It's been nearly 30 years since Christopher Guest — along with director Rob Reiner (kids, you know him as Jess's dad on New Girl) — strapped on the spandex and more or less invented the mockumentary format with the seminal-in-all-senses This Is Spinal Tap. And, over the ensuing decades, Guest came close to perfecting it with a series of increasingly precious improv comedies, the best of which, Waiting for Guffman, remains as flawless and coveted as a Remains of the Day lunchbox. Still, it was the doofs at Dunder Mifflin who truly cranked the format up to eleven. The success of The Office and, later, the even larger cultural footprint of Modern Family helped establish the Guest-ian tradition of oblivious yobs venting directly into the camera as the go-to style of high-class comedy on television. He may not get residuals for it and he may not even find it funny — he's notoriously prickly when not in character — but Guest is as responsible as anyone for a sea change in sitcoms, one that saw the quiet raising of an eyebrow replace the canned howl of a studio audience.
I hate the sight of blood. Not in real life, where I tend to order my steaks the way Lil B prefers his swag, but on television, where arterial splatter has become dispiritedly commonplace. On dramas both good (Boardwalk Empire) and bad (The Following), crimson is the chosen color for a crude, paint-by-numbers approach to adult storytelling. I hate the way these shows mistake the harvesting of hearts for the exploration of them and conflate horror with maturity. Just because something's shocking doesn't necessarily make it interesting.
So why, then, do I find myself transfixed by Hannibal? The serial-killer series (premiering tonight at 10 ET on NBC), doesn't just tick all the boxes I tend to deplore, it gleefully impales them on a sharpened deer antler. For every character introduced in tonight's pilot, another is brutally murdered. Throats are cut like sides of beef, livers and lungs are palpated, salted, and peppered. And running through it all like a vein is the blood: pooling beneath bodies in thick puddles of dark vermilion and misting through nearly every frame, a sticky pink miasma of gore that stains all it touches. And it touches a lot.
People die on television every day. They die of old age or cancer on tear-jerking dramas; occasionally they tumble down elevator shafts. On cable, they're bitten to death by vampires and zombies or gunned down by mooks and molls. Even high school shows reach for the reaper, with teens dying from bullets, boats, or embarrassment. On a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, a character very nearly expired from a vicious fart attack. The body count of the Law & Order franchise alone rivals that of most land wars in Asia. Death is as much a part of life on the small screen as it is off it.
But I'm not sure if death's ever been portrayed with such despicable glee as it is on The Following, Fox's loathsome stab at gritty relevance that premieres tonight at 9 EST. The story of a charismatic serial killer and the murderous cult he inspires, The Following traffics in the sort of explicit gore usually reserved for midnight airings of assorted Texas chainsaw massacres. But Fox is after more than the grindhouse crowd: With its high-profile stars (Rome's James Purefoy; everything's Kevin Bacon), and drippy gloss of psychological insight, The Following represents the suddenly struggling network's attempt to reclaim a generation of eyeballs recently lost to the prestige licentiousness of cable. That this attempt involves the onscreen fetishizing of violent eyeball removal should tell you all you need to know. The Following is a toddler playing Halloween dress-up with a jug of karo syrup and a used copy of the DSM; calling it intelligent or adult does a disservice to those who happen to be both. It turns out pushing the envelope solely to shock doesn't make something edgy; it makes it quite dull.
Thirteen years ago this summer, The New Yorker published its debut Debut Fiction issue. Among the fictional first-timers contained within was David Schickler, a then 31-year-old not making a living scribbling stories from his parents' basement in upstate New York. Schickler's contribution, "The Smoker," about the curious relationship between a loner private school teacher and his precocious English student able to write the first page of Moby-Dick from memory, was a stunner, a perfectly calibrated twee-bomb of oddball specificity (a toilet-flushing cat named John Stapleton; a 14-year-old barber named Chiapas) and heartrending romance. Within a week of the magazine hitting newsstands, Schickler's life went from failure to fairy tale and he packed up the basement with both book and movie deals in hand. (Owen Wilson and Natalie Portman were attached with Richard Linklater directing, because that's the sort of thing that would happen in 2000.)
The next few years followed the literary golden-boy script to a tee: a move to New York City; a debut novel, Kissing in Manhattan, constructed, in true turn-of-the-century MFA fashion, as a collection of loosely linked stories. An elevator named Otis played a primary role; "The Smoker" was the best thing in it. A few years after that came a tougher book called Sweet & Vicious, about runaway jewel thieves; on the first page a hawk flies through the windshield of a Buick. A few years after that came nothing, including no movie. Schickler's voice remained an idiosyncratic wonder, able to make a stomach-punch read as tender as a kiss, but the book business is a tough one, especially for novelists. There tend to be more one-hit wonders in the remainder bins at Barnes & Noble than on the pop charts. The New Yorker doesn't run a second-chance fiction issue.
