Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: iZombie

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Tuesdays at 9:00 PM on The CW

It's very rare that I get so excited about an upcoming show that I pay attention to every new announcement, casting choice, and trailer release before its premiere.  For some reason iZombie, Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero's loose adaptation of Chris Roberson and Mike Allred's comic book of the same name, was that kind of show for me.  I loved Thomas and Ruggiero's mid-2000s classic, Veronica Mars, and I always admired the comic's artwork, so the show had some built-in goodwill going for it.  Plus, there's something amusing about a disaffected, hipster zombie who solves crimes.  My greatest hope was that iZombie would turn out to be the lovechild of Veronica Mars and Buffy.

Does it live up to that promise?  Well, it's certainly got a large amount of Veronica Mars in its DNA.  Though Veronica never had to deal with an attack that left her an alabaster-skinned, brain-hankering zombie like Liv (Rose McIver), the two of their stories both kick off with a traumatic event of some sort.  And though iZombie's banter isn't quite operating at peak levels yet, you could close your eyes and almost picture Kristen Bell delivering the lines Liv is given.

Thomas and Ruggiero don't just find themselves within their comfort zone in terms of style and plot, they also incorporate a crime-solving element too.  Here's the thing about Liv's condition: whenever she eats brains, she can see the last few memories of the dead person to which said brain belongs.  This ability, plus her job as a coroner's assistant, allows her to investigate various deaths in town and figure out who was responsible.  It's pretty easy to see the format the show will take on -- case of the week hijinx, while also pushing the overarching narrative forward.  Think of it like a less serialized Veronica Mars.

As far as the Buffy comparisons go, those aren't as apparent.  One of Buffy's strengths, even early on, was the excellence of its ensemble, and right now there isn't much interesting going on in iZombie outside of Liv.  That's fine in the pilot, since Rose McIver is so delightful in her leading role (there's a particular bit where she's imitating a cowboy near the end of the episode that's absolutely hilarious and adorable), but the show needs to deepen its bench if it ever wants to become truly great.  Right now there's just Liv's best friend and roommate (Aly Michalka), who doesn't get much to do; Liv's bland ex-fiance (Robert Buckley); and a detective (Malcolm Goodwin), who's role will probably involve being suspicious of Liv, but not quite sharp enough to catch on to the fact that she's not the psychic she tells him she is to avoid telling the truth about how she's able to solve these crimes.  By far the best side character is Ravi (Rahul Kohli), fellow medical examiner and Liv's boss.  It's a fun idea for him to be so unfazed by his coworker's undead state that he didn't even mention to her that he found out her secret weeks ago.  Not only will his character be crucial as the sole person who Liv doesn't have to pretend in front of, but he's got a fun sidekick vibe that's necessary for this type of show.

The pilot hints at some larger mysteries that could be explored regarding the specifics of Liv's condition near the end, and teases a character (David Anders) who may serve as an antagonist in the future, but it's mostly content with being a fun, fluffy version of a zombie story.  Time will tell whether it will transition into slightly heavier material, but I'm pretty content with iZombie being a fun, fluffy zombie story too.

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week of 3/1/2015

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

American Crime (ABC, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
For a while now, the major networks have been trying to create a drama that feels like it could be on cable, but what they usually get is something that's superficially "cable," but without the soul and quality of the best shows cable has to offer.  Consider American Crime another entry into that category.  It comes from Oscar winning screenwriter John Ridley -- a fact ABC wants you to remember in every one of its promos -- who's clearly trying to make an Important Show.  Above all else, American Crime is very impressed with its own seriousness, to the point of it being laughable.  The show is unsubtle in its statements about race within this story about the murder of war veteran Matt Skokie.  That's not to say unsubtle is automatically bad -- after all, Do the Right Thing isn't exactly understated -- but Ridley clumsily beats his point into the audience's head with his histrionic writing.

So is there anything to like about American Crime?  Yes, of course.  I do enjoy the way it's carving out the city of Modesto so far, even if it's not clear how everything connects.  We're introduced to everyone from Skokie's parents (Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman) to a Hispanic family tangentially connected with the investigation to a pair of wandering junkies.  And as blunt as Ridley's writing choices may be, this pilot is excellently directed, containing a film-like quality that you don't see on many other ABC shows.  For now, American Crime isn't all that satisfying, but it could come together and form something brilliant.
Grade: C+

Battle Creek (CBS, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Battle Creek is based on a script that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wrote over a decade ago, so naturally CBS would want to capitalize on the interest his name brings now.  Really, that's about the only reason why anybody is talking about this show, which is an otherwise standard buddy cop procedural.  Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel star as the mismatched pair of Detective Russ Agnew and FBI agent Milt Chamberlain (yes, really), and they've got an amiably combative chemistry.  The pilot is bogged down with some cheesy and forced lines ("Milt, you're good at everything!"), but it generally hums along with a competency you'd expect from people like Gilligan and David Shore, who serves as the actual showrunner on this series.  Bryan Singer adds even more prestige, giving the episode a stylish look by directing it with lots of warm tones and smoky air to the Battle Creek police station.  Still, it's hard to begrudge anybody who comes away from this pilot feeling like nothing of substance happened.
Grade: C

