Fall Pilots 2014, Second Report Card

Jonathan Gray's picture

Continuing with my reviews of the class of 2014 …


The Sitcoms

Bad Judges, wherein bad means “bad ass” (leftmost), “not good” (center), “horrifically and heinously inept” (rightmost, in more ways than one)

Part of the problem with Bad Judge is that they don’t really go for it, and when television already has Judge Judy in stripped syndication, why would I need to tune in weekly for a rather milquetoast version? Sure, the main character drinks, she has sex and talks about it, and she says inappropriate things to kids sometimes, but from Judy to Cartman, Roseanne to Homer, television’s had so many more performances that are legitimately carnivalesque. And when we learn that she really has a heart of gold, and just wants to go all Blind Side and help the poor, struggling black boys of the world, eesh, I was done. Sitcom pilots are notoriously paint-by-numbers, but this show was an especially poor collection of clichés and trite sentiment.       More after the fold:

Mulaney, better with mic in hand; Alonzo, better in another show

Mulaney, better with mic in hand; Alonzo, better in another show

Both Mulaney and Cristela introduced me to considerable comic talents – I now really want to see John Mulaney’s stand-up, and I really hope Cristela Alonzo gets another show. But I don’t particularly want to watch any more of these shows. Mulaney has a quick, smart style, but the pilot seemed too much like what happens when people who only know stand-up try to write a script. It’s just a sequence of one-liners and obvious set-up for more one-liners. Plus, Mulaney doesn’t seem to know how to create a character, just a comic persona – the latter works wonderfully for stand-up, but is way too thin, simple, and uninteresting for a sitcom. Alonzo, by contrast, did a much better job of setting up a character who has depth and complexity, and for a genre that makes a lot of money from offering “identifiable” characters who we want to spend time with, Cristela does that. Alonzo’s delivery is quite unique for television, and I found it refreshing and interesting. But the situation of the situation comedy is boring, and I found everything around Alonzo to be badly done. She’s immensely talented, but not enough to hold the show Atlas-like on her shoulders. Admittedly, both shows might work these kinks out, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if one or either is much better by its second season. Nielsen numbers suggest, though, that no second seasons will occur, so instead I’ll just root for Alonzo to get a new show, and Mulaney to get stand-up specials on Comedy Central.

My reaction to this show approximates her reaction to the flowers, and his reaction to her reaction

My reaction to this show approximates her reaction to the flowers, and his reaction to her reaction

The worst of this batch of comedies, though, is undoubtedly Manhattan Love Story. I could attack its gender constructions, but to do so would be to spend more time with the show than I think it’s worth. Instead, I’ll just note that it’s not at all funny. Yes, its leads are pretty, but that’s all the show has going for it. I don’t want to overstate – it didn’t assault my eyes or delicate sensibilities; it just didn’t do anything to interest, intrigue, or amuse me. Shows like this are good really just for one thing – inspiring would-be television creators to keep trying, since if this can get on the air, anything and everything else deserves a shot too.

Better flowers, better show

Better flowers, better show

Marry Me, by contrast, had easily the best pilot of this batch of sitcoms. Either its writers are really good or NBC threw a bunch of gifted comedians at the pilot to punch it up, since the jokes per minute ratio is high, and though some of those jokes fall flat, there are enough of them that better ones quickly pick up the slack. I found myself laughing a lot. I don’t especially like either of the leads, played by Carey Wilson and Ken Marino, and their fat bearded friend Gil (John Gemberling) is trying way too hard, so the seeds are there for this to go wrong quickly. But I don’t dislike them, and whatever else they have good material to work with, and at least don’t hurt that material. It’s got a quirky style and pace that felt different, and I like the premise of starting with a couple at this stage of their relationship – versus the first-flutters-of-love stage so common to romantic comedies, or versus the old-and-settled stage of so many domesticoms. I also appreciated the scene of her proposing to him, with his male buddies all looking on adoringly – it was nice to see a show suggest that men might find a proposal as endearing as women are stereotypically supposed to, and for that not to be played for humor. If the show’s rate of comedy, penchant for the quirky, and ability to challenge and play with the gendered norms of the romcom keep up, I could be sold on this one. Sadly, the second episode dropped considerably, so this might be the briefest of weddings.


