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Thursday, December 8, 2016

SHUT EYE Review

Article first published as SHUT EYE Review on Seat42F.


My name is Charlie Haverford. I used to be a magic trick inventor. Until I became a fake psychic for a bunch of gypsies. When you’re a fake psychic, you’ve got nothing: no say in what you do. You do whatever work the Romas who control the area send your way. You disappoint anyone who’s still talking to you: an unsatisfied wife, a screw-up sister, kids, too, a hypnotist, if you’re desperate. Bottom line? Until you figure out how to get out from under the Roma thumb, you’re not going anywhere.

OK, so fun with the intro to this review aside, there are major difference between Jeffrey Donovan’s previous USA series, Burn Notice, and his new drama on Hulu, SHUT EYE, premiering this week. Still, it’s hard not to draw some parallels. Donovan’s Charlie used to be great at something, has gotten into a situation where he’s not doing what he wants to do, and doesn’t have an easy way out, sort of like Michael Weston. Also, those around him, while supportive, are not the A team he might pick, but he’s committed to them.

Yet, I like SHUT EYE a lot better than Burn Notice. Burn Notice was a thin, case-of-the-week procedural that rarely went anywhere until the end. SHUT EYE is a much more complex, ongoing tale in which a man who has been beaten into submission gains an actual clairvoyant gift, which may just be what he’s been waiting for to make some changes.

Donovan is good, building upon his success in Fargo last year. He’s someone who can play pathetic and obedient well, but there’s an edge to him that is interesting. He is surrounded by a decent cast that includes KaDee Strickland (Private Practice), Isabella Rossellini (Alias, Joy), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage), Susan Misner (The Americans), David Zayas (Dexter), Mel Harris (Saints & Sinners), Dylan Schmid (Once Upon a Time), and Angus Sampson (Fargo). Almost all are well cast, and the dynamics are set pretty solidly in the pilot.

The world is one not often portrayed in long-form, that of con men and women running a very successful racket of an industry, which I appreciate. Of course, those involved are little better than thugs and gangsters, and who is on top is purely a matter of showing strength and effectively threatening. It’s seedy stuff, but a new version of the dark worlds that currently populate television.

Somehow, though, through it all, Charlie comes across as being a likeable character. Rossellini’s Rita says it best when she calls him an honest liar. Charlie does engage in the same trickery as the others, but he also helps people and cares about people. He is loyal and he follows the rules, until he is pushed past a breaking point. Even then, his intentions are good, and he’ll only turn on those who deserve it. He’s a bit noble, which is surprising, given his profession and the situation he’s in.

SHUT EYE is set up to be a hero’s journey. We’re likely to see Charlie find his inner spirit and fight back when he needs to. We’ll see him rise from his lowly position and be a man to be proud of. Hopefully at least Linda (Strickland), his wife, will see that, and maybe stop fooling around with Gina (Chriqui) on the side, not that viewers are likely to blame her in the moment; Charlie hasn’t yet awoke when that occurs. Still, I find myself rooting for them to fix their marriage, and thinking Charlie might forgive her if he learns the truth.

SHUT EYE isn’t a perfect series. The story isn’t as gripping as one might like, with the flaws in the characters being a detriment to engaging with the story. Some of the plot twists or momentum seems forced and artificial. None of the performances are the type to make you start thinking of awards season, though they’re serviceable across the board. But it’s pretty good, and I do want to see more of it.

SHUT EYE will release its entire first season Wednesday, December 7th on Hulu.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Out of the SEARCH PARTY

Article first published as SEARCH  PARTY Review on Seat42F.


