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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Open Up the BLACK BOX

Article first written for Seat42F.



ABC’s new drama, BLACK BOX, is an interesting concept. A successful professional with bi-polar disorder and a tendency to go off her meds deals with life, love, and work, all while trying to hide and control her secrets. There is a recent trend on television to build a series around an eccentric genius, but at least in the “Pilot” of this one, more time is given to examining the lead’s personality than in others in the vein. That makes it feel fresh.

Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) plays Dr. Catherine Black, the main character. Black isn’t necessarily likeable, but she is a complex, fleshed out character. She’s a bit like FOX’s House in her abrasiveness and unreliability, though in her case, the problem is staying on the drugs, not off them. She also hallucinates, like the lead in TNT’s Perception, but BLACK BOX is what Perception should be, making the story more about Catherine than some case. Too bad the play on her name in the title is lower brow than the rest of the package.

Much of the first hour is spent raising the question of if Catherine should be medicated. Catherine points to the work of brilliant minds in history who accomplished great things when allowed to be who they are, wondering if taking the pills is holding her back in her own work. But her head doc, Dr. Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), points out that those heroes of Catherine’s all died young and Catherine could accomplish more, if a little more slowly, if she takes measures to stay alive.

BLACK BOX has a point of view. The writers are clearly in favor of treating this disorder. But they do a good job of making the audience understand Catherine’s reasoning, and for a bit, maybe even believe it. Yes, Catherine au naturel is destructive, but if she can hang on for a little longer, she might accomplish something great. It’s a revealing view of mental disease.

The “Pilot” provides a convenient door into this world in Will (David Ajala, The Dark Knight). Boyfriend to Catherine for the past year, Will only finds out about her struggle in this first episode, after proposing. At first, he’s mad that she kept this from him and understandably freaked out. But then he finds a side of this that he likes, which is a little creepy, but also something sympathetic.

When one begins to think Catherine can handle herself, one need only look at the relationship between her and Will to see how broken she is. Catherine doesn’t want to get married. She doesn’t think she deserves love or that Will should have to put up with her. She doesn’t want kids because of the risk of passing on her condition. But she also doesn’t want to run Will off, and she’s attracted to the dangerous part of him that encourages her to be wild. It’s not a healthy situation.

In addition to Will, we meet Catherine’s supportive brother, Joshua (David Chisum, One Life to Live), his uptight wife, Regan (Laura Fraser, Breaking Bad), and their sweet daughter, Esme (Siobhan Williams, Hell on Wheels), with whom Catherine is close. They are a link to normalcy and people she can rely on when she needs help. Thank goodness Catherine has Will and Esme, especially, giving her a connection to pull her back when she blasts off into space. Plus, there’s a great twist involving the family late in the hour.

Catherine’s co-workers are a less helpful bunch, though that could be because they don’t know what’s wrong with Catherine. Her boss, Dr. Morely (Terry Kinney, Oz), trusts her unconventional methods, meaning he doesn’t try to reign her in. New surgeon Dr. Bickman (Ditch Davey, Spartacus: War of the Damned) is practically a sexual predator, not a good person to be around when one of Catherine’s symptoms is hypersexuality and she’s in a steady relationship. Dr. Lark (Ali Wong, Are You There, Chelsea?) might be her friend, though.

BLACK BOX does have a procedural element. Even in the “Pilot,” there’s a patient that Catherine helps, amid all of the chaos in her own life. But the fact that her own life is so messy, and that we get to see so much of it, will fool many viewers into thinking this is more character study than case-of-the-week. I hope that balance is maintained in future installments, and not just used in the set up.

As a whole, I like BLACK BOX. It’s interesting with a sort-of unique character, certainly smarter than most broadcast network dramas. It has some cool visuals, mainly when Catherine is tripping. It also raises some interesting questions that should make viewers think. Check it out.

BLACK BOX premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Moving Up" in the PARKS AND RECREATION World

Article first published as TV Review: 'Parks and Recreation' - 'Moving Up' on Blogcritics.

PR1This week’s season finale of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, “Moving Up,” is nearly a perfect episode, and would have served extremely well as a series finale. Leslie (Amy Poehler) contemplates taking a huge job opportunity in Chicago, which would mean leaving the town of Pawnee, Indiana, which she doesn’t want to do. Meanwhile, the long-awaited Unity Concert unfolds, and the rest of the ensemble have strong development, too.

Leslie is the main character in Parks and Recreation and usually has the biggest stories. “Moving Up” is no exception. For most of the hour-long double episode, she is wavering back and forth over a life-altering choice. She’d really like the opportunity to run the National Parks Service in the Midwest, but that means abandoning the town she loves at a crucial time, as they are still reeling from the merger with Eagleton that she is instrumental in. If she does go, Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser) will likely dismantle her accomplishments. To add insult to injury, her co-workers have added a plaque for her to the founder’s statue with a quote from her reinforcing her dedication to the place. How can she leave?

Yet, on the other hand, Leslie is a dynamic player that must keep growing. City Council didn’t work out for her, but she can’t just go back to the local Parks Department. For her to advance, she has to leave the small pond she’s been swimming in. Her husband, Ben (Adam Scott), is supportive, but also helps her to realize this, knowing she won’t be happy if she passes this up. Leslie can’t stay stagnant. She needs to step up and tackle the next challenge, and I’m not just talking about the triplets she is pregnant with. She has to accept the job, a huge promotion that she has worked hard for and deserves. Even Michelle Obama (herself) weighs in on the decision, urging Leslie to take the job.

