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Sunday, July 27, 2014

DVD Review: ‘The New Normal – The Complete First Season’

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘The New Normal – The Complete First Season’ on Blogcritics.

In the 2012-2013 television season, NBC presented a different kind of family sitcom called The New Normal. From the mind of Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) and Allison Adler (Chuck, No Ordinary Family), it took what Modern Family does a step further, with an edgier, even less traditional clan, while still remaining thoroughly charming. Finally, the series, which ran only one year, comes to DVD, though the release is strangely subtitled The Complete First Season.

In 2014, we all know that not all families look the same, even less so than just a couple of decades ago, but while the television industry is getting better about portraying that, it still does not reflect the large diversity out there. The New Normal may be quite specific in the make-up of its clan, but the characters are earnest enough that most should find a way to relate, even if their circumstances don’t mirror exactly the mixture shown on screen.

The premise is simple enough: A young mother named Goldie (Georgia King, Little Dorrit), who gave birth to a daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood), as a teenager, is tired of putting her dreams on hold and relying on her bigoted grandmother Jane (Ellen Barkin, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Drop Dead Gorgeous). Jane raised Goldie after Goldie’s own mother, who also gave birth young, split. After Goldie catches her boyfriend cheating on her, she gets the courage needed to make a change. This leads her, with Shania in tow, to the strange land of California.

At the same time, a gay couple named Bryan (Andrew Rannells, Girls, The Book of Mormon) and David (Justin Bartha, The Hangover) are ready to start a family of their own. Armed with eggs provided by Abby (Gwyneth Paltrow, Glee, Iron Man), their first attempt is a misstep. But then they meet Goldie and decide she is perfect. After she agrees to serve as their surrogate, they offer to help her with her goals, much to the dismay of Jane, who has by now tracked them down.

Oh, and Bryan has an assistant named Rocky (NeNe Leakes, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Glee), whose love/hate relationship with Jane makes for some of the best material of the series.

Over the course of the year, there is actual growth among the characters, and lessons are learned. Yes, The New Normal can be slightly preachy at times, and the season finale, more so than any other episode, plays to conventional sitcom tropes. But maybe that’s a good thing, as the show needs to help people become more accepting, and by staging a half hour that feels like it could have been written for any other show, it feels ‘normal.’

Thankfully, the last episode ties up most of the major arcs pretty well, leaving us without a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger.

The writers of this show clearly know what they’re talking about. Adler herself has gone through the surrogate process, and both creators are gay. The situations and characters they’ve created here feel only slightly exaggerated for television, avoiding stereotypes as much as possible, and are definitely well-defined enough to tug the heartstrings, with layers to various characters’ motivations. Bolstered by a terrific cast, The New Normal fully earned the People’s Choice Award it won for Favorite New TV Comedy, and more than a year after its cancellation, it is still missed.

This three-disc set contains all 22 episodes produced, but no special features at all. On the one hand, this is hugely disappointing because there is so much more I want to know about how the show came about and why it didn’t last. On the other hand, I guess fans should just be grateful we get the opportunity to relive the episodes at all, considering how quickly they came and went.

The New Normal – The Complete First Season is available now.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lifetime Isn't Lucky With THE LOTTERY

Article originally published as THE LOTTERY Review on Seat42F.

The Lottery Lifetime TV

Lifetime ventures into the science fiction realm with their new drama THE LOTTERY, which premiered last night. Set roughly ten years in the future, mankind has inexplicably stopped having children. Scientists are clueless about both the cause and the solution of the problem. Then, Dr. Alison Lennon (Marley Shelton, Eleventh Hour) somehow fertilizes one hundred eggs which seem viable. Will she be able to save mankind, or will the intrusive government ruin her project?

