Friday, December 11, 2015

Recent television in some of the less traveled pathways...

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)
Midtown (TuffTV broadcast/Amazon streaming)
Everyone's Crazy But Us (Funny or Die/YouTube streaming)
The Hotwives of Atlanta (Hulu)
No, You Shut Up! (Fusion cablecast/YouTube streaming)
W/Bob & David (Netflix)
The Price of More (Crackle streaming)
Falcón (CinéMoi cable/streaming)
Spotless (Esquire Network/streaming)
Flesh and Bone (Starz)

Though to refer to Netflix, Amazon, or certainly YouTube as less-travelled pathways generally than broadcast or the larger cable channels is almost wrong these days, it isn't, quite, yet, in terms of viewership of at the highest levels, which still clusters to broadcast, or the odd megahit on cable such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. And these series might, with the probable exception of the first (one of two miniseries based on classic sf novels we'll see this season, along with Childhood's End on the SyFy Channel), easily pass by those who aren't keeping an eye out for them.

The Man in the High Castle is, of course, based on Philip K. Dick's novel of the same title (referred to rather awkwardly in the opening credits as the "book" by Dick, as if we are to take it as possibly a testament, instead), one which I read over thirty years ago and haven't reread...hence, I'm not sure how faithful to the Book are such details as the suppression of the Judeo-Christian Bible in both the Nazi- and Imperial Japan-occupied North America...that seems rather less Dickian than I'd guess, as well as leaving open questions of how the Italian Fascists and their satellite allies in Spain and elsewhere, with 110% support of the Church, might've fared in the world of the triumphant Axis powers posited here. And posited rather well, with all the creepiness one can squeeze from a 1962 set in the New York City of the North American territories of the Reich, the San Francisco of the Imperial Japanese occupied territories, and the somewhat improbable "neutral zone" in, essentially, the Mountain Time Zone and along the Rockies, specifically in a small Colorado town. Excellent performances from Alexa Davalos, (particularly) Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Rufus Sewell (much, not all, of Sewell's role as primary villain as written seems almost as easy as that which DJ Qualls assays, though he too better than you might expect from the dire comedies he first came to public attention with) lead those from a fine and convincing cast. The slipping in the novel by its end into a sort of surrealist dream driven by I Ching divination is rather more abruptly dealt with here, and makes for a rather enigmatic ending that reading the novel will prepare one for better than one might be by simply watching the series. Small moments, such as the Japanese police inspector assuring the family of those he's just pointlessly had executed that he, the inspector, is no monster, or the thrown-away detail of a NYC airport named for US Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell, give the series a heft that adds to the verisimilitude.  A third fine series from Ridley Scott's production unit, after NUMB3RS and The Good Wife.

Rather closer to home, Midtown is a low-budget improv sketch comedy series set among the uniformed police stationed in midtown Manhattan, one which
hopes to remind viewers of Barney Miller even by using the same skyline angle-shot of that part of the city in its opening and transitional montages; however, the majority of the series episodes I've seen take place in the squad car of primary characters played by actual ex-cop Scott Baker and fellow improv veteran Tom Malloy; they are a bit lunkheaded but definitely not stupid characters, and it's a pleasant and reasonably funny series. The small broadcast network aimed at young men, Tuff TV, is running it weekly; Amazon has episodes up for streaming free for Prime members.

Everyone's Crazy But Us isn't quite another improv series, but it still has a similar energy even when fully scripted in short, typically bite-sized webisodes of about five minutes each, with a very impressive primary and guest cast in the several episodes currently available (produced by Funny or Die, the most visible website devoted to professional web comedy, and accessible through YouTube).  Janet Varney (San Diego Sketchfest co-founder and -director, cast member of You're the Worst, and of The Legend of Korra) and Diedrich Bader (Veep, The Drew Carey Show and current Spider-Man animation series) play the rather brittle and self -impressed but not quite completely farcical parents of a small boy, coping with the petty jealousies and rather stronger insecurities of dealing with the status of a married couple and parents in upper-middle-class US suburbs of today. 

