Friday, 30 September 2011

Video: CHUCK, season 4 gag reel


It's uncharacteristically hot in the UK today, so there's not much blogging going on. As mild compensation, here's an amusing five-minute blooper reel from last season's Chuck.


What have we learned? That Linda Hamilton probably wasn't much of a joker on-set? Also, I adore Yvonne Strahovski's cute puppy impression.

CHUCK returns to NBC on 28 October.

State of the Blog: million, million, million!

Yesterday, Dan's Media Digest sailed past 3,000,000 hits. As always I'm delighted DMD continues to attract this level of traffic, particularly as 2011's probably been the least active year since I started this blog in 2006.

Unlike some other entertainment review-focused blogs, I don't promote myself that strongly online. I mainly rely on word-of-mouth and, increasingly, Twitter/Facebook links to draw interest to particular posts. I'm relieved my decision to lighten my workload, fearing "blogging burnout", hasn't resulted in a big drop in readership since the summer.

So thanks to everyone who visits DMD, particularly if you do so regularly, or help spread the word online in some way. It would be a very boring and dispiriting place without readers and people leaving comments. This year, I've been particularly grateful for those of you who kindly donated some money to DMD (using my PayPal link in the sidebar)—as that all goes towards the blog's upkeep. It's one thing to be a keen supporter and voracious reader of DMD, but quite another to put your hand in your pocket and hand over money to show your gratitude. Thank you, one and all!

In other news...

Most of the pilots have aired in the US, together with a few new series here in the UK. So which ones have made me a fan, which have lured me back for awhile, and which have turned me off completely?

The new shows I WON'T be watching or reviewing this year are:

A Gifted Man (just don't see it working long-term)
Charlie's Angels (vacuous, outmoded)
The Playboy Club (decent idea, poorly executed)
Ringer (intriguing pilot, horrid second episode)
The Secret Circle (uninteresting concept)
This Is Jinsy (didn't amuse me).

The new shows I WILL be watching (for now), but don't see much point reviewing are:

Pan Am (good show, could become very good, but will wait for BBC2)
Person Of Interest (may work if Caviezel improves and avoids repetition).

The new shows I'll be watching and reviewing are:

The Fades (some appeal, has problems, but brief commitment required)
Fresh Meat (very funny, just hope it can sustain itself)
Terra Nova (it'll probably be fun to blog, good or bad).

These on top of the returning shows I always find time for: Dexter, Fringe, Merlin, et al.

You may also have noticed that updates are happening between 9 and 5PM GMT again, because Blogger is now working for IE6. This will be temporary, as they're due to shutdown their existing dashboard for a new one that definitely won't work for me, so enjoy this while it lasts!

I'm still unable to reply to Disqus comments easily, but can send a quick message via my phone—if one's required. Obviously I won't be doing this all the time (I'm not very good at "text-typing"), but it's possible and I'll reply if I think it's necessary. But I'll be brief!

The "auto-pagination" issues appears to have been solved. This was making it impossible to show more than 9 posts on every page of DMD, which was very frustrating. Too many updates and recent updates would "fall off" the front page. I'm not sure why I can now increase past 9 posts again, but I assume Blogger came to their senses about forcing people to have X number of posts visible.

So, that's about it. It's been awhile since I did a State of the Blog, so feel free to discuss whatever's been on your mind below. A question for me, a suggestion for the blog, a recommendation, whatever you like!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

THE FADES, 1.2

I admire elements of The Fades (it's stylish, fairly creative), but I wish I could love it. It's just not coming together for me, yet. Skins writer Jack Thorne seems more comfortable with the teenage angst than the supernatural selling point, as the best scenes are ones where Paul (Iain de Caestecker) and best-friend Mac (Daniel Kaluuya) simply try to get through a day at school and improve their social standing. The stuff with one-eyed Neil (Johnny Harris) showing Paul the ropes, playing Hagrid to his Harry, is currently too obscure and sluggish. This is one of those shows where you hate the characters for being so pointlessly enigmatic, as it's just insulting. There's really no need for Neil to be so guarded about what's going on, if he's supposed to be teaching Paul.

Paul's now having nightmares about his family being slaughtered; the ghostly Fades are getting stronger and can now touch things (an ability they get from eating people, so you have to wonder how they managed to eat their first person!); an elderly reclusive mystic confirmed that Paul is "special", meaning he'll have to leave his family to join Neil's fight against the powers of darkness; teacher Mark (Tom Ellis) is aware his missing (actually dead) wife Sarah (Natalie Dormer) had a secret life he never knew about; Jay (Sophie Wu) kissed Paul at a party organized by his irrationally hateful sister Anna (Lily Loveless); and we learned that Mac's dad is the DCI investigating the case of Mark's missing wife and two schoolboys bullies eaten by the Fades.

There are times when the show reminds me of a British Donnie Darko (Paul's a pariah, bed-wetting replaces sleepwalking, he has an annoying sister, he's destined to stop the end of the world, he even visits a psychiatrist), and The Fades is at its best when it's mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary. There's a brilliant scene where Paul, testing his newfound ability to heal wounds by cutting his forearm, is interrupted by his mother—who mistakes the act as self-harming. It's when the show goes into full-blown supernaturalism that it feels very clichéd (lots of shadowy figures rushing past the camera), or downright silly (Paul shooting fireballs from his palms that somehow managed to accidentally incinerate two birds). There's probably a more interesting show here about a schizophrenic teenager who's hallucinating ghosts and superpowers, encouraged by his fantasy-prone friend, and actually needs to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Donnie Darko meets Heavenly Creatures, perhaps.

Daniel Kaluuya's probably the most captivating actor as Mac, but his character's also hard to like without caveats. The way Mac keeps making tiresome references to Star Wars is lazy shorthand for letting us know he's a geek, and there was a weird moment when Mac's taught Paul how to dance at 2 o'clock in the morning. There are times when Mac's amusing and delivers welcome comic relief, but he's also so strange and self-loathing that it's sometimes uncomfortable to watch him.

I don't know, maybe I'm being too harsh. I'm certainly not bored, and obviously The Fades is still laying groundwork, but the marvelous opening titles suggest a show that's far more energetic, fun and compelling than what I've seen so far. I'm intrigued by things, and there are a few good moments and surprises to keep you happy, but I just want the clouds of mystery to dispel so we can start attacking this story head-on.

written by Jack Thorne / directed by Farren Blackburn / 28 September 2011 / BBC Three

FRESH MEAT, 1.2

I'm glad last week's premiere was almost universally praised. I thought the first episode was a fantastic introduction that effortlessly introduced its six characters and delivered some memorable gags. This second episode, written by Tony Roche (The Thick Of It), was generally as good as last week's—if slightly less funny but with a better story to compensate.

For me, it's the cast that have really clicked. They're superb. It should never be underestimated just how important casting is, especially with comedy, because I find myself enjoying Fresh Meat simply because it means spending an hour with these people. If they say or do funny things, that's a bonus.

One unexpected favourite right now is secretive Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie), who's attempts to fit into the group are hilarious. It's clear she's from a respectable middle-class family who are possibly as wealthy as JP's (Jack Whitehall), but she's desperate to hide her background because she fears being treated differently. In one hilarious scene, Oregon's forced to pretend she "forgot" she owns a car, which she later claims her mum won on a scratchcard. I think many of us have been in a position where we try to pretend we're less intelligent or from a lower social bracket, just to get along with people. I think it's a great idea to base a character on this social quirk, and watching brainy Oregon twist herself into knots in an attempt to appear rebellious and blasé about student life is great fun.

