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Monday, August 14, 2017

Your ATYPICAL Sitcom

Article first published as TV Review: ATYPICAL on Seat42F.


I hesitate to peg Netflix’s new series, ATYPICAL, as either a drama or a comedy. Yes, that’s true of a lot of shows these days, especially on premium cable or streaming services, but I feel like this one’s a bit harder than most. Pressed, I guess I’d say it’s a comedy based mainly on the running time, which clocks in at under forty minutes per episode. But it’s a very serious topic being delved into, and the level of discomfort in many of the characters keep this from being too funny.

At the center of ATYPICAL is a family of four, the Gardners. Sam (Keir Gilchrist, United States of Tara) is an eighteen-year old high school student with autism. His sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine, Irrational Man), looks out for her brother, and mostly ignores boys while she concentrates on her studies. Mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Weeds, The Hateful Eight) is unhappy in her marriage and considering an affair, while father Doug (Michael Rapaport, Justified) never figured out how to connect with Sam the way he does with Casey, though he loves both of his children.

Yes, this is a pretty typical family unit, and with some slight tweaks, could be a typical sitcom. What raises it above that is the cast, which is outstanding. Aside from Lundy-Paine, who is relatively new, the actors have a lot of experience, and including Lundy-Paine, a lot of talent. The clan feels very authentic, with complex, nuanced emotional feelings towards one another.

And yes, Sam’s autism is a big part of the show. How can it not be? It not only affects his life, but the lives of those around him, especially now that he wants to start dating. But it’s not the be-all, end-all of the show. There are other things going on, and even without the autism, this show could still exist (though it might have been a harder sell to Netflix).

Other series have started to put autism on screen lately; Parenthood springing to mind. I feel like it’s something not everyone understands right now, and getting to see portrayals of it on television is important. Familiarity breeds acceptance. While some may discount television’s influence on the culture, and while hatred does still exist, I feel credit is due to the small screen for helping ease racial and sexual tensions over the years. Autism doesn’t evoke the same strong negative reactions, usually, but it certainly can’t hurt for people to understand people with it a little better, whether you think it’s a disability or not.

The supporting cast is delightful. Amy Okuda (The Guild) plays Julia, Sam’s therapist, which I already see an obstacle coming from after episode one. Graham Rogers (Quantico) is Evan, a love interest for Casey. Nik Dodani is Zahid, Sam’s best friend. Raul Castillo (Looking) serves as a temptation for Elsa, hopefully one she won’t give in to.

I have seen reviews for ATYPICAL that range from praising it for being the best Netflix show ever, to those who find it offensive or trite. Thankfully, most are positive, and while I wouldn’t go so far as that first reviewer I mentioned, I would say it’s a solid addition to the service’s lineup. It’s fresh, surprising for a series that looks pretty standard on paper, and as mentioned, the cast is excellent. The direction and production value are good, and I became emotionally invested very quickly when watching the pilot. There is a healthy dose of realism without being gimmicky or gritty, and it has good balance for its leads and themes. I have no problem recommending this one.

All eight episode of season one of ATYPICAL are available now.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Watch Out For MR. MERCEDES

Article first published as TV Review: MR. MERCEDES on Seat42F.


Coming to AUDIENCE Network, AT&T presents MR. MERCEDES. You might already know this is the title of a book by Stephen King, the first of a trilogy, in fact. But if you don’t know what it’s about, I’ll tell you. Detective Bill Hodges, recently retired, cannot let go of a serial killer case he never solved. Though, admittedly, it’s probably harder to let go when the murderer is stalking and taunting you, as is happening to poor Bill. Thus begins our cat and mouse game.

I went in cold, knowing nothing about this show, and that was apparently a mistake. The opening sequence is interesting, introducing a couple of sympathetic, engaging characters, and it’s easy to get drawn into their story. Except, their story is short-lived because of a horrific event, one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on television, and it makes it very hard to get back into the series as we move past the beginning.

Get drawn back in, you will, though. Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Edge of Tomorrow) is terrific as Bill, a grumpy old man who want the kids (‘ tennis balls) to stay off his lawn. The source material is well reviewed, and the great David E. Kelley (The Practice, Boston Legal) serves as showrunner and frequent writer. The supporting cast is, across-the-board, fantastic, the direction is great, the pacing is swell, and the villain gets quite a bit of screen-time, too. So it’s nearly impossible, if you don’t turn the show off five minutes in, to not want to watch more.

