Archive | April, 2014

Spring 2014 Review: Black Box

30 Apr

Kerry Reilly and her Black Box

Spoiler alert: The titular black box refers to the human brain.

Sorry if I just blew your mind there (or your black box, so to speak), but I wanted to let you know what you’re up against. The show states this explicitly about three quarters of the way through, but if you can’t figure it out within about fifteen minutes, you’re in serious trouble.

Black Box fits nicely into the category of shows where the main character is an absolute genius at his or her job but has debilitating problems equal to their genius bringing down their personal lives. (I could, and perhaps should, make a comprehensive list of these shows one day, but importantly, House is the modern example which inspired a legion of followers). Kelly Reilly plays protagonist Catherine Black (Yes, the show Black Box  and her name is Black – the meaning is double, and I’m ashamed to say it took me reading her name maybe 10 times before I figured that one ount) is a brilliant and famous neurologist. She also has a deeply serious and secret case of bipolar disorder which has caused and continues to cause serious issues in her life. She’s able to keep her life functional when she takes her meds; unfortunately she also has penchant for not taking those very meds and throwing them out instead in her irresistible drive towards the fruits of a manic high (please excuse me if any of this sounds pejorative – any judgment is against the show, and not at all the condition).

The show is told through the plot device of a talk with her shrink, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who really, honestly, has got to be able to find better work than this with her resume. Catherine recounts the events of the pilot to the shrink, and Redgrave responds occasionally with questions and commentary. Redgrave knows about Catherine’s condition, as does her beloved brother, less beloved sister-in-law, and super beloved niece, who ends up to actually be her daughter, who she gave up to her brother because she didn’t believe she was fit to be a parent with her bipolar disorder.

No one associated with her job knows about her condition and it’s apparently integral that they never find out. She reveals her condition to her boyfriend during the pilot, terrified he’ll leave her when he finds out but he appears to be at least initially supportive.

There’s some fake-ambitious vaguely hallucinogenic manic sequences in her flashback, which seem like they’re aiming to be sophisticated but come of ass confusing, faux arty, and not particularly helpful, interesting, or revelatory.

There’s a case-of-the-week aspect. There are two cases actually in the first episode. Catherine spars with workplace rivals over the problems, and comes up with solutions, or the lack of solutions when helpful; one elderly patient has a rare condition when she talks with a non-existant small person – drugs can treat it, but if it makes her, already deteriorating mentally irreversibly, feel better, why treat it.

I’m not sure if this show thinks it’s asking deeper questions about mental conditions and the brain; I lean towards believing it doesn’t actually think that, while trying to vaguely acknowledge that those questions exist (which only makes me hunger for a show which deals with those questions in a much more interesting and compelling way.) This, is, a poor, poor, man’s third tier House, no more and no less.

I thought there was a chance Black Box would be truly terrible, and instead it was just really derivative and seriously sub-par. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but calling a compliment is generous. Still, it’s just lousy and not truly putrid. I was a little bit confused at the end of the first episode about the events of the show, which isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case probably meant the plot was simply poorly told. There was an original idea for a character a show tackling mental health in a serious way, but the idea was a superficial one, put over all the tropes of typical procedurals.

Additionally, quick props to apparently having some of their science correct. I watched the pilot with someone who knew what they were talking about on the show, and identified what the case-of-the-week subjects had before the show identified them.

Will I watch it again? No. Honestly, the title is the best part of the show, and I surprisingly mean this because it’s a pretty good title more than I mean because it’s not a very good show, although it isn’t. Black Box really could have been the title of a better show.

Spring 2014 Review: Friends with Better Lives

28 Apr

Friends With Better LivesHackneyed is possibly an overused word in describing bad television, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Lazy, half-hearted, simple, forced, these are all qualities of hackneyed writing. Friends with Better Lives has all of this in spades.

Friends with Better Lives feels as if it was written by a machine whose model was built by constant watching of second tier ‘90s sitcoms, with the morals and sensibilities for more risque, profane, and sexually open 21st century audiences. It’s all the jokes you know, except now they’re about blowjobs, and while maybe the joke was sometimes always about that, there used to be two steps removed between the act and the joke to keep in line with the morals of the time, and now it’s half a step.

Friends with Better Lives is part of the post-friends verse of making shows that star six people in their 20s and 30s, and it’s part of the sub-genre of these shows featuring people in different stages of relationships. There’s a somewhat long-time married couple that fits every married cliche  – they’ve gotten lazy, they’re no longer as fiery or passionate as they once were, but underneath, their marriage, as they realize late in the first episode, is strong. There’s the two young lovebirds, who get engaged on a whim after only dating for a few weeks. They’re head over heels and all about the sex, but a little flighty and scatter brained, making grand romantic gestures all the time, which both irritate and rouse jealousy of the old married couple. Finally, there’s a man getting divorced, and a single woman desperate to find a man, but whose pickiness and quickness to render judgment make it difficult.

You know the jokes. The married couple is in such a rut they forget their anniversary! Then, in a surprise that could have been written by a shitty TV scribe version of O. Henry, the married wife tries to spice up the marriage by coming home and giving her husband a blowjob when the lights are out, not knowing that a couple dozen of their closest friends are waiting to surprise her for a party. Oops! The jokes are loud and hammy – you can’t miss them, although you won’t be laughing.