“Moving Up” has the perfect solution when Leslie tells Grant Larson (Brady Smith) that she wants the position, but wants to move the office to Pawnee. Parks and Recreation doesn’t take the easy way out and just drop this bit and move on. Instead, in true Leslie fashion, she creates a strong argument as to why this is a good idea, complete with thick binder, and in the face of the evidence, Grant has to agree. No one can stand in the way of Leslie when she sets her mind on something, pursuing it doggedly. She gets to stay in the place she loves and perform her dream job.

The closing moments of “Moving Up” are set three years later, Leslie running a busy department and firing an inept employee (Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm). I really hope the next season of this show sticks to that new timeline, as there are hints of an event set up here that provide a dangling mystery. Though, if it starts just a little earlier, Hamm’s cameo, as funny as it is, might actually feel justified, providing an opportunity for Hamm to be a recurring player in season seven.

How else could one ask for Parks and Recreation to end? Leslie gets everything she wants and everyone is happy. This is how it should be.

The rest of “Moving On” is a love letter to the town and the people that populate it, too. The concert itself features a number of terrific musicians, many with ties to the series, and a huge tribute to Li’l Sebastian. Local celebrities, recurring characters, participate, too, and then all head to Tom’s Bistro, which Tom (Aziz Ansari) has made a success, allowing Tom to rub his accomplishment in Dr. Saperstein’s (Henry Winkler) face in front of his children (Jenny Slate and Ben Schwartz), bringing Tom’s arc full circle.

PR2Others get their due, as well. Ron (Nick Offerman) finally defeats Tammy’s (Megan Mullally) hold over him, happy with his new family and loving it, and publicly comes out as saxophone player Duke Silver. Andy (Chris Pratt) gets to reunite with his band, whom he misses. April (Aubrey Plaza) shows new-found maturity and is totally blissful in her marriage, which her and Andy decide to dissolve so they can wed all over again. Donna (Retta) is right in the thick of things, being her awesome self. Ben earns the town free Wi-Fi and is gifted the copyright to his successful game by the accounting firm that worships him. And Larry (Jim O’Heir), formerly Jerry, is now Terry and working for Leslie.

So, all is right in the world. Parks and Recreation has been treading water a bit this season, making recent episodes less compelling, but this is resolved in a single hour. These developments not only illustrate beautifully who the characters are and how far they’ve come, but propel them forward with new, interesting stories. I don’t know if this is done because the show’s fate was in doubt (it has now been renewed), but one could not have asked for a better season finale, highlighting what this show has accomplished thus far and really stoking enthusiasm for next year.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Rachel's Big "Opening Night" of GLEE

Article first published as TV Review: 'Glee' - 'Opening Night' on Blogcritics.

This week’s installment of Glee, “Opening Night,” has a couple of nice stories mashed together in a very unnatural way. Add to that a big list of what is missing from the hour that should have been included, and it feels uneven. Had this been split into two separate episodes, allowing room to add in some of the glaring omissions, it might have been really good. Instead, it’s a fair installment with some terrific moments.

The ‘A’ plot revolves around Rachel’s (Lea Michele) Broadway opening night in Funny Girl. Her friends rally around her, including Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), who has come to visit, but not Artie (Kevin McHale), who is out of town, so we trade one annoying character for another. Still, Rachel has severe nerves and has a hard time finding the will to get up on stage. It takes a former frenemy verbally slapping some sense into her before Rachel can perform. Once she does, as expected, she is amazing.

Rachel’s nervousness is understandable, and is well developed. It gives us the fun opening “Lovefool” with welcome appearances by former recurring players Karofsky (Max Adler), Jacob Ben Israel (John Sussman), and Becky Jackson (Lauren Potter). Those three are tormentors of Rachel’s previously, to varying degrees, so it makes sense to see them now. From here, we get to Rachel curled up in bed, unable to rise, doubting herself after reading online reviews of the preview shows. What nineteen- or twenty-year old wouldn’t be nearly paralyzed with fear in this situation?

G2It’s Santana (Naya Rivera) that manages to make Rachel see the light when her friends, including Kurt (Chris Colfer), Blaine (Darren Criss), Mercedes (Amber Riley), and Sam (Chord Overstreet) cannot. This works for the story, too. Not only does it solidify that Rachel and Santana are over their feud and really can be true pals, but Rachel needs a kick in the pants, not coddling, and only Santana can do that. Tina gives hard truths, too, but only unintentionally, not having the brass to back them up that Santana does, or wisdom to see what’s needed.

When Rachel takes the stage, she’s terrific. An audience kerfuffle tarnishes the first act a little bit, but Rachel’s chums remain supportive and the producer, Sidney (Michael Lerner), tells Rachel like it is, so Rachel rallies. Her opening, “I’m the Greatest Star,” is good, but her closing, “Who Are You Now?,” is even better. Rachel’s skipping of the cast party to hang out with her friends in a rowdy gay club, complete with a spirited “Pumpin’ Blood,” is a little rude, but she needs to let off steam her way. And the rave reviews in the papers the next morning are well-earned, the culmination of five years of story arcs for the female lead of the series.

The worst part of this storyline, though, is that Will (Matthew Morrison), who has come to New York specifically for the show, has to run home before it begins because Emma (Jayma Mays) is in labor. It’s not like Mays even appears in the episode, nor do Will or Rachel struggle with his absence, so what is the point of this? It seems gimmicky, like a bad sitcom, and the episode would have changed not at all had Will stayed, uninterrupted.

