Sunday, October 16, 2016

Halt and Catch Fire takes another huge leap in its stunning third season

Back when Halt and Catch Fire arrived in 2014, many critics cited Mad Men as a clear influence and criticized the show for not coming close to that mark.  Whether or not that comparison was accurate in the first place, it's ironic that after the show's beautiful, riveting third season it's clear Halt is the heir apparent to Mad Men.  And it's not just the fact that both are period workplace dramas.  It's because no other show has that distinct spark that Mad Men did, where it could be warm, funny, intense, and heartbreaking all at the same time.  (The Americans, for example, is another one of the best shows on TV, but while it has nuance and subtlety to its writing, it's not exactly a "fun" show.)  When I see these characters interact, with all of their history and flaws and complexities laid out there on the table, I can't help but be reminded of Mad Men.

And yes, Halt and Catch Fire is excellent as a workplace drama as well.  Because it doesn't have death and violence to fall back on the way other dramas do, it has to rely on making the simple act of work thrilling, which it does with great skill.  The show, and its third season especially, focuses on ideas and the value that its characters place on those ideas.  To watch Halt and Catch Fire is to watch a show about smart, capable people with strong notions navigate the conflicts that arise when their vision clashes with the visions of others.

No relationship displays that thesis better than the one between Donna and Cameron.  Part of the reason why the show made such a leap in quality from season one to season two was because of the pivot that made Donna and Cameron the quasi lead characters.  Watching these different but ultimately complimentary people come together and develop a powerful bond over the course of last season was such a joy to behold.  Somehow, season three was just as big of a leap in quality, primarily because the Donna and Cameron relationship as well.  If season two gave the fans what they wanted by bringing them together, season three was crushing in the way that it slowly drove them apart.

It all started when they had to take in a new duo to bring Swap Meet to life, where Mutiny users could complete monetary transactions with other users.  Cameron wanted to fire the guys shortly after they joined but Donna, fearing that it was a rash and unwise decision, crafted a lie to make Cameron believe that their new benefactor Diane (Annabeth Gish) wouldn't allow the firing.  This decision was the catalyst for the slow motion car crash of fights, resentments, and maneuvering that occurred in the second half of the season.  It didn't truly set in with me how excellently the writers constructed this conflict until I read people debating about it in comment sections.  The more I read, the less consensus there was on who was in the right.  That's because the story allowed for both parties to be equally right and wrong.  Cameron can often act like a petulant, self-centered child, but Donna has a habit of making decisions for others and justifying it under the guise of well-meaning paternalism.  Each viewer may have their preference -- I'm generally more Team Donna -- but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is one of the most even-handed and compelling television conflicts in a long time.

The Donna and Cameron schism is a microcosmic version of what makes Halt and Catch Fire so engaging: it's about ultimately good people trying to do their best.  In the vein of great, humane dramas like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, nobody on this show is trying to deliberately hurt anyone, it's just that their wants and needs don't always mesh with others'.  Cameron just wants her creation to remain pure and uncompromised and Donna just wants to be recognized as a talented and vital part of Mutiny in her own right.  Both are doing what they think is right for the company, which makes their inability to reconcile those differences all the more devastating.

Halt delivered the emotional death blow in its two-hour finale on Tuesday.  This is a show that has always been willing to take radical turns, from making Donna and Cameron the main characters to transporting the whole gang to Silicon Valley for season three.  The finale was no different, as the first hour quickly revealed that the show had leapt four years ahead to 1990.  Having been scattered to the winds after we last saw them in 1986, the core four are brought back together when Donna presents an idea for what would be the beginning stages of the world wide web.  It's an exciting finale for a number of reasons, partly because it's so nice to see Joe, Gordon, Cameron, and Donna bounce ideas of each other.  But it's mostly satisfying because it finally brings Cameron and Donna together to make amends and work with each other again.  Or at least it appears, until Cameron utters a devastating five-word gutpunch -- "I can't work with you" -- after Donna offhandedly mentions that they can get rid of Joe if that would make Cameron happier.

The season leaves us with Donna walking away from the group and leaving Joe, Gordon, and Cameron to run with the world wide web idea.  For anyone who has grown to love these people and want nothing more for them to get along, it's a depressing ending.  Up until very recently, it wasn't certain whether Halt and Catch Fire would be back for another season.  Despite the growing fervor for the show from the critical community, the ratings are horrible.  Thankfully, the show's renewal for a fourth and final season was announced shortly before the finale, because I wouldn't have been able to live with leaving on the note season three ends on.  If you would have told me two years ago I wouldn't have believed it, but Halt and Catch Fire has become an astonishing, essential show.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 5 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.

