Didn’t I tell you that there’s a lot of TV to watch? It’s been a month since I last posted about the new shows in January and there have been a whole slew more. TV programmers seem to take more chances on the weird stuff (that’s the sci-fi/fantasy genre to us fans) in midseason, so that means there’s a lot that suits my taste. Let’s jump right in with the good and the bad.
Starting off with a wild card, Legion is the black sheep of the superhero genre (even more than Deadpool). Based on a character from the X-Men family, it’s the story of David Haller, the illegitimate son of Professor X himself. David is heir to vast psychic abilities (way stronger than ol’ pops), but mental illness (aka schizophrenia) puts him a bit out of control. The series (featuring Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens in the title role) doesn’t connect directly to much of the comic book backstory. In the show, David is being treated for schizophrenia in order to control his vast mental powers, but there isn’t much of the rest of the Marvel Comics mutant storyline that remains. Still, it’s a very retro, trippy experience. The show plays around with non-linear storytelling in a way that it’s a challenge to follow what scenes are past, present, or imaginary/delusional. There is a very heavy psychological bent to the script and the audience is struggling along with David’s mental anguish. Nevertheless, it’s far from depressing (partially thanks to Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza as David’s asylum-buddy). If this doesn’t sound appealing, and you’re more interested in super-powered action, I promise that by the end of the first episode, there’s a big payoff. Plus, by the second episode, we meet a bunch more characters with abilities that make you feel more like you’re hanging with the X-Men (though why the show does not use any Marvel brand-named characters is beyond me — perhaps it’s because the script-writers wanted to work with different abilities than what’s already on the Marvel roster). In any case, Legion is a very good, grown-up take on the super-powered TV series. I’m excited to follow where it leads.
For an almost opposite experience of the super-hero world, I give you DC’s Powerless. Instead of adding to the variety by way of a head-trip, DC has decided to hit the funny-bone with this workplace comedy set in the DC super-hero universe. Vanessa Hudgens plays Emily, a young manager who moves to Charm City (I think they just made that one up) to take over as director of an R&D division at Wayne Security. The show reminds me a lot of a series called Better Off Ted, which also poked fun at corporate life in an R&D department, but at Wayne Security they invent products to help people cope in a world full of supers (like Joker anti-venom or a wrist device that lights up when it detects a super-villain nearby). Part of the humour of this show is targeted at nerds like me who appreciate the fun had at the expense of comic-book cliches, but the other part is classic workplace humour: fitting in with a new team, pleasing an unworthy boss, etc. This division of Wayne Industries is headed by Van Wayne (played by Firefly‘s nerd-pleasing Alan Tudyk) who is constantly trying to get the attention and kudos of his much more successful cousin, Bruce (who he likes to call “B-Dubs”), and get reassigned to the Gotham office. The cast includes another nerd-friendly name, Danny Pudi from Community, who is actually less weird than he was as Abed. The first couple of episodes were OK, but they had me wondering if they would get the balance right between super-parody and office-comedy. At first they were really leaning on the latter, but by episode 3, I think they really hit the sweet-spot when the team suspected a co-worker of secretly being a super-hero, and when Emily and Van worked on landing a contract with the Atlanteans (who think of Aquaman as a celebrity). This nerd-bait show has a lot of potential and I am laughing more each week. Now if only they’d bring more actual DC characters into the show (even if it’s just for cameos). I’m a little disappointed by all the name-drops when the onscreen supers we actually see in the background are mostly new, poorly-made-up characters. Give me the real DC Comics B-list! Surely they can’t all be reserved for the movies and The CW.
Another comic book show, though one of a completely different stripe, Riverdale takes the classic Archie comic book series and reinvents it as a moody teen drama that is part Twin Peaks, part 90210 (or The OC or Gossip Girl, even Scream Queens, or plug in your own teen soap). The show playfully reimagines familiar characters such as Archie, the red-headed golden-boy athlete-musician; Betty and Veronica, the blonde-brunette archetype girlfriends; and Jughead, who’s gone from lovable, goofy friend to offbeat, surly hipster. I was not much of an Archie fan, so I don’t know how far afield the TV show has gone, but I suspect that there were no murders in the comics. Taking a cue for Twin Peaks, the show starts out with a murder mystery around who killed Jason Blossom, one half of the town’s spoiled, rich twin elite with his sister Cheryl. The mysteries deepen as secrets all around town start slipping out, most notably Archie’s jail-bait relationship with music teacher Ms. Grundy (who don’t look anything like the old white-haired dowager from the comics I’ve seen)! In typical teen soap style, the kids are all great looking, worldly, socially-savvy, and have the clever way-with-words that a teenager only gets from a staff of intentionally hip screenwriters. All the contrivances aside, I enjoy this kind of a show for all its scandalous twists and playful naughtiness. For those of you who remember its early days, enjoy Riverdale like you enjoyed Twin Peaks before all the bizarre, creepy insanity got the better of it.
