Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 3 of TV's Midseason Pilots

Black Sails (Starz, Saturdays at 9:00 PM)
In order to preserve the purity of the opinions in these reviews, I don't like to read any other reviews of a show before I watch the pilot myself.  Nevertheless, I still can't avoid hearing a thought or two from critics before I get a chance to experience the episode.  Based on the few whispers I've heard, most people find Black Sails to be quite mediocre.  Which is why I'm shocked by how much I enjoyed this pilot.  Right now, the conflicts aren't very interesting -- particularly the main one that carries through the episode, involving the battle for captaincy on the central pirate ship -- but the moments where the show attempts to build its world and establish an atmosphere are very strong.  It helps that Black Sails is backed by high production values, nailing the impressive scope of the galleons and smaller details like the muck and grime on every character.  Starz is known for their pulpy programming, marrying excessive blood and guts with gratuitous nudity, and this show has both in spades.  It knows what it is and doesn't take itself too seriously.  I may be out on an island with this one, but if it can manage to be "Spartacus at sea," then I don't mind setting sail.
Grade: B+

Broad City (Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10:30 PM)
Broad City is the best comedy pilot I've seen since I started this Pilot Talk series (which has included reviews of current 1st season favorites like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Trophy Wife, and Enlisted).  There are some minor strikes against it, sure -- its web series roots are very clear and I don't know how much legs the show has beyond this episode.  But right from the start, it's got such a strange and distinct voice, that I found myself not even fretting over its long-term sustainability.  Creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are also the stars of the show, playing two friends who find themselves stumbling upon all kinds of misadventures in New York City.  Each of them have their little defining character quirks, and together they've got a very easy chemistry, propelled by the finely tuned dialogue.  The pilot wanders into all of these great comedic setpieces -- featuring cameos from funny people like Hannibal Burress, Chris Gethard, John Gemberling, and Fred Armisen -- and it just gets weirder and funnier as it goes along.  Who knows if it'll fall too deeply down its own bizarre rabbit hole, but as far as first episodes go, Broad City is a real winner.
Grade: A-

Looking (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
Great TV is often able to give you a look into a world you know nothing about.  If that's the case, then HBO's Looking is at least on its way to being a great show.  20-somethings trying to find love and themselves isn't any new addition to the television landscape, but Looking's perspective keeps things fresh, providing an honest depiction of three homosexual friends and their lives in San Francisco.  Directed by Andrew Haigh, the pilot has the same relaxed, conversational style as his breakthrough film, Weekend.  Yet despite the intimate filmmaking style, none of the characters rise above the level of rough sketches, aside from Jonathan Groff's Patrick.  Looking could be on its way to being a great show, but for now it's merely good.
Grade: B-

Rake (Fox, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
About 10 minutes into the pilot of Rake, the credits started appear at the bottom of the screen, and I was reminded that Peter Tolan is one of the executive producers.  All of a sudden everything made sense.  You can certainly see alot of Rescue Me in Rake, in that both of them are tonally all over the place and never know what they want us to think about their protagonist.  Keegan Deene (Greg Kinnear) spends most of the episode being grating and annoying everyone around him, and sometimes it's clear that the show wants us to be annoyed with him, but most of the time it just seems like they're turning to us and saying "isn't this guy just an entertaining little rascal"?  Because of Kinnear, he sort of a point.  After that, it just becomes an unpleasant watch.  With a boring legal procedural grafted onto it.  The whole thing feels kind of formless, just following Keegan from place to place being a massive pain.  Apparently, the original version of this pilot was much darker, and I would like to have seen that, since the kookiness of the new pilot tries too hard to let Keegan off the hook.  In watching this, I was reminded of the first episode of The Mindy Project in the fall of 2012.  Mindy had better reviews and more buzz than Rake does, but they both were similarly unbearable experiences that left me baffled that anybody could enjoy them.
Grade: D

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Carrie Diaries - "This Is The Time" Review

Season 2, Episode 12

Since the last third of the first season of The Carrie Diaries, I've kicking around an idea for a piece called "The Tale of Two Carries," about the show's prominent split between Connecticut and New York.  I'm a noted non-fan of Sex and the City, and I've always preferred the Castlebury material on The Carrie Diaries because the Manhattan stuff often reminded of the predecessor I didn't like very much.  In season two, the split started to get a bit more tolerable, since Carrie was basically always in New York, and my interest in her adventures in the city went up sort of by default.  But even still, the rare moments when she decides to grace Castlebury with her presence have always been the strongest moments of this season, because they hearken back to the small-scale wonder that made me love the show in the first place.

