There was a time not that long ago when global television meant some moody procedural produced in Norway. While some of the shows were excellent, at the end of the day they were only culturally a step removed from the traditional American-made detective show. Some of them were even remade for American audiences and that was only possible because the cultural underpinnings of a series made in France or Denmark aren't that far from one made in Vancouver or Atlanta.
One of the best parts of my job over the past couple of years has been getting the chance to see some of the extraordinary television made across the globe. The crazy growth of streaming services has made it possible for TV shows in smaller territories to get global distribution. And it's also sparked a growth in production regionally as American studios and streamers sign deals with talented local writers and producers to create higher-end programming specifically made for a global audience.
Sakho & Mangane is a procedural series produced in Senegal and set in the capital city of Dakar. Created by Jean Luc Herbulot (who also directed four of the season's eight episodes), the show is a stylish and sharply-written take on the familiar buddy cop genre, filtered through a very specific African POV. The result is a fascinating series that can best be described as a unpredictable mash-up of Lethal Weapon, Miami Vice & Fringe.
Issaka Sawadogo plays the weary veteran cop Captain Souleymane Sakho, who meets his new partner-to-be when he busts up a drug deal and chases one of the suspects through the streets of Dakar. The chortling suspect ends up flat on his back, still smirking and smoking a cigar while introducing himself as an undercover cop. Lieutenant Basile Mangane (Yann Gael) is the typical young, brash police partner, careless about procedure and pathologically uninterested in being a team player.
But the familiar tropes are soon buried inside a story that is filtered through Senegal's culture. The team gets a new boss, a take-no-prisoners hard ass named Mama Ba (Christiane Dumont). That familiar twist is offset by the duo's first case, the theft of a sacred totem that local fishermen believe gives them favor with the spirits. That supernatural underpinning is a constant throughout the season and by the final two episodes, the story arc includes chemically-created zombies, a mysterious organization and powers that seem to blur the line between reality and the spirit world.
The ensemble of Sakho & Mangane is also uniformly solid. Christophe Guybet plays Toubab, an eccentric pathologist who has outfitted his dissecting room with Eurotrash disco posters, mood lighting and a talking parrot. It's not clear why he's in Dakar and whether he's hiding or on the run. Fatou Elise Ba is also excellent as Antoinette, a self-described modern feminist journalist who struggles to navigate the blurry lines between a new Dakar and the old world culture that still dominates it. Awa (Khalima Gadji) is the station house reception manager, a shy woman who was a victim of some unnamed abuse. But she finds her inner strength as the season progresses and becomes a valuable and insightful investigator. Pope (Ricky Tribold) is a serious and moody young officer who evolves from a critical and serious policeman into a reluctant yet effective bulwark against the supernatural powers that target the police squad.
I loved everything about Sakho & Mangane. The stylish directing, the juxtaposition of American culture in an African setting. Mangane is fond of randomly yelling out "Hasta la vista" in the middle of a chase, which can be unsettling when he's doing it while battling some snarling crime boss/witch. It took me most of the first episode to really be drawn into the unfamiliar beats of Sakho & Mangane. But I quickly binged through the rest of the episodes and the show is one I would recommend to anyone who loves a great procedural drama.
Sakho & Mangane is available on Topic and Netflix.
I have to admit that I have a fondness for puppets. Not in a creepy way and why did your mind go there first? Now, I've always found puppets entertaining and truth be told, in an early life I was a financial reporter for a video/audio financial news startup in the Bay area. And while I spent the rest of my week doing serious reporting, every Friday I did a segment where I was the voice of "Stockie," a stock-picking sock puppet who gave surprisingly informed advice while mocking the stuffiness of the tech industry. My crowning moment was when someone from Apple PR called and asked for an apology because they felt the "puppet was being too mean" about their new G4 Cube. A product which, for the record, turned out to be a disaster.
But back to the point of this. Because I love puppet-oriented humor, I was really hesitant to check out the new-ish Syfy late night comedy The Movie Show. Created and voiced by Adam Dubowsky & Alex Stone, the show centers around a public access movie review TV show hosted by "Deb & Wade." Deb is the movie critic for the fictional Modesto Bird and Wade is...well, his personality can best be described as similar to what you'd hear from the sidekick on a mid-market classic rock morning show. He's juvenile, self-centered and thinks the movie The Meg is one of the greatest films of all time. Wade is the kind of guy who - when asked to do a segment where he and Deb would ask each other to watch their favorite movie - fought to name the segment "I'll Show You Mine & You Show Me Yours."
I am likely well past the demo for The Movie Show. And I know I should find the scattershot, sometimes vulgar and often just odd humor of the show off-putting and predictable. But honestly, I binged the first four episodes last night and was laughing so hard my wife came in to make sure I wasn't having some sort of seizure. I did stand-up for more than a decade, I've written a few things I think might be passably funny. I'm a tough audience. But based on what I've seen so far, The Movie Show might be the most consistently funny half-hour comedy I've seen in 2020.
We all need a laugh right now and I don't think you'll find a more predictable place to find it than Thursday nights at 11:00 pm ET on Syfy. Tonight is the last show before the holidays and it returns in three weeks on January 7th.
The 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of television shows built around truly insane concepts. A mother reincarnated inside a car (My Mother The Car), a comedy set inside a German WWII prisoner-of-war camp (Hogan's Heroes), a show about a group of inept calvarymen and the Native Americans who cheat and trick them (F-Troop). That type of television has mostly fell out of favor by the 1990s, but briefly resurfaced later in the decade with shows such as The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer and the 1996 short-lived CBS comedy Thanks.
Thanks was created by Phoef Sutton and Mark Legan, both of whom had impressive TV credits. Legan was just coming off of stints on Dave's World and Grace Under Fire. And Sutton had previously worked on Bob and Cheers. So if anyone could pull off a comedy about the Puritans settling in America, these two guys could do it. And having watched all six episodes recently, the resulting show has some brilliant moments. But I also have a feeling that there was some network pushback about the execution, because there is definitely a shift in tone after episode four.
The series begins with the Pilgrim's first spring in the New World. There has been more snow and a lot less food than they had expected and a lot of the humor is based around the hunger and the group's puritan ways. Mark Dutton plays James Winthrop, who runs the local general store with his wife Polly (Kirsten Nelson). They have three children - Abigail (Erika Christensen), Elizabeth (Amy Centner) and William (Andrew Ducote). The family also includes James's mother Grammy Winthrop (played by Cloris Leachman). Jim Rash plays John Cotton, the self-described "village idiot," and the role feels as if it was originally written for Chris Elliott.
