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Review: Superior Donuts 1x1-1x2 (US: CBS)

Posted on February 7, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Superior Donuts

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, CBS

CBS's policy of iterating TV shows - taking existing TV shows then making minor changes to them until it perfects their formulae - isn't without success. After all, Intelligence may have sucked but CBS's next iteration of it, Limitless, was actually jolly good.

However, I have to question the thinking behind not only commissioning Superior Donuts but airing it just before its antecedent, 2 Broke Girls. Does America really need not just one but two baking goods-based, multi-camera sitcoms featuring a diverse, blue-collar cast as they try to make money in a tough market? On a Monday night?

Yet here we are with Superior Donuts. How curious.

So has this iteration improved on the previous generation? Not hugely, since it lacks Kat Dennings for one thing. But Superior Donuts is at least funnier and less racist, and has more interesting things to say about millennials, the older generation and business than 2 Broke Girls does.

Here, we have old hand Judd Hirsch (Taxi, Numb3rs, Forever, Dear John (USA)) playing Arthur, the gruff owner of a small Chicago doughnut shop having to deal with the fact his neighbourhood is gentrifying and he doesn't know how to change with the times. Then along comes millennial Jermaine Fowler looking for work. He understands the way of the Twitter and the Instagram and the Yelp, and he also has a few innovations in mind for doughnuts. Soon, a beautiful cross-generational, cross-racial working partnership is born.

With Superior Donuts, CBS has taken a leaf from CBC Canada's book in order to get to grips with diversity, copying its Kim's Convenience move by adapting a play, although not one quite as beloved as Kim's Convenience was. Indeed, some of the dialogue still reeks of both the original play and the theatre itself, with a reference to Jean-Michel Basquiat in the first episode, no less. 

Dotted around the shop is a diverse group. We have two cops (Married with Children's Katey Sagal and Third Watch's Darien Sills-Evans), a slightly evil Iraqi refugee-turned-real estate developer and dry cleaner (Maz Jobrani), and unemployed factory worker David Koechner (Anchorman). There's also a blonde rich girl (again, this is airing just before 2 Broke Girls - do they think no one's going to notice?), played by Anna "daughter of Mikhail" Baryshnikov, who has to endure the eternal rich liberal pain of not being able to experience proper oppression herself.

There is a tragi-comic quality to all the characters, from Sagal's slight corruption through Jobrani's memories of growing up in Iraq ("When I was young, they dropped mustard gas on my village and it burned my oesophagus… Now, if I lick a battery, it will kill me.") to Koechner's desperation to do any job, whether that's toileting dogs or donating blood and semen. Jobrani is constantly trying to get Hirsch to sell him the doughnut shop, and with Hirsch a widower and slow to adapt to changing times, it's a constant possibility.

The show also plays with race. A lot. It just about gets away with it in a way that 2 Broke Girls really doesn't, since it plays less on stereotypes and more on societal rules. It also helps that Jobrani is the main instigator and foil for the humour - is it okay for Jobrani to call Fowler "the black guy" if he also calls Hirsch "the Jew" and worries that if he gets angry he'll "sound a bit terroristy"?

All of which makes Superior Donuts seem a lot better than it is. Remember, this is a show that devotes half of its second episode to a quest for the WiFi password in Jobrani's shop so that Sills-Evans can watch Doctor Who on his phone - sample dialogue: "Do you want to watch Doctor Who? Season 24 is the best." "No, but after you've watched it, I'll tell you what a vagina looks like."

Still, it's a notable improvement on its predecessor, will probably both appeal and educate the pensioners who watch it, and has more heart than the average CBS sitcom for sure. But a show that thinks season 24 of Doctor Who is the best? I'm out.

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Review: Chance 1x1-1x3 (US: Hulu)

Posted on October 31, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Chance

In the US: Wednesdays, Hulu

For most people in the UK, Hugh Laurie is Hugh Laurie. He may have played Gregory House in House for umpteen seasons, but he's also the guy from Blackadder, Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster, and Stephen Fry's comedy writing partner for most of the 80s and early 90s.

For most Americans, though, he's House. He is the grumpy, misanthropic, genius American doctor from House. End of. So you can kind of understand why Laurie would take on a two-season role as an eponymous doctor again, if only to cleanse American viewers' memories by playing something similar, but crucially different in one big regard: he's nice.

Based on the novel by Ken Humm (John from Cincinnati), Chance sees Laurie playing a consultant psychologist, who tries to sort out treatment for people who have neurological problems. When Gretchen Mol (Life on Mars) is referred to him with disassociative personality disorder, which she says started after her cop husband Paul Adelstein (Prison Break) began to abuse her, he tries to help her but soon the husband is coming after him.

Meanwhile, the non-confrontational Laurie is in the middle of a no-fault divorce from his wife Diane Farr (Numb3rs) and needs money. When he takes his antique desk to Clarke Peters (The Wire) to be sold, Peters tells him he could get nearly twice as much money if it still had the metalwork on it. Fortunately, Ethan Suplee (My Name is Earl) works for him and could add the missing metalwork if Laurie doesn't mind a little deception. In turn, Suplee doesn't mind a little bit of ultra-violence and is potentially willing to help Laurie out with his other problem…

I'll play a little game now. I'll list a few things and you have to say at which word you realised what the show's biggest influence is.