This episode revolved around a party, which is a staple idea for every comedy that's ever existed—especially ones with young people as their focus. It delivered the goods. JP trying to impress his two snobby friends by pretending the place is a hotbed of sex; Kingsley (Joe Thomas) meeting the good-looking boyfriend of sweet Josie (Kimberly Nixon) and feeling inadequate; Oregon, Josie and Vod (Zawe Ashton) abandoning the party for a nightclub instead; Howard (Greg McHugh) having to pretend he's Vod's boyfriend to help her escape an admirer from the band Apeshit Dusseldorf; and weird geography teacher Dan (Peep Show's Robert Webb) being accidentally invited to the bash. Dan was perhaps slightly caricatured, but the idea of a teacher in his thirties trying to cling onto his youth by attending a party thrown by his own students was a funny idea. (Speaking as a 32-year-old who's been invited to a few Fresher's Week parties, where you feel like an old man in a sea of acne and Lynx deodorant. And you know you're getting older when Peep Show's Jez is playing a balding teacher. His character really is on Twitter, too.)

It's visually interesting, stylishly filmed, with a brilliant soundtrack of pulsing tunes (mixed with what appears to be the chimes of a fruit machine), but more importantly it's just very enjoyable and funny with likable characters. It could possibly be improved by squeezing everything down into 30-minutes, but I can't say the hour-long episodes have actually dragged for me. When you compare this to some of the new US shows that have started up this month (like the surprise hit New Girl), it's in a league of its own. This is exactly the kind of comedy Britain is a world leader at; a show that manages to look and feel authentic, with actors who aren't cartoons, performing a style of comedy that's polished, nuanced, clever, and slightly crazy. Where else can you find a subplot about a waxwork of Russell Brand's head, or a scene where a toff rows himself into a stupor while smoking a spliff?

A great second episode of what's already my favourite homegrown comedy of this year.

written by Tony Roche / directed by David Kerr / 28 September 2011 / Channel 4

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

BBC axe DOCTOR WHO! (CONFIDENTIAL, that is.)

The BBC have cancelled Doctor Who Confidential, the documentary series that goes behind-the-scenes of every Doctor Who episode, usually airing after every new BBC1 episode on BBC3.

The show is believed to have been a victim of the corporation's Delivering Quality First initiative, which aims to cut BBC expenses by 20%.

It's certainly a blow to fans of the show. A lot of work goes into making Doctor Who, and Confidential has provided years of fascinating insight, interesting interviews, candid footage filming, and inspirational looks at how an expensive BBC show is made today. Of course, it was also very biased and would never dare criticize the show (however constructively), as it existed to tow the party-line. But I think these shows are still valuable, as they can give children and teenagers a good insight into creative endeavors; from writing, directing and acting, to make-up artistry, musical composition, computer animation, and lighting.

A BBC spokesman:

"Doctor Who Confidential has been a great show for BBC3 over the years but our priority now is to build on original British commissions, unique to the channel."
I hope this won't mean DVD box-set will come without any Making Of features, which would diminish the value, but that looks likely. Hopefully some of the cast/crew will film "video diaries" that can be used to replace what we miss from a dedicated documentary team.

What's your feeling about all this? Is it a wise move to save money? Was Confidential prone to repetition after six years on-air? Do you always watch the show after new episodes have finished? Or will this spin-off's cancellation go largely unnoticed in your household?

Review: PAN AM, 1.1 - "Pilot"

written by Jack Orman / directed by Thomas Schlamme
starring Christina Ricci, Margot Robbie, Michael Mosley, Karine Vanasse & Mike Vogel

The second and best of this year's '60s-set US network dramas, Pan Am triumphs over NBC's The Playboy Club because its backdrop is indisputably fascinating instead of merely titillating, and it remembers to focus on the women at the centre of this once-glamorous occupation. Directed by Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), there's a lovely sweep and momentum to this aviation soap, but also a whitewashing of historical accuracy by writer Jack Orman (ER)—who doesn't even touch on the sexism of the era, and seems to think the Bay Of Pigs' evacuation of exiles from Cuba was mainly handled by Pan Am aircrew. The former is hopefully intentional, to show us the jet age fantasy sold to readers of LIFE magazine, before showing us a darker reality over time, but I have a suspicion Pan Am doesn't have Mad Men-esque social realism very high on its agenda.

The aptly-named "Pilot" introduces as to the sexy crew of the Clipper Majestic's maiden voyage from New York to London: handsome pilot Dean Lowrey (Mike Vogel) who's engaged to missing stewardess Bridget (Annabelle Wallis); co-pilot Ted Vanderway (Michael Mosley); saucer-eyed bohemian Maggie Ryan (Christina Ricci), a stewardess on probation for not wearing her girdle, who's called into action to replace an absent purser; photogenic rookie Margot Robbie (Laura Cameron), who's embarrassed to be on the cover of LIFE magazine promoting the airline because she doesn't think she can live up to the fantasy image; Kate Cameron (Kelli Garner), Laura's jealous sister, who finds herself caught up in the world of international espionage; and French stewardess Colette Valois (Karine Vanasse), who's discomfited by the presence of an ex-lover and his family aboard the flight.

I was expecting to dislike Pan Am, but it was an enjoyable and smoothly delivered drama. This isn't a cynical show, it's a reverent view of the Jet Age that's especially nostalgic given today's sinister associations with air travel post-9/11. It's appealing to be reminded that in 1963 anything to do with aviation was the epitome of glamour, and this pilot does a brilliant job making you buy into the romance of airports and quaffing champagne at 34,000 feet. Sleek silver passenger jets turning on the tarmac, women in deep blue uniforms striding purposefully through terminals (watched enviously by a little girl, face pressed to a window), the elegance of the in-flight experience, and a reminder of the magic when the cabin doors open and—voila!—Ne w York has transformed into London. It's still an experience to travel overseas today by plane (even on a budget airline), but it must have been unimaginably thrilling 50 years ago when such travel was the cutting-edge of technology. There's a take-off scene that makes you think the passengers may as well be rocketing to the Moon, such is the air of anticipation.

One unexpected aspect of Pan Am is the use of Lost-style flashbacks, which are likewise used to deepen our understanding of a character or reveal the motivation for a present-day decision. It's a wise move, as it's hard to see how else the show can avoid the problem that, frankly, the activities of stewardesses while in-flight aren't hugely compelling. Plus there are opportunities for drama when the crew touch down in domestic/foreign cities and check into expensive hotels or go sightseeing. One thing Pan Am has that AMC's Mad Men doesn't is a network-sized budget to explore the '60s visually, without having to restrict its locations and focus more on interiors.

The cast were immediately engaging (particularly Ricci, Robbie and Garner), and this pilot delivered the feeling of romance, glamour and social optimism it's aiming for. A few of the characters and storylines were captivating enough to draw you back—especially Laura finding herself recruited by a British spy, and Ricci's intrinsic mysteriousness (no flashback for her yet)—and it all looked fabulous, despite the occasional artifice of a CGI jet or some hazy greenscreen. It's just a shame Pan Am isn't as intelligently written as Mad Men, and doesn't appear to be offering much beyond rose-tinted escapism and soapy drama. But you can never judge a show on its pilot, so Pan Am could yet soar to unexpected highs.

Asides

  • 1963 was the year Pan Am Flight 214 crashed in Maryland after being struck by lightning, killing all 81 people on board. I can't see how this show can avoid dramatizing that event, or at the very least referencing it, which could be interesting given how upbeat and positive the pilot is about air travel.
  • BBC2 have bought Pan Am for UK broadcast. As much as I enjoyed this pilot, I think I'll be waiting for the show to arrive here to continue watching. I don't envisage reviewing it every week anyway.
25 September 2011 / ABC

Trailer: LUCK (HBO)


Here's HBO's trailer for their next big show, horse racing drama Luck. Created by David Milch (Deadwood, John From Cincinnati), this will star Dustin Hoffman as a gambler released from jail after serving a four-year sentence. Co-stars include the likes of Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and Ian Hart. The pilot has also been directed by Michael Mann (Manhunter, Heat).

