Remote Access: Syfy Gets the Monkey Off Its Back

By: CJ

12 monkeys

Remember that rush you felt when you were thrown right into the perils of the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815? How the tail of the plane ripped apart, flung to the winds never to be seen (or so we thought) and how chisel-jawed Matthew Fox found a way to corral a rag tag team of survivors reeling from that horrific crash landing?

Due to the real life occurrences of South Asian air tragedies, audiences may not be too keen to remember the immediate impact of the events that unfolded on American television sets the night of September 22, 2004 but 15.7 million viewers became weekly visitors to that strange island. It was a phenomenon from the second viewers saw the fully realized world created by J.J. Adams, Damon Lindelof and his cohorts. The rabid online obsession, fan conspiracies and elevation of the small-screen past the “pictures” to the status that it holds today owes a great deal to the Lost pilot.

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Here he comes to save the day.

While these thoughts of providence and progeny may not be going through your head while watching the first episode of Syfy’s own big-to-small screen adaptaion, 12 Monkeys, it’s a good bet those familiar feelings of adrenaline, heart palpitations and “where the $@#! Are they going to go with this?” will resurface.

Loosely based on Terry Gilliam’s kooky 1995 dystopian time-travel cult classic of the same name, this iteration mostly hews closely to the established premise. A man from the future (Aaron Stanford) where 99% of the population has died from a plague goes back in time to stop it. Ostensibly taking the role of Madeleine Stowe’s Kathryn Railly from the movie is relative unknown Amanda Schull. After a few minutes of exposition and winking nods to the movie, the show thrusts the action forward and immediately comes into its own.

Stanford in particular remarkably improves on Bruce Willis’ portrayal of James Cole, the reluctant chronological itinerant. While Willis’ Cole  was a bit mush-mouthed and frustratingly slow, Stanford plays his character with alacrity. His wild eyes and haggard appearance keeps the severity of his task front and center as he maneuvers through our near past and present trying to complete his mission. It’s not all doom and gloom for our hero though; the future doesn’t have any cheeseburgers and a light moment shines through when Cole first encounters them. Schull, who seemingly channels a young Nicole Kidman, has the unenviable task of being the avatar for the viewer; knowing little and having to react to things happening around her. Thus far she plays not much more than a sexy, blonde possible love interest, but showrunner Natalie Chaidez ramps up her involvement in the second episode. Hopefully that continues throughout the season.

To be fair, Twelve Monkeys is firmly a genre show. Don’t expect the incisive Milton-esque polish of that other recent and fantastic movie-to-TV adaptation, Fargo (you may get what you’re looking for in another Syfy project coming down the pipe though). While Syfy has publicly vowed that 2015 a year where they intend to do more Battlestar Galacticas and less Sharknados, suspension of disbelief is still required to fully enjoy this particular reimagining. There is – of course – time-traveling, paradoxes, secret government organizations…. all the standard hallmarks of science fiction. Think Orphan Black and you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into.  But don’t let Syfy’s past scare you from this effort. While the public (with good reason) is wary of all the established properties that continue to get remade and remade until we end up with Transformers: Age of Extinction, in the right hands, a known world can be improved and explored upon in exciting ways. Twelve Monkeys is a thrill ride and has all the makings of this year’s first cult classic.

Umm....sure Michael Bay.

Uhhh…. sure, Michael Bay. Sure.

‘Syfy’ and ‘quality’? Not so much a paradox any more.

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Remote Access: The Curious Incident of Comedy in the Night-Time

By: CJ

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You all know the story. With Jerry and the gang still rotting in Latham, Ross and Rachel presumably up to their necks in Shawn Mendes posters, and Brad Garrett finally throwing in the towel (wait, somehow, he actually hasn’t thrown in the towel yet), it’s abundantly clear that the network comedy has officially expired. Dead. Buried. Kaput. Sent to the bottom of the East River thanks to the likes of David Chase and David Simon and the War on Terror and our American life that is too fractured and lazy and worried about a rising China to sit around thirty minutes at a time to watch a three-camera riff on a society that never existed . The pink slips don’t lie. After a surprisingly quiet first month and a half of the 2014 fall TV season, Manhattan Love Story, A to Z, Bad Judge, Selfie, and Mulaney have all been canceled.