The Last Man on Earth (Fox, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
In a TV landscape full of derivative ideas, The Last Man on Earth feels like an exciting breath of fresh air.  If its premise -- a virus that kills off the world's population in 2019 leaves Phil Miller (Will Forte) is the last man remaining -- feels like it would be better suited for a movie, that's because it originally started out as one.  Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Clone High, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) came up with this idea as a feature film before bringing it to Will Forte, who turned it into a treatment for a television show.  As an actor, Forte gets to play squarely in his wheelhouse.  He's always been excellent at balancing unhinged and humane, and Phil Miller is the perfect vehicle for that, as we see the hilarious and harrowing effects being the last man on Earth would have on somebody.  As a writer, he's just as impressive.  Not only is the pilot very funny, it somehow never gets boring, even though there's only one character.  Credit goes to Lord and Miller as well, whose visual flair gives the episode a Keaton-esque sense of energy.

Anyone who thinks about the setup of the show for more than a second can suss out that it's unsustainable, and that The Last Man on Earth is a very deliberate title choice.  Kristen Schaal shows up at the end of the first episode as Carol Pilbasian, presumably the last woman on Earth.  The second episode is a significant step down from the pilot, mostly due to my hesitance about Carol as a character.  At first she seems like a relatively normal person, who just has different and funny personality traits.  But she quickly just becomes a stock crazy woman, and after an entire episode of Phil praying for a female companion, the punchline is "can you believe he's stuck with this nutjob?!"  That most of the second episode is focuses on their hacky "nagging wife, beleaguered husband" dynamic is a little disappointing.  Still, I love the tension between these two differing viewpoints on how to live as the last people on Earth.  If the show can focus more on that theme, it could turn things back around for episode three.
Pilot Grade: A-
Second Episode Grade: B

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, All 13 episodes released March 6th)
Ellie Kemper has always been underrated, so it's nice to see her finally get a leading role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new show from 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock.  Kemper plays the titular Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who attempts to start her life over in New York City after she escapes a doomsday cult, and she gets to do her over-the-top exuberance that she did so well as Erin on The Office.  There are some very funny jokes in this first episode, but it's also missing the snap and zip of 30 Rock at its peak.  Oddly, there seems to be something wrong with the background sound of the show -- in that there isn't any -- and it's really dulling the comedy.  It's like somebody forgot to record room tone and add it in post.  As of right now, it's nice to have the Fey and Carlock style back, even if it's not quite operating at peak potential.  Plus, this show is not really made for this style of review.  The Netflix model imagines that you won't just stop after watching the first episode.  So take this grade as a very optimistic B.  I'm with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for the long run.
Grade: B

Saturday, February 21, 2015

2015 Academy Award Predictions

Award shows are ultimately meaningless, but no other one assigns as much prestige to meaninglessness as the Oscars do.  While the Grammys mostly stick to populist affairs and the Emmys remain stuck in the middle of commercially successful and critically acclaimed, the Academy Awards try to give off the impression that they're awarding true "Art."  (Yes, that means we live in a world where Crash is considered "Art.")

Part of that could come from the voting body itself.  Much discussion was had about the demographics of the Academy when the nominations rolled out and they were whiter than a picket fence in St. Petersberg, Missouri.  You see, 94% of the Oscar voters are white, 74% are male, and the average member is 63 years old.  And what are the two things old white dudes love the most?  Taking themselves too seriously and not recognizing people of color.  In all seriousness, I know one of those old white dudes in the Academy, and not only is he a cool guy, he has great taste in films too.  Mostly, though, it seems like the voting body consists of people like this.

For the past few years, I've been making predictions about these awards, because it's fun and the trendy thing to do.  In 2013, I got 21 out of 24 of the categories correct.  Last year, I got 22 out of 24 correct.  Will I get 23 correct this year?  Probably not!  Below I've listed each category, with all of the nominations in said category; along with what I think will win (meaning: my actual prediction), what I want to win, and a brief explanation of both answers.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking down last night's brilliantly directed hour of The Americans

At the end of the breakout second season of FX's riveting Cold War spy drama The Americans, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings learn that the KGB wants them to recruit their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor).  After a season of them united in their front to keep Paige away from her burgeoning interest in Christianity, season three has found them at loggerheads with each other over how to react to this news.  This week's episode, "Open House," continues that boiling plotline, but comes at it from an indirect and artful angle, thanks to some spectacular direction from Thomas Schlamme.