Are you excited about this? Horse racing isn't a sport I'm particularly excited by, but neither was advertising and Mad Men's a firm favourite of mine. I really love being taken into a world I know nothing about with a scripted drama, and I know from their career histories that Milch and Mann are unlikely to mess this up. Throw in some fantastic actors, with the brilliant Hoffman making his television debut, and I'm confident this is going to be a high-quality show for next year.


LUCK premieres in January 2012 on HBO and Sky Atlantic soon after.

Review: 71 DEGREES NORTH (ITV1)

X Factor. Big Brother. Strictly Come Dancing. The schedules are crammed with reality/talent shows just now, but ITV1's vastly underrated 71 Degrees North deserves more attention. In this show, which recently started its second series, 10 celebrities undertake various challenges in the chilly Norwegians wilds, journeying across frozen tundra to the titular 71 degrees north, as one of their group's eliminated each week.

Together they build ice holes, swim in sub-zero fjords, pull sleds, hang from bridges, cross ravines, climb ice walls, sleep in tents suspended vertically from a cliff, abseil down frozen waterfalls, and race snowmobiles. You can't say the celebs don't earn their money on this show, with temperatures regularly dipping to -30C. And that's part of the reason I really enjoy it, because eating bugs, learning to ballroom dance, or living in a house with strangers, has nothing on 71 Degrees North's physical and mental demands.

The lineup this year may cause the odd titter and furrowed brow, but it's far starrier than what Channel 5 recently gave us with Celebrity Big Brother. On 71 Degrees North we have OIympian Amy Williams, ex-children's presenter Angelica Bell, ex-EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella, buxom gardener Charlie Dimmock, comic actor John Thomson, Loose Women presenter Lisa Maxwell, "Hollywood actor" Sean Maguire, Crimewatch presenter Rav Wilding, '80s popstar/actor Martin Kemp, and celebrity hairdresser Nicky Clarke. That's star-power akin to I'm A Celeb, which is amazing considering 71's not likely to revive flagging careers in quite the same way. But that's actually a credit to the people who get involved, as it feels like they're genuinely there for a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, not to sit around getting humiliated and scared for a big fat cheque that could lead to panto work or an ITV2 fly-on-the-wall docu-series.

The only flaw with 71 Degrees North is that every series isn't going to be vastly different, as there's only so many challenges you can do in an arctic setting. The first episode was almost identical to Series 1's premiere last year, ending with an endurance swim in freezing waters. The show also lacks the sex appeal of the other celeb-based shows, unless you find crampons a turn-on. There are no "showmances", no saucy clinches in a cha-cha-cha, no semi-naked showers under an paradisiacal waterfall, no bikini-clad sunbathing in a garden. But who cares? Instead we get something far better: camaraderie, stress, endurance, teamwork, people overcoming fears, and mounting respect for the celebs as you sit at home with a hot cup of cocoa watching the poor sods hike through blizzards. And the celebs give it 100% effort, because winning a challenge means they're treated to an overnight stay at a luxury chalet with comfortable beds, hot food and hot showers. No half-hearted bushtucker trials ending in a walk back to camp with a few hot meals, here.

It's a good show, deserving of more love and attention from viewers, as it undeservedly gets overlooked because ITV are too busy promoting X Factor to death.

71 DEGREES NORTH. Tuesdays, ITV1, 8PM.

Video: MAD MEN's Don Draper pitches Facebook Timeline


I could have tweeted this, but thought it would help give the blog some variety this week. (As there's been a lot of pilot reviews just lately.) It's a funny video that alters Mad Men's superb "Kodak Carousel" scene, so that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is instead making the case for Facebook's new Timeline feature. Enjoy!


[via Vulture]

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

RIP: David Croft (1922 – 2011)

Legendary British writer-producer-director David Croft O.B.E has died "peacefully in his sleep" at the age of 89. Croft co-wrote many classic sitcoms from the '60s onward, most famously with Jimmy Perry (Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi!, You Rang, M'Lord?) and Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?, 'Allo 'Allo!, Grace And Favour). His last notable TV work was co-writing 1995's Oh, Doctor Beeching! with Richard Spendlove.

It's fair to say Croft's shows are from a bygone era of British comedy, and not everything's stood the test of time. It Ain't Half Hot Mum is a particular problem in these politically correct times because it featured a white actor playing an Indian character in blackface (a casting decision that apparently occurred because of a lack of Indian actors at the time, but is nevertheless seen as a reason Mum is rarely repeated). But Dad's Army is an all-time classic that gets shown all the time, Are You Being Served? was a phenomenon in the '70s (also gaining a cult following in America via PBS), and many people have a special place in their heart for WWII comedy farce 'Allo, 'Allo!

A lot of Croft's work may now feel very old-fashioned, with titles that read like lines of dialogue (complete with punctuation), plentiful double entendres, a common use of stereotypes, and a surfeit of catchphrases, but most were from very innocent times. Holiday camp comedy Hi-de-Hi! forms one of my earliest TV memories, I was a massive fan of 'Allo, 'Allo! at the time, and even remember enjoying You Rang, M'Lord? (or maybe just the theme tune) as a young boy. I'm not the right age to have a particular affection for Dad's Army and the pre-'80s stuff, sorry to say, but I can appreciate their quality for the times they existed in.

It may not be a particularly hip and cool oeuvre when viewed from 2011, but Croft was writing inoffensive family sitcoms that regularly pulled in millions of viewers every week, and most remain popular in repeats. Are there any Brits over the age of 30 that can't rattle off a dozen or so catchphrases that Croft helped come up with? Captain Mainwaring's withering "you stupid boy", faux-French policeman Office Crabtree's greeting "good moaning", Gladys Pugh's cheerful "hello, campers", Private Jones' alarmed "don't panic!", or Mr Humphrey's trilling "I'm free!" Simple phrases given life by the actors, which became indelible traits of their shows, and managed to induce smiles of recognition whenever they were uttered.

Perhaps most famously, it was Croft's idea to end his shows with the caption "You Have Been Watching" before the cast credits would play over vignettes of each actor. That's become such an icon of sitcoms from the '60s, '70s and '80s, that retro-inspired sitcom Miranda even pays homage to it today.

A talented man and definite giant of British comedy for the past 50 years, David Croft will be missed. He's survived by his seven children.

To celebrate his lifetime of work, here are a few clips from some of the best sitcoms David Croft worked on:







Review: BOARDWALK EMPIRE, 2.1 - "21"

written by Terence Winter / directed by Tim Van Patten
starring Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon & Shea Whigham

The opening of Boardwalk Empire's second season included a handy recap of season 1, where half the summary was taken from the pilot, and rest from just a smattering of the episodes that followed. This appeared to confirm most people's belief the first season was bloated and dragged its heels mid-season. Boardwalk Empire is a sumptuous HBO production with first-rate performances, so you can overlook some issues in the short-term, but it was definitely a season that had problems the writers need to iron out. There was a serious lack of action for what many people want from a Prohibition era gangster epic, and not enough emotional moments shining through. Thankfully, some of that is fixed with showrunner Terence Winter's season 2 premiere, delivering an hour that felt more assured about itself.

There was a more readily entertaining feel to "21", so that the hour passed by without getting bogged down in itself. It was a wise idea to enhance the profile of black bootlegger Chalky (The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams), who steals every scene he's in. Here, Chalky White's bootlegging business was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan with a vehicle-mounted machine gun, which managed the tricky task of making Chalky look both human (the fear etched his face when a Klansman pointed a rifle at his head) and a composed badass (his considered one-shot response to the retreating KKK, killing one of the fleeing attackers).

The fallout of this bloody attack also gave treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) some great material, as he told Chalky he can't retaliate because that will cause a race-war for the city's black community. And, to remind us of Nucky's duplicitous nature, there was a great moment of editing where Nucky gave rousing speeches at two opposing meetings: rallying a black congregation and promising to bring them justice, while later condemning the blacks to a room full of white voters. Buscemi's at his best when the two sides of Nucky's character come into conflict, or he reveals himself to be a disingenuous schemer.

