Archive | April, 2015

Spring 2015 Review: The Comedians

29 Apr

The Comedians

The Comedians tries every tack in the modern sitcom toolbox to get laughs, but along the way proves that it while it uses all these tools, it imitates but doesn’t really quite pick up on what makes any of these techniques work. Though the show ended up not being nearly as bad by any means as I anticipated from its endless barrage of commercials (a backhanded compliment if there ever was one), ultimately it’s still unsuccessful at getting laughs. There are a number of ideas that have worked in other’s hands and will again, but not here.

The Comedians is extremely meta, which of course screams its connection with the type of modern comedy young, hip people (myself included) revere. Billy Crystal, within the show, playing a version of himself, pitches FX on a sketch show starring himself; the network is interested, but only if he’ll co-star with Josh Gad as two equal partners. The two meet and find they don’t particularly care for each other, but eventually agree to do the show when they realize the network won’t move forward any other way. The pilot is shown as a making-of documentary style affair taking us from their discussions with FX and first meetings with one another to the taping of the first episode.

As mentioned above, The Comedians mimes a panoply of relatively recent sticoms. Curb Your Enthusiasm is probably the single greatest influence. The pilot of The Comedians resembles the movie that began Curb, which purported to be a behind-the-scenes look Larry David trying to get a stand up special on HBO (replace HBO with FX, and stand up special with sketch show, and you’ve got The Comedians). There are several other similarities to Curb. There’s the portrayal of real celebrities as unlikeable, arrogant, stupid, and eccentric; well-exaggerated versions of themselves. It’s Always Sunny and Curb were masters of the unlikeable people do horrible things comedy The Comedians reaches for. There’s an attempt at awkward humor of shows like Curb, The Office, and Peep Show. Billy and Josh’s first dinner was incredibly awkward as they both acted like weirdos and Billy callously apologized to fictional-and-real-life director Larry Charles (more meta), after he fired him within the show, leading Charles to think he was rehired, while Crystal merely wanted apologize for the manner of his firing.

The Comedians is filled with cutaways to documentary-style interviews conducted later that have become de rigueur starting with The Office (also prominent in Parks and Recreation and Modern Family). It also takes the 30 Rock approach to sketches; the sketches within the fake sketch show are obviously terrible, and the show attempts to highlights that by just showing some ridiculous short bits.

So, you get it. The creators have clearly been watching TV for the past decade. That’s not a bad thing, and I love most of the shows they crib from, and some of my favorite shows have been great but largely unoriginal. Unfortunately, while they get some of the methods and gimmicks that were used in many great shows during that time period, that forget that these gimmicks are just methods of delivery for well-written jokes; if the jokes stink, the most clever methods of telling those jokes in the worl, won’t help make them funny.  The Comedian, is just filled largely with jokes that are not good, and the show is not funny. The Comedians is not offensive, it’s not cringeworthy, it’s not full of the type of Chuck Lorre-delivered lazy tropes or attempts at troublingly out-of-date easy laughs. It’s just not funny either.

Will I watch it again? No. It was not funny. Unlike some not very good comedies, The Comedians clearly has some ideas of what is good, but they’re nowhere close to be being fully formed, or realized.

Spring 2015 Review: A.D.: The Bible Continues

27 Apr

A.D.: The Bible Continues

I’m a non-believing Jew, so A.D.: The Bible Continues is obviously not geared towards me. Still, this is on NBC, rather than some niche cable channel, so with that disclaimer I’ll dive into attempting to analyze this show about the bible like any other TV show.

I’m about as far away from a Bible expert as you can get, but from my limited knowledge even someone as completely uninterested in religion as myself believe the Bible contains plenty of compelling stories, regardless of its literal truth. These stories, at their best, and the Bible is long enough to have some winners and some snoozers, are interesting both as stand-alone narratives and in terms of the historical context of how they came about. A.D.: The Bible Continues, sadly, is not a particularly riveting or enlightening portrayal of those tales.

More than that, it’s, well, cheesy. The production values, dialogue, and story combine to make A.D. more like a cheaply produced instructional special shown in Sunday schools to keep children mildly entertained while relaying to them the story of Jesus and his followers than a network program airing in 2015. This just doesn’t cut it. The effects look corny, the dialogue and acting is stilted and just everything about rings of a B-level piece of work.