There are a couple of running jokes in the first group of episodes, including one involving a long-winded, the very religious Reverend Goodacre (Keith Szarabajka) who sees the hand of the devil in even the most everyday activities. There are lots of jokes about potential sinful behavior and the hypocritical behavior of the townspeople. When confronted with tobacco for the first time, the magistrate suggests it must be a sin and should be abolished. "But shouldn't we try something before we say it's a sin?," asks someone. "We never have before now," he replies. People are thrown into the stocks for dancing and in one episode Elizabeth is thrown into the stocks for seemingly predicting a future that sounds a lot like our modern-day lives.
In fact, ten-year old Elizabeth is part of one of the most consistent running gags in the show. She is constantly suggesting better ways of doing things or wondering out loud whether the world might someday change in an unexpected way. When examining the incredibly small carrots the villagers grew in their first harvest, she wonders out loud if someday someone might be able to sell the wee carrots for extra money by claiming that they are "gourmet." "Marketing," she explains to her father. "It's all about the marketing."
Cloris Leachman doesn't have much to do in the first couple of episodes, but episode three has her lobbying for her own room and it gives her a chance to show off her impressive ability to chew up scenery and deliver a punchline. She's also the center of episode five, in which she falls for a traveling salesman played by Orson Bean. That episode might have the funniest line in the series: "My mother always told me, you don't buy a mule before you ride it."
Episode six is the final episode and it is probably also the most consistent. Viewers are finally introduced to the local Native American tribe, who teaches them how to grow crops and catch turkeys. The episode ends with a Thanksgiving meal and a bunch of jokes that mock the impact the Pilgrims would eventually have on this new world (or at least, a world that is new to them).
The episodes do take a bit of a shift in tone midway through the season. A lot of the jokes about sinful behavior and the stocks go away, which makes me suspect that the network was concerned some viewers might be offended by the light-hearted mocking of religion. Regardless, Thanks has some funny moments and I suspect if it had received a longer episode order (and hadn't been burned off in August), it might have survived and lasted several seasons.
Several of the cast later had memorable roles in other television shows. A decade later, Jim Rash played Dean Craig Pelton on the NBC sitcom Community. Kirsten Nelson went on to play police chief Karen Vick on Psych and Erika Christensen has appeared in a number of movies and television shows, ranging from Traffic to the character Julia Braverman-Graham on Parenthood.
The entire premiere episode of the show is posted below and you can click here for an episode guide for the series.
NCIS kicked off its 18th season last week and the episode was a reminder that as much as I love the show, it feels like a series that is contemplating its eventual ending.
I would argue that until season 14, there wasn't a more consistent procedural on television. The ensemble was tight, the writers knew the characters and how to gently build out the mythology of the ensemble. Mark Harmon's Leroy "Jethro" Gibbs has always been the creative and emotional center of the series. But Gibb's gruff and taciturn character meant that it was up the rest of the cast to fill in the emotional heart of the show. The result was an ensemble that fit together like a handmade Italian supercar. Every part working in conjunction with the other, every character driving the show forward.
But the exit of Michael Weatherly (Anthony "Tony" DiNozzo) at the end of season 13 led to a cascade of changes that NCIS has never quite recovered from. David McCallum (Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard) went to a part-time recurring character towards the end of the following season and Pauley Perrette (Abby Sciuto) left at the end of season 15. Leaving Harmon and Sean Murray's Timothy McGee as the only remaining characters from the early days of the show.
NCIS has attempted to rebuild the ensemble back in recent seasons with limited success. Jennifer Esposito (Alex Quinn) only lasted one season. Duane Henry (Clayton Reeves) was brought on full-time for seasons 14 and 15 and then killed off. Even the newer characters that have remained have become little more than ways to provide some exposition for the episode or give Gibbs and McGee someone to interact with on a regular basis.
Emily Wickersham (Ellie Bishop) was brought in during season 11 to fill the place of the departed Cote de Pablo (Ziva David). But after an interesting debut, Bishop was eventually given a divorce and progressively given less to do each season. For the most part, she now just serves as a foil (and possible love interest) for Wilmer Valderrama's Nick Torres. Neither one of them are given much of a chance to do anything, except react to Gibbs and do a bit of investigation.
Mario Bello (Jacqueline "Jack" Sloane) was brought in during season 15 and the role appears to have been created to be a foil/possible love interest for Gibbs. And watching her character is a frustrating experience because you can tell the writers can't quite get Sloane to jell. Some episodes she does little more than come in, give Gibbs the stink eye and encourage him to talk about his feelings. Joe Spano (FBI Agent T.C. Fornell) has also been frequently used in recent seasons as a friend/sounding board for Gibbs, although to do that his character keeps getting involved in increasingly unlikely scenarios.
But a couple of things have worked very well in recent seasons. Diona Reasonover joined as Kasie Hines, replacing fan favorite Abby Sciuto. And it's a transition that has worked well. She doesn't generally have more than a scene or two in any episode, but she gets the job done and her character brings some much-needed youth to the cast. And as the rest of the ensemble has floundered at times, Gibbs and McGee have evolved into more of a father-son dynamic. Last season's pandemic-shortened season ended with Gibbs asking McGee to sit for awhile so he could share memories of his military service that he had never spoken about with anyone before. Their evolving relationship is often the best thing about NCIS in recent seasons.
And we're left with a show that really only works now when the episode directly involves Gibbs or somehow touches on some aspect of the Gibbs mythology. So given all of that, it makes sense that the 400th episode of NCIS would flashback forty years to tell a previously unknown story about Gibbs and Ducky.
A man is found dead in the NCIS basement and he is connected to a case that Gibbs was associated with back when he was still a young Marine headed off to sniper school. The present-day case doesn't amount to much, but it's really only there to give David McCallum a reason to return (always a welcome sight) and a way to set up the flashback portions of the episode. We get to see how Gibbs and Ducky first met, hear a bit more backstory about Gibbs and his future wife Shannon and even a reminder of how Gibbs was first introduced to the house he has now lived in for years.
The flashback scenes are most of the reason to watch the episode and they are exceptionally well done. Sean Harmon and Adam Campbell are perfectly cast as young Gibbs and young Ducky and the parts of their backstory introduced in the episode deftly reveal some new facts about the duo for fans. In fact, while I don't think this episode was designed to be a back-door pilot, CBS should really consider signing them both to star in a "Young Gibbs" series. Which would be a great project for the upcoming Paramount+ streaming service.
At the 400-episode mark, it seems petty to complain that NCIS is in a holding action. But it sure feels that way. The series will likely last as long as Harmon wants it to and I hope that the way his character is being framed hints at some exit in the not-too-distant future. I still love NCIS. But sometimes you need to know when to let go of the things you love.
M.A.N.T.I.S. aired on Fox over the 1994-1995 season and it was a unique effort for broadcast television. The series was created by Sam Raimi and Sam Hamm, who had some impressive credentials coming into the effort. Raimi was just coming off of "Darkman" and "Army Of Darkness" while Hamm's most recent work included the co-writing the screenplay for Tim Burton's "Batman" and story for "Batman Returns."
