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Summer 2014 Review: BoJack Horseman

29 Aug

Bojack Hornseman

 

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

Here’s my latest TV analogy, and I’m proud of this one. Drama is to cooking as comedy is to baking. Drama, even if a bit overcooked or undercooked, a bit over-salted or underseasoned is still going to be pretty good; it’ll retain most of the original flavor, with some minor imperfections. Small mistakes don’t fatally flaw an otherwise solid drama. Comedy, however, is an exact science.  A couple of different word choices, a couple of seconds off, a slight change in intonation or facial expression and a hilarious joke ends instead with an awkward thud or the proverbial sounds of chirping crickets. There simply isn’t necessarily much distance between a hilarious comedy and a mediocre knockoff; attempting to reproduce the sense of humor and style can get you close but at the same time so far off.

BoJack Horseman is sadly a victim of this phenomenon. The show is directed exactly towards me and my ilk, people who were fans of The Simpsons in the ’90s and Family Guy in the ’00s, as well as shows like Arrested Development. The show features quick edits, moving at what it hopes is a joke-a-minute pace. The premise is not a bad one at all; a horse who starred in a 1980s sitcom “Horsin’ Around” is now trying to get his life back on track after spending two decades after the show’s end as a has-been. The voice cast is a dream; Will Arnett in the title role and Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins, and Alison Brie supporting. It’s just a bit off though. So many times, I see what they’re going for; I know that joke, I get the idea. The jokes just don’t quite work. The timing is a not quite right; a couple of words should be cut or added. Sometimes these kind of errors can’t even be spotted on the page, but when you watch the show, they jump out at you immediately. I actually think the animation hurt BoJack in the episode; several jokes that could have been sold just a little bit more with an expression or facial twitch didn’t get any benefit from the animation.

Will I watch it again? No. BoJack Horseman wasn’t entirely without merit. There’s a kernel there; it’s aimed at people like me, and does seem to have an idea what people like me like; it just is having a lot of trouble articulating it. It’s a busy summer though and there’s not enough to justify immediately watching more.

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Summer 2014 Review: Partners

27 Aug

Partners

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

We take the good with the bad, right. FX recently invented the 10-90 sitcom model with Anger Management in which a cheap sitcom gets 10 episodes aired daily over two weeks; if they’re enough of a ratings success, the network picks up 90 more episodes.  This insane model is designed towards syndication success and is easily worthy of a longer post on another occasion. Saint George starring George Lopez and Partners are FX’s two attempts with the model this year.

The most important takeaway for now, about the model, is that’s it’s pretty much designed to produce, at best, mediocre sitcoms. I honestly have no idea who watches these shows. The first example, as mentioned above, was Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management, and I’ve never met anyone who watches it, but that’s not particularly surprising considering my social circle. I speak not just because of how cheaply these sitcoms are made, or because of the little attention lavished on their quality; they’re generally worked around a fickle premise and a down-on-his-luck star, two in Partners’ case, with Martin Lawrence and Kelsey Grammer. While those factors are certainly prohibitive, most importantly, even the best comedy writers in the world couldn’t craft 100 great episodes of anything in a short period of time.

Partners isn’t good. If you’ve by any chance heard of Partners, you know that, and if you hadn’t, you know that by the time you’ve gotten to this paragraph. Pushed, I’d say it’s better than Saint George, but that’s more about a battle of one downsmanship than anything else. Kelsey Grammer plays the Kelsey Grammer character. He’s an arrogant attorney who has recently been fired from his father’s firm for one too many ethical lapses. Martin Lawrence plays a do-gooder attorney who everyone loves, but who doesn’t have the gumption or attitude to stand up for himself, particularly in his divorce settlement. Them being opposites, they naturally need each other; Lawrence can use Grammer’s borderline-unethical take-what’s-mine mentality, while Grammer needs a place to practice, and maybe some exposure to someone people actually like. Supporting characters include Lawrence’s sassy mother, his teenage daughter, his gay assistant, and Grammer’s truant high school aged step daughter.

