Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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 8:00 on The CW

Who would have thought that Pushing Daisies would have so much influence?  Bryan Fuller's cancelled-too-soon gem seemed like an outlier when it was on the air, what with its quirky flights of fancy, flowery narration, vivid color palette, and cheery optimism with a dash of macabre.  But more than five years after the show concluded its run, we're starting to see its roots take hold.  You could find many of Daisies' signature qualities in last fall's breakout hit, Jane the Virgin, a zippy spin on telenovelas that features a "Latin Lover Narrator" and onscreen comments via typewriter print.  And you can see even more of its influence in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the new show that The CW is smartly pairing with Jane the Virgin.

Like Jane, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a title and premise that make passersby think that it's going to be terrible, but it actually turns out to be one of the most refreshing and effervescent shows on television.  The premise in question involves a woman named Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom, who also co-wrote the pilot) who uproots her hectic life as a lawyer in New York to follow Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), a guy she had a fling with 10 years ago at summer camp, back to his small hometown of West Covina, California after she randomly bumps into him on the street.  Bloom is absolutely magnetic, and she's a large part of why this pilot works so well.  She's got a springy energy that brings her character's neuroses to the forefront in a way that's both endearing and entertaining.

The whole episode itself has a pep to match its lead, moving along like its been pumped full of caffeine, jokes and songs flying at the audience a mile per minute.  But there's also a deep undercurrent of sadness that runs through Ex-Girlfriend, this idea that Rebecca has to just keep charging forward because any hint of slowing down would cause her to come to grips with the fact that she's depressed and completely obsessed with some guy that she barely dated when she was 16 years old.  Before leaving New York, Rebecca constantly sees an ad centered around the question "When was the last time you were truly happy?," and you get the sense that she's only fixating on Josh because she associates him with the last time in her life that she felt real joy.  That's some dark stuff for a musical comedy to be grappling with, but it completely works.

Marc Webb stepped behind the camera to direct the pilot, and more so than anything he's done in a while, this feels like the perfect use of his talents.  The episode really pops visually, its bright colors and elaborate detail complementing the zany energy of the writing and performances.  Webb made his bones directing music videos, so there's an authenticity and high-production value to musical interludes like the endlessly entertaining "Sexy Getting Ready Song."  Not to mention the fact that the big number in the first half of the episode resembles the iconic song-and-dance scene from his debut feature film, (500) Days of Summer.

This was originally a Showtime pilot that was apparently much raunchier (even containing some kind of blowjob scene), but you can't really tell that the pilot was toned down in any way.  Its chipper, sunny vibe feels like it was always meant for The CW.  You can tell there was editing for length more so than for content.  The original incarnation of the first episode was 30 minutes, but it had to be bumped up to fit the hour-long standards of The CW (though without commercials it stands at a slim 39 minutes and 55 seconds).  As a result, there are times where the structure of the episode doesn't seem as sound, especially in the second half when a few scenes start to feel like they're lasting a beat or two too long.  Yet it's not enough to knock the episode down any pegs.  This is by far the best pilot of the very weak fall season.

Grade: A-

Addendum: Because I'm a failure -- a busy and tired failure! -- this review is coming a week late, which gave me some time to watch the next episode as well.  Second episodes for shows like this are crucial, because these high-energy, tonally tenuous series tend to burn out very quickly.  I don't think this week's episode was as much of a mess as some critics seem to, but it certainly doesn't maintain the quality of pilot.  When a show has to churn out as many musical numbers as it seems like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is going to, some of them are bound to be clunkers.  And "I'm So Good at Yoga" was truly awful.  I also think the writers need to transition away from Rebecca's obsession with Josh being the show's only focus, especially since Josh is kind of dull.  Still, Bloom is so terrific and the show seems to be embracing its own dark weirdness, when it could have easily tried to become safer and more conventional.  It's going to be fun to see where this goes.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Casual

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.

