Calling your show This is Us is a bold move. It implies a certain universality of the human experience, which in an age of identity politics is hard enough in a single city of the US, without TV producers having to think about how much of the New York City cultural experience transfers to South Africa, for example.
Yet that's what This is Us is going for. You probably have to look back to Parenthood and before that thirtysomething to find shows that were so convinced of their universal applicability and smartness.
This is Us - or perhaps that should be This is US, given it's American focus - tries to demonstrate its pancosmic thesis through the conceit of three storylines, each involving one or more people who all have the same birthday: a married couple (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) who are about to have triplets; an actor brother and a love-lorn sister (Justin Hartley and Chrissy Metz); and a rich trader (Sterling K Brown) whose drug-addict father (Ron Cephas Kones) abandoned him as a baby after his mother died.
A title card preceding the drama says that according to Wikipedia, people who share the same birthday aren't guaranteed to have anything else in common. But how much do you want to bet that it's hinting at a "universality of the human spirit", that universality being love, predominantly for family, predominantly in an American way? And that on top of that, that there's a secret link between the three storylines that will become immediately obvious by about two-thirds of the way through? One that involves a bit of cheating involving Milo Ventimiglia's physique?
Most art, particularly the hard-boiled kind, has been created by men. As a result, the femme fatale, that irresistibly alluring bad girl who leads the hero astray, is an established archetype throughout literature and movies. Think Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep… if you want. I'll be thinking of Sharon Stone in practically anything, particularly Basic Instinct where she played Catherine Tramell, whose name quite literally is a synonym for entrapment.
But with women's art increasingly recognised and women more often in a position of power, we're seeing the increasing presence of the femme fatale's male counterpart - the homme fatal, a term so obscure until now you have to go to the French wikipedia to even find it spelt correctly, and even then, it's actually only the French title of Fanny By Gaslight.
More commonly, you'll find him referred to as the more manly 'bad boy' - you could probably write a thesis about why this should be - and such is the nature of the beast, he's largely to be found in the fantasy and horror genre: think Angel in Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Edward in Twilight. He's the sexy, elusive, frequently taciturn man of dubious virtue who sends the heroine off the rails and into a tail-spin. Like the femme fatale, he's the one you f*ck, not marry; but unlike the femme fatale, he'll probably fall in love with the heroine along the way.
Just as not every beautiful woman can be a femme fatale, not every handsome man can be an homme fatal. It takes a certain something more. A certain je ne sais quoi. Which is presumably why there's been so much recasting on The Catch, ABC's latest attempt to appeal to its predominantly female demographic through the all-powerful magic of Shonda Rhimes being cast on an homme fatal. I'm pretty sure it still hasn't worked, though.
It stars Mireille Enos (The Killing (US), World War Z) as one of LA's top private investigators, looking after the security for numerous big firms. She seems to have it all - a great business, great friends, great clothes, great house, a great taste in everything and a great fiancé (Peter Krause from The Lost Room, Dirty Sexy Money and Parenthood). Unfortunately, one of those turns out to be significantly less great than previously suspected. Have a guess which one?
Yes, it's Krause. He's actually a conman who's trying to liberate all manner of things from Enos, except her spinsterhood, before he legs it with his real love (Sonya Walger from Lost, FlashForward, and Common Law). Will Enos discover what he's up to before it's too late and he breaks her business and her heart? No. Obviously not. Short show if she does. Instead, Enos has to do all she can recover her losses, save her business and catch Krause before FBI investigator Jacky Ido (Taxi Brooklyn) discovers everything.
As I said, there's been a lot of recasting. Here's the original cast picture:
You'll notice that Walger was originally Bethany Joy Lenz and Krause was Damon Dayoub. You can see them in action in the original pilot episode.
Since then, the show's been retooled quite substantially. Gone is the noirish tale of angsty fraud investigator having doubts about her marriage who's duped by a bad boy; now we're getting some Shondaland kick ass fun - and a whole new man:
Harking back to that thesis I mentioned earlier, there was apparently either too little homme fatal to Dayoub and he wasn't considered 'substantial' enough to be irresistible to Enos or there was too much to him and he was considered too sexy for prime time. Alternatively, it might be he was even thought too young for her - femmes fatales are almost always younger, hommes fatals are almost always older, of course.
Whatever the reason, in this all-new The Catch, Krause and Enos's relationship is now a bit more Thomas Crown Affair, right down to the split-screen storytelling. Krause is ambivalent about the con against Enos and might well have fallen in love with her, having reservations about Walger who's now the driving force in both their relationship and their con.
