Archive | US TV 2017

Reviews of new US TV programmes from 2017


May 4, 2017

Review: American Gods 1x1 (US: Starz; UK: Amazon)

Posted on May 4, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

American Gods

In the US: Sundays, 9pm E/P, Starz
In the UK: New episode available every Monday 

By all rights, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a novel I should have in some lovingly crafted Folio Society edition, situated in pride of place on my bookshelf or on a small shrine. Pagan gods? Check. American setting? Check. Neil Gaiman? Check and double check - after all, I spent most of my university days not just avidly reading Gaiman's comic book works, particularly Sandman, but looking like its titular character, too. This is basically a photo of my sister and me in the early 90s.

Sandman and Death

Imagine the confusion and fear among knowing bystanders when we met up.

And yet, somehow, American Gods passed me by. I've not read it; I've not even listened to any of the audio books of it. I don't even want to, despite very much enjoying Gaiman's work on Doctor Who and his novel (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Good Omens. Odd, hey?

A new TV show, though - one co-showrun by the marvellous Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Hannibal, Mockingbird Lane, Pushing Daisies)? Maybe that's more my speed now?

So, sign me up, but don't expect comparisons with the original, only answers to the thorny question of whether it's a good TV show or not.

The story follows the fantastically named Shadow Moon (Hollyoaks' Ricky Whittle), a con serving a three-year prison sentence who's released days early when his wife is killed in a car accident. Trying his best to make his way home for her funeral, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, until he comes across conman 'Mr Wednesday' (Lovejoy's Ian McShane) and his luck mysteriously changes. Maybe that's got something to do with the leprechaun (The Wire's Pablo Schreiber) he also meets. At least, he says he's a leprechaun, but he's mighty tall, so Moon has his doubts. Probably not because of the height, though.

Discovering his wife wasn't quite who he thought she was, Moon is tempted by an offer of employment as Mr Wednesday's 'heavy', but before he even starts, he's discovering that Mr Wednesday has some very, very odd, very nasty, sometimes completely faceless enemies. 

And that's basically the plot of the first episode, which really isn't that inspiring a piece of work. Not much happens other than establishing that Moon is rather similar to Luke Cage in terms of personality, if a bit less indestructible and without half the charm or catchphrases. There's also little of the fantastical about it until the end, and what there is, largely doesn't work, Schreiber's leprechaun (who may be from Ireland. Or Russia) being an amalgam of stereotypes about Irish people being drunkards and fighters, rather than anyone liable to lead you to the end of any rainbow. I imagine that later episodes will be where we discover the rather important central conceit of the series that there's a war between New Gods (such as technology) and Old Gods (such as Odin) being waged in America. That sounds more interesting, doesn't it?

But there are some things that work. Ian McShane is obviously marvellous as the scheming Mr Wednesday ("Today's my day" - gosh, I wonder who he might be), but what really lifts American Gods out of the ordinary - at least at this stage - is the mise-en-scène. Hovering here in roughly the same orbit as season 2 of Hannibal (ie not quite as perfect as season 1 but not as far up its own arse as season 3), American Gods does have some truly lovely and sometimes disturbing visuals, as well as the equally unsettling, jazzy dissonance of Brian Reitzell's musical compositions. As it's on Starz, there's also quite a bit of the Spartacus gore along for the ride, too, with some blood tableaux that are often breathtaking.

Without those, there'd be little to mark out the show from any other piece of generic fantasy, though. There's almost nothing of Gaiman or Fuller's wit and wisdom in any of the dialogue and where it gets fantastical, it's often in ways that make you scoff rather than wonder. 

Gaiman says that a lot of the first episode is new but still in keeping with the book, so I'll give the show the benefit of the doubt for now and hope it gets better in later episodes as they return to the original text. There's also a top cast of guest gods due later on (Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bernsen, Jeremy Davies), which should make that task a whole lot easier.

But this isn't the way back into either Gaiman's or Fuller's works that I was expecting. Still, maybe we shouldn't expect miracles.

