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Orphan Black‘s” third season premiere opens in the midst of a sunny reunion, as four sisters — Sarah Manning, Helena, Cosima Niehaus and Alison Hendrix — gather to celebrate a milestone.  Most noteworthy about these siblings is how distinct they are from one another. Each moves in a different way. Each has a dissimilar accent, each her own unique personality. They’re so unlike each other that an outsider might mistake them for being friends as opposed to family… except for the fact that they share exactly the same DNA and the same face, belonging to the actress who portrays all of them: Tatiana Maslany.

Many a TV series has featured twins, clones, doppelgangers and the like. None could boast of having a cast as multifaceted as Maslany to carry the story. This is a woman who inhabits her various characters so completely that she can even pull off having one of her clones masquerade as another.  In Saturday’s premiere, there’s even a scene where she plays a clone disguised as one of her sisters, while facing down another sister clone who also is disguised as a yet another version of herself. Confusing? On paper, sure. But Maslany makes it  looks astoundingly effortless. It’s a tense, terrific scene even without this feat of acting acrobatics, but such detail on top of the wickedly bizarre storyline just takes everything up a level.

There’s too much going on in “Orphan Black” to catch a person up in a few short sentences, but all you really need to know is that in season two, the ladies we once referred to as the Clone Club discovered that their existence stems from a mysterious operation known as Project Leda, which is part of a much larger conspiracy still revealing itself. Season three adds a new wrinkle to the tale in the form of male clone counterparts, collectively known as Project Castor, all played by Ari Millen.  The Castor clones are violent and methodical, driven to hunt Sarah and her sisters, and they’re all part of the same crazy, lab-created extended brood.  Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that in Greek legend, Leda had two children by Zeus, one being Helen of Troy, and two by her human husband — one of them named Castor. In a series fond of mixing science fiction with intricately serialized mythology, this nugget could mean absolutely nothing, or everything. In any case, “Orphan Black” loves to redefine our idea of what a dysfunctional TV family can be, doesn’t it?

What’s abundantly clear is that the amped up action from season two is set to become even more heightened in these new episodes. In short order the various Castor clones demonstrate how driven and remorseless they are and, regrettably, how much catching up Millen has to do with Maslany in terms of showing off his dramatic flexibility. Aside from a few differences between the Castors — one has a pervy ‘stache! Another, red Xes over his eyes! — you never forget that it’s the same guy behind all of them. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it makes watching these new clones a little less of a treat.

“Orphan Black” is one of those shows that people loved discovering in season one before converting others into fans in the second season. Now that we’re in season three… well, to be honest, Maslany still isn’t one of the most widely recognized stars in television. But enough people know enough about the tremendous work that she’s doing on this show to get incensed on her behalf when she gets snubbed on Emmy nominations morning.

Those who still haven’t been initiated into “Orphan’s” growing following will have ample opportunity to catch up this weekend. On Friday, Amazon is making the entire first season available to stream for free in the U.S. starting at midnight PT and ending at 11:59PT, on Amazon Instant Video apps for TVs, on the web, and via mobile and connected devices.

Additionally, IFC is marathoning the first two seasons of “Orphan Black” beginning at midnight on Friday, running episodes back-to-back for 21 hours.

Season three of “Orphan Black” premieres at 9pm Saturday, April 18 on BBC America. In keeping with the sister act theme, the premiere also airs at the same time on AMC, IFC, SundanceTV and WeTV.

 

Review: ABC’s “American Crime”

March 5th, 2015 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

Acclaimed film directors choosing to work in series television isn’t a new development. What’s new is that more of them are choosing to work in broadcast, a different and very demanding animal, as opposed to cable, where they can usually exert more control over their product. Cable channels can make series renewal decisions based on what’s good for their respective brand.

The broadcast TV machine, on the other hand, requires a show to pull in big audience numbers consistently, over the course of many weeks and months. To achieve that feat, a series has burn story at just the right pace and give us characters we want to welcome into our homes. Knowing how to roll out a story in two hours is a very different challenge than doing it over many weeks, and possibly over multiple seasons.

This is not to imply that film directors can’t hack it in broadcast television; Oscar nominated-director Lee Daniels scored a monstrous hit for Fox with “Empire,” which he co-created with Emmy-winning screenwriter Danny Strong. But “Empire” is a sizzling new take on a tried-and-true TV genre, the primetime soap. “American Crime,” on the other hand, is a hourlong drama created and executive produced by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley with aspirations of being a Very Important Film, spun out over 11 hours of television.

An examination of race and class dynamics passed through the prism of a murder case, “American Crime” is likely draw more than a few comparisons to series such as “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire,” series that treat each episode like chapters of a novel, presenting characters with literary levels of depth.

But the stories and the people populating “American Crime” are dirty, raw and real, and the way the titular crime plays out makes the easily tied up cases of “Law & Order” look like a child’s fantasies. Nobody in this show comes out completely clean or unsympathetic– not the outwardly respectable family of the murder victim, or the haggard cops; not the hardworking Hispanic father whose son gets sucked into the vortex of the legal system; not the gangbangers, the meth heads or any of the criminals taking the blame for the crime.

Similarly, nothing about the crime in question is black and white, beyond that it happened, and that certain aspects of the case end up connecting very different people. Our gateway into this story is Russ Skokie (Timothy Hutton), who is summoned to Modesto, California to identify the remains of his son, Matt. The cops inform Russ that Matt was murdered in a home invasion and that his daughter-in-law, Gwen, sustained a brutal assault and is in a coma.

