Category Archives: TV Shows

Believe (NBC)

If belief were enough, “Believe” would make the cut. But execution matters, and “Believe” has been struggling since the pilot. Its saving grace at the moment (versus “The River,” a darker but decent idea sunk mid-season a few years ago by flawed execution) is that its wider demographic might provide additional stability until everything settles.

“Believe” tracks the weekly adventures of a little fugitive named Bo with as-yet-unspecified mental powers (although so far we’ve seen telekinesis, telempathy, animal summoning, and even some precog) and her protector Tate (an escaped convict), running from the research thinktank that bred and trained her for its own purposes.

Sounds like an idea with potential bite? Well, not as currently implemented. The mix between Alfonso Cuarón and JJ Abrams is an odd one, resulting in  a hybrid that seems part “Firestarter Lite” and part “Highway to Heaven.” The simplistic but heartfelt resolutions seem aimed in flavor of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” crowd (oddly, the latter seems darker), rather than kind of edgier work you’d expect from Cuarón’s involvement. Instead of some dark topics and incredible action sequences, we just get a little girl who intrudes into a different person’s life every week and helps resolve some painful issue in their lives — something Tate once refers to appropriately as her “door-to-door Chicken Soup for the Soul bit.”

With that kind of angle, “Believe” so far isn’t working well as a serious drama, but I suppose if NBC wanted to add a “feel good” show to its lineup, it could have done far worse. Bo’s relationship with Winter (the head researcher who trained and eventually took her from the facility to protect her) is endearing, and the fledgling connection between strong-willed Nate and Bo (where neither knows how they’re related… or at least Bo pretends not to) seems natural and real enough.

In fact, casting is one of the show’s strengths. Jake McLaughlin’s Tate is less articulate and more prickly than Sawyer from “Lost,” yet remains likeable because you know he’s not quite the jerk he aspires to be. And Johnny Sequoya in her first front-and-center role as Bo is intriguing — she’s cute, smart, sassy without being repulsive, the kind of self-assured and empathetic little girl who inspires you to believe even if you think she has no clue about how life really works. Delroy Lindo as Winter, protecting Bo against exploitation by his former partner Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan), projects a love for the little girl that remains palpable and untarnished; and MacLachlan’s ruthless pragmatism is balanced by an idealism for how Bo could help humanity to improve. One of the best scenes so far, in fact, has been the brief meetup between Winter and Skouras in a local delicatessen (a riff on the “coffee shop bit” in Michael Mann’s “Heat”) where they unexpectedly sit down to discuss their differences of opinion.

However, as mentioned before, the show kind of “plays” at suspense without being suspenseful. Every episode, there’s a lot of running, a lot of hiding, a lot of Bo disobeying Tate’s incessant nagging and doing things that almost (or actually) get them caught, then Bo doing something that helps them escape without hurting anyone, and… cycle, rinse, repeat. The old “Incredible Hulk” TV series could make this format work, but… in today’s TV world? The times, they been a-changin’.

And the action sequences are unbelievable: When people normally would get shot, the perpetrator doesn’t fire; when Bo could use her powers, she does so in the slowest and least effective way possible; escape routes conveniently occur in places where they normally wouldn’t (like the storm tunnel trapdoor in the hallway of a death-row maximum security ward, way back in the pilot). And so far, while Tate was chosen to protect Bo so that Winter wouldn’t lead anyone to her, literally every episode so far involves Winter personally stepping in like a deus ex machina to save them. Why not just keep Bo with Winter, at this rate?

“Believe” also utilizes repeated story flashbacks without seeming to be quite comfortable with the story device. “Lost” and some other series have been able to show flashbacks, flashforwards, flash sideways, flashing in every which way but loose, without ever needing to tell us “when” they happened by using setting, character appearance, timely pop culture elements, and other clues organic to the scene to signify time and setting… but “Believe” consistently stamps ugly subtitles on the screen to spell it out for everyone (and at least in one episode, multiple times for the SAME time period). A little more visual distinction in the scenes or a little more trust for the viewers would go a long way.

