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Review: Making History 1x1 (US: Fox)

Posted on March 8, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Making History

In the US: Sundays, 8:30/7:30c, Fox

Every nation has moments in its national consciousness that are not only important, they're so important they take on the status of mythology and begin to transcend actual facts.

England has many of these moments, such as the Battle of Hastings - "The last time we were invaded! The English fought like dogs to defend liberty as we always do!… apart from during the Glorious Revolution when the Dutch invaded, everyone defected to the invading side and King James ran away to Faversham, leaving William of Orange to become the new king without having to fire a shot."

For centuries, we ran around the world inventing concentration camps, committing genocide and war crimes, and partitioning countries arbitrarily, leading to all manners of disasters. But because we fought on the right side against someone even worse during the Second World War, we can ignore all that and decide not just that we're the good guys now but that we have been and always will be, leading to Dr Liam Fox, our current Secretary of State for International Trade, to claim this week that "The United Kingdom, is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history." Despite literally all the facts.

However, as I've said, we're not alone in having these mythological, almost 'cleansing' moments that extinguish unhelpful facts. The US, for example, has its War of Independence, in which the bravy plucky colonists fought back against an evil empire (ie England) in the pursuit of liberty and freedom, establishing true democracy, which otherwise would never, ever have happened anywhere, let alone in the US.

Never mind that New Englanders in the 1770s were about the wealthiest people in the world, with per capita income at least equal to that in the UK and more evenly distributed. "No taxation without representation"? The average Briton in 1763 paid 26s a year in tax, while the average Masachusetts taxpayer paid just 1s. The Boston Tea Party? Organised by wealthy tea smugglers set to lose out thanks to a recent rebate given to the East India Company that made tea the cheapest it had ever been in America - as someone wrote at the time, "Will not posterity be amazed when they are told that the present distraction took its rise from the parliament's taking off a shilling duty on a pound of tea, and imposing three pence, and call it a more unaccountable phrenzy, and more disgraceful to the annals of America, than that of the witchcraft?"

You can tell within just a few minutes exactly how faithful Making History is to actual history, when college professor Adam Pally (Happy Endings) returns to 1775 Lexington and discovers not only that Paul Revere hasn't raced around on his horse screaming, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" but also that some "British soldiers" are now stationed in town.

Historically, of course, at this point in time, it wasn't the plucky 'Americans' against 'the British' - everyone still thought of themselves as British, not Americans - so Revere actually warned that "The regulars are out!", the regulars being the standard name for the British soldiers.

But that's not what mythology says and for the rest of the episode, the regulars are about five seconds away from committing war crimes and inventing concentration camps a few centuries early à la mythology (cf The Patriot). They might do more if they ever learned that muskets and pistols needed to be reloaded after every shot in those days.

Still, Pally has travelled back in time inside a sports equipment bag so that he can woo Revere's talented, forward-thinking daughter, Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) by singing her Céline Dion songs he's pretended to have invented. But by doing so, he has distracted Revere so badly, he has to drag history professor Yassir Lester back in time to 1775 to help sort things out and ensure the American Revolution still happens.

Yes, unlike Timeless, which largely wanted to be accurate while still upsetting the timeline, Making History is not really trying to do much more than play with US mythology in order to have a laugh.

The trouble is that it only knows how to do broad humour and even then, it's not that funny. Sure, you have the absurdity of the duffel bag time machine and the singing, which raises a reasonable laugh. You have the idiocy of Pally, who jumps to the conclusion that he's stopped the Revolution, because Americans are drinking tea in Starbucks and eating fish and chips in the local canteen when he returns to 2016.

But mostly it's things like Lester vomiting copiously when he arrives in 1775 because everywhere smells like manure or because John Hancock and Samuel Adams trick him into drinking their 'new beer', which is actually the contents of the chamberpot.

Ho ho, if you're still in middle school. Not so ho, ho for everyone else.

The show does at least try to deploy the occasionally more sophisticated joke, usually about an anachronism, although far less succesfully and it never surprises the audience with anything they don't know already. But most of the time you have to rely on Pally's performance to find any real humour in the show. Lester's just there to gurn at Pally every time he does something unconscionable or dim, such as introduce him as "Queequeg", a former slave who can only say "Hello".

Meester's plucky, doing what the incompetent modern men can't do for themselves, speaking Dutch, firing pistols, riding horses and more. But she's underserved by script - she's less knowing, the constant source of historical information that's always designed to counterpoint modern-day information the audience already knows ("We could buy a house together for $5!"), yet never getting to deliberately make jokes herself.

