Tuesday, February 21, 2012

REVIEW: Life's too Short

HBO - Sundays 10:30/9:30c

From the minds of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras), "Life's too Short" is a mockumentary following renowned dwarf Warwick Davis in his day-to-day life in England.  It also uses the same device of Extras, with particular celebrities playing deranged versions of themselves to hilarious consequences.

At times it feels like Warwick Davis should be called Warwick Brent, since he embodies so much of the awkwardness and mannerisms of Gervais' original creation, David Brent.  He even has the same "everyone loves me and I'm entertaining" that David Brent perfected.

1.  Does it entertain me?
Yes it does.  The awkward moments are tough, and Warwick's life and those around him is difficult to watch, but people's reactions to him and his reactions to other people are always fun.  It's done in a tasteful manner, focusing on Warwick's past successes (Willow, Return of the Jedi), so that dwarves are never really ridiculed or belittled.

The scenes with the weekly celebrity are effective as well, and they appear to have a lot of fun poking fun at themselves.  Warwick's life is a tough place, with an accountant who can't add and a wife who kicked him out and changed his locks.

The fun of the show is going to be seeing the way the world works from the eyes of Warwick Davis.  Ricky and Steve are effective in this, and they have a very good handle on human emotions.  This is what made Extras and The Office so popular; it was never about pure entertainment.  They take their craft seriously, and it's nice to see a show tackle this every now and then.

2.  Is it realistic?
I can believe everything that happens to Warwick, from the people who befriend him to those who treat him like rubbish.

You will feel bad for him, and you will think he deserves what he gets.  The documentary style lends to this, and it works to get his perspective on everything.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
Unless claiming you are the head of the Dwarves for Hire agency is immoral, then no it's not.

There is one divorce depicted, but the marriage isn't looked upon poorly.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
No swearing, no sex, no adultery in the pilot episode.  So in other words, the complete opposite of "Eastbound and Down."
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"Life's too Short" encompasses all the things that make a Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant show worth watching.  It's funny, it's touching, it's poignant, and it will keep you interested yet uncomfortable.  And like other Ricky and Steve collaborations, it will probably last 2 seasons and a movie.

Grade: B

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Watch TV? Part 2.

NOTE: This is the second part of an ongoing series about the good of television, including moral reasons and implications.

2.   Understanding of Humanity
Like any good narrative, television shows are designed to tell a story.  These stories can range from the common "Whodunnit" to the depiction of the life of a family.  They can be humorous, dramatic, or even a combination of the two.

Sometimes, though, a show exists to delve deep into the human condition and observe the psyche. 

Character studies are among some of the most acclaimed shows, although not always the most popular ratings wise because of their dense material and complex storytelling.  These shows often move at a more deliberate pace, allowing the viewer to be full enveloped in the people; they are not-so-much situationally driven.  A whole episode could go by with very little plot development, but that is not always the point of these particular shows.

Rather, we the viewer are treated to a person's or group of people's reactions to situations.  We see how they live their lives, and as such, we come to an understanding of our own.  Moral and immoral characters alike give us a glimpse into ourselves and into our souls, and we wonder how we would react.  Would I really cook meth if I developed lung cancer and needed to provide for my family?  Would I really kill one of my best friends if I found he was ratting me out to the FBI?

We do not always have to agree with someone's choices, but we do have to understand them.  Morality is a tricky thing, and it is never easy to live a good life (that was the whole point of Yoda and Luke's training in the Dagobah system).

An understanding of humanity also allows us to understand our interactions with mankind better.  Motivation is one of the strongest factors in determining what someone does or behaves, and through observations of people, even fictitious ones, we can know and anticipate better what will happen.  Or even more importantly, why something is happening.
Example: Mad Men, Breaking Bad

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Watch TV? Part 1.

NOTE: This is the first part of an ongoing series about the good of television, including moral reasons and implications.

With so many books unread and so many songs unsung, what is the point of watching television?  As your mother used to say, "It's a beautiful day outside, why are you wasting it on this filth?"  First of all, mother, this is not filth.  Slater's chameleon, Artie, just died, and I'm not sure he can handle the death of the death of his best friend.

