In his CC2K debut, Les Chappell shines a spotlight on the exciting world of Revenge, and explains why it is much more than a guilty pleasure.
It was commonly accepted that last February's Oscar telecast was one of the duller offerings the Academy had put out in recent years. After the painful disaster that was James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011 they went as far back to formula as they could, recruiting Billy Crystal to run the show in the exact same mothballed way he'd done seemingly 17 times before. On top of that, the roster of films nominated wasn’t exactly buzz-worthy, with the win for The Artist a foregone conclusion before the night even started.
However, there was one moment during the entire affair that actually got my attention: a commercial for ABC's Revenge. In 30 seconds, it eclipsed every bit of award show stupor with a deliberately over-the-top, hyper-stylized affair that featured broken glass, showers of pills, blood flicked at the screen and an operatic build that culminated in its main character walking out of the fire promising “I'm just getting started.”
Forgetting briefly that I was attending an Oscar party (and that Twitter and real life operate by different rules of etiquette), I loudly yelled “REVENGE!” at the end of the commercial and was looked at askance by fellow partygoers for the rest of the night.
But then again, that's the hold that Revenge, which returns to ABC Wednesday night after being gone for six weeks, has on its fan base. Revenge has turned out to be one of the unexpected joys of the 2011-2012 television season, transforming from a somewhat artificial start into a perpetual motion machine of actions and consequences. I'm not usually a fan of traditional soap operas, but Twitter buzz led me to catch up with this one on Hulu, and after devouring it in a week of catch-up viewings, it's turned into a show I have more fun following week to week than most anything else on TV.
For the uninitiated, Revenge is presented as a Count of Monte Cristo-style story centered on Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), a mysterious and wealthy young woman who comes to the Hamptons and quickly inserts herself into the summer's social scene. However, Emily isn't just entering the Hamptons, she's returning to a place where she was once known by another name. When she was only a little girl, her father David Clarke was framed for collaborating with a terrorist group, his reputation destroyed, and sent to prison where he eventually died trying to uncover the truth. Emily has now taken his research and applied it to ruin everyone who destroyed her life, with her crosshairs firmly set on the conspiracy's masterminds Conrad and Victoria Grayson (Henry Czerny and Madeline Stowe).
So what made Revenge stand out against other network forays into prime-time soap opera drama? Well, at first it seemed to be playing a different game than other shows. In the first four episodes, Revenge seemed to be setting itself up as a “revenge of the week” style procedural, in which Emily would take down one of the many people she held responsible for ruining her father while climbing higher and higher in the echelons of society. We saw Emily take vengeance on an entire investment firm for the sole purpose of ruining the CEO who testified against her father, expose a dozen private therapy sessions at a garden party to destroy the therapist who kept her institutionalized, and destroy the political career of the prosecutor turned senator who sent her father to solitary for life.
But after a few installments of this, the show started to reorient itself to show the toll Emily's scorched-earth policy had taken on the various members of the Hamptons society, and became less about her goals, as the consequences those goals had generated. Suddenly, Emily was no longer an untouchable mastermind, but someone who had to improvise on the fly when Victoria’s head of security started snooping around. Her plan to insinuate herself into the Grayson family by romancing their son Daniel (Josh Bowman) was complicated, both by her developing feelings for him and some unfinished business with her childhood friend Jack (Nick Weschler). Cracks in the Grayson marriage were gradually chipped away as various infidelities were revealed, and as either Conrad or Victoria tried to cover their tracks they just made it worse. Quite simply, Revenge figured out how to do things organically, and has a solid enough memory for its plot points that it knows what to nurture and where it would lead things.
It also helped that as time went on the show realized which of its early storylines didn’t work out. Certain dud storylines, like Conrad's affair with Victoria's best friend Lydia (Amber Valletta) or relationship drama with Victoria's daughter Charlotte (Christa B. Allen) were shunted out of the way in favor of new ones, such as introducing Daniel’s manipulative best friend Tyler (Ashton Holmes), who threw a further wrench into Emily’s planning. Stories involving Jack’s family bar have now been tied more into the main narrative, to the point where it doesn’t feel anymore like we’ve stepped into the Hamptons’ version of The O.C.
The other side of the appeal of Revenge is that showrunner Mike Kelley (creator of CBS’s short-lived Swingtown) and company don't appear to have to have any illusions about what they're doing. This isn't a show that's trying to get into a social message about terrorism or uneven distribution of wealth – even though virtually every character is in the “one percent” – but one that completely understands that it's creating a story where the drama can be overly dramatic and the plot points can stray into ridiculous territory. Not to say it's meta about being a soap opera in the way Community is regularly meta about being a sitcom, rather it knows there's a lot of fun to be had in simply presenting a story like this, and it embraces that sense of fun.
