Masters of Sex and Breathless: Pilot Reviews

The problem with being behind on my reviewing is that by the time I catch up, all the other reviewers out there have used up the obvious comparisons. So it’s not really terribly imaginative of me to lump together Breathless and Masters of Sex under the same review because they’re both set in the 60s, both are about a gynaecologist/obstetrician and both could easily be labelled “Mad Men wannabes”.

I should probably start off by saying that trying to be a new Mad Men is neither easy, nor necessarily something that should be attempted. I am beginning to think that Mad Men may have been one long con, roping people in with hype and production values, stringing them along with a couple of moments of near perfection but actually really being quite boring stories focussing on an unpleasant and likely character. Trying to emulate that seems both undesirable and difficult. I fell for it once, but I’m not gonna repeat my mistake. Well, probably not anyway.

breathlessI’ll do the simple review first. Breathless is the UK offering, from the all-over-the shop ITV, who last year swerved from the god awful Mr Selfridge to the absolutely stunning Broadchurch. Breathless is set in a hospital in the 60’s and follows Jack Davenport’s supposedly charming obstetrician as he saves lives, sleazes over nurses and performs illegal abortions on the side.

I lasted about 20 minutes before I realised that even for a dedicated television reviewer, life is too short to watch something this bad.

The concept is poor, the plot is terrible, the characters unpleasant, the acting ropey, the dialogue abysmal and the only thing that I didn’t hate were the period costumes and buses. I love Jack Davenport, he was the best thing in Smash by a country mile. But he really needs to fire his agent and start reading the scripts before he signs up for things. Maybe he had a big tax bill to pay or something, because he certainly doesn’t seem to actually be putting the slightest bit of effort into the performance. Other actors meanwhile are hamming it up for all they’re worth and coming perilously close to being in a Carry On film! The 20 minutes I sat through was a hodge-podge of styles, attitudes and direction that impressively still didn’t manage to find anything interesting or entertaining.

masters_of_sexMasters of Sex is a bit more complicated. I did make it all the way through the first episode, but the longer I’ve thought about it, the more remarkable that fact becomes. Again we’re in a hospital in the 60’s, this time telling the true story of a brilliant fertility expert who takes an interest in the biology and medicine of sex. Working with his inexperienced (at least in terms of science) assistant they apparently go on to revolutionise the field through their innovative and distinctly X-rated methods.

The Mad Men similarities go beyond just the period setting, most notably in the lead male character. Michael Sheen is a superb actor, and I think he’s actually pretty good in this, but his character is a hateful man hiding under a veneer of charm and an excuse of “well it’s the way of the times”. As with Don Draper he may appear pleasant enough, even heroic at times, but in his deception, manipulation and bullying of his wife and colleagues, he is an unpleasant person to spend time with. As with Mad Men, it’s the female characters who have more potential, but in the pilot at least they are given the sort of two dimensional treatment that leaves me not optimistic for the rest of the series.

There were certainly elements of the story that I found interesting, but after 10 minutes on wikipedia not only was my curiosity sated, but thanks to the ‘spoilers’ I knew I didn’t want to watch the rest of the series. I realise that if you’re basing it on real life yo can’t change the facts just because it makes a more interesting story, but I’ve got no particular desire to watch the predictable route the story and characters will take.

Maybe my responses are just post-Mad Men cynicism and I’m not giving the shows a fair shake to make or avoid mistakes on their own. But life’s too short to watch frustrating or unpleasant shows just because the stars all deserve better.

Masters of Sex is on Channel 4 and available on 4OD, Breathless is on ITV and available on itvplayer

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Sleepy Hollow: Pilot Review

Ichabod Crane died during the civil war, succumbing to wounds caused by a mysterious figure on horseback whose head Crane detached. A couple of centuries later he wakes up in modern day America, in a small town which appears to have a problem with a headless guy on a horse murdering local residents. Crane partners up with a local cop to work out what’s going, while engaging in familiar buddy cop tropes.

This is a relatively high profile new series, which had already received some strong reviews and after airing just 3 episodes it’s not only been picked up for the full season, but renewed for a second! But despite all that I wasn’t particularly excited by the idea of this going in. The cast was completely unknown to me and the blurb just sounded quite tired, I felt I could probably map out most of the series’ plot and jokes without any particular thought.

After watching it, I can’t say I’d count myself as that much more enthusiastic, but I have to acknowledge that it’s a very solid offering. The plot remains as predictable as expected with the predictable jokes from the man out of time about the number of Starbucks, women wearing trousers, the emancipation of slaves and confused looks about just about everything. The mythical elements trundled along like a rerun of an episode of Buffy or Supernatural and the police elements plodded on like… well I can’t actually think what it was specifically like, but it certainly felt very familiar. In fact it’s just one of those shows that feels endlessly familiar, even if you can’t quite place your finger on what exactly it is that’s triggering that.