It's a testament to this season's commitment to keeping the characters apart -- however prudent that may have been -- that I noted that the scene with Walt, Carrie, Mouse, and Maggie together at the diner was the first of its kind to occur all season, despite it being a staple in season 1.  Why have they all come together?  Because it's time for a good 'ol 80s prom, y'all.  Although Sebastian has to sit out on the sidelines, on account of his expulsion, even Dorrit joins in on the prom fever, deciding to go with Scott "ironically."  It's good to see everybody in the same quadrant after so many episodes of them out on their own respective islands, because I was reminded of how well they bounce of each other.  As fun as it was to see pairings like Maggie and Sebastian or Mouse and Donna, the core friendship between Maggie, Carrie, and Mouse was one of the highlights of the show in the early going, but sorely missed this season.

When you reach the end of the road in any journey, you find yourself stuck between reflection and concern about the future.  And indeed, that's where many of these characters find themselves in "This Is the Time."  Last week, Carrie got her acceptance letter to NYU, but her future prospects get a bit messier once Larissa offers her Bennet's old job at Interview.  The difficult choice between abandoning her dream job or taking it and disappointing her father is one that weighs heavily on her for most of the episode.  Meanwhile, Walt has some concerns weighing heavily on him as well.  After finding out the prom is taking place in the city, Walt, still getting over his breakup with Bennet, is reluctant to go.  It takes Maggie offering to go to the prom with him -- in a cute, warm little scene that reminds you of their shared history -- for him to finally soften up and go.

The prom takes up the bulk of the middle of the episode, and it's where all of the plotlines bubble over.  The worries of both Carrie and Walt converge when they share a dance, and Walt basically calls her out for being a whiny baby.  To him, Carrie's choice is one that's difficult, but over and done with once she finally makes it.  But his homosexuality is an ongoing dilemma, one that will affect him forever, especially in the time that he's in.  The show wisely treats this conflict as something with real weight to it, but also knows the characters well enough to make them quickly resolve things in the very next scene.  Elsewhere at the prom, Donna's got some problems of her own.  After Mouse discovers that Donna got accepted into Colombia -- in the episode's funniest scene -- Donna's worried that other people will find out she's smart and not vote for her for prom queen.

All of the prom shenanigans serve as a jumping off point for the episode's real theme, which is about all of these characters deciding who they want to be instead of what others want them to be.  After reconciling with Bennet, Walt decides to be open about his sexuality once and for all.  It leads to a scene where his parents finally come to accept him, even if they still don't agree with his lifestyle.  On the other hand, Donna is forced to own up to her intelligence after being outed by her lackeys, who overheard her talking to Mouse earlier in the bathroom.  But she owns up to it in the most Donna way possible, and after hilarious feminist speech from Mouse.  The biggest decision to be themselves comes from Carrie, who tells her father that she's going to work for Interview instead of going to NYU.  AnnaSophia Robb is terrific in the scene Carrie and Tom argue about her future, selling the mixture of fear that she has when he reminds her of all the adult decisions she'll have to make and the determination to do what she wants anyway.

This episode swings for the fences in terms of plot and emotion, and the result is by far the best episode of the season.  It's just a shame that the show took so long to get everybody back together though, since the it might get cancelled after this season.  And even if it doesn't, next season will most likely feature some notable shake-ups, since everybody's going off in their own direction.  It may not be comforting to think about the show's future, but it's fitting to do so when talking about an episode where so many of the characters are reflecting upon their own.  "This Is the Time" is an example of The Carrie Diaries delivering on everything that makes it so great: warm and honest character interactions, small-scale high school dilemmas, and widescreen emotions.  Try as you might to just like it ironically, eventually you'll be swept up in the beauty of it all.

Random Asides:

-This week in AnnaSophia Robb being delightful: I don't even remember what it was in reaction to, but she makes a great grossed out face in that scene between Carrie and Sebastian when they're eating dinner early in the episode.

-Mouse Sweater Watch: I was hoping that she'd wear a sweater to prom, but alas...

-It's natural for ancillary characters to stop appearing on a show once they leave the main characters' orbits, but I found myself thinking "Where's West?" nonetheless.  Surely he would've been up for Prom King.

-Last week, I devoted alot of digital ink to complaining about the narration on this show.  Carrie's little "Prom...short for promenade" bit might be the worst narration the show has ever had.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 2 of TV's Midseason 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.

