Sunday, January 18, 2015

Winter Crop, 2015 Edition

After a profoundly lackluster fall pilot season, the networks and cable channels seem to be pulling out all the stops for the midseason.  Just about every odd, high-concept, genre-ish series on the roster seems to have been held back for January, and if the resulting shows aren't always good, they're at least interesting to think and write about.  Not covered at length in this post, but still interesting, are Empire (whose concept I respect but whose episodes have a weird habit of collapsing into incoherent messes around the 20-minute mark), new comedies Togetherness (low concept but extremely well made), Man Seeks Woman (high concept that doesn't quite work but is funny enough to be worth a second chance), and Schitt's Creek (horrible title; surprisingly clever writing and some stellar acting from a great cast; too much reliance on cringe humor for my tastes), teen-oriented shows Hindsight and Eye Candy (sometimes YA shows work for adults; this is not one of those times, but it's nice to be reminded that unlike adult viewers, kids aren't expected to survive on procedurals alone), and detective show Backstrom (which hasn't aired yet, but whose concept--a jerkass policeman whose rudeness is tolerated because of his brilliance--is so familiar that it seems out of place in this winter of originality; I doubt I'll bother watching the first episode).
  • Mozart in the Jungle - Amazon's latest series, about the behind-the-scenes antics at the New York Symphony, does a lot to recall the immortal, inimitable Slings & Arrows, and though that comparison does a lot to make the show enticing--I'm a sucker for any story that makes a serious effort to show its audience what's unique and unusual about its setting, rather than turning it into the same soap-inflected workplace drama we see everywhere--it also sets a high bar that Mozart in the Jungle can't reach, largely because it doesn't seem to have a clear idea of its story.  The ten-part season's early and late episodes have a fairly conventional let's-put-on-a-show structure, focusing on aspiring oboe player Hailey (Lola Kirke) as she gets her big break, flubs it, and then out of the blue gets to make her debut through the musical equivalent of being on hand when the star twists her ankle on opening night.  It's not badly done, but it's a conventional story that Mozart doesn't find much nuance in, and Hailey herself is too timid a character to carry the show.

    The season works much better in its middle segments, when it focuses on Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), the orchestra's new, superstar conductor, who has been brought in to make classical music edgy and sexy, but turns out to have more depth than his bad-boy image suggests.  Like Slings & Arrows's Geoffrey, Rodrigo is at once a buffoon and someone who is deadly serious about his art, terrified of losing its immediacy in the pursuit of commercial success, but also aware of the need to reach an audience.  The best parts of the first season see Rodrigo struggling to find the truth in music that can sometimes seem ossified and over-familiar--as when he takes the orchestra on a "field trip" to perform the 1812 Overture in a vacant lot, to the surprise and delight of the people in the neighboring buildings, or when he's chastised by his anti-establishment, performance artist wife Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder) for selling out in order to gratify his ego.  (These are also the parts of the season that make the best use of Hailey, who becomes Rodrigo's assistant, mentee, and only real friend.)  These parts, however, don't amount to a whole--Rodrigo's seeking is scattershot, taking a different form, sometimes silly and sometimes sublime, in each episode, and giving the season as a whole a shapeless feeling.

    Mozart in the Jungle is a comedy, which means that it finds a lot of humor in backstage politics, squabbles over supremacy, and irreverence towards a cultural artifact that is usually treated with deadly earnestness.  But at the heart of that comedy is something serious and often quite sad--a group of people giving everything they have to be a small part of something ephemeral and inherently flawed.  Whether it's Hailey killing herself to become a better player without knowing if she can ever be good enough, cellist Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) who is approaching middle age and wondering what she has to show for her career, former conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) who is coming to terms with no longer being the rising star, or Rodrigo himself, who is at the top of his game but terrified of never producing something transcendent, what makes Mozart in the Jungle work is how seriously it tells stories about people who are serious about their art (without ever forgetting the mundane and ridiculous aspects of that life).  But it hasn't yet found a story to tie those characters together, which prevents it from being the great show it might have been.

