Thursday, September 29, 2011

REVIEW: Pan Am

ABC - Sundays 10 pm ET

With an assorted cast headed by Christina Ricci, Pan Am attempts to depict "golden age of flying" and especially the stewardesses and pilots that ran the buses in the sky.

The biggest problem with Pan Am is that it doesn't really know what kind of show it wants to be. Is it a romance? A mystery? A crime procedural? A character study in the 1960s feminization?

It's fine if a show wants to exude all these ideas and concepts, but it needs to decide which one it is primarily.

1. Does it entertain me?
For the most part, no. The pilot was not especially entertaining and bordered on boring throughout most of the show. It wasn't until the final 10 minutes where I actually found myself involved and actually caring about what I was watching. It was in these final 10 minutes that the majority of the season-long narrative was set up, with mysteries about where a missing stewardess went, why she chose a replacement for her, why no one is smoking on the airplane even though this is clearly the 1960s.

The reason that Pan Am is on the air right now is one simple reason: Mad Men. Because AMC's 4-time Best Drama Emmy Winner is so successful, the networks are no trying to duplicate its formula. But the main problem with this is that Mad Men has brilliant writing and fantastic actors, and none of that is at work here in the pilot of Pan Am.

2. Is it realistic?
Mad Men also has the luxury of being on a network that allows limited swearing and much more mature themes. ABC does not grant to Pan Am the same liberties that are necessary for accurately recreating the 60s. Mad Men embraces their decade in order to explore the story, but Pan Am seems afraid of it, mostly because of ABC.

This is something that could all be cleared up in future episodes as well, as the show could very well move into the women's movement and the allure of being a stewardess. The problem is that it might not do so with complete realism.

However, this might not be the goal of the show. Pan Am could very well be a Sunday night popcorn drama, with mystery and intrigue and sexiness, but something that very rarely breaks new ground and does not desire to. Which is fine, we are never going to have another Lost.

3. Are immoral actions defended?
This is the 1960s after all. There's going to be sex everywhere and on every continent. The question is, does the show fully defend it or act like this is no big deal?

The one torrid affair that we were shown in the first episode was between a stewardess and an American businessman. The man's wife discovers it and politely admonishes the stewardess, leaving her looking forlorn like she was the victim.

This might come into play later as we get into the espionage aspect of the show, but that could be a whole other article.

4. How does the show deal with the family and traditional family values?
The only other relationship depicted (aside from one stewardess leaving her man at the altar, which is fine, because it doesn't sound like it would've been a good marriage to begin with) involves one of the central mysteries of the show: namely what happened to the pilot's fiancee?

It's never a good idea to being a marriage that is seemingly forced, and that's what appears to be happening with the above situation. So we'll let that slide.

The Italian stewardess has no regard for her affairee's (is that a word) wife, but she also says she didn't know he was married. Which lets the affair of the hook, but not the pre-marital sex part. That's still bad.
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In short, Pan Am is plagued by what many new shows often are, namely too much exposition and not enough development. There is a very strong possibility that this will be taken care of as the first season continues, but it could also go completely the other way, bore the heck out of the audience, get low ratings, get cancelled and send Christina Ricci back to doing dark indy projects.

Pan Am is a show loaded with potential and possibilities. It all depends on if it has the writers to get it to where it wants to be.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

REVIEW: Person of Interest

CBS - Thursdays 9 pm ET

Written by Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) and produce by JJ Abrams (Lost, need I say more), Person of Interest combines Minority Report and Enemy of the State, adds a little Michael Emerson and James Caviezel, and unleashes what could turn out to be an excellent procedural.

1. Does it entertain me?
The answer to this is a resounding "yes!" Easily one of the best pilots I've seen in a while, Person of Interest does not waste any time jumping into the world of post-9/11 government omniscience.

James Caviezel (Passion of the Christ, Count of Monte Cristo) is an ex-CIA operative/homeless guy/all-around-badass who is recruited by Michael Emerson (Lost) to be his go-to crime stopper. The only difference is that neither man exists in the eyes of the government, and they are tasked with stopping crimes before they happen.

Using a machine he built, Mr. Finch (Emerson) is able to filter out all the terrorist chatter and focus instead on the forgotten conversations, those dealing with everyday crimes.

