There is officially too much TV. And most of it is on Sunday night. You know the list: Mad Men,Game of Thrones, Veep, Silicon Valley, The Good Wife. Showtime’s Gothic monstrosity, Penny Dreadful, lurks right around the corner. But before it shows up, there’s another new addition to the already-groaning Sunday night must-watch list. Scripted programming is the new reality. Channels that once boasted about the shoddiness of their dirt-cheap product are digging deep into the coffers and splashing out on original drama. AMC blazed the trail. History followed. Now NatGeo, E! and Bravo are launching their own drama productions. And so is WGN. For you, like me, it’s a name you sped past as you were flipping channels. Maybe you stopped at it and watched a bit of a “How I Met Your Mother” rerun on a plane. But this Chicago station that hitherto existed and flourished on an exclusive diet of syndicated sitcoms is gearing up to be a big player in the original programming field. And if you want to get noticed in a crowded market, you put on something like Salem. You put on a show where naked witches torture their captive husbands by shoving live, bloodsucking frogs down their throat. You put on a show where a naked–notice a pattern here?– scenery-chewing Cotton Mather rants about ridding Salem of it’s insidious witch population while banging a town whore. You put on a show where a victim of witchcraft is compelled to chomp off her own finger rather than identify the main member of the coven. You also put on a show where the wig department is probably having to make do with ragged leftovers from an old Xena:Warrior Princess episode. The main victim here is male lead Shane West, who glowers and snarls under a hairpiece that looks like a small slumbering dog( and his first lines of dialogue contained a reference to “the local bigwigs”). Not only does West support the worst wig, he alone among the cast members refuses to get into the hammy, declamatory spirit of Salem. While everyone else is shrieking and accusing, he’s narrowing his eyes, pursing his lips and attempting to summon up the spirit of a contemporary cool dude. His complete failure to do so just makes Salem more fun. Sunday night has an overabundance of quality shows. Salem is not one of them. But that doesn’t mean you won’t want to watch it.
Right here, we see the difference between network and cable. WGN clearly encouraged the makers of Salem to go all out within the parameters of basic cable and make something as outrageous as possible. CBS, home of every laugh-track-aided, highly-rated sitcom in the nation, took all the things that worked about the Bad Teacher movie and minimized them to the point of invisibility. To the point where the main character isn’t particularly a bad teacher. I’m going to say what everyone who’s seen this show has already said: Ari Graynor is great. She’s really great, a huge ebullient, quirky-but adorable scene-stealer who deserves a better vehicle than this. The weird thing about “Not Bad Teacher” is that CBS’s sitcoms are, by and large, abhorrent. “2 Broke Girls”, “Mom”, “The Millers”,”Two And A Half Men”: they’re a belching, farting, ball-scratching assembly-line of cocaine and anal sex gags. And yet, Ari Graynor’s gold-digging, kid-hating title character is defanged and sweetened up within seconds of flouncing onto the screen. What’s worse, sitcoms, in their infancy, have amnesia imposed upon them. The network thinking is that the audience for the second and third episodes either missed or won’t remember the pilot. This means, Graynor’s character will go through the hoops of being a badass who turns sappily sincere many more times until this show’s done and she moves on to something more deserving of her many talents.
The Trip To Italy
Once again, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s semi-improvised gastronomic tour around a delightful part of the world premieres as a six-part BBC sitcom before being released as a movie in the US. Last time, Coogan and Brydon toured the UK, this time, as the title suggests, they’re driving around the most eye-watering beautiful regions of Italy in a black Mini with a copy of “Jagged Little Pill” for company. Once again, Coogan is aloof and Brydon affable. Once again, they battle over their Michael Caine and Al Pacino impressions, this time adding Tom Hardy, Robert de Niro and Marlon Brando into the mix. Once again, the subtle undermining between the two–based on Coogan’s mild degree of Hollywood success and Brydon’s UK roles as voice-over artist, talk show host and game show regular–verges on the uncomfortable. This time, though, noted cocksman Coogan keeps it in his pants and faithful family man Brydon fumbles uncomfortably through unexpected vacation temptation.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
I was in New York last week for the roaringly successful launch party for Mad World:The Book. While I was in town, I took my life in my hands and rolled the dice on seeing a Broadway musical. “Beautiful” was a pricey impulse but but the Brill Building period of American pop is one of my favorites, so how badly wrong could I go? The answer is: not horribly badly, but… Here’s my problem with a show like this: there’a difference between a pop voice and a Broadway voice. Jessie Mueller, who plays Carole King as kind of an early-days Peggy Olson, has a fairly individual delivery but whenever a scene cuts skillfully between her composing a song and the subsequent hit version, the actors pretending to be The Shirelles, Little Eva, The Drifters and The Four Pennies don’t cut through. The way they tread carefully through these standards you wonder if they would have been hits in the first place. The other problem with musicals of this nature: the acting. The last musical I saw on Broadway was “American Idiot” which had, maybe, six lines of dialogue in the entire production. “Beautiful” has a lot, lot more. It has to tell the story of how Carole King got up the nerve to take her first songs to the Brill Building, how she met and became professionally and romantically partnered with Gerry Goffin, how he turned out to be unfaithful and borderline unstable, how they established a competitive but friendly relationship with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and, finally, how King got up the nerve to become a performer in her own right and create “Tapestry”. That’s a lot of plot for a show that derives it’s pacing and rhythms from an old “Dick Van Dyke Show”. Maybe I should have gone to the Heathers musical instead. Speaking of which…
When I saw the trailer to this YA adaptation that was written by Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters and directed by his brother, Mean Girls helmer, Mark Waters, my head exploded. Of course, I didn’t go and see it. Neither did anyone else. Such is the dilemma facing movie studios on a desperate scramble to snatch up any available YA properties. How do you know your Twilight won’t turn out to be a Beautiful Creatures or an Ender’s Game or a Mortal Instruments: City of Bones? What makes one spunky heroine caught in the middle of a love triangle a heroine and another a dud? If I knew that, my own YA books wouldn’t currently be available on Amazon for the princely sum of a single cent. One thing even I was able to figure out from Vampire Academy’s trailer was that this movie was going for a smirky, sarcastic, wise-cracking tone. Which is not what YA movie audiences want. They want the source material treated with absolute reverence. I finally belatedly saw the VA movie and time has not withered Daniel Waters’ demented way with dialogue. However, adapting the Vampire Academy mythology for audiences not raised on the seven-volume book series–there’a a three-tiered caste system, none of them are called vampires, they’ve all got specific abilities, I can’t remember anything more–inevitably results in a film creaking under the weight of exposition. Despite everything being carefully explained, I understood maybe a third of the plot. but leads Zoey Deutch and Lucy Fry were engaging and capable enough with a quip that I didn’t really care. Vampire Academy has the look and feel of a decent TV pilot. Maybe it’ll do enough VOD and DVD business that someone will step in and make it the series it should have been in the first place. How about you, WGN?