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September 26, 2014

Review: black-ish 1x1 (US: ABC)

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


In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30pm, ABC

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, or so they so. But I guess that the road to Heaven must be paved with a relatively similar material, too, otherwise someone’s clearly got the signs mixed up. The question is which route is ABC on this fall.

Because this year’s it’s going big on diversity. This is clearly a good intention. As I pointed out a while back, it’s somewhat strange that in this day and age, there is only one network TV drama with a female black protagonist and while I’m sure there’s one with a black male protagonist, I’m going to have to putting my thinking cap on to work out what it is. That’s not a good sign.

Now, to its credit, ABC is probably the network doing the most on diversity. Indeed, Scandal - that show with the female black protagonist - airs on ABC and the network has tried in the past to add other shows with black leads to its roster. Normally, what it’s done has been to go to Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes and asked her nicely for a new show, which they have indeed done again this year - my review of How To Get Away With Murder coming up later today. But this year, they’re launching a big swathe of comedies with diverse leads, including Selfie, which unusually enough features an asian actor (John Cho) as the male romantic lead, and Fresh Off The Boat, which is entirely focused on Asian immigrants.

First up, though, they’re giving us black-ish, which is a primetime black family sitcom. Horrifyingly, it’s been 30 years since The Cosby Show was on network TV and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air didn’t come that long afterwards. And while there have been sitcoms featuring black protagonists on network TV as well as cable (e.g. The First Family) since then, the black family sitcom on network TV has basically ceased to exist.

Of course, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air lived in different times and they both picked different paths in depicting upper middle class black Americans. The Cosby Show existed in a beautiful parallel universe where race was not issue. There was no racism, no discrimination - it just didn’t exist. You could be whatever you wanted to be and provided you followed the American Dream, you’d get it.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, by contrast, gave us a similar reality that’s somewhat punctuated by the arrival of working class black teenager, Will Smith (try not to kill yourself when you realise that he celebrated his 46th birthday yesterday). Here there was a tension between the affluence of the rich black Bel Air family in which Smith found himself and Smith’s more street ways. In particular, the family’s son, Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) was the constant source of mockery for his non-street (a coded way of saying ‘non-black’) ways. It was clear from the show that the show’s producers were clear that Carlton needed to be ‘blacker’.

Fast forward 20 years and we have black-ish, a show that grabs the legacy of both those shows as well as the thorny dilemma of just what is it to be black in the US and, in a time when we have a black president, gives us something a bit more nuanced. Anthony Anderson (Law and Order, K-Ville, Guys With Kids, All About The Andersons, Treme) plays Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson - an appropriately conflicted name - a black man who grew up in the hood but who followed the advice of his father (Laurence Fishburne) and got himself a college education. He’s now a rich LA advertising executive, living in an exclusive neighbourhood, and about to get a promotion to senior vice president - the first black SVP in the history of his company.

His family? Basically, Bill Cosby’s. As well as three kids, he’s got a lovely, biracial doctor wife, Rainbow, played by Diana Ross’s daughter Tracee Ellis Ross from UPN/The CW’s long-running Girlfriends but who also played a doctor in BET's Reed Between The Lines who was married to… The Cosby Show’s Malcolm-Jamal Warner.

The trouble is that Fishburne thinks that his son has lost touch with his black roots. Hell, they don’t even eat fried chicken - they bake it - and the eldest son plays field hockey. I mean field hockey. And Anderson begins to agree, once he realises his son, also called Andre, prefers to be called Andy rather than Dre, and his youngest son doesn't know that Barrack Obama is the first black president. So he attempts to make his family ‘blacker’.

Despite a few gender politics issues, the show is actually very acute and surprisingly brave - as perhaps you might expect from a show exec produced by The Daily Show’s ’senior black correspondent’ Larry Wilmore. The script is by Kenya Barris - whose writing chops were largely developed on shows like The Keeen Ivory Wayans Show, Are We There Yet? and The Game, but oddly enough is best known as the developer of America’s Next Top Model - and touches on all kinds of issues, ranging from the glass ceiling, whether someone who’s biracial is truly black, the appropriation of black culture by white corporate culture, coded terms such as ‘urban’, whether it’s better to work in a ‘black company’ that pays less, and is being a black SVP in charge of ‘black things’ a bad thing or not?

The show also isn’t afraid to say that the answers to these issues aren’t obvious or easy. Rainbow points out that while Dre doesn’t want to be in charge of the ‘urban division’, he’d hate it more if a white guy was in charge and at least he’s an SVP. Andy is in the field hockey team because although he wants to play basketball, he’s just no good at it - a black guy who’s no good at basketball! And when Dre tries to give his son an African ‘adult rites of passage’ ceremony to help him get him in touch with his supposed heritage, he has to look it up in a book and Fishburne points out that anyway, “We’re black, not African. Africans don’t even like us.”

The show’s message - the nature of what it is to be black is evolving and black culture (whatever that might be) is combining with mainstream US culture… but we’re not there yet.

