Archive | October, 2014

Fall 2014 Review: Benched

29 Oct

Benched

Benched is a a new comedy on USA starring Happy Endings’s Eliza Coupe.  While half-hour comedies are a fairly new beast for USA (Benched is only the third ever, the first two (Sirens and Playing House) having come earlier this year), some of their hour long shows were more or less comedies (Psych and Monk) and most others were lighter in sensibility than dramas on other networks.

Benched additionally follows a popular USA trope; the redemption story. The protagonists of Royal Pains, Fairly Legal, and Satisfaction have their happy, successful, and together lives shaken up by personal and career changes, and need to start over. They’re forced to trod over ground they’d never even thought about months before, but they end up better off in the long run for the change of path.

Coupe stars as career-oriented corporate lawyer Nina Whitley. Whitley’s personal life is in turmoil. Her boyfriend broke up with her because she worked too many hours at her firm, and she comes apart after he calls her to let her know he’s engaged. Her one saving grace is her expected promotion to partner, but when another lawyer gets chosen over her she has an Enlightened-styled meltdown, throwing things, yelling at colleagues, name-calling, and basically burning any bridge she has, not just in the firm, but in the world of corporate law.

Six months later, after recouping (pun half indended), Whitley is working at the only place that will take her; the public defender’s office, which is worlds away from the fancy lobbies and perks of her corporate office. Even while realizing it’s a step down, she’s wholly unprepared for the culture change. She plans on working for as short a time as it takes to rehabilitate her image and has a hard time fitting in among the lifers that are doing this work for other reasons. She’s intimidated when she’s thrown into court with five minutes notice, harassed by a sarcastic judge, and the coup de grace to her terrible first day is when she finds out she’ll be up against Trent, a smooth talking, handsome, and ambitious prosecutor who happens to be her ex.

The supporting cast includes her fiancé, her new boss, and some new colleagues, including a has-been not much older than her who has seemingly given up on recapturing his former legal glory, but whom it seems like might be reinspired by Whitley’s entrance into the office.

Coupe is a pro; I greatly enjoyed her work in Happy Endings, and while she plays a fairly similar character here – high-strung, career-oriented, and ruthlessly competent, she does it well, and is the best thing the show has going for it. The show is pleasant, well-meaning and slightly above average, but, at least in the first episode nothing much more. You know these characters, and how this show goes, and the first episode reads like any other USA show. Whitley is humbled, struggles mightly in her new environment, but in the nick of time, gets just one little win, that, while not incredibly meaningful in and of itself, gives her the belief that she can remake her life, that she can regain confidence and be good again at what she once took for granted.

Another quick comparison, as mentioned quickly above is Enlightened, another show about a high-strung female corporate climber, who comes apart and has to put her life back together again. Benched is more comedic and far more conventional than Enlightened, but it trods over the same difficulties in much broad strokes of trying to reorient your whole life after what you’ve been working for for years comes apart in an instant.

Will I watch it again? Probably not. It’s cute; there’s nothing not to like, but there isn’t enough to like either. There are so many shows on TV, now, and to catch up on, and there’s not enough to make Benched stand out amongst the pack.

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Fall 2014 Review: The Flash

8 Oct

The Flash

It’s hard, when you’re watching every fall TV debut in a relatively compressed preiod of time, to not instantly compare The Flash and Gotham, as the two comics-based new superhero shows to debut this season (Constantine is also based on a comic, but is less similar).

Gotham tries to be more and do more. It doesn’t know what it is, tries on several hats, and none of them really fit. There’s a fine line between fusion of genres and simple lack of direction, and Gotham falls distinctly on the latter end. The Flasth, on the other hand, doesn’t try to do too much. It’s ambition is restrained. However, it knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be, and for The Flash, that self-awareness and ability to pull back and do it rather than try for too much and do it more is a huge asset.

The Flash doesn’t break any barriers (except when The Flash breaks the sound barrier – JOKE). There’s nothing particularly new or novel. It’s hardly an absolute must watch. Yet, what it does, within its limited realm, it does quite well. It’s earnest, and smart, and pretty fun. It’s very comic book; there are villains, there are wacky origin stories, there are costumes and secret identities. It’s also very comic book in other ways; there’s uncomplicated and obvious love interests, big talk of power and responsibility, and complex and sometimes unnecessary webs of secrets and lies.

