Friday, June 20, 2014

Brief Reviews: Power, Murder in the First, Dominion

I don't have much to say about the first round of new summer programming: some of it is fun, some of it is downright terrible, and none of it is good enough for me to care very much about it.

Power (Saturdays at 9:00 on Starz)

Power isn't going to do much to make you think that Starz is really in the original programming game. Even after a string of new shows (Magic City, Da Vinci's Demons, Boss, Black Sails), Starz has yet to find a successor to the moderately-successful Spartacus, either critically or commercially. Power won't make you continue your Starz subscription because it exists; better to keep it for the movies they show and just catch their original series whenever you find yourself with a completely empty DVR and nothing better on live TV.

It's not that Power is bad; it's not. It's just not very good. Omari Hardwick is "Ghost," a big-city club owner who leads a double life as a top-tier drug dealer. Yes, it's another show about drugs and gangs. The only difference here is that Starz can show the violence, sex, and profanity that is typical of the drug culture, whereas similar shows like Gang Related cannot because it airs on broadcast television. But that's about the extent of what makes Power superior to other shows of its ilk. Otherwise, it's a paint-by-numbers story about a guy trying to balance his secret life with his actual life, and the crossover between the two. You've seen it a hundred times before, just maybe not filmed as slickly as Anthony Hemingway (True Blood, CSI: NY) films Power. The acting is just fine, though I'd like to see Naturi Naughton do more than take her clothes off in future episodes, and the writing is adequate. But edge and style don't make up for a lack of originality and creativity.

Murder in the First (Mondays at 10:00 on TNT)

NYPD Blue creator Steven Bochco is just a few years behind the trend with his new show Murder in the First. It's a The Killing-style show in which the investigation of a single case extends through the entire season. This isn't a truly original idea... in fact, Bochco created a show in the 90s (Murder One) which did much the same thing. The problem is that Murder in the First feels like it belongs alongside Bochco's other 90s shows in a time capsule. It feels dated.

Cop shows are seeing a resurgence of late, with shows like True Detective telling really dark, season-long arcs that fly in the face of the procedural format many police shows have found success with. Murder in the First seems to want to capitalize on that and prove that a popular creator like Bochco--whose other shows include Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and Doogie Howser, M.D.--can adapt to current trends. But it, unfortunately, does just the opposite. The tone and look of Murder in the First is too light (literally, it's too bright to tell a dark story) and too flip. There's an attempt to create hardening backstories for our two lead detectives (Taye Diggs and Kathleen Robertson, both stone-faced and stiff), but they're too run-of-the-mill for us to care about. And the central murder isn't even all that interesting, with Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter films playing the prime suspect, a spoiled rich kid who may or may not have stolen the ideas for his tech company. Yawn. This isn't an exploration of the darkness of the human psyche, and it's not a slow-burn investigation so much as it's an exercise in mundanity: two episodes in, and we've seen the detectives play the same "obtain a DNA sample without the suspect knowing" game twice already. It's not fun to watch in the way procedurals can be, and it's not fascinating to watch the clues unfold in the way darker police shows can be. It ends up as a really pedestrian, really dull affair, and I couldn't care less who murdered these people and why.

Dominion (Thursdays at 9:00 on SyFy)

Based on the 2010 film Legion, which I wasn't aware anyone actually liked or wished had a sequel, Dominion picks up the story of a post-apocalyptic Earth where God has sent down angels to wipe out mankind, much like he once did with a flood. But people fought back, and twenty-five years on, they seem to have gained the upper hand. Unfortunately, it's because the archangel Gabriel, mankind's arch nemesis, has been gathering an army of humans possessed to be his winged soldiers and take out the rest of the world's population.

It's about as cheesy as one would expect from a SyFy show, but the production and presentation are better than it has any right to be. The special effects are surprisingly realistic, the script is only unintelligible a few times, and the acting is top notch (particularly the scenery-chewing performance from Buffy's Anthony Head). Sure, the dialogue is clunky sometimes, and the whole show has that kind of washed-out, low-budget look common to SyFy channel original movies, but Dominion is actually fun. It's Christianity redux meets Romeo & Juliet, with a splash of Spartacus thrown in for good measure. It won't change the way you see the world, and it won't win any awards, but it's a great summer diversion, a small-screen version of the blockbuster popcorn flicks currently in movie theatres. And in a sea of mediocre and/or dull new shows, Dominion stands out as a show which swings for the fences in a weird, action-packed way. And even when it misses, at least it's entertaining.

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