Tag Archives: Fall 2014 TV Season

End of Series Report: The Newsroom

15 Dec

The Newsroom

So, this is kind of a misleading post. I watched The Newsroom finale, but I’ve only seen about five episodes of the show, so this post is actually going to be about Aaron Sorkin. Please though, read on.

I watched the last episode of the Newsroom without having seen any since the first season, and while that admittedly doesn’t make me qualified to talk about the show as a whole, it adds to my body of knowledge about Aaron Sorkin, and continues to make clear what he’s good at and what he isn’t.

Hey, sports fans. You know that basketball player type, like Lance Stephenson, JR Smith, Monta Ellis and others – players who are obviously talented, but not quite talented enough at all facets of the game to be a star. Due to their innate talent, these types of player are just good enough to think they can do more than they can, and want more control of the came they should have, but the whole team suffers due to their increase workload. The kind of player who the right coach can turn into a superbly useful asset, but who, if granted too much power, could poison an entire team, simply by throwing off everyone’s role just a little bit?

Aaron Sorkin is TV’s answer to that archetype, TV’s Monta Ellis. He’s a savantishly brilliant dialogue writer; it’s easy to be jaded and sick of his style, because it’s so ripe for easy parody (Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers have put out exact recent parodies), and sometimes it seems a parody of itself, but if you can, as I try occasionally to, sit back and watch a scene, without looking out every second for one of the many Aaron Sorkin tropes, it’s damn good. When it’s on, it’s quick, sharp, clever, and biting. The problem, unfortunately, is that on TV, Sorkin keeps being hired not simply to write dialogue, but to write an entire show, and this, instead of playing to his strengths, tends to highlight his weaknesses instead; he can write great dialogue, but he rarely writes great stories.

I left in the first season for several reasons. The show’s famed women problem was real; female characters were portrayed in strangely regressive ways, with Alison Pill’s Maggie the poster child for Sorkin women, as clumby, fumbling, and always screwing up certain tasks that are for men. In another show, Maggie might just come off as a bad example, but in The Newsroom’s world she feels emblematic of Sorkin’s difficulty writing women characters the same way he writes males. To be fair, it was also part of a greater character problem; most were uninteresting at best, and grating at worst. Sorkin’s infatuation with love triangles and lingering sexual tension between two people who will incredibly obviously get together is a trope that has been overused and overused and felt forced, primarily with the Don, Maggie, and Jim first season triangle, but also with the fact that from day 1, it was inevitable that MacKenzie and Will would end up together. The single biggest irritant to me, which showed up constantly in the few episodes I saw (and again in the finale), was the self-righteous, smug attitude of The Newsroom characters, who believe their way is the right way, and everyone else’s is wrong;  even when I agree with them, I root against them because of the way they go about it. In the paraphrased words of The Dude, they’re not wrong (well, they are often, but), they’re just assholes.

The dialogue which I just raved about can be occasionally insufferable; people talk too much, too fast, and sometimes I just want to scream “slow down and take a breath.” Still, as someone who has tried to write dialogue on occasion, I have great respect for it even when I want them to slow down – it’s an art form, and when they’re saying dumb things, it’s usually a macro problem and not a micro one.

Aaron Sorkin has a signature style (the walk-and-talk, the repeated lines, the big, passionate speeches, etc.), and the parodies are earned not just because it’s easy to mock but because people like the style for a reason. There’s a little movie called The Social Network that shows the power of a harnessed Aaron Sorkin. When he’s not someone responsible for the entire narrative and characters of a series, but rather is someone who writes a script for a confident A-list directory like David Fincher who knows exactly what he wants and won’t accept anything else. When he’s someone who knows what the story is supposed to be, what the scenes are supposed to convey, and simply needs to get from point A to point B. Under those conditions, Sorkin kills. He just needs to be under those conditions more often.