A.D. starts just before the crucifixion of Jesus, and the pilot ends as he’s about to be resurrected. In between, Judas hangs himself out of guilt from his betrayal, his followers fret about whether to quickly escape, or wait for his alleged resurrection, and Pontius Pilate, his wife, and some others struggle with whether or not they made the right and sensible decision to have Jesus executed.

As a series, A.D. purports to tell Bible stories as a continuation of the hugely successful “The Bible” miniseries, which aired on the History Channel, which aside from this not actually being history, is at least the type of network on which these low budget reenactment type stories belong. These days, even most of the second tier summer shows on network channels that will get cancelled after four episodes of virtually on one watching, if not looking like something on AMC, Showtime, or HBO, at least look pretty decent; the general standard of production has been ratcheted up by the success of premium cable, even if networks don’t quite aspire that high. A.D., on the other hand, is suitable for some simplistic religious history for kids, but not as entertainment or serious programming for anyone older.

Will I watch it again? No. I’m done with Hebrew school forever, which I could not be happier about. No need to watch Saturday afternoon bible specials here.

Spring 2015 Review: Bloodline

24 Apr


Bloodline is a new Netflix show from creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelamn, the people behind the underrated FX show Damages. Damages came right before FX really hit the big time with Justified and Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story, but it’s was generally well reviewed by those who watched, and while I stopped watching in the third season, even though I don’t really remember specifically why, the first season in particularly was a well told and well -acted taut legal thriller that doesn’t get enough credit.

Damages relied on a gimmick which is incredibly overused and one of my least favorite; each episode contains some small snippets of present time and then most of the show was flashback (or most of the show in the present and small snippets of flash forward, if you will). Crazy things happened in the present, and the show would then shoot back to the past, so that viewers would wonder how the events could possibly move from point A to point B. The gimmick worked fine for the show as these things go, but it’s a lazy and cheap way to build tension and I was thus disappointed to see the exact same gimmick used in Bloodline’s first episode. I don’t remember Damages pilot exactly, but I think Damages started in the future and moved back, while Bloodline didn’t flash forward until later in the episode. Still, the use was essentially the same.

Bloodline is a family thriller. The patriarch and matriarch of the Rayburn family, played by Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard, own a bungalow resort on the Florida Keys. They’re beloved around those parts, and the setting of the pilot is a family and friends weekend meant to celebrate a local pier being named after them. They have four grown children. John’s got a family and is in local law enforcement, although not the oldest, he seems like the caretaker. Kevin works with boats, Meg is an attorney. Danny, the oldest, is the black sheep of the family.  He’s nomadic, the least in touch with his family, and seems to have dabbled in drugs and at the least petty crime. He’s always getting into trouble and coming to the family for money, hanging around just long enough to break his mother’s heart when he leaves. Danny’s trouble, is the short of it, we’re led to believe. John clearly cares for him, despite his issues, as does his mother. Kevin and his father are tired of his act and Meg seems somewhere in the middle.

In the pilot, Danny, currently unemployed, is offered a presumably shady job by his crony and old running buddy. Considering the job, he instead decides to try to come back home and work with the family, which would thrill his mother, but not so much his father. After he drinks and does drugs too much and wakes up naked on the sand, any offer of family employment is rescinded and presumably that leaves him to rejoin some life of crime.

So that’s now. In the future it looks like, as John narrates, that he’s taking his brother’s dead or lifeliess body onto a boat and setting fire to it, killing him if he’s not dead already, and it’s implied, by John, that crazy things happened and that he had good reason for taking these actions.

Honestly, the episode was a little underwhelming. The primary cause of tension was the flash-forward, and as I mentioned that’s a gimmick that I don’t particularly care for. The rest of the show was fine; it wasn’t really boring per se and we were getting to know the characters but weighing the intrigue so heavily on the flash forward left the stakes in the present feel pointless. By no means was it a bad episode of television; it was even slightly above competent and the show did resonate with a certain basic standard of quality. The disappointment was only relative to my expectations from Netflix and the cast and creators. The cast is great certainly, the production values are solid, and as I’ve mentioned before I know the creators have done good work in the past, so I’m willing to cut the show a little slack personally going forwards. But as a pilot goes it really could have been better.

Will I watch it again? I think I’m going to but that’s more because of the pedigree and the Netflix connection, which has a pretty solid reputation and gives creators the ability to make slower pilots because they have a full season commitment. Also, I like all these actors. I was a little disappointed in the episode itself, and I wouldn’t have given many similar episodes another chance, but here’s hoping.

