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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Take Home THE REVENANT

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Revenant' on Blogcritics.

While watching the Oscars each year, there are always films near the top of the pack that really don’t feel like they’re good enough to me to be honored with a nomination. However, The Revenant, winner of three Academy Awards, does not fall into that category; it is worthy of every distinction given to it. And it has just been released on Ultra 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD,

The Revenant tells the story of fur hunter Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, who finally and deservedly won Best Actor Award), mauled by a bear and left to die in the wilderness, and his revenge-fueled tale of survival. (I don’t feel it’s giving anything away to mention the bear because if you speak of this movie to anyone, the bear is the first thing they know about it, and it happens very early on.) Despite his severe injuries, Hugh hunts John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road) across snow-covered forest and mountains, trying to get to the man who wronged him in the deepest of ways.

At the edge of the story is another fascinating character, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn). Henry is the leader of the expedition on which Glass gets injured, and comes back into the story later on. His morality and character are noteworthy, managing to stand out in an otherwise narrowly focused narrative. While Glass and Fitzgerald take most of the screen time, along with Will Poulter’s (We’re the Millers) Bridger, Henry is always on the fringe, and perhaps not equally interesting, but definitely notable. Gleeson, first making his mark in the Harry Potter series, has had an arguably unparalleled year in film, but I’m glad he had time to squeeze this one in, too.

In my opinion, this movie is incredibly hard to watch, and you likely will not yearn for a repeat viewing anytime soon. But it’s also one of the most impressive, well-made films I’ve seen. The story is wonderfully crafted, and while the main thrust is basic, it manages to keep the details unpredictable. The acting is superb, of course, and you really feel what the characters are going through, which is rough enough to spur the discomfort mentioned earlier. It’s a very visceral thing to sit through, making it more an experience than a passive watching, and there is little to nothing to complain about in the film itself.

The direction and score are spectacular. Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) took the directing Oscar for good reason. From the sweeping visual landscapes to the close ups in the most dramatic moments, there is no choice made that will leave you questioning Inarritu’s abilities. This is all enhanced, of course, in high definition, which really makes the trees and rivers and snowflakes pop into being, feeling real, and the music sing crisply in your ears. Most of the action takes place outside, and the ambient noise is excellently balanced. Watching at home made me wish I had a 4K set to truly get the most out of the presentation, but blu-ray is satisfying enough, too. The mixing is flawless, and no shot is bad.

Where this release utterly fails is in extras. There are two on the disc – an unnecessary photo gallery and a 45-minute documentary called “A World Unseen” that is light on insight and heavy on environmental protection arguments. Previously released on YouTube, “A World Unseen” doesn’t give us much about how the film was made, but does have a strong, clear message as to what it wants to say. I’m not saying the message is a bad one, but it’s not what one is looking for to learn more about The Revenant. In a film that has so many interesting elements and that does things no other movie has done, I expected a boatload of material on locations, special effects, story development, and the like, and am utterly disappointed by the lack of offerings.

Despite that, though, I still recommend The Revenant; it’s just that good. I feel like it shows us things about what film making can do that many of us didn’t realize before. For that reason, it’s worth a watch.

The Revenant is available to own now.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Avoid CONTAINMENT

Article first published as CONTAINMENT Review on Seat42F.


Beginning this week, the CW is broadcasting a miniseries (remade from the Belgian program Cordon) called CONTAINMENT. It tells the story of a viral outbreak in a major city, as seen through the eyes of individuals in law enforcement and the medical field, as well as a few who just have been unlucky in their timing and location. Things spiral out of control as the horrific disease spreads, and panic ensues.

While CONTAINMENT probably most closely resembles Outbreak or its like, it will most likely be compared to The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, given the popularity of zombie programs right now, which are often caused by a virus. To make the parallels even more clear, CONTAINMENT is set in Atlanta, Georgia, the same place The Walking Dead begins, and goes inside a hospital. Plus, there are riots and fences and panic in the streets, much as in the first season of Fear the Walking Dead.

These comparisons will not do CONTAINMENT any favors. While The Walking Dead is focused on serious character development, the zombie outbreak really being secondary to the story, CONTAINMENT’s plot is driven by the illness, with the characters coming secondary. Although there are a lot of varied personalities, none are anything new on television, and the ensemble could easily be pulled from almost any soapy serial drama. The relationships are needlessly complicated, and characters are artificially separated as events unfold.

