Tag Archives: Showtime

Summer 2014 Review: Penny Dreadful

12 May

Penny DreadfulHey! It’s May! I’m starting to classify us as…drum roll please…officially in the SUMMER 2014 TV SEASON. And there’s no better way to kick it off than with a grim gothic horror series set in Victorian England! Let’s do this thing.

More so than most pilots, Penny Dreadful is dreadfully hard to get a sense of in one episode, leaving a lot of its premise to be yet assembled in future episodes. The show seems promising, but will probably require another episode or two viewed to know for sure because of how little we actually get in this episode.  I’m interested in watching more, but more hesitant to anoint it as a must-see pilot, or to be too excited about the upcoming season, because I need a few more bites to really get a better sense of it.

Here’s what we do get though. Penny Dreadful has what seems like a League of Extraordinary Gentleman-like set up. If you’re unfamiliar with that excellent comic book and fairly putrid movie adaptation, it’s basically a cobbling together of a bunch of Victorian england-era literary all-star characters all together into a gritty real life world.

Josh Hartnett, long absent from film and television, plays the American showman and gunsmith Ethan Chandler, new to England, and one of the only major characters not in some way lifted from literature. He’s doing Buffalo Bill-style wild west shooting shows, half showmanship and half marksmanship displays. He’s an inveterate drinker and womanizer, enjoying the show business lifestyle when he’s recruited by Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives to assist her with a dangerous task that will require his quick trigger finger.

Ives seems to have some connection to the supernatural, and she does a bunch of time creepily quasi-praying a weird creepy church with an upside down satanic church. So too does Timothy Dalton’s Max Murray; his daughter was taken away by vampires, and the two of them bring Chandler along to infiltrate a nest. The vampires are not the sexy vampires of True Blood and The Vampire Diaries; instead, they’re disgusting, and creepy, more reminiscent of Walking Dead zombies and some points. They’re scary; a reminder that original vampires were supposed to be terrifying and not cool. When they kill one and bring back its corpse, they recruit occult doctor Victor Frankenstein to take a look. Later, we see him bringing his eponymous monster to life.

Penny Dreadful is intriguing but feels incomplete. The gothic horror sensibility which reminds me of what made the League comic work as well; a sense of the supernatural, but rooted in its place and time in a meaningful way. Combining a period piece and the supernatural seems like an obvious gambit, considering what’s popular on television at the moment, but it could easily go very wrong, and has in the past (see, unfortunately, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film), and it’s to Penny Dreadful’s credit that both of those two key genre elements feel fully formed and not out of place.

The mood is right; it’s weird and eerie rather than romantic. As mentioned above the vampires don’t look sexy, they look creepy as all hell. Frankenstein seems largely off his rocker, and Vanessa Ives is engaging in creep-tastic behavior with spiders and potential satanic worship for much of her screen time.. Josh Hartnett’s American is the viewer’s stand in, not coincidentally as the only American on an American-made show set in England. He’s us, with no accent, with our sense of exaggerating nation-making myth, and bluster and braggadocio above actually experience. He talks a big game but he lives in the world of  show business and illusion, and has never been exposed to the unreal. And like all good Americans, he’s repulsed, creeped out, kind of terrified, but also curious, and insistent upon knowing more just to prove that he can.

What the hell is going on? Where is this going? I have absolutely no idea. Unlike The Returned, the landmark recent show for me in terms of I-have-no-idea-where-this-is-going after the pilot, I feel like I know the genre and the mood, both of which were very up for grabs throughout almost The Returned’s entire first season. Rather, it’s the basic plot arc in question, as well as the characters and they’re relationship to the stories on which they’re based.

Do the characters work? I’m not sure. Does the plot make sense, and does it matter? I don’t know. But, it passes the pilot test of having at least one quality that makes it stand out and calls for another episode. The mood works.

 

Will I watch it again? Yes, I wll. I’m not sure it’s going to be good, and I feel like I know less from one episode than I do from most shows, but there’s at least a halfway decent chance it wil

l be good, and that’s more than enough reason to watch a second episode.

