The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 4

Third-episode verdict: APB (US: Fox)

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, Fox

There was never much chance that APB would ever be much good, but with Matt Nix (Burn Notice, Complications, The Good Guys) taking over as showrunner midway through the pilot, there was at least the possibility it might be. Fox’s attempt to do for policing what Iron Man did for World Peace, it sees Justin Kirk adopt the Robert Downey Jr mantel to become a billionaire playboy philanthropist engineer who discovers crime is bad and decides to bring his private sector technological expertise to bear on a problematic police district in Chicago. Can smartphone apps, drones and GPS information – as well as $120m of investment – bring an end to crime, or will it turn out to be a bit more complicated than that?

The first episode was phenomenally stupid and derivative, but with the occasional bit of fun. Episode two gave us a mix of stupids: on the one hand, we had Kirk once again back at HQ trying to bring to book a road racer who is smart enough to work out that drones can’t fly where there’s no decent signal; on the other, we have cops going dewey eyed over kids who have been mowed down and police dogs who have been blown up (“No!”). But it wasn’t quite as stupid, and there was an element of fun and excitement, with Kirk dicking around with motorbikes for most of an episode to give us his own version of Street Hawk, complete with street chases. We also had The Tall Guy from ER turn up, hugely probably, as a former pro-wrestler with an PhD in electronics, to give Kirk his own Jarvis to talk to when he’s doing some remodelling.

Just for a glimmering moment, it seemed like the show understood how stupid it was and was going to have some fun instead, giving us a piece of programming that teenagers can watch, be excited by and decided to become engineers. Because this is a show trying to make engineers look sexy. Even Justin Kirk.

Sure, there was the daftness of having the vengeful mayor of Chicago putting the husband of Kirk’s right-hand woman in charge of the anti-Kirk task squad, but soapiness we can ignore. However, episode three was simply moronic and soporific. While the first episode had Kirk giving us his solutions to existing problems and the show demonstrating how they’d work in practice, both episodes two and three flipped that formula: new problem turns up, Kirk devises a solution to it. And episode three’s problem was the age-old issue of interrogation – how to get a criminal to tell you the truth? Now here, people have already seen the problem and come up with a technical solution: the lie detector. And we know its limitations, as well as the civil liberty implications. We know reality and its nuances.

But since the format demands that Kirk be a brilliant inventor, he has to come up with a costly technical solution, too. Here, he gives us… the lie detector chair! You sit in the chair and people know your vital signs and therefore whether you’re lying! You don’t even have to touch any electrodes or anything! Just as long as you’re sitting in that chair, everything will be fine. It’s nonsense, of course, and probably illegal nonsense, too. It’s also a nonsense that any sane grown-up can watch, compare with reality and see it’s nonsense.

Coupled with that, we had a really bad attempt to give all of Kirk’s helper monkeys some characters and some background, with dialogue and plot devices that would curdle milk. And for a show supposed to be about the virtues of bringing private sector mentality to the public sector, Kirk’s employees have an interesting approach to time-keeping, the rule of law, chains of command and even not provoking people to commit crimes

Three episodes in, with Kirk wasting millions on gadgets, discovering policing is more about people than technology and generally coming up with things that just don’t work in practice unless a billionaire CEO gives us running his rocket-making company indefinitely so he can sit and fiddle with a joystick all day, I’m starting to think APB is really just a paean to the public sector. We’re supposed to watch and enjoy seeing Kirk play with his gadgets, but ultimately discover that the police do things the way they do things for a reason and that they’re a lot more dedicated than someone just in it for the big pay cheque. So off he goes with his tail between his leg.

But I’m not sticking around for that, because I can’t bear any more of it.

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 4

Third-episode verdict: Shut Eye (US: Hulu)

In the US: All episodes available on Hulu

We should probably be giving Shut Eye a medal, since it’s doing such a public service – revealing all the tricks of the trade used by psychics to fleece their customers. But good thoughts alone aren’t enough to make a good TV programme, so unfortunately for Shut Eye, we have to evaluate it on when it’s watchable or not. 

The first episode set the scene pretty well, with star Jeffrey Donovan playing a former Las Vegas magician now working as a fake psychic in LA under the purview of a bunch of Gypsies, including Isabella Rossellini. Well versed in the arts of cold reading and setting people up, one day he gets a bump on the noggin from a client’s disgruntled boyfriend and winds up having proper psychic visions. Will he use his new powers for good or for evil, we wonder at the end of the episode?

Evil, it turns out. Didn’t see that coming, did you? 

The casting of Donovan as the lead is a genius move, since he’s able to recycle two of his old routines for the role. In episode two, the show becomes full on psychic Burn Notice, with Donovan giving us (and his mark) the rundown on the mystic art of psychically stealing people’s money. By episode three, he’s mining Touching Evil for sympathetic, dazed, brain-damaged and odd, as he starts using his new found powers to tell people the hard truths they probably don’t want to hear.

