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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Community Passes "Basic Human Anatomy"

Article first published as Community Passes "Basic Human Anatomy" on TheTVKing.

Just when I'd given up on NBC's Community, they pull a surprise from the bag. This week's installment, "Basic Human Anatomy," gives rich character development for multiple main players, and while not super funny, advances along a couple of plots in a very nice way.

The premise is, Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) switch bodies after holding a video copy of Freaky Friday and saying some words in unison. Except, they don't really switch. Troy is having trouble telling Britta (Gillian Jacobs) that he wants to just be friends, ending their one year relationship, and uses the ploy to escape facing his emotions.

The only issue I have with the setup is that Abed and Troy have been steadily growing apart this season, so seeing them execute a stunt like this, so perfectly in sync, feels weird based on how they have been shown with one another lately. However, much of the schism occurs when Troy focuses his attention on Britta, rather than Abed. When Troy feels the relationship falling apart, it makes sense he would turn to Abed, even if we don't see that development.

Glover is brilliant at playing Abed. Perhaps he does the finger bit just a hair too much, but he captures Abed's speech pattern and mannerisms perfectly. Pudi isn't quite as good, but still makes a serviceable Troy. Watching the two of them swap characters is a serious delight, and provides most of the funny moments in the episode.

I am a little disappointed at Britta's lack of a strong emotional reaction to being dumped, but like Troy, she likely sees this coming, even if the viewers aren't privy to the dissolution of their romance. The fact that neither member of the couple remembers their anniversary is telling. I just can't believe she accepts the news gracefully from Abed, rather than demanding Troy tell her, although maybe she actually is becoming a decent therapist and realizes how hard this is for Troy. She can be understanding occasionally.

Jeff (Joel McHale) makes it his personal mission to fix Troy and Abed, and helps them track down the "missing" video. This provides some wonderful scenes, such as a visit to the janitors' group, having to be told anything picked up would be in the lost and found, even though it's clearly on the board in the study room, and Jeff participating in a terrible gag of checking the functionality of a light switch to support his friends.

"Basic Human Anatomy" gives Jeff another step towards maturation as he realizes he should, and gives advice for Troy to, embrace one's feelings. Is this a sign he might finally be ready to put himself out there with Annie (Alison Brie)? It's certainly further development on the excellent path Jeff has been walking this season towards being a compassionate person in touch with himself.

The best part of the entire half hour is when the Dean (Jim Rash) tries to engineer a body switch with Jeff. It clearly doesn't take, based on Jeff's behavior, and we find out later it hasn't even happened with Troy and Abed, but Jim Rash does a dead-on Jeff impersonation. He even gets the voice so right that he sounds like Joel McHale. It's a comedic triumph for Rash.

While he's "Jeff," the Dean lets Annie and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) peek at Leonard's (Richard Erdman) transcript, since he's the only one ahead of the girls in the class rankings. It makes no sense Leonard would be allowed to graduate with only one grade, the rest being pass/fail, nor does it make sense that he flees when this is revealed. However, at least it resolves the rankings story, and allows us to move forward with Shirley poised to be valedictorian, a satisfying conclusion.

Pierce (Chevy Chase) is in this episode, staying in the study room during the craziness to make banners for their class assignment. His part is essential to the grade subplot, but his character contributes pretty much nothing to the episode. This installment must have been filmed out of order, since it seems pretty obvious that Chase quits the show most of the way through production of "Intro to Felt Surrogacy," and I almost wish a solution could be had to edit him out of this one, since leaving him in the woods would have been the more concrete ending. But I guess his absence will be dealt with soon. Or not at all.

"Basic Human Anatomy" speaks to me because it allows emotional depth and character development, something lacking through much of this season. While Community's most memorable episodes tend to be their weirdest ones, and this one isn't that weird, this is a very good way to dredge up feelings and deal with them. In an overall weak season, this episode ranks near the top of the list in terms of quality and enjoyability.

Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Lights Out" Creatively On Glee



Article first published as TV Review: Glee - "Lights Out" on Blogcritics.

"Lights Out" plague Glee this week as a power outage thrusts the school into darkness. This ruins Will's (Matthew Morrison) plan to stage a huge, stadium-style number to impress the judges at Regionals, and forces the kids to go back to their musical roots with acoustic and a cappella performances.


The basic story of "Lights Out" makes absolutely no sense. A Mylar balloon gets stuck in an electric socket and knocks out the electricity for the entire building? The kids are not sent home? Somehow, the school has hundreds of flashlights on hand to combat the situation? This is lazy and unrealistic writing.

How about use a more realistic hook to get the students performing sans the tools they are used to, which, by the way, often include only non-electric instruments? Sam (Chord Overstreet) talks about having to entertain his brothers with just a guitar because his family is poor. Isn't this enough of an in without going off the grid?

"Lights Out" does provide some pleasing musical performances. Sam and Ryder (Blake Jenner) lead the New Directions in the classic "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," Ryder soulfully laments "Everybody Hurts," everyone does a Stomp-esque performance of "We Will Rock You," and the episode ends with "The Longest Time." These are, without exception, fantastic songs, and they are all executed very well.


Ryder's sadness stems from his on-going issues with his Catfish-gal, Katie. He still doesn't know who she is, but his continued obsession with her causes him to dismiss Kitty (Becca Tobin) when she tries to go out with him. It's believable for a high school boy to fall in love with someone online, but it's too bad Ryder passes on Kitty, a flesh and blood girl who is interested in him, for a fantasy that may or may not pan out.

I don't think a lot of guys would have made the same decision Ryder does. Kitty is hot and she's there and she's willing. Katie could be a dude, for all Ryder knows. However, there is something romantic about falling for someone you've poured your soul out to, even if you don't know what they look like, and Ryder is becoming more interesting because of this plot. I'm curious to see where it goes in the remaining hours of the season.

Meanwhile, Blaine (Darren Criss) investigates why Sue (Jane Lynch) left the school, finding her seemingly happy to be a personal trainer, running group sessions. One gets the distinct impression that Sue is just putting on a brave face, especially during her fun / sad rendition of "Little Girls," and it's easy to be sympathetic to her plight.


That being said, Sue can't reveal the truth, nor can Blaine figure it out, because this story relies solely on Becky (Lauren Potter). Missing Sue and fed up with Roz (NeNe Leakes), Becky makes her way to Figgins (Iqbal Theba) in "Lights Out" to confess to the crime. We aren't sure what will happen with Sue or Becky as this point, but it does seem the plot will get some resolution.

Kudos should be given to Glee for the outstanding way Becky's character is handled, and equal praise goes to Potter, the actress bringing the role to life. Becky is not defined by her handicap, nor is that ever the focus of her tale. Instead, she is just as well developed as other important Glee characters, and going down such a dangerous, bold, yet realistic, road with her is brave and compelling.

In New York, Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Rachel (Lea Michele) try to get Santana (Naya Rivera) to follow her passion, but she's resistant, not knowing herself what she wants to do with her life. That is, until Isabelle (Sarah Jessica Parker) offers them the chance to work a ballet event, and Santana's past comes out.

I am glad to see Kurt is still working part-time for Isabelle. After his acceptance in NYADA, it looked like we might have seen the last of her. Parker fits wonderfully into the series, and provides a great recurring part. I hope she remains in this capacity for the next couple of years.

Santana is a tough nut to crack, and Glee isn't about to make it easy for her friends to help her. However, she also is very in-touch with her feelings, going back into her past, as well as that of the others, in "At the Ballet." This is a great way to explore that background, while staying true to the persona created, even if the song is a bit boring.


I also like that Santana doesn't know what she's going to do. Many young people don't after high school, and it's satisfying to see her struggle with this, frustrated at others' pushes for her to define herself. This will be an ongoing process, and hopefully Santana remains in the cast at least until she figures things out.

It's not hard to imagine there will be some casting shake-ups for season five (Glee was recently renewed for two more seasons). Santana, Kurt, and Rachel seem stable in New York, and hopefully Blaine, at least, will join them next year. But it's time for most of the other alumni to move on.

Finn (Cory Monteith) will probably still be a player going forward, and if he stays at college with Puck (Mark Salling), that provides room for both of them to continue. It is highly strange that Finn isn't participating with Will in "Lights Out" throughout the whole hour, preparing for Regionals, just after they get their partnership on track last week, but that could be due to outside influence, since Monteith recently entered rehab, missing filming the end of the season. One assumes that Finn will continue to work at McKinley, picking up this story next year.

