Tuesday, September 28, 2010

RIP Lone Star

Today, Lone Star became the first cancellation of the new TV season. Which sucks, cause it was actually one of the better new shows. I still haven't seen the second and final episode, but judging from the pilot this was an entertaining and appealing show that, for better and for worse, was very different from everything else on TV. The fact that the show doesn't quite fit into any particular box (smart drama, trashy soap, or both?) made it hard to market, and harder to get people to watch. But still, how are people ignoring this and choosing instead to watch obvious crap like Shit My Dad Says and Outlaw?

Not that it matters much anymore, but the pilot centers on Bob/Robert Allen, a con man running two long cons simultaneously. In one, he's selling shares to non-existent wells to people in Midland, Texas, while living with his girlfriend. In another, he's married and working his way up in his father-in-law's oil company. And in both, his con man father is close by to monitor his progress.

I think a lot of people were turned off by the idea of a guy sustaining two separate relationships, but while it may certainly make him an anti-hero, Josh Wolk has enough charisma as an actor that Bob/Robert remains likable. It also helps that he's trying to get out of the con life and actually believes he loves both of the women. The best stuff in the pilot involves his interactions with his dad, all of which feels like something out of a Sawyer flashback from Lost (which I mean in a good way). When it gets too far into the family drama with the oil company, then it heads a bit into Dallas territory.

So there's the issue right there. For the most part, it's a smart drama, but it's also a bit of soap. It's a con man show, but has a lot of other things going on. It's hard to tell from the pilot what would happen next, and I guess we may never know. Still, this one had a lot of promise, and I'll get to that second episode at some point, even if I don't ever get to see the third.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Premiere Week Part 2

Premiere week is now over, and I still have a lot to watch. But here are some quick takes on all the comedies I watched this week, both the returning and the new. New shows first.

If you listened to most critics on Fox's two new Tuesday night comedies, you'd set the series pass on Raising Hope and figure Running Wilde would be a complete waste of time. But personally, I liked Running Wilde better. It's certainly flawed and far from perfect, but when it comes to which one holds more promise and makes me laugh more, it's Wilde.

From the creator of Arrested Development, starring Will Arnett and featuring David Cross, Running Wilde has very much the same tone as its comedy classic predecessor. Steven Wilde (Arnett) is the rich son of an oil company owner who's never had to work or grow up in his life, and Emmy Kadubic (Keri Russell) is an environmental activist who's spent the past six years in the Amazon. They had a thing when they were teens, and now Emmy's back in town. The show's narrated by Emmy's daughter Puddle, who otherwise chooses not to speak, and the rest of the supporting cast consists of the people who take care of Wilde and his competitively rich frenemy/neighbor.

Like most pilots, this one crams a lot into 22 minutes, so it's hard to tell what a normal episode will be just yet. Arnett and Russell's interactions could use some work, and nobody in the supporting cast has really stood out so well (though I sense potential in the neighbor character). But given the amount of talent behind this show, I bet all of that can be worked out down the line. In the meantime, the pilot has more laughs than most other comedies on TV, the three leads are all likable, and AD's style of humor is very much at work. There's even an overt reference to it with one of GOB's catchphrases.

Verdict: May ultimately go either way, but I'm certainly sticking with it for the time being.

As for the show that airs before it, Raising Hope, I'm betting this falls into the category of decent shows that just aren't for me. From the creator of My Name is Earl, the tone is very similar: sweet and funny, but way more sweet than funny, with a cast of colorful hicks. Jimmy (Lucas Neff) is a young pool skimmer trying to figure out his life's purpose when he ends up in charge of a baby for fairly entertaining reasons. His parents want him to give it away since they barely managed to raise him, but he's determined. So the show's about the three of them not-so-successfully trying to raise the baby.

There's a big missed opportunity by taking the baby's mother out of the picture by the 15 minute mark, since she was one of the better characters. And the pilot's best moment may be an inside joke about My Name is Earl's cancellation. Since otherwise the show's more about awww moments than big laughs. And when it does go for laughs, it tends to be in the broader slapstick direction, especially those involving Cloris Leachman's often-topless senile grandmother. And it doesn't have as strong a hook or characters as Earl did. It wants to be the next Modern Family, but it's just not as clever.

Verdict: I'll give it one or two more episodes to be sure, but this one just isn't for me.

Speaking of Modern Family, it came back this week very true to form: no frills, no crazy plot developments, just simple hilarity. Of the three plotlines this week, I'm calling Mitchell and Cameron the funniest, as Mitchell sets out to build Lily a castle using his supposed college theater abilities while Cameron and Jay try to keep him as far away from the tools as possible. Mitchell defending himself while accidentally cutting down the flowers is classic. But plenty of good stuff elsewhere as well, with the Dunphys taking one last trip in the car they hadn't used in years, and Gloria getting jealous of Manny's study date. MF continues to be the most consistently funny show on air.

