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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Inside OUTSIDERS

Article originally published as OUTSIDERS Review on Seat42F.

outsiders wgn america

Not quite a year after the excellent Justified left the air, a new drama takes us back into the hollers and wilds of Kentucky. OUTSIDERS, which premiered last night on WGN America, is the story of a small town and the feral Farrells who inhabit the mountain beside it. While civilization and tribal culture have existed peacefully beside one another for two centuries, modernity is moving in from the outside, which threatens to shake up everything.

The Farrells themselves have an interesting culture. Led by the current “Brennan,” Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville, The Big C), they brew their own moonshine, abhor money, marry cousins, and yet seem to get along pretty well. Sure, they go into town and steal things occasionally, but the locals have learned to put up with it, partially out of fear, and partially because the clan knows the limits of what they can get away with. A few, like Hasil (Kyle Gallner, Veronica Mars), push boundaries from time to time, such as when he tries to take up with a non-Farrell, Sally Ann (Christina Jackson, Boardwalk Empire), but mostly, they know their place. So it has been for two hundred years, and so it shall continue, or so some hope.

But the status quo is shifting as Big Foster (David Morse, Treme) seeks to take the leadership mantle from his mother, even after Lady Ray is reluctant to give it to him. When one of their own, Asa (Joe Anderson, Hannibal), returns from the outside with new knowledge and skills, there becomes a choice as to who the Farrells should be listening to. Events conspire to shift loyalties of some one way and some the other, and suddenly there’s a decision to make instead of a guaranteed line of succession.

This is where OUTSIDERS begins, with a people on the precipice of change. It will take someone strong to usher then into a new era, someone who understands the parties involved, but can see beyond petty feuds and backward traditions. It could be Asa, who has shunned the rest of the world after living apart from his family for unknown reasons. But if it’s not him, it’s not certain who else it could be.

In Justified, there was a lawman who kept the hill people in line enough. OUTSIDERS has its own deputy, Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright, The Bridge), but he’s far from another Raylan Givens. Instead, Wade is beset by his own demons, and may just be the person in town most terrified of confronting the Farrells. Which is too bad because, pushed to do so by the coal companies, Wade’s boss assigns him the unenviable task of evacuating the mountain.

OUTSIDERS is fascinating because of the various personalities it portrays, some of which will seem rooted in folklore more than reality to potential viewers. Yet, even with the superstitions present, the series is pretty solidly grounded by terrific performances and an interesting, natural story (more reality-driven than the network’s Salem). Perhaps most of those displaced by industry aren’t as violently resistant as the Farrells are bound to be, but it’s certainly a scenario that has played out in some form or another in numerous areas of the country.

I find little to complain about this show. WGN America is getting a reputation of shining a spotlight into dark corners of American culture and doing it well, and OUTSIDERS is a part of that proud tradition. It won’t appeal to everyone, to be sure, but it makes for good, quality television that many will enjoy if they just know where to look for it, WGN America not being a channel the majority of viewers typically keep an eye on. I recommend making the effort to check this one out.

OUTSIDERS airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on WGN America. If you missed the first episode, it repeats numerous times throughout the week. Check your listings.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

LUCIFER: Devil in the Details, But the Format is Hell

Article originally published as LUCIFER Review on Seat42F.


Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar



FOX (along with the other broadcast networks) is killing me! Even when they have a premise ripe for serial exploration and complex story-telling, they stuff it into a case-of-the-week procedural box. Sure, they allow a bit of ongoing narrative, but given the formula in episode one, you just know it’s going to be yet another repetitive crime show, even though it is begging not to be!

Let me slow down and tell you what I’m talking about. LUCIFER, a series premiering this week on FOX, stars Tom Ellis (Miranda) as Lucifer Morningstar. That’s right, the devil himself. Bored in hell, Lucifer has come to Earth to run a nightclub and mess with people while finding new purpose. His assistant, Mazikeen (Lesley Ann-Brandt, Spartacus), disapproves, as does God’s representative, Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside, Suits, 24), but Lucifer doesn’t care. Except, he does care, he finds, when the death of a mere mortal upsets him. Sounds pretty good, no?

The problem is, early in the pilot episode, LUCIFER becomes entranced with Chloe Decker (Lauren German, Chicago Fire), an LAPD detective. For some reason, Lucifer’s charms, which usually prompt people to spill their dark desires or, as in the case of psychiatrist Linda (Rachael Harris, Suits), swoon for him, don’t work on Chloe. This would all be well and good, except Lucifer helps Chloe solve a case and now wants to work with her on a regular basis.

Why oh why do the broadcast networks do this? How many television shows do we need where an outsider joins up with a member of law enforcement to solve crimes every week? Aren’t Bones, Sleepy Hollow, iZombie, Castle, Elementary, and oh so many more enough? I understand this often nets the networks viewers in the short-term, but these types of shows have little re-watchability, giving them shorter shelf lives than their lower-rated peers, and have flooded the airwaves.

LUCIFER likes to boast of its credentials. It is based on a comic book by Neil Gaiman, a spin-off of The Sandman. But in the illustrated version, Lucifer doesn’t get involved with a cop. Why the heck does he have to on the show?

What is most frustrating is that I really like LUCIFER. Tom Ellis plays the titular devil with brilliant complexity, and the personal depths of the character are ripe for much juicy exploration. The moral questions it raises and the religious implications are intriguing, and having other supernaturals in the cast teases epic conflicts to come. The first hour is enjoyable, and there isn’t a weak member of the cast, which also includes Kevin Alejandro (True Blood, The Returned) as Dan, Chloe’s ex-husband and co-worker.

And yet, this wonderful premise is watered down by repetitive formula. FOX has rarely been all that kind to genre shows, and without Chloe, LUCIFER is likely to be a genre fantasy. However, without Chloe, or at least without Chloe’s job taking center stage, it also leaves the narrative open to a lot more possibilities and directions. This show may occasionally explore off the beaten path, but it seems likely that most weeks will basically deliver the same thing, with only small bits to serve continuity.

LUCIFER is the perfect example of what is wrong with the Big Four networks and why they are dying. Even when they get a strong concept, they twist it to fit patterns that are outdated and tired. Instead of getting excited about LUCIFER, I plan to give it just a few more episodes to prove to me it can be better than the box it’s being stuffed into. No one will be happier than me if my summation of the situation turns out to be false. But I wouldn’t count on it.

LUCIFER airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on FOX.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reopening THE X-FILES

Article originally published as THE X-FILES Review on Seat42F.


The X Files FOX 2016

WARNING: Yes, this post contains spoilers. It does not ruin any huge surprises, but if you’d rather go in ignorant, why are you even looking at a review?

Television reboots and resurrections are on the rise right now, with Fuller House coming to Netflix soon, and new episodes of Prison Break scheduled for filming this summer. For millions of fans, though, no series is more exciting to see return than THE X-FILES, which begins a run of six brand-new episodes this weekend.

A bit of background: THE X-FILES was a series that ran from 1993 until 2002 on FOX, and helped popularize geek culture as it exists today. The program spawned two relatively short-lived spin-off shows, and two moderately successful films, as well as plenty of merchandise. Starring David Duchovny (Californication) and Gillian Anderson (Hannibal) as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, it supposed alien life might actually exist, and government conspiracies have kept it out of the public eye.

And that is almost all I know about it. As a child with younger siblings, my parents deemed it “not appropriate” viewing in our house, and while it has topped my list of shows I really need to binge for years, I’ve yet to get to it. I have seen a few episodes (probably six-ish) in isolated events, just enough to know I want to see more, not enough to really get a picture of the series. That means that this review of THE X-FILES really stems from what I think of the first episode back, “My Struggle,” alone, not from a position as a fan boy from years back.

“My Struggle” is absolutely fantastic. It is creepy, it is intriguing, it is exciting, and it has some great performers. I *think* (again, I didn’t watch the show) it will completely redefine what the series was about, and pay off in big ways to those who are fans. Yet, if you’re coming in fresh, it’s also easy to follow and immediately addictive.

The new run begins with Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, Community), a Bill O’Reilly-type who thinks he has uncovered something huge he plans to reveal to the world. To be certain, he wants to bring in Mulder (Duchovny), but unable to reach Mulder directly, he goes through Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who gets in touch with Scully (Anderson). The couple is split, but Scully can still find Mulder when the need arises, and they both get drawn into the plot.

What Tad has is a young woman, Sveta (Annet Mahendru, The Americans), who has a history of abduction and experimentation. Interspersed with scenes of Roswell, a trip to a Faraday cage, and numerous 9/11 references, it may take Scully a little while to figure out what’s happening, but “My Struggle” finds Mulder having his mind blown. In what way, well, you’ll have to watch to see.

