Sunday, April 5, 2015

I Saw This!!: TV, but not TV

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies (or stuff) they watched (or played) some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all. And they can't do that, can they?
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In this edition, television shows, of a sort:
Parallels - double pilot, Netflix (complete)
Ascension - six episodes, CBC (complete)
Last Man on Earth - eight episodes, Fox (Sundays @ 9/9:30)
Danger 5 - one episode, Netflix
Family Tree - four episodes, DVD
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - three episodes, Netflix
Space Riders: Division Earth - 13 webisodes, CTV Extend/Hulu
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Parallels caught me unawares, showing up in the "What's New on Netflix Canada" feed with an intriguing synopsis that basically mentioned exploring parallel worlds.  If there's anything keyword that will get me to check it out, parallel earths is one of them.  By all means I expected it to be a low-budget, direct-to-video movie, the likes of which are generally barely watchable, but this very quickly seemed like something different, starting with the "Fox Digital" logo at the start (which I thought originally was a BS photoshopped logo to try and make it seem like a genuine production, but it turns out it's a legitimate early effort in the Fox Digital lineup).

It's about a couple 20-something siblings who get a strange call from their dad only to find him missing and a mystery in their wake.  A strange satchel, an unusual orb, and an address taking them to a building that they learn the hard way jumps between dimensions.  It's basically Sliders but with a bunch of mysteries seeded in, and it's really, really good.  Turns out it's a product of Christopher Leone, one of the creators of The Lost Room, a SyFy mini-series from around 2006 which I absolutely loved and worth seeking.  What's on Netflix is essentially a double-length pilot, or rather two episodes, put together as a film.

Petitions have launched to bring it to series and I definitely want more.  Even before all the weird cryptic stuff at the end of the "movie" (plus a tantalizing reveal about one of the characters) that makes you want to know more, it had me hooked.  The first ten minutes start off a little slow, but it doesn't take long before the mystery kicks in and propels the show forward.  The actors are all unknowns, but they settle into their roles rather quickly.  The lead actor, Mark Hapka, is CW-level handsome, like a cross between Mark Whalberg and Matt Damon, as good an actor as the former but not quite the same charisma as the latter.

Watch the "movie" on Netflix, rate it highly and show your support on the change.org petition...


 

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Ascension is the SyFy network's first attempt to reclaim some semblance of respectability.  After years of supporting Sharknado and Mansquito-like ironically bad low-budget movies, all the lustre the network gained from Battlestar Galactica was gone.  In those years other networks had started gaining serious traction with genre TV shows that once would have only been housed on their channel.  Ascension was presented as a 3-part mini-series of 2-hour movies in December. Co-funded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, it aired in Canada as a 6-episode season in February.

[SPOILERS BELOW]

The first episode lays out an intriguing concept for the series.  Set aboard a "generational starship" that was launched in secret by the Kennedy administration in the 1960, it's 50 years later and we're catching up with the second generation of ship-runners, learning about this micro-society as they struggle with class issues and the ennui resulting from knowing they'll never see land.  Things take a dramatic turn when a young woman turns up dead, apparently the ship's first murder.  Like a killing in a small town, it rocks the shaky societal foundation of the ship, but even more troubling is that she was shot, and no guns were believed to have been on board.

The first episode is remarkably well put together.  The ship, its design, the wardrobe, and the society in general embrace their 1960's origins.  Though racism isn't really prevalent (the ship's XO is black) sexism is still an integrated part of the ship's daily life.  The "stewardesses" of the ship regularly entertain the ship's crew, and while it's not explicit, the undertones are that this is an institutionalized form of prostitution.  Tricia Helfer (formerly of Battlestar Galactica) playing the chief steward and the captain's wife, is a master manipulator, having a high level of unofficial power, but the reality is women can have very little official power.

The first episode features an unusual aside taking place in modern day on Earth between an eager college student and Gil Bellows' character, the son of founder of Project Orion.  The scene is meant to highlight the secrecy which the project has maintained for 50 years, but it feels decidedly out of place with the rest of the show.  The second episode reveals that Bellows is more that aware of the Project, and it ends with the revelation that he's in charge of it now, that, in fact, the ship is not in space at all but a practical simulation which none of the crew are aware.

