Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Best of Television 2012: Mayan Apocalypse Edition

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 13, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Stephen Colbert's election coverage is just one of many high points of the year in television

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, December typically marks the time when we all reflect on the year that was. But this year, with the Mayan-prophesied end of days just eight days away, we perhaps have more reason than ever to look back. With everyone from the Vatican to NASA remaining resolutely sceptical, many are still counting down to December 21, 2012. (December 21 is also the day that Resident Evil: Retribution comes out on Blu-ray – so clearly portents of doom lurk everywhere!)

But whether or not there will actually be a 2013, the time seems right for me to share all those moments of 2012 that made me grateful to own a television. While the new fall season has a few bright spots (I would include ABC’s musical/drama Nashville in that short list), TV’s very best moments of 2012 were found in its continuing shows. And so, in honour of what may be the last eight days of human existence, here are eight shows (in no particular order) that you may want to check out before our world (perhaps) comes to an explosive end.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Revolution Was Televised: Alan Sepinwall's Take On TV’s New Golden Age

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 6, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

It has become almost cliché in some circles to proclaim that television – American television in particular – has never been better. Quality television is no longer, as it was for decades, confined to BBC adaptations of Jane Austen or Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. In the past fifteen years, television has grown into a genuinely popular art form, finally embracing all of its strengths as a medium: the ability to tell long, complicated stories rich in complex characters, compelling writing, and morally and narratively risky storylines. With new technological innovations (DVDs, Netflix, DirecTV) and the rise of the new business models that came with satellite TV and the ever-expanding cable universe, television is no longer a disposable medium. Shows are produced not only to be watched, but to be re-watched. We used to rent the shows we watched, but now we can literally own them. Television series like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Breaking Bad actually reward our attention, instead of discouraging it. The more you watch these shows, the richer they become. The impact of these shows successes – both artistically and commercially – is being felt across the whole television universe, and that story is far from over. That television has decidedly entered a new Golden Age is apparent to all of us who love the medium – what is less talked about is that TV criticism has grown up just as much in that same period. This new age of television has been paralleled by the rise of new and exciting forms of writing about television – and Alan Sepinwall is among the best of the new breed.

In his new book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, Sepinwall takes on the last fifteen years of television, and promises to tell “the story of that transformation in both the medium and how we saw it, through the prism of the best and/or most important shows of the era.” There are few people as perfectly situated to tell that story as Alan Sepinwall, and the book delivers what he promises and more. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

New from C@L Books – Past Tense, Forever Present: Remembering 9/11
The ramifications of 9/11 are still being felt today. And those ramifications will continue to be felt for generations to come. Everyone's world changed irrevocably on that morning. Eleven years later wars are still being fought as a result and nut cases who think it was an inside job continue to spout their poison. Twenty-five, fifty, one hundred years from now, someone will still be looking at the historical and political meaning of this tragedy.

Critics at Large (under the imprint C@L Books) is thrilled to announce the publication is our very first e-book single: Past Tense, Forever Present: Remembering 9/11. Edited by David Churchill, and with original water colours by Andrew Dupuis illustrating the collection's evocative themes, the book includes seven newly revised versions of essays first published on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and four entirely new pieces written specifically for this publication.

These eleven essays look at 9/11 from a cultural perspective, examining its impact on the arts, social media, and on our lives as arts journalists caught up in the horrible calamity of that day.

Authors include: David Churchill, Mark Clamen, John Corcelli, Kevin Courrier, Susan Green, Deirdre Kelly, Mari-Beth Slade, Andrew Dupuis, David Kidney, Shlomo Schwartzberg, and Steve Vineberg.

The e-book is now available on Amazon for immediate download to Kindle, and will soon be available on Kobo. Both are priced at only 99 cents.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

“We Interrupt This Commercial To Bring You Your Regularly Scheduled Program”

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 20, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Corn flakes, sliced peaches, and Emilio Estevez in Repo Man

Reading Catharine Charlesworth’s recent review of Wreck-It Ralph on Critics at Large got me thinking about the remarkable way that brands and commercial products have so effectively permeated our lives – becoming so much a part of who we are, and the stories we tell about ourselves. For some, this may be a kind of tragedy, but I don’t really think it is. The degree to which popular culture and personal identity has become bound up in particular brands and products isn’t in itself something to mourn or something to embrace with any enthusiasm, but it is a reflection of our particular moment of modernity. Apple versus PC, Coke versus Pepsi, iPhone versus Android – these choices genuinely matter to many people, and running from it in the popular representations of our reality only serves to make those representations less, well, representative.

