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Show of the Day: Playmakers

30 Aug

These are the PLAYMAKERS

Controversy ensued recently after ESPN announced it was pulling out of a partnership with PBS over a special report on Frontline on concussions in football.  ESPN was accused by many of being at the beck and call of its NFL overlords, who don’t take kindly to negative talk of any variety about their product.  While ESPN vigorously denied these claims, the allegations were more believable because ESPN has a history of giving way to the NFL in the past, most notably when it stopped production of ESPN original series Playmakers.

Playmakers is one of only two original series ESPN ever produced (the other is a poker series called Tilt, produced at the height of the poker boom, though that’s a story for another day).        .  Playmakers was the story of a professional football team, named the Cougars, from an unnamed city (my friend and I tried to make some educated guesses by eliminating the homes of the rival teams they played but we didn’t make a whole lot of headway) which plays in “The League,” similar too but not explicitly titled the NFL.  The show revolves around the players of the team are the main characters are as follows: the hard-boiled coach, Coach George, put under all kinds of stress by an old, rich owner who expects to win, Leon Taylor, an aging running back who is seeking financial security while concerned about losing his playing time and his effectiveness, Demetrius Harris, a younger up-and-coming running back who is having a hard time separating himself from ill-meaning friends from his prior thug life, Derek McConnell, a cocky quarterback who pops anti-inflammatories like candy, and a Eric Olczyk, a middle linebacker dealing with depression and insecurity.

Nearly every scandal and controversy that can befall an NFL team or befalls someone or other in the eleven episodes of Playmakers. There’s domestic abuse, a gay athlete (which the NFL still hasn’t gotten to deal with with yet itself, at least publicly), cheating on piss tests (a la Onterrio Smith, which hadn’t happened yet), abuse of anti-inflammatories, regular old drug abuse, weight issues, brutal constant injuries, involvement in shootings, difficulties staying away from potential bad influences from childhood , and so much more.   Football is the star of the show; while it’s not so much about the games themselves (it’s got to be expensive and difficult to film football scenes), every outside aspect of the players’ lives displayed on the show is relevant in as much as it relates to their careers on the field.  Romance and off-the-field drama is subjugated to the gridiron.  During the season football is a 24/7 occupation and it dominates and permeates all of the players’ lives.

Playmakers is not a particularly great show or even a particularly good show but it is both an interesting artifact due to its place as one of only two ESPN original series, and for really being the only scripted show to ever focus on professional football.  Considering pro football is such a popular topic, and has been the subject of many movies, it’s a little bit surprisingly that there’s never been another show about on football on this level.  Friday Night Lights tread over some very similar ground, issues-wise, with high school football players with much better characters and writing, but if you like football, there’s definitely something worthwhile about an 11-episode show about pro football.

The Wikipedia page for Playmakers is very strange. It’s missing some extremely basic data that would be quite helpful but it partially makes up for that loss with some incredibly fun and random information.  Someone somehow has put together the entire roster for the Cougars, including the kicker, the punter, and three tight ends.  It has no section for “reception” but has a remarkably complete list of what foreign channels the show was displayed on.  There’s very little character biographical information, except the mention of what school the main characters graduated from, and what year this is for them in the league (Example: elder statesman running back Leon Taylor is in his 9th year from USC).

Playmakers was fairly well-rated for ESPN but the NFL made its might felt and basically told ESPN to shut it down because it didn’t like the way football was being portrayed.  Sensitive, much, really? Playmakers pretty much tread on stories that happened in real football, and it’s not like it was a big secret that these happen, or that people don’t know every scandal that engulfs the league.  Nor that any Playmakers viewers, likely to be big NFL fans, would mistake reality for fiction.  I’ve my problems with NFL over the years and this is certainly a good example of why.  There are serious issues to solve (concussions, anyone?) and ESPN’s worried about a TV show hurting its brand, the most popular league in the richest country in the world. This cancellation could have lead to classic Streisand effect;. It clearly didn’t and most people who weren’t there don’t even remember that this show ever existed, but for one fall, before ESPN actually had football it was a minor deal. Wikipedia linked to a New York Times article describing the NFL’s putting the kibosh on Playmakers which contains the following hilariously un-prescient sentence, “”We proved that we could succeed in doing a dramatic series,” Mark Shapiro, the executive vice president of ESPN, said.”  Hence the many successful dramatic series ESPN has produced since.

Show of the Day: Criminal Minds

20 Mar

They use their minds to find criminals

I’ve watched the first episode of every network show the past couple of years (I’m still working on this spring, but I’ll get there) and I’ve seen many of those that existed before, but there’s still quite a few on the air that I’ve never gotten to.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of Criminal Minds over the years, and probably even a 20 minute segment or two, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a full episode.  That is, until bonding with my dad over an episode recently.  Criminal Minds is a favorite of my dad’s, a fairly loyal viewer of CBS procedurals; other favorites include NCIS, Person of Interest, and his new top choice, Elementary.  Every once in a while, I try to suggest a show that I like, that I think my dad would like as well, like Dexter, and sometimes he gets around to them, and sometimes he doesn’t.  When he put on Criminal Minds, I was at first tempted to tell him there was some sort of sporting event I wanted to watch at the time (I don’t remember if there was, but probably), but I decided to see it instead as an opportunity to check off one more currently airing show from my list.

