Archive | March, 2015

Spring 2015 Review: CSI: Cyber

30 Mar

CSI: Cyber

Police must love cop shows. Nothing glamorizes the institution more than detectives and officers fighting the good fight, always cracking the case, and locking the bad guys up for good. While this applies to almost every cop show on TV (there are of course exceptions, like The Shield), no show makes cops look better than editions of CSI. There are none of the classic cop struggles here. No alcoholics or cops who struggle balancing the family and work lives or copious amounts of red tape or cops negatively affected by prior cases. There are just ultra, ultra-competent cops who can do everything, from computers, to hand-to-hand combat, to interrogations, and do it impressively, staying well within the law all the time (no questionable go-too-far tactics here) and always in time to save the day.

CSIs are also a little silly by cop show standards, played completely straight within the shows, but in a way that makes me think the creators don’t take them all too seriously. Partly because of this, as much as they’ve been the butts of jokes over the years, I have a hard time actually hating them. They’re just so ludicrous. CSI: Cyber stars the FBI’s Cyber division, responsible for investigating any cyber crimes (which seem to be anything which involves programming or electronics, or, well, it’s hard to tell). The team is made up of Avery (Patricia Arquette), the leader, a behavioral psychologist, Elijah (James Van Der Beek), her second in command, a military type, Daniel, a super elite hacker, Raven, a woman who doesn’t do anything in the first episode so I don’t really know what her deal is, and Brody, a new one-time criminal hacker on a Mod Squad type program to either help the FBI and become one of them, or rot in prison. 

The case in the pilot is a series of baby abductions, which leads to the discovery that an organized crime ring has been orchestrating these kidnappings and auctioning off babies. The Cyber connection is that the criminals chose and cased the babies through a software weakness in baby security cameras owned by the victims’ parents.

Arquette and Van Der Beek are everywhere during the episode, and doing everywhere. They take over from local cops, work the home, convince a reluctant kid to give evidence, find the first lead in a warehouse, arrest a couple of lackeys who were then assassinated, shoot their assassin who was getting away on a motorcycle, and raid the warehouse where the real bad guys were at. Van Der Beek even literally saves a drowning baby towards the end of the episode, and Arquette performs CPR to bring the baby back to life.

There’s lots of silly cyber stuff, though to be honest less than I’d hoped. The Cyber division office contains a ludicrous amount of screens, kind of like one of those CNN Electoral War rooms. The show presents us with a few two-color black-and-green cyber-reconstructions of very computer-related events and the hackers talk a little bit of code (uberhacker Daniel berates a baby cam company IT guy for problems with their programming), but there’s far less technobabble than I was hoping for.

Calling CSI: Cyber a bad show is not so much right or wrong as it is beyond the point. It’s a very silly show. It’s professionally done, as CSI’s are. You get a case, it gets cracked little by little, until it’s all wrapped up at the end of the episode, and everyone goes to get a beer except for our fearless leader, Arquette, who goes off to think. And yes, before I forget, it turns out that Arquette got into this business because her professional records as a psychologist were hacked, leading to a patient’s murder, and yes, she still hasn’t yet found the hacker, but rest assured, should the show continue she will. CSI’s full of crime procedural cliché catnip like that.

Anyone familiar with CSI, and that should be, at this point, just about anyone familiar with television, knows exactly what this is. There are no surprises. If you’re the type of person who likes CSIs, you might like it, and you might not, and if you’re not, then there’s really no point watching, and there’s really no way you’re considering watching it anyway. There’s nothing to see here.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s no need to. I don’t mind watching these pilots so much, and they’re over-the-top which in doses is entertaining rather than bothersome, exceptionally compared to some of the worst pilots which can really be a slog to get through. Still, there’s no reason I ever need to see another episode.

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Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 11-8

27 Mar

We move into the top ten. Three comedies and an HBO miniseries. Moving on along…

Intro here and 43-40 here and 39-36 here and 35-32 here and 31-28 here and 27-24 here and 23-20 here and 19-16 here and one-offs/shows ineligible for the list here and 15-12 here.

