Friday, October 21, 2011

Fall Preview III: Up All Night, Prime Suspect, Terranova and the topic of originality

Up All Night-I am about as interested in this TV show as I am listening to some couple at a family reunion showing me baby photos and talking all about the cute little boy. Yes, I understand this show inverts that notion and explores how parenthood can be surprisingly difficult but that's not exactly news either.

Personally, I would much rather see Will Arnett taking creative risks with Mitch Hurwitz ("Running Wilde" is just on hiatus #Holdingout), even if the results aren't entirely satisfying. Arnett just feels creatively neutered here in generic sitcomland.

If the show is going to be this generic, my sensibilities might be less offended if a laugh track were put in. As it stands, the single camera format communicates to me that the show's creators think that what they're doing is edgy.

The show breaks from the A-premise occasionally with a B-premise that centers around new mom Christina Applegate as a production assistant at an Oprahesque talk show. Oprah is predictably played by Maya Rudolph (although it's nice to see her on TV again). The show would be better served by devoting more time to this world, except for the fact that you could then criticize "Up All Night" for being a lesser clone of "30 Rock" or the film "Knocked Up."

I hear other critics being quick to praise this, but the show doesn't show much promise to me.

Prime Suspect-Just like comedy, TV dramas like to play it safe. They stick to the same kind of professions for their characters (doctors, lawyers, and cops, oh my!) and emulate the style of other successful shows in that format. These shows are commonly referred to as "procedurals."

Procedurals create a marketing paradox of sorts: You don't want to advertise yourself as being entirely different from the other cop/lawyer/doctor shows but you don't want to make it look like the writer simply cut and pasted a script of Grey's Anatomy and just changed the names around.

What they usually do to navigate that different/same dichotomy is to present themselves as the same concept with edgier characters. The start of this trend might have been "The Closer" which presented itself as (imagine Don LaFontaine saying it) "A cop show..featuring a detective who's pretty, female, and tough and if that weren't enough, she has a southern accent."

Look at Prime Suspect's promotional materials on the NBC website:
"The series stars Maria Bello ("A History of Violence") as tough-as-nails NYPD homicide Detective Jane Timoney, an outsider who has just transferred to a new squad where her new colleagues already dislike her. Jane is confident and focused - and also rude, abrupt and occasionally reckless. She has her vices, and rumors of a questionable past follow her everywhere - but at the end of the day, she's an instinctively brilliant cop who can't be distracted from the only important thing: the prime suspect."

Mario Bello's Jane Timoney is far from the first or last character to copy the same sets of attributes of another successful character. USA Network has built a factory of shows modeled on Monk: Exiled [Profession: spy, doctor, cop, lawyer, investigator, white collar worker] who has [obsessive compulsive disorder/too much of a conscience/a crazy dad who scarred him/an unknown enemy in the CIA who burned him] which prevents him from entering his profession in the mainstream, so he must resort to doing his job on a freelance basis outside of the establishment while discovering [the identity of his wife's killer/how to build a better relationship with his dad/how to connect to his brother and find love again/the identity of the man who burnt him] so he can be complete again.

Ultimately, "Prime Suspect" exists so that you can pass an hour in front of the TV without expending too much brain power. It's like eating a protein bar in lieu of a homecooked meal (for this analogy to work, I'm suggesting the goal here is eating a hearty and tasty meal and not a nutritional goal. The protein bar could very well be more healthy for you than the meal).

Terra Nova, on the other hand, has an ambitious concept. That's already a step up from a procedural. The show initially takes place in the year 2149 where the planet has been sufficiently ravaged by environmental destruction due to the pressures of overpopulation. The frontier in this show isn't space but time. A portal is discovered in space-time that allows people to travel back several million years to the Mesozoic Era where our protagonist family goes to begin a new life. The theme of redemption is especially fitting for the father, a former cop who went to prison for overpopulating the planet (A wonder Lionel Richie hasn't already been arrested for this *rimshot*) (the max in this universe is two kids, he had three. Why the mother didn't also go to prison, I'm not sure).

