Saturday, April 26, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Bad Teacher and Black Box

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.

Bad Teacher (CBS, Thursdays at 9:30 PM)
Bad Teacher doesn't feel like a CBS sitcom.  That's not a knock against the network -- after all, How I Met Your Mother had some great years and I liked the Mom pilot -- it's just that this show is much more in line with creator Hilary Winston's previous work on Community and Happy Endings.  It has the fast-paced, joke-based style of those two shows as it quickly introduces us to the story, which the handful of people who saw the film of the same name a few years ago already know.  Here, Ari Graynor plays the Cameron Diaz role, while character actors like Ryan Hansen and David Alan Grier fill out a few of the supporting roles.  Graynor is an actor who's always seemed deserving of more than the roles that she's given and she finally gets to display her comedic talents here.  Her dynamic with the students at the school she decides to teach at in order to pick up divorced dads is fun, and it's easy to see a show built around this premise.  Like all pilots, this one feels very setup heavy and the broadness of its jokes suggest that there are still some kinks to be worked out in the foundation of the show.  As of now, Bad Teacher finds itself at the same fork in the road that all comedy pilots with potential start at.  It could go the way of Trophy Wife and continue coasting at its current level, but it could steadily improve just as easily and become one of the best network sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Grade: B-

Black Box (ABC, Thursday at 10:00 PM)
ABC's Black Box is my favorite kind of bad show.  It's not Hostages, Resurrection, or Betrayal; shows whose badness manifested in the most boring ways possible, making sitting through an entire hour a difficult prospect.  No, Black Box is Crisis and Zero Hour bad.  It's bad with such a verve and a zest that it's almost good.  But make no mistake, Black Box is not a good show at all.  One strike it's got against it is that it's another one of those "occupational irony" shows, centering around Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly), a brilliant neuroscientist who happens to suffer from bipolar disorder.  The show is like a combination of Enlightened and Homeland, and at its core there's something very moving about this portrait of a mentally ill woman in the midst of a severe breakdown.  Unfortunately, the show goes two steps too far.  The rhythm is supposed to reflect Catherine's mental state, but its spastic nature reaches comic levels and eventually grates.  The special effects used to depict her hallucinations are bad, the dialogue is uniformly terrible amongst the ill and neurotypical alike; there's just not much going for it.  However, the last 10 minutes are where the episode really spirals out of control, as Catherine goes off her medication and deep into a destructive breakdown, causing the show to amp up all of its haphazard stylistic elements.  Then it drops an awful (and predictable) twist in the middle of it.  Then it's even got one more terrible thing after that.  On top of all of that, it tries to shoehorn a procedural medical drama in there too.  Black Box's problem is that it's just as frenzied as the mind of its protagonist.
Grade: D-

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Faking It

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 10:30 PM on MTV

At one point in the pilot, Karma (Katie Stevens) describes her best friend Amy (Rita Volk) as "the Fey to her Poehler."  It may not be an accurate statement in terms of how funny the two leads in MTV's Faking It are, but it's pretty indicative of the level of friendship between the two of them.  If there's one thing that the show gets right, it's the main relationship at the center.  Karma and Amy are very believable as two unpopular best friends who get roped into pretending to be lesbians in order to gain more attention, but that's not the only thing the show has.  For one, it also stars Bailey Buntain of Bunheads (the best show of 2013) fame as Amy's high strung stepsister, Lauren.  Additionally, on paper, the idea of this high school being so hyper-accepting that two girls coming out as lesbians would make them the most popular people in school is delightfully bizarre.

Yet for every good quality of Faking It, there's something that drags it down.  As much as Buntain tries to bring some of her fantastic nervous energy into this show, it's not enough to help the fact that her character is a mean girl cliche.  And not only is the premise of the show trite teen comedy fodder, many of the other details are pretty hoary too.  Just because there's a spin put on the story doesn't mean we don't get bogged down in love triangles, petty squabbles, and conflicts based on simple misunderstandings.  Faking It seems like the kind of show that wants to have its cake and eat it too.  There's this heightened world that it's set in -- one that is neither sharp nor silly enough -- but it also wants to sell the emotional moments that it plays straight.  It also has that MTV mark of trying to hard to be edgy, substituting explicit language for actual wit, and delivering a mishmash of jokes.  In that way, it's makes a perfect pairing with the neutered 4th season of Awkward.

