Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Under the Dome Review: "The Endless Thirst" - Deus ex Lacrimae

Barbie and Julia get close in "Under the Dome"

Crap finally hits the fan in this week’s episode of Under the Dome as people finally begin to realize that being stuck together in a giant dome with no access to outside food, water, or propane might cause a few problems.  Unfortunately, it all seems to be coming two or three episodes too late and the resolution to everything is a little too neat.  Ultimately, I think this episode (and the series as a whole) serves as a reminder of how difficult ongoing, serialized storytelling can be. The need to be able to tell a single story that is introduced and resolved in 42 minutes makes this a weaker show than it probably could be.

First, though, let’s talk about the fact that Dome was renewed for a second season.  It was inevitable, once the ratings came back showing that the show’s pilot was the most watched scripted summer debut in more than a decade.  There was a lot of speculation initially that CBS was planning on treating Dome as a miniseries, ending after its first season.  But over the last few weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that that was never the plan.  The producers talked about ending on a cliffhanger.  The phenomenal ratings weren’t met with immediate denials of future seasons.  This renewal was a foregone conclusion after week two. 

The renewal poses some problems for the show, as best accented in this week’s episode.  Firstly, resources are going to become scarce (as it’s also increasingly apparent that nobody has really tried to conserve at all over this first week in the dome).  Second, it’s going to be impossible to introduce new characters to the show without going the “they were here all along” route, like Lost did in its much lamented third season.  Now, these aren’t exactly world-breaking problems, but we’ve been losing secondary characters at a pretty breath-taking clip so far (five in six episodes), and the ranks of background characters could seen be depleted.  There's also the issue of needing to tell a self-contained story that fits into a larger narrative.  This episode introduces several huge, community-wide problems, shows the citizens rioting over said problems, temporarily fixes one problem, and makes it seem like everything is perfectly okay now.  Everything shouldn't be okay.  There are still several huge issues that remain unresolved.  But the need to wrap everything neatly in 42 minutes gives us a finish that will either be extremely false (in a world where the problems continue) or extremely ill-conceived (it it magically fixes everything).

That aside, let’s dig in to this week’s episode.  There were a lot of intriguing developments this week, even if they all should have been covered by now.  Prior to the bombing, apparently nobody gave even the slightest thought to the idea that they may be under the dome for more than a few days.  People are out of propane, food is getting scarce and, thanks to the timely arrival of a furniture delivery truck, the water tower gets destroyed as well.  Who, precisely, is getting furniture delivered in Chester’s Mill right now?  I have to think there were twenty better ways to take out the water tower than a careening furniture delivery truck.  Anyway, with resources scarce, we finally get the insanity that we probably should have seen on day three or four as riots start at the town grocery store, which still has food for some reason.  I don’t mean to say that any of these plot points are bad, they’re just so long overdue that it seems weird to be having them now.  In the end, it rains in Chester’s Mill and everybody takes that as a sign that everything’s going to be just peachy, despite the fact that they’re still short on food and propane.  Everything’s wrapped up so nicely, when it seems like the panic over resources should be a huge, ongoing problem.  Hopefully, this is only a temporary lull in the drama, and we’ll be back to crazy panic next week.

In other news, Rose, the diner lady is dead, killed at the hands of a couple of teenagers looking to raid her kitchen.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense (in terms of timing), because it sure seems like people have been eating at the diner pretty much every day.  I have a hard time believing she’d have much, if any, food left by this point.  Again, I just keep coming back to the idea that all of this would have made a hell of a lot more sense if it had happened on, say, day three or four instead of day six or seven.  One woman even mentions running out of propane.  How on earth could she have used any reasonable amount of propane when any intelligent person would be using it for emergencies only?

Hopefully, getting a lot of this basic stuff out the way will let the story move forward in more interesting, more crazy ways.  The level of panic seen in most of this episode was fun, even if it seemed to be largely diffused by the end of the episode.  I still think there’s promise here, even if it hasn’t been fulfilled yet.  Under the Dome may never be a great show, but it can be a decent show, and if it’s going to get at least 20 more episodes, I’d at least like “decent.”

A couple of spare thoughts –

Even Joe and Nori go a little evil this week, raiding houses looking for insulin.  Far more intriguing, however, is the fact that they are causing interference with all the communications equipment in town, interference that ends when they touch the dome together.  I was kind of hoping for less mysticism about the dome, but it’s here and it could be far worse so far.