This is a remarkable and surprising twist (executed exceptionally well as one of the crew is accidentally blown out of the airlock and onto a mattress below) but the show devolves quite a bit from there.  The star-faring adventures of this 1960's space rocket, and it's society that's gestated differently in the 50 years since was more than enough of a concept to hold a show.  It's a new take on Lost in Space, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.  A "back on Earth" conspiracy certainly could have a place, but is largely an unnecessary complication for what was already a great premise.  As the remaining four episodes progressed, the outside influence upon the interior of the ship increased, and Ascension was the poorer for it.

In the final two episodes the show, this government conspiracy plot revealed its purpose, which was to force the evolution of humanity, thrusting paranormal powers into the mix and virtually derailing the entire show.  It ends at episode six with a series of cliffhangers that apparently will never be resolved, since SyFy has stated it's not commissioning another season.  There was a lot of promise early one, and throughout there was some entertaining elements but it was overly-ambitious and in the end failed as a result.  And I hope to never hear the phrase "Going full Snowden" ever again, thank you very much.

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What a remarkable accomplishment The Last Man on Earth is.  The pilot episode of this new series from 21 Jump Street and Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller and ex-SNL cast member Will Forte, opens in 2020 with a montage of Forte (playing "Phil Miller") crisscrossing the country in a bus, loaded with art gallery and museum pieces alongside pop culture and sport paraphernalia.  Every city he leaves he spraypaints "Alive in Tuscon" on their welcome sign.  Back in Tuscon, six months later with no sign of any other survivors, Phil has lost almost any semblance of his civility.  He roams around in the same shirt and underwear, spending most of his days drunk, sometimes bathing in his Margarita Pool (a margarita-filled kiddie pool, complete with salted rim), sometimes hanging at a bar with his assorted ball-friends (one-upping Castaway's Wilson a dozen times over).  He flirts with a window display mannequin when he's not engulfed in pornography, and after a while life has no meaning.  The whole pilot episode features only Forte's character on-screen.  That this made it to Fox, or really any channel for that matter, is remarkable, but the end result is so captivating (not to mention funny) that it should be no surprise.


The pilot captures what a solitary life in a modern city would be like (as a result of a clean apocalypse, at least.  The buildings are still standing and there's no dead bodies anywhere to speak of).  There's no threats, save maybe boredom or alcohol poisoning.  There's fun to be had when you're the only person around, but eventually the loneliness, the desire for human contact will start to crush you.

So, in the second episode, when Phil meets Carol (played by the amazing Kristen Schaal) he should be more than elated, he should be jubilant and celebratory.  Not only is there another person, but a woman.  Unfortunately, Carol and Phil's personalities, they discover almost instantly, couldn't clash more.  Carol seeks to make lemonade out of the lemon that is Phil, while Phil has no other choice but to accept Carol as his companion for lack of any alternatives.

The show takes form of a relationship satire (as opposed to a post-apocalyptic spoof) almost instantly once Carol arrives.  The writers (with Forte in charge as showrunner) still play around to great effect with the setting of the show, but the relationship between its two leads becomes very complex very quickly.  Carol, rightly, suggests that they need to repopulate the Earth, but she won't have any bastard babies running around.  Phil doesn't see how any of the standard rules of the old world (stop signs or marriage) have any bearing on where they are now, and the battle of wills commences.  It would be easy for the show to turn Carol into a dude-wrecking, nagging, controlling, over-sensitive, harpy, but she's not the bad guy for trying to make Phil into a better man, into someone who cares about life again.  Phil is kind of the bad guy for resisting it just because Carol isn't even close to his ideal.  It's a play on the cliches of men afraid of losing their freedom or individuality to a relationship (as if so much of one's identity is invested in pornography or poor hygene).   There's a lot of fear, but the quick counter is what was life like before, alone and desperate?

From there, each episode gets a little more surprising (for enjoyment purposes I've avoided a bunch, not that they aren't predictable, but they are fun), and at times uncomfortable as Phil starts becoming less of the hero, and merely the protagonist of the story.  Phil's nature is selfishness and that leads to all manner of unflattering moments for the character.  But Forte is capable, both in performance and in scripting, of injecting moments of redemption, sometimes as a result of Phil's actions and sometimes in spite of him.

I hope in the closing episodes of the show it actually explores some of Phil's mental health issues, which are clearly present, if ill defined.  I'm sure there's a lot of trauma to thinking one is the sole survivor of a cataclysm for a prolonged period of time, and surely self-centered thinking is a result of existing primarily in one's own mind for so long.  Of course, this is a comedy series, and a damn funny one at that.

