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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.


October 2, 2014

Review: Manhattan Love Story 1x1 (US: ABC)

Posted on October 2, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

ManhattanLoveStory.jpg

In the US: Tuesday 8.30/7.30c, ABC

Now is the hour of the TV romcom. It's something that's been growing over the summer, with tiny acorns such as Undateable and Welcome To Sweden on NBC giving way to the striplings of Marriage and You're The Worst on FX. And now we have a veritable forest of them, with Selfie already on our screens, A to Z and Marry Me on the way this season, and Manhattan Love Story just arriving. 

Although it might seem like doing a romcom is easy - after all, pretty much every script to a Katherine Heigl film is the same as all the others, with virtually every cliche about 'what men and women want' surviving intact from the 1950s in all of them - it's really not, as Manhattan Love Story demonstrates. To give you a flavour of the show, we start the first episode with our hero, Peter (Jake McDorman), and heroine, Dana (Analeigh Tipton) walking through Manhattan. He's checking out the women, trying to remember which ones he's slept with, usually by staring at their breasts as an aide memoire. She's checking out the women, too, but purely to scope out their handbags.

Because that's what men and women are like, aren't they?

This embrace by the writers of the stereotypical romcom world doesn't end there. Dana is a naive small town woman, moved to New York to pursue a new career as an editor at a publishing company. This is the kind of publishing company where everyone looks at a woman who claims to have copy-edited an entire book overnight not in amazement at how anyone could think that a good idea, when 15 pages or so a day is probably where it needs to be at to avoid all kinds of horrible mistakes, but at how dedicated and talented this person who's never worked in publishing before must be.

In turn, Peter is a player, a cynical native New Yorker. He also works at an engraving company. Yes, he's in Manhattan, presumably paying Manhattan rents, getting by on having trophies engraved. Let's just hope he only works there or episode seven is where it turns out he's having to sell crack cocaine to make ends meet. Slightly darker, I know, but reality bites, and it's either that or branching out into shoe repairs and cutting duplicate keys.

Turns out that Peter's friend's wife is friends with Dana and she sets the two up on date, which naturally enough is arranged for Dana's first day at a new job. Dating on a Monday, starting a new job on a Friday or assuming that a date on the night of anyone's first job is a good idea - which do you think is less likely?

As you can imagine, it's all laughs as first Dana's day at work turns out to be hellish and then the date turns out to be equally hellish. But wouldn't you know it, they're ready to try again by the end of the episode, after learning a little about what the other really wants.

This is all highly painful stuff. There's no real humour to any of it. It's offensive to men, women, New Yorkers, small towners, men and women again, and anyone from an ethnic minority about 83% +/- 17% of the time. There's no charm, nothing even approaching romance, no realism. The main characters aren't interesting. Their friends aren't interesting. Even the player-naive girl diad is played to the blandest, tritest level possible. Ooh, Dana wants to go on a bicycle-cab ride and see the Statue of Liberty! Isn't she just innocently embracing the natural joy of existence and living in New York to the max!

It's not a total failure at everything, since Tipton proves that it is possible to have some success in life after appearing on America's Next Top Model. But it's pretty close.

 

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September 29, 2014

Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries 1x1 (New Zealand: Prime)

Posted on September 29, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Brokenwood Mysteries

In New Zealand: Sundays, 8.30pm, Prime

Despite its physical size, New Zealand is somewhat of a small country in terms of population, with just 4.5m inhabitants spread over its 104,000 square miles. That means that it can't really afford that much by way of original TV programming, largely importing TV from the US, Australia and Britain.

In fact, despite having several TV networks of its own, if you put aside documentary-making, then at times it can feel like there’s only one production company in the whole country: South Pacific Pictures. Responsible for seemingly everything from the long-running soap Shortland Street (22 years strong this year), which pretty much created the New Zealand TV industry anyway, through Outrageous Fortune, The Blue Rose to perhaps the country’s most famous and successful home-grown drama, The Almighty Johnsons, South Pacific has such a grip on the nation’s airwaves that the only scripted show I can think of in recent memory that South Pacific didn’t produce is Harry.

Given that New Zealand didn't have its own detective show, it’s no surprise that South Pacific is now trying to fill that particular hole in both its and the country’s drama portfolio with The Brokenwood Mysteries. And although South Pacific is somewhat promiscuous in who it provides shows to, one thing it’s very keen on is loyalty to actors* - you can pretty much guarantee that Siobhan Marshall is going to turn up in any of its shows sooner or later, for starters - so equally it's no surprise that The Brokenwood Mysteries stars Fern Sutherland (Dawn from The Almighty Johnsons) or that all four episodes are written by The Almighty Johnsons and Outrageous Fortune star and occasional scriptwriter Tim Balme.

There isn’t anything especially innovative or exciting about The Brokenwood Mysteries. In fact, it’s basically Y Gwyll, if you were to give that show a quick location change, a different mix of languages and ethnicities, and a more stereotypical Kiwi optimism. Sutherland is the the Mali Harries of the piece, a police detective living in the backwaters of New Zealand in a small town called Brokenwood who’s naturally miffed when city detective and Tom Mathias equivalent Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea), arrives to supervise her and her latest investigation: the apparent suicide of a local farmer.