11. New Girl

New Girl

No show has had more ups and downs than New Girl. New Girl has for periods of times, in the 2nd season particularly, hovered among my favorites shows on TV, only to, after a stretch of great episodes, like a cartoon character, look down, realize there was nothing below it, and come back down to its frequent inconsistency. New Girl four seasons in still hasn’t quite figured out how to be at its best for any length of time and part of the reason is because the cast is so damn good that it keeps the quality of the show always one level above the writing, helping to downplay shoddily written episodes and not forcing the writers to dig deep and focus on what works. New Girl does get on these streaks of brilliance though, and one of these streaks was the first half of the fourth season, which made me temporarily forget about my frustration with the extremely up and down third season, as the show banged out classic episodes one after another, with two of the biggest winners being Landline and Background Check New Girl may never put together a whole season this great, but the fact that this streak has the show ranked this well tells you how high New Girl flies when all is well.

10. Community

Community

I’ll make a comparison I’ve made many times before but still continues to stand. Community will never and has never enjoyed the startling consistency of former NBC-mate Parks and Recreation, but the show has moments where every aspect comes together and makes an entire season worthwhile in one episode. The fifth season was not the show’s strongest, though upon looking back at the episode list, it was much better than I remembered offhand. More episodes were hits than misses, and some of the hits were very good. Best, unquestionably, was Cooperative Polygraphy, where the group receives their bequeathments from Pierce’s will, and was the kind of episode that explains why people are fanaticall about Community. The writing and acting are both on fire and in sync; the show deals with Pierce, the lack thereof, the characters, their relationship, and the world, all while being very funny. Community has its problems, but it also explores areas few comedies do, which buys it some purchase on its shortcomings. It will never be a perfect show and its best days are likely behind, but it is singular and that characteristic in and of itself can be underrated.

9. Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge

I put off HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge for months, knowing little about its premise other than it was based on a book. Based on the name, I assumed the source material was from the late 1800s rather than 2008, and that it would be, even if eventually proven worthwhile, a slog to get through. And on paper, it seems like it should be. It’s depressing as hell and Kitteridge, played by the brilliant Frances McDormand, is frequently a miserable person, tearing down her less intelligent happy-go-lucky husband and son as she lashes out from her own serious depression. The miniseries follows her over a nearly 30-year period, as she and her family grow old. It accomplishes the impressively saddening double as you squirm in your seat at her behavior while feeling awful for her at the same time. Against all odds though, it’s actually incredibly riveting stuff. Watching is compelling, even without any obvious narrative hook (there’s no natural beginning, middle, or ending). Kitteridge is simply a deeply complex character, endlessly frustrating, and endlessly heartbreaking as well, from a place and a time where she didn’t have the proper outlets to help herself. Watch, and while during the first 20 minutes, you may feel like it’ll be hard to get through the whole thing, a short couple of hours later you’ll be wondering how you thought that before.

8. Broad City

Broad City

I knew Broad City existed, and I knew it was going to be good, but for some reason I can’t explain in hindsight it took me a few months to catch on with and one drunken evening to dive in and watch the first six in a row on demand. By year two, I was heavily anticipating each episode, watching it live, and sometimes watching it again soon after. Broad City for a time this year became the buzziest television half hour since Girls, and although the plaudits for best comedy on TV may have initially seemed to come too soon, they may just as well have been on the money. Broad City, more than any other show, takes place in my New York City, neighborhoods and places I know and recognize and speaks to my generation. Broad City doesn’t simply buck TV conventions by consciously doing the opposite. Rather it ignores those conventions completely, making the show as creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer see fit, entirely peripheral to when and where it fits in with conventions or avoids them. The show succeeds both in more sitcom-y episodes and in wacky gimmick episodes, such as Destination: Wedding, when Abbi and Ilana are rushing to get to a wedding on time by whatever mode of transportation gets them there. The side characters (Lincoln, Jaimé, Tre, etc.) are great and not to be underestimated, but the core friendship of Abbi and Ilana is even through just a single season one of the strongest on TV, and the center of everything the show builds around.

