Monday, January 21, 2013

The Following

Do we really need another show about serial killers? After so many Criminal Minds and Luthers and Dexters and Mentalists, can't we all just agree to stop beating this ritually murdered horse? Of course we can't. We're sick, sick people.
In keeping with our national obsession, we get The Following, a show about an escaped serial killer (played by James Purefoy), and his cat-and-mouse game with a retired, alcoholic FBI profiler (played by Kevin Bacon). The show's hook is that Puerfoy's character has formed a cult of serial killers - which could easily turn into a statement about TV audiences as a whole, worshiping at the altar of megalomaniacs, jonesing for the next brutal killing. But Williamson decides to put aside (for most of the episode) his obnoxious self-referencing in favor of a tense, bleak, character-driven hour of television, (helmed by veteran TV director Marcos Siega), all orbiting around Bacon's almost too-cinematic performance.
Oftentimes, veteran film actors use their move to the small screen as an opportunity to phone it in. Bacon, however, hasn't had the chance to hog this much screen time in years, so he attacks every scene as if he's got something to prove. The result is electric, easily one of the strongest performances I've ever seen in a network pilot (Jason Isaacs' performance in Awake is another that comes to mind).
But, for all of the show's stylistic merits and bold, confident strides, it trips up in the last scene, deciding to rest its laurels on a Purefoy monologue that is as over-the-top in performance as it is in cheap, meaningless self-awareness. It's a shame, because both Bacon's performance and Siega's natural direction seem so much at odds with Williamson's smarmy monologue.
While, on the whole, I very much enjoyed myself while watching this pilot, I couldn't help but feel how deeply unessential it was. The show makes a strong case for its lead actor, its director, even its writer (when he's not too busy trying to be clever), but it never really makes a case for its concept. The Following never gives me any reason to want yet another show about serial killers.

Article first published as Television Review: The Following- "Pilot" on Blogcritics.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Kroll Show/Legit

Today I would like to talk about two pilots. Neither of them perfect, both of them interesting.

The comedy world is moving in an interesting direction. Because of the efforts of Larry David, Louis C.K., and Lena Dunham, comedians are starting to get more credibility. Sitcoms are now being seen as art, even literary. Critics across the board are looking at sitcoms in a new light, and studio executives are catching on. They're taking risks and no longer looking for someone to squeeze jokes in between the laugh tracks. They're looking for established artists, with fully realized voices, distinct styles, who want to change the face of entertainment. 

Neither of these shows have those artists. They're both knock offs of better shows, done with varying success. We'll start with The Kroll Show.

The Kroll Show is awful. It starts with uninspired, recycled stand up, delivered Woody Allen style to the camera and is followed by twenty minutes of stale jokes, bad impersonations, and toothless parodies of things no one cares about. There's a reality show about PR girls done bravo style, a Degrasse style segment consisting of almost entirely lame Canada jokes, and a three-years-too-late Sex and the City for Men segment. Everything about the show seems completely half-baked and it's about as relevant as my asshole is to this sentence. But, about halfway through the episode I started noticing something. The editing was so abrupt, everything seemed so awkward, I started noticing a kind of intentional awfulness that I wasn't totally sure how to digest. It began to remind me of a far superior show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. Characters seemed to intentionally flub lines, or a title card would come out of nowhere, a dozen times. It became clear that there was an absurdest at the wheel and he was steering the ship into strange waters. When it was over I wasn't entertained or even remotely happy, but I didn't feel totally robbed of my twenty two minutes. I felt I'd seen someone try to do something interesting, not new, but at least not that old.

Then there's Legit. The pilot follows Jim Jefferies (playing himself), an unrepentant asshole, who goes to visit his mate's dying, paralyzed brother. The brother insists that he wants to lose his virginity before he dies, so they all head off to Nevada to get themselves a hooker. It's here that the story takes a strange twist. It becomes incredibly sweet. The experience is awkward, and silly, and a little gross, but more than anything else, it's just very very sweet. Jefferies is, for the most part, pulling a Louis C.K., or a Larry David, making a show about himself, blurring the line between reality and fiction. Making it personal. Nothing he's doing is particularly radical, but the episode left me in a very good mood, which is more than I can say for Mr. Kroll.

Not every show can be a radical. They can't all push the boundaries or else we'd have no idea where the boundaries are. But The Kroll Show and Legit both satisfied me in that, if you're going to be a carbon copy, at least try to emulate something fresh, something new. Acknowledge that we have a rich history of traditional humor and formulaic sitcoms and then don't care, make something that you like. If you like Louie, then make that. At least you have good taste. At least your not Whitney Cummings.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Carrie Diaries

Who the hell is AnnaSophia Robb and where has she been all my life? I’ll talk about the CW’s new The Carrie Diaries pilot in a moment, but first, Annasophia Robb is amazing. She manages to convey both the youthful innocence of high school and the spirit of a girl who’s grown up too fast. She has been given some ridiculous things to do and say in this pilot, but she pulls them off marvelously, never going for either the cheap laugh or the overly serious interpretation. Not only that, but she manages to – while looking nothing at all like a young Sarah Jessica Parker – seem like a young Sarah Jessica Parker. She gives an incredibly confident performance.

So, the pilot. The Carrie Diaries is a prequel to Sex and the City. It’s not terrible. I mostly hated Sex and the City, so I wasn’t too thrilled about getting more of the same upscale catty-girl garbage. Thankfully, The Carrie Diaries, while using some of stylistic devices of Sex and the City, departs from its predecessor in content matter. Now, we get more teen drama. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re into.

