Thursday, September 26, 2013

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I'm surprised that the Whedon Camp seem to be the only people pulling this off, but if you're going to do live action super heroes on TV, humor is the key. Anyone remember The Cape? Even Arrow, which is enjoying some slightly well deserved success, is always battling with its own silliness. Not on SHIELD. On SHIELD they love their own silliness. They outright say it in this pilot: "It means someone really wanted our initials to spell SHIELD."

The premise is: Secret government branch in charge of managing superheroes makes a super secret team in charge of finding superhero related threats neutralizing them. The team is comprised of rookies, nerdy lab folk, a mysterious bad ass, and all led by that guy who didn't die in The Avengers (or did he?). Colson (Clark Gregg) is back and he has a voice that was made to speak Whedon dialogue. He's sharp and a little dry. Like Giles without the British. Clark Cregg has also had a good bit of time (four movies, not counting cameos) to get his character down, so he does make the other cast members (the young pretty ones) seem a little amateurish. Although, it's not his fault, the characters are all a bit poorly drawn. But, the best way to keep audiences watching while a show finds its footing is to put all your chips on one, excellent character, and that's what he is. So we'll love him until we find something to like in baby-boy secret agent or cute-hacker-girl stereotype.

But even with its flaws, it's hard not to like what this show is trying to do. It's connecting a film franchise with comic book tie-ins while also building its own separate, but related, world to operate in. And the show doesn't waste any time giving you the details of the films it's cleverly dancing around. The Marvel franchise is so incredibly popular, that they can build a pilot around the events of a film, without ever telling you what happened in that film. They just assume you know. It's refreshing to watch a show that isn't constantly checking to see if I'm keeping up.

For the Avengers fans out there, I'd say that if you really liked the conversations between Romanov and Hawk Eye, you'll like this. For Whedon fans, just imagine Dollhouse without the ethical ambiguity (and thankfully without Eliza Dushku). Or Angel without the brooding and lots of money (so, fifth season Angel). But to be honest, all of these comparisons don't really do the show justice. Obviously the history matters, especially with someone of Joss Whedon's cult status, but this isn't a show about history. This is a show about possibilities. This is a show that promises to give us something we really haven't seen before. And I can't wait to see it deliver.

Trophy Wife

Watching shows like Trophy Wife, I find myself wondering why all family comedies aren't terrific. It seems like such a simple formula. Start with terrific actors, Malin Akerman, Bradley Whitford, Marcia Gay Harden, add cute kids (who are basically a dime a dozen, so that shouldn't be too hard). Add unusual, but vaguely functional family set up. In this case, Malin Akerman plays the third wife opposite Bradley Whiteford, who's previous wives still have a strong hold on his life due to the three kids. Throw in an A plot wacky situation, B plot wacky situation, and C plot wacky situation, then throw everyone together in a final scene in which all is revealed, and then forgiven (sort of). This is how literally every single Modern Family episode runs, like clockwork (like a terrifying steam-punk Emmy-winning machine).

Now, I understand that finding terrific actors is harder than it sounds and Whitford is one of the all time greatest ensemble actors in the field, but so is Allison Janney, and Mom wound up about as funny and likable as a genital wart. So, I find myself looking back at other family comedies and wondering why they aren't all at least as good as Trophy Wife, which emerged fully formed, cracking with wit, explosively funny, and with just enough heart to feel like it's amounting to something. Maybe it's the laugh track on Mom that ruined it, or the mean streak, or just the sets, everything looking sterile and stage-like. 

Of course, I'm oversimplifying. Great pain went into writing and directing this pilot from TV veterans. And they probably labored over the jokes, over the timing, over how the drama would mesh with the humor. It's not easy business, comedy, but they made it look easy. 

I think part of my enthusiasm for this show is from how stripped down it feels. Gone is the laugh track, the multi-cam. Gone is the faux-documentary feel of Modern Family, or Parks and Rec. There's no gimmick. No whip cuts or staccato flashbacks like 30 Rock. This show isn't jumping on any other show's style, or even drawing that much attention to its own. They're just doing family comedy, with talented comedians and a pretty straight forward style. Sometimes it may be a bit too straightforward (the voice over was not my favorite), but there's something to be said for a show that wants you to be entertained and little else.

The Blacklist

Watching this show, I thought back on an old Monty Python character. He was a general played by Graham Chapman and he would occasionally appear in the middle of a comedy sketch, deeming it too silly, and forcing it to end. While this character was originally just an easy way for Monty Python to get out of sketches they had no way of ending, he also served as a force of constant self reflection, the nagging mother within us all that's saying, "I'm sorry but this is just no good at all." The reason I bring up the "Too Silly" general is because if he were working the modern TV drama circuit, he'd be pulling overtime just to keep up.

