Archive for October, 2015

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Supergirl (CBS)

Admittedly, I know very little about the comic-book cannon Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl. Absent that background knowledge, CBS’ tale of a Kryptonian on Earth feels like a lazy imitation of Kara’s better-known cousin. Just like Superman, Supergirl was sent to earth by her parents to escape the destruction of her home world, she was adopted by a couple of genteel midwest folk, moved to a big city to work in media and gets her first foray into superheroics by catching a crashing plane.

The show goes out of its way to remind you how feminist it is, having characters give monologues about how “girl” is *not* diminutive and how great it is for young women to have a role model to look up to. But like a bad comedy with a loud laugh track, if you have to try so hard to tell someone you’re funny, you’re probably not.

As Kara, Melissa Benoist is forced to adopt a bizarrely infantilized demeanor, like getting tongue-tied at the appearance of a hot new coworker. It makes for a weird blend of tones, like a Rom-com that occasionally tangents to have it’s protagonist light things on fire with her eye lasers.

Grade: B

Class: Kill and Bury

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Wicked City (ABC)

ABC’s Wicked City has a lot of interesting elements: 1980s period charm, serial killers, necrophilia. But any good intentions behind the show are buried under an avalanche of tropes, bad acting and lazy writing.

In a nutshell, you have the hardboiled cop who doesn’t play by the book, assigned to a new partner he doesn’t trust. Their chasing a serial killer who picks up women, kills them mid-fellacio and then copulates with their corpses.

If that sounds like some gritty, cable-tv-style drama, it’s not. The whole show is painted over with a waxy veneer in an attempt to hid it’s all-too-obvious shortcomings. Keep driving and leave this Wicked City in your rearview mirror.

Grade: C-

Class: Kill and Bury

tumblr_inline_nwz1vvL4zr1smw1z7_540Grimm (NBC)

Grimm made a lot of bold moves during its fourth season, and whether or not those decisions pay off the show is filled with new energy going into its fifth season.

Most of the show’s lingering villains were dealt with last year, including one who is now the mother of Nick’s son, leaving a path clear for an entirely new direction. We get that in the form of a shadowy organization that may or may not be connected to the U.S. Government and/or the Wesen resistance, seemingly working to stop a violent uprising.

It’s not the strongest premiere, mostly due to the staggering amount of clean up and exposition the writers are forced to chew through after last spring’s finale. And the impact of the new wesen threat is undercut by a laughably cheesy episode stinger that sees a clawed hand breaking the fourth wall to cut through the TV screen. You’re better than this Grimm.

As for the aforementioned child, we see the first seeds planted for what is likely to become a Nick/Adalind romance now that lady love Juliette is out of the picture. Or is she? The showrunners were fairly adamant during the hiatus that dead is dead is dead, but then who is the screaming female voice locked in Chavez’ cell? I’ve been championing this underdog show for years as escapist, fantasy fun and I look forward to finding out what’s next.

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye On

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There weren’t any new series premieres on the big four last week and I was going to just skip a scorecard. But then I thought now might be a good time to catch up with our “Subscribes” and “Keep an Eye Ons” to see how things are faring.

As a rule, I watch at least 2 episodes of a positively-reviewed series before forming a final opinion. There’s only so many hours in a day and by then the closet lemons have started to stink, or conversely, a show with a shaky pilot starts to find its footing. An added bonus, the networks will often help you make the live or die decision by canceling a series or ordering a full season.

The “Kill and Bury” shows remain as such, but here’s how I’m feeling on the so-so new series a few weeks in.

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Limitless (CBS)

As expected, Limitless has chosen to walk the familiar road of case-of-the-week buddy-cop crime procedural (also known as the COTWBCCP), and its becoming apparent that the show’s writers aren’t quite up to the task of creating challenges that rise to the mental capacity of their protagonist. For a man who is made genius by taking a pill, he doesn’t seem all that more capable than your typical TV sleuth.

But, as was the case with the pilot, Limitless continues to make use of a confident sense of style and a je ne sais quoi that elevates that puts it a cut above the rest. It’s not great, but it’s better than many, and since I finally shed Castle from my TV roster I have a little bandwidth for a weekly whodunit.

Updated status: Still watching, but a few episodes behind.

Network action: Full season order

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The Muppets (ABC)

The pilot was rough, and the second episode wasn’t much better. But by episode 3 the show seemed to find its pacing and land some jokes. The cameos were used judiciously, and the ensemble dynamic buzzed. It’s not a safe bet at this point, but at least now we have an idea of what The Muppets could be if the writers can get it there.

