Tag Archives: USA

End of Season Report: Mr. Robot – Season 1

4 Sep

Mr. Robot

There’s a lot to say about the first season of Mr. Robot. It has become a blogosphere sensation that became required viewing by the end of the summer, and though it’s an interesting show with plenty of redeeming qualities, I’m not fully on board; Mr. Robot is not quite as good as most of the internet would have you believe. First, though, I want to spend the majority of the piece grappling with a particular question as it relates to the show.

How much does plot matter in a television show? It depends, and sometimes more than other times, is the obvious but unhelpful answer. Sometimes plot is essential, sometimes it’s a distraction. Lost diehards would say focusing too much on the plot and its lack of resolution missed the point, but I would argue against that, saying that the plot was clearly important to the show initially, and that the show had set certain expectations for resolution. Furthermore, there are different instances of plot: within a moment, a scene, an episode, over the course of a season, or over the course of a series.

I have some general issues with Mr. Robot’s plot, but to not ignore the forest for the trees, everything starts with two major plot twists in the second half of the season. First, it turns out that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, and he may have another name, but I’m still going to choose to call him Mr. Robot) is actually not merely a hallucination of protagonist Elliot’s dad, but also a manifestation of Elliot’s alternate personality. Second, fellow hacker Darlene is Elliot’s sister, but Elliot continues to forget and or not realize this, and occasionally comes on to her.

The hallucination twist I didn’t care for at all. At first, I was angry at myself (in my defense, I watched most of the show in two days and didn’t reflect much between episodes) for not picking up on the fact that Mr. Robot was a figment of Elliot’s imagination, but as I thought more about it there were several scenes where he was present and Elliot wasn’t, meaning that sometimes he was a hallucination while sometimes he was a manifestation. The former, which I still don’t particularly care for, I’d be kinder towards; the second is a lot too much for me. It reeks of Fight Club, and speaking to my points about plot earlier, while I enjoy Fight Club in many ways, the plot is unfathomably stupid and prevents me from quite liking it as much as many do. The twist was nearly a pure plot move, and it obscured and overwhelmed some of the more interesting aspects I’ll drive into shortly.

The Darlene twist works better but the implications are questionable if thought about for a couple of minutes more, which is often a sign of a potentially poorly thought out twist. It’s a little less obvious and Darlene is a much more interesting character than Eliot’s dad. It’s unquestionable a twist, but it doesn’t feel as M. Night Shyamalan-esque. The trouble though is, and if you think I’m looking too deeply into this, maybe you’re right, but– why is a sister who seems to care intensely about her brother’s well being letting him participate in activities that first, he’s obviously not up to mentally, and second, that obviously have the likelihood of aggravating his already very serious fragile mental state. This is all aside from the insane idea of following and trusting someone with a very serious mental illness to lead a group of hackers in a series of crimes that will inevitably have the participants sent to jail for a long, long time, if they’re ever caught. Are there motivations set up by the show to defend this behavior? Sure. Darlene cares a lot more about the project than Eliot does; it’s her baby, and maybe she really, deluded-ly believes that this is good for him, or maybe she needs him, and secretly knows that this is bad for him but doesn’t care, though she convinces herself otherwise. Either way, it’s a bit of a stretch.

I don’t quite understand the Tyrell Wellick plot. He kind of cuts a Patrick Bateman visage, and he’s a very strange character and I don’t really get how he fits in with the rest of the show, plot-wise, tone-wise, or thematically. I kept waiting for the big moment when Elliott and his world would dovetail, and it never quite happened.

I do really like Darlene’s character, and although I’m not sure how it would work in practice, abstractly I might prefer a version of Mr. Robot that focuses on Darlene, rather than Elliot. Elliot would be stronger a peripheral character, and Darlene’s struggle to ferment revolution while keeping her troubled brother healthy and productive and maintain this ragtag team of hackers seemed loaded with potential.

