Wayward Pines and red herrings

Wayward Pines is the kind of show that defies you to answer the question “What is it about?” without giving away what it’s about. As soon as you hear the name M. Night Shyamalan, whatever you’re watching, you’re going to start scouring each scene for clues… clues to the almighty Twist. (Spoilers start mid-way though this post, with a warning.)


Produced by Shyamalan, Wayward Pines is based on a series of novels of the same name by Blake Crouch. Season 2 just started, and I couldn’t decide if I was excited about it or not. So I rewatched the pilot, which I remember a suspenseful and riveting. The first half of the first season, up to The Twist, kept me guessing, theorizing, and eager for the next week. After that investment, I wanted to stay engaged — it was the summer TV season, after all — so I kept with it and more or less enjoyed it. It’s now, having all of the information about what the show is about, that I realize the pilot isn’t that good. It’s pretty awful.

This pilot stuffs so much information and angst into 45 minutes, you don’t get to reflect on its structure. It’s hard to feel its rhythm, spot the act breaks, when you don’t know what story it’s trying to tell. You end the episode asking “WTF?” which is usually a sign of a good show. It makes you think. It leaves you trying to assemble the clues and discard the red herrings. But there are red herrings and then there’s plain useless information. Once you know The Twist, season 1 starts to look like nothing but a tangle of tropes.

From the show’s first scene, the idea is introduced that the protagonist, Ethan (Matt Dillon), isn’t in his right mind. A Secret Service agent, he’s show with a therapist, unpacking the trauma of a terror attack for which he feels responsible. The therapist (Hooray, Malcom Goodwin!) asks whether Ethan is still experiencing hallucinations. Later, a nurse tries to convince Ethan that he’s having delusions, and the idea is hinted repeatedly. However, if Ethan’s experience of waking up after a car crash in a bizarre town that seems to exist out of time, isn’t real, why tell the story? Anyway, it’s so much more fun to hate the diabolical nurse holding him prisoner.


Hindsight begs the question, though, why is that nurse such a bitch, anyway? Wouldn’t it be more productive if she behaved normally, dressed like it was 2014, and didn’t, you know, handcuff him to the bed? If the whole purpose of Wayward Pines is the illusion of normalcy, of high-tech gadgetry and scientific enlightenment, what’s with the whole Pleasantville thing? I get that they want to avoid date stamping anything, considering that people have been brought in from different years, but why couldn’t it look at least as modern as 2000? And why couldn’t they get a doctor, or at least someone to play a doctor, and some believable hospital staff? Nobody, right mind or not, would consent to surgery in that joint.

Numbers get thrown around like beach balls: addresses, years, times, and this non-sequitur: “Ten sixteen twenty-eight is not doing well.” The impulse is to try and hang on to them as you watch, figuring some of them will have meaning. The premise, as far as we know at the start, could be anything from time travel to a Matrix-like head game. So we grasp for clues. Fruitlessly.

Several other events turn up empty. Why is there no evidence that Ethan was in the SUV that crashed? Why was the other agent’s body burned, and why was it left to rot? Why does the bartender try to convince Ethan that the bartender who waited on him (Juliette Lewis) doesn’t exist? Why not just say she’s on vacation? People’s treachery and lies are so overt that they’ve been written for the audience’s benefit, to create suspense, rather than to fit believably into the season-long story.

So, it’s a fun ride if you don’t think about it too much. There’s a reason this is a summer show on network TV. What do you think? Is anyone watching Season 2?

“Younger” and Suspension of Disbelief

I really wanted to like Younger. I can’t resist the if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now fantasy (see Being Erica). Also Sutton Foster. Sutton Foster is fabulous and adorable as a theatre actress, but her talent hasn’t translated too well to the tube. If Bunheads couldn’t figure out how to make the most of this shining star when she was playing a dancer… which she is… this one needed to work extra hard.

LizaandKelseyat work1.jpg

Younger follows the misadventures of a woman in her 40s posing as a woman in her 20s to facilitate her transition back to the workforce following stay-at-home-mom life and a painful divorce.

