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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

DVD Review: ‘Doctor Who – The Mind of Evil’

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘Doctor Who – The Mind of Evil’ on Blogcritics.

DWEOne Doctor Who serial that has not yet been released on DVD (until now) because of difficulty in producing or restoring a color copy is The Mind Of Evil. Considering that this six-episode serial features a showdown between the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and the Master (Roger Delgado), one of the Doctor’s greatest foes, it is surely one that fans will want to see. Now, they have their chance, as The Mind of Evil recently got a two-disc release.

The Mind of Evil is one of those stories that appears to be about one thing, and then revelation by revelation, changes into something else entirely. The original problem introduced is a machine that removes evil from the brain of criminals, but some of the “cured” keep winding up dead. Then, we find out about an issue between the Chinese and the Americans at the First World Peace Conference. Finally, the Master is shown to be the real culprit of the unrest. It’s this continuously-escalating device that gives the beginning of the story real umph, and because all three still matter past their first focus, it’s a rich, layered story, even if a few have complained about the Master’s seemingly-incoherent plan.

The battle of wits between the Doctor and the Master, two Time Lords with radically different values and points of view, is one that never gets old. They have fought through many a serial, including an arc only a few years ago during David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor. Any encounter the two share is worth watching, and The Mind of Evil is part of that proud tradition.

What is really interesting is that the Master’s greatest fear is the Doctor, a dynamic that does not go both ways. We see the Doctor terrified by Daleks, Cybermen, and fiery hell, but not the Master, whereas the Master’s vision, when exposed to the fear-inducing device, is of a giant Doctor. I think it is this fixation on the Doctor that keeps the Master coming back and staying relevant, while the Doctor has foes with bigger-scale plans to worry about, so he often underestimates the Master until they are face to face.

Besides the Doctor / Master stuff, there’s plenty left for UNIT, including Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Sergeant Benton (John Levene), and Captain Yates (Richard Franklin), to do, and Jo (Katy Manning) gets involved in the story, too. While the title of Doctor Who is accurate in that the show has always been, and will always be, about the Doctor, I have really enjoyed the periods in the run where the Doctor has a team, which has sort of happened this past year in Matt Smith’s tenure, though not to the extent as during the Pertwee era. The Mind of Evil makes use of that group in a nice way, and I really appreciate the ensemble chemistry.

This is the first DVD release of The Mind of Evil. As such, it is not a Special Edition, nor does it have quite as many extras as the last couple Doctor Who titles put out, which were. But that does not mean it skimps on the bonus features, still needing two discs to fit everything in.

The audio commentary for this serial is provided by Manning, regular participants Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, director Timothy Combe, stunt arranger Derek Ware, guest actors Pik-Sen Lim and Fernanda Marlowe, and moderated by Toby Hadoke. On top of the photo gallery and PDF materials, there is a twenty-two minute “Making Of” that was produced in 2009, a revisit of the filming locations in the present day, and a look at the BBC Television Centre circa 1971. All of this combines to give a very full presentation, one worthy of a Doctor Who release.

Doctor Who The Mind of Evil is available now.

DVD Review: ‘Doctor Who Inferno – Special Edition’

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘Doctor Who Inferno – Special Edition’ on Blogcritics.

DWIInferno, which originally aired in May and June, is not only the final serial of 1969-70s seventh season, but also the last seven-part Doctor Who adventure. Additionally, it is the last episode which features Caroline John as the Doctor’s companion, Liz Shaw, so there are a lot of “lasts” in these installments, the most recent batch to get the Special Edition treatment in a two-disc DVD set.

Liz doesn’t officially leave in Inferno, but after a mere twenty-five episodes, amounting to four serials, she disappears between this tale and the next one, only being mentioned in passing after. The actress is said to have reported being bored playing Liz after only their brief span, though enjoyed portraying her opposite in the alternate pieces of Inferno. As such, some of her best work on the series can be found on these discs.

The story of Inferno is an important one, just as relevant today as when the episodes aired. Earth is looking for a new energy source, and “the Inferno” is a project to find it, courtesy of drilling deep down into the planet. Unfortunately, as we’ve discovered in other energy projects in the real world, there are unintended consequences, and things go terribly, terribly wrong. It’s a call to save the planet as much as it is an exciting television program, one that judges the things we do in our quest for power harshly.

Doctor Who chooses to show these disasters as an alternate reality, one in which the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) falls into while using his universe’s Inferno to try to repair his broken TARDIS. In the other world, Inferno is much further along, and the planet is not a very nice place. The Doctor’s friends are among the new villains, and somehow the Doctor must convince them not only of the truth, but also get them to assist him in returning to his own timeline.

Inferno gives regular characters Liz, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), and Sergeant Benton (John Levene) lots of room to play with their familiar personalities. Haunted by a world torn asunder, they are not the same people on the other side, and one can sense the delight the performers take in finding these new aspects of the characters.

Because of this cool alternate world, done for budget reasons, rather than story, though it works very well, and the environment messages within the episodes, Inferno stands out as a top notch entry in the Doctor Who library. It is also rated consistently as one of the best serials ever by a number of critics and rankings, so you don’t just have to take my word for it.

As is usual for a Special Edition, buyers get both an updated video and picture quality, as well as the regular PDF materials, photo gallery, and audio commentary, this one featuring Courtney, Levene, Terrance Dicks, and Barry Letts, the latter two of whom are regular contributors to the DVD releases. There is also a deleted scene, a introduction to the Pertwee era, and visual effects promo film.

On top of the typical, there are quite a few extended featurettes, making for nearly as much “extras” footage as there is for regular episodes. Among the offerings in this bout are a look at UNIT’s family (Part One), the fourth part of a five piece saga chronicling the efforts to keep Who going while not on the air, a stunt team reunion, and a “Making Of.” For some of these, they do build off of past releases, so you may want to check out the older titles to view the completed feature. But even when taken alone, there’s some rich back story and source material here.

Doctor Who Inferno Special Edition is available now.

Monday, July 22, 2013

DVD Review: ‘Doctor Who The Visitation Special Edition’

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘Doctor Who The Visitation Special Edition’ on Blogcritics.

DWVThe BBC is always reworking and re-releasing classic Doctor Who serials, including offering many Special Editions of previously released stories with better picture and sound quality, as well as a wealth of bonus features. One of the most recent to get this treatment is the 19th season story from February 1982, The Visitation, starring Peter Davison as The Doctor (the one with celery on his lapel).

The Visitation finds The Doctor and his companions, Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and Tegan (Janet Fielding) in 17th century England. The Great Plague is on, but our heroes quickly deduce that there is more going on than meets the eye. They are right, as a Terileptil’s ship has crashed on Earth, and the alien, not one to leave quietly, plans on taking over the planet by releasing a disease to wipe out the native inhabitants.

Between the Terileptil’s plague and the Great Fire of London, which gets started at the end of the serial, The Visitation attempts to tie itself more into human history than most Doctor Who stories, providing a conspiracy theory-style explanation that blames the events shown here for great destruction. This is both whimsical and also depressing upon further examination, since the Doctor is allowing mankind to be harmed in a serious way by an alien race, as well as his own action (or inaction). This could be a hint of the darkness that will eventually, in the modern reboot, threaten to consume the Doctor, though only a hint.

Even more interesting is the impact The Visitation has on Doctor Who mythology. The Terileptil destroys the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, which will not be seen again for quite some time. The reason behind the scenes for doing this is that producer John Nathan-Turner felt that the tool provided too convenient a resolution to many a plot twist, though later keepers of the series figure out a way to use it without relying on it too much, so it eventually returns. Whether one agrees with the decision to take out the tool or not, it cannot be denied that the instrument is an iconic part of the Doctor Who character, and this serial is responsible for removing it from the universe for awhile.

Aside from that, though, The Visitation is a rather run-of-the-mill story. It does have interesting looking aliens and animatronics and androids, but the basic plot is that the characters keep getting captured and escaping. For awhile this was a common Doctor Who formula, but it comes across as somewhat lazy storytelling to anyone that has seen it done over and over again in other serials. Can no one adequately lock up one of the central characters; can the main player escape far enough way to not be caught again?

This is not to say that these episodes are not enjoyable. There is a warmth, charm, and humor to Doctor Who present in pretty much every installment, whether it is a special one or not. There is a reason why so many viewers have been drawn to the series over the years, and even in The Visitation, there are signs of this magnetic attraction.

This two disc Special Edition release has a ton of extras, to which fans of the series have become accustomed. The typical inclusions are the audio commentary with Davison, Fielding, Sutton, Waterhouse, and Peter Moffatt (who directed the story); a photo gallery; and PDF materials. Other additions are an isolated score and film trims.

On top of those, though, there are a couple of longer bonuses. The “Making Of” for this serial is 45 minutes long, with a lot of details discussed. Moffatt spends nearly half an hour discussing his time directing Doctor Who. There are relatively substantial featurettes on writing and scoring. “Doctor Forvever: The Apocalypse Element” is an examination of Doctor Who audio productions. And “The Television Centre of the Universe – Part One” brings Davison, Fielding, and Mark Strickson–a producer and actor–to the BBC Television Centre to look back fondly on their work.

In short, there is plenty here to make Doctor Who fans happy, even if the serial itself ranks in the middle of the pack among Doctor Who adventures. Doctor Who The Visitation Special Edition is available now.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Doctor Who Series Seven, Part Two’




DW72Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Doctor Who Series Seven, Part Two’ on Blogcritics.

The final eight episodes of BBC’s Doctor Who Series Seven, airing months after the beginning of the run, feel quite a bit different than the first five, so it makes sense to package them separately. Gone are Amy and Rory, and the Doctor (Matt Smith) now has a new companion named Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), who has died twice, but doesn’t remember those past lives. Who is Clara, and will we finally get an answer to the prevalent question, doctor who?

The first episode in this two-disc release, “The Bells of Saint John,” finds the Doctor secluded in the 13th century, living among monks, having given up his search for the mysterious Clara, a journey begun in the Christmas special that aired just prior to this. Then, he gets a phone call from Clara in the modern day, who thinks the Doctor is tech support, and he flies to her side.

Disappointingly, this installment fails to get into who Clara is, instead delivering a third introduction story for the character, while also rushing into another battle with the Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant), albeit this time without the Doctor figuring out who his foe is. It’s a fun episode, with some wonderful moments between Clara and the Doctor, but does almost nothing for the serial tale, answering none of the questions fans have been anxiously awaiting.

This trend continues for the next six weeks. The Doctor and Clara see the remarkable “Rings of Akhaten,” go into a Russian submarine during the “Cold War” and find an Ice Warrior, “Hide”
from ghosts stuck in time, “Journey to the Centre or the TARDIS,” which does not care for Clara, help Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey) investigate “The Crimson Horror,” and find a “Nightmare in Silver,” a.k.a. the Cyberman, in an abandoned amusement park.

All of these are whimsical stories, and it’s gratifying to see returning characters and villains, plus some terrific guest stars, such as Warwick Davis (Life’s Too Short). They all serve to strengthen the bond between the Doctor and Clara, and present some amusing stand-alone tales. But with the massive setup for more that viewers are looking for, it comes across a slightly disappointing run over all, even if they are pretty enjoyable episodes taken on their own.

But then we get “The Name of the Doctor,” the amazing season finale. The Great Intelligence is back, as are Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Beloved River Song (Alex Kingston) plays a vital role, and the secret of Clara is explored. The characters gather at the Doctor’s tomb, and thanks to some incredible editing, the previous ten doctors are involved. There is a startling surprise ending, introducing John Hurt as a brand new incarnation of a familiar face, beautifully setting up this fall’s big 50th anniversary special. It is everything we’ve been waiting for.

Some have complained that “The Name of the Doctor” contradicts previously established events. Doctor Who teaches us that time can be fluid, and there may very well be good explanation for why things unfold the way they do. I recommend reserving judgment until we see where else Steven Moffat and company are going with the story next.

Doctor Who has always balanced the serial with the procedural, so I’m not sure why I am let down by the same type of mix here. I think it may be because Clara doesn’t immediately make herself accessible, as some past companions have done. Part of it could be because we’re so close to a huge reveal that’s been building for years. Whatever the reason, repeat viewings are more satisfying, and “The Rings of Akhaten” and “Nightmare in Silver,” in particular, are very, very good, so I do recommend getting this set and watching it numerous times.

As usual, the high definition presentation on the Blu-ray is everything you could ask for. Doctor Who has a number of different settings, so that are lots of opportunity to explore fantastical, special effects-heavy worlds, as well as varying color schemes. All of this comes across as rich and detailed. An at-times-stellar score mixes perfectly with the crisp dialogue, and there are never any complaints of static or graininess. Considering some of the spectacular visuals, Blu-ray is the recommended format to view it in.

For extras, there are two measly inclusions. There is a delightful, but short, prequel to “The Bells of Saint John,” which is definitely worth watching, and a second prequel to “The Name of the Doctor,” is also present. That’s it. There is nothing to give insight into the making of these episodes. I assume we’ll have to wait for The Complete Seventh Series for more, though I’ll also be disappointed if there is more on that, just because it forces another purchase of episodes we already have. In an ideal world, the extras would all be on the two smaller sets, and The Complete Seventh Series would just be a value method to buy for those who waited. Oh, well.

Doctor Who Series Seven, Part Two is available now.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Blu-ray Review: ‘Orphan Black Season One’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Orphan Black Season One’ on Blogcritics.

OBIf you’ve paid attention to Emmy news at all this past week or so, you’ve likely heard outrage over the snub of Tatiana Maslany, who has been picking up all sorts of other awards. If you’re not familiar with who this young woman is or what she has done to deserve such passionate following, then you haven’t seen the Canadian / BBC America drama Orphan Black. Luckily, all ten episodes of Season One are now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Orphan Black tells the story of Sarah Manning (Maslany), a woman trying to put her life together so that she can take care of her daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler, Alphas). See, Sarah has been romantically involved with an abusive drug dealer named Vic (Michael Mando, Les Bleus de Ramville), and so Siobhan “Mrs. S.” Sadler (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Tudors), the woman who raised Sarah and her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris, Unnatural History), has stepped in and taken Kira until Sarah can find a more stable environment.

When Sarah sees someone who looks just like her commit suicide, she senses the opportunity to better her standing and ability to start over, at least financially. Assuming Beth Childs’ (also Maslany) identity, Sarah suddenly finds herself in a situation that’s hard to get out of. Beth is a cop with a live-in boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce, As the World Turns), and a suspicious partner, Art (Kevin Hanchard, Savage Planet). Plus, Beth is in trouble at her job.

If that were all Sarah had to deal with, it might be enough for any series to tackle. But Orphan Black is not just any series, and I feel like I’ve buried the lead in explaining the set up, something the first episode, “Natural Selection,” sort of does, before making a course correction, with the story picking up considerably over the rest of the run. Beth is not just a long-lost twin to Sarah, she is a clone. And there are a number of other clones around, as well as secret agencies that would like to control them.

Orphan Black is a fantastic tale, tightly written, without procedural or weekly stories to bog it down, but the biggest draw by far is Maslany’s performance. Whether she is playing Sarah, Beth, Alison, a put-upon housewife, Cosima, a nerdy genius, Helena, a psychotic religious fanatic serial killer, Katja, a desperate Russian, or a few other characters, Maslany captures distinctly different personalities so that none seem at all like the other, each with different dialect, mannerisms, and attitudes.

Even better is when one of the characters pretends to be another one of the clones, and Maslany somehow strikes a balance between the two, mixing characteristics so that attentive viewers will be able to identify what is really going on, even if characters on screen may not. It may be the most impressive acting I’ve ever seen. No one has played multiple roles in one work so thoroughly convincing before. No one. And she does it consistently, scene after scene, and no offense to the other fine actors involved, but shouldering the burden of the series almost completely single-handedly.

Orphan Black also raises some moral and legal issues. Should cloning be allowed? Under what circumstances? Can a company patent and own a human being if they are the by-product of their patented process? This is a timely issue, with recent court rulings about what can and cannot be owned concerning genetic material in the news this summer. Fascinating!

I know blu-ray reviewers still discuss picture and sound quality of the releases, though I’m not sure why, because just above all modern series have the same high marks these days. Orphan Black is no exception. The series has a dark-colored tone, and it is masterfully layered with rich blacks and details in the shadows. The soundtrack is seamlessly mixed with the dialogue, and both the audio and the visual are incredibly crisp and defined. I detected no flaws to speak of, though who pays attention to such things that closely when sucked in by such an amazing story and Maslany’s talent? It is worth checking out in any quality, but the blu-ray release is sure to be the best, and so worth getting.

One thing I found very odd about the packaging is that it lacks a booklet or interior episode list of any kind. You actually have to pop the discs in to see the installment names. That’s a tad disappointing to me, though only a minor annoyance for anyone with a smart phone or tablet handy.

The bonus features are a little light. “Send in the Clones” is a sixteen-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that feels more like a way to sell the series to potential viewers who haven’t seen the show yet than an informative look for fans, introducing characters and elements, rather than going deeper on them. We also get seven minutes of Maslany’s appearance on The Nerdist, cross promotion for another BBC America series, and “Inside,” a five minute extra of separate pieces, previously played during commercial breaks, that is a lot like “Send in the Clones,” but shares focus with characters not played by Maslany.

Orphan Black Season One is available now.

BEING HUMAN Gathers "The Trinity"

Article first published as BEING HUMAN Gather "The Trinity" on TheTVKing.

BBC America presents the final series of Being Human, starting this week with "The Trinity." The events of last season are calming down, but all three house guests, the new vampire-werewolf-ghost trio, have their own matters to attend to, while getting used to each other and finding their equilibrium.

The central premise of Being Human, one that sort of takes a back seat last year, is a ghost, a vampire, and a werewolf sharing a home. With the original three gone, a new group takes their place, which makes it feel like a different show. But it's still about them all finding ways to get along, and help each other control their more undesirable urges.

I really like the parts of "The Trinity" that have the roommates together. This is a dynamic that is still being worked out, and they aren't completely comfortable around one another. Tom (Michael Socha) really wants to trust Hal (Damien Molony), but is finding it difficult to do so. Hal is used to worrying mainly about himself, and has to figure out how to rely on others. Alex (Kate Bracken) has a sense of humor the others consider inappropriate. Give how natural the previous series stars had grown with one another, this is an interesting reset, to explore new personalities clashing all over again.

Interestingly, "The Trinity" shows us that this sort of alliance is nothing new. Ninety years ago, Hal teams up with werewolf Catherine (Victoria Ross) and a man named Emil (Jeremy Swift, Oliver Twist) to trap the Devil in a human body. This goes horribly wrong, and the Devil escapes.

So this season of Being Human will have to not only focus on the chemistry of the threesome, but also a battle with the Devil, currently in the form of Captain Hatch (Philip Davis, Whitechapel), who happens to be in town. This is a heck of a villain to face, certainly with bigger stakes than past bad guys.

Which is not to say that the Devil is all this year will be about. There are several other stories going on, too. Hal is fighting his urge to drink blood, and turns a dying guy named Crumb (Colin Hoult) into a vampire to save his life. Mr. Rook (Steven Robertson) is still trying to recruit Hal, and also faces seeing his department downsized. Alex wants to complete whatever unfinished business she might have, which "The Trinity" rules out as being finding her body. And Tom is working on trusting Hal.

I really like Rook's story. It's funny that government cutbacks could threaten the safety of the country or the world. Every slash in the budget risks unintended consequences, but this is taking that to a whole new level, providing social commentary, and giving a previously detestable character something interesting to do.

Flash backs have grown into a tiresome trope on television, but "The Trinity" seems like a fresh take, really setting up the first chapter of a larger arc, and deepening the mythology of the show in an unexpected way. This may be a biased view, but I do think this is one of the best examples of such an element that's been shown lately on the small screen.

I admit to being skeptical going into "The Trinity," missing the original cast, and having to ease into the tale. But by midway through the hour, I was completely engrossed, and am already sad these characters only have this year to complete their journies. Rebooting a show is risky, but it's done very well here. It should be a great season.

Being Human airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Blu-ray Review: 'Doctor Who: The Snowmen'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Doctor Who: The Snowmen' on Blogcritics.

DWSMThis year’s Doctor Who Christmas special was called The Snowmen, and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Set in Victorian England, the Doctor (Matt Smith) matches wits with the Great Intelligence, who is trying to use smart snow and ice to take over the world. Luckily, our hero has some help in the form of a very familiar face.

Normally, Doctor Who Christmas specials are nice, sweet, fluff pieces, not adding to major story arcs, just standing alone as a heart-warming story. The Snowmen chooses a different tack, picking up where “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the last regular episode that aired prior to this special, left off, and ties together plot threads, both old and new, adding to the series’ major arcs.

As the hour begins, the Doctor is moping, dressed as Scrooge, around the streets of Victorian England. His outlandish personality has swung to a negative light, making his depression a deep one, indeed, robbed of any want to help others. This is a sad Doctor, an isolated Doctor, who isn’t what the Doctor is supposed to be.

More than other recent actors, Smith lends an unstable and cartoonish quality to the role. While one may have a hard time imagining Tennant scouring the alleys quite so grumpily, it holds true to what Smith has built into the character. Amy always told him that he shouldn’t be alone, and now we get a small taste of what he is like when he is, cold and uncaring, apart from the world, literally, as he lives in the TARDIS atop a cloud. Yet, he has chosen Earth to brood on, which means he can’t possibly want to be alone as much as he claims to.

Not that the Doctor is completely left to himself. His travels have earned him some loyalties, and he is protected by some familiar faces – Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife, Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey). This is an interesting trio, and it’s not quite clear why they’re the ones who have taken up this mission. But it’s nice to see that the Doctor can’t just hide away. He has made some friends who are going to make sure that he’s OK. And they aren’t the only ones.

The Snowmen also introduces the Doctor’s new companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman, Emmerdale). At first, one may be confused as to why Coleman is playing the part, as she recently guest starred as Oswin earlier this series in “Asylum of the Daleks.” That person could be forgiven for thinking she is someone new, since this would not be the first time an actress appeared in a one-shot before coming back to play a different, more central character, though I can’t recall it happening quite so quickly before. But as The Snowmen unfolds, it is pretty obvious, based on personality and dialogue, that Clara is Oswin, a fact confirmed late in the adventure.

As for more of the mystery of who Clara is and what she is doing in this time and place, I’ll leave that to later episodes. Suffice it to say, Clara’s mystery is only just beginning in The Snowmen, even after some very big, startling revelations.

Clara is a very interesting companion. Just the fact that she has a different perspective from everyone else, declaring the TARDIS “smaller on the outside,” rather than “bigger on the inside,” as is what other people say, proves that she has something new to bring to the table. Coleman doesn’t grab me immediately, but the character is well written with more than enough to hook the view.

Aside from all the fantastic big picture stuff, which plays more to the continuing tale of Doctor Who, The Snowmen is still a cool story in of itself. With Ian McKellen (The Hobbit, X-Men) lending his voice to the Great Intelligence, the villain is impressive. There are enough twists to keep us on our toes, the snowmen themselves are terrifying, and there’s a family at risk at the center of it, the sympathetic heart that a Christmas special needs. And The Snowmen is actually a prequel story to an old-school Doctor Who serial from the original run, in which the Great Intelligence attacks through the London Underground. So we get to see something that references a story many modern Who fans may not be familiar with.

There are a ton of fun moments, from the Doctor doing a poor Sherlock Holmes impression, to Strax’s encounter with a memory worm, to Clara continuously ignoring the Doctor’s instructions. Even in an hour that’s so dark, Doctor Who finds ways to keep its trademark humor.

Plus, the new TARDIS is stunning! It’s a little confusing that the Doctor would switch designs mid-incarnation, however, given all that he’s been through, I think a fresh start isn’t out of the question. This new set will definitely help to convey that. I greatly appreciate that the series gives us a moment to admire it, rather than just glimpsing it while in use.

The picture quality on The Snowmen is middling. Part of this is because the special effects are so-so. There are some really great bits to praise, such as the opening title sequence, with snowflakes falling over Old London. But the streets and costumes have that slightly-cheesy fake look that is a hallmark of the series. Combined with the particular hyper-real image quality often found in British HD shows, this release looks fantastic for a television broadcast, but certainly doesn’t come across nearly as sharp as most big-budget theatrical films.

That being said, colors are rich and blacks and bold and layered. The details, both visual and auditory, and well defined. The soundtrack is very well mixed, and with 5.1 DTS surround, viewers will enjoy every bit of the score, every tiny sound effect, and the crisp dialogue. Overall, the look is extremely smooth and professional, especially when compared to other British series.

The special features are disappointingly sparse. The Children In Need Special, entitled “The Great Detective,” is the best inclusion, but it’s very short. “Vastra Investigates” is another three minute prequel. But the behind-the-scenes featurette, “Clara’s White Christmas,” is equally brief, and there is nothing else included. This may be a single special release, but fans deserve a few more bonus features than what’s included here, especially given how full most Doctor Who releases are.

Doctor Who: The Snowmen is available now.

Make An "Arrangement" With SUITS

Article first published as SUITS Review Season 3 Premiere on Seat42F.

Grade: 90%

USA’s SUITS is back for a third season this week with “The Arrangement.” Taking place in the aftermath of last year’s finale, the employees at Pearson Darby (the firm’s new name) have to deal with broken trust and failing relationships. Everything is far from copacetic, or even status quo, as what has been shaken up has not yet begun to settle down.

The most painful split may be between the show’s two most central players from the beginning, Harvey (Gabriel Macht) and Mike (Patrick J. Adams). Mike having betrayed Harvey for Jessica (Gina Torres), he will do just about anything to win back Harvey’s trust. This is not helped at all when Jessica gifts Mike an office.

What’s scary is that there is no clear path to come back from this. Usually, either Mike or Harvey has a brilliant idea that can save the day. But Mike fails to come up with anything more spectacular than a little research, which isn’t all that impressive to Harvey, and Harvey doesn’t seem to want to try. If Harvey is swatting away all of Mike’s olive branches, is there a point in even sticking them out?

It’s good that this has shaken Mike to the core, though. Mike can sometimes be a little too overconfident, and somehow skates by when anyone else would fall. Losing Harvey as a mentor and friend should be a wakeup call to make sure he keeps himself in check. Mike is a good guy, for sure, but it will not hurt him to take a step back once in awhile and think more about those closest to him.

Similarly, the rift could end up helping Harvey if it teaches him to embrace forgiveness. Harvey tends to hold a grudge, as evidenced in the way he treats Louis (Rick Hoffman), and especially in how he is now at odds with Jessica. Harvey likes to sort people into ‘friends’ or ‘enemies,’ and when a person is put in one box or the other, it is very hard for them to get out again. Maybe through making up with Mike, which surely must happen eventually, Harvey will be a better man, one more willing to let past faults go, his own as well as others’.

It’s sad to see Harvey and Jessica against one another, as cool as it is to anticipate a battle between gods of the legal world. Their clash will be epic, and yet, it is emotionally painful that they are against one another. It’s a situation where they just need to agree to disagree, and Harvey needs to see Jessica as his boss, which is what she is. Unfortunately, they are both too headstrong for peace to be found. Unlike with Mike, Harvey’s reconciliation with Jessica is not assured, as her character frequently verges on the edge of antagonist.

These warring factions make it all the more easier for Darby (Conleth Hill, Game of Thrones) to establish control. He is the one in charge now, above Jessica even, and while he sometimes takes a seemingly relaxed approach in dealing with the lawyers, there is cold resolve in his eyes. He knows what he is doing, and because Jessica, Harvey, and Mike are in no place to unite and stand up to him, he is easily able to put them in the places that he wants them in. For now, anyway.

I don’t know why I jump straight into thinking Darby is a bad guy. He helps the firm out when they need it, and he hasn’t done anything untoward to the beloved main characters. Darby even grants Harvey a favor in “The Arrangement,” something he certainly does not have to do. Maybe it’s because I’m remembering the unpleasantness brought on by the previous partner, Hardman, or maybe it’s because we expect Harvey to always get his way on his own terms, and Darby will stand in the way of that, but there’s something that keeps Darby at arm’s length.

Perhaps the most surprising development in “The Arrangement” is Donna (Sarah Rafferty) turning on Mike. It shouldn’t be a shock, given Donna’s absolutely loyalty to Harvey, and the fact that, in essence, Mike betrays her, too, but I didn’t see this coming. Donna is previously Mike’s supporter, and the surest thing to convincing Harvey to give Mike a second chance. But if she wants to shut Mike out, Mike has an even steeper climb back into good graces.

Mike’s hope for fixing things with Donna are his compassionate heart, which Donna does notice, though maybe not this week, and his relationship with Donna’s friend, Rachel (Meghan Markle). I will not spoil where Mike and Rachel end up in their dance in the premiere, but suffice it to say, both their strong feelings for one another and Rachel’s extreme disappointment in Mike are major factors. Where they land could definitely mean something in how Mike and Donna interact going forward.

Other things that are great in this wonderful episode are the scene where Donna gently questions Harvey about his feelings for Scottie (Abigail Spencer), a guest appearance by a second Game Of Thrones alumni, and Louis engaging in a battle of wits with the scorned Nigel (Adam Godley). Best of all, none of these things are resolved in the first hour, so there’s a lot to anticipate in the coming run, and fantastic guest stars will recur.

What SUITS does well is to build large, character-driven arcs. It is not at all a procedural or typical lawyer show. It is about people who all do what they think is best, and sometimes there can be more than one right side to an issue. SUITS operates in shades of grey and in nuance, rather than broad strokes or permanent us versus them labels. “The Arrangement” takes what has built over the first two years and matures it into the next natural step. Very exciting.

SUITS airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.

Friday, July 19, 2013

COVERT AFFAIRS Under Cover

Article first published as COVERT AFFAIRS Review Season 4 Premiere on Seat42F.

Grade: 86%

USA’s COVERT AFFAIRS is back t0night with “Vamos.” Annie (Piper Perabo) and Auggie (Christopher Gorham), now a couple, try to figure out what Henry Wilcox (Gregory Itzen) knows about Arthur (Peter Gallagher) that will bring him down. It’s a race against time, as Henry promises action will be taken by the end of the week. And it’s a challenge to see if Annie and Auggie can be romantic and still work together.

COVERT AFFAIRS is the latest drama in television to defy the old fear, often referred to as ‘The Moonlight Curse,’ and stick their leading guy and gal in a relationship before series’ end. As this is only the start of season four, COVERT AFFAIRS could potentially have a lot of life in it, going by the standard run of a USA show, and so it’s risking a lot to get rid of that “will they, won’t they?” tension and commit to them being together.

