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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Full Of VICE PRINCIPALS

Article first published as VICE PRINCIPALS Review on Seat42F.


I recently was asked to review HBO’s next comedy series, VICE PRINCIPALS. Set at a high school, the half hour weekly series follows two men who hold the job mentioned in the title of the show, and whom both want to move up to full-blown principal if given the opportunity. Of course, they are not given such a chance, and the laughs are supposed to come from their antics as they try and fail to reach that goal, sabotaging themselves as much as one another.
In case you couldn’t tell by the tone of the first paragraph, I did not enjoy VICE PRINCIPALS. Admittedly, I did not enjoy Eastbound & Down, either, which I assume is the closest series the network has had previously to this one. Both were created by Jody Hill (Observe and Report) and Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), and star McBride. Both feature an obnoxious lead that is hard to like, who does things that are rude to others. It’s not my cup of tea.
I say this right out front because humor, unlike drama, is very subjective, and there is clearly an audience for McBride’s work. And it’s not like that I don’t enjoy the actor; I liked him very much in This Is the End. I just don’t get his point of view in these series.
I also chafe at poor depictions of schools. As someone who has worked as an educator, it bums me out that, aside from dedicated pro-teacher movies like Dead Poets Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus, staff members in academia are often treated so poorly in television and film. The vast majority of those who dedicate their lives to helping children are committed to their work. The behavior of McBride’s character, Neal, would never, ever be tolerated in any institution I’ve been in, and he would be promptly fired long before he reached the point of vice principal. I know cop and medical shows aren’t portraying the reality of those jobs, either, but at least they aren’t so negative on the professions.
Besides that, there isn’t a lot I can point to that is valid criticism of the show. It is well constructed. There aren’t any easy plot holes to pick on in the pilot. The cast, which includes Justified’s Walton Goggins as Neal’s main rival, Cougartown’s Busy Philipps as Neal’s ex-wife, Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham as her new man, The New Normal’s Georgina King as a teacher at the school, Devious Maids’ Kimberly Herbert Gregory as the new principal, and Know Thy Enemy’s Sheaun McKinney as a cafeteria worker, is great. The legendary Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Zombieland) even guest stars in the pilot! Technically, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with the show.
When I see fare like this, it makes me sad for the actors in it, hoping they can find better work soon. Or, selfishly, I’m sad for myself, missing seeing their talent as long as they dedicate their time to a project I’ll never watch when I’ve enjoyed them so much in the past. This is certainly the case with Goggins and Philipps, both of whom I adored in their last works. But if they’re happy and the show does well, then I guess that’s all that matter. Plus, it’s already been announced that VICE PRINCIPALS will only be a two-season show, so their tenure will be relatively brief.
So it will all come down to where you get your sense of humor. I find it hard to pigeonhole exactly what McBride’s is, other than it’s definitely his own. It isn’t overly gross or slapstick or witty or LOL-worthy. It’s just what he finds funny, and it’s good that he gets to represent it on television. I hope he finds his audience, though it clearly does not count me among them.
VICE PRINCIPALS premieres Sunday, July 17th at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.

Monday, July 18, 2016

I've Seen STRANGER THINGS

Article first published as STRANGER THINGS Review on Seat42F.