The focus on what revolution means; true freedom and the notion of good and evil, selling your soul vs. fighting the good fight, and what that really means, or what change any of this makes. These are all complex ideas with plenty to work through. The show vacillates between exploring these in a provocative way and laying the evil 1% on too thick. The good: A dive into what changed and what’s the same after f society erases all debt, and the hollowness of the victory Darlene wants so desperately. The bad: the soiree of rich people at the end of the show, the rampant, obvious evilness of some of the Evil Corp executives, who appear to be cackling in a room about how to screw the peons a little too often. I’m as inherently skeptical of giant corporations as any good liberal, but even I winced at some of the less nuanced depictions of corporate America. Better was in the last episode when Angela understandably was enraged by the treatment she received at the shoe store after she witnessed a suicide personally, and the portrayal of Gideon, a man who is at the whims of corporate forces outside of his control, who isn’t always fighting the good fight, but just wanted to be a small business entrepreneur looking out for his employees.

I don’t think Mr. Robot is without merit. But the over-the-top twists and ridiculousness of the plot overwhelm some of the more interesting aspects of the show. I was initially furious with the twists, and felt like the show had been overwhelmed with gimmickry, and I still feel that to be true to some extent. With more time though, while I’m still frustrated with what was an uneven first season that was never as brilliant as many of its internet backers believe, there’s a real opportunity for the second season. Mr. Robot made a mark this first season and the second season will be a chance to start fresh and decide what kind of show it wants to be. Twists are out of the way; it’s time to dive in to pure substance and explore beyond the initial parameters of the catch-all plot.

Summer 2015 Review: Mr. Robot

26 Jun

Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot is on USA and is a USA show in just about every way. USA over the past couple of years has attempted to get a little more serious and dark than their early Blue Sky days of White Collar and Royal Pains, perfect due to their decline in ratings and prestige. Mr. Robot fits perfectly into this evolution of USA. As for most USA shows, the floor for Mr. Robot is high while the ceiling is low. Mr. Robot is commendably competent and entertaining and snappy enough to make me consider watching another episode, but not quite interesting or different or superior enough to make me actually do it.

Protagonist Elliott is a master hacker. He works for a cyber-security firm by day, which he’s great at, but hates, helping protect evil one-percenter corporations and conglomerates, the biggest of which is his firm’s chief client, the eponymous E. Corp, known informally by the employees as Evil Corp. At night, he hacks to uphold his own personal sense of justice. In the first scene he confronts a coffee shop owner who is unbeknownst to anyone else running a kiddie porn ring, which Elliott discovered while hacking and then informed the police about.

Elliott is a Character, like all USA protagonists. He’s got paranoid delusions and serious social anxiety issues, and has trouble making friends or interacting in normal human fashion. He has one friend, Angela, who he seems interested in romantically, a shrink, who he likes, but who can’t seem to reach him, and a drug dealer who he occasionally sleeps with. Angela has a stereotypical white fratty boyfriend; the boyfriend’s love of Josh Groban is used as a point against him by Elliott.

Elliott sees signs of big evil wherever he goes; men in suits, watching him, waiting for him, but he’s also self-aware that he is delusional. This makes it all the stranger when he’s approached by Christian Slater, who he’s seen twice before ambling around the city, in a subway station, telling Elliott to follow him. Elliott finds that Slater has assembled a crack team of hackers, whose goal is to take down Evil Corp, which in one way or another, holds the digital information on loans and debt for millions and millions of ordinary folks. Taking down Evil Corp, thus, will result in cyber justice, a great wealth redistribution, taking money out of the hands of the rich and powerful and putting it in the hands of the people. Think of them as a hacker Occupy movement willing to break the law to achieve their means.

