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Friday, February 5, 2016

THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY

Article originally published as THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY Review on Seat42F.

american-crime-story-people-v-oj-simpson
American Horror Story is FX’s most popular program, so it’s no surprise that the network has doubled down on the creative team, ordering a second series by them, AMERICAN CRIME STORY. The official title of the first season, premiering tomorrow, is THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY, which is a bit longer than it probably should be. That’s not the only thing that’s different from the Horror franchise, though, which typically only allows one or two words beside its core moniker.

The biggest change is the level of quality present. While American Horror Story is extremely artistic and surreal, with the style and tone of the piece being as much of a draw as the story, AMERICAN CRIME STORY is much more grounded in reality, to its detriment. Though, Murphy and company managed to maintain an excellent product when delivering The Normal Heart for HBO, so pulling the new series away from the fantasy realm can’t fully excuse the jolting adjustment.

AMERICAN CRIME STORY, rather than being in the Murphy vein, is very much a true crime story. This is in vogue right now, with Serial being a hugely successful podcast and Making a Murderer getting lots of attention over at Netflix. The network’s own Fargo qualifies as one of these, too, though is more hyper-realistic, so doesn’t have the same limitations as this series, which has the added challenge of telling a story practically everyone is at least a little familiar with.

The crux of this series will be in showing the human side of the tale, getting into the emotional state of those involved and making a compelling character study, which is where it is best. There are a number of intriguing personalities involved in this case. It takes about a full hour of THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY for the audience to get used to this new format, and for the story to get to that all-important element. This means, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, that the series begins slow, then picks up quickly thereafter.

Hour two is what hooks me. Featuring remarkable performances by both Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire) as O.J. Simpson and David Schwimmer (Friends) as Robert Kadashian, this is where THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY figures out what it needs to be. Sure, there’s the spectacle of the case, and that does come through. But taking us behind the spectacle, to the parts at-home watchers weren’t privy to the first time around, it is where things really soar.

There is no shortage of performers poised to follow up those brilliant moments of the second installment, giving me hope that the rest of the season will be just as good. From Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) as Marcia Clark, to Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) as Gil Garcetti, to Christopher Darden (Army Wives) as Sterling K. Brown, to Christian Clemenson (Boston Legal) as Bill Hodgman, and, of course, Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) as Johnnie Cochran, the casting is terrific. And I haven’t even seen the great Nathan Lane (The Producers), credited as a main player, yet! Plus, there are a host of terrific guest stars lining up, a few of which already appear early on.

The one possible weak link is John Travolta (Grease, Hairspray), who is playing Robert Shapiro. I say possible because, quickly reviewing some clips of the actual Shaprio, I’m not sure Travolta’s choices are all that far off from who he’s supposed to be. And yet, there’s something so plastic about his Shapiro that I’m not convinced he’s doing his best. Travolta has oodles of talent, but it’s been awhile since he’s really shone. It will be interesting to see if he rises to the level of his co-stars, or continues is professional descent.

The second thing, besides character, that AMERICAN CRIME STORY does well is to tell the story in context. No, I’m not talking about how this trial gave birth to the Kadashian infestation in the public spotlight, though that certainly is a regrettable consequence. Instead, I’m speaking of race relations in Los Angeles at the time, which plays a very big role in what motivates a number of character decisions. Some of the early mistakes made by the prosecution and law enforcement seem to be related to combating negative images brought about after the Rodney King riots, making context very relevant.

So, even if Travolta never really steps up, there verdict is likely to be positive on THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY. There is so much going right here that it can likely overcome a few minor missteps with ease. Just give it an hour to get its footing first.

THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Inside OUTSIDERS

Article originally published as OUTSIDERS Review on Seat42F.

outsiders wgn america

Not quite a year after the excellent Justified left the air, a new drama takes us back into the hollers and wilds of Kentucky. OUTSIDERS, which premiered last night on WGN America, is the story of a small town and the feral Farrells who inhabit the mountain beside it. While civilization and tribal culture have existed peacefully beside one another for two centuries, modernity is moving in from the outside, which threatens to shake up everything.

The Farrells themselves have an interesting culture. Led by the current “Brennan,” Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville, The Big C), they brew their own moonshine, abhor money, marry cousins, and yet seem to get along pretty well. Sure, they go into town and steal things occasionally, but the locals have learned to put up with it, partially out of fear, and partially because the clan knows the limits of what they can get away with. A few, like Hasil (Kyle Gallner, Veronica Mars), push boundaries from time to time, such as when he tries to take up with a non-Farrell, Sally Ann (Christina Jackson, Boardwalk Empire), but mostly, they know their place. So it has been for two hundred years, and so it shall continue, or so some hope.

