Pilots: Rise and For the People

Two weeks ago saw the premiere of two new shows on NBC and ABC, and although Rise, a drama about the staging of Spring Awakening in a small town high school, and For the People, a legal drama in the Shonda Rhimes tradition, are quite different shows, they shared some similar flaws in their pilot episodes. And this post will be just about the pilot episodes because I haven’t gotten around to watching the second episodes yet.

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Really, not gonna use borders or anything? Just plop some images down on top of each other?

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the first episode of Rise. It should be a simple premise–the new head of the school’s theater department (played by Josh Radnor) tries to put on Spring Awakening and meets resistance due to its controversial subjects–and yet it seems like the pilot struggles to effectively convey it. Part of that is due to the strange mixing of the show’s different elements: the assembling of the cast, the connection the teens have with the musical, and the characters’ home lives are all jumbled together with no driving plot, and it leads to all these elements feeling underbaked. I think the show would have been better off taking things more slow, spending less time developing the personal stories of its characters and making the casting of the musical happen all at once so that some characters aren’t already rehearsing before others are even involved.

The biggest illustration of this problem comes at the end of the episode, when the school’s principal tries to shut down the production and the students reject his decision by burning the props and costumes for the show they’re told to do instead. However, only one of the characters outside of Josh Radnor’s has even been shown to care about Spring Awakening, specifically, and so this moment comes across as totally unearned. And given that it’s the climax of the episode, that’s a pretty big issue.

So, yeah, I dunno. There’s some potential to Rise, and I’ll maybe give it a few more episodes to even out its storytelling, but one of the most important things a show needs to do in its first episode is to give the audience a reason to care, and this pilot was so overstuffed with premises and story seeds that it was never able to make any one of them especially compelling.

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I like how the characters get progressively more bored as you move from front to back.

Speaking of “overstuffed,” that about sums up the pilot of For the People. The show follows six new public attorneys, three in defense and three in prosecution, in the “Mother Court” in New York. It’s a great premise that allows for the show to feature both defense and prosecution in lead roles while giving its characters a home base (and while allowing for genuine uncertainty about which side will win a given case), but even with conveniently pairing of its characters into three different cases the show’s pilot feels like it has no room to breathe. As a result, one of the six main characters gets only a few minutes of screentime across the whole episode, and even the more-or-less protagonist’s case is woefully underdeveloped.

Part of that undervelopment is just from what I think is a mismanagement of the material, though. The case in question is a young man being prosecuted for trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty, except it turns out the whole plan was the product of FBI agents coaxing the man into becoming a terrorist. This brings up really meaty questions about the morality of the government doing this and the culpability the man has given that he was radicalized against the United States by the United States, and what exactly is the legality of all that, but these quandaries are shoved entirely into the background so that the case can be a proving ground for the protagonist. This is fair enough in a vacuum–it’s more important in a pilot episode to establish the characters than to engage in an interesting but inconsequential story–but if the only point of this plotline was for the sake of the protagonist’s character, then it feels like a waste to have the case be so interesting in its own right.

Otherwise, though, I think For the People shows a lot of promise. The secondmost important plotline involved the protagonist’s best friend going against her boyfriend in a case, and the tension this caused between them was interesting and engaging and the case was at the right level of development so that it felt meaningful without overshadowing the foreground plot. And while the third case was weird, feeling like it got cut off at the end of the second act, it contained good establishing moments for its protagonists. The show also contained just enough scenes outside the main cases to feel like it had a little bit of room to breathe, including one nice moment where Leonard enters Kate’s* office after winning his case and asks her why she’s not celebrating like the rest of the office, and she says “I never celebrate people going to jail.” It sounds kind of silly described like that, but it worked really well in the episode and Kate is already a standout character.

*I absolutely had to look up these characters’ names because I don’t think they even get mentioned in the show.

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What I’m Watching: The Good Place Season 2

I wrote about The Good Place season one over the course of various posts, but the gist was pretty simple: I was totally enamored with the show. Its colorful, entertaining characters, utterly charming sense of humor, and wildly inventive premise with deep thematic material would have been enough to cement it as a high-ranking all-time favorite, but on top of that the show added a constantly-surprising serialized story that I think is one of the best stories I’ve seen in television, period. That the show accomplished that feat while being an otherwise well-crafted half-hour sitcom makes it all the more incredible.

