Tag Archives: Spring 2013 TV Season

Spring 2013 Review: Da Vinci’s Demons

4 Sep

His demons

An initial dislciaimer: Da Vinci’s Demons is a ridiculous show.  For me, as a former history major, to be able to divorce absolutely everything I know about history and enjoy the show requires me to change my mindset going in.  Not quite realizing how uninterested in history Da Vinci’s Demons was, I actually paused the show, sat and thought for ten minutes, ,and rearranged my expectations.  It’s not to say I expected a historically based show to actually be entirely accurate, but most of the Showtime/Starz historical shows of the past few years (The Tutors, The Borgias, The white Queen) attempt to be by and large historically accurat-ish at least in the very broad strokes if not so much in the minutia.  That’s what I thought Da Vinci’s Demons would be like, It’s not.

Da Vinci’s Demons is much more similar to the much farther removed from history/ historical fantasy stylings of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Fidelity to historical actuality is extremely limited; some of the characters are based on historical equivalents, but that’s really about it.  It’s not that this is and of itself a bad thing in anyway as much as I had to quell all my historical impulses before I could watch further.  Even the language is ridiculous.  Sure, most historical fiction likely has everybody speaking in ways that are not similar in anyway from how they spoke in the original time period, but at least there’s some attempt to sound like what we think people from that time sounded like.  Da Vinci’s Demons made no such concessions – people throw around words and phrases that sound right out of modern day. Realizing what I was dealing with, I began watching again and did my best to give it back a clean slate.

Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo Da Vinci, owes his performance to, in order, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr. as himself.  He portrays the combination of confident swagger, bald-faced arrogance, and brilliant genius that Downey brings to any of these roles.  It’s one step away from the House anti-hero model that Hugh Laurie made so popular during his eight seasons portraying Gregory House, a flawed but brilliant antihero that rubbed many of his fellow characters the wrong way but ultimately had good deep down at heart.  The Downey/Da Vinci model is equally arrogant but generally more well-liked, has fewer blatant flaws, and seems to do pretty well with the ladies.  Leonardo da Vinci, after all, is the original renaissance man; he excels in painting, math, fighting, wit, and so much more.

So, Leonardo, when we meet him, is an up and coming young artist of limited repute, much promise, and big dreams.  He’s brash and thinks three steps ahead of just about everyone else.  He’s great with the women, as mentioned above, but is particularly obsessed with Lorenzo de Mecidi‘s (the leader of Florence for those not remembering their high school history) mistress, Lucrezia.  He hangs out with other creative folk who try to live below the radar, and they seem like the most interesting people in an otherwise hyper-serious city. It certainly seems like they’re having a ton of fun in the scenes where da Vinci and his buddies get wasted together.  His big opportunities come when he pitches the leaders of Florence on a flying bird he’s designed for some big festival, and when he manages to meet with the mysterious Lorenzo and pitches him on a role as military engineer whereby da Vinci can get paid to try out some of his contraptions which could modernize Florence’s military.

In the meantime, we find out Leonardo’s mom, of whom he knows little, was a Turk who was somehow associated with some secretive masonic-like order who relentlessly pursue something called the Book of Leaves, which has all the secrets to future progress. This Turk, who Leonardo saves from a couple of mercenary toughs, tasks Leonardo with digging further into his own past, and looking for the Book of Leaves himself.

Da Vinci is doing all this at a time where Italian city states with sinister leadership are all conspiring against one another with hyper secret meetings and cabals.  Within the first couple of minutes of the show, a leader of Milan is assassinated, and a character that I think is the pope is about to sexually abuse a teen, before the pope’s minions kill the boy after he accidentally finds out too much about their plans. The big twist, at the end of the episode, (FIRST EPISODE SPOILER ALERT) is that Lucretia, the object of Leonardo’s affection, who he sleeps with at the end of the episode, is actually a spy for some other Italian city state, and informs on him to those who would do him harm.  The people she informs him on know the Turk well and the Book of Leaves, and clearly this conspiracy will be a major plot point going forward.

For this show to work, the plot should be riveting and keep me at the edge of my seat.  This conspiracies and secrets are something I should really get behind and want to learn more about, and Riley should be incredibly charismatic as Da Vinci. I think Riley holds up his end of the bargain better; I still think the Da Vinci character is a little much with his always being so dashing and reckless and always having a witty line at every possible juncture but I think Riley does more or less as good job of carrying it as he can.  I feel like Da Vinci’s less bold friends seem to feel when watching da Vinci getting into a scuffle at the bar; I want to say, come on Leonardo, do you have to make a scene at every possible moment?  Can’t we just have a chill Friday night out? The story, I had a hard time getting into.  There’s an ancient order that maybe da Vinci is a part of by birth and that’s cool but I certainly didn’t feel invested at all when I finished the episode. It’s possible that later episodes would wrap me up in it better and pull me in, but setting up an intriguing plotline is something that first episodes of dramas generally do well, so I’m less than impressed that I’m not swept up right away.  Historical city states and their squabbles I also normally find fascinating which made it all the more noteworthy that it didn’t take here; part of buying da Vinci as ahistorical possibly made me less interested in vagaries of Italian politics in the show.

Will I watch it again?  No, probably not.  Once I was able to get over my historical biases it was not bad, but I’m just not intrigued enough by the intricacies of the court in Florence and the secret orders within the Italian states that I want to watch more at this time.  I could imagine getting into it, but unless someone I trust bowls me over with how good it is I doubt it’s going to happen.