On to NBC's Thursday, where Community started off the set with plenty of cliffhangers to resolve. Last year I gave Community three episodes then let it go. But it takes time for a comedy's ensemble to gel together, and when I gave it another shot this summer I ended up really liking it.

The premiere sure makes it seem like this could be a break-out year for the show. With season 1 ending with all sorts of love quadrangle drama, this week addressed everything in a way that stayed funny and set up the rest of the season. Overexposed as she may be, Betty White's guest spot totally worked, and it will be interesting to see how letting Senor Chang into the study group will alter the dynamics.

With The Office and 30 Rock increasingly heading into old age, Community's quickly becoming NBC's top show to watch on Thursday nights.

30 Rock started its 5th (!!!) year with plenty of meta references to the fact that nobody expected it to last this long. It's also no longer top comedy dog now that buzz has shifted over to Modern Family and Glee. Which I think is a good thing, as all the overhyping didn't really serve what's basically a fun little gem. And with lowered expectations, it still delivers.

It does seem 30 Rock is the place to go for dramatic actors trying to prove they can do comedy, as Matt Damon follows in Jon Hamm's footsteps to reprise his season finale role as Liz's pilot boyfriend Carol. Having initially played the role pretty straight, Damon definitely gets laughs as he reveals Carol to be kind of needy. Too bad he can't stay too long if he wants to keep making movies.

Elsewhere, the Kenneth-gets-fired plot continues, as Tracy misses him while he settles in at CBS (sorting the Letterman audience by attractiveness). A bit of a missed opportunity as Jenna is given a producer credit only to give it up by the end of the episode. Would have been fun to see her fight with Liz and Pete on stuff throughout the season. And no sign of Danny, except on Glee. There's a danger this season will continue on the all Jack and Liz's love lives, all the time track it keeps heading on, but so far so good.

Finally, The Office maybe should have ended a few seasons ago (why do they want to continue after Michael leaves?), but it always starts its seasons strong and this year was no exception. Last year we met some summer interns, and this year we got Luke, the new office assistant. Who's also Michael's nephew. And sucks at his job. Which led to plenty of hilarity and great Michael moments.

Even better, a return to the Jim and Pam pranks of old, which had been neglected since the writers decided all Jim and Pam could do was be cute. Unfortunately, Dwight continues to become more of a sitcom caricature with every second he's onscreen. Enjoying Kelly thinking she's smart and professional without backing it up. Sad for Andy that Erin left him for Gabe. And not really sure what the deal with the lip dub thing at the beginning of the episode was about. A take-off on a youtube video I haven't seen?

If this year's like the past few years, The Office has 5 good episodes in it before it starts to drag again. But all the writer interviews I've read say they're stepping it up for Michael's last year, so maybe this will be a return to form. It's certainly possible.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Premiere Week Part 1

With SOOOO many shows premiering this week, both new and returning, it's going to be awhile until I get to everything I'd like to. Possibly weeks. So in order to leave myself time to actually watch some of these shows, I'm just going to do a whole bunch of quick takes on everything I've seen so far all at once.

Glee was probably the returning show I was most looking forward to, and the premiere reminded me how much fun this show is, if also why it's often called out as problematic. Beginning with a list of all the criticisms people have made about the show, the premiere went on to exemplify one of the bigger ones: fitting 5 episodes' worth of plot into a single hour. Which is why I wouldn't say the episode itself ranks among Glee's best.

But as far as setting up the new season goes, it definitely did the job. Coach Bieste throws a whole new twist into the Schue/Sue relationship, and fun to see them working together for a change. Just about every major kid character had some kind of change: Finn getting kicked off the football team, Artie losing Tina, Rachel having to compete with newcomers, Quinn back as captain of the Cheerios, etc. New characters (Sunshine, Sam, and the new Vocal Adrenaline coach) were introduced in such a way that you got a good sense of them without them taking away from the leads. And great musical numbers combined with good Sue Sylvester lines made for a very enjoyable hour of TV.

Going right to the theme episodes next week with a Brittany Spears homage may be a bit too soon, but hey, we knew this wasn't Mad Men. Glee doesn't take its time. The important thing is that all of the fun, energy, and humor of the first season is still very much intact here in year two, and this will continue to be the show I actually watch the night it airs.