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The Photoshop in this image is *hilariously* bad!

Enter season two, which had the heavy task of following up on such a phenomenal first season in addition to a twist that blew up the entire premise of the show. And while I think the season stumbled a bit in the middle, and had some issues inherent to the setup season one gave it, on a whole it lived up to the show’s potential.

The Good Place season two starts strong, carrying on from the cliffhanger reveal that the protagonists are actually in the bad place and being used to torture each other, followed by a reset of their memories. The exploration of how the quartet continually realize they’re in the bad place makes for an exciting first few episodes, and the easing back into a new status quo of the group teaming up with Michael to get to the good place works really well.

There is an issue already, though, which is the whole memory reset thing. While the Jason, Tahani, Chidi, and Eleanor of season two are still technically the same characters from season one, none of the things that happened in the first season inform who they are anymore, which gives a weird sense of pointlessness to all those events. Additionally, it makes for some weirdness where the show rushes through the character development that occurred in season one, so for most of season two Eleanor acts like she did at the end of season one even though she’s had a completely different set of experiences.

Also, I think the memory wiping thing kind of mucks with the whole concept of the bad place. If a person, for the sake of their eternal afterlife, isn’t considered to be the set of their linear experiences and memories, then what really is the purpose of torturing them anyway? They’re more like a plaything at that point, someone who can be continuously reset to being functionally a different person as any changes they’ve had have been erased.

However, I’m not entirely certain that the pointlessness and weirdness of how the bad place is run is an accident. The way The Good Place presents its vision of the afterlife, and the way its central premise is about four “bad” people trying to prove that they can become good and deserving of the good place, seems to imply that a critique of the entire system is in the works. Nothing in the show so far as overtly gone in that direction, but I really wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where things go.

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Anyway, with the plot stabilized a bit, the show entered a run of episodes that started out just as strong as the season’s beginning as they focused on the surprisingly meaty themes about ethics and morals the show tackles. Then, however there was a weird detour into Tahani and Jason getting together, resulting in Janet having issues because of her previous version’s love (or “love”) for Jason, resulting in her creating some sort of messed-up artificial consciousness in the form of Derek. Coming off of plotlines that dealt with the show’s overall story, this subplot felt really out of place and the stakes of it all felt totally pointless. I would have much rather seen a few more standalone episodes where the group pretend to be tortured by Vicky while teaching Michael various elements of ethics–which just goes to show that serialized plotting isn’t inherently better than episodic material.

Still, the whole Derek subplot doesn’t last very long and the show soon goes back to its story-driven approach after Shawn realizes that Michael is lying to him. This leads to possibly the best episodes in the season as the main characters have to accelerate their plan to get into the good place, leading them through a strangely 1940s-themed party in the bad place and finally to a cosmic judge played impeccably by Maya Rudolph.

Well, finally is the characters being put into what appears to be a simulation of the real world, testing their ability to become better people without knowing it’s the only thing preventing them from an eternity in the bad place. And while nothing the show could do could possibly top the incredible first season finale twist, this is nevertheless a really surprising direction for the show to take and it’s illustrative of how structurally daring The Good Place is.

I mean, like, I talked about it before, but it’s still kind of unbelievable how much The Good Place refused to rest on its already-strong, already-out-there premise. The show could have run for seasons without Eleanor ever revealing that she’s not supposed to be in the good place and instead it thew that away in just the seventh episode. Maybe even more unbelievable is that the show managed to avoid totally falling apart in its second season, with only a few missteps in a otherwise strong set of episodes. And given the strong setup for season three, it seems more likely than not that the show will really hold up as it takes us on this bizarre ride.

What I’m Watching: Grace and Frankie Season 4

So the thing is is that I really like Grace and Frankie.

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They should have an Emmys category for promo photo acting.

Like, the show could maybe do with a little bit more in the way of plot (but then I’m spoiled for plot in comedies with The Good Place being so strong on that front) and I think more actual jokes rather than just generally humorous situations could help it out. But ultimately those things don’t really matter because what makes Grace and Frankie work so well is its charming, entertaining tone and the fantastic performances from actors who all seem like they’re having a ball.

