Tag Archives: Summer 2013 TV Season

Summer 2013 Review: Broadchurch

28 Aug

Broadchurch Broadchurch is a British show about the investigation into the murder of an 11-year old boy in a small beach community in England. Broadchurch’s premise immediately made me think of The Killing and The Bridge, and the three of them combined over the past couple of years officially makes there an early 2010s trend of very serious season-long (or longer) murder investigation series.  I’m getting tired of the premise, largely because there are so many other interesting show ideas that aren’t getting made because of them (different generally > same, all else being equel) , and because these shows have inherent limitations. Because the murder investigation is the thing in these shows, it’s kind of hard to figure out what to do once the murder is solved, and if, because of that, you can’t solve the murder for a long time, that can lead to some problematic forced stretching it out, as fans of The Killing learned once upon a time.

That disclaimer said, I should also mention I appear to be a sucker for these shows.  Or maybe they just seem to start off particularly well.  The Killing drew me in, The Bridge drew me in at least well enough that I’m still watching it even while feeling somewhat ambivalent about the show, and while I was initially skeptical of Broadchurch because of the premise, I liked it enough that I find myself rationalizing that I’ll at least give it a couple episodes so hopefully it doesn’t break my heart with some terrible twist and huge anticlimax.

So, Broadchurch.  We start with what seems like an ordinary family in a bright little seaside community.  Mum, dad (I don’t know what British for dad is), grandmum, and older sis go about their morning routines only to realize later in the day that their son/grandson/brother Danny is nowhere to be found. He never went to school or to his daily early morning paper route, the paper route being why it would be normal for his family not to have noticed him missing right away.  Soon, it turns out the worst of all possible outcomes is the one that transpired.  Danny’s dead, lying on the beach.  The two lead detectives on the case are a grim-faced veteran who is apparently trying to make up for an embarrassing scandal of some sort of that we haven’t learned about yet and a local detective whose son was best friends with the dead boy and who is having a particularly hard time because of her close relationship to the case and because it seems to be her first murder case of any kind (I’m not positive on this; I’m guessing from context, but be aware I’m possibly reading it wrong).

It’s hard to tell who else will become main character besides the family and the cops but it appears the leading candidates are the female detective’s nephew, a young hungry local journalist who sees this story as a possible way to move himself up in the world, and a big city female journalist who convinces her editor to send her out to the country to write about the case. Towards the end of the episode, the head detective (played by David Tennant, of erstwhile Dr. Who fame), gives a press conference where he asks for information and lets the killer know there’s nowhere to hide, and we see lots of people all around town watching.  The killer could be anybody, this reminds us, as well as that small towns hide lots of secrets. There’s always dangers of potential cliches when it comes to tv cops, and by far my biggest initial concern is Tenant’s possible cardboard cutout serious-police-officer-looking-to-make-up -for-a-major-mistake-in-the-past .  However, at least in the first episode, ; even though I knew it was a tripe, it surprisingly didn’t bother me too much while watching.  This is the type of problem that could wear on me over time; I’m hopeful the character is invested with some depth and that Tennant is equal to the challenge.

It’s really hard to end these type of mysteries in a satisfying way, particularly since no matter how much it’s supposed to be about the journey and the experience, a disappointing ending that either comes out of nowhere or is too obvious or is simply unsatisfying puts a disappointing sheen on the entire series.  Additionally, this concept doesn’t necessarily play well over multiple seasons, which was the problem The Killing had; it’s hard to not feel like the show is being artificially lengthened after a point, or there’s one too many red herring, and the viewers simply feel jerked around. The small coastal town is a beautiful setting and the element present in the small town mystery here, unlike in the big cities in which The Killing and The Bridge are set, is the everybody-knows-everybody angle.  The first episode showed a smart amount of restraint and hopefully Broadchurch can maintain the difficult balance between moving the plot along at a fair pace while holding on to the emotional core and avoiding melodrama.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I’m going to.  It looks pretty, the acting is solid, and it has the most basic element that got humans reading and watching mysteries once upon a time.  Whodunnit?  Hell, I want to know.  I hope I will care this much about who did it halfway through the season. It’s not close to the most unique or different show I’ve seen and I’m hesitant for the reasons I’ve mentioned to get too confident that Broadchurch will keep it up, but it passed the all-important I-want-to-watch-the-second-episode-right-after-I-finish-the-first-episode test.

Summer 2013 Review: Graceland

26 Aug


We’re gong to Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, as Paul Simon might say.   Actually check that – Graceland  in this context is instead is the nickname of a gorgeous beach house in sunny Southern California seized by the Feds from a drug lord that is now home to a panoply of young, hot, federal agents from the FBI, DEA and Customs.

