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Spring 2014 Review: Chicago PD

3 Feb

Members of the PD

I need to start by saying what an awful name for a show Chicago PD is. It’s a spin-off of Chicago Fire, a name that had two meanings – the Chicago Fire Department, which the show is about, and the Chicago Fire of 1871, which wiped out much of the central city. I’m fairly confident with absolutely no evidence that that’s why the show is set in Chicago. Chicago PD, well, is about the Chicago PD. That’s it. There’s no other meaning. I suppose it’s accurate, so there’s some small credit for that, but still; try harder.

Based on my knowledge of the show and the people involved, I was expecting a mediocre show in the vein of my experience with the pilot of Chicago Fire.  Instead I got a pretty awful show that was significantly worse than my single Chicago Fire viewing.

Like Chicago Fire, Chicago PD is not a procedural as such, in which there’s a single case an episode that the whole team works on. Rather, it’s a show that has single episode elements, but features multiple-episode arcs, A and B plots, and gets to know the personal lives of its characters.

It was the opening that set me in the direction of disliking the show right from the get go. A man is in the back of a car, forcing the car’s driver to pull over in a shady part of town out of view of anyone else. Now, I’m thinking, as the show’s writers must realize, that the guy in the back of the car is a criminal and he’s going to do something bad to the driver. Nope, that’s not the case at all. The backseat driver is our main character cop, Sergeant Voight, and he threatens the driver, a drug dealer, beats him up, and puts a gun to his head to get the name of another drug dealer. He then exhorts the dealer to stay out of Chicago, literally using the words, “Stay out of my city.” If I didn’t hate this character from the insane extralegal actions he took which were ridiculously unethical and uncalled for, and could endanger any convictions he later hopes to get from the information the driver reveals, I would have hated him just for the “Stay out of my city” line.

There are other aspects I didn’t like about the show but this is the biggest problem in a nutshell. I absolutely despised this primary protagonist, Voight, who is the sergeant for our primary team and is supposed to be some sort unorthodox, renegade hero; you know the kind, who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done.  Please, television, enough with that character and more cops that, like real cops, largely play by the actual rules so they can get actual convictions that don’t get laughed out of court. Beyond just that though, he came off as an aggressive, violent asshole.

Chicago PD is emotionally maniupuliative, or it wants to be, but it’s not even good at it. There’s two major moments at the end of the first episode that are supposed to be heart-wrenching but didn’t work, and more so than just because it’s the first episode and it’s hard to feel anything for characters during a first episode.

Voight shows the soft interior under his gruff self when he helps an inner city black youth who is too deep in the drug trade and wants out when he realizes how dangerous it is. In exchange for Voight’s kindness, the boy gives up a crucial piece of info about another drug dealer after convincing himself out loud to Voight that what he’s doing isn’t snitching, so it’s okay. It’s certainly not for me to say what’s realistic and what isn’t, but it seems ham-handed and it definitely seems, if not racist (which I don’t think it is) than, well, an awkward simplistic scene where this kind white authority figure is simply helping out this poor black youth, and everything’s now okay.

People who write Chicago PD, please watch The Wire. Everything that’s wrong with your show can be found in the differences between the two. Now, obviously very little is going to match up to The Wire, and not every cop show has to follow everything The Wire does well to be good. Still, in every way that The Wire largely rings true, doesn’t feel like television, is complex, and interesting, and well-written, is everything Chicago PD is not. It’s simple TV that just feels crazily obsolete in a post-Wire universe. Even the bureaucratic battles between two units which features prominently in the first episode of Chicago PD feels trumped up, unnecessarily loud, and false. There are heroes and villains, and really nothing in between, and yes, it’s not entirely fair to base characterization generalizations on one episode, but everything I saw about the way Sergeant Voight’s bad behavior seemed to be treated by the show and by the other characters told me more than I needed to know.

Will I watch it again? No.  I think there are too many cop shows as it is, so cop shows have to be even better than my normal bar to draw me in. This one not only doesn’t come close, it’s insulting and vaguely offensive.

In Defense of Walter White (Kind Of)

4 Oct

Walter White / Heisenberg

I’ll have my belated post about the finale and the final season soon enough but here I’m going to combine a couple of other Breaking Bad-related topics I’ve been thinking about into one entry.  Bear with me.  I want to address two separate issues here. First, I want to touch on the is-Walt-evil debate, and second, after hopefully I’ve least convinced you I’m not one of those terrible Walt apologists everyone keeps complaining about, I want to explain the aspects of Walt that I respect, in spite of the more obvious aspects that I don’t.

Walter White is definitely a bad guy, not in the sense of villain or antagonist, but in the sense of the moral antecedent to good.  He does things throughout the show that are bad things by just about all but the most relativist standard.  If I had to choose, the worst was poisoning a child, but of course it’s silly to choose.  He’s done bad shit, There’s no doubting that, and there’s no getting around.  Is he evil though?

The definition of evil is obviously largely a matter of semantics (don’t worry, I’m not going to bust out a whole Websters-defines-evil-as here).  Still to me, evil is such a damning word that to use it when it’s not warranted is to lessen Its power. Some people throw about the word evil while talking about Walter White in ways that I I think undermine what evil truly is.

Many people, people I know, and people who seriously care about television consider Walter White evil.  Walter White, the Onion AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff describes Walter White, in an article about good and evil in Breaking Bad as a “very evil man.”

I don’t see it.  Part of this is semantics. In my admittedly stiff definition evil consists of causing harm for absolutely no reason. Walt commits several horrific acts during the course of Breaking Bad, but he never commits the act because he enjoys it or because it’s fun or because people should just die. Every horrific act has internal logic behind it. Even the poisoning of Brock was done for a reason, as it started the events in motion which led to the death of Gus Fring. Fring’s eventual demise likely would never have happened without Brock’s poisoning. It doesn’t make Walt’s act any less vile or wrong, but it does make him not necessarily evil for doing it.

