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Review: Making History 1x1 (US: Fox)

Posted on March 8, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Making History

In the US: Sundays, 8:30/7:30c, Fox

Every nation has moments in its national consciousness that are not only important, they're so important they take on the status of mythology and begin to transcend actual facts.

England has many of these moments, such as the Battle of Hastings - "The last time we were invaded! The English fought like dogs to defend liberty as we always do!… apart from during the Glorious Revolution when the Dutch invaded, everyone defected to the invading side and King James ran away to Faversham, leaving William of Orange to become the new king without having to fire a shot."

For centuries, we ran around the world inventing concentration camps, committing genocide and war crimes, and partitioning countries arbitrarily, leading to all manners of disasters. But because we fought on the right side against someone even worse during the Second World War, we can ignore all that and decide not just that we're the good guys now but that we have been and always will be, leading to Dr Liam Fox, our current Secretary of State for International Trade, to claim this week that "The United Kingdom, is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history." Despite literally all the facts.

However, as I've said, we're not alone in having these mythological, almost 'cleansing' moments that extinguish unhelpful facts. The US, for example, has its War of Independence, in which the bravy plucky colonists fought back against an evil empire (ie England) in the pursuit of liberty and freedom, establishing true democracy, which otherwise would never, ever have happened anywhere, let alone in the US.

Never mind that New Englanders in the 1770s were about the wealthiest people in the world, with per capita income at least equal to that in the UK and more evenly distributed. "No taxation without representation"? The average Briton in 1763 paid 26s a year in tax, while the average Masachusetts taxpayer paid just 1s. The Boston Tea Party? Organised by wealthy tea smugglers set to lose out thanks to a recent rebate given to the East India Company that made tea the cheapest it had ever been in America - as someone wrote at the time, "Will not posterity be amazed when they are told that the present distraction took its rise from the parliament's taking off a shilling duty on a pound of tea, and imposing three pence, and call it a more unaccountable phrenzy, and more disgraceful to the annals of America, than that of the witchcraft?"

You can tell within just a few minutes exactly how faithful Making History is to actual history, when college professor Adam Pally (Happy Endings) returns to 1775 Lexington and discovers not only that Paul Revere hasn't raced around on his horse screaming, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" but also that some "British soldiers" are now stationed in town.

Historically, of course, at this point in time, it wasn't the plucky 'Americans' against 'the British' - everyone still thought of themselves as British, not Americans - so Revere actually warned that "The regulars are out!", the regulars being the standard name for the British soldiers.

But that's not what mythology says and for the rest of the episode, the regulars are about five seconds away from committing war crimes and inventing concentration camps a few centuries early à la mythology (cf The Patriot). They might do more if they ever learned that muskets and pistols needed to be reloaded after every shot in those days.

Still, Pally has travelled back in time inside a sports equipment bag so that he can woo Revere's talented, forward-thinking daughter, Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) by singing her Céline Dion songs he's pretended to have invented. But by doing so, he has distracted Revere so badly, he has to drag history professor Yassir Lester back in time to 1775 to help sort things out and ensure the American Revolution still happens.

Yes, unlike Timeless, which largely wanted to be accurate while still upsetting the timeline, Making History is not really trying to do much more than play with US mythology in order to have a laugh.

The trouble is that it only knows how to do broad humour and even then, it's not that funny. Sure, you have the absurdity of the duffel bag time machine and the singing, which raises a reasonable laugh. You have the idiocy of Pally, who jumps to the conclusion that he's stopped the Revolution, because Americans are drinking tea in Starbucks and eating fish and chips in the local canteen when he returns to 2016.

But mostly it's things like Lester vomiting copiously when he arrives in 1775 because everywhere smells like manure or because John Hancock and Samuel Adams trick him into drinking their 'new beer', which is actually the contents of the chamberpot.

Ho ho, if you're still in middle school. Not so ho, ho for everyone else.

The show does at least try to deploy the occasionally more sophisticated joke, usually about an anachronism, although far less succesfully and it never surprises the audience with anything they don't know already. But most of the time you have to rely on Pally's performance to find any real humour in the show. Lester's just there to gurn at Pally every time he does something unconscionable or dim, such as introduce him as "Queequeg", a former slave who can only say "Hello".

Meester's plucky, doing what the incompetent modern men can't do for themselves, speaking Dutch, firing pistols, riding horses and more. But she's underserved by script - she's less knowing, the constant source of historical information that's always designed to counterpoint modern-day information the audience already knows ("We could buy a house together for $5!"), yet never getting to deliberately make jokes herself.

Making History is a nice idea at heart but poorly implemented, failing to do more than elicit a few cheap laughs with schoolboy humour and a few wry smiles when it does modern commentary. I have little faith that subsequent episodes, which promise travel to different time periods and the chance for Meester to crack her own jokes, will be that much better, but you never know.

Pally and Meester both deserve better, as does America, to be honest. Don't you know it won the Second World War all by itself?

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Review: The Good Place 1x1-1x2 (US: NBC)

Posted on September 20, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Good Place

In the US: Mondays, NBC, 10/9c

We're all going to die. Well, maybe not the Scientologists and at least one person from the Planet Zeist is going to live forever (if he wants). But the rest of us are going to kark it at some point.

