Thursday, June 4, 2015

I'm On Board with Empire

 

Though summer means many of my shows are gone for months, it does allow for the opportunity to catch up on ones that were missed in the vast ocean of programming.  One such show I've been binge watching this week is FOX's breakout hit Empire.

THE LOWDOWN

Music titan Lucious Lyon (Terrance Howard, Wayward Pines, Law & Order), diagnosed with a debilitating disease, is determined to groom on of his three sons - Andre (Trai Byers, 90210), Jamal (Jussie Smollett, On Our Own), and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) - to take over and run his multi-tiered company, Empire (think a modern take on King Lear).  He must also contend with the return of his wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, Person of Interest), who has been released from prison after serving 17 years for drug dealing. Cookie wants her cut and to be a part of her sons' lives once again.

This show is definitely engaging with plenty of drama, back-stabbing, infidelity, homosexuality, intense relationships, and definitely sass.  Henson is fantastic as Cookie, a woman who can elevate you to your best if she's on your side and cut you down if she's not. 


Howard and Henson have great chemistry, both when they/re loving and fighting. The supporting cast is also quite good, particularly Byers, Smollett and Gray - very believable as brothers.

Also fantastic is the music.  Rap and hip hop are not my usual cup of tea, but I definitely am looking to download some of the songs featured.  I like that the television landscape includes shows like Glee (sadly, now gone), Nashville and Empire that weave new music seamlessly into the storytelling.

Empire's pace is fast and a lot happens in each episode, which I like a lot. There's a great twist at the end of the season that changes the game and sets up an interesting future.  Empire has great guest stars, including Judd Nelson, Naomi Campbell and Gabourey Sibide, and looks to feature many music artists (Courtney Love had a nice two-ep arc; Snoop Dog also dropped in) in seasons to come.

I'm glad I gave Empire a look and will greatly anticipate its second season.

Empire returns to FOX this fall and is currently available on Hulu.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Farewell, Glee

 

Alas, another of my series leaves the airwaves.

I loved Glee right from the start.  It had a great pilot episode, was well cast, covered a terrific variety of songs from all genres (including some amazing mash-ups), and really captured realistically much of the issues and angst felt by teenagers, both who do and don't fit the norm. 


 

Overall, Glee had a strong run, adding in along the way talented new regulars like Darren Criss, Chord Overstreet, though it weakened when the original kids graduated from the fictional McKinley High in Lima, Ohio and a group of new kids were brought in to carry on the show choir torch, still led by choir director Will Schuster (Matthew Morrison) and tormented by perpetual villain Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch).  The new kids were talented, for sure, but just like Saved By The Bell: The New Class, they just didn't capture the magic and gelling of the originals. 

 

The show then tried to live two lives by following primary characters Rachel (Lea Michelle), Artie (Kevin McHale), Kurt (Chris Colfer), and Mercedes (Amber Riley) on their adventures in NYC, while still keeping roots in Lima

Eventually for its final season, almost all of the original cast - including Santana (Naya Rivera), Brittany (Heather Morris), Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), Puck (Mark Salling) and Quinn (Dianna Agron) appeared throughout, wrapping up by bringing us full circle in last night's series finale: hour one took us back to the formation of the original glee club and showed us how this group of misfit kids came together despite their differences and perceptions of each other (six years later, the now-adult actors actually pulled off playing their younger selves really well).  Hour two took us to the future to see where they ended up five years later.

I appreciated how Glee tackled issues like bullying, homosexuality, low self-esteem, cliques, and death, among others.  Especially poignant was how the death of star Cory Montieth was handled following his passing from drug abuse.  It was a fitting, touching tribute to the young actor. I always wrestled with the Sue character - how truly hateful and monstrous she could be and wasn't even a character you loved to hate, but they would throw in occasional moments that showed she did have a heart, so I overall felt divided with her.  But there were enough positives to make you accept any negatives that come with any long-running series.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this show and I will truly miss it.   Its characters, its music ... its glee.

