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What My DVR Thinks of the New Shows

September 25th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

(Pre)Hating on H8R

September 11th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

Of the many new shows beginning in the next few weeks on American network television, some look promising, some okay, and quite a few bad, but I hope to watch the first episode of them all. The only one for which I foresee needing a barf bucket next to me while watching is The CW’s H8R.

The premise appears simple – find someone who “hates on” a celebrity, send Mario Lopez to get the celebrity, then let the celeb confront the “hater” and win them over. See below for a clip, though if you have some of yesterday’s dinner in your mouth when you’re done, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Why my hate about H8R? Read more…

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The Other Pilots: Outsourced, Blue Bloods, Shit My Dad Says, No Ordinary Family, and Law and Order: L.A.

October 2nd, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

I’ve been a bit busy, so my final pilot reviews have dragged their heels, but here we go (reminder that three are to be found at Antenna):

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Outsourced

I expected to hate this. The clips looked awful, and the concept sounded like yet another opportunity to make fun of Indians. And yet after watching the first two episodes, I’m somewhat intrigued.

Yes, there are definitely some nasty stereotypes. Witness, for instance, how quickly both the Indian and Aussie women fall for Ben Rappaport’s Todd Dempsey, ‘cause we all know how much the rest of the world’s women are just aching for an American man, right? And Manmeet’s (insert shudder at the cheap joke in his name here) reverence for all things American further ups the national chauvinist ante. The dark, brooding, silent Sikh is hardly likely to win the writers an “excellence in diverse and enlightening depictions award” any day soon. And much more.

But there’s also quite a lot of humor that’s directed at America and American culture, represented most clearly in the show by a slew of pointless, gaudy, kitsch novelty items for sale by the team. Dempsey, moreover, is an interesting mix of cultural presumptions and earnest interest in negotiating difference, while Diedrich Bader’s Charlie Davies serves as comic fodder for being less willing to budge culturally, his resulting isolation rendered in the clearest of high-school terms by occupying his own table in the cafeteria.

The show could still be a lot better, but it’s already much better than I expected. It stumbles over itself at times, but at least it’s trying. For a business that makes so much money from the rest of the world, American television has often been so painfully unconcerned with anyone who isn’t American, and so happy to ignore the rest of the world. Outsourced is by no means a stunning postcolonial, politically savvy text, but it’s doing a lot more than do most shows. And it’s actually quite funny, if you can put up with the awkward moments when its chauvinism crashes back on itself. I’ll continue to watch, if only because of its potential, and because I don’t think it’s yet suggested that said potential is dead.

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Blue Bloods

Whose dumb idea was it to cast Donnie Wahlberg in this show? Tom Selleck’s a charismatic guy, Bridget Moynihan is no Connie Britton but she can hold her own, and Will Estes seems likable enough. Then there’s Wahlberg, as drab a detective as one can imagine, boring even when torturing a suspect, and expressing anger with one eyebrow, happiness with the other. But for him, the cast has quite a lot going for it, and then in he comes and the scene flattens.

More broadly, I found the show passable, but little more. The idea to mix family drama and procedural is handled awkwardly at times, but at other times distinguishes the show from the other 156 procedurals on primetime network television in a healthy, even occasionally interesting way. Yet – and it’s a big yet – the whacky introduction of the “Blue Templar,” a secret society operating within the police, and the suggestion that their activities will loom large for the show, did reek somewhat of a shark being placed under the water-ski ramp in the pilot.

I’m not much of a procedural fan anyways, so I set the bar much higher for what will bring me back, and while I could see the show being decent enough for those who like the genre, I won’t be returning.

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Shit My Dad Says

Okay, I must admit that the title of this show alone bugs me. It highlights how remarkably juvenile and immature American censorship can be. The fact that CBS would commission a show called SHIT My Dad Says, and then refuse to use that title itself, insisting instead on calling it Bleep My Dad Says, makes me laugh and cry at the same time. The other pilots have showed a child being abducted, a woman brutally beaten by a burglar, and have found endless humor in joking about sex … yet we can’t say the word “Shit”?!! Clay Davis, where are you when we need you, my friend?

Moving beyond the title, though, this is not a good sitcom. The production of jokes and one-liners is telegraphed well in advance, to the point that they might as well add a countdown in the top left corner of the screen. Overall, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the writing team really wanted to be on this team, other than because they needed a job – there’s no great vision, nothing that’s all that exciting, and little to keep either their own or the audience’s attention.