Grade: C+

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Episode of the Week: Parenthood - "The Pontiac"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 5, Episode 22

After two seasons of relatively consistent greatness, Parenthood had a year full of ups and downs in season five.  Dealing with a 22 episode order for the first time since season two, Jason Katims and his crew of writers faced problems coming up with worthwhile, sustainable arcs for some of the characters, which resulted in often wobbly pacing and questionable story detours.  For the most part, it was a year that began to stray away from the show's small charms, getting swallowed up by the size of Kristina's mayoral campaign, or her and Adam's effort to start their own charter school.  The show never delivered any outright bad episodes -- in fact, it continued to be one of the most pleasant watching experiences on television -- but things certainly felt a bit off.

This week's finale, "The Pontiac," is so good that it simultaneously magnifies and makes up for the problems that plagued the majority of season five.  It puts into perspective how overly plotty this year has been by consciously being the opposite of that.  In having every character's life be so full of incident, season five forgot what truly makes Parenthood one of the best shows on television: the heart-to-heart conversations.  When I wrote about the show last year, I noted how it frequently wrung powerful and lovely moments out of something as simple as two characters having a brief moment of understanding, and this finale had a surplus of those moments.  Usually, when a show disregards the plot of the rest of the season in the finale, it's considered bad writing, but "The Pontiac" succeeds because it comes up with self-contained stories that approach this year's through lines in a diagonal manner.

The first (and most important) example of this is the return of Haddie Braverman after being away for 25 episodes.  When the previews for the finale showed that she'd be coming home from Cornell for the summer with a girlfriend in tow, it seemed like another example of the show reaching for something big to give a character for no reason, but the storyline turned out to merely be a vehicle for some high quality heart-to-heart conversations.  The moment where Haddie tentatively comes out to Kristina, who's fully supportive of her sexuality, is a wonderful bit of acting from both Sarah Ramos and Monica Potter.  Even better is the scene of quiet realization from Adam, where a few words Lauren says to him suddenly causes him to understand that Haddie was trying to allude to the fact that she was gay in an earlier scene.  Because Haddie's long absence has become somewhat of an internet meme, it's easy to forget that she's one of the best characters on the show, but her return fills the void that caused Kristina, Adam, and Max to become a monstrous triptych this season.  (And how do they underline the fact that she's the stabilizing force of the family?  By having her make a sandwich.  No seriously, she did it in a scene when she came back in the middle of season 4 and she does it again in "The Pontiac."  It's a weird but delightful bit of symbolism.)

Victor's essay being deemed the best in the 4th grade is another example of the slightly self-contained nature of the finale, standing on its own while also serving as a way to take baby steps towards Joel and Julia rekindling their marriage.  Their arc was reflective of season five as a whole, as its ups and downs carried over the course of 22 episodes.  When the idea of one of them having an affair was hinted at, it felt like an unnecessary wrench to throw in these characters' lives.  But as the season started laying the groundwork; setting up a structure made up of miscommunication, frustration, and individual dissatisfaction with their places in life; it became one of the show's most potent storylines.  Eventually, the length of this season began to get the better of their plot, dragging their separation out by hitting the same beats week after week and causing their lack of communication to reach frustrating levels.  However, things turned around once again with their gentle reconciliation starting in "I'm Still Here" and continuing in "The Pontiac," when they realize all they've built together after watching Victor read his essay in front of a large audience.  Their storyline ends with Joel telling Sydney the story of her birth while he and Julia are trying to put her to bed, and it's a beautiful middle ground to leave them on.

