Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The creators of Jules and Monty strike gold again with Pantheon University



Two years ago, I wrote about Jules and Monty, a web series created by Tufts University drama students Ed Rosini and Imogen Browder along with help from many of their friends in the theater department.  Jumping off of the craze at the time of people making YouTube adaptations of literary works, they wrote a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, but set in college and formatted as a series of vlogs.  If you haven't watched it yet, do so immediately because it's an absolute joy and the tragic ending haunted me for at least a week after finishing it.  What awed me the most about Jules and Monty was here were these college students only a year or two younger than me making an adaptation that was better than similar web series with 10 times the budget.  It was enough to make me think, "I'll watch anything these people create until the end of time."

Which is what I did when they released their follow-up the next year, a series called Wave Jacked about a group of students who band together to try to put on an old-time radio play on their college's premiere station.  Rosini, Browder, and their Neat-O Productions group could've tried to keep reliving the magic of Jules and Monty over and over, but this was a refreshing departure in many ways.  For one, it was an original work instead of an adaptation, and it wasn't done in vlog format.  But it was also such an odd, unclassifiable little story, blending gentle comedy with surreal elements with semi-spooky noir.  Judging from the view count for the series, it's not as beloved as Jules and Monty, and I still prefer the latter as well, but it's hard not to be taken by the sprawling charm of Wave Jacked.  There's a unique sense of life in the series, and you can tell it was a personal work for the creators.  (You could almost read the story, which is about a bunch of college kids scraping their resources together to put on a show, as a meta-commentary on Rosini and Browder's creative pursuits.)

Earlier this year they announced Pantheon University, their final project together, as most of the crew involved with producing these series were in their final year of college.  Pantheon would be a return to adaptations in a way, but for this series they were reimagining Greek gods and goddesses, and the myths surrounding them, in a modern college setting.  This time around they seized a different trend, the method of releasing all 13 episodes at once, like many shows that premiere on streaming services.  But they added an extra wrinkle: aside from the finale, the episodes were designed so they could be watched in any order (though there is a recommended sequence, which is how I watched it).  Despite the fact that all of this sounded extremely exciting to me and I loved their previous work, I didn't immediately watch it when it was released in April.  Maybe it's because I knew this was going to be the last series from this group of people and I didn't want to say goodbye.  Maybe it's because I'm horrible at watching things when every episode is presented to me at once.  But either way, the tab stayed on my browser for months while I constantly told myself, "I'll get to it soon."

Well I finally made good on my promise to myself and checked out Pantheon University, and I'm happy to report that it's Neat-O Productions' most complex, intelligent, and creative work yet.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there's not one concrete story to Greek mythology, which allows them to pick and choose from an array of characters and tales.  As a result, they're able to get more ambitious and freewheeling with their storytelling.  And that sense of playfulness takes the series to interesting places structurally as well.  The idea that these little short stories can be watched in any order gives Pantheon University a wild, massive feeling.  There are references to events that make more sense a few episodes later, subtle arcs that build in the cracks and corners of the story, and an expanding and shrinking sense of time.  After watching the series all the way through once or twice, you can map out the sequential order of every single thing that happens if you truly want to, but it also works if you think of the show as a fascinating Mobius strip where all the events just occur freely and the timeline bends back on itself.

There's such an astonishing breadth to Pantheon when taken as a whole.  Though there is a throughline to the story, each episode functions so well as its own discrete short story with varying themes and filmmaking styles.  There's an episode that's shot as a simulated unbroken take, a choose-your-own-adventure episode, a mockumentary episode, a musical episode, and so much more.  And they're not just stylistic switch-ups for the sake of stylistic switch-ups -- the form always matches the content for each character.

I'm also impressed by the clever ways in which the series translates these characters to a real-world, modern context.  Some the choices feel like a natural extension of what we know about these gods and goddesses (Zeus is the president of the college's most popular frat, Ares is a hothead), but many of them take an extra step that at once seems fresh and logical (Aphrodite runs a campus hookup site, Hades' underworld takes the form of the university's underground radio station).  Best of all, these stories are able to maintain Greek mythology's overarching theme of gods meddling in the lives of others' because it makes sense that a group of young people in the same social circles would be this invested in what's going on with the people around them.

