XIPHOS TV ROUND UP
It’s that time once again for me to tell you what new TV shows I tried out and why most of them have sucked. I think the “golden age” of TV we have been living in this century might be ebbing right now. Hopefully TV can bounce back soon but looking at the shows on the horizon I don’t think so. Still, TV is better than the movies at this point but not by as much as it use to be. The suck gap is narrowing fast.
Turn (AMC): This period drama about America’s first spies during the Revolutionary War, The Culpeper Ring, is based on a book called Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose (very interesting book). Unlike the book Turn isn’t very interesting and drags like it has an anchor attached to it. The problem with Turn is with the protagonist, Abe Woodhall, a spineless weak-willed daddy’s boy who reluctantly gets dragged into being a spy (eventually a very good one) by, of course, a woman. The story takes place just after England’s lighting fast (for the time) amphibious assault that took Long Island and what eventually became the five boroughs of New York as a base of operations pushing Washington and the Continental Army out into the woods without any way to gather intel on the English. Enter Ben Talmadge, rebel officer and proud son of Setauket (which is on Long Island where most of the story takes place all the conspirators are from there and know each), who with his childhood friends develops the beginning of the Culpepper Ring with not much success until they get Abe Woodhall to spy for them. Woodhall’s father is a loyalist and war profiteer with close ties to the English army which young Abe exploits brilliantly in his double agent role.
The show looks nice, the uniforms are correct, the actors handle their weapons with believability however it is such a slow developing show with such a weak central character that you have a hard time caring about any of it. The glaring weakness of the main character is quite evident when either Ben Talmadge or Robert Rodgers, a Merc famous for his light infantry known as Roberts Rangers (Don’t Forget Nothing!), are on screen. Watching those two trying to murderize each other is the best part of the show. In fact everybody but Woodhall is interesting. Hell even the English, who normally aren’t, are interesting past their normal upper crusty pomposity and obnoxiousness. This show had the potential to be a home run for AMC instead it became a dreary exercise in period facsimile.
I think we will stay with AMC since I seem to have a bone to pick with them.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC): I can’t figure out if this show is good or such a train wreck I can’t turn away. This is another period piece, this time set in the early 1980’s is a thinly veiled retelling of the rise of the Compaq computer company among the first to sell IBM desktop computer knock offs, the start of the personal computing revolution and the beginnings of the “Silicon Prairie” in Texas. (The Dallas area has a high concentration of TELCOM, IT and semiconductor companies that rivals California’s Silicon Valley)
In this version of events a former top sales guy at IBM Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), resurfaces after a years disappearance as a salesman for Cardiff Electric in Dallas, Texas. Cardiff is a system software company providing products for mainframes and has zero to do with the manufacture of computers. Joe is a very Don Draper like character with a mysterious backstory and ability to spin out beautiful sounding BS at a drop of a hat. The reason MacMillian targeted Cardiff Electric for his personal take over bid is because Cardif employs a man named Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Clark when we meet him is a beaten down engineer however a few years earlier Clark along with his wife Donna (Kerry Bische) built the first prototype personal computer and it damn near killed him when it didn’t get made by anybody. Clark also penned a moderately famous treatise in Byte magazine about the future of personal computing.
Joe also recruited a hotshot female college coder named Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) to help back engineer IBM’s software. With all his personnel in place Joe embarks on seizing Cardiff for his personal ambitions and he, Clark and Howe set about building the first IBM desktop knockoff for home use.
The show like all AMC shows is great to look at. The period details are exact and the acting is generally solid especially Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy who are essentially playing the roles of Steve Jobs (salesman/proselytizer) and Steve Wozniak (the forward looking techie). However the early epsiodes are tough going to watch unless you are really into the nitty-gritty of computer development. The other issue I think the show had is on the conceptual level. On paper I think the creators and writers thought that the main relationship of the show would be between Joe, Cameron and Clark with the Cameron character being the breakout character after Joe. However in execution the most interesting characters on the show turn out to be Joe, Clark and Donna who is every bit as smart and capable as her husband and saves the day on numerous occasions. Cameron who they thought would be a powerhouse character, wasn’t. That’s due to the fact she’s a mass of clichés being held together by an actress not up to the task. These conceptual issues really hamstrung HaCF in the early going until they figure out what they wanted to do with the characters and their place in the story. When they straighten themselves out the show improved.
