Monday, October 24, 2011

Homeland, Season 1 Episode 4 — "Semper I"

I've decided to, in addition to my NBC Thursday night sitcom roundups, start doing episode-by-episode reviews of a few other shows. For now I'm starting with Homeland and Chuck and adding Spartacus and Game of Thrones when they return next year. I toyed with also doing Parenthood, but, although I really like Parenthood (more than Homeland and Chuck, even), I'm worried there wouldn't be much to say after each episode other than "Yep, that was pleasant." But I could always change my mind, and could always opt to add other new shows as well. I'm volatile as fuck!

But for now let's focus in on Homeland's fourth episode, "Semper I." Review behind the cut, lest the uninitiated be callously spoiled.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 10/13/11

(I felt there was too much positivity in my NBC sitcom roundups as of late, so effective immediately and until I decide I've had enough, I've added Whitney to the lineup. May god have mercy on my soul.)

The Office, Season 8 Episode 4 — "Garden Party"

Well, after three pretty solid outings for The Office's eighth season, we got us a bit of a clunker. Not an apocalyptic clunker – "Garden Party" is no "Christening" – but an incredibly generic, run-of-the-mill Dunder Mifflin party episode, one we've seen a million times before, and one where the few things that differentiated it were primarily for the worse.

The garden party setting, while outwardly harmless, gave rise to one of the dumbest episode framing devices in the history of the show with Jim's garden party advice book. Never mind that most of the resulting Dwight wackiness was less than hilarious; even for a sitcom, the idea that Jim wrote a complete book (from the look of it, a decently thick one) in preparation for this one event, created an anonymous online profile, and somehow got Dwight to buy it in lieu of however many real garden party books there are on Amazon to get a couple silly laughs is unacceptably stupid. Moronic. Almost insulting.

Josh Groban as Andy's brother was the worst, most obnoxious kind of stunt casting, the kind that made last season's finale so grating and that The Office admirably held itself above for six seasons (unless you count supporting players from The Wire as stunt casting, anyway). Now, Groban's performance for his first scene or two was fine, but then they had to bust out the guitars and go for the "funny" singing (i.e. just plain singing), which became an ultimate comedy pet peeve of mine at some point between the hundredth and millionth time they did it with Jenna on 30 Rock. Nothing but hate for that part of the episode.

Of course it all came around to a feel-good ending where the office rallied in support of Andy to make him feel welcome as their new boss, which would be great if they hadn't done the exact same ending two goddamn episodes ago in "The Incentive." Let's start thinking a little outside the box, guys!

Now, granted, there were some funny punchlines here and there as the show's viewpoint swung erratically around the party, including Mose making chaos while parking cars, a bird stealing Erin's hat, and the Citizen Kane debate between Oscar and Darryl. But alas, those bits were but sprinkles covering tuna-flavored ice cream. Worst episode of the season by far.

Funniest Moment: Ryan toasting the troops. All of them. Both sides.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 4 — "Pawnee Rangers"

Like The Office, this was a fairly run-of-the-mill Parks outing, but with the important caveat that Parks and Rec's current mean quality level is much, much higher than The Office's. Multiple stories stemming loosely from the same event (most of the office being out camping, the few people left taking advantage of the empty nest), Leslie being triumphant, Ron being stubborn, Ann being awkward, Chris being peppy, Jerry being put upon, Tom and Donna being materialistic, Ben being a nerd, heartwarming ending, etc. All bases covered.

The main Pawnee Rangers vs. Pawnee Goddesses story, while light on Andy and April goodness, was full of funny stuff, especially in the contrast between the two camps and in Leslie's overly precocious kids. After a string of "Ron is awesome and always right" stories last year like the burger cook-off, it was nice to see an episode take him down a peg and show that he can, in fact, be wrong. I also like that, at least as of four episodes in, they seem to be alternating election and non-election stories for Leslie. Good way to do it, I'd say.

Ben, Tom, and Donna's "TREAT YO SELF" B-plot was definitely the highlight of the episode, if only because of Ben eating soup alone on a bench, his fear of acupuncture, and the Game of Thrones and Dark Knight references. Nevertheless, this has been the third consecutive episode to pair up Ben and Tom, so I wouldn't mind Ben getting a new story partner next week. Chris and Jerry's subplot all seemed like buildup for the two-second punchline of Jerry's reaction shot when Chris tells him he fucked his daughter, but that punchline was funny enough to make it all worthwhile.

Funniest Moment: Andy's intensity while reciting the oath of the Pawnee Goddesses.

Community, Season 3 Episode 4 — "Remedial Chaos Theory"

Best sitcom of last Thursday? Yes. Best TV episode of the week? Certainly. One of the best of the year? Absolutely. Best Community since "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons?" Quite possibly! "Remedial Chaos Theory" was the sort of condensed, propulsive brilliance Community specializes in that makes all other sitcoms feel small, dull, and gray in comparison. Granted, it's not the first sitcom episode to explore multiple timelines, but it is the first to explore seven multiple timelines, and weave countless subplots and running jokes through all of them in a manner reminiscent of a man juggling a dozen knives.

What's great is how the episode managed to have its cake and eat it too, being alternately absurdist, dark, poignant, slapsticky, or (in the case of the prime timeline) heartwarming depending on who got the pizza, and, like they've done with action movies, zombies, and Westerns, they made it all fit seamlessly within the framework of the show's reality. In addition to all the stories they were juggling, "Remedial Chaos Theory" showed supreme confidence in its grasp of tone, and how to make it veer in wildly different directions without ever feeling haphazard or uncontrolled.

It doesn't take a master sitcom analyst to look at the episode and notice that the group dynamic immediately improves when Pierce or Jeff is missing. When Pierce is absent, everyone starts getting along. When Jeff the judgmental steps out, they immediately lose their inhibitions and start having fun, which Jeff of course judges them for upon his return ("You guys see what happens when I leave you alone?"). This seems to tie directly into Jeff's nightmare about literally becoming Pierce back in "Biology 101." But beyond Jeff and Pierce, it's also interesting to look at how the absence of the others impacts things.

When Britta is gone, the group loses its heart and gets mean, with Pierce getting a little too harsh with Abed. With Shirley missing, they get selfish, letting her pies burn. When Abed is gone, they just plain stop having fun, with everyone getting really real then hurting each other's feelings. And without Troy, everything goes to fucking hell, seeming to say that without his goodhearted enthusiasm anchoring them there can be no group at all. (The only one for whom this theory seems to break down is Annie, who just last week in "Competitive Ecology" was voted most popular in the group, but whose absence seems to have little ill effect on anyone.)

Even putting aside the breadth and ambition of its storytelling, "Remedial Chaos Theory" was just hilariously funny. From Britta's pizza dance to Troy's candy cigarette to Annie's gun not being a pregnancy test to the Norwegian troll doll to Jeff repeatedly hitting his head on the fan to Britta's repeated botched attempts at singing "Roxanne," the episode refused to lighten up on the onslaught of comedy for a second. Granted, this is more the rule than the exception when it comes to Community, but it's always nice to see and nice to laugh as hard as this show demands.

