Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 2 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

Blindspot (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Here's the beginning of the plot description for this show on Hulu: "A vast international plot explodes when a beautiful Jane Doe is discovered naked in Times Square, completely covered in mysterious, intricate tattoos with no memory of who she is or how she got there."  It's a hooky premise that promises a "CRAZY" mystery, but really, who cares?  This is such a convoluted setup that there's no way it's leading anywhere satisfying, so why even be invested in the plot machinations?  Unfortunately, none of the characters provide any reason for you to be invested either.  "Beautiful Jane Doe" is an apt description, given where the show's interests seem to lie, with the pilot often feeling like everyone is trying to find any reason to show off as much of Jaimie Alexander's skin as possible.  I like Alexander, but she's playing a woman who literally has no identity.  It's hard for her to stand out.  People are pegging Blindspot as a Blacklist clone, but at least that pilot had some verve and a great setpiece in the middle.  It took at least three episodes for it to become as tedious as Blindspot already is.
Grade: C

Life in Pieces (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
One of the things that I liked the most about the pilot of CBS' Life in Pieces is also the thing that makes me worried about its future.  The series is centered around one extended family and each episode will chronicle their lives in four short stories.  In the first episode, there's a zaniness to the show that I appreciate in this era where even the good family sitcoms feel a little soft, and part of that can be attributed to this short story gimmick.  That wacky energy wouldn't be sustainable with the common A-B-C plot structure, but these short, snappy, somewhat self-contained segments cut off before a line is crossed.  As a result, I laughed at this much more than I do at most pilots.  Sure, there's some overly broad stuff (all of the material about the state of Zoe Lister-Jones' vagina post-baby delivery), but there's always a chuckle or two to be found in even the most shtick-y moments.  But can this show really do this short story structure every episode? Will it start to feel tiresome soon?  What the pilot gave us makes me interested enough to find out.
Grade: B+

Limitless (CBS, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
Limitless shares a few superficial similarities to Minority Report, another pilot that premiered this week.  They're both based on films, and they both start off by fast-forwarding through the premise of the film to catch up viewers who haven't seen the source material, refresh those who have, and completely bore both parties.  Like Minority Report, Limitless is pretty bland.  The difference between the two is that Limitless is bland in a less interesting way.  This is pretty much a CBS procedural with a little bit of salt and pepper; the premise is just a doorway to the network's usual style.  On one hand, there's some fun to be derived from Brian's (Jake McDorman) discovery of the new skills he has after taking a drug that allows him to use his mind to its fullest potential.  On the other, much of that fun is completely sucked out by the excessive narration from Brian.  Limitless reaches the point of too much narration at about 10 minutes in and then it just keeps going.
Grade: C

Minority Report (Fox, Mondays at 9:00 PM)
You would think that Fox would have given up on sci-fi by now, given its failure with the genre in recent years.  But here they are again with another offering in Minority Report, which feels less like the Steven Spielberg film upon which it's based and more like the network's last blandly competent "It's the future!" show, Almost Human.  Except this is a little more bland and a little less competent.  Kudos to creator Max Borenstein, I guess, for wanting to set the show apart from the film, but it's hard to know why this was named Minority Report at all.  Sure there's still the element of Precrime, the idea that crime can be predicted by precogs before it even happens, but the pilot doesn't do much exploration of the nature and justice of Precrime.  Who knows what this series is really interested in so far.
Grade: C+

The Muppets (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
To be honest, I don't really get The Muppets.  It's likely a generational thing, given that most people who do have affection for them were born were born in the 70s and 80s, and my biggest exposure to the characters was watching episodes of Muppet Babies on Nick Jr. when I took sick days in elementary school.  Given my stance, I wasn't poised to love or hate this as much as the diehards were.  Consequently, I thought this pilot was merely okay.  Kermit and Miss Piggy's breakup has been dominating the press cycle surrounding the show, and it forms the backbone of the premiere, but I can't really generate the energy to care about it.  It turns out that when you apply common storytelling setups and tropes to Muppets instead of humans,'s still boring.  However, I generally like some of the more adult shadings they've given these characters, which has seemed ruffle a few feathers among critics.  Overall, I don't think I'll be tuning in past this pilot, but it did make me chuckle a few times.
Grade: B-