I hate to have to waste a few sentences of this review on this (I don’t really, there’s not that much to say), but if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. If your show has a laugh track, it’s hard for me to take your show seriously. I don’t need to rehash every terrible aspect of the laugh track, and if you’re reading this, you probably hate them as much (or close, at least) as I do, but if networks keep putting them in shows, I’m going to keep commenting on them.  This laugh track was particularly bad, if it’s still possible to grade the relative bad-ness of laugh tracks in this day and age. The laugh track was the single biggest factor in making me not want to watch an episode, and in a show of this quality, that says a lot.

The show doesn’t really care. This isn’t a real attempt to make a good show.  That may go for most CBS comedies but it’s no less true here.  In this day and age when there are so many channels and shows on TV, it means there are more gems than ever but still just as many rote written by the numbers shows that keep getting made because occasionally people still watch them, but usually not. Pretty easy to predict this one won’t be around for long.

Will I watch this show again? Are you kidding? No. No. Come on. You should know me better than that by now.

Parks and Recreation’s Unfortunate Season Finale Cop Out

25 Apr

San Fran

I love Parks and Recreation, when it ends it’ll be a shoo in for the sitcom hall of fame (one day I will make this Hall of Fame a reality), and on the short list for  best comedies of the century. I enjoyed much of the sixth season finale as well, but unfortunately it ended with a huge cop out that greatly disappointed me.

Going into the episode, Leslie had a very difficult decision to make about her future. She’d been an offered a job as head of the midwest regional national parks office in Chicago (I might be screwing up the exact title, but it’s not that important). It was a huge step up career-wise. She’d be heading a much bigger office and staff and working preserving national parks in the Midwest, a much, much bigger region than small town Pawnee with, as Ben points out in the finale Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills among many other notable parks. Unquestionably, she’s interested in the job and would take it instantly if not for two factors, that are pulling her back towards Pawnee. First, the Eagleton-Pawnee merger that she engineered is still troubled; without her tireless leadership to make sure the merger is a success, the towns could come apart (why the head of the Parks Department would be working to save the merger doesn’t really make a ton of sense, but we’ll grant that Leslie is apparently allowed to control everything in Pawnee because why not). Secondly, she’d be leaving all her friends and her beloved hometown behind. She wanted to raise her kids in Pawnee, the town she loved.

This is tough. I was very much hoping that Leslie would take the job and move to Chicago, both for Leslie’s sake, and for the show’s, but either decision would be understandable. The job was an amazing opportunity, but her reasons to stay in Pawnee were compelling as well. Staying to finish a job you started is admirable, and living somewhere you like with people you love is a major factor in overall happiness as well.

That was the choice. It was a hard choice, but a necessary one. Leslie realizes this, which is why she keeps putting it off as long as possible, but eventually she’s given a deadline and she decides to make the move and take the job. She has regrets, especially when she hears the horror stories of other town mergers (the threat of becoming unincorporated!) but she realizes it’s the best thing for her at this point in her life. Ron and Leslie have a key heart to heart, where they reminiscence about what Lesile will miss about Pawnee.

And then, all of a sudden, Leslie has an idea! She can have it all! She’ll bring the midwest branch of the National Parks Service to Pawnee! Of course, watching, I thought, even within the world of Parks and Recreation, this is an insane idea. Um, Chicago is a huge city, the biggest in the region, and a logical hub, which would be convenient for employees and office visistors. Pawnee, is a, honestly, pretty terrible backwater town, but beyond that, a small city in the middle of Indiana. As great an addition as everyone agrees Leslie would be, you can’t move a long established department from Chicago for her. Or so I thought. And thus, when her new boss turned down her suggestion to move the department to Pawnee, because it was silly and made no actual sense, she’d finally be forced to make the difficult choice once again.

But, no, that’s not what happened at all! She can have it all! With Ben preparing a booklet on the cost savings of housing the department in Pawnee  (Um, of course, it’s cheaper to not be in Chicago – it’s not located in Chicago to save money), all of a sudden, just like that it’s agreed that it should be in Pawnee, and zap we’re three years in the future.

The three year jump is another topic entirely and I have no intrinsic issue with it (and actually really like the idea of skipping the pregnancy). What I do have a problem with is with the massive cop out Parks and Recreation took here. The second half of the season has been building up to an extremely difficult choice by Leslie – take her dream job but be forced to move from her beloved Pawnee, or pass up this amazing opportunity and remain in the town she loves. I don’t envy her that choice. It’s not an easy one, but it’s one she had to make.

Only she didn’t, and not only did that bail on a tough choice, but the way it bailed just made absolutely no sense. I love you Parks and Recreation, but this was a moment of weakness.


End of Season Report: Community, Season 5

23 Apr

The Study Group, Season 5

While this season was Community was at times uneven, it was overall  a triumphant and welcome return to form.

There’s nothing that makes you appreciate something you like as much as, even more than its total absence, its replacement by a vastly inferior version. Rarely does television pull off that trick; usually a far inferior season of television is a symbol of a downward trend indicating that a show will never hit the heights it once did again. Community, fittingly, remains unique in this sense.