On the face of it, the M.A.N.T.I.S. origin story owes more than a bit to the well-known tale of Tony Stark and Iron Man. In this version, Carl Lumbly played Miles Hawkins, a mild-mannered yet wealthy doctor who was shot and paralyzed during a riot. Bitter about his paralysis and the police's role in the riot, Hawkins creates an exoskeleton (Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System) that allows him to not just walk, but perform superhuman feats. He builds a secret underwater lair and a space-age hovercraft to aid in his fight against evil. The two-hour pilot was directed by "X-Files" alumni David Nutter and was a sleek and fun action romp. But even more importantly, it was an action movie starring an African-American lead at a time when many in the industry still believed that audiences would never support a drama helmed by a non-white actor. Even more amazing, the ensemble was also African-American.
But the series quickly ran into problems. The show was completely revamped after the pilot. The pilot had featured Gina Torres as a pathologist, Bobby Hosea as a reporter trying to cover the story of the M.A.N.T.I.S., and Wendy Raquel Robinson and Christopher M. Brown as a pair of African students studying under Hawkins. Every major character save Hawkins was replaced for the series, with the not-so-black Roger Rees and Christopher Gartin joining the cast. The show pretended as if the storyline of the movie had never happened.
The series struggled from the beginning to find an audience despite being the lead-in on Fridays for The X-Files. Most of the episodes in the first half of the run centered around some variation of Hawkins using his suit to perform some rescue or other act of vigilantism. There was also an on-going battle with industrialist Solomon Box, who wanted control of the M.A.N.T.I.S. technology for his own evil purposes. But the show was retooled again in mid-season to make it more compatible with The X-Files and the new direction added all sorts of weird themes, including time travel, parallel universes and mysterious monsters. The season ended with Hawkins appearing to be killed off by (I am not kidding), an invisible dinosaur.
M.A.N.T.I.S. might not have been a great show, but it should be remembered for being one the show that brought the first African-American superhero to primetime television.
NOTE: If you're interested in seeing M.A.N.T.I.S., the entire series is available on Amazon Prime Video.
I don't know the definition of "Grace" is, but I know what it feels like to receive it.
Maybe eight years ago, I was at the lowest point of my life. I had been laid off three times in less than two years and there wasn't one aspect of my life that wasn't a dumpster fire. My marriage was collapsing under the weight of all the stress and I had a young autistic son who needed help I couldn't give him. I was lost and feeling simultaneously as if I were carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders while also being a failure and a fraud. One night I was driving home, dreading seeing my wife's disappointed face. And as I was driving, I realized I had to go to the bathroom and when I noticed some people walking into a small church, I stopped to use their facilities.
It turned out the people were there for a meeting they jokingly called the "Broken Person's Club." It was set up essentially like an AA meeting. A group of people sitting in a circle talking about their lives, their hopes, their failures. Some of the group did have addiction problems, but there was also an elderly woman who was just lonely and a former pastor at the church who had lost his faith when his wife died following a long bout with cancer. All of them were "broken" in some way and they gathered twice a week for some fellowship, sharing of stories and unconditional support of each other. They convinced me to stay and I soon became a regular.
I wasn't a religious person then and I still am not. But those meetings saved me. Being able to talk about my fears, sharing the dark places knowing that there was no judgement gave me the space and strength to work everything out. It was brutally difficult. But as I write this I have never been happier. I have a strong marriage, a wonderful son and I make a good living doing work that matters to me. And I wouldn't be here without those meetings that I was almost too afraid to try. I found Grace, even if I can't quite describe what it is.
That feeling of Grace is also the underpinning of the new Netflix series Voices Of Fire, which premieres on Friday, November 20th. In a year where it can feel as if all of the joy has been sucked out of the world, this six-episode series is a palate cleanser for your soul.
At first glance the premise of Voices Of Fire sounds a bit like a Gospel-oriented American Idol rip-off. Bishop Ezekiel Williams - the uncle of Pharrell Williams - has assembled a group of the gospel heavyweights in the Hampton Roads area and hopes to put together what he dreams will be one of the best gospel choirs in the country. And they'll do it by mixing singers who have grown up in the church with people who don't know gospel music, but have the voice and personality to be part of a larger plan.
More than 3,000 people entered to be part of the choir and several hundred were brought in for auditions. And as these hopefuls sing for their chance, it's quickly apparent that this show isn't an American Idol clone. While that show can often seem wrapped up in the celebrity of the judges and the ambition of all of those Kelly Clarkson wannabes, the hopeful participants of Voices Of Fire aren't expecting to become stars by participating. They're looking for a way to find musical redemption, an opportunity to find themselves in a larger purpose. Early on, one singer begins haltingly singing and as she does tears begin streaming down her face. And that emotion sets the stage for a series of personal stories that frame the audition process and the preparation for the choir's public debut at a large theater.
One singer was once in a R&B boy's group that collapsed due to drug use by some of the members. A 15-year-old struggles to learn songs, hampered by the fact that she has lost 50 percent of her hearing. Another man has hands that are partially paralyzed after an accident that nearly ended his life. There are singers who struggle with social anxiety and a lack of support and confidence. Nearly everyone highlighted in the series is broken in some way, but the hard work balanced with unconditional support transforms each of them in ways they never saw coming.
The season ends with a concert and even at that point there are unexpected highlights and powerful emotions that will lift you up and leave your soul at peace.
Voices Of Fire is a gospel show, but it isn't infused with modern-day religion or politics. If you believe, you'll see the series in a way that will reaffirm your belief that God changes lives on a daily basis. And if you don't believe or have non-Christian beliefs, you'll be lifted up by the unbridled joy that is interwoven into nearly every scene of the show.
While Voices Of Fire probably wouldn't have happened without the presence of Pharrell Williams, the show wisely uses him very sparingly. He makes a brief appearance during the audition phase and doesn't return until the night of the big concert. And that hands-off approach works for the show. His continued presence would have ended up making the show about him and his stardom. In small doses, he becomes a supporter and mentor rather than a celebrity judge.
In case you can't tell by this point, I absolutely loved Voices Of Fire. Its optimism and community is just the type of role model we could all use right now. My only complaint is that I would have loved to have seen the entire concert. So maybe it's time for a "bonus episode," Netflix.
Voices Of Fire premieres Friday, November 20th, 2020 on Netflix.
At its best, television is a reflection of the culture that created it. It's not always an accurate representation, but it's a window into the mythology and stories that culture thinks are important. It's why I love watching television made outside of the United States. It's not just the enjoyment I get from seeing the work of people unfamiliar to me. It's the joy of seeing a familiar story through the lens of a different culture.
