Touch: Pilot Review

Jake Baum doesn’t speak, hates to be touched, obsesses over numbers and patterns and doesn’t communicate at all. His dad is struggling to take care of him. But then Jake predicts some winning lottery numbers and from there all sorts of weird stuff follows.

It’s all a bit much to be honest. The direction and writing aren’t doing it any favours, it has that of over the top tone to the whole thing. It’s like reading something where every other sentence has been highlighted because it’s REALLY IMPORTANT. There’s endless waffle about destiny and patterns, and making connections and it just made me feel rather tired. It’s structured like a procedural, but each step is built around leaps of faith rather than science or detection.

Alongside the main father-son plot is a weird sub-plot type thing following a lost mobile phone as it gets ‘skipped’ around the world, hijacked by people trying to create viral videos and eventually reaching a pretty dramatic ending. There was a brief connection to the main characters at the start, but it never came back full circle again, so I’m not sure whether that is just a trick they’ll use in the pilot, or if it’s going to be a recurring theme. But again each connection just felt very forced and artificial. Also maybe I’m missing the magic, but my key thoughts during the whole plot were – “How are they charging the battery?” and “Wow – those roaming charges are going to horrific!”

I can’t say that it was a complete failure, Kiefer Sutherland is charming enough, going out of his way to not be Jack Bauer by being afraid of heights, getting himself beaten up and shutting his finger in a door all within the first 10 minutes. He has to carry the show pretty much by himself, emoting for both him and his son and he chews his way through the terrible dialogue quite admirably. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the way things came together at the end didn’t give me a satisfying sense of completion, but overall it all just felt very manufactured and artificial. Maybe later episodes will settle down a bit but fundamentally ‘incredible connections’ aren’t so incredible when you can’t forget you’re watching a television show.

Touch starts on Sky 1 “in March”.

Other reviews
CliqueClack – And I’ll be sappy for a moment and admit that as TV shows can sometimes get dark, violent, depressing, or all of the above, it’s neat to have a show that makes me think about the positive, and come away with a hopeful feeling inside.

TV Fanatic – I’m not sure where this series will lead. Jake’s special sight could take us to the future, the past or simply another view of our connection to one another – but I’m intrigued by the spirituality as much as the science and I look forward to watching episode two.

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Luck: Pilot Review

I don’t usually object to the “throw ‘em in the deep end and let ‘em work it out for themselves” school of exposition, but this was beyond me. I was utterly utterly lost within seconds and never managed to claw my way back.

Here’s what I did deduce – people buy and train horses to run round in circles as fast as possible and other people (or sometimes the same people) bet on what will happen. There’s a lot of money involved and people can have none one minute and lots the next, or vice versa and that’s all some people care about. Meanwhile all other people care about is the passion and the adrenalin of getting their horse to run faster than everyone else’s.

I was sufficiently intrigued by the idea of the show that I was looking forward to it (more than most of the pilots I slog through), I could see a lot of similarities between horse racing and the only other sport I’ve got any interest in – Formula 1. Both are about a complex combination of so many different things – money, talent, politics and luck, the biggest difference is that where one has technical engineering of machines, the other has biological engineering of horses. And of course if all else fails, there’s still some really fast paced action to watch.

Unfortunately the reality of the pilot was that I had no clue what was going on. There was too much jargon and I was just too unfamiliar with the language. I’ll also confess that I had considerable difficulty understanding what several of the characters were saying thanks to some really strong accents. Also, while I could tell the characters apart at least, I struggled with the horses and that badly affected the impact of some of the races and events where I lost track of who was racing for who.

There’s a lot that was good about the pilot – it certainly looked fantastic and the way the races were shot were absolutely incredible, putting you right in the middle of a crowd of galloping horses and desperate jockeys. But I think it’s crippled (possibly fatally) by too intricate a script and some poor casting choices which make the whole thing just impenetrable. I think the very fact that the series stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, and I haven’t even mentioned them is an indicator that something’s gone very very wrong

Luck is currently airing on Sky Atlantic

Other Reviews
Maureen Ryan and the Huffington Post liked it a lot more, and her review may actually persuade me to not cancel my series link recording quite yet – Why you should stick with Luck

TV Fanatic – Personally, I’m okay with a slow boil if it allows the viewers to immerse themselves in the world, especially one so deeply detailed as the one depicted here. And you’ll need that time; Milch drops us into the story with absolutely no context, which makes for a steep learning curve.