CONTAINMENT features an ensemble with no true leading man or lady, a number of them getting roughly equal screen time, and no high-profile actors steal focus from the others, either. There’s Lex (David Gyasi, Interstellar), a cop who early on makes the decision to send his best friend, Jake (Chris Wood, The Vampire Diaries), into danger. Lex’s girlfriend, Jana (Christina Marie Moses, Odd Brodsky), also happens to be Jake’s ex, and turns to Jake for advice when she gets cold feet about moving in with Lex. It’s this trio, in particular, that make the entire series feel contrived, unoriginal, and not at all grounded in reality.

Besides that trio, Katie (Kristen Gutoskie, Beaver Falls) is a school teacher whose class, which includes her son, is visiting the ground zero hospital as events go down; Sabine (Claudia Black, Farscape) is a CDC honcho brought in to manage the situation; and Teresa (Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Spartacus: War of the Damned) is a pregnant, unmarried young woman who plans to run away with her boyfriend. There are also a few others, but none that I can recall enough to name at present, and the CW’s website, lacking a cast page most networks have, doesn’t really make it easy to look up the main players.

In short, though, from the batch you see, I think it’s pretty clear that CONTAINMENT is not going for something deep and moving and realistic, but rather, pure entertainment. Like other disaster movies and broadcast network shows before it, CONTAINMENT is forcing situations to spark emotional reactions at moments where there should not be. Instead of focusing on dealing with the crisis as they need to, the main players will have their attention split by friends and loved ones who should either be out of the way or completely cut off from communication. It just doesn’t make for a very high quality show, and since the archetypes are so familiar, probably a pretty predictable one, as well. I’d call this one a skip.

CONTAINMENT premieres Tuesday at 9/8c on the CW.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Check In With THE NIGHT MANAGER

Article first published as THE NIGHT MANAGER Review on Seat42F.


AMC recently co-produced a six-episode miniseries with the BBC, and beginning this week, less than a month after it completed its run in England, Americans will get their first look at the tale. Titled THE NIGHT MANAGER, it is based on the novel of the same name by John le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), first published in 1993, and updated to seem more timely. Essentially, it presents a cat-and-mouse game of two vastly mismatched partners who just might somehow be a perfect pairing.

The hero of the piece is Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers), a former British soldier who now handles things after dark at a very upscale hotel in Cairo, Egypt. An accidental run-in with a woman who is connected to the seedy underworld sparks feelings of protectiveness in Jonathan, and it isn’t long before he becomes involved in international espionage, given face by MI6 agent Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, Broadchurch).

Cue the villain, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie, House), who values money above people. Traveling with an entourage, which includes girlfriend Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby) and protector Corky (Tom Hollander, Rev.), Roper comes in contact with Pine, who knows Roper is responsible for some unfortunate things Pine cannot get over. Thus begins their competition.

Hiddleston and Laurie are absolutely phenomenal in the leading roles, as one would expect. Hiddleston is the star, with his Pine as every bit as sympathetic and heroic as Loki, the character he is best known for playing, is scheming and twisted. Laurie has the smaller role, especially in the first hour, but that makes his screen time even more powerful, grabbing attention the moment he shows up.

With two such talented performers leading the story, it’s little wonder that the series is incredibly captivating. They’re the type of men who could carry a single-set, small drama, and given the larger world stage (THE NIGHT MANAGER hops countries a few times), they still steal focus from the impressive scenery.

I mentioned in the opening that the story has been updated, but not to worry, the changes are not startling nor distracting. The televised version of THE NIGHT MANAGER plays upon Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis. Since the novel came out more than two decades ago, those weren’t elements in the original work. But while I have not read the book, I think it’s smart to make the surrounding details more relevant to the moment, giving easily understood context to the larger picture, even though the main points are the characters, whom could exist the same in any number of settings.

Besides our leads, the three other main players are amazing as well, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Tobias Menzies (Outlander), David Harewood (Homeland), Alistair Petrie (Rush), and Russell Tovey (Being Human). If these are the kind of people coming in to play the smaller roles, I think that’s a sure sign the program is heading in the right direction.

Pretty much every direction THE NIGHT MANAGER takes is correct. The pacing is slow enough to dwell in the appropriate moments, but stays far ahead of boring. The locales are sweeping and beautiful. The hotels that Pine works at are extravagant masterpieces. The score accentuates without distracting. Honestly, other than the fact that the story being told is longer than would fit, THE NIGHT MANAGER could make a very well-regarded motion picture. After only viewing a single hour, I am totally hooked and convinced the entire half dozen installments will be well worth your time. I’m putting them on my schedule.

THE NIGHT MANAGER premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on AMC.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

VEEP Not Second-Choice Release Today

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Veep - The Complete Fourth Season' on Blogcritics.

