Case Study 6: The Wrong Mans, Episode 8–“Action Mans/Wise Mans”

Original Airdate: December 23, 2014 on BBC Two

I cheated a bit on this one. I bit the bullet and just watched the whole show. I figured with a heavily serialized show like this that’s under ten episodes long we’d all be the richer for it. I still plan on sticking to one episode if I get plunked down in a random episode of a much longer serialized drama, but with something as relatively compact as this I can make an exception. Let’s get right into it.

Strengths

  • Double duty as both a comedy and an action thriller. This is really the central feature of Mans. The show mashes up the classic comedic fish out of water plot with the action thriller standby where an innocent bystander is drawn into a web of intrigue because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (hence the name.) The exceptional thing about Mans is that it manages both aspects of its premise fantastically. There are multiple belly laughs in every episode and the script is studded with excellent dialogue. The wrong mans in question are nebbishy civil servant Sam Pinkett (Mathew Baynton, Horrible Histories) and the slightly thick-witted but goofily enthusiastic mailroom subcontractor Phil Bourne (James Corden, The Late Late Show.) My first thought on seeing this duo in action was wondering if Mans was conceived as a Rick & Morty style tribute to Parks & Recreation, sending Ben Wyatt and Andy Dwyer off on a wacky adventure. I’ll talk more about the reasons the comedy in this show is so effective momentarily, but let’s just have a taste of that snappy dialogue. While enduring some unexpected downtime in the middle of their never-ending trails, Sam suggests the duo play a game where one of them quotes a line from a movie and the other tries to guess which movie the line is from. There is a pregnant pause followed by an “Ummmmmmm” from Phil. Finally, he comes up with “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” Sam: “Is it by any chance Jurassic Park?” The action thriller aspects of the plot are also very effective. I was surprised to find myself genuinely curious about how all the disparate pieces were going to fit together and how Sam & Phil were going to get out of the increasingly impossible situations they found themselves in, and more often than not those solutions made sense and were incredibly entertaining to see played out. In one bravado moment in the episode under review, Phil has opportunistically grabbed some snacks and drinks from vending machines the Mans were trapped inside. Phil has a charming tendency to focus on the moment in lieu of the bigger, much more dangerous picture, and here it pays off—he’s able to make a Coke & Mentos bomb at just the right moment and he creates a chance for the Mans to escape their current predicament. This is also nicely foreshadowed in an earlier bit of comedic awkwardness. This demonstrates how deftly the show weaves its two seemingly conflicting genres—not only is there a perfect, unexpected resolution to an incredibly dangerous solution involving powerful nerve agents and gun-wielding terrorists, it’s also characteristically droll and silly.
  • Comedic versatility. The best comedies succeed by being able to effectively draw on a wide variety of techniques and approaches in order to remain fresh and to work on as many levels as possible, and this is a great example. There’s physical comedy and slapstick, there’s witty dialogue, there’s ridiculous situations, there’s character-driven jokes, there’s cultural references, there’s observational humor, there’s painfully awkward moments—it is British, after all. There’s also two thankfully brief interludes of toilet humor, about which the less said the better.
  • Well-executed character arcs. Mans basically had this one handed to it on a silver platter–the regular guys who can’t manage to show up to work on time or move out of their mom’s house turn out to be brave and clever heroes who defeat the bad guys and save the day. The show does this rather gracefully, though. The pair are only able to succeed by playing off one another’s strengths—Sam’s rationality and risk assessment meet with Phil’s enthusiastic bravado and creative problem solving nicely. We also get to see them becoming more effective at using their skills as the series goes on. In episode 2, Phil is nearly able to bluff his way out of a confrontation with Nick Stevens (Nick Moran, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,) the angry, violent husband of a kidnapped woman, but Stevens trips him up. In episode 8, though, Phil delivers a speech to the terrorists that is able to quiet their growing suspicions that Sam and Phil are not in fact expert manufacturers of chemical weapons. Sam goes from being unable to look his ex-girlfriend/boss Lizzie Green (Sarah Solemani, Him & Her) in the eye, but at the end of season 1 he saves her after she gets kidnapped by the Russian mole embedded in MI5, Paul Smoke (Stephen Campbell Moore, Season of the Witch.)
  • Commentary about the security state and governmental overreach. Smoke turns out to be the big bad of season 1, and he’s a good choice because his high-level position in MI5 gives him near limitless power. The Mans commandeer the car of Agent Jack Walker (Dougray Scott, Mission Impossible II) after he catches on to Smoke’s status as a double agent and Smoke promptly murders him. The car is equipped with GPS and multiple cameras. The Mans are at an instant disadvantage. This is only worsened once Smoke starts actively pursuing them and has seemingly unlimited resources, including giant helicopters, to chase down the Mans. He has a large squad of heavily armed troops ready to kill them at a moment’s notice, regardless of the fact that they’ve neither been arrested or charged with anything. Episode 8 puts a point on this when MI5 head Cox (Rebecca Front, The Thick of It) admits that the reason her organization buried all evidence of a Russian-planted car bomb compelled the Mans to fake their death and go into witness protection in Texas was because the agency did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it simply wasn’t worth their time to prioritize keeping the Mans and their loved ones safe. I also recently watched the first episode of Black Mirror—freshly relevant in light of #BaeOfPigs—and I wonder why the British seem able to muster these kind of pointed critiques while America gets 24.

Weaknesses

  • Mawkish sentimentality. Isn’t it enough that this show succeeds at being a comedy and an action thriller? Why must it also attempt to be a half-baked romance? A while ago I read an interview with Michael Schur about season 3 of Parks. He says “This is just personal taste, but I get bored of comedy shows without any romance in them, because it’s just every week you tune in, and it’s a certain collection of jokes, and then you react to the jokes positively or negatively on an individual joke basis, and then you’re done, and nothing sticks with you…those are the things that make for good stories to me. It’s always my personal preference to have characters’ romantic lives be at the front of their stories.” Oh, good lord, I could not disagree more. I like Schur and he does excellent work, but romance plots strike me as boring and lazy just as often as they strike me as fresh and original. I find it mind-boggling that he’s inclined to dismiss comedies without romance as “boring.” 30 Rock showcased Liz and Jack’s disastrous romantic lives but never got very serious about it and should be commended for not giving in to a decidedly tired impulse to pair off its main cast members. The Simpsons and Seinfeld and Arrested Development all did just fine without giving into or actively subverting hacky will-they-or-won’t-they bullshit. Sure, it can work sometimes—a character’s love life can give us unique insight to their character and it obviously generates plenty of grist for the story mill. But it can also be completely gratuitous. In Mans it does absolutely nothing. Lizzie would work much better as part of an ensemble. In the early episodes where she’s Sam’s long-suffering boss, she’s great. In the later episodes where she exists as a plot device who’s spending all her time and energy hopelessly waiting for Sam to return, she not only becomes much less believable but also a conduit for tepid sentimentalism. We get more of this when Phil broods over his dead father. Obviously, these characters have personal lives and things that matter to them—they’d be flat without them. But why are they being foregrounded? Who gives a shit? I want to laugh. I want suspense and explosions. If I want romance or coping with loss there are entire shows that deal with these topics more extensively and more effectively. This seems like a hollow gesture at unnecessary emotional depth. This is a fun and entertaining show. It’s not Shakespeare. It really, really doesn’t need to be.
  • Unearned explosive character conflict. Along similar lines, there’s a very dramatic scene in the season 1 finale that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t do anyone any favors. Sam learns Lizzie’s been kidnapped and wants to run off into the night to save her, and Phil’s unexpectedly cooler head suggests weighing the options and getting more information in order to be able to make the best possible intervention. Sam goes off the deep end and extensively dresses Phil down with vitriolic insults about his intelligence, personality and lack of friends. Um? This gets worse as we’re treated to a sappy musical montage as Sam heads towards his goal and the understandably dazed Phil reels. What is this, Bones? This is completely unnecessary and no groundwork has been laid whatsoever. Obviously Sam wants to save his ex and his decision-making skills are thrown off because Now It’s Personal. But he doesn’t have to viciously attack Phil! He can just leave and say something along the lines of “You can come if you want, but I’m going no matter what you say,” and then things proceed at pace. This is a naked grab at a big dramatic moment in an episode that already has plenty of big dramatic moments—Lizzie gets kidnapped, Sam gets shot, it’s the fucking finale and everything gets wrapped up nicely! WHYYYY
  • Season 2. Season 1 of this show is great and I highly recommend it. Season 2…not so much. Some of the weaknesses of the show get worse and some of the good things fall by the wayside. The Mans are clumsily put into witness protection and sent to Texas, where all of season 1’s character development gets thrown by the wayside. Phil finds himself beloved by his co-workers and wildly in love with a woman named Rosa (Rosa Whitcher,) while Sam has become a bitter, bearded alcoholic because he’s in wuvvvv and he can’t be with his precious Lizzie. Gag. Just as we come to accept this new, unpleasant reality, though, it’s all hastily thrown by the wayside when Phil learns his mom Linda (Dawn French, The Vicar of Dibley) is on her deathbed and he must get home to be with her by any means necessary. What is the point of going to all the trouble of setting up this new status quo if you’re going to throw it all away 10 minutes in? Why not either have the Mans stay in England dealing with the fallout of season 1 or have a completely new story in Texas? Who knows. There’s still funny moments but they’re fewer and farther between. The plot is much less cohesive–season 1 artfully draws together seemingly disparate elements including a Chinese kidnapping gang, a Russian infiltrator into the MI5, an icy femme fatale and a shady land development scheme. Season 2 just throws a bunch of things out there that have nothing much to do with each other, making it less of an intricate action thriller and more of a picaresque. There’s also a soupçon of race panic when the Mans get thrown in prison, although the show is mercifully able to mostly resist rape jokes in favor of more characteristic awkwardness.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. While the second half of season 2 (it’s just two episodes) is better than the first half, it still doesn’t measure up to anything in season 1.

