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.