Monday, July 18, 2016

The Top 25 (Give But Not Take, About a Dozen) TV Shows of 20-15-2016 ... That I Enjoyed

The first comic books that I can distinctly remember reading (and collecting), hit the racks and spinners at drug stores all over western suburban Toronto in late 1961. I had turned six earlier in the summer, but had had a rough couple of months that required more than a single visit to my doctor of the time, Dr. Korntager. The drug store near his office in Malton had the BEST selection of comics you could imagine. And I had a mother who had two other young 'uns to look after, so a sick kid willing to stop making a fuss if only I could have a comic book made me an excellent eldest son. And like potato chips (another of my vices), I was not satisfied with having just one comic. In fact, I stopped counting after first 120,000. 

All of this is to certify that I'm a card-carryin' member of the comic book collector's collective's hive mind. I LOVE comic books. And that makes this year just about how I'd imagined a perfect future would be ... back when I was six. The reality is that I count ELEVEN comics in my top 40 this year. And there could have been more. Even properties you do NOT think are actual comic books in video format, you discover are truly funnies in four colours sprung to life. Or into animation. At any rate, if you truly despise comic books and hate how they have taken over the small screen AND the big movie screens, then I urge you to read with caution. Don't NOT read for heaven's sake. The whole art of finding stuff worth binging on is all about digging through the stuff you don't like to find the one or two series (or more, fingers crossed) that you will find worthy of spending a weekend watching episode after episode, only to wander back into work Monday as if you had spent all weekend in your PJs, hands shovelling popcorn into your maw as often as possible. 

As usual, before I get to my Top 40 25, or so, I have to get some of the other stuff out of the way, starting with the warning about the truly awful, the sins against small screen cinema, the worst of the worst, the "What were they thinking?" disasters that absolutely should be costing people jobs so that kind of thing never happens again, the ... well, you get the drift. 
This season was marred by some bad stuff. Outright soft porn managed to gain a foothold on the screen this season. There's been sex scenes on TV for years. Game of Thrones being a leading example. Gruesome sex most of the times, but all the various naughty bits on display in the course of a story that MANY find interesting while being titillating every now and then. But The Girlfriend Experience and then Submission came and went with nary a CNN 'Breaking Newsflash' on the fact that nominally third-tier channels thought either would be a good use of bits and bytes. It's tough to make sex boring. Sad to say, but it has to be said. Or typed. Or whatever.

Then there was the comedies, of which the cringing Ken Jeong starrer Dr. Ken (semi-autobiographical from what I understand) was bad, even with Dave Foley doing the 'Foley Role.' Liked Suzy Nakamura as always, but Jeong thought playing a cringing Oriental made good TV. Oops, Nope. Just another side-show act (from Community and those Hangover movies) seen in small samples playing a LOT less successfully in the title role.

Dr. Ken was ALMOST as bad as the almost award-winning Truth be Told, an NBC failure of epic proportions. A young black couple, a young white couple, and utterly charmless writing, made for a contender as the worst TV experience of the year right out of the box, a clumsy show about prejudicial thinking. This was scraping to the bottom of the guano pit as it turned out. I managed four shows before declaring the show without hope. And maybe it's just co-incidence, but Vanessa Lachey has now done this show AND the execrable Dads a couple of years ago. A beautiful lady ... with a REALLY bad habit of showing up on worthless TV drivel. Sigh.

As bad as those shows were, I actually declared The Player dead during the third commercial break. Thus, an easy winner of The Worst of the Worst Award. An action star vehicle for the returning-to-TV Wesley Snipes. I think paying off tax bills had something to do with Snipes taking on this incredibly vapid 'action thriller'  with the usual dose of conspiracy nut sauce. The show ACTUALLY starred a charisma-starved Philip Winchester and the only saving grace, a charming Britt, Charity Wakefield (who I hope reappears sometime soon on something else). THEN the afore-mentioned doughy, haircut-challenged Snipes as something of a mysterious mentor. That this show lasted nine episodes was an example of NBC's futility at making good TV these days. A bad show with LOTS of external filming in Vegas, made the price tag even greater. That sound you heard was stock in NBC/Universal taking a hit. Wow, was it bad. 

