Tag Archives: drama

Is "Awake" the drama NBC has been searching for?

It’s been a while since I was legitimately excited about an NBC drama – five years, to be exact (2007, the year of Journeyman and The Black Donnelleys). As can be expected from the fourth place network, the post-ER years have found NBC scrambling with half-baked concepts and lame rip-offs; even when they had a possible hit, they ended up fumbling the ball (Friday Night Lights, Southland). So imagine my surprise when NBC revealed an intriguing drama during upfronts last May. Even more surprising is that it’s a network crime drama, a genre I usually eschew.

Yes, Awake is a(nother) crime procedural, but with a captivating high-concept that doesn’t rely on gimmicky quirks. Instead, it borrows from dream-reality mindfuck Inception. Before the show starts, Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) is in a terrible car accident with his wife and son, and his life becomes a series of waking dreams: in one, his wife survives, and in the other, his son does. Despite talking with two department-mandated psychologists, he can’t tell which outcome is reality. To help, Michael uses a different color wristband to signify which of his family members is alive. To help the audience, Awake imbues each with a separate color tone, a la Traffic. As in Brotherhood, Isaacs is great as a distant yet precise operator who struggles with personal connections.

The duality ripples through Michael’s professional life, as well. In one reality, he’s still paired with his longtime partner (Steve Harris of The Practice); in the other, he’s assigned a partner/babysitter in Wilmer Valderrama‘s Efrem Vega. But the realities are not separate entities – they’re starting to bleed over. Efrem is just a beat cop in the first reality, and clues and signifiers from one case appear in the other.

In the pilot, it takes a few scenes for the viewer to keep things straight: who’s alive, which case is this, where did this clue come from, and so on. But the confusion actually helps the viewer identify with Michael’s plight, as he’s having difficultly doing the same. Here’s hoping that audiences are willing to labor through the complexity. As NBC is learning, the easy path is rarely the best.

Awake premieres on Thursday, March 1 at 10PM, but NBC is streaming the entire pilot on Youtube.

"Sons of Anarchy" gets back to basics in season four

Sons of Anarchy has ridden the combination of bikes, babes and bad-assery to become a favorite of both critics and fans. Entering its fourth season, it looks to get back to basics after a season-long arc that took the California outlaws all the way to Belfast.

It’s an approach that should do the show some good. The fourth season, despite a few impressive sequences, got bogged down in True IRA politics and a convoluted investigation headed by a corrupt sociopath. Left behind was the rich internal drama about the true path of SAMCRO.

When Sons of Anarchy began, it was best described as Hamlet on motorcycles. Jax’s personal struggle with the club’s methods, and therefore with his stepfather Clay, has always served as the show’s dramatic undercurrent. There was no higher point of tension than at the end of the first season, as Jax held both the truth of Donna’s murder and the message of his father’s manuscript in his hands. By the second season, Jax was ready to go nomad, until the truth of Gemma’s assault was revealed, uniting the club against a common enemy. Last season, his single-minded pursuit of Abel was another factor in the club’s coalescence. Now, as the gang finishes their 14-month stretch in the clink, Jax once again returns his focus to his family’s future, especially with a new baby in tow.

In the season premiere, Jax lays out his too-good-to-be-true plan during a predictable yet awkward proposal to Tara (“we should get married” isn’t quite “will you marry me?”). He’ll bide his time, save his money, and wait for Clay’s hands to finally give out, taking Tara, Abel and Thomas far away from the crime and destruction of the Sons. His prison time gave him new clarity on his father, as well. While he knows JT father was right about the club, and about how far it has strayed from its original purpose, he also sees his father as a coward: a man who ran off to Belfast rather than saving his children from the life he chose. Jax is determined not to make the same mistake, setting up an inevitable confrontation with Clay and Gemma.

As for the club, they quickly get back into gun-running in a major way, solidifying some alliances and destroying others. Charming law enforcement has a new face in Sheriff Eli Roosevelt (Rockmond Dunbar, last seen on Terriers), and there is a strange AUSA in town, Linc Potter (Ray McKinnon), who has his sights set on a major RICO case against the Sons. In a perfect bit of casting, Danny Trejo will appear as a former Mexican military commando, hopefully with shades of Machete. For fans of The Shield, David Rees Snell (formerly Strike Team member Ronnie) and Benito Martinez (formerly David Aceveda) will make appearances as well.

Sons of Anarchy is an over-the-top cocktail of testosterone and adrenaline, and that shouldn’t change this season. But the show can be true to its character without the overwrought story lines that culminated in season three. Season four looks to right the ship and get back to the “sins of fathers” theme that has served it so well in the past. Whatever is in store for SAMCRO, it promises to be one helluva ride.

