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.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

2011 Emmy Predictions - Creative Arts Categories

The Creative Arts Emmys (or "The Shmemmys," as they've come to be known) are tonight, offering up the various and numerous technical awards for the best in television. There are some bigger categories represented tonight, however, so let's look at them.

Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series

Probable Winner: Michael J. Fox, The Good Wife
I'd Pick: Paul McCrane, Harry's Law

I don't watch The Good Wife, but you don't have to be a genius to think that a well-respected actor with more than two decades of television work and a sympathetic personal story is the frontrunner. Paul McCrane is a slimy delight on Harry's Law, and the nomination is well deserved. I think he's a long shot to win though.

Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series

Probable Winner: Justin Timberlake, Saturday Night Live
I'd Pick: Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake is the most successful guest host of Saturday Night Live, aside from Alec Baldwin. He'll win a third well-deserved Emmy in this category.

Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series

Probable Winner: Joan Cusack, Shameless
I'd Pick: Julia Stiles, Dexter

Either of these actresses could conceivably win. I think Joan Cusack will pull out ahead, simply because of her past career and a general respect in the business. I haven't seen Shameless, but I've heard she was also very good in her episode, so that'll help. Julia Stiles is still testing the waters of television, but she had an incredible role to do it with on Dexter.

Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series

Probable Winner: Gwyneth Paltrow, Glee
I'd Pick: Gwyneth Paltrow

Listen, I despise Gwyneth Paltrow. I think she's a stuck up snob and a total tool, not to mention a completely over-rated, mediocre-at-best actress. But she was fantastic in "The Substitute," her first appearance (and submitted episode) on Glee. For the first time ever, I didn't hate watching her. That feat alone makes her deserving of the award. Cloris Leachman provides some stiff competition, but as a TV Hall of Fame inductee and a 9-time winner, I think they'll give the award to someone else.

Outstanding Reality Series, Non-Competition

Probable Winner: The Deadliest Catch
I'd Pick: Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List

After a category switch, The Deadliest Catch looks like it will claim its first Emmy. I will never understand what is attractive about this show, but to each his own. I find it unbearably boring and completely idiotic. I'd go with the final season of Kathy Griffin's twice-awarded series, which finished with a strong season of episodes that included a public pap smear; a visit to Sarah Palin's house; and a DADT repeal rally.

Outstanding Reality Host

Probable Winner: Jeff Probst, Survivor
I'd Pick: Cat Deeley, So You Think You Can Dance

I love Jeff Probst, I really do. He's so great on Survivor; he's personable and interesting, and he asks the questions that we really want answered (unlike most other reality hosts, who are mostly just set dressings). But I can't not want Cat Deeley to win. She's so charming and lovely on SYTYCD, and this nomination is long overdue.

Outstanding Variety Special

Probable Winner: 2010 Kennedy Center Honors
I'd Pick: Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking

Carrie Fisher's special will never win, but it was the most entertaining of the bunch. But this category is never about what is the most entertaining, because the Kennedy Center awards win every damn year.

Outstanding Special Class Program

Probable Winner: The Tony Awards
I'd Pick: The Golden Globe Awards

If the Emmy voters had any balls, they'd give this award to the Golden Globes telecast. Ricky Gervais's outrageous hosting raised such a stink, and he's admitted that he was nearly fired mid-show. That's gold. But I think the Tonys have the edge, even though the 2010 ceremony was pretty boring, no thanks to should've-been-better host Sean Hayes.