Final Series Judgment: 6/10. I wanted to give this show a higher rating. I really did. By episode 2 I was in love. But the longer things go the more threadbare it gets. Season 1 is definitely worth your time if you can tolerate a bit of sloppy sentimentality towards the end, but I can’t recommend season 2, which is such a big letdown after a tightly controlled and well-executed season 1. At nearly half of the run-time of the entire series, season 2 really hurts this show’s score.

NEXT TIME: 1975’s Paddington. Yes, as in the teddy bear in a duffle coat. Episodes are only 5 minutes long, so it may not be a particularly lengthy review.

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Case Study 6: The Wrong Mans, Episode 8–“Action Mans/Wise Mans”

Case Study 5: Lupin The Third Part I, Episode 18– “Keep An Eye On The Beauty Contest”

Original Airdate: February 20th, 1972 on Yomiuri TV

This is not only the first episode of an anime series that I’m covering here but also the first time I’m covering a program for which I have next to no points of reference, which is admittedly most if not all anime. But I’m determined to learn! Until I sat down to do research for this installment, the only reason I knew the name “Lupin III” at all was due to a rap lyric. But this franchise is a pop culture juggernaut in Japan. It got its start in a manga story created in 1967 by the artist Kazuhiko Kato, and in “Beauty Contest” he is credited by his famous pen name: Monkey Punch. Kato was struggling to gain a foothold in the world of professional manga and was diligently cranking out indie projects when he was approached by the editor of a newly-minted magazine by the name of Weekly Manga Action. The editor hired Kato, and the journeyman artist’s first project was to create a manga with adult themes for the slightly more mature audience the publication was seeking to court. The project was meant to be a three-month engagement, and the editor also asked that Kato use the pseudonym Monkey Punch. Kato despised the name but was in no position to refuse.

Flash-forward to 2015. Manga Action is still in print and Lupin III is the face of a sprawling media empire still very much in the public eye–as we speak the fifth TV series in the franchise is broadcasting new episodes in Japan and Italy, where Lupin III is also an astronomical hit and a household name. In fact, it would appear that Italy is the driving force behind the newest installments, since Japan’s NTV is airing them a month after they premiere on Italia 1. Irritatingly, this new series is called Lupin the 3rd–it can be hard to tell these shows apart based on their names. A popular shorthand among fans is to refer to the series based on what color Lupin’s jacket is when he’s in his normal outfit. This makes the first series “green jacket,” the second “red jacket,” the third “pink jacket” and this newest one “blue jacket.” If Stockholm syndrome has kicked in, you might be saying “But wait! That’s not enough jackets!” Indeed not. The fourth series was a spinoff centered on the adventures of another central Lupin III character, Fujiko Mine. Wikipedia describes this series as “more sexually oriented” and I am fine to go on without overturning that particular rock this evening.

The manga with hundreds of chapters and the five TV shows are really just the tip of the iceberg, though. The franchise has enjoyed seven theatrically released animated films, including one continuing the spun-off adventures of Fujiko. Live-action adaptations of Lupin III are not uncommon, with two theatrical releases in Japan, as well as two stage adaptations and a short-lived Filipino television drama. Every year from 1989 to 2013 saw a new 90-minute TV special appear on NTV, with 2014’s installment presumably set aside for work on the new series. So the one brief episode of Lupin the Third Part 1 under review is just a drop in an enormous ocean of Lupin-ness and may not be representative of the franchise as a whole in any way, shape or form. From here on out when I refer to Lupin I am talking about Lupin the Third Part I, with the green jacket on Lupin.

It’s interesting that this review is back to back with Dead Like Me, because Lupin also got off to a very rough start when the creative director Masaaki Osumi left the show in a hurry because of conflicts with the network over content. This was the first adaptation of the manga and was a watershed moment for anime–it was one of if not the first anime series aimed squarely at adults, with a decidedly dark tone and liberal amounts of sex and violence. It created controversy at a time that counterculture was ascendant in Japan, much as it was in the US and Europe, and Osumi wasn’t willing to tone it down. On the one hand, this makes sense–he’s doing an adaptation of work meant for (semi-)mature audiences and it wouldn’t really be Lupin III if it didn’t honor these elements of the original, but on the other hand, I still believe it’s not a good sign if a director can’t find a workable compromise.

In the case of Lupin, a workable compromise is exactly what ended up happening–the show kept some racier elements, cut back on the violence a bit and continued to target an adult audience while adopting a light-hearted, silly tone that made the show less intense and more fun to watch. In other words, the new directors made Lupin marketable and still kept it edgy and original. The new directors were Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, and in 13 years they’d go on to found Studio Ghibli, the internationally acclaimed and hugely successful animation studio behind a murderer’s row of stone-cold classic films. Studio Ghibli is a really big deal, even to an anime noob like me. Think the Pixar of anime. If you want recommendations on where to start with Ghibli, try Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies or The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Miyazaki’s finest moments as a director include Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. I’m a bit stunned that this project managed to serve up what turns out to be Miyazaki’s first direction credit, though he had worked on other things in various capacities before this. It turns out Miyazaki’s first direction credit on a film was also a bit of a surprise: 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro, which just so happens to be the second Lupin III animated film. Whatever else you may say about this light-hearted but puzzling show, it played a critical role in film history worldwide.

Strengths

  • Fresh storytelling. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Lupin, already on its last legs and with increasingly pitiful ratings, gets a half-assed treatment from writer Soji Yoshikawa along the lines of what happened with So Little Time. Instead, this episode’s story is as modern and engaging as any similar project you’d care to name in 2015. Of course, part of the reason this is possible is because there aren’t really any similar projects. Lupin (Yasuo Yamada) is meant to be a descendent of Arsene Lupin, an archetypal lovable rogue and gentleman thief whose adventures in French crime fiction have loomed large ever since they originally appeared in the first few decades of the 20th century. Since our chaotic neutral hero is always on the lookout for his next big score, crime stories are a natural fit. But Lupin’s not solving a mystery here, nor is he plotting a crime per se. Here’s the (quite unique!) plot in a nutshell: A group of promoters have set up a beauty contest in Japan meant to rival or at least emulate Miss World/Universe competitions. Lupin instantly identifies the aged and disguised lead promoter, Smith (Kazuo Arai) as an internationally wanted art thief. He deduces quickly that Smith plans to use the pageant as a hidden-in-plain-sight venue for selling art on the black market to Europeans in the 1% who are ostensibly acting as the pageant’s judges. Lupin’s challenge becomes turning his insights and observations into some kind of personal profit. He needs to insert himself into the proceedings, take all the marbles and dance away from the cops and Smith’s thugs. This is a great example of how to use a lovable rogue. Often this character serves a role in an ensemble, but when they get center stage the writer is faced with the unique problem of telling a story about a crime or a scheme where our hero is neither a detective trying to create order or someone too villainous and powerful to be sympathetic. We want our lovable rogues to be underdogs that have the skills and talent to give the heavyweights a run for their money, and Lupin absolutely nails this.
  • Light and fun without being stupid or empty. This is also hard to pull off, but this show’s seemingly incongruous mix of elements throws the strengths of each aspect into high relief. By maintaining a light-hearted tone and being unafraid to embrace the cartoonishness of its medium, Lupin creates a world where we’re able to believe in an over-the-top police inspector like Koichi Zenigata (Goro Naya, Space Battleship Yamato.)  Zenigata’s mission is to pursue Lupin to the ends of the earth in a dogged and futile quest to bring him to justice, but he doesn’t recognize a very lightly disguised Lupin when he’s standing right in front of him. Zenigata’s not a typical blundering cop, though Lupin seems to bring out the worst in him. When Lupin leads him by the nose into the back room deal where the paintings are being exchanged for cash, Zenigata puts it together right away and makes arrests. Zenigata is generally good at what he does, but Lupin presents an eternal challenge and vexation, leading to comical rage and tunnel vision from Zenigata. Of course, the angrier and more single-minded he gets the worse his chance of outfoxing Lupin. This solid characterization allows for endless plot variations and a frequent source of amusement without being cheap. Zenigata’s no cliche, and the show more than earns the laughs it gets from his hijinks. More importantly, he’s a case study in how the show mostly manages to merge its dissonant components into something successful and interesting.

