2012-2013 Freshman Class

2012_2013I tried out pilots for 32 new shows this year, 9 British, 1 French and 23 American. I tried to get through all the pilots for the major dramas from network and cable in the US, and did a better job hunting out British shows this year. I covered the British stuff in my yearly round-up, so here’s the summary of the American shows.

US Shows I stuck with (8/23)
americansThe Americans – Homeland LIte. easily the best new show of the year, and one of top three most enjoyable shows of the year.
Chicago Fire – Rescue Me Lite. I’m ashamed, but I somehow watched 20 odd episodes of this mediocre soap opera about fireman. I have no justification really, it was just mindless entertainment.
Defiance – Farscape Lite. Yay, aliens! It all got a bit wibbly at the end for my tastes, but I’m so happy to see ‘proper’ science fiction that I don’t care.
The Following – really rather rubbish, but also thoroughly entertaining, carried along by enthusiastic actors and relentless pacing.
HannibalHannibal – Criminal Minds Heavy. I was dubious from the very start, but I gave it the whole season to fill in the plot holes and reveal its true intelligence. It didn’t. It just got stuper.
House of Cards – West Wing Heavy. One of the three best shows of the year. Smart, stylish and absolutely gripping from start to finish.
Nashville – Glee Heavy. More cheesy fun, with country music and superb performances from the two leading ladies.
Vegas – CSI/Mad Men Lite.Yet more cheesy fun. Mostly I liked the actors and the period setting, the plots were all a bit meh, but I was disappointed that it was cancelled.

So, just like last year, I picked up 8 new shows. But actually of those eight, I only watched Hannibal to confirm it was rubbish and although I’d watch more Vegas, it was cancelled. So that’s 6 successes. Even in that 6 Nashville, Chicago Fire and The Following are far more on the guilty end of pleasure.

US Shows I might’ve stuck with if not cancelled
666parkavenue666 Park Avenue – American Horror Story Lite. It wasn’t awful, and I may have watched more, but it was cancelled before I got to it.
Made in Jersey – The Good Wife Lite. This was pretty cheesy and overdone in places, but I felt oddly warmed by it. But it was cancelled before I even got to it so I didn’t bother watching more.
Red Widow – Weeds Heavy. That’s another slightly harsh label but I have a joke I’m running with. Another show I might have given a longer run if it hadn’t been cancelled. Interesting set up and charismatic actors.

I can’t say I was devastated that any of these were cancelled, they just weren’t anywhere near as awful as the following section of the list.

US Shows I Didn’t Stick with (15/23)
arrowArrow – Batman Lite, without the talent of Nolan writing and directing or Christian Bale staring. Terrible.
Banshee – Fight Club Lite. I gave this a couple of episodes, but I found myself actually repulsed by the violence. I don’t inherently object to violence on screen, but here it felt entirely unnecessary and the lack of reaction to it from the apparently ‘normal’ people made me depressed.
Beauty and the Beast – Incredible Hulk Lite. flimsy, insubstantial, and cheap
cultCult – Lost Lite. A complicated interweaving plot, but I nothing in the pilot gave me confidence the writers could pull it off.
Do No Harm – Jeckyl and Hyde Lite. Actually its was just Jeckyl and Hyde and it was all over the place.
Elementary – Sherlock Lite. Probably the biggest success of the year, the pilot was ok, but I just couldn’t get over the fact I’d rather be watching Sherlock.
Emily Owens, MD – Grey’s Anatomy Lite. Terrible voiceover, weak characters, predictable plot.
Last Resort – Oh, I actually have no comparison for this one! The first original one on the list… and it was absolutely awful. Plot was rushed and characters were clichéd. I gave the second episode a chance to level it out, it didn’t. I left.
Low Winter Sun – The Shield Lite. I haven’t reviewed this yet (only watched it yesterday) but I was astronomically bored.
mobdoctorThe Mob Doctor – The Sopranos/Grey’s Anatomy Lite. A soulless show constructed by bolting two things together. It wasn’t even a very solid construction, full of stupid plots and dull characters.
Ray Donovan – The Sopranos Lite? Too many unpleasant people.
Under the Dome – I can’t actually think of a comparison for this one either, but that doesn’t make it original, I just can’t think of anything. I just found it dull. And ridiculous.
Zero Hour – DaVinci Code Lite. I couldn’t actually bring myself to finish watching the pilot. It was that tiresome.