Barbie damn near kills a couple of dudes.  It was fun to see him get violent, but I’ve never gotten the impression that he was randomly violent like this.  He’s supposed to be an enforcer, somebody for whom violence is a profession, not a passion.  To see him just go off on a couple of guys felt out of character.

Angie, Junior, and Big Jim come to a détente, with Angie agreeing to forget the whole kidnapping thing in exchange for Big Jim’s protection for her and Joe.  I just don’t even know what to do with this whole story.  Ugh.

Linda and Barbie are apparently of like minds because, much like Barbie’s tactic for putting out a house fire is to toss buckets of water into an open doorway, Sheriff Linda’s tactic for stopping a riot is to drop two tear gas canisters into an open street.  Needless to say, it doesn’t work.

And Barbie and Julia hook up because of course they do.

So, thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Newsroom Review: "Willie Pete" - Jim is Spartacus

Jeff Daniels preaches to the choir in "The Newsroom"

Another week and yet more evidence that The Newsroom is slowly finding its way around to becoming a halfway decent show.  Unfortunately, the characters are all working in different circles and on different projects right now so the latest episode felt a bit scatter-brained.  It probably would have been better if it was twenty minutes shorter and dropped the C, D, and E plots.  Still, it’s an improvement over last year if not an improvement overall.

Back again to drive the A-plot is gossip columnist Nina Howard with the scoop that Will didn’t actually have the flu during the 9/11 broadcast.  While the conclusion to this storyline is pretty anticlimactic (Nina agrees to bury the story after Will tells her the truth), we do get the always pleasurable “Will acting like a maniac” scenes as he runs around ACN, threatening to do terrible, terrible things to the person who leaked the story.  It’s a look we’ve seen on Will before, but Jeff Daniels plays frantic and angry so well that it’s fun to just sit back and watch, especially when Will isn’t even the focus of the scene, we just see him running around the bullpen in the background, yelling at people.  Ultimately, Reese Lansing is discovered as the leak, which serves only to allow Sorkin to make another “old people don’t get technology” joke as Charlie’s recording of Reese’s confession (regarding the phone-tapping) has been erased.  This seems like it should matter, but Reese had already made it clear that he has no intention of letting Charlie and Will hold anything over him.  I’ve been somewhat surprised by Chris Messina’s presence this season, given his regular role on The Mindy Project, but it is nice to have a consistent, competent adversary for Will, even if he is stereotypically evil.

There are a couple of stories jockeying for B-plot position, but the far more interesting of the two is Mackenzie and Jerry trying to track down leads in the Genoa investigation.  Again, this show is always at its best when it is showing journalists gathering and producing the news and, in this case, we get Jerry and Mackenzie interviewing “Eric Sweeney,” who confirms not only that the military used sarin gas in the operation, but that they also used white phosphorous rounds during the extraction.  This leads the team to try to track down any civilians who might have seen the incursion.  For some reason, this involves Twitter, an Urdu translator, and a fax machine (a Carnac the Magnificent setup if I’ve ever heard one).  And if you think waiting for translated Tweets to come through a fax machine should look boring, well you’re right, but Sorkin and phenomenal director Lesli Linka Glatter make it work.  The result is a series of Tweets outlining the real time use of white phosphorous (the eponymous “Willie Pete”).  We know this story is going to blow up in their faces sometime soon (and I’m glad we do, otherwise this plot would be incredibly confusing), but I’m stumped as to how that’s going to happen.  Jerry and Mackenzie seem to be covering all their bases and, if this story does turn out to be wrong, that means somebody has gone to a lot of trouble setting up a very elaborate ruse.

In other, less important news, Jim is still on the campaign trail, trying to Spartacus the other campaign reporters into writing “the real news.”  He succeeds only in getting himself and a couple followers tossed off the bus in rural New Hampshire.  Well done, Jim.  I really don’t get the point of this story.  It’s not like anybody really believes that the news coming from the campaign trail is that important.  It feels like Sorkin just preaching to the choir again.

And speaking of preaching to the choir, or perhaps just spiking the football, Will’s weekly rant is on the booing of a gay American serviceman during a Republican debate.  Again, it’s not like he’s wrong, but the whole bit feels like Sorkin just beating a dead horse.  I get that he wants to make a point of how terrible Republicans can be when they’re trying to appeal to the religious conservative base, but I don’t think this is as strong of an argument as he thinks it is.