Theis can sound cliche, uninventive, and unoriginal, and sure, that wouldn’t be inaccurate. If you like comic books and superhero movies, though, you’ll enjoy The Flash, because, like Marvel seems to be good at with its movies, the creators behind The Flash (and Arrow, I hear, though I haven’t dug deep into that show just yet) just know how to craft a solid superhero show. Barry Allen is a likeable nerd who gets to play the social outcast, without pushing it too far (he’s not a Toby Maguire-as-Peter Park level nerd – remember nerds are at least somewhat cool these days). His father was convicted of murdering his mother, even though Barry saw that that wasn’t the case, but he doesn’t know what actually happened. Barry was raised by Law & Order’s Jesse L. Martin, who serves a mentor and a detective, who, after disbelieving Barry’s conspiracy theories about his mother’s death, changes his mind after seeing Barry’s powers. There’s a couple of young, cool scientists who steer Barry to be the best superhero he can be, and a head scientist, played by Ed’s Tom Cavanagh, who seems like a probably villain but whose motives remain mysteries.

There’s plenty of nods to the rich world of The Flash comics, which I’ve had to research or ask friends about, and there’s clearly a love and a respect for the comic, which comes through even to a notvce fan, and even when the characters aren’t adapted exactly as they are in the books.

It’s an easy, low-on-thinking, fun watch. It’s paced well. The show is serial enough to keep you wanting to watch week to week, but seems likely to have many self-contained weekly adventures, which, while you pretty much know how they’re going to end (Flash gets the bad guy), that’s okay because it’s a light and pleasant journey getting there.

Will I watch it again? Yes, I will. If you like superheroes and comics then I’ve got a feeling you’ll probably like The Flash. If you’re not already predisposed to like these things, it’s not worth a second glance.

Fall 2014 Review: Gotham

8 Oct

GothamPIlot1

I rarely chastise ambition on TV, because usually I appreciate a show trying to do something different, even if it fails, more than a show trying to do more of the same and being meidocore. There’s a thin line, though, sometimes between uncharted ambition and simple directionlessness that can sometimes be hard to read. It’s difficult, when you’re watching every fall TV pilot, to not instantly compare The Flash to Gotham, the two comics-based new shows to debut this season. And while Gotham feels like the more ambitious show straight out of the gate, The Flash, without being great, knows exactly what it’s doing and what it’s going for, and settles quickly into a solidly enjoyable hour, while Gotham feels rudderless and unsteady.

The premise is thus; Jim Gordon, the future commissioner, is just starting out as a detective, and as he gains experience and fights the good fight, several of Batman’s most famous villains are also on the rise in the dark and sinister underworld of Gotham. Bruce Wayne himself is a kid, his parents having very recently died as of the first episode. Gordon meets with Wayne and his caretaker Alfred, determined to solve his parents murder, and builds a bond of trust that we know will last a life time.

His partner is Harvey Bullock, he’s played by fantastic tv actor Donal Logue, and is probably the best supporting character in the show, as a cop whose working both sides, cozy with the city’s organized crime, but somewhat looking out for Gordon as well, though mostly trying to make sure he doesn’t stick his nose where it doesn’t belong. There’s Fish Mooney, an overwrought gangster played by Jada Pinkett Smith, who didn’t quite work for me. There’s also a young penguin and a young riddler, both of which are unnecessarily over the top as if to scream instead of merely winking that these are the villains from the Batman universe you know and love.

The dominant motif is film noir, which makes an abundance of sense in the Batman universe, but it feels off at various places and doesn’t have the chops, dialogue-wise or cinematography-wise to entirely pull it off. I do think there’s a show that works here; my version eliminates all the familiar characters except Gordon, who I think can be compelling enough on his own, and has him deal with organized crime and other seedy, but less familiar villlains, struggling to stay above the filth, and figuring out what comprimises he needs to make to survive.  Gotham is in a way hamstrung rather than helped by the fame and general awareness of its source material; most of the major characters have made strong impressions in our minds, and we have distinct expectatoins for them, which makes it more difficult for Gotham’s creators to make them their own. Sticking with less familiar characters could allow the creators to both focus on the noir and be a little more inventive and free.