The one storyline of the season that reaches a direct, concrete conclusion is Zeek and Camille's, as they finally move out of a house that has chronicled generations of Braverman history.  For as much as this season has had frustrating storylines, some credit must be given to the writers for frequently zigging when viewers were expecting them to zag.  People dreaded the Kristina election arc because they thought the show was going to make her win, but then she didn't.  Likewise, much of Zeek and Camille's hand-wringing over whether they should sell house felt like a stalling tactic before they ultimately decided to keep it or give it to Adam and Kristina for their charter school.  Yet neither of those things happened.  It's a refreshing turn of events not only for its unpredictability, but also because it gave us an excuse to see everyone come together and get nostalgic, most notably Adam and Crosby, who quickly revert back to childish rough-housing while packing.

In many ways, this episode reminded me of season three's penultimate episode, "Remember Me, I'm the One Who Loves You," which is one of Parenthood's very best hours.  It's an episode that takes a storyline that didn't always work -- Julia and Joel's attempt to have another child using a surrogate mother -- and wraps it up beautifully.  Everything climaxes in the final moments, an 8-minute sequence set to Death Cab For Cutie's "Transatlanticism" that's deftly handled and devastating.  When Crosby and Jasmine kiss in the pouring rain after deciding to get back together, it's a moment that shouldn't work, but because it's riding the high of everything else in the sequence, it ends up sweeping you away.  Similarly, "The Pontiac" is full of storylines that shouldn't be as successful as they are.  Do I want Sarah and Hank to get together?  Am I invested in the fate of Amber and Ryan?  If Drew and Natalie were to pull a Haddie-esque disappearance, would I be upset?  The answer to all of those questions is "no."  But the rest of the episode is so moving that everything gets caught in the swirl, and by the time the montage set to Richie Haven's cover of "The Times They Are A-changin" kicks in at the end, I was willing to accept anything Parenthood wanted to throw at me.

This episode could be seen as a series finale -- after all, it's a Jason Katims show and he writes all of his season finales with the fear that he'll never write an episode again.  Unlike the show's other season closers, however, it works as a series finale not because it wraps up every storyline in a bow, but because it's representative of what the show is capable of at the peak of its powers.  It's fairly unconcerned about the future, forgetting about Adam and Kristina's school, or whether Hank and Sarah will work out, or Joel and Julia's official relationship status for the time being.  Instead, "The Pontiac" asks us and the characters alike to enjoy the beauty of being in the present.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Fargo

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 10:00 PM on FX

On the list of movies that don't really need a remake, Fargo would be very close to the top.  The 1996 Coen brothers classic crime tragicomedy is such a singular vision, so specific in its regional examination and so complicated in its morality, that it seems like something that could go dangerously wrong in hands belonging to anyone other than those two auteurs.  That reasoning is exactly why the FX show of the same name felt like such a bad idea from the very beginning.  The fact that the network came up with the concept and only consulted the Coens later was worrisome enough, but most of all, this adaptation just felt downright unnecessary.

It turns out that we should never underestimate America's smartest, most interesting network.  The original Fargo had an idiosyncratic world that we only got to see a corner of, and FX did the right thing by putting us back in it without necessarily giving us a remake.  Fargo the TV show is less a retelling of the movie's story as it is a repurposing, riffing on the same themes but at a different angle.  The show centers on Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, trying his best to transform his British accent into a Minnesotan one and not always succeeding), a beleaguered insurance salesman.  Lester can't seem to catch a break from anyone around him: his wife nags and harasses him, he gets beat up by his old high school bully early into the 90-minute pilot, and not even children show him much respect.  Showrunner Noah Hawley's script and Freeman's performance make you feel deep sympathy for Lester in the early going -- you can't help but want to just lend him a hand.

