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.