Tag Archives: Series Premiere

Series Premiere: The Philanthropist – “Pilot”

PhilanthropistTitle

“Pilot”

June 24th, 2009

The Philanthropist has been a rather rocky development process for NBC, with numerous showrunner switches and some changes of vision in terms of what the show was supposed to be. The result is that it’s airing later than it was supposed to, hustled off into the summer months like it’s a half-baked Canadian (Worst. Canadian. Ever.) co-production rather than a globetrotting drama with a pretty high-profile cast. And while part of me thinks that this is strange since it seems like it could be quite a compelling piece of television programming, I sort of see their logic.

The Philanthropist is a show that derives its setup almost entirely from the notion of experience, as hero Teddy Rist is changed overnight from a billionaire who pays lip service to charity work to someone who risks his life in order to deliver cholera vaccine to a Hurricane-ravaged village in Nigeria. The pilot is all about us experiencing that moment with him, told as a story to an disbelieving waitress in a bar in the middle of nowhere. That experience, though, is a highly isolated one, as really it is only James Purefoy’s Rist who gets anything close to a setup here. This is his show, without question, and right now there doesn’t appear to be much of a story or characters around him to really go beyond that.

However, since Purefoy remains extremely charming, speaking here in his native accent even, it seems like that’s enough for the show, at least in its pilot. Not trying to bring characters to the various supporting players, and choosing to define them almost exclusively based on their relationships with our protagonist, this is a slavishly linear adventure of how a billionaire turned into a one man foreign aid machine, a transformation that Purefoy sells that that is honestly quite fun to watch, a sort of 24: Redemption meets Burn Notice kind of scenario that hits buttons both emotional and comic. They haven’t quite created a show around him yet, but as an experiential introduction into this world the pilot’s an effective tool for convincing me to give the show a shot.

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Series Premiere: Merlin – “The Dragon’s Call”

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“The Dragon’s Call”

June 21st, 2009

[Two episodes of the BBC/NBC co-production Merlin air tonight on NBC at 8pm EDT (“The Dragon’s Call” and “Valiant”), but the below review sticks to the pilot – really, I just didn’t have much interest in seeing another episode when the show’s formula had pretty much been set up already.]

I once wrote a paper on what I called the near unadaptability (not a word, but I’m okay with that) of the Arthurian Legend on film, at least based on the work of Sir Thomas Malory in writing Le Morte Darthur, considered the definitive version of the myth. Now, yes, Excalibur is considered to be a worthwhile film in and of itself, but as an adaptation it fails to capture those elements of Malory’s text which make it so distinctive: a unique code of honour, for example, that finds its conflict not between individuals or based on love triangles but in a code of ethics that remains foreign to those who haven’t studied the text intricately. By turning the conflict into one between individuals and not between their actions and this code, films tend to lose track of the fact that Malory is writing about the fall of an entire kingdom more than the fall of one man – despite containing heroism and capturing a spirit of adventure, the text is ultimately a tragic story of the powerlessness of a king to save his own people, a narrative that may never be properly put to film.

However, at the time, I hadn’t really considered the notion of a television adaptation of the material, which is strange considering my role as a critic. Generally, I treat any adaptation of the Arthurian Legend with great skepticism, knowing it has expectations too high to properly capture what drew me to write my thesis based on the material, and the BBC/NBC co-production Merlin is no exception to this role. In fact, presented as it was as a hip reimagining of the legend, finding Arthur and Merlin as teenagers in the origin of their complicated relationship, I had every reason to avoid the show like some sort of plague, writing it off as an attempt to treat this epic medieval romance as a superhero origin story.

But, as both a student of the Arthurian Legend and as a critic of television, it seems like I should offer my thoughts in order to fill in some gaps and try to explain how, in all honesty, this isn’t actually a terrible idea. Yes, it’s poorly executed and loses track of its purpose about fifteen times in the span of its pilot, but the relationship between Arthur and Merlin is actually a fairly interesting one, and if I were to ever suggest a way to take the epic scale of this story and turn it into a television show this would be a pretty strong pitch.

The resulting show, of course, is a hodgepodge of Lord of the Rings and Smallville, entirely missing the real potential in this particular period of their lives. However, the show does demonstrate the ways in which a television format may actually be the right way to tackle this material, just not quite with as many wacky hijinks as we see here.

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Season Premiere: Weeds – “Wonderful Wonderful”

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“Wonderful Wonderful”

June 8th, 2009

There are not many cool things in Nancy Botwin’s life.

This isn’t something sudden: as each subsequent season has gone forward, things have become more and more tense. The show’s fourth season was yet another shift in a direction where things are decidedly uncool for Nancy Botwin, a suburban mother who has been removed from suburbia and in many ways was no longer a mother as one son grew up and the other drifted into his own awkwardness. It resulted in a different sort of show, one where we are asked to laugh at situations removed from our own experience and, in all honesty, that are actually quite dangerous. The threat of the Mexican mafia was almost entirely without the humour of Marvin (during the U-Turn arc of Season Three), or the injection of Conrad and Heylia to keep the business from seeming quite that dangerous.