Except for Shatner. I feel sorry seeing him stranded in this mess, but credit where credit is due, he largely makes the thing watchable all by himself. Shatner is a wonderfully talented comic actor, and even when fighting a rather mediocre script and co-stars, he often made me laugh and occasionally made it work. This and this alone could well keep the show alive, long past its time. With apologies to the Shat, though, I’ll be elsewhere.

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No Ordinary Family

I need a few more episodes to judge this show better, especially since the pilot is so densely laden with set-up. Besides, as endless superhero movies have proven, scenes in which superheroes realize they have powers are the easy ones to write, whereas the real test of a writer’s abilities come after the realization, when we see what the heroes do with those powers, and how the metaphor of having powers (since it’s always a metaphor for something) maintains itself.

But I’m interested enough to invest in seeing several episodes. Michael Chiklis delivered a good performance, Julie Benz has never been my cup of tea but she always manages to do an okay job in otherwise excellent shows, and I have a real weak spot for Romany Malko, who made both Weeds and Forty Year-Old Virgin so much better with his comic presence, and who once again makes his scenes fun and funny here. The daughter is shrill and very annoying at present, but that could hopefully resolve itself once she finds reason to do something other than talk down to everyone else on screen.

The show struggles a bit at making the family drama fit into the superhero show, and its continued success or eventual failure will likely rely heavily on how well it manages to balance these elements in the future. For now, it’s fun, and it’s especially refreshing to see a superhero show that doesn’t take itself so darn seriously.

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Law and Order: Los Angeles

I foresee problems for the latest in this franchise, and I blame the casting. It’s simply too back-end heavy. Alfred Molina is a good actor, and though Terence Howard doesn’t appear in the pilot, the idea of the two of them swapping out the DA role in the show is tantalizing, as both men really know how to command a camera’s and audience’s attention and interest. But the detectives are boring, and thus I can’t see myself being willing to sit through half an hour of hum drum, poorly paced, monotonous delivery until we get to the good part. This seems a violation of the franchise recipe, too: consider SVU, in which Christopher Meloni, Emmy winner Mariska Hargitay, Ice T, and Richard Belzer provide a wonderfully quirky and interesting detective team. Or think of many of the other strong character actors like Jerry Orbach who have anchored the first half-hour of others in the franchise. And then we get Skeet Ulrich, fresh from the Keanu Reeves Don’t Move Your Face School of Acting, and Corey Stoll, who might be okay, but has nothing much to work with.

Moving the franchise to LA was no doubt meant to make it sexy. At least, the pilot wants to promise as much, with LA night clubs, reality television stars, young starlets, multi-million dollar houses perched on the hills overlooking the city, and so forth. And yet despite all that, it began as remarkably boring, with the pacing all wrong. Dialogue seemed to sit in the air, scenes dragged on, and even the night club scene seemed fuelled more by downers than uppers. Oddly, too, as though composing a four hour-long French film, the director often paused on wistful looks into the distance for no particular reason. Molina rescued the affair, sped it up, added acting heft, and got the story back on track. Once in the courts, no less, the plot settled into a more familiar Law and Order style, complete with twists, rebuttals, and tension. But when I’m already not enough of a fan of the franchise to watch its other incarnations, I can’t see why I’d want to watch this one, unless it’s the second half, once Ulrich is out and Molina or Howard is in.

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Flow TV Book is Out

September 30th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Today, I finally received my copy of Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence, edited by Michael Kackman, Marnie Binfield, Matthew Thomas Payne, Allison Perlman, and Bryan Sebok. The book took its sweet time — my chapter was meant to be a trial run at a section for Show Sold Separately, but the latter soon overtook this book in schedule — and Routledge sent the thing to Joseph Gray (?!). I’m also deeply embarrassed to see that my bio in the contributors section is about three times as large as anyone else’s, and for the record, I don’t think I’m three times cooler. On the contrary, the book collects work from such a wonderful group of people, many of whom I’m only a third as cool as. And thus, misgivings about timing, addressing, and my bio aside, it’s exciting to finally have the book in my hands. When your section of a book includes pieces by Derek Kompare, Louisa Stein, Heather Hendershot, and John Corner, you’re in the presence of awesomeness.