It's true that you should be outside, and kids should not be raised on Saved by the Bell, but like so many things, there is a time and place for television.  It can be uplifting and emotional, educational and useful.  But it is a time-consuming affair, and I do not recommend watching it nonstop.  But there are shows that are worth your while (and even more that you shouldn't watch even if there is nothing else on).  So why watch TV?

1.  Escapism
This the most common reason for watching television.  It can be a mindless venture into a new world, inhabited by characters that make you laugh and worry, but ultimately that you don't think about past the 30 or 60 minutes that you spend with them per week.  This type of television is perfect for watching after a long day at work, when you just need to sink into something else, and let others figure out their own problems instead of you.  These shows are just fun to watch.
Example: CSI (all iterations)

Tune in tomorrow for #2.

Friday, February 10, 2012

REVIEW: The River

ABC - Tuesdays 9/8c

Following the disappearance of a beloved reality show explorer (Bruce Greenwood), his family sets out on an expedition, paid for by the same channel that lost their star, to find him deep on the Amazon jungle.  "The River" uses the Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch model of found camera footage as the narrative device, which works at times and not so much at others.

"The River" is the latest sci-fi venture on network television, blending elements of adventure, mystery and pop culture in one nice hour long.  Much like the camera work, it has its moments, and it also has the potential to evolve into something more.

1.  Is it entertaining?
Definitely the most enigmatic of the new shows; not that it involves the biggest mystery (it does), but that it could end up being quite good.  Or it could end up being awful.  It all depends on the writers and showrunners, if they can build it into something more than just a monster movie of the week.

The strange thing is that the first 20-30 minutes of the pilot are intriguing and creative at the same time, giving you hope that there is something in this show.  We are treated to the rescue crew (which consists of the missing man (Emmet)'s wife and son, as well as his cameraman's daughter; there are other camera men and their children, and then the television executives, whom we want to see killed because he is clearly a weasel, as all TV execs are).  The young girl has mysterious religious theories about the dark nature of the Amazon rainforest and the river, and about undiscovered camps and paths.

They come upon the Magus, Emmet's ship, struck aground, empty except for the knocking of a the ships innards, from someone being locked in one of the cabins.  And when I say locked in, I mean the door was shut and welded, rendering it unopenable.  Of course, everyone decides that it's Emmet and so the bonding must be cut and the captive released; except that it's not Emmet, but rather a strange being that escapes.

All that sounds exciting, it all sounds wonderful, but it's all over too quickly.  The dialogue is still clunky and childish, and people are put in situations and confrontations that are more annoying than enjoyable.  This is really what holds the show back.  Everything is exciting except for the exposition (with the exception of everything involving Emmet, there is clearly something at play here, and we need to know what) and the conversations between the majority of the crew.

2.  Is it realistic?
Idiot plots aside, I can buy that there is some weird stuff going on in the Amazon rainforest.  What I can't buy is that people can go swimming in the Amazon river without being eaten.

I accept that the son of a reality show is angry at his father, probably for being a reality show star, and doesn't want to find him.

So far everyone behaves as normal and has proper motivations, and they all interact like a collection of eccentric, different people.

3.  Are immoral acts defended?
Unless you count unsealing a welded door as immoral (since that was the only indefensible thing in the show), then this category is good.  Of course, at some point it will be revealed that the young attractive male and young attractive female were once in a relationship, or will engage in activity unbecoming single people.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
The wife loves the husband, the son loves his mother but dislikes his father, but still wants to find him.  That sounds good to me.

There is no sex, no violence, no adultery, nothing.  However, I am going to put an asterisk next to this one, because being a network show, I am sure that sex will play a role at some point (however large or small).
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"The River" is the newest sci-fi/fantasy genre show that attempts to claim the spot left by "Lost."  Its pilot asks many questions and offers many characters that could grow into an intriguing group of people trying to solve a mysterious plot.  It could easily become a popcorn mythology-rich show.  It could also just as easily get lost in its own mysteries, draw low viewership and be cancelled by March.  I would be willing to give it a chance, though.

