Tuesday, January 17, 2017

TV Guide's list of best shows set in different U.S. cities, and my brief thoughts

TV Guide has a slideshow that lays out its view of the best TV shows set in different American cities. For some of the non-coastal cities, there might have been just one show, making it not a difficult choice. I didn't realize, for example, that "One Day at a Time" was set in Indianapolis. And as cool as Albuquerque is, it's obvious that "Breaking Bad" is going to be the representative for that town.

I'm not going to go through all 38 selections, but I am going to comment on the ones for the cities I've lived in. At the outset, note that the criteria for TV Guide was "favorite TV show for each," not necessarily most iconic depiction.

Los Angeles

TV Guide picked "New Girl." Really? I'll admit, I've never watched it because of my prejudice against 30 minute shows, but L.A. has been the setting for a ton of shows, including:

* "24"
* "The A-Team"
* "Alias"
* "Angel"
* "Bosch"
* "CHiPs"
* "The Greatest American Hero"
* "MacGyver"
* "Moonlighting"
* "Remington Steele"
* "The Rockford Files"
* "The Shield"

and many others. I'm not saying those are all good shows, but I'd rather watch any of them than "New Girl." If you want verisimilitude, I'd go with "The Shield" or "Bosch." But of course, if it's just my favorite show set in L.A., well, that's obviously going to be "24."

San Francisco

Technically, I never lived in San Francisco, but rather across the Bay. TV Guide picked "Full House," another show that I've never watched. Again, the City is a popular locale for shows:

* "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr."
* "Charmed"
* "Midnight Caller"
* "Monk"
* "Party of Five"
* "The Streets of San Francisco"

I would've gone with "Charmed," which was another one of those shows that dipped its toes into serialized storytelling and was better for it.

Oklahoma City

TV Guide didn't include this, but there actually was a show set in OKC - "Saving Grace" with Holly Hunter. I never watched it, so can't comment on it.

San Diego

Poor San Diego - probably the best city to live in the continental U.S. (if you can afford it), but perpetually overshadowed by L.A. TV Guide picked "The Fosters," which I've never even heard of. I would've picked "Simon & Simon," which I think captured San Diego's laid back attitude, or maybe the Lorenzo Lamas guilty pleasure "Renegade." I've heard great things about "Terriers" and need to catch on that short-lived show, also set in San Diego.

Iowa City

There are some shows set in the state of Iowa, but none that caught TV Guide's attention, nor mine. As far as I know, none of them was set in Iowa City, which is kind of weird, since Iowa City is a really good stand-in for your average Midwestern Big Ten college town.


It's either "Grimm" or "Portlandia," and I only watch "Grimm" out of those two, so I'd concur in the pick. Of course, as silly as "Portlandia" makes us out to be, I still hope it's a more accurate depiction, or else I'm surrounded by creepy wesen....


I've never lived in Seattle, but I'd pick "The 4400" to represent the Emerald City. "Grey's Anatomy" (TV Guide's choice) is certainly understandable, but I loved X-Files-like aspect of "The 4400." Too bad it was canceled on a cliffhanger. It's a good thing that the show's producers licensed follow-up novels that provided some closure to the story.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

NBC's "The (New Celebrity) Apprentice": first thoughts

Okay, I will admit that I enjoyed watching "The Apprentice." It got tired after a few seasons, but the "Celebrity" version of it actually re-invigorated the format. That shouldn't surprising, because the show was never about business acumen as much as it was about host Donald Trump's pompous, irrational "decisions."

With Trump having left the series (or been fired) for the presidential campaign, NBC decided to recast the host role. In an instance of art and life swapping roles (sort of), the reality TV host went into politics, and the action star turned California governor went into reality TV. Yes, the Governator Arnold Schwarzeneggar took over the Trump role.

I tend to get overly optimistic about TV shows, and I had high hopes for the Governator. After all, there's 30+ years of great catch-phrases ("Hasta la vista, baby"; "I'll be back"; oh heck, here's a mash up of a whole bunch of them). Naturally, his exit line for fired contestants was exactly what you'd expect: "You're terminated!" (For some reason, only the first one got "hasta la vista, baby" as well.)

