Thursday, August 28, 2014

Red Band Society

I am wary of any show that sets out to be inspirational. Inspiring scenes are just moments of naked manipulation, and like most TV viewers, I want to be manipulated, but I don't want to see how you are doing it. Any one can slap a Coldplay song over shots of someone running and hit you right in the feels, but for real, long-lasting hope or inspiration, you need insight, and more importantly, honesty. And while, for the most part, this show focuses on the easy, placebo "inspiration," there are, hidden beneath, moments of real insight.

Red Band Society is a show about teenagers who are living in a hospital. They all have serious diseases and most of them have drawn the short straw in life, but they still manage to do the things that teenagers do in the world of TV. The show is narrated by a boy in a coma, overhearing the lives of his friends, but that gimmick winds up just being a lame excuse for excessive voice over (side note: what is going on with voice over in pilots this season?). The pilot focuses mostly on the new kid, Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), who has one last day before they amputate his cancer-ridden leg.

There are genuine moments of inspiration in this episode, and not the Coldplay or the quoting Henry V bullshit. For me, the inspiration comes in the form of simple exchanges, like two kids smoking a joint, or buying beer, or staring at a girl's legs. Moments of teenagers doing distinctly teenager-y things, despite the high drama of being at death's door.

I don't see this show lasting very long. It doesn't have enough drama or tension to really demand viewer loyalty, but even if it dies young, like a cancer-ridden child, it will at least have given us the actor Charlie Rowe.

Rowe plays Leo, the ringleader of the group, and he does so with a subtle charm that transcends the show's weak script. Which is a shame, because his talents are mostly wasted on this inspirational schlock.


A to Z

Boy, that was the worst episode of How I Met Your Mother I have ever seen. What's that you say? It wasn't an episode of How I Met Your Mother? How can that be? It had a man on a quest for true love! It had romance! It had a self-aware time-travelly gimmick! It even had the mother!


Granted, it didn't have any jokes, but it did have rough approximations of what jokes are supposed to look like. I think that should count.

Well, I've just consulted Wikipedia and it turns out this is actually a show called A to Z. And this show is about a quirky odd couple who fall in love but must overcome the many relationship hazards of dating in the modern world. According to the Wikipedia page, this show is a half-hour comedy, which is only half correct, unless you think saying the words "Scat Man" counts as comedy.

The story for this pilot is that these two lovebirds meet. And, despite having great chemistry and very nice teeth, they can't seem to get together because of horrible plot contrivances that make no sense. Once horrible plot contrivances are overcome by having a mature and adult conversation, they finally get to be together.

The one promising aspect of this show is that in the beginning, the narrator announces that they will only date for 8 months and the show will chronicle those 8 months. This would be exciting if it meant the show would end with them dying alone, but it won't. Season one will probably end with them getting engaged and then season two will chronicle the engagement and then the marriage. It's all very cloying and twee, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. How I Met Your Mother spent 8 seasons rubbing twee in your eyes until it burned, but along the way they made many many jokes. They rewarded your interest in their characters with laughter. The writers of A to Z seem to think they can take a shortcut, bypassing comedy and believable characters, and somehow get to the same ending. But the interesting letters are the ones between A and Z.


Monday, August 11, 2014


I present to you, curious reader, this picture as a beacon of a hope. I would like you to remember this image when you sit down to watch the Outlander pilot (which I strongly recommend you do). Remember it during the not one, not two, but three entirely pointless sex scenes performed by the same boring couple. Remember it during the sloppy, tedious exposition. Remember it during the constant worthless voice-over. Remember it during the thirty-five minutes of bland, uninteresting television at the front end of this episode, because eventually, I promise you, something will actually happen.

Eventually, after more than half the episode has gone by at a drunken snail's pace, the good stuff will start. And by 'good stuff' I mean a mystical time-travelling, kilt-wearing, Scottish freedom-fighting soap opera. If that doesn't sound appealing to you, you may stop reading this and go back to watching True Detective and talking about how great Mathew Mcconaughey is. But, if this sounds like your kind of show, I'm glad. We should be friends.

The easy run-down of the story is that a plucky 1940s nurse winds up travelling back in time to 1800s Scotland, where she falls in with a group of Scotsmen and into the arms of this guy...
Once again, if this sounds like something you would rather avoid, go ahead and watch some more Walking Dead and tell me about how it's not as bad as it used to be.

But what makes this show stand out as far as soapy fantasy goes is that it does have a mind for details. The world of the Highlands, the mystery and fantasy of it all, it's applied with the kind of fervor and admiration birthed from intimate knowledge.

Unfortunately, the show ends before really getting into the fun new world it has established, which is a bummer, especially considering how much time they waste in the beginning. And I predict some challenges ahead for a show like this; for example: how to balance the requirements of paid cable (constant nudity/gore) with the show's whimsical tone, or how to keep Ronald D. Moore from ruining everything. But I have hope. There's love in the air, and kilts enough to go around.


The Knick

There are a lot of great things about Cinemax's new drama, The Knick. But first let's talk about how awful this font is.

It looks like the Dunkin' Donuts font. In a pilot, every single detail matters and opening with a font you copy-pasted from MS Paint is like beginning a 12-course meal by sucking on a rusty crowbar. 

Anyway, aside from the font problems, this was a pretty decent pilot. What interested me about it was that it had a reason to for its period setting. Often times, what brings about the downfall of a period piece is that it has no real compelling reason for its time period. For example, shows like Pan Am or Playboy Club certainly enjoyed their settings, but nothing about the stories they were telling made the setting necessary. Now, I'm not totally sure where The Knick is going but for this first episode, the year 1900 was crucial. 

The plot of this pilot is that the Knickerbocker's chief of surgery, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) has to hire a new deputy chief of surgery and the family that funds the hospital is insisting he hire an extremely well qualified black surgeon. Thackery dismisses it out of hand simply because the doctor is black. And what's interesting is that Thackery makes a very compelling argument for doing something so blatantly racist. Thackery is obsessed with saving lives. His objection to a black doctor is simple math. White people won't want treatment from a black doctor (remember, year 1900), and thus he will be able to save fewer lives. It's an interesting conundrum which pits Thackery against a rich, socially progressive family. And you wind up sort of rooting for the racist, because, despite how unfortunate it is for the poor black doctor, Thackery makes some valid points. 

The TV world has, for a long time, been obsessed with the question, "How terrible must a doctor be before he becomes isolated from the audience?" Shows like House MD and Scrubs played with this line, always pushing their Dr. Asshole farther and farther down the unforgivable rabbit hole while reminding us all that they are continually saving people's lives. But usually, the childish repugnant aspects of Dr. Asshole get in the way of their jobs, but not in The Knick. Here, Thackery is only as much an asshole as he has to be, given the world he is forced to operate in. 

All in all, this is an impressive pilot, when it comes to performance and style. With Soderberg behind the camera and Owen in front, you're never left in the charge of amateurs. But, as is the case with all TV, it's about making the most of your ingredients and so far this show has made terrific use of one ingredient: a time gone by, which is more than I can say for most shows.

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