Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Golden Boy

There's a proverb mentioned early on in the Golden Boy pilot. The proverb describes two dogs who fight inside every man's soul. The two dogs represent good and evil and whichever dog you feed, wins. That proverb supposedly describes our hero, Walter Clarke (Theo James). Oddly enough, that proverb works marvelously to describe this pilot on the whole. Except the two dogs don't represent good and evil. They represent sturdy, compelling character work and hackneyed plot points. And while this episode has a dog I really like in its soul, he's looking pretty thin compared to the other guy.

First, let's talk about the good. Theo James is a marvelous. He plays the arrogant new guy, but he does it in a way that's mysterious and a little sinister. It helps that we know he'll eventually become the youngest police commissioner in NYC history. Giving him that political angle makes him into a fascinating snake, who isn't just solving crimes, he's playing the game. The show makes a point of making Chi McBride the example of decency and justice, a good cop who doesn't care about recognition. But, by having the show being told in the form of an interview with Clarke after he becomes a wildly successful police commissioner, we know that Theo's character will not wind up so noble. We know which dog he'll feed.

Now the bad. The actual plot of this pilot is really stupid. It's filled with cliches like "privileged white boy sociopath" and "younger sister with nasty boyfriend." On top of that, I felt like the pilot had short-term memory loss, constantly bringing in new characters or plot details and then never following through. There are a few moments early on where Clarke makes some very astute deductions about the victim's clothes, yet the detective work never actually pays off. We get introduced to Clarke's sister and her abusive drug-dealing boyfriend, but that never really leads to anything either. I couldn't shake the feeling that Leonard Shelby wrote this pilot.

None of this is to say that Golden Boy is a lousy show. I don't know what show it is. Not yet. Right now there's a hungry dog who, if fed, could make this show into a compelling political thriller set in the NYPD. But this is CBS so I'm assuming it won't be long before that dog winds up in a soup somewhere in Vietnam. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Cult

I was momentarily excited by the idea behind The Cult. On paper, The Cult looks like it’s a parody of The Following, a perversely violent show about a serial killer fan club. The Cult is about a journalist investigating a TV show called “The Cult.” The premise is that the show within the show has somehow birthed its own secret country-wide following which does unspeakable things in the name of the fake TV show. There’s a big conspiracy, murder, mystery, all somehow linked to this fake television show called “The Cult” (the writers did us reviewers no favors by naming the fake TV show after the real one). The whole idea is beautifully ludicrous. And the fact that it premieres a month after The Following certainly gives it an edge, as does the fact that it was created by Rockne S. O'Bannon who made Farscape, which I love.

A show like The Cult could have been a lot of fun. Its premise is relentlessly silly and adventurous. It could easily have become a modern They Live, mixing campy, over-the-top humor with actual social statements. Unfortunately, it does nothing of the sort. What could have been a gleeful undressing of overly self-serious TV is, itself, overly self-serious TV. The Cult goes for high tension, life or death stakes, dark foreboding scenery, plenty of brooding, murder, suicide, all with a straight face. And this is a show with easily the most laughable premise on television.

In the end, I’m left wondering what O'Bannon is trying to say about his fake TV show. Is he saying that our obsession with violence and inhumanity is making us into mindless slaves? Then why make his show about violence and inhumanity? See, this is the problem. The two universes within The Cult – the one of the fake show with Alona Tal horribly miscast as a cop, and the one about an evil TV show conspiracy – have so little contrast you can hardly tell them apart. The acting, production, and writing are so abysmally bad in both universes, that any critique that Rockne wants to levy against television he winds up levying against himself. A mirror held in front of another mirror is just a whole lot of nothing.

Article first published as TV Review: The Cult - "You're Next" on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Guide to Watching CBS’s Elementary

I am a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock. I think it’s got some marvelous acting, good writing, and is a step in the right direction for television in general. When I discovered that there would be another Sherlock Holmes TV show coming to America, and that it would air on CBS of all networks, I was ready to cry because, like every other pilot over the last two years, I would have to watch it. So I begrudgingly watched the manic Johnny Lee Miller and excruciatingly attractive Lucy Liu prance about in their roles. Each of them added a modern flair, but nothing I hadn't seen in the BBC version – Sherlock being glued to his smart phone, his fast walking and eccentric dressing, even the penchant for scarves and pea coats. I kept yelling at the screen “The BBC already did that!” and when the show managed to come up with some original things (such as having Watson as someone hired to keep him sober) I snorted and assumed CBS would find a way to make it awful, because they make Two and a Half Men and I hate them. But then, last night, something occurred to me. Not only is Elementary a very good show, but every Sherlock fan should be watching it.