The Guardian – Set in and around a California horse-racing track, Luck, Sky Atlantic’s latest star-encrusted US drama, might be another example of brilliant American television, to rank alongside The Sopranos and The Wire, or a piece of beautifully filmed and immaculately acted nonsense. It’s hard to tell. Or rather, it’s hard to hear.

Smash: Pilot review

Broadway’s hottest musical writers, producer and director are coming together to develop a new musical about Marilyn Monroe. Everyone is a buzz about it, but the big question is… who will play Marilyn?

Marilyn the Musical was the hottest thing in town the minute that word got out about it, and the same is true of Smash in the real world. As soon as it was announced it was tagged as either “Glee for grownups” or “jumping on the Glee bandwagon” depending on the cynicism levels of the reviewers.

While Smash and it’s gushing fans may try to distance itself from Glee I think they’re a lot more similar than it would really like to admit. While at first glance the only similarity is the fact that there’s a tendency on both shows for people to burst into song, there’s a deeper seated link between the two – neither is set in the real world. While Glee is an almost-fantasy high school, Smash is an almost-fantasy New York. While it’s nowhere near as silly as Glee, neither is it anywhere approaching gritty realism. This is a New York where struggling actresses can still living in large apartments and eat in nice restaurants and talented young things from Iowa can be catapulted to stardom.

I’m not saying that’s a problem – this is a musical show both in that it’s about a musical and in that it’s built like a musical with all the smoothed edges and stereotypes that implies. But the cliché characters really push the boundaries of my acceptance at times, from the dazzlingly gay song writer who’s gushing over his new assistant and checking out the dancers to the sleazy director who invites actresses to his apartment for private sessions. The biggest stereotype of all unfortunately is the waiting-to-be-discovered Karen who’s come to the bright lights of the big city with a dream of being a star.

The plot is just as cliché as the characters – they need to cast the perfect Marilyn and who should fall into their laps but this completely green newcomer with talent and soul? But there’s a rival, Ivy, the more experienced and more obvious choice who completely embodies Marilyn. In one of the few examples of elegant writing however the writers actually pass on the obvious choice of making her an ambitious evil cow and present her as just an actress who wants the part, knows that she has the talent to do it and has paid her dues working her way up. I’ll be honest, by the end of the episode, I was actually rooting for her, not Karen.

The other saving grace of the show is Debra Messing (of Will and Grace fame, get it? Saving grace? Sorry.) who is the central normal point of the whole show. She’s like the linchpin that all other characters balance off of and because she’s talking to them, they all seem more real. Even the massively over-the-top Anjelica Houstan almost seems to exist in reality when she’s sharing a scene with Debra Messing. Hopefully that’s an indicator that characters will tone down a bit in future episodes once the desperation of the pilot is out of the way.

Despite spending several paragraphs describing what the problems are with the show, I still really liked it. Just like Glee, it can have all technical problems in the world, but because it made me smile and made my foot tap I’ll tune back in. Finishing the pilot with a couple of minutes of trailer for the rest of the season was a genius touch, because it reinforced all the things that I’d enjoyed – great music, a talented cast, and just something a bit different to everything else on tv.

Smash will be airing on Sky Atlantic in ‘April’.

Other Reviews
Huffington Post – Nevertheless, there is the possibility that Smash will catch on. Viewers could decide it neatly fits the So-Bad-It’s-Good category. Otherwise, Smash might have the bad fortune to close just as quickly as the above-mentioned Marilyn: An American Fable did. The great American musical– experiencing something of a resurgence now with the broader public — deserves a lot better than this.

TV Addict – While it remains to be seen as to whether or not a compelling drama pulled off by an all-star ensemble is music to an audience’s ears that may not know the difference between a pilot and a playbill, we’re here to implore you that it should be. In a world of generic doctor/lawyer/cop shows — each more interchangeable than the next — SMASH dares to be different. Which in itself is reason enough to give the series a standing ovation.