Disappointing award does NOT go to The Arrow this year. It's actually in the top 25 again. No, I had to go elsewhere for my disappointment this time. I was disappointed in Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show, (a fact I MIGHT have mentioned RIGHT here last year) but I like Trevor Noah as a stick-in replacement for Stewart, rather than making a Stewart-like overhaul of the show when Stewart succeeded Craig Kilborn. The problem is that the producers let key talent depart (Jessica Williamson just last month, and Samantha Bee) and kept the unfunny Jordan Klepper. I'll keep my fingers crossed that they let Hasan Minhaj, Desi Lydic, Ronny Chieng and Roy Wood Jr. occupy the correspondent role more often than Klepper.  It's almost CONVENTION TIME. Will Cleveland '16 bring back nightmares from Chicago '68? Might need a few laughs if that happens. 

Castle went out with a whimper, repeating the same tired "We can't speak to each other" nonsense for one last season. You can argue the show went four or five seasons too many. But it was great in the beginning. Heroes Reborn had no reason to come back. Save when Japanese stars Kike Sukezane (anime character Miko) and Toru Uchikado (as Miko-worshiping Ren) were on the screen, my reaction most of the time is, please make this go away and never come back. Again. Might be safe from this gaining ANY network exec's blessing ever again. And Blindspot with it's artsy-fartsy flashback story-telling style, was almost as mindlessly imbecilic as Heroes Reborn. Maybe imbecilic is too harsh. Implausible writing in a major way, especially spoiling what was a nice side story-line featuring Ashley Johnson's Patterson and her geeky charming boyfriend David (Joe Dinicol). Plus Jaime Alexander is on my list. You know, the one that says, 'stay away.' Check out season 1 of Kyle XY and then the second season with Alexander added to the cast. I hold grudges.

Sharon Stone is NOT on that list. Just the opposite, I've been crushing on her since my teen years. I USED to say I could watch a squirming, smiling Sharon Stone and be content. Turns out I was wrong. STAY AWAY from Agent X, another conspiracy claptrap show. Still Gerald McRaney (how they don't find him a movie butler role ... Jeeves, I'm looking at you) and Fred Dryer was a delight. And so was Russian ex-pat Olga Fonda, who I assumed was going to be frenemy to Stone and her Agent X(Jeff Hephner) for what was hoped to be many, many seasons. But they somehow created something with Sharon Stone that I did want to watch. This was ALMOST 'The' award winner.

But nope, The Disappointment of the Year Award goes to Quantico. Take the implausibilities of Blindspot, marry it with  the stretched time-bouncing SF story-telling from Heroes Reborn and the mating would look something like Quantico. A series built around the undeniable beauty of Priyanka Chopra, making her North American debut. But the time looping back and forth and the implausibilities piled on top of improbabilities of behaviour and logic, just made me want to shout at the screen. I gave up after eight episodes of this big budget disaster about a terrorist disaster (or two or three). It felt like getting belted upside the noggin just to enjoy Chopra, Johanna Braddy, Josh Hopkins and Graham Rogers. Thankfully, I stopped the insanity of expecting coherency to suddenly start. But what a shame, with that cast.

So were some of the following shows, each of which I judge to be A Guilty Pleasure: Uncle Buck, Rush Hour/The Catch, Fresh off the Boat, Chasing Life, Mr. Robinson, Faking It, Private Eyes and Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons. Do I R-E-C-0-M-M-E-N-D each of these shows? Not without plenty of reservations. But honestly, there's something about each of them that makes me tell you SOMETHING about each is worthy of taking a look at in summer re-runs (or on one of the ubiquitous TV smorgasbord re-play services).

Uncle Buck is the second TV version of the famous John Candy movie (and there's been at least two other failed pilots to boot). I was completely prepared to give this a pass when I got stuck playing remote control roulette and happened upon the first episode. And I liked the kids (Iman Benson, Sayeed Shahidi and the adorable l'il one, Aalyrah Caldwell), it had James Lesure, who's always good, and Nia Long, who's usually good. Mike Epps was a mumbling Uncle Buck, which is why the show is NOT in my tops list. But it WAS charming. (and yeah, 'WAS' is right. It's been canceled).

