Beauty and the Beast: Pilot Review

Re-imagining the fairy tale, whereby Beauty is a New York cop investigating (amongst other things) the murder of her mother a decade ago, Beast is a doctor who enlisted after his brothers died in the World Trade Centre, and was turned into a supersoldier with anger management issues. He saved her the night of her mother’s murder, and they’re reunited a decade later.

According to the people that vote for the People’s Choice Awards in America, Beauty and the Beast is their favourite new TV drama series this year. I know it’s not been a great year for drama (Nashville is the only pilot I’ve seen so far that I think is actually good), but this does not bode well for the 2012/13 season or for the sanity of the voters for the People’s Choice Awards. I guess Beauty and the Beast is better than Arrow, but then that’s really not particularly hard. The lead actors are slightly more charismatic than the plank of wood starring in Arrow, they can’t act any better but they at least have a passing familiarity with human emotions and it’s possible there’s a sense of humour in that might manage to struggle out in a few episodes time. The director/network also somehow resisted the temptation to have their leading man take his shirt off every 5 minutes, although maybe that’s not a mark in the show’s favour.

One of the big similarities with Arrow is that while that was a low budget Batman, this is a low budget Incredible Hulk – “You wouldn’t like him if he got angry” and all that malarkey. The connection to the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast is so peripheral that it’s barely worth the effort. The beast here is ‘cursed’ by the military rather than a witch or whatever, but that’s the only real link. The Beast in the fairy tale looked like a beast all the time, not someone who changed back and forth. This beast is a model with a scar on his cheek, then he morphs into a model with some tiny prosthetic cheek bones. It’s hilariously un-beastly.

This show looks set to be a New York set police drama, with a slightly odd sidekick and a shady conspiracy theory over the top. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but nothing in the pilot gave me any sense that the show could do it convincingly. It seems to be trying to emulate Bones, or Castle with it’s quirky cases (next week’s is about ballerinas!), but those shows are held together by charismatic actors and well written scripts, this one doesn’t compare well. The two leads felt too young and too shallow, more drawn towards brooding and ‘love at first sight’ inevitability than any depth of character. The script meanwhile relied on chunky exposition and that most dreaded of fallbacks – a narration. The point where Beauty started talking to her dead mother via letter writing was the moment I truly gave up on the show.

The whole thing just felt flimsy, insubstantial, and cheap – a relatively unknown cast (the only name of note is Kristin Kreuk, Lana Lang from Smallville), blatantly not being filmed in New York (although it’s Toronto, not Vancouver as I guessed) and make-up effects more minimal than even Star Trek’s wrinkly foreheads. The inevitability of Beauty and Beast falling in love (despite a complete lack of real chemistry) and the way it endlessly tries to imitate other, much better shows, just makes it all rather dull. If this is the people’s choice for best new drama this year, I’m dreading watching the rest of the pilots I have waiting for me.

Beauty and the Beast airs on Watch on Tuesday nights, and has been picked up for a full season by The CW.

Other reviews – Beauty and the Beast is such a fundamental failure that its badness isn’t even FUN to watch. It’s so bad it’s bad. It was a waste of my time and if you watched it, it was a waste of yours.

Hollywood Reporter: That is either awesome or messed up, or awesomely messed up. Because The CW doesn’t even get it. If the network got it, someone would have said, “Hey, guys, this is ridiculous even by our standards. You know that, right?”

TV Fanatic: Vincent Keller, “The Beast,” is part of an experimental military genetics program? And he’s a scientific genius? AND he’s hot 99% of the time except when his adrenaline kicks in? Yup, it’s a CW show through and through. As long as you’re aware of that tuning in, I see only good things in your future.


Utopia: Pilot Review

Every year I try to watch more British TV, but recent offerings of anything other than light comedy/drama for a Sunday evening have been extremely disappointing. Last year’s BBC spy drama Hunted failed to really catch the imagination and I’ve not even bothered writing reviews for some of the other offerings such as the borderline ridiculous Ripper Street. Finally however, Channel 4 have brought something interesting to the table.

