Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pilot Review: Touch

Touch (Mondays at 9:00 on Fox, beginning March 19)

I have a lot to say about Fox's newest endeavor, Touch, not all of which will be touched upon here. One thing I have to mention is the confusing launch: this pilot is being screened nearly two months before the series will assume a regular timeslot. Why? I can only hope that it's not only to garner initial interest but to receive feedback on what needs improvement, because there's a lot of room for it.

Martin Bohm (Kiefer Sutherland) is a single father living in New York City with his mute, completely aloof eleven-year old son, Jake (David Mazouz). His wife was killed in 9/11, when their son was less than two, and Martin has had a hard go of it since; he was once a successful reporter but has taken lately to odd jobs, the most recent being a baggage-handler at JFK Airport. Jake has never spoken a word and is obsessed with numbers and patterns. Doctors have diagnosed him as autistic, though the label has never been entirely appropriate. Beginning on March 18, a huge series of patterns/coincidences begins to unfold, and Jake seemingly has predicted the entire thing, from the day's winning lottery numbers to when a social worker's phone will ring.

Touch was created and written by Tim Kring, the man behind NBC's Heroes. This is the first show Kring has worked on since Heroes fizzled out following a strong first season, and he's already ripped himself off. The former series explored global connectivity in a world under threat, and Touch does exactly the same thing. Where Heroes was more successful was in its metaphorical superhero base line, while Touch is attempting to be something closer to reality. It's based around patterns in nature, every action being explained through numbers (the Fibonacci sequence turns up here, as it seemingly has in every single mystery since The Da Vinci Code was released almost a decade ago). But it's too outrageous to truly make sense, whereas if it contained some supernatural element it would've been more easily swallowed. But Kring isn't just ripping off his previous creation, he's also introduced very obvious elements of Lost (the entire mystery of "The Numbers" is repeated almost exactly in this episode) and even of Sutherland's former series 24 (with the race against the clock in the pilot's third act). Kring took pieces of successful, both creatively and commercially, series and applied them with lesser effect to Touch.

This would be forgivable if these elements were put to good use, but nothing about Touch feels all that fresh. It's got a typical globe-spanning story of interconnectivity, a concept that's been done to death on television and in film (Babel, Crash, etc.), showcasing sequences in Dublin, Tokyo and Baghdad. (It should be noted that the writing and acting of these international sequences are utterly atrocious and uninteresting.) It's all totally heavy-handed, with subplots involving terrorism, prostitution, and the social services system. Touch feels almost like it's trying to change the world, even though it doesn't have a very firm grasp on what the world is really like. It all builds into an emotionally manipulative finale devoid of much real thought; it reduces the tragedy and death of one woman on 9/11 (By the way, when did 9/11 become something we just use as a plot device to make people cry in movies and TV shows? Between this and the film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I'm beginning to wonder how tasteful it really is...) to another man's good fortune, and the death of a young girl to nothing more than an impetus for tears. It sure tugs at the heart strings, but it doesn't make much sense.

Aside from the problematic script, the style of Touch is actually quite appealing. It feels like it's always going somewhere, and the pilot contains some great visuals of patterns in nature. Whenever the show is in New York, it's engrossing; but as soon as it moves abroad, it drags. Kiefer Sutherland starts off the episode a little rough around the edges, playing up the melodrama of his son's condition and his wife's death without much real emotion. He seems more comfortable once the action kicks in about halfway through and finishes up with a nice dramatic moment at the episode's "big reveal" in the finale. Danny Glover makes an ultimately pointless appearance in one scene as... someone... a doctor? Who knows... as someone who knows about Jake's condition and has come into contact with others just like him. He spews out some exposition (which, by the way, the audience already knows via an introductory voiceover by Jake) to Martin and is never mentioned again. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Undercovers) is Jake's case worker, and she is ultimately forgettable as well. This is an ensemble show, in a way, but not on the level of Heroes, as Sutherland is very obviously the star, playing the only character with any real depth and dimension. The series will sink or swim on the basis of his show-carrying abilities and Kring's development of the concept.