The Procedural

Ever wanted to be a stalker? No? Me neither. Then let's not watch

Ever wanted to be a stalker? Or just a perv? No? Me neither. Then let’s not watch

Stalker was really uncomfortable to watch. Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q are both very good at doing TV and the pacing for a procedural was quite adept. But the pilot was just draped in the male gaze, even when it’s supposed to be criminalizing stalkers through the narrative. The effect was something akin to Pearl Harbor, a blockbuster that shoveled tens of millions of dollars into creating a tentpole set-piece that turned the destruction of American lives into a glorious spectacle, even while it was supposed to be about the horror of that destruction. Here, in Stalker, we have a show about an anti-stalker task force, and hence whose script would seemingly want us to regard stalkers as criminals, but that regularly forces its audience to watch through the eyes of a stalker. We follow Maggie Q even when she’s not being stalked, as she goes home, closes all her windows, then we watch her through a mirror getting undressed. We stalk the victims of the show. It’s all really icky. Even more worrying is that we’re introduced to her partner, McDermott, as a stalker, only to learn at the end that he’s “just” checking up on his kid, who – it’s suggested – was probably taken from him unjustly by his ex-wife. And so the show seems to want to interrogate stalking, suggesting it may not be as creepy as we’d think. While I’m all for shows that don’t make criminality so utterly pathological, I just can’t handle a show that seems to want to mount some kind of defense of the harassment of women. Pity, since while I’d love to watch Q and McDermott in a show, I don’t want to ogle and stalk Q. It’s a very adept procedural, but very worrying at the same time.


The Serials

Do I need another reason not to watch, or is this picture enough?

Do I need another reason not to watch, or is this picture enough?

Maybe The Flash belongs in the procedural category, since it seems set to provide a bad guy a week. In the wake of Arrow, I’m disappointed. First, the premise lends itself to lame plotlines – as Jenna Stoeber notes here, how soon will the writers run out of problems and crimes that can be solved by running fast? Our hero isn’t presented as especially gifted other than being able to run fast either, so whereas, by contrast, Arrow can survive an episode or five without a bow and arrow to be seen, this hero is set up to rely upon and require phase trails and 400m relays. Arrow also introduced me to a more interesting city, whereas The Flash’s pilot puts too many eggs in the basket of the superhero, and doesn’t spend enough time establishing his setting as interesting. Heck, “Center City” already sounds like the most boring place on the planet, so could we at least try to fight that? Ultimately, then, it seemed a poor pastiche of The CW’s recent superheroes in Arrow, Smallville, and Tomorrow People, without enough mythos, sense of place, character depth, or prospects for interesting development to keep me going, even while visually referencing each of those shows and seemingly written according to their formula. Maybe it’ll get better: I’m running the other way. (Sorry, but apparently all criticism about this show requires a “one bad running pun” minimum).

Do I need another reason not to watch, or is this guy enough?

Speaking of replicas that don’t work, Gracepoint is fascinating, in hewing so closely to its original, Broadchurch, and being so bad. We have the same writer, same director, same star, and many of the same shots, similar pacing, etc. It’s not bad for being a copy, to be clear – it’s just not good. Some of this is because of notable drops in quality: whoever thought that Nick Nolte would be good for anything other than to serve as the butt of countless jokes made a major error, and I miss the Harry Potter dude. David Tennant seems more pissed off and irritable in this version, too, and it was hard not to read that extratextually as being pissed off with his agent and himself that he agreed to do this shit. Part of it is because American television can’t commit to the mundanity of existence and of people’s looks that British TV can, so it still looks too pretty. I should admit that I’m an emotional mess, since my daughter’s birth, while watching anything in which kids are abducted or killed. Or at least I thought I was. Somehow, though, nothing here affected me emotionally, in part because it didn’t feel as real as in Broadchurch (cf. the prettiness factor), in part because I’ve already seen Tennant do this, in part because it just doesn’t hold together. It no longer seems to be a story that someone wanted to tell: it reads as a story someone at the network thought would work. There’s no heart in it, so it’s hard to put my heart in it. And so I won’t.


