Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pilot Review: House of Lies

House of Lies (Sundays at 10:00 on Showtime; premieres January 8)

Showtime has had an incredible track record of late, rivaling (even surpassing, depending on who you ask) that of fellow premium network adversary HBO. Their new drama Homeland was a critic darling this fall and is already making the awards show rounds; The Big C and Nurse Jackie continue to dominate "must see" lists; Dexter's audience grew immensely throughout its most recent (fifth) season; and Weeds was recently renewed for an eighth season, making it the network's longest-running series ever. So they're rolling out a new round of programming in 2012, beginning with the comedy House of Lies.

House of Lies is about Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), a self-hating and manipulative management consultant, and his co-workers. They work for one of the best consulting firms in the country, and they stop at nothing to win clients and earn their seven figure salaries. Marty must also deal with his ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri), a drug-addicted consultant for a rival firm and the mother of his son; his father (Glynn Turman), a former psychiatrist who takes care of things while Mary is away on business; and his son (Donis Leonard Jr.), a flamboyant and possibly transgendered theatre kid.

Right off the bat, House of Lies isn't very funny, at least not in a laugh-out-loud way. The humor is a bit darker, a bit more subversive. The pilot's strongest moments revolve around this type of humor, and they typically involve the quirky supporting cast; Olivieri's character is especially funny in a horrifying way as the world's worst mother. That's when the show has some spark. Otherwise, it's relatively standard and even dull. The constant pause/cutaway technique employed in which Cheadle directly addresses the camera is 1) not funny, 2) inconsistent and 3) overused. The first example of this comes about one minute into the premiere and lasts for only a few seconds, when Marty says, "Never fuck your ex-wife." The rest of the cutaways have to do with his business, so I'm not sure exactly what purpose they serve: advice? private thoughts? boring inner monologues?

The supporting cast is criminally underused in this first episode. Kristen Bell has but a few lines, none of which are funny, and the same goes for Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson as the remainder of Marty's team. No one makes any sort of impression (I can't even remember their names) because no one is given anything to do, other than Cheadle. He's a great actor, no doubt, and he can easily do both funny and poignant. But carrying a show with an already-dull premise of management consultants might prove to be too much for him, if his borderline-lackluster performance in the pilot is any indication. Donis Leonard Jr. fares the best of everyone in this episode; he has the most fascinating character (a young boy who dresses and acts like a girl) and the most charming scenes. But it's a waste of talent to have gifted comedians like Bell and Schwartz on your show and then to not showcase their abilities.

My biggest issue with House of Lies is that it's just not all that interesting. It's entertaining enough to fill 25 minutes, but it's not something that left me caring to watch again. Management consulting is (apparently, from what I gathered in this episode) a boring profession, and Marty is a relatively boring character. The self-hating, blase womanizer has been done to death, including by House of Lies' partner series Californication. What's the point of doing it again? Creator Matthew Carnahan (who also did the short-lived Courtney Cox series Dirt) doesn't have anything new to say, nor does he have an interesting way in which to say it.

Monday, December 26, 2011

What I'll Be Watching - Winter/Spring 2012

New shows in italics
 
Monday

Gossip Girl (CW)
Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family)
Alcatraz (Fox)
Being Human (SyFy)
It's a Brad, Brad World (Bravo)
Castle (ABC)
RuPaul's Drag Race (Logo)
Smash (NBC)
Touch (Fox)

Tuesday

Glee (Fox)
Ringer (CW)
Tabatha Takes Over (Bravo)
Southland (TNT)
The River (ABC)
Breaking In (Fox)

Wednesday

Mobbed (Fox)
Top Chef: Texas (Bravo)
Revenge (ABC)
Whitney (NBC)
Are You There, Chelsea? (NBC)
Survivor: One World (CBS)
Psych (USA)

Thursday

The Vampire Diaries (CW)
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
The Secret Circle (CW)
Jersey Shore (MTV)
Project Runway All Stars (Lifetime)
The Firm (NBC)

Friday

A Gifted Man (CBS)
Nikita (CW)
Grimm (NBC)
Blue Bloods (CBS)

Sunday

The Cleveland Show (Fox)
Family Guy (Fox)
American Dad! (Fox)
Once Upon a Time (ABC)
The Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo)
Pan Am (ABC)
Jerseylicious (Style)
The Walking Dead (AMC)
The Celebrity Apprentice (NBC)
GCB (ABC)
Bob's Burgers (Fox)

There you have it; everything I'll be watching week-in and week-out through the end of March 2012. Of course not all of these shows will be on  the air at the same time; if they were, I would be committed to nothing but TV every hour of every day. But it's still a lot to tackle, so I'm counting on some of the new shows to be duds (I just have a feeling The Firm and Alcatraz are going to be huge disappointments that I won't end up keeping up with...) and for some of the older shows to lose my interest (shows like Pretty Little Liars and The Walking Dead have already started testing my last nerve, while others like Nikita, Gossip Girl, Pan Am and Once Upon a Time just don't make me crave more and therefore might need to go). Anyone looking forward to anything else premiering in the coming months?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Midseason Change-Ups: Fox, CBS, CW

Sorry for the bombardment of new posts, but I had these midseason ones saved as drafts which I just forgot to publish. Enjoy!

Fox

After a disappointing fall showing in which their standing as the highest-rated network was threatened, Fox is looking to some new shows with some name recognition to pull them out of this hole they've fallen into. Fox didn't formally cancel any shows this fall, though two of them are not present on the midseason schedule because they had no way of producing new episodes for spring: Terra Nova and Allen Gregory. Other than that, Fox has a pretty confusing schedule to make room for all of the shows it needs to get on the air since they do not air the 10:00 hour and have three hours per week dedicated to American Idol.

Monday

8:00 - House
9:00 - Alcatraz (beginning January 16)
9:00 - Touch (beginning March 19; preview January 25)

This is looking more and more like the final season of House as Hugh Laurie's contract comes to an end and the ratings flounder. Alcatraz has the benefit of being produced by J.J. Abrams, and Touch stars Kiefer Sutherland. Both shows should do well enough based on the names attached them alone.

Tuesday

8:00 - Glee
8:00 - New Girl (repeats, beginning March 6)
8:30 - Breaking In (beginning March 6)
9:00 - New Girl
9:30 - Raising Hope

Glee will take a brief hiatus as it did last year for about six weeks, when surprise last-minute renewal Breaking In returns for a second season. But Fox likely isn't thinking much of its chances, since it will have a repeat of New Girl as its lead-in rather than a new episode of something else (I Hate My Teenage Daughter, anyone? It still has 10 episodes left to air).

Wednesday

8:00 - American Idol (beginning January 18)
9:00 - Mobbed (through February 8)

American Idol will expand to two hours on February 15, but until then the second hour is occupied by four episodes of Howie Mandel's flash mob reality show Mobbed. It had a great premiere last spring but only a so-so showing this past fall; perhaps it's because flash mobs are being done to death nowadays.

Thursday

8:00 - American Idol (beginning January 19)
9:00 - The Finder (beginning January 12)

Veteran drama Bones is left off the schedule while its spin-off The Finder takes its post-Idol slot. Bones will return in April to finish its abbreviated season (due to the lead's pregnancy).

Friday

8:00 - Kitchen Nightmares
9:00 - Fringe

This will likely be the last season of Fringe, as it routinely comes in 3rd in its timeslot (behind NBC and CBS) and has now reached enough episodes for a syndication deal. I would've preferred to see Mobbed take the 8:00 slot from Kitchen Nightmares, but this series is holding up pretty well so I'm not surprised to see it returning for a spring season.

Sunday

7:30 - The Cleveland Show
8:00 - The Simpson
8:30 - Napoleon Dynamite (beginning January 15)
8:30 - Bob's Burgers (beginning March 11)
9:00 - Family Guy
9:30 - American Dad

Fox has a lot more cartoons to air than it has time to do so. American Dad was off the air so frequently last season that it has a backlog of upwards of 20 episodes to air before they even get to the most recent cycle ordered. Bob's Burgers received a 22 episode order for its sophomore season, but it will likely extend into the summer since it does not return until after Napoleon Dynamite airs all 6 of its episodes. Speaking of Napoleon Dynamite, it's airing two episodes on its first night: one at 8:30 and one at 9:30. It's a good strategy since The Simpsons and Family Guy are both potentially strong lead-ins but with two different senses of humor, but these will be two new episodes instead of an original and a repeat. Then it will air two more repeats over the next eight weeks, even though it only has a six episode order. Seems like a waste of timeslots to me.

CBS

CBS's schedule remained almost entirely intact, save for some minor changes on Thursdays and Fridays. They also, however, left their new show NYC 22 (formerly The 2-2) off the schedule entirely. It says something about CBS's audience that they rarely have a misfire, especially when it comes to dramas; they stick to a formula and have great success within it. The only series not returning from the fall is How to Be a Gentleman.

Thursday

8:00 - The Big Bang Theory
8:30 - Rob (beginning January 12)
9:00 - Person of Interest
10:00 - The Mentalist

Perennial reject Rules of Engagement will once again be swapped out of its slot for a new sitcom, this time for the fish-out-of-water family sitcom Rob, starring Rob Schneider as the only white guy in a Mexican family. Whenever it bombs, Rules of Engagement will return to that timeslot.

Friday

8:00 - A Gifted Man
8:00 - Undercover Boss (beginning February 17)
9:00 - CSI: NY (through February 10)
9:00 - A Gifted Man (February 17 - March 9)
10:00 - Blue Bloods

Despite its ratings struggles, A Gifted Man got an order for an additional 3 episodes as schedule filler. It will return to its regular slot at 8:00 until Undercover Boss switches there (it will air Sundays at 8:00 for 3 weeks in January). Then A Gifted Man will shift back an hour for its final few episodes, its last chance to find an audience once it has a decent lead-in. CSI:NY makes the first steps toward cancellation when it leaves the schedule in February. It hasn't been announced whether or not it will return in March, or if Fridays at 9:00 is where NYC 22 will end up.