It's also interesting to note that, save last season's "Competitive Wine Tasting," this is the most brazen episode yet concerning the seemingly inevitable romantic collision of Troy and Britta. I have no extremely strong feelings on this one way or the other, but I am curious to see if Community can pull off coupling up the study group (actual couples, I mean, so not counting Jeff and Britta's secret sex last season) without it starting to feel incestuous the way Friends did around the point that Joey fell in love with Rachel. The show has pulled off 98% of what it's taken a swing at up to this point, so I have no reason to believe they'd botch it.

But the most important question to ponder moving forward is, of course, whether or not we'll ever visit Evil Troy and Evil Abed in the dark timeline again. The show would continue on fine without them, but it would be a shame not to follow up on that astoundingly brilliant tag. If we ever return to that timeline I hope we get a chance to visit in on psycho Annie.

Funniest Moment: For the sheer, manic energy of it I'd have to go with Troy's Darth Vaderian "NOOOOOOO!!!!" upon seeing the Norwegian troll doll amidst the fire, but he also had the funniest line delivery not a minute into the episode. Shirley: "Time flies when I'm baking!" Troy: *grinning widely* "No it doesn't!"

Whitney, Season 1 Episode 4 — "A Decent Proposal"

Watching Whitney's latest pile of shit masquerading as a sitcom episode, it occurred to me that I'd seen this story before: Whitney and Alex's game of romantic chicken was instantly evocative of Jeff and Britta in Community's second season premiere, "Anthropology 101." Now, I'm not saying that Whitney's writers ("writers" in the same sense that one who defaces a urinal with graffiti is an "artist") ripped off Community – nothing about Whitney implies that anyone involved has ever seen a funny episode of television – but it's fascinating to compare the two and see why one works and one doesn't.

Now, you might say, "Tim, you asshole, one is funny because it has good writers, good jokes, Joel McHale, and Gillian Jacobs, and the other is unfunny because it has shit writers, shit jokes, Whitney Cummings, and Chris D'Elia!" And, of course, you'd be right. But beyond that, examining story structure, Community's romantic chicken worked because the two people involved weren't already in a longterm relationship, they were forced to put on a performance for everyone else's benefit, there was another character (Abed) driving the stakes upward, and they had the people around them choosing sides ("Jeff Winger you're a jerk!").

Whitney, however, shows no aptitude whatsoever for the basic notion of comic stakes: The romantic chicken is being played exclusively between two (uninteresting) people, and, whoever wins, no one will care and nothing will result. It will have no impact on Whitney or Alex as people or on their relationship. It's small, boring storytelling. And, yes, as I mentioned above, on a moment-to-moment and joke-to-joke basis, it was cripplingly unfunny. This show sucks the big dick.

Funniest Moment: Geez. That's a little like being tasked with finding the tastiest turd in a toilet bowl full of shit, isn't it? I guess if I had to choose I'd go with the part at the end where Jonathan from 30 Rock proposes to the redheaded one, because it was hilarious that Whitney actually thought I would be emotionally moved by that. You just want to pat the show on the head and say "Aw, good job, champ!", like you would to a kindergartener showing off their artwork.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. Parks and Recreation 3. The Office 4. Whitney

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Breaking Bad Season 4 Review

Full spoiler review of Breaking Bad season four behind the cut, bitch!

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Person of Interest

The show: Person of Interest, Thursdays on CBS

The premise in ten words or less? A machine predicts murders, two men stop them.

Any good? First off, I should note that calling this a "pilot review" is fraudulent, as I actually shotgunned all four existing episodes in rapid succession just before writing this (but "First Four Episodes Inspektor Tim" just doesn't have the same ring to it). But in a sense it makes no difference, as the next three chapters largely just confirmed both the good and the bad things I had suspected from the first.

Person of Interest is a procedural, with many of the problems that genre entails – being episodic and fairly predictable – but it also happens to be the strongest procedural of the fall. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering the pedigree behind it, which includes creator Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher and co-writer of The Dark Knight) and executive producers Nolan and J.J. Abrams. (But, the greatness of Star Trek and Super 8 notwithstanding, let's not forget Abrams was also behind last fall's largely unfortunate NBC procedural Undercovers.)

What separates it from most other procedurals and aligns it in a way more with 24 or Homeland is that rather than solving crimes, the two men at the show's center are out to prevent crimes before they happen. But unlike in 24 or Homeland, they're not out to stop huge terrorist threats but more everyday murders.

The show, while set in 2011, takes place in a very lightly sci-fi alternate universe where, after 9/11, Finch (Michael Emerson of Lost fame) was tasked with creating The Machine, which sees everything going on all throughout the country through a million eyes, hears everything through a million years, intercepts every email, records every phone call – basically, everyone everywhere is spied on at all times. The Machine then analyzes the data and reports who is going to be the victim of fatal violence. The government only used The Machine to prevent major terrorist attacks, but, upset that ordinary murders were being discarded, Finch set out on his own.

But Finch is martially untrained and walks with a limp, so he drafts aimless but deadly veteran Reese (Jim Caviezel of Jesus Christ of Nazareth fame), the show's protagonist, to be his instrument of justice, and the two go into the vigilante business together. But, as The Machine only gives the identities of people who will be involved in murders – not when, how, or why the murders will happen or even whether the person it pinpoints is the victim or the killer – the job also involves detective work.

Now, what the premise is immediately reminiscent of is Batman's cell phone sonar at the end of The Dark Knight, to the extent that it could almost be accused of being a ripoff if it weren't from the same writer. It could also be compared to Homeland, which doesn't have any science fiction but does examine the push and pull between privacy and national security.

The problem, from a greater political standpoint, is that, as of four episodes in and unlike in The Dark Knight or Homeland, neither the heroes nor the narrative of Person of Interest have given the slightest indication that there's anything disturbing or wrong about the power to spy on every single person in America at will. I'm not necessarily saying the series is right-wing, but it is, at the very least, a little tone deaf.

Like pretty much all of CBS's scripted programming – comedy, drama, or whatever – Person of Interest is well-engineered to have an infinitely sustainable premise lacking any real direction, goal, or end point, so the series can viably go on for ten seasons so long as they can keep devising new weekly crimes. No shocker there: That's the formula that's put CBS on top and there's no reason for them to tweak it now.

But what is surprising is that there is a sense of continuity, with the fourth episode following up on a subplot from the pilot and making direct references to the events of the third episode while expecting viewers to keep up. That doesn't sound like anything special if you're used to good TV, but, given this is a CBS procedural, I'll admit I was taken aback. It certainly gives the show a leg up on the rigidly, almost depressingly episodic Prime Suspect in that regard.