And so we end this second installment of reviews with the three shows left standing on my DVR (along with Marry Me, though its second episode has it on probation):

Coming soon to nightmares across the nation

Coming soon to nightmares across the nation

American Horror Story: Freak Show is creepy and fun, and pitched extremely well down the line of being something with serious commentary and profundity and being something that’s fun and amusing. I don’t have a history with this show, having seen precisely zero episodes of its predecessors, and thus I’m coming to it fresh. Already it’s drilling into my psyche, though. How could that clown not do so, though? He’s played with brilliant if terrifying menace by John Carroll Lynch, who gives a master class on how to act with your eyes alone. If I thought It had fucked me up as a child, Lynch is set to mess me up even more. But countering his own violent menace are all sorts of characters with silent menace, not least of all Jessica Lange, who is having so very much fun with Elsa Mars, and yet who never lets that fun get in the way of a wonderfully layered, dark, complex character. The interrogation of who really is a “freak” risks being trite, yet rarely hits its audience over the head, and is advanced piecemeal enough as to refreshingly avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of being offensive in aggressively advancing a tired normalization discourse, and of being equally offensive in advancing a patronizing message that everyone with a disability is a special philosopher snowflake, from whom we can all learn so very much. Ultimately, I like how unpredictable each and every character is – I have no idea what anyone in the show is capable of, since they’re all written and acted with nuance and options. I eagerly anticipate future installments.


Very different in tone is Jane the Virgin. Way too many shows this year have a voiceover, but Jane uses it best, underscoring its telenovelic roots and vibe with an accented telenovelic commentator. It’s all very whimsical, firmly in the Pushing Daisies mode of fun romantic comedy. The performances are, so far, quite strong too. Gina Rodriguez is charming as Jane, and equally capable of nailing her comic, romantic, and serious scenes. Andrea Navedo also does an excellent job as Jane’s mother, equal parts concerned, caring mother, and funny and absurd. Indeed, it’s the flexibility of the actors that allows the show to do and be a lot, as they and their script are able to stop and hit a touching moment, then quickly ascend into the lofty heights of silly playfulness, and to handle either moment through comedy, drama, or both. I give it extra points for pushing an American audience that is often assumed to be incapable of reading subtitles to engage those subtitles regularly – Jane’s grandma speaks solely in Spanish. I need a good, fun show that isn’t a sitcom (I’ve got those already) in my TV diet, and this fits the bill.

Finally, I reviewed The Affair for Antenna here (scroll down to the bottom), so I’ll just send you there for my thoughts on this excellent show.

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To sum up, if you’re keeping score, I have season recordings set up on my DVR for American Horror Story: Freak Show, Jane the Virgin, The Affair, and Marry Me (though the latter is on notice after its second episode). I waffle on whether I should record or watch Gotham and A to Z. I wish cast members from Scorpion, Stalker, and NCIS: New Orleans well in future shows, but won’t be watching them in these shows. I have similar wishes for cast members in Mulaney, Cristela, and Selfie, though I might check in on their current shows again later in the season, if they’re still alive. Manhattan Love Story, Mysteries of Laura, Bad Judge, Gracepoint, The Flash, Forever, and Madam Secretary are all out of sight, out of mind. How to Get Away with Murder went south quickly, so I’m done with that. Red Band Society and black-ish are shows I meant to check out again, and in theory may still check out, but I don’t feel any excitement about doing so (I mean, c’mon, Anthony Anderson? Ugh), so functionally I may be done with them. And I haven’t seen MTV’s Happyland, but others’ reviews means I won’t be doing so, or The Kingdom or Transparent since I don’t have DirecTV or Amazon Prime respectively.


Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Sat, 25 Oct 2014 02:37:11 +0000