I assume that this hour is full of references to past episodes. I know one notable recurring character makes an appearance (yes, that one), and a visit back to the agents’ old office seems particularly nostalgia-inducing. It’s hard for me to judge how many references to previous events actually occurred on screen, but there are enough of them that I feel like long-time viewers are being served, which makes sense, considering creator Chris Carter is back in the writer’s seat.

In conclusion, whether you’ve been anxiously waiting on pins and needles or have only heard of the program in passing, as long as you are into UFOs, conspiracy theories, and/or good TV, you should definitely check out THE X-FILES airing this Sunday and Monday, and then for four weeks thereafter on FOX.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

DC'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW Aired A Couple Days Ago

Article first published as DC'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW Review on Seat42F.

DCS LEGENDS OF TOMORROW
 
Thursday, January 21st brings one of, if not the, most anticipated mid-season premiere on the broadcast networks. DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, a spin-off combining characters from the popular shows The Flash and Arrow, launches, expanding the comic book universe on the network, and making three simultaneously running series set in the same universe. It’s the culmination of the crossovers that have worked very well for the two shows, and a chance to see some fan favorite characters a lot more often. While Marvel is winning at the box office, DC is dominating the small screen.

The premise of DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW is well publicized, so I don’t mind recapping it here. Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who, Broadchurch) comes back in time from a bleak future in which Vandal Savage (Casper Crump) is destroying the world. To prevent catastrophe, Rip assembles eight people remembered in history as legends to team up and stop Vandal before his rise to power. These include: Professor Martin Stein (Victor Garber) and Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh), who together become Firestorm; the resurrected Sara Lance (Caity Lotz), now the White Canary; Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh), a.k.a. The Atom; the immortal Hawkman (Falk Hentschel) and Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee), also known as Chay-Ara and Khufu, who have their own history with Vandal; and the villainous Leonard Snart (Wentworth Miller) and Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell), dubbed Captain Cold and Heat Wave because of their weapons.

The group is undeniably fun. By including antagonists alongside protagonists, there is natural conflict and varied motivations. The spectrum runs from the idealistic (Ray) to the in-it-for-themselves (Leonard and Mick), from those seeking redemption (Sara) to those just out for adventure (Martin). Some have a personal stake in the outcome, while others want to prove something to themselves. None stand out as “the” star, all coming from second-fiddle status on Arrow and / or The Flash, making DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW one of the truest, most balanced ensembles assembled.

While not all of the actors are on the level of Garber or Darvill, both fantastic actors, they are well used in these roles. The writers have smartly figured out the characters, and played to the strengths of the individual performers as much as possible. Miller and Purcell are delightfully re-teamed after their stint on Prison Break as brothers, albeit with a totally different chemistry. Overall, it’s a nice assembly.

I wouldn’t say my review of the pilot is quite as glowing as how excited I am about the premise. With expectations high, DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW has a lot to live up to, and while it gets off to a decent start, it still has some way to go.

The main flaw I see is that this series was created when a group of people thought “Wouldn’t it be fun to see ____ together with ____.” It’s a hodgepodge of characters, not at all like an Avengers best-of-their-class team up. This is a great concept, but it takes a lot of skill and finesse to make it work. The first two hours fall just a bit short of that, at times having some really good interactions, particularly between Sara and Leonard, but at other times, feeling more like the idea is better than the execution.

There is hope, however. While the premise seems a bit weak at the start, there is a twist late in the first hour that does a lot to righting the course of the story and making things that seem off make more sense. I can’t reveal what I mean by that, but if you can get through that rocky beginning, it will result in a good pay off. The second half of the pilot, which will air a week later, is much better because of it.

At the end of the day, I remain excited about this show. It has a bit of maturing to do, not hitting the ground running as strong as The Flash did, but with a better start than Arrow’s. The sheer adventure element is so much fun, and I do look forward to the character growth that will surely emerge, as well as the larger scale story that this series is tailor-made to tackle. The CW has very valuable property on their hands with their DC partnership, and I hope they continue to make good use of it.

DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW premieres Thursday, January 21st on the CW with the first half of the two-hour pilot.

Monday, January 18, 2016

BILLIONS Well Worth It

Article first published as BILLIONS Review on Seat42F.