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When I pulled up Danger 5 on Netflix, I had no concept of what it was.  The "cover" image used gave the appearance of low-budget 1980's direct-to-video exploitation flick, with a heavily shadowed headshot of Hitler wearing sunglasses and holding up his gun.  The chrome logo of Danger 5 emulating Robocop's logo was just as telling.  But what was it?

Watching the show I quickly discovered a that it was a mock-1960's action-adventure serial, set in WWII-era 1940's, about an international team of superagents whose sole objective is to kill Hitler.  The aesthetic is very much like a live action parody of Gerry Anderson's "supermarionation" shows like Thunderbirds and Stingray.  Using heavy overdubbing, intentionally campy acting, and a barrage of bizarre, nonsensical elements (like their commander having an Eagle's head), as well as utilizing pointedly obvious miniatures for every action sequence, Danger 5 puts in a lot of effort to make it look like not a lot of effort was put in.

I generally love this kind of stuff.  Bizarre nonsense is totally my thing, having developed formatively on Ambush Bug comics and watching Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.  Films like Black Dynamite and Kung-Fu Hustle are obvious predecessors to this, which then is strange given that those feature-length movies left me wanting more, whereas I felt the first episode of Danger 5 overstayed its welcome.

The product of Australian television  (from the makers of Italian Spiderman), if Danger 5 falters it's perhaps because they aren't aware of the "Adult Swim" style of programming that has revolutionized comedy television in North America in the past 20 years.  Scaled back to 11 or 12 minutes, this type of deranged weirdness-for-weirdness sake is a lot more entertaining, more easy to ingest.  Running to a full half hour, the show has more time to breathe which means that characters need to be developed and better realized (South Park and Archer, for instance).  When it comes down to it, though, the first episode of Danger 5 is more weird than thoroughly funny.  Whereas Black Dynamite was loaded with as many sight gags as clever and countless repeatable lines, Danger 5 seems to rest more on aesthetic than wit.

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From Christopher Guest. Starring Chris O'Dowd. No two statements could have me more ready to invest in a TV show.

Sure, Guest hasn't been a flawless maker of comedy (does anyone remember For Your Consideration?), and yet, he is the absolute top name in loosely scripted comedy productions.  His trifecta of Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind have cemented him in that role for the rest of his life. His comedies are muted, sometimes a little dry, sometimes a little quiet, but Guest always seems more interested in exploring a character rather than seeing comedy. He trusts his performers to make something funny, but he doesn't demand it from them all the time.  He still wants soul and compassion.  His gift, as much as he is a talented director and actor, is assembling a cast.

Chris O'Dowd may be my favourite comedic performer of this decade, and the decade before that.  He's able to be schlubby and hapless, like in the IT Crowd, or, just as easily, effortlessly charming but still hilarious like in Bridesmaids.  His brief appearance in Thor 2 still has me hoping they can somehow translate his nervous and sweet, but ultimately rejected date into a feature-starring superhero.  Here, O'Dowd plays Tom Chadwick, a man between jobs, recently dumped, who inherits a chest of objects from a recently deceased aunt.  This sends Tom on a journey of discovery about his family.  It's a delightful framework for many of Guest's usual cadre of performers to craft some wonderfully entertaining and bizarre back stories for the Chadwick family, but it's London setting allows Guest to take advantage of the myriad of talented comedic performers the UK has to offer.

Very obviously and foremost, this is a Guest production.  It has all the hallmarks, loaded with goodwill and charm, but the influence of British humour is a new and refreshing thing for him.  It shares the same air as a Peep Show or Pulling, but where British comedy wrings a lot of anxiety out of its characters in the name of comedy, Guest dials it back.  There's a sereneness to the story, a sense that even if characters don't get along in a scene, Guest the director, and the actors in the roles still like the characters and aren't choosing sides.  It's a production where people play nice, and that kind of comedy is both rare and a bit of a hard sell, which is probably why Family Tree isn't getting a second season, unfortunately).

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The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is Netflix's first original comedy production, taking the Tina Fey/Robert Carlock show under its wing after NBC passed on it.  Netflix seems like a good home for any respected but perhaps marginalized talent.  Realizing that creative comedy has drawing power (hence their heavy investment in stand-up and resurrection of Arrested Development), it's a more than appropriate home for Kimmy Schmidt to land.

