Sunday, June 26, 2011

Show You Should Be Watching: "Leverage"

If you've never seen "Leverage," the premise is fairly simple: a group of criminals team up to play Robin Hood. What happens after they team up is much more complicated, and a whole lot more fun.

The team is led by Nate Ford, an often surly sometimes-alcoholic who left the insurance agency he worked for after the death of his son. After teaming up with some of the people he used to chase as an insurance investigator - a con artist, a thief, a hitter and a hacker - and getting conned himself, he and the rest of the team decide to turn things around, and use their criminal powers for good.

The show plays out like Ocean's 11 meets Robin Hood - each episode involves a person or persons who have been wronged by someone evil, and the team uses their particular skill sets to bring that person justice.  It's a fun premise, and one that has seemingly infinite possibilities.

The real appeal of the show, however, lies in the relationships between the main cast of five. Over the first three seasons these hard people, used to working on their own, develop a quirky, dysfunctional family, with Nate as the grudgingly loving father and con-woman Sophie as the mother. Brilliant hacker Hardison, gruff badass Elliot and emotionally-stunted expert thief Parker make up the rest of the crew.

"Leverage" is really largely about this nontraditional family, but each week they manage to pull off increasingly complicated heists and cons, pulling down bad guy after bad guy and racking up an impressive list of enemies. Though the show is largely set in Boston, the team does often travel, and even their local cons are set in a variety of locations: museums, fashion shows, country music studios, and even horse ranches.

It would be easy to write "Leverage" off as a fluffy action show, but amidst the humor and the snarking there are occasional moments of depth, emotion and even romance. While Nate and Sophie have played the flirting game since day one, the relationship between Parker, who is often childish in her whims and emotions, and geeky but sweet Hardison, is one of the show's most endearing. Even if Parker can't quite bring herself to start a romance, they have one of the best relationships on the show.

Although to be fair, the snarking is pretty fun, too.

It's entirely possible that Parker is my favorite character (if you couldn't tell).

The other high point of the show is often the action scenes. Elliot is usually the star here - watching him beat up rooms full of large, armed men is always one of the most exciting parts of the episode.

The season 4 premiere of "Leverage" is tonight. If you're looking for an exciting, fun show to end your weekend right, this is a great choice. The good guys (usually) win, but they sure don't do it the easy way.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Guilty, Guilty Pleasure of "Make It or Break It"

"Make It or Break It" is a silly little show that embodies a lot of the worst qualities of ABC Family. It's sappy, often poorly acted and poorly written, and annoyingly preachy. It's also a show about elite, Olympic-contender gymnasts who can apparently only do basic skills.

So why do I keep watching it? There is a spark of something compelling in this story of elite gymnasts striving for Olympic gold at the cost of everything else. It can be a lot of fun. And, when they're not busy mooning over boys (it is a teen show on ABC Family, after all), there's even a hint of female empowerment behind these badass girl athletes.

Two of the best things about MIOBI are Olympic hopeful Payson and her coach Sasha. Payson is the golden girl right from the start, mature and driven, but a back injury at nationals sidelines her early. Her comeback story, while more than a bit unbelievable, did make for some good TV, and she is a character for whom you want to root. It helps that the actress who plays her, Ayla Kell, is one of the best on the show. And her relationship with her coach is just as intense and interesting - he believes in her fully and she trusts him implicitly, and as a viewer it's easy to want to see them make it all the way to the Olympics.

They aren't the only good thing about the show. National champ Kaylie can also be pretty interesting, and her battle with an eating disorder managed to pull a few great moments into the show. Some of the gymnastics parents offer great insight into all the sacrifices they've had to make to get their kids to this level of competitive athletics. And Emily, the poor girl trying to make it big, gives the viewer an underdog to root for - although sometimes she veers into Bella Swan-esque "Poor me, why do all the boys love me?" territory. Emily would have been better served as a character by being less obsessed with her sometimes boyfriend, a trait that eventually led to her pregnancy and the end of her gymnastics career on the show. That silly plot (fueled by the actress' real life pregnancy) was explained by the fact that because she was an athlete and had only ever had one period, Emily apparently did not think she needed birth control. Emily (herself the result of a teen pregnancy) has also apparently never heard of an STD.

