Wednesday, September 22, 2010

TV Pilots, Day 1 — Outlaw, Boardwalk Empire, Chase, The Event, Lone Star

I've been wanting to start doing more TV coverage on my blog, so I've decided to do something useful with my life waste time by watching this fall's series premieres and reporting back with some relatively brief thoughts on each. Note that I don't watch commercials out of principle, so that means that the shows I'll review are either 1) on HBO or other commercial-free premium networks, or more likely 2) on Hulu. And Hulu doesn't broadcast CBS shows, so I won't be reviewing all the shitty, lowbrow, soon-to-be-beloved-by-middle-America programs CBS is rolling out this week. So sad. How will I ever live with myself?

This review series will probably have three entires, and in the first we'll be looking at, in rough chronological order of premiere date, NBC's Outlaw, HBO's Boardwalk Empire, NBC's Chase, NBC's The Event, and Fox's Lone Star:


The premise in ten words or less? Rogue Supreme Court justice quits, becomes private defense attorney.

Any good? In the pilot's climax, a man who has been on death row for eleven years is brought in for a retrial in light of new evidence that Jimmy Smits and his team have uncovered, because of course, like every other lawyer show, Outlaw assumes that lawyers also do the jobs of detectives, spies, and policemen. In about five minutes presented in real time, the trial begins, a new witness goes up, gives her story, points out the real guilty party who is of course in the courtroom, and Smits and the prosecuting attorney start screaming at each other until a pair of glasses belonging to the actual killer is presented and proves everything, at which point the police arrest the killer right there in the courtroom and the defendant who has been jail for eleven years immediately walks out a free man. It would be the funniest scene of the year if the show were kidding, but no, it's dead fucking serious.

The dialogue is awful, painfully expository and horribly on-the-nose (particularly the moment where one of Jimmy Smits' clerks hints at her secret love for him by shouting "I love you!" in front of the whole team), the moments of attempted comic relief will make you cringe, and even the cinematography and editing attempt to be flashy and modern in the most obnoxious way. And the premise is sort of moronic if you think about it. A Supreme Court justice willingly stepping down to fight for the little guy isn't the world's worst hook and could maybe work for a feature film with a much, much better writer, but in a TV series once you've gotten all that out of the way in the first half of the pilot it's just another fucking lawyer show for the rest of its lifespan, be that six episodes or, god forbid, six seasons.

Will I watch again? I admit, the sheer comedic value of how bad Outlaw is might actually drive me to watch another episode at some point. But probably not the next one. I need a little time to recover first.


The premise in ten words or less? Gangsters in Prohibition-era Atlantic City smuggle alcohol, Scorsese directs.

Any good? Well, no shit. So much digital ink has been spilled talking about this series that there isn't a whole lot left for me to add. It's a period piece gangster epic with terrific actors (Steve Buscemi is the star and brings his fascinating, off-kilter energy to every frame while A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg makes nearly as great an impression as Arnold Rothstein), the production values surpass plenty of feature films and all except a few TV shows ever made, and there's lots of grit and moral ambiguity and a fantastic visual style established by no less than Martin Scorsese. The pilot was terrific, one of the best I've seen, albeit so obviously the first chapter in a sprawling and novelistic story that reviewing it by itself is probably akin to reviewing the first seven pages of a book.

The basic premise could be likened to The Wire (which examines how the War on Drugs actually bolsters crime in contemporary Baltimore, while this one examines how the illegality of booze bolsters crime in 1920s Jersey), but with all subtlety intentionally removed. Contemporary Scorsese is not a subtle filmmaker. Take a look at Gangs of New York, The Departed, or Shutter Island and you'll see what I mean; Scorsese lays out all themes and ideas with tremendous energy, muscular style, crackling dialogue, and, in Boardwalk Empire, a whole lot of pomp and circumstance. This show is smart and complex but it's also visually beautiful and really entertaining.

Will I watch again? Yes, I will be watching the whole season. And HBO has already renewed it for a second season, so we got at least 23 more hours of Atlantic City hilarity left to go. What a grand time to own a television!


The premise in ten words or less? Unambitious procedural about federal marshals in Texas.