As of last season's finale, we know that Nucky's protégé Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and his Sheriff brother Eli (Shea Whigham) have sided with his mentor Commodore Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), who in one great scene recalls the tale of how he hunted and killed a formidable bear that now stands stuffed in his front room. Clearly The Commodore views Nucky as the next animal he'll be stalking as political prey, ready to eliminate him to retake control of Atlantic City.

One character that had problems last year was FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who was enjoyably relentless in his pursuit of illegal booze, yet slightly too overbearing and repetitive. His character remained fascinating, though, as Shannon's a screen presence you can't take your eyes off. Perhaps as an intentional way to prevent Van Alden becoming too odd and dislikeable, the premiere actually gave him some of the funniest moments. His anniversary dinner with his wife saw a softer side to his nature (giving her a beautiful brooch as a present), before he exploded into fury when the restaurant manager unwisely alluded to there being alcohol on the premises (having remained composed for as long as possible). But rather than spoil the moment, Van Alden's wife found it all a big turn on, as this was possibly the first time she's seen her husband's authoritative side. After a very funny moment where the squeaking springs of a double-bed was revealed to be pernickety Van Alden testing the mattress for faults, they shared a rare moment of intimacy.

The premiere wasn't brilliant, but it felt much easier to watch and follow. We had a year of setup last season, so it feels like we can move forward with more purpose and confidence now. It helps that there's clearer definition when it comes to various character's allegiances and plans, plus a loose theme of parental bonding. Jimmy's trying to recapture his lost youth with "Uncle Nucky" through his son (teaching him to shoot guns), and Nucky trying to be step-father to Margaret's (Kelly Macdonald) naughty son Teddy (who's scared of father-figures and just expects beatings from them).

I won't be reviewing Boardwalk Empire every week, as there sadly doesn't appear to be enough of a following here to justify my time and effort. (It can be dispiriting enough writing about my favourite show, Breaking Bad, and seeing those reviews sometimes attract zero comment.) I'm not blaming anyone, because an audience is an audience, and DMD simply appears to attract people who prefer other genres. But it's a show I'll continue to watch with interest, as it could really become something special once the writers get a grasp on what works and what doesn't.

Asides

  • Great to see the weird family dynamic at Jimmy's home, where his wife Angela (Aleksa Pallodino) now lives with their son and his youthful mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). One of the creepier elements of this show is the potentially Oedipal relationship Jimmy has with his mother (often kissing her full on the lips), and there was a brilliantly icky moment when Jimmy's mother admitted to her daughter-in-law that, when Jimmy was a baby, she'd kiss his "winkie".
  • One of the most memorable characters last season was disfigured war hero Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), who now works for Jimmy as a one-eyed sniper, half his missing face hidden behind a mask painted to give the illusion of a normal face. I was glad to see him back, and apparently jealous of Jimmy's family life. He even spends his free time pasting photos of families into a scrapbook. Shall we remain sympathetic towards Richard and his behaviour, or is he going to crack this season?
25 September 2011 / HBO

BREAKING BAD, 4.11 - "Crawl Space"


This antepenultimate episode was one of the best hours of television this year, perhaps the best. I'm amazed by how brave this show continues to be, as it's so unafraid to shake up its own dynamics, which is a very risky business. Remember when you couldn't imagine the show without Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) as an unconventional yet immovable partnership at the heart of the show? "Crawl Space" makes it look worryingly naïve that the show would sustain their double-act, as this episode has Walt's life falling apart with devastating cruelty.

After last week's remarkable "Salud", we're dropped into a very exciting sequence with Jesse driving the poisoned Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and wounded Mike (Jonathan Banks) to a MASH unit hidden inside a Mexican machine shop. An unexpected example of Gus's wealth and forward planning, paid medics are on hand to attend to Gus (and Mike's injuries, but only after giving the man who pays their salaries their full attention). Mike was left behind to recuperate for a week, with the recovered Gus and Jesse walking six miles to the Mexican border to be smuggled back into the US.

With Gus and Jesse away in Mexico, Walt was completely in the dark and doing solo cooks in the Superlab, trying to wheedle information from the brick wall called Tyrus (Ray Campbell). Even worse, Hank (Dean Norris) wanted to continue his one-man investigation into Gus Fring, but put Walt into an impossible position by insisting on an impromptu visit to the industrial laundry where the Superlab's hidden. There have been some amazing moments of tension between Walt and Hank this season, but this episode's just about beat the lot as Walt just couldn't allow his brother-in-law to snoop around where he works. Some of the immigrant workers there may acknowledge him, and what if Gus or Jesse arrive on the scene? He doesn't even have time to warn anyone of their arrival. It was such an impossibility that Walt took the drastic measure of intentionally swerving his car into oncoming traffic, temporarily putting Hank back into convalescence at home. But how long has he delayed the inevitable, especially now Hank's making plans to get a "gimp-mobile" with hand controls to drive himself around town?

Skyler's (Anna Gunn) subplot continues to be dark fun, as she let Ted (Christopher Cousins) know about her husband's illicit gambling and the winnings she's used to pay his IRS debt. Maddeningly, Ted's not prepared to accept her money, because it wouldn't be enough to save his failing business. Skyler took this to mean he wants more money from her to turn his life around completely, but decided to play hardball by getting Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) help to "persuade" Ted to sign a cheque to the IRS. Saul's henchmen Kuby (Bill Burr) and Huell (Lavell Crawford) duly arrived at Ted's home, forcing him to sign the cheque and wait with them for a few days while it clears. A situation poor Ted was utterly bewildered by, unable to fathom that Skyler would resort to hiring thugs to get her way, before accidentally knocked himself out while trying to run away and tripping into a kitchen island. Or did he die? The episode kept Ted's fate ambiguous. It would probably help Skyler if he was dead, and given how there's only one episode left this year, it's probably true the writers have just found a way to eliminate Ted. Regardless, it was one of the show's few moments of (very dark) comedy, and one that was definitely needed given this episode's ominous, disturbing climax.

Jesse has proven to Gus that he can cook blue-meth, so Walt is now surplus to requirement and too much of a hindrance given the untenable situation with prying Hank. Walt knows his days are numbered, after noticing someone's been cooking at the Superlab without him already, but his relationship with Jesse's at such a low point that even begging Jesse to help him doesn't work. Instead, Walt's cast out into the cold as Jesse goes inside to play video-games with Andrea (Emily Rios) and her son, and then zapped unconscious by a tazer belonging to Tyrus... awakening in the hot desert, on his knees, with a black hood over his head. It's the moment Walt's always feared would happen, as Gus stands over him imposingly, to give him the "you are done" speech. But credit to Walt for keeping his composure and reasoning that he's not going to be shot, because Jesse would still never cook for Gus if Walt was murdered. A truth Gus aims to change, in time, but for now Walt's required to keep his distance from Gus, Jesse and the Superlab's activities.

It could be a way out for Walt, but it's obvious Gus will never allow a loose-end like Walt to exist for too long (he said as much to Jesse while waking to the border). But a more pressing issue is that Gus is now free to deal with Hank, seeing as Walt's been unable to keep his brother-in-law under control. It'll be interesting to see what Gus's plan is, as it would look very suspicious if Hank was killed after spending these past few weeks looking into Gus's affairs. Whatever his plan, Walt's only option appears clear: flee. Taking Saul up on his offer to "disappear" his family and give them new identities, Walt races home to grab the half-million he'll need to pay for the unlawful process. A moment that turned haunting when Walt dived into the crawl space beneath his home, discovering that the vacuum-packed bags of cash he's earned from his cooks aren't all full. And when questioning Skyler about the missing cash, and hearing her admission that she's given it to Ted Beneke, all Walt could do was let out a primal howl of anger and frustration, that unnervingly twisted into weird cackling. Walt's half-crazed giggling then become the background to a voicemail from sister Marie, who tells Skyler there's another planned Cartel hit on Hank (an anonymous tipoff from Saul, at Walt's request). The final scene was particularly brilliant: Walt visually trapped beneath his home, the weight of everything symbolically on him, his world shrinking to the size of the hatch he's lying under, reduced to delirium as his family's lives hang in the balance and he has no money to escape an inevitable demise.

