Thursday, August 28, 2014

Red Band Society


I am wary of any show that sets out to be inspirational. Inspiring scenes are just moments of naked manipulation, and like most TV viewers, I want to be manipulated, but I don't want to see how you are doing it. Any one can slap a Coldplay song over shots of someone running and hit you right in the feels, but for real, long-lasting hope or inspiration, you need insight, and more importantly, honesty. And while, for the most part, this show focuses on the easy, placebo "inspiration," there are, hidden beneath, moments of real insight.

Red Band Society is a show about teenagers who are living in a hospital. They all have serious diseases and most of them have drawn the short straw in life, but they still manage to do the things that teenagers do in the world of TV. The show is narrated by a boy in a coma, overhearing the lives of his friends, but that gimmick winds up just being a lame excuse for excessive voice over (side note: what is going on with voice over in pilots this season?). The pilot focuses mostly on the new kid, Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), who has one last day before they amputate his cancer-ridden leg.

There are genuine moments of inspiration in this episode, and not the Coldplay or the quoting Henry V bullshit. For me, the inspiration comes in the form of simple exchanges, like two kids smoking a joint, or buying beer, or staring at a girl's legs. Moments of teenagers doing distinctly teenager-y things, despite the high drama of being at death's door.

I don't see this show lasting very long. It doesn't have enough drama or tension to really demand viewer loyalty, but even if it dies young, like a cancer-ridden child, it will at least have given us the actor Charlie Rowe.


Rowe plays Leo, the ringleader of the group, and he does so with a subtle charm that transcends the show's weak script. Which is a shame, because his talents are mostly wasted on this inspirational schlock.

C

A to Z


Boy, that was the worst episode of How I Met Your Mother I have ever seen. What's that you say? It wasn't an episode of How I Met Your Mother? How can that be? It had a man on a quest for true love! It had romance! It had a self-aware time-travelly gimmick! It even had the mother!

See!?

Granted, it didn't have any jokes, but it did have rough approximations of what jokes are supposed to look like. I think that should count.

Well, I've just consulted Wikipedia and it turns out this is actually a show called A to Z. And this show is about a quirky odd couple who fall in love but must overcome the many relationship hazards of dating in the modern world. According to the Wikipedia page, this show is a half-hour comedy, which is only half correct, unless you think saying the words "Scat Man" counts as comedy.

The story for this pilot is that these two lovebirds meet. And, despite having great chemistry and very nice teeth, they can't seem to get together because of horrible plot contrivances that make no sense. Once horrible plot contrivances are overcome by having a mature and adult conversation, they finally get to be together.

The one promising aspect of this show is that in the beginning, the narrator announces that they will only date for 8 months and the show will chronicle those 8 months. This would be exciting if it meant the show would end with them dying alone, but it won't. Season one will probably end with them getting engaged and then season two will chronicle the engagement and then the marriage. It's all very cloying and twee, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. How I Met Your Mother spent 8 seasons rubbing twee in your eyes until it burned, but along the way they made many many jokes. They rewarded your interest in their characters with laughter. The writers of A to Z seem to think they can take a shortcut, bypassing comedy and believable characters, and somehow get to the same ending. But the interesting letters are the ones between A and Z.

D

Monday, August 11, 2014

Outlander


I present to you, curious reader, this picture as a beacon of a hope. I would like you to remember this image when you sit down to watch the Outlander pilot (which I strongly recommend you do). Remember it during the not one, not two, but three entirely pointless sex scenes performed by the same boring couple. Remember it during the sloppy, tedious exposition. Remember it during the constant worthless voice-over. Remember it during the thirty-five minutes of bland, uninteresting television at the front end of this episode, because eventually, I promise you, something will actually happen.

Eventually, after more than half the episode has gone by at a drunken snail's pace, the good stuff will start. And by 'good stuff' I mean a mystical time-travelling, kilt-wearing, Scottish freedom-fighting soap opera. If that doesn't sound appealing to you, you may stop reading this and go back to watching True Detective and talking about how great Mathew Mcconaughey is. But, if this sounds like your kind of show, I'm glad. We should be friends.

The easy run-down of the story is that a plucky 1940s nurse winds up travelling back in time to 1800s Scotland, where she falls in with a group of Scotsmen and into the arms of this guy...
Once again, if this sounds like something you would rather avoid, go ahead and watch some more Walking Dead and tell me about how it's not as bad as it used to be.

