Monday, June 03, 2013

New Spring TV Shows

1600 Penn-For a show topic as ambitious as depicting the shenanigans of the President's family, 1600 Penn is pretty lukewarm.

Still, it's a dependable type of lukewarm, which is enough to make my schedule on many an off-night.

Josh Gad (the show's co-creator) plays the lead as first son Skip Gilchrest who lags behind the rest of the family in the smarts department. He's portrayed as a big lug with a heart of gold and an impulse control problem. He's the perfect example of a character too  over-the-top to carry a show as a lead and would best be suited as a sidekick rather than a side character.

Elsewhere in the family, we have Bill Pulliam as President Matt Gilchrest. Pulliam, who played a much better president in "Independence Day", would probably fare about as well as Mitt Romney or John Kerry if he were running in real life. He's got the broad-shouldered sturdy presidential look and sounds presidential but seems kind of bland and uninspiring. As Gillchrest Senior, Pullman's main job is to sigh heavily and look stressed out that of all people in the world, he's the one who has to run the country.

First lady Jenna Elfman is the second wife and stepmom and isn't too much of a deviation from her Dharma character in Dharma and Greg. This isn't that good of a fit considering she's the wife of the President and cracking sarcastic jokes and making all sorts of gaffes. They try to lampshade her lack of presidentialness by having her directly address a visiting schoolgirl's allegations that she's a trophy wife in the pilot episode.

Legit-The show is highly reminiscent of "Wilfred" in that an Australian representing unfettered id teaches an uptight American (or two) to loosen up.

You would think that Legit would pale in comparison considering no one dresses up like a dog, but I found something refreshingly unconventional in this breezy ride about a guy who doesn't take his life too seriously. Comedian Jim Jefferies doesn't have the most unique voice in the world but the series does a good job at being congruent with that voice.

Jefferies basically plays himself: a comedian from Australia who gets his entire income from doing less than five hours of stand-up comedy a week. He uses his free time to go on mundane adventures with his two new roommates: Middle-aged divorcee Steve (Dan Bakkhedal), who gradually becomes more unbalanced as the show wears on, and Steve's paraplegic younger brother Billy (DJ Qualls). The show earns points for treating a handicapped character as if it is a non-issue.

While the show is unapolagetically mundane, there's a slightly deeper subcurrent underneath as Jim and his roommate gradually negotiate how to be good to each other and how to be better people. For the most part, Jim isn't on a mission to better his life, succeed at a career or find true love. That's pretty refreshing.

Its not a ground-breaking show and won't ever reach the pantheon of great TV but its consistent and has a firm idea of its direction. The chemistry of the main trio is strong enough that the characters developed to the point that the season finale was genuinely emotional.

Bates Motel-Vera Farminga is excellent as always as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore (who played Johnny Depp's nine-year-old muse in "Finding Neverland") plays future mentally off killer Norman Bates in this prequel to "Psycho."

In its efforts to slowly disentangle the "why" and the "who" of Norman Bates, the series is rife with nuggets for a budding psych major to have a field day with. More often that not, however, its just a breezy small-town drama with fascinating characters, most of whom are concealing a dark side.
About a third of the screentime is devoted to the protagonist's experiences navigating high school where he's involved in a love triangle in addition to a relationship with a benevolent English teacher that's rife with sexual tension. These scenes play like "Dawson's Creek" with eerie music.

The main drawback of the series is that, like "American Horror Story Asylum", the writers decided to throw every imaginable form of small-town vice into a hodgepodge to create a muddled portrait of the kind of dark environment Norman grew up with, that led to him turning psycho.
We don't need to have a mom's boyfriend who ended up becoming a sex trafficker, a town gripped with vice, a raping of Norma that Norman personally witnessed, another man (Jere Burns) threatening Norma's life, a father who mysteriously died, a clingy mother who discourages your independence, a brother with potentially violent impulses, AND your teenage crush's father being set on fire while you're waiting for school one day. One or two of these causes are sufficient enough to result in Norman going psycho.

Needlessly creating a scenario where nearly everyone in town turns out to be a vile person with an evil motive brings diminishing returns more than anything else. It's almost as if the writers aren't sure which evil plot to go with so they decided to try a little bit of everything.

On the whole, the quasi-enchanting atmosphere and characters have made Bates Motel a very worthwhile show and the season finale left me hopeful that the writers might have had some grand plan at hand.

The Americans-This is definitely an exciting show that has a lot going for it: historic detail, a cat-and-mouse element, suspense, serialization, and a wonderful performance by Keri Russell that has the potential to reinvent her as the Jennifer Garner of the 2010's.

The plot holes in the premise, however, are enormous. The couple (Russell and Matt Rhys) are a pair of KGB spies who have been married 15 years and they are only now beginning to question issues such as whether they love each other? It also would be difficult for them not to see through
Communist propaganda when they can literally see with their own eyes that the US isn't as much of a proletariat Hell it's been described as. If there was some event that happened while Elizabeth and Phil were in the US to renew their hatred of the mainland or some self-realization that "hey, maybe America's not that bad?" I could better get on board the reality of this series, but the show doesn't do much of either.

If Elizabeth and Phil do have any doubts (the latter does when the prospect of defection money presents itself), it's possible that they would have them 15 years after living in the US, but wouldn't all of Phil and Elizabeth's doubts and internal conflicts be so much easier to swallow if it was just a few years that they'd been in the country.

Another big plot hole: Phil and Elizabeth have two kids who don't know they're spies? How could that have possibly been a good idea. It encourages, or rather requires, intimacy between two people who are supposed to avoid emotional attachments for professional purposes. It takes one of the best female agents in the KGB out of commission for nine months or more. It makes them have to work ten times as hard to keep their cover since they're now under surveillance in their own home every day when their kids come home from school. Lastly, it makes them more entrenched within the American social infrastructure since that's who's raising their kids. Oh yes, and it provides counterspies with instant kidnap bait. All this justifies looking a little less inconspicuous?

Final Verdict: 1600 Penn was cancelled and not surprisingly so.  It was beginning to lose narrative steam. Ill go on record, however, as saying it wasn't completely unwatchable. Legit qualifies as a guilty pleasure. Americans has been the most ambitious and has the most potential for a bright future if it works out some of its kinks. It could potentially gain if it had a fewer quieter episodes like Breaking Bad did with "Fly" The best viewing experience I had among these four was Bates Motel.

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