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End of Season Report – Mad Men, Season 6

28 Jun

Don looking animated

Two statements to start off this report on the just finished sixth season of Mad Men: First, this was probably the weakest season of Mad Men yet. Second, even at its weakest, Mad Men is more interesting and provides more food for thought than almost any other show on television.

There’s one major reason for this season’s overall weakness: Don Draper. I’ve further broken down the problems with Don into two related issues. First, it too often feels like we’re revisiting old ground with Don Draper. This is never more clear than through the flashbacks we see this season to his childhood. These flashbacks are both way too on the nose regarding how Don sees woman, especially in the context in which they’re shown, and they don’t really reveal insight that we don’t already know. Don seems to be repeating behavior and storylines from the past several times during the season, falling back into the same cheating patterns, being needlessly mean to Peggy, and just making everybody’s life difficult in ways similar to what he’s done before.

Secondly, Don’s the worst. Don was never a great guy, and from the first episode in which we’re introduced to him, he’s stepping out on his wife, a pattern he repeats through two marriages. Still, while Don was no hero, there was still an essential humanity deep down that we could relate to and understand, even if not feel sorry for or sympathize with. Even when he was wrong, which was often, he felt, and he tried, or at least tried to try, and at work he was often the good guy even when he wasn’t at home.

None of these are any longer the case. It’s as if Matt Weiner set out this season with the goal of destroying every shred of humanity within Don and turning him into a full fledged monster, which is what Peggy calls him late in the season when he attempts to both sabotage a meeting for Ted and take credit away from Peggy in one fell swoop. He not only cheats on his new wife, but he’s also incredibly degrading to the woman he cheats with. Oh, and it happens, to add insult to injury, that she’s his neighbor, and her husband is one of the only men Don seems to genuinely like in the entirety of Mad Men. He makes constant trouble for the firm after the merger, seemingly going out of his way to frustrate Ted and belittle Peggy. The coup de grace may have been when his daughter catches him in flagrante with the neighbor, destroying what respect she had left for her dad.

There’s even more emphasis on what a drunk Don has become this season than in previous years. While he’s always been a serious drinker evolving into a borderline alcoholic, he’s clearly a full-fledged alcoholic here and sober in very few scenes over the course of the season ( (maybe more than borderline, I’m no expert at the diagnosis, but there’s never been as much emphasis on the destructive power of drink to his life). In the final episode, he seems to at least care about trying to give up booze, throwing out his bottles and not drinking at work, and even though he’s suspended by his partners, this could be the first step in a powerful redemption story. I’m not sure it’s a redemption story I want to see though. Don’s come so far, and we’ve come so far with him that I’m not sure I want to see Don redeemed at this point. Maybe I’m not giving enough credit to the plight of alcoholism, a very serious disease, and I apologize if I’m not, but his actions have seemed deplorable whether or not he was drinking. It would be great if he cleaned himself up for his character within the show, but I’m not convinced he’ll ever be a person I want to root for again.

If anyone came out worse than Don this season, it was Pete. Pete, who may have gotten the second most screen time this year after Don, has always been the anti-Don in a way. Don breaks all the rules, but, until this season, it didn’t matter, because Don always gets the breaks. He screws up big time, but makes up for it somehow by pulling a big pitch out of his ass or seducing the next woman to come along with sweet talk after he fails the previous one. Don finally does get his comeuppance here, but while it’s hard to feel sympathy for him, it’s hard to not feel at least somewhat sympathetic for Pete. Pete was the primary antagonist in the show’s early seasons but now that everything goes wrong for him anyway, it’s hard to continue to root against him. He wants to get away merely with part of what Don does effortlessly, but it never works. While Don gets away with cheating for years, Pete’s caught out in his first foray in his new apartment in the city. He think he solves an awkward situation in which he catches his father-in-law in a whorehouse, but the joke’s on him when his father-and-law would rather spill the beans on Pete’s infidelity, even if he knows that the same damning evidence will be visited on him. There was no greater physical symbolism for Pete’s stumbles than his quite literal stumble down the stairs midway through the season. It’s not that Pete doesn’t deserve a lot of what he’s getting, but it’s hard to feel like even he deserves all this misfortune in such a short period of time.

Mad Men struggled to reckon with the almost mythic historical importance of 1968, a year with multiple assassinations, infamous riots, and the election of Nixon, which symbolically ended the decade in many ways. There were occasionally powerful historical scenes, including after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, but too often I thought the efforts to have the characters react to the specific events of the time fell flat. This, as has been noted in many blogs and media outlets, has been particularly true in regards to race. My biggest problem isn’t Mad Men’s failure to deal adequately with the race-related issues that pervaded the ‘60s, although the show certainly has been largely unsuccessful. My problem is that they make a half-assed effort. I’d rather the show largely ignore race than attempt to put a couple of toes in the water only to take them right back out when the water’s too cold. Mad Men introduced a black character Dawn, only to basically never use her.

