Friday, August 15, 2014

Graceland, Burn Notice and Franklin and Bash--a break for pop culture heads to the beachfront bungalows

Franklin and Bash

Goofaholics rejoice—Franklin and Bash are back on TNT! Starting off their 4th season with episode one last night, Franklin and Bash brings a little nutty legalese to lighten up your week. Packed with offbeat courtroom jests and antics, this dynamic duo of nontraditional attorneys (played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Breckin Meyer) battle for justice and to win their (weekly plotline) court cases. Their entourage is no less eccentric, including  in past seasons ex-convict parolee Carmen Philips (played by (my fellow Iowan!) DanaDavis), their agoraphobic (with many other phobias to boot) lawyer Pindar Sindh (played by the hilarious Kumail Nanjiani) who serves both as legal assistant and tech analyst to the team, Carmen and Pindar's new replacement in season 4, Dan, a narcoleptic with a lot of social quirks but who appears to be a spot-on researcher (played by Anthony Ordonez) or their new-age boss always ready with a farfetched tale of some caper from his past, Stanton Infeld (played by the ever-dynamic English actor Malcolm McDowell) who, as season 4 opens, has been disbarred and is working in a garage. Opposing them is their nemesis: a lawyer who is always hoping they’ll normalize or get fired and who is always struggling to beat them out for clients and the approbation of Stanton—the mostly straight and narrow attorney Damien Karp (played by Reed Diamond) who as season 4 begins has joined a rival firm and plans on taking them down in court as often as possible. All in all, this legal drama has a nice in-house endearing familial struggle within this law firm feel—with a bit of that Cain (as Daniel) vs Franklin and Bash as an Abel duo. Everyone seeks connections, affections and approbations with or from Stanton but also with/from other vacillating members of the firm team and each attorney’s personal entourage as well. Do support and kindness or distrust and underhandedness make for better lawyers? Certainly Stanton seems to play his attorneys against each other like pawns for his own bemusement and to perhaps answer this question. But why put this show into my beachfront Triptych? Although it was originally to be shot in Atlanta, the crew was in the end taken to LA—and not just to the highrise flashy center of the city's courtrooms. In fact, much of the show takes place along the LA coastline with scenes like the one pictured above out on Franklin and Bash’s beachfront deck, or during after- (or/and before-) hours parties. Keys to winning cases often pop into Franklin or Bash’s mind while they are strumming their guitar, arguing about something or mulling their problems and sense of purpose over while seated on the sand or high above it on their deck. Of course, given Pindar’s agoraphobia, this duo finds their work is quite literally tied to their beachfront home. In the end, though, despite seemingly goofing off nonstop, Franklin and Bash get the work done with flair, pizazz and a contagious love of life that is reflected in or by that beachfront location. A fun, funny, sweet, enjoyable, crazy silly show to watch—making us wish perhaps that our life could be just a little bit more insane, like theirs is.


Season 1 of USA TV's Graceland was a hit—filmed with sultry light including many scenes out on the boardwalk or beachfront giving viewers a taste of that salty air, leaving the grit of the sand in their teeth, and luring them back with an enticing plot line. It brilliantly developed its characters and lured viewers back as they sought to understand the mysterious covert past of Briggs (played by Daniel Sunjata) and decide whether or not Mike (played by Aaron Tveit) and the house should trust him. Overall, the plot arc of season 1 traced a single culprit (Jangles) while unveiling a layer of deception within the Graceland house itself. Season 2 has unfortunately been more caught up with issues of political power (Mikey as the one in charge with a DC connection, Paige struggling to get anyone official to sign off on bringing down the human trafficking ring and Dale flailing as he tries to win his battle against the child custody system and his ex). Although season 2 has explored a bit more some of the minor characters—really giving Johnny (and actor Manny Montana) the opportunity to shine and strut his stuff as he goes undercover with Carlito and family then takes that undercover life into his own personal life and thus his mother’s home—it has failed to develop the alluring options set up in season one. Even the filming of season 2 has been more generic cop show than the overpretty (and thus unexpected and unusual) aesthetic of the first season. My greatest criticism would be that the writers of Season 2 seem to have lost the opportunity to focus on and expand their exploration of the Briggs-Mike dynamic which nourishes the enticing question of “What are the moral and immoral choices ‘we’ would allow on the path to putting the baddest guys behind bars, thus in the name of ‘good’ or ‘right’?”. If I were to rate this on a star system, I’d give this 4.5 stars out of 5 for season 1, and 2.5 out of 5 for season 2. Note: I do hope to see USA give a green light for a season 3 but only if the writers return to the dynamics of season one and latch onto the Briggs-Mike, Briggs-Paige, Briggs-Dale trust and plot lines they’ve left on the sidelines this summer.