I am currently reading the excellent “The Storm of War” by Andrew Roberts about World War II.  I read chapters about the holocaust and the no less despicable Japanese brutality that occurred in the Eastern war.  I’ve read these stories time and again, but the enormity of the acts never fails to strike me emotionally every time I do.  The deliberate killing of people because you don’t like them.  That’s fucking evil.  Killing people because they pose a threat to your criminal empire?  It’s terrible, it’s morally wrong, and it’s criminal. But it isn’t evil to me.  I admit I’m cheating here by using Nazism as a counter-example, which is just about as evil as evil gets; but the point stands.

Still, let’s move on from the extremes and the semantics, VanDerWerff compares Walter White unfavorably evil-wise to Tony Soprano.  I’d list out the terrible acts both have committed and try to compare and contrast but that’s really beyond the point, and his argument is admittedly less about the acts each of the characters commit than how they are viewed in the context of the show. It’s an intelligently written and worthwhile piece but it’s far too extreme in its reading of Breaking Bad. More than that, it shortchanges Breaking Bad.  There’s an internal logic to almost everything that Walt does that we can follow along with even when we don’t agree with him.  We know why he’s doing it, or at least why he thinks he’s doing it.  The beauty of the show is that each act takes him a little farther from home, moving him away from a moral compass a little more, but because it’s step-by-step, it seems to make a little bit of sense each time.

The genius of Breaking Bad is more than this though. Mr. Chips to Scarface, is the line Vince Gilligan has used to describe his goal for Breaking Bad from day one, and the show was almost there by the start of the final season. Walt was finally going to turn on the only couple of beliefs he had ever claimed to really care about.  Except he doesn’t and that’s part of what makes all the internally consistent but externally terrible choices he made over the past few seasons really hold up in hindsight.

Walt’s actions led to Hank’s death but after events in the final season there’s no question he actually cares about Hank. Walt may not have acted like he cared but he made several decisions in the final season which showed he did.  He actually cared about Jesse as well.  Their relationship may have gone to shit eventually and Walt often didn’t act in Jesse’s best interest, but if you really don’t think Jesse meant anything to Walt you weren’t watching the same show.  Walt has some tiny, little semblance of a moral compass.  It’s broken and perverse but Walt did have something he believed in, something he cared about, even when he didn’t actually act in the way that bettered that belief, and that adds a dimension to the show that VanDerWerff shortchanges.

I’m not a Walt apologist.  He’s a bad dude.  He makes many, many bad decisions, and he absolutely deserved everything that came to him.  He’s committed many crimes and some unforgivable acts. Still, I declaring him out and out evil lacks the nuance with which Vince Gilligan and his writers due such a brilliant job of imbuing Breaking Bad.

Okay, second half where I talk about what I admire about Walter White.  This is a vastly more polarizing viewpoint, I think, and I hope I’ve convinced you that I’m not a total Walt is number one awesome badass supporter to follow along.

Here’s what I actually admire about Walter White.  I’ll again repeat how terrible a person he’s been to Jesse and his family, and how many morally repulsive and criminal acts he’s committed along the way as I disclaimer to my not thinking Walt is the coolest drug lord eva.  Moving forward.

Over the course of the series, Walter White makes something out of himself.  What he achieves is certainly a sordid twist on the American Dream, but it’s not that hard to see the dream in there.  As a man, at a time of desperation, beaten down at age 50, having learned he has a deadly disease, it would be easy to pack it in.  Instead, largely through his own ingenuity, ambition, and genius, he finds a market with an opening, creates a product that’s vastly superior to whatever’s available currently and slowly begins to take over levels of distribution through vertical integration.  Is it an illegal product, a highly addictive substance.  But essentially it’s still a American definition of economic success, capitalism 101.

Walter White doesn’t have a gift.  He wasn’t born with this.  He’s smart, but he could never figure out how to use his particular abilities, and the one time he did, ended up not working out.  He settled into a groove, and that was fine.  He lived a satisfying life.  But he, in a way that I think is very relatable, craved something more.  He felt like he had never really done all he could with his skills, achieved his potential. While most people might have that feeling, he actually went out and did something about it.

I understand this is maybe an extreme way to feel. Walt clearly hurt a lot of people in his path, and it hasn’t been smooth, easy, or legitimate.  But Walter White, at the same time he was doing all these awful things, started showing off an array of skills that I wish I had, albeit it not to use the same way.  The confidence, the braggadocio that causes many of Walt’s problems are an integral part of the reason he’s able to be so successful in the first place.  That confidence when, it wasn’t a hindrance, was a huge asset. Walter White, at a more advanced age than most, changed in his life. While these changes eventually led to his downfall, even his most ardent critics couldn’t say what he did wasn’t impressive or that anybody could do it.

Walt is not an admirable person on the whole, and it’s obviously important to note that.  But biographies are written about controversial and infamous figures because studying people isn’t that easy.  Under all unabashed ego and reprehensible acts are some admirable qualities and I think it’s worth taking a second to point them out.

Summer 2013 Review: Broadchurch

28 Aug

Broadchurch Broadchurch is a British show about the investigation into the murder of an 11-year old boy in a small beach community in England. Broadchurch’s premise immediately made me think of The Killing and The Bridge, and the three of them combined over the past couple of years officially makes there an early 2010s trend of very serious season-long (or longer) murder investigation series.  I’m getting tired of the premise, largely because there are so many other interesting show ideas that aren’t getting made because of them (different generally > same, all else being equel) , and because these shows have inherent limitations. Because the murder investigation is the thing in these shows, it’s kind of hard to figure out what to do once the murder is solved, and if, because of that, you can’t solve the murder for a long time, that can lead to some problematic forced stretching it out, as fans of The Killing learned once upon a time.