There’s nothing wrong with a premise that stretches belief. My opinion on asking your audience to take a leap with you in your pilot, when you’re simultaneously introducing new characters who they haven’t yet gotten to know, is this… Ask them to really suspend their disbelief — like with nanotube-reinforced spider silk — by having time travel or superpowers or whatnot. If that’s not your thing, just come up with a completely plausible premise and then ask us to forgive minor “yeah, right” moments once we’re invested (ala every police procedural ever). I mean, it’s television, so we’re not expecting everything to add up all the time, but we have to agree to take the leap. Ya know?

We meet Younger‘s protagonist, Liza, during what is probably the most unprofessional, if not illegal, job interview I’ve ever heard of. The two perky publishing company employees ask completely obnoxious questions and flat out tell Liza she’s too old. As someone closer to Liza’s age, I’m just as offended on behalf of the show’s assumption that all Millenial women are shallow and horrible.

Blah, blah, blah, Liza’s prospects look grow ever dim until her BFF in the city helps Liza undergo a makeover and buy new clothes. And, viola, she’s 24. Sutton Foster is gorgeous, but being gorgeous and looking twenty years younger than your age are not the same, nor should we want them to be. I presume some lesson will be forthcoming about just being yourself and embracing your age, but Cougar Town did it better…eventually.

The next job interview, post-makeover, isn’t any better. The new prospective boss grills Liza about what she’s being doing with her life. The scene, fortunately, gives Foster a chance to display her take-no-shit banter skills. But how  many renditions of the devil-lady boss can the universe contain? Supergirl at least remixes the trope a little, but Younger‘s version is just gratingly derivative.

More egregious is the way the show takes back-stabbing envy among women for granted. “She sees girls like us come in here with our fresh ovaries and our faces plump with elasticity and she wants to destroy us,” says Hillary Duff’s fresh-faced character. It’s like a study in how unprofessional and rude people can be.

Most of the humor, naturally, stems from Liza’s inability to connect with the younger generation’s ways, which in itself makes little sense. Has she been raising a family or living underground? She’s more clueless than Kimmy Schmidt. She doesn’t know Bombay is now Mumbai or how to tweet? She’s never heard of krav maga and thinks it’s okay to insult someone’s tattoos right to their face? These are not things you need a 9-to-5 job to be aware of. Hear that? That’s the sound of disbelief crashing like the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera. (See, that dated reference lets you know I’m Gen X.)

Liza has a daughter around the same age she’s pretending to be, and they’re presumably close, so one would expect Liza to have picked up a clue or two. It seems the show’s writers want us to feel that being in one’s 40s is practically geriatric. Okay, it’s a little funny that she changes her e-mail address from AOL to Gmail, but even that makes it seem like she’s closer to 60 than 40.

The Millenials don’t come off much better. A younger woman in the locker room wants to photograph Liza’s “bush” to put on Instagram, because it’s so heartstoppingly gross. And what person in her 20s says things like, “We’re only in our 20s once”? The line provides the perfect set-up for a hilariously droll Foster reaction… but it’s such a bad line.

As you can guess, I don’t exactly recommend the show, and I stuck through three episodes just to be sure. Like I said, I really wanted to like it. In this case, the pilot is a great indication of what you’re in for.

Jessica Jones

Fragility and toughness form the juxtaposed themes of the pilot of Jessica Jones, which debuted yesterday on Netflix. I know nothing of Jessica Jones from the comics, and I haven’t read any reviews of the show, so this is an unadulterated first impression.

JonesI couldn’t not think about the Veronica Mars pilot in the first few minutes. A female private detective spies on a tawdry hook-up as her voiceover provides exposition. We’re then transported to a hallway outside a dingy office where the textured glass proclaims the name of the business, Alias Investigations, not unlike the door to Mars Investigations. Then a client’s head comes through the glass and the similarity is, shall we say, shattered. (Doors are a recurring symbol, as well.) Continue reading

Punky Brewster: The child welfare system in three acts

Kids living with substitute parents were big on 80s TV. Television would have had us believe you could will your kids to your employer (Diff’rent Strokes), take in homeless teens (Growing Pains), force two guys you slept with to share custody of your kid (My Two Dads), or raise a robot as your daughter (Small Wonder), all without any legal intervention. I don’t know if the networks were just trying to be inclusive of less traditional families or catering to kids who wished they could trade theirs in.