THE LOTTERY boasts a really cool concept I’d expect to see on SyFy or FOX, rather than on Lifetime. I do wish the premise had gone further with the science part of the genre and given us some kind of excuse for the big event, but at least the ramifications for the human race and its struggle to overcome such a huge obstacle can be chronicled. This really would spell our end, and there is plenty to examine in this set up.

Unfortunately, right from the start, THE LOTTERY feels like typical Lifetime fare. It isn’t as over-the-top female-centric as some of the network’s other shows, such as The Ex List and Devious Maids, but it is very heavily headlined by women, and said gals are not nearly as likeable as those in, say, Witches of East End. Alison obviously is female, and while the President remains a white man, the series favors his chief of staff, Vanessa Keller (Athena Karkanis, Low Winter Sun) in assigning focus. And when it comes time to discuss parents’ rights over the ingredients in the fertilized product Alison creates, only the mother is considered.

There’s also very much a woman-as-a-victim viewpoint. Alison is singled out for firing because she’s a strong, brilliant person who would get in the way of the military guys that wants to control things, but because she’s whiny and demanding, she is hard to root for. Vanessa does bend the President’s (Yul Vazquez, Magic City) ear and actually seems heroic, but again, the military men have run roughshod over her already and she has to fight her way back into influence. She’s playing from the underdog position, even when she’s in a role that should allow her to call some of the shots.

Furthermore, the only man of any substance in the pilot, Kyle (Michael Graziadel, The Young and the Restless), is much more sensitive than the average joe. A single parent to one of the last kids born, he resists temptation and shows how caring he can be, giving the female viewers the idolized hero they’d like to see represented more than a layered, flawed individual. Given his token spot, I’d like to see more from him.

Now, I enjoy strong female characters, and most of my favorite shows are at least gender-balanced, so I’m not ripping on THE LOTTERY just because of the women who are at the center of it. But other networks, if they resisted the urge to make the show testosterone-heavy, would nurture other aspects of the tale. Instead, it’s these handful of hallmark Lifetime characteristics that override everything else, making the show feel anything but balanced. It may hit the station’s target audience, but it lacks broad appeal and ignores many fans of the genre it resides in. That’s a mistake.

The acting is also a bit hokey, playing up overly dramatic scenes, and with the type of moments when you want to yell at the screen because the protagonists make dumb, easily avoidable mistakes. The weak writing and character development waste the cred that could have been bought with a smart premise and makes THE LOTTERY less than the sum of its parts. I worry it will not go far enough in exploring the effects on the world, instead concerned with two-dimensional players in their flimsy environments.

Of course, this is just a pilot. THE LOTTERY could redeem itself by doubling down on the conspiracy and dangers, as well as social issues, and backing off on Alison’s self-righteousness. I just don’t have confidence that it will.

THE LOTTERY airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Hell on Wheels – The Complete Third Season’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Hell on Wheels – The Complete Third Season’ on Blogcritics.

Entertainment One recently released the third season of AMC’s Hell on Wheels on Blu-ray and DVD. The Western, which is set around the building of the first cross-continental railroad after the Civil War, is a look at the various challenges the workers faced. Early seasons featured Indian attacks and North/South and racial tensions. Season three ups the ante with an outbreak of cholera, dangerous, rebellious Mormans, political backstabbing, and the past coming back to haunt the characters. It’s a thrilling, somewhat-fact-based look at a defining time in our nation’s history, done in a style that easily keeps viewers engaged.

A lot happens this season, in character development as well as action. Picking up in the aftermath of the attack that destroyed the railroad settlement, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) has a renewed determination to complete the track. He is distracted by new antagonists, including Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Victor Slezak, Treme), and, of course, Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) hasn’t given up on wrestling back control of the project. Brothers Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke) come into conflict when they choose different sides in the struggle. The romance between Eva (Robin McLeavy) and Elam (Common) is tested when she makes a difficult choice. Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) is forced to face who she is.