That disclaimer said, I should also mention I appear to be a sucker for these shows.  Or maybe they just seem to start off particularly well.  The Killing drew me in, The Bridge drew me in at least well enough that I’m still watching it even while feeling somewhat ambivalent about the show, and while I was initially skeptical of Broadchurch because of the premise, I liked it enough that I find myself rationalizing that I’ll at least give it a couple episodes so hopefully it doesn’t break my heart with some terrible twist and huge anticlimax.

So, Broadchurch.  We start with what seems like an ordinary family in a bright little seaside community.  Mum, dad (I don’t know what British for dad is), grandmum, and older sis go about their morning routines only to realize later in the day that their son/grandson/brother Danny is nowhere to be found. He never went to school or to his daily early morning paper route, the paper route being why it would be normal for his family not to have noticed him missing right away.  Soon, it turns out the worst of all possible outcomes is the one that transpired.  Danny’s dead, lying on the beach.  The two lead detectives on the case are a grim-faced veteran who is apparently trying to make up for an embarrassing scandal of some sort of that we haven’t learned about yet and a local detective whose son was best friends with the dead boy and who is having a particularly hard time because of her close relationship to the case and because it seems to be her first murder case of any kind (I’m not positive on this; I’m guessing from context, but be aware I’m possibly reading it wrong).

It’s hard to tell who else will become main character besides the family and the cops but it appears the leading candidates are the female detective’s nephew, a young hungry local journalist who sees this story as a possible way to move himself up in the world, and a big city female journalist who convinces her editor to send her out to the country to write about the case. Towards the end of the episode, the head detective (played by David Tennant, of erstwhile Dr. Who fame), gives a press conference where he asks for information and lets the killer know there’s nowhere to hide, and we see lots of people all around town watching.  The killer could be anybody, this reminds us, as well as that small towns hide lots of secrets. There’s always dangers of potential cliches when it comes to tv cops, and by far my biggest initial concern is Tenant’s possible cardboard cutout serious-police-officer-looking-to-make-up -for-a-major-mistake-in-the-past .  However, at least in the first episode, ; even though I knew it was a tripe, it surprisingly didn’t bother me too much while watching.  This is the type of problem that could wear on me over time; I’m hopeful the character is invested with some depth and that Tennant is equal to the challenge.

It’s really hard to end these type of mysteries in a satisfying way, particularly since no matter how much it’s supposed to be about the journey and the experience, a disappointing ending that either comes out of nowhere or is too obvious or is simply unsatisfying puts a disappointing sheen on the entire series.  Additionally, this concept doesn’t necessarily play well over multiple seasons, which was the problem The Killing had; it’s hard to not feel like the show is being artificially lengthened after a point, or there’s one too many red herring, and the viewers simply feel jerked around. The small coastal town is a beautiful setting and the element present in the small town mystery here, unlike in the big cities in which The Killing and The Bridge are set, is the everybody-knows-everybody angle.  The first episode showed a smart amount of restraint and hopefully Broadchurch can maintain the difficult balance between moving the plot along at a fair pace while holding on to the emotional core and avoiding melodrama.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I’m going to.  It looks pretty, the acting is solid, and it has the most basic element that got humans reading and watching mysteries once upon a time.  Whodunnit?  Hell, I want to know.  I hope I will care this much about who did it halfway through the season. It’s not close to the most unique or different show I’ve seen and I’m hesitant for the reasons I’ve mentioned to get too confident that Broadchurch will keep it up, but it passed the all-important I-want-to-watch-the-second-episode-right-after-I-finish-the-first-episode test.

Summer 2013 Review: Graceland

26 Aug


We’re gong to Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, as Paul Simon might say.   Actually check that – Graceland  in this context is instead is the nickname of a gorgeous beach house in sunny Southern California seized by the Feds from a drug lord that is now home to a panoply of young, hot, federal agents from the FBI, DEA and Customs.

Graceland starts with the new kid, recent valedictory FBI graduate Mike Warren, moving into Graceland to take the spot of Donnie Banks, a DEA agent who was recently shot after a drug deal gone wrong.   Mike, who thought he was sticking in DC, has to learn the ways of sunny SoCal quickly, studying up on his Spanish and getting a crash course in how to surf and wear flip flops by the other guys of the house.  The ostensible leader of Graceland is the legendary FBI agent Paul Briggs, whose training scores in school and quick rise through the system is well known by agents far and wide.  Briggs does his work to the beat of his own drum; another agent tells Mike that Briggs was once suit and tie but took a leave of absence can came back all zen, kind of llike a non-bank robbing Patrick Swayze in Point Break.

Mike’s first assignment is a reverse buy, where he sells drugs to a low level guy vaguely affiliated with a Russian gang. It goes right, wrong, right, wrong, and then right again, until both him and the guy are arrested, with the idea that the guy will not realize he’s been played if he sees Mike get arrested too.  All that hard work does not pay off when an idiotic officer brings the perp right through where Mike is stationed after he’s back in his FBI jacket.

The poor low level perp is in big trouble when the big bad Russian gang tells them his family will be basically kidnapped and held hostage to ensure his not talking;, but there’s a possible out.  The perp panics and claims Mike, rather than being an FBI agent, which could get him and his family killed, is instead the perp’s brother-in-law, and if Mike does a favor for these Russians, well then, maybe the family will be safe after all.

Mike’s first day just got a whole lot more difficult.  Mike, now posing as the junkie brother-in-law, convinces the Russians to let him murder someone for them in exchange for releasing the family, and gently guides the FBI to his location by speaking clever cues through a transmitter on his watch (Horace Greeley would not approve, means he’s going east – the opposite of Greeley’s famous “Go West, Young Man”).  Trouble nearly strikes again when it turns out the man they want him to kill is Banks, the agent whose room he took, and a sticky situation Is resolved when Mike convinces Banks that he’s FBI, even though he’s not carrying a badge.