Weaknesses

  • One-man show. I’m betting this is only a problem with “Beauty Contest,” but Lupin is really the only character who gets to do anything substantial here. He figures out the players and the plan, he coordinates a response and he improvises next steps and a grand finale more or less by himself. Sure, his friends are there, standing around. Perennial sidekick Diasuke Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) is only there so that Lupin has someone to have a dialogue with instead of just monologuing his ideas for our benefit. Jigen contributes absolutely nothing of substance and doesn’t even give me a hint of characterization beyond a vague coarseness. Fujiko (Yukiko Nikaido) has even less to do–she only gets one line in the entire show and it’s “Okay, leave it to me.” If all her storylines are this substantial, no wonder she needed a spin-off! Rounding out the main cast is Goemon Ishikawa XIII (Chikao Ohtsuka, Nintama Rantaro.) Like Lupin and Zenigata, he’s meant to be a descendant of an archetypal cultural figure–in this case legendary samurai Ishikawa Goemon. Goemon has been a figure in folklore since the 16th century and is a bit like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood were executed by being boiled alive. Zenigata is meant to be the descendant of Zenigata Heiji, a major figure in mid-century Japanese detective fiction depicting an intrepid policeman in the Edo period. Ishikawa is a samurai like his forefather, and while it does seem strange that this more-or-less realistic crime adventure show would include an expert samurai in the cast it’s all part of the methodical madness of Lupin. However, from what I am given to understand Ishikawa is meant to be a mercurial figure who only sides with Lupin when it’s in his best interests, and here Lupin basically has him functioning as just another pawn in his grand scheme with no agency of his own. Based on what little I’m shown of Zenigata and what I can infer, it seems like this show has a tantalizing bench of characters to work with, but they’re completely squandered here, which is a shame.
  • Widely varying degrees of realism. While Zenigata’s character is an example of the creators taking the time to make what could be a very silly and lazy character three dimensional and an interesting part of the puzzle, it’s also an example of how something goofy can easily fit alongside a relatively straight-faced crime plot. The first act is mostly dry setup and features things like Lupin explaining to Jigen the high-risk, low-profit nature of the black market art world. The final twist to Lupin’s trap also plays on a straightforward read and an adult situation. But along the way we’re treated to some really egregious assaults on any sense of realism. One of the paintings Smith has stolen is none other than the fucking Mona Lisa. When the Mona Lisa got stolen in 1911, it was an international incident and fingers were quickly pointed at major figures like Pablo Picasso and  Guillaume Apollinaire. I mean, they could have gone with any other painting–in fact, they were able to cough up three slightly less prominent examples. Even worse is a scene that comes at the end of the show when Lupin wants to taunt Smith and Zenigata with his victory by demonstrating that he got away with the paintings. This is pretty unnecessary, as Smith is clearly painfully aware of what happened. Anyway, Lupin unveils his last stroke of genius–a giant sail on his getaway ship made of the paintings. Um. Please don’t do that to paintings. Also, the Mona Lisa looks enormous on his sail despite being 2.5 feet by 1.75. If this were just meant to be a thoroughly goofy and campy caper, I could buy this kind of thing, but if you want to talk to me about the black market on stolen art and human trafficking, we don’t need to dial the lulzy meter all the way up to 11.
  • Women as MacGuffins. This is never great, but it’s really on full display here. The pageant contestants are endearingly referred to as “the beauties” by the show, but that’s about the only endearing thing going on here. At first Lupin threatens Smith and Zenigata with the prospect of Lupin “stealing” them, which is somewhat baffling until you realize that these women are nothing more than a plot device comparable with a cache of stolen paintings. If you “steal” a person, that’s called kidnapping. But they aren’t people. Of course, part of the gag here is that what Lupin really intends to steal are those other “beauties:” the paintings. But all the victims of his scam take his threat to kidnap all these women to be entirely credible. This pales in comparison to Lupin’s coup de grace, however. When Zenigata busts in on Smith and company, he immediately gets the boxes opened–and finds the tied-up beauties, who Lupin and his cohort were evidently able to trick, overpower or otherwise subdue into storage containers that formerly held priceless works of art. Zenigata arrests Smith on charges of human trafficking. This is really clever and takes advantage of the show’s ability to edge into adult content, but it all falls apart when you realize that the second someone asks the beauties what actually happened, the truth will come out and Smith won’t have been foiled. But why assume anyone will ask the beauties? After all, they don’t get a single line anywhere in the episode.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. I had fun watching this show and the positive things I saw made me curious to come back for more. I do hope, however, that this isn’t an example of the show at its best, despite its place in the original Miyazaki-helmed iteration of this series. The fact that this show is so popular and influential suggests to me that at its best this franchise is capable of building on some of these inherent strengths and achieving great things. The misadventures of the beauties may not be the most salient example.
NEXT TIME: The Wrong Mans! And, what the hell, it’s just 8 episodes. I’ll watch them all. Because I love you.

Case Study 5: Lupin The Third Part I, Episode 18– “Keep An Eye On The Beauty Contest”

Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”

Original Airdate: July 25, 2004 on Showtime

This case study marks the first episode I’ve covered that’s part of a series with an overarching plot as opposed to the more episodic hijinks of a sitcom in the vein of So Little Time. Though Dead Like Me isn’t the sort of intricate mosaic where every episode leads into the next and the smallest of details is crucial to understanding the larger picture (I’m thinking of critical darlings like The Wire, Mad Men or The Sopranos) it did appear in the early stages of the “Golden Age” of TV and it aired on a laissez-faire pay cable network, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to have high hopes for the series. This is a good time to note that all my reviews which pertain to scripted TV with story arcs will contain spoilers both for the individual episode and the show at large, so beware.

Unfortunately, the show ran into trouble early on when the show’s creator, executive producer and head writer Bryan Fuller, left the show five episodes into its run. This is instructive and shaped my perspective as I viewed this episode, so let’s dig in a bit. My main source on the issue is this interview with Fuller from 2005 that chronicled his exodus. (The interview has been salvaged from the Internet’s bottomless memory hole by the good people at the Internet Archive.) Fuller lays the problems with his brief tenure on the show entirely at the feet of the show’s production company, MGM. He says that dealing with them was a “traumatic experience.” He accuses them of lacking professionalism and savvy. It does sound like there was also some homophobia there–Fuller characterizes the execs as part of a “gross old boy studio” and recounts being told that he didn’t know “what a pretty woman looks like” because of his sexual orientation. Honestly, that sounds more misogynist than homophobic to me–I don’t feel qualified to identify a “pretty woman,” but the bigger question that raises is why a woman has to be pretty to be on TV in the first place. Mandy Patinkin (Homeland) gives an indelible performance as Rube on Dead, but pretty he ain’t.

In my mind the interview makes Fuller look worse than MGM. Here’s a guy whose only previous project was the first of two thoroughly unnecessary remakes of Carrie, which appeared as a TV movie on NBC in 2002. (Fuller cut his teeth in the writer’s room for Star Trek: Voyager, a show I have a soft spot for but which nonetheless did not exactly take the world by storm.) So for the studio I’m sure it was an open question about whether or not he could successfully steward a show in addition to having the great creative ideas necessary to bring it to life. Make no mistake–Dead is crackling with energy and brilliance. Its premise is immediately compelling–a young woman on the verge of adulthood is killed in a freak accident. Instead of going to her universe’s version of an afterlife, she learns that her fate is to be a part of a gang of Grim Reapers who must harvest the souls of those about to die. The execution of this idea is also excellent, as we’ll talk about shortly. But it takes a lot more than a good idea to run a television show.