And yet, as a whole, the first four episodes (two per Monday evening) have felt a bit dull and flat compared to the Trump version. Why is that?

One reason, I think, is that Schwarzeneggar is trying to make somewhat reasoned choices about whom to fire. He's laid down some guidelines/principles that he sort of follows - take risks, don't hide in the background, stand up for what you believe. If this were a real business, that's what you'd want. As far as entertainment goes, though, not so much. Trump's show wasn't entertaining despite his randomness; it was entertaining because of that randomness. That plus how he was so awesome and these awesome people who were almost as awesome as he was would be evaluating the projects.

Another reason lies in the casting. As with "Survivor," casting makes a big difference, but it's not something that the producers can necessarily determine in advance whether the contestants will gel in an entertaining way. Here, though, the teams seem unbalanced; the men have won 3 of the 4 challenges, and the one that they lost was the only one that seemed like it could have gone either way. Perhaps it's because the women have too many reality TV celebrities (two "real housewives" and Snooki from "Jersey Shore"). Unlike the other celebrities, who because famous as athletes, singers, actors, etc., the reality stars became famous for being famous, so they don't bring any other strong skills to the table. I mean, they might happen to have some skills, but that's not why they were selected for the show.

So: it's not a terrible show, but it's not the self-parody that it used to be, which is too bad.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Hawaii running!

I am guessing that for many people, the image of a December vacation in Hawaii consists of lounging by the pool or on the beach. Or going to a luau. I did go to a luau on our recent winter break trip there, but you can guess what I did a lot of ... that's right, running!

We spent one night on the Big Island to go check out Volcanoes National Park. This is what one of the vents looked like at night:

Glowing steam from a volcano!

The photo doesn't come anywhere close to doing it justice due to the limitations of my smartphone camera and night-time lighting conditions. Unfortunately, as cool as it would have been to have gone running in the national park, it was way too dark at night to do so safely, and the next morning was pretty busy with hiking short trails.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson"

I am old enough that I not only remember the O.J. Simpson arrest and trial, but lived through it as an adult. I distinctly remember where I was when O.J. went on the lam on the 405 with a gun to his head and buddy A.C Cowlings driving the white Bronco. It was the summer after my second year of law school, so I was enjoying life as a summer associate. In those days, large law firms would woo law students with a bit of work, good pay, nice lunches, and lots of fun activities. That fateful day, I was river rafting in Kern County with the other summer associates and few actual lawyers from the firm. We finished the first run, and the guide told us that O.J. was on the run. "No way," we thought, but afterward, we went to get BBQ ribs and sat transfixed while watching a replay of the day's events.

The trial started halfway through the fall semester of my third year of law school and lasted until after I'd graduated, finished the bar exam, and started my clerkship with a federal judge in Los Angeles, just down the street from the county courthouse. I went to law school in the Bay Area, but even there the case was a big enough deal that one of the local channels aired live trial footage in the morning. By the time I moved down to L.A. in August, I couldn't escape the trial even if I'd wanted to, which of course I didn't. Every weeknight after finishing work, I'd rush home and catch the special 30 minute news show that one of the local channels devoted entirely to the case. Meanwhile, the federal judge whom I was clerking for frequently told lawyers in his court that things in his courtroom would not be run like the trial "over there."

I bring all of this up as a way of explaining why it might be surprising that I am utterly engrossed in "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson," which aired earlier in the year on FX, but which I just bought on DVD (because I got rid of cable a few years ago). I'm surprised that I'm so engrossed in it! I thought I had totally consumed my fill of this story 20 years ago, and yet, within the first five minutes of "American Crime Story," I was riveted to the TV. A lot of credit goes, of course, to the producers, writers, and actors. (Except John Travolta's portrayal of Robert Shapiro, so far at least, is really weird.)