Do you remember the movie genre that is uniquely 1980s about a bunch of kids getting over their heads in an adventure? It’s a bit campy, but can also be a bit scary, and when the young actors are well chosen, it’s among the best of film for those who grew up in that era and hold a special nostalgia for it in their hearts.
If so, then Netflix’s newest series, STRANGER THINGS, created by twins Matt and Ross Duffer (Hidden), (appropriately for this piece) credited as The Duffer Brothers, is going to seem very familiar to you. Set in the 80s, the story is that of four RPG-playing boys, one of whom, Will (Noah Schnapp, Bridge of Spies), goes missing early on in the pilot. While the adults, including Will’s single mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder, Edward Scissorhands, Black Swan), go looking for Will, his friends, against their parents’ orders, join in the hunt, unable to just sit on the sidelines and wonder what happened to their pal.
It’s funny, most television shows and movies, unless made specifically for children, don’t allow the youngest members of society to act on their own and with peers in a big way. Generally, in stories like this one, the focus would be on the parents and the law enforcement officers who are trying to solve the case. Yet, in STRANGER THINGS, the plotline is divided, allowing us to see Will’s mom and the local police chief’s, Hopper (David Harbour, The Newsroom, The Equalizer) side of things, but giving at least equal time over to the kids.
Make no mistake, that is a plus for STRANGER THINGS, which has assembled a very talented group of youngsters, the best-known of which is Schnapp, who will be the least seen. The leader and best friend to missing Will is Mike (Finn Wolfhard), whose sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer, I Believe in Unicorns), is the boy-crazy outsider who will presumably get drawn into her little brother’s journey, eventually. Dustin (Gaten Matarazo) is the awkward one who feels like the funny, chubby guy, but without being chubby, and whom harbors a crush on Nancy. If STRANGER THINGS were truly made in the 1980s, then the last member of the group, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), would be the token minority. While less developed in the pilot than the others, I hope that the show has more in store for Lucas than that.
Now, up to this point, I’ve only laid out the program as a missing child story, but it’s more than that. Like the best of the 80s flicks, there is an unearthly bend. In this case, it’s a secret lab led by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine, Weeds, The Dark Knight Rises), which has other-wordly things in it. There’s also a strange child named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, Intruders) who has a connection to it. STRANGER THINGS doesn’t jump the gun by giving us much information at all about this lab, but it’s certain that Will’s disappearance will tie into it.
Which leaves the overall tone creepy, like the best of Netflix’s little-watched Hemlock Grove or a classic horror film, while serving the fun-loving attitude of the era. It’s a period piece that really does feel, so far, like it was made in the period in which it is set, and is thoroughly enjoyable. This type of story has been begging for more than two hours to explore itself in, and STRANGER THINGS finally delivers on that. Combined with a couple vintage-style comedy series, the streaming service is setting itself up as a destination for taking risks, as I wouldn’t expect any other network to pick up something like this, and this risk is worth taking. I think Netflix may very well have a hit on its hands.
STRANGER THINGS’ eight-episode first season will be available on Netflix on July 15th.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

THE NIGHT OF Excellent Drama

Article first published as THE NIGHT OF Review on Seat42F.



The premise of HBO’s excellent new series THE NIGHT OF is simple enough. A man parties a little too hard, does a few too many drugs, and wakes up to find a girl he just met and slept with stabbed to death. (That’s in the show description, so I don’t feel it counts as a spoiler.) Where it goes from there, though, remains to be seen, and based on the gripping pilot, I can’t wait to find out.

As THE NIGHT OF begins, we are introduced to Naz (Riz Ahmed, Four Lions), a college student in New York of Pakistani origin on his mother’s side. Naz seems like a pretty good boy, obediently still living with his family and working hard to get through school and build a life. But one night, he really wants to go to a party. Along the way, he meets a pretty girl, Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia, The Messengers), who tempts him even further from the path. And by the end of the night, due mainly to a series of bad decisions, Naz ends up probably having his life ruined.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for the young man. Who hasn’t had their head turned by an attractive member of the opposite sex? Who wouldn’t push their boundaries at the promise of sex? Who doesn’t like attention focused on you, even if it’s from someone who may just be a bit (or a lot) crazy?

Yet, it’s also super frustrating as Naz keeps making poor decisions. Sure, some can be blamed on the elicit substances he ingests, but from the start, he enters into these activities willingly. Naz isn’t kidnapped or forced into anything; he’s young, dumb, and full of… well, you know. It’s as understandable as it is infuriating.

Although we do not bear witness to Andrea’s death itself (again, thanks to the show description, we know it’s coming from the start), it seems extremely unlikely that Naz murdered her. The audience spends enough time in his perspective to get a sense of who he is, and a killer, he is not. At the same time, there is no likelier explanation presented to us, and certainly not to the (surprisingly well developed) police that show up. The verdict is rendered in their heads just as surely and immediately as Naz’s innocence asserts itself in ours.

This makes THE NIGHT OF a compelling drama. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be bad. The pilot itself is a thriller, constantly keeping viewers guessing as to what might occur next. Will Naz be caught? Will any evidence support his claims? Where is this going?

Buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, most notably John Turturro (O Brother, Where Are Thou?), who steps in for the late, originally-cast James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as sympathetic defender Jack Stone, each scene is magnetic. I was hooked about ten percent of the way through the pilot, and never looked back.

I do wonder how this show would be different if Ganoldfini has starred (or Robert DeNiro, for that matter, who signed on before the role was recast again for Turturro). Stone would be a very different person in the hands of another actor. Yet, Turturro feels so perfect, as if the show was written just for him, that any speculation is merely a thought exercise and surely doesn’t affect the finished product.