Utopia is about a small group of ‘normal’ people who find themselves thrown together and deeply embroiled in what’s looking to be a giant international conspiracy of some sort. So far, so standard, but the hook here is that there’s a graphic novel called Utopia which may hold the clue to the whole thing, there’s a pair of very bad guys who certainly seem to think it does. The gradual revealing of the storyline is well paced through the first episode, which at an hour and a half (including adverts) is just long enough to get you completely engrossed, but not so long as to overload you with information that you get lost in.

The show is incredibly well shot. The colours and lighting are vibrant and there’s some beautiful use of slow motion and creative framing that makes the whole thing just fascinating to watch. Balancing that thoughtful direction though is some brutal violence, made all the more effective by the extraordinary casualness of it. The quirkiness of the bad guys contrasts very well against the normalness of everyone else.

By making the show about regular people, it’s instantly more approachable than Hunted, and by only giving us the briefest of introductions to them before chaos unravels it gives us a chance to get to know them organically. I didn’t recognise a single cast member, which mean there’s no inherited expectations which is very refreshing. They all do an excellent job reflecting the disbelief at the circumstances they find themselves in, but also finding moments of humour and lightness.

It’s a six episode series, and I’m not sure whether the intention is for it to be a one off or an ongoing programme, and I love not knowing that! The pilot episode kept me completely riveted throughout, it’s fresh and original and felt like exactly what I’d been waiting for from British TV. It’s not trying to emulate successful series from America or trying to piggy back on successful shows from other channels, it’s just doing its own thing and it’s absolutely fascinating. I would warn that there are scenes that are very violent and not for the squeamish, but even if you have to close your eyes and hide behind a cushion for those bits (they’re well telegraphed) you can still enjoy and appreciate the rest of the show

Utopia is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays and is available on 4OD

The Guardian has an episode by episode analysis and review (mild spoilers): Utopia, written by Dennis Kelly, is a work of brilliant imagination, a murky labyrinth of a conspiracy thriller that traps you from the opening scene

Den of Geek (spoiler free): Kelly’s agile script steers between moments of thriller-style tension, knockabout sex comedy and, towards the end, a violent scene so brutal I felt (rightly, I should say) nauseated watching it.

Telegraph (spoilers): Still, if this first episode was allusive to a fault, and rather self-consciously provocative, it was also gripping stuff.

Mr Selfridge: Pilot Review

In the wonderful world of media, sometimes two groups hit upon the same idea at the same time – it’s how you end up with Studio 60 and 30 Rock premiering the same year, or films about asteroids, Truman Capote or volcanoes coming along in pairs. This season it would seem the fates aligned to give British TV two shows about the early days of department stores. BBC got there first with The Paradise, which was so ridiculously awful that the bar seemed low enough for Mr Selfridge to just step over it. Instead it flubbed the whole thing, shambled straight into the bar and went ass over teakettle right over it.

I’m afraid the blame for this fairly solidly with Mr Selfridge himself, as played by Jeremy Piven. He delivers a sequence of preposterous speeches with over-the-top gestures and endless dramatic sweeping exits. I think there’s fairly equal blame here for both the writers and Piven himself, the dialogue is terrible, but the performance raises it to new levels of suckiness. On a second viewing I saw a bit more of what the aim was – to show Mr Selfridge as a ringmaster, putting on a show for everyone that’s watching, even his wife. There’s the briefest flash of the real man when he talks to his mother, but even that is played very heavy handed. Piven fails to really develop any depth to the character, it’s a performance completely without subtlety and moved rapidly from curious, to irritating, landing on downright annoying before the first ad break.

