Friday, October 19, 2012

REVIEW: Nashville

ABC - Wednesday 10/9c

Nashville is being billed as the show that brings Tennessee into the spotlight, or I also might have made that quote up.  But it's hard not to think this show is about more than just the city of Nashville, and more than just the drama of rising starlet vs. classic country.

1. Does it entertain me?
There are a lot of stories going on in the pilot, that's for sure.  The main one is Rayna James (Connie Britton) trying to fend off the young Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) as the queen of country.  It's hard not to think there is more going on with this story, as Juliette could be said to be the fictionalized version of Taylor Swift, but with a drug addicted mother (note: I don't know anything about Taylor Swift's personal life, and I have no idea what her mother is like, and I have no idea if she is sleeping with her producer) and a habit of jumping into bed with guys she works with.

Rayna could be any combination of Shania Twain, Faith Hill or Martina McBride (is she still around); the point to get across is that she is nice and sweet and wouldn't hurt a fly, but she's old news, and can't sell a record.

On top of that, Rayna's father is Powers Booth, and he is very powerful, because Powers Booth is very powerful in every show he's in.  Fantastic.  Papa Powers is trying to get Rayna's husband to run for mayor, because he can be manipulated easily, like some sort of Manchurian.

Rayna's guitarist is really good, and Juliette wants him to be hers (guitarist...and possibly more).

While probably not focusing on the corruption and fall of the city of Nashville the way that The Wire focused on Baltimore, it's clear the city is important as a setting.

The show is well-acted, the writing is strong, they mix in some peppy country songs to keep you tapping your foot.  But whether or not you stick around or not is going to depend on how much you like these characters, and if you believe that out with the old and in with the new is something that interests you.  Or you like the country music scene.

2.  Is it realistic?
Again, I have no idea if this is how country music works, or if this is based on reality at all.  But they set it up like it could be, and the two female leads do a very good job in both their roles.  Even with southern accents.  So let's assume this is real, and that this is how the south works.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
Juliette sleeps with her producer and has cut out her mother because she's a drug addict.  It's all designed to make her the bad guy, albeit the bad guy with flaws that make her human and make you want to root for her slightly.  If only she wasn't going up against country darling Rayna James.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
It's almost like Juliette Barnes goes in the aforementioned section and Rayna James goes in this one as the defender of the family.  She is married to her husband, sticks by him in his political charge, and takes care of the kids on the side.  She has never cheated with the handsome guitarist who writes his songs about her, and she even stands by her pops, even though he's a jerk.

That representation of the family will be important to the southern style of the show, I imagine.
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Nashville has enough stories and possibilities in it that it could make for an intriguing watch.  But I get the sense that the show is directed more towards women, especially those who fear competition from the younger generation, either based on talent or looks.  It's a show based on insecurities, and I believe that could appeal to a lot of people.  I'm just not sure I'm one of them.  Mainly because everyone is more talented and prettier than I am.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

REVIEW: Last Resort

ABC - Thursday 8/7c

The networks have been without a truly great drama since Friday Night Lights went off the air a couple years ago.  And that had to be fronted by DirecTV.  Before that, you have to go to Lost, which aired its final episode in 2010.  Cable networks have dominated the drama Emmy's in recent memory, and the networks have been fine with cop procedurals, teenage dramas and failed attempts to find the new fantasy obsession.

With all that said, Last Resort is excellent.  The acting, the writing and the plotting is some of the best the networks have produced in a while, and the entire pilot keeps you engaged the entire time, either with conspiracy theories, smart dialogue and good ole fashioned American honor.

1.  Does it entertain me?
From the very first scene, Last Resort sucks you into a world in which Marcus Chaplin (Andre Brauger) and Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) are commanding the nuclear submarine USS Colorado with the respect of their crew.  The immediate connection is to the Gene Hackman-Denzel Washington "should we follow unknown orders or not" drama Crimson Tide, where Chaplin and Kendal are suspicious of an order to launch a nuke at Pakistan that came over an unsecured channel designed to be employed if and only if the US has been wiped out.

Sounds good to me.

But Chaplin and Kendal are men of honor, and have suspicions about a command that cannot be confirmed while Hannah Montana does her thing on their broadcast channels and weather reports are reporting not a nuclear winter.  What follows is a back and forth with the Colorado and "Washington" over what they should do.  Eventually the crew parks their sub in the harbor of a NATO command post that looks suspiciously like Oahu and take the post over.

