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Spring 2014 Review: The Assets

18 Aug

The Assets

(I’ve fallen way behind on both my TV viewing and writing, but not to worry – dear reader – I don’t give up that easy – I’ve rapidly been viewing the first episode of every new television show of 2014, with the intent of seeing them all by the end of August. To facilitate a respective blog catchup, I’ll be posting lots of much shorter entries on each show)

Oops. The Assets had the poor fortune, well, to not be very good, but more than that to basically mirror the subject matter of one of the best new shows on TV in the past two years. The Assets is about a cat-and-mouse game between the CIA and a mole inside the organization working for the Soviets. Based on real life, the show stars a female agent doggedly pursuing the mole, who we know will turn out to be Aldrich Ames, a seemingly mild mannered fellow agent, who sold out to the Soviets for lots of money. The female agent notices her missions have been falling apart in ways that could only happen with the presence of a mole working against her, and she works relentlessly towards to find the culprit.

In case you haven’t figure it out, The Assets basically tramples right on the same ground as The Americans, a vastly, vastly superior show, both because The Americans is excellent and The Assets is, while not truly awful, simply not very good. All of the interesting layers driving The Americans seem to be flattened out here; instead, this is a story we’ve seen time and again; a cop/federal agent so driven to catch a criminal, so desperately chasing him that it threatens to ruin the rest of the her life which she’s so carefully planned out. Actually, in the first episode The Assets has even flattened out the anti-hero aspect that drives many of these shows; while she worries she’s working too much her husband is the picture of calm and acceptance, reassuring her that she’s great at her work and doing it for the right reasons and telling her not to worry about her absences at home. There’s nothing so bad here, it’s just more that there’s nothing at all.

The one smart decision The Assets makes is to show the mole initially, rather than drawing it out; meaning we know who the mole is while the characters don’t. That decision makes sense in light of the fact that tge mole is a real person; it would have seemed a little foolish to hang the huge spoiler of the villain on something that people paying attention during the ’80s could have known even before starting the pilot. Still, that’s a small credit in a world of mediocrity.

Will I watch it again? No. To say The Assets is a poor man’s The Americans is to give too much credit to The Assets and the two shows’ similarities. It’s by no means an unwatchable show, it’s just standard mediocre fare with the particular bad luck to have a vastly superior show on virtually the same topic and in the same era airing at the same time.

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The Surprisingly Welcome Return of 24

7 May

Jack and Chloe Absence does make the heart grow fonder, even if sometimes it takes the end of that absence to make you realize that.

I have to admit that I wasn’t all that excited to hear that Fox was bringing back 24 for a limited series. I was a fan of the first run right from the first season, and a pretty big fan. I take proud credit for introducing my friends to the show, and watched the first three seasons with a group of them, all of which I had already seen, over a college summer. Still, 24, like many shows, but in particular because of the contours of how seasons had to progress from beginning to end, got, over the course of its run, tired and repetitive. There’s something fun about knowing there’s a mole and guessing who it is, and waiting to see how CTU will be attacked every year, but it usually got a little less imaginative every time. I admit to this day I’ve never seen the end of the seventh season, and most of the eighth, though I watched the last episode. It wasn’t a conscious decision – I meant to come back some day – I just never quite motivated myself enough to do so.

I’ve never held 24’s slowly diminishing returns against it. Unlike other shows which I stopped watching at points, like Lost, I have nothing but fond memories of 24 and hold it in nothing but the highest esteem. It was an extremely entertaining show for a long time, and the repetitive issues were largely due to the show being repeated over and over eight times rather than the writers losing their way and forgetting what made the show good in the first place, and they didn’t retroactively bathe older seasons in a negative light.

That said, when it was over, it seemed about right. I wasn’t upset, and as I hadn’t watched most of the eighth sesaon, I doubt I would have watched the next season. It had a very good run, nothing to be ashamed of in the least, and that was that. And again, as I mentioned above, my first thought when I heard Fox was bringing the show back was, well, “Why?” But with a five year rest, I decided I’d dive back in and try it out.

When I started watching again, I changed my mind over the course of the first of two hour long episodes. There were nothing relevatory about the episodes, and nothing mind-blowing or earth-shattering. But what it did make me realize is that having four years away, that 24-less break, really does make all the difference.

The second reason I enjoyed the first two episodes of 24 more than I thought I would is that 24 is a more enjoyable show when you’re watching it then when you’re thinking about it later. I remembered liking it, but sometimes had trouble articulating why I liked it so much. It’s just fun. It’s TV’s empty calories. What I presume some people like about watching some reality shows, is what I like about 24. It’s easy to watch, which is sometimes nice, in the age where all my favorite hour long shows are thinkers which require some level of intense concentration. That’s not a bad thing, and there’s a reason those are my favorite shows but a change of pace is appreciated.