BILLIONS CAST SHOWTIME


Showtime’s new series BILLIONS is seemingly about a hedge fund manager and a U.S. Attorney, a battle of the big guy versus the common man, and a way to express class frustration in this country. But what it really is, is a drama about two flawed, petty men going at one another for all they’re worth, a battle to the death (perhaps not literally, but definitely of life as they know it), that only one man can walk away from, at best. And honestly, that’s plenty for me.

WARNING: Spoilers are below, but nothing more spoiler-y than Wikipedia reveals.

BILLIONS stars Paul Giamatti (Sideways, John Adams) as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Chuck Rhoades. Chuck has a flawless record locking up those who deserve it, picking his cases carefully, and with a chip on his shoulder against the rich who think they’re above the rules. He is influenced by his successful father, and intimidated (sometimes positively) by his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), who makes far more money than he does.

Wendy makes so much because she works for Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis, Homeland, Wolf Hall), an extremely successful player in the financial game. Wendy is his motivational coach, though one wonders how much she knows about Bobby’s dalliances on the wrong side of the law. Bobby’s own wife, Lara (Malin Akerman, Watchmen, Trophy Wife), is certainly aware and supportive, even when it includes milking 9/11 for the family’s monetary gain. This couple sometimes pushes things a little too far.

Admittedly, that premise is a bit far-fetched. The coincidence of Wendy’s employment alone, though existing long before Chuck rose to power, stretches believability. Yet, the characters are perfectly positioned for maximum conflict and drama, so I don’t find myself minding all that much.

The primary reason to watch BILLIONS is Giamatti and Lewis. Both accomplished, excellent performers, watching them take these complex men and engage in a person struggle is highly engrossing. Both have noble qualities and glaring flaws, and both do things from a calculating perspective. They are two titans at the top of their game (a description of both the characters and the actors), and it’s a privilege to see them compete with abandon.

That isn’t to say the story isn’t enjoyable. Any series on Showtime these days is pretty darn good, with the network having a high level of quality in their programming. There are layers and twists and plenty of detail to keep things interesting, and the topic is relevant and current. I’m just saying that is secondary to the main attraction, the fight where viewers will be unsure of who to side with from one scene to the next.

What I’d most like to see change as time goes on is for Wendy and Lara to play an equal role in the proceedings. Wendy certainly does more than Lara in the pilot, but is still supporting to the men. The lead actresses are perfectly capable of standing toe-to-toe with their on-screen husbands, so I hope BILLIONS is gender-equal over time.

There is also a top tier supporting cast, including David Costabile (Breaking Bad, Suits) and Toby Leonard Moore (Daredevil, The Pacific), who play the assistants to our antiheroes. The production itself is pretty, and the direction is appropriate to the scale of the conflict.

In short, BILLIONS is exactly on par with what I expect from Showtime, if not a notch or two above some of its peers. I am definitely committed to watching it, and recommend you check it out. Like I said, if nothing else, you’ll likely enjoy the leads.

BILLIONS premieres Sunday at 10 pm on Showtime.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

USA Continues Populating New TV COLONY

Article originally published as COLONY Review on Seat42F.

Colony USA Network


USA has been stretching itself beyond what viewers had come to expect from them over the past few years, and their newest drama, COLONY, is no exception to that trend. Set in a dystopian future in which someone or something (I presume aliens) has conquered the world, or at least Southern California, the drama follows one family as they try to both fight back and get along in this new power structure.

The faces at the center of COLONY should be familiar. Lost’s Josh Holloway plays Will Bowman, a man who used to hunt people when he was a soldier, but now will do anything just to keep his family safe and intact. He is married to Katie, played by Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead, Prison Break), who feels slightly different than her husband, unhappy with the way things have become, and constantly pushing back in ways big and small against it. The main visage of the enemy is House’s Peter Jacobson, who plays Alan Snyder, a collaborator who seeks to get the Bowmans to do his bidding. So we have a pretty familiar trio of performers to television fans.

Now, a good cast doesn’t necessarily mean a good show, but in this case, COLONY is actually quite interesting. It takes a premise similar to TNT’s recently ended Falling Skies, but makes it more heavy and serious, and focuses on a few people instead of a group. In this way, it grounds the story more and zeroes in on the emotional heft of the situation in a more meaningful way. It gives all three actors a chance to be layered, as we can see both why and why not the Bowmans would want to be a part of the resistance. And as detestable Alan is, one can understand his reasoning.