Making History is a nice idea at heart but poorly implemented, failing to do more than elicit a few cheap laughs with schoolboy humour and a few wry smiles when it does modern commentary. I have little faith that subsequent episodes, which promise travel to different time periods and the chance for Meester to crack her own jokes, will be that much better, but you never know.

Pally and Meester both deserve better, as does America, to be honest. Don't you know it won the Second World War all by itself?

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Review: Wrecked 1x1-1x2 (US: TBS)

Posted on June 16, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Wrecked

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, TBS
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Me: Hey guys, this is an interactive one. So, are you ready? 

You: Yes we are!

Me: Cool. What's the secret of comedy?

You: We don't know, Rob. What is the secret…

Me [interrupts]: Timing!

Rubbish, hey? Doesn't work at all written down. But I laboured with it because I think it makes a valuable point - timing is very important in comedy. Get it wrong and your joke just isn't funny.

What's the right time for a TV parody of another TV show then? The answer's not immediately obvious. Consider, 'Allo, 'Allo, one of the most successful British sitcoms of the 80s and early 90s, running for 85 episodes over 10 years from 1982.

Huge numbers of people watched (or were too offended to watch) this sitcom about the wartime French resistance without being even slightly aware it was a parody of Secret Army, the BBC's outstanding and very dark wartime drama, which ran between 1977 and 1979. 

Three years between the finish of Secret Army (not including Secret Army spin-off Kessler in 1981) and the start of 'Allo 'Allo, and yet everyone had already forgotten what the show was parodying. Thank heavens 'Allo 'Allo was funny, hey?

So spare a thought for Wrecked, which has bizarrely chosen to parody Lost, which aired between 2004 and 2010. That's six years ago Lost finished and 12 years since its first episode aired, yet here's Wrecked doing an almost scene-by-scene parody of its first episodes, but imagining what would happen if only the ugly no-hopers, rather than the pretty talented ones survived the crash.

How good's your memory? Good enough to laugh at how accurate Wrecked is? Probably not.

The first two episodes tread the familiar-ish terrority of the initial plane crash, waking up on the beach, the tending to the wounded, the investigation of the island, looking for satellite phone signal, et al. The show's anal enough about its Lost lore that it even kills off its Jack (James Scott) in the first episode, as per Lost's original pilot script. In his stead, he leaves three also-rans (Zach Cregger, Asif Ali, Brian Sacca), who all look like someone more famous but certainly aren't quite as good; there's Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) as the Locke of the piece, albeit a Locke who can't walk; there's a generic bunch of millennial women who whine a bit (Ginger Gonzaga, Jessica Lowe, Ally Maki); and there's a couple of people who hang around being dicks in different ways (Will Greenberg, Brooke Dillman). 

Wrecked tries to get its laughs by doing sixth-form grade pastiche of the original, while throwing in general ineptitude, people arguing over whether a podiatrist is a proper doctor or not, and pointing out that no one knows any phone numbers any more so can't call for help using someone else's phone. As an example of the level of humour we're dealing with here, when Sacca's dad appears to him and Sacca wonders if they were coincidentally on the same flight, dad replies: "No, this is a dream sequence… were you not getting that?"

Oddly, Lost's most iconic storytelling technique - the flashback/flashforward/flashsideways - isn't used in Wrecked in these first two episodes, everything being told linearly. Too complicated, the writers had forgotten about it or something being saved for later? I don't know, but it's a bit like setting Allo Allo in Swindon during the Cod War without it.

Neither an incisive parody of Lost nor funny in its own right, Wrecked is a great big dud, despite the obvious cash spent on CGI and location filming in Puerto Rico and the occasionally interesting guest cast (eg Eliza Coupe from Happy Endings). I guess timing really is everything.

Here's the first six minutes and a trailer, just so you can see if you agree with me.

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Review: One Big Happy 1x1 (US: NBC)

Posted on March 18, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

One Big Happy

In the US: Tuesdays, 9.30/8.30c, NBC

“You’re not a very good lesbian, are you?” Kelly Brook asks Elisha Cuthbert at one point during the first episode of One Big Happy. It is the first of many points in the show's half hour run that surprisingly, Kelly Brook is Very Right. Unfortunately, the sitcom itself is Very Wrong.

Exec produced by Ellen DeGeneres but written by Liz Feldman (Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ellen’s Really Big Show), the show flips the sexes of the usual “straight female with gay best friend” premise of most sitcoms and dramedies by giving us the straight Nick Zano (Happy Endings, 2 Broke Girls, 90210) and the gay Elisha Cuthbert (24, Happy Endings), who have been best friends since high school. Promising each other that if they didn’t have kids by the time they were both 30*, they’d have them together, Plan B seems bang on course, bar the babies, until Zano meets Brook in a bar and they fall head over heels in love. However, she’s about to be deported and despite Brook and Cuthbert hating each other at first sight, after a whirlwind romance, Zano and Brook get married in Las Vegas. Except wouldn’t you know it, Cuthbert is pregnant, which means they’re all going to have to find a way of living together.