But whereas Maria Bello's Jane Timoney was the only thing that kept me watching Prime Suspect for the few episodes I did before giving up, Person of Interest's hero Reese may be the weak link of his own show. He's given this very blandly badass characterization, without any hint of internal life or personality, never losing his cool, never intimidated or flummoxed by anything, taking down every obstacle without breaking a sweat. He's like a good Anton Chigurh, which isn't as interesting as you might think. His generic procedural protagonist backstory of having lost someone is no more inspired than it is with Poppy Montgomery's character on Unforgettable, and Jim Caviezel does little to give him the extra kick to smooth over the weak writing.

The supporting cast fares a bit better, although none of them just grabbed me by the balls. Michael Emerson's oracle-type techie backup Finch, while given little more characterization on the page than Reese, is, unlike Reese, jolted to life by his actor. Emerson was always great as Ben Linus on Lost, even when given shit to work with, and he captures this odd balance that makes Finch simultaneously just a little creepy while also being clearly on the side of good. Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Chapman fill out the rest of the rather tiny main cast as two cops, the former good and searching for Reese, the latter dirty and doing Reese's bidding on threat of exposure. Neither are bad, neither remarkable.

Ultimately, Person of Interest has some good things going for it that separate it from merely being Generic Crime Procedural #8139, and you could do worse with your TV viewing. But it also has its unfortunate aspects – the foremost of which may be the fact that the show's message essentially seems to boil down to "spying, wiretapping, and the dissolution of privacy are awesome and would solve every problem" – and, given that it airs the same night as Community and Parks and Recreation, you could do better too.

Will I watch again? Probably not, but that's more my general antipathy for procedurals speaking than a comment on the fairly acceptable quality level of the show. If you're going to watch a new procedural this fall, make it Person of Interest before Prime Suspect and way, way before Unforgettable. (And Charlie's Angels, lol.)

Premise: B-

Execution: B-

Performances: B-

Potential: B-


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ranking Fall 2011's New TV Series

Behind the cut I've ranked all the new TV series I've reviewed this fall from #1 to #18 without commentary or addendum. Note that these rankings may not match up precisely with my pilot reviews, since some shows get better after their premieres and some get worse. Revised and updated list to be posted in a couple weeks, once I've seen both more new shows and more episodes of these shows.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Homeland

The show: Homeland, Sundays on Showtime

The premise in ten words or less? CIA agent believes rescued American POW may have been turned.

Any good? Homeland is really, really good, something I was worried I wouldn't have the pleasure of saying about any new series this fall. It doesn't have an obscene budget or do anything particularly flashy to achieve its goodness, it just plain puts in the work, delivering a complex, fascinating story, well-defined and very well-acted characters, real stakes, real thrills, real edge, real mystery, and striking contemporary sociopolitical relevance in what it says about the invasion of privacy in the post-9/11 era.

The show is primarily about two people who only very briefly interact in the pilot: CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, and U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, played by Band of Brothers' Damian Lewis, who has just been rescued after eight years of captivity in Iraq. Problem is that, while on site in Iraq before getting benched in Langley for her erratic behavior, Carrie got a tip that an American prisoner of war had been turned by Al-Qaeda, and Brody is the only American POW who has been found since then.

The government intends to utilize Brody as a media-friendly symbolic hero, so Carrie, left out in the cold, conducts a one-woman operation to discover if he's truly gone bad or not. While Brody either readjusts to domestic life with his now-alien family (including a young son with no memory of him whatsoever) or pretends to do so while plotting terrorist action, Carrie has cameras installed all through his house and holes up in her ratty apartment obsessively watching everything that goes down in the Brody household, from meals to conversations to Brody fucking his wife, eyes peeled for any hint of terrorist sympathy or activity. And things only get more fucked up from there!

The best way I can sum up the series is as 24 meets The Conversation meets The Manchurian Candidate, or perhaps simply as the thinking man's 24. That isn't a slam on 24, exactly – I've seen every episode of 24 in existence – but simply acknowledgement that even at its best that series was more or less a cartoon that existed entirely for the immediate base thrill. Homeland shares much with 24, including showrunner Howard Gordon, writer / producer Alex Gansa, composer Sean Callery, and season-spanning anti-terrorism storylines, but it's a more patient, more subtle, more intelligent series, one that approaches homeland security in a realistic manner and has no reliance on weekly gunfights or car chases to be nervy and thrilling.

Now, if you've seen Damian Lewis as Dick Winters in Band of Brothers, you don't need me to tell you that he's really good (on the other hand, if you've only seen him in Dreamcatcher, you probably do), giving a performance that befits the uncertain, mysterious nature of his character's true intentions. Firefly's Morena Baccarin brings wounded cautiousness edged with hope as Brody's wife Jessica, while Mandy Patinkin is gravitastic as Carrie's CIA superior Saul Berenson, who is less than approving of her methods. The rest of the cast also does good work, even the Brody kids, but the show's true secret weapon is Claire Danes as Carrie.

When I mentioned above that things just get more fucked up, what I was alluding to is the pilot's eventual reveal that Carrie is crazy. And when I say crazy, I don't mean neurotic or even irrationally intense like Jack Bauer (although she is the latter to some extent), I mean the character is literally crazy; she requires daily anti-psychotic medication to function in society. While not a true villain protagonist in the manner of Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad's Walter White – she believes everything she's doing to be for the good of her country, and as we don't yet know the truth of Brody, it could well be – Carrie Mathison is a dark, disturbing, fascinating figure, probably my favorite new TV character of the fall, and Danes is a revelation in the part.

Everything about Danes' performance is brilliantly edgy and tense, and, while spying on the Brody household for long, silent stretches, she says more with her eyes and body language than most other TV actors could with pages of monologues. Little things like her looking up when someone says her name, the way she makes eye contact, and her vaguely erratic movement are disquieting in this wonderfully subtle way I can't even define. There is absolutely no trace of Danes' angsty high schooler from My So-Called Life or celestial princess from Stardust here. It's a transformation that should sweep Emmy off its feet.

Also, I really hope that at some point during the season Carrie runs out of her anti-psychotic meds at a crucial juncture and can't get more, because, much as I appreciate the subtle tightrope of Danes' performance now, there's definitely a side of me that wants to see her dial it up to eleven for at least an episode.

There's still other subplots I've barely touched on, including Jessica Brody trying to hit undo on various parts of the life she made after assuming her long-missing husband was dead and the CIA's hunt for the show's big bad (and Osama bin Laden stand-in) Abu Nazir. Needless to say, this show is heaving with content from the word go, yet it still manages to keep it all feeling sleek and streamlined. It's equal and equally skillfully part character drama, espionage thriller, conspiracy thriller, and terrorism thriller. And in case you need some of that lowest common denominator good stuff to give you a final push, there's f-words, nudity, and a guy gets beaten to death.

