Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What I’m Watching: Timeless

Timeless: Season 1, Episode 11 “The World’s Columbian Exposition” (B)

The cliffhanger that this show left off on when it signed off the air in December for a brief hiatus suggested that big things might be happening when it came back, but that’s not really the case. Instead, we saw Lucy being reunited with Wyatt and Rufus within the span of just one hour, and not too many stakes during that time. Sure, they were nearly murdered by the first recorded serial killer and she almost suffocated in a box, but then she mustered up some courage and managed to pose as a witch to distract him long enough to be saved by her pals from the future. The best part of the episode was inarguably the affable Michael Drayer as Harry Houdini, who in addition to being fairly down to earth also came through in a big way when Lucy advised him to pull one of his signature moves and pickpocket Flynn’s gun to put him at a disadvantage and turn the situation in a different direction. H.H. Holmes was quite the villain for our heroes to encounter, and apparently the real guy is believed to have killed over 200 people, which is nuts. Speaking of murder, Flynn calling to deliver the identity of his wife’s killer was an interesting development, and I’m tentatively curious to see what he’ll do with that information. Rufus’ show of defiance doesn’t strike me as a great plan, and Mason seems like he’s doing absolutely nothing to help other than just stand there sheepishly.

What I’m Watching: The Affair

The Affair: Season 3, Episode 8 (A-)

This was the best episode this show has produced in a long time, and I think the main reason for that may have been that we didn’t see Noah at all. I don’t think that he’s necessarily the problem, but his current plotline involving a mystery assailant, probably a vindictive guard, being after him, just isn’t as good as the rest of what this show has to offer. Luisa being the one to go on the stand and say that she’s not a fan of Alison but that she deserves to have shared custody was a game changer, and I think it’s because she’s finally able to separate Alison from Cole. The fact that, after lashing out at Alison because he didn’t think he could trust her and then jumping down her throat when she came to share good news about her new job prospect, he still can’t get her out of his head, and the only reason that he won’t stop pretending not to love her is because he’s not Noah doesn’t make him a particularly good man. It’s also not terribly fair to Luisa, but this was an episode of general female forgiveness for Alison as Helen too came to share a drink with her and barely lob any intense accusations her way. I think that Alison’s advice to Cole about trying to be a happy asshole instead of a miserable hero could work well, and coming from her, it means a lot considering how miserable she’s been for so long. Noah is obviously not the solution, but I think everyone on this show needs to decide what could really make them happy and stop focusing on what makes them unhappy.

Pilot Review: The Young Pope

The Young Pope (HBO)
Premiered January 15 at 9pm

I tuned into this pilot not knowing what to expect after hearing about this show back in October when it premiered in Italy. In addition to being a truly global coproduction, it’s also the first foray into television for director Paolo Sorrentino, who won an Oscar for “The Great Beauty” and then made “Youth” in 2015. You’d expect a certain artistry from him in any project that he makes, and that was certainly on display during the first half of this debut episode. After that, this present-day imagining of what it would look like to have an American pope got way too casual for my tastes, infusing what I guess was supposed to be humor into a previously dramatic narrative. It’s hardly a time to be championing the idea of being American, but I do think that this portrayal of how slick, unsophisticated, and entirely self-involved an American would be in such a place of power is relatively offensive. The initial scene in which the new pope tells his adoring audience that maybe they should be open to things that go against the principles of the church was cool because it represented a potential new take on what it means to be a religious authority, but that was just a dream. Still, a man who can have such dreams and who ends the episode by joking about not believing in God is immensely unbelievable as a character, and his outright humiliation of the man who is supposed to be his closest advisor underscores him as a terrible person. I like Law but don’t like his performance here, and Diane Keaton is just as unappealing. There’s plenty not to like about this show, and the plot direction it took over the course of the first hour doesn’t entice me at all.

How will it work as a series? Who the hell knows? I suspect that, rather than actually getting to any of the papal business he is supposed to be administering, Pius is going to spend more time ruining relationships with important people and showing just how uncivilized Americans can be when imported into the Vatican. I have no interest in seeing that.
How long will it last? Apparently it took three years to film the first season, and I’d think you need one hell of a return on investment to ask for more of that. Well, it scored its original Italian network its highest ratings ever and already earned a renewal. I think that three seasons is probably what it will get for creative and budgetary reasons, but this show, which earned decent reviews in the United States, does have a promising future for reasons I can’t begin to understand.