Network upfronts: Drama edition

While I have a firm grasp on network comedy, I’m not as comfortable with network dramas. For the most part, I don’t watch them. In the last decade, the rise of the procedural mirrored the rise of cable dramas, whether premium (The Sopranos, Dexter) or basic (The Shield, Mad Men). I’ve devoted much more time to the latter, which the rare exception of something groundbreaking like Lost. Still, a rose is a rose is a rose. Here’s a look at the networks’ dramatic offerings this fall.

NBC: Anything you can do, I can do, too. Part 1

For the most part, the last place network is looking to break their losing streak by opting for ideas that have worked beofre. Grimm, from the non-Whedon folks behind Buffy and Angel, mines similar territory with a high concept procedural that asks “what if the Grimm fairy tales were real?” Smash looks to cash-in on the musical craze, and even features an American Idol veteran, Katharine McPhee. The Playboy Club apes Mad Men, but in attempting to be everything to everyone, it seems unfocused; the sex, lies and murder drama would probably work better on cable. In Prime Suspect, Maria Bello tries to break into the homicide detective boys-club; the series was long-running and critically acclaimed in the UK, with Helen Mirren in the lead role. The trailer shows promise, but it’s tough to get attached to a cop show these days.

The exception to my “no more cop shows” rule just may be Awake, the dream-versus-reality thriller that is drawing comparisons to Inception. Sure, there is a police procedural here, but the premise sets it apart. After surviving a car crash, Mark Britten (Brotherhood‘s Jason Isaacs) lives two separate, parallel lives: one in which his wife survived instead of his son, and vice versa. He goes to sleep in one and wakes in the other, unsure of which is the dream. The trailer is chilling; I’ll definitely be watching this one.

ABC: Anything you can do, I can do, too. Part 2

ABC’s line-up is very similar to that of NBC, opting for the familiar and proven over real innovation. In several places, ABC and NBC are using the the same ideas: ABC’s schedule includes a “fairy tales are real” show in Once Upon a Time, and gives a woman’s perspective on the Mad Men / Catch Me If You Can time period with Pan Am.

I will admit, I’m not in the target audience for most of their other offerings. RevengeThe Count of Monte Cristo in the Hamptons – is bait for O.C. and Gossip Girl fans. Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal is Private Practice in the PR world. Good Christian Bitches Belles gets an adaptation and Charlie’s Angels gets a reboot. Yawn.

The only intriguing show is ABC’s attempt to recapture the magic of Lost. In The River, a Steve Corwin type goes missing in the Amazon. His family and crew try to find him, running into some shaky cam creepiness along the way, courtesy Paranormal Activity‘s Oren Peli. Like some of this fall’s comedies, however, this premise looks better suited to film than to TV.

CBS: Procedurals until we die!

CBS only added three new dramas, and two of these are approaching new levels of unintentional parody. A Gifted Man stars Patrick Wilson as a surgeon who gets help from his dead ex-wife. Unforgettable‘s main character has hyperthymesia, and can remember literally everything that’s ever happened to her; I wonder if that will help her solve crimes!

The winner here is Person of Interest, a crime thriller (with a sci-fi twist) executive produced by Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) and J.J. Abrams (Lost). Lost‘s Michael Emerson and James Caviezel use surveillance knowledge and CIA training, respectively, to prevent crimes before they happen.

FOX: Gettin’ high (concept)

And the loser is Fox. Their line-up includes a spin-off of Bones called The Finder, about an eccentric, offensive skeptic who can find anything (House with an internal GPS?). Then there’s the time travel plus dinosaurs extravaganza Terra Nova which is getting by because it has an executive producer named Steven Spielberg. Kiefer Sutherland will return to Fox next year, but Touch, about a man with a precognitive autistic child, hasn’t filmed yet. J.J. Abrams tries to save another network’s fall line-up, but his time travel mystery Alcatraz looks a little absurd (at least it has Hurley!).

From guilty pleasure to must watch: thoughts on "Justified"

When I wrote about Justified before this season, I called it a guilty pleasure. It was another procedural-serial hybrid with a main character bigger than the institution he’s a part of (a post-Wire faux pas), albeit taking place in a unique setting. But after the culmination of the show’s second go-around in Kentucky’s Eastern District, I’m reconsidering that designation.

The second season of Justified built upon the solid foundation of the first, literally picking up right where the first left off. Raylan and Boyd became further entwined, as Raylan’s Miami cartel problems became Boyd’s: a cartel member deprived Boyd the privilege of killing his father Bo. Surprisingly, this issue was cleared up rather quickly, putting to bed a storyline that began when Raylan capped Tommy Buck in the pilot.

