November 10, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, November 10 (Britten/Tovey/Shostakovich)

Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Alison Balsom, trumpet

The program:
  • Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
  • Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
  • Shostakovich: Symphony #5 
Tovey's trumpet concerto was not a premiere; it was something even rarer -- a piece of new music getting performed several years after its premiere by a soloist other than the one who premiered it. Songs of the Paradise Saloon is five years old now, and it's a spinoff of sorts from Tovey's opera, The Inventor, about the real-life Civil War-era con man Alexander Keith. One short scene of the opera finds Keith at Manhattan's Paradise Saloon, and Tovey has expanded some of the musical ideas from that scene into a concerto, in which the orchestra plays the role of the saloon's colorful denizens, and the trumpet plays the role of Keith, manipulating and maneuvering each of them. In musical terms, that becomes a sort of theme and variations, with the trumpet soloist bending, twisting, and altering the various melodies presented by the orchestra.

It makes for a fragmented and kaleidoscopic concerto, in which the soloist rarely gets a full-fledged melody, but is instead playing with fragmentary bits and pieces; there are frequent jazz influences, including a lovely passage in which Balsom and the orchestral brass, all muted, sound like a 40s swing band. As in any bar, multiple "conversations" are often happening at once, and they don't always quite mix; there's one striking passage where the oboes are playing a lovely waltz that's not really in the same key as the rest of the orchestra, and Balsom is ignoring them all with a series of frantic military fanfares.

The disjointed nature of the piece makes it hard to fully grasp on a single hearing; it's never unpleasant to listen to, and there are some fine moments, but I can't say that it ever gripped me strongly enough to make me long for a second shot at it.

The rest of the concert reminded me of how spoiled we are here in Los Angeles, where under Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel, I've become so accustomed to thrilling performances that the merely excellent is almost a disappointment. Tovey's take on the Young Person's Guide was charming, and all of the Philharmonic's principals made the most of their moments in the spotlight. The Shostakovich was a solid, sturdy performance, but for most of the way, it felt slightly lacking; the Largo, for instance, had me thinking mostly of how heartbreaking it could be with a stronger conductor.

Tovey's interpretation came fully to life, though, in the final movement, especially in the coda, which was absolutely thrilling, and which brought the audience to its feet for a rousing ovation.

November 05, 2013

BOOKS: Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan (2013)

Over the course of a single weekend, we follow the lives of several high school boys who make up a cross-section of what it is to be a young gay guy today. A pair of exes engaged in a political demonstration; a couple in the comfort of mid-relationship; a couple who've just met; some singles who are coping (or not) with the stresses of being gay and alone.

The narrative voice is in the first person plural, made up of the ghosts of the generation of young men lost to AIDS. For me, one of the surviving members of that generation, that occasionally brought up tears, as I was reminded yet again of just how damned awful those years were, or as random words or turns of phrase would remind me of particular friends.

Levithan's characters capture what it feels like to be young; his narrators capture what it feels like to look back on youth. It's a powerful combination. And that narrative voice is a glorious thing to read, wise and insightful, sad without being bitter, missing their lives in all their joy and pain and confusion. There are thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, that I wish I could have heard at 15 or 16 (even if I suspect wouldn't have understood or believed them at the time). I loved this paragraph, for instance:

The first sentence of the truth is always the hardest. Each of us had a first sentence, and most of us found the strength to say it out loud to someone who deserved to hear it. What we hoped, and what we found, was that the second sentence of the truth is always easier than the first, and the third sentence is even easier than that. Suddenly you are speaking the truth in paragraphs, in pages. The fear, the nervousness, is still there, but it is joined by a new confidence. All along, you've used the first sentence as a lock. But now you find that it's the key.
I'm curious to know what the YA audience for whom the book is written will make of that voice and that perspective. Do they know the history of that era well enough to understand it who these narrators are, and will it just come across as old guys preaching at them?

By the end of the book, the narrators are shouting out (to borrow Whitman's words) a "barbaric yawp" in celebration of life, demanding that it be lived and loved and fought for with every ounce of strength.

Stunning book, recommended with the highest possible enthusiasm.

October 20, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, October 20

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Anssi Karttunen, cello
women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale

The program:
  • Debussy: Nocturnes
  • Lindberg: Cello Concerto #2 (world premiere)
  • Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
I have come to the conclusion that Debussy is a composer whose music I'm simply never going to connect to. It's well-crafted, and it's pretty, but for me, it's a very monotonous pretty, like staring at a canvas in eighteen impeccably chosen shades of beige, and it washes over me without making any real impression.

The Nocturnes are a bit more interesting than the other Debussy I've heard, I will admit. There are moments in the Fêtes movement that caught my ear, particularly a long crescendo that begins with timpani, harp, and brass, and the use of the women's chorus in the Sirènes movement is often lovely.

Magnus Lindberg's new cello concerto uses a small orchestra by contemporary standards -- double winds and horns; a single trumpet and trombone; no tuba, harp, keyboards, or percussion. The orchestral writing is dominated by the strings, though the brass have a few nice moments; they have a particularly lovely moment as the orchestra re-enters after the cadenza, playing a series of burnished dark chords.

It would, I think, take two or three more hearings to get a good grasp on how the concerto is put together. Those additional hearings would allow me to understand the piece better, and there are parts of it that I could even come to like; I doubt, though, that it would ever be a piece that I would love.

The highlight of the program was the Bartók, which I like to think of "Sugar Plum Fairies in Hell." It's a piece that mixes creepiness and brutality in fascinating ways, and Salonen brought out both in spectacular fashion. The percussionists were in fine form today, as they so often are, and the opening of the third movement was a highlight; the timpani playing blooping glissandos while the xylophone repeats a single note so insistently that you start to forget it's a pitched instrument and begin to hear it almost as a woodblock.

TV: Reign (Thu 9, CW)

It's 1557, and 15-year-old Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Adelaide Kane), is being shipped off to the French court to prepare for her eventual marriage to Prince Francis (Toby Regbo), a marriage which was arranged when they were six. But politics have changed in the last decade, and the French royals are no longer convinced that an alliance with Scotland is in their best interest. Mary is thrown into complicated intrigue and plotting for which nothing in life has prepared her.

The one person who seems to be entirely on her side is Francis' illegitimate half-brother, Sebastian (Torrance Coombs), known as Bash. Despite being a bastard, he is the favorite son of King Henry II (Alan Van Sprang), which is an immense annoyance to Queen Catherine (Megan Follows). Catherine is most definitely not on Mary's side, especially after her counselor, Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland), tells her that according to his visions, Mary will literally be the death of Francis.

If you're looking to Reign for accurate history, you will be disappointed; Nostradamus was about 20 years older than the dashing young man we see here, and Bash is entirely a fictional creation. And since this is the CW, everyone is young and pretty -- bordering on interchangeably so in some cases, notably Mary's ladies-in-waiting -- and the focus is at least as much on everyone's love life as it is on international politics.

But if you're looking for a swoony, romantic fantasia on the life of the young Mary, Queen of Scots, then this might be just the thing. It's surprisingly well made; costumes and sets are reasonably stylish by broadcast TV standards; and while none of the actors are doing award-worthy work here, no one is embarrassingly awful, and Follows has a few nice moments as the show's reigning bitch/diva.

I have no idea whether this will appeal to the CW's young audience or not, but the CW is a network that doesn't generally produce a lot of backup shows, so it's likely to last for at least a few months.

October 17, 2013

BOOKS: Talking Hands, Margalit Fox (2007)

Imagine a group of children raised in isolation, whose caretakers do not speak to them, and who have no access to any spoken language. What sort of language would they develop among themselves, and what would it tell us about the way languages are created, or about the innate human instinct for language?

Obviously, this is not an experiment one could ever actually do, which is why linguists jokingly refer to it as "the forbidden experiment." But occasionally, circumstances arise that provide conditions as close to the forbidden experiment as one is ever likely to see, and Margalit Fox's Talking Hands follows a group of linguists as they explore one such rarity.

Al-Sayyid is an isolated village in Israel with a population of about 3,500 and an unusually high rate of genetically inherited deafness; one in 25 residents are deaf (1 in 1,000 is the typical rate). Because of their isolation, the villagers have developed their own sign language, and nearly everyone speaks it, whether they're deaf or not.