Like any good police procedural, Criminal Minds features a team of do-gooders, in this case, working for the FBI”s Behavioral Analysis Unit.  The two hooks that separate it from just any ol’ CSI rip off is that first, instead of just solving any ol’ homicide, they focus on tracking serial killers.  Second, rather than typical police focused on forensics and evidence, the Criminal Minds team is more focused on profiling, figuring out the murderer by tracing the pattern of behavior.  In addition, rather than being tied to any one city, the BAU travel throughout the country to wherever they’re needed.  The cast appeared to me, at least in this one episode, as a true ensemble without any one or two characters standing far above the pack.  The cast has also changed throughout the series; in my episode, Season 4’s “Conflicted” the core team was made up of Thomas Gibson, Shemar Moore, Matthew Gray Gubler, A.J. Cook, Paget Brewster, Joe Mantegna, and Kirsten Vangsness.

“Conflicted” featured the case of male frat boys in Texas being raped and killed at hotels during spring break.  The team flies down, seals off the scene, and brainstorms a variety of different possible scenarios, trying to figure out who they’re looking for.  The doer is referred to as the unsub, and I don’t know if this is the case in every episode, but they must have said the word unsub at the very least 20 times over the course of the episode.  Matthew Gray Gubler as once child prodigy Dr. Spencer Reid seems to be the chief theorist, positing first that the killer is a woman, and then later on, after that theory didn’t quite fly, that the crimes were committed by a male/female team.  Throughout the episode, we get a couple of flash forwards, which serve to needless confuse and attempt to add suspense, but are, like many flashforwards, pointless at best, and contrived at worst.  Kirsten Vangsness plays the computer-technology expert, mirroring the Pauley Perette character Abby from NCIS.  Aside from Vangsness and Gubler, it was unclear what the singular specialties or traits of the other main characters were.

The super crazy twist in this episode was that the unsub was two people, and was not two people, at the same time.  How, you ask?  It was an unsub (I’m gong to keep using the word to give you a sense of what watching an episode is like) with multiple personalities, a kid Adam with a troubled past, who had a dark female personality who was the one behind all the killing.  The worse part was that, even though everyone agreed he/she was nutzoid rather than criminally liable (nutzoid is a legal term), the events forced the good Adam personality to be trapped below the evil female personality.  Matthew Gray Gubler, who thinks about these things deeply and has a soft spot for the mentally ill, as his mother is schizophrenic, continues to come back and visit the boy, we see, long after the events of the episode are over, hoping he can one day goad the kid’s good personality to the fore.

I don’t see within this episode any reason to elevate or demote Criminal Minds in the pantheon of crime procedurals.  I suppose the presence of deranged and psychotic serial killers, over workaday murders with regular motives, ups the stakes significantly.  They apparently slowly move forward with bits about the personal lives of the characters, but those were largely not in evidence in the episode I watched.  Like most procedurals as well, it was eminently watchable; if it was on at an airport TV, I’d probably try to follow along.  I can’t say I greatly enjoyed my hour viewing the show, but nor did I feel bad about it afterwards.

Also, randomly, this episode was directed by Jason Alexander (He’s also directed a Mike & Molly, a ‘Til Death, and a Franklin & Bash in recent years.  He appeared in an earlier episode and must have enjoyed it so much that he wanted a shot behind the camera.

Show of the Day: Luther

20 Aug

British drama Luther is a House M.D. of crime.  Detective John Luther is an eccentric, kind of crazy, but extremely devoted and brilliant policeman who gets stuck with the big hard-to-solve cases.  He also has an extreme temper problem, and possible internal sanctions hanging over his head after, in the first couple minutes of the show, he drops a probably guilty man to the ground in a chase on a bridge rather than arrest him.  Luckily, the victim is in a coma and can’t talk.  Additionally, his ultra-driven career has led to him losing his wife and love of his life Zoe to another man.  Luther works with a team of generic cop characters to solve a new crime in every episode, generally involving serial killers, but with a kidnapper and the like here and there.

There’s one very intresting character in Luther, and it’s not Luther.  Luther’s good, well, because Idris Elba (um, Stringer Bell from The Wire is actually British, and speaks with a British accent – too weird) is good.  Otherwise, Luther isn’t really that interesting.  We’ve seen this character before, as mentioned before, he’s good, he’s damn good at what he does, but he’s angry and tormented and obsessive.  Every time you want Luther to do something just slightly different than you would expect, he almost never comes through.  He’s still the second most interesting character in the show by a long shot.  Also, it’s worth noting that Luther, the show, and Luther, the character, have absolutely no sense of humor, which, as House showed (House, the show, and House, the character, had some issues, but plenty of good points as well), would lighten up the show and the character a little bit (Humorless shows can work; not every show needs humor in its arsenal, but there’s a risk run of episodes really slogging along without it).

The most interesting character is Alice, who I haven’t mentioned before in the short sum-up, because her role actually requires an explanation.  First episode SPOILER – in the first episode, Luther attempts to solve the murder of Alice’s parents, and while he’s nearly certain Alice did it the entire time, he’s unable to prove it.  Instead of ever being found guilty, Alice gets away, and Luther develops a grudging respect for her, while Alice, who is a sociopathic nihilist, but not always nefarious, comes to respect and like Luther.  Over the course of the season, she acts somewhat as Hannibal Lecter to Luther’s Clarice Starling, helping him solve other crimes by viewing them through a sociopath’s perspective.  Not only is Alice the best character in the show, but Luther is also at his most interesting when dealing with Alice, and their tet a tets discussing Luther caring too much and Alice caring not at all are the best parts of the show altogether.