HBO’s Veep is about to begin its fifth season, so, not coincidentally, The Complete Fourth season arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this week. The series is a hilarious send-up of an inept politician who is in the job below the one she wants. With a stellar cast and sharp writing, somehow the program gets better with each subsequent year, and the fourth season is no exception.

As this run begins, Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is Veep no longer, having taken the Oval Office after the president’s resignation. Despite getting to the job she wants, things do not get any easier for Selina as she bumbles through having actual authority and faces stiff primary challenge in the upcoming election. Unlike what she’d hoped while aspiring to the highest office in the land, everything doesn’t fall into place and she finds her difficulties to be greater than ever. Which makes for ripe comedic ground, this show relying heavily on mistakes and errors.

With Selina’s elevation, the staff is in disarray, too. Dan (Reid Scott) and Amy (Anna Chlumsky) struggle for control of the agenda, and while one gains an early lead, that is far from the end of their drama. Mike (Matt Walsh) may not be suited to the larger spotlight, while Gary (Tony Hale) feels edged out. Jonah (Timothy C. Simons) continues to hang on the fringe, looking for his in. Kent (Gary Cole) and Ben (Kevin Dunn) continue to attempt to do what’s best, but they aren’t always right, and aren’t always listened to when they are. Only Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) remains relatively unfazed, but that’s the role she plays in the crazy group.

Veep likes to bring in fresh faces, and why not? Any comedy actor should love to get on a series with this high a profile and this much acclaim. Sam Richardson (Spy), who has appeared on the series before as Richard, is given a larger presence in The Complete Fourth Season, being promoted to a full-time player. The terrific Patton Oswalt recurs throughout the season. Most notable, though, is Hugh Laurie’s (House) amusing turn as Tom James, Selina’s running mate who keeps overshadowing her. Is it on purpose or by accident? Is Tom angling to edge Selina out and take over, or is he just not as good as she hoped he’d be? You’ll have to watch to find out.

As usual, there are plenty of comedy-of-error moments and slapstick intermixed with witty dialogue and clever bits. Veep is both smart and dumb comedy, excelling at all levels of humor, and providing constant entertainment. It is certainly one of the most consistent series in the genre, rarely having a lesser episode or scene.

As with most sitcom television shows, there isn’t a huge difference in quality between high definition and standard. Obviously, the picture and sound are a lot crisper if you go for the Blu-ray version, but with few special effects or sweeping vistas, it’s not very noticeable. That being said, standard definition is starting to look like it’s from another era and it’s not something I’d ever recommend for a modern show when HD is available.

Where this set fails is in bonus features. Besides some deleted scenes and digital copies of the ten episodes, there is nothing else in this release. With such a phenomenal ensemble and all the Emmy wins, one would think somebody would sit down and talk to those involved about the series. There have got to be some good stories about things that happen on-set. Sadly, though, nothing along those lines is included, making this one of the worst groupings of extras I’ve seen. It’s not enough to sway me into not recommending The Complete Fourth Season; the episodes are still plenty worth it on their own. But it it regrettable.

Veep: The Complete Fourth Season will be available next Tuesday, April 19th at retailers everywhere.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Blu-ray Review: 'Silicon Valley - The Complete Second Season'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Silicon Valley - The Complete Second Season' on Blogcritics.

HBO’s Silicon Valley is releasing The Complete Second Season next week, just before the third run begins. Although not a novel approach to home video, it is certainly appreciated, as Silicon Valley is a hilarious comedy ripe for binge-watching, and had I not already seen all of the episodes on this release, I would likely be plowing through them. As it is, I am tempted to watch again anyway because the show is particularly good.

If you’re not familiar with Silicon Valley, it takes place in the tech mecca mentioned in the title, and follows a small group of programmers and their start-up company. Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) is the brains, developing a compression algorithm better than anyone else ever has before. Along with his pals, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), landlord and loudmouth Erlich (T.J. Miller), organized support man Jared (Zach Woods), and the advice of Monica (Amanda Crew), who works for their first investor, Richard founded a company called Pied Piper to sell his creation.

Season two begins with the Pied Piper team shopping around for new investors, wanting to scale up their product. At first, they’re riding high from a big win at the close of the freshman year. But then Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the villain of the piece, CEO of huge corporation Hooli (think Google), shows back up and sues Pied Piper, claiming it was developed on his computers. Belson also has Richard’s friend Big Head (Josh Brener) in his employ, a useful pawn in the competition.