The same parts of 24 which can get tiring and are also fun in an almost campy way; the show itself is deadly serious but it’s hard for me to imagine the creators are not winking at the audience sometimes through their choices. There’s tropes and character types that we see time and again; the always-wrong boss, the treacherous aide, the unfairly framed suspect. Mostly though, it’s about watching Jack Bauer be awesome. About watching him injure people in cruel and unusual ways, yell short and concise commands, and just figure out one more way take out the bad guys. I am in solid opposition to the use of torture, but I’m all for Jack Bauer using it in an episode of 24 if it makes for a cool scene.

24 is such a great show for binging because (aside from the obviously gimmicky real time premise), when it’s all said and done the plot both means everything and doesn’t matter at all. In the minute, you follow whatever wacky zigs and zags go down. Once the show ends, though, it’s often hard to remember the larger plots. What stands out are huge moments; significant deaths and Jack Bauer kills mostly.   So, kudos 24. I’m not sure if the show will be able to sustain the momentum for an entire season; I still think the shorter season is a smart play (to use 24 vernacular). Seasons were always too long to begin with. Still, I finished the first two episodes with a much more positive feeling than I expected, especially after putting them off for a week due I thought it might be a slog, so my expectations have already been temporarily exceeded.

Spring 2014 Review: Black Box

30 Apr

Kerry Reilly and her Black Box

Spoiler alert: The titular black box refers to the human brain.

Sorry if I just blew your mind there (or your black box, so to speak), but I wanted to let you know what you’re up against. The show states this explicitly about three quarters of the way through, but if you can’t figure it out within about fifteen minutes, you’re in serious trouble.

Black Box fits nicely into the category of shows where the main character is an absolute genius at his or her job but has debilitating problems equal to their genius bringing down their personal lives. (I could, and perhaps should, make a comprehensive list of these shows one day, but importantly, House is the modern example which inspired a legion of followers). Kelly Reilly plays protagonist Catherine Black (Yes, the show Black Box  and her name is Black – the meaning is double, and I’m ashamed to say it took me reading her name maybe 10 times before I figured that one ount) is a brilliant and famous neurologist. She also has a deeply serious and secret case of bipolar disorder which has caused and continues to cause serious issues in her life. She’s able to keep her life functional when she takes her meds; unfortunately she also has penchant for not taking those very meds and throwing them out instead in her irresistible drive towards the fruits of a manic high (please excuse me if any of this sounds pejorative – any judgment is against the show, and not at all the condition).

The show is told through the plot device of a talk with her shrink, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who really, honestly, has got to be able to find better work than this with her resume. Catherine recounts the events of the pilot to the shrink, and Redgrave responds occasionally with questions and commentary. Redgrave knows about Catherine’s condition, as does her beloved brother, less beloved sister-in-law, and super beloved niece, who ends up to actually be her daughter, who she gave up to her brother because she didn’t believe she was fit to be a parent with her bipolar disorder.

No one associated with her job knows about her condition and it’s apparently integral that they never find out. She reveals her condition to her boyfriend during the pilot, terrified he’ll leave her when he finds out but he appears to be at least initially supportive.

There’s some fake-ambitious vaguely hallucinogenic manic sequences in her flashback, which seem like they’re aiming to be sophisticated but come of ass confusing, faux arty, and not particularly helpful, interesting, or revelatory.

There’s a case-of-the-week aspect. There are two cases actually in the first episode. Catherine spars with workplace rivals over the problems, and comes up with solutions, or the lack of solutions when helpful; one elderly patient has a rare condition when she talks with a non-existant small person – drugs can treat it, but if it makes her, already deteriorating mentally irreversibly, feel better, why treat it.

I’m not sure if this show thinks it’s asking deeper questions about mental conditions and the brain; I lean towards believing it doesn’t actually think that, while trying to vaguely acknowledge that those questions exist (which only makes me hunger for a show which deals with those questions in a much more interesting and compelling way.) This, is, a poor, poor, man’s third tier House, no more and no less.

I thought there was a chance Black Box would be truly terrible, and instead it was just really derivative and seriously sub-par. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but calling a compliment is generous. Still, it’s just lousy and not truly putrid. I was a little bit confused at the end of the first episode about the events of the show, which isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case probably meant the plot was simply poorly told. There was an original idea for a character a show tackling mental health in a serious way, but the idea was a superficial one, put over all the tropes of typical procedurals.