It's a new language -- the current generation of children is only the third generation to use it -- which makes it an ideal topic for study into how languages are created and developed. But the team is pressed for time, because the village becomes less isolated with every generation, and bits of Israeli and Arabic Sign Languages are already creeping into the language of those children; it's a bit of a challenge to find kids whose local language is still pure.

It wasn't that long ago, Fox tells us, that studying the sign language of Al-Sayyid would have been considered a waste of time, because sign languages weren't thought to be real languages at all. They were considered merely glorified pantomime, with none of the linguistic subtlety or complexity of spoken language. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that linguists began to realize that sign languages had their own syntax, grammar, and complex rules; and that they were every bit as thoroughly developed as spoken languages were.

Fox alternates between chapters showing the team of linguists at work, collecting data from the people of Al-Sayyid; and chapters on the history of sign language in general, with a focus on how our understanding of such languages has changed and deepend in the last fifty years.

I was particularly fascinated by a chapter on how strokes impact sign language. To oversimplify a bit, we know that language ability is controlled by the left side of the brain, and that dealing with spatial relationships is mostly controlled by the right side of the brain. Given that sign languages are almost always highly organized in space -- a sign made in front of the body might not mean the same thing as the same sign made to one side, for instance -- what happens to the ability to use sign language when a stroke injures one side or the other of the brain?

Fox has degrees in linguistics herself, and does a very good job of discussing the subject in layman's terms. I was fascinated by the history and the details about how sign languages work, and I enjoyed the book very much.

October 13, 2013

TV: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (Thu 8, ABC)

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is a sort of spinoff from Once Upon a Time, but only just barely; it's a spinoff of concept, rather than of characters. Once again, we're following familiar storybook characters on their travels between their worlds and this one. There's a very brief prologue set in Storybrooke, the village from the original series, just to establish that the shows share the same continuity, but the producers have said that the shows will be independent of one another, and they don't plan to do major crossovers.

We begin with Alice, just returning from her famous visit to Wonderland, and immediately thrown into an asylum when she tells her father of her adventures. Jump forward a few years, and Alice is now a young woman whose doctors are convinced that she's lying (and therefore still delusional) when she tells them that she no longer believes that she went to another land.

She's rescued from the asylum in the nick of time by the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), who take her back to Wonderland. When she learns that Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), the genie with whom she fell in love during her original visit (which somehow never made it into Lewis Carroll's telling of the tale), might not be dead after all, she sets out on a quest to find him.

If you're thinking that you don't remember any genies in Wonderland, well, this is sort of a hybrid between Alice and the Disney version of Aladdin. The genie Jafar (Naveen Andrews) is one of the show's principal villains, teaming up with the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) in a plot to capture Alice for some as yet unknown reason.

The show looks marvelous, and its fantasy landscapes are very different from those of the original Once Upon a Time. Much of it is CGI, and the integration of the actors into the virtual sets is occasionally a bit clunky, but there are beautiful images like the Red Queen's castle, which looks as if it's been cobbled together from a giant chess set.

Casting is generally solid. Andrews is an ideal choice for Jafar; and Lowe, Socha, and Gadiot are attractive leads (the show is none too subtle about the love triangle that must inevitably develop). As the Red Queen, Rigby is the weak link, aiming for the same camp glory that Lana Parilla hits in the parent show, and not quite getting there.

Lithgow's voice performance is less manic than I'd have expected, but it works. Voice casting is one of the show's strengths, with Keith David providing a deliciously sinister Cheshire Cat; Iggy Pop only has a very brief appearance in the first episode as the Caterpillar, but seems like an interesting choice.

My hunch is that this show will burn out and fizzle from special to merely competent even faster than the original did, but it's only scheduled as a 13-episode season, and it should have enough juice to stay entertaining for at least that long.

October 11, 2013

TV: The Tomorrow People (Wed 9, CW)

As long as teenagers feel powerless and put upon, there will be a market for stories about powerful teenagers, which explains why The Tomorrow People is a concept that will not die. It started as a British series in the 1970s; a 90s version was co-produced with Nickelodeon; and in the 2000s, there were new episodes produced as radio plays to be sold on CD. And now, always on the lookout for material about beautiful young people, the CW has gotten its hands on the premise.

That premise centers on a group of young people who have taken the next step in human evolution and developed powers -- telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis. (The special effects on the teleportation and telekinesis parts of that are really ugly.) Our hero, Stephen (Robbie Amell), is just discovering his powers, and is recruited by the local Mod Squad-esque group of shiny happy Homo Superiors -- blond hunk John (Luke Mitchell), Asian nerd Russell (Aaron Yoo), and hot babe Cara (Peyton List). Yes, those are reductionist character descriptions, but they give the characters more depth than the show does.

There is, of course, a government agency called Ultra, which is out to find and recruit other kids with powers and use them as weapons to capture and destroy the good kids with powers; this is the kind of show where one can reliably expect bombshell revelations every sweeps period to upend your notion of whether Ultra or the Mod Squad are the good guys. Ultra is headed by Dr. Jedikiah Price (the fine character actor Mark Pellegrino, bringing to the show the only shreds of subtlety it possesses).

Did I mention that Dr. Price just happens to be Stephen's uncle? (Yes, he's Uncle Jed; someone wasn't thinking about the TV-history overtones of that name choice.) Because Stephen's long-vanished father (Uncle Jed's brother) was a Tomorrow Person himself (though Uncle Jed is not), and had greater powers than any of them, and if Stephen has his father's powers, he could be the Moses of the Tomorrow People, leading them to the promised land of safety, and oh god, it's all just so stale and familiar and it makes my head hurt and somebody make it stop, please, please make it stop...

The young people are pretty to look at; Robbie Amell is the cousin of Arrow star Stephen Amell, which makes Wednesday the Amell Family FunTime Revue on the CW. Pellegrino is always entertaining, and if she's ever given anything to do, Sarah Clark might bring something interesting to the role of Stephen's mother.

And I suppose that if you're seventeen and haven't already seen 8,000 different versions of this story, it might even feel fresh enough to keep you entertained. But if you're any older than that, I can't imagine what The Tomorrow People has to offer you.

October 08, 2013

BOOKS: Three Graves Full, Jamie Mason (2013)

Jason Getty is not a man who grabs life by the horns and lives with gusto; he is a man who watches as life happens to him. He has had precisely one moment of assertiveness in his life, a confrontation with a con man that wound up with Jason burying a body in the backyard. A year later, he's just beginning to get over his paranoia about being discovered when landscapers turn up not one, but two bodies on his property. And neither of them is the body that Jason put there.

Mason eventually fills us in on how all three of the bodies got there, and tells her story through multiple points of view -- Jason, the people left behind by the assorted corpses, the cops investigating the whole mess. They're all distinct, vivid characters with lots of personality. Mason even gets away with making "volunteer police dog" Tessa a point-of-view character, with logic and motivations that feel perfectly dog-like.

Almost half of the book takes place on a single night, a long, bleakly hilarious series of disastrous meetings that bring together all of the book's characters in a frantic chase through the countryside. It's a magnificently planned sequence, reminiscent of Hitchcock in the way that complications pile upon complications. Everyone is struggling desperately to escape their situation, and every tiny decision only pushes them deeper into it.

This is dark comedy at its best; none of the characters are wholly sympathetic or wholly evil, and there are a lot of delightful moments where you realize that you're queasily cheering for someone to get away with doing something horrible. Mason's prose is smart and witty, filled with unexpected turns of phrase and sharp observations.

Highly recommended, and all the more impressive for being a first novel.

October 05, 2013

TV: The Millers (Thu 8:30, CBS)

Do you remember this song from about 20 years back?

"Justified and Ancient" was a disposable piece of dance music featuring guest vocals from Tammy Wynette. The lyrics were utter nonsense about a couple of guys driving around in an ice cream truck, heading for MooMoo Land, but Wynette brought to the song the same absolute conviction that she'd brought to her finest country songs. And by god, somehow she made you care about that damned ice cream truck.