If you're not an expert on Greek myths, don't fret.  I was a little bit rusty too.  (Though if you're like me, watching these episodes will cause you to read through the Wikipedia pages of each of these gods and goddesses.)  These stories work because they're compelling, not just because they're riffing on ancient myths.  Take the Aphrodite episode for example, which tells the story of her romance with Ares.  In this episode, we're introduced to Cupid's Bow, the algorithm-based hookup site that Aphrodite runs to help her peers find someone to have sex with.  In voiceover narration, she describes the rules she and the site live by: no romance, no repeat matchups, and the use of protection is mandatory.  When she begins using Cupid's Bow for her own purposes, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Ares.  Despite the surface differences between the two of them, along with the ethical gray area of her rigging her own system to get repeatedly matched with the same person, Aphrodite and Ares fit together.  It's a fascinating angle from which to approach this story.  This is a woman who lives by a code, and watching her reckon with something that causes her to question her convictions is really interesting stuff.

Of course, knowing more about these myths enriches the experience.  The Hades episode is perhaps the best example of this.  It's a re-telling of the story of Orpheus' trip to the underworld to save Eurydice, but it also touches upon Hades' relationship with Persephone, mirroring these two sets of separated lovers.  When I first watched it, my foggy memory caused me to not quite register the myth they were tackling with Orpheus, and I still enjoyed the episode.  But on my second viewing, after I familiarized myself with the story again, I absolutely loved it.  In particular, the way that they handle the end of Orpheus and Eurydice's story in a non-supernatural way almost makes it more moving and resonant than the original version.

All of these semi-standalone stories culminate in a satisfying finale that displays an excellent control on the scope of the series, wrapping up every character's arc beautifully.  That cumulative power of the series is really overwhelming once you take a step back and get the full view of this mosaic of complex, soulful little narratives.  Jules and Monty might be Neat-O Productions' most famous work, but Pantheon University should be the one they're most proud of. 

Both Jules and Monty and Wave Jacked had a series of "Vlog Vlog"s, which is what they called their behind-the-scenes production videos, to go along with the actual episodes.  They were funny, entertaining, informative, and in my opinion, essential viewing.  So it makes me a little sad that there aren't any for Pantheon University (although they promised it would happen, so maybe one day? Please???).  It makes me even more sad that this is the last series we will see from Browder, Rosini and the rest of the gang, but what a high note to go out on.


Highlight episodes
1. Dionysus
This episode centers around Dionysus, a director in the drama department, as he struggles to concoct his magnum opus.  A perfect example of form matching content, the installment is told in the style of a musical and it's absolutely delightful.  This is the episode that really made me sit up and recognize the brilliance of the series.  It's incredibly funny, the songs are catchy, but it's also a dreamy, thoughtful rumination on the creative process.  If you watch Pantheon University in the recommended order, then this episode arrives at about halfway through the series, which is the perfect placement for it.  It's the one that has least amount of impact on the overall plot of the story and yet it deftly comments on everything we've seen or will see in the other episodes.  You can tell everyone involved put everything they had into this episode.

2. Hera
In my Jules and Monty review a couple of years ago, I mentioned Imogen Browder's excellent performance as Juliet as the highlight of the series, and she once again delivers as Hera.  She's just an amazing talent, bringing a sense of life and reality to a character who could've been painted in much simpler terms.  This episode depicts the complexities of Zeus and Hera's long-term relationship, tracking their meeting in freshman year all the way up to the events that occur in Zeus' episode in their senior year.  Compressing such a long passage of time allows you to see all the rhythms and phases of long-term coupledom right next to each other, from the initial stages of bliss, to the rough patches, to the sustained sense of comfort.  And it's not just the acting that carries the episode -- there's a skillfulness and subtlety to the writing that shows the way that Hera has been defined by her relationship with Zeus ("I don't know what college is like without him," she says at one point) while still making her a three-dimensional character.

3. Hephaestus
This episode features alot of classic story ideas thrown into a blender together in a way that I've never really seen before.  Part of it is a sci-fi story in the vein of Ex Machina, about man (in this case, computer programmer Hephaestus) pushing science and technology too far (creating an artificial intelligence program and trying to trick others into thinking it's human).  There's also a little bit of something like You've Got Mail as it tells a story about the budding friendship between Hephaestus and Hera.  It's a charming and sweet episode that also has a nice tinge of melancholy to it.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 3 of Fall's TV Pilots



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.