  • Galavant - When the new network shows were announced last spring, Galavant was the one that I thought I would enjoy the most.  I like whimsy, and I firmly believe that it offers a greater scope for meaningful statements about the human condition than the more fashionable "realism" of grim-n'-gritty.  So an all-singing, all-dancing pseudo-medieval romp sounded like it could be absolutely delightful.  In the intervening months, however, I (and the rest of the TV-reviewing public) discovered and fell in love with Jane the Virgin, a show that does exactly what I wanted Galavant to do--combine a ridiculous premise with good humor, smart writing, and real emotion to create something as heartfelt as it is fun.  The problem with Galavant is not just that it falls short of the standard set by Jane (which is, after all, one of the most remarkably assured and well made debuts of the last few years, and thus perhaps not a fair comparison), but that even by the more modest ambitions of its obvious inspirations--chiefly, Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights--it's kind of a dud.  A musical comedy should have good jokes and good songs, and Galavant scores barely 0.5 out of two--there are some good jokes here and there, but also a lot of obvious, pratfalls-and-farts humor that feels hopelessly dated (the latter camp includes the show's unfortunate fondness for using gayness and male sex as the focus of its jokes).  The songs, meanwhile, are clever but almost instantly forgettable (with the unfortunate exception of the title song, an earworm that only becomes more annoying the more the show repeats it).

    Having said all that, it should also be said that Galavant is a lot more enjoyable than it has any business being.  This is mostly down to the cast, and chiefly Timothy Omundson as the evil (but is he really just lonely and misunderstood?  No, he's actually evil) King Richard, the titular hero's nemesis.  In Omundson's hands, even the show's trite writing and lackluster jokes become rich meals, and he manages to tie together his character's villainous and sympathetic sides to make him the most watchable person on the show.  Though no one else in the cast is quite on that level, everyone is very good--from Vinnie Jones as Richard's leg-breaker, a bruiser-with-a-deadpan-delivery role that Jones has played a million times before, but always impeccably, to Mallory Jansen as the love of Galavant's life, who threw him over for the life of a queen and now terrifies even Richard with her sadism and lust for riches (though wisely, the show follows Jane the Virgin's lead in giving even this castrating bitch character layers and insecurities), to Karen David as the damsel in distress who is actually much smarter and more competent than the show's hero, to Luke Youngblood (Magnitude!) as Galavant's enthusiastic and slightly weird squire.  (The actual star of the show, Joshua Sasse, gets a little lost in the shuffle, a predictable result given that he plays the only straight-ish man in the ensemble, but one that might have been counteracted with stronger writing.)  If Galavant isn't quite on the level that I hoped it would achieve, its strong cast can usually smooth over its infelicities and dead moments to make something that is at least fun to watch, if not actually any good.

  • Marvel's Agent Carter - After seven years, massive lobbying from fans, and what felt like tireless legwork from star Hayley Atwell, the MCU has finally produced a female-led vehicle (albeit a limited-event series of only eight episodes).  That's the kind of buildup that can lead you to dread watching the pilot episode for fear that it won't live up to your expectations, and in Agent Carter's case I also worried that the show's central gimmick--both the female lead and the 1946 setting--would be allowed to substitute for decent writing.  The first two episodes of Agent Carter--in which Steve Rogers's former colleague and love interest finds herself shunted to the side in the post-war reality, struggling to prove her worth in a world awash with virulent sexism--did a lot to dispel my concerns.  They build a rich, interesting world (though oddly enough, far more interesting for its ordinary period setting than for the glimpse it gives us of the SHIELD precursor organization, the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which so far comes off as a by-the-numbers law enforcement organization whose odd purview doesn't really register) and jump-start a twisty plot that sees Peggy recruited by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to spy on her own bosses and find out who is stealing his inventions.  The series's limited timeframe--though galling when you consider that it's being treated as a junior sibling to the lukewarm and underperforming Agents of SHIELD--helps a lot on the storytelling front, forcing the writers to cut out the fat and deliver nonstop plot (including some fantastic action scenes).  But that same breakneck pacing also reinforces the sense that there's not much there there.  Where Agents of SHIELD has at least the potential to comment meaningfully on, and perhaps even question, the core assumptions of the MCU, Agent Carter seems content to work within them, delivering an enjoyable romp without much nutritional value.  Even the show's skewering of sexism, though valuable, is more than a little self-congratulatory given that it's looking back seventy years--and especially considering that this back-patting is coming to us from people who, again, took seven years to be persuaded into telling a story about a woman.