With this blog post centering around the discussion of procedurals and originality, I find two things ironic about the dad figure. First, he's a former cop and in one of the three episodes I've seen him in, he's solving a murder. Second, the character is played by Jason O'Mara who's credits have consisted largely of procedural shows: "Life on Mars" (although that show did have a time-travelling twist), "In Justice," and "The Agency." If my thesis is that procedurals are bad for TV, I'd have to add a corollary that while it's bad for TV viewers, it's financially the opposite for the networks so it is touch to avoid getting a high-concept sci-fi show like this on the air without working in elements of a procedural.

Somewhat. It's family-centered but doesn't have a very strong family. Of the three children, middle child Maddy (Naomi Scott) seems the strongest so far. She's charming on screen and in terms of plot dynamics, she's believably inquisitive which can add tension in plots. In one episode in particular, Maddy was an effective Nancy Drew character. Other than her, the younger child doesn't have much to do except be cute and precious and the older child (Landon Liboiron) is the typical rebellious son who exposes his father's weaknesses.

What is intriguing is the concept, but I hope the show picks up the pace in terms of captivating plots and makes the family element more exciting.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fall Preview II: Pan Am and Playboy Club

My Latest Article at The Expanding Dumping Ground of Films

Two Shows which Often Get Reviewed Together:

Playboy Club:A lot of the special interest groups you might expect protested this ill-fated show and as strange as it may sound, I put myself in that category to an extent. I find any celebration of Hugh Heffner as a creative genius to be misplaced and tasteless. Heffner was a guy (even though he's not yet dead, I feel he's best discussed in the past tense) who lived out his sexual fetishes because he's rich and because (for a variety of reasons unknown to me because I'm not inclined to research it) he was able to get away with it. I don't think there is anything notable in that. There are a lot of guys who'd live Hugh's decadent lifestyle if they had the money and could get away with it too.

In short, it's hard to be invested in a series based on the debate over whether the Playboy Club was good or bad for society, when you just don't care either way.

So if you strip all that way, this is essentially a workplace drama (albeit a very odd workplace) and a period piece set in the '60s and not too bad of one at that.

With the exception of the male lead, who is so obviously trying to emulate Jon Hamm's stoic blankness, the characters were fairly interesting. Amber Head as the novice bunny Maureen is pretty decent casting and through her, one can see this show as a fairly gripping girl-trying-to-make-it on her own story. Laura Benanti, the playboy bunny with the most seniority, is a formidable foil to Maureen, but she's a little broadly drawn. Why does she care if the playboy bunnies hook up with her clients? If she has such an accute business sense, why does she want to be head bunny and sing up on stage, rather than remain behind the scenes or just start her own nightclub?

The sexual tension and relationship dynamics between the characters are surpriginsly interesting to me, since sex is present everywhere and in everything and I assume the guys have such easy access to it here. How do you define a menaingful sexual interaction or even a meaningful flirtation when it's already a paid commodity and accessible?

The pilot and the next couple episodes wisely focused on something that had nothing to do with the Playboy Club (since that doesn't interest me): Maureen accidentally murdered a mob boss and she has to cover it up.

Pan Am:
No matter how many times I've been on a plane, the experience of flying still remains glamorous for me and that even includes waiting in the terminal and going through security.

With that in mind, it's hard to dislike this show and I suspect a lot of people will latch on to that sense of glamour. Despite using an actual plane, the production values don't strike me as particularly amazing. It might be just me but the score seems too Hallmarkish, the plane's a little too well-lit, Berlin looked like it was shot in Toronto.

If the show is anything like the first and third episode I saw, then the show's format is as follows: The first act is the flight's outbound flight from JFK, the second act is the flight back to JFK, the third through fifth acts (the meat of the plot) consist of flashbacks to what the girls were up to on their layover, and the finale is the plot resolving back on the plane as they're landing at JFK.

Christina Ricci, the biggest name in the ensemble, plays an attractive character in Maggie. She seems to be into the countercultural movement and a sort of emblem of the free-spirited decade. It's because of her spunky and unpredictable nature that I enjoyed the subplot of her trying to meet Kennedy. I think we can all relate with similar experiences trying to meet famous people.

As much as stewardesses (particularly of old) were associated with sex symbols, the Berlin episode wisely makes a couple moves to show these woman as empowered but not dislikable. Maggie flirts and befriends a journalist in order to get into a press conference but makes it clear she won't trade sex for a front row seat. Also, newbie Laura (Margot Robbie) rejects the advances of one of the co-pilots.

