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An Ode to ‘In the Flesh’

(Heavy spoilers for all nine episodes of In the Flesh. If you’re interested but haven’t watched yet, go for it! It is especially enriching to go in with little foreknowledge!)

In the Flesh has a tragic story to tell: in the rural, English town of Roarton, two childhood best friends became something more. Kieren Walker, forever the outsider: a kind, gentle artist who never fit in with the rougher, country villagers. The other one, Rick Macy, naturally fit in–and had to–because his father’s standards required it. Weighed down by this, and the impending likelihood of Kieren going to art school, Rick joins the military and ships off to Afghanistan where he is killed in action. Upon hearing this, and believing it to be his fault, Kieren commits suicide. Two families left in tatters. A tragedy. But what if you died in 2009 and for whatever reason (the show’s mythology is still murky), you come back. Zombiefied. Like Kieren Walker.

In the Flesh quickly develops mystery around its zombie canon while establishing its own ground rules. Like, for instance, it appears that only these special 2009 deaths rise up. While this isn’t explicitly discussed, it appears that this caveat makes the zombie threat manageable for the human race. The world isn’t completely overrun in one night. Also factoring into the manageability is the fact that this isn’t a virus. Human victims and those who are bitten are not transformed into the undead. The zombie population isn’t exponentially increasing in the days after “The Rising”.  Another welcome change: the world is very much aware of the pop culture conception of a “zombie”. In some other fictional worlds, like The Walking Dead, the narrative treats the idea of a zombie as unheard of and novel; there are no self-aware meta moments when Rick turns to Glen and laments about their situation versus the situation in Night of the Living Dead. The show intentionally dances around and never uses the word “zombie”. In the Flesh exists in a world similar to ours, one where people have long been exposed to zombie films and basic mythology. I find this extremely refreshing to have a tale where people are actually aware of the concept, even if it might be intentional. The series might conjure to our minds ideas that we typically have about zombies to then juxtapose and highlight where differences lie with their narrative. This makes it easier for the writers to pave their own path.

Not that In the Flesh over-utilizes “zombie”. It distinguishes itself with its own terminology as well: “undead” as the preferred term by many of the, well, undead; “Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) sufferers” as the government-created PC label; and “rotter” as the derogatory name given to them by the living.

But, back to the tragedy: Kieren doesn’t stay dead. He’s a rehabilitated PDS sufferer, sent back to live with his family. And when he returns, he has a lot to deal with: a family struggling with seeing a son/brother who committed suicide and didn’t even leave a note; one of the most anti-PDS towns in England; and, the undead return of Rick as well as the continued dominance of Rick’s father. Toss that in with Kieren’s personal struggle and shame over what he has become and hesitance over joining in with other members of the undead population. But along the way he makes friends: most notably, Amy Dyer, who is perhaps the liveliest person in the town, despite being undead.

I would recommend In the Flesh for so many reasons, but primarily for its power to move the viewer. For the first time ever, I can claim a zombie show actually moved me to tears. And not just a few. I’m talking about, full-on, near bawling my eyes-out whimpers. It teases out its mythology by making the viewer work for questions, while also providing satisfying answers. The series does a striking amount of character work in its limited run. Most of the characters grow in welcome ways, although some changes seem rushed and out of left field. That is perhaps the only caveat to my otherwise glowing recommendation.

The writers and creators clearly have a distinct narrative to tell with multiple avenues to take the local and over-arching stories. Here’s to In the Flesh getting a chance to continue their unique examination of “life” through a supernatural lens.

The Ethics of Accepting a Television Role

[Obligatory spoiler warnings for “The Good Wife” and “Downton Abbey.”]

An actor wants to leave a role in a television show because they want to move on to film parts or are disillusioned with their character or are having an internal dispute with writers, showrunners, fellow cast members, etc. Sometimes these are valid reasons. But what about if your show is insanely popular and/or critically acclaimed? Adored by the masses? And most importantly, what if it disrupts the end game of the show’s narrative?

As you can guess, these very questions crossed my mind (and not for the first time) with Will Gardner’s death on “The Good Wife” and Josh Charles’ exit from the show. It’s one thing when a death or exit serves the story being told. It is another thing when a significant character leaves, thus altering the creators’ final vision of the show. I doubt that I’m alone in this, but when deaths or character exits happen for this reason, I don’t get sad. I get ANGRY. After all, they literally brought it on themselves. You chose to leave; and if you fundamentally screwed up the culmination of different character arcs, why shouldn’t I be pissed? We can only hope that the creators and writers can use the exit to inject fresh life out of the unfortunate loss of their (potential) conclusion.

What do I mean by ethics? Well, I mean an implied ethics. An ethics that says, hey I decided to play so-and-so because I wanted a job but more importantly because I believed in the character and hoped the show would be a hit. And sometimes it is. But what “moral” right do you have to say a few years later…I love this show. It’s the hit I wanted it to be. It’s Emmy nominated. I’ve been nominated for my work. But you know what? I’m bored. I want to concentrate on doing other things. No hard feelings guys! Feel free to call me for talk show appearances anytime.

