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Fall TV, Week 2 (spoilers)

First, a couple of updates, since my second looks at a number of shows have caused me to reappraise them:

Minority Report: I’m afraid episode 2 didn’t work as well for me as the pilot. There was some nice tech futurism (the microbiome analyzers were interesting, and the future version of a tablet is nice), but it wasn’t matched on a cultural level. All that pickup artist stuff and people using slang like “negging” and “booty call” is way, way too present-day for a show set 50 years from now, and that really damaged the credibility of the story and the world. It felt like a script for some ordinary, present-day cop show that was rewritten for this show. Which I doubt it really was, since it was written by the showrunner. But it doesn’t bode well for the quality of the mysteries — or the worldbuilding — going forward.

Some decent character work with Dash and Vega dealing with the aftermath of Dash killing the bad guy last week. I’m glad they addressed that instead of dismissing it. But I’m finding Stark Sands rather underwhelming as a lead. And the stuff about his inept attempts at detective work is getting old really fast.

Blindspot: I gave this one more chance, after reading an interview with the showrunner saying that there would be some major revelations this week.  I think I’m getting a little invested in it now, or at least curious enough to stick with it for the moment. Jaimie Alexander is definitely the main draw. Although it’s kind of nice to see Ashley Johnson — or rather, to hear her, since I know her mainly from her animation roles such as Gwen in Ben 10 and Terra in Teen Titans.

It’s occurred to me: We now have two series on the air, Dark Matter and Blindspot, that revolve around characters who’ve had their memories wiped and are wrestling with the question of whether they were good or bad people in their previous lives. And they’re both created by veterans of the Stargate franchise — Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie for the former, Martin Gero for the latter. Is there some causality there, or just coincidence?

The Muppets: I’m out. I was open to a more adult and “edgy” version of the Muppets, getting back to their roots in late-night TV, but last night’s episode was something I don’t think the Muppets have ever been before: mean-spirited and cynical. Kermit has become an angry, neurotic jerk, Fozzie is committing felonies, and the characters are just being generally nasty to each other, with no sign of the affection that always underlaid their squabbles in the past. It didn’t feel like a story about the Muppets; it felt like a generic modern sitcom plot acted out by the Muppets. Which is lame. If the Muppets are going to do something in the vein of a contemporary TV trend, they should be spoofing and subverting it (Veterinarian’s Hospital, Pigs in Space), not just playing it out by the numbers. More importantly, it just wasn’t very funny. In the pilot, I laughed a good number of times, but very little amused me here.

The one good point is that Pepe the King Prawn, the most annoying Muppet ever, was more subdued and less obnoxious here. But he was the only Muppet who was less obnoxious. And maybe it’s just symptomatic of the general out-of-character writing.

And now to the new stuff:

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays, ABC): Pretty solid opening. Things have ramped up to a new level. More superpower action, new threats, new status quo for various characters. Daisy (formerly Skye) is looking pretty good in her action gear and new haircut. And a passel of movie references — nods to the alien attacks on New York, London, and Sokovia (though Ultron was kind of indirectly alien), an appearance by President Ellis, even a nod to “the Pym Technologies disaster.” (Which is perhaps an overstatement given that nobody died in that.) And the lines about the laws of man catching up with the laws of nature could be foreshadowing Captain America: Civil War.

Sleepy Hollow (Thursdays, FOX): This just screamed “soft reboot.” Last season ended with the core foursome reunited and standing together; now suddenly we learn they all went their separate ways and are only grudgingly coming back together, with Irving gone for good. That’s kind of an awkward transition. And the episode was so much about setting up the new status quo that it’s hard to get a sense of what the season will be like.

But while the core cast was still fun to watch, the episode felt like it was going through the motions. The Horseman was swept aside very cursorily. Abbie was given a new grizzled mentor figure to suffer a predictable, telegraphed death at the hands of a demon, like Sheriff Corbin 2.0, but we didn’t see any emotional aftermath to the event, any reaction from Abbie once the scene was over. Crane and Abbie cursorily reasserted their friendship, but the sense of deep warmth and connection between them wasn’t as strong. Crane was given a new Colonial-era love interest in Betsy Ross, but without the depth of feeling and need he had for Katrina — and so far, the only impressive thing about Nikki Reed in the role is that she makes Katia Winter seem interesting in comparison. And Jenny was just there to help out and make wisecracks. Before, it was the depth of feeling behind the characters and their relationships, the underlying passion, that made the show engaging and grounded its insanely silly plotlines. There didn’t seem to be any passion here.