The Player (NBC, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
The premise of The Player is so ridiculously stupid and complicated that I'm not even sure I can describe it well.  It involves a Person of Interest-esque mysterious system that can predict crime in a style akin to Vegas odds, or something?  Philip Winchester stars as a man recruited to be a "player" in this game of odds, but not before being put through the Standard Protagonist Motivation spin cycle that leaves him with a dead ex-wife in the first few minutes of the episode.  At times, the pilot feels like it's directed by a teenage boy with ADD.  It's all fast cuts and zoom-ins on cars whipping around the road and kicking up smoke.  So far, The Player is a very wacky experience, but everyone involved seems to be acutely aware of how silly it all is.  It turns out knowing is more than half the battle, because the end result is pretty fun.  With the creator, actors, and audience all on the same page, it's easier to strap in and enjoy the ride.  There are times where the pilot gets to be a little exhausting, but it makes up for that with some truly great, kinetic setpieces.  We don't see many breezy actioners of this vein on TV -- probably due to budgetary restrictions -- so I hope The Player is able to keep up the pace.
Grade: B

Rosewood (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:00 PM)
This fall has been pretty dreadful so far.  Not only has there been a lack of great shows to premiere, but there also hasn't been anything that's entertainingly awful.  Rosewood, Fox's new show about a man (Morris Chestnut) who runs a private pathology business in Miami, Florida, is the worst kind of bad pilot.  There isn't much to outright hate in it, but there's absolutely nothing to enjoy about it either.  This is white noise television.  It's derivative -- a little bit of CSI: Miami here, a large chunk of Bones there -- and it's filled with lame banter between Chestnut and the female detective (Jaina Lee Ortiz) he pairs up with and will eventually fall for.  The show is so flavorless that it has to play dramatic music while Chestnut is doing the most boring examination possible.  Of course, they attempt to drum up some long-term drama amidst the case-of-the-week easy viewing, but the way they choose to do it -- by giving Chestnut a congenital heart disease that may kill day -- doesn't have much stakes.  Nothing in Rosewood does.
Grade: D+

Scream Queens (Fox, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Only on a Ryan Murphy show can terrible and brilliant rest so comfortably beside each other.  There are so many moments in Scream Queens, his new show with Glee co-creators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, that are stupid and annoying.  But then there will be a clever, self-aware scene or a character will say a hilarious line and you'll be back on the show's side again.  After a while, you just accept that you have to sit through some "white mammy" stuff to get to "I got my first boner watching Faces of Death."  Scream Queens is a fascinating animal.  It's hyperactive and grating in the way that all Ryan Murphy shows are.  It's full of characters who are supposed to be awful in an ironic way, but wind up being just awful.  It takes big swings, and sometimes you wonder why, because the pitch it's working with is nowhere near the strike zone.  And yet...I had so much fun watching it.  This is how most people describe American Horror Story, which I can't stand, but something on this show clicks for me.  There's no way Murphy and company can sustain this -- the entertainment levels already started flagging in the second half of the unnecessary two-hour pilot -- but let's enjoy this Glee on cocaine for as long as we can.
Grade: B

Sunday, September 20, 2015

2015 Emmy Award predictions

The 67th Primetime Emmy awards air tonight at 8:00 PM EST, so I figured I'd offer some predictions for how the night will go down.  The Emmys seem a little harder to predict than the Oscars, so I could end up with only a 50% success rate, but that also makes watching the show a little more fun.  As always, there will be some frustrating picks from the voters, but more and more it seems like their choices are falling in line with the critical consensus.  Let's hope that means Modern Family's reign of terror will finally come to an end...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 1 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

The Bastard Executioner (FX, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
They say the definition of insanity is choosing to watch another Kurt Sutter show after sitting through the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy.  So I guess I'm a lunatic, because here I am, reviewing the two-hour pilot of The Bastard Executioner.  Set in 14th century Wales, his new series follows Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a knight in King Edward I's army who gives up on war and fighting, until unfortunate circumstances cause him to impersonate an executioner and take up the sword again.  Of course, you wouldn't really know much of this for a while, since the premise of the show doesn't truly kick in until the end of the second hour.  For a majority of the pilot, I couldn't tell you what this show was about.  I could tell you the setting and the characters, but necessarily what it's "about."  Usually, pilots try to get that point across as quickly as possible.  Not so with Kurt Sutter!  Sometimes not playing by the rules can create some surprising, thrilling television.  Often, though, it can create messy and disastrous storytelling.  Executioner feels much more like the latter so far.

Aside from the length of the pilot, Sutter's characteristic indulgence manifests itself in other ways, namely in the violence department.  This is a series where a small child gets his throat cut and a pregnant woman gets stabbed in the stomach and dies in the first episode.  That's the baseline Sutter sets.  When you start with that level of shock and horror, where can you even go from there?  The worst part is that it's empty shock.  Who are these people, really?  Why should we care?  Extreme violence can work if it's stylized, but the violence on display in this pilot feels hollow and gratuitous.

