Friday, September 30, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Terra Nova

The show: Terra Nova, Mondays on Fox

The premise in ten words or less? Family travels back to live in dinosaur times.

Any good? Yesterday I discussed Prime Suspect, a cop procedural that wrung water from the stone of its ultra-generic premise via strong acting and filmmaking. And today we examine the opposite: Terra Nova, a show with a unique, exciting premise and loads of potential that finds itself held back by shaky, lukewarm execution.

But we'll start positive, and the positive lies first and foremost in the show's setting and story. I mean, traveling back to live with the dinosaurs! That's just cool! I should mention that the characters in Terra Nova don't accidentally fall through a time rift and get stuck – this isn't Lost – but make the deliberate choice to journey back and escape the polluted semi-apocalyptic future of the 22nd century. In and around Terra Nova (the village they live in), in addition to dinosaurs both friendly and hungry, they find hostile tribes, sabotage, moles, mysteries, sonic boom guns, and plenty of other potentially neat concepts.

The problem lies not in the "dinosaur times" part of the premise but in the "family" part. Not that I have anything against families on television – hell, I watch NBC's Parenthood, which is a family show distilled down to nothing but family – but the central five-person unit here, the Shannons, range from blandly inoffensive to flat-out annoying. In all fairness, it's really only the rebellious teenage son Josh that annoys, but geez, what a grating character, made worse by his equally grating teenage posse. The cop husband, doctor wife, teenage daughter and five-year-old daughter fall more on the bland, "who gives a shit?" end of the spectrum, but they're all the main characters, so it's a pretty big problem.

Thankfully, Stephen Lang (or, as most viewers will refer to him as until they learn his character's name, "Avatar Guy") lends gravitas and badassery as the leader of Terra Nova. His presence is the only thing holding the show back from acting apocalypse, but is also problematic in that it'll make most viewers wish he was the main character.

At somewhere approaching $20 million, Terra Nova's 86-minute pilot is one of the most expensive produced in the history of television (future episodes are going to clock in at around $4 million apiece), and it shows in impressive sets, vistas, vehicles, and a nice grungy look in the 22nd century scenes leading off the episode. But $20 million, while huge for TV, would still be considered microbudget for an action sci-fi film of the same length, and the dinosaurs, while infinitely better than any CGI creatures you'd see on TV a decade ago, just aren't quite there yet.

There are many CGI elements that can be done justice with TV money. Spaceships, for one: I never questioned any of what I saw on Battlestar Galactica or Firefly, the latter of which is getting on a decade old. Castles and other giant structures, as seen on Game of Thrones. Robots, vehicles, distant shots of CGI cities. Basically anything that isn't supposed to be an organic, living thing can be pulled off on TV given restraint and talented artistry.

But making things that are supposed to be flesh and blood truly look like they're sharing the frame with the actors (especially in lengthy shots in broad daylight, as this show attempts) is a million times harder. Even big budget feature films like I Am Legend screw it up. And the dinosaurs on Terra Nova, while good for TV, never quite break free from looking like refugees from a CGI animated film hanging out in live action ala Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

I'm interested in what Terra Nova is attempting to do, and I could see the show getting pretty good if they enrich the mythology, have a well-structured season arc, make the action scenes more visceral and less cartoony, and have three or four of the Shannons die in a tragic dinosaur attack. (Sadly, at least one of those things has little chance of happening.) But whether the show pulls a Spartacus (gets better and better with each episode) or a The Event (spins perilously and quickly off the rails), this pilot, while not a failure, won't be remembered as a great one.

Will I watch again? There's nothing else quite like it on TV right now, so yes. I just hope I don't live to regret it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Prime Suspect

The show: Prime Suspect, Thursdays on NBC

The premise in ten words or less? Lady cop.

Any good? Like with CBS's new cop procedural Unforgettable, I don't have overwhelmingly much to say about Prime Suspect, but unlike with Unforgettable, that doesn't necessarily mean I hated it. In fact, I wouldn't even say I disliked it! As far as cop procedurals go it's a reasonably competent pilot with just a little bit more grit and reality to its world than, say, Blue Bloods or Hawaii Five-0, directed by Peter Berg of Friday Night Lights awesomeness and anchored by a strong central performance.

That performance is Maria Bello, taking her first regular TV gig since the 90s as NYPD Detective Jane Timoney. Now, granted, Bello's done her share of crap, but by and large she's a solid film performer who brings a believable edge that allows you to quickly invest in Timoney even before meeting her father and seeing her hostile work environment. The supporting cast has a number of "that guy" actors like Kirk Acevedo, Brían F. O'Byrne and Joe Nieves whose names may not ring a bell but whose faces will spark recognition in any TV junkie, and they all do generally good work.

It's the script I can't muster much enthusiasm for, for roughly the same reasons I can't for most cop procedurals. The characterization isn't bad and the dialogue doesn't all sound like TV patter, but it's the same crime scene - police station - investigation - questionings - big clue - final action scene arc as every fucking cop show episode ever, and I have zero give-a-shit about that story structure anymore. I've seen it. I've seen it literally hundreds of times, and if I watched more cop shows it'd be literally thousands of times. The filmmaking and acting mine it for all it's worth, but I worry there's not much there there.

