Fall Premieres 2015: Streaming

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Narcos (Netflix, August 28) trailer here

The Red Viper, Oberyn Martell, lives, and fights drugs in Colombia! Based on the true story of cocaine drug cartels spread around the globe, and ensuing battle with law enforcement, and centered on the notorious Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and the Mexican DEA agent Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal / The Red Viper) sent to capture and kill him, Narcos was shot on location in Colombia.

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See Kristina Busse’s review here.

 

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Hand of God (Amazon, September 4) trailer here

Hand of God’s pilot won over viewers (sufficiently for Amazon to order an entire show) when streamed in August 2014. Now we can see the rest. It follows Ron Perlman as a debased judge who suffers a breakdown and emerges believing, Judy Sheindlin, that he is the titular hand of God, charged with seeking out vigilante justice. Also starring are Dana Delany, Andre Royo (aka The Wire’s Bubbles), and Garrett Dillahunt.

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Hand of God is a show that is trying to say something. That much is clear in the pilot, the only episode I was able to watch before writing this review. What that that is, how it will convey its message, and how that will affect the overall storytelling quality of the show will unfold as the series does, but religion will certainly be a big part of it. The title establishes that subject, and the first episode dives deep into the thin line between faith and insanity. Ron Perlman’s Judge Pernell Harris begins the series naked, in a fountain, speaking tongues, and having been recently born again. His newfound religious fervor guides his actions in the pilot, from ending his longstanding date with an escort to dropping charges against a psychopath who professes to be working as part of God’s plan. The worst of these actions, forcing his daughter-in-law to publicly examine the genitals of a suspect in her rape, is instigated by a vision he believes is sent by God. Pernell was Saved, but his belief that he is hearing the word of God and acting on His behalf is disruptive, dubious, and actively harmful to the people around him. This view of Christianity is the novel and fascinating core of the series. It sometimes gets lost among the casual drug use, rampant local government corruption, and grotesque violence surrounding it, but the idea of a series examining the powerful discourse of Christianity and its notion of salvation in contrast to the worldly things that the saved do and their consequences is edgy in a way few series are. Even if all Hand of God turns out to be is a show that delivers edge more than anything else, the fact that it is focusing on religion within that mode should be commended.

Charlotte E. Howell (University of Texas-Austin) is researching religion on television dramas from an industrial perspective.

 

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Casual (Hulu, October 7)

Jason Reitman’s single-cam comedy written by Airheads’ Zander Lehmann focuses on a bachelor brother and recently divorced sister living together again while trying to help each other in their respective dating worlds, and while raising the sister’s teenage daughter. Trophy Wife’s Michaela Watkins, The Mindy Project’s Alex Cole, and Aquarius’ Tara Lynne Barr star.

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From its opening scene, in which siblings Alex and Val and Val’s daughter Laura behave badly at the funeral of the family patriarch, Casual feels familiar. The type of family dysfunction, self-involvement, and boundary issues on display reminded me of Transparent. The cynicism and narcissism of modern dating takes a page from You’re the Worst. Casual’s capitalization on the trends of recent critical darlings and innovative niche programming is understandable, yet it also reminded me of less-acclaimed programming. As the show (attempted to) nonchalantly reference Uber and Vine, I couldn’t help but think of Younger. Darren Star’s TV Land show envisions hipster culture through the perspective of a 40-year-old woman who passes as a 26-year-old. Whereas Younger’s try-hard attempts to understand millennials devolve into a fever dream of a Patricia Field’s fashion show (beanies! flannel! skinny pants!) and word soup (IRL! Snapchat! Taylor Swift!), Casual’s anxiety about contemporary 20-something culture is both hostile and misogynistic.

When Alex jiggers the online dating site he developed to find dates for himself, it comes across as mildly unethical and a sign of his rakish man-child tendencies. One of the younger women he dates because of it, however, is not treated as kindly. During their date, with plenty of up-talking and the use of “like,” she explains the health benefits of a Paleo diet in the form a bun-free bacon burger. Based on a conversation she had at Crossfit, she argues that such dietary habits are proven successful by the long, healthy lives of cavemen. Alex laughs at her remarks, repeatedly commenting, “I’m pretty sure that’s not true.” Val’s response to young women is no better. When she takes her first Soul Cycle class, when her young assistant reassures her that she is datable by volunteering to have sex with her, or when she goes out drinking with her assistant and her friends, Val finds women in their twenties to be dumbfounding in their vulgarity, promiscuity, and vapidity.

In spite of strong casting of female characters (hello, Michaela Watkins and Frances Conroy!), Casual, much like its middle-aged protagonists, both courts and fears millennial culture. While this tension could be played out with critical awareness, the show feels largely unconscious of its own investments and anxieties. This, unfortunately, results in very conventional attitudes about young women, who are singled out as the agents of contemporary cultural decline.