Spring 2013 Review: Maron

24 Jun

Marc Maron is Maron

It’s hard to imagine Maron existing in a world without Louie.  Louie is a good show and an Important show (the capital I was on purpose) but until now has yet to be an influential show, at least in terms of its direct impact on other television programs.  Maron is the first sign of a television world that comes after Louie.

There’s plenty admirable about imitating what Louie does, but it’s dangerous as well.  It’s hard to pull off Louie’s combination of ludicrous and poignant as well as his ability to switch on a dime from comedic to serious and back again.

It’s tough to live in a post-Louie world because sometimes it feels like instead of relaxing watching a television show and just looking to laugh like when watching a New Girl or a Bob’s Burgers, I have to scrutinize every little exchange between Maron and each other character for meaning. Honestly, I’m probably thinking a little bit too hard, but this is what happens when I spent a full season trying to figure out what Louie was about, and now I’m trying to bring that thought process to bear here.

You’re probably not going to laugh a whole lot.  Shows in a post-Louie world by comedians aren’t necessarily designed that way.  It’s as if the comedian has a higher calling, and to some extent, I think it’s admirable not to just be boxed in a corner as funny, even though funny is not inherently a bad place to be.  There’s a couple of solid quips, but there aren’t very many jokes or real laugh lines, certainly not like you’d find in clear comedies like Parks and Recreation or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Marc Maron’s a little bit edgier than Louie.  He’s less awkward than Louie but more narcissistic.  Louie wants to be liked, but Maron needs to be.  Louie tries desperately to be nice, while Maron has no problem being mean and combative.  Instead of daughters, Maron has cats.  If Louie is the everyman, Maron plays the id, the man running around with a little less control over himself.  An early scene has Maron run into his ex-wife in a coffee shop with his sick cat.  He previously had made a point about how he wouldn’t know what to do if he ran into his ex-wife. He acts like a dick when he does, being needlessly hostile to her years after their relationship ended.  If Maron needs to be liked, he’s also kind of a jerk, and the show seems to be dealing a lot with that central contradiction.  He addresses this straight on at the end of the pilot when he mentions that he’s okay with the world thinking whatever they want about him, even though we know the opposite is true.

The show is hooked around the most successful thing Marc Maron’s ever done, which is his WTF podcast, which he records out of his LA garage (it’s smart to set his show across the country from Louie’s NYC).  In this first episode, Dave Foley is over to record a show with Marc, and Marc does a couple of a little segments with Foley, as if recording them for his show.

In this episode, Maron and Foley drive over to a comic book store where a guy who has been bashing Maron on Twitter is playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons.  This plot feeds directly into Maron’s needing to be liked, and his reckoning with modern technology, as he must know why this random dude doesn’t like him and insists on shouting it to the world.

Maron, the show, ventures into very dangerous ground by presenting these extremely nerdy looking guys dressed in costumes playing a campaign.  Maron does try to not play it straight, and at least kind of flips the situation on its head by having Maron, the person, come out as the bad guy rather than the nerds.  He’s the one who had to find them in person, and they love Dave Foley who defends them later.  Still even acknowledging the existence of nerds so extreme, strikes a couple of boxes on my Nerd Defamation League checklist.  The primary nerd character is portrayed by Erik Charles Nielson, who plays ubernerd Garrett on Community.  If they didn’t want to drive that point home about how stereotypically nerdy this character was, they could have cast someone else.

I reasonable enjoyed watching the show, but I hardly felt compelled to watch another episode.  I didn’t particularly care for the character of Marc Maron, and I’m not sure whether that is how I’m supposed to feel or not.  I think a show like this can both take more than one episode to really get into, and very likely may need a few episodes to really get running at maximum capacity.  Thus, I’ll try to at least check it out down the line.  But the way it is right now, I could imagine watching, but probably won’t go out of my way for.  It has a little bit of a lot of qualities, but no one aspect really made a strong enough impression to make me immediately want to come back.

Will I watch it again?  Honestly, I doubt I’ll watch every episode of Maron, at least anytime soon.  Since it appears like it will be fairly episodic, there’s a fair chance I’ll catch another episode, and I can imagine marathoning it one day down the line over a couple of days.  It doesn’t really capture me, though to be fair, the first Louie didn’t either, and I now greatly enjoy that show, even if I still don’t think it’s necessarily the best on TV.

End of Season Report: The Americans

29 May

Two Americans, Two Soviets

The Americans has been one of the most rewarding new shows of the year, cementing the very solid FX brand name by putting a season together more than worthy of the promise shown in the first episode.

A quick caveat before I begin:  I understand this show could potentially pose a problem for people who prefer likeable protagonists, and even for some that can tolerate somewhat unlikable protagonists, but have a limit.  While main characters Elizabeth and Philip are not necessarily unlikable personality-wise or in their behavior towards their family, they are agents working for the Soviet government against the United States, and they not only spy but commit violent acts, sometimes against innocent victims.  Unless you’re a hardcore ol’ Commie, you’re not going to be rooting for them to succeed.  That said, if you can get used to having a complicated relationship with the protagonists, rooting for them in limited circumstances, while against them in others, you’ll do just fine, and I think that attitude is necessary to fully enjoy several excellent TV shows that have appeared over the last decade.

