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Monday, March 20, 2017

Does IRON FIST Punch Land?

Article first published as MARVEL'S IRON FIST Review on Seat42F.


MARVEL’S IRON FIST released today. The fourth in a series of Netflix shows from the comic creator, it is designed to set up the final piece of the quartet for The Defenders team, a crossover series coming soon. In an effort to get you a review in as timely a manner as possible, this only covers the first hour of IRON FIST (mainly spoiler-free), although all thirteen have been released.

We open with our hero, Danny Rand (Finn Jones, Game of Thrones), returning to New York City for the first time in fifteen years. Barefoot, dirty, and scraggly, Danny fits in better with the homeless denizens of the park than he does in the upscale home and office building of his youth. Reintegrating back into the life he has been missing from is, predictably, not an easy task. Especially when his childhood friends, siblings Joy (Jessica Stroup, The Following) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey, Banshee), think Danny died in a plane wreck with his parents and don’t trust his sudden reappearance.

There’s no suspense for viewers as to whether Danny is who he says he is. He is the title character of the show (Rand is famously Iron Fist in the comic pages), so Marvel wouldn’t tease us by focusing a series on an imposter. His martial arts skills and seemingly superhuman moves confirm that for any who might still wonder, though we don’t get the First itself right away.

What there is suspense about is what the motive of the central villain is. It takes quite awhile for IRON FIST to even get around to showing us the presumed bad guy, though he is there before the end of the hour, and even after the reveal, little is known about him. While other Netflix Marvel shows have taken their time in their reveals, we usually get a bit more than this in the early stages.

Instead, we’re focused on Danny’s core problem: no one knows, or believes, who he is. This makes it impossible for him to start over, and fans will probably be unsure as to why he even wants to now. Why has he come home and what does he want? That isn’t stated. Instead, the focus just seems to be on how Danny will eventually convince the Meachums that he is legit, a frustrating and anticlimactic question.

There are some twists in the pilot, and while some are obvious ones, some are not. This means it is entertaining and moves along. The pacing is in line with the other Marvel shows, and the lack of information given to the audience does entice me to want to watch more right away. This isn’t a show meant to be served in single-hour portions.

But what works against IRON FIST is that it doesn’t have as strong an identity as Jessica Jones or Luke Cage. Both of these quickly came out of the gate with an obvious style and mission that made them unique. IRON FIST seems much more a typical superhero show, with Danny’s own abilities making him look more like Spiderman without the sass, and his upper crust upbringing not feeling especially unique.

Will IRON FIST overcome these drawbacks, its lack of immediate hook and more typical tone? Or will this be the weak link of the Marvel franchise, the one Netflix series from the studio that doesn’t earn itself a second season? I like Jones and Stroup, as well as Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones), who plays likely love interest and Danny’s tie back to Asia Colleen Wing, so I hope there’s something here. One hour is just not long enough for me to make that determination.

MARVEL’S IRON FIST complete first season is available now on Netflix.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Back UNDERGROUND

Article first published UNDERGROUND Season 2 Premiere Review on Seat42F.


