Mr Robot: Pilot Review

MrRobotIt’s easy for shows to just pass by on Amazon or Netflix; there’s no time pressure to actually watch them. Also, when they’re released in a block for binge watching you don’t get the repeated press and commentary each week for an extended period of time maintaining the buzz and reminding you that you’re missing out.

Mr Robot was a show that for a long time failed to make it onto my radar. Then it started getting nominated for and then winning awards. Proper awards that people actually care about (as much as anyone cares about awards). Do you know what the Golden Globes and Critics Choice thought was the best drama of the year? Not Game of Thrones, Mad Men, House of Cards or any of those… it was Mr Robot. So I figured I should give it a try. It still took me another few months to get round to watching it mind you, but I got there eventually.

Sadly I didn’t make it beyond the second episode. In fact I really struggled to not give up in the middle of the second episode. It’s one of those occasions where me not liking a show is probably more about me than the actual show to be honest. I just couldn’t get into it.

Most of the problem for me was the lead character and particularly the narration that allows us to really know what he’s thinking and feeling all the time. When you’re not getting on with a character, the last thig you really want is to get an even deeper insight into their head, particularly when the head in question is so deeply confused. Whether because of mental disorder(s), self-medication or just being a bit of an asshole, he’s dissociated, sanctimonious and paranoid. Rami Malek’s performance is great, but it just wasn’t much fun to spend time with the character.

Mr Robot is also one of those shows where you can see it all unravelling for the characters. Or maybe actually a better way of describing itself is it all getting tied up in a big knot. Do you do the wrong thing to do the right thing? What’s right anymore? Etc etc. I just found myself bored by it before it even got started.

It’s a good show, and I wish I liked it. It’s talking about some interesting and really current stuff, and has some great performances in it. But I just plain didn’t like watching it. I gave it two episodes, and by half way through the second I really just wanted it to stop. So I stopped it. Sometimes listening to the voice in your head *is* a good thing.


2014/15 – New Series

Another year of television drifts to a close, at least my rather arbitrary definition of ‘year’ which starts in September for my collation of American television. Based on an EXTREMELY haphazard count via wikipedia of things that look like ‘proper’ shows (seriously, that’s as specific as it gets) I’d say there were about 60 new shows lasts year. I watched 24 pilots which isn’t too shabby a ratio, particularly given I actively avoid comedies for the most part.

Jane_the_Virgin_logo (1)It didn’t feel like an exemplary year for television in general, or for new shows in particular. I guess the only notable thing was the rapid growth of the online channels and even that’s more of a continuation of a trend than a huge new development. The impressive calibre of serious dramas on both cable and online either overwhelmed or just wasn’t challenged by much in the way of fun simplicity on the main broadcast networks. In fact the only channel that really stood out was The CW where Jane the Virgin gained critical praise and awards previously unseen by the tiny little ‘teen’ network. So well done The CW for doing something different and well, while the other broadcast networks just seemed to do the same old stuff, and not really doing that great a job with it either.

Things I Watched/am watching
Agent_Carter_Series_LogoI picked up 6 new series this year, most of which I’m quite enthusiastic about and intend to stick with. The only one that I was in two minds about was cancelled anyway.

  • The Affair – the he said/she said structure of this, and the self-obsessed characters could have got tedious, but the actors carried it off. The murder-mystery flashforward story was a bit manipulative and contrived though, so hopefully the writers will go a bit easier on that in the second season.
  • Aquarius – I’m halfway through this 1960’s set detective drama based loosely around Charlie Manson. It’s David Duchovny’s dry detective who really sells this show though.
  • Jane the Virgin – quirky, fresh, charming, moving, laugh out loud funny, and utterly embracing it’s own ridiculousness. I loved this series.
  • Marvel’s Agent Carter – An absolute gem of a show that went largely unnoticed. It had great writing, a fantastic central performance and some really interesting things to say about women in the years post WW2. Absolutely brilliant.
  • Stalker – Another generic entry into the procedural pool. I watched the whole season, mostly while ironing or cooking and was utterly unbothered by the fact it was not renewed for a second season. The best thing about it was probably the quirky covers of famous songs that made even sweet ballads sound creepy as anything
  • Transparent – I was endlessly irritated by most of the characters, but Jeffrey Tambor makes the whole thing not only bearable, but funny and touching. If only season 2 could bring some redeeming features to the two younger children, I’d be even happier.

