Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wayward Pines

I'm of two minds about Wayward Pines. This is kind of surprising, since I'm usually pretty decisive.

I can typically tell in the first few episodes or even minutes if I am going to like a show. But Wayward Pines is proving a difficult nut to crack. Not to say that the plot is particularly complicated, but when the best way to describe a show is "Twin Peaks meets LOST," you can pretty much guarantee there is going to be some wacky stuff going on. 

Here's the official description from FOX (cue press release voice):
Based on the best-selling novel, “Pines,” by Blake Crouch, and brought to life by suspenseful storyteller M. Night Shyamalan, WAYWARD PINES is an intense, mind-bending new thriller in which nothing is what it seems. Secret Service agent ETHAN BURKE (Academy Award nominee Matt Dillon, “Crash,” “City of Ghosts”) arrives in the bucolic town of Wayward Pines, ID, on a mission to find two missing federal agents. But instead of answers, Ethan’s investigation only turns up more questions. Each step closer to the truth takes Ethan further from the life he knew, from the husband and father he was, until he must face the terrifying reality that he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive.
That's not really super specific, so here's my short version of the plot. Matt Dillon is in a car crash while investigating the disappearance of two fellow Secret Service agents. He wakes up in a hospital in Wayward Pines, Idaho, where everything is super creepy. There are hardly any phones that work, he can't find his wallet or any possessions, and everyone seems to be part of some vast conspiracy. Mostly a conspiracy against allowing him to leave. And it turns out one the agents he has been searching for (and had previously had an affair with) has been living in Wayward Pines for years...even though she just went missing a short time ago.

Wayward Pines has the "Federal agent finds himself in a super strange small town filled with crazy people where supernatural things happen" vibe of Twin Peaks combined with the "seemingly normal people find themselves trapped in a super strange place that doesn't seem to follow the laws of physics and is part of a must deeper mystery" aspects of LOST

Normally this kind of thing would seem like a slam dunk, but Wayward Pines meanders just enough that I'm not sure it will sustain the intrigue of the pilot. A plot twist at the end of the second episode is enough to keep me watching for now, but if episode three doesn't step up I might consider dropping it. But let's be honest--there's not a heck of a lot on TV this summer and my OCD will probably kick in so that I feel obligated to finish the season.  

It certainly looks good though; everything about the show, sets, and characters works and is just slightly weird enough to be off-putting. And the performances are downright great. Props to Terrence Howard for playing the local Sheriff with just the right amount of ambiguity that I am super interested in finding out his part in the overall conspiracy. I was also really excited to see Carla Gugino in the cast as the missing-now-found Secret Service agent. 

In sum, Wayward Pines has a great creepy feel that hints at a much larger mystery, but it's going to have to work to keep up the momentum established in the pilot. If you're looking for something to watch this summer, you could do a lot worse. 

Wayward Pines airs on FOX Thursdays at 9:00 PM EST. You can catch up with the first two episodes on FOX's website or on Hulu.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Summer Update

As summer comes upon us, I've (gasp!) been spending my time doing things other than TV so there hasn't been too much to blog about. I do have some small updates on what I've watched already:

Vicious: Bought season 1 on DVD as a birthday gift for my wife. We've already spent some good time laughing at British people being nasty to each other. Good fun was had by all.

Grace & Frankie: Still enjoying the show that the Richmond Times-Dispatch calls "great for old people, but sadly old people are too befuddled by new-fangled technology to use this 'Netflix' malarkey."

Game of Thrones: Up to date. Still entertained.

As always, my primary issue is that the show isn't just about Peter Dinklage (it took me four seasons to stop saying, "oh, crap, Kit Harrington's in this, let's watch him fumble about knowing nothing at the Wall for twenty minutes today," and a constant call-out to the screen of my wife's and mine for the first three seasons was "nobody loves you, Theon Greyjoy," which was modified from its original use on Mad Men, "nobody loves you, Pete Campbell"; both versions work equally well).

