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Monday, July 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘Orphan Black – Season Two’

OB2Article originally published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Orphan Black – Season Two’ on Blogcritics.

BBC America’s Orphan Black is a hidden gem that many have not yet discovered. Starring criminally-snubbed-by-the-Emmys Tatiana Maslany as Sarah, Cosima, Alison, Rachel, and others, the clone drama is worth watching for her performances alone, giving the best multi-role acting in memory. Season one took a bit of time to get us into the mythology and lay out the framework, but season two hits the ground running, taking us deeper into this world and exploring the various personalities in all new ways. It’s a terrific series that deserves more attention than it’s getting, so I definitely recommend checking it out.

When season one ends, Sarah is desperately searching for her daughter, Kyra (Skyler Wexler), who is last seen with Sarah’s former foster mother, Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Sarah is pursued by Rachel and the Dyad Institute, which is striking deals with each of the clones as it further researches its creation. Alison agrees to participate in the organization easily enough, wanting to get her life back on track. Cosima is a tougher sell, but faced with a deadly illness that is killing her, she reluctantly accepts their offer of lab space and equipment, putting the three central ladies on different pages.

From here, the story veers in a number of interesting directions. We get to see what makes Rachel tick a little bit, and we also see the sisterly bond that connects the women made from the same DNA. More new clones are introduced, at least peripherally, and a character I thought we’d seen the last of (I can’t spoil who) returns in a surprising and significant manner. There are subplots involving Kyra’s father, Cal (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones, Treme), and a crazy cult that wants to breed one of the girls. Toss is hanging threads such as Cosima’s romance with Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), Alison’s crumbling marriage to Donnie (Kristian Bruun), Art’s (Kevin Hanchard) continuing investigation, another delicious TV part for Michelle Forbes, a healthy dose of Sarah’s brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), and a shocking capper, and it’s a very full year.

More than the action, though, I really dig the character and story development in Orphan Black. It not only poses the moral question of cloning, but also shows us the human side of the results of such an experiment. Then it asks, is the product, which is actual people, owned by a corporation? Where would the line be drawn in this new schema? Issues of trust are explored, and the differences between the various clones are at least as enticing as the similarities.

This two-disc set contains all ten episodes of the recent run, as well as a good number of extras. The most interesting is probably the ‘Making Of’ the four clone dance scene, which, despite being the only scene in the series so far where it’s obvious that the camera is trying to trick us and Maslany hasn’t really been copied, is still quite enjoyable and touching. There are also deleted scenes of Alison and Donnie, a script-to-screen featurette, a look at the hair and makeup in the show, “The Cloneversation” special with Wil Wheaton (The Wil Wheaton Project), and more. It’s enough that most fans should definitely be satisfied.

Orphan Black is a show that screams to be watched in high definition. There is a dark color palette, and the lu-ray version is crisp and detailed. Colors are nicely contrasted, and the shadows are layered. The sound in high definition is also excellent. The rear speakers are not used as much as one might like, but are better utilized than in many television releases. Dialogue is clear and effects are well mixed. It’s a very immersive viewing experience.

I cannot stress enough how excited I am by this release, and if you have not been watching Orphan Black yet, please, please check it out, because it deserves the eyeballs. Just make sure you start with season one, as Season Two is not stand-alone.

Orphan Black Season Two is available now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

USA Knows a Thing About SATISFACTION

Article first published as SATISFACTION Review on Seat42F.

SATISFACTION -- Season:1 -- Pictured: (l-r) Blair Redford as Simon, Stephanie Szostak as Grace Truman, Matt Passmore as Neil Truman

You know the familiar small drama movie story of a husband and a wife who have been married a long time, have at least one child, and have drifted apart as he throws himself into his work and she seeks someone else to help her feel alive? Throughout the ninety-minute running time, they realize their mistakes and rediscover what they love about one another, eventually fixing the problems in their marriage and being happy all over again, a mid-life reckoning that leaves their bond stronger than ever? USA is turning that concept into a series called SATISFACTION.