WGN America’s UNDERGROUND begins its second season this week. Starting about five months after the freshman run’s finale, we quickly pick up the stories of most of our characters, more or less where we left them. Time has passed, but it’s been relatively uneventful. Something tells me, after watching the first episode, that that won’t be the case for very much longer.
UNDERGROUND is interesting to me because it’s not obvious at first who the leads are in the first year. There is a large ensemble full of talented performers, and while many of them are removed as the story progresses, there are still more important roles than the five who are listed as the primary cast, which includes only Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Noah (Aldis Hodge), Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), Cato (Alano Miller), and August (Christopher Meloni).
Thankfully, the show has been successful enough to expand that ensemble in season two. The most important of the four new leads is Ernestine (Amirah Vann), Rosalee’s mother, who always had her own plot arc, but now is officially among the principal players. UNDERGROUND season two has also added characters named Georgia (Jasika Nicole, Fringe), Clara (DeWanda Wise, Shots Fired), and Harriet (Aisha Hinds, Under the Dome, If I Stay).
Harriet, as in Harriet Tubman. Clearly a recast from the brief shot of the legendary figure from last year’s finale, it’s kind of cool that she is now part of the group. Previously, I’d worried that adding someone with such name recognition might distract from the core narrative. However, after checking out the start of season two, I don’t think that will be the case.
UNDERGROUND remains focused on the stories of the characters from year one. While Rosalee, Noah, and Elizabeth were just dipping their toe into the secret movement to free the slaves, they’re now larger players in the game, so it makes sense they’d come across Harriet. Harriet doesn’t get any more precedence than the others, less than the returning main players, so she’s an interesting element that signals our players have gotten deeper into the action, rather than a shift to a new direction.
We’ve also got some new locations. Most notably, Ernestine has left Macon Plantation and is (sort of) settling into a very different type of community. Between that and the scenes in Ohio and Canada, we begin to get a fuller picture of different parts of the United States, all of which were affected by the slave industry and those who opposed it.
There are some terrific surprises, too. As with the first year, audiences may think they know where things are heading, only to have the rug yanked out from under them by the unexpected. This is a sign of good storytelling, and an example of how UNDERGROUND roots itself in reality. While there are some fantastical coincidences and run-ins, for the most part the series keeps viewers on their toes in an authentic manner, and there’s at least one big twist in the initial return that leaves me wanting to jump right into the next episode.
Not everyone you expect to see is in the second year’s premiere. There is a lot going on in UNDERGROUND, so it doesn’t feel empty that some faces may have to wait a week for us to catch up with them. Instead, it’s a busy, satisfying hour, and I’d rather a few people take this installment off than force hokey subplots to include them.
In all, I’d rate the premiere pretty high, accomplishing what it needs to accomplish, building the established world larger, and still maintain the things that makes this show compelling. UNDERGROUND returns Wednesday at 10/9c on WGN America.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

No FEUD Over This One

Article first published as FEUD Review on Seat42F.


Ryan Murphy, who has had great success with the anthology series format on FX in American Horror Story and American Crime Story, brings his next show to television tonight in FEUD. The first season is subtitled BETTE AND JOAN, and covers the film the two legendary actresses made together, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? As you might expect, FEUD is excellent.

Jessica Lange (Big Fish, Horace and Pete) has been Murphy’s muse before, and as a grand lady herself, it makes sense for her to play Joan Crawford, the catalyst that gets the plot moving. Once a big Hollywood star, now a widow who hasn’t worked in awhile, Joan is disappointed by the dearth of strong roles for women of a certain age and sets out to force her own picture through. Latching onto the book What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, she recruits director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina, The Normal Heart, Spider-Man 2) and her long-time rival, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, Thelma & Louise, The Lovely Bones), to help with her comeback. That’s where this story begins.

I cannot emphasize enough the quality of acting in FEUD. Alongside Molina, we get Judy Davis (Maria Antoinette), Jackie Hoffman (Birdman), Stanley Tucci (Spotlight), Alison Wright (The Americans), Kathy Bates (American Horror Story), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Reed Diamond (Underground), Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men), and more. Each delivers a quality, layered performance that greatly enhances the world of the series and puts the audience right into this time and place, both familiar and interesting.

None of these actors compare, though, to our two leads. Sarandon and Lange are masterful here, as they have been so often in the past. These are two ladies who can capture a moment like few others. There’s a bit in the pilot in which Lange, as Crawford, has to act in a scene for the movie, and she is brilliant, highlighting the actress as much as the character.

There’s a certain parallel that cannot be avoided that Sarandon and Lange are women of a certain age, just as Bette and Joan were. The difference here is that they can get good work, as evidenced by both FEUD and all of the other projects they continue to do. The very existence of this show proves how far things have come.

Yet, at the same time, the sexism highlighted in FEUD is still an issue, timely in its expression. While Hollywood may be getting better, there is still a long way to go, and with the current political climate, some of the small-mindedness is currently front and center.

Those themes aside, though, FEUD would stand on its own in any time simply because it involves terrific performers doing impressive things in a highly-stylized, yet crumbling, world. The glamor that everyone wants to pretend is there stands in stark contrast to the reality of pretend that reigns in Los Angeles. FEUD shows us both sides, the charade and what’s behind it, in delightful ways. Far from being fake, the actress’ (and others’) attempts to present their best selves is calculated and says a lot about the authentic personalities behind it, which each shot seemingly carefully constructed for maximum dynamic impact.

I’ve only watched one episode so far, but I can already tell that Ryan Murphy has done it again. Far from complaining about all his varied works on the network, I appreciate that he keeps churning out such good stuff with such a strong cast month after month. We’re in the golden age of television, and FEUD is a worthy example of that era. Expect to see it garner a lot of nominations, and hopefully even wins, come award season.