I don’t think it was a great year for new series. As you can see from my attempt at humour, every show can be linked to another one on the air without too much of a stretch and for the most part they just came off as cheap knockoffs. Elementary was a weaker version of Sherlock, Arrow was Batman with youth, 666 Park Avenue was American Horror Story meets Supernatural, and then you’ve got three medical shows chasing Grey’s Anatomy and a legal one chasing The Good Wife. There are a couple of examples of hybrid ideas, or of shows actually adding additional depth to an existing idea, but they’re pretty few and far between.

vegasMind you, there was a bit of an under-representation of the usually popular genre of police procedurals. Vegas was pretty much the only one and did an amiable enough job with it, but in the land of CBS, even being the top rated new show of the year doesn’t save you from being axed.

Having made that complaint though, the shows that actually had something original going for them made something of a hash of it. The Last Resort, Cult, Zero Hour and Under the Dome had terrible pilots, each of which I struggled to sit through.

Looking Forward
2013_2014I don’t actually remember being particularly excited going into the 2012-13 year. There were a few things I was curious about and a few actors I was excited to see again, but nothing seemed especially buzz worthy. 2013-14 is a bit different though, there were a number of things at the upfronts that grabbed me and a few trailers that surprised me.

Interesting ideas but could still suckHostages, Tomorrow People, Intelligence, Sleepy Hollow, Wayward Pines, Resurrection, Crisis
I’ll give it a try because of the castRake (Greg Kinnear), Crazy Ones (Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar), Legends (Sean Bean), True Detective (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson)
Actually pretty excitingAlmost Human, Blacklist, Masters of Sex
In a category all by itself – Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the name is troubling. Other than that… I couldn’t be much more excited if I tried.

Catching up on pilot reviews

As it comes to the end of the televisual year, I realised there were a fair few pilots that I’d not written reviews for. The ones I’ve managed to catch up on in the last couple of weeks all have one thing in common – all the shows have been cancelled. So really, there’s no winning here, either they’re rubbish and no fun to watch, or they’re great but doomed, so sad to watch. Fortunately, most of them ended up in the former category, so the only loss was my time.

666 Park Avenue666parkavenue
A young couple move into a luxurious New York apartment building as the new resident managers. But the building’s owners have some creepy hold over the tenants, manipulating them to do their will and gifting them with supernatural rewards in return.
This felt rather like ‘American Horror Story Lite’, trying to play up the creepy elements, but only really succeeding in coming across as rather camp and cheesy. The plot also looked as if it were going to play out rather like a Supernatural episode each week (or stretched over multiple weeks), which made it rather predictable and tired for anyone who’s been watching that series for the last 8 years. The cast is likeable and high name enough – with Terry O’Quinn (Lost) and Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) hamming it up and Dave Annable (Brothers and Sisters) and Rachael Taylor (Um.. Charlie’s Angels?) playing it straight. It’s not terrible, and I might actually have given it a few more episodes as a change from ‘yet another procedural’, but it was cancelled after 7 episodes, by which time its ratings had dropped from 9 million to 5 million viewers (wikipedia).

Cult
cultIt’s a show in a show! The television show Cult has a rabid following of fans, and some of them seem to be investing way too much in the show, looking for mysteries and conspiracies. But when weird stuff starts happening in real life is it just constructed paranoia, or is the show’s mysterious creator actually up to something.
The concept is certainly original and intriguing, but I can’t quite decide whether this show was too smart for its own good, or was just a thin veneer of cool over a shallow emptiness. Every line of dialogue is doom laden, and every scene is so packed full of potential clues that you could easily follow the crazy fans down the rabbit hole, but I’ve got no confidence you’d find anything there. I do wonder how many viewers it lost within the first three minutes when it started with an extended scene from the show within the show, distinguishable from reality (or at least the next level of reality up) mostly by its stunningly poor production values.
I suspect Cult fell between two stands, it wasn’t good enough to obsess over and it was too detailed to just watch casually. While I was intrigued by the idea, I didn’t really enjoy watching the episode. I’m not sure whether I would have stuck it out if it hadn’t been cancelled, but it never mustered more than 860,000 viewers, which dropped to just over 500,000 by episode 6 (wikipedia), which is terrible even for The CW, so I don’t have to make that decision .