It’s such an intriguing idea that I’m surprised no one has done it before, at least not that I’m aware of. After all, how many relationships can be repaired so simply, especially after the long deterioration of their union has eroded them into near strangers to one another? Is it really so easy to rebuild one’s life and put the mistakes made during that time of estrangement behind you? Can a new beginning truly be found? SATISFACTION seeks to answer that question by setting up the unoriginal plot, but advancing it far beyond what most of this genre has done.

As the pilot begins, we meet Neil Truman (Matt Passmore, The Glades), a money man who absolutely hates his job. He loves his family, even though he doesn’t have much time for wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak, Iron Man 3), and teenage daughter, Anika (Michelle DeShon), always working, even when he’s at home. This frustration isn’t held back by a nice house and a fancy TV any longer, and Neil has one of those snap moments where he has to act out. He actually has a couple of them, since his boss (Spencer Garrett, Yes Man) laughs off the first one, and Neil feels the need to keep exploding bigger until someone pays attention.

Meanwhile, while Neil might not be aware of it, Grace is equally unhappy. Her break comes one night at book club when she demands her friends accompany her to a club. Once there, she meets a charming man named Simon (Blair Redford, The Lying Game) who wants to hear her story, and even though he ends up being an escort whom she must pay if she wants sexual attention from him, the two soon begin getting together on a regular basis.

As one might expect, both Neil and Grace begin discovering each other’s secrets, all while dealing with Anika, who has her own scene of rebellion, acting out against the private school she hates. But this is only the beginning.

SATISFACTION doesn’t have a moment of confrontation, where the family talks frankly with one another. In the movies, this has to happen because that’s what’s required to air the dirty laundry so it can be cleaned and put away. Instead, the TV show keeps going forward. Most of what I’ve mentioned in the preceding paragraphs happens in the first half of the pilot, barely scratching the surface of the tale waiting to be told. This will be about emotions and motivations and feelings of emptiness and lies and desires and consequences. Can these people stay together, or are they too far removed to make it work any longer? If the pilot is any indication of the level of quality, sign me up to find out.

While most of the cast, which also includes Deanna Russo (Being Human), Katherine LaNasa (Deception), and Chris Williams (Californication), are not widely known, they are solid performers who really sell the depth and complexity of their characters. It’s easy to be drawn in by the Trumans and what they’re going through. Many will relate to their situation, even if only obtusely, and it’s the authenticity of the situation that is so fascinating.

USA has, in the past few years, allowed itself to not be boxed in any longer by only making a certain type of show. Even with the loosening of the reigns, SATISFACTION feels like a complete departure for the network, a slow burn human piece that will tell a very real story. I recommend checking it out when it premieres Thursday, July 17th at 10 p.m. ET.

RUSHing Around

Article first published as RUSH Review on Seat42F.

Rush - Season 1

USA’s new drama RUSH is not very original. Like the network’s own medical series, Royal Pains, it follows a private concierge doctor who works for those rich enough to afford on-call and home-based services. Unlike Hank Lawson, though, the titular character in RUSH is more along the lines of House M.D. in that he’s a heavy drug user whose life is falling apart and like Greg Kinnear’s Rake in that he enjoys his iffy lifestyle a tad too much. Thus, while RUSH is an interesting show, it just doesn’t feel all that fresh.

This is my main problem with RUSH. In a golden age of television (don’t let anyone tell you it’s not), it’s hard to have time for just-good shows any more when there are so many great ones. RUSH is a series that, five years ago, would have been the best thing on USA and certainly a solid entry for cable. Now, though, it is entertaining, but not nearly special enough to kick it into that top tier worth paying attention to. If you haven’t discovered the wealth of programs available from various sources that are better than RUSH, you may like it. But trust me, better-than-broadcast does not necessarily mean it’s at the top of the pack these days.

RUSH is fronted by Welsh actor Tom Ellis (Vera Drake, The Fades), who does a serviceable job with the cad. Rush is intelligent, of course, and much better at helping others than himself, which is an archetype quite familiar to most viewers at this point. Ellis does give him a charm and vulnerability, especially late in the pilot, that makes him seem like a real person, even if his actions and situation are far from average.