As for setting the show in the 1980s, it’s necessary given that it’s a prequel. And while the benefits of the setting are obvious in the score (keep your ears peeled for a hysterically mellow cover of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), sometimes I felt like the show was simply dressing up in '80s clothes rather than actually transporting me to another decade.

At the same time, does a modern teen drama need to reminisce on a time when most teens these days were not alive? I’d say no. Instead, they opted for a more modern style of storytelling with just a faint whiff of nostalgia for the older viewers. The result: yet another lukewarm teen drama only slightly elevated by the chops of its leading lady.

Article first published as TV Review: The Carrie Diaries -"Pilot" on Blogcritics.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Do No Harm

There should be a holiday - celebrated only in Hollywood - to commemorate the day Dissociative Identity Disorder was discovered. Actual cases of this disease are incredibly rare in the real world, but in the world of entertainment there is a virtual epidemic of it.

I’m not complaining - a schism in the personality makes for not only a totally engrossing story, it pits man against his greatest enemy: himself. Besides, it’s rife with metaphor. What is the self? How much are we in control of our lives? Are we all really many, many people contained in this figment we call “the psyche.” I’m frothing at the mouth just writing about it.

So, given the limitless potential stored in just the concept of Do No Harm, how does it hold up in execution? I’d say not bad. The story revolves around a highly skilled neurosurgeon with a heart of gold who happens to have a sadistic alter ego who emerges at 8:25 PM every night and leaves at 8:25 a.m. every morning. Do I believe this is a real psychological disorder? No. Do I believe he works at a real hospital? No. Do I believe assaulting someone is a reasonable way to solve the problem of domestic abuse? No. But, do I believe that Steven Pasquale is both a kind-hearted surgeon and a truly sinister villain? Absolutely.

There are some serious problems in this pilot, mostly in the lackluster disease-of-the-week fodder, but what does work here is what’s crucial for a show like this. There is a battle, a devious chess match, between a man and himself. And boy, are the stakes high. I feel like there is a good chance that our lovable life-saver’s alter ego could totally murder a child. Watching this man battle with his shadow while trying to cling to his shattered identity is truly riveting.

Article first published as TV Review: Do No Harm - "Pilot" on Blogcritics.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Have you ever wanted to see a man murdered with a bottle of A1 Steak Sauce? Ever wanted to see someone try to outrun a tour bus? Have you, perchance, any interest in watching a man pull teeth out of his knuckles while receiving sexual favors from a girl wearing an Amish hat? The fact is, I want to see all those things. So why didn’t I like Banshee, the newest TV show from Hollywood’s paladin of overstatement, Alan Ball? The performances were solid, the premise was fun, the pace was electric. Just watching Antony Starr walk from one place to another was feverishly entertaining, reminiscent of a younger, shorter Lee Marvin. The show moved with fierce determination, right up until the story kicked in.

Banshee is about a bad-boy ex-con (appropriately unnamed) who gets out of prison, 15 years after a job gone wrong, and puts down stakes in the town of Banshee - as their sheriff. The potential for pulpy fun would have been limitless, yet one important factor was left out: motivation. The fact is that while I really enjoyed watching the hero impersonating a sheriff, I saw no reason for him to do it, and it was dumb. It didn’t seem to get him anything, aside from a lot of trouble. Of course, if our hero had decided not to do something so incredibly stupid, there would be no show, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid. In every scene, I couldn't help thinking, “You know, this problem could be solved by simply not pretending to be a sheriff.”

A part of me feels that that maybe I should allow the show a few gimmes, let them have their premise and see what fun places they take us. But a part of me worries that maybe the whole show will be this: All the right ingredients, but in the wrong context, like a trashcan full of cake.

Monday, January 7, 2013

1600 Penn

Back in 2001, Matt Stone and Trey Parker made a show called That's My Bush. It was a standard multi-cam sitcom loaded with canned laughter that just happened to be about the George W. Bush White House. It was hilarious. I suggest you watch it. The thing that made That's My Bush work so well was that it juxtaposed the stale sitcom format with the current White House, a place usually regarded with reverence and awe. The result was perfect, as each character was transformed from who they actually were in real life to their sitcom persona. The mother knows best wife, the well-meaning but always bumbling husband, the wise cracking Karl Rove. Never during the show was there even the slightest hint of veracity. It took place in the sitcom universe and all was well (not to mention utterly absurd).

So here we are, more than ten years later, and NBC seems to be blowing the dust off pilot scripts written for another generation. Their latest outdated attempt at finding their audience is the show 1600 Penn, a show about a fictional White House dealing with their prodigal idiot son. The biggest problem with the show is that the son isn't funny at all. In fact, he tends to suck the humor out of many otherwise funny scenes. The second biggest problem with the show is that it lacks the distinct separation between the fictional universe of sitcoms and the real world. 1600 Penn wants to have its wacky sitcom antics while, at the same time, wanting you to believe this is the actual White House. 

In many ways, what's wrong with this show is that it isn't aware that it's a lame sitcom. The only quality sitcoms these days are looking at the camera, they're acknowledging their own storytelling methods. It's tough to make a straight-faced sitcom these days and hope its fresh blend of heart and laughs will make you stand out. It's a thing of the past. It's fitting that the pilot episode ends with the characters sitting around watching a very real life Jay Leno, lampooning the fictional White House family. A family living in an outdated sitcom watching an outdated talk show host make some not very funny jokes...
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