Saturday, November 2, 2013

What I Am Watching...Fall '13 New Shows (part 1?)

Were I still a teenager, I would be absolutely overwhelmed by the programming schedule this year.  There's so many genre shows, trying to capitalize on the somewhat surprising success of Once Upon A Time, Arrow, and more of recent years.  The CW, primarily, has top-loaded its roster with fantasy/supernatural-tinged programs.  The cowtowing to the "Comic-Con" crowd that has been so pervasive in the cinema in the past half-dozen years has finally hit television full bear.  The cop procedural is ebbing in popularity, replaced by magic and anti-heroes.  I teased the Fall season earlier this year and a lot of the shows I was looking forward to sampling (Enlisted, Intelligence, The 100, Almost Human, Rake) haven't arrived yet.

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Sleepy Hollow (Mondays @9:00 on Fox) was the first out the gates, a new show from Fringe creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.  I loved Fringe, but I was not terribly excited for this show... the property just isn't appealing (even though I'm one of the few that enjoyed Tim Burton's film, to which this show is not at all connected).  It's a mis-matched buddy cop supernatural action-comedy-drama-procedural, because genre blending is essential in order for a program to not be marginalized into the "nerds-only" ghetto.  The show finds Ichabod Crane awaking hundreds of years in the future, to present day at the same time a series of ghastly murders are occurring in a small town.  The Headless Horseman is responsible, naturally, resurrected at the same time as Crane as their fates are intertwined. In this iteration, the Headless one is in fact Death, one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, which is a nice twist on the story.

Crane finds his first sympathizer in  Abbie Mills, a police lieutenant that naturally has a greater connection to what's going on than she knows, plus there's a prophecy at play here, as well as secrets within the Sleepy Hollow,  and other such usual fantasy fare.  The pilot was a top-loaded mess of exposition, playing far too many of its cards at once.  In this age of television glut, I presume that some showrunners feel the need to entice the audience by teasing them with as much of their long-term agenda as possible.  Knowing what Orci and Kurtman did with Fringe, how they seeded four further seasons worth of material within their first season, I can see much of that same design in Sleepy Hollow.  Yet, I don't particularly like the source material, I'm not interested in the characters, and the mysteries at play don't entice me.  The actors obviously hadn't settled into their roles in the pilot, particularly Nicole Beharie as Abbie, but I shouldn't judge because I didn't like Anna Torv's performance in Fringe at first, but she revealed her amazing skill.  Then again Fringe had John Noble, who was brilliant from stage one, and Sleepy Hollow has no John Noble.  I didn't watch any further beyond the pilot.

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There's a new batch of comedies, considering how many were cancelled or came to a close last season.  Brooklyn 99 (Tuesdays @8:30 on Fox) comes from Parks and Recreation veterans Dan Goor and Michael Schur and features an great ensemble or proven talents like Andy Samberg, Jo Lo Truglio, Terry Crews, and surprisingly great in a comedy Andre Braugher.  I've watched the first four episodes of the show and while I like the cast immensely (particularly Stephanie Beatriz as Diaz, tough and scary on the exterior and only slightly less tough and scary on the interior), and find the show generally amusing, it's never actually all that laugh-out-loud funny.  Like many comedies it may need a dozen episodes to find it's comedy voice and rhythm, and for the actors to solidify their roles (Samberg and Braugher have already found their groove since the show is built around their expected personalities), but with such a crowded market, a show doesn't have that long to make an impact.  I've dropped the show from my regular regimen, but will check back in a few episodes.  Parks and Rec had a pretty gnarled and thankfully brief first season before it rebounded incredibly in its second, so hopefully Schur and Goor can do the same here, only faster.  As I noted to David when telling him about the show, how entertaining you'll find the series will be equally proportional to how amusing you find Andy Samberg's shtick.  He's the center of the show and the most prominent figure, a goofy man-boy but also a hell of a detective, and all the incongruities that apply.  Braugher's reveal as a gay lieutenant in the pilot is played brilliantly, and it continues to play as an accepted part of his character, while smartly not used as a comedy target.

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Michael J. Fox was always an incredibly likable performer, and his unfortunate affliction with Parkinson's saw him exit his last starring role in Spin City early, thinking his symptoms would make being a viable actor impossible.  But over the years, Fox has made some incredibly memorable and award-winning appearances on shows like Scrubs, Boston Legal, and the Good Wife.  In some respects, by metering out his performances in these guest starring roles, Fox's status has elevated as result. People are reminded how appealing he is, but at the same time there's been no opportunity for Fox to overstay his welcome and he's able to pick better roles which only furthers enhances his reputation.  The Michael J. Fox Show (Thursdays @9:30 on NBC) finds him back out front, though, the premise of the pilot (which I missed) put Fox as a TV news anchor who retired early due to his Parkinson's only to go stir crazy at home, while driving his family nuts with his ever-presence.  In parallel with the show's reality, he returns to work, so the show acts as both a workplace and domestic comedy, with Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt as his wife and Anne Heche as his competitive co-anchor most notably.