HBO graciously released the pilot of THE NIGHT OF on their streaming service early, so anyone who is inclined can go ahead and view it. My only complaint with this strategy is that we’ll be waiting weeks for episode two, and I would gladly watch it immediately after the premiere, if that were an option.

THE NIGHT OF officially premieres July 10th at 9/8c on HBO.

Friday, July 8, 2016

MARCELLA Without Marcella Would Be Better

Article first published as MARCELLA Review on Seat42F.


CAUTION: Since this series has already been released, this review contains spoilers from the first hour. It does not spill anything past that, as the reviewer has not yet watched any further.


Netflix’s newest drama, MARCELLA, is actually a British series that is just getting its stateside release through the streaming service. Like many crime dramas from the UK, it has a small number of episodes, is relatively slow-paced, and the protagonist is kind of a mess, her chaotic personal life bleeding over into the case and vice versa. With mixed reviews, is MARCELLA worth checking out?
First, the good stuff. There is a pretty strong ensemble, each with their own little subplots that are certainly building towards a bigger whole. Of particular note are siblings Henry (Harry Lloyd, Game of Thrones, Manhattan) and Grace Gibson (Maeve Demody, Serangoon Road), who rebel against their step-mother, Sylvie (Sinead Cusack, V for Vendetta). Sylvie is a greedy Trump-type mogul, married to an age-inappropriate piece of arm candy, and out to screw over whoever she can to make the most money. Perhaps not as bombastic as the presidential candidate, preferring to exert power in subtler ways and exuding a friendliness until you cross her, Sylvie is just as self-centered and ruthless, definitely putting her business interests ahead of her family.
Besides the novelty of seeing a female in such a role, which is very much appreciated, there is also a depth to this clan. Henry cares deeply about the environment and helping people, but he won’t fight on his step-mother’s level, so his war is over before it’s begun. This has me wondering what his purpose is in MARCELLA, and I look forward to finding out. Grace, on the other hand, tries to make peace in her family, sticking by step-mom, but fighting for her brother’s cause. At first, this makes her seem like a good person. But then, when we see her with the titular character’s husband (Nicholas Pinnock, Fortitude), who happens to work for the company, it changes my opinion of her. She is a pleaser to the point of ignoring what she wants and what is right, also making her weak.
I am much more interested in the Gibson family than the central character and plot. As such, I hope there’s a lot of them moving forward, and I assume they will somehow be connected to the serial killer story, directly or indirectly, allowing them plenty of story.
So, now for the not-so-complimentary part of this article. I do not like Marcella herself. My problem isn’t really with Anna Friel, whom I adored in Pushing Daisies. Instead, it’s the totally unrealistic way in which her role is presented. She’s a stalker detective who gets extremely violent and has blackouts. Yet, somehow she is allowed to work for law enforcement, even after a many years’ absence, with little oversight and complete trust. What the heck?
There is a scene in the first hour in which her boss (Ray Panthaki, EastEnders) is encouraged to be even more lenient with Marcella by (secretly blind and deaf?) co-worker and old friend, Laura (Nina Sosanya, Last Tango in Halifax). Look, I get that Marcella has proven herself in the past, despite failing to catch the big serial killer who has suddenly shown back up at a pivotal moment in Marcella’s life, but isn’t anyone going to make sure she’s up to returning to work? Or question her when she acts strangely? It just doesn’t feel right to me.
Despite how much I hated Marcella’s story, I did end up liking MARCELLA. There’s enough going on that any single plot that isn’t working can be minimized and overlooked, even that of the title character. Were MARCELLA more focused on Marcella, I wouldn’t keep watching. But since it has balance, I likely will eventually see what else is in store for the rest of the intriguing cast.
MARCELLA’s first season is available now on Netflix.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS Review

Article first published as IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS Review on Seat42F.