Everyone knows the story by now. Mercurial creator and show runner Dan Harmon was fired after the show’s third season. He was replaced by two well-meaning outsiders who attempted to capture what people loved about Community, but badly missed the mark. I’m not nearly as much o f a fourth season hater as some, but no matter what you think, it’s both not up to the quality we expect, and there’s something off about the show, like staring at a clone of someone you know well; externally it looks the same but it’s dead inside (that comes off as too harsh, maybe, but I don’t really want to use this space to defend the fourth season’s approach at mediocrity).

There were a couple of episodes that didn’t entirely put it together for me, but there have been some of those in almost every season. One of the consequences of Community’s sheer ambition to have everything at once means that when they miss they mark, they really miss it. Compare it to its Thursday night partner Parks and Recreation, another of the best comedies of the 21st century. While some episodes are better than others, Parks never has a complete swing as a miss, but it also rarely reaches the ethereal mind-blowing highs of the mega-ambitious Community episodes that manage to get everything right.

This season wasn’t the best in the show’s run, but it contained a couple of all-time episodes, several more solid wee-to-week classics, and easily more than enough to justify me being way more excited about wanting more Community in the future than I was coming into this season. Community fans went through a rough couple of years, and it was rewarding to see our favorite characters returned to their former glory, and to not end the show’s story with the ugly, metallic taste (the taste of the gas leak, if you will) of the fourth season stuck in our mouths.

Cooperative Polygraphy was this season’s moment of absolute brilliance. Community was graced with the presence of Walton Goggins, and the group were required to answer questions to a lie detector to determine who received gifts from Pierce’s estate. Part of the brilliance of the episode was that it felt as if Pierce was there, though he wasn’t. The episode just all came together; the high concept premise melded into truths about the characters and the group dynamics between them, and a course on the science of human relationships, which is what most great Community episodes are ultimately about.

First episode Repliot, Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality, and Basic Sandwich were the next tier of quality episodes, not merging every stray strand into genius like Polygrpahy, but delivering comprehensive and excellent episodes, both funny and pathos filled. The finale in particular, which might turn out to be the series finale, was excellent and felt right for the show, and a finale; it’s meta-finale could have taken it too far, but instead the looming emptiness of losing what all of the characters were holding onto was humorous and melancholy. The team came together and gave me lots of warm fuzzy feelings that a cynic like me isn’t supposed to be feeling very often.

App Development and Condiments didn’t work on as many levels but was one of the funniest episodes, and VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing featured what may have been the funniest single scene of the season, Abed and Annie competing in the VCR board game featuring cowboy Vince Gilligan.

Basic Intergluteal Numismatics was a high-concept episode that didn’t much work for me; the ass-crack bandit felt like a second tier version of many other similar episodes including the Law & Order episode; I got what they were going for, and stylistically it was right on in the manner of David Fincher and similar directors, but I don’t think the jokes were as good or the writing was as smooth.

Overall, though, the batting average was close to that of the first three seasons, if not equal, and reminded me why I loved Community so much and what the difference was between Dan Harmon and his replacements. I knew the replacement episodes were worse, but I was concerned that I was constantly biasing myself against them. I’ll never be able to be sure that I wasn’t, and I’m honestly pretty sure I was, but I feel more confident than ever after watching the fifth season in understanding what made the Dan Harmon episodes better and what made the fourth season feel like it was TV in Dan Harmon skin. Community, now, and forever, and let’s all cross our fingers for six seasons and a movie.

Spring 2014 Review: Mixology

21 Apr


When you review dozens upon dozens of new  shows a year, many of which you’ve only seen one episode of, a fair amount get largely forgotten about. What stands out are of course the best, both because they’re the best, and because you start watching them regularly, and the worst because they’re just so bad that even their badness stands above (or below?) the clutter.

Obviously, my first choice would be for more great, or even just good pilots. But I’d take an absolutely terrible pilot over a just kind of bad one any day of the week. I’m already never going to watch the show again, and the show probably won’t be on for very long. More than that, I actually get to lash out and be mean. Normally, I try to make sure to take shows seriously on their own terms, and not let snark or cleverness overshadow talking about what a show is, why it’s good, why it’s bad, and so forth. With these truly terrible shows though, I can really rip into them, because there is just so little redeemable about them, and they’re so on their face awful, that they barely deserve to be taken seriously any more than absolutely necessary. Dads is a great recent example (Made in Jersey also comes to mind).

I went in to Mixology expecting it to be bad, and kind of hoping it would be truly terrible. All I knew is that is was about ten people at the same hip cocktail lounge over the course of one night, and while in a sense I have a lot of admiration for attempts at incredibly high concepts, high concepts also have high probabilities of completely flopping.

It is with almost sadness that I say, then, that Mixology merely a pretty not good show rather than a legendarily terrible one.

Oh, there were a couple of moments when I thought it would be worse. There were  a couple of troublingly misogynistic conversation snippets towards the beginning, from a couple of bros out to help their recently dumped bro find a quick hook up, and I was excited, but it only went, well, slightly up from there.

So, the ten primary characters are divided up into a couple of groups. There’s the aforementioned three bros. One is a sensitive guy recently dumped by his perfect fiance, struggling to get back out there, along with his two wingman buddies. There’s two female lawyers, one a hard, tough, modern-Cameron Diaz character type, who wants a man’s man, and her flakier colleague. There are two other females who barely figure in to the first episode and a British guy who pukes into one of the two women’s handbag, and apparently lost a fortune earlier that day. Finally, there’s a male bartender and a female server, the latter of which seems a little behind the 8 ball mentally.

