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Fall Pilot Score Card — Week Three

October 13th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Yikes, I’m getting behind. So much so that We Are Men was cancelled before my review. Ooops. Sorry. So here we go (Ironside to come later).

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Betrayal

Wow, now that is some bad acting. In the final scene, the plot twist is revealed, as we learn that the protagonist’s husband will be facing off in a very public lawsuit against her new boyfriend. I consider the fact that I was still awake by that point quite an achievement, since that was arguably the only interesting moment of an otherwise thoroughly dull, trite script acted out by actors who aren’t up to the task. No, I lie, there was another moment. When the protagonist (played by Hannah Ware) gets a hotel room with her new man, and just as they’re about to consummate things, she gets a call from her husband who is looking for a kid’s book that their child loves. We then cut back to a chilled-out protagonist and man lying on the bed and chatting, as she describes the plot from this book. I’m currently reading the book – Giraffes Can’t Dance – to my daughter many a night, so my ears perked up at its mention. I don’t know how to feel about it being used as a metaphor for the protagonist’s need to find the man who will let her flourish. That said, I’m not surprised to see the writers are experts on stories that put people to sleep.  More shows below: Read more…

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Fall Pilot Score Card – Week One

September 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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It’s Fall Premiere time in the US. And so it’s time to review them.

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At one point in May, I remember seeing a bunch of trailers and thinking the season looked great; since I’ve seen more, though, the paratexts have been uninspiring, and I now have very little excitement. Indeed, I had intended to write posts on their ads, posters, websites, etc., as I’ve tried to do sometimes in the past, but they were remarkably ho-hum. Most of the posters for these shows are boring, I’ve seen no inventive marketing (though I’m in Madison, not New York anymore, so perhaps there’s more there?), and the websites are as dull as they come, lacking any bells or whistles in most cases. So I’m left with the shows alone, since I’ve simply gotten too bored when looking at the paratexts.

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My colleagues at Antenna are reviewing all of the premieres in groups (see Week 1′s FOX reviews here and here), and I’ll be contributing a few, so I’d highly recommend folk head over there. But for my own opinions on Week 1:

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Sleepy Hollow is remarkably silly. The backstory seems designed to allow all sorts of other wrinkles and unbelievabilities further on down the road, but there’s still a point in the pilot in which a large amount is data-dumped, and all I could think was that midichlorians made more sense and seemed less obtrusive. Apparently when your blood mixes with that of a horseman of the Apocalypse, you both become linked and you can’t die. Or something like that. There was also a wife who was a witch. And George Washington. Frankly, trying to remember the backstory makes it feel a lot like it happened in a dream after I ate and drank too much. This sounds like I hate the show, but I don’t. Instead, right now I see the show as walking a thin line between being utterly stupid in a fun, campy way and being utterly stupid in a change-the-channel way. The performances are fine, if unspectacular. It gets points for beheading The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) in the first few minutes (and will get many more points if the tapes Abby’s listening to include him discussing a beheading with a head which at this time has no name, to which he responds “I know his name,” and Queen music is cued), and it’s shot well and looks nice. But here’s my problem: procedurals, for me, are preeminently shows that one can dip in and out of over the course of a season, and between the silliness of its serialized elements (I don’t care about his wife’s coven, or about finding out whether George Washington was a zombie vampire slave-freeing wizard) and the utter familiarity of its procedural elements (partner with quirky backstory assigned to work with a very competent yet ultimately rather boring partner) mixed with the sense that all those elements have been done better elsewhere (Castle, Bones, X-Files, Grimm, Law and Order: SVU, …), I have nothing encouraging me to come back next week, and little encouraging me to drop in thereafter. I’d certainly watch another episode, so it’s not “bad” per se. And I’m not ruling out that it could iron out some kinks, find its tempo and character, and become much better (especially if it plays for camp more). For now, though, fill in your beheading metaphor here for its status with me.

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Dads came next, and what a big steaming pile of shit this show was. Seriously. We were all meant to hate it because of its racism, and/or because Seth MacFarlane needs to leave American television alone for a while. But even before the racist jokes (about Chinese men with small penises. Wow. Comedy gold) started flying, the show had already been profoundly unfunny. And this format just doesn’t work for MacFarlane – robbed of the ability to cut away to endless flashbacks and dream sequences, required to keep a plot going, and without animated figures to distance ourselves from the sadness of the behavior in front of us, the show didn’t allow MacFarlane to be MacFarlane. I can often laugh a lot at Family Guy, I’ll sheepishly admit, but nothing here was funny. All the more cloying, then, that a live studio audience was guffawing at every step, look, and phrase. That studio audience bugged me for two other reasons: one, they coded it male early on (with the hooting and hollering at Brenda Song dressed up as a fetishized Japanese school girl), and douchebag male at that; two, it was ever-present. If you listen to the best shows with live studio audiences, the audiences don’t sound like they’re laughing their asses off at every joke, as the sound editor knows when to turn the volume down and trust the comedy to work by itself. Here, the sound editor knows the show sucks, and knows it sorely needs the help, so that laughter is constantly there, constantly loud. The performances are bad, too: Seth Green is so many miles away from lovable Oz, and seems not to know what to do between lines – a problem I shared when I did Drama in Grade 8. The fathers are so badly typed that I can’t remember anything they said or did. Giovanni Ribisi just looks constipated in most scenes. Brenda Song seems flummoxed by no longer being the most annoying person on screen. So, yeah, I don’t like this one. Sadly, when the show is cancelled, its defenders will say it was because of political correctness. And if the message sent to Hollywood is not to greenlight racist shows, I guess I’m okay with that. But in truth it’ll be cancelled since it’s just not at all funny, not even on its own MacFarlane-y terms.