Coming to Discovery this week is IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS. Starring the English actor Idris Elba, who is known for his role in the Thor movies and for leading the award-winning drama series Luther, NO LIMITS finds Elba going faster than most people will ever go, both on land and in the air. The four-episode program is a reality documentary, showing us the steps that the actor goes through in order to compete with those that do it for a living.
Sometimes show like this recruit a famous face who is a fan of a sport or industry, but has no real-world experience of knowledge, having always only been a casual spectator. IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS is different because Elba has been very interested in rally racing, the first challenge he tackles, from a young age. His father, and later he himself, having worked for Ford, he has a history with the automobiles, too. This isn’t the first time he’s gotten behind the wheel to challenge himself, and while the premiere episode finds him getting licensed for rally racing the first time, he doesn’t quite feel like as much of an amateur as most hosts would be.
Elba is supported by some of the most notable names in the game. While these type of experts may sign up to be on a television series, I just can’t believe they’d humor him enough to ride with him if they didn’t have a certain level of confidence in Elba’s skills. Driving this fast is extremely dangerous, and they are putting their lives in Elba’s hands. He also is allowed to compete as part of a team, and I don’t think his teammates would have been anxious to have him if they thought he’d drag down their scores. So there’s a level of authenticity that most reality television often lacks, especially when triumphant, happy endings aren’t guaranteed.
Where some American audiences might struggle is deciphering the differences between rally racing from the UK and our own races stateside. Obviously, the drivers themselves probably aren’t as well known over here, unless you follow British racing. There’s also no attempt to American-ize the jargon, with stats stated in terms of kilometers, not miles.
I don’t think this is super important, as one can see the speeds the cars achieve in the video and the tone lets you know how impressive things are. But if might be a bit of a difficulty for those who really want to know what’s going on and have no frame of reference for it. However, this does feel relatively minor, and if anything, it gives you a chance to learn a few things, expanding your worldview.
There are some interesting graphics in this show. When describing turning, animation with colored arrows get into the science and technique of the competitive driving. There is also a very cool sequence when the car Elba will be driving is taken apart so we can see a bit of the inner workings. I wish there were a few more of these, but the ones they have are well used.
Personally, I am not a fan of cars or racing in the slightest. It holds no interest to me at all, and so I probably won’t watch any further episodes of this show. The show, including the fact that it stars an actor I very much respect and enjoy, did not manage to overcome that aversion, so I don’t recommend it for those who would only tune in because of Elba. But for those that do have an interest in speed sports, I think IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS will probably be quite satisfying, and certainly feels better made than a lot of its peers in the genre.
IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS airs Mondays at 9/8c.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Creepy THIRTEEN

Article first published as THIRTEEN Review on Seat42F.


The British series THIRTEEN premieres this week on BBC America. It is about a kidnapped girl who reappears a baker’s dozen years after his abduction. Sent home to her family, the police don’t seem sure the girl is who she says she is, and the mystery only deepens from there.
In many ways, THIRTEEN is a lot like American Gothic, a CBS series I gave a scathing review to earlier this week. It centers on a family with secrets. It’s a dark mystery that is sure to have a lot of unexpected twists. It’s soapy drama, with a family torn apart by a tragic event struggling to figure out what’s true and get on with their lives.
But THIRTEEN is also a shining example of the stark difference between British and American programming. While American Gothic goes for sensationalism at the expense of a complex story, THIRTEEN seems like it’s dropping the breadcrumbs that will eventually lead to the answers. And the CBS series insists on making each member of the clan shady in their own way, while the vast majority of the ensemble of THIRTEEN seem like perfectly normal, well-adjusted individuals who just have this one bad thing that happened to them, so is far less soapy or sensationalist.
Part of the problem is the number of episodes that an American series has as opposed to our British counterparts. While stateside series usually do a minimum of thirteen hours, meaning limited stories must be stretched out, British ones can get away with half a dozen or so, five in this case, so can concentrate just on the central conceit if they’d like to. What this makes for is a superior product that is far more engaging than most of the broadcast network fare here. (Cable networks do shorter, more flexible runs, so are largely exempt from this comparison.)
Another huge difference is that series from the UK aren’t so concerned with casting a bunch of familiar faces. The main group in THIRTEEN have resumes, but they aren’t nearly so omnipresent on our screens as those in American Gothic and lots of other U.S. shows. Funny how a smaller country seems to find a wider variety of performers and not overuse the good ones.
What they lack in recognizability, the cast more than makes up for in talent THIRTEEN stars Jodie Comer (My Mad Fat Diary) as Ivy Moxam, the recently escaped prisoner. Her look is haunting, and the nuance in her performance is impressive. Even when some may doubt her story, or parts of it, the viewer won’t lose sympathy for this woman who seems to have gone through so much.
Richard Rankin (Burnistoun) and Valene Kane (The Fall) are the obligatory detectives, DI Elliot Crane and DS Lisa Merchant, respectively. While the role they play is not much different than most of these slow burn crime dramas, they are every bit as capable as others who have exceled in similar programs. They are going to be the figures that audiences latch onto, even while Ivy remains front and center.
Roundings things out are Natasha Little (The Night Manager) as loving mother Christina, Stuart Graham (The Fall) as the ineffectual father Angus, Katherine Rose Morley (Last Tango in Halifax) as suspicious sister Emma, Joe Layton (Tatau) as Emma’s supportive fiancĂ© Craig, Eleanor Wyld (Honest) as best friend Eloise, and Aneurin Barnard (The White Queen) as childhood boyfriend, Tim Hobson. They won’t all get distinct subplots, but it’s the exact right mix to explore Ivy’s story, and they all do a good job.
So THIRTEEN, while more or less being a very typical type of British drama, is better than what we’re getting on The Big Four in the summer because of its makeup. It’s compelling and well made, and while it’s not wholly fresh, it’s still very entertaining.
THIRTEEN premieres Thursday, June 23rd at 10/9c on BBC America.

