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TV Review: ‘This Is Us’

NBC’s new hit series This Is Us, TV’s highest-rated dramatic series since Fox’s Empire, is also TV’s best new show in years. This ingenious yet simple series combines classic television storytelling with a current Hollywood trend—the time or flashback gimmick that’s so ubiquitous it’s annoying—to create a powerful vehicle for dramatizing today’s individual in the family, often at his best. This Is Us is emotionally balanced and satisfying. It’s the best show I’ve seen in decades.

Its distinguishing quality is clarity in portraying modern life as it is and ought to be, fed by an utter lack of cynicism. It’s not about supernatural, artificial or comic book characters. There are no thrones, crowns or cartoons and there’s none of the vulgar, trashy made-you-look appeal of HBO and so-called reality TV programming. This is pure, middle class adult American fiction, so if you don’t think people can be kind, decent and complicated—while being exceptional, amazing and fallible—and live in harmony, This Is Us is not for you. For the rest of us, this show is heir to TV’s most earnest and universal family-themed series including Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Parenthood and Frasier. It is that simple, serious and good.

Buy the first season

Every one of its 18 episodes peels another layer in the family created by Jack and Rebecca, a young married couple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who make their own lives and family. The first and final episodes begin and end with these two characters, played with conviction by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, with thoughtful surprises in every episode in between. This Is Us defies description because its inventive approach to storytelling is integrative, so each plot development folds into the rest of the characters’ arcs, though rarely in obvious, pat or predictable ways. This Is Us is created by Dan Fogelman, who wrote Disney’s Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Last Vegas and The Guilt Trip. Fogelman also created ABC’s Galavant. Besides the parenting leads, the main characters are their three children, played as adults by Chrissy Metz as an insecure and obese twin, Justin Hartley as her handsome twin brother and Sterling K. Brown as their wealthy, adopted brother.

More thematically essential to the series, which is so carefully threaded that it’s more like an extended miniseries, subplots dovetail into deeper themes. A long-lost musician father (outstanding Ron Cephas Jones) with terminal cancer returns for an elegy on the meaning of life. A doctor, played by Gerald McRaney in one of the best supporting performances on dramatic television, imparts his hard-earned wisdom in saving, delivering and coping with the loss of life. My favorite supporting character, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the show’s best actors), is so witty, rational and soothing that, when she hurts, it sneaks up on everyone. This is the theme of This Is Us—that this is life in America, whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Memphis, New York or LA; that this is it, here and now, and what matters is that which promotes life.

This is not one of those TV dramas that begs to be taken seriously for its own sake, however. The action, pathos and jaw-dropping drama, and the season is loaded with each, isn’t excessively somber, self-important or pretentious, like thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues or other heavy shows praised by critics that often put you to sleep. It isn’t downbeat like that. Besides light touches of humor, This Is Us is rooted in its premise that humanity is good, the universe is benevolent and problems can be solved.

Don’t take this to mean that This Is Us expresses pure romanticism (it doesn’t). Naturalism with romanticist strokes best captures its style. But, from the birth of a baby to the separation of a marriage, this program is unique in that the audience is cultivated to root for its characters to succeed, flourish and be happy. Happiness is its natural state. The characters’ conflicts, flaws and idiosyncrasies are mined for drama, not implanted for permanence. The strongest impressions are made by the exhibition of those values by which these characters seek to reach new, exciting and radical improvements, achievements and the highest goals.

For example, the panic attack that strikes a trader in weather derivatives strengthens a bond with his brother and triggers a soul-searching introspection. An actor quits at the top of his game and takes a lesser role to pursue his personal best. An artist strikes out on her own only to get pregnant and have her dreams derailed while a woman goes to what she calls “fat camp” to get thin and unlocks an emotional fury that leads to a crucial catharsis. And a husband and father delays gratification so he can be a better man, which, to him, means escaping the hell of his own family and becoming one of the good guys. That this happens with alcoholism, drug addiction, unwed motherhood, sibling rivalry, racial prejudice, body shaming and more only deepens the meaning of this rich, textured show.