Bitten (Syfy, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Based off of a book series of the same name, Bitten feels like a change of pace from the usual depiction of werewolves on the screen.  For one, it focuses on Elena Michaels, who is the only known female werewolf in the show's universe.  Though we've seen female werewolves before (Buffy, Almost Human, etc.), we normally associate lycanthropy with men, and the pilot of Bitten uses that to explore how Elena relates to all of the male werewolves around her.  Like many works of werewolf fiction, there's a pack, but the one here is less like a family and more like a loose collection of outcasts.  It's not clear why Elena is reluctant to return home when she's called upon, but the strained dynamic between her and the rest of the pack is one of the most intriguing aspects of the first episode.  Bitten also smartly forgoes starting its story from the beginning, showing Elena first becoming a werewolf.  Instead, this is something she just lives with, and the drama comes from her trying to manage her affliction in the midst of personal changes in her life.  Naturally, there's a bit of a "main character has a horrible secret that he/she is hiding from the people close them" aspect, as we see Elena struggle to keep the fact that she's a werewolf from her boyfriend, but Laura Vandervoort is so good at selling Elena's emotions that she breathes life into a tired trope.  Overall, Bitten is a surprisingly engrossing show so far, an atmospheric and stylish look into the middle section of life as a werewolf.
Grade: B-

Chozen (FX, Mondays at 10:30 PM)
In my opinion, FX is the best and smartest network on television.  President John Landgraf has a deep understanding of how TV works, and under his reign the network has fostered some of the best shows of the last few years (Louie, Justified, The Americans).  Even their shows that I don't like very much, such as American Horror Story, often do very interesting things.  So despite its sketchy premise -- a gay, white rapper tries to get his career back together after serving some time in jail -- and awful promos, I wanted to give Chozen the benefit of the doubt.  After all, John Landgraf is an intelligent guy, and he wouldn't pick up a show that was actually as bad as this looked.  The executive producers are a murderers row of hilarious people: Jody Hill, David Gordon Green, Adam Reed, Danny McBride.  "There's no way that this show won't be at least a little bit funny," I kept telling myself.  But no, Chozen is just as painful as it looks and sounds.  It mostly avoids being offensive about any of its gay jokes, but that doesn't stop the show from being annoying and grating, particularly when it comes to the titular character (voiced by Bobby Moynihan).  The jokes just aren't very funny, always choosing to go for the most vulgar and over-the-top punchline it can find.  Even the animation is crude, taking Archer's clean, thick-lined style and somehow twisting it into something garish.  Simply put, there's very little to like about this show based on its first episode.  I don't even know if it's worth checking out a second episode to see if it improves.
Grade: D+

True Detective (HBO, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
There's something very exciting about the idea of True Detective.  Like American Horror Story, it's going to feature a new story and setting every season.  But True Detective dives deeper into the concept of anthology television, promising to use completely different actors, as opposed Ryan Murphy's repertory company style.  Creator Nick Pizzolatto even said that the central mystery in upcoming seasons doesn't always have to be based around a murder, which is such a relief in our serial killer-obsessed world.  All of that, plus the prospect of seeing Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson bounce off of each other for 8 episodes, made this one of the most hotly anticipated shows of 2014.  Luckily, the show mostly delivers on that excitement, and the first hour is a wonderfully deliberate, moody affair.  This season is set in Louisiana, and Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga (who will be directing every episode, along with Pizzolatto writing each one) gives it a haunting, derelict look.  If there's one complaint, it's that it's hard for any kind of emotion to rise above the show's thick, swampy surface.  But even the cold, subdued nature of the pilot begins to sink in as it goes along.  This first episode is very much a long setup to the case that will take up the rest of the season, but the final scene is a declarative statement that promises we're in for a fascinating journey.
Grade: B+

The Carrie Diaries - "Hungry Like the Wolf" Review

Season 2, Episode 11

It's hard to have good voiceover narration in a television show.  Make your narration too direct and it becomes unnecessary, basically describing what the audience already knows (see: the later seasons of Dexter).  But if you go the other way and make the narration too subtextual, describing what should be implicit to the audience, you'll get accused of being "on the nose."  Avoiding the "on the nose" complaint is one of the most difficult things to do, because it seems like everything gets accused of it now.  (I've often wondered whether critics hate voiceover narration and heavy-handed symbolism because it does their job for them.  If a show spells out the point it's trying to make, there's basically no room for the critic to say anything.)

