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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (6/9/14) 10:50pm - ... wherein Peter sees some stuff at the TV fest.

Here's a quick rundown of what I saw at the third annual ATX Television Festival:

In keeping with the festival's press embargo, I will avoid spoiling anything on the upcoming shows, and discuss things in more general terms.

This is the upcoming TNT series starring Sean Bean as a deep-cover operative for the FBI.  We saw the pilot.

In genre shows ten or twenty years ago, you felt like the writers liked the genre they were working in, yes, but you also felt like they were playing the "genre card" as an excuse to do whatever the hell they wanted.  With Buffy, I felt like Whedon was saying, "Look: vampires.  Are you happy?  Good.  Now that I have a guaranteed audience, I'm going to explore a quirky 'found family' as they navigate through the hell that is high school."  Even in something recent like Terriers, I see this behavior: "Okay, audience, here are your 'detective show' trappings.  Are you happy?  Great, 'cos I'm going to chronicle the tragic, self-destructive tendencies of a recovering alcoholic."

It's like the "genre packaging" will get it green-lit by the executives, and guarantee some small, core audience of people who are into that sort of thing.  And once that 'popularity' box has been ticked, the showrunner and writers go diving into the personal, literary-fiction-style story that they really *want* to tell.

These days, I often see genre shows that go the other way: the creatives are *only* interested in the genre trappings, and they only grudgingly build enough relationships and personal arcs to keep the show from falling apart.

So it is with LegendsLegends is fascinated by what it takes to go undercover for long periods of time.  It's curious about what psychological effects it has on a field operative.  It's interested in the logistics of creating credentials for a fake persona.

And the rest of it?  Meh.  They throw in some secondary characters -- somebody to work the computers, a hard-ass superior to give Sean Bean trouble -- with as little effort as possible.  They give us typical clichéd scenes -- the ex-wife who divorced our troubled hero because he was Just Too Committed To His Job, the mysterious stranger who gives him a cryptic warning -- that feel a little like Mad Libs for hourlong dramas.

You watch the actual undercover-ing, and you think, "Somebody loved this material.  Somebody went to the mat for this show to make scenes like this."  You watch the rest, and you think, "This feels like somebody's homework."

We watched the season-five finale of Archer.

It was a bit odd, since I'd only seen the first two seasons, so lots and lots of plot churn had happened since I left off.  But generally, Archer is Archer is Archer.  Adam Reed shakes things up enough to keep himself from getting bored, with the ISIS team entering different circumstances from season to season.  But you know the drill: it's a farce, there's banter, there are running gags.  It's funny, it's entertaining, but this is a show were even "Archer gets cancer" is somehow *not* a game-changer.

So all that said, this was very much another entertaining Archer episode.  The show is so consistently good that I've started to take it for granted.

The panel afterwards, with several of the voice cast (but no Amber Nash, to my surprise), was okay.  The audience wasn't coming up with the best questions, and the cast was often nonplussed and occasionally annoyed.

They showed the latest episode of Justified.  I've only watched (I think) the first season of that show, so I was bewildered, plot-wise.  But even knowing nothing, it was still a solid episode.  Graham Yost was an entertaining speaker as always.

Orphan Black
This was the absolute champion for "I am not caught up on this show -- I have no idea what's going on".  I have watched season 1 of this show; this was 2x08.  I'm actually glad I had this experience, though.  Orphan Black is batshit insane enough when you're watching every episode in sequence -- dropping into the third act of a season is just a hilarious ball of confusion.  All I can really conclude is that the show seems to be on its game, but I'm not in a good position to know for sure.  I mostly just sat back and enjoyed the performances.

The panel was one of the best I attended, if only for the shocker that Orphan Black started as a pitch in 2001, and it consisted of just one thing: the first scene in the first episode.  All they knew going into this was "a woman sees somebody who looks like her jump in front of a train."  Maybe it was a long-lost twin sister.  Maybe it was a crazy fever dream.  They had no idea.  They just took that scene, figured out where it might lead, and then found all the technological and philosophical places it might lead.