House of Lies: Pilot Review

A small team of Management Consultants are out to make money by screwing over anyone they can – big business, banks, strippers, ex-wives and the competition.

The client of the week (which I’m guessing is the model they’ll use for each episode) is a giant US bank which is widely hated because of their contribution to the financial collapse that has left so many of its clients literally out on the streets. They’re hiring management consultants because they want to take their giant bonuses, but also don’t want the cripplingly bad PR and loss of business. Yeah, they’re not particularly nice people.

Mind you, neither are our ‘heroes’ the management consultants. The usually loveable rogue Don Cheadle is rather more roguish here, sleeping with three women in the pilot alone including his ex-wife and a stripper who he later takes to a business dinner pretending to be his wife. The usually adorable Kristen Bell is a hardnosed business psychiatrist, and the two blokes that round out the team (I didn’t even bother to pick up their names) are basically sleazy, womanising jerks. Their concerns are sex and money and that’s about it. There’s a passing attempt to soften Cheadle’s character by introducing a son with issues and a suggestion of a traumatic childhood, but it felt too contrived and awkward to really come across as anything other than manipulative.

Eventually, after a visit to a strip club, sex in a bathroom and a fist fight in a restaurant, we reach the climax of the episode – the pitch to the board. It’s the defining moment of the show – is House of Lies about a group with a heart of gold who manage to come up with a solution that will play well with an audience angry with big business, or will it be about a group who pander to their clients just so they can get a job and make the money? Either direction has a lot of possibilities, but quite different appeals.

I agonised about whether to reveal the answer in this review; I’d normally avoid spoilers but on this occasion I think I’m going to have to give it away, because without knowing what the show is trying to be I can’t review it properly. Because if the show had chosen the heart of gold option I would have had to say it wasn’t very good and you’d be better off going and watching Leverage or White Collar – you can’t have a heart of gold group that are just plain unlikeable. Fortunately the show takes (in my opinion) the more interesting option that these characters are exactly what they seem to be – they find ways for rich people to have their cake and eat it, just so that they can get a small slice for themselves.

I had to watch the pilot twice to try to come to some sort of conclusion as to whether I actually liked it or not. I think I’m going to come down on the side of ‘yes’ but with some reservations. The show has a lot of style to it, I particularly liked the freeze frame and directly talking to camera snaps to explain the jargon that’s used without having cheesy exposition inserted into the dialogue. However it’s going to need considerably more subtle handling if they want the characters to be genuinely interesting, I don’t necessarily need them to be hugely likeable, but I do need them to be three-dimensional and not completely hateful. It is however being ‘sold’ as a comedy rather than a drama, and given that I did laugh a few times, it’s considerably more successful than any other comedy I’ve seen in recent years.

A word of note – there really is a lot of gratuitous nudity and swearing. I think the swearing does serve a purpose, basically indicating that these people are in many ways quite childish, thinking that swearing makes them seem big and clever, when really it just makes them seem crass and stupid. That’s clever writing. What’s less clever though is the use of nudity, which there’s no real *need* for and just comes across as the director trying to be big and clever and instead coming across as crass and stupid. See, it works both ways.

Other Reviews
TV Fanatic – There’s a good show somewhere inside House of Lies.

CliqueClack – While I dug the first three episodes of this series, and — as I said — I dig seeing Kristen Bell on my screen, I can’t say that I’m on board for the long haul.

Alcatraz – Pilot review

In 1963 Alcatraz prison closed. But the prisoners weren’t transferred away as everyone thinks, in fact they and all the guards just disappeared. Now it seems they’re coming back and they don’t seem to have aged or rehabilitated in the intervening half century. A special team of FBI, police and civilians is formed to track them down before they commit more crimes, and to find out who took them and what they’ve been sent back to do.

This is the latest in a string of series being heralded as “the new Lost” which basically seems to mean that the story is built around a core mystery that will encourage you to spend hours picking apart all the hints. Of course of the many things studios have hoped would be the new Lost, few have succeeded and the label is as much a curse as anything else these days. Alcatraz however has the bonus of pedigree behind it – JJ Abrams produced it, there’s overlapping writers and Jorge Garcia (Hurley, one of the best things in Lost) co-stars.