Bull (CBS, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
I hope you weren't fooled by the two A- grades that were dished out in the first week.  The new network shows are here in full force and that's when Pilot Talk truly kicks in, baby!  And boy does it ever with Bull, one of CBS' latest gussied up procedurals about a firm that uses pseudoscience to calculate the outcomes of trials and help their clients win cases.  Like Rake and House and many more before it, Bull is one of the shows that focuses on the titular man (in this case, Dr. Jason Bull) whose strong personality provides the gravitational force for everything that proceeds.  Unfortunately, the character and the actor who plays him (Michael Weatherly) are the absolute worst.  Every line is said with a cocked eyebrow, like he's fighting the urge to look at the camera and wink.  As a whole, the show is so self-satisfied, from its flat quips to the tech talk that sounds like it was written by your dad.  Bull tries to exude cool, but at every turn it comes off like a phony.
Grade: D+

Designated Survivor (ABC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
All of the promos made Designated Survivor out to be one of those shows that bursts out of the gate in the first episode, but then proceeds to fall apart afterwards.  So it's not a good sign that even the pilot wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be.  That's not to say it's all bad.  In fact, there's quite a bit to like about this episode, which centers on the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Keifer Sutherland) who must rise to the occasion when a bombing at the Capitol kills the President and the rest of the Cabinet, leaving him as the next in the line of succession.  It does a great job of placing you in Secretary Kirkman's shoes, as we're often shown the chaos of these events from his direct POV.  You can always count on Keifer Sutherland to deliver gravitas, and he undeniably carries the show, especially later in the episode when his character reveals himself to be better suited for the job than many would've thought.  Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was just a little too soulless.  It was supposed to be propulsive, but it just seemed to be incapable of reaching top speed.
Grade: B-

The Exorcist (Fox, Fridays at 9:00 PM)
The growing trend seems to be TV studios just throwing darts at random popular films and deciding to make a show out of them.  It hasn't been overwhelmingly successful, but maybe Fox's hope is that they'll land on something with a reinterpretation of the classic William Friedkin horror film The Exorcist.  The show follows Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), a priest who has been having dreams featuring a mysterious man (Ben Daniels) performing some kind of exorcism on a boy who seems possessed.  When Angela Rance (Geena Davis), one of his parishioners, reaches out to him about mysterious disturbances occurring at her house since her eldest daughter returned home from college, he decides to try to find this man and enlist his help.  Tomas isn't very interesting so far, but all of the scenes focusing on the Rance family are quite compelling.  The pilot sets up an interesting dynamic that mirrors the original film's, where you're unsure whether Katherine, who took leave from school after her friend died in an accident, is acting strange out of grief or some sort of possession.  There's a grim, moody patience that the episode moves along with, which helps scenes build tension.  It also contains some surprises that have me hopeful that it could take a step up in quality.
Grade: B

The Good Place (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 PM)
This pilot begins with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) waking up in an unfamiliar location with no memory of how she got there.  A man then explains that she's died and is in  The Good Place, an afterlife haven where only the select few who lived the most virtuous lives can spend eternity.  But here's the thing: there was a mix-up and Eleanor is actually an awful person who doesn't belong there.  That's a high concept for a comedy that other writers might crumble under.  However, the great Mike Schur (who brings along many of his Parks & Recreation writers) is just the guy for the job, and he handles that setup as well as you can imagine.  The first episode can get a little heavy on the info-dumping, as the logic and rules of The Good Place get established, but it still manages to be funny and brisk throughout .  And it helps that the show is led by Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, who are inveterate delights.  Bell's post-Veronica Mars career hasn't been as artistically promising as it should have been, but her work here reminds you just how terrific she is.

If a show about a bad person feels odd for Mike Schur, then it'll make sense when it quickly reveals itself to be about a bad person learning to be good.  There's no learning needed for The Good Place itself though; this one is doing all the right things already.  It's laying out some interesting ideas about the way the afterlife works, it has already taken some wacky turns, and it has given some nice texture to Eleanor.  Things can only go up from here.
Grade: B+

Kevin Can Wait (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
Poor Erinn Hayes.  She was absolutely hilarious as Dr. Lola Spratt for seven seasons on Childrens Hospital, and she's generally delightful whenever she pops up on a show or in a movie.  I only want the best for her.  Kevin Can Wait, Kevin James' return to CBS, is far from the best.  In this generic sitcom that feels like middle-tier material from the late 90s, James plays a recently retired cop and Hayes is his put-upon wife.  I'd tell you more about show, but you can probably accurately guess the other ingredients with a small margin of error.  There are three kids, James' character doesn't approve of his eldest daughter's boyfriend, there's a goofy uncle, and so on.  For the first few minutes, Kevin Can Wait seems pretty harmless.  It's not funny, but it's not offensive either (one of Erinn Hayes' line deliveries even made me smile a little!).  But after a while, that mediocrity begins to pile up and I finally threw my hands up and decided I hated this pilot.
Grade: D+