But the status quo is shifting as Big Foster (David Morse, Treme) seeks to take the leadership mantle from his mother, even after Lady Ray is reluctant to give it to him. When one of their own, Asa (Joe Anderson, Hannibal), returns from the outside with new knowledge and skills, there becomes a choice as to who the Farrells should be listening to. Events conspire to shift loyalties of some one way and some the other, and suddenly there’s a decision to make instead of a guaranteed line of succession.

This is where OUTSIDERS begins, with a people on the precipice of change. It will take someone strong to usher then into a new era, someone who understands the parties involved, but can see beyond petty feuds and backward traditions. It could be Asa, who has shunned the rest of the world after living apart from his family for unknown reasons. But if it’s not him, it’s not certain who else it could be.

In Justified, there was a lawman who kept the hill people in line enough. OUTSIDERS has its own deputy, Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright, The Bridge), but he’s far from another Raylan Givens. Instead, Wade is beset by his own demons, and may just be the person in town most terrified of confronting the Farrells. Which is too bad because, pushed to do so by the coal companies, Wade’s boss assigns him the unenviable task of evacuating the mountain.

OUTSIDERS is fascinating because of the various personalities it portrays, some of which will seem rooted in folklore more than reality to potential viewers. Yet, even with the superstitions present, the series is pretty solidly grounded by terrific performances and an interesting, natural story (more reality-driven than the network’s Salem). Perhaps most of those displaced by industry aren’t as violently resistant as the Farrells are bound to be, but it’s certainly a scenario that has played out in some form or another in numerous areas of the country.

I find little to complain about this show. WGN America is getting a reputation of shining a spotlight into dark corners of American culture and doing it well, and OUTSIDERS is a part of that proud tradition. It won’t appeal to everyone, to be sure, but it makes for good, quality television that many will enjoy if they just know where to look for it, WGN America not being a channel the majority of viewers typically keep an eye on. I recommend making the effort to check this one out.

OUTSIDERS airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on WGN America. If you missed the first episode, it repeats numerous times throughout the week. Check your listings.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

LUCIFER: Devil in the Details, But the Format is Hell

Article originally published as LUCIFER Review on Seat42F.


Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar



FOX (along with the other broadcast networks) is killing me! Even when they have a premise ripe for serial exploration and complex story-telling, they stuff it into a case-of-the-week procedural box. Sure, they allow a bit of ongoing narrative, but given the formula in episode one, you just know it’s going to be yet another repetitive crime show, even though it is begging not to be!

Let me slow down and tell you what I’m talking about. LUCIFER, a series premiering this week on FOX, stars Tom Ellis (Miranda) as Lucifer Morningstar. That’s right, the devil himself. Bored in hell, Lucifer has come to Earth to run a nightclub and mess with people while finding new purpose. His assistant, Mazikeen (Lesley Ann-Brandt, Spartacus), disapproves, as does God’s representative, Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside, Suits, 24), but Lucifer doesn’t care. Except, he does care, he finds, when the death of a mere mortal upsets him. Sounds pretty good, no?

The problem is, early in the pilot episode, LUCIFER becomes entranced with Chloe Decker (Lauren German, Chicago Fire), an LAPD detective. For some reason, Lucifer’s charms, which usually prompt people to spill their dark desires or, as in the case of psychiatrist Linda (Rachael Harris, Suits), swoon for him, don’t work on Chloe. This would all be well and good, except Lucifer helps Chloe solve a case and now wants to work with her on a regular basis.

Why oh why do the broadcast networks do this? How many television shows do we need where an outsider joins up with a member of law enforcement to solve crimes every week? Aren’t Bones, Sleepy Hollow, iZombie, Castle, Elementary, and oh so many more enough? I understand this often nets the networks viewers in the short-term, but these types of shows have little re-watchability, giving them shorter shelf lives than their lower-rated peers, and have flooded the airwaves.

LUCIFER likes to boast of its credentials. It is based on a comic book by Neil Gaiman, a spin-off of The Sandman. But in the illustrated version, Lucifer doesn’t get involved with a cop. Why the heck does he have to on the show?

What is most frustrating is that I really like LUCIFER. Tom Ellis plays the titular devil with brilliant complexity, and the personal depths of the character are ripe for much juicy exploration. The moral questions it raises and the religious implications are intriguing, and having other supernaturals in the cast teases epic conflicts to come. The first hour is enjoyable, and there isn’t a weak member of the cast, which also includes Kevin Alejandro (True Blood, The Returned) as Dan, Chloe’s ex-husband and co-worker.

