Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2014 Edition, part 2
After a bunch of dramas, our second batch of new shows is made up almost entirely of comedies. I don't tend to review comedies in these round-ups, because much more than dramas they need the time to build up their world and characters before you can really get a sense of what they're capable of (think back to almost any classic comedy of the last two decades and I think you'll find that the first half-season, at least, is mostly teething episodes--there are a handful of early Friends episodes, for example, that I've never bothered to watch, and I was a devoted fan of that show in my teens). But somehow, most of the new comedies this falls have made for meaty discussion, so whether or not any of these shows pan out--and my hit rate for comedies has been pretty dismal in the past--I did end up having things to say about them. (Progress report on previously-discussed shows: I've given up on Forever, and I think that Madam Secretary will be going the same way this week. I'm still enjoying How to Get Away With Murder, but purely on a plot level--there doesn't seem to be much more to it.)
- Bad Judge - According to what I've read, the pilot episode for Bad Judge was heavily reworked before its first airing, and watching it that seems both obvious and obviously a bad idea. The premise--that title character Kate Walsh is a hard-drinking, hard-partying, sexually adventurous judge who still dresses like a teenager under her robes--is overwrought but not obviously misguided. The last few years have proven that there's a market for female raunch, and the majority of what goes on in a courtroom surely offers enough examples of human folly to drive ten sitcoms (and in fact already has, going back to Night Court). But someone in the Bad Judge production seems to have gotten cold feet, because the pilot episode backs off very quickly on Judge Rebecca Wright's immature behavior and instead tries to argue that what makes her a bad judge is that she cares too much--specifically, for a ten-year-old whose parents she sent to prison and who is acting out at school, to whose rescue she repeatedly rushes, neglecting the more boring aspects of her job. The result of this slapdash re-edit is a character whose behavior is too inappropriate to be admirable--this is still a judge who enters a courtroom examining the result on a home pregnancy test--but too mild to be truly outrageous. The second episode feels more coherent, but veers away from the courtroom by focusing on Rebecca's romantic life--her dalliance with a hot but dim fireman, and reluctance to commit to a relationship with a psychiatrist who keeps appearing as an expert witness in her cases (Ryan Hansen, delightful as ever). Bad Judge has a good cast--as well as Walsh and Hansen, another highlight is Tone Bell as the judge's sardonic bailiff and only real friend--but it seems to be backing away from what makes it unique in favor of a generic "wacky antics of funny lady" story, which is a shame.
- Manhattan Love Story, A to Z, Scrotal Recall - As several TV reviewers have noted, 2014 seems to be the year of the rom-sitcom, the comedy whose stated purpose is to tell a romantic comedy story over multiple episodes (and, potentially, seasons). It's not clear to me why this format has suddenly become so popular. True, the ending of How I Met Your Mother has left a void, but why not try to imitate it at any point during the nine seasons it was on the air? Perhaps the reminiscences brought on by the 20th anniversary of Friends have reminded TV executives of how that show's longevity was driven in part by the success of the Ross/Rachel romance. Or maybe the trend towards sweetness and niceness in comedies (as exemplified in, say, Parks and Recreation, which has had not one but two major romances blossom over the course of six seasons) has been taken to its inevitable conclusion of trying to make a weekly series out of that sweetest of comedy genres. If you're a fan of romantic comedies this can only be a good thing, since, as Hollywood has allowed the genre to degenerate into a shrill, misogynistic shadow of its glory days, TV shows like How I Met Your Mother and Parks and Rec have become the best place to find funny romance. But judging by this new crop of shows, the pitfalls of dedicating an entire series to a central love story turn out to be the same ones that befall rom-com movies.
Manhattan Love Story, for example, is riddled with sexist stereotypes--the male lead is introduced walking down the streets of New York, mentally assessing every woman he sees on whether he would have sex with her; the female lead, meanwhile, is introduced the same way, only she's assessing the women's purses for whether she'd like to steal them--and retrograde ideas of how romance and dating work. Like a lot of latter-day rom-coms, it features characters behaving in shrill, demanding, and unpleasant ways, which are then justified because that's just how love works! When Dana (Analeigh Tipton) breaks down crying during her first date with Peter (Jake McDorman) because she's had a terrible first day at work (by which I mean, her coworkers lock her out of the office in a mean-spirited prank, because that's how adults behave in this kind of romantic comedy), the fact that he reacts with dismay is treated as a profound moral failing on his part, as opposed to a reasonable human reaction. For the rest of the show's first two episodes the two future lovers continue to snipe at and argue with each other in ways that make their romance alluring only on the grounds that it would prevent them from imposing their self-absorption and rudeness on anyone else. That's not to say that you can't have a rom-sitcom about unpleasant people--this summer's You're the Worst, currently the title holder for the genre (seriously, if you haven't checked it out it's really worth a look) is about two self-absorbed, toxic people who rather miraculously discover that their flaws and damage complement each other. But the key is to acknowledge that your characters are being awful, not to pretend that awful behavior is sweet because the people committing it are the leads in a romantic comedy.