Graceland starts with the new kid, recent valedictory FBI graduate Mike Warren, moving into Graceland to take the spot of Donnie Banks, a DEA agent who was recently shot after a drug deal gone wrong.   Mike, who thought he was sticking in DC, has to learn the ways of sunny SoCal quickly, studying up on his Spanish and getting a crash course in how to surf and wear flip flops by the other guys of the house.  The ostensible leader of Graceland is the legendary FBI agent Paul Briggs, whose training scores in school and quick rise through the system is well known by agents far and wide.  Briggs does his work to the beat of his own drum; another agent tells Mike that Briggs was once suit and tie but took a leave of absence can came back all zen, kind of llike a non-bank robbing Patrick Swayze in Point Break.

Mike’s first assignment is a reverse buy, where he sells drugs to a low level guy vaguely affiliated with a Russian gang. It goes right, wrong, right, wrong, and then right again, until both him and the guy are arrested, with the idea that the guy will not realize he’s been played if he sees Mike get arrested too.  All that hard work does not pay off when an idiotic officer brings the perp right through where Mike is stationed after he’s back in his FBI jacket.

The poor low level perp is in big trouble when the big bad Russian gang tells them his family will be basically kidnapped and held hostage to ensure his not talking;, but there’s a possible out.  The perp panics and claims Mike, rather than being an FBI agent, which could get him and his family killed, is instead the perp’s brother-in-law, and if Mike does a favor for these Russians, well then, maybe the family will be safe after all.

Mike’s first day just got a whole lot more difficult.  Mike, now posing as the junkie brother-in-law, convinces the Russians to let him murder someone for them in exchange for releasing the family, and gently guides the FBI to his location by speaking clever cues through a transmitter on his watch (Horace Greeley would not approve, means he’s going east – the opposite of Greeley’s famous “Go West, Young Man”).  Trouble nearly strikes again when it turns out the man they want him to kill is Banks, the agent whose room he took, and a sticky situation Is resolved when Mike convinces Banks that he’s FBI, even though he’s not carrying a badge.

Mike fires six shots into the floor, tells the Russians he’s done the deed, but they’re oddly suspicious, something’s not right, and just in time Agent Briggs sprints in from out of nowhere and after trying to convince the Russians to put their hands up, shoots both Russians.  At the very end of the episode a major twist is revealed; int turns out Mike was actually sent there by the FBI to spy on Briggs, who they believe might be dirty, or at least up to something fishy.

Graceland follows the USA formula to a T. It features the young and the good looking working in sunny locales  for the forces of good.  Lawyers, cops, and doctors are the three big procedural professions, and USA loves all of them.  The characters bond; everyone’s in it for each other even though they might get on each others nerves occasionally in the heat of battle.  They work hard and they play hard.  They all have nicknames, and I would imagine some love will brew between Mike and one of the two female agents. There’s a lot of style, not a ton of substance, and the style is a USA house style; slick, glossy, bright and fun.  There are moments of extreme tension but there’s never grime; the dark grays and browns of many FX shows have no place on USA. The characters in USA shows often seem the same; the flawed genius/savant that House MD made huge again is a favorite, and the mysterious Briggs looks like he’s going to fit that role here.

It’s not bad by any means, it’s just, well, the same.  While I’m watching, I want to see what happens to the drug bust gone wrong, but when it’s over, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.  And that’s potentially fine, not every show has to have you racking your cranium for days.  Still, when you’re choosing shows to watch for that kind of visceral fun without the heavy big ideas, there are better choices than this (might I suggest Orphan Black?).  Very watchable should not be enough to get our viewership in this day and age with so many good shows on so many channels.

Quick note: There’s a bizarre scrolling text opening describing the origin of the house Graceland, which is both entirely unnecessary and, which gives it kind of s ‘70s feel.

Will I watch it again?  No.  I’ve seen well more than my necessary lifetime share of USA shows, and I don’t mean that begrudgingly, but until they do something different it’s hard for me to get very interested.  Graceland is very decent; I enjoyed watching the first episode well enough, but it’s hard to see a lot of payoff going forward.  I would watch an episode or two with my dad if the occasion comes up or if it’s on TV as I’m falling asleep/just waking up but I’m certainly not investing the time to watch every episode of a show that I’ll pretty much forget about after I watch.

Summer 2013 Review: The Fosters

23 Aug

Foster has two meanings

Deep in the bowels of ABC Family Channel, where males and people above the age of 30 don’t venture very often, we may have on our hands, if it goes in the best possible direction, a potential successor to Friday Night Lights.  Not plot-wise, as The Fosters has absolutely nothing to do with football. What I mean, rather, is a successor to the type of emotionally honest, compelling, and heart-wrenching relationships between teenagers, their family, and their friends that Friday Night Lights mastered more than any show in recent times.

The Fosters is about an interracial lesbian couple, Stef and Lena, (shout out for seeing that on TV – pretty awesome) who live with a son from Stef’s previous marriage, Brandon, and two Hispanic twins, Jesus and Mariana, they took it when the twins were around 6 or 7, I’m guessing, based on the timeline given, and whom they eventually fully adopted.  To this already busy home, comes a new teenage girl, Callie, who may be troubled, is coming out of juvenile detention, and needs a place to say.  Lena, who is an assistant principal at the charter school which her kids attend, sees something in Callie’s eyes and can’t resist taking her in just for a few weeks until she finds a more permanent home.  The first scene of the entire series is of this poor girl, Callie, having her ass kicked in in an absolutely brutal fashion, devoid of context, in juvenile detention, by girls jealous that she’s getting out.  Stef, the relative hard-ass of the marraige, is a cop.