Or maybe the worst part is that Rachel’s dads, introduced as two men that would be mega-fans of their daughter, don’t show up, as they never do, their characters having been consistently wasted all throughout Glee. Nor do many of Rachel’s friends come, despite that fact that this person they know and like is starring in a Broadway show! Maybe Glee didn’t want another big reunion episode so soon after the ending of the McKinley plot, but “Opening Night” pretty much screams for one, and fails to get it.

Of course, Glee sticks a couple of touching Finn references in, as it is beginning to do way too often. Rachel thinks of Finn while singing, and Will gives her child the middle name of Finn. These are sweet, to be sure, and definitely fit for the moment. But do we have to be reminded of Finn week after week? Many shows don’t mention a character enough after their passing; Glee is almost doing it too much.

Sandwiched into “Opening Night” is a ‘B’ story in which Sue (Jane Lynch), criticized for lambasting New York City in her news segment because she’s never been there, tags along with Will. Unable to sit through Funny Girl, Sue climbs over the New York Times critic early in the show, then meets up with a man named Mario (Chris Parnell, Suburgatory, Archer), who walks out in a similar manner. The two fall in love over dinner, then have sex all over Rachel’s apartment (because they didn’t know Will had left an empty hotel room?). In the end, though, Sue won’t stay in the city and Mario won’t move to Ohio, so their affair ends, but leaves Sue with an appreciation for the Big Apple.

Sue deserves a romance, and I like her how and Mario connect, Mario even sticking by her after Rachel (justifiably) loudly and harshly tells Sue off. So why bring this up if it’s not going to be an ongoing arc? And why stuff it into Rachel’s episode? Sue’s “N.Y.C.” number with Will is great, but the fact that Sue shares Rachel’s big closer, “Who Are You Now?,” is jarring and weird. It’s nice to see Sue get story, and good story at that,  but it’s just sandwiched so unevenly into “Opening Night” that it doesn’t land as it should.

G1I’m also a little torn over the Rachel / Sue showdown in this episode. Sue is known to be supportive of her students, using her cruelty as a motivator, not because she’s truly mean. So why can’t Sue be happy for Rachel when Rachel has succeeded? Is Sue resentful that it has come about so easily for the girl? If so, explore that, don’t leave us wondering. Rachel laying into Sue feels good because, in the moment, Sue seems to deserve it, and yet, because we see Sue emotionally bare this week, it also feels a little rougher than it should be, creating unnecessarily mixed feelings.

Once more, “Opening Night” is superior to the NYC/McKinley split episodes, but does not completely fulfill its potential. It will be interesting to see how Glee ties up the New York arc in the next three weeks, and if its final season, which will feature a new format and setting(s?), finally figures out what the show should be. Glee airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

BAD TEACHER Makes For Bad Show

Article originally published as BAD TEACHER Review on Seat42F.

BAD TEACHER Cast CBS
A couple of years ago, a pretty awful “comedy” film hit theaters. Called BAD TEACHER, it followed the antics of an abandoned trophy wife as she became an educator in the public school system. For some inexplicable reason, someone thought a terrible movie would make a great TV show. Hence, we now get BAD TEACHER on CBS, beginning this Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET.

The premise itself is highly flawed. A woman with absolutely no educational training is somehow hired, without license, degree, or credentials, to teach youngsters. She then acts completely unprofessionally in front of staff, students, and parents, and still gets to keep the job. Not only is this completely unrealistic, teaching standards being quite high and requiring much preparation and schooling, but it just isn’t funny.

Perhaps my own feelings about the field of education, having studied to become a teacher myself, color my opinion of BAD TEACHER. I’m sick of teachers being looked down upon, criticized for the “high” pay (low compared to most positions that require a Master’s degree), working hard for little credit, and being blamed for things that are wrong with the system, graded on student performance they often can’t control that much. At a time when press about teachers is not good, it really irks me that a network would be irresponsible enough to put this drivel on the air, further reinforcing negative and untrue stereotypes.

Getting off my soapbox, I guess I’ll tell you a little about the show itself. Ari Graynor (Fringe, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) stars as Meredith Davis, the titular woman. She gets nothing in her divorce, due to an iron-clad pre-nup, and so sets about finding herself a new sugar daddy. While crashing with her friends (‘Til Death’s Kat Foster and Luck’s Richard Kind), Meredith discovers that their child’s school is full of eligible, rich dads. Tricking inept sad-sack Principal Carl (David Alan Grier, In Living Color) into giving her a job, Meredith begins trying to land the next big one.

Even though Meredith routinely blows off everyone at her new place of employment, she is slotted into a place in the building’s hierarchy. Dorky Irene (Sara Gilbert, The Big Bang Theory) latches on, forcing herself into position as Meredith’s bestie. A former classmate, Joel (Ryan Hansen, Veronica Mars), decides he likes Meredith and sticks around to be her love interest. Well, he will be when she gets over her obsession with wealth. And the current Top Dog at the school, controlling Ginny (Kristin Davis, Sex and the City), decides Meredith is a threat, even though the blonde shows no ambition whatsoever, and casts herself as the enemy.

Of these people, Joel is the only one that comes across as interesting. Joel has an odd backstory, his penis being posted in photographs all over the school by Meredith’s predecessor, even though he doesn’t come across as the type of guy who would spark such venom. He isn’t pushy with Meredith, hanging around but waiting for her to come to him. He also seems the only one not participating in the game, standing by with a smirk as Meredith makes a fool of herself. He’s a normal, sane guy in a world populated with stereotypes.

Of course, as a series like this must, Meredith finds a heart at the end of the pilot. Unfortunately, there is no build up or character growth to support this. For the entire half hour, Meredith acts like a selfish jerk, and then, without any warning or catalyst, she suddenly pretends to care. If the first episode can’t give her even a hint of an arc, it’s unlikely the rest of the series will correct the mistake.

