog (relatively) that many powerful people didn’t give enough credit to, and it was relatively easier to believe that their understimation of Frank put them in a position of weakness. Now, though, it seems hard to imagine people are constantly underestimating him as Vice President.

The lack of both serious crises and more than that credible antagonists make Frank’s victory’s seem more certain and less earned. More than that, considering how many obviously stupid mistakes he makes, one would think he’d be losing more often, or everyone around him is just not particularly competent or even close to his level. Maybe if all his plans didn’t contain so many obvious holes, his winning all the time would be convincing. Again, I’m not even saying he shouldn’t be winning more of the time than not; but the way it feels, is that there is almost never really any chance of him losing.

The breaking the fourth wall in which Frank constantly turns toward the camera could be witty, sharp, and funny – a meta-take on narration (or something) – and sometimes is, but it’s more often unnecessarily on the nose; telling us exactly what he’s doing even when it’s incredibly obvious to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. It plays right into my much­-ballyhooed (by me) dangers of narration. We get it, Kevin Spacey, I mean Frank Underwood, we see almost every step of your plans, your explanations and wry remarks aren’t adding a whole lot.

Thirdly, the show suffers from a somewhat serious flaw which I think makes it ideal for binge watching and whatever the opposite of ideal is for ruminating about for any period of time. Quickly put, the show doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The machinations, the Frank Underwood-actually-killing-someone, the idea that these mind-bogglingly complicated plans that involve eighteen different moving parts working as smoothly as no real life game of mousetrap has actually worked (seriously, if you got Mousetrap to work, kudos) actually work step by step, is a bit much to take. Again, this isn’t The Wire, or even Homeland, I don’t expect real life or even a close facsimile. But it’s not fantasy world Game of Thrones either. I’m perfectly willing to follow Underwood pretty far down the rabbit hole but the second season continues to want to extend the leash, to a point at which it just it’s too far within the universe of the show. Just be reasonable ridiculous, which I don’t think is too big an ask.

Those issues are not going away and were more or less prevalent in the first season. Here’s some issues that were more particular to this season.

Forget the internal logic of the show, for a minute. There were straight out significant parts of this season that made me think, why is this here, or more coarsely, to simply say out loud, “what the fuck?”. Chief among these are the hacker scenes with Gavin (Jimmi Simpson, Liam McPoyle from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and his guinea pig. What? Why? I get that he will at least hopefully come up in the third season, and the writers are trying to get a head start on setting up that plot but the point of these short fairly meaningless bursts with this character were confounding. Even more confounding, the scene with Xander Feng having sex with the bag over his head. Whaa? Why? In generally, there were just wasted threads that seemed to go nowhere and have unsatisfying conclusions. Lucas was a pretty lousy character who did an awful job of investigating and after his disappearance, any journalism angle largely goes by the wayside. By no means is the show obligated to keep up the journalism plotline, but the parts the made it in and the point at which it was cut out just seemed arbitrary and odd. The same goes for the killing of Zoe Barnes; it was a total shock, which absolutely had some value as a viewer, but beyond that it didn’t seem particularly well thought out. These are some examples, and I could break it down episode by episode, but in sum, there are a lot of these moments, and it feels like the writers just didn’t edit their work very well.

Season 2 could have used more compelling antagonists. It’s hard to get worked up against Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk, and less so even about him than about the bureaucratic pissing match that him and Frank have over the course of the season; it basically feels like the same episode six or seven times in a row as Underwood and Tusk go back and forth. The plots are repetitive and not particularly compelling. If someone who is actually kind of a nerd about politics finds this boring and pointless, I can only imagine what someone with no interest in politics thinks. This all is not even counting what a mind-boggling pushover the president is, compared to Frank.

All this being said, House of Cards probably isn’t going to rank particularly high when I get down to ranking my 2014 shows next year, but I’ll most likely still come back to watch the third season when it comes around because I still think the show has something to offer. So here’s some general advice based on everything I’ve said above. Tighten the damn screws.  You have a while to put together this next season. Stop wasting time; make sure the scenes that are shown, are shown for a reason. Thread the season together smarter and more compellingly; don’t have a back and forth between two characters that sort of just vacillates over points that nobody really cares about. It can be done. I’ll wait for Orange is the New Black in the meantime.

