Tag Archives: Fall 2013 TV Season

Fall 2013 Review: Alpha House

3 Jan

John Goodman and friends

With Netflix this past year showing that television can come from, well, the internet instead of television, Amazon, desperate to be a player in the streaming video scene, said “me too.” The more visible of Amazon’s initial two efforts is Alpha House, because it stars the well-known and consistently excellent John Goodman (and less visibly The Wire and Homicide veteran Clark Johnson) and is created by long-time Doonesbury scribe Gary Trudeau. I’m not particularly familiar with Doonesbury other than knowing that it contained political satire with a liberal bent and caught fire in the ’70s. Reading it was daunting because it felt like you needed decades of catching up to figure out what was going on, and when I read comics as a kid I remember seeing a walking cigarette, saying what the fuck, and not ever trying again.

Still, I thought with what I knew about Trudeau and what I knew about Alpha House – that it’s about four Republican senators who live together in a house in DC – it would be a cutting satire. It’s certainly a satire, but it’s not particularly cutting, and I don’t mean this as a negative. The show actual shows a begrudging warmth if not entirely respect for its main characters, at least in the first episode.

It’s warm and more occasionally smile-inducing than laugh out loud funny. There are bits that feel like they should be funnier; I get the joke but they don’t necessarily click. Unlike other shows from this fall where the jokes don’t work (see my review of The Michael J. Fox Show), I don’t think they’re that far off. The jokes are in the right direction, and the cast is generally winning in their delivery. The funniest moment, still, is due to an uncredited Stephen Colbert cameo playing over the end credits.

The show is a much more stylistic parody of the inanity of the Washington DC political culture, than a mundane real life more accurate portrayal in Veep, the most logical television comparison, and a show which shares some similarities and sensibilities. The target of most of the specific barbs are the tea party types; the Republican main characters could be viewed, from their actions, as empty hypocrites, but it’s not how they come off. They certainly seem partly absurd but also partly sensible, having to adjust to the ridiculous whims of their constituents just to ensure they get to come back and do it again. Veep is purposefully free of American political parties, which allows it to explore certain aspects of Washington culture in a richer way while neglecting others. Alpha House does not shy away from partisan politics, and while that and other choices probably take this show farther from Veep’s take on day-to-day Beltway life, it allows a surprisingly gentle but still apt satire of American political culture.

It’s not great but it is decently well done, and due to my personal preferences I probably like this better than other comedies with pilots of similar quality because of its subject matter and style. There’s a lot of room for growth, but unlike many other so-so shows, it’s fairly easy to see where that growth could come from.

Will I watch it again? Maybe. It’s not a top priority and I certainly didn’t finish the episode just wanting to immediately see the next, as happens with the best pilots. Still, I grew more fond of the show as it went along and it’s conceivable that I could marathon this in a spare moment later in the year – I do enjoy political comedy when done well.

Ranking Fall 2013’s New Shows

20 Dec

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

It’s time to rank this fall’s new shows. I’ve seen every new network show and many new cable shows though I’m still missing a couple (Ground Floor and Ravenwood come to mind) that hopefully I’ll catch up on for posterity’s sake during a down period. Additionally, keep in mind this is mostly from one episode of viewing – I’ve only yet seen multiple episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Masters of Sex, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s important to note that, and it’s possible some of these shows have sped up or slowed down since. However, I still think this is a useful exercise, for me if for no one else. Ranking with some short notes below.

  1. Brooklyn Nine-Nine – the best new show and comedy of the season. Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur shows that he learned the lessons from Parks and Rec’s slow start and hit the ground running with Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
  2. Masters of Sex – very ambitious, new and interesting, could use a little more polish but easily worth adding to the schedule of any serious TV viewer
  3. The Returned – I’ve only watched one episode but I’m intrigued and look forward to more – a show with a tinge of horror but not so easily definable
  4. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I really want this show to be better, and the fact that it’s in the fourth position says a lot more about the weakness of the Fall field, compared to a stellar Spring TV season than it does about this show. Absolutely not a must watch, but I try to maintain hope for what it could be
  5. Sleepy Hollow – the next three shows might all have been above Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if I had watched more of them but I haven’t – Sleepy Hollow’s blend of insane supernatural was surprisingly captivating
  6. Dracula – within the horror genre, the inverse of Sleepy Hollow but about as successful, subdued and Victorian to Sleepy Hollow’s modern American form, but also sharing in love of crazy conspiracies
  7. The Blacklist – a procedural done well, The Blacklist is also a little nuts, and James Spader being himself makes a difference in this being a solid show to a lousy one
  8. Back in the Game – A surprisingly charming already cancelled comedy with a child actor I surprisingly didn’t hate
  9. Trophy Wife – pretty much ditto Back in the Game except for the already cancelled – both I didn’t quite like enough to watch more but they were certainly cute
  10. Reign – we’re switching tiers right around here – a CW-y historical drama starring the would-be Queen of France, it was attractive to the right audience which wasn’t really me
  11. The Michael J. Fox Show – surprisingly decent show except for the fact that all the jokes were bad
  12. The Originals – so-so vampire show, we’re in average territory
  13. Welcome to the Family – surprisingly decent, Mike O’Malley has grown on me a lot over recent years
  14. Almost Human – the future and androids – not particularly interesting but watchable enough
  15. The Tomorrow People – the future and genetic mutation – not particularly interesting but not awful
  16. The Goldbergs – we’re starting to get to the shows that are distinctly below average – supposedly heartwarming but I found it to be too much
  17. Mom – this could be good if it was not made by Chuck Lorre in his laugh track-friendly style
  18. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland – it started out with a chance to be better than the uber-cheesy Once Upon a Time but finished seeming like more of the same
  19. Hostages – a really uncreative attempt at making a tense 24 like show without any of 24’s sense of fun
  20. The Crazy Ones – Robin Williams does not turn it down one iota, and that’s a problem for me
  21. Sean Saves the World – Sean Hayes hams it up – he’s a fine ham, but the show is way too hammy for me
  22. Super Fun Night – a show about losers that unfortunately seem like they’re kind of losers for a reason
  23. Lucky 7 – I thought this was a halfway decent premise about lottery winners but the reality is terrible uninspired
  24. Betrayal – leader of this year’s “why does this show exist” balloting
  25. We Are Men – disgusting terrible male stereotypes
  26. Ironside – just bad, bad, bad – it should be hard to make a procedural this hackneyed but Ironside manages it
  27. The Millers – so many talented actors making such a bad show it’s impressive – everyone involved can do so much better
  28. Dads – disgusting everyone stereotypes

