Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week of 6/21/2015

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

Ballers (HBO, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Ballers, one of HBO's new half-hour dramedies, drew many comparisons to Entourage from critics, and it's not hard to see where they're coming from.  The show follows Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a retired NFL athlete, as he attempts to mentor current players and cope with life outside of the limelight.  Though it doesn't inhabit the same world as the luxurious vision of Hollywood that Entourage presented, there's an aspect of lifestyle porn to the football scene in Miami, where these players can party and have sex with as many beautiful women as they want.  But the Entourage comparisons only run so deep.  Ballers has much more teeth, and it seems interested in exploring the seedier elements of the lifestyle of multi-million dollar earning sports stars.  The pilot alone deals with the struggle to maintain one's finances after retiring, getting cut from a team due to misconduct, and addiction.  These attempts at drama just make the scenes of the characters banging big-breasted women and spouting half-jokes even more incongruous.  Ballers is clearly better at being a drama than a comedy, and the sooner it realizes that, the better it will be.
Grade: C+

The Brink (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
Judging from the promos, HBO seemed to be aiming for a Dr. Strangelove vibe with The Brink, its new satire that focuses on a geopolitical crisis in Pakistan.  That's a good starting point, since Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest political satires of all time.  And it certainly boasts an impressive cast: Jack Black as a Foreign Service officer in Islamabad, Tim Robbins as the United States Secretary of State, Aasif Mandvi as a Pakistani employed by the U.S. Embassy, etc.  But The Brink clearly lacks the quality to match its cast or ambitious.  There is absolutely no bite to its satire, which makes the extra-long pilot drag for an utterly laughless 33 minutes.  This is a bland, boring show.
Grade: C-

Mr. Robot (USA, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
It's about time Rami Malek got some kind of starring vehicle.  For years now, he's been an "oh, that guy" actor, popping up in films like The Master and Short Term 12, and TV shows like The Pacific and 24.  He has such an eerie look and presence, but there's something to him that makes him impossible to turn away from.  Mr. Robot, USA's new psychological techno-thriller, uses Malek to his fullest potential.  He stars as Elliot Anderson, a man whose social anxiety disorder and chronic depression cause him to isolate himself from society.  By day, he works as a security technician at a big, soul-sucking corporation, but he spends his nights as a vigilante hacker, righting the tiny ills he sees on a daily basis.  Hacking is the way he feels connection to people, as the pilot shows him hacking into the social media profiles of his therapist (Gloria Reuben), his only friend (Portia Doubleday), and her boyfriend in order to gain a better understanding of them.  It's from those observations that he concludes the world is too preoccupied with banal and shallow matters that he doesn't care to engage in.

All of this makes Mr. Robot sound like an awful Reddit commenter got his own TV series, but there are two things that make the show more than that.  The first, of course, is Malek.  He plays Elliot with such a specific oddness that he becomes a compelling character.  Elliot's internal monologues -- of which there are many, though it's kind of the point -- are delivered in a cold, flat affect that makes it clear he's teetering on the line that separates sanity from madness.  The second thing that elevates the show is its chilly style.  As written by series creator Sam Esmail and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the pilot is full of gray tones and massive wide shots that sell the isolation and doldrums of Elliot's life.  Scenes are scored by pulsating, sterile electronic sounds as we hear him give one of his voiceover monologues or see him skulking through the night.  Soon enough, you'll get that same paranoid and on-edge feeling.  It's hard to know whether the show can sustain itself, especially when a disastrous version of it is waiting right around the corner, but this promising start is a pleasant surprise.
Grade: B

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Season 3 is a minor step down, but Orange is the New Black is still terrific

For some reason, it seems like Orange is the New Black is fated to fall apart.  Maybe it's because Jenji Kohan's previous series was Weeds, a show most of its fans would agree flew off the rails as it went on.  Maybe it's because there's no real precedent for a show like this, so it's travelling on uncharted terrain.  Maybe it's because all things in life inevitably decay.  Either way, it seems like the writing is on the wall for Netflix's hit prison dramedy, despite the fact that its fantastic second season was better than the first.

That's why I'm thankful that the step down the show took this year isn't a worrisome one.  There's no doubt about it: season three of Orange is the New Black is not as good as the previous two.  In a way, it feels like a conscious effort to not be season two, which was much darker due to the focus on Vee's tyrannical reign.  There's a lighter tone this time around, as Kohan and the writing crew push the series back towards the comedy end of the spectrum.  As a result, it faces the problem that many shows that try to turn up the brightness run into, in that it's hard for the drama to feel a little less substantial and a little more fluffy.  Not only did Vee's presence make the show darker, but it gave the previous season a central post to revolve its entire story around.  Without a force like that, season three occasionally feels rudderless, with no real macro plot to hold everything together.  The closest thing it has to one -- MMR's takeover of Litchfield -- doesn't even directly involve any of the characters we care about.

