Friday, January 9, 2015
It's tough writing reviews for pilots airing on Netflix or Amazon or any venue that presents you with every episode all at once. In one sense, I think a show really benefits from being able to craft a full season in one go. But, on the other hand, it means that the pilot frequently feels less like the show's mission statement and more like a first chapter. I don't see the point in reviewing a first chapter. That being said, Mozart in the Jungle does a lot of good work laying out the bizarre world of hardcore partying classical musicians. And it's a fun little world.
Based on the book, Mozart in the Jungle is about the strange inner workings of the classical music scene in New York City. A lot of humor is squeezed out of the contrast between the classical and the contemporary: downing shots between rounds of an oboe vs. flute play-off.
The show is written in part by Roman Coppola and Jason Shwartzman - and they bring their love of being young and understated in the big city - but their dialogue feels somehow muted in this setting. For all their musical virtuosity, the characters are a little one note. Everyone is surface level quirky, as opposed to Roman's usual deep inner quirkiness. The directing is odd. There's no consistent stylistic voice. At one point, the show slips into bizarre impressionistic visuals, at another point it uses 30 Rock-style cutaway gags. It keeps you on your toes, for sure, but it's also distracting and makes the whole episode feel disjointed.
All in all, if you like Girls and want something like that, but set in the New York classical music scene, you might dig this? I don't really know.
A word of advice: if you are going to remake King Lear, and set it in the world of hip hop, don't have one of your characters say, "What is this, King Lear?" It's not cute, it's lazy.
So, this is basically Dallas, but with hip hop instead of Country. And really bad hip hop, too. Every time someone plays a track and goes, "That's nice," I wonder if this is secretly a show about deaf people. But, to be fair, Timbaland isn't going to write his best stuff for a network drama. He's got Jay-Z on the other line. So, ignoring the horrible music this show made me listen too, I walk away a little mixed.
First, the good stuff: Taraj P. Henson. This woman is not messing around. She can chew the scenery and then, in a split second, become relaxed and comfortable. She sinks her teeth into the material, even if the material is paper thin. I love it that Henson makes the decision not to play her character like a madwoman, but like a woman who pretends to be mad. Being unpredictable gives her power, and she uses that power. More good stuff: addressing hip hop homophobia. This is a subject that deserves a little inspection and I appreciate the show for not pushing the gay artist into the background.
Now, the bad stuff: Terrence Howard. I like the guy, but this is a phoned-in performance. He delivers every line like he's asking a stranger for directions. He has been given a rich and complicated character who could be a villain or a tragic hero, depending on the performance, but Howard just plays him like a cameo. He is almost always framed in the middle of the scene, and he's like a black hole, so utterly devoid of all content that he destroys the scene around him. More bad stuff: the writing. Every scene was so transparent. Two characters arrive at a location, explain what they want, scheme an obvious plot and then move on. At a certain point, as long as I know who's in the scene, I know exactly what will happen.
One thing I can say for Empire's pilot is that it's clearly holding nothing back. Sometimes, pilots for epic soapy dramas can start a little piddling, but this isn't the case for Empire. There's lust, betrayal, and murder, all in the first episode. But this also demonstrates Empire's weakness. The show has shown its hand and there's not a whole lot to bet on.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
I think it's possible to appreciate the past without sliding into nostalgia. Every generation had a fresh new view of the world. I don't buy the whole "simpler times" bullshit. But I do think there were remarkable times. There is something charming in the birth of cinema, the first shaky steps we took into the visual medium, when everything was fresh and new and tying a damsel to a train track was down right inspired. This admiration for our storytelling roots is what gave us Raiders of the Lost Ark, every Wes Anderson film, and now, Agent Carter, the newest addition to Marvel's media blitzkrieg.
Agent Carter follows the thrilling adventures of Peggy Carter, who works for a mysterious government agency in post WWII America. The fact that she is Captain America's ex-girlfriend, or that this all somehow fits into the ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe is thankfully pushed to the background. What matters here is the thrilling adventures.
The first episode features exploding orbs, lethal hitmen with removed vocal chords, shady deals at fancy balls, and sci-fi technology made from typewriters and old razors. Agent Carter grabs a big armful of old school pulp storytelling, slips in some modern ideas on gender, and drops it in your lap. It's a blast (sometimes literally) to watch. And it has at its core a woman with enough emotional depth to keep the whole thing grounded.
If I had to pick what I liked the most about this pilot (which I'm having a very hard time doing), it would have to be Hayley Atwell's performance as the titular character. She is magnetic. And she's been given a character that makes perfect use of her blinding confidence as an actor. Carter is tough and practical, but what stands out for me is that she has no tacked-on flaws. The writers have smartly avoided giving her a run-of-the-mill weakness. She's not an asshole. She's not a mess at home. She's polite and kind, never relenting an inch in a world that is not particularly fair to single women in the work place. And she should be perfect. This is Captain America's girlfriend!
I also have to point out how much I love this pilot's approach to sexism. If you're going to make a period TV show, it's hard not to address this unfortunate part of American culture, especially in late 1940s America, where men were re-entering the work force and displacing thousands of women. But there's a line you have to tow: you can't ignore how sexist America was, but at the same time, you've got to make a point beyond "sexism is bad." I sometimes get very bored with Mad Men after the nth scene showing me how much it sucked to be a woman in the 1960s. This show proposes a simple solution: instead of sexism being the point of the show, it is simply one more obstacle standing between Agent Carter and saving the world.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
I like Dan Fogleman for the simplest of reasons: He is funny and he rarely infuriates me. If you are looking for something funny that won't make you terribly angry, then don't bother with the rest of this review. You can go watch Galavant and enjoy yourself.
But, if you are looking for anything deeper than a hearty chuckle and Timothy Omundson's soft shoe, then I fear you will be uniquely disappointed by Galavant. The story is fast paced and the songs are well written (because they're written by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater), but in the end, the show doesn't seem to have anything to say. It picks apart the cruelty of the medieval fantasy genre, but only for the purpose of a few laughs, and nothing else.
There is one moment in the beginning that borders on subversive when Galavant (Joshua Sasse) comes to rescue his girlfriend Madalena (Mallory Jensen) from being married to the wicked King Richard (Timothy Omundson) and she politely declines. This is something we rarely see in fantasy: in a time rife with poverty, war, and the plague, things like wealth and security are far more important than love. And the show could have made Madalena a very relatable character, but instead, she is portrayed as a greedy shrew. Ultimately the show condemns her for wanting something other than a man.
Galavant's horrible girlfriend is only one example of the many ways this show sashays to the edge of subversion before immediately backing away. And again, I must stress, this is not a condemnation of the show's production, acting, or plot. The show is functional, occasionally delightful. It's simply pointless. Galavant may wish it were Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but without a stronger effort to attack established fantasy cliches, Galavant will surely end up as the kind of tale that Monty Python was making fun of in the first place.