Fall 2013 Review: The Returned

13 Dec

A returned

The Returned is a French show, which first aired in the fall of 2012, but which recently made its stateside debut on the Sundance Channel, a channel which has already seen strong outings this year from Top Of the Lake and Rectify.

I love shows that are not easily characterized or categorized because that usually means that they are new and interesting and The Returned is both. It may be more clear what direction Returned is heading in after a few more episodes, and there are a few logical general options but I have absolutely no idea which and I’m glad.

Let’s take it from the beginning. Four years ago before the show’s present, a bus full of children embarking on a school trip topples over a cliff on a tricky piece of road, killing everyone on board. Or so it seems.

In the present, all is not well, and the people of the French town in which The Returned takes place are still grappling with the tragic events of four years prior. The parents are meeting in a regular group where they discuss a memorial being built in honor of the dead children. Tensions are still high, and some parents are dealing better than others. Clearly these adult relationships have been shaken up and some broken up by the events. Camille, one of the girls who died in the crash, seems to be the central figure in the show, and her parents have separated, while her twin sister, who feigned illness to get away from the trip is a fun-loving but possibly guilt-ridden 19-year old.

Camille, four years after she died, just picks up and walks into her house, the same age she was when she died, remembering nothing, and her mother is terrified, overjoyed, and above all confused, displaying the entire array of emotions one would expect to if faced with a similar situation. She calls Camille’s father, who naturally doesn’t believe her, until he sees Camille with her own eyes. He leans more toward the scared beyond belief side of the scale with his reaction.

Camille isn’t the only one who comes back; there’s also a young man seeking his girlfriend, who appears to have moved on without him, and there’s a young boy who returns to the apartment in which he believes he lives, leaving the current resident who doesn’t recognize the boy frustrated and confused.  People are returning from not just the bus crash but from earlier deaths as well. An old man is disturbed when his wife returns from the grave; he burns his house down and kills himself in reaction.

There’s a lot bound up here. There’s obviously supernatural and horror elements, as people coming back from the grave pretty much rules out reality or likely science fiction (yes, there’s a way to make this premise science fiction – but this isn’t that).

The story is intriguing on its own without any deeper themes, as it should be to keep the viewer involved. This is a slow, subtle supernatural show. There’s no huge opening event involved comparable to those in the bloated supernatural and sci-fi broadcast network shows like Lost, The Event, Revolution, or Terra Nova. It’s quiet and makes you figure out the questions, which are, to be fair, pretty obvious, rather than asking them extremely loudly. And those big questions are there just as they are in those other shows – namely – why are these people coming back, and since I’m not sure there’s a way to answer that satisfactorily, at least, what does this mean for the town?

There’s also, and this is what separates merely suspenseful shows which can certainly be enjoyable but depend heavily on satisfying answers and conclusions, with shows one tier greater, a deeper personal level to the drama beyond the plot, through strongly written characters, dialogue, and stories. The grappling of the parents with their tragedy reminds me of the all-too real situation faced by the people of Newton, Connecticut. Fissures break under that type of pressure and tragedy.

The big thematic question seemingly dealt with is in The Returned, at least through one episode, is how people respond to the return of something they had thought lost forever, and which they had made, if not peace with, at least some sort of resolution. They had survived by slowly but surely moving on. Early in the episode, during the parents’ support group, one parent makes that exact point; the tragedy is still poignant but things have gotten better – people simply can’t linger in that tragedy at those initial depths forever and live with themselves. Even in this episode everyone deals with the returned people in different ways; happiness, denial, confusion, fear, and any number of emotions in between and combining these.

This combination of mysterious, subtle suspenseful story with fascinating characterization and personal situations is a winning one, one episode in.

Will I watch the next episode? Yes. I’m curious. I’m not sold the show will be amazing yet, but very few shows can that confidently promise that in one episode. I am honestly curious where the show is going and what’s going on, and if a show can make me feel that way after its first episode it’s doing its job.

Fall 2013 Review: The Originals

6 Dec

The Originals

I started watching every new TV show three seasons ago, but there remain a handful of network shows still on the air that started earlier which I have never seen, shamefully. The Vampire Diaries, of which The Originals is a spin off is one of them. I know nothing about The Vampire Diaries except that two brothers fight over the same girl and I think maybe they’re both vampires but I’m not even sure of that much and one of them is Boone from Lost. Moving on.

The titular Originals are the original vampires, created by a witch in the middle ages to save her children from werewolves. Yes, witches and werewolves also exist in this show and are both older than vampires, for what that’s worth. The Originals include at the least Elijah, his sister Rebekah, and his half-brother, Klaus, who is half-werewolf and half-vampire. They’re all extremely powerful and possibly immortal.