    What's keeping all this afloat, and at the same time gives the show its anchor, is Atwell's performance as Peggy.  She's excellent as a larger-than-life hero who is barely tamping down her frustration at not being allowed to do what she's best at, and at being expected to give way to people (men) who aren't even half as smart or competent as she is.  That kind of uber-competence, however, can leave a character feeling unapproachable, so the smartest thing that Agent Carter does is give Peggy a sidekick who both respects and challenges her.  The fact that this position is filled by someone as unexpected as Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy), Howard Stark's butler and the inspiration for Tony Stark's AI of the same name, only makes the rapport that he and Peggy quickly develop more delightful.  Acting at some points as Peggy's Alfred and at others as her trainee, Jarvis brings out her humanity--the irascible, impatient side of her that just wants to feel useful, and sometimes leads her to act recklessly out of the belief that she's the only person for the job.  Somewhat less successful is Peggy's nascent friendship with Angie, a friendly diner waitress played by Lyndsy Fonseca--it's never quite clear why Angie is so eager to befriend Peggy, and Fonseca plays her so young that it's hard to see what Peggy gets out of the relationship--but it's nice that the show clearly sets out to pass the Bechdel test on a weekly basis (though on that front it would have been nice to see other women in Peggy's workplace, who might help or even hinder her efforts).

    One point on which Agent Carter disappointed me is the near-total absence of people of color from its story.  This is hardly surprising given Agents of SHIELD's problems on this front, but especially for a series that has clearly set itself the goal of telling stories about people who have been left out of the official history, it's sad to see.  There are no doubt people who, when questioned about the show's uniform whiteness, would reply "but people of color just weren't allowed to do anything interesting back then!"  Ignoring the fact that this is exactly the same excuse used to justify not telling stories about characters like Peggy Carter--and just as untrue in both cases.

  • 12 Monkeys - The thing that makes Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys such a great film--and such an enduring classic of SF cinema--is that it takes a fairly standard, Terminator-ish premise and, at every turn, refuses to indulge in the heroic tropes implied by it.  So the hero, James Cole, is mentally unstable and ultimately powerless, his life defined by the powers that have sent him back in time and the time loop that limns it; the alleged villain, Jeffrey Goines, turns out to be nothing but an entitled brat with neither the ability nor the mental focus to do the evil deeds ascribed to him; and, of course, the film's central story is one of failure, of how a single man failed to prevent an apocalypse engineered by corporate and financial interests against whom no hero could ever triumph.  That Syfy's rebooting of the film into a series jettisons that wondefully bleak message and dives straight into the very tropes that Gilliam's film mocked doesn't exactly come as a surprise, but it's still disappointing to realize the series's complete lack of self-awareness.  You have to wonder: did anyone involved with the show even watch the film?  Not only does 12 Monkeys appear to be telling the Terminator story straight, with Cole (Aaron Stanford)--who in this iteration of the story is not just a lab rat but a self-directed agent, and even has superpowers as a result--teaming up with scientist Cassandra (sigh) Railly (Amanda Schull) to prevent the end of the world, but it seems to have forgotten that in the original film the titular Army of the Twelve Monkeys were a false lead, setting up pharmaceutical heiress and mental patient Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) as the first step down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy to end the human race.  Possibly this is just the pilot setting up expectations that the rest of the first season will explode, but given how little attention it pays to the emotional beats that gave the movie its heart--Cole's detachment from humanity in both the future and the past, Railly's descent into madness alongside him--it's hard to hope that the series is interested in being anything more complex than a techno-thriller, a task which the pilot manages competently but with very little flair.  In that sense, 12 Monkeys is the exact opposite of what we got when the Terminator franchise was brought to television with the late, lamented Sarah Connor Chronicles, a series that actually took the time to wonder what it would be like to know that the end of the world is coming, or to travel back from an apocalyptic future into a comfortable but doomed past.  Again, that's not a surprise, but it is a disappointment.


raz greenberg said...

I liked Agent Carter for preety much the same reasons you did, but I'm a bit worried about the pilot's reliance on MacGuffin-chasing plots. Shows that go in this direction tend to lose momentum fast (see: Alias)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure that's going to be a problem given that Agent Carter is a "limited-event" series and that its ratings have been weak enough that it probably won't get another go. But in general the MCU's greatest weakness has been finding interesting stories in which to deploy their characters (there's a reason that its best films are Iron Man 3 and the Captain America movies, which are all fundamentally about the hero's internal struggles rather than external threats), so grading on that curve Agent Carter has actually been doing pretty well.

raz greenberg said...

Speaking of pilots, I highly recommend "The Man in the High Castle". I guess some people won't like the way it turns PKD's philosophical novel into a mere political thriller, but it's one effective political thriller, and Alexa Devalos is fantastic.
I hope it will prove popular enough for Amazon to greenlight a series.

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you for writing this article because without it I would never have realised that the Joshua Sasse who is the lead in Galavant is someone I went to school with (I'm amazed at how deep his voice has gotten, and he's much better looking now that he's buffed up IMO). I'm having a mind=blown moment right now so, apropos of absolutely noting, thank you.

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