However, this may be the end of the road for lesser-seen characters this year like Mercedes (Amber Riley) and Mike (Harry Shum Jr.). They can still guest star, like Quinn (Dianna Agron), but there doesn't seem to be reason to keep them contracted if they're not going to be used. The same could also be said for graduating seniors Sam, Brittany (Heather Morris), Artie (Kevin McHale), and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), unless new purposes can be found for them.


This would make room for new main characters, such as Ryder, Marley (Melissa Benoist), Jake (Jacob Artist), Kitty, and Unique (Alex Newell), who have been in just about every episode this year, but remain on the guest list. These five are the future of Glee's McKinley arcs, and deserve the promotion.

Which leaves side players like Joe (Samuel Larsen) and Sugar (Vanessa Lengies). They have been absent for the past few installments, including during times where they should be present or mentioned, but aren't. It's OK if Glee wants to cut them, since they aren't main characters, and there is precedent for such drops, most notably the unjust and regrettable way Zizes (Ashley Fink) departs. However, it would be nice, after logging more than twenty episodes apiece, if they get a good sendoff, rather than just disappear.

"Lights Out" is a filler episode, which provides some fun songs, but only a little development. As such, it sparks musings of larger issues, rather than speculation on its own merits. We need these every once in awhile, but they will never be favorite installments.

Glee airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Browsers

Article original published as Amazon Originals Browsers Review on TheTVKing.

The last Amazon pilot on my review list is Browsers. Set in the offices of what appears to be a sort of Huffington Post-style website called Gush, Browsers finds four young interns joining the staff, full of spirit and passion and song. Yep, it's a musical.

Browsers may be compared to Glee or Smash, the other two musicals on the air, but it shouldn't be. The songs, all originals from what I could tell, do not at all compare to the level of quality on those other shows. The singers are talented enough, but the melodies feel like the lesser numbers from a Broadway show, and the staging is a bit cheesy.

However, I do think cheesy is what Browsers is going for. The emotions displayed by the various players are relatively surface, designed to tug a heart string, but not provide any real insight. The premise itself is played in a hokey way, with the head of the company having much direct interaction with the lowly interns. The office design is cartoonish, and there are fantasy sequences, including one character talking to an angel version of herself.

The cast, mostly unknown, are entertaining enough, even if they seem purposely and carefully crafted to offer us a diverse spread. There's Kate (Brigette Davidovici, Bathroomies), the fresh-faced crusader, Josh (Dustin Ingram, Unfabulous), the music-loving tool, Prudence (Constance Wu, Eastsiders), the drug-taking Asian computer genius, and Gabriel (Marque Richardson, True Blood), the liberal who can't keep his mouth shut to save himself. Unfortunately, they all come across sort of similar and bland, despite the efforts made to make them distinct.

These four are beholden to Julianna Mancuso-Bruni (Bebe Neuwirth, Cheers), the Ariana-type, sporting a very strange accent. She runs the company with an iron fist, creating an air that she's "not to f***with," as she literally sings, sans censoring beeps. Yet, she shows her heart when Kate pleads with her to reverse the decision to fire Gabriel, which she does. She tries to be tricky, but is just as predictable as the other characters.

Though I get the reference the creators are trying to invoke by giving Neuwirth that thick accent, I don't care for it. I think it overshadows what she is trying to do, and Neuwirth is a very talented, accomplished actress. Why not play more to her strengths, especially on a show with so much singing, as she has done well on Broadway, instead of making her such a caricature?

The link between Julianna and the interns is one of Julianna's many assistants, Justin (Chris Wood). It's odd how that, in an office full of people, and being told that Julianna has six assistants, only Justin, Julianna, and the four newbies get any development. But I guess that's a conceit many shows make.

I enjoy Browsers because I do like a good musical, and this is nothing if not standard musical fare, but it's not particularly layered or original. I wish there was a little something more here to sink my teeth into. I enjoyed a couple of bits, such as Amy Winslow (Andrea Bendewald, Suddenly Susan), a clear play on Ann Coulter. Should the series be picked up, I would encourage more social and political commentary. The characters just aren't that interesting by themselves, at least not as they are presented in the "Pilot."

I do wonder if some of the flat elements are on purpose. These young people embody a generation that flits from here to there, rarely keeping attention on one thing for long. This manner is present in the tone of the show. In fact, given the lack of depth, viewers may be inclined just to 'browse' Browsers, making the title quite appropriate.

The Browsers "Pilot" is available now on Amazon.com.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Dark Minions

Article first posted as Amazon Originals Dark Minions Review on TheTVKing.

Amazon made a ballsy move by releasing one of their new pilots, Dark Minions, in an unfinished state. Intended to be stop-motion animation, only a handful of scenes are complete, with the rest presented as sketches and sound effects.

I do not know the costs associated with stop motion, so don't know if that was the reason for the incomplete look, but I got the gist of the program decently enough. The story is easy to follow, the characters are relatable and likeable, and the voice work is cartoonish enough to mostly overcome the lack of visual product.

Still, I do think Dark Minions would have benefited by being complete. It's hard to imagine some of the bigger scenes in their current form, and the look is not at all impressive. If the series was able to wow us with what it wants to do, I think that would have helped. At the end of the day, though, I hope that this presentation doesn't hurt its chances of being picked up.

Of all the Amazon comedy pilots, Dark Minions is the most family-friendly. Sure, there is an evil empire with a planet-destroying weapon. But the blustery leader is goofy and amusing. I can't recall, though I could be wrong, any cursing, and a couple of pot jokes, while not ideal viewing for children, might just go over their heads. Content-wise, it's the tamest of the releases.

Which doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable. Mel (John Ross Bowie, The Big Bang Theory) and Andy (Kevin Sussman, also The Big Bang Theory) are slackers, more or less, who go to work for the galactic conquerors because they need a paycheck. They are the lesser storm troopers, working deep within the bowels of the starship, with no power or influence over policy. Thus, they are harmless, and their sweet dispositions make us forgive their choice in jobs, which at least one of them has a good reason for taking.

While on assignment to a planet, they meet Carly (Jamie Denbo, Terriers) and Lance (Andrew Daly, Eastbound & Down), rebels who would like to overthrow their overlords. Mel and Andy manage to pass themselves off as antique dealers, rather than soldiers, and a bond forms between the foursome.

Which is why when Drebnor (Clancy Brown, SpongeBob SquarePants) decides to blow up their world, Mel and Andy risk life, limb, and employment to save their new friends. They succeed, and Carly, believing them to be prisoners, rather than liars, drags Lance along to save them.

I think there are the makings here for a sweet, heroic story. Carly will be mad when she learns she has been fooled, of course, but the genuine earnestness of the lead characters should be enough for them to eventually earn her forgiveness. Plus, they will likely end up helping her, so this could be a bumbling comedy about good guys trying to take down the bad ones. I see potential here.

I also found the "Pilot" quite amusing and charming. Most of the players here are everymen, people we can get behind and root for in every setting, even space, which provides a rich tapestry of trouble to get into and strange environments to visit. They screw up, thankfully, because it provides laughs, but rebound from doing so, too, without much harm done. One can enjoy the blunders when one knows there won't be any serious, dire consequences, which there won't be with Dark Minion's light tone. Side characters, such as Drebnor's blubbering assistant, Feldenbaum (Richard Kind, Luck), and the radio man, DJ Wormhole (Phil LaMarr, Futurama), help round out the world.

Overall, I wish I could have seen a completed project, but Dark Minions should have broad enough appeal to find an audience. Dark Minions is available now on Amazon.com.

Those Who Can't

Article first published as Amazon Originals Those Who Can't Review on TheTVKing.

I finally found the stinker in the lineup of Amazon Originals pilots, released online this week. Those Who Can't is an unfunny, offensive, unrealistic look at lazy, slacking teachers in a high school. These men would never have made it through their student teaching, PRAXIS tests, or earned a Master's degree, as is required of teachers, and would have long been fired. When teachers have so recently been unfairly attacked in the political and social landscape, the last thing the profession needs is a piling on like this.

There are three main teachers in the show: Loren Payton (Adam Cayton-Holland), Ben Shoemaker (Benjamin Roy), and Coach Andy Fairbell (Andrew Orvedahl). They spend their days planting drugs on students, ignoring authority and responsibility, conducting illegal urine tests, flaunting arm tattoos, and engaging in illegal behavior. They think nothing of miming a sex act in the hallway, in full view of the student body, or hiring thugs to beat up a problem student. Ick.