New episodes premiere every Wednesday on Hulu

In case you haven't heard (or seen), we are in the age of "Peak TV."  There are so many new shows pouring out of every crack and corner that it can be overwhelming, but this expansion of the industry has allowed spaces to be carved out for shows that would have no place in the TV landscape five to ten years ago.  And that has never been more pronounced than in the influx of "indie movie TV shows," those low-key, natural, often hookless series that feel like a film festival entry stretched out to ten episodes.  In the past two years, we've seen Sundance types like Jill Soloway and the Duplass Brothers move over to television with Transparent and Togetherness, respectively.  Get ready to welcome a new member to the fold in Casual, Hulu's latest series, directed and produced by Jason Reitman.

Reitman may be a bigger name than Soloway and the Duplasses, but he brings the same small scale to Casual that they bring to their shows.  The series revolves around the lives of Valerie (Michaela Watkins), a recently divorced psychiatrist; her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), the co-founder of a popular dating website; and her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), who is sarcastic and into photography (because aren't they all?).  This is usually the first part of a premise, the setup for the thing that pulls everything together and gives the viewer an undeniable way into the show.  With Casual, this is the premise in its entirety.  Sure, there's the fact that they all live together and as a result are a little too close, but mostly this show is depicts them going about their normal lives, dating and floundering and getting into uncomfortable situations.

Television is still so dominated by high-concept, high-drama shows that series like Casual continue to feel like a welcome change of pace, but so far the show lacks any qualities that make it as essential as some of its peers.  It has neither gentle amiability of Togetherness nor the unique perspective of Transparent.  And yet the two episodes that Hulu released this past week have a shaggy, sleepy quality that's oddly compelling.  There are many aspects of these initial half-hours that grate, like the forced rawness of some of the dialogue, or the artsy teen cliches that construct Laura's character, but the chemistry between the leads goes a long way in smoothing out those bumps.  Critics who have seen the whole season seem a little more positive, so let's hope the show finds another gear.

Pilot: B
Second episode: B-

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 3 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

Blood & Oil (ABC, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
ABC's Blood & Oil, its new Dallas-meets-One-Tree-Hill series, is a soap opera without the soap.  Or maybe it's the opera that's missing.  I can't tell, but either way this pilot left a whole lot to be desired.  It tells the story of a young couple (Chace Crawford and Rebecca Rittenhouse, as beautiful as they are boring) who move to North Dakota after the biggest oil discovery in American history occurs in the area.  Not long after they arrive, they get caught up in get rich quick schemes, simmering family squabbles, and tumultuous local politics.  Unfortunately, this feels like the story of a two-hour movie that got stuffed into the one-hour pilot of an ongoing TV show.  Everything seems so rushed, and hey show feels like it's burning through plot as the main couple get rich and become broke about six different times in the episode.  But for all the things that are going on in the pilot, none of it is particularly interesting.  The one saving grace is the handsome direction by Jonas Pate, who delivers what is far and away the best looking pilot of the fall so far.  He gives this North Dakota town a very real texture, showing the open plains with a grand, cinematic scope.  Ultimately, Blood & Oil is like its two leads at the center: pretty, but also pretty boring.
Grade: C-

Code Black (CBS, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
There is so much good in this pilot that it makes me sad that there is also so much bad in it.  The show's namesake comes from a term used to denote when a hospital has too many patients and not enough resources to go around.  An average hospital in America is on code black about five times per year, the opening title card reads.  In the hospital where thus show takes place, it occurs 300 times per year.  So that's an over-the-top premise to set a series up with, and the pilot opens on a scene that's so grim and graphic that it's almost comical, but there's a beautiful workmanlike quality to Code Black.  In times of crisis, characters talk quickly and over each other, and the script doesn't seem to care if you pick up on the nuts and bolts of it all.  That's keeping in tune with the show's whole goal, which aims to present the hospital drama without an flash or adornment.  Most television hospitals are lit very brightly, but this pilot has a grungy, claustrophobic feel to it.