Red Widow
redwidowMarta seems like a nice lady. Unfortunately for her, her kids have problems, her father is a Russian mobster and her husband is a drug runner who’s just got caught up in a really bad deal. The title kind of gives away the fact that things aren’t going to go well for hubby, and before you know it, Marta’s caught up in the life she never wanted to be part of.
I was rather surprised at how much I enjoyed the pilot. The cast are all interesting to watch, no one too familiar but no one too inexperienced either, all playing their roles with an unexpected depth and subtlety. The family dynamics all have a lot of potential as well, the shared secrets that no one talks about and the bubbling anger from the more innocent parties that they’ve been dragged into this situation. The plot I’m less sure about, it plays a little too close to Weeds or Breaking Bad, and there’s that familiar sense of dread that everything is only ever going to get worse, making it hard to want to watch. It seems this show was a bit doomed from the start, it debuted at an odd time of the year and only 8 episodes were commissioned. The ratings dropped off pretty fast and it wasn’t so much cancelled as just quietly put down (wikipedia). If it managed to avoid becoming too depressing, this might actually have been interesting.

Zero Hour
zerohourI have to be honest and confess that I didn’t watch this all the way through. I was continually interrupted while watching it, and when it came to restart for the third time I just couldn’t face it. This show was terrible! It opens with a flashback to Nazi Germany, where some extremely cheap actors deliver doom laden dialogue in a cheap period setting. Then we jump forward to present day and after a quick (although it felt interminable) scene showing us how very much in love Mark Green (sorry, Hank Galliston played by Anthony Edwards who deserves so much better since he left ER) with his wife we’re launched into a DaVinci Code esque romp with kidnappings, over-the-top villains, be-suited FBI, conspiracy theories and a deeply irritating ticking clock motif. It’s just bad. The plot is uninteresting and unoriginal, the script is terrible and most of the acting is phoned in. The idea of sitting through the pilot, let alone a whole series filled me with apathy. The American viewers agreed, it was cancelled after just three episodes and apparently holds the record “lowest rated in-season debut for a scripted show ever on [ABC]” (wikipedia).

The Mob Doctor
mobdoctorGrace is a kick-ass surgeon who owes a debt to the mob.
It’s not a particularly complicated set-up and it’s not a particularly complicated show. Neither is it a particularly well put together one, the only real depth to either the characters or plot are the holes in them and while it wasn’t offensively awful or anything, it just felt very constructed and soul-less. It may have got better, but there really wasn’t anything in the pilot that made me want to watch more of it and apparently the rest of the audience felt the same. It debuted with mediocre ratings, lost about a third of them by the second episode was cancelled by the eighth (wikipedia).

Made in Jersey
madeinjerseyMartina Garretti is a a ‘normal’ girl from New Jersey, the first of her family to go to college and she’s made it to a top flight New York law firm where she confounds everyone’s expectations.
It’s a pretty tired concept, but then the reason it’s so familiar is that it does actually work, everyone loves routing for an underdog and there’s immense satisfaction in not only seeing her succeed, but also in seeing those around her supporting and respecting her, even those who were initially prejudiced against her. Unfortunately the extremes she contends with are rather overplayed, the New Jersey-ness of her family was too shriek and big haired, and the bitchiness of her snobby female colleague was a bit tiresome. But in between the two extremes are some potentially more nuanced and fun characters. I was all prepared to roll my eyes at this, but I found myself really quite charmed by it, particularly by lead Janet Montgomery. The plot isn’t up to the quality of The Good Wife, but there was something really pleasing about seeing a lawyer adjusting her own clothes rather than just turning up in knock out suits. Sadly though it was the season record holder for least number of episodes, cancelled after just 2 (wikipedia).

Revolution: Pilot Review

One day, sometime now-ish, everything switched off. 15 years later everything’s gone back to pretty much the dark ages, but one family may hold the knowledge of not just why it all switched off, but how to switch it on again.

I managed to miss this series the first time it was broadcast in the UK and had to wait for the repeat to come around, so despite being heavily promoted, I’ve only just seen the pilot. I think maybe if I’d seen it at the start of the season before becoming a little warn down with the year’s mediocre offerings, I would have had a more positive response to it. Unfortunately, I didn’t.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with it really, possibly nothing, but I just didn’t care about anyone. There’s something odd with the structure and casting that felt a little bit like a bait and switch. We start initially in the present (ish) day with some recognisable television staples (Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost and Tim Guinnee who has guest starred in just about everything out there). But within 5 minutes we’re jumping 15 years and instead following a couple of teenagers. God save me from television shows with teenagers. The girl fills the traditional role of whining about how unfair everything is, and then immediately has everything get REALLY unfair. So now we’re off on a quest and it’s all a bit My First Adventure – Go to Uncle Miles, he’ll help you save your brother, oh and protect the magic doodad. It’s IMPORTANT. Yeah yeah yeah.

