Friday, January 3, 2014

Posts from the Past: Cougar Town

Now I know what you're thinking, but before you laugh and decide to ignore this show because of its admittedly horrible title, try to keep an open mind and trust the creative talent here (who claim "titles are hard!" in one of the second season's opening title cards which regularly mock the show's name). Although the show did initially begin with the premise of a divorced 40-something who sleeps with 20-something guys, it was hastily abandoned about 8 or 10 episodes in, as the phenomenal cast of characters and their personalities began to settle in. After being unceremoniously canceled by ABC after its third season, Cougar Town was saved by TBS and is premiering its fifth season on January 7th with all of its trademark red wine, film reenactments, and penny cans still intact.

Free from the groan-inducing initial premise, Cougar Town has quickly became one of the most hilarious and original comedies currently on television, now simply following the lives of this small Florida cul de sac of wine-sipping friends. Of course the show's primary character is Courtney Cox's Jules Cobb, a real estate agent that has difficulty being mean and un-obsessive. Since raising him as a single mother, she harbors a particularly creepy fixation on her son Travis, played with appropriate awkwardness and smugness by Dan Byrd. And with Travis off to college in season two (though of course he still finds time to hang out with his mom's friends...) Jules has been free to focus her attention on her former-neighbor-current-husband Grayson (Josh Hopkins), an egotistical former player commonly referred to on the show as Tiny Eyes.

That nickname is a perfect example of the light-hearted, but slightly acerbic way the characters in this show interact with one another.  Constantly drinking red wine (Jules often drinks out of Big Tippi/Lou/Carl/Joe, a gigantic novelty wine glass), the group often invent and play ridiculous games such as Penny Can, a game Jules' hillbilly-esque  ex-husband Bobby (Brian Van Holt playing what other characters describe as a talking dog) coined while living on his parking-lot-docked boat along with his best friend and biggest fan Andy (a hilariously enthusiastic Ian Gomez) which involves, shockingly enough, throwing pennies into a can. The cast is rounded out by Jules' two best friends, Andy's delightfully mean-spirited wife Ellie (creator Bill Lawrence's actual wife, Christa Miller) and the youthfully trashy Laurie (an outrageously flashy Busy Phillips), who just happen to officially hate each other and deliver most of the show's nicknames and insults toward each other. There's also another neighbor, Tom, who desperately wants to be part of the group, but is just a little too odd and eager to be regularly included (or perhaps its his creepy love for Jules).

As you can see, this is the rare show where each character is equally worth mentioning, where they all pull together as an exceptionally entertaining and amusing ensemble. Since the characters are relied on for the show's comedy and personality instead of a wacky premise or situation, they are what make this such a great show. Compared to other successful friends-type sitcoms, Cougar Town comes off more unique, taking risks with new character types, writing styles, and running gags that hit their comedic marks more often than not. Basically if you join this group of, well less-than-brilliant friends, for their many wacky adventures, you'll soon find yourself laughing along with them and their hilarious inside jokes.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Procedurals with Pedigree: The Mentalist


Even with so many variations on the formula, the most important element of any quality procedural is the richness of the characters that solve these weekly cases. It only takes one great character to draw you in, and The Mentalist (currently airing its sixth season on CBS Sundays) has that down with its ridiculously charismatic lead Patrick Jane (the emmy-nominated Aussie Simon Baker). Jane used to act as a professional psychic, using conman tricks from his youth living in a gypsy commune, before he challenged the serial killer Red John on live television by claiming to understand him and his motives. Red John retaliated by brutally murdering Jane's wife and young daughter, painting a morbid smiley face on the wall with their blood, his signature calling card. This was the catalyst for Jane's reform, using his skills as a mentalist (defined as "Someone who uses mental acuity, hypnosis and/or suggestion. A master manipulator of thoughts and behavior" in first season's opening of each episode) to catch criminals as a consultant for the (fictional) California Bureau of Investigation while he continues to hunt for Red John.

As is the case with most procedurals that employ overarching subplots, the more serialized episodes that feature the numerous twists and turns of the Red John investigation are the standouts. As the series progresses, Jane learns more and more about Red John, discovering a seemingly endless parade of "friends" who claim the killer is always ahead because he is a full blown psychic, a trait Jane knows to be impossible. However, certain inexplicable events lead Jane to question his own beliefs as the final chapter of the Red John saga plays out in the current (and perhaps final) season. Although the central mystery is certainly tantalizing, the best thing about The Mentalist is just watching Jane and his elaborate schemes to reveal Red John's identity. Furthermore, since Jane uses similar tactics to solve whatever case the CBI picks up each week, nearly every episode is a treat to watch (even if you have figured out that week's culprit all on your own). Part of Jane's charm is how inappropriately blunt he is about his observations, typically insulting the grieving families in a hilariously matter-of-fact manner while explaining how he drew his conclusion, as he has no patience for the various skeletons that inevitably fall out of their closets the moment he steps into a room.

Of course Jane's tactlessness in dealing with people and his unorthodox (and probably not strictly legal) methods for revealing each episode's murderer often result in heavy rebuke for his patient boss/partner Theresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) from her superiors, however his skill at closing cases with confessions typically resolves any issues. And yes, although there are slight hints of a potential romance for Jane and Lisbon, the series wisely gears their relationship more towards close friends, as Lisbon is a dedicated professional with the utmost respect for authority and Jane is a rule-flouting rogue still haunted by the memories of his wife. Despite their often seemingly polar opposite personalities, their friendship and trust remains so resilient that they can even move beyond their intentions regarding Red John (she unsurprisingly plans to arrest him and put him on trial, while Jane constantly makes it clear he will kill him the moment he finds him). The cast is rounded out by a few supporting CBI agents with intriguing back stories (and entertaining dynamics with Jane): the no-nonsense Kimball Cho (Tim Kang), the optimistic Wayne Rigsby (Owain Yeoman), and the open-minded Grace Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti). So if you prefer you're crime procedurals with a tone balancing the light humor of a charismatic lead and the dark macabre of a serial killer, then give The Mentalist a shot and prepare to be engrossed by its intriguing insights into the arts of "reading" people and psychological suggestion.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why Aren't You Watching: Trophy Wife

Although typically a comedy requires several episodes before it can establish the most effective dynamic for its characters and storylines (like with the just-not-quite-there-yet Brooklyn Nine-Nine), occasionally a sitcom will come along that is fully realized that right away in the pilot you know what the show can and will be (think Modern Family). While ABC's new comedy Trophy Wife (currently airing Tuesdays at 930p, even though it should really be on after Modern Family on Wednesdays) isn't quite on the same level as that hit show, it does set up its own modern family dynamic exceptionally well right from the onset (despite recasting the stepdaughter after the pilot, which was actually a marked improvement). Similar to the riotous Cougar Town, Trophy Wife is another victim of a poor name choice (and ABC's non-existent marketing efforts), as a more accurate title could just be Third Wife, or perhaps even better, Instant Family.

The series centers on Malin Akerman's Kate, the third wife of lawyer Pete Harrison (the always enjoyable Bradley Whitford), picking up one year after the two first met and fell in love (after she injured him at bar). However, Kate soon found out that marrying Pete meant inheriting three children and two eccentric ex-wives. Pete's first ex-wife, Diane (played with calm precision by Marcia Gay Harden), is a controlling and intimidating surgeon who uses her strong personality to get what she wants from Pete and Kate. Diane also exerts near-perfect control over her teenage children, the overachieving Hillary (Bailee Madison) who looks down on Kate, constantly rebuffing her attempted friendship, and the simple-but-enthusiastic Warren (Ryan Lee) who seems to lack any self-consciousness and just loves hanging out with his family. An early episode even sees Diane employing ridiculous psychological tactics to punish her children for secretly spilling salsa on her pristine white couch, making them increasingly uncomfortable and paranoid as she encourages them to join her dance to salsa music (and a later episode reveals that she created a fictional teenage girl to spy on them through social media). After divorcing Diane, Pete went in the complete opposite direction and married the free-spirited Jackie (the always hilariously cooky Michaela Watkins). With Jackie, Pete adopted Bert (Albert Tsai), a delightfully hyperactive and wide-eyed eight year-old whose innocent curiosity results in wonderfully ridiculous situations like fearing for the security of his uterus. The cast is rounded out by Kate's BFF and former party partner Meg (Natalie Morales) who, aside from one episode, has been been more of a supporting character thus far as the series focuses on the central family first.

