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What I Did With My Summer Vacation: 24

24

Mike Hannemann

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: 24’s triumphant return to television and when a half-season is just right.

When 24 was cancelled back in 2008, well, the word “cancelled” actually meant something. Thanks to digital streaming services and Kickstarter, now nothing is truly final on the TV landscape, which is great when shows like Arrested Development meet their end too soon, but it can be a little alarming when shows like 24 end. It could come back, and who knows what it would be like.

On paper, renewing 24 for another season six years after it left the airwaves seems like a huge mistake. It seems like something that Fox devised to cash in on a once-beloved show to rake in some ratings and advertising revenue when other networks were burning off remaining episodes of the nonsense that didn’t make the cut this year. It’s a no brainer. Put Kiefer Sutherland on screen, let him yell and blow things up for an hour, and it’ll pull in an audience. So when I found out one of my once-favorite shows was coming back I was… cautious, at best, in my expectations.

Anyone who has seen the show knows the dip in quality the final seasons had. The show had run out of ideas. The gimmick, 24 hours of real time drama, had been exhausted. Hell, it had been exhausted as early as season one when the now-expected cliches were used for the first time. But Sutherland’s acting and some genuinely smart storylines kept the show going. And going. And going (cue clock ticking sound here). Then, in 2014, 24 finally realized that it didn’t need to be a gimmick. It could just be itself.

And that’s what happened this summer.

It almost seems like a coming of age story, for a show’s legacy. The writers decided to throw the 24-hour real time aspect to the curb. The season was 12 episodes, and the focus wasn’t “OK, how can we make this one long day that keeps the clock ticking?” it was “Alright. What do people love about this show that has nothing to do with the clock? Yeah, let’s go with that.” The show decided to invest its time in the most beloved aspects: Jack Bauer being an unrelenting badass, Mary Lynn Rajskub’s fan-favorite character Chloe O’Brian hacking every conceivable piece of technology known to man, and a sense of escalation that didn’t need to be calmed back down every five hours to figure out what the hell to do from here.

Not to belabor my point on viewing the show’s lifespan in the sense of yours or mine, but 24 is finally done living in its high school years. It has its own identity now that has nothing to do with the number 24 other than that’s… just what people called it. It isn’t beholden to what it used to be. It held on to the best part of its past and it grew up, got a job and a 401k, and finally started using that treadmill that’s been gathering dust for years (but kept that beat up sofa it loved).

“Hey man, why do they call you 24?”

“Long story, doesn’t really matter anymore. They called me that in college, the name just kind of stuck.”

You can watch 24 on Amazon Instant Video or Fox’s website. It may or may not get another season/mini-series/movie/animated cartoon.

Image: New York Daily News

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What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Bob’s Burgers

Bobs-Burgers

Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: how Bob’s Burgers is what Modern Family isn’t.

The Simpsons didn’t get nominated for an Emmy this year, and that’s apparently big news. I haven’t been a Simpsons watcher for some time now, but I know that it being left off the nominations list speaks to how much animation on TV has changed lately.

Bob’s Burgers is about to return to finish its fourth season (it comes back on October 5, my birthday, so thanks, Fox). The show started hemorrhaging viewers in the fourth season, so if you’ve been gone, it’s time to come back. You can’t let this one die on us. Bob’s Burgers is the only place on television that “heart” isn’t a dirty word.

Modern Family, one of the most popular shows on television, is built on the idea of “heart.” It’s a kind of The Wonder Years moral machine where someone learns a lesson and then tells it to the audience. In an episode about learning to love your gay son, Dad learns his lesson visually and then explains it through narration just before the end of the 22 minutes. It’s insulting on a colossal scale. It’s lazy and it’s infuriatingly bad television.

Bob’s Burgers has episodes that are also about learning things, but it has mastered “show, don’t tell.” The family in Bob’s Burgers has to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times, but they do so without turning to the camera and saying “you know, we have to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times.” It’s television, animated or no, the way it’s supposed to be.

You can read elsewhere about how the voice acting is amazing or how the music is the glue that keeps the show together. A note on that last bit, you absolutely should check out Song Exploder‘s episode about the theme song. You can read elsewhere about how it’s smart and funny and quick and worth your time. All I want you to know is that the last show on earth about being good to your family — without a garbage tagline at the end or a heartwarming guitar song — is coming back soon. Go watch the last few so you’re ready.