Catharine notes, rightly I think, that the integration of certain real video games into Wreck-It Ralph seems to genuinely add to the universe it portrays, and even gives real entertainment value to the viewers, who (like anyone) are always delighted to see themselves, and their interests, reflected back to them in the movies and television shows they watch. Of course, that isn’t the only reason why we are seeing more and more product placement (what is often more politely now called “brand integration”) in our TV shows and movies, but nonetheless it is worth pointing out that there are still better and worse ways of going about it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Rabbi’s Cat: Conjuring Joann Sfar’s Imagined Memories of Algeria

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 6, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene from The Rabbi's Cat

With over a hundred separate titles since he first began publishing nearly 20 years ago, Joann Sfar is one of France’s most prolific graphic novelists. His topics range from the historical to the fantastic, but his most compelling comics remain those that draw on his Jewish heritage, and his mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic background. Many of those titles have been translated into English: all 5 volumes of The Rabbi’s Cat, as well as Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East (the first of a three-part series), and Vampire Loves. A recent documentary currently making the festival circuit, Joann Sfar Draws from Memory, offers a glimpse into the mind and personality of a remarkable artist, and an extremely charismatic individual. Still most famous for his comics, Sfar has more recently turned to filmmaking. In 2010, he wrote and directed a uniquely imagined biopic of Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which mixes fact and fantasy to paint a complex and compelling portrait of one of the most controversial figures of French popular music. Although the movie was not an adaptation of a graphic novel, its production coincided with the publication of Sfar’s sprawling 450-page comic homage to the singer/songwriter, and Sfar’s surrealist-inspired visual eye is evident in almost every frame of the film. In 2011, The Rabbi’s Cat (Le chat du rabbin), Sfar’s film adaptation of his extremely popular series (published in France from 2002-2006, and currently translated into eight languages), was released. It was his second feature film, and it marked the first time he’d attempted to directly translate one of his illustrated narratives onto the big screen.

Despite premiering at Cannes in 2011, and winning the César (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Animated Film back in February, The Rabbi’s Cat simply hasn’t yet received the distribution it deserves in the English-speaking world. An accident, perhaps, of it coming on the scene in the same year as another much better publicized 3-D animated film also set in colonial Africa and based on a French-language comic, also with preternaturally intelligent animals in tow: Tintin, with the full might of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg behind it, certainly guaranteed that it would get most of our attention in 2011, but The Rabbi’s Cat is as different from Tintin, as, well, cats are to dogs.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It’s Mourning in America (Part 2): Matthew Perry’s Go On

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 14, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Matthew Perry stars in Go On, a new comedy series on NBC

“It was a car accident. She was texting. Janie …. was driving – not fast – but at that moment, and it couldn’t wait, she needed to tell me to buy a bag of coffee. So at least it was important.”
             – Ryan King (Matthew Perry), describing his wife’s death in the pilot episode of Go On

Last spring, NBC aired Awake, a fantasy-crime drama with a protagonist struggling with an almost unimaginable loss. As I wrote at the time, Awake’s rich ambitions and complicated narrative technique came as close to anything I’d ever seen on television to telling a sustained story from a mourner’s perspective. One reason was that the fantasy situation itself (its conceit that Det. Britten would effectively alternate one day to the next between two separate realities – one in which his wife had died, and another in which his teenage son had) gave weight and reality to the resistance one often feels in ‘moving on’ after suffering a comparable loss. Though Awake was unfortunately not renewed for a second season, its 13-episode first season still succeeds in telling a powerful, if prematurely abbreviated, story, and it is well worth seeking out.

What was so unique about Awake was that surviving the death of his family member wasn’t simply the situation that set the larger story in motion: it was essentially the substance of the story itself. Though Awake didn’t survive into this new season, it has a surprisingly inheritor in a new series on NBC, in of all things the new Matthew Perry comic vehicle, Go On. In Go On, Perry plays Ryan King, a minor local celebrity with his own sports radio talk show forced against his will into group therapy after the death of his wife Janie, where he finds a mismatched collection of others also trying to live on and survive their own stories of pain and loss. In character-driven sitcoms it is often the details that matter most, and even so early in the season, Go On has exhibited a knack for getting them precisely right. Among the otherwise underwhelming batch of new network comedies this fall, NBC’s Go On is one of the few bright spots.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Vegas, Revolution, and Elementary: Something Old, Something Borrowed, Something New

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 7, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller star in Elementary, a new drama series on CBS

The 2012 fall television season is in full swing – most of the new TV series have premiered and many old favourites are back with new episodes. Back at the beginning of September I have to admit that I was far less excited about the new shows than I have been in many years. Few jumped out at me, and for the first time in a while, there wasn’t a single standout show I was eagerly awaiting (as I had anticipated The Walking Dead and Awake in years past). It seemed like if anything, Fall 2012 was destined to be a season of more-of-the-same: a post-apocalyptic story with conspiracy undertones reminiscent of Lost and Terra Nova, an Americanized Sherlock, at least two Modern Family-inspired sitcoms, a new ode to Justified complete with a gun-toting cowboy/sheriff who plays by own rules, and yet another Matthew Perry comedy!