Everyone in the family is a little bit thrown by the new girl, and Stef is not thrilled that her wife made such a major decision, inviting a stranger into their home, without discussing it first (Lena called Stef a number of times, but she was busy and din’t answer).  Callie seems troubled; she may have issues after all, and she calls the lesbians dykes right out at the dinner table on her first night, not generally a way to get welcomed into a new home. Fortunately, the family sees it for what it probably is, a teenager trying to antagonize and takes it in stride.  The main episode plotlines from here are two fold.

First, in the A plot, Callie wants to go back to where she was from, for someone named Jude, who she calls, and who sounds like may be a boyfriend.  She gets ready to ditch school after lunch, and the Brandon, who has a musical performance that evening, decides to come with, to watch her back if nothing else.  It turns out she wants to go back to her old foster home to save her brother from a violent foster father.  Callie and Brandon get into some trouble there, and the father seems like a genuinely bad dude in the two minutes we see him, but eventually everyone finds them and they end up okay, and the brother is safe and coming home with the family as well, at least for now.

In the B story, the female twin, Mariana, wants to meet her birth mom.  Mariana early in the episode is seen by the viewer and Callie stealing some of her bother’s pills. While Lena was supposed to be arranging this, interaction between Mariana and her mother, Mariana was talking to her mom on the internet with no intermediary.  Her and her mom arranged to meet and it turns out that the birth mom asked Mariana for money, which she sold some pills to put together.  Her brother finds out and reams her out – their birth mom abandoned them and he can’t understand why she, the smart one, doesn’t see that. When she finally meets her mom, she’s disappointed; instead of someone who seems to really care, her mom seems like someone more interested in the money.  She goes home to be with her real family and takes part in the heartwarming moments that follow.

Now, getting back to the FNL comparisons, here’s more on why The Fosters reminded me. of FNL  The people feel like real people, and the family feels like a real family.  The writing isn’t amazing in the sense of hyper crisp plotting or brilliant lyrical dialogue, but it is in the sense that within just one episode the show assembles an entire set of character which all feel authentic.  Similar to FNL, it looks like there are very few bad guys; there isn’t a major antagonist character – every character who spends at least some time on screen is largely decent, if sometimes deeply flawed, even when it may seem like they’re no good at first blush.  This is exactly the The Fosters was up to with Cassie, who seemed like a bad girl running home to a boyfriend, but instead was out to save her brother from abse.  First impressions are misleading; people are usually not as bad when you give them a chance.

Like in FNL as well, I can imagine a penchant for occasional mildly overdoing it melodrama; emotional moments are everywhere, and the show is going to tug your damn heartstrings a lot.  But what that mostly says is that they have the ability to pull those heartstrings.  What’s remarkable is that I felt really moved during the climax scenes that occur near the pilot’s end, and in a way that didn’t feel cheap or emotionally manipulative like most shows would if they made you actually feel feelings in the first episode.

Quick unrelated note – can we cool it with the in-show hashtags, ABC Family?  When Mariana was stealing pills seven minutes or so into the show, a #MarianasSecret came up in the corner, before I even really remembered Mariana’s name.

Will I watch it again?  It’s still not an instant yes, for circumstantial reasons as much as anything else.  The fall is coming, and that’s busy tv season; I probably should have watched this months ago. But I’ll say yes, because this deserves to be a yes, (I know that’s cheating a little bit – but hell I usually don’t know for certain that I’ll watch any show again except in rare circumstances, this time I’m just being honest).  This is not in the first tier of shows I particularly loved this year like The Americans and Rectify or even Orange is the New Black but it is good. It’s often the type of show that’s not particularly up my alley, so I think the fact that I cared for a good amount may say even more.

Summer 2013 Review: Low Winter Sun

12 Aug

Stanley Tucci-lookalike Mark Strong

Here’s what I know about Low Winter Sun after one episode.

There are two main plot strains, both diverging from a detective, Brendan McCann, who is killed in the first scene by two other detectives, Frank, and Joe.  They kill him and then attempt to make it look like a suicide, handcuffing his arm to his car, and driving his car into a lake.

The next day, Internal Affairs comes into the Detroit office of these two detectives asking all sorts of questions about Brendan.  It turns out Brendan was super dirty, though we don’t know the exactly details, and Joe seems to have been involved somehow, leading him to want Brendan, a notorious drunk who could give him away, dead.  Frank, who seemed to want Brendan dead as part of some sort of revenge, seems to honestly know nothing about Brendan’s dirty history and is outraged at Joe for failing to mention these selfish motives.  Soon, the cops find Brendan’s body, so far think it’s a suicide, and also find a body in the trunk of Brendan’s car that Frank and Joe know nothing about.  Frank’s boss puts him in charge of looking into it, which could be problematic since Frank was the one who killed him.