The rest of CBS's lineup is the same as the fall.

CW

The CW gave full-season orders to all of its freshmen series and extended orders to all of its returning dramas. So that leaves only Wednesday nights open for its new programming, which includes the final 13-episode season of veteran One Tree Hill and the new fashion reality show Remodeled. Missing from the midseason schedule is the new reality competition series The Frame, which will likely debut in the summer due to its needing to air more than one night per week. So the only change for the schedule is to Wednesdays:

Wednesday

8:00 - One Tree Hill (beginning January 11)
9:00 - Remodeled (beginning January 18)

This is actually misleading because the first two episodes of Remodeled will originally air following 90210 on Tuesday, January 17 and 24. Repeats will air the following nights on the 18th and 25th, with original episodes airing in this timeslot beginning February 1. America's Next Top Model will return to the schedule later in the spring, after Remodeled completes its premiere season.

Midseason Change-Ups: ABC, NBC

ABC

ABC has one of the largest overhauls of midseason. Gone from the schedule completely are Charlie's Angels and Man Up, while Pan Am will be making its final descent before March and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition says goodbye in January. ABC had quite a few unexpected successes in the fall which have led to an overcrowded schedule in the spring after full-season pickups for freshmen Revenge, Once Upon a Time, Suburgatory and Last Man Standing, as well as surprise sophomore hit Happy Endings (though its success is likely based around its slot following one of TV's biggest shows, Modern Family). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) that left few slots for the many shows ABC had ordered as midseason replacements: early favorite Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 and the new Shonda Rimes series Scandal are both absent from the schedule.

Monday

8:00 - The Bachelor (beginning January 2)
8:00 - Dancing with the Stars (beginning March 19)
10:00 - Castle

No real changes, nothing unexpected.

Tuesday

8:00 - Last Man Standing
8:30 - Work It (beginning January 3)
8:30 - Cougar Town (beginning in March)
9:00 - Celebrity Wife Swap (January 3-31)
9:00 - The River (beginning February 7)
9:00 - Dancing with the Stars Results (beginning March 20)
10:00 - Body of Proof

Lots going on here. Man Up is replaced by the equally-awful-looking Work It, which has already come under fire from critics and social groups for being offensive. Fan-favorite but ratings-challenged Cougar Town returns either after Work It airs all of its episodes or is pulled from the schedule. The highly-anticipated The River completes its entire run of 7 episodes before the new season of Dancing with the Stars takes over in March. Struggling sophomore series Body of Proof somehow remained untouched, perhaps due to the number of episodes it has left to air; but that 10:00 slot would've been great for Scandal...

Wednesday

8:00 - The Middle
8:30 - Suburgatory
9:00 - Modern Family
9:30 - Happy Endings
10:00 - Revenge

No changes here for ABC's strongest night, though I wouldn't be surprised if Apartment 23 takes the 9:30 slot around April...

Thursday

8:00 - Wipeout (beginning January 5)
8:00 - Missing (beginning March 15)
9:00 - Grey's Anatomy
10:00 - Private Practice

Wipeout is the only show ABC has really had any success with in this timeslot, so there's a lot riding on Missing to work there. Otherwise it's back to the drawing board yet again for the fall...

Friday

8:00 - Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
8:00 - Shark Tank (beginning January 20)
9:00 - What Would You Do? (beginning January 20)
10:00 - 20/20

And the veteran reality series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition gives its final bow in January after eight years on the air.

Sunday

8:00 - Once Upon a Time
9:00 - Desperate Housewives
10:00 - Pan Am (through February 19)
10:00 - GCB (beginning March 4)

Despite a strong premiere, Pan Am just couldn't stabilize; it will leave the schedule after airing 13 episodes to make room for GCB (formerly Good Christian Belles). ABC is banking heavily on GCB's success, looking for something to replace Desperate Housewives when it ends this May. It will get a heavy promotional push during the Oscars, and hopefully it will work out for them.

NBC

NBC had yet another rough fall season. Only one new drama received a full-season pickup (Grimm), and the two freshman sitcoms were renewed on mediocre ratings (Up All Night, Whitney). Its flagship series (The Biggest Loser, Law & Order: SVU, The Office) are slipping in the ratings, and they're struggling for even minor hits. Last winter's schedule-filler The Sing Off was a hit in the off-season, but its success failed to translate to the regular season. So NBC will be relying on last season's smash The Voice to carry their midseason schedule, which includes some questionable moves. Low-rated legal drama Harry's Law received a miraculous full-season order, in spite of NBC having a good number of midseason replacements now left off the schedule: Awake, Bent, Best Friends Forever, Betty White's Off Their Rockers.

Monday

8:00 - The Voice (beginning February 6, special debut February 5)
10:00 - Smash (beginning February 6)

After Who's Still Standing? and Fear Factor finish their winter runs, what should be NBC's strongest night takes over. The Voice was huge last year, and it can only be helped by the fact that the season will premiere immediately following the Super Bowl on Sunday and then resume the next night in its regular timeslot. There's also a lot of positive buzz surrounding Smash, the musical drama about the creation of a Broadway show.

Tuesday

8:00 - The Biggest Loser
10:00 - Parenthood
10:00 - Fashion Star (beginning March 6)

Parenthood is NBC's most consistent drama, but it will leave the schedule after February sweeps (much like it did last year) to make room for the new reality show Fashion Star, a competition show which sees undiscovered fashion designers pitching their lines to buyers. It has some star power behind it with Elle Macpherson and Jessica Simpson, but I don't see there being much of an audience for this new series (especially considering all of the other fashion competition shows there are on cable).

Wednesday

8:00 - Whitney
8:30 - Are You There, Chelsea?
9:00 - Harry's Law (through February 1)
9:00 - Rock Center (beginning February 8)
10:00 - Law & Order: SVU

Whitney debuted to some moderate success this fall, but in an effort to save the more beloved of the new sitcoms (Up All Night), NBC has switched its slot to lead-off a new comedy hour with the similarly-themed Are You There, Chelsea? (which is a horrible title; if the original was too long, why not just shorten it to Are You There, Vodka? - so stupid). Brian Williams's newsmagazine Rock Center will make way for Smash on Monday nights, so it takes over the 9:00 slot that same week. Harry's Law gets shipped off to Sundays, though it will be off the air for February sweeps; doesn't make much sense to me...

Thursday

8:00 - 30 Rock (beginning January 12)
8:30 - Parks & Recreation
9:00 - The Office
9:30 - Up All Night
10:00 - The Firm (beginning January 12, premieres January 8)

30 Rock finally returns after Tina Fey's pregnancy to replace Community, which was left off the midseason schedule despite having a full-season order. Up All Night takes the prime slot after The Office, and the new drama The Firm takes over for the now-canceled Prime Suspect. I don't understand why The Firm was put here (it was originally announced for Sundays at 10:00 back in May, a more appropriate timeslot); clearly these dramas aren't working too well following a two-hour comedy block, so why not try other comedies there? NBC has plenty to choose from between the new sitcoms still waiting to be aired and the benched fan-favorite Community. Again, doesn't make much sense to me...

Friday

8:00 - Chuck
8:00 - Who Do You Think You Are? (beginning February 3)
9:00 - Grimm
10:00 - Dateline

Chuck finally gives its swan song on January 27, more than a year after it should've been canceled. Freshman drama Grimm has been NBC's biggest success, pulling better numbers on a Friday than many of its Monday-Thursday shows. NBC made an attempt (a half-assed one) to air Grimm on Thursday night at 10:00, but it ended up with the same exact ratings as on Fridays. So if Fridays can become a stable night for the network, then that's still a win.

Sunday

8:00 - Harry's Law (beginning March 4)
9:00 - The Celebrity Apprentice (beginning February 12)

So here we get the final few episodes of Harry's Law in a timeslot where NBC has not had a successful scripted show in about seven years. This is the slot where The West Wing went to die, so I guess they're doing the same for this show, though it would've been easier (and made more sense) to just not pick up a full season. But I guess they're experimenting, so we'll see how that goes. This season of The Celebrity Apprentice has a crazy cast (and some actual celebrities!), so it should do as well as, if not better than, last season.

Miniseries Review: Bag of Bones

Bag of Bones (Continuing to air on A&E throughout December)

I don't quite understand the allure of Stephen King to both readers and moviewatchers. I've never read one of his books, as they seem overly long and tedious if the film adaptations are any clue. There are obviously some very successful adaptations in the past (The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, etc.), but recent adaptations have failed to achieve that same level of commercial or critical success; The Mist was the last film I'd say was successfully adapted from a King novel, though it was not a box office draw and the ending was completely changed from King's original. So I always wonder, whenever a new King film or miniseries is in the works, why producers keep trying to catch lightning in a bottle. After slugging through Bag of Bones, I'm still wondering.

Michael Noonan (Pierce Brosnan) is a best-selling novelist who is dealing with a bout of writers' block following the untimely death of his pregnant wife, Jo (Annabeth Gish). He decides to spend some time at a lake house which he inherited years ago from his grandfather in the small town of Dark Scores, Maine. While there he realizes that his wife's spirit is with him, though there are some dangerous ghosts haunting the town as well, namely the vengeful spirit of blues singer Sara Tidwell (Anika Noni Rose). As Michael delves further into the mystery of Sara's disappearance, he gets tangled in a decades-old curse concerning his family and the families of many other Dark Scores residents, including that of his new love interest (Melissa George).

The plot is fairly straightforward, as most ghost stories are. The scares can be seen from a mile away, and so can the plot's "twist." So we get four boring hours of Pierce Brosnan talking on the phone, going for jogs, writing a book, rearranging refrigerator magnets, listening to old records, and dreaming... lots and lots of dreaming. Bag of Bones' story could have easily been told in about 90 minutes, so the fact that it's dragged out to more than twice that length is excruciating. To add to the runtime, the already-thin plotline is padded with meaningless dream sequences and unnecessary cameos from Jason Priestley (as Michael's agent) and Matt Frewer (as Michael's brother).