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April 27, 2017

Review: Genius 1x1 (US: National Geographic; UK: National Geographic)

Posted on April 27, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

National Geographic's Einstein

In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, National Geographic (UK)
In the US:
Tuesdays, 9/8c, National Geographic

Everyone's forgotten about Albert Einstein. Not completely, since most people can still at least recall who wrote E=mc2 and there are those T-shirts, of course. But the time has long since passed when if you played word association with someone, 'Einstein' was the automatic response to 'genius'. Even in The Avengers, when Phil Coulson is trying to describe the genius of Bruce Banner to Steve Rogers, a man frozen in ice since the 1940s when Einstein was actually world-famous as history's greatest genius, we get this:

Coulson: Not so much. When he's not that thing though, guy's like a Stephen Hawking.
[Steve looks puzzled, not understanding the reference]
Coulson: He's like a smart person.

That's how much Einstein has been replaced by Prof Hawking as the touchstone of genius in the modern day psyche. Or at least Joss Whedon's.

So it's very welcome that National Geographic has chosen Einstein as the first subject of its first ever scripted series, Genius - an anthology biopic show covering the life of a famous scientific mind each season.

The action is split between two periods and indeed two actors. In the first, we have Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The King's Speech) playing Einstein during the 1930s, when he's already a Nobel-prize winner and the discoverer of special and general relativity. Hitler hasn't come to power yet, even if Nazis are marching in the street and assassinating famous Jews, so Einstein is initially content to continue living in Berlin with second wife/first cousin Elsa (Emily Watson), teaching physics at university. However, by the end of the episode, he and Elsa are heading off for the US.

In the second, we flash back to the late 19th century when a young Einstein (Scrotal Recall's Johnny Flynn) is still at school in Munich and bored out of his mind. He rejects the school's regimented Bavarian teaching practice and would rather be at university. However, other than physics and mathematics, at which he is (almost) unrivalled, he knows little about much else, so is forced to wait a year, during which he receives tutelage from the nearby Tarbet family in the arts - and begins to have some insights into the nature of light, time, space… and girls.

Exec produced by Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) and Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and developed by Noah Pink and Kenneth Piller (Perception, Star Trek: Voyager, Legend of the Seeker), Genius is unsurprisingly nicely and competently made, filled with a cast of the great and the good, but not anything close to being genius itself.

For starters, we have a veritable flotilla of very bad German accents everywhere, whether someone's speaking English or supposedly speaking German but actually speaking English. This is probably due to there being a mere two German actors in the cast (the supporting cast at that), despite the show very obviously despite the CGI being filmed in Prague. Whether it's Rush, Flynn, Watson, Robert Lindsay (GBH) as Einstein's dad, Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes) as Herr Tarbet, Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones) as anti-semitic physicist Philipp Lenard or anyone else, it's a mad ensemble of top anglophone actors who get to walk on and do an otherwise jolly period piece turn that nevertheless conjures up memories of 'Allo, 'Allo with every line they utter.

It doesn't help that when you see Germans writing in German, they seem to have an allergy to using umlauts (Franzosisch and Ather? Oh dear). It's off-putting, to say the least, although fine for a glossy Hallmark Channel-esque production that people can have playing in the background, I guess.

Then there's the story-telling itself, based on Walter Isaacson's Einstein, His Life and Universe. It's called Genius but it's more interested in Einstein's dedication to shagging, with the first episode more or less opening on Rush with his trousers round his ankles, shagging badly accented secretary Charity Wakefield (The Player). 

Fair dos - Einstein himself said his life was more exciting than any novel and it is a biopic, rather than a science textbook. But Einstein does come across like a bit of a sex addict most of the time and manages to score big time, despite not really apparently having much by way of game thanks to some exceedingly prosaic yet high-minded dialogue that rarely touches on everyday human concerns.

It's not like the show does a desperately good job of explaining the science, either. If you know one end of your pseudo-Riemannian 4-tensor from another, you can see where Einstein is about to explain Michelson-Morley, despite already having written general relativity's field equations on a blackboard. But the show never let's him explain it anyway. First wife Mileva Marić may show she's not to be trifled with scientifically by stating the Maxwell-Faraday equation to a humbled young Einstein, but it's not like the show does more than just say 'that's the Maxwell-Faraday equation of electromagnetism'.