It isn’t unusual for CBS to present a crass, unfunny comedy. It’s not even unheard of for them to land really good actors and force them into parts that are beneath them, though seldom has been assembled on a bad project a group this good (being a fan of Gilbert, Davis, Graynor, Hansen, and a number of non-central cast members), wasted immensely. But BAD TEACHER has barely any redeeming qualities and is certainly worth no one’s time.

MTV Series Not FAKING IT

Article first published as TV Review: 'Faking It' - Series Premiere on Blogcritics.

FIMTV’s newest scripted series is Faking It, airing after the once-great Awkward. Faking It is the story of two best friends who are mistaken for being a lesbian couple. Half of the pair, starving for attention, decides this could be their ticket to popularity, and leaps at the chance to continue the charade. The other is less enthusiastic, but since her pal really wants her to do this, she reluctantly agrees, perhaps hoping for something more to develop.

Tonally, Faking It matches Awkward. pretty well. Both are set in a high school, and feature misfits who want to be well known, but only for good things. There’s a bully and a love interest, as well as well-meaning, but somewhat clueless, parents. There’s also a hint of a cartoonishness in both series, more comedy than drama.

When Awkward. was at its height, the characters were sharp and well-developed. Faking It struggles with this depth and authenticity out of the gate. The school itself is ridiculously unrealistic, a place in Texas where the weird and special are actually respected and revered. What kind of place would the jocks be looked down upon and beauty is ignored? It just doesn’t gel with the real world, and hurts the overall effect of the piece, even when the narration acknowledges the oddity.

Faking It hinges on its main cast, and across the board, while not quite hitting all the right notes yet, they are pretty good. Katie Stevens (American Idol) is sympathetic as Karma, the exuberant half of the couple, wanting attention, but without being so self-involved as to turn viewers off. Greg Sulkin (Wizards of Waverly Place) is serviceable as Karma’s crush, an artistic soul that takes people as they are and is honest. Sometimes he may not be the most thoughtful person, but he isn’t a hater. Bailey Buntain (Bunheads) is terrific as mean girl Lauren, struggling with her own issues which color her better than the stereotype she could be.

And then there’s Rita Volk (The Hungover Games) who is fantastically memorable Amy. Amy is Karma’s better half, but throughout the first episode, it’s quite clear that Amy is dealing with serious internal conflict. At first, one might think Volk is an inconsistent performer, not sure quite which direction to take Amy in. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes apparent there’s something more at play. Amy is actually gay and in love with Karma.

Without this twist (which Volk telegraphs just the right amount), I don’t think Faking It works. And without as earnest a player as Volk, showing us the pain and angst in Amy’s face, it becomes standard drivel. Because these elements are arranged correctly, though, what viewers get is someone who is trying to find her self, further confused by attention she’s getting from a friend who is out of sync with her needs and emotions. Toss in the fact that Lauren’s mother is marrying Amy’s father, and there is drama to be mined in this sitcom, but not the forced kind, and while there are only nuggets of greatness in the pilot, this series could go somewhere.

I also adore Michael J. Willett (United States of Tara) as Shane. He jumps to the wrong conclusion about Amy and Karma, revealing a bit of narcissism as he sees what he wants to see in others, rather than the truth, but he’s also incredibly kind to the pair. He may have some selfish interests, but those aren’t his only motivating factors. His flaws can be chalked up to naivety and brashness of youth, not ruining the draw he has as the all-important catalyst.

Faking It does not have me hooked yet. But there are enough goodies tucked away to bring me back for another outing. Who knows? It might even replace the now-tarnished Awkward. as the sole reason to keep MTV in my channel list.

Faking It airs Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on MTV.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Departure" of Another ARCHER Season

Article first published as TV Review: 'Archer' - 'Archer Vice: Arrival/Departure' on Blogcritics.

A1FX’s Archer ended season five this week. Subtitled Archer Vice, it is a huge, splashy showdown, and a return to normalcy. The dictatorship in which the team is hiding collapses into itself, and probably would have even if the U.S. government hadn’t been bearing down on it, which it is.

At the same time, Lana (Aisha Tyler) goes into labor, of course, dividing the attention of Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), who has made the effort to become a doula and wants to be supportive in this situation. Archer and Lana’s romantic arc has been more funny than sweet. They are definitely in love with one another, but Lana is a tough broad, hating to allow any emotion to crack through her hardened exterior. Archer, by contrast, is an immature man-child who can be faithful, but tends to not act like an adult most of the time. Luckily, both have slowly gotten better, keeping enough of those cores to stay true to the characters and remain funny, but also exhibiting a level of growth over the course of the past few seasons.

This comes at an opportune time because Lana’s baby is also Archer’s. Not the result of a sexual hook up, Lana learned a cache of Archer’s sperm was frozen and she took some to make her child. It makes sense because, despite their issues, Archer is a fine physical specimen, and he’s someone Lana cares about. But one gets the sense in this episode that Lana did not intend to tell Archer the truth until she does, a raw moment for her after giving birth, and seeing that Archer is trying to be there for her.

Can these two move forward as a couple? Maybe. Archer doesn’t have to worry about the messy baby wrangling on set, being an animated series, and clearly the writers are going to find fun ways to use the infant, such as when she holds up a single finger to put Archer off while breast feeding. Archer is not a procedural and usually not stuck in any type of mold, so season six could find new territories to explore when two top spies have a baby on the hip.

