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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fully LOADED

Article first published as TV Review: LOADED on Seat42F.


AMC’s newest series is a British import adapted from an Israeli series, and yet, you won’t be able to watch it without comparing it to a popular U.S. program. LOADED tells the story of four entrepreneurs who make it rich with a game they developed. Through a series of bad decisions and dumb mistakes, they frustratingly begin losing the money just as quickly as they acquired it.

Yes, if LOADED sounds a bit like HBO’s Silicon Valley to you, that’s because they two programs are very similar, down to some of the characters that populate it. The main differences are that LOADED is starting from a point of success, the core characters actually love one another, and this is a drama infused with comedy, rather than a comedy infused with drama.

That last may be a slight distinction, but it’s also an important one. There are fewer laugh-out-loud moments in LOADED than there are in Silicon Valley, but there is more complexity in the characters and the relationships. For instance, one of the four, Watto (Nick Helm, Uncle), is struggling with his sobriety. The way he hangs onto it in episode one is hilarious, but there’s true darkness and pain lurking right below the surface.

The two most central figures are Leon (Samuel Anderson, Doctor Who) and Josh (Jim Howick, Yonderland), who appear polar opposites at first. Leon spends his cash on a Ferrari, champagne baths, and a revenge barbershop quartet, while Josh wants to invest in a living space of his own (he shares a flat with the other three). But even in the pilot, Leon wises up in some ways, and Josh gets more reckless in others. We see how they balance one another out, and the deep respect and affection they have for one another. Together, they make for good leadership. Separately, they’d probably fall apart.

Rounding out the quartet is Ewan (Jonny Sweet, Together), who, at first, I believed to be there only for comic relief, similar as he is to Silicon Valley’s Jared. But then I realized there’s more there. He is the one who is overlooked, forgotten about. Even on a lawsuit against the company, his name is left off of the writ. And we see him work to correct that imbalance, overcompensating in a sad way.

Along with these four, there’s Casey (Mary McCormack, In Plain Sight, The West Wing), their overbearing “sexy Darth Vader” American boss, and Naomi (Lolly Adefope, Rovers), Casey’s assistant who is the true character just there for a joke. Together, the ensemble is a strong one, with a lot going on, and plenty of possibilities for the eight-episode first season.

The question becomes, despite the good characters, is it worth watching if you’re already into Silicon Valley, given how alike the two series are? I can’t say for sure. I don’t mind watching British versions of shows I’ve already seen in America, and that’s kind of how I see this (even though the British is a remake of a show from elsewhere). But with everything that’s out there, does anyone really have time to watch two of (essentially) the same show right now? That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.

I will say, I am most displeased that AMC has censored LOADED so much, forcing reshoots of scenes and the limitation of how many and which curse words can be said per episodes. Some basic cable networks are loosening up their restrictions, and I think AMC should follow suit, especially because HBO places no such requirements on Silicon Valley, and that makes LOADED come off as a tamer version. Plus, the characters suffer from it, feeling not quite as realistic. It’s just language, and LOADED airs late at night. What’s the big deal?

LOADED airs Mondays at 10/9c on AMC.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE

Article first published as TV Review: FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE on Seat42F.


First, there was Seinfeld. Then It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Happy Endings. Now, we have FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE, premiering tomorrow on Netflix.

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE is another comedy about a group of pals who aren’t all that likeable, and yet, because of terrific actors and magnetic, entertaining personalities, we’ll want to keep watching them, if not rooting for them.

This series isn’t a retread, though; it’s the natural evolution of the trend. Seinfeld was a light, fun, nonsense sitcom, and proud of it. Sunny took it a bit dirtier, while Happy Endings matured the emotional heft. FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE deals with real issues and isn’t laugh-a-minute with one-liners, but it is amusing, and it does feel like a premium cable comedy, something that would also be at home on HBO, as well as its berth on Netflix.

We begin with Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele) and Sam (Annie Parisse, Person of Interest), carrying on an affair they’ve been having since college. Both are married, but both unions have some serious problems, so they regularly hook up when they can. It’s that not often, since they live in different cities. As the pilot begins, Ethan announceshe’s moving back the Big Apple, restoring their friend group from their Harvard days, but complicating the tryst.

Ethan and Sam are the most central characters at first, so even though they may not be likeable, they need to be people we can relate to. And they are. Ethan loves his wife, but he doesn’t always want what she wants. He’s an author considering breaking into Young Adult fiction, tired of his award-winning novels not selling, but detests the genre for reasons that perfectly describe him. Sam thinks her husband is dumb, and is a little more desperate for escape, though she clearly likes her (rarely seen on screen) children.

