Thursday, 31 May 2012

MAD MEN, 5.11 – "The Other Woman"


This has been a terrific season of Mad Men (how many shows can say that in their fifth year?) and "The Other Woman" marked another delightful highlight. A sublime episode on every level, it was a fascinating study of how women were perceived, exploited and undervalued in the '60s (and perhaps still are to some extent). The core moral dilemma was astutely drawn, as Pete (Vincent Karthesier) discovered that Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), head of the Dealers Association and member of Jaguar's selection committee, will guarantee SCDP win the lucrative and prestigious car account if they accept his indecent proposal to sleep with Joan (Christina Hendricks). An outrageous line of thought that stunned the partners, although Pete was already a step ahead in bringing the matter to Joan's attention first—who was amused by the ridiculousness of the situation, yet over the course of this episode came to see the benefit of accepting the dirty deal. But this was Pete as his slimiest; rationalising the whole proposal for his own benefit, not giving a damn about Joan's feelings, despite claiming to.

This was quite an unsettling episode in many ways, making us reconsider our opinion of some major characters. Only Don (Jon Hamm) outright refused to entertain Herb's offer, assuring Joan in person that SCDP can win the Jaguar account on creative merit alone. The others were uncomfortable with it—especially Roger (John Slattery) and Lane (Jared Harris)—but were still willing to let events happen with minimal fuss, almost hoping Joan would swallow her dignity out of company loyalty. Considering Roger's feeling for Joan, hearing him say he just doesn't want to pay for the event to happen out of his own pocket was quite a shock. So much for chivalry.

At least Lane gave Joan some solid career advice (although it also benefited him), suggesting she refuse the $50,000 offer to sleep with Herb and instead ask for a 5% share in the business. So while it was still an awkward and despairing moment when Joan arrived to spend a night with Herb, it means Joan's now a partner in the first after 13 years. But is that really a win, with everyone knowing she got there by selling her body?

On the flipside, a woman with real creative talent slipped through Don's fingers. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), tired of being mistreated and taken for granted, finally decided to put her career ahead of her sense of loyalty to "mentor" Don, accepting an amazing offer t become rival firm CGC's chief copywriter. That parting moment was perhaps the pinnacle of an already amazing episode, with Don planting a lingering kiss on the hand of Peggy, arguably his best protégé, reducing her to tears (real ones, as it happens, as Moss later revealed she was unaware Hamm would tenderly take her hand like that). The Don/Peggy relationship has been a cornerstone of Mad Men from the start, so it's very interesting to see it change so quickly and dramatically. There's no bad blood, but it'll be interesting to see how Peggy gets on. Will she thrive away from Don with Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), or have to come back begging for her old job? Will this mean a reduced role for Moss next season? Has Ginsberg supplanted Peggy entirely?

Another fabulous sequence was the Jaguar pitch from Don, armed with Ginsberg's (Ben Feldman) breakthrough idea ("Jaguar. At last, something beautiful you can truly own). I always adore the pitching scenes of Mad Men, mostly because they're genuinely good and don't smell too artificial, and the way this one was interspersed with Joan sleeping with Herb was a masterstroke. Just like the sports car, Joan was a beauty you could own for a price.

There was even a similar objectification for poor Megan (Jennifer Pare) this week, as she attended an audition she'd dutifully prepared for all week, only to discover the panel of men were only really interested in her looks—asking her give them a twirl, rather than impress them with her acting. She didn't get the job, either, which was perhaps a double knock to her confidence.

"The Other Woman" was a remarkable episode. SCDP may have won the Jaguar account, but they sold their soul to do it (which is what Joan represents, in my mind). Don was particularly displeased about hearing the "good news" from Roger, knowing that his excellent pitch was undermined by the likelihood they perhaps only got the account thanks to Joan's self-sacrifice. That look Don gave Joan, when she assembled with the other partners, was one of such confusion and umbrage. Beautifully done.

Asides

  • Fantastic to see Freddy Rumsen again, giving Peggy some fatherly advice she decided to take.
  • It's easy to see Don as a voice of reason and champion of women's liberties because of his response to Joan prostituting herself, but let's not forget the insulting moment when he threw money at Peggy's face over what her perceived as her desire to go to Paris for an ad campaign she'd secured. It was misogynistic in its own way, and the moment he lost Peggy as a copywriter.
  • A less in-depth review this week, or so it feels to me. Sorry, I'm just away on holiday and busy with other things until the weekend, but wanted to get this review done to avoid a backlog. And because I just hate seeing the blog sitting idle for too many days. Feel free to comment and continue discussion of anything I probably forgot to mention.
written by Semi Chellas & Matthew Weiner / directed by Phil Abraham / 29 May 2012 / Sky Atlantic

Monday, 28 May 2012

TV Picks: 28 May – 3 June 2012 (All the Queen's Horses, Britain's Lost Routes, Jimmy & the Giant Supermarket, Live at the Electric, Married to the Moonies, Revenge, etc.)


MONDAY
How To Beat Pain (BBC1, 7.30pm) Series looking into the cause, effects and treatment of back pain. Presented by Dr Kreindler & Professor Whyte.
The Queen & I (ITV1, 8pm) Documentary using home-made video footage of Queen Elizabeth at various public engagements. (1/2)
Afghanistan: The Great Game – A Personal View by Rory Stewart (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary on the UK's involvement with Afghanistan throughout the 19th-century. Continues tomorrow, concludes Wednesday. (1/3)
Britain's Hidden Homeless (BBC3, 9pm) Documentary about rapper Speech Dabelle, who became homeless for three years at the age of 19.
PICK OF THE DAY Revenge (E4, 9pm) Season 1 of the drama about a young woman who returns to her hometown to get vengeance on the community that condemned her father to a life in prison. (1/22)
Born In The USSR: 28 Up (ITV1, 10.35pm) Russian version of the UK's seminal 7 Up series, focusing on 28-year-old Russians who grew up behind the Iron Curtain.


TUESDAY 29th
PICK OF THE DAY Jimmy & The Giant Supermarket (Channel 4, 9pm) Programme looking at the standards of food in UK supermarkets, where farmer Jimmy Doherty challenges Tesco to let him remake their best-selling own brands at a higher standard of welfare for the animals.
Prince Charles: The Royal Restoration (ITV1, 9pm) Documentary about the Prince of Wales' attempts to restore Dumfries House in Scotland. Presented by Alan Titchmarsh.

WEDNESDAY 30th
Nothing.

THURSDAY 31st
Britain's Lost Routes (BBC1, 8pm) Griff Rhys Jones retraces the steps that Queen Elizabeth I took through her realm. (1/4)
Married To The Moonies (Channel 4, 9pm) Documentary on the Unification Church, following three Brits who travel to Korea for a blessing by their messiah Reverend Moon.
PICK OF THE DAY Live At The Electric (BBC3, 9.30pm) Standup comedy from Russell Kane, featuring sketches. (1/8)

FRIDAY 1st
PICK OF THE DAY A Jubilee Tribute To The Queen from Prince Charles (BBC1, 8pm) Tribute to Queen Elizabeth II from her eldest son, Prince Charles.
Elizabeth: Queen, Wife & Mother (ITV1, 9pm) Profile of the monarch. Presented by Alan Titchmarsh.
Punk Britannia (BBC4, 9pm) Documentary on the rise of punk rock in the UK during the 1970s. (1/3)

SATURDAY 2nd
Nothing.