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End of Season Report: Masters of Sex, Season 1

23 Dec

Masters and JohnsonMasters of Sex offered an ultimately strong first season that was overly ambitious and marred with inconsistencies and overreach but was on the whole better for the leaps. The first season got stronger, if somewhat in fits and starts, as it went forward and I hold out great hope for the series as a whole as it continues. Masters of Sex is new and interesting, which already puts it in relatively slim company by modern television standards. It’s a doctor show, but it’s not really a doctor show; the focus is on the sex research and relationships rather than any doctoring the way Doctor shows are (you know, House, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.). It’s also a show that takes place in the past, which has been a recent trend all over cable (Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, Mob City, etc.), but it doesn’t feel like it fits in the bucket with those retro-shows. Masters of Sex is certainly influenced by the generation of auteur anti-hero shows that dominated the last decade – Mad Men, particularly, but it’s not an antihero show itself. William Masters is the closest the show has to an antihero, but he’s not that; he is flawed but not nearly comprised morally enough to be lumped in  with the antihero characters of recent years, and that’s a good thing..

Relationships,sex, and the intersection or lack thereof between the two are naturally at the forefront of a show about revolutionary sex researchers, and occasional attempts at opening up other themes feel half-assed and not nearly as successful. Still, there’s more than enough juicy themes there to fill up hours and hours of television. Relationships explored were not just the sexual variety. and an exploration into gender roles was natural in a show featuring a female sex researcher in the 1950s, America’s answer to the Victorian era.

Masters of Sex, although a character-driven hour-long show, faces some issues comedies usually face in their early episodes. The writers, over the course of Masters of Sex’s first half, had to learn what worked, figure out who the characters were, what the actors’ strengths were, and what the emotional resonance was between different characters as the show went on. The show clearly fell more in place as the season went on, and that continues to give me hope that the show will continue to grow.

For example, Masters of Sex hit the point somewhere around halfway through the season when a solid portion of the conflict between characters became if not relatable than at least understandable through the context of what we know about the characters and their backgrounds and personalities, which is a mark of a good show. Masters seemed like an impudent jerk early in the season who didn’t practice what he preached, but learning about his background and his relationship with his father in particular deepended our understand of particular patterns of behavior without seeming too hackneyed. Later in the season, Masters was just as obstinate but the reasons why were easier to tease out from what we’ve been given.

There are only five actors listed in the credits, a relatively low number for a showcase premium cable show, but several recurring characters play out some of the season’s best arcs. Beau Bridges and Alison Janney, as closeted provost Barton Scully and his wife Margaret are both season long highlights, offering a challenging alternate portrait from the primary relationships of Masters and Johnson, and both enriched the show greatly, and hopefully will be back even with potentially other sitcom commitments. Pioneering female doctor Lillian DePaul (portrayed by Julianne Nicholson, who also plays a female professional in a world dominated by men in Boardwalk Empire) was also an excellent recurring addition, offering one of several alternative attempted routes towards female empowerment in a male dominated world..

Viewing everything through the prism of a time decades earlier when attitudes about sex were more repressed and gender roles that we consider crazily outmoded were the norm is an interesting and sometimes strange way to look at sexual mores and relationships. We viewers are watching old revolutionaries, a partly oxymoronic exercise that requires thinking through different relative layers; even people so on the cutting edge that they were chased out of the mainstream with pitchforks would be considered backwards-thinking in our own time. Shows set in the past always make me ponder how to consider relative versus absolute positions; how much should we consider their positions relative to the norms of their own time, and how much relative to the norms in ours.

There was definitely some scrambling from the early episodes to the later ones, and some gaps in characterization that seemed a little bit abrupt but the show was better off for by the end. Ethan, in particular, hits Virginia early in the season because she’s not in him the way he’s into her, a vile action which marks his chivalrous veneer as nothing but a fraud. This action paints him as a bad guy (sophisticated term, I know), but then by the end of the season he seems to come around as the most forward looking male character on the show. It feels a little bit jarring and incongruous, but I think for the best in the end. The decision to focus on making their characters better and more complex over the course of the season even if this ended up not quite feeling right with the first episodes will leave a superior palette to work with moving forwards.

As mentioned above, sometimes the show’s vast ambition has it jolting in directions and the show doesn’t really know what it’s doing or where to go from there. This is particularly noteworthy on the area of race. Perhaps seeing how Mad Men, another show set in the same general time period, choose largely to avoid the subject and struggled when it did, Masters of Sex seems to want to jump in and say something on the subject a couple of times in the first season, but doesn’t really know what to say or how to say it.

It’s okay, though. It’s a first season, and there is time to get better. Overall, the show hits the right notes when trying to explore love and sex and everything in the middle. There aren’t any easy answers and there aren’t any right answers. What one person wants isn’t necessarily what another wants, and it’s not because one is right and one is wrong. People take harsh actions but with reasons. These seem like basic parameters to most serious discussions, but they’re still shockingly hard to find on television.

