Archive for the 'TV Reviews' Category

Doctor Who, Series 2

Doctor Who, Series 2 (9/10/15) Netflix (2005-06 ***1/2) Created by Sydney Newman, starring David Tennant, Billie Piper, Camille Coduri, Noel Clarke and Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones. 14 episodes, originally aired 12/25/05 – 6/8/06. A time-traveling alien and his companion, Rose Tyler, go about the known universe, and history, getting into trouble and doing their best to sort things out. First off, I understand that David Tennant is considered to be one of the favorite Doctors, but I felt like I had just gotten used to Christopher Eccleston in the role and it took me a few episodes to warm to Tennant, who I felt tended to over-act at the drop of a hat. I’ve heard from a number of people that the “new” Doctor Who series starts out rough but at some point the production values should start to reflect bigger budgets. I found the on-screen “values” to be widely varying over the course of the season, though there’s a general sense that they’re “doing the best they can with what money they’ve got.” I haven’t watched any of the old Tom Baker-era episodes since I was a teenager, but they evidently made an impact on me: There was something about the 4th episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” that really, really felt like an episode from the late-1970s. It had this whole “shot in the studio” vibe to it, from beginning to end. I have no idea if that was intentional or not. This second season / series also started digging into the old show in a big way, featuring appearances by K-9, The Daleks, The Cybermen and even Sarah Jane Smith, one of the Doctor’s previous companions. As I explained in my review of the first series, I started watching the show on Netflix while by wife was out of town, not sure if I would really commit to it. But I think I actually may have crossed a certain threshold fan-wise: At some point the Daleks went from being ridiculous tin cans with irritating voices to being mildly scary creatures. Does this make me a “Whovian?”

Doctor Who, Series 1

Doctor Who, Series 1 (8/31/15) Netflix (2005 ***1/4) Series created by Sydney Newman, starring Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, Camille Coduri, Noel Clarke and John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness. 13 episodes, originally aired 3/26/05 – 6/18/05. A Time Lord picks up a 19-year-old companion named Rose Tyler and takes her on a whirlwind tour of time and space, leaving a trail of dead bodies in the wake of his TARDIS. Even though my wife and I had watched the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood in its entirety, I had deliberately put off watching the parent show. But with my wife out of town on her long European holiday and having run low on things to watch, I figured: “Now’s the time.” I had heard from various friends that the “new” Doctor Who reboot (which is ten years old now) starts out very cheesy before settling into something more serious. Consequently I wasn’t entirely surprised by the flatulent extraterrestrial Slitheen family and things of that nature. I also had a memory from my teenage years of watching a handful of Tom Baker episodes of the old show, and, from what I could tell, the new incarnation had a great deal in common with it. I can see the appeal of the show. But am I down with watching another seven seasons? I don’t know. On another note: Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my inability to make even the simplest of connections, but I didn’t realize until after watching most the first season that Billie Piper (who plays Rose) also recently played Frankenstein’s third creation Lily in Penny Dreadful.

Bates Motel, Season 2

Bates Motel, Season 2 (8/29/15) Netflix (2014 **1/2) Created by Anthony Cipriano, Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, starring Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Dylan Massett, Olivia Cooke and Nestor Carbonell. 10 episodes, originally aired between 3/3/14 – 5/5/14. A mother and her troubled son try to make a go of running a motel in a small town where marijuana drives the local economy. It seems wrong somehow that a decade has passed since Freddie Highmore starred in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). He was definitely the best thing about this TV series, and if Netflix ever adds future seasons to their roster, and if I watch them, it’ll be because of Highmore and Norman Bates. I honestly got sick of the season’s major drug war storyline, which I only found mildly interesting when it included Norman, which was rare. I particularly could not have cared less about Norman’s brother Dylan, who somehow goes from drug flunky to drug boss’s right hand for no apparent reason. But back to Norman: Compared to the first season, I found the relationship between him and his mother Norma to be less complex (i.e.: interesting) this time around. Much of the joy to be found there was due to knowing how their relationship turns out, with Norma eventually becoming fodder for Norman’s adventures in the wonderful world of taxidermy.