It’s not good. It gets borderline offensive a couple of times, though nothing in intensity or frequently on a Dads level, and most of the characters seem like lazy tropes and the jokes are flat. There were maybe three decent jokes though, which is already three more than I thought there’d be.

24 attempted to make a show in which each show minute was a real minute. Mixology, to keep up on its premise of taking place in one night would have to each minute of screen time actually account for less than a minute of real time (unless it’s a lot earlier in the day on the show than I’m guessing). Some of this time is probably taken up by flashbacks, as there’s a couple in the pilot, and some may be taken up by revealing different parts of the same time from different characters points of view. Still, it’s almost insanely ambitious to say the least.

Basically, what it comes down to is that Mixology is just a regular kind of bad show. It’s not even quite terrible. It’s just not very good.

Will I watch it again? No. It’s bad. It’s just not as completely godawful as I dreaded/hoped which makes me sad/relieved.

Fox Tuesdays and Will They or Won’t They

18 Apr

Nick and Jess

So I’ve talked about the Brooklyn Nine-Nine section of this recently, but I’d like to talk about three Fox Tuesday comedies (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, The Mindy Project) as a group, where they are in the stage of their primary characters’ will-they-won’t-they stories and why, whatever, they’re going to do, they should think about it now a good deal.

The Mindy Project was a will-they-won’t-they mostly from the beginning. Mindy and Danny are set up as opposites, but as a show which is constantly discussed and narrated, right from the pilot, through the lens of rom com tropes, starring out as opposites is exactly how the two people bound to end up together would start off. They bickered and fought while growing closer as friends, before Danny proposed they get together, only to break off the relationship a couple of weeks later, when he decided for whatever reason it was getting too serious.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine did not seem to involve a will-they-won’t-they aspect from the get go, and I was actually looking forward to a potentially rewarding platonic friendship between Jake and Amy. About halfway through the first season, though, the show decided to start moving in that direction, with the immature Jake slowly realizing that he actually has feelings for Amy. Now that Amy has a boyfriend, and Jake’s going undercover, we’ve reached a classic part of will-they-won’t-they delay tactics in TV, where, while they might actually have feelings for each other, one or the other is involved in a relationship. This is what kept Pam and Jim apart for years on The Office.

New Girl decided to bring Nick and Jesse together at the end of the second season. Cece and Schmidt have already been together and apart and together again and apart again. There was even briefly a weird Coach – Cece date. We’re out of iterations. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Nick and Jess dating, their breakup felt extremely forced. There were plenty of good reasons the writers could have come up with why they might have eventually broken up, but instead they just kind of decided they were too different and broke up in a way that didn’t feel true to either character or the situation, especially since we had seen episodes leading up to this with them getting over some of their thornier objections and declaring their love for one another.  Nick and Jess are now learning to be friends again since the writers decided to just hit the off switch on their relationship, and move the show back to the status quo, possibly in an attempt to recapture the magic that made the second season so great in contrast to the up and down third season.

When you’re writing a comedy for a network that has to deliver a whopping 22 episodes a season, and may go for four, five, six, seven seasons, you can’t figure out every bit of where you’re going ahead of time, and thankfully, you don’t have to. Unlike Lost, or any othter big serial, mystery drama, there’s no central questions that need to be answered so there’s a fair deal of leeway in where the plot can go over the years, and especially in a comedy, plots may be determined on the fly that wouldn’t have been planned from the beginning due to the chemistry shown by the actors in early episodes.

But there’s one serious limit on that leeway. Generally, it’s repetition, and specifically, in this context, it’s the overdoing of the will they won’t they. You can only bring your protagonists  together and apart so many times before it becomes tiresome. You only have one first magic moment. The first time they kiss. They first time they fight. You get one go around at that. Never again will it necessarily be as special. Sometimes protagonists who get together, simply stay together, and that’s the most obvious route, but not the one that New Girl (with either of its primary couples) or The Mindy Project has chosen.

The characters can get together again later on, after years of searching around realizing they were right for each other to begin with. Or it can be a one off, and they realize it’s a mistake and never get together again (which I would like because I think it takes more balls in our current cultural environment, but one is not objectively better than the other). But now you’ve checked off a box that you can’t uncheck. This means everything is different for the characters.

But if you have to have them almost get together, but then not, and then almost get together again, and then not, or get together, and then break up, and get together, and then break up again, it’s going to get awfully tedious awful fast.

I don’t know how long New Girl is going to last. A Mindy-Danny pairing in The Mindy Project I’m a bigger fan of than Jess-Nick, if I had to choose, and following the traditional rom com tropes, they should get together briefly, break up, and then come together with a grand romantic gesture, so we’re right on course, except of course for the fact that we’re only in the second season of the show.

The main thing is for all of these shows to be smart. This is the problem with not knowing how long a show is going to be on, and why shows in their later seasons seem to run out of ideas. You don’t want to be cancelled with fantastic ideas left on paper, but if you use them all up, everything else starts to feel inferior or repetitive. Creative writers can come up with new directions and new plots sometimes, but they can’t think of a new way to match up main characters, so please be careful. Make sure sure these main characters dating and breaking up is well thought out because you don’t get to keep doing it over and over again.

