Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pilot Review: Fargo

Fargo (FX)
Premiered April 15 at 10pm

Watching a remake of a beloved classic can be a bittersweet thing. It’s hard to find a film as simultaneously chilling and hilarious as 1996 Best Picture nominee “Fargo,” which features an Oscar-winning performance from Frances McDormand as a pregnant Minnesota police detective who sounds kind of funny on account of her Midwest accent. FX’s announcement that it would be producing a ten-episode limited series was obvious cause for both celebration and concern, and I was intrigued to find the exact same poster art used for the TV show as was used for the film almost twenty years ago when I received a press kit in the mail from FX a few weeks ago. The pilot starts out the same way the film does – insisting that its events occurred, and that the names have been changed at the request of the survivors, but everything else has been left exactly as it happened out of respect for the dead. What’s marvelous about the pilot is that it does contain some of the same elements, but in a wholly different context. There is an eccentric pregnant woman, and a car salesman, and a man who couldn’t be less attracted to his wife. But this story is something else, a fresh tale that feels like it belongs in the same universe as “Fargo.” More than anything, this pilot feels purely plot-driven, unencumbered by the traditional format of a television show to keep its characters alive week-to-week, instead content to tell what is so far a gripping story, whatever the collateral damage may be. I was particularly impressed by the performances of stars Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. Freeman, who is usually all about awkward comedy, does a dead-on William H. Macy impression as a polite everyman despised by everyone and finally encouraged to stand up for himself. Thornton is formidable as a mystery man who seems intent on creating chaos everywhere he goes, egging those he meets on to make bad choices. Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, and Colin Hanks all appear in what are likely to become more substantial supporting roles. This show just has a certain quality about it that makes it very appealing, and I can’t wait to see what happens in episode two.

How will it work as a series? Ten episodes seem like a lot in theory considering how much happened in just this episode, but I have faith that this limited series has been well plotted-out to remain extremely interesting throughout its run. I’m very ready to see where it goes.
How long will it last? This show is billed as a limited series, so it’s very possible that it will conclude after just ten episodes regardless of how well it does. The reviews have been strong and the ratings were solid too, so I have a feeling that FX may want to consider expanding this into a more long-term project.

Pilot grade: A-

What I’m Watching: Person of Interest

Person of Interest: Season 3, Episode 20 “Death Benefit” (B+)

This show officially entered uncharted territory in this hour, and it’s a very big deal. I’m amazed that this show has been constantly reinventing itself over the course of the past three years, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Who would have thought that Root would be pulling Shaw out to help her save one number while Finch directed Reese to another, and that they would be handling both relevant and irrelevant numbers? More importantly, of course, what happened in this episode suggested something completely game-changing: that the Machine wanted our friends the good guys to kill one of the numbers. It wasn’t initially clear who John Heard’s Senator McCourt was being hunted by, but it did seem that he was an imminent threat to national security, something he confirmed by calling Garrison and promising to help Samaritan come online. This new system is awfully reminiscent of the targeted anti-insurgency capability from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and its first unfortunate target appears to be Finch, though something tells me he’ll manage to survive. The fact that Reese and Shaw opted not to kill McCourt demonstrates that there’s a line they both won’t cross anymore, while he is sure to be a problem that the world would be better off without. With so many competing organizations trying to launch and prevent the launch of Samaritan, it’s hard to know if McCourt really is the most powerful threat out there right now or if he’s simply going to end up becoming irrelevant.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What I’m Watching: New Girl

New Girl: Season 3, Episode 21 “Big News” (C+)

