TV CORNER – “TRIAL & ERROR” ON NBC NETWORK
John Lithgow, an actor of wide-ranging talent in television and movies and on the stage, is a known quantity who can be a draw for the new comedy series “Trial & Error” on the NBC network. Playing an eccentric character is not a stretch for a man of Lithgow’s aptitude, and thus his new role of daffy poetry professor Larry Henderson in a small South Carolina town is an easy fit.
As the show’s title may inform, Larry’s predicament is that he’s been accused of murdering his beloved wife, and his family decides to hire what they euphemistically refer to as a “Northeastern lawyer” for defense counsel. Arriving on the scene in this tiny Southern town is not exactly the high-powered attorney the family expected. Instead, the arrival of bright-eyed but untested New York associate Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosta) sets the stage for fish-out-water comedy. Spoofing any number of crime shows littering the television landscape, “Trial & Error” is filmed in the spirit of a true crime documentary, where we are exposed to the inner workings of the defense team going up against a youthful, but determined prosecutor. Joining Josh on the defense team is the bumbling lead investigator Dwayne (Stephen Boyer) and office manager Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd), who suffers from “facial blindness,” a disability that keeps her from recognizing anyone she already knows. Settling into his makeshift office behind a taxidermy shop with his quirky team of local misfits, Josh suspects that winning his first big case will be made difficult for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being how his client always makes himself look guilty.
During the winter TV press tour, Lithgow summed up the essence of his strange character in a way that makes complete sense. He referred to Larry as “completely unedited” and having “no sense of priority or proportion.” Larry is so out-of-touch that during his 911 emergency call upon discovering his wife’s bloody corpse in their home he interrupts the operator to connect with the cable guy to arrange a long-awaited service appointment. Whether the essential joke of “Trial & Error” can hold up for a series run may depend on John Lithgow’s ability to sustain the comedy, a mission for which he is certainly capable.
TV CORNER – “FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN” ON FX NETWORK
A glimpse into the waning days of Old Hollywood, where female movie stars exuded real glamour even if they had no power to exert control of their professional destinies, seems about right as the backdrop for the FX Network’s anthology series “Feud: Bette and Joan.”In the early 1960s, a ruthless studio head like Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) could rule Warner Brothers with an iron-fist, giving the green light to movie productions without consulting a slew of executives.
When approached by second-rate director Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina) for a project teaming up bitter rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, at a time the two actresses had long passed their sell-by dates, Warner was rudely profane in his initial reaction to the pitch. The thing to keep in mind about the aptly named “Feud” is that Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) absolutely detested each other and any definition of “cat fight” should include a picture of them at each other’s throats.
What would bring two enemies together was the shared realization that Hollywood, then and even now, subjected aging female stars to enduring a measure of ageism, sexism and misogyny during the twilight of their careers. As “Feud: Bette and Joan” opens circa 1962, Crawford, having lost her beloved husband Albert Steele, the chairman of Pepsi-Cola, was coping with financial troubles amidst the inability to secure any film roles. Unable to convince various studio titans to give her a chance, Crawford found a film vehicle in the novel “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and pitched it to Bob Aldrich for a comeback attempt.
Putting aside petty grievances, Crawford suggests to Davis, then relegated to stage productions, that “Baby Jane,” a gothic horror story of two aging, reclusive sisters, would put them both back in the limelight. For her part, Davis believes that while Crawford may have the looks she has talent that her inferior rival would never have. The pairing of the two became either a union of convenience or the setup for a raging battle of snide remarks and furious gossip. Here, it looks like both. The best thing going for “Feud” is the excellent casting of not just the leading ladies but the supporting members, from Judy Davis’ turn as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to Jackie Hoffman’s loyal if put-upon housekeeper for the temperamental Crawford. At one point, Crawford says about her adversary: “I will have her respect even if I have to kill both of us to get it.” As fate would have it, “Baby Jane” turned into a huge commercial success for which Davis would win the Academy Award.
