Friday, September 23, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition

This week has seen the first inklings of the new TV season, as the US networks start trotting out shows in the hopes of success, legitimacy, or even the tiniest bit of attention.  And yet here I am, still talking about some of the shows of summer.  This is partly because, as we've all more or less accepted, network shows just aren't where it's at anymore, and there isn't that much to say about yet another raft of samey procedurals and underbaked high concepts.  So this post covers a British miniseries and a Netflix series, as well as a few network pilots.  Still, I do enjoy this time of year, and I keep hoping that one of these shows will surprise me, so stay tuned for further reports. 

(Not discussed in this post, because there wasn't much to say about them: Designated Survivor, which has an ironclad elevator pitch that I'm not sure it knows what to do with, and Notorious, which seems desperate to be a Shondaland show but actually feels more like a parody of one.  And coming from the other direction, I would have liked to write more about Donald Glover's new FX comedy Atlanta, but the truth is that I'm still not sure what I think about it--it's a really interesting and well made show, but not one I've fully grasped yet)
  • Victoria - ITV has been promoting the hell out of this sumptuous miniseries about the early years in the reign of the titular queen.  But while the subject matter--and the presence of former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman, wearing an extremely distracting pair of blue contact lenses, in the title role--have an obvious appeal, the more one sees of Victoria, the less persuasive its argument is that there is actually anything here worth watching for.  Victoria takes some liberties with its history, mostly so that it can more easily fit it into the forms of a romantic melodrama--suggesting, for example, that the teenage Victoria was in love with her first PM, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), when in reality she seems to have viewed him as more of a father figure; or injecting tension over the question of whether Victoria will warm to her future husband Albert (Tom Hughes), when in reality she had known him since their early teens, and was very fond of him from the start.  But as tedious as these choices are, they pale beside the miniseries's real problem--that the more it shows us of Victoria, the less interesting she seems.  It finally becomes clear that while Victoria had tremendous symbolic significance, the actual events of her life were rather boring, with her main accomplishments being that she outlived the rest of her family, and then successfully set up a dynasty.

    Victoria tries to get some mileage out of the difficulties that its heroine experiences as a reigning queen--hardly anyone around her believes in her abilities, and her choices and freedoms are constantly being curtailed by people who pay lip service to her title but are clearly more swayed by her gender and youth.  But it constantly bumps up against the problem that the things Victoria wants to do are rarely admirable, or even very difficult--the first episode ends with her pushing through personal sorrow to perform the utterly ceremonial function of reviewing her troops.  And more often, when Victoria tells us that she's being stymied because of her gender, what shows up on screen is a petulant, spoiled child who is determined to get her own way, as in a scene in which her resentment of one of her mother's attendants leads her to subject the woman to what is essentially medical rape.  When, in a later episode, Victoria crows about the fact that she precipitated a constitutional crisis in order to gratify her desire to keep Melbourne in her entourage, it's hard not to wonder whether the miniseries is making a stealth argument for abolishing the monarchy.

    Victoria wants us to be on its heroine's side, even when not doing so might have made for a more interesting story.  The most recent episode revolves around the financial negotiations that precede Victoria's marriage to Albert, with the taciturn prince insisting that he be granted a sufficient allowance to be independent of his sovereign wife, and Victoria unable to understand why Albert isn't content to depend on her generosity--as so many wives in his position have had to be.  For a moment, there's the potential to say something interesting about how Victoria, for all her outward demureness, actually relishes her power, and is perfectly happy to prop up unjust, oppressive systems so long as she gets to be the one doing the oppressing.  But the episode is too committed to the epic love story of Victoria and Albert, and ends with Victoria giving up her power for the sake of marital bliss.  That's probably true to life, but in a show that has already proven itself willing to twist history to its needs, it's disappointing how those needs keep taking the story in the most boring, predictable directions.

  • The Get Down - Most of the attention paid to Netflix shows this summer was lavished on the mega-success Stranger Things, leaving Baz Luhrmann's historical-musical-teen-drama to languish in its shadow.  That's a shame, because while Stranger Things was impeccably made and a lot of fun, it was also somewhat hollowThe Get Down, in contrast, is a mess--of the six episodes in the "half-season" released this summer, only one really works as a piece of storytelling, and the rest are frequently shapeless, self-indulgent, and silly.  But The Get Down also has heart, passion, and a deeply-felt desire to tell its story that I haven't seen in almost any other show this year (with the possible exception of this spring's Underground).  When the show's disparate (and often seemingly contradictory) elements click together, it's like nothing I've ever seen.

