Quickie Fall Reviews: Black-ish

Black-ish is the latest attempt to sell an ethnic sitcom to the wider, non ethnic audience.  Unlike the Cosby Show, in which a Black upper middle class family has the same concerns as any non Black upper middle class, and being Black was not a prominent part of the show, Black-ish is about nothing else but being Black.  It’s about upper middle class Black people who are concerned about being Black, ruminating what it means to be Black, embracing Black culture, maintaining Black culture, what is Black Culture… in short, it’s all Black, all the time.

Or at least that’s the case for the main character, Heathcliff Huxtable…err I mean Andre Johnson.  Anthony Anderson plays the Bill Cosby character in this Cosby show with guilt that can’t seem to stop thinking about race and its effect on virtually every aspect of his life.  I literally could not keep track of the number of stereotypes that this show…not skewered like you would think, but embraced. The main character is desperate to get his family playing basketball, eating fried chicken, you name it.

The lesson here is that assimilation to middle class values is bad, and “keeping it real” is good.  But maybe that’s just my white privilege talking.  Could this really be a positive uplifting show that I can’t see because of my privilege?  If so, how do I “check my privilege” in order to understand the true intent?

After typing into Google, “Am I racist for thinking the new show Black-ish is racist?”  I did find there was an actual Change.org petition requesting the show be dropped from the fall schedule because…it’s racist.  So I’m not alone on that.  But being racist isn’t even the worst sin this show commits.

It’s not funny.

Based on the pilot episode, the laughs were pretty sparse, and by sparse, I mean I didn’t laugh once, although maybe I missed something since I was constantly checking the clock.  If the show had been racist and funny, this would have been a totally different review. Some of the stuff that white people like is Black comedians playing up Black stereotypes.  Oh, how white people like that!  But for a show in which the main character wants to base his life on a racist parody of Black life you would think there would be laughs.

So I cannot give this show my much coveted thumbs up. There might be a Black audience for this show, and maybe it could find a second life on BET, but I don’t think that ABC is going to be keeping this.

 

Quickie Fall Reviews: Gotham

Gotham

Like any serious professional middle aged man, I’m a big fan of Batman, but I was skeptical about Fox’s new show Gotham. A Batman show without Batman, set in a crime riddled, corrupt city.  It sounds like New York City in the 1970’s.  In fact, the show sounds like Serpico, minus the villain origin stories.  Anyone expecting superhero antics might be disappointed, at least based on the pilot episode that I watched.

However, knowing all of that going in, I was not disappointed.  Anyone familiar with Batman can guess the broad outlines of the pilot.  New Detective James Gordon finds himself investigating the murders of noted city philanthropists and multimillionaires Thomas and Martha Wayne.  The crime, an armed robbery gone wrong (or was it?) leaves behind an orphaned Bruce who witnesses the murder of his parents.  Hmm, that can’t affect the mental health and psyche of a small child can it?  Future history says yes, but this show isn’t concerned about the future.  Set in the ever present now, it’s dealing with the gritty life in the big city; Law & Order: Gotham.

The Wayne murder case seems to wrap up fairly easily; yep you guessed it, too easy.  There is clearly more going on than a simple street crime, and the show not only sets up the murder as the gateway to an even larger mystery, but lays out several different plot paths to be explored, such as the relationship between Gordon’s fiancée Barbara and Detective Montoya. Of course again, like any serious professional person, I have a pretty good guess what the secret is that Barbara and Montoya are keeping, but no point in dropping spoilers.

So not Batman, but James Gordon, played by earnest looking Ben McKenzie, makes for a pretty good heroic cop.  With a crooked partner in tow, we’ll see what sort of price Gordon may have to pay for being the lone honest cop.  Maybe I ought to re-watch Serpico.

From Dusk till Dawn: The Series

“The film was the short story, the series is the novel.”     Robert Rodriquez

 

That quote from Robert Rodriquez is probably the best answer to the question, why make a TV show from the movie From Dusk till Dawn.  The movie, a combination gangster-vampire-martial arts film, had a great cast and as horror movies go, was pretty entertaining.  But I wouldn’t have thought it was ripe material for a TV series.  And I should say, although making TV from movies is a practice going back almost since the dawn of television, its unusual when the TV series takes the movie plot and stretches it out over 10 to 13 episodes.  It’s a much fuller retelling with more detail, more back story, more characters, in fact, more everything.