As you might have deduced from that run-down, Shut Eye is as odd a show as its lead character, since it is by turns comedic and then deeply serious and violent. More problematically, it keeps piling more and more details onto to the plot, almost in an apparent attempt to confuse us while it steals our watches. As well as the Gypsies and their bizarre activities – including poetry recitals and love ceremonies – there’s Dexter‘s David Zayas as a gang boss customer of Donovan, who’s as quick to throw someone in a deep fat fryer as he is to fix Donovan’s floorboards. There’s Donovan’s hard-edged wife, KaDee Strickland, who wants him to regain his former manhood while she’s simultaneously sleeping with another woman. There’s Donovan’s son, his supposed ADHD and his school issues. There’s The Wire‘s Sonja Sohn as a police officer who’s chasing after Donovan. There’s thirtysomething‘s Mel Harris as Donovan’s main mark, who sometimes wakes up with a rooster and a tree branch in her bed. There’s even a kooky doctor – Susan Misner (Billions, The Americans) – trying to help unclog Donovan’s subconsciousness using Mozart and drugs.

And so on.

It makes for a show that says an awful lot without really taking the time to say anything worthwhile, not even about fake psychics because they might be real, it turns out.

I probably won’t be bothering with the rest of Shut Eye, despite its funnier and more psychedelic qualities. Donovan’s worth his enormous salary for this gig, but the gig itself could probably have done with a rethink about exactly what story it wanted to tell.

Barrometer rating: 4
TMINE’s prediction: Unlikely to get a second season

TV reviews

Review: Shut Eye 1×1 (US: Hulu)


In the US: Available on Hulu

So I’m going to say it now and obviously you have to bear in mind that all my predictions are inevitably wrong, but just in case for once I’m not, I’d like to take credit for my incredible psychic powers this time: peak TV is unsustainable. 

You don’t technically need to be psychic to work that out. Netflix’s currently $3.1bn in debt in order to pay for all its original content and it’s going to need an awful lot of subscribers paying $9.99 a month for a long time to break even on that. To be fair, it got $2bn in revenue in Q3, so maybe not, but that’s Netflix. How about Amazon?

More so, how about Hulu, which is making shows like The Path, 12.22.63, Chance and The Handmaid’s Tale willy nilly and you can’t even watch it outside the US. And now we’ve got Shut Eye, in which Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice, Touching Evil) plays a Las Vegas magician turn shabby Los Angeles conman psychic who has problems with Gypsies (including matriarch Isabella Rosselini) who don’t like the fact his sister, Leah Gibson (Rogue, The Returned) is using their tricks; his wife and partner in crime KaDee Strickland (The Wedding Bells), who thinks he’s losing his mojo; and disgruntled boyfriends of his easily duped clients.

Now, obviously, Jeffrey Donovan is a good actor. But is he $175,000 an episode good? Probably not, but that’s what Hulu’s paying him. And if that’s what they’re paying him, you can bet pretty much everyone else is having to pay similar cash for similar actors, let alone the likes of Hugh Laurie and Billy Bob Thornton, who’s allegedly getting $350,000 an ep for Goliath.

Something’s got to give and either there are going to be a lot of companies who are going to have to get out of the content business soon or there are going to be some ‘market shake-ups’ (ie bankruptcies, mergers, acquisitions) in the next few years.

Again, you heard it here first.

Still, enjoy it while it lasts, since we might get some good TV out of it, at least. Is Shut Eye some of that good TV?

Almost. Certainly, Shut Eye is a good name for the first half of the show’s first episode, since it’s amazingly soporific. I was this close to switching it off and not bothering with a proper review of it.

But the show really gets its name from the concept of the mystic third eye, which when opened reveals all manner of wisdom and knowledge. Here, Donovan’s third eye is shut until that jealous boyfriend gives him a kicking to the head halfway through the episode. Then, hypnotist Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage) tries to hypnotise him into wanting to partner with her and before he knows it, Donovan’s inner eye is opened and he starts seeing the world beyond, including psychedelic peppers. And not just the future – soon, he starts to re-think his life and asking himself whether lying to everyone is a good idea.

That’s more or less when the show starts to become watchable. How watchable, I’ll let you know once I’ve got a few more episodes under my belt – Hulu’s put them out all at once for a change – since although Donovan’s very watchable and obviously knows from his Touching Evil days how to play brain-damaged sympathetically and accurately, the other characters are all unlovable scumbags who like to dupe others. The Gypsy side of things is pretty offensive, Donovan’s the sole source of humour, and the crime’s are all petty and the victims are all sad dupes.

That means that you’re in it only for Donovan and how well he can put off increasing serenity and not being dark and glowery for a change. Who knows – perhaps he might really be worth that $175,000 an episode after all.

TV reviews

Review: Ash vs Evil Dead 1×1 (US: Starz)


In the US: Saturdays, 9pm EST, Starz
In the UK: Not yet acquired

To many people, Bruce Campbell is a man-god. He is a man. He is a god. He is a god of men. He is a man-god. 

What’s He (man-)god of? He is the living incarnation of straight white American male irony. Anyone claiming that (straight) (white) American (men) don’t get irony need only point at Bruce Campbell and say “May He have mercy on your soul”.

