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: (spoiler alert) 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

SEAL Team
US TV

Third-episode verdict: SEAL Team (US: CBS)

In the US: Wednesdays, 9/8c, CBS

Surprisingly, it turns out there’s life in SEAL Team after all. CBS’s entry in this year’s military format skirmish, it sees David Boreanaz (Angel, Bones) playing the leader of a SEAL Team who go around shooting whichever people the CIA’s Jessica Paré (Mad Men) deems appropriate. Episode one saw them head off to Africa to kill one of those ‘high ranking ISIS commanders’ that are all the rage these days; episode two saw them head off to Syria to root out some chemical weapons; and now episode three has given us some SE Asian pirates to take on. Simultaneously, we follow the antics of a SEAL trainee (Max Thieriot) as he goes through training and selection.

What’s characterised SEAL Team are all the things you can usually count on from CBS in spades. The budgets are huge, storytelling is efficient and the dialogue is semi-authentic. On top of that, the direction’s first rate, if a little influenced by first-person shooters, with night shoots, night-vision shots, drone shots, body-mounted cameras, underwater shoots and more. And it’s intelligently written, not just knocked out through find-and-replacing names in old The Unit scripts, giving us professional people at all levels of command, and characters who can quote Tennessee Williams and intersectional gender studies without the writers feeling they need to explain it all to the audience.

Bland

It’s all been smart, very patriotic, reverential to the services… and bland. Because for all the acronyms, tension and efficient killing, actually caring about the characters has been difficult, since their backgrounds have been the same old, same old. Boreanaz has difficulty dealing with the death of one of his comrades in arms, his marriage is falling apart and he doesn’t think much of his therapy sessions with 24‘s Reiko Aylesworth. Thieriot has to cope with the fact his dad used to be a SEAL and wrote a book about it. But that’s as much characterisation or background as anyone had. It’s all been about the job. And the only real serial element of the show has been Thieriot’s training ordeals and the alternating progress and decline of Boreanaz’s marriage.

Fortunately, episode three moves things along a little. There’s a little more life to Boreanaz’s character than there was before and he starts to become more than a cypher. A new serial element gets injected into the show that is moderately interesting (spoiler: (spoiler alert) Boreanaz’s dead buddy had a burner phone for communicating with a woman who may have been his girlfriend – or perhaps something more nefarious, so Boreanaz is investigating with the help of his NSA-trained buddy/colleague). The action scenes, while still a bit too ‘Medal of Honor’, show variety. There’s even a bit of humour. It’s still all “Americans, probably women, are in trouble somewhere in the world – let’s go save them” but to a certain extent, that’s the nature of the beast.

And the winner is?

Oddly, ignoring the execrable Six, there’s no clear winner in the special forces shoot-out raging between the networks, although SEAL Team probably just edges it through simple competence of production and not constantly looking like it’s shot in Canada/LA. They’re all reasonably good, but none is great. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, each has its own USP and there’s not a huge overlap in what they’re doing.

So, if you like character relationships, a strong female lead and serial storytelling, you’ve got Valor. If you like special forces skulking around being spies, you’ve got The Brave. And if you want glossy verisimilitude and firefights, you’ve got SEAL Team. Take your pick!

Barrometer rating: 2

The Barrometer for SEAL Team