Jennifer Clark (Fordham University)’s work in television studies tends to gender concerns both historical (women’s labor and role in production) and contemporary (representations of masculinity and anxiety).

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Dating is hard, fickle, unpredictable. For many people. (Rich, white people. Ish.)

And online dating? An algorithm is to rhythm as phenomenon is to epiphenomenon.

I get it. We feel empty.

Problem is, Casual doesn’t comment on the emptiness of modernity. It stays closer to merely depicting it.

Sex, when ‘sought’ by algorithms, if meaningless, is justified, because deeper bonds, if sought, turn out to be meaningless. Nothing wrong with a quick hay/jacuzzi roll. But ifs and whens matter. “Pardon me for living.” (#darlingdepartingDownton)

Brother. Sister. #MissingABCmelodrama Her daughter. White patriarch who dies. (How many shows have opened with last-mentioned trigger! Don’t worry, not looking at you Six Feet Under.)

Speaking of shows that got emptiness right—because, unlike Casual, SFU’s pilot made us actually feel emotions of/around emptiness: sadness, fury, frustration, helplessness, mystery, longing—where was Frances Conroy? She was the only paratext (of three) I was excited to enter with.

{the second: Jason Reitman directed. Hmm. Up in the Air was also quite empty. People bonding over mileage miles? I had more feels with the Friends joke about 300 flying peanuts.}

She might’ve dug the show deeper. Even make us dig.

{the third: line on bus shelter poster – “Family comedy. Single drama.” Former, dryyy. Latter, never wet.}

I’m being mean. Michaela Watkins was great. She has the gravitas I detected in the annoying Transparent siblings. Her therapist character may render Freud simplistically. But she convinces with the one truth spoken about her: “Cold and alone.”

I get it. People are dealing. Shortcuts are… better than not cutting.

Just give me a dose of likeability (not algorithm creators who think serving in a war is a travel opp). And a narrative hook with a bit more curve.

I love cold and lonely greys: casual watercolor.

But I prefer papyrus with more built-in texture.

Ritesh Mehta is a recent PhD in Communication from USC, and studies popular entertainment and production culture.

 

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Super Mansion (Crackle, October 8) trailer here

A stop-motion animated comedy from the Robot Chicken team, Super Mansion follows a group of older superheroes fighting to stay relevant. The show boasts an impressive list of voice talent, led by Bryan Cranston as the show’s lead, Titanium Rex. Old people jokes abound.

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Superhero comic books have been engaging in their own self-parody and self-critique for decades. From MAD Magazine to Marvel’s “What The–?!” comics, from Watchmen to The Authority, the comic book landscape is full of fake Batmans, Captain America analogues, and serious questions about the troubling political underpinnings of a genre that celebrates vigilante justice and peace through violence. When you add parody from other media into the mix – from The Tick to Mystery Men, or even 2008’s execrable Superhero Movie – the pile of mediated criticism becomes almost insurmountably high. These days, it’s difficult to find a way to parody or critique the superhero genre without simply duplicating what someone else has already done better.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

SuperMansion is the epitome of lazy parody. Its jokes are aggressively unfunny, aggressively offensive, or both at once. Your hero from the 1940s is racist and sexist? How original! Your cat-based heroine (the only woman on the show) is a sex-crazed caricature joking about going into heat? What a stunning piece of cultural commentary! Someone is trying to legally shut down a superhero team? Clearly, no one has ever thought of that before. And the less said about the incoherent anti-Semitic jokes surrounding “Jew-Bot,” the better.

The above is deliberately snarky, but it captures the emotions I felt upon watching SuperMansion. I enjoy the cast, and though I’ve never been a fan of the creators’ Robot Chicken, I’ve certainly heard good things about it. This show, however, strikes out on every conceivable level, and it has no excuse. Creator Zeb Wells is also a fairly prolific comic book writer; he’s certainly familiar with the medium, genre, and history of both. But what he’s produced here is something I would not recommend to anyone.

Jennifer Margret Smith (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a PhD student with scholarly interests in the superhero comic book, production studies, and mediated representations of identity.

 

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Red Oaks (Amazon, October 9) trailer here

Another survivor of Amazon’s pilot project, Red Oaks is a coming-of-age comedy following a young tennis player working at upmarket New Jersey country club Red Oaks in the 1980s. Craig Roberts stars alongside Paul Reiser and Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner Jennifer Grey.

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Red Oaks certainly looks like a sex-romp comedy from the mid-80s, complete with poofy hair and a requisite skinny-dipping scene. The aesthetic is so convincing, in fact, that rather than appearing self-consciously satirical (like The Goldbergs or Wet Hot American Summer), Red Oaks looks like it was actually transported, untouched, from three decades ago.

