Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TV Pilots, Day 1 — Bob's Burgers, The Cape, Episodes, Shameless, Off the Map

Has it really been half a year since I began my last batch of TV pilot reviews? (Answer: No, but let me have my wistful opening!) Since then I've dismissed many shows about cops and lawyers and seen half the small handful of new series I deemed worthy of regular viewing canceled, but I won't be dissuaded from my mission of watching and reviewing at least one episode of every new show that hits the air. At least not until I have to sit through another sitcom as atrocious as Mike & Molly.

Nothing that bad this time though. Nothing all that great either, but hey, that's television, baby. Today we put the spotlight on Fox's Bob's Burgers, NBC's The Cape, Showtime's Episodes, Showtime's Shameless, and ABC's Off the Map:


The premise in ten words or less? Animated sitcom about a family-run burger joint.

Any good? I'll say upfront that I'm not much for the animated sitcom subgenre. On rare occasion, maybe once every couple months, I'll load up a random recent episode of The Simpsons or Family Guy on Hulu to kill half an hour, but by and large I find that The Simpsons and all of Seth MacFarlane's shows have grown tired (except The Cleveland Show, which didn't "grow tired" so much as was stillborn), and I don't watch South Park because I'm not a 20-year-old state college libertarian.

So no surprise that I wasn't a big fan Bob's Burgers. There were a handful of chuckles at the dark humor and I do kind of admire the way the show rejects the pop culture-infused surreality of most animated sitcoms in favor of a story taking place in something vaguely resembling the real world — no aliens, talking dogs, or talking babies to be found — but the overall tone and pacing was sleepy and slack and I really don't like the visual design of the show's human characters. In fact I'd go so far as to call them ugly as shit and a tremendous eyesore, more reminiscent of an internet flash cartoon made by one guy in his spare time than a professional production, although the settings surrounding the characters look just fine. I also kind of hate how the wife and older daughter are both voiced by men, something which must have seemed funny on paper and maybe even in the recording booth and editing lab but in practice is just stupid in the obnoxious way, not the funny way.

Will I watch again? A show like this doesn't demand you watch every episode, so me tuning into another isn't impossible. But if I feel that rare animated sitcom itch I'm a lot more likely to just watch The Simpsons or Family Guy. I'd put my odds of watching another Bob's Burgers anytime soon at about 5%.


The premise in ten words or less? Framed man becomes costumed vigilante in semi-fascist city.

Any good? Well, no. In fact, it's pretty bad. But it's an energetic, lively sort of bad that makes it almost watchable in spite of itself. It's the kind of gleefully moronic show where the main supervillain is named "Chess" and when he goes into villain mode the pupils of his eyes turn into chess pieces, and the hero's weapon is quite literally his cape, which he learns how to whip with extreme power. Compared to other recent superhero shows like Heroes and No Ordinary Family it's easily the one that most resembles an actual comic book in tone and structure despite its lack of true superpowers, giving us a very Batman-esque hero who's actually putting on a costume and going out at night to fight crime by the end of the first episode. The dialogue is truly laughable, but awesome actors James Frain and Keith David do their best to salvage some of it in supporting roles. Summer Glau is in there too, which I guess is a big deal in nerd culture, but she does little to impress. David Lyons is instantly forgettable in the title role.

However, it struck me while watching The Cape that if you took its best elements — namely an antagonist who actually provides a legitimate threat and a city that actually feels like it's hurting and oppressed and in need of a hero — and applied them to No Ordinary Family, you would arguably have one complete, good superhero show, rather than one mediocre one and one comically shitty one.

Will I watch again? Geez, probably not. But I'd rather watch it than Generic Police Procedural #487, anyway.


The premise in ten words or less? British TV writer couple remakes their hit sitcom in America.

Any good? Not amazing, but easily the best of the shows I'm discussing today. Interesting thing is that it really is a British sitcom at heart, something I say not to sound snobby or to imply that I think British comedy is superior to American comedy (on the contrary, no contemporary British sitcom comes within a mile of Community), but just as an objective evaluation of its mostly dry and sardonic tone and the fact that, despite Matt LeBlanc being put front and center in most of the advertising, the British couple trying in vain to remake their hit sitcom in Hollywood without sacrificing its integrity are pretty clearly the protagonists and LeBlanc the supporting character. In fact, LeBlanc has all of one minute of screentime in the pilot, which was a bit of a shame. It's not cool to admit in elite TV circles, but I loved Friends back in its day, and there's no question that LeBlanc (along with Matthew Perry) was shouldering way more than a sixth of the comedic load for most of the series.