None of the three cast members have many, if any, acting credits to their name, and all are listed as writers of this "Pilot." As far as their performances go, I don't really have any complaints there. I hate their show, but they sell the parts, and are committed to their roles.

Heading up this terrible school and staff is Principal Barry Quinn (Rory Scovel, Dead Monkey). He is a "feeler," more concerned with befriending everyone than handing out discipline. He acts frustrated with the teachers and threatens them with being fired, then hugs them and loses all sense of credibility. Barry, like the teachers, would never make it in the real world, but only by creating such a weak, pathetic leader can the teachers justifiably keep their jobs past episode one.

There are also a couple of gals, seemingly to round things out, gender-wise, though only one gets any part in the "Pilot" to speak of: the librarian, Abbey Logan (Nikki Glaser, Nikki & Sara Live!), the unwilling, but not totally discouraging, subject of Loren's affections. The others, Andy's wife, Crystal (Madison Champine), an old teacher named Gladys (Catherine McGuire), secretary Tammy (Erica Brown), and the smoking hot cafeteria worker (Adiamond Baker), have no development, and are played as stereotypes or cliches. Again, none of these actresses have much screen credit, but conduct themselves fine, considering the parts they play.

The only character I actually like in this "Pilot" is Beth (Shanna Grace), a student who seemingly doesn't deserve to be picked on, but whom Coach Fairbell outs as pregnant in front of her classmates when she herself doesn't even know. I felt bad for her, and her small bit was memorable.

Despite how distasteful I find this representation of educators, I wouldn't complain if it was funny. Reno 9-1-1 is terrible towards cops, but it's also hilarious, and no one would ever believe it's how the actual police act. The characters here belong in an office setting like Workaholics, not in a school, as that is where these men would end up, at best. Those Who Can't skews just close enough to reality to be eaten up by the ignorant, but far enough away to have no redeeming qualities. Education can take smart satire, but Those Who Can't is dumb comedy, aimed at the lowest common denominator.

I know there are bad teachers out there, but Those Who Can't takes it to the extreme in the worst possible way. I don't know why teachers have become the subject of such mean-spirited shots of late, but the profession doesn't deserve this, and combined with the lack of laughs this "Pilot" got (none), Those Who Can't is the one Amazon Originals series I would be highly disappointed to see picked up.

Those Who Can't is posted now on Amazon.com

Friday, April 26, 2013

Onion News Empire

Article first published as Amazon Originals Onion News Empire Review on TheTVKing.

Onion News Empire is the best of Amazon's new "Pilot" offerings. From the minds of the infamous satirical Onion comes a show that is part The Newsroom parody, part a lambasting of modern CNN, part political roast, part journalism criticism, and part just plain fun. Plus, though I like The Onion's shorts and former Comedy Central series, Onion News Empire boasts a casts of mostly proven actors, which helps the credibility of the franchise's latest effort, and the boosts the talent level involved.

We are quickly introduced to quite a few characters in the "Pilot." Not just introduced, but told their backstories and motivations immediately and explicitly, a play on the jarring way some characters begin on a television show. Many of those shown are stereotypes or the personification of a cliche, and all the standard news types are present.

There's: Sam West (Christopher Masterson, Malcolm in the Middle), the young upstart who has just been promoted to the big leagues and will do anything to prove himself to his more experienced colleagues; Jillian (Aja Naomi King, Emily Owens M.D.), the helpful young assistant who wants to be more, but is taken advantage of by everyone else, including Sam, her stated love interest; Cameron Grey (Cheyenne Jackson, 30 Rock, Glee), the very popular, hot reporter who is trying to hide his illiteracy; David Bryan (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development, Bent), the washed-up, self-involved veteran worried more about playing the game and maintaining his status than doing his job well; Helena Zweibel (Laila Robins, Bored to Death, In Treatment), the hard-nosed executive; and Ed Musgrove (William Sadler, The Pacific, Damages), the definition of a newsman, and the most direct mocking of The Newsroom.

Each of these personalities are so well cultivated, there is not a weak link among them. What's more, with only twenty plus minutes of screen time total for the episode, I feel like I know exactly who each and every character in the series is. This is no small feat, and it's a testament to the great work each of the performers are doing.

The writing is incredibly tight. There are at least a dozen one-liners I could pull from this "Pilot" and tweet, including bits about a very specific Ohio rape law and my favorite, a story that the nation's poor people pooled their money to buy an oil company so that the government might finally offer them assistance. There is something amusing and clever in every minute of the show, and from beginning to end, I was inspired and entertained.

The plots themselves are smart, too. Sam is assigned a crappy beat, which he turns into a big story, only to find out that it makes the network's biggest sponsor look back. So then, he peddles back and spins it, saving the day by getting into the muck. Jillian is looking after a little girl whom is kidnapped by the network to create news on a slow day, though they screwed up by nabbing a chubby girl, whom no one cares about. If these are the kinds of plots we have to look forward to, I very much anticipate some great snarky, current commentaries.

As if that isn't enough, Onion News Empire reveals a huge, sinister scheme at the end of the episode that could have deep and lasting implications for... well, who knows? But it's cool.

Plus, the sets are great, the detail is perfect, and there are visual gags sprinkled throughout, including two matching portraits in David's office. This is the total package, and the culmination of everything The Onion does best, finally delivered in one heck of a fantastic production.

In all, I can find nothing to complain about in the Onion News Empire "Pilot," and dozens of things to praise. Check out Onion News Empire, now available on Amazon.com.

Alpha House

Article first published as Alpha House on TheTVKing.

From the mind of Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau comes a new political comedy "Pilot" currently available through Amazon, Alpha House. Alpha House is about a bunch of Republican Senators who share an abode in the Capital during the week, and then return to their wives and children in their home state on the weekends. Together, the men deal with the rigors and ridiculousness of politics in Washington D.C.

The story opens with one of their own, Vernon Smits (Bill Murray, Moonrise Kingdom), getting arrested, but totally unprepared for it because his scheduler screwed up. It's a funny scene, but Murray has to play it so quickly and over the top that what makes him the infamous Bill Murray gets lost in the moment. I really hope this is a character that returns so we can see what type of Senator Bill Murray can create.

With Smits out, the other three, Gil John Biggs (John Goodman, Argo), Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson, Homicide: Life on the Street), and Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy, The Bounty Hunter) look for a new roomie. They find one in young, upstart, arrogant Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos, All My Children), who not only brings his floozy to bang in his first visit to the house, but who skips past seniority to claim a nice bedroom.

This is the makings of lots of conflict and chaos, which should be quite entertaining. Alpha House avoids pigeon-holing or flat characters, so I can't say "Gil is the ____ one" or anything, which means the ways in which this unfolds should actually be unpredictable and exciting. These are real-seeming men, who have a variety of motivations and needs going on at all times, and Alpha House won't be a typical screwball comedy. From shooting guns in the basement to reusing speeches on the Hill, the scenes are funny, but believably so.

The series is smart. There is a lot of political commentary right in the "Pilot." Everything from secret gay Republicans promoting family values to Tea Party primary threats to an old-fashioned talking filibuster is brought up. Alpha House will clearly be a vehicle to point out some of the pitfalls of Washington in an amusing way, and yet, the likely viewer will already know about these elements, and so it will reinforce their thinking, rather than opening eyes.

Trudeau is not a conservative, and while that doesn't openly shine through in Alpha House, with likeable, if flawed, characters, there is likely to be an undertone of judgment against the party the show presents. For this reason, people who would vote for a Gil type will likely not enjoy it. It doesn't stray fall enough away from reality to be a hatchet job, but by gleefully pointing out the cracks in the system and the party, it will turn off a large segment of viewership, even if many of the goofs could be applied to either side, and these guys just happen to be GOP.

That being said, I really hope it gets made. Trudeau has found a very nice balance, aided by a stellar cast, between mocking and telling an intriguing story. I like the way he has set things up, and there is a lot of material here to mine. The stripped-from-the-headlines element will give it the ability to say something about modern politics, and maybe, if it's very lucky, provide a little push towards change.

Alpha House's "Pilot" is available now on Amazon.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lacey Begins a New Once Upon a Time

Article first published as ONCE UPON A TIME Review Season 2 Episode 19 Lacey on Seat42F.

Grade:  94%

ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME breaks a long hiatus this week with “Lacey.” Regina (Lana Parrilla) helps Belle (Emilie de Ravin) get her memories back, but not her fairy tale ones. Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) is not too happy with Lacey, Belle’s new persona, who is somewhat the opposite of the girl he loves. Will they be able to find each other again, as true love’s kiss is needed to break Regina’s spell?

“Lacey” gives us another piece of the Rumplestilskin / Belle back story. We see them living together when they aren’t getting along. This is the part of the Beauty and the Beast story where things are unhappy, and ultimately culminates in the library / “there may be something there that wasn’t there before” bit. Yet, even in their most miserable times, Belle sees something in Rumple that gives her hope.

A young man named Robin Hood (Tom Ellis, Miranda) ventures into Rumple’s home to steal a magic wand. Rumple captures and tortures Robin Hood, intending to set an example for anyone else that might think to steal from him. Belle can’t stand to hear the suffering, and allows Robin to escape when Rumple isn’t looking.

I feel like these scenes in “Lacey” take Rumple in a darker direction than we’ve seen him before. Yes, we have witnessed him kill out of revenge, and use magic to manipulate and get what he wants. But we haven’t seen him being cruel, inflicting physical pain, without good reason. It’s not like he even knows Robin; Robin is just a man willing to break the rules to save the woman that he loves, with no personal beef.

It’s a little strange that Belle sticks by Rumple at this point. I mean, I get that she thinks she can save him, and sees the inner part of him that isn’t bad. But as Rumple is hurting Robin, making her wash his aprons full of blood, there should be more outrage here. Belle should be disgusted and turned off, maybe even trying to run away, despite her duty, or take down Rumple. How does she keep from judging him, even as she begs Rumple to show mercy, which he eventually does, sparing Robin’s life in the end.

Quick side musing: might Robin’s never-missing bow, which Rumple ends up with, be the same one that Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) eventually owns?

The Storybrooke versions of the characters are different than their fairy tale personas, and yet there is a thread connecting them. Lacey is nothing but dark, loving alcohol and violence. At first, this is confusing, because Rumple has always regarded Belle as a sweet, pure innocent. But I think “Lacey” shows us that his view is simplistic and wrong.

Lacey urges Gold to keep beating on the Keith, a.k.a. the Sheriff of Nottingham (Wil Traval, All Saints), in Storybrooke, delighting in the dark side it brings out of him. This can’t come out of nowhere. I think the purpose of the “Lacey” back story is to show us that Belle doesn’t flinch at darkness, and may even be attracted to it. Yes, she encourages Rumple / Gold to act good, but perhaps she also likes knowing that, deep down inside, he is bad. Or she likes the influence she has over this part of him, making her feel powerful to be able to control someone like that, even if it comes across as her encouraging Rumple to better himself.

It’s a sobering and depressing turn. It reveals the more complex nature of Belle, but it also shows us something about her that we won’t like. This kind of changes the game, giving us a new understanding of a pivotal character that could have long reaching affects.

There is an immediate consequence in “Lacey,” and that’s that Gold is now embracing the evil nature he fights to overcome. He is in love with Belle, or Lacey, or whoever she is. He is going to do what makes her happy, even if it’s what the old version of her wouldn’t have wanted, at least, so he thinks. The fact that she eggs him on when he is beating Keith, and so Gold keeps going, is a bad sign for where the character of Rumple may go in the last few episodes of the season to impress his gal.

See, “Lacey” opens with a powerful scene in which Rumple murders Henry (Jared Gilmore), his own grandson, because Henry has been foretold to be the instrument of Rumple’s destruction. At the beginning of the hour, Rumple is deeply bothered by this vision, and clearly is not comfortable carrying it out, hoping Belle might remember who she is and help him overcome these desires. However, if Lacey wants him to be bad, we’ve seen how easily Rumple can get caught up in that darkness. His behavior late in the installment is bad news for Henry.

Which means Regina has screwed up again. By manipulating Belle to be Lacey, thinking she is just going to hurt Gold, she actually puts Henry is danger. This is similar to last year’s late arc, in which Regina tries to poison Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Henry ends up the one in the coma. Clearly, Regina has not learned her lesson.

Regina is also causing trouble in another way. She secretly investigates what the dwarves and Anton (Jorge Garcia) have been doing, and discovers their beanstalks. The question is, what will she do about it?

She doesn’t immediately burn the fields, so maybe she wants to go home. It seems the Charmings have no intention of taking her with them, based on a line Emma lets slip, probably a good move considering the threat Regina poses in the past in fairy tale land. But this now means they can’t just escape her. Which, they couldn’t have anyway. The disappearance of many, if not all, of the townsfolk would have eventually raised her suspicion, and she would have found them. Now, though, she may threaten them leaving in the first place.

It is doubtful that Regina will team up with Gold, considering she doesn’t trust him. Regina only finds out this week that Gold is Henry’s grandfather, and considering that he arranges her adoption of the boy in the first place, she doesn’t believe that he didn’t know who Henry is ahead of time. Might the two baddies battle each other, rather than the heroes?

Even if they do, the end of “Lacey” triples the threat count when Tamara (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Greg / Owen (Ethan Embry) bring Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) back to town. He is their prisoner, but surely he will have no objection to causing trouble for their enemies. Plus, Hook arrives along with quite a few boxes. What is in all of those?

“Lacey” is very much setting up some big end-of-the-season plots, and is interesting, if a bit depressing, in its own right. For every amusing scene of David (Josh Dallas) giving Gold dating advice, we get one of Lacey ditching Gold during dinner, balancing the enjoyable with the story elements that cause dread. The next three hours should be very exciting.

ONCE UPON A TIME airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET. on ABC.

Betas

Article first posted as Betas on TheTVKing.

Another of Amazon's new pilots is Betas. Set in Silicon Valley, four computer programming geeks attempt to build the next great bit of code and make their dreams come true. But while it is hard to catch a break, their own worst enemies may just be themselves.

Betas reminds me a lot of The L.A. Complex, except about a different and specific slice of Americana. These are the young people who believe they can achieve fame and fortune through their own special skills, and then find that luck and networking plays as big a part as talent in this game. Not to mention, they are surrounded by others who can do what they do just as well, if not better. Are passion and drive enough to set one apart and make the wish a reality?

Funnily enough, Joe Dinicol, one of the stars of The L.A. Complex headlines Betas. This time, though, he isn't the dork, but instead, he's Trey, the visionary leader who tries to keep his buddies on track. He makes the transition well, and, ditching his glasses, is very believable as a sympathetic leading man. If the group at the center of this does succeed, they will have him to thank.

The others in Joe's gang are: Nash (Karan Soni, Safety Not Guaranateed), the genius with crippling social skills, whose hermit-like ways remind me a bit of Pindar on TNT's Franklin & Bash, with a dash of The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon tossed in for good measure; Hobbes (Jonathan C. Daly, Kroll Show), the older guy tired of being stuck, but not able to stop goofing around; and Mitchell (Charlie Saxton, Hung), the earnest romantic who looks up to, and is easily influenced by, the others.

Each of these boys, and despite their age, they are still boys, not men, are presented as a layered, realistic character. They aren't just stereotypes played for laughs, but developed individuals with personalities that alternately complement and clash one another. One can see how they are friends, but one can also see that they might not come together at a key moment, which could hurt them.

The series itself is also the mix of reality and indie vibe. Betas is not a laugh-a-minute sitcom, hewing closer to drama in many regards, even though it has funny moments. The tone is not silly, even when silly things happen, and instead feels like an authentic slice of life. There are Asian stereotypes, but in ways that might actually be seen in the world and feel necessary here, not so cartoonish that they feel ridiculous.

In the "Pilot," Trey tries to get interest from an eccentric investor named George Murchison (the great Ed Begley Jr.), who likes to jam on his flute with Moby (himself). Viewers can see that Trey has picked his target well, someone who is vulnerable and can be manipulated, though Trey's motives are to further his work, not hurt Murch. Trey plays Murch just right in order to spark his interest. The scene is a tad too familiar, but the results should prove sufficient to push the story along.