The second strain involves some guys involved with drugs who were paying off Brendan to do some shady stuff for them.  The primary drug plot guy, whose name might be Nick, killed another drug dealer in an early scene, stole some drugs, and is trying to figure out whether Brendan double crossed him or simply didn’t show up because he was drunk when he finds out that Brendan’s done.  There’s some drugs and some major organized crime and some family drama going on, but it’s hard to tell where this is going from the first episode, as this strain is a lot less well defined than the police plot.

It’s grimy, dark, bleak, depressing.  It takes place in Detroit, which is probably the best place currently to set a show if you want to give off that feel, but it feels less like Detroit than the idea of Detroit, or maybe more accurately ’70s urban America when it seemed like every big city was overrun by crime and corruption and on the verge of collapse.  Everything’s super seedy and shady, with that ’70s urban noir French Connection type feel – this is a lousy place to live that’s more seedy underbelly than well, upright overbelly.  Any cop might be on the payroll, and it seems like corruption may be more the norm than the exception, as the boss figure mentions that several people in his position have gone down due to corruption in recent years.  This pervasive atmosphere of a place where the American dream got lost a long time ago down some gutter is the most consistent feature of the show, guiding it when we’re not sure exactly what the show is about otherwise.

Where Low Winter Sun is going – I’m not exactly sure.  Frank clearly has some sort of tragic history involving a woman, who I’m guessing died.  He’s going to dig deeper into whatever the big corruption situation was, particularly involving Joe, who he’s now tied to, thanks to their collective murder. As for the drug plot, it’s less clear.  That story didn’t quite feel like it belonged, except for its tie in with the atmosphere and the dead cop, but I imagine the two stories could meet at some point as Frank investigates.

Yeah, it looks totally hopeless.  There is absolutely no humor or levity of any kind. Yes, it could easily descend into cop clichés. It’s a cop show, and it’s hard for cop shows not to fall into that, and Low Winter Sun certain dips its toes into the cliche pool on more than one occasion.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think we need another cop show right now, and i think the world would be served by a five year moratorium on new cop shows.  Low Winter Sun certainly seems to be another in the middle-aged-white-male-antihero subgroup of dramas, started by Tony Soprano, and promulgated further by Don Draper and Walter White, (and several more lesser versions since including Boardwalk Empire) a genre that’s definitely in danger of jumping the shark.

Still, while I’m not sure there’s potential for greatness here, I do think there’s potential for goodness.  Mark Strong has made a living playing villains and he gets to play a character who seems to be at the least not entirely evil, which for him is a step up on the morality scale. The choice of casting someone as associated with villainy as Strong helps set the tone for the show, along with having the protagonist commit murder in the first scene of the series which seems potentially gimmicky but which I found somewhat compelling. Frank is already morally compromised within five minutes of the series beginning.  Unlike with Draper and White where the instinct is to root for them until you get to know them better, when Frank kills someone right away, the instinct is to root against him.   All he has going for him is that it seems like it’s instinctual to root against everyone in this show, which may make him the good guy in a very relative sense. The show is mightily grim and it certainly begs the question, Is there such a thing as too grim?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I may have a higher tolerance for grim-ness than most.  It’s so far a fairly one note show, built around this atmosphere and tone.  But I don’t think it’s necessarily such a bad note.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah, I think I might.  It was certainly not an instant winner but the abject bleakness appeals to me more than it might to others, and while its attitude could get tired fast, especially depending on how close It sticks to the traditional cop formulas, I think I’m willing to give it a couple of episodes to see if it does.  I didn’t immediately want to watch the next episode which is the sign of a pilot that really does its job, but it passed the minimum test of giving me at least one aspect that I find intriguing, which is the tone.

Summer 2013 Review: Camp

26 Jul

Camp time

Camp is set in, well, a summer camp, of the sleep away variety, that is pretty much exactly what you think of when you think of a summer camp.  It’s remarkable; because camp exists as a two month vacation from technology and the pressures of today’s modern world, the camp in Camp, and anywhere else, looks almost identical to camps of twenty and thirty years ago, such as the one featured in Wet Hot American Summer.  The only significant differences are the fashion and the presence, in Camp’s camp, of “We Run the Night” by Havana Brown.

Talented actress Rachel Griffiths (best known for her portrayal of Brenda on Six Feet Under) plays camp director Mackenzie “Mac” Granger.   While the beginning of the camp summer starts in some respects like any other, it isn’t business as usual at the camp this year, because Mac’s husband (Jonathan LaPaglia, who is a younger ,poor man’s Anthony) cheated on her with a much younger Eastern European woman, and left her, and on top of that, because of him, the camp is on extremely shaky financial ground.  She may be forced to sell her beloved camp to smarmy Australian rival Roger, who runs the fancy camp for rich jerks down the road where they have lobsters and jet skis.