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Not TAKEN With This One

Article first published as TAKEN Review on Seat42F.


Tired of the trend of movies turned into television shows yet? Me, too, but that doesn’t mean the networks are going to stop trying any time soon. Tonight, NBC jumps in with TAKEN, a prequel to the movies bearing the same title. Well, sort of a prequel because the technology used by the characters is from our present day, not set in the past. But character-wise, this is the back story for the lead guy.

TAKEN the series begins with Bryan Mills (Vikings’ Clive Standen taking over for Liam Neeson) out of the special forces, but not yet working for the CIA. He has done things that have made some people mad, terrorists mostly, and they want revenge. So the people that Bryan cares about are put in danger as his past catches up with him in violent ways. Yep, consistent with the big screen Mills.

This violence is the core of TAKEN, as far as I can tell. In the first hour alone, I’d estimate almost half of it involves sneaking around, fighting, and shooting. From the adrenaline-pumping, tragic opening, to the climactic showdown, this is, by and large, a popcorn adventure, with much more focus on action than on character development.

In fact, while there are some character moments in this pilot, I would argue that there really isn’t any notable character development in the first episode, nor will I expect to see any in future episodes. Bryan seems more or less the same person at the beginning as he is at the end, and will remain roughly the same individual in the films. There is a very stagnant consistency that is disappointing. It would be far more interesting to see Bryan grow into a badass than to have him ready-made this way. Though, given his established background, I guess TAKEN would have to start much earlier in his story to do that kind of arc.

While everything is happening to Bryan and he’s running around, the perspective does frequently switch back to Christina Hart (Jennifer Beals, The L Word, Flashdance) and her CIA team. They are watching Bryan, trying to decide when and if they should recruit him. Given that Beals and several of the others are listed as main players, it should be no surprise that they make a decision in the affirmative pretty quickly; Bryan has to join them before things can really start. But the inclusion of the various team members that make up the core ensemble indicate that TAKEN will be a series of procedural missions, the obvious way to go with this series, and a format TV definitely does not need any more of.

I will say, given that TAKEN is on NBC, rather than CBS or FOX, it does feel a little less formulaic than it otherwise might. NBC doesn’t typically box in their series so stringently, and that does come across in episode one. There are also some shades of the network’s Hannibal (a beautiful, brilliant show that is the exception to the bad adaptation rule) in the tone and style, though that comparison only hurts TAKEN, as it doesn’t live up to that other work by any measure. But what I’m saying is, while TAKEN isn’t good, it could be worse if airing elsewhere.

The best thing that could happen to TAKEN is a quick death. It doesn’t appear it’ll be one of the greats, and the last thing we need is another mediocre series. A fair number of people like the movies (not myself, but I know a few), so why not let those stand on their own for what they are instead of tainting them with a lackluster pseudo-prequel? It would be a mercy to the fans and viewers in general for this to get yanked quickly.

TAKEN premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

BIG LITTLE LIES Big Fun With Little to Complain About

Article first published as BIG LITTLE LIES Review on Seat42F.


HBO is known for attracting top talent, especially for their limited-run programming. Nowhere is that trend more apparent than in the new miniseries BIG LITTLE LIES, premiering tonight. Written by David E. Kelley (The Practice), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), and boasting an all-star cast, this seven-part story is the less-cheesy version of a primetime soap. It takes place in an affluent neighborhood, and focuses on the mothers of first graders. And oh yes, there’s a mysterious murder.

BIG LITTLE LIES doesn’t tell you who’s dead and who did the killing right away. Its hook is based on suspense. We know something bad happened slightly in the future, but we don’t know why or to who or even who did it. The whole thing is told on an earlier timeline, which makes viewers pay more attention to every interaction between characters, seeing if they can figure out the twists before they are revealed.

The fact that the show is a miniseries, rather than an ongoing program, is also a benefit in drawing in eyeballs. The stakes are higher when the audience knows that nobody is coming back for a second season. That means we can’t just dismiss a star or main player from being the criminal or victim out of hand. There is no motivation to keep anyone’s hands clean, and that makes it all the more compelling.

