Archive for March, 2012

Derailed: ‘Community’ run over by Subway

March 29, 2012

Joel McHale (Photo: NBC)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 29, 2012 — You’ve heard of a subway hijacking (at least in the movies)?  Well, in this case, the shoe’s on the other foot: Subway has hijacked “Community.”

Or maybe “hijacked” is too strong a word because this wasn’t exactly a hostile takeover.  It was a business deal, with NBC agreeing to give the omnipresent sandwich chain an omnipresence in tonight’s episode of the Joel McHale sitcom.

It’s one of the most grandiose “product-placement” arrangements ever staged.  This one is so long, and so sustained — establishing a presence, and a plotline, for Subway throughout the entire half-hour — that it actually goes way beyond categorization as a mere “product placement.”

If that’s all it was, maybe we’d see a student or two in the Greendale Community College cafeteria tucking into a couple of foot-longs.  But in this Subway hijacking, the sandwich chain opens a shop smack dab in the middle of the cafeteria.  And the “owner/manager” is a guy who legally changed his name to Subway.

That way, the sandwich shop’s name — already visible on a huge sign stretching across half the cafeteria — can be mentioned in practically every scene.  And when the Subway name isn’t being uttered, various characters are fondly fist-bumping each other and wryly reciting the two-word slogan for Subway, “Eat fresh.”

While Subway dominates the episode, two other corporations get on-air script mentions as well —  Bed Bath &  Beyond, and Brita, the water filter company.

On the latter “opportunity”: This one was probably inevitable because it plays on a character’s name, Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs.

Subway is emerging this season as a kind of champion of in-show advertising.  In January, three characters in “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS took a break from police work to have a lengthy conversation about the health benefits of Subway sandwiches.  This Subway scene stopped the episode in its tracks, though it’s reasonable to assume that CBS made a lot of money on it.

And a friend mentioned the other day that Subway also had an in-show presence on Tuesday night’s “Biggest Loser” on NBC (though this kind of sponsorship has long been a staple of unscripted shows — from “Project Runway” to “The Apprentice”).

But this Subway hijacking of “Community” is the most blatant such thing I’ve seen.

When these things arise, the question always is: So what’s wrong with it?

It really comes down to this: TV is already overrun by commercials that come in ever-greater quantities and with increased frequency these days.  With so many commercials to deal with already, do we really have to have them within the shows too?  I mean — really?

This episode of “Community” airs at 8 p.m. eastern, Thursday (March 29) on NBC.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Read Adam Buckman’s book: “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” … Read a sample on his Amazon book page HERE … Then order it today!

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‘Mad Men’ new-season shocker: It’s boring

March 20, 2012

‘Mad’ men (l-r): Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) (Photos: AMC)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 20, 2012 — Here’s a surprise about this Sunday’s season premiere of “Mad Men” that might spoil the show for you: It’s terrible.

Yes, I know — it’s a shocker.  It might even be the first time any critic anywhere has ever used the word “terrible” to describe “Mad Men,” but there it is.  Sorry.

I hate to spoil a viewing experience for anyone, especially for a show whose return (after more than 18 months away) seems so highly anticipated.  But I can’t help myself: For the first time in my own personal history with this show, stretching back to its glorious beginnings in summer 2007, I was bored stiff watching the two-hour premiere that AMC sent over for preview.

The DVD came with a “letter” from the show’s creator and executive producer, Matthew Weiner, who requested, politely, that critics who view the preview DVD please refrain from revealing various plot points and other developments that might spoil the experience for the show’s fans.  Well, Matt, your secrets are safe with me because nothing much happens in these two hours anyway.

I’ll tell you what happened to me when I was watching it, though:  Some time during a lengthy party sequence (yes, there’s a party in the show — I hope that revelation doesn’t spoil the “experience” for anyone), I realized that I couldn’t have been more bored, and have rarely been so bored, in the process of watching a TV show.  And since it was “Mad Men,” which once upon a time was one of the finest, most electrifying TV series ever produced, this surprising onset of extreme ennui came as a huge shock.

