Midseason is here again. It’s that time of year when TV networks (and a growing number of non-TV channels who are delivering episodic content) take a second run at catching the audience’s attention. It’s usually a time when some of the more outlandish/inventive shows come on, which the programming execs might have thought were too risky to debut in the fall. I watched only a few of them, but here’s my take on what I’ve seen.
Marvel’s Agent Carter
This is a limited-run series that spins off the character of Agent Peggy Carter (played again by Hayley Atwell) from the Captain America: The First Avenger movie — she was Captain America’s girlfriend. This series is part of the ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe that includes The Avengers (the movie), and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (the TV series). However, this show is set just after WW2 so it’s a prior generation to all those other characters. Carter works for a fictional US agency known as SSR (which is kind of like the NSA), but she’s clearly over-qualified for the work they have her doing from day to day. Unfortunately, the way she’s treated at her job is one of the things that made me dislike the show. There’s a running gag about how she’s much more capable than her male colleagues who chauvinistically look down on her because she’s a woman and continually treat her like a glorified secretary. The joke is always on them because the audience knows that she moonlights on her own secret missions where she’s continuing to “save the world”. Despite how the show repeatedly reminds us of her competence even within the sexist context of the 50s, Carter can still find herself hiding under a colleague’s desk when he is about to catch her breaking into it — and other types of bungling that really belongs more on a broad sitcom. Agents of SHIELD also had a slow start. However, since this is a limited series to begin with, I gave up on it pretty quickly as I don’t think it has the room to grow and establish itself.
Remember that 1996 Terry Gilliam sci-fi movie where Bruce Willis was sent back in time to prevent a planet-killing plague, and where Brad Pitt played a mental patient and was nominated for an Oscar? Well they’ve remade it as a TV series starring Aaron Stanford in Willis’s former role as James Cole (Stanford played Pyro in the X-Men movies, and also had a big role in Nikita — another movie-to-TV remake) and Amanda Schull (who played Katrina — Mike’s quasi-nemesis on Suits) in the role of Dr. Reilly that Madeline Stowe kinda played in the movie version. Confused? Well, don’t worry because you won’t really need your smarts for the show (at least not compared to the twisty head-trip that the movie was). The TV series has so far mostly been an “on the run” kind of story line where Cole has come back in time and is trying to stop the destructive events that led to the plague that kills billions in his time. Dr. Reilly is roped into helping him, and together they chase after clues while being chased by various groups themselves. I hope there’s a lot more to come which really expands the universe of the story, but so far it’s very unimpressive. Everything seems done somewhat cheaply (Darn! There’s that overly-colourful lighting that supposedly adds a bit of creepiness to these kinds of low-budget sci-fi shows). They’re going to be introducing the character that Pitt played but they’ve gender-bent the role so he’s a she. I’ll give this show a few more chances, but like so many attempts at sci-fi success in recent seasons, this show doesn’t seem original enough (in fact it has similarities to Continuum) and not just because it’s a remake.
At first I only intended to watch this new series about a hip-hop music mogul and his family drama because I thought it was going to be a musical show (like a hip-hop Glee). However, though the show does feature a lot of music, it’s kept in a real world context (i.e. musical numbers don’t represent characters’ imagination or interior monologues, but rather actual performances like recording sessions, concerts, music videos, etc.). Nevertheless, I got sucked in from a totally different angle that I didn’t expect: the soap opera angle. The lead character of Lucious Lyon is played by former Oscar nominee Terence Howard, and his main antagonist is his ex-wife Cookie (played by fellow former Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson who was also last seen dying on the TV series Person of Interest). Cookie is released from prison where she’s spent the last 14 years, having taken the fall for Lucious when they were dealing drugs. She’s come back to reclaim not only her family (they have three sons together) but also half of Lucious’s musical empire. Henson plays Cookie as a larger-than-life character who repeatedly barges in on meetings and makes her intentions known. A rivalry is formed between two of the sons when each parent backs the music careers of one and not the other. With her ex-wifely ferocity, not to mention her animal prints and big sunglasses, I could not help but be reminded by Cookie of Joan Collins’s character Alexis Carrington on Dynasty. I realize that most viewers will probably not be old enough to even know what Dynasty was, but there are a number of parallels between this show and that classic series. This show is similarly far from subtle or sophisticated, and its characters are definitely caricatures of black men and women in the entertainment industry (Do they really need to use “po po” instead of “police” and “belee” instead of “believe”?) — in the same way that Alexis was a shoulder-pad-wearing, drink tossing, face-slapping exaggeration of a rich, white woman. Even though I am not a hip-hop/R&B fan myself, as a former Dynasty fan I’ve missed this kind of melodrama and this show has me hooked.
A Disney-powered show, with musical numbers by composer Alan Menken (he worked on mega-hits including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast to name a few), Galavant was probably my most anticipated midseason show, but ironically, I ended up not liking it at all. The story of Sir Galavant, is meant to be a satire of the medieval fairytale where the heroic knight saves the damsel from the wicked tyrant and they live happily ever after. In this version, she’d rather stay with the tyrant king and the knight is left a wallowing loser. The ironic take on the fairytale has already been so overdone (see also Shrek, Spamalot) that a TV series really needed something more. Unfortunately that was not to be found in the musical numbers, which were pretty repetitive (the Galavant theme music is used over and over for almost anyone talking/singing about him). Of course, the way everything is flipped around, where everyone is selfish and cynical rather than noble and romantic, gets tired quickly as well. It seems like the act of taking a genre traditionally meant for kids and filling it with ostensibly grown-up stuff (such as the fact that the queen is screwing around with the jester) has painted this show into a corner.
The Man in the High Castle
Did you know that Amazon releases original scripted content? (In fact, one of their shows just won at the Golden Globe awards.) They do this thing called “Pilot season” where they put a bunch of pilot episodes for new shows online and ask viewers to vote for which ones they want to see made into series. (Sadly the show I liked from last year, Chris Carter’s The After was going to be made into a series but Amazon decided to pull out.) The Man in the High Castle is a sci-fi show built on a very interesting premise: What if the Axis powers won WW2? The story is set in a USA that has been divided into two halves: one is ruled by Germany, the other by Japan. One of the main characters (played by Alexa Davalos) is inadvertently sent on the run when her sister is killed in front of her, leaving her with a mysterious package that people seem to be coming after. The other character, Joe Blake, joins up with the rebels to help transport some secret cargo. While I would have been interested in this show even if it had merely been about characters fighting against tyranny in this alternate USA, there’s an additional Lost-style mystery added by what is revealed to be in those mysterious packages — I’ll tell you it’s a film, but what’s on the film is the real game-changer. Similar to how at the end of the Lost pilot the broadcast that the castaways heard was a twist that really piqued my interest, I am super-intrigued to see what happens in this series (so Amazon better go ahead and make the show!).
Along with the new shows, Glee and Parks and Recreation also returned for both their final seasons. Glee seems to be resetting things by leaving NYC behind and returning to Lima and McKinley High to start a glee club again with new students (this time with Rachel and Kurt as the teachers instead of Mr. Schue). Parks and Recreation did the opposite by continuing last season’s three-year time-jump by pitting friends and colleagues against each other in a bid for land. Leslie wants the land for a national park but some of the others are working with Gryzzl (a fictional internet business) who wants to build a campus in Pawnee. I think both shows will have fun final seasons, but it’s clear that they are winding down and using their remaining vigor to go out on a high note.