Case Study 28: Agent X–“Pilot”

Original Airdate: November 8th, 2015 on TNT

Based on how often I saw it in press accounts, it would seem that Agent X billed itself to the media as “National Treasure meets The Bourne Identity.” It nails the Treasure tone but drifts rather far afield of the Bourne approach, which makes a spy fantasy seem realistic and plausible. It’s almost as if those two things, while superficially similar, should not have been combined. Agent also bears the inauspicious distinction of being the first show covered on this blog which premiered, had its entire run and was cancelled during the course of Oryx & Cake Boss’ four month existence. Let’s kick it while it’s down!

Strengths

  • Action-oriented thrills. Admittedly, Agent does cram most of this into the cold open and then gets steadily worse as the hour progresses, but there’s derring-do, close combat in elevators, gunplay, rooftop brawls, suspenseful battles atop precarious scaffolding and so forth. It’s good that Agent can supply these things, because otherwise it would have no reason to exist and we’d be in Olsen Twins territory.

Weaknesses

  • Ludicrous. I’d like to believe that Agent was holding out for camp value, but it’s hard to have campy fun while also embracing a solemn duty to protect the innocent American public from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Agent quotes this section of the Constitution, as well it should—the plot hinges on a heretofore unknown secret clause in Article Two wherein the Vice President oversees a high-powered field agent fighting against whatever trolls lurk under the bridges of democracy this week. This very silly premise infects otherwise solid areas of the show as well. In the first half hour, people nearly have their necks broken by someone twisting their legs around them in two separate scenes. The second instance is thanks to legally distinct Black Widow Olga Petrovka (Olga Fonda, Real Steel.) You see, Olga is a former circus contortionist (sounds legit) and when the FBI captures and interrogates her, for some reason they don’t use leg irons—on the famed contortionist—and soon she’s flipping herself over and wrapping her legs around her interrogator. Straight out of the pages of Ludlum, I tells ya!
  • Sharon Stone. Agent introduces us to our first female Vice President. Natalie Maccabee (Stone, Basic Instinct) is an improvement on Sarah Palin but she’s a damn sight worse than Selina Meyer. She’s even worse than that grouchy Christian lady from Scandal. The problem here might be the material (I’m not sure anyone could make much hay of the direction to “have a dignified reaction to the discovery of a secret shrine to Democracy underneath the Vice President’s House”) but most of the looks that cross Stone’s face seem to suggest despair at the tattered remains of her career and not noble perseverance in the face of the FBI director’s daughter being—oh, I won’t even summarize this awful bullshit. Really, I should applaud Stone for not having some kind of personal crisis over her decision to co-produce this turd. I’d be truly surprised if at some point in 2015 she didn’t make a rueful remark about how she used to work with Scorsese.
  • Reactionary. Look, I realize that it was a near inevitability that an action/espionage thriller would presuppose a government that unquestioningly takes it upon itself to act as an exceptionalist policeman to the world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be disappointed. You see, Olga’s boss is international supercriminal Carmen SandieNicolas Volker (Andrew Howard, Limitless.) Somehow, Volker is responsible for a nuclear accident in France, increased guerilla activity in Nigeria and the suicide of the Argentinian Prime Minister, all of which is America’s problem due to reasons. And how can America solve that problem? Only through extrajudicial means, of course! At least the eponymous Agent John Case (Jeff Hephner, Boss) refrains from torturing anyone, KEIFER.

Motivation: Knowledge, as Case is frantically trying to discover the location of the FBI director’s kidnapped daughter. Dammit TNT, you tricked me into plot summary.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Agent X is perfect for the person in your life who has already watched every episode of 24 and also every action movie made in the last twenty years.

NEXT TIME: I cannot continue to ignore my duty to write about an endless stream of children’s superhero cartoons, so look forward to a review of the 1990s Iron Man animated series!

Advertisements
Case Study 28: Agent X–“Pilot”

Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”

Original Airdate: May 2nd, 2013 on BBC Two

David Tennant has traded a helmet-esque ginger wig for cheesy blonde highlights as we go from talking about Gracepoint to The Politician’s Husband. It’s a three-episode miniseries and a spiritual successor to writer Paula Milne’s award-winning 1995 effort, The Politician’s Wife. Husband didn’t win as much acclaim, but it’s still well worth a watch. Why, you ask? Let me count the ways!

Strengths

  • Political sausage-making. This may just be an Oryx thing, but I’m an absolute sucker for anything that takes the lid off a seething hotbed of institutional backbiting. Big social organizations seem opaque and abstract to an outsider. What really goes on in schools, hospitals, churches and police stations? Entertainment that promises an authentic glimpse into the greasy guts of a social system tantalizes us with answers to these questions, and Husband is no slouch in this respect. When scandals, showdowns and speeches from the world of politics make the headlines in Husband, there’s layers of incident behind what comes out in the public eye, though most of it boils down to power struggles of one kind or another. Which leads me to…
  • Scheming. Nothing raises the dramatic stakes like a group of people secretly conspiring to undermine and usurp one another. No one’s trying to kill each other here, but the stakes are entire careers and the leadership of the UK. Husband has the action play out at home and in the office. Aiden Hoynes (Tennant) is the former Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and after a failed attempt at a power grab, he sees his wife Freya (Emily Watson, Corpse Bride) get promoted to the Secretary of Work and Pensions position. Later in the series, the cliche “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is invoked in an unrelated situation, and it’s meant to underscore the plot. But for Aiden it’s in reverse–first he tries to make Freya an accomplice to his schemes to get back at rival Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard, The Pianist) and then when she proves less than pliable he sets out to destroy her as well.
  • Aiden Hoynes. The series is strong on plot, but it’s truly a character study. It’s interesting to consider how Hoynes compares to Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s monstrously amoral power-hungry politician in House of Cards. Both are willing to go to more or less any lengths to seize the reins of power, but Aiden seems much more human and real. Hoynes’ son Noah (Oscar Kennedy) has a serious case of Asperger’s and we get several glimpses of Hoynes’ sadness for his son’s travails and Hoynes’ compassionate management of Noah’s outbursts. He has a strong relationship with his father (Jack Shepherd, Wycliffe) and often turns to him for counsel and companionship. Despite his efforts to sabotage and undermine Freya, he genuinely loves her and when the Hoynes’ au pair Dita (Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) makes a pass at Aiden he rejects her without batting an eye. He’s not a cartoon devil, unlike some other protagonists I could name.
  • Beautiful direction. There’s so many great shots in this show, and this is only buttressed by the very dramatic looking interiors and exteriors of buildings like the Palace of Westminster. The shots are elegantly and lovingly framed, but the direction remains unobtrusive and accessible. It’s a pleasure to watch.

Weaknesses

  • No political substance. Look, I get that part of the point of political dramas like this, Cards and The Thick of It is that politicians spend the bulk of their time and energy on strategies and plots and very little on actually thinking about policy solutions or their constituents. At one point, the show lampshades this by having the House of Commons Whip Marcus Brock (Roger Allam, Endeavour) point out to Babbish that “If we devoted the same amount of time and energy to solving unemployment or child poverty as we do our Westminster power games, we might have solved them by now.” This may be well observed, for all I know, but it’s narratively unsatisfying. There’s no stakes for the viewer in a race between Hoynes and Babbish for control of the Prime Minister’s office if both of them are essentially apolitical assholes who just want power. Every time the characters take a political stand, there’s always an ulterior motive and there’s never any deeply felt principles or beliefs behind their positions. I get that this is part of the point, but it’s still alienating and unsatisfying. Fans of The West Wing will have twigged to the fact that Milne is paying tribute to that show by naming her characters Hoynes and Babbish. While I’m by no means a West Wing superfan, at least the characters on that show were engaged with actual political issues.

Motivation: Again, it’s not shocking, but this show about fiendish politicians is driven entirely by their lust for power.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. I recommend the entire series, but the first two episodes are particularly strong. The third one’s not so bad, but it does bring the overall rating for the show itself down to 8/10, mostly due to a ludicrous plot development in the third act.

NEXT TIME: I review Agent X in an attempt to find a show that is the complete opposite of Husband in every way while still being a political drama!

 

Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”

Original Airdate: October 2nd, 2014 on FOX

Adaptations are a tricky business. On the one hand, directors and writers need to honor the source text and thereby please the fans that were a built-in audience from day one. On the other hand, the creators have to reckon with the fact that they’re making something new. Often they’re telling the story in an entirely different medium with its own uniques strengths and demands. In this case the medium stays the same but the audience is different. Gracepoint is the American adaptation of a successful British crime drama by the name of Broadchurch. Technically, Gracepoint is only intended to be an adaptation of Broadchurch’s first season and was promoted by the network as a “limited series,” which I guess is a fancier way of saying “miniseries?” So what works about Gracepoint and what doesn’t? I’m so glad you asked.

Strengths

  • Compelling plot. Gracepoint is the kind of television mystery that I enjoy the most. Instead of shoehorning the entire thing into 42 minutes, Gracepoint tells the story of a complex, twisting investigation over the course of 10 episodes. This is a great sign for any mystery fan, because it signals a satisfying level of depth you just can’t get in the glut of police procedurals out there. This is why Mystery! has been on the air for 36 years. Well, that and wildly unrestrained Anglophilia. This episode closes with a montage of various Gracepoint residents listening to Det. Emmett Carver (David Tennant, Doctor Who) give a press conference on the status of the case, and in addition to being in various positions of centrality or periphery to the life of the close-knit community, all these citizens are also suspects in the death of 12 year old Danny Solano. Over the course of the season, all their tawdry secrets are brought to the surface–adultery, past crimes, drug addiction, assumed identities, you name it. While watching Broadchurch, I had immense fun guessing at everyone’s role in the story, even up to the last episode.
  • Well-drawn characters. If Gracepoint is anything like Broadchurch–and it’s almost exactly the same–many of those townspeople come into view as fully realized, believable characters. However, the heart of Gracepoint is the relationship between its two main characters, Carver and Det. Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad.) Carver has developed an angry, acerbic personality after a major failure on a prior case, but he’s a thoughtful, perceptive man using a standoffish personality as a defense mechanism. Miller had been in line for a promotion that was given to Carver, an outsider to the Gracepoint PD, and she enters the relationship with a pronounced bitterness towards him as a supervisor. She has a deep emotional investment in the welfare of the town and its citizens. What’s more, Danny was her son Tom’s (Jack Irvine) best friend. She’s competent and has a firm handle on the social topography of Gracepoint, but this is her first murder investigation and her close relationships with the suspects prove in some ways to be liabilities. She’s also completely unafraid to call Carver on his bullshit. The interplay between these two is the best part of a great show, and it’s made all the better by the fact that somehow the unlikely pairing makes for an effective crime-solving partnership.
  • Strong setting. This had better be the case in a show where the setting also provides the title, eh? The show does an excellent job of shining a light on the intricate dynamics of a claustrophobic island town and by the end we feel we’ve gleaned some of the same insights and knowledge possessed by a longtime resident like Miller. This feeling is assisted by the gorgeous beach cliffsides of British Columbia, where Gracepoint and practically every other show with outdoor locations on American television was filmed. Director James Strong also does an excellent job establishing the visual feel of the town.
  • Good acting, for the most part. Tennant reprises his role as Carver from Broadchurch, so it’s not surprising that he’s had a chance to get comfortable in the role, though his American accent is a bit risible. He and Gunn manage to recapture the great chemistry that Tennant had with Olivia Colman–it’s hard not to laugh when Miller takes a phone call in the restaurant where the two stopped for lunch only to look out the window to see Carver in the parking lot, holding up his watch and scowling at her. The other plum acting roles in the first episode go to Danny’s grieving parents. Virginia Kull absolutely nails the devastation of Beth Solano. The weak link would be the bafflingly famous Michael Peña (Shooter) who really phones it in as Mark Solano.
  • Establishing season-long thematics. It’s somewhat careworn territory, but Gracepoint/Broadchurch manage to breathe fresh air into the story of a tragedy exposing a million cracks in the facade of bucolic small town life. It underscores the fact that depravity, misery and cruelty aren’t the exclusive province of big cities. When Miller and Carver interview amateur marine biology enthusiast Jack Reinhold (Nick Nolte, The Thin Red Line) and Reinhold proceeds to regale them with facts about whale migration, he’s surprised by Carver’s indifference. Miller apologetically explains that he’s from the city, to which Reinhold replies “Sorry to hear that.” But as Miller and Carver will discover over the course of the investigation, Gracepoint is no safe haven. In Gracepoint, the binding ties are much more intimate than they’d be in a metropolis. We learn halfway through the episode that the local shit-stirring cub reporter Owen (Kevin Zegers, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) is also Miller’s nephew, a fact which is thrown in her face when Owen reveals the identity of the deceased before the police get a chance. Laying this groundwork early on is a clear sign that the viewer is in good hands.

Weaknesses

  • Copied and pasted. So the central question when considering any adaptation is to ask what has been gained by the transition. When adapting a book to a movie, there may be scenes that can only be fully realized in a visual medium. When adapting a movie to a musical, there may be aspects that are greatly enhanced by a physical no-holds barred dramatic performance, and the tone of the film might translate into jaunty musical numbers. With international television adaptations, success is often dictated on how the work takes new form and shape in a different culture. Consider how the British and American versions of The Office captured widely different work cultures. Well, it’s hard to argue that Gracepoint addresses anything uniquely American, because it’s nearly exactly the same as Broadchurch. All of those strengths I mentioned above? Not a single one is unique to Gracepoint. Lines of dialogue, entire shots and scenes, very similar looking sets and location shots, even the fucking names–all lifted directly from Broadchurch and slapped down in Northern California. Gracepoint brings absolutely nothing new to the table. It really didn’t need to get made. It’s not like Broadchurch was a remote and inaccessible option for American audiences. Not only is it available on Netflix, but it also aired on BBC America.

Motivation: As with any good mystery, the driving force is knowledge. Who killed Danny Solano!?!?

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is very good. But there’s an important caveat. It’s only very good because Broadchurch was very good and it’s nearly exactly the same. Just watch Broadchurch. For the record, I’d give season one of Broadchurch a 10/10. If for some strange reason you only have access to Gracepoint, it would make a perfectly reasonable substitute.

NEXT TIME: We continue the David Tennant extravaganza with The Politician’s Husband!

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”

Case Study 25: Teen Titans, Episode 66–“Trouble in Tokyo”

Original Airdate: September 15th, 2006 on Cartoon Network

After forays into the world of ill-conceived watered down superhero cartoons, it’s refreshing to get to watch a show based on classic comic book heroes. DC and Marvel comics are the foundation of the superhero genre for good reason–they offer detailed, well thought out worlds with a rich internal history, frequently backed by considerably talented artists and writers. Of course, no decade spanning enterprise is entirely consistent, but at least the characters here have more resonant mythology than some nonsense cranked out to sell action figures or to keep something airing on the Nicktoons network.

It’s somewhat inaccurate to call this an “episode,” since as with Danny Phantom and Angelina Ballerina I’m reviewing something intended to be a “TV movie,” although since none of these things cracks an hour thirty, that distinction may be somewhat dubious. The Teen Titans television franchise continues to thrive–in 2013 Cartoon Network started airing a spin-off entitled Teen Titans Go!, which is enjoying considerable critical acclaim among critics sad and nerdy enough to spend all their time reviewing children’s cartoons. Ahem.