TV CORNER – “TAKEN” ON NBC NETWORK
Fans of the Liam Neeson high-voltage “Taken” action movie franchise may be surprised that the new NBC series of the same name is considered to be an origin story of how CIA operative Bryan Mills came to possess a particular set of skills. The amazing revelation is that the series “Taken” just might be operating in an alternate universe because the NBC website notes that in 30 years the TV character Bryan Mills is “destined to become the Bryan Mills that we’ve come to love from the ‘Taken’ films.” The problem with this scenario is that the TV version of Bryan Mills (capably portrayed by Clive Standen, who is considerably younger than Neeson) is dealing with contemporary issues of terrorism and fighting drug cartels and assorted bad guys.
In seeking to be topical, the “Taken” TV series must, by necessity, remain rooted in the present-day to grapple with existing geopolitical conditions. And since the Liam Neeson character has not been catapulted into the future, we just have to overlook the anomaly. Nevertheless, the intent with “Taken” the series is to come up with an edge-of-your-seat thriller that shows how former Green Beret Bryan Mills, already well-trained by the military, finds himself pulled into a career as a deadly, secret government operative. The first episode establishes a personal tragedy for Bryan during a train trip, one for which he feels personally responsible given a previous deadly military mission resulted in a Colombian drug lord seeking vengeance that caused collateral damage.
Drawn back into covert action by Christina Hart (Jennifer Beals), the special deputy director of National Intelligence, Bryan joins a clandestine group with autonomy that seemingly only reports to the president. The operatives within this deep undercover organization are the usual hard-edged soldiers with special skills of their own, whether tracking suspects with high-tech equipment or supplying the muscle to extract victims of kidnapping plots. Kidnapping, just like in the “Taken” film, is a major plot point in the episodes, and it does not always involve only Middle Eastern terrorists. One episode is devoted to corporate thugs holding a girl hostage to retrieve incriminating evidence from a whistleblower. In any case, while the TV landscape is ripe with action series, “Taken” could be a worthwhile investment for a few episodes because Jennifer Beals and Clive Standen bring nuance to their characters, and the action scenes have a purpose beyond mere gunfights and explosions.
TV CORNER – “TRAINING DAY” ON CBS NETWORK
The CBS network effort to reboot the Denzel Washington film “Training Day” into a weekly series turns on a Los Angeles cop so unhinged and abrasive that Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle from “The French Connection” looks like a crossing guard in comparison. In the series version, the concept of Denzel’s training officer for a rookie cop has the paradigm turned on its head, with white actor Bill Paxton as the police officer in charge of coaching a young African-American rookie in off-the-books policing methods. Paxton’s veteran LAPD detective Frank Rourke could be charitably described as morally ambiguous and yet strangely competent in his pursuit of the city’s most dangerous criminals in his role of heading up the Special Investigation Section.
Yet, LAPD brass has taken notice of Rourke’s penchant for operating in a gray area to fight the war on crime and assigns heroic, untarnished young cop Kyle Craig (Justin Cornwell) to pose as a trainee to spy on the veteran’s unorthodox techniques. One suspects that Frank would pursue his usual modus operandi even if he knew of Kyle’s undercover role. The twist to their relationship is that Kyle’s murdered father was an LAPD officer who had been a faithful partner with Frank in the same elite squad.During the recent gathering of the nation’s TV critics, Bill Paxton spoke of his character’s affinity for the Western ethic, noting that he’s a “throwback” and a “gunfighter” who’s “almost been pulled out of a time capsule and put in modern times.”
A little more psychoanalysis from Paxton observed that Detective Rourke operates from an “old kind of gunslinger code of honor. He’s tough, but he’s fair.” This point might be arguable when he fire bombs a drug dealer’s house to flush out the criminals. As a police procedural, “Training Day” is a bit formulaic and probably not as good as the rogue cop drama that was “The Shield.” However, Frank is such a conflicted, compromised character that his influence is not only corrupting but mesmerizing. Even Frank’s personal life is hardly ideal. His girlfriend, Holly Butler (Julie Benz), is a well-connected, unapologetic Hollywood madam who happens to provide valuable intelligence. Apparently, Frank never worked with Jack Webb’s upright Detective Joe Friday, and it shows. All in all, Bill Paxton is probably the best reason, if you must have one, to give “Training Day” a try for a few episodes even though the series seems unlikely to stir memories that parallel the original source material.