Any good? This show is a fucking catastrophe. I'm blown away that NBC would even take this thing to series. I'd discuss the plot of the pilot — a serial killer is loose in Texas, some interchangeable federal marshals led by Kelli Giddish bust down doors and connect the clues to track him down, culminating in a lackluster action scene when they finally reach him — but other than the fact that that's clearly going to be the plot of every single episode there's no point. The show has no serialized elements of any kind. It's dry and unambitious and takes itself so, so, so seriously for such a generic procedural. Longest 42 minutes I've sat through lately. In summary, Chase will be this season's breakout hit.

Will I watch again?


The premise in ten words or less? Lost wannabe mixed with 24 wannabe.

Any good? I'm on the fence, leaning towards "no" but willing to keep an open mind. The pilot is a festival of nonsense that leaps back and forwards through time, with the president planning to release the captives of a Guantanamo-style secret prison in Alaska against the wishes of his advisors, some vague references to "the event," a man's girlfriend disappearing as if she never existed during a vacation, the same man appearing on a plane days later with no explanation and attempting to stop the pilot (his girlfriend's father) from dive-bombing the plane into the president, and finally the plane disappearing into a blue wormhole just before impact, presumably "the event."

It's obviously trying to be like Lost with its serialized mystery and ensemble cast and flashbacks, while it's obviously trying to be like 24 with its frenetic pacing and utilization of the President of the United States as a main character. And it kept my attention with relatively few scoffs along the way, but the biggest problem is that absolutely none of the characters made the slightest impact whatsoever. No personalities. Not one of them had a single quirk or flaw or unique character trait. Lost has also made me extremely nervous about getting involved in these longform serialized mysteries, because who knows whether or not the solution will turn out to be a giant glowing sand vagina.

Will I watch again? I swear to god I will use a straight razor to remove the nuts of the next person I hear excuse Lost's piece of shit finale with "it was always about the characters", but Lost did actually establish compelling and unique personalities within its first few episodes. However, The Event is still a couple short of a few episodes, so I'll give it a little more time to build its cast and to see if it provides satisfying answers to any of the mysteries. But the moment I start checking the clock in the middle of episodes to see when it's going to end, I'm done.


The premise in ten words or less? Texas conman lives two separate lives, wants to go straight.

Any good? Really good, actually. With Friday Night Lights ending in six months I'm gonna be needing a new serialized drama set in Texas and co-starring Adrianne Palicki to fill the massive hole that will leave in my TV life, and Lone Star looks like it could do the trick. It plays a little bit like a modern riff on Dallas incorporating decades of advancement in TV storytelling — beautiful cinematography, film-quality performances, emotional subtlety, rich serialization, and actually being shot in Texas rather than on backlots in Hollywood.

We follow a conman named Bob Allen who sells phony gas and oil leases to people all across Texas, including to what seems like most everyone in a Midland suburb. Unfortunately he's also fallen in love and moved in with a Midland girl and can't bring himself to just take his money and run; he actually wants to find a way to pay the people back on their investments so he can keep up his charade. Meanwhile, in Houston, he's goddamn married to another woman who he had planned to use to worm his way into her father's oil business to steal millions, but when he's finally offered a job in the company he decides he loves his wife and wants to maintain that life, too. But his conman daddy ain't happy with his plans to go clean and both houses of cards seem poised to collapse at any moment.

The thing I enjoy about the show is the bundle of contradictions that is the protagonist. He's genial and kindhearted in his day-to-day demeanor (even giving $50 to a cashier he doesn't know so the cashier won't get fired for someone stealing from the store), but he's also an absolute piece of shit. He's a thief and a liar and a remorseless adulterer; perhaps not a terrible person by the standards of genre fiction where terrible people want to blow up the earth, but in a real-world based show like this he's just about the worst fucking human being on the planet. Actor James Wolk does a good job with the emotional complexity of the part but isn't 100% believable as the ladies man he's made out to be, complete with gorgeous women in hotel bars quickly propositioning him for no-strings-attached sex. He has boyish good looks but lacks the raw, Taylor Kitschian animal magnetism necessary to truly pull that off.

Will I watch again? Absolutely. Looking forward to it. But I suspect Lone Star is not long for this world. It's emotionally rich, original and well-acted, with strong dialogue, meaty characters and a palpable sense of its settings, which means mainstream America won't be interested. Add to that the fact that it's on the trigger-happy Fox network and we'll be lucky to see this thing through to the end of its (hopefully self-contained) thirteen-episode first season. But I'll be there to watch.

No comments: