Fall TV Reviews – The Second Week

As the second wave of premieres start to trickle in, I’ve more or less cut out most of the programs that elicited a mediocre ‘meh’ from my schedule (Secret Circle, ugh). Some deserve another chance, but this week, a couple are so bland and underwhelming that they don’t deserve the opportunity. Even sand tastes better, on top of a sundae pie of cut up glass and sprinkled with hypodermic needles. But there’s still light at the end of a few tunnels, and they kick ass hard. Here’s week 2 of premieres in retrospect.

Boardwalk Empire

In short: Ahh, Nucky’s complicated dealings and arrangements are back in business and screwing everyone over behind New Jersey’s silly little Prohibition laws. Just your usual, violent and vengeful 1920’s HBO mumbo jumbo.

There were several open threads on fire at the end of last season that left us wondering what’s next. Just wondering, not really going mad with suspense like Game of Thrones TV-only viewers would. Boardwalk Empire has its truly shocking, emotionally affecting scenes, and then it has its roundabout, unnecessarily draggy portions (or episodes) that you wish you had a shortcut through but can’t take because you’ll miss something important somewhere along the way. It was a running problem that plagued the first season, but no one wanted to quit because of said powerful moments.

The premiere improves on this aspect and handles its pacing much better. Racial violence via the KKK, aggressively loopy Nelson, subtle sexism, hidden agenda one-on-one chats, tender husband/wife formalities – there’s a good balance about it and it’s great that it doesn’t feel wishy washy at all. In the overall picture, story progress has budged slightly, but because the characters’ developments are so adeptly done, you don’t even notice. I genuinely felt sorry for Shroeder, Jimmy and Gillian, Richard Harrow and Nelson. My usually tough spot for Nucky has softened considerably too, though that probably won’t last long now that he’s in trouble.

Bottom line: Enjoyable season opener.  Not as satisfying as the pilot, but comes close. Fingers crossed that the show continues to flesh itself out consistently without sacrificing any of its personality or being bogged down by one too many weighty monologues.

Pan Am

In short: Another 60’s set timepiece, Pan Am is yet another celebration of curved hats, full bobs, pointy bras and supposedly sexy scandals (‘cos sex in the 60’s was so crazy and forbidden, ha. Ha.) in the sensational world of air travel.

The Pan Amercian World Airways stewardess must have been what the Singapore Airlines girl is today. Or maybe 5 years ago. Who is it again?

That was the kind of feeling I got when I sat through 43 minutes of half-turbulence half-flashback ridden episode of unmemorable characters, and I really don’t want to hate on a Christina Ricci show. She’s an incredibly sexy woman who deserves more than just a wallflower part as Maggie. The other character with promise is the French “other woman” Colette, but that’s all I’ll even bother to recall. It’s such a waste of talent resources since the actors with meatier parts  tend to fill their screen time with cardboard delivery of decent dialogue. A little too Ken/Barbie for comfort resonating through the ensemble for me to forgive.

The show tries to build on the celebrity status of being a pilot/stewardess with rousing brass music and glow-y skyscapes while they’re in the air, but what we get is green screen grade CG straight from the studios of Who’s Line Is It Anyway. Especially that airplane landing. The writers try to make it spy-ish by introducing a mysterious German and have one of the stewardesses steal his passport, but the execution probably had more people pinching their nose bridges just so they could distract themselves from a full body cringe.

Bottom line: Not a success. Storylines try to build some intrigue and establish the glamour of flight attendants, but the effort wilts away quickly as soon as each character spends more than 2 minutes boringly discussing their then-first world problems. Sad, because I really wanted to see Ricci make with the sexy with someone equally as magnetic. ):

Gossip Girl

In short: Upper East Side moves from the crazed privileged life in university to juggling the crazed privileged life with blossoming careers as young adults. Gossip Girl threatens to pick Blair’s little secret apart, Chuck is a lame yes-man, Dan is still wibbling for Waldorf, and the rest is a big fat blah.

This show has lost its steam. Serena is dull as cabbage, Nate is still dumb as post, Chuck’s kind of castrated, and all storylines that are swimming around in LA waters are lost in the world of suck. The only good thing going for GG is the unexpected friendship between Dan and Blair, and we all know that it’s only a matter of time until the writers string it up to die in the most horrible way possible. Come on, it’s a Josh Schwartz show. What the hell was Blair’s question set posed to Dan? That was vomit-inducing. Whoever writes those lines deserves to not only be shot, but go through the complete series of Spanish Inquisition devices thoroughly.