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Fall 2014 Review: State of Affairs

17 Nov

State of Affairs - Season Pilot

Is it reasonable to say that something is a cross between Homeland and Madam Secretary after having only seen one episode of Madam Secretary? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but I’m saying it. Perhaps more simply and clearly, it’s just a network TV version of Homeland – the Madam Secretary simply refers to the broadcast-appropriate national security cases-of-the-week that the main character discusses with the president. Otherwise, Katherine Heigl’s Charleston Tucker is the Carrie Mathison analogue. Let me count the ways.

Charleston starts the episode in her psychologist’s office. She’s dealing with a tragic personal traumatic event that happened deep within the middle east. Her fiancé (who turns out to also be the president’s son; that’s different, I suppose) died in Kabul at the hands of most-wanted terrorist Omar Abdul Fatah, the Abu Nazir of State of Affairs. There’s also more than meets to the eye to that integral event; Charleston wasn’t warned of a traitor, but she has gaps in her memory and has secret information about the events that only one other person knows that could implicate her personally and ruin her career. An unidentified person texts her throughout the episode, aluding to knowing details about the terrorist attack which she does not.

In order get over these tragic events, she works hard and she plays hard. She’s promiscuous (I’m not judging her by any means, but her psychologist does) and she drinks a lot. She’s a high ranking CIA official; unlike Carrie she has direct contact with the president. She’s very sensitive when people accuse of her letting her personal life of getting in the way of her professional decision making. She’s a rogue; she gets in trouble with her bosses, and bucks them, even if it means getting suspended, which happens in the first twenty minutes of the first episode. She has friends and colleagues who believe in her, respect her, and trust her with their careers – she uses these connections in the pilot to work her way out of her suspension, prove that she’s right, and embarrass the CIA director, her direct higher up.

So, yes. She’s pretty much Carrie in most of the ways that count. How is she different? She’s not actually crazy, it doesn’t seem like, though she may have some PTSD or survivor’s remorse. She was engaged to the president’s son and thus has the president’s implicit trust, which is probably more than Carrie had, leverage-wise. But that’s about it.

Of course, the show isn’t as hardboiled or hardcore as Homeland in any number of ways – it’s on NBC and not on Showtime. There’s probably going to be much more of a case per week to go along with the running plot to catch Fatah and figure out what happened the night her fiancé was killed (In this episode, Tucker makes some unpopular calls but ends up saving an American doctor taken hostage).

Being a Homeland rip off  isn’t exactly something you want to wear on your sleve these days, but Homeland did have a truly all-time rookie season (the Mark Fidrych of TV shows? I’m still working on it), which can be hard to remember I know. Still, Homeland’s pilot, Carrie’s character even aside, was a lot more intriguing and well-executed than State of Affairs. After that, State of Affairs feels like an extremely neutered, generizied version, that’s only one step away from a typical CBS police procedural. That’s not the worst thing in the world to be, but it’s not particularly close to engendering repeat viewing either. I’m not sure if NBC thinks it’s being at all daring with State of Affairs, but it isn’t. Madam Secretary, which, to be fair, I’m not watching either, screams broadcast show and knows what it is even if that has a lower ceiling than most better cable shows. State of Affairs seems to want to fly closer to what airs on premium cable these days, but never anywhere close enough to make you actually believe it could.

Will I watch it again? No. While not State of Affairs’ fault, anything which reminds me in any way of Homeland right now is pretty poisonous. Homeland, as mentioned above, had one of the all-time great first seasons, and then went downhill from there, and a Carrie analogue is the last new character I want to see. Charleston probably won’t be as unwatchable as Carrie gets,  (seriously, who can be?) which is absolutely worth noting, but the start of State of Affairs is also a lot less intriguing than the pilot of Homeland was all around.

 

Fall 2014 Review: The McCarthys

3 Nov

Three of the McCarthys

Years ago dysfunctional families were in on sitcoms in a big way – families that didn’t quite work, that, while they maybe didn’t actually hate each, maybe they did. Married with Children was one of the forefathers of this genre, but Family Guy and Arrested Development are two other prominent examples. These ran counter to the essentially functional standard sitcom families of time immemorial that fought amongst themselves but within reason. Modern Family, though, and its success turned this dysfunctional genre on its head – combining the disorder of dysfunctional families – with genuine love and affection of the nuclear families which ruled the ’90s and made this the a popular option for modern family sitcoms.

