Archive | September, 2015

Fall 2015 Review: The Player

25 Sep

The Player

The Player is one of two ludicrous high-concept action shows NBC is airing this year, and possibly the more ludicrous, though I’ve veered back and forth between the two. It’s also unrelated to the early ‘90s Robert Altman movie of the same name.

Here’s the story. Alex Kane is the best security consultant in the industry in Las Vegas. He’s just that good. He’s hired to protect high value targets and to show the audience his sheer competence he saves a rich foreign royal family in the first couple of minutes. He follows his success with a meaningful moment with his ex-wife where they decide to get back together until she’s subsequently murdered leaving him as the prime suspect. He knows, however, that he’s not only innocent but that the killer was coming for him; the killer wants another shot at the same royal family he protected before and saw him as the biggest obstacle in the way.

He escapes from the hospital where he’s being held while the police look into him. Now the real fun starts. He’s helped in his escape by a woman Cassandra, who takes him to a man, Mr. Johnson, played by Wesley Snipes. They work for a cadre of very, very rich men, who are above the FBI, above the CIA, above basically everyone. They have capabilities far beyond what Alex can imagine. In fact, they’ve figured out a way to predict crime. Alex has 10 minutes, Cassandra and Johnson tell him, to save the family he was assigned to protect at the beginning of the show. Without really understanding, he races to save them, but is unable to get there in time. The daughter is kidnapped and several people are killed, and he’s blamed.

He meets with Cassandra and Johnson again and they fill him in further. The mega-wealthy bore easily. They like to gamble, but typical gambling is far too low stakes.  So, they gamble on crime. They require a player, which is a lifetime appointment. You play until you die, some people bet on you, some people bet against. He enlists, because, well, there’s a boring backstory about how his wife inspired him to be good, and he hasn’t looked back, so if he has a chance to do good, gosh darn it, even if the circumstances surrounding it are poor, he’s got to take it. Oh, and he can avenge his wife, and on top of that, he has a tip she might not actually be dead. Yes, that’s something that might happen.

The Player is pretty wooden. It’s very very silly, though not knowingly so. Network shows are so obviously predictable and the writing is hackneyed. I could call some of the many, many gambling puns campy, but that’s giving the writers too much credit. Something this silly and over the top needs to have really good action scenes and be a hell of a lot of fun to work and The Player is neither.

Will I watch it again? No. There were some mediocre action scenes. But that’s about it. It’s not the worst, but you can get what it gives you, elsewhere and better, if that’s what you want.

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Fall 2015 Review: Life in Pieces

23 Sep

Life in Pieces

Modern Family may be slowly losing its luster, losing the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for the first time since its debut six years ago, but it’s still one of the best and most important network success stories of the last decade, particularly in comedy where networks have had much more trouble than in dramas. Understandably, other network shows have tried to pick up on Modern Family’s magic, trying to cop whatever makes Modern Family so successful – the format, the family, the tone, the themes, or anything else they take a stab at. Few, however, work to replicate the formula as wholeheartedly as Life in Pieces.

Life in Pieces involves a wacky, modern family, spanning three generations, in single-camera laugh track-less style, much like Modern Family. Life in Pieces is premised on a story-telling gimmick not in place in Modern Family, but the gimmick doesn’t really prevent it from being much different. Rather than cross-cutting multiple plotlines like most shows do (except for, on an entirely unrelated note, HBO’s Oz), Life in Pieces tells its stories one after the other, story A in full, then B, and so forth. Ultimately though the result is pretty much the same as it would be otherwise, merely with parts of the show moved around slightly.