You can watch Bob’s Burgers on Netflix or Fox’s website or, on television, I guess. You’re so smart, you find it.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: BBC America’s Orphan Black

orphan-black-season-2-poster8

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Science fiction on television is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. Sure, you’ve got your Battlestar Galacticas, your Losts, and your Fringes, but you’ve also got your Sanctuarys, your Revolutions, and your whatever the hell Syfy thinks it’s doing with endless Ghost Hunter marathons. TV is the birthplace of a lot of great SF, but it can also be a graveyard. Orphan Black was born, screaming and healthy, on the airwaves of BBC America. It just finished out its second season, which means it already has more episodes than Firefly will ever have, which is a tragedy. Stretching the baby metaphor way too far, what happened with FOX and Firefly is this: Joss Whedon gave birth to the baby that would cure cancer, and FOX smothered it in the cradle with a pillow because FOX does not like anyone to have nice things (poor poor Arrested Development was smothered by the same villain).

Fox_Broadcasting_Company_(Logo)

These are bad people, and they do bad things.

BBC America started out as a vehicle to get Doctor Who stateside (along with other British shows), but it is branching out into original programming with Orphan Black. The series is spearheaded by a Canadian development team, which, before you think “Canadian SF?” please realize that Stargate: SG-1, arguably the most successful straight-up SF show ever, was filmed out of Vancouver. Orphan Black takes place mostly in Toronto, the lead actress is Tatiana Maslany, and she is amazing.

Following is a brief discussion of the plot, and there are some spoilers. I do not think I spoil anything past episode three or four, but it is impossible to give a précis of the show without spoiling something. At the very start of the show, we meet Sarah Manning, a woman who grew up in London, moved to Toronto, and is generally just in some deep shit. She is trying to flee an abusive boyfriend, scrape together enough cash to get out of her situation, and retrieve her daughter (whom she abandoned) from her foster mother. She makes a phone call on a train platform which hints at some of these problems, then right after she hangs up she sees someone who looks exactly like her, crying, walk up to the edge of the platform and throw herself in front of a train. Without thinking too much, Sarah grabs her purse and runs, planning to steal her identity and clean out her bank account. She is successful with this, but it is a definite frying pan/fire situation, as she discovers that she is one of an unknown number of clones and that someone is assassinating them one by one. To solve this problem, she bands together with the other known clones (again, no idea how many there are total), and attempts to uncover their pasts and the ultimate goal of the organization that created them. There, done, and I didn’t even mention anything that happened past episode three.

One of the main features that makes this show so great is the virtuosity of its lead actress, Tatiana Maslany. There end up being about four main clones that engage in solving the mystery of their existence, and Maslany plays all of them. They are all completely different, fully realized human beings. A lot of this is due to the writing and the costume departments, but most of it is pulled off by Maslany’s talent. She can, through very subtle modifications in body language and vocal inflection, create completely different people. This would be impressive if it was just “oh hey, I filmed a scene as this clone, but now I am filming a scene as this one,” but she plays different people all talking together in the same room at the exact same time, and she also plays different clones pretending to be other clones. If that last one is confusing phrasing, keep in mind that Sarah Manning, the main clone, is a grifter, and that she is really good at deception. The whole show starts out with her stealing the suicidal Beth Childs’ identity. She pulls this trick multiple times with multiple clones, and watching her play Sarah Manning playing another clone badly, messing up the accent ever so slightly here and there, is really entertaining. If you don’t quite get why I’m so impressed, please watch this:

They don’t even rely on goatees!

What-the-fuck-is-happening English con artist Sarah, uptight Canadian housewife Alison, and laid-back stoner American grad student Cosima all meet in episode three, and they all are differentiated by preoccupations, responses to stress, body language, and voice. Not only that, they are all filmed together, which means that Maslany is exhaustively filming each scene multiple times, at least once for each clone. Again, she is amazing. Bravo.

Aside from the great character trickery, this show is really strong in a lot of other areas. Its plotting is tight and suspenseful, perfectly balancing the line between suspense and payoff (unlike Lost, which held payoff until the final episode and fucked up royally). I started this series on Monday, and I finished in the early morning hours of Wednesday (as in 3 a.m.). I did not stop watching until it was done. There are only twenty episodes at this point, so it is still at the level where you could make it a fun marathon, one that would end before feelings of self-loathing set in. It also does right by its SF roots. It does not use SF for cheap one-off episode ideas or plot spackle. Like the Deist’s clockmaker God, the showrunners set up an internally consistent universe, then walk away and let it play out according to the rules set up in the first few episodes. The SF elements of the show are also really powerful. The whole plot hinges on bioengineering, which if you’ve eaten corn, you have probably already interacted with a transgenic organism. This is the really exciting, tension-filled area of SF where all the issues involved could be problems we are dealing with in reality in the next twenty years. The show uses cloning to explore the concepts of identity and self-determination, but it also keeps character, suspense, and humanity at the center of each episode.