Season four opens a little shaky with a three-episode arc featuring Lisa Kudrow, who is great but also her character feels awkwardly inserted into the show and she just as awkwardly disappears as soon as she moves out of the house. And her actual plotline involving evidently-jerky stepchildren who kicked her out of her and her now-dead husband’s house has a weird, amateurishly-written tone to it and resolves itself basically as soon as it begins.

The season’s ending is also a little shaky, where a series of misfortunes that befall Grace and Frankie–which aren’t really that atypical in the context of the show and all have perfectly understandable stories behind them–culminate in the two trying to live in an assisted-living community before realizing their mistake after one episode. It’s weird, because rather than exploring the emotional issues Grace is experiencing or the general flightiness of Frankie, the show just goes “haha what if they got pressured into giving up their home?” without addressing just how absurd the idea is.

On the other hand, I really liked the way that Robert and Sol’s plotline was handled this season. It’s a believable, natural portrayal of a rocky period in a relationship that doesn’t indulge in needless contrivance or drama. I especially appreciated a small moment where Robert and Sol are in couples’ therapy and their therapist sort of pressures them into trying an open relationship. I couldn’t tell exactly how the show was framing this suggestion and was kind of uncomfortable because the therapist (played by Lorraine Toussaint, who is incredible and deserves way more than what TV has been giving her) presents it as if basically all gay men should have open relationships, and then in the next scene Sol and Robert are like “what the hell” because it’s not something they want to do. It was nice to see them react basically the same way I did since I didn’t think that’s where the show was going with it.

And before I end this post, I have to bring up how perfectly-hilarious June Diane Raphael is in this show. Brianna’s unabashed selfishness is so funny and seeing her trying to reconcile it with having a healthy relationship with Barry makes for some interesting material in this season.

Okay! That’s all I’ve got to say here.

What I’m Watching: Halt and Catch Fire Season 4

So where Halt and Catch Fire last left off was with a pretty underwhelming third season, making me curious to see if the fourth and intentionally last season would make improvements on it. And in some ways it did, and in some ways it didn’t.

(Also I actually watched this season back at the end of December but didn’t get around to writing it up till now, haha.)

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Everyone getting their power poses on!

This season continued the understated, less plot-driven style from season three. Really it went even further, because whereas season three had two long arcs across its ten episodes, season four kind of dives in and out of various plotlines that end and emerge throughout. But I think this change actually works out for the best, because it really emphasizes how the show has changed into this kind of weird, unfocused character study where the plot doesn’t truly matter even as far as the characters’ journeys go. Which is actually somewhat true to how the show has been from the start, it’s just taken to a bigger degree here.

And when that works, it really works. For instance, episode five sees various plot threads come together after Bosworth has a heart attack and tensions clash between the characters. Then the show throws a curveball in the seventh episode by having Gordon die and spends the entirety of episode eight just following the characters cleaning up his house over the course of a day. By that point the show had pretty much abandoned the idea of having a structured plot, and when the show is willing to deep dive with its characters like that it works well.

However, there is still plot in the season, and it ends up feeling totally inconsequential because the stakes just aren’t there. Which feels like a missed opportunity, because as of season two the show has this undercurrent theme about the way that computers and the internet can connect people, but rather than examine that theme through the story and relate it to the protagonists, it’s just sort of something that’s in the background, waiting to be utilized. And since the show doesn’t commit to being a full-on character drama as the characters’ personal lives don’t have enough story to them to be more than a collection of related scenes, neither side of the show’s focus feel properly developed.

Still, despite the season having persistent issues with giving a point to its content, there’s a ton of engrossing material to it, in a sort of a “the sum is less than the parts” situation. Individual scenes–like Joanie relating a spiritual experience to Donna over the phone, or Cameron and Donna fantasizing about a theoretical working relationship–are brilliantly executed and feel meaningful, even if within the context of the story they’re more or less pointless. The show also deserves props for including heavier focus on now-teenaged Joanie and Haley without them being at all uninteresting or annoying; Haley’s plotline as a techie budding lesbian was actually one of the best parts of the season.