Even for its faults, there’s plenty to enjoy in the new season. Peggy, Don’s one time protégé, may be well on her way to surpassing the master, and her rise is cataloged wonderfully, even with the surreal stabbing of her now ex-boyfriend Abe. Joan and Roger shine in every scene they get; one only wishes they could get more screen time. Joan’s turning what she thought was a date into a recruitment dinner with a potential client was a great step in her evolution as a businesswoman.

There were a handful of new characters this season. The shady Bob Benson, who generated more conspiracy theories than any other new Mad Men character, turned out so far to be a doppelganger of Don’s; a man without a past who has invented a future for himself. He’s helped out several people as part of his eager beaver please anyone he meets routine, but we’ve started to see a dark side when he sets up Pete for failure at Chevy.

Ted existed before this season but never as this meaty a character, and his contrast and competition with Don was one of the most enjoyable plots of the season. Ted has his weaknesses, which are on clear display in the last episode when he jerks Peggy around romantically. Still, the inclusion of Ted makes us realize just how unusual, and not in a good way, Don is. Being a creative isn’t an excuse for his treatment of his employees and his management strategy. Also, the scene of Ted flying Don in his tiny plane was a season-long highlight. Ted’s longtime partner Jim Cutler was a welcome minor character as well this season, adding notes of humor to a show that can easily be dragged down by Don’s (and Pete’s) unrelenting self-seriousness.

I look forward to a complete rewatch at some point where I can see if the material comes together better in a shorter period of time. As I said before, it’s still Mad Men. There’s so much to chew on, and the fact that there is, even if it doesn’t always work, makes Mad Men clear appointment viewing. Still, I hope the next and last season pulls together a little bit better.

Summer 2012 Review: Bunheads

15 Sep

I’ve always suspected I would like Gilmore Girls if I ever got around to watching it.  By the time I was ever really aware of the show, it was fairly far along into its existence, and it wasn’t quite so easy to acquire full seasons of shows, and it’s never had the must must watch tag of The Wire or Six Feet Under or The Sopranos, and well, I never did get around to seeing more than 15 minutes at a time of the show. Everything I’ve heard about it though suggests it’d be up my alley; most of all the fast talking and pop culture references for which it’s famous.

So having not previewed cable shows as thoroghly as I did network shows, I came into Bunheads, created by Gilmore Girls’ Amy Sherman-Palladino,  knowing, for me, surprisingly little. I knew it was about dancing, and I suspected, because it was on ABC Family, that somehow kids would be involved, and that there was some sort of controversy about all the main characters being white. I was actually surprised twice during the first episode at events that led to the establishment of the premise of the show.  Honestly, before I knew anything, I thought it was some sort of show about muslims, and that bunheads was a derogatory term.

The show starts with a frustrated vegas dancer, complaining about the essence of her day to day life in the chorus of a Las Vegas revue, and frustrated that her career can’t evolve further. She turns down a coworkers offer to get drunk because she has a big audition the next day, for Chicago, where she could get to be a real dancer again (the musical, not the city). She has a frequent admirer/stalker who comes and visits her in the dressing room every time he’s in town(portrayed by Spin City/Ferris Bueller’s Alan Ruck), buys her flowers and gifts and tries to take her out to dinner. She goes out of her way to avoid and turn him down. The audition is a nightmare when the director takes one look at her and does not even let her show off her routine. Being in such a bad mood, she wants to deal with no one, but lets her guard down and lets her admirer take her out for a meal, where she gets trashed and he proposes to her and tells her about his hometown. Several hours later she wakes up in a car and puts things together and realizes she’s now married to this dude and off to his hometown.

Pause here – I thought for sure something bad was going to happen. Maybe I’ve learned to be inclined that way from years of television, but I assumed this guy was super creepy for real and she was going to end up dead in a ditch, or, well, I didn’t really know what bad, but I assumed something bad would happen. Something bad does not at all happen, or at least nothing epically bad like that.

She arrives in his sleepy coastal town of Paradise, California, where it turns out that his description of living right on the water was correct, but that he omitted that he lives with his mother. The mother just happens to be a ballet teacher to a class of kids, but in particular to four teen friends, who hang out and all have different personalities, which I’m sure we’re going to learn more about as the show goes on. From what I can gather, one is super talented but cynical and unmotivated, one is really into it but doesn’t have the body type to be a great dancer and is insecure about that, one keeps talking about how her boobs are getting bigger, and then there’s a fourth who I think is maybe a follower of the first. Anyway, it turns out the guy is actually a super duper nice guy if actually a little creepy, and, yes, he realizes she doesn’t love him, but that’s okay, because he loves her and she might reciprocate some day. She is touched, they have sex, and then she gets into a fight with his mom at a party she’s throwing for the newly married couple. She wanders into the dance studio where the teens are drinking some beer and teaches them about auditions and shows them some dance moves. The mom walks in, sees how good she is with the girls, and the two of them go to the bar and talk. They have some heart to heart moments about lost promise and potential and dance, when all of a sudden her husband’s ex walks in with some terrible news.

