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Friday, September 30, 2016

Sweet Christmas, It's LUKE CAGE

Article first published as LUKE CAGE Review on Seat42F.



Highly anticipated, MARVEL’S LUKE CAGE hits the Netflix streaming service this week. The spin-off is fronted by the character introduced in last year’s Jessica Jones, and follows him as he hides out in Harlem, working cash jobs under the table, trying to stay off the radar. What will it take to pull Luke back into fighting criminals in the city he loves? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Mike Colter takes Luke, a supporting player in the previous series, and immediately proves why this guy deserves his own show. Bulletproof and nearly indestructible, Luke is essentially a gentle giant, avoiding violence as much as possible. He will stand up for those that need it when he sees injustice cross his path, but he’s certainly not seeking it out, preferring to live a quiet life of (mostly) solitude.

While that description in of itself is not unique, as it can be applied to Jessica Jones as well, the way Colter’s Cage is depicted is something different. You will very occasionally hear his signature phrase “Sweet Christmas!” but usually he glowers quietly. Colter can convey a lot with a glance, and he radiates a complex character with many layers. Cage is the most magnetic of the recent superhero batch, and every moment he is on screen is magical.

Thankfully, the rest of the ensemble matches Colter’s level of talent. Simone Missick (The Road to Sundance) takes on the iconic Misty Knight and makes it her own, stealing the scenes that she headlines sans Cage, and proving she is capable of driving a major plot arc, too. Frank Whaley (Ray Donovan) is terrific as Misty’s partner, Scarfe, and Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) is an intriguing villain sidekick, Shades. Alfre Woodward is, as usual, amazing as Mariah Stokes, a politician who may or may not be shady (and a different character than her Captain America: Civil War role). And Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) is a compelling Big Bag as club owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, my only complaint being he doesn’t seem nearly as old as his ‘contemporary cousin,’ Mariah.

But my favorite actor in this, aside from Colter, is Frankie Faison (Banshee, The Wire) as Pop, a de facto mentor to Luke and holder of his secret, as well as Luke’s boss. The scenes in Pop’s barber shop are among my favorite of what I’ve seen so far, providing Luke an opportunity to show other sides of himself, and also informing the neighborhood in which the show takes place. This wouldn’t work without Pop setting the tone of the place.

Speaking of setting, LUKE CAGE is undeniably Harlem. There is barely a white face on the street, with much dedicated to the soul of this area. While this is a black show, the only element it borrows from the Blaxploitation that the comic book version was born out of is the music, arguably the part that deserves to continue. Fans of the genre (or its parodies) will see the best of it in LUKE CAGE, but, soundtrack aside, it still feels like a modern show. This portrayal is very important in the current political climate, making the show timely.

My one complaint about LUKE CAGE is that it starts slow and gets boring at times. Never in Pop’s, of course, but as great as Ali and Woodard are, my mind sometimes drifts during their exposition. I assume it’s the writing, because I detect nothing wrong in their performances. But the same weakness aren’t present in the Luke and Misty scenes.

I also get why, Daredevil aside, Netflix has been skipping the traditional origin stories of its Marvel superheroes, picking up long after they got their powers. Yet, I wish we got a bit more than Luke quickly talking through his backstory, as I’d be interested in more of how he came to be the man he is.

Two episodes in, I’m not entirely sure where LUKE CAGE is going, and I do worry about the series sustaining constant energy over thirteen episodes. But I like it enough, and I am very curious as to whether Mariah will stick by cousin Cottonmouth, or if there is some idealism left in the politician. This is a fitting addition to the Netflix Marvel lineup.

MARVEL’S LUKE CAGE drops its entire first season on Friday to Netflix subscribers.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Travel to VERSAILLES

Article first published as VERSAILLES Review on Seat42F.


VERSAILLES is a British-Franco-Canadian production that started airing overseas nearly a year ago, and comes to Ovation in the United States on October 1st. Taking place during the construction of the titular setting, it focuses on King Louis XIV, his struggles, his sexual dalliances, and his accomplishments, not necessarily in that order.

Louis XIV (George Blagden, Vikings) is an interesting figure. Paranoid, but not unnecessarily so, as there really are people out to get him. Self-doubting, but not hampered too much by it, at least in action if not in thought, as evidenced by his grand plans for Versailles. Promiscuous, very much so, sleeping with many women, including, but not limited to, his wife, Marie Therese (Elisa Lasowski, Eastern Promises), his sister-in-law, Henrietta (Noemie Schmidt, The Student and Mister Henri), and Francoise-Athenais (Anna Brewster, Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

The necessity of all of the women is, of course, to produce an heir, but does Louis XIV need to be with quite so many women to do so? Certainly his wife is not quick to bear him a son, and theirs is an arranged marriage in order tie France to Spain, her homeland. And sure, in this era, monarchs do sleep with multiple women, and are not wholly expected to be faithful to their spouses. But, at least to me, it seems like Louis XIV gets around more than most (with some notable exceptions).

I mentioned that one of Louis’s lovers is his sister-in-law, and that plays into the very interesting relationship that Louis XIV has with his brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orleans (Alexander Vlahos, Merlin). The two don’t seem overly competitive in the show, with Philippe knowing his place, and not seeming overly interested when the possibility of becoming king is floated by him (though he isn’t uninterested, either). But Philippe does get frustrated when Louis doesn’t allow him to fulfill his potential. One wonders if he knows that his brother and wife are hooking up, though given Philippe’s leanings, I’m not sure he’d care even if he did know.

No, Philippe does not seem to be who Louis should be concerned about, at least not right away, but there is plenty of palace intrigue occurring. Some of it comes from noble families with bruised egos, and some of it comes from those who wish to save France from being bankrupted by Louis’ wars and construction projects. But Louis has his share of allies, too, so there will be plenty of battles, both overt and subtle, to fight over the course of the series, which has already filmed a second season and been renewed for a third.

My favorite things about VERSAILLES are in the visuals. It looks pretty stunning, both the costumes and the sets, which include exteriors. The Palace of Versailles is quite well known, and seeing its erection, even in small part, is pretty cool. The acting is also pretty solid throughout, too.

Where the show fails for me is in pacing. It is excruciatingly slow, and I find myself frequently becoming bored. Slow is not always a bad thing when you’re drawn in by the intensity of the performances, but that isn’t the case here, with the story lacking any urgency or super high stakes (since we know Louis isn’t really about to be assassinated or overthrown or anything). With an historical drama, this is always a challenge, and for me, VERSAILLES doesn’t manage to overcome it well enough. Also, some of the characters look a little too similar, making it hard to distinguish between them at times.

Overall, I thought VERSAILLES does some cool things, but it probably isn’t for me. If you like historical pieces, though, check it out, as you may disagree. VERSAILLES airs October 1st at 10/9c on Ovation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Be Gone, THE EXORCIST!