Peter Dinklage is like Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey; there's really no excuse for the show not to just be that character being clever all the time. I would watch both a Dinklage scenes-only edit of Game of Thrones and a Smith-only edit of Downton Abbey. I'll just have to put those ideas on the pile along with a version of Arrow where I can just ignore the flashbacks; I do not care what happened on the Island or not the Island or whatever.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Grace & Frankie and the Future of Television

I have now watched a goodly chunk of the new Netflix Original Series Grace & Frankie, and I have opinions.

If you're the "tl;dr" type, here's my take in brief: the show is entertaining to watch. But do not have expectations of it being Arrested Developent.

The setup is simple, and explained visually in a great opening animation with a crumbling wedding cake with multiple toppers (to Grace Potter's cover of "Stuck in the Middle With You"):

Jane Fonda (Barbarella [sorta NSFW]) is Grace, who begins the show as something between Mad Men's Betty Draper and Arrested Development's Lucille Bluth; she's an image-conscious WASP who self medicates with a lot of alcohol. Grace starts the show married to Robert (Martin "I am so proud of my successful actor son Emilio Estevez" Sheen).

Lily Tomlin (of pre-breakup AT&T fame) is Frankie, a granola-crunchy woman who took many of the 1970's new agey fads to heart. She starts the show married to Sol (Sam "Old Glory Robot Insurance" Waterston).

However, by the middle of the first episode, we learn that Robert and Sol are not just partners in their law firm, they've been having an affair with each other for the past twenty years, and now they're coming out of the closet to divorce their wives and marry each other.

It would be an understatement to say that this is news to their wives (and their kids). Both Grace and Frankie are cut adrift, trying to put meaning to their lives, and also both trying to cohabit in the beach house their husbands went halfsies on years before; previously it was a refuge for each of them in turn, but now, with the men living in Robert and Grace's former home, both Grace and Frankie seek the comfort of the vacation home.

This sounds like the setup for some wacky hijinks, and some ensue (there's a pretty good gag setup in the first episode where someone semi-accidentally ingests a combination of peyote and muscle relaxants), but despite having the setup for straight comedy -- including Grace and Frankie's children, who have sitcom-ready quirks and backstories -- the show isn't meant to be a comedy like Arrested Development or Modern Family, two shows that generate humor every so many seconds from family drama.

This is more a mildly humorous meditation on being older and having one's life change unexpectedly. Grace and Frankie knew what was going to happen for the rest of their "good" years; now they don't, and it's tough having to even partially reinvent yourself after you're eligible for Social Security.

On its own merits, Grace and Frankie is worth watching. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin inhabit their characters; as a "free spirit," Lily Tomlin's Frankie gets the more interesting things to do, but they're both really good, as are the supporting cast. You watch to see the plot unfold and talented actors practice their craft; you do not watch because you are expecting to laugh on schedule.

I'm really impressed with the genre-bending nature of Grace & Frankie; it's a half-hour show formatted like a comedy that refuses to be funny if it doesn't serve the story. This a great example of the kind of show that Amazon Prime and Netflix have allowed to be made where previously network executives would have been perplexed as "who the show was for." This is an interesting piece of fiction that definitely deserved the investment that was put into it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

From the Depths of Netflix: Psycho-Pass

So, as I said, I spend a lot of time surfing Netflix's recommendations to see what's up. Sometimes, however, I get a recommendation.

My brother recommended the anime Psycho-Pass to me. Things I watch with my brother tend to be hit or miss; even though he's a real film buff, we never end up watching Fellini or Godard together; we usually end up seeing something like The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, which is fine, but ultimately slightly unsatisfying.
According to official nerd lorekeepers, 
it's "smOWg," not "smAHg."

While I did enjoy seeing It Follows (the best horror film about a sexually-transmitted, slow-moving, partially invisible, relentless murder demon you will ever see, even if the Disasterpiece soundtrack made me feel like I left Kavinsky's 1984 on repeat and too loud), Psycho-Pass is back to the usual "not horrible, but not better than average."

There is no "business casual" in the future.