Okay, so they don’t actually say straight out what it is but I happen to know (second episode spoiler?), the guy died in an auto accident all of a sudden, which since I knew nothing about the show I found quite surprising. So, without knowing the premise, that’s two pretty crazy turns – that our main character gets married to a stalker after a drunken night in Vegas and that the guy then died like literally the next night in an auto wreck. I like Sherman-Palladino’s (boy that name is a mouthful) style.  The dialogue was snappy and well executed for the most part.  It veered a little dangerously Glee-y when everyone started to break out in dance at the bar after our main character and her new mother-in-law had their heart to heart, but aside from that seen the potential schmatz was low.  It’s unfortunate that dance is definitely pretty low on things-I’m-interested-in but a great show transcends its subject.  This wasn’t a great show from its first episode, but it was actually pretty good.

Will I watch it again?  It’s at least maybe. This was definitely better than shows I’ve said maybe to in the past.  I’m going to be swamped with new shows over the next month, but as for candidates that I swing back around towards like I did Boss this summer, depending on how many good shows pop up in the fall, I wouldn’t rule it out.  Honestly though, what will most likely happen is that I’ll forget all about it entirely until unless the next season starts because it’s on ABC Family, and who remembers that ABC Family has shows.

Summer 2012 Review: Copper

8 Sep

So, as a terrible joke (the use of the word “joke” is charitable), a friend and I started calling this show “Cobbler” and now I can’t get it out of my head.  So, let’s cobble it out.

It’s the early ‘60s.  The 1860s, that is, and we’re located in the Five Points, a la Gangs of New York.  The Civil War rages, but we don’t really care.  Our main character is “Copper” Kevin, a former Civil War soldier who returned with his daughter dead and his wife…missing?  We open with an ambush of three would-be bank robbers.  Well, they get the robbing part right and all, but are taken out a few yards from the bank by Kevin and two colleagues.  The take down is violent – they shoot first, and ask questions later, though with good reason, and grab some of the cash before their superiors gather it up for return to the bank.  They’re not corrupt; that’s just the way the 1860s work.

Kevin and his partner each have their own lady loves, I can’t really figure out a whole lot about them from the pilot.  He also gets an offer to referee a boxing match from the scion of a rich family, something or other Morehouse, who likes Kevin because Kevin gave him an assist in the war – always the great social equalizer.  While there he meets the prototypical rich local plutocrat, Mr. Haverford and his English wife, Mrs. Haverford.  You might be seeing them again!

Soon, a girl is found murdered.  Kevin notices that she is the girl he saw earlier, in the first scene, who talked to him for one second for some reason.  Sorry, forgot to mention that earlier.  Through some investigation, Kevin learns that the dead girl is the sister of the earlier girl, and that the earlier girl was kidnapped to work as a prosititue by the nefarious local madam, the contessa, before running away.  He takes the dead girl’s body to some random black guy who is apparently his personal M.E. (why are a black guy and a white guy being friends at this point – easy answer – war buddies), and whose wife is played by the actress who played Wallace’s love Jackie in the second season of Veronica Mars.  Black M.E. (now there’s a show title) tells us that she was raped, well, after death, so I suppose not technically rape, but you get the idea.  In addition, she was hit in the head with a blunt object.  Kevin pays the contessa a visit and beats up one of her doorman, a bulky dude, who Kevin is convinced kills the girl, because, well, he’s big, and why not?  Kevin beats the shit out of him, without a confession, but leaves him handcuffed in a room/torture chamber.

Kevin pays a return visit to Black M.E. who tells him, ah hah, it was a staff that did the damage, and the man had to be a certain height – taller than the guard who Kevin initially suspected.  Kevin feels slightly bad about the guy he just beat, but realizes where he saw a cane, at the home rich local plutocrat Mr. Haverford, who he immediately knows did it.  He steals the staff, as evidence, and then brings it to his superiors.  Of course, because this is America, where the rich, no matter when, buy their way out of criminal activity, his bosses arrange it so that the guard he originally beat was “guilty” and sentenced to death, settling the matter, even though everyone knows what really went down.  Justice!  Kevin is disgusted but powerless.  He settles down, hopefully having saved the girl’s sister (who they found later and hid from the scary plutocrat; sorry, forgot to mention that), for now, before at the end, he is confronted by Mrs. Haverford, who asks if her husband committed the crime.  He did, Kevin, tells her.

I wanted the show to be better than it was.  I have surprisingly little sense of what the show is from just the one episode.  If I had to guess, there will be a case every episode with slow advances on the personal lives of the two main coppers and the pursuit of evil plutocrat Mr. Haverford.  However, it could easily become a longer arc-ed show right off, which would almost certainly be the more interesting choice.   I think there’s a lot of very easy ways to make a show like this interesting (in this case, good) but I’m not all that confident that the show will trend in that direction based on what I got in the first episode.  From just one episode each, I think I’m a bit more interested in Hell on Wheels than Copper in terms of recent shows set in the second half of the 19th century.

Will I watch it again?  Maybe.  Actually, as fall starts, it immediately jumps behind a number of other shows.  I wanted to like it more than I did, as I said, but that’s the show’s fault as much as mine;  it definitely could have been more inspiring.  I was hoping for something more than what seems awful like a police procedural set 150 years in the past.  In an idle moment maybe I’ll try to sneak in a second episode to get a real batter sense for how the show is going to work, but if it ends up just being another single episode case, than that episode will probably be the last I watch.  More serial TV, please.