Updated status: I’m not exactly optimistic, but I’m rotting for this show

Network action: Full season order (updated 10/29/15)

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Heroes Reborn (NBC)

Do you ever open a bag of chips, intending to have a quick snack before dinner, only to find yourself 30 minutes later holding an empty bag in your grease- and shame-covered fingers?

That’s Heroes Reborn, a plate of useless, salty nonsense. You know there’s better things out there, but here you are and you can’t help yourself.

I have no doubt that when the miniseries ends, I’ll regret having spent so many hours with these baffling, 2-dimensional characters and their nonsensical plots. Yet here I am.

Updated status: Bumbling along

Network Action: Nothing beyond limited-run series

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The Player (NBC)

Veteran TV critic Ken Tucker recently described The Player as “the best of the worst new shows.” I completely agree.

Player is not a good show, but it’s also not a terrible way to check out and waste an hour.

Updated status: I have 3 episodes in my Hulu queue, and I intend to watch them

Network action: Episode order trimmed to 9

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Quantico (ABC)

Quantico is the perfect example of why it takes two episode to spot a dud. The pilot wasn’t great, but the next week was an exercise in rapidly escalating implausibility, replete with an ambiguous love polygon of intersecting romances.

Updated status: Step off the ride before it makes you sick

Network Action: Full season order

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Grandfathered/The Grinder (Fox)

The fox duo continue to be my picks of the season, with later episodes making good strides at rounding out their casts and solidifying their narratives. I’m still worried about their longevity, particularly in the case of Grandfathered, but both shows are impressively consistent, which is high praise in the modern era of broadcast television.

Updated Status: Mostly sunny skies

Network Action: Full season orders

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Code Black (CBS)

I lied, sometimes I don’t make it to episode 2. Try as I might, I have zero energy for another minute of this series. My apologies to Mr. Guzman.

Updated Status: Retroactive kill and bury

Network Action: Additional scripts ordered, not yet full season

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)

It was unprecedented when I watched the premiere of CEG (a CW show? As if!) so I was in completely uncharted waters when I ventured out for the second episode. That risk was rewarded, as Rachel Bloom’s Frankenstein’s Monster of a show is still one of the most ineffably entertaining, maddeningly unique enigmas on television.

Updated Status: Crazy like a fox

Network Action: Additional scripts ordered

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*Note: This review was originally published during coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

The-Experimenter

Midway through “Experimenter,” Michael Almereyda’s biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, a morose Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) enters a classroom and tells his students that President John F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.

They don’t believe him, so a woman pulls out a portable radio and the classroom listens to news reports about the assassination. It must be a radio play, the classmates whisper to each other, like War of the Worlds.

It’s a bit of dark humor that encapsulates “Experimenter,” which chronicles Milgram’s controversial career using deception (or “illusion” as he prefers) to study human nature. You’ve already heard of his experiments, even if you don’t remember his name. That famous study that asked people to administer electric shocks to a man screaming in pain? That was his. Six degrees of separation? He had a hand in that.

The movie draws Milgram as a brooding yet playful mind, sending his students out into the world to disrupt people’s lives so he can observe the result. It also borrows shades from House of Cards, with Sarsgaard frequently staring through the fourth wall to address the audience directly, offering insight into Milgram’s brilliant and quizzical brain.

Throughout all of this is a healthy dose of academic think-speak, kept at an accessible vernacular that lets the audience feel as though they’re in on a trick, smarter than those people who don’t know Milgram’s story or, more so, the subjects of his famous studies. It’s an impressive bit of sleight-of-hand that adds some levity into what could have been a dull history lesson.

Grade: A-

*Experimenter opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, October 23.

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This week’s scorecard is a little of the old and a little of the new. Plus, I did the unthinkable and watched the premiere of a show on the CW (!!!!) and you know what, it was kind of ok.

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Crazy Ex Girlfriend (The CW)

I typically ignore the CW, which for years was a network existing solely for content marketed toward teenage girls. But recently, more and more of my critic friends have been trumpeting the network as a haven for well-made DC superhero fare (Arrow, Flash) and quirky out-of-the-box comedies (Jane The Virgin).

So it was that with the Big 4 networks taking a bit of a break in their premiere schedules, I tuned in for the pilot of Crazy Ex Girlfriend which is astoundingly and enjoyably insane.