Margo Martindale is doing the same thing in The Millers, taking material that barely rises to the level of marginal and making it weirdly compelling through sheer force of personality.

The central character here is Nathan Miller (Will Arnett), who is finally forced to tell his parents (Martindale and Beau Bridges) that he and his wife have divorced. The news inspires Bridges to announce that he wants a divorce himself; when the dust settles, Dad's moved in with Nathan's sister and brother-in-law (Jayma Mays and Nelson Franklin), and Mom's moved in with Nathan.

The rest of the cast are fine, and they are all worthy of better material than this, but Martindale is performing acting miracles. She's given fart jokes, and overbearing mother jokes, and ball-busting wife jokes; she's asked to re-create the classic dance scene from Dirty Dancing, and somehow, she makes it all work and gets laughs with every single bit of it.

The show is created by Greg Garcia, who has done marvelous things with unpromising premises in the past (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope); the hope that he might be able to bring the writing up to snuff, combined with Martindale's astounding comic magic, will be enough to keep me watching, much to my surprise.

TV: Sean Saves the World (Thu 9, NBC)

Thursday night seems to be this year's designated night for returning comic TV stars -- Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams premiered last week, and now Sean Hayes is back in Sean Saves the World. He plays Sean, a single father whose 14-year-old daughter (Samantha Isler) has just moved in with him after his ex-wife has moved out of town; he gets child care help from his hyper-critical mother (Linda Lavin).

Half the show is set in Sean's office, where he and his co-workers (Megan Hilty and Echo Kellum) are coping with an eccentric new boss (Thomas Lennon, giving the most uncomfortably creepy performance I've ever seen in a sitcom).

The workplace stuff is better than the home stuff, but neither is very good, and Hayes is the weak link in the show; the loud, broad comedy that worked for him as a supporting character on Will & Grace is overbearing and abrasive from a leading man. There's an occasional funny line from Kellum or Lavin, but they can't make up for the awfulness of Hayes.

TV: Super Fun Night (Wed 9:30, ABC)

Super Fun Night is an uneven mix of socializing-pals comedy and workplace comedy, created and written by Rebel Wilson, who also stars. She's Kimmie Boubier, a young lawyer who hangs out with her two best friends (Lauren Ash and Liza Lapira) for a weekly "Super Fun Night." The show juggles those stories with Kimmie's work life, where she has a crush on one co-worker (Kevin Bishop), and a rivalry with the office dragon lady (Kate Jenkinson).

Wilson is doing the role with an American accent, and she's spending so much mental energy into it that she loses the spontaneity that is her greatest strength as an actress. I do admire the way she hurls herself into every joke with total commitment, and she may be even more willing to use her own size as a comic weapon than Melissa McCarthy.

But the material here isn't terribly interesting or novel; the pilot is centered around Kimmie's attempt to get over her stage fright by singing at a piano bar, and we've heard most of the jokes before. Super Fun Night isn't an awful sitcom, and there's nothing to object to, but there's nothing that's going to bring me back for a second episode, either.

September 30, 2013

TV: Betrayal (Sun 10, ABC)

Melodramatic soap opera about a love triangle complicated by a murder trial.

Sara (Hannah Ware) is a photographer who meets Jack (Stuart Townsend) at a gallery exhibition of her work. They are both unhappily married, and they begin a passionate affair.

Sara's husband, Drew (Chris Johnson), is a politically ambitious prosecuting attorney. Jack's wife, Elaine (Wendy Moniz), is the daughter of local tycoon Thatcher Karsten (James Cromwell); Jack was raised in the Karsten home after the death of his parents, and now works as Thatcher's in-house attorney.

So of course, when Karsten's mentally challenged son TJ (Henry Thomas) is accused of murder, Jack and Drew are destined to wind up on opposite sides of the murder trial.

The principal problem with the show is that if you're going to tell a story about a passionate love affair, someone involved has to be believably passionate, or worthy of passionate; Ware and Townsend are both bland actors of flat affect; neither seems capable of any emotion deeper than mild peevishness. On the other hand, Cromwell is entertaining as the shady tycoon, and Thomas plays TJ's mental problems with more subtlety than you might expect from a show of this sort.

There's nothing wrong with a good trashy wallow in cheesy melodrama, but the key word there is "good," and there's not much that's good about Betrayal. It's tepid where it should be torrid, undercooked where it should be overheated, and lacking the necessary passion to kick it into high gear.

September 27, 2013

TV: The Crazy Ones (Thu 9, CBS)

Robin Williams returns to weekly TV after 30 years, but his shtick hasn't changed much.

In The Crazy Ones, Williams is Simon Roberts, who runs an advertising agency with his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Every conversation with Simon is an excuse for Williams to take off a riff of funny voices, rapid-fire punch lines, and manic wordplay; Gellar's primary function is to wear frustrated pouts as she tries to keep her father in check.

The underlings at the agency include Zach (James Wolk, apparently determined to work in as many TV ad agencies as possible); the charming ladies' man who's ready to sleep with clients if it'll help; art director Andrew (Hamish Linklater, given very little to do in the pilot); and scatterbrained assistant Lauren (Amanda Setton). Of the group, Wolk comes off best in the pilot, managing to mostly hold his own against Williams in manic mode.

But the pilot gives an awful lot of screen time to guest star Kelly Clarkson, who can't act, and to Williams' shtick, which plays much differently from a 62-year-old than it did from a kid in his late 20s. What felt like spontaneous youthful exuberance now feels labored and forced, and the character comes across as so undisciplined and out of control that it's difficult to believe he's the advertising genius he's supposed to be. Another crucial difference is that Mork was an alien being, so the manic babbling didn't have to be believable by any human standard.

Gellar doesn't make much of an immpression at all, and it's increasingly looking as if Buffy was a miraculous fluke, the one role to which she was perfectly suited.

If you're a huge fan of Robin Williams, you may love The Crazy Ones; if you're not, he's going to wear out his welcome very quickly.

TV: The Michael J. Fox Show (Thu 9:30, NBC)

Michael J. Fox plays a character much like himself in his return to a starring TV role. Mike Henry used to be the popular news anchor in New York, until he retired because of his Parkinson's disease. The good thing, he told himself, was that he'd get to spend more time with his wife (Betsy Brandt) and kids. But now that even the youngest kid is old enough now to have things of his own to do, everyone's getting a little sick of having him underfoot. So his wife and former boss (Wendell Pierce) maneuver him into returning to work.

The pilot episode spends a lot of time getting the audience comfortable with Fox/Henry's medical condition, and with the idea that it's OK to laugh about it; the second episode backs off on that, and returns to more traditional sitcom territory (Mike lies about having a crush on the pretty upstairs neighbor).

The problem is that Parkinson's is the only thing that's remotely distinctive or unusual about the show, which leaves Fox in a difficult bind. Emphasize his illness too much, and you risk being perceived as exploiting it; de-emphasize it, and there's nothing else interesting going on.

Fox is just as likable as ever, and his comic timing remains sharp. He and Brandt do a fine job of showing how their marriage has been impacted by Mike's Parkinson's without obsessing about it. And Wendell Pierce gives the show's best performance, stealing every scene he's in with droll understatement.

But the writing's flat; the kids are standard-issue TV bland; and Katie Finneran is wasted as Mike's bitter "how can I still be single at my age" sister. Replace Fox with any other leading man, and this show barely gets noticed, if it even makes it to air at all.

It is a gift to us all that Fox's illness is manageable enough that he is able to work, because he's a fine actor, and in various roles over the last few years, he's used his talent to great effect to demystify Parkinson's and its effects. But it would be patronizing to praise this show for those reasons, when it really isn't very good. It's not horrifically bad, to be sure; it's just relentlessly mediocre, and Fox is capable of better than this.

September 25, 2013

TV: Lucky 7 (Tue 10, ABC)

Every year during pilot season, I try to watch at least the first episode of all the new shows. But I'm not a total masochist; I allow myself to bail on one show each year, which I think of as the "life is just too damn short" exception.

This year, that honor goes to Lucky 7, in which a group of convenience store co-workers win the lottery, and we watch as their lives are changed by the money. None of them are interesting, likable, unlikable, or compelling in any way, and when we hit the first commercial break 15 minutes in, I could take no more. Because life is just too damn short.