To my delight and surprise more than a few of these shows have far exceeded my admittedly low expectations. Today I’m looking at three network dramas – Vegas (CBS), Revolution (NBC), and Elementary (CBS) – which, while classic examples of some well-worn television tropes, have so far turned out to be remarkably rich variations on those themes. (Next week, I’ll weigh in similarly on some of the networks’ best new comedy offerings.) 2012 may not be a year for creative risk, but it may turn out to be the year of slow and steady, with more than enough solid network fare to keep you warm throughout the fall.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bullet in the Face: Deranged and Violent, But Terribly Fun

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 14, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Max Williams and Neil Napier in Bullet in the Face, on IFC

The TV universe is full of shows that seem designed to appeal to those who favour hallucination over reality. The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim’s staggeringly long-running Aqua Teen Hunger Force (re-titled in recent seasons as Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1 and this past summer, in its 9th season, as Aqua Something You Know Whatever) certainly seem to have embraced the coveted “too impatient for linear narrative, too stoned to change the channel” demo with some success – but it is rare for a live-action series to go that route. Enter Bullet in the Face: a Canadian-produced noir parody series, created by Alan Spencer and starring former pro hockey player Max Williams alongside veteran actors Eric Roberts and Eddie Izzard, which had its 6-episode first season air in mid-August on IFC in the U.S. and Super Channel in Canada, beginning on September 17th.

Williams plays Gunter Vogler, a German-accented sociopathic mob enforcer whose life takes a sudden turn when he gets shot in the face and wakes to find that an experimental medical procedure has left him wearing the face of a cop he recently killed. It's all part of an insane scheme by Police Commissioner Eva Braden (Jessica Steen) to use Vogler to take down her city's underworld in one fiery swoop. Of course Vogler turns out to be impossible to control and the plan leaves dozens of bodies in its wake, innocent and guilty alike. (A few samples of his general outlook: when his ‘partner’ tells him that the city is being torn apart because of lack of manpower, Vogler retorts “Then use children.” When asked if he ever “gets tired of being so relentlessly evil all the time”, he replies “Of course. That's why I take naps.”) Williams’ crazed energy more than carries the show through its manic plotlines, but Eddie Izzard, as the agoraphobic crime boss Tannhäuser, is given many of the show’s best and most over-the-top lines. (Asked at one point by a lackey to explain why he’s decided to blow up the city’s hospitals, Tannhauser explains that “It's what King Herod would have done.”)

Friday, August 31, 2012

Continuum: The New Politics of Time Travel

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 31, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Rachel Nichols stars in Continuum on Showcase

I’m a sucker for time travel stories. My first favourite film was Terry Gilliam’s wildly surreal Time Bandits: I was taken to see it for my 11th birthday, and can still vividly recall the delight I felt leaving the theatre that afternoon.  And I’m certainly not alone in my enthusiasm. There is something uniquely compelling about the time travel conceit, and there’s a good reason why it remains one of the more popular subjects in science fiction literature, film, and television. Time travel plots are eminently adaptable – they can be ridiculous or grave, simplistic or painfully complex. They can be camp (Time Bandits), philosophical (La Jetée), juvenile (Hot Tub Time Machine), geeky (Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel), or can just plain mess with your head (Primer). From the giddy fun of the Back to the Future trilogy, to the patently movie-of-the-week quality of The Philadelphia Experiment, to the smash and grab Snipes/Stallone vehicle Demolition Man, I have eagerly consumed them all. The Harlan Ellison-authored original Star Trek classic “City on the Edge of Forever” set the standard for me at an early age – somehow covering many of the light and heavy aspects of time travel in one brief hour of television. But when it comes to series television, the results have been more hit and miss. From the Time Bandits-inspired, delightfully cheesy, perhaps rightfully short-lived Voyagers!, to the more human-centred (and often sublime) Quantum Leap almost a decade later,  the too-quickly-cancelled Journeyman on NBC, and the BBC’s magnificent Life on Mars, time travel is a challenging format for a continuing series. And so when Showcase premiered its new science fiction/police drama Continuum in late May 2012, I made sure to tune in.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What’s So Good about Feel-Bad TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 26, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston star in Breaking Bad on AMC

Television has a well-earned reputation for producing escapist fare. But the continuing popularity of shows like Grey's Anatomy, America’s Got Talent, and The Bachelorette doesn’t tell the whole story. Many of the best TV series in the past ten years – a decade of worldwide terror, multiple (and seemingly unending) wars, mortgage crises, and economic decline – are also the most challenging, darkest, and let’s just say it, depressing shows in the history of television.  While Hollywood is overrun with costumed heroes, romantic comedies, and vampire hunting U.S. Presidents, television (cable TV in particular) is taking up the social slack, addressing issues like racism, cancer, AIDS, drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, death, and dying. And its confrontation with these issues has met with both popular and critical success.

Rather than pander to a hypothetical population that wants to leave reality behind, shows like Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Dexter have found big audiences by telling difficult, uncomfortable stories, calling into question old assumptions about why and how people watch television. Notably, while there are few subjects as taboo as cancer, cable TV currently offers two shows with a lead character suffering from the disease: The Big C (Showtime’s comedy starring Laura Linney as a woman recently diagnosed with late stage melanoma), and Breaking Bad, which recently began its fifth and final season on AMC.

If you want to understand the current appeal of Feel-Bad TV, Breaking Bad is perhaps the ideal place to start. The show stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, joins forces with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his former student turned drug dealer, and begins to cook crystal meth. The recipe for Breaking Bad’s success lies in its unflinching realism and its refusal to pull any punches: the very same ingredients which often make the show so difficult to watch are also why it is such compelling viewing. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Batman: The Brave and the Bold – Let Fly the Hammers of Justice!