The Hotwives of Las Vegas is (the second season of) a parody of the flourishing "reality tv" franchise The Real Housewives of [various US cities] and a few spinoffs from that set of self-indulgence videos; the first season was The Hotwives of Orlando. The season premiere threatens to be a bit too affectionate a parody for my taste, but the scalpel's a bit sharper in episode two, both of which are available for free viewing on Hulu (one can easily see the balance during their free trial, but I haven't yet done so). It has a tough act to follow, in the wake of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette lampoon Burning Love, but the less tightly-focused absurdity of the Real Housewives series are still full of the kind of childish acting-out that makes parody both easy and difficult to keep in believable check; Dannah Phirman and Danielle Schneider are the creators and showrunners for the scripted series. 

No, You Shut Up! is a Very high concept series, basically a parody of the likes of The McLaughlin Group with a panel populated mostly by Muppets, from the Henson Alternative studio, though the host and moderator is human-in-the-clear Paul F. Tompkins (there are usually segments featuring human guests). As too often in such circumstances, the concept tended to hamstring particularly some of the early episodes, as a somewhat clueless male talking hot dog and a reactionary if cute female squirrel puppet add a certainly level of difficulty to putting across the kind of topical comedy one might expect of this heir, of sorts, to such series as Spitting Image (where at least the puppets in question represented actual political and other figures, rather than types of political creatures that show up on such panel discussions)...perhaps with just a touch of Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse. However, the absurdities and political satire have sharpened as the series has continued, having added very good 2016 Election Specials between the third season and the fourth season coming early next year.

W/Bob & David is and isn't a reunion of the HBO cult sketch series Mr. Show (with Bob and David), perhaps the best of the American heirs to particularly Monty Python's Flying Circus and SCTV; the Bob Odenkirk and David Cross-hosted and -created series had a remarkable ensemble cast (nearly all of whom have at least a supporting role in one or another of the sketches in the new Netflix limited series) and even, for the several seasons of its original run on HBO, had the same timeslot, Saturday morning ("Friday night") at 12:30am, as the NBC network version of SCTV Network 90. Odenkirk and Cross have certainly kept busy since...Odenkirk most visibly in Breaking Bad and as the star of Better Call Saul, Cross similarly in Arrested Development and currently in The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret...and, as Cross has noted in at least one recent interview, fifteen years of experience as writers and performers since Mr. Show can be felt in the new series, where the transitions between sketches are even more oddly smooth than the Pythonesque links of the earlier series, and there's even more framing in the new series (Paul F. Tompkins is back not only as sketch actor but also as audience warm-up/stage and shot set-up distraction comedian, and these usually off-camera sequences are taped and presented at various points as part of the show). Great fun, even if one doesn't have any memory of Mr. Show.

From Crackle: Heavy Lies the Head

The Art of More is one of the new series on Sony's attempt to compete with Hulu, Crackle, and it's not too shabby. Co-produced by and co-starring Dennis Quaid, it's mostly an amiable if not altogether extraordinary crime drama dealing with the world of high-stakes art dealing. Quaid and Cary Elwes (as differing sorts of not terribly scrupulous art collectors)  are having some fun, and the other best-known cast member Kate Bosworth is given an opportunity to demonstrate her chops that most of her earlier films ill afforded; Christian Cooke, as the protagonist, formerly a US soldier and art smuggler in Iraq and now a junior associate at an important auction house, is somewhat less charming than he apparently thinks he is, but this might simply be due to his character being so as well. His past comes back to do more than haunt him, as the fellow reps and staff in his house and in their most important rival firm (where Bosworth's character is the stressed heiress-to-be, or not, to the ownership) have their own problems, as do the people involved in the back-stories of the items up for auction. It's well-produced, and a pretty clever design for an open-ended series, even if it feels a bit like something that might just as easily been cablecast on the USA or TNT channels, or broadcast on CBS or NBC. 

Falcón is a four-part adaptation of two novels by Robert Wilson, a coproduction for Sky TV, Canal+ and ZDF in various European countries, and imported by the cable/satellite channel CinéMoi; the (figuratively) haunted police detective at the core of the series is the son of a famous, deceased painter, and this becomes uncomfortably relevant to his most recent investigation. Falcón (Marton Csokas, of the latter two The Lord of the Rings films), in the first episode (the only I've seen, I believe the only one cablecast in the US so far) is brought to the scene of the torture and murder of a weathy restaurant owner, and husband of the actual restauranteur Consuelo Jimenez (Hayley Atwell, of Agent Carter).  The dead man had had his eyelids cut away (we are not spared how this leaves the corpse) to force him to watch something disturbing. Since I haven't seen the second episode (which concludes the story begun in the pilot), I can simply note that the acting is impressive, the adaptation of the first novel (which I haven't yet read) seems smooth, and the use of digital video to record the drama allows for the program to seem to be filmed at times, and to look more like the sharper, "flatter" image of high-definition video at others, which is used deftly to cause a subtle sense of dislocation from one sequence to another, or even within scenes. The cast also includes Kerry Fox as Falcón's sister and Emilia Fox as his ex-wife, which almost could seem like a joke on the plenitude of sexual impropriety in this series and the two that follow below. (Also, it somehow seems a bit odd to have all the Spaniards speak with British accents...)