In case you missed the bitter undertones, Josh Charles’ exit from “The Good Wife” has left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. It’s not just that he wanted to leave. Or that for whatever reason the writers chose his exit to be the most schlocky ending they could go with. It’s how vocal and jovial Josh Charles has been about the matter. Reassuring fans on Twitter. Making the talk show rounds. In other words, relishing his moment that torpedoed what everyone expected about his hit show. Will “The Good Wife” still be excellent? Yes, I think so. But doesn’t the idea that whatever the writers planned for their characters was taken away because of someone that was over a job he signed on the dotted line to have? Look, I’m not even saying I expected the last scene to be Will and Alicia going off into the sunset together. I just imagine they had an idea of how Will fit into the idea of a series finale. And that’s gone forever. Hopefully the writers come up with something better and they can thank Josh Charles for abandoning ship early.

This same scenario played out last season on “Downton Abbey.” After spending seasons dedicated to the love story of Mary and Matthew, they finally married. Then Dan Stevens (Matthew) looked around and thought, well that’s that then. I think I’m ready to move to New York, star on Broadway and hopefully transition to film full time. And thus the heart of the series, Mary and Matthew’s relationship, was blown to smithereens. In what seemed like a “screw you” at the time, Julian Fellowes, showrunner, decided to off Matthew in a random car accident and spent almost no time mourning him in the next season. And once again, why not? A primary component of the series known as “Downton Abbey” was now gone forever. Let’s move on with people that want to be here, on a hit show no less.

Of course Fellowes said that Matthew had to die, that there was no feasible alternative to explain his absence from Mary and their newborn. Sound familiar, “The Good Wife” fans? The Kings wrote an open letter that explained the decision for Will’s death the same way. Except, at least in Matthew’s case, the reasoning is sound. I’d argue it makes total sense for Will to decide trying a new life at the proposed Lockhart/Gardner New York offices. But in reality, just as Fellowes chose such a cheap death for Matthew, the Kings chose a cheap death for Will. Get outta here if you want to go! See how expendable you were in the end?

Actors leave long running series all the time. Sometimes their talents are being wasted. Some have no obvious bearing on the show’s trajectory. Some characters are written to be expendable. I’m not implying that actors do not have reasons for leaving or that some exits are necessary. I am implying that when your exit impacts a serial show where you figure into the narrative prominently, a certain ethics should be involved. And maybe these ethics normally work. Do the remaining original cast members of “Grey’s Anatomy” really want to be playing those roles still? Their ethics are likely motivated by paychecks. As was the cast of “Friends” (although “Friends” would have just ended a few seasons early as opposed to Matthew Perry leaving and Chandler leaving Monica a widow). I could talk in circles around this all day. Perhaps devotion to character and story keep many actors in jobs they’d rather leave. And the Josh Charles’ and Dan Stevens’ of the world are the outliers. Bottom line reiteration: if an actor chooses to leave a role you love on one of your favorite shows, don’t mourn. Get angry! And move on. If the writing is good enough, the show will turn their poor judgement into a creative windfall for your series.

The ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Finale: A Case Study on the Planned Narrative

Everywhere you look on the internet today (and last night) you will find an article either in defense of “How I Met Your Mother” or an enumerated list of what the finale did spectacularly wrong. In an effort for catharsis, I too need to air my grievances with the finale; after all, what’s the use of a blog if you can’t use it for a good ol’ rant.

But first I’d like to comment on my title’s assertion, that this show will become a case study of the planned narrative versus a show with a more rambling, flexible structure. As intricate as the timeline became on the show, the writers were always pushing toward one end goal, established after the first season. And for whatever reason, deviating from this end does not appear to have been an option for the creators, even though the show morphed into a long running hit that slowly altered the character dynamics. Nowadays writers can go on the internet and get a general feel of what fans are thinking and feeling, but apparently the end game was set in stone and inflexible. This failure to adapt to the changing show dynamics is as disastrous as writing a show with no end game in mind that will inevitably be unable to wrap up a complex mythology. In the end, I think a successful formula is to have a well thought-out idea about your show when you get to your pilot or halfway through the first run of episodes. How do you foresee the plot trajectory? When the series ends, where will a particular character likely be? With these ideas in mind, you can write coherent stories that are true to characters, but at the same time be more adaptable. Do two people have surprising chemistry? See where it leads. Change your ideas just as real human beings change their minds. Obviously the ability to stick to a mishmash of the planned versus flexible is highly dependent on the foreseen lifespan of a show as well as a particular show’s subject.

