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Canned TV Show #4: Drive

November 13, 2009 2 comments

So far on Canned, I’ve reviewed shows that have managed to make it through one season, or in the case of last week, two whole freakin’ seasons.  After last time, which was torturous, this week is a breath of air in a sense.  Today, I’m reviewing a show that was, by contrast, extremely short.  Six episodes, in fact.  And only four of which were even aired on TV.  The show is Drive, a fast-paced actioner about various individuals drafted into an illegal, cross country road race (a fact they are gracious enough to remind us of almost every episode).

After the unfortunate failure of Firefly, star Nathan Fillion and co-creator Tim Minear decided to reteam for this, which would end up another unfortunate failure.  FOX promoted the show pretty heavily, and while the premiere of Drive racked up six million viewers, which isn’t great but not terrible, the rest of the episodes dropped off considerably, and after only four had aired, FOX pulled the series.  The remaining two were later posted online after it was made clear that FOX, which initially promised to air the final two episodes as a one night event, would not be airing them.  Though Drivewas on before the wildly popular 24, that connection wasn’t enough to keep it on the air.

The fact that FOX pulled the plug on the show so quickly leads me to believe they really didn’t have much faith in it to begin with.  It seems like other shows have started out with low ratings but were able to build up positive word-of-mouth and take off, but this one didn’t have that opportunity.  Fans of the show were just left with the frustration of not knowing who wins the race.

But how about the show itself?  Well, I’m pleased to report, I was thoroughly entertained by Drive.  While it wasn’t a great show and occasionally suffered from predictable plotting and inane dialogue, it was a fast-paced, entertaining, often exhilarating show.  It was twisty enough to keep you coming back, and a fair amount of the characters are compelling and interesting, not to mention well acted.  The plot goes like this: a diverse group of people are given mysterious cell phones and are brought to a location, and told that they are now part of an illegal, cross-country road race (see?  They repeat it a ton of times on the show, so I’m going to also).  The grand prize for winning this illegal, cross-country road race is $32 million.  However, some of the racers are not trying to win this illegal, cross-country road race just for the moolah; some, like Fillion’s character, have higher stakes.

The contestants in this illegal, cross-country road race (ok I’ll stop) range from interesting to, sadly, not so interesting.  First, we’ll run down the interesting ones.  Fillion is great as Alex Tully, a man driven to compete and win the race because his wife is being held by the people who run it.  He also has a dark past, one that his wife managed to “save” him from.  He’s riding with Corinna Wiles (played by Kristin Lehman, also good), a mysterious woman who wants a way to break into the race in order to take them down from inside, in revenge for what they did to her as a child.  Also in the race is John Trimble, an astrophysicist and his daughter Violet (played by Dylan Baker and Emma Stone, respectively).  John is suffering from a fatal disease and wants to go on this adventure with his daughter before he goes.  I enjoy Baker in almost everything I see him in, and here he shows a much sweeter side in contrast to the creeps he usually plays.  The scenes with him and Stone feel really believable, and they feel like a real father and daughter team.  In addition, there’s Winston Salazar (Kevin Alejandro), an ex-con who reunites with his estranged half-brother Sean (J.D. Pardo) and the two become partners.  Winston wants to know who broke him out of prison just to be in the race, and why.  Watching the two brothers form a shaky bond is enjoyable, and the actors pull it off reasonably well.  Last in the interesting pile is Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey), a new mother racing to help protect her baby, and also running from her abusive husband.  She seems like a nice, normal mother driven to do something drastic for her son, and Lynskey plays it well.

In the not so interesting pile are, luckily, only two groups, but with so few episodes, any time with them onscreen is time wasted.  First, there’s Rob (Riley Smith), an Iraq veteran who is officially AWOL after his deployment is hidden from him by his wife Ellie (Micrea Monroe).  This duo just isn’t as compelling as the others, and the actors sadly aren’t that convincing.  Ellie doesn’t wanna see Rob get hurt, but Rob is understandably upset when he finds out, since he’s now in a heap of trouble.  The end of the season sets it up that perhaps Ellie isn’t as innocent as she seems, but it’s really kind of stupid.  Finally, we have the least compelling trio in the bunch, three women who met during Hurricane Katrina and formed a bond.  There’s Leigh (Rochelle Aytes), Susan (Michael Hyatt), and Ivy (Taryn Manning).  While Leigh and Susan are boring, Ivy is straight-up annoying, and she eventually ditches the other two to join Wendy in her car.  This is upsetting, seeing as she’s the biggest part of the three being attached to Wendy, who is a much more interesting character.

