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2nd July 2013

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Ray Donovan Season One, Pilot: “The Bag or the Bat”

There are series that try to create a believable reality, and series that revel in the ridiculous. Ray Donovan, the series, suffers from a personality disorder where it isn’t sure if it wants to be a gritty crime family saga or if it wants to be a violent Entourage. Ray Donovan, the character, is played by Liev Schreiber, utilizing his range from thuggish to sly, playing a Hollywood fixer hired by studios and talent agencies to make PR nightmares go away. Ray, a Boston transplant, lives with his wife Abby (Paula Malcolmson) and kids in Calabasas, seemingly to keep himself at a slight remove from the superficial entertainment culture. He’s a family man who happens to make his living cleaning up problems like the NBA player who finds a girl OD’d on coke in his bed, the hot young action star who picked up a tranny, or the pop princess who has a stalker jerking off in the bushes while she does yoga on her patio. Ray’s skill extends to his own family as well, as he seems to be the only fully functioning member of his bloodline. One brother has Parkinson’s and is, in the pilot at least, defined only by that. The other brother, played by Dash Mihok, struggles with substance abuse stemming from child abuse by a priest when he was a kid. The sister killed herself while on drugs. And dad, Mickey (Voight), is just out of prison after 15 years, harboring a grudge against Ray because it seems like maybe Ray framed him.

The cast is good. Schreiber has a limited range but he has the right face and aspect for this role, not too Hollywood handsome and able to sort of regard the goofiness around him in a way where the audience can read whatever judgment they want through his impassive face. Eddie Marsan as brother Eddie is a good actor and should be able to fill out his role more, as hopefully will Mihok. Malcolmson is believable as Ray’s wife. The pilot is strong enough that I want to see more. And Jon Voight’s hamminess is so far held in check fairly well.

Now for the complaints. The Hollywood stuff falls very flat. It feels like creator/writer Ann Biderman is so immersed in Hollywood that she’s compelled to write about it, but from a self-deprecating view, with the salt-of-the-Earth Bostonian Donovans surrounded by ridiculous stars and athletes with poor self-control. I get the dynamic, but the execution is off. Instead of screaming, amoral stereotype agents like Peter Jacobson’s Lee Drexler, how about a Hollywood type that actually worries for a moment about whether this latest scandal should be covered up or not? Why spend any time with grieving, round-the-bend mogul Ezra Goodman if it’s just going to result in Elliott Gould overacting and doing shtick? And if you’re going to weave “real life” problems like trying to get Ray’s daughter into an exclusive private school, why resolve that problem with simple violence? Why resolve that in the pilot at all? I had that question about a number of subplots, actually. It seemed too soon to bring Mickey out from Pennsylvania to Hollywood and have him not only meet his boys, be threatened by Ray, but then meet Abby on the sly with promises of making amends. That’s a lot of material to burn through, and combined with three different fixing jobs, makes the pilot very jumpy. And it’s too late now, but aside from the 2004 World Series, most of the country doesn’t really like people from Boston much.

It would be sexist to expect that Biderman make this some kind of feminist show, and this is only the pilot, but so far, two of the four female characters (Ray’s daughter is just a sweet kid, and there’s a woman on Ray’s team of fixers who does so little in this episode I can so far only describe her as an unfunny Lizzy Caplan type) are defined by how they feel about Ray. The pop princess has daddy issues and sees Ray as her protector, so we’re expected to sympathize with his inability to refuse her aggressive offer of a blowjob. Abby asks no questions about Ray’s work; she just wants him home at night, and can more or less accept his dalliances with clients if he’s discreet. And for some reason, even seeing how capable he is at his job and holding the family together, she doesn’t listen to his warning about Mickey, and lets him into the home. Her trusting nature, then, is portrayed as a weakness and a liability. Also curious is how every action in the show is essentially about male notions of masculinity. Naturally, the Donovan boys like to meet at an old boxing gym. As with most dramas, real men drink Scotch or bourbon. One client basically acknowledges that his verbose, revealing nature makes him less masculine than strong, silent Ray. Every client’s problem boils down to lack of self-control when it concerns sex, but hetero sex that results in an overdose is much less damaging than gay sex. There’s a dubious scene where Ray drags his teen son out of a hot tub because the client who had picked up the transvestite is talking to him, which, coming after an earlier scene where Mickey’s first action out of prison is to kill his son’s molester, makes for some uncomfortably blurred lines between legal, consenting adult homosexuality and pedophilia. Now, the show does cut away from sex in the pilot, leading one to think it may have greater ambition than, say, Californication, but it has a lot of areas it needs to improve on.