Strengths

  • Animation. It’s really quite stunning. The combination between DC and Warner Brothers is a winning one, since both are entities with a long-established reputation for making their mark in a visual medium. The coloring, the level of detail, the fluid sense of kinetics–it’s a feast for the eyes, and it really plays to the show’s strengths as an action-oriented thrill-ride with one foot firmly in the world of fantasy. It’s hard to capture in a still, especially when I only have Google Images to rely on, but here’s a taste.
  • Action sequences. Speaking of this show being action-oriented, Titans nails the fight scenes. The show opens with a no-holds-barred battle in the Titans’ generic urban home of Jump City as they face off against the mysterious, ninja-esque Saico-Tek (Keone Young, Men In Black 3.) Saico-Tek deploys modified shuriken bombs that emit gorgeous clouds of multicolored smoke on impact as everyone races through the city and struggles to capture him. The Titans travel to Tokyo to determine who sent Saico-Tek. Eventually, Robin (Scott Menville) and Saico-Tek reprise the initial battle by engaging in some impressive rooftop acrobatics, and the climactic scenes feature each member of the Titans facing off against unique, day-glo colored nemeses. I mean, chances are the average eight year old is not tuning in for the scriptwriting, and for those viewers these action sequences are guaranteed to satisfy.
  • Superpowers. These sequences are amplified by the fact that the Titans have some pretty badass powers. It won’t surprise people with a passing franchise with the Batman franchise that Robin uses hand-to-hand combat skills and the usual high-tech gadgetry to best his enemies, but Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) is essentially an Animorph without all the weird terms and conditions. You’re lying if you tell me you have no interest whatsoever in seeing a pterodactyl fight a ninja. Raven (Tara Strong, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic) is equally badass, using her command of black magic to astrally project, teleport, generate force fields, manipulate objects and generally kick ass, and because the visuals are so on point you can bet it looks cool as fuck.
  • Meta-commentary. So it turns out that the animating force behind Saico-Tek and his cohorts is very literally an animating force. He’s Brushogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Mortal Kombat), a manga artist whose rapacious desire to see his creations come to life led him to eventually gain the ability to actually bring monsters to life using ink and paper. Corrupt police commander Uehara Daizo (Young) traps Brushogun inside a cursed printing press and uses him to generate monsters to keep the police force looking necessary and useful. Of course, all the monsters the Titans fight are merely ink and paper brought to life by twisted minds, and the creatures that Brushogun spawns are all riffs on well-known anime characters. Daizo himself looks an awful lot like Inspector Zenigata from Lupin the Third. Clever!

Weaknesses

  • “Humor.” Unfortunately, I wish there was more of that cleverness to go around. Now, the show’s not without its risible moments–Raven bemoans not having a steady supply of gas-guzzling SUVs to hurl at an attacking Godzilla-esque monster, since all the streets of Tokyo have to offer are sensible fuel-efficient sedans. Later, she ends up becoming the incongruous celebrity spokeswoman for “Super Twinkle Donkey Gum.” Meanwhile, Cyborg (Khary Payton) pulls a Homer Simpson at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, so the chef (Young) tries to slow his roll with an endless variety of disgusting foods, including “an old boot stuffed with wasabi.” But once again, Titans offers us a case study in a non-comedy’s inability to restrain itself from trying to tell jokes when it doesn’t have any good jokes to tell. The main offender here is Beast Boy, who is aggressively telegraphed as being Wacky and Irreverent. The writers seem to have been instructed that every appearance by Beast Boy on screen must be accompanied by dreadful attempts at lulz. Upon landing in Tokyo, he asks when they’ll get to see the Great Wall. When Robin instructs Saico-Tek to put his hands in the air and Saico-Tek flies off instead, Beast Boy rejoins “Hands in the air, man, not your whole body!” He even gets a stupid and entirely pointless musical number so we can enjoy an extended riff on Engrish karaoke lyrics. HO HO HO
  • Unnecessary romance. Regular visitors to this space will know if that there’s one thing I love, it’s stupid tacked on romance plotlines. I mean, what 8 year old wouldn’t want smoochies in her action packed superhero cartoon? Clearly that is why one watches action packed superhero cartoons! Especially when the romance features the least charismatic character on the show, i.e. Robin. Sure, Robin is the de facto leader of the Titans–probably because he’s the only one of them the casual fan has ever heard of–but he’s also a humorless prig. The main obstacle to his burgeoning romance with Starfire (Hynden Walch, Adventure Time) is the fact that he believes he has to devote 100% to superheroism related activities and can give no quarter to the frivolities of romance. How, uh, relatable. I mean, he doesn’t even have eyes. Why not Starfire and Cyborg? I suppose I complained because Ballerina didn’t take the opportunity in its final movie-length outing to explore the romantic potential between Angelina and William, but that’s not so much something it was missing but something it coyly teased at on its way to having no plot whatsoever. It could have easily been just as boring as the Robin/Starfire romance.
  • Orientalism. So I understand the strong appeal of telling a story about Americans in Japan–the two countries have a similar quality of life but are almost completely antipodal in terms of culture. It’s an especially good fit for Titans because its animation style is dripping with anime tropes. (I don’t think it’d be unfair to say that Titans offers the best of both anime and western animation.) For the most part, Titans manages to avoid the gigantic steaming pile of racist/orientalist/exoticist tropes that frequently come along when the west looks at the east. There are definitely some stinkers, though. How did Brushogun get his powers? Oh, by dabbling with “Japanese black magic,” of course. The disgruntled sushi chef doesn’t just serve Cyborg the old boot full of wasabi, he also feeds him eyeballs and other various Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-grade bullshit. I mentioned above that each of the Titans faces a custom nemesis as designed by Brushogun. Beast Boy’s nemesis lures him onto the battlefield of her choice by appearing to him as a comely Japanese schoolgirl, and of course Beast Boy can’t resist the primal forces of lechery. What 8 year old doesn’t want to fuck a Japanese schoolgirl?