Article first published as THE EXORCIST Review on Seat42F.

FOX continues its trend of adapting films into television (Lethal Weapon premiered earlier this week) with THE EXORCIST. Based on the film and book of the same name, though with fresh characters, THE EXORCIST follows Fathers Tomas Ortega and Marcus Keane as they investigate evil in the home of the Rance family. Can they repel the demons and bring light back into the house? Or will they become victims of a dark power?

The two priests, presumably our heroes, are very different people. Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera, Sense8, El Equipo) is young and earnest and eager to help, but may lack the skills to do so. He’s also haunted by nightmares that could mean his soul is in danger. On the other hand, Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels, Flesh and Bone, House of Cards) is gruff with lots of life experience that has made him to want to withdraw from others. Which is too bad, because he’s probably the one the Rances need to defeat the demon.

The Rances have been through quite a lot already as THE EXORCIST begins. The father, Henry (Alan Ruck, Spin City), was in an accident that has left him pretty mentally gone and unable to really care for himself very well. Daughters Katherine (Brianne Howey, Horrible Bosses 2) and Cassey (Hannah Kasulka, The Fosters) deal with this at varying levels, one acting out, one being more understanding. This leaves matriarch Angela (Geena Davis, Grey’s Anatomy, Commander in Chief) to try to hold them all together, which she is struggling to do.

The series is a bit scary, but not overly so; this is broadcast television, you know. The gore is kept to a bare minimum, and swearing is pretty much nonexistent. What’s left is a drama that goes for something more underlying creepy than knock-your-socks off scary (by necessity), while trying to build a serial story with deeper mythology. Thank goodness this isn’t a case of the week, with the priests casting out new monsters every episode.

To be honest, I’ve had a very hard time critiquing this pilot. I hate The Exorcist movie, really hate it, and have never been able to get all the way through it. I did not enjoy the show at all for many of the same reasons, and despite my best efforts, kept allowing myself to be distracted and tuning out. This particular brand of horror does not appeal to be in the slightest, and while other programs in the genre have stood out and won me over, this one doesn’t. This makes it far from easy to pinpoint specific details that are good or bad, having managed to somehow mentally block out most of the hour already, and having no desire to ever see it again.

The general impression that I got was that it was decently made, but confusing. It wasn’t gripping or artistic like Hannibal (which is a movie I hated turned into a TV series I love), or full of rich characters like Bates Motel (loved both the movie and the show; see, I have some horror cred). It did look fairly well put together, with beautiful sets and the appropriate tone and style. But there also wasn’t anything that stood out as overly impressive or unique. The cast is fine. I’m not sure the writing was all that cohesive, given my inability to really identify the arcs other than the main one of the demon possession and the story of Henry.

I do think whatever is going on with Henry must be related to the demon. It has to be, right? And I’m sure the demon is actually there, as skeptical as everyone around Angela is of its existence, since that’s the basis of the story. I also imagine that future seasons will have to deal with future families, as surely that plot can’t be stretched out any further than a year.

I’m sorry, that’s about all I can tell you. If you like the movie and want to see the show, THE EXORCIST airs Friday, September 23rd on FOX.

Monday, September 26, 2016

MACGYVER Is Back Or Is He?

Article first published as MACGYVER Review on Seat42F.


CBS is bringing back MACGYVER this week, a rebooted series for a new generation. This show resets things at square one; it is not a continuation with a son or grandson or nephew of the old character. So if you’ve never seen the original, it won’t be any problem to keep up. But the central story of a top agent who doesn’t shoot people and can make inventions out of nearly nothing, often alongside ridiculously unrealistic explosions, remains. And if you are a fan, there are tons of Easter eggs stuck in just for you.

As many know Angus “Mac” MacGyver (Lucas Till, the latest X-Men movies) works for the very secret Department of External Services (DSX), a government agency that few know exists. He carries a Swiss Army knife and uses his superior mental abilities to save the day. In the new pilot, that means stopping a man (Vinnie Jones, Galavant, Snatch) from releasing a biological weapon on the unsuspecting public. Can he do it? Of course he can.

Unlike the previous MacGyver, though, this one doesn’t work alone. Sure, old Mac had his boss, Pete Thornton, who has become Patricia Thornton (Sandrine Holt, House of Cards) in the new series. But now he also has buddy and muscle Jack Dalton (George Eads, CSI), roommate Wilt Bozer (Justin Hires, the Rush Hour TV series), tech whiz criminal Riley Davis (Tristin Mays, The Vampire Diaries), and love interest Nikki Carpenter (Tracy Spiridakos, Revolution).

Now, not all of these characters are new, though the cast does look appropriately more diverse. In fact, Riley is the only one who never appeared in some incarnation back in the old days, which makes sense because technology wasn’t really an everyday thing then. However, besides Mac and Pete, Jack was the third-most seen character back then, and he was still only in 19 of the 139 episodes. So Mac working with a team is definitely different, and feels forced both by the standards of today and the lazy structure most case-of-the-week procedurals take, unable or unwilling to dig deep into one lead character. Even though yes, it doesn’t make sense for Mac to know tech, so that one addition is kind of necessary.

Also, the pacing is quite a bit faster. In the 1980s, Mac could take his time disarming a bomb or hunting down a single villain. In 2016, that’s not going to be the case, with the new MACGYVER rocketing through several obstacles pretty darn quickly and not stopping to catch his breath too much until the end of the hour.

What this makes for is a very odd mishmash of periods and styles. MACGYVER borrows a lot from the crime shows of today, as noted in the two preceding paragraphs, but it also tries very hard to mimic some of the things that the old MacGyver is remembered for, such as Mac’s narration, his charming niceness, a light touch, and of course, the really big, cheesy explosions, all of which feel very out of place on television now.

So can the current formula work with enough nostalgia and resurrected style? My gut tells me no. While the MACGYVER pilot is fun, the two competing tones don’t gel all that well together. I think the production should either have doubled down on creating a true 1980-1990s feel or updated for the modern day (though the latter would really have annoyed me) rather than trying to do both. The result is messy and uneven, and I feel like people will see right through the gimmick, making it tough to build a following.

I do recommend watching the pilot anyway, though. It is a relatively unique piece of drama precisely because of the things listed above. Just be warned it may make you long for something you can never have. And maybe you’ll be inspired to rewatch the original series on Netflix, which is nearly impossible to do because the aspect ratio is messed up and the quality is so bad. Can you get on fixing that, Netflix?

MACGYVER premieres Friday, September 23rd at 8/7c.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Take it EASY

Article first published as EASY Review on Seat42F.