Of course, in a series like Betas, we must have romantic interests tossed into the mix. Trey's is Lisa (Margo Harshman, The Big Bang Theory, Bent), Murch's wary assistant who, of course, does not seem at all interested at first, though a soft spot slowly appears for Trey. And Mitchell's is Mikki (Maya Erskine), a fellow techie who he is scared of approaching until Hobbes pushes him, and then finds her completely accessible, especially when they bond over pranking the douche in the office, Dane (Tyson Ritter, The House Bunny). Neither gal really breaks new ground, but Harshman, especially, should be able to transition the role into someone interesting.

Betas won't be a show for everyone, to be sure, but it has a specific vision and mood that feels very well developed, and for those that get into it, it should become a beloved favorite. At times soapy, the characters are every-men who can, and probably will, achieve greatness. Fans will root for them and invest in their story.

The Betas "Pilot" is available now on Amazon.com.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Supanatural

Article first published as Supanatural on TheTVKing.

Among Amazon's recently released pilot offerings is Supanatural. At first glance, this looks to be the least promising, the animated characters not appealing to me in the slightest. But upon watching the episode, I actually found it quite humorous.

Lucretia (Jameeliah Garrett) and Hezbah (Lily Sparks, Boyz Nite Out/Grrlz Nite in) do not look like your typical supernatural crime fighting duo. They dress a bit low class and work in the mall, Lucretia in a candle shop and Hezbah as a security guard. They don't talk with the best of grammar, act like divas, and have trouble making their rent.

Yet, for some reason, this strange combo works. From Indiana Jones to Gremlins, the "Pilot" is packed with funny gags from the film genre these two women look least interested in. I think it's the unexpectedness of the premise, the way that Supanatural turns stereotypes on their heads, that really appeals to me. It's sort of like a more grounded, better drawn Ugly Americans, with even more bizarre pairings.

"Pilot" finds the girls bringing back a crystal skull (voiced by Drew Droege) from a temple, and when the Vatican refuses to pay up, they take it to work. Hezbah can't resist using it to torture her nemesis, skinny girl Brooke (Riki Lindhome, Enlightened), but a coincidental ring tone opens a wormhole in the shoe store that swallows the latest shipment of sneakers. Hezbah and Lucretia try their best to shut the portal, though are frequently distracted by the alluring Three Feathers (James Adomian, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson) and Lucretia's annoying boss, who actually wants her to, gasp, get some work done.

While I greatly enjoyed the "Pilot" of Supanatural, I am concerned about the viability of a series based on this. Much of the humor came from the novelty of the characters in this particular situation, something that will likely wear off rather quickly. At this time, none of the side roles are really developed, played only for a quick punchline, rather than showing any real personality. For more episodes to work, there will need to be a deepening of the central cast.

There is a thread dropped for an ongoing arc, though, in which a demon runs for Mayor of their town. That could provide a serial story, very unusual for a cartoon such as this, that may keep it from being just a series of gags. That could certainly add some promise to the show, if followed through on.

Supanatural is definitely for mature audiences and would feel at home on Adult Swim, not be confused with the other Amazon cartoon pilots, which are for children. I'm glad it has this going for it, as it definitely needs the edginess if it's going to do well.

The "Pilot" of Supanatural is currently available on Amazon.com

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Zombieland: The Series

Article first published as Zombieland: The Series on TheTVKing.

Amazon has recently released a bunch of pilots they are considering picking up for series, depending on the public's reaction to them. One such entry is Zombieland: The Series. Based on the hit movie Zombieland, different actors play the four roles from the film, and the action continues not long after the events from that endeavor.

I loved Zombieland: The Series's opening. It's two people sitting in an office. One of them, Ainsley (Tim Bagley, Web Therapy, Monk), thinks he is having a very bad day, and his sympathetic co-worker, Sheila (Rachel Cannon, Underemployed), is listening with a kind ear. But his issues involving someone mispronouncing his name and getting his sandwich wrong pale in comparison to the apocalypse taking place behind them, clearly visible through the window, as zombies attack and eat people.

It's a fantastic comedy bit, showing the contrast between the problems before the disaster and after. The two actors, sadly short-lived, play the scene with such earnestness, my attention is not completely pulled away by the action outside. Their last few moments of blissful ignorance of the crisis is amusing, and because the scene is so extended, thankfully, making for a memorable hook.

I'm not sure it's necessary to use the end of the Ainsley / Sheila scene to introduce one of the show's leads, Tallahassee (Kirk Ward, Forrest Gump), but it doesn't really hurt anything either, so I won't complain about that.

From there, the story follows the film, picking up after the central foursome have been together for some time. They decide that it's time to expand their group, but every person they find to try to join them soon dies, usually from a zombie attack. They just can't catch a break!

Zombieland: The Series retains much of the same comedic elements from the film, as well as the structure. We hear about Columbus's (Tyler Ross, Boss) rules for surviving the apocalypse. There is a count of how many times Tallahassee references female anatomy. They hang out in an IKEA. I even like their On-Star pal, Detriot (Kendra Fountain), whom they frequently talk to, but have not met.

But there is also some things that seem more irreverent. The way they don't bat an eyelash when witnessing a gruesome muder-by-zombie could be a sign that they have hardened themselves, but it's played for laughs, and since they are actively looking for new friends doesn't quite gel. They don't seem at all concerned about the danger around them, whereas the movie built up some suspense. Yes, we know that these four aren't in any real peril, but Zombieland: The Series doesn't even try to pretend otherwise. What the show does well is deliver a punchline. What it doesn't really do is make us care about the characters.

The only real attempt at pathos in the "Pilot" is when we learn that Columbus and Wichita (Maiara Walsh, Desperate Housewives) have broken up. It's unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected, based on their varying personalities. Once the immediate danger has passed, and life has returned to what now passes for normal, Columbus is just too eager. It is doubtful the couple is finished, but rather, the writers are just trying to add some tension to the story, and it will be an ongoing romantic arc for the characters.

The biggest problem with Zombieland: The Series, though, is that they have recast the four lead roles. I'm sorry, but these four performers, who are fine for a standard sitcom, pale in comparison to the amazing actors in the movie. Drawing parallels is inevitable, and the show loses across the board. The smarter move would be to keep the same universe and tone, but make the cast play different people, rather than the same ones film-goers are already familiar with. This form of goofiness certainly has a place, but the elements aren't quite combining right yet.

Zombieland: The Series also stars Izabela Vidovic (Help for the Holidays) as Little Rock, and the "Pilot" is available now on Amazon.com

Will Amazon Change Television?



Article first published as Will Amazon Change Television? on Blogcritics.

It wasn't that long ago I was pondering in this column, "will Netflix change television?" Now, with the streaming release of 14 comedy and children's' pilots by Amazon this week (the dramas will be forthcoming), even more changes are afoot in the television landscape.

Streaming video is nothing new. YouTube has been around for quite awhile. It's even been pushing "channels," including Felicia Day's "Geek & Sundry" for some time. And websites like Revision3, CollegeHumor, and FunnyOrDie have also made some inroads in web-based programming. But these all mainly feature shorts, and despite a couple of big blips, and Day building herself a very respectable reputation, none of them have had a consistent runaway hit nor as widely viewed as anything on a traditional network.

Amazon and Netflix hope to change that. Already having large platforms and subscriber bases, they are making carving a new path by producing recognizable programming blocks - hour long dramas and half hour sitcoms. This hybrid of new and old provides a possible bridge for those not yet fully embracing the digital revolution, giving them a familiar-looking access point. So it seems natural that those companies might as well offer their own original content alongside the shows they buy or rent from other companies.

Because Netflix and Amazon are not beholden to the traditional model, meaning they don't need to kowtow to advertisers or negotiate with cable providers, they aren't reigned in by the same restrictions as traditional networks. It gives them freedom to experiment and change the game, making them pioneers that, depending on their success or lack thereof, others may try to emulate. There is a lot of potential for Netflix and Amazon to become the leaders of the next entertainment wave.

Netflix's approach makes sense for its customer base. It develops high-quality series, and then releases an entire season at once, giving the public the opportunity to watch an entire series without waiting a week for a new episode.

Amazon is taking a different approach, involving the consumer much earlier in the process. Traditional networks order and review a bunch of pilots and then decide which ones to pick up. Amazon is putting this choice in the hands of their customers by releasing a number of ordered pilots publicly, and then gauging interest from crowd sourcing to see if a series should be made.