I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing: I thought the fourth season was a strong one for Nancy’s character, even if it took her away from the show’s original intention or purpose, and we can’t begrudge a show evolution moving into its fourth season. The problem is that the show is as schizophrenic as ever, with Nancy’s storyline proving so dire and dramatic that the absurdist comedy feels dichotomous, splitting the show into two separate parts. I like both of those parts, depending on who’s involved, but the show goes out of its way in “Wonderful Wonderful” to emphasize that, at least at first, there’s no room for the two to interact, a problem that will need to be rectified sooner rather than later if the season is to get off to a strong start.

For now, it remains poignant and capable of some strong humour, which makes it an ideal dark comedy on paper if not quite in practice – now it just needs to build on that.

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Series Premiere: Nurse Jackie – “Pilot”

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“Pilot”

June 8th, 2009

There’s a pretty common element in nearly every review of Showtime’s new “comedy” (I’ll get to that distinction in a second), and it’s something that I can’t really speak to. Sepinwall and Fienberg both have thoughts on how Edie Falco, who earned numerous accolades for her role as Carmela Soprano on HBO’s hit drama series The Sopranos, adapts to a very different role, but I don’t really know how different it is. As I’ve blogged about before, The Sopranos remains my biggest and perhaps most detrimental blind spot in terms of the television in the last decade: not willing to shell out for the expensive DVDs, I’ve been left not quite understanding what David Chase’s show really meant outside of being able to know that his training did Matthew Weiner well (Mad Men). And now, with Falco moving on to star in Nurse Jackie, it’s quite a similar situation: I don’t precisely understand what Falco did before, but certainly that experience hasn’t lessened her ability as an actress.

This isn’t a comedy by traditional standards, but for Showtime it’s pretty well par for the course: debuting after Weeds (a show that has become more and more dramatic as time’s gone by) and in the wake of United States of Tara (which always veered closer to drama than comedy), the show is nonetheless a viable comic vehicle while maintaining a more dramatic core. The reason is that either in comedy or in drama, both of which we see in the premiere, the show remains starkly human. Jackie is ultimately driven by saving people, and perhaps her greatest fault is that her efforts to save herself take the form of far more destructive behaviour than and other her unethical practices done within the context of her job.

It’s the right recipe for the series, placing a conflicted and complicated protagonist in a situation where both her cynicism and her optimism are continually tested, although I don’t think anyone could argue it is a particularly unique one. That said, the pilot demonstrates a keen sense of this character, brought to life with strength by Falco, and the universe she inhabits, which is what any pilot is supposed to do.

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Series Premiere: Royal Pains – “Royal Pains”

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“Royal Pains”

June 4th, 2009

You know, pilots are kind of a pain.

They’re a necessary evil: they exist in order to give us an understanding of how a show is going to work, which is an important thing to sell a network and potential viewers on before they commit to ordering, or watching, more episodes. But the result is often that a lot of character and plot development that should be given time to unfold naturally is checked off at a blistering pace. It’s possible to make a great pilot, but those people are both few and far between and definitely not working behind the scenes at USA Network’s Royal Pains.

As a critic, it’s hard to really confront a pilot as obnoxiously contrived as this one, because you run into a problem: considering that it’s our role to judge a show based on its potential, and considering that the contrivances are more pilot shorthand than inherent to the show’s formula, you can’t spend too much time complaining about something that is par for the course. And while Burn Notice has given us some fairly high expectations about what a USA Network “procedural” is capable of being, this show does not appear to have similar aspirations, and it’s not really fair to judge it as if it does.

So taking into account its contrivances, and its ham-fisted parallels, and its tendency to rush its way through storylines that should probably be given a bit more time, Royal Pains managed to do enough to convince me that as a piece of escapist summer entertainment the show might not be such a pain after all.

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Series Premiere: Glee – “Pilot”

GleeTitle

“Pilot”

May 19th, 2009

As always, as a less than official TV critic, I haven’t been amongst those lucky enough to have seen FOX’s new series, Glee, ahead of time. This is not usually an issue, as I’m able to avoid any spoilers or any really strong opinions on these shows, but ignoring Glee has been nearly impossible. Between the constant deluge of ads that FOX has been deploying, and between every TV critic under the sun having extremely polarizing reactions to the series, ignoring Glee has been fundamentally impossible. People either love the show or, well, they agree that there’s other people other than themselves who will probably love it.

Amazingly, however, I managed to keep myself from seeing a single clip, or more than a few images, from the series: sure, I’ve seen the criticism, but this unique musical television “event” (premiering after American Idol despite not truly debuting until the Fall) remains entirely unspoiled in terms of its tone and in terms of its execution (although I’ve obviously listened to the critics enough to know some things to look out for). As a result, I can honestly say that I went into Glee with, primarily, no real expectations one way or the other. The result?

I’m a little bit in love.