Yes, these are people with arrested development, lacking the emotional maturity they need to progress. We all remember times like that, or may still be struggling with some of the emotions (although hopefully making different choices). I am eager for the affair to become public knowledge to see what happens, but at the same time, I worry what that would do to the friend group at the center of FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE.

The other four primary players are: Ethan’s wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother), who has just taken a job at a horrible hedge fund; rich trust fund lothario Nick (Nat Faxon, Married); aspiring (and failing) actress Marianne (Jae Suh Park, The Big Short); and oft-overlooked book agent Max (Fred Savage, The Grinder, Wonder Years). Lisa has the most material of the four in the first half of the season, and Cobie excels at it, but Max has the funniest bits, and Marianne seems like a simmering cauldron ready to erupt.

Yes, they are all too involved in one another’s lives, and it’s not entirely realistic they are all still so close, but it’s a premise one can overlook to enjoy all of these great actors playing together. Toss in Max’s partner (Billy Eichner, Difficult People), who doesn’t like Max’s friends, and Sam’s husband (Greg Germann, Ally McBeal), who seems to have levels that haven’t yet been explored, and this is the makings for a long-term series I’d enjoy watching. I hope Eichner and Germann are promoted to series regular in season two, as I love how they are outsiders who don’t get the friend group, which is a valuable thing to have when telling this story.

While this may not be completely original territory, and as I’ve said, it’s hard to like most of the characters, I could not stop watching, plowing through half the season before pausing to write this review, and eager to watch the second half as soon as I’m done. This is a great cast, and the story, while at times frustrating, is compelling. I hope it runs a good, long time.

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE will release all eight episodes of season one tomorrow exclusively on Netflix.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Seeking SALVATION

Article first published as TV Review: SALVATION on Seat42F.


CBS has a new summer drama premiering tonight, SALVATION. Humanity is only six months away from being wiped out by an asteroid impact, but almost nobody knows it. When MIT grad student Liam Cole brings the event to the attention of billionaire inventor Darius Tanz, Tanz rushes to the Pentagon to assist in a plan to stop it. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Harris Edwards, assures them that it’s already under control, but he’s definitely lying, even to his inappropriate sweetheart, an employee under him, Pentagon Press Secretary Grace Barrows. Can Tanz and Cole save mankind without the government’s help?

CBS likes to do light science fiction fare in the summer, and SALVATION is no different. Like The Dome or Zoo, it involves a disaster, though this one is a bit less mysterious, and a couple of heroes that must save everyone because, apparently, they are the only ones capable of doing so. It’s like a popcorn action movie spread out over ten to thirteen episodes, with only superficial or generic characters development amid the emergency that the focus is on. It would not be a bad concept to do in the 1990s. In the middle of Peak TV, shows like this are likely to be ignored, not enough quality present to compete with year-round great series.

The biggest thing the show has going for it at the outset is casting Jennifer Finnigan (Tyrant, Close to Home) as Grace. Finnigan is a fun actress who I have enjoyed in many projects previously, and was the biggest reason I had hope for this show. Her primary story is a predictable, though. She’s at the verge of changing careers so she can be with Edwards (Ian Anthony Dale, Hawaii Five-0), but then learns he is keeping secrets from her, casting her decisions in doubt. Another subplot involving her daughter works for the emotional heft needed in episode one, but doesn’t seem to have legs. I hope she is better used going forward, but there’s just not enough meat for Finnigan in the pilot.

The male leads, Santiago Cabrera (Heroes, The Musketeers) as Tanz and Charlie Rowe (Red Band Society) as Liam, aren’t bad, but neither are they magnetic. Instead, they seem to be relatively stock characters themselves, with their complexity coming straight out of a dozen other stories featuring leads that are strikingly similar.

Somewhat interestingly, Liam begins a romance with an aspiring science fiction author, Jillian (Jacqueline Byers, Roadies), just before things get started. If the relationship weren’t so rushed and stereotypical, I might be more interested in how fiction will clash with reality, which is an avenue worth exploring. Provided, of course, SALVATION doesn’t go the Castle route and just make it ridiculously unrealistic, ignoring the actual possibilities of such a plot. (I maintain Castle worked because of Nathan Fillion; anyone else would have struggled to make it watchable.)

I don’t dislike Salvation. As someone that enjoys the genre, I am tempted to watch. The problem is, there needs to be some hook besides the general premise. For instance, last year’s BrainDead was quirky and charming, with great musical recaps at the beginning of each episode, plenty to keep me hooked through the whole single-season run. SALVATION seems to lack that.

