Pre-Viewed For Your Convenience

It’s a new fall season on the television machine, and thanks to exciting new advances in Internet technology and desperate marketing ploys, we’re now able to see the new offerings from the networks weeks before they air.  And that’s good, because it means if you plan your time wisely like me, you can have given up on the hottest shows before your friends even get a chance to watch them!

Ha ha, I kid, of course.  I usually don’t give up on a show until at least the second episode, and because I’m lazy and terrible at time management, everybody has already seen all the shows I’m going to talk about below.  But at least I’m consistent, right?  It fits right in with my reviews of music that is months old, movies that are decades old, and books that are centuries old.

There doesn’t seem to be a uniting factor to this season’s programming, unless it’s babies and the people who may or may not be quite prepared to raise them, and let’s face it, folks, I’m not getting within a thousand miles of those fucking shows.  Instead, there seems to be a kind of mid-2000s revival going on, with a number of shows aiming to conjure the magic of series and actors that were big just long enough ago for the desirable demographics to go “Oh, right!”.  So, let’s all experience the vague frisson of context-free recognition together, as we sift through the soon-to-be-forgotten cavalcade of televisual entertainment, Third Quarter 2012 Division!

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I can tell people all sorts of awful things about myself — that I have spent time in jail, that I have committed a number of serious felony crimes, that I enjoy Three Dog Night without irony — and they take them in stride.  But when I tell them that I have never seen an entire episode of Friends, they react as though I had admitted to being the dingo that ate Lindy Chamberlain’s baby.  What can I tell you?  I had better things to do in the 1990s than…well, all right, I had different things to do in the 1990s.  As a result, I never really understood the appeal of Matthew Perry, who seemed to exist only because Central Casting needed someone who embodied the concept of smarminess.

Perry’s new series, now into its third episode (a full season has been ordered), is the work of Scott Silveri, a writer and producer for Friends and the man responsible for Joey, the ill-fated attempt to extend its life like a hideous sitcom iron lung.  The premise of the show:  Perry plays a sports talk show host whose wife has recently died, and who is assigned to attend group therapy by his boss due to his unresolved issues over her death.  In the hands of the right person (Don Reo immediately comes to mind), this could be the basis of a good, edgy dark comedy; but in the hands of Silveri, it’s an effort so generic it doesn’t deserve all four of the letters in its name.  The sports angle allows for marketing tie-ins, but not for good jokes; this is particularly frustrating, as one look at the Internet confirms that we’re in a golden age of intentionally funny sportswriting, but Go On‘s celebrity cameos are little more than an excuse for cheap gay jokes and “hey, I recognize that guy!” non-humor.

The overall tone of Go On isn’t so much offensive as it is supremely lazy.  Yes, it treats mental illness like a joke (and a not very good joke), but who doesn’t?  No one who’s ever written a sitcom, that’s who.  Perry’s job is to teach the crazies to celebrate life and embrace their quirks, thus rendering the role of Laura Benanti, playing the humorless scold of a therapist, particularly thankless.  But at least she’s not so talented that you feel sorry for her, unlike John Cho’s nonentity of a boss; the crazies, likewise, are reduced to such complete stereotypes that you can almost read the studio notes (“Can we have them be more wacky?  You know, make some faces and stuff?  We don’t want to do anything artsy here.”)  Sarah Baker literally sticks her tongue out and crosses her eyes when called upon to be funny, suggesting that her understanding of humor reached its terminus around age 4; the talented comedian Brett Gelman is damned to the depressing role of the guy who does “random” stuff because he’s sooooo crazy.  His scenes so far could not be more distressing; his character is like the definition of ‘crazy’ as given by an alien who has recently crash-landed inside a Spencer’s Gifts.

While the script can’t deliver a joke to save its page count, and Perry seems to have added ‘overbearing prick’ to ‘smug jerk’ in his comedic repertoire, at least the plots deliver every element you’re just about to predict:  the angry lesbian, the crazy cat lady, the comically-accented Latina, the cool black guy who thinks the white male lead is super-cool, and so on.  Go On has enjoyed decent ratings so far, and has even caught on with a handful of critics, but unless you’re really, really nostalgic for the way Perry delivers jokes — which I got sick of around the beginning of Bill Clinton’s second term — stay far away from this chemical spill of an ensemble comedy.

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One of my pet peeves is science fiction and fantasy that goes to great lengths to set up an elaborate premise and/or a complicated mythology and then doesn’t do anything with it.  The whole point of these genres of fiction is to dispose of realism so that you can put your characters in a unique, challenging, and fascinating situation that couldn’t exist in real life; why bother to think up all these obstacles and opportunities if you aren’t going to capitalize on them in story terms?  Some shows can get away with it; Firefly was notoriously uncurious about its own fictional environment, but it was overall a good show, and the stronger episodes carried you along without giving enough pause to wonder why, for example, everyone spoke Chinese but there were no Chinese people anywhere.