From there, Russ reaches out to his embittered ex-wife Barb (Felicity Huffman) and Gwen’s parents Tom (W. Earl Brown) and Eve (Penelope Ann Miller). As more details about the case emerge, the couples quickly become adversarial as they battle over details about their kids, and their relationships with each other, that have nothing to do with the crime.

The most interesting character in this faction is Huffman’s Barb, who is deeply damaged by her failed marriage to Russ. Barb wants to take out her grief-fueled anger on Russ and the suspects, and very soon her racial prejudices boil to the surface. But the police aren’t sure who is to blame: A menacing Latino gangbanger (Richard Cabral) looks good for the crime, but he quickly implicates an unstable meth head (Elvis Nolasco), an African American man in a co-dependent relationship with a white girl who’s also an addict. The police scoop up everybody, and for a while, it looks like nothing will get in the way of cleanly prosecuting the case. Until something does.

Drawn into this morass is the family of Alonzo Gutiérrez (Benito Martinez), a Mexican-American business owner trying to raise his kids by himself, who proudly distinguishes his hard-working family from illegals. He soon sees that society at large doesn’t honor that distinction when his son Tony’s (Johnny Ortiz) small act of rebellion ends up implicating him in the murder.

There’s a lot of story to service in “American Crime,” and with it, a ponderous amount of social commentary to parse. To his credit, Ridley interweaves and develops each storyline with a thoughtfulness and intricacy rarely seen in primetime.

“American Crime” also illustrates the flaws in the system that favor citizens of higher economic status and penalize the working class. The Gutiérrez storyline, in particular, exposes how efforts to cooperate with police and do what one thinks is the right thing can end up incriminating the innocent nevertheless. More heartbreaking is the fallout of Alonzo’s actions, which lead to rifts within his family.

This is a series that allows its actors to flex every bit of their range to illuminate the case’s complexities. But the cinematic artistry at work here, particularly visible in the framing of each camera shot, makes “American Crime” something truly extraordinary in broadcast. One of the best elements of each episode is the camera’s insistence on maintaining tight, off-center shots on one actor during intense dialogues, as if to peek over the other actor’s shoulder; it makes the view a participant in the tension and tragedy within those moments.

The big question is whether “American Crime” is too methodical and too serious for Ridley to achieve the level of mass appeal that Daniels and “Empire” have. This is a very real concern; vital as it is for Americans to have conversations about racial inequity and class favoritism, especially given recent events in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere, it may be too much to expect the average viewer to dive in to this excellently rendered but extremely depressing story week after week.

Viewers who appreciate serialized storytelling that inspires conversation, and expands our perception of what broadcast television can be, will have a wonderful new fascination with “American Crime”. The rest of you can continue being seduced by the struggles and schemes of another fascinating TV character who’s done hard time. I’m referring, of course, to “Empire’s” Cookie.

 
American Crime” premieres at 10pm Thursday, March 5 on ABC.

Review: CBS’s “Battle Creek”

February 27th, 2015 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

CBS’s primetime lineup is a comfortable den filled with reliable procedurals. These crime shows can be thrilling, to be sure. But viewers watch the twisted perps on “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS, “CSI” and all of their related spinoffs do horrible things, with the knowledge that determined law enforcement specialists probably will bring them to justice by the end of the hour, usually with the help of NASA-grade technology.

Contrast these whizbang adventures with the caseload of “Battle Creek‘s” overworked cops, who work in a department so poorly funded that in one drug bust, a detective sends his informant to face a dangerous criminal with a baby monitor because the department’s other surveillance equipment doesn’t work. They do get their man, but not before their star detective gets a nasty shiner for his efforts. (Their Tasers don’t work either.)

Welcome to Battle Creek, Michigan, the world’s breakfast cereal capitol and the quirky setting for a breezy new cop drama from executive producers David Shore, the creator of “House,” and Vince Gilligan, who gave us “Breaking Bad.” “Battle Creek” injects humor and heart into each episode, highlighting the comedic chemistry of its ensemble cast. Sunday’s premiere is directed by Bryan Singer, who worked with Shore on “House” and directed that show’s pilot.

 
The star of Battle Creek’s brokedown cop shop is scruffy, grumpy Detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters), a guy who’s fond of spit-shining his commendations but more than a little tired of being forced to make do with substandard equipment. When handsome, charismatic FBI Special Agent Milton Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel) opens a satellite branch across the hall from Battle Creek P.D.’s offices, the rest of the department is in awe of having a federal agent so nearby, and with such shiny new stuff to boot.

Milt, of course, is happy to help the town’s cops. But Russ almost immediately resents him. Naturally Russ’s boss, Commander Guziewicz (Janet McTeer), teams him with Milt at the agent’s request, creating an odd couple dynamic that outshines that which Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon are peddling on the same network, albeit on a different night.

Television viewers love to love difficult men, a truth Shore and Gilligan have taken to the bank with their previous shows. Milt and Russ are a lot easier to love than Gregory House and Walter White, of course; Russ is cranky and a little too married to the “old school” way of doing things for his own good, but he wears his working class roots and emotional vulnerability like armor. Winters, whose unshaven, roguish demeanor was marketed to the hilt in numerous insurance commercials (Mayhem!) pairs handsomely with Duhamel’s Dudley Do-Right — although the allure of Russ and Milt’s unconventional buddy cop act is that Boy Scout Milt might not be as trustworthy as he strives to appear.

Nevertheless, Russ and Milt are outstanding together, and they’re even more fun to watch as their relationship develops — especially in later episodes when Duhamel and Winters work with oddballs played great guest stars, including Patton Oswalt and Candice Bergen.