TV CORNER – “MAC GYVER” ON CBS NETWORK The winter brings a new crop of mid-season television series which will soon hit the radar of this column as long as previews of the same come to our attention. It’s no easy task trying to keep up with the wide range of choices on network and cable. In fact, it’s a fool’s errand to even try to be up to speed on everything. Meanwhile, given the public appetite for remakes and reunions, let’s take a look at one of the year’s boldest, or perhaps foolhardy, attempts to revive a vintage series with a fresh coat of reinvention. Well, I have no idea what Richard Dean Anderson is doing these days, but I do wonder what he might think of the CBS Network restoring his knack for using paper clips and chewing gum to fashion spy gadgetry to get out of a jam. Indeed, I am talking about “MacGyver,” which now stars Lucas Till as Angus “Mac” MacGyver, a tousle-haired whiz kid with special skills as a government operative working out of a secretive organization run by Patricia Thornton (Sandrine Holt). But Till’s MacGyver is not quite the lone wolf of his predecessor, though it appears that he could do quite well on his very own armed only with a Swiss Army knife and a satchel full of ordinary office supplies. Now he’s got some muscle behind him with the macho Jack Dalton (George Eads), a former CIA agent familiar with packing some heat. Tough in her own right is Riley Davis (Tristin Mays), an expert hacker fresh out of prison to back up the MacGyver crew. In late breaking news, it can now be revealed that Sandrine Holt is out of the show, replaced by Meredith Eaton as Matty Webber, the new head of the Phoenix Foundation. It remains to be seen if a major cast change in midstream will be a boon or a bust for a show that’s biggest selling point might be as the lead-in to “Hawaii Five-O.”
TV CORNER – “SNEAKY PETE” ON AMAZON Old habits die hard, but I am still clinging to the rapidly outmoded model of watching television shows on cable as well as, gasp, networks. Yet, viewing habits of many are adjusting to the relatively new world of streaming programs that fit your schedule. Amazon, which sells everything from auto parts to patio furniture, is in the business of streaming their own original television programs. “Sneaky Pete” is just their newest thing to alight on the Internet or mobile device of your choosing. With a production pedigree that could easily land the series on practically any network or premium cable outlet, “Sneaky Pete,” created by multi-talented Bryan Cranston among others, is a solid crime drama starring Giovanni Ribisi as the titular character. As explored in flashbacks, Ribisi’s Marius is a petty con artist who’s often out of his league as he attempts dangerous confidence games with the kind of people that would kill their own mothers to get ahead.
About to be released from prison, Marius learns from his inept brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) that a mobster named Vince (Bryan Cranston) holds Marius responsible for a $100,000 debt that must be repaid, otherwise Eddie could start losing some fingers to a bolt-cutter. Marius swipes the identity of a cellmate named Pete, a talkative sort who recounts an idyllic life in rural Connecticut with his grandparents. Sliding into the life of his fellow prisoner, the fake Pete heads to the country for a new life away from the pitfalls of New York City. Currying favor with the grandparents Otto (Peter Gerety) and Audrey (Margo Martindale), the fake Pete figures that his absence for 20 years makes it possible to adapt to new surroundings with what he learned from the real Pete.
It turns out that the family business is in bail bonds, the sort of dubious enterprise where clients on the run might actually be well-connected mobsters or dangerous petty criminals that could easily put the fake Pete into a compromising position. “Sneaky Pete” involves a delicate balancing act for the fake Pete to juggle the demands of his new family and to keep in contact with his parole officer back in the big city while also trying to stay a few steps ahead of the unforgiving Vince and his deadly goons. The series is replete with interesting characters on the fringes of the law. Giovanni Ribisi does a great job in moving back and forth in his identities of Marius and fake Pete. Though his scenes may be brief, Bryan Cranston shines as the volatile, perilous gangster fervently anxious to exact retribution. “Sneaky Pete” may hold up well for its 10-episode run.