The show is centered around 29-year-old Kimmy, who was recently unearthed from a cult's doomsday bunker with her sister wives after 15 years, brought to New York to run the talk show circuit, and decided to stay, instead of going back to Indiana.  With a permanently smile and a hearty can-do attitude, she may have been a victim but she's not going to let her trauma define her.  She is out of place, out of touch, and her maturity is stunted, but nevertheless she finds a home (sharing an apartment with a sheltered gay black man whose dreams of Broadway stardom have all but died) and landing a job as nanny for a repugnant upscale family (led by Jane Krakowski as the matriarch, in a role that manages to somehow tops Jenna from 30 Rock in self-centeredness)

Thrust into completely alien environments, Kimmy Schmidt could easily be a searingly-painful-to-watch comedy about a girl getting mixed up in things she has no awareness of, but it manages to assuage those anxious moments by centering on a character who's more than capable of rolling with it, and strives constantly to make it work.  It's Ellie Kemper's teeth-filled performance and seemingly boundless enthusiasm that makes this otherwise tremendously bizarre and wholly unrelateable show work.

The first few episodes I've watched are obviously still finding their feet, the tone of the characters seems to shift slightly each episode as the actors ease into the roles and the writers define the situation a little more.  Even though it's not, the world still feels like Tina Fey's New York from 30 Rock,  a place where the bizarre is commonplace.  The sub-plot of the third episode, focusing on Krakowski's character's Native American roots (quite literally at one point) is the first sign outside of the premise of the show going for broke with sheer lunacy.  I'm keen to keep watching, but also hoping it finds the right groove quickly.

Plus, Carol Kane.  Come on!



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Referring back to what I was saying above about Danger 5, the web series Space Riders: Division Earth get is right where Danger 5 got it wrong.  Like Danger 5, Space Riders is a parody of a once-popular style kids show built for adults, with severe language, sexual overtones, and violence in the name of comedy.  In this case, it's a spoof of The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers-style action-adventure.  Where Space Riders succeeds is in worrying less about style, and more about twisting the expected format and creating an emotional investment in the characters (no matter how ridiculous they may be).

Created by Canadian comedic actor Dan Beirne and comedian Mark Little, the show takes two unlikely individuals, scrawny, barely-employed roommates Philip and Ken, and by happenstance puts them in the position of becoming Earth's official Space Riders.  Entrusted with the transformation crystals (the "Zoid pack") that give Philip incredible intellectual powers, and Ken unbelievable strength and fighting prowess, the new gig still can't help either of them in their regular life.  Philip's unabashedly in love with his boss at the coffee shop.  Of course she doesn't notice him, instead having eyes only for an utterly disinterested Ken.  Ken, meanwhile, can't find a job.

Instead of focusing primarily on their adventures as Space Riders, instead it looks at how being Space Riders interferes with having a regular life, something which Ken doesn't seem to mind at all, but a responsibility Philip is still far too timid to accept.  One of the arcs deals with the taboo of using their power for personal gain, as Ken pushes Philip into a back-alley brawl, then transforms and power punches a guy in the face when Philip falters.  "Ken! I think you caved his face in," Philip cries.  "I didn't think I'd punch him so haaard," Ken replies with a mincing whine.

Their chief nemesis is Orson Ooze, who just escaped from space jail, and seeks to kill Earth's Space Riders to reclaim his place as a supreme evil in the universe.  Ken describes Orson as "I think he's trans".  "Is that self-identifying" Philip asks at an inappropriate moment.  I'm not certain if there's intent to make fun of a trans individual with Orson, as it's not really brought up again, but  Kayla Lorette is amazing in the role, making Orson appropriately cartoonishly evil (a sort of Rita Repulsa/Skeletor hybrid) while also being genuinely entertaining character who has such trouble with his henchman, Moon Monster ("Did you mess with my settings?"), that at one point he kicks him out and Moon Monster goes to live with Philip and Ken..

The concepts are entertaining (such as Orson Ooze's portal cat teleporting the baby Ken is sitting when he isn't looking) and it's evident how much fun the everyone involved is having (each transformation sequence is entertaining because each is done unique with variant lyrics of the rockin' transformation song).  It's a well-made show, obviously low budget, but embracing and using it to even better parody the source material.  Each episode about 6 or 7 minutes in length which is perfect for this type of material, and it tends to run in about three episode arcs (so it could effectively be a 1/2 hour series, with each episode hitting a commercial break, but it works well with an arc occurring for every 6 minutes.

Given that this was made in 2014 and I hadn't heard about it before (despite being a fan of Mark Little's) I'm guessing this didn't make a big enough splash for a second series, which is too bad because it's very entertaining.