Pierce Brosnan is giving a terribly uncomfortable performance here. It's embarrassing to watch at times, actually, because he's ruining all the good memories we used to have of him as James Bond and Remington Steele. For four hours, he pants and moans and cackles. That's literally all there is to his character, who has no dimension and no real arc. Brosnan harshly overacts the majority of his scenes, particularly the emotional ones. He's also totally mismatched with Melissa George (In Treatment), who is given nothing to do but suddenly be romantically interested (for no reason, and without motive) in a man who looks like her father. The best performance is given by Anika Noni Rose as Sara Tidwell; the problem with her role, however, is that she only really has one scene and it doesn't come until three hours into the series. Prior to that she only gets to sing (though she does it beautifully) old jazz and blues songs, a disembodied voice which Michael falls asleep to. But her one scene in Part Two is wonderful, the only on-pitch performance in the entire event. William Schallert (The Patty Duke Show) is entertaining as the town villain, but his character makes no sense and he isn't given anything to do other than "talk like an evil person!'

When you get down to it, Bag of Bones is a waste of time. It's boring and tedious, without anything to recommend other than a couple decent performances and some nicely done editing. But save yourself the four hours and find something else to watch, even if it's a repeat. Maybe this can put the final nail in the coffin of Stephen King TV miniseries after some awful recent attempts, including this one.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pilot Review: I Hate My Teenage Daughter

I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Wednesdays at 9:30 on Fox)

Full disclosure: the 2-minute promo released in May at the upfronts cracked me up. I laughed out loud quite a few times in that trailer, so I assumed the rest of the show would be just as funny.

It was not.

The show is about two mothers, Annie (Jaime Pressly, My Name is Earl) and Nikki (Katie Finneran, Wonderfalls), and their two obscenely nasty daughters. Both mothers are divorced, living next door to each other, but still in constant contact with their exes in an attempt to bring structure to their kids' lives. Annie harbors a crush on her ex brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Rahm, Desperate Housewives) and does not know how to confront the subject. Nikki harbors emotions from her adolescence, when she was constantly bullied, and does not want her daughter to have the same experience.

There's not much set-up for anything in the show. We are introduced to barebones background information on the two leading ladies, but it's all surface level. It's ironic there's no set-up for the characters or story, considering how every single joke is set-up/punchline. It's like Saturday morning TV humor. An example: "How can I be a bad parent? I'm never here!" The only funny parts were in that short trailer, unfortunately.

The performances are universally annoying. Jaime Pressly is channeling her character's accent from My Name is Earl and doesn't get very many truly funny moments. Katie Finneran, a seasoned and successful stage actress, is so broad and over-the-top that she seems completely out of place. Director Andy Ackerman, Emmy winner for Cheers and WKRP in Cincinnati, didn't seem to have much of a vision for anything, so it's no surprise that her performance wasn't reined in at all. Kevin Rahm and Eric Sheffer Stevens, as Annie's ex-husband, are dull and lifeless. The only amusing turn in the pilot is from Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911!, Bridesmaids), the school principal who knew Nikki in high school and still acts like they're sixteen. She gives the most subtle performance and plays the comedy better than anyone else on screen. Unfortunately her screen time is limited to two scenes and about 4 total minutes.

I will compliment the writers on truly nailing the personalities of the teenage daughters. Their characterization is spot-on, and the overall relationship between young mothers and their unrelatable teenagers is actually relatable. I just wish they would've taken the comedy in a better direction, because it's not so much funny as it is mildly amusing at times. The rest of the time it's just painful.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Revisiting Fall's New Series

As the fall season comes to a close and many series go on holiday hiatus, let's look back at how some of this season's new series are holding up creatively since I reviewed their pilots.

Ringer (Tuesdays at 9:00 on CW)

Despite some bumps along the way and some awkward storytelling (and that awful, blaring CW soundtrack), Ringer remains one of my top three favorite new shows. The storyline is getting increasingly out-of-control as more people discover Bridget's secrets, but it's entertaining, well-paced and well-acted.

Revenge (Wednesdays at 10:00 on ABC)

Another of my favorite new shows, Revenge has developed into a deliciously entertaining soap. And I don't mean a "soap" as in the conventional primetime soap genre; it's an unabashed, daytime-like soap. It has all the conventions of a crazy General Hospital type show: stolen identity, coma patients waking up with amnesia, secret relationships, murder plots, etc. But Revenge has the edge because it's extremely well-acted and written. It's also probably the most addictive new series, and the one I look most forward to watching each week.

Grimm (Fridays at 9:00 on NBC)

Despite how much I loved the pilot, none of the subsequent episodes have been as exciting, moody or interesting. The fairy-tale characters have gone into the realm of the obscure (The Queen Bee, Bluebeard) and the hokey (Goldilocks & The Three Bears), so the weekly procedural element has mostly fallen flat. The backstory and the season-long arc, however, are still decent and will keep me watching, especially since it now has a full-season pickup (the only new drama NBC debuted to get one). But I'm a bit disappointed in how it has played out so far.

Once Upon a Time (Sundays at 8:00 on ABC)

I run hot and cold with this one. I didn't like the pilot, loved the second episode, didn't like the third episode, and was iffy on the fourth. Sometimes I think the creative team really knows exactly what they're doing, and I just lose myself in the show and have a good time. But other times I just think they're trying too hard to differentiate themselves from the myriad other fairy tale shows/movies/books/etc. The acting and pacing are both uneven, and it's become totally schlocky and sappy. Right now, after the fifth episode, the story seems to be going nowhere fast. I'm giving it one more episode before I tune out for good.

The Secret Circle (Thursdays at 9:00 on the CW)

Back when I watched the pilot, I wrote that I had hoped The Secret Circle would eventually grow into as good of a show as The Vampire Diaries. Only ten episodes into its freshman season, and it has already surpassed the quality of its sister show's first episodes. It's dark and unafraid to be polarizing, and they're taking it in a direction that is both natural and unpredictable. The performances have improved all around, and it's definitely one of the strongest the CW has to offer.

A Gifted Man (Fridays at 8:00 on CBS)

Everything I feared would happen to this show has happened. Following a truly stunning pilot episode with some astounding direction and great performances, A Gifted Man has devolved into a typical medical procedural. Each week we are introduced to a new headcase (literally) with some extreme and unbelievably rare stigma that Dr. Holt must (and always does) cure. Time is split between patients at his upscale practice and his downtown free clinic, but they're all the same: tearjerkers and miracles. There has been no attempt to explore Michael's relationship to his dead wife, whose ghost still hangs around without reason or need, and there is very little of interest to explore in Michael's personal life since he spends all of his time with some patient or another. This was a huge disappointment after such a promising start.

Pan Am (Sundays at 10:00 on ABC)

Pan Am has had a rough go of it after its pilot episode. Most of the gloss and gleam of that episode has vanished, replaced by expected storylines and a lack of focus. The actresses are universally wonderful, and learning their quirks and backstories has been satisfying. But it's the continued focus on exotic locales, the unnecessary insertion of historical events (JFK in Berlin, for example), and the boring presentation of the male characters which keep this show from truly taking off. Kate's spy storyline and subsequent romance with one of her targets was affective, but he has already come and gone. It's not the "must-see" series I thought it would (could and should) be, but it's still pleasant enough due to the strength of its performances and its easy-going demeanor.

American Horror Story (Wednesdays at 10:00 on FX)

Despite having a misguided and overwhelming pilot, American Horror Story has grown into something a little more interesting. It's not at any level I'd call "great," but it's entertaining enough and unlike anything else currently on the air. There have been very few questions answered, and those that have been addressed have been rather unsatisfying. The show doesn't have much direction or focus, and it continues to break its own rules of convention (concerning the behavior of the ghosts within Murder House). But the introduction of Zachary Quinto as one of the house's former inhabitants was a stroke of genius as he turns in what is easily the series' best performance, alongside the utterly fabulous Jessica Lange, who continues to chew scenery and upstage her castmates. Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton are still boring and subdued though, so I can't even say the performances have grown as the material has gotten more interesting. But like I said, it's definitely entertaining and I never know what to expect, so I will stay with it until the finale next month and then make my decision about whether or not to commit to season two.

Whitney (Thursdays at 9:30 on NBC, moving to Wednesdays at 8:30 in January)

Of all this season's new comedies (and I sampled all of them, whether or not I reviewed them here), Whitney is the only one I returned to for a second episode. I know I'm in the minority, but I find it hilarious. Perhaps it's my history as a student of gender studies and feminism coming out, but I love the idea of an off-beat woman who doesn't believe in typical gender conventions taking center stage. I laugh out loud during every episode and have even come to like Whitney Cummings as the star. It's not high-brow or brilliant comedy, but it makes me laugh consistently and that's all I really care about.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pilot Review: Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time (Sundays at 8:00 on ABC)

I'll be straight up right off the bat: I really disliked this pilot. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but nothing about the first episode of Once Upon a Time made me care about anything: the story, the characters, the future, anything.

Once Upon a Time tells two stories: one set in a fairytale land years ago where the classic characters are real and attempting to overthrow the Evil Queen, the other set in present-day Maine where the inhabitants of a town called Storybrooke are actually living reincarnations of their fairy tale counterparts. It's not as hard to follow as it sounds, but that's because in the first episode not much actually happens. Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, Big Love) is awakened by a kiss from Prince Charming (Josh Dallas, Thor) in the episode's opening moments, but soon the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla, Spin City) threatens to destroy them all by stealing their happy endings. In the present, a young boy locates a woman named Emma (Jennifer Morrison, House), his birth mother who gave him up for adoption many years ago, and convinces her that she is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, sent here to save their happy endings.