The pilot moved extremely quickly, and maybe that was why I felt un-engaged. It’s hard to really appreciate the life changing situations if you’re never really allowed to spend any time understanding any situation. Loyalties seem to change just as quickly, and every time someone turned out to be something more than they’d appeared I stopped paying attention a bit more. The pilot also fails to really tell you what the series will be like, it moves from place to place and gives no indication of whether that will continue or whether there will be some kind of base.

The characters and actors are all trying a bit too hard. Most of them are very ernest and verging on the sanctimonious with some terrible dialogue. There are a couple of brighter points, the militia captain (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) and the drunken uncle are complex, entertaining and appear to be similar characters on opposite sides, which is always interesting. The former Google millionaire now pining for toilet roll brought some much needed lightness and humanity to the piece and has the potential to be an interesting character beyond just comic relief. If only the series doesn’t get bogged down in the angsty teenager with a crush on the enemy saga, they might be able to do something interesting.

I didn’t hate the pilot, I was just epically underwhelmed. I’d hoped and expected something a bit more original from Eric Kripke who created one of my favourite shows of recent years – Supernatural (although it’s gone downhill since he left). I’m not actually ruling out watching the rest of the season, but it’s largely apathy driven rather than enthusiasm driven. Ironically, while I may have liked the pilot more if I’d come to it fresh and less jaded by the rest of the pretty disappointing season, I may end up watching the series just because there’s not much on at the moment. Not exactly overwhelming enthusiasm, but it’s better than nothing.

Under the Dome: Pilot Review

The town of Chester’s Mill is your average American town, local sheriffs, small town politics, troubled teenagers and a passing hit-man. Then an invisible, impenetrable force field appears around the town, completely cutting them off from the rest of the world.

I’d been looking forward to this show for a while. I like this kind of setup, taking a ‘normal’ group of people and putting them in exceptional circumstances. It’s an opportunity to explore characters and relationships, to show that regardless of circumstances there’s no such thing as normal. The show also has the bonus of a couple of big hitters backing it – Steven Spielberg is an exec producer and is joined by Stephen King on who’s novel it’s based (and who will apparently be writing the first episode of the second season).

What a shame then that my enthusiasm and optimism came to a crashing reality within 30 seconds of the start of the show. The pilot opens with a shot of a dome, but it pans out to show it is in fact an egg. A baby bird pushes its way through as the camera pans up to show another bird flying overhead. First problem, it’s hardly the most creative or original way to introduce the series – yeah we get it, breaking free, flying free blah blah blah. The bigger problem however was that the people who made the animatronic and cgi birds had clearly been shut in a basement too long and only really had birds described to them second hand. They were the most hilariously naff things I’ve seen in ages!

That pretty much set the tone for the show with my housemates and I. It was now a series to be mocked and analysed for flaws, not one to be enjoyed. We discussed everything from whether the half cow was anatomically correct, to doing estimates of how long the oxygen would last and whether the methane from the cows would combust. Our discussion lasted well beyond the end of the episode and was far more entertaining than anything on the screen.

Nothing about the show is credible. The characters are a collection of clichés and not very interesting ones at that. Teenagers dreaming of escaping small town life, the mysterious stranger just passing through but getting caught up in everything, the overly keen reporter, overly protective lesbian mums and their attitude consumed daughter, the sinister politician, the steadfast sheriff and his youthful deputy. There’s no one outstanding in either the characters of the cast and everyone was just tedious.

Other than its ability to prompt an interesting scientific discussion, there was absolutely nothing of value in this show. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t tense, it wasn’t scary and it sure as anything wasn’t entertaining. I won’t be back.

Pilot Reviews: Do No Harm and Emily Owens, MD

I’m bundling together a couple of pilot reviews because the two shows have three things in common – they’re both set in hospitals, they were both cancelled within the first few episodes and neither is worth spending an entire review on.

Do No Harm is the more serious of the two, but that’s not saying much. It’s a high-concept show (i.e. you can sum it up in a sentence) – take the story of Jeckyll and Hyde and set it in a modern hospital. So Jeckyll is now Dr Jason Cole, a top flight neurosurgeon, but at 8.25 each night, for 12 hours, he turns into Ian Price a modern-day-monster. Thus far he’s been keeping his evil alter-ego sedated an explaining away his absences as a ‘blood sugar problem’. But now the sedation isn’t working and his alter-ego is really mad at him and out to cause chaos.

