Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reviews 6/19/12 - 6/25/12

The Newsroom is supposed to leave viewers misty-eyed at the end of the pilot, reminiscent of a bygone era when Americans could trust journalists to give them the truth every night of the week. In this regard, Aaron Sorkin succeeds. He is a master of drawing pathos out of nowhere, after all. The massive problems quickly arise, however, when Sorkin thinks he has good ideas--which is about all the time. He's not a deep thinker, someone who really understands anything at all, and yet his ideological bent is so present that an outside viewer, with no knowledge of Sorkin, may mistake the show for a parody. This begins in the pilot's opening monologue when the main character, a news anchor, rants about why America is no longer the greatest nation.

In full he says, "We stood up for what was right, we fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men, we aspired to intelligence, we didn't belittle it, it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't scare so easy. We were able be these things and do these things because we were informed by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country anymore."

The first part about the past is, of course, a crock of bullshit by anyone who knows anything about history, and the second part about the "great men" is just dishonest pandering to the media elite. Fundamentally, Aaron Sorkin does not understand why America is the greatest country. Prior to the monologue, the main character rattles off America's rankings in various subjects, adding that the only thing America is first in is military spending. (Herein lies Sorkin's uncritical mind. More reasonable analysis would point out that America has by far the largest GDP in the world and that comparable countries spend a much lower share of their GDP on military expenditures. A statement like this would show that the US is indeed rich as fuck (the real reason for being #1) but also that perhaps the US does spend too much on the military. Stupid statements with no perspective, like pointing out that the US spends more than the next 26 countries combined, means nothing without context. (Journalists seem to love numbers--26, 40 quadrillion barrels, 100 thousand barrels--which hardly mean anything, and are adverse to percentages and comparisons.) But what do I know, I'm not a journalist.

The Newsroom keys in on broadcast journalism, and there are actually a few good moments in the pilot when everyone is scrambling after the Deepwater Horizon rig blows up and they are trying to figure out what happened. The tension in newsroom--the uncertainty of what happened and what's going to happen, whether the story will blow up in their faces--is exciting stuff. Unfortunately, it also shows what's wrong with journalism. Who are these journalists? Are they experts about anything? The answer, after seeing the characters interact for over an hour, is an emphatic no. These are regular people, spurned to action by proximity to computers with the AP wire, not education or special ability. Then they try to dig deeper. "Should government regulators have done more?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?" We see the uncritical eye of journalist and the problem with the 24/7 newscycle. They look for a simple answers to problems, thinking there are never tradeoffs between things. Suppose the rigs have a 0.001% chance of exploding in a year, and suppose checking them once a month reduces this risk to 0.00099% (either by catching a problem or companies being more careful as a result), then is there a clear imperative that they should be checked each month? What happens when a serious fault is found? Is there an incentive through a fine/punishment so companies make sure there are no problems, even minor ones? Shouldn't this be important information for these "great men?"  (Obviously I have no clue about any specifics, but that's the kind of information I'd like to know.) At the most basic level, these journalists should recognize that no one wants an oil rig to blow up and that the risk of explosion may depend on how much things cost, but apparently no one cared to find out these things.

There is instant reaction to developing stories, regardless of all the facts. Journalists are so eager to get the story out and they know so little that they end up going on air, spouting off a few choice facts, getting into the faces of interviewees, entertaining the public, and suddenly they're supposed to be revered. That's horseshit and apparently what Aaron Sorkin is promoting.

I caught up on The Killing in the past week, and if there's one thing that was clear to me after watching episodes consecutively, it's that you can't keep the tone and lighting of a show so gloomy for 26 episodes. It's not the story that bothered me (though a good story could have helped) so much as the sluggishness and overall feel of the show. By the end, I just wanted it to be over with. As for the eventual reveal of the real killer Terry, I thought that came together fairly well. I believe in my first review of The Killing, I predicted the killer would be Jamie, thinking his crazy political aspirations would lead him to kill. Close enough, I guess!

Falling Skies hasn't changed, unfortunately. This week's episode featured one of the stupidest moments on the series, Tom volunteering to join the Berserkers right after they try to kill him. This is somehow supposed to make sense, but it just makes Tom look either stupid or too boy scout. The rest of the episode is a tad more sensible. Jimmy gets killed off kind of randomly and a plane supposedly from Charleston arrives. In the end, the group heads south for Charleston where great promises await. The characters didn't seem to mind that it sounded far too good to be true, though. I guess that never happened in Tom's history books.