When it comes down to it, Touch is entertaining on its own. It has a lot of issues, but strictly as entertainment it succeeds, for the most part. Were this concept developed into a film, it would be a decent summer flick. But anyone with any interest in film will tell you that summer releases are hardly the most artistically rewarding for an audience.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pilot Review: Smash

Smash (Mondays at 10:00 on NBC; Premieres February 6)

There just aren't enough words for the euphoria I felt after watching the Smash pilot. I'm a theatre person, so I expected to like it. But the utter perfection of Smash is so obvious that anyone should, and likely will, appreciate it. From its smart script, to the on-pitch performances from a brilliant ensemble, to the dazzling musical numbers, Smash is pure joy.

Karen (Katharine McPhee) is a young waitress trying to make it on Broadway without disappointing her fiancee (Raza Jeffrey). Ivy (Megan Hilty) is a Broadway veteran, having appeared in the ensemble of a number of musicals, looking for her big break. Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) are the hottest up-and-coming composing team in New York after their last show opened to stellar reviews. Eileen (Anjelica Huston) is a Broadway producer whose pet project, a revival of My Fair Lady, is stuck in development hell following her messy divorce. Derek (Jack Davenport) is a highly-praised, much-sought-after director looking for his next project. All of these people, and many others, converge in one sweeping story of the creation of a musical, from idea to composition to casting to performance, about the life of screen icon Marilyn Monroe.

Even if you don't give a crap about theatre, you'll find something to like in Smash. If you like theatre, you'll find everything to love in Smash. The cast and crew are a stellar blend of cross-media talents, from Oscar winners (Anjelica Huston, executive producer Steven Spielberg) to Emmy winners (Debra Messing) to Tony winners (composers Shaiman & Wittman, director Michael Mayer), and everything in between: stage actors (Borle, Hilty), recording artists (McPhee), and movie stars (Davenport). It's an unbelievable blend of talent that absolutely explodes on screen.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck has written a snappy, witty, relevant script. She handles the large ensemble admirably, thanks to some help from Mayer behind the camera. He adeptly films the large musical numbers, employing features of both traditional performance and the fantasy element that was so successful in the film Chicago. His work in the intimate scenes is just as impressive, if not as fluid. But all of this is truly brought to life by some star-making performances from the amazing cast. Debra Messing proves she's more than just her character on Will & Grace and has an undeniable chemistry with the charming Borle. Their scenes together are among the pilot's best. Katharine McPhee, an American Idol runner-up, is surprisingly good in her acting debut. In her final scene with Jack Davenport, she is sultry and every bit Marilyn Monroe. Strangely enough, it is her vocal performance of the Christina Aguilera song "Beautiful" that is her weakest moment; she fares much better in the pilot's finale, belting out "Let Me Be Your Star" (composed by the team behind Hairspray) with Megan Hilty. Speaking of Hilty, she absolutely walks away with the pilot. She burns brighter than anyone else, stealing each and every scene in which she appears; from the show's biggest musical number ("The National Pastime") to one of the show's most intimate moments when Ivy calls her mother about receiving a callback, Hilty has the star-making role of Smash. The musical may be about Marilyn, but the show is all about Ivy.

No review would be complete, however, without addressing the elephant in the room: this is no Glee. The two shows aren't similar in any manner except that they both contain music/on-screen singing. The music in Smash is not superfluous; it's an integrated part of the musical process. Whereas Glee uses music to (in theory) tell the show's story just as much as it does for performance pieces, Smash uses the music in the way it was intended to: as part of the show within the show. There is only one moment, in the finale, where the characters burst into song; but this is a fantasy, as both Karen and Ivy are living their audition song: "Let Me Be Your Star." It becomes their anthem, a plea not only from Marilyn but from two women on the verge of destiny. It's a totally appropriate moment. You likely won't see Jack Davenport busting out some "Gold Digger" or an episode of Smash dedicated to musical numbers by Madonna. Smash is a totally different beast, and an utterly successful and rewarding endeavor. Give it a shot, it's easily the season's best pilot... and probably one of the best I've ever seen, in any season.

