Sunday, April 12, 2015

Brief Reviews: Olympus, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, American Odyssey

Olympus (Thursdays at 10:00 on SyFy)

This is the kind of show that just doesn't come along everyday. It's a show so ugly, so wretchedly awful, so terribly made that you have to see it to believe it exists.

Presumably an attempt to cash in on the success of Game of Thrones, Olympus is SyFy's historical epic fantasy about a hero attempting to learn the truth of how and why the gods were banished to Hades. And it's heinous. Seriously, there's nothing here to recommend to anyone who has a single brain cell, unless you want to watch to see what a wreck it all is.

And it really is. There's nothing redeeming about Olympus. The special effects are so cheap, so poorly rendered, that they look like screenshots of a 1990s PC game: blocky, pixelated, muted, and flat-out ugly. And these effects are in about half the shots of the first episode, since just about every outdoors scene looks to be filmed on a green screen. No performance could save such horrendous production values, but the ones here make everything even worse. The entire cast is flat, especially the lead "hero" (whose name we never learn and subsequently don't give any shits about whatsoever) played by Tyrant's Tom York; so at least the performances match the sets and effects. The script is dull and overly familiar (which is exactly what creator Nick Willing built his reputation on at SyFy, by scripting the miniseries Neverland, a retelling of Peter Pan, and Alice, a retelling of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland); the story is repetitive and melodramatic. Everything about Olympus leaves much to be desired.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (Sundays at 10:00 on Lifetime)

Even though it felt like beating a dead horse when Lifetime aired Lizzie Borden Took an Ax last January, the telefilm's mixture of lush period setting, contemporary score, and a wickedly entertaining turn by Christina Ricci made it more fun than it should have been. And since it was well-received, Lifetime can't leave well enough alone, so here comes the miniseries The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, following both real and fictionalized events in Lizzie's life following her acquittal in the murders of her parents.

It's been four months since the trial, and Lizzie and her sister Emma (Clea DuVall) are trying to move on with their lives but are held back by their father's debt to his business partner (John Heard) and the sudden appearance of their (fictional) half-brother William (Andrew Howard). Children follow Lizzie around reciting the "forty whacks" jump rope rhyme; townspeople are leery of approaching and doing business with the sisters; and every time Lizzie is alone in the house, she has flashbacks to the murders she committed (oh, right, in this version Lizzie is undoubtedly guilty of the murders). Meanwhile, Pinkerton Detective Charlie Siringo (Cole Hauser) arrives in town to investigate the Borden murders for himself, just as more bodies start popping up.

Lizzie Borden is a weird little show. It mixes real people and events (Siringo was an actual detective at the time, Lizzie and Emma did move into a huge new house in Fall River together) with false ones (William Borden did not exist, and though Siringo was real, he operated in the Southwest), just like it mixes period stylings with a contemporary rock and bluegrass soundtrack and gory, flashy quick cuts. Despite its 19th century setting, the feeling is definitely contemporary, from the violence to Lizzie's feminist ideals ("He needs to know we won't be intimidated," she says of a man trying to swindle the girls out of their inheritance) and especially concerning Ricci's wholly wonderful performance. Ricci has so much fun playing up Lizzie's innocence and transitioning at a moment's notice to wickedness. This series' Lizzie is purely evil, and by the end of the premiere she has left two more bodies in her wake (with previews promising more murders to come). It's fun to watch Ricci go crazy, and while making Lizzie a serial killer stretches the bounds of realism, it falls in line with the eccentricity the show aims for. This isn't the kind of show you're going to watch for a history lesson; The Lizzie Borden Chronicles knows it's a playful bit of period camp, and that's why it's a fun way to spend an hour.

American Odyssey (Sundays at 10:00 on NBC)

American Odyssey isn't as bad as Olympus (well, nothing is) or as enjoyable as The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, but it is a great broadcast show. Like American Crime, it's the kind of show that feels like it belongs on cable and would be better off if it were.

Taking its cues from sources as diverse as Homeland, 24 and the film Traffic, American Odyssey is a complex conspiracy military thriller. We follow several disparate storylines: that of Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies), an army sergeant stationed in North Africa who comes across computer files implicating an American corporation in the funding of terrorists; former US Attorney Peter Decker (Nurse Jackie's Peter Facinelli), now a corporate lawyer, who also finds evidence of the conspiracy; trust-fund baby turned political activist Harrison Walters (Jake Robinson, The Carrie Diaries), who meets a hacker who finds the military coverup; Colonel Stephen Glen (Treat Williams), Ballard's commanding officer in D.C.; and more. It's a complicated web of characters, all connected by this government conspiracy.

The most emotional and least interesting story belongs to Ballard, a single mother who's promised her daughter she'll be home soon. But she wasn't counting on her own people ordering her murder, or on surviving that attempt on her life, or on being kidnapped by a Muslim family, or on the teenage son of that family breaking her out and helping her back to the States. It's a completely romanticized, saccharine plotline, one that seems totally out of place next to the shady, scheming politics of the rest of American Odyssey. But still it's well done, certainly more so than NBC's other (already canceled) midseason conspiracy drama Allegiance, and the cast is universally outstanding. Friel is intense but maternal in her scenes with Omar Ghazaoui as Aslam, her teenage savior. Treat Williams is always a strong presence, and Jake Robinson is surprisingly competent, even effective, in his as-yet-underdeveloped role. If you can watch an entire show based on the strength of its cast alone, then you'll like American Odyssey. The show that surrounds them, however, tends to be scattered and overly ambitious. Several storylines seem superfluous (Why do we need Harrison Walters when it's actually his hacker friend who uncovers a conspiracy? Why do we need to follow a group of protestors and activists?), and the scope often opens up wider than it needs to. Concentrating on giving Ballard something to actually do would be a good start. Giving Becker a discernible personality would be welcome as well. So despite a decent overall story and an interesting central conspiracy, American Odyssey just tries to do and to be too much. And I can't help but feel like if the creators had more focus and more freedom, as they would on a cable network, the whole thing could have been a real knockout.

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