As much as it was a concern for these two fictitious characters to eventually break up since they were roommates already, it’s equally problematic for the show that surrounds them to deal with such an event. It was weeks ago that the episode aired which featured the fight which caused such catastrophe, and whose result had to be confirmed by a few clear notes written by Nick on his own hand. Having them try to pretend to be okay with things while each of their friends secretly found out wasn’t all that entertaining, and I don’t know where things go from here. I enjoyed the fact that Nick’s confusion of “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost” and his incorrect terms like “shell beavers” were revealed as part of their fighting, but I don’t see it going anywhere worthwhile. Nick comforting Jess as a roommate is awkward, and it’s just not sustainable. Winston getting into the police academy was an unusually forward-moving development for his character, and his brief reign on the throne during his honey roast was a rare moment of full-on glee for him. Cece attempting to do something intellectual with her life is interesting, and I like that Schmidt wants to tutor her and help her achieve something there, even if he claims that his interest is purely educational. As season three finishes over the next few weeks, I’d love to see some strong sign of what’s ahead for season four and the ways in which this show can once again be a hilarious, must-see comedy.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What I’m Watching: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Season 1, Episode 18 “Providence” (C+)

It’s going to be hard for me to find this show compelling for the foreseeable future, mainly because I still don’t buy the fact that Ward has been a traitor all along. It’s also extremely disappointing to have continued confirmation that Garrett was in fact the Clairvoyant, and that he had no powers but simply used his status as a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to convince others that he was all-knowing. I’m never pleased when shows pull game-changing twists that redefine characters completely and the characters respond by changing entirely in unbelievable ways. Garrett does seem like a self-obsessed king, while Ward seems a little too eager and suave. I’m still concerned that, despite the fact that we saw him kill a number of people in this episode, he’s not going to turn out to actually be a bad guy, which would be hard to explain. I do wonder if the creators of this show knew the direction in which S.H.I.E.L.D. would be headed as dictated by the Marvel movie universe when they started, and I would hope that it’s all part of a grander plan. The notion of the group arriving to a secret base in Canada with Ward continuing to act as a sleeper agent among them is somewhat intriguing, and I hope that it will play out productively. I was delighted to see the always excellent Patton Oswalt as the sole staffer of the secret base, completely casual and chatting Coulson up about lanyards, parking spaces, and Call of Duty while far more serious things are going on outside in the real world.

What I’m Watching: The Following

The Following: Season 2, Episode 13 “The Reaping” (F)

It’s abundantly clear that both Ryan and Joe are operating so much on their own that anyone else is hopeless to be able to control events given the shared obsession they have with each other. It’s funny, of course, that Joe insists on keeping Ryan alive while Ryan would love nothing more than to kill Joe so that he would no longer be able to plague his life and the world. What’s less funny is that their actions are so thoughtless and stupid that they’re hindering their own progress. I’m not sure what Ryan hoped to accomplish by shooting during the human sacrifice session at Korban, and Emma’s assumption that the FBI was right behind him would make sense if anything he did was logical. Similarly, there was an unintended hilarity to Emma’s whining about Joe refusing to kill Ryan and stalling as long as possible so that they could narrowly escape. Lily’s attack on the compound was rather deadly, though it worked out worst for her since, no matter what, everyone on this show who isn’t Joe or Ryan dies. Mike shooting her was predictable but so far from advisable, and all it really did was give Ryan another chance to unsuccessfully try to talk someone down from doing something regrettable. Joe’s busy being chased out of his own compound by the law and the rival cult, but I’m sure he’ll find time to take Claire’s message too much to heart, something that only she would know but which she easily could have relayed to someone else before she allegedly died. I’m not sure where Tom Cavanagh’s preacher will fall in all this now that Joe has moved again, but I’m sure Joe will use the fact that he manipulated his son into committing murder in the most destructive way possible.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What I’m Watching: Veep

Veep: Season 3, Episode 2 “The Choice” (B+)

I like that this new format of Selina running for President involves her closely personally watching and criticizing the actions and positions of her two main opponents – and the man currently occupying the seat she soon hopes to get – and professionally stumbling to try to do and say the right thing to be as likeable as possible. Bringing Mike back in during his honeymoon wasn’t exactly kind or thoughtful, but it did provide the opportunity for some tremendous comedy, as Mike was hopeless to be able to tell Selina what organization she was speaking with and whether they were pro-choice or pro-life, with Amy whispering the opposite answer at the same time. It’s clear that, in the midst of all this, Dan is going nuts, to the point that he started swearing and yelling at Selina, which got him promptly fired, something that likely won’t be taken seriously or hold, but which still means that he’s on thin ice. He used that anger and took it out on Jonah, who really has become even more ridiculous and who felt so threatened by being force-fed a burrito that he actually enjoyed that he decided not to offer any sort of position on what Selina had said and done, effectively killing whatever chances he had at becoming a celebrity White House tabloid journalist. Kent’s fascination with Sue is a bit odd, but not necessarily bad, and it’s a shame to see that Gary’s career ambitions won’t work out for him given that Selina permanently thinks of him as suited for the job he has now.