In short, there’s a compelling storyline in here somewhere, and there are even some intriguing elements to SALVATION that could make it must-see for sci-fi fans. However, it seems underdeveloped, its characters superficial, which is disappointingly as-predicted for broadcast network summer fare. If CBS would just take the season a little more seriously, get some heft behind a project like this, they would be back in competition with the superior cable networks. But it’s clear already that SALVATION is not going to be the vehicle to do that.

SALVATION premieres tonight at 9/8c.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Light SNOWFALL

Article first published as TV Review: SNOWFALL on Seat42F.



FX’s new drama, SNOWFALL, is about the beginning of the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. Set in 1983, the series follows several people who have different connections to the burgeoning industry. Splitting the action by ethnicity and lifestyle, SNOWFALL attempts to give us a wide-ranging overview of how this trend started.

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris, Farming) is the true lead of SNOWFALL. A young, African-American adult looking for his path, he seems trapped between childhood and the real world. Franklin decides to move from selling pot to the harder stuff after a run-in with a crazy gangster, despite knowing that his family, whom he is close to, doesn’t approve. Whether that is a decision that will pay off for him, or whether it will end tragically, that remains to be seen. I’m guessing the former if the show wants to run for any length of time, though there’s likely to be severe cost.

Coming in just behind Franklin in importance are Gustavo ‘El Oso’ Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Resident Evil: Afterlife) and Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson). Gustavo is a professional fighter who is joining a family of crime, while Teddy is a CIA operative who is being allowed to sell drugs to help balance tricky relations with a foreign power. Both seem over their heads more than Franklin, and it’s unclear if either can make what they’re trying to do work for them. They seem like the types of players that may have a more limited run.

There is nothing wrong with a period drama that tells the tale of a significant event or era. HBO had Boardwalk Empire and AMC had Hell On Wheels and Mad Men. But one thing those have in common is that they prioritized complex characters over illustrating the facts. Franklin may qualify, Idris keeping the role interesting, but I hardly think the other two do, nor do the myriad of supporting players. This is where SNOWFALL lacks.

Where SNOWFALL tries to make up for it is the production design, which is aces. The program shows us a full-fledged world that looks both authentic to the time and slightly magical, a little hyperreal. There are a couple of scenes where SNOWFALL beats its setting over our heads a little bit, but for the most part, this is an asset, not a liability.

The program also brings the sexiness, going a little further with mature content than I think I’ve ever seen on a basic cable series. It’s not premium network level, not like the shows on HBO for example, but there are tantalizing and explicit scenes you will not want your kids to see. Which works in SNOWFALL’s favor, as it would be nearly impossible not to go there with the content of the story, at least if they want to keep it fairly accurate.

My most recent review before this one, of Netflix’s Gypsy, lamented how well-made TV isn’t necessarily good television any more, not with the glut of really fantastic series out there right now, and the ability to go back and re-watch so many classics of the past. SNOWFALL does better than Gypsy in providing something interesting and fresh, but has the same drawback in that it could be better. Much better. And that shows.

The bottom line is, SNOWFALL lacks a strong hook that will immediately send viewers scrambling to set a season pass. Without such a thing obvious in the first episode, especially on a network like FX that is known for very strong series (I’d rank it up there with HBO and AMC for producing some of the best), this one falls a little short of the mark. Not so far that it can’t come back from it, but will people stick around to give it a chance? I don’t know, and I’m not sure if you should.

SNOWFALL premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE SERIES

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In: The Complete Series' on Blogcritics.

Before there was Saturday Night Live, there was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Hilarious, topical, sometimes controversial, the comedy program began as a one-time special, and eventually racked up a six season run. Starring an eclectic group of individuals, some of whom built memorable careers, and featuring a bevy of terrific guest stars, recurring sketches and one-liners filled the 140 episodes, some of which did not air until well after cancellation. Now, the entire Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series is available on DVD from Time Life, and most of the episodes getting their first-ever home release.

Launching as a series in January 1968, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was over long before I was born, fifteen years later. But the reputation and jokes lived on, permeating pop culture. Of course I’d seen the clips of Richard Nixon calling out “Sock it to me,” Goldie Hawn go-go dancing, and Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the annoying telephone operator. Having long been a fan of late-night comedy, this was a series I was very curious about, but never sure where to get a hold of it until this set came along.