Tagged: tv reviewsann bidermanray donovanLiev Schreiberjon voightdash mihok

10th February 2013

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SNL - Justin Bieber

I find Bieber’s affected delivery off-putting, but aside from his musical performances exposing how limited his voice is, he wasn’t really the problem with the show. It’s the writing and to some extent, the talent. It’s not that the show hasn’t always (and I mean always—go back and look at those hallowed first five seasons) had problems putting together a show full of funny sketches with actual conclusions every week, but too often the writers are just looking for ways to redo the same stuff they’ve done before. That’s understandable when something gets a great response, but  the Miley Cyrus Show? That’s a lot like the Best Friends talk show sketch the week before, where it’s the same joke. Nothing new is added here except Miley has a different haircut. Bieber addressing/apologizing for his pot use here made sense, given Cyrus’ similar brouhaha over salvia, but it wasn’t funny. Super Bowl blackout opening sketch? Not very good. The Californians again?! I know Kate McKinnon is talented enough to do more than mug and get one line in The Californians and reprise her Ellen DeGeneres. I mean, I like Kenan Thompson, but he just does two characters: a wide-eyed incredulous guy, or a shut-the-hell-up gruff guy. Jason Sudeikis seems to be doing the absolute minimum to meet his contract, hoping to be airlifted away to a hit movie. Hader and Armisen are always pretty funny but not being given much new to do. Padrad and Beyer I always like—it’s still quite a strong female cast along with Bryant. But what happened to Weekend Update? Seth Myers doesn’t write any of it and clearly Alex Baze can’t handle six good jokes a week on his own. Get him some help.

Bieber was a good sport, though even some of the more amusing bits—his opening monologue mixing Valentine’s Day with Black History Month facts, and his Valentine’s Day message featuring simpleton guest Taco (Bobby Moynihan) were strained. Bobby Moynihan is fat and can be made to look like he has brain damage or is a baby, and that’s kind of funny, but maybe we can do better? Sexting Hillary Clinton, really? And Whoopi Goldberg was the most significant black woman they could get?! Best sketch for me was actually really dumb—just Taran Killam busting his sister’s new bf’s (Bieber’s) balls over a slip of the tongue—but Killam went for it with such vigor and repetition that I quite enjoyed it, especially when Bieber corpsed over it. 

Tagged: tv reviewssnljustin bieber

23rd January 2013

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The Following (Season One, Episode One)

The main thing this show has going for it is the gimmick of a serial killer who has anonymous followers scattered around the country, ready to help execute his plan. That might get very annoying, but so far, I’m in. Kevin Bacon is thoroughly average as the cliched ex-FBI agent, Ryan Hardy, with a drinking problem, a loose cannon type who doesn’t work well with others. Of course, since he’s the expert on this one killer, this ex-agent gets to order everyone around. And of course, he and the killer, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) have personal history revolving around Carroll’s ex-wife Claire (Natalie Zea). It wasn’t much of a surprise that Maggie Grace was killed in the first episode because a) she was a loose end from when Carroll was first arrested, and b) there’s already plenty of female characters here. Looks like Ryan and Claire will be drawn closer together, while we’ll spend some time with the conflicts between Carroll’s followers. I could take or leave Carroll’s Poe fixation. It’s fine, I like Poe, and I guess you need some kind of hook, but when Carroll starts lecturing about “inciting incidents”, I was pulled out of the story and thinking that show creator Kevin Williamson is maybe too old and jaded to pull this off. 

