Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2013 Edition

Well, here we are again.  With almost no time to grow accustomed to the glut, the new fall shows are here, and even omitting a huge number of them simply because there's really nothing to say, I've had to split the discussion of already-aired shows into two parts, with more to come.  I wish I could say that in the midst of all that quantity there are also signs of quality, but most of these shows run the gamut from promising to not-so-promising, with almost none genuinely good out of the gate.  Still, at least there's a lot to talk about.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine - I often skip new comedies in these write-ups, because far more than dramas, comedies take time to find their voice.  It can be hard, judging from one or two episodes, to say whether a new sit-com will be appointment viewing, or amusing but not worth getting attached to, or just terrible (for a frame of reference, in past pilot season reviews I've been underwhelmed by the Community pilot, and thought 2 Broke Girls might be worth a shot).  Brooklyn Nine-Nine is, honestly, no exception.  The show has a cute premise--a comedy set in the titular police precinct and centering on the conflict between the goofball star detective (Andy Samberg) and his uptight new captain (Andre Braugher).  This results in some very funny moments in the two episodes I watched, and the interplay between Samberg and Braugher (whose stern demeanor, usually found in intense dramas like the legendary Homicide: Life on the Streets or last year's po-faced Last Resort, makes him a killer straight man) powers the show quite nicely.  But despite this potential, it's fairly clear that the show's writers are still putting its scaffolding together.  The supporting cast has mostly not been sketched in yet: Terry Crews is winning as a precinct sergeant suffering from anxiety issues, but Joe Lo Truglio is a bit of a chore as a physically and romantically inept detective, and with the exception of Chelsea Peretti as the precinct's loopy civilian administrator, the women on the cast are fairly forgettable.  And despite the pilot finding a good gag in Braugher's character's stiffness--he's such a good straight man because he's gay, and has spent his career doing things perfectly by the book so as not to give his superiors an excuse to get rid of him--neither it nor the second episode manage to find his personality, either as an extension of his gayness or in any other trait.  He exists mainly as a foil for Samberg's manchild antics, which, though less aggravating than this kind of behavior often is, probably can't carry the show on their own.

    So the truth is, there's really no way of knowing yet whether Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be worth watching, and the reason that I'm interested in the show, and hoping that it does prove to be a winning comedy, is its subject matter.  The show is clearly aware that it is a rare comedic voice in a genre characterized by intense, violent drama--the first scene in the pilot sees Samberg monologuing to the screen about the soul-killing nature of his job, only to reveal that he's performing a dramatic reading from Donnie Brasco while his partner exasperatedly processes a robbery.  In a television landscape that not only takes such speeches with deadly seriousness, but uses them to justify an increasingly fascistic attitude towards violence and the abuse of police power (in this pilot season alone, we have Ironside, an inspirational story about a man who won't let disability stop him from dangling suspects off rooftops, and By Any Means, a British series predicated on the assumption that the confidence games and feats of entrapment that were so charming on Leverage will be equally appealing when committed by officers of the law) it feels valuable, and even necessary, to have a series that recognizes them for the self-aggrandizing, faintly ridiculous posturing that they are.  In its first two episodes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine treats police work as a job that can often be aggravating and thankless, but which the characters on the show nevertheless genuinely enjoy and want to do well--which also means obeying the law and trying to minimize violence.  With a little luck, it could end up doing for police work what Parks and Recreation (with which it shares some producers and writers) has done for civil service--act as a necessary antidote to the cynicism that has permeated other, dramatic depictions of the job, not by ignoring the aspects of it that are frustrating and Sisyphean, but by acknowledging that these can often be inherently comedic.

