There's… Johnny!
US TV

Review: There’s… Johnny! 1×1 (US: Hulu)

In the US: Available on Hulu

Anemoia isn’t a real word. It’s a made-up word, albeit one made up to serve a purpose: to describe that universal feeling of nostalgia for a time and place you didn’t live in. Someone laminate it and send it to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

I wasn’t alive in 1972. I certainly wasn’t alive in the US, watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A show that ran for 30 years, making its Nebraskan host Johnny Carson one of the most famous men in the country, it was also NBC’s most profitable TV show of the time.

Yet watching There’s… Johnny!, I felt anemoia for LA in 1972. Originally planned for NBC’s just-shuttered Seeso service but now available on Hulu, the show stars Ian Nelson as Andy, a Nebraskan boy whose family worships Johnny Carson and his show. One day, Andy writes a letter to Johnny to ask for both an autograph for his parents… and a job. Soon, he receives the autograph and a letter telling him his wish has come true, and before you know it, he’s on a bus to LA to live his dreams.

Dreams hit reality when he arrives, of course, and it turns out there is no job for him after all. But his sweet, naïve nature means that soon he’s being taken under the wing of Johnny’s assistant T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Cosby, In Living Color), as well as show co-ordinator Jane Levy (Suburgatory), and ultimately his dreams come true. But what will sex, drugs, rock & roll and 1972 all do this small town boy?

The West Wing

The show has apparently been 17 years in the making, with producer-creators David Steven Simon and Paul Reiser (yes, that one) working with the Carson estate to produce something that’s a comedy, a drama and a homage, Reiser having appeared multiple times on the show during its run so earning the estate’s trust. An almost unrecognisable Tony Danza is the only actor to be playing a real person (famous exec producer Fred de Cordova), leaving everyone else to play people who could well have existed but didn’t.

Nevertheless, those liberties and the fairy-tale qualities of the show to one side, the show feels like an authentic, behind-the-scenes look at how the Tonight Show could have been made. Taking a hint from Aaron Sorkin’s original plans for The West Wing, neither Johnny Carson nor his long-time sidekick Ed McMahon ever appear on There’s… Johnny!. Instead, they either appear blurry in the distance or through footage from the actual Tonight Show, a technique also used for the show’s guests, who in this first episode include a young George Carlin. It’s a technique that works well and also avoids the audience having to accept other actors playing two of the most famous people in TV history.

Romance

Most of the first episode is about Levy and Nelson’s burgeoning relationship, with Levy having to deal with a violent ex-boyfriend and her parents failing marriage, Nelson providing a sensitive shoulder to cry. Both do admirably well, Levy both as fierce and as funny as she was in Suburgatory and getting some decent lines from Reiser and Simon’s amusing script. There’s also the daily struggles of the writers’ room to come up with genuine gold for Carson’s famous monologues that will reward them with a wink or even a look, with moments that ring true such as a struggle to work out which is a funnier sounding petrol station: Texaco or Mobil. And, of course, we get to see Carson deliver the end result and the audience’s reaction (no, no spoilers).

The show deftly manages to walk between all these different issues, while lightly touching on the history of the period, including McGovern v Nixon and The Joy of Sex. It manages to do this without wallowing in temporal tourism, yet the beautiful recreation of the The Tonight Show studio of the time will still bring a tear to your eye, whether you were alive then or not.

There’s Johnny

The show isn’t a slam-dunk, must-watch that will have you rolling around in the aisles. But it’s a smart, loving, only slightly nostalgic slice of TV comedy about TV comedy, as well as a loving tribute to one of the US’s most hallowed TV shows, that’s certainly worth at least half an hour of your time. I’ll be back for more.

Future Man
US TV

Review: Future Man 1×1 (US: Hulu)

In the US: Available on Hulu

Howard Overman has something of an affinity for aimless youth who end up on very important missions to save the world. He is, after all, the creator of Misfits, Atlantis and Crazyhead. The rather more famous Seth Rogen, meanwhile, has something of an affinity for feckless losers who spend all their time smoking weed, playing video games or both.