ETA: Upon a second viewing, Smash is just as enjoyable and even more layered than I originally thought. I was able to see much more depth in the pilot as a whole, especially in its sly nods to Marilyn Monroe. The big baseball number "The National Pastime" featured a nice wink to Monroe's famous "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" I didn't catch on first listening, and the much-promoted performance of "Beautiful" by McPhee actually made sense more when looked at in the context of who Marilyn was: a beautiful but insecure woman. Truly great work. I can't wait to see more.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pilot Review: Alcatraz

Alcatraz (Mondays at 9:00 on Fox)

It's been a great year for the Lost alum, with Adam Horowitz & Edward Kitsis's Once Upon a Time outperforming expectations over on ABC and now Elizabeth Sarnoff debuting Alcatraz on Fox. Here's a shot that finally lives up to some of the hype of the Lost legacy, more so than J.J. Abrams's past offerings (Fringe, Undercovers) or even than Once Upon a Time. There will never be another show like Lost, but the pilot of Alcatraz comes close to matching the mystery and excitement of that show's premiere.

On March 21, 1963 Alcatraz ceased operation and its inmates were transferred to other penetentiaries. Or so everyone was told. Hundreds of inmates and guards actually disappeared that day, their transfers and subsequent records forged to hide the fact that no one knew where they'd gone. In present day San Francisco, the finger prints of one of the supposedly dead inmates turns up at a murder scene. Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) begins the hunt for this prisoner, Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce), with the help of Alcatraz expert Diego "Doc" Soto (Jorge Garcia). She is stonewalled by a mysterious federal agent named Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), but she soon discovers he is working a special task force to bring in the reappearing Alcatraz inmates and stop them from committing more crimes in the present.

The first hour of Alcatraz's two-hour premiere was instantly gripping. A supernatural thriller disguised as a cop drama, a briskly-paced script from creators Elizabeth Sarnoff (Lost), Steven Lilien & Bryan Wynbrandt (Kyle XY) almost perfectly blends genres to create a fast-moving and never-boring setup that is intriguing and fascinating. The history of Alcatraz is interesting on its own, and it's nearly impossible not to be intrigued just by the place itself (isolated, private, dark, mysterious) and the myriad options available to telling the prisoners' stories. Add in the supernatural elements of the prisoners reappearing 50 years later looking exactly the same and you have a truly engrossing mystery. Just after the first two hours there were enough reveals to slake the audience's thirst for answers but still enough questions to bring them back as well: What are they doing here now? Where have they been? What's the connection between the prisoners and the present-day task force?

The only gripe I have with Alcatraz is the procedural element. Each week introduces a new prisoner, he commits a crime, and the search is on; if the first two episodes are any indication, he's then caught and returned to a modern-day state-of-the-art Alcatraz, where he will be collected along with the other "escaped" prisoners. The procedural element could get old quick, so I fear the writers don't fall into the trap of stagnant writing while they follow this formula.

While the performances are strong all around, the show belongs to Jorge Garcia, forever after remembered as Hurley from Lost. He brings a levity to an otherwise grim series, peppering the darkness with one-liners you can't help but smile at like, "Did anyone else's head just explode?" He's a charming presence and a welcome bit of humor in an otherwise gritty hour. Sam Neill is another standout performer, delivering his esoteric lines with appropriate creepiness and stoicism. His character, a federal agent with ties to The Rock's past, is the most interesting. For me, though, the best dramatic performance belongs to Jeffrey Pierce (The Nine) as escaped convict Jack Sylvane. He's equal parts heartbreaking in the 1960 flashbacks and frightening in the present day scenes. Pierce immediately makes us care about Sylvane, a murderer who would likely otherwise not elicit sympathy; but Pierce manages it, adding yet another layer to the series.

The pilot is beautifully done, featuring some gorgeous cinematography by David Stockton (Nikita) and stylish, flashy direction from Danny Cannon (Emmy nominee for CSI). Oscar winner Michael Giacchino's score is eerie and beautiful. Everything is a notch above standard television caliber, making the whole proceeding feel like an epic film rather than a TV show. It's grand in scope, in intention, and in content. I can't wait for next week's episode.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pilot Review: Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite (Sundays at 8:30 on Fox)

You've probably been living under a rock since 2004 if you haven't seen the film Napoleon Dynamite. It was an unlikely comedic success which launched the career of Jon Heder and developed a cult following. That was seven years ago, and since no one involved could ever match the success of the film (or have any success at all, depending on who you're talking about), Fox has begun an animated series using the same characters, actors, and sometimes, jokes.

