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Some of the best articles on the blog. Typically, these have a picture. It's a low entrance requirement, I know.


December 11, 2015

Preview: The Expanse 1x1 (US: Syfy)

Posted on December 11, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Expanse

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Not yet acquired

As I've remarked before, nothing's original these days - you're basically just mixing elements of previous works together to come up with novel combinations. In sci-fi, that goes doubly so. Indeed, given any new sci-fi series, it's usually possible to spend your time going, "Oh, that's X meets Y," where X and Y are the TV shows being synthesised together to create the new series. 

So you have to at least credit the creators of The Expanse with developing something that enables viewers to play this very nerdy drinking game not twice but thrice over, with the option of further plundering later on. Based on the books of 'James SA Corey' (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), it's set in the 23rd century and postulates a future where the solar system has been colonised. The UN runs Earth, Mars is an independent military power and the asteroid belt is a source of raw materials that both Earth and Mars are looking at eagerly.

So Earth: think Elysium meets 24, with Shohreh Aghdashloo as the UN boss running black sites to try to find out what Mars is up to, as war in space looks inevitable.

The Asteroid Belt: Think Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune. Thomas Jane (The PunisherHung) is a 'belter' private detective investigating the disappearance of a rich girl who's run away from home. The belters have grown up in low g, so often have things wrong with them, such as weak muscles, overly long limbs and problems with bone fusion. They also have their own language, which Jane speaks but his non-belter partner doesn't. They're also feeling a bit grumpy, since they're the working class who make everything happen, doing dangerous work for low pay, while everyone gets rich on their labour.

Mars: We've haven't seen that yet. Take two shots when we do.

Outer space: Think Alien meets Virtuality, with a proletariat crew grumping around the solar system with their cargo. Steven Strait (Magic City) is the unambitious second officer who gets a promotion to XO when the captain, Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Community), gets a touch of the space blues. Then they get a distress call and thinks start to get a bit more dangerous.

What links the otherwise totally unconnected outer space and asteroid belt strands is that the distress call is from the missing rich girl. What's going on, what will happen next and will everyone get to meet up by the end of the 10 episodes to become Elysium meets 24 meets Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune meets Alien meets Virtuality? You'll just have to wait and see.

So far, so derivative. But, as I said, so's everything these days. So does The Expanse do much that's interesting with this pot pourri of sci-fi stories past, or is it just a rip off?

At the very least, The Expanse does indicate that following a somewhat fallow period for Syfy, in which it was more content to make B-movies like Sharknado and "me, too!" shows like Alphas and Z Nation, it seems relatively determined to make proper science fiction that leads rather than follows. Like Defiance, it loves itself a bit of world-building and tries to imagine what these 23rd century societies might be like. Life in the belt is well realised and no one has a modern-day fashionable haircut; bravely, even Jane has deformities from having grown up without the benefit of billions of tons of rock beneath him.

The Expanse also wants to emphasis that it is more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek, with some attempts at correct physics which it credits its audience with having the brains to understand. For example, the solar system is very big and you need to go very fast to go any distance; that means accelerating quickly, which isn't something the human body is very happy about and might need some assistance dealing with the associated difficulties. None of this is explained to some newbie - you just have to work it out for yourself.

But as is also often pointed out, science-fiction rarely tries to predict the future so much as extrapolate the present or even the past, and where The Expanse does fall down quite severely is in its depiction of cultures. Everything is basically the Wild West in outer space. There's some racial diversity, but not much. Everyone appears to be straight.

And everything is run by white men (yes, captain, XO and 2nd officer of the spaceship are all white and men). Women, despite the fact that we're talking about zero-g mining so physical strength isn't an issue, aren't numbered in the miners at all. And by the end of the first episode, there are only two female members of the cast left alive in outer space. One's an engineer on the spaceship who has an oddly, cleavage-revealing outfit. The other is…

No. Have a guess what she does for a living, first.

Bet you can.

Yes, she's a prostitute. 

As you may have noticed, the show's Achilles' Heel is the people side of things. As well as devising a future that's less progressive than the 1950s, it's also quite poor at creating characters you might care about. Jane's almost interesting, but his is more or less the only person in the show who has any depth. Attempts to make Strait a slacker don't endear him to you so much as irritate you. And they're the ones who get the bulk of the characterisation. Pity everyone else who doesn't even get that much.

The Expanse is very much science-fiction aimed at the 'Sad Puppies' contingent - big ideas, science-based, very little about the people, with heroic white guys running the place, the centre of all attention. If that's your bag, The Expanse is one of the best offerings in this field for some time. If it's not, then while you can admire it, like all that ice they're mining in the asteroid belt, it's a slippery affair that'll you find hard to grab onto.

But don't just take my word for it - try the trailer and if you like it, underneath is the entire first episode for you on YouTube.

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December 9, 2015

Review: Telenovela 1x1-1x2 (US: NBC)

Posted on December 9, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Telenovela

In the US: Mondays, 8.30c/7.30c, NBC. Begins January 4
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Don't know what a telenovela is? Well, I've already written quite a bit about them, so why not head off to my review of a much better show, Jane The Virgin, to find out what they're all about. Then come back here.

All clued up? Cool.

Right, now you know what a telenovela is, you might be annoyed at having done all that cramming to learn that despite the name, Telenovela is not really a telenovela. Jane The Virgin is. Jane The Virgin understands telenovelas. Telenovela doesn't.

Or at least it doesn't want to be a telenovela. It wants to cash in on the name. It wants to 'homage' telenovelas. It wants to have evil twins, passionate romances between ex-lovers and rivalries between jealous women. But it wants all those things as sidelines to an otherwise very conventional TV sitcom.

