Archive | July, 2015

Summer 2015 Review: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll

20 Jul

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll

Sex & Drugs & Rock n Roll charts the path of a legendary almost-but-never-quite-made-it band that faded just before Nirvana hit and made rock huge again (think maybe Mudhoney) as they are drawn back together in the present for the first time in many years. The Heathens were led by ultimate heathen Johnny Rock, played by Denis Leary, who drank and drugged his way through life, getting by on oozing charisma and competent songwriting chops while generally being an asshole to everyone, particularly his bandmates.

The show starts as a docudrama with Dave Grohl and Grug Dulli talking about The Heathens and just how equally important, influential, and unsuccessful they were. (I have to put in a note here that none of the language thrown around by Dulli and Grohl actually sounds anything like the little music we here the Heathens’ play; they sound more like the New York Dolls than a band that would immediately influence Nirvana.) In the present, Johnny visits his manager and finds out he’s out of options; there’s no market for his music and he’s too old to start over again, but too young to retire. He’s reduced to considering a position in a low grade but decent paying tribute band; selling out is everything Johnny has fought against, but money is money.

Later at a bar, he hits on a woman, Gigi, (Victorious’ Elizabeth Gillies) far younger and more attractive than himself he believes is making eyes at him, only to find out that she’s been doing so because she’s actually his daughter that he never knew existed. He lucks out when the next day it turns out that Gigi has some money and wants to make it as a singer in NYC, and despite her lack of interest in him as a paternal figure, she wants his help as a songwriter, if he can convince his old songwriting partner, the Heathens’ former guitarist, Flash, to join forces with him. Convincing Flash (John Corbett) is difficult as Johnny was a huge asshole and Flash is much more successful currently, making bank as Lady Gaga’s traveling guitarist. Gigi, sensing this might be an issue and knowing the way to all musicians’ hearts, texts Leary a provocative picture to show Corbett, and the old crew against all odds is up and running.

Gigi performs a classic Heathens song with the band; everyone can see she’s got actual talent, and we’re in business.

The biggest problem with Sex&Drug&Rock&Roll is a sense of a tonal dissonance. I’m not quite sure what the show wants to be, and it might be more successful if it pulled further in one of a number of directions rather than where it currently is. There are some good ideas here for a show; skewing the music industry, both modern, and classic, and the notion of the fading rocker, the Keith Richards type tried to keep up. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll at times seems like it is trying to be an edge, satirical, black comedy, that pulls no punches, with characters who are not necessarily likeable. On the other hand, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll wants to have a heart, and tell the story of a complicated relationship between father and daughter, that’s a little more serious and more sentimental. In this way, it almost has the vibe of a feel-good movie redemption story, like Music & Lyrics but about a father-daughter relationship instead of a rom-com.

The jokes aren’t funny, which is a problem for the black comedy aspect. One approach would be to tone down the jokes, keep a light, comic tone, but up the ante on the plot and depth of characters. A biting satire could work as well but the writing would need a lot of tightening; if a satire isn’t funny, it doesn’t work: see The Brink. There may be gray areas between these approaches, or others, but Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’s isn’t working currently, and that’s the chief problem. The jokes aren’t funny, the music sensibility seems weirdly out of date; the Lady Gaga jokes for example feel a couple of years well too late.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s an idea here and I like the cast. But it’s just not there without a bit of a stylistic overhaul.

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Summer 2015 Review: The Jim Gaffigan Show

17 Jul

The Jim Gaffigan Show

The Jim Gaffigan Show attempts to pull the trick that relatively few shows have pulled off, and which Modern Family has pulled off most successfully – to relatively modernize the classic sitcom. Modern Family brings in the single camera and cuts the laugh track, but leaves in the close knit family, the wacky hijinks, and the heart. I don’t particularly care for the show on the whole, but episode to episode, and scene-to-scene, I’ve seen plenty of moments that have that formula working.