Summer 2012 Review: Sullivan and Son

5 Sep

Here’s the premise, and essentially the first episode of Sullivan and Son in reliatvely brief. Steve Sullivan is a big-city corporate lawyer living in New York, where he was just promoted to some nameless, not-understandable-by-normal-people position for his investment bank.  He’s returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh for his dad’s birthday with his girlfriend, another big city NYer more excited about his promotion than he is. He gets back, hangs out with his friends from home and his family, and finds out his dad is selling the bar that has been in the family for multiple generations. He realizes his dad enjoys every day as a bartender, while he dreads every day as a corporate lawyer, so he decides on a whim to buy the bar, and move home to spend time with his friends and family. His big city girlfriend can’t even begin to comprehend his decision and decides to return to NY, ending their relationship.

Sullivan and Son features just about every classic go-to sitcom contrast a viewer can ask for (or ask to please not have). It’s got poor vs. rich; he was making big time bucks in his NYC corporate lawyer job, but will trade it in for a less financially fulfilled life living around the poorer goofballs of Pittsburgh – rich is good for your wallet, but not for your soul.  He’ll both bartend and practice some law, although local real person law rather than unintelligible corporate law (see: Ed). It’s got big city – small town (even though it’s Pittsburgh, not Stuckeyville, but still). New York may be upscale and sophisticated but it has no heart, and people don’t care about each other like they do in Pittsburgh.  Steve’s girlfriend represents every negative stereotype about NYC and pretty much admits it straight out – she wants to pay too much for pretentious but inferior products – coffee, she says, costs four dollars, because that’s how you know it’s good. She wants to be around people who matter, and who are sophisticated, unlike those losers in Pittsburgh, and, well, she wants this big materalistic life that clearly shows a lack of appreciation for the things that really matter in life.   We’ve got the ethnic clash as well – (a la Rob Schneider’s Rob! (forget about that one already?  sorry for reminding you), but one generation removed – unlike Rob, who is marrying a Mexican-American, Steve is son of mixed-race parents) – Steve is the product of an Irish father and a Korean mother.  Her Korean mother naturally prefers her son to her daughter, and participates and likely will continue to in further Korean cliches.

The bar is fulled with lovable loser characters who will inhibit the series – Steve’s cadre of hometown friends, who naturally act like kind of jerks, because that’s how all good sitcom friends act (see:  The League) – like real friends who make fun of you, but take it just a little too far in situations.  There’s the older folks too, including the mother one of his friends (played by brief SNL veteran Christine Ebersole), a local lovable drunk who still wants to sleep around with just about anyone, making for both awkward and good-humored situations for the other customers, as well as the resident old racist (played by brief SNL veteran Brian Doyle Murray), which also makes for awkward and good-humored situations for the other customers.  There’s also the old high school crush that may have been interested in him too (Ed again) who is apparently now kind of dating a guy who does exactly what Steve used to do two days ago before he abruptly decided to take over the bar.  I guess they’ll never revisit that.

That’s the show.  There’ll be some guys hanging out and ribbing on each other, some will-Steve-slowly-get-closer-to-dating-his-old-high-school-crush, some Irish and Korean stereotypes, and some good-hearted everyone loves each other after all moments, I’m sure.  It’s not  terrible like the truly bad shows are (again, Rob!) but why this show exists I’m not exactly sure.

Will I watch it again?  No.  I suppose if I must judge this against other TBS sitcoms, it’s better than Men at Work.  The humor is cliched and tried but I think I like the main character in this show more than anyone in that show, and the people in general seem less obnoxious with the possibility of even being likable.  Alas, it’s still not very good.  I’m sorry if The Office, Arrested Development, and it’s progeny have gotten me to expect more out of a sitcom than a couple of cliches and a laugh track, but they have.  Just try a little harder next time, please.

Summer 2012 Review: Major Crimes

4 Sep

Do you like The Closer?  If so, you’ll like this.  If not, you won’t.

I really want to simply end this review with that line but it feels like a cheat, so I’ll explain Major Crimes, if by chance you, the reader, has had the good/bad fortune to never have seen The Closer, or can’t imagine a Closer without Kyra Sedgwick (after 7 long seasons as the most popular show on cable, it can be hard).

Mary McDonnell, best known to me, at least, as President Roslin in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, portrays the new main character in this The Closer spin-off.  At first, I thought moving from President to head of Major Crimes would be a pretty big demotion, but the LAPD may actually be bigger than the society over which Roslin was President.  McDonnell, as Captain Sharon Raydor, a character introduced late in The Closer, with the possible intent of a spin-off right from the beginning, takes over right where Kyra Sedgwick left off.  Quite literally, she replaces Sedwick’s Brenda Johnson as head of the LAPD’s Major Crimes unit.  Many in the unit, mostly the same characters from The Closer, are not fans of Captain Raydor, and and apparently have despised her rule-abiding policies for the past couple of seasons of The Closer, which I have not watched, when she was in a different position. Aside from the general emasculation that the old white police boys club clear feels because a woman has been assigned to lead them (again!), they don’t like Raydor in particular because of her new plea bargain friendly policies, designed to create cheap, fast and easy plea bargains for criminals even though they may involve slightly shorter sentences than if these cases went forward and to trial the old-fashioned American way.