What happens next is a matter of debate, with numerous religions promising all manner of outcomes, most of which are incompatible with one another. Who's right? After all, it's kind of important, don't you think?

Well, according to The Good Place, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam et al have got it about 5% right. The person in all of recorded history who managed to guess most accurately was a Canadian stoner called Doug who got high on mushrooms in the 70s and got it about 92% right.

It turns out, though, that it's not whom you worship or how many blood sacrifices you make each week that counts - it's the quality and number of the good things and bad things you've done that on balance contribute to your final destination. And to get to The Good Place, you have to have done an awful lot of extremely good things, because it's very, very exclusive. Unlike The Bad Place. And you don't want to go to The Bad Place.

This is the dilemma facing Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl, Party Down, House of Lies, Frozen) when she dies and finds herself in The Good Place. She actually wasn't a good person at all, having been rather selfish, as well as impressively good at selling fraudulent medical products to the elderly. But a mix-up with a human rights lawyer who also did volunteer work in the Ukraine means that she's now gone to a much better place than she deserves - an exclusive new neighbourhood in The Good Place created by newly promoted afterlife apprentice Ted Danson (Cheers, CSI, CSI: Cyber, Bored To Death), one that's filled with whatever your heart desires, particularly frozen yoghurt outlets. Here, she can learn to fly, go to parties and never have hangovers, and live with her soul mate in her dream home. Well, someone else's soul mate and dream home - it is a mix-up, after all.

Trouble is that this utopia is precisely engineered for good people, but before even a day's passed, Bell's stealing things, thinking bad thoughts and generally doing the sorts of things that should have had her going to The Bad Place. She is the snake in this particular Garden of Eden, and before you know it, it's raining garbage, giant stolen shrimp are hurtling through the sky, giraffes are roaming free and everyone's dressed like bees.

If she's to avoid being found out and sent 'elsewhere', Bell has no choice but to work together with her alleged soulmate, Senegalese ethics professor William Jackson Harper, to learn how to be a good person. But it's going to be hard going - and somebody else already knows she doesn't belong there…

Here's a trailer. I promise it's not stolen. Much.

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Review: Wicked City 1x1 (US: ABC)

Posted on October 28, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Wicked City

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, ABC

There was a time when the anthology show ruled US airwaves. Jobbing actors would show up for a week in The Twilight Zone, The Night Gallery, General Electric Theater, Studio One or whatever, then move on to the next gig. But increasing production values, logistical difficulties and viewer choice started to make that weekly anthology show more or less impossible; the power of stardom also meant that if you could get an actor or actress with a significant fanbase in a starring role, people would watch week after week, no matter what the story, which made the anthology show less and less attractive.

But over the past few years, the format has started to return. It began, oddly enough with Love Bites, a somewhat terrible NBC romcom that featured a different couple every week. That failed very, very quickly, in part because the scripts were just awful, but also because the formula wasn't quite right. Weekly wasn't the way to go.

Instead, it was cable that developed the correct format for a modern anthology show, with first American Horror Story and then True Detective. With an audience who likes serial drama but who wants eventual conclusions to their stories that haven't been drawn out too long, what could be better than a season-long story with a beginning, middle and an end, the next season then telling a completely new story in the same vein? With a bit of cleverness, you can even appease fans of the shows' stars by having the cast come back to play different characters if they want - or just let them go off to the next job if they'd rather, just like in the old days, since that way you can get big names with limited availability to come in for just a season.

It's a scheme that certainly worked with ABC's American Crime, a 'so good it could have been HBO' drama about the terrible effects of the American judicial system and all the other systems that have evolved around it. Now ABC are hoping to repeat the show's success with Wicked City, a "a character-driven, true crime procedural that explores sex, politics and popular culture across various noteworthy eras in LA history".

The first season is set in 1980. Or maybe 1982. A few years after LA's Hillside Strangler struck, anyway. Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl) is a serial killer on the make, emulating his idol, the Strangler, by killing girls he picks up in bars then leaving them dead in the same places. It's something to do with his father having left when he was eight, apparently.

Then one night, he's about to chop the head off Erika Christensen (Six Degrees, Parenthood) and then have sex with her corpse, when she reveals she's a single mother. Things get even better when it turns out that not only does she have sociopathic tendencies of her own - she's one of the killer nurses you hear so much about it these days - she quite enjoys pretending to be a corpse while Ed Westwick has sex with her.

It's a match made in heaven, isn't it?

Meanwhile, a couple of brave male, squabbling cops - Jeremy Sisto (Kidnapped, Suburgatory, The Returned) and Gabriel Luna (Matador) - are on Westwick's trail, hoping to stop him before he can kill yet more young women. All while listening to as many 80s classics and using as many pagers, rotary dial payphones, old Mustangs and 4:3 TVs as the music and props departments can provide.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with the modern anthology format that Wicked City fails to overcome: you actually need to make people want to watch the next season, or even the next episode, hopefully by writing some good scripts. And avoiding complete moral bankruptcy.

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