Pilot grade: D

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What I’m Watching: Homeland (Season Premiere)

Homeland: Season 6, Episode 1 “Fair Game” (B)

I almost forgot that this show was still on, mainly because I’ve been so consistently disappointed in its quality since its first two fantastic seasons. What’s good about this show is that it has the opportunity to reboot at the start of every season, and it does seem like it’s trying to take advantage of that here. Let’s start with the good: it was hard to tell exactly what Muslim upstart Sekou Bah, a far better role for actor J. Mallory McCree than the one he played on “Quantico,” was up to going around New York City chronicling the sites of extremist acts of terror, and what proved most interesting about it was, when he got arrested by the FBI, it was Carrie who was there to defend rather than interrogate him. Even though Otto doesn’t think she has a clear idea of what she wants, she is doing something she cares about, and as Saul becomes the representative of a more careful and less controlling government, she has other things going on in her life. I like the casting of Elizabeth Marvel as the president-elect, especially since she played a top candidate for that office on “House of Cards,” and it looks like she’s in good company with Hill Harper from “Limitless” as her chief of staff and Robert Knepper from “Prison Break” as a general who might end up playing a bigger part. That’s all intriguing and could head somewhere, even though it doesn’t amount to much of a bombshell or cliffhanger ending. I’m not at all fond of anything related to Peter and his completely drugged-out state, and I hope that he’ll get much better soon under Carrie’s supervision. This show already tried this route and failed, so let’s get this wrapped up as soon as possible so that this show can get good again.

What I’m Watching: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Season 2, Episode 10 “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?” (B+)

If I had seen this episode’s title before I watched it, I think I would have known what I was in for much more. I think it’s fantastic that this episode had so much Jewish content, and even though most of it is about how much Rebecca hates religion and associates everything bad with her Jewish upbringing. The most enjoyable part of all of it was Josh’s excitement about learning about Jewish things, including learning how to make challah French toast even though he can’t pronounce it, thinking whitefish and fish sticks are the same thing, and ending the trip with “hashtag shalom means both hello and goodbye.” Seeing the two of them compete for hashtags to celebrate their relationship suggested that they might actually make it, but the clear difference between the two of them is that Josh just tries to make the best of any situation, making friends including enemy Audra’s husband, and Rebecca instead wallows in her misery when she’s back in her own life. That first song with Josh and Rebecca enthusiastically singing about love after telling Heather to shut up was so wonderfully incorporated into this show’s more optimistic trajectory at the start of the episode, and then Rebecca soured the mood with a hora-themed song of suffering. Rebecca’s therapist was ecstatic to hear that Rebecca was finally coming to a point of realization about her issues, and instead Josh came in to propose and then take her back a few steps to a happy place so that she couldn’t acknowledge that she was always headed for somewhere dark. I enjoyed Darryl’s candy rebellion against Nathaniel, and I like that he succeeded in getting Nathaniel to relax a bit and finding a place for himself not be seeming serious but instead being totally affable and just what Nathaniel needed in that moment. I’m sure we’ll have lots of craziness when the two big plotlines we had in this episode reunite for the show’s final three episodes of the season.

Pilot Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Premiered January 13

I debated whether to watch the first installment on Netflix’s newest series since I wasn’t sure whether it was meant for children or for adult audiences. I never saw the 2004 film with Jim Carrey that earned a handful of technical Oscar nominations, and I didn’t have much of a desire to find out what I missed. I learned about this show’s existence when I saw a poster in Times Square biking home on day, and I didn’t think I was going to watch it, but I figured that I should give it a chance given that it wasn’t clear what audience it was intended for and it couldn’t hurt to give it a shot. After doing a bit of quick reading up, I found out that this show comes from creator Barry Sonnenfeld, and his influence was immediately clear from the first frame of this show. The colors, the energy, and the style of the show are all wonderfully reminiscent of the short-lived and unique classic “Pushing Daisies,” and it’s nice to get a reminder of that show. This series has much darker undertones, of course, in its portrayal of three orphans who are psychologically and even physically tormented by Neil Patrick Harris’ horrible Count Olaf. The dialogue is inventive and enticing, and the characters have a certain impossible maturity that is certainly fantastical but also very appealing. Harris is over-the-top, to be sure, but that’s what the role calls for, and I like Joan Cusack as his judicial neighbor and Patrick Warburton as the titular narrator. I don’t think I need to keep watching this show, but it was much better than I expected.

How will it work as a series? The show is based on a book series, and so there is plenty of source material to draw from to fill the plot of each episode. Ending with Olaf slapping Klaus emphasized this show’s tone, reminding viewers that the themes here are actually pretty grim. I think it can work well, but I don’t feel compelled to watch it on a weekly basis.
How long will it last? Well, it appears that it’s already been renewed for a second season and might even end up with a third, so I think its future will actually be pretty bright even if its content won’t be. The reviews are pretty good too, so consider this one a hit.