The story doesn't make much sense (yet), and much of its charm comes from the happy feeling of seeing so many beloved characters brought to life. It's fun to pick out the clues and connections to the present-day characters' fairy tale counterparts, such as Jiminy Cricket now being a therapist, but most of the fun ends there for me. The special effects are horribly rendered, paritcularly in the fairy tale setting; I'm not sure if they were going for a semi-animated look or if everything was just done really cheaply, but the very obvious green screen effects come across as garish. The wedding scene in the first few minutes looks like a technicolor nightmare where nothing seems tangible, everything looking very obviously CGI. The rendering of Tinkerbell is absolutely horrid, and the Queen's appear/disappear in a cloud of black smoke trick looks especially hokey; the performance from Lana Parrilla is also awkward: not so over-the-top as one would imagine, but not as subdued as those from Goodwin and Dallas. The performances in present-day fare a bit better, with Morrison coming across as the most genuine.

The script, from longtime Lost collaborators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, is pretty messy. There's a very clear idea set forth in this opening episode, but not much of a clue as to what lies ahead. We already know that the fairy tale characters are banished to a horrible place with no happiness, and that's why we have Storybrooke. Emma decides to stay in Storybrooke rather than return to her life in the city, but it's never made clear (or even hinted at, really) why. But at the same time, I'm not sure I even care. Despite a decent performance from Morrison, Emma is a boring character. And the fairy tale scenes are basically a retelling of the thousand fairy tale-based movies we've seen over the years. And there's no real twist or cliffhanger to get me intrigued about what will come in future episodes. So why should I be watching this show?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Pilot Review: Grimm

Grimm (Fridays at 9:00 on NBC; Premieres October 28)

I know that I'm going to hold an upopular opinion when it comes to this new series... but I absolutely loved the first episode of Grimm. Early buzz among critics has been largely negative, with some middle-of-the-road responses as well. But from my point of view, it's a great time.

Grimm wastes no time setting up a creepy atmosphere as a girl jogging in a red hoodie (get it?) is torn to pieces by an unknown creature. The detectives on the case are Nick Burkhardt (Dave Giuntoli) and his partner Hank (Russell Hornsby); they discover human footprints nearby, but no animal tracks. As Nick arrives home, he is surprised by a visit from his dying aunt Marie (Kate Burton), who passes onto him a family legacy: he is the last surviving Grimm, a group of hunters who kept the balance between humanity and mythical creatures of folklore. She is put into a coma by one of these creatures, and Nick begins to contemplate this new responsibility as he tries to solve the kidnapping of a little girl in a red sweatshirt by a supernatural creature popularized as the "big bad wolf."

I completely and totally understand the negative response to Grimm. It's not all that original, borrowing elements from comic books, fairy tales (obviously), and other TV shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Night Stalker, Haunted, etc.), but it's a totally engrossing 43 minutes. The writing is snappy and more subtle than most of the other drama pilots this season (there are some snort-worthy puns, but they're not played big enough to be obnoxious). The world created right off the bat is eerie and dark, set in a perpetually cloudy Portland, Oregon. The cinematography is complemented perfectly by Richard Marvin's creepy score. The special effects, especially when Nick sees people as creatures, are a little rough but not distractingly bad. So far the performances are nothing to write home about either. Dave Giuntoli, a former reality star turned actor, is particularly bland but shows signs of life that could develop into something better down the line. Russell Hornsby and Kate Burton are having fun, but there is very little in the way of character for anyone to work with. This first episode was built around establishing the premise and little else, but there are plenty of opportunities for character development once Nick's family history is established, his relationship with his girlfriend is tested, his relationship with Hank is explored, etc.

What it all comes down to is that there's nothing about Grimm that you haven't seen before. It takes a popular storyline of a chosen person inheriting a birthright to protect the balance of good and evil and adds the slight twist of the Grimm fairy tales being based in truth. You'll know from that description whether or not Grimm is for you, but I'd welcome you to give it a shot. You'll have a good time, probably moreso than you did watching any of the other drama pilots this season.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pilot Review: American Horror Story

American Horror Story (Wednesdays at 10:00 on FX)

After its premiere, American Horror Story has something going for it that none of the other new pilots this season have: curiousity. While many good shows debuted this past month, none of them left you with the sense of, "Well what the hell happens next?" that American Horror Story does. Unfortunately, that's the only thing this weird series currently has in its favor.

I would love to give you a synopsis of American Horror Story, but so far there is no plot. The 70-minute pilot served as nothing more than setup; there's no story yet, per se. A psychologist, Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), and his wife Vivian (Connie Britton) move cross country with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) following the brutal miscarriage of a child. Following this tragedy Vivian discovered Ben having an affair with one of his students, and the move is an attempt to save their crumbling marriage. They buy a house for a crazy low price for such a nice neighborhood, and then they find out why: a murder-suicide recently took place in the basement.

That's the story that we have so far: the family moves. A relatively large number of characters come and go throughout the episode, including a teenage patient of Ben's and a potential love interest for his daughter, the Southern Belle next-door neighbor, and a housekeeper with a strange history. All of these characters are decently formed enough for an introductory episode, but it's the atmosphere and structure around them that is shaky.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (Glee, Nip/Tuck) created and wrote (and the former directed) this first episode. It is obviously an homage to classic horror films and conventions, but there are so many present that they become muddled and horribly cliche: murdered twins, creepy neighbor, quick flashes of movement, ghosts in the basement, flickering lights, creaky old house, dog barking at nothing, hallucinations, scary stranger with a warning, objectified females, connections between the sexual and the violent, etc. It's a melting pot of creepy visuals, but they don't amount to much. It feels like it's trying so hard to be scary and/or shocking, that it just comes across as confusing. There's so much sex, so many jump scares, so many horror elements, but nothing with any real depth. Furthermore, the script is pretty ridiculous. Like any given episode of Glee, Ryan Murphy has once again hammered the themes of the show into the viewer's skull repeatedly, and in this case it is the essence of fear. Every character asks every character, "What are you afraid of?" And of course we are given many different answers, but that's not an organic way of structuring a script. I mean, Bram Stoker didn't have his characters always asking, "What do you think the consequences of modern living will be?" even though that's a major theme in Dracula. Because it's just not natural to write that way.

The acting is universally confusing. I'm not sure who exactly is grasping the correct vibe, because it's still not clear if American Horror Story is simultaneously an homage and parody of horror conventions, or simply an homage. Either way, Dylan McDermott is continuing to prove that he's no great actor and that he only has two modes of expression: whispering and yelling, and both while staring vacantly. Connie Britton is deadly serious as Vivian, not a hint of parody or camp in her performance despite uttering lines such as, "Ready for another round?" and then having sex with a man in a rubber suit who may or may not be her husband. Jessica Lange camps it up like a pro as the eccentric neighbor, playing a role straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. She brings some fun to an otherwise completely dark hour, but she's completely out of place. Frances McDormand plays the maid (and so does Alexis Breckenridge, in the episode's most clever twist) with the same level of inherent weirdness she always possesses.

I don't want to take away from how incredibly visually stimulating American Horror Story is, however. The house is fantastic; there's a lot of character to its features (huge fireplace, strange murals, winding staircases, etc). The special effects are generally good, and the underscoring is effective. But too much happens and too quickly to enjoy any of the moody atmosphere these well-done elements set. In just this first episode we get a double murder, a girl with Downs Syndrome, a maid in a fetish costume, a walking rubber suit, Dylan McDermott masturbating while crying, Taissa Farmiga cutting herself, baby body parts in jars, Denis O'Hare in burn makeup, a ghost attack, sleepwalking, a fantasy of a high school shooting, and so many other disjointed and disparate moments that just don't come together yet.

I will say this, however: I'll watch again. Not because I liked it, and not because it was good. But because of one line Jessica Lange recites near the episode's end: "Don't make me kill you again." And with that, I just have to know what she's talking about. I don't want to keep watching, but I will. After all, it has to get better, right?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pilot Reviews: Mad Fashion, Fashion Hunters

Mad Fashion (Tuesdays at 10:00 on Bravo)

Chris March has long been a favorite of Project Runway fans since his outrageous styling was first seen in the show's fourth season. He touted himself as a designer for drag queens with a flair for the incredible, and he certainly demonstrated that in his final collection (though he ultimately ended up in fourth place) by using human hair, leather, thousands of safety pins, and red velvet in his Bryant Park showing. But it was his winning personality and charming demeanor that won viewers over, so it is with great anticipation that I awaited his new show, Mad Fashion.

Chris has developed a name for himself post-Project Runway as a designer of somewhat demented, over-the-top couture clothes. He and his staff of merry minions, in the first episode, are tasked with designing a "Bond girl" outfit for shoe designer Ruthie Davis to wear to the launch of her new collection. Chris takes "Bond girl" and runs with it, a little bit past the mark in my opinion, designing a black leather dominatrix dress with spiked heels for shoulder pads and a metal cage hoop skirt mounted with neon shoes. It's certainly an interesting look, and one you probably wouldn't get from anyone other than Chris March. Whether you find it tacky or fabulous will depend on your personality, but there's no denying how entertaining Mad Fashion is. Chris is full of funny sound bytes, and his laugh is infectious. The process by which such complicated garments are created is interesting, and at only thirty minutes of runtime that's what the majority of the show features. You will obviously need to make your own judgments regarding the fashion, but the show itself is light and fun and worth the watch.

Fashion Hunters (Tuesdays at 10:30 on Bravo)

I wish the same could be said for Bravo's other new show, Fashion Hunters. It's an insanely boring (shocking for a show on this network) half-hour of stuck up women who run a high-end consignment shop (I know, oxymoron, right?) in New York. In this first episode they visit a socialite's closet and take some garments for their shop, and they host an "authentication" for a designer dress without a label. This consists of Simon Doonan of Barney's NY saying, "This is very linear like a Carolina Herrara dress, so it must be a Carolina Herrara dress!" Because no one else has ever used clean lines in their designs. And everyone with a Carolina Herrara dress removes the label, AKA the most important part.