TV CORNER – “THE REAL MAD MEN” ON SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL
The Smithsonian Channel, much like its namesake national museum, focuses its attention on science, nature and pop culture for some truly interesting television programming. “The Real Mad Men of Advertising” is a four-part documentary series that taps into the zeitgeist of Matthew Weiner’s popular and long-running AMC series about the free-wheeling advertising executives on Madison Avenue during the turbulent and evolving Sixties. Narrated by John Slattery, who played Roger Sterling on “Mad Men,” this Smithsonian Channel documentary begins with the advertising world’s prominent role in the post-World War II economic boom fueled by pent-up consumerism. The first episode focuses on the 1950s where the consumer culture was propelled to avoid another depression. It was also a simpler time when ad agencies produced shows like Texaco Star Theater and the Colgate Comedy Hour. Clips of television ads and print advertisements reflect the spirit of the times. Even the kitchen debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev highlighted the allure of modern consumer products.
The second episode that focuses on the 1960s is even more compelling in that the advertising world was popularized by the fictional “Mad Men” series, but kernels of truth emerged from the creativity of that series.“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner recounts that advertising executives were “rock stars” of their time, and that the hard-drinking and womanizing ad men, charismatic and glib on their feet, were a reflection of the culture.One of the more interesting interview subjects is Jane Maas, former creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, who talks about being a second-class citizen because of her gender but managed to survive the male-centric culture. “The Real Mad Men of Advertising” recalls the famous “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen created by Doyle Dane Bernbach, producing the then-revolutionary and inspired concept of using humor to sell products. The series explores some of the creative efforts to mass market everything from tobacco to underwear. The Marlboro Man became an advertising symbol to sell filtered cigarettes as a masculine product tied to the cowboy image.Iconic print ads were unfurled with the celebrated Avis Rent-a-Car “We Try Harder” campaign and the stylish “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt” where dress shirts were sold with the image of a debonair man wearing an eye patch. Of course, not all advertising campaigns, as clever as they may be, worked to success. A notable example of failure was the extensive campaign for the Ford Edsel. You can’t persuade the public to buy something they don’t want.Preview episodes of the 1970s and 1980s weren’t provided for review, but if we were to judge the series by the first two episodes, “The Real Mad Men of Advertising” is a product worth selling.
TV CORNER – “THE MICK” ON FOX NETWORK
The same production team that brought the long-running FX network comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to fruition performs similar functions for another prime time comedy, “The Mick,” on the parent network of FOX. Not surprisingly, Kaitlin Olson, who held her own with the three guys running an Irish tavern in Philly, seems the perfect fit for the degenerate, two-bit hustler from Rhode Island who has spent her entire life shirking any semblance of dependability. Olson’s Mackenzie, or Mickey to her friends, is introduced wandering through a supermarket, sampling packaged goods from chips and whipped cream to underarm shavers and talcum powder before dropping off a six-pack to a bum with a shopping cart. Her so-called boyfriend Jimmy (Scott MacArthur), referred to by Mickey only as “my guy,” tags along on a road trip to the rarefied atmosphere of upscale Greenwich, Connecticut.
