Longmire: Pilot Review

Some shows sneak in under the radar, Longmire is so far under the radar that I thought I was tuning into a new series up until 2 minutes ago when I found out on Wikipedia that the show actually debuted in the US in March 2012, and was shown last year in the UK before I finally spotted it on 5USA last week. Mind you it’s buried in the listings, in the US it’s on A&E (whose only other drama is Bates Motel) and in the UK it was on TCM of all places. I’ve seen absolutely zero about it in any of the blogs that I follow and no publicity for it. I can’t even remember how I came to record it to be honest.

For all its lack of presence, I actually quite enjoyed the first two episodes. It’s a nicely paced, well constructed little show. It reminded me most of last year’s failed freshman show Vegas, although Longmire actually pre-dates it by a few months. The eponymous sheriff is played by relative unknown Robert Taylor (heavens, he was in Ballykissangel!) and could be Dennis Quaid’s long lost brother. They’re certainly treading familiar ground with the gruff, distant, old school cop, forced to interact with his community far more than either of them really want.

It’s not actually a period piece, but being set in the back of beyond in Wyoming and having to deal with conflicts with the native American tribal group doesn’t feel a million miles from dealing with the Mob in 1960s Vegas. It’s an original enough location, with interesting political and cultural issues to give it something to stand out from the crowd. Which is a good job because the actual stories didn’t really blow me away, fairly unoriginal variations on a theme of stories that have been done by pretty much every procedural out there. Something a bit bigger might have been a good idea, particularly for the pilot. The miniscule clues, drip feeding a backstory of traumatic events are also a tried and tested technique which is getting a bit weary.

But it’s not like I really watch any of the procedurals for the cases, I watch them for the characters and the tone, and Longmire hit them dead on. There’s a lightness to the dialogue and plot that give the characters time to breath and gives the actors a chance to establish their characters elegantly. I don’t remember too much clunky exposition and no one came across as too stereotype or single note. I’d forgotten that this was the slightly unglamorous location Katee Sackoff ended up after Battlestar Galactica (seriously, why is that amazing cast scrabbling around for mediocre roles, or buried on minor networks?) but she instantly warmed me to the series.

Longmire isn’t the kind of show that I would loudly tell people go and watch, but it is the kind of show that I would suggest to people who were looking for low level time passers. It doesn’t require a great concentration, but there’s enough there to keep the brain engaged and reward you if you do. It doesn’t seem to have lofty ambitions, which means it quietly delivers a satisfactory experience. Sometimes, that’s just what you want after a long, frustrating day. Just a bit of pleasant distraction.

Veep: Pilot Review

Armando Iannucci, writer of The Thick of It takes his foul mouthed political satirising to the US. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the vice president, a pretty powerless position which is staffed by a correspondingly second rate selection of incompetents.

I’ve watched this pilot twice and I still can’t quite decide where I stand on it. Bits of it really made me laugh but bits of it made me cringe. I’m quite particular when it comes to comedy, fundamentally I like smart comedies – ones based on wit, eloquence and cleverness; most comedies however seem to be based on people either being stupid or messing up. Veep somehow manages to combine the two, the dialogue is smart, but the characters are so very stupid.

At one point the vice-president says “the level of incompetence in this office is staggering” and that’s the problem. The characters are not very good at their jobs, they make dumb mistakes and their personalities range from outright creepy through to just plain dull. The only likeable and competent character I saw seems to be the diary secretary and she only gets about 4 lines.

Maybe the biggest problem with the pilot was that I didn’t really ‘get’ the central character of the vice-president. I couldn’t work out whether she was someone actually competent in a terrible job and surrounded by morons, or whether she was just as simpering and short-sighted as everyone around her. She’s smart enough to realise her staff are dumb and have a shout about it, but not smart enough to get through an improvised speech without being offensive. Given that uncertainty in her character, Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives a surprisingly good performance with entertaining reactions and some funny physical comedy.

On the flip side, the dialogue is good; it’s snappy, witty and there are occasional flashes of the brilliance that made The Thick of It shine. I laughed out loud quite a few times and there were plenty of smiles for both the main dialogue and the little asides of characters in the background. The language isn’t quite as… um… colourful as The Thick of It’s, but it has its moments. The problem is that smart words coming out of the mouths of idiots just doesn’t really work. What the show misses is what made The Thick of It so good – the character of Malcolm Tucker and Peter Capaldi’s performance.

