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.
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.
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.
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.
After what seems like a never-ending bout of Lost-imitators that fail to garner the same amount of obsessive followers (FlashForward, Terra Nova, The Event), NBC is trying the formula yet again with Revolution. I can imagine the gimmick sounded good in the pitching room, and with J.J. Abrams attached, it sounds even better. But for me, it really boils down to whether I can get invested in the mythology the show is trying to promote.
The pilot opens with an introduction to the family, Tim Guinee (who is that guy that has literally been in everything) and Elizabeth Mitchell, parents to Charlie and Danny. Tim Guinee (Benjamin Matheson) makes a frantic call to his brother Miles (Billy Burke), warning him of what is soon to happen — the power is out, technology is going kaput. We let anarchy and nature take over for fifteen years and return to the cast, sans Elizabeth Mitchell, who supposedly died “out there.” But now we have grown-up Charlie and Danny, a blonde woman named Maggie who seems to be in the unwelcome position of new mommy, and Aaron (Zak Orth, who you probably know if you watch a lot of David Wain-related things) as the local former techie millionaire.
The militia rides into town, led by Giancarlo Esposito, looking for Ben and Miles. In the aftermath, Ben is dead, Danny captured, and Charlie, Maggie, and Aaron are on the road to Chicago to find Miles. The militia leader (of the Republic of Monroe), Monroe himself, believes that the Matheson Brothers know why the power went out and maybe how to turn it back on. This is given further credence by a mysterious necklace Ben gives to Charlie before he dies.
This show, and pilot in particular, definitely have reason to be on the boastful side: executive producers include J.J. Abrams, and Bryan Burk, the pilot was directed by Jon Favreau, and the creator/writer is Eric Kripke. Unfortunately, it strikes me as a not fully formed world/not fully realized. When shows like Firefly exist, where a whole new world was created right out of the gate, it is sometimes frustrating to see a show struggle to remake the world in their image. A lot has gone wrong in fifteen years and I cannot decide if I think it happened too quickly, or just not in the right ways. Maybe the show will become a bit more steady with its new world order a few episodes in.
A few thoughts:
- No body, murky explanation: how long before we stumble upon Elizabeth Mitchell somewhere, “out there”?
- I was really impressed with Billy Burke in this; among many unknowns, his acting provides a stabilizing maturity to his scenes.
- Surprisingly, I didn’t catch many telltale signs I was watching something from the Supernatural creator. Except the necklace bit; even Jensen Ackles’ seemingly innocuous necklace turned out to be more than it seemed a few seasons in.
- The use of a downed plane almost seemed like it begged me to make a Lost connection, so I guess it served its purpose. Aaron claims to know where the medical kit is located on board. When asked why, I thought for sure the answer would be something like, “I watched this show before the blackout…”
- On FlashFoward, the new world icebreaker became “so, what did you see in your flash forward?” Apparently on Revolution it’s “What did you do before the blackout?”
- There is a nice reveal by the end of the pilot. Probably not so surprising if you recognize David Lyons before I did. It was the second to last scene before epiphany: “isn’t that the guy from The Cape?!” #sixseasonsandamovie
Easily the show garnering the most controversy this season, The New Normal is not-so-shockingly a very Ryan Murphy show. And unfortunately, it is all the things I currently hate about Glee condensed into a half-hour comedy. Is there room to grow? Absolutely. And the show benefits from Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells, who are both excellent. I have to root for any show that is pushing a “new normal” agenda, but when it makes the agenda so clear, it doesn’t seem like real life. It seems like an after school special about everyone deserving love.
I think it was Ryan Murphy that joked to the One Million Moms group that they should be happy with the show because they are also represented, in the form of Ellen Barkin’s bigot character. While this is technically true, her character suffers from being defined by that and nothing else. She seems like a vacant vessel whose only function is to spew out vitriol aimed at anyone who is not white and straight. More caricature than character. And at the end, when we find out the source of her homophobia (her husband was carrying on an affair with a man), it doesn’t really explain why she is horrible to other groups as well. I thought it would be better if she were a representative of an older generation’s outlook but I guess this story will provide more melodrama.
Besides that, my only other major criticism is that the pilot moves at breakneck speed, almost like no one told Ryan Murphy how to write for a half hour. The storyline wants to pull at your emotional heartstrings by the end, but we simply haven’t spent enough time with these characters to care all that much. In that short time, we see two parallel stories converge: Bryan (Andrew Rannells) realizes he wants to have a baby, and he goes home to convince David, his partner; since becoming a parent is a serious discussion for any couple, this is surprisingly glossed over. And being a comedy, I guess all of the issues that could have been discussed about a gay couple deciding to have kids is too boring. It’s the new normal, but just barely. Meanwhile, Goldie (Georgia King) discovers her husband is cheating and takes her daughter on a spontaneous road trip to California where she divulges that her secret desire is to become a lawyer. She decides to become a surrogate to help fund her dream. At the same time, Bryan and David have already had a terrible surrogate experience. When they meet with Goldie, we get to hear her spiel about how love is love…herself becoming a blanket caricature of what we are told should be the case. At the end, we do get a great scene with Goldie and David, and it may be worth watching the pilot solely for this moment. Ellen Barkin’s character barges in and attempts to stop Goldie; we hear her traumatic history, and NeNe Leakes shows up for what was envisioned as comic relief but is really an awkward distraction. By the end, Bryan and David want to help make Goldie’s dreams come true and they are all one big family. In a half hour.