By storming off the show after a mere five episodes, Fuller proved his doubters at MGM right about his inability to run a show. The fact is, dealing with a difficult studio is simply part of the business. Any creative project that requires any kind of substantial overhead and working with a team of people requires compromise and learning to shine within the constraints you’ve been given. I’m reminded of the great scene in Louie where Joan Rivers tells Louis CK that she can’t tell him that showbiz “gets better,” because it never does and it’s characterized by ups and downs, victories and failures. She also tells him that the cardinal rule of their business is “never quit.” Despite the vagaries of the business, she says, “you do it because we love it more than anything else…what we do is not a job…what we do is a calling, my dear. We make people happy.” The conversation is about comedy, but the deeper truth is about art. I’ve loved all of Fuller’s projects (except Carrie, I suppose) but each and every one has died on the table. Now, I’m sure there’s a variety of things going on there, but Fuller’s stance on Dead in the above interview is…not a good look. It reminds me of the old canard about how if you keep finding yourself in toxic situations again and again, it may be that the common factor is you. It’s also cheap to chalk it all up to homophobia. Tiresome Hollywood power-queer Ryan Murphy makes shitty TV show after shitty TV show, and yet they’re all long-running hits. Murphy pushes the boundaries (past the point of good taste.) He does things on television that haven’t been attempted before (usually for a good reason.) He frequently includes queer characters and lurid tales of their sexual exploits. So I don’t think the deal-breaker for Fuller is that he’s queer and has new ideas, though I suppose I could see the case for an argument that the difference between the two is Murphy’s enthusiastic embrace of pandering to the lowest common denominator. I don’t want Fuller to do that. But in the case of Dead, it wouldn’t have hurt to play ball with the studio. Hell, even a gaping asshole like Dan Harmon managed to hang on with Community for three full seasons.

Two more things on Fuller and then we’ll get to the episode I’m allegedly reviewing here. Another key to being a successful showrunner is the ability to take notes, and Fuller offers up a case study in the interview. For context, George Lass (Ellen Muth) is the show’s protagonist and Fuller refers to a scene that transpires at her funeral involving her father Clancy (Greg Kean.) He says, “In the pilot episode, George’s father hugged a guy, setting up a future storyline in which George realizes her dad was gay and that her life actually wasn’t supposed to be. It was central to the theme that we don’t know the value of a life until it’s too late. But MGM cut the scene and storyline out.” Clancy is an English professor and the fellow he’s hugging is meant to be one of his students; in the shows that aired in Fuller’s absence the student he’s having an affair with is a young woman. Admittedly, the gender swap is a (slight) twist on the hoary cliche of professors fucking their students and causing personal ruin (Examples that float to the top of my mind include Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, The Accidental by Ali Smith, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen…) but the hard truth is that Fuller’s idea sounds rather stupid. Gay people have kids all the time, with partners of all genders. Why would this mean George “wasn’t supposed to be?” Not knowing “the value of a life until it’s too late” is hardly a profound observation, nor is it particularly well demonstrated by this proposed storyline. This sounds like a note well worth taking, but Fuller Took It Personally as a slight to his identity as a fragile gay creative genius. The sad thing is that he IS something of a creative genius! But not all his ideas are gold, and when there’s money on the table, you need people to give you notes.

This may go against the conventional wisdom of Dead fandom, but another strike against Fuller is that many of the show’s best moments came after he left! The first few episodes definitely show some growing pains, which I suppose is not unexpected in the beginning of a deeply creative program run by a rookie producer. But several of my favorite episodes aired after Fuller’s departure: “Reaper Madness,” “The Bicycle Thief,” and “The Shallow End” are some of the series’ high points, and the latter two even both include compassionate, non-sensationalizing portrayals of queer characters, which makes me a bit skeptical about the raw homophobia alleged to be on display in the offices of MGM.

Amusingly, Season 1 also includes a clip show with even less material to go off of than So Little Time’s “Look Who’s Talking.” (By the way, why the hell was the episode called that? No one ever says that and it bears no relationship whatsoever to the events of the show.) Anyway, Dead’s “Nighthawks” is surprisingly good for a clip show. Still, that’s not exactly saying much.

On to the good stuff!

Strengths

  • Strong characterization. One of the beautiful things about television is that characters who might come off as one-note in a movie have time to deepen, grow and blossom into fully-fledged, three-dimensional figures who feel like they might be people you actually know. This in particular is a great episode for character work with all the major players getting interesting material to play with. The show is also very well cast and the characters have a dynamic together that feels genuine, so it’s more the pity that for the most part the members of this great ensemble haven’t had much luck getting more work since Dead. I guess the TV industry works on the mentality that you’re only as good as your last project, and while Dead is very good, it did get cancelled after two seasons. One salient example of how a one-note character can evolve is on display here. When Daisy (Laura Harris, 1998’s The Faculty) first appeared on the show, she replaced the excellent Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend,) who left with Fuller in what I assume was a show of solidarity. Gayheart portrayed the very well written character Betty, and at first Daisy was a major let down. As Rube says in this episode, her conversation mostly consisted of “witless stories about star-fucking.” She would frequently toss off childishly provocative lines like “I once gave Errol Flynn a handjob in a convertible.” But as the show went on, the writers took this and built on it, and this episode is a great showcase for both Daisy and Harris. Daisy has excellent–and revealing–conversations with George and Roxy (Jasmine Guy, A Different World.) This episode also lays the groundwork for more stories about Rube and Daisy. In Daisy’s case, she collects a cross on a necklace from the effects of one of her reaping targets. This in itself isn’t taboo–reapers aren’t salaried and can only earn money by stealing from the dead or working in menial jobs–but it sets us up for an intriguing storyline a few episodes later where the family of the deceased wants the cross back and accuses the police of stealing it. This causes Daisy to do some soul-searching in a way that sheds new light on the character. Here she casually explains the cross as a flirtation with Catholicism, but ultimately this explanation winds up having more truth to it than we’re first led to believe.
  • Wit. This show is a “dramedy,” and while there are definitely poignant moments, the snappy dialogue and cutting remarks are a big hook along with the creative premise and thoughtful worldbuilding. The best examples are when the characters are given a chance to bounce off of one another. In one scene when Mason (Callum Blue, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement) steals Roxy’s hash browns off her plate, she attempts to stab him and then storms off in a huff. Mason says he doesn’t see the point in getting so worked up over “small potatoes,” and Rube dryly comments that Mason’s remark was “almost clever.” Of course, Mason has no idea what Rube is talking about. One of the neat things this show manages to pull off is that even though all the reapers (except Betty–perhaps Fuller hadn’t twigged to this way of conceptualizing the main cast) are hard-edged people who are to varying degrees mean and callous on the outside–presumably this is what qualifies them for the job–we still end up enjoying the time we spend with them regardless. They engage in repartee, they’re quirky and as an added bonus, the more we get to know them the more we see their humanity and they become even more appealing. It’s hard to write a cast of angry, belligerent, sarcastic and otherwise cranky characters and have them not be off-puttingly obnoxious, but instead these people are actually likeable! Compare this with the characters on the much more widely beloved Mad Men. Don Draper is another in a long line of detestable television anti-heroes, and while he is interesting I never found him likeable at all. Even though he’s the center of the show and the character we spend the most time with, I can’t think of a single moment where I felt any affection for him or that anything he did was endearing. Often as a viewer of Men I got the sense that the show is high on Draper’s supply, that it sees him with a certain amount of awe and love that it didn’t successfully convey to the viewer. Admittedly, I did feel stirrings of compassion for him at various moments–but never affection. If the show were just about Don I never would have made it past the first season. Pete Campbell is equally odious, but fares slightly better because he is at least fun to laugh at and the show enjoys taking the piss out of him and clearly sees him as the prissy, pretentious little man that he is. Roger Sterling is also a jackass, but he’s easily the most likable of the three because he’s funny, not to laugh at but to laugh with. Every episode where Roger features in any substantial way is guaranteed to have at least one hilarious line from him, if not more.
  • A cohesive theme. The best episodes of television aren’t just a bunch of interesting or entertaining things happening, though you could definitely do worse–many excellent sitcoms don’t feel the need to embrace a theme and are still highly enjoyable and well worth watching. I suppose the standards are somewhat higher for a drama like Dead, and this episode nails its theme, which is the loss of innocence going hand in hand with missed opportunities for growth. It happens in many different ways–George was a virgin when she died, and when she is assigned the task of training a young man named Brennan (Steven Grayhm, House of Dust) at the temp agency where she works, she makes a move on him, despite the wishes of both Rube and her employer Delores (consistent scene-stealer Christine Willes.) She backs off of Brennan when Delores bribes her with a promotion, but Rube strongly advises her to turn down the promotion, since he doesn’t think she’s ready to take on the job and her duties as a reaper at the same time. Part of this is on Rube–he sees George as a surrogate for the daughter he abandoned when he became a bank robber to get money for his impoverished family, and her growing up and wanting to be independent is clearly painful for him. He gives George the same pet name he gave to his daughter, and when she snottily tells him not to call her that you can see in his eyes how hurt he is, along with his reluctance to betray those emotions to George. It’s a really fabulous moment from Patinkin that not many actors would be able to pull off. Rube is right, though–not necessarily about the promotion but George in general. She’s having a very hard time growing up, much as she has a very hard time accepting her new role in (after)life for the duration of Season 1. Daisy nails it when she tells George “You think you know everything; look how unhappy you are.” The episode ends with George laying a flower on her own grave to commemorate the sexual and emotional maturation she didn’t get to enjoy in life and isn’t enjoying now. We see Rube exploring this theme when he and Mason go to 6 year old Emily Sondheim’s (Jacklyn Kelly) birthday party to collect the soul of one Lloyd Sondheim, Emily’s father (David MacKay.) As a cover story, Mason accepts the role of the absent birthday clown. Emily asks Rube if he’s “the clown’s daddy” and he tells her no. Emily follows up with a question the viewer might be asking: “Then why are you here?” Rube: “I am somebody’s daddy…she’s just not at this party.” He then looks her right in the eye and says, “I want you to remember how funny [Mason] was, okay?” Rube’s daughter lost her innocence the night he left her, and Rube lost the opportunity to grow with her. Of course, the same fate befalls Emily and Lloyd. The newly departed Lloyd upbraids Mason for his typically crass behavior at the party–making penis shaped balloon animals, expressing his desire to ejaculate on the lower back tattoo of a party guest, etc.–and he wonders why Mason would try so hard to ruin the last happy day Emily is likely to enjoy for quite some time. The freshly sober Mason realizes that all his problems aren’t tied to his substance abuse–even when he’s not strung out, he’s still a crude, vulgar jerk who grabs food off people’s plates and teases effeminate little boys. He falls off the wagon, swiping the last of an unconscious bum’s booze to kill his shame and self-hatred with drugs, just like he always has (though at least he has the decency to reimburse the bum for his troubles.) Mason lost his innocence long ago, but here he’s also lost an opportunity for growth.

