Archive | US TV

An archive of articles about US television programmes and production.


October 18, 2014

Third-episode verdict: A to Z (US: NBC)

Posted on October 18, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerAtoZ.jpgA Barrometer rating of 4

In the US: Thursdays, 9.30/8.30c, NBC

Three episodes into A To Z and we’re seeing signs of improvement from that initial, not very enticing first episode. Unfortunately, those signs are also of “Everything Else Syndrome". For those who don’t know “Everything Else Syndrome”, it’s when a TV show has a focus - in the case of a rom-com, the two would-be lovers - and it’s dull and uninteresting, largely because everything else is more interesting.

In the case of a rom-com, that’s usually because of co-morbidity with “Best Friends Syndrome” - that is, not only are the central characters quite dull, their best friends are a lot more interesting. Think The Big Bang Theory, Mad Love, Will and Grace, and so on - you’d rather have been watching shows about the supporting cast, wouldn’t you?

A To Z ostensibly is about Andrew (Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti), a boy and a girl who meet and are apparently well suited to each other, the big rom-com twists being

  1. He’s the romantic one, but she’s been hurt so is the closed-off one
  2. Each episode charts (from A to Z, since calling the show A To Z simply because of the characters’ names would be incredibly weak, wouldn’t it?) the ups and downs of their relationship from beginning to end. Yes, end.

Now, that’s not really much to keep you watching and if you’re already rooting for Andrew and Zelda to get and stay together, you need to get out more, since they are unremittingly dull, even when they’re revealing their own deep dark secret pasts in the the third episode. Equally, narrator Katey Sagal has made it clear that there is an end to the relationship, and while you can certainly hope for there to be a get-out clause that reunites them, you really are hoping against hope there.

So instead, if you are going to watch A To Z - and on the whole, I wouldn’t recommend that - it’s because of everything else except Andrew and Zelda. Andrew works for an online dating company and actually, everyone who works at that company is more interesting than Andrew. There are a couple of programmers who used to go out together and are quite funny together (Parvesh Cheena, Hong Chau); there’s a human resources person (Ben Falcone) who has to deal with the overbearing, intrusive, amoral, empathy-free and occasionally very weird CEO (Christina Kirk); and there’s Stu (Henry Zebrowski), Andrew’s best friend and habitual online dating liar.

To complicate matters, Stu used to go out with lawyer Zelda’s best friend and work colleague Stephie (Lenora Crichlow from our very own Being Human and who's come fresh from best friend duties on ABC’s Back In The Game), when Stu pretended to be a jazz musician, so the two exes now have to get along because their best friends are now dating.

And because of both “Everything Else Syndrome” and “Best Friends Syndrome”, these are the parts of the show it’s possible to both enjoy and look forward to, since not only are the characters more interesting and given more comedic situations and lines, the actors also get more to do, too. Indeed, increasingly more and more of the show is dedicated to the supporting cast.

Trouble is - as Mad Love showed - if you have a rom-com and the audience would rather be watching the supporting cast, you’re probably not going to last long. And I think with A To Z, it’s pretty clear that cancellation is hanging over it in the exact same way that Katey Segal’s doom-laden voiceover does.

So not even a cautious recommendation from me. While there have been some laughs from the office side of things and the third-episode was an oddly innovative look at how Google and the Internet have changed online dating, all of which lift the show above the likes of Manhattan Love Story, we’re still talking about a show with not enough appeal to justify your tuning in for half an hour every week.

Life’s too short for doomed relationships, so it’s time to move on.

Barrometer rating: 4
Rob’s prediction: Cancelled before the end of the season

October 17, 2014

Review: Jane the Virgin 1x1 (US: The CW; UK: E4)

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Jane The Virgin

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, The CW
In the UK: Acquired by E4. Will air in 2015

As I mentioned in my earlier review today of ABC’s Cristela, there’s a right way and a wrong way to make TV more diverse. The wrong way is simply to stick minority characters in any old rubbish, stack it full of obvious stereotypes that can be easily knocked down, and assume that’s enough to make people watch and root for the hero or heroine.

That doesn’t work.

The right way is to do something clever. Now telenovelas are one of the big successes of Spanish-language TV in both North and South America. In their purest definition, they are merely stories told over a fixed number of episodes, with a fixed beginning, middle and end. No eternal renewals for these boys and girls.

But most telenovelas are more than this basic definition and are more like soap operas, but insane, crazy soap operas crossed with poetry with mysterious identical twins, crazed half-brothers, and romances sometimes almost literally written among the stars. We’re talking “heightened reality” here.

While there have been some efforts to create English-language versions of some of the most popular telenovelas, few of them have actually got anywhere, with Ugly Betty being the only truly notable adaptation so far, with the likes of The Black Widow, Rubí, Killer Women and all the ones planned by the BBC a few years ago either stuck in development hell or just being dreadful.

This looks set to change with the EW’s Jane The Virgin, an adaptation of Venezuela’s Juana La Virgen. Incorporating all the heightened reality and standard tropes of telenovelas, it features Gina Rodriguez (The Bold and the Beautiful) as a Jane Villanueva, a young Latina raised by her grandmother to prize her virginity and only to lose it with the man she marries - unlike her mother (Andrea Navedo), who still won’t reveal who Jane’s real father is.

Fortunately, Jane has a loving cop boyfriend (Brett Dier) who’s willing to wait. Unfortunately, she has a doctor whose wife cheats on her the day before Jane’s check-up, distracting her so much that she confuses her with a patient coming in for artificial insemination. The result? Jane is still a virgin, yet pregnant.