The McCarthys feeds right into this legacy. They’re a family of blue-collar Bostonians, who love their sports and their hard-core Boston accents, but also love one another. There’s the parents and four adult kids, three boys and a girl. Protagonist and good son Ronny is gay, which in another generation would lead to grumpy reluctance veering towards acceptance at best. But this is a post-Modern Family family, so the blue-collar family doesn’t quite get what being gay entails, but they embrace it nevertheless, wholeheartedly, trying their best, though accidentally overcompensation along the way

The premise features the Ronny potentially moving away, all the way to Providence to take a new job. His parents freak out, wanting him to be happy, but, especially his mother, who is closer to Ronny than her other children (shared love of The Good Wife), doesn’t want him to leave. Eventually, his father, a high school basketball coach, convinces Ronny to take a job as his assistant, even though he knows almost nothing about basketball, partly to spend more time with him, and partly because Ronny will help him get a major recruit whose mom is gay.

The feaux modernity behind The McCarthys makes it’s a CBS comedy. The gay main character is a new-ish concept, as is the obvious acceptance by the type of family who twenty years ago might not have taken the news so well. The family is wacky and inappropriate. The clichéd jokes, the overbearing family, the regionalness, the big, broad punch lines, and the laugh track are as old as the first sitcoms.

It’s not quite Partners/Men at Work/We are Men level bad; mostly because it’s not actively patently offensive (backhanded compliment, maybe?). It’s not good though, it’s not funny, it’s not well-written and there’s just about no reason to watch. You probably didn’t need me to tell you that, but there it is.

Will I watch it again? No. It was a CBS sitcom, so there was honestly little chance to begin with. But while the best compliment I can muster is that it’s not out and out offenisve, there’s absolutely no reason to watch this show for pretty much anyone. It will probably be gone not too long after it debuts and forgotten by almost anyone who had ever heard of it to begin with.

Fall 2014 Review: Benched

29 Oct

Benched

Benched is a a new comedy on USA starring Happy Endings’s Eliza Coupe.  While half-hour comedies are a fairly new beast for USA (Benched is only the third ever, the first two (Sirens and Playing House) having come earlier this year), some of their hour long shows were more or less comedies (Psych and Monk) and most others were lighter in sensibility than dramas on other networks.

Benched additionally follows a popular USA trope; the redemption story. The protagonists of Royal Pains, Fairly Legal, and Satisfaction have their happy, successful, and together lives shaken up by personal and career changes, and need to start over. They’re forced to trod over ground they’d never even thought about months before, but they end up better off in the long run for the change of path.

Coupe stars as career-oriented corporate lawyer Nina Whitley. Whitley’s personal life is in turmoil. Her boyfriend broke up with her because she worked too many hours at her firm, and she comes apart after he calls her to let her know he’s engaged. Her one saving grace is her expected promotion to partner, but when another lawyer gets chosen over her she has an Enlightened-styled meltdown, throwing things, yelling at colleagues, name-calling, and basically burning any bridge she has, not just in the firm, but in the world of corporate law.

Six months later, after recouping (pun half indended), Whitley is working at the only place that will take her; the public defender’s office, which is worlds away from the fancy lobbies and perks of her corporate office. Even while realizing it’s a step down, she’s wholly unprepared for the culture change. She plans on working for as short a time as it takes to rehabilitate her image and has a hard time fitting in among the lifers that are doing this work for other reasons. She’s intimidated when she’s thrown into court with five minutes notice, harassed by a sarcastic judge, and the coup de grace to her terrible first day is when she finds out she’ll be up against Trent, a smooth talking, handsome, and ambitious prosecutor who happens to be her ex.

