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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Take it EASY

Article first published as EASY Review on Seat42F.

NETFLIX is making your viewing decisions EASY this weekend (excuse the pun). It’s new eight-episode anthology series, EASY, which follows a diverse group of people in modern Chicago, dropped this morning. I’ve watched the first two half-hour installments, and my early impression is that it’s neat, authentic, well cast, and has something very relatable and very interesting to say.
The first episode is titled “The F**king Study,” which should tell you right away that the content is for mature audiences. Title stars aside, nudity and swearing are not bleeped in the show, though I will say the main characters are treated with dignity and realism, which means their bodies are only shown sparingly, not gratuitously. Usually, they are wearing something as they get it on.
Anyway, the plot of this first episode, to give you a taste of what EASY is, begins at a party where a study is being discussed. Apparently, it has been found that couples who stick to traditional gender norms have more and better sex. This greatly worries a husband (Michael Chernus, Orange Is the New Black) who stays home to write plays and take care of the kids. Although she plays it off, his wife (Elizabeth Reaser, Twilight), is also bothered, although she handles it differently.
What follows is a portrayal of two people who have been in a marriage a long time, do love each other, but aren’t sure what that means any more. We’ve seen couples struggle to maintain that intimacy and love before (HBO’s Togetherness springs to mind), and I won’t say EASY is entirely breaking new ground here. But what it does, it does very well. I fully believe these two actors, and can easily empathize with them, getting into their heads and understanding where they are coming from. Sure, it’s a bit depressing, especially for someone approaching who is that point in their own life (full disclosure: I am). However, as young people so often fail to understand, there’s no blueprint for any phase of life, and all we can do is figure it out as we go along, which is something that must be learned in of itself.
The second episode jumps to the very beginning of a relationship, as a woman (Kiersey Clemons, Transparent) questioning her sexuality (and everything else about herself) meets her “Vegan Cinderella” (Jacqueline Toboni, Grimm). It’s obviously quite a different take than the first episode, and yet it feels consistent in tone and style, even if the point of view shifts dramatically. Quality is maintained, and there are some fun little connections, the protagonist for installment two being the babysitter from episode one.
I’m not sure all the episodes will be so focused on love and sex, as the series description also mentions navigating technology and culture. In general, though, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s a brief circle through many perspectives, with an indie-movie feel and some genuine characters. Again, this is not a totally new concept, but it’s one that I dig when well executed, as it certainly is with EASY.
Television is entertainment, yes, but the best of it is meant to give us insight into our world and ourselves. That’s not as lofty a goal as it might sound, with the earliest examples of theatre seeking to do just that. EASY holds a mirror up, and maybe we don’t see our reflection every time, but it keeps turning that mirror until we do identify something looking back at us, or at a friend or family. It’s feel-good without being soapy, and drama without being dramatic. It’s comfortable, enjoyable, and I still come out of it feeling like I learned something about life. I can totally get behind this.
EASY is now available on Netflix streaming.


Article first published as PITCH Review on Seat42F.

