Sunday, December 22, 2013

Television Goes Global, and Other Reflections on TV in 2013

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 22, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The final episode of AMC's Breaking Bad aired this past September.

The past twelve months have brought an embarrassment of riches to the dedicated television viewer. Not only a number of promising new series, but technological and industry developments have made television viewing richer, more diverse, and more convenient than it's ever been. But even on wholly traditional terms, TV has had a good year. AMC's Breaking Bad came to a powerful and satisfying conclusion. FX's Justified had another strong year, and its fifth season is set to air early in January. After some uneven early episodes, CBS's Americanized Sherlock Holmes procedural Elementary went from strength to strength, culminating in a powerful first season, and this fall has proven itself to be much more than the pale shadow of BBC's incomparable Sherlock it threatened to be on paper. In November, TBS premiered The Ground Floor, a new laugh track rom-com/office comedy from Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) that has grown more charming and likeable with every passing episode. And a year ago, long before Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine hit the airwaves in September, who could have guessed that the best comedy team-up on television would be Homicide: Life on the Street's Andre Braugher and Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg? All in all, we have a lot to be thankful for this year. Below I review some of the more interesting developments in television in 2013.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Future Looks Bright for Fox's Almost Human

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 8, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Karl Urban and Michael Ealy stars in Fox's Almost Human

Good old fashioned fun is part of the recipe for the best new dramas of 2013. Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have already staked out that territory nicely (and, though it makes me feel a little dirty in admitting it, so has The Blacklist). And even though it came a little late to the party (premiering just three weeks ago), Fox's new science fiction crime police procedural Almost Human, is standing with the best of them. 

Almost Human has an ambitious concept on paper a futuristic drama with high tech wizardry and self-aware androids but at its heart it is a buddy cop show with consistently high production values and two engaging lead actors. Created by J.H. Wyman and produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), Almost Human is set in Los Angeles in 2048, in an era when advancements in technology have resulted in a corresponding increase in criminal activity. Our hero is Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban, Star Trek), who returns to the police force after emerging from a 17-month coma, which resulted from a botched raid that cost him his partner, one of his legs, and parts of his memory. Almost two years out of commission, he finds the station a very different place. Every cop is assigned a mandatory synthetic partner rule-oriented and emotionless MX-model androids who seem to be watching the cops as much as watching out for them. With little patience for this new normal, Kennex quickly (and dramatically) dispatches his assigned android, and is then given a different kind of synthetic, one with more personality than the other models and arguably with more personality than Kennex himself.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fall Slump: When Good Comedies Stumble

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 16, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel in New Girl, now airing its third season on Fox

Many television shows drag on far too long, but there is something especially unsettling about watching it happen to a sitcom. While no less upsetting when a favourite drama goes awry, (see: Battlestar Galactica, circa Season 3), the best of dramatic television often succeeds and fails in taking the story in new directions, which means a viewer can easily parse where and how it goes wrong. With ever-growing regularity, TV dramas have enthusiastically embraced television's rich storytelling potential, working in shifting themes, character growth and evolving situations into their long stories. To single out just one current series: FX's Justified has had four strong seasons even if one or two stand out more than the rest and it has done this by allowing its main characters to go in and out of new situations, interacting with different and often stand out amazing new actors who come on board for a single season's story alone, leading (for example) to Margo Martindale's Emmy-winning turn in Season 2. As a result, Justified can not only survive the death of main characters and the moral decline of others, it can thrive because of it. But mainstream situation comedy is, well, still largely dependent on its situation even the best and most accomplished among them are often by necessity static. Static doesn't mean stagnant however. (Bart and Lisa Simpson's perennial and perhaps even purgatorial childhood is still the exception and not the rule.) Having established its fundamental tone, central characters, and key relationships, there are innumerable and endlessly creative situations to work within. ABC's Modern Family, now its fifth season, is perhaps the best example of how strong writing and acting can do amazing stuff within clear and largely preset parameters. 