In retrospect, the first three were comedy corpses from the start. Of course hope springs eternal and schedules need to be filled, but buzz was bad early on; those cancellations were just a matter of time. Selfie and Mulaney were different though. John Mulaney was doing everything by the book to succeed. A well-known comic in his own right (like CK and Romano and Seinfeld and Barr and Cosby before him), he honed his act in clubs and bars across the country before moving onto Comedy Central specials, the SNL writing room, and developing his eponymous show. Suuuuuure, perennially last-placed NBC passed on it even though the show was produced by their resident money-printer Lorne Michaels. But what do they know about comedy? Hell, what do they know about anything (other than getting corporate parent Comcast to throw billions—with a capital B—at the IOC for a ratings bump every two years)? Fox would swoop in to pick up the show, even breaking apart their long-running Animation Domination cartoon block to give a plum platform to Mulaney and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The edgy and smart network which brought The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and Married with Children to TV would now be the home of the new Seinfeld.

(WARNING: skip the next paragraph if you don’t like reading about dumpster fires. Or if your name is John Mulaney. Watch this instead).

We all believed in Mulaney. Then the ratings came in. And the hatchets came out. Taking pains to point out how much everyone loves the stand-up side of John Mulaney, critics, the Internet, and probably even your grandma dismissed the show as painfully unfunny drivel. This past Sunday, Mulaney actually lost 35% of its Family Guy lead-in. And no one watches Family Guy anymore.  It’s really hard to lose 40% of no one* (*Actually 3.6 million viewers according to Nielsen). And the news just got worse today. According to Deadline, Fox has banished Mulaney from that cushy post-Family Guy 9:30 slot to the wastelands of 7:30. Prepare to never knowing when you’re actually going to air thanks to King Football overruns John Mulaney (this is what killed Futurama on Fox by the way).

Now that the awful stuff is out of the way, can we judiciously assign blame? Like many shows in their first season, Mulaney seemed to still be finding its footing. Was it a show about the comic’s wry life? Or his relationship with Martin Short’s venal game show host? Did the laugh track made the show seem more stuffy and old-fashioned than it was? Or the fact that the set-up and punchlines were delivered in what can only be described as super slow motion? Motif (Seaton Smith) brought some much needed kinetic energy to the proceedings, but the rest of the strong-on-paper supporting cast appeared strained with their one-note characters.  Probably a little bit of everything. But you know what else had stilted, awkward pacing in its first few seasons? Our good friend The Seinfeld Chronicles, of course.

Could the acting be any more act-y in that scene?  But as oral history has it, NBC stuck with the low rated first season (oh, it was only the 14th most-watched SUMMER show of 1989, two spots behind Totally Hidden Video) and let it grow into the #3 show on television by 1993. Four years of steady growth, people. What did Mulaney get before his show was all but canceled? 4 weeks. That’s why there is no broad comedy hit on television. Talent is not given time to find their voice on television nowadays, only brands are (Chuck Lorre on CBS, Shonda Rimes on ABC). Would it have taken Mulaney a full two or three years to settle into consistent hilarity?  When it comes to comedy, we as viewers never get the chance to find out anymore.

Which brings up the curious case of Selfie. Like Mulaney, the show was left for dead at the start of this season. Terrible title. Unneeded update of Pygmalion. Another strained attempt by a broadcast network to manufacture zeitgeist. Easy cancellation, right? Well, although the sitcom has been canceled true to form, wistful elegies are starting to pour in. Sure, Selfie looked very pre-Higgins Eliza Doolittle on the outside, but dig deep and people were finding a show they wanted to see find its footing and actually develop beyond 4 episodes. It’s not all bad news, thankfully. Freshman comedies from ABC’s (Black*ish) and NBC’s (Marry Me) have thus far avoided the comedy bloodbath and look good for a second season. Those two are the lucky ones who are getting a chance to solidify what they are all about. And that is a luxury less and less projects are getting in this instant SUCCESS Or DEATH reality. It’s a shame. We don’t expect our babies to pop out solving differential equations and deadlifting 200 pounds. We give them until at least 12 to do that. Maybe one of these days we’ll give our comedians more than a handful of scripts to nurture some laughs.

Remote Access: An Affair to Misremember

By: CJ

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In this underwhelming crop of 2014 freshman efforts, if you could point to one show that emerged as the “anointed one” by critics, it would have to be Showtime’s The Affair. The erstwhile movie cabler clearly feels the same way too, scheduling their show during the brutal Sunday night viewing window. Set over a summer on Long Island, the first season follows the genesis and consequences of an affair between two married people, teacher/author/scumbag hubby Noah (played in a blandly gruffish manner by Dominic West) and local waitress/grieving mother Alison (a reticent Ruth Wilson). Intrigued? If not, there’s more.