Napoleon Dynamite starts without any sort of introduction or preface whatsoever. Apparently the creators assumed that no one who hadn't seen the movie would be watching, so it's assumed that we know who everyone is and their relationships with one another. For people like me who hated the movie and only saw it once, it doesn't work particularly well. I completely forgot about the Uncle Rico character, but everyone else falls right into the same bits they made famous in the film: Kip is dating online, the deaf club is signing famous songs, and Napoleon is generally being awkward. The first episode is about Napoleon using an acne cream that hasn't been approved by the FDA and causes him to become enraged and smell really bad, so he joins an underground fight club.

Let's get this out there: nothing about this show is funny, and I do mean nothing. Whatever was supposedly funny about the film is repeated here: Napoleon insisting he has a sweet body, Kip's pedophilic voice, Pedro's nonreaction to everything, and the general white trash-ness of these characters' lives. So if you didn't find it funny the first time around, you won't find it funny now. But if you found the movie to be charming, you likely won't find the show charming. By animating these characters, what was inherently silly about the proceedings has been eliminated. Napoleon always kind of looked like a cartoon, so literally making him one takes that away. The physical comedy of the film was amusing, but without actors there is no physicality. But these things could be forgiven if the show were good in its own right; it's just not. The writing is horribly unfunny, even more so than the uncomfortable awkwardness of the film's humor. It's a study in laziness: taking the same characters, situations, jokes and what not of the film and recycling them but calling it something new. Napoleon Dynamite is ultimately a pointless series. If the film required further storytelling (which it does not), make a sequel and call it a day. But to subject audiences to something that isn't funny, original, or entertaining is just wrong.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Pilot Review: The Finder

The Finder (Thursdays at 9:00 on Fox)

Everything from the get-go seemed to point toward The Finder being nothing more than schedule filler for Fox, something to keep Bones fans occupied while that show is on hiatus due to Emily Deschanel's pregnancy. It received little promotion and had almost no buzz going into its pilot, though it did get a prime post-American Idol timeslot. But to spin this show off of Bones late in the season, while the parent show's ratings are starting to lag, starring a character who only ever appeared in one episode... it was an odd choice. But the resulting series is surprisingly entertaining on its own merits.

The Finder centers on Walter Sherman (Geoff Stults), a former Marine captain who was discharged after a bomb caused him brain damage. That "damage," however, turned out to be a gift in the form of connecting dots and lines not typically perceived by the common person. This ability to read people, language, and situations has led to his reputation as someone who can find anything (or anyone) which is lost. Walter also owns a dive bar in the Florida Keys; he is joined in both ventures by his friend Leo (Michael Clarke Duncan) and is often aided by US Marshal Isabel (Mercedes Masohn), with whom he has a give-and-take relationship. The bar has also recently taken in Willa, a teenage criminal who is working the bar as a means of probation after being busted for theft.

As far as crime procedurals go, The Finder has an interesting enough twist to stand out from the pack. Like its sister series, it follows a quirky and socially awkward main character with an incredible mind who solves cases unconventionally. The pilot sees Sherman searching for the downed plane belonging to a man whose life he saved in Kosovo; Sherman warns that he often finds more than what his clients ask for, in this case uncovering a drug-smuggling operation of which the plane's pilot was a part. Sherman's methods are often hilarious (re-enacting the moments before and during the flight with model airplanes, etc) and never quite unbelievable. Sherman is clever; the "connect-the-dots" of the case solving never makes it feel like he's stretching (unlike on Bones, where Brennan is all but a walking encyclopedia).

Geoff Stults (Happy Town) is totally charming and often very funny as Sherman, and he is easily the most adept comedian in the cast. Michael Clarke Duncan (Academy Award nominee for The Green Mile in his first TV gig) is a bit awkward as the repenting Leo, as if he's not sure when to play for laughs. The rest of the cast is universally strong, finding their footing with characters whom have taken a backseat to the introduction of Sherman and Leo. Bones creator Hart Hanson has written a smart introductory episode and some relatively intriguing characters. The Finder has a silly, lighthearted feel; the sunny Florida setting perfectly reflects the show's laid back, easy to swallow storytelling. It's a breezy, entertaining hour that is ideal escapism for the dreary winter months

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pilot Review: Rob

Rob (Thursdays at 8:30 on CBS)

It seems like all the major networks are competing for who can air the worst midseason comedy. ABC was the winner, but it faces stiff competition from NBC with Are You There, Chelsea? and now from CBS with Rob. Which one is worst will depend on your personal opinion of what type of humor is most offensive.

