Certain satires want to define and even gut a genre. It was nigh on impossible to watch Newsnight once The Day Today was on the air, chat shows looked stupid once Mrs Merton and I’m Alan Partridge kicked in, soap operas were unwatchable after Soap and can anyone take the BBC seriously at all now W1A regularly skewers it?
Trial & Error would like to be a skewering piece of satire. But it faces two problems on that score. For starters, it largely relies on the audience having watched the likes of Netflix’s Making of a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx, being a parody of true crime documentaries. I’m not sure what the overlap with NBC’s audience is, but I doubt it’s very big.
The plot sees John Lithgow playing a poetry professor who appears to have murdered his wife. Lithgow seems more concerned by his roller skates and the cable company than he does about her death, so is the prime suspect, particularly when he turns out to be more than a bit gay and having an affair with his personal trainer (“Sexuality is fluid… and sometimes my fluids go towards men”).
To defend him, his father-in-law (Bob Gunton) hires one of those ‘northeastern lawyers’ because they seem so crafty (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), but winds up with the less-than-crafty newbie Nick D’Agosto (Masters of Sex, Gotham). D’Agosto assembles the best defence team the small Southern town has to offer. Unfortunately, that’s Sherri Shepherd (Sherri), who’s not only dyslexic enough to spell trial as trail (The Trail being the original, more cryptic name for the show), she has rare brain disorders that cause her to pass out from excitement and to laugh at tragic events; Steven Boyer, who may not be dyslexic but he’s stupid enough to accidentally set fire to exhumated bodies; and an investigator who has relieve himself sexually whenever he gets excited. And there’s a lot of excitement.
None of which is very funny, so the show’s second problem is that it relies on the tried and trusted method of stereotyping southerners for about 90% of its jokes. On top of being hugely stupid, Boyer has a sister who is also his cousin and he has bad dentistry. Prosecutor Jayma Mays (Heroes, Glee) is highly sexed, constantly propositioning D’Agosto whenever he comes to her office and has an accent that makes her name hard to understand. She’s okay with that, though, but woe betide you if you pronounce Judge Horsedich’s name wrong, though, as she’s mulling over any of the archaic laws still on the statute books in town, such as the forbidding of ‘buggery’ and ‘death by bear’.
If you laughed at any of that, well, you’re easier to please than I apparently am.
The show does at least respect the forms of the documentary, and has a pretty firm grasp of local news reporting, too. And there was a scene in the second episode involving Lithgow’s roller skate wrench that was actually quite moving (you’ll understand if you see it).
But if I make it to three episodes, it’ll be a miracle. Skewering the genre? You’ll have forgotten about Trial & Error by the end of the week.
Although NBC has managed to return to the top of the US ratings after its horrific death plummet a decade ago, there are still a couple of things it’s not good at: comedies and superhero shows. Okay, to be fair, its comedies are useless quite smart, but they’re usually not desperately funny (eg The Good Place) and/or they never fare well in the ratings (eg Community). To be equally fair, it hasn’t had a lot of superhero shows, but while we can all agree that at least Constantinegot better over time, Heroes got decidedly worse and the less said about The Cape, the better.
So Powerless looks like the perfect storm: an NBC superhero comedy. What manner of horror could that be, you might ask? Well, for a while, it actually looked quite promising, giving us a show that builds on the same theme as both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War by being about the little people who are just trying to get on with their lives and avoid getting crushed by buildings, shot by death rays, et al as superheroes and supervillains do what superheroes and supervillains do – a sort of Lower Decks of the DC Comic Book universe, if you will. In this original story, the somewhat cynical Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) worked in an insurance company for supervillain Alan Tudyk (Firefly), where she has to decide whether destruction caused by Wonder Woman can be written off as an Act of God because as a demi-goddess, it’s a grey area.
Following the pilot, though, show creator Ben Queen (A to Z, Drive) left and the whole thing got rebooted into something a lot more mid-season replacement.
Now, Hudgens is a wide-eyed superhero fan reporting to work at Tudyk’s branch of Wayne Industries – Tudyk now being Bruce Wayne’s cousin – where she has to lead a team of more jaded inventors and engineers in developing products to help the ordinary people of ‘Charm City’ cope with the superhero-induced trials and tribulations of life, whether those be personal Joker-poison anti-toxin injectors or inflatable suits to help their wearers withstand concussive blows.
Trouble is, her new underlings, who include Community‘s Danny Pudi and Undateable‘s Ron Funches, aren’t the brightest tools in the box, so spend their entire time ripping off Lexcorp’s ideas and making them a different colour, rather than coming up with anything original, which means that Bruce is thinking about shutting them down. Will they get a reprieve?