We all know that we're living in the golden age of television, because people keep saying we're living in the golden age of television. Which means that dramas that aren't pushing the limit somehow have no chance of becoming hits. It was just a few years ago that all you needed to do was produce a show that was exceptionally well made. Now, you need to produce a show that is exceptionally bat-shit insane.

And in walks James Spader in a fedora. Welcome to The Blacklist, where the stakes are high, everyone is a spy, no one can be trusted and James Spader is wearing a fedora. The basic premise of the show is that James Spader plays Raymond Reddington (AKA Red, not joking), an ex-military guy who one day up and defected, leaked a bunch of classified information to anyone with money, and became a very successful information broker to the powerful and dangerous. Now, several decades later, he walks into FBI headquarters and wants to hand over every criminal mastermind he's ever worked with, on the condition that he works only with a fresh-faced rookie profiler, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), whom he's never met, and with whom, he has no apparent connection. In the vein of shows like Scandal or Covert Affairs, the show gives a newbe a sweet break, but also implies some sort of sinister reason for doing so. While we're at it, this pilot takes a number of pages out of the playbooks for Scandal, Covert Affairs, and Revenge. In that the concept is so laughably out there (Spader practically twirling his mustache, he's so Villainous, with a capital "V"), yet the dramatic beats emerge intact. There's one scene in particular in which Keen's husband is held prisoner and Boone's performance is exceptionally moving, despite the ludicrous situation. She speaks directly to her husband, totally aware that his life is out of her control. So her priority becomes making sure he's calm. It's a beautiful approach to an old trope.

And then, in the next scene, James Spader is escaping from a hospital with the old, "rope and open window" trick, like, you know, a criminal mastermind. 

The fact of the matter is that shows like Revenge, Scandal and Covert Affairs (and lets just throw in True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and Banshee, just to be safe) can't compete with the quality of of the cable greats. They'll never reach the somber, poetic brilliance of Mad Men or Homeland, or whatever. And they know this. So, instead, they just want to knock your socks off. They throw subtlety out the window and then throw basically everything else out with it. And sometimes, that's nice. Sometimes silly is good. And who better than to run this campy train the James Spader, who says every line like he's teaching English as a second language. Who stares lasciviously at furniture. This man was born for camp, made for silly. Graham Chapman's general would have a stroke just trying to keep up.


This show has a really interesting concept ruined by poor plotting and lazy character work. The family of a surgeon, Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), is held hostage by an ex-hostage negotiator, Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott), until the surgeon kills the President of the United States. This show sits on its concept in the same way a fat clown sits on an Edvard Munch painting. Every opportunity for tension and subtlety is buried under characters that appear to be pulled from completely different shows. Instead of showing how a normal family confronts such terror, we have the son dealing drugs, the dad cheating, and the daughter seeing the standard dangerous boyfriend. But all these character details seem so inconsequential given the fact that men in ski masks are putting guns to their heads. Yet, down the line, I’m sure we’ll see these subplots bubble up and run head to head with the hostage situation in ways that are, best case scenario, wacky.

The show eventually shows us its hand towards the end of the pilot. Ellen Sanders will not be so easily trapped, and she finds ways to fight back. And thus begins the battle of the wits between a brilliant surgeon and her brilliant captor that will take up the rest of season 1. This really does interest me. Of course, then there’s some big conspiracy and the President is actually evil. I’m not opposed to evil presidents and conspiracies on principal. This show could be so good if it went for some semblance of realism, and if it were about nothing more than the interactions between four captors and their four hostages – the family, living out their lives to avoid suspicion, the captors constantly managing the family. But I don’t think the writers have talent (let alone the chutzpah) to pull that off. So, they wave a bunch of standard family crisis tropes and political conspiracy tropes at you and hope you don’t notice they are squandering a goldmine.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


See my review for Dads. Replace all instances of the word “Dad” with “Mom.” Replace all instances of “Seth Green” with “Anna Faris” and “Peter Riegert” with “Allison Janney.” And that's about it.

Monday, September 23, 2013


I think your taste in sitcom says a lot more about you than your taste in almost anything else. A guy tells me his favorite sitcom is How I Met Your Mother, I know right away, he is hopelessly romantic, obnoxiously self-aware, and probably a little disappointed with life. If a guy tells me his favorite sitcom is Fox’s new Dads, I know that he is unabashedly mean. The premise of the show is basically that these two successful guys have dads who are straight up terrible people and yet they let their dads manipulate them because at the end of the day, their dads love them, which is stupid in ways I’m sure I don’t need to explain to anyone who’s older than nine.

