Tuesday, July 17, 2012

TV Round-Up: The Good, the Bad, and the Bunheads

It may be that I just wasn't paying attention in previous summers, too caught up in "Mad Men" to notice what else was on telly. But this year, there seems to be a lot more fresh programming in July than I recall.

I've tried to sample things here and there, with mixed results. But, hey, it's fun to have so many new options.

The new generation "Dallas" on TNT has continued to be snappy, soapy and fun. I haven't got a clue where all the scams and counterscams are taking J.R., Bobby, their oil or their families, but that isn't really important. "Dallas" has already been picked up for a new season, and it's easy to see why. There is a lot of swagger and splash there to keep viewers entertained, and if the youngsters are played by pretty-but-unskilled actors, well, that's a soap for you. I do wish they'd found some young females who were more compelling, but maybe in time...
Grade: B for Bravado

Speaking of young females... "Bunheads," airing on ABC Family, started with promise, but quickly wore out its welcome with me. Part of that is the incessant chatter that passes for house style with Amy Sherman-Palladino, as well as the heavy layer of quirk. When everybody is so very quirky, when everybody speaks in the same relentless rhythm, nothing stands out.

I still love Sutton Foster as a TV presence, however, and the plot has not gone where I expected it to. Defying expectations might be a good thing, but here, it's only because the plot hasn't really gone anywhere. We should be well past set-up and into actual PLOT by now, but it sure doesn't feel that way. All we're getting are minor squabbles, as Fanny (Kelly Bishop) remains intractable, unsympathetic and unbelievable, Michelle (Sutton Foster) flaps around not fitting in, and Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), the girl from ballet class who is too nice and not thin enough for ballet, continues to suffer humiliation like a passive aggressive mother pushing cake on her and an uppity co-worker who makes her dumpster jump so she smells bad. I can't believe I even wrote that. "Bunheads" jumped right off my schedule with that dumpster.
Grade: A Dumpster D

I also enjoyed Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" when it started on HBO. Jeff Daniels is terrific as Will McAvoy, a cable news network anchor who has made more than a few missteps in his personal life, and he is backed up by a strong cast pulled from the New York stage, including John Gallagher, Jr. ("Spring Awakening"), Alison Pill ("Mauritius") and Thomas Sadoski ("Other Desert Cities"). Sam Waterston is wry and amusing and quite different from his usual senior statesman roles as Will's bow-tied boss, Dev Patel is charming as a staff smarty-pants, and Jane Fonda's cameo as the Big Boss was certainly tart and on target.

What's not to like? Sorkin's dialogue is every bit as idiosyncratic (and rapid-fire) as Sherman-Palladino's, which gets wearisome after awhile, with the same everybody-sounds-alike problem. And the main female characters, including Pill's naive newcomer, Emily Mortimer's hotshot producer who used to be romantically attached to Will, and Olivia Munn's supposedly brilliant economist, veer from lame and indecisive to headstrong and irrational, from emotionally over-the-top and psycho to juvenile and pouty, from one unattractive, stereotypically female trait to the next. We know Sorkin can do better -- he wrote Allison Janney's C.J. Cregg, after all -- but these women are weak sisters so far.

Back in the newsroom itself, all these fast-talking crazies do actually come together when Sorkin launches the big story of the week, when they stop with the interpersonal hijinks and show why they do what they do. There are flashes of brilliance, of "West Wing" Sorkin, there. I'm hoping for more of that and a lot less Insane Female Posse as "The Newsroom" winds on.
Grade: Boys A-, Girls B- for an overall B

Newer than those are TNT's "Perception," with Eric McCormack as a Monk-meets-Sherlock-meets-House-meets-"A Beautiful Mind" sleuth who happens to have great crime-solving skills along with mental instability, and USA's "Political Animals,' where Sigourney Weaver subs in for Hillary Clinton as a former First Lady who has become Secretary of State.

McCormack is likable enough as neuroscience professor Daniel Pierce in "Perception," and he does a nice job balancing the character's braininess with his hallucinations and mental illness, but the rest of the show feels formulaic and tired, and Rachel Leigh Cook isn't believable for one minute as his FBI agent pal and former student. Given that this is familiar turf from so many previous TV sleuths, there really isn't anything that sets "Perception" apart or makes it all that intriguing.
Grade: So So C-

"Political Animals," meanwhile, is a potboiler of ambition and double-dealing inside one very visible fishbowl. On the frontline, we've got Sigourney Weaver's Elaine Barrish, her ex-husband/the ex-president Bud Hammond, played by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, their twin sons, handsome good guy Douglas (James Wolk) and handsome screw-up T.J. (Sebastian Stan), as well as Elaine's wisecracking mom (Ellen Burstyn). On the other side are some rivals and opponents, including Adrian Pasdar and Dylan Baker as the current president and VP, and a feisty reporter (Carla Gugino) who has been focused on the Barrish/Hammond family for years.

I was fine with both boys, with Burstyn, Pasdar and Baker and even Gugino, but both Weaver and Hinds left something to be desired. Her line readings felt arch and artificial to me, and Hinds, a formidable actor on film and on stage, seemed sleazy and clumsy where Bud needed to be charming and smooth to have captivated voters (and women, including Elaine) the way he did.
Grade: Loses in the Primary for a D+

That means I will not be tuning in for more "Perception" or "Political Animals." Like "Bunheads," they don't make the grade for my summer schedule

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