Tagged: tv reviewsthe followingkevin baconnatalie zea

23rd January 2013

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Fringe Finale

Some quick thoughts here. I dropped out of this series after the first season, or maybe partly through it, and then came in more or less cold last season. So much of the Alternate Universe stuff and the unrequited Lincoln love didn’t mean much to me, nor did I get the tulip at the end. So take this with more than the usual grain of salt.

I liked it. It seemed like a fairly well-constructed wrap-up, serving the fans by touching on and suitably concluding those threads and nodding to some other cool stuff. The ventilator contagion monsters were great, quite gross for network TV, and a coworker told me this section was a reference to some past missions. Cool enough. I was moved by the scene between Peter and Walter (you know which one), and really thought John Noble killed it, acting with every wrinkle at his disposal. I’ve always felt Joshua Jackson was pretty bland, good enough but bland, and it’s nice that Anna Torv took her game up a level the past few years to make up for it. 

The second hour was good and hit all the beats they’d set up with September and Walter and Etta and all that. Nice little scene with Walter and Astrid, and I liked the reveal that Olivia still has some powers, or had enough of the cortexophan left for one last bit of TK, I guess (although Michael’s shhh motion suggests maybe she’s always had the capability?). 

The first hour reminded me of some of the flaws in the series and how it’s treated its characters, and no, I don’t mean the terrible aging makeup/hair for Fauxlivia and Lincoln. I mean the gimmick of Walter meaning this cracked genius who has an inexhaustible inventory of great gadgets and theories but always needs a little prodding to remind him of any of it. He’s brilliant only when he needs to be, while Peter, though clearly smarter than Olivia at first, is generally in more of a male action hero role, the physical doer rather than the planner. In order to make Olivia and Astrid equal members of the team, the writers often make one of them come up with the plan. This time they both got their moments, with Olivia coming up with the idea of going to the alternate universe to get to Michael, while Astrid came up with the idea of using the shipping lanes as an alternative to making their own wormhole. This one bugged me: you’ve got a regularly scheduled wormhole in the shipping lanes—why did they only think of it when their elaborate plan went kablooey? Answer: because they needed to fill an hour with complications. Nice finish for Broyles.

Tagged: tv reviewsfringejohn noblejoshua jacksonanna torv

14th October 2012

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The Walking Dead S3E1

Almost a perfect episode, really. Plenty of zombie-killing action, though I was never one of the haters that thought lack of action was a problem with the show. The problem has really been dull scenes and draggy subplots between the action scenes. No such problem here. I liked how much has changed since last we saw the group. Nobody really likes Rick; they just know he’s an effective leader. And when they have a chance, they go off in couplings and groups and leave him out of it. 

Meanwhile, we’ve got romance in various stages for six of the characters (Glenn/Maggie, Carol/Daryl, maybe even Carl/Beth one of these days), with only Herschel and T-Dog left out. But that may change for T-Dog soon, once they meet up with Michonne, who is currently caring for a sick Andrea. Their scenes were good, because we know that not only is she a great fighter, she’s still got some compassion left, even if her holding two disarmed (literally) zombies shows how emotionally damaged she is.

The group wastes little time getting to the prison setting that should be their home for all this season, at least. There’s plenty of tension in clearing out the yard and one cellblock of walkers, with Herschel unfortunately being bitten, necessitating the removal of his leg at the knee. We’ll see if he can rebound for this or if the virus has already spread. It’s interesting to see how used to things everyone is now. While most of the women stay behind, they all know how to kill, and taking on a group of walkers is almost a bonding experience for them, or a good workout. It’s commonplace for the men, kind of a thrill for the women. Even Carl is a trusted walker-killer now, suitable for most missions.