So where do we go from here? How and what will the finale choose to resolve? I think it's safe to assume Jesse will have a change of heart about Walt, and perhaps refuse to cook for Gus and put them both in the firing line. But that would also give Walt a valuable partner, and someone to help him defeat Gus. Is the ricin still a possibility? Could Walt simply direct the DEA towards the Superlab, risking being implicated himself, because the certainty of Gus being arrested/killed is better than any alternative. I'm not sure, because I think the show's still headed towards a moment when Walt succeeds Gus as a druglord, and he'll need Gus's infrastructure intact. But how can he put Hank off the scent with the chicken farm and laundry, given the compelling evidence they're part of the Heisenberg empire? Maybe Gus's whole operation's going to be destroyed, so Walt will have to start from scratch next season? Is there enough time for the show to complete its intention to turn Walt into a Scarface figure, if that happens?

Incredible episode. This is why I watch television. Such diamonds are rare, but they're worth waiting for. I'd usually be incredulous about the remaining two episodes getting anywhere near this quality, but they'll probably exceed it. Maybe I should create a brand new five-star rating in lustrous gold.

Asides

  • Is that the swansong for Mike for this season? Will he make a return in the finale, perhaps choosing to side with Jesse because of the kindness he showed him at the MASH? Mike does owe Jesse his life, after all.
  • Brilliant scene between Gus and Hector (Mark Margolis) at the nursing home, with Gus delighting in letting Hector know that his beloved Don Eladio has been killed, along with all his men, including Hector's own grandson Joaquin (his last surviving relative). I never thought I'd feel sympathy for Hector, who was fuming at the news, but still refused to give in entirely and look Gus in the eye. Also note that Hector was watching "Bridge Over The River Kwai"—in particular the famous moment when Alex Guinness destroys the bridge his men have spent years building for the enemy. Is that what Walt's about to do, regarding the Superlab?
  • There was no explanation for the pill Gus swallowed just before he drank the tequila poison last week, so I assume they were just something to aid his vomiting later.
written by Sam Catlin & George Mastras / directed by Scott Winant / 25 September 2011 / AMC

Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: A GIFTED MAN, 1.1 - "Pilot"

written by Susannah Grant; directed by Jonathan Demme
starring Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Ehle, Julie Benz, Margo Martindale & Pablo Schreiber

Like Person Of Interest, A Gifted Man is another genre show by stealth for CBS. It's also one of those shows you suspect would have made a better tear-jerking movie than a television show, as the premise doesn't seem to justify too many return trips.

New York neurosurgeon Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson) is the narcissistic golden boy at a chic surgery, currently treating a tennis ace's potential aneurysm on the eve of a Grand Slam tournament. One night, Michael's visited by ex-wife Anna Paul (Jennifer Ehle), a fellow surgeon he hasn't seen for ten years, but was a positive influence on him during their marriage. The twist is that Michael discovers Anna was killed in a recent traffic accident, leading him to theorize she was just a hallucination resulting from a possible brain tumour. A not unreasonably hypothesis dismissed by his sister Christina (Julie Benz), a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son Milo (Liam Aiken), who staunchly believes in the afterlife and is convinced Anna's ghost has returned to help her brother with something.

It's a decent pilot, helped by good direction by Jonathan Demme (The Silence Of The Lambs), and the idea of a self-absorbed surgeon being improved by reconnecting with his dead wife has merit. I'm just not sure the concept's malleable enough to fuel a TV series, as this idea will surely grow stale fairly quickly. And given Michael's heartfelt affection for Anna, which is shared by his sister, it's a weird romantic situation that's not going to go anywhere. Anna's dead and she isn't coming back (or if she does that'll be a shark-jumping moment), but Michael's so attached to his ex that giving him other love interests isn't going to be easy. The problem with A Gifted Man is the same problem a TV version of Ghost would have. It has a good idea, but one that appears ill-suited to the demands of network television that, ideally, want around a hundred episodes over four years.

But for awhile it may work, maybe even a whole season, as egotistical Michael follows beaming Anna's instructions from beyond the grave and has his eyes opened to her charitable work, which in turn helps him become a better person. While Michael's paid a fortune to help the country's elite with their neurological problems, in this pilot Anna makes him aware of the disadvantaged people who can't afford his specialist service. A situation neatly shown by comparing the concerns of a rich tennis player and a poor boy who just wants to play football with his friends.

I really like Patrick Wilson (the Will Arnett of straight drama) and it makes sense he'd try his luck as a TV leading man, having had difficulty breaking through in movies. Wilson gives a balanced performance that's very charismatic, and perhaps the biggest reason to consider watching more of this show. The supporting players are also surprisingly good, too: Benz plays frazzled sister Christina very well; Pablo Schreiber is amusing as Christina's shaman boyfriend Anton; Jennifer Ehle is emotive and likeable as ethereal Anna; and veteran character actress Margo Martindale's good value as Michael's assistant Rita—fresh off an Emmy win for her performance in Justified, back playing a second tier role that will hopefully improve and deepen.

Overall, A Gifted Man was a pleasant surprise because it's a well-made pilot with good performances and heart, but I can't say I'm keen to make this a fixture of my schedule. I'll be very surprised if the writers manage to turn this concept into a successful series. An episodic medical drama where the lead doctor's encouraged to become a better person by his dead ex-wife? How long can you keep a drama going with that as a basis? By the end of this first episode it already felt like Michael had learned his lesson about ignoring the plight of the city's deprived, and he believes Anna's a spirit from the other side, so where do we go from here? Constant episodes where Anna inspires Michael to do pro bono work in her stead? Are you intrigued enough to find out?

23 September 2011 / CBS

Review: CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2011), 1.1 - "Angel With A Broken Wing"

written by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar; directed by Marcos Siega
starring Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly, Rachael Taylor, Ramon Rodriguez & Victor Garber (voice)

I'll give it this, ABC's remake of 1976 kitsch classic Charlie's Angels at least arrives without arduously setting up the premise for the minority who've escaped this slice of pop-culture. In fact, it only takes a quick prologue to explain that unseen billionaire Charlie Townsend (voice of Alias' Victor Garber) has a penchant for recruiting attractive female delinquents and transforming them into "angels of justice", as we meet dirty cop Kate Prince (Annie Ilonzeh), cat burglar Abby Sampson (Rachael Taylor) and disgraced army explosives expert Gloria Morales (Nadine Velasquez).

The latter should perhaps cause furrowed brows, as a key part of the pilot hinged on the car-bombed death of angel Gloria, which triggered a mission of revenge involving Gloria's secret childhood friend Eve French (Minka Kelly), an orphaned street racer who knows the man behind the bombing. It's the kind of unexpected twist that undoubtedly would have worked brilliantly in the pilot's script, but less so on TV after months of promotion making it clear Velasquez isn't part of the new-look Angels. Fortunately, one benefit of not living in the US is how I avoid most of ABC's marketing, so I'd completely forgotten Minka Kelly was involved in this remake. The upshot being, I was one of a small group of viewers for which Gloria's demise felt like a decent shock, and it was largely responsible for me giving this pilot a chance.

I can't summon the vitriol to outright hate Charlie's Angels 2011, which will be most people's default reaction. It's not like any of its predecessors were sterling pieces of entertainment (who remembers a single episode of the '70s show?), and this latest version is on par (i.e. Farrah Fawcett's wall space may go to Rachael Taylor in teenage boy's bedrooms). It's less fun but slightly smarter than both of McG's movies, which were mostly an excuse to get Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz into lingerie for wire-fu fights with a pulsing techno-pop soundtrack, as Diaz wiggled her arse at the camera. Girl power, indeed.

