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September 16, 2016

Review: Quarry 1x1 (US: Cinemax; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on September 16, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Cinemax's Quarry

In the US: Fridays, 10pm, Cinemax
In the UK: Sky Atlantic. Starts October

As fans of The Great British Bake Off have recently discovered, format rights are very important these days. In fact, there have been 60-odd legal disputes over format rights around the world, over the years.

This is odd, since legally, there's no such thing as format rights. After all, it's one thing to argue that as you created suave British superspy James Bond, someone else writing books about suave British superspy James Bond without your permission is doing something untoward; it's quite another to argue that no one else should be able to make a TV show that involves amateur cooks making cakes.

Of course, there's a grey area somewhere between those two extremes. How about books featuring British superspy? Or superspies of any nationality? Or just regular spies? What about baking competitions that have a host called Mary Berry and all the same rounds as The Great British Bake Off, that's called The Pretty Good British Bake On?

It's somewhere lurking in this middle ground that we found Quarry, Cinemax's latest excursion into adventure, drama, things being shot and ladies getting naked. It stars Logan Marshall-Green of Traveler, Dark Blue and Prometheus fame as a soldier returning home to Memphis after the Vietnam War, where he discovers not only that veterans aren't that welcome, particularly ones implicated in rather heinous massacres, but also that jobs aren't that common. However, the rather mysterious Peter Mullan (Miss Julie, Red Riding, My Name is JoeTyrannosaur) is willing to pay him and fellow war buddy Jamie Hector (The Wire) rather a lot of money to put their soldiering skills to work killing people, and before you know it, the body count is piling up.

If that sounds a bit familiar, it's because of one of two things. 

  1. You've read Max Allen Collins' Quarry series of books on which the show is based
  2. You've seen ITV's The Fixer, in which a war veteran who's done some bad things ends up killing people for Peter Mullan.

The shows aren't exactly 100% identical and the Quarry series was written way before The Fixer. But with the very Scottish Peter Mullan playing a very Southern but otherwise identical 'tough bastard boss'? Hmm. That does not to me coincidence say.

If only format rights were real, ITV might be having some quiet words with Cinemax right now.

As well as being a relocated Fixer, Quarry also has a lot in common with Cinemax's own Banshee, beyond simply the involvement of Greg Yaitanes. 'Quarry' - as Marshall-Green soon becomes known - is returning to a lost love whose love he might have lost (Jodi Balfour); he's come back brutalised by his experiences and has to adapt to normal life again; there's the lure of criminal life and its rewards but the acknowledgement of its costs, particularly in the lives of people we care about as well as of normality; there's a sexually fluid and amusing fellow criminal (Damon Herriman - last seen as a trans spy in Australia's Secret City); and practically everyone in the cast is from outside the US (Mullan - British; Balfour - South African; Herriman - Australian; Nikki Amuka-Bird - Nigerian-British).

But the tone's different - whereas Banshee was pure pulp that both transcended and embraced its trashier qualities, Quarry wants to be something greater, something more noirish, something more philosophical. As well as lapping up its period setting, the mid-70s being a respite from the omnipresent 80s nostalgia we're currently experiencing, Yaitanes also gives us all the directorial tricks he can throw our way, ranging from flashforwards and dream sequences to odd camera angles and compositions. And both Marshall-Green and that non-American cast list are top-tier acting talent - they're not here for the shootouts. 

While the feature-length first episode was a little too long and a little too exploitative for its own good, Quarry made a good start, clearly setting itself up to be Banshee mark 2, a more refined show that should still appeal to the same audience but which isn't going to dwell in the realm of the hyper-violent and could draw in more discerning viewers as a result. The producers need to work a little on making the characters more appealing, as pretty much everyone is either too messed up or too criminal for you to want to spend much time with them. But they have the foundations they need in place, plenty of source material to work with (including The Fixer) and a decent story to tell, so I'll be tuning to see waht they do with it all.

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September 14, 2016

Preview: Speechless 1x1 (US: ABC)

Posted on September 14, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Speechless

In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC. Starts September 21

In the past few years, ABC - already the home of a considerable amount of female-oriented programming - has been doing its best to diversify its diversity, through shows such as black-ish, Quantico, Fresh Off The Boat and Cristela. With Speechless, it's now trying its hand at disabilities.