Motivation: Knowledge. Saico-Tek attacks the Titans and they have no idea why. There’s an excuse for an investigatory road trip if ever I heard one!

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. Titans is far from a must-see, but it gets the meat and potatoes of the superhero genre right.

NEXT TIME: I review Gracepoint to see how well it compares to its ancestor Broadchurch!

Case Study 25: Teen Titans, Episode 66–“Trouble in Tokyo”

Case Study 24: We Bare Bears, Episode 18–“Emergency”

Original Airdate: October 16th, 2015 on Cartoon Network

Way back in my second review, I bemoaned the fact that I’d found the low end of the 10 point scale very early. I’m happy to say I’ve finally found the high end and in a rather unexpected place to boot. This blog is teaching me not to judge a book by its cover when it comes to TV–I was stunned by how amazing Hindsight was, for example. It doesn’t help that so far my luck with children’s programming has been decidedly spotty. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to say I’ve finally stumbled upon something that truly deserves a 10/10.

That doesn’t mean We Bare Bears is for everyone. Some adults will simply not lower themselves to watching anything made for children that doesn’t speak to their own nostalgia, and Bears is very profoundly silly. It doesn’t exactly speak to the human condition, if that’s your standard for great television. However, this episode does everything it sets out to do, and it does it perfectly. I also like to think that it’s a good moment for adults interested in delving into what would traditionally be considered all too kiddie-bye. Bears definitely has the pedigree for appealing to that crowd–it’s the creation of Pixar vet Daniel Chong, and if anyone can get grown-up butts in seats for G-rated fare it’s Pixar. Television cartoons are also undergoing a renaissance in terms of adult appeal–just ask the legions of 21 and over adherents to the churches of Adventure Time, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Avatar: The Last Airbender. So what does that look like when it’s firing on all cylinders?

