Wednesday, February 22, 2017

BIG LITTLE LIES Big Fun With Little to Complain About

Article first published as BIG LITTLE LIES Review on Seat42F.

HBO is known for attracting top talent, especially for their limited-run programming. Nowhere is that trend more apparent than in the new miniseries BIG LITTLE LIES, premiering tonight. Written by David E. Kelley (The Practice), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), and boasting an all-star cast, this seven-part story is the less-cheesy version of a primetime soap. It takes place in an affluent neighborhood, and focuses on the mothers of first graders. And oh yes, there’s a mysterious murder.

BIG LITTLE LIES doesn’t tell you who’s dead and who did the killing right away. Its hook is based on suspense. We know something bad happened slightly in the future, but we don’t know why or to who or even who did it. The whole thing is told on an earlier timeline, which makes viewers pay more attention to every interaction between characters, seeing if they can figure out the twists before they are revealed.

The fact that the show is a miniseries, rather than an ongoing program, is also a benefit in drawing in eyeballs. The stakes are higher when the audience knows that nobody is coming back for a second season. That means we can’t just dismiss a star or main player from being the criminal or victim out of hand. There is no motivation to keep anyone’s hands clean, and that makes it all the more compelling.

Reese Witherspoon’s (Walk the Line, Wild) Madison Martha Mackenzie seems the most central role. In a marriage she values with a steady man, Ed (Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation), she still can’t get over her ex, Nathan (James Tupper, Revenge), nor does she care much for his new wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz, Max Max: Fury Road). In the meantime, she’s dealing with a rebellious teenager, hanging out with her two best friends, and battling another mother for dominancy at school.

Madison’s pals are Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!, Lion) and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley, Divergent, The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Jane is new in town, and is slow to give up information about herself. Celeste has been around for awhile, and quit her law career to stay home and raise a family for her younger husband, Peter (Alexander Skarsgård).
None of the three seem all that happy, especially when they come into contact with the mother on the other side of their war, Renata Klein (Laura Dern, Enlightened, The Founder). Each deal with their own issues, and while they seem relatively sweet, it’s also easy to see how any of them could either be pushed to murder, or be murdered by someone else.

On paper, the plot seems a lot like ABC’s Revenge, which I gave up on midway through. Comparing BIG LITTLE LIES to Revenge is the best way I can think of to illustrate the extreme examples in the genre of what works and what doesn’t. Revenge may have been fun, but it never rose to Desperate Housewives levels of quality, a like-minded show I’d put in the middle of the rankings. This one is at the top, giving us the juiciness audiences want, while still making a quality series by nearly any measure.

I like BIG LITTLE LIES. It’s wonderfully acted, beautifully shot, and has a terrific style and tone. It deals with material that would be very easy to make cartoonish, and yet keeps it from being so. Even the child actors, though less talented than their adult peers, are well selected, adding to the drama, rather than distracting from it. After watching two hours, I am fully invested in seeing this through to the end.

BIG LITTLE LIES premieres tonight at 9/8c on HBO.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Article first published as THE GOOD FIGHT Review on Seat42F.

If you’re a fan of The Good Wife, as I am, you’ve likely eagerly been awaiting the spin-off, THE GOOD FIGHT, which finally premieres this Sunday on CBS. The series, which will only be available via CBS’s All Access streaming service after the pilot airs, is set one year after last spring’s series finale. While much of the show is the same, including plenty of returning faces, it also feels wholly different in both positive and negative ways.

I’m not going to lie, I was unpleasantly jarred when THE GOOD FIGHT fights first catches up with Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), whose firm is now called Lockhart, Decker, Gussman, Lee, Lyman, Gilbert-Lurie, Tannebaum, & Associates. Try saying that a few times fast. Not only has the name changed, but so have the sets. Gone are the familiar law offices we saw over seven seasons, and even Diane’s recognizable corner space. Instead, after merging with two other organizations, the digs are brand-new.

I can’t help but feel that change was unnecessary. While it makes for an easier separation between Diane and her practice, plot-wise, the same story could be accomplished without blowing up what came before. Given how much THE GOOD FIGHT keeps reminding us that this is set in the same universe, it feels very wrong to begin with the off-putting setting.

To play devil’s advocate, maybe this is done on purpose so that viewers aren’t sad when Diane does find the exit. Rather than hoping for some last-minute save that gets her back where we’ve come to think she belongs, by not having that home to return to any more, there’s no compelling reason to want her to go back. In that sense, it makes for a clean break.