Friday, June 24, 2016

AMERICAN GOTHIC Prime Example of Summer TV in America

Article first published by AMERICAN GOTHIC Review on Seat42F.


Next up in the crappy-summer-shows roster is CBS’ AMERICAN GOTHIC. A soapy murder mystery, I understand why this series was held for burn-off during the hot months because it feels a lot like several other shows that premiered earlier in the year, were soon canceled, and I’ve mostly forgotten about (like The Family). Will this show find an audience and fare better? Probably not, so I wouldn’t blame you if you stop reading now and ignore its existence.
If you’re still reading, let’s talk a little bit about AMERICAN GOTHIC, though. It has a pleasant enough cast, which makes for many suspects, each with their own dark secrets (because no one in a world like this is ever who everyone thinks they are). By making a lot of them related, it’s supposed to be more shocking when things come to light, or harder for the characters to distrust one another, but it’s not because of the very familiar tone. There is a serial killer, but don’t even bother trying to figure out who it is at this stage because there will be a million red herrings and twists.
It’s not very satisfying to watch a show like this because it doesn’t feel like there’s a plan from the start. I could be wrong, and there’s no way to know that until the end of the season, but unlike in the best mysteries, that drop important clues early on, shows like these tend to concentrate more on doing the unexpected than crafting an intricate story. They try to go for the plot that comes out of nowhere, rather than something that naturally flows or was previously hinted at. It makes theorizing with your friends just not that great since no one really has any insight into what’s going to happen. It’s an all-too-common style that we can use less of on television, and the way the pilot plays out all but confirms that’s what AMERICAN GOTHIC is.
I realize I haven’t given you a lot of specifics about why I think the show is bad, but I really don’t want to ruin anything for those who are genuinely interested. Let’s just say there are things involving a cat, a box, and a hospital room that smack as gratuitous and have helped forge the opinion above.
As I mentioned before, the cast is good. With so many quality programs on the small screen these days, it’s not a surprise that even the lesser fare can attract talent. After all, it’s often hard to tell from just a script whether the series will be great or not. AMERICAN GOTHIC does have a solid ensemble, and they sell the material pretty much as convincingly as possible.
The central figure seems to be Alison Hawthorne-Price (Juliet Rylance, The Knick), a wife and mother running for mayor of her city. As the campaign unfolds, we meet the rest of the clan, brought in to help her win. There’s matriarch Madeline (Virginia Madsen, Sideways), former drug-using brother Cam (Justin Chatwin, Shameless), Cam’s disturbed son Jack (Gabriel Bateman, Stalker), elementary school teacher sister Tessa (Megan Ketch, Jane the Virgin), Tessa’s detective husband Brady (Elliot Knight, Once Upon a Time), and long-missing brother Garrett (Antony Starr, Banshee). There’s also a father to the group, who is not in the official cast list, so presumably not a main character, and Cam’s still-addicted ex, Sophie (Stephanie Leonidas, Defiance), soon pops back up.
It is a relatively large family, but again, that’s needed so we have a lot of suspects and a dozen episodes of secrets can come out. After all, a lot of different boxes are checked with the grouping above, no one having a boring life that won’t affect the proceedings, and no two crossing orbits too much. It’s a familiar formula that probably won’t work any better than it usually does.
AMERICAN GOTHIC premieres Wednesday, June 22 at 10/9c.