It’s not the entirely of the show by any means, but the politics of these hackers are vastly problematic; vague and poorly thought through at best. There’s a cheapness and a laziness to dealing with such an over generic political philosophy that sound great as a sound bite, but doesn’t bother to deal with any real life complexities. Have regular people been screwed by big companies on the whole, causing a frustrating feeling of general powerless? Sure.  There are real issues and even occasional crimes propagated by big companies; in the great 2008 financial collapse, corporate behavior along with other factors helped lead to the collapse. But these issues need to be reckoned with in a manner befitted the complexities of the problem; to simply say, destroy this company, free the world is lazy and naïve.

Murky politics aside, the show has its positive qualities. USA is skilled at putting on air shows that know how to pull viewers into their storylines, and Mr. Robot does this nicely. Production values are solid; the show looks good and is legitimately filmed in New York, which is always a plus to me. But there’s just something missing. Mr. Robot feels like it follows one too many tropes. The main character is a little too much of a Character. Maybe these will work themselves out, the show will get more complex and interesting as it goes along. But based on the show and USA’s reputation I’m not sure there’s enough to go on for me to keep going on faith alone.

Will I watch it again? No. I considered watching it again. It was in no way bad. But, USA-style, it wasn’t quite good enough either.

Spring 2015 Review: Dig

1 Apr


I don’t know much about the Book of Revelations and Judeo-Christian end-of 0he-world theories, but I know enough to recognize when they’re being alluded to. I read the Michael Chabon book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union a few years ago and got incredibly confused when the primary murder case was tangled up with religious apocalyptic scenarios. There’s some preachers, and some Hasidic Jews, and a calf, and well, we’ll get to it in slightly more detail in a minute. But this is definitely some end-of-days stuff.

 Here’s what we know. Jason Isaacs plays an FBI agent whose daughter died recently, tearing apart his home life and motivating him move to Israel to get far away from the site of his personal tragedy. He gets into some territorial tiffs with a local Israeli agent, as the two of them compete to take down an American murderer who ran to Israel. They find that he stole bizarre ancient religious paraphernalia that they don’t know what it is, but well, it’s got to mean something to be worth killing over. Isaacs meets a young woman who is working on a major archeological dig near the Temple Mount, and the woman is mysteriously murdered the next day. Gale from Breaking Bad (David Constabile, one of the great TV character actors working) plays a crazy preacher who has been raising a 13-year old boy trapped in a complex for his entire life for some crazy religious prophecy purposes. When the boy escapes, he’s shot, because he’s now unclean, and he’s replaced with an identical boy. The preacher has contact with some Hasidic Jews who have been raising a cow, because, more end of the world stuff that I don’t really understand.

 The level of religious prophecy immediately has been wondering what level of reality Dig is playing in terms of religious and magic, or, myth, or fantasy, or however you want to describe it. Is religion real, and thus everyone right to be chasing all these far out goals, turning what could be deluded zealots into prescient prophets? Is this brand of religion a lie, in which these are a bunch of crazies whose religious fanaticism is driving them towards murder and other illicit activities? Or is it somewhere in the middle. Since this is from Tim Kring (and Gideon Raff, the creator of the original Israeli Homeland), the man behind the went-off-the-rails fate-centric Heroes and the cringingly-fate-centric Touch, there’s probably some magic going on.

Dig is clearly one of those big picture, big question series, and because Tim Kring is part of it, as mentioned above, there’s probably magic in the air.  Dig actually seems a little less bright than most USA programming, probably an attempt to change up the brand after USA has been slipping somewhat in the ratings, and more closer in hue to the series of supernatural mystery programming that churns through the broadcast networks every year.

Historically, I have been huge sucker for supernatural mystery shows, and time and again I’ve gotten pulled into watching more episodes than I should before realizing that almost every supernatural mystery series is terrible and goes nowhere. I watched several Revolutions and Terra Novas, for example, before giving in and admitting that both were not good. Dig’s first episode is about on pace with either of those. There’s nothing to suggest that any aspect of Dig is superior, and the appeal is simply based on the what-the-fuck-is-happening plot aspect. Great plot can absolutely make a show, and BattleStar Galactica, a flawed but fascinating sci-fi show, often made hay with excellent plot when other aspects of the show were lacking (the episodes, including the finale, where the plot didn’t work, were correspondingly awful but that’s another story).