It's a silly excuse to show pretty clothes for thirty minutes, though unlike The Rachel Zoe Project no one in the cast is interesting or entertaining. Don't bother with this one.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pilot Review: How to Be a Gentleman

How to Be a Gentleman (Thursdays at 8:30 on CBS)

I don't know why I'm even bothering to review such an unbelievably mediocre show as this, but here goes. How to Be a Gentleman is a rehash of The Odd Couple about Andrew (David Hornsby), an etiquette columnist at a magazine, and the development of his unlikely friendship with gym owner Bert (Kevin Dillon), the guy who used to beat him up daily in high school. Andrew's job is threatened when his magazine is bought by a new company who want to transform his "How to Be a Gentleman" column into something more appealing to the demographic referred to as "guys in their 30s who act like they're 15."

It's a mess of unfunny stereotypes about masculinity and etiquette. "Gentlemen," according to Andrew, hold doors open for people, stand to greet friends, and wear three-piece suits. "Gentlemen" also then, looking at Andrew's life, have no friends or romantic relationships. The implication is that Andrew is too much of wuss and too full of himself for anyone to like him. In order to have more friends he has to punch people in the arm and frequent strip clubs like Neanderthal schlub Bert. It's a hideous way of thinking that men have to be total pricks in order to get women to date them or friends to like them. And aside from the offensive material, it's just not funny. The only funny moment in the pilot was unintentionally so; Andrew has just remembered that Bert was expelled from their high school for credit card fraud, and then Bert asks him to hand over his credit card info to set up a membership at the gym. And there's no joke made about the fact that Bert used to steal credit card numbers. How can you get behind a show in which you're smarter than the writer?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pilot Review: Terra Nova

Terra Nova (Mondays at 8:00 on Fox)

I really wanted to love Terra Nova. I've been anxiously awaiting its premiere for over a year now, when it was first announced for midseason (which would've been about 9 months ago). Then it was delayed till May with a special preview similar to Glee. Then it was pushed back yet again to its current timeslot, to allow for additional post-production and reshoots. There were also rumors of the production budget for the two-hour pilot alone soaring past $20 million. So you'd think that with all the extra time and money, Terra Nova would be something amazing, a television event. But it wasn't.

The plot is a mere afterthought in this sci-fi adventure series about a family who travels from 2154 back to the time of dinosaurs in hopes of helping to save the human race of the future. There's no mention of how exactly people will be saved in the future by inhabiting a dangerous world and likely changing the course of the future, but then again Terra Nova does all it can to make you stop asking questions. This show is about nothing but the visual stimulus. Policeman Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara) is sent to prison at the pilot's start because his family has three children when the legal limit (due to limited resources) is two. Cut to two years later and his doctor wife Elizabeth (Shelley Conn) helps him escape prison to join his family in Terra Nova, a settlement 85 million years in the past, where they can start fresh. They end up smuggling the illegal third child with them, get in trouble, and have to work off the resentment hurdled at them by Terra Nova's commander Taylor (Stephen Lang, the only decent actor in the entire pilot). There's dinosaurs, giant bugs, rebellious teenager, prehistoric moonshine, and weapons that apparently have not advanced at all because they can't even injure a dinosaur when it attacks.

It's clear from the get-go that Terra Nova isn't meant to be intellectually challenging. Though it may share some similarities with Lost (a breakaway group of humans, tropical setting, mysteries in the jungle), it has none of the sophistication or wisdom of that show. It doesn't even have the intelligence of Jurassic Park; it's more like a high-tech but less enjoyable version of Land of the Lost. And for how much money the special effects cost, they're not that impressive. The CGI dinosaurs look totally out-of-place with their backgrounds (a dead giveaway for computer effects), and they're not convincingly rendered. The action sequences are obnoxiously loud and brash, between screeching creatures, screaming actors, gunfire and radio static. It just looks cheap, even more so than most SyFy channel original movies. The guards at Terra Nova wear football pads as "armor," for crying out loud. The fence around the encampment is made of Lincoln Logs, and it's not even electrified (so how exactly is it keeping out any creatures taller than fifteen feet?).

My biggest complaint with Terra Nova, however, is how lazy it is. The writing is horrendous and poorly paced. The first fifteen minutes provide no tension and a lousy setup for a family we're supposed to care about. Why do I care about the survival of a family who intentionally broke the law on multiple occasions so that they could selfishly be joined together? Before even one commercial break, Jim has assaulted a group of police officers, broken a law on the number of children allowed in a family (which shounds ridiculous until you see everyone struggling for the oxygen the overpopulation has depleted in this future), broken out of prison, assaulted another police officer, shoved his youngest child inside a backpack, and illegally claimed a place in a better world he never earned. Add a whiny teenage son with daddy issues and a rebel streak, and I just don't understand how we're supposed to like this family. The dinosaurs are cool and all, but story and characters are the reasons people tune into shows. And so far there's just nothing likeable about these characters and hardly any discernable plot. Everything about it is a major disappointment.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pilot Review: Pan Am

Pan Am (Sundays at 10:00 on ABC)

If there's one new show this season that seems to be able to hold up against the cable networks' offerings, it's Pan Am. The plot is purely escapist and slightly soapy, but it's in no way cheesy like its 1960s NBC counterpart The Playboy Club and not (yet) as deadly serious as its 1960s AMC counterpart Mad Men can be. It's pure fun and adventure, but not without conflict or a message.

We are introduced to the four main stewardesses (not flight attendants) through a series of comings-and-goings in preparation for the maiden voyage of a new transcontinental Pan Am flight. First up is Maggie (Christina Ricci in her first regular series gig), a pseudo-bohemian who was recently suspended for not wearing her girdle aboard a flight. Then there's Colette (Karine Vanasse), a French woman who had a torrid affiar some months earlier with a passenger whom she has just learned is married. And finally there are sisters Kate (Kelli Garner) and Laura (Margot Robbie). Kate has been flying for months and was recently recruited by an intelligence agency to provide Cold War intel. Laura is a runaway bride who just finished flight training and is ready to live life for herself for once, starting with gracing the cover of Life magazine as the face of Pan Am. They are all unique and well-rounded women, each having a particular backstory while still promising interesting future arcs.

The pilot is smart in its setup that way. We meet each of these women and get to know them well, especially considering how short each character's vignette is. Knowing their pasts makes us immediately care about their futures, and the defining traits displayed in their backstories intrigues what will eventually follow throughout the course of the series. No one is treated any better or worse than the other in this first episode. Everyone is on an equal playing field, and the performances reflect that: it's a universally well-acted episode. It's beautifully shot and costumed, and it's paced well. There's a hint of adventure and joy in every moment.

The only stumbling block so far is the addition of the male characters. The pilot (Mike Vogel) and co-pilot (Michael Mosley) are simply window dressing thus far, and their screentime is the only lagging bit of the hour. But it's nice to see a show about women being women, owning a show where they are not treated like whores or catty bitches. Following the anti-feminism of The Playboy Club and the misogyny of Prime Suspect, Pan Am lets its female characters be sexy without being suggestive and poised without being hard as nails.

All in all, you can't ask for much better in a pilot episode than what Pan Am delivers. It's visually stimulating and entertaining, with some great performances and a central conceit that offers nearly endless opportunities for stories. It's a delight, from beginning to end.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pilot Review: Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect (Thursdays at 10:00 on NBC)

Prime Suspect is the kind of show that I liked but will probably never watch again. There are plenty of reasons to tune in, but it would just piss me off to the point of not being able to enjoy myself. This show awoke the gender-studies student within me and annoyed him to the point of possibly losing a viewer.

Maria Bello is Det. Jane Timoney, a hard-edged woman who just transfered New York City precincts. Her new stomping grounds are inhabited by a group of whiskey-drinking misogynists, and she must fight for the respect she deserves in the old boys' club she's found herself in.

I won't take away credit where it's due: the performances are universally fantastic. Maria Bello makes a great stonecold detective. She's got a great air about her, one that immediately demands the respect and attention of the viewer. So it's a wonder to us when she doesn't get the same from the men on screen, lead by brilliant performances from Aidan Quinn as the precinct's lietenant-in-charge and Brian O'Byrne as the most misogynistic of all the men and Jane's (seemingly) primary enemy. Peter Berg's (Friday Night Lights) direction is appropriately gritty, but he (and the actors) just can't completely save a weak effort from producer/developer/writer Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives).

The crime-of-the-week (because, yes, this is yet another standard procedural) is uninteresting and uninvolving. A woman is (graphically) raped and murdered in front of her two kids, so Jane must find the man after being handed the case following the sudden death of its lead detective. The biggest fault with this case is that since it occurs in an episode when characters and situations are just being established, it takes the backseat. Consequently, it comes across as an afterthought.

But that's not why I don't know if I can continue watching Prime Suspect. It's because the whole thing tries to come off as somewhat "feminist," but ends up going in the opposite direction. It's great to see Jane as a tough woman, working a job that typifies traditional masculinity. But the overt and exaggerated misogyny she faces is borderline offensive. The men of her precinct sit around all day drinking whiskey while a murder case goes unsolved; they often discuss how Jane got to be a detective, suggesting she slept with everyone she could to get where she is. Are we supposed to believe that every policeman in New York thinks of women as objects? That if a woman is somewhat successful (come on, she's a detective; it's not like she's even their boss) she must be a whore? Or a heartless opportunist? The way the women on this show are treated is just ridiculous. Jane is berated for doing her job by her lieutenant. She's berated by her boyfriend's ex, and the mother of his child whom Jane wants to spend time at her apartment, for not being feminine enough. She's berated by the men in her precinct for doing things her own way. It's a constant bashing of this main character that gets old by the end of the first episode. Because Jane, despite her tough-as-nails character, never fights back. She takes it all. At the episode's end when O'Byrne's Det. Duffy tells Jane that his position will not be threatened by a woman, she just looks at him and buys him a cup of coffee. Add to the fact that the only other heavily featured female character was brutally murdered, and you have an hour that turns into a feminist's worst nightmare. We're supposed to believe this takes place in present day, but it feels so dated by all of this unbelievable woman-hating and female silence. I'd like to think a woman like Jane Timoney would stand up and beat the shit out of Duffy, or tell her boss to shove it after solving the case he was reluctant to give her in the first place.