Like Modern Family, a large part of what makes Trophy Wife work so well is the great chemistry among the cast, as Kate and Pete's relationship is shown early on to be about much more than just her looks. This probably thanks to series creator Sarah Haskins (creator of the hilariously spot-on Target Women segments found online) who based the show on her own experience of marrying into a complicated family. Kate is the perfect balance between his polar-opposite ex-wives and the two of them also function like the best friends every couple strives for. Despite the stressfulness of their complicated family dynamic, the two of them find ample opportunity to share laughs, even though its the rest of the family that are the true characters. So if you're a fan of Modern Family, skip the uneven Super Fun Night and instead pair it with Trophy Wife, you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Newbies: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Although it can be difficult to judge a show based on its first episodes (Parks and Recreation for example had a rough six-episode first season, but its second season quickly solidified it as one of the best comedies on television), but FOX's Brooklyn Nine-Nine is already establishing itself as a reliable source of laughs. Produced by the primary creators of Parks and Recreation, Nine-Nine features that same form of workplace ensemble first popularized by The Office with a diverse cast of gifted actors. Of course, its impossible to discuss Brooklyn Nine-Nine without first mentioning the goofy elephant in the room: the series' star, former SNL-er Andy Samburg. Much like FOX's other sitcoms New Girl and The Mindy Project, its probably unlikely someone will be able to enjoy any aspect of the show if they find the focal character intolerable. However if you keep an open mind, Brooklyn Nine-Nine could quickly surprise you with how effectively it tells a story, offering up plenty of humor and wit (though its heart does seem to be absent, in the first four episodes at least).

The premise follows the titular NY precinct as they deal with a variety of crimes, though the focus remains on the characters instead of their cases. The biggest character is of course Andy Samburg's Detective Jake Peralta, an immature goof-off who closes cases almost as often as he cracks jokes. Sure Samburg's shtick can be hit or miss, but his sincere commitment to the role make Jake a believable person (even if he's not necessarily a believable detective) and his various gags can be a riot, as when he engages in some morbid sexual role-playing with the precinct's new medical examiner. Although Samburg is the most prominent member of the cast, the best part of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age) as the precinct's new captain Ray Holt. Not only does his wry deadpan play off Samburg's wacky energy perfectly, he elevates any scene he's in with a character that, much like Parks' Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, is so well-defined and dimensionalized right out of the gate that further insights into his personality feel authentic instead of merely convenient (and a particular gag about how Holt's emotion is impossible read, featuring different characters flashing back to various interactions with him throughout the episode, is an absolute delight). Not only is Jake at his most entertaining when paired with the captain, Holt even makes some of the less established (perhaps even unlikable) characters more fun, such as the overachieving Detective Santiago (Melissa Fumero), far too eagerly hoping to be his apprentice.

Since Brooklyn Nine-Nine is essentially an office comedy, there are of course plenty of supporting characters to round out the cast. So far they all work more or less, but the cast will benefit greatly from having more time to explore new sides of their characters to help them become more believably relatable and reliably funny. As of now, steely/sarcastic Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) and tense/anxious Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) are more fully realized and entertaining, though they still have a ways to go before they become truly memorable. Meanwhile Joe Lo Truglio's put-upon Detective Charles Boyle is an easy source of laughs, though he's the kind of unfortunate fool who has such an abundance of embarrassing and imasuclating quirks that he can be tough to relate to, or even more problematically, tough to watch (though scenes such as the image of him rocking out to his choice of music, Broadway naturally, while Peralta uncomfortably drives in silence, are still enjoyable). Even more problematic than Boyle is the precinct's civilian office assistant Gina (Chelsea Peretti), who is quirky and self-involved to such an unpleasant degree that you wonder why she was ever hired to begin with. Sure she can be funny, but most of her personality is far too over the top for her to be even remotely believable and her digs against the rest of the cast feel so mean-spirited that its tough to enjoy any of her scenes. In fact, even the more periphery supporting characters of Hitchcock and Scully (fulfilling the incompetent cop role, or "the Jerry" of the precinct to use a Parks reference) are immensely more fun to watch than Gina, which actually says more about the creators' gift for establishing an comic ensemble than it does about Gina though. However, these issues can be quickly overcome as Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs more episodes and allows each character to develop, creating a more consistent ensemble just like how Parks and The Mindy Project were able to capitalize on their own potential to become reliable sources of original humor and quality storytelling.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Posts from the Past: Parenthood

Returning on a new night for its fifth season starting this Thursday at 10pm, NBC's Parenthood is a refreshing take on the family drama, or perhaps to be more thematically appropriate, dramedy. With a skilled combination of heart and humor, Parenthood stands out as one of the most enjoyable hours of television. Just as he did on Friday Night Lights, creator Jason Katims imbues Parenthood with a palpable authenticity that makes the hour more affecting than just pure entertainment. Additionally, the series' reliance on improvisational dialogue among its large and talented cast allows for character interactions that feel natural (full of inarticulates and the like) instead of coming across as written archetypes. Its these charms that have thankfully allowed Parenthood to fly under the radar, with a dedicated audience helping it survive the low-ratings onslaught that is NBC, year after year.

Centering around the large and diverse Braverman family, Parenthood usually manages to find enough time to develop engrossing stories for each of its many characters. As eldest son Adam, Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) is reliably at the top of his game in every episode, fully realizing the struggle of a father whose son has aspergers syndrome, with Max Burkholder also doing excellent work as the son. Later seasons find Adam dealing with issues at work, a new baby, and most recently his wife Kristina's cancer (another expertly executed character, played by Monica Potter). Additionally, Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls), as Adam's younger sister Sarah, displays expert light-heartedness as a career-less single mother taking her shortcomings with a smile and self-deprecating wisecrack, while she becomes involved in various love triangles and her teenage son Drew deals with his first romance. Even more of a standout is Mae Whitman (Arrested Development) as Sarah's daughter Amber, impressively demonstrating range and depth well beyond her years, as Amber struggles to balance her education with her rebellious past and later develops a sweet relationship with a young veteran. Another surprise standout has been Dax Shepherd, bringing real pathos to youngest son/man-child Crosby as he tries to grow up after meeting his five-year-old son Jabbar, eventually fully rising to the occasion as a (mostly) responsible provider for his family. As the overachieving youngest sister Julia, Erika Christensen has been given more substantial material in the most recent season, being forced to juggle her successful legal career with the ordeal of adopting a nine year-old child, as her stay-at-home husband/father to their daughter Sydney goes back to work. The cast is rounded out by brash family patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and his crafty wife Camille (Bonnie Bedelia).

If you're a fan of Friday Night Lights, or even an outright comedy like Modern Family, you should check out Parenthood and be prepared to quickly become invested in the lives of the Braverman clan. The sheer likability and reliability of the cast alone should keep you coming back for more, while the series' innate authenticity will have you championing the (perpetually snubbed) series every awards season. With plenty of humor and heart, each season, perhaps even each episode, of Parenthood seamlessly demonstrates how it truly is one of television's most underrated gems.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Why Aren't You Watching: The Mindy Project

Premiering September 17th at 9:30pm with its second season, FOX's The Mindy Project was an early favorite among most critics, topping many a best new show list. However, its buzz quickly faded as it spent half of the first season figuring out the right balance of work and play, as some actors slowly receded from the show and others became more fleshed out. Now secure in its structure, The Mindy Project is simultaneously an ensemble office sitcom with plenty of hilarious characters and a modern dating comedy following a confidant, successful woman, whose fully realized perspective is both ridiculous and identifiable. Much like the way classic comedies Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm are built around the values, opinions, and comedic sensibilities of their creators Louis C.K. and Larry David, The Mindy Project is predominantly defined by its creator, Mindy Kaling (as OB-GYN Dr. Mindy Lahiri). So if you aren't a fan of her's, then this show is probably not for you, but if you are, then you will love it and if you're neutral, you may quickly become one, as her witty ruminations and willingness to look like a fool provide the perfect substitute for Tina Fey in the absence of 30 Rock and Liz Lemon.

Although the series opens with a voice-over narration by Mindy (and some subsequent episodes do as well), it is revealed she is just telling some stranger way too much about her life, not writing into her computer like Carrie Bradshaw as this show is actually pretty far from Sex and the City or even Girls. In fact, a big part of the mid-season retooling was to shift the focus further form Mindy's relationship with her underdeveloped gal pals, and emphasize the character of her rich and riotous coworkers. The most prominently ridiculous of which is the ex-convict turned nurse Morgan (Ike Barinholtz, who like Mindy is also a writer for the series), who fancies himself Mindy's personal guardian angel and relationship guru after she took a chance on him by bringing him into the practice in episode two. He's loaded with obscure foibles and equally specific opinions about everything, much like any character on Kaling's previous series The Office, but his good heart and occasional wisdom outweigh his quirky ditziness. However, the most fully developed character aside from Mindy herself is fellow OB-GYN partner Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina, who you may recognize as playing a fantastic douche in various movies and shows, and other small roles). Danny and Mindy's relationship could easily become one of those will-they-won't-they type things so common in sitcoms featuring single people, however it has been treated as purely platonic thus far, as Danny began the series harshly critical foil for Mindy (one of her voice-over monologues is revealed to be given to Danny on the subway, who quickly explains they are not train buddies and that she simply saw him by coincidence, then sat next to him and wouldn't stop talking) though they eventually become true friends as the first season progresses (one great episode revolved around him contesting of their friendship, explaining he could be her OB-GYN since he has no feeling for her but that she would get all girly about it, leading to a hilarious game of uncomfortable chicken during an exam, pictured above). What makes Danny such a great character is not merely his richly complex relationship with Mindy, but also his own outrageous opinions and eccentricities, such as his excessive sweating and stereotypically manly values (which are often subverted, as when he screams seeing Mindy in her psycho serial killer sleep mask which she wears in case of a real murderer, whom she presumes will say "eh, too many cooks in the kitchen" and leave when he sees her).