My Primary Issues with the Series Finale:

  • We spent the entire season, not just on Barney and Robin’s wedding, but also reinforcing how much Barney and Robin love each other and were making the right choice by getting married. Never mind the fact that Barney’s elaborate proposal plan was, for me, one of the most enjoyable moments of the penultimate season. Obviously the creators knew that the marriage was doomed to failure and still thought staging an entire season around it, then abruptly erasing the marriage three years later was a good idea.
  • One of my biggest pet peeves is recognizing where and how characters react solely in service of an outcome the writers want to reach. The plan here: Barney and Robin get married, freeing Ted from Robin (enough to meet the mother), Ted gets to have the family he always wanted (a point of contention with Robin when they were a couple), Barney and Robin get divorced, the mother eventually dies, and after a tasteful six years, Ted pursues Robin again.
  • Barney finally becomes a father. This I have very mixed feelings over. On the one hand, the only reason I was confused over Barney and Robin getting married was, once again, Robin’s stance on children. A few seasons ago made it very clear that Barney wanted to have kids, and that was never something Robin wanted in life. I’ve already struggled with my feelings over the episode where Robin finds out she can never have kids, in a time when Barney and Robin were not even a couple. But the show led me to believe that Barney’s love for Robin trumped his desire for children.
  • Speaking of Barney, we as viewers expect (and desire) to see our characters grow, learn lessons, and develop along different paths. Most striking in “How I Met Your Mother” is Barney renouncing his womanizing ways to settle down with Robin. However, and most disappointingly, Barney immediately reverts to his old ways following his divorce. The show seems to suggest that we prefer the old Barney and the reintroduction of the playbook…but I can easily imagine some viewers did get a chuckle out of seeing some new plays. Certainly not this viewer, who saw it as the ultimate backslide.
  • Who in the writer’s room thought it would be satisfying to watch the whole friend group fall apart for over half of the finale? The gradual dissolution of the group (which appeared to be accepted by every character except Lily) contradicted the show’s message about friendship and love. Also, how telling is it that the titular MOTHER took a picture of the group on her own wedding day, without anyone saying that she should be included? You’re in the group for life, provided you aren’t written off to be killed in a few years. (Note: See included pictures. While I couldn’t find a screencap of Tracy taking the picture, I found one from right before: even this still is telling. Tracy (in her wedding dress, no less) stands between Robin and Ted, just like the obstacle she ended up being. The other screencap is of the picture taken by Tracy.)
  • Anyone that was remotely concerned about the “mother is dead and Ted is going to hook-up with Robin” theory could see from a mile away that it was actually happening almost immediately. Once again the story gears ground toward that conclusion throughout the majority of the finale, particularly with the emphasis on Robin’s absence from the group.
  • The finale (although obliterating the friend group for a large portion) was still an exercise in wish fulfillment for the characters. Lily gets to go to Italy. Marshall gets his judgeship after a few years of demoralizing work. The show remembered that Barney wants children so he gets a daughter and is partially cured of his womanizing ways.(?) Ted gets to be with the mother for a decade and then gets to be with the love of his life Robin. Robin gets to travel the world. Tracy is the real loser in this scenario. She loses her first love. She finds love again with Ted only to get sick and die while her kids is still young. What did she do in a previous life to love and lose so much?
  • Finally, what happens with Barney? The show implies that having a daughter cured him of chasing younger women and perhaps led him back to the man he was when he married Robin. Does the show have any definitive answer on whether Barney would settle down again, solely concentrate on raising his daughter, or…? He seems to disappear from the narrative. (Of course I could be forgetting any number of flash forward scenes that give a clue to this).

Like I said, there are plenty of articles outlining these points and just how much the finale screwed over the characters, the storyline, and the viewers. This write-up by James Poniewozik at Time expertly examines and expands on many of these same points. His review not only encapsulates the faults of the finale, but also my sentiments in the wake of the end of the series as a whole.

“Death Comes to Pemberley”: A few comments

What can bring me out of a blogging rut? Why, the combination of Matthew Rhys, Mr. Darcy and a BBC miniseries!

Perusing BBC iPlayer, as I am wont to do, I stumbled upon Matthew Rhys’ face in a video blog on his experience playing Mr. Darcy. Internal commentary: “Oh, Matthew Rhys! AS MR. DARCY? WHAT. What. Whaaaat…” And thus I discovered “Death Comes to Pemberley” the self-described murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Having never heard of this sequel to begin with, of course I was intrigued. And, Matthew Rhys as Mr. Darcy: it’s literally someone I love in real life becoming someone I love in literary life. Catnip.

I quickly got into the three episode series, but with mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. The cast was great: Anna Maxwell Martin (recently of “The Bletchley Circle”) as Elizabeth; Jenna Coleman as Lydia; Matthew Goode as George Wickham (is he not perfect casting?); along with a host of other recognizable faces. It’s enjoyable, especially to imagine this as a potential alternate timeline for Jane Austen’s beloved characters. I’m not willing to accept it as canon (as I’m sure few are) and that is the only way I could accept the plot. (Although I think the author and actors both had a clear hold on the essence of these characters.)

