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Sunday, January 15, 2017

OUTSIDERS Interviews!

I had the good fortune to be invited to New York City recently to sit down with the cast and producers of WGN America’s Outsiders, who were filming their second season. Set in rural America, the show tells the story of an isolated mountain clan and the near by townspeople, with political intrigue and clashing cultures. Season one was very exciting, and with season two premiering in January, I was very excited to interview some of those involved in the show. I hope you enjoy our conversations!
Click below to watch the interviews.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Nothing TABOO

Article first published as TABOO Review on Seat42F.

FX’s newest drama is TABOO, premiering tonight. It is the story of a man, James Keziah Delaney, who has spent the past decade in Africa under shady circumstances, and who has just returned home to London, England in the year of Our Lord 1814. Inheriting his father’s property and shipping business should be an easy thing, but even if Delaney were right in the head, which he doesn’t seem to be, he’d find it a challenge given the dark mysteries of his family and the many enemies who seek his wealth for themselves.

Given that TABOO is airing on FX, it stars the terrific Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant), and is created by Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders fame, as well as Tom and his father, I expect good things from the series. Its ensemble cast, which includes Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Game of Thrones), Oona Chaplin (The Hour, Quantum of Solace), Michael Kelly (House of Cards), Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), Jason Watkins (Trollied), Nicholas Woodeson (Rome), Tom Hollander (The Night Manager), Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire), Franka Potente (Copper), Jefferson Hall (Vikings), and more, adds even more promise. There is lots of talent bringing their skills to bear on this one!

Which means it’s extra disappointing when the show ends up being a dud, a rare misstep for FX.

I’d say the biggest problem is that it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. The pacing is very slow, but rather than feeding us bits of the story as it goes to keep us engaged, very little happens or is revealed in the first hour. It plods along and I keep waiting for even a little bit of a hook, but fail to find one.

The other option a series has, besides a gripping story, is to have very magnetic characters, but TABOO lacks those as well. Pryce is always wonderful, and I enjoy him as a villain here. Chaplin is very good in this, too, her character of Zilpha having a very weird relationship with half-brother Delaney. Others of the group do a decent job, but don’t stand out as all that memorable, and Delany himself isn’t well-defined enough to be interesting. He has a little bit of a presence, but trying to attribute mystic qualities to him just because he spent time in Africa (nope, doesn’t get any more specific than that) feels forced, and there really isn’t anything in the pilot to make you want to root for him, or even care what happens to him.

So what we’re left with is an hour that’s pretty excruciating to sit through, and it ends without any motivating factor to tune in again.

What TABOO does well is the production design. The gritty side of old London comes through strongly, providing nice contract to less grounded productions. For those who watch a lot of PBS, this is going to have a very different feel. The shadows and the muck work well with the tone the series is trying to set, and the opulence of the East India Trading Company clashes nicely with the more common men and women portrayed. The world is built is visually neat.

That isn’t enough, though, for repeat watching. It puzzles me why the BBC ran this, or why FX would want to pick it up, as it seems off-brand for both. I’m not sure where it fits in their lineups, especially on the American cable network, and I can’t imagine it’s going to stick around for a second season, given the lackluster reviews its getting. It doesn’t seem likely to draw many eyeballs on either platform.

TABOO premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Not Your Grandma's EMERALD CITY

Article first published as EMERALD CITY Review on Seat42F.

I’m a big fan of The Wizard of Oz. Not just the MGM movie, though that is great, but the world of Oz in general. As a child, I devoured all fourteen of L. Frank Baum’s books over and over again. And while no faithful adaptation has yet been made (at least not that I’m aware of), a fact that is very disappointing to me, I have enjoyed some of the more interesting modern versions, such as SyFy’s Tin Man and the Broadway musical Wicked, as well as Gregory Maguire’s series of Wicked books. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to sample NBC’s new drama, EMERALD CITY.

What EMERALD CITY does right is use more of the Oz mythology than most works. The Judy Garland film is actually quite a bit departed from the written work, but even then, only makes use of the first in the series. There are a rich tapestry of characters and corners of the land that are not explored in that initial offering, and while Disney’s horrible movie Return to Oz combined books two and three (since the second is the only one Dorothy isn’t in), most projects that tackle Oz ignore the other thirteen volumes. I feel this is a mistake that EMERALD CITY at least partially corrects.