The other big problem with Mr Selfridge is just how similar it is to The Paradise, and it’s not as if those plots were particularly original the first time round. I sighed out loud at the introduction of yet another lowly shop girl who instinctively ‘gets’ what the entrepreneur is doing, flouting all that’s established and ‘correct’ about the way things should be done. There’s also an abundance of tedious batting of eyelids from some manipulative females, tutting “it will never do” outrage by the bucket load and the usual scallywag of a waiter flirting with everyone in sight. Their acting is right up there with Piven’s, actors can’t really be held responsible for terrible dialogue I guess, but the overacted mannerisms, terrible accents and rigid body language are entirely theirs. I didn’t find any of the main characters particularly interesting, the only people that actually interested me were a couple that were barely on screen for a minute – a very nervous head of women’s fashion, and a perky wannabe actress working as a lift girl.

The nuts and bolts of the production are solid enough. The period setting is beautiful, the shop floor an impressive set and every costume and hair style carefully crafted. The music is also fun, and although the directing tricks of using fast and slow motion and composite montages didn’t necessarily work for me, I was at least grateful for the creativity. If only the writers and casting agents had done a better job.

I don’t know whether I’d be more forgiving if I hadn’t seen a couple of episodes of The Paradise, or Downton Abbey for that matter. The Guardian ran a piece comparing the two that makes me wonder if the author actually watched either. While Downton has its flaws they are mostly around plot and occasionally ridiculous dialogue, they are forgivable because the show is entertaining and the cast absolutely superb. Mr Selfridge lacks the self-awareness and any real humour (except for a notable high point with a French man and a sprinkler system). Maybe the series will lighten up as it goes on and maybe the actors will settle into their roles, but it’s off to a pretty poor start.

Mr Selfridge is on ITV on Sunday nights, and you can catch up via the itvPlayer

Last Tango in Halifax and The Secret of Crickley Hall – Pilots

I’d not had a great day and I retreated to bed with my laptop to catch up on a couple of new BBC series thanks to the power of the almighty iPlayer. Miraculously, this turned out to be the perfect cure for my bad mood!

First up was Last Tango in Halifax. This is an easy going six-part series which is well and truly embedded in the ‘comfortable’ zone of watching. Celia and Alan were almost sweethearts at school, but it didn’t work out. They both lived their lives and raised a family, now 60 years later they reconnect via facebook and rather nervously arrange to have coffee. Each of their daughters are meanwhile having their own problems with their families.

There’s nothing stressful about Last Tango in Halifax, it’s easy going, amiable, sweet, funny and just utterly lovely. Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi are perfect as people who have plenty of experience of life, but are also adorably nervous about a first date. Sarah Lancashire and Nicola Walker are equally great as women living very different lives, but each just trying to make the best of everything. The whole thing is full of an easy going humour and charm that made me completely fall in love with it.

After that success I wasn’t optimistic that my luck would hold for the second new series of the evening, The Secret of Crickley Hall. Mother of three, Eve Caleigh, nods off while her son Cam is playing in a park, she wakes up and he’s gone. 11 months later, Cam is still missing and the family relocates to try and escape the pressure of the upcoming anniversary. Unfortunately they pick Crickley Hall, a house with a disturbing history, gradually revealed through flashbacks to 1943 when it was an orphanage with a very strict master. The history carries through to the present and the Caleigh family start experiencing Weird Stuff.

This is a shorter series, just 3 episodes, and is moving along a lot faster, well paced so that the tension is gradually built up, but doesn’t become unbearable. The Caleigh family is extremely likeable and believable, both in how they’re dealing with the grief of their missing son and how they approach the weird events of the house. Suranne Jones (the Tardis!) Eve believes that she has a psychic connection with her son which gets a little wishy-washy, but it’s well balanced by the way the rest of the family treat her – they don’t necessarily believe her, but they are complete supportive. Maisie Williams as the older daughter steals every scene that she’s in, much as she does as Arya in Game of Thrones. It’s impossible not to like this family, they’re smart and funny, tightly knit without being saccharine and they’re really doing their best to get through the terrible uncertainty and grief.