The acting was competent but there would be no reason to come back except for my itching curiosity at the supernatural mysteries hinted at in the pilot. That just isn’t enough anymore. I’m starting to learn my lesson.

Will I watch it again? No. I’m trying to face down my supernatural mystery habit. These big mysteries always suck me in, and like someone who continues to date the wrong type of guy or girl even when he or she knows better, I’m slowly and with great difficulty leaning to spot my own weakness and try to identify it objectively. I’m not falling for just any mystery show and Dig doesn’t seem worthy.

Fall 2014 Review: Benched

29 Oct


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 2012 Review: Political Animals

23 Jul

Political Animals in an USA miniseries about a Hillary Clinton-like figure who is now Secretary of State and is facing tricky situations both in her job and in her personal life.  We know she’s a Hillary Clinton-like figure, because the character, Elaine Barrish, played by Sigourney Weaver, lost in the Democratic primary for President, and was married to a two-time former President and former Southern governor, and she was appointed Secretary of State after supporting her former rival in the general election.  You don’t get much more similar than that.  On top of that, she divorced her husband right after her campaign ended, but like Hillary, her overall popularity went way up after she became secretary of state, and the election was over, as she showed a much lighter, more human side of her personality.  Rumors were prevalent that she might want one more shot at the white house.

After an opening scene in which she concedes the election and tells her husband she wants a divorce, we skip forward in time two years.  She’s the high-powered secretary of state.  One of her sons is her chief aide, and is having an engagement party.  Her other son, who made waves as the first openly gay child of a serious presidential candidate, (Didn’t Dick Gephardt have a gay daughter? Maybe?  Or maybe he didn’t count) is more troubled, having had serious drug problems, and having attempted suicide in the recent past, which, up to now, the family has been able to keep out of the press.  At the engagement party, Elaine will be seeing her husband for the first time possibly since the divorce, and she’ll also have to deal with her possibly drug using son who wants money from his parents to start a club.

Oh, and while all this personal drama is going on, there’s an international crisis as well.  Iran has arrested three American journalists and is rushing them through a show trial and sentencing them to death.  The only way this can be stopped is for the president to come to Iran, something the president, played by Adrian Pasdar, who finally got the job he ran for in Heroes (as Nathan Petrelli), steadfastly refuses to do on principle.  Elaine finds out that this whole stunt is a ploy from the Iranian president, who wants to improve relations with America, to please his own hard-line supporters, and that the president knew about it, but didn’t agree with the plan, and she’s got to figure out another more creative way to convince the president to try to save these journalists.

While all this is happening, a journalist, played by Carla Gugino, managed to get an exclusive series of interviews with the Secretary of State by threatening to reveal Elaine’s younger son’s suicide attempt, which makes Elaine none too fond of her.  Gugino has her own problems as well, trying to get hard news, while competing with a younger cutesy twee female reporter who writes about less-lofty subjects, and who she suspects may be sleeping with her boyfriend, who is also her editor.

I’ll give it this – it’s certainly, at least, at this early juncture, less “blue skies” than the traditional USA show.  I would imagine we’ll have a fairly successful and happy ending, that won’t exactly be like the end of a Wire season, but for now, she has more serious problems in one episode than characters on some other USA shows deal with in a season.  Sigourney Weaver does her best, and she’s a less instantly likable character than most USA leads, which is also to the show’s credit, I suppose, if we can compare things to their network mates as signs of interesting-ness.