CinéMoi is making episodes available online here.

Another, newer Canal+ series is being imported by the cable channel the Esquire Network, which will also stream the series if you'll let them get around your cookie protection. Spotless involves two brothers from France, with some difficult times in their childhood, making their way through the world of small-time drug-smuggling (the elder, ne'er-do-well Martin Bastière, played by Denis Ménochet) and crime-scene cleanup in London (the protagonist, younger Jean Bastière, Marc-André Grondin). This one also doesn't shrink from portraying the heavy ugly inherent in the difficulties the brothers and their friends and family find themselves the first four episodes (all that have been cablecast in the US), having stepped in Trouble, they keep finding themselves deeper in, as a local mob boss wants to employ them to clean up or at least restage the murders his crew perform, and isn't going to take No for an answer. And other things get more recomplicated from there.  I'll be checking in for more. Created by Corinne Marrinan (CSI and its spinoffs) and Ed McCardie (Shameless) and about what you'd expect from that sort of creative parenthood.  Esquire Network, despite being a cable channel and not beholden to FCC language restrictions, nonetheless is coy about only one word in the dialog; sadly, "fuck" is commonly used enough to make silencing it and only it on the soundtrack a bit ridiculous. 

And in some ways the least of the series in this rundown, the Starz pay-cable series Flesh and Bone is soap-operatic and over-the-top while dealing half-well with very serious matter indeed; the ballet corps and support staff at the heart of the series, and their new-discovery ballerina escaping her tough Pittsburgh background to join the fictional American Ballet Company in NYC, are collectively riven with all kinds of physical and emotional problems. Some of them are inherent in a dancer's life, particularly in women's ballet (where going on pointe, not required of the men, tends to mess over the women's feet, at least); others, in this series, include child abuse and abandonment, anorexia and attendant other disabilities, incest, rape and lesser assault, schizophrenia, combat-induced PTSD, sex trafficking in young teen girls, and more...I can't help but think this ballet series owes its inspiration in nearly equal parts to Mozart in the Jungle, Fame and Flashdance, and manages to amp up the most ridiculous aspects of all three, being the kind of series where everyone compliments, even if backhandedly, the protagonist on her flawless beauty (not so much); series creator-producer Moira Walley-Beckett also worked on Breaking Bad. The Svengali of the company is a tantrum-prone monster who, in the process of chewing the protagonist out, more from his insecurity than her misstep, after (too) many anticipatory quick edits turns to a nest of baby birds on the window ledge, whose chirping has been bothering him, and instead of walking away from the window or closing it, picks up the nest and hurls it several stories down to the street below. And yet, after many, many similarly casually cruel encounters with his employees and others, we're supposed to buy that everyone just puts up with and Deep Down Really Loves his Tortured Genius. Meanwhile, and I know less about dance than I do about nearly any other major area of the arts, even I can tell that some of what is being presented here is pretty impressive, and some, meant to be equally so, is Ballet and Modern Dance 101. The largely dancer/actor cast does its best to keep the series watchable, and a fair amount of sex in the pay-cable series doesn't hurt that aspect, but there's simply too much of a muchness going on here to allow it to be taken particularly seriously. It's also the kind of series where no one even mentions the possibility of an abortion to deal with a pregnancy from incest...I suspect that once a certain rather more widespread taboo is broken, it's a matter that will come up no matter how firm one's beliefs against it might be, even if only to be shot down. 


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I don't get any of these but am really intrigued by all of these actually, though i suppose the Dick adaptation is the one I am most curious about. but I hate the corporate mishegas that is Amazon so much that who knows if I'll ever see it (or BOSCH or ...)

Todd Mason said...

I imagine other platforms will have HIGH's a lot better than what I've seen of BOSCH. _Falcón_ and probably SPOTLESS must pop up somewhere or another...though I certainly can see you boycotting Sky channels.