I’m not sure I care. Admittedly, the show does have its good points: Hudgens, Pudi and Tudyk are as fun to watch as always, and no less an acting god than Adam West is the narrator. There’s also the occasional bit of low but amusing humour, with inept supervillain Jack O’Lantern inadvertently punning about his ‘balls… of fire’ and Batman coincidentally using the new product the team has just sent to Bruce Wayne (what are the chances?).
But Funches is still a near unbearably poor actor, there really aren’t that many jokes and we’re nearing the bottom of the superhero z-list with Jack O’Lantern and Crimson Fox – it’s not so much Lower Decks as Journey to the Earth’s Core. Who cares what they’re up to down there?
The show’s not terrible. The core cast and ideas are reasonably sound and now the producers have got over retooling the show in a hurry, hopefully they’ll have time to settle in all the new ideas. But Powerless really needs to raise its ambitions – if DC corporate vetting will let it – if it’s to avoid going the same way as every other NBC superhero show.
Canada has spent more than a quarter of century doubling for “Washington State” and other woody parts of the US in countless primetime American TV shows, but the number of such shows that are actually set in Canada is actually perilously small. But following the likes of Flashpointand Rookie Blue on this largely untrodden path is Ransom, a CBS procedural that’s almost indistinguishable from any other CBS procedural bar the fact it’s set in Montreal.
The show is actually a heinous co-production between CBS, Canada’s Global, France TF1 and Germany’s RTL that follows the golden rule that the more co-production members you have from this international team of banality, the worse your show will be (cf Transporter: TheSeries). Indeed, the show is produced by the king of the bad international co-production Frank Spotnitz (Hunted, Strike Back). Transporter: TheSeries was one of his, too, and this is almost as bad, albeit a lot duller.
Supposedly based on the experiences of real life negotiators Laurent Combalbert and Marwan Mery, Ransom stars secretly British actor Luke Roberts (Black Sails, Wolf Hall, Taxi Brooklyn, Holby City) as the head of a private sector firm of negotiators, who use their awesome negotiating powers to help rich people recover their children from greedy foreign kidnappers. Oh, but if only he could have used his powers to save his wife…
Nothing quite says “filmed in Canada” like the presence of Nazneen Contractor (The Border, 24, Covert Affairs, Heroes: Reborn) or Brandon Jay McLaren (Slasher, Graceland, The Killing (US), Being Erica, Falling Skies) in your cast list, so kudos to Ransom for getting both of them in the credits to make up the show’s now-traditional procedural ensemble, with McLaren playing a psychological profiler and Contractor playing Roberts’ deputy. Or stooge. Or something. At least, she gets to explain the plot to McLaren when Roberts isn’t around.
When Roberts is around, he gets to explain the plot to newbie Sarah Greene (no, not that one – the one from Penny Dreadful and Rebellion), a job applicant whom McLaren has rejected for A Dark Reason That Will Be Revealed At The End of The Episode But Which Will Show How Tormented Roberts Is.
And it’s all bobbins. Everything is completed half-arsed. The show wants to be Canadian, but is so bad at even something so simple that despite being set in Montreal (56.9% French speakers, 18.6% English speakers), no one speaks French or has a French accent and there was only one piece of writing actually in French. And that’s despite being filmed in Canada – I shudder to think what level of authenticity the show will stoop to when it starts going on its promised globe-trotting.
Ransom also wants to be about crises while still being different to Flashpoint somakes its crisis people private sector. Except it still wants to be a procedural, so everyone still goes round interviewing people, finding dead bodies, doing DNA analysis et al like they’re the police, except without warrants et al. It all actually gets a bit creepy when they’re snooping around schools trying to extract pupils’ home addresses from unsuspecting teachers by pretending to be famous soccer players.
On top of that, they have to sort out the affected rich family of the week’s marital/parenting problems (“You need to tell her about this”), while still being terribly nice when it turns out that the rich family aren’t rich enough any more to pay their bills. Because we all know how well that usually works out in the US.
The show is stupid enough it makes Criminal Minds look genuinely smart. As well as constantly having to explain basic human social interactions to the audience (“If you offer them something, they might offer us something in return”), the show also gives us Greene explaining that judging from a kidnapper’s accent, he’s “Mediterranean, probably Greek”. Because Spanish, French, Italian and Greek accents are all very similar, aren’t they? Almost indistinguishable. To be fair, the actor is Greek-Canadian and does speak some passable Greek; to be less fair, his accent sounds like a Canadian putting on a Greek accent and he’s also supposed to have been born in Yugoslavia.
If you’ve seen any other CBS procedural, you’ll have almost certainly seen something much better, from its CSI: Miami-style sci-fi screenless computer displays through to its NCIS-grade inept fight scenes. Did they really drop Limitless for this mildly blander Crossing Lines?