The down-at-heel Shepherd saunters around the small town and its pretty surrounding countryside, interviewing suspects, finding lots of red herrings, bickering with Fernwood and listening to country and western music on his in-car cassette player in an ostentatiously quirky way, while having to deal with his multiple ex-wives. It’s his character who gets the bulk of the development, attention and character quirks, with the business-like Sutherland having to play the straight woman who inevitably grows to admire him and his idiosyncratic ways.

Rea is fine - as you’d expect from someone who’s also one of the country’s leading casting agents - while Sutherland does well with the little that’s asked of her and is convincingly un-Dawnish. But rather than the dark misery of Y Gwyll, this is genteel, New Zealand drama designed to appeal to perhaps an older demographic that likes comfortable murder-mysteries and to New Zealanders eager to watch anything that’s actually set in New Zealand and stars New Zealanders. Unfortunately, such is that low bar to entry, if you’ve seen any detective show ever, you’ll begin to wonder exactly how isolated from the outside world New Zealand really is, given the dialogue it chooses to show just how stunningly intelligent its lead detectives are - most murders are committed by people known by the victim, are they? Gosh, that’s a new and exciting fact I wouldn’t have gleaned from any other show.

If The Brokenwood Mysteries arrives on UK screens, it’ll probably be on ITV3, some time after Rosemary & Thyme. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for it, unless you like unchallenging, comfortable and unspectacular fare.

* The fact there aren’t that many in New Zealand probably helps

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September 26, 2014

Review: How To Get Away With Murder 1x1 (US: ABC; UK: Universal Channel)

Posted on September 26, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

How To Get Away With Murder

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Acquired by Universal Channel. Will air in October

As I mentioned earlier today when reviewing black-ish, ABC’s go-to person when it comes to diversity is Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes. Indeed, this year, as in previous year’s, they’ve gone to her for a new series full of diverse leads, and true to form, she’s delivered them How To Get Away With Murder, a pleasingly diverse legal procedural show that’s based around lawyer and university professor Viola Davis and the students she teaches and eventually recruits to work for her in genuine law cases.

There is, of course, a reason why they keep going back to her - namely that as well as producing diverse shows, she produces crowd-pleasing shows that people actually watch (well, apart from Off The Map obviously). This is typically through a combination of decent casting, soapy characterisation and logic-defying, crazy nuts plotting, with Scandal regularly blowing its audience’s collective mind through plot twists that feel like a somewhat unexpected LSD trip.

How To Get Away With Murder does feel slightly like one of those trips, in as much as it involves a brief flashback to the 70s for us to remember the wonderful The Paper Chase, which followed some incredibly white males through the first year of Harvard Law School under the stern gaze of the extraordinary and equally white and male John Houseman.

How To Get Away With Murder essentially takes The Paper Chase - and indeed the exact scene above - and puts it through the unique filter of Shonda Rhimes. So we’re introduced to a bunch of law students of varying genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations - but minimal personality beyond archetypes - at a university that looks a lot like Harvard but isn’t. Viola Davis (City of Angels, Century City, Traveler, The Andromeda Strain) is the John Houseman of the piece, a fiercely intelligent but practical lecturer who rather than teaching legal theory prefers to teach the practice of law and its numerous sneaky tricks in a class that she calls ‘How To Get Away With Murder’. To win her approval, the students must work as hard as it’s possible to work, back stab, cheat, rim and do anything they can to show that they’re the kind of lawyer she should employ. And rather than do it with an old case study, they’re going to do it with a legal case that Davis is currently defending.

Good format of the week already, isn’t it?

But Rhimes isn’t finished yet. It’s not Rhimes-y enough. Because interspersed with that decent-enough format, we have a flashforward to three months later where the students are busily putting Davis’ teaching into practice to cover up an actual murder. Will they get away with it? And who have they killed - Davis?

We’re still not Rhimes-y enough yet, because bolted onto that, there’s a missing student who may have been killed by her boyfriend; Davis is having an affair with a police officer; everyone else is having affairs with everyone else; and no one’s getting much sleep.

And for me, this is a classic case of over-egging the pudding. I’d have been happy with The Paper Chase 2014. That would have been a fun show. It probably would have been a bit more accurate about the law, too.

And while I don’t want to be the kind of guy who watches a show and says “Hey, wouldn’t this show I just thought of have been much better?”, adding a murder conspiracy plot and all the numerous affairs between people who really aren’t interesting enough to care about yet feels like too much being juggled in a one-hour show. Yes, it works for Scandal, with all its political intrigues and high-adrenaline pace, but it doesn’t really work here with a bunch of kids.

So I really think The Paper Chase 2014, mixing Davis’s classes with her actual cases, would have been a more interesting, better show.

Another problem is that while the Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated Davis is excellent, everyone else is varying degrees of bland, eager and annoying - whether you’ll enjoy the show will essentially be down to whether you like Viola Davis and how much screen time she’ll get in future episodes. The show also balks a little at having too much fun, with everyone seemingly competing for excuses for their affairs: ‘My wife’s got to cancer’, ‘My husband wants us to have a baby and it’s putting a strain on our marriage’, and so on. Just shag, will you, you fictional TV characters. Don’t be miserable about it afterwards.

I’m not convinced the show is going to last. With Davis as the show’s lynchpin and little else, the multiple attractions in Grey’s Anatomy just aren’t available; and without the full-on embrace of the ridiculous, it’s not got the chutzpah of Scandal either. But if you like a long mystery and conspiracy thriller eked out between shagging and lectures, perhaps How To Get Away With Murder is the show for you.

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