Rob (Rob Schneider) met Maggie (Claudia Bassols) only six weeks ago, but they have just gotten married in all-night chapel in Vegas. Rob sent his parents a text message to share the great news, but Maggie insists on being a human and telling her family in person. So the newlyweds go to break the news, only to have Rob met with disdain.

The story is inconsequential, as it often is in sitcoms. The pilot sets up the running gag or ,theme the show will follow and introduces the characters. There is nothing new here: newlyweds! fish out of water! cantankerous in-laws! It's nothing more than a vehicle for Rob Schneider, a former SNL cast member and "movie star" (the term is used loosely, as he's mostly reviled by intelligent movie watchers). He is surprisingly tame, considering this is the man responsible for Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and the unwatchable The Animal. But he's also not engaging or terribly likeable. Ditto Bassols (a Spanish-language actress), the blandest sitcom wife in recent memory, and Cheech Marin as her father, a welcome presence who doesn't actually add anything to the proceedings. The entire cast sleepwalks through the pilot, hitting marks and spewing awful jokes but not really acting at all.

Speaking of the awful jokes, whatever happened to shows that were funny because they're funny? It seems like every sitcom on the air now has to be predicated on some very specific type of offensive humor: gender jokes (Work It, Last Man Standing, Whitney), drunk jokes (Are You There, Chelsea?), and now racist jokes. Can't people just be funny being people? My favorite sitcom, Will & Grace, featured gay characters but it was never predicated on gay jokes. Shows like this one, however, are predicated on nothing more than throwing every specialized joke at the viewer. Every negative stereotype about Mexicans you can possibly think of is reiterated in the pilot of Rob: they have large families, they cross the border illegally, they have shrines in every corner of the house, they work low-wage jobs, they can't afford housing, etc ad nauseum. The entire foundation of the show is built upon the premise that it's funny for white people to make fun of Mexican stereotypes. Work It is funny because men make fun of female stereotypes. Why can't people just be funny? The only truly funny moment in this entire episode is one that has nothing to do with race, but two people who are nothing alike and don't understand each other. Rob has spilled hot wax on his pants and his wife's grandmother finds him in his underwear, so she screams; to try to keep her quiet, Rob puts his hand over her mouth and when everyone walks in they are in a precarious position. There are more layers to humor than simply, "Haha, you're a dirty Mexican!" The humor in sitcoms used to rely on the relatable, on the outrageous happening in everyday situations. If this entire episode were about Rob not being able to communicate with his new family or how families in all culture are ultimately alike, it might have come across better.

Once Rob moves beyond the myriad of racist jokes, it's just mundane. I know that there were certain lines that were supposed to be jokes, and certain scenes that were supposed to situationally funny because of the laugh track; had that not been there, I never would've known. The humor is so run-of-the-mill that it's nearly nonexistent. The dialogue is banal, the entire setup dull, the jokes and performances almost entirely unfunny. How do shows like this not only get made but put on the air?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pilot Review: Are You There, Chelsea?

Are You There, Chelsea? (Wednesdays at 8:30 on NBC)

And just like that another show I had been looking forward to has been removed from my DVR schedule after just one episode.

In many ways the disappointment of Are You There, Chelsea? is much more heartbreaking than The Firm. The latter didn't really have a chance, considering NBC bought it after pilot season and ordered all 22 episodes without ever seeing any footage; it was doomed from the start. But Chelsea should've had a chance and should've been so much better. It was delayed to midseason so that it could be retooled, but if this is the better version of the pilot then I can't imagine how it was ever picked up in the first place.

Are You There, Chelsea? is based on Chelsea Handler's bestselling autobiographical book of comedic essays Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. It follows Chelsea (Laura Prepon) and her party-girl lifestyle. She is arrested for a DUI, so without her car she moves into a new apartment within walking distance of work... at a bar. Other characters include Chelsea's pregnant (and much more responsible) sister Sloane (Chelsea Handler); her best friend Olivia (Ali Wong); her new roommate Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus); the bartender at Chelsea's workplace and former semi-flame Rick (Jake McDorman); and Todd, the colorblind midget barback (Mark Povinelli).