This new version's only major crime is that the world doesn't need Charlie's Angels, and certainly not one that does little to make itself feel fresh and different. The closest it comes it giving us an ethnic Bosley (Ramon Rodriguez), which makes sense given the show's Miami backdrop, although even Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle got there first by casting the late Bernie Mac.

To be honest, there was always something uncomfortable about the concept of this show, with the pimp-like Charlie's secrecy being very suspicious (and going largely unchallenged, beyond jokey digs at his nonattendance's). It's an idea that feels outdated in its soul, which is why McG's movies at least realized they had to treat the whole thing as preposterous camp, but now modern audiences are being asked to take it fairly seriously again. I doubt it'll work, as the three actresses aren't especially compelling—although they're at least attractive without being treated as sex objects, and have promising rapport as a team. It's something to build on, at least. And I guess it was fun to see Carlos Bernard as the pilot's goateed villain, getting to torture an angel with a stun-gun like the countless terrorists he was helping catch on 24 as Tony Almeida.

Overall, I won't be watching more of Charlie's Angels because why does anyone really need to? There's nothing here that's enough of a big reinvention to draw you back, as it's all rather tame and mostly predictable. Maybe if it had been given an edginess or deeper mystery, like The CW's Nikita, it would have worked for today's audience? Or perhaps a more comedic angle like NBC's Chuck would have equaled more fun? I just know that more adventures with these angels isn't a heavenly prospect.

Asides

  • Victor Garber replaced Robert Wagner as the voice of Charlie because of scheduling conflicts. Wagner, being a star of various TV shows with a Charlie's Angels vibe, like Hart To Hart, would have added a fun layer and been a more amusing choice.
  • Former-angel Drew Barrymore is an executive-producer on this series, if that's in any way encouraging to you.
22 September 2011 / ABC

Review: FRINGE, 4.1 – "Neither Here Nor There"

written by J.H Wyman & Jeff Pinkner;
story by Jeff Pinkner, J.H Wyman & Akiva Goldsman; directed by Joe Chappelle
starring Anna Torv, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Jasika Nicole, Seth Gabel & Joshua Jackson

The weakest ever premiere of Fringe, and one that outlined this season's chief concerns in such a way that I'm worried a desire to keep reinventing itself is about to backfire, badly. It was a brilliant idea to introduce an alternate universe for season 2 (a move that helped differentiate Fringe from all X Files wannabes), and it was fantastic to see the writers play with the possibilities of a dual-universe throughout season 3, but season 4's change of the timeline owing to Peter's (Joshua Jackson) erasure from existence feels more like a very irritating hurdle than a bold new direction. We all know he'll be back, after all.

As I mentioned, Peter Bishop's never existed now he's "served his purpose" for The Observers after creating a dimensional stitch where the two universes commune to avoid mutually-assured armageddon. So we're now treated to two realities where Peter was never an influence on Walter (John Noble) or his alternate, which in our universe means Walter's never been emotionally "tethered"  and is consequently an agoraphobic who lives and works in his Harvard lab. Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) never had Peter as a partner and lover, so is marginally frostier than usual, and Astrid (Jasika Nicole) is... well, altogether unchanged by Peter's absence.

See, one problem with giving is two timelines where Peter never existed is that, frankly, his character's the weakest of the cast and his loss isn't actually felt that hard. In fact, seeing as "Neither Here Nor There" spent some time promoting FBI Agent Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) to be Peter's "replacement" on the show, and a helpful proxy for any new viewers, I'm already over Peter's loss and wouldn't mind a permanent Lincoln and Olivia partnership.

The actual story in "Neither Here Nor There" was a good example of Fringe on autopilot, too. It being yet another tale about someone who kills victims in a bizarre way (turning their skin translucent), albeit taken in a mildly more interesting direction when it became clear the villain was a new breed of "shape-shifter" the team have encountered before. But that didn't hide the fact most of this investigation rested, for the umpteenth time, on Walter finding a commonality between the victims' corpses and Olivia sticking pins into a map of the city to find a pattern.

It's "TV Investigation For Beginners", which is becoming a concern for Fringe, as it really needs to start writing plots are truly compelling mysteries in themselves. There's a feeling the show is relying too much on its mythology now, as interesting as that stuff undoubtedly is. Here, it was more noticeable than ever that the writers had a very weak plot but were ameliorating it with the serialized elements—including scenes of The Observer (Michael Cerveris) creating a device from humdrum electrical parts that can erase Peter from history permanently. Inexplicably, as the title suggests, Peter's erasure doesn't appear to have gone according to plan, as Walter keeps seeing his son in reflected surfaces. We even had a microsecond glimpse of a ghostly Peter in one early scene, which was a fun addition. (Are these Tyler Durden-esque one-frame flashes going to be a regular Easter Egg for the season?)

Overall, I couldn't help being sorely disappointed by season 4' premiere. There wasn't enough focus on the idea of there being an uneasy truce between the two worlds (although I loved the moment when Lee visited the dimensional crossroads, split by a sunny sky and a cloudy sky containing a dirigible), and I'm not really sold on the idea that Peter never existed. If that's true, for what possibly reason did Walter cross to the "other side" in 1985 and accidentally trigger all the "fringe events"? By erasing Peter, you remove a great deal of the motivation for everything the show's built on. I hope the writers have a plausible explanation in mind, because, without one, none of this season's going to make much sense to me.

Asides

  • Another gripe: if Peter never existed, who went into the "Doomsday Device" that enabled Peter to merge the two universes together in a single location? Paradox?
  • Given its terrible rating of 3.53m, which means it hasn't really increased its audience since the latter-third of season 3, I can't see Fringe making it to a fifth season. It's kind of amazing it managed to get a fourth season, so I hope the writers are told early if they're going to be axed and can work towards a proper conclusion.
23 September 2011 / Fox

Next time...

TV Picks: 26 September – 2 October 2011 (Merlin, Fringe, Ringer, Secret Circle, Shirley, Strictly Come Dancing, etc.)

FRINGE - Sky1, Wednesday, 9PM

MONDAY 26th
Home Cooking Made Easy (BBC2, 8.30pm) Culinary series. Presented by Lorraine Pascale. (1/4)
Jono: Finding My Family On Facebook (BBC3, 9pm) Documentary about people trace their families using Facebook.
PICK OF THE DAY Dancing With The Stars (Watch, 9pm) Season 13 of the US version of the celebrity dancing competition. Celebrities include David Arquette & Ricki Lake.

TUESDAY 27th
PICK OF THE DAY Gok's Clothes Roadshow (Channel 4, 8pm) Series 3 of the fashion makeover show. Hosted by stylist Gok Wan. (1/5)
Superior Interiors (Channel 5, 8pm) Makeover series transforming the inside of people's homes. Presented by Kelly Hoppen. (1/5)
Britain & Ireland From The Sky (Sky Atlantic, 8.30pm) Aerial tour of the British Isles and Ireland. (1/8)
Hedge Wars (BBC1, 10.35pm) Documentary on people and their differing opinions of hedges.


WEDNESDAY 28th
Ultimate Emergency Bikers (Channel 5, 8pm) Highlights of the documentary series about paramedic bikers and police bike squads. (1/4)
The Secret Circle (Sky Living, 8pm) Season 1 of the US drama about a young witch. [pilot review]
PICK OF THE DAY Fringe (Sky1, 10pm) Season 4 of the US sci-fi drama. Starring Anna Torv, John Noble, Seth Gabel, Joshua Jackson & Lance Reddick. (1/22) [premiere review]


THURSDAY 29th
The Marvelous Mrs Beeton With Sophie Dahl (BBC2, 8pm) Documentary on Mrs Beeton, creator of the famous Mrs Beeton's Book Of Household Management. Presented by Sophie Dahl.
PICK OF THE DAY Ringer (Sky Living, 8pm) Season 1 of the US drama about a woman who assumes the identity of her affluent twin sister. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nestor Carbonell & Ioan Gruffud.  [pilot review]
Shirley (BBC2, 9pm) Biopic of iconic Welsh singer Shirley Bassey.
Timeshift: Dear Censor (BBC4, 10pm) Documentary on film censorship in the UK, including looks at Rambo III and Women In Love.