The supporting cast includes her fiancé, her new boss, and some new colleagues, including a has-been not much older than her who has seemingly given up on recapturing his former legal glory, but whom it seems like might be reinspired by Whitley’s entrance into the office.

Coupe is a pro; I greatly enjoyed her work in Happy Endings, and while she plays a fairly similar character here – high-strung, career-oriented, and ruthlessly competent, she does it well, and is the best thing the show has going for it. The show is pleasant, well-meaning and slightly above average, but, at least in the first episode nothing much more. You know these characters, and how this show goes, and the first episode reads like any other USA show. Whitley is humbled, struggles mightly in her new environment, but in the nick of time, gets just one little win, that, while not incredibly meaningful in and of itself, gives her the belief that she can remake her life, that she can regain confidence and be good again at what she once took for granted.

Another quick comparison, as mentioned quickly above is Enlightened, another show about a high-strung female corporate climber, who comes apart and has to put her life back together again. Benched is more comedic and far more conventional than Enlightened, but it trods over the same difficulties in much broad strokes of trying to reorient your whole life after what you’ve been working for for years comes apart in an instant.

Will I watch it again? Probably not. It’s cute; there’s nothing not to like, but there isn’t enough to like either. There are so many shows on TV, now, and to catch up on, and there’s not enough to make Benched stand out amongst the pack.

Fall 2014 Review: The Flash

8 Oct

The Flash

It’s hard, when you’re watching every fall TV debut in a relatively compressed preiod of time, to not instantly compare The Flash and Gotham, as the two comics-based new superhero shows to debut this season (Constantine is also based on a comic, but is less similar).

Gotham tries to be more and do more. It doesn’t know what it is, tries on several hats, and none of them really fit. There’s a fine line between fusion of genres and simple lack of direction, and Gotham falls distinctly on the latter end. The Flasth, on the other hand, doesn’t try to do too much. It’s ambition is restrained. However, it knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be, and for The Flash, that self-awareness and ability to pull back and do it rather than try for too much and do it more is a huge asset.

The Flash doesn’t break any barriers (except when The Flash breaks the sound barrier – JOKE). There’s nothing particularly new or novel. It’s hardly an absolute must watch. Yet, what it does, within its limited realm, it does quite well. It’s earnest, and smart, and pretty fun. It’s very comic book; there are villains, there are wacky origin stories, there are costumes and secret identities. It’s also very comic book in other ways; there’s uncomplicated and obvious love interests, big talk of power and responsibility, and complex and sometimes unnecessary webs of secrets and lies.

Theis can sound cliche, uninventive, and unoriginal, and sure, that wouldn’t be inaccurate. If you like comic books and superhero movies, though, you’ll enjoy The Flash, because, like Marvel seems to be good at with its movies, the creators behind The Flash (and Arrow, I hear, though I haven’t dug deep into that show just yet) just know how to craft a solid superhero show. Barry Allen is a likeable nerd who gets to play the social outcast, without pushing it too far (he’s not a Toby Maguire-as-Peter Park level nerd – remember nerds are at least somewhat cool these days). His father was convicted of murdering his mother, even though Barry saw that that wasn’t the case, but he doesn’t know what actually happened. Barry was raised by Law & Order’s Jesse L. Martin, who serves a mentor and a detective, who, after disbelieving Barry’s conspiracy theories about his mother’s death, changes his mind after seeing Barry’s powers. There’s a couple of young, cool scientists who steer Barry to be the best superhero he can be, and a head scientist, played by Ed’s Tom Cavanagh, who seems like a probably villain but whose motives remain mysteries.

There’s plenty of nods to the rich world of The Flash comics, which I’ve had to research or ask friends about, and there’s clearly a love and a respect for the comic, which comes through even to a notvce fan, and even when the characters aren’t adapted exactly as they are in the books.

It’s an easy, low-on-thinking, fun watch. It’s paced well. The show is serial enough to keep you wanting to watch week to week, but seems likely to have many self-contained weekly adventures, which, while you pretty much know how they’re going to end (Flash gets the bad guy), that’s okay because it’s a light and pleasant journey getting there.