The rest of the second year becomes a back-and-forth struggle as Richard and company try to keep control of their invention, while those with a lot more money than they have try to wrest it from their grasp. It’s a classic David-versus-Goliath battle in the world of geeks, and only one of them can win. Will it be our heroes? Or will Silicon Valley show them struggle through defeat and have to come up with something else to rise from the ashes? Honestly, it’s quite uncertain through most of the ten episodes.

Complicating matters are two new faces for the sophomore season. Suzanne Cryer’s (Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place) Laurie takes over Peter Gregory’s company. Gregory’s portrayer, Christopher Evan Welch, sadly passed away last year, and his character is similarly written out. Cryer does a good job, but definitely brings a different energy than Welch had. Chris Diamantopoulos (About a Boy, The Office) enters as eccentric rich man Russ Hanneman, who soon involves himself in Pied Piper’s affairs, both as a help and a hindrance. 

Silicon Valley is a geeky look at a niche subculture that everyone knows about, but few venture into. The actual Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, and it’s great to get a sneak peek inside, especially with this very talented cast of humorous performers, who make dark situations look fun; there are laughs to be found in their misery. I cannot recommend the show enough.

As far as extras go, there are six audio commentaries that are very welcome, featuring creator Mike Judge (Office Space), the hilarious T.J. Miller, and others. There are also the obligatory deleted scenes, and a brief featurette about “The Art & Science Behind Silicon Valley.” In all, not a lot, and I couldn’t help but wish for more. But at least what is present is solid.

I can’t say there are strong, specific reasons for choosing Blu-ray over DVD. There aren’t a lot of special effects, outside of the very cool theme song, and the soundtrack is pretty basic, as it usually is for most sitcoms. But things just look so much better in HD, why would you want an inferior quality if given a choice?

Silicon Valley: The Complete Second Season will be available next Tuesday, April 19, at retailers everywhere.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

THE LAST PANTHERS Review

Article first published as THE LAST PANTHERS Review on Seat42F.


Sundance will be bringing us a British / French production this week entitled THE LAST PANTHERS. Set in several European countries, the six-episode series follows a jewel thief and those who would hunt him after the crime as he flees home to a dark underworld.

Goran Bogdan (Number 55) plays Milan Celik, the lead character, at least as far as I can tell. Milan is part of a trio that nab some diamonds in the exciting opening sequence, and it is Milan’s past and actions that provide most of the driving force of the plot. Will he get away with it? I don’t know, and I’m not even sure if I should root for him to do so or not.

Those chasing Milan aren’t the most likeable people, after all. Insurance adjuster Naomi Franckom (Samantha Morton, John Carter) seems OK, but her boss, Tom Kendle (John Hurt, Doctor Who, Merlin), is anything but kind. Police officer Khalil (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet) is in much the same position as Naomi, seeming much more competent and deserving than those above him. But then again, even without a direct supervisor, Milan comes across much more favorably than those he would or has worked for, too, so there’s a pattern.

The result is a chase through a criminal landscape, ripe with betrayals and executions and cheats and schemes. It’s a bit hard to follow if you aren’t paying attention, similar looking actors and frequent subtitles not helping much with that, but it’s also obvious to the beholder than THE LAST PANTHERS is a high quality production that deserves your attention.

The cast is quite compelling, with their smoldering glances and calculating eyes letting you know there is a lot going on. They also exist in the world with a realistic number of moving parts, which makes it hard for anyone to do anything without a dozen other people being affected by it. This means consequences could come from anywhere, and makes it hard for one character to rely on any other, but it also makes it authentic, and thus deeper than the average television series.

The setting is beautiful and gritty at once. Again, much care has gone into making it seem like THE LAST PANTHERS is in our own, actual world, and it succeeds at that. Car and foot chases find plenty of obstacles in the way, but when the action slows down, it’s even easier to appreciate what’s going on around the characters. The circles they move in may not always be the most pleasant to look at, but there’s a detailed quality that makes the program rise above its peers.

While the U.S. often gets mainly the best of British television (with some exceptions), THE LAST PANTHERS feels better than most imports. It has the quality of a well-respected international film, stretched to miniseries length in order to go both broader and more focused on what it is portraying. Whether it’s the way a tattoo plays with a certain group, or collateral damage among an innocent bystander, the show immediately feels fully fleshed out, and it is very easy to get sucked into.

The series also fits well with Sundance’s brand. Slow-burn character dramas, such as Rectify, are what the network does best, and it already has a history of bringing over productions from other countries, such as with Top of the Lake. I think the show itself is good enough to stand on its own, but in the company of other airings on Sundance, it likely has the best chance to find its target audience and succeed.