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Series Premiere: Party Down – “Willow Canyon Homeowner’s Annual Party”

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“Willow Canyon Homeowner’s Annual Party”

March 20th, 2009

Coming into this television year, Rob Thomas had the potential to be the next Greg Berlanti, coming off of one canceled show and suddenly ending up with about three of them balancing the airwaves. He was the first person to take a crack at bringing back 90210, he got a new version of his 90s series Cupid up and running at ABC, and there was something about some half hour comedy on Starz, I never really remembered the details.

And yet, by some twist of fate, 90210 was taken out of his hands early on, and Cupid’s release was delayed by ABC (although it will soon arrive, on March 31st). The result is that, while we could have technically had more Rob Thomas than we could handle on our hands, all we have is the quirky Party Down, a show that surprises a lot of people not just for being on a network that people don’t associate with original series but also because it features a lot of very familiar, and very hilarious, faces.

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a show about washed up, or aspiring, showbiz types would be engaging, but what could have felt tedious finds that right balance between formulaic and spontaneous, pitting these archetypes against one another in a setting where their only job is to wear a crisp white shirt, a pink bow tie, and serve food, drink, and entertainment as per the client’s requests.

And while it might not have been “on the radar,” Party Down is worth searching out.

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Series Premiere: Kings – “Goliath”

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“Goliath”

March 15th, 2009

The reasons for Kings’ failure to garner anything above a downright abysmal debut on Sunday night are a literal smorgasbord of criteria. Originally planned as a midseason replacement for ER before that show has its run extended when its ratings stabilized early in the season, Kings instead gets a mid-season launch at the worst possible time. Viewers haven’t taken to any of NBC’s new shows, and even its returning shows are struggling to stay afloat, so there’s no “What’s on NBC tonight?” to drive people to a new series. Airing on Sundays without a lead-in is yet another punishment, but unlike a show like Dollhouse, which can count on some substantial Friday evening DVR use, one doesn’t feel like Sunday night is bound to get the same level of uptick. And with Jay Leno set to take over five hours of primetime, the chances of the show garnering strong enough ratings to get itself a second season were slim to none even before the rather embarassing numbers came in.

But let’s throw that out the window for a moment and consider that, while up until last evening this was the only context for Kings in my mind, giving the show’s pilot a chance creates a substantially different reaction. While at its core the show emerges as a sort of monarchical soap opera, there is something in the show’s setting and its subtle compexities which gives it an air of something deserving of more than four million viewers, or at the very least a spot on a network where four million viewers would be considered a success. Led by Ian McShane, the cast is up to the challenge of getting through a lot of exposition in these two hours, setting the stage for an epic war that seems more than vaguely familiar the more we go along, but with more than enough shades of grey in characters’ motivations to create the kind of volatile instability that could sustain an audience.

Unfortunately, it’s an audience that didn’t even show up the first time around.

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Series Premiere: Dollhouse – “Ghost”

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“Ghost”

February 13th, 2009

According to logic, and the internal methodology given to Echo before an important mission, you can’t fight a Ghost. And, let’s be realistic, you can’t really pin one down either, trying to define it by regular rules of physics or biology ultimately proving a futile task.

In many ways, Dollhouse is a Ghost of Television, a show that is very tough to pin down and has almost no interest in trying to have this happen. The series, like the actives who are part of the Dollhouse roster, can be wiped clean after every episode, so it is very difficult to judge the pilot as we would normally judge a pilot. The point here is not to actually pin anything down, but to demonstrate for the viewer the types of things they might see and, most importantly, the types of things that we should keep an eye out for in the future.

And, as such, there’s something difficult about passing judgment on this as an actual series. All we can really do is take the parts that we’re given here that we know will remain constant and begin to judge them, but even then the show is going to be meandering all over the place and those parts might be able to rise to the occasion better than we currently realize. It makes all of this, well, a little bit inconsequential; I have a feeling that week by week I’ll be chiming in with another opinion that’s been altered from the week previous, something that with time could get a little old.

For now, though, I’m along for the ride, for two main reasons: because I think the show has some potential as a serialized procedural, and because I’m mildly afraid that the Whedon fans will hunt me down and break my legs if I don’t.

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Series Premiere: Life on Mars – “Out Here in the Fields”

“Out Here in the Fields”

October 9th, 2008

Over the summer, the internet was graced with what seemed like a gift: an early look at one of the fall’s most anticipated pilots, David E. Kelley’s adaptation of the British hit Life on Mars. People watched, and there was much negativity as it relates to the show’s relationship with the British original and generally what one would call a feeble opener for the series.

But then an amazing thing happened: the pilot changed. It changed producers, it changed locations, and it changed every one of its cast members but one. While I can’t speak to the British original (I know, I know, forgive me), I can say that these are, in fact, improvements across the board. It isn’t that the original cast was awful, but rather that they felt like an ensemble not quite capable enough to live up to the show’s premise. Here, we have a group of actors with some pedigree working on a show that, with some more refinement, can certainly rise to a higher level.

The biggest difference of all between these two pilots, though, is that this one has us wondering whether they can keep up this level of quality, and not whether they will be able to create any quality at all. Considering that a victory.

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