Spring 2015 Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

25 Mar

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a new sitcom from 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. 30 Rock is one of the best comedies of the 21st century, and while second efforts from well-respected creators don’t always turn out so well, in this case, if you like or love 30 Rock, you’ll like or love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s not to say the shows are exactly the same, but they are tonally similar enough that I would just about guarantee any fan of the former would like the latter.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares 30 Rock’s rapid fire delivery method, its love of wordplay jokes, its over-the-top silliness, and for kicks, one of the four main characters in portrayed by Jane Krakowski, whose Jacqueline Voorhees is pretty much the same as her Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock – rich, entitled, vain, and egocentric.

The show begins with a high concept premise that could be misleading but is worth knowing. Kimmy Schmidt was kidnapped as a teen and spent 15 years underground in a bunker, held captive by a wannabe cult leader/preacher (the amazingly-named Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne) who told her and three other women that the apocalypse had occurred and all life on earth was destroyed beyond the bunker. She and the other captives were eventually found and released, and while the others move back to their small midwestern town, Kimmy decides she wants to use her newfound freedom to take on big New York City. She’s a classic fish-out-of-water, both having never been to a big city, and also being unaware of 15 years of culture and technology, which results in many hilarious miscues.

She moves in with a wannabe theater actor named Titus Andremedon who warms up with to her after displaying initial hostility and gets a job as an assistant for wealthy housewife Voorhees. The three of them, along with Kimmy and Titus’s landlord Lillian, make up the main cast.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not just good; it’s laugh-out-loud funny, a quality that even many of the sitcoms I watch and enjoy don’t feature on an episode-to-episode basis. Kimmy Schmidt does not shoot for perfect, squeaky-clean writing and plotting. Rather, Kimmy takes a Pete Rose approach – it goes up for 650 at-bats, swinging away over and over again, never passing up an opportunity to insert a joke, and yet its joke-joke-joke approach works because it connects an inordinate number of times. We forgive the inevitable misses because the hits are frequent enough and funny enough to make the trade clearly worthwhile. This scattershot approach leads to plenty of jokes which some people will find funnier than others, but more than enough for everyone to find some they like.

The show was written with Ellie Kemper in mind as Schmidt, and it shows. She’s a perfect choice for the part, and the part is a perfect showcase for her talents. Kimmy Schmidt showcases her sense of comic timing, her physical humor, her ability to be charmingly confused without looking dumb (something The Office unfortunately pushed too far to simply making her stupid), her ability to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, endlessly enthusiastic in the face of countless obstacles, yet not drive a constant cynic like myself off the wall with her good cheer.

Will I watch it again? Yes. Actually, I’ll be honest. It’s a Netflix show with ten half hour episodes. I already finished it, and you probably should too.

Spring 2015 TV Review: One Big Happy

23 Mar

One Big Happy

I recently talked about the remake of The Odd Couple, which was the latest attempt to make what I call a Sitcom (note the capital S), a comedy designed to consciously double down on and exemplify the fashion of old-style sitcoms which were popular for decades but have diminished in popularity over the last decade or so. These sitcoms share several characteristics, outsized protagonists, a laugh track, big jokes followed by significant pauses and an emphasis on broad comedy. One Big Happy is a newer invention; a show that tries to fuse a more modern ethos about the new ways young-ish people live, the relationships they have, and this diverse world we live in with this very old style of comedy.  One similar analogue that comes to mind offhand is 2 Broke Girls, which is not a coincidence since One Big Happy creator Liz Feldman worked as a writer and producer for that show.