TV: The Blacklist (Mon 10, NBC)

James Spader stars as Raymond "Red" Reddington, an international criminal whose only loyalty is "to the highest bidder;" he'll help whoever pays him to pull off whatever crime they want.

The show begins when Red walks into the office of the FBI and turns himself in. He offers to help them capture all of the world's biggest criminals -- spies, hackers, and so on; "the people you don't even know about" -- but insists that he will only speak to Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). She's a young FBI agent, and it's her first day at the DC bureau. She has no idea why Reddington is interested in her, but when Assistant Director Cooper (Harry Lennix, doing his usual efficient authority figure) asks her to work with him, she agrees.

The dynamic between Reddington and Keen is very Silence of the Lambs, as he taunts her with his knowledge about her personal life, and demands that she share further details in exchange for information. Spader delivers his threats and insinuations with silky menace; he's having a grand old time with the part, and he's the best reason to watch the show.

Boone is a convincing young agent, gifted with natural insight into others, and self-aware enough to know her own weaknesses (most of them, anyway); in her scenes with Spader, she's a smart enough actress to stay out of the way and not try to compete with his quiet hamming.

There's a nice plot twist at the end of the pilot that suggests the connection between Reddington and Keen may be something other than the obvious guess (which would be, of course, that he's her father). The Blacklist could get repetitious and boring very quickly, but Spader's enough to make it fun for now.

TV: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tue 8, ABC)

Corporate shilling and excessive capitalization be damned: I'm just going to call the show SHIELD and be done with it.

The action picks up shortly after the climactic Battle of New York from the movie The Avengers, as humanity copes with its discovery that there are superheroes among them. The government agency SHIELD is made up of non-super people, and their task is to locate and recruit the superpowered, both to gain access to their skills, and to help them adjust to life as a superperson.

The show gets off to a reasonably good start, cheerfully explaining away the resurrection of Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson (for non-Marvel fans, he died in The Avengers) in a way that clearly doesn't actually explain anything, and leaves his non-death as a mystery to be slowly revealed over the course of the season.

Coulson's team is introduced in efficient fashion, and while none is really a full-rounded person yet, they are given enough individuality that you're never left muttering "which one is he"?. There's Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the dashing black-ops guy who hates the thought of working as part of a team; Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who doesn't want to leave her comfy desk job and go back into the field, and only agrees to go when Coulton promises that all she'll have to do is "drive the bus;" Skye (Chloe Bennett), the team's newest recruit, a gifted computer hacker. Effective comic relief is provided by the tech team of Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Castecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), who complete one another's sentences and think so much alike that everyone just calls them FitzSimmons.

As good as the pilot is, though, I can't shake the nagging feeling that there just isn't much here. I worry that the show will devolve into a lightly comic version of The X Files, which a new super-powered freak brought on as the villain every week. And since Joss Whedon isn't going to be involved with the show on a week-to-week basis, I'm skeptical that the bantering dialogue will be good enough to hold my attention for long. I'm in for now, but I have my doubts.

TV: Hostages (Mon 10, CBS)

Hostages wants desperately to be 24 when it grows up, but it's never going to get there. It's a hopeless muddle, filled with embarrassing cliches, like the moment when FBI hostage negotiator Duncan Carlyle (Dylan McDermott) apparently shoots a hostage who turns out to be the hostage-taker: "What if you'd been wrong?!?" "I wasn't."

Our heroine is Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), who is (along with her insufferable family) taken hostage by McDermott(*) and ordered to kill the president, on whom she is performing surgery the next day. Were I Collette, I'd be tempted to disobey in the hope that McDermott and his gang would kill my mopy husband (Tate Donovan, who has charged into late middle-age with remarkable speed) and bratty teens.

(* - Yes, that's right, the hostage negotiator is the hostage-taker, because this is a Modern Television Drama, which means lots of Moral Ambiguity, don'cha know.)

Hostages is only scheduled to run for 15 weeks, but it's hard to see how there's enough story here to fill even that limited run. Oh, sure, we can drag an hour or two out of the blackmail-ble secrets of the Sanders family (Adultery! Teen pregnancy! Teen drug dealing!), and the mystery of Carlyle's motivations will no doubt be dragged out for a while, but there's some very thin gruel being served up here.

TV: Mom (Mon 9:30, CBS)

Mom can't quite make up its mind, at least in the pilot, what kind of sitcom it wants to be. There's a wacky workplace sitcom about our central character Christy (Anna Faris), who's a waitress at an upscale restaurant; Nate Corddry is her blandly stuffy boss and French Stewart, still gifted with the ability to milk huge laughs from punch lines that aren't really very funny, as the pompous chef.

There's a domestic sitcom about Christy the single mom of two, teenage Violet (Sadie Valvano) and pre-teen Roscoe (Blake Garret Rosenthal), dealing with Violet's dimwitted boyfriend (Spencer Daniels) and Roscoe's irresponsible dad (Matt Jones).

And there's the most interesting show of the bunch, in which Christy, an alcoholic who's just hit four months of sobriety, is horrified by the reappearance of her estranged mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney). Bonnie's been sober for a few years now, and wants to mend fences with Christy, who wants none of it.

But Christy worries that Violet is on track to repeat the same mistakes she made, and feels compelled to build a new relationship with Bonnie when Violet challenges her: If you can't forgive your mother for her bad parenting, then why should I forgive you for yours?

Mom is at its best when the focus is on the relationship between Christy and Bonnie; when Faris and Janney are on screen together, it has the makings of something very special. But of the many possible versions of Mom, that's probably the hardest to write, and it's been a long time since Chuck Lorre showed much willingness to rise above the easy. The pilot is good enough to keep me watching in hope, but I fear that it probably won't live up to its potential.

BOOKS: Openly Straight, Bill Konigsberg (2013)

Rafe has been openly gay since he was in the eighth grade. And in Boulder, Colorado, it really hasn't been a big deal. His parents are almost ridiculously supportive, to the point of throwing him a surprise coming out party at Hamburger Mary's, and his classmates haven't hassled him about it.

But even so, Rafe can't help but feel boxed in by the idea that everyone sees him as The Gay Kid; he fears that his social circles and range of potential friends are being limited by that perception. So when he transfers to an all-male boarding school in Boston for his junior year, he decides not to mention being gay to anyone. He won't go so far as to lie if someone asks a direct question, he tells himself, but he'd like to see what life might be like if he gets the chance to be just Rafe without being The Gay Kid.

The plan seems to be a success at first; Rafe quickly falls in with a group of the school's jocks, not at all the sort of artsy/nerdy types he'd hung with in Boulder. But inevitably, Rafe falls for one of his new friends, and wonders if there's a way to turn this friendship into something more.

Konigsberg does a fine job of lightening his serious issues with a lively sense of humor; the conversations between Rafe and his new pal Ben capture perfectly the way that smart kids meander between goofiness and profundity. He lets the consequences of Rafe's decision play out in an honest manner, without imposing an artificially happy outcome, but still finds a way to end things on a realistically hopeful note.  

September 24, 2013

BOOKS: California Rush, Sherwood Kiraly (1990)

For the most part, baseball's a simple game. Hit the ball, throw the ball, catch the ball, run the bases. But some strange things can happen, and there are a lot of obscure rules that pop up when they do. And so every now and then, someone writes a story about that mythical game in which all of those things happen, the most bizarre game of baseball every played. Sherwood Kiraly's California Rush is such a story, and it's an entertaining take on the theme.

The first two-thirds of the book meanders a bit, as we stroll casually through the careers of the men who will be the opposing managers in the key game. Davy Tremayne is a golden boy -- attractive, talented, popular with the fans. Jay Bates, on the other hand, is a short-tempered fellow who will bend the rules as far as they'll go to get an edge.

But the meandering pays off, because by the time we get to the final game, in which Davy is managing (and playing for) St. Louis, and Jay is managing the California Rush expansion team, we know them well enough to understand their behavior and their reactions to the bizarre events that unfold. And a wild game it is, unfolding in so unlikely a fashion that one player refuses to continue, believing that this game can only be the work of the devil, and it would be sacrilegious to keep playing.