Disclaimer: This article is written by a non-sports fan. Nope, I don’t watch any of the sports.
FOX will be striking several chords with its new drama PITCH. It’s about the first woman in major league sports, as a girl becomes pitcher for the San Diego Padres. No, this is not a true story, and no, no woman has ever played for the MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL (America’s four major professional sports leagues, according to Wikipedia; remember, I don’t follow sports), although the Padres are an actual team. But it feels like a true story, especially with the right to use actual logos, and hopefully reality will echo art in short order.
Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury, Twisted) always wanted to play baseball. She was great at it from a young age, and her father (Michael Beach, Sons of Anarchy) taught her how to compete with the boys. She finally earns her way into the minor leagues, and when an injury sidelines the Padres’ regular starter, she is called up to substitute in his steed.
Obviously, this is a huge weight to put on one woman, forced to represent her entire gender. The parallels are drawn between Ginny and Jackie Robinson, and PITCH portrays the sexism we’d all expect to happen right from the start. It’s easy to imagine all of the problems that would pop up when a woman finally makes that leap. PITCH gets a lot of them out of the way quickly, presumably so they can move onto other drama.
But PITCH isn’t just a preachy, big-picture show. Yes, showing a female in the big leagues is extremely important and long overdue. However, there is an actual woman for which this is happening, and a lot of the focus is on Ginny. We see how she handles things emotionally, and it feels authentic. Bunbury is terrific at making Ginny seem real, and as much as I feel her pain when she falls short, I also feel her pride when she succeeds, as we know she must.
In this way, PITCH is also a typical sports movie. Like many of the great films in the genre, it follows an underdog who overcomes adversity and naysayers to rise to the top of her game. This formula is incredibly familiar, and yet it rarely feels stale, even when the audience knows what to expect. Everyone likes to see sympathetic characters win, and Ginny fits that profile perfectly.
The cast is rounded out by a bevy of strong performers. Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By the Bell, Franklin & Bash) is the abrasive team captain, Mike Lawson. Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) is the coach who doesn’t want Ginny, Al Luongo. Mo McCrae (Murder in the First) is Ginny’s long-time buddy and now teammate, Blip. Meagan Holder (Born Again Virgin) is Blip’s wife and Ginny’s pal, Evelyn. Tim Jo (The Neighbors) plays social media guru Eliot, and Ali Larter (Heroes) is Ginny’s agent, Amelia. Finally, Mark Consuelos (Alpha House) is the general manager of the team, Oscar Arguella.
Now, while the pilot is wholly a typical sports movie, I’m assuming the series will be more of a soapy drama over time. I feel like there are already the makings of a romance between Ginny and Mike, and Oscar is definitely after Amelia. There will be ups and downs as the season unfolds, and while the games will probably frequently be shown, there’s also going to be plenty of character stuff.
I think PITCH will be good at that. The pilot was very strong, other than a scene in which Mike seems to play savior to Ginny, which I found a little patronizing, but also kind of necessary to the plot. If it can avoid those, and it did for the rest of the hour, I think PITCH could definitely be a series worth watching. Though I think it’s too soon to crown it, as some already have, the next Friday Night Lights, which remains the definitive TV sports drama of our time.
PITCH premieres Thursday, September 22nd on FOX.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


Article first published as LETHAL WEAPON Review on Seat42F.

The Lethal Weapon movies are a popular franchise, so I imagine most of you potential viewers out there are already familiar with the premise of FOX’s new drama, LETHAL WEAPON. Martin Riggs loses his family and goes into a self-destructive tailspin. He is then partnered with Roger Murtaugh, a man who should start taking it easy because he’s getting older. The two of them solve some action-packed cases together, with some character development along the way as their pairing solidifies both professionally and personally.

These two men were famously portrayed by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and the premise and personalities are carried over as the series reboots for the small screen. This time around Clayne Crawford (Rectify) plays Riggs and Damon Wayans (In Living Color) takes Murtaugh. The foul language has been cleaned up, the fights are less bloody, but the fun and tone of the series is much the same, and while the pilot presents a brand-new case, it feels very familiar to those who have enjoyed the movies.

What this means is that LETHAL WEAPON is not like your typical cop show. Sure, there may be a case of the week; I really don’t know how else they could keep the story going. But at least in the pilot, a lot more screen time is devoted to solidifying the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh, both together and separately, than to working the job. I really appreciate that, and hope they are able to keep it up, if not at the same level, then at least continue doing better at it than most crime procedurals.

There’s also guaranteed action. Lethal Weapon is an action movie, and LETHAL WEAPON will be an action show. Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t just going to interview witnesses and look for DNA. They are going to get involved in car chases and fist fights and gun showdowns. This makes for a more fast-paced, tense, thrilling ride than what you get on those shows like NCIS and Law & Order.

What LETHAL WEAPON fails at is in casting its two leads. Neither actor is bad, but because they’re continuing famous roles, they will be compared to the original actors. And neither one stacks up to their predecessor. In the past, that might have been blamed on the fact that the best actors would only work big screen gigs, but that is no longer the case. I think better stars could have been found, or perhaps keep one of them but find someone else that fits well with him.

What I’m saying is, the main problem is that their chemistry leaves something to be desired. I don’t buy any depth to their friendship with the current way it is portrayed. Even if you like their individual performances, this show depends very much on the dynamic in their partnership. I thought it came too easy and felt too forced. It took me out of the moment a lot. Which is a shame, because both played very well with Keesha Sharp (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), who is Murtaugh’s wife, Trish.

Speaking of supporting actors, LETHAL WEAPON also stars Kevin Rahm (Mad Men, Desperate Housewives) as Murtaugh’s old partner and their new boss, Avery Brooks, and Jordana Brester (the Dallas reboot) as Dr. Maureen Cahill, a possible love interest for Riggs (at least until they cast Lorna Cole). I have no complaints about either one of them. I’m less thrilled with Johnathan Fernandez’s (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) Scorcese, not because of the performer, but because I’m worried the character is there to shoehorn in the more formulaic police stories.