True Blood always starts seasons quickly, but this season is quite different, with the third episode essentially repeating everything in the second episode, which was already a bit sparse. We get different looks at the same situation, but overall it was a bit surprisingly to see the season proceed in this manner. Maybe this means the end of the season will be exciting for change. The stuff that is usually good remained good, so Pam's flashbacks were great, as well as the exploration into vampire history. Of course there was the usual bad parts with Tara and the pointless Terry parts.

I have been reluctant to comment on Continuum since it doesn't air in the US, but by the time it reaches Syfy, I'll probably have forgotten everything. The show continues to expand on the future and it also dived into time travel mechanics, namely what would happen if someone's ancestor was killed. As we saw in this week's episode, killing one's grandmother does nothing to that person. Huge implications for the future and whether Kiera can actually return to where she belongs.

Suits builds on the discord sown in the season two premiere with more drama and setup for the future. This time we see more Rachel and how she fits in to Mike's life. Mike wants to be with her and honest, but Harvey recognizes that more people should not know about Mike's secret, and since Harvey has more power, Mike has to comply. They haven't reached the stage yet where Mike would be willing to blackmail Harvey, but that's definitely a possibility, given their predicament.

Burn Notice seems to have gotten a second wind in its sixth season, although it's yet to be seen whether it lasts. With Fiona dealing with people in prison and Michael not thinking straight, there are more elements which actually matter than in previous seasons when there was a random big bad to contend with.

Wilfred is a puzzling show and the second season premiere may be the most puzzling episode yet. It drags us back and forth between Ryan's work and the mental institution, both equally crazy places, before settling in a world where Ryan is still a lawyer, albeit a very tired one, Jenna is still there but is with another guy (Edit: it's Drew, actually), and the basement exists. At the end of the day, Wilfred is a show about a talking dog. It'll be delightful no matter what, regardless of the plot.

Dallas took a step down in the second week as we got to see how the show would go without the normal expository material. There is more of the shady dealings, backstabbings, and characters trying to control their feelings, but also a lot more of the clunky, juvenile science from the first two episodes. It's embarrassingly bad. Even the most seasoned actors wouldn't be able to make it sound believable.

Royal Pains is trying to go for more drama this season and I'm hesitant to say whether this was a good move. Admittedly, Hank and Evan fighting is more interesting than the usual storylines, but this constant sniping undermines their characters and makes them all look back, Divya included. One thing I'll say for certain is that the handling of Jill's story has been horrific. The writers drag out her leaving for a season, then abruptly has her job taken away right before leaving, and then in last week's episode gets a new, better job in Africa. WTF?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reviews 6/12/12 - 6/18/12

The first season of Falling Skies was hit or miss--mostly miss. It has a cool idea, a band of humans fight back against aliens following a quick invasion, but the theme never realized itself into good television. The show tried, once in a while, to capture the post-apocalyptic feeling that should have been ever present given their horrible predicament; however, this would promptly be tamped by these mind numbing scenes when Tom strolls back into camp, has a reunion with his boys, and everyone is happy. Almost every episode ended with everyone happy, thinking that everything would be okay, and if all is well, then there's little tension from week to week. The cheese factor was far too high for any serious drama to exist. The second season premiere improves on these problems somewhat--I suspect, by virtue of plot density--and is more watchable than the previous season. Everything turns out fine in the end (this feature of the show is going to stay whether we like it or not), but at least there are several important difficulties which won't be resolved in next week's episode. There is actually distrust going on with Tom and his sons, and among them, and Pope isn't playing games anymore. On the mythology front, we learn that the skitters have this parasite/machine that can implant itself into people, bore holes in jars to escape, and fly back to a skitter and jump in its eye--that's it. The cliffhanger at the end of last season is mostly brushed away, with a tall alien giving out platitudes about surrendering and whatnot before letting Tom go and shooting the other prisoners. I'm hoping Falling Skies improves this season, but I love the idea behind the show so much that I'm sticking around for it no matter what.

