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January 4, 2016

Review: Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life 1x1 (US: Fox)

Posted on January 4, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life

In the US: Sundays, 8.30/7.30c, Fox

So I'm going to stick my neck out a bit and admit that despite all my principles and natural inclinations, I think The Hangover is a funny movie. Yes, The Hangover 2 is The Hangover again but set in Asia and a bit more racist, and The Hangover 3 isn't funny at all and actually wants to be a heist movie. But although it's a bit misogynistic and racist at times, The Hangover is frequently hilarious, often clever, and justifiably made stars of Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ken Leung.

Unfortunately, it spawned an awful lot of clones and wannabes, aimed at different demographics, whether it was teenage boys, teenage girls, older men, older women or any other exciting group with cash you'd like to name. Fortunately, being an R-rated comedy getting its laughs from R-rated situations, it failed to attract many TV copycats.

Until now. Now, we have Cooper Barrett's Guide To Surviving Life on Fox. They've even got in Justin Bartha - who played "the guy who never got to have any fun" in all three Hangovers - to play "the guy who never gets to have any fun" in this, too. They just haven't got in any R-rated comedy. Or much comedy.

The basic premise is that Cooper Barrett (Jack Cutmore-Scott), like a lot of young men his age, has just graduated college but doesn't know what to do with his life. As a result, he is about to embark on a career of dead-end jobs to subsidise his intensive console game and TV viewing existence. Rather than doing what his parents might have done (moving to Manhattan and meeting a lot of people his own age who really like sitting around drinking coffee all day), he moves in with two of his college room-mates (James Earl and Charlie Saxton). To pay for his high-ambitions, low-income existence, he relies on his rich brother (Bartha), who wants to live the care-free 20s he never had vicariously through Barrett and his friends partying. 

Meanwhile, across the hall from them is new neighbour Meaghan Rath (Being Human (US), Banshee), who has similar issues when it comes to growing up, including hiding in the tumble dryer to avoid having to dump her boyfriend, and the group soon forms a platonic 'bromance'. 

All of this starts in 2011 with a Hangover-style party, the events of which no one can remember. After that, the subsequent events to the present day are then told in flashback, the series's somewhat nebulous concept being that in a Ferris Bueller/Parker Lewis-style, Barrett gives us the lessons in life that he's learnt from experiences such as being kidnapped by some UFC fighters, dealing with his stupid room-mates flatscreen TV obsession or kissing Rath.

He's not learnt very much so far, though, so it's not so much a Guide To Surviving Life as a guide to things you shouldn't do that you already knew you shouldn't do. Maybe that's the same thing on Fox.

Barrett himself is quite a dull character. He would be the Bradley Cooper character of the piece, but that's all been transferred to Bartha, leaving no personality except well meaning intentions. Bartha's more amusing but largely through being older yet being in young situations, rather than because of any good lines he gets. Earl and Saxton have thankless Hangover cast-off roles, too - Earl being the spaced-out Galifiankis character who's an a-hole and gets everyone into trouble, Saxton being the Ed Helm pushover nerd who no one likes and is put upon by women.

The show's saving grace - and almost sole departure from the Hangover formula - is Rath, who provides a much-needed female viewpoint and charisma, even if she doesn't get as much to work with as Zooey Deschanel does in a similar situation in New Girl

Given how offensively bad/offensive other Hangover clones have turned out, Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life is by no means awful and even has the odd moment of charm, wit and intelligence. But those moments are rare and there's too little individuality or originality to the show.

Most importantly of all, Cooper Barrett might want to offer us his guide to surviving life, but I'm not sure anyone would want to follow his advice.

December 17, 2015

Review: The Magicians 1x1 (US: Syfy)

Posted on December 17, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Magicians

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Syfy. Starts January 25 2016
In the UK: Not yet acquired

From many points of view, most of them commercial, Harry Potter was a great franchise. It made it to seven books and eight movies for starters, which very few other franchises managed to achieve; it also managed to reach that end point without getting worse - in some ways it even got better - which is practically unique, unless you're a dyed in the wool Fast and the Furious or Friday the 13th fan.

But it did finish, which is an obvious problem. It was also for kids and starred kids, who as well as appreciably getting older over time, precluded any possibility of sexy time except in the darkest, nastiest niches of Internet fan fiction. It was also about English people.

As such, The Magicians is an obvious attempt to fix all those issues while sticking as close to the Harry Potter template as possible. Based on the series of novels by Lev Grossman, it sees the daftly named Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a fantasy-book reading college graduate, discover that magic isn't just tricks involving coins - it's real.

As there's a university that offers a postgraduate course in magic, he enrolls at this 'Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy' to be trained as a magician and to maybe make sexy time with the witches. Unfortunately for Quentin, his childhood friend Julia (Stella Maeve from Golden Boy) flunks the entrance exam, so doesn't make it to Brakebills. Instead, she gives up on her previous life, and instead goes searching for magic elsewhere.

Little does either Quentin or Julia know, however, that there's an arch enemy no one will talk about at Brakebills who's laid waste to a lot of the magic community, reducing the final year of pupils to a class of four. Is he related to the group that want to recruit Julia? Only time will tell…

Despite being an obvious Harry Potter knock-off with delusions of having subtext, The Magicians isn't half that bad and bears more than a few similarities to Ursula Le Guin's far superior to A Wizard of Earthsea that help to lift it. Unlike Potter, the story is at its worst at Brakebills, when it's dealing with Quentin's fellow pupils - they may all be graduate students but they still act like they're in High School, and the show even gives us a 10 Things I Hate About You style introduction to all the campus's various social groupsThey're all completely insufferable and Quentin's not that much better, being as full of himself 'pre incident' (you'll know what I mean when I watch it) as Le Guin's Ged was before that night on Roke Knoll. 

But when it's dealing with both the real world and the darkest aspects of the magical world it's conjuring, the show actually soars and the final few minutes of the first episode are genuinely disturbing and adult. It also clever enough to know its own heritage, with a 'book within the book' that's clearly a Narnia knock-off, but like The Neverending Story, one that blurs into the 'real world' of the story.

If The Magicians can avoid its most Harry Potter-esque and its more 'adult' aspects in favour of its genuinely adult qualities, it could be a really good show. But I have a suspicion that it's much more in love with its mean girls, cliques, nerds and sexy time party!! thoughts than with telling a seriously interesting story. 

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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