I tend to return weekly to many of my favourite network comedies as much for feelings of comfort and familiarity as anything else. But when you begin to suspect that the show itself isn't living up to its side of the contract, that trust can often only stretch so far. And this puts even their biggest fans in a particular bind a feeling not unlike when a close friend has overstayed their welcome on your couch. While some returning shows have been having exceptional fall seasons CBS's Elementary is simply rocking its sophomore season some returning comedies are making me eye the door for the first time: How I Met Your Mother, in its ninth (!) and final season; New Girl, in its third year; and most disappointingly, The Mindy Project, growing tired only in its second season.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sleepy Hollow: Who Knew An Apocalypse Could Be So Much Fun?

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 1, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison star in Fox's Sleepy Hollow

On Monday night, Sleepy Hollow will return from the brief hiatus it took after it aired its fifth episode. With the shadow of Halloween still briefly upon us, this seems as good a time as any to explain why perhaps you should already have been watching Fox's new supernatural thriller. Sleepy Hollow's delightful unpretentious recipe of fantasy, horror, over-the-top melodrama, alternate history and police procedural stands out among the new dramas this fall season. And the light touch the show brings to its subject matter is a welcome respite from our post-Homeland universe of unending, and ever-ramping up, intensity (see: CBS's Hostages) reminding television viewers that sometimes TV can actually be fun.

The series is ostensibly but not really a "modern-day re-telling" of Washington Irving's classic short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Using the name of the 'hero' of "Sleepy Hollow", and some of the setting and the one single memorable detail from Irving's "Rip Van Winkle", Sleepy Hollow takes off from there with gleeful abandon throwing in some unambiguously apocalyptic overtones just for good measure. Imagine if Grimm and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a illegitimate child, and you may have a taste of what Sleepy Hollow often feels like.

One look at the show's pedigree, and none of this would come as any surprise. The résumés of Sleepy Hollow's co-creators, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, reads like a "best of" list of television at its most entertaining, unselfconscious, and downright giddy. Kurtzman and Orci first worked together back in the 1990s on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and even on Jack of All Trades, Bruce Campbell's delightfully irreverent turn as a turn-of-the-19th-century American spy. But the two hit their zenith with Fringe, the Fox series they co-created with J.J. Abrams (before the two joined him on his big-screen Star Trek adventure), and oversaw for 5 remarkable seasons. In many ways, Sleepy Hollow has more in common with those unapologetically B-television Sam Raimi/Rob Tapert shows of the 90s than Fringe and it is all the better for it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Seven Minutes in Heaven: Love, Trauma, and Choices

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 18, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Reymond Amsalem and Eldad Prives in Seven Minutes in Heaven

Directed by Omri Givon in his first (and still only) feature, Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva dakot be gan eden, Israel, 2008) is a deceptively simple drama that melds dramatic realism with metaphysical and psychological drama to tell a powerful story of love and survival. We meet Galia (Reymond Amsalem, The Attack) at the hospital bed of her boyfriend Oren, roughly a year after the suicide bus bombing that left him in a coma and her badly burned. Galia’s memories of that morning, and the days leading up to it, are fragmentary and intermittent, and it is only after Oren finally dies that she begins to deal with her own pain. A new chapter of her life begins with the mysterious arrival of a necklace in the mail – one she at first barely recognizes as her own, and only later realizes she’d lost at the scene of the attack. With this small object as a touchstone, Galia is challenged to re-assemble and re-examine her recent past, and begin to live again in the present.

During her search for the paramedic who pulled her from the bus and ultimately saved her, she discovers that she was clinically dead for seven minutes before reviving (presumably the inspiration for the film’s title). Along the way, she meets another emergency volunteer who relates to her a mystical belief: when a soul is taken before its time, it is given the choice to return to earth, but only after being given glimpses of the life it will lead. Without giving too much away, those seven minutes are the metaphysical axis on which the narrative revolves.