Of course, there’s a bevy of kids as well for us to care about.  There’s a couple of kids who are new to the camp this year. There’s Kip, a punk outcast city kid, whose leukemia is in remission and who wants no part of summer camp until he meets Marina, a girl who the cool camp veteran girls, who seem to be mean girl-ish, refuse to give the time of day.  The two of them unintentionally keep hanging out with Buzz, Mac’s half-idiot son who is constantly getting into trouble and desperately wants to sleep in a different cabin than his mom, and have sex by the end of the summer, though the former prospect seems a lot more likely than the latter.  Cole is an older guy, probably in his late ’20s, and seems to be in charge of something (maintenance, wikipedia tells me) and greatly respects Mac and her hopeful and optimistic spirit which keeps the camp afloat.  Robbie who is also a veteran in charge of something (activities, says wikipedia) has a yearly summer fling with Sarah; they don’t communicate all year outside of Camp, and tensions brew when he tells her he may be attending law school where she goes to college.

Camp is a  dramedy, for whatever that genre word is worth. It’s as not a comedy – it’s not funny, and there aren’t that many jokes.  It’s tone is light and airy and occasionally sentimental.  There’ll be some crying, but then some heart-warming moments to redeem said crying.  There’ll be some sex, but it’ll be fun sex, rather than dark sex or sleazy sex or really emotional sex.  There are soapy elements to attempt to keep viewers interested but what Camp would like to be is something that makes you smile as you pass the time.

There’s nothing particularly new or interesting, and for what it’s worth I doubt the creators are attempting to be particularly groundbreaking.  The characters are your regularly rag tag summer bunch, and they’re definitely trope-ish but not over the top, to their credit – the tropiest characters are the side characters that provoke, like some bullies from the rich camp that harass some of the characters.  Camp, to be a success, would rely on developing and strengthening the characters over time, and while it’s eminently possibly that these characters could become something one could care about, there’s not quite enough in the first episode to hook us in further to find out.

It’s fairly unmemorable summer programming.  Nobody knows this show exists, it will be cancelled before the month is out mostly likely, and no one will know that it’s gone.  If a program airs on a network that not that many people watch anyway, and no one watches it, was it every really on?

One note – the first episode is notable if nothing else, for a little public service announcement moment.  Teenager Buzz calls something “faggy” and his buddy/possible future love interest Grace, who has two dads, is naturally offended.  Buzz attempts to defend himself to two of the other characters by saying, as many teens do, that “faggy” and “retarded” just mean lame, that he has no problem with gay people, but they, rightfully, tell him otherwise, and he actually apologizes.  It’s kind of a nice teaching moment for an issue that hasn’t yet gone away.

Will I watch it again?  No, it’s not going to happen.  It was fine.  I have no particular qualms with the show, which is far as I’ll go, but shows have to give you some reason to keep watching besides not being bad, and there isn’t one.

Summer 2013 Review: Siberia

15 Jul

It's always cold in Siberia

The basic idea behind Siberia is a fairly obvious one which makes me wonder why no one has ever done it before (or if they have and I just missed it).  Siberia is a scripted show, played as a straight reality show, in this case for horror.  Scripted takes on reality shows have existed before, but as far as I can recall, only for ludicrous not-even-close-to-even-the-level-of-reality-on-reality-shows comedy (for example Comedy Central’s Drawn Together and Halfway Home).  Considering just how much of a cultural institution reality television has become in the last decade and a half, it’s absolutely stunning that there’s never been a scripted reality show played straight.

While the idea seems obvious, it’s still a good one, and Siberia gets some credit as the first.  Siberia is displayed as a reality show, and someone not knowing better could watch large parts of the first episode without realizing that the show wasn’t real. The premise of the faux reality show“Siberia” is that sixteen strangers are flown out to a remote location in Siberia and told to survive a winter without any assistance aside from what they’re given to start and what they find and create from the wilderness around them.  Those that make it to spring share a pot of half a million dollars.  They’re given cabins, a handful of items, and occasionally instructions, hints, and supplies.  There are no rules; players can work together or apart, and whatever goes, goes, including theft or any other activities that would be considered anywhere from immoral to criminal in civilization.  There’s a red button located near their cabins that any contestant can push at anytime if he or she wants out for any reason; she or he will be escorted back to civilization, but gets nothing.  Presiding over the show is a slightly sleazy seeming Australian host who lays down the rules for the contestants.

The sixteen contestants are from multiple countries and from all stereotypical walks of life that reality shows seek so desperately to cater to; there’s the nerdy kid, the tough bald Brooklyn bouncer, the self-reliant antisocial southern farm boy, the crunchy environmental activist do-gooder among others.  The contestants, as they would in a reality show, constantly speak to the camera, giving their thoughts about other contestants, the setting, and the competition in general.