THE LAST PANTHERS airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on Sundance.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Keep Quiet About GAME OF SILENCE

Article first published as GAME OF SILENCE Review on Seat42F.



NBC’s latest drama, GAME OF SILENCE, is based on a Turkish show. Four best friends went through a traumatic experience in their childhood that changed everything for them. Now, as adults, they remain scarred by their experience, and at least one of them would like to do something about it. Are they getting in over their heads?

Honestly, I don’t like GAME OF SILENCE very much. The story is somewhat interesting and seems constructed well enough. They cast is fine. Events are over the top to the point where they don’t seem believable, but one could say the same about most television shows. Superficially, it seems like a good premise. So what is it that doesn’t sit right with me?

Well, for one, the characters are a little flat. The central protagonist is Jackson Brooks (David Lyons, Revolution), who has left the old neighborhood behind to become a lawyer. Everything is going right in his life before the others come back, engaged to an intelligent, beautiful woman (Claire van der Boom, Hawaii Five-O) and about to make partner, a very tired set up. Yet, while Jackson resists giving that up when his buddies ask for his help, he doesn’t exactly stay out of things. Why did he try so hard to leave in the first place if he wasn’t going to stay out?

There is a girl the group looked out for, Jessie (Bre Blair, Last Vegas), whom Jackson used to have a thing for. Now, Jessie is with someone else, but that feels false, too. It seems like TV programs always have to force a love triangle, and this one feels particularly strained, given who her current partner is. How many folks in real life break up with one person and then start dating their friend? It doesn’t seem such a common occurrence, and I struggle to comprehend why the characters in GAME OF SILENCE felt this would be OK. The formula is sometimes acceptable when the story justifies it enough or there are fitting distractions from it, but that is not the case this time.

The other players are even more underdeveloped, at least at the start. Jackson’s gang, which includes Gil (Michael Raymond-James, True Blood), Boots (Derek Phillips, Friday Night Lights), and Shawn (Larenz Tate, House of Lies), all appear to be one-note, despite the fact that they are all played by recognizable faces from quality shows. Viewers are shown what the guys want, but not why exactly, and while to some degree that is being saved for frequent flashbacks, more could easily be done to differentiate their personalities and motivations than is present.

GAME OF SILENCE feels a lot like a number of films and miniseries from the past few decades. Some kids got into trouble, and then it comes back to bite them. From It to Mystic River, the main premise has been done before at a higher quality level. Why make something that so obviously invites comparisons if it’s not going to stand up to the level of what’s come before it?

That’s probably my biggest problem with GAME OF SILENCE. It just doesn’t feel fresh and exciting. It’s almost like I’ve already seen it before, even though I know I haven’t. It relies far too much on the familiar and the cliché, rather than building a world that viewers can get lost in. With the steep competition on the airwaves today, it’s got to do better than this to stand out. I applaud NBC for making something that’s not just another crime drama, but am disappointed by the lack of creativity that went into something like this.

GAME OF SILENCE premieres Tuesday, April 12 at 10/9c on NBC.

Friday, April 15, 2016

No Need to Hunt for HUNTERS

Article first published as HUNTERS Review on Seat42F.


I just finished watching the pilot of SyFy’s new series, HUNTERS, moments ago, and I’ve already forgotten just about everything about it. It is messy, gratuitously gory, starring characters that I just don’t care about, and with a premise that seems underdeveloped. Harsh, perhaps, but this is a show that could have used a truthful wakeup call before going to air. Let me refresh my memory here and I’ll break down the issues.

Based on the Alien Hunter novels by Whitley Strieber, HUNTERS begins with a dark and mysterious scene brimming with the threat of violence and sexual assault. One would think something like this would entice viewers, and one would be right. But the series almost immediately negates the interest by jumping back in time 72 hours, a tried trope that certainly should not be used in a pilot, and never really gets into what we first saw in any meaningful way. Certainly, the scene itself is not notable in the scheme of things.

The show has to start further back than this to give us a little context about the girl and what’s going on, since her abduction helps create the starting point. Her name is Abby Carroll (Laura Gordon, Saw V), and while she herself doesn’t seem to be much more than a catalyst, her relationship with husband Flynn (Nathan Phillips, The Bridge) is vital to setting up the series.

See, there’s a group of covert agents who are hunting extraterrestrial terrorists, hence the name of the series, HUNTERS. Flynn, an FBI agent, finds out about them while looking for Abby, and of course he’s invited to join, because why not? I don’t think any of that is spoiling because Flynn is the promoted main character, while Abby’s situation is shown in the opening. Yet, the show takes forever to getting round to connecting these dots.