I was so disappointed in what happened to this show that I started contemplating some of the words I might eventually use to describe it in this blogpost.  And besides “terrible” and “boring,” another one came to mind that is even worse: “Disaster.”

Before continuing, here’s a caveat: By all means, watch the two-hour premiere (it starts at 9/8c on Sunday, March 25, on AMC).  And you are more than welcome to enjoy it too.  You just might love it.  But I have a feeling many will not.

And that’s where the word “disaster” comes in.  The last thing an arty TV series like this needs is to come back on the air after an 18-plus-month absence and then bore its core audience to death.  However, that outcome is a distinct possibility.

Why? Well, to delve fully into those reasons might involve revealing details and plot points that Matthew Weiner might not want divulged.  So I’ll try and work around them.

Generally speaking, the whole thing seemed listless, sloppy and predictable.

In the listless department, the aforementioned party is exhibit A.  At just about the time I looked at my watch for the first time ever in the viewing of “Mad Men,” I realized that this party had begun to resemble an old Dutch still-life, with the guests standing or sitting around doing nothing.  At such times, you rely on a literate series such as “Mad Men” to entertain you with dialogue.  That didn’t happen either in this scene or any other in the two-hour show.

The party took place at a new Manhattan apartment apparently purchased between seasons Four and Five by Don Draper (Jon Hamm).  And at this point in this blog post, I was tempted to reveal what happened with Don and his new love, Megan (Jessica Paré).  Remember her?  She was a secretary in the ad agency in Season Four.  As that season came to a close way back on Oct. 17, 2010, she and Don were in love and he asked her to marry him.  (Forgot about that?  That’s understandable since it was 18-1/4 months ago.)  In his letter to critics, Matthew Weiner asked that we not divulge what happened there.  And like the good sport I am, I humbly acquiesce.

Anyway, like so many of the settings in this marathon “Mad Men” fifth-season premiere, Don’s new digs look more like a stage set than a New York apartment.  And so does the office of the ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce.  It’s immaculate, like it’s a display at Ikea or one of those Design Within Reach stores, where they sell knockoffs of iconic mid-century furniture designs.  One thing it doesn’t look like: A Manhattan office where work is performed.

It doesn’t sound like one either.  If you watch the show, try and observe the sound made when people walk around — most notably in the SCDP offices.  Even petite Elisabeth Moss (who plays Peggy Olson) can be heard clomping around like she’s wearing army boots.  That’s because the floors give off a sound like they’re hollow, like a stage set, but not at all like the floors in a Manhattan office building.  They’re usually concrete.

Speaking of architecture, one character refers to an architectural feature in one of the SCDP offices as a “beam” when it is actually a column.  That’s sloppy writing.  Rule of thumb: Beams go across ceilings; columns are those things that go up and down.

And as far as this show’s predictability goes, that can be a problem when a series such as this — one that is about 95 percent character development and about 5 percent plot — has been around for four seasons and is starting its fifth.  We already know so much about the personalities of the principal characters — warts and all — that everything they do in this two-hour premiere seems old hat.

In his “letter” to critics, Matthew Weiner implored us not to divulge plot points that could ruin any surprises for those tuning in on Sunday to herald “Mad Men’s” return.  The thing is: The only surprise I experienced in the season premiere was my own disappointment.

Forgot all about “Mad Men”?  That’s understandable because it was last seen SO long ago.  Fortunately, my “Mad Men” archives contains all of my recaps from Season Four from way back in 2010 (plus a few other gems).  Read ’em all right HERE.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

Read Adam Buckman’s book: “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” … Read a sample on his Amazon book page HERE … Then order it today!

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‘Luck’ creator has uneven track record at HBO

March 18, 2012

Kevin Dunn in HBO’s “Luck” (Photo: HBO)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 18, 2012 — Is David Milch out of luck?

Well, HBO keeps going back to him, despite the pay-cable channel’s uneven track record with the critically acclaimed producer/writer of TV shows people either love or hate.

Milch’s latest creation, the HBO horse-racing series “Luck,” made television history last week when it was abruptly cancelled due to the deaths of three horses during the filming of the show.  The latest, an accident in which a horse fatally injured itself while being walked back to its stall (it was euthanized), happened last Tuesday.