And yet, this wonderful premise is watered down by repetitive formula. FOX has rarely been all that kind to genre shows, and without Chloe, LUCIFER is likely to be a genre fantasy. However, without Chloe, or at least without Chloe’s job taking center stage, it also leaves the narrative open to a lot more possibilities and directions. This show may occasionally explore off the beaten path, but it seems likely that most weeks will basically deliver the same thing, with only small bits to serve continuity.

LUCIFER is the perfect example of what is wrong with the Big Four networks and why they are dying. Even when they get a strong concept, they twist it to fit patterns that are outdated and tired. Instead of getting excited about LUCIFER, I plan to give it just a few more episodes to prove to me it can be better than the box it’s being stuffed into. No one will be happier than me if my summation of the situation turns out to be false. But I wouldn’t count on it.

LUCIFER airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on FOX.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reopening THE X-FILES

Article originally published as THE X-FILES Review on Seat42F.


The X Files FOX 2016

WARNING: Yes, this post contains spoilers. It does not ruin any huge surprises, but if you’d rather go in ignorant, why are you even looking at a review?

Television reboots and resurrections are on the rise right now, with Fuller House coming to Netflix soon, and new episodes of Prison Break scheduled for filming this summer. For millions of fans, though, no series is more exciting to see return than THE X-FILES, which begins a run of six brand-new episodes this weekend.

A bit of background: THE X-FILES was a series that ran from 1993 until 2002 on FOX, and helped popularize geek culture as it exists today. The program spawned two relatively short-lived spin-off shows, and two moderately successful films, as well as plenty of merchandise. Starring David Duchovny (Californication) and Gillian Anderson (Hannibal) as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, it supposed alien life might actually exist, and government conspiracies have kept it out of the public eye.

And that is almost all I know about it. As a child with younger siblings, my parents deemed it “not appropriate” viewing in our house, and while it has topped my list of shows I really need to binge for years, I’ve yet to get to it. I have seen a few episodes (probably six-ish) in isolated events, just enough to know I want to see more, not enough to really get a picture of the series. That means that this review of THE X-FILES really stems from what I think of the first episode back, “My Struggle,” alone, not from a position as a fan boy from years back.

“My Struggle” is absolutely fantastic. It is creepy, it is intriguing, it is exciting, and it has some great performers. I *think* (again, I didn’t watch the show) it will completely redefine what the series was about, and pay off in big ways to those who are fans. Yet, if you’re coming in fresh, it’s also easy to follow and immediately addictive.

The new run begins with Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, Community), a Bill O’Reilly-type who thinks he has uncovered something huge he plans to reveal to the world. To be certain, he wants to bring in Mulder (Duchovny), but unable to reach Mulder directly, he goes through Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who gets in touch with Scully (Anderson). The couple is split, but Scully can still find Mulder when the need arises, and they both get drawn into the plot.

What Tad has is a young woman, Sveta (Annet Mahendru, The Americans), who has a history of abduction and experimentation. Interspersed with scenes of Roswell, a trip to a Faraday cage, and numerous 9/11 references, it may take Scully a little while to figure out what’s happening, but “My Struggle” finds Mulder having his mind blown. In what way, well, you’ll have to watch to see.

I assume that this hour is full of references to past episodes. I know one notable recurring character makes an appearance (yes, that one), and a visit back to the agents’ old office seems particularly nostalgia-inducing. It’s hard for me to judge how many references to previous events actually occurred on screen, but there are enough of them that I feel like long-time viewers are being served, which makes sense, considering creator Chris Carter is back in the writer’s seat.

In conclusion, whether you’ve been anxiously waiting on pins and needles or have only heard of the program in passing, as long as you are into UFOs, conspiracy theories, and/or good TV, you should definitely check out THE X-FILES airing this Sunday and Monday, and then for four weeks thereafter on FOX.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

DC'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW Aired A Couple Days Ago

Article first published as DC'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW Review on Seat42F.

DCS LEGENDS OF TOMORROW
 
Thursday, January 21st brings one of, if not the, most anticipated mid-season premiere on the broadcast networks. DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, a spin-off combining characters from the popular shows The Flash and Arrow, launches, expanding the comic book universe on the network, and making three simultaneously running series set in the same universe. It’s the culmination of the crossovers that have worked very well for the two shows, and a chance to see some fan favorite characters a lot more often. While Marvel is winning at the box office, DC is dominating the small screen.