California Rush is by no stretch great literature, and if you're not interested in baseball, you'll be bored to death by it. But for baseball fans, it's a moderately amusing story, and Kiraly manages to keep finding new bizarre plays and rule interpretations to throw into the final 50 pages.

September 23, 2013

BOOKS: More Than This, Patrick Ness (2013)

In a brief prologue, we are with a 16-year-old boy who has swum too far out into the ocean. It's cold, he's losing strength, and he's terrified. He knows he's about to die, and it comes almost as mercy when instead of the long, slow agony of drowning, he is dashed against the rocks and killed instantly.

And then, at the beginning of Chapter 1, he wakes up.

Seth finds himself in the English village of his childhood, but it's deserted, with overgrown weeds everywhere and a thick layer of dust covering everything. The local supermarket has plenty of canned food that hasn't gone bad, so he's in no danger of starvation. But how can he possibly be here at all, apparently still alive? Where is everyone? And why is there a shiny black coffin in the middle of his bedroom?

The terror and mystery of this complete isolation may not be the worst thing in store for Seth, though, because when he falls asleep, he dreams. His dreams are intensely realistic, and in all of them, he's forced to relive the most painful moments in his life.

Ness tells a terrifically twisty story about reality and fantasy, the importance of friendship, the pain of loneliness (and of life in general), and the desperate measures we will take to escape that pain, or to at least make it more bearable. The characters (no, Seth doesn't remain alone for the entire book) are lively and memorable; I particularly liked Tomasz, an 11-year-old Polish boy who grumbles in grandly comic style about how unappreciated his acts of bravery are.

More Than This is a marvelous book. It's creative, thought-provoking, and very hard to put down.

September 21, 2013

TV: Ironside (Wed 10, NBC)

Premieres October 2; pilot currently available at Hulu.

Because Ironside is a 21st-century police procedural, we are obliged to begin with a scene in which Robert Ironside (Blair Underwood) demonstrates that using a wheelchair is no obstacle to his committing illegal interrogations and acts of police brutality. And because Ironside is a 21st-century police procedural, the principal crime in the pilot is the death of a pretty young white woman, whose corpse is seen surrounded by an ample pool of blood.

Ironside heads up his own hand-picked team of detectives as the result of a settlement following his being shot on the job two years earlier. The detectives are the obligatory Mod Squad of police sidekicks -- one pretty female (Spencer Grammer), two hunky males (Pablo Schreiber and Neal Bledsoe) -- none of whom is allowed to have any personality, because that might pull focus away from Underwood, and this, by god, is a star vehicle. There's also the obligatory grumpy "why can't you follow the rules, Ironside?" captain, played by Kenneth Choi with even less personality than the Mod Squad. The only supporting character who does have much personality is Ironside's former partner (Brent Sexton), still on extended leave and struggling with guilt in his role over the shooting; he's giving the only remotely interesting performance in the pilot.

Underwood has settled on acerbic and bitter as the entirety of his characterization. It's certainly credible that having been shot and being disabled as a result might leave one bitter, but in flashbacks to before the shooting, we see that he was just as big a jerk then, too. I'm all for actors attempting to stretch and play different types, but there's also a lot to be said for knowing what you do well. Blair Underwood at his best is a tremendously charming, warm, sexy, likable man, and it's painful to watch him closing off all of his principal assets to play this nasty, hostile person. He treats his underlings like idiots, and has so little respect for their abilities that you wonder why he picked them for his squad in the first place.

Those pre-shooting flashbacks have been used by the producers as justification for hiring Underwood rather than hiring an actor who really does use a wheelchair. If they're actually going to show us something useful about the character, that might be a reasonable defense, but in the pilot, they don't tell us anything that couldn't be equally well covered in four or five lines of dialogue; they're such useless scenes that I started to feel like they'd been added fairly late in the process, after the producers realized they might take some heat for not hiring a paraplegic actor.

The case-of-the-week is serviceable, but it's nothing particularly distinctive or interesting, and the answer falls into place pretty much as you'd expect it to after the first five minutes. And "nothing particularly distinctive or interesting," unfortunately, is also a pretty good summary of the show as a whole. The time slot's not fiercely competitive, and the show could easily run for two or three years, getting just-good-enough ratings to survive without ever impressing anyone in any way.

September 18, 2013

TV: We Are Men (Mon 8:30, CBS)

Premieres September 30; pilot currently available at

We Are Men is the story of Carter (Chris Smith), who is left at the altar and moves into a "short-term housing" apartment complex that is basically a waystation for lonely divorced men. Three of the building's resident lotharios take Carter under their wing to help him recover from his heartbreak. They're played by Jerry O'Connell, Kal Penn, and Tony Shalhoub; their character names and personalities aren't all that important, mostly because none of them has any discernible personality beyond being a permanent horndog. Oh, I suppose Penn is the most pathetic of the three, and Shalhoub the sleaziest, but really, they're all pretty awful (and I do not ever again need to see O'Connell in a Speedo, thank you very much).

Women exist in this show only as castrating harpies, sex objects, or (as in the case of Carter's fiancee) some combination of the two. The lone exception is Shalhoub's daughter (Rebecca Breeds), who is clearly meant to eventually be Carter's love interest because they both like basketball, which is what passes for complex character development on this show.

In what seems to be a dominant theme as the new TV season begins, some very good actors are being wasted here; I think I could enjoy O'Connell, Penn, and Shalhoub in a buddy comedy, but it would have to be funnier and cleverer than this one. Smith isn't much of a presence, which is rather a handicap for the guy at the center of the show, but he's not offensively dull, and he's blandly pretty to look at.

I don't see any reason to think this will be any more successful than Partners was in this time slot last year (and in the department of "things I never thought I'd have to say," Partners was a better show). Gone by Christmas.

TV: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Tue 8:30, Fox)

There are still some bugs to be worked out of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, many of them surrounding Andy Samberg in the lead role, but the show's got a fine ensemble, characters who feel far better developed than we normally get in a comedy pilot, and some unusual dynamics driving the relationship between the two leads.

Samberg stars as Jake Peralta, star detective of a Brooklyn police station. He's a goofball who's "learned everything except how to grow up," says one co-worker, and the other detectives in the station are a colorful assortment. Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) is Peralta's partner, a woman who takes her job a little bit too seriously. Sgt. Jeffords (Terry Crew) has been stuck on desk duty for a year since losing his edge after the birth of his daughters. Detective Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) isn't the smartest or the strongest member of the squad, but he's the hardest working; he's got a crush on his partner, Det. Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), a tough cop who takes no nonsense from anyone.

The cast is rounded out by the arrival of their new captain, Ray Holt (Andre Braugher, who manages to be surprisingly funny by playing everything with exactly the same solemn gravitas he has in drama), a well-respected veteran who's finally getting his first shot at command. He's determined to make the most of this opportunity and turn his detectives -- especially Jake -- into the best team in the city.

And here's where we have a potentially fascinating twist on the relationship between Peralta and Holt. You expect the show to be driven by conflict between the two, with Holt insisting that Peralta straighten up, and Peralta wanting to continue his clownish ways. But it turns out that the reason Holt's waited so long to be given command is that he's gay; Peralta actually respects his history as a cop and doesn't want to be the guy who screws things up now that Holt's gotten his shot. Rather than conflict, the driving force may be the two working together to improve the squad, in the process of which Jake finally learns how to grow up.

The supporting cast is terrific, and their characters already have a lived-in realness that even a good sitcom doesn't normally get to until far later in its run. The relationships among them are crisp and individual, and while each of the characters is clearly rooted in some archetype of ensemble comedy, they've each got some depth or personality beyond those archetypes.

Samberg is the show's weak link; he's still playing everything as though it were a Saturday Night Live sketch, and of all the actors, he's the least integrated into the cast. You could argue, perhaps, that this is an appropriate acting choice; Peralta is meant to be the company clown, and learning to fit in better is his likely character arc in the show. But he's taking that too far, I think, and is too stylistically separated from the ensemble.

But everything around him is so good that I'm willing to overlook that for a while. This is an extremely promising pilot.