American Housewife (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30 PM)
Yikes.  Formerly known as The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport -- although with the amount of times that phrase is uttered  in the pilot, they might as well have kept that name -- American Housewife feels like flat soda comedy.  You can kind of recognize a version of this show that's much better, but everything about its current incarnation feels off.  There's a causticness to main character Katie (Katy Mixon) and her quest to not fall too far down the social ladder in her upper crust suburb, but there's no voice or point of view to it.  I'm an eternal optimist and I was planning to stick with this show no matter what, given the fact that creator Sarah Dunn is a Bunheads alum and I've liked Katy Mixon in the past, but this was so bad I can't continue watching.  Where were the laughs in this pilot?
Grade: C-

Divorce (HBO, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Sharon Horgan has already showed that she knows her way around the ins and outs of marriage with her and Rob Delaney's hilarious and sweet comedy Catastrophe.  In her new HBO show Divorce, it looks like she's trying her hand at fast forwarding things a bit, examining the dissolution of the marriage between Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church).  The pilot has a healthy dose of funny moments, largely from the same kind of acerbic dialogue that Horgan does so well on Catastraphe, but it feels a little too flabby and airless as a whole.  Part of that comes from the fact that it's hard to be too invested in the end of a relationship when we're introduced to it at the point right before it all crumbles.  Still, the final moments indicate that we're in for some delicious, acidic material, not just a story about a post-divorce self-discovery.  I would expect nothing less from Horgan.
Grade: B

Insecure (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
This has been a great fall for unapologetically black TV.  In just a span of a few weeks, we've gotten Atlanta, Queen Sugar, and Luke Cage -- shows that aren't afraid to exist outside of white spaces, offering a perspective on the experience of being black in America in ways that we rarely see.  HBO's newest comedy Insecure, partially based on creator Issa Rae's web series Awkward Black Girl, is another example of this refreshing trend.  In some ways, it's in line with the bounty of slice of life comedies that this television age has given us.  Much of first episode "Insecure As Fuck" centers around Issa and her best friend Molly, as they navigate the choppy waters of their professional and romantic lives.  But Insecure is also a slice from a completely different pie, and the new ingredients and flavors it brings are what make it special.  There's a livewire, offbeat sense of humor to the writing by Rae and co-writer/executive producer Larry Wilmore.  When it comes to the more dramatic and thoughtful moments, the show handles those deftly as well, examining the nuance of what it means to be an educated black woman in 2016.  HBO has been an embarrassingly white network in the past, so hopefully quality programming like this will represent a sea change for them.
Grade: B+

Friday, October 7, 2016

Pilot Talk 2016: Week 4 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.

Conviction (ABC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Hayley Atwell is above Conviction. She's got endless charm and charisma, none of which she gets to use in this show. She's got a fantastic British accent, which she doesn't get to use in this show. She's just an all-around great actor, but you wouldn't know it from this show. Really, the only thing Conviction seems to know is that Hayley Atwell has large breasts. In this stinker, she plays the daughter of a former US president who now leads the Conviction Integrity Unit, a group of lawyers, detectives, and forensics experts who help wrongly accused individuals. If that sounds too convoluted, then don't worry, the fact that she's a former First Daughter plays no role in this pilot. Conviction comes off like it's trying to emulate the slick, stylish tone of a Shonda Rhimes show, but it doesn't realize that for all their flaws, Shonda shows are never as boring and straightforward as this is. Let's hope this sucker gets cancelled quickly so Hayley Atwell can move on to better things.
Grade: C-

Frequency (CW, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
It's a little weird to have made Frequency into a TV show.  If its plot, about a woman (Peyton List -- no, the other one) communicates with her dead father 20 years in the past via an old ham radio, feels like it's better suited for a movie, that's because it already was one in 2000.  Weirder still is that it's on The CW, since it doesn't quite fall on either side of the genre show (Arrow, The Vampire Diaries) or offbeat dramedy (Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) binary.  But either way, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed this pilot.  Bolstered by a terrific, assured performance from List, the moments of Raimy Sullivan interacting with her father will tug even the stiffest heartstrings.  And the idea that Raimy knowing the details of her father's murder allows her to try to help him avoid it is an interesting setup.  However, somewhere around the halfway point the strong legs holding the show up begin to buckle, as the episode wanders away from that central idea and goes wild with its butterfly effect ramifications.  There's still a chance that the show could turn itself back around, but low ratings for the premiere indicate it won't have much time to do so.
Grade: B-