Here’s the other problem with Luther.  When extremely dramatic events occur late in the first season, you realize that not only do you not really care about the characters, but that you barely known any of their names.  Cop who is kind of friends with Luther and he talked with for five minutes in the first episode?  Cop who is his boss and is generally friendly to him but sometimes restrained?  Cop who is his younger protégé and new partner?  I don’t know what their names are and I finished the first season.  I know it’s only six episodes, but that’s enough time for a modicum of name-saying.  I don’t really care about any of them either either.  As long as they get the murderer in the end, that’s pretty much what does it for me.

In short, here’s what’s good about Luther; you mostly watch it for the cases, you watch it for Alice, and you watch it for Idris Elba.  For six episodes that’s enough, and I have four more in the second season which I’ll watch soon.  The cases are actually well executed and interesting and enough to make the show somewhat compelling as a simple procedural without all the baggage of Luther’s temper and personal problems.  It could be a lot better, but it slides in above the worth watching line, especially for so few episodes, if not much higher.

The Good Wife: Additional Notes on the First Season

15 Aug

I wrote about The Good Wife earlier this week, but noted that I had seen just the first third of the season.  I finished the rest in about a week and a half.  Why?  I’m not really sure.  I don’t really understand why people love it so much, but I had it on my computer, so damn well, I apparently decided I’d get through it.  Will I ever watch the remaining seasons?  Only time will tell.  Now, a couple of quick thoughts I had during the rest of the season.

The firm is going through hard times, as is the rest of the legal world, the show tells us a million times.  Senior partners Gardner (Josh Charles) and Lockhart (Christine Baranski) are looking for a third partner, after they break off with their original third partner early in the season.  Amongst the choices are Clinton adviser and famous 90s-political figure Vernon Jordan, who actually makes a 20 second speaking appearance on the show.

Did you know the firm in The Good Wife is undergoing layoffs?  If you watched any three minute segment of the show, you know, because they announce it about a thousand times.  Times are tough, and everybody needs to watch out because layoffs are coming!

Again, an obsessive TV fan like myself truly appreciates the who’s who of minor tv actors and actresses, in which this show seems to out law & order even Law & Order in this respect.  Among the actors and actresses appearing in more than one episode are True Blood’s waitress Arlene, as a lawyer, Royal Pains’ Jill Flint as a recurring FBI agent who apparently as a thing with Kalinda, Raising Hope’s Martha Plimpton as an attorney, Gary Cole as a conservative ballistic expert with a thing for Christine Baranski, Oz’s Terry Kinney as a contractor who might testify against Alicia’s husband, The Wire’s Chris Partlow, Gbenga Akinnagbe, as a pastor advising Alicia’s husband (The Wire’s Commissioner Burrell, Frankie Faison, plays his dad) and just so many more.

Dylan Baker (fantastic character actor, and Zeljko Ivanek contender who appeared as Lena Dunham’s father in Girls and Katherine McPhee’s father in Smash just this past year, and was also Curt Connors in Spider-man 2 and 3 as well as many other roles) plays a sexually adventurous hyper rich possible killer of his wife and a stalker in two separate episodes in the first season, which is far and away the  most out there plot of the season, and which feels like it is has no place in this show.  The Good Wife is hardly grounded in reality, but it’s mostly not this sensational either.  It really seems like something out of The Practice, where defending a possibly deranged serial killer was the subject of at least one out of every three episodes.

I had known the show was filmed in New York and not in Chicago, where it’s set, and often the streets look largely like New York, but in one scene I straight out saw a Brooklyn street sign, Flatbush and St. Marks.  Oops.  I’m sure I was just about the only one who noticed, and then went back to confirm, but still.

In every other episode, even though 90% of her clients are the “good guys,” Alicia Florrick gets this disgusted look on her face and wonders if they really should be standing up for this or that client every time there’s a whiff of defending a guilty criminal, or a despicable corporation.  Yes, for the 100th time – sometimes the guilty get off, Alicia – you have to zealously represent your client, you don’t get to impose your ethics, those are the rules.  Here’s an idea – you can work for plenty of legal organizations that don’t do that kind of work, and forfeit your expensive salary, and then you can get to live with yourself ethically if that’s your issue.

Show of the Day: The Good Wife

13 Aug

Opening Note:  Okay, this show is 23 fucking episodes a season; I’m not used to watching network dramas and I forget just how long they are, which is nice when you’re in the middle of watching live a show you love, but not so nice when you’re in the midst of catching up on a show you’re not sure if you care about yet.  So I’m going to comment after watching the first third or so of the first season, and then we’ll see again when I finish.

Procedurals are the rom coms of television; you know exactly what’s going to happen, but the joy is in seeing exactly how each episode hits each prong of the formula.  It’s kind of like a gymnastics or ice skating routine; you know what you’ll be grading them on, it’s how high they get the jump, how the form is on their spins (axels, whatever else they’re call), and how they stick the landings.

