Friday, July 24, 2015

ANGRY OPTIMIST Not Exactly Quality Reading

Article originally published as Book Review: 'Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart' on

I recently had the opportunity to read Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart by Lisa Rogak. It is, as one might imagine, a biography about the popular host of The Daily Show, written by a New York Times bestseller (for Barack Obama in His Own Words). So while it may not be an authorized biography (presumably, based on the way it reads), I expected it to be pretty good.

Angry Optimist tpAt first, it was interesting. While a bit dry and slightly disjointed chronologically, I learned a lot in the first hundred-plus pages. The book skips breezily through Stewart’s early work, trying to make it as a comedian, taking menial jobs, continually failing to find success. For those who weren’t familiar with the comedian until he took over The Daily Show, this biography fills in a lot of the gaps, giving us an idea of the journey, and filling in the details of things Jon has mentioned in passing over the years on his show, without going too deep.

Most of Angry Optimist avoids taking a position on Stewart. It presents quotes from a variety of people in his life, but the first two-thirds of it are pretty factual. When there is emotion, it is gleaned from Stewart himself, a character that comes to life on the page early on. The reader is apt to feel the struggles he goes through and relate to them, most of us having to work hard to try to get ourselves to a place we can be pretty happy about.

Then, around page 150, Angry Optimist takes a fairly sudden turn. Soon, the quotes about Stewart are more opinionated and less reliable. One time, the book attributes some words to “a viewer” with no background on who this person is. Since when does the thoughts of one audience member at home rate inclusion in a public work, meant to serve as a viewpoint for the larger fan base? At other times, it gives a biting bit from former correspondent Steve Carell about a particular incident, but without the greater context needed. Most regular viewers of The Daily Show know Carell and Stewart are friends, and the author hints at that earlier, but then presents this almost out of nowhere. It’s as if the writer is just trying to stir trouble or grab some headlines by including such things, which do not add much to the story because they aren’t illustrated further.

Similarly, this is when the timeline of the book breaks down, with the narrative jumping back and forth randomly, skipping ahead years, and then backtracking without warning. In one particular paragraph, it cites 2003 as a moment where things change for Jon, and then in the same paragraph, uses an event from 2002 as a detail to back that up, which doesn’t make any sense at all. It flits around from bit to bit, checking in periodically with themes that are mentioned and then forgotten about for a dozen pages. It’s hard to follow, disjointed, and certainly not a comprehensive take at all.

It’s puzzling to me where weight is given. A lot is said of Colbert and his spin-off, compared to the others involved in the show. But Larry Wilmore is only mentioned, and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver gets nothing. Admittedly, Oliver’s show premiered after the original release of this book, but the inclusion of “new chapter” in this paperback release should rate something, especially because Oliver went on the air before Wilmore and shares a lot more of his format with The Daily Show than the program that took over Colbert’s time slot. Nor does the book go into much why Stewart is choosing now to end his run. It does get into the impact he’s had on the media landscape, but nothing about what lasting change he may or may not have made.

Overall, I left Angry Optimist feeling pretty dissatisfied. The knowledge gleaned early on in no way makes up for the messy, sensationalist bend towards the end, which turns the piece into a semi-gossipy rag more than an informational biography. At only 231 pages of actual text, it also doesn’t have time to really dig into the subject to figure out essential truths about him, and it feels like the author gives up trying to halfway through. Not having read Rogak’s other work to this, I’d be curious to know if this is normal for her, or if it’s a sign of how she feels about Stewart after researching him. Either way, it’s not nearly as enlightening or scholarly as it should be.

The pictures included are also randomly dropped into places that don’t make sense, but generally the author has no control over this. I understand placement often depends on the printer and production, but I wish more books took the time or effort to better control this aspect.

Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart is now available in paperback.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

TUT Not King of TV

Article originally published as TUT Review on Seat42F.

Tut Spike TV

Spike begins its six-hour miniseries TUT tonight at 9 p.m. ET, with the rest to premiere Monday and Tuesday. Based on the famous Egyptian pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, the special covers the brief events at the end of Tut’s life and reign as he struggles to establish his rule as an adult against those who have been making decisions for the child king, with a fair amount of sex thrown in.

One can presume that TUT is based upon truth, but there isn’t a whole lot known about the pharaoh. His tomb is one of the best preserved ever found and DNA matches can put together a few details, but it’s not like there are surviving books from the day to give us many facts. Thus, the makers of TUT have a long leash with which to tell their story. Regrettably, they choose to make it a very modern soap opera rather than a sweeping epic.