Prime Suspect just feels exploitative in every way. It's exploiting the reputation of the original British series starring Helen Mirren (which I've never seen but have read has almost nothing in common with this remake). It's exploiting the talents of its cast. And it's exploiting women. Perhaps tune in once or twice for the stunning performances, but there's no reason to get invested in this one.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pilot Review: A Gifted Man

A Gifted Man (Fridays at 8:00 on CBS)

Even though its timeslot screams "trainwreck," A Gifted Man is far and away CBS's best pilot of the season. At its center is Dr. Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson), a brilliant but selfish neurosurgeon with one of the most successful and in-demand practices in New York City. His clientele ranges from world-class athletes to well-known tabloid celebrities, as well as Manhattan's priveleged elite. One night as he's picking up dinner for himself, he randomly encounters his estranged ex-wife Anna (Jennifer Ehle), the love of his life whom he left many years ago to open his practice in the city. Michael is curious about how long Anna has been in New York without his knowing, so he does some research only to discover Anna died two weeks earlier in a car accident. Michael begins testing himself for medical issues but can find nothing wrong. So his sister (Julie Benz) sets him up with a shaman (Pablo Schreiber), to understand why Anna's spirit is clinging to Michael.

There's so much to like in A Gifted Man. It's an emotional hour of television, and it unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve. When we first meet Michael, he acts like a total prick (Upon being reminded by his secretary that it's her birthday so she'll be leaving early, it never crosses his mind to say the words "happy birthday;" instead he criticizes the restaurant she's eating at that evening.) and doesn't seem to care. Anna's appearance begins his softening, though by episode's end he is still (realistically) not completely changed. But he's on the right path. The moments in this episode in which Michael is vulnerable are the best. His reaction to seeing Anna again after he has discovered she's dead is beautiful and sad; Michael's interaction with his nephew is tender and patronly; and the episode's final confrontation between Michael and Anna is heartbreaking.

In case that breakdown of the episode's most emotional moments didn't give you the idea, Patrick Wilson owns this show as Michael. Even behaving badly, his Michael is immediately likeable. So with the growth of his character comes the ability to not just like Michael, but to love him. His performance is grounded but deep. Jennifer Ehle is striking as Anna. Margo Martindale and Julie Benz are giving decent performances as the secretary and sister, respectively, so far but hopefully their roles will improve over time. Jonathan Demme's direction is stunning. The many close-ups, the slight shakiness every so often, and the muted colors give the show a very intimate feeling. He also wonderfully films Michael and Anna's encounters in a way so that they are never looking in the same plane, as if they're both present and not at the same time. He steers around Susannah Grant's elegant script ably.

So far A Gifted Man doesn't immediately come across as like any of the other medical dramas on TV. The premiere didn't have a traditional case-of-the-week, and Anna's spirit isn't treated strictly as a moral compass as one might expect either. A Gifted Man seems content to ride the line between genres. I'm not sure exactly what the series will become, with its many open plotlines both predictable and not. Hopefully it will keep up some sense of mystery while still retaining the emotion, but without devolving into a typical medical drama.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pilot Review: Person of Interest

Person of Interest (Thursdays at 9:00 on CBS)

There's actually not much "of interest" in CBS's Person of Interest. The cast is of interest. The production crew is of interest. But not much on screen is of interest.

We are introduced to a homeless man on a subway in New York, Reese (Jim Caviezel), who dispatches of a group of teenage douchebags and is then brought to the police. The lead detective (Taraji P. Henson, totally wasted in the pilot) questions him before he disappears to meet a mysterious stranger, Finch (Michael Emerson). Finch offers Reese the chance to atone for past wrongs by saving people whose social security numbers he receives daily, spit out of some machine he built to help prevent "another 9/11."

The core concept is interesting. How the machine works, exactly what information it uses, etc., is an interesting concept. But it was done better and more convincingly ten years ago in Minority Report. But whereas that movie was stylishly filmed and edited, Person of Interest is choppy. Intercut with nearly every scene change are pointless views of random city streets from security cameras, cell phones, and traffic cams. It obviously adds to the series' paranoid feeling, but it did nothing to advance the story. The rest of the show's look is pretty drab, with the scenes in New York matted with a flat gray color. At its heart this is a story of redemption, so I would expect it to be dark, but dark doesn't have to mean drab. The pacing is all off as well; the first fifteen minutes are an introduction to Reese, but we still now next to nothing about him. The subway scene is merely an excuse for fight choreography. Finch could have easily gotten a hold of Reese in any way he wanted, so the whole setup was unnecessary except as a plot device to introduce Henson's police officer and get Reese on the cops' radar. That's lazy storytelling right there.

I just can't understand how such a great pedigree both on and off screen could produce such mediocre results. Person of Interest was created and written by Jonathan Nolan, an Oscar nominee for writing Memento with his brother, with whom he also wrote The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Perhaps he needs Christopher's eye to transform his screenplays into something better, a task director David Semel (Heroes, No Ordinary Family) is oddly not up to. Executive producer J.J. Abrams's presence is not felt in the slightest; his customary sense of oddity and slight touches of science fiction are missing totally from Person of Interest, unless there's some strange inhuman element to Finch's machine. This episode could've used a sense of greater mystery, because the characters themselves are not at all interesting. Michael Emerson is just continuing the same performance he gave on Lost, and I'm not sure Jim Caviezel even realizes he's supposed to be giving a performance. He's wooden and totally dull, bringing nothing but vacancy to Reese (that, and an awkwardly stitled line reading, which thankfully disappears in the second half-hour). And like I said earlier, Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is completely wasted in what is basically a cameo in this episode.

I guess I just expected more. I expected more mythology, but there was no real attempt to delve into any questions yet; instead it was just a standard, crime-of-the-week procedural. I expected more excitement, but a lot of the action was pointless. I expected something better from talent of this caliber, but with this first episode I'm very disappointed.

Pilot Review: Charlie's Angels

Charlie's Angels (Thursdays at 8:00 on ABC)

I'm going to make this easy for you: don't watch this show. Don't even think about it. You might see it listed on the On Demand menu and think, "Well I have an hour until the next load of laundry goes in, so why not?" but find something else to do. There are infinite possibilities for more entertaining ways to spend an hour, but watching this reboot of Charlie's Angels is absolutely not one of them.

I think we all know the general gist of Charlie's Angels, though this update gives it a new spin: instead of ex-police officers escaping sexism, these angels are ex-cons getting a second chance. There's the black one, the blonde one and the brunette. I don't remember their names or much of what they did, other than kick doors in and take themselves way too seriously. I'm sure they defeated the bad guy (which had something to do with smuggling orphans, I think); I'm sure they used impossible technology to get the upper hand (with the help of Bosley, now a chiseled Latino computer hacker); and I'm sure they did it all with perfect hair.

There's something so obviously campy about Charlie's Angels, which the recent films capitalized on. They were funny because they were extremely self-aware, but this incarnation is the exact opposite. Writer/Producer Alfred Gough has stated in interviews that this project was greenlit under the assumption that it would be taken seriously and avoid all camp. That's well and good if the show were done well, but there are so many moments screaming for tongue-in-cheekiness. Rachael Taylor is the blonde angel and is given some of the most cringeworthy dialogue of the entire episode, delivered with a straight face: "I didn't know my heart could hurt this much" - "We're angels, not saints" - etc. How you can say things like that without a hint of self-awareness and comedy is beyond me. It makes the performances come across like adult film stars in something on Cinemax at 1:00am.

Everything about this show is just a complete mess. The performances are shockingly terrible all around; clearly these women were cast based more on looks than on acting ability. The script is utterly stupid and boring. And it just looks cheap and ugly. I hardly made it through the first episode without falling asleep, which would have been a blissful reprieve from this crap. Nothing is worth recommending; it's TV hell.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pilot Review: Revenge

Revenge (Wednesdays at 10:00 on ABC)

The more I think about the pilot for ABC's Revenge, the more I like it. In a season of lackluster dramas, Revenge stands out among the pack as something undeniably fun and gleefully entertaining.

Revenge opens with the murder of a wealthy socialite in the Hamptons right around Labor Day, at his own engagement party no less. Five months earlier we meet Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), the single-at-the-time bride-to-be, as she rents a house next door to Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), the queen of the Hamptons social scene. We are gradually introduced to Emily through flashbacks of her as a child staying in this very house with her father (James Tupper). Her father was framed for a hideous crime he did not commit, and the entire thing was set into motion by his employer, Victoria's husband Conrad (Henry Czerny), and the other employees who were trying to cover their own asses. Now Emily is back in the Hamptons, following her father's death while imprisoned, to exact her revenge on those who took her from her father nearly two decades ago.

If you aren't a fan of soaps, then you won't be attracted to Revenge. It's definitely got a hint of camp beneath it all, but it's done in such a way that it doesn't feel cheesy. Seeing all of these insanely wealthy people (including Emily, after she receives an inheritance from her father) acting like their lives have meaning is pathetic, so seeing them get their comeuppance gives the viewer a guilty pleasure feeling of satisfaction. The characters and plot are already very well structured, creating a web of connections and memories and relationships.