  • Hostages - It's been amusing, these last few years, to watch as Israeli shows became the go-to source for inspiration for American TV--first a trickle following the respectable critical reception of In Treatment, and now a deluge as producers frantically try to find the next Homeland (most of these shows don't make it past the pilot stage, but thanks to the somewhat insular state of the Israeli news apparatus I hear about every project at its most preliminary stages).  Even if it weren't for their shared national heritage, it would be clear that Hostages (based on an Israeli series of the same name which hasn't aired yet) is an attempt to replicate Homeland's success--it has the same action-movie-with-a-cerebral-twist vibe, the same use of a unique angle to approach a story about politics and espionage, and the same game of wits between male and female lead characters.  The story, however, is quite different: on the eve of performing an operation on the President of the United States, hotshot surgeon Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) and her family are taken hostage by an FBI agent (Dylan McDermott) who wants her to kill her patient.  The obvious question the pilot needs to answer is how the show plans to stretch this story--which at first glance feels like it could, at best, power a feature-length movie--into even a single season.  Which makes it doubly unfortunate that in its first hour Hostages seems to feel so little urgency about justifying its own existence.  Like a lot of high concept shows, it seems to be working under the assumption that said concept is intriguing enough to keep people watching--even though hostage situations are one the most hoary tropes out there.  And so the pilot, instead of barreling through the familiar early stages of the hostage story--the introduction to the hostages on an ordinary day, the hostage-takers' violent entrance and their demands, the hostages' early attempts to get away--proceeds through them almost languorously, as if it genuinely believes that the audience has never seen a story like this one before.  It's only in its final seconds that the pilot does something unexpected--and sets the tone for the type of the story that the rest of the series will tell--but by that point I was pretty much running out the clock.

    In its handling of its characters, the Hostages pilot also demonstrates a dispiriting tone-deafness.  Instead of putting any sort of power into their plotting, the pilot's writers seem to believe that they can capture the audience's interest by piling personal issues on the Sanders family.  Which is wrongheaded going both ways: first, it assumes that people who have been taken hostage as part of a plot to kill the president need something else to make them interesting, and second, it assumes that the things we learn about Ellen's family--her husband is having an affair, her daughter is pregnant, her son is dealing pot and in hock to his supplier--are interesting, rather than a bunch of overwrought, predictable clichés.  There's some potential for interesting character development in McDermott's character--"we're not here to solve their problems," he tells one of his men who has performed an act of kindness for Ellen's son (showing him that the family dog wasn't killed but only drugged, because while pointing guns at children in their own home is something an audience can forgive, killing a dog is beyond the pale).  The sheer cluelessness of the line suggests that McDermott still sees himself as a good guy who can keep the situation he's created under control--and non-violent--and is genuinely surprised when Ellen and her family don't accept his assurances that he won't hurt them so long as they play along.  But instead of challenging this assumption, the pilot seems to be trying to bolster it by showing us that McDermott has a sick wife and a young daughter.  This leaves Ellen alone as the only source of character drama on the show, and although she gets some powerful moments--chiefly, after realizing that her family is in danger because of her unique access to the president, she takes advantage of her first moment alone to try to maim herself, but can't go through with it.  Even this, however, is undermined by the show's plot--we know that the entire premise of the series isn't going to be cancelled out halfway into the pilot--and only Collette's performance gives Ellen's dilemma even a little bite.  Carrie and Brody these are not, and despite the slight hint of intelligence at the end of Hostages's pilot, it's hard to believe that this show will ever come close to matching Homeland's twisty intensity and complex characters.

  • Agents of SHIELD - Bar none, the most hotly anticipated pilot of the fall, and now that I've seen it I can join in the general chorus of cautiously optimistic, perhaps overly-indulgent "meh"s that has greeted it.  A fairly standard "let's get the team together" hour only slightly enlivened by the presence of Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson (last seen biting it at the hand of Loki in The Avengers, and brought back by to life here through darkly-hinted means that are one of the pilot's few compelling mysteries), the SHIELD pilot is so nondescript that if I didn't know better, I would have assumed that Joss Whedon's role in it began and ended with a producer's input.  According to the credits, however, Whedon wrote and directed this hour, and once you know that it becomes easier to see (or maybe to imagine) a certain watered down Firefly quality to the show--the flying base that Coulson requisitions for his new team looks like Serenity reenvisioned by someone with little imagination and no fondness for texture, and the team, which comprises hackers, scientists, and fighters, is what someone fairly straight-laced and afraid of controversy might imagine as a motley crew (the only standout character is Ming Na as fearsome fighter Melinda May, though even she is characterized by a reserve that conceals some unspoken trauma that has left her reluctant to return to the field).  Still, the show that SHIELD most closely resembles isn't in the Whedon-verse, it's Torchwood.  Like that series, the show's central question is examining how a (fairly) ordinary organization of non-superpowered humans deals with a world in which superheroes, and the menaces they face up against, are a reality.