CTV here in Canada hoped a summer pairing of another movie turned TV show, CBS's Rush Hour, paired with caper show The Catch from ABC, would catch fire and get the ratings. Rush Hour was badly planned as the show never understood the need for the fights to be thrilling AND funny, as only Jackie Chan does with certainty. Turns out, secondary players Page Kennedy (as crooked Gerald, the cops' best pal) and Aimee Garcia as fellow cop and single parent Didi Diaz, were wonderful on screen. Diaz is all grown up from her days on Dexter. Welcome into my home Aimee. The Catch was also a wonder of background casting. In fact, had they simply switched female lead Mireille Enos with Rose Rollins, the show would have been great. But, as self-indulgent as this complaint is, I could never get over Enos' false eyelashes. Or if not false, mascara'd to a silly length. I never got the chemistry she supposedly had with the able Peter Krause. And the show wasted Jacky Ido, who I had such high hopes on from Brooklyn Taxi. I might be cursing Elvy Yost by predicting big things for her in the future (as I did once with Ido), but this is my right as the writer of this blog. Darn waste of other pros, like Sonya Walger, Alimi Ballard and John Simm. A caper show that I can't recommend ... over eyelashes!!!

Jason Priestly will be forever stuck in Beverly Hills 90210 (the ORIGINAL one) But he and his TV daughter Jordyn Negrii (playing bind young Jules) have more then a few good moments in Private Eyes. Biggest problem for the now grizzled Priestley is that I just don't see the chemistry they are trying to create for him with co-star Cindy Sampson. Sigh. The show is shot in Toronto and isn't afraid of admitting it to be so. 

Lastly, Bill Simmons is a polarizing figure made more so when you can actually see him smirking. If you aren't a multiple Boston fan (with a minor affection for the Los Angeles Clippers), then Simmons already has caused your axe to start grinding. But so far, (three episodes in), Simmons has been around on the set when his guests said something interesting. This show works hard to alienate all but the most ardent sports fanatics. I am one, having let Simmons--the writer, change my mind on the best basketball players of all time (Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell. Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, convincing me Wilt Chamberlain didn't belong near the top). If he made the EXACT same arguments to me on TV, I'd change channels. Ignore him and pay attention to the guests. Unless you're from Boston, which means you really, REALLY like him.

I also understand that I like (and will watch), shows for just one character. Take Fresh off the Boat, loosely based on the life of famed chef and TV presenter, Eddie Huang, the show is really great whenever the youngster playing young Eddie, Hudson Yang, is off-screen. Eddie, the little guy, is ... boring. Not so his TV mom, played by Constance Wu. I've come to understand that I enjoy the funny aspects of broken people. And Jessica Huang is broken. But in a funny, funny way. Everybody else is okay in the show, but too much Eddie and too little Jessica could spoil your TV experience. Getting it the other way would make for a lucky day. Chasing Life was strictly chicklit stuff but I developed a real crush on Italia Ricci and truly enjoyed Haley Ramm as younger sister Brenna, who has lots of problems, one of which was NOT having cancer. That was all Ricci's April Carver. Her best friend Beth (Aisha Dee) and Grandma (Rebecca Schull) were brilliant. But the decision to let Scott Michael Foster's Leo go bye-bye while Foster moved to the odious oil stinker Blood & Oil was a series killer. Still, Chasing Life was a standout in the genre.