Girls has been a very controversial show, and after watching the season finale, I think much of the arguing had nothing to do with the show itself. There is nothing about the show that warrants too much discussion. One side says something negative, the other feels compelled not only to heap unwarranted praise on the show (like saying the first season is the greatest thing ever) but also to start attacking the other side personally. From what I've read in the AV Club, negative discussion of the show would often end up in accusations of sexism...... because that's the only reason why you wouldn't like it. I mean seriously, is someone saying that Lena Dunham unattractive sexist? And is Todd VanDerWerff having a section on Glee's girls each week equally sexist? (The funny thing is, I clearly remember people complaining about it before but he and other gentlemen never cared. I suppose the lesson here is that objectifying not super-hot women gets a knee-jerk MISOGYNY cry while objectifying super-hot women does not.)You know what's sexist? The guy in India who cut off his daughter's head and paraded it around town. The Taliban poisoning the water supply of a girls' school. A ton of those Hollywood director who use the casting couch. You see these people white knighting on the AV Club, directing their vitriol random commentators to make themselves feel better, and it's pretty sad. Why not attack every show with a hot girl who can't act? Attack HBO for putting all that T&A in Game of Thrones.

About the show itself, Girls is a fun show, with enough unexpected events each week to keep viewers on their toes. But let's not pretend Girls is anything more than a quaint, quirky show that fits in with the rest of HBO's comedies. This isn't revolutionary or anything. The characters are unlikable, spoiled, and full of neuroses (a pleasant way of saying they're self-obsessed). Shoshanna isn't too bad, but her character seems to come from an NBC sitcom, not this warped reality. We never see them put effort into anything, nor are they particularly good people. Somehow, they manage to survive despite not doing anything of value. In this sense, 2 Broke Girls is actually more realistic. Girls tries to go deeper than purely work issues, to find something inside of the characters that viewers would be surprised to find inside themselves, but I think these glimmers of humanity never quite come through all the unlikable features, although there are some intersections. In the end, I like seeing what the characters do each week since the settings and situation vary so much, but there's nothing actually redeeming about any part of the show.

In week two, True Blood has already fallen into the trap of previous season--a couple interesting parts and the rest useless. The writers just love to keep 10 separate storylines, thinking each should be in every episode, when these protracted plots serve to make the episodes almost unbearable. (Is it too hard to do it Vampire Diaries style, putting off a couple plots for a a number of weeks, then bringing it back in full force, so viewers don't get bored?) Worse, the portrayal of the Authority leaves something to be desired. Although their rituals and religion are cool additions to the show, the Authority seems rather incompetent. They don't know anything about what's going on, or what Bill and Eric have been up to. For a group of seemingly powerful vampires, you'd think they'd have a massive database of information about every vampire, and spies everywhere. Instead, they're interrogating and getting nothing. And why would they need Bill and Eric to get Russell if they were so powerful themselves?

Suits is easily the most compelling drama on USA. I guess this isn't too much of a complement, considering how USA executives purposefully dumb things down, but I'd also say that Suits is more compelling than anything on TNT (maybe except The Closer). There is serious drama on the show--Mike lying about his education, Mike's girl problems, and now the other partner, Hardman, returning--and that USA slickness and carefree attitude we've come to know. All of this comes together in a nice package, and it makes Suits not only a good USA drama, but a good drama in general.

If you were to draw a string from one Burn Notice big bad to another, you'd notice something peculiar: it's one long chain. There's one big bad, then another, then another, each related only to the one directly before and after. It's this kind of storytelling which has driven Burn Notice for five seasons and is unlikely to stop, as Matt Nix basically admits that the network is the reason why the show is the way it is, if you read between the lines a bit. (Exact quote: For a lot of reasons, many of them having to do with how the show works on the network — and I’m not blaming anyone for this — our season premieres often have to hit the reset button fairly quickly.) It's a little different with Fi in prison for the time being, I'm guessing until the midseason finale, but the show can largely operate in the same way. Anson pops in once in a while, Jesse fills in for Fi, Fi has to survive in prison, and the rest of the parts fall in place.

I have a hard time caring about Royal Pains's ongoing stories. I barely remember what went down with Hank and Evan's father, and I've tuned out the Boris drama. But nothing irks me more than the Jill stuff. Since the very beginning of the show, Jill has been an ill-defined character, being part of the show only because she had a relationship with Hank. Slowly, this included Divya, but she's always been a pointless character outside of her interactions with the more important characters. The writers then tried to spice things up by having her take a position in Uruguay, and this dragged on for a season. But the writers hit a complete reset last week, having the job fall through. I get it, she doesn't have a job now and sets up a situation where she can help Hank with HankMed, but seriously, this kind of string pulling makes Burn Notice look good.