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 15, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Batman and Plastic Man battle some super-intelligent apes in Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Batman has long been my favourite superhero. And I’m not alone: Hollywood has long favoured the Caped Crusader – giving us a half dozen major motion pictures in the past two decades alone. In five days, the long-awaited conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly intense, philosophical Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, will open in theatres worldwide. But Batman’s life on the small screen has been just as varied. Beginning with the famously campy Adam West series in the mid-sixties, and reaching perhaps its zenith with the classic Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman have been a television staple for more than four decades. Last August, the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold ended its three-season run on the Cartoon Network – but I confess that it was only over the past few weeks that I finally gave the series a real look. And with Nolan’s sure-to-be blockbuster movie waiting in the wings, this is as good a time as any to let you know why you should check it too.

Based on the long-running DC comic series of the same name, The Brave and the Bold is unique among the many Batman titles in that it specifically focuses on Batman teaming up with other heroes of the DC universe. The animated series follows this same mandate, bringing Batman together with one or more other costumed heroes in his famous battle against villainy and evil in all their incarnations. But Batman: The Brave and the Bold (hereafter BtBatB) was unique in another way, in that it controversially marked a return to the lighter, more tongue-in-cheek Batman stories of an earlier generation. It’s brighter in tone, snappier in dialogue, and unapologetically cartoonish in its animation style. And truth be told, in 2008 when I dutifully tuned in for its premiere episode, I hated it. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Newsroom: Aaron Sorkin Speaks Truth to Stupid

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 8, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The Newsroom, on HBO
Jeff Daniels, Dev Patel, Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer in The Newsroom, on HBO

Contains minor spoilers for the first episode of The Newsroom.

Tonight the third episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new workplace drama, airs on HBO, and it pains me to admit that I’m not really looking forward to it. When the series – which is set in the anguished world of TV news production, and boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, and Sam Waterston – premiered two weeks ago, I tuned in with cautious optimism.

On the plus side, the pilot episode marked Sorkin’s return to series television after five long years, since the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip aired on NBC in 2007. On the negative side, well,  Studio 60: a series which, like The Newsroom, came with a great cast (in that case Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford), a promising premise, and great expectations. Sure, the show had intelligent characters, and the mile-a-minute dialogue that Sorkin so brilliantly employed in his two previous critically-acclaimed shows Sports Night and The West Wing, but Studio 60 quickly became bogged down by Sorkin’s own ambitions. By mid-season, the show’s big ideas about America’s so-called “culture wars” began to dwarf the characters and story, and more often than not its speeches felt like Aaron Sorkin debating Aaron Sorkin: staged political dialogues, voiced by Hollywood actors. It was smart, funny, and looked and sounded great, but it grew progressively more tiresome, until I began to look forward to its inevitable cancellation.

But in the years since Studio 60’s cancellation, Sorkin has more than proven he’s still got chops, with three Academy Award-nominated screenplays for Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Social Network (2010) and Moneyball (2011), winning the Oscar for The Social Network.  Hence my tempered expectations for The Newsroom. Unfortunately, my ambivalence was more than validated by the first two (of ten) episodes. In the end, The Newsroom seems to be a kind of beautiful mess – but a mess nonetheless.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Face with a View: Sean Penn and This Must Be the Place

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 23, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page. 

While visiting Paris last August, a particular movie poster kept catching my eye. Nestled incongruously among the myriad of CGI images of Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock (damn the French were excited about that Tintin movie!) was the strikingly large and dour face of Sean Penn. With teased hair, pale skin, lipstick and eyeliner reminiscent of an 80s-era glam rocker, Penn’s heartbreaking countenance was almost impossible to ignore. I was intrigued. I wrote down the movie’s title, This Must Be the Place (suggestively in English even in this French context), and vowed to find out more about it. The thumbnail description that I soon found left me all the more fascinated: Penn, it seemed, was playing an ageing 80s rock star who, upon the death of his father, ends up on a road trip across America in search of a Nazi war criminal. All that, plus an unapologetic nod to perhaps my favourite Talking Heads’ song, and I was hooked. I returned to Toronto soon after, and waited patiently for the film’s North American release. Months passed, and nothing. By the New Year, I’d forgotten about it completely.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when I finally had the chance to see it – and I’ve been talking it up ever since. This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common). The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves. (The film has played widely in France, Italy and the U.K., but as far as I can tell it hasn’t yet had any theatrical play in the U.S. or Canada. As of today, it certainly hasn’t screened in Toronto.) With the visual punch of Down by Law, and the quirky dialogue, characters and situations of Mystery Train, the movie looks and feels like a lost early Jim Jarmusch project – and no doubt the director intended it to be just that. Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino – most famous for The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008) – This Must Be the Place (though it is a Italian/French co-production) is Sorrentino’s first English-language feature, and apparently he wrote the screenplay with Sean Penn specifically in mind. And it is Penn’s film: he’s in practically every scene and his stunning performance carries the whole movie.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