Lethal Weapon (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:00 PM)
Here's another TV show based on a popular film from more than two decades ago.  This time the dart landed on the buddy cop series Lethal Weapon, which stars Damon Wayans as the "too old for this shit" Roger Murtaugh and Clayne Crawford as the plays-by-his-own-rules Martin Riggs.  Featuring direction from McG and writing from Matt Miller (Chuck, Human Target), the pilot is a slick, fun little jaunt.  The procedural case, involving a man whose murder was made to look like a suicide, is a little generic, but that's to be expected.  What really matter in shows like these are the beats in between the crime-solving, and Lethal Weapon delivers ample flavor in that regard, thanks to Crawford and Wayans' entertaining chemistry.  This is a show I won't be watching weekly because I imagine it will always stay in this gear, but if this is your kind of thing, I highly recommend it.
Grade: B

MacGuyver (CBS, Fridays at 8:00 PM)
Studios aren't just about making shows based on movies, sometimes they make shows based on older shows.  MacGuyver may be a new version of the 1985-1992 series of the same name, but it's not exactly modern.  In fact it seems distinctly targeted towards older people -- it is a CBS show after all -- as it goes through so much trouble to over-explain everything.  Whether its through MacGuyver's (Lucas Till) excessive voiceover narration or the unnecessary chyrons on the screen that explain things like "adhesive tape" and "paper clip" to you.  At least it has a springy vibe to keep things from getting too dull.
Grade: C

Notorious (ABC, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
What happens when you cross a bad lawyer show with a worse version of The Newsroom?  Well, Notorious is what you get.  I feel sorry for anyone who had to write 800 words about this empty show.
Grade: C-

Pitch (Fox, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
Critics have been using Friday Night Lights as a point of comparison when talking about this new Fox drama about Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury in a star-making turn), the first woman to play for an MLB team.  And that makes sense in terms of how unrealistic and goofy both can be when getting into the nitty gritty details about their respective sports.  The main character throws 10 straight balls (3 of which are wild pitches) in her first major league start!  Her specialty pitch is a screwball!  Jokes aside, this was a great first episode, one that's in contention for being the best network pilot of the fall.  Dan Fogelman (Galavant, Crazy. Stupid. Love) co-wrote this pilot, and he brings alot of his signature spark and wit to the episode.  He deconstructs sports narrative cliches -- the rousing motivational speech, the fierce rival, etc. -- but he's also not afraid to embrace its cheesiness.  Some may not be able to stomach the level of cheese this pilot provides, from its schmaltzy flashbacks to its inspirational tone, but those who can will find that it offers unique delights.

And there is a refreshingly low level of antagonism compared to what you'd expect from a show with this premise.  There are some players on the team who are annoyed by the main characters' presence, and one who especially seems to have it out for her, but it doesn't feel like the whole world is against her.  It's that kind of smart decision-making that puts it ahead of many other new shows.  Plus it already has two strong relationships going for it: the tenuous camaraderie between Ginny and her superstar catcher (Mark Paul Gosselaar), along with the intense dynamic with Ginny and her father.  Who knows if Pitch can satisfy as a sports show, but the strength of the character dynamics is what gives it such great potential.
Grade: B+

Speechless (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
ABC has been trying their hand at diversifying their family sitcoms with great results, as it has given us Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, two of the best network comedies on the air.  This time around, they're applying their "it's an ABC family sitcom but _________" formula and putting "with a disabled child" in the blank with Speechless.  And once again, it seems like they've landed on a hit.  The pilot not only differentiates itself by offering an insight into living with a disability -- the title comes from the fact that son J.J. has cerebral palsy that renders him unable to speak -- but it also isn't afraid to be a little cruel.  The DiMeo family has a mean edge to them, but not in the over-the-top way that some family sitcoms go for -- there's still clearly alot of love there.  Though we may not know what it's like to be in a family where someone has a disability, there's a quality to their interactions that feels genuine.  And most importantly, the show is funny.  It spreads the wealth around, giving everyone in the cast, even the kids, an opportunity for comedy.  After watching Kevin Can Wait, it's nice to know I still have the ability to laugh.
Grade: B+