TBS premieres SEARCH PARTY this week. It’s a dark dramedy about a bunch of young adults whose former classmate goes missing. Most of the quintet are self-absorbed enough not to care much, but one of them, Dory, takes the news very hard, even though she and the missing girl aren’t close, and Dory can’t stop thinking about it. What is behind this mystery and why does it matter so much to Dory?
TBS usually does very goofy comedies, more slapstick than clever, which isn’t an insult as there is plenty of room in the world for both, and each style has many fans. In SEARCH PARTY, though, the netowkr is departing, going more for a premium cable style sitcom, something that is as much drama as comedy, and that gets into deeper issues than are usually tackled in twenty-two minutes. It’s a serial story, almost with a miniseries feel, that presents a specific point of view, grounded and relatable, and I found myself interested in this one.
Alia Shawkat (Arrest Development) stars as Dory, who to me feels apart from her social circle. Her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds, Stranger Things), is such a doofus he can barely take care of himself. Portia (Meredith Hagner, Royal Pains) is a self-absorbed actress, and hipster Elliott (John Early, Your Main Thing) is equally shallow.
Now, it could be that these friendships are left over from Dory’s younger days, and she hasn’t yet found a peer group that really understands her; she certainly seems different enough for this to be the case. I like this distinction, though, because it helps explain Dory’s motivation, someone who feels like she doesn’t quite belong in the world she inhabits, and I get the impression she’s looking for the missing girl in order to figure out herself as much as to actually solve the case.
Dory has some help from ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Michael Hall, Cecile on the Phone), the fifth member of the cast. Julian also doesn’t seem as much a part of the others, and that makes him a good one for Dory to reach out to when her friends are disinterested. Smart and capable, he’s the perfect partner for our fledging detective, and together they are likely to figure out what happened.
If that was all there was to SEARCH PARTY, I might still like it. But as one keeps watching, one gets more insight into what, on the surface, seem like the more superficial characters. Portia, in particular, is given screen time to explain why she is the way she is, which is welcome. If the same is done for Drew and Elliott, and if that figures into Dory’s central line, I could see this being a pretty interesting series.
What stops me from a full recommendation is that I feel like other shows have done these things better, though. SEARCH PARTY has the mystery of Stranger Things, the narcissism of Girls, and the journey of a Wes Anderson film. And the problem with drawing those comparisons is that each of the other pieces of content are superior in their execution. Which means this one suffers by the reference.
I like that TBS has taken this chance, and if this series were just a bit better, it would succeed for me. I do hope a failure here (if, indeed it does fail, as others may disagree and this show could become quite popular; I’m terrible at predicting ratings) doesn’t discourage TBS from trying again. Some of the right elements are in place, it just lacks a polish and fresh take to really push it over the top.
SEARCH PARTY premieres Monday, November 21st on TBS.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

GAME OF THRONES - The Complete Sixth Season

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: "Game of Thrones - The Complete Sixth Season" on Blogcritics.