I can’t decide whether the concept itself is too stupid to make a workable show, or if it would have worked in more capable hands. Either way, what we have here is just resoundingly ‘meh’. The biggest issue is that it felt cheap. The sets, the types of actor and the setups all felt like they should be located on one of the cheaper cable channels, but even those channels manage to find charismatic actors and have some fun. Here the lead actor never quite felt at home as Jeckyl, and while he was more charismatic as Hyde, that character didn’t felt a bit too much like a comic book villain, there was a lot of talk about how awful he was, but the evidence was all a bit tame.

Tonally I think the show was a bit confused, not sure whether to take the Supernatural kind of route and be a bit tongue in cheek, or take a more gritty look at the devastation that this schizophrenia-esque condition causes. I can’t understand how this ever made it to air, and the audiences apparently agreed – not only was it the “lowest-rated in-season premiere of any any 4-network scripted program EVER” (TV By the Numbers) it then lost 30% of those viewers by the second episode. It never made it to a third.

Emily Owens, MD has almost the opposite problem, tonally and conceptually it knew exactly what it wanted to do and committed to it wholeheartedly; it doesn’t even take a full sentence to describe the concept of this show, just three words – Remake Grey’s Anatomy. It’s so shallow a reconstruction the producers of Grey’s Anatomy could probably form a pretty solid case for copyright infringement.

The titular character narrates the show, she’s fresh out of medical school and just starting as a surgical intern. She and her peers are back to being bottom of the pile, they’re confident but inept, their teachers are all knowing, fast talking, impatient and frustrated with the youngsters. There’s the usual mix of characters, plenty of scope for relationships and misunderstandings but under all the fumbling ineptitude and attitude, everyone is committed to saving lives and playing god. It’s all moved along with a familiar array of cases-of-the-week who deliver nice little metaphors and messages for characters and audience. How utterly tiresome.

It’s not the fault of the cast, or really even the writers, it’s just a doomed prospect. If you’re going to so blatantly try to remake a successful show, you need to be not just better, but in a different league to make people forgive you for the lack of originality. Slapping us around the face with a drawn out and shallow high school metaphor isn’t enough for us to get over the craving to just go back and watch Grey’s again. It’s a shame, because the cast deserve better – Mamie Gummer has great potential and deserves far more than having to stare into space vacantly while her voice-over fills us in on the unfairness of life or about how “carressable” the jaw is of someone who’s no McDreamy.

Emily Owens, MD was cancelled after 6 episodes after only generating an audience too low for even The CW. I guess it had slightly more potential that Do No Harm, there was a possibility of finding an audience of teenagers/early twenty-somethings who (shudder) are too young to have seen Grey’s Anatomy from the beginning, but it still seemed a bit of a lost cause. Neither The CW, nor NBC had great years last year, far more cancellations than pickups, and it’s these kind of embarrassingly fast cancellations that not only pile on the pressure for the new season, but actually scare viewers off watching anything until it’s well established. Why bother giving pilots a chance if they’re going to be this bad?

Ray Donovan: Pilot Review

Ray Donovan is a fixer for the rich and famous in LA, he spins and covers up stories they don’t want to come out and he’s pretty flexible on moral and legal lines when he does it. He’s also got problems with his family, his troubled brothers and his criminal father.

I commented on this new Showtime series when I was looking at the new and returning cable series around the upfronts in May. I said “The cast is impressive, but the trailer was a lot heavier than I was expecting and left me thinking it might be a good series, but not necessarily one I want to watch.” and I’m equal parts surprised and proud at just how accurate that statement turned out to be.

The cast is indeed impressive. Liev Schrieber (everything from Scream to the upcoming The Butler) and Jon Voight (everything from Deliverence to being Angelina Jolie’s dad) are familiar names to film buffs, Paula Malcolmson is familiar to TV fans (Deadwood, Caprica, Sons of Anarchy) and even teenage Kerris Dorsey has five years television experience from Brothers and Sisters. They all give interesting and layered performance and their characters certainly have the potential for plenty of material.

The story is likewise complicated and intriguing. Ray’s job requires him to think fast and come up with quirky and original solutions, he’s aided and confounded by his colleagues and bosses. His family life meanwhile requires him to be counsellor and cheerleader, helping one brother with the disabilities he suffered as a boxer, and the other with the long reaching effects of being molested by a priest as a child. Then there’s his father, a career criminal who Ray wants as far away from the rest of his family as possible.