That sympathy is then used brilliantly later, when the episode really starts to come together, as everything turns on a moment of shocking violence committed by Lester.  Anybody familiar with the film knows that the plot also involves the main character having a part in an unforgivable violent act, but the show does such a good job of making Lester so milquetoast that even up to the moment, you think "but he won't really do it, right"?  It's a scene that tips the viewer off to what the show is really about, denouncing the idea of violent fantasy as a result of impotent rage, while implicating us along the way.  All you want is for Lester to do something for most of the episode, but then it's horrifying when you get your wish.  And yet the show treats it like an action that's simultaneously wrong and inevitable, which makes it all the more tragic and complicated.

Yet the show is not just about the misadventures of Lester Nygaard.  At its heart, Fargo is an ensemble drama, and the pilot spends much of its time introducing the show's colorful array of characters.  The bizarre Midwestern quaintness of many of them provide laughs, but they're not just cartoons.  In a short amount of time, they feel like people with rich, full lives; particularly Deputy Molly Solverson (newcomer Allison Tolman).  If there's one reason to consider the show worthwhile, it's for introducing the world to Tolman, who's such a warm and lively presence.  She could be written off as a retread of Frances McDormand's character in the movie, but this world needs a Marge Gunderson type to keep things from tipping over into complete darkness, and in that way Tolman is perfect.

But even the more recognizable actors breathe life into their roles.  Bob Odenkirk, Kate Walsh, and Colin Hanks all make an immediate impression; and we've still got people like Glenn Howerton, Oliver Platt, and Adam Goldberg coming along the way.  Then there's Billy Bob Thornton, who plays Lorne Molvo, a mysterious drifter who sets this bloody chain of events in motion.  Fargo's greatest quality is its ability to make a case for there being a show centered around any one of these characters, and its strongest case lies within Molvo, who is endlessly fascinating.  His mixture of nihilism, dark wit, and general oddness is like the show's style in a nutshell, and Thornton plays the part perfectly.

That this first episode was successful should come as no surprise on paper.  After all, it's got a loaded cast, an interesting sandbox to play in, and it airs on the network with the highest batting average over the last few years.  But there are so many ways that things like these go wrong that it's still completely unexpected for it to be this great.  In just 90 minutes, Fargo went from something I greeted with a cocked eyebrow to a show I welcome with open arms.  According to advanced reviews, the next few episodes improve upon the first one.  It's hard to wrap my head around the idea that anything could get better than the pilot, which excellently blends comedy with drama and delivers a wonderfully cinematic experience the whole way through.  Regardless, I'm ready for the ride.

Grade: A

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Raid 2 solidifies Gareth Evans' status as the next king of action

After winning over audiences and critics alike with The Raid: Redemption in 2012, Gareth Evans could've just done the same thing over and over and many would've been satisfied.  After all, the no frills story and brutal, kinetic action was so unlike the rest of the current action movie landscape that it seemed like he had carved out his own niche to explore.  But in between The Raid and its sequel, Evans proved just how versatile he could be by directing "Safe Haven," a 20 minute short in the horror anthology V/H/S 2.  It was there where he showed that he could translate the insanity of his action movies to horror, and his bugnuts short was easily the best entry in a very scattered series.

In The Raid 2: Berandal, Evans has done a similar thing, trading in the streamlined beat-em'-up style of the first movie for a sprawling crime epic.  While there may be a two-year gap between the two films, this sequel picks up two hours after the events of the first film.  The apartment block that he just fought his way out of was apparently only the tip of the iceberg, as Rama (Iko Uwais) learns of the deep roots of corruption within his police force.  He's forced to go undercover and infiltrate the complicated web of the Jakarta crime syndicate, in order to weed out the dirty cops who want the heads of himself and his family.  The film slogs through a mesh of exposition just to set up this story, and the resulting first 30 minutes are pretty slow and unfocused.  All of The Raid 2's scope gives it an ambition that the first one didn't have, but it also threatens to rob the sequel of what made its predecessor so special.  Evans gets far too bogged down in this fairly standard family crime story, chronicling the uneasy truce between the Indonesian and Japanese mobs that Rama finds himself caught in the middle of, and there are long stretches of the first half where its just a bunch of cliched politicking and no action.