What makes Last Resort so compelling is, first and foremost, the acting job done by Andre Braugher.  He plays Chaplin as a man who could kick your butt and make you feel like you deserved it.  He is well-liked yet firm, and his loyalty lies with his crew and his country.

Along with the submarine, there is the cat and mouse game going on with X-Men Senator Kelly (played by Bruce Davison) and the inventor of a fancy engineering thing on board the Colorado (no idea what it is.  Hey, I'm no friggin genius) who tells Senator Kelly that the sub was attacked by American orders.  Clearly there is more at play here, and we will the season trying to figure out what's going on.

There are so many questions out there, which is exactly what a pilot is supposed to do: engage the audience and give them a reason to come back.  On top of that, Chaplin has become disillusioned by the American government, mostly because of that whole trying to kill them thing, and now wants to stay on the island of Sainte Marina, which does not make the local hostiles happy.

Shows like this succeed with the right production and showrunning, and the right creative choices.  It doesn't fall into the trap of so many other shows by letting the music take over.  Most scenes of dialogue let the words speak for themselves, with the ambiant sounds of the jungle as the background, and thus the tension is not artificially amped up, and inappropriately, too.  It really is a joy to see this, especially in light of Revolution, which attempts to mask the poor dialogue with dramatic strings.

2.  Is it realistic?
I'm not sure Pakistan is our greatest threat and the one we should be nuking, but I could see how some government officials could see that.  And I could buy a submarine captain disobeying those orders because they didn't come through a secure channel.

I think that might be what makes the show actual realistic: it's based in a real world.  It's why Nolan's Batman trilogy works so well, because it's based in reality.  You accept the actions of these men because you accept the world in which the show is set.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
In Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men, Dawson and Downey were found guilty of manslaughter even though they were given an order to punish Pvt. Santiago.  The idea was that they should have known better than to beat up a weaker kid, and by not disobeying a direct command, they instead violated the moral law, which is still punishable.

Catholic Social Doctrine takes this up as well and says that you must not obey a military command that clearly violates the moral law.

This is the issue that is at the heart of Last Resort.  Should you follow a military order that would result in the deaths of thousands of innocents because it's a direct military order, or do you have an obligation to understand that order and question if it comes from a legitimate government authority?

So because Chaplin ignores the order, he earns the wrath of his more military-order-above-all-else minded underlings.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
There is one scene of a half naked woman cavorting with a man, but there is no other instance of sex.  Kendal spends the time looking for a picture of his wife, and his wife is grief-stricken when she fears the false report that her husband was killed.

The show is also setting up a Kendal vs Chaplin feud, with Kendal wanting to go home to his family, and Chaplin deciding that Sainte Marina is his new home.
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Overall, Last Resort is the best new network show of the season.  Without question, really.  It tries to go with the Homeland idea of corruption in the government and using American politics as the backdrop for the rest of the series.  I still think a show like this would benefit from a 13 episode season, but I think we're a long way from that being the norm on networks, because money is the driving force rather than creativity, and 22 episode seasons mean they need to spend less money on development.

Grade: A- 

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Walking Living

Sometimes it takes shows a few episodes to find itself.  30 Rock took half a season.  Parks and Recreation took an entire season to figure out it wasn't The OfficeLost knew right away what it was, and this resulted in one of the best pilots of all time.  Even a show like Breaking Bad struggled through a strike-shortened first season of six episodes before really taking off in season 2.  The Killing never figured it out and so got cancelled after 2 rocky seasons.

The Walking Dead, in contrast, has had 19 episodes spread throughout 2 seasons and 2 showrunners, and inconsistent is probably the most apt word to describe it.  Season one is one of the bloodiest and goriest shows ever to grace the small screen.  But the audience never is able to relate to the characters, because they are all fundamentally stupid, and no one embodies goodness.

And unlike other shows, you aren't rooting for a bad guy to turn it around because you want him to be good (ala Sawyer, Baltar or any other number of characters who are considered evil but show flashes of good and humanity).  Not a single character on the show is relateable, likeable (Dale as the exception) or even a good foil to the rest of the people.  If people die, you don't care.  The Walking Dead was a difficult show to like, but it was an easy show to see potential in.

The first episode of season 3 was, to me, the best one of the now 20 episodes.  Does it create problems for you as a show if you're most entertaining episode is the one that features the least amount of dialogue?  And you find the scenes with dialogue tedious and pointless, while you're hoping to get back to the zombie killing and prison exploring?  (The lone exception here is the scene with Lori and Hershel discussing her zombie baby.  Now this is a good question!  The kind of which the show has failed to answer in the previous 2 seasons, but the kind that is essential for the success of a sci-fi show concerned with the end of mankind.  See Galactica, Battlestar).

