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Third-episode verdict: Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

Posted on June 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerHaltAndCatchFire.jpgA Barrometer rating of 2

In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, AMC

Oh, what a shame. After two episodes that might have led the viewer to believe they were looking at AMC’s new Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire has fallen at the third hurdle.

Set in Texas’s so-called Silicon Prairie in 1983, the show looks at the PC revolution from the vantage point of four people, aiming to go into the PC clone business: a mesmerising salesman (Lee Pace), a punk girl programmer (Mackenzie Davis), a tired hardware engineer (Scott McNairy) and his more talented wife (Kerry Bishé). However, much like Pace’s character, the show promised a lot up front and is now failing to deliver on its promises.

The first episode gave us the set-up, with the near-sociopathic Pace turning up at the fictional Cardiff Electronics with a stunning game plan for how he’ll force the company to take on IBM by entering the PC cloning business, recruiting the brightest and best - McNairy and Davis - to do his bidding. And despite the show relying on an audience that can at least understand what’s involved in reverse-engineering a PC BIOS chip - and maybe even actually be able to do it - it was an excellent and engrossing piece of work. Pace was stunning as the visionary Steve Jobs of the piece and the script was thoughtful and clever.

Episode two continued this, never quite doing what you thought it was going to do. After a slow first half, the episode really took off with a glimpse of the terrifying business tactics IBM used in the 1980s. Pleasingly, the female characters got some rounding out, particularly Davis who got to show off at IT - and proper IT, not the dumbed down TV IT you get on something like NCIS. Pace continued to astonish, too, giving us a barely contained force of nature hiding behind the bland face and intonation of a born salesman, but who steals and has few ideas of his own.

Unfortunately, episode three gave us the first script written by anyone except show creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C Rogers, and it appears they might be the key to the show’s success or otherwise, because the stack of cards came tumbling down. Not completely and to a certain extent, the show was realistic enough to show that genius thoughts don’t necessarily arrive the first time, but may need time, effort and surprising sources for inspiration to be produced, but certainly most of the show’s main attractions got dropped - or at least there weren’t the dialogue and character moments needed to distract from the potentially flawed architecture.

It didn’t exactly help that the episode separated off the characters so they barely got to interact with one another or that Bishé’s character was the only one who got a chance to excel. Meanwhile, Pace’s masterplan was revealed merely to be “Let’s stick it to my old employers”, rather than anything with any real insight into revolutionising the PC industry. McNairy just moped for an episode and was squeamish over an obvious metaphordead bird. And Davis, channelling Tom Cruise in Risky Business, danced around an office all night, looking for inspiration, before heading off with the least convincing punks since Ralph Fiennes in Prime Suspect.

Then, of course, we got that scene, in which Pace (spoiler alert) seduces the husband of a potential investor of whom he disapproves, purely to put her off the deal. It’s a surprising character moment, presumably meant to indicate just what he’s prepared to do, but it comes out of nowhere and massively spins the show away from the plausibility it’s been trying to provide for the previous two episodes.

The show still isn’t without its charms and obviously could still recover. Any show that starts an episode with Gary Numan’s ‘Our Friends Electric’ is clearly full of potential awesome and we could yet see a reason why we should be routing for these characters, other than because they’re the ones the show is about. We have not one but two technically gifted female lead characters - that’s 50% of the main cast - both of whom are fully drawn out people. And when the show actually deals with the technical side of things, surprisingly, it’s extremely compelling, even if it’s just discussing how to make a motherboard smaller or reduce its heat output.

Without wishing to sound like Chris Morris in The IT Crowd, what’s needed is for the disparate characters to act like a team - presumably that’s the end game but the producers are taking their time getting there, and although this is an AMC show, speed is somewhat of the essence, given the nature of the subject matter and the show’s own plot requirements. We also need to be able to root for the team and as most of the characters are already aware, there’s literally nothing exciting about their clone - this isn't Apple, this is Compaq. No one was excited by a Compaq PC, not even Compaq. They’re bored, so we’re bored.

So here’s hoping that from episode four, with presumably (spoiler alert) Bishé’s joining of the team, we’ll be heading for more interesting territory, because a bunch of people griping while producing a dull office product is just not a fun affair, no matter how much empty sex, weird scars and sick wildlife there is along the way. On the other hand, we might just get an episode in which someone forgets to back up their data. Let's hope the producers pick the right option.

Barrometer rating: 2
Rob’s prediction: Hopefully the show can recover but anything more than one season is looking unlikely at the moment

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Preview: Ground Floor 1x1 (TBS)

Posted on November 12, 2013 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Ground Floor

In the US: Thursday, 10/9c, TBS

Class-divide comedy isn’t the usual subject of American sitcoms. Indeed, you can probably count the number of properly working class sitcoms on US TV on just two hands, before you even get to class-divide comedy.