Finally, I was hoping for more honesty in a show where both Abrams and Cuarón were involved, but the story keeps selling out for the “happy ending.” [Note: HIMYM viewers disgruntled by their series finale might be more satisfied here.] For example, a soldier breaks off an engagement to his fiance without explaining why [although the reason is legitimate], and when Bo reintroduces the couple years later, the ex-fiance tells him (truthfully) that she still does love him, but she’s engaged to someone else, so they can’t be together now. Bo seems confused and a bit distraught by this turn of events, Tate feels bad but makes it a “teachable moment” about how sometimes things just don’t work out even when your intentions are good; and then “Believe” backpedals with a rather absurd “Snidely Whiplash” moment that suggests it doesn’t have the courage to enter ambiguous places.

Enjoyment of the show will depend on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a light, happy fix of goodwill, with a dash of the fantastic, then you might enjoy “Believe.” If you don’t like shows where people carry guns and girls throw cars but no one gets hurt and characters are more a plot contrivance of the plot than exploring the grit accmulated by living in a fallible and uncertain world, then it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe that “Believe” will go somewhere meaningful.

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Chosen (Season 1)

Could you kill someone to save your own life? How about the life of your children? That’s the first season premise for Chosen, where defense attorney Ian Mitchell finds someone shooting at him when he attempts to retrieve a mysterious box on his front porch. What he finds inside throws his life into a further tailspin.

I’ve been a fan of Milo Ventimiglia ever since he played Peter on “Heroes.” As an actor, he naturally conveys a goodness of heart that makes Ian’s dilemma here even more believable, which is good at those times when small details in the show don’t seem to make as much sense. For example, Milo seems a bit too moral to earn a living defending likely criminals. (I suspect it was a hook by the writer, so that Milo could fall back on some shady ties in his moments of need.) And although Ian’s physical response to the first time he fires a gun at someone is believable from the average person, you’d think a defense attorney would have already hardened up a bit, based on the kinds of cases he’s been dealing with.  Which reminds me — did he mark “run for my life” on his calendar so that he wouldn’t have business meetings scheduled for the two days he’s off getting shot at?

The biggest oversight? Once — just once — I would have liked to hear Ian say, “Why? Why am I being forced to do this? What is the big picture here?” Ian seems a true pragmatist — he takes the situation as-is and tries to run with it, without ever really caring what’s outside the maze.

But these are very minor quibbles. Chosen itself has format down very well. Not only does it come in easily digested chunks (22-minute episodes, in a six-episode season), perfect for the viewer whose mental palette is exhausted by streaming shows with episodes lasting twice as long and seasons lasting even longer, but the answers to mysteries are well-paced. We get only a little bit of an answer here or there, just like Ian, and so it’s easy to understand why he’s frustrated … and yet enough progress is made that the quest doesn’t seem entirely pointless. He’s barely hanging on by his fingertips… but the point is that he’s still hanging on.

Ian’s encounter with his first would-be killer is perfect, in that we get a little bit of information and context as to what is happening… and also a frightening glimpse into what might be in store for Ian himself unless he can either find a way out of his problem or toughen up for the long haul.  “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” says Hemmingway, “but those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” The question here is whether Ian is good enough, gentle enough, or brave enough to end up dying early, or whether he’s not quite as pure as he seems and will bend to the rules of the Game (and thus survive) in order to save his daughter. As another player suggests, morality is one of the first things to go out the window when your family’s life is threatened; and Ian receives the same advice from another unexpected source as he nears the end game.

Ian learns how to practice battlefield medicine with the tools at his disposal, and Milo plays those scenes so perfectly. And when he starts calling in old favors, he’s forced to deal with people who are as scary and merciless as the shadowy figures he is hunting. As it goes, these “players on the other side” aren’t toothless Terra Nova baddies either — it’s very clear that Ian is still alive only because they have permitted it… and if he causes too much trouble, that goodwill might be rescinded.  Even the relationship between Ian and Laura (his ex) shows depth in the awkward way they sometimes discuss their daughter — the gulf that occurs when ex-partners continue to disappoint each other and yet no longer feel it’s worth expressing their frustration. Even divorce hasn’t completely sundered the bond between the two.

The show itself has decent cinematography, and the night shots aren’t a muddle mess like much of The Following’s were. One daytime shot in particular is vibrant, crisp, and framed so perfectly you’d swear it was an Audi commercial. And why is Ian’s ex dating the hospital administrator from “Liar, Liar”?