Raylan sorts through the paperwork and testimony that results from one of his bloodbaths, getting back to marshal business, and Boyd continues life on the straight-and-narrow. Without his flock (who were summarily killed by Bo’s crew), Boyd returns to the mines, content to live a humble existence from the comfort of Ava’s attic. Neither Raylan nor the audience is sure whether Boyd has honestly turned over a new leaf or not, the type of complexity the first season offered.

The second season’s major plot line concerned the Bennetts, a local crime family that shares a “Hatfields and McCoys” relationship with the Givens clan. Matriarch Maggs Bennett is played by Margo Martindale, a true delight who has been featured on The Riches and Dexter. Maggs was infinitely more compelling than Bo as a crime boss, her relationship with her family richer and more complicated. With her three sons, corrupt sheriff Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor), wannabe gangster Dickie (Lost‘s Jeremy Davies), and the dimwitted Coover (Brad William Henke), Maggs dominates the fictional Bennett County.

Raylan is no stranger to the Bennetts, but only becomes professionally interested when state troopers need a hillbilly whisperer to track down a sex offender deep in Bennett territory. A local hustler named McCready had anonymously called in the law. Between that and encroaching on Maggs’ weed business, McCready ends up with a bellyful of poison. This leaves his daughter Loretta (the scene-stealing Kaitlyn Dever) an orphan under the protective watch of Maggs. Meanwhile, the Bennetts work towards their big plan, which ends up being a land deal with mountaintop miner Black Pike. The whole affair feels like an Appalachian Chinatown.

Meanwhile, Boyd is dragged back over to the dark side, first as the hired protection for Black Pike and then as a full fledged outlaw. Was it inevitable? Was it premeditated? Or was it the result of the constant doubts of Raylan, et al? The evolution of Boyd’s character this season was always captivating, from his solemn shots of whiskey as a coal miner to bursts of violent anger (one involving a pickup truck left me breathless).

For his part, Raylan stays busy, attempting to mend his relationship with Winona while simultaneously being a marshal and keeping tabs on Boyd and the Bennetts. He spends the entire season in the doghouse, with Art content to play the fatherly “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed” card. The writers didn’t rely on Raylan’s quick and itchy trigger finger, and the show benefited greatly from it. The show is still violent – with more blood and a higher body count that last time – without being exploitative or redundant.

The first season introduced us to the world of Justified, and the second season got to its heart. The longstanding blood feuds and the us-versus-them mentality toward outsiders give a distinct flavor to this Kentucky drama, and meditations on “the sins of the father” give it a poignant edge. This season, Justified truly surpassed itself – and its competition.

First thoughts: "The Borgias"

After the success of The Tudors, it was only a matter of time before Showtime cracked open the history books for another sexy historical drama. Even more scandalous than the House of Tudor was the House of Borgia; the latter is the subject of Showtime’s latest offering.

The Borgias were an Italian noble family of Spanish ancestry that rose to power in the late 15th century. On their list of accused crimes: adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder. Not too shabby for a family whose patriarch gained the highest perch in all of Renaissance-era Europe: the Papacy.

The Borgias is the brainchild of Neil Jordan, the writer/director behind The Crying Game. It is a well-dressed historical drama, with lush costumes and sets befitting noble courts. Jeremy Irons brings considerable heft to a cast of (mostly unknowns) as Rodrigo Borgia/Alexander VI. It looks like François Arnaud, who plays Rodrigo’s son Cesare, will be a major focus, as he ruthlessly acts as Cardinal and consigliere for his father.

The two-hour premier of The Borgias focused on Rodrigo Borgia’s controversial transformation into Pope Alexander VI. The politics of the College of Cardinals, the Borgia clan’s complicated relationships, and Cesare Borgia’s behind-the-scenes machinations also provide grist for the program. It also features the sex and violence that have come to define premium cable dramas; in this case, it doesn’t feel forced.

However, the show is flawed by the Shakespearean reading given to the dialogue – a British accent the stand-in for Italian and Latin intonations. But if you can get beyond that, the show has promise. This period of history is particularly rich – so rich, in fact, that there is another show in development about the same figures. Tom Fontana, who created Oz, does the same for Borgia for France’s CanalPlus. Let’s hope that Fontana brings the same no-holds-barred approach to his version of the Borgia mythology. For now, The Borgias has the advantage of being the first horse out of the gate.

The Borgias airs on Showtime, Sundays at 10pm.