What I like about COLONY is that it is one of those shows that feels like a lot of thought has been put into the setting and premise before anything was written down. There are many differences between the world that the Bowmans inhabit and our own. Yet, every choice the show makes to change things makes sense, and taken together, it begins to paint a picture of who the conquerors are. Considering we don’t see them at all, and they are generally only spoken about indirectly, it is super important to get some feeling as to what the characters think of their overlords. The detail in the program itself provides this.

It also manages to be dramatic without being melodramatic. For instance, something happens to Will midway through the first episode. While the moment itself feels a little off (given the drastically different health outcomes between Will and the man next to him), everything after the fact, from Will meeting Snyder, to Katie dealing with her husband not returning home, seems authentic. There aren’t sidelong glances and sobbing fits just for the sake of it. These are emotionally complex people, not crippled by their mental state.

Katie herself is far from an obedient housewife. In fact, of the two spouses, she is the least predictable and the one more likely to take risks, and arguably the most heroic. COLONY will not be accused of being sexist.

Besides the three mentioned above, two other main players exist. Amanda Righetti (The Mentalist) is Madeline, the younger sister of Katie. Tory Kittles (True Detective) is Broussard, the Bowman’s connection to the resistance. Neither gets nearly as much development in the pilot as the core trio, so I’m not entirely sure what role they will play in the series. But I like that they are well established to be in the show without giving anything away about them yet. COLONY keeps its cards close to the vest.

COLONY is not (yet) my favorite USA show; Suits and Mr. Robot both edge it out. However, it has the potential to be something special, and definitely is worth checking out. It continues a solid upward trend for the cable network, and I am very interested to see where it goes next.

COLONY premieres Thursday at 10 pm on USA.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

FOX's SECOND CHANCE

Article originally published as SECOND CHANCE Review on Seat42F.

Second Chance FOX

FOX’s first mid-season drama out of the gate this January is called SECOND CHANCE. While it has gone through quite a few title changes (it used to be known as Lookinglass, and before that, The Frankenstein Code), the premise seems to have stayed relatively consistent. A brilliant, but antisocial, man develops a way to save his dying sister, reversing what death means. Testing it on an old sheriff who was murdered, it’s about someone getting a second chance to live.

It’s probably wise they didn’t keep Frankenstein in the name of the show. Frankenstein was about creating new life, and this series is about getting a do-over on a life misspent. Dr. Frankenstein obsessively sought to create a creature for his own selfish purposes, while the brain in this, Otto (Adhir Kalyan, Rules of Engagement), is trying to save his sister, Mary (Dilshad Vadsaria, Greek). And if you’ve ever read the novel by Mary Shelley (which I do recommend), I doubt you’ll see very little of that echoed in this particular story.

The revived is Jimmy Pritchard (The Loop’s Philip Baker Hall at the start, then EastEnders and True Blood’s Robert Kazinsky, likely for the rest of the series). While Jimmy’s death is just a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is life is made up of bad choices, being a bad father to FBI agent Duval Pritchard (Tim DeKay, White Collar) and drunk Helen (Amanda Detmer, What About Brian), and having to resign from office in disgrace. At least Duval’s daughter, Gracie (Ciara Bravo, Red Band Society), still likes Grandpa.

Obviously, Jimmy is probably not the ideal man for Mary and Otto in terms of personality, but his genetic markers make him ideal for their science experiment. Hence how an uneasy partnership is formed.

I like the SECOND CHANCE pilot, and think it could be a very interesting drama. If it is about Jimmy trying to be a better person, and if it remains about his family (Duval and Gracie are main characters, and there’s a very cool twist after Duval meets new Jimmy), I would very much enjoy this show. The first episode is certainly focused on those things, and that’s a good sign. I am also very interested in the Mary / Otto relationship, and what goes on within their company and with their assistants, Alexa (Vanessa Lengies, Glee) and Arthur (Scott Menville, Teen Titans).

What I worry it will devolve into is a case-of-the-week procedural. It could take a little bending, but if Jimmy teams up with Duval and works to solve cases so he can be the lawman he never was, I’ll be super disappointed. FOX hurt its failed, almost brilliant sci-fi series Almost Human by trying to force it into a procedural box. That show managed to still be good, but it could have been so much better without the shackles. I could easily see this one taking the same path since so much of the broadcast networks’ fare does.