So in conclusion . . . man. I really don’t know what to make of Halt and Catch Fire. It was wild and messy then it was actually good and then it was boring, but maybe still good and maybe, somehow, actually kind of deep? It’s a weird show, that’s for sure, but I don’t think I ever felt regret over watching it.

What I’m Watching: Alias Grace

Sarah Polley, who wrote the Canadian-Netflix coproduction adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, described it as a sort of counterpart to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation: where that show takes a look into a future where women’s rights have been stripped away, this one looks into the past where they didn’t exist in the first place. And while Alias Grace is structured within the framework of a true crime mystery, it’s this theme of the intersection of sexism and classism that really resides in its core.

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This poster defies witty commentary.

Though I’ve read it’s very faithful to the 1996 book it’s based on, Alias Grace in many ways feels like a take-down of the cheery way in which Downton Abbey portrayed the class differences between its characters. It always struck me as profoundly wrong in that show that Mary could be best friends with Anna, her maid, while also employing her at a level of wealth drastically beneath hers. In Alias Grace, this disparity is not glossed over, as central character Mary Whitney privately rails against the social and class system she lives in, idolizing rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie. And ultimately, Mary Whitney embodies a horrible reality of the time, all-but forced into getting an abortion after being impregnated by one of the men of the house and dying from it. As the same man, George, starts to go after Grace, she leaves the house to work for a new employer, leading to the murders which put her in prison.

So immediately it can be seen how so much of Grace’s life is shaped by the amount of wealth she’s born into: forced into working as a maid, where the power disparity forces her to leave for another house, where power struggles in turn result in murder. And in addition to being a factor of class, it’s also a factor of gender: Grace’s drunk, abusive father; the scummy George who leads to Mary’s death and chases Grace out of the house; Thomas Kinnear, who strings along Nancy in a way similar to how George did Mary; James McDermott, who probably initiated the murders; and Simon Jordan, who seeks to contextualize and understand Grace’s story but not necessarily on her terms. Even Jamie, who prior to the murders was the one man who seemed to like Grace in a non-exploitative way, grows fixated on how his testimony hurt her and asks her to repeat her trials in prison over and over, seemingly just for his benefit.

And so I think when, in the end, the exact story of what happened during the murders stays somewhat ambiguous–be it possession, multiple personality disorder, or something else entirely–it’s not only appropriate to the fact that Grace Marks was a real person and the exact story of what happened is unknown in the real world, but also to the fact that Alias Grace was never truly about the murders. The real injustice is not that Grace may have been falsely imprisoned, but that she existed in a world that trapped her simply for who she was born as, leading her to the situation of the murders in the first place. The jail cell she lives in for 30 years is only a literal manifestation of the prison that is society to working class women.

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The idea that the truth isn’t really the point is reflected in the way the show tells its story through flashbacks. Most of these are meant to be what Grace tells to Dr. Jordan, but some seem to be flashes into Grace’s head as memories come back to her, and some are based in others’ accounts of events or Grace bringing up a possibility as a rhetorical device. Additionally, Grace narrates the “present” scenes from the future in what’s revealed to be a letter to Dr. Jordan, meaning even that may just be a performance. This creates a compelling tension as the details, especially around the murders, are blurred, while the broad strokes all seem to be true. But, more importantly, it means the audience never gets to hear Grace’s story from herself, really–only as she narrates it to a male, upper-class listener. Her story is always obscured by what she thinks Dr. Jordan and society want to hear.

This is a theme that’s in turn strengthened by how the show touches on the fascination behind true crime stories and explores what it’s like for Grace as the center of other people’s interest. The way that Dr. Jordan becomes obsessed with Grace and finding the truth of what she did seems reflective of how society in general treats these sorts of cases, and in portraying him not as a noble hero but as a really rather messed up dude might criticize the way we view true crime stories. It also returns to the theme of not looking at the exact details of the salacious crimes that may or may not have been committed, and instead paying attention to the greater cultural context that led to such a story in the first place. Alias Grace is ultimately not about a mystery, or watching tragedy for its own sake, but about social injustice and the way in which it destroys lives.