In the first two episodes, Diane shares the central limelight with Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey), her goddaughter. Having just passed the bar, Maia is excited to go to work for Diane and the rest. But she barely gets settled in before her father, Henry (Paul Guilfoyle, CSI), is arrested for stealing millions of dollars from wealthy clients, including Diane. With her girlfriend and lawyer telling her to stay away from her mother, Lenore (Bernadette Peters, Mozart in the Jungle), until things get settled, which could take years, Maia is suddenly left with no job or family to speak of.

In a way, Maia is kind of like the new Alicia. Diane is somewhat of a mentor to her, but they aren’t super close friends. Maia is going through rough scandal because of what a loved one did, which makes her presence in a court room a distraction, welcome or not. She is young and strong and building her life, like Alicia was doing for the second time when The Good Wife started.

However, there are some very stark differences in THE GOOD FIGHT, too. The firm for which Diane and Maia go to work, where Lucca (Cush Jumbo) has already relocated prior to the series begins, is quite different from any seen on The Good Wife. THE GOOD FIGHT has different music, different lighting, and different direction, too, making it feel like its own thing right away. Plus, it’s hard not to mention the cursing, which feels natural to the characters, more so than avoiding it did in certain parts of The Good Wife.

Once THE GOOD FIGHT settles in to what it is, getting past the initial event, it quickly gets very good. It has solid cases and interesting ongoing narrative arcs. It isn’t a copy of its predecessor, but there are a LOT of returning characters, including Sarah Steel in a welcome lead role as Marissa. It also has a lot of new roles, such as Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo, Blood & Oil) and Barbara Kolstad (Erica Tazel, Justified), partners at Diane’s new job. It has something to say, as The Good Wife did, but is fresh in its approach to it. This balance of continuation and completely new is effective, and I wish I’d had more than two episodes to watch ahead of time.

Of course, the big question is whether to shell out for CBS All Access. As someone who canceled cable, I went ahead and got my subscription. It’s how I’ve continued to watch CBS shows. However, were I still getting a strong cable signal into the house (my antenna is unreliable), I’m not sure I’d want to pay $10 for a single show. (As someone who’s had a DVR since 2005, the cheaper subscription that includes commercials is not even something I’d consider.) The network doesn’t have enough offerings to fully justify the expense, even for someone who has cut the cord, but I do it begrudgingly for now, especially with Star Trek: Discovery joining THE GOOD FIGHT later this year. While I want people to subscribe and watch this show so it can continue, I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t, as the network has not made a compelling case for its ridiculously high fee. So I won’t recommend signing up, though I selfishly hope lots of people do.

THE GOOD FIGHT begins this Sunday on CBS and CBS All Access, continuing only on the latter from week two onward.

Friday, February 17, 2017


Article first published as DOUBT Review on Seat42F.

CBS’s latest drama is DOUBT. It’s a legal procedural that follows a group of lawyers in a firm as they defend clients and undergo personal drama. That synopsis is not particularly memorable or distinctive, but neither is the show, which offers little to set it apart from a hundred other television series. Even when only taking into account this single network’s offerings, it’s one of the weaker ones.

Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy), polarizing as she can be, actually does a pretty decent job as Sadie Ellis, the main protagonist of DOUBT. I found her believable and capable, much as I have in previous work. While her inclusion had me unenthusiastic about this project, I can’t fairly or honestly blame her for my distaste of it.

However, Sadie herself is a large part of the problem with DOUBT. She is not only defending Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale, Rescue Me), a charitable doctor, for a murder from two and a half decades ago, but she’s also sleeping with him. This is ridiculous in its blatant play for soapy melodrama, with little regard for realism. I’m not saying a lawyer never sleeps with a client, but she is risking being disbarred by doing so, and such a story would seldom end well in real life. This overshadows the more interesting parts of Sadie, her relationship with her parents in particular, and ruins things before they even get started.

That isn’t the only thing wrong with DOUBT, though I feel that alone sinks it. The dialogue is hokey and trite, and that’s even when it’s not super predictable. None of the characters feel like actual people, and much of what they say is inconsistent with even the little character development we get. Either the roles are miscast or the writers don’t understand the roles they’ve created. Too many times, it yanks the viewer right out of the moment.

That’s a shame because the show has a pretty strong ensemble. Then again, I could say the same for lots of bad shows these days, it being easier to find good talent than to utilize it.. This particular line up includes Elliott Gould (MASH, Ray Donovan), Dule Hill (Psych), Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Dreama Walker (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23), and Kobi Libii (Alpha House). Each of them are great performers in other works, but if this was the only thing I had to judge them on, I wouldn’t know it. This is by far the worst series any of them have done, at least that I’m aware of, which leads me to believe it isn’t entirely, or at all, their fault.