Additionally, quick props to apparently having some of their science correct. I watched the pilot with someone who knew what they were talking about on the show, and identified what the case-of-the-week subjects had before the show identified them.

Will I watch it again? No. Honestly, the title is the best part of the show, and I surprisingly mean this because it’s a pretty good title more than I mean because it’s not a very good show, although it isn’t. Black Box really could have been the title of a better show.

Spring 2014 Review: Friends with Better Lives

28 Apr

Friends With Better LivesHackneyed is possibly an overused word in describing bad television, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Lazy, half-hearted, simple, forced, these are all qualities of hackneyed writing. Friends with Better Lives has all of this in spades.

Friends with Better Lives feels as if it was written by a machine whose model was built by constant watching of second tier ‘90s sitcoms, with the morals and sensibilities for more risque, profane, and sexually open 21st century audiences. It’s all the jokes you know, except now they’re about blowjobs, and while maybe the joke was sometimes always about that, there used to be two steps removed between the act and the joke to keep in line with the morals of the time, and now it’s half a step.

Friends with Better Lives is part of the post-friends verse of making shows that star six people in their 20s and 30s, and it’s part of the sub-genre of these shows featuring people in different stages of relationships. There’s a somewhat long-time married couple that fits every married cliche  – they’ve gotten lazy, they’re no longer as fiery or passionate as they once were, but underneath, their marriage, as they realize late in the first episode, is strong. There’s the two young lovebirds, who get engaged on a whim after only dating for a few weeks. They’re head over heels and all about the sex, but a little flighty and scatter brained, making grand romantic gestures all the time, which both irritate and rouse jealousy of the old married couple. Finally, there’s a man getting divorced, and a single woman desperate to find a man, but whose pickiness and quickness to render judgment make it difficult.

You know the jokes. The married couple is in such a rut they forget their anniversary! Then, in a surprise that could have been written by a shitty TV scribe version of O. Henry, the married wife tries to spice up the marriage by coming home and giving her husband a blowjob when the lights are out, not knowing that a couple dozen of their closest friends are waiting to surprise her for a party. Oops! The jokes are loud and hammy – you can’t miss them, although you won’t be laughing.

I hate to have to waste a few sentences of this review on this (I don’t really, there’s not that much to say), but if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. If your show has a laugh track, it’s hard for me to take your show seriously. I don’t need to rehash every terrible aspect of the laugh track, and if you’re reading this, you probably hate them as much (or close, at least) as I do, but if networks keep putting them in shows, I’m going to keep commenting on them.  This laugh track was particularly bad, if it’s still possible to grade the relative bad-ness of laugh tracks in this day and age. The laugh track was the single biggest factor in making me not want to watch an episode, and in a show of this quality, that says a lot.

The show doesn’t really care. This isn’t a real attempt to make a good show.  That may go for most CBS comedies but it’s no less true here.  In this day and age when there are so many channels and shows on TV, it means there are more gems than ever but still just as many rote written by the numbers shows that keep getting made because occasionally people still watch them, but usually not. Pretty easy to predict this one won’t be around for long.

Will I watch this show again? Are you kidding? No. No. Come on. You should know me better than that by now.

Parks and Recreation’s Unfortunate Season Finale Cop Out

25 Apr

San Fran

I love Parks and Recreation, when it ends it’ll be a shoo in for the sitcom hall of fame (one day I will make this Hall of Fame a reality), and on the short list for  best comedies of the century. I enjoyed much of the sixth season finale as well, but unfortunately it ended with a huge cop out that greatly disappointed me.

Going into the episode, Leslie had a very difficult decision to make about her future. She’d been an offered a job as head of the midwest regional national parks office in Chicago (I might be screwing up the exact title, but it’s not that important). It was a huge step up career-wise. She’d be heading a much bigger office and staff and working preserving national parks in the Midwest, a much, much bigger region than small town Pawnee with, as Ben points out in the finale Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills among many other notable parks. Unquestionably, she’s interested in the job and would take it instantly if not for two factors, that are pulling her back towards Pawnee. First, the Eagleton-Pawnee merger that she engineered is still troubled; without her tireless leadership to make sure the merger is a success, the towns could come apart (why the head of the Parks Department would be working to save the merger doesn’t really make a ton of sense, but we’ll grant that Leslie is apparently allowed to control everything in Pawnee because why not). Secondly, she’d be leaving all her friends and her beloved hometown behind. She wanted to raise her kids in Pawnee, the town she loved.