Here’s the issue, as it is with so many shows that get lost in the shuffle.  It’s not bad.  It isn’t.  But it isn’t great, and it doesn’t really look like it has the potential to grow to great.  If it sounds like something you’d like, then, well, it just may well be.  It’s quite watchable, and if the whole thing aired some lazy Sunday I’d consider not leaving the couch for a couple of extra hours.  But there’s no element in the show that reaches out and grabs you and says, well, that’s why you need to see Political Animals.  Most shows don’t have this, so I don’t mean to be harsh; but it’s worth saying.  I’m very mildly interested in what happens next.

Will I watch it again?  Probably not.  It’s not bad, but it’s not quite good enough to go out of one’s way to watch (I do watch a couple other shows that are probably around this level of quality, but these aren’t must watch, they’re just personal preference).  As I said, maybe one day if they’re all repeating and I’m tired or hung over.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 21: White Collar

20 Sep

USA is showing up all over this list, but I believe this is its last appearance.  White Collar is a USA-style show about a federal agent and his partner, an ex-con who is helping out the FBI as part of a crazy special deal to suspend his sentence.  Basically, Neal Cafferty, a top class white collar criminal, master of cons, burglaries, forgeries and art theft among others, was a fugitive who top class FBI white collar agent Peter Burke chased after for years, before the show’s beginning.  Burke was the Tommy Lee Jones to Cafferty’s Harrison Ford.  Eventually, Burke gets his man, and due to a number of circumstances not worth explaining here, a unique Mod Squad like bargain is struck in which Cafferty will work for the FBI with an anklet around his, well, ankle, letting the feds know his location in case he leaves a set radius outside of the FBI office.  The two team up to solve all sorts of while collar crimes using Caffery’s knowledge and con-artist skills and Burke hard-nosed disciplined attitude, along with the help of Neil’s best friend, the eccentric Mozzie, who seems to be a bit of an expert on everything.

I love a good grift show. (who doesn’t?)  I’ve watched a good deal of Leverage, and a couple of Breakout Kings, but just short of the amount I’ve required to give either a spot on this list.  That said, White Collar is light and fluffy for a show about federal agents, but it’s a little bit more serious than some of USA’s shows, like Royals Pains or Psych, and it’s very well executed considering its set USA network limitations.  Individual episode plots are just about always nicely wrapped up in neat little packages, with, in USA fashion, little bits of continuing storyline slowly advanced throughout a season.

I couldn’t finish this article without noting one of the scene tropes I most enjoy in White Collar.  Occasionally, Neil and partner-in-crime (quite literally) Mozzie need to employ a grift for whatever end.  They talk about it, and rattle off a bunch or ridiculous names of grifts, such as the “Cannonball” or the “Lazy Susan,” which apparently any grifter worth his salt knows by name, and then one or the other will explain why that’s not suitable with a small snippet like , “too crowded,” or “don’t have a dog.”, before one of them will pick one and explain why it just might work.  It’s an exceptionally silly segment if you step back from it but also quite enjoyable in the moment.

Why It’s This High:  It’s probably the best USA show – it’s enjoyable every week, fun to watch, the chemistry between the two main characters is great, and as I said above, I love a good grift.

Why it’s not higher:  Some of the same factors that make USA shows have a floor of enjoyability, also give them a low ceiling – they’re fun to watch, but don’t have the depth required for greatness

Best Episode of Most Recent Seasons:   We’ll go with “Burke’s Seven” – It contains a couple of the great grifting tropes – a team – rather than the usual two man cons run on the show, and a character, FBI employee Peter, having to prove himself innocent of a frame job, through con – figuring out how a criminal stole Peter’s fingerprints to put them inside a gun which shot Mozzie so our heroes can clear his name to Peter’s boss, the always wonderful James Rebhorne.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 26: Psych

1 Sep

Psych is the spiritual heir to Monk in the USA family that seems to be coming up a lot early on the list.  What makes Psych work is chemistry between leads James Roday as Shawn, the faux psychic detective who assists the Santa Barbara police department in solving homicides, and Dule Hill as Gus, his life long best friend and more conservative and skeptical partner, who plays a comedic Scully to Roday’s comedic Mulder.