Instead, Flynn slows down to deal with step-daughter Emme’s (Shannon Berry) issues. I could be wrong, but Emme seems completely unnecessary to the plot, especially considering the direction she is going. She feels like filler to stretch out a miniseries into a full-blown show, giving Flynn some small development on the side, but not too much, less he be distracted from his mission. (That is not a complaint about Berry, just the way the writers have developed, or not developed, the character.)

Basically, though, Flynn is just your generic hero, good with a tragic background, trying his best to do right, but with little personality that seems original. Yawn.

HUNTERS also introduces a second lead, Allison Regan (Britne Oldford, Ravenswood), who somehow manages to be even less interesting. Allison is already a part of the alien hunting team when we meet her, and she doesn’t get along all that well with her fellow officers. So of course she’s foisted on the new guy, and they’ll apparently work as a team where others have failed to.
Except, the leads have absolutely no chemistry at all. Most crime procedural pairings are well cast and provide the draw to watch a case-of-the-week show every week, even when the stories become repetitive. HUNTERS is that type of show without the charming main characters, meaning there really isn’t much at all going for it.

HUNTERS tries to be many things, primarily a shadowy world like Fringe or The X-Files, but with enough influence from other programs thrown in, such as the cop genre, to avoid drawing one-to-one comparisons. Yet, it’s like it was created from just making a list of characteristics the producers wanted, but with no effort spent figuring out what would actually make this show work. Sadly, the result is not worth watching.

HUNTERS premieres tonight at 10/9c on SyFy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Take THE DETOUR

Article originally published as THE DETOUR Review on Seat42F.


Given the advertising for TBS’s upcoming comedy series, THE DETOUR, one might be forgiven for thinking that the family road trip resembles National Lampoon’s Vacation movies; I think the leading man even looks a bit like the most recent patriarch from that series. However, this little show is a little more original than that, and instead harkens closer to IFC’s The Incredibly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, a comedy of errors in which things just keep getting worse and worse.

THE DETOUR follows Nate (Jason Jones, The Daily Show), his wife, Robin (Natalie Zea, Justified), daughter Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich, Louie), and son Jared (Liam Carroll, The Neighbors) as they drive cross-country. What upper middle class family does that nowadays, you may ask, given that airlines seem the more obvious way to go for those with means? Well, that’s part of the story, which is quite the convoluted mess, in the way you hope it will be.

It’s clear from the beginning of the series there is more going on that meets the eye. THE DETOUR is not a big mystery or conspiracy theory show, but it still keeps some cards close to its chest, which is fine since some of the reveals are played for a laugh or to enhance a certain moment.

This is a dense series, but not in a way that should worry you. The overriding mission is to elicit laughs, and it does that frequently. The story is cohesive and makes sense; I didn’t see any glaring plot holes in the eight episodes or so I viewed. But story is secondary to the funny bits that happen, so you can just go along and enjoy the ride without worrying about having to think any deeper than necessary.

Now, that almost sounds like an insult, but I swear it’s not. Comedy can be smart without being a chore, and this one is. There are the rare sitcoms, Arrested Development springs to mind, that do force one to pay attention to really get all the jokes, and that’s fine; I adore that show. But most comedies shouldn’t, and THE DETOUR fits into the realm of most comedies without seeming tired or repetitive.

The biggest compliment I can give THE DETOUR is that it is addictive. True, I didn’t have to keep watching for cliffhanger resolution, but I wanted to because I was amused and anxious to see what zaniness the family gets into next. One thing after another keeps befalling them, some their fault, some not, and it is a pleasure to watch it unfold. I wish I had the full season available, but made do with most of it.

The four main players all hold their weight appropriately. Jones and Zea have more importance in the scheme of things, but the kids are no slouches, either. The four roles they play are likeable, but flawed, and while some of the disasters do stem from bad decision making, not all of them do, so it’s not a constant cringe-inducer. Instead, the show deftly balances its elements to keep viewers invested and able to laugh at the characters without despising or being depressed for them.

In short, THE DETOUR did not give me exactly what I expected, and that ends up being for the best. It’s a well-crafted example of what cable should be doing when tackling sitcoms, making something both fresh and genuinely funny, and not being reined in by the boundaries of what “most” shows do in a given situation. It’s a great series to binge-watch on a Saturday and make you feel better about your own life, while still being impressed with Jones’ (who created the show alongside wife Samantha Bee, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee) chops.