But there are a couple of big issues with the show. The first is that like the equally but differently well intentioned Undateable on NBC, it’s simply not as funny as it should be. Despite all the clever observations and equally clever directorial flourishes on the parts of the programme-makers, the jokes are more wry than laugh out loud funny. Obviously being neither American nor black, it might just be because my life experiences don’t overlap enough for the jokes to resonate, but I was more smiling and nodding than guffawing throughout the episode.

Now in part, that might be because of the show’s other big issue: Anthony Anderson. It turns out that Anderson is one of the worst actors since the dawn of human history. This surprised me at first when I started reading through his credits list. I don’t remember him much at all from K-Ville, and although the acting in that was universally pretty poor, the kind of epic awfulness of Anderson’s performance still would have stuck out like a nuclear detonation in a New Jersey White Castle. You also don’t get to be on Treme or Law and Order if you’re a truly dreadful actor.

Indeed, there are times when Anderson’s actually quite good in the episode, admittedly usually when he has no lines to deliver, but after his final presentation at the end, he’s oozing intelligence, professionalism and everything else you’d expect from a senior vice president - but which you hadn’t seen at all until this point.

Then I saw the Guys With Kids credit and realised the problem. He’s just a terrible comic actor. He has no idea how to do comedy with subtlety. He hams up everything remotely funny for all it’s worth, clearly worried that we won’t understand it’s funny unless he choreographs it with smoke signals, gurning, stupid voices, shouting and bizarre deliveries. It’s the kind of performance that might work in a stage comedy or pantomime - although not in Guys With Kids - but in a single-camera comedy, it’s the equivalent of having your face rubbed down with a cheese grater.

So while it’s a cautious recommendation from me in terms of the show’s accuracy of observation and tackling of issues, be warned that you’re going to need to sit in front of your TV wearing a full hazmat suit and perhaps some form of noise-cancellation headphones calibrated to Anthony Anderson, if you do decide to tune in.

September 23, 2014

Review: Scorpion 1x1 (US: CBS)

Posted on September 23, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Scorpion on CBS

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, CBS

There’s a point where a show is so ludicrous that you can’t watch it. You can’t switch your brain off enough that you can overlook the numerous ridiculous points that make the whole thing nonsensical.

An example of that is CBS's Intelligence, which was plain old ludicrous.

But as the show gets more ludicrous and nonsensical, you can almost resign yourself to just how ludicrous it is and start watching again.

The genius of Scorpion, a show about a group of geniuses who get together to solve crises that require a lot of maths, engineering and computing knowledge, is that it goes through two more iterations of that to give us a show so insanely ludicrous and implausible, it really doesn’t matter any more, just as long as there’s lots of people in high adrenaline situations shouting things.

The show is very much a hotchpotch of standard CBS elements. Obviously the geniuses who help the US government with crimes ’n’ stuff was Numb3rs, which soon became popular with schools for making maths seem almost cool, but which unfortunately forgot to include any real action in between musings on 'Chase Theory' as applied to 'criminals running away from things’. Bolted on top of that, we have The Unit’s Robert Patrick, once again the gruff agent in charge of things who growls a lot, and we have the standard CBS team of three to four boys, two girls, one to two of the group from an ethnic(ish) minority if possible.

This team, who all have very broad, complementary, entirely non-overlapping skillsets are, of course, quirky, with all kinds of problems. The main guy can do computer things; there’s a psych guy who, like, really understands people; there’s a girl who’s good with anything mechanical; and there’s a guy who’s good with numbers and physics and things. Since apparently psych guy who’s good with people isn’t quite good enough with people and uses his powers for evil, there’s also a normal-type waitress girl who can talk to normal people without p*ssing them off. And then, because Aspergers is just so hot right now, there’s a genius kid who doesn’t like being touched and wants to play chess with household items. That really enlivens the plot.

So obvious bobbins, right? A profound inability to understand either geniuses or people, all rolled into one show.

But that’s just the set-up. In this first episode, the pedantic ghost of Numb3rs shoots itself in the head because if you know even the slightest things about computers, you’ll know what epic bobbins the plot is - air traffic control computers at LAX airport get a buggy computer update, but no one has the original software, first installed 15 years ago. So team Scorpion have to go to get the offsite backup version. But it’s a race because that'll get wiped over by the new version because naturally, a sensible back up strategy for something that hasn’t been updated in 15 years is to make a back up every 12 hours that wipes over the previous back up. This is, incidentally, the same piece of software used to run every single aeroplane in the world - because air traffic control is identical to navigating a plane - but that no other airport in the US uses.

Can you feel it? Can you feel your brain trying to escape? Trying to run from you and Scorpion?

And yet, despite how formulaic and ridiculous and in many ways insulting to men, women, children, airport computers, FBI agents and perhaps even God himself Scorpion is, there’s just something about its sheer high-octane value that makes it 1023.6% more enjoyable than Intelligence and Numb3rs. There’s a high-speed car chase through Los Angeles with every traffic light turning green! There’s a high-speed car chase on a runway in a Ferrari! People talk really quickly about complicated things! People keep pulling guns and almost shooting things!