Might as well stay with the computer motif with the next show.
Silicon Valley (HBO): This laugh out loud funny (I hate myself for writing that description but it’s actually dead on) and from what I can tell an on target ripping of Silicon Valley culture by Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Idiocracy, Office Space who also has a degree in physics and he worked at a start up briefly) is the best new show I have seen this year. SV is smart, insightful, biting yet never mean and occasionally just a bit poignant but not in a syrupy way.
SV is about the development of a compression algorithm for movies, pictures and TV that has almost zero degradation (don’t ask me more I don’t know anything about that) but really that is the starting point for Judge to make some funny observations about Silicon Valley, the startup culture and what happens when geeks get money. I highly recommend this show and if you can’t laugh long and hard at the ‘tip to tip” ratio scene you have no heart.
Fargo (FX): This show is sort of based on the Coen brothers movie being that it is set in winter in Minnesota. The only thing I can recommend about this chump change of a show is the former Mr. Angelina Jolie, Billy Bob Thorton, as an extremely violent but erudite hitman. When he’s on screen the show is electric full of life and energy. When he’s not the show sucks so mostly the show sucks. In fact it sucks so hard the nerds love it which is a prerequisite for nerd love. Avoid this hot mess if at all possible. Bilbo Baggins is so bad in this I am reconsidering my take forgiving him for Tim Canterbury. Unqualified nepotism boy a.k.a. Tom Hanks Jr. is nigh unto unwatchable. The fat deputy broad is annoying and painful to both the eyes and the ears. All in all a terrible experience.
Rectify (Sundance TV): This show is pure 100% Southern Gothic and could have been created by Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe. Rectify is the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) who at 18 was convicted of the rape and strangulation murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend Hanna Dean. Holden was sentenced to death and spent 19 years on death row before his conviction was vacated due to new DNA evidence. This slow burn character study is about what has happened to Daniel, how he views the world and the effect on his family and the town over his release. There is also a ‘conspiracy’ angle in true southern gothic style that plays with the conventions of the genre that I won’t ruin here. They also play around with the notion that Daniel might not be guilty of the crime but he might still be a guilty of some heinous things.
I highly highly highly recommend this show. It has some of the finest acting I’ve seen of late by Aden Young and the story is compelling and deeply layered however it isn’t an easy watch since it mines some very dark depths and puts the onus on the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions on the subjects presented. That my friends is a refreshing change of pace. The other thing that this show does is use silence to a lethally effective degree. I don’t mean silence as in not talking, though there is some of that, no I mean there are stretches of no sound whatsoever. This caught me off guard the first time it happened, I thought it was a problem with my computer or the download but it wasn’t. It was planned and it was highly effective. I can’t recommend this show enough. I binge watched all 16 episodes (6 first season 10 second) over two days.
Lastly, and I hear the sighs of relief, I’m going to do something different and take a look at a show already cancelled and deservedly so but there is a specific reason why I am doing this that will be clear in a moment.
Believe (NBC): This offering from Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien) and JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Lost) had a great pilot episode then 11 goofy pretty bad ones that followed. Believe is about Bo (Johnny Sequoyah) a 12-year-old girl gifted with all sorts of special powers like telepathy, ESP, precognition or whatever the writers need to move the plot forward. Bo is on the run from the evil government/corporation axis or something for some reason and her chief caretaker, Dr. Milton Winters (Delroy Lindo), has to breakout from prison a new day-to-day caretaker, William Tate, on the night of his scheduled execution for a reason so obvious it hurts. Bo and Tate go on the run have adventures and shenanigans and what not.
Look the show really wasn’t good but I struck with it for two reasons. The first is the girl who plays Bo, she was pretty good in what really could have been a thankless role. She made the super powered Bo grounded and played her like a normal tween more or less. The real reason though why I stuck with the show is this. The actor who played Tate, Jake McLaughlin, served with the United States Army’s 3rd Infantry Division as a dismounted M249 LMG (formerly SAW) gunner and was in the initial Iraq campaign where he was critically injured. McLaughlin earned a Combat Infantrymans Badge (I have one I earned when I was in the Army with 4 stars) and a Purple Heart (I am ashamed to say I have too many of them, I’m not good at my job.) What that means is that he has bought a ticket for me to watch anything that he is in forever no matter how bad it is.