Mike fires six shots into the floor, tells the Russians he’s done the deed, but they’re oddly suspicious, something’s not right, and just in time Agent Briggs sprints in from out of nowhere and after trying to convince the Russians to put their hands up, shoots both Russians.  At the very end of the episode a major twist is revealed; int turns out Mike was actually sent there by the FBI to spy on Briggs, who they believe might be dirty, or at least up to something fishy.

Graceland follows the USA formula to a T. It features the young and the good looking working in sunny locales  for the forces of good.  Lawyers, cops, and doctors are the three big procedural professions, and USA loves all of them.  The characters bond; everyone’s in it for each other even though they might get on each others nerves occasionally in the heat of battle.  They work hard and they play hard.  They all have nicknames, and I would imagine some love will brew between Mike and one of the two female agents. There’s a lot of style, not a ton of substance, and the style is a USA house style; slick, glossy, bright and fun.  There are moments of extreme tension but there’s never grime; the dark grays and browns of many FX shows have no place on USA. The characters in USA shows often seem the same; the flawed genius/savant that House MD made huge again is a favorite, and the mysterious Briggs looks like he’s going to fit that role here.

It’s not bad by any means, it’s just, well, the same.  While I’m watching, I want to see what happens to the drug bust gone wrong, but when it’s over, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.  And that’s potentially fine, not every show has to have you racking your cranium for days.  Still, when you’re choosing shows to watch for that kind of visceral fun without the heavy big ideas, there are better choices than this (might I suggest Orphan Black?).  Very watchable should not be enough to get our viewership in this day and age with so many good shows on so many channels.

Quick note: There’s a bizarre scrolling text opening describing the origin of the house Graceland, which is both entirely unnecessary and, which gives it kind of s ‘70s feel.

Will I watch it again?  No.  I’ve seen well more than my necessary lifetime share of USA shows, and I don’t mean that begrudgingly, but until they do something different it’s hard for me to get very interested.  Graceland is very decent; I enjoyed watching the first episode well enough, but it’s hard to see a lot of payoff going forward.  I would watch an episode or two with my dad if the occasion comes up or if it’s on TV as I’m falling asleep/just waking up but I’m certainly not investing the time to watch every episode of a show that I’ll pretty much forget about after I watch.

Summer 2013 Review: The Fosters

23 Aug

Foster has two meanings

Deep in the bowels of ABC Family Channel, where males and people above the age of 30 don’t venture very often, we may have on our hands, if it goes in the best possible direction, a potential successor to Friday Night Lights.  Not plot-wise, as The Fosters has absolutely nothing to do with football. What I mean, rather, is a successor to the type of emotionally honest, compelling, and heart-wrenching relationships between teenagers, their family, and their friends that Friday Night Lights mastered more than any show in recent times.

The Fosters is about an interracial lesbian couple, Stef and Lena, (shout out for seeing that on TV – pretty awesome) who live with a son from Stef’s previous marriage, Brandon, and two Hispanic twins, Jesus and Mariana, they took it when the twins were around 6 or 7, I’m guessing, based on the timeline given, and whom they eventually fully adopted.  To this already busy home, comes a new teenage girl, Callie, who may be troubled, is coming out of juvenile detention, and needs a place to say.  Lena, who is an assistant principal at the charter school which her kids attend, sees something in Callie’s eyes and can’t resist taking her in just for a few weeks until she finds a more permanent home.  The first scene of the entire series is of this poor girl, Callie, having her ass kicked in in an absolutely brutal fashion, devoid of context, in juvenile detention, by girls jealous that she’s getting out.  Stef, the relative hard-ass of the marraige, is a cop.

Everyone in the family is a little bit thrown by the new girl, and Stef is not thrilled that her wife made such a major decision, inviting a stranger into their home, without discussing it first (Lena called Stef a number of times, but she was busy and din’t answer).  Callie seems troubled; she may have issues after all, and she calls the lesbians dykes right out at the dinner table on her first night, not generally a way to get welcomed into a new home. Fortunately, the family sees it for what it probably is, a teenager trying to antagonize and takes it in stride.  The main episode plotlines from here are two fold.

First, in the A plot, Callie wants to go back to where she was from, for someone named Jude, who she calls, and who sounds like may be a boyfriend.  She gets ready to ditch school after lunch, and the Brandon, who has a musical performance that evening, decides to come with, to watch her back if nothing else.  It turns out she wants to go back to her old foster home to save her brother from a violent foster father.  Callie and Brandon get into some trouble there, and the father seems like a genuinely bad dude in the two minutes we see him, but eventually everyone finds them and they end up okay, and the brother is safe and coming home with the family as well, at least for now.

In the B story, the female twin, Mariana, wants to meet her birth mom.  Mariana early in the episode is seen by the viewer and Callie stealing some of her bother’s pills. While Lena was supposed to be arranging this, interaction between Mariana and her mother, Mariana was talking to her mom on the internet with no intermediary.  Her and her mom arranged to meet and it turns out that the birth mom asked Mariana for money, which she sold some pills to put together.  Her brother finds out and reams her out – their birth mom abandoned them and he can’t understand why she, the smart one, doesn’t see that. When she finally meets her mom, she’s disappointed; instead of someone who seems to really care, her mom seems like someone more interested in the money.  She goes home to be with her real family and takes part in the heartwarming moments that follow.

Now, getting back to the FNL comparisons, here’s more on why The Fosters reminded me. of FNL  The people feel like real people, and the family feels like a real family.  The writing isn’t amazing in the sense of hyper crisp plotting or brilliant lyrical dialogue, but it is in the sense that within just one episode the show assembles an entire set of character which all feel authentic.  Similar to FNL, it looks like there are very few bad guys; there isn’t a major antagonist character – every character who spends at least some time on screen is largely decent, if sometimes deeply flawed, even when it may seem like they’re no good at first blush.  This is exactly the The Fosters was up to with Cassie, who seemed like a bad girl running home to a boyfriend, but instead was out to save her brother from abse.  First impressions are misleading; people are usually not as bad when you give them a chance.