Does this mean the beginning was a mistake? No, not exactly. Yes, MR. MERCEDES did not have to make us care about its victims right off the bat, nor make the attack itself so damn gory. However, I think by doing it the way the show does, it effectively communicates the brutality of this killer, the randomness of his targets, the danger present, and the stakes of the tale. So as much as I did not like what happened and have no desire to see it again, I can’t be upset at the choices the series makes for pure quality of storytelling. It’s not gratuitous, it’s purposeful, and that’s the bar by which I measure whether violence is acceptable.

The heart of the piece is the contest between Bill and Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway, Penny Dreadful). Both men are explored pretty in-depth, Bill through his interactions with neighbor Ida (Holland Taylor, The Practice), lawn mower Jerome (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight), and former partner Dixon (Scott Lawrence, JAG), and Brady’s with his mother Deborah (Kelly Lynch, Magic City), coworker Lou (Breeda Wool, UnREAL), and boss Robi (Robert Stanton, Jason Bourne). Each of these supporting players makes an impression with how they interact with the leads, but also stand out themselves as well-developed individuals, which is quite a feat for an hour-long pilot. Somehow they simultaneously exist as the stars of their own worlds, and support that central dynamic.

And we haven’t even gotten to the introduction of Janey, another lead not in the pilot, played by the always-magnetic Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds).

Sadly, Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) was slated to play Brady before he died. I could totally see him in that role, and I think he would have been great. But Treadaway is a fine replacement, and I don’t think anyone will remember that he wasn’t first choice. Ditto Taylor as Ida, as Ann-Margaret previously had that role before illness forced her to step aside.

King’s adaptations are hit or miss, and usually have what I think of as a very specific, not super high quality, tone. But like the best screen work that’s come from him, like Kubrick’s The Shining, MR. MERCEDES doesn’t feel like it fits that mold. Instead, it’s an intense psychological drama that stands apart as its own thing. I think this could be a really strong series to watch, though unfortunately it’s not on a network most people get, viewership confined only to DirecTV and AT&T U-verse subscribers. I wish it had broader reach.

MR. MERCEDES premieres this Wednesday.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sign THE GUEST BOOK

Article first published as TV Review: THE GUEST BOOK on Seat42F.


TBS has some bizarre sitcoms, and their newest, THE GUEST BOOK, should fit right in among them. Created by Greg Garcia, the mind behind My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope, the show is sort of an anthology series, in that each episode stars brand-new characters in self-contained stories as they check in for a few days at Froggy Cottage and write their stories in the guest book there. I say sort of because there is also a group of locals who have ongoing arcs on the fringes throughout most of the episodes, culminating in a wacky season finale.

Yep, I know how it ends because I watched all ten episodes of the first season in one sitting. While not the most ground-breaking or fresh new comedy I’ve ever seen, I was thoroughly charmed by Garcia’s sense of humor, as I have been many times in the past, and impressed by the parade of performers who came through. This combines the quirky charm Garcia is known for, portraying “regular” middle Americans, with another interesting premise.

The four-member lead cast includes: Vivian (Carly Jibson, One Mississippi), a blackmailing stripper who owns Chubby’s Bikini Bar; Wilfred (Charlie Robinson, Night Court), the elderly gentleman who rents Froggy Cottage, and who becomes Vivian’s target when he’s just trying to reinvigorate his marriage to Emma (Aloma Wright, Scrubs); Frank (Lou Wilson, Tween Fest), Vivian’s good-hearted step-son and employee; and Officer Kimberly Leahy (Kellie Martin, the Mystery Woman TV movies), a cop who develops a crush on Froggy Cottage’s neighbor, Doctor Andrew Brown (Garret Dillahunt, Raising Hope).

Besides Dillahunt, Eddie Steeples (My Name Is Earl) plays another recurring local. This is notable because both starred in previous Garcia efforts. Other Garcia alum, such as Shannon Woodward (Westworld) and Jamie Pressley (Mom), pass through, and there are a host of references to Garcia’s past shows. This continuity, Easter eggs for fans of the writer’s work, is pleasing and makes the show more interesting. It helps create a feeling of family and warmth.

There are also some really clever, unique elements to THE GUEST BOOK. For instance, every episode (after the first) begins with two guys at a computer store recapping the ongoing plots in the context of a buddy trying to get his friend to watch the show. And there’s essentially a ‘house band’ that plays things out and provides bridges on a regular basis. These things kick the show up a couple of notches further.