I was first clued in on this by a post on another blog promoting the show.  The show runs on the El Rey Network, which I confess I’d never heard of.  I did a little research and found out it was a new cable network started by Robert Rodriguez that intended to focus on the type of films that Robert Rodriquez liked:  Grind house, Kung Fu, and cult horror flicks.  I’m not sure if there is a market for Rodriquez’s personal preferences, but part of the uniqueness of the movie From Dusk till Dawn is that it combined all three, so who knows.

As for the From Dusk till Dawn TV show:

 

Having seen a couple of episodes already, I have to say the show is fulfilling its promises.  This is a high quality production with a great cast and I love the gradual movement from crooks on the run to the supernatural elements, with a much deeper look at the peculiarities of Mayan Vampires.

So if you actually have El Rey on your local cable provider, I would recommend giving this show a look.  They are having a back to back marathon of the show starting with the pilot on April 30th, so it’s not too late to catch up.  Set your DVR and enjoy a Vampire show that pretty much has it all.

 

 

The Lena Dunham Demographic

Lying in bed watching Saturday Night Live last night, imagine my surprise when Lena Dunham was highlighted as the guest host.  Dunham, really?  I thought to myself.  I was curious if the typical SNL viewer even knew who Lena Dunham was.  Star and head writer of the HBO series Girls, it’s hard to gauge how much pop culture cred she has.  Despite the phenomenon of buzz, of which this show has plenty, it is on HBO, which is a limited universe of viewers.  However ratings have gone up.  The show has improved in its current 3rd season from season 2’s average of 632,000 viewers to 1.1 million for season three.

Why is this important?  I have no idea, and that’s part of the fascination I suppose.  Lena Dunham and her show would normally have been something that would never have come to my attention.  She is a millennial writing a show about millennials for millennials.  As either a tail end baby boomer or post boomer, however you want to count it; I should have no interest in this group.  And I don’t.  That is the Pajama Boy generation.

But when Girls premiered in 2012, my universe of blogs that I read, that generally lean right, blew up about the show.  I could not figure out what the interest was from the right side of the aisle. So I set aside time to watch the first season.

My first observation, which apparently is the same as virtually everyone else’s is, what’s up with all the nudity?  Of course there has been so much written about the nudity on that show it’s pointless for me to rehash it (although that’s a tricky search string if you want to Google it), since I share some of the criticism of the show’s nudity.   But much of that criticism seems to be mean spirited.  As if the criticism is being used as a way to insult Lena Dunham on the sly. I mean, how often do you hear TV critics berate a show and its star because the show has too much nudity?  In fact, in a rather well publicized incident in January, during a panel discussion a TV critic made a comment critical of the amount of nudity on the show.  Of course TV critics are not complaining about the nudity of other premium cable shows, just this one, since Dunham is pudgy and covered with some fairly hideous back and arm tattoos.  When people constantly tell you that they hate seeing you nude, that’s gotta sting.

On last night’s SNL, the over the top nudity was mocked in one of the few funny skits of the episode.

My second and frankly my last observation on the show are the incredible self absorption and narcissism of the characters.  To me, virtually all of the characters are unlikable.  And honestly, I can’t tell if Dunham is writing the characters that way because she is mocking her generation, or if it’s because she is so inculcated into the introspection of her generation she can’t see what horrible human beings they appear to be on the screen.  Then again, to another millennial, these characters may seem perfectly normal.  So after watching the first season of the show, I could judge that I found the show interesting, but totally devoid of entertainment.  I was interested in why the characters were presented the way they were, and why lines were written a certain way, but I could care less about the characters.

The only way these horrible creatures could be redeemed would be if there was a mash up with some other show.  I would like see all of the Girls characters on The Walking Dead.  A one episode special in which they all suddenly had to deal with real survival issues rather than texting on their phones would give me the closure I crave.  None would survive the episode of course.  Now that’s entertainment!

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What I Watched Last Summer

I didn’t spend the summer traveling around the world.  I neither toured the Grand Canyon, getting lost while chasing an Indian kid, nor did I go to Hawaii and find an old Tiki idol and get cursed.

But I did watch television.

Back in, what is euphemistically called,” the day,” there was one television season.  It started in the fall, and ended in the spring.  And as a kid, you were expected to go play outside all summer because what else were you going to do, watch reruns?  But now, the new shows never end.  There are at least three TV watching seasons now, the traditional fall season, the mid season replacement, beginning in January through February, and of course summer.  With cable, there is never a time when there isn’t a run of new shows.  So this summer, I gave two summer shows a try.

Siberia

Although this show has been described as a mocumentary; that’s not really accurate.  It would be fairer to say that this is a faux reality show that gradually turns into something like a thriller, and it could probably be said to go in other directions. The design, music, first person filming, and graphics are all that of a typical reality show.  Sitting down watching the first episode, if no one told you that this was anything other than the normal, run of the mill reality show, you would have no reason to think otherwise.