Elizabeth and Philip were sent to America as mere teenagers to build a fake life as a cover story so that they could spy for the USSR and commit all sorts of espionage without being discovered.  Of course, it’s hard to build a really convincing fake life without building somewhat of a real one in the process, a new problem created by the existence of longterm undercover agents.  Elizabeth and Philip love their kids, and their kids, a responsible teenage girl and a younger boy, love them back. They don’t at all, as far as we know, suspect anything about their parents true work (the parents claim to work together as travel agents), which if they ever found out, would probably drive them to decades of psychiatry or violence or, well, who can know just yet, and maybe we’ll find out.  Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage is tested over the course of the season, but their mutual devotion to their kids remains constant.  This devotion tests their loyalties to their country.  They, or at least, Philip, kind of like it in America, and as much as they feel a responsibility towards their jobs, there may be limits in how far they’re willing to go for work, in order to keep their kids safe and in the dark.

Next door neighbor Stan Beeman is an FBI agent with a background in counter intelligence, having gone undercover as an Aryan radical before relocating to DC to help fight Commies.  He’s undeniably skilled at his job, and his instincts often prove correct, including when he suspected Elizabeth and Phillip as possible agents right away, before cooling on them when they were able to diffuse his suspicions just in time.  However, his abilities are compromised by his emotional vulnerabilities and damaged family life.  His wife, tired of his late work hours and endless devotion to the job over his family, turns away from him, and at the same time, he begins an affair with his charge, a Russian agent he was able to turn.  The joke’s on him later in the season when the Russian agent turns back and becomes a double agent, using Stan for information, but he’s too emotionally compromised and invested to see it.  She may have turned against him due to finding out he killed an innocent, or as innocent a Soviet agent who works for their spy agency can be, Soviet in cold-hearted revenge and frustration from the death of his FBI partner.  The spy game is an endless cycle of people using one another and it’s very difficult to develop genuine emotional bonds when they’re formed out of manipulation and the mutual need for information.

The Americans pays close attention to the value of loyalty, to both family, and to country, and to what happens when they collide.  Loyalties more than directly conflict, they get tangled up in complicated webs.  When Elizabeth and Phillip were assigned to be a couple as teens in the USSR, they didn’t love each other, it was part of the job.  Years later, they have kids.  Is their loyalty to their kids more important than country?  It seems to go back and forth a couple of times during the season.  Historically, eunuchs were highly trusted by leaders because they could never have kids, their loyalty to whom would preempt their loyalty to the state.  The USSR had no such plan.  Early in the season, it seems as if Philip is ready to defect, and the only factor preventing him is his love of his wife, who is far more devoted to the cause.  Her devotion is tested throughout, most explicitly, when Soviet agents kidnap and torture Philip as a test, but also when she feels like she is frequently being used her handlers for missions which present an unreasonable level of risk, potentially endangering her children.

The Americans is packed with layer upon layer of deception. Philip and Elizabeth are constantly disguising themselves for their job, but correspondingly separating themselves from their identities as well, offering them a chance to play different roles.  When your primary identity is based on a lie, maybe it’s not necessarily truer than any other disguise.  Is Philip more real than Clark, the guise he takes in order to seduce and later even marry a lonely FBI employee who proves an important source? Neither is his actual name.  The source loves him, for real, and more or less unconditionally, compared to Elizabeth, with whom his relationship is far more complicated, but more honest as well. Halfway through the season, Phillip meets up with an old flame from the homeland in New York, and has a brief affair with her.  This is the last straw that drives him and Elizabeth apart for the remainder of the season, especially when he lies about it.  Between the deceptions and the lies, it’s not hard to see where both parties are coming from.  Philip has been far more devoted to the relationship for years and, after learning that Elizabeth may have been more in love with American left-wing convert Gregory for years, he feels like he’s tired of giving too much.  Elizabeth in her own time, is finally coming around to have genuine feelings for Philip, and just when these feelings are starting to coalesce, her belief is broken by not just his affair, but by his lying to her face about it.  It’s hard to have trust in a marriage between spies whose job is to lie for a living, not to mention have sex with other people, or even longer-term affairs, as Philip does as Clark.  They’re also constantly subject to manipulation by their superiors – it was their handler that let Elizabeth know that Phillip was cheating, and it becomes ever more difficult for everyone in the show to tell what’s true and what’s not.  Constantly at issue is who can be trusted, and why, and not just among the main characters.  There’s Gregory, a true believer, whom Elizabeth believes is trustworthy because of their relationship, but about which others disagree. The spies rely on men in gambling debts and other misfortune, with whom they have leverage to prevent them from going to the authorities.  Elizabeth’s devotion, as mentioned earlier is absolute at the beginning, but begins to waiver.

There’s plenty of action and suspense as well.  This is a spy show, after all.  There’s plenty of chases, lots of cool spy gadgetry and some exchanges and secret rendezvous.  Of course, the majority of these are on behalf of the red menace against the United States, but that doesn’t make them any less cool.  There’s more wigs and costume changes than a Nicki Minaj concert (Hey oh!).  Some borrow from some of the famous spy operations of the past (the poison umbrella tip borrows from a famous assassination of a Bulgarian journalist), and some are wholly invented by the writers, which can detract from the story in some instances, but in this instance I’m willing to grant some leeway from exact reality for the purposes of plot.  Also, I’d like to give a shout out to the solid period soundtrack, which doesn’t simply overuse the songs from the time which are most well known now, picking solid second tier hits like “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash.

I think the first season of The Americans accomplished a lot.  I look forward to see what Joe Weisberg and crew can do with the second.  I think there’s plenty of places to go both plotwise, and exploring a lot of the issues and characters that have made the first season such a fun ride.