The show is a mixture of 50% stereotypes, 50% character comedy. Despite usually being deployed in self-depreciation, the stereotypes are tedious and deployed shotgun-like, almost as though the writer isn’t even sure herself why she’s putting them in there.

Brook, for example, has to deploy the obligatory reference to British teeth, but as she has model-perfect teeth, has to talk about that back tooth of hers that isn’t quite straight.

Similarly, Cuthbert’s black brother-in-law offers her a glass of Chardonnay when she’s upset: “Oh my God, I’m talking like a white woman,” he says. What? Just what?

All I can do is marvel at how far programs for generating comedy scripts have come. They’re almost as funny as quite stupid human beings now.

To be fair, though, in contrast, the character comedy is actually reasonably funny in places. However, despite Cuthbert showing she had surprising comedic chops on Happy Endings, she’s woefully miscast in this as the straight-laced lesbian who wants to paint her house battleship grey, and the model-handsome former MTV presenter Zano doesn’t exactly convince as the nerd who’s writing a science fiction novel about robots. The first five or 10 minutes of the episode, when it’s just Zano and Cuthbert failing utterly to convince as lifelong best friends, also fails utterly to raise even the slightest laugh.

Then along comes Brook as the carefree, live wire Brit Prudence, who spends large portions of the first episode parading naked and pixellated in front of the obviously uninterested Cuthbert. And things get better - not the just the Brook being naked part, obviously, since she’s very good at it.

Now on the face of it, this shouldn’t work on two levels - again not the Brook being naked part.

The first level is that the stereotype-laden Feldman can’t expand her horizons even further than one US state to really understand what ‘carefree live wire’ might mean for an Englishwoman so writes her as Californian. Ancient prophecy has it that were a normal English working class woman to ever unironically suggest to anyone that they would benefit from a colonic irrigation, our blessed isle would instantly sink beneath the waves and descend to Avalon, where faerie folk would proceed to collectively tut at us for our desecration of our heritage and all that we hold sacred and pure. Yet Brook is required to do this very thing. One can only presume that King Arthur is pleading our case to them right now and we don’t have long to reach the lifeboats.

The second is that Brook is a terrible actress. She’s been trying to crack the US market for over a decade now, with appearances in everything from the first season of Smallville and the benighted The (Mis)Adventures of Fiona Plum through to Adult Swim’s NTSF:SD:SUV. The result has been she’s almost never been called back for further appearances, because it’s been clear to everyone that even by American TV standards, hers is a vanishingly small acting talent.

However, most of those jobs have required her to play prim and proper Englishwomen. Here, Brook is able to transcend her thespian vacuum simply by being loud and effusive, instead of buttoned-down. The result is that she’s actually quite engaging and even makes you laugh. It seems the old adage that if an English person speaks to foreigners loudly and slowly they’ll understand you really is true.

The problem for the show is that essentially despite saving it from being an absolute disaster, Brook is the only thing holding it up and she also makes everyone around her look dull and uninteresting. You just don’t care about the fussy Cuthbert, the tongue-tied Zano or any of the thinly drawn supporting characters.

The show’s other big problem is that it's nothing but High Concept. What happens next? They’re all going to live together under one roof, the lifelong friends with a baby, one of whom is gay, and the woman they’ve both known for less than a week? One of them’s uptight, one of them believes in colonic irrigation, one of them is… male - and the two women don’t really like one another.

It’s not much is it, beyond going to the doctors, shopping for baby clothes, etc? Is Brook just going to prance about naked while Cuthbert says the word vagina every so often, when the writers realise they’ve got nothing else to work with?

Obviously, we’ll have to wait to see where things go next to be sure, although since we already have NBC’s The New Normal to act as a less congenial template, we can make a few educated guesses - and they're not that enticing. But I can’t imagine One Big Happy really soaring or striking out into exciting new unpioneered comedic territories. But then this is NBC, which is also giving us a second season of Undateable. It’ll probably be the network’s most popular programme within a month.

Still, not only is it half bearable, it features Kelly Brook occasionally being funny, and it’s only six episodes long, so I doubt there’s going to be many padding episodes. So in all the diversity of the diverse new sitcoms we’re getting, this might be one that you’ll tune in to. Assuming you’ve got some ironing to do or something.

* So about seven and three years ago, respectively

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