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?