It does look like they will return to being spies. In this season finale, Malory (Jessica Walter) blackmails Special Agent Hawley (Gary Cole, Veep) into cooperating, thus ensuring ISIS, absent during almost the entire thirteen-episode Archer Vice run, will return to form. It has been kind of cool to leave ISIS, this season being a big ol’ road trip with our favorite characters, who are always best when forced to spend lots of time together. But it will be great to get back to the office, as Archer is as much a workplace comedy as it is espionage adventure.

While I do note that Archer does kowtow to convention, this final episode of the season, more than most, actually doesn’t. A shoot-out as a regime falls and a main character giving birth at the same time feels very sitcom staple-y. Huge events are always mashed together inconveniently, especially at the close of a year. Yet, Archer‘s trademark humor and charm remains firmly in place, so while the story may seem dumbed down a smidge, the characters and dialogue do not.

A2The focus this week is on Malory, Archer, and Lana, all of them wrapping up their various threads, but that doesn’t mean the supporting players are ignored. Cheryl (Judy Greer) discovers she doesn’t have a chip in her brain, and her country music stardom, which she is likely to give up because she gets bored easily, comes from within. Pam (Amber Nash) gets a few last cocaine jokes in, but her withdrawal symptoms are starting to show, indicating a break away from the new her, too. Cyril (Chris Parnell) loses his position of power. Krieger (Lucky Yates) gets and protects a biological weapon. Ray (Adam Reed) has a few nice ne-liners, and recurring guest stars Slater (Christian Slater, Mind Games) and Juliana (Lauren Cohan, The Walking Dead) don’t go out quietly. The ensemble is well served.

Which means all there is left to do now is wait impatiently for another batch of one of the most consistently funny and original comedies on television. While no premiere date has been announced, Archer should be back in early 2015.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Go Back to SALEM

Article first published as TV Review: 'Salem' - Series Premiere' on Blogcritics.

SalemWGN America enters the original programming game this week with Salem. Set in the town of the same name during the famous witch trials of the 1600s, it claims to be based on real events, though in the first hour, “The Vow,” it quickly becomes clear that what’s shown can only be true if you believe actual magic was present at that time and place. Still, it’s an interestingly built period piece, far more enjoyable that I expected.

As Salem begins, John Alden (Shane West, Nikita) goes off to war, leaving behind the backwards town of Salem, which is run by the cruel George Sibley (Michael Mulheren, Rescue Me). Years later, John returns to find the love who is supposed to be waiting for him, Mary (Janet Montgomery, Made in Jersey), married to Sibley and the town panicked by a witch invasion. To that end, Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel, Fringe) comes to help out, using his preacher’s pulpit to decry the dark arts.

One way Salem could go, would be to tell historical happenings as close as they can, letting paranoia and small-mindedness run the mood of the citizens. Instead, Salem chooses a different tact, immediately outing Mary to the viewers as a powerful witch. We don’t yet know how Mary became what she is, having seen her run off into the forest to try to get rid of John’s baby that she carried, then, years later, keeping Sibley under her command and palling around with the creepy Tituba (Ashley Madekwe, Revenge). We also don’t know if John’s return could possibly save her soul, which appears lost.

On one hand, I’m glad Salem does this. The machinations of the ladies with their spells and manipulations make for a driving story. We have Mary torn between what she is and what she used to be. Women of that time period often were not strong figures, and giving this power to them changes that. With real magic on the side of the witches, they have a fighting chance of persevering against the awful injustice that a handful of folks, Sibley chief among them, is reigning down on Salem. Plus, Salem is superior to some other recent witch-centered shows (Lifetime’s Witches of East End springs to mind).

On the other, this is sort of a bastardization of history. Many of the people, including John Alden, Cotton Mather, and Tituba, are actual figures, now being twisted in strange ways. Not to mention, the real events are intriguing enough, a cautionary tale of what happens when the population buys too far into superstition. Someone could make an incredibly complex character study on the emotional mindset of those involved, and how innocents might be taken down by lies and rumors.

But, Salem is what it is. It keeps the time period, which makes it different than most of the other supernatural series populating the airwaves, and adds its own elements. It has a pretty decent cast, with the actors, who have often been weak in other series, suited to the characters they are playing here. It looks neat, and the effects are well done. It also sets up a consistent tone and some simmering arcs that can play out over the course of the season or longer. It feels like the love child of AMC’s Turn and FOX’s Sleepy Hollow, but also has its own perspective.

I am not yet confident enough in the quality to truly recommend Salem as appointment television. But I am intrigued enough to set my TiVo to catch the next couple of episodes and see where it goes. Salem airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on WGN America.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

ONCE UPON A TIME Comes "Bleeding Through"

Article first published as ONCE UPON A TIME Review Season 3 Episode 18 Bleeding Through on Seat42F.

REBECCA MADER, ROBERT CARLYLE
Tonight’s ONCE UPON A TIME, “Bleeding Through,” finally reveals Zelena’s (Rebecca Mader) fiendish scheme as Regina (Lana Parrilla), Snow (Ginnifer Goodwin), and their comrades look to the past for answers. Zelena plans to do what has not been done before – travel back in time and change things. But to do so, she will need one more important key ingredient: Snow and Charming’s (Josh Dallas) unborn baby.

The formula of brains, heart, and courage is one familiar to Wizard of Oz fans. Zelena has Rumple’s (Robert Carlyle) mind under her control, has swiped Charming’s courage, and now uses Robin Hood’s (Sean Maguire) son as leverage to obtain Regina’s heart. This doesn’t feel like a trip down the yellow brick road, which is disappointing to fans of the Emerald City, but at least there is some cohesion as the plot moves forward, tying ONCE UPON A TIME to the marvelous land of Oz.