Spring 2014 Review: Fargo

16 Apr

Freeman and Thornton

There’s an old quote, most often credited to Tolstoy, but I’m not quite confident in , that there are two kinds of stories. “A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”

FX’s Fargo is certainly of the stranger comes to town variety.

Fargo does not borrow characters or the exact story from the 1996 Coen brothers masterpiece. Rather, it takes place in a similar world to the film with an attempt at to mimic the film’s tone, and with a story that is along the lines of Fargo’s story with a couple of character analogues.

Martin Freeman plays Lester Nygaard, basically the William H. Mason character, Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson is basically the Francis McDormand character, and Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is some combination of the two thugs Macy hires. Beyond that, the plot involves a loser-ish guy working with a devious criminal or criminals, and bringing those criminal or criminals involved with the murder of his wife. And that’s about it, plotwise.

Poor Lester Nygaard is about as low in Fargo’s pilot as any of American culture’s great losers. Some of this is brought upon himself, but no man deserves the sort of torment he takes. He’s terrible at his job selling insurance, and maybe that’s on him.  Next, though, he’s harried by an old high school bully on the street, who, along with his two dingbat sons, threatens him, as if they were 16 and not 40. This bully also shares with Lester that fact that he received a hand job from Lester’s wife way back when. Lester’s younger brother tells him later that same day that Lester embarrasses him so much that he tells people that Lester is dead. Lester’s wife, after Lester breaks the laundry machine while trying to fix it and reclaim his manhood after the slight from his brother, tells him she made a mistake marrying him and he was no man at all. It’d almost be hard to go all Falling Down after a day like that.

At this point, something important happens, but let’s get back to that stranger. Lester could never act on his own without prompting. He’s powerless; in fact, that’s part of his problem. He can’t stand up to his bully, he can’t stand up to his brother, he can’t stand up to his wife.  He breaks his nose, not by slipping and falling, not be being beaten up by the bully, but rather because he slammed it into a window after merely being startled by the bully. The guy can not catch a break. In the hospital, he meets Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne, who chats with Lester about his bully situation and offers, out of either the goodness of his heart, or the simple enjoyment of playing with others’ fates, or some primal sense of justice, to kill the bully. When Lester doesn’t say yes, but doesn’t say no, Lorne (who I don’t remember actually introducing himself) considers it a yes.

Lorne is everything Lester isn’t. Confident, suave, intimidating. Fight Club comes to mind; Lorne is Lester;s Tyler Durden; taking control. If there was an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you’d assume they were the same character. Thankfully, they’re not, but the point stands and Lorne has given Lester the most minimal amount of courage to snap out of his powerlessness for just a second, and that break leads to the event which really sets the show in motion.

Lester knows that Lorne’s killed his local bully. He doesn’t know what to do; he’s glad and infuriated at the same time. It’s out of his power. He goes home, attempting to man up and fix the washing machine, as previously mentioned, and his wife delivers those devastating words about his manhood and the mistake of marrying him.  His wife goads him, asking him, what is he going to do, when Lester protests her comments. “Are you going to hit me?,” she says knowing that this is sad, old, pathetic Lester Nygaard, and hitting someone, anyone, is not in his playbook. But she (probably nor he) doesn’t know about the power of Lorne’s influence even in their short encounter, egging him on, telling him he can be someone in control of his life, and in this one, tragic break, Lester snaps, hits his wife  on the head with a wrench and she’s dead.

Events follow which involve Lorne killing the sheriff; think. Lester, back from his temporary moment of power and control, takes a way out that fits far more with his personality; he runs into the wall, and pretends that he was a victim right aside the sheriff and his wife.

The tone is just right. It hits that Coen tone that Fargo the movie does so well, melding screwball comedy with violent thriller.

Where the plot goes from here, I have no idea. There are a couple more twists and turns that go on that I’ve left out, and it seems like notable actors and actresses appear every couple of minutes (Kate Walsh, Keith Carradine, Colin Hanks, just to name a few in the first episode, with many more appearing in future episodes). Some shows, generally those big epic sci-fi/supernatural serial shows, try to sell viewers with a big plot hook and mystery in the pilot. Fargo sells itself on tone. The show simply reeks of quality, and I’m excited to see where the full season leads.


Will I watch it again? Yes. This is good, strong, interesting television, one of the best debuts this year. I’d say starting from the same territory one of the great movies of the last 20 years is cheating, but within the first episode, the show distinguished itself on its own.

Spring 2014 Review: Turn

14 Apr


Turn is about spies during the American Revolution. The original spy ring (or if not, close enough). It’s 1776, early in the war, and the UK is kind of owning the burgeoning US at this point (also probably not known as the Revolutionary War at that point).

The Brits control New York and Long Island. On Long Island, Abe Woodhull is twenty-to-thirty something mild-mannered farmer whose dad Richard is an important loyalist who serves as an adviser to the local British ruler, Major Hewlett. Abe’s no loyalist or patriot, he merely wants to keep his head down, make some cash, and get through the war unscathed. He wasn’t entirely unaffected by the conflict, though. The love of his life Anna, a fervent rebel, broke his heart and married someone else when his family chose to stand so prominently in the loyalist camp.