Here’s a quick clip that shows the main characters and their reasons for being in the race (though be careful, there are spoilers):

So as you can tell, not everything in Drive works.  Which is a shame, since some of it works really well.  I admit some of the plotting is downright silly, and occasionally cliche.  Occasionally also, the dialogue is pretty weak, but just as often it’s surprisingly funny.  After being last to the first checkpoint, Wendy is forced to “eliminate” Ivy from her car with the bland twins.  When she admits she’d do anything for her son, Ivy decides she has a better chance of winning with her, and comes up with the idea that they ride together.  Upon entering the car and saying something undoubtedly annoying, Wendy pauses and then says “I think maybe I should’ve shot you.”  I’m not an advocate of violence, but I think the show would’ve been better off if she had.

Despite its problems, Drive was compulsively entertaining, and left me wanting to find out who won, and what happened to the characters.  The pilot was a really great 40 minutes of TV, setting up the situations and characters and featuring plenty of the car on car racing action that the premise promises.  It did make me wonder, however, just how long this race would go on.  I strongly doubt they’d be able to stretch it out for very long before it got ridiculous.  Luckily, the fine people over at tvseriesfinale.com shared some of what the creators said would happen had the show continued (read the article here, it’s pretty interesting).  According to Minear and co-creator Craig Silverstein, the show would have featured new contestants in subsequent seasons, with former ones taking on new jobs in the competition.  I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I’m also not sure I like that idea.  If viewers get invested in the characters, I have a feeling it’d be hard to uproot them and ask them to get invested in a whole new set.

So, should it be back on the air? I think so.  The series ends, as you can imagine, in the middle of things, with Violet and John stranded after Ivy steals their car, Wendy in the hands of her jerk husband, and Corinna in the hands of the puppet masters behind the race.  It left me wanting the loose threads to be tied up; did Alex find his wife?  What would become of John, who was dying last we knew?  What’s gonna happen with Corinna?  How about Wendy?  Will Ivy ever cease being annoying?  So much left unanswered.  Forever.  I think, however, the show may have worked better as some sort of miniseries, where it could’ve told the stories of this group and then ended, instead of starting over with a new group next season.  The article above answers some of those questions, but some will probably never be answered.

Check back next week, when I’ll be watching the one-season ABC Family sci-fi comedy The Middleman!  Wrong fit for that channel?  So I’ve read, but I’ll find out for sure.

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Canned TV Show #3: The War at Home

November 6, 2009 4 comments

Hello legion of followers, sorry I’m so behind on my third post.  You’d be surprised how little time a college student can have to sit on his backside and watch TV on his laptop.  I thought I went to college for that sole reason!

Also, the show I reviewed for today is not exactly one that is easy to watch multiple episodes of.  When I started this blog, I had no idea it would be quite so hard to sit through bad TV, but it really is people, it really is.  Especially when it’s not so much bad as just bland and mediocre to below-average.  A terrible show might at least be a noble train wreck or entertainingly awful, but one like the one I reviewed tonight is none of these things.  I’m talking, of course, about The War at Home, the little-loved FOX sitcom that aired for two seasons between 2006 and 2007.

In doing the little research I do for this blog, I found that the show had a paltry 28 on metacritic, a site that ranks shows with a composite score out of 100.  The general consensus was that it just wasn’t as funny or edgy as it tried to be, which is mostly true, but that’s not my only problem with this show.  You’ll find out what those are later.

As for the plot, the show concerns the exploits of the Gold family, led by sarcastic, slightly bigoted father Larry (Michael Rapaport), equally sassy mother Vicki (Anita Barone), and their kids: attractive but snotty daughter Hilary (Kaylee DeFer), dorky, awkward son Larry (Kyle Sullivan), and smartass younger son Mike (Dean Collins).  Basically, it’s a typical family sitcom setup.  The only difference is, The War at Home tries to tackle hot-button issues like teen drinking, drug use, racism, homosexuality, masturbation, relationships, and a whole lot more, and handle them in a sensitive but funny way.  Only one problem with this noble goal, and one of my chief criticisms of the series (which are the only important criticisms you need note).  The War at Home is never subtle or sensitive, and it’s rarely that funny.  It got a chuckle out of me here and there, but nothing that would make an entire series worth watching (it should also be noted, I did not watch the whole series, call me a cheating lying poopface if you will, but I watched enough from both seasons to get a solid impression of it).  The setups seem edgy enough, but the show almost always ends it trying to step on as few toes as possible.  The copious amounts of laugh track where laugh track need not go doesn’t help the funniness either.  Instead, it reminds you that you could be getting actual laughs somewhere else.  For an example of this general lack of subtlety, check the following:

For something that tries to be “edgy,” The War at Home feels stale right out of the gate.  It feels like a retread of every other “edgy” family sitcom that came before it, especially the much better Married…with Children.  The difference between the two?  In this one, the actors break the fourth wall and spout their lame jokes at the audience directly!  That’s creative, right?  There are few things more infuriating in life than actors on a plain white background.  For a show that attempts to derive so much humor from its dialogue, so much of it feels forced and unnatural.  Maybe if it tried to derive more humor from its characters and situations instead of their inane banter, it would’ve been a lot funnier.

But what about the characters, you ask?  Well, they’re all pretty unlikeable, but not unlikeable enough to be endearing (for an example of this paradox, look at the Reynolds family from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).  Mainly, they’re all just really mean to each other.  Is that really how modern families are?  A bunch of arch rivals who are willing to extort each other and stab each other in the back for their own gain?  Maybe some households, but there are so few moments where the family actually feels like a family and not just a bunch of taglines sharing a house together for their dynamic to be believable.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Michael Rapaport’s a likable guy and a pretty solid comedic actor, and Barone’s pretty good also.  It’s just a shame that they had to have this sub-par fare as their showcase.  As for the kids, really only one of them is likable in any way for me, and that’d be Larry.  This is probably because I can relate to his awkwardness and cluelessness when it comes to girls.  Wow, I just realized how sad that is.  Mike and Hilary are both just obnoxious little jerks, and I really felt nothing for them but annoyance.  This might also have to do with the fact that Sullivan is the funniest of the three kid actors.  If anyone has a career after this, I hope it’s gonna be him.  This isn’t the best example, but it showcases his goofy comic presence:

The show also features a slew of other recurring characters, including Hilary’s boyfriend Taye (a black guy!  Hoo lordy!  This would be a shocker if the year was 1958!) and his family, who are so carefully crafted to not feel like stereotypes that they essentially feel so anti-stereotypical that they make new stereotypes in some way (the dad went to Yale and attends a country club, that doesn’t allow Jews!  What a twist of fate!).  The big problem is that nobody feels real, and these smaller characters feel as fleshed out as anyone in the family, despite their lack of screentime.  Seth McFarlane even shows up as a 30 year old dating Hilary!  He’s as funny as he can be with the material, but sadly it doesn’t amount to much:

The thing that amazes me about The War at Home is that apparently, somewhere out there, there’s a devoted and adamant following that laments its passing just like I lament the death of Clone High.  And really, when you look at it, there’s a fair amount of the show that actually got made.  Sure, it only had two seasons, but they were both 22 episodes apiece.  That’s some long seasons.  Networks don’t seem to do that very often unless they have tremendous faith in a show.  And when you look at The War at Home, you can see what potential FOX saw in it.  It was a way for the network to appear to be putting forth another edgy family show, a sort of live-action Family Guy, while not actually running the risk of offending anybody.  The show was even settled snugly in between two actually edgy (and actually funny) family shows, albeit animated ones: The Simpsons and Family Guy.  For me, this made it seem even more alien and unnecessary.  It was an unfunny oasis in the middle of a hilarious desert, an obstacle between the Family Guy fan who also loves The Simpsons and getting from one of their favorite shows to the other.  Maybe that’s why the show lasted as long as it did, that people were just too lazy to change the channel for a half hour, a spot now occupied by the somewhat better but still middling The Cleveland Show.  Can anybody lend credence to this?  Shoot me a comment.

So, Should it be back on the air? Definitely not.  While I admit it’s not the worst show I’ve ever seen, it’s pretty damn unremarkable.  It just feels like it’s trying too hard to be both edgy and sanitary,  and while this may be a good combination for a network to finance, it probably won’t feel quite that way with viewers, and even its apparently dedicated fanbase wasn’t big enough to keep it on the air.  If for some reason you feel compelled to watch the show anyway, some episodes are on youtube, but the whole series can be seen on youku or megavideo (go to surfthechannel.com to get to the links).

I’ve decided I should probably get on some sort of schedule with these posts, so I’ll try to do one once a week, probably on the weekend.  Because, you know, I have very little social life.

Come back next week, when I’ll be looking at the short-lived Nathan Fillion vehicle (oh God, what a terrible pun) Drive!  It’s my shortest one so far, which will be a nice break from the almost painfully long one I just reviewed.