Yet, now that it’s become the popular trend to do it, and by and large this trend is proving the fate of the curse is the exception, rather than the rule, it could be risky not to have them together. Fans are growing frustrated of television writers who stretch out the chemistry for years, never letting it boil too hot, lest the characters might actually face their own emotion.

This is the era of character-driven stories, and in order for a show to fulfill its potential, the people on screen must grow and develop and change. Love is a powerful, driving emotion, one of the most important, and so it cannot be ignored, especially by a central protagonist. Thus, it is not only time, but necessary, to see if Annie and Auggie can work as a pair.

The primary problem between them, already evident in “Vamos,” is that Annie doesn’t listen to anyone or consider their opinions. She is head strong and rebellious. This is fine (sort of) when she is disobeying Joan (Kari Matchett) and the CIA because it’s not personal, and as long as she gets the job done well, they forgive her. But when feelings are involved, as they are with Auggie, it may present a problem.

Auggie likes Annie for her confidence and determination, but he hasn’t had that betray him so directly until now. He has faced it as part of his job, but not as a boyfriend. Being left alone in a foreign city or having her reluctantly agree with him, only for her to do the opposite that second he isn’t looking, isn’t the makings for a long-term bond. These are things they will have to work to overcome.

That being said, it’s great to see them out in the field together. Auggie doesn’t get out of the office enough, and in their current arrangement, it’s more believable that he will accompany her, especially when it’s not a stated mission. He is valuable support , and if she can learn to rely on him a little more, they will be a dynamic duo.

Annie is now working for Henry Wilcox, and that will be a problem, both for her, and for her friends. Henry has never been shown to be anything but up to no good. He is essentially threatening Arthur in “Vamos.” Who knows what he’ll ask Annie to do to help him take down his enemies? This is the makings for a difficult road for Annie, one where she will be torn in her actions between doing the right thing and fulfilling her obligations and protecting herself and others.

Of course, Annie put herself in this situation. She may have done it for the right reasons, but this is a decision she has made. Unfortunately, that makes everything a little contrived and a little predictable, which is what keeps COVERT AFFAIRS a bit inferior to, say, SUITS, which has more complicated characters. But it’ll still be fun to watch Annie run around and kick butt, the main draw of the show.

I’m not sure I completely buy Annie’s helping Arthur so vehemently. Is she doing it just out of loyalty to Joan or because of the guilt she feels for not always doing right by Joan? If so, this isn’t something we really see in this episode, which is a shame. Maybe Annie just wants to uphold justice, and that’s fine, but again, motivation isn’t really explored, and I feel like that’s a wasted opportunity.

There are a couple of other things that happen in “Vamos,” including a big “surprise” development for two main characters, and a step backwards for the good guys. I feel like this premiere is in keeping with the established quality of the show, and fans should be pleased, even if one can justifiably wish it kicked it up just another notch, such as not making who is bad and who is good so obvious, playing more in the shades of grey.

COVERT AFFAIRS airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on USA.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

R.I.P. Finn Hudson


Article first published as R.I.P. Finn Hudson on Blogcritics.

Death is always tragic, never more so than when the deceased is young. Even when drugs and alcohol and poor choices are involved, there is still great regret to see someone lose their life. The recent tragedy with Glee’s Cory Monteith, only 31 years old, despite being nothing new for Hollywood, is such a terrible event.

However, the story must go on. Glee has other seasons to produce, and the characters have to continue their arcs. It is the unenviable task of writers, who care about a series and quite possibly its stars, to have to figure out how to handle the next few episodes in order to pay tribute to the character and the performer behind them. This is the case no matter what the age of the actor, and given production schedules, not much time can be spared to mourn.

Many series have handled this in different ways. Recently, TNT’s Dallas wrote Larry Hagman’s JR’s death into a season-long mystery arc and used some special effects trickery to build JR himself into the plot. The West Wing had Leo McGarry die off screen when John Spencer passed, although it somewhat changed their direction for the rest of that final year.

Recasting a role may be an option in some instances, but not in this one. Monteith is arguably one of the show’s two most central characters, and any attempt to put someone else in the part would result in a huge fan backlash that would cripple the show in such a manner that it would never recover.

So Finn will either have to be killed off or be said to have departed to somewhere that he will not return from. Given his importance to Glee, it’s likely to be the former, since having Finn gone somewhere, without seeing his happy ending, would feel hollow and forced, given the direction the character has gone in.

It would have been easier, story-wise, if this had happened last summer. Season three ended with Finn joining the armed forces, and as clichĂ© as ‘died in combat’ may be to a show, it would have made sense. Instead, the last we see of Finn, he makes up with Will and agrees to help coach the New Directions in competition… which he is never seen doing because Monteith unexpectedly went to rehab while those episodes were being filled. Frustratingly, the writers did not explain or address his absence, but surely they cannot continue that tactic now.

CMHow will Finn be killed? I can’t imagine it will be by drugs, something his character is never shown to favor. Most likely a car wreck will be the culprit, which is also pretty done before, and Glee has already had a character critically injured in one, but it requires little explanation and will feel more natural than most choices.

Despite the comedic tone of Glee, Finn will need to go in an emotionally moving way, one that allows his cast mates to show their sorrow on screen. This will be especially true for Lea Michele, Finn’s real life girlfriend and on screen love interest. Rachel will never get to be with Finn, and that should be a driving arc for her for some time, restructuring her entire tale this fall.

Fans wants to mourn with those on screen. The actors know Monteith as a friend, but viewers feel sort of that way, too, at least towards the character of Finn. We need to say goodbye in some kind of tribute that remembers the good, minimizing the bad. There may be a funeral, there may be a montage, there may be teary speeches, but there will be something sad and honorable. No matter what Glee chooses to do, it will probably be a sorrowful, touching first hour back.

Glee will return, sans Finn, this fall on FOX.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

THE NEWSROOM Declares "Let's Kill All The Lawyers"

Article first published as THE NEWSROOM Review Season 2 Premiere on Seat42F.

Grade: 91%

HBO’s THE NEWSROOM is back for a second season with “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.” The main part of the story takes place two weeks after the events of last year’s finale, and the various characters must deal with the consequences of their actions, both professional and personal. If you have not yet watched the episode, I recommend viewing it before reading this review, to avoid anything being spoiled, as the various story points will be discussed below.

Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is a subdued man in “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.” Although he is fired up and passionate when dubbing the Tea Party ‘The American Taliban,’ he now must pay the price for doing so, namely, being pulled off of the network’s 9/11 tenth anniversary coverage. He deals with this by drinking and smoking and becoming a wimp on-air again.

While it is absolutely in keeping with his character to go back and forth between fearless crusader and appeasing ratings-whore, one must wonder how long the see-saw can continue. Will’s spirits are already bolstered multiple times in the first year alone, and it would suck if none of those efforts have lasting effects, always returning him to the same sad state in their aftermath. Will must find a way to break this cycle, committing to the persona he wants most.

It is my opinion that the way for him to do this is to be with Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). She still doesn’t know what is in the voice mail Will leaves her while high, but it’s obvious that she is sensing his anger towards her cooling, and is intending to reform as much of a bond with him as he will let her. She calls him in the middle of the night, and shares a drink with him at the bar. It can’t possibly be much longer before they are a couple again, and in that relationship, Will might finally stabilize.

Though where is Lonny (Terry Crews) during this installment? Why do we not see him guarding Will in the bar? Hopefully, Lonny’s absence is temporary, just an oversight caused by not needing the actor enough to warrant an appearance in this particular episode.