Spring 2014 Review: Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle

21 Feb

With last year’s threesome of House of Cards, Arrested Development, and Orange is the New Black, I now take serious Netflix as a provider of original programming and pay close attention to shows the service puts out. Amazon hasn’t quite reached that perch yet. They’ve started making pilots, have tried to generate interests with fan votes to determine which pilots are turned into series, but they haven’t yet had that breakthrough show that catapults Amazon as a serious player in the quality TV market (John Goodman’s Alpha House made small waves; it was more than nothing, but more likely a mix tape released while everyone eagerly awaits the first major label album).

Their most recent batch contained five adult pilots and five kid-geared pilots. I’ll look at two half hours here, Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle.



Having come to these amazon pilots late, and without the normal shielding of reviews that I try to maintain before checking out a show for myself, I couldn’t help but catch the general whiff of effusive praise, if not the specifics.

The thing is, everyone else is pretty much right. There’s lots of ways to dissect television, and I can talk about individual shows and what makes great shows great for hours and thousands of words, but five minutes into the Transparent pilot you can tell it’s simply another class than any of the other pilots they’ve put out. It feels like a premium cable show, and I mean that in the best possible way. Transparent is a story about three siblings and their father, from Jill Soloway, a writer on Six Feet Under. The Six Feet Under connection shows. Since the Fisher clan have been off the air, there has been a serious dirth of great television about regular families – families that aren’t involved with the mafia, or with drug dealing, or any other hook, but just families, who, yes, probably have more issues than most normal families, but who are strong families who deal with these issues as a unit (Friday Night Lights was one, though that had the football hook, I’ve never seen Parenthood, so I can’t comment on that).

Here’s the quick lowdown. Transparent features three Los Angeles siblings. Sarah (Amy Landecker), is a former college lesbian (this is actually plot relevant) and now housewife married to a fairly well-off Len (Childrens Hospital and cameo appearances in every comedy’s Rob Huebel). Josh (Jay Duplass, of the brothers Duplass) is a music exec who seems to enjoy sleeping with the young musicians he courts. Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is the youngest and seems to be a disinterested layabout surviving on money from their dad. Their dad is Mort (Jeffery Tambor) who has big news to share with his kids.

The siblings interaction feels incredible genuine and characters feel surprisingly real after a measly 20 minutes of screen time, even though we know so little about any of them. Evoking that feeling however is a hallmark of good writing and a good show, and I’m excited to learn more about these characters and see the interaction between them.

Just watch it, it’s twenty minutes, and with the news that it’s going to series, Amazon may have their first bona fide critical hit on their hands, the show that demands TV viewers take Amazon seriously as a platform.

Mozart in the Jungle

Mozart in the Jungle


Mozart in the Jungle is a comedy set in the high-strung (pun intended) world of classical music in New York. The main characters are a Cynthia (Saffron Burrow, Boston Legal and more) veteran cellist sleeping with the retiring conductor Thomas(Malcolm McDowell), the new younger conductor, Gustavo, who wants to shake things up (Gabriel Garcia Bernal), a young oboist, Hailey (Lola Kirke – sister of Girls’ Jemima) desperate to earn her way in, and well, I’m sure a few  more of the people on screen will turn out to be characters, but those were the obvious ones. Oh, and Bernadette Peters in a small role as Gloria, who is in charge of the symphony.

Mozart in the Jungle features a great idea for a premise, and there could be a good show here, but after watching Transparent you can really feel the gulf in polish between the two shows. Transparent feels fully formed, while Mozart in the Jungle feels like a rough draft. There’s a sketch here, but it feels more like a bunch of ideas; a brain storm, that they would maybe then really bear down on if it went to series. The jokes are well-intentioned and in the right spirit but mostly don’t exactly work. The characters, well, I get what they’re going for with each, but they don’t seem imbued with any of the depth of the Transparent characters. Again, I think this could be good but it needs help from where it is now.

Will I watch it again? Maybe. It’s hard to analyze these pilots, which we’re seeing before any series orders have been placed, and it’s possible that there’s a lot of work that’s done between this and the series order. I do think there’s something here if the writers can really drill down. That said, based merely on the quality of the first episode, it was okay but not quite there enough to deserve regular viewing.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: Recap and Mistaken Omissions

19 Feb

Well it’s all done – another year, another ranking in the books. I ranked 48 shows this year, comedies, dramas, dramadies, commas, and everything in between. I look over the rankings and I’m mostly pretty happy, though it’s incredibly tempting to tinker here and there, and in six months or the next time I rewatch a few of these episodes, I’ll probably want to move a few shows up or down. Still, it’s a document that represents a moment in time. These are your 2013 rankings.