Yet even in its lowest moments, the show always reminds you of just how special it is.  Sometimes you have to just take a step back and marvel at how many rich, layered characters it has, almost all of them women.  And they exist in a setting that isn't just a place, but a thriving ecosystem that feels like there's life in cracks and corners we aren't even privy to.  (In my review of the previous season, I compared Orange is the New Black to Deadwood.  That comparison applies tenfold this time around.)  The world keeps stretching further and further outward -- the connections between characters have been built, and now the writers are having fun letting them play out.

Such a massive show is bound to have entire subplots that don't work in each season.  This one seemed to have a few more.  Chiefly, it feels like the writers have completely lost the thread on Piper, despite Taylor Schilling continuing to give one of TV's best, most committed performances.  The romantic complications of Piper and Alex are still as much of a snore as ever, and the choice to turn Piper into something of a villain with the only occasionally amusing panty selling plot felt like a logical, but uninteresting endpoint.  Elsewhere, the Norma cult gave birth to some fantastic offshoot plotlines, but was a little messy in and of itself.  Other storylines just felt like all setup, like the machinations to get Blair Brown's celebrity chef character to Litchfield in time for season four.

But there is so much good material to drown out the few bum notes.  The show is always at its best when it's about systems failing people, and there are many examples of that in season three, the most compelling being Soso's arc, where better mental health care could've prevented her from reaching the point of trying to take her own life.  (This season turned Soso into one of the most vital characters on the show.  Soso!)  But Orange is also about people failing each other.  One of my other favorite storylines of the season is the conflict between Sophia and Mendoza, where pride and anger keep them from reaching an understanding between one another.  As we view more and more of these people's lives -- it seems like a series of escalating dares to see how minor of a character the writers can flesh out or give a flashback to -- this dramedy set in a minimum security prison becomes a rich tapestry of human experience.

The thing connecting these people this year is the theme of motherhood.  Even if Kohan hadn't made that explicit in pre-season interviews, it would have been obvious anyway, given the way season three continues to hammer the point home.  Almost every flashback contains a strained mother-daughter relationship in some way, Daya's pregnancy takes up a large amount of space in the prison storylines, Piper has an out-of-nowhere line where she gasps and says "I'm just like my mother" in episode two -- the list goes on.  For a while, it seemed like the show doesn't really have anything to say other than "mothers!," but it starts to take shape towards the last string of episodes.  So much of season three is about the ways each character finds comfort -- through sex, liquor, erotic fiction, schemes to keep the mind busy, faith, etc.  Motherhood is one of those things, but many of these women were robbed of good mothers or are being robbed of the opportunity to be a good mother.

Such is the nature of Orange is the New Black.  It always finds a way to bring everything together, and it's only until everything has snapped into place that the impressive structure reveals itself.  Season three bleeds all of its mini-stories into one another, culminating in a characteristically dazzling final trio of episodes.  "Trust No Bitch," the season finale, manages to wrap up almost every plotline in one single scene at a lake where the inmates gather, when a maintenance crew leaves the prison fence wide open.  It should land like something out of a hokey, soon-to-be-forgotten Sundance film, yet it feels absolutely powerful.  Through season three may have had some bumps along the road, an ending like that proves that Orange is the New Black is still a vibrant, special piece of television.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

"Surf" is a fascinating sidestep from Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper was never going to make Acid Rap 2.  I would have been totally happy with that, since Acid Rap is one of my favorite rap albums of the decade so far, but he's too restless and creative to ever stay in the same place for long.  As he became a breakout star a couple of years ago, it was clear that he had the potential to become the next Kanye West, constantly pushing himself and the boundaries of rap music forward to create works of art that are both brilliant and unexpected.  But it was just as easy to see him becoming the next Andre 3000, remaining a virtuoso talent but seeming uninterested in using it in ways that people want him to.

Surf, the latest release involving Chance the Rapper, finds him more in Andre 3000 mode.  It's not even a Chance album -- it's actually from Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, with Chance serving as just another member of the band.  He sings more often than he raps on Surf, and some songs don't even feature him at all.  The fact that he followed up one of the biggest mixtapes of the last five years with an album where he's reduced to a mere bit player is a fascinating choice, one that may frustrate many fans who were salivating for more from him.  It's akin to Three Stacks only gracing the world with a few feature verses per year and receding back into whatever cave he spends the rest of his time in.

When Chance does live up to his name and decides to rap, it's consistently dazzling.  In the two years since Acid Rap dropped, he's changed his style a little bit.  Gone are the yelps and careening cadences; they've been replaced by a more relaxed, conversational delivery.  Though it may be less volatile, his flow is no less hypnotic.  He's the highlight of every song on which he spits, doling out knotty, hypnotic lines and stopping just as he seems to be hitting his stride.  It's always a little unsatisfying when a verse of his ends before it feels like it should, but you're too happy to have anything in the first place to be too bent out of shape about it.

In place of bars from the man himself is a guest list for the ages.  Chance used his status as rap's hottest prospect to round up all of his new friends, and the result feels like a "We Are the World" combining of powers, with everybody bringing their A-game to the project.  Busta Rhymes sounds more vital than he's sounded in years on "Slip Slide."  Big Sean actually raps on beat on "Wanna Be Cool," and what do you know -- he's actually pretty terrific.  Later, some dweeb named Kyle contributes a verse that would usually be cringeworthy but somehow is kind of charming.  Erykah Badu arrives on "Rememory" like a warm hug.  Other artists like Jeremih, Janelle Monae, and Raury rest deeper in the mix and add texture to the songs.