In keeping on the romantic track, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) is unwilling to be friends with Maggie (Alison Pill) after she chooses to move in with Don (Thomas Sadoski), and so takes an assignment following the Romney campaign, where he is shunned for Will’s Taliban comment. This doesn’t seem like the environment where wounded Jim can heal, certainly not a comforting, supporting one, but maybe concentrating on work is what he needs. And if he finds victory in reporting the story, that could help. Running may seem cowardly to some, but Maggie has made her choice, so it’s understandable why Jim would find it hard to be around her, and perhaps he’s wise to get himself out of that environment.

Except, Jim may actually still have a chance with Maggie, as Don finds a YouTube video of her rant about Jim, and promptly decides they are over as a couple. I am very dissatisfied with this quick evaporation of their romance. Don and Maggie have plenty of ups and downs, but two weeks is all they can make it? Maggie chooses Don; that should count for something. And it seemed so fresh and realistic that Jim and Maggie weren’t going to ever be together because Maggie would be with Don, no matter what viewers thought should happen, and this has been ruined. Though, Maggie clearly won’t just have a happy ending with Jim, given her appearance in future scenes, which I’ll get to shortly.

This does leave open the possibility of a Don / Sloan (Olivia Munn) pairing now. Things are plenty awkward between the two, since Sloan confesses her feelings for him, even though Don isn’t holding it over her in any way. But now that he’s single, maybe after a short, respectful pause, he may pursue Sloan, thus solving at least one rocky dynamic in the workplace. Although is Don gets with Sloan too quickly, that could screw up Maggie even more.

Because of Jim’s absence, a producer out of Washington D.C., Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater, The New Adventures of Old Christine), is tapped to fill in for him. Jerry is immediately a hindrance, vaguely appearing to be a team player, but also having his own ambitions. We don’t know all of the details yet, but Jerry and the guest that he brings onto a panel will definitely set off a huge mistake involving Genoa.

Genoa is a secret military that has landed the staff in very hot water, as evidenced by the fourteen-months-later framing scenes in “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” in which Will, Mackenzie, and Maggie are seen with a team of lawyers led by Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden, Damages). Our beloved characters are in trouble after a string of unfortunate events, one of which leads Maggie to Africa and a terrible hair cut and coloring. Bringing in Jerry is a huge mistake they will all regret. Too bad, he seems so nice-ish.

I’m a little tired of television shows doing the flashback to death. THE NEWSROOM is only the latest in a long line of series using that technique lately, and it’s been being done way too often. I’d rather see the Genoa disaster unfold slowly, not realizing that there’s trouble until it’s too late, like the characters do, rather than getting a puzzle piece by piece. I know this trope can be implemented effectively when done right, and THE NEWSROOM is brilliantly written, but in this case, I feel it is a big, easily avoidable misstep.

There are two smaller plots unfolding, too, that may have some big impact. In the first, Neal (Dev Patel) gets involved with Occupy Wall Street. For Neal, this story is both a far-out, unlikely movement, and something playing to his prowess with social media, so it straddles the two interests we’ve known him to have. Those who remember the protests know that they get lots of attention for a short time, but don’t go anywhere, so this is both an opportunity for Neal, professionally, and another dead end for him to pursue, the perfect plot for the character.

In the second, Charlie (Sam Waterson) chooses to pull Will off of the 9/11 special. This is something very uncharacteristic, in that he chooses to bench Will with nearly zero pressure from Leona (Jane Fonda) and Reese (Chris Messina) to do so. Weird; Charlie always defends Will. Did Reese getting kicked out of SOPA scare Charlie that much? It doesn’t seem like it should, in keeping with Charlie’s established personality. I wonder what’s going on there?

THE NEWSROOM is a fantastic series that deftly balances character-driven drama with real-world events and a commentary on the state of journalism. It takes the big stories we’re familiar with, and makes them personal to people we watch on screen and care about. There are a number of new arcs introduced in this season premiere which promise a great season, even if the episode itself lacks any of the stellar, inspiring moments that were a hallmark of the first year. Once we get past the weird flashbacks, I think that will sort itself out.

THE NEWSROOM airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Locked Up With ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

Article first published as ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Review on Seat42F.

Grade: 97%

Netflix’s latest original series, the first season of which is now available, is called ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. From Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, the hour-long dramedy (much more drama than comedy, though it has its moments) follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, Mercy), who made a bad decision ten years ago while in an ill-fitting relationship, and now faces fifteen months in prison.

For those expecting another version of Weeds, a la Nancy Behind Bars, this is not that show. Instead, it’s an (I’m told) realistic look at life behind bars, the various personalities in such a place, and the pressures and stresses of the situation. Chapman is dropped, out of her element, into a motley crew, and must find her place while trying to keep her wits about her.

The story is told non-linearly, with pieces of the puzzle falling into place throughout the hour. We see Chapman’s first twenty-four hours in lockup. We see her previous tryst with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, That ‘70s Show), and how she gets involved in the drug business, albeit barely. We see how Chapman’s current fiancĂ©, then boyfriend, Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs, American Pie), handles the revelations about Chapman’s past, and vows to stick by her side.

I like that we get all of this out of order. Somehow, it flows, from an emotional stand point, and it’s not confusing if one is paying attention. Obviously, in this situation, Chapman has a lot going through her mind, so it’s understandable that other scenes are replaying for her and for us.

Like Chapman, prison is a place that seems harmless enough to the viewer, until it suddenly isn’t. It’s a foreign land full of strange, unwritten rules. Chapman thinks she is bonding with Red (Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager), until an inadvertent comment means Chapman will be going hungry. She gets kindness from others, too, but it’s hard to tell if any of it is genuine, or if she is being set up or used or put in debt.

Chapman has a lot of time ahead of her, and we know she will likely eventually find her place. That, or go mad, but how likely is that for the protagonist of a series? Then again, this is Netflix, not broadcast television, so predictable rules may be thrown out.

Schilling is perfect in this role, the kind of part she proved she deserved on her last ill-fated series. She can handle the ups and downs, making us think she has it together, but being completely sympathetic and authentic when she suddenly shows her vulnerability. She is tough, but scared. She is capable, but out of her element. The actress slays the part.

The cast is stocked with other amazing performers. Among those that stand out in the first episode are Natasha Lyonne (American Pie) as a drugged-out cellmate and Yael Stone (Spirited) as a wise, kind-hearted mentor. We also see Weeds alumni Michael Harney and Pablo Schreiber. But more amazing are the numerous faces that aren’t well-known, yet still convey a power and an allure that promise we will grow to like and respect them. Great care has been made to fill the place with women who look like they belong, and are also wonderful actors, painting a varied landscape.

The story itself is an interesting premise. While ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK will follow Chapman, obviously, it will also explore a number of other inmates, and in them lies countless other tales to be told. This is a world few venture into by choice, and when the nature of the place is exposed so plainly like this, and with such talent in putting it together, eyes are sure to be opened.

Is prison a cruel place? Undoubtedly. But it may also be the place in which some women find themselves and what they are capable of.

What will be most intriguing is how Chapman can possibly go back to her happy life with Larry after the experience. She is sure to be changed to her core, and readjusting to the civilian world afterwards cannot be easy. She is warned to view this experience as something to build up, and then wipe away. Will she be able to do that? It seems like it would take a special person.

The surprise ending to the first episode leaves the door open for a couple of possibilities. Is what we see real, or is it in Piper’s head, since she has been pushed to the breaking point? Both are intriguing paths, and so the only thing known at this point is that the installment ends well.

All thirteen episodes of season one of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK are available on Netflix now.

Monday, July 15, 2013

COMEDY BANG! BANG! Returns

Article first published as COMEDY BANG! BANG! Returns on TheTVKing.

IFC's bizarre talk / sketch show Comedy Bang! Bang! returns for a second season this week with the episode "Andy Samberg Wears a Plaid Shirt and Glasses." After host Scott Auckerman convinces his doctor in the insane asylum to be bandleader Reggie Watts, the two escape the institution and begin the second season of the show for the first time. Confusing? Perhaps, especially when the scenario is called back at the end in a different way. But much of Comedy Bang! Bang! refuses to make sense, which is part of its charm.