Which is a shame. With FOX in a total ratings free fall this year, and the Big Four dying out overall, it seems a good time to take a chance on something new, something exciting, something that can build a loyal fan base who excitedly engage and may even bring back a canceled show for a second chance if it doesn’t live long enough. SECOND CHANCE could be FOX’s second chance to get things right, which would be nicely poetic. It just seems unlikely that it will be.

SECOND CHANCE premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on FOX.

Friday, January 15, 2016

SHADOWHUNTERS Typical Young Adult Genre Adventure

Article first published as SHADOWHUNTERS Review on Seat42F.

Shadowhunters Freeform


ABC Family’s Freeform’s SHADOWHUNTERS premieres this week. It is based on The Mortal Instruments novels by Cassandra Clare, and ignores the 2013 film based on the first installment of the series entirely, wisely starting fresh, since so few saw that movie anyway. But what is it exactly?

Well, it’s a mystery action-adventure steeped in a world of demon hunters and warlocks. One girl, Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara, Happyland), was kept sheltered from her destiny by her mother, Jocelyn (Maxim Roy, ReGenesis). Because of this, or maybe not, she now seems to be a special bridge between the world of mundanes (regular humans) and those that protect them from the forces of darkness. Which is needed now, for some reason, even though things have gone along centuries without one in that role. (Yes, yes, I get that the artifact everyone is searching for is why things have changed. Just seems arbitrary.)

There are saviors who go around, invisibly slaying the creatures that would do us poor, defenseless mortals harm. Most notably is Jace Wayland (Dominic Sherwood, The Cut), who hunts with sibling pair Alec (Matthew Daddario, Delivery Man) and Isabelle Lightwood (Emeraude Toubia, Tattooed Love), and whom finds Clary in her hour of need. Plus, Jace is easy on Clary’s eyes, so how can she resist someone with good looks and nobility?

If this sounds like the makings of a young adult novel, with the same style of a Twilight or an Insurgent, that’s because it is. The Mortal Instruments is a book series for that age group, and the television adaptation fully embraces its format. Which is right in line with the target audience of Freeform (well, the younger end of the stated demographic), and will likely appeal to a lot of its existing viewers. While it is a more epic tale, and likely has a much bigger special effects budget than most of its peers on the network, it should fit in fine.

The problem is for those of us who aren’t all about the cheesy romance and coming-of-age at the same time as becoming a hero stuff. There is absolutely a market for this, so I’m not knocking SHADOWHUNTERS for being what it is. I’m just saying the appeal is limited, as most adults will see this and roll their eyes at the melodrama existing between the characters. It’s more fantasy-style love than anything real or authentic.

SHADOWHUNTERS does have quite a broad world to explore, which is fitting for such a journey tale. We have the mentor, Luke (Isaiah Mustafa, Horrible Bosses), the best friend, Simon (Alberto Rosende, The Swing of Things), and a High Warlock (Harry Shum Jr., Glee), among others, to pull Clary in divergent directions. This means the plot isn’t likely to grow boring or stale anytime soon.

Yet, there’s nothing of real quality to make SHADOWHUNTERS stretch its genre, either. The cast is serviceable, but no one stands out as being particularly impressive. Some of the monsters look a little goofy because small screen budgets will always lag well behind feature films. The main thrust is relatively standard fare, with no big surprises present, at least not in the first hour.

My verdict isn’t that SHADOWHUNTERS is bad. I even occasionally enjoy a little bit from this genre. But a little bit goes a long way, and since this one has not done anything notable to distinguish itself from the pack or make it rise above the standard mold, I can’t really recommend it to anyone outside of its target demographic. For those this was made for, though, I think it’s a pretty decent example, compared to its peers, and you’re likely to enjoy it quite a bit.

SHADOWHUNTERS premieres Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Freeform.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

SHADES OF BLUE Make Me Blue

Article first published as SHADES OF BLUE Review on Seat42F.

Shades of Blue Jennifer Lopez NBC

With broadcast networks dying rapidly, NBC (like FOX, ABC, and CBS) doubles down on crime shows, the latest being SHADES OF BLUE, premiering this week. Set in a close-knit unit in Brooklyn, the series finds Harlee Santos (Jennifer Lopez, American Idol) entrapped by the FBI and forced to rat on the people she loves so that she can continue to be present as the sole parent for her daughter (Sarah Jeffery, Rogue).

