The Neighborhood

Third-episode verdict: The Neighborhood (US: CBS)

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, CBS
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Just as with Happy Together, I had high hopes for The Neighborhood, once I’d seen the first episode, since it too defied expectations. It sees typical white midwesterners Max Greenfield and Beth Behrs move into a tough(ish) suburban black neighbourhood in LA. Neighbour Cedric the Entertainer isn’t too keen on having white neighbours, so generally tries to be as antagonistic as possible to them; however, the rest of his family are more open-minded, bringing it a different kind of conflict.

The first two episodes managed to do more than simply be “hey, you’re white!” and “hey, you’re black!” jokes every 10 seconds. Instead, they were surprisingly insightful looks at the differences between black and white Americans’ culture, while being almost a comedy of manners about what can and can’t be said and by whom in modern America.

Episode two also saw a potential alternative discussion point for the show, with Cedric the Entertainer the voice of tough conservative black American parenting values and Greenfield the voice of softer modern white parenting approaches. Indeed, there were times in the episode where the words black and white never even got mentioned.

The Neighborhood

There goes The Neighborhood

So it’s a shame that episode three lived down entirely to my initial expectations for the show. Greenfield stopped being an equal, more a figure of fun for everyone to laugh at. The jokes were basically “hey, you’re white!”, “hey, you’re black!” and most of the comedy revolved around the characters laughing at, not with each other. On top of that, not the slightest bit of cultural insight.

Basically, a standard CBS sitcom then. In fact, I couldn’t make it to the end of the episode, it was so unwatchably awful and standard CBS sitcom.

Which is a shame, since Happy Together showed that CBS is clearly aiming for a new, younger, gentler, more diverse market than it has been before, and I’d hoped The Neighborhood would be a good pairing with it. It isn’t.

Oh well. Two goodish episodes ain’t bad, is it?

Barrometer rating: 4

The Barrometer for The Neighborhood

Happy Together

Third-episode verdict: Happy Together (US: CBS; UK: E4)

In the US: Mondays, 8:30/7:30c, CBS
In the UK: Acquired by E4. Starts Thursday, October 18, 9pm

Normally on CBS, a sitcom like Happy Together would be something to avoid. A happily married couple in their early 30s (Damon Wayans Jr and Amber Stevens West) have to deal with a young A-list celeb (Felix Mallard) moving in with them? Imagine the hijinks as they laugh at how stupid and vain he is, and how he’s always on his mobile phone! Imagine the point-scoring conversations as everyone tries to be meaner than everyone else. What larks, hey?

Fortunately, Happy Together isn’t a standard CBS sitcom and Chuck Lorre has nothing to do with it. Instead, it’s a pleasing three-hander that throws up surprisingly accurate observations about married life and growing older, with a bunch of self-deprecating, charismatic characters. Most of the comedy stems from the gulf between the self-image of people who still imagine themselves as young but are on the cusp of middle-age and the actual reality of their life, but there are just as many insights into the downside of being rich and famous.

Each episode so far has been a ‘meeting of cultures’ – if being an A-list celebratory or a 30-something married couple are cultures. Episode 1 saw our married couple learn what it’s like to be a young celeb going to parties and discover that 10pm is when the action starts not stops – and that everyone will be watching you when the action does start. It was relatively pleasing and fun, even if not totally laugh out loud.

Episode 2 saw a slight uptick in the comedy, with some genuinely good lines and good performances from everyone, as our young celeb moves in – if bringing a shoebox of goods can be classified as ‘moving in’ – and our couple learns just how much ‘stuff’ they’ve accumulated over the years. Can they be minimalist, too, or have they grown to love their things?

Meanwhile, episode 3 sees our thirtysomethings learn that the benefits of youth are about to wear off on them in terms of physical fitness and they can’t get away with not exercising any more. But will they be able to survive Mallard’s Calvin Klein underwear model fitness regime? And is giving up junk food and being in constant pain too high a price to pay to fit into those skinny jeans again? As Wayans Jr puts it, “I promised ‘in sickness and in health’ but I never realised ‘in health’ would be the bad one.”