In particular, this first episode involves a police shoot out.  Undercover cops are trailing a couple of suspected armed robbers, who have taken out a couple of grocery stores, but without violence.  Right at the beginning of the episode, the robbers are involved in a shootout with the police, leaving two of them dead, and one caught.  The caught criminal is about to agree to talk, when he’s fired upon.  It’s at this point that we learn that Raydor has become the new head of the unit and her subordinate, who headed the unit for about a week previously after Brenda left is not happy about it, let me tell you.  He gives her and Assistant Chief of Operations Taylor, who comes by to deliver the news, all the guff they can handle before reminding them that there will be more guff later, after he does his damn job and solves this case.

Blah, blah, blah, it turns out the shooters were a gang of military vets who were unable to fit in with regular society and played a first person shooter called “Win or Die” together (only the relatively young  woman working the case knew what the video game, or video games in general, were, unsurprisingly).  One is left alive, and turns out to be a cop’s son, and the police have the goods on him.  Raydor works hard to get the right facts confessed for the DA and makes a plea bargain happen which again further incenses the old white dude now her inferior.  Raydor struggles with her hold on the unit, which largely despises her, but stays firm and does her damn job, making it through her first day in charge alive and with a win on her record.

Oh, also, there’s a weird subplot about a disaffected teenage boy who is a material witness in a major case which may or may not have been discussed in The Closer and who needs a place to stay until his time as witness is up.  He complains and whines and complains and eventually it turns out he’ll live in an uncomfortable living arrangement with Raydor and be a main or at least recurring character for some reason.

This show is exactly what it appears to be on the surface.  I’d rate it as slightly better than The Closer because I prefer President Roslin’s no nonsense rule-following attitude to Kyra Sedgwick’s incredibly annoying I’m-just-a-girl southern accent as she talks to suspects when convincing them to confess, but the style, format, and cast is essentially the same (sadly without JK Simmons).  It’s well produced and the action is brisk, easy to watch, and paced smartly.  It’s nothing more than a police procedural though, and there’s no special element that makes it stand out, and anyone expecting anything additionally will be sadly disappointed.

Will I watch it again?  Honestly, no.  I would understand if someone else did though.  If you liked The Closer and it wasn’t entirely for Kyra Sedgwick, you’ll probably like it.  If you didn’t you probably won’t, and if you didn’t care at all about The Closer, you probably will not care at all about Major Crimes, which is more or less how I feel.

Summer 2012 Review: Perception

14 Aug

  Perception is TNT’s new dramatic entry in its ongoing identity crisis to figure out what the hell the network is.  You’ve got ambitious action sci-fi shows like Falling Skies, gritty cop dramas like Southland, primetime soaps, like Dallas, and USA-like character based procedurals like The Closer and now Perception. Perception stars Will and Grace’s Will, Eric McCormack as a neuroscience professor known as the leader is his field and a forensic neuroscience expert who is eccentric, brilliant, and clinically crazy, in that he sees people who aren’t there who talk to him, giving him clues that his conscious mind apparently cannot. He fits the USA main character rubric to a T – he’s absolutely brilliant but has a major personal flaw he must struggle with (for Neal in White Collar, it’s the whole criminal thing, for Monk, OCD, etc.).  He’s approached, in the first episode, by former student, and previous colleague Kate Moretti (played by Rachel Leigh Cook, who seemingly disappeared from acting after She’s All That and Josie and the Pussycats, but reappeared on TV with a reoccurring role in Psych).  Moretti now works for the FBI.  It seems Daniel has helped out Kate before, but left when Kate moved to Virginia, but now that Kate’s back, he’s in again.  She recruits him to help solve the case of a murdered pharmaceutical executive, and he does, in stops and starts, with a little help from his imaginary friends who aren’t really there.  He does this with the help of his student helper, Lewicki, who helps organize his life and tell him if people are really there or not in exchange for free board, and his confidant and advisor Natalie, who we learn at the end of the episode IS ALSO IN HIS HEAD.

This promises to be our week to week format.  Dan uses his brain skills to solve the case, along with help from Kate’s on the ground common sense police work, and learns a little bit about fixing himself, with any luck, along the way.  Maybe there will be some slow character growth or the possibility of a love interest or a new friend, but maybe not.   The entertainment value is simply in how entertaining the cases Daniel must solve are for the viewer.  We’ve seen this show a thousand times.  That doesn’t make it bad, but it makes it very difficult to stand out.

Oh, and LeVarr Burton plays the dean of his school in which I’d hope is a recurring role.   Also, it’s eerily similar to the short-lived Jeff Goldblum NBC show Raines, where Goldblum played a detective who talked to apparitions of crime victims which gave him information about their killers, and then went away when the crime was solved.  Luckily for Perception, the existence of Raines has been all but forgotten.