NETFLIX is making your viewing decisions EASY this weekend (excuse the pun). It’s new eight-episode anthology series, EASY, which follows a diverse group of people in modern Chicago, dropped this morning. I’ve watched the first two half-hour installments, and my early impression is that it’s neat, authentic, well cast, and has something very relatable and very interesting to say.
The first episode is titled “The F**king Study,” which should tell you right away that the content is for mature audiences. Title stars aside, nudity and swearing are not bleeped in the show, though I will say the main characters are treated with dignity and realism, which means their bodies are only shown sparingly, not gratuitously. Usually, they are wearing something as they get it on.
Anyway, the plot of this first episode, to give you a taste of what EASY is, begins at a party where a study is being discussed. Apparently, it has been found that couples who stick to traditional gender norms have more and better sex. This greatly worries a husband (Michael Chernus, Orange Is the New Black) who stays home to write plays and take care of the kids. Although she plays it off, his wife (Elizabeth Reaser, Twilight), is also bothered, although she handles it differently.
What follows is a portrayal of two people who have been in a marriage a long time, do love each other, but aren’t sure what that means any more. We’ve seen couples struggle to maintain that intimacy and love before (HBO’s Togetherness springs to mind), and I won’t say EASY is entirely breaking new ground here. But what it does, it does very well. I fully believe these two actors, and can easily empathize with them, getting into their heads and understanding where they are coming from. Sure, it’s a bit depressing, especially for someone approaching who is that point in their own life (full disclosure: I am). However, as young people so often fail to understand, there’s no blueprint for any phase of life, and all we can do is figure it out as we go along, which is something that must be learned in of itself.
The second episode jumps to the very beginning of a relationship, as a woman (Kiersey Clemons, Transparent) questioning her sexuality (and everything else about herself) meets her “Vegan Cinderella” (Jacqueline Toboni, Grimm). It’s obviously quite a different take than the first episode, and yet it feels consistent in tone and style, even if the point of view shifts dramatically. Quality is maintained, and there are some fun little connections, the protagonist for installment two being the babysitter from episode one.
I’m not sure all the episodes will be so focused on love and sex, as the series description also mentions navigating technology and culture. In general, though, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s a brief circle through many perspectives, with an indie-movie feel and some genuine characters. Again, this is not a totally new concept, but it’s one that I dig when well executed, as it certainly is with EASY.
Television is entertainment, yes, but the best of it is meant to give us insight into our world and ourselves. That’s not as lofty a goal as it might sound, with the earliest examples of theatre seeking to do just that. EASY holds a mirror up, and maybe we don’t see our reflection every time, but it keeps turning that mirror until we do identify something looking back at us, or at a friend or family. It’s feel-good without being soapy, and drama without being dramatic. It’s comfortable, enjoyable, and I still come out of it feeling like I learned something about life. I can totally get behind this.
EASY is now available on Netflix streaming.

First PITCH

Article first published as PITCH Review on Seat42F.


Disclaimer: This article is written by a non-sports fan. Nope, I don’t watch any of the sports.
FOX will be striking several chords with its new drama PITCH. It’s about the first woman in major league sports, as a girl becomes pitcher for the San Diego Padres. No, this is not a true story, and no, no woman has ever played for the MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL (America’s four major professional sports leagues, according to Wikipedia; remember, I don’t follow sports), although the Padres are an actual team. But it feels like a true story, especially with the right to use actual logos, and hopefully reality will echo art in short order.
Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury, Twisted) always wanted to play baseball. She was great at it from a young age, and her father (Michael Beach, Sons of Anarchy) taught her how to compete with the boys. She finally earns her way into the minor leagues, and when an injury sidelines the Padres’ regular starter, she is called up to substitute in his steed.
Obviously, this is a huge weight to put on one woman, forced to represent her entire gender. The parallels are drawn between Ginny and Jackie Robinson, and PITCH portrays the sexism we’d all expect to happen right from the start. It’s easy to imagine all of the problems that would pop up when a woman finally makes that leap. PITCH gets a lot of them out of the way quickly, presumably so they can move onto other drama.
But PITCH isn’t just a preachy, big-picture show. Yes, showing a female in the big leagues is extremely important and long overdue. However, there is an actual woman for which this is happening, and a lot of the focus is on Ginny. We see how she handles things emotionally, and it feels authentic. Bunbury is terrific at making Ginny seem real, and as much as I feel her pain when she falls short, I also feel her pride when she succeeds, as we know she must.
In this way, PITCH is also a typical sports movie. Like many of the great films in the genre, it follows an underdog who overcomes adversity and naysayers to rise to the top of her game. This formula is incredibly familiar, and yet it rarely feels stale, even when the audience knows what to expect. Everyone likes to see sympathetic characters win, and Ginny fits that profile perfectly.
The cast is rounded out by a bevy of strong performers. Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved By the Bell, Franklin & Bash) is the abrasive team captain, Mike Lawson. Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) is the coach who doesn’t want Ginny, Al Luongo. Mo McCrae (Murder in the First) is Ginny’s long-time buddy and now teammate, Blip. Meagan Holder (Born Again Virgin) is Blip’s wife and Ginny’s pal, Evelyn. Tim Jo (The Neighbors) plays social media guru Eliot, and Ali Larter (Heroes) is Ginny’s agent, Amelia. Finally, Mark Consuelos (Alpha House) is the general manager of the team, Oscar Arguella.
Now, while the pilot is wholly a typical sports movie, I’m assuming the series will be more of a soapy drama over time. I feel like there are already the makings of a romance between Ginny and Mike, and Oscar is definitely after Amelia. There will be ups and downs as the season unfolds, and while the games will probably frequently be shown, there’s also going to be plenty of character stuff.
I think PITCH will be good at that. The pilot was very strong, other than a scene in which Mike seems to play savior to Ginny, which I found a little patronizing, but also kind of necessary to the plot. If it can avoid those, and it did for the rest of the hour, I think PITCH could definitely be a series worth watching. Though I think it’s too soon to crown it, as some already have, the next Friday Night Lights, which remains the definitive TV sports drama of our time.
PITCH premieres Thursday, September 22nd on FOX.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Another LETHAL WEAPON

Article first published as LETHAL WEAPON Review on Seat42F.



The Lethal Weapon movies are a popular franchise, so I imagine most of you potential viewers out there are already familiar with the premise of FOX’s new drama, LETHAL WEAPON. Martin Riggs loses his family and goes into a self-destructive tailspin. He is then partnered with Roger Murtaugh, a man who should start taking it easy because he’s getting older. The two of them solve some action-packed cases together, with some character development along the way as their pairing solidifies both professionally and personally.

These two men were famously portrayed by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and the premise and personalities are carried over as the series reboots for the small screen. This time around Clayne Crawford (Rectify) plays Riggs and Damon Wayans (In Living Color) takes Murtaugh. The foul language has been cleaned up, the fights are less bloody, but the fun and tone of the series is much the same, and while the pilot presents a brand-new case, it feels very familiar to those who have enjoyed the movies.