Elijah and Rebekah are apparently level-headed as far as ancient vampires go, but Klaus is a notorious psycho. Still, Elijah, unlike Rebekah, feels a familial responsibility towards Klaus, and when Klaus gets into trouble in New Orleans, Elijah feels like he has to go track him down and at least try to help.

Elijah arrives in a city of New Orleans at supernatural war. A vampire named Marcel, a former protégé of Klaus, rules the city with an iron fist, oppressing witches left and right. The witches are desperate so they capture a werewolf named Hayley who is pregnant with Klaus’s baby after an ill-advised one-night stand. The witches use her to try to get the uber-powerful Originals on their side to take out Marcel. The gambit works well enough as Elijah believes the baby might make Klaus more responsible and less sadistic, and while Klaus doesn’t necessarily feel that way he at least doesn’t like the idea of his protégé Marcel being higher on the pecking order than he is.

The big ending, and within first episode SPOILER is that Klaus stabs Eljiah at the end of the episode, either killing or injuring him seemingly severely, saying thanks, but no thanks, you’ve convinced me to take down Marcel, but it’s for me to do and not you. It would have been super ballsy if they actually killed off who seemed to be the main character from the pilot, but some IMDB work (spoiler, I’m not planning on continuing to watch, so I didn’t feel bad about checking) assured me Eljiah remains on the show, so I guess the whole immortal thing was no lie.

Vampires are seemingly everywhere in culture today so it’s honestly impossible to watch a show about vampires without comparisons to other prominent vampire shows on TV flashing through my mind, which, since I haven’t seen The Vampire Diaries, are True Blood and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. True Blood in particular is similarly set in Louisiana, which makes a classic home for vampires because it has a much older feel than most of America and because if its omnipresent tinge of vice.

The Originals is lacking in either of the qualities that made either of those vampire shows successful. It has neither True Blood’s sleazy sense of trashy fun (before that show went insane around the fourth season) or Buffy’s ability to mesh the supernatural action adventures with the realities of being a teenager. Hayley, the pregnant werewolf, is the best attempt at Buffy-ness, matching supernatural talk with a sense of humor and modern slang, while every other character is super serious, perhaps understandably so since people are dying around them, but it deadens the show a bit.

I’m not sure if The Vampire Diaries fans, coming into this pilot with more information, would have a different outlook, but I was unimpressed. I have to add this as a caveat for many shows, but it’s important to say; The Originals wasn’t awful. The Originals was watchable enough and although I didn’t really care about the major battle brewing between the vampires and the wtiches ( I mean Marcel was obviously the villain and was easily hateable within his two minutes of screen time, so there’s that), I didn’t cringe or take tons of breaks to get through the show as I have with the worst shows every year.

The plot, battles between vampires, werewolves, and witches, and whatnot is started to get tired. This is not necessarily The Vampire Diaries’ fault, but you have more leeway with an original idea than you do when you’re the fourth or fifth show with a similar idea in a decade. It’s possible to transcend a tired premise, as Broadchurch did with a premise I thought The Killing had poisoned for at least a few more years, but it’s more difficult and The Vampire Diaries doesn’t do it.

I think, and I could be wrong, that Klaus, who seems like an obvious villain, is being flipped to be the protagonist in this show and that’s supposed to be intriguing because of the juxtaposition; this obvious psycho is ostensibly being the good guy, helping the witches, protecting his unborn child, and defeating his protégé. If I’m going to spend this much time with this psychotic character I’d hope that he’d be, if not easy to root for, at least charismatic, drawing me, but he isn’t, and he doesn’t. The show just falls flat overall. The plot seems kind of generic and boring and for better or worse True Blood has soured me on immediate interest in vampire mythology. Hayley, in her little screen time, was the character I enjoyed the most for the Buffy-esque qualities of humor and modernity and a greater dose of that would help this show that frequently feels like it’s taking itself too seriously.

Will I watch it again? No. The show was tolerable but not good.

End of Season Report: Boardwalk Empire, Season 4 – Part 2

29 Nov

Nuckie in Florida My thoughts on the recently ended fourth season of Boardwalk Empire ended up reaching an unseemly length, so I decided to slice them in two. The first part is here.

Gillian’s plotline was one of the triumphs of the season. It was, unlike many of the other plots,largely self-contained within this season, and dealt with her trying to put her life back together and ultimately gain custody of Tommy, Jimmy’s orphaned son. My one reservation about her story was that it felt a little ludicrous to have this ridiculously long con run on her successful by a private detective solely for a confession to killing someone no one seems to really even care that much about. Still, if I’m willing to buy that, it was compelling, Gillian has always been one of my favorite side characters and Gretchen Mol manages to play her in a way that it’s hard not feel sympathetic for her by the end of the season even after all the terrible things she’s done.  She’s so tragically broken from the way she was abused as a girl that her warped sense of relative morality has made her at times successful, twisted, and oblivious. Ron Livington’s character had a limited role, nursing Gillian back to health only to break her later but he ultimately appreciated by the end of the season, as we did, the strength of Gillian’s character and her abilities, in spite of the endless immoral and criminal acts we know she committed.

Nuckie trod largely on familiar territory which makes it difficult for his plotlines to feel new or exciting. This is largely because the character is stuck in a status quo where he can’t get too big for his britches outside of Atlantic City, but can’t lose all his power either, unless the show is willing to make a much more radical change that I’m giving it credit for. Still, if one could put aside for a minute the negative I’ve already mentioned of going somewhere we’ve already gone before, the season handled it well.