It is then John Reese's job (Caviezel) to use all his spy skills to find out if the person they are looking at is the victim or the perpetrator, and stop whatever crime is about to be committed from being committed.

There are possibilities galore in this show, dealing with the notion of privacy, revenge, crime-solving, and especially motivation. What happened to Reese and Finch that led them to these points? Does anyone else know they exist and that they are doing the cops' jobs? Is there a moral issue involved with arresting people before they commit a crime (the show may not even go that route, as in the pilot, the evildoers had done previous evil in the past).

2. Is it realistic?

It's hard at first not to think that Caviezel is reprising his role of Edmund Dantes, but that is not the worst problem if he is. Both leads are excellent in their roles, and both have a chemistry together that makes you believe that they could take on the scum of New York.

Caviezel has a calm to his acting and his portrayal that you believe he could be an ex-CIA operative, ready to exact his brand of justice with a grenade, an assault rifle or his lethal fists of fury.

And someone could tell me at any point that Emerson was the smartest man alive and I'd believe it. Then I'd be scared to death, because he is smart, manipulative, endearing and charming at the same time. His work as Ben Linus on Lost was masterful, and from the moment he appears on the screen here, you don't turn away because he might say something profound.

A machine that monitors every one of our conversations at any given time is also believable, which is a frightening thought, and this is the most important thing to believe. If you can't buy that Finch and Reese can know what is going to be involved in a crime, then the show fails.

But luckily both are very believable.

3. Are immoral actions defended?
Minority Report was a little more problematic in its handling of crimes, since they were dealt with before they happened (and this was the purpose behind Phillip K. Dick's short story). It is unclear, as mentioned above, if this notion will be dealt with, but given the writer (Nolan), I would not put it past their grasp.

Reese also has a knack for shooting people in the leg (he's either the world's worst shot, or the best, depending on where he is aiming). At some point, he will probably kill someone, but I doubt it will be in a justified cold-blooded homicide.

Given the nature of other procedurals, Person of Interest will probably follow the Natural Law in this area, always doing good and avoiding evil. But if evil is done, then expect it to come with a certain amount of discussion and exposition. All of which excites me.

4. How does the show deal with the family and traditional family values?
In the first episode, there was only one brief encounter between Reese and some mysterious woman, but there's also a possibility that that was his wife in bed with him. To which we say, unabashedly, go for it!

But at some point, through dialogue with Finch, we learn that someone Reese loved was killed when he was half-way around the world. So we have that to look forward to

And we know virtually nothing about Finch and his life, his kids, parents and love interests. With time that will probably come, though.
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Person of Interest has the potential to rise above the other procedurals out there via a fresh take on the subject. Everything about this show felt new, and through the great writing of Nolan and Caviezel's and Emerson's acting gravitas, there is a wonderful promise of things to come.

REVIEW: New Girl

Thursdays - 9 pm ET

Existing as a vehicle for Zooey Deschanel, New Girl works precisely because of Zooey Deschanel, starring as the titular character who has even made up her own theme song, something we have all wanted to do (and possibly have done). The cast of characters is comprised of a few nobodies, who all range from sweetness to dopey, but they all also have room to grow as characters and as actors.

1. Does it entertain me?
I do admit, I find this show fairly entertaining. Pilots are difficult to judge, because we do not know a thing about the characters or the world in which they inhabit. We don't know the rules and we don't know how we got here. New Girl gets in and gets out, and establishes early that Jess is a sweet, naive and mostly nerdy girl who just needs a little help. And if that means watching Dirty Dancing repeatedly so she doesn't carry any more watermelons, then by gum, these three guys (Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans, Jr) are going to help her do it.

It has its problems, of course, mostly that the 3 guys aren't fleshed out and lack a certain relateability that is necessary in what will most likely be a romantic comedy sitcom. But I chalk this up to the pilot nature of the show, and will allow this to fix itself.