That’s just one version though. It’s not inconceivable the creators could work out the kinks but I’m not convinced from the first episode that they have a plan, other than throw together a bunch of familiar elements and hope people get attached and want to see origin stories. The dialogue and writing feel stilted and the plot is relatively uninteresting, considering its head start of stuff we already know about Batman. Knowing its about the Batman universe fairly or unfairly increased expectations somewhat, and Gotham didn’t meet those.

Will I watch it again? No, I’m not planning to. It certainly wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t particularly inspring either, and though, this is a unfair to take against the show, I have a little bit of Batman fatigue (a much weaker case than my vampire fatigue).  I just didn’t see enough to make me feel like I need to come back with so many other shows demanding my attention.

Fall 2014 Review: Mulaney

6 Oct

Mulaney and friends

John Mulaney is undeniably a very talented young stand up comedian. Unfortunately, the scripted television show bearing his name is far less successful than his stand-up specials. While the vast majority of network television are mediocre or worse, and some are outright bad, only truly disappoint me because very few lead me to have any expectiation of quality, either because of an intriguing trailer or because there are people involved with the show that I respect. This case is one of the latter.

While I want to devote the bulk of this review to talking about what’s wrong with Mulaney, I should at least briefly discuss the set up. Mulaney plays a struggling stand up who lives with two roomates, has a strange neighbor across the hall, played by Elliott Gould, and just got a job with  a vain and self-centered comedy legend played by Martin Short.

Mulaney, based on both his comedy and his sitcom, is influenced heavily by Seinfeld, the comedian, and the show. His comedy is largely clean and observational, and the sitcom features bits of his own stand up, like early Seinfeld episodes do.

Here’s the problem. Mulaney takes exactly the wrong lessons from Seinfeld. Insead of learning from Seinfeld and being influenced by Seinfeld, he tries to replicate Seinfeld, which makes his sitcom seem about twenty years out of date.

Seinfeld is one of the best comedies of all time, and incredibly important to modern sitcoms in several different ways. However,  if Seinfeld started today I very much believe it would look very different than Seinfeld did when it aired 25 years ago. In fact, as the closest thing to evidence we can possibly have, Curb Your Enthusiasm, from Seinfeld co-creator Larry David did look very different when it appeared a decade ago – featuring a similar style of comedy to what made Seinfeld great but in a notably more modern form; shot in single-camera with no laugh track. Those are the external trappings of modernity and I’m going to bring up the laugh track in a moment. But more than that, Curb Your Enthsiasm felt of its time, modifying the deeper lessons of Seinfeld – no sappiness, clever plotlines, memorable phrases, obessions with the foibles of modern life, to a moment a decade later. Certainly Mulaney is set in the modern era, and the charactesr aren’t making references to the first Bush administration or not carrying cell phones. But the feel is trapped squarely in the ’90s, particularly the pacing, and even the jokes feel sometimes like material that would feel more at home 20 years souped up with phrasology and references that are more current.

The laugh track. I’ve generally eschewed complaining about it in each and every review of a show that features one, because you can only talk about how terrible it is so many times. But it needs to be talked about here for a couple of reasons. (I need to quickly point out that I made no distinction between a laugh track and a live studio audience laughing; to the TV audience, they’re the same thing, real laughs or not.) Mulaney, for one, is a young comic who, as previously mentioned, I expect more out of than say, a Tim Allen sitcom buried deep on ABC Friday nights. Second, Fox may be the most progressive current network in terms of comedy, featuring the three best network sitcoms currently airing New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Mindy Project, all of them single-camera and mercifully laugh track-free.  Thus, Mulaney is the exception in terms of its laugh track on its network, rather than simply following the trend.

As for the multi-camera format, well, I prefer single-camera, but I can certainly understand the appeal of multi-camera and I’m open to a show that shows me that there’s good reason to use it. A laugh track, though, outside of some brilliant anti-humor bit, is never acceptable.

The laugh track simply slaughters any sense of timing. Seinfeld, revolutionary is so many ways, had a laugh track when it aired, because every show had a laugh track. Now we know better, and there’s no excuse. Shows are much more fast paced, but with a laugh track, there are wasted minutes over the course of a 20 minute sitcom that offer nothing but dead space and canned laughter.  What’s particularly astonishing is that the laughter comes at the strangest times; when there are jokes, but even when there aren’t. It made this viewing experience borderline unwatchable for me and constantly cringeworthy.