While the new Dallas isn't as bad as the recent Blue Lagoon remake on Lifetime (which is a serious challenger for the worst thing created in the history of forever), it's also not great television. The story is similar to the original, with JR, a billion years old, and his son John Ross scheming to no end while Bobby and his adopted son Christopher try to stay afloat. The first two episodes contain a multitude of twists, and by the end of it, we really get the sense that most of the characters are terrible people who have no morality and will stop at nothing to get what they want. One of the clunkiest parts of the show is when the writers are trying to be modern, bringing in this alternative energy angle. It's comes off as juvenile with discussion about Elena and Christopher's college degrees, as if an undergraduate education will be enough to compete with firms with millions of dollars who are hiring PhDs. Yeah, Elena can totally turn the tides of alternative energy!

Franklin and Bash is a silly, stupid show. Each episode has a court scene where everything goes bonkers and flies in the face of every other courtroom show. It's this kind of thing which sets the show apart from others and why I continue to watch it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reviews 6/05/12 - 6/11/12

Longmire's second episode once again brings the characters into another culture, Mennonites this week. It's a bit odd that both episodes would have these cultural backdrops, with several sections of exposition and explanations. Hopefully we don't go visit Montana Chinatown next week. The rest of the episode expands on the various plots for this season, the big mystery over Longmire's back and Cady sleeping with Branch. The latter is mostly fine, but the former is gives me pause with the whole "mystery dialogue" thing going on, where characters speak obliquely about things so viewers don't know exactly what's going on.

Mad Men's very strong fifth season ended with an episode that was just okay for a season finale. Now, okay for Mad Men would be a dream for other shows, but a lot of the episode seemed disconnected. First, Adam and the tooth--way on the nose. Overall, the episode lacked a central plot core outside of the character relationships. It has a little bit of everyone--Roger and Marie, Peter and Beth, Don and Megan--but not any chain of events that would constitute much of a complete plot. There has been relatively little advertising this season, and the season finale reflected this. Even the idea of expanding the office isn't played up to be a big deal. Actually, the episode felt a lot like the theme of the episode, the unobtainable. I'm reaching for the main plot of episode, but instead only find thematic connections. The episode ends with Don walking away from Megan and ending up at a bar. It looks like this seals the fate of their marriage, as Don is willing to let her go, even if he knows this will end their marriage. He tried to keep her close the entire season, but Megan didn't want to, and Don acknowledges that certain things just have to play out. Megan has actually been a pretty decent person through the season, despite concerns that she'd be conniving, given how she married Don. But we finally see that side of her when she screws over her friend and gets the role instead of suggesting her to Don. I don't think she'll be sticking around too much longer.

Veep's first season looks like it's going to end with Selina on top, somehow making the public like her despite all her gaffs. But then it all collapses and she's in worse shape than when the episode began. The thing about Veep is that we never really feel the full implications of the shitstorm of the week. There are never any permanent changes that really affect the makeup of the show. Overall, Veep's first season has been pretty entertaining, to see Selina and her staff scramble each week to fix problems only to create more, but I don't think the show ever reached the level of must-watch television.

The beginning of True Blood's seasons are always good. We have new plots, new characters, and a plate full of new problems. The fifth season premiere is no exception, serving up plenty of funny moments while keeping the plot moving. The most interesting plot, as always, is when vampires and involved. The Authority stuff is pretty interesting, complicated by Russell Edgington's return. On the other end of the spectrum is Sam's ongoing feud with the wolfpack. Sam hasn't been a relevant characters, except in his own little world, for so long that it's hard to care. Even Terry gets a more interesting story, with a military friend telling him how the rest of the squad members had fires burn down their houses. So it wasn't crazy ghost lady? The episode ends with Tara bursting out of the ground and she probably isn't too happy.

Unfortunately, quality of episodes waxes and wanes on the characters they focus on. Sooner or later, there's going to be a Sam episode and everyone will be bored out of their minds. Or maybe the season will devolve like it did last season and everything will be stupid. In any case, the writers have proven, unquestionably, over the past few seasons that their capacity for utter failure rises as the season progresses.

Going into Fairly Legal's season finale, I wonder why the writers decided to add Ben to the show. He's not a bad character, at least not in comparison to the others on the show, but he's not exactly an improvement. And what the writers are doing with him, making him Kate's love interest from afar, is a big stretch. I mean, are they trying to spice up the show? Give Kate something to do? To me, it seems like the writers are grasping at straws trying to make the show work.

