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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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Review: Trial & Error 1x1-1x2 (US: NBC)

Posted on March 16, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Trial and Error

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

Certain satires want to define and even gut a genre. It was nigh on impossible to watch Newsnight once The Day Today was on the air, chat shows looked stupid once Mrs Merton and I'm Alan Partridge kicked in, soap operas were unwatchable after Soap and can anyone take the BBC seriously at all now W1A regularly skewers it?

Trial & Error would like to be a skewering piece of satire. But it faces two problems on that score. For starters, it largely relies on the audience having watched the likes of Netflix's Making of a Murderer and HBO's The Jinx, being a parody of true crime documentaries. I'm not sure what the overlap with NBC's audience is, but I doubt it's very big.

The plot sees John Lithgow playing a poetry professor who appears to have murdered his wife. Lithgow seems more concerned by his roller skates and the cable company than he does about her death, so is the prime suspect, particularly when he turns out to be more than a bit gay and having an affair with his personal trainer ("Sexuality is fluid… and sometimes my fluids go towards men").

To defend him, his father-in-law (Bob Gunton) hires one of those 'northeastern lawyers' because they seem so crafty (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), but winds up with the less-than-crafty newbie Nick D'Agosto (Masters of Sex, Gotham). D'Agosto assembles the best defence team the small Southern town has to offer. Unfortunately, that's Sherri Shepherd (Sherri), who's not only dyslexic enough to spell trial as trail (The Trail being the original, more cryptic name for the show), she has rare brain disorders that cause her to pass out from excitement and to laugh at tragic events; Steven Boyer, who may not be dyslexic but he's stupid enough to accidentally set fire to exhumated bodies; and an investigator who has relieve himself sexually whenever he gets excited. And there's a lot of excitement.

None of which is very funny, so the show's second problem is that it relies on the tried and trusted method of stereotyping southerners for about 90% of its jokes. On top of being hugely stupid, Boyer has a sister who is also his cousin and he has bad dentistry. Prosecutor Jayma Mays (HeroesGlee) is highly sexed, constantly propositioning D'Agosto whenever he comes to her office and has an accent that makes her name hard to understand. She's okay with that, though, but woe betide you if you pronounce Judge Horsedich's name wrong, though, as she's mulling over any of the archaic laws still on the statute books in town, such as the forbidding of 'buggery' and 'death by bear'.

If you laughed at any of that, well, you're easier to please than I apparently am.

The show does at least respect the forms of the documentary, and has a pretty firm grasp of local news reporting, too. And there was a scene in the second episode involving Lithgow's roller skate wrench that was actually quite moving (you'll understand if you see it).

But if I make it to three episodes, it'll be a miracle. Skewering the genre? You'll have forgotten about Trial & Error by the end of the week.

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Review: Powerless 1x1 (US: NBC)

Posted on February 3, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Powerless (NBC)

In the US: Thursdays, 8.30/7.30c, NBC

Although NBC has managed to return to the top of the US ratings after its horrific death plummet a decade ago, there are still a couple of things it's not good at: comedies and superhero shows. Okay, to be fair, its comedies are useless quite smart, but they're usually not desperately funny (eg The Good Place) and/or they never fare well in the ratings (eg Community). To be equally fair, it hasn't had a lot of superhero shows, but while we can all agree that at least Constantine got better over time, Heroes got decidedly worse and the less said about The Cape, the better.

So Powerless looks like the perfect storm: an NBC superhero comedy. What manner of horror could that be, you might ask? Well, for a while, it actually looked quite promising, giving us a show that builds on the same theme as both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War by being about the little people who are just trying to get on with their lives and avoid getting crushed by buildings, shot by death rays, et al as superheroes and supervillains do what superheroes and supervillains do - a sort of Lower Decks of the DC Comic Book universe, if you will. In this original story, the somewhat cynical Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) worked in an insurance company for supervillain Alan Tudyk (Firefly), where she has to decide whether destruction caused by Wonder Woman can be written off as an Act of God because as a demi-goddess, it's a grey area.

Following the pilot, though, show creator Ben Queen (A to Z, Drive) left and the whole thing got rebooted into something a lot more mid-season replacement.

Now, Hudgens is a wide-eyed superhero fan reporting to work at Tudyk's branch of Wayne Industries - Tudyk now being Bruce Wayne's cousin - where she has to lead a team of more jaded inventors and engineers in developing products to help the ordinary people of 'Charm City' cope with the superhero-induced trials and tribulations of life, whether those be personal Joker-poison anti-toxin injectors or inflatable suits to help their wearers withstand concussive blows.

Trouble is, her new underlings, who include Community's Danny Pudi and Undateable's Ron Funches, aren't the brightest tools in the box, so spend their entire time ripping off Lexcorp's ideas and making them a different colour, rather than coming up with anything original, which means that Bruce is thinking about shutting them down. Will they get a reprieve?

I'm not sure I care. Admittedly, the show does have its good points: Hudgens, Pudi and Tudyk are as fun to watch as always, and no less an acting god than Adam West is the narrator. There's also the occasional bit of low but amusing humour, with inept supervillain Jack O'Lantern inadvertently punning about his 'balls… of fire' and Batman coincidentally using the new product the team has just sent to Bruce Wayne (what are the chances?).

But Funches is still a near unbearably poor actor, there really aren't that many jokes and we're nearing the bottom of the superhero z-list with Jack O'Lantern and Crimson Fox - it's not so much Lower Decks as Journey to the Earth's Core. Who cares what they're up to down there?

The show's not terrible. The core cast and ideas are reasonably sound and now the producers have got over retooling the show in a hurry, hopefully they'll have time to settle in all the new ideas. But Powerless really needs to raise its ambitions - if DC corporate vetting will let it - if it's to avoid going the same way as every other NBC superhero show.

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