When I reviewed the first Masters of Sex episode a couple of months back, I noted, with my enthusiasm from the pilot, and my disillusionment with Homeland, that I thought there was a distinct possibility Maters of Sex could be the better show by season’s end. And although it’s due to at least as much as how much I didn’t like this season of Homeland, that measured prediction entirely came true. Masters of Sex is now the banner show on Showtime, and I look forward to meeting back up with Masters, Johnson, and crew next fall.

End of Season Report: Homeland, Season 3 – Part 2

18 Dec

HomelandSeason3-2Phew. I just disposed of my central infuriating point from season three. Let’s now get down to some odds and ends.

Homeland’s showrunners  clearly think Carrie and Brody’s romance is the center of the show. If they didn’t, I’m not sure what Javadi’s monologue in the finale, which seemed directed to viewers at least as much as to Carrie was about, where he convinced her that it was, as it fairly obviously was to viewers as well, always about him that she did everything she did. I think this was a central misreading of what made the first season work that explains some of the missteps of the past two seasons. Carrie and Brody’s relationship is important undoubtedly, and their chemistry in the first season was one major asset. Getting chemistry confused for romance is a dangerous thing though; there was something there, but once Gansa and Gordon put their finger on what it was, love, the relationship lost what made it so intriguing. This sounds like more of the type of complaint you see in a comedy – the sexual tension is more interesting than the relationship itself, and it’s related but that’s not exactly it. The issue is that the fucked up chemistry worked for those two characters, where the idea of love never really did. The breakfast in bed scene at the end of the second season was one of the most excruciating in the series because it didn’t really make sense for either of the characters, and placing that love at the center of Carrie’s motivations was misguided at best.

More on Brody – I’ve said this before, but Gordon and Gansa killed Brody at least a year too late. Brody was a great character, but a character with a necessary expiration date. The longer they kept him around, the less it really worked, and the more they had to concoct hard-to-fathom explanations for why he’s still out there. He ran out of reasons to be interesting. Damian Lewis does his best with Brody throughout but the character was out of life and paralyzed the show, keeping the show in stasis when it needed to be moving beyond Brody. There’s a natural desire to keep around interesting characters for as long as possible, but usually in hindsight it’s better to kill them or remove them while they were at their most charismatic rather than after they lost the luster they had and felt used up.

The second season ended with a bang, and the third with a whimper, and as confused as I was with where Homeland was going to start the third season, I have even less idea for the fourth season. The showrunners have a clean slate more or less to work with, but I have less confidence than ever that they will do something interesting. If I was in their shoes, I would consider the ballsier moves of either moving on at the CIA without Carrie and Saul, or moving on with Carrie and Saul in their different respective roles, but I can’t imagine there’s any chance of that happening. The only part I feel confident in, and massive respect if I’m wrong, is that something will happen that forces the gang to get back together in Washington.

Senator Lockhart, I believe, is supposed to be the villain, and while I started out viewing him as the antagonist because Saul is the best, the longer the season went the more I thought that he’s totally right, and this CIA is totally dysfunctional. It’s not so much that I felt like his approach was better as much as I felt his critique of the competence of the old school CIA people doing it the way they wanted to wasn’t working. I think this conflict could have been much better served by portrayed it more deeply as a battle between two valid points of view rather than with Saul as our hero and Lockhart as our villain. Shows are usually better when there are merely two different plausible ways of seeing things, rather than a clear right and wrong.

Plausibility was a major issue for me throughout the season, largely on Carrie’s end (as mentioned exhaustively in my previous Homeland post) but really greater than that. The insanity and audaciousness of Saul’s plans boggled the mind and just seemed way too far-fetched, and though Homeland did do a lot of lampshade hanging throughout this season, I still wanted more reality, and frankly, at least one of their plans to fail, to appreciate just how risky they were. The plan was too big, the CIA carrying it out consistently seems too small. It has always bugged me that the CIA on Homeland feels like it employs six people at any one time. There was no greater example of the plausibility problem than the cheap trick fake out that basically turned the first few episodes of the season inside out. Beside the within show unlikeliness of the plan’s success, many scenes of Carrie by herself didn’t really make sense if she knew she was on part of a plan rather than actually trapped in a mental hospital.