What this means is that LETHAL WEAPON is not like your typical cop show. Sure, there may be a case of the week; I really don’t know how else they could keep the story going. But at least in the pilot, a lot more screen time is devoted to solidifying the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh, both together and separately, than to working the job. I really appreciate that, and hope they are able to keep it up, if not at the same level, then at least continue doing better at it than most crime procedurals.

There’s also guaranteed action. Lethal Weapon is an action movie, and LETHAL WEAPON will be an action show. Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t just going to interview witnesses and look for DNA. They are going to get involved in car chases and fist fights and gun showdowns. This makes for a more fast-paced, tense, thrilling ride than what you get on those shows like NCIS and Law & Order.

What LETHAL WEAPON fails at is in casting its two leads. Neither actor is bad, but because they’re continuing famous roles, they will be compared to the original actors. And neither one stacks up to their predecessor. In the past, that might have been blamed on the fact that the best actors would only work big screen gigs, but that is no longer the case. I think better stars could have been found, or perhaps keep one of them but find someone else that fits well with him.

What I’m saying is, the main problem is that their chemistry leaves something to be desired. I don’t buy any depth to their friendship with the current way it is portrayed. Even if you like their individual performances, this show depends very much on the dynamic in their partnership. I thought it came too easy and felt too forced. It took me out of the moment a lot. Which is a shame, because both played very well with Keesha Sharp (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), who is Murtaugh’s wife, Trish.

Speaking of supporting actors, LETHAL WEAPON also stars Kevin Rahm (Mad Men, Desperate Housewives) as Murtaugh’s old partner and their new boss, Avery Brooks, and Jordana Brester (the Dallas reboot) as Dr. Maureen Cahill, a possible love interest for Riggs (at least until they cast Lorna Cole). I have no complaints about either one of them. I’m less thrilled with Johnathan Fernandez’s (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) Scorcese, not because of the performer, but because I’m worried the character is there to shoehorn in the more formulaic police stories.

So, my conclusion is that LETHAL WEAPON has a good pilot, even if the leads may be a bit miscast, but I’m concerned about it sustaining complex character quality over time, especially given Scorcese’s inclusion and the neat way they ended episode one. LETHAL WEAPON premieres tonight on FOX.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hunting for VAN HELSING

Article first published as VAN HELSING Review on Seat42F.


SyFy had such success with Wynonna Earp earlier this year that it’s no wonder they’d aim to get a second female-led reboot of a classic character back on the small screen ASAP. This time, it’s the VAN HELSING character from Dracula who receives the twist, with the story taking place in a near future where the world has been overrun by vampires. Can she save the world?

Kelly Overton (True Blood, Legends) stars as Vanessa Van Helsing, a woman who has been asleep for at least three years. Standing guard over her is Axel (Jonathan Scarfe, Ties That Bind), a military man who doesn’t know why she’s important, but knows it’s his job to protect her and the doctor who cares for her (Rukiya Bernard, The Stagers). When an old friend of Axel’s, Ted (Tim Guinee, The Good Wife, Revolution), shows up with a small group of survivors, things change for Axel and his charge.

I like that the pilot doesn’t jump straight into the action, and is just the beginning of the story, not a pattern that will be repeated week after week. It takes its time introducing the characters and letting the audience figure out who is important, which isn’t entirely clear in the first hour (though the main cast is listed on the show’s website). It doesn’t even introduce a lot of the major players in the initial offering, though since the series is airing two episodes back-to-back on premiere night, that might be saved for the second half.

I also like that VAN HELSING isn’t confined by the literary character on which it is so loosely based. Sure, I like a good Dracula adaptation, but that probably wouldn’t fit the network’s brand, whereas a slight-future reimagining totally does. Overton is believable enough as a woman desperate to find her daughter, who is somehow also a superhero that could possibly change the world, and her mission is one people will root for.

What I don’t like is that there aren’t any real stakes here (hehe), at least not at first. So Van Helsing has some powers, so what? It’s not like she can do something that will end the vampire reign overnight. Sure, she gives survivors a fighting chance, but it doesn’t seem like there are that many of them left anyway. They might secure a city or an area, but really, what’s the point? Axel isn’t likely to ever get his Kit Kat bars back.

Which means there has to be more to Vanessa Van Helsing that even what we’re seeing. But the problem is, she isn’t likeable or sympathetic, and neither is Axel, who are the two characters who really get developed in the pilot. There’s no purchase to really cling to; nothing to drawn you in. I’m sure, given time, I could learn to enjoy these characters, but the fact that there’s no charm or vulnerability early on makes me less likely to stick it out.

I am intrigued by two characters. Sam, a deaf, observant man, is played by Christopher Heyerdahl. There’s nothing to really get me excited about Sam so far, but I loved Heyerdahl in Hell On Wheels, so I want to see what he’s doing here. I’m also very intrigued by Flesh (Vincent Gale, Bates Motel), (SPOILER ALERT, though it is listed on the Cast page of the official website) a vampire who turns human again after biting Van Helsing. While I’m sure there will be Angel-esque guilt, I am curious to see how VAN HELSING uses such a role.

But those things aren’t really enough to get me into the show. If anyone who isn’t sucked in by the first hour gives it more of a chance and thinks it significantly improves over time, let me know. Otherwise, in an era of peak TV, I just don’t have time for this one.

VAN HELSING premieres September 23rd at 10/9c on SyFy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

NOTORIOUS Bad?

Article first published as NOTORIOUS Review on Seat42F.


While we impatiently await the return of Scandal, ABC has another show on deck that is along the same lines called NOTORIOUS. It follows a lawyer, a TV producer, and the people around them as they manufacture news stories and deal with real drama, lying to pretty much everybody, and contributing to the public’s false perceptions of reality. It’s very soapy, and is certainly trying to be sexy in an over-the-top way.

Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs) stars as Julia George, the aforementioned producer, while Daniel Sunjata (Graceland) is the second lead, a lawyer named Jake Gregorian. The two of them don’t have a relationship, since Julia dating a judge (Marc Blucas, Necessary Roughness) and Jake is interested in his client’s wife (Dilshad Vadsaria, Greek). But because of the type of show this is, and because of the easy, immediate chemistry between the two, you just know they’re going to be dating, or at least screwing, before long.

Julia seems to be the colder of the pair, having no problem lying to and scolding her on-air talent, Louise Herrick (Kate Jennings Grant, Frost/Nixon), not that Julia has any room to talk. She also treats her new intern, Ryan Mills (Ryan Guzman, Heroes Reborn), poorly, although considering Ryan is thrust upon her through nepotism, I guess that’s understandable. My point is, we shouldn’t like Julia because of how she acts towards those around her, and yet Perabo just can’t play unlikeable so we end up behind her anyway (which is surely the intention of casting the actress in this role).