There are obvious reasons for why voiceover narration exists in The Carrie Diaries.  After all, it's in the name -- the narration serves as entries in Carrie's diary.  Sex and the City, the show's predecessor, made Carrie's writing-as-voiceover a staple of the universe, so it's almost mandatory for The Carrie Diaries to continue that trend.  But just because I can understand why there's narration in the show, that doesn't mean I want there to be any.  At its best, the narration is something that's just there, existing without calling too much attention to itself.  But most of the time, the only purpose it serves is to make labored connections between the show's frequently scattered plotlines.  (To be fair, at least young Carrie hasn't learned the joy of puns yet.)  At its very worst though, the narration commits the mistake of making text out of subtext and stumbling into that dreaded "on the nose" zone.  If there's one big flaw in "Hungry Like the Wolf," it's that the episode not only stumbles into that zone, it plants itself there and grows roots.

You see, this week's episode was all about instincts, and how all of these characters are going to need to rely on them if they're going to survive in this dog-eat-dog world.  How did I know this?  Well, that's because people say the word "instinct" and throw out various iterations of the term "dog-eat-dog world" numerous times throughout the episode.  We open on Carrie in the city as she watches people gathering around a hawk eating a pigeon on the ground, which serves as a jumping off point for the hour's examination of the harsh realities of the predicaments the characters find themselves in.  It's Spring Break, and Carrie has just gotten her acceptance letter from NYU, ensuring that she'll soon be spending all of her time in New York instead of splitting it between the city and Connecticut.  Sometimes prequels still try to draw tension from questions that the viewers already know the answer to, so it's nice that the show treats Carrie getting into NYU as a foregone conclusion.

What's less pleasant to see, however, is the episode's handling of everything that happens in her storyline afterward.  At Interview, things are getting hectic, with assignments coming in and Bennet nowhere to be found.  He claims that he's still getting over learning that his ex-boyfriend is dying of AIDS, so Carrie decides to write his article that's due for him, but gets upset when she feels like he takes too much credit when Larissa praises him for it.  It's all a blatant way to show that if Carrie is going to make it full-time in New York she'll to have to learn some -- you guessed it! -- killer instincts of her own, to respond to the hawks in the world who will always be ready to swoop in and take advantage of her.  So she does just that, taking Bennet's interview with 17-year old ballet sensation, Amelia Strong, after learning that he was faking being sick.

While Carrie's learning to follow her instinct, Maggie struggles to fight off her natural inclinations after hitting it off with Pete the army guy last week.  She enlists in the help of Maggie and Donna -- continuing their slow transformation into the greatest power trio that Castlebury has ever seen -- to make sure she doesn't take things too far too soon with Pete.  Much like Carrie, Maggie has to learn to adapt to the cruel and opportunist world around her, but in her case that means not making rash decisions and allowing men to break her heart.

Despite being united by a singular theme, "Hungry Like the Wolf" feels like it's all over the place.  The Carrie Diaries has never been a plot-heavy show, but things were still a little too loose for there only being two more episodes left in the season after this.  With the finale quickly approaching, there's no reason for us to be spending our time with another useless Tom plot, where he has to deal with an unorthodox lawyer, all in service of having another angle to tackle the episode's inelegant metaphor about shrewdness.  Both Tom and Carrie learn that lesson via the help of others, as it turns out Carrie's interview with Amelia Strong was just meant for Carrie to have more subtext spouted at her.  Meanwhile, Maggie learns that she may not need the prodding of others, realizing that she should trust her own instincts every once in a while.  Perhaps the show can take a lesson from its characters and just act, instead of explaining and talking about the act so much.

Random Asides:

-Antonio's Self-Loathing Corner: I wasn't looking forward to writing this review, because I'm generally not very good at writing negative reviews.  But I think this turned out terrible for completely different reasons!  I'm sure not getting any better at this, huh?

-This week in AnnaSophia Robb being delightful: Did you catch that scene where she's in Sebastian's apartment and she's just sitting on his bed, peeling an orange?  Weird and delightful.

-Mouse Sweater Watch: Clearly Mouse is rooting for the 49ers to win this weekend, because she wore a beige sweater in the beginning of the episode, and a sweater with red and beige stripes near the end.

-That was Julia Goldani Telles (aka Sasha from Bunheads, my number 1 show of 2013) as Amelia Strong.  I flirted with the idea of making the entire review about her, which would have been more material than the show gave her.  Though she was frustratingly under-utilized, it's amusing that they made her sassy and a ballerina, just like Sasha.  But if you're going to do that, then give her a random dance scene!  If you haven't seen her mesmerizing work on Bunheads, here you go.  Have this, too.