The Michael J. Fox Show deals head on and somewhat comfortably with his Parkinson's but perhaps relies on it too much as a crutch.  The show makes jokes in the same way friends or family would about it, once everyone was comfortable...it's never in a malicious or laughing-at kind of way... one of my favourite moments was Fox attempting to sabotage a romantic moment by flinging food on his friend's lap proclaiming innocently "oops, Parkinson's".  But at the same time outside of this there's not a lot of funny going on.  The early episodes play out many familiar comedy plots in equally conventional fashion, and the show doesn't quite know what to do with the kids yet.  Modern Family this is not, for better or worse.  I think the show is geared towards people of my generation or older, but a less savvy comedy viewer, it's a likeable show, and it would seem that's all it's aiming to be.  It's not trying to push boundaries or redefine the sitcom.  It just wants to exist and hopefully bank on its lead actor's Q rating to keep viewers coming back, and it has a good chance of succeeding in that regard.  It's just not for me.

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I was cautiously optimistic in my preview write-up of The Blacklist (Monday @10 on NBC), but what I saw in the extended trailer played out even better than expected in the series.  Perhaps surprisingly The Blacklist has become my favourite new show of the season, at least for now.  The first five episodes so far have established a really great cast of characters and performers who seem to enjoy their roles.  The premise finds internationally renowned super-criminal Raymond Reddington (as scene-eating James Spader) surrendering himself into FBI custody, but proving uncooperative otherwise unless he can deal directly with rookie profiler Elizabeth Keene (Megan Boone).  Keene is unaware why "Red" is only interested in dealing with her, but he seems keen to assist her in advancing her career, and has mentioned "because of your father" or something along those lines, with the obvious insinuation being that he is her father.  I'm hoping it's more complicated than that, but the paternal relationship he develops with her, and to which she rather quickly succumbs (signifying perhaps a void in her life she's keen to fulfill, no pun intended) seems to suggest heavily he is her dad.

As the Blacklist plays out, each episode Red provides the FBI with a target on his titular blacklist, a particularly nasty man or woman or organization, sometimes known, sometimes not so well known, and he works with them to either capture or kill or dismantle, but always somehow gains something for himself in the process.  Red is still left to his own devices to keep his reputation up, and the FBI (and CIA, who have together assembled a specific blacklist task force around Red and Keene) turns a begrudging blind eye to his activities as he's otherwise proving to be quite helpful.  It's utter balderdash, but it's incredibly fun, particularly as Red is so easily able to play everyone around him.

The rest of the cast of characters are all interesting in context.  Keene's husband (Ryan Eggold) gets brutally attacked in the first episode, and while he's in hospital, Liz finds a secret stash of false passports, a pile of money and a gun, leading to the best subplot of the show.  Keene's boss, Harold Cooper (the always fun Harry Lennox) has a past with Red, which gets hinted at each time they're on screen together, but is so far only teased about what has gone down between them. I'm unfamiliar with Canadian actor Diego Klattenhoff, but his Agent Ressler is great, particularly in the third episode where he gets to show off his bruiser physicality and fight a handful of thugs high on a skyscraper construction site.  I like how all the characters are being developed, Keene particularly is showing both a lot of strength but potent moments of weakness as well.  For what could have been such a silly show, it's showing some surprising depth.  It's taking the popularity of Homeland but going pulpy with it.  It fall apart at any moment, quite easily pull a Heroes/Desperate Housewives and go from being deliciously entertaining to sourly stupid, but so far so good

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My initial impression of Hostages (Monday @9 on CBS) held firm after watching the first episode, here's a story that would make a decent movie or mini-series but makes no sense as an ongoing.  Toni Collette plays a surgeon who is set to perform surgery on the POTUS, so her family is taken hostage by some militia-types who want her to make it look like the Commander-In-Chief died during surgery.  It's a simple set-up that seems unbelievable how they can stretch out into a full series.  Watching the pilot I can see how they're going to stretch this show out, but in the first ep it ALREADY feels exactly like that, that they're stretching out the plot of the show.  Nothing about it feels organic.  Each of the family members becomes engaged with one of the special forces-types that has taken over their home, establishing a seed of familiarity that will obviously play out as the show progresses into a Stockholm syndrome friendliness.  The subplots are hamhanded, especially that of the son who's in debt to a drug dealer, and I figured out a solution early on that the show likewise thinks of, then implausibly throws away (she attempts to use a pair of scissors to cut off her baby finger, but then can't go through with it...).  My Mother tells me the show does get better, but the absurdity of the first episode and the seeds it planted means I can't be bothered.