It’s hard to find fault with the show, yet I didn’t like it. As I said based on the trailer, it was very heavy. Plot and characters come thick and fast and its a struggle to keep up, but by about half way through I was realising that I didn’t want to understand. Every piece of understanding just made the characters more complex and less people that I wanted to spend time with. I was glad when it was over because I just couldn’t face any more. It’s not that the characters are horrible, nor that they’re presented too much as victims, they really are interesting and complex. I just didn’t want to watch any longer.

As often happens with cable shows, I find myself writing a review that basically says – it’s good, maybe even great, but I won’t be watching. Maybe there’s a threshold factor that I can watch three of those shows but no more, or maybe I’m getting old and just don’t want to spend too much of my time on something that makes me sad. Either way, if you like and want to watch Ray Donovan, good luck to you, but I for one just can’t quite face it.

Ray Donovan airs on Sky Atlantic and has been picked up for a second season.

The Americans: Pilot Review

It’s 1981 and Phillip and Elizabeth are a suburban couple living outside Washington DC. They have 2 kids, brownies in the oven, an embarrassing fondness for line-dancing, a body in the boot of the car and have been Russian sleeper agents for 15 years. But the escalating cold war is making everything more uncertain, more complicated and more dangerous.

I’d been looking forward to this series a lot, it’s had some great press in the US where its first season has already finished and its been picked up for a second. I was a little surprised to see it on the ITV schedules and worried that maybe it wasn’t going to be as complex a show as I’d been led to believe. Once again, my prejudice against ITV was wrong and it turned out to be even better than I’d hoped.

It would have been easy to make this a cheesy Mr and Mrs Smith style action show. Or just as easily it could have been a very dry and over-wrought psychological thriller. Instead it seems to be a charming and entertaining character and history study. There’s depth, but also lightness. There were plenty of laughs to be had from the dialogue and situations but also complex moral dilemmas about patriotism, family and trust.

One of the things I was nervous about for the show was the period setting, it’s too easy for the 80s to be treated as a comedy setting with ridiculous hair, fashion, music and technology. But while everything looks ‘right’ here, it’s not overdone. The most ridiculous things are the various disguises that the spies use, there’s probably half a dozen wigs in the pilot alone. By themselves the wigs would be ridiculous, but Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) manage that difficult thing of actors playing someone pretending to be someone else. There are multiple levels of subterfuge going on all the time and yet it’s always followable because you empathise immediately with the two main characters thanks to the excellent performances from the two charismatic leads.

Although it’s apparently inspired by real events, and was created by a former CIA agent , the plot is kind of ridiculous. It also has the potential to turn into a bit of a soap opera with uncertainty around how Phillip and Elizabeth really feel about each other – they have children and have lived together 15 years, but do not appear to have intimacy and don’t even know each other’s real names. But are those feelings now changing? The pilot worked because the characters felt believable, even if the situation didn’t. If you accept that they are in this position, you can just consider the implications – their children are raised American and have no idea about mum and dad, social studies essays are going to get unpleasant.

I was utterly gripped and entertained by the double episode pilot of this series and am really fascinated to see where the next 12 episodes take us. This ranks pretty highly on my list of top pilots of the year and I really hope they can keep the quality up.

The Americans is on ITV on Saturday evenings and is available on ITV player.

Other Reviews
The Guardian – Yeah, and it works, once you’ve figured out what the hell is going on. It’s an enticing idea, and a pacy ride, like a kind of hammier Homeland
(I really have no clue how they could have struggled to follow what was going on)

The Huffington Post – If Argo gave you a yen to see great character actors wear mustard-colored clothing and play beleaguered intelligence types, you should definitely give “The Americans” a sustained try

Hannibal: Pilot Review

Based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon (most widely known for the Silence of the Lambs film) Hannibal follows the FBIs behavioural analysis team hunting serial killers by working out what makes them tick. They’re assisted by Dr Hannibal Lector. It’s Criminal Minds, they’ve just recruited one of the psychopaths without knowing it. Not a great advert for their capabilities.

The title of this blog post is “pilot review”, but that’s really not true. I would ordinarily review the first episode of a show in complete isolation, not even looking at other reviews. But this time I just couldn’t do that, because I was so very confused by the first episode that I was ashamed to write the review. Having watched the pilot a second time, and watched the second episode, AND read some comments AND talked about it with some friends… I’m still confused about the episode, but have at least come to believe that it’s not just me being astronomically stupid.