The setting is in a future Japan in a new state of Tokugawa era-style isolation, where society is controlled by a personality-reading supercomputer system called Sybil (possibly an abbreviation, definitely a reference to the oracle). The following things are true in this future Japan:
  1. The Sybil system can determine your mood and propensity for criminality through its nationwide network of surveillance cameras.
  2. If your mood and/or criminality are aberrant, Sybil sends the mental health cops out to involuntarily commit you to a mental institution (often indefinitely).
  3. The cops have guns that kind of make them like the Sandmen from Logan’s Run.
    Sandman with Gun
    A Sandman, for reference. I liked the selective-fire chambers of the Gun in the book better.
    In Psycho-Pass, they're called "Dominators," because (sarcasm) that's not fascist at all. The guns don’t fire unless Sybil decides the gun is pointing at a criminal, at which point the gun generally unlocks to a stun mode. If the target’s criminal rating gets really high, Sybil unilaterally switches the cops’ guns from “stun” to “grotesquely murder.” There’s also a “vaporize with plasma” feature that I am pretty sure the writers did not come up with consistent rules for; it shows up twice and then is never heard from again.
    The "dominator" in "someone's about to explode like Deacon Frost/La Magra at the end of the first Blade film" mode.
  4. The cops are mostly “latent criminals” who get to not be institutionalized all day in return for stunning and/or grotesquely murdering other folks who set off alarms. They are supervised by a small cadre of supposedly psychologically healthy people, but apparently hanging around "latent criminals" whose job it is to explode their fellow citizens in a shower of blood tends to push the supervisors towards latent criminality themselves, so for some it's a small slip from supervisor to supervised.
  5. Japan is still a place where, after weeks of running around with a firearm chasing fugitives, a young professional woman will still continue to wear a pencil skirt as her primary criminal-chasing outfit. Look, I get it, there's a slit in the back so the wearer isn't mincing everywhere. But it's not really designed for one to sprint all over the place, which is what the job entails.
    Look at this skirt that Akane is always in. Just try to imagine being in that skirt and running up and down all the stairs that are in this show. And yet, pants are verboten for the whole season.
    It’s like pants are reserved for the lesbian cop (who is a latent criminal, as most of the show’s lesbians are either latent criminals or outright criminals). Stay classy, Japan.

The show starts out following a group of mental health cops as they find their way onto the trail of a sort of Moriarity of future crime, a puppet-master who aids the disturbed in committing really sick crimes and getting away with them. He has hair borrowed from Berzerk’s Griffith (that’s how you know he’s truly evil, bishounen with long white hair are always really evil).
"I feel pretty! Oh so pretty!" I was considering putting in one of the available images of the guy above murdering one of the various people he kills with a straight razor, but hey, let me just put it down here - this guy is more violent with a straight razor than Sweeney Todd and he's not the sickest murderer in the show.
This first part is entertainingly diverting in a police procedural way, although the crimes tend to be aiming toward maximum squickness factor. If you like watching Law & Order:SVU, you should be OK.

Then, about halfway through, someone involved in writing the plot realized, “hey, wait, a society where a nigh-omniscient supercomputer determines your destiny and then sends the Sandmen after you if you get stressed out about it is really screwed up,” and suddenly everyone, good and evil, is engaged in a much larger struggle against the system itself, which is also entertaining, but if you were really getting into the police procedural part, you might be thinking, “how did I end up in something that feels like a book in the Divergent series?”
At least Tris gets to wear pants in the supercomputer room. Akane does not. And there are many, many stairs up and down to the supercomputer room in Psycho-Pass.
Psycho-Pass is sufficiently amusing and plotted with enough cliff-hangers that, if you’re not careful in your binge-watching, you’ll blow through all seven-some hours of it just to see what happens. You’ll feel a little empty afterwards, because the tonal shift robs satisfaction from the season-ender victory over the Napoleon of Crime type. 

