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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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The Freshman TV Class of 2010-2011, Part 4: The Other Dramas

May 30th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Rather than organize these by network, which would be a bit obvious and boring, how about instead I list them from least interesting (to me) to most interesting?

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The Detritus

This means that we start with the tough, three-way battle for the title of Worst New Drama. Our contestants? NBC’s Love Bites, ABC’s My Generation, and The CW’s Hellcats. Love Bites has a horrible trailer, and whoever made it really should be embarrassed, since it left me deeply confused. I get that it’s an anthology romcom that promises to demean a new group of stars each week with trite dialogue and plots, but it’s unclear whether the women we meet at the beginning are part of a continuous frame, if Greg Grunberg is either, and if so how they relate to the other stories. It just shifts gears without explaining how or why. It also has a really bad voiceover and looked more like a tampon ad than a show; indeed, if you’ve seen the playful UbyKotex attack on the obnoxiousness of tampon ads, you’ve seen an effective satire of Love Bites. Oh, okay, we’ll give it the title, shall we?

That said, in terms of paint by numbers programming and obnoxiousness, My Generation is really throwing a hail Mary pass to the end zone. The premise is that a group of people who graduated together ten years ago are now being checked up on. Filmed documentary style, yet fictional (the fiction is evident from the patent stupidity and formulaic quality), it revels in its self-importance, as if this is this is the new Up Series, telling us all about aging, dreams, potential, realization, life, plans, and The Things That Matter. As an exercise, get out a piece of paper now, write down ten of the most formulaic, trite high school characters you could imagine; then, keeping with the theme of trite, imagine where they’ll be in ten years; and I guarantee you’ve now created something on par with the writing behind this show, at least if the trailer’s to be believed.

In third place for worst show is Hellcats. The title alone bugs me. With Cougar Town already on the air, did we really need another show whose title animalizes women? Apparently so. The show also perplexes me, since it seems a very small toggle of The Beautiful Life, a show that died a remarkably quick death last year for The CW. Only it’s cheerleaders now, not models. This seems a move in the wrong direction: surely the model’s life is more aspirational than that of a cheerleader? Perhaps that’s why our central character is a street-wise, edgy blond who is forced into cheerleading to get a scholarship to become a lawyer (‘cause we all know that nothing impresses a law firm more than cheerleading on the CV!), and yet who makes lots of critical comments about cheerleaders. She’s a character that The CW is specializing in – utter insiders who think they’re outsiders. I’m inclined to bemoan the creation of a generation who think they’re facing great struggles, and who want the sympathy for it, when they’re some of the planet’s most privileged individuals, but that way lies Grumpy Old Man territory, and I need to keep faith that the audience is more complex than what’s on the screen, lest I give up all hope in life. Suffice it to say, meanwhile, that Hellcats and I will not be BFFs. It’s only third worst since I’m least in its target demo, so I’ll give it a break.

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Meh

Blue Bloods’ trailer made Tom Selleck look past his shelf-life. It also contains one of the more vapid promotional comments I’ve heard, from Selleck: “This show is very exciting. It’s got plots. It’s got action. It’s got all that stuff.” “All that stuff,” eh? Sounds like a great work of art to me! Anyways, it’s a family cop drama set in New York with an Irish family, from a pair of Sopranos scribes, and also starring Donnie Wahlberg. Magnum PI and the New Kid on the Block just ain’t doin’ it for me. It seemed a little more sophisticated than the average cop show, and I’ll leave room that it may rise to greatness, but at the moment, it’s just a big “Meh” from me.

I was disappointed by Undercovers, the new J. J. Abrams show. Maybe this is a case of the trailer hurting the show, or maybe it shows that the editor was really frisky when s/he made it, but it’s far too much sexual intrigue and not enough spy intrigue (or heck, not even enough family intrigue). I expect way more from the guy behind Alias, but when the show’s title is that cheesy, maybe my hopes are foolish. Chuck is a great, fun spy dramedy from a prominent showrunner, but it’s struggled in the ratings; I wonder how this one will do when it looks worse in almost every respect. I’m really excited to see network TV greenlight a drama with two African-Americans as the leads, but equally concerned that if it fails (because it’s not that good), some bonehead execs will see it as a sign of the unmarketability of such a casting model for a show.