The one storyline I wasn’t happy with is the Rick/Lori conflict. Early on, it seems she’s horrified at how hard-driving and inhuman he is, which is interesting, but later on, as Herschel checks on the baby, she reveals she’s sad because Rick won’t forgive her for cheating on him with Shane. It’s one of those problems with episodic television when time has passed: would Rick really have given her the brush-off for months? And if so, why would Herschel assure her that Rick would come around? I’m predicting it will be the birth of the baby where Rick relents and warms up to her again, which is pretty cliche and also pretty shitty. As we’ve seen, they’re no longer in a world of sentiment, and they’ve had to get used to trusting people they probably don’t like all that much, and they’ve seen a lot of people die. It’s time for Rock to let the anger and resentment go and just accept Lori’s faults like she’s willing to accept his. 

Tagged: walking deadtv reviews

12th February 2012

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Comic Book Men - Episode 1 (2012)

Starring Kevin Smith, Several Comic Shop Employees, One Hanger-On

AMC’s comic book-adapted series The Walking Dead apparently put one geeky, overburdened foot in the door for comics-and-pop-culture-related shows that don’t cost much to produce. The Talking Dead is a talk show focused mainly on talking about the episode of The Walking Dead that just aired before it, and now we have sometime Talking Dead guest, filmmaker and comics scribe Kevin Smith hosting his own reality show starring the employees of his New Jersey comic shop, Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash.

It’s basically like Pawn Stars, except with comics. There are would-be colorful characters exchanging banter, pulling pranks on each other, and looking over a bunch of memorabilia brought in by potential sellers. Some of the show is Smith and the cast in a studio, talking about comic book subject matter or else recounting some of the retail experiences we see shot in the shop itself, plus a segment at an NJ flea market, where two employees and the hanger-on, Bryan, who doesn’t work for the shop but is friends with the manager and hangs out and cracks wise for hours on end, try to sell unwanted stock.

Aside from Smith, who’s his usual witty self, Bryan is about the only guy who registers, as he’s not only funny but seemingly not a comics true believer. He is the frustrating buddy who knows a lot about pop culture but doesn’t really share your own obsessions and is all to willing to make jokes about the silliness of them. There’s also Ming, who’s not interesting himself but serves as the butt of Bryan’s jokes. Note: I think I actually used to deal with Ming via email when I wrote for Smith’s MoviePoopShoot entertainment website, and he’s a nice guy, but that doesn’t make him a TV star. The manager and other guy honestly are pretty interchangeable, though also nice enough. The other color provided in the show are the people trying to sell stuff, most of which is pretty cool but usually of far lower value than they think. Why these folks aren’t just hitting eBay instead of trying to sell to a retailer who can’t possibly pay the full value is beyond me, but there seems to be plenty of such people. As a comics fan who is pleased to see, say, a 1970 Jack Kirby-drawn Thor poster, or a mint-on-card Six Million Dollar Man doll, I enjoy the show, but it doesn’t seem to have much broad appeal as far as story lines or fascinating characters. Notably, this episode at least features nobody in the shop who wants to buy comics, nor any discussion of even relatively recent comics. I understand wanting to keep the show relatively undated, but it just stands to reason that viewers would expect a little more time spent on the main function of comic shop employees, which is selling comics, not appraising rare collectibles or going to flea markets. 

Tagged: tv reviewscomic book menkevin smith

8th February 2012

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Justified - Season 3, Episode 4 “The Devil You Know”

This is my first season with the show, but I have watched the first four episodes. I know, I know, I should probably have tried to start from the beginning, but to be honest this seems like a relatively simple show. Timothy Olyphant is Raylan, a Kentucky marshal, and he’s relatively tight and cordial with lots of scumbags he eventually has to either arrest or kill, like Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, Mykelti Williamson as rival crime boss Limehouse, Jeremy Davies and others as colorful underlings and small-time operators. There’s some love interest here and there, and some simmering plot lines like a bounty hunter (or was he a fellow marshal?) who killed a criminal and took his money, but from what I’ve seen so far, each episode is pretty straightforward and focused on just a couple things at a time. In this one, Dickie (Davies) pays a couple prison guards to help him escape prison and Raylan tracks him down, while Boyd deals with a turncoat underling, while a new crime boss is recruiting talent. Nothing very complicated. The fun is just in plenty of violence, good acting, and chewing on the exchanges between characters, how they size each other up, threaten, coerce, test. The highlight of this one was probably Raylan running over a would-be shooter, and then backing over him when he got back up with his gun again. The way the underling thinks he’s got the upper hand only to realize he’s sealed his doom was executed perfectly well, but never a surprise. Also, not a lot of jeopardy for Raylan or any of the other major characters, and man does everyone kill without much concern about someone hearing, DNA left behind or anything else. Good show, just let’s not confuse the writers with Davids Milch or Simon, okay?