There are three steps to getting past your snooty Brit-loving hatred of Elementary. The first is to remember that Sherlock wasn't that original to begin with. TV shows about eccentric and troubled geniuses are a dime a dozen. Some could argue the Fox’s House MD was actually the first major Sherlock Holmes remake of TV’s golden age and that Sherlock is just copying its style. In a lot of ways, I’d say Elementary is borrowing just as much from CBS’s own The Mentalist as it is from Sherlock. So there’s no way that Elementary is simply copying Sherlock or even that the Americans are copying the Brits. But, in fact, we’re all just remaking the same story.

But even with the copycat arguments neatly shelved, we are still confronted with a conundrum: Do we need yet another goddamned story about a troubled genius who solves things. My answer is a solid “Yes!” These stories have existed for centuries because they are lovely and we always need them. In a lot of ways, Sherlock, in his many forms, is our guardian angel, unattached to society or fads, distinctly moral, brilliant, yet always an outsider. He rights wrongs and is ever watchful. Whether it’s Patrick Jane, Sherlock Holmes, or even Doctor Who, we, as a species, need stories of brilliant and kind guardian angels who don’t totally fit in. The more the merrier, I say. Whether you want to make that guardian angel a depressed, revenge filled ex-psychic, or an alien from outer space, a psychopath or a drug addict, that's fine. All of those characterizations yield interesting and limitless stories. No matter how you use the same rubric, you get an interesting tale.

Lastly, for those of you not yet convinced, I would argue that Elementary shouldn’t been seen as a usurper or as a cheap imitation. It’s a companion piece. Forget for a moment that Johnny Lee Miller looks nothing like Benedict Cumberbatch and imagine that these are, in fact, the same story. One is about a genius in England who rose too high and then fell (see what I did there), while the other takes place later, in America, and is about his recovery. In Sherlock, his relationship with an ex-army doctor/blogger makes him into a more violent and publicly involved individual, while in Elementary his relationship with a sponsor makes him a little more introverted and soft. If you look at it that way, the two Sherlocks fit together, like a before and after picture.

I think, with these tips in mind, any ardent fan of BBC’s Sherlock will surely find something to love in Elementary. Even if you are only into Sherlock for Cumberbatch’s delightful cheekbones, I say check out Lucy Liu's .

This picture alone should give you reason enough to watch Elementary.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Monday Mornings

If sexy doctors are your thing, TNT has a treat for you. Jamie Bamber’s puppy-dog eyes and masculine-yet-never-threatening good looks are sure to cause dangerous levels of swooning. But beyond Bamber’s smoldering yet boyish visage, I’m not really sure what the point of this pilot is.

Monday Mornings is about the the daily challenges faced by surgeons in a fictional Portland hospital - including an oddly avant-garde, public shaming ritual in a setting which looks an awful lot like a black box theater (possibly to make Alfred Molina feel more at home). Unfortunately, the trials and tribulations of generic surgeons in a generic hospital constitute some of the most exhausted clich├ęs of all time. There is literally nothing new here - no spin, no twist.

Sometimes, well-trodden ground can be made fresh by skill and innovation. But there is nothing innovative about Monday Mornings. The characters vary from tired archetypes to bizarre parodies. The tone is all over the place, dipping into fast-paced, blood-spattered thrills, followed by slow oppressive drama before moseying into quirky ethnic comedy. For some reason there are a lot of over-the-top accents and, oh right, Ving Rhames, who doesn’t seem to be playing any particular role beyond “Ving Rhames wearing scrubs, occasionally heckling the other actors.” Lines like “We have to stop the bleeding,” and “Call it,” have me checking my watch wondering when I can declare this show officially dead.

Bill D’Elia is a competent director but he is stretching to make something unique out of this by-the-book drama. In his mad attempts at making something not wholly derivative, he winds up making an even bigger mess. Practically every shot in the pilot defies convention, in a loud, distracting way. It's as if D’Elia is trying to drown out my boredom by giving me a headache.