Spring 2015 Review: American Odyssey

22 Apr

American Odyssey

American Odyssey is a conspiracy thriller set in the present post-9/11 world of Middle Eastern Islamic extremist terrorism. It’s kind of a cross between Homeland and Rubicon, and since most people understandably are unfamiliar with Rubicon, AMC’s first scripted show which lasted a mere single season before Breaking Bad and Mad Men made everyone care about AMC, I’ll explain further. This is a complicated military industrial conspiracy show, so get ready for a bit of exposition. There are three primary protagonists at the heart of American Odyssey. These are their stories.

Odelle is a member of an army team which makes a surprise discovery of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists while in Mali. He’s dead and they’re assigned to turn over everything they found to a shady paramilitary unit. Odette against orders holds onto a thumb drive which shows a bizarre transaction between an American company and Middle Eastern terrorists. The army group makes their way back to safety through the desert on horses, and while Odette is over in the brush urinating, her team is surgically hit with a drone strike. From a few yards away, she then sees the paramilitary group from earlier come in and kill anyone not already dead. She’s then captured by some terrorists and held hostage by a boy, who, after his terrorist dad is killed by the paramilitary agents, agrees to help her escape. The boy also texts a photo of her out to the world; while the military tells her family at home that she’s dead and the photo is mere propaganda, we know it’s very real.

Second, there’s a young, charming Occupy leader who kindly listens to what seems to be a nutty conspiracy theorist. When the theorist claims that the Odelle is still alive, before the picture comes out, and the picture than validates his claim, the charming Occupier decides he best start listening to conspiracy nut, but conspiracy nut is nowhere to be found. The Occupier also learns that an attractive young female journalist to whom he gave an interview doesn’t work for the publication she claimed to have.

Third and final is a lawyer, who used to work for the government but now works for an investment bank helping ensure the merger of two possibly evil sounding giant corporations. Doing his due diligence he finds out some information that his higher-ups don’t want him to know, and though they encourage him not to look too closely, he digs deeper and finds a former drone pilot who was ordered to fire on Americans, and who one of these corporations attempted to bribe in exchange for his silence. When the drone pilot is about to meet up with the lawyer to go talk to some government people about his story, he gets hit by a bus. Dun dun dun.

Wow, that was involved, and that’s about the kind of show it is. It’s high on plot, but it’s also high on material that sounds about as generically conspiratorial as it gets. Evil corporations, military, government, goes all the way to the top. Sure, any of these allegations would be a huge, massive deal in real life, but on TV and in movies, anyone has seen them again and again and again. American Odyssey was fine. It was competent enough, and these conspiracy-based shows and movies continue to propagate because there’s something inherently fascinating about corruption, power, secrets, and lies and that can be somewhat compelling even when the allegations are not particularly interesting or original.

But, there’s nothing here that makes this feel like anything more exciting that whatever minimum excitement is generated in you by a conspiracy. It’s fine, but it doesn’t feel like anything special. There’s really nothing notable about it, and while phoned in is too harsh, generic is not. That’s really all.

Will I watch it again? No. It wasn’t that bad, but when you already watch more than 40 TV shows a year, wasn’t that bad doesn’t cut it enough to make it worth viewing.

Spring 2015 Review: Other Space

20 Apr

Other Space

Other Space is a Yahoo! Original (or a Yahoo! Screen original, or whatever they’re calling it – I’m not quite sure about the Yahoo lingo yet) comedy about a group of inexperienced crew venturing throughout other space. The budget is low, low, low, and it shows; of whatever they began with, it feels like a large percentage was spent on appearance fees for two episodes of Dave Franco. Still, in spite of, or rather regardless of the budget, Outer Space is pretty good stuff.

The biggest bold-faced name involved with Other Space is creator Paul Feig, best known as the director of Bridesmaids (and the creator of Freaks and Geeks). The show, befitting its previously mentioned low budget, features a largely anonymous cast, with the only names of any note being Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Milana Vayntrub, best known as Lily Adams on a series of AT&T commercials.