Round Two: Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley: Season 1, Episode 2 “The Cap Table” (B)

I’m still not enthralled by this show, but I definitely think that this second episode showed more promise and delivered on its concept. That initial meeting with Peter Gregory in which he completely took apart Richard’s lack of business preparation was terrific, and it provides a true snapshot of just how over his head he is. Erlich being present was a superb distraction, and his obsession with getting credit for being the owner of the incubator home greatly overpowers any actual positive contribution he might otherwise be able to make. I’m glad that Zach Woods’ Jared jumped ship and came to help work with Richard to beef up his strategy. He’s a truly non-threatening entity, one so polite that he wouldn’t even use the bathroom without asking permission, though obviously Richard’s roommates, particularly Erlich, don’t view him that way. Richard and Jared interviewing each of the members of the incubator was a smart device that helped to introduce each of them more fully, as Dinesh and Gilfoyle badmouthed each other and emphasized Big Head’s worthlessness, while he didn’t do a particularly good job selling himself. I think that both Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr were perfectly cast, as was Woods, and I’m glad to see that they found such fitting roles. Ultimately, of course, it was Big Head who proved himself most loyal, calling Richard to tell him that his algorithm is being repurposed completely just as he realized that the $200,000 check he was trying to cash might not actually be as valid as he had thought.

What I’m Watching: Mad Men (Season Premiere)

Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 1 “Time Zones” (B-)

It’s hard to find a show that feels just like this one does, and it seems like it comes around ever so rarely. The last two seasons started with a bang with an emphatic two-hour premiere that set up a truly intriguing season, and the first of what will be two slates of seven episodes of the final season doesn’t quite do that. What it does set up is a different kind of show, one that slows down its filming speed to showcase Megan and her long legs walking towards Don in California and adds excessive music in to highlight other scenes. It doesn’t feel as natural anymore, and its artfulness has taken over to an overbearing degree. There’s certainly something intriguing about this bicoastal Don who comes to California far from jealous to see his wife’s acting successes and shower her with expensive gifts (not that she doesn’t own enough already) and can’t stop working from home back in New York as he feeds his old firm his ideas through Freddy. It’s both interesting and miserable to see how far Peggy and Joan have come only to have such obstacles still thrown in their way. Lou reminds a lot of a duller version of Mr. Rogers, hardly worthy of being Don’s successor. Roger is completely out of it, living a lifestyle seemingly inspired by his LSD trip a few seasons ago, while Pete has fully embraced the hipster L.A. lifestyle. I was of the opinion that this show didn’t need much changing, and I hope that this final two-part stretch returns to the creativity of past seasons without feeling so glaringly different.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What I’m Watching: Californication (Season Premiere)

Californication: Season 7, Episode 1 “Levon” (B-)

I’ll admit that in the almost full year since this show last aired, I had completely forgotten about it. When Showtime’s depraved comedy block premiered back in January, this show was conspicuously absent, replaced by “Episodes” with its final season delayed until the spring cycle. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been six years and that we’re entering the seventh season. Not much has been accomplished in all that time other than Hank alienating every person he could potentially work with, which proves particularly problematic after season six guest star Atticus Fetch fires him via Charlie offscreen and he needs to start looking for new work. As Hank romances Karen for the umpteenth time and she smiles along, not quite upset by the fact that he’s still obsessed with her, it looks like this season will have two other primary focuses. The first involves Michael Imperioli’s Rick Rath, who has heard plenty about him yet still seems to have a soft spot for his future collaborator. The second and far more impactful new character is Oliver Cooper’s Levon, who, not too surprisingly, is Hank’s son. Becca has always known what her father is, but here is the chance for someone to come to know his father only through what he wrote and did and what others thought about him, which presents an entirely new challenge. Hopefully his presence will end up being productive and worthwhile, and this season will feature more than just Charlie crying because he can’t compete with Stu in the department of lovemaking with Marcy.