If last year's trainwreck $#*! My Dad Says taught us anything, it's that not everything that's funny in one medium will be funny in another. Vulgar humor just doesn't work when it's toned down for a broadcast audience; while that show bore almost no resemblance to its basis, Chelsea at least has a similar feeling to Handler's book. The problem is that it's just not as funny without the crass language and shocking sexcapades. Handler has a very clear voice in her writing, and because she didn't write this show it doesn't come across. Plus it needs to be edited down to be appropriate for its early timeslot.

Speaking of which, I was shocked by how much the producers got away with in terms of language. I don't know if references went over the censors heads or what, but this was not a show for 8:30 on NBC: vagina jokes, multiple references to pubic hair trimming, top/bottom jokes, STD jokes, making light of drunk driving, etc. Chelsea Handler recently announced at TCA that the reason the word "vodka" was dropped from the title was to not turn off viewers who may potentially find drinking offensive. That makes absolutely no sense considering how many jokes about drinking, sex, what color a redhead's pubes are, chlamydia, vaginas, and midgets there are. "Vodka" is the least of your worries. And this argument might sound counterintuitive considering I just said the material needed to be edited for appropriateness, but it's the way in which it's presented that makes it offensive. It rides the line between tame and over-the-top, never being a fully neutered version of Handler's humor nor a full-blown adaptation of it. I don't know how to really explain what I mean, except that I think the way they adapted the material somewhere between tame and crass made it very much not funny. If the producers (one of whom is Handler herself) could have found enough humor in the situations to not need the adult content, it would've been funny; if the show were taken to a cable network where it wouldn't need to be edited at all, it would've been funny. But the middle ground Chelsea finds itself in is not funny.

Laura Prepon (That 70s Show) does her best to differentiate herself from the actual Chelsea Handler, but she's just not that funny. She doesn't capture Handler's bite and bitterness. The supporting cast is entirely forgettable. Ali Wong is the worst of the mediocre, delivering her lines like a porn star trying to get a laugh. She has that very presentational "I'm in a sitcom and I'm telling you jokes" style of acting, and it was awful. Jake McDorman (Greek) is similarly annoying as the bartender, though that's based more on the fact that he doesn't do anything the entire episode but refer to the one night he and Chelsea tried to have sex but failed because she wanted to be on top. It got old after about 6 seconds. The writing is stale and not nearly as funny as the constant, grating laugh track seems to think it is.

The only thing I can say in favor of Are You There, Chelsea? (I HATE THAT TITLE) is that it's not the worst sitcom of the season. Luckily for this show, Work It is also on the air... for now. Chelsea may yet take that crown if Work It disappears from the schedule.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pilot Review: The Firm

The Firm (Thursdays at 10:00 on NBC)

NBC's newest legal drama The Firm is a pitch-perfect practice in absolute mediocrity.

Let's get this out of the way before anything else: what is the point of this show? Is there really a need, or even a desire, for a weekly series based on a book that's 20 years old and a film nearly that age? Why even attach this show to the title The Firm when it bears almost no resemblance to the Grisham novel or Tom Cruise film?

The pilot picks up ten years after the events of the 1993 film. Mitch McDeere (Josh Lucas in his first regular TV gig) has opened his own legal practice in Washington, D.C. after running from the mob since the events in Memphis. He now has a daughter, and he and his family have recently left the Witness Protection program to take their chances. McDeere has (oddly) switched from financial to criminal law and is taking on a large amount of pro bono work, thanks to a judge who admires his character. Tagging along are McDeere's faithful secretary (Juliette Lewis) and brother (Callum Keith Rennie), his own personal private investigator. Just as McDeere thinks things are getting better.... "it's happening again." The mob comes after McDeere again, led by the former boss's son, and McDeere joins a shady new firm.

If you have not seen the film The Firm or read the book on which it is based then you will likely be confused by all the allusion to its events. There are some helpful flashbacks to keep newcomers in the loop, but they aren't enough to fully understand the nuance of Mitch as a character.