It’s both hard and easy to watch a procedural like The Good Wife after watching many other, more serial, more unorthodox shows.  On one hand, it’s harder because there’s just less to it, it’s less complicated, and there’s nothing that makes it really stand out.  On the second hand, it’s easy, well partly for the same reasons; it fits a model your brain recognizes and you can sort of kick back without thinking too hard; I don’t mean this as an insult; as much as I’d love to, even I couldn’t take hours and hours and hours in a row of Mad Men and Breaking Bad in any mood.  Good Wifes are easier to just pound back, and for that reason I understand why people like procedurals in general.

The titular Good Wife is Alicia Florrick, played by TV vet Julianna Margulies.  She was an ambitious law school grad who took a back seat as a housewife to her husband’s career in politics, which took him (Peter Florrick, played by Law & Order and Sex & the City star Chris Noth) all the way to state’s attorney of Cook County, home county for Chicago.  This empire came crashing down when he was found to have slept with escorts, and accused of using public funds to pay for them, landing him in jail, and his wife as torn apart and having to work.  She gets a job at a high-powered maybe midsize firm Stern, Lockhart, & Gardner, thanks to a friendship with senior partner Will Gardner (Josh Charles).  She’s in competition for a full-time position with fellow junior associate Cary, a fratty, younger, but not entirely unlikable lawyer. Each episode features a case for the gang to win, along with slow progress on the plot of Alicia’s husband, trying to appeal his sentence, and Alicia and her kids’ home life.

I’m honestly not quite sold yet.  It’s eminently watchable but it’s not challenging at all.  Challenging is maybe a bad word; but as far as procedurals go, I’ll take my Law & Order any day of the week, or a Psych, which is admittedly silly, but yes, admittedly silly.  And you know, what, challenging is a bad word, because it sounds pretentious, and I don’t really mean that.  Revenge is not challenging, but I enjoyed the first season of that show a bit more than the first season of The Good Wife.

Okay, you know what, here’s my real problem with the show when it comes down to it.  Florrick’s persona life and figuring out how to deal with the strange situation she’s been dealt by her husband is great, and interesting, and not something we’ve seen a million times before.  The legal procedural part just isn’t that interesting on the whole, though.  I don’t mean to week to week.  On a one-by-one basis most of the cases are fine, and yeah, by the time we reach the last ten minutes I want to know who did it, or have Alicia string them up in court, and yes, that’s all good.  But every week, week to week, the structure is so repetitive.  Even though she’s allegedly working for a kind of big law firm that does work for big shady or corporate clients, she’s always somehow working for the poor child or the innocent housemaid of a big client.  Her clients are always innocent, no matter how unlikely that is.  She’s always right.  Her investigators are always right.  Even when there’s a twist in what she believes, it’s a relatively underwhelming twist.  Most procedurals are like this, and with entertaining stories, they can still be worth watching (I excuse it even more for shows like Monk and Psych that are essentially comedies), but with the type of reviews and praise The Good Wife gets I expected more.

Now just a few stray notes:

The best part is the guest stars!  Combinations of that guys and people who later became regulars on other shows are everywhere.  Gillian Jacobs!  Titus Welliver!  Nestor Serrano!  David Paymer!  Peter Riegert!  Every episode is guaranteed at the least one or two random TV characters I recognize; it’s wonderful watching the credits and waiting for them to show up; even in incredibly minor roles.

There’s an episode about about conjugal visits; internet tells me those don’t exist in Illinois  I looked it up!  Now look, I know, you change up the rules for story sometimes, and unless you’re Matthew Weiner or David Simon, you don’t stay on track to all the actual truths and facts as close as you can.  Sometimes it just seems lazy though.  Like, sure, playing with some legal procedure is inevitable to make shows dramatic and watchable, but there’s absolutely no need to have a conjugal visit to make the story work.  I admit I’m probably being irrational here, but just putting that on the table.

One episode suggests that idea that a clip featuring an interview by the prostitute who slept with Peter Florrick on Chelsea Lately is seen by everyone in the show.  Sure, the family would find out because it’s relevant to them, but in what world is everybody watching Chelsea Lately?

Final word is basically that I don’t think it’s bad by any means, but as of yet I’m not seeing what makes this so good.

Show of the Day: Sons of Anarchy, Plot Notes

27 Jul

Recently, I wrote a spoiler-free post about my experience watching Sons of Anarchy.  Now I move on to some notes on the show which are chock-full of plot spoilers.  Again, spoilers abound.

I hate to start with the end, but that’s what’s in my mind the freshest.  Season 4 is absolutely ridiculous, and far more ridiculous than any other season by a long, long shot.  Basically, season 2 was all about the growing rift between vice president Jax and president Clay.  Season 3 reunited the two of them in a common purpose, the reaquisition of Jax’s kid in Belfast.  For the most part, any discord between the two was quieted during that period, or at least put on hold.  Jax and Clay worked together against their mutual enemies, which were twofold, the treacherous leaders of the Sons of Anarchy, Belfast (SAMBEL, as they are known for short), one of whom was an original SAMCRO member, and Jimmy O’Phellan, their old contact for guns with the Real IRA who turned against the IRA when a chance to make more money was on the line.  O’Phellan also stole SAMCRO member Chibs’ wife and daughter many years ago, adding to the feud on a personal level.  The club stands tall, works together, and figures out a grand plan over the course of the season to get Jax’s son back, take out Jimmy, pleasing the IRA leaders, and at the same time take out the dreaded super-corrupt nefarious Agent Stahl.