Based on an original script by Givon, Seven Minutes in Heaven has the scope and slow, deliberate pacing of an ambitious short story. The film’s power comes from its tight focus on Galia’s point of view – Amsalem appears in every scene –  and its choice to tell a personal, rather than political, story. That narrative restraint pays off: Seven Minutes in Heaven tells a narrow story, but hardly a small one by any measure.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Delivers a Mighty Wallop

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 6, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This piece contains spoilers for The Avengers (2012) and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Despite Joss Whedon’s near-legendary status among his legions of fans, his television shows have long felt like underdog projects. While this fact has probably contributed to the good will he continues to inspire, it has also meant that has shows have had contested and limited lifespans. (Firefly famously never finished its short first season, and Dollhouse fought for practically every episode it aired during its two seasons on Fox.) With last summer’s blockbuster showing for the Whedon written and directed Marvel’s The Avengers, that all changed: the beloved cult icon became Hollywood’s golden boy. (It is tempting to compare this transformation to the comparable moment when Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi became Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi, but that is a story for another time.) For better or for worse, 1.5 billion in worldwide box office is always going to bring more schlep into the room than the adoration of the ComicCon community.

Co-created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen, ABC’s Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in the aftermath of The Avengers, specifically its closing, climactic “Battle of New York”. Because of the publicity – and extensive property damage – of that failed alien invasion, S.H.I.E.L.D. is entering a new era of increased activity and public scrutiny. Times are a-changing and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, reprising his film role) is putting together a new (non-super) team to reflect that new normal: a hand-picked but not quite combat ready team, with more snark and smarts than field skills.

When I first heard of the series, it was thrilling to imagine Joss returning to television, even in co-creator/exec producer mode. (His Avengers success seemed to make any new television venture extremely unlikely.) But with the burden of that film franchise behind the project, it was also just as easy to imagine the show collapsing under its own weight (or its title), Whedons or no Whedons. Frankly, as the high profile spin-off of the third most profitable movie of all time, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have to be good to be popular. But right off the bat, this show promises to be more than a tie-in product for the multibillion-dollar franchise: it looks and sounds like a Whedon series.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Fall Season 2013: A Look at Five New Sitcoms

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 27, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Sean Giambrone and George Segal on The Goldbergs, now on ABC

Even in this era of cable television when a series can premiere at any point on the calendar, September, when the major networks premiere the majority of their new shows, remains a special time for TV viewers. Most of the shows you see this fall won't be here come January, but with a crop of almost 50 new shows coming your way in the next few weeks, it may be difficult to figure out which to check out and which to pass on. Today I'm looking at five new comedies which recently showed up on our airwaves, some more promising than others: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Trophy Wife (ABC), The Goldbergs (ABC), The Crazy Ones (CBS), and Dads (Fox).

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones – Just Read the Books

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 15, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The following contains spoilers for The Mortal Instruments, both the film and the book series.

If I were writing this to let you all know how notably underwhelming the recently released The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is, I know that I’m a little late to the party. Even if you weren’t aware of the film, or author Cassandra Clare’s multi-volume teen fantasy book series that inspired it, you probably heard that resounding flopping sound the movie generated when it premiered in theatres a couple of weeks ago. Just this past Thursday in fact the studio put the planned sequel (based on the second novel City of Ashes) on indefinite hold. It is probably for the best.

Directed by Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid, 2010), and starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower (who played the centuries-old vampire Caius in the Twilight films), City of Bones is a bit of a hot mess: pretty to look at but remarkably frustrating to follow. In fact, that is the most apt word to describe the experience of watching City of Bones: frustrating. The movie – clocking in at over 2 hours – feels both unbearably long and exasperatingly hurried. I’ve read all five published books of the Mortal Instruments series, including Clare’s more readable Infernal Devices prequel trilogy, and even I found the film difficult to follow – and even more difficult to like. I enjoyed the books, mind you, but I confess they don’t live long in your consciousness after putting them down. Clare has produced a believable world on the page, and offers a number of interesting twists on the vampire/werewolf/demon narrative, but little of that makes it onto the big screen. The result is a film that no doubt would anger a fan of the books and confuse the average moviegoer. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Touch of Cloth Cleans Up the Brit Crime Scene

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 4, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

John Hannah and Suranne Jones star in A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth on Sky1

Last year around this time – as the summer was beginning to wane, and the promise/threat of the new fall television season loomed – two new series premiered which called me back to the very beginning of my life as a TV devotee. Ask my 15-year-old self what my favourite comedy shows were and I would have quickly answered Sledge Hammer and Police Squad! Neither series lasted long on the air, but both have lived long in my memory. Last August, my inner TV child got two televisual treats: Bullet in the Face, a new series by Sledge Hammer creator Alan Spenser, and A Touch of Cloth. I’ve already written about the hallucinogenic zaniness of Spenser’s show, but with A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth, the second installment of the planned A Touch of Cloth trilogy, airing in the UK this past two Sundays, the time has come to write on the latter.