PUNKY BREWSTER -- SEASON 1 -- Pictured: Soleil Moon Frye as Penelope 'Punky' Brewster -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

In this climate, Punky Brewster’s premise wasn’t hard to buy, but the show went above and beyond in attempting to be realistic. In making the pilot a three-parter, the network expressed their confidence in the audience’s willingness to stick with it, and the creators acknowledged the complexity of the subject matter. Don’t misunderstand; the show debuted with all the trappings of an 80s sit-com, including a whimsical montage, but it boldly adopted the tone of a “very special” episode right out of the gate. Continue reading

Other Space

It takes a lot to think of something new to do within science fiction, but that doesn’t mean the old tropes have been exhausted. Other Space owes influences to many of the shows on this list of the 50 Greatest Sci-Fi TV Shows, but manages to find a unique voice of its own. In fact, it proves you don’t need a big name star or even explosions to succeed — although the name Paul Feig probably doesn’t hurt — he created, directed and produced it.other_space

Opening titles tell us that a “multi-national corporate coalition” was formed in the mid-21s century to map the cosmos, and that we’ll be following the adventures of a ship that went missing in 2105. We’re then thrown into action on the bridge of a spaceship, which could be any spaceship on any show. People are frantically shouting for the captain to make a judgment call when he enters with a tray full of hotdogs to share. It’s a ham-handed joke, but tells us all we need to know about central character Stewart.(Karan Soni). Crew morale is his utmost priority and his aw-shucks need to be liked will always trump his professional obligations. And that’s okay, because he’s just passed this simulation (we knew it was a simulation) with flying colors. Continue reading

Selfie drones and other con TV memories

In July, the fall TV season seems a million years off. The networks are mainly reruns and there’s nary a pumpkin spice latte in sight. Returning from San Diego Comic-Con — or your other summertime con of choice — do you sometimes wonder how you can stand the wait for all the premieres that were teased or screened?

Having spent the past couple of weeks finally watching all the new fall shows, we can now talk about what they looked like without con goggles. Some lived up to the hype and some didn’t. But do you think your experience was colored by what you saw this summer?

I first saw part one Archer’s “Heart of Archness,” three-episode series at SDCC, and now it holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite episodes of that show. There’s one joke (about punching a shark in the friggin’ face) where I can almost hear the crowd in the Indigo Ballroom laugh every time. Continue reading

Scandal, and things of the week

The sum total of my knowledge about Scandal was this: The Limited has a clothing line named for it. So I’m reacting to this pilot unbiased. (Spoilers ahead.)

Olivia compares herself to the accused

Olivia compares herself to the accused

As any pilot of a procedural, this one has to introduce a season-long story arc while delivering a case/mystery/monster of the week. Things of the week are a tricky thing, and some shows put more weight on them than others. Some shows use the thing of the week only in support of the A plot, and it really doesn’t matter that much. For others, the main focus is on the thing of the week and little bits of series arc simply bookend the episode. (I have more to say on this subject with regard to iZombie, but I’ll get to that another day.) Continue reading


I had every intention of blogging about this right after watching it during preview night at San Diego Comic-Con. But then there was this whole con, you see, and parties and panels and the need for sleep. So if you’re interested in Blindspot, coming to NBC this fall, you’re probably already read or seen something about it. So I won’t recap the plot but rather just give some of my own impressions.blindspot-nbc-pilot

I went into the screening labeling it in my head “John Doe with a female lead.” I wish I could tell you that I was way off base. Not that John Doe was a bad show, it just doesn’t feel that original as a premise. Blindspot doesn’t hold back as much information in its pilot as the other, which makes it even less interesting but possibly more network-friendly. Continue reading