Will I watch again? Taken on its own, the pilot isn't a bad little 42-minute cop movie, but it also fails to introduce any kind of major case or serialized story that will be continuing in weeks to come. I can get into cop / crime shows – in the last year I've liked The Chicago Code and absolutely loved Terriers – but for that to happen, there has to be a big hook, at least one major story that kicks off and concludes the season and is woven in and out of more stand-alone episodes throughout its duration. I have no interest in rigidly episodic procedurals (i.e. the majority of cop, doctor, and lawyer shows on TV). So, yes, I'll watch one more Prime Suspect on the strength of Bello and a decently solid pilot. But if that big hook isn't there, I'm out.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Whitney

The show: Whitney, Thursdays on NBC

The premise in ten words or less? Whitney has a boyfriend and some friends.

Any good? Whitney is a towering, monumental obelisk of unfunniness; a show that's existence can only be explained by it either being a refugee from Funniness Opposite Land, a land where the unfunny is funny and vice versa (in this land, it's the best show), or perhaps a scientific experiment by NBC to see how much unfunniness can physically be packed into one episode of television. If it's the latter I'd like to congratulate them, because somehow, against all odds and logic, they've managed to produce perhaps the first half hour of TV "comedy" I've seen since Hank that fails to improve on staring at an off television for the same length of time.

Whitney Cummings the comedienne plays Whitney Cummings the photographer, who speaks in a way strangely reminiscent of a comedienne throwing out stand-up observations vaguely reworked into awkward, unnatural dialogue that makes you feel a little bit ill just listening to it (it's okay though, because the five seconds of braying laugh track every other line let you know how funny it actually is). You just won't believe how wacky Whitney is! There's this one scene near the end where she wears a naughty nurse outfit. A naughty nurse! LOL, where do they come up with this stuff! I'm glad that the naughty nurse scene goes on and on and on, or we might not notice how funny it is.

Whitney has a boyfriend, Alex – played by Chris D'Elia like NBC took him aside and threatened to withhold pay unless Alex was the least charismatic, least funny, least distinctive black hole of a sitcom co-lead on any network – and some generic sitcom friends. One of them is so funny because she just says whatever's on her mind, even if it's a little bit crude! At one part she uses the word "balls," as in the slang for testicles! Oh, the uproarity! Another friend is a food critic. We know this because in one scene she's dressing provocatively and Whitney scolds her, "You're a food critic, not a Kardashian!" Oh my god, that is so funny! Do you see how they got exposition and a pop culture reference out of the way in one line? Brilliant! The laugh track thinks so too! A joke that will be studied for decades to come, I'm sure of it.

In all seriousness, there is a moment at the end of the first act where, for a brief second, the show almost stumbles upon comedy, when Whitney mistakenly eats the cake (or cupcakes, for some weird reason) at a wedding reception before the bride and groom. Now, the awkwardness resulting from this could have been funny, except that as soon as Whitney realizes, we don't even see anyone stare or get upset, we just get one quick, unfunny quip and cut immediately to the next scene, thereby skipping the part that might have actually worked comedically. Because, you see, the people making Whitney don't understand what funny is, and couldn't find a joke if it was dangled in front of them on a stick.

Whitney is a perfect storm of shit, from its empty non-premise to its flat performances to its poor, hammy characterization to its awkward, amazingly unfunny dialogue to its complete lack of originality or ambition to its laugh track laughing, laughing, always laughing, mocking everyone with a modicum of taste who might be watching. It's assertively and confidently the worst new scripted television show of 2011, and should make everyone who wanted Outsourced and / or Perfect Couples off NBC's comedy lineup realize the horrible truth in that adage about the grass on the other side.

Will I watch again? The question is less "Will I watch Whitney again?" than "How many gallons of liquid pigshit would have to be forced down my throat before I'd agree to watch Whitney again?"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Revenge

The show: Revenge, Wednesdays on ABC

The premise in ten words or less? Woman plots revenge against the people who framed her father.

Any good? Revenge has absolutely no legitimate artistic merit of any kind, but I will say that it achieves a delirious "so bad it's good" trashiness that arguably exceeds any other prime time soap of recent years. This is the lurid garbage Ringer wishes it could be; part wealth fantasy, part pulpy revenge thriller, and populated by the prettiest of mannequins. This show is pure fucking cheese, and not some tepid Cheddar cheese; I'm talking the smelly French stuff. I laughed harder, louder, and more frequently at this pilot than I did at any of this month's new sitcoms.

The show is an incredibly loose adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo centering on Amanda Clarke, who was torn away from her beloved father at a young age when some rich Hamptonites framed him for funding terrorism (like, honest-to-god, blowing shit up, Al-Qaeda terrorism). He died in prison, convicted of treason, but unbeknownst to Amanda he had invested in a computer startup years earlier, and upon Amanda's eighteenth birthday she receives both word of her father's innocence and a 49% share in the now multi-billion dollar computer conglomerate. So Amanda changes her name to Emily Thorne and returns to the Hamptons, rich and enraged, to engineer the social, political, and / or financial downfall of the people who set her father up, one at a time.

Although the show seems to have a revenge-of-the-week structure (the pilot involves Emily exposing the affair of a woman who testified against her father and having her exiled from the Hamptons), there is a big bad in the form of Madeleine Stowe's Victoria Grayson, whom the pilot refers to multiple times as "Queen of the Hamptons." It remains to be seen whether Victoria's ultimate downfall will take place at the end of the season or the end of the series, but Stowe's presence is a relief, with her giving the show's only performance that isn't glassy-eyed, frigid, and lifeless.