If the Oscars preview wasn't enough to prove this, allow me to walk through some various plot points in the show as I try to keep a straight face. Emily and Victoria are both so wealthy that money is no object to furthering their various schemes, and they can write million-dollar checks without batting an eye – at one point Emily reveals she bought an entire apartment building for the sole purpose of filming one resident's romantic trysts. Her new name of Emily Thorne turned out to have been purchased from her old roommate at the juvenile detention facility, and the new Amanda Clarke is now a stripper that commits murder to protect Emily's secret – and wants to be a part of her life. An influential Japanese CEO took Emily under his wing after she was released, meaning that Emily literally had a sensei mentor her in the art of revenge. A key element of several episodes' plot isn't an incriminating document or a photograph (though those do exist) but a flash drive/portable camera shaped like a whale.
And while not exactly soap opera, there is also a yellow Labrador named Sammy, who was Emily's puppy as a child and who, if the show's chronology is correct, is at least 18 years old. (My theory is that it'll turn out to be a horcrux whose death will be necessary to complete Emily's revenge.)
All of this is really ridiculous when taken out of context, but in context it manages to be really entertaining in its ridiculousness. Even when Emily’s engaging in the overblown fortune cookie-style narration to open and close every episode, there’s a tangible sense of fun in how portentous it makes everything seem.
A large part of that has been that as the plotting has improved, the cast has also grown more into their roles. Emily’s gone from being an icy schemer to someone increasingly trying to maintain a façade of control, and VanCamp has rolled with the punches to portray her increasing paranoia and uncertainty. Stowe has carried herself throughout with an imperious unflappability, and Holmes embraced being a borderline sociopath with such gusto all he needed was a mustache to twirl. Other performers like Bowman and Weschler are still a bit more wooden, but Kelley and company seem to recognize this and are purposely giving them material that’s testing their limits – murderous girlfriends, high-stakes financial decisions, and a long stint at Rikers Island to name a few.
The standout of the cast has probably been Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), a software tycoon and reluctant ally in Emily’s schemes. After coming across in the pilot as an entitled, antisocial twit, Nolan has morphed into one of the show's most beloved characters as we learned his sarcasm was a defense mechanism for a broken and rather lonely individual – a trait I’ve dubbed Logan Echolls Syndrome. Mann has gone to town with the character, selling both his joy at playing along with Emily’s schemes and his increasing horror at the extent she’s gone to. (Though I’m still not sure why he insists on wearing two collared shirts. It really does make him look like a tool.)
As we return to the narrative this week, it'll be interesting to see exactly what Revenge thinks it’s going to be in the home stretch. We've now caught up to the in medias res moment presented in the very first scene of the pilot, and after this Wednesday's episode we're told the action will jump ahead a few months. The show's ratings appear solid enough that it's a safe bet for a second season renewal, but I have honestly no idea where the action will be going after this – or truthfully, if the continual raising of the stakes can support the show's action into a second season.
And you know what? Honestly, I'm at a point where I don't care, and I simply want to follow this story to wherever it takes us. In an era where a lot of shows don't know what they want to be and are awful as a result, Revenge knows exactly what it is, and it happens to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. REVENGE!
In the world of television I believe in the general rule that it is never a good thing when a single showrunner/creator is given too much power. Currently we are seeing this phenomenon with Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, both of which just have to spit out any (old) new idea and some network will pick it up, no questions asked.
This is a terrible idea, because it means those two no longer have to stay on their toes, they get complacent and it shows in their products.
I don’t really want to get into the Ryan Murphy case here. He has no follow-through on his ideas, which is painfully evident in Glee, even more evident on American Horror Story and will probably plague his new half-hour comedy The New Normal soon enough.
Instead, let us talk about Shondaland and the products that have come out of it so far. It all started with Grey’s Anatomy, basically a soap opera more or less cleverly wrapped in a medical show. Just two summers ago I actually rewatched the early seasons of GA and discovered that we didn’t retcon it into being great, it actually was a great show once. Funny, sarcastic and genuinely surprising. But as it is so often the case, the longer a show goes on, the more labored and tiresome it gets and these past two to three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy have clearly shown signs of deterioration.
The GA spin-off Private Practice was even soapier from the get-go. I gave up on it after a season, because the adults on PP were behaving even more like teenagers than the ones on Grey’s Anatomy, and they didn’t even have decent excuses for it. PP was always a bit more melodramatic than Grey’s, but also went to some very dark places surrounding rape, abuse and child birth/adoption etc, for which the show deserves credit, even though it is largely intolerable for men to watch.
Next came the utterly forgettable and at times quite excruciating Off the Map. My review of it can still be found here on CC2K, but let me summarize: despite all claims to the contrary, it really was just Grey’s Anatomy in the jungle and a pretty prejudiced jungle at that. The young doctors MacGyvered their way through impossible medical dilemmas and eventually all gave in to the “heat” with one of the other doctors. Thankfully, viewers only needed one Grey’s Anatomy and ratings for Off the Map led to its cancellation. I rejoiced at this fact, because Off the Map was a half-baked concept, leisurely thrown out there because the network thought viewers couldn’t get enough of the melodramatic antics Shonda Rhimes can come up with.