After a chance run-in with Josh, the guy she kind of dated at summer camp, Rebecca (co-creator and star Rachel Bloom) walks away from her job at a New York City law firm to move to West Covina, California, a small town two hours from the beach (four in traffic) where Josh *just happens* to live.

Yes, this is a show where the PROTAGONIST is the crazy ex girlfriend, and her ill-advised misadventures are punctuated by sporadic, surrealist musical numbers in which Rebecaa is lifted into the air by a giant pretzel or, in “Sexy Getting Ready Song” croons about hygiene while waxing her buttocks.

Shows like this don’t exist. They just don’t. And from the pilot alone I’m still not sure they *should* but fortune favors the bold.

Grade: A-

Class: Cautiously subscribe

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Truth Be Told (NBC)

Mark-Paul Gosselaar is a very charming actor with a hyphenated first name. FIRST name. I do not understand the circumstances that would lead to a hyphenated first name.

Why am I starting this review with an off-topic anecdote? Because nothing about this laugh-track-saturated is worth writing about. Ostensibly about a pair of best friend neighbors and their wives, Truth Be Told tries to shoehorn ISSUES into its lowbrow retread comedy, pausing between predictable sitcom shenanigans to chat about race, religion, the N-word, and ethnic ambiguity.

In the world of lame sitcoms (an expansive, heavily populated world) you could do a lot worse than MPG and Truth Be told. But as a standalone creation it’s trying to be so hard to be a comedy about capital-T Things that it forgets to have anything that resembles a point.

Grade: C+

Class: Kill and Bury

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The Walking Dead (AMC)

The living characters on The Walking Dead spent most of last season on the move (from Terminus, to Atlanta, to DC, etc) and it’s nice to see them relatively settled down for the time being. Obviously Alexandria won’t last, but in the meantime the plot point of a secure community largely untested in the post-apocalyptic world opens up a lot of narrative room to play with.

And that’s exactly what the show runners do in the premiere, setting up a veritable army of the undead at Alexandria’s doorstep. Rick hatches and elaborate scheme to draw them away, which goes about as well as it could. The real draw is what’s going to happen in episode 2, which is exactly what a premiere should be concerned with.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep an Eye On

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The Leftovers (HBO)

The Leftovers is a very good show that tries its hardest to get you to not watch it. Season 1 was almost intolerably grimm (and for many, no “almost”) and  while season 2 seems to be a more approachable affair in the long term, it starts with a premiere that seems intentionally designed to scare curious bystanders away.

After a lengthy cold open in which a prehistoric woman watches her people crushed by a landslide, gives birth, and then dies protecting her child, The Leftovers flashes forward to present day Miracle, Texas, a town in which no citizen was taken during the rapture-esque “great departure.” We spend about 30 minutes before our first glance at a familiar character while the show sets up a brand new family with its own brand of enigmatic quirks to rival the Garveys, who show up at the end of the episode at the world’s most awkward welcome-to-the-neighborhood barbecue.

The show burned through its source material in season 1, meaning all bets are off now. It’s a welcome removal from the original novel, and I, for one, can’t wait to see where the crazy machine that is Damon Lindelow (Lost) will take the story now that his hands are untied.

Grade: A-

Class: Subscribe

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Note: Portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

mississippigrind-still1-unknownI’m largely agnostic toward Ryan Reynolds. He’s a charming lad and easy on the eyes who, despite several woefully awful films, has turned in a few performances that go down smooth on a Friday night.

But in Mississippi Grind, Reynolds approaches something that almost makes the case for the erstwhile sexiest man alive as a leading man. Playing a nomadic extrovert with a penchant for Woodford Bourbon, he bursts into the life of down-on-his-luck gambler Gerry (played by Ben Mendelsohn, that guy you’ve seen in everything but can’t quite place) and the two take off on a cards- and dice-fueled road trip down to New Orleans.

There’s several familiar beats as the duo make their way through casinos and riverside dives. Gerry has debts to pay off, the kind that don’t have much patience, and Reynolds’ Curtis has a lady friend that he promises to do right by once he gets his big break.

Grind leans into that predictability, but keeps letting its bets ride past several natural endpoints. That sounds like a criticism but its not, as the movie is able to downplay the typical cinema pursuit of the Big Score and focus instead on the subtle beats of its characters, who are living remarkably free but can’t seem to let themselves enjoy it.

It’s a retro story, two gamblers on the road living day to day, that makes for an interesting study of its two leads.

Grade: B+

*Mississippi Grind opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, October 9.

