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+

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Assets



So, in my previous post, I promised to review my next pilot without comparing it to any other shows. This was clearly a mistake. But, I am a man of my word. So I will attempt to review The Assets without mentioning the other spy shows that I know you are all thinking of already.

First of all, this is ABC, which means the show is well shot, it's solidly paced, and someone in development likely nitpicked the life out of it. It's about a real life intelligence breach in the 1980s, where a high level CIA agent was turned and leaked really important information to the KGB. What's interesting is that, because anyone with fingers and the internet could just look up the actual case online, the show doesn't bother with making the mole a mystery. We're shown right off the bat who the mole is. The show also doesn't spend much time setting up its premise or setting. A couple title cards in the beginning, a few shots of Langley and that's about it. Then the show gets to what the writers were clearly most interested in showing us. Gritty, realistic, trade-craft. And it's great. While shows that will remain unnamed fill their hours with high-speed chases and wanton murder, The Assets manages to generate just as much tension with a pretty low-key foot chase. We meet a varied ensemble of people, a wide intricate network with possibilities of double dealings and we're given just enough period decorations to know we're in the 1980s without having the decade shoved down our throat.

Then, at promptly the halfway point, the show switches gears and suddenly everything is boring and stupid. There's a trend I've noticed in pilots where the writers really try way too hard to get you to like the main character. And it's absurd because we, as people, like other people. We like attractive people with cute noses and charming hair cuts. For example, Jodie Whittaker. Look at her.
It doesn't take much to make us like this woman, and yet the show goes to great lengths to show her boring family where she's having boring home problems with her teenage daughter (who shows up at one point dressed like someone just vomited 1980s fashion onto her body) and sitting through boring pep talks from her boring husband. It's all totally trivial, especially in contrast to the other plot which involves spies and murder. Other shows, which I will not mention by name, smartly use the home life of the characters as a location for espionage, a place of shady dealings and surveillance. Here, it's like the main character wanders out of the exciting show I like and into a really bad episode of... a 1980s show that will remain unnamed but may or may not have starred Alan Thicke. 

The fact that this is a miniseries and that it is adhering to real life incidents gives me hope for the show, as I couldn't possibly be interested in this boring woman's life for longer than seven weeks and the real star of this show is the creepy looking mole, played by Paul Rhys, who will get found out and arrested before too long. Seeing him react to the agency around him, knowing his secret, is genuinely captivating. It's not new by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels honest and true, and that's exciting in its own right. 

B

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Killer Women



Mick Jagger once said (without a trace of irony, I imagine), "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," and while Mick clearly misunderstood the meaning of "overdoing" (I can only assume he thought this meant doing something over and over and over again), it's not a bad mantra to live by, especially if you are remaking a Latin TV show like Mujeres Asesinas.

The concept is pretty straight forward. Molly Parker (Tricia Helfer) is one of only two female Texas Rangers in the whole state and she's brought in to investigate the murder of the assistant DA in San Antonio. There's a complicated murder conspiracy involving the cartel (obviously), and it ends with a rogue police operation involving a car chase and a grenade launcher.

But what makes this show so fun to watch is that it's not trying to hide from its weak spots. There is an agreement between the director (the exceptionally prolific Lawrence Trilling) and the audience, that this is a silly show. For example, the show superimposes Tricia Helfer's silhouette over the star in the Texas flag, after she's just finished a trumpet solo (NOT MAKING THIS UP). There's a bit of that old Robert Rodriguez flare to it. The first scene in particular, in which a woman in a red dress walks into a wedding and shoots the bride, looks like it could have been pulled straight from Desperado (and then cleaned up a bit for Network TV). Every cut-to-commercial is preceded by a freeze frame of the action in blood red. There's a sex scene where the camera drifts to the two lovers' guns lying sweetly together on the desk by the bed.

And yet! Despite how obviously silly it all is, the characters never suffer for it. They feel real, despite the camp. This is due, in large part, to strong actors, but also to some wonderful human moments. One moment in particular felt so loving and natural to me, where Molly awakens in her bed, then lifts the covers to reveal her niece sleeping on top of her. We aren't told to like these people. We are simply let into their world and can't help but like them.

In closing, I'd like to compare this pilot to another show (which, I've noticed, is kind of becoming my thing now. I promise not to do this in my next review). As weird as this sounds, I saw a lot of what I saw in Ugly Betty. Both are adaptations of Latin TV shows. Both bring that same campy, stylish feel of the original, and then temper it with a totally sympathetic central character. Both shows seem poised to slip into a Benny Hill action sequence at any moment, but at the same time, perfectly willing (and able) to tug some serious tears out of the audience. The only way in which Killer Women doesn't hold up when compared to Ugly Betty is its lack of Hispanics. Considering that this is show about Texas and based on an Argentine show, it seems a shame that the two main characters are white. But, on the diversity plus side, the show passes the Bechtel test several times over in just one episode. Also, did I mention the trumpet solo?

B

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Intelligence

Everything about this pilot is stupid.



Just fair warning. 

The premise is that Josh Holloway is a super sexy smart one-man army. He kicks ass and smirks in the face of danger. He also has a computer chip in his head which allows him to seamlessly access the vast network of collective human intelligence. Which is, coincidentally, exactly what this show is lacking. 

So, super soldier Josh Holloway (who isn't even bothering to play a character besides Josh Holloway) is paired with a fresh new bodyguard, Meghan Ory, because the show wants us to believe this is something he needs despite the fact that he's a one-man army, and she looks like she skipped her last 300 meals. The reason she's hired is that Josh Holloway is a loose cannon, a risk taker, who doesn't do things by the book. So then she has to keep him in line.