SUNDAY 3rd
PICK OF THE DAY All The Queen's Horses: A Diamond Jubilee Special (ITV1, 7pm) Pageant from Windsor Castle, celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Featuring Helen Mirren, Rolf Harris, Omid Djalili, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Susan Boyle, Joss Stone, Il Divo & David Garrett.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sorry, I'll be away for awhile (updated)


Just a quick blog to say I'm away for awhile now. I definitely won't be able to blog until Monday at the earliest because I'll be in Wales. (Next week's TV Picks are going up automatically.) I'll have to play next week by ear, too. I'm not reviewing much TV right now, so it probably won't be beyond my abilities to keep on top of Mad Men and Hit & Miss. Just expect a few delays here and there, together with a lack of incidental posts. You can follow me on Twitter to get a better idea of what's going on, day to day. But there isn't too much planned. My recent Hit & Miss and Don't Trust The B**** In Apartment 23 reviews were actually automated, just to give the illusion that I'm really here and writing. Just like this blog post you're reading right now. Spooky eh?

Oh, the power of the internet...

Take care, blog y'all soon.

Dan

(P.S - Oh. As usual, perhaps take this opportunity to browse my mushrooming archive of film and TV reviews? Or leave a question for me to answer upon my return. It's up to you.)

UPDATE: For various reasons, it's now unlikely I'll be blogging until 4 June. Sorry about that. As usual, double-reviews will be the order of the day when I get back.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Review: DON'T TRUST THE B**** IN APARTMENT 23 (E4)


Forget James Van Der Beek playing himself (in a lazy attempt to transform him into the next Neil Patrick Harris, copying the joke of NPH's Harold & Kumar apperances), I was mostly interested in Don't Trust The B**** In Apartment 23 because of a likable pair of young actress: Dreama Walker, terrific in The Good Wife; and Breaking Bad alum Krysten Ritter, who has talent in both comical and dramatic disciplines. Sometimes just having fresh and interesting folk in a sitcom will draw you in, but you still only stick around if they're given funny things to do.

The premise of Don't Trust The B*** In Apartment 23 (hereafter Apartment 23) is that June (Walker), a naïve country gal from the Midwest, fresh from a painful breakup with her boyfriend, moves to the bright lights of Manhattan for a dream job that falls through when the CEO's jailed for embezzlement. Unexpectedly down on her luck, June gets a modest job at a coffee shop and moves in with the seemingly amiable Chloe (Ritter) of apartment 23, whom she comes to realise is actually an unmanageable, erratic "bitch" on many levels.

The good news is I wasn't bored by Apartment 23 when Walker or Ritter were on-screen, and there's rarely a scene without them. (So yay.) Effervescent Walker's all big eyes, cheesy smiles and blonde hair; cynical Ritter's a heavy-lidded scowl beneath a raven's hairdo. It's a female "odd couple", essentially, and a decent one for now. Although you have to wonder how long the premise will sustain keeping these two as "friends", before it becomes ridiculous how many times Chloe manipulates June for her own idle amusement. But for now there's fun to be had in seeing smiley optimist June struggle to fathom the offhandedly cruel and peculiar Chloe, then show unexpected fortitude and play Chloe at her own game (earn her respect along the way). But is this game going to be repeated every single episode, ad nauseam? How long until playing the "frenemies" card starts getting old?

I'm not sure what to make of the fact Chloe knows James Van Der Beek, erstwhile TV hunk of late-'90s hit Dawson's Creek. I never watched "the Beek from the creek" in his famous role, so the underlying joke of his presence is perhaps lost on me. I understand why it might work for his fans, because it's been done to rehabilitate Neil Patrick Harris (who was at one point, lest we forget, just the long-forgotten, grown-up star of Doogie Howser, M.D). Now he's one of TV's most revered comedy actors in How I Met Your Mother. I'm not sure Van Der Beek's going to find himself in a similar position just because Apartment 23 pokes fun at him. It doesn't help that the gag feels inconsistent, too, because JVDB keeps giving self-deprecating examples of how low his career's sunk, yet he's simultaneously presented as a cooler-than-cool ladies man with a never-ending supply of Creek groupies to shag.

Overall, Apartment 23 has definite appeal if you like Walker and Ritter (although Walker's not particularly funny here, just appealing), plus it has that bright and vibrant aesthetic I know people love about slick US sitcoms. It also earns respect by refusing to have a live studio audience guffaw and whoop over everything (which isn't a terrible sin, but for whatever reason US comedies go overboard with the sound-mix). I just don't know if the premise will last without the show becoming increasingly generic, because it'll be hard to keep June and Chloe on a knife-edge around each other, but that's never stopped other US sitcoms running for years... if the cast's pretty enough and the humour's kept fairly broad.

written by Nahnatchka Khan / directed by Jason Winer / 24 May 2012 / E4

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Review: HIT & MISS (Sky Atlantic)


Sky Atlantic take their first step into original homegrown drama with the six-part Hit & Miss, created by Paul Abbott (Shameless, State Of Play) and written by Sean Conway. US indie star Chloë Sevigny (Big Love) takes the lead as transgender hitman Mia, introduced casually shooting a man dead for a crime boss, before discovering she fathered a son 11 years ago. Summoned to windswept west Yorkshire, shortly after her ex-lover Wendy's died of cancer, Mia tries to connect with her young son and his three siblings—Riley (Karla Crome), Levi (Reece Noi) and Leonie (Roma Christensen)—now she's become their legal guardian. At first, she isn't made to feel welcome, but that soon changes once her violent history as a hired assassin comes in handy...

Ever since I heard about Hit & Miss, I've been dying to see it. The strange but satisfying thing is how different the show is to what I expected—being less a hitman thriller with a gimmick-y protagonist, and more a family drama about dysfunctional people learning to live and love. Some will prefer the sexier version that's been allowed to percolate in their minds for months, but I enjoyed the amiable predictability of this placid premiere. Of course Mia's going to use her skills as a professional killer to pay her skint family's debts; and of course her shy son Ryan's (Jordan Bennie) going to K.O the school bully who steals his pocket money after boxing lessons. You expected it to happen, and happen it did. But I didn't mind how the story unspooled in some fairly obvious ways, because that doesn't mean I have any idea where he remaining five episodes are headed.

Sevigny is mesmerising as Mia, and does a good job with a mild "Irish traveller" accent (although opinions always vary when it comes to how well foreign actors cope with British dialects). All I know is this: I wasn't reminded of Sevigny's American heritage at any point, and her understated performance was one to savour. Mia's clearly a broken person (more through her choice of occupation than conflicts over her impending sex change), but she senses the possibility that this underprivileged family will make her feel whole. By virtue of her slightly androgynous appearance, Sevigny also makes for a good choice playing a man-becoming-a-woman, and the show itself handled that aspect of the premise with skill. There's an early sequence where Mia strips naked to have a shower, you see her penis (a prosthetic that won't give Dirk Diggler sleepless nights), but it's all handled very tastefully. I've heard it said that Hit & Miss should have cast a genuine transgender actor, or maybe someone more obviously a "man in makeup", but I don't think it's a particular concern. They were probably concerned the show would be misconstrued if Mia resembled a man in drag, too. If Sevigny was the best person for the role, then that's all that matters.

The rest of the cast were very natural and interesting to watch, especially Crome as the eldest girl who just wants Mia to sign documents to appease social services and "piss off". Bennie, as the little boy who's lost a mum but gained a dad-in-mum's-clothing, was also very charming and invited you into his performance. The only thing that felt strange to me was how there wasn't much grieving going on, considering those three kids have just lost their mother to cancer, and were fending for themselves in a tumbledown farm atop a remote hill with no money to pay for electricity.

Overall, Hit & Miss is off to a great start, despite the simplistic storyline that didn't offer too many big surprises. But now Mia's literally brought light into her family's lives (by reconnecting the farm's electric using money stolen from a rich man whose throat she slashed open), I'm intrigued to see where the story will go from here. Will Mia's shadowy past catch up with her, as she struggles to balance the demands of this new family with the ugly job she's paid to do by gangsters? Does she even want to leave that life behind just yet? What will happen if, or rather when, her kids discover what she does for a living? Is there a chance Mia's presence on the farm will do more harm than good? (I got a slightly uncomfortable feeling when she made Ryan punch his bully to the floor, but maybe that's just me being soft.)