Okay, quick note on this, the whole Agent Stahl situation.  Agent Stahl, one of the main villains over the course of Sons of Anarchy, is an ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, but really mostly with the firearms in SAMCRO’s case) agent determined to take down the Sons in order to further her career.  She starts out as a shady hard ass, and is shown to lie and manipulate at first in order to convince the Sons to turn on another, or bend to her will.  This seems villainous because the Sons are our protagonists, but from another angle, it could be seen as doing anything within the rules to take down violent criminals.  But then, it turns out she’s crazy corrupt and is willing to lie or make up stories to save her own ass and further her career, including framing Gemma Teller for a shooting that Stahl committed, questionably but not obviously wrongly, at the end of Season 2.   Stahl probably shouldn’t have killed the Irishman she killed, but it was probably kind of defensible even if she would face an inquest and some moderate trouble.

So she’s a corrupt cop, with her career as priority #1, but also trying to take down these clearly bad dudes.  But then in season 3, Stahl takes it farther by a power of well, at least 10, maybe 100.  She shoots and kills her own partner, who she is sleeping with, and then frames her for framing Gemma.  Yes, if you didn’t think she was just damn evil before, well, there is absolutely no way to defend Stahl now.  Sons of Anarchy is not big on restraint.

And that actually aptly leads back to what I wanted to talk about before, which was the great Jax vs. Clay battle of Season 4.  Soon after recovering from the events of Season 3, the tension between stepson and stepdad returns.  In season 2, the battle revolved around power and the direction of the club.  I, and most viewers, I would imagine sided with Jax, both because of the general bias towards siding with the protagonist, and because Jax wanted to move the club in a safer, less lawless and violent direction, while Clay wanted to make the most money.  Clay’s position, we thought was wrong, but within the context of SAMCRO, he had fair points.

In season 4, this dynamic has changed completely.  Instead, it turns out that Clay is completely and totally evil, in fact, as exponential a difference as was between Stahl pre-and-post murdering her partner, is between that Stahl and Clay now.  Clay does just about every imaginable awful thing someone in this show could do outside of blowing up an orphanage full of mentally challenged four-year olds, and after watching the season, there’s no doubt he would do that if they got in his way.  But he checks off every other box.  He hires an assassin to take out Jax’s fiancé, Tara.  He beats his wife, Gemma.  He murders in cold blood fellow member, and original member, Piney, who was Jax’s father’s best friend.  On top of this, it turns out he murdered Jax’s father.  He’s EVIL.  Basically, the season pretty much has to end with him going down, and it really should end with him dying (or Jax dying, but that would be the end of the series, and it had already been renewed).  However, because he’s Ron Pearlman, probably, and for whatever other reasons, creator Kurt Sutter did not want to kill him.  So instead they came up with a ridiculously contrived twist that forces Jax to keep Clay alive, albeit powerless.  It reeks of potentially keeping around a main villain too long, a la Sylar from Heroes or Ben from Lost, thinking you can squeeze a few more drops out of what was once such a fruitful source of captivating villainy.  The smart move is to kill them off when they’re on top, when they’re at a place where you say, wow, that was an amazing villain, but if they continued on any farther, they’d start to lose some of their edge, credibility, or begin to come close to repeating an existing storyline.  SEASON 1 DEXTER SPOILER – Dexter did the smart move for example with killing the ice truck killer at the end of season 1 – many other showrunners would have drooled over the dynamic Dexter and his brother had and envisioned a future where they match wits continually.  DEXTER SPOILER OVER

Justified risks facing this concern with Boyd, but so far, the writers have been just clever enough, combined with the fantastic acting of Walter Goggins to keep Boyd interesting without going far enough to put them in a position they have to kill him or look ridiculous for not doing so.

Anyway, this comes all the way back to Sons of Anarchy in that, nothing will irritate me more than a slow rise to power for Clay when he should have been killed.  Sure, he couldn’t have died in the plot, because of the crazy plot twist with the Feds representing the cartel, but that felt a bit contrived as a way to prevent Jax from leaving and to keep Clay around.  If Clay has to be around, I hope he just stays pathetic and on the outs, and if anything a lone wolf, rather than somehow convincing Gemma to get back with him, or the club to follow him again.

Show of the Day: Wilfred

17 Jul

Wilfred is about a loner experiencing a third-of-life crisis, burned out from a job he never wanted as a lawyer, and on the brink of mental exhaustion, reenergizing himself through a friendship with his attractive female neighbor’s dog, who he sees as a man dressed in a dog costume, and converses, watches TV, and smokes pot with.

There you have it; the central partnership of the show is man and dog, with the dog, who no one else can hear, acting as a kind of id to the man, urging on his baser instincts and wants, sometimes for the best, sometimes less so.  The man is played by Frodo Baggins himself, Elijah Wood, while the dog is played by Jason Gann, the Australian actor who played the dog in the original Australian version (I haven’t seen the original, so I can’t compare the American version to it; I do hear that it’s notably adopted a different and sometimes less dark tone).