That unfamiliar approach to storytelling is just one of the reasons to recommend La Révolution, a new original series from creator Aurélien Molas and Netflix France.
The series is set in 1787 France, in a town about 60 miles from Paris. Two years before the start of the French Revolution, local doctor Joseph Guillotin uncovers a series of mysterious murders. Young peasant women are disappearing and it appears that there may be some serial killer at work. It's not clear why the murders are taking place, but as Guillotin continues to dig, he discovers an unknown virus which turns the victim's blood blue. It also gives them extraordinary strength along with some unsettling urges.
Joseph Guillotin was a real person. In fact, he is best known for his work to convince the French government to execute criminals by guillotine - a method he argued was more humane than the traditional axe or "breaking wheel." He didn't actually invent the guillotine, but it was named after him because of his work.
But while the Joseph Guillotin in La Révolution bears the same name as France's leading proponent of the guillotine, their stories have very little in common. And that is the case with much of the storyline in La Révolution. It's very loosely based on the real events that led to the French Revolution, but I don't think there is any historical evidence that France blueblood aristocracy literally had blue blood. Instead the story is a "reimagining" of history, drawing on the inequities of French society to frame more traditional tale of monsters - both human and not-so-human.
There are a number of strong performances in La Révolution, including Marilou Aussilloux, who takes an impressive turn as the haunted Elise de Montargis. Elise is the daughter of the local nobility and argues that the population is overtaxed and abused. But she has little sway in a society where women are seen primarily as vessels for giving birth to the next generation of nobility. Her story is one of the over-arching arcs of the season as viewers learn more about how she has been treated and all of the things that have been taken away from her in the past. Amir El Kacem is also extremely effective as Joseph Guillotin, a man who desperately wants to overthrow the current political system. But also somehow believes that change can happen without violence and death. It's difficult to say too much about the main storylines of La Révolution without spoiling things. But Molas and the cast do a spectacular job at framing an unlikely premise in a way that seems as if it's the way the French Revolution *could* have happened. And the story also feels contemporary in some very unsettling ways.
I don't know enough about the current political and cultural climate in France to hazard a guess about how La Révolution will feel to French viewers. But as an American, the show's themes of a dismissive and corrupt upper class, a lack of upward mobility and a deck stacked against the working class seems painfully contemporary. While there aren't a lot of factual similarities between pre-Revolution France and the United States in 2020, the feel and emotional weariness of fighting what seems to be a hopeless battle against the powerful resonates deep into me.
La Révolution was a treat to watch and it's perfect suggestion for viewers wanting something that is entertaining, unexpected and often thought-provoking.
La Révolution premieres globally Friday, October 16th, 2020 on Netflix.
Nothing about love is guaranteed. But what if it was?
That's the bare bones outline for the AMC anthology series Soulmates, which premieres tonight. The series is set 15 years in the future and scientists have discovered the "soul particle" and as a result can match humans to their soulmate with 100% accuracy. You take the test and if your soulmate is in the database you meet. If they are not, then you have to wait for them to take the test. It's kind of the Minority Report of love. So know what is going to happen before you even meet. Or do you?
While scientifically finding your soulmate sounds wonderful on the face of it, it doesn't take long to see a lot of potential complications. What if your soulmate is dead? Or if they (or you) are already married? Do you spend your entire life waiting for a match that might never come? And what does a soulmate mean, exactly? Does it mean you'll be compatible in every way?
Season one explores some of the consequences of living in a world where everyone expects true love. Because the term soulmate is a bit squishy and challenging. Someone might be your soulmate, but you find you're not attracted to them. Or they are a white nationalist. Or detest donuts (Okay, that might be one of my fears). What do you do when that perfect match comes with some baggage you might not be able to live with?
But there are even worse scenarios. Imagine you're happily married to someone who feels like your soulmate. They're smart, funny, kind and gentle. And the sex is amazing. Do you take the soul particle test? Does the science matter more than your heart?
And that was the complication of this idea that I was glad to see explored. Most of us have had more than one person in our life that we could have at the time described as our "soulmate." Is finding your soulmate really the thing that will make you happy?
Like all good "what if" shows, Soulmates creators William Bridges and Brett Goldsteinrs allow the open-ended premise to lead the viewer in all sorts of unexpected directions. The episodes were all over the place thematically, some of them deathly serious and some veering almost into madcap rom-com territory. But in their own ways, each episode explored the complexities of love and relationships in a world where science has convinced most people there is only one love for them.
Soulmates' six episodes explore a lot of those themes and questions and when it's all over, you may find yourself thinking that finding your soulmate might be overrated. As it turns out, maybe Match.com isn't all that bad.
Soulmates premieres Monday, October 5th, 2020 at 10 p.m. ET/9c on AMC.
I'll let you in a little secret about TV critics. There are times when we dread watching an upcoming show. Sometimes it's because you expect it to be dull or because you don't especially enjoy the work of someone associated with the series. But it can also be because you really enjoyed someone's previous work and you really, really don't want this project to fail to live up to their talents. In the end, what separates the professionals from the casual writers is the ability to look beyond your prejudices and fears. The ability to review what's on the screen, not what you are expecting a show to be.
I enjoyed the movie Jurassic World well enough. It was a fun romp and a distracting way to spend a couple of hours. But I wasn't exactly hoping to see an animated series set in that world. So when I first received the episodes of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous for review, I had an open mind but a sinking feeling that I might be disappointed. But going into the episodes, what gave me hope was the presence of Zack Stentz, who is attached to the show as a consulting producer. While Stentz is probably best known for this work on the screenplays for the movies Thor and X-Men: First Class, he also has a solid background writing and producing on some great television shows, including The Flash, Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. He also wrote and was executive producer on the Netflix original movie Rim Of The World, a wonderfully energetic teen scifi/adventure movie that was one of my favorite films from last year. Stentz knows how to successfully assemble an action series and I was hoping I would see some of that magic in Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous.
Honestly, I don't know why I was worried.
Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is an impressively ambitious animated series that follows the story of six teenagers sent to to the far side of Isla Nublar to try out a brand-new state-of-the-art adventure camp set to open soon to the public. And while the first couple of episodes focus primarily on introducing the teens and chronicling their attempts to explore the camp and see some dinosaurs, their story kicks into high gear when the rest of Jurassic World has a meltdown after the escape of some mysterious experimental dinosaurs gone rogue. Left on their own as the island's infrastructure begin to melt down, the campers dodge one danger after another as they attempt to make their way across the island to the safety of the evacuation boats.
The teens are the expected range of backgrounds and talents. Darius is the dinosaur obsessed kid who is there because he beat a videogame. Ben is the frail, nervous kid sent there by his parents to toughen him up a bit. There's a track star, a social media queen and a kid who's there primarily because his rich parents got him a VIP invite,
Like Rim Of The World, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous has a nice sense of what it feels like to be a young teen. You're that mixture of cynical know-it-all and scared little kid. It's an emotional balancing act that is difficult to get right on the screen. But the six campers all have individual personalities that are distinct without being stereotypes. You pretty quickly find yourself rooting for this kids to get past all of the unexpected dangers they face on their journey.