The way NBC’s Revolution plays itself in the first episode, however, makes you wonder why they bothered at all.  The premise involves a global power outage that robs the world of electricity; fifteen years later, a drastically changed world plays host to what otherwise plays out like a weaksauce family drama.  It’s not just the nagging technical questions:  Why don’t batteries or gasoline work?  Did chemistry stop being a thing?  Why are there almost no guns in a country that, fifteen years earlier, had more of them than people?  How does the economy function?  Those are questions that, at least theoretically, could be answered in future episodes; but they’re treated so standoffishly, almost as if the script is annoyed at the possibility of someone asking them, that you wonder why they bothered to do them at all.  At one point, they even hang a lampshade on it:  Zach Orth’s ex-Google exec, teaching history to a group of school kids, prods them about why they’re so uncurious about a disaster that killed millions.

But it’s not just that.  Sure, we gallop merrily along without once stopping to discuss in any detail a global catastrophe that cost untold lives and threw humanity back into the Dark Ages; sure, a country that was reduced to nothing within a single generation now seems populated by people who act like the worst of it was having their cable cut off.  But beyond that, none of the characters behave as if anything is at stake.  The lead actors, especially teen non-sation Tracy Spiradakos, are living proof that “actor” and “mildly attractive white person” are synonymous on American television; she acts as if she’s in a typical teenage high-school-is-hard drama instead of living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare reality.  That may be because nothing seems all that nightmarish; the brutal actuality of a pre-industrial world is imagined here as a cool fun park where there’s swordfighting and oxcarts instead of guns and cars, and all the stock characters — the gruff but caring uncle, the brooding bad boy who’s not so bad, the comic-relief nerd — all behave as if this were One Tree Hill.

There’s a few things about Revolution to give glimmers of hope.  The pilot is lushly directed by Jon Favreau and contains some truly gorgeous visuals; Giancarlo Esposito is never unwelcome; the flashback sequences are framed and handled well; and the script at least throws us the bone of promise that a few of our roughly one billion questions will be answered one day.  But at the very least, it’s going to have to make its lead characters a little more charismatic and interesting, if for no other purpose than to distract us from the planetoid-sized gaps in the plot.

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Mindy Kaling, on the other hand, has charm to spare.  She’s an engaging comedian, a very funny and appealing writer, a sold actor, and an astute estimator of the talent she works with, which has served her well in her task of writing some of the best episodes of The Office.  With that show busy burying the last decaying scraps of whatever good will it had left from its fantastic early seasons, Kaling has jumped ship and started work on her own FOX sitcom, lamentably entitled The Mindy Project.  It’s a great time for her to make the move; she’s coming off the success of her first book, getting off of a sinking ship of a franchise while the getting is good, and doing a lot of movie work while crafting a potential legacy for herself on TV if the movies don’t work out.  She’s the definition of a breakout star, and it’s an understatement to say that hopes are high for her new gig.

The Mindy Project starts out well enough.  The opening scene, which finds her alter ego, gynecologist Mindy Lahiri, in situ with a police officer who’s arrested her for drunkenly dumping a bike into a stranger’s swimming pool; Mindy takes it as a cue to recount, as you get the sense she does for anyone who has no choice but to listen, her lifetime of hapless engagement with the romantic-comedy ideal.  It’s a great scene, one of a number sprinkled throughout the episode (including her bitter, resentful toast at an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, and her flirty sparring with fellow doctor/horse-cock jerk Chris Messina). It strikes a decent tone — light and frothy, never too heavy, a perfect fit for Kaling’s comic persona, but with enough elements of messy reality that it doesn’t seem silly The script is solid, and the cast…well, the cast has problems, but none so profound that they can’t be overcome by good writing, which is clearly present.

I have no idea how much input Kaling had in casting the show, but whoever was making those choices had some bad ideas about the male leads.  The presence of Ed Helms as a ringer in the pilot isn’t too problematic; I’m not a fan of his, but he’s a popular comic actor and a big movie star, so I understand why they brought him in.  Messina (as strutting physician/creep Danny Castellano) and Ed Weeks as British lothario/on-off love interest Jeremy Reed are hard enough to distinguish, and worse, they give Kaling only one way to play off of them; it can be funny with only one inexplicably attractive nogoodnik on the field, but doubling up on them is likely to come off as overkill if it lasts longer than a few episodes.  The tone of the show runs a little out of bounds towards the end, as well; the whole I-am-a-kindly-doctor-I-bring-the-miracle-of-life thing should be used as a comic punching bag, not as a pillow for Kaling to rest her head on.