Additional characters like the wholesomely naive receptionist Betsy (Zoe Jarmon), the slightly deranged office veteran Beverly (Beth Grant), and the self-centered British cad Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks) also have many funny moments, though the second season will likely present them with more frequent opportunities to grow dimensionally and offer more consistent laughs, now that the core cast has been settled. Aside from the now established office dynamics, Mindy's romantic life is an area of the show that has already found its comedic and narrative footing. As a self-proclaimed romantic comedy obsessive from the outset, Mindy's dates often involve some kind of genre trope, however they are often flipped around in unexpectedly humorous ways as she learns to move beyond her childhood/hollywood ideals to develop unique and meaningful connections. It also helps that the series features a variety of excellent guest stars for said relationships, including Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, The Office's B.J. Novak, and Workaholics' Anders Holm as Mindy's various romantic interests. The League's Mark Duplass also recurs as one of two holistic mid-wife brothers (the other played by his real life brother and writing/directing partner Jay Duplass), who occupy the space above the stars' medical practice and are constantly trying to steal their patients, solidifying an office rivalry. Of course Mindy ends up involved with him in some way as well, as his charm is able to overcome his self-righteous douchebaggery, if only temporarily. All in all, The Mindy Project is an exceptionally worthy addition to the ranks of quality feminist comedies, offering a fully realized portrait of a modern single woman who knows who she is, is great at what she does, and makes you laugh out loud throughout.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Procedurals with Pedigree: Burn Notice

Regardless of how consistent a show stays creatively, its always nice when the creators are still able to end it properly. One of the earliest shows in the "Characters Welcome" light-hearted drama rebrand of USA, Burn Notice is one such show that has kind of lost itself in recent years, but is now only a couple episodes away from wrapping up its seventh and final season on its own terms. In fact, although Burn Notice was one of the shows that pioneered the USA-procedural model, it has now become a heavier more serious serialized story, critically altering the fun spirit that made it so uniquely enjoyable in the first place. However, seasons 1-4 (and some of 5) are generally the perfect mix of wry humor, intense action, and intriguing storylines that make for an excellent procedural.

The basics of the plot is CIA operative Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) is suddenly "burned" (aka blacklisted for suspicious activity etc.) during an op and then wakes up in his hometown of Miami after talking us through his tactics as he escaped. Yes a key part of the shows formula is that Michael narrates for the viewer, explaining the strategies in effect and providing recipes for various make-shift explosives, as something is blown up in pretty much every singe episode. This is one of the shows key charms, as it provides insight into the mind of a field operative, while demonstrating interesting how-to-be-a-spy tips using everyday objects, as Michael ends up working sort of as a spy-for-hire. Which brings us to one of the shows other key charms: the wonderful Bruce Campbell as ex-Navy SEAL Sam Axe, an old acquaintance of Michael's who sets him up with his "new job" helping everyday people and quickly becomes his loyal best friend (Sam is such a favorite, he even has his own special movie, a prequel revealing how he ended up in Miami himself). He also provides much of the comic relief, in addition to other recurring acquaintances and some of the criminals too, with his deep appreciation for a good drink and generous woman, as well as his strong moral conviction. Rounding out the core crew is Michael's Irish ex-girlfriend (she drops the accent in the second episode for a more plain one however) Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), who he originally met while undercover and is the driving force behind the majority of the series' explosions. Michael's mother also provides a regular dose of comedy in the earlier seasons (a particularly grim storyline late in the series ruins that a little though), however Maddie (Sharon Gless) can certainly hold her own as she often ends up fulfilling some hands-on role in an operation. The team is eventually joined by former counter-intelligence officer Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), who gets involved in the conspiracy surrounding Michael and of course serves to add some fresh blood to the show when he joins in its 4th season as well (somewhat successfully).

Like any quality procedural, Burn Notice also has a serialized element, centering on Michael's search of answers surrounding his burn notice. Michael is known rather infamously across the globe, a true expert in his craft who did some very violent things all in service of his country, a cause he is beyond loyal to. So upon his arrival to Miami, where he is also trapped for the first few seasons (another part of the initial premise, keeping a spy in one place, that was unfortunately all but abandoned in later seasons), he begins following various trails to find the people responsible. It starts small by exploiting his FBI tails, but eventually he is contacted by the organization involved who want him to work for them, and he infiltrates them long enough to figure out the extent of their reach, finally getting back in with the CIA. Now after the show does that, things go all over the place in tone as the real mastermind arises and is then messily handled, resulting in a full serialized second enemy-making of the CIA leading into the current and final season, following one mission that will finally clear him with the company once and for all. But to go back to the positive elements of the show that make it worth your time, Burn Notice does a great job with recurring characters and villains. Be it the aforementioned FBI tales that show up later on for help, or the various employees of the mysterious organization behind his blacklisting, Burn Notice casts phenomenal actors for these arcs. Helpful characters like Barry the money launderer and Sugar the drug dealer are often further sources for great comic relief, while returning villains like Brennen the arms dealer (Jay Karnes) and Michael's sadistic mentor Larry.

The real joy of watching Burn Notice is really just watching the weekly cases however, as we get to see Michael and the team put on different personas and accents to con criminals and help out the little guy. It works perfectly as great entertainment you don't have to think too hard about, like Magnum P.I. meets MacGyver meets James Bond, but not mindless either. Its was a great demonstration of how a hardened spy can come around to make a difference in everyday people's lives, and reconnect with the people he left behind (his mom, his brother, his true love) when he honorably volunteered to service his country as one of the best. And although Burn Notice often fell into a formula which each case involving a plan A that became a plan B and then a in-the-moment plan C, it was still great to watch it all unfold each week, as even similar cases offered plenty of surprise. As long as you enjoy it for what it is, and don't get too bogged down in its mythology, Burn Notice is a lot of fun and a true testament to the success of USA's model (despite eventually being outdone by White Collar and the previously posted on Suits).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Modern Classics: Breaking Bad

Another new post series, Modern Classics will call out the shows whose legacies are established, or all but guaranteed, as classic examples of the golden age of television. It should surprise no one that are first inductee is AMC's Breaking Bad, currently airings its final episodes Sundays at 9pm. Whether you've seen the show or not (and if not, it should be near the top of your list), Breaking Bad is almost unanimously hailed as one of the greatest shows on TV, stealing the spotlight from network sibling Mad Men (and numerous best actor Emmys from Jon Hamm). The basic premise saw mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, solidifying himself as one the most skilled actors working today) resort to cooking crystal meth so he could pay for cancer treatments and leave his family a nest egg when he's gone. However, as viewers know now more than ever, that barely scratches the surface of both Walt and the darkly humorous drug drama filled with so much tension that it could snap a suspension bridge. Nearly every one of Breaking Bad's soon-to-be 62 episodes features a seemingly game-changing, season-finale-caliber moment, one of those edge-of-your-seats scenes that seem to go on forever as you simultaneously want it to be over so you can relax while also savoring every delicious second, wondering how our "heroes" will make it out or continue their "work." This kind of pressure alone would be enough to render Breaking Bad must-watch television (and an especially dangerous show to binge, say goodbye to whatever else you had planned before you started watching), but what truly elevates the series are the carefully crafted artistic elements of the acting, writing, and cinematography, pulled together with painstaking detail.

Cranston somehow makes us root for Walt, from his humble beginnings through his deplorable desperation, only really giving us cause to question Walt's underlying motivations towards the end of the fourth season. Its understandable that a chemist who spent his whole life following the rules and being oppressed by inferior intellects, only to develop lung cancer from secondhand smoke, would want to take control of his own destiny and finally capitalize on his vast scientific skill. However, now witnessing more clearly the role Walt's ego had on his decision to become Heisenberg, the driving force that keeps him in the "empire business" beyond his initial calculations of what was to be his original financial goal, we remember his refusal to accept charity from a former partner who made millions off of Walt's own idea for a company. It was always his pride which drew him to the illegal drug industry, his pride and his arrogance, resolutely believing that since he could make a superior product (the only crystal meth that is over 99% pure) he should also be the one to control its manufacturing and distribution. Of course it was his DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris, who developed the character from simple Alpha-male foil to sympathetically in-over-his-head lawman) who first introduced Walt to the wonderful world of meth, leading him to establish his partnership with high school drop-out Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, balancing Jesse's hilarious comic relief with heartbreaking depth... bitch). A former student of Mr. White, Jesse is both Walt's greatest beneficiary and his most tragic victim. Its Walt's own ego that allows him to continue to act as a father figure for Jesse, going beyond merely educating and protecting him as he ultimately seeks to control him for his own ultimate benefit, ruining any other (perhaps more healthy) relationships Jesse has the chance to develop and any innocence he has left with manipulation and greed.