Like in FNL as well, I can imagine a penchant for occasional mildly overdoing it melodrama; emotional moments are everywhere, and the show is going to tug your damn heartstrings a lot.  But what that mostly says is that they have the ability to pull those heartstrings.  What’s remarkable is that I felt really moved during the climax scenes that occur near the pilot’s end, and in a way that didn’t feel cheap or emotionally manipulative like most shows would if they made you actually feel feelings in the first episode.

Quick unrelated note – can we cool it with the in-show hashtags, ABC Family?  When Mariana was stealing pills seven minutes or so into the show, a #MarianasSecret came up in the corner, before I even really remembered Mariana’s name.

Will I watch it again?  It’s still not an instant yes, for circumstantial reasons as much as anything else.  The fall is coming, and that’s busy tv season; I probably should have watched this months ago. But I’ll say yes, because this deserves to be a yes, (I know that’s cheating a little bit – but hell I usually don’t know for certain that I’ll watch any show again except in rare circumstances, this time I’m just being honest).  This is not in the first tier of shows I particularly loved this year like The Americans and Rectify or even Orange is the New Black but it is good. It’s often the type of show that’s not particularly up my alley, so I think the fact that I cared for a good amount may say even more.

Summer 2013 Review: The White Queen

14 Aug

She's white, and a Queen

Here’s the best thing about The White Queen.  In an incredibly bizarre coincidence, the first episode was written by a writer named Emma Frost, the pseudonym of Marvel character White Queen.  Now the not as good.

The first episode of The White Queen, in short.  The series takes place during The War of the Roses, beginning when Edward IV has just been crowned king. A recently widowed woman whose family is on the Lancaster side of the conflict meets the Yorkist king.  In about five minutes, they fall in love, and he loves her so much in these five minutes that he proposes marriage.  She can’t tell her parents, who are wary of her even seeing the king.  He’s on the wrong side, and even though Romeo and Juliet wasn’t invented yet, opposing loyalties are powerful and all that.  She accepts, because, fuck, he’s the king, and he’s handsome to boot, and they get secretly married.  The show then basically spends the last thirty minutes going back and forth between whether the secret marriage was just a ploy by the king to have sex with her or was a legitimate marriage, and it turns out it was legitimate, although the King’s cousin and closest adviser and the king’s mom are both opposed to the marriage, which presumably will lead to trouble later on.

As previously mentioned, The White Queen is a piece of historical fiction about the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner, and King Edward IV during The War of the Roses. While the White Queen is historical, and Game of Thrones is fantasy, Game of Thrones, like most fantasy, is set during quasi-medieval times, and in particular based some of its conceptual framework on the War of the Roses  White Queen may not actively be attempting to imitate Game of Thrones, but  some of the ideas and characters and themes seem similar enough to look kind of like the original, but a version that came out all twisted and broken.

Examples of similarities include a young king who halts a potential kingdom-making royal marriage to marry a commoner he’s smitten with, dueling royal familie, with people switching sides depending on which way the wind is blowing, a strong maternal female character who is the brains behind her family’s oafish male counterparts, and even some magic.   I won’t get on the show too much for not looking as good as Game of Thrones because of the probably production budget differences, but it doesn’t.

The White Queen is like Game of Thrones without all the parts that make Game of Thrones good.  That’s probably too harsh for the sake of being snappy and concise but it’s not off point.  The biggest single condemnation I can make of the show is that feels hollow. Everything that happens feels like empty exposition with nothing behind it and I struggled to find a reason to care or invest myself.  Obviously it’s hard to create a ton of characterization in the first episode of a series, but I don’t feel like I know the characters at all.   The characters felt like written descriptions rather than actual characters.  Not only do I feel like I know nothing about the new queen and king, but they didn’t sell me at all on their unlikely love that is supposed to get this story going.   She’s supposed to be such a mind-mindbogglingly charismatic commoner that the king would swear off a smart foreign marriage for her, and I don’t get that here. The episode felt largely artless; even outside of the characters there was no sense of direction, writing, or aesthetic that gave me reason to want to step back into this world for another episode.

When I finished the episode, I just didn’t care, not about the forbidden love, not enough to root for the king, or the White Queen, or the queen’s practical, possibly magic mother, or, well, anything.  It’s not compelling, and in a post Game of Thrones world, it’s hard for me to not watch this fantasy show without making the comparison, which as mentioned above does not suit The White Queen well. I’m not sure whether the mere existence Yorks and Lancaster is supposed to make us feel the charge of how forbidden this love. Maybe in England, you can just say Yorks and Lancasters and you automatically get the sense of instant rivalry that North and South in the Civil War would bring in America.  I understand historically that Yorks vs. Lancasters was a big deal, but I would like the show to convince me of that through storytelling rather than mention it a couple of times and have it assumed so due to historical context. There’s a real cheap attempt in the last two minutes to keep prolonged interest in the show when the new queen sees a possibly magical vision of her own blood, but other than that I’m not sure what I have to look forward to.

Will I watch it again?  Nope.  Honestly, the best I can say about The White Queen is that it reignited my interest in the War of the Roses. I know I’m a history nerd, but it’s probably not a great sign if I enjoy the reading about the real life characters on Wikipedia more than I do watching the show.

Summer 2013 Review: Low Winter Sun

12 Aug

Stanley Tucci-lookalike Mark Strong

Here’s what I know about Low Winter Sun after one episode.

There are two main plot strains, both diverging from a detective, Brendan McCann, who is killed in the first scene by two other detectives, Frank, and Joe.  They kill him and then attempt to make it look like a suicide, handcuffing his arm to his car, and driving his car into a lake.