On one hand, this is Amazon asking us to do its job. Rather than having to review and consider possibilities themselves, they are just putting stuff out there and seeing what everyone thinks. It takes a big chunk of work and decision making away from them.

On the other hand, this may be a much more effective way to do business. Why let a handful of corporate folks decide what we should get to see? We are the ones who watch (or don't watch) the shows. Shouldn't we have a say in what is produced?

It's actually a smart thing to do. By allowing the public to pick which pilots it likes, Amazon is guaranteeing an audience before spending the money to produce an entire series. It's a lower risk investment, and a way to make sure the company delivers what the people want.

It also benefits the viewer. We get to tell Amazon what we want. We aren't beholden to what a small group of people think, but rather chart the course for the company. It makes so much sense that it's a wonder no one has done it before now.

Now, the public at large doesn't necessarily choose things wisely. There are plenty of people who enjoy quality, smartly written programs, and grumble when American Idol or NCIS tops the ratings chart. Hopefully, Amazon will keep this in mind and give some weight to what is the best-made show, rather than just what is the most liked. But there is definitely a happy balance of the two to be found, and given that Amazon is judging based on multiple criteria, the company may very well have thought about this issue already.

If it succeeds, and I really hope it does, this could be something easily adaptable by the traditional networks. What if, instead of airing reruns through March, NBC, ABC, and the others let us check out the pilots they are considering? It could provide a needed boost during a season when reruns typically mean lower ratings, and make "pilot season" a highly anticipated "event." TV fans might take a sense of pride and ownership in a show they help vote into life. I am completely in favor of this technique. I've only watched a few of Amazon's shows thus far, but it seems there is a decent variety, and I look forward to checking out more.

Will it spread? Who knows? But I hope so.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sweet Dreams for Glee

Article first published as TV Review: Glee - "Sweet Dreams" on Blogcritics.

FOX's Glee is all about sweet dreams this week, as Rachel (Lea Michele), Finn (Cory Monteith), and Marley (Melissa Benoist) each realize a long-held desire. Mixed with mostly great music, "Sweet Dreams" manages to be a decent installment, even if there are some pretty big plot holes in one of the threads.

First up, we'll go with the best story in "Sweet Dreams," and that belongs to Rachel. Rachel's Funny Girl audition is coming up, and she searches for the perfect song to sing. She considers doing Babs, of course, but her mother, Shelby (Idina Menzel), returns to give her some advice. Shelby thinks Rachel needs to do something different and stand out. Finn agrees, telling Rachel to perform a song that means some thing to her.

This is the best use of Shelby in quite some time. Shelby's stories have always been very uneven, but "Sweet Dreams" drops her in to play the loving mother and wise mentor. She isn't bossy, doesn't get in the way, and ends up being very supportive of Rachel. Plus, the gals get to duet a touching rendition of "Next to Me."

I hope Shelby starts to show up on a recurring basis in a similar capacity as to the one she provides this week. She could finally be a good addition to the series, unlike in her last arc, in which she slept with a student, and which got pretty ridiculous.

Rachel's audition song is "Don't Stop Believin,'" and for it she imagines Finn, Kurt (Chris Colfer), Mercedes (Amber Riley), Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), and Artie (Kevin McHale)--the original glee club--providing backup. Obviously, Rachel has to sing all of the words herself, since the others are only in her head, and she changes the melody enough just to give it extra oomph. But it's awesome to see her go back to her roots, and the nostalgic-filled sequence, complete with the original costumes, hair styles, and camera shots, is a memorable moment for the series.

Will Rachel get the part? I don't know. She is very young, and it could interfere with her studies. On the other hand, there are other young people performing on Broadway, and it might make a nice summer filler for her. I could see this story going either way, though I think she'll get it. Hopefully, should I be wrong, getting the callback will be enough of a triumph for her.

It is nice to see Rachel and Finn getting along again. They will probably be back together eventually, but Glee is in no hurry to make that happen, nor should it be. Rachel and Finn are still immature; they haven't yet charted their own courses. Once they get their lives on track, then there will be time enough for a rekindling of romance.

Finn is dealing with his dream by enrolling in college. Mysteriously, Lima suddenly has quite a nice looking institution that accepts Finn mid-year. And Puck (Mark Salling) just happens to be Finn's roommate. Also, the college is a heavy party school, complete with multiple Harlem Shakes, and not only do the guys live it up, they sing a rockin' "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)" that gets them instant membership in a fraternity.

I don't see Finn allowing himself to get distracted so easily, even with Puck around. I also don't like the television trope of a local university all of the sudden showing up, especially one that looks like a respectable school, not a low-rent community college. The frat stuff is just plain dumb.

Puck suddenly has a change of heart late in "Sweet Dreams." After encouraging Finn to have a good time, he tells his best friend to get on track and concentrate on his studies. This comes out of nowhere, and is the opposite attitude displayed earlier in the hour. It is cool to see Puck supporting Finn, and I like to see the two of them together, but since it is out of sync with earlier events, the moment doesn't work.

While Finn is adjusting to school, Will (Matthew Morrison) approaches him to make things right between them. Finn reacts with anger towards Will, which makes no sense. Finn is the one who did wrong, and should just be happy that Will is finally able to accept his apology and move on. What right does Finn have to be mad?

Eventually, Finn and Will make up, after a very unprofessional and out of character rant towards the New Directions from Will, and they return to coach the club together, as partners. Finn hasn't earned the right to be a partner yet, and I'm surprised the college is allowing a student who is blowing off tests to take on an outside project. But that's how the story goes, apparently. The resolution is somewhat good, but everything leading up to it stinks, lacking any sense of logic.

Also, since when did Regionals happen so late in the school year? In the past, it's been shortly after Valentine's Day. Story-wise, we're quite a bit past that point. This also makes no sense, and likely means that the New Directions won't reach Nationals this year, there being not enough time left to have one lead into the other.

My biggest question though is how they're going to deal with graduation. Are they going to skip a couple of months ahead, or just pretending Regionals happens right around commencement time?

The New Directions are in good shape for Regionals because Marley is finally ready to bring out the original songs she has been penning. I like this plot twist for her, and it feels a lot more natural than Glee's earlier attempt at original music, written by the group hours before taking the stage, and still sounding OK. This development just fits her part so well.

Marley is a soulful individual, and it doesn't really come as a surprise when she admits to being a budding song writer. Although some of her classmates' strange behavior post-shooting, such as Sam's (Chord Overstreet) invention of a "twin" brother Evan Evans, doesn't make sense, Marley's story does. Plus, it's a catalyst for the story to move forward.

Even better, the music is pretty decent. We hear two of her compositions in "Sweet Dreams, "You Have More Friends Than You Know" and "Outcast." Neither are super memorable on their own, but they sound totally in synch with contemporary music and the stuff the New Directions routinely performs. I don't think Glee albums will suddenly get much radio play, but at least it feels tonally in keeping with the rest of the series.

Lastly, new Cheerios coach Roz Washington (NeNe Leakes, returning now that she's done with The New Normal for the season) gets suspicious of Sue's (Jane Lynch) departure from the school. She thinks Blaine (Darren Criss) has something to do with it, which is way off base, but it does cause Becky (Lauren Potter) to slip enough for Blaine to get an uneasy feeling, too.

I don't think that Roz will be the one to solve the Sue mystery, but that's okay. Her presence and character are a fitting placeholder during Sue's absence. I didn't realize I missed her until she appears again in "Sweet Dreams," but it will be interesting to see if she's allowed to do anything in her new role, or just warm Sue's seat.

Blaine, on the other hand, will likely be the tool that fixes the Sue problem. As stated in last week's review, I hate to see Becky take the fall, but Sue's name needs to be cleared. Blaine acting as the detective is consistent with other plots he has had this season, and allows main characters to be the agents of change, rather than a guest star. I think this is definitely the right way to go for this arc.

So, despite some major missteps in the Finn/Will story, "Sweet Dreams" manages to be a solid installment of Glee. We have movement on several fronts, at least four of the five songs are enjoyable, and the characters are finally growing pretty defined this season after years of strange twists that didn't make sense. Four years in, with only the February sweeps episodes this year being terrible, Glee may be finding its footing and charting a great path for the next two seasons (at least), for which it has already been renewed.

Glee airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

Community Christmas in April

Article first published as Community Christmas in April on TheTVKing.