A day later, HBO made the stunning announcement: Production on “Luck” was being shut down for good.

The show was in the midst of filming one of the early episodes in its second season, even as the first season was still underway.  “Luck,” airing Sunday nights at 9 on HBO, has its second-to-last episode on Sunday (March 18) and its final, first-season episode — now its last episode ever — the following weekend (March 25).  Only nine episodes were made for the first season, and HBO was so excited about the show (for, among other reasons, it had succeeded in luring Dustin Hoffman to star in his first TV show) that the cable channel renewed it for a second season almost immediately after the very first episode aired back in late January.

Now, that’s not going to happen as “Luck” goes into the history books as the first TV series ever cancelled due to the deaths of animals used in its production.

In the wake of this week’s cancellation announcement, two subjects to contemplate: (1) Will “Luck” be missed?  And (2) what of David Milch, the bard of Buffalo (the New York city where he was raised), for whom “Luck” was his fourth go-round with HBO (that we know of)?

First, on the merits of “Luck”: Like Milch’s other shows, this one was an acquired taste.  And according to at least one report we read the other day, “Luck” drew more than a million viewers for its premiere and then, eventually, the audience fell to about half that.  The story even suggested HBO was seeking an excuse to cancel “Luck,” and the unlucky horses provided the reason the channel needed to pull the plug.  That’s just conjecture, but my take is: That’s not a far-fetched scenario at all.

Why’d so many people abandon the show?  For the love/hate reason suggested above.  The thing people love about Milch’s shows, primarily, is the intriguing, highly literate dialogue he writes for his characters.  Lovers of great writing appreciate when his characters engage in his trademark verbal sparring, even when they go off on irrelevant tangents, such as last week’s out-of-left-field conversation in which two characters debated the details of the Three Stooges’ “Niagara Falls” comedy bit.

The unusual tone and tempo of the dialogue is also why millions get turned off by Milch.  For one thing, it’s not what they’re used to hearing on TV shows.  For another, his shows often suffer from an action deficit.  Often, you go entire episodes without much happening.  Instead, the hour is sucked up by dialogues that, yes, are very creative, but also stultifying.

That was the thing with “Luck”: The acting was great, for the most part  (Hoffman, Michael Gambon, Jason Gedrick, Joan Allen, Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy and all the rest), the horse-racing scenes were electrifying, and the cinematography was beautiful.  Still, not much happened.  And that’s a turn-off for many.  (Why include the phrase “for the most part” above?  Because the one cast member I didn’t care for was Nick Nolte, who played a gravel-voiced horse trainer.)

As for Milch, his track record with HBO is fascinating: First, there was “Deadwood,” everyone’s favorite Western series and the one that changed forever our perceptions of how the Old West should be portrayed from here on out.  Well, that series got cancelled suddenly before Milch had planned to end it, and fans howled in protest.  HBO promised some future “Deadwood” TV movies, but no one believed that, and indeed, they never happened.

Then there was Milch’s one-season series about a dysfunctional family of southern California surfers and their interactions with a godlike alien – “John From Cincinnati.”    For most people, that show was even less accessible than “Luck.”  (But again, like with all Milch shows, opinions vary widely.  I happened to love “John From Cincinnati” and consider it to be one of the finest TV shows ever produced.  Go figure.)

He then tried his hand at another cop show (he’d long been associated with “NYPD Blue” on ABC) called “Last of the Ninth” (referring to the Ninth Precinct of the NYPD).  He produced a pilot for HBO, but the network declined.  Then they said yes to “Luck” and that show bit the dust because of dead animals.

Will HBO take up any new business with Milch after all of this?  Well, it’s not his fault the horses died, but on this question, as with all Milch questions, there are two camps: Those who love him hope HBO will try again with him.  Those who can’t stand his shows won’t mourn the passing of “Luck.”

If you’ve been following “Luck” up to this point, I suggest you carry it through to the end, even though the March 25 finale does not serve as a series ender.  Truth is, you only really have to expend two more hours with this star-crossed show.  And then it’s good-bye and good luck to “Luck.”