Minnie Driver, forever consigned these days to the role of 'spunky mum' (cf About A Boy), is a spunky mother of three kids, one of whom (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy, is wheelchair-bound and can only communicate with an assistive device. Forever spunky, Driver spunkily drags her family from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, new house to new house and school to school, in an effort to find the perfect location for her differently abled son - a location that might offer a full-time assistant who can act as her son's 'voice'.

Like Son of Zorn, it's a high concept that sounds a bit awful on paper, but actually works much better in practice thanks to a diversity of diversity and a nuanced approach. While the show is happy to have Driver lecture everyone about correct language, the eventual 'voice' for her son (Cedric Yarbrough) is black and there's a tension between him and Driver about whether being black is a bigger disadvantage than being disabled in the upmarket, virtually all-white neighbourhood in which Driver and family end up.

The school might want to celebrate diversity and achievement, particularly the 'brave' Fowler, but Fowler doesn't think he's actually done anything to be celebrated. Neither does the faculty know how to talk to him and the handicapped access ramp also doubles as the garbage ramp.

Meanwhile, the daughter of the family Driver is a keen athlete who's fed up with everything being celebrated as being special, when she'd rather just win by being the best at something. Driver's spunkiness is seen as being as much a problem for the family as it is an asset. On top of that, middle son just wants some attention, too, being tired of all the attention Fowler gets and the constant upheaval. 

Speechless has some obvious flaws and potential problems ahead of it. The father of the family (John Ross Bowie) is amusingly long-suffering and the show does its very level best to make him interesting in his own right. But Bowie doesn't have a fraction of Driver's presence or energy, and the character has no real desires of his own, making his presence almost superfluous to requirements. 

And as with black-ish, there's going to come a point, probably quite soon, where the show runs out of 'profound and important' things to say about disability and diversity, and has to stand on the strength of its characters and situations. At the moment, I can't quite see the show managing to do that, and it'll likely very quickly revert to being any other family comedy.

All the same, a surprisingly good first episode that smartly addresses topical issues, and worth a try.

September 14, 2016

Preview: Son of Zorn 1x1 (US: Fox)

Posted on September 14, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Son of Zorn

In the US: Sundays, Fox. Starts September 25

I don't know exactly where Mattel and Filmation lie within the many concentric circles of giant US conglomerates' IP assets, but if they're not contained at least somewhere within Fox, I think the creators of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe have a good copyright infringement case on their hands with the arrival of Son of Zorn.

Zorn's the guy in the picture above; He-Man is the guy in the 80s cartoon below.

Somewhat similar artistically, I think you'll agree. 

However, that's probably about the only similarity the two have in common, beyond an oddly similar array of friends, because Zorn owes a lot more to He-Man's own inspiration, Conan the Barbarian, than to He-Man. He's a macho, manly kind of guy who'll only take orders from a woman if he believes she's really a man.

That's possibly why he ended up getting divorced and returning to his cartoon island nation to fight demons, giants, et al, while his wife (Cheryl Hines from Suburgatory and Curb Your Enthusiasm) headed off to Orange County, California, to raise their son, Alangulon, by herself. When Zorn returns to Orange County to see his now-teenage son and discovers that Hines is getting married to online professor of psychology Tim Meadows (Mean Girls), he decides to remain in Orange County as a detergent salesman so he can woo back his wife and become a father again.

Coming from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Last Man on Earth, The Lego Movie), it's unsurprising that this is a good deal funnier than you might expect - and you might be expecting Kröd Mändoon. While this is basically no different to any other culture clash or squabbling exes comedy - or even to Last Man Standing - with Zorn having to learn to be sensitive and fit in with modern American mores to have a relationship with his wife, it's less about the format and more about the detail with Son of Zorn.

Zorn's not just a huge dick with a huge sword, he's a huge dick with a huge sword and access to death hawks. He's also a 'diversity hire', barbarians from island nations being something of a rarity in California. Alan(gulon)'s a vegetarian and can flirt with the best of them, but he would be better with the girls if he had his own car… or death hawk. Hines's character is trying to be responsible but is also someone who was happy to hang out with a barbarian and have sex with mountain trolls when she was younger. And Meadows' character is hyper self-aware, particularly of the fact he's a big disappointment in life and that Zorn is just big, giving an almost Ben Carson-like deadpan performance of oddness.

A lot of the jokes are obvious and you can usually see where everything's going. But Son of Zorn keeps coming back with sufficiently out-there jokes that it doesn't seem matter. Worth trying, at least for an episode or two.

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