Things I watched a bit of

  • Forever – A guy who can’t die solves crimes using his centuries of knowledge and experience while hiding his immortality from almost everyone around him. I watched about half this series, mostly because Ioan Gruffudd And Judd Hirsch had a really lovely chemistry and backstory, but I just kind of faded away from watching it as the case of the week got less and less interesting. Given it was cancelled after the first season, I wasn’t the only one that lost interest it seems.
  • Madam Secretary – despite my rather apathetic review of the pilot I stuck with this for a dozen episodes or so, but it just never got better. Tea Leone was great, but the fact that every complicated international story got resolved in 44 minutes and we all slapped ourselves on the back just got too tedious. It did get renewed though.
  • Twelve Monkeys – I lasted a few episodes of this and found it quite entertaining, but after a while I got rather bored and increasingly concerned that it was just going to turn into a giant net of conspiracy theory that could just add more layers of complexity in the middle if/when the series was renewed. I just wasn’t that engaged so drifted away.

Things I might watch
wayward_pinesAll series that I just reviewed the other day and enjoyed, or found intriguing enough that I might catch-up with them.

  • Bloodlines – it has Kyle Chandler.
  • Empire – does a good job with familiar tropes
  • iZombie – entertaining and fresh, but it’s not got a UK broadcaster yet.
  • Wayward Pines – a bit slow and lacking in originality but probably sufficiently intriguing to get through the short run

Things I didn’t bother with

  • Constantine – it was… fine, but no more. It felt too close to other shows to make it really worth watching and as it wasn’t picked up for another season, I won’t bother catching up.
  • The Flash – I did watch the pilot for this, and while it wasn’t anywhere near as dire as the pilot of its sibling show Arrow, it just didn’t grab me.
  • How to Get Away with Murder – this just didn’t charm me as much as I wanted it to, it seemed to fastforward straight to the conclusion I eventually reached with Scandal in season 4 – utterly unlikable, irredeemable characters heading towards inevitable destruction.

Things I’d actively avoid

  • CSI: Cyber (imbedded pilot) – I don’t really remember much about the imbedded pilot beyond the questionable logic of the storyline so I won’t be bothering.
  • Daredevil – In a crowded genre, this was just unremarkable.
  • Gotham – the following words appeared in my review of the pilot: trite, obvious, hammy, unsettled
  • The Knick – same old hospital plots just with period costumes and a very unengaging lead actor.
  • Murder in the First – so by-the-numbers that I barely made it through the first episode.
  • NCIS: New Orleans – yeah yeah we get it New Orleans has great food, great music, great accents and… enough navy related crime to keep a series going? Really?
  • Sense8 – so very dull
  • State of Affairs – pretending to be smart while in fact being stunningly stupid.

2014-15 Pilot Roundup

I’ve had something of a blitz catching up on pilots from the 2014-15 season, just slightly in advance of the influx of 2015-16 pilots! Fortunately in the UK (I guess) there’s a bit of delay though so there should be a bit of a window.

izombieI’d been looking forward to this show from the creators of Veronica Mars, one of my favourite shows, but it hasn’t found a UK broadcaster yet. I chased up the pilot episode through slightly dubious sources just so that I could include it in my end of year round up. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s clearly a relation to Veronica Mars, sharing the same style of sarcastic voiceover and strong yet ‘human’ young woman trying to find her place. The pilot had to deliver a lot of exposition which didn’t always feel entirely natural, and I’m not sure whether having the character find peace with her situation so quickly was brilliant or limiting, but I’m pretty optimistic that the rest of the series will settle down and be thoroughly entertaining. I did like the graphical references back to the comic source as well, it gave it a nice design theme. iZombie has been renewed for a second season in the US on the CW where it fits nicely alongside the superheroes and monsters of the rest of the schedule, so here’s hoping a UK broadcaster (or Netflix or Amazon) picks it up.

constantineI know this is based on a long running popular comic book and there’s already been a film adaption, but I’ve somehow managed to pretty much avoid it. The pilot does an efficient job setting up the mythos and the characters powering through with just enough style and energy, intrigue and charm to hold my attention. The only problem really was that even without having seen any of the previous iterations, it all felt a bit ‘been there done that’, it felt a lot like Supernatural season 5 without the same heart and soul. I think it’s probably watchable and might have gone somewhere interesting, but it was not renewed for a second season. You can watch it in the UK on Amazon instant video.