The Jim Gaffigan Show takes this strange and maybe worthy goal on, ultimately unsuccessfully. The ‘90s were dominated by family-oriented sitcoms, with the last two great editions being Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of James before the genre largely died out as a major force. The genre was both medium and message; there was a format – multi-camera with big canned laughs and a lot of big obvious punchlines – and a style – warm, family friendly, not too edgy. Most revivals of the style have brought back both elements, leaving them to appear extremely outdated. Modern Family hit the jackpot, bringing in both traditional sitcom watchers and younger viewers who also enjoyed The Office.

The Jim Gaffigan Show is another attempt to mix modern form with traditional style comedy in the wake of Modern Family. It has everything you could want – a hype-immature American male (think: Tim Taylor or Ray Barone or Phil Dunphy) who has juvenile tendencies, who knows his wife is far more competent and put together than he is, but occasionally wants to show that he can do parenting and life too, if he can get himself off the couch for five minutes. There’s a classic TV mix up in the pilot. Jim has three letters, two to deliver, and one to take home and he confuses them hanging the letters to the wrong recipients. The poor husband can’t even get one thing right. Luckily, through a serious of screwball happenings, his mistake turns out not to matter, until something else that came up earlier does, but at the end Jim and co. are a sweet, loving, happy family and that’s all that matters. There’s a schlubby-but-lovable-and-funny TV husband married to a much younger, more attractive women, who can’t help but love his foibles at the end of the day because he means well even as she does all the work.

Jim Gaffigan is a funny guy, and that, well kind of comes through in the show, which is about the nicest thing you can say about it. It comes through mostly when Jim is just talking, exposing his natural timing and humorous cadences. Everything else, though. It’s the same old, It’s not cringeworthy, but it’s surprisingly unsophisticated and thoroughly medicore.

Will I watch it again? No. I like Jim Gaffigan’s stand up, but he’s probably a traditionalist at heart, and this sitcom really shows it off. The sheen may be more modern, but the sitcom is gooey, boring, clichéd, and most importantly not funny.

Summer 2015 TV Review: The Astronaut Wives Club

8 Jul

The Astronaut Wives Club

The Astronaut Wives Club was not very good, but more than that the pilot was very odd. Not odd in that it was not linear or hard to follow or particularly complicated or surreal. Rather it was simply a strange, rambling, I-have-no-idea-what-the-goal-for-the-series-is pilot. Usually drama pilots offer some kind of statement for what the show is, and even if it’s not entirely fully formed, dramatic pilots are generally better indicators of the show’s futures than comedy pilots. Usually, there’s an obvious mini-arc that gets the show started and sets the tone for where things will go. Not here. The pilot was regular network drama episode length (43 minutes) but felt like an hour and a hour as it meandered, driving past logical ending points, being incredibly unclear about any sense of scope, or firm definition of character, and leaving me with no idea of what the show is doing.

The Astronaut Wives Club truly feels like a network series, and particularly an ABC series, trying to walk the line between prestige, family-friendliness, marrying the simple and the complex, and meeting none of those goals. The pilot almost feels more like a TV movie and then keeps going when you think it’s about to end. It crazily takes place over the course of two years, which seems like a lot of time to span for absolutely no reason.

The set up is that as the seven (real-life) Mercury program astronauts are chosen, one of whom will be the first American man in space, a reporter (played by Rectify’s Luke Kirby) will be constantly covering them to push the story for NASA, but he’ll be focusing equally on their wives to present America with a truly ‘50s wife-and-kids-support-the-man perspective of what makes American right and good and wholesome and better than the USSR. It’s tough to tell whether the article is going to be a running thread or merely a reason to have the wives get to know each other, and the answer is well, I’m still not sure. The show keeps coming back to the article, but it also doesn’t really have any point. The Astronaut Wives Club is just kind of a rambling tale about the wives mostly, with some focus on the astronauts. I actually don’t really know what it’s about. By speeding two years from the announcement of the Mercury astronauts to the first manned flight, it’s hard to get too much of a beat on any of the characters beyond the broadest characters, and not even those for some; I could not have recited more than one or two of the wives names after just finishing the pilot. Alan Shepard’s wife cheats on him, but she doubles down standing by him, while Gordon Cooper’s wife had been ready to divorce him in response to his cheating, but they stayed together temporarily for his career. There’s something about how as the boys play and carouse, the wives have to stick together and be there for one another? Or maybe not. First there are parts implying that the wives are not going to get along, then they just kind of do.