If you love Pride and Prejudice like I do, then I’m sure you’ve mentally extended the ending of the novel into what you saw as the future of Elizabeth and Darcy.  But do you really want someone laying it out for you? No, I don’t think so. But envisioning potentials is fine with me. (This reminded me of Billie Piper being included in the “Doctor Who” 50th Anniversary special; I didn’t really want to know what had happened in Rose’s life, because I already have my own ideas. Luckily Moffatt agreed with that and included her differently). This is, I would argue, a story written with the possibility of redemption in mind for George Wickham. With his connection to so many characters from the novel, I think he is an excellent plot motivator for this sequel. Being accused of murder causes everyone in Wickham’s life to question just how bad he is versus being just a scoundrel.

My two biggest problems are personal; I suspect everyone comes with their own checklist of what they want to see in a sequel to a beloved novel. Elizabeth’s parents, Lydia acting crazy, Jane, etc. I obviously wanted a lot of Matthew Rhys brooding, but I really wanted to see their married life. I wanted to see Elizabeth and Darcy happy because we get so little of that before Pride and Prejudice ends. You go through a couple of circles of hell before everything works out and you can let out a happy sigh of relief. Then finis.

But no. This story wanted to echo the original novel by having Elizabeth and Darcy deal with the same BS that was a primary conflict in Austen’s story. AFTER SIX RELATIVELY HAPPY YEARS, I suspect. I threw in the “relatively” to be realistic. Now, Wickham returns and Elizabeth thinks Darcy regrets marrying for love and he thinks Elizabeth married him for the money. I didn’t particularly like being put through the ringer over this again, but in the end I was rewarded.

The other thing that I, personally, need a break from is societal duty and the ruling class. I know it’s a fundamental aspect of this time and place, but…it seems to be a heavy focus on television today. And I’ve got the point now. Georgiana will marry the man Darcy wants her to because it is her duty to do what he asks without question. If someone associated with Darcy gets arrested for murder, it could ruin Darcy’s reputation. And risk the continuation of Pemberley. Thankfully (I say sarcastically), Elizabeth and Darcy already have a son, the line is secure! I don’t know; this is probably related to “Downton Abbey” viewing and the fact I’m currently reading Brideshead Revisited.

Gratuitous Matthew Rhys shot.

Those two criticisms aside, I really enjoyed the three hours I spent checking back in with Pemberley. Matthew Rhys was an excellent Darcy, in my obsessed with Matthew Rhys opinion. I’m tempted to read the novel with him standing in as Darcy. I’d love to see further explorations into the lives of these well-known characters. Hmmm, what about “Pemberley,” a series that follows Bennett/Darcy/Wickham/Bingley shenanigans on a weekly basis?

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is arguably one of the most anticipated shows of the new fall season. And with Joss Whedon as executive producer and co-creator (along with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, experienced Whedonites), it comes supported with the combined fandoms of Whedon and Marvel comics. Before I get down to the praising, here’s my tiny criticism: this pilot is jam-packed. And because of that, the first half moves at a break-neck speed that leaves it feeling rushed. It’s The Avengers in micro but with the added problem of needing to introduce the majority of the characters and deploy them as a team in 30 minutes. Once the team comes together, the pilot actually catches its breath and settles into the final action sequence. And from there, I was hooked.

Whedon fans, rejoice!

Whedon vehicles seldom come without a familiar face or two, and in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” we get J. August Richards from “Angel” and Ron Glass (Shepherd Book) from “Firefly.” And even though this show seems like a meta-pop culture reference just by existing, we still get a barrage of other references, with my favorites being Terminator‘s T-1000, cosplay, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

If that’s not enough, perhaps the strongest indication that we’ve got the Whedon persuasion going on is the subversion of genre norms. The introduction to J. August Richard’s Michael Peterson character initially plays out like an early episode of “Heroes.” By the second half, instead of rising to embrace his abilities for the common good, he does a good job of demonstrating how power corrupts (“it’s an origin story,” he explains about his actions). Similarly, his act of heroism is tainted by the revelation that the woman he rescued at the outset is connected to his tech (she’s his doctor).

Whedon fans, take heed!

Yes, Joss Whedon’s name is splashed in all the right places, but the show still lacks a certain, obvious Whedon-y stamp. Not that it’s a problem, but initially the pilot plays as a really good impression of Joss Whedon writing; I found that distracting, especially all of the humorous bits. The lines had the same rhythm of a typical Whedon quip, but it lacked his voice. In other words, (and this might sound harsher than I intend it to come across) it sounds like Buffy fan-fiction I wrote in middle school. It’s striving for Whedon but failing, especially if you are experienced with the real deal.