Also, how is it that an experienced demon-hunter and FBI agent like Abbie can run into a woman named Pandora, who’s into ancient history and lore and who’s just arrived in Sleepy Hollow at the same time a new evil descends upon the town, and not immediately suspect that it’s the Pandora? That’s just dropping the ball.

Thoughts on fall SFTV so far (spoilers)

September 28, 2015 2 comments

Just to keep this blog active, some reactions to the first week of fall TV:

Doctor Who (Saturdays, BBC America): Still fun to watch, but problematical. Steven Moffat’s execution is brilliant, but his concepts are limited. He keeps doing riffs on the same few ideas. How many times has he repeated the premise of the Doctor facing the end of his life and trying to hide from it? Shouldn’t we have gotten past that after Trenzalore? (And why didn’t he give someone his confession disc the last two or three times he thought his life was ending?) And most of Moffat’s plots are driven by bad guys trying to find, capture, or destroy the Doctor. This is no longer a show about the Doctor exploring the universe, it’s a show about the universe obsessing over the Doctor. It looks like this season is continuing in that vein, with the questions being raised about the Doctor’s confession and why he truly fled Gallifrey.

Moffat’s writing is essentially professional fanfiction. It’s all an expression of his deeply felt fandom for the character and the mythology — both here in and in Sherlock — and the problem is that he gives all the characters in his stories the same fixation on the hero that he has. Not only that, but he writes stories that are basically dramatized essays about the franchises he’s writing in, with the characters analyzing and deconstructing the leads and the basic tropes. I noticed that way back in the Sherlock debut episode, where the villain discussed Sherlock Holmes in a way that more fitted a literary critic analyzing an iconic character than a real-world criminal doing research on some private detective. Sometimes Moffat’s deconstructions can be brilliant, but sometimes they’re more self-indulgent, and he tends to repeat the same ones over and over.

Still, the second part of the opening storyline worked better than the first, with less padding. And Michelle Gomez isn’t quite as annoying as the Master/Missy as she was last season, though I still miss the original Masters whose acting was more in the vein of Vincent Price than Robin Williams.

Gotham (Mondays, FOX): Okay… just… no.

This is Jim Gordon. The epitome of the one good cop. Maybe willing to bend the rules for the greater good up to a point, but still an intrinsically honorable figure.

But now the show has crossed a line. It’s had Jim kill in service to an organized crime boss. Now, I’ve been engaged in online debates about whether it would constitute self-defense, since Jim was the one who started the confrontation. I posed the question to James Daily of the Law and the Multiverse blog, who provided a timely answer. Apparently Jim’s killing of the mobster would constitute justifiable self-defense, because it meets the two exceptions that allow the aggressor to make that claim: one, that he attacked nonlethally and was met with a lethal response, and two, that he ended the confrontation and was pursued. However, that doesn’t matter, because the killing happened as a result of a felony Jim committed, which makes it felony murder, and that overrides the justification defense.

So the show’s Jim Gordon is now a murderer. There is no coming back from that. This goes beyond Superman snapping Zod’s neck. There was at least a flimsy self-defense justification for that. This is a permanent stain on Gordon’s character (the show’s version of it), and it destroys the moral core that has always defined him and taints everything he achieves from now on. This was supposed to be a show about how Gordon cleaned up the corrupt Gotham establishment, not a show about how he became part of the corruption. He’s no longer someone I can root for, because he’s a murderer. The only options are that he either confesses and pays his debt — which he won’t do since it would end the show — or he spends the rest of his life covering up the fact that he committed murder in service to the Penguin. No matter how much good he does from now on, he will have to keep lying and covering up the truth in order to remain in a position to do it, and that means there will always be corruption at the core of it. That is not the show about Jim Gordon I wanted to see, and I don’t know if it’s a show I can continue to watch.