Battlestar Galactica and Lost are gone, Stargate SG-1 packed it in, and Firefly was brutally murdered before its time. In the year since Fringe wrapped, we’ve been in a dry spell for strong, original, appealing SF programming. Orphan Black is the monsoon that breaks the drought, and in a TV landscape where terrible SF is produced and cancelled all the time, and intelligent SF is also produced and cancelled all the time, while crapfests like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory will seemingly just not die no matter how many anathemata I perform over pictures of Chuck Lorre, it is nice to see a powerful start and promising future from a show like this.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image from here.

Why Aren’t People Watching Parks and Recreation?

Parks and Recreation- Season 6

Alex Russell

Remember when Liz Lemon was everywhere?

For a few years it seemed like you couldn’t load Tumblr or Facebook without seeing at least five Liz Lemon memes. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; 30 Rock was a tremendous show. It was a lot of things, but above all else it was the critically-acclaimed anchor to NBC’s very weird (but very great) Thursday night that included The OfficeCommunity, and Parks and Recreation.

The Office faltered late, as everyone knows. 30 Rock managed to do OK just because it was consistently being hailed as the best show on television. Community‘s story is still unfolding, but the fanbase is rabid enough that it will probably end up fine. But what of Leslie Knope and the Liz-Lemon-meme-worthy Ron Swanson?

Let’s tell it straight: People are not watching Parks and Recreation anymore. Numbers-wise, the show has done a little bit worse every season, especially after losing The Office as a lead-in. Everyone who loves Parks and Rec will tell you that it doesn’t really find its footing until the end of the first season, but America really disagrees. The first season held a huge percentage of Office fans, even though it debuted after one of the dumbest storylines in Office history (“Michael Scott Paper Company” was the lead-in episode for the pilot).

Season two of Parks and Rec is some of the greatest sitcom TV of the last fifteen years, but it did a little bit worse (between four and six million people per episode) than the weird first season. Second three — which followed the final Michael Scott episodes of The Office and was the first season with Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as regulars — did even worse, sometimes dropping below four million. The three seasons since have done worse in the ratings, and sometimes far worse.

A lot of this is on NBC. 30 Rock did even worse than Parks and Rec during its decline and even The Office, the one your mom liked sometimes, barely managed four million viewers a night by the end. Community seemed unstoppable, but it’s tanking this year in the ratings. Parenthood, once one of NBC’s most reliable shows, is doing the same.

Thursday night on the other networks? Fox has Hell’s Kitchen and American Idol. CBS has The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. ABC has Scandal. NBC’s support for its sitcoms is Hollywood Game Night.

It’s impossible to convince someone to definitely watch something unless they already might, but you really should be DVRing Parks and Rec. The show stumbled a little with an ambitious plot for main character Leslie Knope, but it’s still one of the only consistently funny, consistently great sitcoms on network TV. NBC renewed it for next year, but based on the competition and the current trend, Parks and Rec is dead in the water. Come stay awhile with it every week, like you would an elderly relative. Ron Swanson is still there Ron-Swansoning around, and that really should be enough to earn your 22 minutes a week.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: NBC

The Friday Night Death Slot, Where TV Goes to Die

Alex Russell

Friday night is where television goes to die.The Wiki for “Friday night death slot” reads like a graveyard of shows that you either don’t remember or don’t want to remember. What was Canterbury’s Law? FreakyLinks? Fastlane?

The major networks have extra shows to burn off and they all do it at the same time: 8 p.m. on Friday. When you spend all your time rewatching that one episode of Louie where he drives her to the airport, you can lose focus on what most people are watching. You start to lack perspective.

This is one of the slowest times of the year for TV. This is as good a time as any to check in on Friday night.

I recorded a hour of all four of the major networks. I couldn’t justify the time to watch NBC’s Dracula or CBS’s Intelligence, so I can’t speak to those two. I did made it through four half-hour comedies that are all dying or dead. I am here in the future to tell you that there is a reason all of this garbage is on Friday at 8.

The worst part about it all? Since everyone has agreed that Friday is the wasteland night, no one is trying. No one has the need to get better because they know no one else is in any danger of lapping them.