All of these people have satisfying stories, and not all make it out alive, which is more surprising than I thought it would be, considering the previous deaths on the show. Hell on Wheels could very well be the gritty, realistic version of A Million Ways to Die in the West, sometimes almost funny in how brutal it can be. The setting is an unforgiving one, and folks didn’t live so long back then because of the types of tribulations these characters face.

More than the first two years, season three feels like a cohesive story. Lots of individual events happen, but almost all of the important ones merge nicely together in the excellent season finale. There is a through line and purpose as the story progresses, and while some things may not feel like they’re going to come back around, when they do, it’s very well done and serves to add greater meaning. Even The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), who has an isolated arc this season that doesn’t intersect with the rest of the cast until the very end, folds in nicely to the existing structure, rather than just being jammed back in where he doesn’t belong. The ending leaves many of the players in completely different places than where they spent most of the year, setting up a great fourth season, too.

Hell On Wheels also starts to address some topics I didn’t expect in this era. New character Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin, The Following), a newspaper reporter, is a lesbian. Now, of course, homosexuality exists in this age. But I didn’t expect to see it not only acknowledged, but most of the characters that find out don’t care, even if Louise suffers potentially serious repercussions back East. Could it be that the adventurous spirit that would lead one out to the frontier would also make one naturally more open-minded? Or is this the show attempting to appeal to modern audiences and dropping the ball on authenticity?

There are a decent amount of extras on this set. One featurette catches fans up on where the show left off, while another looks at this season briefly, without spoilers, for those who might want a taste of what’s to come. Four behind-the-scenes extras, running a little under fifteen minutes combined, give us some insight into various elements, and there are also ten “Inside the Episode” bits for the ten episodes in this set. Unfortunately, all of these are light and fluffy, with nothing very meaningful included.

For this set, Blu-ray is the way to go. Hell on Wheels is a beautifully shot series, with many outdoor scenes and a broad color palette, more so in season three than in the first two years. Both establishing shots and close-ups are highly detailed in high definition, with crisp layers and stunning landscapes. The sound is also better than most television shows, with some really cool effects, as well as solidly built dialogue tracts and mixing. The HD presentation, both audio and visual, is nearly flawless, and really enhances the realism of the show.

Hell on Wheels – The Complete Third Season is available now.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: ‘The Wizard of Oz FAQ’ by David J. Hogan

Article originally published as Book Review: ‘The Wizard of Oz FAQ’ by David J. Hogan on Blogcritics.

Applause recently released a book called The Wizard of Oz FAQ by David J. Hogan. Subtitled All That’s Left to Know About Life According to Oz, the book is a collection of facts and stories about the MGM film The Wizard of Oz. It begins with a bit of background on the source material and early adaptations, then moves through various aspects of the movie, such as the cast, the music, the script, costumes, the director, etc., ending up with the public impact on Oz on TV. It’s a widely sweeping book, packed into a little over 400 pages.

WoOThere is a lot of new information in The Wizard of Oz FAQ. There are many things to be learned, such as the various pictures the cast participated in together, or how Toto behaved on the set. Some of what is covered will be familiar to many, such as Judy Garland’s rampant drug use at the direction of the studio. But there are so many elements talked about that most readers will probably be enlightened on a regular basis when reading through. One such example of this is learning that Judy’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, ended up being Jack Haley’s (the Tin Woodsman) daughter-in-law, which is casually mentioned at one point. Also, Buddy Ebsen, who filmed for two weeks before being replaced by Haley, still has his voice heard in select songs in the film.

However, I am not a fan of this book. The structure is weird, and the pacing is nonexistent. It’s a random compilation of various pieces that aren’t tied together in a cohesive manner. There also is no real narrative thread. You could pick parts of each chapter and string them together to tell the tale of the popular film, but that would require much effort on your part. Every event is weighed down with side trips and things most people won’t care about. Do we need several pages on what many of the individual Munchkins or the person who wrote the score did with their lives? That type of thing may be interesting to some potential readers, but the sheer number of such occurrences really hurt the overall flow of the tome, frequently slowing it down and making it boring.