I’d say the best way to judge the quality of such a show, though, is too at who the series got to headline the various installments, and that list is impressive to modern comedy and television fans. Stockard Channing (The West Wing), Jenna Fischer (The Office), Danny Pudi (Community), John Ortiz (Togetherness), Michaela Watkins (Casual), Arjay Smith (Perception), Lauren Lapkus (Orange Is the New Black), Laura Bell Bundy (Hart of Dixie), Kate Micucci (Garfunkle & Oates), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Andrew J. West (The Walking Dead), and my personal favorite from this season, Michael Rapaport (Prison Break), are among those who parade through. The great Margo Martindale (The Americans) also plays a recurring role. Having this kind of talent keeps the main plot engrossing, and is a good balance to the stories of the community.

Will this top anyone’s must-see list? Probably not. But is it an enjoyable way to pass a few hours? Absolutely. Garcia does ‘nice,’ non-judgmental, inclusive comedy as few others do, and I am always entertained and delighted by what he has to offer. Even in an increasingly crowded field of high-quality entertainment, he has a specific voice and style that is worth keeping around, and THE GUEST BOOK gives him time to really focus on key elements of the show in a way that he didn’t have the luxury to do on longer, broadcast-network seasons.

One last note, THE GUEST BOOK, interestingly, comes right on the heels of HBO’s Room 104, another anthology series set in a rental lodging, but the two could not be more different. If you want dark and science-fiction-y, go for Room 104. If you just want to laugh, and occasionally get your heart strings tugged on, then go with THE GUEST BOOK.

THE GUEST BOOK premieres tonight at 10/9c on TBS.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

THE SINNER Rock Solid

Article first published as TV Review: THE SINNER on Seat42F.


USA premieres THE SINNER tonight, an eight-episode miniseries based on the novel of the same name. The international best-selling book by Petra Hammesfahr is a different take on the crime drama, as is the show. Different because it starts out by introducing us to a protagonist who, midway through the pilot, we’ll see do something truly horrible and violent in full public view. There is no question as to whether she is guilty or not, but rather, the drama stems from why this seemingly normal wife and mother would do something so heinous?

There is definitely a reason, and THE SINNER lets us know that, if not the details of it, pretty early on. As we meet Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel, 7th Heaven, The Book of Love), she is acting strange. She doesn’t look happy or comfortable in her job, working for her husband’s family. Her marriage to said husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott, Girls), is strained, at least from her side; it’s not clear Mason really sees there is a problem. She is haunted by some bad memories, and even appears like she might be leaning towards suicidal.

But we don’t know why she’s so troubled. Things seem good. She and Mason have a little boy she adores, and their home and careers seem stable, childcare taken care of, food on the table. They may be around Mason’s family a bit more than Cora would like, but there’s nothing glaringly wrong that would drive an otherwise normal woman to act that way Cora acts.

I debated even mentioning that Cora snaps in this review, so unexpected was it to me, going in cold. But the show description on the official website gives it away, and this is the premise, so it had to be said.

Biel is fantastic as Cora, playing the lead in a way that is engaging and complex. My instinct is to feel sorry for Cora, sure there’s a good reason for her mental instability, rather than condemn her. What trauma has caused her to act like this? How can she get the help she needs, rather than rot away in a prison cell where she doesn’t belong?

Which begs the question, how close is something like this to real life? How many women are there even now sitting behind bars who should instead be in therapy to get better? How many men? THE SINNER really calls into question motivation and how life experiences shape a person. One cannot excuse what we watch Cora do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel for her, and think there’s not a better path for her than a long stint in prison. She’s not a psychopath.

As much as I was sucked into Cora’s story, and to a lesser extent Mason’s, where THE SINNER slows down for me is any time it shifts to the third lead, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Independence Day). No offense to Pullman, whom I often enjoy, but I just don’t care about the law enforcement officer trying to understand Cora. What we do see of his character doesn’t paint him in a good light, and for some reason, I had less desire to understand him than I do Cora. Though presumably he recognizes something in her no one else does, which says something about him.

THE SINNER is being billed as a close-ended series, and I’m sure it will be. But it also seems like USA might like to continue it somehow. With True Detective coming back, I’m not sure we need another gritty crime drama like this. But if another protagonist as good as Cora can be found for a second outing, I might be up for it. And I haven’t even watched that much of Cora’s tale yet, which I would very much like to see through.

THE SINNER premieres tonight at 10/9c on USA.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Looking for MANHUNT: UNABOMBER

Article first published as TV Review: MANHUNT: UNABOMBER on Seat42F.