Reese Witherspoon’s (Walk the Line, Wild) Madison Martha Mackenzie seems the most central role. In a marriage she values with a steady man, Ed (Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation), she still can’t get over her ex, Nathan (James Tupper, Revenge), nor does she care much for his new wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz, Max Max: Fury Road). In the meantime, she’s dealing with a rebellious teenager, hanging out with her two best friends, and battling another mother for dominancy at school.

Madison’s pals are Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!, Lion) and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley, Divergent, The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Jane is new in town, and is slow to give up information about herself. Celeste has been around for awhile, and quit her law career to stay home and raise a family for her younger husband, Peter (Alexander Skarsgård).
None of the three seem all that happy, especially when they come into contact with the mother on the other side of their war, Renata Klein (Laura Dern, Enlightened, The Founder). Each deal with their own issues, and while they seem relatively sweet, it’s also easy to see how any of them could either be pushed to murder, or be murdered by someone else.

On paper, the plot seems a lot like ABC’s Revenge, which I gave up on midway through. Comparing BIG LITTLE LIES to Revenge is the best way I can think of to illustrate the extreme examples in the genre of what works and what doesn’t. Revenge may have been fun, but it never rose to Desperate Housewives levels of quality, a like-minded show I’d put in the middle of the rankings. This one is at the top, giving us the juiciness audiences want, while still making a quality series by nearly any measure.

I like BIG LITTLE LIES. It’s wonderfully acted, beautifully shot, and has a terrific style and tone. It deals with material that would be very easy to make cartoonish, and yet keeps it from being so. Even the child actors, though less talented than their adult peers, are well selected, adding to the drama, rather than distracting from it. After watching two hours, I am fully invested in seeing this through to the end.

BIG LITTLE LIES premieres tonight at 9/8c on HBO.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Winning THE GOOD FIGHT

Article first published as THE GOOD FIGHT Review on Seat42F.


If you’re a fan of The Good Wife, as I am, you’ve likely eagerly been awaiting the spin-off, THE GOOD FIGHT, which finally premieres this Sunday on CBS. The series, which will only be available via CBS’s All Access streaming service after the pilot airs, is set one year after last spring’s series finale. While much of the show is the same, including plenty of returning faces, it also feels wholly different in both positive and negative ways.

I’m not going to lie, I was unpleasantly jarred when THE GOOD FIGHT fights first catches up with Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), whose firm is now called Lockhart, Decker, Gussman, Lee, Lyman, Gilbert-Lurie, Tannebaum, & Associates. Try saying that a few times fast. Not only has the name changed, but so have the sets. Gone are the familiar law offices we saw over seven seasons, and even Diane’s recognizable corner space. Instead, after merging with two other organizations, the digs are brand-new.

I can’t help but feel that change was unnecessary. While it makes for an easier separation between Diane and her practice, plot-wise, the same story could be accomplished without blowing up what came before. Given how much THE GOOD FIGHT keeps reminding us that this is set in the same universe, it feels very wrong to begin with the off-putting setting.

To play devil’s advocate, maybe this is done on purpose so that viewers aren’t sad when Diane does find the exit. Rather than hoping for some last-minute save that gets her back where we’ve come to think she belongs, by not having that home to return to any more, there’s no compelling reason to want her to go back. In that sense, it makes for a clean break.

In the first two episodes, Diane shares the central limelight with Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey), her goddaughter. Having just passed the bar, Maia is excited to go to work for Diane and the rest. But she barely gets settled in before her father, Henry (Paul Guilfoyle, CSI), is arrested for stealing millions of dollars from wealthy clients, including Diane. With her girlfriend and lawyer telling her to stay away from her mother, Lenore (Bernadette Peters, Mozart in the Jungle), until things get settled, which could take years, Maia is suddenly left with no job or family to speak of.

In a way, Maia is kind of like the new Alicia. Diane is somewhat of a mentor to her, but they aren’t super close friends. Maia is going through rough scandal because of what a loved one did, which makes her presence in a court room a distraction, welcome or not. She is young and strong and building her life, like Alicia was doing for the second time when The Good Wife started.

However, there are some very stark differences in THE GOOD FIGHT, too. The firm for which Diane and Maia go to work, where Lucca (Cush Jumbo) has already relocated prior to the series begins, is quite different from any seen on The Good Wife. THE GOOD FIGHT has different music, different lighting, and different direction, too, making it feel like its own thing right away. Plus, it’s hard not to mention the cursing, which feels natural to the characters, more so than avoiding it did in certain parts of The Good Wife.