Where other crime shows focus more on the cases than the people solving it, “Battle Creek” appeal is in its wholesale commitment to the absurdity of their heroes’ situation. Winters and Duhamel forge a solid center here, but the entire cast, which includes Kal Penn, Grapevine, Liza Lapira, Aubrey Dollar and Damon Herriman (who, fresh of his bumpkin act on “Justified,” plays named Niblet) work overtime to make “Battle Creek” a place worth visiting every Sunday.

Battle Creek” premieres at 10pm Sunday, March 1 on CBS.

Mora Stephens (centered) with the cast of ‘Zipper’.

 

Zipper, the second feature by writer/director Mora Stephens, is a dark political thriller about an attorney whose political ambitions are put at risk due to his “zipper problem” (aka a taste for high-end escorts).   When we first meet Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson), he’s a family man with good intentions, who is able to resist the temptations of the firm’s intern (Dianna Agron). But as his campaign manager (Richard Dreyfuss) and loving wife (Lena Heady) encourage him to run for district attorney, he finds himself in a downward spiral that may threaten everything he’s worked for.  By telling the story through Sam’s eyes, Stephens makes no apologies for this charcter’s behavior but tries to give a bit of understanding as to how one might fall down this rabbit hole. At the festival, we sat down with director Mora Stephens, and stars Patrick Wilson, Dianna Agron, and Richard Dreyfuss to chat about the film.

This is your second film set in the world of politics. What is it about this world that made you want to go back to it?

Mora Stephens: I was a Woodrow Wilson major at Princeton I’ve always been interested in politics and art and telling stories that are political. Not spoon-feeding answers, but provoking a dialogue about something. It’s a recurring theme for me.

Political scandals have been hot topic in the past few years. Typically when this portrayed on screen, we see the politician as the villain. What made you decide to tell the story from his perspective?

Stephens: That was the reason I wanted to make the film, so before you could judge or form an opinion, you experience the movie as Patrick’s character. You see the whole movie from inside his skin as he goes down the rabbit hole.

Wilson: I think it’s very easy to vilify someone whose moral compass is different than most of us. I also think it’s a comment on our society— which is typically a very patrician society—that somehow sex and scandals and things like that are much more taboo than violence. So I think what the movie does, when you see it start out, it’s in steps. You don’t see this drinking, boozing, miserable at home guy where you would think, “well of course, he’s going to be addicted.”

It gives a different perspective, I think, if we do our job right, which I think Mora has done, you get in from a very small level. In fact this, not infatuation, but the interest that I have in Diana’s character, obviously I am happily married and wouldn’t cross that line. And yet certain circumstances present themselves (or I open myself to them depending on how you want to look at it) and that’s when it starts this downward spiral. And so I feel like you can get on board from a core of who the guy is. It’s not that you’re apologizing for it. There’s just no judgment so you can walk away with your own opinion. Because everyone always wants to know why. Why did Edwards do that? Why did Spitzer do that? And so we are asking that question as well, but there’s just no “this is why this always happens.” It’s just not that easy.

Dianna and Richard, what attracted you to this project?

Agron: The cast. Mora. I loved the script. [to Mora] I felt like I knew where you wanted to land. I love working with female directors. You were so articulate with what you wanted and it was such an easy thing to sign onto.

Dreyfuss: I felt that it was about as grown up a script as I’ve ever read. About a situation that could easily be handled in a childish or silly way, and it wasn’t. And because of that it was very truthful. And that’s exactly how it seemed to be on the set. I happened to see it yesterday and that’s the way the film is. It doesn’t ask for any apologies and it doesn’t seek out any excuses although you do know that there’s a downward spiral involved here. I recommend everyone listening to the score. Not only is Patrick great, and the girls are great, but the score is great.

Mora, for your first film, Conventioneers, your film was very low-budget and you even won Film Independent’s John Cassavetes Award (given to best film with a budget under $500,000). How was this production different working with a larger budget?

Stephens: The only real difference is when you walk to set and you see all the trucks and you think, “what’s the movie they are doing here?” Then you actually get on set, it’s still about telling a story. It’s very intimate with the actors and I try to make my sets feel as much like a family as possible, really safe and intimate. So once I got through all the trucks then it’s the same kind of thing.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

Stephens: I hope that they all have different things to take away from it and there’s a lot of little seeds for discussion. That they leave the movie wanting to talk to someone else about it,and the other person has a very different point of view of why he’s doing it or how they feel about him. I hope it provokes conversation.

Dreyfuss: I feel that it’s going to make a lot of people very uncomfortable and not admit it. I think there are going to be men and women who go [puts his head down], “how does she know that?”

Review: AMC’s “Better Call Saul”

January 30th, 2015 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

 

Central to “Breaking Bad’s” appeal was the idea that any person, even a mild-mannered teacher who had been kicked around all his life, can twist into a villain. Walter White, the man who became the Southwest’s meth king, started out as a decent husband and father. He was slow to anger, hardworking, undervalued and underpaid.

But let’s not forget that the person who watered the seed from which Walt’s vast meth enterprise sprung was a shady lawyer named Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Remember? Saul approached Walt in his classroom not long after one of Walt’s dealers was pinched, and advised the teacher not to quit manufacturing crank, but to go bigger.

“I’m no Vito Corleone,” Walt insisted.

“No sh-t — right now, you’re Fredo!” Saul replied. “But you know, with some sound advice, and the proper introductions, who knows?”

No kidding. Not even Saul could have guessed how far down Walter White would go.