The concept behind Alcatraz looks pretty good for the Lost-model – it’s got the mystery to keep you returning each week but also a good set up for episodic story-lines to keep you entertained while it taunts you with micro-hints each week. There’s a mixture of present day cops running around and shooting and gradually revealing flashbacks to fill in the gaps. The combination of true history and made up mystery is sure to be sending some hefty traffic wikipedia’s way as well.

The problem I had with the show was that the pilot didn’t feel very well put together, in particular a lot of the dialogue felt as if someone had written all the placeholder exposition and then forgotten to address the note of “make this sound more realistic before filming it”. The characters had a similar problem, as if they’d just gone with a shorthand version and forgotten to sand off the cliché corners, for example the lead character was orphaned at a young age, raised by gruff cop, grows up into ambitious young detective, bit of a loner after the death of her partner which haunts her.

Somewhere under the cliché and poor dialogue there’s some good actors struggling to get out. Relative newcomer Sarah Jones somehow managed to take the cliché ridden character and clunky dialogue and still be interesting to watch. Jorge Garcia’s very presence brings something unusual to the show, a very non-Hollywood presence. Sam Neal may only ever really play one character, but at least he does it well. The supporting players didn’t really rise above though, the villain of the week was particularly bland.

I think what JJ Abrams has done is not re-created what he did with Lost, but instead what he did with Fringe, and I mean that in both a good and bad way. Alcatraz, like Fringe, has a good foundation to build on – elements like actors, character breakdowns, mystery and episodic set up that can come together to form a really solid and interesting series. Unfortunately, just like Fringe, I think it’s got off to a really poor start with a pilot singularly lacking in any spark that makes me want to come back. The fact that I will give it a few more episodes is solely down to the fact that I fell for that misdirection with Fringe and it took me years to realise what I was missing. I don’t want to fall into the same trap with Alcatraz.

Alcatraz will be shown on Watch in the UK from March

Other reviews – I always read the other reviews after writing my own, at which point I realised that Alcatraz actually aired the first two episodes back to back as a pilot, but I’d only watched the first. I couldn’t be bothered to re-write the review, so my stuff may not tally with the reviews below.

CliqueClack – It looked captivating, unique, mysterious and … interesting. Sadly, it is none of those things to me after seeing the 2-hour premiere.

TV Fanatic
Alcatraz hits on all the key elements that make a show great and, while not as serialized as many of J.J. Abrams other shows (Lost, Alias), it does contain plenty of factors that make the series more than just hunting down criminals each week. Fox has another winner on its hands and I’m looking forward to seeing where this show takes its characters and the fascinating mystery that surrounds them.

Borgen: Pilot Review

I’m not too proud to admit, that ordinarily on realising that something has subtitles, I wouldn’t even bother reading a description, let alone be so excited about it that I await its arrival date with poorly concealed glee. But thanks to being persuaded to watch Forbrydelsen (The Killing) by the popular press and some friends and realising just how good it was, when it was announced that the same team was bringing a political drama to BBC4 I pounced on it.

I had high hopes. Based on The Killing I was expecting an extremely slick and expensive looking production, a complex storyline elegantly told, and a fascinating bunch of realistic characters that were so well acted it didn’t matter in the slightest they were talking a foreign language. My expectations were high, and yet I was still completely blown away by the first two episodes of Borgen.

At the centre of both the show and my positivity is Birgitte, the female leader of the moderate party who is suddenly thrown to the forefront of politics when the major parties unravel. Birgitte is wonderful – she’s passionate about the issues, fed up with negative politics and driven to make things better. She’s also human though, very ambitious but aware that she is somewhat out of her depth.

Contrasting her with the rest of the politicians and spin-doctors around her, you can see why the Danish voters would turn to her. The mostly, but not exclusively, male politicians of the major and minor parties are varying degrees of slimy unpleasantness. Only the elder statesmen – her deputy and the leader of a far right party, show the faintest hints of humanity, the younger ones are all mostly pretty hateful.