The guest star line up is similarly over qualified and poorly utilized. Judith Light and Donna Murphy are among those in the pilot that I wish better for.

Now, while I often berate cop procedurals, I tend to find the ones focusing on lawyers much more interesting. There’s something about the court room drama that I find compelling, and it makes me more forgiving of the flaws. This, however, defies that trend by spending way more time on unimportant stories and failing to make any of the cases interesting. Instead, the series continuously focuses on the wrong things.

Unfortunately for DOUBT, the glow of The Good Wife, a far superior show of this genre, has not been away from CBS long enough to fade. With The Good Fight spin-off premiering later this week, even if it will be online-only after episode one, there’s an immediate replacement that is sure to be much better than this. As such, I don’t see any reason why anyone would want to tune into this program when the immediate comparisons will make it seem so poor by comparison.

DOUBT premieres this Wednesday at 10/9c on CBS.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

New LEGION Of Powers

Article first published as LEGION Review on Seat42F.

As the Marvel universe, including Sony and Fox-produced products, as well as their own-made ones, continue to expand, some of the more obscure, weird characters are being brought into the fold. To that end, FX presents LEGION this week, one of the X-Men related properties still controlled by FX’s parent, Fox. Like Deadpool, he’s not a household name, and also like Deadpool, this series does not feel like any of the other programs in the genre out right now.

If you’re not familiar with the character of Legion, he is someone who has some serious mental issues along with his powers. The son of Professor Xavier, Legion absorbs others within himself, sort of, and often can’t tell what is real and what isn’t. To build a television series around such an unstable character is bold; to make it from his perspective, where viewers don’t know what is actually happening at any given time because he doesn’t know, is even bolder. LEGION chooses the latter route, making a confusing, stimulating series that is as exciting as it is odd.

Legion is David Haller (Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey), and as the show begins, he is locked in a mental institution and has been for some time. Meeting the beautiful Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller, Fargo), who agrees to date David but won’t allow him to touch her, David seems to be getting along all right, despite everything. But when something big and tragic happens, things change. And whether the event is David’s fault or Syd’s remains to be seen, though doesn’t feel particularly important. What is important is that David’s life is set on a new course that pulls him away from what he knows and will likely lead to self exploration.

Stevens is excellent, as is Keller. Both have inhabited very specific characters, far from the roles they’re known for, whom viewers can latch onto, despite the insanity. There is something very essential to them that is relatable and familiar. They’re fully realized individuals, and whole they may not be like people we know, it’s easy to recognizable the humanity in them, no matter the craziness occurring.

The pair are joined by an excellent supporting cast, including fellow patient Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation), David’s sunny sister, Amy (Katie Aselton, The League), a benevolent (?) doctor, Melanie Bird (Jean Smart, 24, Fargo), a shady interrogator (Hamish Linklater, The Crazy Ones), and more. It’s a really strong group playing characters that even most comic book fans aren’t too familiar with, so plenty of new ground to break.

The show itself is visually stunning. It’s like the Doctor Strange of television, with trippy sequences and worlds that could never exist. Guided expertly by the hand of Noah Hawley (FX’s Fargo), it explores concepts that are hard to show, and yet, manages to convey them in unconventional ways. At times, the soundtrack, which matches the rest nicely, almost feels like that of Stranger Things, and the look touches on a Wes Anderson picture. The concept of unreliable narrator feels a bit like Mr. Robot. Despite the many favorable comparisons, LEGION is all its own thing, appealing to fans of the above, but also standing plenty firm on its own.

The world presented in is hyperreality, bold colors and retro designs, music that is both old and timeless. The total package is a cool production design, fantastically meshing conflicted parts into the whole, much the way in which the characters are put together. There is a unique-ish quality, that is still relatable to the X-Men First Class movies, but is also outside of them.

I cannot recommend LEGION enough. It premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

APB To Viewers

Article first published as APR Review on Seat42F.

If you’ve read very many of my reviews, I’m sure you’ve noticed how hard I am on crime shows. I find most of them to be very formulaic and repetitive, telling the same story over and over again and copying the peers that have come before it. As a genre, I find it one of the weakest, based on the many lazy executions of it, and there are far more bad examples of how to do it than good ones, even among those that have become ratings hits.

I say this to give you an idea of the mindset I had going into FOX’s new drama, APB, and to illustrate how hard this series had to work to win me over. Yet, win me over it did, with a gripping pilot and an interesting premise. It could very well fall right into that awful pattern most cop dramas follow repeatedly in week two. But for a first episode, APB’s premiere was a great one.