Will I watch it again?  Week to week, no.  I have enough USA shows in my life that I’m committed to.  On a Saturday afternoon while having coffee and lying on the couch?  Wouldn’t rule it out, if Monk and Pscyh and Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU aren’t on.

Summer 2012 Review: Dallas

7 Aug

Dallas is part of a recent spate of TV soap revivials including the kind of successful 90210 and the unsuccessful Melrose Place, but this revival is of a slightly older show, and with more original characters and actors playing more important parts.

I can sum up what I know about the original Dallas in a couple of sentences.  I know J.R. is the bad one and Bobby is the good one, and that the events take place near and on the Southfork Ranch in Texas.  (Sidenote:  My parents took my brothers and I to the real Southfork Ranch when we visited Dallas as kids).  I knew the Ewings were the good guys and the Barnes’s were the bad guys, and who shot J.R.  I also know the theme song.  That’s about it.

The theme song is back (smart move; the theme is a total classic, and hearkens back to the best of themes from that era) along with J.R., Bobby, as well as Sue Ellen, J.R.’s wife in the original, and now ex-wife, all played by their original actors and actress.  Even as someone who never watched the original Dallas, I can appreciate there’s something to having the old actors back at their classic parts; it’s like watching an old pitcher you didn’t get to appreciate as a youngster back on the team later in his career.  The new major characters are Bobby’s son Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe, who played John Tucker in John Tucker Must Die, and also appeared in Desperate Housewives), and J.R.’s son John Ross (Josh Henderson, also a recurring character in Desperate Housewvies), along with their respective belles, Rebecca (played by third season Veronica Mars actress Julie Gonzalo) and Elena (Fast and Furious veteran Jordana Brewster).  Bobby also has a new wife played by Brenda Strong (best known, you guessed it from Desperate Housewives).

Okay, let’s run through the pilot episode right quick.  Christopher went abroad for a while before the series, where he met Rebecca; they’re now engaged, and he comes back to Southfork for their wedding.  John Ross and Elena made a huge discovery of oil on Southfork, drilling without asking Bobby, owner of the ranch, for permission.  Bobby’s got stomach cancer but is reluctant to tell his family before the wedding.  He visits J.R., who is rotting away in a home, suffering from depression.  While John Ross has put his stock in oil, Christopher is all in on alternative energy, and he’s got a big plan with methane, but he needs money.  Bobby is ready to sell Southfork off to a conservatory to provide him with the cash.  Bobby finds out about the drilling on his land and is furious.  It turns out that Chris’s methane technology has major issues, which John Ross, after spying on Chris’s work to discover the information, threatens to tell Bobby about on the day of the wedding.  Fortunately for Chris, Bobby doesn’t care, and a petulant John Ross goes to see his father who rises up for the first time in ages, spurred by the desire to take back Southfork for himself.  It also turns out that Elena was once engaged to Bobby; they had each thought the other had broken the engagement, but the break up was due to an e-mail sent by a mysterious third party telling Elena that Bobby wasn’t interested anymore.  The episode ends with a handshake deal between Bobby and the woman from the conservatory, followed by consecutive scenes showing that either J.R., John Ross, or both, have the conservatory woman in their pocket.  Oh, also John Ross meets this woman on the center of the new Cowboys field for a reason I’m not aware of.

I’ll admit.  I haven’t really been huge into primetime soaps over the course of my teleiviosion watching days.  I don’t really have a great reason for it.  In fact, after watching all my favorite but often more serious shows, it might be just what I need.  I didn’t watch 90210 or Melrose Place as a kid and I never really got into The OC or Gossip Girl when they were big.  Revenge is a big moment in personal prime time soap history for me, following one regularly, and I quite like it, and while I’m probably not going to watch more Dallas, it really wasn’t bad.  Larry Hagman as J.R. already seemed more put together and cunning than his son in about three minutes of non-comatose time.  The show wasn’t incredibly compelling, but it was a little bit, and the warring family classic soap pattern still has some potential juice in it.  It was irony-free prime time soap, unlike the Gossip Girls of the world, but it seemed like it could have the right level of trash to keep things going.  I may be couching this in a surprising way, but that might be because whenever I watch a show that I don’t have a high expectations for, I have low expectations for it, and even just exceeding those is kind of impressive.  The old characters were actually more riveting than the new.

Will I watch it again?  You know, I probably won’t.  I have Revenge in my life as my current top soap, and it’s better than this, at least from the first episode of each.  Dallas isn’t close to must watch TV.  But I was interested enough to read the quick wikipedia summaries of each episode, and that’s perhaps worth something.  The show is a solid okay.

Summer 2012 Review: Political Animals

23 Jul

Political Animals in an USA miniseries about a Hillary Clinton-like figure who is now Secretary of State and is facing tricky situations both in her job and in her personal life.  We know she’s a Hillary Clinton-like figure, because the character, Elaine Barrish, played by Sigourney Weaver, lost in the Democratic primary for President, and was married to a two-time former President and former Southern governor, and she was appointed Secretary of State after supporting her former rival in the general election.  You don’t get much more similar than that.  On top of that, she divorced her husband right after her campaign ended, but like Hillary, her overall popularity went way up after she became secretary of state, and the election was over, as she showed a much lighter, more human side of her personality.  Rumors were prevalent that she might want one more shot at the white house.