Much of the first two hours of TUT, all that I have viewed so far and all that I probably will ever view, is given over to personal drama. Tut (Avan Jogia, Twisted) is married to his sister, Ankhe (Sibylla Deen, Tyrant), but she has been unable to give him an heir. She’s in love with Tut’s comrade, Ka (Peter Gadiot, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland), which in these superstitious times leads Tut to believe could be the problem. Luckily for Tut, he soon meets Suhad (Kylie Bunbury, also Twisted), who doesn’t realize who he is, meaning they have to soon sleep together.

This love rectangle is predictable and trite. Because TUT takes place prior to just about all other tales viewers are privy to, it’s possible that the way things are laid out in TUT was fresh in its own time, but knowing that little historical evidence backs up this sequence definitely makes it feel like a copy of so many other things. TUT mashes up several very familiar plots and fails to give us enough originality to set it apart.

More interesting are the political machinations happening in the palace. Vizier Ay (Ben Kingsley, Hugo) seems wise and fair-minded, aspiring for more than servitude, but content with his lot until opportunity should arise. General Horemheb (Nonso Anozie, Zoo) is far more open about his frustrations, unhappy when Tut begins telling him to run the army. Priest Amun (Alexander Siddig, Game of Thrones) is a little murkier in his intentions, but seems to be walking the halls of power for a reason.

Were TUT to focus on these three men and their relationships with the boy king, I think it would be a far superior miniseries. There are plenty of places to see the sappy romantic stuff on television, but far fewer to watch a great epic unfold, and love could be a part of this without stealing away so much focus. True, even if the politics parts of the program were played up, it could still come off as cheesy, but it’s less likely to, even when the motivations are simple and underdeveloped.
Instead, TUT tries to balance both and fails to make either one all that compelling. Given such a blank canvass, with only a few pinpoints to connect, one would hope that the writers would chose to tell an original story, playing with the rich landscape available to them. Instead, TUT is almost a paint-by-numbers thin copy of too many other tales. This is highly disappointing because it really, really does not have to be and just feels lazy. With the interesting costumes and settings, it’s easy to see what TUT might have been, which is likely to leave one dissatisfied with what it is.

If you’re so inclined, you can catch TUT the next three nights on Spike.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL is Interesting&Depressing&Messy&Stylistic

Article originally published as SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL Review on Seat42F.

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll - "Don't Wanna Die : (l-r) John Corbett as Flash, Robert Kelly as Bam Bam, John Ales as Rehab, Denis Leary as Johnny. CR. Patrick Harbron/FX

The concept of FX’s SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL is simple enough. There are two former band mates who once made beautiful music together, but split up because the lead let his ego get in the way of their friendship. When a previously unknown child shows up and wants to force the two to work together for her own gain, there is suddenly a glimmer of hope that the magic lost can be recaptured.

The pilot of SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL gets through a lot in the initial set up. At the start of the half hour, we see Johnny Rock (Denis Leary, Rescue Me) at his low point. Unable to sell albums, he’s fifty and has no direction. This is actually a fascinating, if depressing, character, but the show leaves little time to dwell on it, quickly bringing his daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies, Victorious), into the mix to drive forward her plot.

Letting Gigi hijack Johnny’s story is kind of the point of her character, and it rips Johnny away from his dwelling. I can’t help but feel, though, that this abandoned thread could definitely be mined for really good drama if given the chance. Gigi doesn’t make Johnny succeed, at least not yet, but I’m disappointed not to get to explore Leary’s take on someone who just doesn’t know how they’re going to keep living at middle age. The show may do so a bit going forward, but clearly that won’t be his main thrust.

The second half of Johnny’s partnership is Flash (John Corbett, Parenthood), who is touring with Lady Gaga and finding steady work, if not fame in his own right, his solo effort not doing so well. When Gigi makes Johnny approach Flash about teaming up again, Flash is completely resistant to the idea, which makes sense, given their history. He quickly changes his mind, but the viewer doesn’t get a satisfactory answer as to why.

I think Flash is probably a character that works, but SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL doesn’t take the time to show us how, at least not in the pilot, which is baffling, since he seems to be on the of the three central players. Flash obviously doesn’t hate Johnny entirely, given the friendly reception he gives his pal, but he is very firm on not working with Johnny again. He does come across as too substantive to be swayed by the sexy picture of Gigi that is supposed to be his draw, even if one could forgive him for letting lust sway him. I’d like to think that the real reason Flash signs on is because he wants the chance to make his own wonderful music again, but that just doesn’t come through here.

SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL is an interesting series, to be sure. The cast, which also includes Robert Kelly (Louie), Elaine Hendrix (Joan of Arcadia), and John Ales, is an interesting mix of experienced, but not super well known, players (other than Leary and Corbett, of course). The world it inhabits is very intriguing, and the show seems to take the rock landscape seriously, giving an insider’s, but very personal, view of it. It is contemporary, but with a spirit of the glory days of the genre, and the soundtrack, which is at least partly original, enhances the piece pretty well.

I’m just hesitant to fully commit to it yet. The way Flash is handled in the first episode is a huge sticking point for me, leaving me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Add that to minimizing Johnny’s depths of despair and I worry very much that the program will favor flash and chords over character development, which is unusual for an FX series, and not a good sign. But lots of great shows have rocky beginnings, so maybe the writers just weren’t quite sure how to get to the story they wanted to tell right away, and once it settles in, its problems will melt away. The bones of the piece could certainly support a quality series. At least, I hope that might be the case.

SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

Friday, July 17, 2015


Article originally published as TV Review: 'Married' - Season Two Premiere on Blogcritics.

Some series like to start their seasons with a big opener. FX’s Married is not one those programs, nor does it need to be. The quiet, depressing, amusing, realistic look at marriage is all about the characters and the way their complex relationships are portrayed. They do not need big stories or ratings-grabbing stunts to make it good.

It’s funny that, considering what I just said, the first episode of season two is called “Thanksgiving.” Traditionally, sitcoms have used holidays, especially that one, to do splashier plots. Married constantly subverts what one expects from a family comedy, though, and this season premiere is no exception. It isn’t actually Thanksgiving in the episode, and while the set up is familiar, the way it plays out is edgy and unexpected.

I liked season one a lot, but it took some time to get settled into what it was. As Married begins its second run with “Thanksgiving,” though, it’s clear those rough edges have been smoothed out. The half hour both feels at once totally in sync with the previously installments, but also more polished and solid. Fans now understand Russ (Nat Faxon) and Lina (Judy Greer) a lot better, and this knowledge definitely colors how we see them interact. This union has its ups and downs, but there is real love there, and they do make a good team.

MdI have to take a moment to admire Greer and Faxon’s skills. When the casting was first announced, I was familiar with them both, but usually as second-rate players, so I assumed they would be here as well. This is not the case. Given good material that seems perfectly tailored to them, they have both emerged as worthy stars. I admire both the nuance and the realism in their performances, and their chemistry is fantastic. I think my favorite part of Married is just watching the two in a scene together, which never disappoints.

“Thanksgiving” finds them visiting Lina’s mother, Janice (Frances Conroy, American Horror Story), who is no longer mentally all there. Janice lives with Ed (M.C. Gainey, Lost), who is not Lina’s dad, but has been with Janice for well over a decade. Lina worries that Ed might not have Janice’s best interests at heart, especially when the topic turns to sex. Is she right? And whether she is or not, what is she in a position to do about it, and does she have a right to overrule Ed? Aging parents are a topic many a married couple has to deal with, and I like Married‘s grounded take.

While Lina and Russ are the central characters of married, AJ (Brett Gelman) and Jess (Jenny Slate) are also main characters. Often, while they’ve had tiny subplots, they’ve been regulated to supporting people, coming in far distant in importance from the leads. “Thanksgiving” fixes that, giving them their own, fully fleshed out, interesting B story. It does not relate to Russ and Lina at all, Jess actually has to learn something, and we get to see them both as separate individuals, a welcome development. Plus, there are hilarious little moments for Shep (Paul Reiser) thrown in, making me wish he appeared just a bit more.

Married isn’t the perfect show. Some will find it too serious to be considered a comedy, even though that’s what it bills itself as. However, this is not much different from what HBO and Showtime sell as sitcoms, and while Married is confined to the limitations of basic cable, it certainly has more leash than a show on the Big Four. It expertly finds that middle ground, still funny like the general public might expect, sometimes laugh-out-loud levels of such, but also displaying the depth and talent that the premiums do. I’m very satisfied with its return, a marked improvement over the already-good freshman season.

Married returns Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET on FX.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

THE STRAIN Season 2 Preview

Article originally published as TV Preview: 'The Strain' - Season 2 on Blogcritics.

FX’s The Strain intrigued and confused audiences last summer. This weekend, it returns for a second round on FX and hopefully it will continue to do more of the former and less of the latter. The first episode back, “BK, N.Y.,” isn’t the best hour of television I’ve seen lately, but for fans of the brand of horror that the series presents, it will likely be pretty satisfying.

Events in “BK, N.Y.” pick up just after the end of season one. Abraham (David Bradley) goes looking for The Master (Robin Atkin Downes), while Vasiliy (Kevin Durand) reinforces their defenses, and Ephraim (Corey Stoll) lets alcohol interfere with choosing the right path forward. There’s action and movement on a number of subplots, a frightening encounter with the dark minions, the unexpected return of a recurring character, and a longer look at the scarred face, hooded one.