Mr. Robinson was a summer series featuring ... Craig Robinson, which PROBABLY had something to do with the title. Robinson plays a high school music teacher (accidentally) and the front of a house band that is looking for that all-elusive Big Break. And overly entertaining, if only for Robinson (and his most-excellent song-writing) and Peri Gilpin. Keeping things in a high school vein, this brings me to Faking It, the MTV show that featured American Idol competitor Katie Stevens and Rita Volk faking being lesbians in order to gain social status. Turns out Volk's character, Amy, is curious. In so many ways. Volk's yet another import from the Russian area of the world (Uzbekistan) and she's going to do well. So are the REAL reasons to watch the show, gayer than gay Shane, as played by Michael J. Willet, and hellion princess (in her own mind) Lauren, played with potty mouth rage by doe-eyed, diminutive Bailey De Young. Her ragers played off the always scheming Shane to steal the show. Like Mr. Robinson and Chasing Life and Rush Hour and possibly The Catch, we are talking about the dead, series life-wise. They've been canceled or are near it.

Time to turn my attention to Honourable Mentions, shows that I liked, but that I didn't like as much as others. Remember, this is not only purely subjective, it's NOT a list of the BEST shows on TV. Indeed, there are some series who have made this list, but disappeared in subsequent seasons. I like Homeland's first season, as an example, of agreeing with the TV credits. Afterwards, not so much. They say familiarity breeds contempt. Well, I rarely have contempt for shows I liked before, but they have to change and do things to keep my interest going to remain on this list. Sometimes that happens. Most times not. NCIS, for example, was my top show one year and has never appeared on the list in any other season of the long-running show. So, if you are expecting to see the usual litany of critic darlings here, be aware you will be wrong. But keep on reading. Something from here on will intersect with your interests. 

Two rookie shows turned out to fill the JUST-MISSED slots. The first was Lucifer, based, ta-dah!!!, on a comic book, although it was more loosely based than usual. Tom Ellis was hugely entertaining in a role not greatly removed from Rush, a show last year that forced him to give up his Welsh accent for something generically American. Letting him loose with his native accent and a glee in playing Lucifer as the male half of a detective duo pairing amateur male with woman cop (see Castle, as a working example), was devilishly fun. Lauren German was a wonderfully stressed out Chloe Decker, complete with cute kid Trixie played with devilish delight by Scarlett Estevez. Got a career ahead of her, that one. The season ends with a single word that is almost the equal of 'Rosebud' in Citizen Kane. If THAT is a spoiler, then you, the reader, have failed me, the writer. So, NOT SORRY!!!

The strong finish with Lucifer is counter-point to the horrible season-ender for Rosewood, dropping it SIX spots in the standings. Boy, did I hate that last episode. Until then, a amateur male sleuth (although amateur is a tad harsh, as Rosewood is a police consultant who ends up doing more morgue work than the official coroner) and the usual female cop, Jaina Lee Ortiz playing Detective Villa. And for the first few episodes, it was DETECTIVE Villa, not Annalise. But given time, Villa warms to the considerable charms of Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, Jr., as embodied by Morris Chestnut. Chestnut is an always charming rapscallion in every role he plays, it seems. And he gets to the point of making a real connection to Annalise, a widow as the series begins, when the last episode goes implausibly off the tracks. Twenty-one pretty good episodes and then a clunker. That's why there's an honourable mention consolation prize. Also loved the pairing of Gabrielle Dennis as Rosey's kid sister Pippy, and her partner, TMI Izikoff (Anna Konkle). Plus Domenic Lombardozzi as Villa's boss. But that last episode ...

A GREAT final episode pulled Jennifer Lopez-starrer Shades of Blue up into 30th overall. A fairly taught show with attention to detail regarding the pressure of being on the good guy side, even while stepping (sometimes JUMPING) over that line.  A whole final season that was truly final, dropped my perennial favourite, The Musketeers, down to 35th. I just couldn't handle the deaths of so many characters, and peculiarly, D'Artagnon's apparent invulnerability to sword-skewering turned even worse, when a building (or was it two?) was basically dropped on him. Sigh. No question that there will be no fourth season. I suspect that there WILL be a second season of Stan Lee's The Lucky Man (aka Lucky Man), starring James Nesbitt as a London police detective headed down the road of self-destruction to oblivion when he turns his luck around with a chance encounter at a casino that turns him into literally the luckiest guy around. Said luck has to come from somewhere and it's his partners that end up paying the price for his luck. All of this while uncovering a great conspiracy at the very head of the organization he works for. Only one question. Exactly what did Stan Lee contribute to this show from across the pond from where he normally does his work?