After an opening scene in which she concedes the election and tells her husband she wants a divorce, we skip forward in time two years.  She’s the high-powered secretary of state.  One of her sons is her chief aide, and is having an engagement party.  Her other son, who made waves as the first openly gay child of a serious presidential candidate, (Didn’t Dick Gephardt have a gay daughter? Maybe?  Or maybe he didn’t count) is more troubled, having had serious drug problems, and having attempted suicide in the recent past, which, up to now, the family has been able to keep out of the press.  At the engagement party, Elaine will be seeing her husband for the first time possibly since the divorce, and she’ll also have to deal with her possibly drug using son who wants money from his parents to start a club.

Oh, and while all this personal drama is going on, there’s an international crisis as well.  Iran has arrested three American journalists and is rushing them through a show trial and sentencing them to death.  The only way this can be stopped is for the president to come to Iran, something the president, played by Adrian Pasdar, who finally got the job he ran for in Heroes (as Nathan Petrelli), steadfastly refuses to do on principle.  Elaine finds out that this whole stunt is a ploy from the Iranian president, who wants to improve relations with America, to please his own hard-line supporters, and that the president knew about it, but didn’t agree with the plan, and she’s got to figure out another more creative way to convince the president to try to save these journalists.

While all this is happening, a journalist, played by Carla Gugino, managed to get an exclusive series of interviews with the Secretary of State by threatening to reveal Elaine’s younger son’s suicide attempt, which makes Elaine none too fond of her.  Gugino has her own problems as well, trying to get hard news, while competing with a younger cutesy twee female reporter who writes about less-lofty subjects, and who she suspects may be sleeping with her boyfriend, who is also her editor.

I’ll give it this – it’s certainly, at least, at this early juncture, less “blue skies” than the traditional USA show.  I would imagine we’ll have a fairly successful and happy ending, that won’t exactly be like the end of a Wire season, but for now, she has more serious problems in one episode than characters on some other USA shows deal with in a season.  Sigourney Weaver does her best, and she’s a less instantly likable character than most USA leads, which is also to the show’s credit, I suppose, if we can compare things to their network mates as signs of interesting-ness.

Here’s the issue, as it is with so many shows that get lost in the shuffle.  It’s not bad.  It isn’t.  But it isn’t great, and it doesn’t really look like it has the potential to grow to great.  If it sounds like something you’d like, then, well, it just may well be.  It’s quite watchable, and if the whole thing aired some lazy Sunday I’d consider not leaving the couch for a couple of extra hours.  But there’s no element in the show that reaches out and grabs you and says, well, that’s why you need to see Political Animals.  Most shows don’t have this, so I don’t mean to be harsh; but it’s worth saying.  I’m very mildly interested in what happens next.

Will I watch it again?  Probably not.  It’s not bad, but it’s not quite good enough to go out of one’s way to watch (I do watch a couple other shows that are probably around this level of quality, but these aren’t must watch, they’re just personal preference).  As I said, maybe one day if they’re all repeating and I’m tired or hung over.

Summer 2012 Review: Men at Work

7 Jul

TBS postured its endless series of Men at Work ads throughout the NBA Playoffs (endless is if anything, an understatement, as they appeared at every commercial break at least once in a couple of different forms – scenes from the show, actors talking about their characters, actors pretending to just be hanging out and having a good time) as a show just about men being men.  It’s the anti-Community or insert your favorite super smart deep and layered comedy-here – it’s turn the brain off, and sit down and have some fun, a couple of laughs, and hang out with the bros doing bro stuff.

The problem with that philosophy is that when you go out trying to make a stupid show, you usually end up with a stupid show.

Our main characters are four dudes who are good friends and also co-workers at what appears to be a magazine of some sort.  The show is apparently supposed to be set in New York, which I would never have known except for an offhand reference at the end, it looks far more like the non-descript soundstage on which it’s surely filmed.  If I’ve complained about shows claiming to be set in New York but looking nothing like New York once, I’ve done it a thousand times, but since there’s far worse things about this show, I’ll note it once and move on.

The four guys are all played by TV veterans.  That 70s Show’s Danny Masterson plays Milo, whose girlfriend (played by Amy Smart, who you’d think they’d bring back because why else have someone of her level of fame be in the show for thirty seconds) breaks up with him in the first episode.  His buds are Tyler, played by Michael Cassidy, who had recurring roles in Smallville and The O.C., Gibbs, played by James Lesure who was the sidekick on Las Vegas for several years (it’s definitely sad that Gibbs just makes me think of NCIS) and nerdish Neal, played my hometown East Meadow’s own Adam Busch, who recurred as Season 6 villain Warren in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Neal is the only one in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend Amy, while the others are single and ready to mingle.