To plunge things further into the depths of writing hell, introducing ultra-sexpot cougar Elizabeth Hurley is a step back – GG doesn’t need another character to feed Nate’s ever-growing list of sleaze, even if the actor’s name is the size of Christina Hendrick’s rack. What this show needs is not a bunch of as so-called scandalous happenings but a good character blanching – these cast members can go a lot deeper and tougher by working on their rollercoaster histories, using them to better flesh out the “growing pains” angle that they seem to be going with rather than just giving Chuck a foreshadowing to cancer (or something).

It’s clear that Josh Scwartz and Steph Savage have left the building for their new airtime darling Hart of Dixie and the writers are struggling to keep things interesting. BUT! Even in this pile of hollow rubbish, the Dan/Blair friendship is the rose in the concrete that can still save the show. Only time will tell if the writers can take the only good thing going for them and make it amazing.

Bottom line: From guilty pleasure viewing to just plain and painfully guilty, Gossip Girl needs serious writing defibbing before it becomes unrecognizable… or before it’s recognized for being the next series to be cancelled. I’m rooting for Dair (since S1, you know?) growing deliciously layered and just the right amount of drawn out. Thank God there’s a fast forward button, because everything else (including Blair’s pregnancy) is just writers dumpster diving.

Terra Nova

In short: In a classic sci-fi setup of a dying world and its dwindling population seeking hope of a new life elsewhere through a hole in the time-space continuum, Terra Nova tries to be Stargate in style, Primeval in setting, and BSG in emotion at the same time under the fortunate weight Stephen Spielberg’s wallet.

Let’s get this straight – Terra Nova isn’t exactly Jurassic Park nor Avatar. We’ve seen the survival in the distant future concept plenty of times to know what’s been overused, what works, and what made us love the shows that ace the genre. The tight family unit is rather large and unusual, and it’s what the show revolves around – it’s ready made, not formed 2 seasons down after key character tragedies have taken place, not just father and son, sister and brother. It doesn’t have convoluted politics -very straightforward – driving the direction of the main plot (yet), which is also different.

The adult actors are formidable, but the teen/young actors (looking at you, Josh and gang) give shaky performances. I know these characters will eventually have their own plot threads to worry about, but watching the typical rebellious teen life phase played out in full is a wet blanket. Unnecessarily hyped. Meh!

What about the dinosaurs?!?! Yes, I think they’re awesome. They look good and the CG means no stiff animatronics. There are plenty of encounters that successfully brag the long list of executive producers: howlers (Pterosaurs), giant centipedes and leech things, slashers (whatever those are), a Carnotaurus, and Brachiosauruses.   Cretaceous period means we get a T-Rex, hopefully soon. In this period we can also expect the KT-Extinction event to appear as a key event and scare the hell out of everyone but not hit (because they’re in an alternate timestream, duh!). Inner dinonerds and aspiring paleontologists rejoice.

Bottom line: Great pilot. The setting is interesting, and though I never really liked family-oriented TV, there’s just enough adventure and raw emotional weight to stop this from being entirely kiddie. Feel good and ambitious. Plus, dinosaur CG!

Hart of Dixie

In short: Josh Schwartz brings Rachel Bilson back to TV as Alabama’s new resident sweetheart doctor, Zoe Hart, who’s forced into small town medical practice after a series of personal and career failures. Deal with it, city girl.

Country is probably America’s musical pride, next to autotune. And I hate country pop. It’s probably the third thing I hate most in the world besides Bon Jovi and Tweety Bird, which is what makes watching this hard.

When I choose to tune out the songs, it’s not so bad. Bilson’s character is quite like Summer Roberts, who’s a lot like Bilson herself, so there isn’t much acting or finesse required to make this work.  She is, however, still charming, blending snark-lite with saccharine spunk perfectly and donning the cutest outfits with that amazing little body of hers.