Like all good dramas, I'm already asking questions and will be awaiting the answers and unseen complications from the weeks ahead. On the evidence of this confident and composed premiere, Sky Atlantic's long-awaited drama is more hit than miss.

Aside

  • I loved the retro feel of the show, which came through mainly because the family can't afford many mod cons. Their farm wouldn't have looked out of place in the '40s or '50s. The lack of internet was particularly apparent: Riley was seen flirting with a boys over a CB radio (how '70s), while Ryan was introduced to pornography through an old-fashioned dirty magazine.
  • This episode was directed by Hettie Macdonald, who helmed the fantastic and very popular Doctor Who episode "Blink", together with Wallander, The Fixer and many others.
  • I know what you're thinking: how do you pronounce Chloë Sevigny's surname? Well, it's "sevenyay".
  • How appropriate that Mia's an anagram of "aim".
written by Sean Conway / directed by Hettie Macdonald / 22 May 2012 / Sky Atlantic

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

MAD MEN, 5.10 – "Christmas Waltz"


Life's short, and sometimes the only person you can rely on is a good friend. Two characters get through a thorny situation in "Christmas Waltz" (a dance that takes two) that requires the help of a pal to get them through it: Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), making his return after a three-year absence as a devoted Hare Krishna; and Joan (Christina Hendricks) after she's served divorce papers by her husband. The other character of particular note in this episode, Lane (Jared Harris), doesn't turn to his friends for assistance settling a £2,900 debt in back taxes. Maybe he doesn't think he really has any pals who'd loan him some cash, or is simple too proud to even ask. Whatever the reason, Lane's the person who doesn't get to see any light at the end of the tunnel this week.

The return of Paul Kinsey was great to see, especially as his life change was so substantial and comical. Harry's (Rich Sommer) reaction to his friend's new spiritual focus was brilliantly handled, as it wasn't an outright refusal to even get involved in such a seemingly bonkers pursuit. Even better was seeing Harry participate in a group chant, and find himself genuinely enjoying the atmosphere and buzz it gave him. Some of that due to the attentions of beautiful Lakshmi (Anna Wood), Paul's friend who appeared to take an interest in Harry and his openness to the ceremony. This story took some unexpected twists which were amusing to see play out, too: first with Paul handing Harry a spec script for a Star Trek episode called "The Negron Complex" to pass onto NBC executive hands; and then with Harry having wild and passionate sex with Lakshmi in his office, instantly seduced by her. And yet, it's notable that Harry was quick to confirm that this wouldn't hurt his friend Paul ("open relationships" are permitted by the Krishna movement), and that Harry ultimately couldn't crush his friend's hopes and dreams by telling him his script's terrible. Rather, he sent him to the west coast with $500 and an ear full of bullshit about being a great writer, on the understanding he quit the Krishna teachings. I'm not sure if that's any kinder, really, but in some ways it was. It at least gets him away from Lakshmi's clutches, once she revealed she only had sex with Harry as a way to warn him away from their "best recruiter".

Joan's been rather underutilised this season, apart from the episode where she finally got rid of her husband, so it was nice to see her given a sizeable subplot. I'm a fan of the relationship she has with Don (Jon Hamm), which isn't sexual (beyond flirting) and instead a genuine bond of friendship. They do make an appealing couple, however, so this story had great fun having them pretend to be a married couple—with Don whisking Joan out of the office to test drive a sports car, as a means to take her mind off the fact her husband's started divorce proceedings against her. A part of me would actually love to see Don and Joan get together, because they work so well together, but the reason for that is probably because both characters don't see it as a sexual thing—which is, evidently, when things get complicated for them and they only suffer. Even here, Don's afternoon taking care of a good friend was soured by the reality of his marriage when he got home late, with Megan (Jennifer Pare) very angry about being kept waiting and worried. An understandable complaint, let's face it, but now that Megan's turning into the demanding housewife type who'll throw plates of food at walls to make a point (how dramatic—or a wannabe actress, ironically), maybe Don's going to slowly lose interest in her. Once the honeymoon period is over, and marriage becomes more like this, is this when Don's eye starts to wander and he starts having affairs? Is that what happened to Betty all those years ago, once the glamourous girl settled into being a housewife and demanded more of his time and consideration?

The weakest storyline was Lane's, but only because it wasn't telling a story as such. This was merely the beginning of something that could eat into the remainder of the season, as his pride couldn't let him simply ask one of SCDP's partners for a loan to pay off his debts. As a I said above, this probably means he doesn't see them as friends who would help, or perhaps knows that his position of authority would be sullied if he had to scrounge fro money. So instead he had to get clever, by suggesting an early Christmas bonus for the staff, which was shot down because of their financial crisis when Mohawk airlines put their advertising on hold. Seeing Lane squirm was rather uncomfortable, but a nice insight into the man and what he chooses to share with others. What will happen next? It seems Lane's not above forgery, as he was seen faking a $7,500 cheque signed by Don, so is he headed to jail in the finale?

One other scene I wanted to talk about was Don's pep talk to the staff, as they face working weekends till Christmas to secure Jaguar as a client from their competitors. "Every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by the moment they got their car. When we land Jaguar, the world will know we've arrived." It wasn't the best speech Don's ever given, but it felt important because it inspired the troops where the words of Lane, Roger and Pete (Vincent Karthesier) were largely failing. I have to wonder if SCDP will get the Jaguar account, setting the firm up for bigger and better things in season 6, or if this will be a marked failure and the beginning of a slide into financial ruin. Knowing there are two seasons left, my guess is the former.

A good episode with some excellent tête-à-tête's between the characters, topped off with intriguing directions for the show to take regarding Lane's debts, Don's home life, and Joan's divorce. Nevertheless, it was still something of a piece-moving episode in many ways, albeit a very enjoyable one, so I can't say I was as delighted as I was with the mid-season batch of classics.

Asides

  • There was a quick reminder here that Roger's aware baby Kevin is his son, although Joan doesn't seem to want his financial help. I predict Roger will insist once he realises she's getting divorced, and this could also be the greenlight he needs to definitively leave Jane and be with Joan as a ready-made family. Or is that just too much of a happy, neat ending?
  • Star Trek began in September 1966, and this episode was only taking place in, I assume, December. Was the show really such a hit with geeks that quickly? Anyone live through that time? So much so that you'd want to write a spec script for it? Also, it's funny just how many geeky references there have been in this fifth season (via direct references, subtle allusions, or choice of guest-stars). Is Matthew Weiner's nerdy side coming out?
written by Victor Levin & Matthew Weiner / directed by Michael Uppendahl / 22 May 2013 / Sky Atlantic

Charlie Kaufman writing HBO comedy series for Catherine Keener


The incredible Charlie Kaufman, writer of notably bizarre movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, is bringing his talent to the small-screen. He'll be writing and directing a HBO half-hour comedy described as "an exploration of one day in a woman's life and how the events leading up to it can affect, or not, the reality in which she lives."

The "woman" will be played by indie actress Catherine Keener, who's appeared in a handful of Kaufman's movies (Synecdoche, New York, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). This show is being fast-tracked through development (with Keener also serving as a producer), so I assume it'll hit the airwaves next year. In the meantime, Keener will be appearing in Kaufman's upcoming movie Frank Or Francis with Steve Carrell (her co-star in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Jack Black.

As a huge fan of Kaufman, I'm very excited by this news. Every movie he's written has pushed boundaries and managed to explore rich and complex themes in a very creative, adult, unique way. If he can even an iota of that to cable television every week, this will be a very special treat.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Two new MISFITS revealed?