FRIDAY 30th
Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (Sky Atlantic, 8pm) Culinary series looking at dishes from around the world.
PICK OF THE DAY Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, 9pm) Series 9 of the dance competition. Celebrity participants are Alex Jones, Anita Dobson, Holly Valance, Dan Lobb, Robbie Savage, Lulu, Russell Grant, Audley Harrison, and others. Continues Saturday. (1/14)
Singer-Songwriters At The BBC (BBC4, 9.15pm) Series 2 of archival musical performance footage, from the '60s and '70s. Featuring Leonard Cohen and Julie Felix, Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Don McLean, Tim Buckley, Stealers Wheel, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Paul Simon, Rab Noakes, Loudon Wainwright III, Clifford T Ward & Cat Stevens.
Songwriters' Circle (BBC4, 10.15pm) Various musicians discuss the craft of writing songs.


SATURDAY 1st
PICK OF THE DAY Merlin (BBC1, 7.50pm) Series 4 of the fantasy drama. Starring Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Anthony Head, Richard Wilson, Emilia Fox, Nathaniel Parker, Santiago Cabrera, John Hurt, Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby & Gemma Jones. (1/13)

SUNDAY 2nd
Nothing.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Review: PERSON OF INTEREST, 1.1 - "Pilot"

written by Jonathan Nolan; directed by David Semel
starring Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Henson & Kevin Chapman

I'm not a fan of Jim Caviezel (The Passion Of The Christ), who feels miscast in this new CBS crime drama, playing a former government agent in a world of high-tech surveillance, just ike he did in the recent flop remake of The Prisoner. Caviezel plays John Reese (a hybrid of John Connor and Kyle Reese, seeing as writer-creator Jonathan Nolan script-doctored Terminator Salvation?), a CIA agent who's seen and done terrible things for his country and now wanders the streets of New York City with a thousand-yard stare and tousled beard. He's recruited by billionaire Mr Finch (Lost's Michael Emerson), a software engineer who created a surveillance program for the government after 9/11 with the unexpected by-product of predicting perpetrators/victims of violent crimes. Now Finch wants to use his program to stop felonies before they happen on the mean streets of the Big Apple, with John's expertise out in the field...

The premise is something best-suited to a sci-fi drama set in the near-future, but comes across as bunkum as a present-day concern. So what, unthinking cameras and software can somehow predict people's thoughts and behaviour, discerning motivations for crimes simply by watching people on CCTV? Emerson, in his first post-Lost role, doesn't stray too far from the role of Ben Linus, only this time there's little doubt Finch is a good guy, which undermines much of what was always so compelling about Emerson's manipulative character on that castaway drama. Emerson's not exactly playing Ben, then, but executive-producer JJ Abrams knows how mesmerizing Emerson's cadence and expressions can be, so he lifts a thin character off the page. I'm hoping Mr Finch does more than give cryptic speeches under bridges and click a mouse on a computer screen from their base of operations.

Despite its silly premise, the intention for a Minority Report-esque crime drama, where two vigilantes (both believed to be dead by the government) stop crime before it's even happened, is undoubtedly very interesting—especially for a network like CBS, which is full of less imaginative procedural shows. Unfortunately, the big problem here is that Caviezel showed up for work under the mistaken belief that mumbling dialogue is the best way to show John's mental fragility. Instead, he makes his hero so laconic he's detached and boring. After the pilot, you find yourself running through a dozen or so leading men who could have given this character some added dynamism. I can only hope Caviezel's character is on a journey and will put aside some of that grouchiness in the episodes to come, or CBS will wisely drop creator Jonathan Nolan a note about ensuring Caviezel shows some range, or a few extra facial expressions at the very least.

Speaking of Nolan, as the brother of one of the world's most successful movie directors, who himself has written some of his sibling's films (The Prestige, The Dark Knight), I was most excited about Person Of Interest because of his involvement. And his pilot certainly had some cinematic traits and similarities to the current Batman saga. John and Finch are almost an amalgam of millionaire Bruce Wayne; one bringing brawn and experience, the other brains and money. John even starts the episode looking like the bearded Christian Bale when Gotham's playboy was wandering the world looking for answers in Tibet.

Overall, I enjoyed Person Of Interest and liked how this pilot panned out, but it was also a disappointment given its pedigree in front and behind the camera. I'm just interested to see where it goes. I'm not convinced a crime-of-the-week vigilante procedural is going to be something I'll make appointment viewing, even with Emerson's involvement, but the show has some promise and the pilot left some intriguing questions flapping in the breeze: what happened to John to turn him into a hobo? Why are John and Finch both presumed dead? Why don't the US government use Finch's software to this same end? Are people who don't have a social security number for the machine to spit out beyond Finch's grasp? And why did the brilliant William Sadler appear for such a minor and seemingly pointless role?

22 September 2011 / CBS

Saturday, 24 September 2011

DOCTOR WHO, 6.12 - "Closing Time"


Its heart was in the right place, and I don't begrudge Doctor Who giving us a sentimental comedy, but episodes like "Closing Time" just aren't my cup of tea. They tend to turn The Doctor (Matt Smith) into too much of a jester for my taste (communicating with babies?), and writer Gareth Roberts isn't particularly good at crafting jokes or situations that make me laugh. This penultimate hour offered us some levity before next week's finale (which is all about deception and death), but most of it washed over me and felt like a waste of time. I'm almost certain next week's episode will be brimming with story, so it's a shame there has to be a budget-saving preamble when a proper two-part conclusion would have served audiences best.

Now aware of his impending, seemingly-unavoidable demise, and without his trusty companions around, The Doctor arrived to bid one-time pal Craig Owens (James Corden) goodbye, only to be pulled into one last adventure when it became clear Craig's local department store is the unlikely setting for an invasion of Cybermen. This episode was a quasi-sequel to last year's "The Lodger", but the idea of putting The Doctor in very ordinary surroundings wasn't as charming a second time. Still, it remains true that Smith and Corden have great rapport, and a Laurel & Hardy-esque appearance when sharing he screen, but too often their banter and silly quips became tiring here. And it's also a shame the Cybermen have become a bigger joke on nu-Who than even The Daleks, as the metal men constantly fail to elicit any sense of dread in viewers. Even when this episode climaxed with sweet Craig being turned into an automaton, the whole procedure failed because of something as eye-rolling as Craig "blowing up the Cybermen with love" because he heard his baby cry.

I appreciated Roberts' many nods to the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton's a notable influence on Smith's performance)—particularly with the recycled line "you've redecorate; I don't like it" from "The Three Doctors", and the return of the cybermats that mostly appeared in '60s episodes--but it was a story that felt like bits and pieces thrown together. Some ingredients worked (The Doctor spotting Amy in the shop and realizing she's since become a famous model was lovely), some didn't (the razor-toothed cybermat attack), but the overall effect was watching an episode with practically no story having to rely on the antics of Smith and Corden to sustain it. By the by, should we now consider Corden the Catherine Tate of Steven Moffat's reign?

Of greater interest was the denouement, which was so separate from the story preceding it that I'm willing to bet Steven Moffat wrote it. Here we caught up with River Song (Alex Kingston), who's been researching The Doctor in the TARDIS-shaped journal he gave her, before she was reacquainted with Madam Kovarian and The Silence, forced into the "impossible astronaut" spacesuit and submerge in Lake Silencio in preparation to kill The Doctor. This answers a few questions in itself, but I remain largely puzzled by Madam Kovarian's plan. It doesn't make much sense to me, the more I think about it, so I just hope the finale explains everything in a satisfying way. Why a NASA spacesuit? Why keep River underwater in it? Why was young Melody Pond reflected in its visor back in the two-part premiere during some scenes, if it's the adult River Song trapped in there? Why does River have to be the one in the suit? And is the final part of River's mystery (who she killed to get herself thrown in prison) going to pan out as unsurprisingly as it feels it might do now?