Other Space takes place on a space ship which, in the first episode, veered into another universe accidentally by way of a wormhole and thus has no contact with the world outside their ship. The crew is composed of the likeable happy-go-lucky captain, Stewart, who is afraid to antagonize his crew, and occasionally seems to know what he’s doing, fumbling into solutions in spite of himself.  His sister Karen is his first mate, and she is more strict, less well-liked because of it, and is occasionally jealous of her brother because she believes as the harder worker and more serious person command should be hers. There’s the pretty, dim navigational officer, Tina, who was chosen solely because the captain had a huge crush on her, even though she was entirely in love with her boyfriend Ted. There’s Michael, who Karen and Stewart have known for their entire lives, who is always being left out and abused by other crew members – without the utter incompetence, he’s the answer to Parks and Recreation’s Jerry, except the crew occasionally feels bad about it. Zallen is a one-time genius engineer turned burnout whose best friend is talking robot A.R.T. Natasha is the sassy computer who appears as a human female and tries frequently to act human and Kent is the resident weirdo who is actually human but doesn’t act like it. And there is your cast of characters.

There’s a lot of simple funny character combination work, as different pairs interact and provide new dynamics and sources of humor. There’s a lot of playing on the types of each character – Kent’s a weirdo, Tina’s kind of stupid, Michael is forgettable, Stewart wants everyone to like him. It’s not complicated but it works more than it doesn’t. In addition, Other Space is easy to get through, and it’s not particular awkward or cringe worthy. There’s nothing revelatory here, but with a serious imbalance in the quality drama vs. comedy ratio on television these days, any decent comedy is welcome. I mentioned Other Space’s low budget a couple times, which could merely be peripheral, but  it really is aggressively low budget, almost incorporating the low budget feel into the campiness and over the top nature of their space adventures, reminding me a little bit of Joel’s previous Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s not really heavy on the sci-fi though, in spite of being set in space; it’s more about putting the characters in wacky and unfortunate situations that require them to occasionally exasperate one another, and sci-fi provides lots of those – new planets, aliens, robots and so forth.

There’s not a lot of character building. It’s not a show designed for warmth and heart like Parks & Recreation, but it’s also not an awkward-observational It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Other Space is very wacky. The characters are pretty simplistic, but that’s okay, the actors do a good job with their bits, and the humor doesn’t require complex characters. It’s light, silly, and disposable in the positive way a great pop song can be disposable – you can turn it on and off, and get a dose of enjoyment without an larger investment.

Will I watch it again? Yes. It’s good, it’s easy to watch, and there are only eight episodes. What’s not to like?

End of Season Report: Justified, Season 6

17 Apr


Justified is a story about the hold the past maintains on the present, and the ability or lack thereof of its characters to break away from a place and a people that are embedded so deep within them that they don’t know any another way. For the people who live in rural Kentucky counties like Harlan and Bennett, removed from the outside world even while part of it, the shadow of the past hangs heavily over every decision and every action. The question Justified asks is whether these people are unable to change because the past has predestined them not to do so, or because the self-perpetuated belief that they can’t change is buried so far within them that they truly believe they can’t, even when they can.

Change and free will are so antithetical to these characters that in the sixth season it almost feels as if they’re just wound up like toys and put on a track, bound to continue straight away even that means crashing into each other. By halfway through the season, there are no surprises, and everyone knows the score. Avery has a shitload of money in a safe, Boyd is going to attempt to take that money, one way or another, and Raylan is going to attempt to stop him. Boyd knows that Raylan and Avery know he plans on stealing the money, but this doesn’t deter him in the least. If anything, it motivates him more. Boyd knows he’s being teased and baited; Raylan at one point shows him the vault, and they both know what’s going on. Raylan is triggering Boyd’s animal instinct to desire that quality of cash and Boyd gets the requisite sniff of money. Boyd is self-aware. He knows he’s being set up. But it simply doesn’t matter. Stealing money is what he does.

The specter of Raylan’s potential death hung over the finale, both because of conventions of the western and crime genres which Justified inhabits and because we’ve been trained to expect that ending from many recent prestige dramas featuring antiheroes. But Raylan never was a traditional antihero in the same vein as some of TV’s other famous members of that category (Walter White, Tony Soprano); while he disobeyed his bosses and went around the law, he was generally good, honest, trustworthy, and never out for himself in the way the Sopranos and Whites of the world were. He didn’t deserve to die. For all his worry about his ability to change, he was never the same as his father. He just didn’t know it yet.

Raylan’s entire existence was defined by his desire to not become his father and he was able to finally get out from under this obsession before it cost him in the end. He won his battle and ended the hold his father, dead since the fourth season, had on him.  Raylan’s obsession with catching Boyd and putting him away, showing that he was the opposite of his weasely criminal father, was at fever pitch in the final season. The one-last-big-score theme was as resonant for him as it was for Boyd, only his score was Boyd. Art and others warned him multiple times that he if he ddin’t step back in time, it might be too late, and it did seem as if the ground work was all set up for him to tragically die just before he could get out to Miami and his daughter.