A huge aspect of the show is the wealth fantasy – oh hey, look at Emily buying an expensive house on a whim, look at Emily buying a ticket to a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser like it was a candy bar, look at Emily's expensive clothes, etc., etc. – which I generally despise, but I'd say it's a bit less obnoxious here than on Entourage. The idle millionaire lifestyle is portrayed mostly as something decadent and villainous, a mask Emily has to wear out of necessity, as opposed to Entourage or Sex and the City where it's like "oh man, isn't being a rich piece of shit awesome?"

Really, the worst moments of the pilot are whenever it tries to achieve any sort of emotional poignancy – the flashbacks with young Amanda and her father, filled with dialogue like "I love you infinity times infinity," are so overwritten and agonizing – while moments where Emily does shit like dress up as a housekeeper and slip poison into Victoria's husband's soup achieve a zen-like stupidity nirvana that makes it all almost worthwhile. If you're going to be trash, be trash, don't playact at artistic ambition.

Will I watch again? Probably not on any weekly basis, but I could imagine myself one day skimming through it on Netflix Watch Instant if I hear the season maintains the same fever pitch goofy absurdism and has some sort of satisfying structure to it. The show premiered to a not-quite-mind-blowing but definitely rock-solid 10 million viewers, so I'm willing to bet there's a second season on the horizon as well.

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Unforgettable

The show: Unforgettable, Tuesdays on CBS

The premise in ten words or less? Detective with photographic memory.

Any good? Unforgettable is easily the worst drama pilot I've sat through in the last two weeks – one of the worst I've seen all year – and, unlike Ringer, it doesn't even have the decency to be bad in an amusingly zany fashion. This is Generic Cop TV 101; soft-brained, zero-ambition pabulum ladled out from the CBS procedural assembly line with a sneer and a "fuck you America, here's the shit you like!"

The protagonist is Carrie Wells (played with resounding "I have successfully hit my marks and delivered my lines"-ness by Poppy Montgomery), a former detective with hyperthymesia, meaning that she can remember every moment of her life with photographic clarity, except, of course, the day her sister was murdered, the one case she can't solve. But the cops need her help on a murder, so she's back. The main cop is Al, played by Dylan Walsh, and in the very first scene – the very first scene! – between Carrie and Al they drill in with alarming assertiveness that will make you cry in the shower later that there's an EPIC ROMANCE on the horizon between the two. Because lord knows you've failed at making a pilot if you don't establish an EPIC ROMANCE on the horizon.

Carrie's memory skills are depicted by scenes where we cut between Poppy Montgomery thoughtfully furrowing her brow and then walking through her own memories in frozen time, looking around at things she may have seen with her peripheral vision. It's kind of stupid and absurd, but it's definitely better than the overwritten scene earlier in the episode where some old guy quizzes her about what happened on March 27th, 1998 and she rattles off a litany of facts. That was some seriously rancid shit.

This is shorter than my other reviews because there's really nothing to say. Outside of the visually and dramatically inert trips into memory land, absolutely every single aspect of this pilot is identical to every sloppy, lazy police procedural episode you've seen since time immemorial. Visit the crime scene, police station, flat "witty" banter, a couple red herrings, questioning witnesses and suspects, final predictable twist, half-assed action scene, rinse and repeat every week. It goes without saying it's going to be a monstrous hit, because it asks absolutely nothing of its viewers, even by CBS standards.

Will I watch again? Fuck no. Life's too short to spend watching episodic police procedurals even if they aren't this stupid and bland.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: The Playboy Club

The show: The Playboy Club, Mondays on NBC

The premise in ten words or less? Chicago's Playboy Club in the 1960s, and gratuitous murder.

Any good? I've never really been part of the cult of Mad Men. I mean, I like Mad Men. I've seen all 52 episodes of Mad Men. But there are lots of other TV shows I prefer to Mad Men – past and present, network and cable, comedy and drama – and I never fail to grimace at TV critics offhandedly stating that it's the greatest show on television, if not in the history of television, as if it were an objective fact. I roared with approval at Friday Night Lights thrashing it in acting and writing at the latest Emmys.

But whatever problems I may have with Mad Men, one thing it does have is restraint, and supreme confidence in the depth of its characters being sufficient to anchor compelling drama. Granted, the last network show I saw display similar confidence was Lone Star, which Fox took into a back alley and executed after two episodes, but even so, it throws The Playboy Club into sharp and bitter contrast. The Playboy Club features its first attempted rape right around four minutes in, followed one minute later by its first spurting-blood murder and a few minutes after that by body-hiding shenanigans. That right there is not showing restraint.

I compare the shows because, however much the producers of The Playboy Club like to pretend differently, their show would not exist without Mad Men. It's trying hard to tap into the same 60s chic – smoking, drinking, retro clothes, retro cars, social regressivism and all – and the main male character, Nick Dalton, is modeled after Don Draper to a laughable, almost sad degree. One of the show's leads, Naturi Naughton, was even on Mad Men, playing a Playboy Bunny in both shows. But, in trying to do Mad Men except with murder and the mob and prettier, younger actresses, The Playboy Club shows a grave misunderstanding of what made that show tic in the first place.

And it's a shame, because, unlike the Parents Television Council (more on this in a second), I actually wanted to like this show. Mad Men ripoff or no, I was rooting for it to succeed if only for having the balls to try something off the beaten path for network TV, with nary a cop or doctor to be found.