But if you like Blade Runner-style shows and anime, and you're not really doing anything else for that seven hours, it's better than Flame of Recca.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Backstrom Got Canceled But I Can't Feel Sad About It

I could have gotten the news from, you know, the places where you get real news, but instead I found out Backstrom was cancelled from Rainn Wilson's Twitter feed:
It is because of this method of learning things about TV that I read the physical paper nearly every morning, and a second, even more snobby physical newspaper on most Sundays. Otherwise, I'd be full of information about Claymore and last week's Game of Thrones, but not much else.
Claymore: It's like someone took the least interesting parts of
Berzerk and Dragon Ball Z and made them into an anime
about young women with oversized swords and plate mail miniskirts.
Anyway, I can't get too exercised about Backstrom, even though I did make it through watching half of the first season (about 100x more minutes of viewing than Maggie did). Before I get to the why, let me give you the most charitable reason watching Backstrom would be worth your time:

Rainn Wilson does a masterful job playing detective Everett Backstrom, a man whose childhood was being the "weird kid" who was bullied at school and unloved at home, leading him to become a deeply broken man whose internal demons prevent him from being functional at anything other than police work. He also has the self-care habits of a homeless addict and a misanthropy bordering on psychopathy.
Backstrom seems to take pleasure in two things: first, putting people who commit crimes in jail. Second, using the authority he has from being very good at being a police officer to verbally abuse everyone whom he has professional or official authority over.  Below that surface, he is basically resigned to failure and early death. 
This is what Detective Backstrom looks like when he tries to clean up to impress people.

Why is this not worth your time? Well, Backstrom would have been a great show if Backstrom's dark character were the jumping off point for an HBO True Detective season, or a series of complicated mysteries combined with character studies like the Swedish version of Wallander (like Wallander, Backstrom is based on a series of Swedish detective novels). 

But no. Backstrom was trying to be a semi-comic "murder of the week" show like Castle. This just doesn't work.

Every episode, Backstrom says intensely crass, inappropriate, and bigoted things to his subordinates, witnesses, suspects, and sometimes bystanders, because that's how he gets control over the world as he sees it. These are often played as laugh lines, as in, "look at how hilarious that Backstrom said that," whereas I often thought, "no homicide closure rate justifies allowing a police officer to behave like this." 

Instead of finding it intolerable, his coworkers adopt for the most part an "oh, that Backstrom" attitude where it's OK for Backstrom to be a somewhat uncontrollable jackass. Which is also disturbing because the reason Backstrom is a jackass is because he's a very damaged man, and nobody is helping him.

And the setup of the show means, even moreso than House, that Backstrom can't get better. If he stops insulting people all the time based on his deep core of pain and gets a shave, he's basically a generic profiler from Criminal Minds or whatever. And did we really want to see multiple seasons of a man who takes his self-loathing out on everyone around him played for yuks?
"My pain is nothing more than the fodder for your amusement, apparently."
Apparently Fox didn't think so, either, or at least felt the Nielsen numbers didn't reflect it. And I think that's wise.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grey's Anatomy. Master Storytelling or Cheap Emotional Manipulation?

The glory days of Grey's Anatomy are behind us, but just to show she still has it, show-runner Shonda Rimes pulled out all the stops and killed a major character in a recent episode. All of a sudden, Grey's is back in the news and guest-poster, Priya, has something to say about it. Spoilers below! --Maggie Cats

It's been a few days and I'm still thinking of the latest Grey's Anatomy. Specifically, how Shonda Rhimes set us up. For those of you who haven't been watching lately the show has essentially been your regular run of BIG DRAMATIC incidents and quiet character development and movement. But since January the show has been slowly filling fans with dread as it takes us on a more-than-usual roller coaster ride of emotion.

First of all after the following paragraph there is going to be a giant SPOILER. Consider yourself warned.

Now, I know I don't really have to justify why I keep watching Grey's Anatomy but I feel like I should for just a moment. I really love the characters. Even when the show was at its worst (seasons 4-6) it was a bit of eye candy and silliness wrapped in a generally well written package. It was unafraid to be ridiculous and heart-wrenching with week to week medical stories.

But I digress. Here's the spoiler. McDreamy is dead and since January, Shonda Rhimes and company have been priming fans for maximum trauma.