Overall, "Closing Time" didn't work for me, but I can totally understand some people will be more tolerant of its sugary tone, and perhaps even enjoy a throwback to Russell T. Davies' era (even the sonic screwdriver was back to being a get-out clause for every situation imaginable—even distracting babies!) I'm sure most children under-8 won't be complaining, as this episode was great deal simpler than every other story's been this year, and it had a certain daffy energy that's hard to deny. But, for me, it just didn't appeal.

Asides

  • There was a fun allusion to K-9 between The Doctor and a toy ("robot dog—not as much fun as I remember").
  • Having Craig be the one to give The Doctor his stetson (which we saw him wearing in the premiere) was a really nice way to pinch Series 6 together in your mind.
written by Gareth Roberts / directed by Steve Hughes / 24 September 2011 / BBC1

Next time...

Review: COMMUNITY, 3.1 - "Biology 101"

written by Garrett Donovan & Neil Goldman; directed by Anthony Russo
starring Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi,
Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Jim Rash, Ken Jeong & John Goodman

Now in its third year (more by good fortune than good ratings), Community returned with a plot-heavy episode setting up some of the changes we can expect this season, while finding a way to quickly resolve Pierce's (Chevy Chase) decision to quit the study group last semester. And, rather than waste time answering that question in-depth, Pierce simply reappeared with a cheerful "I'm back!" on the very first day, having changed his mind over the summer.

Comedies like Community are notoriously difficult to review, as they could easily regress to a list of things a reviewer found funny/unfunny, but suffice to say I thought "Biology 101" was a very entertaining and hugely welcome return. It effortlessly breezed through the show's small changes in a tongue-in-cheek way, with Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) almost becoming the voice of show creator Dan Harmon at times (mentioning how students/viewers can expect more of the same, but done with less money), so perhaps his prosperous nemesis Vice Dean Laybourne (Roseanne's John Godman) can be seen as the NBC network?

Goodman and his sonorous voice made a good impression as an antagonist for the Dean, and the introduction of an ex-con biology teacher called Professor Kane (The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams) was also appreciated—although one has to wonder if the joke of having "Omar" playing an intimidating educator is going to be all that amusing after awhile. For now, MKW had an amusing scene while being rudely interrupted by Jeff's (Joel McHale) phone during a highfaluting speech in class, and I'm hopeful for more.

One problem surrounding the divisive character of Chang (Ken Jeong) looks to have been solved by making him a security guard, as it never worked that Greendale's former Spanish teacher would become a student last season. I'm not wholly convinced Chang has much more to offer, but the writers obviously love Jeong's high-energy histrionics, and it's true he can be relied on for a quick OTT reaction or silly quip. I'm hopeful that he'll be used better this year, now he's back as an authority figure, that could potentially open up another angle with the college's workforce. I'm sure Chang will be used in the power-play between Dean Pelton and Laybourne, too.

As usual, the episode managed to cram in plenty of amusing pop-culture jokes and geeky references. Most notably an outstanding parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey after Jeff was knocked out by gas, imagining the Kubrick classic's mysterious denouement with him as spaceman Dave Bowman, and the wooden study room table replacing the iconic Monolith. A little dumber was a parody of Downton Abbey, re-imagined to be the British antecedent of Abed's (Danny Pudi) beloved Cougar Town, which Abed became addicted to, until Cougarton Abbey's six episodes were exhausted, leading him onto a shoestring-budgeted Doctor Who clone called Inspector Spacetime. (Atrocious attempts at English accents throughout, as per usual.)

It was a "getting the gang back together" episode, at heart, featuring a fair amount of exposition, but it all slipped by very enjoyable because Community has such a flair for creativity. You never quite know what you're doing to get with this show every week, which is all part of the joy. Stop-motion animation? An extended Dungeons & Dragons riff? A paintball epic inspired by action movies? A clever parody of a little-known '80s arthouse movie? The sky's the limit! You just know it'll be diverse, energetic, geek-friendly, and cause just as many belly laughs as wry smiles. I'm so glad this show and these characters are back to brighten my week.

22 September 2011 / NBC

Friday, 23 September 2011

Review: GLEE, 3.1 - "The Purple Piano Project"

written by Brad Falchuk; directed by Eric Stoltz
starring Leah Michele, Matthew Morrison, Jane Lynch, Diana Agron, Jayma Mays,
Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Naya Rivera, Heather Morris & Darren Criss

Glee returns for its third season with promises of reinvention after a creatively troubled sophomore year, that sought to maintain its self-made phenomenon by making things better (Broadway's Kristin Chenoweth? Pah! Try Hollywood's Gwyneth Paltrow in an Emmy-winning recurring role), but not necessarily better. Now that two of its three co-creators are splitting their time between FX's American Horror Story, they've wisely brought in actual staff writers, and this is a key reason why I'm hopeful an outsider's perspective will fix mistakes the show's been making—or at least give us storylines and characters that have cohesion and longevity.

However, on the evidence of season 3 premiere "The Purple Piano Project", I was perhaps foolish to get my expectations up. It's business as usual, with a few changes having occurred off-screen—like the loss of Sam (Chord Overstreet was let-go); the rekindling of Mr Schue (Matthew Morrisin) and Emma's (Jayma Mays) relationship; Mercedes (Amber Riley) getting her biggest storyline while we weren't looking, landing herself a gigantic boyfriend; and Quinn (Diana Agron) turning from sugar-wouldn't-melt cheerleader bitch to purple-haired leader of a rebellious girl gang known as the "Skanks". The episode also took the time to bring Blaine (Darren Criss) into McKinley High from the prestigious Dalton Academy, such was the impact of the actor last season as a love-interest for Kurt (Chris Colfer), and someone appears to have realized that Lauren Zizes' (Ashley Fink) prominence as a gleester and unexpected girlfriend for Puck (Mark Salling) wasn't working one iota.

The problem with Glee (rather like Heroes, actually) is that it's a show that can only really sustain one season because of its basic concept of a struggling glee club and its outcast members rising to the challenge and becoming winners. To try and keep things going, they had the club fail at Regionals in season 1, and then fail at Nationals in season 2, and each time the show has basically reset to square-one. Best exemplified by crabby Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) trying to once again destroy the glee club, this time by getting political support to cut funding to the arts in schools. This after last year's apparent breakthrough when the club performed at Sue's sister's funeral.

The saving grace, just about, is that the cast are incredibly talented when it comes to singing and dancing. I could personally listen to Lea Michele sing and watch Heather Morris dance for an inordinate amount of time, and the best moments of this premiere were the musical numbers. Plus, the show continues to deliver some lovely quips and snatches of dialogue, with the best delivered by Sue and Brittany (Morris). But everything else is now on very shaky ground after two years of repetition, not helped by the show attempting to franchise itself into a 3D movie and reality-show (The Glee Project) over the summer. There comes a time when even passionate fans start to feel manipulated and overwhelmed, or start asking questions the rest of us have been asking for months, like: isn't this show just repeating itself every other week? The answer is "yes", because there's only a finite number of storylines with a show so tied exclusively to a glee club, rather than being a high school comedy that happens to include musical elements.

It's early days, so maybe the new writers will prove they've been able to get their voices heard in the writers' room (enough for the show to develop stories and character arcs in a compelling way this time), but I have strong doubts. A good premieres should be a statement of intent for the year, and "The Purple Piano Project" confirmed that Glee's going to continue doing what it does best, and worst, until the ratings hit too many bad notes and Fox turn off the spotlight.

22 September 2011 / Sky1