One of the most impressive things about this first season of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is the level of action, especially in the final few episodes. Animated action sequences can sometimes feel divorced from reality and not based enough in facts to provide a genuine sense of the stakes involved for the characters. A lot of the action sequences almost felt as if they were animated renderings of a live-action movie and it's easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the danger. There are some sequences in the show that are as entertaining and memorable as anything you saw in the mothership Jurassic World feature film.
All of that being said, there are a couple of things that in retrospect feel a bit clunky. Without giving anything away, there is a secret involving one of the campers that ends up being a great deal of build-up for not so much of a payoff. It plays out in a way that almost seems as if the secret was less important than the fact that revealing it had a huge impact on the other campers. And the character of Ben basically doesn't contribute anything but some whining for most of the season, although when that does change, it changes in a very big and surprising way.
But those quibbles are minor ones. I saw down to watch Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous thinking I would set away after a couple of episodes. Instead, I eagerly blasted through the entire season in a couple of sessions. Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is a blast to watch and you'll find yourself sucked into the story whether or not you're a Jurassic World fan.
Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous premieres Friday, September 18th, 2020 on Netflix.
There are a lot of househunting shows and the gold standard in the genre are the programs you'll see on HGTV. That network has been cranking out variations of the "let's help you find a house" series for a couple of decades. So it's difficult to watch a new show that tries to do the same thing without comparing it to the industry leader.
By that metric, the Tastemade/Realtor.com series Beyond The Block compares very well. Hosted by Andrew Tyree, each of the first season's four episodes has Tyree visiting a new town. He's trying to help a budding homeowner (or homeowners) find the right balance between cost, community and convenience. The premise of the show doesn't sound all that different than 50 other similar shows you've probably seen in the past.
But there are a couple of subtle breaks with the norm and the changes serve the show well. Firstly, Andrew Tyree does a really solid job with hosting. He's informative without being smarmy, friendly without being insincere. The structure of the show requires a host who is comfortable in a variety of settings and Tyree navigates the shifts of location seamlessly.
The second part of the show that works well is that while a fair amount of time is spent on the potential houses themselves, Beyond The Block is as much about the community and the lifestyle as the houses. Buying a house - particularly if you're a first-time homebuyer - is less about the number of bedrooms or whether it's an open-concept kitchen. It's about whether or not you feel at home in the community. Is it close to amenities you enjoy? Your favorite restaurants or clubs? All of those factors matter, especially for younger homeowners.
And the focus on the community is what makes the show more than just a cold real estate showcase. Episode one is set in San Antonio, where Tyree and the potential homeowners spend as much time exploring the neighborhoods as examining the homes. Tyree introduces them to several local business owners, take them for Kayak ride down the San Antonio Riverwalk and for lunch at a neighborhood food festival. He helps the couple discover what area feels like "home" to them and it's a helpful process in the end.
Realtor.com is the "brand" in this show and any time a sponsor is helping to pay for the production, there's a fear the finished product won't feel authentic. In the case of Beyond The Block, the brand integration isn't hidden, but it's not intrusive either. There are two times in the premiere episode where the Realtor.com web site is mentioned and in both cases the mentions are woven into the natural progression of the show. In one case, it's using the web site to search just for homes in their target areas. In another, it's taking of advantage of a Realtor.com feature that allows you to see which areas in the city are the loudest. You do notice the integration, but it's no worse that the Wayfair integration HGTV uses in some of its shows.
One quick note about COVID-19's impact on the show. The first episode was shot pre-pandemic, but the producers wisely had Tyree check in remotely with the homeowners and business owners featured in the episode to see how they were doing now. It was a nice idea, especially since it's difficult to watch a show like this and not wonder how everyone was impacted by the pandemic.
Beyond The Block premieres Thursday, September 3rd on the Tastemade Streaming Network. Upcoming cities highlighted in the show include Los Angeles, Raleigh, NC and Fort Collins, Colorado.
I will be to admit that I am likely not the optimal target audience for a television special that has any connection to the British Royal Family. It's not that I have any passionate dislike of them, I am just not especially interested in hearing about the Monarchy. I'll hear a news report about one of it's members and afterwards, all I'll recall is the phrase "Today, Prince Andrew said.." and then the next thing you know I'll wake up from the best 45 minutes sleep I've had in months.
So I approached the new NatGeo special Being The Queen the same way I approach all royalty-related programming: with a mixture of dread and anticipation for enjoying some much-needed sleep.
But watching Being The Queen reminded me that while Queen Elizabeth II is frozen in our collective minds as this stoic, elderly matron, she is intertwined with the history of post-WWII Britain. Utilizing lots of archival footage and interviews with former staff and confidants, the one-hour special puts together a fascinating portrait of Elizabeth the person, not the Queen. Or, at least as much of an intimate portrait as you are likely to get about someone who has believed all of her life that duty comes before everything.
The first 2/3 of the special focus on the earlier years of her life and her reign and that was the most interesting part of her story for me. The daughter of a man who wasn't supposed to be King, her father's sudden death propelled her to the role of Queen at a time when both England and the monarchy were in flux. Serving as Queen brings a lot of challenging responsibilities and requires personal sacrifices most people couldn't accept. And Being The Queen doesn't shy away from the personal prices she paid. She was extremely hands-off with her children and as Queen she was forced to step in several times with her younger sister Margaret. Most notably in the early 1950s when Princess Margaret was considering a marriage to Peter Townsend, an older, divorced man.
The archival footage from that period is really wonderful and it allows the special's producers to really flesh out those early stories of Elizabeth's reign. But 2/3 of the way through the special, it jumps somewhat jarringly to the life and death of Princess Diana. Which I understand from a programming point of view. But that part of the story has been told a thousand times before and despite some valiant efforts, this part of the special is a lot less compelling. Honestly, I would have been happier if the special had spent that 20 minutes fleshing out more of Queen Elizabeth II's earlier reign. And the jump to focusing on Diana also makes for some unfortunate editorial choices. For instance, while the special devotes some time to Elizabeth's marriage and the challenges they faced once she became Queen, he basically disappear's from her story after the mid-1950s.
The good news is that Being The Queen is much better than the average special devoted to a member of the Royal Family. It's more of historical take on the life of Queen Elizabeth II than you might expect and that aspect makes it a fascinating special.
The bad news is that I still need a nap.
Streaming services such as Netflix rightfully receive a lot of credit for having realized that it you want to truly be a global media company, you need to have some studios located outside the United States. You also need to have relationships and production deals with bright young local talent who can provide the international point of view that can help set your content apart.
