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Monday, October 24, 2016

HOLISTIC DETECTIVE Whole Lot of Chaotic Fun

Article first published as DIRK GENTLY'S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY Review on Seat42F.

BBC America has a new series coming this weekend entitled DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY. No, this isn’t the first show to be adapted from the Douglas Adams books, but it certainly is an interesting one.

If you haven’t read the Dirk Gently books, one that shares a title with this show, a second called The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and a third that was only partially finished before the author’s passing, but was posthumously published anyway, called The Salmon of Doubt, you may be asking yourself what exactly is a holistic detective? Or, after seeing the names of the other books in the series, you may have already chalked up the author as a weirdo whose titles aren’t expected to strictly make sense. Both are probably correct attitudes to have.

According to Dirk (played here by Penny Dreadful’s Samuel Barnett), a holistic detective is one who looks at the whole picture. He follows any tangent that occurs to him, and it somehow all works out. The universe provides, so to speak. And for some reason, he can be hired to solve a murder by the guy who is killed. (Don’t ask.)

Thankfully (for obvious reasons), Dirk is not our protagonist. That honor belongs to Todd (Elijah Wood, Wilfred, The Lord of the Rings), a simple hotel worker who gets pulled into Dirk’s craziness quite unintentionally. Todd is our everyman who doesn’t understand why very, very strange things start happening around him, and doesn’t want anything to do with a man who just moves into one’s Seattle apartment without asking. So he’s our grounded anchor in a very bizarre show.
Although I have not read this book series, it does not appear that the new show is based on the novels, plot-wise. Todd isn’t mentioned in any novel description. Instead, it just takes the inane character of Dirk and drops him into our real world, with all new wackiness. Considering how The Hitchhiker’s Galaxy movie was received, perhaps that’s for the best, though I would likely be annoyed if I were someone who had read the books.

The show itself does a lot of the trademark Adams wit (I did read and enjoyed all of Hitchhiker’s, so I feel I can say that), with a bunch of mumbo jumbo dialogue that sounds good, but doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny, in a good way. Some of the laughs are obtained by pointing out absurdity in the real world in the context of the insane Dirk, and some are just derived from weird situations.

It also resembles humorist Dave Barry’s wonderful debut novel, Big Trouble, in that it features a great many characters, each with their own motivations, who somehow all come into one another’s orbit. In the pilot, we meet Todd’s sister, Amanda (Hannah Marks, Necessary Roughness), who is struggling with an odd affliction. We also meet a holistic assassin, Bart Curlish (Fiona Dourif, True Blood), and Todd’s neighbor, Farah Black (Jade Eshete, Shades of Blue), and a scared nerd, Ken (Mpho Koaho, Falling Skies), and a weird man, Gordon (Aaron Douglas, Battlestar Galactica), and Zimmerfield (Richard Schiff, The West Wing), and Riggins (Miguel Sandoval, Medium), and Friedkin (Dustin Milligan, Schitt’s Creek), and Estevez (Neil Brown Jr., Straight Out of Compton), and The Rowdy 3, who are actually four men, which I won’t list because this is getting ridiculously long.

All of the above are zany main characters, and their individual threads are all already coming into conflict already in episode one. It’s an extremely convoluted plot that is surprisingly easy to follow, and constantly entertaining. There was not a moment of this pilot that I didn’t love, and while I have absolutely no idea where this is going, or really, even who Dirk is, I am eager to follow along.

If you like offbeat British humor in general, or Douglas Adams in particular, I recommend checking out DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISITC DETECTIVE AGENCY, premiering Saturday at 9/8 c on BBC America.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Looking Into a BLACK MIRROR

Article first published as BLACK MIRROR Review on Seat42F.

