Thus, the law show shortage is solved!

Two new legal dramas debuted in this past week, and in a great example of just how diverse these things tend to be, both pilots about females who have transitioned out of the sort of law practice which made them unhappy had storylines in which the lawyers had to get a young black man from a tough background out of doing time, because any such sentence would get them kicked out of college.

Harry’s Law is built around Kathy Bates, using her patented Regular Humanness to cast her someone who has been in the business of Boring Law for too long, and wants to be in the business of Exciting Law – not just Criminal Law, but TV-Style Criminal Law. And lucky for her, the world accommodates her desire. This comes from the David E. Kelley quirky law practice factory, and the pilot is focused on bringing on our quirky team of four, and establishing the things that officially make them a quirky law practice and shoe shop. Yes, that’s right, that’s the one official “here, it’s the practice and not just the people who are quirky”; the selling of shoes has much the same purpose as the introduction of the unisex bathroom onto Ally McBeal (minus, of course, the chance for every sensitive conversation to be heard… but you do get to learn about people’s tastes in shoes!)

Bates is convincing. Nate Corddry (now apparently Nathan) shows up as the talented young lawyer who is inspired by the happingness of it all, and he’s got a good face for it. But there’s not much sense that this will take us anywhere that is formatwise different from various shows that precede it. If you liked The Practice and Boston Legal and various other things, here’s more, and on the upbeat side of things. Not the worst thing to watch, but no great discovery either.

Meanwhile, over on basic cable’s USA Network, slightly new territory is being entered into in Fairly Legal, a drama built around an ex-lawyer who still works for her late father’s law firm, but as a mediator. That presents a couple of possible major twists. One is that it gets the show out of the courtroom climax – although the show still manages to spend time in the courtroom (poor Gerald McRaney got cast as a judge who speaks mainly in exposition, to let the world know what a mediator is). The other is that the ends are to be achieved not by having one side of a case win over the other, but by reaching a mutually beneficial understanding. That suggests that the arc of the stories may well have different paths than what we’re used to.

But with all that in place, the show gets in its own way. One of the problems is that it’s about gambits to lead to a happy solution, but those gambits can be unconvincing.  There’s a point in the show where our spunky lead has to help an engaged couple across an emotional conflict, and the trick that she pulls only works because, well, the writer says it works. It is so unconvincing that her gambit would be effective, and the rather wooden way in which the characters involve state their feelings in exactly the manner that humans don’t just makes the unreality echo further.

The bigger problem is that the central character is apparently meant to be one of these abusive-to-those-around-her-but-forgivable-for-her-intent types, only they don’t give sufficient reason for forgiveness. She is dishonest, she is abusive to her assistant, she is vicious to her stepmother for no visible reason other than that the stepmother is more beautiful than she is and made the mistake of marrying her dad, she violates the law and a client’s privacy and uses the information she achieves that way to blackmail the client into following her path, she steals a man’s remains from his widow… sorry, this isn’t a Denny Crane, whose harshness had style to it, and wasn’t meant to be a hero. She’s a shmuck. Likability isn’t inherently necessary in a character, but it sure helps when they aren’t fascinating for other reasons. She’s damaged because her daddy died, and that isn’t enough to make her interesting.

If you could take these two shows and merge them, make Kathy Bates the one who turned mediator, you’d have a better show than either of them. As it is, they’ve ended up with one show that is occasionally entertaining, and one that is not.

Published in: on January 25, 2011 at 12:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Onion SportsDome

The Onion has succeeded well providing the fake news in print and on the Internet. But in making a foray onto TV, they faced an obvious problem – there is no shortage of fake news on TV. Between the one-two punch of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, plus “Weekend Update” and Fox News, America’s fake newshole is filled.

So they made a move that at least sounds smart at first – they went not for news news, but for sports news. Onion SportsDome is a mocking take on SportsCenter. Now, this puts me at a stark disadvantage. For one thing, I’ve never watched SportsCenter; no matter how much I might love the behind-the-scenes comedy SportsNight, I’m just not much of a sports guy, and really don’t care about ht news. And that leads to my second problem: I don’t know much of the reality they’re mocking. When the sportsDome anchors throw out a name, I don’t always even know if it’s a made-up athlete or a specific player who has certain attributes that makes the reference funny.