This disorder is especially surprising for a pilot that seems so relatively straightforward. The idea would be that we’ll try to see how these women in the ‘50s, though housewives, had their own complex lives and interactions, and were every bit as important as the men. It was just shockingly all over the place. From the pilot, I have absolutely no idea where the rest of the show is going, especially considering it spanned two years, from the birth of the Mercury program in 1959 to past Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961, and there were even more events after that presumable ending point. Is every episode going to take this long and just take the through the whole Mercury period?

There’s really nothing to take out of this show. I don’t really understand why it exists, what it’s goal is, and what it’s plan is, and not because it doesn’t want me to know. There’s not really a lot to note.

Will I watch it again? No. It was 43 minutes and felt like much longer. That’s rarely a compliment. It was a strange show, leading nowhere.

Summer 2015 Review: Deutschland 83

6 Jul

Deutschland 83

Deutschland 83 has the proud distinction of being the first German-language series to air on a U.S. network, which is kind of cool. I’m not sure whether the Germans behind it realize this, but it is yet another in a recent string of shows that seem to be modeled in the wake of the fantastic The Americans. Deutschland 83 is better than most of the other contenders, and has some important differences, but it’s still hard not to have The Americans in mind, as a point of comparison, while watching the pilot and it’s unsurprisingly not in that class.

Deutschland 83 takes place in, well, 1983, just about the same time as The Americans. The Cold War has tensed up again for one last moment before the thaw of the second half of the ‘80s, but to those at the time unaware of what the future would bring, it may have as if it could last forever and get inexorably worse. Lenora and Walter work for the East Germany spy organization, the Stasi, while outwardly working for the East German embassy in West Germany. They see Reagan’s tough talk, which increases their concern about the Americans’ and West Germans’ actions, and decide they need a spy placed very close to an important West German general. Ideally, they need someone who could take the place of a young man who was recently appointed this general’s aide-de-camp. Luckily, Lenora has just the right person in mind! Her young newphew, Martin, a devoted East German, currently in the East Germany military.

As a party celebrating Martin’s weekend leave, Lenora gives him the tough sell, with a combination of positive and negative reinforcement. After interviewing Martin, she and her superior kidnap him, bring him to West Germany, but then promise him a house for him and his girlfriend and surgery for his sick mother if he completes just one important mission. Her and a local spy posing as a professor teach him the spy tricks of the trade in a short montage that presumably takes a few weeks, and he’s ready to go, filling in as aide-de-camp acting all natural and West German-like, while waiting to take a photo of some important documents to relay back to his handlers.

He gets the job done, but that’s when things get tricky, He makes a novice blunder at a party held by the general, being overheard by a relative, and realizes he’s in the big leagues when his contact tells him he has to drug the woman, and may have to kill her. He’s doubly thwarted when his boss tells him he can’t go home just yet after all – the content of the photos scared his superiors, meaning his job isn’t done.

The similarities with The Americans are obvious– a communist spy plying his trade in a Democratic country in the early ‘80s. There are some differences as well. Martin is a novice. He’s not a trained spy, and it shows –every bit as experienced and veteran Elizabeth and Philip are, Martin is not, both in his tradecraft, and his emotional responses to his work. While the USSR and the US are seen as polar opposites, West and East Germany are siblings, with as much the same as different. They’ve only been separated by 30 short years of history, but a lifetime in some ways, and literally Martin’s entire lifetime. Martin is overtaken by the indulgent and lackadaisical way West Germans live.

