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September 22, 2014

Review: Madam Secretary 1x1 (US: CBS)

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

Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary

In the US: Sundays, 8.30pm ET/8pm PT, CBS

Have you ever watched a show and really wanted to like it, but found yourself disliking it instead, despite all your best intentions? I’ve just had that experience (again) with Madam Secretary.

On the face of it, it’s got a lot going for it. It’s got a good cast, for starters. I’ve always liked Téa Leoni (The Naked Truth), who plays a former CIA analyst turned university lecturer, who gets recruited by her friend the President (the always great Keith Carradine) to become the new Secretary of State when her predecessor gets killed in a plane crash. At the White House, she then has to deal with the pressures of not just international diplomacy but also internal politics, thanks to some new enemies in the form of chief of staff Željko Ivanek, who instantly elevates any show he’s in, and her own chief of staff Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers). In this, she has the support of her theology lecturer husband Tim “the voice of Superman” Daly but her teenage children aren’t so happy with her new job.

All good so far - apart from the kids - and the show also tries to take in elements from more obviously linked, top quality shows such as The West Wing, with its “important liberal issue of the week”, and Veep, with that show’s comedic gaggle of support staff. You can also see CBS trying to play it to the same audience as its Sunday-night partner show The Good Wife: as well as the politics and in-fighting, it also deals with the relationships of those involved and how Leoni’s new job affects them, as well as the more Hillary Clinton-esque questions of how a woman is judged differently in the role, from the need for a stylist to how she’ll be analysed on The View.

The trouble is that these high ambitions are let down by both the nature of the hour-long, issue of the week format as well as its network. Madam Secretary fair oozes shallowness and naivety. Two American teenagers arrested in Syria and threatened with execution within a week? We can fix that in an hour, can’t we? We’ll just threaten sanctions and a few diplomatic expulsions and everything will be sorted by the end of the episode. Because we know how well that's all been working in real-life. King of Swaziland turning up to dinner with his many wives in tow? A simple joke about how busy he must be and he’ll be rectifying his commitment to AIDS treatment by the end of the main course.

On top of that, there’s a ridiculous conspiracy theory to deal with, concerning a mole in the White House and whether the ex-Secretary of State’s accident really was an accident or an assassination. Was he on a secret mission in a small light aircraft? Only in TV world is that even a slight possibility.

Léoni is also a little wobblier than she should be at this stage. Largely she’s very good - a firm, strong, intelligent presence. But she’s best at comedy and there are times when certain comedic mannerisms pop through when they shouldn’t. The script also wants her to be likable and largely unthreatening to the older CBS audience so emphasises the comedy more than it should. Given time, I’m sure she’ll acclimatise, but it’s harder than it should be to take her seriously at the moment.

So despite my best wishes, I found myself watching the clock and rolling my eyes a lot with Madam Secretary, as a female Dave tries to show that America really could control the world if it just had the right person in charge, doing things in an honest, non-political way - assuming she can escape assassination by the CIA, who are always assassinating members of the US government, of course.

Over time, the show might pick up, but I suspect it’ll have to focus more on one of its many themes, ditching its conspiracy theory and becoming more of a Veep, turning to West Wing-esque, character-led, wide-eyed optimism with minimal connection to reality or going in a harder, more realistic direction. At the moment, though, it’s a frustratingly weak show that squanders a good cast on a set-up that tries to be all things to all women (and men).

September 18, 2014

Mini-review: The Mysteries of Laura 1x1 (US: NBC)

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

The Mysteries of Laura

In the US: Wednesdays, 8/7c, NBC

How much do you love Debra Messing? A little bit? A lot? Don't worry, it's not a crime to admit it. Okay, she was somewhat overshadowed by Megan Mullally on Will and Grace, which should probably have been called Jack and Karen by the end, but objectively she was a lot of fun in that and you might well have a soft spot for her because of Prey, too.

All the same, unless on a scale from 1-10 you rate Messing as "11! 11! How could it be anything but 11, you damn fool! She's a goddess!", you're probably going to want to give The Mysteries of Laura a wide berth. To start with, the show is adapted from Spain's La 1's Los misterios de Laura, which isn't itself the finest piece of work ever to hit the airwaves.

But this NBC take elevates a slightly tedious, obvious show about a single mother who's also a cop to whole new levels of pain and misery for the viewer. I mean McG (Charlie's Angels, This Means War) not only exec produces but is also the director of the pilot episode, and having his name attached to anything is pretty much a guarantee of horror greater than a rabies infection. Even given that terrible baseline, though, the writers and producers work ever so hard in partnership with McG to give us something of almost weaponised toxicity.

The show's one big joke is that Messing's character brings her police skills to bear on her private life and her mothering skills to bear on her work life. So Messing goes around investigating the 'crime scenes' caused by her children while simultaneously mothering and wiping clean the victims of crime. In pretty much every scene. It wasn't funny in the first scene; it wasn't funny in the last.

It flags pretty much everything about a mile off, has insulting characters with the depth of the average dew drop and although it's clearly supposed to be a comedy drama, rather than a procedural per se, has an approach to plausibility and police work on a par with Trumpton. There is almost no gender or racial stereotype the show isn't happy to exploit (sassy black woman? Check. Bitchy Latina? Check.), no subtlety or change in working conditions since the 1970s that it isn't willing to ignore. It is the pan-galactic gargle blaster of crime shows, but without the benefits of alcohol.

But Messing's good. I like her.

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.

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