Jake is a little more sympathetic. Yes, he’s into a married woman, but he really does care about her and he’s at least hesitant about acting on those feelings. Through Jake’s interactions with his brother and legal partner, Bradley (J. August Richards, Angel), we see that Jake is a decent human being, even if his client, Oscar Keaton (Kevin Zegers, Gossip Girl), probably isn’t. So Jake is probably too good for Julia, but that won’t stop the show from pairing them anyway.

None of this in of itself is a bad thing. I’ve enjoyed many shows with similar ensembles and dynamics on broadcast network TV. In fact, most of the best primetime soapy dramas happen to be on ABC, including Scandal, so it seems like NOTORIOUS should fit right in.

But it doesn’t. The level of quality just isn’t there on this one. It isn’t the cast, who is across-the-board good looking and charming; it is the writing. So many things happen in the first hour alone to unnecessarily cause conflict that it stops feeling real and you’re taken out of the moment repeatedly. How unlucky can Julia be? Why must Jake have a young employee, Ella Benjamin (Aimee Teegarden, Friday Night Lights), who is so perfectly matched to Julia’s Ryan? Why does Louise have to be so lecherous, other than to get in the middle of couples and potential couples?

It’s also really hard to trust what we’re seeing when not once, but twice early in the first hour of the series characters reveal how far their lying goes to the audience. Suddenly, I’m not going to believe anything I see in a scene until it’s proven and backed up in multiple other scenes, and maybe not even then. NOTORIOUS shoots itself in the foot by making the characters so dishonest and then somehow expecting us to still like and trust them.

This type of show is something I’d be totally into, and in the past, I may even have looked past the mess and the flaws to give it a chance to grow into itself (cough, Revenge). But there are too many good things on right now to waste your time with a mediocre one that may never be that great (cough, Revenge), and NOTORIOUS, despite having a great ensemble, just isn’t ready for primetime.

NOTORIOUS premieres Thursday, September 22nd at 9/8c.

Is DESGINATED SURVIVOR Gonna Make It?

Article published as DESIGNATED SURVIVOR Review on Seat42F.


We all know about the DESIGNATED SURVIVOR, right? During the annual State of the Union speech, one member of the administration is chosen to stay behind at a safe location in case an attack wipes out the rest of the government. This unlikely event has never happened, but it’s a worse-case scenario contingency that is ripe with story potential, as shown in the great reboot of Battlestar Galactica a few years ago. But it was only one element of that show; does it have the legs to support a weekly series?

ABC is going to find out as DESIGNATED SURVIVOR premieres this week. Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland, 24) is the outgoing Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, probably left behind because he’s fallen out of favor with the president and being forced to resign anyway. But when disaster strikes, Tom is quickly sworn in as leader of the free world, thrust into a situation where he must make the tough calls in short order, set the country’s response to the most devastating attack its ever experienced, and assert power from those who don’t believe he can handle the job.

One such critic is Seth Wright (Kal Penn, House, Harold & Kumar), a speech writer for the POTUS that does not think the new guy has what it takes. Nor do any of the military leaders. This is understandable, not just because Tom is not a combative guy, but because the first things we see him do do not inspire confidence in his ability to lead and make the tough calls. It seems like he will not be able to make this work.
But if that were to remain the case, there would be no show, right? Tom is our hero and he will step up to the plate. That’s a given before we even start watching the series.

The problem is, Tom finds his inner strength way too easily. I guess you can take the man out of Jack Bauer but you can’t take the Jack Bauer out of the man. While Kiefer does a fine job finding Tom’s timid nature at the start, he transforms ridiculously quick into what he’ll need to be. Where’s the struggle? This would be a far more interesting show if the focus was on that growth journey instead of moving quickly past it to get to the action.

Funny enough, ABC president Channing Dungey recently said she wished cable series weren’t automatically seen as better than broadcast shows. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is the perfect example of exactly why this bias exists. Were the series on FX or HBO or AMC, the show would be about the character’s struggle. The cast would likely be smaller, and the story tighter to the immediate situation. Instead, like a lot of ABC shows, it’s bloated and quick moving, wanting to get more action and soapy drama in than worrying about Emmy-worthy performances or fantastic writing.

Though I called the roster bloated, I’m not complaining about the rest of the cast; it’s a strong ensemble comprised of Natascha McElhone (Californication) as Tom’s wife, Alex, Italia Ricci (Chasing Life) as Tom’s aide, Emily, Adan Canto (The Following) as the new president’s, well, tutor seems appropriate though isn’t entirely accurate, Aaron, LaMonica Garrett (Sons of Anarchy) as a Secret Service agent, Mike, and Maggie Q (Nikita) as an FBI agent, Hannah. But most of them are underdeveloped, such as the First Lady being a very bland type, or poorly used, in the case of Q. This could improve over time, but these supporting players are not well established in episode one.

I really want to like this show, and I kind of do. It is exciting, I do enjoy the actors, and I am curious about the mystery that we start with. I just worry DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is not set up for success, and that things will get hokey and insincere as the season plays out, forcing twists where they aren’t needed, and skipping over the potential deep bits beginning to be explored based on the unevenness and flaws of the pilot. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if this one can be great or not.

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR premieres Wednesday at 10/9c.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Not SPEECHLESS About This One

Article first published as SPEECHLESS Review on Seat42F.



SPEECHLESS is a new sitcom on ABC that you may have heard of. As the previews make very clear, this is your typical family sitcom with a mom, dad, three kids, and one outside cast member to mix things up. As you may not have heard, there’s something about the show that makes it not quite your typical family sitcom, and yet, the very way in which this something is handled is what makes it so typical.

The family unit is made up of an overbearing mother, Maya (Minnie Driver, About a Boy, Good Will Hunting), a calm and supportive father, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie, The Big Bang Theory), a competitive daughter, Dylan (Kyla Kenedy, The Walking Dead), and a nerdy son, Ray (Mason Cook, Legends). Sounds normal enough, right?

Where things veer off a little bit is with the other son, JJ (Micah Fowler, Labor Day), who happens to have severe cerebral palsy. We’re talking a condition so bad that the poor kid can’t talk, having to use a laser pointer on a headset to point to the words on a card that he wants to say, on his way towards Stephen Hawking territory. I can’t recall the last time we’ve seen someone like JJ on a broadcast network sitcom.

What’s remarkable and laudable about SPEECHLESS is how little a deal it makes of JJ. Yes, JJ is a driving plot point, the family having to move schools frequently in order to find the best situation for him. And Ray’s first arc is all about feeling overlooked by Maya, who spends so much of her energy doing what is best for JJ. But this is by no means the only thing going on in SPEECHLESS.

The best part is how JJ himself is handled. He bullies Ray a little bit. Jimmy cracks jokes at JJ’s expense. Basically, he’s a part of the family, and no one in this clan treats him any differently on a regular basis. Sure, Maya might go out and fight harder for him, but in their dynamic, JJ is just like Ray and Dylan.