Here are the characters. In the pilot, the first story is about single Matt (Thomas Sadoski, or Don from The Newsroom) , who is on a date with his co-worker Colleen. The two are attempting to have sex, but reach awkwardness both at her place, where her ex-fiancé (Jordan Peele) still lives, and his, where his parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) whose house it presumably is, are home early from a bar mitzvah. Next, married couple Greg and Jen (Colin Hanks and Zoe Lister-Jones or Fawn Moscato from New Girl) welcome their first child into the world.  Jen freaks out over the damage to her vagina and Greg tries to help. Third, Tim and Heather (Veep senator Dan Bakkedahl and Breaking Bad’s Marie Betsy Brandt) arrive at a college visit with their oldest son Tyler, and their younger kids Samantha and Sophia, where all the kids grow up. Samantha gets her first period and Sophia learns there’s no Santa or Easter Bunny. The final story involves parents John and Joan, at John’s funeral-themed 70th birthday, where their children Matt, Greg, and Heather sit with their families watching as the party implodes and the family yells at each other before having a warm, coming together moment.

Life in Pieces provides the same update and twist to traditional family comedy that Modern Family offers. The families are bigger; there are more characters and more plots than old school family sitcoms, because shows move faster these days, and the lack of long laugh track pauses provides significantly more show time. The tone attempts to be very modern – frank talk about sex and the damage that pregnancy does to vaginas plays  prominent role for example. At the end, there’s some narration, and though the family doesn’t out and out learn something, there’s an attempt to tie up all the plots into some trite and meaningless heartwarming pro-family everyone loves each other message.

There’s of course a problem here. The show isn’t funny. It’s not cringeworthy, and like Modern Family, it’s a lot better than a lot of what came before, and quite a bit of what hs come since. It’s largely inoffensive and just as importantly, non-offensive, unlike so many other successful but terrible comedies. It could even be called cute on occasion. Unfortunately, it’s just not very funny and there’s not really a lot else besides heartwarming bromides to justify any continued viewing.

Will I watch it again? No. It’s a cute attempt in some aspects. It’s not awful and like Modern Family, there are some admirable aspects. But it’s not funny and it’s not one of those shows that offers enough that make you watch it even though it’s not funny. Sorry.

Fall 2015 Previews and Predictions: Fox

14 Sep

FOX

(In order to meld the spirit of futile sports predictions with the high stakes world of the who-will-be-cancelled-first fall (edit: spring, now) television season, I’ve set up a very simple system of predictions for how long new shows will last.  Each day, I’ll (I’m aware I switched between we and I) lay out a network’s new shows scheduled to debut in the fall (spring, again)(reality shows not included – I’m already going to fail miserably on scripted shows, I don’t need to tackle a whole other animal) with my prediction of which of three categories it will fall into.

These categories are:

  1. Renewal – show gets renewed
  2. 13+ – the show gets thirteen or more episodes, but not renewed
  3. 12- – the show is cancelled before 13

Additional note: Since more and more series on network TV are following cable models with set orders for shorter seasons, and mid-season replacements tend to have shorter seasons in particular, I’ll note any planned limited runs in my prediction section for each show)

Minority Report – 9/21

Minority Report

Minority Report is squarely a Future Cop show, which is a real genre (think: Time Cop, Seven Days). You’re watched or at least are familiar with the almost 15 year old film. Police departments arrest people based on pre-crime; they know what crimes are going to be committed and by whom before they happen. In the show, pre-crime has been outlawed, but a pair of twins who could see the future are still out there and want to help stop crime, along with their foster sister. An enterprising detective teams up with them to get back to stopping crimes before they happen.

Prediction: 13+ – Nothing about this show stands out. I can see it failing, or being renewed, and am going to take the middle to hedge my bets

Scream Queens – 9/22

Scream Queens

Think Scream meets Mean Girls. Something bad happened at a sorority party 20 years ago, and now in the present an angry dean is taking it to a bunch of preppy entitled sorority girls by making them take in every girl who wishes to pledge this year. This leads to a wacky contrast between the WASP-y it girls and the freaks and losers they’re forced to deal with. One of the characters is the daughter of a former member from 20 years ago and is investigating. Oh, and their sorority house is haunted, and a lot of people end up dying. Like many a Ryan Murphy project, focus is not its strong suit and it will have to be gleefully (pun kind of intended) fun for the over-the-top campiness to work. A who’s who of young actresses show up.

Prediction: Renewal – Ryan Murphy has a pretty good record. The New Normal didn’t succeed but this is way more up Murphy’s alley.

