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October 31, 2016

Review: Chance 1x1-1x3 (US: Hulu)

Posted on October 31, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Chance

In the US: Wednesdays, Hulu

For most people in the UK, Hugh Laurie is Hugh Laurie. He may have played Gregory House in House for umpteen seasons, but he's also the guy from Blackadder, Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster, and Stephen Fry's comedy writing partner for most of the 80s and early 90s.

For most Americans, though, he's House. He is the grumpy, misanthropic, genius American doctor from House. End of. So you can kind of understand why Laurie would take on a two-season role as an eponymous doctor again, if only to cleanse American viewers' memories by playing something similar, but crucially different in one big regard: he's nice.

Based on the novel by Ken Humm (John from Cincinnati), Chance sees Laurie playing a consultant psychologist, who tries to sort out treatment for people who have neurological problems. When Gretchen Mol (Life on Mars) is referred to him with disassociative personality disorder, which she says started after her cop husband Paul Adelstein (Prison Break) began to abuse her, he tries to help her but soon the husband is coming after him.

Meanwhile, the non-confrontational Laurie is in the middle of a no-fault divorce from his wife Diane Farr (Numb3rs) and needs money. When he takes his antique desk to Clarke Peters (The Wire) to be sold, Peters tells him he could get nearly twice as much money if it still had the metalwork on it. Fortunately, Ethan Suplee (My Name is Earl) works for him and could add the missing metalwork if Laurie doesn't mind a little deception. In turn, Suplee doesn't mind a little bit of ultra-violence and is potentially willing to help Laurie out with his other problem…

I'll play a little game now. I'll list a few things and you have to say at which word you realised what the show's biggest influence is.

San Francisco. Psychiatry. Blonde. Femme fatale. Different personalities. Hitchcockian strings.

Well, if you haven't got it already, the answer's Vertigo, one of Alfred Hitchock's finest, in which Jimmy Stewart falls for Kim Novak who plays two women who turn out to be just the one. Certainly, Chance has huge ladels of both Vertigo and film noir spread all over it. There's also lashings of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, with Suplee and Peters leading the normally ethical Laurie towards a life of escalating moral infractions towards possibly even murder.

But Chance is certainly a lot more than that and knows that you know what its references are. Certainly, Laurie doesn't do anything massively stupid, instead doing all manner of smart, prudent things rather than leaping in at the deep end. There's also a certain House of Cards - David Mamet's, that is - quality to it all which the show is also keen to highlight. Is maths tutor Mol really disassociative or is she faking it? Is Adelstein really doing all the things that he seems to be doing or is the surprisingly bright Suplee actually doing it all to lure Laurie into a huge con? Could they even all be in league with one another?

Chance wants you to be wondering all of these things, which is why, despite its depressing qualities, it's also compelling, very tense and claustrophobic (rather than vertiginous). The double meaning in the title, which becomes hugely important in the second episode, makes you wonder exactly how much of what's going on is genuine coincidence and what's not - or even if Laurie's character is facing a Sixth Sense discovery that he's had a brain injury himself. Even if you're not exactly sure what the trap is, you can feel the jaws slowly closing around Laurie, who's a good guy who wants to do the right thing.

It's a good, smart, well-paced thriller that's definitely worth a try.

Barrometer rating: 2
Would it be better with a female lead? No
TMINE's prediction: Commissioned for two seasons

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October 27, 2016

Review: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency 1x1 (US: BBC America; UK: Netflix)

Posted on October 27, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Dirk Gently (BBC America/Netflix)

In the US: Saturdays, 9/8c, BBC America
In the UK: Will air on Netflix in December

Adaptations are a funny old thing, aren't they? Sometimes you find out more about the person - or country - doing the adaptation than about the original material.

Take Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, a Douglas Adams book written in the 1980s based on scripts he wrote for Doctor Who. It sees the eponymous chubby detective investigating Cambridge colleges, time machines, Electric Monks, the creation of human life and impossible sofas, all in the belief that everything is interconnected and that if he investigates one thing, no matter how seemingly unrelated, he'll end up solving the original mystery.

The story was adapted for BBC Four six years ago by Misfits' Howard Overton, spawning a TV series two years later. How much was it like the book? Not much, despite strip-mining all the good stuff from it, but it was very BBC Four, with bumbling English people and a budget of 50p.

Now we have Max Landis and BBC America's efforts, which are even less like the book, but do at least have a character of their own. A continuation of sorts to both Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and its follow-up, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul (judging by the references to both sofas and Thor), it sees Dirk (Samuel Barnett) relocated to Seattle where he's hired to investigate the death of reclusive millionaire Julian McMahon (Charmed, Fantastic Four, Nip/Tuck, Hunters, Childhood's End)… by McMahon, six weeks before he's murdered.