    Set in the Bronx in the late 70s, The Get Down focuses on three young people: Zeke (Justice Smith), a soft-spoken high school student and burgeoning poet who is being urged towards college and respectability by his family, but who is drawn to the emerging hip hop scene, finding in it a means of expressing his rage and political views; Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), the girl of Zeke's dreams, whose own dreams are of disco stardom; and Shaolin (Shameik Moore), a drug dealer and hustler who wants to turn over a new leaf by becoming a DJ.  These are, obviously, blatant stereotypes, but they're brought to vivid, unforgettable life by the young actors, who convey not only passion and determination, but a complex understanding of their situation.  Zeke, for example, is genuinely torn between respectability and the hip-hop life, seeing things to desire and strive for in both of the possibilities before him, and driven by genuine ambition in both directions.  Which is a much more nuanced handling of this type of story than you usually see.  Perhaps more importantly, it feels significant that these character types--familiar, for example, from Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom, whose earnest tone The Get Down frequently mirrors--are being played by black and brown people, that they are treated as people who get to dream, and to be exuberant in the pursuit of their dreams.

    It's that combination of exuberance and savvy that makes The Get Down fascinating, and that convinces me that it's worth keeping up with despite its flawed beginning.  Alongside its musical numbers and candy-colored tales of kids who just want to sing, the show paints a surprisingly detailed and complicated picture of the political situation in the Bronx during its era.  Jimmy Smits hams it up as a local politician who is trying to amass enough political power to transform the neighborhood, but some of his ideas, about the things that people of color deserve and have been taught to live without, would be revolutionary if they were stated on the news, much less in a show that is essentially a hip hop version of Glee.  And the insight the show offers into the workings of the white political establishment--for example a mayoral candidate who explains that he is hammering at non-violent crimes like graffiti tagging because it plays well to white, middle class voters--is sharp enough to cut.  Alongside shows like Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Get Down is a reminder that sometimes it takes a degraded, "trashy" genre--like the let's-put-on-a-show story--to give a voice to the kind of people that prestige TV tends to forget, and to talk about issues that it tends to ignore.  The Get Down isn't exactly better than something like Stranger Things, but in its choice to use its genre to actually say something, it is infinitely more vital and alive, and if the second half of its season lives up to the promise of its first, it'll truly be something to see.

  • The Good Place - It's often hard to judge a comedy based on only a few episodes, but this difficulty is compounded in the case of Mike Schur's new series.  Three episodes into The Good Place, I'm still not entirely sure what the show is about, and starting to suspect that the story it's trying to tell is actually more complicated and fantastical than it initially lets on.  Which is not to say that what The Good Place starts out as is not complicated and fantastical.  Waking up in a pleasant-looking waiting room, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is informed that she has died and gone to heaven (or rather, "the good place").  Eleanor's guide, Michael (Ted Danson), explains that he has constructed this particular corner of heaven to be perfectly suited to a few hundred souls who were all the best of the best, and carefully selected to mesh well with each other--including, in Eleanor's case, her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper).  There's just one problem: Eleanor was, in life, a terrible, selfish, manipulative person, and the life of philanthropy and good works that Michael ascribes to her never happened.  Terrified of being sent to "the bad place", Eleanor convinces Chidi to keep her secret, a task complicated by the fact that every time she does something bad, the good place reacts by destabilizing and attacking its inhabitants.  It's left to Eleanor--with the help of Chidi, an ethics professor--to learn how to be good, for the first time in her (after)life.