Unfortunately, aesthetic sensibility is not the only thing Red Oaks recycles. The characters and plot of the pilot are flat and expected (even the bare breasts and swearing feel obligatory), and the supposedly climactic tennis montage sequences are lifeless instead of campy fun. In other words, for all the success of the “retro” aspects of this retro comedy, it fails to deliver on the comedy. Red Oaks isn’t actually funny; there are virtually no jokes, no sharp characters, and no clever or unexpected situations. At the same time, the pilot’s drama is rote – a middle-class kid from New Jersey might not get to keep his cushy summer job, and feels pressure from parents and hot girlfriend to recreate the bourgeois suburban existence that surrounds him. The horror.

Red Oaks is not a bad show; the acting is uniformly solid, the dialogue convincing (if not particularly compelling) and the show boasts a strong pedigree, including director David Gordon Green and executive producer Steven Soderbergh. There is little of the pilot, however, that makes the nine episodes Amazon released on October 9 particularly appealing. The premise and execution have been done before and done better, so instead of spending time on the rest of season one, I’ll just re-watch Adventureland – or cut out the nostalgia and go for an actual mid-80s sex-romp comedy.

Anne Gilbert (University of Kansas) studies fans, digital culture, and media industries.

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I’m not quite sure to do with Amazon’s new original “comedy” Red Oaks. Presented by executive producer Steven Soderbergh and the man who brought us Magic Mike XXL, the show falls a bit awkwardly into the current original streaming landscape.

Set at a New Jersey country club in 1985, it feels like cross between Caddyshack—with its horny twenty-something, slacker workers and rick jackasses—and Dirty Dancing—with the protagonist’s Jewishness foregrounded immediately and Jennifer Grey cast as his mom. The jokes were funny enough and the protagonist, David, nerdily lovable enough, but in the hunt for hippest original streaming series that hearkens back to the teen sex comedies of late seventies and early eighties, it can’t help but be compared to Netflix’s campy, star-studded Wet Hot American Summer and its riff on Caddyshack’s poor cousin Meatballs (and every other horny teen comedy of the era). Although much less intentionally campy than Wet Hot, the show’s Wedding Singer-eque embrace of over-the-top 80s fashion and stoners makes it hard to take the characters at their word. Don’t get me wrong, I’m already intrigued by the “Jennifer Grey as closeted lesbian mom” angle and am looking forward to more Paul Reiser, who plays Ted Knight, I mean the jerky president of the club. However, its half-hour, not-too-cool or edgy dramedy (I think?) format and problematic comparison to something hipper may make it an awkward sell. That said, I would be remiss to not mention the pop culture mind-blow the show gave me as I took umbrage at the Richard Kind/Jennifer Grey pairing as David’s parents. I was sure it was one more case of Hollywood casting a much younger and more attractive woman as the wife of a dumpy older man. Who knew Kind was only three years older than Grey. Okay then. My bad. Nobody puts baby in the corner.

Kelly Kessler (DePaul University)’s work primarily engages with gender and genre in the American television and film, often as it relates to the musical.

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For a show set in a Jewish country club, there sure are a lot of blonde shiksas running around, aimirite? I wanted to like this show because it’s nice to see Paul Reiser and Richard Kind working together again. I thought Jennifer Grey was in this, but I haven’t seen her at all (plastic surgery joke, zing!). However, I can’t recommend wasting any of your precious precious TV time on Red Oaks. Mainly because this show hits you over the head with the tired beta-male-finding-his-inner-hegemonic-masculinity bullshit premise. The pilot sets this up by demonstrating the obstacles we can anticipate main character David will have to man-up in order to overcome: overbearing parents, overbearing hot girlfriend, other men trying to sleep with said girlfriend, a resident asshole/country club president who David literally has to beat at tennis to keep his job, and a budding flirtation with the asshole’s daughter. Reiser plays this asshole, I wish they gave him more to work with than the cardboard character he plays, because he out acts everybody else around him. On a side note, I cannot help but wonder if the writers did their historical research via a Comedy Central marathon of 1980s college sex comedies. The male characters are sex obsessed, perhaps most offensively, David’s Indian mentor Nash. Nash is a broadly drawn foreign, smarmy sex fiend. Turkish-American comic Ennis Esmer (racial drag!) totally bases his accent on Peter Sellers’ sonic brownface in The Heiress. There will probably be a second season, it’s Amazon, and this show looks pretty… But I’d rather catch up on Transparent, Orphan Black, and The Americans, all available at Amazon Prime, before I stream the rest of Red Oaks. And I recommend you do the same.

Eleanor Patterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the cultural politics of post-network broadcasting.

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