Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What I [Graig] Am Watching: Mockingbird Lane/Hemlock Grove/Black Dynamite/TableTop/NHL Playoffs

Having shied away from news and rumours sites for the better part of two years, I was completely unaware that Brian Fuller was retooling the Munsters for a modern era.  The Pilot for Mockingbird Lane hit television sets just before Halloween in 2012, though NBC had already passed on taking it to series. which is too bad.  It wasn't a ratings phenom, but it did well, and it was well received.  I missed it, of course, but in the digital age, the only way you can miss something is by not looking for it.

Fuller's morbid sense of humour, which was used sparingly in Dead Like Me and took a rather twee spin in Pushing Daisies here is as broad and lively as can be.  The pilot is occasionally surprising and just as occasionally clever in its use of humour, and sometimes it's just outright cheeky, shamelessly so.  Even the tired riffs on monster cliches (not all that dissimilar to Hotel Transylvania) are so earnestly projected that they come off as charming rather than groan-inducing.   There's very little of the gothic sensibilities of The Addams Family, instead it applies a modern spin on a retro-'60's aesthetic, and Fuller's usual bright and glossy production values keep the show cheery and playful.

The cast is remarkably solid.  Jerry O'Connell made for a solid father figure as Herman, more of a normal-looking patchwork man (assembled of various parts) than a Boris Karloff Frankenstein.  Portia di Rossi as Lili gets vamp it up and look absolutely amazing doing so.  As a vampire she looks ageless, and her wardrobe is incredible.  Mason Cook is incredibly natural as Eddie, who, in the pilot, is unaware that he's the warewolf that terrorized his scout troop.  British actress Charity Wakefield plays the "oddball" of the Munsters, since she's, by all appearances and attitudes, normal.  Finally there's Eddie Izzard made up to look like Paul Williams as Grandpa, a centuries old vampire who doesn't feel that he should have to hide his true nature from anyone.  

It's a great ensemble with good chemisty, and it's unfortunate that this pilot is all we will see of them in these roles (I wonder if NBC would consider annual Halloween or seasonal TV movies? Networks don't do TV movies anymore).  But if I had to choose between Mockingbird Lane and Fuller's latest show, I'm glad Hannibal went to series. But I also have to wonder why more pilots don't make the light of day like this... surely the networks could fill their dead zone (say Friday @ 10:00 with a weekly "Pilot series" showing nothing but pilot episodes they bought but elected not to take to series.

In a just world, we would have seen 13 episodes of Mockingbird Lane on something like Netflix (13 episodes would have been a satisfying amount) but instead we get Hemlock Grove, which is not all that dissimilar to Mockingbird Lane (both even open with werewolf attacks, but this one opts for cliche and gore instead of originality), except it takes itself far, far too seriously. Hemlock Grove is like a Bizarro World/cracked-mirror version of Mockingbird Lane, where instead of being a comedy it's trying to be... I dunno, dramatic maybe?  A mystery?  Scary?  Odd?  Whatever it's trying to be it's just, frankly, painful.  It's garbage television, except it isn't television, it's a Netflix original (in the structure and style of television).

It's trash.  But if people in droves watch terrible programming like the Kardashians or horror shows starring Adam Levine then they will surely eat this crap up. It's so poorly made: terribly structured, awfully acted, shoddily visualized and it's sold as some new landmark of serialized horror (primarily by treading heavily producer Eli Roth's name) but then it doesn't have much to compete with (American Horror Story... ugh) ... except Hannibal which makes it look downright shameful.  (You getting the sense that I like Hannibal.  Because I do.  Like Hannibal.)

The first episode of Hemlock Grove opens up with a sexual rendez-vous in a sporty little car, complete with topless nudity, indicating that it will be "that kind of show", you know, the "adult" kind, except there's nothing mature about the show.  It's hammy at the best of times, with Famke Jansson finding the top within seconds and hurdling well above it.  She seems to be in her own world, turning in a performance that seems to be largely for her own amusement.  Dougray Scott, on the other hand, couldn't appear more bored with his role, the ever present look of "what am I doing here?" in his eyes.

I can't even begin to attempt to explain what the story is, since the show does a lousy job of doing so itself in its first two episodes.  The creators don't present a world for the viewer to invest in easily, they don't set out any rules and they don't provide any clarity on just exactly what type of supernatural is happening in this show and who in this cruddy town actually knows about it.  That would be all well and good if it were a mystery worth revealing, but we're thrust into the fray like we should know what it's all about, and they give us very little reason to care.  Gypsys and mutants and werewolves, and probably some other supernatural crap... and here it's really treated as crap.

I'm trying to decide if it's so bad it's entertaining, or if it's just bad.  I'm leaning far more towards the latter, but I'm certain most who become fans of the show will delight in it in the former.  I'm curious who will enjoy this in earnest, because it's a bewildering possibility.

From TV downloads to Netflix to Android/iPod apps, there's a multitude of ways to get one's entertainment than from the television itself, even though television would be my preferred method of delivery.  The unfortunate thing about television, though, its you can't always get what you want when you wanted.  It is becoming more flexible, but not flexible enough for my liking.  What's more, distribution rights and regional restrictions frequently make it very difficult to watch the things you otherwise only hear about.

The 2009 motion picture Black Dynamite is, perhaps, my favourite movie of the past dozen years.  It's an on-point homage to Blaxploitation films, satirizing their low production values and sometimes less than professional acting, while at the same time embracing the extreme zaniness that low-budget action films frequently diverged into.  Most of all, it's incredibly funny, conceptually and in execution, in script, in action and in performance.  Everything clicks, everyone involved is in sync and seem to know what is being achieved.  It was an instant underground success, transcending cult, instead becoming pop-cult.  That it branched out into comics, weird web vignettes and animation oddly seemed natural, but I worried that the film was lightning in a bottle, unable to be recaptured twice.

The Adult Swim animated cartoon was announced shortly after the film was released and over the subsequent years I would see the odd article in a magazine or on-line about it's progress, occasionally seeing some test footage, and finally a preview prior to its release on Cartoon Network in 2012.  But, here, in Canada, we don't get the Cartoon Network, which means we don't get Adult Swim, which means we don't get some of the edgiest and wildest television comedy being made.  We have channels here that filter some of it in... Eaglehart, NTSF:SD:SUV::, Delocated, Superjail and the like have made it here, though definitely not at the same time as their airing in the US and definitely not repeated with the same frequency.  And no Black Dynamite as of yet.

But there is an app for that.  A very flaky Adult Swim app which has only five "pages" to look at which are switched out weekly, offering clips and "premium" videos (for US cable subscribers) and on occasion "5 FULL EPISODES" of some of their series like Children's Hospital or Loiter Squad. It's all welcome, but it was when Black Dynamite showed on the App that I did a little happy dance.  The happy dance was short lived though, as the (as mentioned) flaky app for some reason couldn't make it past the commercial that preceded the episode it was trying to show.   Finally, 6 days later, a Saturday if I recall, it was working, if only sporadically (it would crash every so often).  I managed to watch 2 full episodes and 2/3 of two other episodes before the App switched out its offerings later that day, and it was glorious.

The animated series is its own beast, treading in Blacksploitation tropes once more, but going well beyond that into ridiculous high-adventure, ala The Venture Brothers.  It's beautifully animated, perhaps the best going right now, capturing it's day-glo 1970's atmosphere with wondrous effect, and it's damn funny.  A handful of characters from the film are back and they're so on-model with their cinematic portrayal (with the actors reprising their roles), that it's a reminder of just how cartoony and silly the characters were to begin with.  The animated Black Dynamite takes its actions to the extreme, is rife with sexuality, drug use, swearing, and all those things those warnings before TV shows always promise you but rarely deliver.  It's also rife with pop-culture, the first episode I watched hinged around Black Dynamite taking out Mr. T who's still fighting a one-man-war in Viet Nam a few years after the war ended.  Another had Black Dynamite being chased by the IRS for not paying his taxes, and taking a security detail job protecting Richard Pryor.  It's everything I wanted from the Black Dynamite and so much more... all I could ask for is more of it (second season is coming, but that's not what I mean... where's the DVDs?)

And finally, there's YouTube original programming, by way of their partner channels, all of which seems to be the anti-television.  The only obvious restriction for YouTube seems to be overt nudity and pornographic sex.  It's a different beast to create quality programming for YouTube due to budget limitations, so programmers get creative and they get very niche.  Often YouTube channels come out of the "cult of personality" model, where one prominent celebrity (or ce-web-rity) anchors the entire lineup, and the other shows hope for spillover.

TableTop comes from Felicia Day's Geek and Sundry channel, created by Day (who made her name with the impeccable gamer comedy The Guild, the preeminent web-serial success story) and Wil Wheaton (ex of Star Trek The Next Generation, having rebuilt his name as geek icon over the past decade or so), taking the form of "celebrity game show" in a manner of speaking but instead of having one game to play, Wheaton and his guests play a different board game each week.

It's a show for anyone at all into board games, even if you haven't heard of the game in question.  Wheaton and his production crew do a remarkable job of explaining the game mechanics as well as booking a group of players (pulling notable personalities from comedy, acting, web, and gaming circles) who are enticed participants (if not keen gamers themselves).  I frequently use the show as shorthand for understanding the rules to a new game when playing with friends (I'm a terrible reader so instructional web videos are very helpful) and it works well in most cases.  Every episode isn't always great, sometimes the game doesn't interest me, or the guests don't gel together in the spirit of gameplay, but it bats about 90% winning ratio and Wheaton is a fun, competitive, but also helpful host, out to win but also to ensure everyone has a good time.  The only thing better would be playing one's self.

The latest episode sees Felicia Day and three other actresses back (for a 3rd time I think?), playing Resistance (a spy game in which two of the 5 players are anonymously trying to stymie the others), and it winds up being a rollicking good time.  It's in many ways like watching poker, only with the people involved far more lively and engaging one another with an eye towards being entertaining for the viewer.  While it may seem that one or two players have the spies in their midst all figured out, and that the spies have tells that are giving them away, by the end nobody is sure of anything.  This is easily the most enjoyable episode of TableTop, but I might be biased towards "Team Ginger" (I want a T-shirt!)

Oh, and I'm watching NHL Playoffs... without getting too deep, let's go with predictions:

Pittsburgh Penguins - New York Islanders => Pens in 4
Montreal Canadiens - Ottawa Senators => Sens in 7
Washington Capitals - New York Rangers => Caps in 6
Boston Bruins - Toronto Maple Leafs => Bruins in 6

Chicago Blackhawks - Minnesota Wild => Hawks in 5
Anaheim Ducks - Detroit Red Wings => Ducks in 7
Vancouver Canucks - San Jose Sharks => Canucks in 7
St. Louis Blues - LA Kings => Blues in 5