Friday, September 26, 2014

How to Get Away With Murder



This episode was the absolute epitome of quantity over quality. The pace was so fast and the tone so bombastic that it trampled all the show's flaws (which were numerous). If a moment didn't work, or a line didn't make sense, it didn't matter, because the show was already moving on.

The show is ostensibly about a law class taught by defense attorney, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her ambitious (and remarkably diverse) students.

But really, it's about crazy, sexy murder.

Instead of discussing the merits and flaws of the show, I think it would better serve us all to simply diagnose the types of crazy we're dealing with here.

Good Crazy: Starting an episode with a murder.

Bonus points for the murder weapon being Lady Justice.
All shows about murder should start with a murder. Everyone knows this. But what most people miss is that all shows about murder should start with all the main characters standing around after they've just murdered someone, deciding whether or not to hide the body.

Bad Crazy: None of this makes any sense.

This frame could use more people in it.
The idea of inviting your entire law class to help you defend a client is totally bonkers and would never happen but we're living in Shonda-land so deal with it.

Good Crazy: The almost haunted house level creepiness of Wes's dorm.

Complete with bite marks on the banister.
I don't know why the writers decided Wes's dorm should be so fucking creepy, but why the hell not at this point.

Bad Crazy: This fucking girl.

She's the worst.. 

Good Crazy: The most plot lines, all of them murder/sex related.

Think we could get some more posters on this board?
Right off the bat, there are so many sexy and/or dead people in this pilot that by the first commercial break I was sure the episode would end in a blood orgy. (I'm still holding out hope for the season finale.)

So, you get my point here - the show is nuts. But it's more than that. It's also kind of smart. Having an improbable amount of murders surrounding a small group of law students is just bonkers, but the insanity taps into the mind of our heroes in a delightful way. These are people learning how to defend guilty people. They are young men and women of enough privilege to believe that they can use their knowledge of the law to break the law. They are starting down a road fraught with ethical quagmires, and while the events of this pilot would never happen in real life, the emotions are plausible, and better yet, really engaging. 

B+

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Black-ish



Warning: Incoming white dude talking about race.

There is an interesting premise at the core of Black-ish. Can you maintain your lower class identity after becoming wealthy? It's an interesting idea and is explored a little in this pilot. Obviously, there are a lot more avenues for exploration that the show is saving for later, but the road signs are clear. One problem. It's not funny.

It's not even a little bit funny.

Sure there are jokes, but they are all given to Anthony Anderson, who has only one delivery, and it's grating and obnoxious. There is a whole lot of standing around discussing what it means to be black. And while many families do occasionally stand around and talk about their cultural heritage, they also, sometimes, talk about anything else, a fact this show forgets.

The show also suffers from a desire to explain everything to death. For example, early in the episode, Andre Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner) tells his father Andre Johnson Sr. (Anthony Anderson) that he is joining the field hockey team. This a is a great way of demonstrating how Andre Johnson Sr.'s cultural identity is being challenged. But instead of letting the moment speak for itself, Johnson Sr. starts whining about how his cultural heritage is being challenged. This remarkable lack of faith in the intelligence of the audience is what makes Black-ish such a boring half-hour of television, and such a waste of a good idea.

C

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Mysteries of Laura



Once you've seen one cop show, you've basically seen them all. Unless that one cop show is The Wire. Plot-wise, every cop show follows the same exact beats, mixing personal life with professional life, moments of intrigue, moments of action. It's predictable and safe. Beyond that, every cop show's job is to come up with a reason to watch this cop show instead of all the others. Whether it be through comedy, realism, absurdity, self-awareness, politics, grit, a wheelchair, every cop show pilot must take steps to separate itself from the pack. And despite all the obvious weaknesses of The Mysteries of Laura, it actually does a really good job of standing out in the world of cop show.

The Mysteries of Laura is far from the first cop show with a female lead. It's not even the first cop show with a single white mom in the lead. What it is, though, is a cop show that refuses to join the boy's club. The show's titular character, Laura (Deborah Messing) is not masculine. She is not "one of the guys." She's a nagging mom. Her assistant is an effeminate man. Her partner is your classic clueless dude. The staples of a cop show are all there, but the hyper-masculinity has been sucked out.

As for the case of the week, The Mysteries of Laura has a decent enough opening murder. It's unique and puzzling and while I saw the conclusion coming two commercial breaks in advance, I didn't see all the details fitting together so nicely. The personal plot line was funny and loaded with moral ambiguity, the stuff I like seeing in my cop shows. But it was soft, doting moral ambiguity as opposed to tough, macho moral ambiguity. And that made it fun. But while this was certainly an entertaining hour of television, I can't imagine any reason to come back and watch more. Neither personal nor professional story was given enough time and energy to be anything more than briefly entertaining. Moreover, I can't really understand who the show's audience is.