And it does do a number of things right. A lot of money was injected into the project and they chose their director well (Alan Taylor of Rome, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and, would you look at that, Mad Men fame) and the results are all on the screen. It looks like a million bucks; easily the most sumptuously designed, visually pleasing pilot I've seen so far this season. The cast includes Amber Heard and David Krumholtz and Firefly's Sean Maher, and some of the actors I'm less familiar with like Laura Benanti as the Bunny house mother also do good work. The characters are all pretty well-defined in the available 42-minute window and some potentially engaging interpersonal conflicts are introduced. But that murder is just such a silly and juvenile way to kick things off, and it's hard to get past that.

The other huge problem is Eddie Cibrian as the previously mentioned Nick Dalton, who is, I guess (going by the billing order), supposed to be the main character. Outside of his cringe-inducing wannabe resemblance to Don Draper, he has this agonizingly disconnected story going on about being a lawyer and trying to clean up the mob, and it's just so not what I was interested in going into the show. Shouldn't the idea be to follow the Bunnies, especially with minor movie star Amber Heard as our viewpoint into that unique sorority? I mean, who the fuck wants to follow some slicked-hair lawyer who happens to hang out at the Playboy Club a lot and sleep with one of the Bunnies? One episode in and he's already my least favorite protagonist on television. What an utterly bizarre miscalculation.

I feel I should mention that, having now actually watched the show, the Parents Television Council hysteria preceding its debut (including the show being briefly banned in Utah) is more hilarious than ever. With acknowledgement that pornography exists and women walking around in the equivalent of one-piece bathing suits being the extent of the show's "adult" material, this is basically the least racy version of a Playboy show you could possibly imagine. 2 Broke Girls is more salacious.

Will I watch again? That such an ambitious, pricey, heavily-hyped drama premiered to 5.02 million viewers all but assures The Playboy Club's fate as one of this season's first freshman casualties (I'd be surprised to see it complete its 13-episode season run, but, this being ratings-starved NBC, it's not impossible), so I'll probably keep watching out of sheer curiosity, since I'm not likely to be watching long.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 9/22/11

The Office, Season 8 Episode 1 — "The List"

It occurred to me while watching The Office's eighth season premiere, "The List," that the show has gradually evolved into more or less the complete opposite of what it was initially conceived as. Once upon a time, The Office was a bittersweet-to-brazenly-depressing portrait of being trapped in a joyless, dead end job with mostly annoying coworkers that thrived on tension and awkwardness. Moments so uncomfortable that your stomach started to knot and you had to fight the urge to look away from the screen were not an anomaly but the show's bread and butter.

Now, as we enter fall 2011 and the show's eighth season, The Office is a comforting 22 minutes spent among dear friends; a televised glass of warm milk. Moments of awkwardness are far more likely to be diffused with punchlines and cartoonish characters than allowed to let sit and fester, and episodes are routinely punctuated with heartwarming moments to make you coo "aww!" This was especially clear in this episode's ending sequence wherein new manager Andy goes to defend Dunder Mifflin's second tier employees to new CEO Robert California one by one, intercut with beaming faces all around the office and capped off with the millionth "Jim and Pam are cute and have a cute baby" moment of the last year.

But although the bite is almost entirely gone and the days of me counting down the hours until the next episode are long over, I still enjoy the show. The characters are so familiar and so well-defined and the cast so large that plenty of organic comedy can come naturally from even their most mundane interactions, which the show relies on much more at this point than particularly clever or original storytelling. As such, "The List" was an amusing and breezy if fundamentally unremarkable episode of television.

I'm still on the fence when it comes to the new bosses. Andy's somewhat awkward yet well-meaning characterization in this episode was too much like Michael Scott, so let's hope they can differentiate him a bit in weeks to come. I trust Ed Helms has the chops to play something a little more interesting.

New CEO Robert California, while still one-note, seems like a potentially interesting addition, bringing a certain menace (without being a villain) and a very different vibe than Michael. It was pretty clear that he was the best choice of the new characters in last season's finale, anyway, with James Spader being the only one to successfully craft any character at all from what he was given. I was a bit disappointed that the solution to the mystery of his list turned out to simply be winners and losers rather than something more abstract or him just playing mind games, but that's just a one-episode fault. Plenty of room to grow.

Finally, I'll just get this out of the way right now: Yes, there is undeniably a Steve Carell-shaped hole in the show. There's tons of comic talent left on the roster, including several actors who have led or co-led their own wide release comedy feature films, but Michael Scott was the main character and his relationships with the various employees were, barring Jim and Pam's romance, the most important in the show. If The Office had ended gracefully with his departure, that would have been fine, but it didn't and here we are. I miss and will continue to miss Carell's presence, but I won't bother reiterating it after this week, because it'd be redundant and what'd be the point?

Funniest Moment: I guess I'd have to go with Jim's incredulity at Erin, the office receptionist, not having a pen. Not exactly an enormous belly laugh, but there isn't too much to choose from this week.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 1 — "I'm Leslie Knope"

One thing I've really enjoyed about Parks and Recreation is the way that it introduces longterm goals for its characters and narrative – filling in the pit in season one and the first part of season two and the Harvest Festival in the first half of season three – and, unlike other sitcoms that do so, such as the mystery of the titular mother in How I Met Your Mother, actually pays off and concludes these stories. It's a sitcom that believes in maintaining a strong narrative skeleton, and Leslie running for office may be its smartest yet. It risks isolating her from the main cast, perhaps, but it also really lights a fire under her character, will make the story move, and provides easy access to the unilaterally hilarious talk shows and news shows of Pawnee.