Adieu.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review - iZombie

 

I preface this review with saying I am a huge fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars, two shows the CW's new series iZombie has been compared to early on.  Is it as fun and entertaining as those predecessors? Let's see ...

THE LOWDOWN

iZombie, developed by Rob Thomas (creator, Veronica Mars) and Diane Ruggiero (writer on VM)  is a loose adaptation of thecomic book series of the same name created by Chris Robertson and Michael Allred and published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. It stars Rose McIver (Masters of Sex) as Olivia "Liv" Moore, a medical student who, in a wrong-place-wrong-time scenario, becomes a zombie during an outbreak at a party.  Her new hunger for brains comes in handy when she finds she's able to see the memories of those she consumes, as well as the skills and abilities they possessed in life - a talent she uses to help solve their murders with the help of the medical examiner Ravi (Rahul Kohli) and police detective Clive (Malcolm Goodwin, Breakout Kings). Also stars David Anders (Once Upon a Time, The Vampire Diaries, Alias) and Molly Hagen (Herman's Head).

 

First, this show has an awesome opening title sequence that brilliantly compartmentalizes Liv's zombie origin and current position in life, done in comic-book graphics.  Second, even though this is yet another show with much voice-over by the lead character, it's not surprising here, given that Thomas did the same thing with VM.  It works strongly in both cases since both female leads have such a sassy and snarky disposition. 

The similarities between iZombie and Veronica Mars are actually numerous: the aforementioned spunky, intelligent, sleuthing lead female, the terrible-thing-happening-at-a-party (SPOILER!! - Veronica was drugged and raped at a party she went to; Liv ... was killed and became a zombie), the pop culture references, the fast, quippy dialogue ( love the line "So you are what you eat isn't just a bitchy thing my mother says about fat people").

 

I like the physical transformation they've created for Liv, from normal, healthy-palor and dark blond hair to albino-like white hair and colorless skin (above is just post-death).  It's weird to her family and friends but not so weird you'd suspect she's the living dead.  Unlike the typical zombie we've some to know from Romero films, The Walking Dead, etc., Liv is fully functional, has all her faculties and fits in to society like a normal person ... she just happens to live for brains (hey, at least she mixes them with noodles and hot sauce).


I really liked the pilot and this show definitely fits into the CW's landscape, which features other other-wordly creatures like angels, demons and monsters (Supernatural), vampires (The Vampire Diaries), superheroes (Arrow, The Flash) and virgins who get pregnant (Jane the Virgin).  Tee hee.


Having Liv work in a morgue is a smart move, giving her an endless supply of food and also a convenient outlet for her new gift. The supporting characters are ok, but it's McIver's show, hands-down, though I anticipate more of Anders, who I hear is going to be the Spike of this show (loved his arc on Buffy).  I'm definitely on board for more iZombie.

BOTTOM LINE:  This show has bite!


iZombie airs Tuesdays at 9pm on the CW.











Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Farewell, Parks and Recreation


Another massive binge-watch pays off!

Admittedly I resisted NBC's Parks and Recreation for most of its seven-season run.  Frankly, I'm not usually a fan of this type of comedy (workplace-documentary style a la The Office).  Even when a good friend of mine began recurring, I still didn't watch.  But when a lull in the regular TV season came along and I had the chance to binge on a series, I chose P&A and I'm so glad I did, especially since I was able to catch up just in time to enjoy the last few episodes (series finale aired last night) right along with everyone else.

 

This perky ensemble comedy features a family of delightful, rich, fully-realized characters who work in the Parks Dept. of Pawnee, Indiana, led by the eternally positive public servant pistol Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live), along with steadfast man's man Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman, Children's Hospital), hustling entrepreneur/mogul wannabe Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari, Bob's Burgers), perpetually sarcastic and apathetic April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza, Portlandia), loser boyfriend-turned sweet-hearted goof Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy, The O.C.), fitness-obsessed optimist Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe, Brothers & Sisters), accountant and finely butted Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott, Tell Me You Love Me), nurse and Leslie BFF Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones, Web Therapy), sassy diva Donna Meagle (Retta) and sweet, bumbling, butt-of-every-joke Gary Gergich (Jim O'Heir).