Round Two: Turn

Turn: Season 1, Episode 2 “Who by Fire” (C+)

I want to like this show since I think its premise is strong and it has the capacity for greatness. I also know that other shows such as “Hell on Wheels” which have started out slowly have ended up being terrific. I’m not sure that’s the case here, however, and I don’t think I’ll stick around long enough to find out. This show isn’t about just one spy, and instead there are numerous elements spying for different sides, and they’re all converging in one very small center of the universe. It seemed a bit immediate for Major Rogers to travel to speak to Abraham personally, and have him end up right by his side as he was piecing together what was going on out loud, complete with illustrative dead body to make sure his points hit home. I don’t really understand how this is all so sustainable since it seems abundantly clear that Abraham, who always wears a suspicious look as he glances around constantly, is hiding something and working with both sides. His father will certainly realize soon enough, especially since he already suspects Anna’s allegiances. All of the characters seem very exaggerated, particularly the loyal Brits, and it makes this show feel the opposite of authentic (not that I lived in the 1700s, but it does feel like they’re putting on more of an act than they should be). More than anything, that applies to Samuel Roukin’s Major Simcoe, who could have been headed for certain execution but is now going to be around for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What I’m Watching: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 2 “The Lion and the Rose” (B+)

This show really does manage to one-up itself each time with an even more shocking and finite event that changes the landscape of its universe completely. In his final moments, Joffrey managed to be even more despicable than ever before, with his one charitable act, donating the leftover food to the poor, being secretly countermanded by his mother. Tyrion was defiant and noble in standing up – no pun intended –to Joffrey, and now he may pay for that following his arrest at Cersei’s command. It’s interesting that the deadliest Lannister was brought down not by a Stark or a competing king or queen but instead by one of his own family members. What happens next is a mystery in terms of who succeeds him, but Margaery’s newly elevated status might help the realm since she is much more kindhearted and logical than her late husband. Cersei, on the other hand, is just as evil as her deceased child. I’m not sure if Tyrion’s arrest means that Jaime’s sparring sessions with Bronn will stop, and I’d love to see Brienne stick around in some capacity in the aftermath of the chaos. Ramsay really has done a number on Theon, and it’s clear just how mean-spirited he is by the way that he tries to show Roose the value of his new prize. Stannis continues to be hapless and controlled, but at least he still defends his daughter, who did an impressive job of standing up to Melisandre and her hypnosis in her cell.

What I’m Watching: The Good Wife

The Good Wife: Season 5, Episode 17 “A Material World” (B-)

It’s clear that Will’s death is going to continue to have a major impact on all aspects of this show, but it doesn’t strike me as believable if it goes directly against what would have been his wishes. I’m talking specifically about Diane and Alicia getting drunk at his funeral and talking about the idea of merging their two firms, something to which Will would have been very much opposed. The two of them acting far too civil in front of their partners gave away their hand, and while Alicia isn’t in much danger of alienating Cary, Diane sure managed to do that quickly with David Lee. He did a tremendous job of retaliating, calling none other than Michael J. Fox’s Louis Canning to suggest a merger, something the fictional character might very much be up for her now that his portrayer’s NBC show has been cancelled in its first season. Kalinda may have succeeded in getting rid of Damien, who we hadn’t even seen in a while, but David seems intent on outfoxing Diane somehow. Kalinda coming over hot and heavy to Cary’s place was a shock, but she didn’t last long and instead went over to Jenna’s to get some relief, but ended up instead with important intel and a much-deserved slap as a result. It was good of Alicia to warn Finn that his boss was gunning for him, and she just needs to snap back to be able to be a proper lawyer for him. Peter telling Alicia that she needs to handle Will’s loss better wasn’t exactly gentle, but she one-upped him by telling him that she when she cheated it did mean something. Giving him the freedom to do whatever he wants and kicking him out for good has little to do with his recent actions, but it’s still a big deal that should have major reverberations.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What I’m Watching: House of Cards