You can see every joke a mile away; the characters are crude and broadly-drawn; none of the 22 minutes is spent trying to imply there’s anything more to any of the characters than you can see in your first five second interactions. Grammer guesses that the gay assistant’s favorite legal film is Legally Blonde, and the assistant, rather than be offended, naturally cedes that Grammer’s correct. It’s less offensive than it could be, which is about the highest compliment I can possibly give this show and more than I thought I would, but it’s just as bad and pointless as you and everyone thinks.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s nothing more to be said. I rarely feel like I give too much credit to shows simply by writing about them, but I almost do here. My logic in reviewing every show has been that every show, no matter how bad, deserves to be mentioned, for all the steps that go on just to get any show to air. These 10-90 shows that absolutely nobody cares about at all really test that theory.

Summer 2014 Review: Jennifer Falls

25 Aug

Jennifer Falls

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

TV Land does something that almost no one else on TV really does anymore. TV Land, a network, which didn’t produce original scripted programming until debuting Hot in Cleveland four years ago, makes old-school traditional 90s-and-earlier style sitcoms (ABC Family does it here and there). Now, CBS sitcoms still have a lot in common with the past, but they tend to be coarser, more offensive,sometimes gross-out, sometimes misogynist; they’re certainly linked to the sitcoms of old, but they feel less wholesome. TV Land’s Jennifer Falls certainly has a couple of modern adjustments – main character Jennifer was a high-powered female businesswoman, raking in tons of cash, when she got fired for being impossible to work with, and the topic of women being considered bossy is touched on, although not spend a lot of time with.

While it makes these couple of winks at modernity, Jennifer Falls is a traditional sitcom at heart. After moving out of her expensive apartment in the big city, she’s got to go home and bond with her mother, her daughter, and her old best friend, who is bitter with her because she abandoned their friendship to chase big money years ago. The show deals with classic television redemption, as she realizes somewhat that her life was hollow filled with just work, and without friends (to its credit, the show makes this point without ever seeming to imply anything negative about women at high-paying jobs; the show, without pushing it, is modern enough on that matter). Jennifer, who can’t find a job anywhere after her ignominious firing, reluctantly takes a pity job offer at the bar owned by her brother and sister-in-law, who gives Jennifer constant patronizing life lessons while her brother is afraid to speak up.

The jokes are canned, the laugh track is present, and you’ve met all of these characters before. It’s not, for what it’s worth, mean-spirited though, the characters seem to actually, mostly like each other, and there’s as much underlying warmth as an incredibly mediocre sitcom first episode can have. So it has that going for it. You’re not going to watch it, and you shouldn’t, but there’s something to be said for TV Land’s ability to adopt the old-fashioned sitcom for the modern age, as least from a technical perspective. But that’s about it.

Will I watch it again? No, it’s not worth watching and it’s not funny. That said, it’s pleasantly inoffensive, and carries on the legacy of old-time sitcoms into a new era, if that does anything for you.

 

Summer 2014 Review: The Divide

22 Aug

The Divide

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

The Divide airs on the We network, and I didn’t even know that We aired original scripted programming, which it didn’t before it debuted The Divide. And lo and behold, The Divide is a pretty solid first effort. It’s nothing brilliant or revolutionary, but it’s a surprisingly entertaining and briskly-paced program. Think: John Grisham legal potboiler, a page-turner of TV. Yes, you’ve seen these types of legal maneuverings time and again, and you know the plot will turn in a bunch of somewhat unlikely directions, but you still don’t know if it will turn left or turn right.

The Divide centers around a hot button murder case in Philadelphia. Two white men, one middle-aged, one a teenager, were convicted of murdering a black family in their home, and the man, given the death sentence, is set to be executed shortly, representing the first execution in Pennsylvania in decades. Lawyer in training Christine works for a non-profit organization whose mission is exonerating convicted criminals through science, and she has a special interest in this case because her father is on death row for a crime she knows he didn’t commit. Christine and her boss Clark try to get new DNA samples at the last minute, but they’re fought at every turn by Adam, the young hotshot district attorney of Philadelphia who made his bones prosecuting this murder case when he was younger. Basically, we soon discover that there’s more to this case than it seems, and the characters at the non-profit as well as district attorney Adam and his family are going to have to bring back up a whole lot of dirty laundry that everybody thought they were done with years ago.

I often complain about the rampant proliferation of lawyer, cop, and medical dramas on TV, and I do believe there are way too many if only because they prevent more imaginative shows from appearing in their wake. Still, there’s absolutely a place for lawyer shows on TV, and shows where you can turn your brain down and enjoy taut plot twists and turns without any greater consequence. Those shows may never be the best, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining.