Tie-ins from the Marvel Universe

I think I’ve seen all the Marvel Phase One movies and as a result have working knowledge of the callbacks to those plotlines in the pilot. Honestly, the baseline for what to watch prior to getting into the show is The Avengers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even more references that went straight over my head. But that’s okay, because I may have missed them but I didn’t feel like I was missing them, you know what I’m saying? I don’t think any of the Marvel Easter eggs in the pilot would significantly hurt a blank slate fan from tuning in, which is very good. However, knowing the references definitely enriches the viewing experience. Some of those things:

  • The attack on New York from The Avengers. The world has now seen superheroes and aliens. It’s a brave new world where these figures are revered like the fictional heroes that they are: just like in our reality, you can own your very own Hulk figurine, but in Marvel’s world you get to worry about meeting him in person. (Sort of like, “So They Say” from Joss’  Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog…am I right?). Their exposure is a direct link to the mission statement of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. team and the show itself.
  • Maria Hill. Further linking us to The Avengers film, Cobie Smulders reprises her role as Maria Hill, who along with Agent Phil Coulson, provides a direct link to the movie universe. With “How I Met Your Mother” ending, it’s possible that Cobie will make herself available to “S.H.I.E.L.D.” in subsequent seasons. Right now I feel optimistic in predicting another season since the premiere drew in the largest audience for a network drama debut in four years.
  • Speaking of Agent Coulson, he is indeed back. While we initially get a lame explanation about how Nick Fury faked Coulson’s death to rally the Avengers and a running joke on Tahiti, something else is up. (“He really doesn’t know, does he?”). The guess on everyone’s mind seems to be: Life Model Decoy.
  • Chitauri. The opening action sequence in Paris finds agent Grant Ward on the hunt for a piece of Chitauri tech, the alien race that invades New York in The Avengers.
  • Best nickname for/allusion to Loki?: “Asgardian Mussolini.”
  • Dr. Erskine. The doctor who perfected the super soldier serum used by Captain America in World War II is name dropped when the team attempts to figure out the tech on Michael Peterson.
  • Extremis. As part of his transformation, Michael Peterson is revealed to be suffering the effects of “Extremis,” the tech developed by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) in Iron Man 3. The explosion that kicks off the pilot is also revealed to be caused by another test subject under the effects of Extremis.

Character Notes

It’s no surprise that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” gifts us with a diverse, compelling ensemble. Along with Coulson, we meet: Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), an agent who can obviously kick-ass but was perfectly riding a desk job for unknown reasons; Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), another agent with an implied troubled past; Skye (Chloe Bennet), a blogger who (again, for reasons unknown) wiped her identity clean; and Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) as the geniuses in charge of all things science and technology. I am particularly excited to see what the show does with Iain De Caestecker, if only because I really miss “The Fades” and I’m excited for this to be his new gig.

I’m incredibly excited to see what this season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has in store and personally have high hopes for its trajectory and longevity.

NBC’s “Ironside”

I realized something previewing NBC’s new cop drama: I’m not invested in procedural dramas anymore. I crave continuity, and the piecemeal components to season arcs that procedural shows offer just doesn’t cut it. Now there’s the odd exception. There are some shows that have the opposite vibe, like “Hannibal,” which often has a serial killer of the week but also manages to address its complex narratives lines on an episodic basis. But enough of my epiphany, because procedurals aren’t going anywhere soon.

I’m not sure why, but this season new network pilots seem to be the definition of cookie cutter. I almost feel like I was at the development meetings and helped the writers fill in the notes from the network brass. Imagine you are there too; there’s a whiteboard displaying words and phrases to stimulate your imagination. It says things like “re-imagining,” “gimmick,” “unorthodox method that produces results to the chagrin of superiors,” “humanizing yet surprising hobby,” “team with personalities to be filled in as needed because they exist to bounce off the main character” etc (imagine these with less snark). I honestly feel like I just described “House” and countless other shows with a titular, larger than life character. But I apparently also described “Ironside,” a show that debuted in 1967 on NBC. A show that I hadn’t heard of until today so it’s difficult to believe that NBC is hinging on nostalgia for success.

Pablo Schreiber

I feel like I am being harsh to a very watchable show, but these days, shows like “Ironside” seem more and more like relics of the past (especially if it is). At the very least it actually belongs on a network with the initials CBS. Blair Underwood stars as Robert Ironside (he’s in a wheelchair GET IT?! His name is IRONSIDE so you won’t forget), a police detective who has “a different view of the world” and a penchant for violent methods. There’s your gimmick and unorthodox method; Ironside continually clashes with his captain over his decision-making. Hobby? Coaching hockey, of course. Team? We’ve got Spencer Grammer from “Greek” who gets things done; Pablo Schreiber, who gets to play a more savory character than Pornstache on “Orange is the New Black”; and Neal Bledsoe from “Smash,” who luckily left his stock market job to be a detective, which happens to come in handy for the pilot’s case.

Peter Horton!

