Amazon Contextual Product Ads

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Creepy THIRTEEN

Article first published as THIRTEEN Review on Seat42F.


The British series THIRTEEN premieres this week on BBC America. It is about a kidnapped girl who reappears a baker’s dozen years after his abduction. Sent home to her family, the police don’t seem sure the girl is who she says she is, and the mystery only deepens from there.
In many ways, THIRTEEN is a lot like American Gothic, a CBS series I gave a scathing review to earlier this week. It centers on a family with secrets. It’s a dark mystery that is sure to have a lot of unexpected twists. It’s soapy drama, with a family torn apart by a tragic event struggling to figure out what’s true and get on with their lives.
But THIRTEEN is also a shining example of the stark difference between British and American programming. While American Gothic goes for sensationalism at the expense of a complex story, THIRTEEN seems like it’s dropping the breadcrumbs that will eventually lead to the answers. And the CBS series insists on making each member of the clan shady in their own way, while the vast majority of the ensemble of THIRTEEN seem like perfectly normal, well-adjusted individuals who just have this one bad thing that happened to them, so is far less soapy or sensationalist.
Part of the problem is the number of episodes that an American series has as opposed to our British counterparts. While stateside series usually do a minimum of thirteen hours, meaning limited stories must be stretched out, British ones can get away with half a dozen or so, five in this case, so can concentrate just on the central conceit if they’d like to. What this makes for is a superior product that is far more engaging than most of the broadcast network fare here. (Cable networks do shorter, more flexible runs, so are largely exempt from this comparison.)
Another huge difference is that series from the UK aren’t so concerned with casting a bunch of familiar faces. The main group in THIRTEEN have resumes, but they aren’t nearly so omnipresent on our screens as those in American Gothic and lots of other U.S. shows. Funny how a smaller country seems to find a wider variety of performers and not overuse the good ones.
What they lack in recognizability, the cast more than makes up for in talent THIRTEEN stars Jodie Comer (My Mad Fat Diary) as Ivy Moxam, the recently escaped prisoner. Her look is haunting, and the nuance in her performance is impressive. Even when some may doubt her story, or parts of it, the viewer won’t lose sympathy for this woman who seems to have gone through so much.
Richard Rankin (Burnistoun) and Valene Kane (The Fall) are the obligatory detectives, DI Elliot Crane and DS Lisa Merchant, respectively. While the role they play is not much different than most of these slow burn crime dramas, they are every bit as capable as others who have exceled in similar programs. They are going to be the figures that audiences latch onto, even while Ivy remains front and center.
Roundings things out are Natasha Little (The Night Manager) as loving mother Christina, Stuart Graham (The Fall) as the ineffectual father Angus, Katherine Rose Morley (Last Tango in Halifax) as suspicious sister Emma, Joe Layton (Tatau) as Emma’s supportive fiancĂ© Craig, Eleanor Wyld (Honest) as best friend Eloise, and Aneurin Barnard (The White Queen) as childhood boyfriend, Tim Hobson. They won’t all get distinct subplots, but it’s the exact right mix to explore Ivy’s story, and they all do a good job.
So THIRTEEN, while more or less being a very typical type of British drama, is better than what we’re getting on The Big Four in the summer because of its makeup. It’s compelling and well made, and while it’s not wholly fresh, it’s still very entertaining.
THIRTEEN premieres Thursday, June 23rd at 10/9c on BBC America.

Friday, June 24, 2016

AMERICAN GOTHIC Prime Example of Summer TV in America

Article first published by AMERICAN GOTHIC Review on Seat42F.