This Is Us is not without flaws. Period specificity, including costumes, songs, mannerisms and the way people talk lacks credibility as the show goes on, sometimes to distraction. But intelligent writing, wisdom and sincerity, which only occasionally slips into sentimentality, overcomes its problems. It is true that This Is Us touches the audience with heartbreaking scenes (don’t judge the show by its sappy Twitter feed, which disproportionately features fans measuring impact by tears). Yet it takes wrenching problems in daily life and dramatizes realistic, practical and often enlightening solutions. It renders this with serious writing, directing and acting, leaving the audience lighter, smarter and wiser and all in the halo of its main man, alpha male, father figure, Jack Pearson, whose vision of the ideal family undergirds the show.

This Is Us plays its plot points and character arcs with idealism, not cynicism, and its protagonists’ ethics are essentially egoistic. They aim to act in their self-interest and generally try to go by reason. The show’s tightly integrated plot, theme and cast of characters play as compelling. Some may prejudge and recoil from the show’s looks and arcs. Similarly, This Is Us will not satisfy feminists, multiculturalists and other egalitarians because it makes a fundamentally strong stance for being one’s best and individualism (even, in its own way, capitalism). This is why This Is Us stands out as the most serious drama on TV. It’s a show that’s aligned with reality as it is and, while not in the largest sense, ought to be. Watch for what it’s not—cynical and spewing against everything all the time—and take it for what it is. But watch (from the start), think and enjoy.

Factoring Bill O’Reilly

Combative, finger-waving cable television host Bill O’Reilly parted ways with Fox News Channel a few weeks after the New York Times published claims of sexual harassment and large sums for settlements. Is the downfall of America’s top cable TV host a negative or positive for free speech, the culture and the country? I think the answer depends on the facts, which we don’t know. That the relevant facts are not known is why I think O’Reilly’s downfall is ominous.

I’m not a fan of the show. I rarely watched The O’Reilly Factor, which ran for 21 years and was top-rated, commercially successful and highly influential. What I’ve written about O’Reilly since he went on Fox News following his work on the lurid Inside Edition is almost entirely negative. In my media commentary, I’ve opposed sensationalism and consistently named O’Reilly as one of the worst practitioners.

Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News

But it’s worth thinking about why he stayed at the top of TV ratings for so long. His show was topical, entertaining and consistent on its own terms. Watch The O’Reilly Factor for the full hour and you’d get a general idea of news and culture from a certain, often neglected, perspective. O’Reilly’s viewpoint is a mixture of pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism. Bursting with anger, humor or pathos and never taking a position on principle, O’Reilly goes by the “gut” with no coherent philosophy. He sees himself as an advocate for “the folks” next door, not for the Constitution, liberty or capitalism; he was never for individual rights. O’Reilly sees himself as a common man who’s “looking out for you“, presumably a fellow commoner, but he’s never been an advocate for an idea.

In fact, O’Reilly is contemptuous of seriously thinking about ideas.

Yet he accepted Roone Arledge’s idea to mix news and entertainment. Similarly, O’Reilly accepted professional political influencer Roger Ailes’ idea to build an entire cable TV brand on Arledge’s hybrid “infotainment” and narrowly cast it to the oldest Americans, whose pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism is threatened by what’s regarded as libertarianism, liberalism and secularism. O’Reilly put together a nightly, primetime program intended not to inform and enlighten, but, chiefly, to soothe, rationalize and reaffirm viewer beliefs. Curmudgeon O’Reilly sat on his lead for years with a clever, carefully produced sprinkling of light features and news coupled with emotional outbursts of opinion by overgroomed people who are always overruled by the host. The result is a kind of kabuki theater.