That exchange, and so many that followed, make it tough to imagine Saul Goodman as anything more than a devil on a troubled man’s shoulder. But that’s the proposition that AMC’s prequel “Better Call Saul” sets before us. Its 10-episode first season, which premieres 10pm Sunday, February 8 before settling into its 10pm Monday night timeslot on February 9, introduces us to Saul’s previous incarnation as a struggling court-appointed attorney named Jimmy McGill, a good(ish) man who endured a few slips and falls in life but is just trying to get up and stay up.

Jimmy’s the sort of lawyer that gives public defenders a terrible rep: a sad sack in cheap suits who drives a rust bucket and runs his practice (if you can call it that) out of a dank space behind a nail salon. He’s terrific at putting on a show in court, even for lost causes, but can’t manage to get out of a municipal parking lot without problems.

There’s a touch of nobility to Jimmy McGill nevertheless. A major subplot involves Jimmy railing against the influence of a high-powered law firm, a place built in part by someone close to Jimmy, of whom the firm is trying to taking advantage. Jimmy is desperate for the firm to do the right thing. So, he’s not completely lost as the series begins. But he soon heads in the wrong direction.

“Better Call Saul” was initially pitched as a comedy, but the final product is more dramatic than light. Some scenes in the opening episodes are outright horrifying but, as is Vince Gilligan’s way, you’ll have plenty of time to see them coming, making them that much more powerful.

In the same way that these tones carried over from “Breaking Bad,” the humor inherent to Odenkirk’s characterization of Jimmy remains immensely satisfying. Much of the comedy in “Saul” stems from the absurdity of Jimmy’s dealings with the legal system itself, a system has left him with few other options than to do the wrong thing to pay the bills. But the series also shows the myriad ways in which the same system that allows wiggle room for wrongdoers to go free if they have legal counsel from, as Jesse Pinkman once put it, “not just a criminal lawyer but a criminal lawyer.”

“Saul’s” not a pure prequel, either. The premiere opens after the events of “Breaking Bad,” with a short prologue stuffed with enough ominous tension to set the show’s intent to jump around in time. “Breaking Bad” used the same device to hint at the terrible places where Walt was headed; here, it grants us a glimpse at the end of the descent before we join Jimmy for his legal career’s perilous climb.

Odenkirk’s performance plays with a lot of variables, and he provides enough shades of Saul to make taking the trip into the darker territory of Jimmy’s grey ethics worthwhile. But “Saul’s” greater accomplishment is that it gives “Breaking Bad” fans a new set of chapters to savor while being accessible to viewers who have never seen the landmark series. Naturally you’ll get a lot more out of “Saul” if you have seen “Breaking Bad” because of the familiar faces popping up — including Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who shows up in the very different role as a parking lot attendant.

Our look at Mike’s past self gives “Saul” a bit of a bizarro-world feel at first, since it’s tough to imagine the leathery fixer as anything else. But we can trust that Gilligan and his fellow showrunner Peter Gould know precisely how they’re going to shape Mike the lot attendant into the character “Breaking Bad” fans knew and loved. The pair has a firm hold on the story’s development which, based on the three episodes made available for review, becomes clear as the season rolls on. And remember, “Breaking Bad” improved by leaps and bounds after its shaky first seven episodes. It’s reasonable to grant “Saul” the same patience to find its footing as well.

AMC wisely scheduled the first two episodes of “Better Call Saul” to air closely to one another, debuting the series on a Sunday before moving it to its regular Monday night timeslot. By the end of that second episode, you’ll probably be glad that AMC has already picked up “Better Call Saul” for season two.

Better Call Saul” premieres 10pm Sunday, February 8. Regular timeslot is 10pm Mondays starting February 9, on AMC.

It’s a pretty good time to be Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, co-creators of HBO’s unconventional family comedy “Togetherness”. Having made their bones in independent film, the Duplass brothers are now in demand on TV both in front of the camera and behind it. This year, Mark will wind up his stint on FX’s “The League”, and Jay will return into season two of Amazon Studios’ acclaimed comedy “Transparent.” The pair also play the memorable. insufferable male midwives Brendan and Duncan Deslaurier on Fox’s “The Mindy Project.”

“We never planned any of this,” Jay admitted. “We honestly just thought that we would just make stuff on the side, that we would just probably be editors or something. That’s what we did in our early 20s.”

“Or teachers, even,” Mark added.

“We just feel crazy lucky!” said Jay.

Their latest project, “Togetherness,” premieres 9:30 Sunday, January 11. Jay executive produces while Mark, also an EP, stars as Brett Pierson, a sound editor living in a lovely Los Angeles house with two kids and a solid, if sex starved, relationship with his wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey). When his best friend Alex (Steve Zissis, who co-created the show with the brothers) decides to give up on his stalled acting career and head back to Detroit, Steve coaxes Alex to move in with his family instead. At the same time, Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) decides to stay on indefinitely.

Sounds like, say, “Full House”. But it does not play out that way, not by a longshot. “Togetherness” is one of the most thought-provoking new shows on television and a stand-out among new comedies, with characters who are as hilarious as they are flawed and heartbreaking. It may also be one of the most relatable portrayals of human connection, and disconnection, that TV has shown in a long time.

We sat down with Jay and Mark Duplass at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, currently underway in Pasadena, California, to talk about what inspired the stories viewers will see playing out over the show’s eight-episode first season.

IMDbTV: This is one of those shows that if you walked it into a broadcast network pitch meeting, they’d say, “Oh! This is like ‘Modern Family’!”