Strengths

  • Character design. One easy way to score points right out of the gate is to have attractive, distinctive character design, and adorableness helps tremendously in this regard. Bears are adorable, and this probably helped along by the fact that many people have positive childhood memories of bear-shaped stuffed toys. Sure, in real life bears are quite dangerous and often gross, but for the softened visual language of cartoons, bears are a great choice. It doesn’t just come down to the animal selection, either. The bears are meant to be brothers despite being different species, and the similarity in the character design reflects that, but as you can see here, their modes of expression and the small detail work sets them apart based on their personality. We’re off to a good start if we’ve got charming visuals with a good sense of aesthetics.
  • Attention to detail. In animation, what’s being presented to the viewer can be as precise or as abstract as the creators desire. Whichever style is chosen, the medium demands a painstaking eye for detail to reach maximum potential. Hilarious signs and business names seen in passing pack more laughs per minute into an episode of The Simpsons than you’re likely to find elsewhere on TV. Shows like Bojack Horseman and Ugly Americans take full advantage of their uniquely deranged universes in ways that only cartoons could. Bears understands this. In the great opening credits sequence, which is scored with a lovely, bouncy number from the excellent Estelle, the bears are shown walking in their signature stack through a quickly changing variety of situations. In one, the bears stumble into a ball pit and emerge festooned with children clinging to them like barnacles. Grizzly (Eric Edelstein, The Hills Have Eyes 2) is on top of the stack and dislodges the children with the action of opening an umbrella, which transitions seamlessly into the next clip, where the bears trundle along on a rainy day. Of course, Grizzly is swept away from his position on top of the stack when the wind catches his umbrella. In this episode, we briefly catch a glimpse of the fact that Grizzly has 911 programmed into his phone as “The Po-Po.” Hee!
  • Technology integration. It’s something of a stroke of genius that this show takes it as a given that its characters exist in a world just as technologically sophisticated as our own. Many cartoons seem to sanitize modern technology from their universe as if they hold some sort of puritanical worldview about ubiquitous gadgets being inherently corrosive, as though many of these shows aren’t currently being watched on those ubiquitous devices, as though television itself isn’t a ubiquitous and arguably corrosive device. Bears makes no apologies for its characters living in a thoroughly modern world. They use laptops. The opening credits features Panda (Bobby Moynihan, Saturday Night Live) checking a Tinder-esque mobile dating app only to discover he has 0 matches. In this episode, they even take an ill-fated ride with an unhinged ride-sharing service driver. The show is a great example about how a kid’s show can be clever and unique without making any concession to the fact that its characters live in a world very similar to our own.
  • Funny. This is pretty essential for a comedic cartoon, isn’t it? Thankfully, Bears delivers. The story here is about Ice Bear (Demetri Martin, Important Things With Demetri Martin) desperately trying to get some time to himself chilling out in his home (a refrigerator, natch) watching ice skating and knitting. Alas, the antics of his idiotic brothers will take him on a journey far from his fridge, and this begins as Panda intrudes into his sanctuary with the goal of digging around for ice cream pops. Because it is a fridge, after all. Aside from the great visual of Ice Bear scowling as Panda climbs over him and shoves his gigantic poofy-tailed ass in Ice Bear’s face, we get a golden moment. Panda is searching for a French vanilla ice cream pop. Ice Bear taps him and produces the desired dessert. “Hey! You found it!” says Panda. “…Do you have any green tea ones down there?” He resumes rummaging. Ice Bear continues to scowl. In addition to the comedy of Panda cheerfully misreading the social cues, the mental image of a panda bear enjoying a green tea ice cream pop is delicious. Eventually, the main plot commences–Grizzly has purchased a “pet” crab from the grocery store, despite the advice of the grocer. Ice Bear is dubious–with good reason, since the crab promptly latches onto his ear. His brothers hasten to get him medical attention, which involves an odyssey across the city. At one point, they disembark from a subway train, only to realize that they’ve lost Ice Bear–because the crab has used his other claw to grab a piece of subway station infrastructure. That crab is an asshole. So the brothers tug, and tug, eager to make a crucial train transfer. Ice Bear winces. Finally they dislodge him–and the crab takes a chunk of metal with him. Asshole crab. Again, great visuals combined with slapstick are the bread and butter of silly comedy, especially in the cartoon form. The dialogue sparkles, as well. Eventually Ice Bear manages to go rogue and dislodge the crab on his own. Now his brothers are panicking because they don’t know where he is, so they head to a psychic (Edi Patterson, Partners) with crab in tow, of course. Grizzly wouldn’t abandon his pet! At first, it seems like the psychic is going to be helpful–she sees something white, covered with fur, beady eyes, doesn’t say much…and he’s at the pier! He’s scared and confused and headed towards a boat! “Where’s he going?” Grizzly exclaims. “Back to the place where it all started. Back to his wife, Guadalupe!” Grizzly gasps. “…Wait, who?” “He’s not a white-haired divorced man named Esteban?” Oh, man.
  • Excellent voice acting. This can make or break a cartoon, and Bears delivers in spades. I’ve often held that it’s harder to do comedic roles than dramatic acting, because a comedic actor has to both sell a punchline with perfect timing and delivery and invest their routine with genuine characterization, emotion and motivation in order for a bit to truly sing. Stand up comics can get away with general drollery with no particular voice coming from outside of a narrative space, but in the world of fiction the stakes are higher. Edelstein in particular manages to make many of Grizzly’s lines seriously funny solely through performance while still being convincing as someone deeply concerned for his brother’s welfare. It’s all too easy for actors in children’s programming to phone it in–see practically every other example I’ve reviewed here–but the cast knocks it out of the park here, and I think we’ll definitely be hearing more from Edelstein in particular in the future.

Motivation: Survival. And I’m not referring to Ice Bear’s injury–he’s never in any serious danger despite the mad rush to the hospital. When Grizzly and Panda finally find Ice Bear, he’s lying on the floor of an ice skating rink, totally blissed out. He just wanted to chill (see what I did there) and be himself. Of course, Grizzly and Panda are motivated by family, but this is truly Ice Bear’s story.

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. I’m so pleased to deliver a review where I have absolutely no criticisms. This is what a great cartoon for kids looks like, and silly grown-ups like myself will love it as well.

NEXT TIME: I finally get a chance to cover name-brand superheros as I review Teen Titans!

Case Study 24: We Bare Bears, Episode 18–“Emergency”

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”

Original Airdate: March 15th, 2009 on ABC

I mentioned at the end of the last post that Brothers and Sisters may be the same show as Parenthood, and it turns out that’s not really a joke. I could have sworn I had previously watched the pilot of Brothers, but I eventually realized that I was in fact remembering having watched the pilot of Parenthood. I can see how I would get confused–both deal with overly large semi-functional families of means in California having gentle adventures on broadcast TV. I think the Parenthood characters are meant to be more middle class, but their palatial Bay Area homes belie that.

Both shows also feature alums of Six Feet Under and I’d argue that this is no coincidence, as Brothers and Parenthood are each watered down versions of the HBO series. In our series du jour, it’s particularly resonant. The first episodes of both Brothers and Six feature a semi-estranged child of a good-sized family returning to LA and deciding to stay and make amends in the wake of their father’s death. Both shows go on to reveal the secret adultery of the patriarch and both chronicle the ensuing struggles over maintaining a hold on the family business, though the Walkers are a few tax brackets higher than the Fishers. Both shows go on to chronicle the romantic lives of the various family members, including a queer brother and a wayward youngest sibling. Both shows frequently use disastrous family dinners as set pieces. Hell, both families’ last names are nouned verbs suffixed by “-er.” Mr. Oryx and Cake Boss also observed that Brothers is what Arrested Development would be like if it were an equally ridiculous humorless drama. For this review, I watched four episodes of Brothers: the pilot, “Spring Broken,” and the episodes immediately preceding and following.