What makes this a seriously GUILTY pleasure for me is the over-the-top, ridiculous writing and often hammy acting. But even that wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for two of the worst characters on TV, Lauren and Summer. If they could just get rid of these two horrific women, or rewrite them to have more than one layer, this might even occasionally be a good show.

The main problem with Lauren is that she is a sociopath, but the writers refuse to admit it. In the very first episode, she sets up a vault to purposefully injure another gymnast. She sleeps with her best friend's boyfriend, multiple times. She almost ruins her coach's career, because he's dating her dad's ex and she wants them to get back together. She lies constantly. And yet the other girls at the Rock continue to be her friends, she continues to win, and there are no consequences for her actions, ever. I love a good villain as much as the next TV addict, but Lauren is just ridiculous.

Summer is even worse, primarily because she is supposed to be a moral Christian character, but she is constantly being a judgmental hypocrite. All she ever does is slam everyone else's beliefs as being wrong - abstinence is the only choice ever! Sex before marriage is wrong, even though I really want to have sex with the hot coach! I'll lie for Lauren because she says she'll stop sleeping around, even thought lying is wrong and I'm going to judge anyone else who lies! Her "relationship" with Sasha lacked chemistry and almost ruined his awesome character, and there is no logical reason for her to be on the show. And as much as I loved DJ on "Full House," Candace Cameron Bure is horrible as Summer. Basically, she is the worst.

There's no word yet on if MIOBI is getting another season, but even with all these reasons to hate it, I can't help enjoying it and hoping it does. I want to see Payson and Kaylie make it to the Olympics. Maybe even Lauren, if they can make her less hateful. I would even accept a totally ludicrous storyline about Emily coming back post-pregnancy and somehow talking her way back on the National Team if it would mean getting to see this tightknit group of athletes make it to the big time. Winning Worlds was pretty satisfying. But winning the Olympics? That would bring this feel-good show to the ultimate level of happy fluff, and sometimes that's all I need.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New Shows for Next Season: What Looks Good

It's upfronts time, which means previews of recently greenlit shows for next season are floating around the interwebs. Out of what I've been able to track down, here are a few that I'm excited about:

Terra Nova
This show has been buzzed about for over a year, but now there are actual real previews, and I for one am super psyched. Dystopian future! Dinosaurs! Pretty scenery!

It has former-Buffy producer power behind it, and it looks awesome. I can't resist a good twisted fairy tale. This one could go either way, but it looks much better than the preview for ABC's "Once Upon a Time," and I have high hopes.

Another Fox show, this one from mastermind J.J. Abrams. The premise sounds silly, but the preview looks pretty cool. The general idea is that all of the prisoners on Alcatraz vanished into thin air on the last day the prison was open, and are now popping up in our time and committing crimes. There seems to be some kind of conspiracy lurking in the background (and I wouldn't expect anything less than a super-complicated mystery from Abrams).

This could be very cool, or it could get old fast. A man lives in two realities - one where his son died in a car crash, and one where his wife died in a car crash. Every time he goes to sleep, he wakes up in the other reality, and he doesn't want to let go of either one.

I'm on the fence about this one, but I'm a sucker for shows with good singing, and this could be promising. Debra Messing and Katherine McPhee in a show about the building of a Broadway musical.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Show You Should Be Watching: "Happy Endings"

"Happy Endings" is a sitcom about a group of six very different friends living in the city. Which makes it sound like just about every other sitcom on TV right now, including 3 or 4 others that have started just this season with almost the exact same premise.

But "Happy Endings" has something most of those other shows don't have - it's joyful. The characters mesh. They feel like actual friends. They banter and have a good time at each other's expense, but none of it is really mean-hearted. And, most importantly, watching them is actually funny.

Take the clip below from the most recent episode, where single girl Penny accidentally starts dating a hipster and tries to fit in to his world, with the help of slacker gay Max.