I think one major problem is that the scope of the project is too large for this volume. A lot of topics are covered, many more than I mentioned in the first paragraph, but Hogan frequently sweeps over a topic and moves on. There are a list of the official Oz books, but he doesn’t go into detail about them. He mentions many productions, only giving us scant details on how they came together, rather than telling us anything deep. It’s a thin covering of a broad spectrum.

Another issue I have with The Wizard of Oz FAQ is the amount of bias in the text. One example is when the author talks about the famously cut “Jitterbug” sequence in the movie. Hogan is definitely not a fan of the scene and is glad it was cut, which is a legitimate stance to take, and I happen to agree with the points he makes. But this is a non-fiction work, so I expect facts more than opinion, and Hogan frequently lets his own thoughts and conclusions color the text, making it less informative than I’d hoped for. This is far from the only time he does this.

What’s more, the subtitle of the book is completely inaccurate. I don’t see how Oz relates to life at all from reading this. This is about Oz itself, not how it connects to the rest of the world or the way anyone lives.

In the end, I find myself reluctant to recommend The Wizard of Oz FAQ to anyone. There are some strong parts in here that have been well researched, but the format it has been published in seems like a mistake. Instead, this should have made up several smaller volumes, more fleshed out, with some type of better organization to them.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘Orphan Black – Season Two’


OB2Article originally published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Orphan Black – Season Two’ on Blogcritics.

BBC America’s Orphan Black is a hidden gem that many have not yet discovered. Starring criminally-snubbed-by-the-Emmys Tatiana Maslany as Sarah, Cosima, Alison, Rachel, and others, the clone drama is worth watching for her performances alone, giving the best multi-role acting in memory. Season one took a bit of time to get us into the mythology and lay out the framework, but season two hits the ground running, taking us deeper into this world and exploring the various personalities in all new ways. It’s a terrific series that deserves more attention than it’s getting, so I definitely recommend checking it out.

When season one ends, Sarah is desperately searching for her daughter, Kyra (Skyler Wexler), who is last seen with Sarah’s former foster mother, Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Sarah is pursued by Rachel and the Dyad Institute, which is striking deals with each of the clones as it further researches its creation. Alison agrees to participate in the organization easily enough, wanting to get her life back on track. Cosima is a tougher sell, but faced with a deadly illness that is killing her, she reluctantly accepts their offer of lab space and equipment, putting the three central ladies on different pages.

From here, the story veers in a number of interesting directions. We get to see what makes Rachel tick a little bit, and we also see the sisterly bond that connects the women made from the same DNA. More new clones are introduced, at least peripherally, and a character I thought we’d seen the last of (I can’t spoil who) returns in a surprising and significant manner. There are subplots involving Kyra’s father, Cal (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones, Treme), and a crazy cult that wants to breed one of the girls. Toss is hanging threads such as Cosima’s romance with Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), Alison’s crumbling marriage to Donnie (Kristian Bruun), Art’s (Kevin Hanchard) continuing investigation, another delicious TV part for Michelle Forbes, a healthy dose of Sarah’s brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), and a shocking capper, and it’s a very full year.

More than the action, though, I really dig the character and story development in Orphan Black. It not only poses the moral question of cloning, but also shows us the human side of the results of such an experiment. Then it asks, is the product, which is actual people, owned by a corporation? Where would the line be drawn in this new schema? Issues of trust are explored, and the differences between the various clones are at least as enticing as the similarities.

This two-disc set contains all ten episodes of the recent run, as well as a good number of extras. The most interesting is probably the ‘Making Of’ the four clone dance scene, which, despite being the only scene in the series so far where it’s obvious that the camera is trying to trick us and Maslany hasn’t really been copied, is still quite enjoyable and touching. There are also deleted scenes of Alison and Donnie, a script-to-screen featurette, a look at the hair and makeup in the show, “The Cloneversation” special with Wil Wheaton (The Wil Wheaton Project), and more. It’s enough that most fans should definitely be satisfied.