Discovery Channel’s newest series, MANHUNT: UNABOMBER, premieres this week. Unlike most of the programming on the network, this one is completely scripted, with a cast of familiar actors playing the roles of actual people, rather than interviews with experts and historians. I’m not sure why Discovery needs scripted shows, but given the focus on forensic linguistics, a practice largely dismissed at the time of the events depicted, this makes sense as the type of program that their core audience will likely be interested in.

Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) stars as Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the FBI agent who gets inside the head of serial killer Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany, The Avengers movies) and brings him to justice. Fitz is a loner himself, smarter than most people, and he comes to understand Ted in a deep way that is, at times, disturbing. As Ted complains about how society is changing, Fitz can’t help but see his point, which does allow him to save lives, but screws up his own pretty completely in the process.

Worthington’s performance, full of complexity and nuance, is worthy of a feature film, and the style and tone of the program seems to bend that way as well. While watching the two-hour premiere, I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the theatre, similar as MANHUNT: UNABOMBER is to films in the genre. In fact, other than its clunky title, it seems like a pretty quality feature.

The supporting cast helps, too, with Keisha Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones), Chris Noth (Sex and the City), Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight), Jeremy Bobb (The Knick), Brian F. O’Byrne (Aquarius), Mark Duplass (Togetherness), Brian D’Arcy James (Smash), Lynn Collins (John Carter), and Jane Lynch (Glee) making for a pretty formidable ensemble. And that’s not even a full roster.

But where MANHUNT: UNABOMBER suffers is where it differs most from a feature film: the running time. At eight hours, it is too long, telling a story that would have been hard to cram in two, but isn’t interesting enough for a full miniseries. Yes, I make that claim after having only watched twenty-five percent of it, but the amount of wasted screen time in those initial two hours is why I feel comfortable saying it.

A lot of time is given over to Fitz begging his bosses to let him use his talent, do his thing, and his bosses refusing him, telling him to just follow orders. Now, I like the point this makes, as Ted’s whole thing is about not being blindly obedient to the system. But it could have been told in one scene, not many. It started to feel pretty repetitive by the third time it happened. And it’s not like seeing it over and over built much suspense because, given the framework story, even those who didn’t follow the case as it was playing out know that eventually the higher ups will listen to Fitz.

I didn’t care for the framework story in general, either. Showing us what happened to Fitz later on, starting just before he goes to talk to Ted, who is awaiting trial, could be an interesting tale. But it’s a different tale than most of the rest of the episodes are telling. It gives away an ending unnecessarily, and is actually quite a bit less interesting than the investigation itself. Maybe it would have worked if it was saved for the conclusion, showing the arc of growth over time, rather than revealing it right away. But what’s here just doesn’t feel all that well planned out.

So, I like MANHUNT: UNABOMBER for its cast, performances, and style. But I probably won’t finish it because the pacing and story just doesn’t engage the way it should.

MANHUNT: UNABOMBER premieres this Tuesday at 9/8c on Discovery.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hopefully Not THE LAST TYCOON

Article first published as TV Review: THE LAST TYCOON on Seat42F.


Last year, Amazon released the pilot for THE LAST TYCOON as one of the shows under consideration for series. Based on the unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald book of the same name (published posthumously), the story is centered on a Hollywood producer battling his boss as 1936 Germany tries to exert control over the American motion picture industry. Thankfully, this terrific series, based loosely on real people and real events (though with fictional names swapped in) was picked up, and tomorrow, eight more episodes will be available, in addition to the already-streaming pilot.

Matt Bomer (White Collar) is great as Monroe Stahr, the Jewish producer who works for Brady-American studios. He has a complex role to play, having not-too-long ago lost his beloved wife, Minna (Jessica De Gouw, Underground), and not able to get past her ghost. The professional conflict Monroe is dealing with comes mainly from that relationship he can’t let go of, though there are some romantic angles worked, too.

Equally central and equally terrific is Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) as Pat Brady, Monroe’s boss. Pat values Monroe, who helped him build the studio into the success it is, but is also a slave to keeping the gears turning. He justifies his rolling over for the Nazis by claiming it’s about keeping everyone employed, and there’s a moment in the first episode where he looks pretty altruistic. He sees himself as the hero, even as Monroe accuses him of being a coward, which seems to hit Brady a little hard. Their relationship is very interesting, close but strained.

To complicate matters even more, there’s a third lead, Celia Brady (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror), Pat’s daughter. Celia is infatuated with Monroe and is determined to wed him, despite his lingering grief and health issues. This infuriates Pat, of course, even though Monroe is only interested in her talent, which, it turns out, she actually seems to have quite a bit of. This makes her invaluable to him, and turns the whole triangle into a mess. Thus, THE LAST TYCOON has plenty of drama.