That fades quickly as the series move on.  From a survival contest in the Siberian wilderness, the show gradually comes more urgent as odd things happen and the contestants aren’t sure if they are being messed with by the producers or if there is something else going on.  Eventually the show’s production camp is discovered abandoned with all the signs of an attack.  The “button” that lets you quit the show and call for transportation out of the area?  Not only does it not work, it was never hooked up in the first place.

Curiouser and curiouser as they say.

It would be giving away to much to say much more, other than the show looks like it could go in several directions, a thriller, a science fiction tale, or something of the supernatural, however don’t expect all, or even most of the questions to be answered by the season one finale.  So whether this show is worth jumping on depends on whether the show is renewed.  Right now, that doesn’t look likely.  But stay tuned.  If the show does get renewed, it’s worth giving a look.

Under The Dome

I’ve not read Stephen King in ages, so I have not read the book this show was based on.  That was probably for the best given previous attempts to translate King’s works to both the big and small screen. Still this show was mildly entertaining, although too kid-heavy, as King’s works tend to be.  I doubt kids are drawn to shows that have kids in them unless the show is about kids, like the shows on the Nickelodeon or Disney.

The show has all the familiar King tropes; only the kids know what’s really going on, crooked ministers and a total misunderstanding of  actual human behavior. In one episode, the evil town councilman “Big” Jim Rennie (Dean Norris) manages to talk virtually the entire town to turn in their guns.  During a time when food, water, and medicine are in short supply, and the police are seriously undermanned, the last thing people would be willing to do is line up and meekly turn in their guns so the town councilman can store them at his house.  Not even people in Maine would do that.

The town councilman character is supposed to be based on Dick Cheney, but knowing that from the beginning of the show, I didn’t see any comparisons between Dick Cheney and Rennie.  I don’t know what they are supposed to be other than Rennie is evil, and I’m sure per King’s thinking Cheney is evil… a thin reed to base a character on.  Frankly, if I was in a town trapped under a Dome, I wouldn’t mind a Dick Cheney there.  At least he wouldn’t try to take my guns.

King’s total ignorance and/or hatred of religion continues in this series in the same vein has many of his other works.  The minister is not only crazy, but he’s involved in some crazy drug manufacturing scheme with the town councilman.  Unlike Breaking Bad, which shows step by step how a good man can go bad, the minister starts off as both crazy and bad, and therefore just doesn’t seem realistic. As was pointed out on the Lion of the Blogosphere blog, the lack of religion on the show seems quite a contrast to an actual small town in the United States. A dome descends on a typical small town USA, and no one thinks there are any religious implications to that, nor do they even think about going to church or seeking some sort of spiritual guidance.  It takes almost the entire first season before that occurs to the townspeople. There may be an atheistic small town or two somewhere in America, but I doubt there common enough for the town’s strange behavior to seem normal to a regular viewing audience.

So there is much to critique on this show, but when it comes back next summer, I’ll probably watch it.

Hey, I want to see who made the dome!

Elementary Is Holmes

When I reviewed BBC’s Sherlock last year, I noted that CBS was planning its own rip-off version of the Sherlock Holmes character, seemingly to ride on the success of the BBC version.  After watching the first season of Elementary, which concluded with a two hour season finale last week, I’m glad I waited to do a review of the show, since my conclusions now are vastly different from the ones that I would have drawn when the show was just a few episodes into its freshman season.

The set up of the show is that Sherlock Holmes lives in New York City (yes he’s still British), while recovering from a stint in rehab after crashing from a serious heroin addiction problem.  Dr Joan Watson is hired by Holmes’s off screen aloof and distant father to be his sober companion, to assist in Holmes’s recovery.  As part of her job she moves in with Holmes and follows him around to make sure he doesn’t relapse.  From that starting point, Holmes resumes his relationship with the NYPD as “consulting detective;” similar to the position he held in London with Scotland Yard.

After watching the first couple of episodes, my feelings toward the show was that it was a well crafted TV show, well done in the sense that CBS has long experience with putting together solid television programming, with solid leads in the roles, but that it wasn’t Sherlock Holmes.  Although the Holmes stories are the template of the eccentric detective and side kick, which have proliferated on television since the beginning of the TV era, those shows were not Sherlock Holmes stories.  Psych is a good solid show with witty wordplay and a humorous bent about an eccentric genius detective and his down to earth side kick that helps keep him grounded.  Monk was a good solid show with light fun stories about an eccentric detective and a down to earth side kick… well, you get the idea.  It’s a common TV template that’s been replicated over and over for years; with various degrees of success.

