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March 18, 2015

Review: One Big Happy 1x1 (US: NBC)

Posted on March 18, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

One Big Happy

In the US: Tuesdays, 9.30/8.30c, NBC

“You’re not a very good lesbian, are you?” Kelly Brook asks Elisha Cuthbert at one point during the first episode of One Big Happy. It is the first of many points in the show's half hour run that surprisingly, Kelly Brook is Very Right. Unfortunately, the sitcom itself is Very Wrong.

Exec produced by Ellen DeGeneres but written by Liz Feldman (Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ellen’s Really Big Show), the show flips the sexes of the usual “straight female with gay best friend” premise of most sitcoms and dramedies by giving us the straight Nick Zano (Happy Endings, 2 Broke Girls, 90210) and the gay Elisha Cuthbert (24, Happy Endings), who have been best friends since high school. Promising each other that if they didn’t have kids by the time they were both 30*, they’d have them together, Plan B seems bang on course, bar the babies, until Zano meets Brook in a bar and they fall head over heels in love. However, she’s about to be deported and despite Brook and Cuthbert hating each other at first sight, after a whirlwind romance, Zano and Brook get married in Las Vegas. Except wouldn’t you know it, Cuthbert is pregnant, which means they’re all going to have to find a way of living together.

The show is a mixture of 50% stereotypes, 50% character comedy. Despite usually being deployed in self-depreciation, the stereotypes are tedious and deployed shotgun-like, almost as though the writer isn’t even sure herself why she’s putting them in there.

Brook, for example, has to deploy the obligatory reference to British teeth, but as she has model-perfect teeth, has to talk about that back tooth of hers that isn’t quite straight.

Similarly, Cuthbert’s black brother-in-law offers her a glass of Chardonnay when she’s upset: “Oh my God, I’m talking like a white woman,” he says. What? Just what?

All I can do is marvel at how far programs for generating comedy scripts have come. They’re almost as funny as quite stupid human beings now.

To be fair, though, in contrast, the character comedy is actually reasonably funny in places. However, despite Cuthbert showing she had surprising comedic chops on Happy Endings, she’s woefully miscast in this as the straight-laced lesbian who wants to paint her house battleship grey, and the model-handsome former MTV presenter Zano doesn’t exactly convince as the nerd who’s writing a science fiction novel about robots. The first five or 10 minutes of the episode, when it’s just Zano and Cuthbert failing utterly to convince as lifelong best friends, also fails utterly to raise even the slightest laugh.

Then along comes Brook as the carefree, live wire Brit Prudence, who spends large portions of the first episode parading naked and pixellated in front of the obviously uninterested Cuthbert. And things get better - not the just the Brook being naked part, obviously, since she’s very good at it.

Now on the face of it, this shouldn’t work on two levels - again not the Brook being naked part.

The first level is that the stereotype-laden Feldman can’t expand her horizons even further than one US state to really understand what ‘carefree live wire’ might mean for an Englishwoman so writes her as Californian. Ancient prophecy has it that were a normal English working class woman to ever unironically suggest to anyone that they would benefit from a colonic irrigation, our blessed isle would instantly sink beneath the waves and descend to Avalon, where faerie folk would proceed to collectively tut at us for our desecration of our heritage and all that we hold sacred and pure. Yet Brook is required to do this very thing. One can only presume that King Arthur is pleading our case to them right now and we don’t have long to reach the lifeboats.

The second is that Brook is a terrible actress. She’s been trying to crack the US market for over a decade now, with appearances in everything from the first season of Smallville and the benighted The (Mis)Adventures of Fiona Plum through to Adult Swim’s NTSF:SD:SUV. The result has been she’s almost never been called back for further appearances, because it’s been clear to everyone that even by American TV standards, hers is a vanishingly small acting talent.

However, most of those jobs have required her to play prim and proper Englishwomen. Here, Brook is able to transcend her thespian vacuum simply by being loud and effusive, instead of buttoned-down. The result is that she’s actually quite engaging and even makes you laugh. It seems the old adage that if an English person speaks to foreigners loudly and slowly they’ll understand you really is true.

The problem for the show is that essentially despite saving it from being an absolute disaster, Brook is the only thing holding it up and she also makes everyone around her look dull and uninteresting. You just don’t care about the fussy Cuthbert, the tongue-tied Zano or any of the thinly drawn supporting characters.

The show’s other big problem is that it's nothing but High Concept. What happens next? They’re all going to live together under one roof, the lifelong friends with a baby, one of whom is gay, and the woman they’ve both known for less than a week? One of them’s uptight, one of them believes in colonic irrigation, one of them is… male - and the two women don’t really like one another.

It’s not much is it, beyond going to the doctors, shopping for baby clothes, etc? Is Brook just going to prance about naked while Cuthbert says the word vagina every so often, when the writers realise they’ve got nothing else to work with?

Obviously, we’ll have to wait to see where things go next to be sure, although since we already have NBC’s The New Normal to act as a less congenial template, we can make a few educated guesses - and they're not that enticing. But I can’t imagine One Big Happy really soaring or striking out into exciting new unpioneered comedic territories. But then this is NBC, which is also giving us a second season of Undateable. It’ll probably be the network’s most popular programme within a month.

Still, not only is it half bearable, it features Kelly Brook occasionally being funny, and it’s only six episodes long, so I doubt there’s going to be many padding episodes. So in all the diversity of the diverse new sitcoms we’re getting, this might be one that you’ll tune in to. Assuming you’ve got some ironing to do or something.