Will I watch it again? I’ve changed from no to yes as I’m writing this, though with so many shows to watch I’m not that confident I’ll actually get to any more. It wasn’t brilliant or must-watch but it was a surprisingly attention-captivating legal thriller, which would probably make some good low-thought watching early in the day or late at night.

Summer 2014 Review: Finding Carter

20 Aug

Finding Carter

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

Holy smokes! Finding Carter, an MTV show, is pretty freaking good! I used my brief entry on Faking It, the other new MTV entry (which really wasn’t bad itself) to talk about the MTV model, and Finding Carter certainly fits it to  a t. It’s about a fast talking teen who discovers after getting arrested for some minor mischief that her mother is not actually her mother, and is instead her kidnapper, snatching her from her real family when she was a mere three year old and raising her as her own. This is a life-changing revelation, as she adores who she thinks of as her mother, and wants nothing less than to have to move in with a totally unfamiliar family while her mother is subject to arrest. Her original family had been shattered by her kidnapping; the mother was never the same as her pre-kidnapping self, traumatized, and the father made his career on a book written about the family’s experiences.

Here’s the really stand out aspect of Finding Carter, though. One of the hardest things to create in TV is situations in which among a whole bunch of characters, everybody is really both a good guy and a bad guy, someone you root for at times, and someone you root against at other times. Every character has motivations that individually make sense, but cause conflict when played up against the other characters. You can see where each character is coming from, even when you don’t necessarily agree with his or her actions. This may seem like the most basic building block for good characters, but it’s strikingly hard to achieve; often either conflict feels forced, or one of the characters is simply more of an asshole than the others.

Take the family at the center of Finding Carter. Carter acts out because she still considers her real mom to be the one who raised her and told her that she loved her every day, rather than these strange people, one of whom wants nothing more than to put in jail the person she considers her mother. Mother Elizabeth is frustrated with Carter, because she wants nothing more than to arrest and punish the person who took her baby away, and broke her emotionally. Sister Taylor is jealous of Carter, who gets to drink, and smoke, while everyone goes out of their way to be there for her; she’s been the good girl her whole life, and all she gets its to be ignored. Brother Grant simply feels ignored; he feels like the make up child who was merely a placeholder for the lost Carter.

As you watch, you alternately feel for each of the characters, and then want to yell at them, and think the other characters need to put themselves in their shoes. Friday Night Lights is the gold standard for character-driven warm, family drama, and Finding Carter feels like it hits all the right notes in the first episode to be on that path.

Will I watch it again? Yes, I think I’m going to. I’m as surprised as you are. Shows like Finding Carter, even if it’s terrible from here on out, but just the excitement at finding a promising television show where you never expected, are the times I’m glad I underwent this exercise to watch every show.

Summer 2014 Review: Dominion

15 Aug

Dominion

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

Sci-fi, pardon, Syfy, has put up a series of shows that have been decently successful enough within the Syfy network bubble like Eureka, and Warehouse 13, but they’ve been having trouble drawing audience and buzz among the general pop culture internet outside of their core. Dominion is exactly the type of sci-fi genre show that both makes sense completely as what could be a reasonably successful genre show on the Syfy network while also drawing scant attention outside of that small fan base.

Dominion, and these are words I never thought would be uttered, is a loosely-based television spin off to the 2010 film Legion, starring Paul Bettany, Lucas Black, and Adrianne Palicki. The film, which I’ve only seen trailers for, features a battle in a war between angels situated at a US diner, in which angel Michael chooses to side with the humans, while the remaining angels led by Gabriel attempt to destroy humanity. There’s a chosen baby who makes it out alive while most of the characters die.

Dominion picks up that general story some years later. Human beings now survive in militarized dictatorial walled off fortresses where authoritarian discipline and new angel-detecting and repelling technology keeps them safe from angels who fly around, hunting humans and possessing other humans to turn them,  now super-powered, against their own kind. Outside from actually technically being about religion, rather than, say, aliens, or robots, Dominion hits sci-fi genre conventions to a T. There’s a vaguely dystopian society, ruled by an beneficent authoritarian, and the show features some serious politicking between rival factions and many big-ego politicians vying for power. There are rules regarding different classes of people, there’s technology that detects angels and protects the city from them, and there are rival fortress cities with which to battle and make alliances.

