Minority Report (Premiered September 21 @ 9/8) trailer here
Since Almost Human did so well for them, why not try the dystopian future sci-fi procedural again, right? Trade out Michael Ealy, Karl Urban, and Minka Kelly for Meagan Good, Stark Sands, Nick Zano, Wilmer “Fez” Valderrama, and Laura Regan. It’s 2065 (ie: 15 years after the film’s action) and a decommissioned “precog” (clairvoyants) takes to helping a detective on the side. No Tom Cruise, but lots of air holograms will be pinched and swiped to remind you of the film.
Minority Report opens with a monologue that quickly explains the events of the 2002 film adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick short story. That version was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Tom Cruise and, although it was well received by critics, is certainly one of the deeper cuts from both their filmographies. The intro to the episode informs us that, for reasons I dare not attempt to consider here, the television show is a direct sequel to the movie and takes place 11 years after Tom Cruise’s character shut down the unit of the police force that used psychic humans to stop crimes before they happened. The assumption that anyone watching this pilot saw and/or remembers the movie vividly enough to care about continuity, if nothing else, highlights the absurd level to which the “shared universe” philosophy has come to dominate the media industry. The main problem with the show thus far, is that a lot of time is spent having characters explain what the pre-cog unit was, and how life was so much better when we arrested people before they committed crimes instead of cleaning up the aftermath; a sentiment which is antithetical to the moral of the film they are trying to connect to. These quibbles aside, and despite being delivered in stiff and heavy-handed fashion, there are some genuinely interesting ideas introduced in this first episode. I find the relationship between the pre-cog siblings to be ripe with tension and well worth exploring over a season. The show also contains some visually interesting set pieces, and the characters — although only shells here in the pilot — have some real potential to grow in interesting ways. In short, although perhaps leaning a bit too hard on its predecessor, there’s enough original schlocky sci-fi story potential to make this latest Fox procedural worthy of further investigation.
Nicholas Benson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a media and cultural studies scholar with a focus on production cultures, media franchising and failure.
It has been argued that finding the right elements—the chemistry of the lead actors, the cultural moment for a television show to land, the spark of creativity in the writing—is like magic. Arguably, our contemporary media-driven society is the perfect time to assemble a show about multi-cultural characters engaging in a highly developed and esoteric procedural world, making overt and prescient quotes about the issues of the day (surveillance, big data, social media, the police state), and debating the present day (re: retro) as a humorous curiosity amid a crushing techno-futurism. That show is here, and it is called Mr. Robot.
But this review is about Minority Report, a show that manages to neuter even the tepid Steven Spielberg film, which serves as the show’s direct antecedent. That film included an interesting analysis of the police state, but was a far cry from the bleak and anxiety-ridden vision of Philip K. Dick’s prophetic critique of surveillance society in the original short story.
Today’s Minority Report (also produced by Spielberg) is an orgy of techno-porn, a spectacular spectacle that wants to boggle the mind even as the eye merely ogles the screen. The complex backstory isn’t fleshed out very much and the plot to kill the candidate for mayor is so cockamamie it’s beyond unbelievable. But there are hints that the show might be able to make compelling arguments applicable to today’s data-driven society. Since “precrime” was outlawed after the events of the film (the future being pretty tricky to pin down), the Mayor mentions his new plan to fight crime—using surveillance, big data tracking, and algorithmic manipulation to detect when crimes would happen. These are some really perceptive and timely issues—if I were a precog, I’d say they were topics bound to be hotly debated during this election cycle. I just hope that the show knows that as well.
Paul Booth (DePaul University) studies fandom, time travel, and digital technology and is the author most recently of Playing Fans and Game Play.
I have a love-hate relationship with the film on which this series is based on: it’s a Philip K. Dick adaptation that doesn’t bear too close philosophical investigation; it’s a fun action movie with Tom Cruise; it’s an interesting premise and yet the world building seems lacking to me. So it isn’t the first film I’d expect to be adapted for a long term TV series.