Strengths

  • Tawdry soap opera fare. I can’t lie–I love a good soap opera. Actually, I should amend that. I love a soap opera. It doesn’t have to be good. Brothers certainly isn’t. But the dramatic plotting definitely is. This episode alone features brother Justin Walker (Dave Annable) pining for his star-crossed lover, Rebecca Harper (Emily VanCamp, Revenge,) though Justin’s pining doesn’t prevent him from considering the merits of some Spring Break strange, and the danger of Justin relapsing into dissolute drug addiction is ever-present. It also features sister Kitty Walker (Calista Flockhart, Ally McBeal) coping with her failing marriage and her husband Robert McCallister’s (Rob Lowe, The West Wing) recent heart attack. Of course, Robert isn’t taking his recovery seriously enough and could keel over any moment, perhaps due to a strenuous round of Wii bowling or an inspiring speech. He’s going to be making a lot of inspiring speeches, since he’s also running for governor. Meanwhile, Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys, The Americans,) the aforementioned queer brother, spends the episode bemoaning the lack of passion in his marital bed and the Walkers are struggling with the awkward integration of their illegitimate brother Ryan Lafferty (Luke Grimes, Fifty Shades of Grey) into the family circle. And then there’s the main plot arc of the Season 3 episodes that I watched–asshole brother Tommy Walker (Balthazar Getty) is on trial for felony embezzlement conducted in order to seize control of the family business, Ojai Foods, which is currently under the oversight of his father’s former mistress, Holly Harper (Patricia Wettig.) Oh, and Holly’s Rebecca’s mom. So there’s definitely plenty of grist for the ol’ drama mill.
  • Strong ending. I find it fascinating when a show can turn its weaknesses into a strength, and this is a good example. As I’ll discuss below, the show’s characters are generally underwritten and have somewhat incoherent motives. Frequently this is in service of the plot. When Justin asks Rebecca to intervene on Tommy’s behalf by asking her mother to drop the charges, she refuses for totally understandable reasons–her and Justin’s relationship is already tenuous enough without Rebecca putting herself right in the middle of the increasingly fraught environment created by Tommy’s trifling bullshit. But a few scenes later, there she is, intervening on Tommy’s behalf. Why would Rebecca do that? Oh, because the story needs to keep moving forward? Okay then. In “Spring,” Justin and Kevin take Tommy to Baja California to forget his troubles. They also have the ulterior motive of persuading Tommy to cop a plea as opposed to taking his chances with a trial. As expected, Tommy eventually caves towards the end of the episode with no obvious reason for the change of heart. I was rolling my eyes until we hit the final twist–he didn’t actually change his mind at all. After Kevin and Justin return from breakfast, they find Tommy gone. It’s a breath of fresh air in a show that otherwise tries very hard to take interesting stories and make them bland.