I have no doubt Rhimes cared about Off the Map and its characters, but ultimately her vision of OtM wasn’t differentiated and special enough to resonate with audiences and for what it’s worth, sometimes failure is healthy for a showrunner as powerful as Shonda Rhimes.
Artists of any medium become entitled and conceited when they never fail and no one criticizes their work. To her great credit, Shonda Rhimes has never given a disrespectful interview or shot off her mouth the way Ryan Murphy has done repeatedly.
There is a certain type of television Shonda Rhimes does fairly well, but her latest show Scandal, which premiered last week on ABC, does not impress me and worries me that Rhimes needs to be kept on her toes a little more these days, or her vision will run stale.
Scandal is essentially the poor man’s Damages. If you haven’t seen Damages, starring the fantastic Glenn Close and Rose Byrne, then shame on you and go Netflix it right this instant!
The plotline of Damages’ first season (per IMDB) reads like this: “Bright and sharp law school graduate Ellen Parsons becomes the protégée of the successful and hard-hitting high stakes litigator Patricia Hewes. But nothing is what it seems.”
Ellen soon finds herself in world full of betrayal, blackmail, political scandals, and murder and it only gets worse from there. Damages was deliciously evil, dark, twisted and scary. A true tour-de-force of television and a redefinition of the typical lawyer show in as much the way as The Good Wife is these days redefining it yet again.
Enter Scandal, for which the tagline (again, per IMDB) reads: “When you get into trouble there's only one person to call, Olivia Pope. Olivia is a professional 'fixer' who makes problems go away before anyone even knows they exist.” And the pilot episode, unsurprisingly, features a bright, young, sharp female lawyer named Quinn Perkins being hired by Olivia and seeing herself confronted with a world of lies, deceit, betrayal and politics. Sound familiar from the paragraph above? Yeah, I thought so.
Scandal is basically Grey’s Anatomy set in Washington, DC and in the world of lawyers and politics. Because lawyers, like doctors, are notorious (at least on TV) for not having a home life, of course we’ll see plenty of office romance and the pilot already reveals that our lovely heroine Olivia Pope once had an affair with, hold on to your pants, kids, the President of the United States of America. Can it get any more dramatic than that? I am already groaning at the cheap way the tension is supposedly heightened by this. Not that presidents aren’t capable of being morally corrupt and “dark and twisty people” (to borrow from Meredith Grey’s jargon), but it’s a pretty easy way to make a show FEEL high-stakes when really it is about as believable as the SpongeBob universe.
Yet for the purposes of television, we are often willing to accept a version of our reality that is only slightly twisted. It looks like our reality, it’s on the same time as our reality and yet something is always a little off about it. Actions don’t have the same consequences in the TV reality as in ours, people don’t act according to the same logic, and everything is much more life and death than it ever is in our “real” reality. Few shows ever puncture this façade we have all agreed to play along with for so long, especially not in the genre of medical, political or procedural shows. The tired old excuse that “It’s just television, it’s meant to entertain” gets dragged out over and over and gives the television of today a nice little out and lets showrunners and creators off the hook easy. As an audience, we keep giving them license to present us with a slightly askew version of reality, which in turn screws with our actual view of our actual reality (an undeniable fact, no one anywhere can ever rightfully claim that the media they consume does not influence them in some way, which can be positive or negative).
I don’t want to make Scandal the poster child for this phenomenon of tilting reality just enough so that - at an angle - we can look at it as if it was reality. Plenty of shows on the air right now are guilty of this. Scandal is just the latest show that made me think about the phenomenon in general.
Scandal – based on the two episodes I have seen so far – is not as terrible as Off the Map often was. And I especially welcome Scandal having a black female lead, which is still rare enough on television, even when you look at cable programs. What immediately rubs me the wrong way about Scandal though is the fact that it is bound to have a whole lot of “very special episodes”, highlighting various social and political issues that are worth highlighting, but worth highlighting in a more serious, nuanced, less-issue-of-the-week kind of way. The way The Wire shone a light on school politics or The West Wing shone a light on White House politics.
The pilot episode of Scandal not only revealed that Olivia Pope had a love affair with the way-too-young-to-be-president President, it also featured a young, highly decorated military officer coming out as “gay” to the world so that he could prove he didn’t kill his girlfriend, who was acting as his beard.
*cue groans right now*
It's a very, very, very (VERY!) valuable messages these days, because we desperately need more tolerance and common sense in the world, but the way it is executed on Scandal makes it feel cheap. The issue becomes a mere plot point, a throw-away punchline, an easy way to an inspirational moment to end an episode of television on, only to be forgotten in the next episode. Therefore, it doesn't help the actual cause at all, if anything, it hurts the case for a more open way to deal with homosexuality in our society, because none of the backlash is dealt with on Scandal. In the slightly-askew universe of Scandal, the backlash doesn't exist. In the real world, however, it does. And it's a long battle to affect change. One episode of Scandal makes no difference at all, it just further clouds the judgment of those who are already uninformed about this kind of socio-political causes.
