Monday, November 24, 2014

State of Affairs



For a few minutes, I thought there was hope for this pilot. The episode starts with a scene of utter chaos, showing us a car being ambushed in Kabul, all shot from one character's point of view. It's a fantastic scene, with the camera seamlessly leaving first person and showing the terrified Katherine Heigl as she tries to crawl out of danger.

Then, people started talking, and all at once, that hope was dashed. Despite the attention-grabbing opening scene, the rest of this episode is so mind-numbingly boring it should be prescribed as a sedative. The show begins with a therapy session that would be grounds for revoking that therapist's license, then dives into a CIA plot line that could strain pasta it has so many holes in it, and ends with an overarching mystery that has all the intrigue of tying your shoelaces. 

First, the plot holes. The central conflict of the pilot for State of Affairs is that there is an American doctor who has been kidnapped in Africa. In addition, there is a terrorist (a knock-off Osama Bin Laden) who the CIA has maybe just found, somewhere else in Africa. Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl) is the CIA's briefer to the president and she must decide which course of action to take, save the hostage or catch the bad guy. If you are wondering, "Why not save the hostage, which takes like an hour, then go kill the bad guy?" then A+, you pass the test, you can go home. If you are able to suspend disbelief and say, "OK, I'll buy it. Maybe the bad guy is able to pack up and completely vanish in one hour, which also happens to be the hour that they need to go save the hostage," then brace yourself because the plot holes only get wider from here on. 

Our subplot for this episode is that a general with ties to the Syrian government is in CIA headquarters for a meeting. But, this general was arrested in France for bringing a cellphone into an intelligence facility and recording classified meetings. And Tucker is concerned he might do this again. So she kidnaps him illegally, and finds a secret hat phone on him. So, if this has you shouting in disbelief, "How has a dude with a listening device in his hat managed to walk into, not one, but two heavily secured intelligence agencies!?" then bravo, stop reading, you get the point. If you are able to somehow stomach the stupidity of all of this, let me tell you about the superfluous drama.

Superfluous drama is what happens when a show has a perfectly natural outlet for great drama and instead decides to inject the show with generic plot lines. For example, State of Affairs is about CIA analysts who brief the president. Having to decide what issues in the whole world are worthy of the president's ear? That is real, natural drama. Adding a subplot where your fiance, who was also the president's son, got killed by terrorists is superfluous drama. 

I'll admit that sometimes TV viewers like old ideas dressed up in new clothes. But State of Affairs isn't even that. It's old Katherine Heigl in exactly the same clothes as before, only now they've thrown a leather jacket on her so you know she's super edgy.

D-

Monday, October 27, 2014

Constantine


Sometimes bad is complicated and sometimes it is oh so simple. In this case, what makes Constantine bad is terrible acting. Every line was delivered in the absolute worst way possible

So, as I try to suss out the merits of this pilot, remember that anything I may have liked was buried under oppressively bad acting. 

Constantine tells, once again, the story of a roguish exorcist/master of the dark arts, named John Constantine, as he combats the forces of evil. The story, originally a DC comic, got a big screen adaptation with Keanu Reeves and Shia Lebeouf that went predictably poorly. In this pilot, Constantine meets a young woman in peril who has the ability to see spirits. For reasons not terribly clear, a demon is hunting her, and Constantine has got to banish it somehow. Basically, it's an episode of Supernatural, replacing two hunky men with one unkempt Brit who looks like he's constantly squinting at the sun. Also, don't forget, everyone sucks at acting.

Besides the acting, Constantine is a mixed bag. This show has great production values (for network). It has some genuine scares, some terrific effects, and enough raw imagination to be equally as entertaining with the sound on mute. (In fact, I'd recommend it.) But the style is a little too clean. Everything the characters wear, no matter how messy, looks like a costume. Constantine's iconic, lazy look seems completely intentional, as if it took hours of hard work in front of a mirror to undo his tie to just the right length. Minor players seem anachronistically dressed for no good reason.

Liv's ability to see ghosts is apparently limited to douchebag ghosts.