But when that action does kick in, the film takes on a giddy energy that's much needed.  In the years between The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, Evans has improved exponentially as an action director, because the fight scenes exhibit so much more style and visceral thrills than in the first one.  There's a level of poetry to the bone-crunching, blood-spewing fights, which are presented at clear angles and distances from the combatants.  Unlike many modern American action movies, The Raid 2's fight scenes aren't shredded to pieces -- most of the shots last more than just a second or two and they're cut together in a logical manner.  It's a perfect mixture of classical and chaotic action: visceral enough to give the audience the feeling of being in it, but fluid enough to allow for a clear sense of geography at all times.

Not only does The Raid 2 provide better action, but it contains different action too.  Where the first film was handcuffed by its single setting, this installment takes full advantage of the open world it's set in.  Fights occur in mud pits, on trains, between cars -- the amount of inventive scenarios is nearly endless.  And though the 148 minute length may be a bit unwieldy, the spacing of the action does wonders for managing fatigue.  By the time the two-on-one fight arrived at the end of the first Raid, the audience had been through so much nonstop fighting that the impressive climax lost a bit of its power.  Here, Evans builds things more effectively, so that by time the bonkers thirds act rolls around, the audience is begging for it.

While the gore may be disgusting, the movie is actually one of the most gorgeous action films of the last few years.  An increase in budget and experience has allowed Evans to make the visuals as impressive as the choreography.  The film is full of vivid, crisp colors, which just make the action feel even more dynamic.  Coupled with the way the camera moves and contorts to follow the fisticuffs, the movie feels like a full-body sensory experience.  The Raid 2 is the work of a director who has honed all of the pre-existing tools in his toolbox and added a few along the way.  And unlike Rama, he's only just getting started.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Silicon Valley

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.

Sundays at 10:00 PM on HBO

Mike Judge knows a thing or two about workplace satire, having written and directed the 1999 cult classic, Office Space.  Silicon Valley is like a spiritual successor to that film, providing a more modern spin on the ins and outs of the tech world.  It follows a group of programmers who are living together and making ends meet at small-scale software companies, until one of them (Thomas Middleditch) stumbles upon an app with a compression algorithm that will revolutionize the industry.  Here, the comedy is just as dry as it was in Office Space, but the satire has a little more bite to it.  The pilot gets alot of mileage out of tech speak mumbo jumbo and the ridiculous nature of the faux-hip startup culture in the Silicon Valley area.  The entire cast is solid, from Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh to T.J. Miller as the quasi-leader of the pack.  If there's one knock against the pilot, it's that it's a little slow, and I can see the show lacking drive because of the way it coasts.  But I can also see it really falling into a solid rhythm, one that takes a few episodes to get into before it truly clicks and makes sense.  In the hands of Judge, I'd bet on the latter.

Grade: B-

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is Hannibal vs. The Americans the new Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men?

During the years that they were both on the air in the same calendar year, Breaking Bad and Mad Men were the two shows that battled it out for the unofficial title of Best Show on Television.  For the most part, there was very little question about the two shows' superior quality.  Both had a hand in ushering in the era during which AMC was seen as the new powerhouse network, an era that seems to have ended just as quickly as it came.  But even though many TV fanatics could agree that these were the two best shows on television, they were split on which one was actually the best show on television.  One's preference served to define them in some way: were you the kind of person who had a stronger response to Mad Men's sleek literary style or Breaking Bad's pulpy morality tale?

Now that Breaking Bad is over and Mad Men is entering its final season in a week, there's a void that's been left at the core of the television landscape.  Justified is near the end of a weak season, True Detective's quality doesn't quite match its pedigree and praise, and Enlightened was cancelled just as it was making a case for its place atop the TV Parthenon.  The two shows that appear to be the common response to the "what's the best show currently on television?" question are Hannibal and The Americans.  It's a pairing that doesn't seem to be as battle-ready as Mad Men and Breaking Bad were.  Those two had the benefit of being on the same network, centered around anti-heroes, and indebted to different aspects of The Sopranos.