A match made in heaven surely? Well, now we have Future Man to find out, as Rogen exec-produces and co-directs this show based on an Overman idea (although not script). It sees Hunger Games‘ lesser star Josh Hutcherson playing ‘Josh Futturman’, an aimless 20-something still living with his parents (Ed Begly Jr and Glenne Headly) and who ‘works’ as a janitor at a STD research laboratory. There he’s bullied by Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) but comes under the protective wing of the laboratory’s boss, Keith David, who’s trying to find a cure for herpes.

However, at night, he’s a top game player, dedicated to beating impossible first-person shooter ‘Future Man’, in which the world has been taken over by ‘biotics’ and he and comrades ‘Wolf’ and ‘Tiger’ are the head of the resistance.

When Hutcherson becomes the first person to ever beat the game, the real Wolf (Preacher‘s Derek Wilson) and Tiger (Eliza Coupe of Scrubs, Happy Endings, Wrecked, Benched) come back from the future to reveal that the game was a recruitment tool to discover the one person with the skills that could help prevent the biotics from really taking over. Together, Josh, Wolf and Tiger must go back in time to prevent the future from occurring. But is Josh out of his depth or does he have secret skills that just need developing?

Current man

As you might expect given its pedigree, the show is both smarter than it sounds and also reasonably bro-ish. But it’s not great. Most of the jokes are about masturbation, usually to female video game characters, but occasionally just about sex in general and they’re not exactly the subtlest (Coupe: “We’re going to [go back to] ’69 now” Josh: “What? Erm, okay… What’s he [Wilson] going to do? Watch?”). There are debates about the nature of video games themselves, with long discussions about the realism of Super Mario, gamers’ real-life psychological profiles and what would happen if you introduced video-game violence into the real world, with all its many consequences.

The show is also self-critiquing, with Josh’s initial suspicion that Coupe and Wilson are playing a joke on him growing from “Okay, so that’s The Last Starfighter” to “Okay, so that’s The Last Starfighter meets Quantum Leap“; the show uses The Terminator‘s typeface every time there’s time travel; and when Josh arrives back in his family home back in 1969, a Back To The Future sting plays. There’ll be more movie parodies to come in later episodes, too, judging by the trailer.

However, while there are certainly quite a few laughs to be had, normally from Hutcherson’s reations and Coupe and Wilson’s lack of cultural understanding rather than the cringe-worthy jokes, this doesn’t have either the production values or direction (Rogen co-directs the first episode) to really pull off what it’s trying to do, with many of the obviously stunt doubles’ faces visible during fights, for example. The cast is good, with Britt Lower (Man Seeking Woman), Paul Scheer (The League, Veep) and Ron Funches (Undateable) also showing up in so-far minor roles, but squandered by a script that has few of Overman’s cleverer or dirtier traits.

If you like Rogen’s brand of loser gross-out, embarrassment comedy and you like sci-fi movies, you might find Future Man appealing. If not, you’ll probably simply feel like me that this is a show that’s about five or ten years late to a party that’s just about over.

Damnation
US TV

Review: Damnation 1×1 (US: USA; UK: Netflix)

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, USA
In the UK: Will air on Netflix

Over the past decade or so, ever since the arrival of Mad Men on our screens, the US has shown that not only does it have an appetite for home-grown period dramas, it can do them very well. Sure, there have been stumbling points along the way but you can usually guarantee now that any given US period drama is going to be well made and feel authentic.

At the moment, the 80s is very much en vogue in US television programming, but globally, with the likes of Babylon Berlin, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and now Frankie Drake Mysteries, the 20s is where it’s at right now. So kudos to the US for bucking all the trends by giving us Damnation, a co-production between USA and Netflix that’s set in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, despite a very strong cast, Damnation‘s not only quite dull, it also wants very badly to be a western, even though it’s set in the 30s. That shouldn’t surprise you too much, though, given it’s created by Tony Tost (Longmire).

Tarnation

The show is billed as “as an epic saga of the secret history of the 1930s American heartland, chronicling the mythic conflict and bloody struggle between big money and the downtrodden, God and greed, charlatans and prophets.”