So on the one hand, we should be looking at the otherwise unchallenging TBS and marvelling as they prepare to premiere Ground Floor, a sitcom in which a blue collar worker on the ground floor on one business falls for a member of the high-flying elite on the top floor - and vice versa - and the two of them have to deal with all the class differences, expectations, co-worker challenges, et al that brings.

TBS has even got a top-flight team in for the job: Skylar Astin from Pitch Perfect is the somewhat How I Met Your Mother-reminiscent guy in the romantic pairing, Briga Heelan who excelled in the latest series of Cougar Town is the girl, John C McGinley (Dr Cox from Scrubs) is the boss, and it’s written by Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) and Greg Malins from Friends.

Unfortunately, despite its cutting-edge potential and top-tier cast and writers, Ground Floor is just about as conventional as you can get and not terribly funny to boot. Plus, if that's what they think maintenance departments are like, they've all really been on the top floor too long.

Continue reading "Preview: Ground Floor 1x1 (TBS)"

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What did you watch last week? Including The Almighty Johnsons, Elementary, Sleepy Hollow, The Bridge (US) and Strike Back

Posted on September 30, 2013 | comments | Bookmark and Share

It's "What did you watch last week?, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I watched last week that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.

The usual "TMINE recommends" page features links to reviews of all the shows I've ever recommended, and there's also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I've reviewed ever. Since I was a bit more on the ball last week than the week before, I've reviewed elsewhere the following new shows:

Still in the viewing queue, though: Isabel on Sky Arts and Mysteries of Lisbon, which is on on-demand at the moment but starts tomorrow, also on Sky Arts; as well as ABC's Betrayal, which began last night, and HBO Asia's first original TV series Serangoon Road.

I should point out that the final episode of The IT Crowd was great, a fitting conclusion to the series, and that we probably own a copy of Textile Merchant - Norfolk Expansion pack somewhere.

Shows I'm watching but not necessarily recommending
The Bridge (US)
For what was basically the first original episode of the show, with absolutely nothing to draw on from the Danish-Swedish version, a surprisingly good bit of work that ties up all the loose ends involving secondary characters who largely got overlooked by that show. Fascinated to see how they end it, since the original's conclusion was the most disappointing aspect of it and this could pip the US version ahead. Also of note is that Sonya Cross has essentially become a more plausible aspie, going from teenage aspie to adult aspie in her behaviour in the space of 12 episodes, which is equally fascinating to behold.

The Bridge TV Schedule

Sleepy Hollow (Fox/Universal Channel)
After a very promising first episode, Sleepy Hollow rapidly degenerated into a dull, mythology-bound, sillier X-Files with a hint of Buffy thrown in. A couple of digs at the British, of course, but a few jokes about modern-day technology didn't lift the show much up beyond the average Grimm episode.

Sleepy Hollow TV Schedule

Strike Back (Cinemax/Sky 1)
Strike Back team go into Russian prison. Cue implausible fights, bad acting and more. Nevertheless, surprising in some aspects, including tolerance towards a transvestite prisoner.

Recommended shows
Elementary
(CBS/Sky Living)
The return of the other modern-day Sherlock Holmes series, this one set in New York. Except this episode went all the way to London. I was braced for some eye-rolling but actually, it was a very good TV England, with few Americanisms in the piece beyond the occasional weird bit of dialogue that hasn't been said in England for 50 years ("Up to snuff"). Everything looked nice, and we had Rhys Ifans as a very different Mycroft Holmes from the ones we've seen before, and Sean Pertwee nicely hammy as a similarly different Inspector Lestrade. There were some great references, some subtle (Langdale Pike, The Norwood Builder), some not so subtle (221b), to the original stories. It was also one of the few Elementary episodes that actually felt like a modern day Holmes story, with a problem that seemed unsolvable and which was eventually solved with staggering insight but Holmes. A great start to the season and I'm looking forward to the rest of it now.

Elementary TV Schedule

The Almighty Johnsons
Wow. Superb ending to the season and perhaps even the series. If that's it, it'll be a great way to go out, even if not quite every story arc was resolved. Probably the best season of the show overall. Watch it if you haven't been watching it already.

The Almighty Johnsons TV Schedule

"What did you watch last week?" is your chance to recommend to friends and fellow blog readers the TV and films that they might be missing or should avoid - and for me to do mini-reviews of everything I've watched. Since we live in the fabulous world of Internet catch-up services like the iPlayer and Hulu, why not tell your fellow readers what you've seen so they can see the good stuff they might have missed?

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