Raylan may never have gone so far as to have a death wish but he consistently put himself in more risk than necessary in his pursuit of the filth that stood in for his father. Raylan less needed to change his actions than change his perception of himself of someone who could live a stable life outside of constantly facing death, and his daughter gives him a pretty good motivation to do so.

Boyd gives Raylan a chance, in the finale, to face him, and to finish him off rather than send him to prison. Raylan declines. It may have been a tough decision, but for all of Raylan’s quick-draw reputation, it was always what Raylan was going to do. Though all his frustration, including his blood feud with Boyd, that’s never who Raylan was. When Raylan in that moment, lives up to who he knew he can be and stands down, he’s ready to move on.

Eva is over the course of the series Justified’s most tragic character. Unlike Boyd and Raylan, she was thrown into this whole criminal-lawman struggle not of her own volition, although she was eventually swept up by Boyd’s powerful charisma enough to become almost as enthusiastic about thieving as he was. Her time in prison actually taught her a lesson, not just in terms of the consequences of her criminality (unlike most of the male criminals who seem to have been in and out of prison over the course of their lives, the harshness of prison was a real eye-opener for Eva), but in the truth of who Boyd really was. Boyd really and truly did love her, but that was beside the point. He was always going after the money.  However much he loved Eva, he loved the money or what it represented, more.

Eva initially came by criminality second-hand, via her husband, Boyd’s abusive brother, who she killed. Soon, she met Boyd and was swept into the tide of crime through his sheer force of personality. Eva was taken by the magic, by the promise of freedom, by the Thelma and Louise/Bonnie and Clyde/Butch and Cassidy feeling of two against the world. Prison taught her reality. The second turning point came in the final season when Boyd received reward money through a sting Raylan set up to tempt Boyd to go after Avery’s larger stash. Eva tried to persuade Boyd that even with the reward money they had enough to get out, to leave Kentucky and set up shop wherever they wanted free and clear. If he really cared about her, if what he wanted was really what she wanted, to get out, to be free, this was the chance.

He thought about it, but in the end, as both he and Raylan knew, there was no way he was leaving that money. That moment was a blessing in disguise for Eva, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. She was finally free of Boyd’s power; unlike Raylan and Boyd, she didn’t have the long familial history of crime in her bones. If she managed to survive the ordeal, which was certainly not a given, the hold of the past was broken for Eva, who, seemingly on the edge of dying or at the least going back to prison for most of the final season, was able to have an unlikely happy ending.

And as for Boyd, well he gets off easy as well. If he doesn’t, like Raylan and Eva, get to actually break the cycle of the past, he gets a reset, a rewind to another point in his personal timeline, where he’s back to a level of religiosity which we saw early in the series. Boyd will be taking over that prison in no time. Boyd, for all his oozing charisma and for all his high talk, Boyd is who he is. Boyd always was a criminal, and he probably always will be. His desires exist only as far as his next big score.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 2014 Edition: Recap

15 Apr

The Americans

Here’s the final list. Take a good look, memorize it, and watch some more TV.

  1. The Americans
  2. Hannibal
  3. Transparent
  4. Mad Men
  5. Rick and Morty
  6. Game of thrones
  7. The Honourable Woman
  8. Broad City
  9. Olive Kitteridge
  10. Community
  11. New Girl
  12. Rectify
  13. Parks and Recreation
  14. Orange is the New Black
  15. Bob’s Burgers
  16. Veep
  17. Fargo
  18. Silicon Valley
  19. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
  20. Nathan for You
  21. True Detective
  22. Doctor Who
  23. Girls
  24. Sherlock
  25. Orphan Black
  26. Sons of Anarchy
  27. Louie
  28. The Bridge
  29. Justified
  30. The Mindy Project
  31. Jane the Virgin
  32. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  33. The Affair
  34. AMC’s The Walking Dead
  35. Masters of Sex
  36. Workaholics
  37. Boardwalk Empire
  38. 24: Live Another Day
  39. Archer
  40. Wilfred
  41. Downton Abbey
  42. House of Cards
  43. Helix

Also, just in case you want to read more about some or all of these shows, links:

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 and 11-8 here and 7-4 here and 3-1 here.