Our quasi-hero-prophet is firebrand faux preacher Killian Scott (the Jack Taylor movies, Ripper Street, Strike) who’s going around the mid-west stirring up trouble. It’s the Depression, farmers are having a hard time of it and the banks are squeezing them, so Scott’s trying to start a genuine proletariat uprising against capitalism. Together with wife Sarah Jones (Alcatraz, Vegas, The Path), he’s publishing pamphlets encouraging a violent revolution. Or is he? Because Scott lacks a basic understanding of market economics whereas Jones is smart and very good at typing…

Needless to say, capitalists don’t like the idea of a Soviet United States, whoever’s idea it is. First among the defenders of the free market faith is professional strike-breaker Logan Marshall-Green (Traveler, Dark Blue), who’s brought his Quarry moustache along for the ride. He’s a somewhat lethal, murderous individual who’s willing to do what it takes to stop the revolution before it starts, whether it’s framing someone for a murder he himself committed or getting the only literate prostitute in town (Chasten Harmon) to stab him. However, he has something of a conflict of interests when it comes to Scott (spoiler: Scott is his little brother) so can’t quite bring himself to go all the way with him.

But also new in town is fellow strikebreaker Melinda Page Hamilton (Devious Maids, Mad Men) who’s handy with a rifle and quite happy to stir up trouble between the farmers and the police if it means the end to the agrarian rebellion. She’s also a nifty singer and a bit miffed that her husband’s dead thanks to Scott.

Last of all, we have small town sheriff Christopher Heyerdahl – no stranger to modern westerns thanks to Tin Star – who’s trying to keep the peace but might be out-gunned and too soft for the dangerous individuals he’s up against. He also might have a few fingers in a few pies of his own.

Damnation
Sarah Jones as Amelia Davenport — (Photo by: Chris Large/USA Network)

Poetry

TIf you read Tony Tost’s Wikipedia page, you’ll find that he’s principally a poet, which is Damnation‘s biggest problem – it’s trying to be soaring poetry when actually it needs to be a tight, taut drama.

There’s nothing especially wrong with it in terms of production: it’s got a great cast (Scott is a fine replacement for original choice, Rectify‘s Aden Young), with Marshall-Green and Jones as good as always; the period detail is exquisite; dialogue is fitting for the time; the characters (bar Page Hamilton) are well drawn; nothing is given away too quickly; and the action is good, once it starts.

But everything takes about twice as much time as it needs, as though it’s following some kind of weird meter, with Tost expecting mood to be bursting out of every frame of the show while eagles soar over the biblical metaphors underlying the piece. He’s certainly not putting in any real communist thinking into the story to give us a genuine examination of the pre-New Deal system of capitalism and its flaw, for example.

Instead, we have something a bit more squalid, a bit more interested in what life was like being poor when the poor had to steal to even be able to eat, a bit more fascinated by a lack of civilisation, than something with an interesting story to tell.

It’s all a bit of a waste, really. An intriguing, failed experiment and a window onto a generally unobserved time and place that still has a lot going for it in a lot of areas, but not something that’s either ground-breaking or exciting in its own right.

Here’s a trailer. You know that earlier spoiler? It’s in big red letters in the trailer, too (do you think “from a co-executive producer of Game of Thrones” is a big selling point? I’m not sure it is)

Superstition - Season 1
US TV

Preview: Superstition 1×1 (US: Syfy; UK: Netflix)

In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, Syfy. Starts October 20
In the UK: Acquired by Netflix

October is scary enough with Halloween, but with a Friday the 13th in it too this year, it’s unsurprising that Syfy is cranking out not one but two spooky shows to capitalise on the moment. We’ve already had the unendurable Ghost Wars, about which the less said the better. Now we’ve got Superstition, which has been created, written and directed by no lesser a man than Mario Van Peebles – he stars in it, too, since he had a few spare hours left in the day, it seems.

No, he doesn’t sing the theme tune.