The man, Ryan, does have the hots for his neighbor, and the dog, Wilfred’s, owner, Jenna, but while I thought that would be a central plot, it’s more often in the periphery.  Ryan’s crush on Jenna comes up here and there, whenever the show decides to remind you that it’s still a thing, but the show is about Ryan and the dog  (Jenna’s current boyfriend Drew is played by former American Pie co-star Chris Klein AKA the one that gets with Mena Suvari).

The show is occasionally funny, occasionally difficult to watch, and more often than not relatively enjoyable.  It’s not a great show; it doesn’t work on enough levels, and there’s no one element it’s brilliant at, but it’s a good enough show, and I mean that generally as a compliment.  I’m absolutely glad I watched it considering the value, in terms of episode number and length.  The last show I watched was Sons of Anarchy, which I liked overall, and while the two shows could not possibly more different, I’m not sure that four seasons of 13 hour long episodes of Sons was worth my time more than one season of 13 half hours episodes of Wilfred.

One of the strangest sub-levels of the show which is odd is the question of whether Ryan’s special, crazy, or whether seeing the dog is just a sort of magical realism.  What I do like is that to start the show, rather than having Ryan wrestle for a while with the fact that he sees Wilfred as a human-in-dog-suit, he pretty much accepts it almost right off; yes, obviously it’s crazy that he sees a man in a dog suit, but get on with the show, already, that’s the premise, and so Wilfred did.  I also like that for the most part Ryan doesn’t constantly screw up and accidentally acknowledge the fact that he’s talking to the dog all the time, which would make him look crazy to outsiders.

The show veers dark, but rarely too dark; sometimes the quasi dark episodes are the best.  My favorite two episodes were probably the darkest and at the same time most absurd; the absurdity probably keeps the level of darkness from getting too high.  The genuinely strange moments are both the best and the funniest (and yes, in a show where a man sees a dog as a human in a dog suit, there are still relatively stranger parts).  The last couple of episodes move further into the actual matter of why exactly Ryan can see Wilfred, whether he’s crazy, etc, and while if you had told me the show would deal with this topic again I would have said, terrible idea, just let it be, these episodes were actually incredibly bizarre and oddly satisfying.  The second to last in particular involved a man Ryan saw, or thought he saw, who claimed to be a previous best friend of Wilfred’s, and claimed that Wilfred ruined his life.  We have no idea if this person actually exists, existed, or whether he also has the power to see Wilfred, or whether Ryan is totally crazy or hallucinating.  Which is actually true is less important than the surreal nature of the situation.  Another surreal aspect I enjoy is that Wilfred is continually humping a stuffed bear named Bear and it seems like he’s always talking to and recieving answers from Bear, and occasionally other stuffed animals, making me wonder whether, like Ryan sees Wilfred as a human in a dog suit, Wilfred sees the stuffed animals as living and talking.

It’s not a great show, but it’s an interesting show, and it’s a short show, and that’s enough to make it recommended viewing.

Show of the Day: Sons of Anarchy

12 Jul

I’ve watched Sons of Anarchy over the last couple of months, in drips and drabs and spurts, generally watching a few in a row, and then taking a break between seasons, and it’s probably the biggest TV series backlog project that I’ve taken on in quite a while.  (Downton Abbey, the other series I caught up on earlier this spring was only two seasons, and one of them was especially short).  I temporarily forget the different speed and intensity and blurring together that happens when watching many epsidoes of a show in a row, rather than week to week, year to year.  For that reason, I’ve found people who watch a show marathon-style versus as it airs sometimes come to different conclusions and opinions about series.

I’ve gone back and forth in my opinion of Sons of Anarchy overall.  I’m going to hopefully post another piece or two on the show; this one will be an overview without specific spoilers.  Right now, I feel like SoA is a good show, but not a great show, like the Sopranos, or The Wire, or the Breaking Bads, or Mad Mens of the world.  That’s not really all that much of an insult; those are the very top hour long TV shows of the past fifteen years, and not many shows will match them.  Still, it bears saying.  Sons of Anarchy resides somewhere in the tier of a Boardwalk Empire, or a Friday Night Lights; very good but also flawed enough to prevent them from reaching the pinnacle (I know many people would have my head for not putting Friday Night Lights above these, but that’s a discussion for another day).

Here’s the basic premise.  Main character Jackson Teller (“Jax” for short) is the Vice President and heir apparent of the Charming, California branch of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club.

Pause a second:  It’s interesting to note, that the way I felt about the motorcycle club culture in Sons of Anarchy mirrors the way I felt about Dixie mafia culture watching Justified; they were cultures I couldn’t relate to and had absolutely no idea existed.  This contrasts with, say, east cost Italian mafia culture of Sopranos, which The Godfather and Martin Scorsese basically made the go-to organized crime syndicates, and which often take place in New York or other Northeastern metropolitan areas.

So, Sons of Anarchy is a motorcycle club with branches all over the western United States, but the founding and head branch, nicknamed Samcro, for Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original stands in fictional “city” Charming which seems to be having a shit ton of issues for a town of 20,000 people, half the size of the suburban town I’m from.  Charming is in Northern California.  Samcro legitimately operate a mechanic shop, and illegitimately run guns, operate protection rackets, and participate in a number of other profit generating activities, though notably not drugs.  Most of their money comes from their gun trade.  They also run the town, having the sheriff and county police in their pocket, and basically commit crimes openly in the streets with their Sons of Anarchy jackets on with no repercussions.   What’s amazing is that they do all this with only about eight people total in their charter.  But this is how it goes.