Spring 2013 Review: Family Tools

8 May

Family Tools!Well, when season finales for all your favorite network shows are airing, you know it’s time to burn off the shows that at some point were meant to air as midseason replacements but were later chosen to simply die off quickly and quietly in the months of April and May (shows like Bent and Best Friends Forever were featured in this role last year).  Family Tools, which will not be on the air long, fits the bill, and stars the official new king of the quickly cancelled comedy, Kyle Bornheimer.  Bornheimer, who stars in Family Tools as Jack, a wanna-be do-gooder screw up who can’t find a career and takes over his ailing father’s handyman business, is being featured in what is remarkably his fourth new show since 2008.  The other three are Worst Week, Perfect Couples, and Romantically Challenged, though I remember him best as asshole Ken Marino rival Mark Delfino in the high school reunion episode of Party Down.

There’s a surprising amount of star power in this mediocre sitcom which has no chance of being successful.  Bornheimer’s dad is played by the legendary JK Simmons, who you will have to torture me before I say a bad word about, and his aunt, Simmons’ sister, is played by Leah Remini of The King of Queens fame.  When Simmons has a heart attack, Remini makes him cede his business to his clueless son, who means well but has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.  The son has to contend with a co-worker who half asses it, his slightly off 15-year old cousin who he must share a basement with, and his co-worker’s attractive sister who works at the hardware store and flirts with him constantly (I guess not so much contend with that last one).

Even if I hadn’t known Family Tools was an ABC show, I would have guessed as much, as it totally vibes with the ABC house style.  It stars a wacky family, it’s got some narration, and at least the first episode ends with a heartwarming moment that let’s you know that theirs is a crazy family, but it’s their crazy family and they love each other through the craziness.  It has that ABC mix between being a CBS-style traditional sitcom on one-hand and an NBC-style (well, not for much longer after the CBS-ification of NBC, but you know) edgy new sitcom on the other.  It’s single camera and with no laugh track, but even within the first scene there’s lots of classic old-school humor. JK Simmons’ dad is a familiar father figure who displays his feelings through actions rather than words; he shows his son at the end of the pilot that he’s glad he’s home by fixing up his bedroom rather than by telling him.  It’s suitably wacky as these ABC shows are; the characters are Characters.  The humor is generic, but Bornheimer does a pretty good job with what he gets and I may have even smiled once or twice.  Let’s not mistake that for me saying it’s good, or above average, but it’s somewhere in the vicinity of solidly mediocre. The actors are trying their best to execute fairly by the numbers material that mostly isn’t crazily dumbed down but isn’t the height of wit either. It’s just, well, not noteworthy in any way.  It exists to be forgotten.  I can totally imagine this and other recent throwaway ABC comedy How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life coming out of the same ABC sitcom factory, off the conveyor belts produced by the assembly line they house there.

Will I watch again?  No.  It’s not like it’s going to be on for long anyway.  But it’s thoroughly mediocre.  I think I mean that as almost a compliment, considering what I was expecting, but it cuts both ways.  It didn’t make me cringe (with the one exception of JK Simmons calling being emotional “fruit loops”), but I’ll have forgotten it within an hour after writing this.  Maybe poor Bornheimer will finally get a better vehicle one day.

Spring 2013 Review: Banshee

3 May


I’ve been saying for a while now that soon all good shows will be on cable, and after watching Rectify and now Banshee on channels not known for their original programming, I think we may be getting closer and closer to this time.   I tend to come into cable shows with a little bit less knowledge than I have coming into broadcast shows, and that can be a treat sometimes.  I did see that Banshee is co-created by Jonathan Tropper, a novelist who I enjoy, so I was at least looking forward to the show based on that information.

After a super stylish chase sequence through New York City, it takes a little bit of time to figure out exactly what Banshee is about, but here’s the basics.  A con gets out of prison after fifteen years for participating in a diamond heist of a very prominent and dangerous criminal.  He seeks out the woman with whom he stole the diamonds, who did not get caught, and it turns out she’s living under a different name with two kids, married to a local small town central Pennsylvania district attorney.  She also doesn’t have the diamonds, she claims, because she was robbed when she tried to fence them.  Through a strange series of circumstances best learned through viewing, the protagonist has an opportunity to impersonate the new sheriff, who is coming to town all the way from Oregon because the mayor is worried about a more local sheriff being corrupted by the local man-who-runs-town figure.  This figure basically has his finger in every sinister soup going on throughout the county, and the young mayor is determined to actually stop him.  That’s more or less where we stand after one episode, with our primary outlaw now acting as law enforcement, while the overlord he originally stole from is still after him, while he has to concern himself with the local overlord, and hopefully figure out what ever happened to his girl and his diamonds.

