Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014 Review Sans Fall Season

A moderately exhaustive catch-up of pretty much everything I've seen this year before the Fall Season rolls around and I cover those shows. Some reviews will be very brief or I'll link you elsewhere. The shows are broken into categories:

Top tier: Shows that are firing on all cylinders

  1. Archer, FX-Even by today’s standards, Archer did something pretty bold by flipping the entire premise of its show. The ragtag spy agency previously known as ISIS (they allegedly sold the naming rights to a real-life band of Jihadists in Iraq or something like that) got disbanded and the characters became criminals for a full season. Comic possibilities quadrupled. (longer review)
  2. The Bridge, FX-The Bridge-Last season, "The Bridge" was a suspenseful ride, but the two aimless episodes between the conclusion of the first season and the actual season finale had me wondering where the show would go once the bad guy was put away. What I didn’t anticipate was that the show’s rich characters and sense of place were more than enough to carry the show regardless of the villain. What’s more, the second season nicely wove the aftermath of the David Tate plot along with the disparate side plots into a larger picture. The show continues to have a lot going for it: A well-paced plot, a touch on topical issues, and some of the most underrated characters on TV (Daniel Frye is who I now want to model myself after as a journalist. I even plan on going to the nearest bar and developing my own drinking problem after I finish writing this)
  3. Orange is the New Black, Netflix-As Piper became more comfortable with her environment and even began to take command of her surroundings, the show took on a more self-assured tone that could even be called optimistic. In the first season, pretty much everyone Piper bumped into at Litchfield was some version of your worst nightmare. The second season got interesting in the way it kept redirecting audience hatred towards a number of temporary villains (Mendez, Fig, Healy, Alex, Crazy Eyes all did despicable things at some point or another) before making themselves sympathetic once more and eventually redirecting us to one big bad. This show has also written and rewritten the textbook on ensemble pieces, both from the narrative (balancing focus on several characters) and the acting sides. (longer review)
  4.  Review, Comedy Central- Starring straight-man extraordinaire Andy Daly, the premise posits the show as a distant cousin of the "Truman Show" in the way that presenting a man's life choices being driven entirely by the demands of a media audience leads to some very deep satire. In this case, Daly is TV show host Forrest MacNeil who will review any life experience anyone tells him to without question. The cleverest thing about "Review" is how it drops clues towards the genesis to the show-within-a-show and the larger storyline about a somewhat overeager broadcaster being manipulated by a ruthless producer. Viewers are challenged to decipher these clues and it's not until the end of the season that some of the blanks are filled in a season finale, which makes for **SPOILER** a cathartic ending.  (longer review)
  5. The Knick, HBO-Every medical procedural (from Grey's Anatomy to E.R.) should just be set back 100 years in time where medicine was more like alchemy than an exact science. "Patient is not responding! I want some leaches and epoxy salts under his nose stat!" That Clive Owen only got nominated for one Oscar astounds me.
  6. Quick Draw, Hulu-It’s understandable that this TV show would be underappreciated considering: 1) It is on a network that really hasn’t had any visible hits, and 2) the creator’s last show was on TBS during an era when they proved just how little they know about comedy with those annoying “very funny” commercials. It’s worth believing in second chances because while John Lehr’s previous show “10 Items or Less” was a mixture of slightly inventive and bland, “Quick Draw” is in that sublime zone of comedy where the comic climate is so well-established that as long as the characters stay reasonably in character, every attempt at humor is a joke that hits and every joke that hits is a home run.
Second Tier: Shows that are getting it done in style:

  1. House of Cards Season 1, Netflix-Lots of interesting tension and great characters. I soured on this show on Season 2 so I'll cover that more there (longer review)
  2. John Oliver-When he took over as host of the Daily Show last summer, it was a breath of fresh air that led me to believe he should take over the show. The second best thing happened: Oliver's carved out a niche for his comedy on HBO. Due to the novelty factor, John Oliver is my favorite late night comedian to watch at the moment.
  3. Manhattan, WGN-The show isn’t groundbreaking but is certainly watchable. It’s an intelligent historical drama that has a firm grasp of what makes its designated period of history interesting and utilizes that for some good juicy drama. The show manages to touch on social issues from a bygone era from an ironic distance without coming across as overly preachy. The show’s ensemble has mostly unknowns outside of Rushmore/Dollhouse’s Olivia Williams but there are a lot of interesting characters and the ensemble has enough tension so that there’s enough inter-group conflict for a tense World War II pic without a single Nazi. 
  4. Legit, FX-The aimless life of an Australian comedian with too much free time on his hands could rival Seinfeld in terms of low-impact storylines (or as Seinfeld called it “nothing”). with  The second season has Jim becoming no worse or better than before, but relatively succeeding at growing up by virtue of the fact that his two roommates have become far more depraved by comparison.
  5. Bojack Horseman, Netflix-"BoJack Horseman" isn't particularly easy to get into, but a few episodes in, the show's pathos and interesting character dynamics shines through. Like Will Arnett's previous work, "Arrested Development," the show features characters who aim to be dynamic and get out of their ruts in life. Unlike "Arrested Development" however, the show dares to give them, and us, hope at actual improvement. Either way, there's a definite investment to the characters by season's end that gives the show life. The satire also starts getting sharper once the hidden jokes and the parallels to ABC's TGIF line-up of the 1990's start to reveal themselves. People might not notice on first viewing how spot-on "Horsing Around" gets (longer review)
  6.   Royal Pains, USA-I have always maintained that even if “Royal Pains” isn’t the most ambitious show on television, Hank Lawson is one of TV’s most relevant heroes considering the healthcare crisis that’s only intensified since this show premiered in 2009. As medical procedurals go, few are more uplifting than this one. There are no McSteamys and McDreamys here: Just a desperado concierge doctor, a scalpel, lightning-quick diagnosing abilities and the mysterious ability to constantly be around some of the rarest medical emergencies ever recorded (OK, maybe it’s a little more than a scalpel he has). This season’s main thru-lines—The discovery of the Lawson clan’s long-lost sister, the navigation of newlyweds Evan and Paige through a rocky first year, the desire for Jeremiah to step out of his comfort zone—all gibe well and pleasantly focuses on underrepresented dynamics (i.e. siblings, adult-father-and-son) in television. It should also be noted that the series is total scenery/lifestyle porn: People might be falling into comas and strokes in Hank’s presence but they’re having near-death experiences in style. 

Third Teir: Pretty Alright
1. Key and Peele, Comedy Central
2. Crossbones, NBC-Thoroughly enjoyed this pirate saga that has many of the elements of “Pirates of the Caribbean”: beautiful shots of exotic Caribbean locales, swordplay, and the kind of plot twists that come from a pair of mischievous Jack Sparrowish characters who both possess a near-endless capacity for on the fly.
In one ring, we have Blackbeard (John Malkovich), who in this alternate take on history, faked his death and is now living large as a semi-peaceful ruler of an off-the-grid pirate kingdom of his own making. His main foil is combination doctor/spy/ tactician/lover Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) who is originally sent to expose/kill Blackbeard but ends up in an uneasy alliance with the semi-erratic despot.  There’s also a love triangle between Lowe, free-spirited quartermaster Kate Balfour (I could easily write another paragraph about how enchanting Claire Foy is here) and her handicapped husband (Peter Stebbings).
As for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” comparison (a compare/contrast angle is inevitable considering that is the only other pirate film I have seen), this isn’t the movies but an NBC show that’s relegated to the summer schedule (AKA low-key filler) so adjust your expectations accordingly. It is worth pointing out, however, that while Johnny Depp anchored the Pirates series with a meticulously crafted iconic comic character in Jack Sparrow Jon Malkovich’s humor is unintentional: His interpretation of Blackbeard’s accent is suspiciously Malkovich-like (worth mentioning other than the accent, Malkovich is fine here). But hey, written history can only tell us so much about the accents of 18th Century pirates. Maybe Blackbeard did sound like John Malkovich?
3. Portlandia, IFC-A solid sketch show about the art and science of looking cool. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein still find ways to reinvent themselves and refine their concept four seasons in. The show is also a great haven for guest stars whether Steve Buscemi, Bobby Moynihan, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle MacLachlan, and the Portland Trailblazers. (longer review)

4. Colbert Report, Comedy Central-The announcement that he was going to take over for David Letterman alerted me to the fact that he's been on the air nearly ten years. That's a long time to stay in one character and I have full confidence that he could do another 10 if he wanted. 