Unfortunately for Rush, he is nowhere close to being the man he should be. He has far too many enablers in his life. Dr. Alex Burke (Larenz Tate, Rescue Me), his best friend, makes excuses for Rush and still allows him to attend his godson’s birthday party, despite Rush’s less-than-sober appearance. Rush’s assistant, Eve (Sarah Habel, Underemployed), does criticize Rush, but doesn’t really do anything to try to force change. Both judge our antihero, but don’t exactly push him to change.

The one person who could have an effect on Rush is his ex-girlfriend, whom he was with for four years, Sarah Peterson (Odette Annable, Banshee, House M.D.). But Sarah’s already given Rush all of the chances she’s willing to give, and unlike Eve and Alex, is washing her hands of Rush. Perhaps Rush’s friends should follow her example because Rush seems like the type who needs to hit rock bottom before he can start to rebuild anything resembling a successful life.

Rock bottom may not be as far as off as most who know Rush might expect. There are some Latino gang members, one of whom is named Manny (Rick Gonzalez, Reaper) and sells Rush his cocaine, that Rush gets too involved with. I won’t go into details, but while part of their story may wrap a little too easily, the pilot also leaves the door open for them to take Rush down a road he should absolutely avoid if he wants to be an upstanding individual.

RUSH also has the tendency to venture into cheesiness from time to time. Early in the first episode, multiple characters tell Rush that he looks bad. He doesn’t; not even close. You’ll see near the end of the installment what Rush looks like when he really lacks sleep and is stressed out. Instead, those early lines feel like what the script writer thinks we expect, and those making the production forgot to make it true, nor should it have been, given the larger arc of Rush’s journey. A moment meant to show Rush is a good man, giving cash to someone who turns out not to be homeless, also is forced.

The potential lies in the backstory. Rush clearly has done something to inspire the loyalty of Eve and Alex, and I do think that will eventually be revealed, though only a hint about Eve creeps into the pilot. While I don’t think the history will be enough to redeem the current man, at least there might be an engaging story there.

RUSH isn’t bad. It’s just not stellar. Judge it for yourself when it premieres this Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on USA.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Being MARRIED Is Sort of Amusing

Article originally written for Seat42F.

MARIED is a new comedy airing on FX about a couple who have lost the spark in their union and are looking for ways to salvage their relationship. Every day is a struggle, with kids demanding attention and sex pretty much a thing of the past. It’s a bittersweet look at a particularly difficult stage of married life, with emphasis on the bad side, but with an underlying heart that will surely carry the characters through.

Who doesn’t like Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate) and Judy Greer (Arrest Development, Archer)? They are two gifted comedic actors who have been funny in everything they’ve been in, in my opinion. Going in, the fact that the two of them are the leads is a major plus for MARRIED.

The show itself is not quite as funny as I expected it to be, though, which is why I like the series paired with it, You’re the Worst, a little more. There are funny jokes in MARRIED, to be sure, but it’s a toned-down funny, sometimes at the expense of the pathetic players. There is a lot of misery for these characters, people whose life has not gone the way they’ve expected it to. Russ (Faxon) is feeling very unfulfilled because his wife won’t touch him any more, despite his attempts to get her to do so. Lina (Greer) wants to be a good spouse, but she’s too worn out from taking care of their three young girls (How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)’s Rachel Eggleston, Cloud Atlas’ Raevan Lee Hanan, and newcomer Skylar Gray) and doesn’t have the energy to help Russ, too. This darkness is just not a laughing matter.

Yet, there’s also a sweetness to the program. The fact that Lina wants to help Russ proves that there is affection between them, even if she seems to have forgotten how to show it or just isn’t capable of doing so right now. Russ is earnest in his attempts to get Lina interested again, trying to make her happy, too, not just a horny guy obsessed with getting off. It’s hard to blame either one when they are both trying, or what amounts to trying in their current state, and once their kids get older, they should be able to reconnect if they can just hang on to each other for now.

The premise of the first episode is that Lina gives Russ permission to find someone else to help meet his physical needs. This makes sense, logically, but of course emotions are involved, and those are anything but logical. Without going into detail, the story unfolds in a way other than I expected. As regrettable as it is to see Russ even considering going down this road, Greer and Faxon are so good in their parts, effectively communicating the mixed feelings and nuance, that it actually works rather well.