PS. Oh, I accidentally missed ranking two shows I watched last year. One is, I think, fairly excusable, and one is not. I’ll post capsules for both shows below the rankings along with where I would have ranked them.

Remember this show's name

  1. Breaking Bad
  2. Game of Thrones
  3. Rectify
  4. Treme
  5. Justifeid
  6. Eagleheart
  7. Mad Men
  8. The Americans
  9. Hannibal
  10. 30 Rock
  11. Parks and Recreation
  12. Venture Bros
  13. New Girl
  14. Bob’s Burgers
  15. Top of the Lake
  16. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
  17. Arrested Development
  18. Archer
  19. Orange is the New Black
  20. Orphan Black
  21. Childrens Hospital
  22. Masters of Sex
  23. Broadchurch
  24. Happy Endings
  25. Rick and Morty
  26. Girls
  27. Veep
  28. Boardwalk Empire
  29. Sons of Anarchy
  30. The Mindy Project
  31. NTSF
  32. Workaholics
  33. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
  34. Wilfred
  35. The Walking Dead
  36. Black Mirror
  37. Family Tree
  38. Siberia
  39. House of Cards
  40. The Bridge
  41. Homeland
  42. Downton Abbey
  43. Community
  44. Marvel’s Agents of Shield
  45. Luther
  46. The Office
  47. Under the Dome
  48. Dexter

And two that were missed –

Ben and Kate

Ben and Kate and friends

Where I would have ranked it: This is tough; there’s pretty much no way to not use the three episodes that aired as somewhat of a stand in for the entire short series, and honestly, it’s been over a full year since I watched these, longer than just about any show on the list (equal only to maybe 30 Rock, whose final episodes I remember specifically better). I’ll stick it at 23, right above Happy Endings and below Broadchurch. It’s possible this is too high, but I only get one chance to put it on a list, and nostalgia is bringing back fond memories.

A delightful show in danger of being forgotten forever; I in fact completely forgot about it while making this list, though I think it’s somewhat forgivable considering only three episodes aired in 2013 before the show was pulled from Fox’s schedule (there are three unaired episodes that were pulled from the schedule). It’s really too bad; Ben & Kate was an excellent fit with the New Girl / Mindy Project block, and could have done as well as those shows with some more promotion and time to build (not that those shows do so well, but all things relative). Like Parks and Rec, Ben & Kate was a comedy of nice, a story of five characters who really and genuinely like each other; there were awkward moments but not cringeworthy ones. I had loved Nat Faxon from his brilliant turn as Garlan Greenbush (who Lizzie Kaplan pegs as the name of “an unemployed wizard”) in Party Down, and Dakota Johnson was delightfully awkward, fumbling with words at any opportunity. Ben & Kate featured the rare child actor who I liked, the adorable Maddie, who was likable, funny, and not too precocious. All and all, this was an extremely promising new comedy fallen well before its time.

Poor Mike White

Where I would have ranked it: This is even tougher, because it get more difficult the higher up in the rankings one goes, and the second season of Enlightened may well come to be viewed as a sneaky cult canonical season of television. I know it’s great because it’s a show that’s not by nature up my alley, and that, if it wasn’t great, a show I wouldn’t like at all. I’ll slot it between 6 and 7 – above a below average Mad Men season but below the possibly best season of super-up-my-alley Eagleheart. It’s also been about a year  since I’ve seen this, so I’m viewing it from more of a distance than I like, but this is the definitive season of this show (albeit, there are only two; but it’s hard to imagine a better season of this show coming later anyway); Parks and Recreation and Archer for example I may like more overall, but both didn’t just enjoy their best seasons.

Now, this omission is less forgivable. This also aired at the very beginning of 2013 but aired a full season that year, was much more of an event, and I marathoned both seasons of Enlightened over a couple of shockingly depressing weekends. I talked a lot about the revelation this season was here, but I’ll say some thoughts in brief. I originally watched the first episode of Enlightened and passed; Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe was a character that got on my nerves continually. That didn’t exactly change after I came back to the show after hearing recommendations everywhere, but what changed was the balance; I felt more sympathy for her and her position than I felt irritated by her actions. It’s an incredibly depressing show about the struggle of modern life, and the difficulty in trying to find meaning in the everyday, but the second season took the show to a new level. The finale was sad, frustrating, and empowering all at once, and the fourth episode of the season which just features Luke Wilson’s character at rehab was a bottle episode revelation. I’d recommend everyone try to put themselves through this second season if nothing else; it’s rough going, but not that many hours of TV and totally worth it.