Will I watch it again? Yes, I will. If you like superheroes and comics then I’ve got a feeling you’ll probably like The Flash. If you’re not already predisposed to like these things, it’s not worth a second glance.

Fall 2014 Review: Gotham

8 Oct

GothamPIlot1

I rarely chastise ambition on TV, because usually I appreciate a show trying to do something different, even if it fails, more than a show trying to do more of the same and being meidocore. There’s a thin line, though, sometimes between uncharted ambition and simple directionlessness that can sometimes be hard to read. It’s difficult, when you’re watching every fall TV pilot, to not instantly compare The Flash to Gotham, the two comics-based new shows to debut this season. And while Gotham feels like the more ambitious show straight out of the gate, The Flash, without being great, knows exactly what it’s doing and what it’s going for, and settles quickly into a solidly enjoyable hour, while Gotham feels rudderless and unsteady.

The premise is thus; Jim Gordon, the future commissioner, is just starting out as a detective, and as he gains experience and fights the good fight, several of Batman’s most famous villains are also on the rise in the dark and sinister underworld of Gotham. Bruce Wayne himself is a kid, his parents having very recently died as of the first episode. Gordon meets with Wayne and his caretaker Alfred, determined to solve his parents murder, and builds a bond of trust that we know will last a life time.

His partner is Harvey Bullock, he’s played by fantastic tv actor Donal Logue, and is probably the best supporting character in the show, as a cop whose working both sides, cozy with the city’s organized crime, but somewhat looking out for Gordon as well, though mostly trying to make sure he doesn’t stick his nose where it doesn’t belong. There’s Fish Mooney, an overwrought gangster played by Jada Pinkett Smith, who didn’t quite work for me. There’s also a young penguin and a young riddler, both of which are unnecessarily over the top as if to scream instead of merely winking that these are the villains from the Batman universe you know and love.

The dominant motif is film noir, which makes an abundance of sense in the Batman universe, but it feels off at various places and doesn’t have the chops, dialogue-wise or cinematography-wise to entirely pull it off. I do think there’s a show that works here; my version eliminates all the familiar characters except Gordon, who I think can be compelling enough on his own, and has him deal with organized crime and other seedy, but less familiar villlains, struggling to stay above the filth, and figuring out what comprimises he needs to make to survive.  Gotham is in a way hamstrung rather than helped by the fame and general awareness of its source material; most of the major characters have made strong impressions in our minds, and we have distinct expectatoins for them, which makes it more difficult for Gotham’s creators to make them their own. Sticking with less familiar characters could allow the creators to both focus on the noir and be a little more inventive and free.

That’s just one version though. It’s not inconceivable the creators could work out the kinks but I’m not convinced from the first episode that they have a plan, other than throw together a bunch of familiar elements and hope people get attached and want to see origin stories. The dialogue and writing feel stilted and the plot is relatively uninteresting, considering its head start of stuff we already know about Batman. Knowing its about the Batman universe fairly or unfairly increased expectations somewhat, and Gotham didn’t meet those.

Will I watch it again? No, I’m not planning to. It certainly wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t particularly inspring either, and though, this is a unfair to take against the show, I have a little bit of Batman fatigue (a much weaker case than my vampire fatigue).  I just didn’t see enough to make me feel like I need to come back with so many other shows demanding my attention.

Fall 2014 Review: Mulaney

6 Oct

Mulaney and friends

John Mulaney is undeniably a very talented young stand up comedian. Unfortunately, the scripted television show bearing his name is far less successful than his stand-up specials. While the vast majority of network television are mediocre or worse, and some are outright bad, only truly disappoint me because very few lead me to have any expectiation of quality, either because of an intriguing trailer or because there are people involved with the show that I respect. This case is one of the latter.

While I want to devote the bulk of this review to talking about what’s wrong with Mulaney, I should at least briefly discuss the set up. Mulaney plays a struggling stand up who lives with two roomates, has a strange neighbor across the hall, played by Elliott Gould, and just got a job with  a vain and self-centered comedy legend played by Martin Short.

