The Upfronts 2018 – CBS

Bye bye
I have barely heard of any of the shows cancelled by CBS this year, let alone watched them. There may be people that these shows mean the world to, but there obviously weren’t very many of them – 9JKL; Kevin Can Wait; Living Biblically; Me, Myself and I; Scorpion; Superior Donuts and Wisdom of the Crowd. Scorpion made it to 4 seasons, none of the others made it beyond 2.

See you agains soon
There are lots of shows here that I used to watch, but none of them that I still watch. I liked and enjoyed NCIS: Original and Los Angeles, but petered out a while ago, and I never bothered with New Orleans – at over 650 episodes between them, they just all got too samey. Similarly with Hawaii Five-0; all these show have really great characters and casts, but the plots themselves are utterly forgettable so it’s hard to stay engaged. Blue Bloods I gave up on after a couple of years and I don’t think I made it to the end of the first season of Madam Secretary. Bull was just too formulaic. Criminal Minds I was watching until very recently when I suddenly realised that it was rubbish – really unimaginative, awful dialogue and actors who seemed to be phoning it in; I don’t know whether that was me seeing the light, or a sudden deterioration in quality from them. The Big Bang Theory continues ever onward and I watch it occasionally but not with any level of commitment, the Young Sheldon spin off seems just as popular.

There are a few new shows that I meant to give a try, mostly due to their casts – Instinct starring Alan Cumming, SWAT with Shemar Moore and Seal Team with David Boreanaz. Now they’ve been picked up for second seasons I might actually watch them.

Hello there

Magnum PI – utterly ridiculous. There’s some charm I guess, but by the end of the trailer when he jumped onto the helicopter I just couldn’t face any more.


The neighborhood – so many many problems. The first one of which being the insane laugh track on the trailer.


Happy Together – a rockstar moves in with his accountant and his partner, who are (apparently) incredibly dull. Another awful laugh track, but at least someone was laughing.


FBI – warning – the trailer spoils the whole of the pilot episode, why do they do that? It looks as generic as its name, but it’s a good cast and Dick Wolf (Law and Order) knows how to make generic compelling.


God Friended Me – so God friends an atheist on Facebook and sends him after random people who need help. It sounds like Quantum Leap with less cross-dressing, but Brandon Micheal Hall is rather charming and maybe a bit of sappiness can work.

Also:
The Code – for which there is zero information beyond that the two lead roles were recast after the pilot. That all bodes well.
Fam – some sort of comedy about a woman’s perfect life being spoilt by a teenager half sister turning up. Diddums.
The Red Line – the story of three families’ intersecting lives following a white police man mistakenly shooting a black doctor.

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The Upfronts 2018 – ABC

That time of year again already and I failed to do these overviews in any sort of timely fashion. In the interests of speed, I’m not going to talk about cancelled or renewed shows that I have never seen.

Bye Bye
A few of abc’s long runners were retired relatively gracefully this year, although I’m not sure the word ‘graceful’ and Scandal really go together, the 7 seasons were a ridiculous ride and although I still followed it via spoilers, I gave up around season 4. Once Upon a Time also managed 7 seasons, but I only watched the first. I did enjoy it, and really loved the original concept, but I lost track of the multitude of characters and never returned. The two seasons of Designated Survivor were quite popular with a few of my friends, but despite watching the first couple of episodes twice I just couldn’t get into it.

It was another tough year for new series at abc, the only one I saw any of was Marvel’s Inhumans which had such an atrociously awful premier that it baffles me anyone dared air it, let alone the whole season of eight episodes. I had been looking forward to The Crossing, which I’d been stacking up to watch on Amazon, but given it only aired 6 episodes, I probably won’t bother.

See you again soon
Shonda Rhimes continues to rule, Grey’s Anatomy found its feat again this year and will unsurprisingly be back for a 15th season, alongside a second season of firefighter spin-off Station 19 which I really hope finds its mojo soon. I’m very happy to see Marvel’s Agents of Shield not cancelled, but with incredibly low ratings and only a shortened sixth season to air next summer, I think this may be its last. The Good Doctor is one of the big successes from the new shows and gets a second season. I watched the pilot but it just didn’t grab me.