Dorothy (Adria Arjona, True Detective) is the star, which is likely the right move, given that she is the character most people are familiar with. But the other central player in the books, which the second one centered around, is Tip (Jordan Loughran, Evermoor). Those who have read them will assume where EMERALD CITY is going with the boy, long held prisoner by a lesser witch, and who is extremely important to the land as a whole. I feel like this television series will likely pay that off based on what I’ve seen so far, though I’m not convinced Tip’s importance will be as high as it is on the page.

Other main players include familiar characters like The Wizard (Vincent D’Onofrio, Daredevil, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Glinda (Joely Richardson, Nip/Tuck, the Patriot), West (Ana Ularu, Inferno), as in The Wicked Witch of the, Tip’s pal, Jack (Gerran Howell, Young Dracula), and Lucas (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, NBC’s Dracula).
Now, while Lucas is lacking straw, he’s clearly some version of The Scarecrow, and Jack has got to be Jack Pumpkinhead, though he appears to be perfectly human. This is something EMERALDN CITY does wrong, in my opinion. Although magic is part of this Oz, there are no magical creatures, which is essential element of any Oz tale. It doesn’t quite feel right if everyone is human, as is the case here, and that certainly takes away from the overall mythology.

Besides the witches, there are supernatural elements, including prophecy and giants, but these start to build a world that isn’t Oz. These are something else. Which makes me wonder if perhaps the show shouldn’t have ditched the Oz tie-ins completely and just done something completely different. It feels like sometimes too much effort is made to use a familiar property when originality would be the better way to go. Renaming the realm, the witches, and the protagonist could depart it enough to give EMERALD CITY more freedom without needing to give up the things they kept in common.

It also seems that EMERALD CITY may ditch the inaccessibility of Oz, including the nearby land of Ev, another element from the books, in the show as well, but presumably making it easier to come and go from Oz, with no sign of the deadly desert completely surrounding it. Like using the name Ojo (Olafur Darri Olafsson, The Missing) but failing to make this Ojo anything like the one Baum wrote, some of the choices seem like they were made purely to name drop something without actually using the source material. This seems odd.

None of this matters as much as the overall feel of the show, though, which is that of a lower quality program (except for the special effects). The action isn’t gripping, and none of the performances engage the viewer as much as one would wish. Despite having a couple of decently-known performers, EMERALD CITY feels more like it belongs on SyFy than network television, not quite at the level of a mainstream program. Parts of it are boring or confusing, and I am not sold on the core plot thread. The witches don’t feel powerful, I don’t buy Oz himself being in charge for this much time, and tying Dorothy’s past into the land is unnecessary and weird.

Also, where are the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion? I mean, come on! And Toto is a German Shepherd? Seriously? OK, now I’m just being breed-ist, but that one does hurt a bit, more than any other casting decision.

I don’t hate EMERALD CITY as much as many critics do; I actually continued right to the third hour after the double-length pilot. But there is nothing in those initial installments that makes me think I’ll rank it up there with the films and novels listed in the opening paragraph. I wonder how much of my continued viewing will be based in my high regard for the central property, rather than the merits of the series itself, which seem a bit lacking, though there are some intriguing bits throughout.

EMERALD CITY premieres this Friday at 9/8c on NBC.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Article first published as BEYOND Review on Seat42F.

Freeform has a new supernatural drama this week called BEYOND. A man wakes up from a twelve-year coma in perfect health, no muscle atrophy or anything. So maybe he wasn’t in a coma, as some who seek him out suggest. Also, he now has some crazy powers, and people who seem pretty shady are after him. Essentially, it’s a lot of mystery and chaos wrapped in what feels like a YA series, though this one isn’t based on any book.

The main character is Holden Matthews (Burkely Duffield, House of Anubis). Holden is about to become a high schooler when whatever happens to him happens. Waking up, he remembers nothing of the last twelve years, except for confusing flashes of images that indicate he did more than just sleep. It’s hard for him to piece that together, though, while trying to readjust to his family and getting pulled into something bigger.

The first thing that strikes me about the central family in BEYOND is that they don’t feel real. Mother Diane (Romy Rosemont, Glee) is nurturing and father Tom (Michael McGrady, Ray Donovan) is involved with his kids, and yet, Holden is allowed to go out on a school night, riding a motorcycle and drinking beer. I’m sorry, but if the parents were as good as they seem to be, I don’t think all that would happen, especially not to a boy who seems so interested in science and space, who probably wouldn’t want to do those things at that age anyway. Maybe I’m just sheltered, but the characters don’t seem consistent or well through-thru.