Next up in the crappy-summer-shows roster is CBS’ AMERICAN GOTHIC. A soapy murder mystery, I understand why this series was held for burn-off during the hot months because it feels a lot like several other shows that premiered earlier in the year, were soon canceled, and I’ve mostly forgotten about (like The Family). Will this show find an audience and fare better? Probably not, so I wouldn’t blame you if you stop reading now and ignore its existence.
If you’re still reading, let’s talk a little bit about AMERICAN GOTHIC, though. It has a pleasant enough cast, which makes for many suspects, each with their own dark secrets (because no one in a world like this is ever who everyone thinks they are). By making a lot of them related, it’s supposed to be more shocking when things come to light, or harder for the characters to distrust one another, but it’s not because of the very familiar tone. There is a serial killer, but don’t even bother trying to figure out who it is at this stage because there will be a million red herrings and twists.
It’s not very satisfying to watch a show like this because it doesn’t feel like there’s a plan from the start. I could be wrong, and there’s no way to know that until the end of the season, but unlike in the best mysteries, that drop important clues early on, shows like these tend to concentrate more on doing the unexpected than crafting an intricate story. They try to go for the plot that comes out of nowhere, rather than something that naturally flows or was previously hinted at. It makes theorizing with your friends just not that great since no one really has any insight into what’s going to happen. It’s an all-too-common style that we can use less of on television, and the way the pilot plays out all but confirms that’s what AMERICAN GOTHIC is.
I realize I haven’t given you a lot of specifics about why I think the show is bad, but I really don’t want to ruin anything for those who are genuinely interested. Let’s just say there are things involving a cat, a box, and a hospital room that smack as gratuitous and have helped forge the opinion above.
As I mentioned before, the cast is good. With so many quality programs on the small screen these days, it’s not a surprise that even the lesser fare can attract talent. After all, it’s often hard to tell from just a script whether the series will be great or not. AMERICAN GOTHIC does have a solid ensemble, and they sell the material pretty much as convincingly as possible.
The central figure seems to be Alison Hawthorne-Price (Juliet Rylance, The Knick), a wife and mother running for mayor of her city. As the campaign unfolds, we meet the rest of the clan, brought in to help her win. There’s matriarch Madeline (Virginia Madsen, Sideways), former drug-using brother Cam (Justin Chatwin, Shameless), Cam’s disturbed son Jack (Gabriel Bateman, Stalker), elementary school teacher sister Tessa (Megan Ketch, Jane the Virgin), Tessa’s detective husband Brady (Elliot Knight, Once Upon a Time), and long-missing brother Garrett (Antony Starr, Banshee). There’s also a father to the group, who is not in the official cast list, so presumably not a main character, and Cam’s still-addicted ex, Sophie (Stephanie Leonidas, Defiance), soon pops back up.
It is a relatively large family, but again, that’s needed so we have a lot of suspects and a dozen episodes of secrets can come out. After all, a lot of different boxes are checked with the grouping above, no one having a boring life that won’t affect the proceedings, and no two crossing orbits too much. It’s a familiar formula that probably won’t work any better than it usually does.
AMERICAN GOTHIC premieres Wednesday, June 22 at 10/9c.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lost WRECKED

Article first published as WRECKED Review on Seat42F.


TBS’s latest sitcom, WRECKED, is nothing if not ambitious. It begins with a plane wreck on a deserted island, and then laughs ensue as the survivors get bogged down in petty things, rather than what it takes to survive. If this sounds like the comedy version of Lost, I believe that’s on purpose given the pilot’s title of “All’s Not Lost” and the appearance of the primary Jack-like hero who steps up at the beginning.
But WRECKED isn’t about to just rehash Lost. It can’t, can it? After all, Lost was a deep and complex series that had a lot of mythology. A comedy does not support that kind of structure (unless it’s Arrested Development). So while WRECKED picks at certain elements of Lost, such as the ghost of a dead father showing up to chastise his son, or lampoons a scene of a survivor trying to get a radio signal, I don’t expect it to commit to flashbacks and smoke monsters in any real way.
Still, the fact that someone is even going after Lost, a cultural icon of television no matter what you thought of its polarizing ending, is laudable. It’s one of those ideas that usually gets the low budget internet treatment, and I’m delighted to see this one make it to broadcast with actual money behind it instead. Even when the results are mixed, which does happen in the first few episodes, it still seems ambitious enough to be worth trying.
A couple of faces in the cast look familiar, but none are A-, or even B-, list stars, which may work in WRECKED’s favor. At the center are flight attendant Owen O’Connor (Zach Cregger, Guys With Kids, The Whitest Kids U’Know) and a fat (for TV) passenger lazy Owen was told to interact with, Danny Wallace (Brian Sacca, The Wolf of Wall Street). They are the odd couple who step up to lead when they’re not sitting on the sidelines making fun of their fellow survivors. And they work just fine as the focus of the show.
Along with Owen and Danny are geeky agent Pack Hara (Asif Ali, Mr. Robinson), scary survivalist Karen Cushman (Brooke Dillman, Bob’s Burgers), hippie Florence Bitterman (Jessica Lowe, Blended), Florence’s put-together doctor roommate Emma Cook (Ginger Gonzaga, Togetherness, Legit), shallow Todd Hinkle (Will Greenberg, The Grinder), Todd’s dissatisfied girlfriend who could do better Jess Kato (Ally Maki, Step Up 3D), and injured comic relief Steve Rutherford (Rhys Darby, Flight of the Conchords). It’s a pretty good ensemble, each given significant screen time and storylines, and hits just about all the archetypes one wants in such a series.
There are plenty of extras milling around in such a way that new people can be added to the group at any time, and I expect that to happen. A lot of the writing focuses on spoofing the genre, from comments such as pointing out the relative unattractiveness (for TV) of the castaways, to the way a boar is easily slaughtered. The rest goes for typical sitcom fodder, such as mistaking a golf club for a child, that seems crazily out of place under the circumstances.
WRECKED isn’t the best comedy on television; not even close. But it may be the boldest, taking a huge risk to commit whole-heartedly to such a bizarre concept. I applaud that fully, and as such, am definitely willing to give this show a chance to find its footing. The first few episodes aren’t bad overall, and each have some really clever elements to them that prove why this program should be made. I hope it gets a second season just because I believe the first one will likely be a hit-and-miss learning experience, and I am very interested to see what could happen if this is taken further.
WRECKED premieres June 14th at 10/9c on TBS.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Wild ANIMAL KINGDOM?