I was actually intrigued by the direction of the first few episodes of the third season. Homeland seemed to be dealing with the notion of consequences, something I think very few television shows do, and something I thought provided an intriguing direction. The potential of a near-permanent falling out between Saul and Carrie, well, it was sad, but damn if it wasn’t interesting, and it was a powerful way of saying the show may be good and it may not be, but it’s moving forward and away from the status quo. The CIA made a whole lot of dumb 24-ish mistakes the first two seasons, and it’s time to pay the piper. Instead, with the twist, the show went disappointingly in the exact opposite direction.

I almost forgot to write anything about Brody’s family, largely because they basically disappeared from existence halfway through the season. I don’t think that was a bad thing, and the fact I entirely forgot about them probably says a lot, but I didn’t hate them by nature as much as most people I knew. I did think the way they were used was poor, but I also thought there was something there in exploring the relationships of a family broken so completely between getting their husband/father back and then discovering he’s not who he once was, going from loss to ecstasy to tragedy so quickly. The family’s done, and since I don’t trust Homeland’s writers, I think that’s the right decision, but I think this was an opportunity lost.

This has been a largely negative write up, and as happens after I type for a while, I feel even stronger than before about what a disappointing season of Homeland this was after the show had a real chance to get away from the problems of the second season. However,  to leave on a positive note, I’ll briefly talk about the one aspect of this season I liked most.

Javadi is the best new character the show has introduced in ages and was exactly the type of character the show could use more of, and I hope the show doesn’t fuck him up. He’s a cagey character who gives with one hand and takes with the other, a perverse parallel of Saul who made different choices and who is willing to do what it takes to get away, but not without an occasionally magnanimous side when it suits him. He’s in many ways a villain but he’s a pragmatic nontraditional villain who serves the heroes when it suits him.

End of Season Report: Homeland, Season 3 – Part 1

16 Dec

Carrie swears in

There’s plenty to talk about, and my various complaints about Homeland have changed over the course of the season. There’s really one that’s been slowly building and peaked in the last couple of episodes and has just been driving me so crazy that I’m going to devote a full post of this report to it, and then come back with a second post about everything else. Homeland has a major plausibility problem all around, but there’s one aspect of that issue that gets even deeper to Homeland’s core.

Carrie Matheson is a brilliant, brave, and daring operative. She’s undertaken dangerous missions on behalf of the CIA, made intelligence breakthroughs, and had correct instincts on a deep cover American traitor when no one else did.

She’s also an absolutely terrible, unreliable and untrustworthy employee, who was fired supposedly irrevocably at the end of the first season after it was discovered she had an unreported serious mental condition she’s only part of the time willing to seek treatment for. She should really never be working for the CIA again.

In the third season, Saul, and thus the entire CIA (for some reason, the CIA in Homeland seems to employ six people, but that’s something else entirely) have placed their most important mission in the hands of someone who is far too completely compromised to be an agent they can place any reasonable trust in, someone so in love with the agent she’s monitoring that she can’t possibly react like an agent needs to.

At the end of the first season of Homeland, Carrie was fired because it was determined she had hidden her only occasionally treated bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a serious condition, and it’s easy to feel for Carrie, but it’s also easy to understand why the CIA wouldn’t want a loose cannon walking around with access to extremely classified information. I wondered what her firing would mean for the show because I believed it would feel cheap to have her rehired after a huge deal was made about her never working for the CIA again after her breach. There were no loopholes left in that scene, no two ways about it, she was out, for good.

Sadly, my concerns were well-founded. The writers didn’t have an ingenious plan to either find another line of work for Carrie or focus on new characters. Somehow, of course, the CIA found a way to her come back, first, through a cheap loophole as not a member, but as an outside consultant to help with Brody because of their bond. The bother to even hang the lampshade felt half-assed. Soon, however, Carrie was just back for good and the fact she was fired just a season was sort of forgotten about and relegated to the past.

After being rehired, Carrie went on to constantly disobey orders over the course of the second season. Her superiors would constantly tell her not to do something, she’d do it, they’d reprimand her, and then eventually they’d simply let her back out there for some reason, even in situations when there wasn’t even some stretch of an imperative that she was the only person who could do the job.

In the beginning of the third season, events were repeated with Carrie being apparently fired for sleeping with Brody after Saul rats her out to the Senate. I applauded this direction. I didn’t know what they’d do with Carrie, and sure, it was a personally mean thing to do for Saul, but Carrie really had this coming through her repeated patterns of behavior. Saul never lied or framed her; he made her take the hit, sure, but all of his accusations were entirely correct. This extremely satisfying discovery that actions have consequences was undone by the revelation that everything that transpired in the first couple of episodes was part of an extremely elaborate long con between Saul and Carrie, one that really made less sense the more you thought about it. I didn’t think Carrie deserved to be an asylum, certainly, but there was some middle ground between being locked in an asylum with the key thrown away or being part of a million to one insanely intricate plot.