Like with 2 Broke Girls, there’s a shiny facelift of the new plastered on the exterior, but the parts underneath are creaky and old, with the same broken humor (or really lack thereof) that has been pumping up mediocre or worse sitcoms for decades.

One Big Happy wears its premise on its sleeve, laying it out very clearly over the course of the first episode. A single commitment-phobic straight guy and his single lesbian best friend decide that if they are both single after a certain point, which they are, they’ll have a baby together, impregnating her with his sperm. After a couple of failed attempts, the baby takes, but at the same time, the guy out of nowhere falls head over heels for a  British woman who he marries to prevent her from being deported. Thus, this wacky trifecta has to make things work without killing each other and there’s no other choice, because there’s a baby involved.

There’s nothing subtle or clever about the humor in One Big Happy; it’s as broad as it gets. Broad comedy can be funny of course in the right hands but this certainly isn’t that. I took a note while watching that the lesbian character said at one point “I peed on it” to her bestie regarding a pregnancy test and it for some reason got a hysterical laugh; that’s pretty emblematic about everything in this show.

One Big Happy tries to sneak up on people who only know or hear its premise as original, but don’t be fooled. The admittedly novel premise cloaks a pretty bad comedy.

Will I watch it again? No. It was bad, and there’s no reason for anyone to watch it in the unlikely event it survives. Sorry, Elisha Cuthbert and guy who played Pete in Happy Endings. Long live Happy Endings.

Spring 2015 Review: iZombie

20 Mar

iZombiePilot1

Imagine there was a party game for TV junkies, where players would watch an episode of a show by a well-known TV writer and would have to identify the show was written by. After watching ten minutes of iZombie, any self-respecting television zealot would be able to pick it out as the work of Rob Thomas without a doubt. Aside from the high concept sci-fi premise (and, yes, it’s ludicrous to talk about a show called iZombie and toss that aside, but work with me), iZombie has an incredible amount in common with Veronica Mars that should have it appealing to Veronica Mars fans of all stripes.

Let’s walk through the comparison, with some longer explanations for the iZombie analogues. In both, at the beginning, a young girl (Veronica is in high school, iZombie’s Liv is in her 20s) is doing great – she’s successful and popular. Veronica is a high school cheerleader with tons of popular cool friends, and Liv is a doctor kicking ass in her residency and engaged to a cool, attractive dude. Something happens. In Vernoica Mars, it’s the death of her best friend, followed by a messy, botched investigation by her sheriff dad that makes her a pariah and an outcast at school. For Liv, it’s well, becoming a zombie. Liv’s zombie form, to be clear, is no AMC’s The Walking Dead-style brainless cretin (it would be a pretty boring and/or nonsensical show that way). Instead, she still maintains the same personality as before, but medically she’s cold, nearly bloodless, and needs to eat brains to maintain her intelligence (she’s actually much closer to a convention vampire than zombie).

Both Veronica and Liv, after this life-changing event, struggle, face a period of despair, and then regain their footing somewhat, seeking a new way forward – realizing their lives will never quite be back to the way they were, but that maybe they can carve a different path.

Veronica and Liv both use their particular newfound skill sets to solve crimes. Veronica has been groomed partly intentionally and partly unintentionally by her now private eye father, while Liv gains visions from the people whose brains she eats. As those brains tend to be acquired from murder victims, she sees flashes of how they die and who killed them. Although solving these crimes isn’t initially part of the plan, it soon becomes a calling for each, a way to follow the new paths forward both are building.

Oh, and both Veronica and Liv narrate the action with a world-wary, self-aware, and pop culture-dotted voice over which takes you through their point of view.

So, yeah. Not talking right out of the gate about the fact that Liv is an undead zombie who needs to eat brains and has psychic visions is kind of burying the lead, while Veronica is merely a teenage girl with a really expensive camera and some mad private eye skills. But down in its guts, iZombie has a whole lot of what Veronica Mars had, which, since Veronica Mars is a great show and a personal favorite is definitely a good thing.

