Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 2): No Ordinary Family

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 8, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Today, we continue with my mid-year review of the new fall television season. Back in early September, I listed several new shows from
this current fall TV season that I planned to watch. Yesterday I wrote about Outsourced, a new comedy series that surprised me by exceeding almost every expectation I had, and next time I’ll write about Terriers, a recently-cancelled series which more than met every high expectation I might have had for it. Today however I’m writing about No Ordinary Family, a sci-fi/comedy/drama which despite its imaginative premise and talented cast has disappointingly fallen well below my expectations.

ABC's No Ordinary Family
In No Ordinary Family (ABC, CTV), we meet an average and mildly dysfunctional American family that survives a plane crash in the Amazon rainforest and emerges with superpowers. Prior to the crash, the Powells were drifting apart: the parents were communicating less and less with one another and with their two high-school age kids. All of this however begins to change after the plane crash. In fact, what becomes quickly apparent is that these new powers seem designed to fill in the gaps in their personalities, bolstering them in precisely the ways that would fix their individual weaknesses. And so Stephanie, a wife and mother (Julie Benz) who works long hours and can’t find time to spend with her family, is given the gift of super-speed; Jim, a husband and father (Michael Chiklis) whose career choices have left him feeling emasculated, develops super-strength and near physical invulnerability; Daphne (Kay Panabaker), a typically self-involved teenage girl who rarely looks up from her cell phone, finds herself able to read minds; J.J., a teen boy (Jimmy Bennett) who struggles in school because of an undiagnosed learning disability, is given vast intuitive intelligence, and so on. While on paper this may seem to promise a nice poetic balance for the series, it is this initial decision that leads the series to fall flat from a dramatic standpoint.  We are introduced, albeit for about 5 minutes, to a family with real issues that most viewers can identify with, but then just as quickly the show cheats both the characters and the viewers of any genuine engagement with any real, human struggles, inadvertently undercutting much of the potential emotional realism of its stories and characterizations.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 1): Outsourced

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 7, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

NBC's Outsourced
At the beginning of September, I looked ahead at this current fall TV season, singling out a handful of new shows that had grabbed my attention. As the halfway point of the 2010-2011 television season approaches, it seems only appropriate that I let you know how those expectations worked out for me.  Since I’ve already written at length about AMC’s The Walking Dead and my fellow critic David Churchill has weighed in on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, over the my next few posts,  I’ll be returning to three of those shows: Terriers (FX), which rose admirably to meet my expectations; No Ordinary Family (ABC), which has fallen consistently short of them; and Outsourced (NBC), which far exceeded any limited expectations I might have had. While to my profound disappointment, FX announced yesterday that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers, both No Ordinary Family and Outsourced have already been picked up for second seasons. First up: NBC’s Outsourced.

Outsourced (NBC)

Ben Rappaport as Todd
While the 2009 season introduced three of my favourite current sitcoms—Community (NBC), Modern Family (ABC), and the unfortunately-titled but somehow wonderful Couger Town (ABC)—the 2010 season has been an utter disappointment comedy-wise. With one exception, I haven’t added any new sitcoms to my ‘watch’ list this year. And that one exception is Outsourced.  Based on John Jeffcoat’s well-received 2006 indie romantic comedy of the same name and set in Mumbai (but filmed on a lot in L.A.), Outsourced is NBC’s fish-out-of-water/workplace comedy, airing on Global in Canada. Ben Rappaport plays Todd, a 25-year-old Kansas City native sent to India to run a call centre for an American novelties company. I confess that I initially tuned into Outsourced with a kind of morbid curiosity. The advance press and promos for the show make it look like a train-wreck: clumsy, unfunny, and probably culturally offensive to boot. Coming to the show with these expectations, I was surprised to find a consistently funny, well-written show, with likeable actors and often touchingly human situations.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Misfits: I Don’t Think We’re in Smallville Anymore

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 23, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Two weeks ago, Misfits began its much anticipated second season. When the show premiered last fall in the UK on Channel 4, it was nothing short of a phenomenon. This past June Misfits surprised everyone, including the show’s young stars, when it won the BAFTA for Best Drama, beating out BBC favourites Spooks (aka MI-5 in North America), Being Human, and Jimmy McGovern’s exquisitely powerful The Street. Part teen drama, part science fiction, part inner-city portrait, the premise of the show is deceptively familiar: five young delinquents suddenly find themselves with superpowers. We’ve all seen comparable stories before, be it on Smallville, Heroes, The X-Men, or more recently, this season’s No Ordinary Family on ABC. And while on paper Misfits might bear a passing resemblance to these more conventional offerings it has very little in common with any of them. The series is intelligent, darkly comic, intensely suspenseful, and always extraordinarily fun. Think of it as Heroes meets The Breakfast Club, with a large dash of Trainspotting.