There are many problems. First, why install the chip into the mind of someone who constantly breaks protocols? Why not just install it in a regular guy? The show posits that only a very specific brain can handle the chip and they're basically stuck with him. Okay, then why even let this guy operate in the field? He's equipped with a super secret multi-million dollar weapon and they just let him roam around? There's something so incredibly unbelievable about the whole situation, beyond the general unbelievably of someone like Josh Holloway working for the government.

Now, maybe veracity isn't your thing. Maybe, you're just in it for the chance to watch a group of characters work together. That's fine, go watch Chuck. I know, it's cheating to compare one episode of a show clearly finding its footing to a mammoth like Chuck. But I will point out that part of Chuck's appeal was that, right off the bat, you saw how these characters would fit together. You saw the infinite number of fascinating scenarios that might erupt between two nerds and two highly trained operatives. But Intelligence doesn't have any contrast. All the characters are vaguely smarmy government operatives. You don't get the feeling that Josh Holloway needs a bodyguard, or even a costar. 

The one human element of this pilot is that Josh Holloway's wife was caught at the scene of some terrorist attack, being a terrorist, and now he's torn because the love of his life is a "bad guy," which is basically the same plot of Almost Human's lousy pilot. Sometimes, I wonder if executives from all the major networks meet on a hill somewhere and slaughter a goat as an offering to the great blood lord Baal. Whereupon he pronounces the new plot device that they should all be using. If so, they should step up to virgins, because Baal is clearly short-changing them.

D-

Monday, November 18, 2013

Almost Human



I want to start by saying that I really wanted this pilot to be good. I don’t want anyone to think that because I so often say nasty things about TV pilots I want them to be bad. I want them all to be good. I love TV and I’m always willing to give new stories a try. Unfortunately, this was not a new story. It was an old story, told poorly. In short, it was crap. But crap with potential.

First of all, aesthetically, this pilot looks like a stale, uninspired turd. The locations are divided between the Chinatown set from Blade Runner (complete with Chinese black-market technology vendor), the police headquarters set from Fringe, and a couple of outdoor crimes scenes that very purposefully shelter us from any futuristic sightseeing. The world feels distinctly incomplete, and what little bits we get appear to be lifted, not all too gracefully, from other more complete scifi worlds. In the end, I feel like the creators are more invested in their budy-cop story than they are in creating an imaginative, distinct universe. Unfortunately their budy-cop story is also crap.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Old grizzled cop, dishonored because of a past mistake, lured back to the force by the prospect of revenge, paired with by-the-book pariah. Initially at each other’s throats, these two cops soon discover that they can learn from one another, and eventually they grow grow a bond, deeper than brothers. Please. Stop me if you’ve heard it.

So, nothing too unique in the story realm, but everyone knows that good TV is about the performances, the characters. Sure Friday Night Lights was a soap opera, but it was elevated to TV sainthood through its comfortable, stunning performances. And this show even has FNL alum Minka Kelly, so I’m sure it won’t be ruined by Karl Urban’s insatiable hamminess. No? Okay then. It was a long shot.

As for potential – as for any chance of this show eventually settling into something watchable, I’m not even sure. The show’s main antagonists are as uninteresting as they are shady (and, I should mention, very stupid), and the show’s main story arc seems to be pretty lame.

But, as I considered turning this episode off before it was over (knowing exactly how it would end), I remembered that this is a JH Whyman + JJ Abrhams show. These are the Fringe guys, and while Fringe wound up becoming one of my favorite scifi shows on TV, it started out pretty bad. Maybe not this bad. But it suffered from over-acting, lame antagonists, and a mostly awful first season. So maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance for “Almost Human” down the line, once the kinks are worked out and better writers get a chance in the hot seat. In the meantime, this show provides very little, unless you are working on a "Michael Ealy smirking" supercut, in which case, you just hit the jackpot.

D

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ground Floor



Due to popular demand (meaning two offhand remarks), I've decided to begin rating the pilots like you would a high school paper. “C” being an average score. “C” means not good, but not in any way bad, or enough of both to cancel each other out. “B” means good with flaws. “A” means entirely lives up to its premise, and “F” means I barely held back vomit.

So, here it is. My first official grade for a pilot. What shall I give it?

I know! I’ll give it a “C"!

This was a “C” pilot if I've ever seen one. First of all, it is an hour long comedy pilot, which is always a little off-putting. It is single cam comedy, but with a laugh track, so that doesn't help. And it basically takes place entirely between two locations, and this is a serious problem. The show is about a man struggling between two worlds: The corporate high stakes world, and the carefree bottom floor. The problem is that, as he bounces back and forth between the two, a sense of déjà vu begins to creep in. The initial message is heard loud and clear: The so-called successful people on the top floor appear to be less content than the unsuccessful bottom floor support staff. With only one idea to play with, the constant ping-ponging between two locations just makes the whole show feel like it's retreading endlessly.

But there were up sides. Skyler Astin is certainly charming, and John C Mcginley is basically rehashing his scrubs character, which is totally fine by me. And there's a sense that all these talented comedic actors may one day get a chance to work as an ensemble, and not just a group of comedians, each doing their own thing, oblivious to the other comedians in the room.

But on a deeper level, this show managed to be really extremely average. Average in a fundamental way. It’s the story of a stressed out, uptight guy who’s living the dream but isn't satisfied, who meets a carefree girl who is hot, but not sexy, with a unique fashion sense and a charming spirit, who pulls him out of his white, privileged male depression and forces him to really live his life and listen to indie music. And I’ll be the first to admit, I actually like this story. Most of us do. That's why we keep telling it over and over again. It's just, if you're going to tell it again, you might as well subvert it, or play with, or even acknowledge it. If not, then it's like hearing a bed time story for the hundredth time. It's a good story, but you know all the words and you're asleep before it's over.


C