Particularly, we’ve seen this Nuckie and Eli dance before, in season two, when Eli was part of a cabal, along with the Commodore and Jimmy, who worked to overthrow and ultimately kill Nuckie. Nuckie forgave Eli, but not Jimmy, and Eli had been a fairly loyal soldier until this year, aside from the constant sibling squabbles between the two. As I mentioned, unsurprisingly, I’m not usually a fan of repeated storylines, and I’m not here, but again, if we accept that Eli betraying Nuckie is going to be a repeated plotline, it’s done as well as could be expected.

I’ve always though Eli (like Gillian) was one of the stronger side characters and that his relationship with Nuckie was a fairly realistic portrayal of a sibling relationship, amped up in a violent way because of their positions as gangsters. With Nuckie as the protagonist, Eli can seem grating when he’s constantly rankled by Nuckie’s constant looking out for him and his family. It’s difficult, though, for Eli to constantly be under his brother’s thumb, not only at work, but often even within his own family at home, even if he ultimately loves his brother deep down, which i still think he does. Eli has a more convincing reason for betrayal his time, and I actually liked that in the end, at least this season, Eli wasn’t killed, which would have been the obvious move even though his actions clearly deserved it by the rules seen in this show.

The extra layer here was that the betrayal could have been avoided if the sibling rivalry didn’t run so deep. Agent Knox blackmailed Eli regarding his son’s murder charges, and if Eli had gone to Nuckie right away, the situation might have been resolved without endangering anyone in the family. Eli was too proud and ashamed to go to Nuckie, and Nuckie had to play big brother and patronize Eli by hiding his son’s actions from him in the first place, generating the understandable resentment from Eli. These are basic sibling conflicts that follow siblings everywhere, but they’re played out writ large due to the numerous murders and federal crimes which they’ve both been a part of. The family connection comes into play again in the decision of Nuckie not to kill Eli, as all of the rationales on both Eli’s and Nuckie’s sides are wrapped up in their complicated family web along with Eli’s son Willie, whose seemingly unnecessary and somewhat irritating (Willie is not my favorite character) actions early in the season set up the ground for Eli and Nuckie’s struggle.

I loved Patricia Arquette’s character,Sally Wheet, and she played a huge part in keeping Nuckie interesting for another season. I do think Nuckie is a good character overall, and has layers of depth and moral complexity that have shown over the course of the show, but it’s getting tough to keep him interesting, as mentioned earlier, without ever having him win or lose completely. He wants out of the gangster game, and the stress and the violence, but then he doesn’t because of his need for money and power, and around again we go. Arquette was a genuinely believable and compelling romantic interest that made me invested in Nuckie’s love life in way I didn’t feel was particularly likely before the season. Florida didn’t add a ton besides plot conveniences outside of Arquette, but she alone made it worthwhile. Florida was built up in the early seasons, only to largely fall away towards the end of the season, leading me to believe we’ll be back in the Sunshine State sometimes in season five.

Nuckie’s ex-wife Margaret largely sat this season out, for which I was grateful, as she’s my least favorite character. Her two scenes with Arthur Rothstein I enjoyed though; perhaps there’s much more potential for her now that she’s fully out of Nuckie’s life and in the show in limited doses.

Real life gangsters Rothstein, Charlie Luciano, and Meyer Lansky each had minor roles in the season, each befitting the size of characters throughout this series, but each added color, character, and fine acting, in the smaller roles they inhabited. They were like basketball three-point specialists, making the most out of their limited time on screen, injecting little bits of character into smaller parts without needing the ball to have an impact. Mickey Doyle, another character whose actor gets listed in the main credit sequence even though he has a relatively minor role, is the type of character who can be grating with all but the slimmest parts, but in short bursts adds a much needed bit of levity to a show that can easily get overserious. Rothstein and Lansky are about the only other two who ever seem to show any sense of humor, and both faced more serious situations this season that prevented them from being at their most lighthearted.

Antagonist FBI Agent Knox wasn’t my favorite part of the season. He was largely fair in his handling of Eli, but his unnecessary beating of Eddie left me cold and somewhat unsympathetic. He’s clearly on the right side ethically and legally, relative to the show’s protagonists, but because they’re protagonists our natural sympathies lie with them, so the relatively more moral FBI agent needs to be legitimately clean to win us over. Knox, to his credit, isn’t corrupt, and he is certainly on the side of right, but I think he could have been even more convincing and relatively more likeable, which would have shone a brighter light on the fact that the characters at the center of the show are no-good criminals.

This report wouldn’t be complete without nothing that Nuckie’s servant Eddie got some serious work to do and excelled in his final episodes mid-season as he’s cornered by the FBI and then takes his own life. His last scene was brilliantly acted and wonderfully filmed.

Overall, this season was a positive step for the show. Side characters were fleshed out. Plots came together somewhat, but not entirely, and wrapped up some season long plots while leaving a lot hanging for next season. The antagonists were more complicated and enticing than Season 3’s Gyp Rosetti, who was a fun sociopathic villain but not a particularly interesting or complicated one. I’m looking forward to what the writers and creators come up with next.

Fall 2013 Review: Almost Human

25 Nov

Almost Human after all

So, it’s the future. The future in Almost Human looks exactly like a science-fiction future is supposed to look, a conception which hasn’t changed much since Bladerunner, which sort of redefined the genre in a way that still holds sway today. There’s huge funny-looking skyscrapers and people flying around in vehicles while our main characters are still driving on the ground. In great sci-fi tradition as well, a short burst of text sets up our premise at the very start of the episode. The future is crazily crime-ridden as gangs outpace police, technology-wise, and in a desperate effort to combat skyrocketing crime, police offers are paired off with androids to combine the best capabilities of both humans and a computers.