The occasion is for Mickey to unexpectedly drop in at a fancy lawn party hosted by her estranged sister at the mansion shared with her billionaire husband and three spoiled kids. In a surprising turn of events, the FBI raids the high-society function to arrest the high profile couple for tax evasion, and Mickey suddenly becomes the unwilling guardian for the high-maintenance children who quickly assess that their aunt is not up to the task. oldest is 17-year-old Sabrina (Sofia Black D’Elia), a snooty brat who flaunts her sexuality with a hunky twenty something carpenter who goes shirtless while working around the house.Then, there’s the annoying middle child Chip (Thomas Barbusca), an arrogant, entitled 13-year-old nerd who does not know how to make friends at school, let alone to connect with girls even on a platonic level. Third child Ben (Jack Stanton) is only 7-years-old but he seems keenly interested in whatever the adults aretalking about. He also swipes Mickey’s birth control pills because he overhead that they were magical. What Mickey, an unsuitable parental figure, is asked to do reminds one of a similar role once played by John Candy in a feature film, but unfortunately Mickey doesn’t quite have the same mix of empathy and humor required to make the central character anything more than predictable. I could be wrong about this, but “The Mick” does not seem likely to have the longevity that was afforded to Kaitlin Olson’s previous TV comedy set in Philadelphia.
What do the movies “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Here Comes the Boom, and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” have in common, aside from being forgettable? They all starred comedian Kevin James, who shines much better on the small screen. The long-running comedy “The King of Queens” starred James and Leah Remini as a blue-collar couple living in Rego Park, Queens with the unwelcome presence of Jerry Stiller as Remini’s father camping out in the basement. Arguably, the same type of formula is at work for “Kevin Can Wait,” where James’ Kevin Gable is a newly retired police officer living on New York’s Long Island, with his wife Donna (Erinn Hayes) and their three children. You may ask about the meaning of the title “Kevin Can Wait?” Is this some sort of existential exercise, like the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot,” in which two characters wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives?
During last summer’s gathering of TV critics, Kevin James attempted to answer this fundamental question by saying the title fit with the idea that “I can wait for my retirement, it can be pushed off a little bit. I can wait for that, for family, and this and that.” To narrow this down a bit, James has a point since his idea of a carefree life shared with his fellow retired police buddies takes a twist when oldest daughter Kendra (Taylor Spreitler) announces she’s dropping out of college to support her fiancé Chale (Ryan Cartwright) While Donna still works as a nurse, Kevin finds that he has to take a series of odd jobs to bring in some extra cash. Even when he comes up with a scheme to launch a food truck business, Kevin’s venture ends with humiliation and spectacular failure at the hands of a disgruntled chef.
The best comedic scenes involve Kevin sneaking away for touch football and a Billy Joel concert with his pals Goody (Leonard Earl Howze) and Duffy (Lenny Venito) and his retired firefighter brother Kyle (Gary Valentine). “Kevin Can Wait,” which managed to secure a full season order from CBS, may not be the best vehicle for Kevin James’ talent in a series that relies on mostly predictable jokes.What makes “Kevin Can Wait” a watchable alternative for viewers tired of amateur talent contests is that Kevin James has a like able, funny personality that makes him an endearing presence on the network landscape.
TV CORNER – “STAR” ON FOX NETWORK
Banking on the success of the TV series “Empire,” the FOX Network turns to the same creator and executive producer, Lee Daniels, to pull back the curtain on music’s gritty and dark reality in the new series “Star.”“Empire” has a strong pull for many watching this music industry soap opera of power plays and betrayals, but I’ve not been a follower of its melodramatic machinations, even though Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie is a powerful force of nature well worth watching. From a personal point of view, I am even less likely to get past the first episode of “Star,” in which the main characters are a trio of young girls running from their pasts in order to chart a path to stardom in the treacherous music business. “Star” is not just the name of the show. It happens that the most talented singer in the aspiring girl group is named Star (Jude Demorest), a tough-as-nails beauty who looks like she could just as easily twirl on a pole at a low-rent strip club.
Star is a young woman of unbridled ambition who escapes from a hellish foster family in Pittsburgh and heads off to rescue her younger sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) from a similar terrible fate.Together, the long-separated siblings head to Atlanta to team up with spoiled rich girl Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), who for reasons that don’t seem readily apparent or even logical leaves her upper-crust lifestyle in Manhattan for a dubious trek into the underbelly of the capital of Georgia. The only connection the girls have to this Southern metropolis is beauty shop owner Carlotta Brown (Queen Latifah), the godmother to Star and Simone who takes them in but soon finds the girls are a handful.