That was my initial conclusion.  Elementary was a good solid show, but there was no need for the characters to be named Holmes and Watson.  They could have any names and it wouldn’t have mattered to the show.

Until it mattered.

The last half of the season very slowly began to explore the reasons for Holmes’s spiraling drug abuse, the murder of his one true love, Irene Adler, and Holmes inability to solve her murder.  In the episode, “M” Holmes confronts murders done in almost identical matter to the one that killed Irene Adler and revealing whom may be ultimately responsible, Moriarty.  From this point, the shows seem a bit less stand alone adventures and more interlinked stories that eventually form a story arc leading to a fantastic and fulfilling season finale.  All of the pieces finally fit.

So that’s why I’m glad I waited to review the show.  It turned out to be much more than I initially thought, and even if CBS is trying to ride the coattails of Sherlock, since it leads to a quality show that deserves to be Holmes in its own right, who cares?

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If Christopher Nolan Did Green Arrow…

…you might get something very similar to the CW’s new Arrow.  It’s not surprising that the new show should take a similar path.  Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman was hugely successful, both critically, and financially.  Batman, the Frank Miller inspired version; the obsessed, little-bit psychotic vigilante, fighting his own demons as much as bad guys, translated well onto the screen.  So if you were looking for another DC superhero property to give the same treatment to, there probably isn’t a better choice than the Green Arrow.

The show looks good on the screen, although the foyer of the Queen mansion looks suspiciously like the one in Lex Luthor’s transplanted castle in Smallville.  As much as I enjoy the miracle of CGI and its ability to bring anything that you can imagine to the screen, there is nothing like good old fashioned stunts.  The pilot has lead actor Stephen Amell demonstrating some fairly impressive parkour skills and in fact Amell did train in parkour to prepare for this role, although many of the stunts are done by stunt doubles.  It’s a smooth enough transition that I can’t tell the difference though.  I was watching and it looked like Amell did all of the parkour stunts.

As originally portrayed in the comics, Oliver Queen was a millionaire playboy who also dabbled in crime fighting as the Green Arrow.  He was an expert archer, acquiring those skills while stranded on an island.  His stock in trade was trick arrows that could perform assorted functions.  He was Batman, without the compelling reason to be a Batman.  Eventually the comics provided a reason, having Queen lose his fortune and discovering the living is a lot harder without lots of money to fall back on.  Green Arrow becomes a crusader for social justice as well as the old fashioned kind.

In Arrow, the CW takes those basics and tries to re-imagine a much grittier, edgier version; a Green Arrow to match the edgier Dark Knight version of Batman.  As the pilot episode opens, Oliver Queen is rescued from his island prison after being missing and presumed dead for 5 years.  However this Oliver has a specific agenda, that’s partially revealed in flashbacks to the sinking of his yacht and the death of his father.  If you’ve not seen pilot, I won’t spoil it other than to say the death of his father gives him a very specific list of wrongs to be righted.

This Oliver Queen is rather morally ambiguous.  Is he a good guy?  It’s not so clear cut, and it looks like the show intends to draw that out.  The outing he was on when his yacht sank has him bringing along his then current girlfriend’s sister for a little cheat-o-rama. That girlfriend, Laurel Lance, despises him for her sister’s death although their futures may be linked since careful comic book readers will note that Laurel Lance is the future Black Canary, Green Arrow’s long time girlfriend in the comics.  But cheating on a girlfriend isn’t that edgy or gritty; killing a kidnapper who is helpless is.

In most superhero sagas, guns are never used and killing is strictly forbidden.  However for this show, we have a superhero that does kill, not in self defense, but to protect his secrets.  That ups the ante in the gritty and edgy department.  Without the normal limitations of the superhero genre, who knows where this show will go?

Weaved into the plot is more potential “drama” than you can shake a stick at.  His kid sister is using drugs, there is a new stepfather, and mommy dearest isn’t exactly the June Cleaver type; she has secrets of her own.  Not to mention the local police detective is the father of both Laurel Lance and the sister who died when the Queen yacht sank.  Guess who he blames for his daughter’s death?

And for that, I’m enthusiastic about this take on the Green Arrow story.  Yes, I realize there is the potential to go too far; turning this version of Green Arrow from less like an edgy Batman and more like a rich Dexter.  That would be a mistake, and hopefully the producers will put the brakes on any mass murder spree by a DC superhero.

Still, I like what I see so far and am willing to give this show some long rope to see where it goes.

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