Weaknesses

  • Underdeveloped/uninteresting/unlikable characters. Look, just because you have 17 different people on this show doesn’t mean that any of them are interesting. I’ll give credit where credit is due–they seem to be taking Ryan’s character in somewhat of an interesting direction, and I think sister Sarah Walker (Rachel Griffiths, Blow) is actually quite well-drawn. However, vast swaths of the enormous cast are inert if not actively inconsistently characterized, as mentioned above. This is a shame, as Brothers has a not inconsiderable bench of acting talent to draw from, but it’s almost entirely wasted. To add insult to injury, the two characters we spend the most time with are actively obnoxious and dull as opposed to just dull. Kitty’s something of a passive-aggressive blowhard. This isn’t surprising, since she had a stint as a Republican talking head on a Hannity & Colmes-style televised shouting match. She’s positioned as the theoretically sympathetic protagonist of the pilot, wherein she tells her queer brother about his politics by saying that “[he] can just keep on laughing and watch the rest of the country pass [him] by.” Uh, enchanting. When Sarah tries to give Robert advice about his relationship with Kitty, she advises that Kitty’s most passionate when she’s arguing with someone and that if she’s not arguing with someone it’s because she’s stewing with bitter resentment. Yeah, I absolutely want to spend my Sunday nights with that person! Meanwhile, Tommy is about a million times worse. His default position is a derisive sneer. In that same conversation in the pilot, Justin invites his siblings to a bar and Tommy asks him if they admit “unemployed hipsters who have seen every episode of Scooby-Doo.” Topical reference there, Tom. He’s still sneering at Justin in season 3 and takes every opportunity to dismiss his ambitions to go to medical school. It’s not just Justin, either–when his mom Nora Walker (Sally Field, Forrest Gump) finds out about the embezzlement and is distressed that Tommy is following his father’s footsteps in the world of white-collar crime, he throws it back in her face by pointing out that she sure loved the standard of living afforded to her by her late husband’s crimes. Of course, it’s likely most of that standard of living came from his successful business with only a small part consisting of misused funds, but it doesn’t matter to Tommy, because he takes every possible opportunity to be shitty. Does he have even an iota of remorse for the felony he committed? Nope. The fact that he’s guilty isn’t even in dispute. He thinks his motive to keep Ojai under his family’s control is all the explanation he needs. I wouldn’t mind unlikable characters as much if there was even a glimmer of depth on display here, but it is not to be.
  • Rich white people problems. Look, it’s not like shows about rich people can’t be glamorous, interesting or entertaining. Just look at Dynasty, Mad Men or Arrested. The problem is that Brothers is none of these things, so the viewers get to enjoy a bunch of whining about relatable problems like a failing gubernatorial campaign and getting caught embezzling. The details of Tommy’s embezzlement are a thrill ride of shell companies and shady land deals, which is obviously the essence of water cooler television. There’s a very telling and interesting moment in “Spring,” but I really don’t think the writers intended for it to have thematic resonance–instead it’s carrying water for two separate plot threads. The moment I’m talking about is an argument between Kitty and Ryan over Marxist theories on family. The first purpose this serves in the plot is to remind onlooker Sarah of what it looks like when Kitty is trying to bond to add fuel to her later conversation with Robert. The actual conversation mostly involves them talking past each other and saying little of substance, and we’re quickly delivered to the second plot purpose as Kitty waxes poetic about the deep bond between her and her newborn baby. This serves to send Ryan off in tears with passions inflamed about the mysterious death of his mother. The show predictably elides any actual Marxist theories of family, and they prove surprisingly relevant to Brothers. In a nutshell, Marx saw the traditional nuclear family as an institution designed both to maintain class hierarchy and social control. Indeed, the whole dumb plotline everyone finds themselves enmeshed in here is all about Tommy flaunting the law in order to keep Ojai and all the money it generates in the family. Every family member dutifully lines up behind him. None think he should be punished for breaking the law. They bend over backwards to try and keep him from experiencing any consequences, bringing all their social capital to bear. This is despite the fact that he’s constantly treating them all like garbage. This is despite the fact that he doesn’t show an iota of gratitude, much less remorse. No one says that they do this because it will keep them wealthy. That would be vulgar. Instead, they put up with Tommy’s wheelbarrows full of bullshit all in the name of family. He’s our brother, so we’re therefore obligated to defend his odious behavior and get him out of trouble–and the unspoken risk is getting cut out of the money pool. This isn’t to say that they don’t also love him and want the best for him. The thing about toxic social institutions is that they tend to propagate themselves and do their dirty work without the workers even realizing it’s happening. The argument as shown in “Spring” winds up being about the “artificial” bond between mothers and children, which is an obviously stupid strawman, so, again, I doubt any Brothers writers are taking Marx & Engels seriously. The embezzlement plotline isn’t the only evidence of the Walkers as an organization designed to perpetuate their own wealth–at the start of the show, beloved patriarch William Walker (Tom Skerritt, Alien) employs not one, not two, but three of his family members. In the episode after “Spring” where Sarah takes Tommy’s place at the business, it’s framed as a glorious return, only sweetened by the Walkers coaxing the board into dropping the charges. The nadir of this insufferable plot is when Nora joyously compares this “miracle” to a little girl’s leukemia going into remission. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Of course, the object of Tommy’s scheming is Ojai’s CEO and William’s former mistress, Holly. This, combined with Ryan and Rebecca, highlights the show’s bizarre focus on legitimate patrilineal distribution of wealth. The more you think about it, the more it comes across as decidedly medieval. It’s even worse when you remember that eldest son Tommy begrudges both Holly and Nora access to William’s wealth. That’s how sexism, the family and capitalism collide, not some nonsense about the artifice of motherhood, or whatever the fuck. It’s an almost perfect irony that a pristine case study in the art of normalizing capitalist conceptions of family contains an interlude of arguing against that theory, but I’m choosing to believe it’s incompetence and not malice. Here’s hoping, anyway. One final note: it’s not just the Walkers who see nepotism as a god-given right in the quest for filthy lucre. Guess where Rebecca works? Go on, you’ll never guess.
  • Repetitive. It’s not a great sign when you’ve already run out of ideas by Season 3. The big embezzling storyline that’s sucking all the air out of the room is not even the first big embezzling storyline on the show–that would be the fallout from the dramatic revelation of William’s embezzling in Season 1. Ryan is also not the first illegitimate child contended with in the Walker family–a large chunk of the first season was taken up by the entrance of Rebecca, who was first presented as William’s illegitimate daughter with Holly. In Season 2, another Dramatic Revelation established that Rebecca is in fact the daughter of one David Caplan (Ken Olin, Thirtysomething.) Oh, so all that time spent keeping the Dramatic Revelation of Rebecca’s existence from various members of the Walker family a Big Secret was a waste of time? Yup. As was all that time spent reluctantly and gradually integrating her into the family circle. And what’s the payoff? Why, we get to do all that stupid bullshit all over again with Ryan! And because Ryan and Rebecca aren’t related, that means that they can enjoy sexual tensionI And that means that Ryan and Justin can fight! YAAAAAAAAAY

Motivation: I’m sure it will shock you to learn that a show called Brothers & Sisters is driven by stories about family.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Despite its many flaws, Brothers meets the basic criteria of an entertaining soap opera, but it doesn’t do so particularly gracefully. There are plenty of better prime-time soaps out there. As far as the other episodes I watched for research, the pilot also merits a 5/10 and “Taking Sides” and “Missing” only deserve a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: Will I ever get sick of reviewing children’s television? Find out when I check out We Bare Bears!

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”