I do have some concern about the future of Homeland, namely how and if they can sustain the show into a second season and beyond. They could resolve the stories of Brody and Abu Nazir and have Carrie confront a new terrorist threat ala 24, but that could get generic. Alternately, they could extend the mystery of Brody's allegiance beyond the first twelve episodes, but that could get tired (and Lost has made me permanently wary of series-spanning arcs). But while I'm nervously curious about what Homeland will look like a year from now, for the time being ignore my petty pessimism and watch it, because it's really damn good.

Will I watch again? They have me for at least the first season, guaranteed. Beyond that we'll have to play it by ear, but if the rest of the season is paced and structured in a way befitting the quality of the pilot and climaxes in a suitably unpredictable yet thrilling fashion, they'll have me for good.

Premise: A-

Execution: A-

Performances: A

Potential: A


Friday, October 14, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Last Man Standing

The show: Last Man Standing, Tuesdays on ABC

The premise in ten words or less? Generic family sitcom starring Tim Allen as macho asshole.

Any good? Let me preface this by saying that Galaxy Quest is one of my favorite movies of all time and I like Buzz Lightyear as much as the next guy, so it's not like I have any kind of anti-Tim Allen agenda. It just so happens that in this case Allen has chosen to dedicate his time to a fetid piece of lowest common denominator crap with all the artistry of a kindergartener's finger painting; a hideously generic laugh track family sitcom that, barring references to contemporary pop culture and the internet, feels like it's fallen through time from 1992. Last Man Standing proudly sucks.

Allen plays Mike Baxter, the titular last man standing in a house otherwise populated by women, namely his wife Vanessa (an unfathomably generic "gets lightheartedly frustrated with stubborn husband, but then they kiss and make up" stock sitcom wife) and their three daughters. The youngest daughter is tomboyish and tends to agree with Mike the most, the middle a girly girl who loves Glee and makeup and whatnot, the oldest a young single mom who got pregnant in high school (the lone aspect of Last Man Standing that strikes me as something from a 21st century show, but don't mistake that for the character actually being dynamic or engaging).

But make no mistake: This is Mike's show. Let me tell you about Mike. Mike Baxter is a motherfuckin' man's man. In the first two episodes, he expresses antipathy and / or hostility towards, but not limited to: The internet, blogs, vlogs, tanning salons, people who don't change their own tires, people who don't hunt, soccer, fantasy football, Harry Potter, Glee, all modern popular culture, the anti-war movement, Islam, gays, foreign languages, and Barack Obama. He works for a sporting goods supplier and rants and raves at length about "What happened to men?!" to the unyielding roar of the laugh track. It might be amusing if he were supposed to be a repulsive neanderthal, but no, he's supposed to be awesome; a hero for the Rick Perry 2012 generation.

The gay jokes, which include Mike pulling his grandson Boyd out of daycare upon learning that one of the babies has two dads and later ranting to his daughter that he doesn't want Boyd to wind up "dancing on a float!", are particularly problematic. It's not that a joke can't be made about homosexuality – Tobias on Arrested Development and Dean Pelton on Community are the butt of many, many gay jokes, largely involving self-denial and futile attempts to get back in the closet – but, in the year 2011, your punchline cannot be "Gays! Disgusting, right?!" (Though, granted, the laugh track disagrees with me, as it did so, so many times while watching Last Man Standing.)

In the couple days since Last Man Standing aired, I've already seen plenty of internet commenters make the brilliant argument that the show is in fact hilarious, it's just not for wimpy PC liberals. Now, don't misunderstand: I take absolutely no offense at the implication that Last Man Standing isn't for me. In fact, I swell with pride to think so. But even if your politics lie to the right of Rick Santorum, if you enjoy laughing at things that are clever and witty, this show is not for you, because it's generic and dumb and boring and aggressively unfunny. Half the jokes in the entire show are structured as "something unmanly occurs or is mentioned, Tim Allen expresses disapproval, laugh track goes apeshit," over and over and over again. Hey assholes! I didn't laugh the first time! I'm not gonna laugh the eightieth time! Fuck off!

Will I watch again? A resounding fuck no. I'm honestly not sure I'd even take it over Whitney. I'm sure the real life Mike Baxters of the world will fucking love it, though.

Premise: D

Execution: D-

Performances: C-

Potential: D+


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: American Horror Story

The show: American Horror Story, Wednesdays on FX

The premise in ten words or less? Family moves into haunted house.

Any good? It's weird, I'll definitely give it that much. And not just weird by the relatively soft standards of television, but plain fucking nuts. The underlying haunted house story has been done a million times before, up through and including box office disaster Dream House just a couple weekends ago, but this series cranks the absurdity and surrealism of the thing up to eleven in a way that I admired for its audacity even as I questioned whether or not there was really any artistic ambition behind it whatsoever.

The central family, the Harmons, includes Connie Britton as wife / mother Vivien, Dylan McDermott as husband / father Ben, and Taissa Farmiga (who I assumed to be Vera Farmiga's daughter or niece but is in fact her 20+ years younger sister) as surly teen daughter Violet. After her five-year stint as Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, Britton is one of my favorite actresses of all time, and she's probably the main thing that had me interested in this show in the first place. She's very good, of course, but I almost question whether she's too good, playing starkly realistic and from the gut while almost everyone else is some degree of hammy (McDermott perhaps unintentionally).

Anyway, the Harmons deal with some fairly realistic issues, including Vivien's recovery from a miscarriage, Ben's infidelity, and Violet dealing with school bullies and cutting herself. But then there's Ben lighting fires in his sleep and trying to counsel a kid who fantasizes about shooting up the school who then romances Violet, and Vivien handling the creepy neighbor lady who keeps breaking in and the neighbor's Down syndrome daughter who repeatedly tells Vivien that she's going to die.

And finally, jettisoning all realism, Vivien hires a maid who appears to be a wrinkled old lady to everyone except Ben, to whom she's a sexy twentysomething who fingers herself in the middle of the house and tries to seduce him. Ben jerks off in front of a window and Vivien gets raped by the gimp from Pulp Fiction. Oh, and there's ghosts, of course, and a man with a half burned off face who warns Ben that everyone who lives in their new house goes crazy and eventually on a murderous rampage.

If all that made you go "What the hell?", don't worry, that only means you're sane. It's a pilot that sets up stories and conflicts and mysteries at a dizzying, almost self-parodying rate, and if you think it sounds stupid or not for you you're probably right. But I either found there to be the nugget of something intriguing or my TV crush on Connie Britton is substantial enough that I was tricked into thinking I did. Either way, my interest is perked, although I'm ready to jump ship to bitter mockery at a moment's notice if things go south. Seeing as the show is run by Glee's Ryan Murphy, I already have one hand on that life preserver.

Will I watch again? The show is weird enough to reel me in for a second episode, although it's safe to say the presence of Connie Britton plays a larger role still. But retaining me beyond that will require it maintaining close to the same fever pitch absurdity, which could be tough. We'll see. Even in the best case scenario I'll be forever irritated that Terriers is no longer on FX while this is. What I'm getting at is bring back Terriers assholes!