2. Is it realistic?
As far as a show about a single girl breaking up with her boyfriend, needing a change, finding 3 dudes looking for a roommate on craigslist and the girl not ending up dead, yes the show is realistic. Nick is a bartender, Coach (horribly named, cast and soon to be replaced) is a personal trainer, and Schmidt is a douchebag, while we're still unsure of what Jess does. That's fine, that doesn't matter. No one knew what Kramer did on Seinfeld for 5 seasons.

The realism you're looking for in this genre is, do the friends stick up for each other? Do they discuss issues, do they talk like normal people would, do they engage in social situations? The answer to all of this is yes.

Maybe someone wouldn't be as awkward as Jess is in public, or talking to boys, but Zooey Deschanel is able to play it off well enough that we believe Jess is this way.

3. Are immoral actions defended?
The opening scene of the show has Jess going over to her boyfriend's house with just a trenchcoat on, only to find said boyfriend already with some other woman. That serves to set the rest of the episode and series in motion, leading to Jess finding a new place to live. Done. Print.

It's unfortunate that that sort of behavior is not only common-place but is also expected. That's the society we live in, and in no way am I condoning such behavior.

But that is by far the worst of the immoralities, as well as the only one in the entire episode. There are references to rebound sex and hooking up that parents should be aware of, but that, too, is a small part of the episode.

4. How does the show deal with the family and traditional family values?
The above mentioned scene and references are the only indications of traditional family values in the show.

There are good instances of friendship, loyalty and helping out others that is important to life in society.

And the three guys have a "douchebag jar" for Schmidt that gets used frequently, much to my delight, since we need less of those in society. They can be productive members, they just need some coaching and some tough love.
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Above all, New Girl is certainly entertaining and dabbles in the sweet. Time will tell if Jess' naivete and charm hold up, and if the show can flesh out the other main characters. If it does, this will be a show that is worth watching.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review Rules

Now that the Emmy's have come and gone, putting their stamp of approval on crappy shows (and stamps on some good ones, too), it's time to dig into the fall season. This season is loaded with shows that are doomed to fail right out of the box, and literally have no chance to succeed. You know who you are.

It is virtually impossible for me to watch every show and tell you if you should watch it, so I'm going to ignore certain shows already if I have no desire to see them. If by some chance, I miss a good or great show, I will try to catch up on it and review it at that point. But this way, I save time, and I don't have to worry about gouging my eyes out from seeing terrible shows.

As far as I can see, these are the new shows I will check out and report back on: The New Girl (Sept. 20), Person of Interest (Sept. 22), Pan Am (Sept. 25), Terra Nova (Sept. 26), Once Upon a Time (Oct. 23). There may me some other ones as well, but those are the shows I am consciously looking forward to.

As a note, since I am not an actual TV critic, I do not get these shows in advance, and thus I am not privy to seeing the show before it airs. So more than likely, I will not get the review up until the next day. But I will try very hard to make sure it goes up the day following the original air date.

I generally believe you can not tell enough about a show after one episode to decide if it's going to be good or not. 3 episodes is generally a good rule of thumb, giving the writers, producers and actors enough time to get their story going after introducing the characters and the way their universe works. I will keep this in mind, and try to give an initial review, followed by a 3 episode review.

With that in mind, here is what I will review about each show?

1. Does it entertain me?
Very important here, because I am not going to sit through 30 minutes or an hour on a show that I find boring and dull. I don't care if it's the world's most moral show, I need to laugh, to think and to connect with at least one character.

2. Is it realistic?
I will be the first to admit that Lost probably wouldn't happen. But I also would like to believe that if I was stuck on an island with polar bears, light houses and Sawyer, that I would behave in such a manner as the show depicted. If I am constantly shouting, "WHAT!?" at a show, that is not a good sign.

3. Are immoral actions defended?
I understand that shows are going to depict immorality, whether it is sex or violence or whatever. But I need to know if those actions have consequences, or does it glorify evil. Great shows can use corrupt characters to invoke a larger theme without dipping into the world of moral relativism.

4. How does the show deal with the family and traditional family values?
This is the one that is normally going to get ripped to shreds in a primetime show, with all the adultery, affairs, sex and divorce on the airwaves. So if there is a show that has positive marital role models, fantastic!

So that will be how these reviews work. Let's get 'er rollin!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Emmys Preview

Sunday brings the 2011 Emmys to your small screen, and with it the possibility that someone new will ascend the throne of television immortality. Or whatever comes with winning an Emmy.