For me, comedy comes from looking just slightly sideways at real life. Comedies I love, like Outnumbered (at least the first couple of seasons) are really just day-to-day existence with a slightly better script writer and the chance to redraft things that don’t work the first time. Comedy that has to rely on improbably stupid characters or situations just doesn’t work so well for me. I know that the vice-president’s office is a big step down from the president’s office, but still, surely there are more competent people out there. Maybe I’m over-thinking things, if I laughed a lot then surely it’s a good comedy? So why do I just feel that I didn’t like it very much?

Veep is on Sky Atlantic on Monday nights.

Other reviews:
The Guardian – “The script is predictably sharp, fearless, unforgiving – sometimes so of us the audience; this is something you’ll want to watch again, to get nuances”
The Huffington Post – “‘Veep’ simply isn’t particularly fresh or funny, and most of its jokes are telegraphed from a long way away.”

The Newsroom: Pilot Review

There’s no two ways around it, I’m a massive Aaron Sorkin fan. I obsess over The West Wing, I loved Sports Night, The Social Network was brilliant and I even really liked the slightly more troubled Studio 60 and recent Moneyball film. So when it was announced that he’ got a new series, well I may have let out a little ‘squee’.

The series is set in the eponymous Newsroom, Jeff Daniels play Will McAvoy, everyone’s favourite news anchor – charming and utterly inoffensive. That is until he has some kind of minor breakdown at a college event and when he’s asked “Why America is the greatest country in the world?” he explains with enthusiastic eloquence why in fact it isn’t that great. From that point things start falling apart for him, he loses his staff and his job is threatened. In walks Mackenzie MacHale as his new Executive Producer challenging him to use his new found reputation to make a better news show, one that challenges, investigates and brings pride back to America and journalism.

If you think that sounds a bit preachy when I type it out as a paragraph, you’ll really struggle with the half dozen or so long speeches on the same subjects. It’s not unreasonable to say that Sorkin has some message which he wants people to hear, fortunately for me I largely agree with him, and fortunately for all of his audiences his speeches are rousing, they’re poetic and they can inform and inspire. But the Newsroom pilot has about 8 passionate monologues and by about half way through I’d just had enough. Mackenzie’s tirade in particular left me shouting at her that I got it already, if a Sorkin speech can’t convince the listener, then the second and third aren’t going to work either! It felt like I’d been bludgeoned round the head with them – I wasn’t so much inspired as I was berated.

The second big problem is that was my nervousness as I watched Sorkin try to introduce troubled romances. In my opinion Studio 60 was killed off by the unconvincing relationships that it forced upon a talented cast. Will-they-won’t-they relationships only really work if the audience actually WANTS the couple to get together, if they’re bad for each other (Matt and Harriet) or just weird and creepy (Danny and Jordan) they don’t work. The only relationship like that Sorkin has ever got right is Josh and Donna, and I suspect the fact that he only ever wrote the ‘won’t-they’ bit of the relationship may have something to do with that.

So as soon as there was the implication of a romantic relationship between Will and Mackenzie, I was immediately on edge and as details were revealed I didn’t feel any better. Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer are fantastic actors and their characters had a lot of spark individually and together – but romance? No. Didn’t feel it at all. (Um… also is there something ongoingly creepy about the age differences of Sorkin’s couples? Mackenzie must be 15 years younger than Will…)

Those two points aside, there’s a lot that’s good. It’s a Sorkin show, so it goes without saying that the dialogue is fast, smart, witty and brilliant and that the characters are intelligent, passionate, quirky and interesting. The concept behind the whole thing is also a strong one playing to Sorkin’s strengths, pretty much the meeting point between The West Wing and Sports Night – political comment plus the exciting work environment of live television. I loved the twist in the middle of the episode where they reveal what the day’s news is going to be and you can watch it develop, I was as engrossed and excited as I have been in any big screen thriller recently.

I so desperately wanted to love this series, and I did love bits of it, but I also hated bits of it, leaving me on balance a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing. In many ways it was just a bit too Sorkin, exaggerating his strengths and his weaknesses. He is an amazing speech writer, but if you have too many they just come across as badgering; and while he’s written some of the most amazing professional partnerships (Jed and Leo, Dan and Casey, Matt and Danny) he clearly has a blind spot for romance.