The role of Carlotta, who sings beautifully in the church choir, allows Queen Latifah to shine with her natural talents, but given that she spends too much time coping with bickering employees, that’s about as far as it goes. The character that might be the most believable is down-on-his-luck Jahil Rivera (Benjamin Bratt), a seedy-looking type who hangs out in dive bars and strip clubs, but still has a knack for spotting musical talent. Having once managed singers, Jahil sees the girls as a ticket back to the industry. The ambitious manager might be interesting to watch, but there is much about “Star” that seems too contrived, and even unsettling, to stick with for the long haul.
TV CORNER – “HAIRSPRAY LIVE!” ON NBC NETWORK
The NBC network had such great success with a live theatrical performance for the Broadway musical “The Wiz” that the decision to do the same for the long-running musical “Hairspray” seemed like a wise programming move. Since the film “Hairspray Live!” will be delivered as the title implies in a live telecast, there’s not much to go on for a review in advance other than a few clips made available and knowledge of the Broadway show. To be more accurate, “Hairspray Live!” is also advertised as being based on the theatrical version, though I am not sure if it would be the 1988 film written and directed by John Waters or the 2007 edition that starred John Travolta as the iconic Edna Turnblad. In all likelihood, “Hairspray Live!,” given the constraints of staging a live performance, should be much more similar to the Broadway production that starred Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad, mother to a dance show hopeful.
NBC made the smart choice of bringing Fierstein into the program to reprise his Broadway role. He’s the perfect fit to encourage his chubby, sweet-natured daughter Tracy (Maddie Baillio) as the dance-loving teen who auditions for and wins a spot on “The Corny Collins Show.” The setting is 1962 Baltimore where racial integration has yet to penetrate all segments of society. On the all-white TV show, Tracy becomes an overnight sensation and her newfound status as a celebrity brings societal changes in the vanguard of the civil rights era. In the midst of charming the public with her winning persona, Tracy’s dream to dance results in her meeting a colorful array of characters including the resident dreamboat Link Larkin (Garrett Clayton) and the requisite mean girl Amber Von Tussle (Dove Cameron). Another key character is Motormouth Maybelle, a role portrayed by Jennifer Hudson, the Grammy Award-winning recording artist who may be best known for her part as a member of a trio of soul singers in “Dreamgirls.” If by chance you miss the telecast of “Hairspray Live!,” there is an unconfirmed report that the TV film will be released on DVD in time for the holidays.
TV CORNER – “SAVAGE KINGDOM” ON NAT GEO WILD
The Nat Geo WILD cable channel is going all out with a three-part global miniseries event with “Savage Kingdom,” an unflinching look at five animal clans pitted against each other during a deadly drought in remote Botswana. “Unflinching” seems to be the operative word for this nature series, which is narrated in deadly serious tone by Charles Dance, who appropriately had the role of Tywin Lannister on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” “Savage Kingdom” marks a step forward in wildlife filmmaking by playing more like a scripted drama than a nature documentary. Nevertheless, the series is an up-close look at the vicious fight for survival in the animal kingdom.
This series is no Disney version of the circle of life, even though the primary animals in focus have been named like characters in “The Lion King.” In the “Clash of Queens” episode, the lion Matsumi has ascended the throne to become Queen of the Marsh Pride. Nat Geo WILD is pushing this series as having a parallel between the battle for power in George R.R. Martin’s fictional world of “Game of Thrones” and the brutal power struggles on the African savanna.
Queen Matsumi is seen leaving the pride in order to give birth to two cubs. Lions can be volatile and brutal bedfellows, and Matsumi’s king and chief protector, Sekekama, gives no second chances to his enemies, not even his own family. When Matsumi goes into hiding, Charles Dance, with a sense of dread in his voice, intones that “enemies are closing in from all sides.” Indeed, it gets real ugly when Matsumi’s cubs are abducted by her murderous family.