-In other "Hey, it's that person!" news: Penny, the woman Tom has a meeting with, was played by Cara Buono.  She was Dr. Faye Miller in season 4 of Mad Men.  I like to believe that she only appears in period pieces set in New York.

-Seriously, rewatch this episode and count how many times somebody talks about "instinct" or it being a "dog-eat-dog" world.  It's crazy.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 1 of TV's Midseason Pilots

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

Chicago PD (NBC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
The pilot of Chicago PD starts out nauseatingly hard-boiled and over-the-top, as we see some gravelly-voiced crook intimidate another man in a car.  I've never watched Chicago Fire, of which this show is a spinoff, or else I would've known that said gravelly-voiced is actually a dirty cop(!)  Despite the disadvantage that comes from not having any frame of reference for some of the characters on this show, Chicago PD doesn't exactly do itself any favors either.  It assaults you with its grit and grime, as if it's attempting to be the Low Winter Sun of network television.  There's nothing inherently wrong with the excessive violence on display in this pilot, but going to that well this soon is indicative of a show that doesn't have much else to lean on.  Basically, it falls into the same problem that many other network cop dramas do: retreading ground that better, cable cop dramas covered, but scrubbing them clean of any real moral complexity.  (In Chicago PD's hands, everything is morally light gray.)  Somewhere in an alternate dimension, there exists a version of this where Jason Beghe's character isn't the lead, and it's a much better show.  Everything without him has much more life to it, even if the material is just as hoary as the ersatz Vic Mackey that he represents.  While there's an effective shock or two near the end of the episode, it's immediately negated by the lame thud that the episode ends on.  It was enough to talk myself down on the overall grade.
Grade: C-

Enlisted (Fox, Fridays at 9:30 PM)
One of the biggest problems facing Enlisted, Kevin Biegel's new comedy about three military brothers, is finding a way to make war and the military funny.  The opening scene, which is set on the battle lines of Afghanistan, fails at this, but luckily things get less dicey once the episode moves to the main setting of the Fort McGee military base.  Much like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox's other successful pilot of this television season, the unique setting of Enlisted -- in terms of recent television, I can only recall the latest season Childrens Hospital being set on a military base -- gives it a certain edge over the competition.  What results is a fusion of what Biegel learned on his two previous projects: the workplace antics of Scrubs and the hangout nature of Cougar Town.  It's a very silly pilot, but very agreeable, thanks to the solid brotherly chemistry of Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, and Parker Young.  Most of the time, comedy pilots have alot of room for improvement, but this feels well-structured and fully-formed in the same way that Brooklyn Nine-Nine did.  That's not to say that it won't ever get better, but it also doesn't feel like there are any significant pieces missing.  I look forward to watching this sweet, delightful little comedy for as long as we get to have it.
Grade: B+

Helix (Syfy, Fridays at 10:00 PM)
Since the end of Battlestar Galactica, Ronald Moore hasn't had much luck as a creator and executive producer.  Despite being one of my favorite pilots of the last 5 years, Fox decided not to pick up Virtuality, and later projects like 17th Precinct and The Wild Wild West never made it out of development hell.  Enter Helix, Syfy's new outbreak drama, which was created by Cameron Porsandeh, but features heavy input from Moore.  Whether or not Moore's unlucky streak has finally ended remains to be seen, because I wasn't very impressed with the two-part premiere.  The nature of this virus, which makes those infected spew pitch black blood, is suitably intriguing, but there's very little flair to the pilot, and it all feels a little too workmanlike for me.  For being a show about contamination, everything about it is so antiseptic.  I appreciate the show's faith in its viewers by choosing to have no audience surrogate characters, but having a team full of self-serious scientific experts distances the viewer from the story.  So far, Helix just features flat drama and even flatter characters, but there are enough tense and suspenseful moments that I'll stick with it for a while.
Grade: C+

Intelligence (CBS, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Many of the great actors from Lost have been wasted since that show ended, but none more than Josh Holloway, who seems primed and ready to be a leading man.  (Even Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol dispenses him after a killer opening setpiece.)  Finally he's gotten his own show, but I fear that Intelligence is below his talent level.  It opens up with a good-for-TV action sequence, which is a good way to kick things off, but much of the episode struggles to maintain that energy.  The show faces the same problems that many CBS shows have -- stiff and bland dialogue.  Characters in this pilot tend to just speak at one another about a character's credentials.  At one point somebody even utters the line, "He's a hero!"  On the plus side, the central concept of the show seems extremely lame at first, but the pilot finds many cool ways to use it.  Unfortunately, the mission for the episode -- there's a second chip! -- is employed far too soon to have any stakes.  It's an over-explanatory episode of television, yet I still feel like I don't know anything about these characters, particularly Holloway.  Intelligence bears alot of similarity to the early stages of Person of Interest -- great action, bad everything else -- so who knows, maybe it can become a great show.  I'm just not going to stick around to find out.
Grade: C