So this week’s episode wasn’t as good as the previous two, and it exhibited a fair amount of narrative confusion.  But I still feel as though The Newsroom is moving away from the more troublesome aspects of the show while accenting what it does well.  If we can just get everybody back together and eliminate some of the extraneous plot threads, I think we’ll really have something here.

A couple of stray thoughts:

The OWS story is still a bore as Sorkin feels content to spend ten minutes telling us what they’re doing wrong rather than actually showing us what’s going wrong.  I feel like there’s a common storytelling cliché in there, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Lots of good physical comedy this week as Don falls off his broken chair…twice and Maggie completely loses it after discovering the potential side effects of her malaria medication.  The latter bit would have been dreadful were it not for Allison Pill’s exceptional comedic chops.  In fact, Pill’s performance was the only thing keeping the scene from winning our award for Most Ridiculous Female Stereotype of the Week, which instead goes to…

Mackenzie’s $1400 shoes.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Under the Dome Review: "Blue on Blue" - The Need for Fear

Barbie and Julia commiserate on "Under the Dome"
I think I’ve figured out my fundamental problem with Under the Dome: There are no threats.  With the exception of Angie and the meningitis outbreak last week, nobody is ever in any real danger on this show.  Sure, people keep randomly dying (the Reverend this week murdered by Big Jim), but random killing isn’t enough to create a proper sense of dread.  You need it to feel like people are in danger, so that when a death happens, it feels necessary or logical, rather than random and out of place.  This week’s episode finally gave us a threat, even if it was a threat from outside the dome.  The threat is affecting, even if we know it’s never going to work.  And, more importantly, the threat hits our characters, making them believe that they’re in danger, which is perhaps the most important piece of all.

The biggest problem here is that we don’t really know the motivations of any of our characters.  For example, why does Big Jim kill the Reverend?  Sure, he’s annoying, probably crazy, and possibly a threat to the town, but we haven’t really been given any indication that Big Jim actually cares about Chester’s Mill and the threat the Reverend poses to the town is existential more than physical.  We know that Big Jim and the Reverend are involved in something with the propane (yeah, remember the propane?) but it’s been so long since we dealt with that plot point (and we still know so little about it) that it doesn’t really play any part in this storyline.  Random deaths aren’t enough to keep the horror momentum going, you need a sense that everybody has a reason why they could die at any time.  And Dome just hasn’t given us any of those reasons.  So what we’re left with is a show where nothing happens, nothing bad seems like it’s ever going to happen, and any deaths we do get are only there for shock value. 

And that brings us to tonight’s episode, where we do finally get a threat to the town and the people.  We get a brief glimpse outside the dome and, more importantly, our characters finally decide to talk to people outside the dome, and we get two key pieces of information.  First, the American government had nothing to do with the dome.  Second, their plan for dealing with the dome is to blow it up.  Now, there’s not much for the audience to fear here.  It would make for an awfully short show to destroy the town at this point.  But, as I said, the most important part is that the characters feel the threat, and they certainly do, as most everybody evacuates to the cement factory’s tunnels.  This outside threat gives us some of the series best scenes thus far as we get a few tearful reunions between family members and the people of Chester’s Mill make their peace with each other.  The final montage is a little manipulative, but it succeeded at making me care about these people more than I have since the pilot.  And Joe & Norrie kiss in front of a giant explosion, which is both obvious and cheesy, but sweet all the same.  Ultimately, the bomb does nothing but scorch the earth around the dome (which will cause some hell on the CGI budget for the rest of the season) and will have to make the people of Chester’s Mill feel like it’s them against the world now.

In other news, this episode gets a passing grade if only because it gets Angie out of the shelter, with Big Jim releasing her only when he realizes everybody is going to die anyway.  She still ends up as Junior’s hostage (in her own home this time) but it appears that she’s out for good and at least something different is going to happen now.  It took about three episodes too long to happen, but it’s better than the status quo. 

“Blue on Blue” was a better episode of television than what we’ve seen from the previous three.  It’s still not great and I’m not in any way convinced that they’ve figured out what’s actually wrong with the show, but I at least want to watch and write about the show again, which is more than I could have said the last few weeks.

A Couple of Stray Thoughts –

The Dome seems to be having some kind of magnetic effect as monarch butterflies are flocking to it.  Of course, all those butterflies (save one) end up getting blown up.  I’ve been happy thus far that the dome isn’t really playing a huge role in the story, but it’s nice to learn little tidbits like this every once in a while.