Schlamme is famous for his work on The West Wing, which was known for its signature "walk and talk" scenes, but he's been doing a terrific job on The Americans since the show's inception, and "Open House" is by far his best work to date.  This show has always been able to generate meaning in subtle ways -- simple glances on The Americans can conjure up just as many emotions as a plot twist would on another program.  Schlamme takes it up another notch by making sightlines the entire thematic underpinning of the hour.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Better Call Saul

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Better Call Saul seemed like a bad, bad idea.  TV spinoffs and prequels have a gigantic precedent of being disasters that you're better off avoiding.  That's not to say that it's impossible for one to be good, but for every Angel, there are about 100 Joeys.  It also just seemed like an unnecessary idea.  Breaking Bad was an excellent show -- one of my favorites of all time -- but after five seasons, I didn't need to be in that world anymore.  I was especially skeptical of the Better Call Saul's ability to sustain a character like Saul, who was a fun bit player on Breaking Bad, but didn't feel layered enough to be anything more than that.  Ultimately, this show felt like a way for AMC to continue cashing in on the 10 million people who tuned in to the Breaking Bad finale.

There shouldn't have been too much concern, because at the end of the day, the show is in good hands.  Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan co-wrote the pilot with high-level Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren directed the second episode, and multiple Breaking Bad writers round out the rest of the show's staff.  Even smaller aspects, like the editing and the score, are done by the same people who did it on Breaking Bad (Kelley Dixon and Dave Porter, respectively).  And you can tell from the cold open of the Better Call Saul pilot that it's just back to business for the crew.  It's too good to spoil, but it stands up there with the best Breaking Bad had to offer, and that show was known for its iconic and artistic cold opens.

It's not just the beginning of the episode either -- the whole pilot immediately reminds you of the Gilligan qualities that you missed so much.  Better Call Saul has got style to burn.  Vince Gilligan directs the first episode excellently, settling us into the drudgery of Jimmy McGill's (Bob Odenkirk) sad little life.  Indoor locations are shot with wide, oblong angles to really sell their drabness.  It's clear that Jimmy is imprisoned by his life's mundanity and mediocrity.  And it's just nice to be reintroduced to the world of Albuquerque that we loved so much in Breaking Bad, that bright, dry suburban malaise.

But it also does enough to distinguish itself from its sequel.  As I mentioned before, I was skeptical of the show's ability to promote Saul to a leading role, but Bob Odenkirk, with the help of Gilligan and Gould's writing, is able to unearth Saul's soul in a way previously unimaginable.  Jimmy McGill is a different man than Saul Goodman, not just in name but in sensibility.  Better Call Saul, at least so far, also feels more languid and deliberate than Breaking Bad.  Even at its slowest, the latter always had a ticking clock danger buried underneath the surface.  Saul doesn't have that, it just ambles by with its wry charm.  There's not even a very clear arc yet, but the individual moments are so entertaining that it's not hard to sink into the show's laconic vibes.

Still, there's an inevitable case of prequel-itis that this suffers from at times.  Jonathan Banks pops up a few times in the pilot, reprising his role as Mike, and feels extremely unnecessary to what's happening.  Surely, he'll tie into the story more as it moves along, but right now it feels like a cheap nod, their way of saying "hey look, another guy from Breaking Bad!"  An additional from Breaking Bad pops up at the very end of the pilot, and though he plays a bigger part than Mike, it still feels a little too cute.  All of the fanservice is easier to swallow because Gilligan and company have some terrific original creations too, most notably Saul's brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who seems to suffer from some strange aversion to electromagnetic waves.  McKean has been a wonderful character actor for decades -- including his recurring role on The X-Files, the show where Vince Gilligan cut his teeth -- and he's fantastic here as well.

AMC opted for a two-night premiere, airing the pilot Sunday after The Walking Dead in order to generate bigger lead-in numbers, and then showing the second episode on Monday night in its regular timeslot.  This process benefited the show not just because the first episode ends in a way that'll make any fan salivate for the next episode, but also because this second episode does an even better job of assuaging the fears one might have had going into this series.  "Mijo" is where the themes of Better Call Saul really start to take shape.  Where Breaking Bad was about a good man who slowly traded away his humanity for money and power, Saul is about a man who has done bad things in the past (as evidenced by his Slippin' Jimmy story) but is desperately trying to do the right thing.  I honestly wasn't expecting how emotional I got at certain points of "Mijo."  That's not to say that Breaking Bad was a cold show, but the pathos comes from a softer and ultimately different place on this one.

So after two episodes, I've gone from highly skeptical to fully onboard.  "Uno" and "Mijo" didn't light the world on fire, but they reassure any doubters that this is a team of people who know how to construct television.  Is Better Call Saul necessary?  No.  But it's nice to have it anyway.

Pilot grade: B
Second episode grade: B+