Screenterrier claim to have the exclusive on who's joining E4's superhero drama Misfits for its currently filming fourth series. They are: 23-year-old Karla Crome (Hit & Miss) as Jess, the "female version of Larry David"; and Nathan McMullen (Shameless) as the naïve and childlike Finn. The identity of the third new actor, playing "good-looking" but "standoffish" Alex, has yet to be revealed. This news has yet to be confirmed by Channel 4, at time of writing, but sounds credible.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Joe Gilgun will both return as Curtis and Rudy, respectively, but Lauren Socha won't be back as Kelly—joining Robert Sheehan, Iwan Rheon and Antonia Thomas as original cast members who've left the show.

In addition, relative newcomer Nirpal Bhohagl (Sket) has been attached to direct episodes of series 4, due later this year. You can also catch Karla Crome on Sky Atlantic's Hit & Miss this evening (23 May), to perhaps get a flavour of her talent.

Any thoughts on these two actors and what they might bring to the show?

Monday, 21 May 2012

BREAKING BAD returns 15 July on AMC


Mark this date in your diaries: 15 July. That's when AMC start airing Breaking Bad's fifth and final season. The bad news is this 16-episode season's being split in half, so we'll only get 8 episodes before the final 8 are shown in summer 2013.

But in some way that's actually good news, because it prolongs the passing of TV's greatest show, and the writers will have ample time to perfectly construct the show's conclusion. If you're insane and haven't been watching Breaking Bad (that's only understandable if you live in the UK, where it's never aired in a decent timeslot), I recommend you overdose on box-sets over the next few months in preparation. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Incidentally, this feels like an apposite time to remind people about my TV Calendar. There you'll find the premiere dates of many UK and US shows, so it's a handy page to bookmark and refer back to.

THE VOICE UK is getting hoarse


It began impressively enough, with over 10 million people tuning into the "blind auditions" stages of BBC1's singing contest The Voice. The UK version of the Dutch global hit was even beating Simon Cowell's juggernaut Britain's Got Talent when the two shows overlapped (although that's understandable when you factor in the BBC's lack of adverts, and people's tendency to record ITV shows to fast-forward through commercials). But still, whichever way you cut it, The Voice was a huge hit for the BBC and the mammoth ratings justified the £22 million they spent acquiring it. But now, chest-deep into the series, way past the "blind auditions" phase (with its signature revolving chairs) and the ludicrous "battle rounds", The Voice has lost half its audience and is hovering around the 5-6m mark.

So what's gone wrong?

Unfortunately, this is a question with many simple answers. Take away the revolving chairs and the inherent "will-they/won't-they-turn?" drama to choose contestants, and The Voice is just a limp version of X Factor. There's nothing to make it stand above Cowell's durable series, as even the standard of performances has dropped. It's curious how so many people, who sounded superb in their blind audition, are now exposed as just above-average club singers. Well, with a few exceptions (i.e. the handful of people most viewers are waiting to get to the bloody final already).

The Voice went to great pains to separate itself from the "manipulative" and "fake" X Factor—by refusing to showcase "bad singers" in auditions because that's often exploiting the mentally-challenged (a laudable principle), or to take "novelty acts" through to the latter stages (who are only really there to be laughed at). But it feels like many viewers miss the entertainment-value those elements provided reality singing contests. The Voice, by its very nature, couldn't allow a Wagner of a Jedward onto the stage at any point, but that means the bulk of its contestants are dull and every weekend's a parade of boring competence.


There are other problems, too:

The coaches

Will.i.am, Jessie J, Tom Jones and Danny O'Donoghue (who are seated too far apart, limiting banter) look fine on paper, but the format of the show's neutered them in too many ways. Most obviously, it's hurt the show that every coach who spun their chair round instantly bestows a "blessing" on those lucky contestants. Coaches would now look stupid if they started back-tracking and saying a singer isn't really that great, especially as it could be constructed that the negativity's coming from the fact they've SEEN what they look like now.

So it's rare that a coach will tell the truth and slate a bad performance every weekend; instead choosing to talk gobbledygook with the occasional reference to things being "too pitchy". Pitchy has become code for "terrible".

Only the coaches who didn't spin their chair for Singer X or Singer Y can actually speak their minds freely. And, of course, just like X Factor, coaches who are mentoring singers are even more unlikely to criticise their own acts. The show would work a lot better if the judges were unbiased, as they used to be back in the days of Pop Idol, but X Factor's own tweaks to that format have somehow become ingrained in the format of these shows.

And are the coaches really that good in practise? The Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am was something of a coup to get on this show, but I'm not a fan of his jabbering attempts to be funny. That said, he's at least the most likely person to speak the truth when someone's bad, so that gives him some brownie points. Jessie J's been good because she comes across as nice and genuine, although behind-the-scenes report of diva behaviour has damaged her image somewhat (even if they're untrue), and you don't always care what she says. Tom Jones gets credit for being the most hands-on with his singers (although I daresay his diary's emptier than the others), but whenever he talks on the show he's in danger of putting people to sleep. Danny O'Donoghue gets a lot of flack for being relatively unknown (although it's surprising how many The Script songs you do actually know), but he's at least enthusiastic about everything. The only problem with him is how, during the blind auditions rounds, he usually refused to push his button until someone else did. The last person you want on this show is someone who can't make up their own mind!


The staging

The production itself also leaves much to be desired. X Factor is a studio-based show, too, but it doesn't really resemble one. In contrast, The Voice looks small, quaint and "shiny floor". There's nothing impressive to look at, or any pomp and ceremony to proceedings. It's just a TV show. The studio atmosphere is absent, so nothing translates to the viewers watching at home. The Sunday night results show is also pre-recorded on Saturday to save productions costs of re-staging everything (which I understand), but that kills a lot of the appeal for those at home. Jessie J even spoiled The Voice's most recent results show by tweeting a photo of her two finalists before the result had been broadcast! Oops. The BBC clearly thought a pre-record would be fine, because it actually works for Strictly Come Dancing, but they need to rethink that for series 2.

The amateurism

It's also worth mentioning the embarrassment of Saturday night's show, when a live performance was stopped by Jessie J because her microphone failed. This left presenter Holly Willoughby filling for time while the sound problem was fixed. I know it's live TV and anything can happen, which is what's so great about it, but how many times has this occurred on X Factor in seven years? Never. The Voice just can't help feeling rather amateurish as a result.


More irritations

Finally, there's just lots of irritations flying around that soon stack up: like the pointlessness of co-presenter Reggie Yates, trying to make the backstage "V Room" appear more exciting than it really is, while giving us useless updates on what Twitter's saying (only tweets that are on-message, of course); the fact will.i.am thinks tweeting during someone's performance is acceptable behaviour; the anonymity of the studio audience, shrouded in darkness; the lackluster staging and choreography of most performances, which seriously lacks any wow-factor; the horrible theme tune; the use of sob stories, which X Factor wisely cut back on because the public got fed up with them; and, in general, The Voice just feels like a TV show that pre-dates X Factor, like a this relic from 2002 the BBC have only just decided to air. Beyond the spinning chairs, nothing about it feels new and interesting.

Talent overkill

Also, while American audiences can evidently cope with a year-round parade of singing contests (American Idol, The Voice, X Factor), I don't think UK audiences like being bombarded with things that are too similar. We embrace variety. That's why the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing rivalry works well in autumn to winter, because the shows gives Britons options: celebrity or wannabes, singing or dancing? The Voice isn't clashing with X Factor, but we already spend half the year watching a TV show crown a popstar, who only really has a 50/50 chance of amounting to anything. Do we really need another one from spring to summer? Does anyone really feel that The Voice's winner is going to be held in as much esteem as X Factor winners are, seeing as even X Factor winners are forgotten about by February nowadays?


