Category Archives: TV Review

Homeland and the Elements of a Good Show

During the huge online protest against SOPA and PIPA, I held a relatively cautious point of view about bashing a bill whose main purpose was to stop illegal acts.  I was against the bills, but I wanted to maintain an open-minded perspective on piracy and intellectual property rights.  That being said, when I see a show like Showtime’s Homeland, I want to just shut off my ethical radar and enjoy some incredible television.

As I’ve watched more and more TV and written more and more reviews, I’ve come to realize that there are a few key characteristics of a show that are central to my reception of it.  The first is a simple yet captivating premise.  Homeland has just this; Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is a CIA agent who suspects returned prisoner of war and national hero Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) of being a threat to the United States.  Regardless of the depth of the characters or the content of the plot, this premise alone was intriguing enough to capture my attention from the very start for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the complex dynamics of a soldier returning home to his family after 8 years of captivity are strangely relatable and captivating.  We feel both indignation and sympathy towards the wife, who, assuming Brody’s death, had begun a relationship with his best friend.  The son essentially meets his father for the first time, whereas his daughter gains a father, whose guidance and company she desperately needs.  Secondly, I was gripped by the juxtaposition between Brody’s perception as a national hero and the suspicion of his ulterior motives, both because of the mystery surrounding his motives and because of allusions to current society’s attitudes towards soldiers and terrorists.

This leads to the second aspect of my ideal show: deep, complex, and relatable characters.  Both Carrie and Brody are intricately developed and consistently unpredictable.  We find out that Carrie struggles with bipolar disorder and must secretly take drugs in order to keep herself under control.  Without giving away too much, this condition will play a major role later in the season, as she struggles to reveal Brody’s true intentions against the will of her boss and the public.  Danes’ great portrayal of the emotional and brilliant agent won her a well-deserved Golden Globe for best actress on a television drama.

Brody is also an exceptionally complex character, aided largely by Lewis’ reserved acting style, leaving the audience mystified about who he really is and what he wants.  Even as we become more and more aware of Brody’s ties to his terrorist captors, his love for his family and even for his country remains seemingly sincere.  Homeland avoids placing Brody into a clean category, instead portraying him as a loving and sincere, if misguided and dangerous, man.  Even by the end of the finale, Brody remains mysterious and morally ambiguous.

Homeland’s captivating premise and complex, relatable, characters are tied together by fantastic directing and a thrilling storyline.  Every episode leaves you on the edge of your seat, with the season one finale blowing the rest out of the water.  All 90 minutes of the finale are thrilling and include spectacular performances by Danes and Lewis.  I strongly recommend Homeland for anyone looking for a deeper, more exciting, and more captivating show to watch.

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Alcatraz: JJ Abrams’ Next Island-themed Endeavor

I saw this show on TV the other day.  It’s written by JJ Abrams, it’s about a bunch of people stranded on an island, the main character’s name is Jack, Jorge Garcia plays another main character, and it contains time travel.  Sound familiar?  If you’re like me and you had an unnatural obsession with “Lost” it probably does.  FOX looked to be aiming straight for the Lost crowd with its new drama “Alcatraz”, and at least for me, the advertisements worked; I was hooked before it even started.  But can Alcatraz live up to Abrams’ previous television masterpiece?  Can it be the next Lost?

The short answer is no.  Despite the borderline absurd similarities listed above, Alcatraz really isn’t like Lost at all.  It is more of a detective/cop show with a supernatural twist.  Its premise, that all of the prisoners of Alcatraz disappeared in 1963 and are reappearing now, is interesting to be sure, but the structure of the show seems to put more emphasis on the hunt for the criminals than on the mystery surrounding their sudden reappearance.  Rebecca Madsen, played by Sarah Jones, is a homicide detective who tries to track down these long-forgotten criminals after they reappear.  She is joined by Dr. Soto (Jorge Garcia), an expert on criminal justice and the history of Alcatraz.  The relationship between these two will likely make or break this show.  Though the mystery and suspense are important and exciting, it is the main characters of a detective show like this that create permanent viewership.  Rebecca and Doc show brief signs of strong chemistry in the pilot, but it remains to be seen in the rest of the season whether this unlikely duo will mesh.

Alcatraz is not Lost, nor is it trying to be, despite the strong allusions to it in the trailer.  Instead it is a twist on the classic detective drama, adding mystery and a supernatural element to a genre that needed something new.  I’m not convinced that the show can maintain its initial mystery and that the main characters have enough chemistry to keep the show going, but it certainly has potential, and I’ll keep watching it, if just to see Jorge Garcia in action once again.