The O’Reilly Factor‘s worst histrionics were reserved for displays of its underlying ethos: cynicism. The closest the 21-year-old program comes to having a philosophical point is an airy, annual campaign against “secular progressives” waging “war on Christmas”, a tiny symptom of a much wider war on reason. So, O’Reilly became both a lightning rod for those too lazy to think—really think—about what’s wrong with the world and for those who are angry, and rightly so, over the assault on Americanism. Audiences could safely tune in without the necessity of having to think. This is most evident in his exchanges with guest Leonard Peikoff, whose appearances painfully demonstrate that O’Reilly—who treated his guests as antagonists—is hostile to philosophy. He rose to the top strictly on the fact that Americans do not take news—or ideas that make the news—seriously.

O’Reilly’s basic value proposition was time spent with a misanthrope sneering, shrugging or chuckling at any one or anything that shows passion for reason. Whether considering lives crippled by acts of war or economic despair, O’Reilly always pushed Americans to lighten up, stop thinking and just go along with his superficially jovial, insidiously toxic blend of anti-intellectualism. He typically started the show with a warning—”Caution!!!”—of its toxicity and ended with a condescending smirk. This was his appeal: viewers found his nightly Howard Beale-style rants and raves, ups and downs, irresistibly comforting. He was like a boozy uncle who rants for an hour, pats you on the head for letting him ramble and then spins around the bar stool before he tries to make his way to the door.

In this way, Bill O’Reilly represents the current and combustible mixture of everything wrong and right with America—its basic goodness and decency, unthinking stoicism and pragmatism and America’s fast-spreading cynicism. An O’Reilly Factor segment on the law oversimplifying complex cases and brushing up against crucial issues but never getting too deep would invariably be followed by vulgarity and cynicism; every seven seconds of outrage preceded three minutes of Gutfeld and McGuirk, forced laughter from Dennis Miller, a talented comedian reduced to calling the host “Billy”, or another asinine video segment dubbed “Watters World” produced to make viewers feel superior by mocking everything gone wrong with the world—the flipside of the way NPR strives to make listeners feel superior by tearing down everything right with the world. O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor was more like the circus ringmaster.

Megyn Kelly at Fox News

He often put on a good show, covering, if barely, essential news, often with a fresh perspective neglected or diminished by the “mainstream media”. He aired programs and segments that brought attention to important issues, such as mistreated war veterans, various injustices and thoughtful discourse. Though he rarely broke news—it was CNN’s Drew Griffin, for instance, who reported the VA’s abuse of veterans—his common man theme occasionally challenged the status quo. He took urban black crime and despair more seriously than many of his detractors. The careers of Juan Williams, Mary Katherine Ham, John Stossel, Marc Lamont Hill, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Tavis Smiley, Megyn Kelly and Kirsten Powers, who represent a range of views by skilled or capable columnists, scholars and intellectuals, were advanced by Bill O’Reilly.

Ironically, it was Powers, an anti-abortion Democrat and longtime Fox News pundit until recently when she went to CNN, whose attack on O’Reilly yesterday underscores the downside of his being let go from Fox News. While she made a point on Anderson Cooper’s program to say that, in all her time working with O’Reilly, she never experienced sexual harassment from O’Reilly, she charged him with what she termed “sexual discrimination”. Her evidence? O’Reilly’s closing comment after a segment with Margaret Hoover thanking them for their “blondeness”. This came, Powers said, after he got Margaret’s name wrong and blamed it on there being so many blondes at Fox News. For this apparent transgression, Powers claimed, she went to a producer and, eventually, Roger Ailes, and demanded that O’Reilly apologize, which he allegedly refused to do, and so she boycotted The O’Reilly Factor for two years.

Powers added that she returned to The O’Reilly Factor (apparently, she initiated the return) without rancor, discord or O’Reilly’s having apologized and said they maintained a good relationship. If this is the most damning evidence of O’Reilly’s wrongdoing Kirsten Powers could muster, it’s not exactly convincing.

But it’s the fact of Kirsten Powers’ insinuation that’s disturbing about O’Reilly’s takedown by Fox News‘ parent company, 21st Century Fox. Not a single charge of sexual harassment against O’Reilly has been confirmed by the press. Not a single charge has been proven in court. Much less is known about the claims against O’Reilly than was alleged or known and, in some cases, proven and convicted or adjudicated in court, about similar or worse allegations against rich, powerful men favored by the orthodoxy that seeks to silence dissent, including Kobe Bryant, Marlon Brando, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby. That a major media voice is silenced without a single, proven assertion of wrongdoing—without Bill O’Reilly even being interviewed by internal investigators, according to Michael Wolff in the Hollywood Reporter—is alarming.