So, my conclusion is that LETHAL WEAPON has a good pilot, even if the leads may be a bit miscast, but I’m concerned about it sustaining complex character quality over time, especially given Scorcese’s inclusion and the neat way they ended episode one. LETHAL WEAPON premieres tonight on FOX.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hunting for VAN HELSING

Article first published as VAN HELSING Review on Seat42F.

SyFy had such success with Wynonna Earp earlier this year that it’s no wonder they’d aim to get a second female-led reboot of a classic character back on the small screen ASAP. This time, it’s the VAN HELSING character from Dracula who receives the twist, with the story taking place in a near future where the world has been overrun by vampires. Can she save the world?

Kelly Overton (True Blood, Legends) stars as Vanessa Van Helsing, a woman who has been asleep for at least three years. Standing guard over her is Axel (Jonathan Scarfe, Ties That Bind), a military man who doesn’t know why she’s important, but knows it’s his job to protect her and the doctor who cares for her (Rukiya Bernard, The Stagers). When an old friend of Axel’s, Ted (Tim Guinee, The Good Wife, Revolution), shows up with a small group of survivors, things change for Axel and his charge.

I like that the pilot doesn’t jump straight into the action, and is just the beginning of the story, not a pattern that will be repeated week after week. It takes its time introducing the characters and letting the audience figure out who is important, which isn’t entirely clear in the first hour (though the main cast is listed on the show’s website). It doesn’t even introduce a lot of the major players in the initial offering, though since the series is airing two episodes back-to-back on premiere night, that might be saved for the second half.

I also like that VAN HELSING isn’t confined by the literary character on which it is so loosely based. Sure, I like a good Dracula adaptation, but that probably wouldn’t fit the network’s brand, whereas a slight-future reimagining totally does. Overton is believable enough as a woman desperate to find her daughter, who is somehow also a superhero that could possibly change the world, and her mission is one people will root for.

What I don’t like is that there aren’t any real stakes here (hehe), at least not at first. So Van Helsing has some powers, so what? It’s not like she can do something that will end the vampire reign overnight. Sure, she gives survivors a fighting chance, but it doesn’t seem like there are that many of them left anyway. They might secure a city or an area, but really, what’s the point? Axel isn’t likely to ever get his Kit Kat bars back.

Which means there has to be more to Vanessa Van Helsing that even what we’re seeing. But the problem is, she isn’t likeable or sympathetic, and neither is Axel, who are the two characters who really get developed in the pilot. There’s no purchase to really cling to; nothing to drawn you in. I’m sure, given time, I could learn to enjoy these characters, but the fact that there’s no charm or vulnerability early on makes me less likely to stick it out.

I am intrigued by two characters. Sam, a deaf, observant man, is played by Christopher Heyerdahl. There’s nothing to really get me excited about Sam so far, but I loved Heyerdahl in Hell On Wheels, so I want to see what he’s doing here. I’m also very intrigued by Flesh (Vincent Gale, Bates Motel), (SPOILER ALERT, though it is listed on the Cast page of the official website) a vampire who turns human again after biting Van Helsing. While I’m sure there will be Angel-esque guilt, I am curious to see how VAN HELSING uses such a role.

But those things aren’t really enough to get me into the show. If anyone who isn’t sucked in by the first hour gives it more of a chance and thinks it significantly improves over time, let me know. Otherwise, in an era of peak TV, I just don’t have time for this one.

VAN HELSING premieres September 23rd at 10/9c on SyFy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Article first published as NOTORIOUS Review on Seat42F.

While we impatiently await the return of Scandal, ABC has another show on deck that is along the same lines called NOTORIOUS. It follows a lawyer, a TV producer, and the people around them as they manufacture news stories and deal with real drama, lying to pretty much everybody, and contributing to the public’s false perceptions of reality. It’s very soapy, and is certainly trying to be sexy in an over-the-top way.

Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs) stars as Julia George, the aforementioned producer, while Daniel Sunjata (Graceland) is the second lead, a lawyer named Jake Gregorian. The two of them don’t have a relationship, since Julia dating a judge (Marc Blucas, Necessary Roughness) and Jake is interested in his client’s wife (Dilshad Vadsaria, Greek). But because of the type of show this is, and because of the easy, immediate chemistry between the two, you just know they’re going to be dating, or at least screwing, before long.