Also the Third Tier: Shows That Took Me By Surprise (in a good way)
1. Suburgatory, ABC-After sporadically watching in Season Two, I caught onto the back end of the third season and found a more satisfying and complex entity than I had previously seen. When the show premiered, it had bite to it in its satirizations of suburbia in the form of city folk George and daughter Tessa, who had moved from Manhattan to the uber-suburban town of Chatswain. As sitcom characters are prone to do, Tessa and George found love interests, friends and frenemies which resulted in a dampening of the edge as George and Tessa were no longer outsiders and overly connected to the town they were supposed to be making fun of. I was highly pleased to find a happy medium between these two poles in Season 3 and all the more heartbroken that the show was cancelled.
2. About a Boy, NBC-The pilot episode and the difficulties of adapting a TV show gave me plenty of doubt, but the show was successfully stretched to a longer-term format. These characters are worth investing for in the long run and from an episode-to-episode perspective, it's  nice charming low-key comedy that offers the same thing the book and movie did: unique character dynamics. (Longer Review)
3. Playing House, TBS-The female-centered comedy initially seemed like chick flick territory, but the two leads are charming and have enough chemistry together to sell the show. (Longer Review)
4. Gravity Falls, Disney-It's difficult to put my finger on what makes the show work considering it defies categorization in this animated TV landscape. It's not really a show for kids (thematically too dark) which is especially bizarre considering its on the Disney Channel which is the new Nickelodeon. At the same time, "Gravity Falls" isn't a direct satire of kid's shows and is unironically steeped in the style of a classic kid's show itself. It will take me some thinking to figure out exactly why this show is working for me, but in the meantime, let me report: This show has hooked me and it's seeming to hook quite a few of my peers. Also, let me report: The spunky protagonist Mabel (Kristen Schaal AGAIN) Pines is one of my favorite characters on TV.
5. Glee, Fox-Its been a while since Glee's heyday when it was water cooler talk. That's understandable as the show cycles through characters, romances and plots at high velocities. In that sense, the show is more about style than substance and inevitably the novelty factor wears off without substance. This past season, some of the substance came back into the show as the character development decelerated. Sam, Tina, Artie and Blaine's senior year was split in two giving the cast a bigger chance to gel. (Longer Review)

To be covered in more detail:
I'll Watch It if It's On:
Bad Teacher, CBS; New Girl, Fox; Modern Family, ABC; The Awesomes, Hulu; Fugget About It, Hulu; Parks and Recreation, NBC; American Dad/Family Guy, Fox; Broad City, Comedy Central

What Was I Thinking??: Shows I've Soured On
Under the Dome, Fox; House of Cards (Season 2), Netflix; Deadbeat, Hulu; Halt and Catch Fire, AMC; Mindy Project, Fox

Shows I just never got into:
Hannibal, NBC; The Strain, FX; Turn, AMC; The Middle, ABC

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Slow Burn: Getting out of Expositionland (with IMDB feedback)

If a YouTube clip is like a nosh, a half hour comedy is like a desert or fast food meal, and a drama is like a meal, a serialized drama is like going to eat at a fine restaurant (of course, this whole analogy rests on whether you truly believe that a $16 hamburger + tax and tip can top the divine flame-broiled goodness of Burger King which I don’t*).  The rewards are greater but the costs are high and by costs, I'm referring to a currency measured in your attention span. I’m sure there will be some disagreement here and there’s certainly a spectrum here, but I’d argue there’s little that’s inherently interesting about the first episode or two of a serialized drama.

