‘Freak’ Of The Weak: Fall TV Roulette (Part Three)

how-to-get-away-with-murder-freak-show-clownWe are officially wrapping up the fall TV season now, as most shows have begun or are about to take a hiatus for the holidays, and others are taking a hiatus for… ever. Farewell, A To Z! Good riddance, Selfie! Manhattan Love Story, we hardly knew ye!

I’m not too broken up about any of this, since the final half of 2014 didn’t give us a whole lot to get excited about, televisually speaking, whereas 2015 brings the winter return of a few things I’m quite looking forward to, such as Girls, True Detective, and Looking on HBO, and AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, which I’m cautiously optimistic about.

It should surprise no one that the comeback of The Comeback was the real bright spot in my fall TV schedule. In the last few weeks, the show has proven itself to be freakin’ brilliant all over again, and it remains the ultimate skewering of the television industry. (But you can read more about that here.)

This TV seasons earns a special shout-out for ABC, which far and away had the strongest new schedule. I’ll discuss one of its success stories at length below, but let’s not forget Cristela and Blackish, which earn points both for diversity and practically single-handedly saving the family sitcom from extinction, seeing as its competition is pretty dismal. (Exception: the charming The Goldbergs, also on ABC.)

Now, let’s take a moment to see what else survived on my DVR over these few cruel months… and which shows fell off the radar.

 

GOTHAM

Since Gotham has been reasonably well-reviewed, I decided to give it another chance after dismissing the laughable, weak pilot.

I got about ten minutes in, then turned it off.

Nope! Still terrible.

Wake me up when they’re in high school.

katherine-heigl-state-of-affairs-shhhSTATE OF AFFAIRS

When you watch a show with a title as generic as State Of Affairs, you know what you’re getting yourself into. I have to admit the concept of the show sounded mildly appealing, with a CIA officer who was involved with the president’s deceased son doing a bunch of other CIA stuff on a weekly basis. Okay, maybe I just wanted to see a TV world in which Alfre Woodard was the president. Unfortunately, that is the same world where Katherine Heigl is part of the CIA, which is a little bit like when Denise Richards was cast a nuclear physicist in a James Bond movie or Tara Reid was cast as anything in any movie. It’s just not believable! On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to Heigl and all actors who get typecast as one thing, and then can’t break out of that mold. On the other hand, 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, One For The Money, Life As We Know It, Killers, The Big Wedding, New Year’s Eve. Katherine, you did this to yourself.

In State Of Affairs, Heigl’s character’s name is Charleston Tucker, which I think should mean she has to do the Charleston every time she enters a new location, because that’s what I think of whenever her name is mentioned. Charleston reacts to severe national crises like her sorority pledge drive isn’t going very well, or maybe it just seems that way because the pilot dresses her up like a hipster librarian. (I feel like a real CIA agent would be shot on sight for an outfit like that, but what do I know?) State Of Affairs is a lot like Madam Secretary, especially since it requires the lead actress to do a lot of staring at screens with a furrowed brow — and Tea Leoni pulls that off better than Katherine Heigl ever will. Charleston mostly just looks like like she’s watching her own sex tape go viral. State Of Affairs doesn’t really utilize any of Heigl’s assets, instead trying to make an actress who doesn’t do dour and serious very well do nothing but dour and serious, but without the surrounding skill and gravitas of a show like Homeland. It’s basically Zero Light Thirty, so it’s harmless enough, but if it doesn’t make it past its first season America may be a better place for it.

american-horror-story-freak-show-cast-matt-bomer-evan-peters-jessica-lange-emma-roberts-ma-petitAMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW

Oh, Ryan Murphy. I wish I could quit you.

Popular was fun. For a brief, shining moment, Nip/Tuck was brilliant. I was never a fan of Glee, but now I’m basically watching it anyway, thanks to American Horror Story. Last fall’s Coven derailed mid-season, but remained watchable until the real death knell: when Stevie fucking Nicks dropped by for a series of musical numbers. This was only one in a vast number of problems with the season, which kept killing and resurrecting people until these beloved characters’ deaths felt about as momentous as a trip to the grocery store.

Now in its fourth season, Murphy’s FX anthology is now American Horror Story: Glee, and yes, that is the true extent of the horror. There’s a homicidal clown and his dandy protegee, there are assorted two-headed people and Kathy Bates in her most masculine role to date (and that’s saying something), but what there really is is a lot of singing. Imagine I walked into a network and pitched a story set in 1950s Florida where characters sometimes dropped everything to sing tunes by Lana Del Rey and Fiona Apple. I would be escorted off the studio lot immediately.

But I’m not Ryan Murphy.ahs-freak-show-dandy-finn-wittrockThe anachronistic song choices might work if used sparingly, if they were more than a jukebox gimmick utilized because Ryan Murphy just can’t not have people burst into song. (How much do you want to bet that his American Crime Story, centered on O.J. Simpson, has Nicole Brown Simpson and Kato Kaelin dueting to Rihanna and Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie,” or something?) Again, Murphy returns to the well of “just joking!” character deaths (this time, in extended lame fantasy sequences rather than lame resurrections) that just make us throw up our hands in frustration. The season began by ripping off Zodiac and Halloween, which was moderately promising, until Murphy decided to kill off the season’s most iconic and creepiest character, Twisty the killer clown played by John Carroll Lynch, in the Halloween two-parter (the best of Freak Show this season).