“Luck” airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO (for two more weeks, alas).

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

In HBO’s ‘Game Change,’ Palin’s a blithering idiot

March 10, 2012

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change.” (Photo: HBO)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 10, 2012 — Let’s try and set the record straight on this HBO Sarah Palin movie called “Game Change,” which you’ve no doubt been reading about lately.

TV critics are hailing the movie, in which Julianne Moore plays Palin, in much the same way that they reacted to a previous HBO movie about another presidential campaign — the 2008 made-for-TV movie called “Recount” about the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000.  Both movies were written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach.  Then, as now, the critics are enthusiastic about “Game Change” and, in particular, Moore’s performance.

Of course, any TV movie that purports to portray Sarah Palin will come to TV laden with controversy.  And that rule of thumb certainly applies to “Game Change,” which premieres on HBO on Saturday night (March 10) at 9/8c.

As with any TV dramatization adapted from real events (or, as in this case, a non-fiction book about real events), your enjoyment of “Game Change” might depend on whether or not you accept its portrayal of Sarah Palin.  And this movie’s depiction of Palin is downright brutal.

It’s the Sarah Palin of summer and fall 2008, when she skyrocketed to instant fame as John McCain’s surprise pick to join his ticket as the Republican candidate for vice president.  The movie focuses primarily on three characters — McCain (played by Ed Harris), Palin, and McCain campaign advisor Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson with his usual intensity).

In the movie, which I watched the other day on a preview DVD provided by HBO, Harris puts his own usual intensity on hold to portray McCain as an F-word spewing candidate who seems to prefer that his staff do most of the heavy lifting in the management of his own presidential campaign.

Harris doesn’t really try for out-and-out mimickry in his portrayal of McCain, but that wasn’t the case with Moore.  She nails Palin in all the crucial areas — her voice, her body language, her hair, makeup and wardrobe.  Moore’s portrayal of Palin is the great performance of this movie, and the primary reason to watch it in the first place.  She’s almost certain to be nominated for an Emmy and she’ll probably win it.

Her transformation into Palin was so complete that I couldn’t help but think of Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”  That was a richer role, but the two challenges were essentially the same: How to become another person so completely that you forget about the actress.  Among many great moments in “Game Change,” one of our favorites was when Moore, costumed as Palin, watched Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” playing Palin.  It is a great moment in television.

Having said all that, the portrayal is savage.  This movie posits that Palin the candidate was an uneducated, inarticulate, head-strong egomaniac who knew next to nothing about history, geography, international relations or domestic affairs.  Moreover, according to the movie, when the pressures of running for national office mounted, she caved emotionally.  Basically, the movie depicts Palin as a blithering idiot who couldn’t take the heat.

Is the portrayal true?  Well, it is based on a book – “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin — and it’s the kind of book you assume is factual.

The book was about the Democratic and Republican campaigns that ended with Barack Obama’s victory — and all the people involved in the many dramas that took place that year.  And yet, the movie focuses only on the Palin/McCain drama.

“That book had several movies in it,” says executive producer Gary Goetzman in a video HBO produced to promote the movie.  “So we picked a piece of the book to make this movie.”   You can interpret that statement in any of two ways (or possibly more): (1) For the sake of producing a tightly focused two-hour telemovie, the producers had to pick one of the book’s many stories and restrict the movie to telling that tale, or (2) the producers have it in for Palin.  I suspect there’s more to item (1) than item (2) here, but just the same, both interpretations are probably valid.

Sarah Palin herself has said recently that she hasn’t seen the movie and doesn’t plan on watching it (though I expect she won’t be able to resist giving it at least a wee peek Saturday night, assuming she subscribes to HBO).

Love it or hate it, this movie is too fascinating to dismiss, or miss.

Remember when . . . Sarah Palin became a reality TV star on TLC?  I loved writing about “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” so much that I made 18 columns out of it.  Relive the experience HERE, with all 18 of those columns collected in one special place — only on TVHowl.com.

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com


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