Woo hoo!

On top of that, we get something approaching human interest at times - not the forced, bland, hollow attempts at nerdy quirkiness, family interactions, pathos, romance and musing about the existence of God in the numbers in Numb3rs, but people being dicks because they don’t know how to interact with people and then being called up on being a dick.

The cast is pretty adequate; the characters are little more than plot functions; the set-up is entirely formulaic; the show laughs in your face and says, “No, you’re stupid,” it’s so stupid. Yet despite all this, because it’s actually got some element of fun to it and perhaps even a little heart, I’m going to stick with Scorpion for a while. Or maybe it's just because I want to test my brain’s stamina and it’s either this or hitting my head repeatedly against a concrete pillar.

You’ll have to find your own reasons, though.

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September 23, 2014

Review: Gotham 1x1 (US: Fox; UK: Channel 5)

Posted on September 23, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Fox's Gotham

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Acquired by Channel 5. Will air in October

There have been a lot of Batmans over the years. I don’t just mean actors or even characters who have become Batman in the comics. I mean that tonally, Batman has changed many times since he was first created 75 years ago. Whether it’s the comedic Adam West Batman of the 60s, the gothic, operatic Tim Burton Batman or camp Joel Schumacher Batman of the 90s, the dark, quasi-realistic Batman of the Christopher Nolan movies, the borderline psychopath of the Frank Miller comics or the back to basics action hero of Denny O’Neil, these Batmans have all had often radically different tones.

Importantly, though, they’ve all been consistent. You couldn’t have had Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Adam West TV series; Frank Miller’s Batman would have scared the living daylights out of Danny DeVito’s Penguin; and so on. Plus they all would have looked really, really stupid mish-mashing genres like that.

I mention this because Fox’s Gotham, a Batman prequel that follows the origin stories of not just a young Batman but all his enemies and allies, as newbie police detective Jim Gordon tries to clean up the city, makes the near-fatal mistake of trying to be all Batmen to all people.

At its base, we have a fine script from the always wonderful Bruno Heller (Touching Evil, Rome, The Mentalist). It feels like a Nolan script and touches base with Batman continuity points at every turn, with everyone from Alfred the butler to Poison Ivy, The Riddler, The Penguin, The Joker (maybe) and Catwoman putting in a pre-grotesque appearance. Many a Batfan’s heart will be a flutter as they spot who’s who and what’s what, I’m sure, and if you know the origin story of Batman well, you’ll appreciate how close it sticks to the comics as well as innovating in its own way - particularly nice is the way Selena Kyle keeps watch over the young Bruce Wayne, having witnessed his parents’ murder, but the Penguin is also the obvious standout character from among the various assembled Batman villains taking their first baby steps.

The cast is fine as well. We have Ben McKenzie, who was so brilliant as a cop in Southland, playing ex-soldier Jim Gordon; Sean Pertwee is a redoubtable and authentically working class English Alfred; Donal Logue (Terriers, Life, Vikings, The Knights of Prosperity) is his usual furry, Irish, working-class cop self as Gordon’s partner, the corrupt but still well intentioned Harvey Bullock; John Dorman (Borgia, The Wire) is mesmerisingly contained as crime boss Carmine Falcone; and the child cast (David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne, Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle, Clare Foley as Ivy Pepper) are all very good, too. Even the more unknown supporting cast, as well as crime lady Jada Pinkett Smith, do well.

The problem is everything is working to completely different Batmans. In fact, the director, Danny Cannon, picks several - at times going for a Nolan Gothan, at times for a Burton one, dragging the set designers along with him. Just for luck, he even tries a bit of Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow, awesomely failing to pull off either.

The cast seem a little unsure, too. A lot of them think they’re in a campy Joel Schumacher Batman, while others pick and choose depending on their mood, sometimes being gamely operatic à la Burton, sometimes going for a gritty Nolan. McKenzie even growls and postures like he thinks he’s really Christian Bale’s Batman, assuming Bale had forgotten he wasn’t wearing his Batman outfit.

As for composer Graeme Revell, I’m not even sure he knows this is a Batman show, so largely plumps for generic syndicated 80s action show, right down to the ubiquitous guitar riffs that envelope pretty much every scene. If ever I’ve taken Murray Gold’s name in vain, I apologise - there are composers who are far worse and more ruinous than he, it turns out.

This is a pilot, of course, and over time, I’m sure everyone will manage to pick a style - hopefully the same one - and stick with it. Heller does well at giving us a heroic Jim Gordon who ultimately is going to fail in his quest because he’s no superhero, but who’s going to do his best for the next decade or two anyway, and it looks like he knows how to tell that story in an interesting and semi-realistic way.

However, at the moment, Gotham feels more like an homage to every Batman there’s ever been, rather than a show that knows what it is in and of itself. It’ll probably be worth tuning in for subsequent episodes, to see if it can settle down, but this isn’t the slam dunk that Fox was undoubtedly hoping for.

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