At the center of this complicated web is Emily Thorne, formerly Amanda Clarke. She's a total mystery, one intriguing enough to get viewers tuning in repeatedly. We learn a lot about her past and her motives in the pilot, but there are subtle clues throughout the hour hinting at some deeper and darker secrets yet to be revealed. She is played perfectly by Emily VanCamp with just the right balance of innocence and iciness. Right alongside Emily is queen bee Victoria Grayson, played deliciously by Madeleine Stowe. She's haughty and stereotypically bitchy, but there are moments when she becomes downright frightening and others when she's surprisingly vulnerable. Both women have an impressive balance of conflicting emotions to play, and they both handle them wonderfully. The remainder of the large ensemble cast is universally good, not a weak performance among the bunch.

Whereas the type of show Revenge is can easily come across as shlocky and campy, it's actually one of the smarter and more intriguing pilots of the season (and of the past few seasons). I'm definitely rooting for its success and hoping it will continue to be as intelligent and fun as this first episode was.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pilot Review: The Playboy Club

The Playboy Club (Mondays at 10:00 on NBC)

After having some time to digest the pilot of NBC's controversial new series The Playboy Club, I still don't understand exactly what everyone is up in arms about. There was less skin shown in this episode than any given installment of Pretty Little Liars; there is much less overt sexuality than anything on MTV. What is there to be offended by? Is it simply because of the Playboy name and what that has come to represent? Because there are other things to be angry about in this pilot, but the least of those things is anything "risque" or whatever. If you're going to be angry about anything, be angry about the mediocre storytelling or the anti-feminist messages.

The Playboy Club opens with a performance at the Chicago Playboy Club from Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), the first-ever bunny. Her lover walks in, handsome lawyer Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), but is quickly distracted by the new cigarette girl, small town blonde Maureen (Amber Heard). Maureen immediately finds herself in trouble with the mob and depending on the help of Nick to get her out of it. We meet a diverse cast of other bunnies as well: Brenda (Naturi Naughton), who is dead-set on becoming the first black centerfold; Janie (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), who is dating the bartender and constantly fending off his marriage proposals; and Alice (Leah Renee Cudmore), a married bunny with a deep secret.

The plot itself is nearly inconsequential, as the only important event in the entire episode occurs in the first few minutes. The remaining forty minutes are dedicated to introductions and basic set-up, nothing more. This is where the pilot fails most; events are put in motion, but there is such an extensive ensemble to introduce that we really don't learn anything about any of the characters. Maureen gets caught up in a mobster's murder before we know anything about her (I'm not even sure if we knew her name yet); Carol-Lynne and Nick end their relationship before we're even aware that they're in one; Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz), the club manager, fires Carol-Lynne without us ever knowing exactly what her job is. The development in this first hour is very surface level. Instead of bombarding the audience with these massive plot pieces so soon, it would've been nice to slow the pace down a bit and really nail down who these women are first.

Laura Benanti is an absolute blast as Carol-Lynne, the "bunny mother." She is giving a bitch performance the likes of which haven't been seen in primetime since Alexis Carrington. She upstages the rest of the cast gleefully. The only other bunny who is at all memorable is Lean Renne Cudmore's Alice. She plays a bunny with morals, seemingly, though her character gets the only real advancement of the entire episode in the pilot's final minutes. She is not only funny, she is the only interesting ensemble bunny. Eddie Cibrian does little more than smirk, and David Krumholtz gets some great oneliners (though they're delivered in a ridiculous Chicago accent).

The Playboy Club is not going to survive on its cast, though. Even though this introductory episode was oddly paced and structured, it has a fun feel to it. It's stylish, but not in a Mad Men-copycat way. It has a bright vibe to it, not a drab 1960s washout that has become so common of series and films set in the decade. It's pulpy and slightly ridiculous, but that was obviously the intention. I mean, you don't set a murder mystery in a club where women wear leotards and rabbit ears, serving drinks for lucrative tip money without it coming across as pulp. But that's also what will ultimately make it so much fun. You really can't take it as seriously as some already have, despite its concern for wanting to tackle serious issues (the place of the woman in society, homophobia, racism, etc.). If you let go and just revel in the inherent campiness and fun on display, you might just enjoy yourself.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pilot Review: Whitney

Whitney (Thursdays at 9:30 on NBC)

I will say this for Whitney: it's not nearly as bad as the commercials and previews make it look.

There's basically no story here; it's just Whitney Cummings's stab at a relationship comedy in which her character, also named Whitney Cummings, tries to keep her love life alive with long-term boyfriend Alex (Chris D'Elia) while perpetually avoiding the subject of marriage.

Cummings created, wrote, produced and stars in this series, one of two she has on air this year (the other being 2 Broke Girls on CBS, which she only created and is producing). Her presence on screen is unfortunate; her writing is often very funny ("Honey, do you have those Pepto things? It's just that.. the scallops are starting to get chatty."), but her performance is broad and unfunny. She has that annoying approach to laugh lines that lets you know the joke is coming, making it all the more difficult for you to laugh. Speaking of laughs, the laugh-track is the most shrill and obnoxious I've ever heard on a series. They don't normally bother me whatsoever, but this one is just too much.

Aside from Cummings, Chris D'Elia is a fine leading man. His character and his situation with Whitney aren't exactly fresh (We need to have more sex! We're too comfortable with each other! I have mommy issues! I'm scared of marriage!), but he does what he can to get laughs out of some stale jokes. The best characters in the pilot are Whitney's friends Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn), a bitter early-30s divorcee; Lily (Zoe Lister-Jones), an over-the-top food blogger in a new relationship; and Mark (Dan O'Brien), an eternal bachelor. They are given the best jokes of the episode, suggesting that Cummings just doesn't know how to write for herself, or that she doesn't know how to play her own jokes. There's also a great cameo by Loni Love as a sassy nurse toward the episode's end.

I don't want to make it seem like there's nothing to like about Whitney, because there is. I think it has already gotten a bad rap because the previews can only show the least-funny moments; the truly laugh-out-loud jokes (of which there were more in this one episode than any other sitcom I've reviewed this year) are too dirty or risque for the G-rated commercials. Whitney is likely to become something of a tamer Sex and the City but with a bit more of a cruel bite to it. If that's your thing, then it's definitely worth the view. It's a great time waster and will likely be fun to watch whenever I happen to catch it, but I won't be going out of my way to watch every week.

Pilot Review: The Secret Circle

The Secret Circle (Thursdays at 9:00 on CW)

If The Secret Circle can grow as much out of its pilot as its sibling show The Vampire Diaries did, then we're in for something amazing. Two years ago, Kevin Williamson debuted a new teen supernatural soap seemingly in the vein of Twilight. That show was the CW's first runaway hit, The Vampire Diaries, and its pilot was awful: slow, boring, campy, heavy-handed. But it has blossomed over its first two seasons into something rivetting, becoming one of the better dramas on the broadcast networks. So if we have that level of growth to look forward to, then The Secret Circle will be wonderful.

The Secret Circle is based on a series of books by the author of The Vampire Diaries, L.J. Smith, and produced by the same team of Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec. We are introduced to teenager Cassie (Britt Robertson, Life Unexpected) on the night her mother is murdered with magic by a mysterious stranger (Gale Harold, Queer as Folk). Cassie's father died when she was a baby, so she is sent to live with her only other relative, a slightly eccentric grandmother. On her first day of school, Cassie runs into a rather strange group of people, including a potential love interest in Adam (Thomas Dekker, The Sarah Connor Chronicles). But then some weird stuff starts happening, such as her car catching on fire out of nowhere and being put out just as suddenly. Cassie suspects something is wrong, and her new friend Diana confirms it: Cassie, along with a group of several other kids in town, is a witch. Their power was somehow inherited from their parents, and now that Cassie is in town their circle can be complete and their power fully realized.

It's a pretty standard fish-out-of-water soap with the requisite complications: dead parents, love interest is already in a relationship, overbearing authority figures, a mysterious past. Even the witch plotline isn't all that original, as many of the characters seems like copies of ones from the film The Craft. Phoebe Tonkin even does her best Fairuza Balk impression as the "bad girl" of the group; she's easily the show's worst actor, and she sticks out like a sore thumb because of it. The performances around her are much stronger, especially from Robertson, Harold, Dekker and a surprising supporting performance from Natasha Henstridge.

There are some stunning moments in this first episode. The opening minutes in which Gale Harold's Charles, a member of the original circle with Cassie's mother, kills his former friend are thrilling and wonderfully shot. The scene (which I'm sure you've seen in the commercials) in which Adam helps Cassie channel her power into lifting raindrops off the ground is absolutely beautiful. They enhance an otherwise standard pilot and pique my curiousity. There's also some intriguing backstory, which I'm honestly more interested in than the story of Cassie's new circle. Their parents are apparently still practicing magic and for some reason attempting to eliminate old rivals, despite a horrible "accident" sixteen years before. I'm curious to learn more, if not super-excited. But again, the pilot of The Vampire Diaries was really lame, and now it's one of the shows I most look forward to watching each week. I can foresee enough interesting stories for The Secret Circle that may eventually bring it to that level as well. But all in all this was a solid first episode of a show that will likely only get better.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pilot Review: Free Agents

Free Agents (Wednesdays at 8:30 on NBC)

Free Agents is unlike the two previous new sitcoms I've reviewed this season. Whereas New Girl and Up All Night had few laugh-out-loud moments in their respective pilots, Free Agents has none. It doesn't come across as a comedy at all, actually. If this were fleshed out into an hour-long drama, it might've worked better. Because at its heart, it's not funny.

Coworkers Alex (Hank Azaria) and Helen (Kathryn Hahn) have just slept together, despite neither of them being in an emotional state worthy of beginning a new comittment. Alex's divorce has just gone through, and he is struggling with the fact that he will no longer see his kids on a daily basis; Helen's fiance suddenly died a year ago, and she is still clinging to the memory of him. They no longer know how to define their relationship, now crossing over from the professional into the personal. And it doesn't help that their other coworkers are trying to get them each to move on.

