Thursday, July 17, 2014

Under the Dome Review: "Force Majeure" - The Stupid [and the Rain]! It Burns!

Do you remember when this happened? Because "Under the Dome" doesn't.

Dear Readers,

I’m sorry.  In part, I’m sorry that this review is coming to you two days late.  The truth is I didn’t want to write this piece because I think I’m at my wits’ end with Under the Dome.  You see, dear readers, Under the Dome thinks that we are stupid; not just a little bit stupid, but colossally, astoundingly stupid.  That’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain the first three episodes of this season. 

The Dome writers think we’re too dumb to realize that the water cycle does not work in such a way that you can spray the local lake with a magical maguffin and instantly turn acid rain clean.  They think we’re so oblivious that we wouldn’t notice the magical “wormhole” granting internet access provides only one barely relevant plot detail and really just serves as a five minute commercial for Windows tablets.*  They think we’ll blindly accept the idea that a school, any school, would keep an entire roster of every student who has ever used a locker going back more than thirty years – and to accept that that roster would be in a hardbound book, not in an Excel spreadsheet. 

* If that wormhole and internet access do not periodically return throughout this season, the third episode of this season will go down as the single worst instance of product placement in the history of television.

The writers believe our memories so short that we won’t remember anything from last season, like how Junior imprisoned Angie and is kind of a nutball, or the number of people Big Jim killed, or the fact that people were running out of propane in the season finale.  None of that has been present in the first three episodes of this season.  Junior is just one of the guys, and a deputy to boot!*  Big Jim is still apparently a citizen leader, despite trying to frame and execute an innocent man all of two days ago.  And while the dreaded conversation over “resources” is happening, nobody outside the core group is complaining anymore.  That’s not even getting into the fact that Sheriff Linda died in the season premiere and nobody but Melanie, the undead mystery lake girl, has bothered to notice.

* “Hey Junior, how do you become a Sheriff’s deputy in Chester’s Mill?”  “Oh, you just need to be the kidnapper son of the murderous city councilman.”

Look, I get that this is a television show, and a science fiction television show at that, so a certain amount of narrative forgiveness is necessary, but this show insults my intelligence.  I’ve watched bad TV before.  I watched every episode of Smash, twice, for Christ’s sake.  But Under the Dome is a show that expects me to forget everything I’ve seen before so that they can do what they need to do, whether that’s turning a bad guy good or just airing a Microsoft commercial (complete with “the tablet’s working perfectly but the internet’s gone” lines). 

The frustrating part is that for as terrible as Dome is, it still presents some interesting ideas.  Monday night, we got the beginning of a potential religious war between Julia, who believes the dome is there to save everybody; Lyle, who believes the dome will only save “true believers;” and Rebecca, who uses the logic and rationality of science to cover her blatant self-preservation.  She’s obviously fine with culling the herd because she believes she’ll be safe from the culling. 

But these interesting ideas are hidden by an ever-increasing bundle of mysteries that never get answered.  The egg? Forgotten.  The butterflies and the Monarch? Dead and forgotten.  The speech given by whatever entity inhabited Norrie’s mom’s body?  Forgotten.  The fact that Julia was shot just a few days ago?  Forgotten.  In their place we get creepy Lyle, enigmatic Sam, and Junior’s mom’s entreaty to trust nobody.  The show keeps piling mystery on top of mystery as though that can take the place of actual storytelling.

I really don’t know what to do with this show.  It’s capable of introducing intriguing ideas but is as likely to dump them as explore them.  It’s also a series that must think its audience to be complete morons.  I don’t want to keep watching, but the truth is that I’m a bit of an OCD completionist when it comes to television.  I’ve only given up completely on two shows in my memory: Entourage and Nip/Tuck.  I’ll probably keep watching, but can’t recommend that anybody else do the same.  At this point Under the Dome is all hope and no substance.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Masters of Sex Season Premiere Review: "Parallax" - Fathers and Sons

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan have a difficult conversation in "Masters of Sex"

It’s entirely coincidental that I watched the Battlestar Galactica finale last night.  I’ve been rewatching the series for the first time since purchasing the Blu-ray set a few years ago and one line from that finale always makes the room a little dusty.  As Gaius Baltar is surveying the landscape with Caprica Six, he tells her, “You know, I know about farming.”  This man, who has spent his entire life avoiding becoming his father, the farmer, going so far as to change his native accent to obscure his origins, now seems almost grateful for the opportunity to cast aside the visage and put his hands in the dirt. 