The future

Can The Voice be salvaged for series 2? Perhaps. Even in the US, they've decided to continue the revolving chairs idea into the "battle rounds" (although I have no idea how THAT will work, as they've presumably spun round in the "blind auditions" round). The BBC definitely need to encourage the coaches to be more plain-spoken (which they admittedly were last weekend), overhaul the staging, ditch the pointless V Room, lose the superfluous Reggie Yates, and perhaps look at some of the rules of the show for ways to improve them. 40 singers are too many for an audience to get involved with, to begin with, so it needs to get whittled down much quicker, for instance.

Anyway, those are just some brief thoughts which have been buzzing around my head and are hard to communicate in 140-characters on Twitter when I occasionally "live-tweet" the show on a Saturday. I say "live-tweet", but I really mean "take the piss". I just wish I was taking the mickey because it's enjoyable and fun to enter into a good-naturedly mocking spirit, and not because The Voice UK genuinely irks me now.

At least Holly Willoughby's wardrobe people are on the ball, to finish on a positive.

TV Picks: 21-27 May 2012 (British Academy Television Awards, Don't Trust The B**** In Apartment 23, Eurovision Song Contest, Hit & Miss, Soccer Aid, etc.)


MONDAY 21st
RHS Chelsea Flower Show (BBC1, 7.30pm) Botanical series. Hosted by Alan Titchmarsh. Continues on BBC2.
Love Shaft (E4, 7.30pm) Dating show where prospective partners meet in an elevator heading to a penthouse. Hosted by Will Best. (1/6)
Gok Cooks Chinese (Channel 4, 8.30pm) Brand new series where fashionista Gok Wan gets to indulge his passion for cooking. (1/6)
PICK OF THE DAY The Fall Of Singapore: The Great Betrayal (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary revealing that the British gave the Japanese the military expertise to attack Pearl Harbor and Singapore.
Are Fake Breasts Safe? (BBC3, 9pm) Documentary on fake breasts and the ongoing health concerns. Presented by former Miss Great Britain, Gemma Garrett.

TUESDAY 22nd
Trash To Treasure (ITV1, 7.30pm) Documentary about reclamation yards. (1/8)
Eurovision Song Contest 2012: Semi-Finals (BBC3, 8pm) Coverage of the semi-final of Eurovision. Hosted by Scott Mills & Sara Cox. Continues Thursday.
Harlots, Housewives & Heroines: A 17th Century History For Girls (BBC4, 9pm) Historical documentary about women living through the Restoration period in England. (1/3)
My Big Fat Fetish (Channel 4, 10pm) Documentary on people who visit websites that showcase obese women.
PICK OF THE DAY Hit & Miss (Sky Atlantic, 10pm) Series 1 of the drama about a transgender assassin who discovers she has a family. Starring Chloe Sevigny & Jonas Armstrong. (1/6)


WEDNESDAY 23rd
Hitler's Children (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary about Adolf Hitler's descendants.
Euro's Most Shocking Moments (BBC3, 9pm) Special programme looking at the European Championships most memorable and shocking moments. Narrated by Richard Bacon.
PICK OF THE DAY Soccer Aid 2012 (ITV1, 10.25pm) Charity special where a celebrity England team take on a celebrity Rest Of The World team, raising money for UNICEF. Presented by Cat Deeley.

THURSDAY 24th
National Treasures: Jubilee Special (BBC1, 9pm) History special filmed at Westminster Abbey, celebrating the Royal past.
The Fish Market: Inside Billingsgate (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary on the struggling fish merchants of London.
PICK OF THE DAY Don't Trust The B**** In Apartment 23 (E4, 9.30pm) Season 1 of the US comedy about a naive country girl who moves into an apartment with a seemingly perfect housemate who's actually a living nightmare. Starring Dreama Walker, Krysten Ritter & James Van Der Beek. (1/13)


FRIDAY 25th
PICK OF THE DAY The Great British Story: A People's History (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary series on the UK's incredible past, seen through the eyes of everyday citizens. Presented by Michael Wood. (1/8)
Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (BBC4, 9pm) Documentary on the making of the world-famous rock band's album Wish You Were Here in 1975.

SATURDAY 26th
PICK OF THE DAY Eurovision Song Contest 2012 (BBC1, 8pm) Annual singing competition, this year hosted by Azerbaijan. Engelbert Humperdinck is the UK's entrant. Commentary by Graham Norton.
Arts Troubleshooter (BBC2, 8.15pm) Documentary on works of art that are under threat, with expert Michael Lynch lending a helping hand. (1/2)
Sebastian Bergman (BBC4, 9pm) Swedish crime drama about an abrasive police profiler dealing with the deaths of his wife and daughter in the 2004 Thailand tsunami. (1/2)
A Picture Of London (BBC2, 9.15pm) Documentary on London's growth through the years.
Dara O'Briain: This Is The Show (BBC2, 10.15pm) Standup comedy from the Irish comedian, recorded live in 2010 from the Hammersmith Apollo.

SUNDAY 27th
PICK OF THE DAY British Academy Television Awards 2012 (BBC1, 8pm) Annual awards ceremony from London's Royal Festival Hall. Hosted by Dara O'Briain.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

TRAILER: SINBAD (Sky1)


What with all the trailers being released to promote brand new US TV shows in the autumn, it's easy to forget that the UK has some interesting new programming on the way, too. The big summer hope for Sky1 is Sinbad; their adaptation of the Arabian Nights character, in a 12-part series starring newcomer Elliot Knight (below) as the eponymous hero.

In this tale, Sinbad is exiled from his homeland of Basra after the death of his brother, cursed to remain at sea by his grandmother, and becomes part of the crew aboard The Providence. The series also stars Lost's Naveen Andrews, Elliot Cowan (as Norwegian sailor Gunnar), Fringe's Orla Brady, Hotel Rwanda's Sophie Okonedo, Harry Potter's Timothy Spall, Janet Suzman, Marama Corlett (as jewel thief Rina), Estella Daniels (as Nala), Junix Inocian (as the ship's cook), and Dimitri Leonidas (as the ship's doctor).


From the trailer, this looks very promising as a lighthearted family-orientated action-adventure for the weekend. Sky are certainly splashing the cash when it comes to homegrown drama/comedy just lately, and this trailer's location shooting and slick CGI certainly puts the BBC's Merlin in the shade. Unless the characters are fundamentally boring and the stories tedious, it's hard to imagine Sinbad failing this summer.

Sinbad premieres sometime in July on Sunday nights, only on Sky1.

COMMUNITY: how a Harmon-less fourth season could be good, but might be bad


Fans of beleaguered sitcom Community were overjoyed a few weeks ago when NBC announced the poorly-rated show would be returning for an abridged fourth season. But that joy turned to sorrow after the season 3 finale aired, with news Dan Harmon's contract wasn't also being renewed--meaning a fourth season will be made without its creator. How will this affect Community? It's hard to tell without seeing what his replacements do with it, but it will undoubtedly have an impact.

Below are some speculative pros and cons of a Harmon-less fourth season.

The GOOD

1. The brilliant cast are all back! They each know their characters inside-out, and while they obviously have to service the creative direction of new showrunners, it's hard to imagine the study group being fundamentally different. Maybe what they say and do may feel slightly "off", but I'd be surprised if these people have personality overhauls. Pierce will still be racist, Abed will still over-think matters, Annie will still be adorable, Shirley will be religious, Troy will cry a lot, etc.

2. NBC have only commissioned 13 episodes. Why is this a good thing? Well, it's less likely the show will be cancelled before completing such a short order, right? Even with its move to a "Friday night death slot". (Unless the numbers are truly catastrophic because even the die-hard fans desert the show, which I don't see happening.) And in my opinion most US comedies benefit from shorter, focused runs (see: HBO's Eastbound & Down).

