Friday, May 27, 2011

TV Roundup: Season One of Archer, Battlestar Galctica, and Boardwalk Empire

Today I’m debuting what will hopefully become a fairly regular addition to this blog. I write movie reviews with some frequency and have mentioned television quite often, but I have yet to actually review tv shows. In accordance with this being the lair of the Film Czar, that changes today. And yes, I consider television to be film. After all, TV shows are filmed, no? (I plan on writing an essay comparing and contrasting the two media some day, but that’ll have to wait).

I don’t have the time or patience to individually review episodes of television—I recommend this blog for that—so instead I think I’ll step back and review whole seasons of shows after I finish them (or however far I get with a show with which I decide not to continue). I’m starting with three cable shows, for all of which I recently finished the first season. And why not do it alphabetically? So first up is FX’s Archer.

Archer, Season 1

What if there were an American James Bond, only instead of a suave gentleman he was a juvenile, petty, petulant man-child? This is essentially the premise of Archer, a consistently funny animated show that comes, somewhat surprisingly, from FX (it looks like, and has the sensibilities of, something from Adult Swim or Comedy Central).

Sterling Archer (codename: Duchess) is American spy agency ISIS’ top agent, someone who can be counted on to get any job done, anywhere, anytime. What he cannot be counted on, however, is to avoid collateral damage, offending essential allies, or looking after anyone other than himself. Furthermore, despite its line of work, ISIS runs like an insurance company in Omaha. It faces all sorts of basic HR problems, only magnified a thousandfold. In one episode, for example, the head of the agency—who is also Archer’s mother—drains the agency’s 401K accounts to fund an elaborate trip to Monte Carlo in order to covertly purchase a secret disc that is heavily implied to contain a sex-tape of her. Its that kind of show.

Archer has a great premise, enjoyable animation—it looks low-budget, like something on Adult Swim, but the look actually works for it by making all the familiar spy tropes seem even more ridiculous—and a great voice cast highlighted by H. John Benjamin as the titular character. Déjà vu for Arrested Development is inevitable; it has a similar sense of humor (only much more profane. It earns its TV-MA rating), and a number of the Bluths and their associates provide voices, including Lucille, George, and Kitty in vaguely similar roles.

Of course, the show is not nearly as funny as AD. That’s Archer’s main flaw; it’s consistently amusing but rarely hilarious. The first season had a few moments that should have been funnier than they were, and the show doesn’t have much going for it other than comedy. Like most other animated US comedy shows, you’re not going to care much about the story or characters, so when it isn’t funny there’s little reason to watch.

The first season of Archer is funny enough—and short enough; there are only 10 twenty-minute episodes—to be well worth checking out, especially if a vulgar, spy-themed animated version of Arrested Development sounds appealing. But it has yet to reach can’t-miss comedy status like Parks and Recreation or 30 Rock. But it’s young yet, so we’ll see.

Battlestar Galactica, Season 1

This is a show for which I am definitely late to the party. Beloved both by sci-fi geeks and fans of quality television (and I’m quite firmly in both camps), once I noticed that it was available on Netflix I had to jump at the opportunity. But somewhat to my surprise I still have a few reservations about the show. I liked it—a lot—and think it has serious potential going forward, but I was a little lukewarm about the first season.

Galactica is a show that takes itself exceptionally seriously, particularly for a sci-fi program. This is both good and bad, at least in the first season. There are some sci-fi tropes that are inherently a little silly (homicidal sexy robots! That do a lot of humping, I might add), and until they become somewhat internalized for a new show it can be a little jarring. I have a feeling that as I get more into the mythology of the show—which is extensive—in later seasons I’ll feel less conflicted about the tone.

A long time ago in galaxy far, far away humanity is spread over thirteen different planets, all close together, called the Thirteen Colonies (any similarity to any real-life thirteen colonies is purely coincidental, I’m sure). They haven’t heard from their rebellious creations, the robotic Cylons, in many decades, until one day the Cylons somehow shut down the defenses of the colonies and launch a surprise full-scale nuclear attack on all thirteen planets, killing billions. The 50,000 or so survivors—mostly those who were in space during the attack—gather under the protection of the sole remaining Battlestar (the spaceship equivalent of an aircraft carrier) and flee the system. The show follows the ragtag fleet as it attempts to find a new home and evade the Cylons’ dogged pursuit. But there’s a catch*; the Cylons have perfected a way to look and feel exactly like (attractive) humans, and some are sleeper agents who aren’t even aware of their true nature. Anyone at all could be an enemy of the fleet.

*Actually there are a lot of catches. This is just the biggest one.

It’s a more than solid premise, and the show executes it fairly well. The pilot—which was originally aired as a two-part, three-hour miniseries, is especially good, launching the viewer right into the show’s fairly gritty world (or should that be galaxy?) and deep mythology. But the show has a few formatting issues.

I wrote an essay a while back about the various levels of television serialization, and the first season of Galactica resides on a level that simply doesn’t fit it. The show is an L4, a style that doesn’t work well for it. It needs to either totally ditch episodic structure and bump up to L5 or embrace it a little more and go down to L3. The mix of a complicated serialized story with more episodic content comes off somewhat awkwardly, at least to me. An example: a couple of times, the show would stop and spend a whole episode (or at least the bulk of one) to introduce a new character; I’m specifically thinking of the episodes that introduce Tom Zarek and Ellen Tigh. They seem to come out of nowhere, but are clearly supposed to be important going forward. It just doesn’t work all that well.