Two of the sixteen are eliminated quickly in a race to the initial cabins.  Having sixteen equally anonymous contestants allows Siberia to successfully have the easiest form of unpredictability (I call it anonymity unpredictability and hope to have a larger article on unpredictability out with more on this at some point).  Because you don’t know who anyone is, and their roles are all equal, anyone can go at anytime; there’s no story-line or meta reasons (such as one actor is more famous) to believe that certain characters stand better chances of making it to the end.

I knew that Siberia was going to veer towards supernatural horror going in, but if you didn’t, there’s no reason that you would know or even suspect that until the very end of the episode.  The group is gathered around, wondering where one of the contestants, who was off looking for mushrooms, was at, when the host informs them that in a tragic accident the contestant died.  It’s up to them, he says, to decide whether they want to end the competition and go home or keep on.  The last scene is a shaky cam shot of the character who died seeing something terrifying and running away, only to be killed.

It’s at this point that it deviates from what a believable actual reality show would do.  This is way too dangerous even for reality TV, and while the premise is hardly ludicrous by reality show standards, the events and rules definitively drag it over the line of believably, not to mention the probable existence of a supernatural creature. At first, I was a little disappoined it was a horror series, because I think a good drama could come out of a reality show told straight without supernatural or horror elements, but the more I thought about, the more I realized it’s a great venue for this kind of genre.  There’s an actual justifiable reason to have a whole bunch of people, all equal, in a remote location, with no technology.  Even more than that, it’s an absolutely perfect vehicle for anonymity unpredictability. There are no predetermined heroes and villains. Everyone’s a contestant, and in a reality show, any heroes or villains that emerge have equal chance of winning; there’s no one personality trope that always wins at reality shows.

Of course, horror has it own sets of tropes which could easily triumph and as someone who’s not a huge horror fan I’d rather Siberia at least partly stray from them rather than embrace them full on.  If Siberia can merely stick to the reality show tropes with a horror story, it could do okay.

The show reminds me of The River, ABC’s short-lived and mostly forgotten faux documentaryseries about a family looking for a missing nature host on the amazon.  Both employ shaky cam, horror elements, and the supernatural.

There are no overarching themes or deep characterization or pithy dialogue or musings about civilization or society or human nature.  But that’s okay.  TV has a lot of channels and a lot of shows.  There’s room for some action, and there’s room for some horror.   Sibera’s actually kind of fun.  It doesn’t ever claim to be more than it is, and by its format as a faux reality show it really can’t.  It’s fun to riff on the tropes of reality show characters, and it’s okay if they’re not the best actors, because what are reality show contestants other than bad actors.  It’s not going to win any awards or top any best show of the year lists, nor should it, but summer is the perfect time for a diversionary show that could be an enjoyable ride without having to be anything more.

Will I watch it again?  I ended the episode thinking I wouldn’t but the more I think about it, I might.  It’s definitely partly due to the slow pace of summer programming compared to the rest of the year, but as much as they’re often not my bag, cheap, fun thrills deserve a place on television somewhere next to their high-minded brethren and Siberia seems like a show that might do an adequate job of delivering them.

Summer 2013 Review: The Bridge

12 Jul

They're on THE BRIDGE

A body is found on a bridge which connects America and Mexico across the Rio Grande, between Juarez and El Paso.  A determined local young female American detective who presumably has a form of mild autism – probably Asburgers or I’m not sure if it’s just autism spectrum disorder now – (Diane Kruger, of Inglorious Bastards) is determined to make the case her own.  She works by the book, and due to her disorder, often rubs people the wrong way with a lack of empathy and social norms. She’s guided by her mentor, the only figure in the police station who seemingly she respects or respects her, Lieutenant Hank Wade, who oozes old-school Texas charm (Ted Levine, who has come a long way from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) and who appears to be somewhere between Fred Thompson in Law & Order and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men.

Wade agrees to try to hold off the feds and other cops from her case, but she’s forced to work with a Mexican detective, Marco Ruiz (Academy Award nominee Demián Bichir), who, after turning the case over to her initially, shows renewed interest when it turns out one of the bodies was a young woman whose other remains (only the legs were found on the bridge) were found near his home.

They start investigating as a duo.  She’s the more classic single-minded cop, focused on doing things immediately, correctly, and following procedure – she wants to report the Ruiz for allowing an ambulance through part of the crime scene on the bridge where the bodies were found even though the man in the ambulance likely would have died if he hadn’t (he dies anyway, but that’s not the point).  He’s more laid back, but interested, an honest detective who from a city where everyone is corrupt either because they want in, or because everyone else is already doing it, so what’s the point in even bothering.  She constantly lambastes him for the shoddy procedure he and the entire Mexican law enforcement division shows, not understanding the challenges he faces and that he has to carefully save up his reserves of actually giving a shit for when it can do something.

Juarez is famous for both its overall murder rate, its drug violence, and its mysterious and prolific murders of women, largely young women who work in the factories and manufacturing centers that have come to dominate Juarez’s landscape (If you’re really interested, I recommend Roberto Belano’s excellent but crazy long novel 8666 about a fictional Juarez equivalent).