3. From NBC's perspective, it's clear from insiders that Dan Harmon's talents as a "showrunner" were, well, questionable. He may be a great writer and ooze excellent ideas, but being a showrunner is more than just taking a creative lead. His ugly spat with Chevy Chase is the most public example of a management style with, um, room for improvement, but there's also gossip that the show went over-budget and wantonly ignored what NBC wanted from it. At least with season 4, for the studio and broadcaster, Community will be better managed behind-the-scenes. Not that most viewers care or notice, unless there's a sizable budget cut to come, too.

4. TV shows often thrive on change. There's a chance the show's incoming exec producers, David Guarascio and Moses Port, will invigorate Community in unexpected ways. There may be changes fans aren't happy about, enforced by NBC top brass, but there could be positives to savour. For example: I don't think Community's narrative arcs have ever been strong or consistent, and the show often got stuck making the same thematic points about the study group's dysfunctional friendship. Maybe Guarascio and Port will have more success planning proper, defined arcs? I'd love for them to acknowledge the fan's fears in the season 4 premiere, too--perhaps with meta commentary on changes of power. That may ease some tension very quickly.

5. Chevy Chase will be overjoyed to see the back of Dan Harmon, as their disagreements became public knowledge this year. Maybe this will lead to Pierce having a bigger role on the show (he did seem rather snubbed this season), and Chase being happier with the job.

6. It's worth mentioning that not everyone will notice a faceless showrunner has been fired when watching Community next season. It's easy to forget that most viewers don't read blogs, forums and Twitter about shows they enjoy. I know Community has a higher-than-average amount of viewers who are active online, but there's a chance season 4 could appeal to a silent majority of viewers who preferred the show in its early days (when it was still quirky and odd, but more grounded in reality than it later became). Yes, not everyone likes Harmon's indulgences, as crazy as that sounds. I know quite a few people who thought Community disappeared up its own backside halfway through season 2.

The BAD

1. The new showrunners, David Guarascio and Moses Port, have an uninspiring track record. They wrote the sitcoms Just Shoot Me! and Aliens In America. (No, I've never heard of them either!) The highlight of their filmographies appears to be the fact they're consulting producers on ABC's current hit Happy Endings—the bullshit credit Dan Harmon will get on Community next season, ironically. Perhaps most damningly, Guarascio and Port were behind the woeful US version of The IT Crowd (that coincidentally starred Joel McHale) and infamously didn't even bother giving its creator Graham Linehan a courtesy call. So I doubt they'll be getting in touch with Dan Harmon, if only to clear any atmosphere.

2. When a show loses its creator, it loses its voice. The US TV system is less authorial than the UK one, thanks to its famous use of collective "writers rooms", but things still get filtered through the showrunner(s). And in the case of an idiosyncratic comedy like Community, it's obvious that Harmon favours the UK model and simply had writers help him achieve HIS singular vision. Sadly, it's a vision that NBC never agreed with. Community was intended to be an offbeat college comedy, not the kind of show that would produce expensive stop-motion animated episodes, include ideas like "Dreamatoriums", recurring spoofs of Doctor Who, zombie outbreaks, and out-of-control paintball tournaments. Even if season 4 proves to be good, or at least watchable, it will be different because Harmon's fingerprints won't be on it.

3. I guess the biggest negative concern is that season 4 will be a disastrous "revamp" that alienates the existing fan-base, which would spell certain doom for the show. Community's only survived because (a) it has online appeal; and (b) with this mini fourth season taking it to 84 episodes, becomes viable for lucrative syndication deals. The fans don't want the show to limp to its finish, ending with a whimper. Sure, we'd still have three great seasons to look back on, meaning the good memories will far outweigh the bad, but it would be best to go out with a bang.

5. Let's face it, US comedies have a reputation for renewing shows beyond their natural end-points, then sitting back and watching them die (see: post-Steve Carrell The Office). Usually this is because ratings are so high that a network don't want to cancel a business success, even if it's creatively exhausted. But there are times when a creative show with bad ratings is likewise driven into the ground. In this case, it looks like NBC chasing syndication money (perhaps sweetened by Sony Television cutting costs to them) is what made them renew Community instead of axe it. Given how Abed loves to give meta commentaries on life-vs-fiction, he'll probably like how Community's follow this sad "tradition".

What do you think? Can Community come back better and stronger for season 4, thanks to fresh blood and new ideas? Or did the show thrive in online circles because of Dan Harmon's vision, which has now been lost because of studio politics?

Movie Review: CHRONICLE (2012)


The found footage genre has enjoyed a boom recently (the Paranormal Activity's, the REC's, The Last Exorcism, Cloverfield, Trollhunter, TV's The River, et al)—but while it's always been a comfortable fit for the horror genre, I never expected a superhero origin movie to benefit from its first-person storytelling device. Chronicle, a frugal $15m production from newcomer Josh Trank, proved me entirely wrong. It's remarkable how well the POV-style works to tell a fairly generic origin story for its three "supers", only really asking audiences to swallow the idea of a shy teenager deciding to videotape his entire life one fateful day. And, later, for another character to be doing likewise for a documentary she's making, just to give us a different vantage point for awhile. But I was fine with some of the strain Chronicle sometimes encountered (like the number of times a camera's left unsupervised to record a critical moment of plot), because the overall effect was just so great.

Sullen Seattle teenager Andrew (Dane DeHaan) comes from a fractured family (his father's a violent drunk, his mother's dying of cancer), and finds respite from school bullies with cousin Matt (Ale Russell) and his best-friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan), before all three are given telekinesis after touching a green meteorite buried in the ground. The majority of Chronicle then follows this unlikely trio, as the bonds of friendship tighten in the wake of them learning to control and develop their abilities to do increasingly extraordinary things (going from levitating Lego bricks and baseballs, to moving parked cars and flying through the clouds like Supermen). Chronicle presents one of the most plausible representations of what ordinary folk would do with superpowers (even more so than gritty TV series Misfits), and for long periods of time it's an absolute pleasure to watch these guys flex their super-muscles... before, inevitably, events conspire to turn the harangued Andrew into an uncontrollable, egotistical, self-identified "apex predator", out for Carrie-style revenge on those who made his life a misery. And it all builds to a stunning climax of city-wide destruction that evokes memories of Superman II via Akira.

It's unfortunate that Chronicle doesn't actually have anything fresh to say about teenagers and superheroes, as the scripts covers the standard themes of alienation and "absolute power corrupting absolutely", but those themes are popular and commonly recycled for a reason. At least this movie retelling them in a fresh and inventive style. That's not to say Trank's movie is a style-over-substance misfire, and for the most part it's an absolute joy to see exactly how events escalate. For a movie created on The Avengers' catering budget, it's also a very pleasant visual surprise. Nothing about it looks cheap. In fact, I genuinely think the flying sequence in this movie eclipse those we've seen in the mega-budgeted likes of The Matrix Revolutions and Superman Returns. The simple sound of the wind on a camera mic is enough to sell what's being presented in a far more persuasive way.

The actors are also very good, and it helped that they were all fresh faces to me. DeHaan is particularly strong and watchable, getting to show what would happen if a Peter Parker type shirked the "great responsibility" that comes with "great power"; showing us a hero-turned-villain whom you feel real sympathy for as his arc starts to inspire heartache, dread, and tragedy.

It's a short movie at 83-minutes, although it feels considerably longer because its simple story has clearly been stretched by showing prolonged sequences of the guys playing pranks on strangers to test the limits of their abilities. There were admittedly moments when the concept Chronicle lost its shine as the story slackened, but thankfully a thrilling final act won me back around. The fact Trank has now been tapped to direct a reboot of The Fantastic Four is all you really need to know, because Chronicle works as a brilliant calling card for a new talent. I just hope his direction proves equally as capable in a traditional filming style, as found footage movies can sometimes be a crutch. Not that they're easy to do well, because so many are outright bores (Apollo 18, The Devil Inside), but I still feel Trank needs to prove himself with a gimmick-free movie.

