In a TV landscape saturated with reality shows, it’s always nice to stumble upon a great new scripted show to add to one’s scedule of regular viewing. Fortunately, this autumn’s television season is well under way, and it has brought with it three great new shows with fascinating characters and excellent, engaging writing, which is always a key aspect of a series in which I look for quality. So let’s take a look!
Up All Night
This new NBC sitcom exudes the greatness out of each of its core characters. Chris (Will Arnett, in his best turn since Arrested Development) and Reagan Brinkley (Christina Applegate) balance the delicate daily life that is a marriage faced with early years of child rearing. Their adorable baby, Amy, as any new parent will tell you, is as much a handful as she is the cutest child on earth, and she puts a real kink in this fun loving couple’s routine.
What is so fantastic about the show is that in its reversal of the norm (i.e. Reagan brings home the bacon, working as executive producer for the show’s hilarious Oprah-esque tertiary protagonist, Ava, played brilliantly by the multi-talented Maya Rudolph; meanwhile, Chris is a stay-at-home dad), it does not immediately typecast Reagan as a bitchy, uptight career woman, and Chris as a wimpy, whipped man. They are a real, modern couple, and this is the real life situation that works for them. It’s as simple as that.
The chemistry they have together as an onscreen married couple leaves viewers in no way doubting that they’ve been married for years. And added to that chemistry, is the delightful Ava, who seasoned Saturday Night Live veteran Rudolph brings such life and humor to, that it’s almost as though you are in the room, watching her face contort into funny expressions and her mood swing up and down in character. You just know that these three have many laughs on and off set, in between takes.
The script has a certain ebb and flow greatness to it. Whether it’s bringing a fresh take on a tired story (as in a flashback episode of before baby Amy was born: an expectant couple watching someone else’s birthing video, a scene which could be seen as overdone in movies/TV, but still again made funny here by lines like, “It’s like hair coming out of hair!”). Or, later in that episode, when rushing Chris and an in-labor Reagan to the hospital, Ava, perhaps the most lovable self-centered character ever, shouts to one of her assistants: “Barry, MOVE! It’s not about you right now!” And later still, where the heart of the show lies, is in moments like the chaos of the birth slowed down for a sincere line delivery of husband to wife, after his seeing the delivery, she asks: “What is it? Is it bad? Is it gross? Am I gross?” To which he responds: “No. You’re the most beautiful thing in the whole world, and I love you so much.” “I love you too.” This slow, heartfelt moment packs even more of a punch in an otherwise fast-paced, witty sitcom.
The jokes are rapid and plentyful, and the characters (and the acting of their real counteparts) sincere, which makes for a successful show. Even the supporting cast like Reagan’s assistant Missy (Jennifer Hall), and Ava’s goofy limo driver (Nick Cannon) deliver laughs in their brief onscreen moments. I truly hope more people tune in each week, because shows like this one need to be renewed year after year! 4.5 out of 5 stars
American Horror Story
Created by Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck), FX’s new hit, AHS is shocking in more ways than one. It’s not what you would expect, and it’s far scarier than you might imagine. Aspects that could come across as hokey or not believable, like a ghostly haunted house or a mysteriously creepy teenage mental patient (is he dead? alive?) that falls in love with the protagonist’s daughter, are presented in often such realistic tones, that through brilliant lighting and quality cinematography, viewers any less than completely cynical can’t help but be drawn into AHS‘s spooky lore.
The show centers around Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton, who makes a complete transformation from Friday Night Lights’s magnificent Tami Taylor; Britton is an actress who truly has it all–acting ability, sex appeal, and a real sense of self that shines through her every performance; she is one whose guile and soul has thankfully not been lost in or on Hollywood).
Vivien caught her husband, Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) cheating on her, and in attempt to re-unify the family, made up of themselves and their depressed and confused teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), the Harmons decide to move across the country from Boston to Los Angeles, into an old manor house, the last stop on a Murder House Tour that passes regularly, the highlight of the tour for all the deaths that have occured on the property.
In their new surroundings, the Harmons find anything but a happy ending to their internal strife. External factors only add fuel to the flames, be they an elderly neighbor (played seemingly sinisterly here by the ever beautiful Jessica Lange) who keeps stopping by, often unwanted; or the housekeeper whom Ben sees as a young, sexy, maid (rendered almost over-the-top by Alexandra Breckenridge), where Vivien sees as an elderly domestic, (depicted here by Frances Conroy, in a role she can hopefully sink her acting chops into–as she so heartbreakingly did as matriarch Ruth Fisher in Six Feet Under–with one eye foggy, adding further intrigue to the already enigmatic two-personed nature of her character).