I wanted deep down to believe this was some sort of meta-sitcom, a commentary on the modern sitcom, but I don’t think it was.

The laugh track though, was far from the only issue. Mulaney’s acting was stilted, performing much better when he was reading a joke to the audience, than with a line to another character, but that worked well enough for Seinfeld, who got at least slightly better as he went along. The jokes, though, were largely  just sad. They weren’t entirely without merit; but what quality was in the jokes was absolutely destroyed by the format.

One more quite note: Just about everyone I know in my generation does not care for Martin Short. He’s so, well, much. There’s no trace of subtlety. He’s just so loud. He has old-fashioned sitcom written all over him, that makes it really difficult for him to slip into an ensemble without trying to dominate whoever he’s standing next to.

Will I watch it again? No. It was very bad. John Mulaney can do better, and I hope he knows this. If he thinks he’s created a good show, I have to severely question his judgment.

Fall 2014 Review: A to Z

3 Oct

A, Z, and A's friend

A to Z is almost too cute for its own good. Desperately earnest in the day of where most sitcoms starting 20 and 30-somethings are snappy and ironic, A to Z may claim otherwise, but the show it most closely imitates is CBS’s recently departed How I Met Your Mother, and while, based on my overall impressions of How I Met Your Mother (with exceptions, fairly negative), that might sound like a bad thing, I actually don’t mean it that way. A to Z actually handles this earnestness, which could easily be too much, in a positive, optimistic manner that even made me, a pessimist born and bred, hopeful for a moment.. Because of this and the charisma of its two leads which leads to those positive feels, A to Z, while not being a show which demands viewing, and while, perhaps most importantly for a comedy, not being particularly funny off the bat, actually makes a halfway decent case for repeat viewership.

Of course, because it hews eerily close to How I Met Your Mother, there’s a clever storytelling gimmick that surrounds the show. A to Z is omnisciently narrated by TV superstar Katey Segal (in a slightly less violent role than her current job on Sons of Anarchy) who tells us that she’ll give us the whole story of the relationship between the two title characters, Andrew, and Zelda, over the entire course of their eight-month relationship, or again, from A to Z (groan at the pun, please). The already-knowing-how-long-the-relationship-is gimmick also reminded me of 500 Days of Summer.

Segal’s narrator tells us a little bit about the characters as well, giving us cute backgrounds of the two main stars. Andrew is the Ted – he’s the romantic, working for a rather cynical online dating company because he actually believes in helping people meet, which feels like something Ted would approve of heartily. Zelda is a career-oriented, lawyer, well-organized and conservative personality-wise, not particularly interested in going out on a limb. When they meet, he’s convinced he shared a destiny-type moment with her at a concert years ago (again, think Ted), creeping her out initially. Even though it may not actually have been her, eventually she’s persuaded to gve him a second chance, due to his sheer force of enthusiasm, which carries her more cynical self, along. They each have wacky side character best buds, straight out of rom com 101, who are goofier and louder than either of the two leads.

A to Z feels like a ten-years later update of its spiritual predecessor, How I Met Your Mother.  Slightly more twee and hip; the near decade difference in debuts shows in the types of young people at the heart of the show. The other difference, at least in the pilot, is that How I Met Your Mother, in its first couple of seasons, for all I rag on it, could be hilariously funny – Barney and Marshall, particularly – and that’s why I watched it even when I already hated other aspects of the show. A to Z isn’t particularly funny, though it also didn’t have the patronizing let-me-tell-you-how-life-is edge that so rubbed me, but few others, the wrong way on How I Met Your Mother.

To sum up, it’s sweet, and it’s earnest and it’s cute. It’s not very funny. That’s okay if it offers enough elsewhere; Girls and Enlightened are half hours both well-worth watching despite between being very often not very funny, and sometimes (moreso on Enlightened) out and out depressing. There’s something of value on A to Z, but I’m not sure if it’s enough for me, while it might be for someone who likes this stype of stuff more.

Will I watch it again? No. I seriously considered it, because the two leads did make me want to root for it and them, but the show didn’t quite win me over enough to keep watching, because it wasn’t either funny, or clever or engaging enough for another episode.