US TV

Review: Baskets 1×1 (US: FX)

In the US: Thursdays, 10pm ET/PT, FX

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell not only if something is funny but if it’s actually trying to be funny. Consider the clown. The very name ‘clown’ evinces the ides that humour is his raison d’être. Yet all he does all day is dress up very weirdly, squirt others with water from a flower and have big shoes.

Do you know anyone who finds clowns funny? I don’t. Do kids, the alleged target audience, find clowns funny? Most seem to get nightmares about them and their horrifying nature is supported in all manner of movies.

Yet clowns continue to exist.

Consider then the irony of Baskets. It’s written and created by Zach Galifianakis and Louis CK, both noted names in comedy. It stars Galifianakis not once but twice as twin brothers Chip and Dale Baskets, which again suggests the show is a comedy. And Chip Baskets is himself a clown, having gone to a prestigious clown school in Paris and who styles himself as ‘Renoir’.

All indicators, surely, of comedy?

Yet sitting through it, I had to ask myself many many times: “Am I missing something or is this just not funny? At all.” Is it supposed to be funny that Baskets has enrolled in a Paris clown school but doesn’t speak French? Or that the first five minutes of everyone else’s dialogue are in unsubtitled French? I didn’t laugh. Maybe it was because I could understand what everyone was saying and you’re not supposed to be able to, I thought.

So is it funny that when he has to return home to the US because he’s run out of money, the Frenchwoman he loves agrees to marry him but with the proviso that “I don’t love you. It’s only because I want a Green Card. I do not find you attractive, so if I find someone who is attractive, is it okay if I go off with him?” It’s dark. Very dark. It could be funny, if a little xenophobic. Maybe I’m supposed to laugh. I don’t know.

Is it funny when Baskets has to get a job as a rodeo clown? Or when he has a crash on his moped and he meets a very low key, underplayed, monotone insurance agent (Martha Kelly) and asks to borrow $40 from her so he can pay for his fiancée’s HBO connection? Is Louie Anderson in drag playing Galifianakis’ mum funny? Is Galifianakis being pronged by a rodeo bull funny?

I. Just. Don’t. Know.

It might well be that this is hilariously funny stuff for some people. The kind of people whom Aaron Sorkin thought would lap up commedia dell’arte sketches in a primetime Saturday night sketch show.

But not me. Is that funny?

US TV

Preview: Go On (NBC) 1×1

Go On

In the US: Tuesdays, 9pm Eastern/8pm Central, NBC. Starts September 11
In the UK: Not yet acquired

NBC. Comedy.

Funny how if you’d stuck those two words together in the 90s, you’d have got gold, thanks to Friends, and how if you stick them together now, despite Community and 30 Rock, you get lead. Certainly the viewers seem to think so, judging from the ratings.

Yes, that’s exactly how I started my review of The New Normal yesterday and I’m reusing it for three reasons: first, that if you’re still expecting an NBC comedy to be funny, you know that definition of madness and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different? That one? That’s you that is.

Secondly, you notice how I mentioned Friends, ‘ratings’ and ‘gold’ in the same paragraph there? Well, NBC has that etched on the walls of their comedy commissioning office and when the thought of Matthew Perry (Chandler in Friends) appearing in a new NBC sitcom created by one of the producers of Friends hit them, they came over all funny. Okay, Studio 60 wasn’t exactly a slam dunk, but that wasn’t a comedy. This is an actual sitcom.

Hence, the commissioning of Go On, which – and here’s my third point – can only be described as Community, one of NBC’s few critical comedy successes of recent years, even if it’s not a ratings success. However, instead of Joel McHale, you have Matthew Perry and instead of a community college study group, you have a community college support group. And instead of laughter, you have tears. No, really, because although laughs are pretty thin on the ground with Go On, I did actually weep buckets during it. And no, not for NBC’s doomed ratings and the sure and certain knowledge this is going to be cancelled within a season.

Here’s a trailer that contains literally all the jokes. And – be warned – all the bits that will make you cry.

Continue reading “Preview: Go On (NBC) 1×1”

The CarusometerA Carusometer rating of 3

Third-episode verdict: The Newsroom (HBO)

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 10pm, Sky Atlantic HD

The Newsroom is frustrating. It is perilously close to being brilliant – with Aaron Sorkin writing it, how could it not be? Yet it’s also very flawed and often falls far from the Brilliant Tree.

Essentially, this is a show in which Sorkin tells us how TV news reporting should have been for the past two years, by going back to incidents we all know about and using the benefit of hindsight to give us the facts that may or may not have been apparent at the time. As with The West Wing, it posits a team of dedicated and mostly talented people working towards the betterment of humanity. Here though, that team is journalists – as with Studio 60, this is a show within a show – rather than politicians and their aides.