My chapter, “The Reviews Are In: TV Critics and the (Pre)Creation of Meaning” takes the press reviews for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Heroes, and Friday Night Lights, and looks at how they attempted to pre-decode the shows. While of course other paratexts played an important role in creating the texts of each show, I became fascinated when reading through the reviews for all three shows by how much they tried to funnel readers into a rather narrow set of interpretations. So, for instance, and as discussed in Show Sold Separately too, Friday Night Lights‘ reviewers overwhelmingly tried to insist on it not being a football show and not being a high school drama; in the process, they may have killed the show’s chances at tapping into two other huge audience segments.

Anyways, I’d highly recommend the book, not because I’m in it, along with my embarrassingly large bio (you even find out where I did my BA. tmi indeed), but because it’s full of wonderful work from wonderful scholars. Thanks to the editors for wrestling the beast to the ground and getting it out.

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My Generation Pilot/Travesty

September 25th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Okay, let’s start this review with an apology, to The Defenders. I maligned you, Jim and Jerry, by suggesting that you’d combined to offer us the worst new show of the season. But wow, My Generation really takes that title with ease, reducing The Defenders to the status of merely somewhat bad in comparison.

If Lost had been written by My Generation’s staff, the pilot might’ve contained dialogue like this:

Sun: “Jin, I never told you I can speak English, but I can.”

Jin: “That’s alright. I know I’ve been bad, but I’ve been struggling to be a better person, and to be worthy of you. I love you deeply.”

Sayid: “What a coincidence, since sometimes I also try to be better to prove to myself I might’ve been worthy of the woman I love”

[Jacob appears]

Sawyer: “Who are you, Goldilocks?”

Jacob: “I’m the guardian of the island.”

Hurley: “What an awesome-sound job. I think I’d like to do that one day. But who would be my deputy? I have no idea. Oh well, maybe someone will fall from the sky or something like that.”

… and so forth.

My Generation has no art to its exposition, only the painfully predictable (e.g: character who says he wants a large family + same character going to become a sperm donor = character who finds out he’s infertile) and annoying stereotypes. First, each character is subtitled as “The Brain,” “The Jock,” or so forth, as if the audience is too stupid to remember eight or nine names. Then the stereotypes take a racial tinge, as The Jock just happens to be the black guy and The Wallflower just happens to be the Asian woman. And that’s just the beginning of the clichés. I’d list a few more, but it’s actually quite hard to pull one out from the densely intricate network of clichés into which each is placed: the show is like a huge Jenga structure of clichés.

I’ve heard people refer to My Generation as a soap, but soaps often pay quite careful attention to slow exposition and to taking time to do things. By contrast, even My Generation’s sense of character history betrays its inability to be patient: we’re told that the day after the Supreme Court victory that gave Bush the presidency, The Brain changed her major from something scientific to Pre-Law. Next, we hear that the day after 9/11, The Jock signed up to go to Iraq. And for a perfect three, the day after one character’s father was sentenced to jail as part of the Enron scandal, another’s father killed himself. What’s the freakin’ rush? Couldn’t one of them have at least spent a week to consider something?

I’ve also heard it referred to as a fictionalized Seven Up series, which is horribly insulting to a documentary that is profound, beautiful, often surprising, and one of the better things offered by television. When, in Seven Up, we see a young Neil giddy with excitement as he explains his play, we don’t see his heart-wrenching depression on the horizon; if it was My Generation, Neil would be seen sitting in a corner of the school yard, head in hands, staring blankly into the distance. And then in the midst of his eventual depression, we’d hear him note that the city council was messed up and that “someone ought to do something about it.” Then the day after, he’d quit homelessness, move to Austin for some spurious reason, and become a city council member.

Not all of the performances are bad, though there’s so little room to move with this script. Wooden interactions are the norm, like an amateur play in which the actors are struggling to remember their lines and thus always deliver them a little late and a lot flat. Michael Stahl-David as Steven Foster is alright, I suppose. Daniella Alonso as Brenda Serrano is okay. Anne Son as Caroline Chung is actually quite awesome.

But do yourself a favor and don’t watch it.

Finally, can I just say that any guy who spends his evenings sitting around watching videos of himself getting crowned Prom King ten years earlier is a MAJOR LOSER.

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Wednesday Night Pilots: Undercovers and The Defenders

September 24th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

My thoughts on Better with You are up at Antenna, and my previous post here was on The Whole Truth, which just leaves us with Undercovers and The Defenders.