Abe’s a little bit of a dreamer, and he draws on his dad’s patience, but he has a wife and young son and gets himself in minor scraps but nothing so bad. His life is about to change in a big way, though. He attempts to smuggle some goods out of Long Island to make a buck or two, but gets caught on his way back by the rebels. They make him a proposition; work for us, and you’ll go free. They need a spy, he needs some sense of purpose and a renewed connection with his lost love, whose husband was sent off to prison at the beginning of the episode for fighting with some British soldiers. Most of the episode features Abe slowly deciding to actually work for the rebels. First, he says, he’s just doing it once, then doing it twice, until some combination of nudging from his old pals who are now rebels and the newfound respect of the woman he once loved, and maybe an inflated sense of destiny seem to put him firmly on the rebels’ side.

Turn is an okay show but nothing more.  What it really is is a pretty good idea for a show, but it never really comes together. The idea probably sounded better as a pitch that it did in practice in the first episode. AMC does take shows seriously. We know that from their past, the chances they took. And yet, this seems more like a hesitant stab; a show not fully willing to go all out, a show that strays from the typical only a careful, measured amount. It doesn’t feel like it has the ambition that Mad Men and Breaking Bad did (though that’s unfair because very few shows do) but it feels one tier removed from a USA show. Somewhere inside this show is a show that wants to take that jump to the interesting and new, but something is holding it back.

What’s remarkable, honestly, more than anything else, is how the first episode of a show made about spies is so, well, boring.  The Americans and Homeland have brought spies back to television in a big way, and Turn (while maybe already better than Homeland season 3, but that’s beside the point) doesn’t put together a pilot nearly as compelling of either of theirs. I barely remember any of the characters; they didn’t particularly stand out nor did anything about the show

It’s not a show without merit. For all the period dramas in the last few years, the American revolution has been a time period largely uncovered, and the idea of early spying before all the devices and the technology, and really before anybody knew exactly what spying entailed, could be both compelling and thought providing. It isn’t in the one episode, but it’s not so far in the other direction to think that it never could be. There are interesting possibilities that even I can think of, watching this episode. While it’s easy to view the rebels as on the side of right, it’s hardly as if the enemy Brits were an Axis-like enemy without humanity. What does freedom mean? What’s is the honor in warfare vs. spycraft, and does it matter? Not to mention, it’s a spy show, and it should be somewhat fun, and there’s no reason it can’t be.

While I think Turn can have the potential to be better, it’s more because it wasn’t obvious that it closed that potential off, than that it really showed any in the pilot. Turn is still one solid step away from bringing me back for more.

Will I watch it again? No. AMC is desperately looking to find its next success, and it’s having trouble. While not terrible by any means, sadly, I don’t think this is it.

Late Night and the End of the Colbert Report: Good for Colbert, Sad for Me

11 Apr

Colbert reaching into the ether

Time to put to paper, or rather a computer screen, my long-held feelings on traditional late night shows.

In the list of cultural icons which I believe are highly overrated and long overdue for being put out to pasture in their current forms (and there is a list), traditional late night shows fall only behind Saturday Night Live (and that’s a controversial topic fit for another post entirely).

You know the late night format I’m talking about. Introduction. Monologue. First bit. First guest. Sometimes a shorter second bit. Second guest. Comedian or musical act. End. The whole thing takes about an hour.

They’re on four or five days a week, and for a full hour a night. It’s not as much that they’re bad per se, as much as the opportunity cost for the TV viewer in the current environment has changed from what it was fifteen years ago, a decade ago, or even five years ago. There are so many more options to choose from, including not just traditional TV but Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu. The bar has moved higher for making any one program worth following, meaning that while a late night show might have been worth watching in the 90s when there wasn’t much else on, there’s just so much other programming nowadays that it’s hard to justify spending 60 minutes likely to contain at least 55 minutes of mildly amusing but forgettable fluff.

While this article will be and continues to be about how I never watch any of these shows, it’s not because of the hosts. I do think the hosts are good at their jobs. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel both have a knack for turning occasional clips from their shows into Youtube sensations, and I’ve seen clips from both shows there, but that’s again kind of the point – that’s the only place I see them. I think Fallon in particular is perfect for the role of late night host. While I never enjoyed his work playing a role, how he would just laugh at his own jokes, I think he’s very good at appearing to genuinely enjoy himself.  He creates a loose environment where other famous people feel comfortable to participate in sometimes silly bits, leading to the musical interludes and other viral content that spread throughout the internet.

With Letterman’s retirement, the generational shift of late night will be complete, but there’s a new generational gap brewing. The generation of the current crop of hosts – Kimmel, Fallon, Conan, Stewart, and Colbert revere the late night format and David Letterman in particular. They grew up when late night mattered, when it meant something, when there were so few options that late night could still dominate the cultural zeitgeist in a way that’s impossible now. This includes a time when Carson simply overwhelmed any late night competition and a time when Letterman was revolutionizing the genre after Carson with a new brand of humor that doesn’t seem novel to people of my generation but was highly important and influential at the time.