From one episode, I don’t know exactly which direction the show is going to go in. The most obvious would feature Martin having to fall deeper and deeper into the world of espionage, figuring out where his own personal moral boundaries are and how strong his devotion to his country is. Another less likely but possible direction could have him end being somewhat seduced by Western culture and lifestyles. He doesn’t have the years and years of training of Philip and Elizabeth, making him more susceptible to the types of moral quandaries that they’ve hardened to.

The show was decent but not spectacular. It’s somewhat unfair to judge shows in the wake of similar shows that come before, but only somewhat; the existence of The Americans that anything similar has an uphill battle to climb, and in one episode Deutschland 83 doesn’t quite do it. The German aspect though is definitely an interesting parallel to hold on to; there’s something far rawer and more real in the battle between two halves of a divided country that share a border and a history. Watching further will be on some faith that subsequent episodes will develop further the more compelling possible aspects of the show, and deeper Martin’s character, and I could really see the show, while never being terrible, having an equal chance to really impress or limp along in averageness.

Will I watch again? Yes. I wasn’t blown away by any means, but it’s short, which is important, at only eight episodes, and I’m intrigued by watching at least one show from different nations, which admittedly is not in and of itself a great reason to watch, but it really was at least pretty decent, if not great, so a way to break a tie.

Summer 2015 Review: Sense8

3 Jul

Sense8

Sense8 spans the globe, telling a story based on a telepathic connection that exists between certain people around the world. In particular, the focus is on eight people who don’t know each other and have never met in person but have some sort of telepathic link and are bound to figure into each other’s lives in important ways from now on. The scope is vast, as would be expected in a TV show from the Wachowski siblings, who were behind good movies like The Matrix, and bad movies like The Matrix sequels (I’m not even going to mention Speed Racer. Oops, I guess I did).

Daryl Hannah plays a woman, struggling in agony, in the ruins of an abandoned church. Naveen Andrews appears next to her, tells her he loves her, and that she can do it, it being, well, who knows, but something difficult, because she insists she can’t, though he eggs her on. We’re led to believe that Andrews is a projection, talking to her through some sort of telepathy. He, any viewer who has watched television or movies would quickly ascertain, is some sort of force for good. He’s countered by an older gentleman, also an apparition, apparently the force for evil, who attempts to persuade Hannah to join his side instead, and he remains convinced that she will, while Andrews insists that she will not. The bad dude comes in in the flesh, causing Hannah to kill herself rather than be apprehended by him.

Somehow, I think, and I could be getting this wrong, we’re led to believe that she somehow activated the powers of the eight people shown throughout the rest of the episode. These eight, four male, and four female, and I’ll run through them quickly in a moment, have all just started seeing visions, both of Hannah herself, and of each other.

Here we go. First, a Chicago cop who works in gangland south Chicago with his partner. Second, a British DJ, whose boyfriend seems intent on robbing some other dude. Third, a Russian guy who with his brother or cousin robs safes. Fourth, a Mexican soap opera-type actor. Fifth, a South Korean businesswoman being overshadowed by her brother. Sixth, an Indian woman who is about to get married to a very successful man she does not love. Seventh, a San Francisco woman who seems to be some sort of intellectual. Eight, a Kenyan van driver.

Some get more screen time in the first episode than others. The cop, the DJ, the San Franciscan, and the Russian thief, get a lot, while the South Korean woman and then Kenyan driver get almost none.

Most serial supernatural shows go out of their way to lay out a premise and several distinct questions in a plot-heavy pilot, trying to pack as much in to get viewers hooked on the story from just 40 minutes. Sense8, possibly because it’s a Netflix original not shown weekly or subject to the traditional pilot process; it had a full season order straight out of the gate – doesn’t feel obliged to do this. There’s a relatively small amount of plot in the pilot.