Spring 2014 Review: Enlisted

17 Feb


Geoff Stultz, best known to me from his turn as Kate’s boyfriend in the short-lived but delightful Ben & Kate (how was that cancelled only last year? TV time flies), stars as Pete Hill, the eldest brother in a military family. Pete’s dad was in the military and steered his kids towards it, but only Pete was really suited. His younger brothers are Derrick, a cynical slacker who doesn’t care about his job (Chris Lowell, Piz from Veronica Mars), and Randy, an over enthusiastic youngest brother who cares but is a bit short from a mental fortitude standpoint (Parker Young, Ryan Shay from Suburgatory).

The three are reunited when Pete, a super competent soldier, who had been serving abroad in the heart of battle in Afghanistan with special forces, screws up and gets demoted. He’s forced to return to a base in Florida, in charge of soldiers whose job is to take care of the base while most of the other soldiers are serving overseas. Pete loves his brothers, but he can’t help feeling demoralized by having to work on the base doing what he sees as pointless support work, while he could be super soldiering in the middle east. He and his brothers naturally argue about this from the get go; while Randy, the dumb brother, is just glad to have him home, Derrick understandably takes a little bit of offense at Pete’s superior attitude. Pete, meanwhile, is somewhat understandably disdainful of Derrick’s lack of caring about well anything. Anyway, this is already getting more complicated than necessary for a comedy premise so I’ll speed it up.

Basically, after some talks with the head of the base, an old friend of the boys’ late father, Donald (played by Keith David) Pete is motivated again to try to make the best of a bad situation and to inspire the base’s outcasts, and most importantly, his brothers to be the best they can be.

Enlisted hangs out in that cute-but-not-so-funny-its-a-must-watch comedy tier along with Trophy Wife and Suburgtaory It’s cute, it’s positive, it has the right idea but it never quite takes off or made me laugh out loud. There are a bunch of silly, maybe a bit too ridiculous (but maybe not) outcast soldiers Pete has to get to work together, and they’re played mostly for laughs, which sometimes works. There’s also an obviously love interest for Pete, Jill, a rival high achiever who doesn’t have Pete’s superior attitude about being too good for the camp.  Still, at the heart, the show is about the three brothers. As the oldest of three brothers, I always have a soft spot for shows about brothers, and aside from the youngest brother being a certifiable idiot, the brother relationship rings true.

It’s not hilarious, but there’s something here. I’m not sure I’m convinced it’s a winner straight out; It’ll have to do more to convince me yet with the incredibly crowded TV schedule and tons of TV catch up I need to work on all the time. Still, it’s better than 85% of the comedies out there, and there’s a lot to be said for that. It’s oriented in the right direction even when the jokes don’t hit. The premise is sound, but the screws need to be tightened a bit.

Will I watch it again? Not regularly. If it survives it could be a candidate for a show I put on as I’m going to sleep, and that sounds like an insult but it’s really not – bad television when I’m going to sleep just makes me angry and gives me bad dreams, so. And from there, it’s just one more step to regular viewership. Get to work, Enlisted, You can do it.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 4-1

14 Feb

Here we are, the final four. Two returnees from last  year’s top four, and two new entrants. All four hour longs. Let’s do it. 4-1.

4. Treme

Let the trombones play

David Simon’s post-Wire paean to post-Katrina New Orleans and the people who live there isn’t The Wire, and I think that’s hurt it in the minds of a lot of people. Tons and tons and tons of people who loved The Wire, many of whom came to The Wire late, refuse to even give Treme a chance. I don’t get it. Someone makes a show that you consider great, and you’re unwilling to even make an effort to watch the first couple of episodes of his next show, especially when it’s critically acclaimed. Well, me telling you to watch it now probably won’t help, but I’ll do it anyway. Treme is sadly over before it’s time, but the final season continued doing everything Treme does so well. While The Wire feels like a story where characters take two steps forward, followed by three steps back, Treme is a little more optimistic; characters take two steps back and three steps forward. There’s plenty of being beaten down by the system, but it turns out David Simon can do hopeful as well as depressing. No one constructs shows that feel more like real life than David Simon, no one constructs more full and inhabited worlds, and no one makes characters that are easier to empathize with and emotions that feel entirely earned. Basically, even though the show is just about people living there lives, there’s really nothing else on TV like it and probably won’t be until the next David Simon show crops up.