“O’Reilly’s ouster is yet another reminder that the profit motive can itself be an agent of change,” writes cultural commentator Megan Garber, arguing that firing O’Reilly serves the company’s long-term interest, in her O’Reilly piece in The Atlantic. Maybe so, and certainly advertising revenue was declining after the report was published and it’s 21st Century Fox’s right to run their business. They may have reason to think Bill O’Reilly, who built the brand for 21 years, may have done wrong. But if not, and they fired a journalist based on insinuation without regard to facts, it is an injustice that ought to concern everyone. Because if a top TV host can be smeared and brought down in America without evidence, without going to court, with not a single confirmed assertion of wrongdoing, so can you and me. Mass mobilization of public opinion to pressure a company to fire top talent, whether Bill O’Reilly or Brian Williams, has potential to silence the free press.

If you value freedom of speech, you should consider the possibility that Bill O’Reilly is an innocent man who has been unjustly maligned.

TV Review: Code Black on CBS

This week, the CBS medical drama Code Black, which aired on Wednesdays, finished its first season (no word on renewal yet). An exceptional first season it is.

In retrospect, the show loses momentum with too many cast additions and a distinct shift from the doctor’s proximity to (and impact upon) the patient to mundane, internal hospital melodrama and contrived social messaging. In its current status at season’s end, it’s too much like a soap opera. Tinkering in the last episodes detracts.

But every episode up until the freeway pileup climax (“The Fog of War”), makes Code Black one of TV’s best series. The premise of a team of residents learning at the discretion of a leading doctor everyone calls ‘Daddy’ (Marcia Gay Harden) and a tough, wise nurse who goes by “Momma” (Luis Guzman) at a Los Angeles hospital that’s chronically at or over patient capacity carries the season to greatness.

CodeBlackCBSThe family-themed hierarchy helps. It sets the tone of Michael Seitzman’s show, which is based on the documentary of the same name, and casts the strangeness of working in this uniquely unhealthy, demanding environment—the American hospital in general; the emergency room in particular—in the proper perspective. In every episode, there comes a stylized dawning that illuminates the darkest corners of the rooms, instrument trays and curtain folds of a place where lives are won or lost and changed or reborn. This moment when the sun comes up means that reality exists independent of everything you’ve experienced; the new day brings new trauma.

Let’s get to it, Code Black‘s arch team seems to say every week, without the smugness of NBC’s ER, which often depicted doctors as topical mouthpieces or CBS’ Chicago Hope, which often showed docs as eccentric windbags. Here, the team is mostly led by a stern, rational physician played by the excellent Ms. Harden (Grandma, The Hoax, If I Were You), challenged, needled and backed by Guzman’s nurse, and their personalities are secondary to the medical matter at hand. They each exist to serve the medical purpose of the moment and, while each character’s background and motives for working in this place becomes clear, it never comes at the expense of fixing, tending, saving, declaring the dead and, yes, curing. Code Black at its best stings with its wholeness of purpose: the time the cocky stud learns to handle a patient’s priapism, or to grasp what he has in common with a flamboyant, dying patient or to grapple with why he’s always alone.

Nothing feels fake or forced on Code Black, though there are cliches and contrivances, as there are in matters of life and death, too. When a resident discloses a past drug addiction, death of loved ones, sexual orientation or fear of failure, it’s relatively organic to the plot, which is liberally blended with any from a wide variety of medical scenarios with ordinary or morally loaded circumstances, such as a religious parent’s preclusion against medical intervention or a patient’s self-imposed order to not resuscitate. The situations feel like another day in a high volume hospital, the patients come off as realistic and so do the staff and yet everything retains both the steady intensity of today’s impossible medical bureaucracy and life’s—and especially health care’s—fleeting intimacies that flare up in color and fade to gray or, sometimes, black.