And by TV sitcom, I mean a sitcom set behind the scenes of a TV show. Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives) plays Ana Sofia Calderon, the star of fake telenovela Las Leyes de Pasión. In a bid to boost the ratings, network executive Zachary Levi (Chuck, Thor 2Heroes Reborn) hires her ex-husband Jencarlos Canela (Más Sabe el Diablo, Pasión prohibida, Mi corazón insiste en Lola Volcán) in the hope that sparks will fly - or that the paparazzi will, at least.

And for the first episode at least, when it's actually working that plotline, Telenovela isn't half bad, is semi-appealing and clever, and is even funny at times. Eva Longoria may have spent the past few years behind the camera producing shows rather than starring in them, but she's not forgotten what it takes to be a real screen presence - she makes everything look effortless while working the funny for all it's worth, happy even to Sandra Bullock up and fall down a lot if the plot requires it. Canela is a good foil for her and the supporting cast, which includes Amaury Nolasco (Prison Break, Work It, Chase), isn't exactly going for subtle (how could they be?), but services the needs of the script well.

The trouble is that what makes a telenovela a telenovela is a fixed story: a beginning, a middle and an end, with a plot that takes everything from A to Z driving each episode, usually through insanely mental territory. And Telenovela doesn't want that. So as soon as we clear the first episode, we're immediately in standalone territory. Yes, there's an evil twin to deal with, but it's a b-plot that affects only that episode and the almost touching rekindled romance between Longoria and Canela from the first episode is thrown aside in favour of a dafter plot about his having a stuntwoman rather than a stuntman for his scenes.

In fact, it's readily apparent that the show has no real foundation, no real idea what it wants to be doing with its life, rather than to say 'telenovela' a lot and hope that people will watch it as a result. Liked all that joking in the first episode about Longoria not speaking Spanish fluently, while everyone else, even Levi, can? It's gone. Romance? Gone. Politicking behind the scenes? Gone. Jokes? Gone. Pratfalls? Gone. Collapsing dresses? Gone… but not like that.

That's traditional US TV, not telenovela territory. 

So it's a distinct thumbs down from me. Longoria and pretty much everyone in the cast can do a lot better than this. And so can you - watch Jane The Virgin. That's on Mondays, too. This is just the evil twin.

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November 26, 2015

Review: The Art of More 1x1 (US: Crackle)

Posted on November 26, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Art of More

In the US: All 10 episodes available from Crackle

As Powers and Yahoo's resurrection of Community recently showed us, the arrival of Netflix and Amazon Instant Video on the scene has forced those Internet TV providers who were formerly happy to simply chuck out short-form webisodes to leave that profitless game to YouTube and move into long-form. Crackle is the latest to join their ranks thanks to The Art of More, in which former US soldier Christian Cooke (epic sh*tfests ITV's Demons and Starz's Magic City) manages to parlay his skills in looting Iraqi art museums into a legit job at a posh auction house run by Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride).

Groomed (in all senses of the word, probably even the horsey ones) by Elwes to be a proper sophisticate who can tie an Oxford knot, the high-flying Cooke's world starts to fall apart quicker than you can say, "Lady Jane! Tinker! We need a divvy!", when one of his former Iraqi comrades sneaks into the US, bringing with him more dodgy pickings and threatening to expose Cooke's sordid past. Things aren't helped any for Cooke by the presence on the scene of art collector and wannabe politician Dennis Quaid (Vegas), the proud possessor of 'f*ck off money', and Cooke's rival Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns), both of whom want to give him a good kicking but for different reasons.

All of which might be interesting if movie-length and chopped up into Crackle-sized 15 minute episodes. It's certainly got good production values, has a good fight scene and could easily pass for a TNT show if you didn't know better.

The trouble is that it's 10x45m episodes. Even one was hard-going, because it's not a well written show. You're not going to learn anything about art, business, politics or anything much else from it. Scenes designed to make characters seem like they know something about art read like they've been cramming Wikipedia a few moments earlier.

The characters are also utterly unengaging. Cooke is not someone you especially want to route for in pretty much anything he does, but here he's playing someone who loots museums of their precious treasures so that rich people can keep them to themselves. He's also deploying his annoying American accent.

Elwes* at least gets to be English, but while his lips may be mouthing atrocious dialogue, his eyes are screaming "Here are the details of my bank account for your wire transfer." You can only feel sorry for him in this.

Bosworth's character is almost a relic from the 80s. She's the kind of female high-flyer who's continual outfoxed by the hero and has no tangible skills. She doesn't even get any screentime or scenes in which she could ever reveal she had the skills claimed for her, because the show's all about the annoying Cooke. But just as in the 80s everyone knew that was very un-PC, someone male has to explain every five minutes just how awesome she is and how she definitely didn't sleep her way to the top… yes, I am sleeping with her but she definitely got to that position… no, her position… no! her job!… through sheer talent. How dare you think otherwise?

Quaid? He thinks he's Robert de Niro in Casino or Michael Douglas in Wall Street. He's actually closer to Alan Sugar in The Apprentice.

Direction is pedestrian. Editing is jarring - it sometimes feels like you've missed something vital. I blinked and nine months disappeared just like that. Plotting generally revolves around something looking like a better movie you once saw and the show hoping you fill in the gaps using that movie, instead of whatever's actually on-screen.

Still, it's free, provided you register for a Crackle account and live in the US, so criticising it too much is a bit churlish. All the same, I won't be bothering to click the link for episode 2 anytime soon. There's Man In the High Castle to watch instead.

Here's a trailer. Weirdly, I was even more bored by the end of it than at the end of the first episode. I wonder if Crackle's short-form stuff is even worse…

* For transparency's sake, I'll point out that Elwes is a distant relative of mine. I'm pretty sure it didn't influence my review of this, but you must decide that for yourselves

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