All the new shows in one blog post! (02\10\2011)
Instead of overloading on blog posts I will just keep them all in one for this week. Please check each day and I will add the new shows I am reviewing to this one post.
Robin (The TV Critic)
p.s. In case you missed it, I finally saw "Terra Nova" and you can find the review here (be prepared for a serious rant): http://www.thetvcritic.org/terra-nova-2-broke-girls-27-09-201/
Homeland - 101 - Pilot
Now here is a pilot episode! This was so much better than anything else I have seen all season that I think it deserves a full review treatment including a score out of 100.
Synopsis: After going missing for eight years Sgt. Nicholas Brody is found alive by Special Forces in Iraq. Everyone sees him as a hero except for CIA agent Carrie Mathison who was tipped off that an American soldier had been turned by Al Qaeda. Brody returns home to his family who have moved on without him and reunited awkwardly with them. Mathison illegally puts his home under surveillance and becomes obsessed with proving that he has been turned.
The Good: The fact that the synopsis is so succinct is one of the major strengths of Homeland. If you like your dramas straight and to the point then they don't come much better than this. It took literally four scenes to establish the entire show. Mathison (Clare Danes) gets an informant in an Iraqi prison to tell her an important piece of intelligence. Ten months later and her CIA boss shows footage of Brody being rescued by Special Forces. Mathison rushes to her mentor Saul and tells him that Brody might have been turned. We jump to Brody now getting a haircut and a shave and that's it.
We have everything we need to go on. Brody is naturally suffering from the trauma of being kidnapped for eight years and yet we know he is hiding something. Brody is a true blue white skinned American soldier. If he is now an Al Qaeda terrorist he will have access to targets that no one else could have. He is dangerous.
Mathison is the only one who even suspects him. Far from being a natural hero she is obsessed and intense. Without Saul's protection her career might have stalled more than it has. We soon learn that she is on anti-psychotics and that her incident in Iraq caused major problems for the CIA and her current boss.
Within four scenes we have an exciting taut thrilled in place. It's a wonderful economy of writing and direction. The plot then moves forward following the two of them. Brody throws up on his flight home. He is awkward around his children because they barely remember him. His wife had moved on and was sleeping with one of his friends. Their reunion is understandably tense and leads to a disturbingly aggressive sex scene. Damian Lewes is excellent as Brody giving away so much of his emotion with little twitches and facial expressions. We know Brody is lying and it seems 99% certain that he is now a terrorist in waiting.
Meanwhile Mathison immediately and illegally taps Brody's phones and sticks cameras in his home. She is now able to observe him 24\7 which naturally drives her to become entirely obsessed by him. Her own partners in crime question her behaviour and when Saul suspects that she is hiding something he goes to her house and uncovers her surveillance operation.
That was a moment that wouldn't happen on a network show. He is having none of this and makes it clear that he has to hand her over to the authorities. In the best moment of the episode she desperately tries to touch him in a sexual way to change his mind. He is much older than her and clearly a paternal figure. "What the fuck are you doing?" he asks in a voice of real surprise and concern. It was a wonderful character moment.
All credit to Clare Danes who does a great job with the role. Matthison is a mess and in a first for my TV viewing we see her washing her crotch before a meeting. It was a moment, along with a scene where she tried to choose a seductive outfit, which gave us an intimate insight into her life. Everything for her comes second to the job. She is still upset about not preventing 9\11 and clearly lives an unhealthy lifestyle where her work dominates everything else. Her response to the end of career is to hit a bar and get laid which tells you a lot about her state of mind. It's there that she discovers the clue she needs to stop Saul from telling on her and leaves us with the setup for next week's episode.
What else can I say? After only one hour of TV I feel I already know these characters better than some I have been watching on other shows for years. The stakes are clear and simple and the action moved at a great clip.
The Bad: Although it doesn't bother me too much it is a little difficult to imagine that Matthison could be on anti-psychotics and working for the CIA. She says she has been on them or other medication for ten years. But as a contributor to the Firewall and Iceberg podcast pointed out, the CIA does regular drug tests and psychological evaluations. It would be difficult for her to rise so high with such a condition. She also seems a little young to have been in any position to stop 9\11. But neither of these facts destroys the credibility of her character. I will keep an eye on it though.
The Unknown: The downside to a show like Homeland is that it is set up like The Killing or Twin Peaks around just one mystery. Will the characters around the two stars grow as they sort of did on Rubicon? Or will the show become too dependent on its main storyline and struggle to keep our attention? It's certainly possible that things could play out that way.
I wonder if it would have been more intriguing to keep us in the dark about whether Brody had been turned or not. It's possible that a twist is coming but it certainly seems like he has been. Perhaps discovering the truth could have provided more story for the writers to tell. Of course it's entirely possible that that too could have become a crutch and an annoying tease.
I will be very interested in the psychology of how he was turned (assuming he has been). We see a somewhat generic setup where it appears he has been brainwashed and is now willing to commit violent acts against the United States. I don't know much about the idea of brain washing and I hope they know how to handle it. It certainly doesn't seem like Brody was converted to Islam and sympathising with the plight of the oppressed.
Best Moment: I loved that moment between Mathison and Saul. It was such a simple and effective way to show us the desperation of her conviction.
Conclusion: The Homeland pilot is a great episode of television. I'm not going to make the mistake of assuming it will turn into a great show. My experience of one-plot mysteries is that they can become tedious. I hope that doesn't happen here as the performances and presentation were very promising.
2 Broke Girls - 103 - And Strokes of Good Will
I still think there could be a show here. The little moments of authenticity are genuinely fun. Caroline dancing around the store in her new shorts and Max talking to Chestnut (the horse) gave us a glimpse of what this could be.