    With that new frame of reference, SHIELD looks very good indeed (though given the pilot's unrelenting blandness even Torchwood's over the top awfulness starts to look enticing by comparison), not least in actually finding some interesting questions to ask about such a setting.  The pilot's story revolves around an ordinary, down-on-his-luck man (J. August Richards, who will hopefully recur later on) granted superpowers by scientists experimenting with alien artifacts left over from the battle at the end of The Avengers, who is driven insane not just by the little-understood alien technology altering his body, but by the comic book expectations of heroism created, in the show's universe, by the existence of actual superheroes.  When Coulson corners him, Richards raves about a world that taught him to aspire to an ordinary sort of heroism--hold down a job, support your family--then made him feel inadequate in the face of beings who are more than human.  At the same time that it raises these questions, however, SHIELD also seems, quite often, to be plumping for easy answers--Richards can blame the Avengers for making him feel like a failure, not an economic and political system that has taken away his job and prospects and called him a failure for it, and the second issue raised by the pilot, SHIELD's right to hide the existence of aliens and superheroes from the rest of the world, is rather neatly resolved when the character who raises it, a hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennet), joins the SHIELD team and seemingly accepts their mission to perpetuate this deceit.  At the end of the pilot, it's hard to know which way the show will fall--there's room for Skye to reveal her own agenda, for example, and for Coulson's certainty about his mission to be punctured by the things about himself and his resurrection that he doesn't know; but the show could also function as little more than an adjunct to Phase Two, drumming up interest without really challenging any of the assumptions that underpin the movies' rather cartoonish universe.  Whether it comes from Whedon or someone else, one can only hope that someone involved with SHIELD will try to make it into its own, worthwhile story.

  • Peaky Blinders - If The Hour was the BBC's answer to Mad Men, Peaky Blinders is its response to Boardwalk Empire.  Like the Prohibition-set HBO show, it takes place in the 1920s, and focuses on borderline gangsters and the obsessive, amoral policemen who hunt them.  The setting, to me, is far more enticing than Boardwalk's Atlantic City, however.  The Peaky Blinders are the ruling gang in the working class neighborhoods of Birmingham (so named because of their habit of sewing razor blades into the brim of their peaked caps, which they swing at opponents' eyes in a fight; I'm sure that this is a historical detail since no one could make something like this up, but it doesn't make the name or the fighting tactic any less silly).  Run by the Shelby family and headed up by son Tommy (Cillian Murphy), they run crooked books and collect protection, but also keep the peace and make sure to spread at least some of their ill-gotten gains around.  When what should have been a simple robbery of motorcycles nets Tommy a crate full of automatic guns and ammunition bound for Libya, he calls down on Birmingham the wrath of Sam Neill's Inspector Campbell (backed by then Secretary of State Winston Churchill, played with a refreshing callousness by Andy Nyman) who suspects either the IRA or the communists, both rising forces in the city, of taking the guns.  The result is a tangled web of allegiances, with the law pitting gangsters against Irish nationalists and labor organizers without seeing much difference between them, and the three groups vying for each other's support on the grounds of their shared disdain for government, fueled by the carnage of WWI.