I’m hoping that the series will settle down a bit, toning down the speeches and lightening up on the troubled romance front. The good news is that being on HBO the series doesn’t need anywhere near the ratings that Studio 60 failed to achieve on NBC. I think this may just be opening night nerves, trying to do too much in a pilot. I really hope so, because y excitement at a new Sorkin show is still there, just a little bit less squealy than before.

The Newsroom will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic, from July

Other reviews – of which there are many and most of whom hated it.
The Guardian’s Michael Wolff is very angry about the inaccurate presentation of how news is produced these days. The Guardian also helpfully compiled lots of other reviews.
CliqueClack: “I’ll roll my eyes but attempt to see the bigger picture.”
TV Fanatic: “It may become grating to some, it may already be grating for others and they won’t be returning to The Newsroom. But if you can focus on the brilliant writing of the messenger over the message, or don’t mind the message being hammered home on a weekly basis, this is one newly-built ship you’ll want to ride on every Sunday night.”
The TV Addict: “if you’re the type viewer that can’t get enough of Aaron Sorkin’s trademark walk-and-talks, adore his attempts to “edutain” and would give an arm and a leg to still see SPORTS NIGHT back on the air (Quo Vadimus FTW!), THE NEWSROOM is the TV Addict equivalent of a wet dream.”
The Huffington Post: “The biggest problem with “The Newsroom” — and it’s one of many, many problems — is that its goals and its narrative strategies are in direct conflict with each other. The result is a dramatically inert, infuriating mess, one that wastes a fine cast to no demonstrable purpose, unless you consider giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight is a worthwhile purpose. “

The Bridge: Pilot review

I think at this point I may watch more Scandinavian television series than I do British ones. I think my fondness for them is at least partly related to the fact that the subtitles override my natural tendency towards a short attention span, there’s no such thing as ‘half watching’ because without being completely focussed you miss all the dialogue. Many shows (independent of production location) don’t stand up to that level of scrutiny, but given how much I enjoyed The Killing and Borgen I’m now far more likely to give a subtitled BBC 4 show a chance than I am anything on the main channels. It also helps that at 10 episodes long, The bridge isn’t too large a commitment and two episodes a week keeps things moving along (although this review is written after watching just the first episode).

The Bridge is a joint production between the Danish and Swedish public broadcasters, and that theme runs through absolutely everything the show does, from the title card which gives the series name in both languages through to the details of the case. A body is found in the middle of the bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo, and the Danish and Swedish police have to work together on the case which very rapidly turns into something a great deal more complex than just a ‘simple’ murder.

The set-up alone is enough reason to watch. I was instantly intrigued to find out more about how two countries so physically close might be the same or different in process and culture. The fact that I know very little about either country makes it even more interesting. Investigating that issue through the kind of complex murder mystery that I enjoy unravelling just puts the icing on the cake really.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the reality of the first episode as a whole quite delivers to the same level as the concept. One issue was that the characters seem pretty unimaginative at the moment, just taken from the various ranks of police drama archetypes. The lead Danish detective appears to be good natured, rather shabby womaniser with an aura of laid back experience. The lead Swedish detective meanwhile is the ‘kooky’ loner who’s a good investigator but has terrible people skills. It’s a classic case of unlikely partners being thrown together against their will.

There are a few more tedious characters, mostly in the random subplots that currently have no connection to the main plot at all. There’s one involving a successful business man suffering heart failure who’s overbearing wife will do anything money can buy to get her husband a new heart. Then there’s a weird storyline that sees a bloke with unclear motives who looks like he walked straight out of the 70s take pity on the beaten wife of a thug. I assume all these storylines will come together at some point, but in the pilot they were just a somewhat dull distraction.

The production was beautiful, as I’ve come to expect following The Killing and Borgen, every shot beautifully framed and lit. The only thing that let the production down I felt was the subtitling. I think I was missing out on a lot, the subtitles never seemed long enough to correspond to the actual dialogue. Also I think there was a lot of subtlety in language that’s missing; I was frustrated to not know who was speaking in what language for example. I’d hoped for a little more help from the writing and subtitles to highlight the cultural differences etc, but I had enough trouble just keeping track of which country we were in. I realise that this will be more obvious for the ‘home’ audiences of the show and it’s not really fair of me to expect them to cater for overseas viewers, but it did impact my enjoyment of the show.