This should not be a revelation; shows have been trying to include more diversity for years. From Parenthood’s Max, who had Asperger’s (though the actor does not), to Glee’s Becky, who had Down Syndrome (which the actress does have), it’s not a completely brand-new thing to see this sort of character on television. And yet, it still feels fresh because so few regular series take the time to include a player with such challenging disabilities who contributes to the story in such a pedestrian way. This is a very good thing.

If JJ was all SPEECHLESS had going for it, I’d dismiss JJ as a gimmick, as sad as that would be. Thankfully, that is not the case. It’s a strongly written, well-acted comedy. Driver and Bowie are absolutely terrific, as they always are, but especially so in this particular setting. Cook, Fowler, and Kenedy are great, too, certainly able to keep up with the adults. Cedric Yarbrough (Reno 911!) rounds out the cast as Kenneth, the custodian-turned-aide for JJ, who easily integrates into the group from the first moment we, and the characters, meet him.

I’m sure the team behind SPEECHLESS doesn’t want to be known as “that family comedy with the cerebral palsy kid,” or at least I hope they don’t. They won’t be able to help that for awhile, and it’s impossible to write up an initial review without dwelling on it. But given the steady quality and amusing laughs, nudging it towards the top of the typical family sitcom heap (of which there are a few too many on right now), hopefully it’ll soon be talked about as “one of the better family sitcoms” period. It deserves that, and I love that I can say that about it. This would be a very different review if I could not.

As Joss Whedon said when asked why he writes so many strong female characters, “because you ask that question,” SPEECHLESS helps us along the path to answering a question about why you include an actor with a disability in the ensemble with “because you ask that question.” The more comfortable viewers can get with a wide variety of people on their screens, the better for it we all are.

SPEECHLESS premieres Wednesday at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Plenty of BULL

Article first published as BULL Review on Seat42F.


CBS has a new hour-long procedural called BULL. The titular character runs a company that takes studying jury composition and manipulation to a whole new level. They analyze who is serving the court, create and test their own scenarios in the lab, and then apply them to real-world (well, fictional-real-world) cases that are being tried right now.

Michael Weatherly (NCIS) stars as Dr. Jason Bull, the head of the organization, who cannot stop evaluating people, making for kind of a lonely existence. He may be emotionally detached, but his office is very busy, with team members including Benny Colon (Freddy Rodriguez, Six Feet Under), Marissa Morgan (Geneva Carr, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Danny James (Jaime Lee Kirchner, Mercy), Cable McCrory (Annabelle Attanasio, The Knick), and Chunk Palmer (Christopher Jackson, Oz), most of whom are familiar, forgettable types.

The concept itself sounds novel, right? We’ve got plenty of police and legal procedurals, but how many of them pay any attention to the jury, even for a single hour? In this, BULL is taking an entirely new approach to a tried-and-true formula.

But it’s going a little too tried-and-true. It’s very clear from the onset that this series will be case-of-the-week. Several good actors are brought in for the pilot, but while or two have recurring potential, for the most part, everything is over by the end of the hour. It’s a repetitive tact that has gotten very boring on dozens of other shows before this point, so I am more than a little disappointed that BULL follows that exact same, far-too-familiar pattern.

Not only that, it doesn’t even really stick to its concept. The soul of this is working with the juries and the lawyers, and that’s completely understandable. But the pilot leaves time not to just to tie up the court case, but to reveal the truth behind the case and follow it through to its end. There’s really no realistic way for Bull to be involved in that, similar to shows like Castle where a non-cop hero is somehow integrated onto the force, and because it’s a tag at the end of the installment, it feels super forced and hokey. If you’re looking for a grounded, realistic take on the judicial system, this program is not that.

All of it feels very scripted. From the techniques and technology Bull’s company uses, to the twist in their client’s story, to the attitudes of most of the characters, there is nothing fresh present. It’s a mishmash of what other series have done, poorly strewn together as if by someone who is familiar with this type of show, but who hasn’t made anything like it in the past.

Which may make sense when you learn that BULL was created by Phil McGraw. Yep, the Dr. Phil of daytime television fame. True, he had help from House executive producer Paul Attanasio. But BULL is based on Phil’s early career (presumably with a lot of liberties taken) and is from the brain of the former psychologist. Whether you approve of him or not, Phil has obviously had great success with one television program, but that does not translate into this new project, which is a totally different beast.

What strikes me is that, in spite of all the flaws, Weatherly is still good. He has embodied an interesting, complex character (only talking about the character, no judgment one way or the other on the real Phil), and it isn’t just a mimicry of the celebrity the show is based on. Unfortunately, that is not nearly enough to save the series, especially when his leading role is forced to exceed the bounds he should be constrained by. This series is absolutely one to skip.

BULL airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on CBS beginning this week.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

THE Very GOOD PLACE

Article first published as THE GOOD PLACE Review on Seat42F.


THE GOOD PLACE will be on NBC Thursdays at 8:30PM. No, I’m not saying whatever show fills that time slot is good, though in the case of THE GOOD PLACE, it’s very good. It’s the title of a new sitcom about a woman who mistakenly goes to the wrong afterlife and her attempts to stay there. No, it’s not too sacrilegious, not attacking any faith in particular nor bashing religion much. Yes, it is clever, fresh, and funny.

Kristen Bell (House of Lies, Bad Moms, Veronica Mars) stars as Eleanor Shellstrop, a former pharmaceutical salesperson who cheated old people out of their money for ineffective drugs, and who died in a very embarrassing manner. Mistaken for an altruistic woman of the same name, Eleanor finds herself in what we might call heaven, a small city with lots of frozen yogurt, no cursing, and (mostly) very large houses.
Who would build such a place? Well, that’s the work of Michael (Ted Danson, Fargo, Cheers), a brand-new architect who has just created this town as his first solo project. As such, I guess there are bound to be a few mistakes as he figures his way through.

Eleanor doesn’t want Michael to find out about this particular mistake, though, because that would mean she has to go someplace worse. So what we’ve got is a bad person taking advantage of a bunch of good people. I mean, the other tact to take would be to become a good person herself, and I won’t say that Eleanor won’t try to do that, but it seems much more likely she’ll take the easy path as much as possible, given what we know about her.

One of the first things Eleanor does is drag in an accomplice, Chidi (William Jackson Harper, True Story, The Electric Company), the other Eleanor’s soulmate. Right away, that tells us something about her and how she’ll handle the situation, which makes absolute sense as we learn the type of person she was.

I feel like there might be something going on in THE GOOD PLACE that isn’t immediately obvious. Is the whole thing a test for Eleanor? Is this her purgatory? Is this place not as ideal as it seems? Do the architects make mistakes so often? Is Chidi really this Eleanor’s soul-mate, both forced to grow through interacting with one another?

Or is this a story about two screw ups, Eleanor and Michael, who are in a bit over their heads and have to find their way? That could certainly be equally compelling, and is the more straight-forward way to take the premise.