Article first published as ANIMAL KINGDOM Review on Seat42F.



TNT’s new drama ANIMAL KINGDOM, based on the little-seen 2010 film of the same name, is about a crime family. Like any show about a crime family, there’s the strong leader, in this case a matriarch, several brothers of various levels of competency, the relation that has spent time behind bars, and the fresh-faced kid who viewers and characters alike will wonder how far in they can be drawn before they start to seem like everyone else. And these people will get into new scrapes together that constantly put them in danger and mess with the clan dynamics, while more or less maintaining status quo.
The matriarch in this series is Janine “Smurf” Cody (the fantastic Ellen Barkin, The New Normal). Janine maintains a house where her grown sons are welcome to hang out and party, which seems a little strange, considering how much nudity ends up being involved. Janine has four children, twins Pope (Shawn Hatosy, Southland) and Julia, reckless Craig (Ben Robson, Vikings), and affection-seeking Deran (Jake Weary, It Follows). Perhaps not finding any of her children competent enough to take over the business, she also adopted Baz (Scott Speedman, Felicity, Underworld) when he was twelve, and he is now the de-facto leader of the children.
The story really begins, though, when Julia, who has been estranged from the Codys for a decade, dies of an overdose. Janine immediately takes in Julia’s seventeen year-old, J (Finn Cole, Peaky Blinders), which upsets at least a couple of her sons, unsure if they can trust J around their illicit activities. Add to this, Pope shortly thereafter returns home after three years spent behind bars, and the finely-tuned system Janine has becomes unbalanced a bit.
The main drives revolve around J and Pope, which makes sense, considering they are the new elements. J is a very familiar protagonist, the outsider thrust into the strange world, but keeps his cards close enough to his chest that viewers will wonder whether or not he approves of what his family is doing. Pope is even less predictable, seeming to have some serious mental imbalance. As such, there is probably enough steam in these two threads to push the first season through easily enough.
Perhaps to add some much-needed estrogen to the proceedings, ANIMAL KINGDOM has two other female characters besides Janine: Baz’s baby mama, Catherine (Daniella Alonso, Revolution), and J’s girlfriend, Nicky (Molly Gordon, I Am Sam). Sadly, they aren’t used much; at least not yet. Catherine does have some friction with Janine, but that is barely touched upon in the pilot. Nicky seems to exist solely as a tool the Codys can use against J.
The plot in the first episode is secondary to getting to know the characters. A lot of time is spent dwelling on their various relationships and existing life, presumably to establish a baseline before things change too much and to get the audience used to the players involved. There is a bit of action, but no real threat or danger in the initial hour. I assume that will appear in the coming weeks.
I like ANIMAL KINGDOM, but I don’t love it. The concept is both familiar and decently executed, with a fine ensemble cast who can handle what’s required of them. My hesitation is that it might not show us anything we haven’t seen before, and the characters are a lot less complex than those on the higher-tier cable networks such as FX, AMC, and HBO. I think ANIMAL KINGDOM will definitely be enjoyable, but I do not see it being a serious contender for major awards or to be a “must-see” show.
ANIMAL KINGDOM premieres Tuesday, June 14th on TNT.

Friday, June 17, 2016

No Guilt About Skipping GUILT

Article first published as GUILT Review on Seat42.