HBO’s Veep: Close, But No Cigar

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 12, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in Veep, on HBO

This past Sunday, HBO aired the eighth and final episode of its new comedy Veep. Back in April, HBO premiered two new original comedy series: Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, and Veep, a political satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a frustrated U.S. Vice President. Both series were almost immediately renewed for second seasons. As I wrote about at the time, Girls launched strong, with Dunham’s pilot effectively putting on display all the reasons why I knew I would keep watching. Veep, on the other hand, fell decidedly flat. Perhaps, I thought at the time, it was a question of my differing levels of expectation. I had few expectations for Girls and the original look and feel of the series made it easy to get excited about. But if Girls benefited from having few familiar names or faces behind it, Veep likely suffered if anything from its too exciting pedigree. Veep not only marked the return of Louis-Dreyfus to the world of edgy comedy (after five long seasons as the star of CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine. a traditionally-structured laugh track sitcom that I could never get myself to watch with any regularity), it was also created by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish writer/director behind the BBC’s The Thick of It, and its spin-off feature film In the Loop. (The Thick of It chronicles the efforts of a backbench British MP who, through no power or talent of his own, has risen beyond his own capacities. The show details, among other things, his struggles to merely keep his job – which he often succeeds at, more through a clumsy grace than strategy.) The Thick of It (which aired intermittently from 2005 to 2009) is like a post-HBO version of the BBC’s Yes Minister. With its mockumentary format, Iannucci’s signature profanity and the show’s improvised feel, The Thick of It was a popular and critical success, and the promise of bringing that raw energy to HBO in a new political satire, set in D.C. instead of London, perhaps set the bar rather high for the new series. But whatever the reasons, those first episodes of Veep left me cold. The potential of the series was visible (co-stars included Tony Hale, in perhaps his best role since Arrested Development ended in 2006, and Anna Chlumsky, who’d appeared in In the Loop in 2009), but all of its elements – strong as they were – didn’t come together enough to grab me. And following the scatologically-themed punch line to the second episode, I set the show aside for several weeks, only returning to those missed episodes in anticipation of this week's season finale. What I found when I returned was a series that was slowly beginning to find its way.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Lot to Be Grateful For: TV Viewers Get an Early Thanksgiving

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 17, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.   

The cast of Cougar Town

Last week’s episode of ABC’s Cougar Town opened with a scene with Jules (Courtney Cox), Laurie (Busy Philips) and Ellie (Christa Miller) suddenly wondering aloud why they didn’t get to celebrate Thanksgiving together this year. In fact, Cougar Town had an extended hiatus this year, after being bumped first from a September launch and pushed back even further in November in order to make room for some ABC’s new comedies. In the end, Cougar Town’s third season only premiered in mid-February – making a Thanksgiving or Christmas episode effectively impossible this year. Jules however offered a solution: they would celebrate Thanksgiving in May. The episode (titled “It’ll All Work Out") was one of the season's best, playing off the always surprisingly deep relationships that have developed among this handful of goofy characters, and highlighting everything that makes the show such a pleasure to watch. But more than that, it hit home for me.

May is traditionally the month when the networks firm up their schedules for the coming television season and the fates of the current shows are finally confirmed. Last year at this time, I was mourning NBC’s decision to cancel Outsourced, one of my favourite new comedies of the year. The year before, we lost Victor Fresca’s delightfully original Better Off Ted and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. And in May 2009, NBC announced it would not be renewing Life. For an avid TV fan, in short, May is rarely a good month. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling something I don’t normally feel in the month of May: grateful. And so when Jules and the rest of the Cul-de-Sac Crew sat around the table last week and reflected on how much they have to be thankful for, it was hard for me not to join in.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fringe: This is the Way the World Ends (Again)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 9, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.   

David Noble, Joshua Jackson, and Anna Torv star in Fringe

I’ve been watching Fringe for years, even since it premiered on Fox in 2008, but I’ve never written about it. Now – with the fourth season finale set to air this Friday and with the recent surprise announcement of a fifth and final season – seems like an ideal time to weigh in on a show that has grown into the most consistently entertaining science fiction series currently on network television.

Fringe is essentially a sci-fi procedural that follows a small FBI team – Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a civilian consultant Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek), and his father, research scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – in their investigation of paranormal occurrences, which often turn out to be science experiments gone awry (the results of so-called “Fringe” science.) When Fringe premiered, the comparisons to X-Files were obvious: a Fox series involving two paranormal investigators working with the FBI tracking monsters or strange diseases every week, with a slowly burgeoning romantic tension between our lead characters. The superficial parallels were self-evident – and likely intentional on the part of Fringe’s creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci (all of whom also worked on Alias) – but it would be several seasons before Fringe would rightly earn the X-Files banner – learning all the right lessons from the earlier series, and even exceeding it in many ways.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

When I'm 24: HBO’s Girls Brings A Smart New Voice To Comedy

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 29, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet star in Girls on HBO