Killer Women (ABC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
I've learned by now not to trust network promos, but the commercials for Killer Women were so terrible that it seemed like there was no way that it could be any good.  The show isn't Justified or anything, but it's actually a fun, network alternative to FX's entertaining modern western.  Part of the success of Killer Women's pilot is its slickness -- you're thrown right into the story and it moves quickly from start to finish.  Trisha Helfer was solid on Battlestar Galactica, but here she proves that she's talented enough to carry her own show, displaying steely toughness and great dramatic chops.  Of all the shows this TV season that skew procedural, this is one of the most entertaining.  It's the one that makes me feel the least weary about seeing cases similar to the one in the pilot every week.  While not mandatory watching, Killer Women is a good choice if you want fun, light pulp; full of western music, car chases, and big explosions.
Grade: B

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Carrie Diaries - "Date Expectations" Review

Season 2, Episode 10

When we look back on our lives, we often think about them in terms of large checkpoints, so it's only natural for period piece shows to feel like a cycle through the holidays, especially when you've only got 13 episodes per season.  So just two episodes after giving us a Christmas episode, it's Valentine's Day in the world of The Carrie Diaries.  More so than love being in the air, there's a whiff of the future in it too, and the concerns about what's coming next throws almost everyone into a minor tailspin.

Having now moved into Larissa's old apartment, Sebastian is officially back on the East coast, and he and Carrie have plans to spend Valentine's Day in the city.  Then out of nowhere, he tells Carrie that he has to cancel their plans, due to this job he has working on skateboard gear with some up-and-comer named Tony Hawk.  Expecting their first Valentine's Day together as a couple to be a big event, Carrie is naturally upset about this development, especially after declining to spend the night hanging out with Larissa, Walt, and Bennet because she didn't want to cancel with Sebastian.  This plotline was problematic for a few reasons.  First of all, it seems like introducing a conflict between Carrie and Sebastian after he just moved back to New York is a bit arbitrary.  It's as if the writers were afraid to keep their relationship safe for any amount of time, so they just decided to play into the theory that Larissa had last week about how long distance relationships become even worse when one party decides to move to the other.  Second, the whole Tony Hawk story is the worst kind of winking hindsight that the show mostly manages to avoid.  I wanted to bang my forehead against a wall every time Carrie said something like "skateboarding is a fad!" or "This Tony Eagle guy will never amount to anything!"  Nevertheless, it tied into the episode's theme, as Sebastian's work engagement causes Carrie to question the long-term viability of their relationship.

With Sebastian off doing kickflips with Tony Hawk, Carrie heads into the city with Larissa, Walt, and Bennet.  The party they attend is the kind of wacky New York fantasy that this show does well, full of leather-clad gay men and Samantha riding naked on a horse like Lady Godiva.  The setting is all to serve as a backdrop for the story of Walt and Bennet, who after seeming to finally fall into a comfortable rhythm with their relationship, quickly fall out of that rhythm.  This first comes with Walt's trepidation that the party might be "too gay" for him, before being hilariously reminded by Bennet that nothing is too gay for a man who's already had sex with another man.  But the real earth-shattering moment comes when Bennet runs into an old friend on the dancefloor, who informs Bennet that his ex-boyfriend contracted AIDS.  Going into the show, AIDS was one of the big boxes that people expected the show to check, and this was a smart way to touch upon it without biting off more they can chew by giving Walt HIV.

Upon hearing the news, Walt freaks out because he's suddenly flooded with all of the hardships being homosexual opens him up to, even though Bennet is undoubtedly the one who should be more distraught.  Since we were introduced to Walt, he has mostly worried about the here and now of his sexuality, and the moment where he thinks about not being able to have kids or a future is one of the more poignant moments of this storyline.  He's so distraught that he storms off into the streets of New York, leaving his friends behind.  One of those friends is Carrie, who also is shaken by the news and concerned for Walt.  The episode smartly dovetails the Walt storyline with Carrie and Sebastian's, as the latter two's fight completely dissolves once Sebastian walks into his apartment to see Carrie crying on the floor, worried about her best friend.  In the end, both Bennet and Walt get tested and the results come back negative, but it's a moment that changes the perspective of all of these characters and the way they think about their lives.