Going back to the beginning of the award, the Emmy for Best Drama has been dominated by police, law, doctor and political shows. Law & Order, Cagney & Lacey, The West Wing, ER, The Practice, Mission: Impossible to name a few.

The 2000s actually brought about 5 different winners: West Wing, Sopranos, Lost, 24, and Mad Men, with the latter taking home the last 3, and looking like a good choice to take home a 4th.

Keeping in mind that Breaking Bad is not eligible for this year's award (they did not air a single episode in the 2011 eligible time frame), here is a breakdown of the nominees:

Mad Men - Don Draper is divorced, Betty has moved on with Henry, and Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price is moving forward. Maintaining arguably the best character development on television, the 4th season of Mad Men showed no dip in creativity, and Matthew Weiner kept it running at its expected high levels.

Don continues his loose lifestyle, but he is not constrained by his marriage or his "fidelity" to Betty. It was inevitable that Mad Men would deal with divorce, since it has done such a good job of depicting the 60s to this point. With that comes many of the things that made that decade morally problematic, including sex, drugs, lying, cheating. Don's false identity took on a new role when SCDP was working towards a defense contract.

As always, the immorality, not only of Don, but Betty and Roger Sterling and the rest of the agency, are a focal point of the series. But their actions are never glorified, and the results of their choices affect those around them.

Game of Thrones - One of two freshmen series to be nominated, Game of Thrones more than deserved to be on this list. Based on George RR Martin's popular series, GoT proved that fantasy, well-done fantasy, has a place and an audience as a serial hour long program.

Set in the fictional world of Westeros, Game of Thrones was a mix between medieval England and Middle Earth. There were knights and maidens, politics and doublecrosses, dwarfs, direwolves, unexplainable enemies and explainable enemies. And dragons. Did we mention dragons?

As would be expected in a fantasy world, the concept of gods and God are discussed, with references to the old gods and the new. There is relatively little swearing, and there are some scenes of sex and nudity. The violence is present, but is never overdone. But this is still definitely a show meant for a mature audience. Death is abundant, and the motives behind actions is never really crystal clear.

This presents an interesting look for the audience, as there are very few black and white characters, although there is a clear idea of good and bad. Very similar to the Wire in this regard, in that there aren't necessarily "good" characters and "bad" characters, but rather characters who do good and who do bad.

Friday Night Lights - The final season of NBC's superb series about high school football finally came to a close, bringing with it a very satisfying finale.

There is the expected amount of teenage sex and drinking (expected here, not being a good thing, but being almost a requirement on network television). But everything outside of this is an honest look at Americana, from the honest friendships, loyalty and dedication of the football players, and especially in their youthful jubilation and struggles.

But the most positive thing about the show, now as always, was the brilliant depiction of a strong married life between Coach Taylor and Tammy. Their dialogue and their delivery are honest and true, their disagreements are about things in their life, not things in each other, and they never stray or abandon the other. Their actions are real, their emotion is true. It is truly refreshing to see this, and to see the honest love of man and wife.

Boardwalk Empire - The other freshman series to garner a nod, HBO's historical fiction of prohibition Atlantic city carried the exact amount of debauchery that a series about such a subject as you would expect.

There are relatively few honest-to-goodness "good" people in this show, the same was that The Sopranos had very few moral mobsters. Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson is at the forefront, both as the protagonist and as the moral decision-maker. And by that I don't mean that he makes the most moral decisions, but that he has the opportunity to make the most. Usually he fails.

With methodical pacing, Boardwalk Empire is able to deal with the Women's Temperance League, the treatment of World War I veterans, even the Black Sox scandal with due diligence, focusing notsomuch on the events themselves, but rather on the characters that each event impacts.

Dexter - Ahh, Dexter. The serial killer's serial killer. Rather than focus on the moral implications of each death, Dexter is presented as a sociopath, who, although he doesn't have a traditional Judeo-Christian morality, still understands good guys and bad guys, and understands that if bad guys are not stopped, they will hurt more good guys.