Also, Bruce, who was the one good thing about this show, has been dumbed down. He should’ve been able to crack that door code methodically just by entering numbers until he got a hit — and it shouldn’t have been that hard to guess that the code was his name. And in his scene with Jim, he should’ve seen that doing an “ugly thing” to do good wouldn’t work, because it would put him under Penguin’s thumb forever. This show has been stupid and incomprehensible in its choices from the start, but the one thing that really worked about it was the portrayal of young Bruce Wayne. It really captured his intelligence, his discipline, his ethics, and his reasoned choice to cope with his grief by dedicating himself to protecting others from having to suffer it. Now, I no longer have faith that will continue to be the case.

So I do not plan to watch Gotham anymore. Just thinking about last week’s episode makes me feel dumber. I no longer have any interest in this mess of a show. There has been some morbid entertainment value in watching it just to see how insane and incompetent it got, but at this point I just find it depressing.

Minority Report (Mondays, FOX): This show got poor ratings and reviews, but I liked it quite a bit. It’s a logical continuation of the movie, even if its lead characters’ point of view about Precrime is sort of the opposite of how the movie turned out — although the complications and moral questions of the process were raised, and hopefully the ethical ambiguity of psychic crime prediction will be explored.

While several characters are returning from the movie, the only returning actor is Daniel London as Wally the Caretaker. The others have been recast, though Laura Regan resembles Samantha Morton enough (from what I recall of her) that I can buy her as the same person. I like Meaghan Good as Detective Vega. She comes off as a competent detective and a reasonably charismatic lead, and is also really hot. The pilot maybe played up her sex appeal a bit much, with the bikini photo and the plunging necklines and such, but I’m not complaining. The tech-support woman with the tattoo on her face (Akeela, played by Li Jun Li) is pretty hot herself.

I liked the futurism. The environment wasn’t quite as consistently high-tech as it was in the movie, and I doubt the show will be able to sustain the level of CGI that the pilot was able to feature, but it was a reasonable continuation within those budgetary limits. But the futurism is good in another way, namely in acknowledging the demographic trends of the American population and giving us a nicely diverse cast, much more so than the overwhelmingly white cast of the movie. Also — “Washington Red Clouds” instead of Redskins. I like that.

I didn’t find the time to rewatch the movie before this, so I’m not sure if there are any subtle inconsistencies. So far it seems pretty solid, although I’m not sure whether the twins were fraternal or identical in the movie.

Blindspot (Mondays, NBC): Jaimie Alexander made it watchable, but the FBI guy is kind of dull. The premise feels like a rehash of John Doe but with a built-in excuse for more pseudo-topless scenes. And the mystery seems absurdly convoluted. They were all asking “Why would someone do this overcomplicated and weird thing to this woman,” and it all just seems to underline that whatever explanation we eventually get will just be a contrived excuse for this premise.

Plus I don’t see how it’s sustainable. If the bearded guy faked the terror threat to make the FBI trust “Jane,” does that mean all the tattoos will point to fake crimes and false leads? If so, what’s the point? This is another show I don’t feel any desire to keep watching.

Also, how can they possibly do a show about a tattooed lady and not name her Lydia?

The Muppets (Tuesdays, ABC): I found this amusing at times, although the “reality show” format isn’t my cup of tea, and the modern Muppets are a shadow of their original selves. Still, I appreciate the effort to bring back some of the original edginess to characters who have become perhaps a bit too Disney-sanitized, though maybe the show takes the “edge” a bit too far into cynicism. And it does seem there’s an effort to give the characters some real dimension and “humanity,” so to speak. I’m still not sure about this one, but I guess it’s worth a further look.

Limitless (Tuesdays, CBS): I waited to watch the pilot until I had a chance to see the movie, which I hadn’t seen before. And I kinda hated the movie. Stylistically, directorially, it was impressively done, but the lead character was basically reprehensible, and the movie was entirely too much on his side. The whole thing was about this guy using illegal and dishonest methods to gain wealth and power, and he ended up succeeding — not because he deserved to, but because he lucked into something that let him cheat his way to the top at the expense of everyone who got in his way. No moral, no lesson learned, no consequences for his misdeeds except to the people around him, just pure self-serving wish fulfillment in a dog-eat-dog world. The movie never even bothered to make clear whether he actually murdered that socialite or was framed for it, because the movie was so completely amoral that it didn’t matter to the narrative if he did murder her, so long as he got away with it and continued his rise to the top.