Within this future resides our hero, John Kennex, a cop who was injured when an evil crime syndicate (just called the syndicate) somehow learned of a planned police operation and infiltrated it, killing his partner in the process. Kennex was in a coma for nearly two years after the injury,and has had trouble readjusting to life after waking up. He struggles with the events that led to his coma, constantly consulting a black market memory doctor (I don’t know the technical term) who uses technology to help John replay the events of the night he got injured over and over, hoping to learn something about the syndicate and how they found out about the operation deep in his memory.

Eventually, his chief pulls him, partly against his will, back to the job, and he finds things are both different and the same. While everyone else plays ball with the current police protocol, John, as television cops are wont to do, plays by his own rules. He gets quickly tired of the new android model he’s paired with and purposefully destroys the one he’s given when the android threatens to report on his activities., Instead, ’John is paired with an older model that feels and has emotions like humans, when compared to the cold and calculating new androids. While the emotional and sensitive android drives John crazy initially, it turns out he may just be exactly what John needs in a partner, as this android’s ability to go off book lets it operate outside the box, like John, and not necessarily follow protocol.

There are other characters but they’re not really important in the first episode, as the core of the show is the relationship between John and Dorian, the android partner. John is a classic television old school cop, just this time he’s old school in the future.  John doesn’t follow protocol, he disobeys orders, and he’s simultaneously the most broken cop on the force and the best damn police officer the city has. I know why this character exists – it’s more exciting, and he gets things done. Still, it’s a relatively tired type – why can’t television celebrate a detective who plays by the rules?

There’s some appeal to the show. The future may be dangerous but it’s also fun and the action is well-paced. I always find it a treat to examine different renditions of the future, and I enjoy seeing what types of technology people dream up. At its heart, though, Almost Human has relatively conventional premise stuffed within a science fiction universe that doesn’t really alter the essential story behind the show. The primary characters don’t offer enough in one episode to make me want to watch again, and the plot isn’t exciting enough to watch on that alone. The characters, writing, or filmcraft have to be strong to pull me in when the premise no longer does, and none of them are. I’d guess that every episode will have a stand alone crime, while progress is slowly made towards solving the greater mystery about the evil “syndicate” as the season moves along, but Almost Human could potentially be more serial. Still, while the chase to figure out what happened to the syndicate could be interesting in the details, the simple mystery itself doesn’t grab a viewer from the get go.

Will I watch it again? No, I don’t think so. It wasn’t bad, but I’d like something a little bit deeper and more original to go with my science fiction. Forget even more interesting overarching themes,  all the commercials tout the show as being about the relationship between the two characters, and John in the first episode is a relatively uninteresting cop character that has been seen dozens of times before on television. I don’t get a spark between the two major characters that makes me want to keep going.

Fall 2013 Review: The Tomorrow People

22 Nov

Four Tomorrow People

In my review of Reign, I talked about the way the CW really hones it on its target demographic and has been developing a consistent brand. The Tomorrow People is another perfect example of this CW philosophy.

The main character is Stephen, a high school student who really looks like he’s 25 (which he is, and I know in most shows, high school students are played by older people, but at least often they look somewhat younger than they are). Stephen has some serious teen problems. Although he used to have friends, he’s become an outcast. This is mostly due to his deteriorating mental condition highlighted by what appear to be sleepwalking problems in which he’s fallen asleep and woke up in his neighbors’ house. He’s alienated all of his friends but one due to his issues, all of which has him feeling particularly insecure.

It turns out of course that he hasn’t been going crazy. Instead of problems, he actually has a gift, super powers that come from a genetic mutation. He is discovered by a couple of other super powered individuals, who have formed a group of their kind.  They track him down and bring him into their secret lair. He’s special, they explain, because like them, he can use the powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation. There’s only one problem: big government doesn’t like the idea of people with powers on the loose, so an evil ultra-secret government program called Ultra is out to get every single one of them and neutralize them, which is why they’re hiding in this dank underground lair in the first place.

This is a CW show, so combined with the powers, we naturally have some more real-teen-dealing-with-real-problems aspects that grounds the show.  We had been led to believe that Stephen’s father had abandoned his family after going crazy when Stephen was younger, leaving his wife and sons to find for themselves. Stephen’s always understandably resented his father for this and has some serious teen angst related to the man. It turns out, however, that the father also had powers and went off on a mission to find a safe place for all the super powered people and also because him sticking around with his family would endanger the entire family with Ultra out to get him.

Now, the super powered group try to convince Stephen that his father wasn’t so bad after all, and that he should join them to help try to find the great safe haven their father was after. On top of all this it turns out that the evil head of Ultra is Stephen’s uncle, his dad’s brother. While the underground group tries to convince Stephen to join them and leave his entire life behind for his own safety, Stephen, sensing a better path, eventually accepts a job offer from his evil uncle, with the goal of getting some info about his dad from the inside, helping the good underground folks while posing as an Ultra agent.

This is a CW show again, so let’s not forget a romance angle. There’s presumably going to be some sort of love triangle. The male and female head of the hidden super humans are an item as the show starts, but the female has a weird mind meld connection with Stephen, and her boyfriend seems jealous of her and Stephen’s connection from the get go.