This is Moral Relativism as its finest, although it never presents Dexter's actions as good, but rather necessary. And Dexter himself actually has no morality, and the only code he goes by is "don't let people find out what you are."

This season was one of its better ones in recent years (although still probably not necessitating a best drama nod), introducing Julia Stiles as a serial killer in the making.

The Good Wife - the only show on this list I do not watch, and thus am unable to comment on to give it any justice.

All in all, a pretty good year for television. Plato said that it is stories that help us to learn about ourselves and the human condition, and if he were alive today, he would hopefully watch these shows. The important thing to remember, as always, is that television is designed to tell a story, to depict a world similar to ours that is not ours, and that if watched with a properly formed conscience, it can be very rewarding and very intellectual.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Childlike Audience

Every year there are reports published about how much television our children watch, and how much is productive. And every year there is a reaction throughout the internet community about how terrible the parents are who use TV to babysit their children.

So the question, is, should children be allowed to watch television? And by television, I am talking about primetime, and specifically the dramas that populate the networks, premium channels and cable. Competition shows (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars), Quiz Shows and sports are generally acceptable, since their content is rarely if ever risque or morally questionable.

So how do you know if you should let your child watch a show? Better yet, how do you know if you shouldn't watch a show?

This question comes with the notion that certain elements of a show are unacceptable for younger viewers, or even unappreciated.

1. Maturity level of the viewer. This is a big reason not to allow children to watch a show, and it's often overlooked. The themes and language of a show (this is not foul language, but just dialogue and certain elements of sentences) are usually written for an older, mature audience. Similarly, themes are often possess a nature that is not suitable for younger viewers. All of these serve to enhance the viewing experience of the audience, but they are often too much for children. Consequently, they can be bored or find certain shows dull and unentertaining.

This then puts them off the show forever, and they will never go back to watch the show again when they are older and might find the content more interesting and intriguing. By allowing a child to watch a show too early, there is the possibility that they may be turned off it forever, and may miss out on a very good show. First impressions are the most important when meeting a new person; so, too, in television viewing. The pilot needs to suck in the viewer and make them want more. But the viewer must be of the maturity level where the content is not only appropriate, but also makes sense.

2. Language - Back when I was in college, I worked at the local Park District during the summers, doing various maintenance jobs. My boss would always tell me that he would swear far less when I was working there, simply because I didn't swear too often. The problem was, that I would swear far more from working there, simply because I was surrounded by it on a daily basis; that's just the way the employees talked.

The point is that language is very imitable. If people hear cursing and swearing, they are more likely to repeat cursing and swearing. And the last thing a parent wants is their 10 year old talking like Al Swearengen. Even though it would be fun to try and decipher his cryptic messages, the instances of swear words would be too many to count. And your child needs someone to play with. But if he talks like that, no parent will allow their child within 10 yards of him.

3. Violence - This is one of the most prominent features of television, ranging from network shows to cable, coming in varying degrees. It can take the form of explosions, gun shots, mass quantities of blood and especially physical abuse. While generally not as imitable as language, given the lack of access to grenades and submachine guns, this can still have a very desensitizing effect on younger viewers.

This can especially be the case when they begin to believe that problems can and should be caused by violence or fisticuffs. Unless they understand that the violence and the action on TV is not real, then they are likely to duplicate the actions they see on television.

4. Sex - We live in a world that glorifies sex, advocates sex before marriage and loves to depict anyone and everyone having sex. In fact, if you're on television and you're not having sex, then there is something wrong with you. The online message boards erupt in joy when a long flirting couple engages in this seminal act of love.

The question is, when did sex become the be-all and end-all of relationships? What happened to authentic love? The problem is not television, as people would suggest, because TV is representing to the world what it already believes. It did not invent pre-marital or extra-marital sex, but it does promote it. Children need to understand love before they can engage in sex, shows, even great ones, rarely depict actual love. It is very good at depicting lust though.

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Television becomes a great medium when people with properly formed consciences are the viewers, and this usually does not exist in younger viewers. People need to be able to distinguish between good and evil, between sin and morality. If you are able to separate the immoral acts from the moral, and if you are able to explain why certain actions are wrong and why you won't repeat them, then the television can and will open a wide range of new worlds.