Now, the only reason I bothered with the movie — having concluded from the reviews at the time that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, and boy, were they right — was because I’d heard the series pilot was so well-received by critics. But the pilot didn’t blow me away. Its protagonist is definitely an improvement over the smug, selfish, contemptible slimeball that is Eddie Morra; Brian is just as much of a loser to start out, but he’s a decent guy who’s motivated more by helping other people than by advancing himself. But in a lot of ways, the pilot just felt like an imitation of the movie, right down to repeating some of the same plot beats and copying its stylistic devices.

The show has a bit more diversity in its cast than the movie did (the film’s cast was almost exclusively white despite being set in New York City), but I don’t find the FBI-agent partner all that interesting. And I’m not sure the premise or the execution is enough to make it stand out from the procedural pack. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a show about a protagonist whose advantages come from using an illegal drug — particularly with the downside of the drug being conveniently swept aside. It would’ve been more interesting if he did have to deal with the downside, if there were risks and costs to using it too often. It’s not good to make things too easy for the hero. This is another show that I don’t find a compelling reason to keep watching.

Heroes Reborn (Thursdays, NBC): I was really, really skeptical of this going in, unsure if I even wanted to give it a try. But it started out very strong, with the opening sequence in Odessa and the montage that followed it. It started to get a bit less interesting once it got to “Now,” but it’s still a lot better than the later seasons of the original, perhaps because it has less baggage.

It’s weird to hear the powered people called Evos, because the same name (as an acronym, E.V.O.) was used for the nanite-created mutants in the Generator Rex animated series. Also it bugs me that it’s using the same conceit as so many other similar series and using the term “human” for people without unusual abilities, implicitly defining the powered as nonhuman rather than just another subset of humanity.

The “El Vengador” plot kind of makes sense. If anyone were really going to fight crime in a mask, it’d probably be someone steeped in luchador culture. Although the plotline with the brothers and the mantle being passed on was kind of predictable and hokey. And I would’ve preferred it if the priest had been a normal person and had just been helping evos because helping the downtrodden is what priests are supposed to do.

The Evernow manga was put together wrong, bound on the left like an American book. Plus it was wider than it was tall, which isn’t like the manga I’ve seen, though I can’t rule out that there are some like that. And… seriously? She turns into a video game character? What kind of power is that? (Although I suspect she’s actually a game character turned into a flesh-and-blood girl by her father/creator’s power. She seems a bit too unreal in the flesh, in the way she dresses and the fact that she’s somehow unaware that her father created a game/manga character identical to her.)

I’m not thrilled by all the “It’s coming” stuff. Building the season around a looming apocalypse is a well the original series went to repeatedly, and I was hoping the revival would have some new tricks. Still, it’s got my interest enough to keep me watching.

Continuum (Fridays, Syfy): This is actually already halfway through its 6-episode final season, and it feels a bit rushed. But it does mean that a lot is happening in every episode. Although some of it feels a bit too abbreviated, like how quickly Kiera and Alec have gotten chummy with the surviving members of Liber8 after being at odds with them for so long. I mean, I know they have a common enemy now, but still, she sure warmed up to them in a hurry. And Brad Tonkin has become kind of a vague figure; his ambiguous agenda is critical to the story, but we aren’t getting any insights into what’s happening in his head. It also feels like they’re trying to have it both ways on the question of whether it’s possible for Kiera to return to her timeline and her family, which it really shouldn’t be anymore.

I’ve been having trouble with the idea of Kellog, of all people, being the ultimate big bad (although I think he may be a red herring with Curtis and the Traveler being the real threat), but Travis summed it up effectively in “Power Hour,” the latest episode aired in the US. Kellog represents greed, the profit motive above all other priorities, and that’s the same mentality that led to the dystopia of Kiera’s future and the worse dystopia of Brad’s future, as well as the mentality behind Piron’s co-opting of the police force and Other Alec’s turn to the dark side. (You could throw in Dillon’s moral degeneration, though in his case it was a greed for control and authoritarian power rather than wealth.) Greed is essentially the ultimate evil in the series, and out of all the time travellers, Kellog is the only one whose primary allegiance is to greed. So maybe it’s fitting that he ended up at the main villain. And his apparent benevolence early on could’ve been part of that, showing how harmless and appealing greed can seem to be. Although that’s probably reading too much into it.