Mark: All of the elements on paper technically could make for the sh-ttiest network sitcom ever. But Jay and I talk a lot about how we make things. We actually try not to reinvent plot and story. We tend to think, ‘Use those to your advantage.’ What we like to do is pick out the chess pieces inside of the plot and replace them with different kinds of elements and let them interact in a way that’s more unique. So you’re still sending the viewers on the rollercoaster that they’ve gone up before, but hopefully the way we deliver it is unique.

IMDbTV: The last time that HBO did a show that had the same kind of typical network comedy conceit was…do you guys remember “Lucky Louie”? In retrospect, it was very much underappreciated for what it was. When you two were conceiving the show, was there any trepidation about using these frameworks that have been used previously, as Louie did?

Jay: Not really. We are so insanely picky about what excites us and what we want to be doing. We only realized later that we conceived something that could be pitched to a network, when we start talking about it objectively. The way that we talk about things is way non-conceptual.

Mark: It’s a little more myopic.

Jay: I’ll come to Mark, and I’ll say things like, “Steve (Zissis)’s” life should be a TV show.” Think about Steve, he was the guy from our high school who was the president of our high school. He got all the girls. He was the lead in all the plays, just like he says in the show. And now, he’s chubby and bald, and he’s dying in Hollywood. He’s afraid that he’s going to die with his magic inside of him, and no one’s going to get to hear or see what he’s capable of.

…Our style is documentary and verite. The stuff that we write about tends to come from our lives. At the time, we were in our late 30s, and we had young kids, and we were getting our asses kicked by these kids. But everyone was looking and us like, “You have everything. You have a house, and you have wonderful wives and family, and you have an incredible career.” But at the time…we were trying to find some kind of balance where we could be great dads and good husbands, and also keep our careers going, and we felt like we were drowning the whole time.

The more we talked about it, the more we started laughing about it. And then other people, we’d start talking to other people and they’d start laughing at us and say, “Oh yes, same stuff happened to me.”

… It was the type of thing where we were just like, “Oh my god, this is a phenomenon that’s happening to us right now, and everyone we talk to about it can relate to it.” You know, normally we would do a movie but this thing just kept going on and on. There was so much material. We were like, “Maybe we should go back and talk to HBO again.”

IMDbTV: The extraordinary thing about “Togetherness” is that there are so many comedies on right that are either about people just starting out in adulthood, or about the family. There’s not really any other situation comedy on that speaks to the mud that gets into relationships, the muck of knowing other people and having them be integrated into one’s life.

Mark: Yeah. There’s definitely something to be said for the fact that your average show either shows the beginning of the road trip, where everyone’s packing, or the last five miles of the road trip. But you don’t often get to see mile 250 of the 500 mile trip, which is kind of what our show is to a certain degree… It’s hard to describe this, but when you’re taking this sort of approach we’re discussing, which is a like, a naturalistic, honest and ideally realistic approach in portraying relationships, that storytelling is normally 100 percent dramatic and almost didactic at times. …It really felt like, there’s really not much out there that is a “hard-hitting,” naturalistic, realistic portrayal of this time in life, that also has a sense of humor about it too. That’s kind of how we see the world, so it isn’t like we had to fabricate that. It’s, luckily, what we kind of like doing.

IMDbTV: Shows that start out like “Togetherness” does – as in, there are lots of laughs, and you’re really getting to know these characters and falling in love with them through humor, and then it becomes serious without growing heavy – it seems to be very difficult to pull that kind of thing off on TV. When some shows do that, the audience almost feels betrayed.

Jay: “Hey! I’m coming to have fun on a Friday night, dude. Don’t f—k with me!” Yeah, that’s our obsession in general. We want to laugh, but we also want to go deep. That’s where tons of our energy goes. We don’t have to talk it that much, but when we start talking about tone and riding that right line, that’s when Mark and I really start to dial in exactly what we want. It’s interesting, because we don’t have to do it that much on set. On set, we’re just trying for truthful performances and we’re trying to create scenarios that are going to make people laugh after the fact. In editorial, that’s when we really start talking about, how do we dial in the right amount of pathos and the right amount of comedy here?

Because sometimes, you just want to stick the knife in and let it sit there for a little while.

Mark: Well, and sometimes the knife is funny, too. That’s when it’s the best, you know, when the moment encompasses both these things and you don’t have to think: “Time for a little comedy here!” “Time for a little drama!” Where there’s a moment where you’re like, “I know that this is sad and hard for them, but I don’t know why, I want to laugh. That’s my favorite stuff.”

IMDbTV: Yes, and I think the idea of comedy of coming from pain can be hard sell on network television.

Mark: It’s certainly celebrated in independent film, which is where we come from, so it’s not strange to us. But I don’t disagree with you – it’s not easy to find, particularly on network television. Look, TV is an enormous investment. They want to know what they’re getting. They want it more f—king dialed in, because they’re scared to lose money on it. That’s why it’s great to be at a place like HBO, where they believe in us, and support us, and let us cast our friend from high schooland make the show that we want to make — which is unheard of, really.

IMDbTV: And this year, you may find yourselves competing against each other when the Emmys roll around. Are you two ready for that?

Jay: We talked about it.

Mark: We each brought our own therapists into the room, and we decided to just let our therapists have a boxing match and figure out what would happen. (Laughs.) I honestly have not even thought about that. Honestly, my first instinct is that it would be horrible if Jay and I were nominated in the same category for different shows, so that can’t happen. But at the same time…

Jay: If we’re both nominated, it’s like, what are you talking about? It would be the coolest thing in the world! I mean, honestly, the fact that I’m going the Golden Globes is insane to me. I’m going to be sitting with Jeffrey Tambor this year.