This is Us (NBC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
One of the biggest surprises of becoming an adult is how much I've grown to love goopy, touchy feely dramas.  I've especially been missing Parenthood lately, the best goopy, touchy feely drama there ever was, so NBC's This is Us has arrived right on time.  I was convinced that I loved this sappy, sensitive drama about a set of disparate people seemingly only connected by the fact that it's all of their 36th birthdays in the first few minutes too.  It turns out I was tricked by the fact that Sufjan Stevens' "Should've Known Better" was playing under the early scenes and I just love the song, no the show.  But I do like it, and could end up liking it even more with time.  There are some missteps in this pilot, namely the fact that it defines Kate (Chrissy Metz) solely by the fact that she's overweight and hates it.  Despite that, the first episode works thanks to the sharp writing of Dan Fogelman, who reunites with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, his collaborators on the very underrated romantic comedy Crazy. Stupid. Love.  By now, you've probably heard about a big twist that the episode ends on, and it's certainly an interesting one.  But this one would be worth sticking with even if it didn't include that extra wrinkle.
Grade: B

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 2 of Fall's TV Pilots



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.

High Maintenance (HBO, Fridays at 11:00 PM)
High Maintenance already existed as a web series on Vimeo, releasing 19 episodes between 2012 and 2015 (all of which are now available on HBO Go), so technically it's not a new show.  But the new HBO series can be watched and enjoyed if you, like myself, have never seen the Vimeo episodes.  In fact, this pilot might even be more enjoyable if you have no experience with the show, because its vibe and structure feels so alien that watching it for the first time is a thrilling thing to behold.  It's about a nameless pot dealer -- credits refer to him as The Guy -- in New York but that premise, based on what I gather from this first episode and stuff I've read about the web series, is just a jumping off point to tell small stories about the people whose lives he briefly intersects with.  If you add it up, the "main character" probably appears in less than half of this first episode, which is pretty crazy and fascinating.  And this approach to storytelling adds for a tonal variation that other shows can't achieve as naturally.  The first half of the episode is a wildly funny interlude about a weird and aggressive client who won't let The Guy leave after he's delivered his weed, while the second is an ultimately tragic tale about a client who almost escapes his cycle of drug abuse only to be dragged back by the toxic people in his life.  I'm not even sure if I truly have a handle on the shape of High Maintenance, but I already know I love it.  Time to go back and watch the web series.
Grade: A-

Son of Zorn (Fox, Sundays at 8:30 PM)
There's something inherently funny and silly about seeing an animated character in the middle of a live-action world.  Fox seems to think so too, since they've brought the idea to life with Son of Zorn, a show about an animated warrior (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) who returns to Orange County in order to reconnect with the live-action family he abandoned.  Unfortunately, this feels like an Adult Swim series without the aggressive weirdness that occasionally makes those shows pop.  What we're left with is a kind of bland comedy that trades on the old "screw-up tries to win his family back" idea.  This is one that could go either way -- it can either stay in this safe mode or shake off the shackles of its pilot-ness.  The interesting reveal at the end has me hoping for the latter.
Grade: B-

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 1 of Fall's TV Pilots



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.

Atlanta (FX, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
Given how much of a name he has made for himself as an actor and as rapper, it's easy to forget that Donald Glover came up as a writer, landing a job on the 30 Rock writing staff when he was just in his mid 20s.  Atlanta, the FX show he left Community to focus on, is a quick reminder to the world how much of a talented writer he is.  He serves as showrunner and executive producer, as well the star, where he plays Earnest, a broke but ambitious guy who tries push his cousin's local rap buzz to higher places.  This is some of the best, most relaxed acting Glover has ever done, but it's his writing that truly shines in the pilot.  Atlanta is a five-tool player.  Where other shows can only hope to find one thing that it does well in its pilot, Atlanta seems to do it all.  It's funny, thoughtful, weird, original, vibrant; everything you can think of.  It has a clear setting (the Atlanta rap scene) and somewhat of a spine (tracking the rise of Earnest's cousin, Paperboy), but the show seems intent on telling its story in the least straightforward way possible.  It's full of wonderful little detours and curlicues -- the pilot loops back on itself while the second episode, which also aired on Tuesday night, sprouts so many branches.  Clearly, this is a show that's not finished letting us know what it's capable of, which is refreshing.  I don't know exactly where Atlanta is going, but I'm willing to follow it anywhere.
Pilot Grade: A-
Second Episode Grade: A-

Better Things (FX, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. have already proven to be a fruitful collaborative team, with Adlon co-writing a handful of Louie episodes throughout its run, and the two may have struck upon something again with FX's Better Things.  Co-written by the two and directed by C.K., the pilot feels like Louie but from a slightly different angle.  Adlon stars as Sam, an actor and divorced mom of three daughters, as she goes through the trails that those titles entail.  From minute one, there's a very lived-in feeling to the show that's suggestive of a greater life that exists outside of the scenes we are seeing.  We learn so much about what it's like for her as an actor in a scene between her and an actor played by Constance Zimmer, as the two of them go through the motions of preparing for an audition they know they won't land.