State of Affairs
state_of_affairsI actually like Katherine Heigl, I know she gets a lot of stick but I generally enjoy her performances, and I enjoyed bits of her performance here. The problem wasn’t her, it was the writing which seemed to have no grounding in reality. Basing a series on the writing of the CIA’s Daily Briefing for the President is an interesting one, but not when professionalism gets swallowed up by petty personal politics. Heigl’s character is painted as a rogue in the CIA but close personal friend of the president, while those around her either blindly follow her or are completely incompetent and/or corrupt. If that’s the way the top levels of the CIA work, then the world really is doomed. I found Heigl quite watchable, particularly in the lighter moments and Alfre Woodard as the President is great, but overall it came across as dumb with delusions of thriller. It was cancelled after the thirteen episode first season.

daredevilWhat everyone is saying at the moment is “there just aren’t enough comic book superheroes on the big and small screen”. This one set in the main Marvel cinematic universe I think (it references the events of The Avengers) but aires on Netflix so is independent of SHIELD. That’s about as interesting as it gets. Daredevil is a standard non-super super hero, guy in a costume with some kind of higher mission. Basically Batman. The USP here is that Daredevil is blind and he’s able to fight incredibly well because… well I’m not entirely sure to be honest. I mean, the whole thing was perfectly fine, but there just wasn’t anything particularly great about it. It wasn’t as broody and dark as Batman, but it was nowhere near as smart or funny as Iron Man. There were no gadgets, no super powers, no whizzy special effects. Just some fighting sequences that really did nothing for me. In a crowded genre, Daredevil makes no impression. Season 1 is available on Netflix and season 2 will arrive next year sometime.

When you attach names like the Wachowskis and J Michael Straczynski to a show there are two ways things can go. Either you’re hoping for The Matrix meets Babylon 5 or you’re scared of Cloud Atlas meets Crusade. For me, it was more the latter. The pilot was a complete mess, massively over packed with characters most of whom got very little time and therefore very little depth. Most of the limited time available in the pilot was in fact completely wasted in attempting to build tension around the mystery of what was going on and how these threads were connected, but the pilot just dawdles its way towards revealing… well, absolutely nothing. That might just about work if you literally knew NOTHING about the show going in and don’t mind building the tension, but if you’ve read even the one sentence description of the show (and why would you be watching otherwise?) then all the pilot does is tell you “something odd is going on with several seemingly unconnected people”. Multiple times I found myself shouting at the screen “just get on with it!” (not least at the world’s slowest burglars). Also the choice to have all the characters speak in English when they’re spread around the world was cowardly, lazy and makes me think that the writers have little faith in their audience’s intellectual capacity if they think we can’t even manage subtitles. Oh and there was the usual unnecessarily gratuitous sex scene that did nothing other than say “woohoo, we’re not on network, we can show whatever we want, look boobies!”. Really disappointing. Mind you, my housemates really loved it and it’s been renewed for a second season on Netflix, so what do I know?

How to Get Away with Murder
howtogetawayI’m usually a big fan of Shonda Rhimes, but this one just didn’t grab me. In Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes created a set-up, characters and relationships all bigger than reality, full of complexity and shades of grey, occasionally ridiculous but generally somewhere you want to spend more time. But in How to Get Away with Murder I found all the characters irritating and most of the storyline elements tired and predictable. The trick of showing a key development in the storyline and then jumping back in time to show how they got there is potentially interesting, but also a bit risky. In this case it just sort of made me roll my eyes a bit at the thought of spending any significant amount of time watching the inevitable play out over who-knows-how-many episodes. Maybe some subtlety will emerge in future episodes, and things will go in unexpected directions, but the pilot certainly didn’t leave me wanting more. The series has however been picked up for a second season and will be showing on Universal Channel.