Mark: And you’re going to watch him in a Golden Globe.

Jay: I hope so. It would be amazing.

IMDbTV: Last question: If anyone were to sit down with you and ask you to recommend a TV series – besides the obvious answer – what would you tell them?

Mark: Go buy – immediately – “The Staircase”. It’s a 2004 series from the Sundance Channel. For those of you who are fans of Serial, get ready to have your minds blown wide open.

Jay: I agree with that. That was huge.

IMDbTV Pick: Fox’s “Empire”

January 7th, 2015 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

Out of all the new series premiering in midseason, Fox’s “Empire” may be one of the best bets and the biggest gambles. Though set in the world of the hip-hop industry, and buoyed by an infectious soundtrack produced by Timbaland, the show is less about rap and R&B than it is about power and deep-seated family conflict, played out in a very glamorous, high-profile arena. These are familiar themes to anyone who has ever been hooked on a primetime soap like “Dallas.” If that’s your bag, you should definitely check out “Empire.”

But it’s been a very long time since Fox or any network backed a drama led by an African-American cast for an extended amount of time. As diverse as the 2014-2015 season may be — and most of the credit for that goes to ABC, let’s be honest — “Empire” feels like one of those terrific shows that premieres with a splash but face an uphill battle in the ratings after that. That said, I sincerely hope that this show wins over an audience that’s passionately fascinated with it.

“Empire” does have a lot working in its favor. The show’s pedigree is impressive, with auteur director Lee Daniels helming the series and Emmy-winning screenwriter Danny Strong co-executive producing beside him. (The pair previously worked together on Lee Daniels’s The Butler.) Hip-hop also is one of the most lucrative cultural products on the planet, permeating the further flung corners of the world in various forms, from Banksy’s murals to Jay-Z’s stadium shows. But it all comes back to the music, which is at its best when its poetry is raw, philosophical and speaks to every layer of society.

“Empire’s” pilot examines dichotomy between the deep soul and shallow excess existing within hip-hop through the prism of one man, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who rose from his start as a street hustler to become the CEO of Empire Records. At the height of his game, Lucious is diagnosed with a debilitating disease that will leave him a shell of his former self within three years. So he turns his focus on deciding on which of his sons will inherit the company, and this threatens to spark a war between the three of them.

Lucious has hunger and genius in him, and so do his sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray). But while Andre, the eldest, channels his business acumen into growing the family business, his youngest brother Hakeem is living the rich rapper stereotype – drinking, spending tons of money and sleeping around.

Even so, Lucious favors him over Jamal, the child who displays profound musical talent and production skills, even saving his wayward brother from recording a terrible track that could end his career before it starts. Jamal’s gifts are where the money can be made in the long run, but Lucious is too blinded by his shame over Jamal’s homosexuality to cultivate his career.

Another wrinkle arrives in the form of Lucious’s ex-wife and former drug dealing partner Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who took the fall for Lucious. She gets an early release from prison and returns to claim a financial stake in the label – one of many secrets is that it was built on a foundation of drug money — and to bring Jamal under her wing as his manager. But Cookie is as mercurial and cunning as Lucious, and shows signs of being less interested in protecting and nurturing her son than using him as a tool to destroy her ex and take over the company.

Henson and Howard are still great together onscreen. The pair previously won acclaim for their work in Hustle & Flow, and each brings a signature fire “Empire”. The scenes they have together are more of a tense, electrified tango than a dialogue exchange, capturing the spirit of a pair of exes who still respect one another but hide knives in their sleeves just in case.

“Empire” has a winning cadence, and like any good nighttime soap, it’s probably about as accurate a portrayal of the music industry as “Falcon Crest” was about the winemaking business, but that’s beside the point. What’s novel about this show is the way that it uses the family drama hook to examine some of the uglier aspects of one of pop culture’s most lucrative and celebrated platforms. Hip-hop culture has taken its knocks (rightly so) for its cavalier promotion of sexism, materialism and excess, but although discussions about the culture’s tacit acceptance of homophobia bubble to the surface now and then, this may be one of the most public arenas in which it plays out.

One devastating scene in the pilot shows Lucious’s rage-filled reaction to seeing Jamal, shown as a young boy, emerge from his parents’ bedroom to show off in front of houseguests while wearing his mother’s heels and a scarf on his head. Making it particularly shattering is the fact that it’s based on a real event from Daniels’ life when he did the same thing, leading to his father angrily tossing him into a garbage can.

That this is something that we’re seeing this is a primetime show, along with a number of other details that ring true, is a small revolution in itself. How intelligently and effectively these issues are explored in subsequent episodes will be the real test – and I hope Fox gives this show time to develop these stories as well as all the Lyons’ family drama.

Empirepremieres at 9pm Wednesday, January 7 on Fox.

Review: ABC’s “Agent Carter”

January 6th, 2015 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)


Anyone who delighted in seeing Jason Bourne do serious damage to a knife-wielding opponent while armed with nothing but a pen, knows how satisfying it is to watch an expert fighter work magic with mundane devices. One can savor a similar thrill tonight during the first of two episodes of “Agent Carters” eight-episode run on ABC, when the determined Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) efficiently beats a villain senseless with a stapler. I should mention that she does so while wearing a platinum blonde wig and full length evening gown. What’s that famous quote from the late, great Texas governor Ann Richards about women being just as capable as men? Ah yes: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards, and in high heels.”