Men can never really escape their fathers’ influence, whether they want to be like their fathers or desperately want to be anything but.  And that’s where we find Bill Masters in the stunning second season premiere of Masters of Sex.  He is a man trying desperately to escape the shadow of his father but finding the prospect much more difficult than he previously imagined.  He is intensely devoted to his work, to the detriment of his family.  He is cheating (or at least cheated) on his wife.  The sounds of his crying child do nothing more than annoy him.  This was supposed to be his pinnacle: Published study, doting spouse, perfect son.  Instead, he’s jobless, sleeping on the couch, and unable to make even the barest of emotional connections.

Bill thus finds himself turning into his father not out of any active attempts to be terrible, but because he lets inertia take over.  The failure of his study (or at least of the medical community to embrace his study) and the loss of his job have derailed him.  Not that he was ever a particularly great husband or would have been a decent father, but without his work to serve as a stabilizing force in his life, Bill is left adrift. 

He does still have Virginia, however.  Their night together following the events of last season’s finale serves as a refrain as the episode keeps returning to that night in order to show us different points of view.  For Bill, their night of sex is cathartic: a release of all the pent-up emotion and guilt he’s felt for the last few years.  He literally falls into her arms.  He claws at her, pulls her down, desperate to feel a physical connection.  It’s telling how much of their encounter we see from his perspective and how little we see from hers.  Virginia is clearly not into the sex (at least not until the end), and the episode shows us that.  It’s a marvelous bit of filmmaking that takes into the heads of our two main characters without any dialogue.

The truth is that Virginia doesn’t love Bill (or at least isn’t willing to admit it), a fact that absolutely crushes Masters.  Sheen’s face as Virginia tells Bill that “it is a rare man who can understand how a woman could choose work over love” is heartbreaking.  The emotions there – devastation, fear, resignation – are beautifully played, making me wonder once again how Sheen didn’t score an Emmy nomination.  I’ve seen enough television to know that this probably isn’t the end for Masters’s and Johnson’s intimate relationship, but for now it’s clear that he is interested in a sexual relationship while she is not.

Elsewhere, I was a little surprised to see Beau Bridges and Allison Janney still on the show, given that both now have network sitcoms (for which Janney was nominated for an Emmy last week).  I’m glad to still see them here, though, because I could frankly watch an entire series following Burton and Margaret Scully.  Their love for each other is so plain, so obvious, but Burton just can’t find her attractive.  He’s trying so hard, but the electrotherapy and the gay pornography are just hiding the obvious: that this is a relationship that will never be physical in the way either wants.

Unfortunately, Bridges and Janney aren’t the only supporting actors who found other work between seasons.  Rose McIver will be on the CW’s iZombie this fall, so the Scullys' story might be brief.  Heléne York is headed to Broadway, so Jane is following her boyfriend to Hollywood.  And Ann Dowd is currently starring in every show on television including The Leftovers and The Divide, so Bill’s mother is shipped back home.  Thankfully, Dr. Langham and his apparently magical penis are still around, this time sleeping with his wife’s sister, leading to the wonderfully hilarious scene in which his wife, Elise, announces this fact over the hospital PA while Langham hides in an office.  We saw last year that Teddy Sears is capable of doing dramatic work as well, but I’m never going to say "no" to Langham getting in trouble for his philandery. 

Because of the changing cast, “Parallax’s” secondary stories felt like a lot of piece-moving, but the core relationship between Masters and Johnson is as beautiful as ever.  I named Masters of Sex as my fourth-best show of 2013 and it appears to be picking up right where it left off.

A couple of spare thoughts –

DePaul is enigmatic as ever, not even really revealing the cause of her black eye to Johnson.  She was a late addition to the show last year, and with Masters and Johnson moving their study to another hospital I can easily see her falling through the cracks, which I hope doesn’t happen.

Libby, as always, is great trying to hold everything together and even getting Bill to where he needs to be in order to get a new hospital to take on his research.  Caitlin Fitzgerald is fantastic in this role and I really want to see her do more than act as the nagging wife.  She’s capable of so much more than that.