The cast is quite a good ensemble. Lopez is joined by Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) as boss Matt “Woz” Wozniak, Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos) as fellow detective Tess Nazario, Warren Kole (The Following) as FBI handler Robert Stahl, and others.

They are not as well used as they should be, though. True, the characters end up being pretty believable, for the most part, and there are few glaring missteps that pull viewers out of the moment. But neither is there any chance for a single one of them to shine all that much. Lopez gets the meatiest stuff, but either she isn’t up to showing the necessary layers, or has purposely made the choice to not allow Harlee to express as much as one expects from this type of role. This is usually the type of Emmy bait a performer loves, but Lopez pulls back. Liotta does better when he gets the opportunity, but that doesn’t come until quite late, and I have doubts about how much he’ll be allowed similar moments in the future.

My doubts mainly stem from my opinion that the writing is mediocre. The pilot starts off with some very cheesy dialogue and ridiculous exchanges, which admittedly get better as the hour progresses, but never rises to any level that impresses. There is a compelling narrative within, the cop forced to become a double agent, which starts to come out as the installment goes on. But it’s not examined enough, nor are the implications really dwelt on. I know this is a single episode I’m judging the show on, but the pacing seems to want to rocket ahead instead of linger on the juicy bits.

SHADES OF BLUE is not a typical procedural. At least from the pilot, it doesn’t appear that it will be a case-of-the-week, paint-by-numbers series. Instead, it follows the path of the network’s Chicago Fire and its spin-offs by making it more about personal drama than a crime that needs solved. This switch has worked pretty well for USA, which used to specialize in the procedural format, but has since deepened to more complex dramas.

However, is that a path that will work for parent company NBC, or is this just hastening the decline of the company? I tend to think it’s the latter. Shows that have staying power tend to be those that offer something new to the landscape. SHADES OF BLUE, despite being a step up from the trite, repetitive junk that has been bogging down the non-cable networks of late, is staying too close to those same boundaries to make much of an impact on a broad audience.

SHADES OF BLUE is about par for the network, if not a little bit on the higher end, but at a far lower quality than the same premise would be treated to on FX, AMC, or HBO, the gold standards of networks today, or Netfix or Amazon, the streaming rulers. This means it’s probably a mistake for NBC. It may not be bad; it may even be some of the network’s best fare. But it is not the step in a new direction that the network needs to save itself.

SHADES OF BLUE premieres Thursday, January 7th on NBC.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES Impresses

Article originally published as THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES Review on Seat42F.

The Shannara Chronicles MTV

MTV becomes a player in the modern television landscape with THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES, premiering this week. Sure, the network has had some modest hits, such as Teen Wolf, and some quality programming, such as the first few seasons of Awkward. But THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES is a turning point because it’s a big budget epic with complex characters (who aren’t all teenagers) in a sweeping, fully developed world. Based on the trilogy by Terry Brooks (well, mainly the middle volume), this is the first show MTV has aired that I could easily see one of the higher quality networks carrying.

THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES is set in a geographically small area on a future Earth in which mankind has died out. Elves control the height of civilization, with trolls and roamers on the fringes, all living in the ruins of once-great cities and technology, now nearly eroded away.

That’s where this main action begins, but it’s not where this story does. There is a lot of backstory revealed in bits throughout the two-hour pilot (from the first book) that set the stage for this world, and plays into the crisis at hand. Magic, thought to have died out with the Druids, is making its return as demons seek to escape their imprisonment and conquer the planet for good. Can they be stopped?

THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES introduces us to a pair of heroes who may or may not be up to the task. Princess Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton, Downton Abbey) is a headstrong young woman who refuses to accept her place in society, and is formidable enough to make waves, earning a position in a male-dominated force. She is joined by naïve Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler, The Carrie Diaries), a half-elf with heroism and magic in his blood, though Wil is ill-prepared to follow in those footsteps at present.

Were those the only two principal players, this would be a typical MTV series. Instead, there’s actually quite a few others. Allanon (Manu Bennett, Arrow) is a druid awoken from a multi-decade slumber who takes Wil on as his apprentice. King Eventine (John Rhys-Davies, The Lord of the Rings) is the ruler who has swept the horrors of the past under the rug, and now struggles to hold onto his legacy. Heir-to-the-throne Ander (Aaron Jakubenko, Neighbours) has a different idea on how to handle current events. Younger Arion (Daniel MacPherson, Neighbours) enjoys the perks of royalty without the responsibilities. And roamer Eretria (Ivana Baquero, Pan’s Labyrinth) wants freedom from her clan’s leader (James Remar, Dexter).