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Meh Plus

Nikita is the other new spy drama, with Maggie Q showing prowess as a hunter and killer, yet struggling with the ability to keep more than lingerie or underwear on at any given time. Again, I’m happy to see a non-white lead for such a show, especially on The CW, who came a very distant fifth out of the five major networks last year in terms of non-white series regulars. It feels like Alias with more contemporary music, and also looks more action-packed and plot-driven than Undercovers’ somewhat basic premise. It’ll need more going on in it than just a scowling Shane West, and I’m not underestimating The CW’s ability to disappoint me, but for now I’ll sign up for an episode or two.

When Flash Forward concluded with another blackout, I half expected for one of them to see “the event.” Certainly, the new serial show, The Event, has a similar visual style and cryptic “what’s happening, man?” element to it. It also has a really annoying trailer, showing us various fascinating incidences, only to tell us these are not “the event.” The suggestion, I get it, is that The Event is so monumental that all these other things (like an assassination attempt on a President in the over-theatrical form of flying a jumbo jet into him) are small potatoes, but it’s a tenuous, dangerous strategy for a trailer to take to deliberately withhold telling you what it’s all about (imagine: “Grey’s Anatomy is not about lawyers freeing the wrongly accused, it’s not about a loveable old man who moves in with his son to humorous consequences, and it’s not about enjoyable television”). And when the NBC press release announces, “Their futures are on a collision course in a global conspiracy that could ultimately change the fate of mankind,” I really should be checking out by now. But it’s high concept, it’s serial, and now that Lost’s gone, what am I gonna do with myself? Okay, NBC, I’ll check it out, but if it really is the V meets Flash Forward hybrid that your trailer suggests it is, I’m gone.

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Consider Me Interested

David Lyons didn’t do much to impress me on ER, so I’m wary of The Cape, given that it’s centered on him. All the same, the Unbreakable fan in me finds it hard not to be drawn in by this tale of a man who must leave his family and assume the role of a superhero called The Cape, named after the hero in a comic he read to his son. Summer Glau also stars, which should ensure it some extra viewers, though personally I don’t know what the hoopla is all about with her. I like the world they set up – vaguely Gothamesque in its dysfunctionality and need for a hero. And thus while I’m aware it may just be a pastiche of other things that I like, and wholly unable to deliver when push comes to shove, for now I’m casually interested.

Terra Nova has no trailer, and only sketchy details, but there’s enough to hook me for now. A Steven Spielberg production, the show finds a family sent back in time as part of a mission, with others, to correct humankind due to the imminent death of the human species. If I set aside my skepticism that any well-funded entity would care enough about the species, not just their own selfish selves, to correct our course through time, this sounds kind of cool. Could be dumb, very dumb. But I’m eager to hear more.

No Ordinary Family is the second of the superhero stories to join television, and though he has experience as Ben Grimm / The Thing in the Fantastic Four movies, I’m especially fascinated by the somewhat odd casting of Michael Chiklis, and eager to see what he can do after The Shield. He’s the father of an Incredibles type family, who after exposure to something superhero-ish, all gain powers. Julie Benz (Dexter Morgan’s wife in Dexter, or Darla in Buffy, depending upon your preference) also stars. Smallville used to be interesting, before everyone started wearing PVC and Clark showed his ability to leap a shark in a single bound, and I’m hoping this could be an early season Smallville, yet with a little more adult grit, and with a family element. I’ll be watching.

And tied for most interesting-to-me is Lonestar. This show may be utter crap, but for now I pay homage to whoever made the trailer, since it really is quite excellent. We’re presented with a character who seemingly has two loving wives, each not knowing of the other’s existence. But before this seems like Big Love, we’re introduced to his nasty father who is the kingpin in a con he’s running with one or both. Except the son wants out. On paper or read on a computer screen, it sounds kind of dull, no? And yet the trailer had me really interested. He seemed like a fascinating, original character, and the trailer offered just enough pictures of the surroundings to suggest that it’ll be visually interesting too, examining the location as much as the characters, and situating one within the other. All this could be the product of very good editing, but kudos to the editor, since you got me in the door.

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And that’s it. I’ll be back to discuss scheduling all this stuff later, but I hope some of this helps you decide what to watch and what not to watch this Fall. I’ll try to watch each pilot too, and be back with more in Fall.

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