A to Z's protagonists are much more likeable than Manhattan Love Story's, but the show suffers from the equally crippling problem of wanting to be How I Met Your Mother so badly as to make itself seem redundant. This starts with casting the Mother herself, Cristin Milioti, as heroine Zelda, continues with a Barney Stinson-esque best friend character played by Henry Zebrowski (for some reason, sitcom writers trying to recreate Barney seem to cling to the rude womanizing part of the character, and leave out the natty suits and dorky hobbies; Zebrowski's Stu, therefore, is just your run-of-the-mill oaf, nowhere near Neil Patrick Harris's magnificent creation) and a voiceover guiding us through the story (by Katey Sagal), and reaches its crescendo with a gimmicky premise that seems to spell doom for the show's adorable central couple--that Zelda and Andrew (Ben Feldman) will only date for eight months. As How I Met Your Mother quickly realized, however, it takes more than a gimmick to keep a show going--especially if that gimmick is to destroy your central premise--and A to Z doesn't yet have the strong ensemble and deep bench of supporting characters that made that show a delight to watch even as it meandered towards its controversial conclusion. The potential is there--Lenora Crichlow is delightful as Zelda's best friend, though her character description, a serial dater who adopts the personalities of the men she's with, is more than a little trite; and as Andrew's boss and coworkers, Christina Kirk, Parvesh Cheena, and Hong Chau steal the spotlight whenever they're on screen. But the focus is still far too intensely on Andrew and Zelda, who, for all that Milioti and Feldman are good actors and very sweet, still feel rather generic--he's a hopeless romantic who also needs to grow up, she's a cynic whose hardness conceals a lifetime of disappointment--and too obviously cribbed from How I Met Your Mother's Ted and Robin. Whether their allotted eight months end in breakup or marriage (or, for that matter, moving in together, which surely means you're not dating anymore but is less dramatic, so the show's promotional material has been downplaying that option), so far nothing about them justifies the in-depth chronicle of their relationship promised by the show's title.
Meanwhile, over in the UK, we have Scrotal Recall, a show with, bar none, the very worst title ever imposed on an innocent TV series. Whether this unfortunate title was a brain fart by series creator Tom Edge, or the contribution of a too-clever executive, its connotations are completely wrong for this rather witty and sweet comedy, which wears its How I Met Your Mother inspiration (not to mention, of course, Coupling, the show from which Mother inherits much of its DNA) far more lightly than A to Z. When sad-sack, self-conscious Dylan (Johnny Flynn) receives a diagnosis of Chlamydia, he has to contact his former sexual partners, and rather than sending them an anonymous health department postcard he decides to take a trip down memory lane and determine why he hasn't yet met the love of his life. The show thus skips back and forth through time, revealing the romantic travails of not just Dylan himself but his friends and roommates--the first episode flashes back to the wedding of his friend Angus, for example, but in the present day Angus has been crashing on Dylan's couch for three months following that marriage's not-so-surprising breakup--who are vividly and amusingly written, often with a touch of melancholy that also infects Dylan himself. While the show's trajectory is fairly obvious--the love of Dylan's life is going to turn out to be his best friend Evie (Misfits's Antonia Thomas)--that obviousness has never been a flaw in a romantic comedy. It's the journey that makes the story worth following, and Scrotal Recall, despite its awful title, is the only one of these three shows whose journey seems truly appealing.
- Selfie - In a lot of ways, I'm not at all up to date on the current online fads, which may be why I've never been able to work out just why taking a picture of yourself on your cell phone has become such a derided act, or why it's meant to be so indicative of today's online culture rather than a fairly obvious thing to do with a camera (true story: the only selfie I've ever taken was on a film camera some time in 2001). In that sense, then, Selfie is a useful cultural artifact, since it doubles as a primer on everything that is supposedly wrong with Kids Today and all they do online. The third worst thing about Selfie--which may not be the worst new show of the fall, but is certainly the most infuriating, and the one whose on-screen talent is most out of proportion to the intelligence of its writing--is how thoughtlessly, curmudgeonly dismissive it is of online culture. Its heroine, Eliza (Karen Gillan) is a phone-obsessed, hashtag-spouting millennial with hundreds of thousands of twitter followers. In the real world, we might conclude from this level of success that Eliza is clever, or funny, or at the very least a very canny self-marketer. In the Selfie universe, it means that she is boring, vapid, and completely unfamiliar with normal human interactions and real emotions. When an accidentally-publicized bout of food-poisoning demonstrates to Eliza that people enjoy laughing at her as much as they enjoy following her, she turns to Henry (John Cho), a marketer at her pharmaceutical firm, to remake her image.