Since this is telenovela territory, things still aren’t complicated or implausible enough yet. The woman who was supposed to be impregnated (Yael Grobglas) was doing so using her husband’s only remaining sperm sample, frozen from before he had treatment for cancer. She was only doing that because he (Justin Baldoni) was about to divorce her and she figured that if they had a child together, he would stay with her. Even more complicated is the fact that Jane has a crush on Baldoni and kissed him once.

Phew. That’s a lot, isn’t it? And I’ve not even started on who Jane’s father is - you don’t want everything to be spoiled, do you?

What lifts the show above the regular telenovela and telenovela adaptation is that it knows what it is and is happy to subvert it and use it. Throughout the show, Jane - an avid telenovela fan - constantly compares her life to telenovelas and seeks inspiration from the telenovelas she adores. The narration also makes frequent comparison and reference to the nature of the situation and its implausibility, and how much like a telenovela it is. Jane even gets dream sequence in-story advice from characters from her favourite telenovela, something even more complicated by the arrival at the end of the first episode of the main actor in that telenovela.

It’s also braver than a lot of shows. While Jane eventually decides to keep the baby, something without which the show wouldn’t have much of a premise, she nevertheless does consider an abortion and there’s even a discussion about the possibility by the main characters - an area few American shows would dare to address. It’s also happy to have about 25% of the show in subtitled Spanish (and in the US at least, you can watch the whole show in Spanish if you want), with some characters only speaking Spanish, even if Jane does have the slightly odd habit of replying in English to them, despite understanding them perfectly.

At the end of the day, this is still a telenovela and whether you’ll enjoy it or not comes down to whether you like telenovelas. But Jane the Virgin is at the top end of telenovelas, being charming, funny and smart, and at least on a par with Ugly Betty. If they’re you’re thing, you’ll love Jane the Virgin.

October 17, 2014

Review: Cristela 1x1 (US: ABC)

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Cristala

In the US: Fridays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC

Latinos make up 17% of the US population and 47% of the population of California, but if you watched network US TV, you’d be hard-pressed to see that fact represented on-screen. There’s a token character here and there sometimes, but largely shows are resolutely white and when there is decent representation of minorities, it’s almost always black characters who get the look in.

This season, however, some networks are trying to improve this lack of representation. Over on The CW, we have Jane The Virgin (review coming up later today) while on ABC - which is really pushing diversity this season with shows including black-ish and How To Get Away With Murder - we have Cristela, starring up and coming Latina comedienne Cristela Alonzo. Based on her own life, Cristela sees the eponymous Cristela dreaming of becoming a lawyer as she enters her sixth year of law school, while simultaneously trying to juggle her family responsibilities and jobs. In particular, she’s moved in with her sister (Maria Canals-Barrera), something that doesn’t please her brother-in-law (Carlos Ponce from Couples Retreat) one bit, and none of her family are that happy with her doing anything but getting married and being subservient to men - not even helping the young daughter to play soccer.

All of the home life scenes are cringe-worthy and clumsy but the show does better when it goes to the law firm where Cristela ends up interning. Rather than sexism, here other isms are examined, with pasty blonde posh girl Justine Lupe (Harry’s Law) taking on the main piñata role necessary for this, first assuming Cristela is a cleaner before realising her mistake and asking her to validate parking. Boss Sam McMurray treads a slightly subtler line, being a blunt good old boy who says outrageous things that it’s unclear whether he truly means or is only saying as a bit of ‘banter’, since he clearly esteems new hire Cristela. And would get an epic law suit if he really meant them.

Meanwhile, the rather sweet Andrew Leeds (best known as serial killer Chirstopher Pelant on Bones) gets to be both competition at the firm, as well as a sounding board and sympathetic ear to Cristela, and its in Alonzo's interactions with McMurray and Leeds that the show actually finds some lines and moments of intelligence and comedy that transcend its general humour vacuum.

Based in Dallas, Texas (Latino population: 42% - something not entirely obvious from Dallas), the show’s efforts to persuade that it’s filmed anywhere but a studio in Los Angeles largely fail, despite copious references to Dallas football and having Sam McMurray deploy a Texan accent while all around him sound resolutely midwestern. It’s not entirely clear why Canals-Barrera walks around in a cocktail dress all day, either.

However, some aspects of it have a degree of authenticity and it’s even happy to have unsubtitled Spanish dialogue at times, assuming that the audience will probably understand what’s being said. Alonzo’s not being a size-zero inevitably means that the show follows a The Mindy Project line, making her the butt of numerous size jokes as well, although she gives as good as she gets and is similarly self-deprecating. She’s also clearly having a lot of fun and while the writing messes around with Latino and Latina stereotypes, a lot of it relies on her ebullient and winning performance to defuse potentially abrasive situations and reduce serious discussions down to more comedic exchanges.

A multi-camera comedy, the show suffers from an audience that will laugh and go ‘Ah!’ without the slightest provocation from the script. The plotting is basic and predictable, with Alonzo’s family inevitably coming round to accepting her unpaid legal internship by the end of the episode (cue of ‘Ah!’ from the audience following generic affirming statements from Alonzo’s previously antagonistic mother).

It’s not a great show. It’s not an innovative show, beyond its casting: the jokes are obvious, the characters basic and the plotting pedestrian. Anything to do with the main character’s family is horrendous.

So while it’s good to see a show like it on TV, Cristela nonetheless highlights that as well as diversity in casting, there needs to be quality in the writing or else no one will end up watching. And if you don’t believe me on that, allow me to point you in the direction of Rob Schneider’s Rob.

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