So the question is, is this what the show wants to become?  A zombie killing suspense drama?

Here's what we know.  Rick has become a jerk, mad at his pregnant wife and giving his 11 year a gun with a silencer.  The group, as a whole, has gotten smarter, working as a well-formed group to protect all sides of their formation from the oncoming attack.  As the main character of the show, and the last to join this group, Rick has placed all his efforts into survival, rather than trying to figure out where this epidemic came from.  Which is fine, that's probably more real.

What the show is missing, however, is that one character whose goal it is to find ou how this all happened.  Maybe it's a dip from the reality of the show (as real as a show about zombies can really be) to have this happen.  However, as a show whose main goal is entertainment, why not have one one person, even if it's the mysterious zombie hunter, off on their own, travelling the state, looking for answers?

You can't tell me that this story wouldn't interest you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Quick Hits and Misses

1.  This has been a pretty lackluster fall season, with a lot of shows that won't quite make the list.  The most surprising, though, was "666 Park Avenue" which I originally dismissed as being rubbish and nonsense, but what might surprise me and a lot of people.  Granted, that's probably not going to make me watch it or keep it from being cancelled, but it was still surprising.

2.  "The Walking Dead" returns to AMC this week (but not for DISH subscribers, as the television has been so rudely pointing out.  I'm not yet sure if they're the lucky ones, though).  I can't wait to see where our band of dopey heroes spend too much time this season.

3.  If I had to lose any show that I have been watching, I think it would have to be either "How I met your mother" or "The Big Bang Theory."  The difference between the two is that HIMYM still makes me laugh, and BBT just makes me sad most of the time.

4.  "Dexter" also has me excited for this coming year, not because I look forward to the writes ignoring things from last year, but because for the first time since season 2, we're returning to Dexter's actual need to kill.  Like that if he doesn't kill, he shuts down and cannot function.  The writers are at their best when they're dealing with Dexter's interior psyche, which is why the first part of last season was effective (until they killed Brother Sam and stopped the religious discussion).

5.  I need to say a few things about "Revolution."  I'm liking more and more of the backstory, and more of what's going on.  They are doing a good thing, in my opinion, of showing flashbacks to what happened right after the blackout.  But there are still a few lingering issues.
       a.  I hate to make the comparisons to "Lost" but there are times when I must.  When Charlie on "Lost" killed Ethan, he suffered for a while, going into depression and shutting people out.  When Charlie on "Revolution" killed someone, she was immediately fine.  This is an issue when the show is trying to deal with a new sense of humanity.  You can't just skip over character moments like that when you are trying to develop a program that is about more than when the lights go out.
       b.  I enjoy all the stories on the show except for the main one involving Charlie, Miles and Dora.  It's boring and not as effective.  I think this is due to my main problem:
       c.  Miles.  I'm not buying him right now.  His delivery is slightly off and he isn't quite portraying the man he should be.  He was better in the scene with Monroe and JeremyJacob, and I don't know if Tracy Spiridakos is the problem, but would the show be better off without her?  I think so.
       d.  I know this show isn't the greatest, I know it has major flaws, but I do enjoy watching it, and I can only hope that someone who can write dialogue joins at some point (I'm not asking for a Milch or Sorkin or Yost, but something has to give if they want to be taken seriously.

6.  I must say, I am very glad to have television back.  There is a stretch in August when nothing is going on that I legitimately miss other people's lives.  It's not so much that I like to see how they handle things, it's that I like to see how I am reflected in theirs.  I like to consider my own failings and successes in light of others, and I like to contemplate the higher as others are confronted with their own mortality.

It's a silly thing, but it's more than an escape.  Television helps a person to think and to reason and to learn.  It helps to understand the world and to figure out the people who inhabit it, who suffer with this human condition.  We learn something about a man, we learn about people who are brave, who are cowards, who are shy and who are proud.  We learn about people who believe in God and those who profess a belief but who have no idea what that belief entails.  Through these various men we meet, we learn about Man, and thus we learn about ourselves.

REVIEW: Elementary

CBS - Thursdays 10/9c

We continue the recent resuscitation of the life of Sherlock Holmes with CBS's newest entry into the crime procedural, Elementary.  This time with Johnny Lee Miller as the title character and Lucy Liu as Watson, in the latest character to get the Starbuck treatment.