Then again, if you have seen the film or read the book, as I have, then you'll likely still be confused, albeit for a different reason. The confusion for those familiar with the source material lies in the reworking of this sequel to a work that didn't need one in the first place. Not only that, but this series bears only a passing resemblance to its parent. Mitch McDeere is hardly the same character; he's not a young, charismatic financial specialist anymore, but a run-of-the-mill defense attorney that can be found on any law show on television in any country. Why not just rework the original idea into a series, rather than this sequel? I mean, what are the odds that an intelligent man like McDeere would fall for the whole evil firm thing twice? Especially just months after exiting Witness Protection? The repetition turns the characters into idiots and moves them further away from their original incarnations. What has happened is that The Firm has been turned into a standard legal drama, with a case-of-the-week format and a season-long storyline, but with familiar names and a semi-familiar title.

Aside from the kind-of stupidity of this show's existence, the pilot is so mediocre that it's totally forgettable and totally unforgivable. Josh Lucas is bland as Mitch McDeere, proving why he's been in movie for a decade and never had a breakout turn. He's fine but not at all exciting and not nearly as charismatic as Tom Cruise originally was. Molly Parker (Deadwood) is just as forgettable as McDeere's wife, Abby; she isn't given much to do but be the voice of reason. Lewis and Rennie are similarly pushed to the sidelines with only a few scenes each and no discernible trace of true characters developed yet because of it. Lukas Reiter, a former writer for The Practice, has written an unevenly paced pilot without much of interest in it, and it is directed with average style and zero creativity by David Straiton (hour one) and Helen Shaver (hour two). The dialogue is either completely cliche or pompous whenever anyone is talking about the law. Within three minutes of the pilot's start, Lucas calls his wife on a pay phone to choke out, "It's happening again." I couldn't help but giggle, thinking of Bradley Cooper's character in The Hangover Part II uttering the exact same line before that film employed the exact same flashback technique as this series; the difference, of course, is that The Firm is not intentionally comedic, hence the problem.

Any intelligence that was once behind Grisham's book, the subsequent film, or any of their characters has vanished. Mitch McDeere has been downgraded to a standard TV lawyer, not to mention a complete idiot. Upon learning that a father has put a hit out on his teenage client, McDeere sends his PI brother to solicit the job rather than calling the police. It makes no sense from a logical standpoint, though it turns out to be the most interesting side-story in the entire two-hour pilot. That should tell you something about the show's prospects when the best portion of its first two episodes involve something so mind-bogglingly stupid. Besides that, the show is just middle of the road. The performances are dull but not lifeless; the courtroom cases are neither engaging nor totally boring. It's not good or bad, it's just painfully mediocre. In fact, The Firm is so mediocre that you probably won't be able to remember afterward whether or not you liked it. So better to act as if it doesn't exist.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pilot Review: Work It

Work It (Tuesdays at 8:30 on ABC)

There's already a ton of buzz in the media regarding Work It. Gay groups are upset over the depiction of cross-dressing men, and the pilot itself is the worst reviewed of the season. And every bit of this negative press is deserved, because Work It is both offensive and awful.

Lee (Ben Koldyke, How I Met Your Mother) used to be a car salesman in St. Louis until he lost his job a year ago; Angel (Amaury Nolasco, Prison Break) was a mechanic at the same dealer and is in the same situation. Lee has a family to think about, but he just can't seem to find work. At a routine physical he overhears a pharmaceutical salesperson (Kate Reinders, Ugly Betty) talking about how well she and her company are doing. This is right up Lee's alley, except the company is only hiring women. So he puts on his wife's clothes and gets a job selling drugs, soon stringing Angel along with him.

Let's dive right in: Work It is indeed offensive. Lee is not so much impersonating a woman but a flamboyant homosexual while he is at work. The scene between him and his boss (Rochelle Aytes, Detroit 1-8-7) is most telling; here he is conversing with an actual woman, but exaggerating his motions and voice to the extreme. His affectation is not that of a woman, as we can see the woman playing opposite him; he is imitating the most feminine traits he can imagine, and he comes off as a gay man... not a woman. So I can understand the offense taken by GLAAD. Furthermore, this is horribly detrimental to the cause of the transgender community. Seeing two men easily slipping into the role of "female" and passing for women is totally inconsistent with reality (obviously, it's a sitcom). But trans people do not fit that easily into any role, and oftentimes the punishment for not passing is dangerous and violent. To see two horribly configured men-as-women be accepted as women sends the wrong message about what it is like to truly be between genders; it is not a matter of putting on clothes, Ace bandaging your package, and applying makeup. There is a complex of emotions and fears that go along with gender-switching that just aren't appropriate for sitcoms.