Even if I did know my stuff here, though, I’m not sure I’d really like the show. The delivery rhythm that the two anchors are using is a rapid, flat delivery meant to optimize information conveyed in the time available, which is not ideal for comedy. The show is not without its actual laughs; there was a sharp bit about a handicapped fighter who was being discriminated against because he had solid metal replacement hands – but even then, they didn’t know when to rein it in, offering up a bloody scene that took the effective cartoonish edge off of the humor.

So this is not for me. If you’re a sportshead, it may well be worth a try.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 5:24 am  Leave a Comment  

Off the Map

If I can’t review a show on the day it airs, I guess I can at least review it before the second episode airs.

Thinking about hospital dramas, there seems to be a basic question of what sort of hospital you use. You can go with a cutting edge medical situation, even bleeding that edge into unreality. That’s Three Rivers, Trauma, House. Amazing everyone with medical technology. Or you can go with something that seems more like a “typical” hospital, to show the real world. E/R and Chicago Hope would both seem to land there. And at the tail end, you can go with a troubled hospital, one that is about struggling to do the best one can with a bad situation: St. Elsewhere, for example. And into that last category, we can now introduce Off the Map.

Off the Map is about a primarily-American-staffed charity clinic in the sunny, shady tropical poverty land of I-don’t-think-I-noticed-where. So it’s about Doing Good, and that’s a good thing; it’s about doing what you can with insufficient materials, about working in a culture that isn’t yours, about hope smashing headlong into reality. And about good-looking people finding excuses to look good, because this is still, after all, television.

With that as the setup,you or I could pretty much plot out the first episode, and get pretty much the episode that they aired – the young hopeful doctors who aren’t used to not having equipment. The making-use-of-the-jungle-to-help. The troubled romance to introduce the serial element.

They do a reasonably good job of it. It’s watchable – but no one on it is set up as fascinating enough that you must watch it. This hits me as a show that could be visited from time to time. It probably ultimately wants to be a bit of a Gray’s Anatomy, and I’ll leave it to those who like that show to judge how well it succeeds.

Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 9:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why no review for The Cape

NBC launched a new solo urban superhero series, The Cape, last night. And at this point, my professional life interferes a bit with my bloggy life; I have a solo urban superhero concept that a producer is currently trying to find a home for. As such, I lean a bit toward avoiding similar TV fare, because I don’t want anyone saying “hey, what you did with your concept was a lot like what they did there, so you musta took it.” Which is actually not that likely to happen, and it is a concern I would overlook if I had heard great things about The Cape. But I haven’t, so I won’t, and thus I’m not.

Published in: on January 10, 2011 at 7:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bob’s Burgers

Sunday is animation night on Fox, and there are two strong forces pushing at it. On the front end is The Simpsons, a show that both enjoys and is burdened by success that is unprecedented in prime time TV. This is a rebel show that won its rebellion, and now has lived so long that people compare it solely to itself. There are people graduating college now for whom this show is the baseline against which all TV is defined, because they have never known a world in which it did not exist.

And on the other end is the Family Guy and the whole Seth McFarland block. Family Guy started as this hollow copy of The Simpsons, a traced work without its depth, and developed its own texture – a texture which clearly serves some audience, but at least as clearly that audience is not me. Every time I get exposed to another little bit of any of this set of shows, it just reminds me how right my initial judgment was.

But now they’re slotting in a new show, and… while it doesn’t have the specific texture of either (it’s got a rapid staccato rhythm of its own, and one that I’m not sure favors the comedy much), in my mind it’s getting filed more with the latter, in the “not to be watched” category. Some of the’ DNA of Bob’s Burgers comes from a show that I liked many years back, featuring creative folks from the barely-animated Dr. Katz, but the emotional set-up is very different. This is a comedy about a family-run restaurant, and it felt like the character sheets on the various family members all started “this character is annoying because…” In the first episode, we have humor attempts grounded in flatulence, cannibalism, disgusting food practices, and crotch infections, any of which would be forgivable if they were actually funny, but they overwhelm the few moments of actual clever humor, and just make the half hour uncomfortable to watch. There’s not enough here to say “if they just fixed this part or that, it’d work!” This is not a show which I’m expecting to watch again.

(To folks on the show: if you’re reading this, please remember that I also don’t like the shows that follow it, so you shouldn’t assume my bad review condemns you to anything less than the success that Family Guy has obviously enjoyed.)

Published in: on January 10, 2011 at 6:58 am  Comments (3)  
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