Act One: Remind us that McDreamy is not perfect. Derek Shepherd has a giant ego. He has an opportunity to work in DC for the President and doesn't care that Meredith's career is in Seattle. So after a fight he goes. In his absence (where we literally don't see him for about four episodes) Meredith kicks ass. She is an awesome doctor, a really good one. Focused, driven and smart. She can do this. She has a streak of saving all her patients.

But she knows that she's better with him and when she calls to tell him so another woman answers the phone.

Act Two: Create doubt, that is once a cheater always a cheater? Shonda reminds us of where things all started. McDreamy the married man picking up Meredith in a bar. Who was the woman on the phone? We obsess with Meredith until we find out the truth -- he did not cheat. He was lonely, and another woman hit on him and he stopped it. He didn't want anything but his family. Elation. Shonda did not go down the cliche road! Everything is ok!

Act Three: Derek Shepherd is a changed man. But wait, weren't we just suspecting him of cheating and being unsupportive? Audience turn your heads to the right. Derek wants to connect with his fellow doctors, and be a good brother by bestowing sage advice to his sister. He also does not need to be in charge. Audience turn your heads to the left. He and Meredith have some moments. Then he gets in a car and drives to the airport for a final meeting in DC.

Act Four: Deny. Deny. Deny. There is an entire episode where Shonda reminds us what she's put these people through. The trauma, the horror. The awfulness. PTSD after a massive plane crash comes in that reminds everyone about the time when they were all in a horrible plane crash and two people died (Meredith's half sister and McSteamy, Mark Sloane). Remember when this show was lightness and fun angst? All the while Meredith has a sinking feeling that something is wrong since Derek is not answering his phone and never made it to DC. Something is very wrong and the episode ends with flashing cop lights on a windowpane.

We should have known better.

The Final Act: McDreamy the Hero. McDreamy the brain dead neurosurgeon. What happened? Derek Shepherd was a hero. He is calm and deliberate. He saves four lives after a car crash on a windy coastal road. (Huge sigh of relief, everyone is alive!) Then as he gets ready to drive away, he reaches down to pick up his phone (in the middle of turning the car around, in case you didn't know distracted driving is BAD) and WHAM is hit by a semitruck.

We then have to watch slowly and agonizingly as he realizes he has bad doctors and becomes brain dead. Meredith has to come in and take him off life support. But don't worry guys. In Rhimes' set up we know that Meredith is a fighter, she will survive this. We've seen death on this show before, and know that the show can go on without him. But should we have to? Whiplash sucks, and I'll be a monkey's uncle if we weren't set up to feel this in the worst possible way. So I ask again. Masterful Storytelling or Cheap Emotional Manipulation?

I will, whether immediately or at some point down the line, finish out the series. Though I may take a break to finish Mad Men before the finale (TV time is a valuable commodity these days). But when I do, I won't be able to look back at the series as a whole with satisfaction. Nope. Rather it'll be filled with a little bitterness. I guess we should have known better, but seriously? Just end it already.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Vicious - You Missed It and You Should Be Sad

For about two months last winter, PBS had the ITV comedy Vicious, starring Magneto/Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) and I, Claudius (Sir Derek Jacobi). If you don't know what I'm talking about, you should buy all six episodes of season one (plus the Christmas special) on DVD immediately.
This was amazing and you should start 
feeling bad for not having watched it.

The premise of Vicious is that Freddie (Gandalf) and Stuart (Claudius) have been a couple for nearly 45 years, although Stuart has been in the closet to his mother for that entire time. After four decades, Stuart and Freddie's relationship mostly consists of being verbally and wittily nasty to the other, with occasional petty jealousy or overweening vanity thrown in for spice. 

Basically, it's two dude Dowager Countesses in a never-ending cage match of Brit wits throwing shade. I know. It is as awesome as it sounds

Despite their being pretty horrible people, Freddie and Stuart have friends: the omnisexual Violet Crosby (Frances de la Tour), the grump Mason (Philip Voss),  the memory-challenged Penelope (Marcia Warren), and Ramsay Bolton:
"Strangely, none of my lines in this show involve the term 'flaying.'"