I don’t have too much to say about Undercovers – it was kind of fun, the leads were relatively good, the script was okay, and so all in all it was good. ish. I just can’t get too excited about it. I wanted to – I like J. J. Abrams’ stuff, and I’m happy to see a show with two black leads, especially when they get to be both action heroes and romantic leads. I will probably watch again, and not even begrudgingly. But right now it’s just so-so.

The Defenders, though, surprised me. You see, I expected to dislike it, ‘cause, well, Jim Belushi’s not my favorite actor, and I didn’t have much faith in his ability to carry a show. But to be fair to Belushi, the show was already awful before his character was even introduced about five minutes in. Jerry O’Connell’s character did all the work of making it crap himself. Oh Vern Tessio, my old friend, what’s happened to you?

It spurts and jars between wanting to be sincere and wanting to be playful, between aspiring to be Law and Order: Las Vegas and aspiring to be Boston Legal. But it fails abysmally at each end of the spectrum. On one hand, Belushi’s over-acting — underscored by music that clearly feels it needs to improve his performance but that makes it even worse — is laughable and aggressively bad. O’Connell’s annoying playboy character flicked my anti-fan switch, and several times came back to make sure it was still on, but Belushi added the wattage and sent jolts of revulsion through the television screen. On the other hand, the comedy, gimmicks, courtroom stunts, and playfulness are juvenile. One eyebrow raise of Shatner, Spader, Bergen, Valley, Bowen, Clemenson, or pretty much any walk-on in Boston Legal was more amusing.

I’m kind of happy, though. None of the new shows have really excited me so far; some have interested me; some seem wholly meh; and Hellcats really tried to be bad. But I haven’t been able to really throw my weight behind my dislike of any of the new shows. We now have a winner. CBS even taunted me with its supreme skill at creating crap legal drama by cutting from the end of the show to a bumper for Justin Beiber guest-starring on CSI.

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The Whole Truth Pilot

September 23rd, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

The Whole Truth promises to suffer from an identification problem.

Law and Order constructs the district attorneys as wonderful crusaders for justice, putting evildoers behind bars. Granted, the DAs occasionally get it wrong, and go after an innocent man or woman, but these are posed as rare instances. And their opposing council are nearly always turds, bleeding heart liberal annoyances, and/or cynical amoral individuals out for a quick buck or fame. Outlaw, on the other hand, will frame Jimmy Smit’s Cyrus Garza as a protector of the maligned and as someone who makes the plotting cruel system accountable by giving them a voice and hence frustrating The Man’s oppression of the little guy. Again, occasionally he’ll defend a guilty party, but his basic moral mission will remain intact. And along the way, he’ll face down prosecutors who want the whole world behind bars, who don’t realize racism when they see it, and so forth.

What The Whole Truth wants, though, is for us to identify with both lawyers in every case. They obviously can’t both be right. So instead, each week, one of our two leads is going to be backing the wrong horse. For a few episodes, I could see this working alright, as we allow that they’re just duped occasionally, but once we realize that Maura Tierney is on a rampage through innocent victims of the system, and Rob Morrow is regularly defending murderers, rapists, and so forth, and that they do so continually, what will become of audience identification with them? The casting is wise in this respect, as they’re both likable actors: what’s not to like about Abi from ER and Dr. Joel Fleischman from Northern Exposure? They come to us intertextually built for identification.

But surely it’ll be hard to continue feeling for either of them when we see Tierney ask for hate crime status erroneously, as in this episode, or when we see Morrow try every little trick to get the kind of guy who sleeps with prostitutes and goes after his students when his wife is dying of cancer, as in this episode. Especially if each episode (or even just some of them) end as does the pilot, with the two chatting about watching Chinatown over a drink, oblivious to the fact that someone Morrow thought was innocent could be in jail for life, or no doubt in future weeks, to the fact that Tierney’s just let a killer go loose. While I want to celebrate a show that doesn’t reduce everything to the simple “right vs. wrong,” “two sides of every story” binaristic view of the world, and while I’d love if the show could really challenge the morals and ethics of the business, ultimately it seems to be bucking a golden rule of lawyer dramas, which is that we need to be able to root for good guys going after bad guys, and doing so without enough sign that it will actually embrace moral ambiguity (if for no other reason than the show’s set-up seems to promise a “right” and “wrong” side to each case each week).

Add to this a rather poorly filmed show (too many quick edits, insulting flashbacks to earlier testimony in the closing arguments [do they honestly think I forgot what happened five minutes ago on screen?]), and I have little faith in this show either doing well in the long run with a wide audience, or in it giving me much either. So I think I’ll pass. Sorry Abi and Joel.