Happyish, Season 1

Happyish, Season 1 (8/26/15) SHO (2015 ***) Created by Shalom Auslander, starring Kathryn Hahn, Steve Coogan, Carrie Preston and Bradley Whitford. 10 episodes, originally aired 4/26/15- 6/28/15. A 44-year old advertising executive spends much of his commute to and from his Woodstock home contemplating the concept of happiness. The real question this show asks its audience is this: “Even with everything we have to be thankful for, why are we still so chronically unhappy?” That is certainly a question I can relate to more than I wish were the case. There is also no small irony, especially given the show’s theme and some of its content, that the main character was originally supposed to be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who committed suicide on February 2nd, 2014 at the age of 46. Ultimately, there was much to like about this show, but given its “existential angst” premise, it comes as no surprise to me that it was canceled after one season. And seriously, how fucking hard is it to get canceled on Showtime? This show’s final legacy may be to offer examples of what it “feels like” to use well-known advertising icons like the Geico Gecko, the Keebler elves and Coca Cola in pretty subversive ways. Two final notes: (1) The show addresses the obvious comparison with Mad Men (2007-2015) in its first episode and (2) I was delighted by the Bewitched (1964-1972) reference in the fictional ad agency’s name: “McMann Godsmith & Tate.”

Aquarius, Season 1

Aquarius, Season 1 (8/23/15) NBC (2015 **1/2) Created by John McNamara, starring David Duchovny, Emma Dumont, Grey Damon and Gethin Anthony as Charles Manson. 13 episodes, originally aired 5/28/15 – 8/22/15. A Los Angeles homicide detective’s life runs parallel with and sometimes crosses that of a young Charles Manson. When I watched the final episode, I felt a certain sense of betrayal. This show was presented as a miniseries, and so I had this expectation that over the course of 13 weeks it would tell a self-contained story. Yeah, I felt like a real sap, expecting a resolution which never came. Instead, it ended (and this isn’t really giving anything away) with multiple cliffhangers, none of which it turns out I care enough about to tune in come the fall, assuming the series has been picked up. My favorite part of the show was David Duchovny; I liked his character as a middle-aged WWII veteran cop struggling to be enlightened in spite of his own built-in generational limitations. I hadn’t watched him in Californication (2007-2014), but maybe I should remedy that. BecauseAquarius is a largely fictionalized drama based loosely on a period in Manson’s life, I spent a fair amount of my time wondering how much, if any, resemblance there was between the on-screen events and historical events. There was a shocking scene late in the season that I found particularly egregious: the fictional Manson dopes his mother with LSD, then presents her for “communal enjoyment.” Did anything even close to that really happen?

True Detective, Season 2

True Detective, Season 2 (8/19/15) HBO (2015 ***) Created by Nic Pizzolatto, starring Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Kelly Reilly. 8 episodes, originally aired 6/21/15 – 8/9/15. Three police officers with several tons of psychological baggage between them team up with a mob boss on the rocks to solve a bizarre murder. In other words: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Vinci, California.” I was generally aware that this season was critically lambasted for various reasons, and so I scrambled to watch the series shortly after it had aired while doing my best to avoid spoilers. When I first heard Vince Vaughn had been cast in the second season I wondered if it indicated a significant tonal shift. But no, the dark tone of the first season carried into the second, unrelated storyline, and I personally found Vaughn’s intense, often bloody, performance to be my favorite part of the show. As for the critics, I still haven’t gone back to see what their main beefs were, though Entertainment Weekly referred to the season as “crappy.” Maybe the ultimate problem was one of variety: All the main characters were tortured souls, and for different reasons, but taken as a whole it seemed like the same repetitive chord being played on the piano.