Viewers can expect everything they love from a CBS show and they can expect their lead character to be interesting and well-fleshed out.  This is the staple of all CBS shows, which is why so many people watch it.

This is also the very problem with Elementary

1.  Does it entertain me?
Immediate thoughts are going to go to BBC's vastly superior Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  The world they have created is vast and secretive, with plots and crimes befitting the most famous reasoning detective of all time.  Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr. have each brought something unique to Mr. Holmes, and Johnny Lee Miller has the unenviable task of following them.

People are going to say not to watch those show because it's a blatant ripoff of Sherlock, which doesn't make sense, since that's just an in iteration of Arthur Conan Doyle's work from back in the day.  This show has every right to exist just as much as any other show, and it's nonsense to claim that you shouldn't watch it because you feel you are superior to other people because you watch a British show.

Instead, you should say not to watch this show because it's lackluster and boring, and more of the same police procedural.

The pilot episode features Holmes and Watson out to solve a murder of a man who has been on some sort of medication but whose doctor was also killed, thus taking away the link there.  What follows is something typical to all crime shows: hero sees the crime scene, processes it, goes through the evidence, questions witnesses, then stumbles upon the answer accidentally and makes the connection, much to the killer's chagrin.

They say it's based on reason, but I didn't see anything in the pilot that Sherlock did that was any different than what Grissom does, or Horatio, or Stabler, or Ted Danson, or LL Cool J.  The crime was boring, the characters were not as sharp as they could have been, and all in all the show felt flat.

But maybe that's because it felt like every other show out there, which is something that Sherlock never did.

2.  Is it realistic?
It is.  Miller's Holmes is a brilliant detective capable of reading things into situations because he's observant.  Excellent.  Beyond that, there isn't a demonstration of his abilities in every day life and instead he appears neurotic.  Which is fine, maybe that's how Sherlock Holmes would be.

3.  Are traditional family values upheld?
There is no sex, no cheating, no affairs, nothing that would fly in the face of the family.  Except for when the doctor conspired to have someone's wife killed.  That was not very family friendly.

4.  Are immoral actions defended?
The bad guy committed murder, was caught and presumably sent to jail.  Where he belongs!
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 Elementary is a perfect fit for CBS and its overabundance of crime dramas.  It will find an audience there, but in reality, it's nothing more than an interesting character being placed in an uninteresting world.  The pilot didn't have a gripping crime or gotta find out what happened action.  The characters weren't even that great, but it will find a home and will be watched.  It will make nice "watch if it's on and there's nothing else" television, but it will find a hard time making its way onto many dvrs.

Grade: C

Thursday, October 4, 2012

REVIEW: The Neighbors

ABC - Wednesday 8:30/7:30c

A New Jersey family packs up and leaves Jersey and moves into a small gated community with a golf course.  The bit they didn't tell you about, right, is that all their neighbors are aliens.  I don't know if the well was running dry developmentally at ABC, but at least we have Modern Family from them, right?

1.  Does it entertain me?
I feel like somewhere in this show there is a funny sitcom.  Somewhere in the premise is an idea that works and there are jokes that are funny.  But I honestly don't know how you would make it funny or if all the right players are there.

It seems easy to make a sitcom with aliens as your main characters.  They would find hilarious things that we don't, and they would do things that we as humans would find astoundingly hilarious.  You put them in awkward situations and the sparks will fly and wackiness will ensue!

The problem is that this idea is easy.  The jokes are easy, the laughs that are to be had are not because something is actually funny, but more properly because the situation is different to us.  If you look at the top comedies on television, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, Community and possibly some of the ones on CBS that aren't named 2 1/2 Men, then you will see first and foremost funny characters.  Second, you will see them getting into situations that we the viewing audience can relate to.

Sure, everyone's had weird neighbors.  But I guarantee that most people could tell funnier stories about their neighbors than the ones that we are being told on this show.

The real issue is that the show devolves quickly into a typical every day show.  The wives have problems with their husbands and can't understand why they won't do things that seem ordinary to them (even the aliens have this problem, which I suppose is supposed to be the joke.  Ha ha, now I get it).  The husbands, in turn, don't understand why their wives don't understand them.  And so we have a show about suburban America that is just like every other show about suburban America, and no one cares there are aliens.

2.  Is it realistic?
Probably, I've never lived next to an alien before (although we did have a cast of characters in my neighborhood growing up, including The Goat, Snail Man, Artie D, Dylan C., Busted Kneecaps.  It was a very colorful neighborhood).