And yet the idea of the precogs and their partial visions is certainly enticing. And the pilot offers both the basic setup (female cop and one of the male precogs who’s come back from his isolated retreat), the weekly story line (precog gets a vision of a crime to be committed and they need to prevent it), and the larger mythos (the threat to all three precogs to be taken back in).
However, the pilot felt more like a cable summer show than prime time FOX, and even there it’d have to quickly improve its chemistry between the characters, world building, and crime story to keep audiences. At the moment it’s too generic to really engage either with the potentials of the world or the philosophical impact of the Precrime premise and its non-stop surveillance replacement. And I have a feeling this is one show where FOX’s all too quick cancellation policy may indeed be a mercy.
Kristina Busse (independent scholar) studies fan fiction and fan communities and is co-editor of Transformative Works and Cultures.
Scream Queens (Premiered September 22 @ 8/7) trailer here
Ryan Murphy turns to the horror-comedy realm in what hopes to be an anthology series. The sisters and pledges at Kappa Kappa Tau will be picked off one a week, introducing something of a whodunit (Murphy has said it’s like Ten Little Indians). Emma Roberts, Lea Michele, and Abigail Breslin star with the dean of scream queens herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, as dean of the university.
When I set my DVR, I was excited about the idea of reviewing Scream Queens. I had binge-watched Popular in a week, almost made it to the very end of Glee, ranked American Horror Story seasons…..I knew what I was getting with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck (the good and the uneven) and thought I liked it. Then I was hit with the phrase “white mammy” in the first 15 minutes and wondered what I had gotten into.
I don’t think it is fair to say Scream Queens isn’t smart or savvy but it is desperately in need of an editor, and of the standards department spoofed in yesterday’s Muppets episode. Scream Queens‘ greatest brutality, for better or worse, comes not from its gory murders but from its social machinations and humor. At its best Scream Queens satirizes privilege, exemplified when a group of sorority girls dance gleefully to socially critical song “Waterfalls” while letting another girl die upstairs. My favorite line of the night, “I’d love you a lot more if other people love you too,” had just enough restraint to hit true as a critique. At its worst, the episode leaned to the outrageous simply because it could, moving from cutting to tasteless.
By placing most of its worst lines in the mouth of abhorrent sorority girl Chanel #1, some might see it as “excused” but the joke is the lines not Chanel as the teller and worse yet isn’t funny. One of the episode’s most effectively winking moments, a recreation of a scene from Heathers, was weakened by a cringe-worthy ongoing joke about a deaf Taylor Swift fan. And yet…one line that offended me the most as an extreme lesbian stereotype I sat with for an hour and began to see as a jab at a common “subtly” homophobic refrain. At the end, I find myself oscillating between seeing the potential for camp and satire where cringe-worthy lines are occasion for thoughtfulness and seeing an offensive failed attempt to shock and spoof that fell flat. I am just curious enough which to stay tuned, but I doubt for long.
Kyra Hunting (University of Kentucky) studies genre, representation and children’s media.
Admittedly, my expectations were low when I tuned in to Scream Queens. The series, which centers on a sorority house at a fictitious university, took all of the actors I dislike from Glee (Lea Michele) and the American Horror Story franchise (Emma Roberts), and put them together on one show. Ryan Murphy as an auteur doesn’t seem to suffer from a lack of ideas for television series. However, Scream Queens, like some of the more recent entries in the American Horror Story franchise, reads as a half-baked idea masquerading as a television series pilot episode (and I have no idea why I had to sit through two hours of this crapfest).
Murphy seems to take the “check box” approach he took on Glee with Scream Queens featuring the popular guy and girl, the nerdy outcast girl, the gay guy and the sassy black girl. In fact, the characters seem to be drawn from the broad (and un/underdeveloped) caricatures in Glee. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Cathy Munsch is essentially Sue Sylvester 2.0, “Mean Girl” Chanel Oberlin (Roberts) is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of Santana. It all just feels stale, and surprisingly joyless.