Posts for Masters of Sex might be a little sporadic this summer because Sunday is such a busy night and I work Mondays, but I’m hoping to have one up at least every other week, if not weekly.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

2014 Emmy Nominations: The More Things Change...

I will continue using this image for my Emmy nominations post until Tatiana Maslany is nominated.

A lot of people are lamenting today that the Emmy awards are continuing to nominate the same people.  To a certain extent, that’s true, but this year’s Emmy nominations actually managed to reflect the increasing number of great new shows on television.  Orange Is the New Black and True Detective each snagged a dozen nominations while Fargo, competing in the less competitive miniseries categories, brought home 18.  Meanwhile, some long-time mainstays saw their numbers start to dwindle.  Modern Family, which prior to this year had never received fewer than five acting nominations and twice six, earned only three.  Likewise, Mad Men, which has generally received three or four acting nominations, two or three writing nominations, and a directing nod each year, saw only two actors called for lead and supporting categories and, for the first time, earned no nominations for writing or directing. 

Change is coming, if slowly.  The only disappointing aspect is how few nominations went to actors and shows that are past their freshman years but have never been nominated before.  Of the 60 major nominations (Series, Lead, and Supporting), only two went to actors or actresses who had been eligible before but had not been nominated: Lena Headey and Kate McKinnon picked up their first nominations for Game of Thrones and Saturday Night Live, respectively.  Every show that was nominated for Outstanding Series was either a new show or was nominated last year. 

They say that the easiest way to earn an Emmy nomination is to have been nominated before and that certainly played out this year.  Even of the actors nominated from first-year shows, four had been nominated previously for other roles (Woody Harrelson, Allison Janney, Jon Voight, and Andre Braugher) while a fifth was Matthew McConaughey.  All in all, 48 actors and actresses were nominated between the lead and supporting categories and only five – Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew, Lizzy Caplan, Headey, and McKinnon – had not previously been nominated for either an Emmy or an Oscar. 

The ignorance of new potential nominees from established series was particularly egregious this year when there were so many shows making big leaps from their first seasons to their second.  The Americans and Hannibal had tremendous sophomore runs but earned as many nominations combined (one) as Revolution.  Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany was denied again, despite putting on one of the best performances on television for the second consecutive year.

Some have contributed these snubs to a hatred by the Emmy voters of genre television, but that doesn’t explain the twenty nominations for Game of Thrones, the seventeen for American Horror Story, or previous recognition for Lost or True Blood.  Hell, just this year Almost Human, Da Vinci’s Demons, Grimm, The 100, Agents of SHIELD, Once Upon a Time, The Originals, Revolution, Sleepy Hollow, True Blood, Vikings, and The Walking Dead all received technical nominations.  That those great series keep getting ignored is not due to their genre, but something else entirely.

Ultimately, the 2014 Emmys are pretty much what you would expect them to be.  There’s a nominal nod to some of the tremendous new shows that debuted this past season and an overabundance of past nominees.  We always hope for the results to change, but the more things change…

With those general thoughts out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the good, the bad, and the WTF of this year’s Emmy nominations:

Bad – Complacency in the big money drama categories.  True Detective, Harrelson, and McConaughey were always locks, but the only other new nominee was Masters of Sex’s Lizzy Caplan.  She’s extremely deserving, but where were Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Michael Sheen, or any number of other deserving actors?

Good – The descending of Modern Family.  I like Modern Family well enough, but in its first four seasons it has averaged 5.5 supporting actor/actress nominees every year.  This year, it’s down to three, with only Julie Bowen, Ed O’Neill, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson scoring nods.  That opened up several spots for great performances from the likes of Andre Braugher and Kate Mulgrew, among others.

WTF? – No drama directing nomination for Rian Johnson.  Even creator Vince Gilligan has acknowledged that “Ozymandias” was “the best episode [of Breaking Bad] we ever have had or ever will have.”  While writer Moira Walley-Beckett was nominated for her role, Johnson was snubbed.  The competition was fierce in the category (including Neil Marshall’s work in “The Watchers on the Wall” and Cary Fukunaga’s epic tracking shot in True Detective), but you really can’t tell me that David Evans’s episode of Downton Abbey or Carl Franklin’s work on House of Cards were better than “Ozymandias.”