Pilot grade: B

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pilot Review: Sneaky Pete

Sneaky Pete (Amazon)
Premiered January 12

I never seem to be able to catch Amazon’s pilot season when it launches, with the exception of two times over the past few years. This show actually debuted with its first installment way back in October 2015, and now it finally premiered as a series of ten episodes this past Thursday. I knew nothing about this show going into it other than the fact that it starred Giovanni Ribisi, who I first remember as Phoebe’s socially awkward brother Frank on “Friends” twenty years ago. The last show that I saw about a man getting out of prison and taking someone else’s identity was the fantastically dark “Banshee,” and this is a very, very different show. Fortunately, it’s just as intriguing, and I agree with the Amazon pilot audience that voted to turn this into a full-fledged series. Ribisi definitely has what it takes to carry a show like this, and he also does a great job emulating Ethan Embry, who plays the real extremely talkative Pete whose life he takes after hearing countless details and stories about his childhood and his family. The best pairing this show could possibly have produced is casting Marin Ireland opposite Ribisi’s Marius as Julia, who is more than capable of anchoring her own scenes and not giving in to what her newfound relative wants to do in every case. Joining someone else’s family business to act as a bail bondsman should be very interesting, especially as he tries to find a way to save his brother from getting his fingers sliced off one at a time by Bryan Cranston’s big bad guy. This pilot was very strong, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

How will it work as a series? The first case that Marius and Julia tackled was definitely pretty awesome, and I like how they handled all aspects of it. That bodes well for any future assignments they’ll approach together, and as Marius’ past catches up with him, it’s sure to create much more enticing drama, especially since no one particularly likes him all that much right now and they don’t think that’s he lying about who he is yet.
How long will it last? Unlike Netflix, Amazon puts most of its original series online as pilots to be voted on by users before making a whole season of a show, so that already says something. The reviews have been very strong for the whole first season, so I expect that this one is going to be back for a second season and beyond.

Pilot grade: B+

What I’m Watching: The OA

The OA: Season 1, Episode 5 “Paradise” (B-)

Now we’re getting back to a very strange idea of this show that transcends reality and moves much more towards something supernatural that sounds pretty crazy. The opening of this episode was hypnotic, as we saw Hap in the outside world scouting his latest prospect and entranced by the music he heard playing from Renata, played by Paz Vega, in Cuba. Bringing Hunter with him to Cuba was quite the voyage, and the way that Prairie narrated his immersion back into the world was intense. Understandably, he didn’t know what to do when he had the opportunity to run free and tell those around him that there was someone after him, but Hap was ready for such an attempt at betrayal and reacted calmly and nonchalantly to express to him that there was nothing he could do to earn a rescue for himself and his friends. I also don’t think he could have done anything to prevent Hap from abducting Renata, especially with Hap threatening the very likely truth that if anything happened to him, those imprisoned in the basement would surely die of starvation. Scott cracked in a big way before he died, but then of course people don’t tend to die when you think they do on this show, and therefore his unexpected reincarnation was quite the spectacle. Homer and Prairie have been practicing their movements and seem to think that they brought him back to life, so now apparently that’s what Prairie wants to do with her five new friends? That seems to suggest that everyone else is still alive, as far as she knows, but I don’t think this new plan recommends itself as being terribly sane or likely to work, though who knows with this show.

What I’m Watching: The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle: Season 2, Episode 5 “Duck and Cover” (B)

My interest in this show wanes every episode or two, and I found this installment to be considerably less engaging, though I am now halfway through the season. This show just got picked up for a third season, so it’s obviously headed somewhere, and I may just have to stick around for the whole thing since I still want to like it so much. What was cool about this episode and by far its most compelling moment was when Inspector Kido traveled to New York and met with John, marking the first meeting we’ve had between our top two villains who are also humanized in their own ways. John was right to point out that Kido could never have expected him to grant his request, and it’s intriguing that he traveled all that way to ask. As John is earning the ire of his wife for not focusing on protecting their son, it’s incredible just how many people are obsessed with Juliana. I was confused about Tate Donovan’s age when I recognized him after seeing his name on the credits last week as the man playing George Dixon, but the math does work out for him to be Trudy’s father and to be considerably older than Alexa Davalos even though he doesn’t necessarily look it. Him having to protect her from the good guys who want her dead makes her a dangerous target, and it’s a wonder that she’s still alive. Joe’s newfound information has changed his perspective already, and I’m not sure whether it will make him more or less in favor of helping the Nazi cause. Frank is getting in way over his head, but since the beginning it’s been clear that he needs to do something and make a difference, so it seems like he’s found both the cause and the avenue now.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What I’m Watching: Life in Pieces