This season hasn’t recovered from the loss of Twisty. It’s now a black comedy about a bratty serial killer (Finn Wittrock) with dull detours (like a whole bunch of business involving tattoo-faced Grace Gummer) and little continuity from episode to episode. (Not as bad as last season, but that’s a low bar.) Coven had a bevy of bitchy witches that kept things fun even when the plot faltered. This season, Jessica Lange’s legless fame whore Elsa is a repetitive bore; Emma Roberts’ slightly snarky sham fortune teller is no match for last season’s vicious vixen Madison Montgomery; Evan Peters is a suitable enough “hero” as Jimmy the lobster claw man, but maybe they shouldn’t have kicked off the season with him murdering someone if they wanted us to truly root for him.

There’s no real momentum. Dandy has been a wacko since Day One, so we’re basically just cooling our heels until his storyline intersects with Elsa’s freak show in a meaningful way, and there is hardly anyone we even care about surviving there anyway, especially after the demise of Ma Petite (R.I.P.). At this point, the scariest thing about this show is the masochism of continuing to watch it.

MATT MCGORRY, KARLA SOUZA, AJA NAOMI KING, JACK FALAHEE, LIZA WEILHOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

The gayest show on television is not on HBO or Logo. It’s on ABC prime time Thursdays, the network’s hottest night. So I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that How To Get Away With Murder is also one of the campiest, most over-the-top shows on TV. It’s the kind of show where people use the term “slut shaming” in court, where murder convictions are overturned a matter of days after the crime was committed. Or whatever. I can’t really follow How To Get Away With Murder‘s legal maneuvers, and I’ll bet the show’s writers are hoping you can’t, either, because they don’t make a lick of sense. I know that’s true of every legal procedural, from The Practice to Law & Order, but How To Get Away With Murder seems to take a special pleasure in ridiculous courtroom proceedings that make any given episode of Ally McBeal look like an actual courtroom transcript.

If you can set aside the ludicrous misuse of the law — and I’d forgive you if you can’t, because it’s not easy — then what you’ll get is a super-sudsy soap opera unfolding in two time periods: first, on the night of a crime that all of Annalise Keating’s star students are implicated in, and second, some weeks prior, as they are gearing up on the defense of a connected murder. The show’s weekly cases are throwaway at best, so lame that I almost stopped watching, and I wouldn’t be sorry if How To Get Away With Murder jettisoned the procedural element completely.

ABC’s try-hard marketing seems to be paying off in getting plot beats and dialogue snippets (like “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”) to become semi-water cooler moments, and it could grow stale any minute — especially now that the series has caught up to itself and revealed that Annalise is somehow in on the cover-up involving her husband’s accidental murder. (If you want to get away with murder, it helps to have an infallible attorney who happens to be married to the victim on your side.) The cast is appealing, Viola Davis grounds it in whatever reality she can muster, and the attempts at racial and sexual diversity build up enough goodwill to make this stand out from other completely absurd attempts at representing the legal profession that are not so consistently progressive. If nothing else, How To Get Away With Murder is a good example of what people want to see on TV nowadays, and that’s not always easy to find on network television.

olive-kitteridge-zoe-kazan-BRADY-CORBETTOLIVE KITTERIDGE

One of fall 2014’s most appealing offerings wasn’t exactly a series at all. Or, it was — but it was only four episodes. That’s HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, the adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s collection of short stories, spanning many decades and starring Frances McDormand as the titular character, a woman who is hard to warm up to in the world of this story but easy to love as a viewer because she’s so feisty.

The series begins when Olive’s husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) takes on a new employee at his pharmacy in small-town Maine. She’s Denise (Zoe Kazan), young, cute, dorky, and married — but not for long, as tragedy soon strikes her handsome husband, also named Henry (Brady Corbet). The still-living Henry, obviously smitten with her from the beginning, now feels the urge to care for her even as Denise gradually moves into a romance with a younger and more eligible coworker (Jesse Plemons).

Olive Kitteridge eventually follows Henry and Olive from middle age to old age, as their son grows from a teenager into a man, gets married and then divorced and married again. Side characters come in and out of their lives, including a severely depressed woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) and, later, her equally depressed son (Cory Michael Smith), as well as a cranky widower with conservative views (Bill Murray). What connects these segments, occurring over so many years, is death — deaths that occur, or almost occur. Some are accidents, some are suicides, some are crimes, and some are just nature. A full life is filled with death, and Olive Kitteridge experiences more than her share of it, but marches forth anyway. Olive Kitteridge is a bittersweet experience with sharp characters and many moments of beauty amidst the tragedy, and it’s probably the best thing I saw on TV in fall 2014 (besides The Comeback).

FRANCES-MCDORMAND-RICHARD-JENKINS-Olive-Kitteridge*

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