TV Rundown: The New Shows

Almost Human promo

Thanksgiving is a chance to enjoy time with loved ones you so rarely get to see. But then everyone chows down on turkey, turducken, tofurkey, and turporeel (turkey, pork, and eel – I’ll let you know how it goes) and we all go to our separate corners to catch up on that incredible backlog of TV shows we meant to watch but never got around to. For those wondering which new shows are worth investing your time in, here are the six new network shows I’ve been watching.

I won’t review anything old – you already know if you can’t get enough Mark Harmon – and I won’t review everything new, but I will give you my informal thoughts on Almost Human, The Crazy Ones, Sleepy Hollow, The Michael J. Fox Show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Blacklist.

MUST WATCH

Almost Human 1

ALMOST HUMAN

As a midseason replacement for Bones (moved to Fox’s infamous Friday-night death slot), Almost Human is only three episodes old. It’s already the best thing on network TV. Set in the near future – everyone has access to drones and next-gen weaponry, but we all still drive cars – L.A.’s police force requires every human officer be paired with an android.

Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban), fresh off an 18-month coma and the loss of his leg, can’t stand the no-nonsense machines, so he’s paired with the last of a discontinued line of emotive androids, a NASA castoff named Dorian (Michael Ealy).

As cheesy as the setup sounds, the science-fiction in the world is played very straight. Deeper themes of high technology’s abuse and misuse aren’t shied away from – the first episode includes targeted bioweapons and the second revolves around sexbots, sexual slavery, and cloning genes without someone’s consent. There are clear nods to Blade Runner in Almost Human‘s concepts, cinematography, and music.

The action is fast-paced and matter-of-fact – the third episode is an effective riff on Die Hard. Everything is brought home by Urban and Ealy. Thus far, they’re the best odd couple on television since Benjamin Bratt and Jerry Orbach policed the streets as Detectives Curtis and Briscoe in Law and Order. Urban you’ll likely recognize as Dr. “Bones” McCoy from the two newest Star Trek movies. Ealy has enjoyed stints on a number of TV shows, and is best known from The Good Wife.

Almost Human is a complete success. Pick up on it on it as it’s starting. Based on viewership, critical response, and how Fox introduced it, Almost Human should be around for a while. In its setting and themes, it most closely resembles the various film and television iterations of Japan’s Ghost in the Shell. Thankfully, it retains the efficacy and pacing of a Western procedural, which lets it raise philosophical questions while still maintaining fast-paced plots.

RECOMMENDED

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THE CRAZY ONES

This started off somewhat disastrously. It took The Crazy Ones a few episodes to realize that its heart and soul isn’t Robin Williams, but rather Sarah Michelle Gellar. They play father-daughter partners, Simon and Sydney Roberts, in a Chicago-based ad agency – he’s the creative, freewheeling side, she’s the nose-to-the-grindstone type that keeps him focused.

Developed by David E. Kelley, The Crazy Ones feels a lot like Boston Legal, but it’s smushed into half-hour episodes instead of hourlongs. This means that an episode is often forced to choose between out-and-out, zany comedy; heartfelt, bittersweet pondering; and characters enjoying soapbox moments about social issues. Boston Legal had the time in each episode to fuse the three together into some of the most memorable television of the past decade. Half an hour doesn’t afford that opportunity.

The Crazy Ones is still learning its rhythm, but Williams’s keep-up-if-you-can schtick is a surprisingly good match to Gellar’s measure and timing. The supporting cast has some of the best moments – the gag reels sometimes shown during the credits reveal how much of the comedy is improvised between Williams and James Wolk. Amanda Setton (Gossip Girl) makes the show’s craziest one-liners and non sequiturs work, while Hamish Linklater plays the role of the world’s moodiest wet blanket.

At its core, The Crazy Ones is about a father who wasn’t there and a daughter whose life has been shaped by a never ending clean-up of his mistakes. Every few episodes, Williams and Gellar get at something very, very human in their relationship, but when that’s not happening, you get to watch the only show on-air I can honestly describe as side-splittingly funny.

RECOMMENDED

Sleepy Hollow 1

SLEEPY HOLLOW

Among others, Sleepy Hollow was created by long-time J.J. Abrams writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, major contributors to Alias and Fringe. It shows. The series enjoys a complicated storyline centering on Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison). Unlike Washington Irving’s Halloween tale of a Headless Horseman, the horseman and Crane kill each other in the Revolutionary War and only wake up two hundred-plus years later in modern-day upstate New York.

After a string of misunderstandings including the murder of her mentor, police Lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) teams up with Crane to investigate the increasing number of strange occurrences in Sleepy Hollow. Fox is only airing 13 episodes of Sleepy Hollow every year, instead of the usual season order of 24, to trade back and forth with the Spring season’s excellent crime thriller The Following.

Where Alias and Fringe could get too wrapped up in their own complex story arcs, Sleepy Hollow avoids any “treading water” episodes; there’s always a major plot point being moved forward. That pace – more similar to British series than American ones – is refreshing. It minimizes monster-of-the-week episodes (although the show still has a few), as well as the pitfalls that series like the otherwise solid Supernatural can develop: whole episodes don’t turn into characters explaining the plot to each other in hotel rooms.