That said, there’s plenty to love here.  The Mindy Project will only succeed if it gives its main character a life and identity beyond boys, even if it’s just bitching about boys to other girls; fortunately, there’s two swell actors that have been introduced for that very purpose:  Anna Camp, so good amongst so many bad performances on True Blood, as her friend Gwen, and Zoe Jarman as her assistant.  Stephen Tobolowsky also has a role in the pilot that he has huge fun with, and there are indicators that he’ll be a regular, which can’t be a bad thing.  Kaling is terrific throughout, and is self-aware enough as a writer to know where the bad patches are; if she can correct them, strengthen the weaknesses, and give the show a chance to have fun with its premise and do what she does best instead of confining itself to a formula, The Mindy Project could be a real keeper.  Step One — finding a reliably charismatic and funny lead — is already locked up; all the show needs now is to give the rest of its cast to grow into something special.

***

I don’t remember whether it was me who first started calling ABC’s Last ResortLost on a Submarine”, or everyone else in the universe, but who am I to buck a trend?  Hawaiian shooting location, cliffhanger endings, sprawling cast, unfolding and possibly extemporized mythology:  the show invited the comparison before the ink was dry on the contracts.  Nobody ever really figured out how to duplicate Lost‘s success, despite endless attempts to try, but if anyone can do it, it’s Shawn Ryan.  The creator of The Shield, an excellent series that really got its due, and the showrunner of Terriers, which never did, Ryan hasn’t yet burned out from overexposure like J.J. Abrams, and all indicators behind the scenes are that he really threw himself into the production of Last Resort.

Ryan has spoken of wanting to go kitchen-sink with the show, running it as a sprawling all-in epic with elements of drama, comedy, romance, action, war, political thriller, and anything else he can plausibly work into the framework of the premise.  There’s elements of all those things in the pilot:  the crew of a nuclear submarine engages in the military equivalent of workplace and family drama before shifting to some stressed-out comedy (it nicely captures the kind of frivolous bullshitting that fills the endless tedium of military service, though in my experience, the naval tradition of equator-crossing hazing tends more towards gregarious beatings than spontaneous dance routines) and, eventually, the high-wire tension that carries much of the action.  Like RevolutionLast Resort posits a situation — the issuance of suspicious orders to attack an enemy nation with nuclear missiles, the disobedience of those orders, and the subsequent persecution of those engaged in the mutiny — that demands a political reading, but for obvious reasons, keeps the political aspect of it at arm’s length.  That’s understandable, if unfortunate, but Last Resort is superior insofar as it makes the stakes of the situation seem very real.  Just like on The Shield, Ryan has a gifted touch at making the bloody realities of costly moral decisions, for good or ill, hit home, and he really ramps up the tension at exactly the moments it needs ramping up.

The cast is a mixed bag, but it’s strong where it needs to be strong.  Andre Braugher, of course, is rock-solid, imbuing sub commander Chaplin with gravitas and understanding, and the vast amount of commitment that gains its dramatic edge from the creeping suspicion that he might be wrong.  Obligatory rock-jawed honky Scott Speedman is decent if unspectacular, and there are a lot of small roles that are nicely blended into the main story early on as an indicator that they’ll pay off as part of the overarching story later on.  Robert Patrick is always one of Hollywood’s most reliable character workers, but it’s especially nice to see Max Adler, one of the better actors on Glee, show up, as well the promising Jessica Camacho.  It’s to be hoped that the talented Dichen Lachman will have more to do than her often thankless role on Dollhouse, as well, and nobody plays oily authority like Bruce Davison.  The big weak link to my eyes was Daisy Betts as the ship’s navigator; she has a big role to fill for someone who leaves so little of an impression, but hopefully she’ll either grow into it or learn to be absorbed by the better actors in the cast.

Last Resort has a few rough patches as well, but they’re mostly just products of the format of the pilot:  subplots and characters that seem thin because we haven’t really had a chance to put them in to context of a larger story yet.  Overall, it’s an exciting and tense piece of TV drama that overcomes its limitations, excels when it ought to excel, and delivers a real sense of consequences to the military genre, which is often far to blasé about the cost of human lives.  Best of all, it does what its kind of story needs to do:  draw you in right away and get your taste up for more.  There’s simply no escaping the Lost comparison — it’s too late in the day for that — but Last Resort‘s pilot does what few of the Lost knockoffs ever accomplished:  it reminds you of the good things about that groundbreaking show, and not of its worst elements.

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