I will stick with the show, cliché characters are hardly the biggest crime a pilot episode has ever committed, and there’s still plenty of time for development to round them out. I also rather enjoy the process of watching a show like this, discussing it with friends and colleagues and seeing it develop and resolve within a nicely manageable time span. It may not be the breathless praise I heaped on The Killing or Borgen, but it’s not a bad start, and now that I’ve written this, I can finally go and watch the second episode.

The Bridge is broadcast on BBC4 on Saturday evenings and is available on iplayer.

Other reviews:
The Huffington Post – How wonderful – Saturday night, 9pm, BBC4 and another Nordic thriller. We’ve had The Killing, then a burst of coalition politics in Borgen, what could The Bridge do?

It could take everything The Killing did so well, and expand on it, that’s what.
The Guardian – It wasn’t as gripping as The Killing, but it was handsomely mounted, well acted and reassuringly deprived of natural light and colour.
The Guardian also do a weekly recap and analysis for obsessives.

Awake: Pilot Review

The majority of television shows these days follow a pretty basic recipe – take a basic flavour of procedural sponge cake (doctors, police, lawyers) and add some kind of unique frosting to it. So House is a basic medical procedural sponge with a ‘miserable bastard’ frosting on top. CSI is a police procedural with a forensics frosting; if you take that CSI cake and add sprinkles of Navy on the top you end up with NCIS, and if you add a location based cherry on the top of that you get NCIS: LA. It’s all basic cake making.

Sometimes though the frosting takes a step further and combines some weird flavours, this year in particular has got some weird toppings. A Gifted Man is a medical procedural with ghosts, Grimm and Alcatraz are both police procedurals but one has fairy tale monsters the other has time travelling criminals. Awake is the very definition of this ‘high concept’ model. (Don’t worry, I’ll abandon this metaphor now).

Awake is a police procedural, but that’s not what it’s about, that’s just how it tells its story. Detective Michael Britten lives two lives, he literally goes to sleep in one reality and wakes up in another. In one reality a car crash killed his wife, in the other the accident killed their teenage son.

What impressed me most with this show is that it moved straight through some of the obvious steps that other shows might take months to get to. Britten has actually already told people about his situation, his wife in one reality and his therapists in both. Of course, everyone he tells is convinced that their reality is the true one and the other is just a dream – the therapists take different approaches but they work their way through the logical steps just like I would. This means that by the end of the episode the character and audience were all completely convinced that unlikely as it might seem, this guy really is living two realities. Now that’s settled everyone can get on with the more long term issues about how he manages that situation.

The procedural element played second fiddle in the pilot episode understandably, when I think about it now I can’t remember either of the mysteries (one per reality). There was something about hints from one reality’s case giving hints that carried over to the other case, but I wasn’t really focussed on that element and it seemed a little tenuous.

I admit I went into this show hoping it would be good as I’m a big fan of the star (Hello to Jason Isaacs!) but I was delighted and surprised at just how good it was. There’s a huge amount put in the first episode, but it didn’t feel rushed at all, in fact I had to check the episode runtime once I’d finished because I couldn’t believe that it was only 45 minutes. The concept itself is quite simple and elegant, but when you start thinking about it there’s an immense amount of material there. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all develops.

Other reviews
TV Fanatic – I was in awe of Awake by the time the credits rolled. The pilot, and the way it propels the show forward, is emotionally and meticulously crafted. It’s hard to believe this is a TV show when it feels like an experience that is better placed in a theatre. It is honestly one of the best premiers of a show I have ever watched.

CliqueClack – I saw the first handful of episodes, and I’m happy to report that this is one to keep watching. It may not be utterly edge-of-your-seat action and thrills, but it’s consistent and, at many times, moving.

Huffington Post – The good news is that the unusually ambitious “Awake” succeeds at several of the things it’s attempting, and star Jason Isaacs grounds the drama with a charismatic yet subtle performance. I have a few misgivings about the show — I do wonder how “Awake” will work in the long term — but in the near term, I’m happy to stick with this unusual cop show to see where it goes.

Titanic: Pilot Review

I completely forgot to put a blog post up about this! I spent so much time actually discussing it in person with friends and colleagues that I overlooked my dedicated blog audience. So just a quick catch-up for the sake of completeness – it’s rubbish. I had been looking forward to it; I love a good disaster movie and I love Downton Abbey, so combining the two should be perfect. But something went horribly horribly wrong.