More so than being offensive toward gays and transgendered people, it's generally offensive to just men and woman. According to this show, all men are beer-drinking, clueless, lazy, sex-starved, overeating slobs. And all women are flirty, bitchy, slutty, constantly dieting, over-reacting man-haters. The gender references are so dated you'd swear the pilot was written by cavemen. I mean, would a man who can no longer afford to pay for his daughter's cell phone really go out every night to the bar and drink beers? Would a company really only hire women because they're nicer to look at than men? It's ridiculous.

But perhaps its biggest offense is that Work It is not even funny. The humor is so cliche and expected that it's groan worthy. A sample of some sight gags: Lee's bandage comes unraveled while he's dancing; Lee tries to get his breast size just right but can't seem to hide his bulge; Lee doesn't know how to properly apply makeup, so he ends up with black spots all over his face; Angel can't walk in heels so he constantly shakes his ass to compensate; etc. If any of that sounds appealing to you, you have the sense of humor of a child and have found your new favorite show. And while we're at it, the show isn't even original. Its lazy plot is a dumbed down adaptation of Bosom Buddies, Some Like It Hot, Tootsie and others.

It's likely the only reason this pilot ever got anywhere is because creators Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen were producers on Friends for so long (and even won an Emmy for it); but that good will can only last so long with an unoriginal story, terrible dialogue, a lack of laughs, and horribly cliche stereotyping. I don't see this one lasting more than a few weeks.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pilot Review: It's a Brad, Brad World

It's a Brad, Brad World (Mondays at 10:00 on Bravo)

You'll know before you even read this review whether or not this show is for you, based on your feelings toward The Rachel Zoe Project. Fortunately for new viewers, however, It's a Brad, Brad World is already much more entertaining than the most recent season of its parent show, The Rachel Zoe Project. For those not in the know, Brad Goreski was one of Rachel Zoe's styling assistants for a number of years. He worked with the fashion guru until late last year, when he left to create his own styling business. Brad appeared in the first three season of Rachel's Bravo series, and the fourth (which aired from September-November 2011) just wasn't the same without him. It was no longer entertaining.

It's a no-brainer then that Brad would receive his own series on Bravo, considering what we now know: he was the only thing that made Zoe's show good. She is quotable and funny because she's ridiculous and doesn't realize it. But Brad was the true entertainment on The Rachel Zoe Project, and it's no less true on Brad World. We pick up months after Brad has left Rachel's company (yes, there's a brief bit where he addresses their current non-existent relationship) with him working out of his garage and getting jobs based more on his own personal style than on how he styles others. He goes to a photo shoot for Paper magazine in which a group of models dress up like him and later to a party for Us Weekly where he is honored as being a style icon. On the business end of things, there's surprisingly little work. Brad is given a job styling Diane Lane, but she soon cancels to go with a more established stylist. Luckily singer Keri Hilson needs someone to style her for the Met Ball (one of the biggest yearly events in the fashion world), so he jumps at the chance.

Brad World immediately establishes itself as separate from The Rachel Zoe Project. Whereas Rachel's home life is annoying and boring due to the overbearing and obnoxious presence of her dimwitted husband Rodger, Brad's is light and fun with the introduction of his partner Gary Janetti, a sitcom writer with a biting sense of humor. The two have a cute repoire, unlike the annoying banter of Rachel and her husband; whereas Rachel and Rodger's communication mostly consists of iterations of "Babe, you're pregnant, don't do that" or "You're working too much" or "I'm so tired, I can't have sex right now," Brad and Gary make pussy jokes and have a truly hysterical overlapping game of word association. They actually have conversations rather than snapping the same old lines at each other.

Also unlike Rachel's series, the reason to tune into Brad World isn't necessarily for celebrity sightings or fashion ogling. Brad is genuinely engaging and funny, a true character who happens to be a real person. He's the reason reality television existed in the first place and became popular: it's as if someone wrote him into a show, but he's not following any script. It's a refreshing and endearing show starring a witty and charming personality.