But what makes this show stand out as far as soapy fantasy goes is that it does have a mind for details. The world of the Highlands, the mystery and fantasy of it all, it's applied with the kind of fervor and admiration birthed from intimate knowledge.

Unfortunately, the show ends before really getting into the fun new world it has established, which is a bummer, especially considering how much time they waste in the beginning. And I predict some challenges ahead for a show like this; for example: how to balance the requirements of paid cable (constant nudity/gore) with the show's whimsical tone, or how to keep Ronald D. Moore from ruining everything. But I have hope. There's love in the air, and kilts enough to go around.

B

The Knick


There are a lot of great things about Cinemax's new drama, The Knick. But first let's talk about how awful this font is.


It looks like the Dunkin' Donuts font. In a pilot, every single detail matters and opening with a font you copy-pasted from MS Paint is like beginning a 12-course meal by sucking on a rusty crowbar. 

Anyway, aside from the font problems, this was a pretty decent pilot. What interested me about it was that it had a reason to for its period setting. Often times, what brings about the downfall of a period piece is that it has no real compelling reason for its time period. For example, shows like Pan Am or Playboy Club certainly enjoyed their settings, but nothing about the stories they were telling made the setting necessary. Now, I'm not totally sure where The Knick is going but for this first episode, the year 1900 was crucial. 

The plot of this pilot is that the Knickerbocker's chief of surgery, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) has to hire a new deputy chief of surgery and the family that funds the hospital is insisting he hire an extremely well qualified black surgeon. Thackery dismisses it out of hand simply because the doctor is black. And what's interesting is that Thackery makes a very compelling argument for doing something so blatantly racist. Thackery is obsessed with saving lives. His objection to a black doctor is simple math. White people won't want treatment from a black doctor (remember, year 1900), and thus he will be able to save fewer lives. It's an interesting conundrum which pits Thackery against a rich, socially progressive family. And you wind up sort of rooting for the racist, because, despite how unfortunate it is for the poor black doctor, Thackery makes some valid points. 

The TV world has, for a long time, been obsessed with the question, "How terrible must a doctor be before he becomes isolated from the audience?" Shows like House MD and Scrubs played with this line, always pushing their Dr. Asshole farther and farther down the unforgivable rabbit hole while reminding us all that they are continually saving people's lives. But usually, the childish repugnant aspects of Dr. Asshole get in the way of their jobs, but not in The Knick. Here, Thackery is only as much an asshole as he has to be, given the world he is forced to operate in. 

All in all, this is an impressive pilot, when it comes to performance and style. With Soderberg behind the camera and Owen in front, you're never left in the charge of amateurs. But, as is the case with all TV, it's about making the most of your ingredients and so far this show has made terrific use of one ingredient: a time gone by, which is more than I can say for most shows.

A-

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Manhattan




Here is the opening shot of Manhattan. It's terrific. The shot, that is. The episode is just OK.

What makes this shot such a good opening shot is that it is hyper-aware of context. This is a story with an ending we already know. There is no great mystery of what will happen when they build the bomb. Right in the first shot, we are told that in 766 days, the bomb goes off and we are shown what that will look like. This a story that ends in a cloud of death.

Unfortunately, the show is mostly downhill from this moment on. The characters are interesting. John Benjamin Hickey does a serviceable job playing Frank Winter, a man who is counting the days until the bomb is finished in American soldier's lives. A man who is terribly afraid of what could happen if another country built the bomb first. A man who is a believer in the bomb. But the characters are not given a whole lot to do.

This is a pilot with a lot of pieces, and none of them move much. It reminds me of the Game of Thrones pilot, in that everyone is given competing objectives and we are shown the obvious road blocks they're going to have to face. But, unlike the Game of Thrones pilot, this show does not begin with an ice-zombie cutting a dude's head off. I'm not saying that every pilot needs to begin with zombies, but I would like something to make me feel like all this exposition is going to lead to something exciting. 

Now, what I do really like about this pilot is when it gets weird. Dream sequences, hallucinations, bizarre existential conversations, these make the episode interesting. But Thomas Schlamme, the director of the episode and tone setter for the show, is such a technician of a director, so literal in his approach, that the weirdness is always held in check. 

It's hard to say where this show plans on taking us before its inevitable conclusion. Like many pilots, it's easy to see how it might fail. This could be the first episode of yet another cut-and-paste, wannabe prestige drama. But there's the seed of strange buried in this pilot, and if it grows, we might get something worth watching. 

