Fall Premieres 2014: Non-Network

cable-otherWhile our Fall Pilot season at Antenna has traditionally reviewed only the network shows, we saw no reason to continue that tradition. And thus, without further ado:

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TRANSPARENT [Premiered on Amazon on Fri Sept 26]

The Jill Soloway-created family comedy focuses on Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a transgender parent beginning her transition from male-presenting to female-presenting while her children confront their own identity crises and their changing relationship with their father.

*

Alexis Lothian, University of Maryland – College Park

Transparent has been marketed as a show about a trans woman transitioning late in life and coming out to her family. Viewers expect, presumably, to see Jeffrey Tambor in a dress; the sensation of a man turning into a woman and his children shocked and betrayed, a privileged family rocked to its foundations. It’s an interesting decision, then, that Amazon has the “trans parent” of the show’s name, Maura – Mort to her children – appear on screen for a scant few minutes of the pilot. Instead, we spend time with the younger generation: three privileged Angelenos: a full-time mother (Amy Landecker) embarking on an affair with her college girlfriend; a heterosexually promiscuous music-industry hipster (Jay Duplass); and the most sympathetic of the brood, a hapless aspiring comedy writer (Gaby Hoffmann). When they’re called to their childhood home, they take up so much conversational space that Maura is unable to make her announcement. Her later complaint, at a trans group therapy session in the L.A. LGBT Center, must surely resonate with the audience eagerly awaiting that coming-out scene: “I can’t believe I raised three people who can’t see beyond themselves.” With so much self-absorption on display, the spectacle of trans parenthood does not draw all attention to it. It’s refreshing – perhaps even unprecedented – to see a comedy where the lived experience of a transgender woman is the one thing not played for laughs.

*

Taylor Cole Miller, University of Wisconsin – Madison

There was a quiet dignity about Transparent that I thought was striking. It highlights the “white space” of the show, a kind of emptiness where Maura’s personality could flash up to compete with the overwhelming visibility of her children, but doesn’t. She keeps being erased from the conversation. When we get to the dinner scene, the tension is palpable, like her children are swinging the jump ropes, and she can’t find her footing to jump in. Almost. Almost. Missed again.

Coming out gay to family is an eerily surreal moment in which a well-groomed, lifelong behavior is abandoned with purpose; it’s pissing the bed when you’ve trained yourself not to and the reaction is about as pleasant. What would make Transparent a weak network pilot (delaying its premise to spill out all the kids’ juices), makes it a powerful new form of trans representation in which we see coming out trans not as a moment, but as a journey. I don’t care about the kids–at all–but their boorishness is what makes Maura all the more endearing.

Elephant: Tambor is a cisgender actor playing a trans woman, and I think the argument that a trans actor should be in that role could be appropriate, but I’m not making it … yet. As the show progresses (I’ve only watched the pilot), I anticipate it will explore that journey as something distinct from sexuality forms of coming out because of the considerate collaboration of trans actors and consultants working with Soloway to “get it right” behind the scenes. I had the pleasure of interviewing Soloway last year for the department newsletter here in Wisconsin (she’s a UW-Madison CommArts grad!) and she told me the essential component to her work is collaboration, a practice she learned from our own film professor, JJ Murphy.

“You are making art collaboratively, which is an incredibly beautiful metaphor for … an idealized society,” she told me. “Everybody has their roles … a lot of boundaries around roles, but all are meant to fit together in a way that actually works.” Soloway seems dedicated to that collaboration with the trans community in Transparent, and I’m excited to see it play out.

*

Ethan Thompson, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi

Transparent left me wanting more, and mostly in a good way. This was a one-hour drama crammed into thirty minutes, and it felt like it was missing an entire act. The pilot did the work a pilot has to do, establishing the three children in orbit of their father, the central character played by Jeffrey Tambor. But it really could have used that missing act for more time with Tambor, whose performance was terrific.

His kids are insufferable, self-centered thirtysomethings. For me, the best moment of the show was when Tambor lamented that he had failed to come out to his children. He said he had no idea how difficult it would be, but the clear reason was how profoundly self-centered his kids were. I guess we¹ll learn they¹re like that because of him.