But digital brands such as Tastemade also have a global audience and global production assets. And while they haven't always been quick to take advantage of them when it comes to scripted programming, there are some indications that is changing.
Alice In Paris is Tastemade's first long-form scripted series and while I've only seen the first episode of season three, that episode is as well-made and charming as any series that might come from a more traditional streaming video service. The series began about four years ago as short episodic videos that ran less than two minutes. Alice (played by show co-creator Alysse Hallali) was a college student who loved food and always found a reason to end up in some cute little Parisian shop or restaurant. The short videos didn't leave much time for a storyline or even a pause. But Hallali was charming and for lack of a better description, Alice came off as the type of college student most people outside of France picture when they think of Paris. She's passionate, a bit obsessed with food and proud of her city in a way that almost veers into arrogance.
Season two premiered about two years ago and the length of the episodes doubled to between 3 and 4 minutes. That increased length (and what appears to be an increase in budget) allowed the show to have some real storylines and also to introduce some new characters. Including Alice's sister (played by Alex Bénézech), who returns for season three. While the season two episodes often felt a bit short, watching them gives you a sense of why Tastemade execs thought the show merited full-length episodes. "Alice Loves Paris" is a love letter to the city but it's also an entertaining glimpse into the life of a young twentysomething culinary fan in the world's most intense city for foodies.
In season three's premiere episode, Alice gets into trouble when she impulsively steals a microphone at a big culinary festival and provides her own narration for the event. She's surprised when the rest of the local culinary scene doesn't appreciate her spontaneity and perfect sense of taste. To save her reputation, she embarks on a madcap adventure that includes trying to save a restaurant's Michelin Star by recreating a missing chef's prized creation. The episode is charming, witty and entertaining in a very French way.
Hallali was in college herself when she and her boyfriend created the series and it's impossible to imagine the show being produced anywhere but Paris. Every scene of the series is a love letter to Paris and even if you've ever been there, you'll start to imagine what it would like to live in the world's most romantic city.
Season three of Alice In Paris premieres today (August 18th) on Tastemade's streaming network. Seasons one and two are available on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.
I am enough of a capitalist that I believe anyone should be given the opportunity to make a living. But I also believe that I am under no obligation to help them do it. Particularly if helping them means watching a TV series that is the soul-sucking psychic equivalent of having your body completely drained of blood, then whacked with hammers until your pray for the sweet release of death.
As you might be able to discern from the first paragraph, I am not a big fan of the new Travel Channel reality series "The Osbournes Want To Believe." Truthfully, I watched the series premiere episode two weeks ago and loathed it so much that I decided not to write my review just then. I thought that perhaps I was just in a bad mood or maybe just the stress of an ongoing pandemic and being locked up with my teenage son 24/7 for months has finally broken my spirit. I opted to give it a rest and then revisit the show down the road. "Surely, it can't be this horrifying," I told myself optimistically. "Think about puppy dogs and cotton candy for awhile and give it another chance."
I will not make that mistake again.
The idea for the show - and I use the word "idea" in a very loose sense - is that Jack Osbourne wants to convince his parents that things such as UFOs and the paranormal really exist. So he's turned his parent's basement screening room into a makeshift pandemic-era studio. He shows them "spooky" YouTube videos and viral clips of weird crap. Then encourages them to share their thoughts.
Now Ozzy Osbourne is probably a delightful fellow in real life. But his grasp on the nuances of anything - much less the paranormal - is tenuous. So asking him to provide articulate and thoughtful takes on the existence of ghosts based on some videos is not unlike asking your four-year-old to give you some insight into the career of the Beatles after listening to the Ringo Starr hit "The No-No Song."
And then there is Sharon Osbourne, who for some reason struck me as a fairly articulate and thoughtful person when she was on the CBS daytime series "The Talk." But in this show, sitting in matching theater seats next to her dazed husband Ozzy, she gives off the impression that she just woke up from a Nyquil-induced dream and can't remember where she parked the car.
I cannot properly convey how terrible "The Osbournes Want To Believe" is and how little effort any of the Osbournes seem to be putting into the show while on camera. There are times when you can see Ozzy just mentally counting down the moments until he's killed enough airtime to earn another paycheck. And I don't think a bank of talented psychics could discern what Sharon Osbourne is thinking in this context. It's just a train-wreck of a show and while I'm happy that the Osbournes have convinced another network to fork over the money for a program, I feel as if watching it is only encouraging a crime against humanity.
"The Osbournes Want To Believe" airs Sunday nights on the Travel Channel.
It's not that I am overly cynical, but generally speaking, I am not impressed with the fact that someone may be a celebrity. I can appreciate someone's talent and creative works. I can be intimidated by their accomplishments. But I don't know that I "stan" anyone. Part of this stems from the fact that I have close friends from my stand-up career who are now well-known stars. Spending time with them, meeting their industry friends and hearing their off-the-record stories, it's clear that for the most part the men and women who are stars are not that different than the average civilian on a personal level. Yes, they may have a posse of hangers-on who get paid to hang out with their "best friend." But celebrity tends to magnify a person's core values more than change them. The nice people are usually still nice (most of the time) and the jerks are just going to be jerks to people who are too afraid to push back.
All of this was in my mind as I approached the first three episodes of the HBO Max reality series "Selena + Chef," which premiered on the streaming service Thursday, August 13th. The premise of the pandemic-inspired series is not that dissimilar to the Food Network's "Amy Schumer Learns To Cook." In both cases, it's a star trying to learn more about cooking. But while Schumer receives her tips from her live-in husband, Gomez is cooking along with a celebrity chef who walks her through the recipe via a video call.
I honestly didn't know what to expect going into "Selena + Chef." I'm not foolish enough to think that you are really going to get an unvarnished glimpse of a celebrity through a television show, especially one that they are producing themselves. But my measure of success for this type of show is whether or not it feels overly stage-managed. Are there some moments that are unscripted or unexpected? Do you get a clear sense of the celebrity's personality, even if it only the public part of their lives? Is this a show that feels natural and fun?
For the most part, the first three episodes of "Selena + Chef" are a success. Gomez has a long history of being on camera, so she's comfortable with the process and knows what works best for her personality. But more importantly, there are a few moments that come off as organic and she has a slightly cutting sense of humor that comes off on camera as mildly sarcastic instead of mean. For all of her comments about not being comfortable in the kitchen, she displays some decent skills and is even willing to tackle vaguely unpleasant tasks such as breaking down, preparing and cooking an octopus. She cracks jokes about the process, complains in passing that it's hard to find a decent boyfriend and shares stories about her experiences in the kitchen when she was growing up. On a lot of levels, "Selena + Chef" is exactly the show you want it to be, whether or not your're a fan of hers.