A timely spoof of the recently reinvented British crime procedural, A Touch of Cloth reinvents the parody genre for our era’s much more media savvy audiences. The series brings the energy and style of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker 80s classics Airplane! and Police Squad! not only to the UK, but to the 21st century. Though it takes its title from a play on ITV’s long-running procedural A Touch of Frost, A Touch of Cloth casts its satirical net far wider, taking on bleak and bloody detective dramas like Luther and Wire in the Blood, and even groundbreaking classics like Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Almighty Johnsons: Family Dysfunction of Heavenly Proportions

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 13, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

(bottom left, clockwise) Timothy Balme, Emmett Skilton, Dean O'Gorman & Jared Turner in The Almighty Johnsons

Like many other stories, this one begins with a 21st birthday party (albeit set in a New Zealand locale with accents and culture somewhat exotic to North Americans). Expecting a big, beer-driven blowout, Axl Johnson (Emmett Skilton) gets a little more than he bargained for: apparently he and his brothers are reincarnated Norse gods, and now it’s his turn to enter the family business. With a title guaranteed to make any fourth grade boy involuntarily snigger, The Almighty Johnsons is like nothing else on television. Despite its over-the-top premise that Norse deities incarnated themselves into human beings, packed up from Norway in the 19th century, and emigrated to New Zealand, the ensemble comedy-drama has a refreshing lack of pretension, and leans on smart writing and appealing acting instead of special effects and melodrama. In an era with more teen vampires, werewolves, witches, and wizards than we know what to do with, this New Zealand export stands out with its narrative restraint, charm, and a maturity that exceeds that of its often emotionally-stunted characters.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Not Your Father’s Prison Series

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 26, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Vicky Jeudy, Taylor Schilling (centre) and Dascha Polanco on Netflix's Orange is the New Black

July has been a good month for Netflix. On July 18th, the online streaming service made television history when it received its first ever Emmy nominations, nine for the Kevin Spacey dark political drama House of Cards (including Most Outstanding Drama) and three for its much anticipated reboot of Arrested Development. Much e-Ink has been spilled in recent months on the minor televisual revolution that Netflix has sparked with its recent spate of original programming, but both nominated shows launched with a built-in audience, boasting the Hollywood heft of Spacey and Arrested Development’s longstanding cult following respectively. But with the premiere of Jenji Kohan’s new prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Netflix enters a new era, with a series that seems to have earned its critical (and popular) acclaim entirely on its own terms. Two weeks before its premiere on July 11th, Netflix renewed the series for a second season. With only a few familiar faces, strong writing, and an innovative narrative, Orange is the New Black is simply great television however it comes to our screens.

Adapted by Kohan (the creator of Showtime’s Weeds) from Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2010), the New York Times bestselling memoir by Piper Kerman, the series is set in the fictional Litchfield Prison, a women’s minimum security federal penitentiary. Taylor Schilling (from NBC’s short-lived medical drama Mercy) stars as Piper Chapman, who finds herself sentenced to 15 months in prison for crimes she committed 10 years earlier. Piper (or Chapman, as she becomes known as in Litchfield) is joined in prison by a remarkable array of female characters, meaty roles for actresses of all ages and backgrounds. The range of female and minority characters alone would single the series out, but there is little that is gimmicky or derivative about the show.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

For Netflix Eyes Only: Arrested Development Returns

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 29, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Jason Bateman returns as Michael Bluth in the new season of Arrested Development, now available on Netflix

Francine (to Stan): Are you still moping about Steve? Come on. He's just going through a phase. It's like Steve is America and you're Arrested Development. It doesn't mean you're bad, it just means he's not interested in you.
American Dad Season 2, Episode 15 (aired May 7, 2006, three months after Arrested Development’s cancellation)
What a difference seven years makes. Running for just three, ever-shortening seasons, Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-2006) was an innovative take on the traditional broadcast sitcom, finding a dedicated but too small audience when it first aired. The show was comedically loose and narratively tight: full of visual puns, interwoven storylines, deadpan deliveries and dark consequences, with many of its funniest gags taking weeks if not years to play out completely. The ensemble cast was pitch perfect, from the young Michael Cera as George Michael Bluth, to the veteran Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show) as his “Pop-Pop” George Sr. and Jessica Walter (Archer) as the passive and not so passive aggressive Bluth matriarch, to Tony Hale’s perennial man-child ‘Buster’.