Cop shows are aimed at men. We like watching dudes shoot each other. And mom shows are aimed at moms. So I'm not sure who in the Venn Diagram is watching The Mysteries of Laura. If watching struggling mothers is appealing to you, watch Parenthood (quick, before it's gone). If you like watching cop shows, watch Southland (because you probably didn't watch it when it was airing, you bastard). But who wants both in one place? Especially when neither is done particularly well.

C-

Gotham



Fuck me, this is bad. This is really, really bad. This is so bad that I actually like all other Batman-related things less. And the worst part is that I know we are all to blame for how bad this is.

Back in 1997, we, as a nation, were experiencing Batman fatigue. The previous decade had spewed forth countless terrible Batman movies. All of them painfully stupid Hollywood action films dressed up as comic book adaptations. So we hung our heads in disgust and hoped Batman would die soon, just to put him out of his misery. And then, 2005 came along and Christopher Nolan made Batman Begins. Lo and behold there was a Batman film in which things like grief and justice were addressed with the kind of gravitas they deserved. Characters, even villains, were seen as real people with complicated motivations. Source material outside of the 1940s and 50s original cannon was tapped to make a new brand of Batman. And it was a brand that respected the cowl.

But we were fools. So enamored were we with this new serious Batman that we overlooked its flaws. We ignored the plot holes and the tonal inconsistencies. We watched Nolan's next two installments, clinging to that feeling we had when we first watched Batman Begins: the feeling that finally Batman would be taken seriously.

But it was all for naught. What we realized while watching the horrid monstrosity that is The Dark Knight Rises was that Batman was never meant to be taken so seriously. Batman dresses in tights and fights evil clowns. There are certainly lofty themes discussed, and genuine emotions felt, but this is not the real world.

So now, we are living in a post-Nolan world, where even Superman is gritty, and this fall season, on Fox, we get Gotham. On behalf of Batman nerds everywhere, I'm sorry.

Gotham is Batman without Batman. It features all the villains of the Batman cannon before they become villains, back when they are just ordinary people with annoying personality quirks. It's about Gordon before he becomes the resigned authority figure that so excellently counterbalances Batman's zealous brand of justice. So, basically, it lacks everything that made Batman an enjoyable comic. But, it does retain a few of the hallmarks of classic Batman. It has a woefully inaccurate and simplified understanding of how the criminal justice system works. It has bland, on the nose writing ("You're a good guy," says Bullock. "You're a cynic," says Gordon, blank stares), it has the gritty Gothic Noir atmosphere, but none of the larger-than-life characters to fill it. It is an over-serious, under-cooked Noir with no flair and no point.

It is, in short, the worst.

D-

Madam Secretary



The White House is a totally awesome place to set a TV drama. This isn't news to anyone, right? It's full of double dealing and loaded with massive stakes, but it's glossed over with a thick sheen of slick, fashionable distance. It works for soap opera, conspiracy intrigue, or workplace comedy. Sometimes all three in one show.

It's also a bitch to write. Any inaccuracy becomes glaring. Any political opinion could turn into pandering. Now, I'm not sure how much of this is because of comparisons to The West Wing, which has some of the greatest dialogue in American television history. Regardless, writing shows on the hill is a double-edged sword. And it is this double-edged sword that really cuts Madam Secretary to ribbons.

On the one hand, all the drama of the White House is there. You've got your life and death stakes, family drama, workplace back-biting, political conspiracy. But on the other hand, all the comparisons to The West Wing are also there, the walk and talk, the political optimism, the zippy dialogue, but in every single comparison, Madam Secretary is sorely lacking.

The premise of this pilot is that two Americans are detained and could be executed in Syria. Newly appointed Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), has to get them out. Then she talks to a guy in a church. Then the Americans are freed from Syria. That's it. Of all the cool things the Secretary of State has to deal with, that's what they went with for their pilot episode. Talk to a guy in a church, give the bad guys some money, get the kids back.

The show has some strong points as it dips into more interesting conspiracy waters, but by making McCord so opposed to being political, the show has shot itself in the foot. If you remove all the politics from what the Secretary of State does in her day-to-day, it's actually really boring - phone calls and photo-ops. The show is clearly leaning toward the ex-spy direction for the hero and thank god because any more of McCord's down-to-earth, aw-shucks, bright-eyed bullshit and I will eat my hands.