Burn Notice

The recenty concluded, action-packed Burn Notice was 7 seasons of great fun—chock full of screeching car chase scenes, plots and capers galore and of course explosions on par with the first RoboCop or Terminator films (after all, Fiona loves to make things go BOOM). Burn Notice also had the added aesthetic bonus of being set in the scenic beauty of Miami along its beach seascapes. Colorful faux Cuban bars were the perfect location. Meetings and planning the myriad of capers to be undertaken by this bedraggled handful of good baddies with their little quirks and their propensity for helping out the underdogs were often had round an exotic cocktail, a good ol’ fashioned gin and tonic or a cold beer. And what's not to like about a spy show with a mom who comes to save the day once in a while? Michael’s mom (character Madeline Weston played by Sharon Gless) added a lot of needed lightness and humor as she kept everyone on an even keel. The main character, Michael Weston (played by Jeffrey Donovan almost always sporting his Oliver People's sunglasses plus some sort of stylish, well-cut Armani suit despite the Miami heat), along with his band of misfit ex-spies, ex-terrorists and ex-SF military—Sam, Fiona and Jesse (played by Bruce Campbell in bright colored Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirts, Gabrielle Anwar in sultry summer dresses accesorized with weapons stashed in the trunk of her car and Coby Bell with his ever-at-the ready T-shit casual military look)—is a fabulous invention that made 7 seasons fly past and left viewers wishing this series had gone on forever. If you have not watched it, you are in for a treat. If you have? Well, summer is a great time for a little re-viewing before the rentrée begins!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Perception, The Listener and Unforgettable: A triptych of reviews in this break for pop culture

Detectives with quirky abilities: The Listener, Perception, and Unforgettable
(TV series in review: Triptych 1—a telepath a brilliant schizophrenic neuropsychiatrist and a woman who remembers literally everything that ever happened or happens to her walk into a bar…)

The Listener
4 stars/ 5
Toby Logan (played by Nova Scotian Craig Olejnik) is the true telepath who listens in on culprit’s thoughts in the Canadian TV series The Listener. As season one opened in 2009, Toby was a paramedic trying not to use his abilities, but his run-ins with criminals and his increasing meddling drew him closer and closer to the cops. As Toby began to split his time between EMTing and consulting as a CI, his special powers helped but also endangered the police, his friends and of course Toby himself. Now in its 5th and recently announced final season, Toby’s secrets are shared by a key team at the IIB who are top notch crime stoppers. They use Toby as their secret weapon while backing up all of his perceived “facial reading” hunches—as they tell anyone who asks—with solid police investigation. Though basically your average one crime solved per episode investigative whodunit, the writers also build into each season a longer plotline centered around Toby and his abilities. This plotline—usually related to his mysterious past and lost family—slowly emerges endangering his friends and himself, culminating in dynamic transformations at the end of the season which draw viewers back to find out what’s next for the Toby gang. But this show also lures folks back because it explores not just his cop entourage and crime, but the more familiar issues everyone has—being a good friend to your best buddy (in this case Oz—Toby’s sidekick role—played by the charming and funny Ennis Esmer), or how to lead the life you want (EMT? Consultant? Detective? Or?). Viewers get hooked watching these characters interact (often round the bar in a Cheers-like manner) and grow and handle their individual paths pursuing normality in the form of true love, friendship and a sense of home.