Arrested Development has long been for me the gold standard of our new era of “continuity comedy”, along with the early (and only the early) seasons of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. Like How I Met Your Mother, Arrested was a series that hit the ground running, absolutely confident of the rules of its narrative universe and the people that populated it. You can witness all of Arrested Development’s potential in its opening minutes, which lay out the tone and even some of the running jokes for years to come. Re-watching the original series is actually a special delight, as increased familiarity with the characters' past and future histories only deepens the enjoyment.

Critical acclaim couldn’t trump its struggling ratings however, and Fox pulled the plug on the show in 2006. But like many cancelled-too-soon shows in this age of DVD box sets and streaming channels, the years have been kind to the series, further expanding its audience and growing its reputation to near legendary proportions. A year after Fox cancelled the show, Time Magazine put it in its “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME" list. And in 2011, IGN named it the funniest television show of all time (edging out Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Seinfeld for the top spot). Rumours of a new season or even a reunion movie floated around for years, until November 2011, when Netflix and Arrested creator Mitch Hurwitz confirmed their intentions to bring the series back, along the entire original cast and crew, for a new, exclusive fourth season. These, to be sure, are very large shoes to fill (even if they are their own).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Resident Alien: One on One with Defiance’s Trenna Keating

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 14, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Trenna Keating as Doc Yewll on Defiance, now airing on SyFy and Showcase

Already, 2013 has been a bit of a banner year for science fiction television. Since Fringe aired its final episodes in January, television viewers have been given a number of new and very promising series. Showcase’s time travel drama Continuum began its second season a few weeks ago here in Canada, and BBC America and Space launched its clone thriller Orphan Black at the end of April. (All this, and Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special in November!) And three weeks ago, Defiance premiered on the SyFy network, in the U.S., and on Showcase, in Canada.

Defiance is an ambitious ensemble drama; part space Western, part post-Apocalyptic intrigue, the series is set on Earth, some years after the arrival of several colony ships,bearing seven different alien races from a nearby Votan star system. Earth has survived a traumatic ‘terraforming’ event and a disastrous inter-species conflict (called the Pale Wars), and now humanity struggles to get back on its feet in partnership (and often conflict) with its new, and suddenly diverse, populations. Our story takes place in the outpost town of Defiance, a makeshift city built on the ruins of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s been a little over three decades since the aliens’ arrival, and Defiance is one of the few places where the human and alien races have voluntarily come together in their struggle to survive.

Trenna Keating plays Doc Yewll on Defiance. Keating is a Canadian actress who has appeared on ABC/Global’s Combat Hospital (as Sgt. Hannah Corday), CTV’s Corner Gas, and CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie. Doc Yewll is a resident of Defiance and an Indogene, a member of one of the seven alien Votan races. Keating describes the character “as a bit of a misfit, scientific and mathematical in her way of thinking, who doesn’t really get humans necessarily.”

Mark Clamen sat down with Trenna Keating for an exclusive interview for Critics atLarge.  

(Note: this interview was conducted on May 9th. On May 10th, SyFy announced that Defiance would be returning for a second season.) 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Orphan Black and the New Face of Canadian Science Fiction

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 3, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Tatiana Maslany stars in Orphan Black, on BBC America and Space

If you love TV and live in Toronto (as I do), watching American television can often be a frustrating experience. As thrilled as I am that Toronto has established itself as the go-to site for American-produced film and TV, it is often impossible to watch an episode of a favourite series without feeling that the city is being slighted, an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” feeling which gets called up whenever a signature Toronto location is passed off as a generic street in “Pick Your City”, USA. to single out just one recurring example, see the numerous uses of Daniel Libeskind’s striking crystalline extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in the background of scenes set in Chicago or DC. It is therefore especially gratifying when those norms are shaken up.