Why a baby, though? Does the infant represent Dorothy’s innocence? There have been no hints of gingham dresses about. Or perhaps the past is the home Zelena needs to get to and the child is her ticket there, similar to a pair of silver slippers. Whatever the reason, at least our heroes now know what Zelena wants so they can attempt to stop it.

My only question as this point is why is Zelena being so patient with Hook (Colin O’Donoghue)? She told Hook to take away Emma’s (Jennifer Morrison) magic or Zelena would begin hurting people. Hook has not acted, grumpily arguing with Emma to forestall having to do the deed, and Zelena hasn’t followed up. Why not?

I will say, the flashbacks in “Bleeding Through” are a bit weak in terms of story structure. Young Cora (Rose McGowan) is fleeced by a false royal (David De Lautour, Touch), then tries to cover up her pregnancy mistake by quickly marrying Prince Leopold (Eric Lange, Lost). Unfortunately for Cora, Princess Eva (Eva Bourne, Caprica) interferes, exposing Cora’s lies and winning Leopold for herself.

One problem I have with this is that Eva is supposed to be the good guy, and instead is portrayed as a sneaky brat. Snow thinks this makes the history she and Regina share more complex, admitting that she grew out of her own annoying phase, but that just isn’t how we’ve seen Eva before, and by extension, who Snow has grown into. Secondly, Snow then talks about how Cora is forced to give up Zelena against her will, but from what we see, it’s only Cora’s own selfish desires that necessitate abandoning the baby, and it still isn’t clear why Zelena ends up in Oz. The twister coming along at that moment is too big a coincidence.

There’s also the ick factor that Cora is romantically with Leopold, and even though they don’t consummate anything, Cora’s daughter eventually marries the prince, then a king, herself. Talk about some twisted family relations!

Luckily, the emotional journey Regina goes through in “Bleeding Through” helps make up for this. She reveals some honesty in her assessment of her mother, refusing to condemn Snow for murdering Cora, and even protecting Snow when it looks like Cora’s ghost wants to do her harm. She also shows her great capacity to love, even without a heart, having compassion to Snow and finally kissing Robin Hood. No other character in this universe has been able to love once their heart is taken, and so this makes Regina very special indeed, having the most resilient heart, as it were.

As usual, Parrilla kills the performance. Amid some silly stuff, her tears feel real, and she evokes sympathy in a complicated situation. It would be easy for Regina to be hokey, but Parrilla takes the things that don’t add up about the character and turns them into understandable layers. She comes across as the most mature person on the show, and thus can rise above the squabbles, and even begins apologizing for past wrongs. She is my favorite player on ONCE UPON A TIME for a reason, and “Bleeding Through” gives her yet another opportunity to shine.

Though this current Regina may not quite deserve it, it’s cool to see Belle (Emilie de Ravin) lay into her when Regina asks for help. Many have begun to forgive Regina for what she’s done, seeing first-hand how she has changed. Belle has not had this experience, and her hatred is the exact reaction she should have towards the former Evil Queen. It’s refreshing to get this point of view from someone.

Another scene that stands out in “Bleeding Through” is Rumple’s attempt to seduce Zelena in order to steal back his dagger. She believes him briefly because she is starved for affection, but of course doesn’t let down her guard, hardened as she is. Rumple, for his part, shows how much he’s changed when he respects the sacrifice his son, Bae, made to try to stop Zelena, rather than playing into Zelena’s plan, which could lead to Rumple saving Bae in the past. Rumple is putting the greater good ahead of himself once more, and his interplay with Zelena is both charged and authentic.

“Bleeding Through” hurts itself with going too far into the past and forcing backstory that doesn’t add up. Like McGowan’s previous appearance as Young Cora, the scenes seem forgettable and unnecessary. But solid performances and interactions in the present day save the episode overall, perhaps not ranking it among the best of the show, but certainly not one to ignore, either.

Only four episodes remain in ONCE UPON A TIME’s third season. It continues Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"The Price" of Great SCANDAL

Article first published as TV Review: 'Scandal' - 'The Price of Free and Fair Elections' on Blogcritics.

ABC’s Scandal is a fast-paced thrill ride in the political world, but even compared to itself, its recent season finale, “The Price of Free and Fair Elections,” is bonkers. Perhaps the writers are rushed, ending the season earlier due to their leading lady’s pregnancy, or maybe they are just obsessed with topping December’s excellent mid-season ender. Whatever the reason, this hour is one to remember.

The framework of the story is set around election week. There are only days to go before the public votes on whether to keep Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) in the Oval Office. At the start of this episode, he’s ahead in the race. Then tragedy strikes and Vice President Sally Langston (Kate Burton) surges in the polls. Then another tragedy his and Grant wins. Viewers are left guessing right up until the end if there’s another twist around the corner. Scandal might have a tough time continuing as it is without a Grant presidency, but it seems like the type of series that might take that chance.

One wonders if Scandal is so cynical to believe that this is how politics work, or if it’s just trying to be the most soapy, angsty-filled drama on television. Surely creator Shonda Rhimes isn’t accusing our sitting leaders of election stealing and murder at their own hands. But there’s a point made here that this is how the system is set up. This is a dreary world, indeed, if what Scandal portrays is the only way national government can function.