What's surprising about the retooling is that the new first episode pretty much wraps everything up. You wonder where the show's going to go next. By the looks of it, it's going to be The Thomas Crowne Affair every week, with Krause, Walger and their partner in crime Alimi Ballard (Numb3rs) pulling another light-hearted con against one of Enos' clients that Enos has to then stop, making Krause wonder if he's actually in love with her and Enos having to resist his pull.
Stapled onto that in a way that makes Women's Murder Club's 'corridor of truth' look like seamless story-telling is all the sitting around, talking about boys.
The question is will you have a fatal attraction to The Catch? Probably not. While there is a lightness and simplicity to it that's welcome after the likes of How To Get Away With Murder, it's not in the slightest bit convincing. Krause is a lot of things, after all, and was great in The Lost Room. He's also fun to watch and good at comedy. But an homme fatal? No. Sorry.
Enos is sparky and her job is thankfully a bit more dynamic than the usual mousey librarian with imposter syndrome that the genre requires. But she's taking everything a bit too seriously for us to really enjoy watching her and, like much of the show, the idea of a super-rich security firm that has access to all its clients' bank accounts is as crazy as a wardrobe full of screaming gibbons - the writers have to add dialogue at every point to patch up each blindingly obvious loophole they've just created.
The Catch is not the worst thing you'll ever see, but unfortunately, despite some interesting ambitions, it's unlikely to ever steal your attention, let alone your heart.
Mental health is so hot right now. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s a subject for serious examination in drama or that it’s something that is thoughtfully used in characterisation. I mean it’s a great gimmick.
Time was when dramas would have set-ups like “two brothers are private detectives”, “he’s a Vietnam vet with a super helicopter”, “he’s an angel wandering the Earth helping people” and the like. But you can only have so many of those unique set-ups before you start to repeat yourself.
Mental health issues, by contrast, used to be the motivations for crimes, not something that could affect a hero, because it was unmanly. Well, maybe PTSD so they could have really manly flashbacks to Nam.
Thankfully, those times are gone and it’s all change. With first Monk giving us the OCD detective and then Touching Evil giving us the slightly lobotomised detective, TV has worked out how valuable these personality quirks can be. Why, right now, on TV we’ve got Asperger’s aplenty (Community, The Bridge, Hannibal, Parenthood) and the new top, post-Silver Linings Playbook condition, bipolar disorder, has been jaunting around both Homeland and Mind Games, giving them all sorts of entirely medically accurate depictions of how helpful mental health issues can be.
Producers have also worked out thanks to medical shows such as House,Mental and 3lbs that 'brain weirdness’, to use it its technical definition, can be really entertaining in guest characters as well. So what better than a show that features not just lots of supporting cast weirdness but also a central character who has the bipolar, hey?
Black Box is such a show – and it turns out that despite its having not just the delightful Kelly Reilly as the lead as well as no lesser actress than Vanessa Redgrave as her psychiatrist, a whole lot of things could be better.
Reilly, putting on her best US accents, is a talented neurologist/doctor who is also bipolar. As long as she’s on her meds, she’s fine, but believing that medication stops those with mental health issues from achieving their true potential or even being truly happy by coming to accept themselves, she has a history of ‘non-compliance’. The result is that sometimes she’s manic and productive, other times she’s crazy, hallucinating, doing all kinds of bad things, including almost committing suicide. Yet somehow it makes her a better doctor.
Gosh, how quirky and interesting. Gosh how almost unwatchable.
About the blog
A UK media blog focusing on the best scripted TV from around the world, with daily news, views, exclusive reviews and good conversation. There's a bit of a bias towards the latest and greatest US TV, but we also cover Scandinavian, Canadian, European and Antipodean TV, as well as UK TV ranging from new Doctor Who to old Z Cars, and BBC4 to S4C.
Add in film, theatre, art, books, events, competitions and even weekly reviews of Wonder Woman comics, and you've (hopefully) got officially the fourth best blog on the web for media lovers. Oh yes, and there's The Barrometer, the ultimate guide to quality TV.
Praise for the blog Cision: fourth most important UK TV blog Blogging Edge: Blogger running Britain 2013
"For most of us watching the telly of an evening is a way to wind down and relax, but for Rob Buckley it’s his blogging bread and butter. With reviews of cult classics and up and coming US and Brit television shows, The Medium is Not Enough is fast becoming essential reading for TV buffs, with over 50,000 hits a month."
"The Medium Is Not Enough is a light-hearted look at TV, often from the US, but also from the UK. With varied, well-written content, the blog features healthy engagement and features well in search engines."
"Billing itself as 'officially the fourth most popular UK TV blog', there are several whimsical regulars here that could help it climb as high as number three…"
I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.