TV: Dads (Tue 8, Fox)

Dads has probably gotten more pre-season buzz than any of the fall's new shows, and none of it has been good. "It's racist and sexist and horribly offensive," has been the unanimous cry from critics.

The problem with the show, though, isn't really that it's offensive (though it is). Comedy can be offensive and be very successful; South Park has been doing it for years. And even Dads creator Seth MacFarlane has pulled it off, in the best moments of Family Guy. But offensive comedy must, like all comedy, be funny, and Dads isn't.

The premise isn't awful: Two best friends who run a video game company (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) have their lives disrupted when their fathers (Peter Riegert and Martin Mull) come to live with them. And those are four fine comic actors, who manage even to scrape an occasional laugh out of the flimsy material they're given here.

But oh lord, is it flimsy material; the central jokes of the first episode center around the boys asking their co-worker Veronica (Brenda Song) to put on a slutty schoolgirl outfit to amuse potential investors. Here we see that the show can't even be bothered with precision in its ethnic insults: An actress of Thai-Vietnamese descent is asked to perform a Japanese stereotype for a group of Chinese investors.

There are racist jokes (Riegert assumes that Ribisi's wife must be the maid, because she's Latina), and gay jokes, and old jokes, and "Jews are cheap" jokes, and it appears that the second episode is already resorting to the "dad eats a pot brownie" plotline, which most sitcoms don't get desperate enough to use until at least the third season.

It's one thing when a show sets the bar high and fails; you can at least respect its ambition. But Dads sets the bar as low as it can possibly be set, and still fails to reach even the minimal goals it sets for itself. It's a tragic waste of a talented cast on material that would be an embarrassment on the stage of the South Succotash Community Theater.

TV: Sleepy Hollow (Mon 9, Fox)

Every year, we get one or two pilots that are so loopy, so willing to leap cheerfully into full-on crazy, that I watch with amazement. Usually, such pilots are obviously doomed from the start (see, for instance, last year's Cult or Zero Hour); occasionally, such a show is miraculously able to maintain its special brand of weird for a season or two (we still miss you, Pushing Daisies). This year's "how long can they possibly keep this up" pilot is Sleepy Hollow.

We open in 1781, on a Revolutionary War battlefield where Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is battling a masked horseman. Crane plugs several rounds into him; he keeps coming. Crane chops his head off, and he still keeps coming, knocking Crane to the ground, apparently dead.

But wait! Not quite dead yet, it seems, because we leap forward to the present day, where Crane suddenly wakes up in an underground cave, not having aged a day. And it seems that his old foe the horseman, still headless, is running around Sleepy Hollow chopping off people's heads. Crane is inevitably arrested, and Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) finds herself taking his bizarre story seriously, because strange things have happened to her in Sleepy Hollow, and she knows what it is to be thought crazy.

And things only get nuttier from there, with Crane reading key passages from George Washington's own bible (note to producers: It's the book of Revelation, not Revelations), and discovering some sort of horrifying historical/supernatural conspiracy involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (of whom the Headless Horseman is apparently one), and Ichabod and Abbie are apparently fated to spend the next seven years working to prevent the evil from taking over the world. (Seven years, huh? Why, that just happens to be the length of an actor's standard TV series contract. If nothing else, you have to admire the optimism.)

Mison and Beharie, both new to American TV, are a terrific central pair, though I'm already scared that the show will be unable to resist making them a romantic couple. (They may be deterred by the fact that Crane is married, and that his wife occasionally visits him in visions.) The show's absolute commitment to its goofball premise is commendable, and the whole thing is strangely entertaining in a way that has you screaming "oh, come on" at the TV every five or six minutes. (Who knew, for instance, that Revolutionary War nurses displayed such ample cleavage?)

It's almost certainly going to come crashing down in spectacular style, but I'll keep watching, just to see how long the show can keep walking its unlikely tightrope.

September 15, 2013

TV: Back in the Game (Wed 8:30, ABC)

Premieres September 25; pilot currently available on Hulu.

Three generations of athletes in conflict are at the heart of Back in the Game, which features one very bad casting choice, and one terrific supporting performance.

Terry "The Cannon" Gannon (James Caan) is an ex-athlete who never quite found success in professional baseball. His daughter, Terry Jr. (Maggie Lawson) was an All-American college softball player. After a nasty divorce, she and her son Danny (Griffin Gluck) have been forced to move in with The Cannon.

Terry would love to keep Danny from getting as messed up by sports, and by her father's win-at-any-cost philosophy, as she feels she's been, but the kid wants to play Little League, and Terry winds up coaching a team with Danny and all of the other misfits.

The bad casting choice is Caan, who doesn't have the lightness that a sitcom requires. The nastiness and hostility he's playing might work in a cable drama about a difficult father-daughter relationship, but in a show like this, there needs to be some hint that he's a decent guy at heart; Caan's playing him as a completely unrepentant bastard.

On the plus side is Lenora Crichlow, playing Terry's new friend, the wealthy widow Lulu. Lulu doesn't always quite understand what's going on, and she certainly doesn't understand baseball ("I'll pay for all the equipment" for Terry's team, she offers. "Mats, tights, sticks with ribbons -- the whole shebang."), but her heart's in the right place, and Crichlow plays her less as stupid than as not terribly interested in most of what's going on around her.

Lawson can be very likable (as she's proven for the last several years on Psych), but she's at her best when she's got an equal to bounce off. Her relationships with her father, and with the jerk in charge of the local Little League (Ben Koldyke), are all about anger and hostility; and Lulu's not quite connected enough to reality to be the equal partner she needs. Without a likable central relationship to play, she's floundering a bit, and not getting to show off her strengths.

On the whole, the show lands just to the plus side of mediocre. It's got a comfy time slot between The Middle and Modern Family, which will probably be enough to keep it around for a full season, but I'd be surprised to see it survive to a second.

TV: The Goldbergs (Tue 9, ABC)

Premieres September 24; pilot currently available at Hulu.

Twenty-five years ago, ABC gave us The Wonder Years, a heart-warming look back at one family in the 1960s. It's an all-time classic. The Goldbergs takes a similar scenario -- same sized family, this time in the 1980s -- and sucks all of the charm and warmth out of it, leaving nothing but a family of angry louts who spend most of the show screaming at one another.

At the center of the show is 11-year-old Adam (Sean Giambrone; voiced as an adult in voice-over "when I was a kid" narration by Patton Oswalt). There's an older sister, Erica (Hayley Orrantia), and an older brother, Barry (Troy Gentile), and perpetually bickering parents Beverly and Murray (Wendy McClendon-Covey and Jeff Garlin). Throw in George Segal as grandpa Albert, who seems to be just beginning his long decline into senility, and you've got perhaps the most unappealing TV family of the last decade. (And, may I remind you, I sat through more than one episode of I Hate My Teenage Daughter.)

Garlin's Murray is so loud and horrible that it is a running gag to subtitle his harshest rants at his children with subtitles telling us what he's "really" saying; "You're not a complete moron every minute of the day" becomes "I love you." Beverly's not much better; she's an emotionally manipulative harpy who seems determined to drain every last shred of happiness from her family's lives. At least in her case, I believe that the character choices are coming from McClendon-Covey; the bellowing and stomping about that Garlin is doing are, I fear, all that he's capable of.

This is an awful show on every level. It's poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly conceived. It deserves to be among the season's early cancellations.

September 14, 2013

TV: Welcome to the Family (Thu 8:30, NBC)

Premieres October 3; pilot currently available at Hulu.

Fine cast, and a workable premise, all let down by mediocre writing.

It's high school graduation day in Los Angeles. At one school, Molly Yoder (Ella Rae Peck) is graduating, to the delight and mild surprise of parents Dan and Caroline (Mike O'Malley and Mary McCormack). Across town, Junior Hernandez (Joseph Haro) is his school's valedictorian, and his parents Miguel and Lisette (Ricardo A. Chavira and Justina Machado) are thrilled that he's off to Stanford. Neither family knows that their kids have been dating, and it's not until the middle of his valedictory address that Molly texts Junior to tell him that she's pregnant. So, we've got a culture clash between two families, the setup for what could be a smart comedy about class and race in a very multicultural city.