TSMy problem with this hour, though, is that it does seem to be tossing a lot of ingredients in and they aren’t all necessary. “BK, N.Y.” follows a big encounter, so Abraham’s plot is solid, building upon past progress. Vasiliy’s makes a sort of sense if they’re digging in for the long haul, but do any of them think that’s the best course of action? Ephraim is pretty much off the rails, reminding us of his job, which seems silly to bring back up now, and without a solid hero’s thrust until the very end of the hour. It makes the whole thing feel a little meandering, rather than hitting the ground running after last season’s build up. 

The Strain is stalled further by an extended, ten-minute prologue before we even get back to the familiar. We see a young Abraham being told a story by an old woman, so there’s flashback within flashback. The tale is interesting and does inform on current events, but it’s quite long and there doesn’t seem to be an immediate need for it to be, confusing the situation even more. Perhaps it would have been better to tease this out over multiple weeks, or at least present it as fact instead of legend, telling the audience whether or not they can really trust this version of events, the way it is told calling into question its legitimacy, even as it matches up with the main plot.

Another thing The Strain has to deal with in its second season, considering there’s no time jump, and this is an issue many series have to tackle at one time or another, is the character of Zach Goodweather. Being a kid, viewers would notice a huge growth spurt over the mere hours between seasons. Whether because of this or for another reason, young actor Ben Hyland has been let go and replaced with Max Charles (The Neighbors). Max doesn’t really look that much like Ben unless you squint real hard, so perhaps the series is hoping the different look will make us forget about the quick aging. It does not.

Overall, I do enjoy The Strain. It gets one’s adrenaline pumping, and while some of the makeup is hokey, the general look and feel of the show is pretty cool. The acting isn’t bad and the story doesn’t seem like it’s been done a million times before, as many other shows do. However, there are some very, very good programs on right now (Hannibal, Humans, Mr. Robot), and by comparison, The Strain pales. As a genre series catering to a specific audience, I think it works well. But in the larger television landscape, it’s likely to fail to appeal to the masses and really take off like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones has, lacking something vital and hard to quantify. I’ll probably keep watching it, but it won’t make my must-see-as-soon-as-it-airs list.

The Strain returns Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I Scream For SCREAM

Article first published as SCREAM Review on Seat42F.

Noah and Audrey Scream MTV

MTV’s SCREAM is a SCREAM for a new generation. If you’re not aware of the classic film that spawned three sequels, SCREAM is a slasher flick that plays with the genre using meta humor and cleverness and an actual, fleshed out story with characters one cares about. SCREAM somehow follows the rules of horror movies while simultaneously defying them, which is why it’s proved such a popular franchise, and ranks among the extremely few horror movies I actually like.

MTV seems the perfect platform from which to launch this latest incarnation. Meta humor has never been more in, and the slasher flick demo is the network’s strongest audience. By casting a bunch of young, fresh, attractive faces, MTV introduces kids to the franchise, while giving them something that fits with what they’re looking for today, the Scream property being highly adaptable to the times. It should pair nicely with the popular Teen Wolf show, also adapted from movies, albeit that one had to take a bigger leap from the source material.

I only recently saw 2011’s Scream 4 for the first time, and it provides a nice framework for the series. Since the time of the original trilogy, young people have adapted all-new technology, with web videos and texting now front and center, and the culture has started to recognize and be inclusive with homosexuality. Scream 4 uses those trick to its advantage, updating its image while keeping the essential story intact, and Scream does the same, while also somewhat recycling story points from the earlier installments.

No worries if you haven’t seen the movies, though. While the quartet of films are an ongoing saga, SCREAM starts over. It does not involve the same characters, nor the same town, nor even quite the same mask, but much of the structure is the same, from the deadly opening, to cheating boyfriends, to dangerous garage doors, to a character telling everyone else the rules of the genre.

Our hero this time around is Emma Duvall (Willa Fitzgerald, Alpha House, Royal Pains), who has recently joined the popular clique. This includes rich b*tch Brooke Maddox (Carlson Young, As the Bell Rings) and Emma’s boyfriend, Will Belmond (Connor Weil, Sharknado). This means Emma has grown apart from her former bestie, Aubrey Jensen (Bex Taylor-Klaus, The Killing, Arrow), and when Brooke et. al. out Aubrey’s lesbian tendencies, Emma begins to question her choices. Enter loner Kieran Wilcox (Amadeus Serafini, Oh La La, Hollywood Speak French!) to tempt Emma’s heart, and toss in horror fan Noah Foster (John Karna, Premature) to provide the meta angle, and we have our cast.