Auckerman has a very interesting and unique sense of humor. He takes normal things and moves them into very strange arenas. He routinely interrupts his interviews with tangents, or inserts gags in places you don't expect them to be. The talk show portion begins with Auckerman receiveing a LOT of prunes dumped onto his studio floor by a trio of delivery persons. Why? Who knows?

Auckerman's style blends well with Watts, who almost feels like a partner, rather than a sidekick, even though his part is smaller. Watts makes an impression every time we seem him, and he is a invaluable element to the series, more for his presence and deliveries than the occasional music he plays. I love when he interjects when Auckerman and Samberg begin whispering this week and he can't hear what is being said.

The interviews do not go the same on Comedy Bang! Bang! as they do on any other series. Samberg and Auckerman discuss numbers, have a gun / knife fight and discuss wounds, and viewers will never actually get to learn anything about Samberg or what he does. They stop the question and answer session at one point to explore alternate timeline possibilities. Which means this is far more an atypical series of scripted bits than it is an actual talk show, no matter what its format appears to be, which is in keeping with the aforementioned tone of the host.

There are also random guest stars who pop in at weird times. Fringe's Lance Reddick drops into Reggie's Tron-like virtual reality game, as does Selma Blair (Anger Management). Adam Pally from Happy Endings is a delivery man. Comedians Chelsea Peretti (Kroll Show) and Doug Benson (The Benson Interruption) put in tiny appearances. And Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) plays a turbaned psychic.

There's no telling what zaniness might happen in future episodes, which will feature personalities such as Aziz Ansari, Anna Kendrick, and Zoe Saldana, though admittedly the two leads matter far more to the success of each week than those who drop in. I'll be watching to find out.

Comedy Bang! Bang! airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on IFC.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Summer CAMP

Article first published as CAMP Review on Seat42F.

Grade: 80%

NBC has embraced the summer with the new series CAMP, which premiered this week. Mack (Rachel Griffiths, Brothers & Sisters) is now a single mother and the sole runner of a failing family camp. While she figures herself out, she has to keep the business running and help others, including her son, Buzz (Charles Grounds), and his teenage friends and fellow counselors.

The setting is pretty much the classic image of a summer camp, though there are also adults hanging around. While never having attended such a place myself, nor knowing anyone who has, this is a very familiar environment thanks to countless television shows and movies. Yet, it seems a ripe premise for a light-hearted drama, one that hasn’t been explored quite in this manner, and a totally fitting subject for broadcast networks to delve into if they want to make a play for programming the warmest months.

The focus of the story is on the adults, mainly Mack, and a bunch of young adults or teenagers (some of their ages aren’t completely clear) who work at the camp. This seems like a good pool to draw from because these are the people who stick around, while campers come and go. We don’t really see them doing much work, of course, but it’s an interesting and camera-friendly group.

I do like that the central group avoids stereotypes, impossible to pigeon hole the roles as “jock” or “cheerleader” or “nerd.” It would be so easy to slip into the social stigmas prevalent in this particular age bracket, but while the rival camp across the pond is two dimensional and cartoonish, the principal players are each fully realized individuals, with multiple facets and functional personalities.

Most of the cast is fresh and generally unknown, save Griffiths, who has starred in several shows. By bringing in fresh faces, CAMP avoids preconceived ideas about its characters. None are bad, giving us realistic portrayals of typical kids, though none stand out as super talented either, which admittedly could just be due to the material. They are suitable stock for a summer show, which is truly an ensemble piece, rather than focusing on just one or two of them.

We have Buzz, of course, who is at the age where he really desires to get with girls, but isn’t attractive or charismatic enough to rate their attention, at least not the ones he shamelessly drools over. He, as one would expect, doesn’t notice that there is an average girl, who is in his league, named Grace (Charlotte Nicdao) available. Once he does, and we know that he will eventually, even if she has to get his attention in a big way, they will be perfectly happy together.

Buzz quickly bonds with new kid Kip (Thom Green), whom we learn late in the first hour has struggled with leukemia. Kip is quiet and likes depressing documentaries, and being at the CAMP will help him to come out of his shell and live his life again, or possible for the first time. This will be accomplished in two main ways, one by sharing a cabin with Buzz, who finally gets away from his mom, and two by hanging out with Marina (Lily Sullivan), a down to earth girl scorned by the popular kids, but sure to be liked by viewers.

Rounding out the younger group are Sarah (Dena Kaplan) and Robbie (Tim Pocock). Although they have been an item every summer for the past ten years, they don’t talk during the school year. Robbie is ready for more and enrolls at Stanford, the school Sarah attends. Sarah, going through a rebellious phase after losing her swimming scholarship, fools around behind Robbie’s back with Miguel Santos (Juan Pablo Di Pace), an author at the lake trying to find inspiration.

The biggest problem I have with CAMP is that both Robbie and Sarah have read Miguel’s book and are familiar with his work. What are the chances of that? Unless he’s a best-selling writer and they are avid readers, neither of which is established. As such, the premise is the most hokey of the series.

Over all, though, the story is tame and bland. It’s not bad as a series to watch when nothing else is on, certainly a step above reality swill. But while NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX’s offerings may be lacking right now, there are amazing, deep, rich dramas airing on cable that are far, far better than CAMP. For the very casual television viewer, CAMP will serve a purpose. For anyone interested in TV enough to find and read this article, just keep your expectations low and it will be pleasant-ish. Unfortunately, ‘pleasant’ doesn’t feel like a compliment given the other available offerings.

The biggest regret is the way CAMP wastes Griffiths. Her tale, upset over her husband running off with a young foreigner, having hate sex with the rival camp owner (Rodger Corser), and being adored by a far-too-young counselor / handyman named Cole (Nikolai Nikolaeff) is moving and sweet enough, but with her resume, Griffiths can and should do better. I don’t know why she isn’t on another premium cable show, but that’s where I hope she ends up after the single season of CAMP that is likely to run.

CAMP airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

DRUNK HISTORY Now Weekly

Article first published as DRUNK HISTORY Now Weekly on TheTVKing.

Drunk History began on funnyordie.com, was featured on HBO's Funny Or Die Presents, and now has its own weekly half hour on Comedy Central. The premise is simple enough - Derek Waters (Hall Pass) gets a person who knows a bit about American history drunk and has them tell a tale. Actors perform the inebriated bits, with the drunk voice dubbed over them.

Drunk History works for a couple of reasons. One, the people participating know what they are talking about, so while they tell things in an amusing way, there is some truth involved, too. Two, the segments are kept short, with Watergate, Lincoln's assassination, and Elvis meeting Nixon all in the first half hour. Third, the costumes and sets are pretty good. Not realistic-makeup good, but not made-in-someone's-basement cheesy, either, making the look work well. And it's edited, so we get some tangents, but the plots remain cohesive enough to follow.

There are lots of recognizable faces participating in Drunk History. In this first episode, Jack Black (Scott of Rock) is Elvis, Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) is Nixon and 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer is Nixon's aide, Stephen Merchant (Extras) is Lincoln, Fred Willard (Modern Family) is Deep Throat, Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) are the Booth brothers, Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death) plays father Booth, and Nathan Fielder (Nathan For You) portrays Woodward. I think having all of these people involved lends the proceedings credibility.

It's also really funny. The narratives are delivered in a whimsical, light-hearted way. It's enjoyable (for a limited amount of time, such as a half hour) to watch people who are wasted, and by taking the words they say and acting them out with pizazz, it's a lot like hanging out with your friends, only more visual.

I could do without the puking on the floor, though I guess that's a necessary risk, as Slightly Tipsy History wouldn't be nearly as good. But the cookie breaks and the dialogue delivery are wonderful. This is an idea that has proven popular in other venues, so it's nice to see it get its due now.