At first glance, The Americans couldn't be more different from Hannibal.  One is a network drama while the other one is on cable.  One is about a serial killer, the other is about a pair of Russian spies in the 1980s.  But the coupling of the two brings out some interesting parallels.  Both were a part of the wave of great new television shows in 2013 -- a wave that included other potential contenders for the Best on TV title like The Returned, Rectify, and Orange is the New Black -- and while I admired them during their first seasons (The Americans ended up at #20 on my best of 2013 list, Hannibal at #12), I could never cross into the territory of fully loving them like many others did.  The Americans and Hannibal each had a cool vibe -- the latter in its clinical process, the former with its tight control and restraint -- that held me at a distance.  Yet in both shows, I saw something that implied those first seasons were only setup for when we got to the true fireworks factory in their second seasons.

Breaking Bad and Mad Men both had assured debut years, only to blow those respective seasons out of the water with their sophomore efforts.  If the parallels were to hold, it would only be fitting for Hannibal and The Americans to do the same.  And for the past 6 weeks, they've done just that, completely surpassing any kind of expectations that I had at the start of the year.  I predicted that The Americans would have a gigantic leap in quality in 2014 in my write-up for the show at the end of 2013, but if I'm being honest with myself, that was more of a wish than a guarantee.  It has had a leap though, mostly because the stakes feel so much higher this year.  Even in the first season, the show was always as much about a marriage as it was about spies (if not more so), and so far season 2 has stressed that point even more, after Philip and Elizabeth find the dead bodies of their two comrades and the couple's daughter when a mission goes wrong in the premiere.  The reminder of how much their duty is putting their family in danger is one that has hung heavily over these first six episodes, informing every decision they make, without it ever feeling heavy-handed.

Like Hannibal, The Americans is about the push and pull between its two main characters, and the marriage between Philip and Elizabeth is more layered and complex than ever.  Season 2 has delved deeper into the idea of roles and the way they factor into these people's lives.  It's about how their roles as spies and their roles as partners bleed into one another in ways both intentional and not.  This year, every character is crumbling under the weight of their own deception.  To match the complicated emotions running through the characters, the plot is even knottier this year.  You'll often have to watch each episode twice to get it, but you when you do get a grasp of it, you realize it's some crackerjack spy storytelling.  It's dizzying to see how many threads showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are tugging at, crossing and looping them around each other masterfully.  The lid is kept so tight on the show that when it finally comes off and the plot intersects with the relationship drama, it's thrilling, devastating stuff.

Meanwhile, Hannibal may not be as concerned with the concrete logic of its A to B plotting, but season 2 has had a similar ramp up in story.  This season opened on a scene showing Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter coming to blows at some point in the future, but instead of it feeling like a spoiler, it was just an indication of how the events would be proceeding this year.  The plot has moved way faster than you'd expect, with Hannibal's body count increasing and his sphere of influence increasing faster.  Season 1 ended with a reverse of what we've come to expect from this story: with Hannibal free and Will Graham behind bars.  You'd think that imprisoning the lead would handcuff the show, since so much of its hook last year was the complicated relationship between these two broken men.  But the battle between the two of them has only become more intense this year.  Being locked behind bars has caused Will to think of more cunning measures to prove his innocence, making desperate attempts to show that the guilt lies on Hannibal's head instead.

For Will, being trapped in his own head is far worse than being stuck in a cell, and the visual manifestations of his psychoses have only increased to reflect the darkness invading him.  If season 1 coasted along on its oblique dreamlike logic, then season 2 of Hannibal is pure nightmare theater.  The show's visuals are by far the most stunning on television, generating just as many chills from a simple framing choice as they do from an elaborate crime scene tableau.  This year, the sounds have stepped up to match the sights, with the score becoming more eerie and intrusive with each new episode.  Together, all of the show's technical elements serve to key the audience into the parts of the characters' inner psyche that they may not even be aware of.  Like the show's titular cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal is equally concerned with the artistry surrounding its story.