There are various other things that are off about Scandal and make it unpleasant TV to me. For example, whose idea was it to make the office of Pope & Associates a windowless warehouse-looking place with gray marble floors and indecent lighting? They look like they are holed up in an expensive bunker waiting for nuclear eradication. It’s quite terrible.
And while in the first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy I still found rapidly talking and thereby bumbling people charming, the pattern has run its course and is very predictable coming from Rhimes by now. So many of her characters display this kind of behavior (early Meredith, April Kepner, Lexi Grey, Mina Minard and now Quinn Perkins) that they pretty much become interchangeable in my head and therefore by default boring.
Here is my biggest complaint about Scandal though: it doesn’t have anything new to say. It is immediately identifiable as a Shonda Rhimes show, but unfortunately brings with it all the baggage this statement implies. The longer Rhimes has been allowed to share her vision with the world, the more she has neglected the quirky, humorous elements evident in her early work and the more she has descended into the melodramatic, heavily burdened by obvious social messages, repetitive elements of her art. There seem to be some central character conflicts she is unable to work out no matter how many characters she imbues with the “dark and twisted soul” that so firmly inhabits Meredith Grey. Many artists have such a central problem they just can’t seem to resolve, but to me it has become tedious to watch Shonda Rhimes attempt to do so on screen in show after show she is churning out.
Some artistic blockages are best left on the top shelf for a while until suddenly, years later and in an unexpected moment, the perfect resolution presents itself and the vision can come to life and come full circle.
It is this form or artistic restraint that becomes rarer in a world of television politics in which successful showrunners get project after project greenlighted by executives that only look at the bottom line. Not every idea is worth being put on the screen, but not every TV executive is as gutsy as AMC this year to decline every single pilot they are presented with and send everybody back to the drawing board.
Somewhere within Scandal there might be a genuinely good show that’s buried underneath the supposedly “high stakes” and the heavy-handed social and political messages. But even if there were, Shonda Rhimes is not the TV creator to bring it out. Scandal is exactly her kind of show. Over the top, witty at times, overly constructed most other times, obvious and most definitely geared towards a female audience. In many ways, Shonda Rhimes is a one trick pony, but she is smart enough to ride that pony all the way to the bank.
I for one am over it and I won’t go along for the ride anymore.
For Valentine’s Day 2012 I got the worst present ever: one of my favorite new comedies was rudely canceled by ABC and replaced with the absolute drivel that is Cougar Town. Not only was this an affront to all forward-thinking women, it was a slap in the face of every progressive man as well, because the show was never even given a proper chance: it was only allowed to air two episodes! Had ABC had some patience, I am sure this groundbreaking comedy would have found its footing.
I am talking, of course, about Work It!
The basic premise is as simple as it is brilliant (most premises are): a car salesman and his mechanic friend have lost their job because of the recession and after a year of unemployment, they are willing to do anything to get a job again. So when the opportunity presents itself to work as a pharmaceutical rep, they jump at it. The only problem is: the company only hires women. So the two friends bravely squeeze themselves into bras, thongs and pantyhose and go out to get a job so they can provide for their families! Who could ask for a better man?
The transformation from man to woman goes a little smoother for Angel Ortiz, who is not only adept at flirting, which helps him with his sales numbers, but also a bit smaller in size than his friend Lee Standish, hence Angel has an easier time to pass as a woman. But Lee soon finds his niche: (s)he realizes that her looks will not get her very far with the doctors (s)he is trying to sell drugs to, so (s)he decides to play the one asset (s)he has, her/his dependability.
This is the point in the story where ABC rudely cut it off, when there was so much potential to be explored.
For example, Angel has a crush on their boss Vanessa, who is rumored to be a lesbian. All kinds of hijinks could have resulted from Lady Angel pursuing Vanessa, who then could have turned out not to be a lesbian at all, cuing Angel to reveal himself as a man so that the two can fall madly in love! Think of all the gender-bending, liberal and forward-thinking points this show could have made with a storyline like that!
Because of its premise, Work It was ideally suited to explore the lines where genders blur and give brand-new insight into the societal roles of men and women. In the brief time it was on the air, the show shone a bright light on the fact that women define each other by the kind of purse they carry (what does that say about women, really!?) and that flirting in order to get ahead or get what you want is alright for women, but not for men (how very unfair! How are men supposed to get ahead then?).
The way Work It also highlighted how very complicated the consequences of such flirting can be for women (men always think they are being serious, those scoundrels!) surely opened some men’s eyes to their misconceptions regarding women and taught them the lesson that not every woman who flirts with them actually wants to go out for dinner with them (or lick dip off their finger!).