Watch for Marcia Gay Harden’s interactions with any other character for the soul of the show. Look for Kevin Dunn as an intelligent foil who makes good points and bends rules even though he’s a hospital bureaucrat. William Allen Young as intellectual Dr. Guthrie is one of Code Black‘s best characters and one of its first victims of mid-season tinkering—when personal stuff explodes in the hospital, which starts to gain uninteresting characters (Heather, Grace, Gina) and lose its involving aspects—and the cast of residents is fine, too. Raza Jaffrey as Dr. Hudson and Benjamin Hollingsworth as Dr. Savetti are also especially strong in roles that call for wide ranges.

The first 12 episodes are the best, striking hard, fast and powerfully with larger than life themes (“The Son Rises”) that may move the audience to tears. Even when an annoying patient character played by June Squibb (Nebraska)—in the same type of irritating role Squibb always plays—dismisses Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, it’s plausible that someone like her would fail to grasp something like that. Even in lower caliber later episodes such as the season finale with Paula Newsome (Black or White) as a politician’s wife, a superior performance elevates contrived, politically correct material. Code Black deserves to get better and it ought to get a second season. Only then does it have a chance to recapture its original and incisive dramatic contemplation of what it means to be a doctor and medical practitioner in a mad, sick world in which every day might also hold something glorious and good.

TV Review: The Hunt with John Walsh

TheHuntJWCNNThe second season of CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh premiered this week. After an extraordinary first season resulting in catching—and, in some cases, killing—criminals, it gets better.

There’s nothing else like The Hunt with John Walsh on television. The 60-minute original program hosted by anti-crime activist and America’s Most Wanted creator and ex-host Walsh, father of Adam, a child who was abducted and murdered, is a rare, non-fiction procedural program with unyielding moral judgment. Whatever legitimate criticism applies to Walsh, who appears in ads as a celebrity spokesman, too, The Hunt, like America’s Most Wanted, gets real results. The program, produced in cooperation with police detectives, who are also not above reproach on the show, has already led to the arrest, capture or killing of several of its first season criminals, who include those accused, detained or convicted of sexual assault, vehicular manslaughter, attempted murder and mass murder. Walsh tells the story of a crime from the victim’s perspective and solicits tips, assuring the viewer that “you can remain anonymous”—before each commercial break. Tastefully produced, and serious, not gratuitous, The Hunt lets each victim’s loved one or loved ones speak in their own voice.

Moral judgment extends to those who ignore, deny, evade, enable or abet crime, too, however, as is the case with the second season premiere’s episode profiling double murderer Egyptian Moslem Yaser Abdel Said, whose wife of 20 years all but brought her beautiful young daughters back from Oklahoma to Texas to be slaughtered by their father—whom they had accused of sexually abusing them—in what was apparently what’s known in Islam as an “honor killing”. More in this episode should have been reported about Said’s Arab culture and the role of his religion. But, other than John Walsh, who else on cable television, let alone broadcast TV, has the courage to call criminals “bastards” at the start of each episode, mean it to the end of seeking justice and claim this successful a track record? Unlike the predator trap show on NBC networks, The Hunt is not a sting to entice the criminal to commit the crime. Walsh deals in facts, law enforcement, crime recreations, certain victim perspectives and, in particular, the relentless pursuit of apprehending the fugitive from justice. Hence, the title The Hunt, which proceeds without an air of vigilantism. The show is relatively new—America’s Most Wanted ran for 25 seasons—so its effectiveness should be measured, scrutinized and judged, like sex offender laws, over time.

But a show predicated on getting justice for the innocent when injustice by the guilty often goes unpunished is an outstanding addition to TV programming. Walsh talks about being the victim of crime and shares insights based on what he’s experienced, learned and investigated since he lost his son in 1981 and the personal viewpoint adds to the show’s credibility. Like his predecessors in true crime television, Robert Stack and other fine hosts, Walsh deserves praise for seeking a responsible approach to solving, preventing and punishing crime. The fact that he survives a devastating, personal loss underscores the importance of his work.

