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July 21, 2016

Mini-review: Vice Principals 1x1 (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on July 21, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Walton Goggins and Danny McBride in Vice Principals

In the US: Sundays, 10.30pm, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9.35pm, Sky Atlantic. Starts July 26th

This year, it seems, is the year that US TV has decided it wants not only to go back to school but to go back to school childishly. "Being an adult hard? How about a bunch of teachers who behave like kids? Wouldn't you like to watch that?" seems to be the theory.

We've already had Teachers and Those Who Can't from TV Land and TruTV respectively, offering us just that, and now we have HBO's efforts at the same, Vice Principals, in which Walton Goggins (Justified, The Shield, The Hateful Eight) and Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down, Tropic Thunder) are - yes, you guessed it - vice principals at the same US High School. Goggins is the sweet-talking but ultimately two-faced popular one; McBride is the foul-mouthed, inadequate dick that everyone hates; both hate each other.

Then the principal (Bill Murray - yes, Bill Murray) decides to stand down for the sake of his sick wife, prompting a contest between his deputies to replace him, only for both their dreams to be dashed as outsider Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Devious Maids) gets the top spot instead. My enemy's enemy is my friend so McBride and Goggins unite to defeat their new opponent - but such is their ineptitude, all's that likely is mutually assured destruction instead.

The show has several strands of (attempted) comedy. With McBride co-creating and writing, as per Eastbound and Down, it's not surprise there's his usual parade of attempted alpha male put-downs, extreme dickery and inappropriate teaching methods, here filtered through a more inadequate, more self-aware, less sports-obsessed prism than Kenny Powers. There's also the childish squabbling between McBride and Goggins, and their frequently politically incorrect antagonism towards Gregory's 'smart, sassy black woman' routine - which, subtly, is itself as manufactured as both McBride and Goggins' facades.

But despite all those elements at play, Vice Principals isn't hugely funny, except towards the end of this first episode when the two enemies unite, and largely feels like watered down Eastbound and Down. McBride's ex-wife Busy Philipps (Cougar Town) doesn't get to do much beyond be the butt of his ineptitude, while Shea Whigham as her new husband largely gets to play the unexpectedly nice guy that McBride doesn't quite know how to deal with, without getting to cause any laughs himself. 

An almost-interesting looking at failing masculinity and petty power struggles, Vice Principals might get better in its second episode when hostilities take off. The fact that it's a definite two-season, 18-episode run means that it should have a fixed story arc that takes as long as it needs, no more, no less, which is another plus. At the moment, though, it feels like it needs work: must try harder.

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July 8, 2016

Review: Roadies 1x1-1x2 (US: Showtime; UK: Amazon Prime)

Posted on July 8, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Roadies

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime
In the UK: Mondays, Amazon Prime

Although the theory of 'the auteur' is eminently quibblable, it's fair to say that you can spot the work of Cameron Crowe a mile off. Whether it's Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Elizabethtown or We Bought A Zoo, his work is usually characterised by an indie sensibility; a central male-female, potentially romantic relationship; quirky dialogue; a focus on music; and a lot of heart but not much brain. You won't get very far through Roadies, Showtime's new series about those unsung heroes and heroines of the live music industry, before proclaiming it as possibly the most Cameron Crowish piece of work that Cameron Crowe has ever done.

Crowe's never been one for putting plot above character, so it's a little hard to say what Roadies is actually about, other than that it's a show about roadies - and the first episode is an introduction to all of them. The ostensible focus of the show are Luke Wilson (Idiocracy, The Royal Tenenbaums, Legally Blonde, Enlightened), the tour manager with a failed marriage and who now sleeps with women literally half his age, and Carla Gugino (Watchmen, Threshold, Wayward Pines), the production manager with a failing marriage and who doesn't sleep with anyone. They have such The Thin Man chemistry together and obvious devotion to one another, everyone who meets them thinks they're married - except they're not!

However, Crowe seems more interested in Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later), the young roadie who's heading off to film school because she's stopping believing in the music. If only she could recover her faith. Most of the first episode follows her around as she slowly rediscovers that faith thanks to all her fellow roadies, who are all a motley bunch of amiable characters: Ron White, the old hand who may have murdered two people but all the bands like; Keisha Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones, The Almighty Johnsons, Whale Rider), the lesbian; and Peter Cambor (The Wedding Band), the guy from New Jersey who worked with Elvis Costello for a while and got stuck with his accent. There's also Machine Gun Kelly, a roadie for another band with a strange relationship with Poots, which gets explained at the end of the first episode (spoilers, sweetie).