Julia seems to be the colder of the pair, having no problem lying to and scolding her on-air talent, Louise Herrick (Kate Jennings Grant, Frost/Nixon), not that Julia has any room to talk. She also treats her new intern, Ryan Mills (Ryan Guzman, Heroes Reborn), poorly, although considering Ryan is thrust upon her through nepotism, I guess that’s understandable. My point is, we shouldn’t like Julia because of how she acts towards those around her, and yet Perabo just can’t play unlikeable so we end up behind her anyway (which is surely the intention of casting the actress in this role).

Jake is a little more sympathetic. Yes, he’s into a married woman, but he really does care about her and he’s at least hesitant about acting on those feelings. Through Jake’s interactions with his brother and legal partner, Bradley (J. August Richards, Angel), we see that Jake is a decent human being, even if his client, Oscar Keaton (Kevin Zegers, Gossip Girl), probably isn’t. So Jake is probably too good for Julia, but that won’t stop the show from pairing them anyway.

None of this in of itself is a bad thing. I’ve enjoyed many shows with similar ensembles and dynamics on broadcast network TV. In fact, most of the best primetime soapy dramas happen to be on ABC, including Scandal, so it seems like NOTORIOUS should fit right in.

But it doesn’t. The level of quality just isn’t there on this one. It isn’t the cast, who is across-the-board good looking and charming; it is the writing. So many things happen in the first hour alone to unnecessarily cause conflict that it stops feeling real and you’re taken out of the moment repeatedly. How unlucky can Julia be? Why must Jake have a young employee, Ella Benjamin (Aimee Teegarden, Friday Night Lights), who is so perfectly matched to Julia’s Ryan? Why does Louise have to be so lecherous, other than to get in the middle of couples and potential couples?

It’s also really hard to trust what we’re seeing when not once, but twice early in the first hour of the series characters reveal how far their lying goes to the audience. Suddenly, I’m not going to believe anything I see in a scene until it’s proven and backed up in multiple other scenes, and maybe not even then. NOTORIOUS shoots itself in the foot by making the characters so dishonest and then somehow expecting us to still like and trust them.

This type of show is something I’d be totally into, and in the past, I may even have looked past the mess and the flaws to give it a chance to grow into itself (cough, Revenge). But there are too many good things on right now to waste your time with a mediocre one that may never be that great (cough, Revenge), and NOTORIOUS, despite having a great ensemble, just isn’t ready for primetime.

NOTORIOUS premieres Thursday, September 22nd at 9/8c.


Article published as DESIGNATED SURVIVOR Review on Seat42F.

We all know about the DESIGNATED SURVIVOR, right? During the annual State of the Union speech, one member of the administration is chosen to stay behind at a safe location in case an attack wipes out the rest of the government. This unlikely event has never happened, but it’s a worse-case scenario contingency that is ripe with story potential, as shown in the great reboot of Battlestar Galactica a few years ago. But it was only one element of that show; does it have the legs to support a weekly series?

ABC is going to find out as DESIGNATED SURVIVOR premieres this week. Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland, 24) is the outgoing Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, probably left behind because he’s fallen out of favor with the president and being forced to resign anyway. But when disaster strikes, Tom is quickly sworn in as leader of the free world, thrust into a situation where he must make the tough calls in short order, set the country’s response to the most devastating attack its ever experienced, and assert power from those who don’t believe he can handle the job.

One such critic is Seth Wright (Kal Penn, House, Harold & Kumar), a speech writer for the POTUS that does not think the new guy has what it takes. Nor do any of the military leaders. This is understandable, not just because Tom is not a combative guy, but because the first things we see him do do not inspire confidence in his ability to lead and make the tough calls. It seems like he will not be able to make this work.
But if that were to remain the case, there would be no show, right? Tom is our hero and he will step up to the plate. That’s a given before we even start watching the series.

The problem is, Tom finds his inner strength way too easily. I guess you can take the man out of Jack Bauer but you can’t take the Jack Bauer out of the man. While Kiefer does a fine job finding Tom’s timid nature at the start, he transforms ridiculously quick into what he’ll need to be. Where’s the struggle? This would be a far more interesting show if the focus was on that growth journey instead of moving quickly past it to get to the action.

Funny enough, ABC president Channing Dungey recently said she wished cable series weren’t automatically seen as better than broadcast shows. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is the perfect example of exactly why this bias exists. Were the series on FX or HBO or AMC, the show would be about the character’s struggle. The cast would likely be smaller, and the story tighter to the immediate situation. Instead, like a lot of ABC shows, it’s bloated and quick moving, wanting to get more action and soapy drama in than worrying about Emmy-worthy performances or fantastic writing.