This presents an interesting angle to work with above and beyond the simple solving of a murder, such as the  cooperation and divide between Mexico and America, trying to find justice navigating the famously corrupt and troubled Juarez government.  The border is a contentious area, and it’s certainly remarkable the difference that the border makes; El Paso is extremely safe, while Juarez is crazily dangerous and Mexican authorities have struggled to get any handle on the crime problems, trying to figure out to supply effective law enforcement without being paid off or intimidated by the cartels.  Now, it was entirely unnecessary and weirdly on the nose then for a recorded message from the presumed killer to spell this out blatantly, telling our detectives that El Paso’s a pretty safe place, while Juarez is crazy dangerous, and hell, that ain’t fair, so he’s going to be terrorizing El Paso for a while.

There’s two other strands to the plot, outside of the primary buddy cop duo.  First, the man who was in the ambulance crossing the bridge at the beginning ends up dying at the hospital anyway.  His widow starts to find out some shady parts of his life she didn’t know about, leading to a scene at the end of the first episode when she opens the barn door that will seemingly lead to some sort of unsavory surprise.

Secondly, there’s an American in a trailer in the desert who has kidnapped a young girl from Mexico.  We don’t know if he’s related to the main murders or not, but he seems at the least like he’s up to no good, and one presumes he’ll be connected in to the main plot somehow or another if not as simply the killer.

The first episode of The Bridge was above average, but not great.  The police scenes seemed to only be a couple steps ahead of the standard police tropes, and sometimes got lazy and fell back into them for a minute or two.  At its less tropy, The Bridge felt dark but more importantly grittily real, highlighting the fascinating setting of the border through location shots not only of the border but of the police stations and deserts that suggested the surroundings.  At its lesser moments, the three most prominent cop characters settled into established roles, and Diane Kruger’s character in particular recalled, and not in a good way (I don’t think there is a good way), the main character from The Killing.

It’s a cop show.  That doesn’t mean it’s just a cop show, but when you choose to make a cop show, you’re going up in a sense against every cop show that’s ever been on TV.  It’s hard to be new.  When I see a crusty old sheriff, while I should be focusing on just this particular sheriff, my brain rushes to compare him to every similar sheriff character I know, and that makes it harder for any one cop show to separate itself.

There were glimpses of separation, of becoming more than a cop show set on the border, which is the bare minimum I like to see from a pilot that I’m going to consider continuing to watch, but I hope that this is a launching point rather than an exact model.

Will I watch it again?  Yeah, I’ll give it another shot.  The show is only outrunning tropes by a couple seconds at this point, but that’s enough to give it an effort to separate itself.  I’m wary, but there were enough good parts that I’ll hope for the best.

Summer 2013 Review: Under the Dome

3 Jul


Under the Dome is an extremely literal title.  The main characters, primarily the residents of the small (presumably New England, since it’s written by Stephen King, but not specified that I can recall) town Chester’s Mill, along with some people who were passing through, are completely trapped from the outside world under a giant mysterious dome.  So far, we know nothing can go through the dome, including sound, and citizens haven’t yet found a way to contact anyone outside the dome.  The only method of communication is through sight on either side of the dome.

So that’s our big premise, taken from a recent Stephen King novel of the same name.  That’s by far the most important part of the first episode.  The second task of the pilot is to get a passing look at who we can guess will be our major characters.  Here they are in short.  First, you’ve got chief of police veteran Duke (Jeff Fahey, pilot Lapidus on Lost), and his younger chief deputy Linda, engaged to a firefighter outside of the dome.  Due to poor timing, many of the town’s police were out of town participating in a parade.  There’s “Big Jim” Rennie, car salesman and town council member (played by Dean Norris, Hank from Breaking Bad).  Big Jim and Duke have a tet a tet most of the way through the episode and appear to be keeping some sort of secret from most of the town involving bringing in lots of propane.

There’s a pair of erstwhile summer lovers, teenagers Junior and Angie.  What was a fun little fling goes bad when Angie doesn’t reciprocate Junior’s love, and Junior turns out to be some sort of psycho and kidnaps Angie and locks her away in a fallout shelter.  Joe, a high schooler, is Angie’s younger brother.  They’re both parentless for the duration of the dome.

There’s a Barbie, an ex-military out of towner who was looking shady at the beginning and could be either good or bad.  He appears to have been on some sort of mission that involved needing a gun and looks a little like Jeremy Renner.  He’s staying with local journalist Julia for the time being whose husband is missing and/or dead and/or having an affair.

Phil is a local radio DJ, and Dodee is his engineer at the station.  Alice and Carolyn are parents just passing through en route to drop off their troubled, rebellious daughter Mackenzie at camp, before they get trapped (if only they hadn’t stopped at that one gas station).

Those are from what I could suss out the major characters, though there may be more introduced later, and some of the characters I described may turn out to be more minor than I could have figured from the premiere.