In on the joke

Rather than being one long sneer at the characters or the standard “superior unfunny wife tuts at funny inferior husband’s little foibles” sitcom, Happy Together allows all the characters their moments to shine and is an equal opportunist when it comes to weaknesses. The characters all know their limitations and laugh along with them, too.

Wayans Jr and Stevens West are as funny as each other, get to be as silly as each other and actually have a genuine chemistry. You can well believe that these are a comfortable, happily married, well matched pair of characters with a well established Friday night routine; equally, Mallard manages to make his character charming and innocent, rather than stupid or the butt of every joke.

I found myself smiling and even laughing a lot at most of the situations the show has thrown up so far. Sure, I might not live with an A-list celeb, but the show is a perfect study of a modern marriage between two not especially hip but not totally unhip people. In many ways, it has more to say about modern relationships and family than Modern Family does these days. Give it a try.

Barrometer rating: 3

Happy Together

God Friended Me

Third-episode verdict: God Friended Me (US: CBS)

In the US: Sundays, 8pm, CBS
In the UK: Not yet acquired

CBS is, of course, the home of procedural, but it should garner some kudos at least for having invented – or at least modernised – the ‘faith-based’ procedural with God Friended Me. The show sees aspiring atheist podcaster Brandon Micheal Hall join forces with online journalist Violett Beane and best friend Suraj Sharma to try to work out why a Facebook account calling itself ‘God’ is taking such an interest in his life and offering friend recommendations. When Hall accepts God’s suggestions, he ends up helping to repair people’s lives and bring a little happiness to the world, since it turns out they’re all in need of some human care. Such are the coincidences of it all, maybe that account really is God – he and Beane are going to try to find out, at least, and along the way, Hall might be reconciled with his preacher father (Joe Morton) as a reward for his efforts.

Reviewing the first episode, I exhorted readers to put their cynicism aside for what is essentially the new media version of Early Edition. It may be technically illiterate and theological nonsense, but only the jaded will be annoyed by a show that sees millennials (including a journalist) trying to help others and making other people’s lives better. It’s easy-going, genial stuff with a pleasing enough cast. What’s to dislike?

God Friended Me

The word of wood

Trouble is, since then, it’s been a bit blah and lacking in conviction. Despite the fact that the man Hall rescues at the start of the first episode turned up at the end to save Beane’s life, episode two sees Hall implausibly arguing that it’s definitely not God. The show’s writers seem to want to maintain that ambiguity, since they’ve dialled down the improbable levels of coincidence in favour of something just as easily explainable through secular methods. If it’s God, there’s a hook; if it’s a bloke in a dug-out with night-vision goggles and a WiFi hotspot, it’s all just a bit creepy.

On top of this unwillingness to explore its own boundaries, the show is also a bit trite and offers pat solutions to every emotional concern. Episode two sees an uncommunicative autistic boy naturally turn out to have useful musical savant abilities; meanwhile, episode three sees a tough ex-cop willing to take in a kid who was caught stealing. How trusting. How good that he doesn’t just turn your place over.

Now, dear reader, you don’t have to worry about your theistic cynicism being challenged, just your trust in human nature.

God Friended Me

Mere mortals

The show at least does still have a decent cast and set of characters. While there’s little research gone on into online journalism, podcasting or even being a vicar, the jobs at least have a semblance of reality to them and everyone’s heart is in the right place. It’s a little beyond credence that Morton hasn’t yet used ‘God’ as a Thought For the Day to talk to his son about God, now he’s listened to the podcast, but maybe he will at some point.

The relationship between Hall and Beane is probably the show’s highlight, however, so it’s a shame that after the first episode, they do so comparatively little together and Beane’s skills are no longer used as well as before. The writers really need to work more with these two to fine-tune the relationship, but the end of episode three suggests that’s a work in progress.