Back in the fold, yet again, throughout season three, Carrie continued to disobey orders. This would be problematic in almost any field, but as an intelligence agent for the CIA, she’s putting lives and missions at risk. Just because she thinks her orders are wrong is not an excuse to disobey. Honestly, if it really felt like she was getting unjust orders all the time, then I’d still feel for her even if she was technically doing a bad job by disobeying them, but that was not the case at all. The orders Saul gave may not always have worked out, but they’re always well thought out and carefully considered, and made it extremely hard to feel sympathetic for her. She disobeyed an order halfway through the season that required her own organization to shoot her to prevent her from moving further, and she nearly ruined a vital CIA operation in the last couple of seconds only to be bailed out by an extremely, extremely unlikely outcome when Brody kills his target rather than giving up Javadi. Even if Carrie made the right call, it wasn’t her call to make, and Saul’s call was as equally well thought out and valid as hers.

And then, when this is all over when it all works out against absolutely any odds, instead of getting reprimanded for almost blowing up the mission several times out of making judgments based on her love of Brody rather than her best operational judgment, or obeying extremely reasonable orders from her superiors, instead of getting fired or demoted, she gets PROMOTED. Carrie gets a huge PROMOTION for doing an absolutely terrible job. What am I missing?

Carrie is akin to the coach who makes the wrong decision at the last minute which works out and gets rewarded for the result rather than the process, leading everyone to ignore both the fact that she made the wrong decision and the fact she made so many wrong decisions before the last minute that her team should have won easily. And maybe the argument is that, well, those coaches get rewarded, for being lucky, rather than for being good, but I don’t think that’s the argument we’re getting her. I could be wrong certainly, but I really think we’re supposed to getting the notion that she deserves this promotion, it just drives me up a wall. Again, Carrie is very smart, ambitious, daring and talented, and I can imagine there are lines of work in which her skill set would be rewarded handsomely but she’s clearly a hugely irresponsible wildcard in the intelligence field

I’m basically tiring of living in this backwards world which refuses to deal with characters and consequences and plausibility. Carrie pegged Brody as a traitor, and absolute points for that, but then she went out and slept with him, multiple times, and let him escape. She may have been right about his role in the Langley bombing, sure, but she violated so many protocols it’s mindboggling.

If this was 24, where Homeland showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa used to work, the correct response would be, who gives a shit? Jack Bauer did that, and yeah, Jack Bauer was pretty awesome, but he would never get away with any of it in the real world.

The difference is that Homeland still wants us to treat it as a serious show; a show about issues in the modern surveillance state facing difficulties balancing privacy vs. danger. Homeland set itself up as a show that was going to be real about the CIA and the intelligence community more broadly, and one that was going to hew if not to the letter of reality, at least much closer than most sensationalist spy shows and movies. But it’s impossible to take it seriously when they don’t take it seriously. I’ll have more related points and other notes in part two.

Fall 2013 Review: Masters of Sex

2 Oct

Johnson and Masters, of Sex

Showtime is absolutely delivering on a frequent complaint of mine towards so many new television shows and I want them to know it’s appreciated.  How about a show, I ask so often, about something new?  There are so many lawyer and doctor and police shows and numerous variations on those core three.  There aren’t a lot of new shows about a bajilllion other areas that could be fascinating.  Well, Showtime decided to order one.  Sure, like any new show, it has elements and influences from many other shows, but its subject matter is fresh.  Well, in terms of fiction anyways, as it’s actually based on real events, but they’re real events that haven’t been covered over and over on movies and television.

In particular, the events consist of the pioneering sex research of Masters and Johnson, the second most famous sex researchers of all time behind Alfred Kinsey. Michael Sheen, who I have a hard time not thinking of as British (he played super-Brit Wesley Snipes in 30 Rock, come on), plays incredibly well-respected gynecologist Williams Masters.  He likes his job well enough, is proud of his work, and is the pride of and biggest money maker at his hospital in St. Louis.  Still, he’s unsatisfied. He wants to move into sex research, which he sees as a more innovative area that he thinks has never been property studied before because of the taboos surrounding it. Masters is initially unable to get formal backing for his research because serious scientists and hospital funders’ opinion about sex research ranges from  inappropriate to ick. Thus, he starts investigating on his own, paying a prostitute to have sex with dudes and let him watch so that he can record facts and take notes. The prostitute, while unable to truly gather the greater purposes of his research, makes an intuitive suggestion: in order for his work to be a true success, he’s going to need the help of a female.