Set against a grey, urban landscape peppered with alienated youth, decaying infrastructure, and economic despair, Misfits is, ironically, more grounded in reality than many other less fantastical shows. The show’s writing is sharp and hilarious, invariably profane, and refreshingly unadorned. (Series creator Howard Overman is credited with penning every one of the first season’s 6 episodes and it looks as if the same will be true for the current season.) The five young actors—largely unknown before they were cast in the show—don’t have the cheek-bones, jarring athletic builds, and model good looks that populate what passes for teen dramas on American television, but they are consistently superb in their roles. The charisma of Robert Sheehan, the young Irish actor who plays Nathan on the series, could carry the show on its own, but each of our ‘heroes’ is a well-drawn and profoundly human character.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Walking Dead: Zombies Matter Here

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 9, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Vampires might get all the good press, but the fact is that zombies have also been enjoying a renaissance of late. There have never been so many quality zombie films: beginning with the phenomenal success of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2003, Edgar Wright’s riotous Shaun of the Dead in 2004, the triumphant return of zombie-auteur George Romero with Land of the Dead in 2005, and Andrew Currie’s biting satire Fido in 2006. In the book stores, we’ve got Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006). (The film adaptation of the latter is now in pre-production, with Brad Pitt in the lead role.) But there has always been one realm the zombies have failed to successfully (de)populate: the small screen. With the Halloween premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the zombies have finally come to our living rooms.

Last year, AMC retired its original motto “TV for Movie People” and introduced its current slogan, “Story Matters Here.” In the 90-minute pilot of The Walking Dead, both principles are in full effect. Developed for television by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s long-running black-and-white comic series of the same name, The Walking Dead is set in the weeks after a zombie apocalypse decimates the human population. While it is unclear how much the show will be following the plot of the comic series (now in its seventh year), its writer Robert Kirkland is on-board as a writer for this first season. Darabont himself wrote and directed the first episode, and it is a masterpiece of restrained storytelling. True to the comic book source material, Darabont lets the visuals tell the story. The early scenes are given hardly any incidental music, and long stretches of the first episode pass without a word of dialogue. This slow, cinematic build-up—as eerie as it is suspenseful—lets the landscape reveal itself, both to the viewer and to our lead character, on its own terms. Check your zombie expectations at the door: there are no cheap scares, no cartoonish violence, and no pounding music. The Walking Dead is a show about character and story: this is a story about the living, not the dead.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Soap: The Granddaddy of Continuity Comedy

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 27, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

In this age of DVD box sets, Youtube, and Hulu, television fans finally have full and immediate access to their favourite TV series, even ones that have been off the air for decades. As good as current television often is, sometimes the most satisfying viewing can come from settling in front of the TV, or computer, and immersing yourself in a classic series. Last week, frustrated by the lack of innovation in this fall season’s new sitcoms (and with all due respect to the continuing efforts of William Shatner), I pulled a much-loved series off the shelf and looked back at it, for the first time in decades. The series that caught my eye this time was Soap, which aired on ABC from 1977-81.