It’s interesting that BEYOND chooses to recast all the central players from its opening to its twelve-years-later story. The kids have grown, sure, especially Holden’s younger brother, Luke (Jonathan Whitesell, The 100), so they should be different actors. But Tom and Diane also change. I can’t think of another show that makes this decision, though I don’t mind it. Given the seemingly low-budget quality of the production, the money is better spent on ‘big’ action sequences rather than trying to convincingly de-age a couple of performers.

Where things really fall apart for me is just the lack of engagement of the plot or characters. Holden is our lead that the audience needs to get behind, but we don’t really see anything in him that makes us like or root for him. Things happen to him, but aside from a few goofy moments with Luke and certain love interest Willa (Dilan Gwyn, Dracula Untold), we get little insight into his personality. Why are we supposed to care about Holden? What is his motivation?

The rest of the cast isn’t much better. There may be something weird going on with the family, given how well they’ve apparently adjusted during Holden’s absence. Willa is definitely into the deeper mythology, and while my instinct is that we can trust her, it’s probably too early to know that for sure. Holden’s childhood best friend, Kevin (Jordan Calloway, Unfabulous), is not an upstanding citizen. I don’t see anything in any of them to hook me.

I guess BEYOND is trying to really bank on its mystery, and that’s fine as long as it has strong characters along for the ride. It doesn’t. The pacing is slow, and the story is more confusing than compelling. I don’t know what’s going on after watching the pilot, and I’m sure I’m not meant to, but the problem with this series is that I don’t care to find out, either.

The entire first season of BEYOND, all ten episodes, will be available streaming on Hulu and the cable network’s app on premiere day, ready for binging, and this may work in its favor. With the next episode readily accessible, some viewers may decide to just keep going or allow auto-play to do its thing. However, I feel no compulsion to continue through the nine episodes made available to press, so I would suspect some who do stick it out will feel like their time has been wasted in the end. I could be wrong, but BEYOND fails to make me want to find out.

BEYOND premieres tomorrow on Freeform, and all episodes will be immediately available streaming as well.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Don't Hold Us RANSOM

Article first published as RANSOM Review on Seat42F.

The opening act of CBS’s new drama, RANSOM, tells you everything you need to know about the show and its core cast. We meet the main players and see them engage in an action-filled situation that will surely be repeated over and over again, should the show have the good fortune to stay on the air. The flip side is that what is shown is completely formulaic and tired, the characters too-familiar archetypes, and the result is yet another unnecessary, practically unwatchable procedural that adds nothing of value to the television landscape.

We first see the world of RANSOM through the eyes of Maxine Carlson (Sarah Greene, Penny Dreadful), a ‘brilliant’ young woman who cannot get the only job she wants, working for a professional negotiator. She doesn’t care that she has been offered many other professional opportunities, she is determined to work for just one man, and she doesn’t take no for an answer. Which, of course, because this isn’t reality, earns her the job, rather than an appropriate restraining order. (Yes, the ‘twist’ is supposed to justify her behavior, but it feels forced.)

The trope of following the new person in the group is meant to introduce the audience to the rest of the ensemble, and while a tactic that works, seldom is it used so blatantly and with so little regard for realism. There’s a Maxine on every show like this, but few who seem so much a thin story device than a complex character. Her introduction is insulting to the discerning viewer, who deserves more than such an obvious ploy.

Through Maxine, we get to the real protagonist of RANSOM, Eric Beaumont (Luke Roberts, Black Sails), another stereotype. This is the charming hero that is nearly superhuman in his perfection, and will absolutely win every contest he enters without breaking a sweat, and mixes fatherhood effortlessly into it using the same skills he does in his job. Even his ‘flaws’ won’t detract from how people see his character, and he can handle himself physically as well as intellectually. Somehow, he knows more than everyone else in the room, and is the only one with decent judgment. When everyone else argues for one course of action, Eric does his own, different thing and is always proven to be right. It’s a boring, stale type of person that would feel out of place in the real world just as much as Maxine does.