* So about seven and three years ago, respectively

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March 10, 2015

Review: Secrets and Lies (US) 1x1-1x3 (US: ABC)

Posted on March 10, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Secrets and Lies (US)

In the US: Sundays, 9pm ET/8pm CT, ABC

You know, if you’re going to remake an already not great show, you should probably try to fix some of the original’s problems. Australia’s Secrets and Lies was supposed to be Ten’s Really Big Thing for 2014. Backed up by social media et al in the exact same way that Gracepoint was, it saw painter and decorator Martin Henderson find the body of his neighbour’s dead child while out running. Unfortunately for him, the police get it into their heads that he’s the murderer and it’s left up to him to work out who the real culprit was, all the time being followed by the police and the media while simultaneously reviled as a child killer by everyone he comes across. Along the way, all kinds of secrets and lies are revealed that threaten his family, marriage, livelihood, etc.

And he takes his top off a lot.

It’s a decent idea that unfortunately didn’t pan out in practice so well, as it relied on Henderson being an absolute idiot and the police being insanely vindictive and incompetent, to the extent that they were practically twirling their moustaches and laughing menacingly the whole time. The result was that the ratings were pretty low and little was heard of the show after just a few weeks. Watercooler moment? Only if you’d forgotten there was a watercooler and then every so often were reminded you had a watercooler once and idly wondered where it had got to - for a moment.

ABC - the US one, not the Australian one - bought up the format rights to the show before it had even been made and now we’re finally seeing the remake emerge onto our screens, with Henderson replaced by posh boy Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions) and the moustache-twirling police detective replaced by Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers). The trouble is, beyond the recasting, it’s pretty much the same show, except with Phillippe taking his top off less. More or less every moment is the same, just relocated to a Washington/Canada environ with a US cast (bar one couple who are British for no readily explored reason).

And that means all the stupid things are the same, too. While there are changes in emphasis and Henderson’s neighbour is now Phillippe’s house guest, confidant and sanity-advisor, we’re still getting him picking up the murder weapon that’s been hidden in his house and then trying to hide it in an only slightly less obvious location. Lewis may not have a literal moustache to twirl but she spends all her time looking like she’s sucking on a lemon while thinking of new ways to make Phillippe’s life miserable, going out of her way to ignore all kinds of heinous acts, including domestic violence, if it would cut into her lemon-sucking time in front of Phillippe.

To be fair, Phillippe - who’s changed a lot since Cruel Intentions - does well as a now moderately hard working painter/decorator (although Henderson's gay clients appear to have been lost somewhere over the Pacific in the relocation) and the supporting cast do feel like proper characters and potential suspects rather than a simple Rent-A-Mob. You also get a better feel for Phillippe’s motivations for some of the daft things he does, which now only seem very inexplicable rather than outright ludicrous.

But fundamentally, the backbone of the story is still the same old idiocy that made me turn off the original at pretty much the exact same point I’m almost certain to turn off this time - now. Spare your brain, don’t watch Secrets and Lies.

March 6, 2015

Mini-review: Battle Creek 1x1 (US: CBS)

Posted on March 6, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Battle Creek

In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, CBS

Sometimes, pedigree just isn’t enough. Take Battle Creek. It’s written by David Shore (creator of House) and Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad); its first episode is directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, X-Men: Days of Future Past). It has ‘winner’ written all over it.

But it’s poor. It’s very poor. It’s a buddy-buddy cop dramedy set in the little town of Battle Creek, Michigan. What kind of buddy-buddy, you might wonder? Is one neat, one tidy? Does one play by the book and is the other a Maverick? One black, one white? Male, female? Gay, straight? Old, young? Blue collar, white collar?

No, surprisingly, Shore and Gilligan have gone for “rich, talented and handsome” versus “poor, incompetent and ugly”.

Dean Winters (best known as Liz Lemon’s bad ex-boyfriend in 30 Rock) stars as a Battle Creek police detective who has had to try to solve small town crimes on a small town budget. No wires, so baby monitors will have to do; tasers that don’t work; and so on - you get the picture. As a result, he has to cut a few corners here and there.

Of course, it’s easy to blame a low clear up rate, your suspect ethics and all your problems on your tools if you’re a bad workman… or your tools really do suck. But then Josh Duhamel (Las Vegas) arrives in town. A high-achieving FBI special agent, he has all the skills, resources and looks Winters doesn’t. Will Winters be able to cope, dwelling in the shadow of this golden boy? Or will he - like Duhamel’s previous work colleagues - try to get him shunted to some other god-foresaken outpost somewhere, as soon as it’s humanly possible?

That’s really all the show is built around and there’s not much to like about it. The two halves of the first episode show the problem quite well: the first half, while not especially well written, actually has the comic potential, with the fun pairing of Winters and co-worker Kal Penn (House) doing well milking their failed tech problems for all they’re worth. Then Duhamel turns up and the comedy becomes all about how Winters can’t do something, but Duhamel can because he has a forensics lab, etc. Time after time, whatever Winters wants to do, Duhamel simply does it. There’s no challenge.

There’s also no chemistry. Duhamel is the square cut Platonic ideal of an FBI agent, but little more, and the two have the easy going relationship and interactions most people have with alabaster. It’s not Duhamel’s fault so much as the fault of the set-up, which doesn’t lend itself to normal human interactions. And while there’s the potential for drama rather than comedy, the show doesn’t seem inclined to have Duhamel lording it over Winters rather than simply being oblivious to the effect he has on others.

On top of the fact the crime the couple investigate in the first episode isn’t that interesting, thrilling or complicated, and the supporting cast (bar Penn) aren’t worth watching either, you have a show that merely exists to fill up a Sunday evening schedule and add to CBS’s annual crime show quota.

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