The first show Banshee recalled to mind was Sons of Anarchy, as both are shows where sex and violence are on prominent display in a stylized manner, and outlaw protagonists in small towns where they’re a big deal battle up against other organized crime figures.  The towns are small enough that they live in their own bubbles where local power brokers can have an undue amount of influence.  While Sons of Anarchy feels country rock, Banshee feels industrial, and while this most obviously applies to the music, it also applies to the general feel.  Sons of  Anarchy is grindhouse rough and dirty, while Banshee is flashy and stylish.  Like Sons, Banshee seems like it may also be about at an attempt by a career criminal to walk some sort of moral middle ground (the main character was a theif, which is always the most redeemable of all serious criminals), but we don’t know how that will go just yet. It’s got some very unnecessary skinemax soft-core which maybe was demanded by the network, but at it’s heart its a very interesting concept which looks good, had some very fine action scenes, and definitely kept me on the edge of my seat.  It looks pretty, and it seems cool, and I mean that not just in the generic sense of “good” but in the sense of cool, edgy, hip, smooth, and I’m honestly not sure whether it’s trying to be a really interesting series or just a really aesthetically appealing and suspenseful one, but either way, there’s room on TV for it if it keeps up.  As a drama, there’s plenty of room for it to sink fast, but for some reason, maybe misguided, I’m at least optimistic that it should be a fun ride.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I will.  It’s not quite in the Rectify or The Americans territory from the pilot, but sometimes the flash gets you.  It passed the test of once I finished one episode, I immediately wanted to see the second, which is definitely a large part of what a good pilot should do.  As alluded to above, it’s definitely yet another example of acable drama seeming a cut above the network variety.  This isn’t necessarily groundbreaking television, but it’s not exactly like every other show on TV, and it s seems to already have a sense of its own style, and I like it.

Spring 2013 Review: Rectify

29 Apr

Rectify ItHoly shit, a show about something different.  And it’s good!  Rectify is the story of a man exonerated from death row twenty years after being convicted of murdering a woman, when he was in high school.  Daniel was convicted, sentenced to die, and thanks to some new DNA evidence and the dogged work of his family and attorney, he’s being set free.  Twenty years in prison, in solitary confinement without even a window is a long time, and the adjustment is obviously difficult both for Daniel, and for his family, who have lived the past two decades without him and aren’t sure how to reintegrate him back into the family even though they want to, or at least some of the family does.  The family includes his mother, who is happy but doesn’t know how to behave, his sister, who is most enthusiastic and did most of the leg work, and his brother, now a teenager who is trying his best to get to know the brother he’s never met.  It always includes the step-dad his mom is married to now, his step brother, who isn’t a big fan of Daniel, and more relevantly, is concerned  his notoriety will sink the family business, an independent tire store started by Daniel’s real dad, and his step brother’s wife, who is religious, innocent, and more enamored with Daniel than her husband.  These difficulties  are compounded by the fact that this is the small town south (Georgia) and everyone knows everyone and a large number of those people, fancy schmancy legal terms or not, still think he did it and that he’s guilty as sin.  They’ll go through any trouble to make his life hell on Earth if he can’t be put into hell underground.

Now, just in case you worry it’s too focused on simply human emotions and the difficulty of people relating with one another, there’s a nice little intrigue plot to keep those who need a little suspense in their TV humming right along. Some prominent politicians are convinced of his guilt and also don’t like even the possibility of admitting they were wrong and put the wrong man behind bars and on death row for 20 years.  They want him back in jail with a retrial.  Additionally, although we don’t know for sure whether Daniel did or didn’t do it, people who may have actually been responsible for something then, are not thrilled that he’s out on the street again, throwing the events of the night in question, into, well, question.

The small town south is having its moment in the media, led by Winter’s Bone and Justified, but with others, like the recent movie Mud, coming up as well.  As I’ve written about Justified before, this culture is simply an interesting vantage point for me, as a big city/suburban northeasterner, as something that I’ve never been exposed to.  While Rectify doesn’t feature the organized crime angle of the first two southern comparisons, it does place a large forcus on the way things change but stay the same in the small town, and that way that people are harassed for things that their family did now, or decades ago.  As god of all small town southern writers William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  The small town community leaders are determined to sew up their legacies by making sure Daniel doesn’t spent a second longer than he has to after prison.

Daniel’s difficulty in coping with life outside initially is both confounding and understandable from the point of view of the people closest to him.  He’s harassed for not seeming excited enough about his innocence, and his family treat him hesitantly.  He’s unfailingly polite but mysterious and terse.  Every experience is so new and vivid to him, no matter how simple, sitting down on the grass, or staring into the sky.  It can sometimes be slightly difficult to watch, but never cringeworthy.

This is almost certainly the best pilot I’ve seen so far in 2013, and since I’m updating this part of the review after I just watched two more episodes, probably has a slight lead on The Americans to be my favorite new show of the spring season.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I will.  In fact, I already have by the time this is posted, so this is even surer than most.  If you can figure out where the hell the Sundance channel is on your TV, you should absolutely watch it; there are only six episodes this season, and it’s new, seriously interesting and different TV, which is something I, for one, can never get enough of.

Spring 2013 Review: Cult

24 Apr

Cult members

Warning:  I am going to use the word Cult in this review more than I ever have before, and hopefully more than I ever will again.  Let’s go.  Cult.

Everyone knows TV shows, like movies, come in twos, and Cult shares a lot of territory with Fox show The Following.  While The Following is created by Kevin Williamson, Cult shares some of the meta aspects that were the hallmarks of Williamson’s first big hit Scream.  The Cult’s meta-ness lies in that it’s a show about a cult based on a scripted tv show about a cult called Cult.  I thought originally Cult was going to have some of the cheeky meta sense of humor that Scream has, but it really doesn’t. For a show that’s so meta, there’s really almost no sense of winking irony at all.

The Following is about a crazy serial killer/cult leader who organizes a shadowy US-wide network of disciples posing as ordinary people in every walk of life who would do anything no matter how gruesome or despicable at a whim for their leader.  Cult is about a cult which features a wide network of disciples posing as ordinary people in every walk of life who would do anything no matter how gruesome or despicable at a whim for their leader.  In Cult, however, the added hook is, as previously mentioned, there’s a popular cult (yes, I know) television show named Cult, about a cult, and which many fans are completely obsessed with, looking for hidden clues and messages throughout repeated viewings of each episode of the show.  The real life cult is super secret and is based on and through the show, somehow involving its creators, presumably, and by way of these messages being submitted through the show.