Now, Noah is quick to point out that, despite the litany of great horror television shows on the airwaves right now, slasher flicks have not been a subset yet adapted because, by the nature of the thing, the cast is quickly whittled down throughout the movie. How could that possibly work for an ongoing television show, which needs a somewhat stable cast for the audience to invest in?

SCREAM can work, though. I think The Walking Dead has a good model for the show to follow. It has a basic core group, which has been slowly eaten away at by death after death, while constantly adding new members to, some of which stick and some of which don’t. SCREAM already has supporting characters ready to participate in the merry-go-round. I like the starting sextet, but you just know they can’t all possibly make it to season two, or if they do, definitely not season three. The question is, who will go first? The Scream movies have a trio that always survive, and the show can’t possibly have more than that, though I’d be willing to bet they won’t choose the same three archetypes.

Part of SCREAM’s draw, and this includes both the movies and the show, is the unpredictable nature of the plot. Because characters tell viewers what the rules are, audience members begin to feel comfortable in expecting what’s coming. Yet, the production does or doesn’t follow those same rules in an erratic fashion, keeping people on their toes. The pilot seems to indicate this is the way the show will operate, too, and that sets itself up nicely.

I was quite skeptical about a SCREAM television series. Thankfully, at least in the pilot, this one does honor to its roots, while at the same time feeling like something new. It is worthy of the name and will likely earn a season pass on my TiVo.

SCREAM premieres Tuesday, June 30th on MTV.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Skip a Trip to ZOO

Article originally written for Seat42F.

CBS adds another freaky show to its summer lineup with ZOO. Like the network’s Under the Dome, ZOO is based on a novel by a best-selling author that has been expanded into a series that can run for multiple seasons. Taking place on a global scale, this program finds a small group of people investigating animal attacks as they become more and more frequent around the world, other creatures deciding it’s time to take man out of the food chain.

Our hero is Jackson Oz (James Wolk, Mad Men, The Crazy Ones), a scientist who seeks to protect animals. One might think that gives him a pass when the four-legged kind turn, but it does not. Jackson has a best friend, Abraham (Nonzo Anozie, Game of Thrones, Dracula), who is from the area of Africa they are currently in, and soon Jackson meets up with Chloe (Nora Arnezeder, Mozart in the Jungle), the French damsel in distress.

Obviously, being in Africa, the big-animal-to-human-ratio is a bit skewed, so it seems a good continent to start in. Lions feature prominently, and the setting is well-used to create tension. A sequence in high grass is particularly intense. I do look forward to seeing non-felines enter the fray, though, as in both major settings, cats rule the first hour.

The other principal ZOO cast members are in the United States (where else?). Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly, House of Cards, The Whispers) is a journalist, hot on the trail of a crooked company that may or may not be connected to what’s happening. She comes across Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke, Revolution, Twilight), who studies diseases in animals, so seems a good source to use. Whether or not they will come into Jackson’s orbit remains to be seen, but it’s a pretty safe assumption that they will.

There’s obviously a level of creepiness to the premise. It is sort of science fiction, but it takes place in the modern world of today, not in some far-off future. While the events do not seem very plausible, there’s always the chance that it could happen, all of the elements making up the scariness already existing in the world, and by the end of the first hour, you’ll never look at house cats the same way again.

But it lacks any real urgency or high stakes. The ensemble, while made up of some very good actors, is lame, the characters not deep or interesting or memorable enough to really make an audience invest much emotion in the story. Instead, as in Under the Dome, talented people are wasted on a plot that just doesn’t seem to translate well on screen, at least in this case. An attempt to show Jamie putting everything on the line for her integrity or Jackson’s daddy problems do not serve to deepen as they should, coming across as trite and been-done-to-death.

Much of the pilot of ZOO feels like a novel brought to life a bit too faithfully. While not everything in the show is in the book, which only contains two of the five main players, the way events unfold, talked about more than shown, more plot-driven than character-driven, it’s hard to care when the added element of peeking inside the characters’ heads is taken away. This structure may work in the written world, but not as well in the TV version, which lacks inner dialogue.

Honestly, the closest thing I can compare ZOO to is The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The lackluster sequel to a terrific motion picture concentrates more on action than it should, and while the effects are decent, the plot holes and characters doing stupid things makes it less than realistic. ZOO suffers from the same sort of issues, and with a fresh Jurassic Park in theaters already getting good reviews, this may not be the time for an inferior product, even among those who crave this kind of adventure, to attract a following.

ZOO premieres Tuesday, June 30th at 9 p.m. ET.