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October 18, 2014

Preview: Benched 1x1 (US: USA)

Posted on October 18, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Benched

In the US: Tuesdays, 10.30/9.30c, USA. Starts October 28

And lo! It came to pass that the USA Network, the motto of which was “Characters Welcome”, decided that it was going to make comedies. Because if you make hour-long dramas and comedy-dramas, surely half-hour comedies are just as simple, right?

And first it did commission a weak-arse adaptation of Channel 4’s Sirens that still managed to be one of 2014’s best-rated basic cable comedies. And then it did commission Playing House, which made the weak-arse Sirens look like Fawlty Towers.

Then after a mere eight months of thinking about whether it was sure about this whole comedy thing, it did commission a third comedy, Benched, which apparently was enough for USA because although they’re ‘fully committed’ to it (translated: will drop it like a hot potato as soon as possible), there are going to be no more USA comedies for the foreseeable future.

So let’s appropriately enough start shouting “Dead man walking!” as Benched trundles across our screens, waiting for its imminent execution. It’s a shame really, because it stars Eliza Coupe, who after starring in both Scrubs and Happy Endings, would normally be onto better things than her Happy Endings colleague Casey Wilson, yet who has the (slightly) superior Marry Me on NBC. Coupe plays a corporate lawyer who’s first dumped by her fiancé and then overlooked for partner at her firm, prompting an outburst (and demolition) at her firm so strong that she’s not able to work in corporate law any more and is forced to take a job as a public defender. There she meets a motley collection of similarly failed lawyers and demented defendants, and has to do her best to both survive and look after those she’s charged with defending.

And there’s a guy. There’s always a guy.

Coupe does her best and the script does explore areas of the law that most legal shows don’t bother with, ranging from why you should be nice to security guards to the shoddy treatment that the poor get at the hands of the law. But despite all Coupe’s delivery as well as physical comedy skills, the show is woefully unfunny, with a script bereft of any jokes that might cause you do anything more than smile or titter. While the characters are at least more bearable than those in Sirens and have greater maturity than gnats, unlike those in Playing House, a particularly sarcastic judge that Coupe has to deal with is really the only one you’d voluntarily see again, and basing a series on Coupe’s legal wrangles with her ex- as a proxy for their relationship issues doesn’t really make you want to watch more than another one or two episodes tops.

Benched could get better over time, but we’re talking about a pretty poor foundation for everything. And given how little USA apparently wants to stay in the comedy business, I doubt the show will get renewed after its first season unless it gets some very, very good ratings.

So pray for Coupe to get something better, but expect Benched to be benched before the year is out.

Here endeth the lesson, but starteth the trailer. You may titter at it a bit.

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October 17, 2014

Review: Jane the Virgin 1x1 (US: The CW; UK: E4)

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Jane The Virgin

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, The CW
In the UK: Acquired by E4. Will air in 2015

As I mentioned in my earlier review today of ABC’s Cristela, there’s a right way and a wrong way to make TV more diverse. The wrong way is simply to stick minority characters in any old rubbish, stack it full of obvious stereotypes that can be easily knocked down, and assume that’s enough to make people watch and root for the hero or heroine.

That doesn’t work.

The right way is to do something clever. Now telenovelas are one of the big successes of Spanish-language TV in both North and South America. In their purest definition, they are merely stories told over a fixed number of episodes, with a fixed beginning, middle and end. No eternal renewals for these boys and girls.

But most telenovelas are more than this basic definition and are more like soap operas, but insane, crazy soap operas crossed with poetry with mysterious identical twins, crazed half-brothers, and romances sometimes almost literally written among the stars. We’re talking “heightened reality” here.

While there have been some efforts to create English-language versions of some of the most popular telenovelas, few of them have actually got anywhere, with Ugly Betty being the only truly notable adaptation so far, with the likes of The Black Widow, Rubí, Killer Women and all the ones planned by the BBC a few years ago either stuck in development hell or just being dreadful.

This looks set to change with the EW’s Jane The Virgin, an adaptation of Venezuela’s Juana La Virgen. Incorporating all the heightened reality and standard tropes of telenovelas, it features Gina Rodriguez (The Bold and the Beautiful) as a Jane Villanueva, a young Latina raised by her grandmother to prize her virginity and only to lose it with the man she marries - unlike her mother (Andrea Navedo), who still won’t reveal who Jane’s real father is.

Fortunately, Jane has a loving cop boyfriend (Brett Dier) who’s willing to wait. Unfortunately, she has a doctor whose wife cheats on her the day before Jane’s check-up, distracting her so much that she confuses her with a patient coming in for artificial insemination. The result? Jane is still a virgin, yet pregnant.

Since this is telenovela territory, things still aren’t complicated or implausible enough yet. The woman who was supposed to be impregnated (Yael Grobglas) was doing so using her husband’s only remaining sperm sample, frozen from before he had treatment for cancer. She was only doing that because he (Justin Baldoni) was about to divorce her and she figured that if they had a child together, he would stay with her. Even more complicated is the fact that Jane has a crush on Baldoni and kissed him once.