THE DETOUR premieres Monday, April 11th on TBS.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Experience THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE

Article originally published as THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE Review on Seat42F.



In 2009, Steven Soderbergh released an interesting little film called THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. It followed a high-class escort named Christine (porn star Sasha Grey) who worked under the name Chelsea, providing the illusion of a relationship for men who could pay (a lot) for it. Now Starz, with Soderbergh producing, is bringing that world to the small screen in a weekly half-hour (non-comedy) show, premiering this week.

This time around, Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) plays Christine / Chelsea. Instead of glimpsing a few select days, this version of THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE delves into why Christine would get involved in prostitution in the first place, as well as how she balances a “normal” life with her nighttime work. It’s a fascinating character study of a ripe, but little-seen, subject, begging for a series such as this.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE rises and falls on Keough. Only spending a small amount of the running time with her clothes off, she has to have acting talent to remain captivating, something less of a concern in a film. Keough is Elvis’ granddaughter, and has a sex appeal like the King, but in a more reserved way, which left me unsure if she was any good or not through at least the first episode. Yet, the more I watched, the more I was captivated by her performance, which mixes an almost cold woman in her personal relationships with someone who craves the attention and power one gets from selling one’s body. She’s very interesting.

Christine becomes aware of this career option through her friendship with Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil, House of Cards), who already has a steady man financing her life. At first, Avery seems to want to show off and maybe shock Christine a little. But once Avery introduces Christine to her version of a pimp, Jacqueline (Alexandra Castillo, The 6th Day), Avery becomes uncomfortable with how successful Christine becomes, almost overnight, knocking their pairing out of alignment.

This friendship is a lynchpin in the early episodes, but seems like it probably won’t be in the near future, despite Sheil being listed as a main player. The dynamic between Avery and Christine is a strange one, as much about competition as it is affection, and with no other friends shown, the more we see of Avery, the more she seems to reflect something about Christine. I’ll let others debate if this says something about female bonds in modern society, simply stating it makes for good TV.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE doesn’t stay confined to the sex trade. We follow Christine to her internship at a prestigious law firm, where she works for partner David Tellis (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire). Christine’s relationship with David is a strange one, too, Christine not seeming to fit into the normal framework of human interaction, and I can’t help but wonder how soon it will be before David gets pulled into her after-hours work. It seems an inevitability to me.

What is compelling about that, though, is the inclusion of Erin Roberts (Mary Lynn Rajskub, 24) as a core cast member. Erin works with David, and is nice enough to Christine. But I can’t see Erin approving of any personal relationship between David and his underling, and that seems like fertile ground for THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE to move to once it gets through the Avery arc.

And this is just skimming the tip of what this show could be. Delving into the mind of a smart, driven woman who makes some choices outside of the social norm (and hangs with creepy older gentlemen) is fascinating stuff, and this show is a lot more than just a titillating tease. Sure, I assume we’ll get some juicy kink eventually, but that’s not what the main draw is, and I would recommend it to anyone, male or female, who likes original quality entertainment. It’s a very well made show, with atmosphere and pacing that set it apart.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE premieres this Sunday on Starz, which , for those who have abandoned cable (like myself), is now available as a subscription through Amazon.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

There's a Smell Coming From THE RANCH

Article first published as THE RANCH Review on Seat42F.



Well, it finally happened. It had to eventually, right? Good things never last forever, and at some point, a winning streak must come to an end. Thus, another giant has been laid low. After a string of terrific shows, such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Love, Flaked, and many more, Netflix finally delivers a dud with THE RANCH, premiering this week.

THE RANCH follows a family who runs a ranch. Clever title, right? Older brother Colt (Ashton Kutcher, Two and a Half Men) left home to become a professional football player, and has now returned with his tail between his legs. This pleases patriarch Beau (Sam Elliott, Justified), but not so much Colt’s older brother, Rooster (Danny Masterson, Men at Work), who is trying to help his unappreciative father keep the homestead afloat. There’s also their mother, Maggie (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment), who has split from Beau, but runs the local bar and occasionally falls back into bed with her ex.

What you may notice in the series description above is the dichotomy of ideas presented. We have the stupid sitcom tropes, such as one brother receiving much more affection than the other and a formerly married couple who can’t stay apart. Further gross humor is added with limbs in animal orifices and nonchalant coitus interruptus. We also have some actual pathos possible, with a man who has failed at his chosen profession and a proud papa who has trouble accepting help. It takes deft talent to balance the two and make them work within the same show. THE RANCH lacks such finesse.