Now, while this is not a top-tier cast, it is a group of performers who hold their own in this Lord of the Rings-type fantasy. Together, they make up a varied ensemble who’ll likely face death nearly as often as those on Game of Thrones, though being on basic cable, THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES pulls back slightly on violence, disregards all profanity, and only flirts with nudity. Though it does the latter quite often.

Filmed in New Zealand, THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES feels epic and sweeping, and likely owes a lot of that to the novels it is adapted from. There is no need for the show’s writers to develop a world as they go because one has already been clearly laid out ahead of time. That being said, the source material isn’t enough to keep this show going for more than a couple of years, so the written work is likely to be a jumping off point, rather than the sole inspiration.

I liked THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES a lot. It feels more sophisticated and well-made than the typical MTV fare. It may not win any awards, but it signals that the network isn’t just going to keep churning out sexy teens doing scandalous things as their only programming, and I look forward to seeing if their viewers embrace it, or maybe even earn the channel a new audience.

THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on MTV.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA Remains Bright

Article first published as TV Review: ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ – Season 11 Premiere on Blogcritics.

FX’s oldest original sitcom, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, returns this week for its eleventh season on spin-off network FXX. Some shows would start to grow stale after more than a decade on the air, but this one, perhaps in part because of a production schedule that only requires ten fresh episodes per year, has managed to stay inventive and engaging. It pays tribute to long-time fans by keeping the running gags and throwbacks coming, but also finds ways to not make the stories seem repetitive.

Season 11 begins with “Chardee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo,” in which the homemade game the gang competitively tears each other apart playing re-emerges as they try to sell it to an executive. Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and Dennis (Glenn Howerton) defend their title from Charlie (Charlie Day) and Mac (Rob McElhenney), as Frank (Danny DeVito) tries to put his spin on it. As you expect, things get out of hand and go horribly wrong, which our core group of characters seem completely unaffected by.
The chemistry between this ensemble is one of the best on television, finely honed after many years together. While the people they play are almost always trying to get a leg up on the others, the performers themselves mesh together beautifully, each allowed plenty of time to shine, never stepping on top of one another in the name of a good joke. They seem completely at ease and in their element.

“Chardee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo” is enhanced by the presence of Andy (Andy Buckley, The Office), an outsider who participates with the group. For brief moments, viewers might wonder why Andy goes as far as he does in the service of the competition, but usually one is too distracted by the zaniness around him to notice, and I love seeing a fresh outsider tossed into the mess that eventually shocks even him. Plus, the half hour wraps things up nicely with no further explanation needed.

The inside jokes among the gang are communicated well enough that most of the audience at home will feel included, not excluded. When a beer bottle becomes a puzzle, it’s funny because we’re familiar with the characters and how they relate to one another, even if someone who has never seen the show before might be confused. Even if you are a first-time sampler, though, this half hour is plenty humorous enough, providing a nice example of the show’s style, to hook you in and entertain you.

For the deeper fans, there’s a chuckle when we’re reminded that Mac finds Dee disgusting, even though Olson and McElhenney are married in real life. The chemistry of the group only works because of the revulsion, though. If any of the guys ever wanted Dee, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia would fall apart, so Olson plays her just despicable enough to hang with the guys, who each are awful in their own way. Except maybe Charlie. Sort of.

Week two, “Frank Falls Out the Window” is even more for the fans, as the events from several season two episodes are revisited. Frank did not join the cast until season two, and with a somewhat clever twist on a television trope, updated for the raw edginess of It’s Always Sunny, his origin plays out again. I won’t spoil exactly what’s going on,  but it did make me want to pull out my DVD and rewatch some old installments.

If I have one complaint about the show, it’s that only seasons five through eight have been released on Blu-ray. The older and the more recent episodes are sold exclusively in standard definition DVD, which seems a waste when the show airs in HD.

While I have only viewed the first two episodes of season 11, it seems to me that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has returned exactly on the level I wanted it to, still lots of fun, and still surprising me when I think I have it all figured out. The show premieres Wednesday on FXX.