Tomorrow People didn’t hook me. I like shows about superpowers well enough, but the characters and set up was pretty underwhelming. It didn’t help that the sides appeared so blatantly black and white; the clear good vs. evil set up was less intriguing than one in which the battle was even a little more ambiguous and gray. I’m not saying show can’t have villains but the head of ultra just seems so really unnecessarily evil for a character that could at least have some nuance.  The main character wasn’t particularly charismatic and I wasn’t particularly invested in his quest to find his dad by the end even though I tried to be. This is a show that should be funnier than it is. There’s room for a sense of humor that isn’t really present. At times the show seems like it wants to be funnier, but doesn’t quite put in the requisite amount of effort.

I’m a little tired of the set up that normal, regular, people can’t accept people with powers and thus they have to be hidden underground. This happens in Heroes, in Harry Potter, in X-Men. Us normal people without powers will simply be unable to ever handle the possibility of people different than them and thus the only options are either having these special people segmented off or annihilated. What made True Blood’s premise so interesting, is that for the first time, the set up was the opposite; people with powers were finally coming out into the light and mingling with regular people, rather than hiding. The idea that these special people who are so much better than us normals (this theme is actually hammered home in Tomorrow People; the people with powers are simply more advanced and superior to regular huamns) can’t let anybody know for our and their own good because people can’t handle it is a little bit grating.

There’s a lot to deal with being an outcast, and no one deserves to feel like their in it, whatever it is, all alone. Going from outcast to finding out that you’re the most powerful super human seems like a bit of a cheat though, even if it comes with its own set of difficulties.

Will I watch it again? No. It wasn’t that bad but Reign was the slightly better CW show. Still neither of them have intrigued me enough to go in for seconds. If I continue watching a CW show, it’ll probably be trying to start up Arrow.

Fall 2013 Review: Reign

18 Nov

Queen and Duaphin

In a recent review of the ABC show Betrayal, I wondered how that show every made it through all the steps that go from conception to airing, considering not simply just how uninteresting and pointless it was, but how it didn’t seem to hold any possible appeal or have any obvious hook that would make network people keep moving it up that ladder.

CW shows, and Reign, in particular, are the exact opposite. CW has a much tighter, clearer, and more cohesive brand than any of the other broadcast networks, which makes sense because the CW airs fewer shows and draws a lot fewer overall viewers. Additionally, the CW has a niche; they hew to a base demographic of around 18-34 year-old females. CW shows focus on young people, often teens, but sometimes twenty-somethings and feature these wide-eyed youths exposed to new situations, with complicated love lives. These shows are generally slightly more earnest than soaps, but more fun than dark. They’re not particularly humorous, but they try to refrain from being too stiff as well.

Every single scripted show the CW airs is smartly targeted towards this demographic, and even those that don’t work don’t fail because they didn’t make sense theoretically but simply because of the execution or they don’t catch on. Emily Owens, MD was cancelled, for example, but it fit the CW’s core focus to a T. There’s certainly plenty of arguments to make on the value of a brand this consistent and similar versus a brand with little bit more variety, but I certainly appreciate the CW’s approach, as a network in a unique position of being compared to the much larger networks but only airing a few new shows every year.

Reign fits perfectly within this pattern. The main characters is a teenage Mary Queen of Scots, just escorted from the nunnery she was being kept at for her own safety to the King’s court in France. She’s betrothed to the future king of France, Francis, son of current king Henry II. It’s a perfect CW spin on historical drama. It’s about a teenage girl who faces lots of problems every teenage girl deals with – figuring out who your true friends are, finding love, and finding acceptance while feeling like out of place, simply with the added twist that she’s Queen of Scotland, in constant danger from potential English assassins, and one day to be married to the king of France.

There’s already a potential love triangle from episode one. Mary’s betrothed, Francis, is charming, standoffish, romantic and coldly practical in equal parts towards Mary in the pilot. He tells her that he doesn’t think they should marry for strategic reasons, but intimates that just maybe he kind of wants to marry her, which warms Mary’s heart. Us viewers also know that he has another woman in his life. On the other side of the triangle is Francis’s bastard half-brother, Sebastian, who is mysterious and charming, a bad boy who gets to ride around doing what he wants because he’s a bastard who no one cares about while Francis, with the future of a country on his shoulders, must stay in the castle under guard at all times. Mary, of course, knows that marriage in her case is about alliances, but she wants true love at the same time.

Mary has a difficult relationship with her friends, her ladies’ maids, because she wants to frolic and play with them, but she’ll always be above them in statute and that’s not always easy for her or them to deal with. She’s a target, while they’re not, and she’s treated with a level of respect that they aren’t by others. Many CW shows have a queen bee, but this one just has a queen (There’s a tagline for you, CW. You’re welcome). Most CW shows have figurative backstabbing, but in Reign, it’s a literal possibility. A man attempts to rape Mary in the first episode, forced by a mysterious plotter to despoil her so she would be unfit to marry the future king.

King Henry may be the king, but the show implies that the real power lies with Queen Catherine de’ Medici. While Henry seems to sleep with every woman with a pulse in the court (we know at least two, but it seems likely there are more), it’s Catherine’s money that keeps France running. Catherine consults occasionally with the seer Notradamus who ominously warns her that marrying Mary will lead to her son’s death. In the last minutes we find out it was indeed her behind the plot to rape the Queen.

Reign is very good at what it does, being a mash up between a historical drama and a typical CW show about teens growing up, which doesn’t mean it’s good. I’m not the intended audience and I can appreciate what it has qualities that the primary CW demographic might enjoy. Still, it’s a little gooey and flowery for my tastes when it talks about love and a little stilted when it talks about intrigue and politics.  There’s nothing here that pulls me in, and the two boys seem more like 16th century takes on two boys that occupy any CW love triangle rather than full-blown characters. It’s not bad; it’s merely mediocre.