The biggest mistake – the characters were almost without exception utterly hateful and I found myself hoping that they all went down with the ship. For a start there were so many of them that I couldn’t keep track most of the time so the first class passengers just turned into a fuzzy cloud of self-righteous, narrow-minded xenophobes, whose concern with everyone’s relative places on the social ladder was only outdone by the paranoia of their servants. The crew were a rather ineffectual bunch in uniforms and/or dirt and the passengers not in 1st class did little but express deep seated bitterness with comedy accents.

The second biggest mistake was the structure, by half way through the first episode the boat was already sinking and I was a little confused about how they were going to stretch that out for the next three episodes. As the ‘next time on Titanic’ indicated though, each episode would go back to before the boat set sail and we’d meet yet another group of characters, presumably in the vague hope that somewhere in the cast of thousands they might find one actual likeable character that we didn’t hope would drown. Meanwhile the audience is left in the worst groundhog day in history.

Generally I will try to find the positives in shows, and even if I don’t like it, try to see if there’s anything that other people would like. But, given my aforementioned conversations, there’s nothing in Titanic worth salvaging, beyond possibly the sets and some nice CGI. The problem when telling the story of the Titanic is that everyone knows the boat is going to sink, the band is going to play and people are going to die. The only novelty is in the choice of which characters to follow. By having so many characters and rushing to the iceberg the viewer has no time to build any connection to the character.

I didn’t watch the second episode, and over a third of the audience made the same decision (7.36mill for the pilot, 4.66mill for the 2nd episode – wikipedia). You can write your own jokes about how fast the numbers are sinking.

Other reviews
The Guardian – Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has predictably focused on the social divisions represented by the ship’s tightly regimented class system. Yet he’s done so with so little imagination that the resulting archetypes are as subtle as an iceberg.

Telegraph – There was both too much and too little to concentrate on, and no-one to care about. If I were forced to judge Titanic on this one episode alone, I’d call it a damp squib – but having seen part two, I can assure you it gets better.

GCB: Pilot Review

Amanda was a ‘mean girl’ at school, but decades later she’s reformed. She is forced to return to Dallas and move in with her mother following her husband’s extremely public infidelity, embezzlement and eventual death. While Amanda has grown up and moved on, those she left behind really haven’t.

I wanted to hate this show, dismissing it as trashy rubbish. But like Desperate Housewives before it, ABC may have hit the sweet spot of creating something that is indeed, completely trashy, but also embarrassingly entertaining.

The show is based on a book which went by the much more informative and accurate title Good Christian Bitches (the show briefly went by Good Christian Belles before settling on the cryptically meaningless GCB). The girls that Amanda knew and terrorised in High School haven’t really moved on, they may be married with kids and careers but they still run in the high school gaggle and behave with the mean spirited immaturity that makes school so miserable.

All that bitchiness is accompanied by a devotion to the Church that’s slightly terrifying. Religion is always an element of American shows that I struggle to understand, it’s a part of their culture that I really have no common reference points with. But this show isn’t an in-depth cultural investigation, and religion is used here exclusively to show the hypocrisy of the characters. The comedy is just this side of silly, but only just this side. The majority of the characters are caricatures with plastic surgery, bible quotes, high heels, scandles, terrible fashions and harebrained schemes. You can tell they’re harebrained because there’s a comedy soundtrack to accompany it. Amanda and her kids feel a bit out of place because they’re they only ones that feel even vaguely normal human beings, the references to Amanda being a recovering alcoholic feel particularly out of place.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh and find myself enjoying the pilot, largely thanks to the snappy and witty dialogue, but I felt rather like I’d just enjoyed a mountain of junk food – good, but lacking in substance. GCB isn’t pretending to be anything different, but it’s not really the kind of thing I’d make any kind of commitment to.

Other reviews
TV Addict – Has us willing to spend a little more time deep in the heart of Texas if for no other reason than creator Robert Harling knows a thing or two about escapist entertainment

CliqueClack – Amanda’s comment about her classmates, “Nobody can stay exactly like they were in high school” and Gigi’s response that they can sums up this series. This is an adult version of Mean Girls only not nearly as entertaining… so far.

TV Fanatic – The writers are of good pedigree and if they can keep up the pace they’ve set forth in the first episode, there will be nothing they can’t accomplish. Is it a worthy successor to Desperate Housewives? Absolutely. While Housewives surprised everyone by drawing itself as a comedy, I don’t think there will be any question as to where GCB fits in.