Furthermore, the exploration of Lee’s home life with his wife and teenage daughter cleverly depicted how important it is for a husband and father to be able to provide for his family, otherwise they would lose all respect for him. I can only imagine the tear-filled, heartfelt confession Lee makes to his wife down the line about what it really took for him to get a job and how thankful his wife would have been for his courage and commitment and not relying on her job as a nurse to provide for them any longer.
And on the way to said confession, I am sure there would have been plenty of laughs as Lee’s wife slowly grows suspicious as to why all her bras are stretched out and her husband suddenly knows more about waxing than she does.
There really was nothing to complain about in Work It, it was as fine a comedy as there ever will be. It had a progressive social message presented in a non-judgmental, non-stereotypical and prejudice-free manner. It had timely humor at the expense of men and women alike. It featured superb acting by Benjamin Koldyke (surpassing his work on Big Love and How I Met Your Mother) and Amaury Nolasco (previously only known for such lackluster shows as Southland and Prison Break) and the show had a lot of room to grow.
The only explanation I have for Work It’s untimely cancellation is that is was probably too ahead of its time and America just wasn’t ready for its liberating message.
If in twenty years the two aired and four unaired episodes are re-released, I am sure our children will praise the show for its mastery and art. Work It just couldn’t be appreciated in its own time, the sign of any great Work of Art.
These days in TV cirticism there is a veritable debate going on about what currently ist he best comedy on the air. The most vocal fans seem to stand in the Community corner, but just because they scream the loudest doesn’t mean they have the best argument.
In another corner are the fans of Cougar Town, and among the biggest fans are the show’s own creators (Bill Lawrence of Scrubs fame and Co.), who staged an impromptu promotion campaign on their own dime and time when ABC left them hanging. And for what it’s worth, I believe Cougar Town might just have the strongest case for who’s the best comedy on TV right now.
What Community and Cougar Town have in common are low ratings. Dismayingly low ratings. And this is a crime I blame squarely on anyone of you who isn’t watching these shows. While I myself could never get into Community because it is just not my brand of humor, I applaud the gusto and daringness of what that show does, swinging for the fences every week, and sometimes (more often than one would like) coming up short.
Cougar Town on the other hand never seems to miss a beat, but is struggling to overcome the stigma of its title and is horribly unsupported by its network. The show wouldn’t even be back on the air yet if it hadn’t been for the abysmal Work It being canceled after two (!) airings, thus freeing up the Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. spot on the Alphabet Network. But now that Cougar Town is back with its third season, it is obvious that the wait of almost ten months has been worth it. The six episodes that have aired so far are the strongest the show has ever put out and it is about time Cougar Town fans reunited and helped the show get over its bad rap.
By no means has Cougar Town always been the best comedy on TV, far from it. The show had to grow into itself and had a very uneven first season. How unfitting the title is by now should give you a hint as to how much Cougar Town has developed, grown and shifted gears. What started out – at least in the pilot – as a forty-year-old divorced woman daring to get back into the dating life again, is now a show about friendship, relationships at any point in your life and a whole lot of red wine.
Bill Lawrence himself has been public about the fact that he was actively searching for a new name, because he was aware that “Cougar Town” had a certain stigma to it that might keep exactly those viewers away he wanted to appeal to. However, the search for a new name has not been successful, so until now the opening credits of Cougar Town feature a sort of “Bart Simpson writing on the chalkboard” joke every week, making fun of the title and the attempt to change it. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure a re-naming would help the show, since it might be causing more confusion than clearing things up. And in a land where high school mascots are freely named “Cougars”, I don’t understand some people’s problem anyway.
Let me try and sell you on watching Cougar Town despite its title or what you may have heard: Cougar Town features great acting on all fronts. From Courteney Cox to Christa Miller to Busy Philipps. From Josh Hopkins to Brian Van Holt to Ian Gomez and Dan Byrd. Each of these actors firmly inhabits their character, with all their flaws, idiosyncrasies and genuine emotions. The joy of the show comes from seeing these people interact, across age groups (Laurie and Travis are quite a bit younger) and across “classes” (Jules is a real estate agent, Grayson a bartender, Ellie a stay at home mom). And most of the time, that’s all the show needs to be hilarious and entertaining.
One of the biggest praises I always had for Friends was the fact that you needed nothing more than the six central characters trapped in a room to make great comedy. The same goes for Cougar Town. These seven people can make their own fun and the dynamics between them are endlessly amusing to watch, even when they are being mean to each other for no apparent reason other than Schadenfreude.
Is this group of people a bit dysfunctional? To say the least. And yet everyone seems to love Happy Endings (ugh!), where the dysfunction is bouncing off the walls. So what does that say about you, American TV audience? Dysfunction is alright as long as you are in your twenties or early thirties, but once you hit forty you gotta be all “straightened out”?
I usually judge comedies (and most dramas) by the simple question: would I want to know any of these people in my real life?
The answer in Cougar Town’s case is a resounding YES to every single character. (While the answer for Happy Endings is a similarly resounding NO!)