The episodes provide an excuse for a hodgepodge of stories about these characters in a time and place which hasn't been particularly disappointing so far. More than a number of other shows, I do question how many plots they can derive out of this show, but if shows like "Chuck" or "Gilligan's Island" can stretch a thin premise, I'll wait and see.

One slightly awkward part of the third episode was how lightly it treated the plot wherin French stewardess Colette (Karine Vanasse) comes to terms with her childhood in World War II. This should have been "Sophie's Choice"-level drama and didn't fall short by a lot, but still. Likewise, when Kate (Kelli Garner) makes a life-threatening mistake in her espionage activities, I can't imagine the show will all of a sudden turn into 24.

All in all, a pretty decent show worth checking out.

Coming Up: Up All Night, New Girl, H8ters, 2 1/2 Men and possibly Murhy's Law

Ricci as Maggie is already a fairly well-developed character

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall TV Preview Pt. I: Last Man Standing, 2 Broke Girls, Free Agents

Last Man Standing
My main preconception for this show was that its reason for existence was that TV executives feel the universe is severely misaligned if anyone who has ever helmed a successful TV show ever isn't currently on network television (see Bill Cosby, Jeff Tambour, Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball, etc.) in some form or another.

I also felt that while Home Improvement entertained me as a 10-year old, it probably would not hold up to a grown-up audience which, for better or worse, I am now a part of.

However, ten minutes of this show changed my opinion pretty quickly. I now think that there's always room for a by-the-numbers family comedy in the prime time schedule (Modern Family is too clever and therefore disqualified form this category) and even if he's not treading in vastly dangerous waters with this familiar role, Tim Allen is giving me what I need.

It's odd that both this show and "Home Improvement" have Tim Allen playing roles of highly empowered middle men: They both have hiring and firing power but answer to a company owner. On "Home Improvement", Allen was the host of his own TV show but his boss was the head of the Binford Tool Company. Why a TV show would be owned by a single sponsor is beyond me. That would mean that every Tool Time commercial ad would be for Binford tools like the "George Burns and Grace Allen Show" had commercials and in-show promotions consist entirely of carnation milk.

The show is an interesting twist on "Home Improvement" in that Allen has three girls instead of boys. The dynamics are a little better this way with less of Allen's character revolving around his infections manliness and also has the benefit of positioning the mom (Nancy Travis) as less of a foil to be subverted (poor Patricia Richardson). The show has an even more interesting twist in that the oldest kid is a single mom. The show earns big points for downplaying this facet to her character rather than branding her as a Hester Prynne incarnate (Ellen Wernecke will be so proud of me for throwing in a literary reference!).

Lastly, the pilot episode seemed relevant to the economic climate of today with Tim Allen's job in danger. Here's hoping the show maintains that sense of instability. That would be an interesting ride.

[Update: Just have to mention that the show does not hold up after that many episodes. Quit watching this one about three weeks later]

Two Broke Girls:
My review for this show (after two episodes) will be short and simple, because there's not much to the show:
It really hearkens back to old-timey sitcoms which I would loosely translate as a TV show with little complexity in its humor.

Most good sitcoms today are loaded with multi-layered complexity with their jokes. Brick jokes, call backs, and running gags lead to punchlines that can take an entire episode to set up. In contrast, every laugh in a sitcom like "Two Broke Girls" never requires more than two lines of set up at the most (I didn't scientifically measure this, feel free to point out any counterexamples in the comments).

Still, while the jokes might not require me to focus on all 22 minutes but the story in the two episodes I watched were good enough to keep me glued.

I have to confess that because I didn't see the pilot, I'm not entirely sure why the rich heiress roommate is suddenly poor. No matter, the odd couple chemistry is sparking and the premise is a unique enough angle to induce my curiosity.