With the plot scenario Sutter sets up, he's positioned The Bastard Executioner to be one of those shows where the protagonist constantly gets painted into a corner, only to somehow get out by the skin of his teeth.  Obviously, we've seen good examples of that with Breaking Bad and even The Shield, on which Kurt Sutter served as a writer for many seasons.  But we've also seen him do it more recently with Sons of Anarchy, whose plot machinations became tiresome and contrived.  So am I ready to see him do it again?  Not really.  Yet something tells me I'm going to keep tuning in anyway...
Grade: C

Moonbeam City (Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10:30 PM)
Moonbeam City, Comedy Central's new animated comedy from creator Scott Gairdner, probably would not have even been on my radar if its art style didn't catch my eye in a promo that aired during a Key & Peele commercial break.  It looks like Archer meets Patrick Nagel, an 80s pastiche with a rich neon color palette and silky smooth animation, and it's such a beauty to look at.  The actual comedy, on the other hand, could use some work.  This pilot feels a little derivative -- its similarities to Archer don't end with character design, it also resembles that series in its premise and storytelling beats.  Dazzle Novak (voiced by Rob Lowe) is basically Sterling Archer if he quit spycraft to become a cop, and you can see alot of the latter in the former's lasciviousness and ability to get results while not really caring about the damage he unleashes in the process.  But Moonbeam City feels like Archer if Archer was 65% less tight and 40% less clever.  The pacing of the pilot feels so airy, it all moves along with very little momentum.  The jokes themselves aren't great -- it's full of obvious punchlines, half-funny mumbled asides, and tiny bits of forced absurdity -- but the speed with which they're delivered is truly ruinous.  Still, with its terrific voice cast (which also includes the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Will Forte, and Kate Mara) and that magnificent artwork, it's easy to give this more of a chance.  Here's to hoping the show finds itself.
Grade: C+

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The low-key greatness of Married's second season

At the most recent TCA press tour, FX president John Landgraf lamented that critics didn't give Married, the shaggy dramedy that debuted on the network last year, enough of a shot before writing it off.  After he made that statement, I saw many live-tweeting TV critics scoff at that notion, but I think he may have been on to something.  When the show began, I gave the pilot a cautiously optimistic review, and I felt much more positively about it than I did about its time block companion, You're the Worst.  Over the course of those two shows' first seasons, I had a reversal of opinion -- You're the Worst became one of my favorite comedies of the year, while Married stumbled around, only sort of finding itself in the finale.  Fast forward to this year and the latter has become one of my favorites of this summer, not necessarily a completely different beast from its previous season, just a better and more refined one.

Many critics' problem with Married last year was that it just wasn't funny enough.  That's true -- the show wasn't very funny in its first season.  But the issue wasn't that it was unfunny, it's that it was a little unpleasant.  Mainly, this was a blight that plagued the central relationship between Russ and Lina, despite the best efforts from the talented Nat Faxon and Judy Greer.  It seemed like the show's mission statement was to live up to its namesake, to show married life as it is truly lived.  Russ and Lina are a couple that have been in love for so long that they almost hate each other, but I think in trying to portray that, season one forgot to show the "in love" part.  It was hard to see any reason why they would still be together, which didn't make them very interesting to watch.

If there's one key difference in season two, it's that Married has found a way to perfectly modulate the unpleasantness that threatened to capsize the show in the first season.  This year, every character is allowed to show more shades to their personality outside of being glum and discontent.  Russ and Lina are still weary from the years of being parents and partners -- sometimes more than ever -- but they also have more moments where they clearly enjoy being around each other and their children.  Just a simple change like that and the show feels so much more vibrant and layered.  It still isn't likely to cause your gut to split open from laughter, but in place of comedy is a deep melancholic streak that feels raw and compelling.  Some moments -- the story with Lina's mother's dementia in "Thanksgiving," Russ and Jess' declining friendship throughout the season, the bitter conflict between Ella and Lina in "Mother's Day" -- don't even seem to be trying to make you laugh and they're all the better for it.

The greatest embodiment of the show's melancholy nature is Lina, who may be one of the most unique and fascinating characters on television.  She's gloomy in a way that you don't often see in unhappy characters, who either suffer from an unrelenting dramatic depression or are comical sadsacks.  Lina is just kind of tired and disappointed in a very real and relatable way.  But that doesn't mean she can't express joy or make jokes either, which she does a few times per episode, much more than in the first season.  In having all of these shades and contrasts, Lina is one of the richest portraits of depression I've ever seen on TV.  Not enough credit can be given to Judy Greer, who plays all of the facets of Lina's character beautifully.  Greer is so brilliant in everything she does, yet she still feels underrated.  Anyone who complained about her bit roles in all of this summer's biggest blockbusters is missing out if they're not watching this showcase of her talents.