They showed the last three episodes of this military sitcom, and it was one of the happiest discoveries of the festival.

This show pulls off a very delicate balancing act.  It's a heightened comedy that leans pretty heavily on visual/filmmaking gags, à la Community.  At the same time, deep down the show concerns itself with, and has a lot of respect for, the sorts of situations and emotions that soldiers deal with.  The lead character, for example, is stationed at the show's rear-deployment base because he flipped out in Afghanistan, punched a superior officer, and has spent the entire season dealing with bad PTSD.  Many shows will arbitrarily turn on treacly music in the last five minutes and try to bring on "the feels" (as the kids call it), and it feels forced.  Enlisted only needs to step back from the densely-packed jokes and reveal how its characters really feel, and we realize that those emotions were actually there all along.

It's a good, funny show.  Now that Fox has cancelled it, I hope it finds a new home somewhere else.

Men of a Certain Age
This was another wonderful discovery.  This was a dramedy about early middle age featuring Ray Romano, Andre Braugher, and Scott Bakula.  It aired back around 2010.

I liked this show a lot.  This kind of surprised me, because in prestige dramas, they've done "middle-aged-man angst" to absolute death, going back all the way to The Sopranos.  These days, when something like Ray Donovan comes out, critics and audiences alike respond with "Please, no more, being a middle-aged white guy is tough, we *get* it."

Men of a Certain Age dives into that exact same territory.

But comes at it from a different angle.  Shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men take their older-white-guy protagonists and elevate them into tragic figures.  Not only are they hyper-competent professionals experiencing huge, significant stories, but those stories themselves seem to serve for even grander statements about the human condition.

Men of a Certain Age goes the other way.  It's about all the specific, little details about these guys at this point in their lives.  In its way, it's as closely realizes as Girls.  It's not trying to give you a grand statement, it's trying to give you a very specific one, like Jane Austen showing you the exact details of Regency England.  If it's making any large statements, it's doing so by adding up lots of small observations.

If the given episode was any indication, the plots on this show are very, very sitcommy.  But that's not readily apparent, largely because that sitcom plot is stretched out to an hourlong format.  The jokes happen, sure, but there's more time between the jokes.  The characters get time to breathe, to react realistically, to be themselves.  In the end, you get a story that's not *about* the jokes, but about exactly how it feels to be, say, a divorcée in your late 40s.  And the show is able to explore that with humor and warmth.

This is the FX "re-imagining" of the classic Coen-brothers movie.

It's a good show.  I was surprised that it was a good show, because I couldn't imagine any way to make that film into a TV series *at all*.  But Noah Hawley managed to unlock that puzzle by setting his show in the same world as the film, only ten years later.  See?  Just that one fact gives you a little sigh of relief.  So they can aim for the same tone as the film, and they can echo the film, but they aren't tied down to the film.

It's really interesting to see what you end up with when you task a writer with "write a series that feels like a Coen-brothers movie".  I don't think it hits its target -- for long stretches, the show feels almost Lynch-ian to me -- but I don't think that's a bad thing.  If you aim for the Coen brothers and miss, you still land somewhere interesting -- somewhere far more distinctive and engaging than any number of bland TV productions.

And, importantly, it does capture that mix of desperation and dread that I associate with the original film.  I can't think of another show that even goes for that feeling.  That alone has secured Fargo a place on my long, long queue of shows to watch.

The Strain
This is Guillermo del Toro's upcoming series based on his books about an outbreak of vampire zombies (or zombie vampires, or zompires).

I felt ambivalent about The Strain.

On the one hand, del Toro is unmatched, these days, for creature design.  For instance, the Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth is iconic, unsettling viewers in a way that no amount of "jump from the shadows and say boo" scares can match.  And likewise, The Strain has an amazing variety of creepy, lingering images.  Just using subdermal hookworms as the vampirism disease vector is enough to cause a lot of wincing and looking away from the screen.

And del Toro has thought a lot about the mechanics of how this iteration of zompires works.  It's complicated enough that, in the pilot, it's not immediately obvious what we're dealing with, so we get to watch the CDC slowly piece together what's going on.