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Perhaps the most anticipated show of the season, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays @8 on ABC) has been its biggest disappointment.  It's not a terrible show by any means but it hasn't yet lived up to the megablockbuster films that seeded it.  Naturally an ongoing television series is a much different beast than hundred million dollar cinema, and likewise it's quite different than what you can achieve in comics, but so far Agents... hasn't met the standards of either.  It even hasn't lived up to Joss Whedon-created shows of the past.

Part of the problem is the show and the audience have both taken for granted that this is a familiar world and that Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson is a familiar character.  But the reality is the Marvel cinematic universe is different depending on which film you're watching, and also that Coulson is a very, very minor character in the films which he appears, with little recognizable character development.  He's likable but his role in the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films is rather one-note.  Agents... has rested too much on Coulson being familiar that they haven't developed him enough to make him feel like the leader the team needs.  The team as well is being developed by tropes rather than feeling like actual people inhabiting a miraculous world.  If Agents.. is supposed to give us a ground-level view of the Marvel Universe's grandiosity they have yet to really succeed.  These characters are saying words that make it sound like they're reacting to gods and monsters and aliens in their midst, but they don't feel like they're living it.  It's perhaps the failing of the trademark Whedon pithiness, this tendency towards archness distances them from having genuine emotions in this reality.

SHIELD, in the films, is a massive global anti-terrorist organization, and in the show it's reduced to a small elite team of 6 aboard a very fancy airplane.  It's budgetary obviously, but it feels too small for what they're trying to accomplish.  As the episodes progress though we start to get a larger sense of SHIELD and how expansive they are, what their reach is, but it still needs to spend more effort defining what they do, and how they do it, not just what this specialty team is for but the overall structure.  It's meant to be a breezy, poppy, retro-70's-style action show, but I think it needs to invest a bit more into the politics of the organization.

Five episodes in, the show is establishing a nemesis organization that's playing with the Extremis formula introduced in Iron Man 3 to nefarious ends.  By the end of episode 5, the larger scope of these bad guys is teased and if the series can get into some richer cat-and-mouse style spy games it will do so much better.  Establishing the characters has been slow, with most of the focus going towards Skye, the civilian hacker whose trustworthyness is the core of the first few eps.  But resolving that facet was the crux of the 5th episode, so perhaps with that out of the way we can get deeper into the rest of the crew.  The actors are all likeable but their characters less so, so far, so there needs to be a lot more team building than just the second episode (though the Sam Jackson guest spot as Nick Fury was the show's highlight so far).

Despite all the grousing above, I actually am enjoying it, it's just not living up to its potential yet.

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I had intended to pass on The Tomorrow People (Wednesdays @7 on CTV)  but after hearing some positive things about the pilot I bit into the first two epsiodes.  The pilot actually was quite good, if immeasurably familiar to anyone who's read or watched the X-Men at any point over the past 50 years.  The Tomorrow People are the next stage of humanity, having developed supernatural abilities, "the three T's": telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation.  They survive in hiding, since they're being hunted by Ultra, an organization seeking to destroy or control them all, seeing them as a threat to humanity's continued existence.

The focal point of the show is Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell), a high school senior who's been drugged up and in counselling for all the weird things happening in his life that are beyond his control, but with both the Tomorrow People and Ultra after him his life gets weird.  With the Tomorrow People he meets his peers, others around his age with the same abilities, who inform him that not only is he like them, but also the son of their MIA leader.  When Stephen encounters Ultra, he meets its leader Jedekiah Price, who happens to be his uncle, and offers him a job, which he accepts, despite the knowing protestations of his new Tomorrow People friends.

Stephen is so ill-equipped to play both sides, and the show does an adequate job in exploring that, but at the same time Stephen becomes all too aware all too early about how nefarious Ultra is.  The series tries to avoid the usual CW melodrama, and largely succeeds, but also doesn't measure the characters reactions or motivations honestly.  It's so close to being a really good show, it just needs to learn to move its plot forward by the characters rather than have the plots of each episode and the demands of the series pull them around.  Knowing what he knows, there's no way Stephen should still be working for Ultra after the second episode, and Jedikiah is stamping out the Tomorrow People because of an inferiority complex he had towards his brother, with a religious fervor.  I don't know if Ultra is an autonomous entity or a Government organization (it may have been mentioned)... either way it would be interesting if there was some sort of conflict Ultra was dealing with regarding their ... methods.  There's definitely promise here two episodes in - good effects, solid acting - amidst the familiarity.