After continuing to expand his studies by himself, he sets out to find this secretary who won’t be squeamish about the subject matter (his current secretary (a tiny guest spot by the always great Margo Martindale) most certainly is).. He discovers his partner-in-crime in Virginia Masters (Lizzie Kaplan), who finds Masters’ work fascinating and wants in.  She lies about her resume to get the job, He hires her at first as a secretary/assistant, but soon she becomes much more important than that.

The first episode speeds through a little bit of the time of her getting acquainted with him and the research, allowing her to grow to nearly partner status within the hour. They’re a particularly good match because she has all the personality traits and abilities that he lacks. Masters is a stern humorless doctor who knows his science down cold but is sorely lacking in people skills, which are particularly valuable when you need to convince subjects to be comfortable with masturbating in your office for science.  Masters has these skills in spades, persuading young women to participate and be vulnerable in very sterile and uncomfortable spaces.

Eventually, Masters needs to secure funding for his project and bring it out into the open, and to do so he asks for money from the hospital.  He attempts to pull a power play, threatening to quit if he doesn’t get the money, and gets his way at the last minute. Research proceeds, with Masters and Johnson watching women masturbate and studying their physiological reactions until they both realize they need to convince a man and women to have sex and let them study to move on to the next stage.  They blackmail a male doctor, which wasn’t that hard once he saw what the female subject he’d be having intercourse with looked like. After this research is a success, Masters ends the episode with a proposal.  While they engage with people having sex, watching and monitoring them, Masters is concerned, or at least says he is, that him or Johnson will experience transference, wanting to have sex with the subjects.  For science, then, to avoid these feelings, he decides, in his hyper-clinical fashion, that he and Johnson should have sex. Realizing, even with his lack of appreciation for social signals and norms, that this is a big ask, he allows her the weekend to think about it.

The distinctive St. Louis mid-western, mid-50s look is quite distinct, and the direction is beautiful.  We’re not that far removed from a time when talking about sex was considered taboo, and it still is in a lot of places and a lot of ways.  The look of the show and choice of palate emphasize the staid location and time where Masters and Johnson are attempting their groundbreaking work, far more revolutionary there than it would have been ten years later even in New York or San Francisco. .Lizzie Kaplan is a gem (I have a soft spot for anyone who starred in Party Down) and Michael Sheen is more than up to the task of playing her counterpart.

I’m not sure exactly where the writers are going to go other than simply a whole lot more sex research. The relationship between Masters and Johnson is the crucial one at the heart of the series as their contrasts best suit their research. They’re much more productive together than either would be apart. The show has an extremely interesting vantage point from which to explore love, sex, and relationships, and the intersecting lines that connect all three. This all plays out in the environment of blatant sexism and male-female double standards of the time period.  All the doctors we’ve seen are men, which is particularly notable in a field like gynecology where all the patients are women. All of these issues come to the fore in the first episode in the relationship between Johnson and Masters’ assistant, Ethan.  In a reverse of the typical male-female stereotypes of the time, Johnson is only interested in casual sex, while Ethan thinks he’s in love and demands more, eventually breaking down and turning drunkenly violent towards Johnson at a party.

The writing is sharp, and while hardly comedic, has just enough of a light touch to avoid seeming over serious, which would hurt a show whose first episode includes something as visually hilarious as a glass dildo with a light at the end. Often the pilot emphasizes the miscommunications exchanged by the characters who, with their moral, psychological, and personal biases are occasionally unable to comprehend the other side’s point of view.  Masters has trouble communicating with his own wife. He loves her but their inability to procreate is damaging their relationship and he appears less at ease with his wife than Johnson does in five minutes of meeting her. For someone as passionate about groundbreaking sex research, he’s mentally stuck in some very of-the-time gender role points of view that are preventing his research from going forward.

Will I watch it again?  Yes. It’s new, it’s interesting, it hasn’t been done before, it’s artful, and I want to see more. It’s way too early to make as a bold a statement as I’m about to make, but depending on how they go, Masters of Sex could eclipse Homeland as the premiere Showtime drama before too long.