NBC's Community celebrates Christmas this week with "Intro to Knots." Jeff (Joel McHale) throws a holiday party at his apartment for the study group and Chang (Ken Jeong). Annie (Alison Brie) invites Professor Cornwallis (Malcolm McDowell) when she learns he is giving them a poor grade. Hijinks ensue when Chang ties up Cornwallis, and Cornwallis begins playing mind games with the study group.

I really dig the concept "Intro to Knots" is going for, even if the execution leaves something to be desired. Cornwallis, a wonderful professor to add to Community's recurring cast, getting into the heads of our main characters for his own amusement, and the study group triumphing over him, is a classic Community story. It exposes some things about our cast, and forces them to look at themselves, again.

The problem is, the plot only goes half-heartedly into things. Aside from revealing that Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is in the running for valedictorian against Annie, nothing major comes out. Cornwallis has the opportunity here to really break down the group dynamics, and he just casually figures out there's a love triangle between Jeff, Troy (Donald Glover), and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), not even picking up that Annie is part of it. Weak sauce.

It's surprising that Annie is left out of the romantic analysis when "Into to Knots" provides her and Jeff a small alone scene, one of the best they've had this season. We get to see Annie trying to play house with Jeff, and it's a reference to the unkindled feelings between them. I think Jeff and Annie should end up together, and while he's not mature enough for her yet, nor she him, he has been making great strides this year, and could be ready to give it a go by season's end. I hope this scene is a promise of things to come, as hinted when Jeff likes her curtains.

Jeff has been growing a lot this season, but faces a backslide in "Intro to Knots" when he admits to tanking his part of their group project for Cornwallis. The others don't judge him, and we can see why when Jeff not only tells Britta that he is only keeping with the persona he has built, but he also delivers a heck of a speech about they are all flawed people who keep screwing up. Jeff may not take a step forward this week, but his self-actualization is promising. Plus, the party may be his attempt to make up for the guilt he feels at screwing up their grade, a good sign.

I could nitpick and say Cornwallis is stupider than he should be be accusing Jeff of untying him when Cornwallis gets free while everyone is distracted by the Dean (Jim Rash). Jeff is the one by the door, so everyone is seeing him the whole time and he is the one with the least opportunity to betray the others. However, I think Cornwallis is just trying to distract the group and get them to turn on each other, and in the moment, when Jeff is winning against Cornwallis, it's the emotion that the professor plays to more than logic, so it sort of makes sense.

I am not sold on the continuing rivalry between Annie and Shirley, which seems to come out of nowhere in the fourth season. I like that it gives Shirley more play in the larger scenarios, as she tends to be often forgotten in years past, but I'm not sure bickering is the way to go about expanding her role. She is a proud, strong, smart, busy mother. Why can't that be her story?

That said, as much as I love Annie, I really hope Shirley gets to be valedictorian. Annie will have other endings, but for Shirley, it would be a great, triumphant way to finish off the character.

Most of the players just get fun little moments this week. The Dean tries to intrude, and for some reason, gifts them all kittens. Everyone buys Jeff Greendale wear, which for some reason is funny. Troy gets a little jealous of Jeff and Britta's past. Troy makes a little bit of effort, though just a bit, to fulfill Abed's (Danny Pudi) Die Hard Christmas wish. And Chang has issues with knots and a fascination with bubble wrap. All of this is mildly amusing, even if not as smart as Community fans are accustomed to.

There are hints in "Intro to Knots" as to what this season is building towards when they take a moment to remind us of the dark timeline from "Remedial Chaos Theory." Evil Abed is still around, and has still vowed to destroy the group. Is he the one pulling Chang's strings? Will he be the bad guy that must be battled in the season finale?

I don't know if I like this. Before, one could dismiss Evil Abed's continued appearances as part of Prime Abed's fantasies. To really commit to Evil Abed being the villain, and this cannot be dismissed as Abed himself, given that Abed is with the group when Chang calls his master, is very strange, even by Community's standards. It also doesn't explain away why Abed sucks this year, something I desperately want a justification for, unless Evil Abed has taken over Abed, but then he couldn't be Chang's controller, so it doesn't quite fit.

I am also highly disappointed that Pierce (Chevy Chase) is said to be with Gilbert (Giancarlo Esposito) in this episode, rather than still lost in the woods. As I said in last week's review, Pierce getting lost is lame compared to other possible scenarios. But since the writers did it, they should stick with it. I don't see the point of drawing things out now, knowing Chase will not return in the next few episodes to finish out any kind of story.

"Intro to Knots" gets a few things right, but also quite a few things wrong. And the plot being set up for the rest of the season in this week's installment only makes me dread how the final weeks of the series could be screwed up even more, rather than building excitement. This could be considered the beginning of the end for Community, and not in a good way.

Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Spies of Warsaw Not So Sneaky

Article first published as Spies of Warsaw Not So Sneaky on TheTVKing.

BBC America recently presented the four part miniseries Spies of Warsaw, which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. David Tennant (Doctor Who) stars in this tale of intrigue and romance in Europe during the late 1930s, as the build up to World War II rages on. Unfortunately, it is dreadfully dull.

I was really looking forward to Spies of Warsaw. Tennant is "my Doctor," as the saying goes, and I couldn't wait to see the project he picked next. Yet, tied down by a rote, slow-moving plot and a restrained character, he lacks the spark and draw from his much more famous role. Tennant is still fantastic, and I won't complain about his acting, but he feels trapped in the part, and cannot give it the liveliness it needs to salvage the piece. Where is the humor he is oh-so-good at? Even in a drama, that should be allowed to shine through, at least a bit.

He isn't alone. Janet Montgomery (Made in Jersey, Black Swan), who plays Anna, the romantic interest for Tennant's Colonel Mercier, gives quite a tame performance. Their romance lacks the steam and passion one would expect in such a tale. As with Tennant, I don't blame Montgomery, but rather the lackluster material she has been given to work with. Why does Anna barely fight her attraction to Mercier before falling into bed? Who knows? And are we supposed to care?

Perhaps I'm just not the target audience for this piece. Many love a good, slow broil in their British period pieces, and Spies of Warsaw doesn't feel drastically different from other imported miniseries I have viewed from previous decades. The clothing and sets are well produced, and the team seems to get the details right, as near as I can tell. There may be something there for fans of, say, The Far Pavilion, which, unlike this, I rather enjoyed. But Spies doesn't feel modern or well-paced, drug down by a sluggish story in which not a lot happens. I thought we were past that era.

What's worse is that Spies of Warsaw teases the viewer. It ramps up steadily throughout the four hours (OK, actually closer to three sans commercials, though it feels like four), almost as if building to a climatic pay off that will be worth the slog. But it never materializes, and I was left feeling disappointed, as if I had wasted my time. The tension never fully appears, nor is there major resolution. Even Mercier's disapproving boss, Jourdain (Burn Gorman, Tochwood), lacks enough bite to create real conflict.

I also feel like Spies of Warsaw suffers from a limited vision or budget. We get glimpses of the larger world, at parties, or in characters who inhabit some role much bigger. But none of it is explored or shown. So many scenes feel like there should be more going on around them, or more people visible in the surrounding areas, and yet are reigned in.

Similarly, we are told of a nuanced world of grey, in which people inhabit the shadows and make difficult decisions about complex issues. Yet again, we never see this. Nothing seems all that complicated. Colonel Mercier is the hero, and that is all he remains. Hitler and the Nazis are the bad guys, and they will be defeated.

This tone, in both the plot structure and visual elements, combine to make for something not all that impressive. I really wanted to like Spies of Warsaw. Unfortunately, I never found an accessible entry that made that possible.

Spies of Warsaw is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dallas Honors "Legacies"

The second season of TNT's Dallas draws to a close this week with two fresh hours, "Guilt By Association" and "Legacies." We finally find out what J.R.'s (Larry Hagman) master plan is, and, when the Ewings unite, Cliff (Ken Kercheval) and Harris (Mitch Pileggi) are taken down for good. Or are they?

For a show like Dallas, the rules must constantly change, new secrets are continuously revealed, and the players that lose one battle will return for another stage in the war. Cliff and Harris are heavily involved with the Ewing family, and thus will probably get the chance to fight another day. If Dallas is renewed, which it has not been yet.

What J.R.'s murder comes down to is that no one could ever take down J.R. except J.R. himself. It's a brilliant twist. Many might believe Cliff is responsible right up until the moment Cliff is arrested, after which it quickly becomes obvious that he is not. Cliff is the only acceptable character who could commit the act, given his long history with J.R., but there is something deeply satisfying in J.R. being the one to sacrifice himself.