And it would be a crime to not mention Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, not only because they're ones whose names are on the album, but because their sound is a big reason why this album works so well.  Surf is full of lush, live instrumentation that provides a warm pillow for the rapping and singing to lay on top of.  The short instrumental interludes end up being the weakest parts of the album, but The Social Experiment's contributions on the longer songs are top notch.  "Slip Slide" sounds like an absolute party, while songs like "Windows" and "Just Wait" are murky, dreamy, and beautiful.  By the time the album ends on the gorgeous, full-bodied "Pass the Vibes," you'll wish that every rapper would collaborate with The Social Experiment.

Rap is a genre that doesn't lend itself well to happiness.  It's hard to make joyous rap music without it sounding corny or sappy, but Surf somehow pulls it off.  This is an album about the beauty of collaboration and how much of a miracle it is to be alive.  Basically, it's the most uncool thing on the planet, but it totally doesn't care, which makes it cool in and of itself.  Life is dark and rap can sometimes be even darker, so listening to this feels like the sun coming up over the horizon, letting you know that everything will be okay.  Surf may not be what the world wanted, but it may just be what we need.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: UnREAL

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.

Mondays at 10:00 PM on Lifetime

It's always fun to see a show come around and surprise everyone.  Such is the case with UnREAL, Lifetime's absolutely terrific new drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show.  The network is known more for its rinky-dink original movies than its television series, and the shows that it does have don't exactly generate much buzz outside of the mom circuit.  With that precedent, there was no reason to believe that this show would be any different.  Coupled with a premise that seems to have a very narrow appeal, and a trailer that doesn't really inspire interest, things didn't look so good for UnREAL.  Thankfully, those portentous signs didn't pan out, because this is one of the most enjoyable pilots of the last few television seasons.  It's the kind of show that makes me recall one of my favorite mantras: Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes.

I was reminded of another mantra I've been using while watching this pilot too.  That is, "Trust people who have made great TV before to make great TV again."  UnREAL is co-created by Marti Noxon, known primarily from her longtime work as a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She gets a good amount of guff from Buffy fans for being responsible for the divisive-but-actually-great sixth season of that show, but it's hard to deny that she played a big part in making one of the greatest shows of all time, the good and the bad of it all.  Her gifts shown in her previous work shine throughout this pilot, so of course "Return" is a pretty funny episode of television.  It really gets the look and feel of shows like The Bachelor, including all of the ridiculous elements that come with it.  You have to know a genre well to effectively skewer it, and Noxon (who co-wrote the episode with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) seems to understand reality shows on a deep level.

But UnREAL succeeds because it's more than just a satire.  Between the moments of poking fun at reality shows, it's a straight-faced behind-the-scenes show, and an extremely compelling one at that.  There's a buzzy, chaotic energy that all the best of these kinds of series have contained within "Return."  The production behind Everlasting, the show's Bachelor stand-in, feels like a fully realized and sketched out world straight from the beginning.  It's populated by colorful, ruthless characters who bounce off of each other with a verve uncommon to pilots.  This isn't picking up on a reality show that's beginning its first season, or showing a new crew who's not used to working with one another, it's just about people in the middle of doing their business as they always have.

Our only point of entry is Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) whose first day on set is chronicled throughout "Return."  But even that's not straightforward.  She's not the fresh-faced new kid that you'd usually see centering this type of show; this is her return as an producer on Everlasting after an apparent nervous breakdown forced her to take a leave of absence.  That history she has with the other characters gives the pilot extra texture and tension.  Rachel is a fascinating character -- there's so much at stake for her, and Appleby completely sells the toll it's taking on her.

UnREAL is a very interesting look at the way producers like Rachel shave the edges off the contestants to the point where their personalities start to take on a totally different, more archetypal shape.  It's almost like an art to these people.  The right amount of pushing and cajoling can produce great TV, but it's also a delicate balance.  Push too much and everything topples over.  There's a sequence in the middle of the episode where we see Rachel prep each of the contestants on the show for their one-on-one with the bachelor that's absolutely masterful.  In it, we learn so much about the show's true aims, about the gap between who these people are and how they're presented, about the stakes for Rachel (this job could, quite literally, drive her mad).  It's really heartbreaking when we see a real, beautiful moment of emotion from a contestant get warped into something juicy for the viewers at home.

At one point, the show's cutthroat executive producer, Quinn (played by the always fun Constance Zimmer), talks about how hard it is to make a show without a villain.  Luckily, UnREAL itself is chock full of them, and they all happen to be the people pulling the strings to make this reality show.  All around, this is a confident and terrific pilot from what I hope to be an exciting, morally complicated series.  I never thought I'd have a season pass for a Lifetime show, but UnREAL is very much the genuine article.

Grade: A-