There are two major fronts then to work with in Under the Dome.  There’s the question behind what the dome actually it is, how the characters find that out, if they can communicate outside the dome, get anything in, etc.

Then, what will probably occupy more time, is how everybody deals with the situation that arises when the characters realize they’re cut off from the rest of the world.  Separating all the characters from the rest of society under the dome should give us a set up for the classic science fiction situation of an external futuristic (or supernatural) power forcing humans into difficult and unusual situations.  They’ll have to decide whether to work together or compete and act outside of the ways they do every day, revealing their true natures. Do people look out for each other and help to store food for the good of the whole town?  Do they form gangs and compete and engage in violence?   It’s a classic Lord of the Flies scenario, and the dome is their island.

As I’ve said time and again, I’m a sucker for high concept serial science fiction shows.  I know by now better than to get too excited from a mere one or two episodes of a series.  Big sci-fi series like these so often disappoint, and they’re a thousand times easier to begin than to end (or to, well, middle, for that matter).  It’s not particularly difficult to think of a wacky situation and create a cast of characters; it’s much harder to flesh out those characters with realistic and believable motivations and create a plot that obeys the rules set out by the show, and is compelling, well-paced, and not anti-climactic.

This has the building blocks.  The reason it’s intriguing is solely the future possibilities but it’s hard to ask for too much more out of a first episode.  There’s nothing about the writing or the characters or the film work that stands out, but I’m affirmatively intrigued due largely to the plot, and with pilots, if the plot is compelling enough that can be enough, especially for sci-fi or fantasy.

Will I watch the next episode?  Yes.  It’s on CBS.  I can’t remember the last show I’ve watched a second episode of on CBS.  I’ve repeatedly faced let downs with these types of shows; I watched multiple episodes of Revolution which I regretted quickly, as well as Terra Nova.  I’m probably never going to learn completely.  All I can do is know my own biases and prepare myself for the likely disappointment.  In its favor, this at least this has some source material by a credible writer to work with, and is created by Brian K. Vaughan, a comic writer whose work I’ve enjoyed.

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.

Summer 2013 Review: Motive

14 Jun

It's all in the eyes.  Or something.

Of all the generic police procedurals in the world, Motive may be the most generic yet.  Motive debuted recently on ABC, but it aired in its native Canada earlier in 2013.  Its one hook which is theoretically supposed to separate it from the glut of police procedurals on television is encapsulated in its title.  Like in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the viewer learns the killer right at the start of the episode.  In fact, to make these easier for the visual learners amongst us, some nifty writing appears on screen labeling “The Killer” and “The Victim” and lingers on the screen for a moment so that we don’t miss it.  What kind of suspense is there then, if we already know the heart of any mystery, the whodunit? Ah!  It lies in, if you haven’t been able to figure it out yet, the motive!  As the police slowly piece together the crime and identify the culprit, the last piece of information to expose itself is the reason for the crime.

The crime itself in the pilot is painfully uninteresting, as if the eventual motive, which is anticlimactic at best.  The least you can expect from a procedural are some decent murder stories, especially in the pilot, which is your first and biggest showcase to the world. A teen outcast kills a popular teacher.  There are some red herrings; the police briefly believe the wife did it, because she was sleeping around, and that the kid’s friend did, but these diversions lack suspense entirely because we know who did it, and because it’s a police procedural, so we know there’s no chance they’re going to end up accusing the wrong person.  It turns out he did it because he had some weed and a notebook with lots of outcast-y thoughts, like wanting to hurt other students and such, and the teacher found it.  The kid snuck into the teacher’s house to grab it back, but when the teacher caught him and was about to call the police, the kid hit him over the head with a trophy.  It really was one of the more boring TV murders I’ve seen recently.

As per police procedural standards, our lead detective, played by former Zeljko Ivanek nominee and canuck Kristin Lehman, is smarter than the average cop. She has a number of gut instincts which end up all being correct, even when her partner points out that the evidence leads in a different direction.  She continues to sniff out incorrect leads and misdirection.  There’s lots of witty banter between her, her partner, and the new guy, whose taking notes on her behavior. Both her and her partner give the new guy tasks and advice.  There are also bizarre sections of the episode showing her cool mom relationship with her teenage son, as she watches him win a car race.  I have absolutely no idea how these fit into the scope of the show or why these sections are here, but you get to him and his girlfriend and his mom let him drive her car.

To say that it’s bad really misses the point.  It’s not good, but it’s taken genenicism (not a word, I know) to a new level.  It’s mind-blowingly bland.  You wouldn’t cringe after watching it.  You would just not realize you were watching anything.

Before I go, I should note that former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre plays the deceased high school teacher.  Also, former Jim Carey wife Lauren Holly plays the coroner and the actor who portrayed 24 agent Curtis Manning, Roger Cross, plays a cop.

Will I watch it again?  No.  Or, if I have nothing else to do for years, and I run out of every Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, and Criminal Minds, and am looking for more.  All this says to me is that there’s a lot of space to fill on television and the easiest way to do it is with police procedurals.