Life in Pieces: Season 2, Episode 10 “Musical Motel Property Bingo” (B+)

Overall, this episode was actually pretty funny. I’m most impressed by the commitment to the creation of a “Silence of the Lambs” musical that preserves all of the creepiness from the fantastic movie and how that was somehow woven into this relatively family-friendly show. Heather was right to suspect that there was something afoot when Samantha didn’t get the role despite her singing talents when it went to the daughter of a big donor instead, but hearing her terrible accent for just a second confirmed the director’s choice. I like that she brought Jen along as her lawyer under the pretense that they were having lunch, which of course resulted in Jen not eating at all. I wasn’t too fond of the second segment, which brought us back to the unnecessary Joan-teacher plotline, and the most enjoyable part of it was seeing the three siblings act like kids, particularly with Heather making Matt the driver so that she could reset the rules of shotgun. Clementine and Tyler are a pretty dumb couple, and getting a drawing of a duck as a representation of what they could afford was hilarious. When Tim is the one who tells you that you have no clue what you’re talking about, you know there’s a problem. I wonder how long this backyard home is going to last if it’s even meant to be taken seriously. Family bingo was a fun diversion, and I love that Tim managed to win even after a late start. Though the Shorts are great characters, I think I do like the three outsiders the best.

What I’m Watching: The Great Indoors

The Great Indoors: Season 1, Episode 10 “The Explorers’ Club” (B+)

While most of this show takes place in an office, a big part of it has to do with the larger-than-life stories that its characters tell about their time spent in nature. Roland’s invitation to speak introduced our millennial employees - and us as viewers - to a world in which Jack is the Clark, constantly trying to fit in and subject to endless barbs about his appearance, character, and so much more. Fortunately, Joel McHale is great at assuming a certain role, and seeing him get awkward and desperate is entertaining. Roland was also more than capable of dishing out his own insults directed at Mather, the haughty president of the Chicago Adventure Society played by Barry Bostwick. Roland’s incredible story about how his friend Arturo died was torpedoed by Mather’s attempt to discredit him, and what we saw after that was not great. Roland wasn’t down for long however, as his graphic tale of hollowing out birds to sleep in them and dying from explosive diarrhea helped to vindicate him, and even inspired the millennials to write an article to clear his name, actually putting in effort for once. Emma serving as a mentor to someone because she felt like she already had so much insight to offer at age twenty-six, and naturally the younger person would accomplish enough to make her think that she was becoming obsolete. Eddie thinking everyone was planning a surprise for his birthday was plenty uncomfortable, but at least they eventually did something so he didn’t feel totally unvalued.

What I’m Watching: The Good Place

The Good Place: Season 1, Episode 11 “What’s My Motivation” (B+)

I’m really not happy with the way some of the networks this year are airing shows, giving them long breaks between December and January only to finish up only immediately upon their return. This episode was great and made me look forward to a whole long rest of the season, only to discover that the two-part season finale is airing this coming Thursday. That’s truly devastating to me, since I’m worried that NBC might not renew this show. Back to more positive things, however, since there’s nothing to be done about that right now. Eleanor trying hard to achieve real points for doing good things was fun, and recreating the party that made everyone start to hate her was a brilliant idea. It’s great to see that Tahani is getting excited about helping Eleanor become a better person and win favor among the other residents of the Good Place, and that they’re starting to genuinely care about each other. Eleanor making everyone laugh by saying “Pobody’s nerfect” was hardly the most sophisticated act of repentance, but it seems to have partly done the trick. Chidi struggling with what to do when Real Eleanor told him that she loved him in an extremely sweet way during their breakfast routine was nothing new given his crippling indecision last week, and it’s at least good to see him connecting with someone on an intellectual level. Jianyu finding out how Jason died was an eye-opening moment for him, and realizing how dumb he is motivated him to inspire Janet, of all “people,” to process that she didn’t want to be rebooted and have to start over. I laughed at the way in which Jianyu and Janet were unable to hide their marriage from Michael for more than a second and his constant recalling of Janet when Michael kept trying to dismiss her. Her sudden suggestion of Mindy’s house as a place to go - the medium place that Eleanor has been looking for - is enticing, and Eleanor really has to leave now that the judge is there. I imagine we’ll see more of him in the season finale, and I’m excited because he’s played by Marc Evan Jackson, who was the lawyer on “Parks and Recreation” who requested Tom’s thinking pajamas on behalf of his client.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pilot Review: Taboo