Also milling about is a news team, poking about and making life difficult for all parties. I suspect the question of whether they are friend or foe to the politicians will be one of the key themes of the series, not least because it’s quickly revealed that bright, young news anchor Katrine is having an affair with the existing Prime Minister’s spin doctor… who then drops dead two days before the election. I found this particular storyline and how it played out over the first couple of episodes rather cliché, but even so I have to praise the actress playing Katrine for an amazing performance as she deals with the fall out.

So there’s well over a dozen characters and some fairly complex relationships and politics interacting. But Birgitte is a shining light in the middle. She’s charming and funny, driven but insecure, a completely real human being. I want to be her when I grow up. Particularly because in addition to her own talents, she has a wonderful husband and surprisingly nice children. The family relationship is so utterly brilliant I fell in love with them almost immediately. Every scene with them features hilarious bickering and mocking, but with such an underlying warmth and support that I just wanted them to be happy.

I really can offer no higher praise for these introductory episodes than to say they reminded me of The West Wing. The series has that similar combination of politics which I don’t have to understand to find interesting, and characters that you can immediately connect with. By the end of the first episode I was so caught up in it that I actually shed a little tear at Birgitte’s success. I’m utterly hooked, and off to spend some time on Wikipedia learning all about Danish politics.

Borgen is on BBC4 Saturday 9-11, and is available on iPlayer

Other reviews
The Guardian – Borgen should appeal to everyone to be honest. It’s a fantastically compelling and intricate drama about politics, gender, change and (mainly) power.
The Guardian also has a dedicated blog analysing the show.

The Huffington Post – Borgen doesn’t stand out with the same stark bleakness as The Killing, but the characters are as well-formed, with enough desires and flaws to keep us happy for another eight episodes, or until the next Danish thriller comes along like a bus.

The Telegraph – Similarly to The Killing, Borgen boasted quietly clever characterisation, punchy dialogue and addictive pace. It was as adept at portraying a bitchy TV newsroom or spin doctors’ messy private lives as it was the politics.

New Girl: Pilot Review

I don’t often watch comedies, ‘cos usually I don’t find them funny. I decided to give New Girl (no The) a chance because it’s apparently hilarious and the best comedy of the season. It’s also got Zooey Deschanel who I find intriguing because she’s got giant eyes and is the sister of the woman from Bones. Here, have a trailer, although it’s basically the first 2/3 of the pilot edited into 160 seconds so maybe skip it if you’re allergic to spoilers.

The pilot episode wasn’t horrible and while I didn’t laugh out loud, I did smile several times and there were even a couple of those little sort of snorty chuckle things. Unfortunately there were also a fair number of embarrassed cringes and more than one moment that nearly had me reaching for the off button. It didn’t get off to a strong start with a hideously clumsy collection of bits of exposition, and a theme song that I think was trying for ironic, but just ended up being jaw droppingly horrific.

The four main characters all fall onto the sitcom idiot spectrum. Zooey Deschanel is perfectly cast as the sweet but dippy eponymous heroine, unfortunately she was just slightly too annoying and un-self-aware and I spent most of the episode wanting to smother her with a pillow. Nick is the nice one, not particularly remarkable except for the fact that compared to his housemates, the caricature physical trainer and the obnoxious show-off, he’s a bright ray of sunshine. The only thing that gives a tiny bit of hope is that they do occasionally call each other out for their dumb behaviour, indicating some small shred of humanity.

Overall, not awful by any stretch. The moments of humour outnumbered the moments of pain, but not by a great deal. However as most comedies make me want to poke my eyes out, this is high praise. I may even try out the second episode.

New Girl is on Channel 4 Fridays 8.30pm, and is available on 4OD

Other reviews
The Guardian – Approach with an open mind though and it’s a show you might end up liking. Unlike most of the new batch of misfiring US sitcoms it’s a comedy that knows what it wants to do with its characters, has uniformly strong performances and a consistent writing ethic. Yes, it can get twee but it knows what it’s doing. Give it a shot.

CliqueClack – It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I expected. Jess’ lilt? Lo and behold, used to good effect. Her dorky intonations? Not so dorkified after all. Her odd facial expressions? Surprisingly and recurrently funny.