Overall, I dig how loose and shaggy Better Things is.  It feels like it can wear any shade, as the first episode cuts to little stylistic interludes with different lenses and shifting aspect ratios.  But the pilot also feels scattered at times.  The material focusing on Sam's life as a mother is the clear highlight because there's an easygoing rapport between her and her kids that feels fresh and truthful.  It helps that the casting of the kids is great, another carryover from Louie.  However, the moments that stray away from the family stuff, such as the brief glimpses into her romantic life, are less interesting.  So Better Things isn't perfect, but it is a fiercely personal work with a vision, and we need more of that.
Grade: B

Mary + Jane (MTV, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
When reviewing pilots, it's easy to play the comparison game.  Part of the reason is because it can be a quick way to give a sense of the show's vibe and tone, but it's also because some pilots easily lend themselves to those connections.  However, it can also be a crutch, and I try to avoid them if I can.  But there's no avoiding drawing similarities between Mary + Jane and Broad City -- I'm not the first to do so and I certainly won't be the last.  This MTV comedy about two friends who run, as they describe it, a "mostly legal marijuana delivery service" is clearly trying to grab the same audience that's interested in the bizarre antics of Broad City.

Unfortunately, the comparisons stop at "stoner comedy starring two women."  It fails in many places where Broad City succeeds, mainly in that this pilot isn't very funny.  It knows what the premise is, but it still doesn't seem to know what kind of show it at this point.  The premiere episode just throws random comedy ideas at the wall to see what sticks, but very little does, like the weird, mostly unfunny interlude where they main characters deliver to the home of celebrities who are implied to be Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Jordan (Scout Durwood) and Paige (Jessica Rothe) are like Abbi and Ilana from Broad City in the sense that the former is the overly sexual one and the latter is more square, except neither have the weird little textures that make the Broad City ladies transcend those cliches.  Still, Durwood and Rothe have excellent chemistry, and that's the most important ingredient in a show like this.  The comedy can come later, and given the way Rothe especially is able to wring so much out of the material she's given, it's possible that it will.  I'm still on the fence about whether I'll see this through, but I wouldn't be surprised if this became a solid little show.
Grade: C+ (but a very optimistic one)

Quarry (Cinemax, Fridays at 10:00 PM)
I didn't know much about Quarry going into it, even after seeing promos for it, but I had this deep sense of anticipation despite not having much information.  At first, it seems like the pilot isn't interested in giving much information either, as it starts with an enigmatic cold open.  But after the title card, it firmly plants the viewer in a time and a place, showing Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green) arriving home from Vietnam to a nation that's not too happy with its soldiers. But Mac's town is especially unhappy with him.  It's alluded to the fact that he was involved in some horrific massacre overseas and even though he was cleared of charges, there's still an overt air of animosity and resentment towards everyone involved.  In its first 30 minutes, the first episode works strictly as an examination of the difficulties of entering the world after being at war, especially one as controversial as Vietnam, and those moments are so effective that I could watch a show solely about that.  But once a crime element kicks in -- Mac gets approached by a mysterious man named The Broker, who seems to recruit veterans to become contract killers -- it's pretty gripping as well.

At almost 90 minutes, Quarry's pilot is lengthier than your usual episode of television, but it makes the most of its time.  The first episode carefully lays out this bleak, contemplative tale with great skill and precision.  Sometimes when premium cable networks try one of these quiet, glacially-paced crime shows, it doesn't work (remember The Red Road?), but so far this one seems to have the goods.  Given its 72 score on Metacritic, other critics appear to be less ready to exalt Quarry, but I think it's off to an absolutely terrific start.
Grade: A-