Besides anything with the wonderful Kat Dennings (from "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist") is worth a glance. The ensemble is pretty strong except for restaurant employee Oleg who's an all-purpose source of ethnic humor. [Update: What was I thinking when I wrote this and praised the backup ensemble? The entire ensemble is awful although it's hard to react that negatively to Garrett Morris (one of the seven original cast members of SNL). The show's Chinese restaurant owner character is equally as bland as Oleg, and while it's terrific that the show was able to snag someone from the Christopher Guest theater company in Jennifer Coolidge, I've never seen such a capable comic actor stripped of any of their potential]

Free Agents
I'm not familiar with what direction this show took after the pilot (yes, I know it was cancelled), but the first episode had a sort of artificial slickness to it that came off as schwarmy (fair warning: that might not be a real word. Perhaps, it could be?).

I can't think of a plausible reason why characters in Hank Azaria's office are talking about sex so much (including the board meeting) except that the company is a manufacturer of sexual innuendo. To the show's credit, a later scene in which a board meeting is called just to discuss Alex's (Azaria's) date is so ridiculous, you have to think that they're in on the joke (my third lampshading reference in a row!).

The show is also a little guilty of overly stylized dialogue reminiscent of "Studio 60." While the characters aren't nearly as homogeneous as that disaster of a TV show, they're all on the same page in trying to be as uber-hip as they can at all times of the day. Alex's secretary (Natasha Leggero) is too hip to actually act in any helpful capacity to him as it interferes with her lifestyle of being rude and snarky.

Hank Azaria is about as good of a choice for this role as you can get. His age and level of attractiveness are about right for the degree of self-doubt that the character is written with.

It was somewhat jarring that he'd elicit such curiosity about his sex life. As a character actor, Azaria is the definition of someone who's sex life you're supposed to be apathetic to because he's sharing screen time with a handsome leading man like Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom whom you're supposed to be thinking more of as a sexual being.

To further illustrate this point, let's try this hypothetical: Do you think when Paul Giamatti goes to a cocktail party, people want to hear all about his sexual escapades? Whether he's having sex or not, it's certainly not something that anyone would be interested in knowing, which is exactly why he gets cast in awkward dramedies or John Adams and other meaty character roles.

Kathryn Hahn (not really a well-known actress and liable to be confused with Catherine O'Hara) is just a tinge too witty (not as bad as the supporting players) as Helen, but she's not far from being a great lead. She pulls off some very honest and relatable moments and brings about the pilot's funniest moment when she vents out her frustration at a seemingly judgemental grocery store clerk.

Most importantly, the romance here makes sense for the characters. It was also a nice touch that the romance only started to feel genuine when Helen's independent woman persona crumbles in the third act.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Family Guy Review: Meg Griffin Fights Back

I've often heard complaints about the character of Meg Griffin on "Family Guy" and I wanted to touch on how the use of Meg is an example of Family Guy's strength.

For those that don't know (READ: Skip this paragraph if you're already familiar) , Meg is the middle child on the animated family sitcom and she's inexplicably the butt of her otherwise decent family's jokes. Her dad won't openly admit that he even likes his daughter. Aside from being not as attractive as her mother, no reason for this is ever given, and that incongruity is the source of humor.

Speaking of incongruity, isn't it ironic that the girl playing Meg is played in real life by an actress beautiful enough to convince movie going audiences that heart throb Justin Timberlake would be swooning all over her? In fact, considering Hollywood's obsession with the question "Is a beautiful actress capable of truly embodying the soul of a not-so-beautiful woman?", then either a) Mila Kunis is more worthy of an Oscar than Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman because she's really nailing the whole ugly thing better than "Monster" and "The Hours" or b) perhaps, it's not that hard to play ugly and it says more about our male perception of outward beauty that it's such an issue.

OK, enough philosophizing* and let us get back to my theory on why Meg is written the way she's written:

*Yes, I enjoyed spelling that word wrong for stylistic purposes

Look at the E! Hollywood True Story of any family sitcom and you'll see that behind the scenes, the Seaver kids on Growing Pains or the Winslow kids on Family Matters (two of whom got written out of the show entirely) or the Taylor kids on Home Improvement were all battling for equal story lines (or rather their agents and parents).

When a sitcom is in development and the cast is getting hired, it's really difficult to tell which characters will be breakout stars and catch on with the audience. The writers will probably focus on the parents and service the kids by devoting an episode to each of them with care. For whatever reason, audiences will inevitably respond to different characters differently, and this could become especially jarring for the actors playing the kids. They are far less able to professionally or personally recover from failure than the actors playing their parents (usually established stars like Bill Cosby or Tim Allen). Already secondary characters, the kids could get written out of the show or usually significantly marginalized.