Another Netflix original series, another show that shows you how things are going to end and then flashes back, this time with the addition of a pretentious voice over. It’s about a family in Florida, four grown siblings and their parents all of whom have complicated relationships on top of their own issues. It reminded me most of Brothers and Sisters, although it lacks most of the lightness and a good chunk of the heart. I wasn’t really enjoying it that much by about half way through, but towards the end of the pilot I got more into it as they started to set up the stories. Unlike How to Get Away with Murder I was more intrigued by the future that we’re shown and wondering how they’d get there. I may actually watch a few more episodes of this, not least because I do rather love Kyle Chandler. Bloodlines is available on Netflix and has been renewed for a second season.

Wayward Pines
wayward_pinesJust like the Wachowskis and JMS, a series by M Night Shymalan comes with some baggage attached, is it going to be Sixth Sense or is it going to be Lady in the Water? Wayward Pines has a classic set up – a stranger arrives in an inescapable town full of seemingly happy shiny people. Why are they trapped? Who is controlling the town? Who is part of it, and who is just pretending? It’s a rather by the numbers set-up and it’s slightly lacking in charismatic characters. It is very solidly put together and sticks quite close to the classics, but that means if it’s meant to be surprising, it utterly fails. There is some element of mystery to it, I do want to know what is going on and now that the exposition of the set-up is out of the way, the rest of the series could do something interesting, but it might be a slow burn. Mind you it’s only a ten episode mini-series so it doesn’t have that much time to mess about and will actually come to a managed end, so I may well watch it through. It’s available on Amazon Prime.

empireThree very different brothers are put in competition to take over their father’s hip hop music empire, and things are further complicated by their mother finally getting out of prison and re-entering their lives after 17 years. It’s sort of like Nashville meets the Sopranos. I’ve no real interest in the type of music they’re making, but that’s part of the appeal I guess. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this show, but I found myself really drawn in. I think that’s because fundamentally when you break the show and characters down it’s a pretty traditional formula. While that means it’s not exactly original (one of the characters even references the fact it’s basically King Lear) those tropes are still used because they work well, and if you add shiny production values and a talented cast, it’s probably going to work, at least for a while. The pilot certainly worked on me and I’ll try to catch up on the series. Empire has had a bundle of critical acclaim and was renewed for a second season.

Madam Secretary: Pilot Review

Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) is a former CIA analyst who’s retired to teach at a university. When the Secretary of State is killed in a plane crash, McCord’s friend, former boss at the CIA and current president of the United States asks her to serve.

For those who aren’t American, politically geeky enough to follow how other country’s governments work or are obsessed with The West Wing I guess this show isn’t an easy sell. The Secretary of State is basically the most senior person under the president and looks after foreign affairs. They’re responsible for foreign policy, all the ambassadors (both their own and other people’s) and basically anything to do with Americans abroad or any form of relationship with other countries. It’s a big deal. John Kerry is the current Secretary, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright… big international names. I suspect it’s a close run whether more people know the name of the secretary of state or the vice president’s.

If this show had been the one I wanted to watch, I would have said at this point that if the above paragraph bored you, this wasn’t the show for you. But the bad news/good news is that the show isn’t the one I was hoping for and hence it probably has a broader audience.

Madam Secretary is a lot more accessible and hence a lot simpler than the wikipedia page I’ve just regurgitated at you. The West Wing set off at a pace and challenged you to keep up and/or just immerse yourself and learn through osmosis. Madam Secretary simplifies everything, then spells it out for you, then reiterates it just in case you were distracted by a bee. I watched three episodes and every problem that was an international crisis at the first ad break was neatly wrapped up in a bow by the time the credits rolled. We should send this woman to the Middle East and then all go home.

As I said though, it’s a good news/bad news scenario, because although I may have wanted something harder hitting, the result is an easier to watch piece of entertainment. Tea Leoni is fantastic as someone juggling a new job, office politics, a family who’ve relocated from a quiet farm to front page news. It could have been easy to turn this into something all about the fact she’s a woman, but that’s almost incidental (other than some early stuff about stylists, but I suspect a male university academic would also have had to deal with a stylist in that circumstance), which is quite refreshing. Like The Good Wife, I rather wish they’d chosen a different title as that’s really about the only comment on the fact that she’s female.