The Fantastic Four will certainly represent a big challenge for Trank, but I'm excited he's involved because Chronicle at least proves he understands group dynamics, the deep-rooted appeal of superpowers, and the pleasures of fantastical movies with verisimilitude.

directed by Josh Trank / written by Max Landis (story by Max Landis & Josh Trank) / starring Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly & Alex Russell / 20th Century Fox / 83 mins.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

COMMUNITY, 3.20-22 – "Digital Estate Planning", "The First Chang Dynasty" & "Introduction to Finality"


Community's third season came to an end with a trio of episodes shown across two-hours on NBC; which was either a parting treat for loyal fans, or a way to burn-off the remainder of a low-rated comedy. Which do you think? The first episode, "Digital Estate Planning", was a spiritual sequel to "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" from last season, only with claymation replaced by 8-bit computer graphics. The virtual adventure began when Pierce (Chevy Chase) was summoned to his late-father's estate with "seven of his closest friends" (um, LeVar Burton didn't show), to compete in a video game against his dad's manservant Gilbert (Giancarlo Esposito) to win his family inheritance. Cue the study group sitting inside a multi-player simulator, playing "Journey To The Center Of Hawkthorne", with the vast majority of the episode visualized as an '80s-style RPG...

**½ (out of four)
There's no denying "Digital Estate Planning" was an ambitious and original comedy idea (it was produced last because of the extensive animation required), and one which undoubtedly tickled nerdy G spots if retro gaming's your thing. I haven't felt passionate about gaming since the days of Street Fighter III, but it was nevertheless amusing to see cute avatars of Community's characters journeying through this digitised world—poking fun at the style, subtleties, traditions and clichés of retro RPGs. One of the funniest sequences was seeing Annie (Alison Brie) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) accidentally kill a kind blacksmith and his wife. But while it was a visually-arresting, it felt oddly frenzied and alienating at times. The story and themes got lost amidst jokes derived from nostalgia for late-'80s consoles. Consequently, while I bow to "Digital Estate Planning" on a creative level, definitely had fun watching it, and laughed many times—especially when Abed (Danny Pudi) adapted the game so a girl sprite could bear him thousands of cooing "children"—it felt slightly too unfocused and repetitive at times.

*** (out of four)
Far funnier and better focused was "The First Chang Dynasty"—despite the fact this recent storyline, about the Dean (Jim Rash) being deposed by Chang (Ken Jeong) and replaced by a "doppledeaner"—has been very poorly implemented. (Why did nobody even mention these events in the previous episode?) There's no excuse this season's listless mytharc, really, which didn't help this story once it resumed progressing the idea of Troy (Donald Glover) becoming an air-con repairman in service to Laybourne (John Goodman). Still, putting that complaint to one side, I adored this episode's witty spoofing of identikit heist movies like Ocean's Eleven—particularly the way it exposed the genre's countless clichés. (Ever notice how unoriginal plans are when breaking into high-security banks, casinos and prisons?) The moment where Troy and Abed pretended to be mustachioed plumbers, bullshitting two of Chang's young operatives to gain access to a room to cause a flood, was a strong example of good writing and performances working in tandem. Along the way, we got Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) in a thick beard, Britta (Gillian Jacobs) as a magician's assistant (someone cast her as Batman's Harley Quinn already!), Pierce as a racist Swami, and it was all gold... culminating in Chang, dressed as Napoleon, playing a keytar rigged to blow up the school on its final note, with Abed having to cut the only wire connected to the bomb. Fast, clever, strewn with funny lines... this was a joy.

**½ (out of four)
Knowing the finale could have been the last ever episode of Community, it worked nice enough as a farewell echoing the pilot in Jeff's (Joel McHale) story. But in comparison to season 2's joyous two-part paintball extravaganza, I couldn't help feeling shortchanged by "Introduction To Finality". Jeff representing Shirley in a courtroom battle against Pierce over her sandwich shop was lamer than it should have been, especially as this was intended to bring his story to a close. Jeff was sent to Greendale Community College to get his law degree originally, remember? But none of it washed with me. More interesting was Abed coping with the loss of Troy to his time-consuming repairman job, which manifested itself in him becoming "Evil Abed" from the well-received "Remedial Chaos Theory" earlier this year. And from that point, he attempting to "darken" this primary timeline to vent his frustrations. But even Abed's story was ultimately just a fun diversion, because the best storyline actually belonged to Troy—discovering more about the bizarre cult of air-con repairmen. Admittedly, Jeff's excellent closing speech in court nicely drew the episodes together with a "friendship conquers all" knot, and the closing montage of the characters would have been a pleasant way to end the show (the return of Starburns, the dismantling of the Dreamatorium, Troy growing up, Shirley/Pierce as business partners, etc). But there was ultimately a severe lack of passion and verve to the finale, certainly compared to previous years, and Community strikes me as the kind of show that should be trying to outdo itself. Oh well, at least we know there's a half-season to come later this year, before school's out for good.

Asides

  • NBC may have given Community an unexpected fourth season, but showrunner Dan Harmon's contract is still being negotiated. There's a chance he won't return, meaning Community would be without its creator for its fourth (and likely final) season. Will this be damaging? I don't know, but it will certainly have an impact. It's hard to know how strongly Harmon guides the writers, so without him we might notice a change in style and/or attitude. Maybe less/more spoofs? Who knows, it may even be an improvement. Or it could be a disastrous final run without Harmon at the helm. We'll have to wait and see if NBC are willing to compromise with him. I'd be interested to hear what you think about the prospect of Community without Harmon. TV shows lose showrunners all the time, and it's not always a death knell, but it does affect things. Dexter, anyone? Update: Dan Harmon has been sacked. Thoughts?
  • Starburns lives! He faked his own death! Uh, yeah. Can't say I care. Ultimately it felt strange to do this, and I think the character's popularity is overrated if his return in the coda was supposed to make us feel anything but cheated. Now, if they'd killed and resurrected Magnitude...
  • Guest star Giancarlo Esposito is rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors. He was so damned good on Breaking Bad as the quietly terrifying Gus Fring, and now appears to be getting lots of guest-starring roles in shows where the writers are fans. I hope his larger role in this year's Revolution continues his winning streak.
  • #sixseasonsandamovie.
written by Matt Warburton (3.20), Matt Fusfeld & Alex Cuthbertson (3.21) & Steve Basilone & Annie Mebane (3.22) / directed by Adam Davidson (3.20), Jay Chandrasekhar (3.21) & Tristram Shapeero (3.22)

Friday, 18 May 2012

Behind the Scenes: VEGAS (CBS)


I love the look of CBS's Vegas, but more importantly I like the idea and the potential behind these character types. The fact it's based on a true story is the icing on the cake. It's the story of how modern-day Las Vegas was formed in the '60s, told through the eyes of local rancher "cowboy" Sheriff Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid), who clashes with mobster Vincent Savino (The Shield's Michael Chiklis), a ruthless criminal who has big plans for Sin City. It also stars Jason O'Mara (Terra Nova) as Lamb's brother, Taylor Handley as his son, and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) as an Assistant District Attorney.


The Swinging Sixties, the clash of old and new America, grizzled character actors, Quaid vs Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss... these are reasons I'll be checking Vegas out already, and the above behind-the-scenes footage looks decent enough. My only concern is how networks tackling premises that feel best suited to cable networks don't always fly. They're increasingly commissioned in an attempt to replicate a cable hit, without understanding that the cable model is half the reason for success. The Playboy Club was no Mad Men, for example. Has Vegas been taken to series for a slice of the Boardwalk Empire pie? The two shows have a few similarities.