Mulaney, based on both his comedy and his sitcom, is influenced heavily by Seinfeld, the comedian, and the show. His comedy is largely clean and observational, and the sitcom features bits of his own stand up, like early Seinfeld episodes do.

Here’s the problem. Mulaney takes exactly the wrong lessons from Seinfeld. Insead of learning from Seinfeld and being influenced by Seinfeld, he tries to replicate Seinfeld, which makes his sitcom seem about twenty years out of date.

Seinfeld is one of the best comedies of all time, and incredibly important to modern sitcoms in several different ways. However,  if Seinfeld started today I very much believe it would look very different than Seinfeld did when it aired 25 years ago. In fact, as the closest thing to evidence we can possibly have, Curb Your Enthusiasm, from Seinfeld co-creator Larry David did look very different when it appeared a decade ago – featuring a similar style of comedy to what made Seinfeld great but in a notably more modern form; shot in single-camera with no laugh track. Those are the external trappings of modernity and I’m going to bring up the laugh track in a moment. But more than that, Curb Your Enthsiasm felt of its time, modifying the deeper lessons of Seinfeld – no sappiness, clever plotlines, memorable phrases, obessions with the foibles of modern life, to a moment a decade later. Certainly Mulaney is set in the modern era, and the charactesr aren’t making references to the first Bush administration or not carrying cell phones. But the feel is trapped squarely in the ’90s, particularly the pacing, and even the jokes feel sometimes like material that would feel more at home 20 years souped up with phrasology and references that are more current.

The laugh track. I’ve generally eschewed complaining about it in each and every review of a show that features one, because you can only talk about how terrible it is so many times. But it needs to be talked about here for a couple of reasons. (I need to quickly point out that I made no distinction between a laugh track and a live studio audience laughing; to the TV audience, they’re the same thing, real laughs or not.) Mulaney, for one, is a young comic who, as previously mentioned, I expect more out of than say, a Tim Allen sitcom buried deep on ABC Friday nights. Second, Fox may be the most progressive current network in terms of comedy, featuring the three best network sitcoms currently airing New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Mindy Project, all of them single-camera and mercifully laugh track-free.  Thus, Mulaney is the exception in terms of its laugh track on its network, rather than simply following the trend.

As for the multi-camera format, well, I prefer single-camera, but I can certainly understand the appeal of multi-camera and I’m open to a show that shows me that there’s good reason to use it. A laugh track, though, outside of some brilliant anti-humor bit, is never acceptable.

The laugh track simply slaughters any sense of timing. Seinfeld, revolutionary is so many ways, had a laugh track when it aired, because every show had a laugh track. Now we know better, and there’s no excuse. Shows are much more fast paced, but with a laugh track, there are wasted minutes over the course of a 20 minute sitcom that offer nothing but dead space and canned laughter.  What’s particularly astonishing is that the laughter comes at the strangest times; when there are jokes, but even when there aren’t. It made this viewing experience borderline unwatchable for me and constantly cringeworthy.

I wanted deep down to believe this was some sort of meta-sitcom, a commentary on the modern sitcom, but I don’t think it was.

The laugh track though, was far from the only issue. Mulaney’s acting was stilted, performing much better when he was reading a joke to the audience, than with a line to another character, but that worked well enough for Seinfeld, who got at least slightly better as he went along. The jokes, though, were largely  just sad. They weren’t entirely without merit; but what quality was in the jokes was absolutely destroyed by the format.

One more quite note: Just about everyone I know in my generation does not care for Martin Short. He’s so, well, much. There’s no trace of subtlety. He’s just so loud. He has old-fashioned sitcom written all over him, that makes it really difficult for him to slip into an ensemble without trying to dominate whoever he’s standing next to.

Will I watch it again? No. It was very bad. John Mulaney can do better, and I hope he knows this. If he thinks he’s created a good show, I have to severely question his judgment.