The next day, Internal Affairs comes into the Detroit office of these two detectives asking all sorts of questions about Brendan.  It turns out Brendan was super dirty, though we don’t know the exactly details, and Joe seems to have been involved somehow, leading him to want Brendan, a notorious drunk who could give him away, dead.  Frank, who seemed to want Brendan dead as part of some sort of revenge, seems to honestly know nothing about Brendan’s dirty history and is outraged at Joe for failing to mention these selfish motives.  Soon, the cops find Brendan’s body, so far think it’s a suicide, and also find a body in the trunk of Brendan’s car that Frank and Joe know nothing about.  Frank’s boss puts him in charge of looking into it, which could be problematic since Frank was the one who killed him.

The second strain involves some guys involved with drugs who were paying off Brendan to do some shady stuff for them.  The primary drug plot guy, whose name might be Nick, killed another drug dealer in an early scene, stole some drugs, and is trying to figure out whether Brendan double crossed him or simply didn’t show up because he was drunk when he finds out that Brendan’s done.  There’s some drugs and some major organized crime and some family drama going on, but it’s hard to tell where this is going from the first episode, as this strain is a lot less well defined than the police plot.

It’s grimy, dark, bleak, depressing.  It takes place in Detroit, which is probably the best place currently to set a show if you want to give off that feel, but it feels less like Detroit than the idea of Detroit, or maybe more accurately ’70s urban America when it seemed like every big city was overrun by crime and corruption and on the verge of collapse.  Everything’s super seedy and shady, with that ’70s urban noir French Connection type feel – this is a lousy place to live that’s more seedy underbelly than well, upright overbelly.  Any cop might be on the payroll, and it seems like corruption may be more the norm than the exception, as the boss figure mentions that several people in his position have gone down due to corruption in recent years.  This pervasive atmosphere of a place where the American dream got lost a long time ago down some gutter is the most consistent feature of the show, guiding it when we’re not sure exactly what the show is about otherwise.

Where Low Winter Sun is going – I’m not exactly sure.  Frank clearly has some sort of tragic history involving a woman, who I’m guessing died.  He’s going to dig deeper into whatever the big corruption situation was, particularly involving Joe, who he’s now tied to, thanks to their collective murder. As for the drug plot, it’s less clear.  That story didn’t quite feel like it belonged, except for its tie in with the atmosphere and the dead cop, but I imagine the two stories could meet at some point as Frank investigates.

Yeah, it looks totally hopeless.  There is absolutely no humor or levity of any kind. Yes, it could easily descend into cop clichés. It’s a cop show, and it’s hard for cop shows not to fall into that, and Low Winter Sun certain dips its toes into the cliche pool on more than one occasion.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think we need another cop show right now, and i think the world would be served by a five year moratorium on new cop shows.  Low Winter Sun certainly seems to be another in the middle-aged-white-male-antihero subgroup of dramas, started by Tony Soprano, and promulgated further by Don Draper and Walter White, (and several more lesser versions since including Boardwalk Empire) a genre that’s definitely in danger of jumping the shark.

Still, while I’m not sure there’s potential for greatness here, I do think there’s potential for goodness.  Mark Strong has made a living playing villains and he gets to play a character who seems to be at the least not entirely evil, which for him is a step up on the morality scale. The choice of casting someone as associated with villainy as Strong helps set the tone for the show, along with having the protagonist commit murder in the first scene of the series which seems potentially gimmicky but which I found somewhat compelling. Frank is already morally compromised within five minutes of the series beginning.  Unlike with Draper and White where the instinct is to root for them until you get to know them better, when Frank kills someone right away, the instinct is to root against him.   All he has going for him is that it seems like it’s instinctual to root against everyone in this show, which may make him the good guy in a very relative sense. The show is mightily grim and it certainly begs the question, Is there such a thing as too grim?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I may have a higher tolerance for grim-ness than most.  It’s so far a fairly one note show, built around this atmosphere and tone.  But I don’t think it’s necessarily such a bad note.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah, I think I might.  It was certainly not an instant winner but the abject bleakness appeals to me more than it might to others, and while its attitude could get tired fast, especially depending on how close It sticks to the traditional cop formulas, I think I’m willing to give it a couple of episodes to see if it does.  I didn’t immediately want to watch the next episode which is the sign of a pilot that really does its job, but it passed the minimum test of giving me at least one aspect that I find intriguing, which is the tone.

Summer 2013 Review: Camp

26 Jul

Camp time

Camp is set in, well, a summer camp, of the sleep away variety, that is pretty much exactly what you think of when you think of a summer camp.  It’s remarkable; because camp exists as a two month vacation from technology and the pressures of today’s modern world, the camp in Camp, and anywhere else, looks almost identical to camps of twenty and thirty years ago, such as the one featured in Wet Hot American Summer.  The only significant differences are the fashion and the presence, in Camp’s camp, of “We Run the Night” by Havana Brown.

Talented actress Rachel Griffiths (best known for her portrayal of Brenda on Six Feet Under) plays camp director Mackenzie “Mac” Granger.   While the beginning of the camp summer starts in some respects like any other, it isn’t business as usual at the camp this year, because Mac’s husband (Jonathan LaPaglia, who is a younger ,poor man’s Anthony) cheated on her with a much younger Eastern European woman, and left her, and on top of that, because of him, the camp is on extremely shaky financial ground.  She may be forced to sell her beloved camp to smarmy Australian rival Roger, who runs the fancy camp for rich jerks down the road where they have lobsters and jet skis.

Of course, there’s a bevy of kids as well for us to care about.  There’s a couple of kids who are new to the camp this year. There’s Kip, a punk outcast city kid, whose leukemia is in remission and who wants no part of summer camp until he meets Marina, a girl who the cool camp veteran girls, who seem to be mean girl-ish, refuse to give the time of day.  The two of them unintentionally keep hanging out with Buzz, Mac’s half-idiot son who is constantly getting into trouble and desperately wants to sleep in a different cabin than his mom, and have sex by the end of the summer, though the former prospect seems a lot more likely than the latter.  Cole is an older guy, probably in his late ’20s, and seems to be in charge of something (maintenance, wikipedia tells me) and greatly respects Mac and her hopeful and optimistic spirit which keeps the camp afloat.  Robbie who is also a veteran in charge of something (activities, says wikipedia) has a yearly summer fling with Sarah; they don’t communicate all year outside of Camp, and tensions brew when he tells her he may be attending law school where she goes to college.