We'll have to see if Vegas has the edgy inventiveness I'd like to see, but something about this show has me optimistic. How about you?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

TRAILERS: 666 PARK AVE. & LAST RESORT (ABC)


This trailer for ABC's 666 Park Ave. underwhelmed me, but the concept of this show still intrigues: a newly-married couple (Dave Annable and Charlies Angels' Rachael Taylor) move into a luxurious apartment Manhattan apartment building, run by a devilish manager (Lost's Terry O'Quinn) and his wife (Desperate Housewives' Vanessa Williams), before realizing the place has supernatural properties. This could be good, campy fun. The silly title demands it is. Interestingly, this show's based on a novel (which I haven't read) that includes elements the TV version may have dropped. Or maybe those ideas will be introduced as surprises further down the line? I'm quietly optimistic 666 Park Ave. will be enjoyable for awhile, watching a haunted house mess with people who do or don't deserve it. But can it last?



One of the pilots I'm most looking forward to is The Shield creator Shawn Ryan's thriller Last Resort, about a renegade nuclear submarine crew who refuse orders to destroy Pakistan and set themselves up as a nuclear state on a remote island. The embedded trailer (which seems to be the whole pilot in a nutshell) looks brilliant. In fact, it looks like a great movie, which could be the problem here. The concept, visuals and cast ooze quality, but does Last Resort justify a weekly drama? Will anyone care about the crew of the mutinous USS Colorado and their bizarre situation after a dozen episodes? Can the concept even go longer than a season before it becomes Gilligan's Island with military hardware? I'm sure Ryan and his writers have noted the many pitfalls here, but can they overcome them? Can't wait to find out!


Last Resort stars Andre Braugher (Men Of A Certain Age), Scott Speedman (Underworld), Robert Patrick (Terminator 2), Autumn Reeser (No Ordinary Family), Daisy Betts (Persons Unknown), Jessy Schram (Falling Skies), Dichen Lachman (Dollhouse). Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek are the producers, together with Casino Royale's Martin Campbell (who directs the pilot) and Marney Hochman Nash. The show will premiere this September on Thursday nights.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

TRAILER: ELEMENTARY (CBS)


Here's the trailer/promo for CBS drama Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson, both transposed to Manhattan. I reviewed the pilot script a short while ago, which I thought was fine but nothing more. It's hard to shake my loyalty and love of the BBC's Sherlock, which I hold my hand up to. But as you can tell from this trailer, Elementary has a very different tone, and I'm pleased Miller's take on the character isn't copying what Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr are doing elsewhere.


So now you've had a taste of the show itself, what are your thoughts? Have they changed, after getting a glimpse of Miller and Liu in action? Could this be a fun show to keep fans happy in-between the BBC feature-length episodes? Is it grossly unfair to keep judging Elementary against Sherlock all the time? Can't the two just co-exist? Over to you!

MAD MEN, 5.9 – "Dark Shadows"


Betty (January Jones), Don (Jon Hamm) and Roger (John Slattery) are now "shadows" of their former selves, although the replacement of the word "pale" for "dark" in the title's twist on the popular phrase is insightful. Each of them acted nastily in this episode, after all. Firstly, Betty tried to sabotage her ex's seemingly idyllic marriage with Megan (Jennifer Pare) using their own daughter; arming Sally (Kiernan Shipka) with the potentially explosive knowledge her father was secretly married before they got together, making Sally think "friend" and stepmom Megan's been making her dad keeps secrets. It was a spiteful act from Betty, borne out of jealously for the wonderful home-life she glimpsed at Don's luxury apartment; where she witnessed how brilliant and natural Megan is with her children. She's the mother Betty's flinty personality doesn't allow for. Seeing that, coupled with the fact Megan's a younger, thinner version of the glamour-puss she used to be before her weight gain, and it's understandable Betty would feel depressed and vindictive. But still, her decision to use Sally and sit back, hoping to see fireworks, won't win her any fans. Does she have fans?

Secondly, Don had to deal with the damning realisation his new copywriter Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) is better than he is; or at least could be very soon, if he gains consistency with his great ideas. Don's always been the alpha male at work, leaving everyone else trailing in his wake, but promotion has meant he's been taking his eyes off the ball and has been too busy basking in former glories.

Ginsberg, on the other hand, is excelling because he's naturally funny and appeals to younger clients. In this episode, a pitch for a "Sno Ball" drink comes down to two ideas: Ginsberg's comical approach involving a snowball literally hitting someone in the face, and Don's idea of a play on the saying "a snowball's chance in Hell" starring a debonair Devil. Both are good pitches, but it's worth remembering that even Don's idea was inspired by a sketch Ginsberg had doodled in his notepad. Don's pride couldn't let him fail when both ideas proved equally popular amongst the staff, so he opted to go ahead with his Devil campaign and thus riled Ginsberg for this overtly unfair treatment. For now, of course, Don's the boss and can get away with whatever he likes, swatting this young upstart away with that withering "I don't think about you at all" retort in the elevator. But how long will it be until Ginsberg's ideas are too consistently better than Don's to ignore, or start to swing the office vote instead of split it? What happens if Don's "Golden Boy" status has to someday be revoked? A common thread this season has been the idea of Don getting old and beginning to feel obsolete, and Ginsberg's perhaps close to drawing first blood in career terms.

And finally, there's Roger. A few episodes that LSD trip somehow cleared his head and spurred him into starting a divorce from young wife Jane (Peyton List), but now it seems he's not really to let her go so easily. Jealously raised its ugly head, when Roger saw a client flirting with her, so he very quickly reasserted his claim by seducing her in the home he'd just bought her. It wasn't a good move from Roger, because their amicable split was going well and was undoubtedly a wise move (no matter how unlikely it came about), and now he's complicated matters. At least he seemed repentant about what had happened, which is something of an improvement for the womanising Roger we know and love, but I wonder if it'll mean a return to the status quo. But was it simple jealousy that made him act this way, or does he have more genuine feelings for Jane than we've long suspected?

Overall, "Dark Shadows" was a good episode, but coming on the heels of a handful of classics, it suffers by comparison. But that's not to say this was without its merits; as I particularly enjoyed seeing some long-awaited "Betty vs Megan" drama, and I've been enjoying the many ways this season keeps suggesting Don's only half-aware he's on a slippery slope – physically and professionally.

written by Erin Levy / directed by Scott Hornbacher / 15 May 2012 / Sky Atlantic

TRAILER: TRUE BLOOD, season 5 (HBO)


At this point, it's safe to say your response to a True Blood trailer will be diametrically opposed to your response to the show itself. HBO are masters at making their vampire drama look like enormous fun (which I guess it still is on some levels), but we've now had at least two seasons where the show became a mess of random ideas, unruly plotting, and a clutter of characters. I know some people felt season 4 was a return to form, but it was really just an improvement on the abysmal third year. I don't see why season 5 should be any better, given the fact there's no need for the writers to change their approach. The show has remained a huge hit for HBO since it began, no matter how many times critics point out its failings, so why fix what fans clearly enjoy?


There's no straight "vampires vs werewolves" or "vampires vs witches" hook this season, although the trailer suggests the onset of a "vampire vs humans" war. That's been brewing forever, it feels like. There's also a far darker tone to this trailer than I recall seeing previously, which I hope is an indication they're getting back to season 1's grittier vibe. It all started to resemble fan-fiction since then. Other than that, there are the usual tricks to build excitement: lots of fangs and hissing, Deborah Ann Woll in her lingerie, a glimpse of the awesome Russell Edgington (the sole highlight of season 3), the appearance of the oft-mentioned Vampire Authority, more of Sookie's fairy magic blasts, lots of biting, blah-blah-blah...

True Blood season 5 returns to HBO on 10 June. Will you be watching it this year?