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine was next, and since it follows Dads, I stumbled into it reeling, and needing a laugh. I have a soft spot for Andy Samberg, and like Andre Braugher, so I was expecting to laugh too. But it was Terry Jeffords who pulled me in, with a quick line about his young twins Cagney and Lacey. After half an hour of Dads, it was so very nice to laugh once again, to know that there was levity in the world. On the whole, I liked this. It’s not without its problems. For one, I don’t really care about them solving crimes, and I hope the show doesn’t care either; I want to believe that they solved one in the pilot to establish Samberg as a competent cop, and that they’ll now move away from that, but if I’m wrong, this will be a bad genre hybrid. And the structure was creaky at times, more bit-y than it should be. That a sitcom pilot didn’t have time to come into its own, though, is no real surprise, so I’ll allow it that. Indeed, sitcom pilots are so often so very bad. Even many shows I came to love began on a hammy, or at best mediocre, footing. And thus I don’t really expect much from a sitcom pilot, except for a few laughs and the promise of more. On that scale, this succeeded. Samburg’s performativity annoys many, but I like it, especially when reeled in and isolated by the straight-man performance by Braugher, and indeed by everyone else in the show, except the delightfully insane Chelsea Peretti. I liked this mix of comic styles, and liked how my laughs seemed spread out between the cast – a good sign not just of a strong cast, but of good writers who can work with that cast and feed them good material. The show is not a revelation, and I feel no need to play missionary and insist you watch it, but for now I like it quite a bit, and am keen to see more.

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In sum, Week One offered a so-so show, a crap show, and a good one. Now onto Week Two …

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After the Pilots: What I’m Watching

October 3rd, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

All my comments aside, what have I bothered to stick with, what might I check in on, and what is dead to me?

DVR is set to record Nikita, No Ordinary Family, Detroit 1-8-7, Raising Hope, Running Wilde, and Outsourced … though I may drop Running Wilde after this week unless it gets much better. Lone Star was set to be recorded too, before its demise. Importantly, though, none are in the category of ones I feel I must watch — if the DVR failed to record any of the above, I’d be nonplussed.

If the television’s on anyways, I might watch any of the following: Undercovers, Hawaii Five-0, or The Whole Truth. Blue Bloods and Shit My Dad Says might get very occasional patronage. And I might check in on The Event, since it’s serial drama and I feel I need to check in on it for work. Plus, I feel Better with You and Mike and Molly need checking up on in a few weeks, as might Law and Order: LA (though only the second half, as previously noted), though all out of interest and for work, not out of interest.

Outlaw, Chase, Hellcats, and The Defenders are all well and truly out of my frame of reference now. And My Generation‘s death couldn’t have come too soon.

All in all, therefore, I rank the new season a definitive “meh.”

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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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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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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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Hellcats Pilot

September 8th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Of late, my blog has been turned over to my job market series. I’ll still be finishing up with that soon. But with the Fall television season on network television officially began this year, and what is The Extratextuals if not somewhere for me to review new shows.

And so we begin, near the bottom I suspect, with The CW’s Hellcats

Hellcats is something special. Pilots are fertile ground for clichés, for understandable reasons – the writers often find it easiest to establish archetypes, with which the audience will be familiar, before potentially challenging them. But Hellcats is the Jack’s magic bean of clichés, sprouting as many in the first minute as other bad shows manage in an hour.

Just witness, for instance, these character descriptions from the Wikipedia entry:

an unconventionally sexy townie described as a “shambling charmer” who is “hyper-articulate”. He is the platonic pal to Marti, but, in reality, has an unspoken crush on her.

a party girl who never grew up and her antics in the past have publicly humiliated her daughter. She works at a low-level job at a university pub.

And that’s only the supporting cast. More after the fold …

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New Shows, 7: Brothers, The Cleveland Show, Trauma

October 2nd, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

Continuing with the reviews, with a bit more speed and brevity, after the fold …

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