Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a mini-series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, will break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Previously we delved into fantasy/paranormal shows, so in this very special episode we’ll tackle horror, comics, and general geekery, namely 666 Park Avenue, American Horror Story: Asylum, Arrow, Beauty and the Beast, and Revolution. Be warned, where applicable these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS, nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact. Any shows in particular you’d like me to cover? Drop me a line in the comments.
666 Park Avenue
The Road So Far: Based on a series of novels by Gabriella Pierce, 666 Park Avenue (ABC, Sun 10p) is a nighttime soap about a couple of 47-percenters and the pair of sinisters offering them one hell of a deal. Jane and Henry fall off the turnip truck and land on the doorstep of The Drake, an über-posh apartment building in the most desirable part of Manhattan. They’re greeted with open arms by Gavin and his wife Olivia, the kind of power couple who smile to your face and grimace when your back is turned. Lurking in the background are the world’s most sarcastic doorman, a teenage psychic, a voyeur, his muse, and the wife getting in his way, and a chattering of starlings living in the walls that everyone seems totally ok with.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Like Revolution, this is not a good show. Also like Revolution, this is a show with a moderately solid premise that fails to follow through with its own story and gets lost in the mire of lousy actors and their snore-inducing melodramas. I wanted to watch a show about Terry O’Quinn as the Devil slowly corrupting the souls of the innocent. What I got was a 1 hour nighttime sudser about a bunch of vacant, generically attractive late-20 somethings doing incredibly nonsensical and illogical things while pretending they’re in a SERIOUS DRAMA.
It’s frustrating because there really are a lot of good seeds mixed in with all the chaff here. A bright-eyed, naïve young couple being teased with sumptuous temptations by a charming Devil and his mysterious minion. A teenager discovering her burgeoning psychic abilities might be more of a curse than a blessing. A haunted apartment building whose motto really should be “Be careful what you wish for.” All these sound cool on paper, but none of that actually ends up on screen.
TL;DR: Maybe they’ll find their footing by season 2 (if it lasts that long, which doesn’t seem likely), but as of now there are so many other things you could do instead of watching this show. Like listening to someone read the phonebook aloud. Or watching the grass grow.
American Horror Story: Asylum
The Road So Far: Welcome to Crazy Town, population: all of the American Horror Story: Asylum (FX, Wed 10p) characters. It’s 2012 and Adam Levine and his hot wife have broken into an abandoned insane asylum, Briarcliff, to get busy. They get attacked instead by the serial killer Bloody Face. It’s also 1964 in said Catholic looney bin run by a iron-fisted nun and a cruel doctor. Pick a genre trope—demonic possession, aliens, mutants, Dexter, etc.—and you can be sure they have their own special padded cell. Shit is going to go down, and it will probably be both maddening and laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I never got past the first few eps of last season’s American Horror Story, but I was nevertheless excited about creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy doing a second season while totally scrapping everything about the first. Out goes the haunted house and its dead occupants, and in comes an insane asylum straight out of a 1980s horror movie. Tabula rasa is a good thing. It’s unique on television right now, and it’s nice to get something new for a change. It was a risky move, and one that paid off. I’d like to see more shows take such an approach, though I suspect we won’t see the technique replicated. Honestly, it’s the only thing that brought me back in. I disliked everything about last season, and a fresh spin intrigues me. There’s also a lot more inherent horror in creepy mental hospital full of murderers than in a haunted house full of ghosts in gimp suits.
Every other shot seems to echo something else, regardless of genre. The opening scene harkens back to every teen-centric slasher flick ever made, there are quickie shots in homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the whole second episode is basically The Exorcist. Not to mention all the weird fantasy and sci-fi that trickles in from the edges. No one is what they seem: James Cromwell’s sadistic mad scientist may have more in common with Dr. Moreau than Dr. Frankenstein; Jessica Lange’s bitter nun Sister Jude wears sexy red undies below her robes and fantasizes about being monsignor Joseph Fiennes’ lover/right hand; Zachary Quinto’s methodology-obsessed Dr. Thredson seems boring and twee on the surface but is probably (hopefully) a total psycho perv; and Lily Rabe’s innocent young nun Sister Mary Eunice is probably also possessed by a demon because she’s Catholic and on TV is therefore required to be possessed at some point in her story arc. But the people running the asylum aren’t really the stars of the show. You’ve got your lesbian reporter being held against her will (Sarah Paulson), the resident nymphomaniac (Chloë Sevigny), an alien abductee now framed as Bloody Face (Evan Peters), and an as yet undefined young woman (Lizzie Brocheré). There’s also the mini mystery of who is Bloody Face and why he’s killing certain people.