Soap was prime time television’s first serial comedy. The brainchild of the production team of Susan Harris, Paul Witt, and Tony Thomas (perhaps most famous for creating the immensely successful Golden Girls in the 80s), Soap was a parody of daytime soap operas which wove together the serialized and often sensationalized narrative of a soap with the conventions of a weekly situation comedy. The result was like nothing television had ever seen before, and quite frankly, since.  I have always remembered the show fondly but, having watched it mainly as a kid, few but the most exaggerated details of it remained in my memory. What I recalled were the over-the-top characters, the zany situations, and, well to be honest, the ventriloquist dummy. What has surprised me in the past week has been the brilliant writing, the stunning comedic acting, and the depth and humanity of all of its characters. Some sitcoms don’t age well, while others become more impressive even decades after their original run. The best of them fall into two camps: groundbreaking ones which change the genre forever, thereby setting the stage for the success of many subsequent series, and other shows which are so startlingly original that they have produced no real successors. Norman Lear’s All in the Family (1971-79) falls firmly in the latter camp: though the show is largely credited for the sudden boom in ethnic sitcoms of the 70s, none ever approached the stark political frankness of the show that inspired them. Even today, almost 40 years later, any episode from the first season of All in the Family can leave a contemporary television viewer speechless in terms of the bluntness and honesty of its political content. I’m now convinced that Soap, despite its disarming lack of pretension and apparently narrow mandate, falls into that same category.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life After Dr. Horrible: A Rough Guide to Original Web Programming

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 14, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The story goes like this: it was late December 2007 in Hollywood, and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) was walking the picket line during the 100-day WGA writers’ strike when he began to think about how he could bypass the studios and networks altogether and self-produce a TV show which could be delivered directly to his fans. Walking the line with him was Felicia Day, an actor/writer who Joss knew from the 7th season of Buffy. At the time she was halfway through the first season of her own web series, The Guild, which had become particularly successful. Inspired by her experience, Joss’ little idea grew more and more ambitious. And thus the world’s first Internet musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, was born.

Together with his younger brothers, screenwriters Zack (now writing Rubicon) and Jed, and Jed’s then-fiancée (and now wife) Maurissa Tancharoen, the musical and the acting talents of Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory), and Felicia Day herself, Whedon filmed Dr. Horrible in just four days, with its cast and many of its crew working for free. With no marketing budget to speak of, originally posted online (in three, 14-minute acts) for free download and subsequently going on sale on iTunes and as a DVD, Dr. Horrible was a critical and commercial success by any standard. For media gurus, the summer of 2008 was indeed the season of Dr. Horrible. That fall, despite never having been broadcast on any network, it would go on to win an Emmy, and the “Direct-to-Web Supervillain Musical” was even named #15 in Time Magazine’s ‘Top 50 Inventions of 2008’. Television, it seemed, would never be the same. Here’s how the story was being told: before Dr. Horrible, the major studios and networks could only see the Internet either as a vast delivery mechanism for their large and growing back catalogue of previously produced content or for web tie-ins for established series. The idea of studios producing new, original content for the web simply wasn’t on the table—more than enough money could be made by offering older and recent shows on sites like Hulu, Youtube, and on network websites. (In fact, this lucrative money stream—the majority of which never made its way back to these shows’ writers and creators—was one of the main sticking points leading to WGA strike in 2007.) But now, with Dr. Horrible leading the way, the Internet was suddenly revealed to be a wide-open landscape rich in creative and commercial potential.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Playing War: The Wooden Gun (1979)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 10, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Part coming of age drama, part political allegory, and part social commentary, Ilan Moshenson’s The Wooden Gun (Roveh Huliot in Hebrew) is a small gem. Set in Tel Aviv in 1950, it tells the story of a juvenile gang war between two small groups of adolescent boys. Against the backdrop of Israel’s first years, the story it tells is far vaster and much richer than it may first appear. With a small budget and primarily adolescent casts, this 1979 Israeli feature also dramatizes the striking differences between these young first-generation Israelis and their European-born parents, most of whom are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust. Raised on the glories of war, soldiers’ honour, and nationalism, the boys have little sympathy for or understanding of the world that their families left behind in coming to the newly-created State of Israel. Between the distracted silence of parents and the unthinking (and often confusing) idealism of educators, the children don’t appreciate the dangers of real violence. The boys' world is no larger than the battlefields of the schoolyards and streets of their small neighbourhood, and the impotent efforts of their parents and teachers to contain their escalating violent activities only serve to isolate the boys all the more from the older generation. An early scene in the film offers a perfect snapshot of this confusion of values: their teacher, a war veteran himself, pauses to briefly admonish Yoni for his continued fighting with his peers, then turns without a beat and leads the rest of the students on a charge up the hill of a former battlefield, rat-tat-tatting imaginary machine guns at an invisible enemy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Big C Gets a C+

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 20, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

It is no longer necessary to make the point that television is currently a lot better than film. TV series are drawing not only A-list actors (Glenn Close and William Hurt on Damages, Sally Field in Brothers and Sisters, Holly Hunter on Saving Grace, to list just a few), but also A-list directors (Agnieszka Holland has directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, and most recently, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of the much-anticipated Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night). Television has come a long way, and TV viewers are richer for it.