Once THE GOOD FIGHT settles in to what it is, getting past the initial event, it quickly gets very good. It has solid cases and interesting ongoing narrative arcs. It isn’t a copy of its predecessor, but there are a LOT of returning characters, including Sarah Steel in a welcome lead role as Marissa. It also has a lot of new roles, such as Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo, Blood & Oil) and Barbara Kolstad (Erica Tazel, Justified), partners at Diane’s new job. It has something to say, as The Good Wife did, but is fresh in its approach to it. This balance of continuation and completely new is effective, and I wish I’d had more than two episodes to watch ahead of time.

Of course, the big question is whether to shell out for CBS All Access. As someone who canceled cable, I went ahead and got my subscription. It’s how I’ve continued to watch CBS shows. However, were I still getting a strong cable signal into the house (my antenna is unreliable), I’m not sure I’d want to pay $10 for a single show. (As someone who’s had a DVR since 2005, the cheaper subscription that includes commercials is not even something I’d consider.) The network doesn’t have enough offerings to fully justify the expense, even for someone who has cut the cord, but I do it begrudgingly for now, especially with Star Trek: Discovery joining THE GOOD FIGHT later this year. While I want people to subscribe and watch this show so it can continue, I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t, as the network has not made a compelling case for its ridiculously high fee. So I won’t recommend signing up, though I selfishly hope lots of people do.

THE GOOD FIGHT begins this Sunday on CBS and CBS All Access, continuing only on the latter from week two onward.

Friday, February 17, 2017

No DOUBT

Article first published as DOUBT Review on Seat42F.


CBS’s latest drama is DOUBT. It’s a legal procedural that follows a group of lawyers in a firm as they defend clients and undergo personal drama. That synopsis is not particularly memorable or distinctive, but neither is the show, which offers little to set it apart from a hundred other television series. Even when only taking into account this single network’s offerings, it’s one of the weaker ones.

Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy), polarizing as she can be, actually does a pretty decent job as Sadie Ellis, the main protagonist of DOUBT. I found her believable and capable, much as I have in previous work. While her inclusion had me unenthusiastic about this project, I can’t fairly or honestly blame her for my distaste of it.

However, Sadie herself is a large part of the problem with DOUBT. She is not only defending Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale, Rescue Me), a charitable doctor, for a murder from two and a half decades ago, but she’s also sleeping with him. This is ridiculous in its blatant play for soapy melodrama, with little regard for realism. I’m not saying a lawyer never sleeps with a client, but she is risking being disbarred by doing so, and such a story would seldom end well in real life. This overshadows the more interesting parts of Sadie, her relationship with her parents in particular, and ruins things before they even get started.

That isn’t the only thing wrong with DOUBT, though I feel that alone sinks it. The dialogue is hokey and trite, and that’s even when it’s not super predictable. None of the characters feel like actual people, and much of what they say is inconsistent with even the little character development we get. Either the roles are miscast or the writers don’t understand the roles they’ve created. Too many times, it yanks the viewer right out of the moment.

That’s a shame because the show has a pretty strong ensemble. Then again, I could say the same for lots of bad shows these days, it being easier to find good talent than to utilize it.. This particular line up includes Elliott Gould (MASH, Ray Donovan), Dule Hill (Psych), Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Dreama Walker (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23), and Kobi Libii (Alpha House). Each of them are great performers in other works, but if this was the only thing I had to judge them on, I wouldn’t know it. This is by far the worst series any of them have done, at least that I’m aware of, which leads me to believe it isn’t entirely, or at all, their fault.

The guest star line up is similarly over qualified and poorly utilized. Judith Light and Donna Murphy are among those in the pilot that I wish better for.

Now, while I often berate cop procedurals, I tend to find the ones focusing on lawyers much more interesting. There’s something about the court room drama that I find compelling, and it makes me more forgiving of the flaws. This, however, defies that trend by spending way more time on unimportant stories and failing to make any of the cases interesting. Instead, the series continuously focuses on the wrong things.

Unfortunately for DOUBT, the glow of The Good Wife, a far superior show of this genre, has not been away from CBS long enough to fade. With The Good Fight spin-off premiering later this week, even if it will be online-only after episode one, there’s an immediate replacement that is sure to be much better than this. As such, I don’t see any reason why anyone would want to tune into this program when the immediate comparisons will make it seem so poor by comparison.

DOUBT premieres this Wednesday at 10/9c on CBS.