Here’s the thing. The show still doesn’t work. It’s more cohesive narratively speaking, but it still fails at creating characters who are more than just a stockpile of tropes and over-the-top personality constructs. Murphy and Falchuk are still throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, then (to mix metaphors for a moment) throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure. None of it works, but this season still feels better to me than the last. Not every show has to be the greatest story ever told (I couldn’t sit through Teen Wolf if Deadwood was my quality marker, and I frakking love Teen Wolf), but I also can’t handle a season of standard shocks and random craziness. This season has a basic narrative structure holding up the ridiculousness, and while it doesn’t tone down the batshit nature of the show, it does make it more palatable. Now if only they’d stop trying to add in After School Special-esque undercurrents about how crappy it was to be anything other than a cis het wealthy white male in the 1960s. You, sir, are no Mad Men, so shut up and get back to ripping Adam Levine’s arm off.
TL;DR: Asylum isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Or as bad as it was last year. On the plus side, they cast a ton of actors I love. On the negative side, my television season is no longer Adam Levine-free. Tor.com’s Emily Nordling seemed to like it a lot....
The Road So Far: Arrow (CW, Wed 8p), based on the Green Arrow comics (who, in turn, was intended as a Batman knockoff), features billionaire playboy Oliver Queen, recently rescued from his own personal re-enactment of Cast Away. When he returns to Starling City (no, I don’t know why they changed the name, either) he finds everyone he cared about has more or less moved on after his and his father’s presumed deaths. But just because Ollie was fake-dead for 5 years doesn’t mean he spent all of it talking to a volleyball. He’s riddled with mysterious scars and has acquired a vast array of martial arts, archery, and language skills. He uses these new talents to create his masked and hooded alter ego and sets about repairing his crime-ridden hometown and exacting revenge on those who have wronged his family.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Oliver Queen/Arrow is one part discount store Chris Nolan-era Batman, one part Gossip Girl rich playboy, and one part modern-day Robin Hood, but somehow Stephen Amell makes it work. (Also, abs. He has amazing abs. You could grate cheese on those things.) Despite all its Dark Knight trappings, the show seems to recognize its own limitations and instead plays to its strengths. In a comic book, Superman flying around in a Spandex onesie is acceptable, but in the real world—or, more accurately, a story set in a world full of Important Things and Social Issues—a dude wearing a Robin Hood costume and a Zorro mask wouldn’t just look out of place—it would define Queen as a crazy person rather than a champion for good. Queen opts for a not-quite skin tight dark green leather suit, an over-sized hood, and a smear of green face paint across his eyes. Every once in a while the light catches just so his whole face is shrouded in darkness and all you can see is the glint of an eye. The action/fight scenes are tight and exciting and owe a lot to the Paul Greengrass Bourne movies.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Arrow is still far from being good. But given what it could’ve been—throwing shade at Smallville—it does surprisingly well. There’s enough mystery and intrigue going on in the background—and enough comic book Easter eggs—to keep me coming back, at least for the time being. The acting is varying degrees of mediocre, but I suspect as the season/series progresses the cast will grow more comfortable with each other and get to know their characters’ personalities more. There’s a lot of promise here, but also a lot of crap the writers still need to sort out. Especially that damned voiceover. I frakking hate voiceovers. Who is he talking to? Is he talking to me? If so, can he shut up now? I’m trying to watch TV here.
TL;DR: Too early to tell if it this is a show that will grow suckier as time progresses, manage to maintain its current level of decent-ness, or improve with age and experience—though I think it’ll end up the latter. For now, this is definitely worth watching.