I’m not entirely sure why Sheriff Linda felt the need to set up police tape at the family meeting place.  These people have been under the dome for five or six days at this point.  Surely they’ve realized by now that the dome messes with electronics?  It also doesn’t help when she immediately runs past that tape to see her fiancé. 

Of all of the family meetings we could have seen, Norrie’s first meeting with her biological father was not high on my list.  At least we got to see Peter’s Dear John letter to Julia.  If nothing else, it will speed up their inevitable hookup.

I normally don’t have a problem with product integration (I watch Bones for God’s sake), but this was a pretty terrible example of it.  It’s the nature of the television beast now, but they could at least put some thought into it, because this was bad.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Newsroom: "The Genoa Tip" - Baby Steps

The Cast of "The Newsroom"

There is a really good show here somewhere.  Somewhere past the romantic storylines and the soapbox speeches is a show about news producers putting on a great news broadcast.  Unfortunately, writer Aaron Sorkin hasn’t quite found that program yet, and in its second week, The Newsroom continues to make baby steps of progress while remaining largely the same.

We’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first.  The vortex that is this show’s love pentagon is starting to drag more characters down.  This week, Lisa discovers the YouTube video of Maggie screaming at the bus just as Maggie is set to move back in to their apartment.  This obviously doesn’t sit well with Lisa who alters their deal to reflect their new relationship status as landlord and tenant.  Sloane also gets dragged into things as Maggie tries to track down the woman who posted the YouTube video to get it taken down.  Thankfully, Jim and Don are kind of kept out of things this week, but seeing Sloane desperate to determine the current state of Maggie and Don’s relationship is just sad.  I’m kind of hoping Maggie goes to Africa sooner rather than later, if only so we can get a change in the status quo.

Also troublesome this week is the setup for the A-story of Troy Davis’s execution.  Apparently Don has been covering this story for nine years despite not telling anybody including, apparently, Will who, let’s not forget, has been Don’s boss for much of those nine years.  It just doesn’t make sense that these two would need to have a ten-minute conversation about Davis given that Don was Will’s producer for several years before The Newsroom began, but that was probably just selective amnesia on Sorkin’s part.

It’s unfortunate that Sorkin keeps fumbling the setup for his plotlines because the execution is much improved.  Like last week’s discussion on drone strikes, this is a very nuanced take on the Troy Davis case.  Don, as the one personally invested, obviously thinks Davis should receive a stay or clemency.  Will, the former prosecutor, finally shows some Republican leanings as the rule-of-law type who thinks that justice has properly been carried out.  It really is an interesting discussion that plays more like Sorkin trying to work out his own feelings about the case rather than him having already made up his mind and just lecturing the viewers with what he thinks they should believe.  Again, we’re talking baby steps here, but it makes the political issues far more enjoyable than they were last season.

There were a lot of stray plot threads running throughout this episode, so I’ll just run through my quick thoughts on them individually.

·         On the “Genoa” front, Jerry tracks down an ex-military source who not only knows about the sarin attack but claims to have been on the mission.  I like where this story is going, I only wish that it wasn’t the new guy pushing it.  He does seem to have dragged Mackenzie in, though, so maybe she’ll take the lead at some point.

·         Lisa tearing down Maggie (and breaking down the reasons why Maggie and Don go Jim to ask Lisa out) was a pretty fantastic scene.  I have a feeling, however, that these two characters, despite being roommates and friends, would massively fail the Bechdel Test right now.
·         Maggie is getting closer to heading off to Africa (we saw her having just returned during the premiere’s opening scene).  Apparently the reason she wants to go is so that she can be the staff expert on something, rightly recognizing that she doesn’t really have anything that makes her indispensible right now.  I can’t really tell if that’s a good reason or a bad reason, but at least it’s better than “to get away from relationship problems.”

·         We get an extended look at Will’s 9/11 coverage, which was apparently his first time at the anchor desk.  While I was affecting enough, I don’t know that it properly conveyed the idea that Will would become a beloved news anchor because of it.

·        There’s more Occupy Wall Street stuff.  Neal gets arrested.  That’s everything worth talking about.

·         And because it wouldn’t be an episode of The Newsroom without a demeaning stereotype towards women, Sloan Sabbath is obsessed with Elliot’s new closet.  At least it's a consistent, demeaning stereotype.

So, thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or fire away on Twitter @TyTalksTV.