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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Lost TRAVELERS

Article first published as TRAVELERS Review on Seat42F.


Netflix launched a new series today called TRAVELERS. Set in the present day, it involves a group of people from the future who travel (of course) back in time to inhabit the recently deceased’s bodies. They say they have come back to save humanity, and since they are the protagonists and aren’t just killing people, it makes sense to believe them. But they are very mysterious about their mission, so it’s hard to know exactly what is true in this world.
The central cast is made up of six players. Three of them aren’t great. Carly (Nesta Cooper, Heroes Reborn) is a mother whose baby daddy is an abusive drunk. Trevor (Jared Abrahamson, Awkward.) is a high school student who prefers fighting to school work. Philip (Reilly Dolman, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”) is a drug addict living in a crack house. None of these characters prove all that interesting, and none of the performances are very memorable. The future people chose poorly with these three, any of whom could be taken out at any time and it wouldn’t hurt the show.
However, the first woman we see, Marcy (MacKenzie Porter, Hell on Wheels), is far more interesting. Mentally disabled, Marcy is ‘cured’ over night when her body is taken, which not only shows us some of the rules of TRAVELERS, but also the limits of the heroes. While Marcy is not someone who makes a huge impact on the world prior to this event, her caring social worker, David (Patrick Gilmore, SGU Stargate Universe), helps flesh her out, and she is given an interesting plot line. Whenever the focus shifted to the others, I kept wishing for Marcy to return.
Finishing off the sextet is the investigator who starts looking into the strange things surrounding these people, Grant MacLaren (Eric McCormack, Will & Grace, Perception). I admit, I thought I had Grant figured out just a couple of minutes into TRAVELERS, and I found the character relatively boring. However, a twist late in the premiere ratchets up his importance and role, which immediately improves both the show and his part in it.
Screeners were not made available for this one, so I’ve only seen the pilot, but the impression that I get is that it will be pretty standard, mid-level sci-fi fare. There is a larger story that seems interesting, but it also looks like a lot of the twelve episodes will probably be mainly self-contained stories, at least going by Wikipedia synopsis. The mystery feels forced, and the way the characters present it, I’m not even sure the writers knew where it was going at the start. For instance, Marcy says she can’t explain what she’s doing to David, but then seems to understand exactly what she’s doing later, which makes her seem less trustworthy than the rest of the episode paints her to be. This unevenness weakens the overall production.
There is hope, though. This is a joint production with a Canadian studio, and it seems to be somewhat in the vein of fellow Northern series Continuum. Continuum was never the best show on the air, but it was intriguing science fiction, better than a lot of shows, even if it wasn’t must-see. If TRAVELERS only reaches the level of Continuum, I’d be pretty satisfied, as I enjoyed that one quite a bit.
The problem it faces is that we are nearing peak television, with more than four hundred scripted series premiering in the United States this year. Being middle of the pack used to be good enough, but it’s not any more. TRAVELERS will likely have some very adoring fans, the people that this hits the sweet spot for, but it lacks the type of appeal that would pull it out of the typical genre fare, so it’s not likely to get beyond that, or make any lasting impression. Which could likely lead to a short run.
TRAVELERS’ entire first season is available now on Netflix.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

SHUT EYE Review

Article first published as SHUT EYE Review on Seat42F.


My name is Charlie Haverford. I used to be a magic trick inventor. Until I became a fake psychic for a bunch of gypsies. When you’re a fake psychic, you’ve got nothing: no say in what you do. You do whatever work the Romas who control the area send your way. You disappoint anyone who’s still talking to you: an unsatisfied wife, a screw-up sister, kids, too, a hypnotist, if you’re desperate. Bottom line? Until you figure out how to get out from under the Roma thumb, you’re not going anywhere.

OK, so fun with the intro to this review aside, there are major difference between Jeffrey Donovan’s previous USA series, Burn Notice, and his new drama on Hulu, SHUT EYE, premiering this week. Still, it’s hard not to draw some parallels. Donovan’s Charlie used to be great at something, has gotten into a situation where he’s not doing what he wants to do, and doesn’t have an easy way out, sort of like Michael Weston. Also, those around him, while supportive, are not the A team he might pick, but he’s committed to them.

Yet, I like SHUT EYE a lot better than Burn Notice. Burn Notice was a thin, case-of-the-week procedural that rarely went anywhere until the end. SHUT EYE is a much more complex, ongoing tale in which a man who has been beaten into submission gains an actual clairvoyant gift, which may just be what he’s been waiting for to make some changes.