Hello there

The Fix – Movie star aquited of murdering his wife, 8 years later his girlfriend is murdered. Did he do it? Seems to focus on the prosecution team. No one seems likeable and I just didn’t care.


Whiskey Cavalier – A pair of spies who hate each other. Blah blah blah. Scott Foley and Lauren Cohen deserve infinitely better.


The Kids are Alright – A family with 8 boys growing up in the 70s. Pretty generic and low on laughs, but Mary McCormack and Michael Cudlitz are good names.


The Rookie – A middle aged guy decides to change his life and becomes a police office in LA. What does it matter what it’s about, it’s got Nathan Fillion in it.


A Million Little Things – A group of friends dealing with life. It’s This is Us meets Friends, probably very bingeable.


Grand Hotel – Good grief. This look hideous! it lacks the necessary wit that something like Jane the Virgin had and is just utterly awful.


Single Parents – Well, on the plus side it’s an original variation on the theme of inept parenting, but I didn’t smile, let alone laugh.

The Alienist

This is very generic. Even the things about it that are shocking do so in a way that these days feels very generic. That’s probably a bit of a damning indictment of the level of sexual violence on television today make the prostitution of young boys and their murder something that’s not terribly remarkable. The beautifully created period setting adds a slight other-worldliness to everything, I was never sure whether I was watching events and characters that were realistic to the period, or if it was an anachronistic fantasy.

The plot moves at a good rate, and for me there were just the right number of twists and turns, steps forward and backwards. Similarly the various factions involve play off each other well, with the ‘heroes’ not just trying to find the bad guys, but also work around members of the police who are not moving with the times as much as anyone might like. It’s not terribly creative, but it is a very well structured story.

The generic-ness of the characters doesn’t work quite so well unfortunately, it’s all been seen before and that just makes it a bit tiresome. The somewhat clunking dialogue also doesn’t help. It’s a shame because it’s a very good cast who have all delivered very good performances elsewhere. I don’t think any of them were necessarily trying their hardest here, but the material they were working with wasn’t really giving them much opportunity.

I found this a solid way to pass a few hours in a pretty disposable kind of way.

Films in April

New releases at the cinema:
Love, Simon: At face value, this is a solid teenage coming of age/romance flick with all the extremes of characters, improbably large houses, apparent lack of actual school work and endless stream of beautiful people that you’d expect. It knows exactly what it is, and it does it extremely well. Yes, the cast are all clearly in their twenties playing teenagers, but they’re charismatic and good together. It’s completely emotionally manipulative and knows exactly what strings to pull at every point so that all the emotions of joy, sadness, frustration and anger are delivered like punches. I loved it. I loved it even more because it does all that with a gay teenager at it’s core and showing the awful additional pressure of having to come out, on top of all the usual horrors a teenager has to go through. It’s taken too long for this movie to be made, but it’s finally here and it’s a beautiful triumph.

Isle of Dogs: I was apprehensive going into this, I find Wes Anderson a bit much sometimes and from the clips I’d seen the animation looked a little hard to like. But I was wrong. I really loved the film. The level of quirkiness was amusing rather than irritating, the odd style of animation worked really well to hold the attention, and the story was both entertaining and original. The only thing I wasn’t a fan of was using a lot of big Hollywood names in the cast, which I found a little distracting and hard to engage with some of the characters rather than just thinking of them as “the one voiced by Bryan Cranston” etc. What really surprised me though was that there were so many kids in the audience and they seemed to really engage with the film, no talking or squirming and hardly any toilet breaks, which I really wasn’t expecting. Heartily recommended then for the whole family.