Certainly Murphy has enjoyed a degree of success with Glee and the American Horror Story franchise, but Scream Queens is what happens when television auteurism runs amok. Murphy (I think) likes to imagine himself as a master of satire and parody, but it doesn’t work. Instead, Murphy scripting Chanel to call the Kappa Kappa Tau house cleaner a “white mammy” and a “white slave” before forcing her to say, “I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ no babies” from Gone with the Wind, it just feels tone deaf. Additionally, when Murphy has Nick Jonas’ gay character Boone lust after alleged heterosexual heartthrob Chad, it feels forced and – as much as I loathe the word – stereotypical. Kiki Palmer’s Zayday Williams seems to be in the cast in order to provide the series with a sassy black girl. Unlike Sammy Davis Jr., I don’t have “high hopes” for the show. Scream Queen is what you get when auteur happens to bad show runners.
Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.
If one of the marks of good satire is a tone we’ve come to recognize as “tongue-in-cheek,” Scream Queens, the newest series from small screen auteurs Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, has its tongue planted firmly in the next zip code, wagging at us in incessant defiance. Emma Roberts stars as Chanel Oberlin, ruling matriarch of Wallace University’s Kappa Kappa Tau sorority and adolescent adversary to Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis), Dean of Students who would like nothing more than to see KKT’s club of pumpkin-spice-latte-drinking clones picked off campus one by one. Lucky for Ms. Munsch, a serial killer is stalking KKT and is only too happy to oblige.
To say that Scream Queens is intentionally offensive in its particular brand of off-color humor, (“That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean…I call her ‘white mammy’ because she’s essentially a house slave”), would be a gross understatement. And while horror spoofs of the Scary Movie ilk often do depend on jabs of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., Murphy and Falchuk never let us come up for air, marathoning misanthropic mockeries one after the other. In attempting to create the perfect Mean Girls meets Scream mix tape, Scream Queens mostly comes off as just plain old mean.
But if there is a silver lining here, it’s surely Curtis, playing the rebel-turned-administrator with a healthy dose of selfie realness, channeling her own aged Laurie Strode of Halloween: H20.
Andrew Owens (Boston College) studies horror, gender, and queer media.
Did you ever watch Glee and catch yourself thinking, “Man, I really wish someone would just murder these kids?” Well you’re in luck! From a verbal description, the new horror television show by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, sounds thematically more closely related to his more macabre fare like Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story. But it is in many ways more evocative of the high school musical (not to be confused with High School Musical). Scream Queens‘ one-dimensional characters are overacted to the extreme. Its color schemes, in both set and costume design, are similarly loud. Its cinematography is overly stylized, jumping from too-perfectly-composed symmetry to discomfitingly unbalanced deep-focus shots.
Many, if not all (I don’t recall any significant Toland-influenced deep focus shots in Glee), of these techniques seem directly descended from Glee – a show whose tireless, noisy, hoopla grew very tired very fast. Where Scream Queens departs from its predecessor is that the kind of nervous energy built up by overcaffeinated television finds highly satisfying, humorous release in horrific murders. Whereas most horror builds tension by playing on fear, it seems that Scream Queens is more intent on raising the audience’s blood pressure with well-crafted annoyance before releasing the tension in violence.
It’s a horror-comedy whose comedy aspects take a strong cue from Tim and Eric. And although it functions as a kind of televisual double-negative, it is quite fun.
Philip Scepanski (Vassar College) studies comedy, trauma, and television.
Rosewood (Premiered September 23 @ 8/7) trailer here
Morris Chestnut is the best pathologist in a city that television has told us needs a lot of them, Miami. Jaina Lee Ortiz is the Miami PD officer who must work with him to solve murders aplenty.
It wouldn’t be a new TV season without a disposable generic procedural crime drama. Rosewood fits the bill perfectly.