The problem is that after all those viewings and conversations, I was still confused about who killed who, why, and how. In the first episode alone, by my count there are at least four crimes. The first we see is a home invasion which is being shown to students as part of Graham’s course, but unless I missed something he never actually finishes explaining who did it and why. The other crimes all have some sort of cannibalistic element, and it’s deduced that at least one of those is a copy cat. But, again, unless I missed something, they seemed to just forget about the original crimes once the copier was apprehended. And again, I’m a bit confused about the copier’s motives, and actually got even more confused when the second episode continued to investigate that crime. Oh, and was the apparent transfer of a pair of lungs supposed to indicate the copy cat was working with the original killer, or was that just a red herring? The more I watch and the more I type, the more confused I get.

The central character is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, Black Hawk Down, King Arthur) and I’m equally confused about him. In the first episode he says he’s not an agent (implying he wouldn’t pass they psych evaluation, which seems a fair assessment), but then he carries a gun and wonders off by himself to interview a suspect (which ends predictably badly). In the second episode he says he is an agent, and a former police officer, which I really couldn’t see at all. I do like the character, and he’s certainly interesting and well played, but his back-story seems a bit all over the place.

Then we’ve got Hannibal Lector (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, A Royal Affair). He pootles about with his odd accent, weird obsessions (even before getting into the secret ones), particular clothes, downright creepy demeaner and apparent ability to hide under the nose of the FBI’s wonder-profiler. Even without being a serial killer he is too extreme a character, like a caricature psychiatrist, continually asking “what do you think it means” rather than ever answering a straight question. He added absolutely nothing to the case he was supposedly consulting on and I fail to see why the FBI keep calling him in. Meanwhile Will Graham is equally wacky, with “extreme empathy” leaving him re-enacting events in his head and being about as stable as warm jelly. While the two of them together make for an interesting mental chess game, I’m at a loss as to why anyone trying to achieve anything practical would put them in the same room together and its unfathomable that anyone would let them out into the world unsupervised.

With those two extreme characters I was actually more interested in the normal FBI agent (Lawrence Fishburne, The Matrix, CSI) and profiler (Caroline Dhavernas, Wonderfalls) who at least seemed based on some kind of realistic idea but seemed in a completely different show to the others, not least because they sadly just didn’t share enough scenes. The second episode also featured a small gaggle of agents and CSI types, but I remain unclear about who is a full time character and who’s just background noise. The Criminal Minds trope of gathering the team for briefings in planes, conference rooms and police stations is a bit trite, but at least it lets you know who the characters are and that they form a team, there’s no such sense on Hannibal.

I found the show deeply unsettling, but for all the wrong reasons (ok the mushroom people in the second episode unsettled me for the right reasons, I’m pretty hardy, but that turned even my stomach). Because the story never settled on answers and never made anything clear, I was left completely at sea, nothing to latch onto and build mysteries from. Yet having gone to great lengths to explain to you why I didn’t particularly like the first two episodes, and why I wouldn’t recommend the series to you, I am still going to keep watching the series. I realise that completely undermines my point and I can give you no good reason for my continued viewing beyond ‘inertia’ and the fact that it’s only 13 episodes long. I guess we’ll see whether things become clearer.

Banshee: Pilot Review

A man gets out of prison, immediately gets into a gun battle in the middle of New York, legs it to Banshee, a small town in Pennsylvania and finds himself assuming the identity of the new sheriff. All because he’s chasing a girl, oh and 10 million dollars worth of diamonds.

This show has a classic problem in that it doesn’t want to give away the central character’s intention. He’s a classic strong silent type, not giving much away about what he’s thinking or feeling. The facts about him seem pretty worrying, but without knowing the why it’s hard to know if there’s more to the story. Why does he take the sheriff’s identity? To win back the girl? To settle down and form a relationship with his daughter? Or just to hide from those chasing him? We see that he has a talent for forming quick relationships, sometimes friendly, oftentimes violent, he seems to take an immediate dislike to the local crime boss but is that moral indignation or just a natural reaction to the competition? With all that uncertainty the character is left as a bit of a bland fence sitter, never giving anything away to either the other characters or the audience. Quiet and mysterious is ok, but it’s also very difficult to form any kind of bond with him.

It also leaves the show floating a bit, because you just don’t know what direction it’s going to go. Shows like House of Lies and The Shield gave it all away in their pilots, giving us characters that are presenting different personas all the time but revealing to the audience where their true allegiances and feelings lie. That’s not to say their allegiances might not change over the course of the series, but at least you know what you’re starting with. In contrast something like Homeland manages to keep you guessing over and over again. Each choice led to an interesting and engaging enough pilot that I came back for more in each case, but somehow it just didn’t work so well for Banshee.