This Friday, Netflix will premiere season three of BLACK MIRROR. You haven’t heard of the show? Well, that may not be surprising because the first two seasons were made and aired in the UK instead of the United States. However, Netflix outbid the British network than ran the show previously, and the new batch about to hit will be exclusive world-wide to the streaming service (with years one and two already available on the platform as well).
BLACK MIRROR is an anthology series with a technological bend. Each installment (there were seven prior to season three, and there will be six new ones this week) has its own cast, characters, setting, plot, and even reality. The stories are generally science-fiction in nature, with a look at how technology could possibly screw up the world in the future. It basically casts a ‘black mirror’ on our current society. It’s sort of like a Twilight Zone with a focused hook.
Lest you think the show is completely bleak dark, as the title indicates, the third season begins with a much less depressing narrative in “San Junipero.” Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis, Halt and Catch Fire) is a nerdy girl in the 1980s who enjoys video games. She is at a club that mixes dancing with arcade machines and meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Touch), a bisexual “cool kid” who encourages Yorkie to find her courage and step outside her comfort zone.
Now, if you’re wondering how the series I described above does an episode like I just mentioned, given that the 1980s is the past, not the future, all I’ll say is that the hints are there from the start, and the twist is pretty cool.
But without giving anything else away, I was very impressed with the hour. It was incredibly cohesive and well thought-out. I get that it’s easier to do that with a self-contained episode than with an ongoing series, but much thought clearly went into how to tie things together and telegraph the later scenes without being obvious about it. Add in a retro, sexy, engaging vibe and a pair of talented actresses with authentic, compelling performances, and I came out of “San Junipero” with the desire to watch every episode of BLACK MIRROR available, which I’ll definitely be doing over the next few weeks.
Admittedly, I sampled that episode only last night and have not gotten to watch a second installment yet. Still, I feel I can recommend this series unequivocally. I also don’t see how any fans of the original runs could possibly complain about the continuation because, even though I don’t have the prior viewing experience to compare it to, this is really good, and far better than most anthologies I’ve watched. (Plus the show is still made by many of the same people.) If the other five episodes come anywhere near to this level of quality, it’s bound to be a very strong season, and to make things even sweeter, a fourth season has already been ordered.
Looking at its Wikipedia page, it looks like BLACK MIRROR gives us plenty to look forward to. While earlier episodes include the likes of Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Hayler Atwell (Agent Carter), Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant), and Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), among the upcoming cast members are the equally good Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire), Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones), Michael Kelly (House of Cards), and Cherry Jones (24). So you can’t say BLACK MIRROR doesn’t attract talent. The fact that these people want to get on board after other installments have come out reinforces the idea that this a show to watch.
All six season three episodes of BLACK MIRROR will be released this Friday on Netflix.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Give It a CHANCE

Article first published as CHANCE Review on Seat42F.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Hugh Laurie stars as the troubled titular doctor in a series where he struggles to help people others cannot. No, House is not back, although I miss that show. This is a new Hulu series called CHANCE, premiering this week, and it’s actually nothing like Laurie’s previous program (other than that it gives the actor a chance to show just how good he is).

As CHANCE begins, Dr. Eldon Chance (Laurie) is going through a divorce with his wife, Christina (Diane Farr, Numb3rs), not getting along with his daughter, Nicole (Stefania LaVie Owen, The Carrie Diaries), and facing financial ruin to the point where he’s considering selling antique furniture that he loves. If that wasn’t enough, he also feels like he’s failing his patients, who we see in a series of flashbacks, especially Jaclyn (Gretchen Mol, Boardwalk Empire).

To be fair, it’s not like Dr. Chance has much time to help the ailing sent to him. He’s merely an evaluator, someone who meets with a person once, and then refers them to another doctor for help. He doesn’t personally treat them. But he can’t stop himself from following up to find out what happens to them, and he takes to heart some of the tragedies that befall.

This sympathetic man is soft-spoken, but not weak. He cares deeply, yet has trouble making relationships work. He is professional, except when he isn’t, and even then, usually with noble intentions. He is complex, but enjoys simple pleasures. He is cultured, but is all right with going to places most men like him would avoid, and doesn’t automatically judge or dismiss criminals. A lot more is going on in his mind than what plays across his face.

All of this makes Laurie an excellent candidate for this vehicle. Don’t get me wrong; the entire cast, which also includes Lisa Gay Hamilton (The Practice), Greta Lee (Inside Amy Schumer), Paul Adelstein (Private Practice), Ethan Suplee (My Name Is Earl), and Clarke Peters (Treme, The Wire), is great. But CHANCE is Laurie, and his superb performance drives the series forward.

I’ve set up the premise, but I haven’t really gotten into what the show is about. In the first episode, Dr. Chance runs into Jaclyn, and learns her husband (Adelstein) is beating up on her. Unconnected, the good physician attempts to sell an antique desk to Carl (Peters), who encourages Dr. Chance to have D (Suplee) fix some metal work on it first. Accidentally hanging with D, Chance is impressed by the other man’s presence, and soon learns how useful that kind of intimidation can be. I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty how these two threads connect, as the show certainly takes its time getting anywhere, but I think anyone can see where this is going.