4 stars/ 5
What prof doesn’t like a good lesson? At the start and end of each episode of ABC studio’s produced TV series airing on TNT, Perception, professor Daniel Pierce (played by Canadian Erik McCormack from Toronto) is in the process of teaching about or reflecting on some aspect of our/his own brain, its neurochemistry and how that dictates or relates to who and what we are, and how we act, react to things or just simply function in the world. These often clever, usually funnily recounted reflections are directly linked to the crime or criminal act of the week—often in fact causing Pierce to be whisked out of the classroom leaving his TA and personal homecare assistant Max Lewicki (played by the charming Californian actor Arjay Smith) to complete the lecture. These weekly “lesson” topics end up featuring as key components to unlocking the whodunit of the week. More interestingly (and thus one of the draws of the show) they unlock some aspect of how the character of this eccentric schizophrenic and brilliant neuroscientist, Daniel Pierce, is learning about his own neuro-psychology in his personal search for balance, motivation, a raison d’être and perhaps a semblance of belonging or even normality. Now in its 3rd season, Daniel Pierce, in the role of consultant to FBI agent Kate Moretti (played by the bright eyed Minnesotan actor Rachel Leigh Cook), helps solve crimes while trying to stay balanced. But it is the moments of psychosis or lapses in mental normality that allow this series to explore in fun ways –and in scenes with Pierce’s hallucinations –the interior and exterior of this crime solver’s mind.  These scenes—with imaginary therapists and others—add flare to the episodes, making viewers, like Pierce, uncertain of who is or is not really in front of them (are the characters seen on screen real or only in Pierce’s mind?). So it is not the shenanigans these crime stoppers get up to, or the adventures of these fiendishly bright sleuths solving crimes, but the relationships to self and others (real and imaginary friendships, love, a kind of family, even social relationships between dean and prof) that ground this show and humanize the characters. This is what makes viewers keep coming back—a sense that they are also participating in a process of learning, learning not just about Pierce’s world or about who committed a crime and why, but perhaps also about the little ticks, quirks and aspects of their own mind and how and why we react and function in the world because of our brains.

2.5 stars/ 5
I do enjoy a good ol' cop show with all the predictable fixings plus a nice character quirk (ie character Carrie Well’s hyperthymesia, ie an amazing photographic memory of all that has ever transpired around her). Seasons 1-2 of CBS’s TV series Unforgettable which originally aired in 2011 fit the bill and were a lot of fun to watch. Season 3 however seems weighted down with poor writing, asking the actors to flirt at what feel like inappropriate moments or ways (commenting on the 6 pack of a cadaver, for example) or including poorly scripted filler scenes (ie Carrie showing off her memory skills to people in various neighborhoods). In fact, the threaded development of the lead actors has felt increasingly forced—and if there really was any spark between Al (played by Californian native Dylan Walsh) and Carrie (played by Australian actor Poppy Montgomery) it feels like that train left the station ages ago, so why keep forcing the issue? Certainly viewers don’t buy it or really care anymore whether Al and Carrie might or might not hook up again. Luckily, episode 6 of season three revived a bit of excitement and moved the characters forward when Al became a suspect. Episode 7 continued that trend as it explored Eliot Delson their FBI boss’ connections to power and money, (Eliot Delson is played by Texan turned NYorker DallasRoberts)? Yet again, however, scenes seemed stilted, slow and forced (for example the opening scene at the fundraiser where we “meet the candidate”—Robert Bright (played by Josh Stamberg)—for the first time but where even the actors look like they are concentrating too hard on speaking slowly and looking around because nothing is really happening but the camera is still on so what else can they do). I would like to see the show pick up its pace, tighten, and demand that any line or image have a necessary function. This of course must start with some smarter writing. It would also be nice for the director to stop asking Carrie to act flirty like a tiny girl—she is not Brenda from The Closer. If they want some sex appeal to be part of the show, they should get her into a scene where we can see her as truly sensual in a mature woman way—perhaps exploring that gambling habit that can get her to high stakes tables with the who’s who folks, but where that hidden Carrie who can’t stay away bites her in the ass and where, who knows, perhaps she has to try and use her saucier side to try to get out of it? If not, then just focus on more intriguing crimes—and during the scenes that are not directly whodunit-driven, instead of adding silly faux flirting and flat character exposure, consider the word “explore”—delve into this character in deeper ways, uncover some new block or snag or aspect to Carrie’s abilities and how that might really make her who she is on and off the beat.