Meg was written poorly in the first couple seasons (to be fair, Chris hasn't really grown as a character past the obligatory Chris episode) and rather than try harder to develop her, the writers went the opposite way and decided to use her as a stand-in for every underwritten child character ever. It's what we in the TV blogging business call lampshading.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, "Family Guy" is a pretty big target of criticism when compared to the works of Matt Groening or the South Park boys. Comparisons aside, I always find McFarlane to be not just genre-savvy but consistently able to utilize it for laughs.

As for the last week's episode, "Seashell Seashore Party," it was highly uneven. Beyond a curiosity to see how well Family Guy's animation team could go all-out Tim Burton, the plot didn't start kicking in until the 3rd act. How weird was that?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Retroactively Looking at Five Episodes of Parks and Recreation

This blog entry is based on brief impressions of Parks and Recreation episodes on 2nd viewing. A lot changes the 2nd time around:

Pawnee Zoo:
I can’t think of any show that had characters intersect with each other so awkwardly in the first season and turned those awkward interactions around into such strong dynamics.

In particular, Leslie Knope is so annoyingly enthusiastic and wears her heart on her sleeve so much, that it’s hard to imagine her as anything more than mildly tolerable among the other department members. The show even got significant criticism at the start over the fact that Leslie Knope and Michael Scott were too similar. They were both aloof enough not to get that they are an object of ridicule.

While Season two deserves a lot of praise for gradually making Knope a more likeable person and charismatic leader without a complete retcon, the season premiere shows that the transition isn’t complete yet. More specifically, Knope’s tirade on the local TV station stretched credibility a little too much for me. Her other awkward moment, performing Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, is the most cringe-inducing thing I’ve ever seen Leslie do, but it was played with enough distancing irony that it came off a little better.

The episode also featured the introduction of April’s two boyfriends and reminds me just how ironically hip of a character she used to be. It’s amazing that even as April’s grown, those traits are still present in her character.

Andy’s relationship with Anne was originally a plot device to get Anne more involved in the pit. Now that we know more about Andy and Anne, it certainly raises the question of how Andy ever convinced Anne to go out with her in the first place.

Summer Catalog:
This episode was interesting to look at from the point of the series’ mythology and how much it expects us to realistically identify with it. In the episode, Leslie gets really excited because the four living Parks and Recreation directors are all going to meet at one place and time. Although Leslie treats these people as indistinguishable from US Seceretaries of State, it’s fairly apparent that at some point, the reality will sink in (at least for us, if not for Leslie) that these men are just ordinary guys without any pretensions of greatness.

This highlights a balancing act that “Parks and Recreation” has to achieve. The show is an exploration of the trials and tribulations of government. To be effective towards that end, the happenings in Pawnee can work as a parallel for the happenings in Washington that we read about in the news. But this only works to an extent. The people in the national news are public figures and using Leslie’s inflated opinion of her department to justify the heightened scandal-like drama in certain episodes only goes so far before it strains the show's credibility.

In this case, the fact that it hit Leslie rather early on that these guys were big jerks helped restore that balance fairly quickly.

The best two things about this episode is how quickly they established the three other parks directors as comic characters and how they didn’t overdo it. Only one of the three Parks directors (the misogynistic one) could be classified as a bona fide wacko. The apathetic director was close to normal and the pot head that pushed his philosophies a little too forcefully into conversations fell somewhere in the middle. I got the general feeling that they didn’t just treat these characters as a game of Party Quirks on “Who’s Line is it Anyway.”

94 Meetings:
It’s tough to say which episodes of a series are standout and I can’t imagine there’s ever much consensus in the same vein that great movies or TV series are more agreed upon. I suspect different plots will hit people different ways.

Personally, I thought this episode was fantastic because it was a clever plot that leant itself to a lot of great situations. At various points, the show pushes storylines beyond the realm of believability. April actually fooling a complaintant with the line "Come back at 2:65"? Or worse, angry citizens being content to meet with a nurse not affiliated with the department or the shoeshine boy.

The way that Anne is worked into plots so often is something that I think the show deals with through lampshading (defined as drawing attention a plot hole so you let the audience you know you’re in on the joke).