But for all the lack of interest the main character generated, almost all the supporting characters really sparkled – the off the wall computer expert that’s helping with the new identity, the ex girlfriend who’s also been living an assumed identity in Banshee, the amiable but slightly scary bartender and the crime lord separated from his Amish roots. Each is a bit of a trope, but the performances had a depth and charisma that was mostly lacking in the main character. There’s also some originality in the setting and the potential for interesting stories around the Amish community and how they do and do not integrate.

On a technical note the series is well enough put together but there’s nothing particularly outstanding there either. I could do without the cable level nudity and sex which I really didn’t think added anything to the plot, but hey ho, whatever gets them their ratings I guess. All in all, I was left feeling rather ambivalent about the whole thing, there’s nothing to hate but also nothing to love. Whether or not I watch any more will be based entirely on whether there’s anything else on… which isn’t exactly high praise, but it could be far worse.

Banshee has a 10 episode first season which airs on Sky Atlantic on Mondays and it’s already been picked up for a second season.

Huffington Post – It’s a taut, propulsive series with a distinctive atmosphere, and “Banshee” does a good job of letting the mood and visuals tell the story while keeping the plot moving briskly.

TV Addict – BANSHEE will seduce and entrance viewers as it peels back layer after layer of its percolating evil.

The Politician’s Husband: Episode 1

I love David Tennant. I love love love him as Dr Who and I loved him just earlier this week in Broadchurch. My friend Sarah possibly loves him even more and even does cultured things like seeing him in the theatre. So we both eagerly tuned in to watch The Politician’s Husband. Unfortunately being located in different cities we were unable to watch together in person, so instead co-ordinated our viewing and spent the hour text messaging (god bless unlimited text plans). At the end of the hour I concluded that our conversation would probably be as good a review as I could possible manage. How much sense it makes without watching along, but given that I’ve edited out several “lols” at things that were meant to be serious, and cut down the number of “oh ffs”, you can draw your own conclusions. In the immortal words of Sarah – “utter codswallop”. And she watched the whole series of The Paradise.

Here are some edited highlights:

S: There may be a metaphorical sex scene. I mean it’s Tennant so I didn’t look away, but still.

L: I’m really struggling to get past his accent. And hair colour.
S: It’s weird actual rp. Makes me wonder if a plot point will be that it’s not his actual accent. He doesn’t do it in the home so much.

L: Hang on! There’s Peter Manyon from The Thick of It! I love Roger Allam as much as any sane person, but seems an odd casting choice

S: I could do without damp patch in ceiling allusions too.
L: I could do without having written the rest of the series after just 5 minutes.
S: So she’s leader by end of episode?
L: I’m guessing Deputy to the slime bag ex-best friend. Taken over his [husband’s] cabinet seat by end of episode.
S: Oh and sex with betrayer dude and her asap
L: Oooo. I was close, she just got offered DWP. I’m laughing very hard at her expression.

S: Oh good grief this is terrible!

S: Ffs the shoe thing.
L: “A bit Theresa May” made me laugh though.

L: Also on a technicality – no minister caught dead in anything other than a Prius these days surely? Oh and I don’t think the other guy moving DWP to BIS is a promotion.
S: Tories now, they could have orphans pull them on sleds.

L: Even the geese are fleeing the scene!
S: We will not get repeat fees from this they say.

S: Show don’t tell not mean much to these guys.

L: Questionable blouse choice…
S: They couldn’t commit to that blouse being in 2 scenes. It changed colour.
L: What are they doing to her [Emily Watson]? Shapeless blouses, stretched buttons, too much lipstick
S: Think she’s meant to look like Yvette Cooper.

L: This would have been a lot better if he resigned at the end of the first episode and established the characters first. Now Tennant just looks weak and stupid.
S: Also boring

L: Wow Kirsty Wark is annoying even when scripted.

L: Do you think the ministerial drivers wait for you to get in and close the door behind you like parents do?
S: The light to go on inside no doubt.

S: Oh god this is shit. We don’t have to watch next one.
L: Deleting the series link…
S: That’s an hour I could have spent re-watching Castle.

The Politician’s Husband is on Thursdays on BBC and available on iPlayer

The Guardian – The Politician’s Husband isn’t subtle, sometimes to the point of crudeness… Oh, what the hell. It’s melodrama, and a lot of fun, a big boiling pot of hot, lusty power soup, with crunchy croutons of deceit and a generous sprinkling of revenge.
The Metro – The Politician’s Husband gave us an accurate portrayal of contemporary politics, where nobody believes in anything other than their own self-interest but it felt grubby, with all the emotional appeal of a spoiled ballot paper.