    This is, obviously, a massively convoluted premise and a lot to set up in a couple of 22-minute episodes, especially since revelations about how the good place works, and how it has been malfunctioning, are still coming--at the end of the third episode, for example, we learn that Eleanor is not the only person to arrive at the good place incorrectly.  As a result, it's hard to judge The Good Place as a comedy.  The cast is obviously fantastic, and Bell in particular is great at playing both lovable and nasty, but at the moment The Good Place is more interesting than funny.  Perhaps the show's biggest problem is that, as a story about a person who is learning to be good, The Good Place is often unconvincing.  Eleanor's past as a terrible person, seen through flashbacks, is more cartoonish than horrifying, full of too-blatant flaws like littering or refusing to boycott a coffee shop whose owner sexually harassed employees.  I keep drawing comparisons between how the show draws her, and how a show like Community conveyed the mundane-yet-horrifying depths of Jeff Winger's narcissism, which maintained its grip on him even after he made a genuine effort to change.  The Good Place's idea of goodness feels equally shallow, and perhaps tinged with Hollywood's neoliberal conception of goodness as an individual, rather than communal, trait.  Almost everyone we've met in the good place was a philanthropist or a charity fundraiser or an aid worker--the sort of goodness that is reserved mostly for affluent people, and which is often held up as a reason for why we don't need government or welfare to help people who are in need.

    But of course, it seems very possible--even likely--that this is the point.  As more and more flaws reveal themselves in the fabric of the good place, it feels as if the show is deliberately pointing out the limited and limiting nature of its concept of goodness-for example through the character of Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a condescending blowhard who also raised billions for charity.  Schur's previous show, Parks and Recreation, built an elaborate (and often borderline-fantastical) world in its setting of Pawnee, Indiana, and I'm starting to suspect that The Good Place is attempting something even more ambitious, a whole cosmology which the characters have to figure out.  It still remains to be seen whether he and his writers can make a comedy out of a premise like that, but for the moment, The Good Place is one of the most intriguing new shows of the season.

  • This Is Us - The pilot for this it's-all-connected, multi-strand character drama has had some of the most effusive reviews of the fall.  Which leads me to wonder: were all of these reviewers high?  This Is Us's opening episode is one of the most turgid and regrettable hours I've ever spent in front of a TV--to paraphrase a very useful construction, it's a bad writer's idea of what good writing looks like.  Rooted firmly in the genre of family melodrama, This Is Us lacks the one quality that is essential to such stories' success--specificity of character and setting.  And because its writers lack the ability to make their characters and situations feel real and lived-in, they instead opt for absurd, over-the-top plot contrivances, which actually end up being more boring and uninvolving than another show's low-key naturalism--this is a pilot that struggles mightily, and eventually fails, to elicit an emotional reaction from a story about a dead baby.

    The first of This Is Us's interlinked storylines involves a young couple, Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), who are in the hospital, about to welcome triplets.  It's a rather pointless story whose significance only registers when the pilot delivers its twist ending, but in the meantime it's notable how little personality the show gives Rebecca, even as it emphasizes Jack's concern over the fact that her delivery experiences complications.  In a second storyline, an obese woman named Kate (Chrissy Metz) joins a weight loss group.  Though it's not exactly surprising that the only story network TV can think to give to a fat character revolves around their weight, the sheer hysteria of Kate's storyline is dismaying.  By the end of the pilot, we have learned virtually nothing about her except that she is fat, and that this makes her completely miserable--she seems to have no interests, no hobbies, no friends, no job, nothing going on outside of her obsession with her size.  The one thing we do learn about Kate is that she has a twin brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor who stars in a dumb sitcom that gets most of its laughs by having him take off his shirt.  Again, it's not surprising that a show this melodramatic would look down on comedy, but the terms in which This Is Us conveys the shallowness of Kevin's show defy belief--everyone working on it, except Kevin, seems to be a talentless hack who cares only about ratings and pleasing the network.  (This condescension is particularly aggravating when one compares This Is Us to something like Jane the Virgin, a comedy that achieves more genuine emotion in any random five minutes than this show manages in its entire pilot.)  When Kevin has an on-set meltdown after a (schlocky and overwrought) dramatic scene is cut, we're meant to think that he's rediscovering his artistic integrity, when really he's just being petty and unprofessional.