What really infuriates me about Dads is that the show wants us to laugh at something that’s really not funny at all. There’s one scene where Eli (Seth Green) confronts his father, David (Peter Riegert), about some pretty serious cases of neglect and abuse when Eli was a kid. His father proceeds to make jokes out of what his son is saying and Eli actually says “It’s not funny dad. You can’t just make a joke out of everything.”

Now, this would all be well and good were it not for the fact that there’s a laugh track after every one of his father’s jokes. But, aside from the pretend live audience no one is laughing when Eli’s father makes excuses for emotionally damaging his son. This is the problem: Single camera sitcoms are inherently better when we’re all laughing together. Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, MASH. They were laughing and so were we. There was life, which was sad and wonderful and everything in between, and then there were funny attractive people, making jokes about life’s great mysteries that we could laugh at. Here, we just have awful people who don’t think any of this is very funny, and we’re supposed to laugh at them. Why? Because I guess racism and abuse are supposed to be funny.

And it’s a shame Dads was so terrible, because I actually am in love with Seth Green (he just doesn’t know it yet). I think he’s a brilliant comic and dramatic actor and in my imagination, he’s been spending these last ten years since he left Buffy waiting for the role that will let him really spread his wings as an actor. Or, possibly, he’s just given up. I’m not sure. But, regardless, he deserves better than Dads. We all deserve better than Dads.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I’m going to come right out and say it: This is an exquisite sitcom. The premise is solid and simple; a precinct in Brooklyn with a smart but childish detective, Jake Peralta (played by Andy Samberg), falls under the new leadership of a reserved, by-the-book captain, Ray Holt  (played by Andre Braugher). But the execution is masterful. The fact of the matter is that almost every sitcom is a slave to jokes per minute. It is the quantifiable measurement of the show’s success. But how do you keep the jokes flying when someone has been murdered? Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s answer is simple: the main character has the emotional maturity of a 10 year old. Not only does this allow for even the darker moments to stay comical, it also makes a strange kind of sense. A man-child, incapable of really feeling the emotional weight of someone’s death would likely be well equipped to solve the murder.

But I don’t want you to get the idea that this is the ‘Andy Samberg Show.’ It isn’t. It’s an ensemble piece at heart. The real shining star here is Andre Braugher who shows that his typical severity can be played for laughs just as well as it was ever played for drama. And, without spoiling anything, there’s a terrific moment where he subverts all expectations about his character marvelously.

And that was why Brooklyn Nine-Nine really caught my attention. There was actual character development beyond wacky cop and straight-laced cop. There was also an actual murder case being solved, but without the typical dozen red herrings of hour-long dramas. I found that oddly refreshing. Once you start writing about cops without really giving a damn about the mystery, their lives become so much more interesting.

At this point, I’ve seen hundreds of murder mysteries on TV, and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve actually been genuinely surprised by the outcome. But that does’t mean we should stop making cop shows. In fact, Brooklyn Nine-Nine makes a compelling case that there are far more stories about cops to be told when the mystery doesn’t really matter.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Sleepy Hollow

There is something almost irreconcilably dumb about the premise of Sleepy Hollow. A Revolutionary War soldier is transported from the past to present day at the same time as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, who he was ordered to kill by George Washington. There are also witches, and magic, and demons, and the Illuminati. It seems that we live in a day and age where it’s really tough to make a TV show unless it’s based on some pre-existing material. So, while there’s nothing wrong with a campy show about a town prone to supernatural calamity (like say, Buffy), you can hear this show groaning as it attempts to fit into the premise of Sleepy Hollow set in modern day.

Beyond the show’s unspeakably stupid premise there are a number of pilot sins that I’m surprised veterans like Kurtzman and Orci (Fringe, Alias) are making. There’s the obligatory “I just met you, let me tell you an emotional story about my past,” moment. There’s the “I’m a cop who apparently has no idea how police procedure works so I want you to put this man in a mental institution without charging him with anything because I feel like it,” scene which caused some serious shoe throwing. And of course, “I’m a police officer who dictates all my super secret research on witches, in case I’m needed as an exposition device after my death.” I could go on, but it hurts to do this.

So, you’d think, given all the poor choices and dumb-as-nails premise, this show would be a headless mess, and yet… It’s surprisingly not entirely horrible. Its one saving grace is the chemistry between the two leads. Ichabod (Tom Mison) and cop lady Abbie (Nicole Beharie) have a rapport that it immediately strong and very watchable. Ichabod is charming, she’s plucky and strong. These two are surely going to develop into one of the stronger TV couples.

So, optimistically, this show will become a typical supernatural procedural with a little Freemason/Illuminati conspiracy angle and a damned charming lead actor. On the other hand, it could try to be a twist-filled mega-story, eventually crumbling under the weight of its own stupid convoluted premise. Unfortunately, these are the Alias writers, who basically wrote the manual on how to shove a show up its own ass, so I’m not getting my hopes up.

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