Jackson Teller is the son of dead co-founder of the club John Teller, and in the first episode, Jackson finds a manuscript John left him about change he wanted for the club.  His mother, Gemma Teller is now married to the club’s co-founder and current president Clay Morrow.   The central conflict of the show is often between Jax and Clay, and just as often is not.

My quick take early on was to view Sons of Anarchy as an inverse of the Sopranos formula.  Instead of the patriarch, Tony in Sopranos, and Clay in Sons of Anarchy, being the primary character, it as if the heir, which would be, and I’m aware this is extremely loose analogizing, Christopher in Sopranos was the star.  Obviously a lot of things happen over the course of Sopranos that change Christopher and Tony’s relationship, and Jax is already VP when the show begins, higher up than Christopher, but I think as a very basic rubric that approach holds true.  Jax is constantly juggling what’s best for his club and what’s best for his family, as well as how to keep moving the club forward without endangering everything he believe in.

The three main characters are certainly Jax, Clay, and Gemma, but also main cast members are other members of the Sons, and Jax’s high school sweetheart who just moved back to Charming, Tara.  The other Sons include, Seargeant at Arms Tig, an enforcer who is kind of insane, Chibs, a chipper Scotsman who is generally loyal to Jax, Bobby “Elvis” Monson, the overweight long-suffering treasurer, Piney, John Teller’s best friend and Sons co-founder, Opie, Piney’s son and Jax’s best friend, and Juice, the younger Puerto Rican hacker.  The corrupt yet friendly older sheriff named Unser is a fairly important character as is his younger no-nonsense associate who can’t wait to take over and take on SAMCRO. The different members of SAMCRO get occasionally important stories depending on episode, while Clay, Jax, and Gemma have key stories in just about every episode.

There’s your cast of characters and some quick spoiler free information.  More in depth plot discussion will have to wait for future posts.

Show of the Day: Downton Abbey

12 Jan

I’ll admit, I had no idea what Downton Abbey was about other than being an English period drama until earlier this week.  In fact, I kept reading it incorrectly as “Downtown Abbey” which conjures a very different idea in the mind.  After watching the seven episode first season though, I’m certainly glad I know more about it now.

Downton Abbey is about the residents of the titular location, an estate in Northern England, including both the aristocratic family who run the Abbey, and the serving men and women who make the Abbey run.  A third economic class is introduced in the second episode when an upper middle class lawyer and his mother move into the Abbey because the lawyer has become the new heir to the title and estate after the old heir died in the Titanic disaster.

Downton Abbey is about as British as British gets.  It’s like Gosford Park without the murder.  (Note: I had absolutely no idea it was from the same writer as Gosford Park until I had finished five episodes, but it makes perfect sense.)  One of the essentially European aristocratic core issues at hand is the secession of the estate and title, as well as the marrying off of the three daughters of the current Lord and Lady of the estate.  Downton Abbey takes place at a crucial junction in time at which both love and position count in constituting a match, and the battle between the two occurs throughout the show.

Downton Abbey is a soap opera at its heart, a less serious show than critically acclaimed series of the period such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  However, it also deals with the class structure in an interesting, albeit generally unrealistically sunny and positive way.  The lord and lady of Downton Abbey are generally benelovent, but can’t avoid their learned feelings of noblesse oblige.  Even between the Lord and Lady, there are issues, as the lady is an American who Lord Grantham originally married for her money, which was necessary to save the estate.  The men and women of the serving class deal with vastly different problems than the aristocracy, largely, but also some similar programs.  Downton Abbey takes place at a similar time as far more serious show Boardwalk Empire, when the times are changing rapidly, but the characters largely try to change as little as absolutely necessary to adapt.  The biggest rift, aside from class, is generational, as the three daughters, to various degrees, are far more ready to embrace the less stratified world than their parents and grandparents.

I knew I was on board for good when I started rooting for and against characters, even yelling at my TV, and not in the angry at the show way, but in an angry at the characters way.  As far as the rogues gallery goes, Maggie Smith is fantastic as the cantankerous matriarch of the house, mother to the current lord, the Dowager Countess Violet.  She’s quick with an insult and is a protector of all things traditional, proper and conservative in the wake of attempts at forced changes to the social order from outside the estate.  Her foil is lawyer and new heir Matthew Crawley’s mother, who is the one character who is extremely progressive for her generation, and is the only character stubborn enough to not give in to the Dowager Countess, much to Smith’s dismay.

The most villainous characters are probably footman Thomas and maid Mrs. O’Brien, who are constantly scheming to get their personal nemesis valet Mr. Bates fired.  Bates, a newly hired footman at the beginning of the show, harbors some sort of secret, but seems a much better sort than Thomas (just one season of the show has me describing people as a “sort”).  Thomas is cruel to the other footman, William, and constantly flirts with cook’s assistant Daisy who is just about the only character who doesn’t realize that his affections are reserved for men.