A guilty pleasure show is, by definition, a show you feel bad about enjoying. Freeform is going for that category with the new drama series GUILT, premiering this week. Loosely inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox case of an American student abroad accused of murder, it weaves a complex web of many characters with various selfish drives and possible motives for murder. And it utterly fails to be good television, even in the guilty pleasure realm.
GUILT begins with Grace Atwood (Daisy Head, The Proxy), a coed, waking up next to a sexy French artist (Zachary Fall, Allies), only to find her roommate dead in the London flat below. If that sounds like a lot of nationalities, that’s because it is, just a small taste of how the show goes for flash over substance. It’s important that everyone and everything be beautiful and exotic to make the tale as fantastical and enticing as possible. Each scene brings more and more of these types of choices.
And that immediately gets to the crux of what GUILT does wrong. Rather than going for a slow burn drama that focuses on character development and the emotion of the situation, this show likes to throw out lots of tears, splashes of blood, and awkward expositional confessions that really aren’t necessary or warranted in the moment.
You might think those are just the elements of a good mystery, but GUILT isn’t that, either. It isn’t short on suspects nor clues, but so many of them are clearly false that it lacks authenticity. Whereas a real case like this might make it difficult to find the details of the situation, the police tasked with the job, led by DS Bruno (Cristian Solimeno, Rush), are beset by constant leads, few of them worth much. It’s a dizzying, fast-paced ride that doesn’t worry about authenticity or a strong foundation.
This is clear in looking at the rest of the cast, too. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head plays James Lahue, slimy stepfather to Grace, and an American despite Head being British (and Daisy’s real-life father). While I like Head in the right roles, this one just has him as a flat antagonist who serves little purpose. Billy Zane (Titanic) is equally bombastic as the lawyer James hires, introduced with a poorly animated squirrel and some too-loud moaning, Zane may be having fun as Stan, but it’s hardly fun to watch him.

The moaning is only the tip of the iceberg for the sexcapades present in the pilot. Yet, because GUILT is on the network formerly known as ABC Family, it stops short of showing anything really exciting. Viewers get lots of suggestions to kink or eroticism, but no payout of it. Given the pulp nature of the piece, sex might help it sell itself as something worth watching, even if only for the titillation factor. With the limitations placed upon it, though, it lacks anything novel or alluring enough to suck all but the least desensitized in. There are plenty of cable networks that go a lot further on a regular basis.
So what we’re left with is a light-weight piece that promises much and delivers little. It sacrifices any chance of serious consideration for some over-the-top dramatics and “surprise twists” that are neither. It’s the type of summer show that might appeal to a YA audience that didn’t know there were better options out there, but I wonder how much of one exists in the age of carrying the internet in our pockets. I just don’t see it as likely to catch on, and if it somehow miraculously does, it will only be among a niche audience.
GUILT premieres Monday, June 13th at 9/8c on Freeform.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

BRAINDEAD Smart

Article first published as BRAINDEAD Review on Seat42F.


From the creators of The Good Wife, Robert and Michelle King, comes a new summer drama (sort of) series, BRAINDEAD, premiering tonight. Set in modern-day, partisanship-paralyzed Washington D.C., it follows a group of people connected to the government, some of whom begin to suspect that all of this chaos is not completely on the fault of the humans. Or, there is an alien race who is beginning to take advantage of our mess for their own gains. No, it’s not a documentary, it is fiction, though there will be plenty who wish reality was so easily explained and fixed.
The protagonist is Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mercy Street, 10 Cloverfield Lane), a kind-hearted, student loan-strapped documentarian who would like to stay far, far away from the nation’s capital and those who populate it. A relatable outsider, she is not trusted by those in power because they don’t think she knows their world. And, they’re sort of right.
Laurel has been semi-forced to relocate to D.C. by her father (Zach Grenier, The Good Wife), who says he will fund her stalled film if she gives him six months working for her brother, Democrat minority whip Luke Healy (Danny Pino, Law & Order: SVU). Laurel is willing to sell out some of her principles, though not keep her mouth shut, for such a bribe, and so she gets to work helping Luke’s constituents.
It takes almost no time at all for Laurel to get drawn into the mystery, though, when one of the voters complains of her husband acting strange. Before the pilot comes to a close, the husband isn’t the only one, and viewers are let in on exactly what’s going on, even if Laurel is still working the long road of clues towards the bad guys (and eventually the solution).
BRAINDEAD is populated with a terrific cast, from the three mentioned above, to Aaron Tveit (Graceland, Les Miserables) as a Republican Congressional aide whom clashes with Laurel, to the handsome investigator (Charlie Semine, Mercy), to Megan Hilty (Smash) in a small role as a newscaster, to the cherry on top, Tony Shalhoub (Monk, Nurse Jackie, Wings), as a mind-controlled senator. Each play comedy well, especially when it comes to characters who aren’t trying to be funny, but Shalhoub also excels at the intentional stuff.
You see, BRAINDEAD is billed as a humorous thriller, and I think that description is apt. There’s the very dark situation that is sweeping across the nation’s capital, but there are over-the-top humorous moments, as well as some more subtle political commentary, that keep things entertaining and without too heavy a tone. It has the feeling of those 1990s movies where the world is in silly danger, but with a higher quality writing and a production that takes itself more seriously, in a good way.
There’s a lot going on, with about half the main characters not even appearing in the first episode. This is good because I think it’s satisfying to see different sides of a situation like this, as there are many facets of what is happening. The entire run is set for thirteen episodes, which is a lot to fill, but despite the fast pace of episode one, I feel the Kings can probably do it well. (And their touted multi-season plan gives me confidence they have a good strategy.)
Still, there does seem to be something missing. I mean, I really enjoyed the pilot and am setting a season pass on my TiVo immediately, but there is still a little hollowness to the hour. I’m not quite sure what is causing it yet, and further hours will likely either illuminate or erase it. But it just feels a couple notches below The Good Wife, in my opinion, lacking quite the sharpness of wit present in the dialogue of that just-concluded series.
BRAINDEAD airs Mondays at 10/9c on CBS.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Should You FEED THE BEAST?