Spring 2015 Review: Daredevil

13 Apr


Marvel, which seeks to continue its world domination, and Netflix, which seeks to grow its library of hit TV shows, made a smart decision with Daredevil, a classic but underutilized Marvel character, by taking the property in a slightly different direction than the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While other superhero movies (and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) seem to be getting bigger and bigger – unbelievably powerful superheroes, alien invasions, intergalactic terror, and impending world destruction, Daredevil scales down. Daredevil localizes itself not only within one city, New York, but within one neighborhood within that city, Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil doesn’t deal with aliens or gods or robots, but with gangsters and corrupt politicians and businessmen. Daredevil battles thugs and henchmen via hand-to-hand combat.

The second way Daredevil differs from his superhero predecessors in film and television is that his day job is actually relevant to the show in a way most other superheroes’ occupations aren’t. Usually these jobs are just a convenient cover for the heroes’ nighttime pursuits. Here, however, Daredevil’s lawyering represents an integral part of his character is a way that’s simply not true for Spiderman as a photographer or Superman as a writer or Batman a wealthy playboy or C.E.O.

Daredevil is about the fight for justice and what’s right, which sounds similar to the motive of just about any other superhero, but Daredevil merges the legal and extralegal avenues toward that goal in a unique way through his work as a defense attorney. The justice he attempts to hand out during his nights is directly connected to his struggle to fight for justice as he truly believes it should be meted out, through the legal system during the day. The courts just need an occasional outside push to help them function correctly.

Daredevil fights are designed to highlight the smaller scale street level (comics term which refers to characters with no or few powers) nature of the characters – dark, martial art clashes in dark alleys under little light.

While Daredevil does take this interesting approach that stands apart in a couple of noteworthy ways from Marvel’s existing properties, it is still a relatively conventional superhero story. There’s not going to be anything groundbreaking here, and Marvel products, as I’ve said before, tend to have high floors but low ceilings. There’s something to be said for that; while I like to see programs shoot for the stars, there’s room for solid but not spectacular entertainment as well. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s difficult to be great with the restraints Marvel puts on its programming, but it’s also difficult to be awful. I don’t always like to reward that level of risk averseness, but to its credit, Marvel has done a good job putting enough of its properties closer to their ceiling, relatively low as that may be, that at least the calculation seems to make a lot of sense for them both commercially and creatively.

The acting is competent, the writing is adequate; the dialogue isn’t David Mamet but it doesn’t embarrass itself either. Daredevil is not for people who don’t like superheroes; there simply isn’t enough to differentiate it from what anyone who doesn’t like superheroes don’t like about them to begin with. Those who do, though, will probably find Daredevil enjoyable.

Will I watch it again? Yes. I like superhero shows well enough that I’m watching The Flash, Arrow, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.LD, and Daredevil seems like it could be at least as good as any of those, and maybe better.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 3-1

10 Apr

Finally, we’re here. The top three. All entering these heights for the first time, all in their second seasons or earlier. One on broadcast, one on basic cable, and one on amazon. Let’s do this.

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 and 11-8 here and 7-4 here.

3. Transparent – 2013: Not Eligible


I watch a lot of pilots. Most I dismiss out of hand. Some I consider, but eventually decide another episode isn’t worth my time. Some are borderline. Some I choose to watch another episode based on one or two aspects that strike my fancy. Some are solid. And very, very few inspire me, after simply one episode, to feel like I absolutely know I’m starting on a great show. Obviously you can only put so much material in one episode, so there’s at least a little bit of feeling and hunch that goes along with that distinction above and beyond what’s actually in the episode. Transparent had it though. Immediately, I know there was something there, and I hungrily devoured the remaining episodes in the course of a weekend. It’s a truly great show, and a great show in an area that hasn’t been covered much on TV lately. It’s about a family, and the hook is that the patriarch is coming out to his children as a self-identified female. That’s important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Transparent is simply a transcendent family dramedy that makes you immediately want to watch the next episode regardless of any big plot points. The actors are great, the story is great, the characters are great.