Better Off Ted, Season 2

Better Off Ted, Season 2 (8/9/15) Netflix (2009-2010 ***) Created by Victor Fresco, starring Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett. 13 episodes, originally aired 12/8/09 – 8/24/10. Handsome, capable R&D supervisor Ted Crisp continues to do his darnedest to maintain his dignity at the evil corporate empire known as Veridian Dynamics. Like the first, the second (and final) season was pleasant and perfect for half-watching while working on art, and I didn’t notice any perceptible change in quality. The show apparently struggled to find an audience, and I’m not particularly surprised. While many viewers (like yours truly) can probably relate to the show’s corporate setting, I’m sure that much of America probably wondered “Why should I give a crap about these people?” Ultimately, the show offered some mildly clever diversions but mainly empty calories. Here are two final notes: (1) There was a clear similarity between Better Off Ted and Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoons; In one of the second season episodes, Portia de Rossi finds a cut-out Dilbert cartoon on an employees desk and makes a comment about how it satirizes her own familiar workplace environment in a relatable way. How meta! (2) One of the side-effects of binge-watching this show was that the more I watched, the more I noticed how repetitive its music was. It started to drive me a little mad, honestly, and when I’d watched the final two episodes (which had gone un-aired in the U.S.), I breathed a sign of relief.

Daredevil, Season 1

Daredevil, Season 1 (8/8/15) Netflix (2015 ***1/2) Created by Drew Goddard, based on the characters created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, starring Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Henson. 13 episodes, released en masse on 4/2/15. One half of the law team of Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson is a blind, ass-kicking vigilante, but I’m not going to tell you which half. I had heard very good things about this series since its release earlier this year, and I can attest to it being a well-made series. I must confess that among the pantheon of Marvel Comics super-heroes, Daredevil was never one of my favorites as a kid. Like many people, I had seen but largely blocked out the 2003 film starring Ben Affleck, so that didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the show. The setting of the Drew Goddard series is the gritty Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, though I’m not quite sure the neighborhood is nearly as rough in 2015 as it was back in the day. One of the tenets of good superhero storytelling is that the villain should be as interesting in or more engaging than the hero. In the case of this series, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, though never identified by that name in the show, is… well, he’s just freakin’ awesome in every scene he appears in. By the way, Daredevil‘s Kingpin is not related to and should in no way be confused with the 1996 bowling comedy by the Farrelly Brothers. Just wanted to make sure you were all clear on that point.

Better Off Ted, Season 1

Better Off Ted, Season 1 (8/1/15) Netflix (2009 ***1/4) Created by Victor Fresco, starring Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett. 13 episodes, originally aired 3/18/09 – 8/11/09. Ted Crisp, head of R&D at Veridian Dynamics, has his hands full with his mischievous daughter, ungainly subordinates and a boss who is a borderline sociopath. A friend recommended this easy-to-digest sit-com, and it made the perfect companion while I worked on an art project. Having worked in a corporate project-driven culture for the past 25 years, it was easy to relate to the sit-com’s workplace setting. The writing was consistent throughout, though never particularly brilliant. However, I did enjoy the little stock footage-based Veridian Dynamics “commercials,” each linked thematically to the episode in which they appeared. Which brings up a certain central paradox of the show: We’re supposed to care about all the central characters, and yet they have all chosen to work for a company that is… well, evil. Probably best not to think about that too much.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (7/31/15) Netflix (2015 ***1/2) Created by Michael Showalter and David Wain, starring Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd and many others. 8 episodes, released en masse on 7/31/15. This “Day 1” prequel reveals the madcap antics of those Camp Firewood kids and counselors from Wet Hot American Summer (2001). In the annals of crazy and audacious projects, this Netflix series has to rank pretty freakin’ high up. The idea of having actors, all of whom were in their late thirties at least, playing the same teenage characters they played fifteen years previously? Absolutely freakin’ nuts! But somehow they pulled it off, recapturing the same comedic tone as before. Considering the star power that some of these players (notably Bradley Cooper) had gone onto in the intervening years, it’s an absolute miracle they were able to get everyone back. I imagine there was a lot of creative scheduling to make that magic happen. As for the project itself, the “safe” thing would have been to do a prequel as a 90-minute feature, but I’m very glad they opted for the roughly four-hour version. There were plenty of fun and games as they provided the back-story for characters and elements from the original film. And yes, you will learn the story behind the talking can of vegetables! Also, by presenting it in all in episodic form, it allowed for something structurally I’ve never seen before: Each of the last three or four episodes offered its own dramatic climax, based on something that had been established previously.