The premise of DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW is well publicized, so I don’t mind recapping it here. Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who, Broadchurch) comes back in time from a bleak future in which Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) is destroying the world. To prevent catastrophe, Rip assembles eight people remembered in history as legends to team up and stop Vandal before his rise to power. These include: Professor Martin Stein (Victor Garber) and Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh), who together become Firestorm; the resurrected Sara Lance (Caity Lotz), now the White Canary; Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh), a.k.a. The Atom; the immortal Hawkman (Falk Hentschel) and Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee), also known as Chay-Ara and Khufu, who have their own history with Vandal; and the villainous Leonard Snart (Wentworth Miller) and Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell), dubbed Captain Cold and Heat Wave because of their weapons.

The group is undeniably fun. By including antagonists alongside protagonists, there is natural conflict and varied motivations. The spectrum runs from the idealistic (Ray) to the in-it-for-themselves (Leonard and Mick), from those seeking redemption (Sara) to those just out for adventure (Martin). Some have a personal stake in the outcome, while others want to prove something to themselves. None stand out as “the” star, all coming from second-fiddle status on Arrow and / or The Flash, making DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW one of the truest, most balanced ensembles assembled.

While not all of the actors are on the level of Garber or Darvill, both fantastic actors, they are well used in these roles. The writers have smartly figured out the characters, and played to the strengths of the individual performers as much as possible. Miller and Purcell are delightfully re-teamed after their stint on Prison Break as brothers, albeit with a totally different chemistry. Overall, it’s a nice assembly.

I wouldn’t say my review of the pilot is quite as glowing as how excited I am about the premise. With expectations high, DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW has a lot to live up to, and while it gets off to a decent start, it still has some way to go.

The main flaw I see is that this series was created when a group of people thought “Wouldn’t it be fun to see ____ together with ____.” It’s a hodgepodge of characters, not at all like an Avengers best-of-their-class team up. This is a great concept, but it takes a lot of skill and finesse to make it work. The first two hours fall just a bit short of that, at times having some really good interactions, particularly between Sara and Leonard, but at other times, feeling more like the idea is better than the execution.

There is hope, however. While the premise seems a bit weak at the start, there is a twist late in the first hour that does a lot to righting the course of the story and making things that seem off make more sense. I can’t reveal what I mean by that, but if you can get through that rocky beginning, it will result in a good pay off. The second half of the pilot, which will air a week later, is much better because of it.

At the end of the day, I remain excited about this show. It has a bit of maturing to do, not hitting the ground running as strong as The Flash did, but with a better start than Arrow’s. The sheer adventure element is so much fun, and I do look forward to the character growth that will surely emerge, as well as the larger scale story that this series is tailor-made to tackle. The CW has very valuable property on their hands with their DC partnership, and I hope they continue to make good use of it.

DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW premieres Thursday, January 21st on the CW with the first half of the two-hour pilot.

Monday, January 18, 2016

BILLIONS Well Worth It

Article first published as BILLIONS Review on Seat42F.

BILLIONS CAST SHOWTIME


Showtime’s new series BILLIONS is seemingly about a hedge fund manager and a U.S. Attorney, a battle of the big guy versus the common man, and a way to express class frustration in this country. But what it really is, is a drama about two flawed, petty men going at one another for all they’re worth, a battle to the death (perhaps not literally, but definitely of life as they know it), that only one man can walk away from, at best. And honestly, that’s plenty for me.

WARNING: Spoilers are below, but nothing more spoiler-y than Wikipedia reveals.

BILLIONS stars Paul Giamatti (Sideways, John Adams) as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Chuck Rhoades. Chuck has a flawless record locking up those who deserve it, picking his cases carefully, and with a chip on his shoulder against the rich who think they’re above the rules. He is influenced by his successful father, and intimidated (sometimes positively) by his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), who makes far more money than he does.

Wendy makes so much because she works for Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis, Homeland, Wolf Hall), an extremely successful player in the financial game. Wendy is his motivational coach, though one wonders how much she knows about Bobby’s dalliances on the wrong side of the law. Bobby’s own wife, Lara (Malin Akerman, Watchmen, Trophy Wife), is certainly aware and supportive, even when it includes milking 9/11 for the family’s monetary gain. This couple sometimes pushes things a little too far.

Admittedly, that premise is a bit far-fetched. The coincidence of Wendy’s employment alone, though existing long before Chuck rose to power, stretches believability. Yet, the characters are perfectly positioned for maximum conflict and drama, so I don’t find myself minding all that much.