    The result can feel more than a little overstuffed (especially when the show adds to the story of the missing guns Tommy's plans to advance the family's position by involving himself in a war with gypsy gangs and scheming to undermine the city's leading bookmaker), and as a result some subplots come off feeling rather perfunctory.  This is particularly true of the romance plots--the star-crossed love between Tommy's sister and the lead communist, his boyhood friend and comrade in war (Iddo Goldberg), and Tommy's own flirtation with an Irish barmaid (Annabelle Wallis) who turns out to be Campbell's plant.  Even at its most expansive moments, however, it can be hard to tell if Peaky Blinders is more than just an exciting, twisty story, and whether it has anything to say about its era, or about the changing, sometimes ugly face of policing in times of economic and political instability.  The show is extremely well-made, beautifully shot and directed (and makes some amusing, if perhaps too-clever, choices in its soundtrack, using modern music like Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand," which opens each episode).  But what makes it work is Murphy's performance, which imbues the series with some much-needed gravitas.  His Tommy has been driven to nihilism (and opium) by the trauma of his wartime experiences, and whenever he makes a move in his war with the police and the city's other criminals it's left to us (and the other characters) to wonder if he's being a cunning chessmaster, or imploding spectacularly.  Murphy, however, finds the humanity behind Tommy's poker face, a sense of humor and some occasional moments of compassion (when his former friend is incensed at his accusation that he only wants Tommy's sister for the advantages that a connection with the Shelbys would offer the communists, you can see a flicker of shame cross Murphy's face before it once again goes hard).  It's not quite a person, but Murphy's performance is magnetic enough to make the guesswork that surrounds Tommy compelling, and with him, the entire show.


Anonymous said...

I'm very interested in SHIELD, because there's never been an organisation on a Joss Whedon that didn't turn out to be either ineffectual or evil, or both. The Watchers, the Initiative, even Angel Investigations. People can be heroic, but have them work together in a named organisation and it's always bad news. I'd love to see how he handles a show about a government agency that's actually supposed to be a force for good.

Anonymous said...

Agreed on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Personally I'm not enamored of Samberg, so if he continues to learn Very Important Lessons each week, and take a significant amount of screentime at the expense of everyone else, I'm going to tire of it in short order.

Anonymous said...

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: I'm wary about getting onboard, simply because the show reminds me of The Unusuals from a few years back. That was pretty good too, but got cancelled early on.

Hostages: I think even the network realized audiences weren't taking the bait. After a long summer of infomercials for it airing in movie theaters, they changed the advertising to present it as a sort of maxi-series that was written to be done in one season, with the potential for extension. Probably trying to pull a Under the Dome with it, which is dim twice over. Firstly because Dome is lightning in the bottle, as the first summer mini-series to actual prove popular after several years of various networks trying them. (See the likes of Persons Unknown and The River.) Secondly, because Dome is Summer TV. The bar for quality is lower.

I agree with your write-up about the first episode. For a dude who wants to kill the President, and has crossed a Rubicon in arranging his death by taking hostages, McDermott's character flinches an awful lot. He shouldn't be taking pity on this family. He should be waving the daughter's pregnancy test in Ellen's face, telling her yet another life in on the line. This is the guy we saw risk a bank hostage being killed, just because he played a hunch. Plus, he (and the show's writers) arrange things so that Ellen has no reason to believe they won't kill her and her family after the President is dead. As Ellen herself, I believe, points out -- they've seen their faces. If he wasn't worried about getting caught, then why all the trickery in how the President would be assassinated?

The only surprising moment for me was when Ellen almost cuts off one of her fingers. I sort of wish they'd gone through with it, just to see the hostage takers scramble to somehow salvage their plan.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Yes, I think I mentioned on twitter that Brooklyn Nine-Nine might soothe the pain over The Unusuals's cancellation. It was really quite a special show, and if nothing else if it had lasted longer it would have been amusing to watch Jeremy Renner, Oscar nominee, plugging along in a low-rated comedic cop show.

After a long summer of infomercials for it airing in movie theaters, they changed the advertising to present it as a sort of maxi-series that was written to be done in one season

Ah, that explains why I remembered that the show was being billed as an "event" series when the reviews and write-ups have been treating it as a potential multi-season show. I would say that given how much trouble the show seems to be having extending its premise to a whole season that making it past one will be impossible, but I don't think that's going to be an issue.

he (and the show's writers) arrange things so that Ellen has no reason to believe they won't kill her and her family after the President is dead. As Ellen herself, I believe, points out -- they've seen their faces

The thing that I've been thinking about the promise to let the family go is that McDermott's character must be very confident that he's not going to outlive Ellen. His argument for showing the family their faces is that after the murder they will be just as complicit as him, but really that only applies to Ellen. After her death there's nothing stopping her children from exposing him (and the much-younger members of his team for whom this would be a more pressing issue).

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