For one thing, this means that no one can best J.R. Part of the draw of Dallas is that J.R. must always continue. People can come after him again and again, and yet he always survives and gets his revenge. For anyone, even Cliff, to succeed in killing him would tarnish his "Legacies" just a bit, so it's good that J.R. is the instrument of his own destruction. The character, by necessity is gone, but that doesn't mean his influence is.

For another thing, J.R. orchestrating his own death is an act of love. It's also an act of vengeance, of course, getting even with Cliff for all that Cliff has done to the family. But it proves that J.R. cares about Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and John Ross (Josh Henderson) in that he uses his final days to help them. It's a true testament that there is a heart deep within J.R., which is how the character's death has been dealt with. We feel this in the scene by the graveside, where J.R.'s letter is read, and John Ross forgives Bum (Kevin Page) for pulling the trigger, at J.R.'s insistence. It's the best moment in the finale.

Not that the victory against Cliff is final. The Ewings have their reasons to let Cliff take the fall for something he didn't do, and his own daughter, Pamela (Julie Gonzalo), also hates him for killing her babies, so even should she learn the truth, she probably won't work to clear Cliff's name. These people are content to let Cliff rot.

However, Cliff reaches out to Elena (Jordana Brewster) after Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) abandons her. In Elena's grief, she is susceptible to Cliff's influence, believing that J.R. screwed her family. Whether J.R. is guilty or not is immaterial; Since Elena thinks that Christopher discarded her, even though he returns too late to confess his love, she may be willing to wage war against the Ewings. What she doesn't realize, or doesn't care about at this time, is that she will be Cliff's pawn in doing so.

Cliff, like J.R., is a very dangerous enemy. He doesn't mind betraying those he loves to get his way. For him, winning is a singular focus. It's why, should Dallas go on, he will rise again and have another crack at the Ewings. He simply has to.

Harris's fate is less certain. Emma (Emma Bell) has reason to hate her father, and reason to betray him. Harris isn't shown in "Guilt By Association" or "Legacies" to have anyone pulling for his side now. He has even run off his own mother (Judith Light). Alone and abandoned in jail, this could be the end of Harris's story. At least until Dallas needs an old foe to dust off in a couple of years, and then he is fair game.

The villain for now, though, is John Ross. When John Ross's mother, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), asks him to treat new wife Pamela right, he smirks, and promptly runs off to sleep with Emma. John Ross doesn't care about Pamela or Emma; he is using both to get what they want. But since they are both women with money and influence, he could wind up regretting his actions when they learn the truth, as they inevitably will, and take it out on the Ewing clan.

Could John Ross be a worthy successor to J.R.? Is there reason for Dallas to continue past "Legacies?" I think so on the second question, am less confident on the first. Henderson plays a great character in his own right, but no one will ever replace J.R. Dallas can still continue, forging a new path. As long as John Ross doesn't try to morph into his departed father completely. But there are still stories to tell involving Pamela and Emma in regards to John Ross, and I still am not sure that the elder Pamela Barnes is dead, which could make for another season of intrigue.

Dallas has aired all of its produced episodes, and now awaits news of renewal from TNT.

Awkward. "Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes"

Article first published as Awkward. "Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes" on TheTVKing.

As MTV's Awkward. moves into its third season, changes are afoot. Jenna (Ashley Rickards) is now a junior and has been happy for months in her relationship with Matty (Beau Mirchoff). But upon returning to school, she finds herself out of step with both her friends and her new studies. And a death among the student body forces everyone to re-evaluate their priorities and feelings.


Jenna is faced with a pregnancy scare, and confides in her mother, Lacey (Nikki Deloach). I love the scene where the two make the pregnancy seem like a good thing, psyching themselves up in case this is a reality, Lacey being very supportive. They are both relieved when the test comes back negative, but the way that they interact is nice, and I'm glad to see their relationship returning to normal after the strain of last season. Deloach is rocking this role.

There are rumors going around that Sadie (Molly Tarlov) could be knocked up, and Jenna makes friendly overtures. The episode is written in such a way that we don't realize Jena is going through her own scare, painted as a kind act, rather than a plea from a kindred spirit. I really like the way this unfolds, keeping the truth a surprise. Plus, I like Sadie as character, no matter how terrible she is as a person, and am glad she doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Jenna's father, Kevin (Mike Faiola), who has never been really central to the show, is completely absent from both half hours. I do wonder if he will be back in the picture in a large way anytime soon, or if he has been permanently reduced to a recurring role. I also wonder if he is necessary, as his chemistry with Jenna has never been explored as much as her bond with Lacey, and so he hasn't established himself as someone that has to be full-time in Jenna's story. It doesn't seem like it hurts the tale that he's less in the picture right now, as long as he doesn't disappear entirely.

Ming (Jessica Lu) is also pushed to the background quite a bit, but I'm excited to see her get some plot right out of the gate this year, playing a long game against the Asian Mafia. She may still be pushed to the side in some episodes, but hopefully this is a sign that she will be a bigger player, finally taking her place alongside the more central cast members, and promoted to the main cast.

Lissa (Greer Grammer), too, feels a bit more played up in the season premiere. I noticed that her name now also graces the opening credits, and even though she doesn't have much story of her own this week, she's seen more often and has more dialogue. I like her character, and if we're lucky, she'll be someone we see around on a consistently larger basis.

Jenna feels right with Matty. I liked her with Jake (Brett Davern) a lot last season, but she seems more comfortable with this boyfriend. It's great that Awkward. can paint both boys as viable romantic partners, and make their relationships feel so different. I think that Jenna is with the right guy, and hope that she doesn't go back to Jake.

Which is not to say that I am completely on board with the Jake / Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed) pairing. It's cool for now, but they don't seem like they'll be long-term. I guess that's something we'll have to wait to see play out.

With Jake and Matty as their guys, Tamara and Jenna have officially and fully moved out of geek status. They definitely seem more involved with the rest of the student body as a whole, especially at Ricky's wake. It's less that they aren't nerdy any more and more that they are opening up and getting out of their shells, and their classmates accept them. I appreciate the changing perspective without ruining the characters. Well done.

The other major challenge that Jenna faces this week is that Valerie (Desi Lydic) signs her up for a creative writing course with the abrasive Mr. Hart (Anthony Michael Hall, Dead Zone, The Breakfast Club). Jenna doesn't want to take the class, despite her love of writing, as we've seen with her blog. Why not? Is it because she hesitates to share herself? Does she just see writing as a hobby, not something to get serious about?

I do think Valerie does the right thing here, even if she might go about it the wrong way, going behind Jenna's back. Jenna is bound to learn some good lessons from Mr. Hart, as much of a jerk as he seems at the start. Maybe Jenna will end up thanking Valerie in the end.

I admit, I did not see the death of Ricky Schwartz (Matthew Fahey) coming. He is a comic relief character, and while he isn't much liked, I didn't think he would be killed off. He's present to stir up trouble, and his unexpected passing actually stirs up less than he did in life, closing a chapter of rockiness for some characters who have plenty of it. Tamara gets some peace, and despite a strong emotional reaction, it doesn't destroy her relationship with Jake, as it look for a moment that it might.

It is surprising that the cause of death is exposure to a peanut, which Ricky is allergic to. Did someone do it on purpose? I don't think so, as that would be much darker than Awkward. has dared to tread. Death is not outside of their tone, but only when it is handled in an irreverent way. That's why suicide couldn't be an actual possibility here. But it seems odd that Ricky would consume something he has had to be on the lookout for his whole life.

The effects of Ricky's death are not sadness, as Awkward. is a comedy. It doesn't change who the series is, nor cross into territory too far outside of its established patterns. I do think, considering that the biggest strength Awkward. possesses is its authenticity, that a little more grief should have crept in. Yet, that would strayed away from the series' mood. So it's really a no-win scenario, meaning I wish this plot had been skipped, as it forces an inconsistency one way or the other.

That being said, I have few complaints about the rest of the two episode premiere. The plots continue along the courses charted, and while some changes have occurred, they feel natural and mostly earned. The characters continue to act like teenagers would act, which means screwing up when we think they should be responsible, especially when it comes to relationships, and the jokes still land. Overall, it's a fitting return for a great show.

Awkward. airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on MTV.