No Tomorrow (CW, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Between Jane the Virgin two years ago and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend last year, the CW is on a hot streak with their non-genre shows, so No Tomorrow has alot to live up to.  It doesn't quite meet that high bar, at least not yet.  Tori Anderson is a little bland as Evie, a woman who decides to make an "apocalist" when her path crosses with a man who genuinely believes the world is going to end in about 8 months.  And despite that corker of a premise, it doesn't feel as special or stylistically unique as Jane or Crazy-Ex.  Still, it's got a breezy zaniness to it that's very charming.  Creator Corinne Brinkerhoff used to write for Jane the Virgin and she brings some her sensibilities to the pilot's handful of very funny gags, including one involving Evie's milquetoast ex-boyfriend who speaks so softly his dialogue occasionally has to be subtitled.  (Another one including a pogo stick is too hilarious to spoil.)  This grew on me more and more as it went along.  Let's hope the whole show has the same trajectory.
Grade: B

Timeless (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
NBC's Timeless is deeply silly stuff.  This is a show where a team consisting of a historian (Abigail Spencer), a soldier (Matt Lanter), and a scientist (Malcolm Barrett) use a time machine to attempt to stop a criminal with another time machine who's hopping around the space-time continuum trying to change American history.  Luckily, the show is in good enough hands -- Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural) are co-creators, while Neil Marshall directed the pilot -- that it moves along at a rapid enough speed that you just kind of go with it.  There's a flailing, hurried quality to everything in the show, which is both a good and bad quality.  Mostly though, the pilot is a fun time, despite how daffy and convoluted it all is.  One of the most interesting things Ryan and Kripke have said is that they don't plan on getting bogged down in serialization, preferring to have the episodes function mostly as time-travel-of-the-week standalones.  Refreshing, if true, but judging from what we've seen so far, I'm skeptical of whether they can keep that promise.
Grade: B

Westworld (HBO, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
On paper, Westworld seemed like a sure bet all the way: big budget, airing on HBO, co-created by Jonathan Nolan, an absolutely stacked cast.  But things seemed dicey for a while as word of production issues got out and the show was delayed over and over.  I really wanted this to be good and I'm relieved to report, at least for now, that I'm very happy with it.  Based on the 1973 film of the same name penned by Michael Crichton, Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park where guests pay large sums of money to inhabit a world populated by extremely lifelike androids called "Hosts" and play out the numerous scenarios that have been programmed for them.  Nolan is right in his wheelhouse here.  He loves the kind of twisty puzzle box plotting that's on display, and the pilot proceeds with an elegance and grace of someone who is right at home with the material.  The episode constantly upends itself, veering away from expectations and pulling out to reveal another layer folded around what we previously knew the story to be.

"The Original" leaves the viewer with alot of questions, but not the frustrating kind.  It's the kind that indicates the show has set up an interesting world and dramatic blueprint that fosters that specific questioning.  And the episode doesn't just raise questions about its mysteries, it probes the audience with questions about what it means to be human.  If we create beings and only select the attributes we want from humanity, is it inevitable that they'll also develop the attributes we don't want?  Is committing violence upon the Hosts truly harmless?  Where do we draw the line between human and inhuman?  These are the things Westworld is truly interested in.

I also love how the process of maintaining Westworld the theme park feels alot like the process of running a TV show.  It's not a coincidence that the scientists overseeing the park make so much mention of "characters" and "storylines."  It's a delicate balance, just like television.  So many moving and interlocking parts -- if one thing goes wrong, everything is thrown out of whack.  There's a great moment where one of the programmers who writes the Hosts' dialogue is excited to see a new speech he created for a character, but then one of the visitors shoots him before he can deliver it.  It feels alot like a writer getting his or her favorite lines cut in the showrunner's final pass at the script. There are even more overt nods too, as Evan Rachel Wood's Host character gets described by a scientist as "a hooker with hidden depths."  How many times have we heard that archetype, even on HBO?

If there's one complaint so far it's that the story feels a little too on rails, much like the Hosts who unknowingly play out the same arcs over and over.  That's the flipside of Nolan's careful precision -- you can time the moments where things slowly being to go wrong to a tee, which can make it all feel slightly soulless.  Still, this was an exciting and suitably creepy hour-plus of television.  More than pretty much any other new show this year, I'm excited to see where this one goes.
Grade: B+