This is tough. I was very much hoping that Leslie would take the job and move to Chicago, both for Leslie’s sake, and for the show’s, but either decision would be understandable. The job was an amazing opportunity, but her reasons to stay in Pawnee were compelling as well. Staying to finish a job you started is admirable, and living somewhere you like with people you love is a major factor in overall happiness as well.

That was the choice. It was a hard choice, but a necessary one. Leslie realizes this, which is why she keeps putting it off as long as possible, but eventually she’s given a deadline and she decides to make the move and take the job. She has regrets, especially when she hears the horror stories of other town mergers (the threat of becoming unincorporated!) but she realizes it’s the best thing for her at this point in her life. Ron and Leslie have a key heart to heart, where they reminiscence about what Lesile will miss about Pawnee.

And then, all of a sudden, Leslie has an idea! She can have it all! She’ll bring the midwest branch of the National Parks Service to Pawnee! Of course, watching, I thought, even within the world of Parks and Recreation, this is an insane idea. Um, Chicago is a huge city, the biggest in the region, and a logical hub, which would be convenient for employees and office visistors. Pawnee, is a, honestly, pretty terrible backwater town, but beyond that, a small city in the middle of Indiana. As great an addition as everyone agrees Leslie would be, you can’t move a long established department from Chicago for her. Or so I thought. And thus, when her new boss turned down her suggestion to move the department to Pawnee, because it was silly and made no actual sense, she’d finally be forced to make the difficult choice once again.

But, no, that’s not what happened at all! She can have it all! With Ben preparing a booklet on the cost savings of housing the department in Pawnee  (Um, of course, it’s cheaper to not be in Chicago – it’s not located in Chicago to save money), all of a sudden, just like that it’s agreed that it should be in Pawnee, and zap we’re three years in the future.

The three year jump is another topic entirely and I have no intrinsic issue with it (and actually really like the idea of skipping the pregnancy). What I do have a problem with is with the massive cop out Parks and Recreation took here. The second half of the season has been building up to an extremely difficult choice by Leslie – take her dream job but be forced to move from her beloved Pawnee, or pass up this amazing opportunity and remain in the town she loves. I don’t envy her that choice. It’s not an easy one, but it’s one she had to make.

Only she didn’t, and not only did that bail on a tough choice, but the way it bailed just made absolutely no sense. I love you Parks and Recreation, but this was a moment of weakness.

 

End of Season Report: Community, Season 5

23 Apr

The Study Group, Season 5

While this season was Community was at times uneven, it was overall  a triumphant and welcome return to form.

There’s nothing that makes you appreciate something you like as much as, even more than its total absence, its replacement by a vastly inferior version. Rarely does television pull off that trick; usually a far inferior season of television is a symbol of a downward trend indicating that a show will never hit the heights it once did again. Community, fittingly, remains unique in this sense.

Everyone knows the story by now. Mercurial creator and show runner Dan Harmon was fired after the show’s third season. He was replaced by two well-meaning outsiders who attempted to capture what people loved about Community, but badly missed the mark. I’m not nearly as much o f a fourth season hater as some, but no matter what you think, it’s both not up to the quality we expect, and there’s something off about the show, like staring at a clone of someone you know well; externally it looks the same but it’s dead inside (that comes off as too harsh, maybe, but I don’t really want to use this space to defend the fourth season’s approach at mediocrity).

There were a couple of episodes that didn’t entirely put it together for me, but there have been some of those in almost every season. One of the consequences of Community’s sheer ambition to have everything at once means that when they miss they mark, they really miss it. Compare it to its Thursday night partner Parks and Recreation, another of the best comedies of the 21st century. While some episodes are better than others, Parks never has a complete swing as a miss, but it also rarely reaches the ethereal mind-blowing highs of the mega-ambitious Community episodes that manage to get everything right.

This season wasn’t the best in the show’s run, but it contained a couple of all-time episodes, several more solid wee-to-week classics, and easily more than enough to justify me being way more excited about wanting more Community in the future than I was coming into this season. Community fans went through a rough couple of years, and it was rewarding to see our favorite characters returned to their former glory, and to not end the show’s story with the ugly, metallic taste (the taste of the gas leak, if you will) of the fourth season stuck in our mouths.

Cooperative Polygraphy was this season’s moment of absolute brilliance. Community was graced with the presence of Walton Goggins, and the group were required to answer questions to a lie detector to determine who received gifts from Pierce’s estate. Part of the brilliance of the episode was that it felt as if Pierce was there, though he wasn’t. The episode just all came together; the high concept premise melded into truths about the characters and the group dynamics between them, and a course on the science of human relationships, which is what most great Community episodes are ultimately about.