The future is the most direct concern for Maggie, who after taking a seat on the bench last week in "Under Pressure," returns with the news that she got accepted into a community college.  But the military is also visiting the school on this day, and she finds herself attracted to the idea of having college completely paid off for her.  It's fitting that Maggie, ever the impulsive one, would be intrigued by the way the Army representative courts her, pinpointing all of her insecurities and hesitations about her future.  But because Maggie has never made a decision that she didn't later regret, she finds her mind changing shortly after signing up for the military.  Her and Mouse decide to enlist the help of Donna to drive them to the military base to try to steal Maggie's sign-up form back, since Donna's the only person they know who has her own car.  In my review last week, I noted that the pairing of Mouse and Donna was one of the highlights of the episode, and bringing Maggie into the fold added even more spark to that dynamic.  I've always thought that Donna is like the Cordelia Chase of The Carrie Diaries, and her slow and reluctant integration into the group makes the parallels even more clear.

So Maggie, Mouse, and Donna hit the road and fool the guard at the military base into letting them in pretty easily.  (Side note: let's hope real military bases in the 80s weren't that lackadaisical about security.  Those could've been the daughters of Khruschev!)  Once inside, the girls are quickly caught trying to confiscate official military files.  Though Donna attempts to use her feminine wiles -- and when that doesn't work, a sob story -- her attempts are powerless to the stoic glance of hunky Army guy.  It may seem like this plotline is inconsequential in the way that Maggie is informed that she could've just written a letter telling the Army that she changed her mind, but it's silly in a fun way, and the interactions between Mouse, Maggie, and Donna save it from being mindless filler.

Valentine's Day episodes tend to get swept up in widescreen romanticism, but "Date Expectations" understands that the messiness of life doesn't take a break just because we want it to.  Everybody in this episode gets a relatively happy ending, but ones that are muted by the inauspicious beginnings and difficult middles that come beforehand.  Even Maggie's adventure, albeit fluffy, is not without its complications.  It may be the beginning of the year, but the events in this episode cause everyone to look forward and take stock of the road ahead.

Random Asides:

-Antonio's Self-Loathing Corner: This review might even be worse than my last one.  "Too much plot summary, not enough analysis!," I can hear the angry crowds shouting.

-I didn't mention the Dorrit plot in my main review because I thought it was the weakest of the bunch.  I generally find Dorrit more likable this season than she was in the first, but they need to give her some meatier storylines.  Or just throw her in a story with Donna.  Donna cures everything!

-This episode was directed by Amy Heckerling, whom you may know from directing 1995's Clueless (which is very good) and 2007's I Could Never Be Your Woman (which is...not very good), among other things.  Her episodes tend to feature big New York parties.

-This week in AnnaSophia Robb being delightful: AnnaSophia Robb has a very measured way of speaking, and this episode got alot of mileage out of her pronouncing funny words like "coccyx," "McTwist," and "cockamamie."

-Mouse Sweater Watch: That navy blue sweater that she wore for most of the episode had alot going on.  Stripes AND polka dots?  The 80s were a different time...

-Along with the painful Tony Hawk stuff, this episode was loaded with pop culture references: Walt talks about seeing Hannah and Her Sisters, Carrie calls Annie Hall "a love letter to the city" (despite the fact that Manhattan is Woody Allen's true love letter to the city.  Come on, Carrie!), Donna tosses out a Private Benjamin reference, and somebody mentions Scarface.  This show is set in the 80s, in case you forgot!

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Carrie Diaries - "Under Pressure" Review

Season 2, Episode 9

This Friday, The Carrie Diaries returned from a two-week break -- both in the show's universe and in real life -- full of fresh starts and continuing dramas.  On the new beginnings front, it's the start of the spring semester, and Carrie is actually in school!  As far as continuing storylines go, Sebastian is still in California after his father made him move there with him in the midseason finale.  The main drive for this week's story, however, is Tom (more famously known as Dadshaw) going away for the weekend on a secret case, leaving Carrie and Dorrit alone to capitalize on their freedom in their own ways.