I used this word when describing Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management, but it’s just as true here; everything about the show is retrograde.  The laugh track, the that’s-what-men-do situations and banter; it’s like the show ignored the past decade of the evolution of comedy.  I realize there’s an implicit judgment here, but comedy has come so far not just with edgy, interesting shows, but with shows that even simply take the classic formula and just modernize it.  Parks and Recreation is a great example of this.  There’s nothing wild about it’s set up, it’s a workplace comedy essentially but it’s smart, funny, and doesn’t talk down to the viewer.  There’s also room for comedies that don’t make you think a ton; It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia isn’t layered or filled with deeper meaning, but it’s downright hilarious. Easy un-thinking viewing shouldn’t require a lot of thinking for the viewer, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t require thinking for the writers.

Men at Work features old, tired, tropes about what being a man is and treats these tropes in extremely unfunny ways.  No real people hang out like this, and if they did I certainly wouldn’t want to watch it.  The boys take their moping, newly broken up with friend, out to the bar to hit on some hotties and get “rebound ass” (in even more obnoxious fashion, the screen helpfully highlights with a TBS-provided definition of what rebound ass means).

Also, it’s worth noting that the show is created by of all people, actor Breckin Meyer, currently starring in TBS sister network TNT hour long Franklin and Bash (as…Franklin?  that’s a guess and I don’t think I care enough to check further).

Unlike with Anger Management network FX, there has never been a single good TBS comedy so it’s not as if I was expecting otherwise.  I just wish the rest of America would catch up with good taste, and yes, I’m being judgmental.  People out there can watch and enjoy this if they want, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad.  There’s plenty of solid material out there to be written about guys and friends and friends who are guys, but it would be nice if someone thinks about it a little bit before putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?).

Will I watch it again?  Not unless those endless TNT commercials for the show put some sort of hypnotic message in my head which forces me to.

Summer 2012 Review: Anger Management

4 Jul

Sometimes the question is why, and then sometimes after thinking for a moment, the real question turned out to be why not.

With Work It, the question really was why – it was so obviously a bad idea, that it was amazing that the show made it through all the barriers to actually area.

With Anger Management, the question really was why not – it was simply so obvious.

Charlie Sheen-mania has faded quite a bit since Winning and Tiger Blood were guaranteed daily punch lines on late night television, but he’s still a controversial and yet well-liked by many actor who was fired after he headlined one of the most popular comedies of the last decade. In the position he’s in, with limited opportunities, he’s available for a relatively cheap cable sitcom, guaranteed to draw the amount of eyeballs it needs to be a success, which are much lower than the amount that would be needed for a network, merely out of people being curious enough to watch.  And if it fails, well, it wasn’t all that expensive of a gamble.

For all this programming logic, it’s, also unsurprisingly, a terrible program which really couldn’t be less interesting or edgy.  For all the brouhaha of Charlie and his women and his coke and his vague anti-semitism, there isn’t anything remotely edgy or controversial about his work, which couldn’t be more conventional down to the multiple camera set up and the laugh track.  Even the bad commercials for the show, which show Sheen doing crazy things, getting in the way of trains and the like, are 20 times more edgy than the actually show which is about as damn run of the mill a generic sitcom as one could put together.  Charlie Sheen plays an anger management therapist who himself as a dormant anger management problem, which seems to be rearing its ugly head again, requiring counseling (and may have been a former baseball player of some sort, though I was kind of iffy on that part).

What’s even worse, or at least stranger, is that the show seems to have no focus and wants to be five sitcoms at once.  Most simple sitcoms have a couple of dynamics, and core cast groups – friends and co-workers, or family and friends, but Anger Management doesn’t seem to know who the show is about.  We’ve got Charlie’s ex-wife and his daughter as one group.  We’ve got his current best friend, lover, and therapist Kate.  We’ve got his next door neighbor and friend.  We’ve got a random bartender played by Brett Butler (Grace Under Fire) who gives advice to Charlie…I don’t even remember what his name was in the show (can I assume it’s Charlie?  Probably).  We’ve got his therapy group consisting of an old anti-gay veteran, a gay dude, a creepy post-teen and an attractive young woman who just joins the group.  Rather than have any semblance of structure, the show bounces around to all of these groups without having any coherent plot other than Sheen realizing he needs to get therapy again.  That’s already more plot than solid jokes though.  My dad, who has a more retrograde sense of humor than myself, laughed maybe twice, so you can count that as something.

It’s not as flat out irritating as Whitney or 2 Broke Girls, but it’s not far removed.  It’s generally insulting to the viewer, but a slight step up than innaity of those shows, possibly because I expect more from shows that try for a younger audience, where this doesn’t even really try.

It’s hard going into a show knowing it’s going to be terrible, because it’s hard to unfairly bias yourself it against it.  It’s just unfortunate when it keeps being true and it just builds to your bias for future shows.

It’s sad that FX, which has generally made edgy, forward thinking comedy, and even its misses have at least had a shot, is jumping onto something that couldn’t be farther away from every other FX comedy.  Of course, if them putting on this comedy helps them spend money and grow other better comedies with the profit, then I’ll bow to their wisdom, but it’s just as sad that this is what people are more interested in watching.

Will I watch it again?  No, it felt like the show was 40 minutes when it was only 21.  Maybe I’ll catch the last 30 seconds before a future Wilfred or Louie.