This past Sunday, Orphan Black aired its first episode, and on April 21, Showcase’s hit time-travel drama Continuum premieres its second season on Canadian airwaves; both shows are not only produced and filmed in Canada, but (with an appalling deficiency of that renowned Canadian humility) are also set here as well.

With Fringe, Alphas, and Eureka’s recent departures, there are barely any original science fiction series on the U.S. networks – TNT’s Falling Skies and SyFy’s always delightful Warehouse 13 are the only current exceptions. (There is, interestingly, no immediate shortage of fantasy stories: Grimm, Games of Thrones, Supernatural, True Blood and any of that long and growing list of vampire and werewolf shows are in constant rotation.) I won’t speculate on the reasons for the lack of success U.S. networks have had with science fiction shows in the last few years, even following up on the popular and critical successes of Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Whatever the causes, American viewers and cable networks have had to look beyond their borders to find new science fiction storytelling: across the pond to the UK (Doctor Who, Misfits, and the recent Utopia) and, perhaps most surprisingly, north to Canada. With two ambitious and entertaining series, Continuum and now the extremely promising Orphan Black, we are perhaps entering a minor golden age of Canadian science fiction programming.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Veronica Mars and the Promise of Life after TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 21, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Kristen Bell, the once and future star of Veronica Mars

One topic that television fans never tire of – and I count myself among them – are favourite shows cancelled too soon. My own list is long, and grows with every passing year. A couple of years ago I wrote about five such shows, and I could add many more: Terriers, Awake, Party Down, Better off Ted, How to Make it in America, or the criminally underappreciated Knights of Prosperity. The reason why it’s fun to talk up the shows that never make it out of their second seasons (or even sometimes their first) is that they were cancelled at the top of their game. They had no time to stumble or even hint at their weak spots. Two standard-bearers of the brilliant-but-cancelled genre – Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and Joss Whedon’s Fireflywere barely given the chance get their bearings before their respective networks pulled their plugs.

But the thunderous success of Rob Thomas’ recent Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a proposed Veronica Mars movie has shifted my thoughts to a darker, less congenial question: what about those beloved series that lived too long, the ones whose sublime early seasons begin to decay under the weight of their own continuity

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ripper Street: A Fresh Take on Old Crimes

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 6, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Jerome Flynn, Matthew Macfadyen and Adam Rothenberg star in Ripper Street

You can’t swing a remote control these days without hitting a period drama. From Downton Abbey, to Mad Men, to Copper, it seems that TV producers and TV audiences are interested in stories that happened ‘back then.’ The dividing line of these period offerings is whether the television produced mobilizes feelings of nostalgia and wants us to long for those times, or whether the stories are told precisely to disturb that warm and fuzzy feeling for the days of hats, cigars, and clear social structures. The new BBC/BBC America co-production, Ripper Street, falls firmly into this second category. The Victorian-era crime drama opens a door into a distinctly gruesome version of Conan Doyle’s London: a re-imagining which upsets and reconfigures our set notions of the past. It is easy to imagine Holmes and Watson moving about in hansom cabs, solving their own mysteries just five urban miles west of Ripper Street's Whitechapel district. Mind you, I was inadvertently well-prepared to imagine just that, having recently finished Anthony Horowitz’s novel The House of Silk, a faithful and gritty take on Conan Doyle’s characters and setting. Horowitz tells a dark story perfectly in sync with the spirit of Richard Warlow’s Ripper Street – both tell period stories geared towards an audience willing to glimpse just a little deeper in the depths of human depravity than previous generations.

It’s 1889, and London’s East End is still reeling from the effects of the grisly Jack the Ripper killings. Jack has gone silent, but the repercussions of those murders are still emerging: both for a traumatized population and for the policemen who failed to catch him. Such is the setting of Ripper Street. And it is gripping stuff.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

House of Cards: Netflix Deals Us a New Hand

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 20, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so there.

"You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment." – Kevin Spacey stars in House of Cards, on Netflix

On February 1st, the entire first season of the new American version of House of Cards became available on Netflix worldwide. In light of these unique circumstances, I should emphasize that this post only contains very minor spoilers for the first of the show’s 13 episodes.