BUT I actually kind of enjoyed the pilot. While the unknown-ness of the cast doesn’t help generate buzz for the show, it did mean that they were very fresh. I liked them. They didn’t do anything particularly astonishing or anything, but they managed to give some heart and soul to the characters, and immediately established an entertaining partnership. They’d certainly benefit from some stronger supporting characters (the endlessly shouty and disapproving Captain can feel free to go away), but as a leading team, these two have potential.

Overall, the pilot was nothing special beyond the fact that it didn’t fall over its own feet, a rarer achievement than we might hope. Having dropped Once Upon a Time from my watch list, this might actually fill the “amiable entertainment” slot. This strikes me as the kind of show that thanks to its relatively low ambition, actually has the potential to be pleasingly successful.

The Blacklist: Pilot Review

Red Reddington is a fixer for criminals – he knows everyone and everything and has just turned himself into the FBI. But he’ll only talk to Agent Elizabeth Keen, who is about to have a very interesting first day at work.

This was one of the most intriguing trailers and proposals of the upfronts and I’m very happy to see that the pilot not only lived up to the promise of the trailer, but actually exceeded it.

What isn’t really surprising is that James Spader is terrific. He always manages to bring something unexpected to characters and Red is no different. The character/actor is never anything other than completely in control of the situation, even when handcuffed in a cage. What could have turned into a comedy super-villain in lesser hands becomes an intriguing multi-faceted character from the very first scene when he shows a tiny sliver of nervousness at walking into the hands of the police. His dry delivery manages to both lighten the tone and make you see the truth of a situation all at the same.

What was slightly more surprising is that relative unknown Megan Boone is every bit his equal. She gets plenty to do in the pilot and nails quiet and loud emotional moments, but also convincingly puts on the brave and stern FBI face when needed. I actually genuinely liked her character.

The trailer I linked to above is not the main one that NBC put out, which I avoided because it gave away pretty much the whole pilot in 4 minutes. Half of the joy of the show was being unaware of the zigs and zags that were coming. It’s a bit like a roller-coaster – nothing is truly surprising, you know there are twists and turns coming, but the first ride is always the best. I was really impressed at the way a number of questions are introduced, but it didn’t feel manipulative, “we can string you along forever because you have to know the answer to these mysteries.” It all felt quite organic.

It’s pretty early going, but being objective (and trying to look past my Joss Whedon obsession) this is going to take some beating as my favourite pilot of the year. It did everything it needed to do – introduced interesting characters, gave a good indication of what we can expect week-to-week and got me hooked on some interesting larger mysteries to run over the season(s), all while having some fun and action along the way. Fingers crossed it keeps it up.

The Blacklist airs on Sky Living on Friday nights and is available on Sky Go. It has been picked up for a full first season.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

If you haven’t seen The Avengers or any of the other Marvel films – SHIELD is a secret organisation which protects the world from scary stuff. Agent Coulson leads a team of misfits investigating the weird and wonderful to see if they’re dealing with superheroes, or supervillains. If you’ve seen The Avengers… Coulson lives!

Believe it or not, I do actually attempt to be fair and open minded when I watch and review television series. Although I would never claim to be dispassionate about my loves and hates, I do at least try to approach each show and each review with a clinical analysis, working out what I liked and didn’t like, what I respected and appreciated and what I just didn’t get on with and trying to explain those feelings to you, dear reader, to allow you to conclude whether you should or shouldn’t watch the show.

I can’t do that for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I tried. I tried to watch the pilot without succumbing to fangirl glee everytime Coulson appeared, or everytime a character uttered a line of pure Whedon dialogue. But I couldn’t. I don’t actually care whether you watch this show or not, because I love it so much that if you are not sold on it simply by watching the trailer, simply by the phrase “Coulson lives and he has his own television show” then I kind of don’t care what you think.

I adored the pilot. It was everything that Whedon does best. This is a show entirely built around what Whedon has always done – making heroes out of utterly normal people. And he does it how he’s always done it, putting together an ensemble of weird but utterly believable characters, giving them dialogue that jumps off the screen, zigging and zagging the plot in comfortably unpredictable ways and bringing it all together with ruthless efficiency to make all that completely comprehendable in just 45 minutes, without losing sight of style or humour.

If I were to try really hard I could hunt out a few faults. Agent Ward is a bit too straight laced, the speech at the end is maybe a little too topical and obvious (although that doesn’t change the fact it’s true) and the music is a little too “hoorah!”. It’s also possible that the final scene of the pilot is actually the moment the show jumps the shark. Oh and the title is a mouthful to say and even worse to type. But I don’t care.