Speaking of the pilot, the initial case is fairly convoluted for a first outing. I paid attention, but I almost had to pay too much attention to understand how every avenue of the case unfolded. However, if you dig the main cast, understanding the ins and outs of one case isn’t all the necessary. I was more invested in the cast than the case so that might also explain my issue with understanding the case. (Ah-ha and hence my issue with procedural shows in a nutshell: I’m much more interested in the established show characters than I will ever be about why this body is in that field killed by that person I won’t see again…) Also, Peter Horton (from Children of the Corn) seems to be more focused on directing television than acting in it these days; he directed this pilot as well as numerous episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” among other shows.

Verdict: Good cast, better-than-average pacing for a procedural. If you are into detective shows and/or damaged main characters, check it out. There’s a lot to like here, especially if you aren’t burnt out on case of the week scenarios.

New ABC Comedies: “Trophy Wife” and “Back in the Game”

It’s that time again: pilot season. Over the next few weeks, some network shows will get trotted out online to increase buzz before their fall premiere dates. I like this system because it gives hardcore TV obsessives (re: me) a chance to either isolate the new shows we want to add to our schedule or start ignoring the shows that don’t deserve our time. ABC apparently released three of its new comedy pilots today (“Trophy Wife,” “Back in the Game,” and “The Goldbergs”) but “The Goldbergs” has already mysteriously disappeared from the internet…before I could screen it for myself. That’s unfortunate, because out of the three sitcoms, I’d wager that I’ll watch more than one episode of “The Goldbergs” based on ’80s nostalgia alone. As for the other two…

“Trophy Wife”

I can only assume that instead of taking any perceived comedy risks (like low-rated but awesome none-the-less “Happy Endings”) ABC executives had one idea for this season: start with its Emmy-winning success “Modern Family”  and work backwards until something slightly different emerged. And thus “Trophy Wife” came into existence.

You know how Gloria on “Modern Family” is often joked about as being Jay’s trophy wife? And how she has to adjust to marrying a man who already has two grown children with families of their own? Well, imagine that scenario, except the children are younger and we enter the story a bit earlier in its transitional period. We join Kate’s (Malin Akerman) world on the day she finally starts making headway as a stepmother to her husband’s three children. You see, only one short year ago, she met Pete (Bradley Whitford) and instead of being scared away by his two ex-wives, she ended up married to him and entangled in his modern family. Ex-wife #1 Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), mother to the older twins, appears to be a workaholic surgeon with a clear disdain for Kate. Ex-wife #2 Jackie (Michaela Watkins) plays the ultra-kooky mom to the adopted Chinese son she has with Pete. Kate has her best friend Meg (Natalie Morales) to lend an ear when she has to vent about these exes and her failed attempts at being thrust into the role of stepmother.

“Trophy Wife” isn’t quite as sprawling as “Modern Family.” I’m guessing that we’ll stick to seeing how the two ex-wives interact with the core unit of Kate, Pete, and the kids, rather than catching glimpses of their lives away from the couple. And, unlike “Modern Family,” there are no talking heads or other mockumentary devices. Kate narrates the pilot and I am curious to see whether this will continue in every episode or if it was just meant to ease our transition into her world.

I’ve always liked Malin Akerman, and after recently discovering my great love for “Childrens Hospital,” I know she has the comedic chops to carry a sitcom. Similarly, I think Michaela Watkins elevates any bit role she plays, but the pilot forces her to play more caricature than character. I would like to see her as a more three dimensional person and less as plain kooky. I only recognize Natalie Morales from her brief stint on “Parks and Rec” but I hope they find organic ways to keep her character involved in the weekly plots.

My verdict: Good cast in a recycled premise. I don’t feel motivated to check out any more episodes. If I hear good things about it after a few more outings, I’ll be sure to revisit it.

“Back in the Game”

Is this supposed to remind me of that Clint Eastwood baseball movie that came out awhile back but everyone said was horrible and I can’t even remember what it was called? (Okay, it’s called Trouble with the Curve, but I literally just IMDb’d it.) Anyway, I’d say that this show is mixed with that movie (in that the protagonist has issues with her father stemming from his obsession with baseball) and with ABC’s other recently departed show “How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life)” (in that the protagonist is forced to move back home after a divorce). Terry Jr (Maggie Lawson) returns home, and is forced to deal with her emotionally scarring father (James Caan) as well as her son’s desire to play baseball. When he is rejected from the team, she offers to coach another team full of other misfit rejects.

This is partially my own bias but I can’t really get that excited over anything dealing with the premise of baseball. But other than being bored during any and all baseball sequences, I wasn’t enthralled by the supporting characters or plot. I really like Maggie Lawson, and she completely sold me on her character’s complicated daddy issues. Out of everything, I would most like to follow the evolution of their relationship, as well as her father’s relationship to his grandson. All of the other adult characters seem a little too outrageous — they need to start resembling real people real soon. (Why was Lenora Crichlow from “Being Human” cast on this show as a wealthy widow/moral support? Is it really just that en vogue to have a random British character floating around comedies these days? I’m looking at you, Lucy Punch on “Ben & Kate.” Sigh, “Ben & Kate.” RIP.)