That¹s fine, but I hope we learn that through spending more time with Tambor and not with his grown-up kids. Thirty minutes is not enough to hop around between the other characters we¹re supposed to care about. The fact that you can¹t immediately watch the next episode (not yet, anyway) adds to the feeling of being short-changed.

Time is made for casual, non-erotic nudity that is presumably there to mean something: these are just bodies, or Amazon is more like HBO than ABC.  But such self-conscious moments just encouraged me to speculate on the story-telling math while I watched: what do you make time for, and what do you cut when you cram a drama into thirty minutes?

*

Alyx Vesey, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Writer-director Jill Soloway finds humanity in messiness. She gave pathos to Brenda Chenowith’s sex addiction as a writer on Six Feet Under. As showrunner for the last two seasons of United States of Tara, she balanced new developments as the protagonist weathered complications from dissociative identity disorder. In her feature debut Afternoon Delight, she explored the tentative friendship between a housewife and a sex worker without ignoring its sexual and maternal undertones and the class politics that threaten to undermine it. She does it with Transparent, a semi-autobiographical family drama about the Pfeffermans, an LA-based upper-middle class Jewish family whose divorced patriarch, Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), is becoming Maura.

Maura isn’t making a mess. She’s being true to herself. But she is unable to tell her three adult children about her transition, despite her best efforts during family dinner. She promises her support group that she will come out, before observing “They’re so selfish. I don’t see how it is that I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.” Eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) is trapped in a nuclear family and feels the pull of her attraction to college girlfriend Tammy (Melora Hardin, in soft-butch drag), when she discovers that their children attend the same school. Hipster middle son Josh (Jay Duplass) runs a record label and pursues women. Youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffman) lacks discipline, but may find it in a body-building regimen. By pilot’s end, these narratives intersect in a montage set to Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” a song about trying to find a former lover’s whereabouts. Ali unearths it from Maura’s record collection, treating it as a portal to the past. Maura’s transition represents the Pfeffermans’ future. I can’t wait for what’s next.

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HAPPYLAND [Premieres on MTV on Tues Sept 30 @ 11/10]

Set in a low rent Disneyland-style theme park, it follows a young woman who grew up in the park with her employee mother whose own time working at the park brings laughs, romance, and an episode-ending revelation that may or may not involve a Les Cousins Dangereux-esque situation.

*

Jennifer Smith, University of Wisconsin – Madison

I didn’t realize MTV’s Happyland was a half hour show until I pressed pause and realized, at the ten minute mark, that the pilot was halfway over.  Visually and thematically it has all the marks of an hour-long young adult melodrama of the CW or ABC Family variety, but the half-hour format forces it closer to a sitcom shape, which is ill-fitting for the program’s relatively rare humor and need to build suspense for major dramatic reveals.  This incongruity reflects the incongruity of the basic premise itself: while the dialogue wants us to believe the titular Happyland is the Disney World of this universe, complete with a mega-rich CEO, “Ricky Raccoon,” and a meticulously controlled planned community next door, the production values for sets, costumes, and props make the park as we see it look cheap and spare, something a few rungs below a low-attendance regional Six Flags location.  Given the time and the budget to be the glossy CW show it wants to be, Happyland could sell the viewers on both its drama and its fairy tale, but as it stands this pilot is somehow both dizzyingly rushed and overly-labored, with wooden exposition in every line of dialogue and a last-second “shocking” reveal that had been telegraphed from five minutes in.  Star Bianca A. Santos (who was great in a minor role on the far-superior The Fosters on ABC Family) does her best with limited material, and singer Josh Groban provides some of the only truly funny moments with his random cameo (does he do anything other than random cameos these days?), but overall this pilot felt flat and awkward.  I may give it another couple of episodes, but barring major improvement I don’t anticipate sticking around for the long haul.

*

Ethan Thompson, Texas A&M – Corpus Christi

There are shows centered on the lives of teenagers and young adults whose content and narrative strategies engage audiences outside the narrow age confines of the main characters. Freaks and Geeks immediately comes to mind, but also MTV’s own Awkward. Then, there are shows about teenagers and young adults that simply make a non-young adult feel that they are so far outside the demo, they shouldn’t be watching at all. Happyland is one of those.