The second worst thing about Selfie is how stunningly misogynistic it is, and how obviously unaware it is of that fact. On top of being a twitter celebrity, Eliza is the best salesperson at her firm, and again, instead of indicating her skill or knowledge, we're told that this is simply down to her looks and slutty appearance. The latter is used to justify any amount of disrespectful, nasty behavior towards Eliza--when she sleeps with a colleague who, unbeknownst to her, is married, none of her other coworkers feel obliged to clue her in, and instead snicker amongst themselves over how stupid she is not to have noticed (now might be the time to marvel at Gillan's bad luck in having somehow managed to land in a show whose treatment of her is even more misogynistic than Doctor Who's--and one created by a woman, no less). Henry's remaking of Eliza is ground zero for much of the show's misogyny. 90% of his instructions involve policing her appearance, behavior towards other men, and sex life, and always towards what he perceives as more "ladylike" behavior. Which brings us to the very worst thing about Selfie, the fact that it was envisioned as a retelling of My Fair Lady--or of the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, on which the film was based. The genius of Shaw's play is in how it skewers Henry Higgins's arrogance and certainty in his own rightness. He believes that he can remake a person from the ground up, and that the difference between a flower girl and lady is nothing but manners. What he fails to consider is character, and as Shaw reveals, the play's Eliza has more character in her little finger than Higgins has in his whole body; all his training of her does is reveal this fact. Selfie seems to have lost sight of this twist entirely. "I need you to remake my image!" Eliza tells Henry. "You mean help you become a better person?" he replies. The idea that manners and character are two different things, which is at the heart of Shaw's play--and helps to make Higgins's obvious disdain for women more palatable--is completely missing here. Instead, the show validates Henry's conviction that presentation and personality are exactly the same thing--which, when coupled with the misogyny of his slut-shaming, body-policing attitudes, adds up to some very toxic sludge.
This is all a great shame, because Selfie has a fantastic cast (David Harewood shows up in the pilot as Henry and Eliza's boss and steals the show with a few lines) and, on a line-by-line basis, some clever writing. Gillan and Cho have good chemistry and--when he isn't policing her clothing and sex life--are immediately convincing as unlikely best friends who challenge each other to be better and to live better lives. There's a good show buried somewhere deep within Selfie, about the generation and attitude gap between these two characters and how they nevertheless manage to complement each other, but any chance of seeing it is destroyed by the show's disdain--for young people, for social media, for women, and most of all, for its brilliant and clever source material.
- The Flash - two years ago I came down pretty hard on the pilot for Arrow, and while I stand by that review--Arrow didn't start getting good until well into its first season, and its first few episodes were particularly dire--the fact that it has has become one of my favorite shows has made me more willing to cut superhero shows some slack and look harder for attributes that might indicate future greatness (perhaps a little too willing, in some cases--two episodes after its intriguing pilot, Gotham has devolved into an atonal mess that happens to have some top-notch actors in it, making my positive take on its first episode seem hopelessly optimistic). All of which is to say that I went into the pilot for the Arrow spin-off The Flash wanting to be won over and willing to forgive a lot of the flaws that turned me off that earlier show. What I found, though, was such a profound deviation from Arrow's tone and approach that it's hard to know how or whether The Flash will replicate the traits that have made Arrow so much fun--the breakneck pacing, the intriguing handling of comic book tropes and exploration of the idea of heroism, and the solid characters and relationships. In fact, the show that the Flash pilot most reminds me of is the one whose memory made me so wary of Arrow when it first aired--Smallville. Like Smallville, The Flash has a lighthearted tone and a cast of youngsters (if not, thankfully, actual high schoolers), and like it, it starts from the premise that the same event that gave protagonist Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) his superpowers has also created dozens of other "metahumans" whose powers he is going to have to deal with in his guise as the titular superhero.
If you remember Smallville, you're probably not feeling terribly reassured right now, though The Flash does have the advantage of not being hobbled by the prequel format, and of having a leading man who is far more charismatic and emotive than Tom Welling. Aside from that, it's hard to know how this new superhero franchise will look--as many reviewers have noted, the only obvious similarity between The Flash and Arrow is the way they both treat their central love interest (in this case, Barry's best friend Iris, played by Candice Patton) as a delicate flower who must be protected from the truth about the hero's nighttime activities, which is hardly promising. Nevertheless, the pilot has enough verve--and Gustin is sufficiently winning--that I'm willing to see if the Arrow formula can survive this sort of upheaval, and if the smartest superhero show on TV can spawn another one of its ilk, even if it's telling a very different sort of story.