2. Hannibal – 2013: 8


Hannibal has absolutely no right to be as good as it is. More or less, on paper, it’s a cop show, about an FBI agent who chases serial killers, often for an episode at a time, but sometimes over the course of several episodes. Hannibal is his mentor slash nemesis, manipulating him and befriending him at the same time. And yet Hannibal is so much more than that. The depth of Hannibal and Will’s relationship defies easy categorization. No show delves deeper into the depths of the human mind than Hannibal. Crimes, murder, in Hannibal, are about understanding, yearning for someone to figure out if anybody really knows anyone else. No show is more visually stunning than Hannibal; taking place as if in a dream world, which disturbingly blood and visceral displays of dead bodies that are troublingly startlingly beautiful. Hannibal’s cooking looks so delicious I want to eat it even knowing what went into it. The world of Hannibal is so much more than the sum of its parts, and there is no other experience like it on TV.

1. The Americans – 2013: 9

The Americans

When everything is working, everything is working, and The Americans was simply on fire in its second season. When The Americans started, I worried I’d tire quickly of its high concept premise, and get frustrated in particular having to root for monstrous characters who kill and maim and torture all in the service of an ultimately fickle and pointless cause. And on paper that still sounds right. But that’s not at all how it feels watching the show. The Americans is dynamic, and for all the killing and wigs and spy missions, the show is about family at least as much as it is about spies. The complicated cold war premise is a brilliant mechanism for discussing issues of secrets and lies, family and love, togetherness and loneliness. The layers of secrets and lies that run through The Americans is staggering. The season long plot unfolded brilliantly – and while the show can admittedly be somewhat on the nose, it’s so well done, and the characters are so fully formed that it entirely doesn’t matter. The Americans does something great shows do; it takes what start as side characters, and quickly makes them fully evolved; look at the FBI, or the Russian Rezidentura, which have become rich settings of their own right, not just merely in relationship to Elizabeth and Philip. A stunning finale capped off the season, with a twist that felt surprising but also well-earned and dealt with the season’s concerns while moving right into next season’s.

And there we are. Congrats, The Americans, congrats 2014. I’ll have a recap of the list up shortly.

Spring 2015 Review: Allegiance

8 Apr


In the wake of the brilliant The Americans, weak facsimiles seem to become pouring onto TV. First, there was unsuccessful ABC spy miniseries The Assets, and now there’s NBC’s Allegiance. Like The Assets, Allegiance piggybacks on a great idea without really understanding what makes The Americans work, and thus delivers an inferior product. Like The Assets, Allegiance tries to get after the big picture elements of The Americans; the espionage, the CIA or FBI vs. Russian spies dynamic, the constant terror of moles and leaks everywhere. But it doesn’t get any of the depth and layers that turn The Americans from an action spy show into something so much more.

Here’s Allegiance’s pitch. Alex is a ridiculously brilliant young analyst for the CIA who gets promoted ridiculously quickly to an incredibly important case because he’s so new that Russian spies aren’t familiar with him yet. He’s assigned as part of a team to figure out whether or not a wannabe Russian defector is telling the truth or is just setting them up to send them false info(a “dangle” they call it). He, along with senior CIA and FBI members, meet with her, and corroborate her story; she’s telling the truth, and he saves the day by just being way smarter than anyone else.

Meanwhile, it turns out his mom and dad are longtime Russian spies who have been out of the game for a few years, escaping from the Russian sky agency’s clutches in exchange for some unnamed favor. His older sister is in on the game as well, and may be currently active even while the parents are retired. Their old contact pulls them back in however; the deal is off and they’re back in, or else. The need to turn their son and have him provide this crazily important info; apparently the defector is on a trail which could lead to information uncovering every Russian agent in the states. Of course, they don’t want to, and they don’t think it would work; they’re convinced that not only would their son instantly turn them in, but they’d ruin his career in addition to sending themselves to jail forever and destroying his love for his family. So, after attempting to run, and then attempting to turn themselves in, they decide to start spying on their son without him knowing, which they’re convinced will work due to his utter and complete trust for his family.

Of course, that theory is put to the test immediately at the cliffhanger ending the episode, as Alex recognizes a dead body as an old family friend of his parents. Dun dun dun.

I really said all that needs to be said in the first paragraph, but I’ll reiterate. This show feels like someone read the elements of The Americans, thought it sounded pretty good, and decided to recreate a similar version of the show. And sure, on paper, it’s got secret hidden Russian spies, cool spy gear (there’s a Faraday cage, which is legitimately awesome). But there’s none of the interesting stuff behind that premise which makes The Americans a truly great show and not just a series of cool spy maneuvers. The level of care in The Americans and not in Allegiance is discernable even with just a pilot.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s nothing worth watching here. But if you haven’t watched The Americans yet, please do.