To a large degree, the increasing richness of television can be traced to its overall honesty – television’s willingness to show us things which are uncomfortable or ugly, and its ability to illuminate the details which make the lives of our favourite characters so intriguing. But there are shows with all the right ambition, shows which, despite their potential and intriguing subject matter, fail to live up to their own promise. The Big C is one of these shows.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Rough Guide to New TV: Fall 2010 Edition

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 4, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

I have always welcomed the beginning of September with a real tinge of excitement. As a kid, I learned quickly that September didn’t just mean going back to school: it also promised the new fall television season. At the centre of this excitement would be TV Guide’s special Fall Preview edition, its digest-sized volume extra-thick with glossy photos and enthusiastic descriptions of every new upcoming network program of the year. The photos that accompanied the shows followed a strict pattern: sitcoms all smiles or fists raised in faux conflict, cop dramas all scowls and intensity, prime-time soaps smouldering sideways glances. And I loved it all—eagerly turning back the corners of the pages of shows I would plan to watch. On those pages, all shows were equal—all promise and hope, for that spare moment, before the first episode aired.

Perhaps that palpable aura of possibility is why (no doubt to my mother’s dismay) I would dutifully collect the Fall Previews, year after year—taking care to keep them from the trash bin as the week came to end. By the time I left for university, I probably had a dozen years’ worth tucked away on the top shelf of my closet. I have no idea where my small collection ultimately ended up, but I wish that I could flip through some of those pages now—take another glimpse into a world where, for a brief instant, The Charmings and Manimal stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Cheers and Hill Street Blues.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Justified: Portrait of a 21st Century Lawman

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 22, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

There are some TV shows that come out of the gate with such polish and promise that from the very first episode you know you’re watching something special. Justified is one of those shows. Based on Elmore Leonard’s 2002 short story “Fire in the Hole,” Justified premiered on the FX network on March 16th, ran for 13 episodes, and ended with an explosive season finale on June 8th. Already, it's shaping up to be one of FX’s most consistently solid series since The Shield. A second season has been ordered for 2011. (It airs on Super Channel HD in Canada.)

The show follows Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) from Miami back to Harlan, the rural Eastern Kentucky coal-mining town where he grew up. On the heels of a much-publicized shooting incident, Givens reluctantly leaves behind investigations of international drug cartels to face the problems and people he happily left years earlier. Though the story is set firmly in 2010, when we first see Olyphant, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish Givens from Sheriff Seth Bullock, the character he played for three seasons on David Milch’s Deadwood on HBO: they’re both men with well-defined, albeit personal, codes of justice, men who don’t draw their guns unless they intend to use them. Wearing a white Stetson above the stoic and squinting expression of an old West lawman, Givens is a man out of time, or more precisely, a man out of genre. From the Emmy-nominated song playing over the credits (a track by Gangstagrass, a New York-based band known for a unique brand of bluegrass/hip-hop fusion), the tone is set. The show is itself a mash-up—the old West with crystal meth and Smartphones, the story of a 19th century man with a 21st century life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Scott Pilgrim' Levels Up

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 13, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Imagine a world which is organized by the logic of video-games and comics. What if life’s painful social situations were staged as epic confrontations between good and evil? Also, while you’re at it, imagine you play bass in an unambitious garage band, live in a low-rent bachelor apartment, and have an unconscious littered with low-resolution exiles from old Nintendo games.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opens theatres everywhere today, and nowhere (outside of comic conventions perhaps) is it more highly anticipated than here in Toronto. Based on Toronto native Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is a special kind of triumph. Love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it before. With its extended dream sequences, balletic fight sequences, and sometimes breakneck pacing, the film is a kinetic roller-coaster ride. The movie is not unlike a Golden Age Hollywood musical—except instead of the characters’ emotions manifesting themselves in song and dance numbers, here they become epic battles to the death.