HBO’s Game of Thrones hits Blu-ray, digital, and DVD with its latest season just in time for the holidays. By now, anyone who might be interested in this release, The Complete Sixth Season, already knows the players and settings pretty well, hooked into the battle of sex, violence, and political intrigue for years. Who will end up ruling Westeros, and who else among our favorites might survive the bloody, never-ending conflicts? The sixth year continues those threads and tees up the final two, shorter seasons, set to air next summer and the year after.
A lot of exciting stuff happens in sixth season. The North descends further into chaos as Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon) secures his hold on the land. At the same time, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and a resurrected Jon Snow (Kit Harington) build an army to unseat Bolton, the bastard sitting in their departed father’s chair. Further north, the brothers at The Wall are thrown into chaos, and beyond that, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) reappears after a season off, and we finally learn the story behind fan-favorite Hodor’s (Kristian Nairn) name in a very memorable episode.
Looking south, King’s Landing is a mess as Cersei (Lena Headey) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) each try to bend the ear of the ineffectual King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), who continues to be stream-rolled by The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). A clear winner emerges by the end of the year, probably surprising even Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who has come home to the capital. However, the new ruler shouldn’t get too comfortable, as the vengeful Sands steal control of Dorne and look towards the Red Keep.
This isn’t even taking into account what’s going on across the sea, with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) training to take her revenge, and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) trying to hold a city together for the MIA Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). And off the coast of Westeros, Yara (Gemma Whelan) and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) struggle with murderous family members to attempt to hold onto their own lands.
This is all only a very brief overview of a busy ten episodes, which include many more characters and scenarios. The pacing is excellent, everything constantly in motion, and the various threads balanced beautifully. The world created continues to be grounded and compelling, and it’s very easy to see why this is one of the most popular series being made right now.
However, as a fan of the books first, I still find it a bit hard to overlook the horrible way in which the TV show departed from the source material. For four seasons, Game of Thrones was a pretty faithful adaptation of the novels. Beginning in season five, and continuing even more blatantly this year, the story has gone in a myriad of different directions, thumbing its nose at the author, George R.R. Martin. I get that a video medium needs to take certain liberties, but either it stays fairly true or it is its own thing; I can’t recall another example of a show that started the former and changed to the latter mid-stream. While part of this may be because the show has gotten ahead of the books in many regards, Martin being a notoriously slow writer, it still feels fundamentally wrong, a betrayal of the fans.
And yet, I can’t stop watching. I have come to love these actors and their portrayals of the characters, and if I can push the books out of my mind, it’s still a very good show. It makes me supremely sad that such an excellent show is tainted in this way, but at this point, it’s too late to change that. I am committed to seeing it through to the end regardless, even as I already long for a re-do in the future.
HBO usually takes good care of its viewers in terms of extras on their home releases, and Game of Thrones – The Complete Sixth Season is no exception. Besides the expected deleted scenes and audio commentaries (thirteen for ten episodes!), there is an in-episode guide that seems invaluable for such a complex, interwoven tale. The guide also provides background info for the series, not just the story, which means there is useful trivia even if one is already well-versed in all things Westeros. Adding to the mythology are a batch of “Histories & Lore,” as told by the characters.
Beyond that, there is an in-depth look at the impressive Battle of the Bastards sequence and a peek at the work done in Paint Hall. We also get to see how the Dothraki made their come back in the production after having been out of the story so long. So there is quite an impressive array of bonus material.
Despite my reservations about Misters Benioff and Weiss, the show-runners, and some of the (in my opinion) poor decisions they’ve made of late, Game of Thrones remains a must-see program, and this set is well worth a look.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Not So GOOD BEHAVIOR

Article first published as GOOD BEHAVIOR Review on Seat42F.


TNT’s latest drama is GOOD BEHAVIOR, premiering tonight. Based on the book series by Blake Crouch (The Wayward Pines Trilogy), the program follows an alcoholic con artist on parole from prison who gets drawn back into the underworld in a big way. She’s just a small-time thief, but when she steals from an assassin, she suddenly goes even deeper into the dark side with no clear path back.

Our protagonist, Letty Dobesh, is played by Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame. While Lady Mary could be a bit of a jerk from time to time, she certainly would not approve of Letty’s behavior, and it’s quite a different role for her. Gone is the British accent, and in its place are wigs, a bunch of role playing, and some guns. Dockery does all right, but I just don’t know if she’s the right person to lead GOOD BEHAVIOR.

To be fair, few actresses would be great in this series, and that’s more the fault of the program than the performer. It’s pretty messily plotted, with twists coming quickly and too conveniently, motivations barely examined before rocketing on to the next thing, and an emphasis on flash over substance. It’s laid out as sort of a case of the week, but wrapped in a serial story. So that fact that Dockery can’t make it believable isn’t entirely surprising.

GOOD BEHAVIOR does try to flesh Letty out by giving her a child she’s trying to regain custody of and a far-too-lenient parole officer, Christian (Terry Kinney, Billions, Oz). Yet, rather than providing context for Letty, these seem to be set dressings. If Letty were really devoted to her kid, she might try harder to turn over a new leaf. And if Christian were even a little good at his job, he wouldn’t allow her to walk all over him. It feels flat, elements stolen from better stories to try to dress up a mediocre show.