Even for the most dedicated aficionado of wildlife storytelling, “Savage Kingdom” is almost an endurance test. But the payoff comes from the incredible cinematography that brilliantly captures what even a big game hunter would be unlikely to see on an African safari. Episodes of “Savage Kingdom” focus on a variety of the royal families that also consist of leopards, hyenas and wild dogs. Each episode is told from one predator’s point of view, resulting in dramatic storytelling that is more drama than documentary. Another interesting character is Saba the leopard, a solitary killer without rival, constantly on the prowl. Saba is a spectacular and resourceful hunter who haunts the trees and hills in the heart of the realm. “Savage Kingdom” is so violent and bloody that each episode is preceded with a warning that the footage may not be suitable for family viewing. There’s plenty of heartbreak in the animal kingdom.
ORWELLIAN “INCORPORATED” ON SYFY; “HAIRSPRAY LIVE” ON NBC
A TV Review by Tim Riley
TV CORNER – “INCORPORATED” ON SYFY Science-fiction would probably not be a genre if the future held promise for a world in which everything is beautiful, people are friendly, freedom reigns, and cats and dog live together in peaceful co-existence. The Syfy cable channel’s “Incorporated” sticks to the formula of a dystopian future in the year 2074 where the land has been ravaged, coastal cities have vanished and multinational corporations have replaced the government. What might attract an audience for this show is the highly publicized involvement of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as the producers. And maybe you will fall for the thriller elements, even though we’ve seen many of them before.
Seemingly taking a page from “Blade Runner,” the future is bleak in an America where the remaining population is located in heart of the Midwest and is divided between haves and have-nots. If you are not working for the big corporate power Spiga in the safe, secure Green Zone, you would be relegated to a harsh and brutal life in the lawless Red Zone, where junior executives go slumming on a Friday night to score drugs and watch brutal cage fights.
All nations are under the control of large corporations, and there is a nicely humorous TV news bulletin about Canada building a wall to keep out more Americans from joining the 12 million already illegally residing in the Great White North. The central character is Ben Larson (Sean Teale), an ambitious young man moving up the corporate ladder by devious means. He’s also married to Laura (Allison Miller), the daughter of the cagey, controlling Spiga CEO (Julia Ormond). Competing with other junior executives all dressed in dark suits without ties, Ben’s true background is unknown not only to his superiors, but also to his wife. His primary mission, other than climbing the ladder at work, is to find a long-lost love left behind in the Red Zone.
To be sure, Ben won’t want to get on the wrong side of Spiga, because those who fail the company are sent to the “Quiet Room,” a chamber of horrors where Spiga enforcer Julian (Dennis Haysbert) proves to be sadistically frightening. Spiga’s control even extends to family planning. Ben’s wife Laura may harbor her own secrets, but she surprises her husband with the news that the couple has been granted a “permit” to have a child. When one of the executives is caught trying to leave for home with contraband electronic files, he’s dealt with harshly. Operating like the Stasi or KGB, Spiga tolerates no deviation from the corporate culture.
In a chilling talk with employees, the CEO intones that “Spiga is a generous mother” and that it “only asks for hard work and loyalty.” The alternative is for a fate that should be evident. “Incorporated” has some interesting elements about the fate of humanity. When the CEO says that promotions require a vetting process, it’s clear that Ben may have something to fear because he has plenty to hide. The question now is whether the Orwellian science-fiction thriller of “Incorporated” will deliver the promise of providing satisfying answers.
TV CORNER – “DESIGNATED SURVIVOR” ON ABC NETWORK
We’re in the final stretch of a corrosive presidential election campaign that has many hoping for a tie in the Electoral College if only to obtain a different result. The ABC network may be tapping into the national zeitgeist or at least into basic trepidations about where we are headed. “Designated Survivor,” not just good drama, posits a scenario of presidential succession in a time of crisis. Keifer Sutherland has returned to network television not as Jack Bauer but as a low-level Cabinet member, though you may soon be cheering for his inner tough guy to emerge during critical moments. The former star of “24” is Tom Kirkman, who has never held public office and is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight when a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill kills the President and everyone else in the line of succession.