After some chiding from Larissa about the inevitable decline of all long-distance relationships, Carrie sees this unsupervised weekend as a way to keep the flame alight in her relationship with Sebastian.  So naturally, Sebastian flies to the other side of America to see her, because that's what all teenagers do.  Obviously, there's no way that Sebastian's move to California was going to be a permanent thing, since Austin Butler is a series regular, but it would've been nice to see them try to keep him on the sidelines for at least an episode or two.  Having him back in Castlebury (and the later revelation that he's moving back permanently) seemed a little too quick.

Carrie and Dorrit's plotlines converge as Dorrit takes the less smart route, choosing to take advantage of a weekend without Dadshaw by throwing a huge party, thus interrupting Carrie's canoodling with Sebastian.  All of this is in an effort to impress some new guy who looks exactly like the old guy she was dating.  (Dorrit, if nothing else, is at least consistent.)  This plot is an example of the usual "Dorrit being foolish and rebellious" thing, but this season they've managed to soften her a bit -- and have her appear less -- so it ultimately works.  Plus, it's a very fun and smart way to get all of the characters together.  Most notable on that front is the pairing of Mouse and Donna, who engage in a little bit of competitive beer pong.  Donna has consistently been the show's most entertaining character since early into the first season, and Mouse makes the most of her storylines being marooned in Castlebury while everybody else is having fun in Manhattan, so the two of them together is probably the greatest decision the show's writers could make.  The pure, simple fun doesn't last when the party quickly gets out of hand, as unsupervised parties on TV are wont to do, and the Bradshaw sisters have to work together to save themselves from getting caught by their neighbor who's been put in charge of keeping an eye on them.

Over in Manhattan, Tom encounters problems of his own, discovering that the super confidential case that he was put in charge of is just negotiating a prenuptial agreement between Larissa and Harlan.  Like the A-plot, this is another example of the writers trying to bring the show's many characters together, but it's much less successful than the party in Castlebury.  In having so many side characters, it's often difficult for a show like this to give all of them something to do, and the writers can sometimes flail around trying to find that something.  That's what this whole Harlan and Larissa relationship seems like, and it's been goofy and insubstantial from the start.  Things do take somewhat of an interesting turn here, when Larissa reveals that she doesn't want to move in with Harlan, out of fear that she might lose some of herself by being so tied down to him.  It's a development that ties into both this series' and Sex and the City's efforts to redefine female independence, and also colors her earlier relationship advice to Carrie.  The storyline isn't fully redeemed by that, but it's the most shading that Larissa has gotten in a long time.

The New York and Connecticut stories are not only united by the characters feeling under pressure (as Carrie so conveniently narrates for us), but also by the Bradshaws trying to figure out bloodless solutions to difficult problems.  In the end, Tom concocts a way for Larissa and Harlan to be happy -- Harlan will buy her the apartment right next to his, so she can still have her own space -- and it's pretty ridiculous.  Meanwhile, Carrie and Dorrit manage to avert their neighbor crisis when she comes over to bust them, but accidentally eats a pot brownie.  When Sebastian pretends the cops are coming to break up the party, the gang is able to clean things up before Tom arrives, and the neighbor is too embarrassed about getting high to rat on Carrie and Dorrit.  Problem solved!  "Under Pressure" is a bit unbalanced, but it's ultimately a solid episode, and a nice way for this fun, underrated show to enter 2014.

Random Asides:

-Welcome to my first attempt at episodic reviews!  I don't ever do them because I hate plot (and hate describing it even more), and an important part of a TV review is describing the events that unfolded.  As a result, this review is pretty terrible, and my decision to start reviewing The Carrie Diaries 9 episodes into this season is strange, but I'm doing it anyway.  Hope you enjoy!

-This week in AnnaSophia Robb being delightful: This will be a recurring segment where I point out one way in which AnnaSophia Robb, the most delightful screen presence on television, exhibits her delightfulness.  Did you see the way Carrie flicked Dorrit on the arm in that scene where their dad was telling them that he'd be gone for the weekend?  Absolutely delightful!

-Mouse Sweater Watch: In case you haven't noticed, Mouse always wears amazing sweaters.  This is where I'll talk about them.  Mouse's sweater game was a little weak in this episode, since she only wore a simple beige one.  But that tiny little mouse broach that she put on it brought it up a level.

-This episode featured alot of party cliches -- a random person breaking something valuable, keg problems, etc.  I think it worked because the show is set in the 80s, so it's almost like watching those 80s movies where the tropes first gained prominence.

-Harlan is played by Scott Cohen, better known as Max Medina from Gilmore Girls.  So I've just got to get this line out of my system: "Hey, it's me, Max.  Medina.  Maaaax Medina."  Okay, carry on.