3.  Are traditional family values upheld?
  Yes, no aliens have started cheating on their spouses with the humans yet, and vice versa.  The alien husband got kicked out of his pod, but that's hardly un-family like.

4.  Are immoral actions defended?
The aliens seem to be peaceful, so that's good news.  We don't want warmongering aliens in our premises, that would just create chaos.
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The Neighbors has 6 episodes written all over it, which is fine, because there really isn't enough reason to come back each week.

Grade: D

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

REVIEW: 666 Park Avenue

ABC - Sundays 10/9c

Terry O'Quinn plays his second iteration of the devil (the first being Lost when he was the Man in Black\Smoke Monster\Barry) in this new show that is at times horror and suspense and times morality play.  It has intrigue and sex, which should appeal to a lot of people, but the weird thing is that is uses both of these things in a way that enhances the overall theme of the show:

The Devil is bad and he will make you do bad things.

1.  Does it entertain me?
The Natural Law tells me, among other things, to do good and avoid evil.  The devil in this show, Gavin Doran (O'Quinn), tries to switch this around.  Do evil and avoid good.  He tempts them, he offers them things that they otherwise could not have (one guy becomes concert violinist, one guy gets his dead wife back as long as he continues to murder innocent people).  No matter who the person is, Gavin is convinced that he can bring them over to the dark side.

This sets up all sorts of immoral and illicit behavior.  Murders, beatings, poor golf swings, sex.  You name it, someone has to do it to remain in the devil's good graces.  However, none of these acts are ever presented in a way that the devil doesn't somehow begin.  So while the commercials would lead you to believe that these behaviors are what everyone seeks, they are actually part of a bigger picture: namely that the devil can give you things that you want.

Of course, he says that he gives you things that you need, when in actuality you gives you things you want.  It's similar to Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce.  The devil convinces you that you just don't want this new vice, but that you actually need it, and that you can't live without it.  He is the best salesman in Manhattan.

The show also mixes in all sorts of intrigue, namely that the Drake Hotel (not the one in Chicago, although that could be haunted as well) used to be the center for a cult, and the remnants are still in the basement.  Jane Van Veen (Rachel Taylor) is an architect looking to find out the history of the building.

And this is where the main pull of the show comes from.  Can Jane and the other characters find out the truth of the hotel?  And if so, can they find out that Gavin is the devil?  And if they find this out, can they bring John Constantine by to rid them of their devil problem?

What ABC is banking on is that people will stick around long enough to find all this out.  But I just don't know if there is enough discussion orTheological dialogue to merit a return week after week.  ABC is banking on people returning for the immoral behavior, on finding out people's motivations for committing sin, on seeing who has sold their soul this week.  But I just don't know if people who are interested in the theological nature of the show are willing to sit through all the sex.

2.  Is it realistic?
Your belief in the existence of the devil and the power he wields is going to shape  your answer to this one.  But I for one absolutely believe in things like this, which is why a show like this frightens me so much more than a show about zombies (although that can be equally as difficult to watch.  Thanks Rick).

So if you believe in the devil and his temptational power, then the premise is believable.  That people would be willing to sell their souls to become a concert violinist is also believable.  I'm not sure some of the secondary relationship stories are as believable, but those people will probably be killed at some point.

3.  Are traditional family values upheld?
The whole idea of the show is that people commit sin in order to get what they want.  This will include affairs and extramarital sex.  Families will be destroyed by murder.  So no, the family is not protected.

But it's also not the goal of the show to uphold that.  It's trying to show the flaws of humanity and our desires to have worldly possessions.

Of course, I may be giving the show too much credit here.  There may be no desire to explore the nature of good and evil at all, and in reality, there may just be ratings grabs designed only for entertainment.  Which is fine, people are allowed to write whatever show they want.  We just don't have to watch.

4.  Are immoral actions defended?
By the devil, yes.  But the show doesn't seem to take a stance on good or evil, just that Gavin is in charge, and is clearly making these people to immoral things to get what they want.  I can't imagine the characters support his corrupt beliefs, but you never know.
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666 Park Avenue doesn't give the audience who might be looking for some theological discussion enough to stick around.  And it doesn't give those people who are looking for the next sex-infused Desperate Housewives enough sex to stick around.  So it might be stuck in the middle, trying to entice people with a bit of a fright each week, with moving hell-walls and floors.

Grade: C+