Orphan Black is a show that screams to be watched in high definition. There is a dark color palette, and the lu-ray version is crisp and detailed. Colors are nicely contrasted, and the shadows are layered. The sound in high definition is also excellent. The rear speakers are not used as much as one might like, but are better utilized than in many television releases. Dialogue is clear and effects are well mixed. It’s a very immersive viewing experience.

I cannot stress enough how excited I am by this release, and if you have not been watching Orphan Black yet, please, please check it out, because it deserves the eyeballs. Just make sure you start with season one, as Season Two is not stand-alone.

Orphan Black Season Two is available now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

USA Knows a Thing About SATISFACTION

Article first published as SATISFACTION Review on Seat42F.

SATISFACTION -- Season:1 -- Pictured: (l-r) Blair Redford as Simon, Stephanie Szostak as Grace Truman, Matt Passmore as Neil Truman

You know the familiar small drama movie story of a husband and a wife who have been married a long time, have at least one child, and have drifted apart as he throws himself into his work and she seeks someone else to help her feel alive? Throughout the ninety-minute running time, they realize their mistakes and rediscover what they love about one another, eventually fixing the problems in their marriage and being happy all over again, a mid-life reckoning that leaves their bond stronger than ever? USA is turning that concept into a series called SATISFACTION.

It’s such an intriguing idea that I’m surprised no one has done it before, at least not that I’m aware of. After all, how many relationships can be repaired so simply, especially after the long deterioration of their union has eroded them into near strangers to one another? Is it really so easy to rebuild one’s life and put the mistakes made during that time of estrangement behind you? Can a new beginning truly be found? SATISFACTION seeks to answer that question by setting up the unoriginal plot, but advancing it far beyond what most of this genre has done.

As the pilot begins, we meet Neil Truman (Matt Passmore, The Glades), a money man who absolutely hates his job. He loves his family, even though he doesn’t have much time for wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak, Iron Man 3), and teenage daughter, Anika (Michelle DeShon), always working, even when he’s at home. This frustration isn’t held back by a nice house and a fancy TV any longer, and Neil has one of those snap moments where he has to act out. He actually has a couple of them, since his boss (Spencer Garrett, Yes Man) laughs off the first one, and Neil feels the need to keep exploding bigger until someone pays attention.

Meanwhile, while Neil might not be aware of it, Grace is equally unhappy. Her break comes one night at book club when she demands her friends accompany her to a club. Once there, she meets a charming man named Simon (Blair Redford, The Lying Game) who wants to hear her story, and even though he ends up being an escort whom she must pay if she wants sexual attention from him, the two soon begin getting together on a regular basis.

As one might expect, both Neil and Grace begin discovering each other’s secrets, all while dealing with Anika, who has her own scene of rebellion, acting out against the private school she hates. But this is only the beginning.

SATISFACTION doesn’t have a moment of confrontation, where the family talks frankly with one another. In the movies, this has to happen because that’s what’s required to air the dirty laundry so it can be cleaned and put away. Instead, the TV show keeps going forward. Most of what I’ve mentioned in the preceding paragraphs happens in the first half of the pilot, barely scratching the surface of the tale waiting to be told. This will be about emotions and motivations and feelings of emptiness and lies and desires and consequences. Can these people stay together, or are they too far removed to make it work any longer? If the pilot is any indication of the level of quality, sign me up to find out.

While most of the cast, which also includes Deanna Russo (Being Human), Katherine LaNasa (Deception), and Chris Williams (Californication), are not widely known, they are solid performers who really sell the depth and complexity of their characters. It’s easy to be drawn in by the Trumans and what they’re going through. Many will relate to their situation, even if only obtusely, and it’s the authenticity of the situation that is so fascinating.