And "I'm Leslie Knope" did a great job kicking off her campaign and the show's season. It's not on par with the best of the last two seasons, but it never lacked for laughs and it's great to have the show back. Leslie's Perd Hapley interview was typically hilarious, the penis subplot made better use of the perennially underused Ann than the show has made in quite some time (and contained the friendliest possible utterance of "If I could go back in time and cut your eyeballs out, I would."), and Leslie and Ben's forced breakup managed to be touching without dipping into the mawkish. Great stuff all around.

I especially loved Andy being promoted from shoeshinist to Tom's old position as Leslie's assistant, which could result in him being assistant to a city councilwoman if she wins the election. Andy may have the best character development of any current sitcom character and some of the best character development on television, period, with him gradually and believably evolving from a broke, jobless, homeless and friendless man living under a tarp at the bottom of a mud pit into now being a liked, trusted, and happily married worker at city hall as we enter season four. I hope to see that development continue with him actually taking an active role in the government. Leslie and Ben breaking up didn't bother me at all, but I'd be really upset if Andy and April ever broke up.

My only hesitations in regard to "I'm Leslie Knope" are that, one, they seem to be deemphasizing Jerry's sad-sackness, which would be a shame since that's one of my favorite aspects of the show, and two, they blew through April being acting manager of the Parks department for three weeks in about one scene, which is a story I would have loved to see play out at least a little bit longer, even if it meant less Ron Swanson. But still, good solid episode and a promising return for one of the best shows on television.

Funniest Moment: Probably Andy dumping the Pepto-Bismol all over Kyle's shoe. What can I say? I'm a man of simple pleasures. I also liked Andy offering to be Leslie's assistant without pay for no apparent reason before April hurriedly stopped him. Basically, anything Andy does is gold.

Community, Season 3 Episode 1 — "Biology 101"

As of the end of Friday Night Lights earlier this year, Community is now pretty solidly my favorite show on television. I love Game of Thrones. I love Breaking Bad. I love Parks and Recreation. I love Spartacus. But Community is the true shit, a show that is pretty much everything I could ever imagine wanting from a sitcom; a near-flawless marriage of dazzling creativity, boundless ambition, wonderful characters, fantastic performances, hysterical dialogue, and a deep and abiding love of pop culture and the sitcom form itself. It even trumps every other sitcom on the air in non-comedy matters such as score, cinematography, and set design, as if to twist the knife of its effortless superiority. If you prefer another current sitcom, don't feel bad. It doesn't make you a bad person. It just makes you wrong.

And "Biology 101," while perhaps a bit lighter on laughs than last season's "Anthropology 101," was a great kickoff to what looks to be another potentially amazing season. Outside of Arrested Development it may be the most setup-heavy sitcom season premiere I've ever seen, opting to lay pipe for future developments with Dr. Marshall King and Vice Dean Leybourne rather than telling complete stories with them the way "Anthropology 101" did with Betty White (and I'm willing to bet that Abed's newfound love of Inspector Spacetime comes up again too, if the Cougar Town arc of last year is any indication), but that's cool. (Cool cool cool.) I love longform serialized storytelling. I think that's the shit TV is made for, so once again, for the thousandth time, Community and I sync up perfectly.

I do think they may have blown a few episodes of potential story by letting Pierce back into the group so quickly, but I trust that Dan Harmon and co know what they're doing. When it comes to comedy, characters, and storytelling, anyway. Between the abstract opening musical number, Abed's subplot relying on knowledge of Cougar Town, Doctor Who, and British sitcom conventions, multiple open-ended storylines, a protracted 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, Chang throwing a ham for no reason, and a plethora of references to various running jokes and subplots spanning the length of the series, I think it's safe to say they have absolutely no idea what they're doing when it comes to attracting new viewers. I can hardly imagine a sitcom episode more violently repulsive to your average Two and Half Men lover briefly clicking in to see what the deal is with this Community he's heard so much about, but that's totally cool. Harmon is now fully making Community for people who like things that are good, which is so rare and amazing on television.

Funniest Moment: While I absolutely loved the 2001 and end of Cougarton Abbey sequences ("You are the opposite of Batman."), the single exchange that made me laugh the hardest was right at the beginning of the episode, between Shirley and Star-Burns:

Shirley: "Oh, Star-Burns, I see you added a lizard to your special hat and sideburns. Am I missing anything?"

Star-Burns: "Yeah, the human being underneath it all. But no one's really interested in that, are they?!"

Shirley: "Noooo."

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. Parks and Recreation 3. The Office

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: 2 Broke Girls

The show: 2 Broke Girls, Mondays on CBS

The premise in ten words or less? Snarky waitress and former rich girl work together, become friends.

Any good? I've said before and, on account of there being several more to premiere over the next few weeks, I know I'll say again that I am openly and unapologetically prejudiced against multi-cam laugh track sitcoms. (If you love the format and are offended by my stance, feel free to think of me as being racist against them.) I don't like the braying laughter or the actors having to pause for said laughter every other line, I don't like the broad humor and performances the format encourages, I don't like the sedate editing style and small number of sets and scenes, I don't like how the majority of shows in the genre are light on continuity and story arcs; I just plain don't like it.

I don't want to take the format away from anyone who does enjoy it (okay, okay, I do want to take Two and a Half Men away), but I can't pretend that's not where I stand. If that makes my opinion on 2 Broke Girls irrelevant to you, feel free to skip this post. I won't take offense.