Premise: B-

Execution: C+

Performances: B+

Potential: B-


NBC Sitcom Roundup for 10/6/11

The Office, Season 8 Episode 3 — "Lotto"

While by no means an Office all-timer, I'd say "Lotto" is the season's best effort to date, an episode that was fairly funny, balanced good A and B-plots, and did interesting dramatic character work with Darryl all at once. The big confrontation between Darryl and Andy in the lobby was genuinely involving stuff which also retroactively fit some of Darryl's odd missteps in the second half of last season into the show's universe and explained in more than satisfying detail why Andy was promoted instead of Darryl. Great scene all around.

The Darryl spotlight (along with last week's strong Andy focus) also seems to indicate a post-Michael Office where the weekly protagonist shifts around, which is very interesting and opens up lots of story possibilities. I'm curious to see whether some more background characters like Phyllis or Oscar will get similarly centric episodes later on in the season.

And the warehouse B-plot, while almost pure physical comedy, was pure physical comedy that more or less worked. It was a little absurdist without totally chucking reality out the window, and Erin and Kevin make a surprisingly potent comedic duo ("You need to drop it, okay? They hate it. I like it a lot, but they hate it, so drop it!").

Outside of the dog in the car cold open (which, except for the final gag with Kevin passing out, was a near-complete dud in which Oscar seemed wildly out of character), the weakest part of the episode was, surprise surprise, the generic Jim / Pam wannabe cuteness with them debating what to do with their hypothetical lottery winnings (although I did like the line, "In your fantasy we're Stephen King characters."). Yes, yay Jim and Pam. For the millionth time. Moving on.

And while I like Robert California just fine and think he adds an interesting something to the ensemble, I'd be dishonest not to note that his absence didn't even occur to me for a second until I saw someone mention it online after the episode was over. That's actually a good thing, I'd say, that they aren't shoehorning him into episodes he has no organic place in. I just hope it doesn't go so far that direction that he starts to feel like a comedic fifth wheel when he does appear.

Funniest Moment: The biggest laugh of the entire season so far is Stanley's look of shock and outrage upon seeing the warehouse applicant eating his lunch. First time in these three episodes I've done the full roaring from the gut laughter.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 3 — "Born & Raised"

This episode was exactly the Parks and Rec goodness I was hoping for when the Leslie Knope city council storyline kicked off two weeks ago. In fact, the exact words in my season premiere review were that the story arc "provides easy access to the unilaterally hilarious talk shows and news shows of Pawnee," and boom, two episodes later, Joan Callamezzo. As with Perd Hapley, I understand why Joan can't be a regular – too much of a good thing, it'd be like eating ice cream every meal – but it's always, always great to see her, and this may have been her biggest spotlight yet.

The general consensus online seems to be that "Ron & Tammys" is still the best episode of the season, but that's wrong. It was hilarious, yes, but I wasn't crazy about the rigidly disconnected storylines. "Born & Raised," on the other hand, does a sublime job having its disparate stories all grow from the same seed and interconnect. Leslie's search for the truth of her birth, Ben and Tom's disturbing lunch with Joan, and Ron and April being forced into spending time with Ann all stemmed from the factual error in Leslie's book, and that's the kind of storytelling I find both more impressive and more rewarding.

As with "Ron & Tammys," the Ann storyline was the weakest part, but more so than when she was matched up with Chris, the general blandness of Ann is here counteracted by the general awesomeness of Ron and April (who, as I've mentioned before, probably have the greatest boss / henchman dynamic on television right now). Whatever Ann-related dullness there may have been was more than justified by Ron revealing his wrong name strategy and April flipping it on him to his pride seconds later.

The episode's subjects of parody were somewhat scattershot and outdated, with the Obama birthers and Oprah's Book Club both getting somewhat belatedly skewered, but it was funny enough that I didn't much care. The gotcha dancers, the return of Bert Macklin, Jerry's tragic quest across Indiana, Ben's theories on Star Trek, and the field trip to Eagleton were all hilarious, and moments like Chris helping Leslie reclaim her Pawnee pride and the final waffle party were pure warmhearted goodness. Parks and Rec is at its best one of the most pleasant and uncynical 22 minutes on television, and "Born & Raised" captured that perfectly.

Funniest Moment: Probably Ben's deadpan "That never happened." response to Joan's Val Kilmer story, because Adam Scott has the best line delivery in the world. Also from Adam Scott, a minute later, "Is she gonna powder her vagina?"

Community, Season 3 Episode 3 — "Competitive Ecology"

In utter contrast to the warmheartedness of Parks and Rec's "Born & Raised," Community's "Competitive Ecology" is quite possibly the most bitter, utterly misanthropic half-hour of the entire series. Now, this could get problematic if it stays this way, but for a one-time thing it pretty much made me laugh my ass off. The evolution of the group's hatred of Todd was a fantastically dark and comedically cruel thing to behold, and the main study room scene definitely had the feel of "Cooperative Calligraphy" on crack. (Not in a good or a bad way, just a plain old on crack, nutso way.)

Loved the return of Magnitude, and of course Vicki for the second week in a row. Hopefully Todd can join them in the stable of recurring characters. The episode also made better use of Michael K. Williams as Professor Kane than the premiere. None of the conversations he has make sense.

Chang's noir private eye B-plot wasn't really treading comedic territory that hasn't been explored years or even decades ago, but it had a lot of funny gags on a moment-to-moment basis. Chang mistaking a common passerby for a noir dame was great ("Legs that went all the way to the bottom of her torso. The kind of arms that had elbows."), as was Mel Rodriguez once again as Chang's supervisor. I also loved Chang's repeated "Was I crazy?", and the fact that the show is at this point pretty brazenly depicting him as mentally ill in a way that could just as easily be dramatic in another show, here played for increasingly dark comedy.

Funniest Moment: Gonna have to go with Britta's failed attempt at a "PEW! PEW! PEW! PEW!" middle finger, which Gillian Jacobs executed perfectly. Awkward Britta is definitely working for me this season.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Parks and Recreation 2. Community 3. The Office

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cancellation Corner, Vol. 1

As a kind of counterpoint to my TV pilot reviews, I've decided to tackle the other end of the TV lifespan and do quick postmortems on some of this fall's stillborn endeavors, analyzing why they failed and whether or not anyone should care. This was actually something I considered doing in the spring for The Event and, more importantly, The Chicago Code, but I never got around to it. As with my pilot reviews, I'm only interested in scripted series, so don't expect any verbage on H8R, and I'm only going to bother discussing series that I've actually watched a meaningful percentage of. Now let's pay our respects to the departed.