Furthermore, Cougar Town is endlessly quotable (I constantly find myself saying “Come on!” in that Andy voice or wishing I had a Big Carl to keep me company) and gives its characters actual emotional arcs that lead to development and change (when’s the last time you could say that about Two and A Half Men or Happy Endings?).
And if all of that isn’t enough, let me tease you with the mini-Scrubs reunion that happened at the end of the fifth episode of Season 3. It was epic, hilarious and deliciously meta-fictional. TV comedy just doesn’t get much better than that.
Besides, what else do you have to watch on Tuesday nights anyway? Another NCIS? Really?
It’s time to rise up for Cougar Town, America.
*Andy voice activated* COME ON!
Need more TV coverage? Listen to the all new “Television Collision: Aftershock", Episode 1 below.
The podcast accompanying the Television Collison is back!
And it has gotten a make-over.Please lend your ears to the all-new "Television Collision: Aftershock" and listen to Episode 1 below (running longer than usual to celebrate the relaunch).
And because it is a special occasion, this episode features a special guest: TV lover, helpless compiler and Tweeter Les Chappell!
Topics include (but aren't limited to): The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Killing, Archer and many, many more!
The always exemplary Phoebe Raven, who is out this week, has been less than impressed with the slate of Showtime original series that have permeated the airwaves. She’s succinctly dubbed their lineup the “Train Wreck Human Beings Club” and that’s a true statement. The question then becomes, why do audiences watch these shows? I wanted to discuss the series House of Lies, a show Phoebe has cited as sexist and misogynist, and it is. But as a female, I do watch this show every week without fail. Why? Because of my love of nostalgia and awful people. If you didn’t read Phoebe’s original article on House of Lies, which also details the plot of the series, I recommend doing so by reading the original article here.
House of Lies is a show that can’t connect with everyone. The story of Marty Khan (Don Cheadle) and his group of management consultants is filled with dense plots that generally revolve around sex and debauchery and is far from perfect. In fact I don’t know all of the characters names and the core plot of the merger between the two consultant firms is pretty boring. I watch this for the actors and the moments of humanity that have blossomed in recent episodes.
When the concept of ABC's The River was first revealed… no one got excited, because we had all seen The Blair Witch Project a little over a decade ago and if we weren’t sick of found footage back then already, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity brought back a variation of the same for contemporary audiences already.
But those are movies, you say. Found footage on TV, that’s something else. That could be good. Most critics, including myself, remained skeptical, and so did viewers: the double-sized premiere had lackluster ratings, which have since dropped dramatically. And rightly so.
The basic premise of The River is this: Dr. Emmet Cole used to have a successful nature and travel show, in which he and his family globetrotted and explained the world to the audience. But now Emmet Cole and his entire crew have disappeared somewhere in the Amazon. In a desperate attempt to refuse to accept his probable death, his wife and son assemble a team to go looking for Cole and his crew, and a camera crew is filming the entire rescue mission. Which, of course, goes horribly awry as soon as the cameras start rolling.
I expressed some initial thoughts about the early episodes of The River on Episode 75 of "The Idiot Box" podcast over at CraveOnline.com. But let me reiterate why I believe The River simply messed up in its approach and now has to pay for it.
I believe if the show had truly stuck to the Blair Witch concept and exclusively used found footage (or the mimicry thereof), it could have been a much more intriguing show. Without all of its current explaining and exposition (mostly in the form of the Spanish-speaking girl conjuring up ghost stories for the camera), the show could have delved deep into mystery, while leaving viewers simultaneously puzzled and mortified.
The fact, however, that we are watching other people watch found footage takes a lot of the fear factor away, because we are always one degree removed.
This is the fundamentally wrong decision the makers of The River (Oren Peli, producer & writer of Paranormal Activity 1-4 and Michael R. Perry, TV veteran) made: either give us the found footage of Emmet Cole and his crew disappearing or give us the found footage of Cole’s wife and son and their crew disappearing. Either way provides terror, because the intro of the show pretty much makes clear that no one got out alive. Heck, you could have even started out Season 1 with footage of Emmet & Crew and then moved into footage of Wife & Son & Crew in subsequent seasons.
The constant interweaving of the “jungle magic” that happened to Emmet and the “jungle magic” that happens to his rescue team makes for a choppy TV show, mostly because the rescue team always looks to found footage from Emmet to find a solution for their magic troubles, which is a very heavy-handed storytelling device.
The problem is that even though the tapes provide the rescue team with leads as to where they can find Emmet, he basically has to become a character like the Mother on How I Met Your Mother: never to be found. Because where would The River go if they ever did find Emmet Cole? Would the next season be about the troubles to get back out of the Amazon? Who wants to see that? The basic tension would be resolved.
The show is only in Episode 6 and I am already getting tired of the near misses in finding Emmet Cole. The rescue team is so close so often and has already found two of Emmet Cole’s former crew members (I won’t say if they were dead or alive, maybe you haven’t seen it all yet), so how much longer can this trek really be drawn out?