Camp is a  dramedy, for whatever that genre word is worth. It’s as not a comedy – it’s not funny, and there aren’t that many jokes.  It’s tone is light and airy and occasionally sentimental.  There’ll be some crying, but then some heart-warming moments to redeem said crying.  There’ll be some sex, but it’ll be fun sex, rather than dark sex or sleazy sex or really emotional sex.  There are soapy elements to attempt to keep viewers interested but what Camp would like to be is something that makes you smile as you pass the time.

There’s nothing particularly new or interesting, and for what it’s worth I doubt the creators are attempting to be particularly groundbreaking.  The characters are your regularly rag tag summer bunch, and they’re definitely trope-ish but not over the top, to their credit – the tropiest characters are the side characters that provoke, like some bullies from the rich camp that harass some of the characters.  Camp, to be a success, would rely on developing and strengthening the characters over time, and while it’s eminently possibly that these characters could become something one could care about, there’s not quite enough in the first episode to hook us in further to find out.

It’s fairly unmemorable summer programming.  Nobody knows this show exists, it will be cancelled before the month is out mostly likely, and no one will know that it’s gone.  If a program airs on a network that not that many people watch anyway, and no one watches it, was it every really on?

One note – the first episode is notable if nothing else, for a little public service announcement moment.  Teenager Buzz calls something “faggy” and his buddy/possible future love interest Grace, who has two dads, is naturally offended.  Buzz attempts to defend himself to two of the other characters by saying, as many teens do, that “faggy” and “retarded” just mean lame, that he has no problem with gay people, but they, rightfully, tell him otherwise, and he actually apologizes.  It’s kind of a nice teaching moment for an issue that hasn’t yet gone away.

Will I watch it again?  No, it’s not going to happen.  It was fine.  I have no particular qualms with the show, which is far as I’ll go, but shows have to give you some reason to keep watching besides not being bad, and there isn’t one.

Summer 2013 Review: Orange is the New Black

19 Jul

Orange is indeed the New Black

Before I say anything else, I want to say that I absolutely love the title, “Orange is the New Black.”  Most titles are just fine; they describe the show or feature the name of the main character or characters and occasionally a show’s title will be out and out bad.  I rarely come across one I like enough to single it out for praise and when I do, I want to make sure it’s noted.  Great title!

Moving on.

Orange is the New Black is the story of the 15 month imprisonment of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).  Chapman is a middle to upper middle class early-to-mid thirty-something white person who is engaged to Larry, played by Jason Biggs (yes, it’s hard to try to take him seriously; but it’s hardly his fault, so let’s try).  Right after college, a decade ago, she agreed to carry some money to Belgium for her drug dealer girlfriend she was in love with at the time.  That period in her life passed, and now she’s in a much different place, but it comes back to bite her when she gets indicted for her role carrying the drug money, just before the statute of limitations has passed.  Chapman made a deal, based on her lawyer’s advice, to agree to a sentence in prison, rather than fight the charges, and she has to put her life on hold for over a year while facing a terrifying challenge she could never have imagined happened, especially as her single transgression took place so long ago.

Piper Chapman is a character that I, and probably most of the target demographic for the show, can easily relate to.  She’s middle class or higher, bright, college educated, erudite, who made a mistake as a recent graduate in love which is coming back to haunt her years later.  Jail isn’t something that would enter her world as a serious possibility in life. Piper read a book about prison before she went in, detailing strategies for survival, like one might read before entering college or grad school.  It’s exactly what someone like myself might do in the same situation.

Piper’s not like most people we see in prison on TV.  Most movies and television series set in jail either feature what we think of as career criminals types, white collar criminals who committed murder or major fraud, or someone framed after a complicated conspiracy or miscarriage of justice.  Many television and film prisons are the worst of the worst; places where you’d be lucky to survive a day, let alone a month.  Piper’s prison is a scary place but not Oz-terrifying, which adds to making her predicament feel all the real. It’s so terrifying because it is less over the top.

When Jerry Seinfeld hosted Saturday Night Live in 1999, he did a parody of Oz, through the observational comedy lens of an episode of Seinfeld.  It was funny because Oz is a fairly humorless brutal show where nearly every episode features a murder and a rape, and the humor felt so out of place.  That incongruity is a part of the prison in Orange is the New Black.  Prison is both a cruel and terrible place and a place with seemingly misplaced moments of lightness, because, hey, you have to make it through the day to day, and any place people have to do it, they find a way to make light occasionally because the alternatives are a shitty situation and sulking 24/7 about it.

I’ve read the word dramedy used to describe Orange is the New Black and as much as that word is a clear hedge for shows that don’t meet our preconceived conceptions of comedy or drama, in this case, it’s about right.  It’s not laugh out loud funny but it makes you smile and occasionally chuckle (chortle even maybe?).  The genius of Orange is the New Black is i’s ability to make prison seem both amusing and terrifying at the same time.  Not even amusing because it’s so terrifying, but generally amusing. We’re discovering the little quirks of being a prisoner along with Piper.  Adjusting is extremely difficult and there’s no getting around that; Piper has to partially successfully hold in tears constantly during her first day and making it until her fiancé can visit is extremely rough.  Still, the most shocking thing about the prison is that both all the stories are and aren’t true at the same time.  All the lesbian sex, the racial tribalism, the you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours, the little tricks to escape the attention of the guards.  But at the same time, people have a capacity for standing by one another, a bond, and there’s plenty of seemingly incongruous light moments when prisoners help each other out, or make a joke at her expense, but to be lighthearted, rather than to be cruel. This is about the day to day.  How do you make it through within wanting to kill yourself?  She’s learning and so are we.