NBC's The Playboy Club (Born 9/19/11 - Died 10/3/11)

Episodes watched: 3 out of 3

Why didn't it catch on? With any dead on arrival TV series, it comes down to a question of whether people didn't tune in because of the show's premise or because of its poor quality, but that doesn't mean the two causes are mutually exclusive. The Playboy Club was a creatively troubled series, which I'll get more into in a second, but I don't think that's why it premiered to pathetic numbers and fell from there.

The reason The Playboy Club failed is because sex is built into the premise and very fabric of the show, and sex still makes huge swaths of America feel nervous and uncomfortable. Characters in a show can have sex and they can enjoy sex, but a broadcast network show cannot be built around sex. Premium cable series are a slightly different story – see Hung, Californication, and of course Sex and the City – but if I were an NBC (or ABC, or Fox, or CBS) executive, I would take The Playboy Club as a lesson that greenlighting a sex-centric series is just flushing money down the toilet.

Its cancellation: tragedy or blessing? Somewhere in the middle, I'd say. I'm not going to mourn the show, I doubt I'll remember its existence a few years from now, and the stench of desperation from how hard it was trying to be Mad Men was nauseating, but at the same time it wasn't as bad as some critics tried to make it out to be. It's kind of this season's Outsourced in that sense, a mediocre show that some hyperbolically described as awful.

None of the three episodes aired had particularly compelling hooks or gripping human drama, but I did like the lavish production design, the 1960s vibe, and especially the performances of Amber Heard as the newest Bunny and Laura Benanti as the senior Bunny. But I don't ever need to see Eddie Cibrian again, whose character Nick Dalton was the black hole of boringness that devoured The Playboy Club from within, and the biggest thing holding the show back creatively.

NBC's Free Agents (Born 9/14/11 - Died 10/5/11)

Episodes watched: 4 out of 4

Why didn't it catch on? At risk of giving too much credit to the American people, I'm going to say that it didn't catch on because it wasn't funny. Granted, you could point at any number of popular, terrible sitcoms that have been running for years in response, but they're all multi-cam shows. Lots of people will always tune into single camera comedies, go "Why no laugh track? Me no know when laugh! ARGH" and never tune in again, but there's often enough enthusiasm behind the legitimately funny ones – The Office, 30 Rock, and so on – to get them to second seasons and beyond. Bad multi-cams can thrive; bad single cams, with a microscopic handful of exceptions, tend to die. Trial by fire.

Its cancellation: tragedy or blessing? Free Agents disturbs me on a profound level, as it pretty much singlehandedly disproves every theory I've formulated over the last decade about what makes a good sitcom. After Arrested Development, Community, and 30 Rock, I'd determined that what it takes to make a good sitcom is to have a single camera show with a fast pace, lots of scenes, quick dialogue, a light, irreverent tone, and funny people both in front of and behind the camera.

And Free Agents did all of those things! It was quick and peppy and energetic, devoid of any laugh track shenanigans, and had Kathryn Hahn, Anthony Stewart Head, and Joe Lo Truglio in the cast and John Enbom (head writer of Party Down) and Emily Cutler (writer of Community's "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Modern Warfare," two of the best sitcom episodes of all time) on the writing staff. And it still, against all my well-formulated logic, just wasn't funny.

I could go episode by episode or scene by scene or line by line as to why not, but it really just comes down to the sad fact that the characters didn't pop, the stories were generic, and the jokes just didn't hit. It's upsetting, really: all the ingredients were right, and the dish still came out wrong. So what I'm getting at is that its cancellation is a blessing, because it frees up the many funny people involved to sink their time into something more worthwhile.

Also canceled: CBS's How to Be a Gentleman. Sure glad I took the time to review that one.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: How to Be a Gentleman

The show: How to Be a Gentleman, Thursdays on CBS

The premise in ten words or less? Prissy gentleman joins gym, learns to become a man's man.

Any good? Well, of the three new multi-cams I've seen this fall – this, Whitney, and 2 Broke Girls – I'd say it's probably the best (probably better than 2 Broke Girls, indifuckingsputably better than Whitney), if only on account of a strong cast: David Hornsby of Always Sunny (who also created the show and wrote the pilot), Dave Foley of NewsRadio, Mary Lynn Rajskub of 24, Rhys Darby of Flight of the Conchords, and, uh, Kevin Dillon of Entourage. Ok, the last one makes me cringe out of association, but if I try to scrub Entourage from my brain, I do grant that Dillon has a type he plays well.

Whether or not they're actually given anything funny to work with remains in dispute, edging towards no. It's a setup-heavy pilot to be certain, which doesn't bug me at all (if you follow this blog you know that Community is my favorite sitcom on the air, and its pilot is 100% setup), but the setup seems almost more interested in establishing locations than compelling characters.

David Hornsby's protagonist Andrew Carlson writes a column sharing the title of the show for a men's magazine – location number one being the magazine offices, although we never see anything outside of his boss's office – but when the magazine decides to take a more Maxim-style approach, he is instructed to butch up his column or pack his stuff. So he joins a gym run by his former high school nemesis Bert – the gym being location number two – and, in return for tormenting him when they were kids, Bert agrees to teach Andrew how to be a real man. And the third location is Andrew's mom's house, where he eats dinner with his mom, sister, and brother-in-law (the brother-in-law also joins the gym, which is good as it prevents the locales from being totally disconnected).

None of this sounds too bad, but the real problem lies in how the characters are largely one-note caricatures assigned the exact same broad, hammy humor that you usually find in these multi-cam affairs. Also, the entire "Man up! RARGH REAL MEN" premise and vibe of the show, while I suppose providing a nice counterpoint to The Big Bang Theory for CBS sitcom devotees, truly doesn't appeal to me in the least. That said, there's a scene where Kevin Dillon as Bert spends like a minute of screentime chugging down an entire carton of milk that threw off the calculatedly mechanical rhythm of the show in a slightly amusing way.

Like CBS's 2 Broke Girls, How to Be a Gentleman's supposed appeal is rooted in the friendship of two strong and initially opposed archetypal leads, but more so than 2 Broke Girls this show succeeds in at least putting funny actors in its supporting roles. Rhys Darby probably comes closest of anyone in the cast to earning a laugh via pure New Zealand spunk as the brother-in-law. So if you absolutely must watch a new multi-cam this season, I'd go with this one by just a little bit. It's sure as hell better than the show it replaced, $#*! My Dad Says. No one on earth can deny that.

Will I watch again? When a gentleman is confronted with a multi-cam laugh track sitcom pilot in the year 2011... he chooses to change the channel.

Premise: C+

Execution: C-

Performances: B-

Potential: C+


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Charlie's Angels

The show: Charlie's Angels, Thursdays on ABC

The premise in ten words or less? Three pretty ladies fight crime.

Any good? Yikes! This is some bad television! Not a disappointment in any way – it's exactly as bad as I figured a new Charlie's Angels TV series would be the minute I heard they were making a new Charlie's Angels TV series – but a clear-cut piece of shit by any standard; a show that makes pretty much all of the USA Network's frothy, generic crime procedurals look like masterworks.