In fact, Walt brings about such destruction, misery, and death to those around him that he himself could even be considered the cancer, slowly spreading the increasingly painful and detrimental side effects of his mission across an unsuspecting Albuquerque. Every time Walt goes deeper into the criminal underworld and the dark amoral outlook it breeds, his body count grows as does the number of people affected by his reprehensible actions. Whether it is inevitable, as when he and Jesse bite off more than they can chew with the violently unstable Tuco, or even justifiable, as when he protects Jesse from the dealers who killed his friend, Walt is surrounded by death and suffering. Although unintentionally, Walt is also responsible for the transition of his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) from paranoid-but-unwitting bystander to active-but-disturbed participant, a woman whose priority was always family forced to alienate her oblivious sister and children. Then when Walt meets his match in Gus Fring (Guancarlo Esposito, quiet and controlled), a man who personifies Walt's self-image of a true professional and sees through his egotistical volatility, he eventually overcomes his imposed state of remission to come back stronger than ever and take control of the empire he feels he so entitled to. Even in the gorgeously sprawling cinematography, Walt is often the lone blemish on pure view of lush desert scenery. However, Heisenberg's greatest victim just may be Walt himself, as a decent hard-working man devolves from deciding whether or not to kill a low-level banger who threatened him with a pros and cons list to impulsively firing a gun on a retired former partner who merely chided him for acting out on his ego.

Of course, regardless of all the artistic depth that enhances the series, Breaking Bad offers a story that is just plain entrancing as it takes you inside a fully realized world with an abundance of unpredictable developments that are always adding new dimensions to the immense plot and intriguing characters. It provides insight into every single aspect of the drug world as we witness an amateur become a kingpin, trading not only his own soul, but the lives of every one around him. A ground-breaking show following an unfortunate, but decent antihero as he descends into the abyss and emerges the desperate monster he probably was all along. Even as we all wait with bated breath to discover the ultimate fate of Walt (and the other characters as well, Bob Odenkirk's slippery lawyer Saul actually has a potential prequel-or-sequel spin-off in the works), it seems abundantly clear where he is going when this is all over.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

So, How Is: Under the Dome

This summer the broadcast networks have started offering more scripted series in an attempt to keep up with cable (finally) and some, such as NBC's underrated hour-long comedy Camp (Wednesdays at 10pm) are even proving worthwhile (not sure the same can be said of ABC's Mistresses...). CBS in particular took a big gamble this summer with an adaptation of Stephen King's Under the Dome (Mondays at 10pm), a big high-concept serialized drama that seems to contradict with the network's bread-and-butter procedural dramas like NCIS and The Good Wife. Their risk seems to be paying off, as the show has done well enough halfway through its run to warrant a renewal for a second season, thanks to the cache of King's name and a rich streaming deal with Amazon Prime (episodes are available on the service four days after they air). Of course success is all well and good, but how does Under the Dome fair creatively?

The basic premise of the series is a small town called Chester's Mill and its inhabitants are all suddenly trapped under a mysterious clear dome one fateful day. This means people passing through are stuck, people out of town are locked out, and all communication with the outside world is terminated as well. Upon realizing that they could be in this predicament for a while, local car salesman and councilman 'Big Jim' Rennie (Breaking Bad's Dean Norris, relishing the chance to get his hands dirty) seizes the opportunity to take charge and maintain order in the town, though his true motivations are not always clear, as he was also involved with some shady dealings pre-dome that left him with a large secret stash of much-needed propane. Big Jim butts heads with other well-established members of the town, as well as his sociopathic son Junior (Alexander Koch), who's attachment to summer fling Angie (Life Unexpected's Britt Robertson) is particularly disturbing. Additionally, former-soldier Dale 'Barbie' Barbara (Bates Motel's Mike Vogel) is trapped in town after burying the body of local reporter Julia Shumway's surgeon husband (Rachelle Lefevre), making for some one-sided awkwardness when Barbie is invited to stay with her and sees a photo of the man he just killed in her home. Despite this dark secret, Barbie actually fits the role of defacto hero for the series, often offering his military skills to help Big Jim or in-over-her-head local Sheriff Linda Esquivel (Natalie Martinez).

The central cast (a lot of people have died so far...) is rounded out by local teen Joe (Colin Ford) and Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz), who was passing through town with her two moms. Joe and Norrie's storyline is actually one of the most intriguing, as the two experience strange simultaneous seizures that have them muttering about "pink stars falling in lines," leading Julia to suspect that they have some kind of connection with the oddly-charged dome. With each episode comes new revelations about the dome (it cuts through the ground, its apparently indestructible) and new insights into the characters (the reason Barbie was in town, Big Jim and Junior's relationship), a formula that resembles the one pioneered in Lost, but done in a much more cursory manner. Although the characters and plot-points aren't quite as detailed as those in the ground-breaking Lost (which spawned numerous failed attempts to replicate its success with sprawling casts and mysteries), Under the Dome's isolated small town setting allows it to explore new ideas about human nature, while steadily building its own mythology at a brisk pace. Compared to the even glossier Revolution on NBC (which actually plays more like a PG Walking Dead), Under the Dome does a far better job of balancing a dense plot with interesting and more fully dimensional characters, and although it still isn't as engrossing as it probably could be, it still offers a unique narrative that viewers will find rewarding.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Posts from the Past: Franklin & Bash v. Suits


Welcome to a new series where we will offer updates of previous posts from Addicted to Television, The Idiot Box's predecessor. Written two years ago when the summer brought the premieres of two lighthearted legal shows, TNT's Franklin & Bash on Wednesdays and USA's Suits on Thursdays (currently airing on Tuesdays), this post compared the seemingly similar buddy-lawyer procedurals. Of course, after two full seasons of each (Suits has 29 episodes leading in to its third season, which began two weeks ago, while Franklin & Bash has aired 27 episodes, including its third season so far which will end in three weeks) the differences between them are much more apparent. While both generally offer a new case each week, Suits has actually become more serialized over time, with big cases that continue into later episodes and plenty of hostile firm politics. Franklin & Bash meanwhile, sticks more closely to the traditional legal procedural format with little serialization outside of individual character development. Although a show about lawyers and their cases/firms is nothing new, each series attempts to liven up the proceedings with its own fresh take and style on this familiar genre.

Yes Franklin & Bash is the more straightforward of the two, but its also more outrightly comedic, as both the characters and the cases can be a bit off the wall. The show follows bus-stop bench defense attorneys Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, forever Saved by the Bell's Zack) who abandon their strategy of running after car accident victims and defending hookers to join a large reputable firm run by the eccentric Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell, clearly enjoying himself just as much as Meyer and Gosselaar). However, despite their new positions, the two remain in their trashy house where there's always a party going on, and even bring that atmosphere to the office as they breakdown walls (literally, turning their two offices into one giant shared space). This latest season saw a bit of a shake-up, with them moving to a Infeld's spare Malibu beach house after their agoraphobic roommate/associate Pindar (comedian Kumail Nanjiani) accidentally burns down their home, allowing them to continue Infeld's apparent feud with neighbor Rob Lowe (who finally appears in the finale). This season also brought in a new managing partner, the no-nonsense Rachel King (Heather Locklear), who fills the requisite (but previously absent) role of hard-ass foil to the boys beyond-unorthodox style and freewheeling tactics. A rotating roster of prosecutors and judges who recognize Jared and Peter's infamous reputation for court room shenanigans further liven up the proceedings and give the stars more characters to play off of, as does Infeld's overly-serious nephew Damien Karp (Reed Diamond). Essentially, Franklin & Bash reveals how two immature frat bros became extremely successful LA attorneys in spite of their blatant unprofessionalism, because, with this being a legal procedural, they always find an out-of-the-box way to win their case in the end.