When you discover that Bruce is such an avatar is more about when you are born than the nature of Bruce Himself. For some, it’s relatively recently with his Old Spice adverts.

Going back slightly further, it’s as grizzled lothario and former Navy SEAL Sam Ax in Burn Notice.

Many will remember him as Autolycus, King of Thieves, helping another god on the New Zealand-filmed Hercules: The Legendary Journeys before joining Xena: Warrior Princess on the occasional quest. 

(Park that thought for a moment – it’s important).

My introduction to the Church of Bruce was in the early 90s with The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, where he got to play a cowboy very plausibly in love with Kelly Rutherford, while chasing all manner of sci-fi devices in the Old West.

But even that was a relatively late arrival to the party. Because the Coming of the great god Bruce Campbell first began with The Evil Dead, a 1980s horror movie a few people might have heard of, and which spawned more than a few sequels, including Army of Darkness.

It made a star of Bruce, who shot it with his childhood buddies Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. Tapert went on to run a couple of shows, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, where he ended up marrying the star, Lucy Lawless. Meanwhile, Raimi went to make plenty more movies, including Spider-Man, and with Tapert, created a New Zealand-filmed TV show on Starz called Spartacus, which also occasionally starred Lucy Lawless.

And now everything’s converging again, with Raimi, Tapert, Campbell and Lawless all together on another New Zealand-filmed show, this one a sequel to that very first epiphany, Evil Dead. It sees Campbell reprising his role of Ash, the ironic, semi-idiot hero of the original movies, who’s now 30 years older, 30 years wider, but not 30 years wiser. Trying to impress a girl while high on weed, he accidentally reads out passages from his big book of evil, causing the once-dismissed ‘Deadites’ to once again return to the world. Now Ash must quit his job in the local hardware store, quit his trailer and head out into the world to either face the evil or run away from it. Thank heavens he’s still got that chainsaw he can mount where his wooden hand should go, so he can carve them up with maximum gore.

Yes, the god of irony walks the Earth once again, and he’s NSFW.

Continue reading “Review: Ash vs Evil Dead 1×1 (US: Starz)”

US TV reviews

Preview: Mr Robot 1×1 (US: USA Network)

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, USA Network. Starts June 24
In the UK: Not yet acquired

I want you to hack me as hard as you can

Over the years, the USA Network has struggled to work out what kind of network it is. Scroll back a decade or more in the timeline and most people associated it with the likes of country & western reality talent show Nashville Star. Then it started trying to do drama, with a brilliant but quickly cancelled remake of the UK’s Touching Evil, which was perhaps a bit too dark and unmarketable for the likes of USA.

The network didn’t abandon its attempts with drama, but the set back did lead it to start going a bit fluffier. By about 2007, Burn Notice, Monk and Psych were the network’s go-to shows, and while Burn Notice was obviously a much darker show than either Psych and Monk, it still wasn’t quite Requiem for a Dream. These shows had something of an 80s nostalgia to them, which led to the fluffy likes of In Plain Sight.

2009’s Royal Pains proved a game-changer, showing that fluffy and light were very much the order of the day on USA, leading us to the quite fluffy White Collar, the slightly fluffy Covert Affairs, Suits and Graceland, the really very fluffy Common Law, Fairly Legal, Necessary Roughness, Playing House, and Sirens, and eventually the still-fluffy Benched.

Now some of these were great, some of them really weren’t, but they almost all still had something of an edge to them, at least. And slowly, with most of the new fluff fluffing in the ratings, the pendulum has started to swing back over the past year or so towards USA’s skulking darker side with the likes of Rush, Satisfaction and, coming soon, Complications.

This is all for the good, since now we have perhaps USA’s darkest – and best – new show for quite some time, Mr Robot. It sounds fluffy, doesn’t it, with that name, but it’s really not. Think Fight Club if it was all about hacking or Batman, if Batman was a socially anxious coder who used technology to stop people faking identities, end the distribution of images of child abuse and bring down the corporate elite who secretly rule the world.

Rami Malek (24, The War At Home, The Pacific) is Elliot, a white hat techie at a cybersecurity firm. He has social issues, which means in between bouts of crying to himself at home from loneliness, taking morphine, having sex with his drug dealer, hacking people he knows about to find out more about them or talking to his new friends – the viewers at home – he’s busily putting the world to rights. Or to rights as he sees them.

In particular, he’d really like to destroy his company’s biggest client, The Evil Corporation, and one day he comes across ‘Mr Robot’ (Christian Slater) and his team of socially minded hackers, who offer him the chance to do just that and liberate society from this menace. Is The Evil Corporation really running the world? Is what Slater says possible? Can he be trusted? And is he even real or is he just the Tyler Durden of Elliot’s unmedicated, occasionally paranoid schizophrenic sub-conscious?

All these questions and more are asked and you will want to know the answers. If you’re in the US, you can watch the full episode below; otherwise, I’ll leave you with some trailers and we can talk more after the jump.

Continue reading “Preview: Mr Robot 1×1 (US: USA Network)”