Not everybody gets to be as well-served as Greer though.  One of the biggest flaws that continues to hold Married back is that the supporting characters have never really clicked in the way the show wants them to.  Part of that is because they've had to shift the roster around so much, with Jess leaving due to Jenny Slate getting her own show picked up, leaving the writers to give John Hodgman's Bernie a larger role and introduce new characters played by Sarah Burns and Kumiko Glenn.  But it's also because characters like Bernie or A.J. (Brett Gelman) don't always fit the tone the show is striving for with the Russ and Lina stories.  Because of that, it rarely ever has episodes where all of the plots work in equal measure.

Still, the last two weeks have been an improvement in regards to the show's balancing issues.  "Mother's Day" was the best episode of the season so far, partially because it was the first time this year that every plotline completely worked, and the writers found a way to integrate A.J. and Shep (Paul Reiser) so that they felt like a vital part of the proceedings.  This past week's superb "Guardians" did the same thing for Jess.  Due to Slate's limited availability, Jess' arc has been pretty wonky, rushing her story and then awkwardly trying to justify her absence from the middle section of the season.  But "Guardians" leaned into her hiatus and the inevitability of her character being written off of the show, and used it to their advantage, spinning it into a story about her growing apart from Russ and everybody else who previously tolerated her.  Jess is a frustrating and selfish person, but her pain from feeling alienated and unwanted was devastating, and Slate (who proved her dramatic talents in last year's excellent Obvious Child) gave a performance that made it sting even more.

Married is never going to blow anyone away; it's far too low-key for that.  But TV doesn't always need to blow you away.  What Married often achieves, a subtle satisfaction, is impressive in its own right.  Give this another shot if you checked out at some point in season one.  It's one of the most underrated shows airing right now.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Depression Cherry" reveals subtle new shades in Beach House's sonic palette

Music enthusiasts get bored very easily.  Concoct a sound that excites and engages people the first time around, and you just might find yourself getting bored and disappointed reactions if you try the same thing a few years later.  It's a miracle, then, that Beach House has been able to a critical darling for so long, given their firm stance on not changing their sound.  They entered the world in 2006 with a specific musical sensibility on their debut album, and on the three albums they released afterward -- each two years after the previous one -- they expanded their sonic range incrementally with every new offering.  Tiny as they may have been, those additions were just enough to keep them on the right side of the critical tide, and though there has been some grumbling in recent years about their signature sound, most listeners haven't tired of it.

More so than ever before, people are going to tell you that their latest album Depression Cherry is the point where Beach House has finally become stale, that they haven't changed things up enough this time around.  This review is here to tell you that those people are wrong.  It's an understandable viewpoint, however -- the band's trajectory has been marked by a slow swelling of their sound, but Depression Cherry pares things back from the widescreen dream pop of the veritable Bloom.  Though they may have scaled down, the album doesn't feel like a step backward.  A new, eerie sci-fi tinge runs through songs like "Beyond Love," which centers around a crystalline guitar line that could puncture granite.  It's clear that the duo is cognizant of these influences in "Space Song," a track whose floaty weightlessness sounds like the score to walking on the surface of the moon for the first time.

And how could anybody accuse an album that contains "Sparks" of not being exciting enough?  There's a reason why it was chosen as the first single; it feels as if it's charging out of your speakers from the first note.  My Bloody Valentine has always been a band that Beach House has made wide circles around, but they've never targeted them in the way that "Sparks," with its squealing guitar line and smeared synths, does.  It's a dazzling, interesting new direction for them to take.

As ever, lead singer Victoria Legrand's voice is the force that pulls you into these songs.  After all these years, her vocals still have that ineffable ability to lull you into a trance.  She's less likely to let out a full-mouthed howl than she was on previous albums; this time around her voice has a soft, pillowy effect, resting deep within the Yamaha wash.  Legrand's showcase is without a doubt album-centerpiece "PPP," a towering beauty of a track where she alternates between bewitching spoken word verses and a haunting sway in the chorus.  She has a way of drilling her melodies into your head, until that soft coo is rattling around in the deepest recesses of your brain.  In contrast, the actual words she sings have a slightly impenetrable quality to them.  But that doesn't make them off-putting, it just adds to the aura and mystique of these songs about the inscrutable nature of love and desire.

The songs on Depression Cherry are a little more subtle than Beach House has been in their last few offerings.  Again, it's not hard to see why many are confusing it as a letdown, but the true pleasures of this record hide in the pockets and corners of songs.  Tracks build quietly, melodies and hooks sneak around just below the surface, only becoming crystal clear after a dozen listens.  You may have to walk a longer way to reach the rewards of this album, but once you get there, it will welcome you with open arms.