The period elements aren’t quite as strong. Douglas Henshall and Sarah Smart are stuck with some pretty hammy dialogue and they come rather too close to pantomime villains. Similarly Olivia Cooke as Nancy Linnet, the young teacher worried for the safety of the pupils comes across as a rather too perfect rescuer. But balanced by the extremely ‘real’ feeling modern sections, the flashbacks aren’t too bad. The whole thing combines into a sort of easy-going creepiness that might make you jump a couple of times and keeps you paying attention, but isn’t going to keep you up at nights.

Last Tango in Halifax is on Tuesdays and The Secret of Crickley Hall is on Sundays and both are available on iPlayer.

Other Reviews:
The Telegraph on Last Tango in Halifax – The ways in which this story of late love might have gone wrong were numerous, but with the help of beautifully nuanced performances from her cast, Wainwright steered an entertaining course between the Scylla of sentimental regret and the Charybdis of patronising caricature.

The Independent – [Last Tango in Halifax] triumphed because it wasn’t about old people or even elderly romance, but love. This (sentimental) 30-year-old loved every minute.

The Telegraph on The Secret of Crickley Hall – It all clipped along quite watchably, but – unpardonably for the horror genre – with no sickening sense of jeopardy or threat.

Den of Geek – The Secret of Crickley Hall is entertaining and involving stuff. Nancy and the Caleighs are such sympathetic leads that the horrors of Crickley Hall have a satisfying heft of consequence.

Nashville: Pilot Review

Two country music stars at opposite ends of the their careers are thrown together.

There are three stars in this show – Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and the music. I adore Connie Britton, and she is the heart and soul of the show, the most believable and the most likeable of the characters. Without the humour and the passion she brings to the role, Rayna could easily be something of a spoilt rich girl, whining about the fact that her star is waning and unable to accept that times have moved on. But Britton plays Rayna as a woman who’s just trying to do the best she can for her dreams, her family and her friends and she does so with humour, warmth and passion.

Hayden Pannetier is the other side of the coin though. Her character is mostly a manipulative, unpleasant little bitch. Where Rayna is talent and hard work, Juliette is manufactured and demanding. She uses flirts and sleeps with who she needs to get where she wants. There are only the briefest flashes that there’s something more to her (a difficult mother and a genuine emotional connection to certain songs), but the character herself brushes those aside. It’s not Panettiere’s performance, she’s actually surprisingly good in the role, but the character is an unlikeable cow, and without a realistic and strong character to balance Britton’s, the show won’t work.

The other thing that just didn’t work for me unfortunately the music. I have pretty eclectic taste but I struggle with country music, it seems to only have two extremes, whiney, or overwhelming ‘yeeha’ enthusiasm. The songs in this episode did little to alleviate me of this opinion, and rather than the musical numbers being high points for the energy of the show, they left me cold. The fact that T-Bone Burnett is responsible for the music suggests that it’s probably pretty good, just not my thing.

Surrounding those three stars are a cluster of supporting characters and plots which didn’t really jump off the screen. I really struggled to distinguish between Rayna’s husband, guitarist and producer for most of the episode, although on a second viewing it was easier and they were far more interesting, the chemistry between Rayna and the guitarist/former boyfriend was particularly intriguing. There’s a subplot involving politics that I was frankly bored with before it started not least because Rayna’s father who engineered that plot is a completely over-the-top cliché of a wealthy Southern businessman, using money and threats to control everyone around him. Similarly the story about a love triangle of young singer/song writers practically wrote itself.

I’m a bit on the fence about this show. I’m not a fan of country music, but there is something interesting there about how the music business is changing and how that effects the lives of the people within it. But the second half of the pilot was overwhelmed with the political storyline and the family feud elements and that was a lot less original. The characters that feel real were interesting, but that only accounts for about half the cast; the others were bordering on pantomime villains at time.

I will watch this show for a few more episodes, largely on the strength of Connie Britton’s performance. There were some flashes in the pilot of a nice sense of humour behind the writing, just little asides and remarks that acknowledge the ridiculousness of some of the situations and characters. A bit more of that, a bit less of the hammy characters, and this might turn into something fun. Even if it is about country music.