I didn’t mention the slow-moving pace as a bad thing. I love how CHANCE dwells on moments, really letting us look into Chance’s eyes and try to determine what swirling emotions and warring motivations are happening in his mind. He isn’t one to rush into anything, and so that needs to be shown. It also allows a tone to permeate that is gripping, so we’re pulled more fully into the story prior to when we need to be invested. It’s a pretty masterful work.

In case you couldn’t tell, I loved CHANCE. I think it’s a great vehicle for Laurie, who deserves to work with quality, and very interesting overall. Even though I think I know the path the story is on, I am equally confident there will be things happening that I don’t see coming because this is a realistic world, and thus, unpredictable. I look forward to catching the whole run.

The first season of CHANCE premieres Wednesday, October 19th on Hulu.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Article first published as EYEWITNESS Review on Seat42F.

USA’s latest drama is EYEWITNESS. Adapted from the Norwegian series Øyevitne, it’s a slow-burn crime drama about the aftermath of a triple homicide, the teenagers that witness it, and the law enforcement officers who seek to distribute it. With washed-out colors and a slow-moving pace, it’s likely to bring up shades of The Killing, among others, but I don’t feel like it quite lives up to that level of quality.

The show begins pretty early on with the murder, and the officer who arrives to investigate, the primary protagonist for EYEWITNESS, is Helen Torrance (Julianne Nicholson, Masters of Sex, Boardwalk Empire). She’s from the big city, but has moved to a small town with her husband, Gabe (Gil Bellows, Ally McBeal, House at the End of the Street), and foster son, Philip (Tyler Young, The Avatars). Frustrated with the boring life, Helen likes the excitement of this incident, but soon clashes over jurisdiction with an FBI agent, Kamilah Davis (Tattiawna Jones, Flashpoint).

Helen’s story unfolds almost exactly as expected. Looking into the crime goes just as it does in every other show where cops and feds clash, and even giving Helen a light-hearted partner, Tony (Matt Murray, Rookie Blue), doesn’t make much difference. It’s a well-constructed story, other than Helen being a little loose with talking about her work in front of Phillip, but it’s pretty much the same as at least a dozen other cable programs in recent years.

There is a subplot with Kamilah that might be a little outside the typical, but that felt more forced than engaging. EYEWITNESS is a drama, and there will be twists to keep the story moving over ten episodes per season, but I was just hoping for something a little better than this. The same disappointment applies tothe pilot’s “twist” ending.

Helen’s home life is a more interesting part of the show. I love Nicholson, always good in everything she does, and her character’s relationships are authentic. It’s easy to see her love for Gabe, and how Gabe is much more into being a foster parent than she is. She struggles with work/life balance, of course, but I think generally, her unit, while sticky, is sympathetic.

Where the show kicks up a few more notches for me is Philip’s story. Dealing with a druggie mom, liking the foster parents he’s been placed with but not really feeling like they’re his family, and struggling with being openly gay, is plenty for a kid to deal with. But the fact that he is the EYEWITNESS in the title, along with his deeply closeted friend, Lukas (James Paxton, Term Life), whom Philip is just hooking up with when things go down, and there’s some real drama to mine here.

Television has gotten better about its portrayal of homosexual characters in general, and EYEWITNESS has something I haven’t specifically seen before. It puts a complex, tense situation in a seriously-made drama, and the result is very compelling. My favorite scenes are easily the ones with Philip and Lukas as they work out what they mean to each other and discover their own identities.

So EYEWITNESS is a mixed bag. The quality is pretty decent, despite a few minor missteps, but it’s the lack of originality that drags it down. When it covers new ground, it mostly excels. What I want from the series is to rely less on what other shows have done and try to find new angles to approach. It’s probably too late for season one to give over to that completely, but if the Philip / Lukas story stays central, it might be worth it to stick around and see what comes later.

EYEWITNESS premieres Sunday, October 16th at 10/9c on USA.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Article first published as GRAVES Review on Seat42F.

Premium movie service Epix joins the original scripted world this weekend with two new shows. One, a comedy, is called GRAVES, and is about a fictional former Republican president named Richard Graves. Twenty-five years after he served as the leader of the free world, Graves’ policies and decisions from the Oval Office come back to haunt him. Realizing he has let his country down, and facing a legacy as the possible worst president ever, Graves wakes up and decides to start fighting for the American people once more.