Okay, so overall I’m not that impressed with last week’s crop of new shows. The imports Doctor Who and Continuum are the big ones for me so far, and otherwise, Minority ReportThe Muppets, and Heroes Reborn are the only ones I find worth continuing with, and none of them has unambiguously impressed me.

Luckily, the big guns are coming back pretty soon: Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night, Sleepy Hollow this Thursday (although with another new showrunner, so there’s no telling if it’ll recover in quality after the weak second season), and, thank goodness, the return of The Flash, Arrow, and iZombie next week. Still a month from Supergirl, though, and we have to wait until November for The Librarians, Elementary, and Jessica JonesPerson of Interest isn’t even scheduled yet. (I’m not counting Grimm, since I’m not watching anymore. It’s been getting increasingly bad for the past two seasons, and last season’s finale was enough to turn me off for good.) Will I post about those shows? Probably not regularly, but we’ll see.

Finally saw MUPPETS MOST WANTED

December 13, 2014 1 comment

As my longtime readers (all 17 of you) may recall, I was underwhelmed by The Muppets when it came out two years ago. I felt it was too dependent on nostalgia, and I particularly disliked the way it enfeebled Kermit as a character, making him passive and defeatist so they could build up the new character Walter as the main protagonist. So I wasn’t interested enough in Muppets Most Wanted to go see it at the theater, and thus it’s only now that it’s reached the top of my Netflix queue.

But MMW is a much, much better movie than its predecessor. Now that they’ve gotten the nostalgic let’s-get-the-band-back-together stuff out of the way, the filmmakers were free to tell a new story, and it’s a fun one, in which Kermit is replaced by the lookalike Constantine, The World’s Most Dangerous Frog, who uses the Muppets as a cover for his heist of the century while Kermit is stuck in a Siberian gulag. There’s a lot of fun action and stuff going on, and some entertaining character work. Constantine is constantly putting down his second-in-command Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), insisting he’ll never be more than “Number 2” even though Dominic’s clearly the smarter one and the guy doing all the work. But Constantine and Dominic keep the Muppets fooled — despite Constantine’s terrible Kermit impression — by giving them everything they want, up to and including Constantine proposing to Miss Piggy. But some of the Muppets gradually catch on that something’s wrong with “Kermit.” Meanwhile, the real Kermit wins over the gang at the gulag — primarily Tina Fey as its commandant Nadya, and with inmates including Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta, and Danny Trejo (as himself, apparently) — by helping them organize their talent show. Meanwhile, CIA agent Sam the Eagle and a vaguely Clouseau-like Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) are tracking the thieves, and it all builds up to an epic action climax at the Tower of London, where the various plot threads converge with surprising coherence (although the festering resentment Dominic feels for Constantine has a weak payoff).

At first, I was afraid we were getting the same passive, pessimistic Kermit that the previous film gave us; indeed, it was arguably his initial weakness and negativity that made it so easy for Dominic to sway the Muppets into preferring his indulgent approach. But once Kermit had been in the gulag for a while, he finally found that old backbone and started asserting himself again, getting the unruly inmates in order the way the old Kermit did with the Muppet troupe — by yelling at them with fairness and respect. Once he started putting his flipper down, he became the Kermit I remember again (or a reasonable facsimile), and that renewed assertiveness really came to the fore in the climax, where he went full action-hero to rescue Piggy and the others. It’s like the filmmakers realized how they’d mishandled Kermit the last time and used this story to put him back on track. (There’s even a funny moment where Rizzo comments on how the last movie put so much focus on Walter at the expense of established characters such as himself and Robin.) And there’s good character interplay with the other Muppets, an effective sense that these are people with a lot of history and nuance to their relationships.