Beaumont Rosewood (Morris Chestnut) is a hyper-intelligent, hyper-smug, and hyper-smarmy private pathologist in Miami with a quick tongue, cool clothes, a cool car, and a ridiculously cool office (a high-tech crime lab somehow crossed with a trendy design firm in a gentrifying neighborhood). As usual in this genre, he’s surrounded by grumpy, ill-equipped detectives who resent yet accept his genius, and he has “issues” (in this case, a ridiculous raft of debilitating yet conveniently invisible medical conditions). The acting is safe, but enjoyable and solid enough, despite the creakingly well-worn plot and trimmings, and the production exploits its Miami location for predictable, yet edge-less spectacle (blue skies and waters, palm trees, beautiful bodies in swimwear, and latin dance music, but minus the ominous atmosphere of Miami Vice). Basically, we’ve seen this all a million times before.
The only significant, and refreshing, difference this time is that Rosewood is black, his reluctant crime-solving partner is Latina, and white characters are thankfully scarce. Fox and the producers deserve some credit for the multicultural casting and worldbuilding, but it’s sad that this is still exceptional enough to merit notice. Sadder yet is the wasted opportunity with this cast and the general premise. I believe there’s still creative mileage to be had in crime TV, particularly with characters we rarely see in lead roles otherwise. It’s just too bad that material that’s neither pitch-dark and opaque (like True Detective) nor light and predictably bland (like Rosewood) rarely gets a chance on American TV.
Derek Kompare (Southern Methodist University) is the author of Rerun Nation (2005), CSI (2010), and many articles on television form and history.
It’s easy to spot the things that Rosewood thinks make it stand out amidst the other shows focused on a cop teaming up with a consultant to solve murders: the cop is a widow (that’s one), returning to her Miami hometown (that’s two), who gets an unwanted partner-in-crime-solving in the form of a private pathology consultant (that’s three), and who treats his patients like mysteries because he himself is dying (that’s four).
None of these are remarkable: the widow and terminal illness stories come via heavy-handed exposition, the Miami setting is established through every trope imaginable (with the generic Latin music somehow managing to sound even more generic than it is on other shows), and the novelty of a private medical examiner is erased the moment you realize it just means the show is glamorizing private medical practice and the fancy technology for-profit doctors have access to. Rosewood has nothing to add to the genre it belongs to, no matter how many it times it reminds us of these low-impact points of distinction.
What it has is an African-American lead in Morris Chesnutt, and a progressive view on inclusion that includes a no-big-deal lesbian couple (Rosewood’s sister and his assistant), both of which are meaningful in theory but meaningless in practice. It’s no shock that Fox’s marketing has barely focused on anything but Chesnutt’s star presence, as this is an almost impressively empty shell of a pilot. It’s not necessarily hard to imagine a second episode of the show, but I can’t imagine anyone finding much impulse to do so.
Myles McNutt (Old Dominion Univerity) studies the media industries and wrote a dissertation chapter about TV representations about Miami and he still had almost nothing to say about this show.
Grandfathered (Premieres September 29 @ 8/7) trailer here
Uncle Jesse is now Grandpa Jesse. Ageless “Can Work With Kids” John Stamos plays a recently divorced bachelor, restauranteur, player who discovers he has a son … and a granddaughter. Josh Peck, Paget Brewster, and Christina Millian co-star in this single-cam family sitcom.
Grandfathered has the perfect kind of high concept—selfish lothario discovers within the series’ opening minutes that he is not only a father, but also a, well, you get it—for a broadcast network sitcom, but tonal clashes drag the pilot down. If the last decade of cable television has taught us anything, it’s that it’s certainly not impossible to build a comedy around an unlikable lead. Where Grandfathered gets it wrong, though, is how hard it works to redeem Stamos’ character Jimmy by the premiere’s end in the most transparent ways possible.