The added level here that The Following lacks is that of a conspiracy drama (which is shares more with fellow cancelled show Zero Hour).  While the cult in the Following is out in the open, this one is deep underground; no one believes in it, and anyone who claims they do appears crazy, even as bodies apparently turn up regularly and people are abducted.  Our main character is a sensible ex-prominent journalist (apparently he Jayson Blair-ed it, but for noble reasons) whose off-the-rails brother goes missing after trying to convince the main character of his crazy conspiracy theory involving a cult around Cult.  The key conversation comes at a diner where sinister music and camera shots make it appear everyone around them is an shady cult member, watching and listening (a la Homer on The Simpsons, “But listen to the music! He’s evil!”) The main character, with the help of a production assistant (or something, I don’t know what her job is on the show but it’s apparently not that important because she can leave for long stretches of time) on the show investigate the brother’s disappearance and find a disturbing amount of clues leading to the show Cult, and when he finally runs into the person his brother told him to ever contact if he got into trouble, she, dressed as a Cult character, kills herself, saying the magic words from Cult that people says on the show when they kill themselves.

He eventually finds a disc which, when he puts it in his computer, will put him on Cult’s radar, letting them steal his information and become a target, but may also be the only way to ever see his brother again, so he takes the leap.  The detective who searches both his brother’s apartment and shows up after the woman commits suicide is ridiculously accusing of him and just a general mean person, but this may be all explained by the fact that we see a Cult tattoo on her at the end of the episode.  She’s in on it!

Basically, if you’re watching this show, it’s for the conspiracy.  The writing isn’t anything to, er, write home about, and as mentioned before, there’s a surprising lack of humor or irony considering how meta the concept is.  The film-work isn’t particularly expert and I doubt it’s going to be a ton of sense if you think too hard about it.  It’s a pure thrill ride, and it’s not exactly thrilling enough to reach the levels it needs to, but it could be a lot worse too.  I’m at least mildly intrigued, though not a whole lot more.  It’s the kind of absurd idea a couple of people on controlled substances could arrive at late at night (“what about this! a cult based on a cult show about cults!”) that doesn’t sound as good in the morning but doesn’t sound half bad either.

Will I watch it again?  No.  It’s not really that bad, all the issues listed before considered.  It’s already cancelled for one, so the story is probably not going to resolve.  The premise is not wholly uninspired.  It wasn’t incredibly gripping, but if someone told me I had to watch all of Cult, I wouldn’t hate them for it.  Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have watched another one, but I might have at least thought about it for more than a second if the show wasn’t cancelled.  The possibility of a good edge-of-your-seat plot, while rarely realized, can make up for a lot of sins.

Spring 2013 Review: Bates Motel

19 Apr

Norman and Norma

Bates Motel reminds me of fellow new show Hannibal in some ways.  It’s an earlier time in a story we all know well; in Hannibal, we know Hannibal Lecter will get caught as a cannibalistic serial killer, while Bates Motel tells the story of the teenage life of Norman Bates, who we know will go on to become a psychotic serial killer later in his life, and interact with and dress up as his deceased mother.  Knowing where the story leads is both limiting and empowering; it means that to some extent, the audience knows how the story ends, and there’s really nothing the creators can do about that, but there’s a lot of leeway in how they get there.  The writers can always place winking clues to where we know the story leads.  Like in Hannibal, Bates Motel takes place in modern times rather than around when the story originally took place.

Unlike Hannibal, in which the villain, Lecter, is already well into his serial killing ways when the show begins, Bates Motel features a normal-ish Normal who while facing some very serious issues and badly in need of a psychologist, doesn’t appear to have seriously contemplated killing anybody quite yet.  Like the Star Wars prequels, Bates Motel attempts to take an incredibly famous villain and explain how he got from being a regular person to an evil, or crazy, killer.

In the opening scene, Bates’ father dies.  We then flash forwards to six months later, where Bates’ mom, Norma (Vera Farmiga), is driving him to their new home, a motel, which they will now run, and is destined to be the fabled Bates Motel.  Norman is already a little bit of a weirdo, and it seems like that’s due mostly do his super controlling, passive aggressive and seriously fucked up mother.  His mom keeps moving him around and is pretty much the only person he communicates with on a regular basis, and she seems to do her best to ensure that he doesn’t develop any other relationships.  Some girls who live nearby want to hang out with Norman, but his mom keeps trying to prevent it, and she tries to caution Norman against joining the track team, which his adviser recommends.  It’s a field day for looking out for potential signs of what could drive him bonkers, from the behavior of his mother, to his behavior with the girls at school, but since this is a TV show without a set number of episodes it’s going to take a while to get to crazy Norman presumably.

The show also has sort of an American Horror Story feel.  In the first episode, a creepy and irate W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority from Deadwood) comes up to the motel and reams them out, explaining that the motel was built by his family and is, and will always be, his.  He pops up again later on, invading the motel at night, tying up and raping Norma, until Norman, arriving late because he had snuck out and was at a party, hits him over the head.  When he comes to, Norma stabs him to death out of rage, and insisting that no one would ever stay at the motel if this went public, convinces her son to help her wrap up the body and dispose of it.  Mother of the year, right?  Later the police, led by a sheriff played by Drug of Nation favorite Nestor Carbonell wonder by the motel randomly, and almost walk into the body, hidden in a bathtub, before it’s disposed of.  Norman finds some creepy and strange notebook under some carpeting him and his mother are pulling up.  Also, in the last couple of seconds, there’s a mysterious flash to some person being held capture and injected with something without any way to put that scene into any context.