Tagged: tv reviewsjustifiedTimothy Olyphantwalton gogginsjeremy davies

8th February 2012

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The River - Pilot/Episode 2 (2012)

I’m refraining from looking up the credits on this one as I want to avoid accidentally reading any bits of other critical reaction to this highly-touted new (mini?)series. The only reaction I’ve gotten so far is from a friend and coworker who recorded it and stopped watching after episode one because he was disappointed at the lack of action, although he will probably watch the second. This, by the way, is a guy who was a big Lost fan, and who has plenty of love for horror and suspense.

The story is about Emmett Cole (Bruce Greenwood, the only actor I can name), who did a kind of Crocodile Hunter-type show with his family in the ’90s, except instead of finding wildlife he was discovering hidden cultures around the world. Now he’s disappeared on his latest exploration, prompting his wife and now-grown son to mount a search and rescue mission into his last known destination in the South American (I think) jungle. When the young woman (I think she’s the daughter of Cole’s director, and a constant childhood presence on the show’s expeditions) finds a river that’s not shown on their maps, the viewer will infer that we are now in a place where strange things can happen, the rules don’t apply, and there will be no one to rescue them.

They find Cole’s ship, the Magus, and upon investigation some sort of creature flees from it into the jungle, so fast no one can tell what they saw. If you didn’t know, the whole series is filmed in a jerky, handheld camera style commonly referred to as “found footage” now, a la The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, although on this expedition it is very much planned with several cameramen and an editing bay on-board the ship. As such, we can probably expect there to be at least one episode where the director analyzes some footage and finds something strange and horrifying there that no one saw when it occurred.

Anyway, the creature, or something else, gets a taste of blood and kills off one of the cameramen, and the rest of the folks try to get the old boat fixed so they can get out of there. As the two episodes run together, I can’t remember if some things happened in the first or second, but I will just mention that at some point, the son and mom argue about why Cole went out on his own, without her for the first time in many years, and it’s heavily implied that she probably cheated on him. There are some flashbacks, particularly in the second episode, that show Cole to be a wonderful, inspiring father, and also one that shows a strange symbol on the neck of the director’s daughter, which I think correlates to a necklace Cole gave his son. So, yes, there is some mystical hoo-ha, and plenty of it.

The director (in this case I mean the actual director of the show, not the director character) and writers, essentially have an eight hour (with commercials) horror movie to play out here, and on network TV, so you won’t see a lot of gore (although there is a good deal of bleeped profanity). To accomplish this, it seems they will resort to every horror trope they can reasonably utilize in the river/jungle setting, including a possessed girl speaking with a man’s voice (Cole trying to tell his wife to stay away), the Paranormal type of scene where someone is thrown around by an unseen supernatural entity, objects that fall from same entity, people dragged away by same entity, and even spooky baby dolls animated by same entity. It’s all filmed quite effectively and there are some legitimately creepy moments, though in most cases the viewer is trained to look for them in the background because the camera becomes sufficiently still. I didn’t have as much of a problem with the deliberate pacing of the first episode as my friend, but where the show does come up short, so far, is with the characters. We understand there is quite a bit of guilt and anger with Cole’s son and wife, one of the cameramen has no empathy and is only concerned with getting the shot, and the director’s daughter will probably end up romantically involved with the son because they’re both young and attractive, but it’s all still rather sketchy, and though in fairness it’s hard to make a great impression as an actor when one is mainly looking stressed and reacting to horror movie shtick, it also has to be said no one in the cast exactly jumps off the screen with charisma. So far, a pretty decent effort that’s very competent as B-movie horror, but it will take better characterization, and a satisfying development of the mystical underpinnings of the story, to make this a success.