A little over a year ago, Netflix launched its first original program, making the first season of Lilyhammer available to its subscribers. The Norwegian-American co-production was big hit in Scandinavia and a moderate critical success here in North America (it’s light, but uniformly enjoyable, fare). It was by no means a quiet rollout, but compared to the press and enthusiasm of the Kevin Spacey/David Fincher produced House of Cards, in retrospect Lilyhammer seems almost like an open secret. (A second season of the Steven Van Zandt series, it is worth noting, goes into to production in March).

Last January, when Lilyhammer was first being rolled out, there was some talk about Netflix’s entry into original programming, and even more talk in recent weeks since House of Cards’ much publicized launch on February 1st. Certainly, House of Cards deserves the press – it is actor Kevin Spacey (American Beauty) and director David Fincher’s (The Social Network, The Girl with theDragon Tattoo) first foray into television, and it is much more ambitious both narratively and artistically than Lilyhammer, but all talk of revolutions notwithstanding, it isn't likely to herald a new age of television by itself. But let’s just say this: House of Cards is worth watching. What else does a viewer really need to know?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole: Welcome to Utopia

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 29, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde, in Channel 4's Utopia

A mysterious and possibly prophetic graphic novel, two brightly-dressed killers armed with small gas canisters and bottles of bleach, the suggestion of an ever-diminishing global food supply, four unlikely allies thrust into a worldwide conspiracy because of an online comic book forum: welcome to Channel 4’s Utopia – a pre-apocalyptic conspiracy thriller from the pen of playwright and TV writer Dennis Kelly.

Writing about television comes with its own unique challenges: the best TV shows tell long, even open-ended stories, and it is often difficult to assess them while they’re still in progress.  As I sit down to write this, I’m still questioning whether it would perhaps be better to wait until Utopia’s full season has played out in its entirety. (It’s now aired only two of its promised six episodes, after all.) Waiting however comes with its own risks: I already regret, for example, not writing immediately about the first episode of ABC’s now-cancelled Last Resort. (To be candid, I have also regretted weighing in too soon. See A Gifted Man, where almost everything that was so impressed me in the pilot episode made the series frustrating and tedious by the middle of its first, and thankfully only, season.) Sometimes, as with Last Resort, a first episode is so unprecedented, so “fall off your seat” shocking, that you can’t stop talking about for the rest of the week. Visually arresting, unrepentantly violent, and darkly funny, Utopia is like nothing else currently on television. From its opening scene, you already know you’re seeing something entirely new.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stepping Forward into the Past: Safety Not Guaranteed

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 8, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza star in Safety Not Guaranteed

                                    “…. if there were a devil he would not be the one who decided against God, 
                                      but he that in all eternity came to no decision.”  
                                                                                                               – Martin Buber, I and Thou

Surprise, Joss Whedon once said, is “a holy emotion.” Surprise “makes you humble…shows you that you’re wrong, the world is bigger and more complicated than you’d imagined.” It is also becoming scarce on television (the subject Whedom was discussing) and even rarer in film. Every once in a while, however, a movie comes along and does just that. And Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t merely surprising: it is also, in a very real way, about surprise – about why we need it and about everything that conspires to make us unable to experience it.

Safety Not Guaranteed screened at Sundance last January, was in the theatres this past summer, and came out on DVD in the fall. I knew of it – mainly because of Susan Green’s interview with the film’s director Colin Trevorrow for Critics at Large in June – but I finally sat down to watch the film last week. Though I knew the plot’s launching points (a mysterious classified ad) and that it boasted the stars of two of my favourite sitcoms (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, and Jake Johnson from New Girl), I went in with few if any expectations. Three parts rom-com and one part science fiction, Safety Not Guaranteed starts small and grows, slowly and surely, through its 86-minute running time – ultimately telling a story that does justice to the intelligence of its characters and its audience. Neither sickly sweet nor mockingly cynical, the film is still sincerely romantic; for all its ambitions, it remains structurally and self-consciously informed by the established rules of romantic comedy. The first feature by independent filmmaker Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, Safety Not Guaranteed has three charming lead actors, a deceptively simple plot, and a marvelously constructed script. Even as the final credits were rolling, it made me want to generate a “Most Underrated Films of 2012” list just so I could put its name on it!