The similarities, particularly in the voice overs, were so uncanny that it made me think Rob Thomas was desperate to bring Veronica Mars back, but in a way more palatable with current trends, which, given the outsized success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, meant zombies.

Does Rose McIver have the chops to pull off the Kristin Bell role? Does the wacky premise have enough heft behind it to last a full season and then some? It’s too early to say. iZombie featured the sharp dialogue that is the hallmark of any Rob Thomas show, and the sweet spot tonal midpoint between drama and comedy, that Thomas and Joss Whedon have mastered.

Will I watch it again? Yes. This was one of those shows, that due to the Rob Thomas connection (he’s behind not only Veronica Mars but my beloved Party Down), I would have had to have hated not to watch another episode. That said, it’s Veronica Mars similarities only enhanced those chances.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 15-12

18 Mar

Two comedies, one drama, and one Netflix show that straddles both worlds. Here comes 15 through 12.

Intro here and 43-40 here and 39-36 here and 35-32 here and 31-28 here and 27-24 here and 23-20 here and 19-16 here and one-offs/shows ineligible for the list here.

15. Bob’s Burgers – 2013: 14

Bob's Burgers

Parks and Recreation, which we’ll get to shortly, has often been hailed for being a comedy of nice; people generally like each other and want to help, rather than hurt one another, despite their differences, and it shows. Bob’s Burgers, an animated family show, rather than a workplace live-action comedy, embodies that same concept; the love between the family members runs deep, and no matter the fights and scuffles that occur over the course of an episode, at the end the Belcher family stands by one another. There’s an underlying warmth beneath Bob’s Burgers that never feels forced. Even Louise (the April of the show, though I like Louise much better than April, which is a completely separate issue that I’m not sure I know how to explain offhand) comes around to sticking with her family in the end. Bob’s Burgers is funny, which is important, because it’s a comedy, but even more than funny, Bob’s Burger’s is fun. No current show is more guaranteed to put me in a good mood, or turn my frown upside down, than Bob’s Burgers. I like to watch episodes right before I go to sleep in the hopes that they will transfer to good dreams.

14. Orange is the New Black – 2013: 19

Orange is the New Black

What was once a dirty little secret is now party line; as far as breakout Netflix shows go, Orange is the New Black is better than House of Cards. The second season served up more of what made the first so loveable, women of all stripes and colors and classes, struggling to make it in a prison system that continually beats them down (figuratively always and occasionally literally). The women manage to find ways to work together more than seems possible considering how often the system tries to pit them against one another. This season featured a big bad who was pretty much unredeemable – Vee, who started running heroin into Litchfield. Just about every character outside of Vee, however, is shown from all sides, complex and nuanced, and unlike the first season, even the prison employees get to be shown as not all bad. It’s impressive how many characters Orange is the New Black juggles, making minor characters feel worthy in small but important ways. Pathos is a specialty of Orange is the New Black, and no show vacillates between comedy and drama better, with hilarious moments followed by heart wrenching emotion.

13. Parks and Recreation – 2013: 11

Parks and Recreation

The sixth season was not the best season of Parks and Recreation. It was probably the weakest outside of the first when the show didn’t really know what it was and who its characters were (and maybe parts of the second, where it was still figuring itself out). That said, the fact that even a weaker season of Parks and Recreation can finish this high speaks to the sheer base levels the writers and actors have reached on this show on a season-to-season, episode-to-episode basis. Parks and Recreation is a first-ballot TV Hall-of-Famer. There were certainly signs this season of a show ready for the end, with some plots that felt like retreads of earlier plots (Tom’s Bistro was a poor man’s Rent-a-Swag) and I was ridiculously frustrated with the way the season ended, with Leslie bailed out from making a difficult decision that had been the focus of much of the season. Still, the show is always funny and the characters are so deeply developed by now that the gears move pretty well even when they’re not at their best. The creators and writers know their characters and actors so well that even when I think the plots are a little off, the emotions and the humor aren’t. This isn’t Parks and Recreation’s finest hour, but there’s a reason why Parks & Rec will go down as one of the best sitcoms of all time.