Leoni is capably supported by an excellent cast of character actors who give great hope that this could be a long running series gradually building at least an approximation of the characters and relationships that were at least 50% of The West Wing’s success. It’s just a shame that the show is missing the other powerhouse of The West Wing – Aaron Sorkin’s writing. Without that, I’m not sure the show will ever be more than an entertaining political procedural to make a nice change from the endless police procedurals. Still, a change is nice.

Jane the Virgin: Pilot Review

Jane_the_Virgin_logo (1)Jane is saving herself for marriage for various reasons including god, a terrifying grandmother, a mother who got pregnant at 16, and a heartfelt belief in romance. But then she is accidentally artificially inseminated with her boss’s sperm. Obviously.

To be honest, the accidental artificial insemination is one of the least far-fetched things in the whole of the first two episodes. The ludicrous network that’s built up between a relatively small pool of characters is truly stupendous. It is immediately clear that it’s based on a telenovela (like the one that actually appears in the show), with tenuous plots, shock reveals and manipulative cliff hangers. But those tricks keep soaps on the air for decades, and they work just as well here.

While the plots and several of the characters are ridiculous the show is completely grounded by the utterly charming Gina Rodriguez as Jane. In the face of all the insanity, she behaves exactly as you’d expect a normal person to behave. With tears, inappropriate jokes, embarrassment and a huge amount of heart. She’s the eye of the storm from which all the craziness emanates and focusses back, but she remains a point of normalcy.

I watched the first two episodes back-to-back which I think was actually a mistake, and a good indicator that this is a show best watched in small chunks. When you watch one episode the quirky narration is charming, the rollercoaster plots exhilarating and the over-the-top characters are entertaining. But despite the fact that fundamentally nothing changed for the second episode, I found the narration just frustrating in the way it dropped hints and/or restated the obvious, the larger characters were irritating, and the bouncing plot was just too much.

In moderation I think this could be a really entertaining and diverting show. It is refreshing in its enthusiasm and vibrancy, with just the right levels of comedy and melodrama to make it a guilty pleasure or comfort watch. If it settles down a bit it may have the potential to be a bit more than that and tell some original stories about colourful characters. Like a great desert though, you just have to make sure you don’t eat too much in one sitting.

The Knick: Pilot Review

Set in 1900 at The Knickerbocker Hospital in New York, medicine is pretty brutal on both the patients and the doctors. It’s a long way from ER, and yet, fundamentally still the same.

The Knick sets out its position pretty quickly, opening with a surgery on a pregnant woman, conducted in the middle of an amphitheatre full of bearded, suited men. There are the very beginnings of the sorts of things that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched modern medical shows, but the sterile environment and surgical tools leave a lot to be desired. The surgery is short but intense, the doctors’ reactions likewise.

After the incredibly tense start, the pilot settles down, and for the most part, we’re back in familiar territory for medical dramas, certainly American ones. There’s a conflict between the guardians of the money and the guardians of the medicine, a new doctor with an undesired ‘background’ arrives, a new nurse struggles to get things right, a risky and innovative new treatment is needed to save a patient and a doctor fights an addiction that he’s fallen into because he was so dedicated to his patients he neglected himself. Yes, they’re all dressed up in stunningly realised period detail, but it’s the same series we watch over and over again.

The biggest problem for me however was that I’d watched A Young Doctor’s Notebook a couple of years ago and just couldn’t shake that I’d found that show so much more engaging. In comparison to John Hamm, Clive Owen was completely flat and completely uninteresting to watch. Meanwhile none of the supporting characters quite brought the energy that Daniel Radcliff did, although the new doctor may well manage it if he doesn’t get bogged down in his main story (staying vague to avoid spoilers). The other supporting characters just kind of blended into one droning background.

The series just didn’t grab me. I didn’t find myself wanting to watch another episode. It may have worked better if the hospital was more remote, or less well funded. Yes, they’re having money issues, but they also have a generous benefactor and a lot of ‘cutting edge’ stuff going on. It all just felt a bit unremarkable.

Gotham: Pilot Review

The city is being overwhelmed by criminals. They own the police, they own the mayor and the ‘good’ people are either fighting a losing battle, or have already given in either because if you can’t beat them you might as well join them, or just to protect themselves from retribution. But this isn’t just any city, it’s the city that will one day be home to Batman. Gotham opens with Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered in front of him. Detective James Gordon, a recent transfer to the city, promises Bruce that he will find who did it, breaching both a pretty solid rule of policing and certainly a rule of Gotham. Gordon’s partner is less enthusiastic and over the course of the hour they battle each other and the various criminal elements in an attempt to solve the case.