So anyway, no, I did not like 2 Broke Girls. I found it to be profoundly unimaginative generic sitcommy fluff. Much of the overwritten, dripping-with-"attitude" dialogue they shoved into Kat Dennings' mouth (especially a scene where she tells off a table of not-that-rude customers about a minute in) made me physically cringe. Basically all the supporting characters outside of the two leads are actively awful, especially the profoundly racially troubling Asian caricature restaurant owner, who makes Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong look progressive. And, for a show called 2 Broke Girls which follows struggling waitresses, Kat Dennings' New York City apartment is FUCKING HUGE!

But, to give whatever credit where it's due, I'd still take the show in a second over last fall's $#*! My Dad Says, Better With You, or Mike & Molly. Between the perennially hip Kat Dennings and jokes about orgasms, jizz, and vaginas, the show is obviously tailored with a slightly younger audience in mind, and in a purely mechanical sense they've done a good job. With its two strong archetypal leads, comfortingly familiar restaurant and (overly enormous) apartment sets, and broad, unchallenging humor, CBS has an expertly constructed warhorse on their hands here that will last and last and last.

It is kind of a shame though. I liked Kat Dennings in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (somewhat less so in Thor, but that's more the fault of the script than hers), and it's a shame that she couldn't have dedicated her undeniable charisma to a better show on a better network.

Will I watch again? Nope. But the series premiered to 19.37 million viewers, meaning that CBS can safely begin planning their fall 2016 schedule with the sixth season premiere of 2 Broke Girls in mind, so fuck me and my worthless opinion in the ass repeatedly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: The Secret Circle

The show: The Secret Circle, Thursdays on The CW

The premise in ten words or less? Teenage girl discovers she's a witch and joins a coven.

Any good? Well, first off, I should say that this show really, really isn't aimed at my demographic. It's a Twilight-flavored supernatural teen soap about a bunch of high school girls and a couple token chiseled-ab guys doing magic and making kissies in an extremely Dawson's Creek-esque fictional town called Chance Harbor. I can tell you without one glance at the ratings breakdown that the majority of people jonesing for episode two are either 13 or 14-year-old girls.

But if I try to empathize and look at it from their perspective, it's actually not too bad. The show's executive producers are Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain of Angel fame, so it's not like they don't know their way around a supernatural drama. Most of the actors are the same blandly pretty twentysomethings-playing-teens you expect from any CW show (with the most notable adult participant being Natasha Henstridge as the high school principal, and yes, it's weird that the girl who spent much of the 90s sci-fi flick Species walking around naked is now old enough to play the mother of a high school student), but Britt Robertson has a certain spunk as the protagonist Cassie.

The show opens with Cassie's mother dying in a house fire started by a mysterious evil wizard, then skips several months ahead as Cassie moves in with her grandmother in the waterfront town of Chance Harbor, Washington. It's only about one commercial break in that Cassie gets dragged to an abandoned house in the woods by five of her peers and told that she's the progeny of a line of great witches and must join them for, well, fun, I guess (though the same evil wizard who killed Cassie's mom is seen to live in town, so there's obviously a collision brewing there). It's all very "yer a wizard, Cassie!"

Cassie proceeds to feud with Faye, this popular mean girl witch who's all about power, and get all flirty and almost make out with Adam, a hunky teenage wizard and boyfriend of Diana, head of the coven, which is exactly as generic teen soap as it sounds. By the end of the first episode Cassie is powerful enough to stop a lightning storm via dramatic chanting in what's actually a decently cool scene.

Now, I wasn't overwhelmingly gripped by any of this, but it's not aimed at me, so who cares. The supernatural element affords plenty of wiggle room for the writers to tell just about any story they want so long as it can be explained via magic, and the show does appear to actually be shot in a harbor town, with boats and piers and boardwalks, making it look more alive than most network TV pilots. All in all, it's not the worst thing I've ever seen. Hands down better than the CW's other pilot Ringer.

Will I watch again? No, but at the same time, unlike, say, Twilight or The Secret Life of the American Teenager, I find little objectionable about the notion of the show's junior high girl demo getting into it. It's a perfectly competent supernatural teen drama. Who knows, Whedonverse alums do run the show; maybe it's building towards some sort of apocalyptic magical showdown for the fate of the planet ala season six of Buffy.

Pilot Inspektor Tim: New Girl

The show: New Girl, Tuesdays on Fox

The premise in ten words or less? Recently dumped girl (ZOOEY DESCHANEL!) moves in with three guys.

Any good? New Girl has its problems, which I'll tear into with zeal in just a second, but of the three new sitcoms I've watched so far this season – this one, Up All Night, and Free Agents – it's the best by a decent margin. It's the only one that actually made me laugh out loud using my lungs and voice box and everything at any point during its premiere. That may be the sitcom equivalent of praising a car for successfully getting you to the supermarket without breaking down, but hey, so many cars do break down in the comedy game.

The pixieish, doe-eyed elephant in the room is of course Zooey Deschanel, who, save for a few guest spots on Weeds, has been on big screen duty her entire career. Granted, her filmography includes The Happening and Yes Man, but it also includes (500) Days of Summer, Almost Famous, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Hell, I'll even cop to liking Elf. Unless it's Alfred Molina debasing himself on Law & Order: LA, there's always a certain thrill to seeing a movie star step sideways into television (not step down, mind you, both because I'm not a snob and because at least half of the best stuff made in the last several years has been in TV), and that stands here. Zooey is charming, insanely charismatic, and fun to watch.