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Readers, we’re in a bit of a dead zone for new series premieres so for this week’s Scorecard I’ll be reviewing some of my returning favorites. The same rules apply, and if you missed week 1or week 2 click on the links.

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Modern Family (ABC)

Modern Family doesn’t really have seasons any more. Some stories are wrapped up in 22 minutes, others are teased out over a few weeks, and the larger dynamics ebb and flow in calm, predictable ways. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as MF is one of the most consistent shows on television, but it’s also starting to feel like nothing really happens anymore.

Back from summer break, we get a quick catch up on what happened over the summer. The marquee headline is that Andy the Manny and Hayley have not yet resolved their will-they-won’t-they romance. There’s plenty of fertile ground here, from Andy stress eating to the return of Dylan, but after 2 years of Moonlighting I, for one, am ready to move on from this particular plot point.

Still, good laughs from the ensemble. It’s starting to feel formulaic but they’re not phoning it in yet.

Grade: B

Class: Subscribe

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Black-ish (ABC)

Starting your second season with an episode about the N-word is a bold move, but Black-ish makes it work. After son Jack gets in trouble at school for rapping the unedited version of “Gold Digger” at a talent show, Dre does his usual thing by enlisting the opinion of everyone around him in determining what is and is not appropriate language for young black men.

It’s a low-key start to the second season, which is exactly the right move for a sophomore comedy. It also makes full use of its ensemble (the office scenes are particularly excellent) which has grown to be one of the best on broadcast television. Well done.

Grade: A-

Class: Subscribe

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How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)

Lies. Death. Murder. FAMKE JANSSEN!

Remember how great season 1 of Revenge was? And how *not* great every other season was? I love a good primetime soap as much as the next guy, but I’m really worried about HTGAWM.

It’s not that the premiere was bad, it wasn’t. It delivers a satisfactory amount of twists, turns and reveals while setting up a new season-long flash forward mystery in the form of Viola Davis seemingly bleeding to death at the hand of protege/creepy surrogate son Wes. But obviously there’s more to it than that.

Still, this balloon will burst. You can only sustain an every-episode-is-bonkers level of tension for so long. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe HTGAWM will bury us all.

Grade: B

Class: Keep An Eye On

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

Season 1 of B99 ended with a huge cliffhanger…that was immediately resolved in episode 1 of Season 2. Wisely, the showrunners look like they’ll be sticking with last Season 2’s big cliff hanger for a little longer.

Captain Holt is gone from the 99, and Bill Hader is in as his replacement. His motto is “Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency” (and don’t tell him that redundancy is inefficient) and he forces the squad to carry ipads tracking their completion of one task every 55 minutes.

But who cares, because Jake and Amy kissed. They decide to keep things “light and breezy” and not tell anyone, which goes as well as you expect. Meanwhile Captain Holt is rotting in the purgatory that is the NYPD’s PR department, where his staff has spent 8 weeks trying to name a new pigeon mascot, which is by far the single funniest image of any premiere I’ve watched this year.

Grade: A-

Class: Subscribe

blacklistThe Blacklist (NBC)

There are essentially two things that elevate The Blacklist above the mediocrity of its case-of-the-week brothers: a super-slick production quality and James Spader. Three seasons and I’d be hard pressed to explain the plot of the show to you with more detail than “Stuff happens. Spader is great.”

Well, stuff is still happening. And Spader is still great.

In the premiere, Agent Keen is on the lam after being falsely outed as a Russian sleeper agent and not-so-falsely accused of murdering the U.S. Attorney General. He had it coming. There’s a Blacklister thrown in for good measure, but the episode is truly concerned with getting Reddington and Keen to a place of relative safety in order to set the stage for the season, which also includes Dembe is a tight spot with The Cabal.

It’s enough to keep me tuning in, but much like last season I’ll probably be letting a few weeks pile up in the DVR at a time.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)

Season 2’s finale was a doozy, so you can forgive Agents of SHIELD for spending the bulk of its premiere picking up the pieces. Simmons is missing/presumed dead, Agent May is taking some R&&R and Daisy née “Skye” is now a full-fledged superhero, trying to recruit and protect new inhumans after the Terrigen Myst was released into the ecosystem (if that sentence made *any* sense to you, you’re already watching this show. Sorry.).

But there’s some interesting new developments. Constance Zimmer is in town as the leader of a secret task force that is also tracking down the inhumans, as is a giant blue monster thing with…stuff…coming out of his back. Beats me, but it’s fun.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep an Eye On

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