I've got a lot of pilots I still need to get to, but the one new show I know I'll be sticking with is Boardwalk Empire. Between Martin Scorsese directing and Sopranos alums running the show, the pilot had a lot to live up to. And as far as I'm concerned, it succeeded. Personally, I'm getting a little of sick of shows on HBO, AMC, and FX that take their sweet time getting to the point, making you sit through a few dreary hours before getting amazing by the fifth episode. Boardwalk Empire is not like that. There's so much action, character, and, yes, actual humor in the opener alone that this isn't just a prestige show; it's actually entertaining.

Beginning right at the beginning of Prohibition, the show centers on Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a city councilman in Atlantic City, New Jersey who puts together a bootletting operation to keep his city wet. He plays the politician by telling the temperance ladies he's one of them, then makes deals with New York (in the form of Michael Stuhlbarg's Arnold Rothstein) and Chicago (meet young Lucky Luciano and Al Capone). But just as central is Nucky's driver Jimmy (Michael Pitt), a young guy who turned down Princeton to fight in WWI, who plays the Christopher to Nucky's Tony. And at the same time, the Feds are trying to close the operation down, specifically Michael Shannon's Van Alden.

I've heard some criticism of Steve Buscemi as the leading man, and I will say I'm reserving judgement on that front. He definitely plays the part well, but as an excellent character actor he doesn't quite have the gravitas of, say, a James Gandolfini. But with so many great supporting players that may not make a difference. Michael Pitt's character is already emerging as just as much of a protagonist. And while much of the cast can be hard to distinguish as "white guys who look alike," enough stand out right away that everything should fall into place a lot earlier than in other HBO historical series like, say, Rome.

Obviously the production values of the $18 million pilot are extraordinary, and that's a reason to check it out alone. The show brings old Atlantic City to life in a big way, and the visuals are amazing to watch. You can tell the pilot was directed by Scorsese since it has the feel of his movies, which may have a lot to do with why it's so watchable. This is no dry history lesson, but a show that brings its era to life in much the same way Mad Men does, except with a lot more violence.

Given that the showrunners previously worked there, the show feels a LOT like The Sopranos, but in a good way. If you've been looking for something to fill that void, this is definitely it. And if you haven't, it's still a different enough show you might find something to like. With no other new shows breaking out as big hits the way Glee and Modern Family did last year, this seems to be it. HBO certainly thinks so, having already renewed it for a second season. If the rest of the season lives up to the promise of the pilot, we'll be seeing Boardwalk give Mad Men a scare at the Emmys next year.

How I Met Your Mother had what was pretty widely considered a weak fifth year. The showrunners are the first ones to admit that, so they wanted to step it up big time for season six. And in a lot of ways, this week's premiere showed the benefits of listening to your fans. It was a very back-to-basics episode, taking place almost entirely within the bar on a single night. Ted got to be the focus again (but not in an obnoxious way), and every character generally acted like themselves.

But while the rest of the episode was perfectly solid and enjoyable, it's the ending that makes this a great premiere and one that should re-hook any questioning fans. The show may be more of a "Friends for the 21st century" than an actual story about Ted meeting his wife, but this week brought the mother story a big step forward by revealing they meet at a wedding. The bigger surprise: Ted is the best man at the wedding! Ted doesn't know that many people. Marshall and Lily are already married. So the two most obvious guesses would be Barney or Robin. Though maybe it's Rachel Bilson marrying her new girlfriend. Why she'd chose some guy she dated for all of a minute as her best man I don't know, but she does at least she would presumably invite the mother-to-be.

Ah well, plenty of time to keep speculating. I'm certainly intrigued to find out.

Ok, catching up with some stuff from last week, Top Chef: Just Desserts premiered last Wednesday and while it's certainly not up to original flavor standards, I'd rank it above Masters. Like in the original, Desserts has contestants who really care about winning, so it's not all a good-natured lark like for the pros. The personalities are even bigger than on the regular version, so it almost feels more like Project Runway (not saying that's a good thing, just observing). But most importantly of all, there are so many delicious looking desserts that I will immediately need to run out to Crumbs after every episode. Total food porn.

If that weren't enough, everyone's favorite TC judge Gail Simmons is hosting, and Hubert Keller is supposed to show up somewhere down the line. It's hardly appointment TV, so too bad it's on during the busy fall instead of, say, the summer, where it would be exactly the right type of fluffy fun I'm looking for. But as a placeholder for real Top Chef, it works.