Good (nay Great!) – Three guest actress nominations for Orange Is the New Black.  Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, and Natasha Lyonne all scored nominations for OItNB, bringing the show’s acting total to five nods.  They’ll have fierce competition from Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, and Joan Cusack, but I really hope one of them comes out on top (and I dare anybody to vote against Laverne Cox after watching “Lesbian Request Denied”).

WTF? – Inexplicable guest actor/actress nominations.  Robert Morse is in the opening credits of Mad Men and appeared in more episodes than January Jones, Kiernan Shipka, and Jessica Paré, all of whom submitted as supporting actresses, and yet he’s a guest actor?  On the other end of the spectrum, Kate Mara and Margo Martindale are in all of about two minutes of the second seasons of House of Cards and The Americans and somehow manage to get nominations?

Good – Lots of nominations for Fargo.  Fargo was great.  You should watch it.

WTF? – Alison Tolman as a supporting actress.  Tolman was probably on screen more in Fargo than any other actor, certainly more than Billy Bob Thornton, yet she submitted herself as a supporting actress.  In theory, this could have been to protect herself from stronger competition, but she ends up going up against Frances Conroy, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Ellen Burstyn, and Julia Roberts, who have, combined between them, 24 Emmy nominations and three wins, 23 Golden Globe nominations and eight wins, and 14 Oscar nominations and three wins.  It’s a murderer’s row of actresses and the relatively unknown Tolman should beat them all.

Good – Breakthrough in the variety writing category.  Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series is a category that has been dominated by late night shows in recent years.  Last year Portlandia managed a nomination, but this year it, Inside Amy Schumer, and Key & Peele all scored nominations.  The trophy will still likely go to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report, as it has for ten of the last eleven years, but it’s nice to see the sketch comedy series get more recognition.

Bad – No cinematography nomination for Hannibal.  Hannibal is the most beautifully shot on television.  Full stop.  It is art.  To deny Hannibal a nomination for Outstanding Cinematography seems insane.

WTF? – Six shows earned nominations for Outstanding Stunt Coordination for a Drama Series, Miniseries, or Movie.  Five of those shows were Grimm, Hawaii Five-0, Revolution, The Blacklist, and True Blood.  Not on that list?  The three shows with the best stunts on television: Arrow, Banshee, and Strike Back.  Hannibal’s cinematography omission “seems” insane.  Ignoring Arrow, Banshee, and Strike Back for stunt coordination is insane.

So those are my thoughts on the 2014 Emmy nominations.  Register your agreements or disagreements in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Emmy Ballot: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama

Tatiana Maslany should own this category for "Orphan Black"

The Emmy nominations will be announced tomorrow and we’re down to our last acting category and it’s somewhat fitting that we should end with the category that typically sees the most change every year: Lead Actress in a Drama.  It’s actually kind of amazing how many different women have gotten recognition in this category over the years.  Lead Actress in a Drama has had ten different winners since 2000 and no woman has won more than two trophies.  Twelve different women have been nominated in the last three years.  Even traditional stalwarts often have had trouble maintaining nominations in recent years.  Mariska Hargitay had earned eight consecutive nominations and a win before being shut out the last two years.  Julianna Marguiles won in 2011 but wasn’t nominated in 2013.  There has been a lot of turnover in this category recently and last year’s surprise nominees could mean the same for 2014.

A couple of caveats before we start.  First, I’m working from the actual Emmy Performer Ballot, so I can’t move somebody from lead to supporting (Woody Harrelson), nor can I call True Detective a miniseries or Orange Is the New Black a drama, nor can I nominate somebody who didn’t submit themselves (like Alan Cumming in The Good Wife).  Also, I’m only including actors from shows I watch regularly, so if your favorites from House of Cards, Parenthood, The Good Wife, or Scandal aren’t here, that’s why.

My 2013 Choices:
Claire Danes (Homeland)
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black)
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men)
Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs)
Keri Russell (The Americans)
Katheryn Winnick (Vikings)

Actual 2013 Nominees:
Connie Britton (Nashville)
Claire Danes (Homeland) – 2013 Emmy Winner
Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey)
Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel)
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men)
Kerry Washington (Scandal)
Robin Wright (House of Cards)

The first thing to note about last year’s nominees is that there were seven of them.  There is a quirk in the nominating process that allows for a seventh nominee if the person is within a certain percentage of the sixth place nominee, so while it’s possible we could see seven again next year, it’s unlikely.  That already leaves us with one fewer spot to deal with and only one clear favorite to return.  Despite my rantings about Homeland in previous Emmy articles, Claire Danes is a lock.  It’s the biggest role on the show and she’s consistently given the most to do, even if her good performance is in service of crappy storylines.  Britton, Farmiga, and Washington were all somewhat surprising nominations last year and could easily stay or go.  Dockery and Moss are both great actresses on shows with fading cultural profiles.  And, while Wright will likely return, the mantle of “Prestige Netflix Series” may be shifting from House of Cards to Orange Is the New Black. 