As mentioned before, there’s a limiting factor to knowing the kid is going to grow up to become a serial killer, but there’s certainly room for an interesting journey getting there.  I enjoyed the episode more than I thought I would.  It was sometimes a little bit difficult to watch the way poor Norman is treated by his mother, who seems like the real villain of the series so far.  It definitely combines a potential high school show with a horror show, which is an interesting combination, and I’m honestly just curious in what direction the show leads, because I don’t think it’s obvious, in terms of what aspects the show focuses on, or how gory versus psychological it gets.

Will I watch it again?  I’ll say yes, because I think it’s worth a second episode, but it’s far enough down on my queue that I can’t be sure I actually will.  It’s jumped above The Following on shows I had said I would watch again but don’t feel like immediately watching (admittedly influenced by the fact that everyone I’ve talked to says The Following gets way worse).  I liked it overall, but I didn’t feel, like when I watched Americans, that it had the potential to be great, or like with Hannibal, that I immediately wanted to watch the next episode.

Spring 2013 Review: Red Widow

15 Apr

Guess which one is the Red Widow


Red Widow begins with a super double episode to really attempt to hook us in.  Red Widow herself, Marta Walraven, lives in a swanky Bay Area house with her husband Evan and three children, a older high school boy, a younger high school girl, and a 10 year old or so boy.  Her father, and her family in general have some sort of Eastern European mob ties, and her husband Evan, who wears his long hair like a cool European soccer star, joined the family business, mobstering, when they were married, working with her brother, Irwin, and a third friend named Mike.  They mostly participated in light mobstering, namely importing and exporting pot (ie the good drug).  Marta knew, but she was busy housewiving it up and raising three kids, and in the near term, helping her sister on her wedding.

This is all going swimmingly until Irwin decides their middle-brow marijuana business just isn’t making the grade anymore.  He recklessly rips off 85 kilograms (“keys” in drug lingo) of cocaine from reputed super druglord Schiller, killing a couple of Schiller’s guys on the boat where the coke was stored, in the process.  We know this is bad news right away because, before Irwin kills one of the dudes on board the ship, the dude warns Irwin that if he goes forward, him and his family and his family’s family and so forth will die in revenge for the theft. Evan is not at all happy to hear that Irwin risked everyone’s lives by stealing from Schiller and is now terrified.

After her youngest son finds Evan’s gun, and threatens someone at school with it, getting expelled in the process, Marta demands that Evan leave the business now, but he warns her the only we he can is to leave everyone and everything they know behind completely, like completely completely.  Fine, she says.  She’s got three kids to protect, dammit. That night is her sister’s wedding, and everyone’s there.  Irwin goes to unload the coke and gets arrested by the FBI.  Mike and Evan have a fight.  Evan is murdered the next morning, which was only a matter of when, because otherwise the Red Widow show name would be incredibly misleading.  We suspect Schiller was involved because of his threats. Before the body is cold in the ground we find out that Evan had made a deal with the FBI.  When he promised to keep them safe if they left everything behind, it’s because he got them witness protection in return for dropping a dime on everyone.  Marta’s son is not impressed; those are family criminals he was turning on, and even if a deadly mobster was out to kill them, Mom would have found another way.

Marta’s bro lets her know that now she has to take on the debt (thus turning her into the RED WIDOW), and return the cocaine to Schilller to try to save her family.  This once lowly housewife must now take on the duty of navigating the mob while still protecting her children.  Schiller (Goran Visnjic of ER) is an enigmatic mega-gangster who lets her know with constant bits of cryptic wisdom that she will have to help him get some shipments through the port, and perhaps by helping him, he will deign to let her and her children live. She has ol’ Mike teach her the biz, and starts to slip into the world of illegal activity, trying to convince the right people to take bribes to get the shipment through.  She’s concerned she could get caught and have her kids go to jail, but she sees no other way. She tensely awaits the call from Schiller with the details of her job, at the end, she gets it.  Here’s the time and place.  The game is afoot.

Honestly, it’s a pretty mediocre action show.  Red Widow is not that interesting and not that captivating.  The plot in general could be interesting, but there’s no reason to think it will be.  It’s not awful.  It goes.  If it was a movie, you’d watch it on a plane and feel like you hadn’t wasted your time, since you were going to be on the plane anyway, but you certainly wouldn’t see it in theaters.  There’s less a lot to say bad about it, than nothing to say good about it.  It’s got some sub par or at most par action and suspense scenes; you could do a lot worse, but you can also do a lot better.

Also –  why is she a Red Widow?  The widow part is obvious.  I assume the Red is in reference to Russia.  She’s clearly supposed to be eastern European, though it wasn’t clearly whether Russian or not.  Red, I had thought, referred to communism, so I don’t know that post-Commie Russia would be red.  Is the red a reference to something else?

Will I watch it again?  No.  I try to really think about why I like or don’t like a show, but I also try to give some credence to my immediate visceral reaction, sometimes compared against other shows I’ve watched.  I watched Hannibal recently and wanted to watch a second episode immediately after I finished the first.  I finished Red Widow, and I didn’t feel like I wasted my time, but I was closer to being glad it was over (being a double episode doesn’t help) than wanting to put on the next.