Weaknesses

  • The Lasses. I really can’t think of a reason we need to spend time with what’s left of George’s family every episode. People watched this show because it’s about Grim Reapers and one possible version of the afterlife. That’s unique! There’s nothing else on television like it (until Reaper, anyway, which had the twist of being about reapers who work for the devil.) There’s nothing interesting about spending two seasons watching George’s family cope with her death, even if their stories contribute to the overall theme. It’s great that the Lasses all share a family resemblance in terms of their personality and Joy (Cynthia Stevenson, Happiness) in particular is well-drawn and well-acted–another example of an uptight, angry character who still comes across as fully human and sympathetic. (Though only very briefly in this episode–she spends much of it attacking everyone around her, fairly and unfairly.) Despite that, though, the Lasses add nothing compelling and I found my attention wandering every time they appeared. If you want to watch a much more interesting take on how families deal with death, there’s always Six Feet Under.
  • Wildly inconsistent tone. It can be hard to invest in a show which attempts the unreservedly wacky alongside the poignant tugging of heartstrings. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do. Bojack Horseman manages nicely, and Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark” is the brutal apex of this sort of thing. Just thinking about it makes me want to go hug my own dog. Dead doesn’t come anywhere close to pulling this off. On the one hand, we have an endless litany of ludicrous death sequences, enabled by the fact that the show specifically focuses on a squad of Reapers who only deal in accidental and violent deaths. On the other hand, we have late Lloyd going over to his daughter, wanting to touch her one last time–and his hands pass through her since he’s no longer corporeal. You could excuse the wacky deaths as essential to the show’s premise, and also note the fact that Six was hardly immune to the impulse to disproportionately portray cinematic death by misadventure, but Dead’s comedic style is broader and goofier in general, stretching the plausibility of the world building. Consider the bit where George is trying to teach Brennan the phones and what seems like 40 different lines start ringing at once as he fumbles about, or the scene where George cuts herself on the paper shredder. Some context is needed there–the Reapers can feel pain from an injury, but their bodies heal and regenerate quickly. When George cuts herself, it severs the entire top half of her middle finger. Usually, paper shredders have safety mechanisms that prevent you from cutting yourself at all, but even if you managed to do it the shredder would hardly be able to saw through bone and tendon. This would be fine if the show were consistently this silly, but mostly it’s matter of fact and emphasizes the mundanity of its supernatural reality. It’s got a unique style to be sure, but when it takes things too far like this it’s jarring. I think this would work better if this tonal inconsistency happened on an episode by episode basis–if we got some episodes that were fairly serious and realistic and some episodes that were cheerfully absurd–but switching gears so often in one episode leads to a bit of grinding.
  • Unnecessary narration. Anyone working in television, please listen. If you are considering adding narration, don’t. It very seldom works, and usually it’s just irritating. Desperate Housewives is a great example of how it can drag down a show, and unfortunately Dead is as well. (Thankfully it’s not as ever present here as it is on Desperate.) I get that George is our viewpoint character and that she has a fairly flat affect and can be hard to read (when she’s not losing her temper, that is.) This may be why Muth hasn’t gotten much work since–she’s perfect as George but I also don’t get the sense that she has immense range. But there are a huge number of ways you can get across whatever you want to say by showing and not telling, even with George’s mostly closed outward personality.

Something new for this installment–if I’ve seen an entire show or a substantial chunk of it, I’ll offer a rating for the series as a whole as well as the individual episode. I was enamored of this show when it aired. This was back in the day where if you missed a show when it aired you were flat out of luck, though, so I didn’t see much of the second season. I was finally able to catch the whole thing in 2009 when it showed up on Netflix. Yes, even the wretched straight-to-DVD movie which Patinkin and Harris didn’t return for. Daisy was badly recast. Sarah Wynter (The 6th Day) took on the role abdicated by Harris and Wynter was not up to the task. Interestingly, Harris and Wynter played sisters on 24.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. While it’s not Dead’s best outing, it’s certainly well-done. With a show this good, you don’t want to skip an episode unless it’s really dreadful, and I don’t think even “Nighthawks” or the diminishing returns of Season 2’s back nine qualify for that status. That awful movie does, though.

Final Series Judgment: 8/10. Definitely worth your time, and it’s short and sweet. Fuller’s departure gives you the sense of missed potential and there are some rocky spots here and there, but as I’m sure we’ll see, there are many worse things you could be watching.

NEXT TIME: Lupin III gives this project its first look at anime!

Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”

Reviewing Random Episodes: Monsters We Met, So Little Time, Comic Book Men

The embarrassment of riches on television these days has gotten to the point where the CEOs of television networks are complaining to the media.

Part of me thinks Landgraf’s complaints are a bit strange—Isn’t it a good thing to have lots of different options that can speak to lots of different people? Predicting the demise of TV’s golden age because your new Billy Crystal vehicle flopped reeks of California’s sourest grapes. The entertainment industry has always been mercurial and this business you hear about how “back in the day shows had time to hit their stride” sound a lot like contemporary myth-making about the good old days. Capitalists love the free market until their pet project fails, and then we get this schoolyard whining about how robust and diverse competition is unfair.

But there’s also a grain of truth. There really is quite a lot of critically acclaimed, high quality television out there, and we’re well and clear past the point of water-cooler TV. It’s another example of how the zeitgeist has shattered into a million pieces in the age of the Internet—these days, everyone has options that offer unique appeals to their tastes and interests. (See also: pop music. Movies have too much overhead and still veer to an imagined mainstream, which is why you hear so many people talk about how TV has gotten so much more compelling than film.)

And that’s if we’re just talking about new, high-profile, widely lauded American TV shows. Once you start digging into international TV, your options grow exponentially. There’s also tons of older shows on Netflix and other streaming services begging for your attention, and every time you talk to a friend you’re likely to come away with 5 new recommendations. The preponderance of different narratives on offer makes TV look a lot less like TV and a lot more like books—millions of options for millions of readers. Someone with an interest in pop culture these days has to devote serious thought to what they’ll consume next—at least, if they’re as obsessive as me.

I already have nerdy, intricate systems in place for deciding what book I’ll read for pleasure next—because otherwise I’ll spend the second half of the book I’m reading now agonizing over it—as well as systems for new movies and music to check out. TV, however, was the case I couldn’t crack. I couldn’t come up with any hard and fast rules about how far back I’d go, how much of a series I’d watch, how I’d pick those shows, and how I could do that while including the mostly unknown options being cranked out all over the world, both in English and in other languages. Hell, the extensive variety of anime alone is enough to drive a person like me berserk.