The writing is serviceable, but suffers from many classic pilot sins. The most egregious of which would be late in the second half where Constantine takes a moment from his demon hunting to talk at length about his back story to a complete stranger. I don't really understand why network pilots so frequently insist on doing this. It's not as if we finish the episode saying, "Well thank god I learned about his childhood. Otherwise, I would have been totally lost." 

Constantine, as the comic has proved, has the potential for boundless imagination. Unlike Supernatural, the DC comic frequently pits John Constantine against forces from every pantheon, not just the Judeo-Christian one. Which means, there's hope for this show to become something other than a weak Supernatural knockoff with much better special effects. Then again, given David S. Goyer's track record, I'm not holding my breath.

C

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marry Me



A good ensemble is a rare thing. Just one wrong actor, one ill fitting character, and the whole group feels like a lopsided top. I say this because the show Happy Endings had a great ensemble. It was nearly perfect in that regard. And it was cancelled far too soon. So now we have Marry Me, network television's way of apologizing for cancelling something so good.

It wasn't David Caspe that made Happy Endings such a delightful show. It was the ensemble. Marry Me's ensemble isn't choking on the material, exactly, but nothing's popping. Ken Marino and Casey Wilson, the lead couple, are terrific and very well suited for each other, but the side characters are forgettable and weak. And without that brilliant ensemble, we are faced with raw, unprepared Caspe, and this is a dish that needs cooking.

First of all, Caspe really likes dropping big emotional bombs, right off the bat, and then walking away from them. Happy Endings began with a botched wedding, Marry Me, a botched engagement. In both cases, it is painted as the woman's fault (a pattern I'd rather we not keep hammering deeper). And in both cases, it is something very quickly forgotten, so everyone can go back to being all chummy and making jokes. The jokes are fine, but why even have the big emotional moments if you don't want to follow through?

In Marry Me, Jake (Marino) proposes to his girlfriend, Annie (Wilson), and she winds up embarrassing herself and insulting him in front of everyone, and he basically revokes the engagement. This is a really major emotional event and as soon as it happens, Caspe is already walking back. He's already putting up deflection jokes to undo the damage his characters have done. By the end of the episode, it's all put back together very nicely, and I feel like nothing even happened.

This is not to say that this is a bad pilot. The jokes were funny, the chemistry was instant between Wilson and Marino, and Tim Meadows can do no wrong in my eyes. The problems I have with Marry Me apply to a lot of other sitcoms as well, and maybe it is a compliment that the biggest flaw I can find in this show is with the genre.

There is an addiction to perfection in the sitcom world. Every episode needs to begin with characters being mostly happy and end with them being mostly happy. With Seinfeld, it made sense. The problems faced, episode to episode, were so mundane that they could be solved in half an hour. But when you are cancelling weddings or alienating all of your loved ones in one go, these are problems that take a while to fix in any meaningful way. And this is the Caspe curse: The jokes are funny, the chemistry is great, but nothing has any meaning.

B-

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Jane the Virgin


Here's a flowchart.


B+

Mulaney



John Mulaney is a funny guy. He's been writing for SNL for a long time, he's got a very promising stand-up special under his belt, and he's unique. Also, he cannot write a sit-com to save his life.

This is a bad pilot. This is a really really bad pilot. It is filled with lazy and sometimes upsetting stereotypes (the bad black comedian, the crazy girl), and gives far too much screen time to Martin Short. It makes me wonder if you, John Mulaney, are a talented stand-up comedian, why make a sitcom? If you have funny jokes to tell us, why not just tell us those jokes instead of putting them in the mouth of a bunch of overacting stereotypes.

See, to me, stand-up comedy is comedy in its purest. You tell us a joke, and we laugh. And if that's all you want to do, keep doing stand-up. If you want to tell stories, then you go into sitcoms. But it doesn't seem like Mulaney wants to tell any stories at all. The pilot is minimally about a comedian feeling undervalued at his new job, but the plot has no stakes, the characters have no real conflict. No one hurts or heals. No one feels anything complex. Everyone just stands at their marks and says year-and-a-half-old John Mulaney jokes.

When trying to figure out why this was so bad, I remembered Louie C.K.'s first sitcom, Lucky Louie. It was a multicam, blandly-lit, by-the-books sitcom. It's crazy to think that the guy behind Lucky Louie went on to eventually produce Louie, which is the greatest sitcom ever made.