President Richard Graves is a conglomeration of a number of different Republican presidents. He held office around the same time as George H.W. Bush, considered failed at the time, though Bush’s reputation has improved in the interim, while Graves has gone down. He is a gold standard for certain members of his party, like H.W. has become, and like Reagan always has been. He also shares the failed assassination attempt backstory with Reagan. President Graves had the disastrous polices of George W. Bush, getting us into unpopular wars and slashing spending on important research, while ridiculously beefing up the military and tanking the economy. So he isn’t any one of these real POTUSes (POTUSi?), but rather, a bunch of them put together.

This is probably a wise move. It allows Graves to be fictional and make decisions without worrying about what the real men are and did, and also takes a realistic look at both the positives and negatives of GOP administrations over the past few decades. It’s an intriguing concept, especially when coupled with the desire to make up for past mistakes that Graves now exhibits, and I think Graves probably ends up being the ideal representative of the traditional Grand Old Party by the end of episode one.

The title role is wonderfully portrayed by Nick Nolte (Warrior, Luck, Gracepoint), who captures a layered, authentic man. Graves is a total asshole to those around him, hazing his new assistant, Isaiah Miller (Skylar Astin, Pitch Perfect, Ground Floor), ignoring the political aspirations of his wife, Margaret (Sela Ward, CSI: NY, Gone Girl), and destroying property that is only sort of his. But even in the pilot, Nolte is allowed a few moments to show the raw vulnerability, the compassionate side of the man, and exhibit that he does care about more than just himself, even when he lets down his loved ones. It’s a very interesting performance, and I liked it a lot.

To more fully flesh out the story, and also likely to add subplot drama, we are introduced to Graves’ daughter, Olivia (Helene Yorke, Masters of Sex), who shares many of her father’s negative qualities, and is going through something devastating herself. I really don’t know how Margaret will balance two break-downs at once while furthering her own agenda, but Olivia is more an obstacle than anything else right now.

Also in the cast are a number of enjoyable actors like Roger Bart (Episodes, The Producers), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Tania Gunadi (Enlisted), Khotan Fernandez (Royal Pains, El Sexo Debil), Angelica Maria (Que bonito amor), Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant), and Chris Lowell (Veronica Mars) as the as-of-yet-unseen son of President Graves.

All of these actors and the promising story are enough to get past my early distaste. GRAVES makes the grave (pun intended) error of beginning with some real political cameos, chief among them that of Rudy Giuliani. True, Graves isn’t thrilled with these guys, but he treats Giuliani nicer than most, and after recent polarizing press appearances, seeing Giuliani in this comedy context is likely to turn off many potential viewers. Hopefully, most will chalk it up to a decision made some time ago and look past it, because the rest of the pilot was worth watching. There are others that appear, but none nearly as offensive as the former mayor.

GRAVES premieres tonight on Epix, and viewers can check out the first two episodes free now on Epix’s website.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Passing Through BERLIN STATION

Article first published as BERLIN STATION Review on Seat42F.

Premium movie service Epix joins the original scripted world this weekend with two new shows. One, a drama, is called BERLIN STATION, a slow-burn spy drama set in the city of Berlin, Germany. Created by novelist Olen Steinhauer, the series has shades of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and hops onto the current trend of espionage television programs, but with more international flavor than most. It boasts a cast that includes many well-knowns, so it seems ripe for success, but is it good enough?

The plot will seem pretty familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news, though it’s not really based on a true story. An Edward Snowden-like man named Thomas Shaw is leaking the covert activities of the American CIA office in Berlin, exposing the identities of local sources. Agent Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage, The Hobbit, Robin Hood), who is from Berlin but has been working elsewhere, is called home to investigate. Knowing there is a mole in the CIA station itself, everyone is on edge as Daniel attempts to find and stop the leak, and early indications are he’s good enough at his job to do so.

Who is the mole within the organization? Is it station chief Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins, Six Feet Under, Olive Kitteridge), who is having an affair with his secretary, Sandra Abe (Tamlyn Tomita, Teen Wolf)? Maybe it’s the woman who brings Daniel in, Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes, The Killing, True Blood), trying to deflect attention, although she does seem awfully upset when one of her contacts is burned. Or perhaps it’s Daniel’s former partner, Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans, Elementary, The Amazing Spider-Man), who likes the seedy night life of the city? Or even agent Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser, Ray Donovan, Taken), who gets less character development in the pilot than those above?