Crowe's one real concession to plot comes from Rafe Spall (The Shadow Line, I Give It A Year), the semi-menacing English finance guy who used to work in sports and 'real estate' so doesn't really get music, but who's been sent over to make some budget cuts. Who's for the chop? Probably not Poots, judging by the other age-inappropriate, Crowe-typical relationship that gets thrown into the mix. Probably no one, in fact, as Spall gradually learns that it's love and people, not numbers, that keeps everything working backstage and you remove a piece of that bizarrely intricate puzzle at your own risk.

That first episode is in many ways lovely and heart-felt, albeit a bit saccarine and divorced from reality, with obvious love for music and people oozing from every scene - even for Spall and the creepy stalker girl who wants to do odd things with microphones (Jacqueline Byers). The trouble with auteurship, though, is that unless you're Aaron Sorkin and prepared to consume superhuman amounts of cocaine to write a classic script every couple of weeks for umpteen years, it's not something that can transfer over easily from film to TV.

The result is that even though Crowe directs the first two episodes, he hands over writing duties to others from episode two. Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life) is the first to pick up the slack, but although she's good in her own right, she's not up to being Cameron Crowe. The result is faux-Crowe and a little bit painful to watch without his heart-on-a-sleeve gushing. It doesn't help that Wilson pretty much checks out after the first episode, even if everyone else is working hard, particularly Spall whose role switches from menacing to comedic from the second episode. To be fair again, Wilson does give a near-perfect performance as someone who's coming down after smoking heinous amounts of weed, so there's that one small concession to reality, at least.

If you like Cameron Crowe, it's worth watching the first episode at least, as long as you consider it as a one-off short movie. Watching any more than that would be intolerable. You can watch a trailer below, and if you're in the US, you can watch the first episode for free here.

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July 6, 2016

Review: The Kettering Incident 1x1-1x2 (Australia: Foxtel Showcase)

Posted on July 6, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Kettering Incident

In Australia: Mondays, 8.30pm AEST, Foxtel Showcase)
In the UK: Not yet acquired

As I mentioned in my recent birthday round-up of lessons learnt over the past year, Australian TV is on the rise at the moment. There are lots of reasons for this. There's the arrival of BBC First, resulting in the native channels having to create more of their own content rather than buy it from the BBC. Keeping a keener eye on selling to foreign markets means that co-production money can elevate or even gets shows off the ground where once they would have languished or not get made - Cleverman, for example, has benefited a lot from SundanceTV US's budget contributions. There are also government and state funding bodies, with the likes of Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales giving TV companies cash and/or help in exchange for jobs-boosting filming (cf The Doctor Blake Mysteries) - which helps a lot.

All of this comes together in some way or other with The Kettering Incident, a production from Foxtel Showcase (think of it as Australia's Sky Atlantic, UK readers) made in association with BBC Worldwide and Screen Tasmania. It's also got its eyes firmly on what appears to sell well to the overseas market - beautifully shot, moody locations (Top of the Lake) and 'Australian Gothic' (Glitch). 

Elizabeth Debicki, who of course was faux American in The Night Manager, is here a faux Brit - well, an Australian who used to live in the town of Kettering in Tasmania until she was a teenager. Then, while she and her friend were out in the forbidden woods one night, they see some lights, hear some noises and suddenly it's eight hours later, Debicki is all alone and covered in blood and her friend has gone missing.

Fast-forward 15 years and she's now a haematologist living in London. Problem is, she's starting to have black-outs, during which she does weird things. She wakes up in the bins at the side of the street, covered in bruises. She wanders into her hospital and starts tap dancing. Then worst of all, she wakes up back in Kettering, having unknowingly bought a plane ticket and flown over there.

Before you know it, she's having more time gaps, other people are disappearing having seen the lights, huge moths are gathering for no good reason, and she's having visions. All while she gets angrily stared at by all the people who think she killed her friend.

Is there some secret military base, aliens, fairies or something weirder out in the forest? Or is Debicki psychotic like her mum and killing people when she blanks out?

The first two episodes are a tad on the slow side, something that's not helped by the fact Debicki's character is shit to everyone she meets or just spaced out the whole time. Most of it is Debicki milling around, meeting people, having a vision (usually of a moth) then passing out, only to discover something terrible/awkward has happened while she was out. There's also not much by way of investigation of the central mystery, which given this first season is eight episodes and the showrunners are angling for additional seasons, makes me worry it'll be about another five weeks before anyone does anything except pass out/complain about all the logging going on/have secret meetings to discuss Debicki.

But it does look very pretty and a bit eery, thanks to all the Tasmanian filming, the time losses are disconcerting (more so than in The Anomaly, thankfully) and there's a good chance there might be a decent mystery behind it all, so I'll probably stick with it for another couple of weeks at least. I'm not going to recommend it just yet, but I'll keep my eye on it for you for now.

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