There’s the customary murder plot device too (the blood plot thickens).

And the first few episodes of the first season are being told to a circumspect black detective (Victor Williams) in a series of flashbacks (True Detective much?).

But that’s not even the real secret sauce of this whole (he &)shebang. In each episode thus far, the main action has been told from the two separate viewpoints of Noah and Alison. While this kind of framing device is nothing new to the world of TV or the movies, series creator Hagai Levi (who also created and adapted HBO’s In Treatment) takes it a step further by really pushing the differing perspectives. Did Noah save his daughter from choking on a marble given to her by Alison like he recalls or did Alison as she asserts?  Did Alison confidently strut around in a little black dress that went barely past her hips while catering a party the way Noah thinks or was she feeling self-conscious amid the wealth and lecherous eyes the way she remembers it? The likelihood of a definitive answer is probably as good as your memory of the womb. It’s not a few details here and there that differ between the two; whole scenes change during every pass of memory.

The problem with the whole enterprise, though, is the lingering It’s-All-Been-Done-Before haze that envelopes the story. When a literary agent meets with Noah to discuss the second book he is supposed to be writing during his family’s stay in Montauk, Noah tells him the book will feature “A small town girl. City guy. They meet fall in love… He’s married and so is she.” The agent looks away and – with a bemused sigh – says he’s read that story before. And we’ve seen this show before too. All too recently. In 2012, NBC played with the unreliable/alternating narrator conceit in a much more interesting way with their show Awake. Critics were mouth-frothingly rapturous about the story structure and the narrative possibilities when it premiered. The show was cancelled after one season.

Last year, ABC went the affair-with-murder-afoot route in their own naughty lovers series, Betrayal. That show, like The Affair, also had two Brits* (the male lead was actually from Ireland) playing Americans. Critics were not as rapturous about this one. The show was cancelled after one season. Of course, premium networks can afford to be more patient with the properties than the execs at NBC and ABC, so Showtime might not be too troubled by the past.

Make no mistake, the show oozes the requisite veneer of class a premium network show is expected to display. In recent years, there has been a huge emphasis – particularly in these premium channel miseries – on setting the scene and the resulting cinematography by Steven Fierberg is no different. The sparse, bleak winters of FX’s Fargo and True Detective’s steamy expanse of Bayou country are joined by the sumptuous roadside establishments and tide-swept beaches of Long Island. Gorgeous shots of lighthouses and docks lend a sense of earthiness to the show. You can practically smell the fish in the air.

Though there are no A-list movie stars appearing in the credits here, a strong cast is assembled. Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney play the respective spouses you’ll probably end up rooting for. West and Wilson do perform well enough with their lingering stares during the stop-and-start phase of their budding romance. The problem though, is the lack of raw heat between the two. There is always a spark that drives people into each other’s arms, and the two are not translating anything of the sort on screen.

West does, on the other hand, seem to have noticeable chemistry with Maura Tierney, who plays his loving (and as-of-yet clueless wife) Helen. The quick scenes between the two that are peppered throughout the episodes are often short, but great to watch. Helen also shows a sudden underside of anger when she spots an old mistress of her dad’s during a party that bodes well for some compelling fireworks when she eventually finds out about her own husband’s mistress. It’s an unfortunate problem for a show called “The Affair” when the lead actor has better chemistry with the person playing his wife than the one playing his lover. With direct competition like Sunday Night Football, Walking/Talking Dead and The Good Wife, the spark may not end up igniting for viewers either.

Remote Access: The One Where Ross, Rachel, Chandler (and even Phoebe!) Probably Don’t Save the Day

By: CJ

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Maybe it’s time to switch that fire truck red login page into a shade of black and blue.

After a half-decade of nearly unbroken media exaltation and financial success (let’s pause here, though, to remember the [not] dearly departed Qwikster), Netflix has seemingly had the worst week of its reign as the face of online streaming. While the past month did bring word of a couple of high-profile nostalgic gets – the fast-talking Gilmore gals and ‘90s megatron Friends – that kept the HuffPost and BuzzFeed contingent giddy, an Enola Gay appeared over the horizon with some serious metaphorical payload.