Not only were there a lot of new actresses and surprising actresses nominated last year, there are a number of women with great performances looking to replace them.  Lizzy Caplan was amazing in Masters of Sex last fall.  Julianna Marguiles seems certain to return after a strong year for The Good Wife.  Then there are critical favorites like Tatiana Maslany and Keri Russell who might be able to score nominations after increasing cultural discussion around their strong sophomore seasons.  This category is wide open and it feels like anybody could win.

I’m going to start with the actress who probably has the least chance of scoring a nomination, Sleepy Hollow’s Nicole Beharie.  Sleepy Hollow was the surprise hit of the fall, succeeding both commercially and critically and most of that success was thanks to the wonderful relationship between Beharie’s detective Abbie Mills and Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane.  The show itself was a rather straightforward supernatural drama, but the relationship at the center held everything together.  I couldn’t find a spot for Mison in my Lead Actor piece, but Beharie has no problems earning a nomination here.

My favorite new show of 2013 was Masters of Sex and Lizzy Caplan was the best part of that show.  It’s still far too uncommon to see a career-minded, socially liberated woman on television, so to have this woman in a show set in the 1950s and 1960s is all the more strange.  Caplan seems born for this part, sliding effortlessly into the role.  She’s capable of playing the harried mother, the ambitious student, and the Siren.  This feels like the kind of role that is built to earn Emmy nominations and Caplan is more than up to the task.

I’ve been down on Downton Abbey recently, but one of the highlights of last season was Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary and her attempts to enter the world of men, overseeing and maintaining the estate in the wake of her husband’s death.  It was a slow build and she was still burdened with a potential love triangle late in the season, but Lady Mary and Dockery were at their best when allowed to think and act for themselves.  I may have a soft spot for women seeking power in a man’s world (as this list no doubt shows), but Dockery plays that part well.  Were she not burdened with all of the love stuff, which she appears bored with at this point, I’d consider this performance even more highly.

My wife made the perfect argument for Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany during an episode a few weeks ago when she remarked, “I just forget that they’re all the same person.”  That’s really what separates Maslany from the rest of the actresses here.  While Orphan Black may not have been as good of a show in its second season as it was in its first, Maslany may have been better.  It’s not just that she plays five different regular characters, but that she’s capable of distinguishing between all of them in actions and mannerisms beyond even the hair and wardrobe.  And then you have scenes like in the second season premiere where she’s playing Sarah pretending to be Cosima and you can see the subtle differences she adds to distinguish the performances.  It really is a tour de force unlike anything television has ever seen.

Just as I was amazed that Jon Hamm could go this long without an Emmy win, it’s becoming more and more likely that the same fate will befall Elisabeth Moss.  She’s been nominated five times (six if you count her miniseries nomination for Top of the Lake) and been denied every time.  The first half of Mad Men’s seventh season had many more great moments for Peggy, whether she was being despicable (and a complete ass on Valentine’s Day with her secretary’s flowers), loving (watching TV with Julio), or horrified (receiving Ginsberg’s nipple).  The truth is, no Mad Men actor has yet received an Emmy award, a fact that becomes more unbelievable every year.

My final nomination would go to Keri Russell, who put on a stellar performance in the second season of The Americans.  As with Hannibal, The Americans made a huge leap in its second year, transitioning from great drama to must watch television.  What makes the show remarkable is the way it handles its central marriage and family.  The back-and-forth of the Jennings’s relationship took a backseat in the second season as their relationship became stronger.  But that deepening relationship began to cause other problems with their work lives, culminating in the stunning and almost horrifying scene when Elizabeth asks Phillip’s alter ego Clark into bed.  I doubt many Emmy voters even know The Americans exists, but they really should.

Others meriting consideration: Claire Danes, Diane Kruger

So those are my Emmy choices.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.