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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.

October 25, 2016

Review: Graves 1x1-1x2 (US: Epix)

Posted on October 25, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share


In the US: Available on Epix

It is a conservative truism that Hollywood has a liberal bias. The likes of Fox probably escape that accusation, with shows like Rosewood and APB even arguing that the police force would be better run by the private sector; it's also a rare action show that has a proper liberal conclusion, with everyone sitting down to a negotiated peace and holding hands with the definitely-not-Middle-Eastern-Muslim terrorists. But on the whole, this is a truism that's probably true.

This is perhaps best demonstrated through depictions of politicians. Take The West Wing, which was also nicknamed by some as The Left Wing, which gave us liberal heroes fighting all manner of problems liberally and ultimately demonstrating through the fierce application of logic and sarcasm that that's the correct and only solution at all times. And that conservatives are racist dummies who can barely string two words together unless those words are 'God' and 'guns'. 

Graves, Epix's first scripted comedy, is a pretty fine demonstration of the same principle. It stars Nick Nolte as a former US president. A sort of composite character of Ronald Regan, Richard Nixon, George HW Bush and George W Bush, 25 years out of the job, he's now reduced to opening retirement homes and the like. Perhaps, that's because in part, he's a huge dick to everyone, including his family.

Then one day, having got himself a new assistant (Ground Floor's Skylar Astin) who used to idolise him as a kid, he finally does what he's avoided his entire career - he Googles himself, and discovers he's regarded as the worst president in American history. Having a crisis of self-confidence, he ends up deciding to turn over a new leaf and become a better man.

Now, if I were a Republican, Graves would confirm pretty much my every stereotype of liberals. Because Nolte doesn't decide he failed to reduce red-tape sufficiently for small businesses, cut unnecessary government departments or bolster marriage. He doesn't even advocate greater tax breaks for the private sector to help give jobs to those who need them. No, Graves becomes a better person by switching from being a right-wing dick to being a left-wing, bleeding heart. He starts advocating moving military spending into cancer research since "if we spent the $60bn for cancer research we'd cure cancer by the end of the decade" (well, maybe but that's actually only a little more than what was spent in the US in 2011). He wants to be nice to illegal immigrants and let them live in his compound. He starts smoking pot.

In other words, he wants big government, big time. Because when people have personal revelations about how to be better people, they realise the liberal way is the right way, don't they? I can't imagine Ronald Reagan would suddenly have started welcoming the man from the government who said he was here to help, but there you go - Hollywood's liberal bias. Except for Ronald Reagan, obviously.

Insulting politics to one side, there's also precious little that's funny about Graves, although it is at least funnier than 1600 Penn. Partly, that's because it's almost impossible to understand 75% of what Nick Nolte is saying, so although he might have the funniest lines in the world, we're never going to know what they are without subtitles. But the show seems to think that simply have a president behaving badly is funny enough in itself, which unfortunately is in an incorrect assumption. The show also exists in a presidential bubble, only willing to attack long-dead presidents, rather than anyone within living memory, which at least The Ex-PM had the balls to do, meaning it has no satirical content either. And the Secret Service agents due an ex-president and his family have an odd habit of disappearing whenever they're needed, leading to all manner of implausible events taking place.

On the plus side, it does have a good cast. Astin's probably a bit too weak and ineffectual to really credit as a tiny conservative all grown up, but Sela Ward (House) is great as the former First Lady and possible future senator - indeed, it's with her the show actually shows some sign of nuance and even respect when it comes to Republican politics. Heléne Yorke is amusing as the disaster-area First Daughter who's gone from having ranges of dolls made after her younger likeness to chain smoking and divorce. Ernie Hudson has surprising gravitas as 'a fixer' who makes problems go away for the First Family, too.

Even more interesting is the celebrity guest cast of real Republican politicians, with Rudy Giuliani showing up in episode one and Michael Steele showing up in episode two as themselves, although they never do anything that requires either any self-deprecation or any acting skills. 

Graves is short on laughs and political insights, long on growling mumbles. You're better off with your West Wing/Threat Matrix DVDs, depending on your political leanings.

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