Although its basic premise may be a bit more outlandish, Suits is actually the more authentic program in its overall plot and execution. the central character is unfulfilled prodigy Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a college dropout who copes with his failed goals by smoking pot and getting paid to pass the LSATs and BAR exams for other people. However, while running from the cops, he ends up in an interview for an associates position at a prestigious corporate law firm that only hires from Harvard. In the interview, senior partner Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), incidentally the best closer in New York, is so impressed by Mike's ability to absorb information (he happens to have a photographic-level memory) and his sheer "unlawyerness" that he offers him the job, despite the fact that he doesn't have a degree. This secret between them, and naturally Harvey's beyond-loyal and hilarious secretary Donna (Sarah Rafferty, who has great rapport with not just Harvey but every other character on the show), is eventually revealed to a few additional members of the firm, but the stakes surrounding it remain high. One such member is actually the firm's no-nonsense head and Harvey's calm mentor, Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), another strong and successful woman in a seat of power similar to Rachel King. While season one revolves around cases of the week (which include interesting insights into corporate legal matters and business affairs, unlike the more courtroom-oriented proceedings of Franklin & Bash) that are framed by Mike's adjustment to his new lifestyle and apprenticeship under Harvey, season two amps up the series' mythology as Jessica's former partner, the deviously smug Daniel Hardman, returns to seize control of the firm after being ousted by Harvey for embezzlement and infidelity. Aside from these heavy plot developments, the show still has a very light and humorous atmosphere, as the witty banter and incessant film-quoting between arrogant prick Harvey and well-meaning optimist Mike represents the core of the show. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Mike's requisite love interest, paralegal Rachel Zane (the stunning Meghan Markle), and the initially antagonistic Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman) who is head of the firm's associates. Litt is actually a perfect example of how the show carefully establishes the various dimensions of its characters, as his rocky relationship with Harvey is examined while he tries to develop a more collaborative one with Mike (not to mention that he is also a huge source of comedy on the show, as his precise and extravagant tastes allow for plenty of mockery and gags about his social ineptitude). Compared to USA's other lighthearted procredurals like White Collar and Royal Pains, Suits is almost like their own version of Mad Men, that is to say it is a slick office drama with excellent writing and a little edgier than the standard USA formula.

While both shows have leading pairs with great chemistry and are solid lighthearted entertainment, Franklin & Bash is even lighter and plays more like a comedy. The actors on the TNT show are all clearly having a blast, as the show is fairly obvious with its humor and lack of seriousness, much like the series' eponymous duo. Contrastingly, Suits takes a more subtle approach to comedy, framing it with plenty of drama to up the stakes and the audience's investment. Although both are wonderfully entertaining series that are worth watching, Franklin & Bash's more traditional formula renders it less exciting than Suits' more original stories and more fully developed characters, which help establish a greater authenticity that really draws you in instead of merely providing you with a fun way to kill 42 minutes.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Newbies: Graceland

A new edition to USA's blue-skies procedural line up, Graceland (Thursdays at 10) just may be the network's edgiest series yet. Don't get me wrong though, in general the show is still done in the same light drama style of Burn Notice or White Collar, but if Suits is the USA version of Mad Men, Graceland is almost like their version of The Shield in a way. Not to say that it is USA's best show, or even resembles The Shield too closely (it isn't and it doesn't), but Graceland does feature more of the gritty side to undercover detective work, including some brutal violence and hard drug use. The premise is that the FBI uses a seized kingpin's Los Angeles beach estate as a house for various FBI, DEA, and Customs agents who work undercover in the area (the kingpin loved Elvis, so the name stuck). The diversity of agencies involved allows the show to delve into a variety of cases and characters, helping to mix up the standard formula of close-ended cases in each episode framed by an ongoing serialized story arc.

One way Graceland sets itself apart from other USA programming is its large central cast of six agents who live in the house together, though four of them are FBI. An episode will generally feature a stand alone case belonging to one of the agents (and sometimes as many as three cases), and the other housemates will then join in for the specific missions to help bring down the bad guys. Similar to semi-procedural shows like FX's Justified or BBC America's Copper, some cases in Graceland also spill over into subsequent episodes so a viewer is rewarded for their loyalty. Much more like a USA show however, the agents on assignment are often joking around with each other, making as much fun as they can out of their situations, until things get serious during a mission. Additionally, having six primary characters allows for a lot of different match-ups, as each episode rotates which agent's current target will be focused on and which other agents help them complete their assignment, portraying different types of cases depending on the leading agency and allowing the audience to gain more insight into the various dynamics of the house.

The central character however is fresh FBI rookie Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit), who soon discovers he has been assigned to Graceland to investigate Agent Briggs (Rescue Me's Daniel Sunjata), a modern FBI legend who has been at Graceland longer than anyone, though his tactics often prove unorthodox. This task will of course prove more difficult as Briggs serves as a mentor to Mike, helping him through missions and putting him on track to take down the biggest Heroin dealer in the city by eventually becoming his personal bodyguard. Briggs' isn't just Graceland's oldest resident though, he also acts as its protector, with his highest priority being to preserve the headquarters' cover under any circumstances. The cast is rounded out by two more FBI Agents, the blunt Brooklyn-bred Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito) who typically covers as a junkie and the fun loving Johnny (Manny Montana) who can cover as a Latin gang member. There's also the requisite potential love interest in DEA agent Paige (Serinda Swan) (unless that role turns out to be filled by Charlie, or refreshingly by none of them perhaps), and no-nonsense Customs Agent Dale Jakes (Brandon Jay McLaren, previously of Falling Skies and The Killing) whose cover is often Jamaican.

Despite all its edginess, in the end this is still a USA drama, meaning nothing quite too heavy and a show that will probably never equal the addictive must-watch caliber of more substantial dramas found on networks like HBO or AMC (although Suits does get much closer to that status and is certainly must-watch television). However, Graceland is still a fun show that dares to delve deeper into the lives of young undercover agents and their high stakes assignments with a relatively unfiltered lens, while also basking in the lighter aspects of six younger people living in a beach house together (such as horsing around or bickering over the chore wheel).

Friday, July 12, 2013

If You're Missing Louie, Try: Legit or Maron

With Louie taking a longer hiatus this year (returning early 2014), there is a comedian shaped hole in the schedule this summer. Although there is no real substitute for the bleak hilarity of Louis C.K.'s half-hour masterpiece, two new series that recently finished their first runs do fit the bill for being situational comedies based on the observational humor and vision of one comedian who stars as himself. The first is another FX comedy, Legit, which premiered in January and is moving to FXX (which is launching this Fall with Its Always Sunny and The League) for its second season. Legit is the brainchild of Australian comedian Jim Jefferies (Not to be confused with Wilfred's Jason Gan) and it follows him as he returns to the US to enhance is profile and lead a more legitimate lifestyle for his own sake as well as his mother's. The second alternative is IFC's Maron (which just wrapped up its first season after premiering in May), following the comedian's comedian Marc Maron as he struggles to turn his popular WTF podcast into more tangible success, while resisting mature adulthood for as long as he can.

Legit begins with Jim being picked up from the airport by his hapless buddy Steve (Veep's Dan Bakkedah), whose family he lived with as a foreign exchange student. Steve also has a younger brother named Billy (DJ Qualls) who suffers from MS and lives in a group home. Jim agrees to grant Billy's last wish of experiencing a woman, and soon after ends up liberating him from his depressing living situation altogether, allowing him to experience the alcohol/drug/sex-fueled and laid-back lifestyle he never had the opportunity to before. All this is despite the protests of Billy and Steve's high-strung and overbearing mother (Lily Tomlin), who always hated Jim. The cast is rounded out by Billy's old mentally challenged roommate Rodney (who is actually pretty high functioning) and his large opinionated caretaker Ramona. Although these characters appear in many of the episodes (only Jim, Steve, and Billy are in all of them), each episode typically features its own singular story with new characters involved, providing new comic fodder for Jim's observations (delivered more like rants to various people, without scenes of stand-up performances like in Louie). This basic set up actually allows for plenty of surprising laugh-out-loud developments, such as when Jim completely shatters the worldview of a shy personal trainer, revealing to him that physical fitness has nothing to do with happiness or the ability to pick up women. Jim also passes his knowledge of the opposite sex and quick pickup tactics onto Billy and Steve, although he does run into some trouble himself when he has an affair with a local celebrity who must then be smuggled past paparazzi in a suitcase. Much like Louie, it is difficult to fully describe Legit, as its format can change up a little episode to episode (although there is a cold open scene in each episode, similar to Louie's regular stand-up scenes). However, it is actually much more consistently hilarious, as Jim Jefferies trades Louie's bleak resignation and often dark comedy for a more optimistic perspective that also preaches equality, even if that sense of equality entails mocking and taking advantage of your disabled friend just as much as you do everyone else.

Although not as consistently funny as Legit, Maron is probably more in line with Louie's comedic sensibility, although it tends to be more grounded in reality. However, much like the way Louie features numerous scenes of stand-up throughout an episode, Maron features various snippets of Marc doing his podcast (both of him interviewing that episode's celebrity guest and just monologuing) that tie into the events of the episode (a trope that was first pioneered in Seinfeld before Louie). Furthermore, Maron is more similar to Louie in that Maron himself is essentially the only star of the show, although there are a few characters like his father and his assistant who appear in a few episodes (like Louie's daughters). Maron also involves a lot of middle-aged dating (though he typically dates well below his age) and ruminating on the various other issues that concern the forty-something single man (as opposed to the mid-30s Jefferies). In addition to dating, another topic commonly addressed in Maron is the state of his career, as he is a contemporary of successful comedians like Louis C.K. (he even appeared in a great episode of Louie this last season) and Sarah Silverman, but has nowhere near their level of fame. As a result, it may not be so surprising that Maron is also even more pessimistic and cynical than Louie (so on the bitterness scale, its Legit-Louie-Maron, which is perhaps the strongest difference between the three), but he knows it and everyone around him calls him out on it so one aspect of the series entails him trying to be better, whether that means taking care of more things around his house or dating more seriously women than slutty comedy fans. One of the best episodes of the season featured Marc at lunch with an old college friend, who is now a successful mainstream director, so he can get a part in one of his movies. The episode features various fantasy scenes of how Maron's life would have been altered had he went on slightly different paths, revealing the pros and cons to those other lifestyles (another great episode featured Maron becoming an AA sponsor to an ex-con played my Danny Trejo and accompanying him around LA to help him turn his life around). I'm sure Maron is a pretty direct representation of his podcast only in a scripted format, though I've never listened to it myself and its not at all a prerequisite for watching the series.