Finally (and STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE TOP CHEF FINALE YET), I finally saw the Top Chef finale tonight, and somehow stayed spoiler-free beforehand. Which made me all the more shocked by the result. It was clear from the episode that Kevin's was the meal they liked best, so in that sense he deserved to win. But it wouldn't have been clear that he would be Top Chef from any other given episode this season. He always seemed like one of the chefs that was good enough to stay in but not good enough to win too much. Then again, Ed sealed his fate when he decided to delegate the entire dessert course, and Angelo was working with a pretty severe disadvantage. Kevin did seem REALLY happy about it, so it's hard to hold it against him. But he seems more like another Hosea than one of the more obvious winners.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Well...So Much for True Blood This Year

I hadn't been a huge fan of True Blood this season, but I had faith it would pull itself together. Every season has a slow build-up before getting good, so it was ok that the first half of the season was kind of boring. I was frustrated that each of the main characters was stranded in a completely separate storyline and that there were more new characters than returning ones, but I believed it would all come together somehow. And now that the finale has aired, it's clear that....it didn't.

Nope, instead of all the separate characters pulling together to stop Russell Edgington like they did Mary Ann last year, each of the storylines remained just as separate as they've been all summer. Even worse, not one of them was properly resolved. Some fizzled to a lame end with the possibility of an encore, like Russell. Others went the cliffhanger route. And still others made it clear this entire season was just a big set-up for next year.

Let's start with Russell, who was supposed to be the unifying Big Bad this year. The moment that really got me re-hooked on the show and convinced me these last few episodes would kick into gear was, of course, when Russell killed the newsman on TV. Great, I thought, now Russell's going to go absolutely insane and have to be dramatically put down. But he didn't. That was the climax of his character arc. And since he was basically captured at the end of the last episode, he was rather easily defeated by Bill and Eric this time. He's obviously coming back, so I can't even say his cement burying counts as an ending, but since he was the only new character that positively added to the show that's ok with me.

Moving on to the main characters, a whole lot happened between Sookie, Bill, and Eric, but not a whole lot of it really worked. Bill went back and forth so many times it was hard to keep straight what he was up to, except that he may have completely lost it. Maybe this is supposed to signal a darker Bill in season 4 who kills anyone who looks at Sookie funny, or one deadset on covering his tracks. Given how many times Sookie's hated then loved Bill this season, it's hard to say if the reveal of his betrayal affects their relationship any more than anything else that's happened. And it's hard to take the Bill/Sophie Ann airborne fight scene too seriously.

Oh, and all the Sookie's a fairy stuff led to her entering fairyland. So.....again a set up for next year.

But even if it didn't all pull together, the Sookie/Bill/Eric stuff was still the most entertaining storyline throughout a season filled with extraneous ones. Were the sideplots worth sitting through? Let's see, we put up with Sam's consistently painful to watch birth family all year so....he could shoot his brother. Maybe. Seriously? Lafayette's romance with Jesus.....will make more sense next year, cause it was entirely set-up. Tara being depressed...caused her to cut her hair. Arlene being afraid of giving birth to Rene's baby....will continue. And worst of all, the complete waste of Jason's character we've witnessed this year seems to exist solely to put him in charge of a depressing village of meth addicts. That's not getting me excited about next season.

So I think it's safe to call season 3 an off year for True Blood. There was a whole lot of plot, but not a lot of drama. Most of what was built-up hasn't paid off yet because the pay off (hopefully) still has yet to come. Hopefully with Jesus and the Wiccan waitress already on the show there won't have to be too many new cast members next year, and we can spend more time with the ones we got. Hopefully the cast will also spend more time together instead of going off on separate adventures with various new supernatural creatures. Personally, I think witches are better than werewolves (not that the werewolves even served much of a point this year), so I believe next year will be better. Or at least I hope so.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fall TV Season Begins

Premiere week may not be for another week still, but this past week already saw the premieres of two new shows that caught my attention: FX's Terriers and The CW's Nikita (that's right, I'm letting the Ashley Tisdale cheerleading show Hellcats go by unwatched). I'm still planning to do a full fall TV preview post at some point, but in the meantime here's verdicts on these two pilots.

First up Terriers, a light detective drama starring The Tao of Steve's Donal Logue and True Blood's Michael Raymond-James as unlicensed private detective partners. The two leads are very likable with lots of good banter between them, and the generally breezy tone makes this a perfectly enjoyable hour of TV.

But with all the crime shows on these days, is a straight-up detective series enough to cut it? The clips of upcoming episodes make it clear this is not just a case-of-the-week procedural, and that the events of the pilot will have repercussions on the rest of the season. But while watchable enough, the set-up's not quite intriguing enough to keep me coming back. I'd be curious to hear if things pick up down the line, but with so much else to try out, this just doesn't stand out enough to warrant a DVR pass.

On the other hand, I'm a little surprised to say I will be giving Nikita at least one more episode. I haven't seen the movie or the original USA TV show, but I can say that the newest update is a lot Alias and a lot Dollhouse. But since I like both those shows and neither is still on the air, I'm ok with that.