There’s good chemistry Zoe generates with the lawyer (love interest) and the electrician (fling), while Jamie King is doing a really good job of playing the obnoxious-but-later-with-depth lesser antagonist. All these elements makes for a cliched romcom, but there’s an extra appeal to the show’s dialogue and cinematography that makes it Everwood-ish or like early One Tree Hill. It probably won’t hit the level of Reese Witherspoon disappointment. Your heart will be easily warmed and pains will be pinching but bittersweet.

I’m all for more Rachel Bilson sassiness, but J. Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are horrible in sustaining their shows (see Gossip Girl), so investing time in this would be risky. But so far, I like what I see.

Bottom line: It’s signature Schwartz to start off well, so a good first season is in tow. The ensemble in Bluebell is believably tight knit/caring, and character intros are well done. Most importantly, even with the show emulating all forms of un-originality associated with the “small town culture clash” theme, Bilson’s earnest portrayal makes you overlook the show’s flaws and gets you to root for her, no matter how recycled the material is so far.

Suburgatory

In short: Teenage Tessa moves from the urbanite skyscrapers of Manhattan to the ninth circle of suburgatory with her dad, all because he found a box of unopened condoms in her top drawer. Suburbia isn’t as straightforward as you think.

I wasn’t expecting very much from Suburgatory because the setup was so formulaic. I mean, come on. City chick moving to the suburbs and culture shock ensues? Been there, done that, garbage disposal material. Right?

That’s why I was so amazed at its execution of said fat cliche. In a stroke of originality, Suburgatory gives the town a few larger than life characters with over-the-top personalities that don’t quite fit the stereotypes that TV usually carved out. It’s emotional, light-hearted, and its satire is charming/disarming. Comedies are hardly successful from mixing emotion and humor without adding the wet blanket of too much drama.

Tessa’s narration is deadpan and cynical, which is totally reminiscent of George from Dead Like Me. In fact, their overall demeanor and mannerisms are quite similar, only that they’re put in very different situations. Her dad, also coincidentally called George, provides the cool-yet-ordinary single dad factor in the show, being lusted after by blonde silicone mums and waitresses alike. Their relationship is so normal, but so not. It’s hard to describe, but both actors are skilled at their deliveries, and you feel like you’re there with them in this alien world of all shades of pink and self-tanner orange, which is unusually awesome. The suburban meeples make a great supporting cast, so that helps them excel at their roles even further.

Bottom line: Unexpectedly clever. A little bit of Gilmore Girls, a splash of Desperate Housewives and a shot of Dead Like Me. It has that “underrated show” charm of Samantha Who that tightropes between tugging your heartstrings and making you laugh. It’s growing on me fairly quickly.

Homeland

In short: Conspiracies fly when Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), wearing her CIA pants, suspects Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an ex-Iraq POW, to be sneakily working with the Al-Qaeda. Who’s going to be on her side? Who’s telling the truth? Damien Lewis is a soldier again?

The last I saw of Claire Danes was in Stardust, which was a lot less magical than others said it would be. She played it flatly, and so many miles apart from the best she could do. Look at My So-Called Life. For an inaugural performance, she did great, and she needs that same kind of complexity and hardness to really shine.

Damian Lewis has that same quality about him. He’s skilled at walking the line between being mysteriously pokerfaced yet somehow subtly showing the extent of the damage that’s taken its toll on his mental state. He’s a slinky, tricky little weasel in Mathison’s game of cat-and-mouse, especially when his lies are plainly exposed to viewers through a flashback that contradicts his word. And those flashbacks? Stylistic as much as it is graphic. The imagery of Lewis being strung up naked by the wrists like a pig hanging from the butcher’s hook was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen on TV in awhile.

The supporting characters provide plenty of material that help push the dialogue further. Each interaction is emotionally engaging and slathered thick with undertones, whether it’s betrayal, rejection, sex, or pure and simple paranoia from PTSD. But best of all, it never forgets that these characters are tied to a huge storyline of terrorism and security, both in the global and personal sense. Morena Baccarin in the nude ain’t half bad either.

Bottom line: Intense! A lot of things happen which means plenty to digest, but it’s not hard to understand what’s going on, thanks to the immense talent of the actors and watertight writing. For a thriller, it’s less on the psychological and more generous on the action, but it is still the pilot. Great addition to Showtime’s portfolio. Watch it. Watch it!

Talky talk

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