Or should I say male journalists? Because this is where the problems start. There is an almost universal divide between competent, dedicated male journalists, focused on doing the best job possible, and dizty women worried about their relationships, usually with the male journalists. Even when they are doing their best, they either fail or it’s to help the men do the best they can and to glorify those men.

While this was to a certaint extent apparent in the first episode, the entire second episode had lead female Emily Mortimer failing to comprehend the basics of corporate email and worrying that the entire company thought that Jeff Daniels had cheated on her. This from a seasoned war reporter and executive producer.

Meanwhile, in the third episode we had her former producer using his war reporting experience to minister field training to help one of the female journalists during one of her panic attacks. We’re almost beyond pastiche at this point.

Even the arrival of Jane Fonda in the third episode as the Ted Turner-like tycoon who owns the network didn’t help, since she’s not on the side of the angels, but only cares about business, and is a bit rusty in the old acting department.

That leaves us in the unprecedented position of relying on episode two’s new arrival, Olivia Munn (of The Daily Show, Attack of the Show, Perfect Couples, Iron Man 2, et al), to be the competent, intellectual heavyweight of the female team. She’s a welcome oasis of professionalism and snark, although the effect is slightly spoilt by Mortimer recruiting her because she has ‘nice legs’.

Another problem with the show is that it’s on HBO. Nothing wrong with that you might think, until you realise that means no adverts and Sorkin is trying to pad out 40 minutes of actual material to a full 60 minutes. The show feels in dire need of an edit because there’s not quite enough there at the moment. It doesn’t help that without the talents of Thomas Schlamme in the direction department, everything is much slower than it should be: where there was once ‘walk and talk’, there’s now ‘sit and prosletyse’.

Bar Munn, who’s had about 10 lines so far in three episodes, there are no characters to really like yet. We’ve also reverted to Sorkin’s default of loving lawyers, with it apparently not enough that Jeff Daniels be a journalist in order to ask probing questions – he’s also a former lawyer because Sorkin loves lawyers. That’s kind of disheartening for people who thought the show might be a tribute to journalists, rather than a slating.

But squinting hard, ignoring these flaws and forgetting for a moment that a lot of the plots and ideas are recycled from Sorkin’s earlier shows, this is a very good programme. There’s sparkling dialogue, decent plotting and an actual message trying to be imparted. True, it’s the same message that Keith Olbermann was doing in slightly more hyperbolic terms until he was fired, but it’s a worthwhile message nevertheless. It’s also fun, even while it’s being frustrating.

So give it a try, because even if it is almost Sorkin by numbers, it’s one of his better shows and certainly one of the best shows on at the moment. With time – and HBO has already committed to a second season – Sorkin will actually have to give the female characters some work to do and there’s even a chance they’ll do it competently.

Carusometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: Will definitely last two seasons and might even go to three or more

US TV

Review: The Newsroom (HBO) 1×1

 

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic. Will air starting July 10

I guess it was only a matter of time before Aaron Sorkin got around to creating The Newsroom. You could probably have proved it with Venn diagrams or something.

Sorkin does, of course, love two things above all others: politics and TV shows about TV shows. On the politics side, The West Wing looked at the undeniable vital national importance of decent politics and politicians, but Sorkin also wrote the Guantanamo-tastic A Few Good Men. As far as TV shows about TV shows go, he’s had a patchier track record: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which looked at the vital national importance of live comedy sketch shows, was a flop, as was Sports Night, which looked at the vital national importance of TV sports shows. 

So I guess it was inevitable that Sorkin would develop a TV show that incorporated into its storylines not just politics but also a TV show about politics. Thus we have The Newsroom, almost a ‘Greatest Sorkin Hits’ collection of things you’ll have seen and loved in previous Sorkin productions: politics; a TV show with behind-the-scenes relationship problems for the production team; ditzy women; failing men; witty banter; talking and walking; beautifully written, fact-heavy sermons; ethnic minority assistants; people doing the right thing; people doing jobs to the best of their abilities; and exhortions about how much better America could be if only all its citizens were well educated.

In this show, of course, we also get journalism and long speeches about how important it is. And as with much of The Newsroom, although you may have seen something similar on Studio 60 et al, here it just about works, because journalism is plausibly of vital national importance – unlike live comedy sketch shows. It’s not quite The West Wing, either in the quality of the cast, which includes Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Olivia Munn, Sam Waterston, Dev Patel and Jane Fonda, or in the power of its execution, but it’s certainly a pretty good start – assuming you like Sorkin.

Here’s a trailer or two and if you’re in the US, you can watch the whole of the first episode.

Continue reading “Review: The Newsroom (HBO) 1×1”