This intersects with a plot where Max is competing with uptight badass Jane to find out which one would be able to survive a zombie apocalypse - by the end of the episode, they are on the run from a crowd of zombie-like hipsters trying to catch a food truck.

Part of the show's appeal is that any of the characters can be paired together and funny things happen. No interaction feels strained or faked. These actors seem to be genuinely enjoying playing off of each other, and it makes the show that much more enjoyable. Certainly some of the plotlines are sitcom staples, but the pure fun of the characters and the realistically snarky banter they throw back and forth makes this much better watching than most shows formed around similar premises.

I wasn't totally convinced by the pilot, but this show has really gelled, and I for one hope that it sticks around for awhile. The ratings haven't been quite so hopeful, due I'm sure at least partly to the fact that the show started in mid-April in a 10 p.m time slot. ABC has been airing two episodes at a time many weeks, so they may be trying to burn off the episodes. I hope this is not the case, and I hope that this show attracts more of the audience it deserves. It's only been 7 episodes, but these characters are starting to feel like old friends, and I would hate to lose them so soon.

All 7 of the first episodes are available on Hulu.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"The Voice": Better Than "Idol"?

"American Idol" has been king of the reality singing competitions for 10 seasons. Coming this late in the game, a show like "The Voice" seems like it would be yet another copycat, an attempt to cash in on "Idol's" dying gasps. But there is something genuinely fun about this show, a freshness that I did not expect to find in such a stale concept.

The first rounds of "The Voice" are based on a blind audition round, where the coaches - Xtina, Blake Shelton, Cee-Lo and Adam Levine - are judging the contestants based solely on, well, their voice. All of the contestants are chosen ahead of time, avoiding the nonsense bad auditions that plague the first rounds of "Idol" every season. If one of the coaches wants one of the singers on their "team" of 8, they press a button to basically offer a spot on their team to that person.

What I personally love about this concept was that the coaches then have to sell themselves to the contestant, who ultimately gets to choose whose team they get to join if they have had multiple offers. So not only do we get to hear talented singers, we get to see them have a small measure of power over their own destinies. Of course, working with any of the four is a dream come true for most of these artists, so there's really no way to lose - unless nobody turns their chair around, which only happened a couple of times in this first round.

The coaches are a bit of a surprise, too - I expected to like Cee-Lo, and Adam Levine, but wasn't sure if Xtina's diva image would get in the way, and I had never heard of Blake Shelton. But all four of them seemed to really be enjoying themselves, lavishing praise on deserving contestants and playing up the drama in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way. They seem to actually want to nurture the talent of these contestants, to really find the best people and help them make the right connections. And they themselves just feel more connected to the contestants than the much more aloof judging panel on "Idol."

So is it better than "Idol"? Maybe, maybe not. It's hard to compare one episode to ten seasons of talent. But I love that the singers are all talented, and that the coaches/mentors are all passionate about the people they are vying for. That may be difficult in the next round after auditions, when they have to cut their teams in half. And "The Voice" may get a little too Idol-y in the last few rounds, when the final group is chosen and America gets to vote on the winner.

But at the very least, this first round is something fresh and exciting, a new take on the singing competition. The blind auditions mostly ended up being pretty people, sure, but there were a few surprises mixed in for the coaches in terms of look and presentation. If next week is as entertaining, I'm in, at least for the season.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

American Idol: Best Performances of the Past 10 Seasons

"American Idol" is a junk-food show. I know it's not good for me, and a lot of the time I don't even enjoy it, but I can't help but coming back to it, week after week.

There's something uplifting about the idea of talented kids getting a shot at stardom. It speaks to the classic American dream that drives many of us - success, fame, money, power. Yes, most of the contestants from AI are back to normal after their fifteen minutes is up, but even some of the losers of the competition have gone on to have extremely successful careers due in large part to the exposure they got from Idol.

This season has been hit or miss, with a very talented group who has been (a bit boringly) consistent. No Sanjayas this time around, hanging around on the basis of their train-wreck potential. There is real talent in the group that's left, and the judges have found little to criticize. That's one of the weak points of this season, for me - while I've mostly enjoyed Tyler and Lopez and even occasionally Randy as judges, they seem to be there primarily to lavish praise on even the most generic performances.