So what’s on? I survived four shows:

Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing is shockingly bad television. Tim Allen plays the man of the house with three confusing stereotypes and Nancy Travis, his wife. From the commercials, you’d think it was just another show where clueless dad can’t catch a break. It is that, much like Home Improvement, but it lacks the charm of his time as the Tool Man.

Tim Allen works at a sporting goods store. He also is a professional “vlogger” who makes viral videos about his political views and sporting goods. Really let that sink in: Tim Allen makes videos about backpacks and the good old days and that’s his job.

“Vlog” is said about sixty times over the 22-minute episode. No one ever stops to consider making a joke about how no one says “vlog” in the real world, so it’s a little unclear if the writers even know that. No one addresses the fact that these are commercials for a fictional sporting goods store that are somehow popular among teenagers, for no reason. People have a bad habit of saying things are “random” but the unexplained nature of Tim Allen’s career as a viral content producer really must be considered the strangest of the strange.

The episode’s moral lesson is that Barry Goldwater was the greatest political mind in American history. Three different characters mention this. The youngest daughter says the phrase “You know, Dad, I was so hyped to hear your vlog on tyranny.” Last Man Standing is a really, seriously weird show. It comes off as an unconnected mash of elements and it absolutely fails as a comedy. Tim Allen hates Hillary Clinton. The police are a drain on society. Taxes aren’t fair to the rich. The libertarian message in this weird damn show is distracting and it would ruin the show if there was a show to ruin.

My favorite joke is that it was “filmed in front of a live studio audience” but it very clearly is sweetened with canned laughter. Apparently a joke about punching people for being liberals couldn’t carry the room on its own?

The Neighbors

Before you read any more of this – watch ABC’s trailer for the show.

Recently there’s been a weird rethinking of The Neighbors. People seem to have a “it’s not as bad as you’d think” attitude about it. They’re wrong. They are not correct.

The Neighbors is about some aliens that live next to every family from every show. The episode “Fear and Loving in New Jersey” centers around the aliens getting mugged and becoming afraid of the world around them. They don’t know what getting mugged is! They think the guy is trying to trade them a knife!

It has all of the premise of 3rd Rock from the Sun with none of the charm. The acting is all over the place. You really need to see it to understand it. There are lines that are read so poorly that you have to wonder if they filmed the whole thing in an afternoon and just kept the first takes.

Much like Last Man Standing, this show really shows that ABC hates the left. There’s a weird throwaway joke about global warming not being real… but it really gets going when it tries to be “edgy.” With the discovery that one of the characters is a ninja, someone seriously says “ninja please” I mean this it is said by one person to another person.

There’s lots more to say about this, but I must reiterate that this show on ABC made an n-word joke.

Enlisted

Enlisted is the only real new show on the list, and it’s a good one. It doesn’t really make sense to be on this list at all. Why is Fox setting it up for failure?

That’s the question worth asking here, because Enlisted is good television. As much as a bad show can be hidden in a commercial, the ads for Enlisted aren’t doing it any favors. I never would have watched it if not for this whole experiment. I’m glad I did, because there’s actual heart here.

“Heart” is usually a bad word in comedy. Modern Family’s weird voiceovers and the music cues from Scrubs are good examples of how “heart” doesn’t have a lot of room for error in comedy. Seinfeld’s core rule was “no hugs, no lessons.” It’s a good rule to live by.

Enlisted is a military comedy about three brothers. It’s funny, to be sure, but I can’t get over how much the stakes of the show are built up in 22 minutes. People discuss deaths at war. People share real emotions about family and separation. There’s a tank. It’s a lot to handle.

Some of my love for it is that I watched it right after ABC’s disaster hour, but I think it will have a good run of eight episodes before fading away forever because Fox doesn’t care about it.

Raising Hope

Raising Hope has been on the air for a few years and it is on life support. I’ve never seen a second of it before this episode (season 4, episode 11) and I am surprised at how much you need to know to make sense of it. I thought it was about a baby. It’s about… something else.

The show is pretty wacky. There are a lot of cutaways and zany physical comedy bits, far more than you’d expect given the tone of the show. The episode I watched had Cloris Leachman teaching a valuable lesson about loving your family and doing more to improve yourself. There’s a baby, but only kinda. There’s nothing to talk about with Raising Hope. It embodies the death slot idea: a show too weird to live, but too good to kill completely. So it will sit there and die, one Friday at a time.

Image source: ew.com