It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.
I did promise you on Monday one potential last WHYBW to sign off with before the Christmas hols to mop up the few shows with remaining episodes this week. And here it is! How exciting. How reliable of me for a change.
After the jump then, the finale of Falling Water and as Netflix released all of Travelers today in the UK, I was able to binge-watch the final episodes, so I’ll be looking at them, too. Thanks to its delayed airing, I’ll be looking at the latest (not final) episode of Shooter, and I’ve also watched a few more episodes of The OA since I started it on Monday.
On top of that, I also managed to catch up with another of Netflix’s French imports:
Dix pour cent (Call My Agent!) (France: France 2; UK: Netflix) Sort of the French equivalent of Extras, Dix pour cent is set in a talent agency, where the various members of staff have to deal with all the problems that beset the ‘talent’, including the talent themselves. Except there’s all manner of inter-agency rivalry, poaching et al to deal with, too, once the head of the agency pops his clogs.
The show’s selling point in France is that series producer Dominique Besnehard was one of the biggest talent agents in France for 20 years and managed huge numbers of top actors, actresses and directors. He then persuaded a select range of these stars to appear as ‘themselves’ in the show to send themselves up, with episode one seeing Cécile de France (The Young Pope, Around The World in 80 Days, Mesrine) finding herself ditched from a Quentin Tarantino movie for being – gasp! – too old.
Which is a problem for UK audiences, since although there’s a chance that some of us will be familiar with some of the stars such as Audrey Fleurot from Engrenages (Spiral), most of the stars are like de France and are going to leave virtually everyone scratching our heads in exactly the same way every American did when Les Dennis turned up in Extras, for example. Even if you do know the show features such cameos (which isn’t obvious), most people aren’t going to know fictional character from cameo, let alone know an actor’s public persona and what they’re sending up.
On top of that, it’s just not that funny. Quelle surprise, given it’s France 2, but the show’s few jokes went flashing past unaccompanied by laughs. Oh, and the subtitling is terrible.
One to avoid unless you really know your French acting scene, I’m afraid.
It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them. There’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever.
Who launches new shows at the start of December? Not many networks, which is why I haven’t reviewed too much in the past week, although you may have caught my third-episode verdict on Shooter (US: USA; UK: Netflix) if you were hanging on my every word.
But with Thanksgiving over, all the regular TV shows have come back – at least until their Christmas breaks in a week or so. That means that after the jump, I’ll be taking a look at the following regulars:
US Ash vs Evil Dead, Chance, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Designated Survivor, DIrk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Falling Water, The Flash, Frequency, The Great Indoors, Lethal Weapon, Lucifer, People of Earth, Son of Zorn, Supergirl and Timeless
For one week and one week only, thanks to the fact there was the four-way superhero crossover on The CW, Arrow also makes a return. Will I stick with it afterwards? Maybe – after all, not only will I be dropping at least one show this week, I’m also going to be promoting a show, too…
Surprisingly, though, a couple of networks decided that actually, the start of December is a perfect time to launch a new TV show:
Incorporated (US: Syfy)
Hailing from no less a pair of minds (or at least their production company) than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Incorporated is one of those ‘futuristic thriller’ things set in the near future where the whole world’s gone to pot: corporations now run everything and either you work for them in the ‘green zone’ living it up and holidaying on the beaches of Reykjavík now that global warming’s properly kicked in or you live out in the ‘red zones’ in favelas, fighting for your life while trying to make a quick buck selling one of the last three or so cigarettes made from real tobacco that exist in the world.
Against this backdrop, you have former red-zoner Sean Teale (Skins) sneaking his way around a top company at the behest of Ian Tracey (Continuum, Intelligence, Travelers) in order to find out where the sister of pal Eddie Ramos is. Can he work his way to the top of the corporate ladder, by any means necessary, including framing his rivals so they get a visit from scary Dennis Haysbert (24, The Unit)?
Incorporated is ostensibly a futuristic industrial espionage thriller, but is really 49% Gattaca, 49% Elysium and 2% Soylent Green. While clearly a lot of thought has gone into imagining this future Earth of self-driving cars and face transplants – although even today we have better IT – little thought has gone into working out why we should care about Teale and his problems or any really complex bits of industrial tradecraft. Oh look, here comes a scene where Teale has to steal some data from a computer while he’s in someone else’s office. Can he copy it all in just a few minutes? Now – maybe not. In 2074? Of course he bloody can with his 100Tbps USB 23.0 interface and still have time left over to play holographic Tetris with his cranial implant.