C+

Forever



Forever has what I like to call a "Golden Premise." It is a premise so solid, so rife with drama and intellectual depth that there is no end to its potential. It is the story of a man who cannot die. With every death, he is reborn in the nearest river, completely intact. He never ages, never dies, never changes, as he travels through history. In this iteration of the premise (previously explored in the failed show, New Amsterdam), our hero is Henry Morgan (the ever talented and obnoxiously spelled Ioan Gruffudd) who uses his invisibility and wisdom to solve murder mysteries because god forbid we have to think of something original for our characters to do.

Like many many other shows blessed with a Golden Premise, this show squanders every good thing it has going for it. You know you're in trouble when the first scene of the pilot involves a dashing man on a train, explaining to a young woman how he knows she is a cellist on her way to a performance just by looking at her. (I recently wrote at length about how much I hate the "magic disguised as intelligence" trick.) Luckily, this ludicrous waste of time is followed by a train crash that kills literally every character we've met so far (which should be the beginning to more pilots in my opinion).

From here, the plot moves along like any stupid detective procedural centered around a magically brilliant roguish type. There are a few stellar performances, a few not so stellar ones. There are some interesting uses of Morgan's abilities (identifying a poison by consuming it and observing how it kills him) and some laughably stupid uses of his abilities (e.g. everything else that happens). And there is potential for a will-they-won't-they, just in case everyone involved completely runs out of interest in making a good TV show.

It is my opinion that good television should either exceed or subvert expectation. You have a scene where a dog notices little Timmy has fallen down a well? Well, you either have the dog fly Timmy out with a jet pack, or you have Timmy be a dog serial killer who uses the well routine to lure new victims. It seems the writers of Forever aim to make an exact duplicate of your expectations with no variance. It's a forgery, but close enough to pass as a real show without too many people noticing.

C

Monday, September 22, 2014

Scorpion



Last season, Intelligence nabbed the award for most mind-numbingly stupid hour of television by a pretty wide margin. And this year, I wouldn't be surprised if Scorpion claims that honor, continuing the time-honored tradition of unspeakably stupid shows about very smart people and computers.

While this show may appear on the surface to be about fast cars that race against planes or other things from the Fast and Furious franchise, it is actually about the world's most exciting IT guys. The premise for the pilot is that a faulty firmware upgrade has caused a bunch of planes to be unable to land and now this ragtag group of "smart people" have to update the firmware while riding in fast cars for some reason. 

It is the term "smart people" that infuriates me the most. Shows about smart people always feel the need to prove how smart the characters are, whether it be The Mentalist (pretending that guessing correctly is smart) or Sherlock (giving everyone a medical condition and covering them in crumbs). It's sort of like a magic trick, except everyone in the audience is a plant, so it's not very impressive. When you involve computers it becomes even less impressive. Since computer work is usually slow and not very glamorous, the only way to prove that someone is good with computers is to have them type really fast while other people look over their shoulder and say "Boy, you are super good at computer." And thus we arrive at Scorpion, a show filled with idiots telling smart people how smart they are.

Now, I can't be too hard on shows about flamboyant smart people. I watched seven seasons of The West Wing where the characters inhales their own farts through a respirator. But what The West Wing had, and what Scorpion sorely lacks, is an appreciation for intellect. In the West Wing, everyone is basically a genius, and that's the norm. No one is an outsider simply for being smart. In Scorpion, being smart is regarded as some strange affliction akin to witchcraft. The show even has the audacity to involve a token "not smart" lady to ground them all, because what would they do without a plucky waitress to keep their powerful minds from floating into space? There's a particularly condescending and misguided scene where the plucky waitress tells the genius hacker how hard it is to be a single mom with a troubled son. The hacker tells the plucky waitress that her son is a genius, and that's why he's so hard to raise. This is all fine except her son is clearly autistic. His being a genius has nothing to do with his obvious neurological condition. 

Portraying geniuses as fantastical creatures, like unicorns, only serves to distance us from our own intellectual capacity. Instead of portraying geniuses as magicians, the responsible thing would be to then show us how we can achieve these marvelous accomplishments ourselves. For example, take a look at Elementary, a show that allows Watson to learn Sherlock's art. She solves the tough crimes and catches the masterminds, not through stupid parlor tricks, but through hard work, keen rationality, and diligent observation. 

In conclusion, this show is about as entertaining as a lame, slightly condescending magic trick. If that sounds like something you would like, I offer this as a gift to you. 


D-