BERLIN STATION makes the interesting choice of not leaving the viewer in the dark very long. While many series in this genre would keep the identity of the turncoat for a season-long mystery that must be solved, this one doesn’t, at least for those following along at home; it’s less certain how long it will take Daniel to figure things out. Which is a bold decision that will change how many view the story.

But is it a good idea? That, I’m not certain of. Part of the draw of a spy series is the unanswered questions, putting together the clues, and the suspense of figuring things out. BERLIN STATION takes that away early on, so it must rely on other elements to keep the viewers tuning in.

There are some great elements in this show. The cast, as listed above, is terrific, and I like the other characters, too, the German counterparts and enemy agents. The setting is cool, as the show is actually filmed in Berlin. The quality of the production and direction is pretty high. The stakes are real enough, and the plot feels familiar without being repetitive.

However, I also found the show boring. I like a good spy drama; The Americans is probably my favorite currently on the air, and Homeland is good, too. But I didn’t care for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because I found the film too slow, not really holding my interest. BERLIN STATION seems to follow that format, and without even leaving the identity of the bad guy a secret, I really don’t have any interest in continuing past episode one.

If you’re a fan of this particular subgenre, though, and enjoyed the Gary Oldman-fronted movie, then this is likely to give you what you’re looking for, a regular weekly show in a particular format.

BERLIN STATION premieres tonighton Epix, and the network is allowing anyone to sample the first two hours free of charge on its website now.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Another Kelley GOLIATH

Article first published as GOLIATH Review on Seat42F.

The prolific David E. Kelley, gone from the broadcast airwaves for a few years, returns to television on Amazon this week with GOLIATH. Like most of his former series, GOLIATH is a legal drama. But with the freedom of streaming services, unbound from the set running times, act breaks, and episode counts of the broadcast networks he called home for so long, it’s a new beast from the old hand. And, let’s be honest, what fan of legal drama doesn’t want another one from this guy?

GOLIATH stars Billy Bob Thornton (Fargo, Friday Night Lights) as Billy McBride, a washed-up alcoholic who is past the peak of his career. Spinning into a personal hole, Billy has a bad relationship with his ex-wife, Michelle (Maria Bello, Touch, Prisoners), and daughter, Denise (Diana Hopper, Hidden Truth). He doesn’t start in a very good place.

Billy’s break comes when a woman brings him a big case that would pit Billy against his former partner, Donald Cooper (William Hurt, Humans, Into the Wild), and the firm Billy was forced out of, which Michelle is still involved in. Now, personal and professional life is intermixed as Billy fights for justice, and possibly for a little revenge from those who wronged him.

It’s an enticing premise. Everyone wants to cheer for the guy who is down, and who we expect to turn it around, especially when his opponent (Donald) seems so clearly in the wrong. It’s a black-and-white dynamic, and while the odds are stacked against Billy, David-and-Goliath-style, we are sure that the misfit crew he puts together, which includes a real estate attorney and a call girl, will win the day.

If I were to compare this to any of Kelley’s other series, I would say, on paper, it is most like Harry’s Law, which featured a noble, flawed character staging a comeback. Except, GOLIATH is a much darker drama and the case will be ongoing over at least the course of the season, whereas Harry’s Law was funny and procedural. So GOLIATH still has some of the classic Kelley elements and similarities to his past work, but isn’t just a retread.

The writer takes to the looser format very well. Watching GOLIATH, I was struck by how much it resembles some of the higher-quality series on the premium cable and streaming networks. It doesn’t have the same memorable juice as Fargo, American Horror Story, Westworld, Breaking Bad, and the others at the top of the heap, but it is a very solid entry that can hang in the same general stratosphere.

Helping this along is the excellent cast assembled. Thornton proved himself to any doubters with his last television role, and he is more than capable of taking the lead here. Yet, so are most of the other actors around him, so he is in good company with Bello, Hurt, Olivia Thirlby (Good Vibes, Juno), Molly Parker (House of Cards), Nina Arianda (Hannibal), Tania Raymonde (Lost), Sarah Wynter (24), Damon Gupton (Bates Motel), and more. There should be no complaints about the company.

The pilot starts off intriguing, but like the excellent Damages, it just seems to be scratching the surface initially. It sets up the scenario and introduces us to most of the players, but there are sure to be a lot of twists and setbacks as things unfold. At approximately eight hours running time, it looks to be a manageable, quick series, with no time for fluff and treading water, so I expect it will move quickly, but going by the pilot, not too quickly. I’m intrigued and plan to watch the full season.

GOLIATH’s entire first season will be available on Amazon Prime beginning today.