Rosewood – 9/23

Rosewood

Wow. Color-by-numbers would declare Rosewood too by the numbers. What is this doing not on USA? A cracker jack private medical examiner (the titular Rosewood) swaggers around Miami until he’s paired with a lady partner who doesn’t want a piece of his attitude. Rosewood is daring and dashing because he knows, due to his medical conditions, his life is doomed to be short. Of course, this unlikely team eventually gels and makes a formidable foe for Miami criminals. The only thing not mind blowingly generic about this show is the fact the stars are black and latino, which is great, but next time put them on shows that will survive.

Prediction: 12- This looks like a classic failure. The only defense would be that it seems kind of Bones-esque and that show lasted and lasted and still lasts. But, every other comp points the other way.

Grandfathered – 9/29

Grandfathered

John Stamos has it all. A thriving restaurant, money, friends, women. He’s a playboy, and the only traditional marker of success he doesn’t have is a family, which he’s not sure he wants anyway. His life is upended when he learns he has a son, from an old flame, and on top of that, his son has a son, and thus he has a granddaughter. These new family members force him to grow up and learn that maybe even though he didn’t realize it he does want a family after all. It’s a network comedy, people. Don’t expect anything revolutionary.

Prediction: 13+ It looks bad, network comedy is in a sorry state to begin with. I think I might be being charitable by not predicting a more immediate cancellation

The Grinder – 9/29

The Grinder

This one’s got a nifty little premise. Rob Lowe is just coming off an eight year run as the star of a fantastically successful legal procedural called The Grinder. He’s looking to make his next career move. His brother and father are lawyers, and spending some time at home, he realizes he wants to be a lawyer, and be more a part of their lives. Moreso, he believes that his eight years on the set of a legal procedural give him the knowledge necessary. His brother his the legal knowhow, he has the charisma.

Prediction: Renewal – I can’t really defend this prediction except under the “some shows have to be renewed” caveat, and it seems a more likely candidate than Grandfathered.

The Quest for Relevance for the One-Time Famous: BoJack Horseman and The Comeback

11 Sep

One Trick Pony

Having watched BoJack Horseman and The Comeback nearly back to back, I was stunned by the similarities. Both star has-been actors who were at the peak of their games in the early ‘90s starring on cheesy but commercially successful sitcoms that made them stars. Both live in the past constantly. They still see themselves as the stars they once were, even as the world has moved beyond and past them. They were so caught up in an unexpectedly easy and quick fame that their self-worth become to inexorably tied up in their popularity; their confidence was no longer their own, it was a meter which went up and down based on the vagaries of the American viewing population. And when they population moved on, they didn’t know what they were and they didn’t know who to be. Both were materially successful. They had money; they lived nice, comfortable, lives, despite their lack of employment. But that wasn’t enough. They needed what fame gave them. They were insecure, needy, jealous of other, younger stars who looked to have what they had 15 years ago. BoJack was openly so; Valerie less so, but it was clear that she still thought she was a star, and surrounded herself with people who thought likewise.

Both were given an opportunity to get back into the limelight after years on the sideline. Both of these opportunities were not new; they were a version of the old, an attempt to revisit has-beens and tell their stories. Both new opportunities seemed oddly invasive; for Val, a documentary following her everywhere, and for BoJack a tell-all memoir. Both opportunities veered deeply into their subject’s lives; leaving no stone unturned, revealing aspects that most people wouldn’t want released into the public

Both put their trust in a colleague who they believed to be their friend, their advocate, looking to tell their side of the story, even while they agreed, at the beginning of the venture that their story was to be told warts and all. BoJack asks for a tell-all memoir that’s good, not a load of crap. Valerie knows her story is being told on every camera – she does her part to make sure the cameras are everywhere. Both feel incredibly upset at the completion of their respective projects – their trust was betrayed. Diane turned on BoJack, writing a memoir that was a huge success for her but made him look like the huge asshole we know he is. He believed she had his best interests in mind. The Comeback debuts and immediately distorts Valerie’s words, takes them incredibly out of context, and shows of her worst moments without showing the villain that antagonist Paulie G had been. Val felt like Jane who she trusted had turned on her completely.