Queen Mary is so wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, confused and confounded at every new experience and there’s plenty of places the show can go with both romantic subplots and political angle. Reign feels like a teen soap hidden behind the intrigue of a historical drama. It feels that way because it’s supposed to, but the too styles don’t really mesh exactly right. The romantic teen angle takes a little too much edge off for a show in which the main character faces potential death in the first episode, and the darker political subplots feel out of place with the ladies’ maids dancing that feels like a montage from any high school movie.  I’m not sure if there’s a way to match these two styles correctly and convincingly. The writing isn’t convincing enough to make me buy in to most of the characters’ motivations or to seamlessly transition from teen soap to high stakes historical politics.There are two separate shows taking place over the same hour, and neither is really bad, but neither is quite good enough on their own and the combination doesn’t really work for me.

Will I watch it again? No. It was fine, I certainly wouldn’t advise specifically against it, and there are people out there who will like this. Those people aren’t me, though.

Fall 2013 Review: We Are Men

15 Nov


Here’s the premise of We Are Men. Carter, a young man with his life seemingly all together sees it all fall apart when his fiancé (Wilfred’s Fiona Gubelmann) leaves him at the altar. His heart is broken, and he’s also newly unemployed as he worked for his fiance’s father. He freaks out, naturally, and eventually moves into short-term housing where he befriends three single dudes of varying ages, who show him the zen of being single and worrying about yourself for once. The three men are: (I’ll just use their actor’s names because you’re not going to remember their characters anyway) First, Tony Shalhoub, a four-time divorcee who is a bit sleazy but seemingly manages to consistently bed women far younger than himself thanks to his charisma and confidence. Second, Jerry O’Connell, a doctor and two-time divorcee, who is engaged in a long-term settlement battle with his second ex-wife. Third, Kal Penn, the only one of the three who still pines for his ex, who left him when she caught him sleeping around.

Anyway, basically the pilot is a battle for Carter’s soul between bromance and romance. Carter is beginning to really like the guys but also desperately misses his ex. He enjoys hanging out but quickly tires of their free and easy goal-less lifestyle. Kal Penn convinces Carter to make a grand romantic gesture to get his woman back. He does, and it works, and the marriage is back on. However, the guys realize that being with his fiance is actually killing Carter’s dreams, and they come in and interrupt the second wedding, convincing Carter to abandon his fiance at the altar this time to bromance it up and focus on making himself happy.

We Are Men is a bad show for a lot of the usual reasons (bad characters, bad writing) but what struck me in particular was the portrayal of women. Carter’s fiancé really is bad for him, in the show’s world, and for certain, anybody can get stuck in a bad relationship and some people just suck. Still, no woman in this show comes off as anything more than a male trope. His fiancé is holding him back from having fun and hanging out with his friends and wants him to work for her dad rather than pursue his dream job, which O’Connell helped arrange an interview for. The strangest complaint of Carter’s is that his fiance always makes them eat at the farmers market, which absolutely mystified me.

We Are Men tries to celebrate guydom and bromance and all those wonderful men-hanging-out-together qualities that so many shows have tried to celebrate over the last few years (probably due to the success of some combination of Entourage and The Hangover, but that’s another article). While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating male friendship, and I think it’s a great theme that was overlooked before a couple of years ago, sixth degree poor man’s iterations of that theme like “We Are Men” make me feel kind of disgusted for my gender. Certainly guys have been known to bash women as a gender occasionally, and there’s nothing wrong with idly complaining to some extent to make a guy feel better after a bad date or breakup, etc. It’s also silly to harp on one episode of a twenty minute show to bemoan the show’s point of view; it’s hard to fit a world view in less than a half hour. Still, it’s not an arbitrarily chosen half hour, it’s one you know your show will be judged and chosen by. Dads writes and creators balked at accusations of sexism and racism by claiming that later episodes would make the characters more complex, and to some extent it’s fair to note that most characters feel like tropes after an episode.   But maybe don’t put that much racism in it either. I would have absolutely no problem if the first episode featured just men; there’s nothing wrong with shows for men, by men, and they could introduce women in later episodes when these characters were more fleshed out. What I do have a problem is how the limited number of women are portrayed. His fiance is portrayed as a naggy impediment to his dreams. The other female character who gets a minute is Shalhoub’s daughter, who seemed like kind of a male fantasy, as the cool, sexy chick, who gave him tips on how to hook up with women. It’s not that other shows don’t feature women mostly as merely objects for men to ogle and hope to have sex with, but for whatever reason this show felt more boorish than most.

If Entourage is the male fantasy show you dream after a booze-filled party, We Are Men is the reality when you wake up groggy in the morning, hungover. Everything that seemed so great the night before now appears kind of ugly. While hanging out with cool successful guys and sleeping with a lot of hot chicks was fun in Entourage, it was less so when you realize that those guys were kind of sketchy and leering at women feels much more uncomfortable.

Of course guys look at attractive women, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with portraying that reality but I felt really creepy watching the four guys in We Are Men ogle women from their poolside. Probably the single worst shot without which it might not have stuck out as much is when the camera follows a bikini-glad young women, and Carter, narrating, tells us, well, we’re showing you that, just because. They do this in Entourage all the time, but somehow that show seemed separated from reality in so many ways, and it was strangely easy to enjoy the fun fantastical times Entourage provided while laughing away its approach towards women.

Anyway, bad show. Also worth noting were the cameos by Alan Ruck, who has also appeared in a couple of episodes of Masters of Sex this year, who shows up as the priest officiating Carter’s wedding, and Dave Foley, who is in the show for approximate ten seconds as Carter’s dad.