The story begins with wild billionaire playboy Gideon Reed (the always fantastic Justin Kirk, Weeds), a man who likes splash and cares little for the consequences of doing what he wants. The flip side of him is that Gideon is an innovative engineer, and so his brilliance excuses much of his bad behavior in the business world. When a close pal and long-time advisor of his is killed, Gideon decides to pour his resources into reforming one particularly bad, underfunded police precinct in the city of Chicago. In doing so, he not only gives the metropolis hope, but also reforms an entire industry.

If that sounds like a fantastical story, well, it mostly is. You may read that APB is loosely based on a New York Times article about a rich guy that developed an app for the New Orleans cops, sort of like Gideon does in the series. However, this fictional version takes things a heck of a lot further, with equipment and procedure redesigned from the ground up.

The weakness in the story is how the police officers, initially skeptical of Gideon, quickly begin to be won over by the results of his inventions. A more realistic approach would be to have Gideon only slowly gain any traction with the people who are forced to accept his leadership against their will, as is what happens between he and the surely-crooked mayor. The audience, who are supposed to relate to Amelia Murphy (Natalie Martinez, Saints & Sinners, Kingdom), the face of the force, may feel as betrayed by these law enforcement types who quickly become converts as the characters themselves are portrayed to be at the start. The conflict is simplified far too much to be realistic.

But the reason I am willing to overlook this is because APB is so darn inspiring. In an era where the systems that are supposed to serve us are plagued by inefficiency and outdated thinking, and when the citizens of the country are more divided than ever, seeing people come together to make a community better and bring it into the modern age is awesome. It’s exactly the type of thing optimists wish to happen in real life, and when told with a complex, noble hero like Gideon at the center, alongside the brave women and men in blue, with nary a corrupt one among them, it’s a show that’s hard to resist.

What I do worry about is APB’s timeslot, which is following 24. While there are some suspenseful sequences, APB isn’t nearly as fast-paced as it lead-in. I wish the order were reversed, as it would serve fine as a warm up, but may be a let down after the adrenaline-pumping intensity of the real-time series.

APB premieres tonight at 9/8c on FOX.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

24's LEGACY Intact

Article first published as 24 LEGACY Review on Seat42F.

24 is back tonight! OK, so it’s not classic 24, as our hero, Jack Bauer, is nowhere in sight. But other than missing Jack, this version is pretty much the same thing. There are terrorists and sleeper cells, betrayals and moles, CTU agents and politicians, people who just won’t listen even though their deafness gets in the way of saving the day, and, of course, the ticking clock as events unfold in real time.

Our new protagonist is Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins, The Walking Dead, Straight Outta Compton), the leader of an elite CTU squad that took out a major terrorist six months ago (think SEAL Team Six and bin Laden). Back in the states, Eric is trying to move on with his wife, Nicole (Anna Diop, The Messengers). But he isn’t doing a good job of it, Nicole even hypothesizing that Eric misses the killing and the danger. Can he settle into suburbia?

24: LEGACY quickly proves he doesn’t have to. The son of the assassinated terrorist is in town with a squad, and begins picking off Eric’s team one by one. With only Eric and mentally unstable Ben Grimes (Charlie Hofheimer, Mad Men, Black Hawk Down) left, Eric has to go on the offensive, trying to stay alive and stop the son from recovering his dad’s sleeper cell list. This means Eric is like later-seasons Jack, already violent and willing to do what needs to be done, even if it’s against the law, so yeah, I’m sure he can do it.

Of course he can. That is never in doubt. This is 24, so the bad guys will get to kill some people along the way, but not as many as they’d like. In fact, the blood starts flowing (in a not-particularly-gory way) only moments into the first hour. There are always casualties in war, but 24, taking its queue from the superhero genre, always makes sure that our hero wins the day, albeit with some cost. 24: LEGACY looks to follow that same format.

Also, as in other seasons of 24, high-level politicians enter into the story. This time we have Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto, Homeland, The Lord of the Rings), the former head of CTU, whose husband, Senator John Donovan (Jimmy Smits, Sons of Anarchy, The West Wing), is running for president. This dynamic allows for the in-agency stuff to tie in to election drama in a satisfying way.

Having watched two hours so far, 24: LEGACY almost makes me forget about Jack Bauer. They wisely have brought in a heavy cast, which also includes Dan Bucatinsky (Scandal), Teddy Sears (The Flash), and Gerald McRaney (This Is Us), who along with those above, make the story gripping and well-acted enough that, even with the popcorn-style, unrealistic plot, it’s a lot of fun. So much going on with so many fine performers, and family drama tossed in, too, keeps us from dwelling on what we don’t get.