Tagged: tv reviewsthe river

25th January 2012

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Touch - Pilot (2012)

A lot of people, including me, were prepared to laugh this one off the screen. Kiefer Sutherland plays the father of a seemingly autistic son who can see patterns in everything, with Danny Glover playing Magical Black Man With Answers. Created by Tim (Heroes) Kring, there is still quite a bit to worry about, like where it goes from here, but this pilot wasn’t too bad. My main problem is that I have a hard time accepting the premise that a kid who gets some numbers in his head can somehow affect the lives of half a dozen people around the world. Basically, one has to get over the problematic cliche that autistic (or autistic-seeming) people have some sort of magical powers. Jake, the kid, doesn’t like to be touched and doesn’t talk, which are both autistic symptoms, though not exclusive to autism, and it is not only sort of cheap that the creators use these symptoms, but it also creates a kind of short-term dramatic arc, since by the end of the pilot, Jake is still silent but hugs his dad.

The cast is quite good, with Titus Welliver as a surly Lotto ticket purchaser who turns out to have a profound link to Kiefer, a 9/11 widower, and basically Jake causes them to interact at least once (they interact twice, but in retrospect one should probably assume Jake engineered the first meeting unless we’re just going to accept it as a massive coincidence), which makes for a kind of redemption for Welliver and maybe a little closure for Sutherland. There’s another story about an Iraqi teen trying to replace his parent’s oven, an Indian customer service rep and part-time singer, and a grieving father that also comes together in a highly coincidental but entertaining way, though it’s not clear if Jake had anything to do with it. 

It’s well-filmed, and in fact if you turned off the sound a lot of it looks like a really long phone company commercial about people connecting all over the world. It’s kind of odd that this comes out on the heels of Extremely Loud + Incredibly Close, two highly contrived pieces of uplift that trade on still simmering 9/11 anguish. Kiefer’s fine, the kid is okay (why does every special kid in a movie or show have shaggy hair? Most kids I know use product and get frequent haircuts), and there is a lot that seems hokey and manipulative, but I would give it at least one more episode.

Tagged: kiefer sutherlandtv reviewstim kring

24th January 2012

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Alcatraz, Episode 3

An improvement over the previous two, for sure, but it’s too early for even cautious optimism yet. Because let’s face it, child endangerment is a better emotional draw than the thin gruel served up as characterization and plot thus far (the con whose brother married his gal, the sniper who really, really likes to snipe). Jorge Garcia is a decent actor, and he’s certainly in his comfort zone as the cuddly but wounded teddy bear manchild. I also like that Madsen didn’t press him for what is clearly an abduction/molestation story in his past, and how even this early in their partnership, she goes out of her way to be upbeat and supportive, and to plead his case to their new boss. I like her chipper more than the usual strained, haunted, haggard chick cop they were setting her up to be, although I would be fine with that if they went back and put some effort into it.

There are still problems. Sam Neill’s assistant was injured too early for us to give a crap, and the tiny parceling out of clues about the secret behind the Alcatraz disappearance leads one to think there isn’t a lot of there, there. This episode didn’t really provide clues, exactly; we see that for some reason, Madsen’s grandpa, inmate #202, gets to hang out behind a divider in the infirmary at all times to tease, hector and otherwise bother injured inmates (and the viewer) with hints about the real goings-on in the prison, and at the end, we see that the doctor from that time is working in the new, underground prison, unaged. Is the prison just underground in our time, or does it exist outside time? I don’t really care, just give me better stories and characterization to want me to continue the ride to find out.

Tagged: alcatraztv reviewsJorge Garciaj.j. abrams