B

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Enlisted



I started watching Enlisted with the same trepidation I felt going into Brooklyn Nine-Nine. These professions (soldier, cop) are not funny. They are the subjects of Drama (capitol "D"). But, whereas Brooklyn Nine-Nine surprised me with its fresh take on the material, Unlisted does not.

The show is about a super soldier (Geoff Stults) who punches a superior officer and is then demoted and sent to rearguard where his two younger brothers (the chronically sarcastic Chris Lowell, and the amazingly air-headed Parker Young) are posted. If you're a fan of Suburgatory, then you're in luck, as Parker Young is playing Ryan Shay again, with little to no variation. In rearguard, Stults' character must reconnect with his family and find some value in the work he's doing, even if it isn't his dream job (which is shooting people in Afghanistan).

If you read into that last parenthetical, you know where I'm going with this. What made Brooklynn Nine-Nine fun was that Andy Samberg plays a really talented police officer who is also a huge goof. And these two things are not mutually exclusive. But it's increasingly hard to believe that a hardened soldier who has spent years in Afghanistan and, as he points out many times, led 50 raids against insurgent camps, would wind up as a carefree jokester, perfect for the leading role in a sitcom. The fact is that war changes people, and usually for the worse. It is the great tragedy of our nation that even the brave men and women who manage to survive combat, frequently wind up losing a part of themselves. Now I'm not going to say that sitcoms cannot be about depressed or unhappy people. In fact, some of the funniest sitcoms are built around unhappiness. But this isn't the case with Enlisted. Instead, Stults plays a happy, well-socialized individual whose only real problem is that the mean ol' army won't let him go shoot people. 

The two brothers are very funny as army misfits, as are several of the side characters (who remind me a lot of the support group from Go On). And I find myself wondering why the two brothers aren't the main characters. I can laugh at them and also believe they are real people. 

In conclusion, let me say this. I've met a lot of funny soldiers (the Navy specifically attracts some of the funniest people I've ever met). These were men who loved their job, and would make for great sitcom characters. But ask any of them if they would rather be home or in an active war zone, they would likely answer with "Are you fucking kidding me?" because anyone who would rather be in combat has something seriously wrong with them. But this show portrays this bizarre desire as entirely normal, like a hot shot college professor, forced to teach high school. It's as if they copied the formula for any other show of this type and totally forgot to adjust it for the subject matter. 

C-

Monday, January 13, 2014

Chicago PD


Roger Ebert once wrote, in his review for American Reunion, “If you liked the earlier films, I suppose you gotta see this one. Otherwise, I dunno.” I think, given Ebert’s history as a critic, this may be the funniest thing he ever wrote. I often think of this quote when writing reviews, this idea that, “look, if you like that kind of stuff, you’ll probably like this kind of stuff,” and even more so while watching Chicago PD. It isn’t a bad cop show or a good cop show. It is, simply, Cop Show. It uses every genre signifier in the book, (cop abuse, clearing drug dens, protocol, jurisdiction conflicts) one after another, with no breaks for air, no brief interludes of unique charm, no strange, stylistic quirks. It chugs along, presenting an unrelenting viewpoint that is sometimes hopeful, but mostly nihilistic. Everyone has this weird raspy voice (even the women). Everyone is itching for a fight, ready to steal from the till, eager to do bad, eager to do good. Chicago PD presents the police force as a sort of foul machine that is not self-aware. It simply runs, chewing up and spitting out all in its path, fulfilling its mandate with no pause for consideration or respite.

The main characters of the show are lifted from Chicago Fire, another strangely vacant genre piece from Dick Wolf. But where Chicago Fire was about the most neutral good guys you’ll ever meet, Chicago PD is about the most neutral villains you’ll ever meet. And they are truly villains, all of them. Their conflicts with each other are not about right and wrong. These are conflicts of pure self-interest. These lousy people hunt down an even more despicable cartel enforcer who likes beheading drug dealers in their homes, so, naturally, they want to arrest him. Of course, the main characters of the show seem inches away from beheading drug dealers themselves, so you don’t really feel the vindication. And to add to it all, it appears the main character is, himself, trafficking drugs.

In the end, I walk away feeling like no one actually wrote this pilot. It was assembled. It was assembled with care, sometimes with considerable skill, but I detect no real passion, or life.

C+