So I’ve put a system in place that will expose me to completely random TV–the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll take this blog along for the ride and write reviews of each episode I watch.

Since it’s me we’re talking about, though, there have to be some rules.

  • One episode at a time—also randomly selected. This means I won’t have to watch all 119 episodes of Sister, Sister back to back. I love my readers, but I don’t love you that much. This presents its own complications for today’s fast-paced, can’t miss an episode mega-dramas where each episode is a single chapter in an endless novel, but I hereby swear to do my due diligence and thoroughly research every show I drop into so I know who the players are and what the overarching story is so I can offer a fair assessment.
  • Some kinds of TV shows are simply too impractical to cover. Anything that airs a new episode every day is out, whether it’s Maury, JeopardySportscenter, The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, whatever. It’s not that I’m not interested in these shows—well, I don’t care about Sportscenter—but that it would be impossible for me to actually find a random episode of Jeopardy from 1996, so I couldn’t use the same democratic technique of randomness. Even though it’s a weekly, 60 Minutes and its ilk are also out. A rule of thumb: If Wikipedia or a similar source doesn’t have a numbered episode list, it’s pretty much not viable. This doesn’t mean I’m adverse to covering current events programming or non-fiction, but it has to be discrete enough to fit in this framework. Frontline works, Newshour does not. As you’ll see, the very first episode I’m reviewing is non-fiction. This also means traditional daily game shows of all stripes aren’t going to work, but reality TV game shows are up for grabs (see more about those below.)
  • Obviously if I can’t find some way to watch a show, it’s not going to be possible.
  • I’ll do my best to give every episode a fair hearing on its own terms. For shows I’ve never seen before—like all three of the episodes I’m reviewing tonight—it’ll also serve as a de facto review of the show, since it’s my first impression of the entire series. I’ll try and get a sense from research about how representative it might be, especially if it’s one of those intricate mega-dramas I talked about above. If it’s something I’m already familiar with, I’ll obviously be able to provide more context and perspective.
  • I’m totally fine with covering multiple episodes from the same show, should the gods of random chance dictate thus.

Let’s get this party started.

Case Study 1: Monsters We Met, Episode 1–“Eternal Frontier”
Original Airdate: April 8th, 2003 on BBC

This also aired in the US on Animal Planet under the name Land of Lost Monsters. It appears from the muddled Wikipedia page that there were some changes made, including new narration from an American, because who wants to listen to some snotty British person narrate a BBC documentary, I guess? Why settle for Ian Holm, the acclaimed star of stage and screen, when you can get the guy that played the crooked cop that was in league with Jack Palance in Batman? Clearly I don’t understand this business—how dare Animal Planet disrespect Bilbo Baggins! Anyway, Land of Lost Monsters also featured footage borrowed from other BBC documentaries about prehistory. I’m not sure how transformative the changes actually were, since I watched the BBC version.

This is part one of a three-part historical documentary about encounters between early humans and megafauna. It centers on North America; the second and third installments focus on Australia and New Zealand, respectively. I imagine this was produced along with a rash of similar BBC programming on prehistory in the wake of the astronomical success of BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs as narrated by Kenneth Branagh in 1999.

Strengths

  • Interesting Subject Matter. You see lots of documentaries of this stripe about dinosaurs (with many latter-day examples inspired by the Branagh series) and you see lots of documentaries about nature in the modern world, but I haven’t seen anything that specifically talks about megafauna, which is a shame because it really is a fascinating topic. Kudos on that!
  • Educational. This serves as an appealing introduction to this topic for the unfamiliar. I happen to have spent some time reading about megafauna recently, so the facts discussed here didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but this wouldn’t be out of place in a classroom or in the living room of anyone interested in prehistory.
  • Comprehensive. Admittedly we have limited knowledge about this subject and have to make a lot of intelligent inferences, but this does hit the most interesting points and is able to paint a mostly complete picture. I do have some quibbles—I was disappointed to see that this series doesn’t touch on Eurasia/Africa at all. North America, Australia and New Zealand are widely considered to be the hot spots of interaction between megafauna and early humans, but I think there’s enough to talk about with Eurasia/Africa to have eked out another episode. This doesn’t mention that mammoth migrated over the Bering Strait land-bridge and that these animals may have been familiar to the Clovis, for instance, so that’s a bit of a blind spot. As I’ll mention below, the series’ commitment to dramatization and narrative seems to wed it to Montana specifically, which also limits the scope—the speed with which the early settlers explored the breadth of the Americas from Canada to the Tierra del Fuego is remarkable, and “Frontier” doesn’t touch on that. Still, these are minor complaints about a take on the subject that is really quite thorough in 45 minutes while also being entertaining.

Weaknesses

  • Unnecessary Dramatization. I’m aware that this is a common downfall of television documentaries, but it seems even more ridiculous in light of how little actual information we have about the Clovis. On the other hand, that very fact makes the dramatization all the more appealing for the creators—it’s harder for the viewers to wrap their mind around a subject where there’s so many questions, so why not make some intelligent guesses and make up some people with a fake language and fake names and give them a story? My answer to that would be that every minute we spend watching the adventures of Xi’yuu and friends is time we could spend learning about something real. I’m also a little dubious about the amount of lipstick and eyebrow plucking this woman from 14,000 years ago appears to enjoy.
  • Cheesy SFX. This feels a little unfair to me even as I write it, because I’m sure the producers did the best with what they had. Still, the saber-toothed cat running to catch its prey looks so laughably fake that it really does take you out of the moment. I think a big reason people watch these documentaries about prehistory instead of just reading a book is the thrill of actually getting to see the animals. This is a big part of why Walking With Dinosaurs was such a hit (although perhaps if I ever review that I’ll be similarly dismayed.) Monsters does not provide those thrills. A big part of this is just bad timing—if this series had been made 10 years later, it would be a whole different ballgame. And I’m sure the resources of the folks at the BBC were not unlimited here—it’s not like they’re working with a Jurassic Park level budget.

Final Judgment: 6/10. If you’re interested in this topic, I doubt there’s a better television documentary out there. If you’re just looking generally for a TV documentary, this will probably fall more towards the bottom of the to-watch list, as it’s hardly essential for the average viewer. It’s well-done for what it is, though.

Case Study 2: So Little Time, Episode 24–“Look Who’s Talking”
Original Airdate: March 23rd, 2002 on ABC Family

This is the second and last TV series starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in the wake of their wholesome early 90s megahit Full House. In view of the news that Full will be revitalized on Netflix under the unfortunate name Fuller House, Nickelodeon has apparently scooped up the rights to a substantial chunk of the Olsen back catalog and are airing this show in the hot and unforgiving light of 2015.  As you’ll see…this isn’t a great decision on their part.

Let’s talk a bit about the Olsens. Thrust into the limelight at 6 months old, they took turns playing the role of cutie-pie Michelle Tanner on Full due to those darn labor laws that say you can’t make a toddler shoot 18 hour days for scale. (Ah, just kidding—they were probably making a lot more than that. I sure hope so, anyway!) They’re the archetypal child stars of my generation and this was just one stop on a gravy train whose returns increasingly diminished the further away they got from the halcyon days of the Tanner household. Mary-Kate has been forthright with the press about how her under-18 career was entertainment and not acting, though there’s no word on how she looks back on her blip of an adult career, featuring a serviceable but forgettable stint on Weeds and a role in 1990s period piece (how appropriate) The Wackness as someone named “Union.” Both the Olsen twins have since retired from the acting biz (though there are threats that they are “teetering” re. a decision to appear in Fuller) and have established themselves as quite successful businesswomen in the upscale fashion industry. Their couture brand The Row has been well-received by the fashion world, and if you’ve got $200 to spare, you can snap up an Olsen-designed no-frills Made In The USA t-shirt at Barney’s, so it sounds like they’re arrived to me. (Though to paraphrase Marge Simpson, fashion is none of my business.) It sounds like the twins have found their calling and are doing quite well for themselves; Mary-Kate is even married to Nicolas Sarkozy’s half-brother. I wonder if their younger selves would be surprised that their baby sister Elizabeth would be the Olsen to walk away with a serious acting career; I wonder when they realized that their own acting careers had peaked at the age of 5; I wonder what they think of Bojack Horseman. Eh, there’s too much good TV these days—they probably don’t watch it.