We’ve been comparing USA shows, but forget spiritual heir – an episode of Psych operates almost exactly, plotwise, as an episode of Monk.  Somebody dies, then the tottering/incompetent/helpless police force can’t figure out who the culprit is, which forces them to call on outside help –  a consultant whose prodigal observational powers and ability to see insanely complicated Agatha Christie-esque plots help solve the crime, often leading to a heated confession from the suspect, explaining exactly how and/or why the crime was committed, much to the dismay/shock of the police, who can’t believe they couldn’t figure out what the consultant did.

The difference is in the snark level, which is significantly higher in Psych, and Psych’s emphasis on pop culture references.  Commercials for Psych include a meta-commentary about how Shawn is a real-life version of The Mentalist, and a performance of Hall & Oates’ “Private Eyes” by the main characters all dressed up in 1980s costumes.  Not an episode goes by without back and forth zinger references between Shawn and Gus, often at the expense of the other characters on the show (or each other) and often coming at the most inopportune times.  Some episodes take on specific styles (or particular movie or TV homages), such as a Twin Peaks-like episode and a Fast and the Furious streetracing episode, among many others.

Sometimes it seems like the show should be a half hour, and it’s a little bit silly in a way that most modern television shows aren’t, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, being just about the only one.  Even though it’s easy to watch, it’s not as easy to marathon, as too much too soon it can feel repetitive, because even though each murder is a result of some different cockamamie scheme, the process gets to feel really similar.  As long as not watching them back-to-back-to-back though, you can avoid this feeling well enough, and the similar process becomes a comfort – you know what you’re getting, and it’s pretty good – rather than a burden.

Why it’s this high:  Much like Entourage, Psych is easy and fun to watch, and there’s something to be said for that – it’s tv I can sit back and relax and enjoy

Why it’s not higher:  The USA low-ceiling formula continues to have this problem – most episodes are solid, but very few make for all-time memorable television

Best episode of the most recent season:  “Viagra Falls” – guest stars William Devane and Carl Weathers play a proto-Shawn and Gus from the previous generation, crotchety old detectives with their own unique methods and chemistry, who come out of retirement to compete with Shawn and Gus to solve the murder of their old police chief.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 30: Royal Pains

18 Aug

My friend and I saw the commercials in the summer of 2009 – “Some Doctors Still Make House Calls.”  Done.  We were hooked.  We had already decided, as previously mentioned, that we would watch just about every USA show, but now we had a favorite, and it hadn’t even aired yet.  Even better, it took place out in the Hamptons on our very own home island, Long Island!  We declared it our favorite show on TV, and started quoting the catch phrase.  Now, as much as I loathe to admit it, this all was a bit ironic.  We know how to take irony far, though – we don’t half-ass it.  We watched every episode of the first season.  We quoted the part from the first episode which was in the “Previously On” section of literally every single episode –

Okay, this is going to require a brief explanation of the premise of Royal Pains.  Doctor Hank Lawson is a high-powered surgeon in a big New York City hospital.  A crazy circumstance occurs in the first episode, the premise episode, in which he has to choose between treating a rich hospital trustee and a teenager.  He chooses the teenager because he believes the teen has a better chance of living.  He saves the teen, but the trustee dies.  The hospital board is apoplectic, and fires him.  During this scene, the head board member asks him a question about how could he let a trustee die.  Hank says, “I made a judgment call.”  The head board member woman says in response, “You made a mistake”

Those two lines are literally in every previously on.  I’m not exaggerating.  So next time you need to impress a couple of Royal Pains fans, throw them a little “I made a judgment call” action and see if they give you the correct response.  It would be ideal as a call and answer to let Royal Pains fans into a speakeasy.

