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April 29, 2014

Preview: Playing House 1x1 (USA)

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

Playing House

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, USA. Starts April 29

Please! Won't somebody stop them?

Who's 'they', you might ask. Good question, because there's a lot of theys who need stopping. The first they is the USA Network, which is busily trying to move from making character-based dramas - most of which are best described as dramedies - into making full-on comedies. It's first effort, a remake of Channel 4's Sirens, was pretty mediocre, and now we have the even more mediocre Playing House. USA certainly needs stopping.

Our next 'they' who need stopping are best friends who want to write and star in TV shows together as thinly veiled versions of themselves and their own friendship. While two friends starring together obviously can work - look at True Detective, for example - it's when they get to write it as well and assume that their hilarious friendship will transfer well to the small screen that the issues arise. Look at Doll and Em and Best Friends Forever: very accurate portrayals of friendship that are not in the slightest bit funny to outside observers. These people need stopping.

That latter show, though, takes us to our last 'they' - Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. For it was they who came up with that terrifyingly unfunny NBC 'comedy', which mostly involved them gurning at one another and not being especially plausible as human beings, so was rightly cancelled after about seven seconds. Yet somehow they've managed to garner themselves another show, this time on NBC's sister network USA, where they do pretty much exactly the same thing.

Please. Won't somebody stop them?

This time the plot is that Parham is married and about to have a baby, St. Clair is a high-flying exec. The two have been best friends since childhood and when Parham throws her baby shower, it accidentally comes out that her husband really enjoys webcamming with a German woman who likes putting biscuit tins and other things up her bottom. As does he. Naturally, the marriage breaks down and St Clair being the best friend she is drops everything, including her job, to move in with Parham to help her bring up the baby.

And as with Best Friends Forever, this feels like a show where the two real-life best friends are having an awful lot of fun together and really want us to know how crazy and wacky their friendship is, but ultimately it has zero in common with reality. Reality and this are not even ships passing in the night so much as a day-loving flying unicorn heading off to the planet Narg and a 43-year-old chartered quantity surveyor from a small village outside Surbiton who only does night shifts. 

For starters, as with BFF, well drawn as the female characters might be, the men appear to have been plotted from some imagined version of men gleaned by two teenage girls eavesdropping a table of psychologists at a "pathological neuroses" conference on their first trip out from the all girls catholic school since puberty struck. The male characters here may look like men, they're even played by men, but that's purely an optical illusion.

Then there's the idea of what a 'high flying exec' might be. Apparently, if you're a high flying exec, trusted by a company for 10 years to conduct million-dollar business deals in Mandarin, you have zero assertiveness, a total lack of self-confidence, are only allowed two days off per year at most, even at weekends, one night without sleep will incapacitate you and your company will fire you for a single bad business meeting. This is the high-flying exec imagined by comedy performers who have never had real jobs so have only watched really bad TV shows and read young-adult fiction as research.

Of course, lack of verisimilitude isn't in and of itself a killer with a comedy, providing it's funny, and if you like to watch a whole bunch of jokes you've seen before, just done sillier, with a little bit of added racism for luck, and by people who really want you to think they're both lovable and funny, then maybe this is the show for you. But if you have standards, you're going to be finding yourselves wanting Ming the Merciless to rain hot hail upon the Earth, purely in the hope that among the millions made homeless, some of the people involved in this will be collateral damage. It'll be a price worth paying. And it should certainly stop 'them'.

Here's a trailer or two.

April 8, 2014

Review: Silicon Valley 1x1 (HBO)

Posted on April 8, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Silicon Valley

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
in the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic for summer 2014

Geeks and nerds are hard to do well. The natural instinct of US comedy writers - typically arts graduates who know next to nothing about science and technology - is to mock them mercilessly and hold them up to be objects of ridicule. Even when seemingly siding with nerds (cf Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science), writers still regard them as 'the other’ and targets for the comedy more often than not - hapless losers who succeed despite their apparent social failings, unattractiveness, etc, rather than who have worthwhile character traits.

Look at Big Bang Theory, which supposedly is on the side of the geek, but which still gives all the nerds 1970s clothing and haircuts and has ‘normal’ people around to look down on them. Or at least that’s how it started (it’s improved a bit not a lot).