This show had a potentially clever premise that made room for comment on the politics of law enforcement and tech-based business and industry, even while delivering some action-packed police drama. Unfortunately APB is really missing some well-thought-out writing to make that all come together. The show is about a tech billionaire who buys a police precinct in order to get justice after his friend is killed during a corner store robbery. Justin Kirk plays Gideon Reeves, the ego-driven mogul whose R&D division apparently invented all kinds of technology perfect for equipping a police force, including: fast armoured cars, remote-controlled drones, a tracking/mapping system that puts 24‘s CTU to shame, and a smartphone app to keep in touch with the locals. Part of me wishes that the creators of the show would have gone further with the technology, coming up with insanely advanced tech for these officers. As it is, what they’ve got seems only mildly interesting (despite the fact that this CEO seems to be spending all his time tinkering with the equipment himself each week to invent something new). It’s not very futuristic and it doesn’t seem like anyone’s given serious speculative thought to what kind of tech innovations would be useful for a real-world police force. Similarly, if a captain of the tech industry was throwing his corporate might behind a police precinct, there would be armies of staff and infrastructure deployed to make everything work. Instead Reeves himself and his capable data-scientist Ada seem to be the only ones available to help (though now they’ve brought a wrestler-turned-engineer/scientist into the mix). As a show, all success seems to be riding on the back of Justin Kirk, since his cocky maverick is the only interesting character on the show. There’s also Natalie Martinez as Murphy, a supposedly veteran beat cop who Reeves takes under his wing. Sadly she is already tiresome, the way she is always showing Reeves some kind of real-life truth that he can’t buy with all his tech-mogul success. Add to that, they’ve decided to make the mayor and his office into a kind of villain and nemesis to Reeves and his new project. Argh! I hate squandered potential and this show reeks of it. I wouldn’t give much for its chances.
The Santa Clarita Diet
If you thought Netflix was slowing down, think again. In addition to carrying Riverdale (at least in Canada), it also recently debuted an odd little series featuring Drew Barrymore as a wife, mom, realtor, and kind of a zombie. I wasn’t going to watch it at first because I really hate zombies and most shows and movies about the walking dead, but when I heard that this was a more Desperate Housewives kind of take on the sub-genre, I was intrigued. When one day Sheila doesn’t feel quite well and ends up projectile-vomiting gallons (I mean, they really overdid this part) of disgusting stuff, she finds that she loses her pulse but gains a very positive outlook. You would not think that hilarity would ensue, but as a kind of dark satire of suburban life, the combination is actually pretty fun. I would still love to fast-forward those parts where Sheila chows down on bloody body parts — so much blood and gore — but otherwise I’m enjoying things. Barrymore is alright in a relatively manic role, but it’s really Timothy Olyphant who shines. Joel is taking it all in stride as a supportive husband on the outside, while underneath you know that he’s just holding on to his wits by his fingertips. One of my favourite lines comes from him when they have trouble trying to think of justifiably expendable candidates to kill to feed Shiela’s hunger: “Where are all the single, young Hitlers?” Joel wonders. Absurd, right? Also, their daughter Abby’s disturbing nonchalance about all this (including the apparent victims of her mother’s hunger), and the nerdy neighbour boy who exchanges sci-fi knowledge about the undead for a chance to spend time with Abby, are a hoot as well. I have no idea how far a show like this can go, but if anything is fodder for this kind of parody it’s suburbia. Am I right?