The protagonist is a hard-working employee at a Disneyland-like park and lives with her mom, who has played a princess at said park going back at least seventeen years. We know it’s been at least that long because we find out our protagonist’s dad is the head of the Disney-like company that owns the park. What do future episodes hold? I expect a whole lot of arguing with mom about why this liaison didn’t result in a better financial arrangement, as well as a whole lot of hand-wringing over whether or not it’s okay to make out with her rock-hard-abs-having-half-brother. I also expect each episode will have at least one shot of a park employee getting high and/or having sex in a big, furry costume.

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KINGDOM [Premieres on DirecTV on Wed Oct 8 @ 9/7]

A multi-generational family drama set in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, the series stars Frank Grillo as a the patriarch of a family on the wrong side of the law who work out their issues in and out of the ring in southern California.

*

Tony Tran, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Coming into the premiere, I only knew a few things about the show: MMA, family drama, and Nick Jonas.  Yes, former-tween-boy-band Nick Jonas as badass MMA fighter.  Most likely due my low expectations, I was actually impressed by Nick Jonas’ performance as the focused and quiet Nate, with the latter aspect aiding the young actor and allowing him to focus on facial expressions to illustrate the underlying emotions of family drama.  Actually, I felt the premiere did a good job of gradually establishing most of the characters with complex personalities and morals by providing (relatively) slow scenes of dialogue that unravel the intricate and intertwined histories of the main characters, as well as giving the viewer a break from the fast-paced MMA sequences.

It becomes disappointing, then, when this isn’t applied to all of the characters.  Latinos (besides a quick cameo by real-life MMA vet Joe “Daddy”) are either gang-bangers or the silent-yet-disrespectful rival fighter.  Women are either being fucked or waiting to be fucked; Nate’s stepmom, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez), has room to grow, but I wished a bit more time was spent on her.  Masculinity is a bit more complex.  Not surprisingly, it has points of celebrating physical dominance, but the fuzzy morals and histories of the characters compromises how we should feel about this dominance.  And, if the rumors are correct, Nate’s sexuality may be addressed in the future.

This isn’t a show about MMA, though there are enough references to keep MMA fans happy (Greg Jackson, Mike Beltran’s beautiful beard, Cub Swanson, and a rare omoplata).  Yes, it is a key component that drives many of the characters, but I think the show does a nice job of linking it to larger issues and emotions, similar to football’s role in Friday Night Lights.  The show has me hooked enough to see what happens next week.

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW [Premieres on FX on Wed Oct 8 @ 10/9]

Pushing further into people’s most-common nightmares, Ryan Murphy and his collaborators return to explore the clown-riddled terror of the freak show in the series’ fourth installment of its seasonal anthology model.

*

Taylor Cole Miller, University of Wisconsin – Madison

In the season four premiere of American Horror Story, showrunner Ryan Murphy pulled out his Brian De Palma brush and slathered on Carrie with exquisite skill. Referencing old horror films was what made the first two seasons so great as they borrowed tricks and cues and most importantly music from earlier films to create something of a collage of American horror. In the second season premiere, that meant taking advantage of Carrie‘s “Bucket of Blood” music mixed with slow-mo shots. Tonight, Carrie returns in the decadent use of split screens and hazy camera filters.

In an appearance on The View a couple years ago, star Jessica Lange said Murphy frequently asks her what she hasn’t done in her career that she wants to. That season, its second, she told him she always wanted to play a drunk, and she had always wanted to sing and dance–both resulted in brilliant performances by the two-time Oscar winner. I’d love to know what she asked for this season, but I’m betting it has something to do with Bowie and a German accent.

Indeed, this episode’s standout performance of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” by Lange in the role of Elsa Mars echoes beautifully the bucket of blood sequence from Carrie. While Lange is costumed more obviously as Bowie in the music video for “Life on Mars,” my immediate thought was William Katt’s Tommy standing next to Carrie in that scene, with his blonde curls and baby-blue tuxedo. The overwhelming red tonalities, the cheesy promesque stage, and Oh, the glitter! Murphy’s shows are almost always didactic. But where Glee punches you in the arm like an after-school special, AHS encourages you to love its characters and in the doing, embrace their philosophies of tolerance and acceptance. Where Carrie seeks to overcome her deviance, Mars relishes in it as she stretches up her arms in an overhead shot that to me screamed, “dump the blood … I’m ready!”