So far though we just get the pilot repeated over and over again. Max pushes Caroline away, Caroline wins her over and they are friends again by the end. That story is fine but I still don't think it's being told as well as it should be. Twice the emotional core of the episode was lost. Caroline gets tearful at the sight of her old shoes in goodwill and then Max ignores her so the moment is lost.
Then you have Max' excitement over the Strokes t-shirt. Although that plot kept going the writing didn't focus enough on what it meant to Caroline. I think in general the show doesn't do a good enough job of establishing the poverty of the girls. This would have been a chance to really draw a contrast between Max and Caroline. Max couldn't afford the Strokes t-shirt back in the day and so to find one was a great moment for her. Caroline has never lacked anything material and so this was a chance for her to show a) how much she cares and b) that they can get things they want in life by working together.
I don't see why so many modern sit coms miss the obvious emotional thrust of a story like this. Those emotions are the only tool other than humour that they have to work with. They need to use it. Especially as the show still isn't funny. The racist stereotypes remain horrible to watch.
New Girl - 103 - Wedding
As with 2 Broke Girls I felt the emotional core of this was missing.
Winston has come back from playing basketball overseas and is worried about getting a job in the US. He is worried about being perceived as a failure. So he goes to the wedding to be the best usher he can be and avoid questions about his life. Instead of focussing on that story and those emotions he gets into a silly fight with a child. By episodes end his story has been forgotten and he is worshipping at the altar of Jess for no particular reason.
Similarly we get a major revelation about Schmidt here when we learn that in college his nickname was Fat Schmidt. Let's pause for a moment and think about how funny that revelation could have been if given proper time. But anyway this is a major character moment. This explains why he sleeps with women so rapaciously. This explains why he is obsessed with being cool. This explains why he keeps whipping off his shirt to show off his body.
That is a great story to tell. He is pursuing Brooke, a girl he could never get in college, and of course that means a lot to him. It seems like such an easy story to draw out sympathy for him. Instead we get sidetracked with typical sit com nonsense about him being an alcoholic and his weird sexual relationship with the less attractive Gretchen.
Then we have Nick in a fairly solid story about finally letting go of his ex with Jess' help. Although this one played out ok I still don't really have a sense of who Nick is. We know he is a nice guy but that's about it. We don't know why he is so obsessed with his ex. We don't know if he is an emotional guy by nature or if she really is the one.
I also think the writers just assume that everyone will fall in love with Jess and her quirks. Nick finally agrees to let go of his ex because Jess encourages him to even though she says nothing different than his other housemates have been saying for a long time. The way they all end up dancing to her drum beat at the end of the episode implies she did something to win them over beyond being unique. I don't see it.
I also don't think her character has been properly defined yet. In Season One of Friends we actually got much better definition of Phoebe's character than we get here. Phoebe believed in specific things and had a traumatic past to draw on. Jess just seems goofy by nature and that's about it.
Whitney - 103 - Silent Treatment
Again this was thorough. Whitney and Alex have an argument and it lasts all episode until it is resolved. Unfortunately there is so much missing from this show that the focus is hurting and not helping. Whitney comes across as obsessive and insecure for harassing Alex to admit he checked out another woman. She also seems naive considering that is such a common part of male-female relationships. Whitney just hasn't been established as lovable or admirable yet. She seems insecure and irritating most of the time.
The focus on her antics has also meant we know nothing about the supporting characters. The B plot saw Roxanne try to help Lily create an interesting Facebook profile to help her attract men. The plot went nowhere and didn't focus on who Lily is or what she is looking for. Roxanne actually gets her to stand next to some guys at the bar and have her photo taken with them. The goal was to make her look popular. Umm, isn't the wider purpose to help her meet a guy? So why not, you know, talk to those guys instead of using them for the picture?
If you don't hear more from me about Whitney then it means I still think the show isn't funny or well defined.
How to Be a Gentleman - 102 - How to Have a One-Night Stand
Speaking of which, sadly the same goes for How to Be a Gentleman. As with 2 Broke Girls writers are really struggling to create believable scenarios for these odd couple friendships to develop. After meeting for the first time in years last episode Bert now moves in with Andrew. That is ridiculous and no explanation could adequately explain it away.
Then Andrew sleeps with a woman and Bert refuses to let him call her for three days. It's a standard story but no real explanation was given for Bert's actions. He kept talking about wanting to break Bert out of his normal patterns of behaviour. But how would he know what they were? Or why that would be bad for Andrew? Or what might go wrong if Andrew called the Cellist straight away?
The problem here is that Bert was put in the role of single player who knows how nice guys like Andrew function. But that isn't Bert. Bert is supposed to be the dumb gym rat who doesn't put much thought into meeting women. Without definition their relationship seems forced and unconvincing. The humour remains basic and dull too. Again if I write no more you know what the deal is.
Suburgatory - 102 - The Barbeque
This was fine as a follow up. Again Tessa and George stood out as the likeable, normal characters in a cartoon world. The key now is to make us care about them. It's not enough to assume we will sympathise with Tessa for being dropped into suburbia. Considering she makes out with a hot (if dumb) guy here it doesn't seem like she will have trouble fitting in.
Pan Am - 102 - We'll Always Have Paris
This was charming in a light weight drama way. I enjoyed most of what was on offer but I can't quite see it hooking me in the long run. The comparisons with Mad Men remain unfavourable. The dialogue is far too modern and the bursts of feminism seem too bold and direct. Yet, as I say, it is charming. I can't complain about a network wanting to make a more mainstream 1960s show and Dean's sadness and the sisters emotions surrounding their mum was all solid stuff. I think I will stop writing about it for now. If anything changes I will be back to say so.