For either of those two theories to be fully realized, THE GOOD PLACE must get multiple seasons on the air. I adore Bell and Danson, and these two characters are terrific for them, allowing them each a showcase to shine. I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode, both in terms of premise and cast, the latter of which also includes Jameela Jamil (the DJ and writer), Manny Jacinto (The Romeo Section), and D’Arcy Carden (Broad City). I am very excited to watch more of it.

But I do worry it’ll be too high-concept for broadcast network audiences. It reminds me a little of The Neighbors in that we’re seeing a bit of hyper-reality and characters we can’t necessarily relate to. This doesn’t make the series any less entertaining, and in fact, is a good sign in my book. But viewers can be fickle, and I worry THE GOOD PLACE won’t catch on the way that it should. I’m hoping the two very recognizable leads (who are also very talented, but that’s less important in the context of this point) will draw people in to at least give it a try. As long as its potential audience is aware of it, I think it’ll succeed.

THE GOOD PLACE premieres Monday, September 19th at 10/9c, before settling in its normal timeslot Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c.

Friday, September 16, 2016

THIS IS US And We're Lovely

Article first published as THIS IS US Review on Seat42F.


Are you missing Parenthood? NBC must understand because, while the Bravermans are not slated to return any time soon, a new drama looking to fill that place in your heart is on its way. Called THIS IS US, it’s far from a clone of that wonderful, much-missed series, but it does tug at many of the same emotional heart strings as a number of stories play out.

At the onset, we are introduced to four individuals who share a birthday, all turning thirty-six. There’s: Kevin (Justin Hartley, Smallville, The Young and the Restless), an actor frustrated with a sitcom that has made him a star, but that he considers beneath him; Kate (Chrissy Metz, American Horror Story: Freak Show), an extremely overweight woman who is desperately trying to lose the pounds; Randall (Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), an adopted man seeking the druggie father who abandoned him (Ron Cephas Jones, Mr. Robot); and an expectant father, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia, Heroes, Gilmore Girls), whose wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore, Tangled), is going into labor with triplets.
The above plot threads may seem carefully calculated to tug at the heart strings, and they probably are. After all, drama writers have to know how to write drama that will land with viewers. Yet, it doesn’t feel forced, the performances of all lending themselves to a very authentic-seeming story with a bunch of people you will quickly come to care about. Like the best of the primetime stuff, it can be a bit more than the normal person goes through, but it avoids the soapy ridiculousness of the more comedy-leaning programs.
There are supporting characters, too, as there must be to keep the stories going. In the core cast is Randall’s wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson, Louie), and a love interest for Kate, fellow fat support group member Toby (Chris Sullivan, The Knick). The latter gets more development initially, and he has some rough edges, but I think both will be fine players in future installments, which will surely use them as more than just small, side parts.
Clearly present are strong themes of family and acceptance, the two main viewpoints expressed, and ones worth hanging a show on. There are bonds here that we will (hopefully) almost all relate to, and characters that are immediately sympathetic. It’s good stuff.
The closest THIS IS US comes to breaking new ground is probably in Kate’s story. We’re not used to seeing people quite so heavy on television, and especially not in a leading role like this. Yes, Mike and Molly existed, but it was by and large (no pun intended) a comedy that played with stereotypes, and its subversion of the norm was less blatant. THIS IS US goes head-on tackling the issues, motivations, and sorrows for someone who is struggling with body size, and it may do for the overweight what series like Will & Grace and Modern Family did for gays. Specifically, teach viewers to have more compassion for their fellow human beings, promoting understanding of the problems real people struggle with. I dig it.
Given the type of series this is and the way the first hour unfolds, if you’ve watched much of this type of television at all, you’ll begin to wonder where the connections between the characters are. Aside from the show Touch, one expects everyone to connect pretty solidly in an ensemble cast like this. And while I refuse to spoil anything, I will say that I called the ending “twist” by midway through the episode. However, I wasn’t completely sure I was right until it actually played out because it’s a bit of a tricky one, and it does something I didn’t expect a show like this to do. Kudos for some interesting writing.
THIS IS US premieres Tuesday, September 20th at 10/9c on NBC.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lying Down With FLEABAG

Article first published as FLEABAG Review on Seat42F.


Launching as an Amazon Original, though also a British series that already posted to online streaming service BBC Three, all six episodes of FLEABAG come to American audiences on September 16th. Set in present-day London, it’s the story of a young woman who isn’t handling the death of her best friend very well. Told in semi-non-linear fashion, it’s about grief, feminism, millennials, sex, and so much more.
FLEABAG is created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Crashing, The Iron lady), who also stars as the titular character. When we meet her, she’s a mess but we don’t know why. She treats her sensitive boyfriend, Harry (Hugh Skinner, W1A), and her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford, Paddy), poorly, using them and then pushing them away, and not really seeming to take their feelings into account at all. Her father (Bill Paterson, Outlander) has it even worse, with Fleabag causing friction in his relationship with her godmother (Olivia Colman, Broadchurch). Fleabag herself will sleep with just about anyone and seems to barely get by day by day.
But then, we learn about Boo (Jenny Rainsford, Prometheus), her guinea pig-obsessed best friend and business partner who perished. Did Boo kill herself, or was it an accident? This is in doubt. Since Boo is the only character we ever see happy (in a number of interspersed flashbacks), it makes the situation even more puzzling.
The fact that Fleabag lost Boo does not excuse her behavior, at least not all of it. Fleabag is rude, self-centered, and semi-psychopathic. And yet, viewers will want to cut her some slack because of Boo’s death. Everyone deals with grief in different ways, and maybe Fleabag is acting out from deep emotional pain. After all, she’d have no one at all if she were always so awful, right? Maybe…
Waller-Bridge gives a stunning performance, one that constantly keeps you guessing about whether you should like the protagonist or not. Her snide comments and looks at the camera, a la House of Cards, help us get inside her head and earn some sympathy. And yet, they also betray that she may be just as horrible as she outwardly acts.
I watched two episodes to try to figure out the fascinating dichotomy. I did not manage to, though I’ll be watching the additional four installments to see if they can shed any more light. Instead of answers, we get a complex woman that feels completely real, both a product of her time and a reaction against it. While it’s hard to like Fleabag too much, she begs you to try to peer into her soul, and it’s difficult to look away. She is one of the most interesting, enigmatic character studies I’ve seen in a long time, which is probably why I liked the show so much.
If you are casually pulling up a scene or skimming through FLEABAG, you are likely to wonder why in the world you’d ever want to watch such a thing, which is what my wife asked me ten minutes into episode two (she missed the pilot). But if you’re willing to devote the time and attention this dramedy deserves, it seems to me there is much richness to be mined, and certainly a ton of originality, which is lacking from most other shows.
I don’t know if there’s any hope of FLEABAG coming out of the funk she’s in, or if this is her natural personality and always has been. I hope it takes her awhile to figure herself out, though, because this is something I’d like to watch for a few years, not just one afternoon.
FLEABAG will premiere on Amazon Prime September 16th.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

THE BIG BANG THEORY - THE COMPLETE NINTH SEASON

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Big Bang Theory - The Complete Ninth Season' on Blogcritics.