Ready Player One: I really loved the book, but I can’t say I remember any of the details, so I didn’t feel frustrated by any of the changes. I was excited when I heard that Steven Spielberg was making it and what has resulted is a really good, fun Spielberg film. It’s a family adventure film with bright lights, big performances, wit and excitement. I can see that some might be frustrated at the popcorn-ness of the whole thing, but I found it a really entertaining romp. I was never bored, I smiled at the references I got and didn’t notice the ones I didn’t. It’s not a work of art, but I don’t think the book was either. It does what it sets out to do and with Spielberg at the helm, it had the perfect guide.

Funny Cow: I don’t know whether I misunderstood the point of this film going on, but I was expecting the story of a woman trying to be a comic in working class northern England. It’s really really not. It’s the story of a woman growing up in that environment, with the poverty and acceptance of domestic violence. The story around her being a comic is barely there at all, there’s no sense of how she learns her trade, or develops her jokes. The inter cuts of her as a comedian in the future aren’t even showing her being actually funny for the most part. The character development are thin, the metaphors are laid on with a trowel and even though it was only 100 minutes long it felt desperately over-long. That Maxine Peake’s performance still managed to be outstanding even with that mediocre material is truly a marvel.

New for me
The Florida Project
(amazon): This film is worth watching for the visuals alone. It’s a really stunningly beautiful looking film, the vibrancy of the colours and the light of the Florida sunshine are shown off with creative framing and long lingering shots. The way the small children inhabit and completely own the large open world around them is wonderfully shown through the cinematography.
This film follows a structure that I tend to find frustrating. The first half, possibly even two thirds, doesn’t really seem to have any structure. It’s just following some characters around on a seemingly endless summer. I found this a little tedious, but I can also see that by just immersing in daily life, you get a much better sense for the situation and people than if anything was forced through narrative. By the time the plot actually reveals itself (some of the threads of which of course were laid in the first part) it feels like both a relief to finally be going somewhere and a disappointment to see the characters get thrown even more challenges, even if you don’t actually like them very much. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the ending. I see what they were trying to do, but I found it jolting and frustrating.

Detriot (amazon): While an incredibly powerful and horrific historical event, I think this was desperately let down by the choices the film makers made. At 2 hours 20 long it lacks the intensity it needed, it felt like an eternity before it actually reached the key events. I lost track of all the characters repeatedly, struggling to join them up in different sections of the film. It would have been much better to either just focus on seeing all the events through one character’s eyes, or maybe to inter-cut the timelines to spread out the different phases (set up, ‘the incident’ and the court case).

Borg vs. McEnroe (amazon): There wasn’t enough to this film to justify it really. It’s pointed out early on the contradictions in the characters and that’s basically the entire premise. It’s just not enough to keep interest over that length of film. The comparison to Hunt vs Lauda as depicted in Rush is obvious, but that film made more of the characters and had a series of ‘matches’ between them (plus, I just find Formula 1 infinitely more interesting and exciting than tennis). Borg Vs McEnroe presents only one match between them. Yes there’s the emotional build up to it which of course plays into the actual tennis, but it’s just not enough. I was utterly bored.

Brazil (amazon) : I’ve been meaning to get around to watching this film for years and years. It started off well, I was fascinated by the unique style of it and the quirkiness of the world that somehow still seemed to make internal sense. But after a while the novelty of that wore off and I just got a little bored of the actual plot.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (amazon): There are some interesting choices here and although by the end I could see why those choices were made, there were times I came very close switching it off. The story is terrifying and horrible, forcing a family to chose someone to die, or lose everyone. The problem is that all the characters are played slightly unreal. No one talks or acts like normal people. They all seem to speak incredibly openly and frankly, without real emotion. As the film goes on you see that there are things that there are things they don’t talk about, and also that there are feelings there. That contrast is very powerful, and also the un-relatability of the characters makes the film something other than the expected emotional thriller that it might otherwise be. But that cleverness doesn’t make the film any easier to watch and the uncanny-valley aspect may be a complete turnoff for some. This may be one of those films where it’s too clever for its own good.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (netflix): How did this happen? How do a huge number of people, spend a lot of time and money making a film and at no point realise that their two lead actors are horrifically miscast. I don’t think it was the actors’ faults, they seem competent enough, but they were completely wrong together and in this film. They just never seemed comfortable or really grounded in the film around them. The script they were working with was pretty rubbish too in fairness to them, not giving them much to go on to justify the apparent relationship or supposed professional experience when they’re endlessly floundering around. Really it should have been the set up that was the most unbelievable thing, but that actually worked in a bonkers kind of way, with impressive creativity, vibrancy and flavour crammed into every scene. It was certainly beautiful to look at, and there were some well done pieces (the opening handshake sequence in particular). But every time the two leads were on screen (or the OTT Clive Owen or random Rihanna for that matter) the whole thing just fell apart.