Though I called the roster bloated, I’m not complaining about the rest of the cast; it’s a strong ensemble comprised of Natascha McElhone (Californication) as Tom’s wife, Alex, Italia Ricci (Chasing Life) as Tom’s aide, Emily, Adan Canto (The Following) as the new president’s, well, tutor seems appropriate though isn’t entirely accurate, Aaron, LaMonica Garrett (Sons of Anarchy) as a Secret Service agent, Mike, and Maggie Q (Nikita) as an FBI agent, Hannah. But most of them are underdeveloped, such as the First Lady being a very bland type, or poorly used, in the case of Q. This could improve over time, but these supporting players are not well established in episode one.

I really want to like this show, and I kind of do. It is exciting, I do enjoy the actors, and I am curious about the mystery that we start with. I just worry DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is not set up for success, and that things will get hokey and insincere as the season plays out, forcing twists where they aren’t needed, and skipping over the potential deep bits beginning to be explored based on the unevenness and flaws of the pilot. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if this one can be great or not.

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR premieres Wednesday at 10/9c.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Not SPEECHLESS About This One

Article first published as SPEECHLESS Review on Seat42F.

SPEECHLESS is a new sitcom on ABC that you may have heard of. As the previews make very clear, this is your typical family sitcom with a mom, dad, three kids, and one outside cast member to mix things up. As you may not have heard, there’s something about the show that makes it not quite your typical family sitcom, and yet, the very way in which this something is handled is what makes it so typical.

The family unit is made up of an overbearing mother, Maya (Minnie Driver, About a Boy, Good Will Hunting), a calm and supportive father, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie, The Big Bang Theory), a competitive daughter, Dylan (Kyla Kenedy, The Walking Dead), and a nerdy son, Ray (Mason Cook, Legends). Sounds normal enough, right?

Where things veer off a little bit is with the other son, JJ (Micah Fowler, Labor Day), who happens to have severe cerebral palsy. We’re talking a condition so bad that the poor kid can’t talk, having to use a laser pointer on a headset to point to the words on a card that he wants to say, on his way towards Stephen Hawking territory. I can’t recall the last time we’ve seen someone like JJ on a broadcast network sitcom.

What’s remarkable and laudable about SPEECHLESS is how little a deal it makes of JJ. Yes, JJ is a driving plot point, the family having to move schools frequently in order to find the best situation for him. And Ray’s first arc is all about feeling overlooked by Maya, who spends so much of her energy doing what is best for JJ. But this is by no means the only thing going on in SPEECHLESS.

The best part is how JJ himself is handled. He bullies Ray a little bit. Jimmy cracks jokes at JJ’s expense. Basically, he’s a part of the family, and no one in this clan treats him any differently on a regular basis. Sure, Maya might go out and fight harder for him, but in their dynamic, JJ is just like Ray and Dylan.

This should not be a revelation; shows have been trying to include more diversity for years. From Parenthood’s Max, who had Asperger’s (though the actor does not), to Glee’s Becky, who had Down Syndrome (which the actress does have), it’s not a completely brand-new thing to see this sort of character on television. And yet, it still feels fresh because so few regular series take the time to include a player with such challenging disabilities who contributes to the story in such a pedestrian way. This is a very good thing.

If JJ was all SPEECHLESS had going for it, I’d dismiss JJ as a gimmick, as sad as that would be. Thankfully, that is not the case. It’s a strongly written, well-acted comedy. Driver and Bowie are absolutely terrific, as they always are, but especially so in this particular setting. Cook, Fowler, and Kenedy are great, too, certainly able to keep up with the adults. Cedric Yarbrough (Reno 911!) rounds out the cast as Kenneth, the custodian-turned-aide for JJ, who easily integrates into the group from the first moment we, and the characters, meet him.

I’m sure the team behind SPEECHLESS doesn’t want to be known as “that family comedy with the cerebral palsy kid,” or at least I hope they don’t. They won’t be able to help that for awhile, and it’s impossible to write up an initial review without dwelling on it. But given the steady quality and amusing laughs, nudging it towards the top of the typical family sitcom heap (of which there are a few too many on right now), hopefully it’ll soon be talked about as “one of the better family sitcoms” period. It deserves that, and I love that I can say that about it. This would be a very different review if I could not.

As Joss Whedon said when asked why he writes so many strong female characters, “because you ask that question,” SPEECHLESS helps us along the path to answering a question about why you include an actor with a disability in the ensemble with “because you ask that question.” The more comfortable viewers can get with a wide variety of people on their screens, the better for it we all are.

SPEECHLESS premieres Wednesday at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.