I'm only through the first two episodes (out of 10), but I am hooked!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The best "one and done" TV shows (imho, of course)

Other than "The Simpsons" (apparently), all TV shows have to come to an end at some point. And there have been lots of articles and blog posts written about the best and worst series finales. For example, some people loved the end of "The Sopranos," while others loathed it. The same could be said about the end of "Lost." And then there are the shows that got canceled abruptly, leaving devoted viewers with a cliffhanger as their last memory of the show.

But today I'm interested in writing about a specific category of TV shows that come to an end - those that lasted just one season ... or not even a full season. In other words, shows that produced and aired 24 or fewer episodes EVER. Of the shows in that category, which ones rate as the best?

An immediate problem disqualifies most eligible contenders, and that is the fact that they lasted only a season (or not even a season) tends to mean that they weren't very good. In addition, those that got canceled - or non-renewed, if you prefer - often ended on total cliffhangers, which is a pretty unsatisfactory way of ending.*

* Of course, this is a problem even for shows that go beyond a season. Off the top of my head, "The Pretender" and "V" come to mind.

Restricting consideration to shows that lasted no more than a season and that offered a reasonably satisfactory conclusion greatly limits the contenders. For example, cult favorite "Firefly" arguably fails the second prong (requiring resolution in the movie Serenity). I'll grant that reasonable minds can disagree on "reasonably satisfactory conclusion" - but this is my blog, so if you disagree, feel free to leave a comment.

With that in mind, I've got three contenders to discuss, listed alphabetically:

"American Gothic": This was a supernatural/mystery show created by Shaun Cassidy (the "do run run" singer) in 1995. I'd characterize it as sort of a cross between "The X-Files," The Exorcist, and "The Shield." The main character was Lucas Black, the sheriff of the small southern town of Trinity. Played brilliantly by Gary Cole, Black either had demonic powers or was demonic himself, and he ruled Trinity with an iron fist. In the opening episode, he murders a traumatized young woman named Merlyn, whose younger brother Caleb is left orphaned and gradually drawn into Black's orbit. Trying to stand up to Black are Caleb's older cousin Gail, a TV reporter; and the local doctor.

This show did a lot of things well, from the creepy atmosphere, to the ongoing arc about whether Caleb would turn to the dark side, but most of all to how Black made you sort of root for himself despite yourself - not unlike how a decade later, "The Shield" would make you root for corrupt cop Vic Mackey.

The series didn't get renewed after 22 episodes, and CBS didn't do the show any favors by airing episodes out of the intended order. It didn't end in a true series finale, but the last episode did offer an ending of sorts. I didn't watch the original broadcast but caught up when Sci-Fi Channel aired the entire series in 1997 - fortunately in the correct order. I'm not generally a fan of supernatural horror, but I greatly enjoyed this show, and while I was sad that it didn't get renewed, I was also satisfied at the end. I liked this show enough that I picked up the entire set on DVD.

"Last Resort": I blogged recently about this show after catching the first few episodes. It starts off like the movie Crimson Tide with an American naval captain questioning orders to launch a nuclear attack, but here, the sub gets attacked by American forces and ends up taking up port in a tropical Southeast Asian island, where the captain declares that if they aren't left alone, he's got 17 nuclear weapons aimed at Washington, D.C.(!).

This show lasted just 13 episodes, but the showrunner got enough advance notice that there wouldn't be any more episodes to have been able to craft a satisfying ending. Things get a little bit rushed in the last two episodes, but not really any more than Jack Bauer's being to get to anywhere in Los Angeles in 10 minutes. Other than that, this is a dynamite show, with action, suspense, drama, and a bit of moral dilemmas. As with the other shows on this list, when I reached the end, I kind of wished it would go on in the way that I feel about really good novels. I think a full season order of 22 episodes would've been even better, but I'm glad that I'm left with a feeling of wanting a little more rather than thinking it overstayed its welcome. I bought the digital version of this show from Amazon to watch it, and I think it's highly likely that I'll watch it again.