And let’s address the “magic” that supposedly lives in the Amazon and terrorizes the rescue team (as it previously terrorized Emmet and his crew as well): the whole concept is offensive. The Amazon region is vast and mysterious, for sure. The rain forest is long not done revealing its secrets to us (unless we succeed in chopping it all down first), but that is no reason to place evil spirits there just because it’s a place mankind hasn’t “conquered” or “tamed” yet. Every time the Spanish-speaking exposition girl (her name is Jahel, btw) goes rambling on about another ghost, demon, spirit or ancient legend, the crew is inclined not to believe her (although recently some of them have come around). And yet the only problems they ever encounter are exactly those supernatural ones, even when parts of their ship break, they do so because something supernatural has taken a hold of the ship and won’t let it go.
In a region as wild as the Amazon, things like clean water, food, dangerous animals, poisonous plants and gushing rainfalls are far more pressing concerns, yet the show conveniently chooses to ignore those in favor of portraying the region as evil, haunted and “to be avoided”. Even the few tribesmen that are portrayed, enact macabre vengeance if you violate their rituals. Now that’s the kind of portrayal that doesn’t help indigenous people in their survival at all.
When we examine the horror elements of The River, some of them are successful (even in their offensive way of coming about). There’s nothing more unsettling than watching a silent, agile figure creep up on one of our characters on CCTV. And the one time the two realities of Emmet Cole’s crew and the rescue team actually connected in a recent episode, when they found Emmet’s main camera man, whose daughter is also on the rescue team, it made for the very first intense emotional moment of the entire show. Lena’s pain and horror at realizing that her father, now a ghost condemned to stay on another ship, has died a long time ago and all she can do is what his ghost burn, was a powerful moment and beautifully rounded out her character.
Round characters are something The River is missing anyway. We get clichéd details about the rescue crew that are supposed to tell us why they are willing to go on the mission at all, but really they all have remained fairly flat so far. This is especially harmful for the characters of Emmet Cole’s son and wife, since they should have the most reason to want to rescue him, yet their motives are vague at best and their behavior is erratic.
Emmet’s son Lincoln is on the path to becoming a doctor in Chicago, having spent his childhood on a boat with his mother and father, filming a TV show. He had accepted that his father was dead, until his beacon was picked up and his mom dragged him on the rescue mission. Lincoln wavers between believing Jahel’s ghost stories and dismissing them, making him an uneven character. But at least he got a haircut, that did wonders.
Emmet’s wife and Lincoln’s mother, Tess, is just a complete miscast for me, because she neither looks young enough in flashbacks to be Lincoln’s mother then, nor does she look old enough now to be Lincoln’s mother in the contemporary moment. Furthermore, she had had an affair with one of the camera men, and for a long time, it seems, and yet mysteriously now she is obsessed with finding Emmet, who basically dumped her to venture out into the Amazon again. Her motivations make no sense, especially when she – holding her son in her arms – yammers: “I just want to get my family back”. You have your son right there! Stop risking his life on a suicide mission through the haunted Amazon!
I don’t want to harp on here and pound the show into the ground. It is good for the occasional scare (if you haven’t seen too many horror movies, that is; otherwise you’ll see everything coming a mile away) and at least it is attempting to break the format of standard television in some regards, even if the found footage thing would have to be more extreme for the show to really make a statement.
The dialog is often trite and cliché, there is no real eye candy to look at to make up for it and the storyline will have to stall the reveal over and over and over in order to keep the show going.
But if you enjoyed Paranormal Activity (I personally fell asleep, I was not scared at all), you might want to give The River a try. Although, since I don’t believe it will be renewed, I think you should watch all the episodes of Oren Peli’s other unsuccessful mystery show – Persons Unknown – instead. That was a far more mind-bending concept and had eye candy to boot.
During my recent visit to Los Angeles I noticed the abundance of oversized billboards and ads advertising NBC’s new midseason show Awake. These didn’t surprise me, as NBC desperately needs a hit (that’s not The Voice) and the Awake pilot had garnered a lot of upfront buzz last year, when it was first presented. I myself was looking forward to seeing the show more than almost all other new shows, because the concept sounded so damn trippy and interesting.
Last Thursday finally brought the pilot episode of Awake to TV and as expected I was slightly disappointed. This is a normal effect of anticipointment, so not to worry.
The basic concept, that after a car accident a husband and father is not sure which reality is real, the one in which his son survived or the one in which his wife survived, is as trippy and mind-bending as I expected it to be. I sufficiently enjoyed both shrinks the father Michael Britton (played by Jason Isaacs) consults and how they each try to prove to him that they are real and therefore the other one must be a figment of his imagination. When your own figments of your imagination start arguing with you (which one of the shrinks definitely is, right?), then you know you are in trouble.
