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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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November 24, 2015

Season review: Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Posted on November 24, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Jessica Jones

In the US/UK: All 13 episodes are available on Netflix

When superhero comic books first became popular in the 20th century, it was largely because they were fantasies. Male fantasies for boys. Superman may have been a fantasy of immigration, but it was also about a mild-mannered man who could never reveal his all-conquering power to anyone, not even the woman he loved from afar. Of course, if she knew what he was really like, then she'd fall into his arms without a moment's hesitation.

Batman? A boy orphaned by crime who devotes himself to destroying those who would make him feel frightened. The Hulk? A 'milksop' scientist with a terrible temper that others better not unleash by bullying him. Spider-man? A nerdy boy with pretty much the same issues as Superman. Captain America? A man who could defeat the Nazis while remaining true and good and honourable.

You get the picture. Lots and lots of power fantasies for lonely boys.

Superheroines took a while to appear and represented different kinds of fantasy. The first, Wonder Woman, was originally intended as both a male and female fantasy - a precursor to a better, future, female-dominated world, with Wonder Woman an icon of feminine power that women could embrace and men could accept. But with a slightly kinky subtext and male authors, her popularity often stemmed from… other sources. Future superheroines didn't fare much better, and frequently fared much worse.

Which meant for decades, many girls and women found comic books to be female-unfriendly areas that were practically a panopticon of the male gaze. There were plenty who became involved or who became readers, but they were the exceptions. And although male authors came along who tried to make female characters less fantasies than they had been before, that was pretty much the rule.

That was even the case when comic books started being adapted into movies. Think Sue Storm perpetually having to disrobe in the street in Fantastic Four. Think Black Widow in lingerie shots in Iron Man 2. That Wonder Woman movie? Only just being made, just as we're about to get our third series of Batman and Superman movies in the past 40 years. And try to find superheroine merchandise from those movies for your daughters if you dare

But the times have been a changing, of course. Have a look on Facebook and you'll discover that more than 50% of the people who identify as comic book fans are women. And while only 3% of the people who'll step into a comic book store are women, more than half of those who read digital comics are women.

Marvel, of course, has been doing rather well at the movie with its comic book adaptations. However, it's got considerable stick over the years for not giving any superheroines their own movies - particularly Black Widow. Now that's changing, with a Captain Marvel movie due… in 2019, a full 11 years after Iron Man came out. 

On TV, of course, we've already had Marvel's Agent Carter, except she's not a superheroine, per se. But finally, we have our first, fully fledged superheroine TV show, the second of this year's Marvel's Netflix 'Defenders' shows following Daredevil - Jessica Jones. And what's interesting about Jessica Jones is that despite being based on a character and a story created by two men, I think what we have is the first instance of an on-screen superheroine who's there for a female audience and who's a female fantasy.

Or should that be nightmare? It could be both. After all, it's got David Tennant in it.

Beware: some spoilers ahoy.

Continue reading "Season review: Jessica Jones (Netflix)"

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