By and large, the greatest rewards of watching a serialized drama are investing in the characters and their stories and in the first couple episodes when you don’t know the characters, it’s hard to grab onto some hook. Even shows I really grew to enjoy like "Orange is the New Black", "House of Cards", and "The Bridge" felt like expositionland drudgery in the first couple episodes.
Part of this effect is due to a shortened attention span on my part. There's no doubt in my mind that YouTube and instant access to entertainment options have gradually made me more stupid over the years. This is part of why it can be rewarding if I ever make it through the boring zone: The feeling of intellectual accomplishment.

Knowing this in advance, it's always best to stick with a drama for two or three epsiodes and bear with the exposition knowing that a boring first or second episode is not indicative of however many episodes later. After all, shows like "The Strain" or "Under the Dome" have strong pilots (one might argue that these shows have outlandish enough premises that a strong curiosity of how it will translate into film is enough to keep one glued through exposition) but (at least, in my opinion) lost their way soon afterwards.

On the other hand, a show like "Dollhouse" beat the expositional blues by making a conscious decision to frame the first five episodes into self-contained procedurals before getting deeper into the mythology.

I posted some thoughts on IMDB and was surprised to find a lot of people were with me:

User bwgood77:
"I kind of know what you mean. Part of it depends on how many shows I am watching. If I am watching like 15 shows, it is pretty tough to get into a brand new one at first. If I am only watching a few, I don't mind it as much, however, this summer I decided to let the shows get almost done before starting them so I can blaze through the first three quarters of them quickly and get really vested"

User MagnificentDesolation:
"I completely understand this. I have actually found myself sighing and begrudgingly starting something I was "looking forward to" like a chore or something to be endured. It's ridiculous and I don't think it even reflects on the project so much as it does on the near-burden of our new serialized drama trend. Not remotely "new", but you know what I mean?...........It feels like there is so much density to programming now, you know it can't be a light pop in but a real commitment. It engenders near dread if you're not quite up for it. The structure also allows the show to permit itself a slow build, it no longer feels the need to grab and hold you from episode one, you will be 'rewarded' by waiting. That can lead to a bit of a trudge, particularly if the promise never pays off.............If I sound as if I am against serialized drama, I'm not. I love it. But I have seen a change in myself as a show sits, unwatched, episodes piling as I struggle to start it."

User Asylumer:
"In my experience, when it comes to established soaps and serialized dramas, there needs to be SOMETHING beforehand that lures you to the show. In other words, there needs to be a specific character/actor/storyline/etc. that catches your attention and compels you to watch for that alone -- despite not knowing anything else about the show, or what's going on......I've tried to start watching already established or long running shows just for the hell of it, and it almost never works...it's like reading a complicated library book. There needs to be one special draw that is your reason for initially tuning in, then as time goes on you start to get into the other characters and stories."

User lbab9:
"I found this trend of episodes looking more like a piece of a gigantic movie than a proper episode of television quite annoying (I'm looking at you Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire). What happened to telling a good story in one hour?! I wish shows would try to be more like Buffy, Justified or The Good Wife in terms of structure. Tell a good story each episode while slowly building the seasonal arc. It sounds simple, yet some showrunners don't seem to understand it or execute it properly."

User Blue_Leaf:
"I had a tough time getting interested in Fargo, a series I was really looking forward to watching. After the third episode I stopped watching and then last week I finished the remaining episodes and LOVED IT! I think Fargo is definitely one of those shows that is more enjoyable as a "binge-watch".

User IndigoFlame:
"I love hour long dramas but most of what I watch hooks you from the beginning. There's a mystery or it's timeline is turned around. Stop watching broadcast series if the procedural set up doesn't suit you.....Too often people talk about cable drama being better because it has more violence and nudity. The best part of cable is they aren't constrained by the format of broadcast networks. They are edited for non commercial broadcast (even AMC & FX like channels use the seamless editing methods) and don't repeat dialog or explain the meaning of sight gags and props; they expect the audience to keep up....Your attention span isn't lessened, your ability to process information has increased. There's content out there for you but not on the networks."

*This blog is not sponsored by Burger King, but that's not saying I'm opposed to a Burger King sponsorship either