Over the course of the show this loveable group tackles highs and lows, successes and failures, job changes, marriage, children and more, all under the loving eye of Leslie, who was determined to have all her dreams and the dreams of those she loves come true and stay endlessly positive, even when her beloved town repeatedly let her down.  It only made her work harder and made her simultaneously annoying and endearing, a feat accomplished to perfection by Poehler.


I wasn't won over right away but I stuck with the binge, determined to make it through, It turned in season three when Scott and Lowe joined the cast.  That's when it really gelled and came alive for me, and I started to heartily laugh out loud consistently, eagerly anticipating each next episode. 

I'm so happy the show was given a final season to properly wrap things up, which they did so cleverly, first by time-jumping ahead to the year 2017 to see where everyone was at, then, in last night's finale, jumping ahead again to various years in the future (2019, 2022, 2025) to see how they each progressed in their lives while still keeping in touch with each other.

Thanks to Hulu and I think also Netflix for having the entire series available to those of us who came to the P&A party late and to revisit again and again.  If you're like me and haven't watched, please set aside time to visit Pawnee and its kooky, adorable members of the Parks Dept. You'll be glad you did!


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review - The Odd Couple


Why, CBS, Why?

On the eve when in my opinion one of the worst sitcoms on TV finally ends (good riddance Two and a Half Men!), CBS opts to premiere the remake of The Odd Couple, sufficiently filling Men's god-awful shoes.

THE LOWDOWN (though probably not necessary to most people)
This latest version, based on Neil Simon's 1965 play of the same name, stars Matthew Perry (Friends, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) as sportscaster and eternal slob Oscar Madison, and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!, Sean Saves the World) as uptight neat freak Felix Unger, two former college buddies who become unlikely roommates after the demise of their marriages. It’s not long after Oscar lets Felix move in that Oscar fears he’s made a monumental mistake. However, despite how exasperated they make each other, these mismatched friends agree they can help each other move on from their divorces and somehow make their crazy living arrangement work.

Personally, I have a long history with The Odd Couple.  I watched the original TV version starring Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar - which was incredibly funny and well-played. 

 

I watched the movie starring legends Jack Lemmon as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar - that brought stage to screen. 

 

And I starred in the female version of the play in high school (the characters became Florence (me) and Olive). It's a great premise and made for some fun comedy ... in those other versions.  Here it's sad, a little desperate, completely unoriginal, unnecessary and a waste of the talent of its cast.

Yep, it's really terrible.

 

To see talents like Perry, who is trying waaaaay to hard and is completely miscast (he co-created this version, so he no doubt got to choose his role), Lennon (who is more believable but doing really nothing original), Yvette Nicole Brown (Community) - maybe she'll come back to Greendale when this monstrosity goes away? - and Dave Foley (News Radio, Hot in Cleveland) just stagnant in this crap ... ugh.

The pilot literally slam-packs the play into 22 minutes, even using lines directly pulled right from the script (I should know, I spoke and reacted to them when I did the play!).  Lennon has adopted his version of Felix's sinus-clearing honk, but ultimately no one can beat Randall's.  The disarray of Oscar's apartment we first see in the pilot's opening scene looks forced and unauthentic (hanging shirts randomly about does not a true slob make).

I could go on but frankly, I'd rather not waste any more time on this debacle.  Hopefully this new-old Odd Couple will have a mercifully short life and free up the cast to do better things (Yvette, Community!  Matthew, another Studio 60!).  If you can find it, the Randall-Klugman series is so much more worth watching, as is the film.

The Odd Couple airs Thursdays at 8:30pm on CBS.