Instead, the show is determined that despite being on National Geographic, a lay audience it will have and a lay audience's knowledge it will assume. And that means tiresome, sub-Brian Cox demos of the basics, including long bike rides that culminate in "if we were both travelling at the speed of light, I would have appeared to you to have frozen in time". It's a big mess of basic Einsteinian Gedankenexperimente, occasionally peppered with yet more uninspiring CGI, that have the appearance of explaining things but are more for effect than because they either show the science at a deep level or lead to better discussions. Maybe in later episodes. But not now.

Yet there's nothing really that's terrible about Genius. Flynn and Rush are both appealing enough versions of Einstein, and the show actually has a nicely nuanced view of Germany before 1933. On top of that, where else are you going to see someone playing the star of GCSE Chemistry himself, Fritz Haber?

For a science channel, Genius is a disappointing first entry into scripted TV. Nothing awful and it does at least remind people that Einstein was around a smart person, but don't have high expectations of learning what he did that was so great. Except maybe explaining the photo-electric effect. That should be easy.

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April 27, 2017

Review: Great News 1x1-1x2 (US: NBC)

Posted on April 27, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Great News

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC

Do you miss 30 Rock? Do you miss a Tina Fey-produced, screwball NBC comedy set behind the scenes of the world of television, perhaps even one written by Tracey Wigfield, who won an Emmy for her writing on 30 Rock

Really? Uh huh. Okay, that's interesting. No reason in particular I'm asking, really. Just a bit of a random questioning straight out of the blue, there. Bit odd of me, huh?

Meanwhile, on a completely unrelated topic, blasting onto our screens we have Great News which is a bit like that lovely movie The Intern, in that it sees a golden oldie mummy (My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Andrea Martin) deciding after the death of one of her friends to follow her dream by starting a new career. Coincidentally, that career is in TV journalism, just like her daughter's (Ground Floor/Undateable's Briga Heelan). Even more coincidentally, she ends up as an intern in Heelan's workplace, a New Jersey TV news show, where the already blurred boundaries between the mother and daughter's lives become even more blurred.

Ha, ha. Fooled you. All those questions at the beginning weren't random at all. I was talking about Great News there, too! Wasn't I cunning?

Indeed, Great News feels like one of those "format sells" to Germany, where a show gets remade more or less identically, except with a slightly different setting and a completely new cast. Some of the characters get changed a bit, some of the dialogue gets moved from one character to another, but otherwise everything stays the same. And in English, this time.

Nevertheless, despite the huge amount of overlap between the shows in terms of writing and cast, Great News not only still feels fresh, it also remains funny, with joke following joke like machine gun fire. Not every joke hits, but they frequently do and are invariably very funny. 

The format also mixes up the targets of the jokes. Whereas 30 Rock was all Liz Lemon's efforts to keep an insane black man and a narcissistic woman happy, giving us both racial and gender comedy, here the jokes are largely generational as well as familial. We have Heelan and Martin's mother-daughter relationship, lending itself to a lot of comedy about female neuroses; Martin's age also lends itself to jokes about oldies' abilities, both positive and negative.

On top of that, the stars of the show-within-the-show are a narcissistic aging white male newscaster (John Michael Higgins) and a terminally hip and stupid younger white female newscaster (the surprisingly good Nicole Richie). It's largely Martin's job to deal with Higgins, Heelan having to deal with Richie's idiocy ("How about we do our piece about Snapchap… on Snapchap?") while trying to advance the cause of serious journalism and her own career.  

The Alec Baldwin of the piece is boss Adam Campbell (Harper's Island), who's both a potential love interest and a frequent foil for Heelan. And as he's English, there are naturally jokes about that, too ("You Benedict Arnold!" "Benedict Arnold was the only one who wasn't a traitor in that war!").

I found the first two episodes to be both frequently laugh-out loud funny and actually funnier than the first episodes of 30 Rock itself, lacking the dramatic lulls that show did while it found its feet. Martin's obviously a hugely powerful and funny force, but Heelan's one of the few younger actresses who could hold her own against Martin and up for physical comedy as well - it's good to see her finally be the star of a show at last. The show isn't especially subtle, and no one's holding back with the acting, but it's frequently subtle in its unsubtlety ("Coming next - the hidden danger in your household's gun collection"), and the humour and performances often have odd beats that feel improvised, giving them more interest than normal.

My humour's a bit odd, but I think if you liked 30 Rock as much as I did, then I think you'll like Great News, too.

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