3. Rectify


The final new spring 2013 drama, three of which made it into the top 10 (what a freshmen class!). Unlike Hannibal or The Americans, Rectify had no problem with originality; I can’t think of any show that was particularly similar to Rectify, in terms of premise and plot. A death row inmate is exonerated after 20 years in prison thanks to DNA evidence, and he tries to fit back in to the real world in a small Georgia town that still believes strongly in his guilt. To say it’s deliberately paced would be an understatement; it makes the early True Detective episodes seem like 24 in comparison. It’s beautiful though, thoughtful, and heartrending. Instead of the deliberate pace being a drain, it’s actually a boon, and the show takes its time to linger and savor; the same way time moves slowly for Daniel, the former inmate, for whom each regular every day experience is new again after 20 years away. Nobody knows how to respond to Daniel; as difficult as it is for him to engage with his family, it’s equally difficult for them to reengage with him. The final scene of the season may have been the most emotional moment I saw watching TV in the entirety of last year.

2. Game of Thrones

In the game of thrones, you win or you die

It’s hard to write these capsules without being a little bit spoil-y but I’ve mostly tried to avoid delivering huge spoilers and I’ll continue to do so here. But I will say no show on TV delivers more shocking moments and huge twists which entirely change the direction of the plot more than Game of Thrones, sometimes turning the entire show on its head. If it was just about plot and aesthetics, Game of Thrones would already be entertaining and a must-watch but there’s so much more. Series author George R.R. Martin, and the writers who translate his work, DB Weiss and David Beinoff, have a talent for creating relatable motivation for almost every character, and making some of the most instantly hatable characters understandable if not likeable. In a world threatened by desperate winter conditions and external threats, Game of Thrones constantly reckons with the nature of power; what are the rules, what are the rights, and what are the responsibilities. The wealthy fight over a throne while the poor struggle merely to survive. Like most great shows, fans can have polarizing opinions about many of the characters and all have credible arguments.

1. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad, bitch

Well, one last time. Breaking Bad delivered a final season and a finale surely to be considered one of the greatest of all time. Even if not every single moment worked, Breaking Bad simply did so much in eight episodes that the success percentage was still absurdly high, and even the very few decisions I disagreed with, I was able to understand the reasoning behind. Breaking Bad told us right from episode one of the final season that they were done playing it slow and safe, as Walt was on the move after confronting Hank. From there it was a non-stop episode to episode roller coaster ride, which led to one of the rare times where I really felt like I couldn’t wait another week for the next episode, although if each episode had come any faster I might have had a heart attack. The last season was so creative, so much happened, the drama was on such high alert; Breaking Bad went for it in a huge way and won. There are so many many riveting and memorable scenes that there are too many to name, but his phone call with Skyler was maybe the emotional high point of the season, while Ozymandias may go down as one of the best episodes of television of all time. One last salute, Breaking Bad, before I won’t be able to rank you anymore. This is how memorable final seasons are done.

Spring 2014 Review: Killer Women

12 Feb

Killer Woman

The show is called Killer Women, plural. It’s unclear the multiple women are, but the key woman is Molly Parker, played by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer (of course Molly Parker is the name of another TV actress now seen in House of Cards). Helfer is one of the only two female Texas Rangers, and the other law officers are still clearly unaccustomed to having to respect women as officers. She’s a law officer fighting a lack of respect in a man’s world, reminiscent of the better but failed Prime Suspect with Maria Bello a few years back. She’ll do anything it seems to fight her way towards the truth, and she’s got good instincts which help her read situations and determine whether people are telling the truth or lying.

Parker has had recent personal troubles as well. She’s getting out of an abusive marriage where her husband, a local political power player, from whom she’s separated, refuses to sign the divorce papers (sidenote: in 2014, how is having to get your partner to sign a paper to get divorced still a thing? How is this not insane?). The other main cast members surround Karker – her brother, with whom she’s now living, is played by former fellow BSG alum Michael Trucco (Samuel Anders, who was a professional at whatever that stupid sport was from BSG, which I won’t dignify with a name) and her DEA agent love interest is played by Marc Blucas (Riley from Buffy –not a name I thought I’d necessarily ever hear again).