I was fully prepared to dislike this show, and I don’t even know why. It could simply be a bias against the CW, which typically caters to a demographic that is not me, or just a feeling that zombies have overstayed their welcome. But I didn’t expect to like Veronica Mars, either, which is from the same creators, and it turned out to be my favorite show, probably ever.izombie-pilot-episodeWithin the first few minutes of watching the pilot, a few associations were made or unmade… Liking this show will have no correlation to whether you like The Walking Dead or other, more traditional zombie fare. Ditto for police procedurals although that’s technically what it is. Your enjoyment of iZombie may, however, correlate with your enthusiasm for quirky, darkly humorous shows like Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Being Erica and, of course, Veronica Mars. Continue reading

Pilot-Finale Symmetry

This post contains SPOILERS for the series finales of Glee, How I Met Your Mother, Eureka, Friends, Chuck, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and Parks and Recreation.

glee-series-finaleA series finale can be an oddly polarizing event. When people have invested themselves in a group of characters for years, they develop strong opinions about how a story should turn out. That’s why, when there are too many surprises, people are either really excited or really pissed.

Some series, on the other hand, have completely uncontroversial outcomes. Ross and Rachel end up together. Clark Kent becomes Superman. Lorelai realizes she belongs with Luke. That’s all fine and usually leaves the audience feeling good. Others go purposefully crazy, almost like they want the audience relieved that it’s over. (I never watched Seinfeld, but have read several accounts that such was the case with the end of that show.)

Wherever characters wind up in their personal or professional lives, what makes a finale brilliant is what I call pilot-finale symmetry. By far, the best example I’ve ever seen of this device was in Syfy’s Eureka. I wasn’t a huge fan of that show; I had only ever seen the pilot and a handful of episodes in each season before watching the finale. But my mind was blown when Jack and Zoe are leaving Eureka for the last time and they drive past themselves driving in. That, my friends, is payoff. It doesn’t change the storyline of the characters, per se, but it shifts our whole understanding of the story.

Some finales execute a smaller scale pilot callback. Chuck (Chuck), though his spy skills have grown a hundred fold, disarms a bomb the same way he did in the pilot. Lorelai and Rory (Gilmore Girls) are last seen eating at the diner just as they were when we first met them. But when I talk about symmetry I’m taking about taking something we already know and deepening it. Glee did this really well, but more on that in a moment.

Many finales flash forward, as if to oblige the audience’s need to know that everything turns out okay. This can be fun, but I think it underestimates the viewer’s imagination. I’m loathe to admit it, but I found the recent farewell of Parks and Recreation disappointing. It bent over backwards to prove to us that everyone in Leslie’s circle had a happily-ever-after, squandering precious time that could have been used to just tell a story to its conclusion. There were a few brief flashes of the pilot, but they were used as set dressing, for cheap tears. Although the final season was an absolute hoot, the ending made the show’s swan song feel like a gimmick.

Glee tried to have it both ways. The second hour was the flash-forward-everything-turns-out-peachy variety. (Seriously, everybody ended up famous?) It was the first hour that was truly creative. Titled “2009,” it told the same story as the pilot, but with a fresh perspective, by filling in action that originally took place off-screen. It tapped into the originality that made that made people sit up and take notice when the show premiered — that made it groundbreaking and unexpected — but was eroded in a deluge of guest stars and themed episodes. We found out things we didn’t know about characters we’d just spent years getting to know, most notably Kurt. Kurt has always been the “star” of the show for me, his relationship with his dad being the most moving story. We knew that Kurt had suffered while isolated in the closet, but this showed us how much.

The finale also gave us a taste of an Everyone Meets Everyone episode. Such a device could have been stuffed in as filler anytime during the course of the series, but this gave the show bookends that allowed us to focus on the original set of core characters including, significantly, one who died along the way. The initial performance of “Don’t Stop Believin'” led by Finn and Rachel blended smoothly into the “new” action.

We needed a little more of course, considering that Cory Monteith, and not just his character, died tragically in 2013. In the finale’s second half, it was impossible not to tear up when the McKinley gang dedicated the auditorium to Finn. But then, did they even need to flash forward to do that? It would have been just as touching in the present (2015).

As a pilot enthusiast, I love a finale that knows its roots. So I could have stopped watching after the first hour and been perfectly satisfied.