Risky Business (amazon): This is a tricky one. I mean it’s not aged hugely well and the attitude towards prostitution, particularly when it’s exploiting teenagers on both sides is pretty horrific. There’s a lot of incredibly ‘problematic’ activity. But, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. Even though it completely ignores the issues around sex trade, it does have some interesting things to say about the pressure on kids to get into good colleges, with the implication that they can screw up their whole futures just by making childish errors. It’s also entertaining and funny, largely thanks to Tom Cruise back when he was charming rather than a rather dull action hero. It’s a shame Rebecca De Mornay didn’t have quite the same charisma, although she was hamstrung by the endless flip flopping of her character and the film’s lack of investigation into her horrible situation. It’s hard to give a positive review of a film that focuses all its energy on the rich white guy who may not be able to get into Princeton rather than the teenage prostitute .

The Bodyguard (amazon): I’d really never seen The Bodyguard. I can’t say I feel that I’ve really been missing out on anything for all these years, but it was a good example of the genre. Made in 1992 it falls in that slightly odd inter-decade style, not quite big enough hair for the 80’s, but too cheesy and soft focus for the 90’s. Predictable as anything, but solidly entertaining.

Books in April

This month’s selection of books was entirely driven by the Waterstones buy-one-get-one-half-price tables, where I couldn’t limit myself to just one pair, and had to buy two pairs. I can’t lie, the shiny covers had something to do with it.

Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions
I do love a good gothic horror, and this is a very solid one. It follows the traditional constructs for the most part, fairly standard characters and ideas but very competently done. The narrative wavers a little between suggesting that it’s all in people’s heads versus truly supernatural explanations, but it was always on the boundary rather than lurching dramatically from committing one way then the other, but in the end there was a good, complete resolution that made everything clear. Really entertaining, and I look forward to more from this author.

Jessie Burton – The Muse
Like Jessie Burton’s previous work, The Miniaturist, I found this rather predictable. It was only the overall length of the book that had me looking for alternate explanations, when in fact my early guesses about several elements had been right. However I guessed because they made sense for the story, not because the character choices or transitions really joined up. I found the sections set in Spain underwhelming, with underdeveloped and annoying characters for the most part. 1960’s London was more interesting and I would have preferred to spend more time there, Odelle’s story was what really interested me, not really the story of the paintings. I did read most of the second half of the book at a pace to get through it faster.

Sarah Maria Griffin – Spare and Found Parts
This didn’t really work. I never settled into the world or the characters, nothing quite felt like it made sense. Something caused by computers has caused some sort of plague and resulted in most people needing artificial limbs? That makes no sense. The level of technology that remains is incredibly confusing (fully functioning mechanical hearts but no vehicles?) and leaves a set up that just makes no sense at all. If the story and the characters had been better then it would have been possible to ignore those problems, but they weren’t. There are some small slivers of nice ideas in there somewhere, but there just wasn’t enough.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1

I’ve been percolating this review for a while, and even a couple of months after the season finished, I’m still not entirely certain whether the show is any good, and whether I enjoyed it. It’s going to be hard to review this without spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I’m a Star Trek fan of old, but I’m not blind to the fact that previous series have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not holding Discovery to any gold standards. Star Trek has always had phases of dark and powerful drama, and phases of cringe-worthy cheesiness. I’m not sure I remember any of the previous incarnations swinging quite back and forwards as widely or as quickly as Discovery does, but I could easily be miss-remembering that.