Who are the other Killer Women I wonder? In the pilot, a woman (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velazquez) kills a man at the behest of a drug cartel, but she seems like a single episode character, but maybe not. The other possibility is that the killer is every episode is a woman but that could also get predictable.

Anyway, the rest of the story is pretty boring. She’s a no-nonsense doesn’t play by the rules Texas Ranger, and she breaks a bunch of rules, and in fact kills a few people (though it’s in Mexico, and they’re drug cartel employees, so it doesn’t really count) so that by the end of the episode she finds out the truth and on top of that gets a valuable witness to testify for the DEA. Win win, except for the rules broken, or maybe win win win because of the rules broken, because that’s how police TV works.

I literally just wrote in my last new show review of Intelligence about my desire for cops who at least more or less play within the rules, and well, that extends here. The show is oddly cavalier here in particular about just how fair the chances were of her or her DEA agent friend getting murdered when they went down to Mexico without authorization to rescue a couple of people kidnapped by a drug cartel. It’s great and all that they were able to do it, and since it was successful, in hindsight it looks great, but there’s pretty little discussion of risks not just to them but to their entire departments if they’re caught or killed in Mexico abusing police weaponry without authorization.

There really is an interesting show to be made revolving around border culture and the drug cartels and painting a really interesting, complicated and nuanced picture of the situation. This, to be fair, doesn’t particularly try to do that, so it wouldn’t be fair to call Killer Women out on it, but it just reminds me of the opportunity missed. (The Bridge could still be that show, but I’m not sold yet; we’ll see how its second season goes).

All in all, it’s an average-at-best police procedural. It was watchable enough but it certainly didn’t command any attention; I could have been reading a book and still followed along.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s just not much for me here. It wasn’t awful just uninspired. Good for broadcast TV for throwing in a female action hero; bad on them for not making it in a better show.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 8-5

10 Feb

Three dramas and an 11 minute comedy, one of the dramas a debut, and the other two a couple of veterans of the top of these rankings. 8-5 coming up.

8. The Americans

They're really Soviet!

The incredibly strong freshman drama crop of spring 2013 strikes again on this list. The Americans was a revelation, a show that was a must watch almost right out of the gate. The way Hannibal belied my tiredness of cop-genius shows, The Americans belied my tiredness of shows set in the past. Two deep cover Soviet spies conduct missions while living a life as an ordinary family with kids who know nothing of who their parents really are. Their neighbor is an FBI agent working to expose Soviet deep cover spies with no idea that a pair of spies live next door. There’s so many layers of subterfuge, both literally and figuratively; it almost seems like it could be too much and too on the nose, but it works. There are great and sometimes funny action spy set pieces which bring you in but underneath it’s a show about identity and relationships and truth and lies and the wide ground between. Get on the bandwagon now.

7. Mad Men

Don Draper, Rainy Day

This was probably the weakest season for Mad Men, at least in a while, but that being said, it’s still Mad Men, and it’s still pretty great. The weakness was largely the fault of Don’s plotlines, which felt repetitive, treading ground we’ve tread before, but slightly worse, and Matt Weiner seemed hell-bent on sending him lower than he had ever been before, which would be fine if it wasn’t simply not particularly gripping. Luckily, everyone else’s plots were there to pick us up. Peggy had a fantastic season, Betty actually became a real, interesting character, rather than a caricature, and Sally continued to develop, and had a couple of really powerful moments to shine in the second half of the sesaon. Likewise Roger and Pete, who I felt bad for for the fist time in the series, which is an impressive achievement. New characters Ted and Jim were welcome additions. An absolutely surreal episode broke up the season, and while I’m not sure how I feel about it overall it contained a Ken Cosgrove tap dance which made the episode worthwhile in and of itself. I say it again. Even non-vintage Mad Men is very excellent TV.