The chemistry between Dockery and Juan Diego Botto (Zorro, Roma), who plays the killer, Javier, whose thumb Letty gets trapped under, isn’t bad. In fact, I’d bet that GOOD BEHAVIOR is banking on the steamy, dangerous romance as the primary draw. Will they sleep together? Almost certainly. Will they fall in love and allow that to get in the way of their criminal activities? That’s a little less obvious, but if the series runs for a few years, almost equally certain.

The problem is that a little flirtation doesn’t make up for the weak overall presentation. With only four main characters, the fourth being Lusia Strus’ (Wayward Pines) Estelle, there’s a lot of lingering focus on the main players, especially the central pair. So when the plot is flimsy around them, without totally showing a realistic relationship or reasons for what the players are doing, then the whole thing doesn’t hold up very well.

I do think TNT has been trying to make better dramas lately. But most of their shows tend to be like GOOD BEHAVIOR, interesting ideas that are not as well developed as the same series might be on their leading basic cable competitors, FX and AMC. I will give TNT credit for having a brand and sticking with it, but I can’t help but wish they allowed themselves to get a little more complex in their storytelling. Letty would be a much more interesting character if the series toyed with ambiguity and shades of grey, which in this case are minimized in favor of action.

So should you watch GOOD BEHAVIOR? Well, if you like other TNT series, you probably are already adjusted to the lowered expectations that come with viewing that network, and may enjoy this one, too. If you’ve wanted to watch TNT, or have occasionally given in only to be disappointed, this program is not going to change your mind; stay away.

GOOD BEHAVIOR premieres tonight at 9/8c on TNT.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

HELL ON WHEELS Stop Turning

Article first published as 'Hell on Wheels - Season 5, Volume 2' on Blogcritics.

AMC’s Hell on Wheels, often ignored, but worthy of the great network it aired on among peers like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, came to an end recently with its final seven episodes. Centered around the building of the transcontinental railroad, the series followed some really good characters, as well as a depiction of racial relations at the time, as the workers labored to connect America coast to coast following the Civil War. Now, those last installments are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with some extras.

What strikes me about this final batch of episodes, which I eagerly devoured in two sittings, is that they are, on balance, more character-driven than most of the seasons. Don’t get me wrong, Hell on Wheels has done some beautiful and disturbing stories featuring its players over the years. But usually those are scenes intermixed with larger arcs and many moving plots. Here, four of the seven episodes really zero in on one or two faces, with much of the main cast sitting out multiple installments, and the finale serves pretty much all of those left standing. This leaves only two hours for the basic narrative about the railroad as a whole.

This works very well, even if it does depart from what most long-time viewers might expect from the show. The completion of the tracks still gets its due near the end, with one more really good story about pulling together and doing the impossible, the two companies racing one another to the finish line. However, by often focusing even more than ever on the central characters, it allows solid endings for a lot of the players we have come to deeply care about. And though many of them either die or leave before the end, each hour shedding another face or two, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to send the show off.

Among those who get an appropriate goodbye are: Fong (Angela Zhou), the woman disguised as a man; Maggie Palmer (Chelah Horsdal), the hotel owner who sees the best in people; Psalms (Dohn Norwood), the former slave with whom our once-slave-owner protagonist forms a bond; Naomi (MacKenzie Porter), the young Mormon wife of our hero, from whom he’s been physically separated; Chinese mob villain Chang (Byron Mann); and, of course, The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), the primary antagonist from Norway who has been permanently scarred by the horrors of war.