I’m happy that there are new shows coming out that are truly new (i.e. not a reinvention or reboot) but do we have room in our hearts for one more attempt at making 24 work? The last time we had Jack Bauer running around, 24: Live Another Day took the franchise global but still lost my interest part way through the shortened series. I think I was just tired of seeing Kiefer Sutherland do the same things, the same plots, the same scenes again. It was starting to feel like self-parody. This new series seems to think that casting a new lead will solve things. Corey Hawkins plays Eric Carter, a former army-ranger who is targeted by a terrorist group after all his former army squad-mates are killed. Helping out Hawkins via his earpiece is Miranda Otto as Rebecca Ingram, the former head of CTU. Once again the clock is ticking, forcing everyone to take very desperate and drastic steps in order to save the day. Jack Bauer’s kind of “there’s no time” decision making is definitely at the heart of Carter’s choices as well. When he needs to come up with two million dollars to ransom a memory stick from his crazy former squad-mate, more logical courses of action give way to a plan to get arrested in order to steal the cash from a secure police evidence facility — Really? No better plans than that? — there’s no time! In the background, other plots are also in motion. CTU is once again a dimly-lit hotbed of potential moles and leaks. Plus, Ingram’s husband (played by Jimmy Smits) is running for office, so there’s that whole political angle coming out. I have to say that seeing the same kind of stories and plots through a new batch of characters does help blow out some of the cobwebs. Muslim terrorists again? Sleeper cells again? Maybe a new story would have helped even more — but there’s no time!
Coming back for its second season is a show that held the hopes of many a Battlestar Galactica fan, that complex, sophisticated sci-fi would actually entertain. I think this show’s still got a way to go to prove that, but after watching several season one episodes twice to get there, I think I am following the story to some degree. Last season saw former Star Helix detective Miller (played by Thomas Jane) and former ship captain Holden (played by Steven Strait) discovering that events in their crazy lives (including many people trying to kill and silence them and their allies) led to the body of Julie Mao, a former operative for the OPA rebel group, who was exposed to a deadly alien organism. In fact, the entire space station they were on was being used as an experiment by forces unknown to test out this “protomolecule” at the expense of thousands of lives. Luckily, Miller, Holden, and the remaining crew of “The Rocinante” spaceship were able to escape (as they had done all through the first season) and now they join forces with Fred Johnson — an OPA leader — to get more answers. Meanwhile, politics on Earth and Mars are starting to boil over as a new troupe of Martian marines are gearing up for conflict. The plot of the show is definitely confusing (I’ve probably made a few errors even in that brief summary) but I guess that’s the price we pay for realism in sci-fi. Obviously we don’t understand all the background and the motives for all the characters, but we want to avoid the contrivance of having it all explained to us in exposition (so we have to pick up the bits and pieces where we can) — and this is all from someone who’s already read the book! I am not the number one fan of space-wars (or any war stories), and frankly it was the Cylons that kept me enjoying BSG, but I think that The Expanse‘s blend of action scene with character-driven dialogue is well-done enough to keep me interested to see how this all plays out. I’m two episodes into the second season (so I’m not quite caught up) but things are really getting interesting.
The show quickly left behind its Harry Potter comparisons in season one, as its Hogwarts-for-grown-ups storyline gave way to the darker plot of defeating The Beast. Our snipey band of grad-school wizards found themselves shockingly betrayed by one of their own friends/allies as they were gearing up to defeat the “big bad”. Julia shook hands with The Beast in order to get his help to take revenge on an evil trickster god who had raped her and killed her friends. Now the rest of the gang is camped out in Fillory (the Narnia-esque magic realm of this series) preparing to once again face The Beast and Julia. I enjoy some of these Fillory story elements more than the Brakebills stuff. It’s fun to take a deeper look at this broad, magical world. Unsurprisingly, nothing is as innocent as you’d expect. The fictional Fillory books were supposed to be children’s books but the world is not a children’s world — this show is always quick to remind us of that. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the first book that this show is based upon, so I didn’t read any further. Now that we’re in season two I have no idea where the story is heading. Hopefully that will make it even more fun for me. I’ve only watched two episodes of this season so far, but I’m still enjoying it.
Planet Earth II
Finally, I wanted to make brief mention of the latest nature show which proves that even the BBC is not immune to sequel fever. Coming 10 years after its landmark series that brought us some incredible and unique images of nature (I’m still not over those unbelievable crystal caves!), Planet Earth II just started airing in North America (though it’s already long-finished in the UK). In the first episode, there was lots of amazing footage from various islands around the world, including a remote volcanic island near Antarctica where again we get to see the insane lengths to which penguins go to in order to feed their chicks. The visuals are, of course, breathtaking and I look forward to seeing what other wonders the rest of the series holds.
Even as I write this, new shows are popping up (including the HBO series Big Little Lies, created by David E. Kelly (of The Practice) and featuring amazing stars like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Alexander Skarsgard; Also The Good Fight — the sequel series to The Good Wife) and I cannot keep up, but it’s never a dull moment on TV now, is it?