Beauty and the Beast
The Road So Far: In Beauty and the Beast (CW, Thurs 9p), that chick from Smallville is being stalked by a guy with a scar who is not Ron Perlman. He’s a manimal or something, I don’t know, I kinda fell into a coma about halfway through and only awoke when my brain stopped bleeding at the end credits.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: There is so much wrong with this show, I don’t even know where to begin. The whole point of the fairy tale behind the show is that Beauty falls for the Beast as is—she tames the savage nature of man and whatnot. Having him be sexy straight out of the gate defeats the whole purpose. His only “beastly” attributes are a scar—it’s a metaphor for his emotional problems!—and some anger management issues. The “police work,” and I use that phrase in the loosest way possible, would be shoddy if it weren’t so atrociously stupid. I buy Kristen Kreuk as a NYPD homicide detective about as much as I buy Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. Yet despite all that, it’s not even craptacular. It’s just crap. Mind-numbing crap.
TL;DR: I DON’T WANT TO WATCH THIS ANYMORE I WON’T DO IT YOU CAN’T MAKE ME NO.
The Road So Far: Revolution (NBC, 10p) is set in an AU where all electricity suddenly stops working, but it’s really about the family of the dude who probably caused the whole world to fall apart. The official NBC promo calls it—I swear I’m not making this up—“a swashbuckling journey of hope and rebirth.” You know what? I’ll just let NBC take the reins on this one: “When Danny is kidnapped by militia leaders for a darker purpose, Charlie must reconnect with her estranged uncle Miles, a former U.S. Marine living a reclusive life. Together, with a rogue band of survivors, they set out to rescue Danny, overthrow the militia and ultimately re-establish the United States of America. All the while, they explore the enduring mystery of why the power failed, and if—or how—it will ever return.” Sigh.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: You know, when I watch The Walking Dead, all I ever think is, gosh, these zombies sure are boring. I’d much rather see Carl 15 years later living a quiet life farming tomatoes on Hershel’s rebuilt farm. Who the hell decided that the most interesting part about a world where technology dies an instant and painful death is actually years later when everyone’s already dealt with the utter collapse of society? All action and intensity of trying to survive the apocalypse is gone and what you’re left with is annoyingly melodramatic teenagers, a surly uncle who is somehow also a master swordsman, and a USB drive that I’m supposed to believe is this brave new world’s magic key.
Remember how in my previous post I said that the biggest problem with Grimm was that it was on the wrong channel? Well, same goes for Revolution. Fox or the CW could do something fun and entertaining with this show, but instead it’s stuck on NBC and therefore suffers the same structural problems that Grimm does. Where Grimm spends entirely too much time having its lead talking or reading about monsters instead of, oh, I don’t know, fighting them, Revolution holds its focus on Charlie—who is less “strong-willed,” as NBC keeps insisting, and more impulsively stupid—and Danny who has a magic asthma inhaler that still works after a decade and a half. I don’t know if Eric Kirpke (creator of Supernatural) made the decision to set the show after all the dramatic stuff already happened or if it was a studio decision, but it smells an awful lot like the latter. NBC is risk-averse (with their track record the last 8 or so years it’s understandable) and moving the characters out of all the action is a great way to simultaneously reduce the budget and pull in all those 18-49 year olds who would rather watch a family drama than the end of the world as we know it. That’s not a choice the CW or Fox would make/allow, and Revolution suffers for it.
By removing the revolution from Revolution—that is, refusing to talk about how intrinsic technology is in our lives today, why that’s problematic, and how people react to and deal with its abrupt absence—the show loses its teeth. It’s more than a bunch of first worlders who can’t charge their cell phones. People in war-torn nations suddenly have no access to trucked-in food, thousands of people die in plane crashes, and billions die from a lack of medical care. There’s a fascinating premise in this show, and its buried under the bloated weight of a bunch of pretty faces trying really hard to make me care about what happens to them.
TL;DR: Sorry, Kripke, not even you can make me watch any more of this show. That being said, Tor.com’s Shoshana Kessock has a higher tolerance for it than I do.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.