The Hunt with John Walsh (go here for more info) airs on CNN Sundays at 9 pm ET/PT.

TV Review: State of the Union

220px-Jake_Tapper_at_the_White_HouseUnfortunately, Sunday’s premiere of CNN’s reconfigured State of the Union, which premiered in 2009, represents everything wrong with television, broadcast journalism and, in particular, political journalism. The one-hour Sunday morning news program, which is putting it generously, was soft, weak and incestuous. Billed as an exclusive interview with a former president, whose spouse is running for president, with another segment featuring the brother of a former president, the entire show centered upon access by the new host, who failed to disclose that he worked for the former president’s son-in-law’s mother.

One might be able to overlook such a transgression if the host were not as capable a journalist as Jake Tapper, who hosts CNN’s The Lead and does an excellent job in general, too. But, as I wrote about Megyn Kelly and Maria Bartiromo in their lackluster debuts on Fox News, one expects the best to be better than the competition. Tapper is among the best in TV’s journalism. Last month, he invited and interviewed Islamic jihadist target Pamela Geller after the Texas attack by Moslem terrorists on her free speech event; he was even-handed and respectful and asked good questions in what is one of her most passionate, articulate and persuasive interviews. He consistently asks questions that are sharp, independent and challenging, always questioning the state and showing a grasp of what it means to reduce the news to the individual. Though he’s a former Democratic Party operative and congressional Democrat’s press secretary, and his career includes jobs in both journalism and activism, he frequently asks pointed, intelligent questions like he’s in the Tea Party. Tapper’s coverage and analysis of war news, including CNN reporter Drew Griffin’s fine work exposing the Obama administration’s incompetence and conspiracy to deprive basic care to war veterans, is also very good.

This is why his failure to ask Bill Clinton even one question about his dreadful war and military record in the aftermath of the debacle of Iraq is so disappointing. It’s bad enough that Tapper failed to disclose the interview nature, agreement and audience terms and conditions involved with President Clinton, let alone his professional affiliation with the Clintons’ daughter’s husband’s mother or the fact that he dated the president’s mistress, an intern whose relationship with the president led to testimony which led to impeachment. Tapper’s exclusive interview with Clinton, packed with an audience of questionable origin and totally predicated on questions pertaining to Clinton’s dubious organization, amount to an infomercial for Clinton’s group. The connections among Monica Lewinsky, bombing and refusing to annihilate Islamic terrorists that would launch an attack on 9/11, Hillary Clinton, the jihadists’ Benghazi slaughter of Americans and Mrs. Clinton’s subsequent attack on free speech, are a thinking journalist’s dream. Whatever the ground rules for Tapper’s interview with the ex-president, he didn’t ask about any of those issues. This despite the attack on CNN by the president’s wife’s administration when she was secretary of state.

There is too much cronyism in Washington and Jake Tapper’s Bill Clinton interview reeks of it. This was underscored in a sidebar on another Bush presidential candidate, affectionately referred to here the entire time in subtitle as “Jeb”. The Jeb tag is presumably in accordance with the Jeb Bush for President campaign’s instructions to CNN to reduce and nearly eliminate any reference to that shriek-inducing last name. That the Jeb piece was conducted by the ultimate Washington toadying type, Dana Bash, an imperiously vacuous reporter whose Jeb Bush interview would have been more revealing if done by a high school student, just made the whole show worse.

“Dynastic” is the word Jake Tapper used in opening comments to describe the state of the union in State of the Union, 2015 version. This was before the soft, adoring, obsequious Clinton and Bush interviews and more of the same middling pundits chimed in. If only Jake Tapper had led with his mind the way he does on The Lead, if only he had really delved into the state of the union, not the state of the status quo. I had been looking forward to this program and had anticipated hard-hitting, radical challenges and questions and discourse from the reporter from Philadelphia. Judging by the first new show, Tapper merely strives for more of the same. The opposite is what viewers deserve.