Last week I praised another new ABC show, Revenge, for mostly standing aside and letting the cheesiness of its premise waft through unchecked. But that kind of cheese really only works if there's at least the pretense of creative effort put in – few movies I consider "so bad it's good" were deliberately engineered to suck – and Charlie's Angels announces its shittiness so quickly and so assertively that I was stunned. It's just amazingly stupid, and "stylish" in the worst, most grating way. Even things like the song choices, establishing shots of Miami, and scene transitions are obnoxious and garish.

The two episodes I watched (yes, by the time I got around to it on Hulu, there were two episodes, so I watched two, which I already know I shall lament on my deathbed) were identically structured outside of Minka Kelly joining the team as the third Angel in the first one. Some type of crime, investigation which at some point entails dressing sexily (but not so sexily as to upset elderly viewers), uncover a supervillain and his plot, lukewarm action scene, Charlie congratulates the Angels via intercom. It's all flawlessly dumb and predictable. In the second episode they prevent the assassination of the First Lady of Russia, so it seems that comically huge stakes are going to be Charlie's Angels' bread and butter. Not that I have anything against huge stakes – I did watch 24 – but it helps if they're earned over time.

The acting in this show is astonishingly bad, despite the four-person regular cast containing both a Friday Night Lights alum and a Wire alum. In fact, the single biggest laugh I've had at any new show this entire TV season is Annie Ilonzeh's look of mild disappointment upon seeing her best friend blown up via car bomb, which plays like the director told Ilonzeh to imagine she just arrived at the bank, only to realize it was already closed. But writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar don't exactly give their leads golden dialogue to work with either. In response to the same car bombing, one of the Angels later blandly utters the line "I never thought my heart could hurt this much," and my whole asshole clamped up.

Ilonzeh may be the worst, but if so it's by a tiny margin. Rachael Taylor delivers all her dialogue with impressive apathy, and while Minka Kelly can do good work under the actor-friendly umbrella of Jason Katims (i.e. on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood), as car thief and new Angel Eve French she achieves a failure to emote that you almost never see in a professional production. The scene where she describes her and a friend's escape from a child trafficking ring in an expressionless monotone may be a new low for the filmed monologue, especially when she caps it off with "The faces of the girls we left behind still haunt me." in a tone and cadence that seems more appropriate for the line "They were out of chips at the grocery store."

The problems with Charlie's Angels are legion, from the plotting to the acting to the dialogue to the filmmaking, but I think the true fatal flaw is what a soulless and mechanical thing the series is even by the standards of network television. The majority of scripted shows, even shitty ones I have no use for, were, at some point in the development process, an idea by a creative person; a story they wanted to tell. Charlie's Angels is only on television because some businessmen said, "Yeah, we can probably make money off this title. Make 42 minutes of stuff that we can market it with every week." And so they did, and it sucked, because there's absolutely no heart behind it whatsoever.

Will I watch again? Sorry, Charlie!

Premise: D+

Execution: D

Performances: D

Potential: D-


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 9/29/11

The Office, Season 8 Episode 2 — "The Incentive"

I said last week that I won't belabor the point of Steve Carell's absence in these sitcom roundups – and I won't – but I will belabor the point of boss Andy being characterized in a way indistinguishable from Michael Scott. Granted, him having to report directly to Robert California, who is frequently in the office, adds a new flavor, but so much dialogue that comes out of boss Andy's mouth (especially the "cocker spaniel" explanation and awkward backpedalling in this episode) feels like they just took unused Michael dialogue from old scripts and did a find and replace with Andy's name. That's a problem.

But despite that, I did like the main incentive and tattoo story a lot. Andy upping the stakes on his point exchange offers, seeing the office come alive with hard work, and Robert's final explanation about the inspirational power of the underdog to the unexceptional all worked completely. And seeing the Nard Dog tattoo was actually a really great moment of office camaraderie that I didn't predict; probably one of the infinitesimally few reveals of a man's bare ass in the 133-year history of film and television that could be described as "heartwarming."

I thought less of the episode's B-plots. Pam and Angela's brief bonding and then feud over their pregnancies was a comedic nonstarter and didn't have enough time dedicated to it to do interesting character work, and Darryl reconnecting with his ex-wife went absolutely nowhere (although Kevin's response to her Dunder Mifflin entrance was pretty funny). I'm willing to assume for now that Darryl's wife is going to be a continuing story in episodes to come, and I hope I'm right, but The Office has bit me in the ass with seemingly unfinished stories that never came up again before.

Funniest Moment: As with last week, there wasn't really any singular moment that made me tilt my head back and roar, but it was a funny week for Kevin all around – both the intro with him talk funny, and his consternation at Dwight putting walnuts in the brownie mix.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 2 — "Ron & Tammys"

This is one of the most rigidly segmented sitcom episodes I've seen lately – the three stories had absolutely no connecting tissue and didn't even have any character crossover; they could have easily been from three completely different episodes – but two of the stories were so damn funny I can't really find it in myself to care.

The heart of the episode was Ron taking the opposite approach from when Tammy 2 transformed him into a psychotic sex maniac and becoming creepily pleasant and unmustachioed, which was brilliant and gave Nick Offerman a great new angle to play. Tammy 1 is a perfectly conceived and performed character who simply must appear again, and the drinking contest at the end was awesome. Plus, April and Andy, while lacking any true spotlight, were consistently hilarious, from April's immediate love of Tammy 1 to Andy panicking and giving a false name before sheepishly backpedalling. Great stuff, great characters, greatness.

Also great was the Entertainment 720 subplot, both because Jean-Ralphio is awesome ("Take me there!") and because Adam Scott does the camera confessional cutaways better than anyone else on this show or on The Office. As I'm sure I've said before, it's crazy that Ben wasn't in the first season or most of the second, because he feels like such a crucial part of the show's DNA now that I can't even imagine it without him.

Less crucial feeling, I'm afraid, is Chris Traeger, perhaps partially because of how distant from everyone else he seems up in his office. Ann and Chris's subplot, while having a few laugh out loud bits (Ann shaking her head at the camera after telling Chris they're rolling), was kind of one joke hammered over and over, and definitely a bit of a buzzkill when compared to the other two stories. Still, even it probably made me laugh harder than anything else in any non-Parks, non-Office, non-Community sitcom episode I watched in the last week, which I guess is why these are the only sitcoms I put in the time to actually review.

Funniest Moment: It's a tough call between the party switch at E720, Leslie's reactions to drinking the Swanson moonshine ("POISON." / "What is that?!"), and Andy asking to take a peek at Tammy 2's acid-burned foot (mostly thanks to Chris Pratt's brilliant line delivery). Hilarity all around!