The cast did a pretty good job this time out, even though hardly any of the classic Muppet performers are left. Steve Whitmire’s Kermit will never quite be Jim Henson’s Kermit, but he’s been playing the role for over 2/3 as long as Henson did, so he has made it his own now. Eric Jacobson is now doing all of Frank Oz’s characters, but he does them very well, and he’s actually a better singer than Oz, especially as Piggy. In her big solo number here, Piggy hits high notes I don’t think Oz ever managed. Constantine is played by Matt Vogel, who’s inherited Jerry Nelson’s characters (e.g. Floyd, Robin, and Lew Zealand), yet also manages to do a pretty good job with Constantine’s impersonation of Kermit (which is bad but not entirely un-Kermit-like). Tina Fey is effective and rather lovely as Nadya, Ty Burrell is good as the inspector, and Ricky Gervais is okay as Dominic, though not really a standout.

I have mixed feelings about the songs. Some of them don’t seem to be in quite the right style; they’re all in a similar breezy and upbeat vein even when some of them could stand to vary it up a little, like the gulag song, which could’ve used more of a Russian flavor, and Constantine’s “I’m Number One” song putting Dominic down, which could’ve used more of a harsh edge. There’s a certain sameness to their music after a while, though it has its moments. But the lyrics were very clever and there were some fun visual gags.

The character design for Constantine deserves mention too. In theory, he was supposed to be a dead ringer for Kermit aside from his mole, and there was a funny running gag about how that tiny mole completely changed the Muppets’ perception of his face; but the designers put in some subtle differences, like molding his mouth in more of a frown, making his eye markings more horizontal to suggest a more haughty and sinister expression, and making his neck ruff shorter. (This poster shows the differences pretty well.) Aside from the mole and the ruff, they’re more differences in expression than anything else, so it fits the conceit of them being identical while still giving them very different looks.

So now that they’ve gotten past trying to convince new audiences how cool the Muppets were and just gone ahead and made a Muppet movie, they got a much better movie out of it. I’m inclined to call this one of my favorite Muppet movies of all, though maybe it’s just because it’s such a refreshing improvement over its predecessor.

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Finally saw THE MUPPETS

January 10, 2012 3 comments

I went to see The Muppets today, figuring by now the theaters would be empty enough that there wouldn’t be a lot of noisy kids to contend with (indeed, there was only one well-behaved toddler).  It was entertaining and had some good gags and musical numbers, but I’m afraid I’m underwhelmed by it on the whole.  For one thing, it was too much about playing on nostalgia and things the Muppets had done in the past.  So it felt a bit derivative.  For another, some of the story elements didn’t make much sense to me.  Like, if they had so many celebrities showing up for the telethon, big names like Whoopi Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris, why just stick them on the phones instead of having them perform?  Which leads me to another disappointment, which is that the celebrity cameos were mostly so minor.  In the previous Muppet movies, the celebs often played bigger roles, and even the cameos were more than just one or two lines.  I would’ve liked to get more than just the brief glimpses we got.

But my main problem was with the characterization of Kermit.  He was just so passive and hopeless here.  Kermit’s supposed to be the eternal optimist, a source of inspiration to others, a leader who brings people together and brings out the best in them.  But here, Kermit was this mopey sad sack who didn’t believe anything was possible and spent most of the movie giving up too easily and needing other people/Muppets to talk him into trying things.  It would’ve been okay if that had just been his initial characterization and he’d been back to his old self by the second act, but it just went on so long here that by the time he gave that “It’s okay because we’re all together” speech near the end, it was too little, too late.  This wasn’t the Kermit I used to know.  The script made him too weak and defeated so that Walter could be the hero and the source of inspiration instead.  Or maybe they were trying so hard to make Kermit a nice guy (something that I gather was an issue that came up in the rewrites) that they forgot he could be bold and assertive and daring as well.  I mean, Kermit was the alter ego of Jim Henson, who was not just an easygoing guy but an innovator who strove to push the envelope and readily took risks.

So it was a nice bit of nostalgia and maybe it’s fine for younger audiences as a reintroduction.  And I enjoyed it for the most part while I was watching.  But in the wake of it I feel a little empty and sad for the loss of what the Muppets were in their prime.

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