Phew. That’s a lot, isn’t it? And I’ve not even started on who Jane’s father is - you don’t want everything to be spoiled, do you?

What lifts the show above the regular telenovela and telenovela adaptation is that it knows what it is and is happy to subvert it and use it. Throughout the show, Jane - an avid telenovela fan - constantly compares her life to telenovelas and seeks inspiration from the telenovelas she adores. The narration also makes frequent comparison and reference to the nature of the situation and its implausibility, and how much like a telenovela it is. Jane even gets dream sequence in-story advice from characters from her favourite telenovela, something even more complicated by the arrival at the end of the first episode of the main actor in that telenovela.

It’s also braver than a lot of shows. While Jane eventually decides to keep the baby, something without which the show wouldn’t have much of a premise, she nevertheless does consider an abortion and there’s even a discussion about the possibility by the main characters - an area few American shows would dare to address. It’s also happy to have about 25% of the show in subtitled Spanish (and in the US at least, you can watch the whole show in Spanish if you want), with some characters only speaking Spanish, even if Jane does have the slightly odd habit of replying in English to them, despite understanding them perfectly.

At the end of the day, this is still a telenovela and whether you’ll enjoy it or not comes down to whether you like telenovelas. But Jane the Virgin is at the top end of telenovelas, being charming, funny and smart, and at least on a par with Ugly Betty. If they’re you’re thing, you’ll love Jane the Virgin.

October 17, 2014

Review: Cristela 1x1 (US: ABC)

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Cristala

In the US: Fridays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC

Latinos make up 17% of the US population and 47% of the population of California, but if you watched network US TV, you’d be hard-pressed to see that fact represented on-screen. There’s a token character here and there sometimes, but largely shows are resolutely white and when there is decent representation of minorities, it’s almost always black characters who get the look in.

This season, however, some networks are trying to improve this lack of representation. Over on The CW, we have Jane The Virgin (review coming up later today) while on ABC - which is really pushing diversity this season with shows including black-ish and How To Get Away With Murder - we have Cristela, starring up and coming Latina comedienne Cristela Alonzo. Based on her own life, Cristela sees the eponymous Cristela dreaming of becoming a lawyer as she enters her sixth year of law school, while simultaneously trying to juggle her family responsibilities and jobs. In particular, she’s moved in with her sister (Maria Canals-Barrera), something that doesn’t please her brother-in-law (Carlos Ponce from Couples Retreat) one bit, and none of her family are that happy with her doing anything but getting married and being subservient to men - not even helping the young daughter to play soccer.

All of the home life scenes are cringe-worthy and clumsy but the show does better when it goes to the law firm where Cristela ends up interning. Rather than sexism, here other isms are examined, with pasty blonde posh girl Justine Lupe (Harry’s Law) taking on the main piñata role necessary for this, first assuming Cristela is a cleaner before realising her mistake and asking her to validate parking. Boss Sam McMurray treads a slightly subtler line, being a blunt good old boy who says outrageous things that it’s unclear whether he truly means or is only saying as a bit of ‘banter’, since he clearly esteems new hire Cristela. And would get an epic law suit if he really meant them.

Meanwhile, the rather sweet Andrew Leeds (best known as serial killer Chirstopher Pelant on Bones) gets to be both competition at the firm, as well as a sounding board and sympathetic ear to Cristela, and its in Alonzo's interactions with McMurray and Leeds that the show actually finds some lines and moments of intelligence and comedy that transcend its general humour vacuum.

Based in Dallas, Texas (Latino population: 42% - something not entirely obvious from Dallas), the show’s efforts to persuade that it’s filmed anywhere but a studio in Los Angeles largely fail, despite copious references to Dallas football and having Sam McMurray deploy a Texan accent while all around him sound resolutely midwestern. It’s not entirely clear why Canals-Barrera walks around in a cocktail dress all day, either.

However, some aspects of it have a degree of authenticity and it’s even happy to have unsubtitled Spanish dialogue at times, assuming that the audience will probably understand what’s being said. Alonzo’s not being a size-zero inevitably means that the show follows a The Mindy Project line, making her the butt of numerous size jokes as well, although she gives as good as she gets and is similarly self-deprecating. She’s also clearly having a lot of fun and while the writing messes around with Latino and Latina stereotypes, a lot of it relies on her ebullient and winning performance to defuse potentially abrasive situations and reduce serious discussions down to more comedic exchanges.

A multi-camera comedy, the show suffers from an audience that will laugh and go ‘Ah!’ without the slightest provocation from the script. The plotting is basic and predictable, with Alonzo’s family inevitably coming round to accepting her unpaid legal internship by the end of the episode (cue of ‘Ah!’ from the audience following generic affirming statements from Alonzo’s previously antagonistic mother).

It’s not a great show. It’s not an innovative show, beyond its casting: the jokes are obvious, the characters basic and the plotting pedestrian. Anything to do with the main character’s family is horrendous.

So while it’s good to see a show like it on TV, Cristela nonetheless highlights that as well as diversity in casting, there needs to be quality in the writing or else no one will end up watching. And if you don’t believe me on that, allow me to point you in the direction of Rob Schneider’s Rob.

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