Some television shows begin to show their age after nearly a decade on the air, especially sitcoms, which tend to thrive on one-off stories. Their lack of complexity makes them fun in the short-term, but it’s hard to sustain a high quality level of humor and enthusiasm year after year without the cast and the audience beginning to grow bored. An exception to that generalization is The Big Bang Theory, which is releasing it’s ninth season on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and DVD this week, and shows little sign of slowing down.

If you’re not familiar with the show (though it’s hard to imagine you aren’t, with the series being the most-watched comedy of the last several years), it’s about four geeky scientists and the women that they love. The Big Bang Theory didn’t start with much in the way of female representation; the sole woman in the early days was Penny (Kaley Cuoco), and she was mostly just there to be a dream girl for Leonard (Johnny Galecki) to pine for. But over time, that changed, and other girls came along and stuck.

I think that’s part of the key to The Big Bang Theory‘s success: it has allowed itself to evolve and grow over time. Penny and Leonard marry in the season premiere of this release, but it’s no longer a one-sided affection, nor is it shallow these days. They have come to appreciate one another for a variety of reasons, and work as a couple because they’ve both changed through their exposure to one another. They seem like a solid pairing.

This rings true, also, for Howard (Simon Helberg) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), the former of whom is still getting over his mother’s death from last season as they move into her house this year. They begin to think about starting a family in season nine, and we can see how they have stabilized, the man child ready to be a man with a child, and the woman who has thankfully pushed him towards that point.

Raj (Kunal Nayyar) is far less settled, dating two women at once. It’s not as skeezy as it sounds (usually), as Raj really does care deeply for both Emily (Laura Spencer) and Claire (Alessandra Torresani, Caprica), and he doesn’t lie to them (much). But even with the negatives in the story, it’s a big leap for Raj from the shy man who couldn’t even speak in the presence of women at the start.

Even famously particular Sheldon (Jim Parsons) is softening, forced to face the fact that he may lose Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) if he doesn’t learn how to express his affections both vocally and physically. The results of these growing pains are funny, yes, but they’re also painful as we learn what makes Sheldon tick, as happens arguably more this season than in any other.

If that makes the guys and Penny sound totally different from where they started, they are. Yet, all of this evolution has been gradual and authentic, changing as real people do over time. They rub off on one another, and it has made them all more complex, mature individuals. The Big Bang Theory hasn’t lost its premise or what made it special; it simply enhanced and deepened it as the years went by, a sure recipe for success. I can’t wait to see what season ten has in store this fall.

The Complete Ninth Season has a bunch of bonus features, though I would rank it middling in what is offer. Two sets of “#JustAskBBT” has cast members responding to fan questions, though most of them aren’t very good questions, and it’s puzzling why this is in two parts instead of just one. “Love is Rocket Science” is basically just a recap of the romantic relationships at this point, which is emotionally satisfying, but doesn’t really add anything to what we’ve already seen. But “The Big Bang Theory Gives Back” is better, highlighting how the series has positively helped college students going into STEM fields. And the included gag reel is predictably, comfortably funny.

While I’m lukewarm on the extras, I’m clearly not on the episodes, which attract guest stars like Bob Newhart, Christine Baranski, Laurie Metcalf, Judd Hirsh, Keith Carradine, Wil Wheaton, Adam Nimoy, Stephen Merchant, Elon Musk, Adam West, Stephen Hawking, June Squibb, and more in just this season alone. Whether you’ve been a faithful watcher from the beginning, have only caught a few episodes here and there, or want to jump in for the first time, I can unequivocally recommend The Big Bang Theory – The Complete Ninth Season, available September 13th.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Found My QUARRY

Article first published as QUARRY Review on Seat42F.


It’s 1972 in Memphis. Soldiers are coming home from Vietnam to a public who is ashamed of them and filled with hate for what the military did. It’s a tense, fluid, depressing time in American life. One young man in particular finds it hard to get work and readjust to civilian life. This is the story of Cinemax’s newest series, QUARRY, which premieres tonight.

I’ve reviewed a number of Cinemax pilots over the years, but seldom found one I wanted to watch past episode one. They tend to be bloody pulp fiction, more concerned with violence and gore than storytelling. Or, even when they have a decent narrative, they still have to dress it up in the trappings of most of their fare.
QUARRY is the exception. Yes, there are certainly some violent things that happen, you will see some of the crimson liquid spilled, and death, revenge, hatred hang in the air. And there is even some gratuitous, though not unwelcome, nudity. But that’s not the focus of the series. Those are supporting elements, not the center of every other scene as the first hour plays out.

We are introduced to Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green, Dark Blue, Prometheus) pretty early on, the protagonist described in the introductory paragraph. Mac is glad to be back in the arms of his wife, Joni (Jodi Balfour, Bomb Girls), not letting his buddy’s teasing allegations of infidelity dampen his enthusiasm to see her again. But even with his loving gal, he finds it difficult to secure employment, and his interactions with members of the public become combative at times as soon as they figure out he’s a veteran, and he’s haunted by what he did overseas. Thus, Mac finds himself tempted by a less than noble calling that would pay plenty to support his two-person family unit as well as take some of the financial stress and pressure off.

Enter The Broker (Peter Mullan, Top of the Lake, War Horse) and his henchmen, Karl (Edoardo Ballerini, Boardwalk Empire) and Buddy (Damon Herriman, Justified), who want to make Mac a contract killer. This is where the typical Cinemax stuff comes into play, with assassination and dangerous missions entering the plot.

To QUARRY’s credit, it lets Mac wrestle with the morality of The Broker’s offer. Yes, Mac killed people in Vietnam, and yes, as his friend argues, people who have a contract out on them are probably bad people. But even when a large sum of money is on the table, Mac doesn’t want to do this; he is better than this. And while we know he will eventually give in (otherwise there would be no show), the way in which the character gets to that point feels more natural and less forced than what I see in most players on this network.

There are also some additional side stories involving Joni and the wife of Mac’s army buddy, Ruth (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Luther), as is necessary to keep a weekly series going for any length of time. These are less important, but do connect to the more central arc.

But Mac’s journey is what QUARRY is about, and by making this program a more complex character study, rather than just a shoot-‘em-up, I am intrigued. Probably not enough to subscribe to the network, but enough to check out series on its own when it becomes available to view independently. However, if you already have access to Cinemax, this raises the quality level of what the channel generally offers, so I would absolutely recommend setting that season pass and enjoying a modern, well-made tale, at least going by the pilot.

QUARRY premieres tonight at 10/9c on Cinemax.