During the State of the Union address to Congress, Kirkman, serving tenuously as the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is left behind in an undisclosed location. After the explosion, Kirkman, who lives in Washington with his wife Alex (Natascha McElhone) and a rebellious teenage son and young daughter, finds his life completely upended to assume an awesome responsibility for which he has obviously not been prepared to undertake. A show like “Designated Survivor,” much like any political drama at the seat of national power, involves a lot of palace intrigue inside the White House, and there is plenty of that here. Kal Penn’s White House Press Secretary Seth Wright, a gifted speechwriter, has strong doubts about Kirkman’s ability to lead the nation. It’s worse than that when a high-ranking Army General wants to go a step further as if following the script of “Seven Days in May.”
Even more insidious might be Adan Canto’s White House Chief of Staff Aaron Shore, readily willing to advise the new President while simultaneously harboring notions to undermine him. “Designated Survivor” is a good political drama worth a look, certainly more intriguing, engaging and fascinating than what’s playing in the real world.
TV CORNER – “WESTWORLD” ON HBO
More than forty years have passed since Yul Brynner starred as a robotic gunslinger in “Westworld,” and now a modernized but still Old West fantasy world based on the Michael Crichton novel runs on HBO for ten episodes.In HBO’s “Westworld,” under the autocratic rule of theme park founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the very wealthy are willing to pay top dollar to share Wild West adventures with android “hosts.” Visitors to the Westworld playground indulge in every appetite, no matter how noble or depraved. No wonder these fantasies include gunfights, drinking and gambling, and visits to the brothel run by Maeve (Thandie Newton). The virtual reality of Westworld, staged with Old West authenticity, includes fascinating characters which keep you guessing as to whether they are “guests” or “hosts.” Rancher’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) begins to discover that her idyllic existence is a carefully constructed lie. James Marsden’s charming Teddy is handy with a revolver, but the Man in Black (Ed Harris) distills the essence of pure villainy.
More importantly, the Man in Black speaks on more than one occasion about the fact that “there’s a deeper level to this game,” and the audience, much like this character, will be seeking this greater truth over the run of this science-fiction Western. Another point of fascination with Dr. Ford’s fantasyland is that incidents of aberrant behavior cropping up in some recently re-coded hosts lead to top programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) bickering with staff members. “Westworld” requires attention to details, such as the meaning of one host having an unscripted encounter with an artifact from the outside world. By the second episode, tension is noticeably rising inside and out of the park and you may wish to stick with this series to the end.
TV CORNER – “LETHAL WEAPON” ON FOX
Welcome to the “TV Corner,” a new feature for this regular column. The idea is to take note primarily of new programming on network and cable television, without supplanting movie reviews. On occasion a full column may be devoted to television, often because a new film was not readily available for review. Aside from previews, this space will look at new shows that have debuted, since we can’t cover the plethora of new shows that all start in the same month. An intriguing new series of the FOX network is “Lethal Weapon,” which should come as no surprise to any fan of popular culture that it is based on the iconic film series starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. The most interesting character would Clayne Crawford in the role of Gibson’s unhinged detective Martin Riggs, while Damon Wayans holds up his end as Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, the sensible one without a death wish. The first episode of “Lethal Weapon” establishes the tragic backstory for Riggs ending up in Los Angeles after serving in Texas law enforcement. It’s a sad tale that involves a horrific traffic accident, but explains Riggs’ melancholy, suicidal nature. Some may question the need for the series, but the two main characters of Riggs and Murtaugh, truly polar opposites when paired up at LAPD, show great potential for developing an enjoyable wise-cracking buddy cop team.“Lethal Weapon” is definitely worth a look or two because it has some stunning action (a cop chase in the middle of a Grand Prix) and plenty of good humor.