6. Eagleheart

Marhsal Chris Monsanto

The weirdest and almost certainly least watched show on my list, Eagleheart is a show I’ve desperately tried to convince every single person I run into to watch. Like Venture Bros., it’s absolutely not for everyone, but anyone who has any taste for absurdist humor should get on board immediately. Eagleheart is far an away the most absurd non-animated show on TV, making something like Childrens Hospital seem like The Wire in terms of reality in comparison. Chris Elliott plays US Marshal Chris Monsanto, and well, it’s just nuts, trying to attempt to explain any of the best episodes might take more than the 11 minutes the episodes take to watch. The best Eagleheart episodes change plots three or four times per episode. While normally Eagleheart episodes are disconnected, the third season was loosely strung together in an arc called Paradise Rising. The first two seasons were great, but this may be the best yet. My favorite episode Spatz, is mind-bogglingly ridiculous and equally wonderful and hilarious.

5. Justified

Raylan Givens

If it’s not already obvious, we’re getting to the crème de la crème here. Justified warmed up in its first season, hit some serious heights in its second, suffered a small comedown with its third season and followed that with an absolutely exemplary fourth season. Everything that makes Justfied work was present in the season; Timothy Olyphant’s suburb portrayal of Marshal Raylan Givens, a character that could easily become an anti-hero caricature if not played and written exactly right. The season features fantastic Elmore Leonard-inspired settings and crackling dialogue; Justified is a funny show, and a hit parade of idiot criminals and witty retorts by the more competent among them keep it crackling. The season long plot was compelling and fascinating and guest stars were spot on, including dramatic turns for comedians, which Justified does better than anyone, including Patton Oswalt and Mike O’Malley and stellar work from underrated character actor Jim Beaver. That fourth season for me elevated Justified to a near-certain TV hall of famer in my mind.

Spring 2014 Review: Intelligence

7 Feb


It would be easy to make some wordplay based on the title Intelligence (and the show’s lack there of, etc.). I’ll abstain however, as the show was only relatively insipid, rather than incredibly so. That’s a mild back-handed compliment but I hope the show enjoys it because it’s just about the last it will get.

Here’s how I see the making of Intelligence. Someone had a genuinely gimmicky but not terrible idea for a show premise. Once that premise moved forward into the making of an actual show, well the rest was pretty much put together by the numbers, and probably could have been done by a machine when fed as inputs every other CBS procedural from the past decade.

Here is the premise. The hottest new piece of US technology to fight the war on, well, anything, is a man, a former super top notch military man, with a microchip implant. This microchip allows the power of computers to somehow fuse with his brain, which means he can instantly access and scroll through any piece of information available on the internet or other electronic system, and more than that, he can reconstruct entire scenes, Source Code-like, combining the facts he gets from his computer with the intelligent connections and leaps of reasoning from his brain. There’s not a half-bad idea here, if someone really worked on it; the battle between man and machine has been hit upon many times before (Fox’s Almost Human, and of course the recently remade RoboCop), but that’s partly because there’s a lot to mine. Besides being cool, it’s genuinely interesting in a world where more and more human roles are being usurped by technology to figure out where the lines are.

That’s about the last interesting part of the show, sadly. The soldier is Gabriel, played by Josh Holloway, best known to TV viewers as Lost’s Sawyer, and he’s a charming but rough-around-the-edges ex-Delta Force operative who doesn’t play by the rules. The show hangs the lampshade by asking why the government would implant this one single unique chip into a guy who may kind of not always follow their orders, but then they don’t really explain why they do it.

Our way into the story is through a secret service agent named Riley assigned to protect Gabriel. In 40 minutes, she goes from thinking this new assignment is not worth her time to agreeing to undertake Gabriel’s pet project, a search for his wife, who, reports say, turned on the US, and is dead, but which he doesn’t believe.

There’s a watchable but fairly unremarkable episodic storyline that involves its share of action scenes, Riley and Gabriel bonding, and a betrayal by a government agent which doesn’t mean a lot to us since we’ve known him for about five minutes.

The characters just aren’t that interesting, nor is the dialogue. I say it over again but I say it again here; there’s a limit to how much you can tell in the first episode of a show but you can, especially in a drama, tell a certain difference between dramas that, even if they don’t ultimately work, have a certain amount of care put into them, and ones that just seem like they were produced without any real passion. This is of the later variety. There’s nothing that elevates it above a standard procedural at absolute best.

A quick shout out before we go to Riley and Gabriel’s boss, played by CSI’s Marg Helgenberger, who’s clearly moved up the government ranks since her days in Las Vegas.

Will I watch it again? No. It’s not terrible as far as procedurals go, it’s just not even trying. It doesn’t seem like anybody put a lot of thought or caring or passion into this show and it shows.