Nikita (Maggie Q) was part of a secret government organization called Division that trained attractive young people to be assassins. But something turned her against them, and now she's waging a one-woman war to take them down. Meanwhile, Alex (Lyndsy Fonesca) is a new Division recruit, just starting her training. With other familiar faces including The O.C.'s Melinda Clark, 24's Xander Berkeley, and Shane West, it's an appealing group.

The pilot crams in a lot, and it's clear this won't be the most character-based show on TV, but it's got potential. Between this summer's Covert Affairs and the fall's Undercovers, there's a bunch of new spy shows but this is the only one attempting an Alias-like mythology (though without the Rambaldi stuff, I hope). After a few episodes it may turn out to be more of a cheesy CW execution than some of the other genre shows it aspires to be, so I may bail after episode 2 or 3. But I could use a fun action show, and it's possible this could be it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Must-See Fall Movies

With September starting today, it's time to leave behind this summer's rather disappointing slate of movies and look ahead at what the next few months will bring. Summer blockbusters largely didn't pan out, so brainier fare may be just what we need. Here are the ten I'm most excited about.

Never Let Me Go (September 15th)
Based on an acclaimed book by Kazuo Ishiguro, containing a cool premise (which I won't spoil here), and starring the extremely likable Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and Andrew Garfield, Never Let Me Go has a lot to be excited about. Truth is I've already seen it, but I can confirm it's even better than it sounds and a strong contender for my top 10 list. So definitely a must-see for everyone reading.

Wall Street 2 (September 24th)
Have you ever seen the original Wall Street? Sure, it's a period piece now, but still fun and fascinating today. With Michael Douglas reprising his iconic part, Carey Mulligan in her second buzzworthy role in one month, and trailers showing the spirit of the original is still there, this should be worthwhile even beyond its timeliness.

The Social Network (October 1st)
Somehow "the Facebook movie" has become one of the hottest movies of the fall. Maybe it's the Fincher/Sorkin/Rudin combo. Maybe it's the glimpse of the future Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Maybe it's that really cool cover of Radiohead's "Creep" in the trailer. Or maybe people are just hopelessly obsessed with Facebook. Whichever it is, I'm going opening weekend.

It's Kind of a Funny Story (October 8th)
As much as I enjoyed Half Nelson, I'm even more excited to see its writer/directors go a little more mainstream with what looks like a teen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starring a very appealing and eclectic cast including Zach Galifianakis, Aasif Mandvi, and Lost's Jeremy Davies. Plus the trailer looks great.

Due Date (November 5th)
I'd already be excited since it's Todd Phillips' follow-up to The Hangover, but he made this all the more exciting by rejoining with Zach Galifianakis (also with two entries on this list) and adding Robert Downey Jr. It may basically be a remake of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but with the two of them that sounds like a great idea.

127 Hours (November 5th)
Danny Boyle always surprises with his movie choices, whether going sci-fi (Sunshine), horror (28 Days Later), family friendly (Millions) or the Bollywood/Dickens hybrid that is Slumdog Millionaire. So of course I'm excited to see what he does next. The idea of a movie about a guy trapped under a rock for 127 hours doesn't immediately sound exciting, but the trailer shows there's a lot more going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (November 16th)
If you don't know why I'm excited about this, you probably haven't spent much time on this planet the past decade.

Black Swan (December 1st)
Like Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky is following up an acclaimed 2008 release (The Wrestler) with something ambitious and cool. A Persona/Mulholland Drive type thriller set in the world of ballet starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis? Yes please. And with universally good reviews coming out of Venice, this one looks like a winner.

The Fighter (December 10th)
David O. Russell may not be a nice person to work for, but he does make good movies. And with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale starring, this looks to be one of them.

True Grit (December 25th)
Coen Brothers, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin. Need I say more?

And 5 more:

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Sept. 22nd) - Cause I can't say no to a Woody Allen movie

Let Me In (Oct. 1st) - Definitely curious to see what an American version of the atmospheric Swedish vampire movie looks like.

Morning Glory (Nov. 12th) - The plot may be out of How I Met Your Mother (and the shortlived comedy Back to You), but the involvement of JJ Abrams and Rachel McAdams has me intrigued.

Love and Other Drugs (Nov. 24th) - A Jake Gyllenhaal/Anne Hathaway reunion, and a plot involving Viagra.

Somewhere (Dec. 22nd) - Curious what Sofia Coppola does with what sounds like the plot of a Nick Hornby book.

So there are my picks. Which ones will you be seeing? What did I leave off?