And yet, in the ultimate celebrity culture twist, both projects become bizarre unexpected successes, for exactly the reasons BoJack and Val had felt betrayed and vulnerable and humiliated. Everybody’s talking about the double vomit scene; it’s the talk of the town leading to the Comeback getting an immediate pick up, which is unheard of. BoJack’s book is a smash; everyone is fascinated by his story, and if not quite empathetic, at least interested, and some people relate; he’s real, and true, and if still an asshole, it moves books.

More than anything, both are relevant again. Both have traded their dignity and their self-worth for relevance and both, while still indignant about their treatment, are kind of happy with that trade. There’s a huge conflict; both are insecure and desperate to be as popular as they once were so badly that, though they never would have said that’s what they would have wanted at the beginning, in the end, were willing to trade their confidence and sense of selves to be hits.

Fall 2015 Previews and Predictions: ABC

9 Sep

ABC

(In order to meld the spirit of futile sports predictions with the high stakes world of the who-will-be-cancelled-first fall (edit: spring, now) television season, I’ve set up a very simple system of predictions for how long new shows will last.  Each day, I’ll (I’m aware I switched between we and I) lay out a network’s new shows scheduled to debut in the fall (spring, again)(reality shows not included – I’m already going to fail miserably on scripted shows, I don’t need to tackle a whole other animal) with my prediction of which of three categories it will fall into.

These categories are:

  1. Renewal – show gets renewed
  2. 13+ – the show gets thirteen or more episodes, but not renewed
  3. 12- – the show is cancelled before 13

Additional note: Since more and more series on network TV are following cable models with set orders for shorter seasons, and mid-season replacements tend to have shorter seasons in particular, I’ll note any planned limited runs in my prediction section for each show)

ABC previews up now!

The Muppets – 9/22

The Muppets

The Muppets! They’re back! You should be familiar with them. After some time away, Jason Segel made a genuinely good Muppet movie, soon came a sequel, and now a full on return to television. I’m a fan of The Muppets. I don’t know if this will be great, but I hope and think it will at least be decent.

Prediction: Renewal – it’s a comedy which is a strike against, but people like The Muppets

Blood and Oil – 9/27

Blood & Oil

Remember Dallas? Blood & Oil is a prime-time soap that revolves around the oil industry; taking place in an old-west like North Dakota town where one oil baron, Don Johnson’s Briggs, rules all. That is until he’s challenged by a young upstart.

Predictiopn: 13+As I too often to, I’m halfway between having this cancelled quickly and having it renewed, so I’ll split the difference. It’s nice to see Don Johnson back on TV.

Quantico – 9/27

Quantico

The first two minutes of the trailer don’t really give a lot of information. Basically, Alex is a brand new FBI recruit, going to the super tough FBI academy with a bunch of others, and the recruits are slowly weeded out by the brutal FBI practices. Then boom, there’s a major terrorist strike, and a conspiracy – the attack is being pinned on Alex. We know she didn’t do it – but how will she figure out who did?

Prediction; Renewal – it looks like a Shonda Rhimes show meets Homeland – which on ABC, makes a hell of a lot of sense

Dr. Ken – 10/2

Dr. Ken

Dr. Ken is a grouchy middle aged doctor who has to manage two kids and a thriving practice. This classic family sitcom looks absolutely brutal, a surefire contender for worst new network show of the season.

Prediction: 12- This screams early cancellation all over

Wicked City – 10/27

Wicked City

It’s LA in the 80s. Hair metal is a rocking and serial killers are a knocking. A male serial killer roams the sunset strip, and finds his female partner while cops are out to track them.

Prediction: 12- I can’t think of a show exactly like it, to its credit, but this seems like the type of show that’s probably a watered down version of what it would have been on a cable channel

Fall 2015 Previews and Predictions: CBS

7 Sep

CBS

(In order to meld the spirit of futile sports predictions with the high stakes world of the who-will-be-cancelled-first fall (edit: spring, now) television season, I’ve set up a very simple system of predictions for how long new shows will last.  Each day, I’ll (I’m aware I switched between we and I) lay out a network’s new shows scheduled to debut in the fall (spring, again)(reality shows not included – I’m already going to fail miserably on scripted shows, I don’t need to tackle a whole other animal) with my prediction of which of three categories it will fall into.