The set up for Discovery is tricky. It’s set in the television timeline (not the alternate one the new films are in) and chronologically between Enterprise and the original series. That placement is immediately tricky because they’re constrained by existing ‘history’. Except they’re not. I never really worked out how it’s supposed to fit because it seemed to me that there technologies and events that just didn’t fit into the chronology. I did try not to get distracted by things like why the magic instant-travel thing had never been mentioned, but I found it very hard, I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time.

Beyond that, the series had a few other problems too.

Star Trek is always about characters, about a crew that’s working together to make things better. That’s Roddenberry’s vision and whether it’s realistic or not, I do believe that it’s a fundamental criteria for being a Star Trek series. The crew of Discovery struggled to jell. Just as the tone of episodes swung across the spectrum of gruesome to daft, so did the characters, each of whom was playing a different tone, making it hard for them to bond. Particularly given (VAGUE SPOILER ALERT) so many of the characters ended up being deceptive or fundamentally changing over the 14 episodes. The whole “what’s going on with Lorca” thing got a old quite quick and fundamentally left the series feeling a bit rudderless. Michael’s mixture of human and vulcan felt muddled and frankly a bit of a low budget Spock. Stamets wandered all over the place thanks to the ridiculous mushrooms. Tilly was almost exclusively played for comedy (although she did it very well) and Saru was sorely under-developed. Then there was a revolving door of other characters where I was never sure if they were supposed to be important or not, having set you up for that failure in the pilot episode.

There were moments and episodes that could easily be classic Star Trek episodes (Mudd and the timeloop was absolutely outstanding), but there were also too many episodes that left me rolling my eyes and wondering what the writers were thinking (space mushrooms? Really?!).

Fundamentally I think the series moved too quickly. Jumping to the mirror universe was done too soon, we’d barely got used to this universe. Nothing ever felt settled, so no ‘change’ ever felt earned or impactful to the audience. There was a lot of good potential here, and things could improve if the second season takes it a bit more gently, although they need a strong presence to replace the captain (Hello, to Jason Isaacs). I remain almost as mystified and intrigued about where this series is going to go as I was before it came out.

Lost in Space: Season 1

There are some concepts that just sort of stick with me, and it doesn’t matter how many times they’re done I will always tune in and be interested to see what new spin has been brought to it. Lost in Space is one of those concepts, well really it’s Swiss Family Robinson at its core, just the variation of setting it in space. There’s something about that core concept of a family of capable people pretty much on their own. I don’t even mind the film version.

I watched the whole 10 episodes on Netflix over just a couple of days. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign that it was good, I also had a jigsaw I wanted to do and it seemed to rain every time I ventured out of the house. It was a step above background entertainment, but it’s certainly not going to be winning any awards.

The biggest thing to get over is that some of the core stuff of Lost in Space was kind of ignored. Firstly, they weren’t in space at all but crash landed on a planet, and then they very quickly find a lot of people. That added some interesting dynamics, but did rather change the show. I missed the focus of just the Robinson family, Dr Smith and Major West. The larger cast just felt like it crowded things and gave too many options.

What is better handled is making the Robinson family a lot richer. They’re not the perfect family of the 60s, or even the slightly-flawed-but-not-really family of the film. There’s a lot more backstory and complexity to the relationships which makes each character stronger, more independent and more interesting. Those characters are delivered by some good casting, and the talent of the younger actors impressed me, particularly their range and ability to deliver well timed comedy alongside some subtler drama.

It’s on the cheesier end of the spectrum, for a more family audience. There are some dark things going on, but they’re skimmed over very quickly. Solutions to problems often rely on magical science and extremely timely coincidences that get a little frustrating. But the pacing of episodes and the season over all is pretty solid, certainly enough to keep me watching back to back long enough for my Netflix app to check that I was still actually alive.

It’s no great revelation of a show, but it’s good enough, and that will do quite nicely.

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