I also really liked the consequences Michael Britten is willing to bear in order to keep both realities going. It makes perfect sense that he would not want to “get better” or “make progress” and figure out which reality he is imagining, because that would mean submitting himself to a kind of pain no one would go through willingly. The challenge of the show, however, lies in inching the character closer to the realization that it will be necessary and vital for him to make that choice, to figure out which reality his brain is making up and which one is “the truth”. Unless of course, Awake wants to be like House, then there is no reason to ever really make this decision.
Another path the show could take would of course be to reveal that Michael Britten is in a coma and he is hallucinating both universes and in reality both his son and his wife died.
Or maybe Michael died himself?
There are many possibilities for the reveal to play out, but several small indicators already worry me that we won’t get a satisfying dénouement. For one thing, Episode 2 of the show apparently had to be re-shot, and the original Episode 2 now serves as a much later episode, in which something vital is revealed. Some critics have argued that the show would work a lot better if this reveal came early, but by drawing it out the show risks alienating some viewers early in its run.
Furthermore, I worry that the concept of Awake won’t hold up for more than a season, because you can only stretch the suspension of disbelief so far. But then again, How I Met Your Mother has been on the air for seven years. Who would have thought that concept could carry this long?
The most disappointing because repetitive and non-intriguing part of Awake is the fact that Michael Britten is a homicide detective. If there was one thing we didn’t need this TV season, it was another crime procedural. The fall season already premiered Prime Suspect, Person of Interest, and Unforgettable, adding them to the already large pool of crime fighters on TV. If there is one profession vastly overrepresented on television, it’s homicide detectives.
How the cases blended together in Britten’s head, adding to the confusion between reality vs. dream established nicely how his “every day life” is affected by his brain’s trouble to assert what’s real, but this interweaving could have happened in any other job as well.
If Awake can shoot more for straight drama instead of a crime procedural with dramatic elements, it might be able to go somewhere. Jason Isaacs gives a solid performance and he will have to be the rock by which Wilmer Valderrama pulls himself out of That 70’s Show mold, something Michael Cudlitz achieved with ease on Southland for Ben McKenzie and his O.C. fame.
The characters of the two psychologists also need to be developed much further, almost into In Treatment territory really, which is an idle hope for an NBC show, but would make Awake all the more compelling.
Generally speaking, Awake might have been better off on CBS, because there is an audience that loves procedurals (see the success of Person of Interest, which is a very dull show, yet brings in 10 million viewers a week), whereas NBC’s audience seems to have no such tastes (see how quickly Prime Suspect faded away, although it had a lot of potential and the recent abysmal run of crime-adjacent The Firm).
I don’t mean to suggest that viewers can’t use their remote to change the channel, and yet the numbers seem to suggest that they don’t as often as network execs would like them to. And given the fact that Awake is getting a jarring lead-in by NBC’s Thursday night comedy block of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Office and Up All Night, I can’t imagine those same viewers will stick around for a dark crime drama like Awake.
In summation, Awake has amazing potential and a very intriguing premise, although I would love to see Paul Weston treat Michael Britten more than anything else. NBC has obviously put quite some money into the ad campaign for Awake and it has received considerable buzz, yet somehow ended up on an unfortunate night on NBC. The premiere numbers were good (the best NBC has seen in almost a year in that time slot), but I am sure they will decline, as almost all numbers for all shows do these days.
If Awake can take some risks and veer away from being a typical crime procedural it might grow some legs and it is definitely worth a look or two. What else are you really doing on Thursday nights at 10 anyway?
In a rare occurrence of global scheduling CC2K’s Television Editor Phoebe Raven and Film Editor Kristen Lopez are sharing an actual, physical room at the same time! With that, the idea of collaborating on an article seemed inevitable. With the recent telecast of the Academy Awards, it seemed prime for these two editors to come together and discuss the ceremony. Just because these two editors have the same genes for geekery, and the awards are the perfect blend of television and film, they couldn’t seem to agree on whether the telecast succeeded or failed. In looking at four elements of the show, they agreed to pose a debate and see who was right or wrong (or at least who could type the most in all caps).
He’s the stuff of legend – resolute military commander, supreme expert on human nature, clipped-style orator, courageous fighter (his fighting prowess is an entirely separate debate, best settled by slap chops, torn tunics, and flying body slams off of walls), and smooth ladies’ man who put Don Juan to shame.
As a kid, I remember hunching in front of a rabbit-ear-antennae-topped black and white TV (In case you’re too young, this was a primitive television device that existed after the discovery of fire, but before the Atari 2600) with my Kool Aid and snacks, engrossed in a Star Trek episode. I couldn’t get enough of my hero of all heroes, the epitome of greatness, and the man I wanted to be when I grew up – Captain James T. Kirk (Adam West’s Batman is an easy tie for this honor). My head floated in a sea of role model worship for this man who faced every menace with bravery, confidence and an always-correct grasp of the situation. And as I entered my pre-teens, seeing that girls weren’t the cooty-infested harpies I took them for previously, I admired how Kirk was always a hit with the ladies. He could cozy up to them like a Tribble on an endless supply of quadrotriticale (While having the same social agenda).