S1Most shocking in this mess, is the action (or rather the inaction) of Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). He’s been through a lot, his husband having been recently murdered and all, but even so, it’s surprising to watch him willing to let innocents die. It’s one thing (albeit one terrible thing) to allow a political rival and betrayer like Sally stay in harm’s way to ensure Grant will win the election. It’s quite another when there are bystanders in the line of fire. Cyrus knows this, but he doesn’t warn anyone. This is a harder, colder Cyrus then we’ve seen before. Without his love for James, is there nothing likeable left in the man?

Grant, on the other hand, has never been more sympathetic. Learning about his wife, Mellie’s (Bellamy Young), rape at the hands of his father, Grant stands by Mellie instead of following his heart to Olivia (Kerry Washington). Then, we watch as Grant loses his son, Jerry (Dylan Minnette), to poison. Finally, at his lowest point, Grant reaches out to the woman he loves for comfort, and Olivia ignores his call. Grant may still be president, but he is broken, and through no fault of his own. Grant isn’t perfect, far from it, but especially in “The Price of Free and Fair Elections,” he is a victim of circumstance.

Olivia, for her part, is justified in leaving. Her life sucks, serving Grant professionally, but unable to be with him. She’s right that so many bad things have happened in the past few years, even if blaming herself as the common factor doesn’t quite hold up. Of course she wants to get away from it all. And when a handsome man whom she’s slept with, Jake (Scott Foley), who has also done bad things but wants to start fresh and doesn’t care about Olivia’s baggage, why not let him come along? The two fly off into what could be a happy ending.

It won’t last, because Olivia, despite her best intentions, will never be happy to sit idly by on a beach. Nor will Jake, I imagine, given his most recent position as the head of the secret government organization that Olivia’s father, Rowan (Joe Morton), has been reinstated to and will likely kill Jake should the man come back to town, daughter’s happiness at stake or not. Not only will the couple soon be zooming home, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll stay together, Olivia never being able to get over Grant.

Did anyone else not see the turn coming that Rowan is the one who murdered Jerry? We know Rowan is evil; it’s necessary to do his job, and he’s never really pretended otherwise, though he has motivations for certain actions. But to kill a child just to get what he wants? A child who has done nothing to him? Ruining a family forever? That’s a whole new low, and it definitely begs for a schism in the repaired relationship between Olivia and Rowan. Olivia has to come back and dismantle B-613 all over again because it cannot be allowed to stand, with Rowan at the head or otherwise, as leadership for this organization is corrupting, as seen in Jake this year.

I’m sure Olivia’s organization will be glad to have Olivia back. Abby (Darby Stanchfield) can’t run things herself, and that’s the position she’s in. Harrison (Columbus Short) may very well be dead, at worst, and in B-613′s clutches, at best. Quinn (Katie Lowes) and Huck (Guillermo Diaz) are in the middle of their kinky, sick romance, so they won’t be of much use. That just leaves the redhead to handle things on her own, and she doesn’t seem quite up to the task.

What could happen, is that Abby puts her resources in the hands of boyfriend David Rosen (Joshua Malina) to help take down B-613, as Jake leaves Rosen some tools with which to do so. Again, I don’t think the two of them could accomplish this without Olivia’s brain- and will-power, but at least they could start. This is a hero’s journey, the knights off to slay the dragon, so it will be something to root for them on.

S2Rowan didn’t kill the mother of his daughter, Maya (Khandi Alexander), though he says he does. This is a good thing because she’s a terrific character and door remains open for her to return. But why does Rowan choose to let her live? She’s a terrorist and a woman that broke his heart. There’s definitely no going back for the couple, and she isn’t of much value alive. She doesn’t have lots of useful information, being out of the game for so long. She has murdered many. Rowan’s reasons for keeping her are unclear and puzzling.

“The Price of Freedom and Fair Elections” is a heck of a wild ride and that’s a good thing. A lot happens in the installment, but that’s how Scandal works best, rocketing along at top speed. Somehow, it manages to keep story and characters balanced while doing so, rarely knocking off anything and leaving it behind, and always going just slow enough to avoid missing its stops. I greatly look forward to see what Rhimes and company cook up for season four.

Scandal will return next fall on ABC.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Vexed" a Good State for ORPHAN BLACK

Article first published as ORPHAN BLACK Review on Seat42F.

Orphan Black Season 2 Episode 1
BBC America’s excellent ORPHAN BLACK returned for a second season last Saturday night. While the premiere episode, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed,” is not a good installment for someone who hasn’t ever seen the show to jump in on, that’s part of why it is oh-so-good for the fans. The story picks up pretty much right where the first year leaves off, and hits the ground running from there.

Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), arguably the main character, is in a Matrix-esque environment. She is on the run, nowhere safe for her to go, with Daniel (Matthew Bennet) and his goons, who wear suits and dark sunglasses, on her tail. She isn’t sure who she can trust, reaching out to Paul (Dylan Bruce) even though he works for the enemy, and she doesn’t have a clue how to get her family back.

This isn’t much of an improvement over Sarah’s situation last year. She has gone from grifter barely scraping by to grifter barely scraping by with her loved ones in danger. The only advantage she has now is that there are actually a handful of people who might be of assistance, though none is as invested in the trouble as she is, and it’s always going to be especially hard for her, with her trust issues, to sort out who can be relied upon.

Alison (also Maslany) is playing by the rules Dyad, the sinister company Sarah is fleeing from, has set out for her. This means she is free to go about her life and is not closely monitored, which allows her opportunity to sneak around and help Sarah. Alison has no desire to paint a target on herself by publicly declaring war and threatening her suburban existence, but at the same time, she isn’t going to turn her back on a clone in need.