When things get too much for Russ, he heads to the bar to meet his friends Jess (Jenny Slate, Parks and Recreation), who is with a considerably older gentleman, and AJ (Brett Gelman, Go On), who is newly single again. They provide an outlet and advice, allowing him to verbalize much of what he’s thinking. While it may not be completely realistic for Russ to have the time and money to hang out with them so often, it allows the story to keep moving effectively.

Sadly, Lina doesn’t have a similar outlet, stuck at home with the kids while Russ is out getting plot. I hope this is a fluke of the pilot and future installments allow more balance in the couple. The only time I really didn’t like Russ are the scenes in which it’s obvious that he is running around town and Lina is buried in housework and childcare. They should switch off, allowing Lina to have her own stories while Russ takes his time with the girls. This would not only provide gender equality, but also make sure Greer gets her due, as she would be wasted otherwise.

Otherwise, though, MARRIED makes a decent show, not FX’s best, but still worth watching. MARRIED premieres Thursday, July 17th at 10 p.m. ET.

Friday, July 18, 2014

YOU'RE THE WORST Is Actually the Best

Article originally written for Seat42F.

FX has a new sitcom called YOU’RE THE WORST. As the phrase suggests, the show follows two people who many would consider ‘the worst’ for their self-involvement and lack of consideration for others. Neither has had much luck in the romance department, but a no-strings hook up at a wedding quickly leads to the possibility of something more when both are forced to admit a growing attraction to one another and the possibility that they want a significant other in their lives.

The cast is headed by Chris Geere (Waterloo Road) as Jimmy and Aya Cash (Traffic Light) as Gretchen, two wonderfully funny actors in the roles mentioned above. Both have a charm about them that transcends their poor behavior, letting viewers in on why someone might be drawn to them, despite their many readily apparent flaws. They aren’t bad people; they just haven’t had a reason to grow up yet until they find each other. Thus, they are both on a journey of self-improvement in conjunction with the beginnings of a real relationship, and their similarities mean they can chart their own path in this, not forced to unnecessarily change for somebody that wouldn’t appreciate the way they are.

YOU’RE THE WORST is obviously not a traditional love story. It starts with obnoxious behavior and never quite escapes that pattern. Whether it involves telling off a bride on her wedding day or ‘borrowing’ a car from someone you barely know without permission, neither Jimmy nor Gretchen would fit into the mold of what audiences have come to expect from a romantic comedy. So because the story, by necessity, must veer off into a course other than the time-worn one, it allows the writers the freedom to explore different things than you would find in your basic ninety-minute rom-com.

What this means, most obviously, is that the show is filthy. From foot fetishes to spitting, the pilot immediately establishes a tone that is most definitely for mature audiences. This works fine for FX, as many of their shows fit into that category, and those viewers that are already watching that network likely won’t find anything too much more offense than they’re accustomed to in YOU’RE THE WORST. What’s more, the material is genuinely funny, earnest and sincere, rather than gross just for the sake of being gross. A lot can be forgiven if the characters are likeable and they’re exhibiting an honest part of their personality, which is where the humor comes from here, rather than ridiculous situations or awful mishaps.

I think it does help that both Jimmy and Gretchen have a best friend, rounding out the main cast, who see the positive qualities in these two and reflect those for the audience to see, too. Desmin Borges (Tower Heist) and Kether Donohue (Pitch Perfect) play Edgar and Lindsay, respectively. Edgar is a war veteran who Jimmy allows to crash with him, while Lindsay is a reformed version of Gretchen, meaning that these two players aren’t exactly serving the same purpose, even as they nicely redeem our protagonists. It’s a pleasing dynamic, though I would like to see Lindsay and Edgar developed further in their own right, more so than they are in the pilot, as the show goes on.

I really, really like YOU’RE THE WORST. There are some clever parallels and jokes in the writing, the narrative not always taking the predictable path. It has a similar sensibility as The League, but may appeal more balanced to the genders. It feels fresh and modern, showing us familiar types but making them their own. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with scenes that are just plain sexy, dancing the line of risqué that is permitted on non-premium cable television, and this has plenty of those.

YOU’RE THE WORST premieres Thursday, July 17th at 10:30 p.m. ET.