Taboo (FX)
Premiered January 10 at 10pm

I’m trying to do better about giving every pilot a chance since I made the unfortunate decision not to watch or finish watching two of the biggest new shows of the year. Technically, this is a miniseries, but I also know that it’s one of the buzzier things on TV and therefore didn’t want to miss it, I could immediately tell that the tone and density of this show wasn’t going to appeal to me just a few minutes into the pilot, and I’m not so sure that the plot does either. After watching the entire hour, I did a bit of research and found out that this miniseries was created by Steven Knight. I heard him speak at a Q and A following a public screening of “Locke,” a film starring none other than Tom Hardy, at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. That was a particularly great movie and a superb pairing between Knight and Hardy, and therefore I can understand why anyone would be clamoring for them to work together again. Unfortunately, this show, which feels like a less fantastical version of “Penny Dreadful,” doesn’t have much to offer in the way of enticements for me. It’s Hardy at his gruffest, and only Jonathan Pryce, recently of “Game of Thrones,” stands out in the supporting cast. This show will be airing eight episodes over the course of the next two months, and I think this one deep dive into period England was more than enough for me.

How will it work as a series? James is not at all interested in giving up this land that his father bequeathed him, and he’s going to be fighting for his life as well as defending himself from the likes of his brother-in-law and plenty of others who will come at him. He doesn’t seem scared at all, and that should make this show heavy and potentially thrilling, though I don’t think it’s quite fast-paced enough to be truly invigorating.
How long will it last? The show is a coproduction of BBC One and FX, which is definitely a plus since both networks are going to be gung-ho about it. The ratings in the U.S. on FX were pretty good, and even though it’s meant to be a self-contained miniseries, I suspect that, like so many other shows, it’s going to end up being renewed for at least another round.

Pilot grade: C+

Friday, January 13, 2017

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

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Season 4, Episode 9 “Broken Promises” (B)

This show has a pretty incredible ability to immerse and inundate itself in one intense plotline at a moment’s notice, and after we saw Aida kill an agent and reveal that she was holding May captive at the end of the previous episode, now she’s enemy number one trying to destroy the team. Shutting down May at exactly the moment she needed to came in handy, and having Coulson get the location of the book from her while she was watching and listening to them was a great plan. Fortunately, Mac and Yo-Yo were both on the same page thanks to all the movies they had seen about robots being intelligent and taking power, and Mac was ready to slice Aida’s head off, shout “Roll credits!” and first-bump Yo-Yo in a triumphant show of human perseverance that also ranked as the most entertaining development of the hour. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the book that corrupted Aida but her original programmer, who is back to his selfish ways and trying to gain infinite knowledge thanks to the book. Having a May robot is about the best weapon he has, but the other thing that’s helpful is that no one realizes there’s still a threat. There’s also the case of Senator Nadeer, who initially seemed to go soft on her brother but had no problem putting a bullet in him herself when she saw his formidable powers in action. She’s another villain not to be underestimated who is sure to be even less kind to those she doesn’t consider family.

What I’m Watching: This Is Us

This Is Us: Season 1, Episode 11 “The Right Thing To Do” (B)

After a month-long hiatus following the strongest episode this highly acclaimed show has produced, it’s back for the new year with a decent opener. I’m glad to see that Toby didn’t code as December’s episode had suggested, though I’m now realizing that this show was never going to do something like that. Playing strip poker with Kate in the hospital and disregarding the seriousness of his heart arrhythmia was typical silliness on his part, and it was sweet to see that, after Kate confessed her love for him while she thought he was unconscious, he decided to pop the question. I’m not sure how official the engagement really is, and I’m sure that plenty of drama will follow. Kevin seems to always manage to do the wrong thing, and while he was right to tell Olivia off when she came back to restart their romance where they left off, he could have been much smarter than to so casually justify it within earshot of his new girlfriend. Randall is back to the same routine of getting far too invested in things, and offering William the chance to die in his home is a typical instance of his intensity. His attempts to get to know Jesse are also pretty poor. Back in the past, seeing Jack go and grovel to his father to get money from him so that they won’t have to move in with Rebecca’s parents demonstrated his humility and his willingness to do anything for his wife, and fortunately we know that it all turned out pretty well, even if he didn’t make it to see them as adults.