My verdict: Pass. I can’t watch every show on TV and this just isn’t up my alley.

 

FX’s “The Bridge”

After such a long hiatus from blogging, it seems appropriate to start back up at my roots: television. Long gone are the days when summer TV is an endless string of reality flops and cancelled show burn-offs. No, now instead of revisiting an old favorite, or checking out a new series, we also have to contend with good (even great) shows premiering in the former off season.

Obviously from the title, I think The Bridge is definitely a contender; hell, it would be a great show in the fall or the spring as well. The premise, atmosphere, and character work in the pilot make it a must-see. Based on a joint Danish/Swedish television series by the same name, it starts with the discovery of a body on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. Found smack dab in the middle of the border, pop culture has taught us to expect that the U.S. homicide detective Sonya North (Diane Kruger) and her Mexican counterpart Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) will both demand to solve the case. Instead, Ruiz quickly passes on the case as he has enough unsolved murders in Juarez. (Now for a few plot spoilers from the pilot)

It seems like Detective North suffers from an extreme form of Will Graham-like lack of empathy and all of her co-workers think she’s a freak. The producers are comfortable with labeling it Asperger’s (something made clear in episodes to come). It becomes clear that her Lieutenant (Ted Levine) most likely casts a protective shield around her position and his decision to retire may endanger her job. We hear bits and pieces about her sister, who seems to have died tragically; a further characterization/plot point to be explored throughout the season. Ruiz seems amused by North’s quirks, as he is soon forced back out of bed to continue the investigation. Half of the body belongs to a different victim, this one from Juarez instead of the US. Whereas North seems socially unstable, Ruiz is on his second wife and is shown to be a concerned father. (But father no more since the whole department knows he recently got a vasectomy = more small character, humanizing moments.) The second victim is one of the many “missing girls of Juarez,” and his proximity to the case pulls Ruiz into the investigation.

Our potential perpetrator, whose POV we also follow throughout the pilot (à la The Fall), is suitably creepy and cryptic in his motivation. Played by Thomas M. Wright (he’s great in Top of the Lake), he affects a voice similar to the one made famous by his co-star Ted Levine (aka Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs). Towards the end of the episode, Matthew Lillard enters the scene as a scummy, universally hated journalist because his car was identified on the bridge the night the body was dumped. Before North and Ruiz can question him, he gets trapped in his wired-with-a-bomb car. There’s great acting from Matthew Lillard in his brief introduction, and luckily his car didn’t explode, so we will see more of him.

Rounding out our new cast of characters is Annabeth Gish, in the most unconnected story to the main plot (so far). Her husband suffers a heart attack in Juarez and get momentarily stopped in the ambulance (on the way back to the US) by the crime scene on the border bridge. Later, just after telling his wife that he wants a divorce, he dies at the hospital. Gish returns to their ranch despondent and finds a key that unlocks a very creepy looking underground area in a part of the ranch she had never seen. So, where could that be leading? Hmm.

While a lot of pilots tend to throw information at you to establish plot, The Bridge struck a fantastic balance between establishing plot and presenting character motivation with a natural flow. An air of mystery surrounds the situation without leaving the audience completely in the dark. With this momentum, it is sure to be one of the highlights of the summer.

‘Hannibal’: The Most Successful Prequel Series Thus Far?

This year has morphed into the return of the horror series. First, we got The Following. And then Bates Motel. Now, NBC is in the ring with Hannibal, and it is by far the best of the bunch. Whether the show will suffer from its third place appearance is yet to be seen, but it is something I fear nonetheless. It might be cliché to say the market is over-saturated, but it’s true.

And yet, Hannibal is markedly different from The Following and Bates Motel. Unlike The Following, Hannibal isn’t trying too hard. The Following‘s first mandate seems to be “pushing the limits of network television” by clearly staying in lines of recognizable boundaries. What looks to be pushing the boundary always appears to be written in as a requirement, not as a means of servicing story or character. (Like, “Gee, we have the episode structure ready to go. But where’s the violence? Oh, let’s have a woman graphically strangled to conclude this scene…She’ll be killed off soon, the implications will never need exploring”.)

Bates Motel is similar to Hannibal in that they are both working from source material, from pop culture sources so prevalent that its main villains are sown into the tapestry of our collective entertainment discourse. Both are prequels set in modern day, in part to be more accessible and in part to put distance between our preconceived notions of these characters. The difference arises in presentation. The writers for Bates Motel “get” its source material but they crave the audience’s recognition of the fact they understand the material. Cue anvil-clanging sentences and Easter eggs alluding to a past story (which technically doesn’t exist in the show’s setting). Does Hannibal also rely on cheesy phrases that the audience can only truly understand knowing their forward-looking implications? Yes. But…

Hannibal succeeds where others fail for a number of reasons. For one, the mood. A Bryan Fuller series is guaranteed to pop with color and imagery, and when applied to a graphic horror series, his vision astounds when it comes to displaying blood and gore. Hannibal challenges network television in a way that The Following has not; I have never questioned The Following airing on Fox, but I am still marveling over the fact Hannibal aired on NBC. The imagery is the primary driver of the mood: oppressive, suffocating and alien. It seems to exist in a parallel universe. It leaves an uneasy feeling that clings to your bones, makes you feel dirty, and yet the invitation into the world is too much to pass up; you have to journey back there and analyze its bizarre inner workings.