Premiere Week Fall 2017

UHHH. I genuinely did write this the week everything premiered (the week of September 18th, I think? Ahhh), but I took a pause to write about The Good Place and Madam Secretary and then life got busy and stressful and this sat in my drafts. Anyway, I’ve left out those two shows and will write about them at a later date.

Star Trek: Discovery

I only caught the episode of this that premiered on actual TV (the rest of the series is a streaming exclusive on CBS All Access), but I thought it was pretty good! It’s certainly a very different kind of Star Trek series from what we’ve seen before, but then so was Deep Space Nine and that wasn’t a bad thing (or so I’ve heard; I never watched past the first episode).

What really worked about the episode for me was that although it was gussied up with fantastic production values and some fancy sequences, at its core it was a plot about an unexpected problem and the characters trying to find a way to solve it in a way that mostly came down to arguing their different sides. Maybe it wasn’t as cerebral or philosophical as previous series, and it certainly had a stronger theme of insubordination and character confliiiict, but I still appreciated watching an episode of television that was focused on characters debating an issue.

What I’m not sure I like as much is how focused in on one character the episode was. The idea of the show is that Michael Burnham is not the captain of a ship but is the straight up protagonist, and I think that’s fine–but since this episode doesn’t take place on the primary ship of the series, there really wasn’t any time spent developing the crew. The ship’s captain, Michael, and the next highest-ranking officer were really the only characters in the episode (excluding the Klingons) and that felt limiting.

Still, I’m intrigued to see where the rest of the series goes, and while I probably wouldn’t have started the show without the main ship anywhere in sight, the first episode did set a fine enough basis for the rest of the series since it’s so centrally focused on Michael.

The Voice

I’d never watched The Voice before Monday and Tuesday nights, and before that the only reality singing show I’d ever watched was American Idol back in the Carrie Underwood era, so what most interested me here was the contrasts between the shows. I think American Idol in later seasons got more into contestants who were already in music-related careers, but back when I watched it it was still (as far as I remember) mostly filled with hopefuls whose careers hadn’t started yet. That combined with the a capella auditions gave it a much more down-to-earth feeling, plus a lot more shenanigans due to the lower bar to entry.

The Voice, on the other hand, is way more on the “people who can already sing looking to get a break” side of things (although I’ve yet to hear of any The Voice contestant hitting mainstream success), which makes for auditions that are a lot more interesting to watch since there’s already a baseline level of quality. The added element of the judges having to compete to fill a set number of positions in their teams is an interesting wrinkle, too, adding a bit more strategy and gaminess to the audition process.

Anyway I’m sure the world needed my years-late and uninformed comparison between these two shows.

The Brave

I only half-watched this but I’m not sure that really caused me to miss anything. Questionable politics aside (justified or not, watching the characters kill a dude and then move on like nothing happened creeped me out), this is a really dry procedural that somehow managed to feel underdeveloped both in its case of the week and in its characters. Pass.

This is Us

Half-watching this one, plus never having seen an episode before Tuesday’s season two premiere, definitely hurt my enjoyment of the episode, but man did this feel blah to me. The sentimentality seemed waaay too saccharine and the character conflict felt really dry and predictable.


Aaand there we are. That was really worth over a month of waiting, right?

What I’m Watching: GLOW

What I expected: an exaggerated, high-energy, soapy drama set behind the scenes of women’s wrestling in the ’80s.

What I got: an understated, pleasant, yet meaningful character drama following the creation of a women’s wrestling league, still in the ’80s.

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Why are we screaming again?

I mean, with those promo photos, who could blame me for wrongly assuming the show’s tone? But it turns out that, like the wrestling in the show, they’re just a flashy front to a complex, diverse cast of characters whose inner lives are portrayed with a great deal of respect.

The two most important of those characters are Ruth and Debbie. Ruth is trying to make a name for herself as an actress, but is held back by wanting more substantial roles and not being conventionally attractive (which I don’t think is actually true of the actress, but okay); Debbie, on the other hand, was a reasonably-successful soap actress but was frustrated by sexism on the set and retired from acting to raise a kid with her husband.