There is some merit here, and the particulars of the sci-fi world are fun, but the writing and characters don’t pull you in beyond the details of the premise and plot. The show gets bogged down into details that non-Syfy fans are unlikely to care about. There show seems consciously designed to please a certain fan base and there’s nothing wrong with that, but what could make it a drew to some are also its limitations. This world-building minute tend to conversely limit the general appeal.

Will I watch it again? No. I like sci-fi but wouldn’t consider myself a genre superfan. Thus, to my sensibilities, some aspects of the show were intriguing (my head is full of questions about fictional future worlds) but overall the show was a little clunky. The plot was the most intriguing part of the show, but not enough to watch it again.

Summer 2014 Review: The Leftovers

7 Jul

The Leftovers

For years, I knew I wanted to watch Six Feet Under, a canonical series that I had heard nothing but praise for, but I kept putting it off because I was worried that marathoning it in a relatively short period of time would simply be too depressing. Finally, I stopped putting it off, and was extremely glad I did. It was often a depressing show, as I had suspected, with characters that were despicable at least as often as they were likable, but what surprised me was how that didn’t at all encumber my viewing. I moved through it fairly quickly, no matter the death and depression, enjoying all of the many great things about the show, which is a topic for another post. The main point here is that although the show was depressing, it was startlingly fun and easy to get through regardless.

The Leftovers, well, Is just as depressing but without the sense of enjoyment that powered Six Feet Under forward. It’s an awfully dour hour of television, attempting to be very, very serious. There are no laughs, but it’s more than its mere humorlessness which characterizes its dreary tone. Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead both have no laughs, and both do drag at times, but at their best, they move, they’re enjoyable, and there make you want to keep watching, even within the episode. The Leftovers plods along and makes you wonder, “how long is this episode?”

Here’s the premise. All of a sudden, two percent of the world’s population, with no discernible rhyme or reason up and disappears, poof, with no trace. No one can figure why the people who disappeared were the ones who disappeared; there were as many ostensibly terrible and immoral people as good people. Three years later, people are still struggling to deal, both to figure out what happened, and to cope with the loss of their loved ones. In the suburban burg of Mapleton, police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is having a hard time. His wife, we find out later on, has left society to join a weirdo cult of people who wear white all the time, don’t speak, and protest anywhere people are memorializing those that disappeared. What’s the appeal of this cult? It’s pretty unclear; but people are stupid and desperate, I suppose. Theroux is struggling along with his teenage daughter, who goes to super intense teenage parties (one of the options in the teens’ smart phone Spin the Bottle game is “Burn” where the player has to burn him or herself). She and her father are not taking the loss of their mother too well, and it’s breaking down the relationship between the two. There’s also some other cult, where some charismatic leader delivers messages he receives. Yeah, exactly.

Watching The Leftovers was just about the opposite of fun. Does anyone enjoy watching this? Did anyone enjoy making this? The show feels surgically drained of any joy. As mentioned before, even depressing shows have joy. The first season of Enlightened was mindbogglingly depressing. Marathoning it over a weekend, like I did, should be a considered a prescription level depressant. But there was warmth, love, and pathos that made the season extremely rewarding despite the major bummer that it was. The Leftovers doesn’t feel like it has any of that.

Additionally, and this is admittedly a a bias I have going in, any show that’s co-run by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame makes me automatically weary of getting hooked on its long-term plot. I know I’m supposed to keep an entirely open mind, but Lost left such a long and profound television scar on my psyche that it’s hard for me to see Damon Lindelof’s name and keep it out of mind entirely. Particularly, a show that hinges on The Leftovers’ premise that 2 percent of the world’s population instantly disappears sounds like a show whose plot is bound to lead to inevitable disappointment.

For all my naysaying, The Leftovers wasn’t awful. There were interesting ideas in theory, and exploring how people react when the world around them spins into chaos in ways they don’t understand has been productively mined for television and media many times before, with good reason (see the terrible summer show Under the Dome).

But, boy, getting through this an utter slog. There would have to be a lot of redeeming value to want to put myself through that again, and I’m not sure I want to. There’s some sprinkles of gold, maybe, but it’s buried so many layers of self-seriousness and very important programming that it doesn’t seem worth mining for.

Will I watch it again? No. It wasn’t bad in the usual sense reserved for television – this wasn’t Ironside or Men at Work. But I didn’t enjoy watching the episode. TV’s about more than that, but at it’s heart, that’s really the most important thing.