Where Hannibal really excels is in Bryan Fuller’s (and company’s) command of the source material that doesn’t implore the audience to recognize the hints and clues. You can if you so desire, they’re there. Full disclosure: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is one of my favorite books. The imagery in the book has left an indelible imprint on my memory, parts which make me shiver still when I contemplate them. Extra, balancing disclosure: I love Kevin Bacon (so I’m still watching The Following) and I will watch Vera Farmiga in anything (thus, still watching Bates Motel).

Back to my weird obsession with Red Dragon: Fuller, in my mind, really understands Will Graham as a character, and correctly explores ways he can be further developed. When I talk about the images that stay with me from the book, they are primarily from sections that involve Graham re-creating murders in his mind. Hannibal capitalizes on this in the pilot, and Bryan Fuller envisions a new way to experience this phenomena, not already tread on in the film versions. That Graham has “pure empathy” and can connect to anyone mentally, is discussed with more clinical terminology than the book iteration of Graham. Sure, it also makes Graham have a diagnosable mental disorder (closer to autistic than sociopath as the show puts it) where one was never really implied previously, but it’s not unfathomable. My narrative professor would argue that empathy doesn’t exist and therefore Graham’s imagination should raise red flags, and I’m not entirely sure that the show won’t explore a similar vein of thought down the road.

The other great thing about the show is the uncertainty, at least to my knowledge, of the end game (contingent on a renewal). Might the series end with Graham discovering Lecter’s murderous alter ego and Lecter’s subsequent attack on Graham? Or will the series move past that and into the early days of Lecter’s imprisonment? The pilot uses an actual case from Graham’s back story, so what will other episodes entail? And unlike, The Following (which can be taken at face value) and arguably Bates Motel (we’ll see), Hannibal offers a complex narrative. I benefited from watching the pilot twice; intentionally so, the story attempts to confuse you on whether Lecter is behind the abductions and murders. On a second viewing, timelines and motivations became clearer and I enjoyed the episode even more than the first time. It is easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and staging, which can make concrete information hard to keep track of, but that further contributes to the surreal oppressive mood.

Recommendations: Try it out. Watch it twice. Marvel in HD horror geek wonder at how Bryan Fuller recreated the bathroom from The Shining. And definitely explore the source material (the Red Dragon novel in particular). I have high hopes NBC will air all thirteen episodes at the least. Also, Gillian Anderson and Eddie Izzard show up eventually. It’s gonna be fun.

Credit: Entertainment Weekly

Dallas Roberts Should Just Be Cast in Everything

If you watch The Walking Dead or The Good Wife, or checked out the Elementary pilot, you’ve seen Dallas Roberts on your television this season. A few years ago, you might have seen him in Rubicon. I sure did. He brings such presence as an actor that he fully disappears into roles and yet perfectly meshes with each environment. A sort of quiet gravitas. All of this to say, I think he’s an excellent actor that tends to highlight, but not underline, a story’s nuances. Example: one Sunday night this past fall you had two viewing options on the same 9 p.m. slot: Dallas Roberts as Owen Cavanaugh, Alicia’s brother on The Good Wife, who gets tangled up not only with their mother’s divorce case but also with Alicia’s case attempting to overthrow the Defense of Marriage Act. Or you could have clicked over to AMC and found Dallas Roberts playing Milton Mamet, a meticulous note-taker and self-titled historian of the zombie apocalypse AND general right-hand man to The Governor.

It’s The Walking Dead and all signs point to Milton not making it out of Woodbury alive, but these last few episodes really gave him some great stuff to work with: he hob-nobbed with Hershel, plotted with Andrea, and went toe-to-toe with The Governor’s wrath. Not that I don’t love David Morrissey, especially in the role of The Governor, but I’ve never been more interested in the character than when the show hints at the complex relationship he shares with Milton. One where Milton can see how far gone The Governor is, and plot against him, but cannot watch him be executed. Now that he’s openly defied The Governor and was  confronted about it, this great palpable tension is present. Relationships like this have so much potential, but once again, the environment of The Walking Dead leaves everyone’s days numbered and little time to delve into each avenue rich with character development. We may get more of this (fingers-crossed) or The Governor may kill him/be killed before satisfying answers can surface. This second half of the season run for The Walking Dead has been largely excellent, so I am looking forward to what’s in store these last two episodes.