So between the two, I'd recommend Legit first, as it features more unexpectedness and hilarity in its execution, although Maron is probably the one that fits closer to the tone of Louie. Either way, its still along way until 2014, so why not try both? At the very least they will help tide you over (and there's always Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns as well, to further help you fill that comedian-sitcom void...)

Friday, June 28, 2013

So, How Is: Family Tree

If you enjoyed the pioneering mockumentary films Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap,  and A Mighty Wind, you should be able to slip right into writer-director-actor Christopher Guest's latest project Family Tree, which is currently airing its first season on HBO Sundays. Although it starts off slow, after the first six episodes (there are eight in the first season) the more cinematic vision for the series becomes clear, as the show seeks to examine the important role family and ancestry has on a person's identity or lack thereof, while also revealing how absurd some of those family members can be. Family Tree is also extremely deadpan, relying on a subtle tone to balance out the sheer ridiculousness of many of the characters and underplay the wackiness of various gags.

The central character is Tom Chadwick (Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd), whose life in his hometown of London hasn't been as fulfilling as he would like, since his long-term girlfriend recently devestated him and he has no job or prospects on the horizon. When Tom visits his aspiring-inventor father (Michael McKean), who loves broad cheesy British sitcoms (which are all fake by the way, created specifically for the show) and remarried an eccentric foreigner named Luba, he learns about a great-aunt Victoria who just died and left him a box full of photographs and other small heirlooms. With little else going on his life, Tom delves into the box to learn about his ancestry, taking some of the items to a local antique shop where the owner (Jim Piddock, who co-writes the show with Guest) provides him with some history and directs him where else he should go to learn more about his family. A misleading photo suggests Tom's great-grandfather is a prestigious military man, but he soon discovers that he was only a small-time actor who often played the rear end of a pantomime horse. Another photograph reveals that his grandfather was a participant in the poorest Olympic Games ever, and a visit to his country cousins uncovers the secret behind a riff that developed between them and his family.

Tom's discovery that his great-great-grandfather was actually born in the US is what really allows the series to pick up greater comedic momentum, as Tom meets eccentric American cousins played by Ed Begley Jr. and Christopher Guest, who hail from Los Angeles and North Carolina respectively (the always hilarious Fred Willard also appears as Begley's obnoxious neighbor). Once there, Tom reaches out to Civil War reenactors to solve a mystery involving two separate pictures of their great-great-grandfather, one featuring him dressed as a union soldier and the other as a confederate. Of course the answer opens up new doors into their heritage. The cast is rounded out by Tom's dopey, but loyal, childhood friend Pete (Tom Bennett), whose always good for a laugh, as well as Tom's quirky older sister Bea and her pal Monkey (Nina Conti). You see Bea had a traumatic zoo experience as a child, so a therapist had her communicate via a monkey puppet, and she's used him ever since as her "inner voice," aka a way for her to be crude and say whatever she's thinking (Conti is an excellent ventriloquist and, for the most part, Monk is treated as his own witty character). Much has been made about Bea and Monk being the most entertaining regular cast members, or even the only reason worth watching, and while I might disagree on those finer points there's no denying that they are a hilarious pair that provide many of the series' laugh-out-loud moments. However, if you give Family Tree a chance and stick around for the whole season (which is probably best watched binge-style), you'll come to appreciate its subtle brand of eccentric family comedy for yourself.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why Aren't You Watching: Copper

BBC America began airing original dramas last year, in addition to their typical rebroadcasting of British shows like Doctor Who, and if the quality of their first two series are any indication,  they will quickly ascend into the ranks of AMC and FX as a cable channel with excellent dramas. Their first entry into original programming was last summer's Copper (the second, clone-conspiracy-thriller Orphan Black, recently wrapped up a phenomenal first season and might actually be worth checking out first), which returns for a second season this Sunday at 10pm, and can essentially be described as Homicide meets Gangs of New York. While that basic premise of following the 1860s police investigations is pretty compelling on its own, Copper moves beyond simple procedural to delve into the lives of its various characters with twisty serialized storylines as well.

The show centers on New York City detective Kevin "Corky" Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), a brash, but honorable Irish immigrant who served the union in the civil war. He's a particularly effective detective in a time where threats and violence are appropriate interrogation techniques, where the use of brass knuckles or a cane/club are not only accepted, but down right necessary in a city teeming with racial, ethnic, and national turmoil. In addition to brute force, Corky also relies on his friend Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), a member of his Regiment in the war, for some pre-forensic style crime scene and corpse analysis that he passes off as his own due diligence to his superior, since these methods are not yet respected by the police department. Through Freeman we witness some of the struggles of being black in 19th century New York, as he leaves the city for a more solemn and peaceful life with his wife Sara in the country, though it unfortunately is not always that safe either. Corky's friends also include his partners on the force, low class-but earnest detective  Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan) and the physically imposing-but henpecked husband Andrew O'Brien (Dylan Taylor). These two accompany Kevin on many of his cases, particularly his top priority of discovering who killed his daughter and what happened to his wife, who was gone when he returned from the war.

Kevin's loss of his own daughter spurs his keen interest in a case involving another young girl, the orphan Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco), whom he protects and sets up to live in the upper class home of Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith), despite her protests. Elizabeth seems to have taken a special liking to Corky, but she's not alone, as the local Madam, the scheming Eva Heissen (Franka Potente), harbors deep affection and a severe longing for the romantically (though not sexually) disinterested detective. The cast is rounded out by another former Regiment member and current friend, the wealthy heir Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), who owes a great debt to Corky and Freeman for saving his life by amputating his leg on the battlefield. Morehouse is another valuable asset for the detective when his investigations lead him from the poverty and violence stricken Five Points to the posh Uptown neighborhood, as his time in the war has widened his privileged perception to embrace equality among the various nationalities. The typically fun-loving Morehouse also becomes embroiled in the shady dealings of his disapproving aristocratic father and a top secret confederate plot to attack New York as well.

While Copper does excel as an intriguing period procedural, with fresh cases full of unpredictable turns, its fully realized characters and ongoing storylines are what really keep you invested in the series. Some procedural cases even spill over into subsequent episodes or, as with the Annie Reilly storyline, become serialized elements of the show. In addition to the stellar writing and acting, near-cinematic production values make you feel as though you're right there among the gangs of New York, altogether making for a gripping cable drama that truly deserves to become a classic.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gone Too Soon: The Goodwin Games

As made apparent in our recent post on the subject, every year the broadcast networks pick up a whole lot of new shows, and so every year they also cancel plenty as well. When its a good show that gets the ax it particularly stings, but what's worse is when a good show is essentially killed before it even airs and so it is sentenced to the (often summer) burn-off where it can air its meager half season in relative peace and quiet. What's baffling is why the networks spend the money and pick up these shows to begin with, sometimes even putting in extra effort (by recasting roles and hiring much-sought-after actors for example), only to offer them little to no chance of performing well in the ratings or building momentum. Although these shows are very short lived and don't get to make too big of an impact, they can still be worth checking out even if it can almost feel like a tease. Each network is guilty of mistreating potential gems, such as NBC's three week/six episode burn off of the delightfully original sitcom Bent last year (star David Walton has been on three failed NBC comedies now, and is trying again with About a Boy next season), and this year FOX is the worst offender with its inexplicable mistreatment of the well-crafted sitcom The Goodwin Games.