These categories are:

  1. Renewal – show gets renewed
  2. 13+ – the show gets thirteen or more episodes, but not renewed
  3. 12- – the show is cancelled before 13

Additional note: Since more and more series on network TV are following cable models with set orders for shorter seasons, and mid-season replacements tend to have shorter seasons in particular, I’ll note any planned limited runs in my prediction section for each show)

Life in Pieces – 9/21

Life in Pieces

CBS takes a shot at the ABC-style comedy in Life in Pieces. It’s a s single camera comedy about a huge family who gets into wacky spats but mostly loves each other, the whole Modern Family playbook. A surprising amount of well-known actors participate including James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, Colin Hanks, and Betsy Brandt.

Prediction: 13+ – I just don’t see it. If this was on ABC, it would be a fit; I’m not sure it is on CBS, and as I have noted and will continue to as I write these, network comedies are, at least currently, an endangered breed.

Limitless – 9/22

Limitless

Based on the movie, the Limitless TV show lives in the same world, where the protagonist, a frustrated layabout gets access to pills that make him a super genius. Bradley Cooper is game enough to guest star as his character from the movie who sees potential in the protagonist and helps support him.

Prediction: Renewal – the movie was sneakily successful and having Bradley Cooper even just occasionally can’t hurt – I don’t feel confident in this pick but some things have to get renewed

Code Black – 9/30

Code Black

Code Black is yet another medical show. I’m not sure what the hook is other than it’s an ER and you know, there are so many patients and not enough doctors to go around, and shit gets real. Marcia Gay Harden stars as the primary ER doctor who presumably plays by her own rules.

Prediction: 12- This has instant failure written all over it. As generic as it gets.

Supergirl – 11/2

Supergirl

A female is sent from Superman’s planet to help the humans out. Supergirl learns to get along in the world, how to save people and be herself. This feels a lot like Arrow and Flash on CW and seems like it would have been a more natural fit there than CBS.

Prediction: Renewal – Comics are still gold these days, and while we will reach an oversaturation point, until we get there I’m not going to make any bold guesses

Angel from Hell – 11/5

Angel from Hell

Maggie Lawson is going through some sort of third-life crisis, still reeling from the death of her mom. Jane Lynch claims to be her guardian angel and endeavors to help Lawson navigate life and love.

Prediction: 12- Who is the audience for this? I don’t see it.

 

End of Season Report: Mr. Robot – Season 1

4 Sep

Mr. Robot

There’s a lot to say about the first season of Mr. Robot. It has become a blogosphere sensation that became required viewing by the end of the summer, and though it’s an interesting show with plenty of redeeming qualities, I’m not fully on board; Mr. Robot is not quite as good as most of the internet would have you believe. First, though, I want to spend the majority of the piece grappling with a particular question as it relates to the show.

How much does plot matter in a television show? It depends, and sometimes more than other times, is the obvious but unhelpful answer. Sometimes plot is essential, sometimes it’s a distraction. Lost diehards would say focusing too much on the plot and its lack of resolution missed the point, but I would argue against that, saying that the plot was clearly important to the show initially, and that the show had set certain expectations for resolution. Furthermore, there are different instances of plot: within a moment, a scene, an episode, over the course of a season, or over the course of a series.

I have some general issues with Mr. Robot’s plot, but to not ignore the forest for the trees, everything starts with two major plot twists in the second half of the season. First, it turns out that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, and he may have another name, but I’m still going to choose to call him Mr. Robot) is actually not merely a hallucination of protagonist Elliot’s dad, but also a manifestation of Elliot’s alternate personality. Second, fellow hacker Darlene is Elliot’s sister, but Elliot continues to forget and or not realize this, and occasionally comes on to her.