Both the A-plot and the B-plot are strong here. Leslie’s fight for historic preservationism is right up her alley, and I preferred the confrontation with Leslie and the former Ms. Pawnee to cold tension. Her final scene of crashing the party once more was a step backwards in her evolution. Leslie’s chaining herself to the fence would have also been a little extreme except for the fact that it had no consequences in terms of future hostility between her and the citizens of Pawnee: Her friends (combined with the nature of the fence) saved her from making too much of a fool of herself.

Just like April, I’m reminded of how little Tom Haverford has changed. Even if he’s married or has a girlfriend, he still embodies that same persona of the guy who wants to be the club VIP. He’s redeemed from being a sad character through the fact that it’s obvious he has strong friendships.

Viewing this episode, I’m also reminded of executive producer how Mike Schur's sediment that he loves romances and feels a show has to have them. Parks and Recreation has dealt with romance incredibly well. The Ben-Leslie relationship was thankfully dissolved before it started [ed. note: I must have fully not caught up to the show on itunes/netflix since this was written, because this isn't the case]. I don’t know if I can forgive the show for allowing it to be given so much focus in the first place, but it also made sense retroactively since we discover that Ben is really a shy dork which makes him perfect for Lselie. I also love how quickly the relationship dissolved.

Another good example: Marrying off Andy and April. Typical boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are a dime a dozen but newlyweds like Any and April who are barely functioning adults?  That’s another story.

Anne’s three boyfriends, on the other hand, seem to have occurred solely because the writers wanted to add a romantic relationship and she was the odd man out. She had little to no organic connection between Andy, Mark, and Chris and it didn’t further the plot along at all. One possible excuse for these relationships, however, is it allowed her to be involved in office affairs more. I’m hoping that in this coming season, she might just be allowed in Office affairs on the basis of her best friend working there. Ironically, Rashida Jones has stated in interviews that she was attracted to the show for the strong female friendship between Anne and Leslie. I could see the show functioning just as well if Anne was asexual or had her relationships off-screen.

Watching these episodes over again reminds me just how much Ben is a fish out of the water. There are a number of subtle signs to this effect that I gleamed on second viewing. He’s not sure about the culture of the department and whether he should take Leslie’s request seriously that they all brainstorm ideas. He doesn’t really know what to do with downtime on the camping trip as opposed to Tom (the guy who's most comfortable anywhere) who’s off making fondue and watching TV. .

The dynamic between Ben and Tom works really well here. Ben’s just a passive grounded guy who observant of what’s around him (he’s somewhat of an audience surrogate) and Tom’s the most ridiculous character he sees.

Chris is a little cartoonish but he worked in terms of providing comic relief and mixing things up. I wouldn’t classify him as a character to be taken with the same level of realism as the core group in the Parks and Recreation Department.

Again, the “What’s Ann doing here?” problem is apparent here.

This episode also had some really funny moments. Ron and Jerry’s conversation definitely was out there. The humor also picked up nicely in the third act (as it’s traditionally supposed to) with the bed and breakfast and the elderly proprietor's extremely early breakfast time (which April wouldn’t have any of). The episode's most memorable moment was once again comes from the burgeoning Tom-Ben bromance: The entry in journal that united Tom and Ben in a nice little moment of shared horror.

Fancy Party:
For my money, this is the high-water mark of the series. Typically wedding episodes are big and all the emotional grandeur of the wedding episode is here. When April sheds tears at her sister's speech (note to self if you ever get a chance in hell to interview Aubrey Plaza: Ask how she summoned those tears), it was a moment we genuinely felt. At the same time, the tone was small and casual. It was even a little claustrophobic.

Andy was such a sweet guy and if he hasn't won you over, how about his cute grandmother?

Even though the episode functioned primarily dramatically, in the sense that it was all about the emotional uplift, it never ceased to be funny. Tom and Jean Ralphio attempting to make the perfect toast was a high point in that department.

Also, it was Ben's finest moment to date. In Season 4, he's become the socially stunted dork. In season 3, he was the only sane man in the room and consummate outsider. A guy asks him if April is available and his reaction along with the line, "Her? She just got married twenty minutes ago. You were right here." Priceless.