It's the writing that remains suspect. The script doesn't quite trust Zooey (whose character is named Jess Day, but who I can only think of as Zooey) to be funny and resemble a human being at the same time and severely overwrites her as this cartoon person who randomly bursts into song and whimpers and baby talks and loses her train of thought and misunderstands basic human interaction to an autistic degree. Zooey very nearly makes it work, but they still need to scale it back about 40% immediately.

Don't get me wrong: Jess can be goofy. She can be awkward. She can be silly. But she shouldn't be infantilized, because it borders on creepy. I saw Zooey Deschanel in a movie called Our Idiot Brother just a week ago where she was playing Paul Rudd's lesbian sister and she was perfectly funny and likable while remaining human. New Girl should try to tap a little more into that and a little less into whatever they made her do in the pilot.

The pilot opens with Zooey moving in with three strangers after her boyfriend dumps her for another woman, and while I wouldn't exactly say that any of these three characters grabbed me, I did like them better than any of the coworkers in Free Agents. They're characterized in pretty broad strokes – one is pervy and douchey, one a recently dumped sad sack, one a personal fitness trainer who doesn't understand women – but it's a sitcom, so hey, that's fine.

The less fine thing is that the funniest of the three guys by far, the personal trainer, is played by Damon Wayans Jr., who wound up committed to Happy Endings on ABC when it got renewed and had to drop out of New Girl. Rather than recast and reshoot the pilot with a new actor, they created a whole new character who will arrive in the second episode, which is kind of annoying and probably a bad choice. I mean, they reshot the $8 million Game of Thrones pilot after a batch of recasting; you're telling me they couldn't reshoot this? Whatever.

But on the plus side, at no point in the pilot is it hamfistedly hinted that there's an epic romance on the horizon between Zooey and any of her new roommates, an absence I can't put my thumb high enough in the sky in approval of.

Will I watch again? If the show was just about the three guys I'd be long gone (especially without Damon Wayans Jr.). But Zooey is exceedingly likable and will only become more so if they scale the violent quirkiness of her character down to tolerable levels. I'll take a look at the second episode. If the show ever reaches a point where I look at Jess Day and think "Jess Day" rather than "Zooey Deschanel," then it will have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Free Agents

The show: Free Agents, Wednesdays on NBC

The premise in ten words or less? Two coworkers deal with the aftermath of sleeping together.

Any good? On paper? Hell yeah! Free Agents was adapted for American TV from a British show of the same name by John Enbom, co-creator and head writer of Party Down, one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. It stars Kathryn Hahn, who I've loved ever since I saw her in Step Brothers, as well as Buffy alum Anthony Stewart Head and frequent David Wain collaborator Joe Lo Truglio. It seems like it should be funny as hell.

But in practice? I sat stony-faced through almost the entire pilot.

The show is a workplace sitcom (that also occasionally follows its characters home) set in a PR firm with a perverted boss (Head) and a bunch of nosy and / or generically wacky coworkers backing up its two leads. Kathryn Hahn is Helen, still recovering from the death of her fiance a year ago (to the show's credit, it plays this more darkly comic than tragic), while Hank Azaria is Alex, still stung from his recent divorce. The show opens with the two having a one-night stand and then follows them into work the next day for the awkward aftermath, but hints that true romance may await in their future.

And there's the biggest problem – Azaria and Hahn really, really don't have romantic chemistry. I like that the show attempts to give them fast-paced dialogue to ping-pong back and forth, but by the end of the pilot I gave less of a shit whether these two characters ever end up together than who the current cricket world champion is. Azaria gave voice to a number of classic characters on The Simpsons (Moe, Wiggum, Apu, Chalmers, Carl, Comic Book Guy, etc.), but the clingy, weepy, emotionally damaged middle-aged divorcée he plays here is such an unappealing sitcom lead. I mean, I'm all for sitcom characters being broken people. They just need to be funny broken people.

Speaking of, the one character who actually made me laugh a couple times in this pilot was one of the coworkers played by Al Madrigal, an actor I've never seen before, who keeps desperately trying and failing to insert himself into his coworkers' social plans. This wasn't a character who even began to hint at the brilliance of the Party Down ensemble, but hey, it's something. Maybe John Enbom can make a couple more characters actually funny moving forward.

Will I watch again? If I was basing this purely on laugh count, no, but the guiding hand of Enbom and the presence of Kathryn Hahn, Anthony Stewart Head, and Joe Lo Truglio make it so difficult for me to imagine that this show has nothing to offer. Then again, Running Wilde was created by Mitch Hurwitz and starred Will Arnett and David Cross and had a narrator, and that sure as fuck didn't make it Arrested Development. I'll give Free Agents one more shot. If I laugh a few times, maybe I can brush the pilot off as growing pains. If not, well, there's still a million more sitcoms premiering in the next couple weeks.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Up All Night

The show: Up All Night, Wednesdays on NBC

The premise in ten words or less? New parents, the mom works as a talk show producer.

Any good? Comedy pilots are rough. That might sound like the prelude to a vicious takedown or a way to excuse a show I didn't laugh much at, but it's neither. It's just the reality of the situation. Arrested Development and Party Down had funny pilots, but Community, which has evolved into the best show currently on television (comedy or drama, network or cable) and one of the best works of comedy ever produced in any medium, had a pilot that failed to make me bellow with laughter at any point, as did Parks and Recreation. So much of enjoying a sitcom lies in getting attuned to its pulse, absorbing the rhythm and quirks of its characters, and letting the writers get comfortable enough to experiment and surprise you, and for any showrunner to accomplish that in 22 minutes is a Herculean feat.