In case anyone is still not fully understanding what RANSOM is going for, there is a scene in this initial sequence in which the cops have a gun pointed at the bad guy’s head. Law enforcement just wants to shoot him, but Eric heroically says the hostages must be protected, not once, but multiple times. Guess what? Eric goes in and talks the guy down.

As soon as this ridiculous initial act is through, RANSOM immediately launches into a case of the week, because, why not? This type of show doesn’t need a full pilot, it just needs an establishing sequence, and then it can get to the formula that will be repeated nearly every week with little variation. It also has a bland, diverse core group of characters that just check boxes, rather than being fully formed individuals, so no need to get to know them all that well.

On a very logical level, RANSOM accomplishes what a first episode should. It explains the world and the players to the audience, and then gets to their typical story framework. However, that’s just on paper. To actually be a good series, a show needs to be innovative, engaging, provide intriguing characters, and have something to say worth saying. RANSOM fails all of these criteria.

In short, RANSOM is a total waste of time for anyone other than someone looking for a quick, non-thinking, stand-alone burst of low-quality entertainment. Those people exist, sure, as other crime procedurals have proven, but we definitely have more than enough of them already, and they’re never going to be all that great, not among the most-loved, most-honored programs.

RANSOM premieres tonight after the football game, whatever time that ends up being.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Article first published as TRAVELERS Review on Seat42F.

Netflix launched a new series today called TRAVELERS. Set in the present day, it involves a group of people from the future who travel (of course) back in time to inhabit the recently deceased’s bodies. They say they have come back to save humanity, and since they are the protagonists and aren’t just killing people, it makes sense to believe them. But they are very mysterious about their mission, so it’s hard to know exactly what is true in this world.
The central cast is made up of six players. Three of them aren’t great. Carly (Nesta Cooper, Heroes Reborn) is a mother whose baby daddy is an abusive drunk. Trevor (Jared Abrahamson, Awkward.) is a high school student who prefers fighting to school work. Philip (Reilly Dolman, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”) is a drug addict living in a crack house. None of these characters prove all that interesting, and none of the performances are very memorable. The future people chose poorly with these three, any of whom could be taken out at any time and it wouldn’t hurt the show.
However, the first woman we see, Marcy (MacKenzie Porter, Hell on Wheels), is far more interesting. Mentally disabled, Marcy is ‘cured’ over night when her body is taken, which not only shows us some of the rules of TRAVELERS, but also the limits of the heroes. While Marcy is not someone who makes a huge impact on the world prior to this event, her caring social worker, David (Patrick Gilmore, SGU Stargate Universe), helps flesh her out, and she is given an interesting plot line. Whenever the focus shifted to the others, I kept wishing for Marcy to return.
Finishing off the sextet is the investigator who starts looking into the strange things surrounding these people, Grant MacLaren (Eric McCormack, Will & Grace, Perception). I admit, I thought I had Grant figured out just a couple of minutes into TRAVELERS, and I found the character relatively boring. However, a twist late in the premiere ratchets up his importance and role, which immediately improves both the show and his part in it.
Screeners were not made available for this one, so I’ve only seen the pilot, but the impression that I get is that it will be pretty standard, mid-level sci-fi fare. There is a larger story that seems interesting, but it also looks like a lot of the twelve episodes will probably be mainly self-contained stories, at least going by Wikipedia synopsis. The mystery feels forced, and the way the characters present it, I’m not even sure the writers knew where it was going at the start. For instance, Marcy says she can’t explain what she’s doing to David, but then seems to understand exactly what she’s doing later, which makes her seem less trustworthy than the rest of the episode paints her to be. This unevenness weakens the overall production.
There is hope, though. This is a joint production with a Canadian studio, and it seems to be somewhat in the vein of fellow Northern series Continuum. Continuum was never the best show on the air, but it was intriguing science fiction, better than a lot of shows, even if it wasn’t must-see. If TRAVELERS only reaches the level of Continuum, I’d be pretty satisfied, as I enjoyed that one quite a bit.
The problem it faces is that we are nearing peak television, with more than four hundred scripted series premiering in the United States this year. Being middle of the pack used to be good enough, but it’s not any more. TRAVELERS will likely have some very adoring fans, the people that this hits the sweet spot for, but it lacks the type of appeal that would pull it out of the typical genre fare, so it’s not likely to get beyond that, or make any lasting impression. Which could likely lead to a short run.
TRAVELERS’ entire first season is available now on Netflix.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


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.