(If I had half a TV I'd use that.  This whole one is generous.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Review - Better Call Saul

 

Many a successful series has tried to continue magic created by spinning off a regular or popular character into their own show.  Some have succeeded (The Jeffersons and Maude came from All in the Family, Mork & Mindy from Happy Days, Frasier from Cheers, Xena from Hercules, The Flash from Arrow, multiple Law & Orders,CSIs and NCISs from the originals), some not (A Different World (The Cosby Show), Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (Criminal Minds), some of the aforementioned Law & Orders and CSIs).  So when AMC announced that it was spinning off Bob Odenkirk's sleazy, fast-talking lawyer character Saul from the Brilliant Breaking Bad into his own series, I personally wondered if the character could carry a show on his own.  I mean, it's a great supporting character that added a lot to BB, but is it an interesting enough one with enough individual story to carry on as the lead?  Tonight, we got to see.

THE LOWDOWN

Created by Vince Gilligan (who also created BB), Better Call Saul is a prequel to BB, taking us six years before Saul became Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) lawyer. When we meet him, he's not yet Saul, but instead is Jimmy McGill, a small-time public defender searching for his destiny, and, more immediately, hustling to make ends meet.

 

Working alongside, and often against, Jimmy is "fixer" Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the popular hitman introduced in BB. The series tracks Jimmy's transformation into Saul Goodman, the man who puts "criminal" in "criminal lawyer" and "the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy ... who knows a guy."  The series co-stars Michael McKean (Smallville, The X-Files), Rhea Seehorn (Franklin & Bash), Patrick Fabian (Big Love), and Michael Mando (Orphan Black).

The pilot opened with a beautiful black-and-white vignette.  At first you're not sure of the time period because of the music played and vague close-ups, but eventually we see its a modern day mall, specifically a Cinnabon.  We see a balding, bespeckled, mustached man making the rolls and doing his job.  He looks like any average joe.  But knowing the show we're watching, we know it's actually Saul, in his new, unflashy, mundane life as Joe Nobody, having had to ditch his old persona for his own freedom and safety after the events that happened in BB's final season.  As we later see him in his sparse little home, we see that he still longs for his old life as he watches an old tape of his Better Call Saul cemmercials.  Man, the guy has a sad existence.

 

But then we're taken back to an undisclosed year (a time when VHS still existed) where we see Saul, or Jimmy, in his lawyer years, feeling like the king of the courtroom, showcasing with confidence and bravado.  No denying we're in for a fascinating trip from A (Jimmy) to B (Saul and his current life).  The series has already been picked up for season 2, so we'll get pretty far on that path).

Odenkirk lives and breathes this character and it shows.  You kinda wanna shower after contact with him - I mean, the desperation alone - but you also feel for the guy (he drives a piece of crap car and his office is in the back of a manicure shop, for cripes sake!).  I love the way the show is shot (at least the pilot, which was helmed by Gilligan).  There's a particularly brilliant car accident shot from inside the car that makes you feel shaky like it happened to you. 

While this isn't Breaking Bad - a must-see series for anyone and everyone - it does have a draw that makes you want to take the ride to see just how Saul's progression came about and all the ups and downs that will inevitably be involved, though seriously, how can things be any lower for him at time we first meet him here?  There were so many surprises in BB you never saw coming, you can trust in Gilligan and his team to continue that brilliance here, though maybe in a different way.  For that reason, and for its great cast, I'll commit to this 10-episode run and look forward to the unfolding of Saul's story.



Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10pm on AMC.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review - Fresh off the Boat

 

ABC premiered its latest family comedy tonight, Fresh off the Boat.  Certainly seems like the right network for it seeing as how ABC has the most family-centered sitcoms on the air right now, most f them big successes including Modern Family, The Middle, The Goldbergs and most recently, Black-ish.  From what I know, this seems like the Asian version of the latter, and since I didn't really care for that one, I wondered how I would feel about this.  So what did I think?

THE LOWDOWN
In Fresh off the Boat, it’s the '90s and 12 year old, hip-hop loving Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) just moved to suburban Orlando from DC’s Chinatown with his parents Louis and Jessica (Randall Park, seen recently in the infamous movie The Interview playing Kim Jong Un, and Constance Wu). It’s culture shock for his immigrant family in this comedy about pursuing the American Dream. Co-stars Ian Chen and Forrest Wheeler as siblings Even and Emery.