Donovan is good, building upon his success in Fargo last year. He’s someone who can play pathetic and obedient well, but there’s an edge to him that is interesting. He is surrounded by a decent cast that includes KaDee Strickland (Private Practice), Isabella Rossellini (Alias, Joy), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage), Susan Misner (The Americans), David Zayas (Dexter), Mel Harris (Saints & Sinners), Dylan Schmid (Once Upon a Time), and Angus Sampson (Fargo). Almost all are well cast, and the dynamics are set pretty solidly in the pilot.

The world is one not often portrayed in long-form, that of con men and women running a very successful racket of an industry, which I appreciate. Of course, those involved are little better than thugs and gangsters, and who is on top is purely a matter of showing strength and effectively threatening. It’s seedy stuff, but a new version of the dark worlds that currently populate television.

Somehow, though, through it all, Charlie comes across as being a likeable character. Rossellini’s Rita says it best when she calls him an honest liar. Charlie does engage in the same trickery as the others, but he also helps people and cares about people. He is loyal and he follows the rules, until he is pushed past a breaking point. Even then, his intentions are good, and he’ll only turn on those who deserve it. He’s a bit noble, which is surprising, given his profession and the situation he’s in.

SHUT EYE is set up to be a hero’s journey. We’re likely to see Charlie find his inner spirit and fight back when he needs to. We’ll see him rise from his lowly position and be a man to be proud of. Hopefully at least Linda (Strickland), his wife, will see that, and maybe stop fooling around with Gina (Chriqui) on the side, not that viewers are likely to blame her in the moment; Charlie hasn’t yet awoke when that occurs. Still, I find myself rooting for them to fix their marriage, and thinking Charlie might forgive her if he learns the truth.

SHUT EYE isn’t a perfect series. The story isn’t as gripping as one might like, with the flaws in the characters being a detriment to engaging with the story. Some of the plot twists or momentum seems forced and artificial. None of the performances are the type to make you start thinking of awards season, though they’re serviceable across the board. But it’s pretty good, and I do want to see more of it.

SHUT EYE will release its entire first season Wednesday, December 7th on Hulu.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Out of the SEARCH PARTY

Article first published as SEARCH  PARTY Review on Seat42F.


TBS premieres SEARCH PARTY this week. It’s a dark dramedy about a bunch of young adults whose former classmate goes missing. Most of the quintet are self-absorbed enough not to care much, but one of them, Dory, takes the news very hard, even though she and the missing girl aren’t close, and Dory can’t stop thinking about it. What is behind this mystery and why does it matter so much to Dory?
TBS usually does very goofy comedies, more slapstick than clever, which isn’t an insult as there is plenty of room in the world for both, and each style has many fans. In SEARCH PARTY, though, the netowkr is departing, going more for a premium cable style sitcom, something that is as much drama as comedy, and that gets into deeper issues than are usually tackled in twenty-two minutes. It’s a serial story, almost with a miniseries feel, that presents a specific point of view, grounded and relatable, and I found myself interested in this one.
Alia Shawkat (Arrest Development) stars as Dory, who to me feels apart from her social circle. Her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds, Stranger Things), is such a doofus he can barely take care of himself. Portia (Meredith Hagner, Royal Pains) is a self-absorbed actress, and hipster Elliott (John Early, Your Main Thing) is equally shallow.
Now, it could be that these friendships are left over from Dory’s younger days, and she hasn’t yet found a peer group that really understands her; she certainly seems different enough for this to be the case. I like this distinction, though, because it helps explain Dory’s motivation, someone who feels like she doesn’t quite belong in the world she inhabits, and I get the impression she’s looking for the missing girl in order to figure out herself as much as to actually solve the case.
Dory has some help from ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Michael Hall, Cecile on the Phone), the fifth member of the cast. Julian also doesn’t seem as much a part of the others, and that makes him a good one for Dory to reach out to when her friends are disinterested. Smart and capable, he’s the perfect partner for our fledging detective, and together they are likely to figure out what happened.
If that was all there was to SEARCH PARTY, I might still like it. But as one keeps watching, one gets more insight into what, on the surface, seem like the more superficial characters. Portia, in particular, is given screen time to explain why she is the way she is, which is welcome. If the same is done for Drew and Elliott, and if that figures into Dory’s central line, I could see this being a pretty interesting series.
What stops me from a full recommendation is that I feel like other shows have done these things better, though. SEARCH PARTY has the mystery of Stranger Things, the narcissism of Girls, and the journey of a Wes Anderson film. And the problem with drawing those comparisons is that each of the other pieces of content are superior in their execution. Which means this one suffers by the reference.
I like that TBS has taken this chance, and if this series were just a bit better, it would succeed for me. I do hope a failure here (if, indeed it does fail, as others may disagree and this show could become quite popular; I’m terrible at predicting ratings) doesn’t discourage TBS from trying again. Some of the right elements are in place, it just lacks a polish and fresh take to really push it over the top.
SEARCH PARTY premieres Monday, November 21st on TBS.