But the writing falls short, content to tell jokes about Molly's stupidity -- grumbling about restrictive gender roles, she whines that society is too "patriotic" (and the joke's repeated later on with the word "parochial") -- and the macho rivalry between Dan and Miguel. This being television, the mothers are limited to being the reasonable ones who want to make peace between their families. And there's a horribly ill-advised plot twist in the last thirty seconds of the episode that does not bode well for the show.

The four actors playing the parents are all familiar faces, and they're all more than capable of handling better material than they've been given here. In the younger roles, Haro comes off better than Peck, who is working the ditz thing just a little too hard.

I like these actors enough -- O'Malley and Chavira in particular are working ridiculously hard and doing as much as humanly possible with what they're given -- that I might check back in a few weeks to see if the writing's gotten any better, but this is not an encouraging start.

TV: Trophy Wife (Tue 9:30, ABC)

Premieres on Sep 24; pilot currently available at Hulu.

Let the fall festival o'reviews begin!

A year ago, Kate (Malin Akerman) was a single girl who loved to party. But then she fell into the lap (literally) of Pete (Bradley Whitford), and now she's married and part of Pete's extended family. There's ex-wife #1, Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), a hyper-competent surgeon with whom Pete has 15-year-old twins, and ex-wife #2, Jackie (Michaela Watkins), a slightly ditzy New Ager with whom Pete has an adopted 7-year-old son from China. Marriage and stepmotherhood are a big change for Kate, who's trying to learn overnight all of the things that take parents years to master.

The cast here is very strong. Akerman's been on the verge of stardom for a few years now, and this could be the show that finally gets her there. She's good at physical comedy (there's some effective drunk shtick in the pilot), and has an easy, comfortable relationship with Whitford. Harden's doing a nice comic spin on her usual ball-buster roles, and I already sense that the writers are going to be careful not to make her just an overbearing ogre, but to give her some softer edges as well. Watkins' character is the least well developed and the most cliched in the pilot, but it's hard for a comedy pilot to round out all of its characters too much while establishing the premise.

The kids, for instance, are pretty standard issue sitcom kids at this point. Warren (Ryan Lee, who looks more like a goofy teenager than most TV kids, which is refreshing) has a massive crush on his sister's best friend; Hilary (Bailee Madison) is the rebel who's bored by Kate's attempts to connect; Bert (Albert Tsai) isn't asked to do much more than be adorably precocious, but he does that well, and is less cloying than one fears from such a character.

Scheduling seems a bit odd to me. ABC's burying the show on a night with an entirely new lineup, and it airs opposite NCIS: Los Angeles, The Voice, Supernatural, and The Mindy Project. It's a show that would have been a very good fit, I think, with Modern Family on Wednesday night; if Super Fun Night bombs quickly, as the early buzz suggests it may, I wouldn't be surprised to see Trophy Wife moved there.

Promising pilot, and certainly one I'll keep watching for a few weeks to see what develops.

September 06, 2013

BOOKS: The 5th Wave, Rick Yancey (2013)

More than just another in the current flood of dystopian YA novels with tough teenage heroines.This one's got a smart story, interesting characters, strong moral dilemmas, and exciting action that should appeal to adult readers as well as teens.

The alien invasion began with an electromagnetic pulse that wiped out all of our machines. A series of increasingly severe attacks have left only about three percent of humanity alive, and they tend to be isolated, since any one of them could be an alien in disguise.

One of those survivors is Cassie. She's 16, and her goal is to re-unite with her little brother, Sammy, who has been taken (along with the other small children) to a government camp for protection. When she's injured, she's nursed back to health by a stranger, a young man named Evan. She can't be entirely sure that Evan is trustworthy, but she's left with no choice but to team up with him to find her brother.

Most of the book is told from Cassie's point of view, but we get the occasional chapter from someone else -- Sammy; Cassie's old high-school crush, who's being trained as a soldier to fight the invaders; one of those alien invaders in human form -- and each of those characters is crisply and distinctly defined.

As the book's mysteries are slowly resolved -- What do the aliens want? What's really happening to Sammy? What's Evan hiding? -- each answer ratchets the tension up another notch, until the final action sequence brings the book to a rousing climax.

There's certainly room for sequels in Yancey's universe, but The 5th Wave is entirely satisfying on its own, and it's a fine SF thriller.

September 05, 2013

MOVIES: Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, 2013)

Over the last decade, Swanberg has made about a dozen micro-budget movies, generally working with unknown actors (some of whom, most notably Greta Gerwig, have gone on to bigger things). This is his first film with a cast of recognizable actors, and it's the first of his films that I've seen. I'm left a bit baffled as to what all the fuss is about.

Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde are Luke and Kate, co-workers at a micro-brewery who've been attracted to one another for years but have never done anything about it. Jake lives with his girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), and their relationship is at the point where they have a discussion every few months in which they reassure one another that they do want to get married some day, but they never quite get around to making concrete plans. Kate's dating Chris (Ron Livingston), who doesn't quite fit in with her circle of friends.

They're all likable enough characters, despite their annoying-hipster tendencies, but none of them held my attention, and as Swanberg follows them through a series of social encounters -- a cocktail party at the brewery, a weekend at Chris's lakeside cabin, a weekend in which Luke helps Kate move -- I kept thinking, "OK, surely now is the moment when something interesting is actually going to happen," and it never actually did. The most significant event, a breakup of one of the couples, happens off screen, and we only get one tiny scene dealing with the fallout.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Perhaps if I were a 30-ish guy, clinging desperately to youth and cool-ness, I would find the minor problems of these four more interesting. But as it is, the movie felt like 90 minutes of aimless noodling about people who don't have the self-awareness or the initiative to do any of the things that might actually make them happy.

September 04, 2013

MUSIC: 2013-14 LA Philharmonic schedule

So, got my season tickets, did some exchanges, and this is the lineup of 12 concerts for which I have tickets:

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano; Pedro Carneiro, percussion
  • Schubert: Symphony #4
  • Lieberson (realized by Knussen): Shing Kham (world premiere -- Lieberson died before quite finishing this percussion concerto; Knussen did the final work to put the piece into a performable condition)
  • Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Anssi Karttunen, cello
  • Debussy: Nocturnes
  • Lindberg: new work for cello and orchestra (world premiere)
  • Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Bramwell Tovey, conductor; Alison Balsom, trumpet
  • Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
  • Tovey: Songs of the Paradise Saloon
  • Shostakovich: Symphony #5
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
  • Bruckner: Symphony #8
Dudamel; Yuja Wang, piano
  • Bjarnason: new work (world premiere)
  • Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3
  • Stravinsky: Petrushka
Krzysztof Urbanski, conductor; Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
  • Kilar: Krzesany
  • Chopin: Piano Concerto #2
  • Prokofiev: Symphony #5
Andrey Boreyko, conductor; Hilary Hahn, violin
  • Hillborg: King Tide (US premiere)
  • Nielsen: Violin Concerto
  • Sibelius: Symphony #2
  • Corigliano: Symphony #1
  • Brahms: Symphony #2
Charles Dutoit, conductor; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto #5 ("Emperor")
  • Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe
John Adams, conductor; Cameron Carpenter, organ
  • Gordon: Sunshine of Your Love (US premiere)
  • Riley: Organ Concerto (world premiere)
  • Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music
Dudamel; Emanuel Ax, piano
  • Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
  • Norman: new work for piano and orchestra (world premiere)
  • Brahms: Piano Concerto #2
Dudamel; Lang Lang, piano
  • Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
  • Prokofiev: Piano Concerto #3
  • Desenne: Sinfonia Burocratica ed' Amazzonica
  • Ravel: La valse

A good season, I think. A lot of Brahms -- they seem to be really keeping it in their repertoire after the Brahms festival a couple of years back -- and I think I'm going to be tired of Ravel after those last few concerts, but a lot of new music, and plenty of concertos outside the piano/violin/cello hierarchy -- percussion, organ, trumpet (Tovey's piece is a trumpet concerto). Composers I don't know enough about (Riley, Nielsen, Bruckner); pieces I will be happy to hear again (Bartok, Britten, Corigliano).

I'll miss at least three of these, of course, as things get in the way and life pops up, but I'm the sort of neurotic who is happy to have the tickets in hand well ahead of time.