Then there’s our remaining central quartet, who have been through so much together on on their own, and whom get more than a single hour to wrap their own stories up. Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) is not just the central figure, but a man who learns a lot over these past years, and who finds himself at his most vulnerable as things come to a close. Bohannan says so much without words, and I continue to be impressed at Mount’s performance. Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) is the crooked boss, through whom we begin to wonder if the ends might just justify the means. Eva (Robin McLeavy) is the girl who is perhaps the ultimate survivor, going from prisoner to whore to entrepreneur. Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke) is the Irish immigrant pursuing the American dream, learning it costs a heck of a lot to achieve. Each of these have very touching moments as their threads tie off.

Hell on Wheels is not a happy ending type of a show. Many beloved characters have passed over the years, and happiness routinely eludes just about everyone. These people live a harsh life with a gritty reality, and that continues through the finale, with no artificial wrap up that’s too neat for their existence. That being said, there’s a full circle to be found, and the conclusions are satisfying in keeping with the series overall.

The extras in Season 5, Volume 2 are unfortunately thin. Three featurettes run less than five minutes each. A little more valuable are the “Inside the Episode” bits, which are about five minutes each, and there’s one for every hour in the set. Still, I wish the producers were a little less taciturn than the characters, and really examined what the show has accomplished over its six-year run.

In the end, though, I greatly enjoy Hell on Wheels, and will certainly miss it. If you didn’t catch it during its original airing, now is your chance, as all of the episodes have been released, ending with Hell on Wheels Season 5, Volume 2, on sale now. The Complete Series is also available. I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Welcome-ish, PEOPLE OF EARTH

Article first published as PEOPLE OF EARTH Review on Seat42F.


TBS is a network for experimental sitcoms, so their latest offering, PEOPLE OF EARTH, should fit right in. An accomplished journalist is assigned to cover a support group for people who believe they have been abducted by aliens. Anxious to get past that waste of time and onto something meaningful, he barely gives the theories of the crazy people a second thought… until he has an extraterrestrial encounter of his own.
Yep, it sounds like a bizarre premise, and it is. It gets even more bizarre when viewers get to start seeing the aliens, knowing this isn’t just conspiracy theories, and is actually a real problem. The aliens plan to take over the world and aren’t too happy that our hero, Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac, The Daily Show), is onto them. After all, no one is going to listen to a bunch of crackpots, but an actual reporter who is determined to find proof? That could threaten all of their plans!
I like the cast of this show. Besides Cenac, the large ensemble includes Ana Gasteyer (Suburgatory, Saturday Night Live), Luka Jones (Up All Night), Brian Huskey (Another Period), Michael Cassidy (The Magicians), Oscar Nunez (The Office), Nancy Lenehan (My Name Is Earl), Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Selfie), Alice Wetterlund (Silicon Valley), Daniel Sherman (Run All Night), and Tracee Chimo (Orange Is the New Black). This isn’t an A-list bunch, but there are quite a few familiar faces, and some very funny people on the list.
I also like the concept. Alien abductions are usually dismissed as nonsense, and if they were to be played for laughs, it’s by laughing at the characters. Here, we have some people who fit that stereotype of someone who isn’t to be believed, but knowing they’re right changes the dynamic and feel of the series. It’s kind of a weird world that doesn’t feel like our own reality, even though it looks and sounds like it, which makes for an interesting watching experience.
Where it goes wrong for me is the execution. The aliens themselves aren’t portrayed nearly as well as they could be. They are an inept bunch, even though they’ve been able to operate in the shadows for some time. They’re too sloppy to feel realistic. There are plot holes, one of the invaders making a very strange decision in retrospect, which feels very obvious by episode two. We’re still very much in the dark about who they are and what they want, but there doesn’t appear to be a cohesive idea behind them that will make the mystery worth it. And, while some have cool designs, others are pretty lame.
Because of that, I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not that interested in finding out. If PEOPLE OF EARTH can’t get through two half-hour installments without making me doubt the reality they’re presenting, I don’t know that I can stomach a weekly show that may not pay off.
The one aspect that gives me a bit of hope is that delusions that Ozzie experiences. By setting the narrator up to be unreliable, there is a possibility that the inconsistencies and plot holes could be purposeful, clues that not all is as it seems to be to those of us watching at home (another level beyond the ignorant, unprepared humans who don’t know the aliens are coming). If this were embraced more fully, PEOPLE OF EARTH could be a ground-breaking sitcom.
I just don’t think that’s where it’s going, though, so while I was amused and interested in the first couple of installments, I’m not sold on continuing, especially on a network that had yet to distinguish itself as consistently reliable in the comedy realm, airing both good series and total duds, often at the same time.
PEOPLE OF EARTH premieres tonight at 10/9c on TBS.