Article first published as FEED THE BEAST Review on Seat42F.


I’m used to automatically loving pretty much any series that premieres on AMC. There are exceptions, Turn being one of them, but few, with the network definitely one of the top three for original content right now (along with HBO and FX). The newest offering, FEED THE BEAST, doesn’t equal the best of AMC, but it’s not a total dud.
The story of FEED THE BEAST revolves around two best friends. Tommy Moran (David Schwimmer, Friends, American Crime Story) is a single father who just cannot get past the loss of his wife, Rie (Christine Adams, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). What this means is he’s struggling to help his son, TJ (Elijah Jacob), who hasn’t spoken since witnessing his mother’s death, and Tommy, a sommelier by trade, has made wine his abusive crutch. His pal, Dion Patras (Jim Sturgess, 21, Across the Universe), is fresh out of jail after burning down a mobster’s restaurant. Said mobster, Patrick “The Tooth Fairy” Woijchik (Michael Gladis, Mad Men), is willing to give Dion a chance to make it up to him, providing Dion stays in town and starts paying.
And so, Dion convinces Tommy they should open the Greek restaurant they’ve always dreamed of, despite the fact that Tommy doesn’t want to do it without Rie. This is a second chance for them both, one that gets off on shaky footings and lies, but one they both need with a partner they, for better or worse, trust. And a threatening presence in the shadows wants them to succeed for his own reasons.
FEED THE BEAST is not exactly breaking new ground. How many series have we seen that a good-hearted criminal is blackmailed into doing something and lies to a friend to get help doing it? Even the extra complexities tossed in, Tommy having to approach his estranged father, Aidan (John Doman, Gotham, The Affair), for financial help, and a woman at grief counselling, Pilar (Lorenza Izzo, Knock Knock), clearly not being who she says she is, are tropes at this point. If you watch any amount of complex cable dramas, you’ve seen this before.
Yet, the acting and direction is good enough to overlook that, at least initially. The dark tone and messy dwelling full of expensive restaurant gear is cool. Schimmer knows how to play whiny and messed up, so he fits the character well. Sturgess does crazy with aplomb, and his druggie ex- and current con is nothing of not eccentric. Alone, they both excel.
Where it doesn’t hold up for me is how it all comes together. FEED THE BEAST has a lot of good elements, from its stars to the production design, but they don’t feel like a wholly authentic world when joined. Dion comes across as too crazy for Tommy to be so trusting of. Tommy comes across as too screwed up to still be functioning as well as he is, holding a job, even if it’s not the one he wants. The relationship between the two doesn’t feel realized, Tommy being happy to see Dion one minute and angrily accusing him of things the next. The chemistry between them just isn’t there.
So what we’re left with is a decent show with some really great elements that ends up being a little less full and cohesive than what I’m looking for. Some of this could just be early episode stumbling, but that sort of thing is a lot more common on the broadcast networks, that rush through a hectic schedule, than the cable dramas, which tend to take their time, so it’s harder to chalk it up to that. It’s good enough that I’d like to keep watching, but not good enough that I’m committing to the season. Yet.
FEED THE BEAST premiered last night, and settles into its normal slot Tuesday at 10/9c on AMC.