BOOKS: But He Doesn't Know the Territory, Meredith Willson (1959)

Willson's memoir of creating The Music Man, from first inspiration to Broadway opening night. By the standards of today's tell-alls, this is tepid stuff; there are no scandalous revelations and no villains to be found. But Willson's writing is filled with the same gentle charm and humor that he brought to The Music Man itself, and it's a sweet little book.

MOVIES: Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)

You hear the premise for this movie, and you might understandably fear some sort of dreary exercise in sentimental manipulation: Two young 20-somethings, each carrying a significant load of emotional baggage, struggle to make their relationship work while working at a group home for teens who are waiting to be placed in a foster home. But writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton makes his characters so vivid and specific, and finds enough humor in their lives, to raise the movie far above the Afterschool Special level. It's one of the best movies of the year.

Much of the credit goes to Brie Larson, who stars as Grace, the staff supervisor at the group home. She's good with the kids, and has a genuine gift for being supportive without coming across as smug or condescending. She's less good at asking for help than she is at giving it, though; in the delightful and useful phrase of TV critic Daniel Feinberg, this is a Vocational Irony Narrative.

That tendency to close herself off causes difficulty for her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is a character we see far too rarely in movies; he's a genuinely decent guy without being an idiot or a wimp. He accepts her reluctance to share certain things, but isn't willing to let himself be shut out entirely.

Grace and Mason both have personal reasons for going into this line of work, and those revelations felt a bit too pat and obvious. I think it more likely, in fact, that someone with Grace's background would have chosen any career but this one. Cretton's screenplay allows those revelations to play out in reasonbly convincing fashion, though, and they are dramatically effective.

There are fine performances from the actors playing the home's resident kids, too. Making particularly strong impressions are Kaitlyn Dever as Jaden, the newest resident, whose personal struggles hit very close to home for Grace; and Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who is about to turn 18 and has very mixed feelings about leaving the foster care system.

The writing and acting create characters and a background that feel utterly real; the emotion is sincerely and honestly earned. The fact that the actors are relatively unknown -- Larson, Gallagher, and Dever are best known for TV or theater work; and this is Stanfield's first feature film -- helps, I think, to create that reality, because we're not being distracted by familiar faces and big-name stars. This is a very special movie, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

September 03, 2013

BOOKS: The Human Division, John Scalzi (2013)

First, congratulations to Scalzi for winning this year's Hugo Award for his novel Redshirts, which I thought was absolutely terrific.

The Human Division returns Scalzi to the universe of his Old Men's War and its sequels, and it's an interesting experiment in story structure. The residents of Earth and of its many colony planets make up the Colonial Union, a political and military organization which protects humanity from the universe's many hostile alien races. But Earth is beginning to realize that the vast majority of the Union's resources, money, and soldiers are coming from Earth, and Earth's politicans have begun to resent that they are being asked to defend everyone else. So when Earth is invited to join The Conclave, a powerful alliance of alien cultures and planets, the diplomats and soldiers of the Colonial Union find themselves struggling to keep Earth in the fold, because without Earth, the Union will collapse.

Against that background, Scalzi tells his story in thirteen "episodes," which were originally released as separate e-publications, and each of which is designed to stand on its own as a short story while coming together to tell a complete story. So rather than a strong plot or narrative throughline, the book plays out as a series of vignettes set against the backdrop of the Union's fight to hang onto Earth. There are recurring characters, a second-tier diplomatic crew whose missions always seem to play into the larger story in unexpected ways, but about half of the episodes feature their own characters who don't reappear elsewhere.

Styles and tones vary widely, from "The B Team," a classic bit of space opera in which our diplomatic crew has a dangerous alien contact problem to resolve; to "A Voice in the Wilderness," a look at a Limbaugh-style rabble-rouser for whom ratings are the most important goal, which reminded me somehow of Shirley Jackson.

For those readers who've already purchased the individual stories in e-format, Scalzi includes a pair of bonus stories set in roughly the same period of his future history. "Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today" is a sweet little charmer of a story that brings the book to a delightful end.

I'm not convinced that the stories work together to tell a single novel-length story. The reader is left to assemble that larger story for himself by putting together the background details of each individual piece, and by filling in the gaps between stories. And even after doing that assembling, the story never quite reaches resolution; there's at least one more novel's worth of story waiting to unfold. But I appreciate Scalzi's continuing willingness to experiment with how stories can be told (Redshirts ended with three short-story "codas"), and the individual stories are all delightfully entertaining. Even if The Human Division is less a novel than a story collection, I'm certainly happy to have read it.

MOVIES: Now You See Me (Louis Leterrier, 2013)

Four second-tier magicians (appropriately enough, played by four second-tier movie stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco) are brought together to form "the Four Horsemen," a Vegas-caliber team who take to ending their shows with enormous thefts of money that they give away to their audience, Robin Hood style. Mark Ruffalo's the FBI agent on the case, Melanie Laurent's his Interpol partner, Michael Caine's the wealthy impresario who backs the Horsemen, and Morgan Freeman's the Amazing Randi-esque debunker.

The problem is that with today's digital trickery and effects, it's nearly impossible to make a good movie about magic; when you can do anything imaginable with movie magic, the audience has no reason to believe that it's seeing real magic, or to be impressed by what it sees.

You can get around that if magic is just the backdrop for a good story about magicians, if character outweighs flashy tricks, but that's not the case here. The characters are standard action-movie thin, and while the movie's moderately entertaining in the moment, it's entirely disposable, and the plot twists that seem clever as they're happening fall apart the second you have time to think about them.

August 27, 2013

MOVIES: Lee Daniels' The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)

A wildly uneven hodgepodge of a movie, with some performances and scenes that work extraordinarily well, and some that are total disasters.

The story, based loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, is that of a butler -- here named Cecil Gaines, and played by Forest Whitaker -- who works in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan years. There is a brief prologue, in which we see Cecil as a child, living in something not too far removed from slavery, taken from the field to the house by Southern matriarch Vanessa Redgrave (because apparently there were no elderly Southern actresses available that day), whose offer to teach Cecil to be "a house nigger" is, by 1912 standards, an act of kindness.

The movie splits its time between Cecil's work at the White House and his family life. The White House half of the movie is marred by a series of celebrity cameos as Presidents and First Ladies, most of which are so badly miscast -- Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ -- that they feel like an endless series of Saturday Night Live sketches. James Marsden at least makes a reasonably good attempt to get the voice right as JFK, which is more than most of the presidential actors do. (By far the best of these cameos is that of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.)

The central story of Cecil's home life is his estrangement from son Louis (David Oyelowo) over David's involvement in the civil rights movement. And by "involvement," I mean that Louis is the Forrest Gump of civil rights, present at every major event -- a Woolworth sit-in, the Freedom Rides, Selma, jail with MLK in Birmingham, Memphis for the MLK assassination, Oakland with the Black Panthers. (Somehow, he misses the March on Washington, but that's about it.)

As Cecil ages, Whitaker chooses to reflect that age by making Cecil's speaking voice increasingly hushed and mumbly, and for the last half-hour of the movie, it's very hard to understand much of what he says. Far better (much to my surprise) is Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria. It's a role that plays into Winfrey's public persona in some ways; Gloria is the grande dame of her household, used to being the center of attention (and loving it), and knowing exactly how to play to whoever else is in the room. Her relationship with Cecil is the strongest thing in the movie, a bond that remains sexual even when the two are no longer young; even in an embarrassingly awful black-and-white disco-era jumpsuit, Winfrey is sexy.

The Gump-iness of the civil rights story works against it, and makes it hard to take seriously. There is one spectacular scene, though, in which after a few years of estrangement, Louis and his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia), who is even more radical than Louis, come to dinner with Cecil and Gloria. In the argument between Louis and Cecil, we get a real sense of why some older African-Americans were scared by the intensity and the radicalism of some activists. I would have loved to have seen that idea explored more deeply (and there's a great movie there waiting to be made).

The good stuff in The Butler is very good; the bad stuff is ghastly. The whole is uneven enough that I can't recommend it with any enthusiasm, but I wouldn't argue too strongly against it if you're interested, either.