A few months ago, the White House hosted a special screening of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The event drew little attention and even less criticism because people from both sides of the aisle probably thought it a pretty good idea: a prestige film about one of the greatest Americans? Not even Glenn Beck could shed a tear over that one.
This week it was revealed that the executive screening room would be fired up again, this time for a showing of NBC's new political sitcom, 1600 Penn, and all decent, patriotic Americans ought to be horrified. The public spin on this shameful situation is that Jon Lovett, President Obama's former head speechwriter and one of the show's writers, set it up. But I have to believe there was some Oval Office oversight and someone accidentally gave Vice President Biden — the shirtless, hosing-down-the–Trans Am–and-pounding-a-longneck Biden — access to the executive Evite account. Because a presidential endorsement of this turkey would be the worst thing to happen to the White House since the last time Bill Pullman called it home.
Bad ideas in Hollywood tend to escalate more quickly than an anchorman brawl. One minute you’re sipping tepid bottled water and talking story lines in a casual network pitch meeting, and the next thing you know, Brick’s killed a guy. Or, if you’re Bryan Fuller, even worse: How else to explain how the twee maximalist responsible for lovely failures like Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls suddenly found himself tasked with remaking The Munsters, a nearly 50-year-old sitcom that’s become more of a punchline in its afterlife than it ever had in its scripts? I suppose it’s possible to credit the horror boomlet caused by the Twilight phenomenon or the easy intoxication of corporate encouragement. But more likely it came down to the same reason as anything senseless in Hollywood: dollars. After all, if money talks, its voice must get exponentially louder as it climbs into the millions, a resigned, cynical voice whispering “What the hell!”
Habitués of Cinemax's Friday-night programming are no strangers to gauzy Eurozone settings, wooden actors of unknown Slavic provenance, and loving, lingering shots of blondes submerged in bathtubs. So the network is definitely onto something with Hunted, its second original scripted series (after the charmingly steroidal Strike Back), debuting tonight at 10 p.m. EST. Those hoping to fast-forward to the naughty bits will be sorely disappointed, however. Other than a perfunctory vertical coupling in the opening seconds, the only banging on display in the pilot involves the skulls of tight-T-shirted goons colliding with the unforgiving fists of Melissa George.
All great artists have their signature tools. For Picasso it was the paintbrush. For E.L. James, it’s the riding crop. And for Connie Britton, it’s “y’all.” Without it, the Boston-born Britton is a fine actress, plain-spoken and sharp. But when handed the simple syllable, she is transformed: Her voice softens even as her face toughens, her luminous eyes go wide, caught crinkling somewhere between wonder and bemusement. As Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights — perennially patient wife to Kyle Chandler’s Coach and adoptive mother to everyone in West Texas — Britton was a revelation: sweet as tea and stronger than a linebacker; a dab of butter on a mountain of grit. For many actors, the demands of an unfamiliar accent can be restrictive as a latex bodysuit, but Britton comes alive the further South she travels. Before she could run, she had to learn to drawl.
Picture a show set in the New York of another century, a gritty drama where overburdened, ethnically accented police patrol a nearly unrecognizable city and are prone to foul language, shocking bursts of violence, and dubious definitions of morality. That show is called NYPD Blue, and it takes place in the long-ago year of 1994. It’s also, give or take a few horses, Copper, the first original series from BBC America, debuting this Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST.
Too many people throw around the term “monkey show” like it’s a bad thing. Yes, Animal Practice — the second of NBC’s new “more broad” sitcoms to sneak-preview during the Olympics (it was the comedy last night that didn’t involve Brian May’s hair) — features a simian in a supporting role. But that’s like saying Damages stars the lead of 102 Dalmatians. Not all primates are created equal — not even the ones who, as the orangutan-ish humanoid Tyler Labine argues in the pilot, live in Brooklyn and hunt-and-gather from FreshDirect. After her virtuoso turns in blockbusters like Night at the Museum (she slapped Ben Stiller) and The Hangover Part II (she smoked cigarettes — just like a person!), Crystal is currently the biggest star on NBC by a large margin — despite barely standing two feet tall. As Dr. Rizzo (formerly “Zaius” — turns out those damn dirty apes can be litigious too), Crystal is energetic and delightful, whether running an illicit turtle-racing ring or merely doing rounds atop a toy ambulance. No, the producers of Animal Practice should be proud it is known as the monkey show. The monkey is the best thing in it.