The world of internet streaming went nuclear this past week thanks to Netflix nemesis HBO. The Time Warner-owned network revealed its plans to free their popular HBOGo platform from its cable chains sometime in 2015, remaking it into a standalone internet service available for purchase WITH NO CABLE SUBSCRIPTION NEEDED. In less than a year, cord-cutters, cord-nevers and the cost-conscious will all be able to get their fill of avowed Lincoln drivers and greatest shows on television without having to begrudgingly cover the costs of Sundance TV and ESPN. And the way media consumption has evolved, why wouldn’t HBO do this? A network as nimble, forward-looking and iconoclastic as HBO has enough cachet to trade some of their aura of exclusivity for a seat at the online buffet. HBO’s opening salvo, however, became a really big deal when the slow and steady, older-skewing, over-the-airwaves behemoth CBS unveiled their own streaming service CBS All Access the next day. CBS isn’t hip. It’s already the most watched network on free, available-to-all-Americans network TV and has been for a while now. Realistically, CBS has never cared about being hip. Les Moonves only cares about making money. And yet they still felt the need to go digital as well. Television as we know it is dead. Long live the internet.

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Nothing is cooler than obscure military spinoffs.

So where does that leave the OG of the online television revolution now? Will a smelly cat be enough? To his credit, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has publicly embraced the changing landscape saying during an earnings webcast earlier this spring,

“There are multiple networks out there. It’s a very much not a zero-sum game and we are building this ecosystem together that’s about Internet video and the more players there are in Internet video, the bigger that ecosystem gets.”

Wall Street really doesn’t agree, sending Netflix shares down sharply on the double blow of the HBO/CBS news and less than expected subscriber growth.

For once in their lives, it’s likely that the Wharton grads got something right.

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Thanks a lot, HBO.

Up until now, Netflix’s success was pinned on a few key factors. 1) It created a whole new market-segment in entertainment. 2) It was a one-stop shop you could get to from the comfort of one’s own couch. 3) A relatively cheap monthly fee got you tons of content (not A-list content at first, but the enough cult-classics and old favorites to satisfy the average subscriber). As Netflix grew, though, a couple of things started to happen. On one side, people began to clamor for titles they, you know, actually wanted to watch. New and shiny things preferably not form the B-side of the 90s and early Aughts. On the other side, content owners who previously just wanted whatever extra money they could get for their old stuff began to understand the true worth of on-demand viewing. They wanted a bigger piece of the action. Subsequently, Netflix watched its costs spiral upwards ($3 billion in licensing obligations in 2014) just to renew existing agreements, not to mention garnering any new content for its service. The internet pie may be big, but not everyone was going to give away their pieces quite so easily anymore.

Despite always being a generally good aggregator of content considering (and despite of) its outsider origins, Netflix has never had top of the line shows and movies in their catalogue. The B+ stuff they actually could strike deals for came at a heavy cost. With a capital B. And some content (such as the HBO back catalogue) was always frustratingly out of reach for Netflix and subscribers alike. Now, with major content generating players like HBO and CBS breaking into the online game, it is only a matter of time before the likes of AMC and NBC follow. If AMC has its own service, will they allow the next Breaking Bad to appear on Netflix soon after the season airs? Or, as is most likely the case, will that exclusive 3 year window go to some new AMC online platform? The answer is already being written. When The Simpsons syndication rights came up last year, and South Park this year, what may have been slam dunk back catalogue pickups for Netflix 5 years ago went to Fox and Hulu respectively. The chefs have begun to take their dishes from the Netflix buffet to open their own restaurants.

In Netflix’s defense, they haven’t sat around twiddling their thumbs while their kingdom crumbles around them. The service has expanded aggressively into international markets to increase the subscriber base. Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland are a few of the countries being brought into the fold this year. The company has also tested out price increases for its service to keep revenue up and Wall Street happy. A $1 price increase for new accounts went into effect in spring to help defray the aforementioned costs. And despite the rising costs, Netflix still has been able to strike deals to bring whole series runs to their library like the aforementioned Friends and Gilmore Girls.

But most importantly and visibly, Netflix has already pivoted the way HBO did, in the opposite direction by moving away from just delivery into the content game themselves. House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, new seasons of existing properties like The Killing and Arrested Development were carefully curated to bring new subscribers to Netflix without having to give other greedy companies a cut. By spending the money previously used on licensing to create their own shows, Netflix could afford to skip out on some recent opportunities to buy as it had developed its own hits and Emmy-nominated entertainment. Bringing all 500+ episodes of The Simpsons becomes somewhat less important when people are subscribing not for nostalgic reasons, but to watch the au courant Orange.