When this show was initially picked up, it seemed to have the ingredients for success: made by the creators of How I Met Your Mother, cast the highly sought after Becki Newton (Ugly Betty, HIMYM) and Scott Foley (Felicity, Grey's Anatomy), recast a role with an up and coming comedian (T.J. Miller), and featuring a fresh premise for family comedy and heart. Beau Bridges also stars in video tapes as the late single father who seeks to make up for his absentee parenting after their mother died by forcing three Goodwin siblings to compete in a series of games for a large inheritance. Each game is of course painstakingly designed to teach his children important lessons and help them get their lives back on track, while predicting their actions and accounting for potentially diverging outcomes. Foley plays eldest son Henry, the overachieving surgeon who is engaged to a congressional candidate and never misses an opportunity to mention either. His premature independence and unchecked arrogance have distanced him from his family and hometown, both physically and emotionally. Newton stars as a Chloe, the nerdy math genius who traded brains for popularity as a teenager and moved to LA for a "career" in acting (the most recent episode presented hilarious flashbacks to how a perverted drama teacher gave her a false sense of confidence by casting her as the star in every play and re-writing the roles to better suit her abilities so she could play such classics like "Hamletta"). Her naivety and entitlement led her to a life of financial instability without any true friends, so the games offer her the chance to earn a college degree and reconnect with the former best friend she grew to torment in high school, April Cho (Melissa Tang), who is now her father's attorney running the game. Miller plays the youngest sibling Jimmy, whose lack of supervision growing up led to further irresponsibility as he's been in and out of prison like it has a revolving door, and even tries to get away with schemes when he's back home (which proves exceedingly difficult in a small town where everyone knows each other). However, being home offers Jimmy the opportunity to see his young daughter more often, even if she demands to see a receipt for any gifts he tries to give her as he avoids her mother.

Speaking of the small town they grew up in, Granby seems poised to become another Springfield or Pawnee, though on a smaller scale. Part of the games' rules stipulate that the siblings must all move back in to their childhood home as they compete, allowing them to go back to their roots and atone for past mistakes. It also presents the opportunity for various characters in the town to help flesh out the world of the series and offer up more laughs, though it will be difficult to know how well they could have been employed in so few episodes. Unfortunately seven episodes is not really enough to build an entire world, but the fact that the potential is already so palpable after just four episodes says a lot about what this show would've become if it was given a full season and a more prominent launch (instead of the now also-but-deservedly-canceled Ben & Kate). Since the creators have a more than decent track record on HIMYM, demonstrating clear ability to develop characters and mythology in meaningful and hilarious ways, there was every reason for The Goodwin Games to succeed, as it is already revealing these roots to the lucky few who catch this show before it disappears forever.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Guilty Pleasures: Teen Wolf

Judging only by the title, most people might assume Teen Wolf, which just started its third season Monday at 10pm on MTV, is all guilt and no pleasure. However, this show is so much more than a remake of the '80s Michael J. Fox campy classic, as it actually only resembles that movie with its basic premise of a teenage boy who's life is changed drastically when he becomes a werewolf. Instead of a high school sports comedy, this version is equal parts teen drama, slasher horror, and mythological mystery, with plenty of gripping action and wry humor thrown in for good measure. The series centers on Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) as an asthmatic bench warmer (here, Lacrosse is main sport instead of basketball) whose physical health and fitness is significantly boosted after a suspicious bite. His loyal best friend "Stiles" Stilinski (Dylan O'Brien) realizes that Scott is actually now a werewolf, prompting them to spend most of the first season trying to find the out who bit Scott and how he can be cured.

Their search leads them to Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin), an older, former student of their high school, who happens to be part of a long line of "purebred" werewolves and is searching for the Alpha wolf that killed his sister and bit Scott. Part of what makes Teen Wolf so refreshing, is its deep dive into werewolf mythology, while other supernaturally themed shows present a simplistic view so they can get back to focusing on vampires (thankfully, there are none of those overexposed creatures present in this series, nor are there any zombies or witches). Scott and Stiles learn that in order to cure a non-genetic werewolf mutt, Scott must kill the Alpha that bit him, releasing himself from its control. Yes although they don't know the Alpha's human identity, it regularly shows up to force Scott into shifting and joining him in his murderous rampaging. So in addition to solving that central mystery, Scott must also work with Derek and learn to control his inner beast so he doesn't give away his true nature on the lacrosse field or attack other students or teachers in school (there are a few hulk-like emotional situations where he comes close to shifting, even some where he actually does, and he must fight to contain it).

Further complicating Scott's animal instincts and human emotions is new student Allison Argent (Crystal Reed), as the two fall hard for each other in a whirlwind of teenage love and hormones. Even worse, Scott discovers Allison's unfortunate lineage well before she does, revealing her entire family to be serious werewolf hunters (cue the inevitable Romeo & Juliet-ification of their romance). Additionally, Allison is unaware werewolves even exist, along with the rest of the town, making Stiles' Sheriff father's investigation into all of the recent animal attacks and murders particularly difficult. In addition to Scott's nurse mother and his veterinarian boss (who seems to know more than he lets on), the cast is rounded out by Allison's popular best friend and Stiles' crush, local scream queen Lydia (Holland Roden) and her lacrosse captain boyfriend Jackson (Colton Haynes). Each of these characters get more to do as the series progresses, with additional characters added in the second and third seasons. Jackson's story is particularly intriguing as he develops from a typical low-stakes-antagonistic jock who can't handle losing the spotlight to another player, to a tragically self-serving and uninformed schemer who eventually becomes a serious threat. Each of these characters also gets to experience various horror tropes throughout the series, such as having someone/thing stalk them in the dark or being haunted by gruesome, but vivid hallucinations, and the tension of these scenes is racked up effectively.

While the first season focuses on Scott's transformation and subsequent struggle, the second season presents a host of fresh mysteries for him and Stiles (and Allison) to solve, including the emergence of a deadly lizard-like shapeshifting abomination that may have a partner. And while the first season did an excellent job of slowly revealing its central mystery along with plenty of mythology, the second season does the same only with much much more. Mysteries involving the new shapeshifter, the beast-hunting Argents, and Derek's quickly growing pack develop at a brisk pace, as new revelations only breed further questions that perpetuate the story. This systematic pacing (similar to the early seasons of Vampire Diaries) keeps the show from getting bogged down in its own mythology and mysteries, as the core characters race to solve life-threatening situations in a world they only recently discovered. In addition to the captivating plotlines, its these characters that really keep you invested in the show, as their multiple theories (which will often reflect the audience's own) and ability to see the ridiculousness of their situations make them feel authentic and relatable. Furthermore, even the non-powered characters stand out as Allison breaks out of melodramatic tropes with new arrow-based skills and Stiles moves beyond simple comic relief with substantial bravery and resourcefulness.

All things considered, if you have no patience for the supernatural genre, it will be difficult to accept this series. However, if you come with an open mind, Teen Wolf is a perfect example of how many high-concept sci-fi and fantasy shows like this rise above their simple premises and low budgets (the effects in Teen Wolf can be pretty good, or absolutely horrible like the season 3 premiere's CGI animals and shattered glass) with phenomenal writing and acting. And if you are already a fan of the genre, prepare to add a new favorite to your list.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

So, How Is: Arrested Development's Revival

First things first: does The Netflick's fourth season revival of Arrested Development measure up to the high standard of elaborately plotted and riotous comedy set by the original three seasons? Thankfully, the answer (to borrow Tobias' improv skills) is a resounding YES, and... how! After seven long years of absence, the Bluths are as hopelessly and obliviously self-involved as ever in 15 wonderful episodes (most of which are over 30 minutes long, improving upon the previous seasons' broadcast standard of 22 minutes) that catch us up on what's been going on for the last five years of each character's life since the season 3 finale. Although these episodes were pitched as merely a preamble to a movie that would finally bring the family back together, they really are a main event and even benefit from binge-watching too, as there is so much going on and it is so crammed with parody that (just like the original) re-watches will prove increasingly rewarding. The new episodes feature plenty of flashbacks and flashforwards, while  many of the same scenes are shown multiple times, but from different characters' perspectives in different episodes. Each character gets a focal episode (most get two actually) where other characters make appearances and affect that story in ways the focal character (and sometimes even the audience, until they see that character's own episode) is unaware of (Michael is the only one who appears at some point in every episode), so episodes are best seen in order, for these and other surprises, at least for the first viewing. The movie may still happen, or perhaps it will just be another season, though much will depend on cast schedules and creative availability (judging by these episodes, it will still be well worth the wait if it ends up taking longer than a year again). Although it is logistically quite different from the original series and plays more like a reunion, season 4 of Arrested Development is a true gift to fans, as "the story of a wealthy family whose future was abruptly canceled" is still full of the running gags, interwoven storylines, interconnected characters, series callbacks (and easter eggs/Anns), classic cameos, abundant miscommunication, and spirit that made it so hilariously special to begin with.