That's right, Iwan Rheon is Freddie and Stuart's young neighbor Ash, a combination of optimism and naivete. That's right; he's the innocent and gullible one. It's ironic, but frankly, Rheon plays it well enough that you forget what happened to Theon Greyjoy for a while.

For the sci-fi and fantasy record, Frances de la Tour was in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sir Derek was in Underworld Evolution and a bunch of Doctor Who, and Philip Voss was in original Doctor Who as well as a small role in Octopussy, the most incoherent James Bond film ever made. You could have a convention just with the six-person cast of this show.

So, you missed Vicious last year. And it's basically available nowhere I can find streaming. You are saying to yourself, "how did I miss this?" I don't know, but it is a tragedy. On the plus side, season two will be on PBS sometime this summer.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Longmire - Why Aren't You Watching?

After wresting it from A&E, which canceled it because I was the only person not eligible for Social Security watching the show, Netflix has finally put up Season 3 of Longmire. Season 4 will be a "Netflix Original."

I am basically jumping up and down with glee. Longmire is an amazing detective show. And, frankly, since young people like you reading this blog haven't seen it yet, you should go watch it now. Ignore the rest of this blog post, your job, your family, your need to eat. Get yourself a catheter from one of those ads on basic cable and just plop yourself on the couch for over 20 hours.

Okay, obviously you didn't do that, because A) you're still reading, and B) that was one of the times I give crazy-person advice. I'll bet you're wondering why you should watch Longmire, since I haven't even described it yet. Fair enough.

This is Walt Longmire. He is the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming:
Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire.
Walt is, in some ways, the television descendant of Gunsmoke's Marshal Matt Dillon (I love me some Big Broadcast). Sheriff Longmire has an old-school "yes ma'am" politeness to everyone, be they local or tourist or from the nearby reservation (although he did arrest the last tribal chief of police, which was legally correct but did not win him friends on the "rez"), and he basically rocks at police science. Also, he hates having to carry a cell phone, so he's always borrowing his deputies'.

This is Walt's best friend, Henry Standing Bear:
Henry Standing Bear is Longmire's childhood friend
Lou Diamond Phillips as Henry Standing Bear. He is often this pensive.
Henry owns what seems to be the only quality non-chain bar/restaurant in Absaroka county. He also helps Walt navigate American Indian culture, mostly by pointing out when the sheriff's department is about to do something that will make a lot of people very pissed. This being America, and a show about police, these warnings often go unheeded.

This is Sheriff Longmire's loyal deputy, Vic Moretti:
Barn fire kills family man and two horses
Katee Sackhoff as Vic Moretti.
Deputy Moretti is from Caprica -- I mean, Philadelphia -- which means that she has to learn Wyoming as she helps Sheriff Longmire chase down criminals.

And this is Sheriff Walt's totally disloyal deputy, Branch Connally:
Branch has big plans for Absaroka County
Bailey Chase as Branch Connally.
As season one starts, Branch gets sick of Walt being too mopey over the death of Walt's wife to be reliable at police work (something that wears off about halfway through the first episode), so Branch runs for sheriff against Walt. And has a relationship with Walt's daughter. And goes behind Walt's back to solve cases. Somewhere down the line, they get into a fistfight. Basically, it's amazing that Sheriff Longmire manages to have a working relationship with Deputy Connally at all, and yet they still manage to solve crimes together. This is probably because, despite being kind of a giant jackass, Deputy Connally is also pretty good at the policing thing.

So, with this main cast together, we follow Walt try to get his detective mojo back and win his sheriff's election, which is more complicated as it sounds because A) Walt's got basic decency on his side but Branch is hitting up all the power players in the county for money and influence, and B) Walt may have gone vigilante on the man who killed his wife (what actually happened isn't totally revealed until the end of season two). Between those two main plots, plus a host of complications for the supporting cast, there's plenty of enjoyable dramatic tension and weekly murder-solving fun for all.

So, now I've explained it. Wyoming sheriff. Capable cast with famous names. Fun plot. Begin your marathon couch-sitting.