House of Cards: Season 2, Episode 9 “Chapter 22” (B+)

Frank is right to be terrified of his wife since she really is even colder than he is when she decides that someone only exists to serve her every whim, not capable or deserving of persisting in his or her own right. And so it goes for Adam, who provided the release she needed when Frank didn’t prioritize her needs, who got thrown under the bus when Claire lied about her relationship with him and then contradicted the very story that she had told him to feed to the press. It’s sad at the same time to see another casualty of connection to the Underwoods, Freddy, whose business went under as a result of a story about how he was an ex-con who served time for killing a man. Sure, he didn’t get the $90,000 he was promised but still ended up with $45,000, but this was a man who never cared about money and just liked cooking the best ribs that Frank had ever tasted in his small little shop. As Frank and Claire cut loose their former allies, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Raymond is truly an enemy for them, wielding secrets and destructive truths and launching them via Remy to try to take down the man who singlehandedly damaged his rapport with the President. In the midst of other power struggles, it was interesting to see the usually quiet and unflappable Doug become irritated enough with Seth to lash out and put him in his place.

What I’m Watching: Elementary

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20 “No Lack of Void” (B-)

This show is certainly open to all types of plotlines, and it’s about time that anthrax took a starring role. I didn’t find this episode to be as compelling as some of the show’s other installments, and that was partly because the anthrax storyline was featured alongside the death of one of the few people that Sherlock could actually call a friend. In the past, I’ve found most things related to Sherlock’s addiction quite compelling, and part of what didn’t work for me was that he actually saw and spoke to Alistair, who died before the start of the episode. This show is creative and clever enough that it doesn’t need to have Sherlock talking to dead people. Talking with Watson is a more than effective way for him to grieve and to process the loss he experienced. On the guest star front, the familiar face of the week was Garrett Dillahunt of “Raising Hope” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” fame as Bart McIntosh. There was some impressive construction to this episode and to the way that it narrowed its focus from its initial premise, with Sherlock and Watson deducing that the anthrax was intended not to harm humans but instead just to kill off Bart’s cows so that he could profit financially. That was a surprising and satisfying conclusion, one which demonstrated that an uneven episode like this need not be all bad and can still have its merits. Considering the quality of the first season’s two-part finale, I have high hopes for the final few hours of this season.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What I’m Watching: Parenthood

Parenthood: Season 5, Episode 21 “I’m Still Here” (B+)

For at least three of the Bravermans, it looks like there’s hope of reconciling past relationships. The development most evidently positive and likeliest to last involves Drew, who finally managed to get back together with Natalie. It was enjoyable to see them fight in public a bit as Drew lashed out and then Sarah happened to be present before they realized that all they wanted was to be together. They deserve their young love, and someone ought to be happy. Amber’s reunion with Ryan was far less joyous, and it was sweet that, without much hesitation, Hank hopped in the car to drive her there. I’m not sure whether he and Sarah are going to get back together, but at the very least they might be able to be friends again. Despite Julia’s tryst with Mr. Knight and Pete’s rather blatant appeal to Joel’s more oblivious side, they might also be headed to a good place, and, surprisingly enough, it’s all thanks to Crosby, whose efforts to guilt Joel into coming to help him fix his house worked and produced a truly hilarious interaction which mainly featured Joel making fun of Crosby’s abilities. Kristina’s plotline more than made up for the light-hearted nature of most of the other developments of the episode. Her final interaction with Gwen showed just how far Kristina has come since the days when she was facing almost certain death, and her visit to Bob to appeal to his humanity didn’t go well either. Gwen’s generous gift was inspiring, and it’s great to see that there’s renewed hope for the charter school.