As I watched last night's top 7 perform, I couldn't help but think that there really hasn't been a star-making moment this year yet. Each of the top group has had some good performances, and some of them have even been great performances, but unlike past seasons, I have yet to hear a performance that makes go, "Wow. That kid deserves to be a star."

So I thought I'd present some of my personal "star moments" from the past seasons. I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with me on which ones made the cut, but these are seven of my favorites, the ones that I've gone back and watched again and again even after the season was over.

#5: Blake Edwards, "You Give Love a Bad Name"
Blake may not have been the best traditional singer on the show, but he knew how to mix things up and keep it unique and interesting. This performance was unexpected, fun and different.

#4: Elliott Yamin, "Moody's Mood for Love"
It took me a few weeks to get into Elliott. He was a funny-looking guy, but when he opened his mouth, all of that melted away into an absolutely gorgeous voice. This was the first moment I realized that. One of the few Idols I've bought music from post-show.

#3: Clay Aiken,
Definitely another case of a big, amazing voice in what could be considered a funny-looking guy. He may have gotten a tad creepier since his season ended, but man, what a voice.

#2: Fantasia Barrino, "Summertime"
What I liked about Fantasia, even though I didn't always love her, was that she really poured herself fully into every performance. This is a fantastic example of that.

#1: Kelly Clarkson, "Stuff Like That There"
The first Idol is still the best, IMHO. This perky, upbeat performance could have been overly cutesy or silly in someone else's hands, but Kelly knocked it out of the water. This was the song that made me think she should win the first season.

Honorable mentions: Adam Lambert's "Mad World," Jennifer Hudson's "Circle of Life," Tamyra Gray's "A House is Not a Home."

I'm sure I've forgotten a few other favorites here. But these are at least a few of the moments that have kept me coming back to Idol. I hope to see another one in the next few weeks from what's left of this year's contestants.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: "Game of Thrones"

My reaction as the first episode of "Game of Thrones" wrapped up?

Holy. Shit. I am going to love this show.

I haven't read the books this series is based on. (Although the first one is sitting on my bookshelf, just begging to be read now.) And I was concerned about getting into an epic and sprawling fantasy series, trying to figure out who's who without having read the hefty volumes this show is based on. I've been burned before. But to my pleasant surprise, while the pilot certainly contained a huge number of characters and stories to keep track of, they managed to present everything in a way that was engaging, providing an intro without being overly clumsy and obvious, and allowed me to follow the story with relative ease.

I expected to have to slog my way through this first episode, trying to learn names and characters and figuring out what was going on where. But I very quickly picked up on who everyone was and their motivations, and that, even more than the sweeping sets and beautiful people, drew me masterfully into the story. I found the women in this story especially compelling - Daenerys, being married off to a savage king to further her brother's aspirations to win back his throne; Arya, the young daughter of a northern lord, fighting against the traditional roles her older sister embraces, preferring archery to embroidery and food fights to flirting with princes; Lady Catelyn, trying desperately to protect her family as her husband chooses to leave and help his king; and the Queen, who was giving me serious Lady MacBeth vibes in addition her creepy incestuous relationship with her pretty-boy twin brother.

Some of the men were pretty interesting, too - in particular, I was interested in Ned Stark's bastard son, Jon, who I would assume from this first episode will play an important role in the coming series, and Tyrion Lannister, the "Imp," is sure to be an interesting character to watch. Daenerys' brother was compelling, in an evil, creepy way; I expect to hate him with a passion. But it was the women of this show who really stood out. Not much good happens to them in the "Game of Thrones" pilot, but from what I've read about this series, I hope to see them come back with a vengeance throughout the season.

I'm sure I'll be looking up the characters' names at least a few times an episode for now, but that doesn't really matter. Their relationships at this point are clear, the story is compelling, and I fully expect that this is quickly going to become a new favorite series. I can't wait to see what happens next week. In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be devouring the first book.