I recently sat down and watched the first two episodes of HBO’s much-publicized new comedy series Girls. Since I had been studiously avoiding most of the press, all I knew going in was that people were excited by it. I didn’t really know why, and I honestly did not know what to expect. Earlier this year, HBO cleared the way for Girls and for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Veep by letting go of How to Make It in America and Bored to Death, two other Brooklyn-centred comedies which I already miss dearly. But if Girls is really the result of those casualties, it is just possible that those serious losses may not be quite the end of television as we love it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wizard World Toronto Comic Con: Where Subculture Becomes Community

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 18, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Comic Cons: fun for the whole family (Photo by Krystle Burkholder)

I’ve long wanted to attend a Comic Con, but the prospect of going to San Diego has always been too expensive, and Toronto’s epic Fan Expo runs in late August when I am invariably out of town. So when the opportunity came to attend Toronto’s Wizard World Comic Con this past weekend, I jumped at the chance. But I have to confess that – despite my long-standing desire – I had little idea of what the event might actually be like.

When I first found out that I was going to Wizard World, a friend of mine described to me his experience of Fan Expo as being like “a party at the end of the world.” I haven’t had the chance to ask him precisely what he meant by this, but the description immediately called to mind the last episode the most recent season of Doctor Who which aired this past September. In that episode, we find The Doctor stranded on Earth at a point when time itself has collapsed and flattened, resulting in a scenario in which all of history is essentially happening at once: Winston Churchill and Cleopatra hold high-level summits and Roman centurions have to negotiate with flying dinosaurs. In my mind, this is what the Con promised – a world without boundaries, a place of all things and all times, all at once. And on that level Wizard World didn’t disappoint. I wandered the floor of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre amidst Imperial Stormtroopers having cigarettes with Warrior Princesses, Ghostbusters and pirates standing in line for pulled pork sandwiches, and an array of tiny Darth Vaders and Iron Men drinking apple juice from their sippy cups. The feel on the floor – among the kiosks selling an endless assortment of Big Bang Theory t-shirts, Star Wars figurines, graphic novels, and medieval weaponry – was of an unapologetic and unselfconscious celebration of all things nerdy. Fandom, without prejudice. And, to be honest, it was awesome. After all, how many places are there in the world where you can bring young children and buy a broadsword?

Photo by Mark Clamen
But in one significant way my friend’s description didn’t quite hold, and my weekend was all the better for it: this convention – unlike the 80,000-plus population of Fan Expo – was less like a party at the end of the world than a "meet and greet" at the end of the world. There was all the content but little of the overwhelming chaos I actually expected to find, and which I honestly wasn’t looking forward to. (I’m no fan of crushing crowds, and even less of interminable lines.) And if the experience didn’t rise to that intensity, it is to Wizard World’s credit. They organized an event large enough to do justice to the full scope of all the overlapping subcultures (from comic books, to classic television, video games, and film; from the subtle and elegant artistry of the comic industry, to the giddy pleasure of faux medieval battles and pillowed swordplay) without losing the humanity of all involved. There was an intimacy to this weekend’s event that was as much a draw as the celebrity headliners.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and Bent: Comedy is Alive and Well in the Midseason

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 31, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Krysten Ritter and James Van Der Beek in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23

With the television season running year-round these days, the midseason is no longer the networks’ dumping ground for shows not strong enough to make the cut in the fall. Today I’m looking at two new, but very different comedies which more than prove the point that great television doesn’t always begin in September. (Let’s not forget that Parks and Recreation and even All in the Family were midseason replacements when they were first launched!) ABC’s Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 will premiere on April 11, and NBC’s Bent is already more than halfway through its short, six-episode freshman season.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dirk Gently and the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All British TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 24, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd star in Dirk Gently, on BBC Four

Adapting beloved literary characters to television is a risky business. Often, though, it is a risk well worth taking, as in Steven Moffat’s sublime variation on the classic Conan Doyle characters and stories in Sherlock, which recently aired its second season. This year, the BBC tries its hand at another generation’s literary hero: Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently. The TV version of Dirk Gently first saw the light of day as a 60-minute test pilot that aired in December 2010. Commissioned for a three-part series a few months later, the first new episode premiered on BBC Four on March 5 and its third and last episode aired just this past Monday. With Gently, the result is less explosive than with Sherlock, but then again, the show is working with a smaller palette (smaller budget, and a half hour less screen time per episode – a Gently episode is 60 minutes, while Sherlock episodes run 90) and a much more restricted canon. On the other hand, Moffat was hardly the first to adapt the great detective, and Dirk Gently hasn’t (yet!) been immortalized as a puppet on Sesame Street. Adams’ fans have reason to be apprehensive, and when it comes to this new series, it is really a matter of balancing expectations.