    Finally, the last plot strand concerns Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a successful and happy family man who tracks down his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), in order to furiously berate him for leaving the infant Randall in a fire station.  While it's understandable that Randall would have complicated feelings towards his father, the fact is that leaving a baby in a fire station isn't hugely different from giving them up for adoption (especially since we learn that Randall was adopted on the very same day that he was abandoned, by a loving and affluent family).  So the depth of Randall's rage, and William's calm acceptance that what he did was unforgivable, feel unearned.  (Nevertheless, this is probably the most successful plotline in the pilot, largely because Brown, late of a transcendent, Emmy-winning turn on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, is the only actor in the cast who manages to imbue his character with anything resembling humanity.)  All of these stories are leading up to a twist that reveals how these characters are connected--though if you know that a twist is coming, it is laughably easy to guess what that connection is--but as soon as that revelation comes, we're left with a question: what is there in this show that's worth watching for?  This Is Us's pilot was written to service its ending, but that ending still leaves us with a bunch of boring characters caught up in unconvincing situations, and absolutely no reason to keep watching.

4 comments:

Chuk said...

I can't argue with the writing comments (I only just realized from your review that I really didn't care much about the third triplet dying), but I do like all the actors, especially Brown. If the show had specificity of setting, the twist in the pilot wouldn't have worked (which admittedly it did not for everyone anyway). I might be biased because I watched this with a couple of family members who enjoyed it (including my teen daughter who is often a fan of melodrama).

zahrawithaz said...

Inspired partly by your review I watched the first episode of the Good Place, and I think you're definitely right about something deeper going on beneath the surface. It feels surprisingly genre for mainstream TV, and I'm interested to see where it goes.

I'm also impressed and puzzled by Atlanta--as you note, it's a very smart and well-made show, but I have no idea where it's going. I'm interested to see what you ultimately conclude.

baeraad said...

The Good Place's idea of goodness feels equally shallow, and perhaps tinged with Hollywood's neoliberal conception of goodness as an individual, rather than communal, trait. Almost everyone we've met in the good place was a philanthropist or a charity fundraiser or an aid worker--the sort of goodness that is reserved mostly for affluent people, and which is often held up as a reason for why we don't need government or welfare to help people who are in need.

Mmm-hmm. And who should be considered virtuous, then, in your opinion? How does an individual (and it is, after all, individuals being judged here) display "communal goodness"?

Because right off the top of my head, the only way I can think to interpret that complaint is that you think that the best sort of person is not someone who personally does good things, but someone who tries to make other people do what she sees as good things. The kind of person who is quick to point out what she sees as every else's flaws. The kind of person who might perhaps write a lot of long essays online explaining in detail what's wrong with our society and how it's all the fault of the people who disagrees with her about the specifics of what is and is not good...

... well, look, you're a smart person. You see where I'm going with this. Your view of who should first and foremost get into Heaven seems more than a bit self-serving, is what I'm saying. :P

Anyway, if you want society-wide changes, "passing welfare reform" is not really sparkly enough to qualify as an act of pure good, but "ending slavery" and "campaigning against the death penalty" did both get mentioned, so making positive changes to the society you live in clearly does count.

Now, what is true is that the strictly utilitarian definition of goodness that Michael gives us, whereby every act is judged by how it improves the world, does seem to favour rich people. Being rich doesn't give you a free ticket to the Good Place, because money allows you to do evil on as large a scale as it allows you to do good so you still have to be committed to making a positive impact, but being poor would seem to almost automatically doom you to the Bad Place, because it means that you just don't have the resources to enact good on a large enough scale to be one of "the best of the best." I'll be interested to see if that is something the show addresses later on.

I keep drawing comparisons between how the show draws her, and how a show like Community conveyed the mundane-yet-horrifying depths of Jeff Winger's narcissism, which maintained its grip on him even after he made a genuine effort to change.

I see no difference, frankly, except insofar as Community was a better show than The Good Place (though the comparison is arguably unfair to make this early on - Community took more than three episodes to find its feet as well). I never found Jeff's cynicism particularly horrifying - much like Eleanor, he was just a bad person in a bad world, blending into the background.

Arresi said...

Your review of This Is Us, much like your review of Babylon 5, makes me feel less alone. I tried watching it after a reviewer friend declared how much he liked it, and I couldn't get through a full half-hour. Maybe a quarter of the way in, I caught myself saying, out loud to an empty room, "Why am I watching this?" And that was pretty much it for me.

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