First episode Repliot, Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality, and Basic Sandwich were the next tier of quality episodes, not merging every stray strand into genius like Polygrpahy, but delivering comprehensive and excellent episodes, both funny and pathos filled. The finale in particular, which might turn out to be the series finale, was excellent and felt right for the show, and a finale; it’s meta-finale could have taken it too far, but instead the looming emptiness of losing what all of the characters were holding onto was humorous and melancholy. The team came together and gave me lots of warm fuzzy feelings that a cynic like me isn’t supposed to be feeling very often.

App Development and Condiments didn’t work on as many levels but was one of the funniest episodes, and VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing featured what may have been the funniest single scene of the season, Abed and Annie competing in the VCR board game featuring cowboy Vince Gilligan.

Basic Intergluteal Numismatics was a high-concept episode that didn’t much work for me; the ass-crack bandit felt like a second tier version of many other similar episodes including the Law & Order episode; I got what they were going for, and stylistically it was right on in the manner of David Fincher and similar directors, but I don’t think the jokes were as good or the writing was as smooth.

Overall, though, the batting average was close to that of the first three seasons, if not equal, and reminded me why I loved Community so much and what the difference was between Dan Harmon and his replacements. I knew the replacement episodes were worse, but I was concerned that I was constantly biasing myself against them. I’ll never be able to be sure that I wasn’t, and I’m honestly pretty sure I was, but I feel more confident than ever after watching the fifth season in understanding what made the Dan Harmon episodes better and what made the fourth season feel like it was TV in Dan Harmon skin. Community, now, and forever, and let’s all cross our fingers for six seasons and a movie.

Spring 2014 Review: Mixology

21 Apr

Mixology

When you review dozens upon dozens of new  shows a year, many of which you’ve only seen one episode of, a fair amount get largely forgotten about. What stands out are of course the best, both because they’re the best, and because you start watching them regularly, and the worst because they’re just so bad that even their badness stands above (or below?) the clutter.

Obviously, my first choice would be for more great, or even just good pilots. But I’d take an absolutely terrible pilot over a just kind of bad one any day of the week. I’m already never going to watch the show again, and the show probably won’t be on for very long. More than that, I actually get to lash out and be mean. Normally, I try to make sure to take shows seriously on their own terms, and not let snark or cleverness overshadow talking about what a show is, why it’s good, why it’s bad, and so forth. With these truly terrible shows though, I can really rip into them, because there is just so little redeemable about them, and they’re so on their face awful, that they barely deserve to be taken seriously any more than absolutely necessary. Dads is a great recent example (Made in Jersey also comes to mind).

I went in to Mixology expecting it to be bad, and kind of hoping it would be truly terrible. All I knew is that is was about ten people at the same hip cocktail lounge over the course of one night, and while in a sense I have a lot of admiration for attempts at incredibly high concepts, high concepts also have high probabilities of completely flopping.

It is with almost sadness that I say, then, that Mixology merely a pretty not good show rather than a legendarily terrible one.

Oh, there were a couple of moments when I thought it would be worse. There were  a couple of troublingly misogynistic conversation snippets towards the beginning, from a couple of bros out to help their recently dumped bro find a quick hook up, and I was excited, but it only went, well, slightly up from there.

So, the ten primary characters are divided up into a couple of groups. There’s the aforementioned three bros. One is a sensitive guy recently dumped by his perfect fiance, struggling to get back out there, along with his two wingman buddies. There’s two female lawyers, one a hard, tough, modern-Cameron Diaz character type, who wants a man’s man, and her flakier colleague. There are two other females who barely figure in to the first episode and a British guy who pukes into one of the two women’s handbag, and apparently lost a fortune earlier that day. Finally, there’s a male bartender and a female server, the latter of which seems a little behind the 8 ball mentally.

It’s not good. It gets borderline offensive a couple of times, though nothing in intensity or frequently on a Dads level, and most of the characters seem like lazy tropes and the jokes are flat. There were maybe three decent jokes though, which is already three more than I thought there’d be.

24 attempted to make a show in which each show minute was a real minute. Mixology, to keep up on its premise of taking place in one night would have to each minute of screen time actually account for less than a minute of real time (unless it’s a lot earlier in the day on the show than I’m guessing). Some of this time is probably taken up by flashbacks, as there’s a couple in the pilot, and some may be taken up by revealing different parts of the same time from different characters points of view. Still, it’s almost insanely ambitious to say the least.

Basically, what it comes down to is that Mixology is just a regular kind of bad show. It’s not even quite terrible. It’s just not very good.

Will I watch it again? No. It’s bad. It’s just not as completely godawful as I dreaded/hoped which makes me sad/relieved.