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Tuesday Night Pilots: Raising Hope, Running Wilde, and Detroit 1-8-7

September 23rd, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

All of tonight’s shows arrived in my living room with high expectations, and though none of them met those expectations, they’re all variations of okay.
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Raising Hope

My Name is Earl and I were good friends. It gave television comedy one of its best characters in Randy Hickey, and often made me laugh. Then NBC axed it to create room for, what, Jay Leno and Outsourced? The buzz for a while was that FOX might pick it up, given that it always was more of a FOX-style sitcom, and while, alas, that didn’t happen, Greg Garcia and FOX did hook up for Raising Hope. I’ve been looking forward to this as a result.

It had far fewer laugh out loud moments than Earl often gave me, and its pacing was a little awkward (evidence either of a show that’s finding its legs, whose legs are pulled in different directions by the creative and economic team behind it, or simply of something that’s not all that good). The lead character, played by Lucas Neff, is likeable, if a little too comfortable with letting those around him provide most of the comedy instead of taking the job upon himself. The supporting cast is good, full of many Earl refugees or bit-part-ers (is that Kenny running the supermarket?), and of course Chloris Leachman. I feel like I’ve seen a bunch of this before, and the payoff from the pilot wasn’t huge, though I was amused at some parts (even if the clips spoiled the best jokes). So for now, I guess I’m just along for the ride because I want it to be good, and because it still could be.

I also need to remind myself that sitcom pilots are rarely good – they just kind of stumble out of the block, rolled up in character types and already-familiar scenarios, and/or trying way too hard to use a scant 22 minutes to set up everything. I’ve rarely fallen for a sitcom at the pilot stage. Or am I just creating excuses for the show already?

The other two shows after the fold…

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Read more…

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Monday Night Pilots: Hawaii Five-O, Lone Star, The Event

September 21st, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

My mini-reviews of Chase and Mike and Molly will appear over at Antenna, along with other thoughts on all the new shows from a neat group of people, so I’d point you all there.

As for my Monday, that leaves me with Hawaii 5-0, Lone Star, and The Event. All after the fold … Read more…

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Outlaw Pilot

September 15th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

I suspect Outlaw is not long for this world. And clearly the writers shared this concern, since it’s written all over their show. Consider:

  • Early on, Jimmy Smits is threatened by a senator who tells him he’ll crush him.
  • Later, Smits is told he has “3 months, best scenario.”
  • And a mysterious man (Jeff Zucker’s axeman?) is following him around throughout the latter part of the episode.

The premise: Jimmy Smits plays Cyrus Garza, a Supreme Court judge who wants to fight cases, so he resigns and leads a supposedly crack team of his own choosing into the trenches of defending the innocent.

The script could be a spec script for any number of lawyer shows, it’s that uneventful. The music cues are poor and only hurt that script. Garza’s saucy PI Lucinda is all sorts of annoying, clearly trying to be like Angela from Bones and failing miserably. His other team members are simply boring. And the case seems almost laughably easy – if getting people off the death penalty after years of presumed guilt is this easy, we could (and perhaps should) all be lawyers. Indeed, I imagine lawyers will hate this show almost as much as I hate television’s insistence that all professors are remarkably inspiring leaders and/or sleeping with their students.

The politics in it are also remarkably crude. From Garza’s first scoff at a stereotyped ACLU member, to the subsequent charge, from the grave, that he is a conservative who knows he’s wrong deep in his heart, and to the nefarious Republican senator who threatens his career as Supreme Court Judge, it’s all good guys and bad guys. The starkness of this binaristic framework is all the more jarring when it surrounds Smits, whose most recent turn on television saw him navigate the murky moral waters of Dexter, and who a few years earlier, closed out The West Wing in a season that was willing to offer nuance to both liberals and conservatives. Yet here, I half expect the Republicans to wear black eye patches, such is the writing.

But truth be told, it’s not superbad, and I’m just picking on the more egregious things above. Rather, it’s just wholly uninspiring and thoroughly meh. It putters along without really dazzling or doing much of note. There are way better shows, but also way worse ones. David Ramsey (who you may know as Anton from Dexter), for instance, is solid and likeable. Smits is reliably strong, yet as with Cane, he’s once more jumped aboard a bland show that doesn’t promise to jump out in any real way.

So, I echo Garza’s bookie: “3 months, best scenario”

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