Saving Hope: No, Daniel Jackson didn't die and ascend again. Michael Shanks plays a doctor in a coma who  is floating outside his body, watching everyone at the hospital. You can quickly tell why the show was relegated to summer duty. Its filled to the brim with lens flares that would make Michael Bay blush, and the plotting is clunky, awkwardly moving from one patient to the next, with Shanks randomly sounding off about one thing or another.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Reviews 5/29/12 - 6/4/12

Longmire is quite impressive for an A&E show. It's not bombastic or cutesy, and doesn't have any huge lapses in logic. The pilot sets out a solid premise and gives us an idea of what conflicts we can see in the future. There is the contentious relationship between the sheriff's department and those on the reservation, one of the deputies running against him, and Walt dealing with his wife's death. Along with Robert Taylor's stoic yet damaged portrayal of Longmire, the show gets off to a good start, better than I predicted.

Mad Men: I'll wait to see how the season finale deals with the fallout if Lane's suicide before saying too much about it. For now, I'll just say that it did feel too abrupt. Mainly, his money problems have been really intermittent, only a big deal in one episode, and his personal problems not much more extreme than any of the other dysfunctional characters. Yeah, he was probably the most pathetic of the bunch, but Pete has been pretty terrible as well. Perhaps it would have been too obvious if the writers kept completely shitting on Lane each episode. As the episode progresses, Lane gets in worse and worse shape, Don firing him, the Jaguar not working, and then he's dead. Mad Men is a show that doesn't need this kind of shock value, especially when there are plenty of other interesting plots which don't require a death. I'll wait and see how things work out. The rest of the episode was a bit odd with creepy Glen as the focal point of the "life sucks" theme. Glen, seriously? At least we saw him in the season before this episode so it wasn't completely random.

Veep revealed what kind of it show it was in the opening minutes of this week's episode when we learn Selina had a miscarriage. It won't be a show with long, ongoing stories, and that's fine with me. The episode actually wraps up a couple stories that have been going on despite the potential for large changes. In the end, Amy takes responsibility for the birth control, sort of like the John Edwards situation, which also explains her behavior towards the Secret Service agent. Problems solved. From the episodes that have aired so far, this format seems to work fine, with a new problem each week and maybe some carryover from previous episodes. It's not like the show is trying to be realistic and imitate real life.

Game of Thrones has so many different plots in addition to definite paths it'll head in the next season that the season finale couldn't possibility bring everything together. It's forced to jump from plot to plot, from character to character, from location to location without much pause in order to fit everything into a single episode. Instead of listing the plot, I'll just mention how great Theon's scene was. It was reminiscent of Tyrion's speech in the previous episode, and Alfie Allen just enough crazy into the speech that it boils over and Theon gets thumped from behind. The execution of the scene was perfect, making it very funny while underscoring how out of touch he is.

Book spoilers: I've wanted to see how the show would tackle the House of Undying, the most obscure part of A Clash of Kings. Dany is instructed to always take the door on the right, so she keeps going up and up, with weird things happening all over the place, until she reaches the dragons and they burn everything down. The show portrayal is more palatable, with less hallucinatory qualities, and more grounding to reality.

When I realized that Magic City's first season would end last Friday, I was a bit puzzled. It seems like in the eight episodes, not much has happened. Yes, Ike is now in jail, Meg owns a portion of the Miramar Playa, Ben Diamond knows about Stevie and Lily, Vera is back to dancing, but the build up to these events never felt important. Instead of fully fleshed out plots leading to these moments, there were little droplets of plot points which eventually lead to the ending. Take Ike ending up in jail. It's just a series of coincidences and misfortune that lead him there. He makes a deal with Ben Diamond, who happens to be a bloodthirsty murderer, he keeps Judy alive by killing the hitman, and then FBI Albie Grant is also out of control like Ben. All these things happen to conspire against Ike. Oddly, we never really see what makes Ike a good businessman. He basically fails in every business dealing we see him doing. We're supposed to assume that he is, from all the events and whatnot at his hotel, but we never actually see him negotiating, leaving open the possibility that the hotel itself, not Ike, is the reason why the events come to the hotel. Another thing is how incomplete some stories are. Victor and Mercedes have been on the outskirts of the show, rarely important other than when Maria is being discussed or when Mercedes is with Danny. When Maria dies, we're supposed to care a lot after seeing so little of them.

This is not to say Magic City is bad. Far from it. Magic City, in Starz fashion, did not reach HBO level as was expected, but turned out to be a pretty good show, which very watchable even if the plot developments needed more. I'll be watching next season.
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