I love this show. But I love everything Whedon does and says. I love that Clark Gregg (who I have loved since he saved the day on Sports Night and was Agent Casper on The West Wing) must be wondering when he’s going to wake up having gone from a tiny throwaway role in Iron Man to being dead, to being the biggest television star of the new season. I love that Channel 4 is airing it just 3 days after it airs in the states. I love that the first show of the new season I got to see was something with so much heart and so much humour that I feel optimistic for the rest of the schedule around it.

If I’m wrong… I just don’t care.

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.

Amazon Original Comedies – Pilots

Amazon are making a move into television production, with plans to distribute the series via Lovefilm in the UK. They offered up half a dozen kids shows and eight comedies and commissions for series will be based on audience ratings and feedback (I think you can watch the pilots even without a Lovefilm subscription). I took a poke through their offerings a month or so ago, but between upfronts and laziness didn’t get round to posting my thoughts until now. While I wasn’t really blown away by any of them and there was a resounding aura of cheapness to many of the productions, I did at least find the concepts more original than the endless offerings of family and friend based sitcoms that American networks normally offer up. Two series have been picked up so far, while two have been rejected. Deadline seem to be keeping track.

Alpha HouseAlpha House – What a great concept, four senators sharing a house in Washington while they’re away from their constituencies. I’ve said before with the whole expenses scandal over second homes there was potential for a show (maybe even a fly on the wall reality show) with politicians living in halls of residences. There’s a great cast too, when I started hearing about Amazon original developments I never thought I’d see John Goodman in one. Unlike most of the other offerings, this one really actually feels like a professional production which could just as easily be on network television. Bits of it aren’t to my taste (the sleazy young senator, the tiresome gay jokes), but I laughed enough at other bits of it that I’d actually consider watching this.
With the names and the quality behind this, it’s not a big surprise that Amazon have picked this series up for next year.

betasBetas – Given the success of The Big Bang Theory I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been a deluge of geek based sitcoms. Unfortunately Betas is not a great advertisement for the genre. The central concept is solid and a couple of the characters are interesting, but those factors are completely overwhelmed by dialogue and characters that leave me wanting to crawl away from my own eyeballs. I didn’t laugh a single time and it made me sad.
Amazon disagree with me, Betas has been picked up to series.

browsersBrowsers – I physically flinched away from the screen as the episode started and revealed itself to be a musical. Not a great start, but I’ve watched and loved Glee and Smash (although note the past tense), maybe it can pull it off. Ten minutes later I gave up. It’s not the music that’s the biggest problem (although it’s not great) it’s that overwhelming irritation of the characters. Maybe if I’d watched it before Betas I wouldn’t have hit my threshold and would have made it through, but I very much doubt it.
Public opinion and Amazon agreed with me and have passed on the series.

darkminionsDark Minions – Another fun concept that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Star Wars and wondered what the stormtroopers in the background are saying, but I gave up on this one after less than five minutes. The pilot isn’t helped out by only being part finished (it will be stop motion in the end, but large chunks are just storybooked at the moment), but that doesn’t cover for the fact the dialogue isn’t funny, the delivery is awkward and the story all just rather tedious.

onionnewsOnion News Empire – another professional looking offering, and with the name of The Onion attached and stars such as Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) and William Sadler (The Shawshank Redemption) it’s another one that could easily be pitched on major channels. Unfortunately the pilot just felt really tired, all the jokes are obvious, all the satire is cheap and it’s just painful and dull.

supanaturalSupanatural – the title and description pretty much cover it. “Oh hell no! Two outspoken divas are humanity’s last line of defence against the supernatural.” Another one that made it less than 5 minutes before its mind blowingly annoying dialogue and unappealing animation drove me away. Oh hell no indeed.

thosewhocantThose Who Can’t – Hey, look teachers are just as screwed up, rude and stupid as everyone else who populate sitcoms. I guess it’s like The Office set in a school, but I didn’t watch The Office because I just find this kind of comedy depressing and this one was the same. My internet connection was flaking out during this one and when I realised that instead of being frustrated I was actually grateful every time the buffering symbol appeared, I gave up.

zombielandZombieland – I loved the film, found it quirky, original and a very nice piece of comedy horror. That’s good news and bad news for the television version though, because while the writing does a pretty good job replicating the tone of the film, the cast and production just felt like cheap knock-offs. The decision to use the same characters left me unable to see anything other than Not-Jesse Eisenberg and Not-Woody Harrellson. The actors were doing a fair enough job, it’s not their fault, it just felt too much like an impression. Still I did laugh and it’s certainly different, so if I’d suggest giving it a try and hoping that you’ don’t have the same problem as I did.
Amazon have passed on picking the series up. The creator has been quite public grumbling that he didn’t understand why Zombieland fans hated it.