Nashville is “coming early 2013” to the UK

Other Reviews
Huffington Post: Perhaps “Nashville’s” most surprising accomplishment is that it sort of invents its own genre: It’s a high-class entertainment that takes its locale and its characters seriously and treats the audience to some enjoyable music along the way

CliqueClack: ABC’S ‘Nashville’ is a solid show with a great lead performance by Connie Britton. Whether you are a fan of country music or not, if you like soaps that aren’t too campy, you should give this a try come Fall.

Last Resort – Pilot Review

Everything’s getting a bit tense in Washington, and a submarine commander is ordered to launch his nuclear missiles at Pakistan. The commander asks for confirmation of the orders and his submarine is fired upon by his own side. The submarine limps to a Polynesian Island which they promptly invade and take over the UN listening post. They declare any attempt to take the island will cause them to launch their nukes.

This one caught my eye early on because it’s created by Shawn Ryan who’s made and worked on some great shows over the last decade or so – The Shield, The Unit, Terriers, Lie to Me. Then there’s that fantastic set up (although the horrible pun in the title is a bit unforgivable), the sort of thing that just doesn’t appear on television. It’s got a load of really fascinating elements that it can play with:

  • Military life on a submarine – all the usual potential to be had from ranks and pecking orders, life and death moments in the midst of tedium and routine. But on a claustrophobic submarine. And there’s women on board!
  • International politics – the politics behind a decision to actually use nuclear weapons are epic, the fallout (pardon the pun) is equally epic.
  • Renegade submarine – how does the American government and military deal with the fact they’ve lost control of their submarine? How does it negotiate or steal it back? How does that message play out publicly?
  • Life on the island – there will be plenty of local issues going on before all this started and now that the submariners have effectively invaded, how is any of that going to work?
  • Given all that great potential then, it’s a real shame that what they’ve produced is just plain rubbish.

    At first I thought it might just be a problem with the pilot. So often I find myself wishing that two-part pilots were more common and this is a key example of a show that needs it. There just wasn’t enough time taken to show the status quo before throwing it into chaos. Without understanding the political situations properly, there was no context to any of the decisions. It didn’t seem like there was sufficient justification for anyone’s actions – either the government calling for the nuclear strike, the captain not immediately following orders, or for the military disavowing him just for asking a question. Everyone just came across as making some of the most important decisions in recent history on a complete and utter whim.

    If the plot was rushed, the characters even more so. They’re a regular who’s who of cliché for this kind of scenario. The firm but fair captain, beloved by his crew; the young energetic XO considering taking a desk job to be with his new wife; the grizzled old by the book Chief; the Admiral’s kid who everyone thinks only got the position because of daddy; the female officer challenging the status quo. Just to cut down the headcount a bit they combine the last two into one role, and frankly given how weak she seemed, I’m on the side of those that think she doesn’t belong there. And those are just on the boat, there’s still a random group of special ops people, the Nato observation people and the islanders to deal with as well. Oh, and all the people back in the US. Good grief, it’s not surprising that there’s no time for any depth with any of them.

    I watched the second episode to see if they settled down a bit. It didn’t. It continued to be rubbish. Rather than spend some time explaining events and bedding everything in, the writers instead went with a throwaway plot that either went nowhere or set up a whole other superpower as a player in the wider political storylines. Meanwhile the characters continued to make insane leaps, dragging everyone further and further into insanity. I just spent the whole time wanting them to stop and explain, and frankly me wanting MORE exposition is a rather odd experience.

    The show that I saw in the first two episodes – I don’t want to watch. It’s a thinly veiled excuse to combine running and shooting with lots of shots of submarines, missiles and a beautiful island location. I think there is still potential that a great show may develop somewhere along the lines, it’s entirely possible that the first episodes were just poor, maybe the writers (or the network) were afraid that too much talk and plot would scare people away; that what they needed to get the ratings in was non-stop action and shouting. Maybe everything will settle down and it will start telling the interesting stories that I described at the start of the review. But until someone tells me that’s arrived, I won’t be watching any more.