One of the few witnesses to the murder is bellboy Elijah Wood (Wilfred, Lord of the Rings), who has his own problems with his drug dealer landlord, his hallucinating ill sister Hannah Marks (Necessary Roughness), a corgi, and the police who are following him, including Richard Schiff (The West Wing). But when Barnett breaks into Wood's apartment because it looks interesting, Barnett decides Wood is prime 'assistant' material and the two end up holistically intertwined.

It has to be said that the show is odd. Very odd. Very odd at odd moments. Just as everything looks like it's settled into one form of odd, a time traveller will appear, a holistic assassin will start macheting people at random, four guys in a van will start sucking someone's soul or bullets will richochet off a pipe and kill the kidnapper in the flat above. New odd is here - get used to it for the next five minutes because there'll be another one along in a minute. Ooh look, it's a musical number!

Which is both in keeping with Adams' writing yet simultaneously quite Landis (cf American Ultra). On top of that, there's an American quality to it all - Barnett is less a schlubby ne'er do well in a silly leather hat, more an American's idea of an eccentric Brit via Harry Potter. There's also a distinct air of 'improving one's self', with Wood's embracing of Barnett's holistic philosophy leading to his life becoming significantly better, and the familial side of things with Marks and Wood is almost heartwarming in an American stylee.

I'm not sure whether this Dirk Gently is a huge improvement over the previous one, though. Barnett's too young to really work as Gently - Schiff would have been perfect - and Wood is basically just doing the bamboozled sidekick routine he perfected in Wilfred. There was also never a point where I felt myself relax into the show enough to genuinely enjoy.

But it does at least feel a lot more like Dirk Gently, despite having nothing at all in common with the books beyond themes, it's full of what look like potentially interesting ideas and there's enough life in the supporting cast at least that it's worth watching for them.

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October 26, 2016

Review: Man With A Plan 1x1 (US: CBS)

Posted on October 26, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Man With A Plan

In the US: Mondays, 8.30/7.30c, CBS

Evolution of TV man

See that? As you're probably a trained scientist, you probably know that's a chart of the evolution of US TV sitcom man. Unfortunately, TV time is non-linear, so despite the fact we're normally constantly evolving, lots of US sitcoms see men devolving into lower forms of life. Sometimes within a single show or even episode of a show.

Now, CBS TV sitcom man usually sits fourth on the chart. He has a stick for doing manual work, you'll notice, but the ability to articulate complicated ideas and to avoid defecating in his own pants, assuming he's wearing any, is still a good few years of natural selection away.

Of course, sometimes we see even lower forms of life, such as Kevin James in Kevin Can Wait, who would be that bloke with the knife in the middle were it not that carrying it's a bit too much like hard work.

But for all of five minutes in Man With A Plan, Matt Leblanc's new sitcom in which he takes over the childcare when his wife (Liza Snyder) returns to work after 13 years looking after the kids, it seemed like we'd spotted a fully evolved CBS TV sitcom man - number five on the chart. He seemed smart, he seemed willing to understand complex ideas and make intelligent life choices, he accepted his wife as an equal, he organised parties. He was almost a credit to his sex.  

Unfortunately, rapid devolution soon occurred. Despite the fact that any sane parent - even a father! - knows that kids take a certain amount of maintenance, we're back at the rudimentary tools stage for Leblanc as he's demanding after just a day that his wife give up her job and that they resume their former roles. That makes sense, doesn't it, men? You'd just quit, rather than ask your wife for some hints, while potentially wondering why you didn't communicate better with your wife and get her parenting schedule off her before you took over, wouldn't you?

By the end of the episode, of course, Leblanc has been outsmarted by his wife, knows he's been outsmarted by his wife, but since he doesn't have a fully formed cerebral cortex, can't quite work out how. Still, at least he's still smarter than his kids, whom he can just tranquillise by giving an iPad. Roll on Idiocracy, hey?

Compared to Kevin Can Wait and other less evolved sitcoms, Man With A Plan isn't hugely toxic. Leblanc is amiable enough and can do most of this in his sleep, as you can tell from his recent sleep-walking performances on Top Gear. Snyder, who replaced The Office's Jenna Fischer after the pilot episode, dips into US TV sitcom woman's never-ending jar of 'long suffering' to act as a foil to Leblanc's ineptitude and occasional descents into neanderthalism. The kids could have been copied and pasted from any other family sitcom. There's a little bit of interest at the kids school, with some parents and a teacher that aren't totally cookie cutter. There's even occasionally interesting lines, most of which are in the trailer below. 

But given this is the pilot so they're going to be hitting us with their best stuff, I'd firmly recommend not watching any of Man With A Plan, if only because I very much doubt they have a plan.

Here's that trailer I just mentioned - it still has Jenna Fischer in it, but everything's otherwise the same.

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