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The Show That Keeps Getting Better

Amy Poehler stars in "Parks & Recreation"

If you aren’t watching NBC’s Parks & Recreation, start watching it now.  Every season has been better than the previous, and seasons 3 and 4 blew the first two out of the water.  Like its veteran NBC counterpart The Office, Parks & Rec is shot in the mockumentary style, interspersing talking heads and b-roll into the show’s otherwise typical production.  Like The Office, these talking heads are often the funniest parts of the episodes, as we see characters privately react to events the audience just witnessed.  This both gives us a unique opportunity to get to know characters in the show more personally and allows for more subtext and less spoken explanation within the rest of the show.

Nick Offerman plays mustached breakfast-enthusiast Ron Swanson

Beyond the mockumentary style, Parks & Rec has the remarkable ability to make every character both absolutely absurd and unavoidably likeable.  Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the main character of the show, is an obsessive overachiever at everything she does, but she doesn’t come off as obnoxious or domineering, but loving and selfless.  Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) is part-womanizer, part-entrepreneur, and part-egomaniac, yet you can’t help but root for his ridiculous endeavors and love him just the same when he fails.  Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), my personal favorite, is a meat-loving, government-hating, patriotic libertarian, but his soft side will make you cry and forget about his ridiculous views (sorry Ron Paul).  Even the one “normal” character, Jerry, is still a caricature of blandness, so much so that the other characters incessantly mock him for his normalcy.  There are too many other characters to describe here, but trust me when I say that every one of them is uniquely absurd, lovable, and hilarious.

Though the characters on Parks & Rec are ridiculous, its stories and setting are entirely relatable.  Set in a small Indiana town in a typical local government workplace, the show tells stories that feel familiar, even to a college student who has never had an office job.  Efforts to exaggerate certain aspects of the town, such as the constantly angry citizens at town hall meetings and the passive aggressive alcoholic talk show host, in fact make the subsequent scenes seem more real and relatable.

I couldn’t recommend Parks & Rec more for anyone looking for a new show to watch or just something to do instead of comps (especially since the first 3 seasons are now on Netflix!).  Like early seasons of The Office, Parks & Rec feels authentic because of its mockumentary format and down-to-earth setting, while at the same time offers characters that are both hilariously absurd and decisively charming.  If you find yourself skeptical at the beginning, stick in there; the more you watch and the later into the episodes you go, the better the show will be.

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God in Glee?

How old is this guy again?

A few weeks ago, FOX aired an episode of Glee called “Grilled Cheesus”.  Now, before you stop reading, hear me out, because I know there are a lot of Glee haters out there.  I’ll admit it, the show can be incredibly stupid, and the liberal anti-establishment part of me hates that I’m watching a massively popular show, on FOX nonetheless, that includes almost entirely covers of pop music.  But regardless of the rest of the show, “Grilled Cheesus” is the best religion-themed episode I’ve ever seen, and shows that Glee isn’t afraid to push the limits and throw out taboos, despite its mainstream appeal.

The episode starts out in typical Glee fashion when the increasingly obnoxious Finn sees the face of Jesus in his grilled cheese sandwich.  He decides to pray to his sandwich (though not before he eats half of it), asking for a win in his upcoming football game.  And if this act wasn’t irritating enough, he then tries to convince his glee club to start singing songs about Jesus because his prayer to half of a grilled cheese sandwich got “answered”.  What begins as a silly and shallow depiction of religion, however, soon becomes serious and emotional when Kurt’s dad has a heart attack and enters a coma that he may not come out of.  Kurt, who is openly gay and professes his atheism at the beginning of the episode, is emotionally devastated, and frustrated by the attempts of his friends to use religion to comfort and him and help his dad.  This becomes the central conflict of the episode; the almost entirely religious glee clubbers want to pray for and comfort Kurt (through song of course!) but because Kurt does not believe in God, he sees this not as a favor, but as an attack on his beliefs.

The rest of the episode becomes a sort of power struggle between the atheists, Kurt and Sue, and the religious people, mainly Mercedes and Rachel, with Finn going through his own bizarre adolescent-like religious struggle.  Towards the end, though, we see the main characters experience transformations, and largely through beautiful songs, they show how they have changed.  I will not give too much away, because I think this episode is absolutely worth watching even for Glee haters, but what we realize by the end is that the relative “truthiness” of the respective religions is unimportant compared the pain and worry that Kurt goes through, and the importance of friendship and comfort in the face of it.