12. Rectify – 2013: 3

Rectify

Rectify’s main contribution to television may be its ability to take slow, deliberate pacing, which is oft cited as a negative for many a show by myself and others, and ingeniously turn it into an asset. Rectify takes its own time and uses it to flesh out how protagonist Daniel Holden, recently released from death row after 20 years in a cell with little human contact, sees his family and the world anew. Daniel struggles to readjust, even as he still faces potential murder charges – the technicality on which he was set free only means the state will have to retry him from scratch. His family struggles equally, welcoming him home, as they want to be there for him, but aren’t sure how, and his return upends their lives. His sister played the most energetic role in freeing him, but is frustrated by her difficulties in getting him out of his shell. His youngest brother barely knew him at all. His stepbrother remains bitter towards him, resentful of how everyone treats a convicted murder as a returning prodigal son, but Rectify even makes sure to show him with humanity. Rectify tells a tale about a subject, and with a view, like no other show on TV, and while that in and of itself doesn’t make a show good, it remains a rare quality and impressive with a show that happens to be as good as Rectify.

Spring 2015 Review: Secrets and Lies

16 Mar

Secrets and Lies

It’s impossible not watch new TV shows and movies without viewing them through the prism of existing works we’re already familiar with. It’s impossible, for example, to watch an episode of Allegiance or The Assets and not think that either of those shows is a cheap rip-off of The Americans, regardless of whether they are cheap rip-offs or merely inferior similar programs which were conceived entirely independently coincidently. Likewise, whether or not it was conceived entirely independently, it’s hard to watch the pilot of Secrets and Lies and not immediately think of Gone Girl. Both focus on a media feeding frenzy that accompanies an attractive man accused of being a cold-blooded killer in a high profile murder case, and both hold out initially the information regarding whether the did he or didn’t he actually do it. Unfortunately, Secrets and Lies has these elements of Gone Girl but none of the quality which makes Gone Girl work.

Ryan Phillippe plays a hot father who, while out on a run, finds his neighbor’s young son dead somewhere on his path. Phillippe and his family live in Charlotte, a city in which, on his block at least, every neighbor knows the other, and gossip spreads fast. When no other suspect is quickly uncovered, Phillippe becomes the primary suspect, and the media, despite the lack of any evidence, pounce. In response, the nation and the locals turn against him. At the same time, he’s struggling with his marriage, with the implication that he participated in an affair which has his marriage on the rocks.

A persistent detective played by Juliette Lewis pesters and pesters him, suspecting him the whole time, but trying to subtly have him incriminate himself, rather than attack him straight out. Most of the first episode consists of her trying to trip him up, while he never quite gives in, and this happens about four different times, as he vacillates between trying to lawyer up to be smart, and trying to convince the world he has nothing to hide. Slowly, however, some incriminating evidence slowly builds even while he proclaims his innocence to suggest at least the possibility of his guilt.

The show promises both secrets and lies, but the first episode under delivers on both, not making the most of its first forty minutes to reel viewers in. The only lies, at least that we know about, are Philippe’s about his whereabouts, which he doesn’t remember (very drunk) and the only secret, revealed at the end of the episode, could not be more obvious to anyone who has ever watched a television show.

More than lacking substance, Secrets and Lies commits the more fatal sin of being boring. For a show whose goal appears to be edge-of-the-seat entertaining with a little bit of soapy intrigue, the first episode sure doesn’t make you want to know what happened or care at all about any of the characters.

Will I watch it again no? No. Secrets and Lies tries to be a sexy, mysterious potboiler, where you don’t know whose lying, and who isn’t, and what secret, or so the title implies, is right around the corner, but it is not one of these things except surprisingly boring and unsurprisingly unsurprising.