Sleepy Hollow could use a little more consistency in its mythology. Threats seem to rise and fall as particular episodes demand and what matters one week may take a backseat the next. It can be difficult keeping track of Crane’s history, too. His flashbacks to the Revolutionary War jump around so much that his personal chronology feels muddier than it should.

These are minor quibbles. The show’s tone is sufficiently scary without reaching overbearing, early X-Files levels of terror. I wouldn’t mind scarier, but I know many for whom Sleepy Hollow achieves the sweet spot between suspenseful and scary. The show’s art design, costuming, and music are top-notch, realistic while still paying homage to Tim Burton’s film version of Sleepy Hollow. Mison plays an incredibly charming, emotionally honest, yet self-possessed and ever-so-slightly batty Crane. There are strong shades of both Johnny Depp’s take on the character and of Doctor Who to him. Beharie’s Lt. Mills is a rarity on TV: a confident, female, African-American character in a position of power and responsibility.

As a side note, Sleepy Hollow acts as the counterpoint to the white heroes, minority villains-fest that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has become. In Sleepy Hollow, of the seven characters with the most speaking parts, three heroes are African-American – Lt. Mills, her sister Jenny, and police Captain Frank Irving (an excellent Orlando Jones). Her ex-boyfriend (Nicholas Gonzalez) is Latino. The unwilling middleman between our heroes and the forces of evil is Officer Andy Brooks (John Cho), who is Korean-American. Among those seven major parts, only two – Crane and his wife Katrina (Katia Winter) are Caucasian. I appreciate that Sleepy Hollow, for all its fantasy, can realistically represent how the modern-day United States works. Too many shows pander to a privileged, 1950s demographic that doesn’t exist anymore – I’d like to see more follow the example of Sleepy Hollow.

WORTHY DISTRACTION

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THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW

Michael J. Fox plays investigative reporter Mike Henry, who comes out of retirement after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. The show focuses mostly on his home life and clearly reflects some of Fox’s own familial struggles in dealing with the degenerative illness.

The quality of The Michael J. Fox Show largely depends on how much you like Michael J. Fox. He makes me feel like all is right with the world. It isn’t because of his real-life fight with Parkinson’s, which is admirable. It’s because his characters – all the way back to Family Ties – have shared a happy-go-lucky, get-it-done, underdog appeal.

He’s like a cup of hot chocolate with the marshmallows melted into a foam at the top, or a bowl of macaroni & cheese on a cold night. He’s comfort food.

The series has struggled to find a consistent tone. It toys with being a topical, workplace comedy like Murphy Brown, and occasionally forgets it’s not a stagier, multicamera comedy like How I Met Your Mother. It’s strongest when it remembers what it really wants to be – a B-grade ripoff of Modern Family. There’s nothing wrong with that; it has the actors to pull it off. The casting of his immediate family, in particular Betsy Brandt as his dryly comic wife Annie (best known for playing Marie Schrader on Breaking Bad), is what holds the show together through its inconsistent writing.

When it focuses on the family, it hits the right semi-schmaltzy notes that Modern Family makes its bread and butter. When it focuses on the “situation” in situation comedy – Mike has a workplace rival, Mike has a golf rival, his parents visit for Thanksgiving – it’s clearly out of its comfort zone. Recommended if you enjoy Michael J. Fox and his unique comic timing, or if you’ve worn out your Modern Family DVDs. Avoid it if you’re not a fan of his or you’re not willing to tough out the occasional misfire.

AVOID

ELIZABETH HENSTRIDGE, IAIN DE CAESTECKER, CHLOE BENNET

AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Avengers successfully combined superheroes from its major Marvel film franchises. It became the third-biggest box office success (behind Avatar and Titanic) in movie history.

When launching an historic spinoff for television that focuses on a clandestine, American agency whose one goal is to bring in new superheroes, you know what you shouldn’t do? Avoid at all costs including any superheroes.

Instead of superheroes, we’re asked to follow a group of six arrogant, bumbling, milquetoast heroes, four of whom are so young they appear to have become lost while looking for the student center. The Blacklist (more on that later) became the biggest new show on television by plastering a 53 year-old James Spader’s face on every piece of advertising it could get its hands on.

At its best, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t much better than watchable. It’s difficult to understand why certain decisions were made. Clark Gregg is functional as Agent Coulson, a minor character and fan favorite in the Marvel films, but he lacks charisma enough to hold the fort as a leader. Ming Na Wen’s and Brett Dalton’s characters Melinda and Grant are redundant. Their main purpose is to be hardened and inaccessible to the rookies. Congratulations – half of your core cast is now inaccessible to the viewer.

Chloe Bennet plays Skye, whose role is to misbehave so egregiously that it’s impossible to understand why she’s still on our nation’s primary response team to all things mysterious, alien, or superheroic. It’s a shame – Bennet is the only one here with the charisma to lead the show, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems determined to drag out her coming-of-age tale to interminable length.

Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge play rookie scientists Fitz and Simmons, whose purpose thus far is mainly to banter with each other and be saved by all those inaccessible heroes. At least they understand the rhythm of the dialogue. Gregg and Wen, the only two veterans on the show, cannot handle the dialogue. Agents is thus far incapable of matching script, cast, and director. The editing on some episodes completely drains them of what comedic timing is present.

What could save it all, no matter how lackluster the team of heroes is, would be actual superheroes in this superhero TV show. Not a one has shown up. It doesn’t even have to be one of the Avengers. Marvel has hundreds of superheroes just waiting in their library of comic books. Surely, they could lend one to the series; they can’t be saving them all for their own movies. Heck, nine episodes in, they’ve somehow actually come across only three villains with superpowers, all of them first-timers. And even if Marvel is withholding its stable of heroes and villains, it’s not hard to make up your own.

I just went to a random word generator. Here’s what it came up with:

Spurn Water (he sucks the moisture out of people)

Electro Dynamics (I imagine him like Megavolt from Darkwing Duck)

Crooning Deadener (he kills people with his singing…hmm, I’ve had a few girlfriends accuse me of this)

Ventriloquis Conominee (he makes it seem like other people are talking when they’re not, and gets co-nominated for something)

The Scot Cayman (half-less threatening relative of the alligator, half Scottish!)

OK, so those are jokes (though I could become a Spurn Water fan), but the issues with Agents are too numerous. There are no superheroes, and barely any supervillains, despite being a series about just those two things. The action is amateurish – it’s badly shot and badly edited. The comedy is D.O.A. – one-liners are swallowed as if the actors are ashamed of saying them, and the editing ruins what timing the characters do achieve. Outside the plane in which our heroes travel, their destinations consist almost entirely of abandoned warehouses. The writing is often nonsensical – Skye can betray her team a dozen times but is still only a heartfelt conversation about childhood away from gaining their trust again. Grant can be refused extraction from a mission because it’s too dangerous, yet our heroes can then waltz in to save him like they’re taking a casual Sunday stroll.

Even so, it could all be passed off if only the cast weren’t so downright generic – not a one of them has the kind of gravitas you’d expect from the members of such a team. Give me Kate Mulgrew, Blair Underwood, and Mark Valley to get four times the work done in half the time with none of the high school drama.

The only reason to watch this is because you’re fiercely loyal to what Marvel has already done – the Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Incredible Hulk franchises. You won’t find any useful tie-ins or Easter eggs to those movies either. Agents is a cavalcade of missteps. There is a second reason to watch it, and it’s the same reason we slow down when passing car accidents.

As a side note from the ethics police, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has six protagonists. Four are caucasian, two (Bennet and Wen) are Chinese-American. Out of the six villains encountered, three have been African-American, and one Latina. This is not to mention a mission against a make-believe country in the Middle East. There’s an imbalance here that absolutely has to be corrected.

AVOID

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THE BLACKLIST

The Blacklist is a misfire that cribs haphazardly from better series. From a mysterious, could-be-a-parent who shows up one day to the roommate (in this case boyfriend) who harbors national security-level secrets, it tries to cram the first two seasons worth of plot points from Alias into its first few episodes, expecting the holes in its formula to be taken care of because better programming has taught its audience what to fill in.

Take the show’s pilot, in which profiler Elizabeth Keene (Megan Boone) is interrupted from her first day working for the FBI at the request of freshly captured master criminal Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader). He sends her to save an American general’s daughter, but the trap that’s been laid only works if the FBI removes her from school. If the FBI doesn’t act, the villains can’t capture her. Logically, this means that Red’s information is the prompt which makes the kidnapping possible. Nope. That logic can’t be apparent to our characters because it’s used by the writers to get our characters into place.

When Red switches out a tracking device, it’s clear as day what’s happened to everybody but the characters on-screen. Watching FBI agents race around to discover what we’ve had figured out for 10 minutes isn’t exciting.

In the second episode, Red is followed out to dinner with Keene. Clearly, he’s going to be under surveillance, but he skips the restaurant upon realizing this. The FBI had told him he wouldn’t be and, despite having a block’s worth of the most obvious surveillance known to man right out the front door, it never occurred to them to put an agent on the restaurant’s back door. The plotting for The Blacklist is unforgivably lazy.

Characters act like idiots who are simply blind to huge swathes of plot because it’s easier than the writers coming up with something remotely complex. It’s insulting television.

From Stargate to Boston Legal, Spader has created unique, clever, smarmy, standoffish characters who are nonetheless winning and often righteous. Without a good producer or director reining him in, however, he will chew every piece of scenery you’ve got. That’s exactly what happens here, and with no clear direction, it feels like Red’s maniacal laugh is more Spader’s commentary on the quality of show they’ve put him in than his acting the part. Or it could be because of the check he’s pulling in. It’s a shame – Boone and Spader both deserve a better show.

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