Queen Sugar (OWN, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
The main reason why OWN's new family drama Queen Sugar is getting more press than a show on its network usually would is because the pilot is written and directed by Ava Duvernay, who directed the 2014 Best Picture nominee Selma.  Watching this first episode, you can tell it comes from somebody who has never made a TV show.  In some ways, that can be refreshing.  The opening hour has a patience that you don't often see, establishing a mood and tone more than anything, one that is simmering and swaying.  It can lead to frustration too.  For all the time that it spends on the spaces between the plot, I don't feel like I have a great sense of who many of these characters are, nor do I find them all that engaging.  Mostly, I left the first episode feeling a little confounded.  It's not even until about two-thirds of the way through that I felt like I had any sort of idea what the show was about.  This series was pitched by a critic a mix of Rectify and Parenthood, two shows I love, but Queen Sugar only compares to them superficially.  There's obvious skill involved behind and in front of the camera, but I had the nagging feeling throughout watching this that it just wasn't made for me.  This is one of the few times where I genuinely don't know if I'm going to continue watching.
Grade: B-

Friday, August 19, 2016

Thoughts at the halfway point of Mr. Robot's divisive second season



There's a growing trend in this current age of TV, marked by a buildup/teardown cycle that occurs with high-buzz shows, but it has been especially pronounced this year.  The 100 slowly began to gain momentum with some critics of note (and a few critics who aren't of note, including myself) over its first two seasons, only for it to have an uneven and controversial third season earlier this year.  Then there is Lifetime's behind-the-scenes drama Unreal, which recently concluded an absolutely disastrous sophomore season, just after it lit the world on fire with its smart, exciting, Peabody award-winning first season.  It's almost as these shows realize their newfound position in the spotlight, and choke under the pressure.

We're seeing a little bit of that on a smaller scale with Mr. Robot too.  Its first season came out of nowhere, on a network known for breezy, "blue skies" programming and from a creator who previously had no experience writing television.  Straight from the pilot the show established itself as a visually stunning, narratively trippy oddity and only became more so as it went on. But up until a week or two ago, the critical consensus surrounding its hotly anticipated second season is that it has been a step down from the first, with many asking themselves "where is this all going?" by the end of each episode.

This happens all the time when a show gets the "You have to watch __________" treatment, for a number of reasons.  The first is that alot of people caught up on Mr. Robot after hearing all of the fawning praise about it, so it's likely that they binged the first season in a very short amount of time.  Now that they've had to adjust to weekly viewing, it makes the show seems slower and more adrift than before.  For a similar example, look at certain internet comment sections for episodes in the beginning of season four of Breaking Bad, where people complained about the show being more listless than usual.  Breaking Bad was always a deliberate show, it just seemed more so after so many people binged the first three seasons based on the building buzz.

The second reason is a matter of expectations.  When a show first arrives there's no baggage attached to it, nor is there the overwhelming notion that it will be good.  (Expectations usually only come from shows with a big name attached behind the scenes, like Vinyl.)  People underestimate the role surprise can play when it comes to loving a show.  Once that series has already established itself and built up goodwill, that surprise is taken away.  It's hard not to feel like there's alot of that going on with the second season of Mr. Robot and people chalking it up as more of a disappointment than it actually is.  That's not to say that some shows aren't deserving of the harsher criticism that comes with the loss of surprise, because like I said, season two of Unreal was an unmitigated disaster.  But it does feel like the "oh, it's bad now" hand-wringing that comes with these shows that have a meteoric rise is a little overstated sometimes.

All of this is a very long and complicated way of saying that I don't agree with the complaints about season two of Mr. Robot.  In fact, I think that it is several orders of magnitude better than it was in its first season.  Granted, it helps that I was never as sold on the show as others were at the height of its hype hurricane last year.  Where season one landed the show on many critics' top 10 lists, it failed to even make my top 20.  (It was number 41.  There's alot of good TV out there!)  This was a show I liked, and I consider the first season's big twist to be one of the finest rug pulls I have ever seen.  Yet I remained unconvinced that it was ever going to be a series that I could come to love.  It was just too chilly and detached, too indebted to its influences.

The first season of Mr. Robot felt like a textbook example of style over substance.  A large portion of that style was clearly cribbed from Fight Club, a film I don't enjoy very much, which certainly didn't help matters.  But it wasn't just the Fight Club nature of it all, it was that the show seemed to push all of its visual and narrative tools to the limit, with every shot featuring a character in the corner of the screen dwarfed by the background space, and its invitations to the question of what is real or not.  After a while, it was numbing and a little boring.