USA has, in the past few years, allowed itself to not be boxed in any longer by only making a certain type of show. Even with the loosening of the reigns, SATISFACTION feels like a complete departure for the network, a slow burn human piece that will tell a very real story. I recommend checking it out when it premieres Thursday, July 17th at 10 p.m. ET.

RUSHing Around

Article first published as RUSH Review on Seat42F.

Rush - Season 1

USA’s new drama RUSH is not very original. Like the network’s own medical series, Royal Pains, it follows a private concierge doctor who works for those rich enough to afford on-call and home-based services. Unlike Hank Lawson, though, the titular character in RUSH is more along the lines of House M.D. in that he’s a heavy drug user whose life is falling apart and like Greg Kinnear’s Rake in that he enjoys his iffy lifestyle a tad too much. Thus, while RUSH is an interesting show, it just doesn’t feel all that fresh.

This is my main problem with RUSH. In a golden age of television (don’t let anyone tell you it’s not), it’s hard to have time for just-good shows any more when there are so many great ones. RUSH is a series that, five years ago, would have been the best thing on USA and certainly a solid entry for cable. Now, though, it is entertaining, but not nearly special enough to kick it into that top tier worth paying attention to. If you haven’t discovered the wealth of programs available from various sources that are better than RUSH, you may like it. But trust me, better-than-broadcast does not necessarily mean it’s at the top of the pack these days.

RUSH is fronted by Welsh actor Tom Ellis (Vera Drake, The Fades), who does a serviceable job with the cad. Rush is intelligent, of course, and much better at helping others than himself, which is an archetype quite familiar to most viewers at this point. Ellis does give him a charm and vulnerability, especially late in the pilot, that makes him seem like a real person, even if his actions and situation are far from average.

Unfortunately for Rush, he is nowhere close to being the man he should be. He has far too many enablers in his life. Dr. Alex Burke (Larenz Tate, Rescue Me), his best friend, makes excuses for Rush and still allows him to attend his godson’s birthday party, despite Rush’s less-than-sober appearance. Rush’s assistant, Eve (Sarah Habel, Underemployed), does criticize Rush, but doesn’t really do anything to try to force change. Both judge our antihero, but don’t exactly push him to change.

The one person who could have an effect on Rush is his ex-girlfriend, whom he was with for four years, Sarah Peterson (Odette Annable, Banshee, House M.D.). But Sarah’s already given Rush all of the chances she’s willing to give, and unlike Eve and Alex, is washing her hands of Rush. Perhaps Rush’s friends should follow her example because Rush seems like the type who needs to hit rock bottom before he can start to rebuild anything resembling a successful life.

Rock bottom may not be as far as off as most who know Rush might expect. There are some Latino gang members, one of whom is named Manny (Rick Gonzalez, Reaper) and sells Rush his cocaine, that Rush gets too involved with. I won’t go into details, but while part of their story may wrap a little too easily, the pilot also leaves the door open for them to take Rush down a road he should absolutely avoid if he wants to be an upstanding individual.

RUSH also has the tendency to venture into cheesiness from time to time. Early in the first episode, multiple characters tell Rush that he looks bad. He doesn’t; not even close. You’ll see near the end of the installment what Rush looks like when he really lacks sleep and is stressed out. Instead, those early lines feel like what the script writer thinks we expect, and those making the production forgot to make it true, nor should it have been, given the larger arc of Rush’s journey. A moment meant to show Rush is a good man, giving cash to someone who turns out not to be homeless, also is forced.

The potential lies in the backstory. Rush clearly has done something to inspire the loyalty of Eve and Alex, and I do think that will eventually be revealed, though only a hint about Eve creeps into the pilot. While I don’t think the history will be enough to redeem the current man, at least there might be an engaging story there.

RUSH isn’t bad. It’s just not stellar. Judge it for yourself when it premieres this Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on USA.