*

Michael Z. Newman, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

Like a theater troupe, the AHS cast inhabits one set of roles for a few months, then we don’t see them until a new season, when they come to us again familiar but strange. Nothing is stranger this time than Sarah Paulson’s heads, one of which is often by the edge of the screen when a more centered framing would make a close-up of one of the conjoined twins she plays into a 2-shot of both.  As for the others, Kathy Bates has a beard, Evan Peters has long claw-like fingers (with sexual powers), and Angela Bassett has a third breast. Jessica Lange continues to stride and stare and declaim, but now in Marlene Dietrich’s curls and accent. As the proprietor of the titular sideshow plotting its revival, her Elsa collects the oddities and rejects of our species to display before crowds she hopes to attract to the carnival grounds. The setting, a sleepy Jupiter, Florida in the 1950s, suggests Elsa will shock postwar suburban society and force it to see its stifling conformity, to question “normal.” The bright colors in a scene of lovers picnicking by Lake Okeechobee convey a wholesomeness of bourgeois Americana destroyed by a hulking clown with a rictus grin who appears with juggling pins and scissors used to beat and stab. These first 90 minutes includes several bloody murders, surely to be followed up with more trauma in coming installments. AHS is always stylish, suffused with period detail shot in eye-opening wide-angle and from high and low. The score provokes with its dissonant cues. It’s hard to imagine that anyone involved doesn’t absolutely love it, doesn’t feel eager to give it everything. Sometimes AHS makes you smile in admiration, other times your jaw opens wide in astonishment.

*

Jenna Stoeber, University of Wisconsin – Madison

I approached the first episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show concerned that the horror in question would rely on an offensively outdated perception of people with disabilities, but I was proven pleasantly wrong. Like previous seasons of AHS, there’s a lot of horror cliches without much actual horror, but for this season it may work in its favor; instead of relying on the cheap scares of “freak show” exploitation, most of the characters are complex and conflicted and very aware that they are mistreated. The show isn’t completely without problems- the main characters are played by the same cast of performers as the previous season, with prosthetics and digital effects to alter them into standard carnival acts- bearded lady, lobster boy, etc.

The complicated morality of this aside, the special effects, especially on conjoined twins Bette and Dot (both played by Sarah Paulson), are seamless and well used. The pilot puts its extended time to good use, setting up lots of intriguing plot lines and giving the various characters time to interact. The acting is strong throughout, with Jessica Lange continuing to be a standout spotlight.

If you’re not already a fan of the horror genre or of American Horror Story itself, this pilot is unlikely to change your mind. However, returning viewers should find themselves satisfied to return to a familiar world of cinematic aesthetics and rich production values.

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THE AFFAIR [Premieres on Showtime on Sun Oct 12 @ 10/9]

Starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, it’s the story of an extramarital affair during a summer in Montauk, but told through a distinct structure that explores issues of class and gender intersecting with the affair itself.

*

Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin – Madison

The Rashomon / He Said, She Said structure of The Affair might seem gimmicky from a distance, and perhaps it’ll annoy me later in the season, but it made for an excellent pilot. It’s also handled really well: the camera works differently with each lead’s “side” of the story, and even the makeup is profoundly different – Alison looked as if played by a different actress in each part. Indeed, the acting so far is superb. The challenge for the show, and one that the pilot meets, is to make the differences subtle: if The Affair becomes an exercise in determining which of them is Kaiser Soze, I’ll find it tedious (which, by the way, is why Myles’ point, below, about the police investigation worries me too), but at the moment it’s a study in how memory works. Perhaps all those New England beaches help usher in the intertext, but there’s something beautifully Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-ish about The Affair. The major differences are understandable, centered on points of considerable stress (would you remember the finer details of your daughter choking in a restaurant, I wonder?), but Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, and Joshua Jackson each hinge their two performances to each other extremely well. The effect is a show about perception and memory that was lovely to watch, and then to think about afterwards. A couple of things trouble me: that retroactive interrogation, especially since it unnecessarily, unwantedly, and clunkily introduces a tone of danger and criminality that is already established by two near-death experiences for children; I’m also never fond of the “broken woman” trope … though I am happy, at least, to see that Alison is only a broken woman in her own memory (and hence only in half the show). This easily stands above the other new shows of the year for me as the one we should all be watching. Even if it bellies up, it’s interesting. And if that’s not enough to make you watch, Wire fans should imagine McNulty and Rawls squaring off once more, except this time poolside with bubbly (well, okay, McNulty still has a beer bottle. Old habits die hard), discussing their respective novels. Or imagine Pacey returning to Dawson’s Creek, time-worn and over-sexed. The intertextual pleasures alone demand a peek.