Less of an adaptation of the wickedly funny novels than a new work inspired by the tone, themes, and characters of the two Dirk Gently novels – Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988), Douglas Adams’ follow-up to his immensely popular The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels – the new series follows the adventures of Dirk Gently (Stephen Mangan), part hapless private detective and part conman, and his put-upon sidekick, Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd). The show’s creator, Howard Overman, clearly has no ambition to literally translate the novels to the small screen, and the series genuinely succeeds in capturing the spirit, if few of the details, of Adams’ stories.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

NBC’s Awake: It’s Mourning in America

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 8, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Jason Isaacs stars in Awake, on NBC

Tonight, NBC will air the second episode of Awake, its new fantasy-crime drama from writer/creator Kyle Killen. Awake tells the story of Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), a police detective finally returning to work after surviving the tragic car accident which claimed the life of Rex, his teenage son (Dylan Minnette). Or was it his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen) who died that night? Actually, it was neither. Or, perhaps more precisely, both. As we quickly discover, Britten has been living in two realities since night of the accident: he goes to bed at night with his wife sleeping beside him, and wakes up the next morning in bed alone, with his son sleeping down the hall. The series follows Britten as he slips back and forth between these two universes, one in which his son is mourning the loss of his mother and another in which his wife is mourning the loss of their son. It is an ambitious and challenging premise, and it was masterfully executed, in writing, acting, and direction – and if the pilot is any indication, it promises to be one of the most ambitious and creative new dramas of the television season.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Comic Book Men: AMC’s Kinder, Gentler Reality Show

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 19, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Kevin Smith (centre) and the rest of the Comic Book Men

AMC has come a long way since the premiere of Mad Men in 2007. Firmly establishing itself as a destination for original programming, the channel has had its ups (Breaking Bad) and downs (Hell on Wheels). But last Sunday, it stepped decisively into television’s 21st century with Comic Book Men, its first unscripted series. Yes, AMC now has a reality show.

For all the television that I regularly watch, I have to admit that reality shows rarely make the cut. I’ll watch (and enjoy) the odd episode of Amazing Race, but most of the unscripted shows currently on the air are often just too plain loud for me. The shows are too often populated by poorly drawn, unrealistic characters whose problems are usually the result of their own narcissistic reality distortions – quite simply not people I want to welcome into my home, at least not voluntarily. Nevertheless, the best of those shows can often be genuinely entertaining, and, like good film documentaries, can provide insight into people, worlds, and situations beyond the average viewer’s everyday experience. With Comic Book Men, AMC opens the door to the slightly mysterious kingdom of the comic book store. And now that it’s here, it feel almost like an inevitably. The world of comic book and sci-fi nerds is much more fashionable now than it ever has been. After all, the boys of The Big Bang Theory have been making comedic fodder of it for five successful seasons.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lilyhammer: Netflix’s Impressive Entry into New Original Programming

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 9, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Steven Van Zandt stars in Lilyhammer on Netflix

It’s been a big week in new media: as speculations about the future of Apple iTV reached a fever pitch, and Amazon announced a new partnership with Viacom that adds over 2000 new titles to its service, Netflix, the granddaddy of streaming media, premiered its first original television series: Lilyhammer, a low-key wiseguy-out-of-water comedy starring The Sopranos alum Steven Van Zandt. This is only the first of three series that Netflix will be offering exclusively to its subscribers. Last week, it was officially announced that Netflix would air an original new season (with full original cast and writers) of Fox’s beleaguered but brilliant sitcom Arrested Development (2003-2006) in 2013. And later this year, 26 episodes of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards will be available exclusively on Netflix. Spacey will star and Oscar-nominated director Fincher (The Social Network) is directing the pilot.

But its innovative delivery system is fortunately not the only original feature of Lilyhammer. The show, a co-production by Netflix and NRK1 (the main channel of Norway’s public broadcaster), is a quirky black comedy, starring one familiar television face and a whole cast of Norwegian actors. What was completely unexpected, at least for me, was the fact that it is very much a Norwegian show, and much of the show’s dialogue is in Norwegian. When the show premiered on Norwegian television at the end of January, it broke all ratings records for the country with one in five Norwegians tuning in.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

FX's Archer: Adult Comedy, Shaken and Stirred

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 25, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Everyone who watches television has shows they feel guilty about enjoying. I will admit (now, hesitantly) to having watched Charmed and Smallville, with their more and more implausible storylines and often painfully awkward acting, to their respectively bitter ends, with a lot of ambivalence and often very little pleasure. Sometimes (like Cougar Town) guilty pleasures quickly make good for themselves, and that nascent guilt fades completely into unequivocal love. And sometimes a show which begins as a guilty pleasure never really changes at all, and you just have to confess that you’ve been an idiot all along. For me, right now, Archer – FX’s raunchy animated spy comedy – is that show. I watched Archer for an entire season before telling anyone how much I genuinely loved it, convinced (I now believe) that somehow my enjoyment of a very adult-oriented cartoon – full of dark humour and unabashed raunchiness – revealed something discomforting about my own sensibilities. It could take years of expensive psychoanalysis before I know what was really going on, but now, with the recent premiere of the show’s third season – and with FX Canada hopefully soon making the show available to my friends and colleagues north of the border – it’s time for me to weigh in publically on what may be the funniest half hour currently airing on television.