No show is perfect and there are certainly a couple of things I'd tweak if I could. The first episode (with Chef Ludo Lefebvre) is noticeably looser than the episodes that follow and Gomez is dressed more casual and seems a bit more thrown by the process of putting together a finished dish. It's also the best episode because that looseness plays to Gomez's strengths. Given the chance, she can be funny and smart in a way that is truly charming. The later episodes seem to be consciously a bit more structured and that structure wrings a bit of the fun out of the process.
Gomez also seems to have a few different people quarantining with her. Episode one features one set of Grandparents along with someone she introduces as a friend. Episode two introduces another friend to the mix. All of which is fine and it's not a criticism. It all just made me wonder how many people are living with her at the moment. Not because I care per se, it's more that the question is one of those things that might be of interest to viewers. If Gomez isn't cooking, then who is? What's a typical meal like in the Gomez compound?
Weird and minor quibbling aside, I really enjoyed what I've seen of "Selena + Chef." It delivers on the food part of the premise and Gomez is more than charming enough to carry any show. I'm not sure that the fact that it's one of my favorite HBO Max original shows is a great thing for the streaming service. But watching the series will leave you with a smile on your face and maybe a new recipe or two to try out during your quarantine at home.
Episodes 4-6 of "Selena + Chef" will premiere on Thursday, August 20th and episodes 7-10 will be available Thursday, August 27th, 2020.
There are a few different types of "Shark Week" specials and one of them can best be described as "kinda interesting shark stuff but we're afraid not interesting enough so we're going to hype the hell out of the danger." The one-hour special "Sharks Of Ghost Island" fits firmly into that category, since it includes both an actual shark-related task (find a number of shark species near an island) with a bunch of random facts & comments designed to make it seem much more dangerous a task to "Shark Week" viewers.
The "Ghost Island" part of the show's title comes from the nickname of The Great Isaac Cay, a Bahaman island located 40 miles east of Miami, Florida on the western edge of the Bermuda Triangle. The intro to the show mentions that it has long been the scene of sightings of large sharks. And besides being in the Bermuda Triangle, it's been abandoned since 1969, after two lighthouse caretakers mysteriously disappeared without a trace. But the mystery part is pretty quickly pushed aside and is really only mentioned to explain why a team of scientists are there. Since there haven't people near the island for decades, the waters surrounding it have become a popular area for creatures of all sizes. And there is a theory that the island has become a popular area for large sharks. But to prove that theory, scientists must discover at least ten species of sharks swimming in the waters near "Ghost Island."
Why ten species? We don't know. If scientists only discover evidence of nine, does that mean the migration theory is incorrect? We don't know. But the "we must find ten species of sharks" sets up a very weird metric for success and leads to a baffling tracking board on the deck of the scientist's ship. The number on the board begins at 0 and is updated baseball game score-style as more sharks are discovered. It just seems a bit contrived and awkward, although the actual looking for sharks footage is often fun to watch.
Like nearly all Shark Week programs, "Sharks Of Ghost Island" tends to treat all species of sharks as potentially dangerous to humans. Even though that clearly isn't always the case. But the real downside of the special is that it doesn't delve more into the mysteries of the island itself, which is rumored to have actual ghosts haunting it.
There's the creepy "Grey Lady," who reportedly haunts the beaches of the island, searching for her son who was the only survivor of a horrific ship disaster. Or the ghost of a young boy who survived being thrown clear of another sinking ship, only to be torn apart by a group of large sharks. And there are those missing caretakers, which is a truly creepy real-life mystery.
Overall, there's nothing wrong with "Sharks Of Ghost Island." There's some interesting footage of sharks and you'll be curious to learn if the scientists do indeed discover ten species of sharks in the area. But the special ultimately feels like a bit of a time filler. Which is useful but maybe not all that entertaining.
"Sharks Of Ghost Island" premiered Saturday, August 15th, 2020 on Discovery.
Complaining that a Shark Week special was promoted in a misleading way is somewhat like being unhappy when drinking beer doesn't make you more attractive. Hype is hype and while there's nothing wrong with it, you shouldn't be surprised if you're misled a bit while you're being entertained.
Based on the promos for the Discovery Shark Week special Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef, you might have thought you were going to see an hour-long battle of the brawn between one of the world's most-recognizable boxers and a massive killer shark. The advertising made for some fun viral moments but all of it has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the actual special. In fact, a more accurate title might have been "Mike Tyson Really Doesn't Like Being In Water." The special in the end is entertaining, albeit in a way that leaves you with the sinking feeling you're been misled.
The special begins with a bunch of hype from someone at the UFC and a boxing match-style introduction that promises a battle for all ages. Which makes it even more jarring when we hear from Mike Tyson. He admits that he doesn't much like water or amphibious creatures and while he won't quite admit to being scared by the prospect of meeting some sharks face-to-face, he's definitely extremely concerned. The plan is for shark experts to take the boxer through three tasks, each with increasing "danger." First, a dive in which Tyson comes face-to-face with some sharks while safely inside a protective shark cage. Then it's a dive to hang with some sharks without a cage, with the final task being surrounded by sharks and then stroking one on the nose until it's put to sleep, a procedure which is called "tonic immobility."
The upside of the special is that Tyson does seem legitimately unnerved by being around sharks. That makes for an entertaining hour of television, even if the closest Tyson gets to "battling" a shark is stroking one on the stout until its immobilized.
It's probably not helpful to wonder just how dangerous these tasks might be in real life. Cynics might suspect that Discovery is not going to take a chance on some shark taking a hunk out of Mike Tyson. And as it turns out, the Caribbean and lemon sharks Tyson interacts with aren't especially dangerous. In fact, these are the types of sharks that are often used in human/shark interaction events. This isn't to say that there was zero danger. But none of this was likely to end up in a "brawl to end all brawls."
Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef is pretty much what you expect from a Shark Week celebrity special. It's entertaining, not especially scientifically accurate, and guaranteed to be the topic of conversation at the office tomorrow if any of us were still going to the office.
How you feel about the special also probably hinges on how you feel about Tyson and his past criminal history. In 1992, he was sentenced to six years in jail after being convicted of raping an 18-year-old woman (he served three). He has also admitted to physically abusing wife Robin Givens during their stormy marriage. In a joint interview with Tyson on 20/20 in September 1988, Givens told Barbara Walters that life with him was "torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine." By all accounts, Tyson has his anger under control now. But whether you're willing to give him a second chance will have a lot to say about whether or not you want to see him cavorting with sharks.
Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef premieres on Sunday, August 9th, 2020 as part of the kick-off night of Discovery's Shark Week 2020.
I have to admit that I have a strong prejudice towards John Belushi. Besides being talented, he was hell of a nice guy. At least, he was always nice to me.