The two lead characters are in no way comedic. I'm sorry, but there's nothing inherently funny about seeing a grown man cry over not being able to attend his son's birthday party, or a grown woman drinking herself into oblivion surrounded by oversized portraits of her dead fiance. That's just not funny; it's sad and pathetic. I don't want to laugh at someone's emotional pain. Their scenes together play out like a Lifetime movie, from the awkward pillow talk to their attempts to hide their relationship in the office. The only thing keeping Free Agents from tumbling into full-on schmaltz are the mildly entertaining people Alex and Helen work with. Anthony Stewart Head is playing a role similar to Maya Rudolph's Ava on sister show Up All Night; his boss character is completely incongruous to the rest of the show and to real life, while the other characters seem to be based in a more realistic world. He begins a business meeting by inquiring about the positions in which Alex had sex the previous night and later appears in Alex's office with photos of some more, um, extreme positions. But he's entertaining in his strangeness, as is Mo Mandel as an oversexed frat boy type.

Hank Azaria is insufferably boring as Alex. If you can pick out a single facial expression (aside from his character's incessant crying), you have a better eye than I do. He stumbles through his scenes with a hangdog carriage, zapping any life from the already dull proceedings. Kathryn Hahn finds a bit more humor in her role, but it just doesn't feel right to be laughing at such a broken woman. One scene comes to mind in which Helen buys six bottles of wine and a single frozen dinner, and then verbally assaults the cashier for assuming she were throwing a party. She proclaims, loudly and not at all funnily, that she is going to go home and eat her meal and drink lots of wine alone. What's funny about that? Where is the comedy in a woman who has only found solace in meaningless sex with coworkers and tons of cheap wine?

And that's what it all really boils down to. The leads are supposed to be somewhat "damaged goods," but they come across as shattered beyond repair.

P.S. - The title of this show no longer makes sense. It is a remake of a British comedy about talent agents, but here they are PR spin doctors. Couple that with the fact that it's not even funny, what was the point of bringing this across the pond?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pilot Review: Up All Night

Up All Night (Wednesdays at 8:00 on NBC)

Regan and her husband Chris are essentially big kids. They have spent the last seven years of their relationship thinking only of themselves: working late, staying out late, and generally enjoying themselves. But now they have a baby. Regan (Christina Applegate) must balance her volatile work life with her now-volatile private life. She goes to work daily for her best friend, Ava (Maya Rudolph), a talk show host, while Chris (Will Arnett) stays home with baby Amy.

There's not much that's actually funny about Up All Night. Christina Applegate is always an endearing presence, and Will Arnett is surprisingly appealing as her husband after a dire performance in last year's terrible Running Wilde. But the majority of their humor comes from the situation of being new parents, something I don't identify with nor do I find particularly amusing. It's not funny to me to see the two of them arguing back and forth over who got more sleep and who was up longer with the baby. It's not funny to me to see them out drinking and singing karaoke till the wee hours of the morning and then complaining of a hangover when they're awoken mere hours later by their screaming child. And it's especially not funny to me to see them attempting to tone down their use of profanity, considering every word is obnoxiously bleeped out.

The show's only truly funny character is Maya Rudolph's Ava, a neurotic and delusionally selfish foil to Applegate's Regan. She is more of a caricature than a character, but that's generally what is to be expect of sitcom characters. She's not as out-there as, say, anyone on The Office or Jess in this year's New Girl, but she has enough outrageous behavior to make her truly entertaining (despite an abrupt moment of selfless adult behavior in the pilot's final moments). Up All Night could benefit from more moments like those given to Ava in this first episode.

As it stands now, Up All Night will survive on the charm and strength of its cast. And that's a good thing considering the comedy isn't all that funny, at least not to someone like me who is more than a decade younger than these characters and without child. Perhaps you'll identify more, or find humor where I didn't find much at all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pilot Review: Ringer

Ringer (Tuesdays at 9:00 on CW)

If you go back and look at some of the previous posts from upfronts and before, you'll see that I've been rooting for this show's success since it was first announced. I'll admit that I'm a little bias because for many years Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my life. I literally cared more about that show than just about anything else. So any series that features the return of Sarah Michelle Gellar would have me on board immediately. It's just a bonus with Ringer that the show is actually good.

Sarah Michelle Gellar plays twins Bridget and Siobhan. Bridget is an ex-stripper and former addict who is attempting to mend fences with her sister, a Manhattan socialite. Something tragic happened between the two of them six years ago, something dealing with a young boy named Sean (presumably Siobhan's son). Bridget is currently in Witness Protection after seeing her former boss murder a coworker, and his conviction rests solely on her testimony. But the day before the trial Siobhan finally reaches out to Bridget and extends an invitation to visit her Hamptons home for a weekend. While the two are out in a boat, Bridget falls asleep and awakes to find an empty bottle of pills and her sister's diamond ring, but no Siobhan. Bridget decides that in order to escape the murderer who has her number and to cover up the disappearance of her sister, she will become Siobhan. But as Bridget becomes more involved in her sister's life, not everything is as perfect as it looks.

Ringer moves along at breakneck speed in this first episode. Siobhan's idyllic life shatters in front of Bridget's eyes as the lost sister begins to realize how awful this "perfect" life really is. Sarah Michelle Gellar deftly plays three characters, juggling each with aplomb: Bridget, Siobhan and Bridget-as-Siobhan. There is a carefulness and subtlety to each performance. She finds moments everywhere in this first hour to shine, which isn't difficult considering how surprisingly strong the material is. The life-switching premise isn't exactly new (in fact it's already happening on another show currently airing on ABC Family, The Lying Game), but the script is filled with enough intriguing twists to make it feel like it is. Ringer doesn't rest on its laurels, addressing in this first episode many of the logical questions typically asked of such a plot: How could sisters who haven't spoken in six years know intimate details of each other's lives? Wouldn't those closest to them know something is off? Are any two people really completely identical? All of these questions and more are touched upon, providing a realism that is inherently questioned in a life-swapping story like this.

There's also a style displayed that is not only slick but clever. Director Richard Shepard (Ugly Betty, Criminal Minds) makes excellent use of mirrors here. Their presence is always keen, particularly in scenes when Bridget finds new secrets of Siobhan's life. Can she even trust her own reflection? Does she see Bridget or Siobhan looking back at her? And the use of the mirror in the final scene is ingenious; I won't spoil what happens, but it's a very small moment that comes across beautifully.

And that's really the best part of Ringer. A lot happens, and most of it is very entertaining. But it's the small and subtle moments that really make this show an intriguing mystery and an intense character piece. Upon being asked how she can be certain of her sister's actions when they haven't spoken in so long, Bridget-as-Siobhan cryptically answers, "We're twins." Two small words that can be read into so deeply, I could go on for hours. That's what will not only keep me tuning in but will make me looks forward to watching every week.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pilot Review: New Girl

New Girl (Tuesdays at 9:00 on Fox; premieres September 20)

Fox has made the pilot of its highly anticipated (and extremely well-received) new sitcom New Girl available via several outlets, including iTunes, Hulu and On Demand services. Because of the early raves from several sources and a general curiousity, I decided to check it out.

New Girl is a 25 minute version of any random romantic comedy film you've seen in the past ten years. It stars Zooey Deschanel as Jess, an awkward 20-something who was recently dumped by her boyfriend and is in search of a new roommate. She has plenty of friends, but they're all models (how did that happen?) and she doesn't want to live with them. So she answers a Craigslist ad from who she thinks are three women, but turns out to be three single men. There's Coach (Damon Wayans, who left the show due to a previous commitment to surprise renewal Happy Endings), an abrasive personal trainer who can't talk to women; Nick (Jake M. Johnson), a bartender who is still upset over a break-up that happened six months ago; and Schmidt (Max Greenfield), an awkward "ladies man" who constantly feels the need to impress everyone around him. When Schmidt hears that all Jess's friends are models, he invites her to live with him.

So that's the central conceit of this off-beat little show. It's not exactly a plot-driven affair, but then again neither are most half-hour sitcoms. The comedy relies mostly on Jess's character quirks, such as her inability to stop singing her thoughts rather than speaking them. This would probably come off as more comedic if her three roommates weren't quite as quirky as well: Coach has a tendency to yell for no reason, Nick randomly speaks in accents, and Schmidt adopts the characteristics of a drunken frat boy around anyone other than the three roomies. If Jess were the only awkward character, it would feel more realistic and the comedy would read better. I mean, there are only so many times you can laugh at someone telling Schmidt to put a dollar in the "Douchebag Jar" everytime he acts like a tool, and that gag is played out by the end of this episode.

Zooey Deschanel is charming as Jess, even if the character sometimes feels false. Max Greenfield's Schmidt is the most entertaining of the guys, and I often found his character funnier than Jess. The writing only half works, with most of the jokes falling flat in my eyes (Is it supposed to be funny that Jess steps out of the shower completely dry and dressed? Is it funny to sing "Time of My Life" from Dirty Dancing totally off-key at the top of your lungs in a crowded restaurant?) If you've seen the preview or any commercials, you've seen every amusing part of the episode. There was hardly any interaction between Jess and the men, which is where the comedy should really lie. It's funnier to see how three straight, single men would react to suddenly living with a neurotic, strange woman whom none of them know. Instead of honest interactions, the pilot gives us these three men seeking out advice about the opposite from Jess, a girl who can't even curl her hair without burning it and composes her own theme song. It doesn't quite fit that any man would take her advice, let alone seek her out for it. Situational comedy aside, Jess's character also needs some definition, because right now she's just a weird girl with no discernible personality. In one scene she is sobbing out loud over her breakup, the next she is out with her new buddies finding a rebound guy. In one scene she's humping a houseplant and the next she's telling Coach that what he really needs to do is listen to women. Jess is a messy amalgamation of pieces that never quite fit together.

My issues with this first episode could easily be abated by future installments. Zooey Deschanel is already comfortable in Jess's skin, so working on pinning down who she is will only make the performance better. But New Girl not only needs some logistical work, it also needs to be funnier.