And in a lot of ways, HBO's new comedy Silicon Valley is no different. Set inside a Silicon Valley ‘incubator’ - a collection of start-up businesses all under one roof being helped to become successful by a mentor - it’s a show that very precisely satirises the people, the working style, the business practices, the culture and pretty much everything else in California’s technology capital. Very precisely - having written about technology (as well as TV) for the best part of 20 years, a lot of it is very familiar to me, even if it is exaggerated.

But at the same time, this is a comedy from Mike Judge. Best known for the affectionate but teasing portrait of Texan family life that is King of the Hill, he’s also the progenitor of the much-loved cult movie Office Space, which did a fabulous job of mocking working life.

So although the geeks and nerds on display in the show are as much the butt of the humour as in any other show, not only is it quite affectionate mockery, no one escapes it. Best of all, it's also very funny.

Here's a trailer and if you liked that, you can watch the entire first (censored) episode, too (if you live in the US).

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April 3, 2014

Review: Friends With Better Lives 1x1 (CBS)

Posted on April 3, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Friends with Better Lives

In the US: Mondays, 8.30/7.30c, CBS
In the UK: Acquired by Comedy Central

Normally, even the mention that a sitcom is on CBS and is shot in front of a studio audience is enough to make me reach for the novocaine. Really, the pain is too much, these days.

But there was a little light at the end of the tunnel when I heard that Friends With Better Lives had nothing to do with Chuck Lorre, showrunner of CBS's Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, Mom and Mike and Molly, and that it stars James Van Der Beek, who did such a good job with Don’t Trust The B---- in Apartment 23.

So I was prepared to give this one a little latitude.

Certainly, it’s not as awful as most CBS sitcoms. Sure, the set-up is incredibly derivative, featuring four sets of couples at different stages of relationship life: single, just met, long-time married and divorced (cf Rules of Engagement, ’Til Death, Better With You). The single woman just want to find a partner; the just hooked-up couple want to spend all their time together having sex; the long-time marrieds don’t have any fun any more and envy the just hooked-up couple; and the divorced guy (Van Der Beek) is just bitter and wants to get back together with his wife.

Incidentally, the fact he’s divorced is a spoiler for the end of the episode, but since it’s in the show’s title sequence at the start of the episode, don’t worry about it.

For some reason, these four couples - technically, two couples + 1 + 1 - all hang around in long-time married couple’s house, where they snipe at each other, try to set each other up, pick apart their relationships and generally wish they were in some other state of singledom/coupledom. And that’s all handled in an efficient enough, if predictable manner, with a slight female edge that means that for once on a CBS comedy, there’s at least one funny female character right from the first episode.

Trouble is, for a group of eight characters you’re expected to hang out with, there’s not much to make you want to hang out with them. Van Der Beek is a bitter stalker and perpetual house guest who does mean things to single, picky, career woman Zoe Lister-Jones, who jibes back at him. And they’re the best things about the show, demonstrating some decent comedic chops.

But Victoria’s Secret model Brooklyn Decker just looks like she needs to eat some food most of the time; Kevin Connolly, who endured eight seasons of Entourage, is only there to make world-weary comments; Rick Donald is there to be Australian and nice, which is even less than he had to do as Danny on The Doctor Blake Mysteries; and beyond be a mother, embarrassed and regretful of her life choices, there’s precious little for Roswell’s Majandra Delfino to do and she’s only relatively competent at that.

There will, undoubtedly, be future relationship twists and no doubt Van Der Beek and Lister-Jones will end up together at some point in season two, assuming it gets that far. But I’m not sure I want to stick with it for that long. Hell, given that CBS aired the first episode and has now decided to wait a fortnight before airing the second one, I’m not sure CBS wants to stick with it for that long.

But if you’re looking for a comedy that isn’t immediately horrible and grossly sexist, and 25% of the cast of which are actually funny, this might be worth a few moments of your time, at least.

Here’s a trailer, surprisingly subtitled in French. But seeing as only Van Der Beek and Lister-Jones are worth watching, don’t be surprised CBS has made trailers exclusively about them, too.

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