If you, like me, missed the film’s sneak preview at San Diego’s Comic-Con three weeks ago, seeing it in Toronto is a solid consolation prize. There wasn’t an empty seat at the advance screening I was at Wednesday evening and the room was primed with eager anticipation. When the 8-bit rendition of the Universal Pictures theme rang out, the crowd let out a cheer. No doubt, the film had come to the right place. Whatever its box office numbers,  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a cult classic in the making, and could forever engrave Toronto in the hearts of video gamers and comic book fanatics worldwide.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Four TV Shows You Should Watch With Your Kids

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 10, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Television viewers have never had it so good. In this age of DVDs, digital cable, and iTunes downloads, there is almost no end to what is available. A few weeks ago, I recommended five recently cancelled TV shows that you should definitely watch. Today I turn my attention to a different kind of programming: four quality shows that you should watch with your kids. Popular culture produced for children doesn’t always have a reputation for quality, and Saturday morning shows even less so. But it isn’t all Hannah Montana or The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. As with adult fare, it is usually simply a question of knowing where to look. Each of these shows is perfect for kids 8-12 years old, but they are all worth checking out, with or without child supervision!

All of the shows I discuss below have finished their runs. Although these series were not necessarily cancelled before their time, they may still have passed unnoticed. Children’s programming is often underappreciated, but each of these shows, in their own unique ways, demonstrates the real strengths of television as a storytelling medium. Even when its target audience can’t legally drive, television continues to create cleverly constructed worlds, with fully-defined characters, intelligent dialogue, and compelling stories.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sherlock: The BBC Brings Us Holmes Again

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 20, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the new Holmes and Watson

Every once in a while, a television series comes along and surprises you. Sometimes it’s because a show is so stunningly original that no precedent could have prepared you for it (e.g. HBO’s Carnivale and FOX’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But other times, it’s because a road has been so well-trodden that you go along for the ride, but honestly don’t expect to see anything new there. This past Sunday, BBC One broadcast “A Study in Pink” the first episode of Sherlock, a 21st century re-imagining of the celebrated Arthur Conan Doyle character. Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s The Last Enemy, Creation, The Other Boleyn Girl) stars as the titular Holmes and Watson is played by the more recognizable Martin Freeman (Tim in BBC’s The Office, and Arthur Dent in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The series is the brainchild of Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Jekyll, Coupling) and actor/writer Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who). Moffat has a long history of critical and popular success on the BBC, and it is possible his career has recently reached a new height. In addition to this new series, this past year he took on the helm of BBC’s flagship series, Doctor Who. Given the numerous imaginings of Holmes available on television and film, one might be forgiven for thinking we need a new Sherlock Holmes series as urgently as we need a new brand of vanilla ice cream. Fortunately, this is one instance when that persistent gap between what we believe we need and what we get works decidedly in our favour!

This first run of Sherlock consists of three feature-length episodes, each running 90-minutes. (This coming fall, the series will air in the U.S. on PBS, under the Masterpiece Mystery! banner. It will also air, beginning September 10, on Showcase in Canada.) Set in contemporary London, the show succeeds in bringing familiar and beloved characters firmly into the new century while preserving the magic of the source material. The final result is a show that is funny, suspenseful, and eminently entertaining. Sherlock has something to offer both to those pre-inclined to love it, and those with no familiarity with Sherlock Holmes or the BBC.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking Bad: AMC’s Amorality Tale

As most of the TV-watching universe is waiting patiently for Mad Men to launch its fourth season next Sunday, the third season of AMC’s ‘other show’ has come and gone.

Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth. The show was created by Vince Gilligan (The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen), and, along with Mad Men, it is one of only two original series ever broadcast on AMC. (A third show, the promising conspiracy series, Rubicon, will premiere this August.) After production on its first season was cut short due to the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike, Breaking Bad returned a year later with a sophomore season that took an interesting and likeable TV show and elevated it to one of the best shows on television. Everyone I know who’s watched it has become hooked. But that’s the catch: you’ve got to watch it. And there are many reasons why you probably

First of all, you don’t normally go to AMC for original programming. AMC has only the two shows, both with compressed 13-episode seasons, and they understandably don’t air them at the same time. To watch Breaking Bad, you’ve got to seek it out. And from a distance, it is easy to see why you might not have bothered. It’s a basic cable show about a middle-class school teacher who turns to manufacturing drugs, played by an actor best known for his portrayal of Hal, the father on FOX’s Malcolm in the Middle for 7 seasons. It sounds like a low-estrogen take on Showtime’s Weeds, but without any of the sex appeal. This assessment, while perhaps understandable, could not be more m

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: Not The Worst Movie Ever Made

The Last Airbender, which went into wide release this week, is based on "Avatar: The Last Airbender", an animated series produced by the American cable channel Nickelodeon, and broadcast from 2005-2008. Avatar ran for 61 episodes and three seasons, and it was a critical and popular success, resonating with viewers far beyond the network’s very young demographic. I count myself among those adults who, in the summer of 2008, eagerly awaited its concluding episodes. In January 2007, months before the show`s third season had begun, it was announced that M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Happening) would write, direct, and produce a live-action feature film adaptation. I greeted that announcement with the usual trepidation of one who hears that a beloved novel has been tagged for Hollywood treatment. And so, having been following the film’s production for over 3 years, and putting my creative concerns aside, I walked into the theatre with genuine anticipation. But it wasn’t ‘the new M. Night Shyamalan film’ that I came to see, nor the summer’s next highly-promoted ‘3-D fantasy epic.’ No, I came to see The Last Airbender, the big screen adaptation of a television series that I genuinely love.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Five Cancelled TV Shows You Should Watch

Gone are the days of television producers holding out for that mythical 100th episode in order to guarantee a syndicated afterlife following cancellation. With DVD rentals, Netflix and, On-demand services from your cable provider, and entire cable channels devoted to running and rerunning every old TV show ever produced, no TV show is ever truly gone.

Even so-called failed shows, shows with no ratings and a single season (or half season) run, can have real impact, often years after airing only a few episodes on broadcast TV. Shows like Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, or Joss Whedon’s Firefly can meet untimely ends, but still stick around long enough to find their audiences, sometimes 10 years after their cancellation. Some of these shows were ahead of their time, some were just too idiosyncratic to find their audiences, many were ambitious and brilliant but flawed, and others just aired in the wrong timeslot or on the wrong channel.

Today I’m looking at 5 recent additions to the list of my favourite ‘failed’ shows. I’ll be sticking with shows of 1-hour length, and leave the sitcoms to a future post.

Monday, June 14, 2010

True Blood: Fear and Trembling on the Bayou

Last night, HBO’s True Blood returned from its long sleep. In September 2009, the show about vampires in a small Louisiana town ended its second season on a high, firmly establishing itself as HBO’s most watched series since The Sopranos. The series, Alan Ball’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed and much beloved Six Feet Under (also on HBO), certainly owes some of its popular success to the recent pop cultural vampire phenomenon, but make no mistake: these are not your daughter’s vampires. The show is unabashedly sexual and graphically violent, often at the same time. Everything about it is excessive, and as a result, despite its ratings success, it tends to divide audience and critics alike. 

Set in fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana, the series is based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries, a book series by Charlaine Harris. It’s been a couple of years since vampires have “come out of the coffin” so to speak, and they are struggling as a community with issues of bigotry and integration. Though placing it in the South brought to the fore much of the allegorical weight of those themes, the first season played out mainly like a supernatural whodunit, as the town hunts a serial killer in its midst. Along with the growing mystery, we met our main players: Sookie Stackhouse, a mind-reading bar waitress, played by Anna Paquin; Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a Civil War-era vampire returning to his home town after over a century; Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s randy but slow-witted brother; and Sam Merlotte, the owner of the bar, with thinly-concealed feelings for Sookie and a secret of his own, played by Sam Trammell.

When the show premiered in 2008, I watched the first several episodes largely as a guilty pleasure. Though invariably fun and playfully shocking, it initially suffered poorly in comparison to both the exquisiteness of Ball’s Six Feet Under and to the more emotionally and narratively ambitious TV vampire fare like Joss Whedon’s Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. But by the end of the first season, the show had successfully found itself on its own terms, and its second season played out with renewed focus.