Super Mario

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember that Van Peebles’ New Jack City had as much impact at the time of its release as John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood, albeit for very different reasons. 

But Peebles wasn’t just a director, he was an actor, too, and he went on to star in all manner of action movies afterwards.

Yeah, they weren’t much good.

Still, if that were a crime, Jean Claude Van Damme would be in the nick for life right now (Universal Soldier and Time Cop excepted). Except he’s not and he’s got a TV series now, so why shouldn’t Mario, hey?

Continue reading “Preview: Superstition 1×1 (US: Syfy; UK: Netflix)”

Wisdom of the Crowd
US TV

Third-episode verdict: Wisdom of the Crowd (US: CBS)

In the US: Sundays, 8/7c, CBS

First of, let’s ignore the Barrometer for a moment and put Wisdom of the Crowd to the rarely deployed but equally important test used only with crime procedurals – the TMINEMIL test. Yep, I got my mother-in-law to watch the show, as being a fervent lover of the genre, she is precisely its target audience. She loves it, so Wisdom of the Crowd clearly hits the right notes with the right people.

But how about you? Assuming you’re not one of ‘the right people’, is there much merit to Wisdom of the Crowd? The show’s format is that social media tech entrepreneur Jeremy Piven wants to find out who really killed his daughter, so decides to use a crowd-sourcing platform to data mine all the evidence, discover clues and connections the police missed, and get input from experts and witnesses the police never knew about. However, his platform turns out to be very good at unearthing crimes that the police have missed or don’t know how to solve and before you know it, Piven’s helping detective Richard T Jones with his enquiries and vice versa.

Episode one showed us there’s more to the show than the simple bog standard CBS procedural. Sure, it has everyone standing around in front of their desks, instead of sitting at them, staring at monitors (good job Piven’s helper monkeys are all young); occasionally the show will Numb3rs up and flash some science oddly (“We can use Bayes Theorem to make connections!”), too. But the police do the things they’re good at, the techies do the things they’re good at, and that’s it – no CSIs conducting interviews here.

Wisdom of the Crowd usually also has a fair idea of science and computing’s limitations: “Can’t you get your computer to analyse the images?” “Actually, computers are quite poor at visual recognition and it’s better to get people to do it.” It knows that a lot of the time, people talk nonsense and know nothing and that you have to mine through the chaff to get to the real information or people who might know what they’re talking about, with episode two giving us ‘crowd winnowing’ with a missing boy to come up with guesses from trackers, rangers and the like for where he might be.

The wisdom of viewing?

But that’s basically the show’s gimmick. It’s a superior gimmick and the cases are more varied and smarter than the usual procedural inanity. But as with all procedurals, that’s neither here nor there. Whether you watch is down to the characters and maybe a faint glimmer of a series plot.

In terms of story arc, episode two steered a little away from the hunt for the killer of Piven’s daughter, but still touched base with it, and episode three carried on with it strongly, so it’s a lot more dedicated to its story arc than The Mentalist was, for sure. There’s also an ongoing question about how Piven can afford all of this, given the staff and resources he’s using, with the suggestion he might need some cash or even have to sell up. Which is new for this kind of show, which always posits some unlimited bucket of cash for its advanced agencies.

As for the characters, you’ve got flashy but driven Piven and that’s about it. The only characters with any real animus are Piven’s ex-wife (Monica Potter) and Jones, but ultimately they’re just there for a bit of variety, rather than because anyone actually cares to give them backgrounds and stories of their own. Everyone else is a delivery vector for dialogue and plot, rather than someone you’d necessarily want to spend time with or at least get to know.

So is that enough to make me want to keep watching? No. Almost, but not quite, I don’t think, although it’s borderline. All the same, it might be for you. Certainly, compared to the rest of the crime procedurals on the market, particularly those from the CBS, this is the only one I could contemplate watching regularly. It’s also already one of my mother-in-law’s favourites. Give it a whirl if you like procedurals or want to try one of the better ones. Otherwise, I’d say that there’s probably something else more to your taste that you could watch instead.

Barrometer rating: 3

The Barrometer of the Wisdom of The Crowd