Cosima (Maslany again) straddles the line between the two. She still resists working for Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer), despite his efforts to persuade her to change her mind, which leaves her hiding out. She is more willing to assist Sarah, but also not ready to rush in guns blazing. These clones may share a bond, but they are definitely not the same people.

Once more, the main draw of ORPHAN BLACK is the incredible talent of its lead actress in her multiple roles. Maslany differentiates each of the three listed above, plus calculating Rachel and crazy Helena (who, thank goodness, is still alive!), with what looks like ease. It’s interesting to study how even the default resting face of each woman is completely different. The changes, major and minor, are so complete that Sarah, Alison, and Cosima really do seem like distinct individuals, barely connected.

Even better, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” gives us one of the golden scenes where one of Maslany’s character pretends to be another one. As Sarah sneaks into the Dyad party masquerading as Cosima, Maslany creates something entirely new, Sarah’s version of who Cosima is, which is really startling in its complexity and authenticity.

Of course, ORPHAN BLACK does have an excellent plot, too, filled with a variety of players who may or may not be on our heroines’ sides. Does Art (Kevin Hanchard) really want to help Sarah, or is he playing a classic good cop / bad cop sting with Angela (Inga Cadranel)? Is Paul offering assistance, or only feigning such to do Rachel’s bidding? Is Delphine’s (Evelyne Brochu) act of handing over Cosima’s blood to Leekie an act of betrayal, or is Delphine just worried about her lover’s life?

We also get plenty of humor, mostly at the expense of Alison and Felix (Jordan Gavaris). When first the latter is glimpsed this season, he’s in the middle of an orgy at a fetish club. Still in costume, he rushes over to Alison’s in the middle of the night. She ought to appreciate the get up, working on the clothing for the musical she’s now starring in, which seems terrible, by the way. This kind of stuff lightens the mood when the action gets too dark.

Basically, ORPHAN BLACK has some of the best acting on TV mixed with a compelling tale of shifting allegiances and surreptitious organizations. Dyad isn’t the only threat in “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed,” and we still have the mystery of the clones’ origin to solve to boot. Where the show will go next is anyone’s guess, but it’s a thrilling ride and I’m happy to be along for it.

ORPHAN BLACK airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: 'Ripper Street: Season Two'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Ripper Street: Season Two' on Blogcritics.

RSIt is 1890, East London, England. The Victorian era is coming to an end as the residents, fighting recession, unevenly stumble towards the modern age. England’s role in the world is falling and its government is failing. Jack the Ripper is long gone, but that doesn’t mean the Whitechapel district is safe. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen, Frost/Nixon), Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, Game of Thrones), and Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg, The Ex List) are the first line of defense for those who would be victims as Ripper Street releases its second season on Blu-ray and DVD.

Season Two brings all new problems to the Metropolitan Police’s H Division. An all-female gang wants revenge on those that would keep them down. A mad scientist looks for freaks in a circus for his eugenics experience. Corruption infuses the force, especially in the form of Detective Inspector Jedediah Shine (Joseph Mawle, The Tunnel), head of K Division, which is dealing with a rapidly-expanding Chinatown. Bombers escape and cults emerge. It’s not a pretty picture, to be sure, and the eight episodes that make up this run are chock full of interesting cases and dangerous challenges.

This is set against an historical backdrop, with real events playing a part in the stories. I don’t know if its entirely realistic that everything covered in Ripper Street makes it down to such a personal level, but it adds a layer of complexity that the War of Currents, matchgirls strike, Baring crisis, Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Elephant Man (Joseph Drake, Doctors), and other bits crop up over the season. It helps to define when and where the show takes place, and maybe teaches some viewers a little bit in the process.

The prostitutes of Long Susan’s (MyAnna Buring, Downton Abbey) are back, too. One, Bella (Gillian Saker, Misfits), has married Drake. Another, Rose (Charlene McKenna, Raw) has traded hooking for waitressing, trying to improve her standing. And Long Susan herself is deep in debt to a ruthless man, Silas Duggan (Frank Harper, This is England). So the whore house is undergoing a bit of a shakeup.

Thankfully, Ripper Street is not a simple formulaic case-of-the-week, with all of the above plus aspects of the detectives’ lives that aren’t completely concerned with work explored, too. Reid’s wife, Emily (Amanda Hale, The Crimson Petal and the White), has left him after the events of last year, and there are plenty of lingering emotional threads to be tugged on.  Reid is the leading man of the piece, and this part of him lends layers to his role as he goes through being accused of crimes and trying to stay out of the muck.

Visually, Ripper Street is quite interesting, so I do recommend viewing it in HD. The color palette may not be wholly realistic, but that’s a purposeful artistic choice, rather than a flaw, and it’s rich enough to warrant going to a high quality. In particular, deep blacks and reds are used very effectively, and to best see in the shadows, one will want Blu-ray. Though, admittedly, the tone and setting is not nearly as dark as in season one, so not every scene has that gloomy imagery. The audio takes a serious step up, going from stereo to full 5.1 in the second season, with dialogue, sound effects, and a neat score blending appropriately. Busy city street scenes are excellent in surround, crisp, clear, and layered.

While the first season had a number of extras, Ripper Street: Season Two has only one. It’s a disappointingly short behind-the-scenes full of spoilers you’ll only want to watch after having seen the episodes in the set. It’s more sound-bites than revealing discussions, so I can’t say there is much to be gotten from it.

Still, the series is engrossing and enjoyable. Although canceled by BBC America, it will get a third outing soon through Amazon, so it’s not in immediate danger of going away. As such, I can say it will not be a waste of time to check out Ripper Street: Season Two, available now.