The hallucination twist I didn’t care for at all. At first, I was angry at myself (in my defense, I watched most of the show in two days and didn’t reflect much between episodes) for not picking up on the fact that Mr. Robot was a figment of Elliot’s imagination, but as I thought more about it there were several scenes where he was present and Elliot wasn’t, meaning that sometimes he was a hallucination while sometimes he was a manifestation. The former, which I still don’t particularly care for, I’d be kinder towards; the second is a lot too much for me. It reeks of Fight Club, and speaking to my points about plot earlier, while I enjoy Fight Club in many ways, the plot is unfathomably stupid and prevents me from quite liking it as much as many do. The twist was nearly a pure plot move, and it obscured and overwhelmed some of the more interesting aspects I’ll drive into shortly.

The Darlene twist works better but the implications are questionable if thought about for a couple of minutes more, which is often a sign of a potentially poorly thought out twist. It’s a little less obvious and Darlene is a much more interesting character than Eliot’s dad. It’s unquestionable a twist, but it doesn’t feel as M. Night Shyamalan-esque. The trouble though is, and if you think I’m looking too deeply into this, maybe you’re right, but– why is a sister who seems to care intensely about her brother’s well being letting him participate in activities that first, he’s obviously not up to mentally, and second, that obviously have the likelihood of aggravating his already very serious fragile mental state. This is all aside from the insane idea of following and trusting someone with a very serious mental illness to lead a group of hackers in a series of crimes that will inevitably have the participants sent to jail for a long, long time, if they’re ever caught. Are there motivations set up by the show to defend this behavior? Sure. Darlene cares a lot more about the project than Eliot does; it’s her baby, and maybe she really, deluded-ly believes that this is good for him, or maybe she needs him, and secretly knows that this is bad for him but doesn’t care, though she convinces herself otherwise. Either way, it’s a bit of a stretch.

I don’t quite understand the Tyrell Wellick plot. He kind of cuts a Patrick Bateman visage, and he’s a very strange character and I don’t really get how he fits in with the rest of the show, plot-wise, tone-wise, or thematically. I kept waiting for the big moment when Elliott and his world would dovetail, and it never quite happened.

I do really like Darlene’s character, and although I’m not sure how it would work in practice, abstractly I might prefer a version of Mr. Robot that focuses on Darlene, rather than Elliot. Elliot would be stronger a peripheral character, and Darlene’s struggle to ferment revolution while keeping her troubled brother healthy and productive and maintain this ragtag team of hackers seemed loaded with potential.

The focus on what revolution means; true freedom and the notion of good and evil, selling your soul vs. fighting the good fight, and what that really means, or what change any of this makes. These are all complex ideas with plenty to work through. The show vacillates between exploring these in a provocative way and laying the evil 1% on too thick. The good: A dive into what changed and what’s the same after f society erases all debt, and the hollowness of the victory Darlene wants so desperately. The bad: the soiree of rich people at the end of the show, the rampant, obvious evilness of some of the Evil Corp executives, who appear to be cackling in a room about how to screw the peons a little too often. I’m as inherently skeptical of giant corporations as any good liberal, but even I winced at some of the less nuanced depictions of corporate America. Better was in the last episode when Angela understandably was enraged by the treatment she received at the shoe store after she witnessed a suicide personally, and the portrayal of Gideon, a man who is at the whims of corporate forces outside of his control, who isn’t always fighting the good fight, but just wanted to be a small business entrepreneur looking out for his employees.

I don’t think Mr. Robot is without merit. But the over-the-top twists and ridiculousness of the plot overwhelm some of the more interesting aspects of the show. I was initially furious with the twists, and felt like the show had been overwhelmed with gimmickry, and I still feel that to be true to some extent. With more time though, while I’m still frustrated with what was an uneven first season that was never as brilliant as many of its internet backers believe, there’s a real opportunity for the second season. Mr. Robot made a mark this first season and the second season will be a chance to start fresh and decide what kind of show it wants to be. Twists are out of the way; it’s time to dive in to pure substance and explore beyond the initial parameters of the catch-all plot.