To me and my generation, the traditional late night format simply doesn’t have the same cache. We’re more likely to watch Comedy Central, Adult Swim, or any of a litany of competing niche options or something we’ve dv-red or have on Netflix. Fallon has gotten off to a strong start on The Tonight Show and more power to him, but it’s hard for me not to see the genre as a dinosaur, just waiting around on the path to eventual extinction. For me, Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report are unequivocally better in every way than any of the traditional late night shows.

It’s not simply that I like the hosts, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert better than Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, although I do. It’s that the format of the Comedy Central shows is leaps and bounds more interesting. The shows are shorter; there’s a lot less bloat. There’s no need for a monologue, which was always my least favorite part of late night shows when I used to watch a lot of Conan in particular back in high school. The shows are topical and have a point of view; although they’re slanted liberally, they take on hypocrisy and stupidity of all stripes (admittedly far more often conservative stupidity, but that aligns with my political beliefs, so it’s a plus to me). Interviews are far more likely to be topical, relevant, and insightful than the celebrity puff pieces that are general late night interviews.

The Colbert Report in particular is incomparable. I laugh more on a per episode basis watching The Colbert Report than any other show on television. His faux conservative character allows him to get away with insane and offensive jokes that other hosts might not be able to pull off, and while possibly inconsistent from a character point of view, Colbert has mastered the ability of knowing when to double down on his character and when to pull back to make the best point and to generate the most laughs.

After watching a nightly hour of Daily Show and Colbert I not only laugh far more than I do during any traditional late night program, but I actually learn about current events. I do actually make an attempt to keep up with news (I certainly do have friends who fit the stereotype of finding out all their news from The Daily Show and Colbert) but I still learn, from guests and through the narratives assembled by Stewart and Colbert to explain and clarify issues. Stephen Colbert’s super PAC adventures were the single best way I’ve ever seen to show off the obvious absurdity of our campaign finance laws.

And so I’m in mourning about the eventual end of The Colbert Report. I’m happy for Stephen Colbert, who is simply put, the best, but while I’ll certainly give his late night show much more of a try than I would with just about any other conceivable host, I have a hard time imagining it I’ll be watching it after the first week or so.

The problem isn’t simply that he’s out of character. I’ll miss the character, and the character is what makes The Colbert Report different than any other program on TV, but Colbert is funny in any form. It’s the likely dumbing down of new late night show versus his Comedy Central show. The political humor, the caustic sharpness, is what makes Colbert so great. There’s lots of funny super silly and physical humor that Stephen pulls off with aplomb but at its heart, Colbert skewers.

Unless the Late Show is changing a whole lot, he can’t do any of that there. It’s worse for the same reason network TV has trailed cable in quality and will probably do so only more in the coming years. Cable networks don’t expect to get as high ratings, so their smart play is to go for a niche demographic and really nail it down. The broadcast networks still want to keep their tents as wide as possible. If they want that, well, they can’t have a lot of the Colbert Report character that would alienate much of America. What they can have is light, good time, chummy humor that offends no one. This can still be funny, but rarely for an hour. Fallon’s good at it, but three minutes of a Fallon bit online is all I need; I don’t see any reason to spend an hour on it. With Colbert Report, the half hour is always well worthwhile.

I’ll wait, and as I’ve said, I would give more leeway to Stephen Colbert than just about to anyone in America. Unfortunately though, the smart money is on him changing his game to fit the show far more than the show changing to meet his work at the Colbert Report.

End of Season Report: Justified, Season 5

9 Apr


I’m a huge fan of Justified. I ranked it #5 in my rankings of every show that I watched in 2013, which covered Justified’s wonderful fourth season. Unfortunately, while still a highly enjoyable show, Justified delivered a fifth season that was not up to the caliber of its past four seasons, and I can’t see it appearing nearly as highly ranked next year.

There’s plenty to say about the season but here are the central problems, which I’ll break down in further detail below. First, the antagonists were not as compelling as in previous seasons. Second, the season meandered and never seemed to have a strong sense of direction propelling it forwards. Third, the finale was somewhat anticlimactic and seemed more like a set up for next year’s final season big bad epic showdown between Raylan and Boyd than any sort of satisfying conclusion to this season.

There were good pieces, which I will touch upon, and as with most very high level television, it’s enjoyable episode to episode even when not as satisfying as its peak. That said, it suffers the curse fairly or not of being held to higher expectations, and it’s against those very high expectations, and not the expectations for an average series that Justified is judged.

Justified’s first season was a largely a compilation of one-off stories, slowly building the world which Justified inhabits, before ending with a multi-episode arc. Since then, each season has had a strong serial storyline which guided the season along. Seasons two and three had primary antagonists – Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett in season two and Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles in season three. Bennett’s superiority to Quarles as an antagonist was the largest part of what made season two superior to season three.  Season four broke that formula and worked around the search for a man who had been missing since the ‘70s but was living right under the nose of both the police and the criminal element in Kentucky, unrecognizable in the present to anyone still living. Season five revolved around the trials and tribulations of the Crowe family and in particular primary antagonist Daryl Crowe.