And so, well, that’s all I have to go on. The set up feels like one a director or writer would love to put issues of fate all over it, but thankfully Sense8, at least initially, refrains from any fate talk; it doesn’t sound like Tim Kring fake-heavy Touch or Heroes. Still, though, and maybe I’m just used to the packing of plot, but it was kind of boring. It looks pretty; and spanning the world, there’s certainly an epic quality which is welcome in a television series. But, there wasn’t enough for me to bite into. Eight people are now telepathic and supposed to do something good, presumably. The series look good. But what it is stuffed with is characters, and while they seem fine enough I don’t really find any of them so interesting I want to know more from the get go.

It’s tough with these types of shows. You make an investment based on guesswork, and hope that it’s rewarded by watching the rest of the season and the series. Is the hook catchy? Are the dialogue, cinematography and character work sophisticated enough to lift the show to being more than merely its plot?

Could Sense8 turn into something really interesting? Maybe. Does it pull me in from the first episode and make me want to immediately watch a second? Not really.  Sense8 certainly aspires to be more than its mere story, and it well could be, but despite the fact that it sometimes seems like it I can’t watch every episode of every halfway decent looking show and Sense8 doesn’t quite make it over the hump.

Will I watch it again? No, not right now, anyway. The production was impressive, but there just wasn’t enough there for me. Maybe if I hear good things from others who have seen it all, I’ll revisit. I’d be very happy to admit I’m wrong.

Summer 2015 Review: Another Period

1 Jul

Another Period

Another Period is a ludicrous, silly show whose primary goal is to simply make you laugh, and fortunately, it does. Another Period is a spoof of Downton Abbey-esque upstairs/downstairs period shows, following a ludicrously wealthy family in New England around the turn of the 20th century.  The characters and dramatic storylines are overly absurd and the humor ranges from a combination of low-brow and clever wordplay to physical slapstick; the vast majority of the characters range from dumb to extremely dumb.

Creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome play daughters Lillian and Beatrice respectively, of the family Bellacourt. Both are demanding, immature and petulant. All that separates them is that Lillian has some semblance of intelligence, while Beatrice is a complete moron. Beatrice is married to Albert, played by David Wain, but in love with her brother, Frederick, played by Jason Ritter. Lillian is married to Victor, played by Brian Huskey. Michael Ian Black plays Mr. Peepers, the head butler, and Christina Hendricks is the new servant, originally named Celine, but named Chair by the less-than-sensitive Bellacourts. In total, it’s a very strong stable of comedic personalities, with some welcome faces newer to the world of comedy (Hendricks and Ritter).

The style is well over the top, and some people will merely Another Period is very stupid. And they’re right, it is very stupid. It’s very hard to articulate why some stupid humor is laugh-out-loud hilarious and some stupid humor is mind-numbing and cringe-worthy, and certainly everyone’s line between the two is very different. Another Period though lies squarely on the former side.

Another Period was probably conceived in response to Downton Abbey, and while the show makes hay out of the rich family vs. poor servants dynamic, there’s no attempt to be poignant or clever or meaningful with the period nature. It’s just there to serve as a vein for jokes and comedy. The period nature is ridiculous and flexible truth-wise. There’s no attempt to any reasonable semblance of fidelity; rather there’s an attempt to be as distinctly inaccurate as possible. One character makes a reference to Helen Keller, treating her as we would today rather than then. Guests are served cocaine wine; when Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan object as members of the Temperance Union, they’re told, helpfully, that it’s really mostly cocaine, anyway.  New servant Chair tells the others she has big dreams; the other servants scoff at her dreams of one day working in a factory.

The jokes are scattershot, fired left and right over the place, and they don’t all work by any means. Luckily it’s the type of show where the overall picture isn’t all that important – the show would rather drop a bunch of bad jokes and leave a whole bunch of good jokes in than go for something more refined but possibly less funny. That’s not always a successful formula, but it works here – the gags that don’t work are washed away as soon as something funny happens.

Will I watch it again? Yes. It’s funny, it’s easy to watch, and it’s got lots of people I like. Comedy Central continues its roll.