Going in, I was pretty sure this sitcom was going to be full of Asian stereotypes, which would be a shame, being that this is the first Asian family-focused show that I can name as ever existing on TV (there aren't that many Asians on air/recently on air I can actually name en masse, save Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park on CBS' Hawaii Five-0, John Cho on the recently cancelled Selfie, Margaret Cho on the recently ended Drop Dead Diva and Jadyn Wong on CBS' Scorpion, to name a few).

 

Right off the bat I felt like I was watching an Asian version of The Goldbergs: a period piece (TG takes place in the 80s, this in the mid-90s) with voice-over from the center-focus kid as an adult (TG, it's Adam, here it's Eddie) as he describes what life in his family was like (both shows coincidentally are based on their real respective childhoods).  Eddie's adult self sounds like a rap-gangsta wannabe, which they establish by showing younger Eddie's hip-hop fascination (complimented by the show's soundtrack). 

Mom Jessica is the only one with a thick Asian accent and there are no Asian-typical names (though they apparently have them by birth, as shown when Eddie's teacher attempts to introduce him to the class, brutally slaughtering the pronunciation ...  the clan seemingly opts for easier American names), so they're not playing up the stereotype nearly as much as the forced attempt to portray suburban neighborhood moms who cluster together in a brightly-dressed cult-like manner (we first meet them as they roll by in their daily group rollerblading outing, giant smiles and aweness over their new ethnic neighbors - guess there really aren't a lot of Asians in Florida).  Of course Jessica jumps right in to make an effort to fit in, despite hating every minute of it.  Can't say she's necessarily a character to root for.  I have more respect for TG's Wendy McLendon-Covey's smothering Beverly (she is who she is and apologizes for and conforms to nothing).  I do appreciate Jessica's tendency to be passive-aggressive with Louis, but it's not funny enough. 

Part of the story involves Louis fulfilling his dream to own a western-themed restaurant.  See, that's supposed to be funny too, I think ... what could be more fish out of water?  What's funnier than a fish-out-of-water element, right?  Here, it's not so much.  Also, I've never been to DC's Chinatown, but as portrayed here it supposedly is very close to life in China, as we are shown when Jessica goes shopping at a very clean, quiet grocery store but yearns for the Taiwanese markets that "made her feel so calm" - to which we cut to a jam packed market full of people shouting all at once while clutching and grabbing for the surrounding food.  Obviously mom is not happy with the Americanization of her family.

Guess that's why they call this Fresh Off the Boat? Because it's such a culture shock for the family, even though they didn't move directly from Taiwan, but just from a different part of America?  Title would make more sense with the former.

I do respect the message given to us at the close of the pilot episode, about why Louis uprooted his family to their new home and wants to stick it out despite their initial obstacles (Jessica's displeasure (the humidity is murder on her hair), the change in culture, Eddie being bullied at school (the show actually had a classmate call him c**nk - pretty bold considering the severity of that word).  After Eddie fought back and Louis and Jessica defended his actions to the principal, Louis laid it out for his family:

 

"I'm sorry for what happened to Eddie but it's going to make him stronger.  In fact coming to this new place, it's going to make us all stronger.  I came down here and opened a wild west restaurant because this is the wild west!  A lawless land only for the bravest of families.  There is opportunity here to make a better life for our family.  Things were okay for us in DC, but I want more than okay for us."

Can't argue with that.  Two episodes aired tonight, and the second brought Jessica more into the forefront, establishing that she is her own kind of smother (ABC really loves that character trait).  Still didn't win me over.  I guess there's room for only one type of this show for me, and it's The Goldbergs, which I highly recommend.  But if you like family comedy, ABC certainly has plenty to go around, and you may enjoy this show more than I did.  I welcome you to give it a shot (but really, The Goldbergs is funnier.)


Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8pm on ABC.