There a couple areas in which the show it sort of hit-and-miss. One is its use of religious overtones and allegory. I appreciate the effort—it’s an ambitious step—but the show is somewhat inconsistent in how it’s used. In some episodes there are hints of actual divine powers—prophetic visions, a woman disappearing into thin air—but other times the religious material is much more subtle. I’m going to have to see more before I decide exactly which version works better for the show, but again they should probably pick one. Also, there are a few things that are either examples of divine intervention or are plotholes; maybe both.

The acting too is unpredictable. Some is as strong as any I’ve seen on this sort of show outside of Firefly. Katee Sackhoff, Edward James Olmos, Tricia Helfer, and especially James Callis (as Lieutenant “Starbuck” Thrace, Commander Adama, Cylon Model Six, and Dr. Baltar, respectively) are all really good. A few actors are mediocre but should have been better (including a surprisingly flat Mary McDonnell as President Roslin), and few are shaky, including two of the main characters: Jamie Bamber as Lieutenant “Apollo” Adama and Grace Park as Cylon Model Eight. The rest range from forgettable to good.

Although I was somewhat lukewarm on parts of the first season, the show has a lot of potential, and I’m optimistic that it will begin to emerge as the show can build more upon itself. We’ll see how I feel once I finish season two.

Boardwalk Empire, Season 1

The first show from Sopranos second-in-command Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire debuted in the fall of 2010 with about as much hype as a tv show could possibly have. The pedigree, the premise, the talent both in front of and behind (the premier episode was directed by Martin Scorsese) the camera caused people to go a little crazy with expectations. Naturally, people were a little disappointed. Having (at that point) not seen any of the Sopranos I didn’t go into episode one with anything more than mild anticipation. And without the burden of unrealistic expectations, I was more than satisfied.

Boardwalk Empire tells the story of the beginnings of organized crime in the United States, with a special focus on Atlantic City (thus the title). The show begins on the eve of Prohibition—an event that provided a windfall for criminals and jumpstarted the mob—and the start of the Roaring Twenties. The main character is the long-time and thoroughly corrupt boss of AC’s political machine, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, who sees the potential of the new regime. He quickly gets in way over his head, though, thanks to a diverse cast of characters such as an unpredictable lieutenant named Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt); Margaret Schroeder, a pretty Irish immigrant who comes to him for help; the ambitious leader of the local black community Chalky White (Michael K. Williams); and a number of dangerous men who try to muscle in on the new business, lead by Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlberg).

Fittingly for an ambitious HBO drama, Boardwalk Empire’s story is rich and complicated. The cast is deep and talented, and they have some great material to work with. The show takes a page out of Deadwood’s book and included a mix of real and fictional characters (Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and a very young Al Capone examples of the former, Margaret and Jimmy the latter), along with some that are a little bit of a mix of both—like Nucky, based on real life Atlantic City political boss Nucky Johnson. It works very well, providing a mix of familiar names as historical landmarks with enough fictionalization that we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.

The recreation of the early 1920s is flawless and gorgeous, and if ever there were a show to be watched in HD, this is it. The actors are also 95% believable as denizens of the early 20s, something that Deadwood had some trouble with on occasion. The three biggest roles—Jimmy, Margaret, and Nucky—are all stupendous, and the show features two of my random favorite acting role-players*: Michael Stuhlberg as Arnold Rothstein, playing a character that couldn’t be more different than his turn in the great A Serious Man, and Michael K. Williams from The Wire as Chalky. Neither gets as much screen time as I’d like, though Williams in particular deserved, and will apparently next season get, a bigger role.

*A term I borrow from basketball. A role player is an actor who isn’t going to lead movies often (although Stuhlberg did in A Serious Man), but is fantastic in supporting roles. The West Wing had a ton of them—Bradley Whitford, Mary-Loise Parker, John Spencer, and Allison Janney are all great examples.

The five percent reduction is primarily for the one clear weak link on the show, which is a character named Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon. Yes—there are a lot of Michaels on the show). The problem is more with the writing than acting; Van Alden is a fundamentalist Christian prohibition agent who, frankly, just isn’t that believable. The character is far more intense and exaggerated than anyone around him, and often seems to be in a different show than the rest of the characters (I could totally see him on something like Dexter, as a scarier version of Lundy). The character is a misfire, no way around it. Also a small demerit for the casting of Paz de la Huerta as Lucy Danziger, Nucky’s mistress. The role requires a substantial amount of nudity, and de la Huerta’s body looks a little too, well, artificial for the era. While I certainly don’t require perfect verisimilitude with this sort of thing (and indeed would probably be at least mildly disgusted by it), this one draws a little too much attention to itself. So to speak.

Boardwalk Empire has the crown of my favorite currently airing drama, and although Game of Thrones is mounting a strong challenge, it may stay that way for a while. After concluding a fantastic first season—one I liked better than The Sopranos first season, incidentally—it promises to get even better during round two. I can’t wait.

As always, comments are welcome. Agree? Disagree? Never heard of any of these? Think I’m a dumbass?

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