Star Wars Rebels had the best of a fairly disappointing animation season. To bad the trailers for next season portend different looks for the characters and the changes are NOT for the good. Apparently, a different studio overseas is producing the artwork. Still. tje show finished 29th and is joined in the HM's by Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, which featured the best humour of the myriad of Marvel and DC animated properties. Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Sinister Six was in the ballpark, but the reliance on Dr. Octopus sunk it far enough that it did not make the top 40. As for anime, there was one Korean series I liked enough to watch all the episodes, not that I could recommend it here. I WISH I could have found an English sub-titled or dubbed version of Re: Zero Starting a Life in Another World. Eminently watchable despite not speaking Japanese, I eventually decided I would await a translation. Never came. But the animation is SOOOO good, that you could figure most things out for yourself. 

More near misses from the comic book sector. iZombie slipped because turning major baddie David Anders' Blaine human made for less ominously-tinged fun for (here's a switch) amateur detective Liv (Rose McIvor), the coroner's assistant/zombie, and detective cop Clive (Malcom J. Goodwin). Loved Rahul Kohli as Ravi and Alyson Michalka as Peyton, but my dislike for Robert Buckley's Major was not overcome this year. CBS let us have a look at the extremely likable Melissa Benoist as Supergirl, but then banished her to CW for season two. If only they'd left Fort Rozz in the Phantom Zone and not flooded Earth with super-powered Kryptonians. Still, points for involving Dean Cain and Helen Slater. May season two discover Arrow-like improvements. Hated DC's Legends of Tomorrow mostly, but I couldn't help but like the snark of Wentworth Miller as Captain Cold and ... I'm having trouble typing this given my dislike of him in Arrow (and other things), but the eternal sunshine-y optimism of Brandon Routh's Atom. Plus, we have been promised The Justice Society of America in season two. 'Nuff for me. Barely. Not strictly speaking a comic book series, Comic Book Men, still has me as a regular watcher of the Kevin Smith vanity project. Did I mention I am a collector (and former comic book store flunkie and a software programmer who sells comic book store point of sale software?). I like comic books and there's plenty more series to talk about in the top 25, which, honest, I am close to getting around to.

What else in the Honourable Mentions. Not a great year for animal material despite a flood of stuff relating to Sir David Attenborough's 90th birthday. I like The Secret Life of the Zoo, which once more visits the Chester Zoo. But all that interesting elephant stuff goes for naught with a dreadful (crashing right out of the rankings) last episode. Echo and the Elephants of Amboseli benefits from a wonderful narration by Noma Dumezweni, who was born in Swaziland and lived in Botswana, Kenya and Uganda, thus retaining a wonderful accent that distinguishes her from other BBC narrators. But the series was twice as long as it might have been with tighter editing. Still, a great show on elephants. 

To close out the HM's a couple of quickly canceled shows. Angel from Hell starred Maggie Lawson (always awesome) and Jane Lynch (pretty well perpetually perfect) and was very funny, at least through the five episodes that originally aired. But I guess the CBS execs saw some of the episodes it has been burning off in July and decided that it had to go despite that strong handful of episodes out of the gate. Too bad. Thought this one had legs. The other quick cancel button victim was Minority Report from Fox. I mean, SF + Fox = a premature death ... who could have predicted that? Apart from any SF viewer or Fox watcher of the last twenty years. The show had warts all over, not the least of which was trying to run a TV show on the carcass of one of the biggest budget SF movies of all time. I thought Meagan Good (female cop Lara Vega) and amateur sleuth Dash (Stark Sands) as the pro-amateur pairing that screams "Like us!!" at me, were pretty good. Rakish Nick Zano as Arthur, Dash's brother was also delightful. Weirdly, the show DID get the notice the plug was coming out and finished off the story to a reasonable degree. Shame of it was I thought this MIGHT evade the Fox curse. Why I trust that network with SF projects is beyond me.

Well, ready for a Top 25? Thanks for reading to this point. From here on, solid recommendations for binge-watching ... especially if you like comic books.

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