After World War II and Captain America’s disappearance, Peggy Carter dances as nimbly as ever… though the world is no longer playing her tune. Sidelined within the boys club that is the Strategic Scientific Reserve, aka the SSR, Agent Carter is relegated to answering phones and fetching coffee. But watching our heroine grapple with sexism isn’t the main thrust of this show. Rather, we’re invited along for the ride as Peggy Carter demonstrates all of the ways that she refuses to let a dour manly man’s world keep her behind a desk, or from saving the day. Seeing Peggy get her fire back as she resumes her life as an operative, unbeknownst to her clueless co-workers, makes “Agent Carter” exciting television.

Remember how shakily “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” began? That show struggled to find its identity at first, striving to balance its role as a bridge between the Avengers theatrical releases and working as a freestanding vehicle. It only began to find its footing until late into season one. “Agent Carter’s” vision is much clearer out of the gate, and her story stands on its own brilliantly. Although snippets from Captain America: The First Avenger appear in tonight’s opener, the Chris Evans cameos woven into these episodes serve as the nylon on the show’s legs. No, this is Atwell’s vehicle to drive; the confident, sly smile on her face after Peggy pulls off a particularly jolting escapade is enough to make a person commit to seeing this limited series through to the end.

Her undercover work is at odds with her day job however; this time, she’s battling to clear the name of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, also reprising his role from Captain America). In 1946, Captain America has been transformed from a flesh and blood hero into a cartoon character at the center of his own radio serial. In the same way that his exploits have blurred into legend during the deep exhale of peacetime, Agent Carter’s colleagues think of the woman who guided Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos as nothing more than the Captain’s girlfriend. Chad Michael Murray, Kyle Bornheimer and Shea Whigham play Carter’s less enlightened peers, although one of her fellow agents, Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) treats her with a level of respect and chivalry reminiscent of the Captain. That could have something to do with the fact that Sousa’s co-workers have all but kicked him aside too, thanks to a crippling injury sustained in the war.

The only person who truly prizes Carter’s know-how is Stark, and he enlists her assistance after a few of his deadliest inventions are stolen and begin popping up on the black market, making him as public enemy number one. While he’s on the run from the authorities, Stark lends Carter the services of his manservant Edwin Jarvis (a well-cast James D’Arcy) who, like Miss Carter, maintains a sense of propriety even in the most life threatening situations. D’Arcy and Atwell play off of one another quite well, particularly as it becomes clearer that Stark’s woes are only part of a deadlier master plan woven by forces that may be beyond their ken.

Perhaps not: One clear mission that “Agent Carter” embarks upon is in showing the heroism in normal people with nothing superhuman about them. Peggy Carter wears a mask and costume every day in the office, and in one gorgeously staged scene, she’s neatly dressed up in her lost hero’s red, white and blue while the world around her hums along in pale jackets and beige uniforms. Her pulse-racing adventures in espionage happen when she’s off the clock and in the dark, making her the secret weapon nobody expects. She works the fact that her colleagues underestimate her at every turn to her advantage.

This also is the case, one suspects, when it comes to wider expectations for this show. ABC hasn’t scored a decisive win out of midseason for some time, and spinoff can be tough to sell to winter-weary audiences. But if the remaining episodes of “Agent Carter” are as tightly executed as the first two, one hopes Marvel fills Peggy Carter’s dance card with more adventures in the future.

Agent Carter” premieres with back-to-back episodes on Tuesday, January 5 at 8pm on ABC.


 

There’s a curious frustration I reserve for a show like ABC’s “Galavant,” a musical comedy that gets pretty much everything in the prescribed formula right, yet still comes up agonizingly short of being recommendable. Granted, two words in the previous sentence disqualify this fairy tale…spoof? Parody?…outright, and that is the phrase “musical comedy.” Said term makes some viewers itch at the very reading of it, and if you’re one of these people, nothing that anyone says will convince you to watch this show.

But those viewers are less of a concern to ABC than whether “Galavant” will connect with everyone else — particularly those of us who, for reasons we can barely remember now, used to be head over heels in love with the only other musical series in recent memory to find success in primetime, “Glee.” If this odd comedy fails, it won’t be for lack of trying. That, at least, deserves appreciation.

If nothing else, you should watch Sunday’s premiere if only to appreciate the fact that something as out there as this show made it into the primetime line-up at all. One could guess that somebody sprinkled too much of Tinkerbell’s pixie dust into the water at ABC’s offices during last year’s pilot season, but we’re talking about a network that’s desperate to find any new comedies that work. Why not “Galavant”? Why not, indeed? We’ll get to that soon enough.

First, let’s explain “Galavant”: The title character is a brave hero (played by Joshua Sasse) whose exploits are celebrated in song and lyrics throughout the land. “Square jaw and perfect hair/cojones out to there!…Yay! He rules in every way! A fairy tale cliché!” Galavant’s greatest challenge arises when his lady love, Madalena (Mallory Jansen) is kidnapped by the evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson) who intends to force her to be his queen. Therefore Galavant rides to the rescue of Madalena, only to discover that she doesn’t really want to be rescued.

As demonstrated by the kidnapping business, King Richard is kind of a rhymes-with-Rick whose most recent exploits include conquering the nearby kingdom of Valencia. That kingdom’s princess, Isabella (Karen David), seeks out Galavant to help her reclaim her land and free her people. Unfortunately by the time she’s found Galavant, he’s a sedentary drunk who can’t even be moved to rise from bed by his squire Sid (Luke Youngblood, recognizable to “Community‘s” fans as Magnitude). Eventually he manages to stand up again, and they take the fun on the road.