That said, I think The Strain is afflicted with the same genre problem we saw in Legends: they care a lot about the genre trappings; they don't care a lot about anything else.  Like with Legends, we get the equivalent of the "guy's ex says she divorced him because he Just Cares Too Much About His Job" scene, and... I dunno.  The problem is, I live in a world where Louie exists.  If you want to show me a scene about divorce that feels like how an eighteen-year-old might simplistically imagine those conflicts... well, that's fine, but it'll ring so false as to take me out of the story.

They introduce secondary characters, who feel pretty thin.  Sean Astin manages to make an impression just by sheer force of personality, but I couldn't say much about the others (which is odd -- scientists are many things, but they are rarely bland).  Again, this is not a show that cares about exploring a range of different characters with nuanced outlooks -- this is about OMG CREEPY ZOMPIRES AND WORMS, and anything more thoughtful just takes away from that.

This also features lots of classic horror-movie idiocy.  (Hopefully I can skirt spoilers here.)  Characters enter a creepy area full of dead bodies and immediately decide to spilt up.  Characters see writhing hookworms that seem attracted to human flesh, and immediately pick up handfuls of them.  Someone sees a removed human heart that is apparently moving around on its own, and decides "hey, I should grab this".  Apparently this is a world where medical scientists are afflicted with a serious case of the stupids.  Eventually you start rooting for the characters to die, as holy martyrs to the cause of Saint Darwin.

I dunno.  For horror aficionados, this'll be right up their alley.  Me, I was just getting scared and grossed out for no real reward.

This is an upcoming sitcom from Fox.

It's a multi-camera sitcom that follows Kevin Mulaney, a professional comic in the big city, and several of his friends.  At this point, you might be saying, "Hey, that's Seinfeld!"  Well, you need to imagine Seinfeld without any jokes that are funny or any distinctive point of view.  Basically, imagine Seinfeld as a typical, forgettable 80s sitcom.  The episode's A-story centered around America's Funniest Home Videos, which only added to the feeling that I'd watched something exhumed from an 80s time capsule.

Ah well. 

Adult Swim panel
This was mostly Adult Swim talking up their upcoming shows, with different showrunners teasing what they're planning for the coming year.  Nothing really memorable here, but you could tell that everyone in that production house gets along really well.  There was a lot of congenial joking around.

I was so horribly tired during this panel.  All I really remember is Noah Hawley talking about his creative decisions early on in Fargo: setting it after the original movie's events, exploring different characters and different situations, continually chasing after the tone and feel of the Coen brothers.

This was a panel about the process of creating TV soundtracks: both clearing rights for songs and writing a score.  I was most intrigued by how the music supervisors kept abreast of modern music (mostly by subscribing to lots of tumblrs and listening to snippets of absolutely everything).  I actually asked a question: whether modern TV shows license songs in perpetuity.  Apparently it depends on the project and the song, but generally showrunners favor perpetuity licenses, because they absoultely hate having to rip a song out of the soundtrack for a DVD or streaming release.

Casting in Pilot Season
This was kind of a pointless thing for me to watch -- lord knows I'll never be an actor -- but it had some entertaining behind-the-scenes stories of actors running themselves ragged around LA during casting for pilot season.  Presumably in another few years, pilot season will finally die (in favor of year-round premieres), and these stories will feel quaint.

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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (6/10/14) 9:48am
Sounds like a great event for those (like you) "in the know". I've been watching Orphan Black, and even though I am current, it's pretty hard to follow. I have considered waiting and binge-watching as a way to better remember from episode to episode what has happened. It's such a complex show! And Tatyana Maslany is *amazing*.
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[User Picture]
Date:Wednesday (6/11/14) 2:19pm

Orphan Black

Oh yeah, I basically binge-watched season one.  I can see how that show could be challenging to watch week-to-week.
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[User Picture]
Date:Wednesday (6/11/14) 3:37pm

Re: Orphan Black

Season Two is waaaaay worse/crazier!
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