Gotham is one of the most hotly anticipated new shows of the year, and with the recent successes of the Dark Knight and the popularity of various comic book/superhero adaptations on big and small screen, it’s a fantastic concept. Going back to the early days of Gotham, being introduced to the heroes and villains a couple of decades before they become the characters we know gives the writers a huge amount of potential, and established ideas.

It all sounds great. But I was very disappointed with the delivery. My hopes were admittedly very high but from the opening scene I was underwhelmed, and on occasion deeply disappointed. It felt like the show had been completely scripted, down to every last frame, blink and mutter and no one would deviate from that script despite the fact that it felt a million miles from the way anyone would speak or act. The introduction of Gordon as he strode through a crowded room of idiot police offers actually made me groan, it was so trite and obvious. Every word felt like a line, a cliched and hammy line at that. All the actors seemed unsettled in their roles, as if they were playing each scene from the script without knowing what their characters were really thinking or motivated. I guess we’re just not supposed to trust anyone, but I’m sure there’s a way to play that without making it seem like the character themselves doesn’t know who they are. These actors can all do better.

The nuts and bolts of it were just erratic as well, with elements working beautifully in one scene, but then poorly in another. The cinematography was mostly gorgeous, gritty and grey shots of the alleyways and rooftops of New York, I mean Gotham (Gotham with the Brooklyn Bridge admittedly). But then there were weird moments that utterly didn’t work (the running towards the camera shots particularly unpleasant).

Now that I really think about it, I’m also worried about the sustainability of the concept. After all, unless they deviate hugely from the comic series, we know the future of many of these characters. You know that when someone points a gun at Gordon’s head, he’s not going to die. That lack of real jeopardy is problematic, and you need to be completely immersed in the moment so that you can forget you know the ending. But to immerse in the moment you can’t be constantly given cameos and portentous close-ups for familiar characters. It just doesn’t work. Gotham runs the risk of turning into a fairly unremarkable police procedural/mob drama, and there’s some very high calibre competition in that field.

As with most “hotly anticipated” things, reality rarely lives up to hype, but I was really sad at how far I felt this fell from the mark. I haven’t killed the series record yet, because many of the issues with script and acting could (and should!) be just down to it being a pilot. But it’s not got off on a good foot.

Forever: Pilot Review

Henry Morgan is a medical examiner in New York who happens to be immortal. He doesn’t really know why, but when he dies, he comes back in the nearest largish body of water without any clothes. Thanks to having a few hundred years to learn stuff, he’s a font of knowledge and uses that to help the police solve crimes.

I wasn’t blown away by the pitch for this, not because it’s a bad idea, but just because it felt like it had been done before. Watching the episode I couldn’t help but pick up on bits and pieces and connect them back to other show.

At its heart this is a “cop partnered with other” show, of which I can think of a dozen or so examples (Castle, Bones, The Mentalist etc), and at least two that are a cop partnered with a medical examiner (Body of Proof, Rizzoli and Isles). The sort-of-out-of-time Englishman is all a bit Sleepy Hollow, the incredible observation skills has been done to death (Sherlock, Elementary, The Mentalist (again), Psych ) and didn’t Judd Hirsch play the same character on Numb3rs?

But a show like this ultimately lives and dies with its leading man and Ioan Gruffodd is an excellent piece of casting. He’s instantly charismatic and with the added bonus of his voiceover he completely fills the show. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen all the ideas before, because I want to see HIM do them. Sadly that does mean he rather overwhelms his female partner who feels very bland. Mind you I thought the same about Stana Katic opposite Nathan Fillion in Castle at first, and she quickly turned it around.

There are some nice moments in the pilot which gave me some optimism that the show might rise above its standard components. The relationship between Gruffodd and (the always wonderful) Hirsch is both lovely and fascinating (particularly given a very nice, understated reveal late in the episode that has massive potential for elegant storytelling and character moments). If they can maintain that level of detail and subtlety and not get completely bogged down in either mundane cases of the week, or a convoluted arc with a mysterious super-villain, then I think this show might well be a keeper.