The problems start almost immediately, and very obviously. THE RANCH contains a laugh track, which sets a certain tone, namely, the base sitcom one. But then the plot points try to stretch the story in deeper directions, which really don’t match the established style at all. The result is an uneven program that serves neither very well, and often feels like it can’t make up its mind about what it is.

The issue is not helped along by the cast. Kutcher and Masterson came up together on That ‘70s Show, a finale example of a half hour comedy, and try to use those honed skills in this unfamiliar environment that doesn’t appreciate them. Elliott’s wit is much drier, and he is clearly more at home in the dramatic moments, even though he steals every scene he’s in. Winger is trying to play goofy, but is naturally not so, and feels just as out of place as Elliott when getting laughs, even when they are earned.

Which begs the question, what happened? Did someone try to make one show, only to have their creative vision derailed by someone else? Was a showrunner replaced halfway through? And if so, why weren’t the existing bits brought in line with where the series went? Or did a group of someones (there is no way this was a vision of a single individual) all try to put their two cents in, and as frequently happens with too many cooks, the result is an indigestible mess?

The simple fact is, everyone involved in this show can do better than this, even Kutcher, much as I might look down at him for some of his career choices. THE RANCH is beneath any mainstream performer or writer, let alone a streaming service that has had pretty good judgment up until now, and it would not surprise me if one season is all this gets. It deserves even less, and if it were on a broadcast network, I could easily see it pulled two or three episodes into the season. But that won’t be the case here.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Walk THE PATH

Article first published as THE PATH Review on Seat42F.


This week, Hulu presents THE PATH. The producers insist it does not depict scientology, but what it does show is a new-ish belief system that brings people in through a cult-like manner and encourages them to climb the rungs of a ladder for salvation. So yeah, at least, superficially, it does present another take on scientology.

It has become popular to dis on scientology lately, but really, what THE PATH shows could apply to basically all religions, at least when they first start, before they are changed by millions of people getting little bits of power and influence over time. It’s fresh and exciting, and the early adopters buy in whole-heartedly. There are skeptics, of course, and even for those within the faith, there are varying levels of faith.

The protagonist to root for in THE PATH is Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad). After a retreat, Eddie’s eyes are opened, or so he thinks, and he starts to doubt the legitimacy of THE PATH. He doesn’t know what to do about it, though. His wife, Sarah Lane (Michelle Monaghan, True Detective), was born into the group and embraces their doxology fully, so he can’t talk to her about it. And because of Sarah’s closeness to Cal Robertson (Hugh Dancy, Hannibal), the face of the leadership, Eddie’s place becomes tenuous. Eddie wants to question things, but can he without losing his family, whom he cares about, and the life that they have?

The question is, how dangerous is THE PATH? Were it a harmless group whose members could join or leave at will, then Eddie’s lack of faith wouldn’t matter. This applies mainly to old religions, though, that have been around for centuries or millennia (with some exception). Instead, Eddie even wavering presents a threat to the group that must be stopped, lest the fragile, fledging structure fall apart, hence where the drama picks up. Eddie senses this, and while he does deny infidelity when the notion is raised, he doesn’t exactly come clean, either, which tells us something.

It’s hard to tell what kind of leader Cal is. He doesn’t set forth the rules, but he enforces them. There is a moment in the pilot where Cal’s morality is tested, and he must choose between the high ground and betraying his stance, which he sort of does correctly. Even within the hour, though, there is some question as to whether he is as pious as he claims to be. And his actions in this situation, while different than Eddie’s, are probably the best indicator of how he will treat the wandering member of the flock.

Plus, Cal has a thing for Eddie’s wife, who chose Eddie over Cal, so that will surely play into how Cal handles the situation.

THE PATH is inherently creepy, but again, I’d say that most looks at newer religions are. It takes a certain type of personality to believe that someone in our lifetime has figured out the secrets of life, and to follow them. Religion needs followers to grow, and so it must protect itself fiercely when it hasn’t yet achieved the reach and viability to survive past the first couple of generations. The older religions have really bizarre beliefs, too, but over time, we’re grown immune to the oddities. Not so with the new.

Despite the themes being old, it makes for compelling television to look at it from a modern perspective, which most people don’t do unless it’s pointed out to them explicitly, as has been done in a handful or shows and movies recently. This series accomplishes that, and with some really terrific lead actors, I look forward to seeing if this is just an action show that tells a story, which would be fine, or if it asks the audience to hold a mirror up to their own beliefs, which would be better.

THE PATH premieres tomorrow on Hulu.