Wednesday, September 02, 2015

'Mr. Robot' and 'Enlightened': Alienation and Changing the World


After a one-week postponement, "Mr. Robot" concludes its first season on Wednesday (September 2) night.

Created by TV newbie Sam Esmail, "Mr. Robot" is the first USA show that I've stuck with for a full season since "Political Animals," if you count that as a series. If you take "Political Animals" as a miniseries, I haven't completed a season of a USA show since the penultimate season of "Burn Notice."

But merely being interested in and sometimes appreciative of "Mr. Robot" apparently isn't enough. I like "Mr. Robot" and can't speak highly enough of Rami Malek's lead performance, but I remain distanced from the show and unable to be as impressed with the show as it often seems to be with itself. But I'm in the minority here and friends, colleagues and loved ones have been impressed enough for two of me, filling the summer months with waves of adulation for "Mr. Robot," celebrating the things it does that are apparently innovative and paradigm shifting. This Slate story -- the headline, actually and not the story itself -- raves that in Malek's Elliot, "Mr. Robot" has created "the new TV archetype of the alienated hero." That's clickbait-y headline-writing hyperbole and not the perfectly well-reasoned argument of the article itself.

The "alienated hero" isn't a new archetype on TV or in any other form of storytelling and separating the alienated hero from the anti-hero is a false differentiation. Tony Soprano is a Golden Age Anti-Hero. He's also entirely an alienated hero, battling depression and insecurities that put him at odds with the masculine ideals perpetuated by the men involved in That Thing of Ours. "The Sopranos" is an entire series about Tony trying to get well enough to reassimilate into a subculture in which assimilation often means death. If you think that the ending of "The Sopranos" is the death of Tony Soprano, it can be read that Tony's "death" comes after an episode devoid of Dr. Melfi, an episode in which he stands in his backyard in quiet repose, free from the ducks that were quacking in his head. Alienated heroes can be anti-heroes and vice versa and the Venn Diagram of the two contains all the overlap you'd ever want.

In praising "Mr. Robot," there's been much talk of its uniqueness, accompanied by many lengthy lists of comparisons. But nobody's comparing it to the one show I want people to compare it to, so I have to get this on the record, even if I don't have time to finish or revise this blog post in the way I'd like to.

Because when I think of stories about an alienated hero battling mental illness and joining with a group of computer-using misfits to bring down a monolithic industrial conglomerate using stolen documentation and the power of cyber-connectivity...

Well, I'm still thinking of Mike White's HBO classic "Enlightened," which was canceled in 2013 after two low-rated seasons.

If this post does nothing else, it should just get you thinking about how great a conversation would be between Rami Malek's Elliot and Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe or, better yet, a conversation composed of dueling unreliable voiceover narrators, one plagued by daddy issues and the other by mommy problems.

Read on...

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Scream Queens'


[You know the drill, and I will continue to mention it in each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews may be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all "These are reviews." If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]

Show: "Scream Queens" (FOX)
The Pitch: "Ryan Murphy's Harper's Island"
Quick Response: The suspicion that FOX was hiding "Scream Queens" for critics (despite airing the full pilot at Comic-Con last month) proves pleasantly unfounded with Ryan Murphy's latest, which comes across as a much more effective effort at what MTV is failing with on "Scream." With the full "Glee" team -- Murphy (directing as well), Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk -- reuniting, it's no surprise that "Scream Queens" is much lighter on its feet than "American Horror Story," a bit less self-consciously perverse and envelope-edge-pushing. More "gross" than "scary" or "genuinely disturbing," "Scream Queens" is full of out-sized performances from actors, women mostly, who seem to be having a lot of fun, which has always been the thing the Ryan Murphy Factory produced most effectively. Emma Roberts commits maniacally to playing the ultimate mean girl and Jamie Lee Curtis has a long-absence twinkle in her eye as a fraternity-hating dean. I've been convinced that Skyler Samuels was headed for a certain level of stardom since I was one of a dozen people depressed by the demise of "Chloe King" and she's nicely used as the "good girl" here. It's also notable that usually personality-free Diego Boneta, previously elevated to the status of place-holder leading man without any credentials, finds his calling as a Ryan Murphy mannequin, as does Nick Jonas (and I suspect Oliver Hudson will eventually join them in usefulness, though it hasn't happened yet... but this is just my gut feeling). There are several other little fun supporting performances, though don't expect much from Ariana Grande, whose capacity here won't surprise you and whose presence here has barely been capitalized upon. The writers do catty bickering well and there are some moments of verbal hair-pulling and face-scratching that made me chuckle and a couple bits of stylized violence that are played with a wink, a nudge and a vat of fake blood. Parts of "Scream Queens" grate, but that's not unexpected in a Ryan Murphy-ish way, especially his trademark inclusive ghoulishness, where he takes a demographically underrepresented character -- The obese maid! The deaf sorority pledge! -- and does a "I'm being sympathetic" feint before "But not too sympathetic!" grotesquerie. But mostly, I reacted more positively to "Scream Queens" than most of Murphy's work, perhaps because it's astoundingly devoid of anything self-important. It's a snarky, fast-moving college murder romp that isn't trying to be trickier or more audacious than it is.
Desire To Watch Again: Sure. Why not. Count me in for this one, at least for a while. It'll go south. They always do. But maybe it won't go south until Season 2?

Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Code Black'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's 'Blood and Oil' aka 'Oil Tree Hill'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Life in Pieces'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'People Are Talking'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Rosewood'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Limitless'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's 'Dr. Ken'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'Blindspot'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Grandfathered'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Angel From Hell'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's ' 'Quantico'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's ' 'The Player'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's ' 'The Grinder' 
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Supergirl'
All of my 2014 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2013 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2012 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2011 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2010 Take Me To The Pilots Entries

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

'Fargo' Season 2 Premiere - 5 Quick Reactions



On Monday (July 27) afternoon, FX informally kicked off the Summer TCA Press Tour with a number of screenings of the Season 2 premiere of "Fargo."

We're two-plus months away from the actual "Fargo" premiere, which will be announced when FX presents at press tour on August 7 and FX has already told us that we'll have three or four episodes to watch before we review the new season. In a series as marvelously novelistic as "Fargo" -- Season 1 was my No.1 show of 2014 -- I wouldn't even want to write a full review on the basis of just one episode.

However, I've got no hesitation about writing a handful of bullet points on what was and still is my most anticipated returning show of the fall.

So let's go...

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Code Black'


[You know the drill, and I will continue to mention it in each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews may be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all "These are reviews." If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]

Show: "Code Black" (CBS)
The Pitch: "Los Angeles Med" or "LA-ER"
Quick Response: I could probably just file "Code Black" under "Sturdy medical dramas that will fill a gaping TV hole for some, but won't be necessary for me," but that would require that I have a needlessly complicated filing system, which I don't. Well directed by David Semel, the "Code Black" pilot has a distinctive look, almost as if it were shot through a chartreuse filter with light oversaturated throughout, and captures the chaos of an emergency room nicely, even if the sort of aesthetic genre reinvention of the "E.R." pilot isn't in the cards. Creator Michael Seitzman is also invested in the chaos, crafting an ER in which it's endlessly repeated that every second is the difference between life and death, but every doctor can spare a minute to pontificate on matters of curative decorum, or to provide a key piece of expositional biographical detail. Like there are a lot of walk-and-talk moments in this pilot, but there may be nearly as many inappropriate-pause-and-talk moments, when all that viewers are likely to want after the pilot are scenes of Luis Guzman's senior nurse leading ER tours and sequences in which Marcia Gay Harden and Raza Jaffrey's docs bicker about medical ethics. The first-year residents all get a character detail or two and none of them feel like anything more than window dressing after the first episode. The hook of "Code Black" is to be spending time in a Los Angeles area emergency room at its moments of greatest intensity, but the scenes likely to have the greatest impact are when it cheats. The key action set piece involves a surgery performed in the midst of freeway traffic that feels like it was yanked from a different show. And the episode ends with a piece of emotional pandering that's simultaneously excruciating in its contrived mawkishness, but also probably has a blunt force effectiveness that will leave many viewers sobbing. Look, there's an audience that craves the sort of medical drama in which people say things like "Life is measured here in split seconds. Hesitate and people die." over and over again, but perhaps also the sort of medical drama that isn't necessarily about which pretty doctors are sleeping with which other pretty doctors and that's not a value judgment about "Grey's Anatomy" on any level. Here, the pretty doctors don't have time to flirt, but they periodically get sprayed by arterial blood, which never damages their prettiness. This is, as I said above, a good showcase for Luis Guzman, even if he dominates the pilot's opening minutes and then is essentially MIA or useless for the last 30 minutes. It's also a good vehicle for Marcia Gay Harden, who creates near-effortless authority with a bare minimum of character. [It's also funny to think that Harden was originally supposed to play the role now taken by Bonnie Somerville and that Harden's role was set for Maggie Grace.] The other actors are mostly just there and only Ben Hollingsworth leaves a negative impression, though I think that's just a poorly written character, rather than a performance problem.
Desire To Watch Again: Shrug. This is a decent pilot, but it's a decent in a genre that I haven't necessarily been missing in my viewing rotation. If you have? It's decent! "Code Black" looks good and has a couple good performances and assuming you aren't me, you probably won't be offended by the manipulative trickery in the last 15 minutes. I'll probably tune in for a second episode, but not necessarily a third.

Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's 'Blood and Oil' aka 'Oil Tree Hill'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Life in Pieces'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'People Are Talking'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Rosewood'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Limitless'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's 'Dr. Ken'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'Blindspot'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Grandfathered'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Angel From Hell'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's ' 'Quantico'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's ' 'The Player'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's ' 'The Grinder' 
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Supergirl'
All of my 2014 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2013 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2012 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2011 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2010 Take Me To The Pilots Entries

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's 'Blood and Oil' aka 'Oil Tree Hill'


[You know the drill, and I will continue to mention it in each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews may be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all "These are reviews." If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]

Show: "Blood and Oil" (ABC)
The Pitch: "Oil Tree Hill" has replaced "The Nate Archibald & Cappie Oil Hour" as my title for this one.
Quick Response: "Blood and Oil" may be my biggest disappointment of the fall, but it's entirely possible that the disappointment is built entirely on my flawed expectations and not on the series itself. I've seen "The Overnighters" and several other New American Boomtown documentaries, so I know that there's an awesome, high-stakes human story developing in the Dakotas that can be told sensationally with only minor soap-y embellishment, think "Deadwood 2015." But "Blood and Oil" wants to be "Longitudinally Elevated Dallas" and nothing more. It's a choice that is totally valid, but if you go in wanting cable-style nuance and grounding from "Blood and Oil," you'll probably laugh for five minutes and quit. If you go in expecting "Nashville" -- a more logical expectation, I admit -- well, there's guilty pleasure potential here, I guess. [Note that for a soap opera, "Blood and Oil" isn't vaguely steamy. Dunno if that's a directing problem, a lack of chemistry between actors or what.] If "Blood and Oil" wanted to be better, it needed a leading man less bland than Chace Crawford though, in the interest of full credit, Crawford is more plausibly human here than he ever was on "Gossip Girl." Scott Michael Foster fares a bit better because Cappie is playing Evan -- You're welcome, "Greek" fans -- or at least Unreconstructed Evan, as a petulant rich boy with daddy issues. The high stakes -- it's right there in the title -- don't give Rebecca Rittenhouse the chance to showcase the humor that was her best asset on "Red Band Society," but she's still got a '50s ingenue kinda wide-eyed expressiveness about her that I dig and that could find purchase here. Early footage made it look like Don Johnson was playing the JR here, but at least in the early going it's nothing nearly that fun, but at least he's sturdy. Delroy Lindo is horribly, tragically, inexplicably underused in the pilot, but "Horribly, Tragically, Inexplicably Underused" could be the title of Delroy Lindo's autobiography. I recommend more Delroy Lindo going forward. I also recommend either steering away from the Native American stuff or doing it better, because the line "Whoever kills a spirit animal is cursed" from a never-seen-again NA character got my biggest laugh from any drama or comedy pilot this year. There are a lot of giggles in the "Blood and Oil" pilot, actually, a lot of heightened drama moments that play a bit more silly than perhaps intended, but one man's giggle is another man's (or woman's) giddy glee when it comes to slo-mo flipping cars or grown men mud-wrestling. At least the reactions are visceral, eh? I mean, I wanted provocative and "Blood and Oil" provokes.
Desire To Watch Again: Now that I know not to expect "Oil Tree Hill" to be GOOD, I'm perfectly willing to watch a couple more episodes. I watched two seasons of "Revenge," three seasons of "Nashville" and I'll watch some of this as well for the parts of the cast that I like. The pilot also ends with a good cliffhanger, or at least a cliffhanger that I'm curious to see resolved.

Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Life in Pieces'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'People Are Talking'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Rosewood'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Limitless'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's 'Dr. Ken'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'Blindspot'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Grandfathered'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Angel From Hell'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's ' 'Quantico'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's ' 'The Player'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's ' 'The Grinder' 
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Supergirl'
All of my 2014 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2013 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2012 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2011 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2010 Take Me To The Pilots Entries

Friday, July 24, 2015

Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Life in Pieces'


[You know the drill, and I will continue to mention it in each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews may be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all "These are reviews." If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]

Show: "Life in Pieces" (CBS)
The Pitch: "Mo' Modern Familyhood"
Quick Response: "Life in Pieces" is weirdly proud of doing what family sitcoms have been doing... forever. The subhead boasts "One big family. Four short stories. Every week." So... You mean it's a family sitcom with an A-story a B-story a C-story and a D-story? How revolutionary. I guess the hook is that the stories are told individually and then maybe they come together in a fourth concluding story? It's hard to tell, because the pilot for "Life in Pieces," directed by Jason Winer as if you didn't have enough reasons for "Modern Family" comparisons, actually struggles to gel the storylines in a meaningful narrative or thematic way and also has no connection to early loglines for the show, which mentioned using different perspectives within the family to tell single stories. "Life in Pieces" has all of these fancy ideas about what it is or isn't, which blur the line pointing to what it actually appears to be: A comedy pilot with perhaps the best cast of any new show this season and a couple decent laughs and at least the pretense of some underlying family drama. I'd honestly scrap whatever structural innovation the show is pretending to have in order to concentrate on what would probably be the "best self" for "Life in Pieces," which is a half-hour version of "Parenthood" -- you've even got Dianne Wiest, for heaven's sake, if you want continuity to the movie -- with the balance shifted to laughs. Nobody associated with "Life in Pieces" would want to admit it, but you have Wiest and James Brolin standing in for Zeek and Camille Braverman, Dan Bakkedahl and Betsy Brandt in for Adam and Kristina, Colin Hanks and Zoe Lister-Jones as proxies for Julia and Joel (this is the flimsiest comparison) and Thomas Sadowski and Angelique Cabral as the Crosby and Jasmine. It's almost eerie when you step back. "Life in Pieces" is, in fact, like so many familiar shows and features so many actors that you probably like already that you can slide into the pilot with amazing comfort and you don't require any getting-to-know-you exposition, which is a tremendous relief. And none of the actors is being asked to stretch tremendously -- Betsy Brandt playing light may surprise you if you missed "The Michael J. Fox Show" and Dan Bakkedahl playing less of a sad-sack than usual is also nice -- so it's even easier to just sign on for this as a family. "Life in Pieces" doesn't feel much like a CBS sitcom, both because of the single-cam trappings and because of a certain coarseness that particularly rears its head in the Hanks/Lister-Jones story and maybe because this isn't what CBS does normally, nobody in development was able to tighten the punchlines to get a couple more laughs. And for reasons of style and tone, it's going to be a bad match with "The Big Bang Theory," even if CBS wants to use its multi-cam hit to encourage people to watch "Life in Pieces." But if this were airing in ABC's Wednesday comedy lineup, it would feel like another promising family half-hour. So I guess my non-review bottom line here is, "The allegedly innovative structure is either a total MacGuffin or just poorly deployed, but otherwise, this feels less like a pilot and more like an middle-of-the-road episode of a long-running series that I mostly enjoy with a cast that I mostly love." That implies that there are better episodes ahead for "Life in Pieces."
Desire To Watch Again: Reasonable. Why not? I'll watch to see if the structure has any ongoing purpose. Mostly, I'll watch for the cast. There's a really good comedy here... in pieces. It's just OK for now. Let's see if it comes together down the road.

Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'People Are Talking'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Rosewood'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Limitless'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's 'Dr. Ken'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's 'Blindspot'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's 'Grandfathered'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Angel From Hell'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: ABC's ' 'Quantico'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: NBC's ' 'The Player'
Take Me To The Pilots '15: FOX's ' 'The Grinder' 
Take Me To The Pilots '15: CBS' 'Supergirl'
All of my 2014 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2013 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2012 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2011 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2010 Take Me To The Pilots Entries