Two of the new cameos include flashbacks of Seth Rogen (understated and serviceable) and Kristen Wiig (showy and perfect) as George Sr. and Lucille in their younger years, when their schemes (like the Grinch-like Lucille's Cinco de Quatro to combat "the Mexican war on May 5th" and George's BabyTock to re-purpose all those defective cornballers) were only slightly less disastrous, but just as deliciously absurd. Yes there are plenty of flashbacks revealing events set before the original series, in addition to those set during the early seasons (jokingly ripped with "Showstealer Pro" software), and those set in between the season 3 finale and Cinco de Quattro (May 4th) 5 years later. In fact there are so many cuts back and forth, that it can get difficult to follow what happened when, but it helps that many events are shown multiple times and only adds to the re-watch-ability (the extended flashbacks also use a clever Cover Flow-style streaming-video animation as a transition between past and present as well). Additional cameos include all five Richter brothers appearing throughout the season, as well as Ron Howard playing a version of himself and Isla Fisher as his illegitimate daughter (whom Michael of course mistakenly presumes is his mistress). Ben Stiller's Tony Wonder returns in a more prominent role in GOB's story, as does his wife Christine Taylor's Sally Sitwell, who may or may not also suffer from the same illness as her father. Liza Minelli's Lucille 2 has bigger role as well, now controlling a substantial piece of the Bluth Company, and we meet her brother played by Tommy Tune as well. Henry Winkler of course returns as Barry Zuckercorn (as does Scott Baio's Bob Loblaw) and we find out how he became the family's "trusted" lawyer in the first place. Mad Men's John Slattery joins the show as a similarly loopy burn-out doctor friend of Oscar's, who still providing semi-useful medical advice despite being on all kinds of drugs, while Mary Lynn Rajskub plays a new lady-friend of Oscar's named Heartfire who doesn't speak, but communicates with her own personal subtitles. The cast of comedy Central's Workaholics also cameo as airport workers, and Mae Whitman's Ann "Egg" Veal (her?)  is also back, with brand new aliases such as Blank, And, and Mouth. This is just barely scratching the surface, as most of your favorites make at least one appearance, while potential new favorites are introduced (and Michael's dead wife is finally shown briefly in a flashback with a baby George Michael, though its not specifically stated).

The new season catches up on a lot of the cultural change that has taken place in the past years, including parodies of Entourage (GOB falls in with a Bieber-esque pop star's crew), storage auction shows (after a botched trick, GOB is discovered months later on Locker Hawkers as he's auctioned off), Bravo reality shows (Lucille ends up on The Real Asian Prison Housewives of the Orange County White Collar Prison System after no one from the family shows up to testify at her trial), Mexican immigration (George Sr. plans to build a wall on the border and then sell the land to the US government), the internet (Michael gives George Michael the stair car for college and trades up to a Google Maps car with a giant camera on top), modern warfare (Buster becomes a military drone pilot, thinking its only a video game), social technology (Maeby explodes George Michael's privacy software into an empty company for the world's first anti-social network), politics (Lindsay gets involved in an illicit affair with a Herman Cain-like politician named Herbert Love), and of course many many more. All of these new cultural parodies fit in perfectly with the ones from the original episodes and further demonstrate consistency throughout the series.

While all the gags, cameos, callbacks, and the elaborately intertwined plot help make Arrested Development Redux delightfully dense with the same brand of hilarity viewers have come to expect, what really clinches season 4 as a worthwhile extension of the show's legacy is the consistency in how the characters behave. Michael continues to smother his son and misread situations, succumbing to his pride by pouring money into his eventual ghost town Sudden Valley ("That's not a great sign" he declares when a vulture lands on the mailbox next to him). Meanwhile, George Michael has logically evolved into a true Bluth boy, carefully digging himself deeper and deeper with unnecessary lies despite his trepidation (he and Michael go back and forth in an elaborate session of voice mail tag about a fictional traffic jam disaster), while exploring his developing "overt sexuality" (he also reveals his own take on the Bluth chicken dance). Maeby still seeks her parent's attention with absurd scams no matter how detrimental it is to her own well-being, even though she seems to be following in their footsteps more than she would like, while the elder Funkes' dreams of Indian enlightenment and marital rejuvenation are pushed aside for new relationships. Lindsay's relationship with activist Marky Bark makes her feel like she's finally following her stated mission, but she can't seem to let go of her old lavish lifestyle and superficiality (Marky happens to be face blind, so she's forced to keep reminding him how beautiful she is) and literally goes back and forth between liberal and ultra-conservative movements. Tobias is as oblivious as ever, attending a methadone clinic (he think its a Method One improvisational acting class) where he falls for former actress and current junky DeBrie, attempting to reignite her passion by illegally using the likenesses of the Fantastic Four (and no one would be surprised in the least by his ill-conceived vanity license plates or his eventual appearance on To Catch a Predator). George Sr. is still colluding with Lucille on business schemes (such as a sweat lodge resort for corporate bigwigs that is essentially just a simple con selling lemonade to thirsty people in the desert), but can't seem to handle the pressure like he used to, as his stress grows and his testosterone decreases. Lucille is still upper-class entitled and prejudice towards everything, thriving in her country club prison while cutting people down and laughing at her own puns. GOB is still so un-self-aware that he continues to sabotage his own chances at happiness, after turning a Christian wedding into a stage for a wildly offensive and sacrilegious illusion and later getting caught in a "roofie circle" from taking too many "forget-me-nows," losing months of his life (his colony of bees--beads?, bees!, beads?!, bees!-- is in disarray as well), while new insight into his psyche is provided by Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" as GOB slips into his old friend, darkness. Finally, Buster reacts exactly how you would expect when Lucille is arrested, later seeking out new mother figures to take care of him, and his hook is eventually replaced by something so ridiculous its best to be completely surprised by it (and its not Franklin, who unfortunately does not appear in the new episodes).

So whether you're an original fan from the series' first airing on FOX, or a binge-watcher who hopped on to this gem well after its premature demise (well you are gonna get some hop-ons), all should agree that it was worthwhile to save our Bluths. There are a few minor shortcomings however, including the aforementioned potential for chronological confusion with all the flashbacks, some sub-par green screening (due to scheduling conflicts, there are also a few short scenes where an actor had to be green screened in, which is really only noticeable because the actors weren't able to play off each other as usual and some reactions aren't quite in sync), and many of the plotlines that take place in the flash-present are left very open-ended (which is actually pretty positive actually, since the goal is for it to continue anyway). Hopefully these episodes will prove once and for all how ahead of its time this show was, and demonstrate how it can continue to thrive, creatively and hilariously, in its new medium of internet streaming.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Shrew's News: New Show Pick Ups 2013

Its that time of year again, this week the broadcast networks (and a couple cable networks) revealed which pilots they are ordering to series along with their fall schedules. With so many cancellations this year, and only a handful of last year's new series returning, there were a large number of pick ups this year and many of them are following the cable model of shorter seasons (so there will be more shows than ever this year, some with fewer episodes, but fewer or no repeats throughout the season as a result). Below is a list of all the new shows, broken out by network, and their place on the schedule (if they have one yet), along with my own take on their quality (which is based on creator pedigree, premise/cast, and their brief trailers, which are linked to in the titles). Keep in mind though that with any new show it is difficult to make a final judgement until at least a few episodes have aired, as they can change significantly from their pilots and these trailers only provide a sample. **Upcoming new summer series aren't included here, but if you'd like me to add them post in the comments)

NBC:
The Blacklist (Mon at 10pm) - Stars James Spader as a notorious fugitive who turns himself in to the FBI, offering up the list of every criminal he has ever worked with one name at a time, including those they don't even know exist. The catch is that he will only speak to a rookie agent he seemingly has no connection to. Verdict: Apparently this was NBC's highest testing pilot ever, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Spader oozes charisma, but it seems like this will largely be a procedural with a new criminal targeted each week. Future episodes will reveal if it can live up to its substantial hype.

Ironside (Wed at 10pm) - A remake of the 60s-70s procedural following a wheelchair-bound cop, this time starring Blair Underwood and Greek's Spencer Grammer. The trailer is filled with classic rule-breaking tough cop cliches (like dangling a guy from a roof) to such an eye-rolling degree that they might pop out of your head, so Underwood's appeal will have to carry the show. I predict it won't be enough to overcome the cynicism though.

The Michael J. Fox Show (Thu at 930pm) - Michael J. Fox returns to TV in a singe-camera (that means no live audience laugh track) family comedy which sets him as a former news anchor who was forced to take a leave of absence due to his Parkinson's diagnosis. There are a lot of light, easy jokes in the trailer, but Fox is still a delight and this one has a lot of potential to rise above its simple premise (and its already been picked up for a full 22-episode season).

Sean Saves the World (Thu at 9pm) - Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) stars in this multi-camera (that means yes laugh track) sitcom as a single gay dad who attempts to balance taking care of his teenage daughter and appeasing his demanding boss, played by Tom Lennon (Reno 911). The trailer makes this look largely like you would expect, obvious jokes an all, but there are a few glimmers of fresh comedy (the co-creator was behind the dearly departed Better Off Ted) so there may be hope, but I'm not too optimistic (though its broadness could keep it on the air).

Welcome to the Family (Thu at 830pm) - Focuses on a hispanic and caucasian family that are forced to come together as their teenage kids decide to get married after getting pregnant. Hilarious culture-clashing ensues! Or not, judging by the trailer. Of NBC's all new thursday night line-up (only Parks and Recreation remains of the old regime, airing at 8pm, though Community has been renewed as well), this seems to be the weakest link, with the most predictable and rehashed jokes. Don't get too attached.

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