Most episodes of AHS so far have been beginning with some flashback to a previous era of the house’s existence, be that the one of the first owner Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross, who seems destined to play vile and creepy men like his previous role as Alby Grant, on Big Love) and his wife (Lily Rabe), whose lives ended in murder and suicide; or that of the owners just previous to the Harmons, a gay couple, Patrick and Chad (played respectively by Teddy Sears and recently out in real life, Zachary Quinto), whose all too soon ending was brought to them both in the old haunted house as well, and others in between.
Each new episode brings further intrique, and leaves viewers as wanting, nay needing to know more about the house, its owners past and present, and anything and everything else there is to find out surrounding the details of this story and its many mysteries. For all its originality and mystique, where the show falls slightly short is on particular moments in the script. Writing wise, it is predominantly strong, as the story is without a doubt the scariest and among the most original on TV (usually stories such as this are better left to movies and books). But every so often there will be lines that fall a little flat, where similar lines elsewhere pack the desired punch.
For example, where the script delights in its tragic, strong delivery by Britton is moments like in an argument between her character, Vivien and Ben:
Ben: “You know, I can show you statistics in how many men cheat after a miscarriage. I was there for you, Viv, I was patient, and understanding, and caring, and I put YOUR feelings first!”
Vivien: “MY. HERO.”
The pain and felt emotion of those two words is powerful. But similarly built up moments like the interaction in a recent episode of Vivien and Violet don’t quite excel in their purpose, and the come across as a little too convenient in demonstrating a cross example of what was going on in Violet’s own person life, rather than really being what a truly caring mother (who Vivien has been heretofore set up as being) would actually say:
Vivien: [explaining the separation to her daughter] “…your dad and I really loved each other.”
Violet: “How’d you know you loved him when you first met?”
Vivien: “Well, he was… he was handsome and kind, but I don’t know the thing is when you fall in love, it’s kind of like you go crazy, and before you know it the whole world looks different, and then you’ll do anything for the other person, why do you ask?
Violet: “No reason.”
Then, instead of really inquiring what’s going on in her daughter’s life (or perhaps asking what this conversation may have to do with the recent increase in cut’s along her daughter’s arms), the subject is changed, and there’s no explanation for it, or further inquiry. Script cheats like this may be good for setting up parallels or moving the story along, but as far as believably building the characters, moments like this take away from the show’s overall consistency.
But the show is a thrilling ride, and if you like scary stuff (or even if you don’t, as I generally tend not to), AHS may have something for you anyhow, because its spine-tingling mystique can’t help but leave you wanting to know more. 3.5 out of 5 stars
In an effort, it may seem, to eradicate the disgusting image of the deplorable Billy Chenowith he played in Six Feet Under, Jeremy Sisto takes a turn at the loving, suburban single dad in ABC’s new show, Suburgatory. The show places George (Sisto) and his teenage daughter Tessa Altman (played by a wonderfully sassy, redheaded Jane Levy) in their comfortable, if oft unrealistic suburban setting of the outside of New York City, though its parameters are set to fit into the psyches of those associated with suburbs anywhere in America.
Most of the characters fit into plastic molds or archetypes: the shallow, “hot moms,” the flamboyant school staff member, the bitchy mean girl who rules the school, the nerd best friend, (cerca Leelee Sobieski’s Aldys in Never Been Kissed), who hates/loves the main character. However for all its placation into stereotype, the show manages to eek out moments that display the realities of many, many people’s life experience in high school, at home, with friends and frienemies.
These moments of realness mostly come from the show’s protagonist, Tessa, who, for all her faults, is basically trying to go through life with a moderate scale of normalcy, but of course, encounters “dead” spirits, unrealistically catty neighbors’ daughters (and their mothers who hit on her father), and the token black friend whom the show seems to place there simply to fulfill a racial demographic need, rather than an actually fleshed out character, with personality and feelings, needs, and wants. When will TV solely create diversity on screen that doesn’t feel forced and “demographic filling”? Thankfully, superior shows like Six Feet Under, Grey’s Anatomy, and Modern Family have done this quite well.
But at least Suburgatory is trying, and the writers certainly don’t altogether fail, both in this aspect, and in the show’s humor. Levy depicts the city-girl-lost-outside-the-city type with honest style, humor, and irony. Just hopefully, they’ll get beyond the stereotypical outlines of other characters, and display the real comedy to be found in the wants and wont of so many real life suburbanites. 3 out of 5 stars