But therein lies the problem, does it not? Instead of just being a novel delivery apparatus that prints money, sitting back and reveling in its cool factor, Netflix has become something new. Or has it? The company is now invested in spending its own money to create, distribute and own programming. None of the new programming has been syndicated yet (giving Netflix an outside source  of income outside of raising prices) And for every House of Cards, there will inevitably be a Hemlock Grove. Does this kind of entertainment model sound familiar to you? While HBO and the rest jump the cable moat and head for a computer, phone or tablet near you, to survive, Netflix is turning into something that it never started out to be: a cable network.

Remote Access: Serious Stuff

By: Chenel

Winter is coming.

Wait, no. Scratch that.

Summer is leaving (Game of Thrones has a King’s ransom of zeitgeist publicity as it is; far be it for me to heap even more on that pile of dead Stark bodies). And if Autumn’s shift of brighter rays and airy days to longer nights and bitter winds drives don’t drive one’s soul to deep depression (this happens to other people too, right?), at the very least it does seem to leave a person’s psyche primed for more serious fare.

The signs of this are all around us at this time of year (us northern hemisphereans, of course).  Hollywood leaves its boisterous blockbusters behind to trot out its annual compendium of “For Your Considertation” morality plays. The July 4th pomp and circumstance fizzles into tricks, treats and then, tearful tunes (seriously, listen closely to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas one of these days). And as much as the networks want to boast about year-round programming, TV has largely always followed the same perennial rhythm. Summer staples that populate the airwaves and internet tubes make way for the fall season and more hearty fare.

With the new crop of freshman series underwhelming most critics, if not viewers…yet, here is some serious fare you may have overlooked over the past year if Gotham or The Mysteries of Laura just aren’t clicking with you. Since Tony Soprano first stopped believing, the gems of TV’s current “Golden Age” have been airing fast and furiously so you’ll be forgiven on missing these instant classics the first time around.

Broadchurch (2013) 8 episodes

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The sun-bleached coastal setting of this miniseries’ titular town may harken back to summer, but be forewarned, the BAFTA and Peabody winning show has an icy veins running through it. Similar to previous shows like AMC’s The Killing and Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake, the death of a child shatters the outward serenity of many lives. In all facets though, Broadchurch does the story better. In this particular case, the death of young Danny Latimer causes the denizens of Broadchurch to not-quite-slowly turn on each other while the media all-too-quickly turns up in droves. David Tennant (better known from his time as everyone’s favorite time-hopping Doc) is a haunted DI who heads up the search for Danny’s killer, but it is relative newcomer Olivia Colman who is the revelation as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, the best friend of Danny’s mother and Tennant’s partner. One by one, suspects are brought up and summarily dismissed until the final episode’s reveal. Will it be who you think it is? Who killed Danny Latimer and why? Now that the pools are closed across most of the country, it’s time the perfect time to stay in and find out.

The Honourable Woman (2014) 8 episodes

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The current “Golden Age” of television has been marked my one ubiquitous convention: dead bodies. While Broadchurch’s murder opens up a window into a sleepy hamlet on the English shore, a nameless Israeli official warns that the dead body which kicks off The Honourable Woman opens up “a story that…stretches 1000 years.” While a whole millennia of history (thankfully) isn’t covered here, there are enough crosses, double-crosses and even quadruple-crosses to fill a decade in this pretzel of a plot. And it works. Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein, the English daughter of a notorious Israeli business/war profiteer. The series begins with her attempts to use her family name – and late father’s fortune – for good by building a high-speed broadband network in the Palestinian territories. Will it make money? Probably not, but it’ll sure help Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) erase? coverup? some deep stains from their family’s past. As it goes with this sort of thing, though, things just get worse for Nessa and those closest to her. More political spy thriller, than whodunit, The Honourable Woman slowly draws you in like the best John Le Carré novels until you find yourself clutching the edge of your seat in anticipation of what is coming next. While some of the character’s decisions can seem questionable – if not absurd – at times, the suspense is palpable. Stephen Rea is absolutely delightful (and slightly unnerving) as a wise old spook on his last hurrah with MI6. Will any side come out the winner in this age old story of mistrust and hate?

You have all winter to find out.