Spring 2013 Review: Hannibal

10 Apr


I initially thought Hannibal was on cable, instead of NBC, and although I’m not sure why I thought that, after watching the show, it makes a lot of sense that I would think it.  It feels like a cable show.  In fact, in a highly unusual arrangement (and perhaps an auger of the future), NBC has agreed to continue to air seasons of 13 episodes if the show is successful, which has become the default cable format.

The show was created by cult TV veteran Bryan Fuller, who has been behind Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Mockingbird Lane, none of which I have seen, and none of which has been particularly successful, but most of which have dedicated small followings.  Unlike what I know about those shows though, nothing about this show feels particularly cult-y, and I mean that in neither a bad or good way.  Rather than dissect that further though, let’s get into the meat of the show.

The title Hannibal in question is Hannibal Lecter, and thus this is a story that just about anyone who’s been around pop culture for the past 25 years knows pretty well.  Lecter, we know, is a famously cunning and psychopathic cannibal who, while in captivity, helps Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling solve a major serial killer case in Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal takes place well before Lecter has been captured.  The show stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, a character we know from the mediocre Silence of the Lambs prequel Red Dragon, where he was played by Ed Norton.  Here, Will Graham is a veritable super analyst, who has remarkable observational abilities, and more importantly a type of perfect empathy which allows him to relate and take the vantage point of even the most psychotic killers.  His abilities have the negative side effect of making him particularly vulnerable to being mentally destabilized, and Dancy does a very good job of seeming on edge the entire episode. We learn he is not a full FBI agent because he couldn’t pass some sort of stability tests but he is lecturing and helping out with random assignments.

His boss is Jack Crawford, head of FBI Behavioral Sciences, played by Lawrence Fishbourne here, and by Scott Glenn in Silence of the Lambs.  Crawford convinces Graham to take some time to help him out with finding serial killers, even if it means subjecting his psyche to serious angst.  Crawford is the level-headed boss who may not have the intuitive smarts of Graham but knows how to manage and direct people, and he’ll probably have a lot on his hands this season overseeing Graham, and the third member of our key trifecta.

This third member is none other than Hannibal Lecter himself.  Lecter is a renowned psychiatrist, as well as a brilliant psyopath,and  is brought in by Crawford to help develop psychological profiles on cases, including one in the pilot involving a cannibal who is kidnapping college aged girls and killing them.

The show’s critical dynamic is the tete a tete between Graham and Lecter.  Graham knows how to see into the mind of criminals, but only at great vulnerability to his own psyche. Lecter, who, without emotions, can’t be emotionally manipulated himself, knows how to push Graham’s buttons, and how to unnerve him. In this first episode, soon after it is discovered that the killer they’re tracking is a cannibal, there’s another killing that seems to fit the profile.  Graham immediately recognizes the work as that of a copy cat, and describes the killer as an intelligent psychopath who will show no pattern, has no feeling, and will likely never be caught.  Only we, the viewers, know that Lecter in fact committed this crime, and that Graham, unbeknownst to himself, is profiling Lecter perfectly (well, except for the never being caught part).  Lecter toys with Graham, but it seems to possibly be at least partly out of respect.  In fact, whether it was Lecter’s intention or not, it was seeing the incredibly wrong copy cat crime scene that allowed Graham to figure out the correct profile for the killer.

We also have to suffer through knowing Hannibal is super evil while the characters keep bringing him on board to help them on investigations, placing him in an ideal position to sabotage their cases. In the first episode, he warns their killer, right before they get to him, giving him a chance to kill his wife and severely injure his daughter.

Hannibal has a lot of procedural aspects.  I would guess, without knowing for sure as I’ve only seen the first episode, that each episode at least initially will involve the investigation of a new serial killer.  I was drawn in more than I usually am by procedurals.  Part of this was perhaps due to the high stakes of psychopathic serial killers, and part may have been due to the cinematic qualities of the pilot. One episode felt more like a suspense film than, say, a CSI episode , and the thirteen episode format might help protect that per episode special-ness more than a longer traditional network format.  I think a successful Hannibal can share aspects of two of my favorite current shows, Sherlock and Justified.  Sherlock has the same case per episode format with a more cinematic feel (it helps that Sherlock episodes are double length) and the same genius investigator type in the lead.  Hannibal looks like what Sherlock might be like if Sherlock and Moriarty were working side by side before they were official arch enemies.   Justified began as a rough procedural but morphed in a more and more serial show. The extended arcs made it significantly better but even the individual procedural episodes were a notch above the average, due to the strong character profiles and style built into the show.

The show is a little gimmicky in the way it shows Graham thinking about crime scenes, as he imagines himself as the criminal, and has him covered and blood and guts as he figures out how the criminal acted.  I normally don’t care for this type of gimmickry, but for whatever reason, it really didn’t bother me here.  Also, Gillian Anderson appears as Graham’s therapist, who tries to warn Crawford off from putting Graham too close to the edge.

Will I watch it again?  Yes.  Again, I normally stray from procedurals, but, if this is in at least part a procedural, it’s certainly not a typical one.   The Lecter – Graham relationship is electric right off the bat, and from the extra-curricular notes I’ve read by Fuller, I think he’ll do well to move the plot along during the seasons, rather than than have Lecter and Graham’s relationship in a perpetual status quo, which is a good thing.  It’s often hard to move a show along when you have something good in the present, because you risk having something worse in the future, but staying in the same place can often be just as bad.  My visceral reaction to finishing the first episode was to want to immediately put on the second, and while that doesn’t always bode well for the long term, it’s always a good sign for a pilot.