Basically, after that Hank and his brother go out and visit the Hamptons and due to a crazy set of circumstances, he lives at a mysterious rich guy’s villa and operates as a concierge doctor in the Hamptons, visiting patients, and having an on-again, off-again romance with an administrator at the local hospital.

All this said, the first season wasn’t all that great.  It wasn’t terrible by any means, it had its moments, but it was not the strongest light USA doctor procedural.  But we were committed and it was already cemented as our favorite show ever.

Then we watched the second season, and yeah, it’s no Sopranos, but it became an eminently enjoyable show, making us wonder what the ratio had become between ironic and actual viewing.  The show-runners seemed to get a lot more comfortable with the pieces they had, and though the episodes remain pretty light, and summer-y, as befits the show’s season and location (so far Hank has saved every patient he’s worked on), it’s really not a bad show, and I mean that as a compliment.

Why it’s This High:  It’s on USA, it’s on Long Island, and I’m a sucker for recurring guest star Campbell Scott.

Why It’s not higher:  It’s ceiling is unfortunately low – enjoyable should be what it’s aiming for, and getting, but its aims are not much higher.

Best Episode of Most Recent Season:  “A History of Violins” – honestly, it’s the great title, going more in depth into the plot is meaningless – it’s just a great title.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 32: Fairly Legal

11 Aug


My friend and I, some years ago (two, maybe?) swore some sort of blood oath that we would watch every new USA program, or at least give each program a chance.  This may have been at least partially ironic at the time, and it probably still is now, but it has lasted, and we’re still watching them (well, except for In Plain Sight – ironically, we never seem to catch that one).  Also, as a fellow lawyer who doesn’t practice law, I feel like owe it to mediator and main character Kate Reed  to watch her show about same.

In Fairly Legal, Reed (portrayed by the able and sassy Sarah Shahi, best known for her L-word work), a top-flight lawyer at the firm founded by her father decides that her profession doesn’t fit with her ideals, and so instead decides to become  a mediator, to solve disputes between parties without having to resort to the frictions and unfairly legal practices of the courtroom.  Each episode features her mediating a what-looks-to-be-unmediatable case, getting parties that often hate each other on the same page through her sheer charisma and powers of persuasion.

In the great USA program family tree, Monk is the patriarch – he came  from broadcast television, started the family, but now he’s retired and down on his development in Arizona resting and playing golf.  The father, his son, Pysch, took a lot from his dad, but learned some new tricks of his own as well, and is still at hand.  Now, to get to Fairly Legal, we move a couple of generations down the line, and assume that there was either some incenstous behavior or some dystopian cloning leading to Fairly Legal because it’s like a real USA show, but with, well, something a little bit off.  The familiar guidelines are there – lightheartedness, a mix between drama and comedy, largely self-contained episodes with a slow-moving serial plot that makes progress over the course of a season.  However, it’s just not put together particularly well.  The plots are weak, which is a shame, because, by USA standards, anyway, the concept could have some legs (like Shahi, zing).  USA has clearly recognized this and has put new showrunners in charge.

The other interesting note about the show is the unusual premise of starting with Reed and her husband estranged, though not yet divorced.  Her ex, portrayed by Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Trucco (Anders in BSG, Justin in fairly legal), is a San Francisco ADA, who loves Kate but is frustrated by her always putting him off for work, and other things.  Justin is still the main love interest for Kate throughout the first season, and they get back together and break up again a couple of times.  It’s nothing mind-blowing but I can’t think of another show where the series began with the main character and his or her featured love interest estranged.

Why it’s this high:  I watch this show on television, and, hey, it’s about lawyers who decided being a lawyer sucks.

Why it isn’t higher:  Sarah Shahi is pretty great, but the show really isn’t.

Best episode of most recent season:  “Bridge” – they’re really all about the same, but I’ll give the season finale some points for ratcheting up the drama in USA season finale fashion as a custody battle between father and grandmother is in danger of turning into an international incident.