But Mulaney isn't even as good as Lucky Louie. Even in the confines of the multicam, Louie C.K. had something to say, something about frustration and loneliness. As a comedian, Louie C.K. was able to talk about feeling pathetic and worthless, but for the first time, he was able to show you these feelings. He was able to perform. Mulaney has no point, nothing interesting to say, and on top of that, John Mulaney himself seems entirely unwilling, or unable to perform. He embodies nothing except whatever joke he is currently telling.

D+

Bad Judge



Honestly, this is not a terrible show. And I'm a little disappointed, because I was all primed and ready with some killer puns just in case the show was bad. And no, I won't tell you those awesome Bad Judge puns. I will take them to my grave.

But seriously, how bonkers is it that there are people whose job it is to judge us? To sit above us all and proclaim from on high that we deserve to be punished? It is an accepted part of our legal system, and yet it is a mostly unexamined mindset.

This show takes an interesting approach to the subject by embodying "Judge not, that ye be not judged." During this episode, Bad Judge's Rebecca Wright (Kate Walsh) is constantly judged by other people. And she doesn't get upset, she doesn't resent it. The conflict of Bad Judge is not about being stigmatized. It's not about her crumbling relationships and her constant assholishness. This is not Rake. The conflict arises from Rebecca's relationship with a young boy whose mother Rebecca has sent to jail. It is about her role after her judgment has been made and her punishment has been exacted.

Kate Walsh is excellent. The supporting cast is fine, and Chris Parnell shows up and sprinkles comedy gold on everything he touches. So how do I know this show is going to get cancelled?

Because it's not about a young woman. The fact that this show is about a full grown adult woman who is slutty and messy and unapologetic puts a bulls-eye on its back. For whatever reason, on TV, you can be a young bad girl, an old bad man, or an old good woman, but according to network TV, the instant you turn 40, your vagina snaps shut like a bear trap.

Bad Judge is in no way perfect. But it's solid, and could easily grow into something formidable. Unfortunately, I strongly doubt we'll ever see that happen.

B-

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Affair



I find myself questioning my role as I write this review of The Affair. I'm aware that I should explain the premise of the show and describe how the pilot sets up that premise. I can't do that. Because it's so much better if you don't know what the premise is (beyond the fact that two people will at one point have an affair). So, I have a very specific goal for this review. I am going to convince you to watch this show without talking about anything that happens in the pilot. Then you will watch the show. And I will be happy.

First of all, let me say that the casting decisions for this show are perfect. And not just because the actors are excellent, but because they are so incredibly un-sexy. Dominic West always looks like he's just gotten lost in a grocery store, and Ruth Wilson, at the wrong angle, looks like a Simpsons character. And it's brilliant! Because they look like real people. They don't look like models. When characters in this pilot have sex (because it's a Showtime pilot so everyone has to have all the sex), it's funny looking, because full-grown men having sex is really funny looking.

After seeing this episode, I'm actually kind of mad at all the love stories I've seen up until now. What this show has revealed is that you devalue your love story by casting total hotties. You cheapen their love; you transform it into shallow, basic lust. If you want to make a story about something true and powerful and affecting, make it about people who fall in love for reasons other than a great rack and a strong chin.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself, because this pilot isn't really about love. I can't tell you what it's about. But it's not about love.

This show, oddly enough, is a mystery. But not in the way you'd expect. The show asks the question, "What happened?" And then, instead of showing you what happened, it just makes hints, allegations. It skirts around what happened. It recounts, and then recants. It dances with the truth.

I will say that one of this show's strongest weapons is a limited scope. A small scope can keep stakes high, and make every moment feel more important, but it's also a double-edged sword, and one that has cut me before. (Homeland, I'm looking at you.) The events of this show have a lot of weight because you know that the show does not have endless variations. It is one story - one thrust through a limited section of these people's lives. This show and others of its ilk reject the television norm and toss the very idea of status quo. This makes me excited to see how the writers will keep the show alive, but at the same time, I dread having to watch them cart the show's lifeless body around many seasons past its expiration date.

Anyway, I hope this review was vague and uninformative because maybe it will compel you to watch the show just to find out what the fuck I was talking about.

A-