So far I like the idea of the show much more than the actual execution. My advice: give this show a few episodes to see if it evens out and in the meantime, watch Husbands!
I think the secret to approaching this pilot season is low expectations. For me. this outlook is working surprisingly well. At least for NBC. The end of the Olympics furnished us with a glimpse at a commercial-free Animal Practice, and I didn’t actively dislike it. If you like Andy on Weeds, then just imagine he ditches Nancy for veterinary school, and loses his people skills while retaining his ladykiller nature and you have his character, Dr. George Coleman, on Animal Practice. Like Go On, it didn’t cause me to burst into laughter but it also didn’t cause me to roll my eyes.
What I liked: Justin Kirk, of course. This role had his name all over it and is definitely in his wheelhouse. I also liked Joanna Garcia Swisher. I haven’t seen the original pilot where her role was portrayed by Amy Huberman but by all accounts, Swisher improves upon the part. Tyler Labine also seems at home with his character. Dr. Yamamoto (Bobby Lee) for me, has the most amusing character in that he is a people-pleasing, wimpy, downtrodden, yet quip monster with moxy. He is a mess of contradictions and it works for me. This episode also gets points for using my favorite song from Cats, “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.” It gets double points for making an Arby’s a joke that also implies it is delicious. Which it is.
What I liked less: The balance between humans and their animal counterparts. The animals never failed to steal the thunder from the humans, even when the scene was working for the actors. I found myself thinking that this show would benefit from a truncated season rather than a traditional 22-episode season. Stretching this theme over 6-7 episodes would yield stronger material, I think. I can’t help but imagine how many of these jokes will be recycled ad nauseam by the time we reach February sweeps. I was also not a fan of the Nurse Angela character, who came close to ruining every scene she was included in. My greatest hope for this show revolves around greatly re-evaluating this character.
My first impression is that this is a quasi-Scrubs with animals and without the Bill Lawrence stamp of humor. I am just not as convinced that this formula can work without some sort of tangible quirk (and not just a stable of misfit characters), which Scrubs had in spades.
NBC is officially on red alert: the execs wants more comedy, but not the quirky, niche audience it currently has with the likes of Parks and Recreation and Community. In an interesting move, both Go On and Animal Practice will be showcased during the Olympics, hopefully to drum up some viewers for when the season officially starts this September. If you saw any of the sizzle reels during the network upfronts a few months ago, you know that we are about to be hit with an inordinate amount of network drudge (hey, Guys with Kids and The Neighbors, I am looking at you). Tonight, we got a glimpse at the new Matthew Perry vehicle, Go On, and overall I was more impressed than I expected to be. My bottom line: the show has a lot of built-in promise; it can either realize that promise or fall on its face. I think I might stick it out for a while and see what we get.
As has been pointed out in a few outlets, the pilot for Go On is shockingly similar to Community’s pilot. We have a cynical wiseguy who wants to get back to what he does best in a hurry (for Joel McHale it is lawyering, for Matthew Perry it is his sports radio show) and these guys are presented with obstacles in the form of a hodge-podge group of people. By episode’s end, both guys realize that this group of people could be beneficial to them and they elect to become a part of it.
What I liked: definitely the diversity. Like Community, the group seems more true to life with its inclusion of females, different ethnic groups, and sexual preferences. I think the biggest hurdle we have overcome in the past few seasons of television is presenting these diverse groups as common place (which they are, but television lived in its own bubble for too long) and not as a carefully drawn out storyline. One character is in grief counseling because her partner died suddenly and she is so depressed she doesn’t get off the couch, much to her kids’ chagrin. Her partner was a female, they had kids together, she is grieving = accepted and treated like any other character’s revelation. Brilliant. However, just like Community, these characters seem to live in some heightened form of reality where some of the most outrageous and diverse ways a person can grieve have all been carefully selected for one group, thus is still the nature of television.
I also liked the treatment of grief in general. It is a tightrope walk to deal with such sensitive issues, especially when your audience must have experienced something similar in their lives. A comedy about grief is possible, but one careless joke could alienate a chunk of people. Luckily, I feel like the show can find a balance between the comedy and the sadness, and make poignant comments on their characters in the process (if it fulfills that promise!).
What I liked less: the sports. When it comes to sports, I usually hear white noise. Especially when it comes to football players (for example) that I am probably supposed to know by name as well as their whole backstory. I get it: that is Ryan’s occupation but I hope it doesn’t invade the show toooo much. In this episode, his interviewee helped him realize he needs the counseling, but the player got to utter a joke about fruit, that’s about it.
To conclude, I plan on watching this show for a while as the new fall schedules get underway. It is a 24 minute show so giving it a few episodes to breathe is no problem. I liked many of the quips, they landed even if they weren’t laugh out loud hilarious. It is sink or swim time for NBC; I am looking forward to seeing how all of these shows shake out come mid-season.
Next up is Animal Practice. I ADORE Justin Kirk. But the premise of this show frightens me. Til next time…I will try to have faith in Justin Kirk’s career choices.