Eldest daughter Mary I wouldn’t quite call a villain, but it’s frustrating watching her constant immaturity on display through the first season, as well as the way she treats her youngest sister Edith, drawing every man’s attention even when she’s not interested, just because she can.  Edith reciprocates with immature behavior to get back at Mary.  There are characters to root for as well.  Middle daughter Sybil is by far my favorite of the three (though the  other two have grown on me over time; it’s a sign of a good show when it’s able to make you like the characters you hated at first).  Sybil gets less screen time than Mary in the first season, but she’s the most political and most willing to attempt to break free from the social restrictions of the time.  Lord Grantham is better 1910s version of Tim Allen’s character in Last Man Standing.  Inherently conservative, but well-meaning, he’s caught between all the women in his life, including his daughters, wife and mother.  He wants to do what’s best within the narrow parameters he’s grown up with, but often ends up mediating a dispute between the women and takes a compromise position.  Matthew Crawley, the new heir, is a middle class lawyer, who struggles to fit into an aristocratic lifestyle.  He doesn’t always succeed, but he manages to turn general resentment from the family when he first arrives to sincere affection.

One note before I finish up: The strangest aspect of Downton Abbey is how quick it skips through time between episodes.  In the vast majority of TV shows, a season takes place over a single season or year, with episodes reasonable close together in time to one another.  Downton Abbey defies that convention.  The first episode takes place in 1912, but the show is in 1914 by season’s end, and the second season jumps even more.  This is hard to compute, given my understanding of traditional TV scheduling, and left me slightly discombobulated.  Eventually I was able to just accept that the primary reason for this seems to be to move into certain historical events (World War I!), and that nothing really important happens on the estate during the months we’re not seeing.

Show of the Day: Treme

2 Dec

I just finished watching the second and most recent season of Treme.  I don’t know anybody else who is interested in watching it and while I can’t say I blame them for not knowing better, I feel the need to do a little bit of proselytizing.

Treme is about a variety of characters in post-Katrina New Orleans, picking up a few months after the storm.  I ironically watched the majority of the episodes as Hurricane Irene swept through New York which hopefully made the show more poignant.  I have never met anyone who watches Treme, and I honestly had no interest in the show except for the outstanding reviews it was getting and the fact it was created by David Simon who created one of my favorite shows of all time, The Wire.

If you think The Wire was rather unsubtle about pointing out the dysfunction of the police and the media in Baltimore (which it was), you’ll have to deal with just as much and more of that unsubtlety regarding the mishandling of government money and the obstacles in the struggle to rebuild in New Orleans.

In most shows the main characters are connected by some combination of three bonds.  The characters are usually co-workers, friends or family (co-workers in particular I am stretching to mean a lot – people stuck together in the same physical location, like prisoners in Oz).  In Treme, many of the characters are not related at all to other characters, or at most come into contact with one another once or twice at chance times during the course of the show.  In theory, this approach means there’s a concern about a lack of cohesion in the show and a worry that there won’t be enough time to tell complex and interesting stories about the number of characters that Simon tends to cram in, even with full hour episodes.

In spite of all these potential problems, creators Simon and Eric Overmyer have a gift for storytelling which transcends all the challenges laid out before them.  Even though there’s plenty of relatively heavy handed lessons about the troubles of New Orleans, Simon and Overmyer generally do a good job of letting the characters show these issues rather than lecturing at us.  Even more importantly, via the excellent writing and acting the characters come to life before us and are three dimensional, interesting, and cause the viewer to actually care about them.  The plots continue to take interesting turns.  There’s nothing sudden and exciting like in Breaking Bad, but these characters’ arcs weave in ways that hit the sweet spot of being not always predictable but feeling consistent with the characters.

Like The Wire in Baltimore, Treme examines a number of different facets of New Orleans culture, but instead of the police, the drug trade, the schools, dock workers and the media, it’s the music world, the restaurant industry, real estate development and well, the police and the schools.  Like The Wire, depression is all around at various times, but there’s just enough hope to keep you from getting too down at any one point.  I might even dare to say Treme is more hopeful than The Wire.  Music is extremely important in Treme; almost half the characters are involved with music professionally one way or another.  The roll call of characters include Davis, a goofy DJ, Annie and Sonny, a pair of street musicians, LaDonna, a bar owner, Antoine, a trombone player, Toni, a civil rights lawyer, Janette, a chef, Albert, a Mardi Gras Indian Chief, and his son Delmond, an esteemed jazz trumpeter, Terry, a police officer, and Nelson, a developer.  I know the list of characters is long, but I wanted to give a sense of the occupations.  I’d love to expand, but talking about the characters in any more depth is going to require additional entries.

As much as anything, Treme is a paean to the city of New Orleans.  I was concerned I wouldn’t care for that.  Not because I don’t care for New Orleans, but because I really don’t understand any of the extremely distinctive bits of New Orleans culture which represent major moments in Treme.  I don’t know anything about Mardi Gras or the Feast of St. Joseph or Jazz Fest or anything about the New Orleans music scene outside of Lil Wayne and I thought that would affect my enjoyment of the show.  I was wrong.  The show is very much about New Orleans, but even more than enjoying the show without knowing anything about New Orleans, you can enjoy the show without caring anything about New Orleans.  Simon’s shows are so successful because no matter how important the messaging is to him, all of this comes in second to strong story.