Monday, October 31, 2016

GOOD GIRLS REVOLT Or Revolting?

Article first published as GOOD GIRLS REVOLT Review on Seat42F.


Amazon has a new period drama called GOOD GIRLS REVOLT, which premieres this week. Set in the late 1960s, it’s a drama about the employees of a newsroom for a magazine (similar to Newsweek) called News of the World. Specifically, the characters at the center are women ‘researchers’ who essentially do all the work of writing the articles, but get none of the credit because of the sexism of the time. Now, they’re ready to fight for their rights and recognition.

GOOD GIRVLS REVOLT is confusing because it’s got a lot of real elements, but is not actually a true story. For instance, the events mentioned that are reported on more or less actually happened. Several characters, including Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant, Parenthood) and Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer, Mr. Robot, The Newsroom), are real people. Yet, what they are doing isn’t true to life. Ephron did work for Newsweek, but at a different time, and for a longer period than what the show portrays.

Because of the real names and events, viewers are likely to be tricked into thinking this is a true story. I feel like that’s kind of dangerous. It’s absolutely fair to take a little creative license when portraying historical happenings, but GOOD GIRLS REVOLT isn’t doing that. Instead, it’s misleading to lend itself unnecessary and unwarranted authenticity. This is purely personal opinion, but I don’t approve of that sort of element at all.

Taken on its own, I did enjoy the pilot of GOOD GIRLS REVOLT, before I looked into how accurate it was. It’s very easy to get behind two of the three main women, Patti (Genevieve Angelson, Backstrom) and Cindy (Erin Darke, Love & Mercy), and root for them to succeed. It’s also a timely tale as the first female candidate of a major political party runs for office in a race beseeched by sexism, so it seems important to bring these things up.

However, the show is also pretty predictable and one-dimensional. The costumes and music are almost a bit too over the top, and the drug use and penis sculptures just make it seem ridiculous. Could people have acted like this? Perhaps. Did they? Probably not to this extent. This is more a vision of what modern viewers think the 1960s was like, taken in a cartoonish fashion. Even Patti, Cindy, Nora, and Eleanor are more archetypes than complex characters.

The one player that gets a bit of depth, Jane (Anna Camp, The Good Wife, Pitch Perfect), is not likeable. I’m not complaining about the actress; I’ve enjoyed Camp very much in several other projects. But instead of letting us see the internal struggle she is going through, wanting to hold onto the achievements she has made and afraid of rocking the boat, it’s actually surprising when Jane does the right thing in episode one because she’s shown to be such a cold person prior to this. We don’t get any insight into why she makes that decision.

There are men in the show, too, specifically, Chris Diamantopoulos (Silicon Valley), Hunter Parrish (Weeds), and Jim Belushi (According to Jim). They fare no better than the women, coming across as entitled bullies who may like girls that know their place, but certainly aren’t going to join the cause of gender equality. They aren’t outright villains, but are (mostly) quietly prejudiced. They are simply the obstacles in the way that must be toppled.

I do kind of want to see where GOOD GIRLS REVOLT is going. I like enough of the elements to be curious about episode two. Yet, that’s more because of a fascination with an era and the positive feelings I get from watching women kick butt than the show’s own merits enticing me.

GOOD GIRLS REVOLT season one will be released on Amazon this Friday.