Though the setting and tone feel very unlike what we see on TV, this episode is bogged down by some horribly cliched dialogue.  Characters regularly spout generic lines like "I'm going to kill save his life" and "I'm not the doctor he wants, I'm the doctor he needs" and "You know what that sounds like to me?  A typical night in this hospital."  And though the medical situations the show presents are gripping at first, everything eventually starts to feel a little too claustrophobic.  More moments to breath would've been nice, but we don't get that.  Instead, it's a monotonous pounding of bleakness that becomes numbing pretty quickly.
Grade: C

Dr. Ken (ABC, Fridays at 8:30 PM)
Remember when Ken Jeong felt like a revelation?  He was once just that hilarious guy who popped up in movies like Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, did his thing, and exited before it became tiresome.  But Hollywood has never been an industry of restraint, so Jeong quickly became too much of a good thing, and his extended presence brought down The Hangover trilogy and even the frequently brilliant Community.  So what did the powers that be decide to do with a man whose talents are best suited for very small, supporting roles?  They gave him his own show, of course!  Much of Dr. Ken's lameness comes from Jeong's exhausting, hammy performance at the center.  He's already so broad that the theatricality of the multi-cam format causes him to overdo it, playing to the rafters of a venue down the street.  But the writing doesn't do him any favors either.  Usually, even bad pilots get an accidental laugh or two out of me.  However, I watched Dr. Ken with a stony expression the entire time.  That bit where he's trying to find his daughter Molly in a club, but everyone thinks he's talking about the drug?  Excruciating.  I didn't think I'd have to break out the coveted F this fall, but Dr. Ken more than deserves it.
Grade: F

Grandfathered (Fox, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
More and more these days, network comedies attempt to throw a great cast together and hope everything catches up later.  Such is the case with Fox's Grandfathered, which examines what happens when you toss people like John Stamos, Josh Peck, and Paget Brewster in a pot together and let them cook.  The result is a warm, winning comedy that may not deliver nonstop laughs, but is pretty enjoyable to watch.  I'm glad that they didn't make Stamos' character into as much of an aggressive prick as many other shows would, because I'm very sick of the "jerk learns how to not be a jerk" arc.  At times, though, the pilot feels a little too gentle.  Maybe that's just because I hate babies, and thus was not a fan of any of the baby hijinks that occurred in the middle of this pilot.  Less of that, more of the adults please.
Grade: B

The Grinder (Fox, Tuesday at 8:30 PM)
When all of the trailers for the upcoming network comedies came out a few months ago, The Grinder's was the only one that made me laugh, so I had high hopes for this show.  Now that I've seen the whole pilot, I'll say that my expectations weren't fully met, but this has the ability to grow and become a great comedy.  The Grinder stars Rob Lowe as Dean Sanderson, a Hollywood who moves back to his hometown after his hit legal drama ends.  Thinking that he gained enough knowledge from years of being a TV lawyer, he tries to work at the law firm run by his father (William Devane) and brother (Fred Savage).  It's a premise that asks quite a bit of the viewer, but The Grinder gets away with it by being as wacky and high energy as possible.  Given my enjoyment of this and Life in Pieces, I seem to enjoy wackiness this fall.  Anything is better than all of the personality-free dreck we've been getting.
Grade: B

Quantico (ABC, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Critics have been joking about Quantico, calling it Grey's Academy and How to Get Away With Terrorism, because it feels like it's trying to ape the style of Shonda Rhimes' hit shows on the network.  But although it has the ingredients of a Shonda show, it just doesn't have the intangibles.  The premise is very How to Get Away With Murder, introducing the audience to a group of smart and sexy recruits at the Quantico academy for the FBI, and then flashing forward to some cataclysmic terrorist event that occurs at some point in the future.  But unlike Murder, Quantico isn't nearly as fun, and it doesn't have the energy to make the switching between present and future work.  There's a great show about a team of FBI prospects learning the ropes at Quantico buried in this pilot.  There's also a great show about an FBI agent trying to clear her name after she's falsely accused of being involved with a terrorist attack buried somewhere in here too.  But when they're smashed together like this, both sides suffer, the latter more so than the former.  At least the material at the academy has a nice, tense plot where the recruits are charged with finding out a secret about their assigned partner.  The flash-forward scenes are all mystery and vague plotting, so it's hard to really get invested in.  Still, Quantico has the potential to work out these kinks.  You should give it a shot if you're into the shows this one is clear trying to mimic.
Grade: B-