    Last Resort is on Sky 1 on Tuesdays.

    Other reviews – as per usual, everyone disagrees with me.
    Huffington Post – “Last Resort” is one of the new season’s riskiest dramas, but it’s also, in my opinion, the best one
    TV Addict – The action kicks off fast and furious… which is both a good and bad thing as we’re introduced to a literal boatload of characters and their issues in no time.
    Guardian – The first episode more than lived up to expectations with some tense claustrophobic photography and fast-paced action; until the last five minutes, when I had a horrible sense that the whole show was about to go seriously pear-shaped.

    Chicago Fire: Pilot Review

    The lives of the occupants of a Chicago Firehouse, including fireman, paramedics and something called a rescue squad whose purpose I’m unclear on, but seems very dramatic.

    That’s a great trailer, not because it necessarily makes you want to watch Chicago Fire, but because it’s absolutely spot on for what the pilot of the series is. For a start it’s got the entire plot from the first scene to the last boiled down to the key moments, all the pilot does is extend each meaningful look, extend the action sequences and briefly introduce a few more secondary characters each with their own identifying characteristic (the gay one, the one with money troubles, the old one, the new one, the one with the terrible moustache).

    What’s both impressive and unfortunate though is that the tone of the episode is exactly the same as the trailer. That level of intensity works well in a 3 minute trailer, but when it’s drawn out over an hour it rather left me wanting to give everyone a valium and suggest taking up mediation. Every line is delivered like it’s the end of the world and the trophy for delivering the most clichés is what will save you from damnation. During the fires and accidents that the crews attend when it is actually life and death that works ok, but gets a bit tiresome when everyone continues in that tone while eating dinner, arranging to go out for drinks or standing half naked in a locker room. Every statement is loaded with testosterone, emotional back story and an overwhelming sense of responsibility which quickly made its way through tiresome towards faintly hilarious.

    There are a few other problems, not least for a UK audience (or at least for me) it’s a bit confusing what the structures and responsibilities are, which makes it rather hard to understand some of the conflicts. I’m also a bit unsettled by all the firefighters being men and all the women being paramedics but I’m not gonna go too nuts about that.

    So given that, why am I going to keep watching? I don’t really know, maybe it’s just that I love shows about the emergency services having been practically raised on Casualty, London’s Burning and The Bill. The fire sequences were extremely well done, and other than the stupid mistake in the flashback rescue at the start, the characters all come across as extremely competent professionally even if they’re a bit of a mess in their personal lives. Based on the pedigree of the cast involved (Jesse Spencer from House, Taylor Kinney of Trauma, Monica Raymond from Lie to Me) I think they can all deliver good and interesting performances (although Spencer’s American accent remains unproven).

    I will be sticking with it for a few more episodes, but I have to say that the whole thing just really made me miss Trauma, the San Francisco paramedic series that failed to make it beyond a first season despite me thinking it was excellent. Trauma managed to create intensity and convey the life-and-death situations without the melodrama. I think if Chicago Fire can just calm down a bit, lighten up the dialogue and let the actors become more relaxed in their characters, Chicago Fire may turn into something quite watchable.

    Chicago Fire is on Sky Living on Wednesdays, repeated Sunday and Tuesdays from the look of it.

    Other Reviews
    TV Fanatic – The fire fighting and the rescues are the greatest strength of the show. The scenes are full of adrenaline and heart-pounding action, and this is part of the something that Chicago Fire does possess. No matter how lacking some of the characters are at this junction

    Yahoo! TV – The “Chicago Fire” series premiere was missing something that’s difficult to pin down, but it was likely linked to tons of stories and subplots crammed into a single episode. The show has promise, but it needs to take breather.

    Zap 2 it Fighting fires is an inherently exciting profession, so there’s no shortage of drama to mine. But the show has the potential to quickly go wrong if it focuses too much on the relationship drama and not enough on the fires.