Jessica Walter, in the Archer studio
With some of television’s best voice talent – H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), and Aisha Tyler (The Talk) – and created by Adam Reed, an animation veteran previously most famous for his Adult Swim collaborations with animator Matt Thompson on the Cartoon Network, Archer is one of the richest shows on television in concept, vision, and execution. While Reed’s past work on Adult Swim (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) was very funny (and very strange) in its own ways, Archer represents an enormous leap in both writing and style. The action takes place at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) – a cash-strapped boutique spy agency run by Malory Archer (Walters). The spy at the centre of the agency is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (Benjamin) – codenamed Duchess (after Malory’s perhaps too-beloved and dearly departed dog) – an oversexed, emotionally stunted, but supremely self-possessed secret agent with mommy-issues and a near obsessive fixation on black turtlenecks. Archer is known, or at least calls himself, "the world's most dangerous spy,” which seems to be less a description of his spy skills than a nod to the fact that foes and friends alike come out of the other side of his missions a little worse for wear. He has a bad habit of inadvertently crippling, maiming, and often killing his allies. His much more skilled partner is Lana Kane (Tyler), a fearless and beautiful female agent who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend.

Set in a deliberately indeterminate and impossible era, Archer seems contemporary as far as pop culture is concerned, but still somehow exists in the middle of the Cold War. The Russians and the KGB are the baddies, and the Middle East is nowhere in sight, but storylines involving affirmative action, energy conservation, and sexual harassment complaints seem to place it in our own time. Cars and clothing reference the 60s and 70s, but everyone carries a cell-phone with picture and video capabilities. In the end, it all becomes just another part of the sheer fun of it all. And there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

BBC's The Hour: A Period Drama Whose Time has Come

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 19, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Ben Whishaw stars in The Hour on BBC

In the years before the US dominated the international scene, and decades before Jack Bauer started putting severed heads in bowling bags, a ripping spy story could be told without suitcase nukes and hacksaws. Giving us a glimpse into the early days of BBC television, at its heart BBC’s The Hour (broadcast by the BBC in the UK this past summer, by BBC America in the US this fall, and now available on Netflix in Canada) is just such an old-fashioned spy drama – complete with government operatives in identical trench coats, tapped telephones, and messages hidden in crossword puzzles.

Period dramas – and British period dramas especially – used to have a very particular reputation on this side of the ocean. In the years before premium cable, discerning television viewers could reliably turn to PBS and its stable of British dramas: Upstairs, Downstairs; The Jewel in the Crown; Brideshead Revisited; any of a number of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. (And even as recently as this past fall, PBS has a well-justified hit with its broadcast of ITV’s Downton Abbey.) But however entertaining and distracting, one thing period dramas rarely have been is topical. If anything The Hour – despite the action taking place well over 50 years ago – may well suffer from too much topicality. Against the backdrop of a waning superpower trying to shore up its influence in a volatile Middle East with an unpopular and arguably illegal war, domestic journalists accused of unpatriotic activity for questioning a sitting government, a culture of suspicion and surveillance of average citizens, a lesser show than The Hour might almost buckle beneath the weight of its relevance. But it never does. With one short six-episode season under its belt, and a second season on its way in 2012, The Hour is a charming and eminently watchable drama told with understated production design, unassuming sexual tension, minimal but effective violence, and an ensemble of compelling characters.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The End of Bored to Death and How to Make It in America: Bidding Farewell to HBO’s Brooklyn Duology

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 4, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page. 

Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk in HBO's How to Make It in America

A new year is upon us and HBO viewers certainly have a lot to look forward to in 2012: the official launch of Luck (starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte) at the end of January; the US premiere of the new Ricky Gervais BBC/HBO comedy, Life’s Too Short, in February; and a brand new season of Games of Thrones in April. But it turns out that HBO’s full schedule comes at the cost of two of my favourite, if less often celebrated, comedies: at the end of December HBO announced that Bored to Death and How to Make It in America would not be returning in 2012. Despite airing on HBO, both series have lived pretty much under the radar since their respective premieres, and their sleeper status unfortunately did not save them from the chopping block.

Ever since the shows first premiered a couple of years ago – Bored to Death in September 2009, with How to Make It in America taking over its timeslot in February of the next year – I’ve always thought of them as a pair: both shows were Brooklyn-centred comedies, and both, more significantly, came with Jewish male actors playing explicitly Jewish main characters. Even in this post-Seinfeld century, it is still rare to find shows with explicitly Jewish lead characters, and here suddenly were two! (No, Howard Wolowitz doesn’t count!) To be fair, Jason Schwartzman’s character on Bored to Death is perhaps a more familiar New York Jewish type (in the Woody Allen vein), but Bryan Greenberg’s Ben Epstein on How to Make It in America just may have been the single hippest Jewish male character in TV history. Despite its cancellation, I hope that this promises more cool, attractive and relatively non-neurotic Jewish characters in years to come.

HBO doesn’t like to cancel shows – to its credit this is the same network that gave David Simon five full seasons of The Wire and has supported Simon’s Treme into a confirmed third, and likely fourth and final season, despite their respective struggles in the ratings – but when HBO does cancel shows, it is often heartbreaking. (Part of me will never quite forgive HBO for cutting Deadwood short after only three seasons.) With only three seasons of Bored to Death and two seasons of How to Make It in America, HBO has cut down two great shows, both still in their prime.