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September 15, 2014

Review: Z Nation 1x1 (Syfy)

Posted on September 15, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Zombies in Z Nation

In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, Syfy

When I watched Syfy’s Dominion in June and declared it to be a contender to be the worst TV programme ever made, I assumed that its awfulness was a mistake, the result of some bad creative decisions. Who would deliberately make something so terrible you’d rather sandpaper your own knees for a week than watch another episode?

But having watched Syfy’s Z Nation, I’m going to have to overturn this assumption because it seems that Syfy’s new programming strategy is to develop shows so deliberately bad that people can only watch them ironically. I suspect the root cause of it all was Sharknado, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter, because let’s face it, Syfy hasn’t made a decent original show in years.

Where Dominion tapped into what I assumed was a comparatively small market - people who like to watch angels firing guns at each other in quasi-futuristic settings based on movies that no one watched - Z Nation tries to exploit a much bigger audience: people who love The Walking Dead. This is, of course a show that airs on AMC, a network that normally breaks open the champagne whenever its ratings creep above three million, so The Walking Dead’s 14 million per episode is somewhat akin to having Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans turn up with vintage Taittinger, a large block of gold and the deeds to a small Caribbean island in AMC’s offices every week.

Naturally, Syfy would try to tap into that audience with something that’s almost exactly the same, just cheaper and, given its new programming strategy, colossally stupid. Eschewing all that annoying characterisation and plotting that The Walking Dead’s showrunners mistakenly think people care about, Z Nation instead gets down to recreating the aesthetics of a low-budget Sega Megadrive first-person shooter from the 90s, with a motley bunch of highly untrained actors being given weapons and told to pretend to be Delta Force (sic) soldiers, prisoners, survivalists et al in a post-apocalyptic world where most people have been turned by a virus into zombies. Their prime directive? Hit things in the head a lot so that blood goes everywhere.

In common with the infinitely superior and thankfully zombie-free The Last Ship, there’s a last best chance for a cure who needs to be shepherded somewhere; there’s also a lone soldier at an HQ somewhere trying to rally the world together using the NSA’s communications systems, a Good Morning Vietnam microphone and, improbably for a a high-tech communications centre, a record player and some LPs.

But although there are one or two good ideas in there, everything about Z Nation’s execution is appalling. While there’s a certain element of irony in the show, which knows it’s not brilliant and wants to have a little fun at least, the dialogue is on a par with ‘All Your Base Are Belong To Us’, the plot utterly generic, the characters nicked wholesale from The Walking Dead’s supporting cast, the characterisation so perfunctory that you’d be hard-pressed even to remember any of the characters’ names, the acting sub-Wing Commander and the action so badly choreographed, you’ll assume that everyone’s under some form of remote control run using a 33.3k modem.

There are perhaps four surprises in the utterly generic first episode. One of these is that the show is co-created by Karl Schaefer, who co-created the deeply fun and interesting Eerie, Indiana back in the 1990s. You seriously would never have guessed from the drekfest on display. The second is that innovatively [spoiler]the show kills off the cast's biggest name - Harold Perrineau from Lost - before the end, which means also that there’s one fewer reason to watch the show as a result.

And of the remaining surprises, the underlying hint of irony means that they end up having all the impact and drama of discovering that one crisp you were saving at the bottom of your pack of Golden Wonders is actually a little smaller than you were expecting. And most of the time, you’ll be laughing when you should be hiding behind the sofa.

If you make it through even the first 10 minutes, I really will be surprised. If you make it through to the end, I’ll assume it’s because you're obligated to because of your job, you’re being blackmailed or you’ve undergone some kind of traumatic head wound. But even if you intend to watch it ironically, laughing at how bad it is, it’s worth remembering that The Strain at least has some qualities that will make watching it bearable; Z Nation just hopes that by being rubbish, you’ll watch it. Don’t waste your time.

September 12, 2014

Preview: Red Band Society 1x1 (Fox)

Posted on September 12, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Red Band Society

In the US: Wednesdays, Fox. Starts 17th September

It’s not exactly news that US TV is a vast, sprawling mass that churns through shows with unrelenting speed, requiring it to look around wherever it can for potential new sources of ideas. It’s been mining books, films and comics with increasing regularity, as well as the rest of the world’s TV. For decades now, it’s been working its way through the best (and sometimes worst) ideas that UK TV has had to offer, and has since spread out to other countries including Canada, Israel, Scandinavia and Mexico.

But it seems like it’s well and truly sucked the life out of those countries, because now it’s working its way down to some much less well travelled. Right now, the new hot country is Turkey, whose Son (currently available on Netflix, in case you’re interested), The End and The Edge are being worked into US shows as we speak. But just about to hit the airwaves over on Fox is Red Band Society, an adaptation of Catalonia’s Polseres vermelles. Yes, Catalonia. That’s not even a proper country (yet).