So often I beg television to prove me with something new, and something new Orange is the New Black delivers.  New doesn’t always have to mean revolutionary.  Sure, we’ve seen jail before but never with a protagonist like this, never with a tone like this, and never in a jail like this.  It’s interesting, it’s surprisingly not too heavy for a show about a “regular” person going to jail and it’s frankly delightful.  Netflix, you’re on a bit of a hot streak.

Will I watch it again?  Yes.  It’s new, less so in the place than in the concept, and of course more importantly than new, it’s good.  Dramedy is a difficult area; for some reason, we as a culture have decided to demarcate this line between comedy and drama, and with the exception of maybe Aaron Sorkin, it’s often been difficult to find a place in the middle that isn’t just a comedy which isn’t really funny or a drama where people don’t die.  There’s a bitterwsweet tone that is unique on television, seems incredibly appropriate to the premise.  Her situation is terrible; but in the day to day she has to get on. And adjust the way people apparently do.

Summer 2013 Review: Siberia

15 Jul

It's always cold in Siberia

The basic idea behind Siberia is a fairly obvious one which makes me wonder why no one has ever done it before (or if they have and I just missed it).  Siberia is a scripted show, played as a straight reality show, in this case for horror.  Scripted takes on reality shows have existed before, but as far as I can recall, only for ludicrous not-even-close-to-even-the-level-of-reality-on-reality-shows comedy (for example Comedy Central’s Drawn Together and Halfway Home).  Considering just how much of a cultural institution reality television has become in the last decade and a half, it’s absolutely stunning that there’s never been a scripted reality show played straight.

While the idea seems obvious, it’s still a good one, and Siberia gets some credit as the first.  Siberia is displayed as a reality show, and someone not knowing better could watch large parts of the first episode without realizing that the show wasn’t real. The premise of the faux reality show“Siberia” is that sixteen strangers are flown out to a remote location in Siberia and told to survive a winter without any assistance aside from what they’re given to start and what they find and create from the wilderness around them.  Those that make it to spring share a pot of half a million dollars.  They’re given cabins, a handful of items, and occasionally instructions, hints, and supplies.  There are no rules; players can work together or apart, and whatever goes, goes, including theft or any other activities that would be considered anywhere from immoral to criminal in civilization.  There’s a red button located near their cabins that any contestant can push at anytime if he or she wants out for any reason; she or he will be escorted back to civilization, but gets nothing.  Presiding over the show is a slightly sleazy seeming Australian host who lays down the rules for the contestants.

The sixteen contestants are from multiple countries and from all stereotypical walks of life that reality shows seek so desperately to cater to; there’s the nerdy kid, the tough bald Brooklyn bouncer, the self-reliant antisocial southern farm boy, the crunchy environmental activist do-gooder among others.  The contestants, as they would in a reality show, constantly speak to the camera, giving their thoughts about other contestants, the setting, and the competition in general.

Two of the sixteen are eliminated quickly in a race to the initial cabins.  Having sixteen equally anonymous contestants allows Siberia to successfully have the easiest form of unpredictability (I call it anonymity unpredictability and hope to have a larger article on unpredictability out with more on this at some point).  Because you don’t know who anyone is, and their roles are all equal, anyone can go at anytime; there’s no story-line or meta reasons (such as one actor is more famous) to believe that certain characters stand better chances of making it to the end.

I knew that Siberia was going to veer towards supernatural horror going in, but if you didn’t, there’s no reason that you would know or even suspect that until the very end of the episode.  The group is gathered around, wondering where one of the contestants, who was off looking for mushrooms, was at, when the host informs them that in a tragic accident the contestant died.  It’s up to them, he says, to decide whether they want to end the competition and go home or keep on.  The last scene is a shaky cam shot of the character who died seeing something terrifying and running away, only to be killed.

It’s at this point that it deviates from what a believable actual reality show would do.  This is way too dangerous even for reality TV, and while the premise is hardly ludicrous by reality show standards, the events and rules definitively drag it over the line of believably, not to mention the probable existence of a supernatural creature. At first, I was a little disappoined it was a horror series, because I think a good drama could come out of a reality show told straight without supernatural or horror elements, but the more I thought about, the more I realized it’s a great venue for this kind of genre.  There’s an actual justifiable reason to have a whole bunch of people, all equal, in a remote location, with no technology.  Even more than that, it’s an absolutely perfect vehicle for anonymity unpredictability. There are no predetermined heroes and villains. Everyone’s a contestant, and in a reality show, any heroes or villains that emerge have equal chance of winning; there’s no one personality trope that always wins at reality shows.

Of course, horror has it own sets of tropes which could easily triumph and as someone who’s not a huge horror fan I’d rather Siberia at least partly stray from them rather than embrace them full on.  If Siberia can merely stick to the reality show tropes with a horror story, it could do okay.

The show reminds me of The River, ABC’s short-lived and mostly forgotten faux documentaryseries about a family looking for a missing nature host on the amazon.  Both employ shaky cam, horror elements, and the supernatural.

There are no overarching themes or deep characterization or pithy dialogue or musings about civilization or society or human nature.  But that’s okay.  TV has a lot of channels and a lot of shows.  There’s room for some action, and there’s room for some horror.   Sibera’s actually kind of fun.  It doesn’t ever claim to be more than it is, and by its format as a faux reality show it really can’t.  It’s fun to riff on the tropes of reality show characters, and it’s okay if they’re not the best actors, because what are reality show contestants other than bad actors.  It’s not going to win any awards or top any best show of the year lists, nor should it, but summer is the perfect time for a diversionary show that could be an enjoyable ride without having to be anything more.

Will I watch it again?  I ended the episode thinking I wouldn’t but the more I think about it, I might.  It’s definitely partly due to the slow pace of summer programming compared to the rest of the year, but as much as they’re often not my bag, cheap, fun thrills deserve a place on television somewhere next to their high-minded brethren and Siberia seems like a show that might do an adequate job of delivering them.