Daryl Crowe just wasn’t up to those previous antagonists’ standards for two primary reasons. First, he simply didn’t carry the weight and intimidation that the previous antagonists (or of course series long antagonist Boyd) did. While a certified genius compared to his Crowe brethren, he is still fairly incompetent; it was never believable he’d pose much of a threat to Raylan or Boyd or to anyone else. The show tried to take care of this somewhat by having him become an employee/minority partner of Boyd’s halfway through the season, but it was somewhat hard to believe that Boyd would even place a small amount of trust in Daryl. He wasn’t a particularly good criminal, he wasn’t a particularly scary criminal, and he just never really found a place in Kentucky or in Justified.

Second, forget Daryl’s plot role. He just wasn’t very compelling. His brother Dewey is a complete idiot, but he’s hilarious, and always lights up the screen whenever he appears. Daryl didn’t. Wynn Duffy, who I was glad to greet as a regular this past season, always spoke his piece quickly and dryly, and had a way of being as wittily direct as Boyd is loquacious. Daryl simply didn’t have the same on-screen charisma as any of these other baddies. When he was on the screen, you never felt like you didn’t want to turn away. There was nothing about him that stood out.

It’s likely related to this first issue that the season meandered and felt directionless at times. Seasons two through four ratcheted up as they went forward, building tension until reaching a satisfying climax and resolution. I could generally tell approximately where Justified was in the season by the tension of the events on screen.

It’s not to say that Justified is tied to these rules of how a season must go, but past seasons were stronger and this is one reason why. There may well be more interesting paths for a season to take, and other shows may thrive on a meandering climax-less journey, but Justified season five certainly did not.

Characters came in and out of nowhere, and for most of the first half of the season I just took it on faith because Justified had yet to not deliver, but by the finale, or really by the last few episodes, I did wonder what the plan was for the season as a whole, if it changed, and if it was developed somewhat as the season went along. It felt like the writers hit a couple of snafus and weren’t sure exactly where to go.

I love Boyd as a character but it’s beginning to feel like he gets away from slippery situations one time too often. He’s smart and he’s good, but he isn’t that smart and that good to evade both the law and rival criminal elements for this long, especially if he keeps taking on far more of a burden than he can handle, like he did this season with heroin, not to mention a cartel which was a lot harder to battle than his Dixie mafia rivals.

This is all leading to the third complaint. Ultimately by the time we got to the end of the season it felt like less of a satisfying season long conclusion than just a get-ready-for-the-final-season hurrah where the two primary characters through five seasons of the show, Raylan and Boyd, finally go head-to-head, with the implication that since it’s the final season, one of them will actually go down for good. Eva’s time in jail had some interesting character building moments, and I’m certainly not claiming it was worthless by any means, but the way it ended made it feel at least partly like it was simply a way to separate Eva and Boyd and ultimately get Eva to turn on Boyd and cooperate with Raylan.

The season ended with a chase for Daryl which was less than inspiring; no one thought Daryl would get away, and Wendy shooting Daryl was fairly predictable by the time it happened and relatively uninteresting. Boyd outwitting the cartel employees was equally anticlimactic. Although they were legitimately scary dudes, the tension was cut somewhat by the fact that Boyd had zero chance of not coming out of the situation on top. Overall, the ending of the season seemed largely like an afterthought to steer us towards season six.

The best Crowe this season other than the always delightful Dewey was actually young Kendal. Justified did pull one trick from up its sleeve – hiring a surprisingly good child actor (Jacob Lofland, who was also excellent in Mud). Some of the best moments of the season involved Raylan with Kendal, and though Raylan’s obvious connection to Kendal, being raised by some serious criminals, is hardly subtle, the scenes pack power.

Like a Faulkner novel, Justified is about the power of history, and the inability to free one’s self from it. Harlan county and its environs are composed of families who have been doing what they do, often criminal activity in Justified’s case, for generations. Boyd’s daddy was a criminal, and he became a criminal. Raylan’s daddy was a criminal, and Raylan became a lawman, but the reasons were as much because of his father’s criminal behavior as Boyd’s becoming a criminal was. Family is essential in Justified’s world as an inescapable force from which people can’t free themselves no matter how much they might want to – the Bennett’s, the Crowders, the Givens’ and others. Even third season antagonist Robert Quarles’ aggression stemmed in part from his lack of family; he was adopted by the Tonin’s but no matter what he did, could never be seen as their real son. These themes are powerful and generally handled very strongly on Justified. The Crowes, another criminal family bringing down Wendy and Kendal, couldn’t compete with those other families, but I earnestly felt for Kendal, ruthlessly manipulated by his uncle and unprotected by his mother who was unable to, until the season’s end, find the strength to separate herself from Daryl’s orbit.

Raylan’s deteriorating relationship with Art was also a highlight of the season. Art’s punching Raylan in the bar was the most satisfying cheap shot on an arrogant bastard since Mike clocked Walter White. It’s hard not to root for Raylan in the big picture but it’s also only right that his general approach to simply doing whatever he wants on the job without much concern for what’s best for the team actually starts only to rub his boss the wrong way and have consequences for Raylan. It’s good to see Art start to stand up to Raylan and stop letting him get with anything.

What it comes down to is that I hope Justified has a blast in its last season (and I don’t mean this as a pun on Boyd’s love of explosives). This is a show I want to look forward to going out at the absolute top of its game. Hopefully, this past fifth season is merely remembered as a little bit of a weak spot leading up to a powerful finale, rather than a sign that peak Justified was in the past.