The number of talented people the series attracted is amazing. Besides Hawn (The First Wives Club) and Tomlin (Grace & Frankie), regulars included Larry Hovis (Hogan’s Heroes), Eileen Brennan (Clue), Richard Dawson (Hogan’s Heroes), Henry Gibson (Boston Legal), Dave Madden (The Partridge Family), and Johnny Brown (Good Times). Perhaps more impressive were the guests stars, with Flip Wilson, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis Jr., Rock Hudson, Dinah Shore, Tim Conway, James Garner, Vincent Price, Buddy Hackett, Michael Caine, Charles Nelson Reilly, Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Rod Serling, Liberace, and Lena Horne being just some of the folks who returned multiple times for guest spots.

As much as it’s fun to watch a bunch of familiar, famous faces parade through the series, Laugh In‘s  real staying power is in the writing. Dan Rowan’s straight man to Dick Martin goofy comic inhabit first segment, leading to mod dance parties, “Laugh-In Looks at the News” (a predecessor of Weekend Update), and though to applause at the end that extends long into the closing credits.

The series has a very specific, signature style with regular inserts and asides. Some strong, some less so, they impart a unique comic tone to the series. Characters like Wolfgang the German Soldier, Gladys Ormphby, Edith Ann, the sock-it-to-me girl, Uncle Al, and more, are memorable to anyone who has seen them. Yes, it is absolutely a product of its era, and the hippie, zany sensibilities are ever-present. But it’s also genuinely funny something that can still make us laugh many decades later. Whether you were a fan back then, or just have an interest in classic television, this is a good DVD set.

The just-released box contains thirty-eight discs, including the pilot special and all the regular episodes, complete and uncut. The show has been remastered, and while it shows its age, it looks pretty good, much better than any clip I’ve seen from it. It’s certainly not high-def ready, but what do you expect from a show so old? The point is, there isn’t the graininess that distracts, and it’s OK if Laugh-In shows its age a little. It’s earned it.

Six hours of bonus features round out the set. The most sizable are a 25th anniversary cast reunion (filmed way back in 2001) and a booklet full of some of the best quotes from the show. There are interviews, bloopers (which aren’t always as funny as the written jokes, but still good to include), a tribute to producer George Schlatter (the late clapper), Schlatter’s Emmy speech, and more. About 100 minutes of it are on a special bonus DVD, while the rest (mainly cast interviews) are scattered among the various season sets, each packaged separately in the larger box.

Personally, I find this DVD set right up my alley, and I enjoyed it immensely. I know it’s not for everyone, but if you like classic or late night comedy, it’s a must-see. And I suspect a great many other people, who aren’t particularly into those things, would find it entertaining, too. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, available now from Time Life, comes with my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Wandering GYPSY

Article first published as TV Review: GYPSY on Seat42F.


GYPSY, Netflix’s newest drama, has a tantalizing premise. Jean Holloway (Naomi Watts) is a therapist with a double, sexy life. She seems, more or less, happily married to Michael (Billy Crudup), with whom she is raising a nine-year-old daughter (Maren Heary) with gender identity issues. But Jean also pretends to be Diane Hart, a journalist, as she engages in a heavy flirtation with younger rocker Sidney (Sophie Cookson). Will her two worlds collide? Almost certainly, considering she is definitely mixing her alter ego into the personal lives of people important to her patients.

That’s a heck of a story, with all kinds of intriguing and attractive possibilities. On Netflix, where there is no hesitation to make adult content, the leash is off and GYPSY can fully explore the concepts it has set up. This could be a very popular show that wins all kinds of awards.

Yet, I don’t think it will be. There is something essential missing, a key ingredient that has been left out of the recipe, that leaves the whole thing feeling flat. Jean isn’t all that compelling, there is no reason to root for her, nor is there exploration of her own psychological profile. The plot lacks urgency, telling us right up front things are going to fall apart (not that we need to be told something so obvious), but more than takes its time getting to anything tension-filled happening.

This is the golden age of antiheroes on television, or, at least it has been for the past decade. That means when a new series enters this particular fray, it must come with a strong, fresh identity that makes it stands out and gives viewers a reason to sign up for another half dozen seasons or so. GYPSY not only fails to do that, it fails to do anything else that makes it stand out, wasting a concept that should be a no-brainer.

I am not sure where the fault lies exactly. It certainly isn’t with Watts, Crudup, Cookson, Heary, or the rest of the cast, who are turning in consistent, fine performances. It doesn’t seem to be in the direction of the series, which fits very well with the tone GYPSY is trying to set. It isn’t in the sexiness, which does come through despite how dull most of the running time is. The parts just don’t add up to a high enough sum for the show overall, and the only thing I can think is to blame the writing, though without comparing script to screen, I can’t say that’s for sure what it comes down to.