The primary reason to watch BILLIONS is Giamatti and Lewis. Both accomplished, excellent performers, watching them take these complex men and engage in a person struggle is highly engrossing. Both have noble qualities and glaring flaws, and both do things from a calculating perspective. They are two titans at the top of their game (a description of both the characters and the actors), and it’s a privilege to see them compete with abandon.

That isn’t to say the story isn’t enjoyable. Any series on Showtime these days is pretty darn good, with the network having a high level of quality in their programming. There are layers and twists and plenty of detail to keep things interesting, and the topic is relevant and current. I’m just saying that is secondary to the main attraction, the fight where viewers will be unsure of who to side with from one scene to the next.

What I’d most like to see change as time goes on is for Wendy and Lara to play an equal role in the proceedings. Wendy certainly does more than Lara in the pilot, but is still supporting to the men. The lead actresses are perfectly capable of standing toe-to-toe with their on-screen husbands, so I hope BILLIONS is gender-equal over time.

There is also a top tier supporting cast, including David Costabile (Breaking Bad, Suits) and Toby Leonard Moore (Daredevil, The Pacific), who play the assistants to our antiheroes. The production itself is pretty, and the direction is appropriate to the scale of the conflict.

In short, BILLIONS is exactly on par with what I expect from Showtime, if not a notch or two above some of its peers. I am definitely committed to watching it, and recommend you check it out. Like I said, if nothing else, you’ll likely enjoy the leads.

BILLIONS premieres Sunday at 10 pm on Showtime.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

USA Continues Populating New TV COLONY

Article originally published as COLONY Review on Seat42F.

Colony USA Network


USA has been stretching itself beyond what viewers had come to expect from them over the past few years, and their newest drama, COLONY, is no exception to that trend. Set in a dystopian future in which someone or something (I presume aliens) has conquered the world, or at least Southern California, the drama follows one family as they try to both fight back and get along in this new power structure.

The faces at the center of COLONY should be familiar. Lost’s Josh Holloway plays Will Bowman, a man who used to hunt people when he was a soldier, but now will do anything just to keep his family safe and intact. He is married to Katie, played by Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead, Prison Break), who feels slightly different than her husband, unhappy with the way things have become, and constantly pushing back in ways big and small against it. The main visage of the enemy is House’s Peter Jacobson, who plays Alan Snyder, a collaborator who seeks to get the Bowmans to do his bidding. So we have a pretty familiar trio of performers to television fans.

Now, a good cast doesn’t necessarily mean a good show, but in this case, COLONY is actually quite interesting. It takes a premise similar to TNT’s recently ended Falling Skies, but makes it more heavy and serious, and focuses on a few people instead of a group. In this way, it grounds the story more and zeroes in on the emotional heft of the situation in a more meaningful way. It gives all three actors a chance to be layered, as we can see both why and why not the Bowmans would want to be a part of the resistance. And as detestable Alan is, one can understand his reasoning.

What I like about COLONY is that it is one of those shows that feels like a lot of thought has been put into the setting and premise before anything was written down. There are many differences between the world that the Bowmans inhabit and our own. Yet, every choice the show makes to change things makes sense, and taken together, it begins to paint a picture of who the conquerors are. Considering we don’t see them at all, and they are generally only spoken about indirectly, it is super important to get some feeling as to what the characters think of their overlords. The detail in the program itself provides this.

It also manages to be dramatic without being melodramatic. For instance, something happens to Will midway through the first episode. While the moment itself feels a little off (given the drastically different health outcomes between Will and the man next to him), everything after the fact, from Will meeting Snyder, to Katie dealing with her husband not returning home, seems authentic. There aren’t sidelong glances and sobbing fits just for the sake of it. These are emotionally complex people, not crippled by their mental state.

Katie herself is far from an obedient housewife. In fact, of the two spouses, she is the least predictable and the one more likely to take risks, and arguably the most heroic. COLONY will not be accused of being sexist.

Besides the three mentioned above, two other main players exist. Amanda Righetti (The Mentalist) is Madeline, the younger sister of Katie. Tory Kittles (True Detective) is Broussard, the Bowman’s connection to the resistance. Neither gets nearly as much development in the pilot as the core trio, so I’m not entirely sure what role they will play in the series. But I like that they are well established to be in the show without giving anything away about them yet. COLONY keeps its cards close to the vest.

COLONY is not (yet) my favorite USA show; Suits and Mr. Robot both edge it out. However, it has the potential to be something special, and definitely is worth checking out. It continues a solid upward trend for the cable network, and I am very interested to see where it goes next.

COLONY premieres Thursday at 10 pm on USA.