Community, Season 3 Episode 2 — "Geography of Global Conflict"

"Geography of Global Conflict" was another strange, hilarious, and aggressively irreverent episode that I can't imagine being much more hostile to conventional sitcom lovers. From Garrett's "CRISIS ALERT!" to Britta trying and failing to kick over a trash can to Troy taking the lid off Annie's cup to Abed's fixation on Earth 2 to Troy's Georgian accent to all the Lionel Richie music, it was weird and it kept me laughing loudly the entire time. Annie Kim and Professor Cligoris are both characters I'd love to see recur throughout the season. Especially Cligoris, since Martin Starr is high up on my list of the funniest actors alive who will sadly never become huge mainstream stars.

Despite being clearly stuck on B-plot duty, I'd go with Gillian Jacobs as the MVP of the episode, because I'm continually impressed by how much raw comedy she's wrung from what, at the inception of the series, was such a blandly "cool" and uninteresting character. Now Britta Perry is one of the best sitcom characters on television. How things change. Every scene she had across from Chang was hilarious. I also think Mel Rodriguez has been great as Chang's supervisor thus far, which is funny because I didn't really like him at all in Running Wilde. I guess it's all about having a good script to work off of.

The one bit I didn't like so much was Annie's freakout at Annie Kim. I would have been find if they'd left it at the screaming – there's precedent for that, especially in "Cooperative Calligraphy" – but the full-body freakout was a little out of character and just a little too much. But the show made up for it two scenes later with the Spartacus farting confession, so I can forgive and forget.

Funniest Moment: This is tough, but I'd have to go with Abed whispering nonsense to explain his plan, confident that the show will cut away, and Jeff correcting him. That's the kind of joke that feels like it was written just for me, and that assumed pop culture knowledge is a big part of why I love Community so much.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. Parks and Recreation 3. The Office

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Pan Am

The show: Pan Am, Sundays on ABC

The premise in ten words or less? Pan Am stewardesses in the 1960s. One is secretly CIA!

Any good? One surefire way to get me intrigued in a TV drama is to make a pilot that I can watch in its entirety and have no idea what's going to happen in the second episode, let alone the fifth or the tenth. The best way I can sum up my stance is that I like TV dramas with well-engineered seasons that within any given episode have no set formula or repeated structure. That's why, despite thinking both episodes of Prime Suspect that have aired so far are competent, I'm pretty sure I'm done with the show – the two episodes have the exact same structure and so will the next ten. That bores me.

And that's why I liked Pan Am. It's an odd show, to be certain, one that (despite premiering to a respectable 11 million viewers) I'm not sure will make it to a second season, but it sure ain't formulaic. The show focuses on four women, played by Kelli Garner and Christina Ricci and relative unknowns Margot Robbie and Karine Vanasse, who are stewardesses for Pan Am airlines in 1963. Like a certain other well-known 60s drama, it's set against a backdrop of retro glamour (in this case specifically revolving around air travel) while also depicting a darker undercurrent of ingrained sexism.

But lest you think the show is simply Mad Men on a Plane, it also has a spy thriller component, as Garner's character Kate is secretly working as a courier and spy for the CIA. What! Beyond that, it has a Lost-esque flashback structure and a story concerning the mysterious disappearance of the stewardess who Ricci has replaced. Mix all that with its empowerment message and you have an absolutely fucking packed show. The pilot doesn't contain anything you'd describe as an action scene but is nonetheless impressively breathless.

The other obvious show to compare Pan Am to is NBC's The Playboy Club. Both are new 60s-set dramas about women in outwardly glamourous, sexy careers who still operate under a certain misogyny – the Pan Am stewardesses have exacting restrictions placed on them in terms of age, weight, etc. – but unlike The Playboy Club, which forces us to view them through the viewpoint of Eddie Cibrian's (shitty Don Draper wannabe) Nick Dalton via the condescending and sexist assumption that we'll only be interested if we see it through a man's point of view, Pan Am actually lets the women be the main characters. Men play a role – most notably an airline captain played by Mike Vogel – but aren't forced into a leading role it makes no sense for them to be in.

The show's visual style is kind of dazzling, and, like its storytelling, weird in a good a way. The way the jets are filmed doesn't look all that much more photorealistic than the dinosaurs in Terra Nova, but unlike that show, it isn't aiming for realism and botching it. Pan Am's visuals gleefully reject realism and go about 10% askew from reality for this soft, colorful, nostalgic look that, of all things, made me think of The Incredibles and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I really hope that wasn't something they only put in the extra effort to do because it was the pilot, and the look is actually maintained throughout the series.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Pan Am is how firmly Kelli Garner seems to be the main character. I'd assumed ever since hearing that Christina Ricci was cast in a TV show some months back that that show would be The Christina Ricci Show as surely as New Girl might as well be called The Zooey Deschanel Show, but, at least as of one episode in, that isn't the case. Like, not even a little bit. Ricci has less screentime, less development, less focus, and less dialogue than Garner. But the last five years of Ricci's film career haven't exactly been chock full of hits, so maybe I shouldn't be too surprised after all.

Okay then. Whew. I made it through this entire discussion of Pan Am's pilot without making one pun about a Pan Am pilot. Not to toot my own horn, but I'm pretty sure I deserve a medal.

Will I watch again? I feel compelled to watch at least a few more and see if the show takes shape as something interesting. Granted, I have no trouble whatsoever imagining Pan Am quickly becoming a shallow, repetitive soap. But I can also easily see the opposite. I feel like writers and producers who make a pilot where I have no idea what the second episode will entail deserve my eyeballs for their audacity alone.

Premise: B

Execution: B

Performances: B+

Potential: B+


Saturday, October 1, 2011

On TV Grading

I recently decided that my five-star rating system, while great for hard and fast final judgment, is a bit too restrictive when it comes to grading the specifics of premise, execution, performance, and potential for TV pilots as I've been doing for the last couple weeks. So I've switched over to a letter grading system and gone back and edited my pilot reviews accordingly.

You know from school how letter grading works, but just to clarify my own scale:

An F signifies not only failure but horrifying and incomprehensible failure, and is so rare that it might as well be a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Even Whitney didn't get any Fs, and that's a show I described as failing to improve on staring at an off television.

D- to D+ indicate abject failure, albeit at slightly varying ranges.

C- to C+ scores are for the clearly flawed but not wholly devoid of merit. A show that I thought had good aspects can have a C-range score in a certain category; such as Prime Suspect, which was a decent cop show but got a C+ in premise for being kind of just another cop show, and Terra Nova, which got a C in performance for generally bland acting.

B- to B+ are for what I feel I can start to describe as "good" without grimacing, especially once you get up into the plus range. They have to be earned, but I'm not too stingy: eight of the twelve pilots I've reviewed so far have a B-range score in at least one category.

A- to A+ are for the awesome. An A+ in particular is just as rare as an F.

So that's that. I'm just a little bit behind on my pilot discussion, but over the next week I'll try to catch up with reviews of Pan Am, Charlie's Angels, Person of Interest, A Gifted Man, Hart of Dixie, Suburgatory, and Homeland, in more or less that order.