Take the show’s soundtrack, for instance, which cues viewers’ emotions with all the subtlety of Google’s “Parisian Love” ad. Jimmy spends the first two acts indulging in the kind of unfunny enlightened racism and misogyny that usually begets comeuppance of some kind. Instead, we get Jimmy rushing his granddaughter to the hospital to the tune of the opening piano riff of The National’s “Fake Empire,” then celebrating later with his ad hoc family to Jamie Lidell’s “Another Day.”
The supporting cast turn in fine performances but don’t come anywhere near anything resembling a punchline. It’s the John Stamos show, for better or worse. If Grandfathered is to survive its first season, it will need to take a cue from The Grinder, the kindred spirit sitcom that leads it out. If building your series around an aren’t-Gen-X-playboys-with-Peter-Pan-complexes-crazy kind of appeal, go easy on the pathos.
Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.
Grandfathered is not a funny show, which is disappointing because I expect more from Danny Chun. Although it is pleasurable to watch John Stamos run down the street holding a baby in a tailored suit. Hashtag ladyporn. If you are wondering where washed up teen idols go to die, look no further than Grandfathered, as this show boasts the acting talents of both Josh Peck and Christina Milian. Or rather, their cheesy overacting makes Stamos and Paget Brewster look like John Gielgud and Judy Dench. The premise is contrived, but show me a situation comedy that isn’t, and in theory, I really like the prospect of making a man raising a child and trying to balance work and home life visible on television. At the climax of this episode, Stamos’ character Jimmy is babysitting while working at his trendy restaurant, and not only is it impossible for him to work, but the baby gets sick and he needs to take her to the hospital. This trope has been used countless times in film and TV to convey the post-feminist consequences of being a working mom, and so perhaps Grandfathered can do some of the cultural work of re-gendered parental labor … if it gets picked up, and there might be enough Full House nostalgia to make that happen. However, Grandfathered recuperates hegemonic masculinity by characterizing Jimmy as a successful and wealthy metrosexual bachelor. In fact, we viewers are meant to believe that Gerald only really decided to seek out his father so Jimmy could teach him how to be a ladies’ man. So I’m not sure that any gender constructs are really going to be subverted here. Or if any humor is actually going to occur.
Eleanor Patterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the cultural politics of post-network broadcasting.
The Grinder (Premieres September 29 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here
Fred Savage and Rob Lowe are brothers and both lawyers, kind of. Savage is an actual lawyer, brilliant but a horrible speaker, while Lowe is coming off years as a beloved TV lawyer. Lowe comes to work with his brother, to provide the pizzazz. Lowe is in three new shows this year, but trailers suggest he’s having all sorts of fun in this one.
Fred Savage, where were they gone, your Wonder Years? No fear, Rob Lowe, aka-twice The Grinder, is here! And the grind does not rest until “Grinder rests.”
Packing in a punch with his appealing persona of thin-lipped, everyday-smart superiority, sweetened by his role as the perennially-sunny Pawnee city manager in Parks and Recreation, Lowe brings nuance and serenity to his misleadingly outlandish character Dean Sanderson’s desire to help his brother, Savage’s Stewart Sanderson, get his Boise, ID lawyer groove back. Savage, in turn, excels (maybe even more) as straight family man aptly cutting his TV star-brother lines of doubt and incredulity.
The two actors play off of these conflicts with enjoyable chemistry, thanks to a keep-story-points-simple four-act structure. I was snickering throughout the pilot, and hope future episodes retain the meta plus ‘en famille’ commentary. The Grinder, at its heart, promises to be a show about two brothers who haven’t yet mapped out the ways they care for each other, while also being sophisticatedly self-reflexive and toasting-marshmallows-at-academic-retreat critical. Accepting that domains of culture are unrelentingly bound up in each other, the writers furnish several chuckle-worthy sketches upfront:
- Celebrity intertwined with lawyering (Lowe: “Right now, all this case is about is apartments, rents. What it should be about is… character”; Savage: “Oh sure, acting on a TV show is the equivalent of going to law school!”)