*

Myles McNutt, University of Wisconsin – Madison

The Affair is built around two linked storytelling devices. The first is that each episode is told from two different perspective: one half of the episode shows Noah’s recollection of a period of time, while the next half of the episode shows Allison’s memories of the same period. The subtle differences between the two narratives in scenes where the two characters are both present are a powerful lure into this story, and offer the opportunity to see how their equally unreliable perception of events articulates issues of gender, class, and power that function in the context of an affair. When I was watching the pilot from the privileged position of having read very little about it, I experienced a palpable thrill when the conceit was revealed, both because it makes the pilot itself stand out and because it holds such potential for the future.

The second device, however, is problematic. The dual narrators are justified by a frame narrative where Noah and Allison are being interviewed at a police station at some point in the future. Whereas the first device creates near-endless possibilities, this device works to hard to construct capital-M “Mystery” particularly given how the rest of the show values and cultivates more interesting ambiguities. The pilot’s strengths more than mitigate these concerns, but how the series manages this construct will be crucial to its success as the story, or stories, unfold.

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2 comments for “Fall Premieres 2014: Non-Network

  1. Kaitlin Fyfe
    September 28, 2014 at 11:29 PM

    I’m pretty much in agreement with what Alyx and Taylor say about Transparent.

    I definitely agree with a point that Taylor makes, that coming out trans seems to be different in some ways than coming out gay (at least from where I sit, on my side of things).

    And I (obviously) agree that there’s something of a journey involved. And there’s the way you end up having to enlist external resources (medical treatment, hormones, re-wardrobing, etc) in order to give your internal self a firmer foothold on the external world (which then seems to bring about further internal changes).

    On the elephant, this is a pretty passionate subject for a lot of trans people, one that has seen heated debate in the past year in particular (“Dallas Buyer’s Club” vs. “OITNB,” Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” video, etc.) Personally, just speaking for myself, I’d prefer to see trans actors in trans roles, but I’m also willing to grandfather in older films and television on the subject. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got (in terms of being a trans person looking for representation.) And trans involvement behind the scenes can (for me) alleviate some concerns (but not entirely). I do think a cis actor can successfully pull of a trans role (Lee Pace in “Soldier’s Girl”), but it’s rare. But in Transparent’s case specifically, I don’t find it inappropriate since she’s at the very start of transition. You’d probably get a number of different opinions on this from different trans people.

    Overall, some parts of the pilot range true for me (particularly Maura’s shift in body language after her kid’s left), and Soloway seems to be saying and doing a lot of the right things outside of the show itself. (Props for her bringing up Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl” in some of her interviews. Pretty important trans feminist book.)

    We’ll see how it goes. Looking forward to see the rest of the season.

  2. September 29, 2014 at 8:12 PM

    I really wanted to like Transparent: I adore Jeffrey Tambor, and he is indeed phenomenal as Maura. But as especially Alexis points out, very little in the pilot (and as far as I’ve watched it) has been about Maura. Just like the kids seem to take up their parents’ time, they also take up screen time, narcissistic and self obsessed and utterly annoying! I recognized Gaby Hoffman from Girls, and Transparent to me has that same quality–made worse only by the facts that there seems to be not even an iota of self awareness and that these folks are older (but certainly no more mature) than Lena Dunham and co. Add to that the fact that I don’t need to watch another group of overprivileged folks debate tofu schmear, real estate prices, and family heirlooms (though the references to the family’s Jewishness were among the more interesting aspects). Frankly, I may be too suburban and too middle America and too middle aged for all the precious (pretentious?) indy acting and directing.

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