So no, at no point during Up All Night, in which Will Arnett and Christina Applegate play new parents, did I tilt my head back and let out a satisfying roar from the gut. I did chuckle a number of times, if nothing else thanks to the comedic application of bleeped out swears, something that has continually made me laugh ever since Arrested Development. But speaking of that hallowed show, one relieving way that Up All Night actually differs from it is that, unlike in Running Wilde and most of the other comedies he's appeared in over the last decade, Will Arnett is NOT playing Gob Bluth here. He's a new, mellowed out man who actually bears resemblance to a human person, which is at this point a novelty.

Now, there's no lack of generic "baby pooped," "baby won't stop crying" and "baby won't sleep" jokes here, which don't really impress outside of the actors giving it their all, but the bigger problem is Christina Applegate's job. This is that rare sitcom that seems to equally follow the home and work lives of its hero, and (at least in the pilot) the two halves don't quite mesh. Maya Rudolph showed that she's got comic chops in Bridesmaids, but as Christina Applegate's wacky boss and host of the talk show they work at together she feels overly broad and hammy thus far.

Still, the show has room to grow and they've done a good job casting it with talented comic actors. In Arrested Development Will Arnett made me laugh as hard as I've ever laughed at any film or TV show in my life, so I figure he deserves a shot.

Will I watch again? I'll give it at least a few more episodes to see if it can iron out the kinks with Christina Applegate's job and kick up the laugh quotient a bit. But all the generic baby humor caused me to violently eject Raising Hope from my viewing schedule after a few episodes last fall, and this show certainly threatens to tread the same path. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Ringer

(Rather than grouping multiple pilots into each update as I did when I discussed last year's new shows, I've decided to do this season a little more like my movie reviews, with one show per post. Some of the write-ups might be on the short side if I don't have much to say, but still, I figure this way streamlines things a bit.)

The show: Ringer, Tuesdays on The CW

The premise in ten words or less? Woman on the run assumes her wealthy identical twin's life.

Any good? I've said before that the way I differentiate a soap opera from its broader umbrella genre of serialized drama is that a soap opera has no thematic ambitions beyond simply following the lives of its characters. Ergo, The Wire is not a soap opera because it explores the downfall of the American city; Friday Night Lights is not a soap opera because it's about the culture of small town America; Breaking Bad is not a soap opera because it examines the drug trade; or even, to use a less haughty example, 24 is not a soap opera because it's about fighting terrorism. (Lost, however, is a soap opera. Sorry Lost fans.)

I say this so that when I call Ringer a soap opera no one mistakes me for using the the term as a lazy epithet. The show truly is a soap opera through and through, unless you believe that being a poor stripper chased down by a mob boss because you witnessed a crime and taking over your rich identical twin sister's life as a means of hiding in plain sight after she mysteriously disappears on a boat is a thematic mission statement that will make many viewers nod and go "Mm, yes, I've read much on this topic."

So, operating under the assumption that the character of Bridget (the poor twin and protagonist) is the only real thing we're supposed to care about here, does the show work? Not really. The notion of how dizzying and how difficult it would be to navigate another person's life if everyone thought you were that person is a potentially fascinating one, but the show skates right over it, with Bridget falling into the groove of hanging out with her estranged sister Siobhan (I shit you not: Siobhan)'s husband and best friend and living her posh lifestyle instantaneously. It never goes into the literally hundreds of blind spots Bridget would have, from not knowing the names of mutual friends to the addresses of Siobhan's regular destinations or familial stories or anything. The conflict continues to stem mostly from Bridget's laughable run from the mob and the cops, and it's just not very interesting at all.

I know a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans were looking forward to this series solely for the magic of having Sarah Michelle Gellar back on TV after eight long years, but make no mistake: this is not a Joss Whedon show. Ringer and Buffy have nothing in common. Gellar gets very little chance to show the pep or personality she did as Buffy Summers, instead being forced into playing blandly polite as Bridget and blandly snooty as Siobhan. It's still hard not to like her – she's one of the more charismatic TV stars there is – but the script offers her little to chew on. Nestor Carbonell plays the FBI agent searching for Bridget, and as many problems as I had with Lost by the end of its run, Carbonell's performance as Richard Alpert was never one of them, so that's cool. The rest of the cast is serviceable and forgettable.

I understand if you want a little more Sarah Michelle Gellar in your life, but you'd be better off just busting out the Buffy DVDs and rewatching those. Or hell, even Cruel Intentions. Honestly, if forced to watch a poor-girl-on-the-run-masquerades-as-her-rich-identical-twin show I think I'd rather watch ABC Family's The Lying Game, and The Lying Game is pretty damn bad, so that's saying something.

Will I watch again? I may give the second episode a look on the off chance that it shakes off the freshman jitters and stops feeling like a slightly better-lit soap opera, but the soapiness is built into Ringer's DNA, so I'm willing to bet that will be the end of my journey with the program. So much of the premise revolves around who is going to find out Bridget's secret, when, and how they'll respond, and I can't even fathom how such a story could sustain itself into a second, let alone a sixth or seventh season. The pilot's audience of 2.84 million makes me strongly suspect that question will never be answered, either.