On paper “Galavant” reads like a show with promise; on the screen, it looks like the loony love child of “The Princess Bride” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each musical number also is filled with crisp humor that’s family friendly yet rich with double entendres, many not particularly subtle, brought to us by combined talents of executive producer Dan Fogelman (who wrote “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and co-wrote “Tangled“), lyricist Glenn Slater (also of “Tangled”), and celebrated Broadway musical composer Alan Menken. Most of the cast is a hoot, as are the guest stars; it’s a treat to see Vinnie Jones hamming it up as King Richard’s muscle Gareth, and Ricky Gervais shows up to play a magician in a future episode. This Sunday, John Stamos makes an appearance as Galavant’s nemesis, an equally handsome and skilled knight named…Jean Hamm. Get it?

All of this sounds like a bounty of fun, right? As successful as most of the punchlines are, though, they land with the subtlety of an artillery assault — and behind all of these zingers, you’ll find very little heart or real warmth. Even the most sugary meringue of a successful Broadway musical is tethered to Earth by genuine emotion; it’s the ingredient that gives rise to all of those catchy melodies that sell soundtracks. “Galavant,” though, is so set on winning over the skeptical primetime audience with its wild uniqueness that it forgot to fill its colorful settings and armor with a dose of humanity and soul. The jokes grow old very quickly.

At the moment the series is only eight episodes long. That may be tidy enough for a number of viewers to stick around and see if “Galavant” eventually arrives at some version of happily ever after. But don’t be surprised if you get to the end of the first episode, or maybe the second, and find yourself willing to close the book on this brave little comedy with a succinct and simple, “Good luck with all that.”

Galavantpremieres 8pm Sunday, January 4 on ABC.

 

IMDbTV Pick: Syfy’s “Ascension”

December 15th, 2014 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

In an industry where an 80 percent failure rate is pretty much the norm, every TV project is an experiment.

But a miniseries like Syfy’s “Ascension” is a grand experiment on several levels, from subject to the viewer’s interpretation. Especially this viewer’s interpretation — the first hour made me ask myself, many times, exactly what it was that I was watching. Was it supposed to look like the love child of “Mad Men” and “The Love Boat“? Did half the cast attend a workshop at the William Shatner School for Drama? Is this thing for real?

Yet I didn’t give up on the hour that Syfy made available to me, either. I saw it through to the finish and was glad for the payoff. The end of that first episode changed a number of my initial impressions.

“Ascension” is a space adventure with a retro twist. As the story goes, President John F. Kennedy commissioned a classified military study called Project Orion, which examined the possibility of creating a gigantic vessel capable of launching into deep space and propelled by the force of detonated atomic bombs. It sounds interesting, if more than a little nutty, and apparently was never declassified.

In “Ascension’s” alternate reality the launch actually did take place, in secret, sending 350 souls on a deep space odyssey that began in 1963. The miniseries drops us into the journey more than half a century after launch, at the point of no return. The ship is populated by the children of the initial voyagers, and William Denninger (Brian Van Holt) is its Captain, with his wife Viondra Denninger (Tricia Helfer) serving as the equivalent of the ship’s first lady. Not an inaccurate description, considering the political nature of the ship’s social structure: Everyone is born into their roles. Pregnancies must be approved, marriages arranged. This also means discontent boils beneath the surface; being a faithful spouse, for example, is less important than maintaining order and political supremacy. And the guys who do the dirty work understandably are not thrilled with their lot in life.

Ascension’s closed society works for 51 years until it has to deal with its first murder, spurring an investigation by First Officer Aaron Gault (Brandon P Bell), who has no idea of how to take on a homicide case. This is where “Ascension” gets interesting from both a performance and a storytelling perspective. You see, the ’60s-era launch means the architecture, interiors and fashion on the ship are stylistically frozen in the mid-20th century. So, too, are Ascension’s inhabitants, to a certain degree; its society is multicultural, which is a science fiction ideal and a welcome aspect of this presentation, but perhaps not in keeping with the actual sentiment of the time period. This does not strain credulity any more than the idea that a gigantic ship propelled by nuclear explosion could launch secretly anywhere on Earth does.

But it bears pointing out because it’s obvious that other values and mannerisms on display in Ascension’s society evolved within a space that never witnessed the signing of the Civil Rights Act or the Feminist movement, never experienced the end of the war in Vietnam or saw the Berlin Wall come down — and did not live through the cultural shifts that happened because of these historic developments.

And here’s the interesting idea within “Ascension,” one that might develop further over nights two and three, or might not. What happens when a segment of the human population is encapsulated at a specific point in time and completely removed from a larger world? Is that a benefit, or to its detriment? At the very least, the visuals fascinate. As I stated above, some of the performances in the miniseries suffer from a pulpy flatness, which makes more sense when Gault turns to an old timey noir detective film to get tips on how to investigate a homicide. If they’re getting life instructions from old movies, it’s no wonder that the acting of everyone we see on Earth — yes, there’s an Earth-based contingent — comes across as more believable and lifelike than that of the wooden deep space folk.

Maybe this is one science-fiction fan trying to find excuses for flaws in a show that she really wants to love, and those flaws hold no deeper meaning. It could very well be that “Ascension” represents another of Syfy’s swings for the fences that ends up being a whiff. Or this three-night miniseries could ultimately be considered successful enough to launch into a fully-realized weekly drama. Like I said, it’s a tricky experiment.

Whether I’m on to something or just fooling myself, it’ll be interesting to find out where this mission goes, and whether it sticks the landing.

Ascensionpremieres 9pm Monday, December 15, continuing at 9pm Tuesday, December 16 and 9pm Wednesday, December 17 on Syfy.