Strengths

  • Urk. I really don’t want this project to turn into “Oryx Shits All Over Obscure TV Shows.” I really don’t. I want this to be about uncovering hidden gems and curiosities in the vast tapestry of television content. I know people put love, sweat and hard work into this (though actually being able to see the hard work in the finished project is a bit elusive in this case.) Time, however, is truly terrible. A big part of this project will be to find the quality in forgotten dreck, but the scale has to have a low end. So I guess it’s good that we’re getting it out of the way early? And make no mistake: I don’t feel this way because I’m prejudiced against kids’ TV. Stories for and about kids can be just as good as things pitched at adults. A story doesn’t have to have nudity and violence and swearing to be compelling. (Looking at you, HBO.) Even light fare like Time can be a showcase for great performances, witty writing, amusing situations and complex characterization. But this truly ain’t it, folks.

Weaknesses

  • Clip Show. A clip show isn’t ideal at the best of times, but I’m a bit baffled as to how a clip show came to exist in the first (and only) season of this show with a scanty 23 prior episodes to draw on. I suspect that the twins and the other producers (yep, the Olsens had EP credits—every great show has two fifteen-year-olds on the senior production staff) saw the writing on the wall, knew that posterity was not in the offing and that the curtain was soon to fall. Still, this could have played to Time’s advantage: this could have been an exhibition of all the series’ highlights and best moments, revealing Time at its best. For all I know, this is what they did. If so, I cringe for all the Nickelodeon viewers out there being exposed to the full run at a tender age.
  • Unfunny. At exactly one point in this supposed collection of highlights from a comedy show did I make a noise somewhat resembling laughter. (I guess I’d peg it somewhere between a chuckle and a snicker.) We were treated to a montage of Ashley’s character Chloe trying to get neighbor Travis (Brandon Tyler) to notice her by attempting different poses on a patio that Travis kept walking past. The culmination of this montage featured Chloe laid out like an odalisque atop the skinny railing, and of course she promptly fell off. A good sight gag/slapstick one-two punch is the kind of comedy bread & butter this show needed. Instead, the show relies on cliche: look, here’s the flamboyant, sassy, scenery-chewing housekeeper Manuelo (Taylor Negron, The Last Boy Scout) wearing a dress. Har har! Men aren’t supposed to wear dresses! To make it even better, he’s wearing a thong, which gives him an opportunity to deploy his dumb catchphrase! Oh, look, here’s a montage of him saying the dumb catchphrase! Another tepid cliche is on full display as we watch Chloe leave an increasingly painful series of answering machine messages for Travis.
  • Reactionary. Allow me to put forward a hypothesis that I believe we’ll have an opportunity to test again and again in this project: reactionary politics are the watchword of lazy comedy. The big offender here is rape culture, which I’ll get into momentarily, but a bit on queer politics—Manuelo is clearly coded as queer, but of course he’s not textually queer. This leads us to a interesting tidbit of Time trivia. The internet tells me of another episode of this show where the girls’ dad Jake (Eric Lutes, Caroline In The City) is chatting with their Annoying Friend Larry (Jesse Head.) Jake is recounting a moment when he saw a movie featuring a woman in a strapless dress and he was fascinated by the question of how the dress was able to stay on. Larry asks, “Is that when you knew you wanted to be a fashion designer?” Jake says that no, he wondered if he was gay. Wokka wokka. Nickelodeon decided that joke was too edgy for 2015 and cut the gag. Hooray for puritanical homophobia! On to gender. There’s a moment where a character named Tedi who works as a model (Natashia Williams, She Spies) laments the fact that she was unable to signal a wildfire rescue copter by virtue of her sexy body. There’s another moment where Manuelo responds to breakfast chat from the women in the family with “I feel like I’m watching The View!”…because, you know, if a group of women are talking it’s remarkable enough to make hack jokes about. But the really glaring thing here is two separate montages on the topic of how it is charming and endearing to perpetually harass people who have made it entirely clear that they want nothing to do with your misguided affections. I guess I should be pleased that both male (Larry) and female (Chloe) characters are given the opportunity to be gross and creepy.
  • Teaspoon-shallow characterization. The way this particular clip show is set up, each of the major cast members is given a montage of memorable moments. Chloe and Riley (Mary-Kate) come across as complete ciphers, since they are the object and the subject of the above-mentioned celebrations of rape culture—Chloe harasses Travis, Larry harasses Riley. Hilarity is meant to ensue. Jake’s montage is about how he’s in touch with his sensitive side. Manuelo gets to say his catchphrase about a million fucking times & the show is brazen enough to lampshade the fact that they had no idea what to do with mom Macy (Clare Carey, Coach.) Eventually they settle on a half-hearted montage of her losing her cool (just because, you know, her, Jake and Tedi are trapped in a wildfire.)
  • Laziness to the nth degree. This is really the disease of which all of the above are merely symptoms. It’s probably pretty clear by now some of the many ways this show is as lazy as a ground sloth being hunted by the Clovis, but let’s enumerate a few more. Some of the choices made around the clips are baffling. We get to see Jake doing yoga, and the “punchline” is that he follows the directions on the tape, which instruct him to congratulate himself out loud for the good job he is doing with the yoga. Okay? Is that really one of the highlights of the show? I’m kind of afraid that it is, even though it’s not really a joke so much as a slice of life. And not a very interesting slice, either. The writers and actors struggle with the punchlines—this episode begins with a big set-up: all the family members see something on their TV that horrifies them and they immediately run to one another. It seems like it might be a natural disaster—they’re not sure how long it’ll be until things return to normal, they think they’d be safer in Santa Monica but the freeway would be clogged with others panicking for the same reason, etc. It turns out that the cable is out. This is a big punchline on a silver platter that they spend a significant amount of time setting up, and they totally bury it with only a brief chortle from the laugh track. This let me know early on that I was not in good hands. The more superficial details of the show are also puzzling in their incompetence: the musical cues are terrible (the theme song is particularly wince-inducing,) the set dressing is off-putting (why does their house have newsroom clocks?) and the view out the windows is jarring in its lack of realism—the Carlsons live in an ocean-front property, so you expect to see ocean out the window, but here’s what you see instead. There’s a difference between living in a beach house and living on a boat.

Final Judgment: 0/10. Run, don’t walk from this turkey—currently a revenant stalking the halls of Nickelodeon. Really, it was cruel of them to bring this back from the grave.

Case Study 3: Comic Book Men, Episode 6–“Ink”
Original Airdate: March 18th, 2012 on AMC

Since this is our inaugural study of reality TV, a preamble on that subject before we dig in to the particulars. As the folks at the Emmys have taken note of, there are really two types of reality TV—there’s the modern day game show where Regular People are brought together to win a contest of some sort. Think Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Idol, Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef. Staples of the genre, these shows have an intrinsic hook and are often quite fun. People who are otherwise reality TV snobs—and we all know them—tend to be a bit more forgiving of this genre, since there is a clearly defined point to the drama that plays out on the screen. The Bachelor is the black sheep of this family, I think.

Then there’s the other kind of reality TV, where we follow around a questionable celebrity (Kathy Griffin, Kardashians, Flavor Flav) or a group of allegedly interesting people in some subculture or another (the quirky staff of an animal rescue shelter, the staff of a black owned and operated tattoo parlor, ice road truckers, inebriated Southerners) as they go about their day to day lives. As far as the snobs are concerned, this is what makes reality TV irredeemable.

Comic Book Men flaunts these genres, to a certain extent. There’s a group of allegedly interesting people who work at or hang around a comic book store. There’s a questionable celebrity in the form of future Hollywood Square Kevin Smith (dir. Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.) There’s also the game show aspect pioneered by proto-reality show Antiques Roadshow and more latterly by Pawn Star. Comic’s genesis is somewhat interesting—AMC is one of those TV networks whose name literally used to stand for something but subsequently pivoted into a different format. In 2003 they shed their past as “American Movie Classics” to devote more attention to original programming. They’ve had a few mega-hits: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Two of those have increasingly popular spin-offs. (Sadly, the Mad Men spinoff I dream of was not to be after Peggy rejected Joan’s offer to run a production company together. I want to live in the timeline where Holloway, Harris & Olson is real. I want that more than anything. Single tear.) They also have a wide back bench of also-rans and hopeful up and comers. And up until 2014, they had a healthy slate of reality shows, all of which got brutally massacred with the exception of this show and Chris Hardwick’s Talking Dead. Aren’t you thrilled that there are three separate shows that allow you to immerse yourself in a universe where a hellscape of shambling corpses constantly threaten to eat your children? Also, Talking Dead sounds like a joke show. Perhaps the fact that these are the two shows that survived signals that the Podcast Revolution has arrived at last, since Hardwick is of course emperor of The Nerdist podcast networkWhich brings me to my next point…

Comic started its life as Kevin Smith’s podcast. Take it away, Wikipedia: “Filmmaker Kevin Smith was drawn to television through his love of podcasting, through which he says he realized his true calling: telling stories with words rather than pictures.” I can think of two things wrong with that sentence. 1) This filmmaker realized his true calling was telling stories with words rather than pictures? and 2) This realization led him to create a TV show? But here we are.