"Nowhere Man": 1995 was a good year for TV shows, huh? This was one of the inaugural shows on UPN, which later merged into the CW. It starts off with photojournalist Thomas Veil showing off his new work, titled "Hidden Agenda," to great acclaim. Later, at the celebratory dinner with his wife, he goes to the bathroom, and when he comes back, she's gone. He manages to get home but he can't open the door, and when someone answers his pounding, it's his wife with another man. Only she doesn't recognize him. In fact, Veil discovers that he's been "erased" - no one remembers him. From there, it's 25 episodes of traveling across the country, trying to find out who did this to him and why. This did get an actual series finale, and while it's not completely mind-blowing, it satisfyingly explains everything. I'd consider picking this up on DVD, except it's out of print, and the available copies on Amazon are outrageously expensive.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Last Resort"

This show aired on ABC for not even a full season back in 2012. It had an intriguing premise not unlike that of the movie "Crimson Tide" - an American nuclear-armed submarine gets a launch order, but the commanding crew wants verification before carrying out the order. The request for verification does not go well, and the submarine ends up being hunted by fellow American naval forces, leading to a desperate warning by the captain that if his ship is attacked again, he will launch his nuclear warheads on Washington, D.C.(!)

Not only was it a heavily serialized show, it was created and produced by Shawn Ryan, who created one of my favorite TV shows of all-time, "The Shield." Yet, for some reason, I missed this show when it first aired. Apparently I was not alone, because the ratings dropped like a stone, and ABC didn't even bother ordering the back nine episodes.

Fortunately, ABC made this decision early enough that the production and writing staff had enough time to adjust and (sort of) end the series by episode 13. There are few things more frustrating than getting into a serialized series, only to have it end on a cliffhanger. (And ABC has done more than its share of those .... "Flashforward," "V" ....)

Anyway, I happened to have some digital credit with Amazon and went shopping a while ago, when I noticed that "Last Resort" was available for a reasonable price. I used my credit and promptly forgot about the show. I'd been binging on old seasons of "Survivor" (available via Amazon Prime) while running on the treadmill, but after the lameness of the "Redemption Island" season, I needed a break for Jeff Probst and company.


"Last Resort" has one of the best pilot episodes I've ever seen!* Andre Braugher exudes gravitas as Captain Chaplin, and Scott Speedman (who I've only seen in the "Underworld" movies) is very good as the executive officer. Add to that Robert Patrick as the crusty chief of the boat, and you've got a strong core cast. I'm about halfway through the series right now, and while there's been a couple of weaker episodes, none has been a clunker. It's a shame this show didn't get more traction when it aired, but then again, maybe it's a good thing that there's a (relatively) tight 13 episodes - like a good mini-series.

* Of course, "Flashforward" was also one of the best pilots I've ever seen, and that show devolved into a mess by the end, so a strong start certainly doesn't guarantee a strong series.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fall 2016 new TV shows

Fall is my favorite season. It has the best holiday (Thanksgiving), it's the best season for running road races, and of course, it's when new TV shows debut, as well as when established ones return. I sit down over the summer and plot out what shows I can manage to record on my dual-tuner TiVo, noting conflicts so as to prioritize. (Yes, I know I should just go get a new TiVo Roamio, which can record up to six shows at the same time.) Inevitably, I plan to watch way too many shows than I have time for, but as it turns out, more than half of the new shows that I tab end up either getting canceled quickly or dropping off my radar (or both).

Let's get to my thoughts on the new shows that I've sampled:

Designated Survivor (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.)

As much fun as it would be to have Jack Bauer be the President, that's not what this show is. If anything, star Kiefer Sutherland is trying very hard not to remind us of Bauer, from the nerdy academic glasses to the mild manner. The basic conceit is that Sutherland's character Tom Kirkland is the "designated survivor" - the Cabinet official who is kept away from the State of the Union speech in case there is a decapitating strike, so that there will be continuity in government. Of course, Kirkland was asked to resign his position earlier that morning but hadn't done so yet, which has already given rise to questions about whether he should remain President.

The show does have a lot in common with "24" - a terror plot, government machinations, disloyal government officials, and family soap opera elements. It looks like the pattern so far is one episode = 1 day, though I imagine it will start to space things out a bit. I've liked it, but I wish they had cast a different actress instead of Maggie Q, who just seems to stand around and stare at things, and who I find to be just as wooden here as she was in "Nikita."