The season finale goes where it needs to go — no creative solutions, just good old-fashioned blood and sweat, as Ian decides whether he can justify killing another human being. Even the closing sequence, not entirely unpredictable, is certainly gutsy. Ben Katei, the writer, can’t be accused of taking the easy way out; Season #2, if there is one, would be a real test of his mettle to continue the story in a way that isn’t a cop-out. If it happens, I can’t wait to see what he does.

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Hemlock Grove (Season 1)

I’m a little befuddled over the thought that Hemlock Grove developer and screenwriter Brian McGreevy has two black-list scripts and was selected to scribe the next iteration of Dracula, as the show seemed to be the work of someone with no scripting experience and an inability to construct a sensible plot, pen dialogue that a human mouth can utter without embarrassment, or generate emotions that an audience can empathize with. “Edgy” to me is drama that bleeds into the natural dichotomies inherent within socially unsettling topics, not just tossing in some bloody hot teen sex, hard drug use, the F word, twisted affairs with family members, and entrail gore. (Then again, I’ve seen enough Eli Roth movies to have known better.)

Speaking of entrail gore, Hemlock Grove could set up a national distribution center for body-bag manufacturers at the rate they go through cast members. You will see at least 8 or 9 killings by end of season, all predictably bloody, and with barely an impact except to wonder what plotlines will be remain if all the characters are dead.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, the shown is sewn together with coarse black string from bits and pieces of someone’s misconceptions of what they thought might be dramatic: here, time for the lead to bluster and posture in a malformed mockery of real emotion; there, time for a wistful song overlaying shots of characters watching the sun set into the trees; meanwhile, isn’t it awesome to watch two mismatched stud-buds tool around town in a fashionably antique convertible? Gosh, don’t you wish you lived in Hemlock Grove? We’re so COOL it might kill you.

I’ve read the producers thought the format lent itself to not having to be so focused from the get-go (and I will concede that the Netflix format offers an interesting opportunity to the weekly episode release dominating the major networks), but Hemlock Grove doesn’t just take its time exploring, it seems to wander about like a drunk kid in a Family Circus cartoon — an aimless mismash of guts strewn about by something feral. If I see any more shows about two teens driving around and trying to figure out what to do with their time, I’ll scream.

A show like this has its share of misplaced actors and terminally stupid behavior. One of the most obvious examples of the former is the town sheriff, whose only direction I honestly imagine was being told to watch Brian Dennehy a few times in “First Blood” and then wing it. An example of the latter is when a character escapes from a mental institution, only to go straight to the house of the head shrink and ask if he’s home, then when told that he isn’t but someone can contact him, says, “No, please, I don’t want him to find me!” There also seemed to be a death curse on any character that started to develop a real personality. And then there is the wig — THAT WIG. (You’ll know what I mean, when you see it.)

Be prepared for lots of crazy plotting that seems more like Lord Dark Helmet secretly playing house with his Star Wars figures than actually having a believable, sensible, character-driven story.

By now, after all that criticism, you’re probably justifiably wondering why I actually watched the entire first season of such a terrible show… and in just four days. The truth is that I just really wanted Hemlock Grove to work; the seeds of something great were there, just rather unrealized.

Look at the acting pedigree: Famke Janssen, Lili Taylor (woefully underused, what a crime!), Bill Skarsgaard and Landon Liabalon, even Kandyse McClure, I could see talent underneath their performances, but they were basically shackled by the script and direction.

And then you do get some genuinely creepout moments, like a suitably gory werewolf transformation or the scene where a character channels the spirit of a dead girl by less-than-orthodox means. And there’s even legitimate humor, like the night two teams inadvertently compete to unearth the same corpse.

The show even has some bona fide mysteries to solve — the main one being, “Who is killing these girls?” — and I’m actually kind of ecstatic to say I figured it out about halfway through. The clues are there but it’s not a clear tipoff, you’ll actually have to think a little. More intriguing questions would be, “Who or WHAT are Olivia and Roman?” Shelley is only a minor curiosity; her nature is pretty clear s early on, but her connection to the third Godfrey sibling takes some time to be answered. And then we have the mysterious “angel” who, like angels of old, has made a virgin conceive. But was it really an angel… or someone else? Again, all things in due time.

I kept watching because I just kept hoping the implementation would rise to the level of the ideas being played with. No such luck this time, but if there’s ever another season (and if we know anything about dead critters, it’s that they COME BACK), hopefully it will be.