Will I watch it again? I again could only watch one more even if I wanted to, but I don’t. America got one right and decided they collectively ddin’t want to see any more of this claptrap. Smart call.

Fall 2013 Review: Lucky 7

13 Nov

Four of the Lucky 7

Here’s the only thing you really need to know about Lucky 7: ABC has outdone most TNT and USA titles by conceiving of a title achieves the rare triple pun (for another example, see the album cover for Rush’s “Moving Pictures“). First, Lucky 7 applies to the titular group of seven employees who win the lottery (actually six do, and one doesn’t technically, but they’re still the seven described in the title). Second, it’s a reference to the 7 train which goes through Queens, where the show takes place. Third, seven is the final digit of the six numbers that the group plays in their weekly lottery pool, which wins them the jackpot. So, there. If you want to stop reading now, you now know the best thing about the show, the triple pun title.

Moving on. Because the show takes place in an outer borough rather than Manhattan, the seven are real New Yorkers, and not urban hipsters or bankers. You can tell because they have extremely noticeable accents.  The seven main characters work together at a gas station, in different roles. They are:

Bob – the boss, played by the only particularly well-known member of the cast, Isiah Whitlock, who played The Wire’s Clay Davis. He and his wife are looking forward to his retirement but doesn’t have the funds.

Antonio – a hard-working Hispanic mechanic had been saving away his lottery money instead of putting it into the pool as the most responsible member of the cast. When his responsible decision making is not rewarded, he seems to take it relatively well considering he’s still poor while his friends are all instant millionaires.

Denise – she works in the store and is worried that her husband is cheating on her after finding out that he’s sent hudnreds of text messages to a number she doesn’t recognize. She’d rather not find out the truth and she feels guilty because she’s gained a lot of weight since their marriage. On a subjective note, I found her accent extremely irritating.

Mary – a young mother who is struggling to provide for her daughter. She works in the store.

Nicky – an ex-con having somewhat of a hard time staying straight. He has a thing for Samira (who we’ll get to in a moment).

Matt – Nicky’s law-abiding brother. He’s living with his pregnant wife in his mom’s house, which is driving his wife crazy.

Samira – she’s a Julliard student with an incredibly stereotypical Indian dad who claims Julliard is useless compared to math or medicine and tries to set her up with Indian guys.

So basically,  they win the lotto towards the end of the episode, which we all know is going to happen because it’s the premise of the show (how great would it have been though if they didn’t win, and everything in the trailers about the premise was just a lie). The major plotline apart from simply winning the lotto involves the brothers. Nicky, who needs money to pay off some old criminal associates, convinces Matt, who desperately needs money to move out, to stage a fake robbery of the gas station store. Nicky will wear a ski mask and rob Matt, working at the register, and the insurance will take care of the loss. As you might guess, this does not go as planned.

This sequence contains of my least favorite narrative devices. Nicky suggest pulling off the robbery to Matt, who immediately turns him down, which is exactly how he should and would react as a non-criminal who has never considered robbery as an acceptable option at any point in his life, no matter how easy or potentially foolproof. However, right after Matt turns his brother down initially, his wife, who just gave birth, warns him that she’s going to move out to her sister’s place until he can get them a place of their own, because his mother is awful to her. All of a sudden, with that one new piece of information, Matt’s in for the fake robbery. I get it, the writers have done their due diligence, and checked off the “motivation” checkbox by letting us know how desperate a situation Matt is in, vis-a-vis his wife moving out temporarily. And credit for at least checking it off, but it still feels lazy, easy, and not convincing that this law abiding citizen would agree to commit a pretty serious crime a minute after learning this extremely disheartening, but not life-threatening news.

Anyway, they attempt the crime, but it all goes awry when Bob walks in, and Nicky hits him over the head as a quick reaction move, putting Bob in the hospital with serious injuries. We don’t know for sure from the events in this episode, but we’re certainly led to believe that the police are going to be pretty suspicious about this potential fishy inside job pretty quickly.

The only other major plot element of this episode was that, since Matt borrowed money to joint the lottery pool the week they won, the other lottery winners have to vote on whether or not he gets a share. This seems beyond shady to be. It basically means that, according to this rule, if they lose, he still owes the money, but if he wins, he might not get it. That makes no sense and I’m curious if it’s actual lottery policy, but not quite curious enough to look it up. A just awake Bob casts the tie-breaking vote to give Matt his share after the other four are deadlocked.

I forgot to mention there’s a flashforward at the very beginning of the episode in which the brothers are being chased by the cops and one of them ends up throwing a whole bunch of money out of the car, and says something to the effect of that it was the money that caused all their problems.  Did I also mention how ridiculously tired I am of flashforwards?

It’s not a good show. There’s a good premise lurking there underneath everything, and definite points for ethnic diversity, but demerits for the ethnic stereotyping, like Samira’s Indian father. The characters feel hackneyed. Instead of showing complicated, deep, working class characters, Lucky 7’s characters mostly feel right out of the book of what well off people think of good-hearted down-on-their-luck working class Americans. The writing isn’t sharp, and some of the characters, particular Nicky, the ex and current criminal, are particularly grating. Any chance generated by the potentially fascinating premise is wasted by settling for the obvious and uninteresting.

It’s not truly terrible; I’d rather keep terrible to use for worse shows, like Ironside. It’s just regular bad. Still, there’s no reason to feel much sympathy for its quick cancellation.

Will I watch it again? I won’t and I could only watch one more even if I wanted to. I still think this premise could have some juice to it if done well, but this certainly isn’t that.