Of all the critical invective and fan anger hurled at the bumbling peacocks of NBC over the past few seasons, there is at least one small portion that remains undeserved. The notion that the network isn’t invested in the success of Community — its low-rated, highly tweeted meta-sitcom — is a lie bigger than the one Dean Pelton tells himself every morning when he gazes into his Broadway makeup mirror. On paper, Community ticks every box on NBC’s checklist for comedy success (one scribbled on “From the Desk of Brandon Tartikoff” stationery and kept safely behind glass deep inside Willard Scott’s recharging station in the bowels of 30 Rock): a mismatched group of outsiders brought together by outrageous circumstance, admirably casual diversity, zippy zingers tempered by honest emotion, and high potential for hookups and/or animal guest stars. The problem was that Community creator Dan Harmon stubbornly insisted on delivering a show that commented on the canned nature of this setup; instead of celebrating it, he subverted it. Through three increasingly odd seasons, the standoff continued. NBC wanted pathos; Harmon gave them paintball. Guess which side eventually got splattered?
Exactly 200 years after their last semi-successful attempt at razing Washington, D.C., the British are finally back to finish the job with Veep. A funny, transatlantic fusillade of the first order, the new HBO comedy — debuting this Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET — smartly takes aim at the softest target in the capital: the vice presidency. Needless to say, it doesn’t miss. Starring a never-better Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, the country’s first female second-in-command, Veep punctures every shred of pompous Washingtonian pomp and circumstance. Meyer is craven, misanthropic, and curses like a sailor stubbing her toe on a pirate. A heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world, she’s utterly powerless, reduced to reading absurdly redacted speeches, sniping at her staff, and asking her secretary if the president has called. (She seems both infuriated and relieved that he never does.) For a brief moment every four years, the vice presidency is the most coveted position in the world. The rest of the time it’s a joke — and Veep has the punchlines to prove it.
Nearly everything on television — at least everything not on CBS — is aimed at twentysomethings, but very little of it represents them the way they really are. Most people in that decade aren’t hyperactive post-teenage bone machines or pre-adult money-dropping slicksters; they’re an odd, often uncomfortable mash-up of the two. Rare is the program able to keep a foot in both worlds — one in stilettos, one in shower shoes — and depict life after college the way it really is: in flux. Lena Dunham’s Girls, which premieres this Sunday night on HBO, might not be exactly that show for everyone, but it’s the closest we’ve come in quite some time. (In a typically self-aware move to blunt criticism and/or coronation, Dunham’s Hannah Horvath immodestly downgrades herself from the voice of her generation to the voice of “a” generation.) This is because unlike most entertainment about youngish people, Girls isn’t being focus-grouped by 30- and 40-year-olds in Burbank. (Ever notice how most televised twentysomethings have taste that’s 10 years behind? Surf's up, Poochie!) Dunham, the writer, creator, director, and star, is only 25; she knows of what she tweets. And while the specific circumstances of her angsty slouching toward Bethlehem (or at least Boerum Hill) may be new, her messy attempts at selfhood are universal and cringingly enduring. Watching Girls is at once exhilarating and mortifying — I spent much of it alternating between holding my sides and covering my face — an instant Delorean back to a time in one’s life when everything is possible and nothing seems right.
If you listen closely during the pilot of Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, premiering tonight at 9:30 Eastern, it’s possible to hear network note-givers at ABC shouting that very query from the craft services table. Creator Nahnatchka Khan cut her teeth on American Dad!, part of the forced-labor joke camp that is the Family Guy empire, a sourly fizzy phenomenon that takes advantage of animation’s inherent lack of humanity to avoid bothering with any. So it’s no surprise that almost everything about Apt. 23, at least at the start, is exhaustingly cartoonish: Dreama Walker’s June, her face as broad and bland as the Midwestern plains she hails from, arrives in what appears to be Sex and the City NYC — all glass windows, high heels, and higher hopes — just in time for the financial apocalypse. When her would-be boss at her dream hedge fund downsizes — in a matter of hours — to barista, June has no choice but to follow suit. She’s also reduced to moving her hope chest to the only slightly shabbier-chic world of the Friends NYC (smaller kitchens and coffee shops, but the living rooms are just as spacious), wherein she meets a new roommate, the titular bitch in Apartment 23.