Summer 2013 Review: Ray Donovan

1 Jul

Liev Schreiber is RAY DONOVAN

After an opening which shows Jon Voight getting out from prison, Ray Donovan begins like a USA program; I could even imagine the narrator explaining the premise, with something like this.  “Ray Donovan, LA’s fixer to the stars, is the best at what he does.  The rich and famous have problems, and he, along with his super team, including the accent-challenged Avi and the spunky lesbian Lena, fix them.”  We quickly see just how effective they are when they solve two problems with one stone, getting a sports star who woke up next to a women who ODed overnight out of his situation by swapping in an actor who was dealing with accusations of having picked up a transvestite hooker.  See, for actors, being found next to a dead woman ain’t no thing.  Hollywood!

We also see that Ray is a bit of a rebel.  He doesn’t play by the rules, and that sometimes gets him in trouble with his team, and his boss, who is played by the always wonderfully sniveling Peter Jacobson.  Supposed to spy on a woman for a scummy rich dude, he instead warns the woman, who he happens to know from an earlier encounter, of a stalker.  He then proceeds to make out with her.  He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty either, threatening the stalker, covering the stalker in green die, and then beating him with a baseball bat when his earlier threats don’t succeed.

Ray is a very serious character who comes from a very fucked up Boston Irish-Catholic family (if you can’t recognize the Boston accent from real life, you should recognize it from Ben Affleck movies over the years).  His dysfunctional family includes his two brothers, one of whom was molested by a priest as a child and is now an alcoholic, and the other who developed Parkinson’s from one too many shots to the head during a boxing career.  His sister jumped off a building years ago while drugged up.  And his dad, whom he hates most of all, just got out of prison after 20 years and is coming to find him and his wife and kids, whom are the last people Ray wants his dad spending time with.

So those seem to be the two main threads of the series, his job and his family, all shaken up now by the reappearance of his hated dad after many years.  Ray’s got to balance his job, doing terrible things for rich people, with his inner sense of right and wrong, and he has to be the rock in his otherwise fucked up family, keeping together his troubled brothers while fending off his father.  I half expected the narrator to announce during a credit sequence, “This is the story of a family from Boston living in LA, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.”

Ray’s got to do it all, and you can probably understand why he doesn’t crack a smile during the episode, or, really, say more than maybe 50 words.  His silence and straight face imbue him with some combination of mystery, intimidation, and sex appeal, to the different characters in the show.

Ray Donovan was not a bad show, but it was a surprisingly generic show.  Rather than seem inherently different and new, it seemed like it was trying to take some of the same themes that show up all the time on broadcast and the “light cable” (TNT and USA) networks and give them some serious edginess so that you know it’s premium cable.  Ray gets drunk.  Ray considers screwing a post-adolescent pop star who adores him.  Ray beats up a man with a baseball bat.  Unlike in an USA show as well, Ray’s job involves not infrequently doing what all involved admit are terrible things.  These facets made the show darker and give it a wider swath of possibilities for future development; shows on Showtime are allowed to have more complicated, serial plots, that USA shows can’t or won’t. However, nothing in this first episode takes advantage of those possibilities.  It seems more like a matter of degree than a fundamental difference from that classic USA or TNT format.

Ray’s got demons, and he’s going to have to face these demons.  He’s great at a really cool but risky job.  I can see the avenues worth exploring,   The tensions between his old family and his new.  The moral difficulties of committing terrible acts as part of a living because that’s his job. There’s clearly a mystery to his past, and to what he did to ensure his father stayed in prison and why.

I liked the family plot better than the work plot from the first episode, but still it hewed a little too close to cliché.  These clichés can be broken with the detail and depth that hours and hours of a television series can offer, which is one major advantages over film.  Still, I wish the pilot had delved deeper into one area of Ray Donovan’s life to try to really heighten the appeal and show off a little early complexity rather than throw the kitchen sink of potential plots (his family, his brothers, his work, his mentor) but attack them all on a surface level just as a preview of all the characters you’ll be seeing this season.  There was no semblance of focus.

The genericism of the story lines isn’t necessarily something that can’t be transcended through further episodes.  In the first few episodes, Justified looked like a simple procedural with a cop who didn’t play by the rules before it grew into something excellent.  I enjoyed the first season of Hannibal, which hardly breaks new ground, greatly.  Still, it’s hard to make this type of show work without a charismatic lead.  What everyone in the show saw as mysterious or silently uber-competent, I saw as stiff and uninterested.

There was enough that I was on the fence.  All I wanted was a five minute sequence in the episode that convinced me, damn, this is a show that is required viewing, a moving moment, a stirring speech, and a stunningly filmed confrontation, and then I could figure out exactly what’s good about it later.  I didn’t get that.