Religion is a topic that most television shows, especially comedies like Glee, try to avoid.  It is nearly impossible to discuss religion without insulting one group or another, and based on Hulu reviews, this episode was no different.  Most of the reviews were from either atheists or religious people who thought the show was attacking their particular belief.  Glee, however, has shown that it is not afraid to tackle taboo topics like sex, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, etc., so it was no surprise that it took on religion, despite the inevitable outcry from religious and nonreligious people alike.  Instead of making the episode about which religion is right though, it made the discussion about how people use religion in their lives.  Though Kurt sees the religion of his friends as a threat to his own beliefs, he soon realizes that all they are really trying to do is comfort him.  The episode is more about friendship, doubt, faith, and the way that people deal with emotional grief than religion itself.  In this way, it blew me away that a mainstream show on FOX, which just a week earlier did an episode about Britney Spears and sex riots, could so tactfully, yet so daringly, produce an episode not only about religion, but about the existence of God.  They managed to present reasonable arguments for both sides, and in the end taught a lesson that was neither an answer to the question of God nor a cop-out, but, in my opinion, a wise and constructive way to approach religion, not in terms of truth or faith, but in terms of how it affects people’s lives.  Whether you like Glee or not, you have to applaud it’s willingness to push boundaries, throw out taboos, and hit the tough topics head on.

Is NBC’s “The Event” Just Another “Lost”? I wish.

When “Lost” ended last year, I, along with millions of other people around the world, felt like a significant part of my life was gone. It wasn’t just the hour a week I spent watching the award-winning sci-fi drama.  It was the sometimes ridiculous obsession I had with the show, the hours thinking and talking about it with my roommate, the connections with the characters that felt so real I honestly missed them when they were gone.  Yes, I realize that I sound a little pathetic right now, but that is what Lost did to me; it took me away from reality and mesmerized me every week for 6 years (well, 2…thank God for Hulu).

Needless to say, after Lost was over, all the Losties of the world had to find a replacement show to fill that void.  Being a Hulu addict, I already had a list of candidates; “Flashforward” was my first attempt, but despite a fascinating idea for a show and movie-quality production, the characters were bland, and the story couldn’t last past the first season.  Next I tried “V”, and though it was not cancelled and was entertaining to watch, the story was pretty predictable (usually the case with remakes, for some reason) and it just didn’t capture my attention like Lost did.  I even tried going into different genres, starting up on shows like “Chuck”, “Glee”, and “Lie to Me”.  Though they are all superb, they were too different from Lost to be adequate replacements.  I wanted a suspenseful, philosophical, character-driven show, like Flashforward and V tried to be but couldn’t.

That’s when I saw the trailer for NBC’s new show, “The Event”.  An assassination plot.  A secret government facility.  A mysterious kidnapping.  Snapshots of seemingly random characters that come together and play a part in this monumental “event”.  Finally, this could be the show I was looking for.  This could fill the void left by Lost.  Based on the first two episodes, though, I am not optimistic about the show’s future.  Like Flashforward, the Event focuses on one, for lack of a better term, event, that is revealed in the pilot, and the rest of the show attempts to explain its origins, purpose, people responsible for it, and so on.  But also like Flashforward, the Event does not allow the audience to connect with its characters.  It relies on twist endings and overly-dramatized dialogue to draw in viewers, but leaves them stranded when it switches scenes before we can get to know more about who these people are and why they believe and act like they do.  I’m not asking for a detailed biography of every character, but for scenes that make me care about these people.  Jumping off a cliff to save a stranger and defending the rights of prisoners are both valiant acts, but not exceptionally unique for protagonists of a dramatic television show.

Though Lost’s last few seasons were filled with more than enough suspense, drama, twists, and supernatural events, many forget that it simply began with one doctor trying to help the survivors of a plane crash on a (semi)deserted island.  We were not drawn into Lost because we wanted to know why there was a polar bear on the island or what the mysterious monster was (though those questions kept the show interesting enough for six seasons), but because we were fascinated by the concept of a group of strangers being trapped on an island together, trying to survive without killing each other.  We did not learn anything concrete about the main characters in the pilot of Lost, but we were given a snapshot of each, and in this short period of time we became attached to them.  The problem with shows like Flashforward, V, and the Event is that they try to draw in viewers by putting too much action, suspense, and mystery in the pilot, but run out of steam half way through the first season.  They should learn from Lost and start with a simple yet interesting concept and characters that we want to learn more about, then move on to the sci-fi/mystery/suspense later.  I love unanswered questions as much as the next guy (I am a philosophy major after all), but I was a fan of Lost not for the questions, but for the characters.  If the Event can slow down and give me a reason to care about these people and what they’re doing, then I will be satisfied.  Until then, I’ll just have to keep searching for my next “Lost”.