San Francisco. Psychiatry. Blonde. Femme fatale. Different personalities. Hitchcockian strings.

Well, if you haven't got it already, the answer's Vertigo, one of Alfred Hitchock's finest, in which Jimmy Stewart falls for Kim Novak who plays two women who turn out to be just the one. Certainly, Chance has huge ladels of both Vertigo and film noir spread all over it. There's also lashings of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, with Suplee and Peters leading the normally ethical Laurie towards a life of escalating moral infractions towards possibly even murder.

But Chance is certainly a lot more than that and knows that you know what its references are. Certainly, Laurie doesn't do anything massively stupid, instead doing all manner of smart, prudent things rather than leaping in at the deep end. There's also a certain House of Cards - David Mamet's, that is - quality to it all which the show is also keen to highlight. Is maths tutor Mol really disassociative or is she faking it? Is Adelstein really doing all the things that he seems to be doing or is the surprisingly bright Suplee actually doing it all to lure Laurie into a huge con? Could they even all be in league with one another?

Chance wants you to be wondering all of these things, which is why, despite its depressing qualities, it's also compelling, very tense and claustrophobic (rather than vertiginous). The double meaning in the title, which becomes hugely important in the second episode, makes you wonder exactly how much of what's going on is genuine coincidence and what's not - or even if Laurie's character is facing a Sixth Sense discovery that he's had a brain injury himself. Even if you're not exactly sure what the trap is, you can feel the jaws slowly closing around Laurie, who's a good guy who wants to do the right thing.

It's a good, smart, well-paced thriller that's definitely worth a try.

Barrometer rating: 2
Would it be better with a female lead? No
TMINE's prediction: Commissioned for two seasons

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Third-episode verdict: Limitless (US: CBS; UK: Sky Living)

Posted on October 7, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerLimitless.jpgA Barrometer rating of 2

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, CBS
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Living

In contrast to all the other shows that decided with their second episodes to improve on their crappy pilots this season, Limitless appears to have been planned this way all along. Which is odd. The first episode was generic dullness - a continuation that bolted a police procedural format onto the superior Bradley Cooper movie about a slacker who takes a drug that gives him incredible mental capabilities but which has lethal withdrawal symptoms.

As I mentioned at the time, it was inherently not much different from any number of other CBS "clever people solve crimes" shows, such as The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Elementary, Criminal Minds, IntelligenceScorpion, and CSI, beyond a little more spit and polish, presumably acquired through experience of making so many identikit shows.

The oddest feature of the first episode was its messed up casting, with livewire Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter cast as the dull FBI agent who plays second fiddle to twentysomething musician-slacker Jake McDorman from Manhattan Love Story. What were the producers thinking, I wondered?

Well, it's quite clear what they were thinking now, since apparently, the pilot was intended to lure in the fans of the movie. But as of episode two, the series officially became a comedy with occasionally dark undertones. It became Chuck. A better Chuck than Chuck in fact, since at least it can manage to do action and Carpenter doesn't have to look like a lovesick puppy the whole time (poor Yvonne Strahovski). 

And as a comedy, it's actually quite fun, warm, engaging and inventive - considerably better and nicer, in fact, than just about anything CBS classes as a comedy. Best touch of the show so far, beyond some wildly inventive fantasy sequences, has been the recruitment in the third episode of McDorman's fellow lead from Manhattan Love Story, Analeigh Tipton, as his ex-girlfriend, newly impressed by the NZT-improved McDorman.

What it isn't any more is either a good police procedural, since its plots wander between dull and unrealistic, or a continuation of the movie Limitless, beyond constant acknowledgements of the existence of Bradley Cooper's character and the NZT MacGuffin. Tonally, it's off completely here: Cooper has evolved into something a tad evil, and NZT does little except make McDorman a bit more energetic, focused and smarter. There's little of the OCD, drive and mastery of the world that the movie's NZT brought to Cooper.

Indeed, McDorman is well cast as the driftless and not-that-smart-even-on-NZT lead, well suited to the idea of an amiable shmuck who can drag up inspiration from old episodes of Miami Vice and dream-sequence all manner of hard-boiled shenanigans and adventures for Carpenter, since he isn't allowed to go on missions with her, only stay in the back room analysing things on his regulation one pill a day.

I still think Carpenter would have been a better lead, and it would have been interesting for a change to have a show about a female slacker turning her life around, and not through setting up a cupcake business. The vestigial dark through-narrative about Cooper blackmailing McDorman also sits oddly next to the rest of the almost exclusively comedic and heartwarming qualities of the show.

But as it stands, Limitless is now a considerably more interesting, albeit different show than when it started. 

Barrometer rating: 2
TMINE's prediction: I'm not on NZT, but I think this has the potential to run and run. However, I'm not convinced it quite has that magical ingredient needed to make an audience love it.

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