These establishing details put both characters in sympathetic places, which is good, but they’re also crucial to the show’s examination of just what kind of people would be drawn participate in women’s wrestling in the ’80s. As portrayed in the show, it’s primarily those who exist outside of the mainstream’s very narrow view of what women in media should look like and be: white, conventionally attractive, and subservient to male authority.

GLOW is at its best when it focuses on giving voice and narratives to these women, but unfortunately it’s a little mixed in how well it does that. Debbie is drawn to the wrestling production when she realizes it’s like a soap opera, but in this case it’s one that she gets to have some degree of creative control over. That creative control is not extended to the other women in the show-within-a-show, however, resulting in the women of color being forced to represent racist stereotypes.

These stereotypical characters might be historically accurate, I guess (although I’m not personally familiar with the real-life GLOW the show is based on), but it’s disappointing that the only reason Debbie really gets to have control here is because she’s the only one of the wrestlers who has mainstream success and is therefore the star. The women of color might be getting roles, but they’re still reductive and even harmful. The show does make efforts to have its characters point this out and express their discomfort with it, but these concerns aren’t given enough space to feel more than obligatory. There is a nice sequence, however, where Cherry goes behind the director’s back to swap things so she and the other black wrestler are the heroes of their double fight instead of the villains.

While the show-within-the-show does get bogged down in caricatures and stereotypes, the show itself is a lot more empathetic and respectful of its characters. All of the women are given meaningful, if sometimes light, characterization and character moments over the course of the season, which is impressive given that there are 14 of them. I do wish that the show had leaned a little bit more into its ensemble, though–one episode gives a decent subplot to Sheila that really digs into who she is, but a lot of the other characters aren’t examined as closely. Just a little bit more could have gone a long way toward fleshing out some of the more tertiary characters.

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Leaving the audience wanting more is hardly a terrible problem to have in this case, though, as my desire for more character moments is fueled by how good the moments we get are. The bulk of the show’s first season is spent focused on Ruth and Debbie, even more so on Ruth, following their personal struggles and conflict in the wake of Debbie learning that Ruth twice slept with her husband. The show does a really good job portraying the two’s fractured friendship, that weird space where they both care about each other a lot but now there’s this betrayal hanging between them that prevents Debbie from really letting Ruth in.

Ruth and Debbie’s plotline is also important to one of the show’s less prominent themes, where it goes into what it is to be a heel (the villain in wrestling). There’s a connection built between Ruth, who is arguably the “villain” between her and Debbie, and Ruth’s character in the ring, a Russian foil to Debbie’s American hero. The show remarks upon how a good heel is needed to make the hero look better and be easier to root for, but how the audience also, in a strange way, loves the heel. The exploration of this fairly universal storytelling concept is interesting, but unfortunately the way it relates back to the characters in the show is a little weird.

The first part of this weirdness is the framing of Ruth and Debbie, where Ruth is more or less the show’s protagonist. We spend the most time with her, she gets the most in-depth and complex character work, she is who we’re ultimately rooting for. And so because of this, she’s isn’t the heel in the story. The second thing is that she’s really not a bad person, making the focus on her “villainy” feel hollow. With the exception of sleeping with Debbie’s husband, Ruth doesn’t really do anything morally questionable–in fact, she’s one of the most responsible and mature characters on the show.

This creates a disconnect where a large part of Ruth’s plotline is about accepting the importance of villainy within a narrative and how she feels like she is that villain in her personal life, but that villainy is not actually present in her character. We’re never even given a particularly compelling reason for why she slept with Debbie’s husband, making her one bad act seem more like a contrivance than a character flaw.

While that theme did leave me a little wanting, it’s a small nitpick in what is otherwise a very compelling plotline. And I do really appreciate Ruth as the protagonist–she’s driven and passionate, but that passion sometimes manifests itself as a sort of dorkiness that makes for a really entertaining and easy-to-root-for character. I can easily see a version of the show where Debbie is the protagonist and I think it would have been lesser for it.

So, yeah, that’s GLOW. Not what I anticipated, but I think it was better for subverting my expectations to tell an almost gentle in tone, but still meaningful and nuanced, story.