I don’t mean to say that there’s no such thing as good genre TV. But, honestly, I think David E. Kelly is just worn out after dozens of courtroom and medical dramas, and at this point he’s just regurgitating whatever leftover scenes he forgot to put in Chicago Hope or Doogie Howser.

Article first published as TV Review: Monday Mornings - "Pilot" on

Sunday, February 3, 2013

House of Cards

Poli – meaning many – tics – meaning bloodsucking organisms. It’s an old joke and despite all our “Hope” posters and “Grassroots Campaigns” it’s the fundamental opinion of the majority of this country. In a way, there was something distinctly revolutionary about The West Wing, making a point to show honest, bright-eyed people who really want the best for their country who aren’t motivated by greed and power. But at the same time it was the only way to make something like the American government palatable.

House of Cards is the anti-West Wing. It has no interest in making politics palatable. The show is about a powerful congressman (Kevin Spacey) who, betrayed by his political allies who have just taken over the White House, decides to abandon all loyalties. His goal is unmitigated power, for its own sake. Like the British show it was based on, (and its Shakespearean antecedent), it makes no attempt at framing the story in a world that actually exists. Instead it uses the image of politics that we hold in our minds as a fantastic framework to tell a timeless tale about power and hubris.

It would be unfair of me to review this pilot without mentioning Spacey’s performance, which may be the Great Divide of the critical world. I’ve always loved watching Spacey act, but he’s certainly not for everyone. It’s probably safe to say that if you don’t like Spacey cranked up to 11, you may have a tough time with this show.

Despite Spacey’s oppressive screen time, my hat goes off to Robin Wright who, in her decades of acting, has never impressed me this much. In a lot of ways, she’s the perfect foil for Spacey’s flamboyant, overly theatrical style. She demands your attention with silence and stillness. It’s almost hypnotizing.

For better or worse, this pilot is ruthlessly efficient. David Fincher is one of the most talented directors working today, and his ability to tear through mountains of context, subtext and style gives this scattershot story much needed momentum. Unfortunately, Beau Willamons’ writing is a little too direct and on the nose, leaving little room for nuance. The result is like a very tasty pie to the face.

Article first published as TV Review: House of Cards -"Chapter One"/"Chapter Two" on Blogcritics.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Americans

Early on in this pilot, there’s a fast-paced, nail-biter of a chase scene. The scene is well executed but fairly standard spy thriller stuff. Except, playing over all of it is “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac. It’s a playful song with a bouncing baseline, triumphant horn section, and a tribal, dancing-naked-on-the-beach drum beat. At first, I was a little confused. The song seemed so very out of place amidst this dark, brutal action scene. But, as the scene went on, the drum beat kept hammering away, I realized that The Americans isn’t going for dour and brutal, or even slick and sexy. The Americans is here to have fun. And I love it.

It would be so easy in a show about KGB spies pretending to be a suburban family in America to become a pretty heavy drama, one loaded with cynicism and crushing despair, but Joseph Weisberg and his writing team seem uninterested in America’s new obsession with dark, brooding TV. That bouncing, energetic mood they establish early on never relents. Fleetwood Mac’s raucous energy guides the episode through some heavy subject material. There’s deceit, murder, and sexual abuse, yet the show isn’t about misery. It’s about a family. A strangely loving family.

It’s not a simple task to get the audience to sympathize with cold-blooded killer spies from Russia (even if one of them is played by Keri Russell), but the show employs a fairly genius shortcut to quickly put the audience firmly on the side of this unorthodox family: Love. As long as we believe there is love between the members of this family, we inherently want them to succeed. This is where Matthew Rhys as Keri’s KGB hubby comes in. Rhys may be the ultimate spy, complete with chameleon-like disguises and ruthless combat techniques, but he’s also incredibly devoted and loving. It’s a tricky balancing act that could easily seem campy and stupid, but doesn't. He manages to be both an embarrassing suburban dad and a super spy.

And that’s really what the show boils down to. Can you be both a devoted husband and father, while also being a ruthless spy? Can you cultivate a marriage built entirely on deceit? A show about whether or not 1980s KGB spies could bring down America would be boring. We know they would fail. But, a show about a family trying to hold itself together under the weight of spy craft, politics, and the 1980s, is a whole other story. One that could go anywhere. And if they keep this playful, dancing-naked-on-the-beach energy going, this could easily become the best show on television.

Article first posted as TV Review: House of Cards "Chapter One"/"Chapter Two" on Blogcritics.
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