- Childhood in the shadow of adulthood (Savage Jr.: “I’ve been really coming into my own lately, and I think he’s picking up on that.”)
- Entertainment inseparable from justice (Plaintiff: “I feel like I’m in a Grinder episode right now”; Sanderson Sr.: “I love watching a transformation!”)
So, by the time the climactic court scene rolls around, we know how to read into even minor characters, such as Rose Abdoo’s stern yet star-struck judge or Kumail Nanjiani’s incredulous prosecutor. All in all, recommended, and hoping for something less tired than a case-every-week approach (although, writers, please look to 30 Rock for pro-tips on how to name South Asian characters. #Leonard?!?!).
Ritesh Mehta is a recent PhD in Communication, and studies popular entertainment and production culture.
Fred Savage has mainly been working behind the camera over the last few years, directing episodes of Garfunkel & Oats, Two Broke Girls, Modern Family and others. But I am happy to see him on a network comedy again, especially one as clever as The Grinder (we can all forget about Working now, right?). This show’s self-reflexive meta-humor is tightly written and the entire cast is fantastic. Kumail Nanjiani has a cameo in the pilot, need I say more? And Rob Lowe and Savage seem to evoke the chemistry of a leading pair that has been acting together for a while. Lowe seems to be channeling his Chris Traeger performance here, aloof, vain, although perhaps more selfish and superficial. But it works well. And Savage’s nebbish note card reading beta-male is hilarious. If the show seems familiar, it is because I would argue that The Grinder’s witty dialogue and premise owe much to Arrested Development and 30 Rock’s legacy. Savage’s Stewart is our Liz Lemon/Michael Bluth sardonic straight man to Lowe’s Dean, whose mentoring of Stewart, blind confidence and witty comebacks are reminiscent of Jack Donaghy. Lowe also channels the Bluth clan with his oblivious arrogance and narcissism. Sometimes the hyperbolic dialogue is overdone and misses the mark. And, really, the men folk go fishing after a day in court? But my main complaint is that the female characters have no substance. Stewart’s wife only seems to have dialogue when she is sitting in the marital bed supporting her husband. Meanwhile, we only get to know Stewart’s daughter in her role as sexbait to help her younger brother’s social status. However, this show made me laugh, and on that evidence, The Grinder rests.
Eleanor Patterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the cultural politics of post-network broadcasting.
As a longtime fan of Castle, I’ll shamefully admit that I’m sometimes charmed by stories of charismatic people proving themselves inexplicably competent at jobs others have spent years training for. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the inherent problems in that setup, however – and that kind of recognition is what makes The Grinder such a delight. Rob Lowe’s character, Dean, is essentially Castle, a man whose experience with a particular fictional narrative (in this case, playing a lawyer on TV) leads him to believe he’s capable of performing that job in real life. The humor of the pilot largely stems from the ridiculous and inexplicable confidence both Dean and his fans have in his abilities, contrasted with the frustrated disbelief of Dean’s brother Stewart (Fred Savage), an actual lawyer. That parody plays to the strengths of both Lowe (drawing equally on his over-the-top Parks and Recreation character and an exaggeration of his 1980s heartthrob appeal) and Savage (who absolutely nails the sardonic, awkward, frustrated nebbish). Meanwhile, the show engages in an additional, and successful, layer of parody with scenes from Dean’s TV role as “The Grinder,” which are full of dramatic music cues, overwrought soliloquies to the jury, and other tropes of the legal procedural genre.
Beyond that, however, the show’s narrative successfully twists the Castle formula by presenting a more realistic account of the balance between charisma and knowledge. Ultimately, Dean’s acting experience does help his brother’s case, but it’s Stewart’s comprehensive knowledge of law that truly saves the day – and Dean’s attempts to study for the bar exam point to a recognition of the need for real training. I’m not sure where the show will go next – and it could very well fall into the traps it seeks to parody and overturn – but I’m cautiously optimistic.
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.