Will I watch it again?  Honestly, from this episode, probably not.  If it picks up buzz and I start hearing that it gets good, I’m perfectly willing to give it a second chance, and I do think there’s a non-negligible chance that I’ll have given it a couple more episodes before the end of the season.  My expectations are always ramped up a little bit for premium cable shows and I was kind of let down, less by the show being bad, and more by the protagonist not seeming particularly compelling, and the show not offering me at least a little something new or different or exciting me in any particular way.

Homeland: End of Season Report, Part 1

25 Dec

Brody sits pensively Season 2 of Homeland has been an interesting and somewhat unsatisfying journey that has had plenty of both up and down moments and was hurt overall by comparison to the absolutely genius first season of the show.  Here’s some random notes on the season on the whole, including the finale, and where it goes from here.  I have a whole bunch of thoughts, so I’m going to split this into two entries.

At its best season 2 was just as gripping and emotionally riveting as the first season, and the tense moments were unequaled.  The second episode of the second season was action packed but with a type of action that felt Homeland-like; it was about tracking and surveillance and deception, and double crossing, and rested on Carrie’s fragile mental state holding up. The second half of the season often turned too close to the show Homeland show-runners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon were most associated with before Homeland, 24.   There were huge action sequences with our heroine Carrie Mathison doing her best Jack Bauer, most notably when she leads a team of agents into the tunnels by herself, searching and finding major terrorist and series antagonist Abu Nazir in a maze of tunnels where all the special forces could not.  I have a lot of love for 24, but what was great about Homeland at its best is not what was great about 24.  Homeland was about Carrie and her colleagues conducting surveillance from afar, tracking down terrorists with pieces and clues, rather than making the actual apprehensions and engaging in hand to hand fighting with the terrorists.

A second 24-like similarity was Carrie’s tendency to be the best CIA agent ever of all time; like 24 hero Jack Bauer, she barely ever gets anything wrong, even when her calls are unorthodox, and when she does, she quickly corrects herself and gets it right.  If people call her out, it’s usually that they’re the wrong ones, and she just has the wrong information. Early in the season Homeland boxed themselves into a corner with Carrie and Brody; Brody either had to be arrested and locked away, killed, or had to turn and act as a double agent.  Locking him away right there would have been daring, but made less sense in the context of how much the showrunners seemed to want to get out of Brody’s character, so eventually the double agent plan went on; not necessary a terrible plot point, but a predictable one a mile away. Carrie’s coming back to work for the CIA felt like a bit of a cop out as well.  Although the fact she was ever out of the CIA was forgotten by the fourth or fifth episode of the second season when she was all the way back in, it was a pretty fucking big deal at the end of the first season that she was told she would never work for the CIA ever, ever again, and although I understand the idea that she was right the whole time was being used to justify it, I still think having her come right back relatively easily undermines the power of that scene in the first season.

The love story really got old pretty fast as well.  Brody and Carrie have an undeniable chemistry but after the intrigue and danger were lost, the relationship was not interesting to us at all, and the scene at the cabin in the last episode was painfully boring.

I hated Dana’s car crash in the middle of the season; it just felt out of nowhere and uncalled for and so far away from the central tenor of the show (what I was hoping for was the Dana spin-off where she is in a love triangle with Finn and Xander (remember Xander?)).  I do love that Everybody Talks by the Neon Trees was the song playing in the car crash scene; I can think of no song more perfect.

While we’re digging back to old decisions made earlier this season, I absolutely hated the Brody plot where he was strangely assigned to drive the tailor from Gettysburg, and ended up killing him.  I kind of understand what the writers wanted to get out of Brody from that scene, but the entire endeavor seemed ham fisted and out of character for the type of job Brody would be given on the show by his handlers.

I don’t like that it seems like the CIA is made up of four people; more characters doesn’t always equal better in a show, but to some extent it often does.  Fewer characters limits what you can do with every character, and even with fewer main characters, it’s possible to feel like a real world by at least having minor characters buzzing around, instead of just four people. I don’t expect the show to be real life believable.  It’s not The Wire; very few shows have that feeling of being absolutely real.  But I did feel the show expanded its bounds for realism in the second season beyond the barriers it had set up in the first.  Abu Nazir’s hands on treatment, of not only being in the states but kidnapping Carrie, believability aside, just felt more 24-like than Homeland-like.   It’s not that shows can never been implausible  it’s that once they set the boundaries for the relative level of implausibility in the show, they shouldn’t exceed that.