When I first moved to Chicago, I used to hang out down by Second City, and this was just the time when Belushi and company were in town filming The Blues Brothers movie. And he and the crew set up an informal and semi-private private club across the street. So most nights, you could find him in there, partying away until the early morning. And my first sight of him was when I walked in the door the first time, as he was pulling his head out of a giant container of ice, attempting to keep himself going.
The trouble with my memories, and most of my other thoughts about him is that they don't matter much anymore. He's been gone for more than a decade, and the public's memories fade. WTBS has aired The Blues Brothers and Animal House to death, but it's hard for people to appreciate his talent past that. And their remembrances of his Saturday Night Live work are colored by Chris Farley, who professed his love for the man by cranking out a number of sketches and movies that screamed, "Hey! I'm a fat guy!"
Which is why it's good to see SNL airing this special, because it's a reminder to everyone how subtle Belushi's acting could be.
The 90-minute special kicked off with his first appearance on the show, a sketch with the late Michael O'Donohue in which he played a foreign-speaking immigrant going through language lessons that seemed to involve a lot of talk weasels and wolverines.
And it also included the segments that you would expect: The Blues Brothers, Belushi's impression of Joe Cocker, his marvelous turn as Captain Kirk in the final mission of the Enterprise.
But as you watch the clips, you recognize the difference between John and someone like Chris Farley. Farley was massive, throwing himself on the set, using his bulk as a comedic weapon to bludgeon everyone into submission.
Belushi had a light comedic touch when he needed it, and his facial expressions were wry and incredibly effective. Watching his eyes dance during the Samarai Deli clip, and the way he paced the scenes of his Mozart impressions, you get a sense of how effective an actor he could be. And his ability to talk effectively and precisely made his segments on the news set with Jane Curtin a beautiful dance to watch.
The show ended with a scene that's easily the most ironic thing ever filmed on SNL. A "Schiller's Reel" piece in which an elderly Belushi went to visit the graves of all of the other cast members. He was the last survivor, he said, because he was a "dancer."
You were much more than that, John. And we miss you.
Jay Leno celebrated an anniversary last night, and it's characteristic of him that he didn't make a big deal about it. September 24th marked the 1000th episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and while he didn't formally toast the event, the show that he did do illustrated everything that's right and wrong with the program.
The show opened with a sight gag, Leno walking across the stage as a counter clicked from 999 to 1000. But the monologue that followed was as mundane as his usual effort. Sometimes when you watch him work, longtime fans must wonder where his comedic inner clock has disappeared to. As a stand-up comedian, Leno was always able to find the perfect punchline for a joke. He was well known for honing and honing material until it was flawless-with not a spare word in the sentence.
But as a talk show host, much of that inner sense of humor has seemed to evaporate into the ether. Even on his 1000th episode-on what should be a special occasion-Leno only got three jokes into his monologue before he hit a wall, commenting, "Geez, you think I would have learned more in 1000 shows." Part of the problem is that he simply does too many jokes up front. No matter how talented your writing staff, you can't crank out 9 or 10 minutes worth of material a night. That sort of pressure leads to a mind-numbing procession of inane punchlines and mugging that would have mortified a younger Leno.
They have tried to work around the problem by inserting a number of brief pre-taped bits into his monologue. So the audience is treated to quick visual jokes of a Clinton look-alike puffing on a bong to the caption, "Got Pot?". On this, like on most, the quick bits get the biggest laughs, but even those are unfocused and only hitting 50% of the time.
After the monologue, he did a bit called, "What I have Learned", which involved Leno introducing taped pieces that are supposed to illustrate the many things he's learned over the course of 1000 shows. This was not his finest moment, especially when you consider that the funniest line involved Jason Alexander picking a huge wad of lint out of his navel. What has Jay learned? Apparently, not enough.
It's when Leno brings out his guests that he really shows what he's learned. Leno is by no means a flawless interviewer. But over the 1000 shows he's learned much about what it takes to bring the best out of a guest. And he's able to smoothly nudge the interview in the direction he needs it to go.
The guests were Michael Jordan and Elizabeth Hurley and in both cases he did what he was supposed to do. He allowed them to promote their current project and still kept the program from teetering into an informercial. Unlike David Letterman, who oftentimes is anti-social to the extremes, Leno seems to genuinely like most people and that comfort translates into a gently entertaining program.
Watching the Tonight Show on a regular basis can be a frustrating experience. Watching Leno work is like watching Pete Rose play baseball in his last troubled season. Everyone loves him, and you still see the flashes of greatness. But all too often, he's just coasting on memories.
One of the frustrating things about being a TV critic is that every so often, you see someone that *should* be a star. But they end up buried in thankless roles in hapless programs. And you find yourself secretly hoping that someday they'll finally get their chance to shine.
I've always felt that way about Cynthia Stevenson. She's suffered through a procession of roles that only hinted at her talents. She first popped up in a recurring role as Norm Peterson's obsessive secretary on Cheers, but it was all downhill from there. She had a stint as "Trisha," Bob Newhart's daughter on the quickly canceled sitcom, Bob; a starring role on Hope And Gloria; she even played the budding talk show host in the syndicated series My Talk Show. But the programs never lasted, and she was always left being the actress who should have been a contender.
Oh, Baby! is the type of sitcom that the broadcast network weasels would never green-light. While the broadcast executives have no problem airing a series with a lot of sex or violence, pitching a show where the lead is artificially inseminated would have heads exploding all over the executive suite.
It's their loss.
Stevenson plays Tracy, a woman in her 30's with a biological clock ticking like a bomb at a South African Planet Hollywood. She'd love to settle down, and hopes to get married someday. Unfortunately, her boyfriend Grant is not exactly the domestic type.
Tracy takes us through the scenes that led up to her decision to be artificially inseminated, beginning with her three-year anniversary celebration with the moron de jour Grant, who pulls out a black jewelry box over dinner and proceeds to give her...a turquoise ring. As she tells him, that's not exactly an engagement ring..."unless you're an Aztec."
Things don't get much better at work, as it seems like every woman in the office is pregnant but her. And she doesn't exactly have a great bunch of people to use as a support group. Her best friend Charlotte (Joanna Gleason)is the office psychiatrist and after two divorces she's turned into the world of romance's dark princess. Tracy's mother (Jessica Walter) is incapable of having any conversation without the word "I" in it, and her brother Ernie (Matt Champagne) is living a life of quiet desperation, stuck in middle management and in the midst of an unhappy marriage when all he really wants to do is go to Europe and paint.
I couldn't be farther away from the target market for this series, but I really enjoyed it. Stevenson is delightful, the insemination seems logical and not at all a plot device, and I was left wanting more.
Which, now that I think about it, is the same feeling that has gripped Tracy. Geez, maybe that *is* my biological clock ticking away...
Oh, Baby! premieres Tuesday, August 18th, 1998 on Lifetime.