Strengths

  • Entertaining appraisal of comic book memorabilia/depiction of ensuing negotiations.  This is positively fascinating! I’m an unabashed lover of Antiques and narrowing the focus to the wide and deep comics market is a great move. It’s always interesting to see the variety of objects that people bring in to have assessed. We get to see how that assessment transpires and how value is determined. Adding the haggling component is also a good decision because it allows us to see the flexibility of value and it gives us a better sense of the investment the parties have, as well as their connection with each other. It’s very fruitful ground—my favorite exchange in this episode is between manager Walt Flanagan and a customer whose appearance Walt compares to Kirk Cameron. Flanagan and the customer instantly form a warm bond over the comics that the customer has brought to the store, which include several very valuable items as well as a classic Alan Moore story, “The Killing Joke,” and an issue of Steve Ditko’s landmark title “Mr. A.” (Weirdly, Smith hadn’t heard of this. Dude, you own a comic book store and I’ve heard of “Mr. A.” And I am hardly a comics nerd—I felt my eyes glazing over as the group discussed which specific superhero team formation was their favorite because there were so many heroes I was unfamiliar with. Comics nerds have endlessly fertile fields to trawl.) Caustic hanger-on Bryan Johnson jokes that Flanagan is desperate to be friends with the customer. The customer and Flanagan finalize their transaction by sharing an awkward hug over the counter, which Johnson later mocks. This kind of moment is gold for an appraisal show like this. For better or worse, however, the show spends a lot of time on things that aren’t appraising.
  • Kevin Smith himself.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, as he’s obviously the reason this exists, Smith is the most charming person on this show. I don’t think his movies are very good (I was greatly amused to see a poster for Jersey Girl hanging in a place of prominence in the store, memorabilia which Miramax is thanked for providing in the credits) but every time he was on the screen I found myself smiling and wishing we could spend more time with him. He only appears in the segments of the show where the group are recording the podcast, which is unfortunate because that’s one of the most questionable parts of the show. However, Smith is a saving grace in these segments, despite the fact that it looks like he always wears the same shirt. I hope he has 50 of them, because otherwise he probably smells. And I don’t want to imagine him smelling bad, because I want him to be as cool to hang out with as he is on TV.
  • Amusing moments. One of the potential strengths of this flavor of reality TV is the ability to let funny moments float to the surface organically. Of course, we’re all cynical about how staged and over-produced reality TV is, but if the production isn’t obtrusive and gets out of the way, real-life moments can shine through. Two examples, both stemming from the episode’s main “plot” about the staff getting tattoos together: Smith tells an anecdote about getting drunk on pink Zinfandel while working on Clerks and subsequently getting a tattoo of what turned out to be the wrong character from “Alice In Wonderland,” and a moment in the tattoo parlor: Comic store employee Mike Zapcic asks the tattoo artist if people ever ask for comic themed tattoos. The artist replies that people do ask for the big names—Superman, Batman, Spiderman. Zapcic says, “That’s cool.” Artist: “Eh. I guess.” Ha!

Weaknesses

  • Reactionary. Oh, Jesus, here we go again with this shit. Let’s look at the genesis of the tattoo plot—a customer comes in with a lot of tats and when he leaves this becomes the subject of discussion. Johnson recalls an incident where Flanagan vowed to get a New Jersey Devils tattoo should they win a championship, and when they proceeded to win, Flanagan backed out of his pledge after it turned out his wife wasn’t happy with the idea (though she did have to bribe him.) This leads to a lot of hay being made over the fact that Flanagan is pussy-whipped just because his partner wants to have some input in a major decision. Ugh. More along these lines floats up when Johnson mocks employee Ming Chen for being short, pointing out that while Chen is sitting his feet don’t quite touch the floor. Johnson compares him to Lily Tomlin doing her Edith Ann bit. (Boy, these guys are really in touch with the youth culture.) This sexist bullshit climaxes when Flanagan refuses to purchase a customer’s special edition superhero Barbie dolls. It’s not that they don’t sell toys—there’s fucking Walking Dead figurines on sale right next to the goddamn register. (Nice synergy, AMC. Also prominently displayed: Walking Dead comics, because of course. Right next to the Clerks comics.) As becomes clear in a podcasting segment (where Smith rightfully calls Flanagan on his egregious bullshit,) the only reason Flanagan won’t buy the Barbies is because they’re Barbies. They’re for girls. I guess this show is called Comic Book Men for a reason. Let’s not forget the racism, heaped unilaterally on perennial punching bag Chen—in a conversation about who would prevail in a fight between Chen and Johnson, Johnson says he’d take on Chen and Jet Li at the same time. An Asian customer comes into the store shortly thereafter and when asked for his opinion he says he’d back Chen out of racial solidarity. Johnson announces that both Chen and the customer are “racists.” Later, when Chen is showing the others the design for the family crest he eventually ends up getting tattooed on his back. He hands the small piece of paper that it’s on to Flanagan, who likens it to “something out of a fortune cookie.” Enchanté.
  • Unlikable characters, apart from Smith. Admittedly, we don’t spend a lot of time with Chen and Zapcic, so I’m not 100% sure how I feel about them. Flanagan, however, is completely unappealing. In addition to being a sexist asshole, he’s also a windbag. He loves to brag about his negotiating tactics in the podcast segments. He tries to spin his geeky bonhomie with the Kirk Cameron-esque guy into a scenario where Flanagan is “sneaking up on an unsuspecting elk.”  As we see, however, his negotiating prowess amounts to having to take a complete pass on the rare issues the guy brought into the store in exchange for giving him $12 for “The Killing Joke” and “Mr. A.” Yeah, what a master negotiator. The AV Club calls Johnson “mordant” and forecasts that he will be a “breakout star.” I think the word I’d use is simply “asshole.” A woman comes into the store looking for a gift for her boyfriend. In response, Johnson proclaims that if she’s looking for a thoughtful gift, “the honeymoon’s over,” despite her protests that they’ve been seeing each other for a mere four months. Later, when she balks at spending more than $100 on two comic books, (Flanagan protests too much on the podcast about not trying to soak her as a novice buyer, and of course he doesn’t suggest any option that’s within her price range) Johnson crows about how she doesn’t think her boyfriend is worth more than that. People love to carp about how Kim Kardashian doesn’t “deserve” to be famous or on television, but here’s the thing about her: people like her. She’s charming. She’s fun to watch. People want to spend their limited amount of TV time with her. Conventional wisdom is that reality TV needs “villains,” but this is asinine. This isn’t Wacky Races and I don’t need Dick Dastardly plotting in the background. That’s a bug, not a feature. Smith brings charm and humor to the show, but jagoffs like Flanagan and Johnson suck the air out of the room.
  • Bad banter. I have a friend (who is incidentally heavily tattooed) and once we were listening to sports radio in anticipation of her boyfriend being interviewed in an upcoming segment. She took the opportunity to bemoan banter of any stripe, calling it the bane of her existence. “Say something or don’t—but don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by giving me a window into your inane chit-chat.” Now, this is somewhat of an extreme position. Obviously she is not a part of the Podcast Revolution. But a show like this makes me see where she’s coming from. I’m not exactly surprised to hear geeky talking points about the merits of the Superfriends or the mechanics of the Green Lantern’s power batteries, but the tepid riffing we get here adds nothing, even if you care about the Superfriends or the Green Lantern. Can we leave spitballing about the kid-friendliness of The Munsters vs. The Addams Family in Smith’s shitty movies where they belong? This does make me wonder about an alternate universe where Tarantino’s career sputtered out after Reservoir Dogs, Netflix was never invented and he wound up on reality TV managing a custom-branded video store. Vincent & Jules’ Secret Stash. File that next to Holloway, Harris & Olson, I guess.

Final Judgment: 4/10. This show has some robust strengths, but its flaws make it something I won’t voluntarily return to. If the idea of a Pawn Stars with comic books and Smith compels you enough that you’re willing to put up with some rancid bros in a hastily stitched-together Frankenstein of a show designed to keep people watching AMC after The Walking Dead have stalked off into the sunset, you’ve met your match.

NEXT TIME: Dead Like Me and others!

Reviewing Random Episodes: Monsters We Met, So Little Time, Comic Book Men