Which isn’t to say that 24: LEGACY isn’t without its ties to past seasons. One of the new CTU staff members is Mariana Stiles (Coral Pena), the cousin of Edgar Stiles, whom this new version reminds us was one of the best the organization had to offer. But it also stands enough on its own that new viewers could jump right in without missing a beat.

Like the last Jack-led season, 24: LEGACY will only present twelve of the twenty-four hours in this all-important day. This is a wise move, as most seasons of 24 suffered from dragging or vamping in the middle, and the twelve hour format (with hours skipped to still cover an entire day) is a tighter, more enjoyable one. 24 banks on intensity, and the shorter season makes it easier to keep up the adrenaline.

My overall impression of 24: LEGACY is that the franchise is resilient and will fare just fine without its lead. As much as I hope Jack does return for future installments, the rest of the 24 ensemble has always been rotating, and the format works as long as the cast stays strong, which it does here. 24 isn’t the best show on TV, not by a long-shot, but it’s action-packed entertainment that gets your blood pumping, and as a fan or the original, I’m not disappointed at all by the latest incarnation.

24: LEGACY premieres tonight after the Super Bowl, then moves to its regular timeslot tomorrow at 8/7c.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Needs Another TRAINING DAY

Article first published as TRAINING DAY Review on Seat42F.

Continuing the spate of television series adapted from films, CBS premieres TRAINING DAY tonight. Set fifteen years after the film of the same name, but still in that universe, obvious because they name drop one of the main players from the movie, the plot is very similar. A straight-laced rookie is sent undercover to expose the corruption of a veteran cop as they work the very dangerous, drug-laden streets of Los Angeles.

This time around, Bill Paxton (Edge of Tomorrow, Big Love) is the grizzled veteran, Detective Frank Rourke, who has no problem blowing up gang houses and shooting the perps with foam bullets. He is a bit more moral than Denzel Washington’s version, who had a different name, as Frank is shown to have a code that he lives by, and that includes protecting some innocents. But other than that, he is still the rule-flaunter who dates a whorehouse madam (Julie Benz, Defiance, Dexter) and doesn’t give a crap about his fellow officers.

The newbie is also similar to his counterpart, played by Ethan Hawke on the big screen, the entry point for the audience into this world. Kyle Craig (Justin Cornwall) is a noble man who wants to succeed within the existing system. This TRAINING DAY gives him added plot by having him determined to avenge his father, Frank’s former partner, and he also has a loving woman waiting for him at home, Alyse (Lex Scott Davis). But yeah, from the same mold as Hawke’s role.

I’m a bit confused about why this is a sequel to the movie. Despite the race switch, the relationship and story for the two leads is so similar to that of the film that it’s eerie. Deputy Chief Lockhart (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Without a Trace) even comments that she doesn’t want Frank to be the next officer like Washington’s Alonzo, so the characters acknowledge the parallel, but that feels forced, not organic. I can’t help but feel the series would be better served to make these the same two lead roles, rather than setting it in an established world they’re not likely to make much use of.

Of course, since this is a broadcast television cop show, there are more than just two officers on the team. We’ve got Rebecca Lee (Katrina Law, Arrow), whom Frank rescued when she was a child, and Tommy Campbell (Drew Van Acker, Pretty Little Liars), a former pro-surfer, to round out the squad. They’re present probably because that’s the more typical format, and CBS doesn’t like to break format. Which is why TRAINING DAY won’t be anything special, this show clearly being a case-of-the-week procedural, with only a little bit of serial story tossed in.

Honestly, aside from the ugly lighting, TRAINING DAY doesn’t feel all that much different from a slew of other shows. I know I say this a lot in crime show pilot reviews, but that’s because so many of the non-cable fare is so similar. Adding an already-recognizable title doesn’t change that, and actually makes me less interested than a more original project.

I didn’t enjoy the TRAINING DAY movie, either, for the record. But at least it had an engaging story, something we hadn’t seen as much before, and with some gripping performances. Paxton seems to be phoning it in, having fun, but not making use of his range the way he has in other projects. Cornwall is serviceable in the role, but not stand-out. The ideas and complexity of the story are watered down, the best parts removed to make way for the repetitive structure.

With trite dialogue, gratuitous action, and unnecessary redeemable qualities for Frank, who would be far more interesting without them, though admittedly the series would have a more limited believable run, mixed with a predictable, too-familiar formula, this is not a series that is must-see.

TRAINING DAY premieres tonight at 10/9c on CBS.