All in all, God Friended Me is a decent enough, faith-based procedural that won’t offend anyone, but won’t really excite anyone either. I might keep watching, in the hope that the show manages to get its formula right or at least do something as interesting as it did in the first episode, but it’s just as likely that I’ll give up on it next week.

Barrometer rating: 3

The Barrometer for God Friended Me

A Million Little Things

Third-episode verdict: A Million Little Things (US: ABC)

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

ABC’s A Million Little Things does not have a million little things going for it. Indeed, by the end of episode three, it already looks like it’s used up all it did have going for it. A slightly obvious attempt to rip off This Is Us, it sees three male friends’ relationship change when their fourth number commits suicide. They begin to re-evaluate their lives and start revealing their deeper emotions to each other. So many secrets! So many flashbacks! So many emotional moments!

To its credit, A Million Little Things is far less willing to indulge in forced emotional blackmail than This is Us is. Episode two was genuinely weepy at times, as ‘our band of dads’ get together to try to look after the daughter of their dead friend, and the show did earn those tears through drama, rather than simply the situation. It’s also less keen on serving up shiny new secrets every episode and is more content answering the secrets it’s already posed.

Trouble is, the initial secrets all seem to have been answered and those that remain either aren’t very exciting or seem easy to guess. So why bother watching? On top of that, the show’s raison d’être is “men talking about their emotions for the first time”. Nice idea, but the show started from a slightly repetitive foundation – one of the friends was planning to kill himself just as the fourth friend did kill himself; it then built on that foundation very little, the result so far seeming to be in episode three, “If you talk about your emotions, you will be ostracised, because no one wants to hear your bad secrets”. That’s not very encouraging and the whole response needed to produce that outcome seems manufactured.

Very few things

This forced drama goes against that initial selling point versus This is Us. And without any new secrets and with only forced drama now to rely on, there’s very little else going for A Million Little Things. The cast are still good, the female characters have finally been rounded out, James Roday proves there’s more to him than Psych, but the story engine powering the show along appears to have spluttered out into little more than musings about why people have affairs or become sad in a relationship. And the answers provided are pretty standard. And if the PA is planning on embezzling or has a secret plan from beyond the grave she’s following, I’m not sure I care.

All in all, then, after a promising start, A Million Little Things is getting crossed off the viewing list. A shame because a drama about men exploring men’s issues in a deeper, more emotional manner than we normally get on TV might have been worth watching. Unfortunately, this isn’t that show.

Barrometer rating: 3

The Barrometer for A Million Little Things

Internet TV

Review: Titans 1×1 (US: DC Universe; UK: Netflix)

In the US: Fridays, DC Universe
In the UK: Acquired by Netflix. Will air in 2018

‘Tis the season to launch new streaming TV services, apparently. You’d think there were enough already, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle et al already here and charging a healthy $10 or so a month for a subscription, but ‘No Large Media Conglomerate Left Behind’ and all that. Disney (which owns Marvel) is contemplating its own service, while WarnerBros, which is already mulling its own streaming service, has just launched another one for its DC Comics property.

It’s going to end badly, you mark my words.

Anyway, a streaming TV service needs TV to stream. Although DC Universe has a decent back catalogue of movies and TV series, a lot of DC’s comic properties are already doing nicely on other networks so are tied up elsewhere. The Flash, Arrow, Gotham, Supergirl, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Constantine, Krypton, and Black Lightning won’t be gracing DC Universe yet. Instead, the company is working through some of its lesser, quirkier properties. Later down the line, we’ll be seeing live-action Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol series, but first up, we’re getting Titans.

Unsurprisingly, to ensure its first scripted outing is a success, DC Universe has chosen to commission the US’s most powerful and prolific TV producer Greg Berlanti (producer of virtually all those other DC superhero shows, plus the likes of You and a few other shows, too) to head it. Equally unsurprisingly, it’s pretty damn good. Who needs Batman, hey? F*ck Batman.

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