Drunk History airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Crossing THE BRIDGE

Article first published as THE BRIDGE Review on Seat42F.

Grade: 95%

FX has a treat for summer viewers premiering this week. Titled THE BRIDGE, this latest serialized drama is a hybrid of Justified and The Killing. Loosely based on a Danish / Swedish show, THE BRIDGE follows American Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds) and Mexican Detective Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir, Weeds) as they investigate a serial killer after a body is found split in half on the border of their respective countries.

Kruger is brilliant as the impersonal officer with Asperger’s, stealing the show. She has great difficultly relating to people, and takes the rules and law completely literally, unable to even see why an exception should be made to let an ambulance cross the crime scene when it carries a man dying of a heart attack. Yet, Kruger plays the part with such earnestness and authenticity that she comes across as both believable and sympathetic. She is not defined by the condition, but it’s merely part of the larger, fully developed personality.

Asperger’s has been creeping onto television more and more in recent years, most notably in the NBC family drama Parenthood. What’s amazing is that, unlike in the past with other concepts, I can’t recall it being presented in a stereotypical or parody-like manner. Kruger is going to break new ground in expanding acknowledgment and understanding.

Setting the part in a police drama is great because Sonya’s skills both help and hinder her in her job. She is meticulous and detail-oriented, so she is likely to be very, very good at catching criminals. Yet, she has problems relating to others, so when she goes to deliver bad news to next of kin in the “Pilot,” we see her weaknesses laid bare. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t relate to others on the same level as most people, and that’s why she needs help. These are tasks she cannot avoid, and her department does not spare her this side of the job, meaning she has to find a way to make it work.

Enter Marco, who is all about the personal relationships. Marco, unlike most of his department, including his boss, is not beholden to criminals and has a strong moral compass. He is a beacon of hope for the struggling city of Juarez, hidden away in the thick smog of the corrupt. Marco does the best he can within the system, and clearly wishes he could operate in a similar manner as his El Paso counterparts.

Marco is the epitome of caring, and so quickly figures out what is going on with Sonya and latches on. I’m not sure if he sees something in her he likes, but he definitely appreciates what she brings to the table, and is attracted to her sense of justice. Together, they will balance each other out and be able to nab the bad guys.

Kruger will get all the attention because she has the character with the hook, but Bichir is every bit as vital to THE BRIDGE as she is. He has a presence that is more than just an interchangeable archetype, and he will control a great deal of the story, despite appearing to play second fiddle. It’s the manner in which Marco deals with Sonya that will define their partnership, and Bichir is very responsible for this element.

Now, the standard male-female partnership is prevalent across the crime genre. What makes THE BRIDGE different is that: a.) both characters are much more dynamic and fleshed out, b.) the show is about them at least as much as it is about the solving the case, and c.) the romantic tension is not played up. I’m not saying that there isn’t a connection between them, but like Holder and Linden on The Killing, that just isn’t the point of the show, unlike, say, Castle, which very much caters to the “will they, won’t they” between its leads.

Marco may just be what Sonya needs at work. Her mentor, Lieutenant Hank Wade (Ted Levine, Monk), who has advised her on all things emotional, is looking towards retirement. He can’t stick around forever, and has other considerations to think about besides Sonya. Sonya must have someone like Hank looking out for her, though, and so Marco may just be the substitute necessary at this time.

One of the best moments in the “Pilot” is when Hank breaks this news to Sonya. She takes it hard, and yet, without a lot of external reaction. We see the thoughts playing across Kruger’s face and the tears in her eyes, and yet she keeps her display within the character. We quickly realize this is about as bad as it gets for her, even showing more sadness here than when mentioning her dead sister. Sonya becomes a person in that scene, even to those who have trouble accessing the series through her until then.

There are also a couple of subplots going on. The aforementioned man in the ambulance dies, leaving his widow, Charlotte Millwright (Annabeth Gish, Brotherhood), whom he asks for a divorce for shortly before passing, to uncover his secrets. Presumably, there will be a connection between Charlotte’s husband and the dead bodies, but at this time, we do not know what it is. Also, a reporter named Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard, Scooby-Doo), whom the cops strongly dislike, gets involved in a big way through no fault of his own, making for a heck of an exciting final act in this “Pilot.”

Basically, THE BRIDGE is a top notch, high quality crime drama, head and shoulders above what the broadcast networks deliver, in keeping with its FX and AMC peers. The cast is phenomenal and the writing is intelligent. It will likely be nominated for some awards, and many critics, this one included, will sing its praises. Don’t miss it.

THE BRIDGE premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

"The Truth Hurts" WAREHOUSE 13

Article first published as "The Truth Hurts" WAREHOUSE 13 on TheTVKing.

For its penultimate season finale, SyFy's Warehouse 13 takes the series to the brink of the biggest cliffhanger in the show's history. In "The Truth Hurts," who the Warehouse's caretaker is up for grabs as three distinct caretakers all exist in the same time and space. Elsewhere, an agent lies dying, and the most dangerous villain yet makes his move.

It's quite smart to use genre alumni to fill the ranks for the last batch of episodes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's James Marsters and Anthony Head are the latest to join the cast, both having appeared in multiple episodes this year, and hopefully will return again. Their presence lends little something extra, and because they play such different characters than the ones they are famous for, it helps the show, rather than distracts.

Warehouse 13 needs the help because it is a little hokey. I enjoy it, I really do, but there is something off about it that keeps the story from rising the top of its peer group. Part of it is case-of-the-weeks forced into most of the year's installments. Part of it is weird situations, such as tossing a cancer plot into the last couple of episodes for Myka (Joanne Kelly), despite there not really being a reason for it and it feeling gimmicky. And the other part is when things are done just for visual effect, rather than any actual purpose, such as when onjects are flying off the crashing shelves at the Warehouse to chase the main group out, even though the person doing this likes the Warehouse and has no reason to harm it, and he is letting the group go, so he's not really trying to hurt them, either.

I guess what I'm saying is, it's no Battlestar Galactica, or even Defiance.

But there are also some wonderful moments that make it worth watching. The interactions between the characters have deepened over the years, and their relationships are really something to watch. In particular the Artie (Saul Rubinek) / Claudia (Allison Scagliotti) and the Peter (Eddie McClintock) / Myka stuff is great, and when these are played up, the show is at its best. Their dialogue interchanges are extremely entertaining, even when not authentic. And though Artie and Claudia bury the hatchet very quickly after his betrayal this week, even that doesn't seem rushed, given the circumstances, and it works.

Claudia has had the most dynamic journey on the show, and "The Truth Hurts" begins to bring that to culmination. We have seen bits of greatness in her frequently, and know that she has a destiny. The series has certainly served her role well, and the end of this season finale promises more payoff for Claudia in the last episodes.

But why give her an evil sister? That seems so done before. Why can't a new villain just come in that is completely unconnected to our characters? Or why not just make Paracelsus (Head) the last big bad? He's already well connected to the mythology, and has the means to really cause trouble right on through to the last. Do we really need some family drama from a thus-far-unknown relation tossed in at the last minute?

I am very interested in seeing Mrs. Frederic (CCH Pounder) no longer serving as caretaker. During the run, she has been almost solely defined by her job, seeing little of who she is. Now, she's a person again, with everything that comes with being a normal human being, and that should provide some very interesting plot if Warehouse 13 chooses to pursue it, which it absolutely should.

Basically, Warehouse 13 always has been and remains a 'B' level show. The ingredients are there if it wants to kick it up a notch and rise above its current quality standards, but it doesn't seem likely that it will. "The Truth Hurts" is a perfect example of what the series does right, and also what it does wrong. I expect more of the same, perhaps with a slightly grander scale, when it comes back.

Warehouse 13 will return for an abbreviated final season on SyFy.