This year, it feels much more like the style enhances its substance.  Much has been made about creator Sam Esmail's decision to direct every episode of the season, and even though critics showed concern about him burning himself out, it really does seem to have made a positive impact on the show's aesthetic.  There's a clarity of vision that just didn't come through when he had to resort to delegating.  Visually and tonally, season two has been bolder and more breathtaking than ever before.  Esmail has broadened the palette he's working with, relying less on Fincher-isms and adding Kubrick to his arsenal, with so many frames having that wide-open and meticulous construction the latter was known for.  But it goes deeper than just visual cues.  A more electric creative energy runs through every aspect of this season, from the creation of a fake art film to explain the origin of the FSociety mask, to a title card cut that felt like something straight out of a horror movie, to a 20-minute segment done in the style of a 90s sitcom.

Another one of my gripes with season one was that I didn't feel anything for the characters.  That was just a byproduct of the show's general chilliness, but I'm the kind of person who needs to be engaged with a show's characters in order to truly love it.  Twists and turns only go so far if it's not rooted in meaningful character progression.

Maybe Esmail realized this too, as he's made a concerted effort this year to really dig into what makes these people tick.  Where season one was a plot-driven techno thriller, this season is more of an ensemble drama.  It has done so by bringing supporting characters like Darlene and Angela to the fore.  The latter is an especially wise choice given that Angela has always been one of the more fascinating characters, and this increased focus has only solidified that.  Some people find her storylines tedious, but to me she's the key to understanding the show.  In a way, all of these characters are people with a need to be recognized, and her specific desire for validation -- through the mantras that she whispers to herself when she's all alone and her quest as a warm-blooded person attempting to adapt to this cold-blooded world -- is the most overt expression of that.

There's also the addition of a completely new character in the form of Dominique Dipierro (played by Grace Gummer), the FBI agent tasked with bringing down FSociety.  On paper, she's just an assemblage of tough cop cliches -- intense devotion to her job, doesn't get along with her peers, almost inhuman detective skills -- but Gummer is giving a career-best performance in the role.  And Dom is given life beyond a stock type in the moments where we see her outside of her job, riddled with anxiety and an inability to sleep at night.  She's an extension of one of the main themes of Mr. Robot, especially this season: above all else, this is the story of lonely spirits shuffling through a crowded, hyper-connected world.

At this point Elliot, the show's ostensible protagonist, is the least interesting character.  This would be a problem if the show still had the same structure it did last year, but its transition into being a rich ensemble piece helps matters.  And despite being out at sea narratively, he still ties into the arc of the season thematically.  A few episodes back, Dom has a conversation with Minister Zhang, who we know to be Whiterose (B.D. Wong), where she explains why her FBI job appeals to her.  That explanation contains one of the most important lines of the season, as she says "I'm disgusted by the selfish depravity of the world, but at the same time, I'm utterly fascinated by it."  But it could have easily been a line that came out of Elliot's mouth.  Or any of the central characters, really.  That's one of the most interesting ideas holding this season together, the notion that all of these players are driven by similar impulses, and yet they act on those impulses in divergent ways.

So I've loved this season of Mr. Robot so far and have found so many fascinating things to pluck out of it, but judging from this week's episode, I'm not so sure the show is interested in the same things about itself that I am.  At the end of "h4ndshake.sme," the popular fan theory that Elliot has been in jail all season was proven to be true, and I'm still working through how I feel about it.  Esmail seems like a smart guy who trusts the savviness of his audience, so it's possible that this development wasn't meant to be a revelation for us.  After all, he's stated that Mr. Robot (as played by Christian Slater) not actually being a person was not supposed to be a surprise in season one, and this is the closest analogue to that.  But what made the Mr. Robot reveal in season one not feel disappointing is because it was used as a smokescreen to hide the twist that Elliot and Darlene are brother and sister.  If this season is not building to some other bombshell, then I'm not sure what the point of spending seven episodes moving towards something that ultimately doesn't affect the way most viewers take in the show is.

It just seems like a miscalculation no matter the angle you approach it from.  If it was meant to be a bigger twist than it is, then I don't know why Esmail thought he could get away with it after he primed the audience to look for things like that in the first season.  If it's not meant to be twist, then his desire to return to the well of Elliot having distorted perceptions of reality is troubling.  Not only does it lead to some of the show's more self-satisfied stylistic detours, but it's also getting a bit repetitive already.  (And again, did it really need to take seven episodes to get to this point?)

Still, I'm feeling very high on this season, despite my trepidation about the most recent episode.  I never thought I'd be in a position of loving it so much, and ironically, right around the time that everyone else started to slightly turn on it.  That's fine, I don't mind being on the minority (and possibly wrong side) of the internet consensus.  My only worry is that Sam Esmail will take in too many of the criticisms of season two and muffle his creative vision.  For better or worse, his is a style that deserves to operate unfettered.