The only interesting and new thing about the show that I noted was the use of capoeira as the favella martial art of choice, which was a nice touch. Otherwise, slow-moving and oddly devoid of human interest.
פאודה (Fauda) (Israel: Yes; UK: Netflix) Somewhat different from Netflix’s other Israeli spy show – the comedy Mossad 101 – this is a political thriller from Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, based on their experiences of doing military service in the IDF’s Duvdevan special unit. It sees former Mista’arvim (undercover counter-terrorist) commander Lior Raz (The Gordin Cell) being lured from his vineyard to supervise an operation – the capture of a Hamas leader known as ‘the Panther’ (Hisham Sulliman), whom Raz supposedly killed two years earlier. Except the Panther isn’t dead and everything doesn’t quite go as planned…
As with most Netflix ‘originals’, this is actually a simple acquisition, this time from Israel’s Yes network, where the show aired last year, winning no fewer than six of Israel’s equivalents of BAFTAs, the Ophirs, including Best Drama. I’ve only watched the first episode so far, and that’s a relatively plot-heavy piece that leaves little time for any real character development. But it’s action-packed, sympathetic not only to Arabs but also Hamas (surprisingly enough), and is pretty even-handed, with our heroes even taking unarmed civilians hostage at one point.
There’s nothing I’ve seen, beyond its novel setting and authenticity, to make it stand out from any other good guy/terrorist Moby Dick piece, but it’s certainly promising enough to make me want to watch more.
The Crown (Netflix)
I’ve been promising for weeks to cover this, but we’ve been stalled at episode 8 for a month now, so time to at least discuss what I’ve seen so far. The first of seven or so seasons, each focusing on a different decade of her life, The Crown is a moderately fictional biopic of none other than Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy from Crossbones, White Heat, Going Postal).
Season 1 starts off giving us a woman who had no plans to do much except be a wife, mother and horse breeder, until the death of her father King George VI (the miscast Jared Harris from The Other Boleyn Girl, Mad Men, Fringe, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadowsand To The Ends of the Earth, when Netflix should have stumped up the cash to get Colin Firth to redo his The King’s Speech turn) catapults her and hubby Philip (Matt Smith – Doctor Who, Terminator: Genisys) into one of the most constitutionally important roles in the UK. In an age of increasing modernity, with the monarchy increasingly looking like an anachronistic relic, Foy then has to find a role for herself as well as for the Crown, while juggling the competing demands of her husband, duty, previous kings and queens, her randy sister Margaret and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).
While there are attempts to give the show some Game of Thrones-like qualities, thanks to the machinations of Churchill, abdicated uncle Edward VIII and quasi-father-in-law Lord Mountbatten (Greg Wise), The Crown really sits as a halfway house between writer Peter Morgan’s The Queen and The Audience. Oddly episodic for Netflix thanks to the nature of real-life, the show is something of an unplanned origin story, going from historic incident to historic incident in the 1950s, showing us how Elizabeth might have evolved from someone whose most important thought was whether to take her husband’s adopted surname to being someone with the power to depose the government if she so chooses – albeit running the risk of losing all power if she ever exercises it.
Unlike The Audience, which was firmly on Elizabeth’s side, making her an ambitious woman with plenty of ideas for government that she has to put to one side, The Crown is less concerned with this Elizabeth and her supervising of Margaret’s scandalous love life, and is more on the side of Philip, something helped perhaps by Smith’s magnificent performance/impersonation. Here, Philip’s more notorious qualities are toned down to make him a sympathetic, dedicated naval officer (albeit one who would rather have been in the air force), loving husband and father, and firm embracer of modernity, forced to abandon his ambitions and kneel to his wife by the necessities of the throne and the Crown.
There are parts of The Crown that feel made up, particularly anything to do with Edward VIII or Churchill, and although a little research reveals that they are actually absolutely true, it doesn’t help with the show’s verisimilitude. Foy, who’s shown herself to be sparky in other shows and is almost perfect casting as the young Elizabeth, is nevertheless done no favours by Morgan. He tosses her a few bones, such as being able to repair a truck thanks to her wartime service as a mechanic, or her requests for a proper education to supplement the constitution-focused training she got as a child, which she’s able to use to outmanoeuvre polticians. But that’s largely drowned out by thankless duty after thankless duty after tragic loss being dropped on her shoulders – such is the burden of ‘the Crown’.
But it’s beautifully made, highly enjoyable, far more palatable than Downton Abbey, frequently funny, frequently tear-jerking, often romantic and just like Elizabeth, finds a reason for the monarchy in this day and age.
We will watch the rest of it. Just as soon as lovely wife’s finished Master Chef – The Professionals, The Grand Tour, My Kitchen Rules Australia, and Strictly Come Dancing. Oh yes, and The Walking Dead.