So if these two programs are the new titans that will be battling it out for televisual supremacy, then which one is the Mad Men and which one is the Breaking Bad?  There's not a one-to-one translation, really.  There's something to the sophistication and emotional temperature of The Americans that is strongly reminiscent of Mad Men, but its tightly constructed plot is very Breaking Bad.  Hannibal's got a more immediately hooky premise in the way that Breaking Bad did, but its favoring of atmosphere over plot recalls Mad Men.  In the end, The Americans is more like Mad Men and Breaking Bad is more like Hannibal, which makes the battle even more interesting, since I like Mad Men more than Breaking Bad but Hannibal more than The Americans right now.

Mad Men and Breaking Bad both had second seasons that are some of the best television seasons of last 10 years, and while neither The Americans nor Hannibal have quite reached that level halfway through, they're not far off from the trajectory.  Together, all four shows are an example of the anti-sophomore slump -- the "sophomore skyrocket," if you will.  The internet has a need to pit shows against each other for no real reason, so the latter two are just next up in the queue now that the former two are on their way out.  So is Hannibal vs. The Americans the new Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men?  Sure, why not?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier improves on its predecessor in every way

Because they're essentially telling one large story consisting of smaller interconnected adventures, every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to have a certain house style.  The goal is to have the viewer be able to classify any of them as recognizably Marvel, so they tend to employ a general visual palette, which favors splashy colors that are topped off with a glossy sheen.  They even follow similar tonal guidelines: save the world from some seemingly insurmountable force, while making quips along the way.  It's impressive then that each of the individual films manage to add a specific flavor while staying within that Marvel house style.  With so many films coming out in a short amount of time, it could get monotonous, but they manage to avoid that by having the Thor films draw from Shakespeare, Captain America: The First Avenger embrace its World War II pulp, and essentially making Iron Man 3 a Shane Black film that happens to be starring Tony Stark.

The milieu in which Captain America: The Winter Soldier is steeped is the 70s spy movie/conspiracy thriller.  You can see this from the opening scene, which picks up two years after the events of The Avengers and plants us in the middle of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) helming an infiltration mission at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D.  The scene focuses on the stealth nature of the objective, and the slickness with which it's executed is the exact opposite of what we've come to expect from Marvel movies.  Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (who made their name directing single-camera television comedies like Arrested Development and Community) infuse The Winter Soldier with so many trappings of the conspiracy thriller genre that it's the closest any movie has come to falling outside of the franchise brand.  It's a refreshing change of pace.  The film explores matters of truth, deception, and paranoia regarding authority as Rogers finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy plot that leaves him public enemy number one, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) forced to go on the run with him, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in critical condition.  On top of that, they've got a mysterious man who goes by The Winter Soldier hunting them down.

Along the way, the film quickly introduces senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and ex-soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to the proceedings, adding to the dizzying mix of moving parts in the first two acts.  The story moves along with laser-sight precision, not a single thread poking out as Rogers tries to figure out what's causing S.H.I.E.L.D. to implode.  Most importantly, there's a real danger to the incidents in The Winter Soldier.  Where Captain America and Black Widow might have seemed unimpressive when paired with their flashier compatriots in The Avengers, there are actual stakes in their confrontation with The Winter Soldier in the streets of Washington D.C. near the middle of the film.  There's nothing to match the dazzling tracking shot in The Avengers, but the action scenes here rise above the level of mere competency because of their immediacy.

When the scope begins to widen is when the film gets a bit less interesting.  Things start heading toward the requisite Marvel third act, which ultimately amounts to a big boss battle, and feels a little perfunctory because of it.  It manages to sneak some of the whiz-bang spycraft and intrigue that made the first two acts so engrossing in there, but for the most part, you can chart the course of the film's conclusion with a small margin of error.  Still, it's one of the most successful entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, using its thriller influences to deliver an experience that separates it from the pack enough to make a deep impression.  The Winter Soldier is at its best when it's embracing the new instead of retreating back to past successes, and it opens up an exciting new avenue for the series to explore in the future.