As Hollywood satire, I'm not sure Episodes is saying anything that films and TV shows haven't been regularly mocking themselves for for a couple decades now (especially the 2006 film The TV Set), presenting the network brass as foiling the creative people at every turn, but I did mostly like the way it was presented. The scene where the writers bring in the star of their original British show (played by no less than Richard Griffiths) to audition for the network suits and sit helplessly by as the audition slowly dies was superbly awkward and funny. Let's put it this way: Episodes ain't reinventing the Hollywood satire wheel, but it's about a million times less insufferable and smug than Entourage.

Will I watch again? I don't actually have Showtime and was only able to watch Episodes and Shameless because they put the pilots up for free online, so I won't be watching it as it airs on television. However, I'll Netflix it once it's released on DVD. I mean, Christ, the entire season is only gonna be seven episodes long. At half an hour apiece, that's a one-sitter even if I rewatch the pilot. Hopefully it won't take long too long after the season finale airs next month. You never know; sometimes these cable shows take horrifyingly close to a year to hit shelves.


The premise in ten words or less? Poor family, drunk dad, too many kids.

Any good? It's atmospheric, at least, presenting a world of semi-poverty in Chicago's West Side that feels lived in and authentic, and Emmy Rossum's leading (I think leading, more on that in a second) performance is very strong. But I don't find myself particularly gripped by the show's premise, which lacks any real drive outside of just asking us to watch these people live their lives. In the pilot, one of the teenaged sons accidentally outs himself to his brother when he gets caught blowing a male convenience store cashier, but it's okay because his brother accepts him, while Emmy Rossum hooks up with a car thief who buys her and her family a new washing machine. It's certainly preferable to any daytime soap but it wasn't exactly high drama that grabbed me by the balls either.

One kind of strange thing is that William H. Macy's family patriarch seems positioned as the protagonist — first name in the credits, gets an opening voiceover narration, focus of the first scene — then proceeds to disappear for almost the entire episode, making a couple tiny cameos as a sloshing drunk, while Emmy Rossum firmly takes the lead as the oldest daughter and her family's de facto mother, despite being second billed. I guess that's fine, since I certainly have no problem with Rossum, but it seems odd they would pay an actor as big as William H. Macy to be a series regular then deploy him for five minutes of screentime, much of it spent passed out.

I should also note that Shameless is a remake of a British show of the same name that began in 2004, and from what I've read the pilot in particular is a fairly exact scene-for-scene recreation, not unlike the pilot of the American version of The Office. Whether it will continue to stick closely to its forebear or blaze new trail like The Office did I have no idea, and seeing as finding out would necessitate watching not one but both versions I doubt I ever will.

Will I watch again? Keeping in mind that, again, I don't have Showtime, I could see myself throwing it on my Netflix queue and waiting for it to float to the top. But my Netflix queue is several hundred deep and contains films and shows that have literally been on it since 2007 and are still in the triple digits, so consider that a fairly loose and noncommittal endorsement.


The premise in ten words or less? American doctors working in South America, including Matt Saracen!

Any good? There is nothing in this world I care less about than episodic medical dramas. Like, you know that stupid fucking dream you had last night that you insist on telling me about, ignoring my reflexive yawning as you begin, "I had the weirdest dream last night"? I'm actually more interested in that dream than I am in medical dramas, which even includes the critic-approved House, a show featuring a fine leading performance which has been telling the exact same story every week for six years now. All this being a longwinded way of saying that I hated Off the Map; it bored me to tears. It's just ER or Grey's Anatomy set in a jungle, and I didn't / don't watch those shows for the very specific reason that I didn't / don't want to.

Which is actually saddening, because the show is co-starring Zach Gilford, who, via his role as Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights, is one of my favorite TV actors of all time. Shame to see him rocket from gold to shit with such velocity. It's also starring Meryl Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer, who, despite being American and having two American parents, has the most British-sounding name I've ever heard. Like, if someone said to me in a British accent, "Hello, I'm Mamie Gummer," I'd be like, "Nice to meet you, Mamie." If someone said the same thing to me in an American accent I'd be like "GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE"

Will I watch again? I would rather suffer grievous injury and receive surgery at a poorly-stocked South American hospital.

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