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Though hardly a revolution, I do so like that on TV, network TV no less, female comics and performers are starting to have a true voice as creators and showrunners of their own programming.   Though there have been strong female-centric shows in the past from Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Bea Arthur and Carol Burnette, and of course Diane English's Murphy Brown, Tina Fey really kickstarted it in the modern era with the lauded 30 Rock, paving the way for Lena Dunham's Girls, Emily Kapnek's Suburgatory, the short-lived but wonderful BFF from Lenon Parham and Jessica St Clare (coming back this year on USA with Playing House),  Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, The Middle, and quite a few others that didn't make it (like all those Chelsea Handler produced ones).  Add to the list the new show from Australian star Rebel Wilson, Super Fun Night (Wednesdays @9:30 on ABC), which finds Wilson as the improbably named Kimmy Boubier, a competent business lawyer, and self-conscious extrovert.  Kimmy is the leader of her two friends/roommates, and the premise of the show finds them having set aside every Friday night as their "fun night".  This premise, by the fourth episode, has already fallen to the wayside, which is either a result of show reordering (the Hallowe'en episode appeared a week early) or just not deemed a required hanging point for each episode.

Wilson, with a well-masked accent, is an incredibly confident performer, and has established a relatable character in Kimmy.  She's obviously aware of her size and how to both use it comically and comment on how difficult being plus sized can be in a very superficial society without needing to do so head-on.  Kimmy and her friends are all outcasts of a type, with social awkwardness not being a Big Bang Theory laughing point, but a genuine part of their character.  The second episode finds Kimmy and friends joining a 3-on-3 group dating site, but being honest in their profile yields no results.  Kimmy "punches up" their profiles, and they get a date with three equally socially uncomfortable guys who are eager to buy into their falsities because they're just happy to be out with women.  But the deception, once revealed leaves them no less hurt.

Super Fun Night succeeds with an honesty underneath the situational comedy, characters that behave in a heightened way for television but emotionally react with a sense of reality.  If the show falters in the early stages its in letting it's secondary characters have their own sub-plots apart from Kimmy so early.  At this stage the show needs to establish Wilson as its center and make her key to both the A and B plots.  We need to completely be on board with Kimmy Boubier before we jump aboard the Marika or Kendall train.  Particularly in the fourth episode, which finds the B-story peering in on the relationship between Kimmy's nemesis Kendall and Kimmy's romantic interest/boss Richard who have already hooked up and are having relationship troubles.  They just haven't earned our interest in their lives yet, though I find Richard's bewilderment at being suddenly in a relationship with a domineering and  forward woman he may not actually like to be relatable.

Each episode seems to find a way to work in the characters singing a song, banking of Wilson's popular turn in Pitch Perfect, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if done every episode could prove dicey in doing so naturally.  There's also a hint of Felicia Day's Guild as influence in Kimmy's video journal pieces, which allow for a narrative element into the show.  Like The Mindy Project or Girls, this show gives a female-specific, but not exclusive, perspective, something that definitely differentiates it from the legion of situation comedies that have dominated television for 50 years.  Not to tokenize, as not all women-run shows work (*cough*Witney*cough*) but this one has a very solid foundation and a genuine star in the lead.

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Okay, I lied.  The Blacklist isn't my favourite new show of the season, @Midnight (Mondays through Thursdays @12am on Comedy Network) is.  Hosted by Nerdist podcast and AMC after-show host, comedian Chris Hardwick, @Midnight is a comedy gameshow that is the painfully obvious next step from media satire shows like The Soup or Tosh.0 and the talking heads panels of Chelsea Lately and the Jeselnik Offensive.  That Hardwick was once a panelist on Chelsea and host of The Soup franchise Web Soup (along with being a podcasting pioneer) provides him with just the right perspective to meld comedy and web trends into a gameshow format.

Three comedians join Hardwick four nights a week as they scroll through the weirdness of the internet -- Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Etsy, Amazon, etc. -- and use their conventions to establish games around, like writing an Amazon review of a weird youtube video, deciding based on a title whether it's an Etsy shop or porn, or coming up with twitter hashtags.  The show is two weeks old and I plowed through all 8 episodes in one night on Comedy Network's streaming site, laughing heartily frequently.  I'm a fan of Hardwick, he's a great comic and genial host, which definitely works for the show.  His guest list so far has been great, the best combination probably the Eugene Mirman/Kristen Schaal/Doug Benson episode and Kyle Kinan/Dion Cole/Tom Lennon.  The show is flexible and topical, the daily format allows it to stay current on web trends and memes before they become dated or diluted by the masses.  It's not lasting comedy but of-the-moment it's frequently hilarious.