Lethal Weapon (Fox, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.)

There are few new ideas in Hollywood. Rebooting a nearly 30 year old movie certainly doesn't seem very imaginative, so I was somewhat skeptical of this show. Plus, Mel Gibson has descended into such awful depths in real life that it's hard to disassociate his roles from him.

However, my wife wanted to give this a try, and since this airs at the same time as "Survivor" (one of my top returning favorites) and "Blindspot," something had to give way. "Blindspot" is okay, but strangely less compelling than it should be, possibly due to the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors (Jaimie Alexander and Sullivan Stapleton). My wife has already given up on it, so I figured I could catch up on the NBC website.

Anyway, I did not have high expectations for "Lethal Weapon." It easily surpassed those low expectations. There's something to be said for a TV show that knows what it wants to be and executes successfully. Thus far, there's no long backstory, no secret conspiracy responsible for Martin Riggs' wife's death in a car accident - it's just a competent mix of mismatched buddy comedy and action.

MacGyver (CBS, Fridays, 8 pm)

This was bad. I had low expectations based on the bad reviews it had been getting, but it was even worse than I had feared. Dull lead actor. Stupid words on the screen telling us that we're looking at "power" or "aluminum foil" ... as if we're too dumb to figure that out. I mean, if you're going to put words on the screen to help viewers out, why not Al-Al2O3 to teach them some chemistry?

Watching the pilot episode was one too many. Fortunately I have the original series on DVD. Maybe watching some episodes will restore the brain cells killed by watching this reboot.

The Good Place (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 pm)

Sitcoms aren't my cup of tea, and haven't been since "Married with Children" ended a long time ago. (Or maybe "Malcolm in the Middle.") My preferred style of storytelling is serialized conspiracy; sitcoms are about as far away as you can get from that. However, Kristen Bell earned some benefit of the doubt from her "Veronica Mars" days, so I decided to give this a try.

The set up is that her character, a self-centered, narcissist has died and ended up by mistake in "the good place" (not exactly the Christian Heaven, but something kind of like it). It's awesome for her, but her being there is causing breakdowns due to the misfit. The show appears to be about her efforts to change her character for the better.

It was okay, and Bell did a good job of making an unlikeable person somewhat likeable, but there wasn't anything there that grabbed me and demanded that I continue watching.

Timeless (NBC, Mondays, 10 pm)

Time travel shows are all of a sudden a hot item on TV. There's CW's "Frequency" and "D.C. Legends of Tomorrow," not to mention the time traveling abilities of the Flash, which are currently driving the storyline on "The Flash"; ABC's upcoming "Time After Time"; and this show.

Much like "Legends of Tomorrow," this is about a bad guy who gets access to a time machine, which he uses to try to change history so that the present is more to his liking; and the team of good guys sent to restore the timeline. The team has a historian who happens to know every trivial little detail about the Hindenburg disaster, which is quite fortunate, since the first mission is to fix what the bad guy did then.

One of the tropes of time travel stories is the idea that you can't really alter the past; if you save someone from dying the way they did in "history," then the flow of time will find some other way to kill that person. Another trope is that tiny deviations in the past will somehow cause significant changes in the present when the time traveler returns. These tropes are in tension with each other (though not totally inconsistent), but this show uses both.

The second trope has always bothered me in that there's rarely a satisfactory explanation for how the time traveler can integrate into the changed universe effectively. Take the movie "Timecop" with Jean-Claude van Damme. At the end of it [SPOILER], he has changed history by saving his wife from dying 10 years earlier, and when he returns to the present, he's still married to her, and they have a little child. How can he remember what's happened in the last 10 years in this timeline? And if he has those memories, how about his original memories? How does he know which are real?

There was an "Outer Limits" episode called "A Stitch in Time" that did confront this issue, with the twist being that the time traveler remembered both universes, but suffered headaches and other problems as a result; and as she engaged in more and more time travel, her health problems worsened.

The best time travel story I've come across in terms of having a mechanic that seemed internally consistent is Dean Koontz's novel Lightning.