While there are elements of the pilot that I found hokey and unrealistic, in general, this is a compelling show. It is a bit emotionally manipulative with the Nazi stuff, but in a good vs evil classic form, made more relevant by the current rise of a would-be totalitarian in the White House currently who seeks to discredit the media and control his coverage, an event that couldn’t have been foreseen as this series was ordered. There is a love story, Monroe’s to his deceased wife, that makes the conflict personal, even as the audience will root for the overall bend towards freedom and civil rights. But while the Germans are two-dimensionally evil, the other Hollywood types aren’t. Flawed, yes, but not flat. And even our heroic lead has some shameful things in his life to make him a little less noble.

Oh, and I hadn’t gotten to this yet, but the county’s economic depression also plays into the plot, and not just as it pertains to studio finances. Which adds more depth to the situation, and helps ground it.

We’re seen other old-Hollywood pictures before, more in films than in an ongoing series, but this one still feels fresh. Perhaps that’s because it’s about more than making movies, and has some truly engaging characters in it. Yes, it comes a little close to the fantastic Feud FX anthology series, but the material is different enough that THE LAST TYCOON should stand quite comfortably on its own.

Buoyed by a supporting cast that includes Dominique McElligott (House of Cards), Rosemarie DeWitt (Mad Men), Enzo Cilenti (The Martian), Bailey Noble (True Blood), and Koen De Bouw (Professor T.), I am very hopeful about the continued quality of THE LAST TYCOON, and looking forward to watching more episodes.

THE LAST TYCOON’s first season drops tomorrow on Amazon.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

ROOM 104 Dark and Dreary

Article first published as TV Review: ROOM 104 on Seat42F.


The Duplass Brothers, the brains behind the television series Togetherness and films such as The Skeleton Twins, have another new show on HBO, premiering this week. Called ROOM 104, it’s an anthology series, with each roughly half-hour episode featuring a self-contained cast and story, all set in the same dreary motel room.

Half a dozen installments were made available for critics (not the first six, but a selection from throughout the season), and I reviewed two of them in preparation for this article. In the premiere, “Ralphie,” a babysitter watches a kid named Ralph, who has an evil side named Ralphie. Or does he? The third episode, “The Knockadoo,” finds a woman seeking spiritual guidance to transcend, a task made difficult by a memory from her past.

Going by these two installments, I’d say that ROOM 104 is going for creepy and supernatural in the makeup of the program. Both episodes have things that cannot be explained by science (or possibly reality in general), they’re both a bit scary, and they are both very dark in tone and lighting. They did kind of feel like the same episode in a lot of ways, with the narrative arc and ‘twist’ endings following a similar, broad pattern. I am slightly curious if that trend will continue, not something you necessarily want in a series like this.

They’re also both kind of ambiguous about what’s going on. While one may think they’ve surmised what they’ve seen based on what plays out on screen, there are multiple ways to interpret the endings of them. When done well, this is a great element for television shows to make use of. But when done in a mediocre or gimmicky manner, then it’s an obvious and annoying ploy. In ROOM 104, it’s sadly the latter. Or, at least, it fails to feel fresh and interesting.

I kind of found the entire thing lackluster. While I have enjoyed the Duplass Brothers’ comedy writing and acting roles, sometimes they go into weird territory that I do not want to follow them into. This series is that, seemingly weird for the sake of being weird, no clear vision or point really coming across, at least not in the two episodes that I’ve viewed.

In general, I like anthology shows. Black Mirror is a terrific example of the genre, The Twilight Zone is a classic, and I even enjoyed Metal Hurlant, which never really took off in popularity here. It’s a cool format in which to tell very different tales, explore a short-form topic, and pose questions to make one think without having to deal with continuing consequences or reset to a baseline.

But it’s tricky to do well, and I just don’t feel ROOM 104 goes deep enough. While the endings may not be completely clear, neither episode left me with anything to consider, or challenged my assumptions and views in any way. I didn’t feel any type of connection to them, can’t imagine bringing them up for discussion with anyone, and didn’t feel like the installments had anything to say.

I don’t want to trash the Duplass Brothers. As I said, they’ve made many worthwhile contributions to the media landscape, and I have been a fan of much of their past work. I just think this one falls short for them, or perhaps it just isn’t for me. The production design seems solid, I just didn’t think the stories were as innovative or engaging. Maybe some of the other episodes will prove me wrong. The nice thing about a series like this is there are new chances every single week to get it right.

ROOM 104 premieres Friday on HBO.