Quite why Fox had to go all the way to Catalonia, though, isn’t clear because thanks to a few changes made to the original show, as the name suggests, this is now essentially The Breakfast Club, the only difference being that the show is set in the paediatric ward of a hospital and all the kids are severely sick. Nevertheless, this group of kids who would normally all be at odds with one another in their respective cliques at school are all going to be forced to socialise with one another, make friends and perhaps learn a little about life and each other at the same time.

The changes are at least instructive. While most of the characters are the same - for example, we have a smart kid who’s been in hospital for a while, a handsome kid who’s just turned up, a girl with anorexia who might be into both of them and a kid who narrates the whole show but who is in a coma and can only communicate with one other character - we have an attempt at greater diversity that paradoxically reduces everyone down to stereotypes. There’s no kid with Asperger’s but we do have a streetwise black kid; the main nurse is now sassy and black (Octavia Spencer); and the handsome kid who doesn’t want to make friends is now a mean girl cheerleader, who of course has to have fights for male attention with the only other girl in the group.

But despite these efforts this is really no Breakfast Club. There's no Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy among its cast members (even if anorexic girl does dress like Sheedy) to lift the show to new heights. The adult likes of Spencer, doctors Dave Annable and Griffin Dunne, and nurse Rebecca Rittenhouse have little to do beyond be the teachers of the piece that the kids must obey, abuse or run ring rounds, rather than have anything to do in and of themselves. And despite the constant threat of deaths, amputations and more, there’s no real emotional depth to the show and even within the space of the first episode, suggestions of any real conflict and edge are carefully sanded off before the final credits.

It’s not without its charms and some of the kids are even likeable. But ultimately, how much you’re going to enjoy Red Band Society is really down to how much time you have for teen angst and standard indie set-pieces, such as precocious kids trying to show how intellectual they are by reducing Shakespeare down to little more than textese to demonstrate his continuing relevance and how smart they are. Which ain’t really my thing - but it might be yours.

July 22, 2014

Review: The Lottery 1x1 (Lifetime)

Posted on July 22, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Lifetime's Lottery

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

Did you know the world’s fertility is slowly decreasing? No one’s exactly sure why, although chemicals, particularly those with oestrogen-like properties, that have been flushed into the ecosystem is among the more likely suggestions. Of course, with the world’s population heading for 7 billion and likely to hit 9.6 billion by 2050, it’s not exactly an immediate global issue, even if it does affect some people quite deeply.

But imagine what would happen if by 2020, suddenly everyone, everywhere stopped being able to have children and no more kids were born at all. What would that be like?

Well, lots of people have already had a go at answering this question. Margaret Attwood projected a similar future in The Handmaid’s Tale, which effectively imagined what would happen if Islamic law were implemented by a Christian US.

PD James's The Children of Men, adapted by Alfonso Cuarón and Timothy J. Sexton as a movie starring Clive Owen, imagines a similar dystopian future for the UK in such circumstance, albeit one that's more fascist than theocratic. 

All of which is bleak - way, way too bleak for basic cable, let alone Lifetime, home of very fluffy female-friendly fare such as Army Wives, Devious Maids, Drop Dead Diva, The Client List and Witches of East End. So I can’t imagine that when Sexton re-pitched Children of Men as a TV series, he did it without thinking it might need to be toned down a bit and made a bit more hopeful.

Certainly, given his co-producer partner is ‘practising friend of popular science’ Danny Cannon (CSI, Eleventh Hour), edginess was out of the question for Sexton's The Lottery. Within the first 10 minutes of the future extinction of humanity being announced, scientist Marley Shelton (also Eleventh Hour) has already come up with a viable treatment that fertilises 100 embryos.

Now science being largely a collaborative subject and this being a highly urgent issue that the whole world needs solving within the next 70-100 years, you’d have thought the most obvious coda to all this is that Shelton would then have been working with other scientists around the US and the world to perfect her technique and get a new baby boom underway. Meanwhile, those embryos would be being implanted in the most genetically and physically hospitable environments: their egg donors.

Except that wouldn’t be very dramatically interesting, so instead, brace yourselves. First, US President Yul Vazquez (The Good Wife, Magic City) wants to keep the discovery secret and impregnate 100 female soldiers with the embryos. Just like that. Because women join the army to have babies.

But then chief of staff Athena Karkanis (The Border) is hatching a cunning plan to 'give the nation hope’ - a lottery, with 100 lucky winners being given the chance to have a child. And then we add on a conspiracy theory to make it all just a little bit sillier.

Here’s a trailer.

Continue reading "Review: The Lottery 1x1 (Lifetime)"

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