Grade: C+

Thursday, February 2, 2012

REVIEW: Luck

HBO - Sundays 9/8 c

From creator David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue, John from Cincinnati), "Luck" is an insider's look at all aspects of horseracing, from the bettors to the jockeys, to the owners of the horses themselves.  Intricate and vast, complex and emotional, "Luck" takes its time to get going and flows at its own pace.  But that is the way that all Milch's shows have always been, and that doesn't make them any less compelling.

1.  Does it entertain me?
The pilot uses language that is very unfamiliar and presents circumstances that are not everyday.  Couple that with Milch's unparalleled command of the English language, and "Luck" can seem daunting to any new observer.

But at the same time, that is exactly what makes "Luck" compelling.  The race track seems foreign yet familiar, like these people are existing in a world that is not our own, yet they are people just like us.  They have dreams and desires, and they have wishes and disabilities that make them less than perfect and humanize them.

The pilot episode focuses on the return of Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman, as the newest movie star to make the jump to the small screen) from prison, for an unnamed crime.  We see him very sparingly, but it is apparent that he will play a larger role in the remainder of the series.  There's the horse owner, the jockey and the group of 4 bettors who just won the Pick 6 and $2.6 million, only they can't collect quite yet because of tax reasons.

Each character is loaded with unknown backstory, with unseen motivation, and unlimited potential.  The way Milch is able to craft a drama rewards the viewer for his time and effort, and for those that prefer dialogue to crime technology, "Luck" delivers in spades.  But it will take considerable investment to attain any sort of true payout, but the journey will be intricate and involved.

So does "Luck" entertain me?  Yes it does.  At certain times more than others.  The actual horse racing scenes themselves are invigorating and  exciting, allowing the viewer to be immersed in this world.  We see the struggles of the horse, the jockey, the owners and the bettors, and to live that life of uncertainty must be thrilling and excruciating at the same time.

2.  Is it realistic?
One of the most difficult scenes to watch occurs when one of the featured horses breaks his leg midrace and must be immediately put down.  The closeup of the poor horse's head, and the equally distraught jockey, as he stops breathing and blinking is graphic without being bloody.  But it is completely realistic, which makes it all the more crushing.

Everyone involved in the horse racing scene is rich and full of life, and everyone makes choices and decisions that affect others.  The background is spot on (Michael Mann is responsible for the direction of the first episode, and this shows in the detail, the sounds, both ambient and musically, the way you can practically smell the stalls and stables.  Every little aspect is presented with clarity.

This brings us to Milch's forte, the dialogue.  It's the kind of dialogue you have to listen to closely, for fear of missing something.  And it's the kind that, when a conversation finishes, you say, "Wait, what did I miss?"  And it might not even be story related, but character related, and you feel foolish for not understanding everything perfectly.  But that's the beauty of Milch: nobody ever understands everything he writes!

3.  Are traditional family values upheld?
In the pilot, there is no family to be seen.  Which mean no one is cheating, having an affair, or engaging in sexual acts at all.  Which is refreshing.  There are minimal amounts of swearing, but nothing overwhelming or Deadwoodian.

This all might change over the next few episodes, as well, as we get further into the lives of these people.

4.  Are immoral acts defended?
This depends on where you place gambling in immoral acts.  If you don't believe that betting on horses is immoral, then you are fine.  The Church is not outright against gambling, but as soon as it becomes a problem or becomes more important than family, then it does become a problem.

But if we are exploring the lives of these individuals, and if we are learning about the human condition and their relationship with good through their association with gambling, then great, let's learn away!
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"Luck" is a dense, adult-oriented drama that is not suitable for family night.  But it is suitable for the average viewer who enjoys rich characters and well-crafted dialogue.  It may become something more and something better, and the possibilities are certainly there (moreso than any other new drama this season) for it to become must-watch TV.

Grade: A-