I’m not saying GYPSY is terrible, just very mediocre. Granted, if the series had premiered fifteen years ago, I’d likely be hailing it among the best of what the small screen has to offer. Instead, it’s coming long after AMC, HBO, FX, and Netflix itself have shown us what the medium can be, and is immediately held up for comparison to all of the other fantastic programs in the present and recent past. It does not come out well when judged against its peers.

I can’t not recommend GYPSY, because, as I said, it’s hard to point out what it does wrong, other than that perhaps the writing needs to be more aggressive and contain more depth. But I can’t in good conscience recommend it, either, since, despite a few things I really like about it, it is just not going to make my list of shows to watch. I want it to, but it does not.

Netflix will need to be more careful moving forward. It still has some of the best series out there, and it likely will have other great ones in its future. But as it begins pumping out more and more content, the streaming service will lose its cache of good will if it churns out a bunch of hours that aren’t so promising. The brand is measured by everything it produces, not just the best of the bunch.

The complete first season of GYPSY is available now exclusively on Netflix.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

VIXEN - THE MOVIE

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Vixen - The Movie' on Blogcritics.

I’m sure most people interested in superheroes know of The CW’s excellent DC lineup, which includes Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But did you know that The CW Seed, the online off-shoot of the network, also has a DC animated series called Vixen? Originally released as two seasons of a handful of short installments ranging from four to seven minutes in length, all of the run has now been combined into Vixen – The Movie, available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.

Vixen - The Movie does sort of feel like a movie. It isn’t super obvious where one episode from the web series ends and another begins, other than if you assume it happens at scene changes. And while the overall run is kind of segmented into three parts – season one, a fifteen-minute interlude, and season two – the story of Mari McCabe (Megalyn Echikunwoke, The 4400, House of Lies) finding her identity and her powers, which involves controlling the spirits of animals, does help it gel together, albeit without a very definitive ending. Still, the whole thing, overall, comes across as more cohesive than I expected.

The weakest point actually is the new stuff, which is inserted into the middle. While it is relevant to Mari embracing the Vixen identity and learning how to control her powers, it also feels weird and out of place, with no virtually no continuity crossover into the two seasons. This is because Mari already seems to have a decent handle on things from instinct in the first thirty minutes, so it’s almost a step backwards to struggle with how to use them later, and we don’t see her continue the job she accepts into the latter section. I would rather the story had just skipped the year that follows to get to the last thirty minutes if they weren’t going to connect it better. Though, is a running time of less than sixty minutes long enough to be considered a movie?

Vixen isn’t as good as the other DC shows, mainly because the world it portrays is even simpler and more two-dimensional than the live-action incarnations. With most superhero series, there’s a certain amount of black and white in how characters view the world, and that’s an accepted part of the genre. But certain occurrences in Vixen – The Movie, such as Mari forgiving Macalester (Sean Patrick Thomas, The District) so easily, or the handling of what a small world Mari is from in Africa, seem cartoonish, rather than real.

But this is a cartoon, and the target audience is more than likely children. For this, it works. It is better than other children’s superhero cartoons I’ve seen, including the two episodes of the short-lived Justice League Unlimited included in this release’s extras. It’s entertaining, Mari’s powers are cool, and there are decent action scenes. The family drama is interesting, and the hero herself is at least lightly layered. I do wish the characters weren’t so still when they aren’t talking or fighting, but I did find Vixen – The Movie enjoyable.

If you’re a fan of the DC shows on The CW, Vixen – The Movie fits into that universe well. Among the characters crossing over into the animated world are Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), The Flash (Grant Gustin), Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), Black Canary (Katie Cassidy), The Atom (Brandon Routh), and Firestorm (Franz Drameh and Victor Garber). These give the universe some cohesion, and make the new film feel a part of the cannon, which it is.

I also like the performers they’ve recruited just for this project, which include Echikunwoke, Neil Flynn (Scrubs, The Middle), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Black Sails), and Anika Noni Rose (The Good Wife, Dreamgirls). So again, overall, pretty good cast.

Sadly, Vixen – The Movie is lacking in bonus features. There are the aforementioned episodes of Justice League Unlimited episodes from more than a decade ago, which feature Gina Torres (Suits, Firefly) as Vixen. I find both of them boring and not great examples of children’s entertainment. Then there’s a very brief documentary about how Vixen fits in the DC landscape, which is interesting, but at only about six minutes, far too short. So the extras are not going to sway a would-be-buyer to make the purchase.

Though, if you’re already a fan of The CW shows, or you have a child who needs a good female superhero role model, or even just a bit of light entertainment, I recommend checking out Vixen – The Movie, available now.