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September 22, 2016

Review: Designated Survivor 1x1 (US: ABC; UK: Netflix)

Posted on September 22, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Designated Survivor

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Netflix. New episode every Thursday

Like most people in Britain, I get virtually all my knowledge about how the US government works via The West Wing. Screw Newsnight - I'll tell you the first five amendments to the US Constitution and the episodes in which they featured right now, if you want.

So when I heard about Designated Survivor, no explanation was needed: after all, not only had the Mayor from Buffy The Vampire Slayer been President Barlett's 'designated survivor' in He Shall, From Time To Time…, Laura Roslin would never have become President of the 12 Colonies in Battlestar Galactica were it not for a constitution specifying the exact list of people who would assume the position in the event of some terrible tragedy.

Designated Survivor is neither of those two shows. Instead, it's roughly half-Dave (that delightful movie in which ordinary punter Kevin Kline becomes President and behaves very nicely and decently, unlike the other politicians), half-24 (that less delightful TV series in which highly trained anti-terrorist agents have a very limited amount of time to shoot and torture lots of people to prevent terrible atrocities taking place).

It sees the lowly Secretary of Housing, who's just about to be fired by the sitting President, accepting the duty of 'designated survivor' during the State of the Union. Except then Congress gets blown up and this decent - possibly too decent - pushover family man and educator instantly propelled to the top job, where he has not only to bring the country together and keep it stable, he has to prevent all out war with other nations, find out who was responsible for the bombing and what they intend to do next, and avoid a coup d'êtat from people who think he's just not up to the job or even eligible for it, given he was unelected.

Can he do all that? Hell yeah. Because that man is Kiefer Sutherland. Yes, boys and girls, Jack Bauer is finally President.

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September 21, 2016

Review: This is Us 1x1 (US: NBC; UK: Channel 4)

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

This is Us

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by Channel 4

Calling your show This is Us is a bold move. It implies a certain universality of the human experience, which in an age of identity politics is hard enough in a single city of the US, without TV producers having to think about how much of the New York City cultural experience transfers to South Africa, for example. 

Yet that's what This is Us is going for. You probably have to look back to Parenthood and before that thirtysomething to find shows that were so convinced of their universal applicability and smartness.

This is Us - or perhaps that should be This is US, given it's American focus - tries to demonstrate its pancosmic thesis through the conceit of three storylines, each involving one or more people who all have the same birthday: a married couple (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) who are about to have triplets; an actor brother and a love-lorn sister (Justin Hartley and Chrissy Metz); and a rich trader (Sterling K Brown) whose drug-addict father (Ron Cephas Kones) abandoned him as a baby after his mother died.

A title card preceding the drama says that according to Wikipedia, people who share the same birthday aren't guaranteed to have anything else in common. But how much do you want to bet that it's hinting at a "universality of the human spirit", that universality being love, predominantly for family, predominantly in an American way? And that on top of that, that there's a secret link between the three storylines that will become immediately obvious by about two-thirds of the way through? One that involves a bit of cheating involving Milo Ventimiglia's physique?

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September 21, 2016

Review: Bull 1x1 (US: CBS)

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

Bull

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, CBS

They say 'write what you know', but if everyone in TV does that, we're going to be in a sorry state very soon. I've already lost track of the current number of shows airing, just having aired or that are in development that are based on the lives of one of the executive producers. There's even a Judge Judy drama on the way. Do we really need that? I don't think so.

I guess the idea is that it not only gives an air of verisimilitude to the show, as well as a built-in audience and ideas for stories that might otherwise never have occurred to the writers, it also insulates the writers from accusations of racism, implausibility and so on - "But that's what actually happened!" they can say.

Trouble is that with a lot of these shows, either people's lives are already remarkably similar to TV shows or somewhere in development, people's life stories get squeezed into formats that allow the shows to run for 10, 13 or 24 episode seasons, hopefully up to a syndicatable 5-7 seasons or more. The result is they all still end up looking the same as one another and what you see is probably not what actually happened?

Take Bull, CBS's new show, which is based on the life of Dr Phil McGraw. You know Dr Phil, right? Well, before being a stalwart of Oprah and then getting his own show, he was a 'trial scientist'. Here he is explaining what that is to Bull star Michael Weatherly.

I say 'based', but the show's creators say 'inspired'. That suggests that it bares very little resemblance to watch Dr Phil's life used to be like. Yep, development squeezed the real life out of it while it was shoving the story into a CBS procedural formatting box.

Nevertheless, there might be something true about it. I mean if you think Dr Phil is just a trite regurgitator of homely platitudes with little scientific basis that are designed to further his TV career rather than actually truly help people, which would be impossible anyway, Bull will just confirm your suspicions as it's just a trite regurgitator of homely platitudes with little scientific basis that are designed to further a very standard legal procedural.

All the same, real or not, seen Justice? Seen Shark? Seen Lie To Me? Then you'll have seen a whole bunch of very similar shows that were all better than Bull. There's the standard older, slightly troubled central eponymous white guy who everyone thinks is brilliant and spends most of their time admiring. There's the diverse team of slightly less brilliant, slightly more personality-free helper monkeys who are going to get significantly less time for character development over the course of the series. There's the endless stream of supposed pieces of wisdom that are actually just blunt over-simplifications. There's the never-ending series of false trails before the eventual resolution. There's blunt talking at anyone who's not 'with the programme'.

About the only thing different is the inclusion of a slightly punky computer girl (Annabelle Attanasio), which is more of a head nod to the NCIS audience Weatherly is hopefully taking with him.

If this is an advert for 'trial science', it's also a big epic failure. While it may (or may not) be an accurate representation of what goes on behind the scenes with 'mirrored juries' (seen them in Justice and Shark - soz) et al, trying to pass off "she's thinking of him as being like her son" as profound is a surefire loser. If people are paying big money for this, I've got this great wire transfer scheme they might want to hear about.

Bull's not without the occasional innovation: I quite liked the way the various members of the jury Weatherly was analysing from afar seemingly spoke their inner desires to him and his 'too long, didn't read' was a nice rejoinder to something from a millennial.

But those moments are fleeting. Unless you like watching TV shows that are just like all those other TV shows that you like - well, it is CBS - give Bull a wide berth.

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