“Frequency” is Time Travel Without the Travel

We’ve already talked about 2 new TV series based on movies in our reviews of Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist. This time we look at a somewhat lesser known 2000 film Frequency starring Dennis Quaid and its TV reboot on the CW network also called Frequency. In the film Quaid uses an old HAM radio and some strange atmospheric phenomena to be able to talk to his father 30 years in the past. His father was a New York City firefighter and Quaid was able to warn him of his impending death in a warehouse fire. He manages to save his father’s life but it changes the future in a way that leads to the murder of his mother. They spend the rest of the film working together to try to prevent that murder before it happens.

In this TV adaptation the main character is female. Payton List stars as NYPD detective Raimy Sullivan who also connects via an old HAM radio with her father Frank Sullivan who was also an NYPD detective 20 years ago. He was killed in the line of duty but was believed to be a dirty cop. In the opening episode they figure out that they are actually father and daughter communicating across time. As in the film version, she warns him of his impending death and it is prevented. Also as in the film there are disastrous unforeseen consequences of changing the past.

Peyton List has had a number of television roles including over 300 episodes of the daytime soap As the World Turns however I recognize her from her guest starring roles on The Flash as Lisa Snart/Golden Glider.

These two time periods 20 years apart remain fixed relative to one another by those exact 20 years. As events unfold in 2016, events unfold in 1996 in lockstep parallel fashion. You get some of the typical time travel clichés such as the ability to predict the events of a baseball game across time. But you also get a rather spooky way in which events in the past sort of magically manifest themselves in the present. For example Frank and his daughter are communicating using the same radio. When Frank lays his cigar on the radio it begins to scorch a burnt place in the wood cabinet. That burn mark appears and smolders 20 years later. He later uses a soldering iron to scratch a drawing of a flag on the cabinet and the daughter witnesses it appearing in real time “simultaneously” 20 years later.

All science fiction stories struggle with what I call “plot driven technology”. That means that the author sets up the rules of how the technology works in such a way that it helps the plot of the story telling move forward. This is the opposite of what I would like to see which is “technology driven plot” in which the author designed some sort of sci-fi technology be it time travel or spaceflight or whatever… and then the plot is driven by the circumstances and consequences of that technology. The premise behind Frequency does a reasonably good job of being technology driven plot which in my opinion is the way it ought to be.

Any time travel story wrestles with the problem of developing the rules as to how time travel works. Some time travel stories draw the drama out of asking the question “Can we change the past or the future?” Some stories take the approach that our fates are inevitable and no matter what we do, it is what was destined to happen anyway. Others wrestle with the idea of “Should we change the past or the future? Will there be unexpected consequences?”

Someone always asks “If we fail to change things, why can’t we just go back and do it over again. If we could travel anywhere in time why don’t we continually do things over until we get it right?” Some time travel stories explore that possibility and usually end up concluding that it is futile to do so. Typically the author cops out and artificially put the some sort of limitation. In Doctor Who there are so-called “fixed points in time” which cannot be changed. Another new time travel TV series called Timeless which we will review later have already reviewed here had something similar. They artificially impose the idea that once you have visited a past event from the future you could no longer revisit it. To do so would violate some made up mumbo-jumbo about disturbing the fabric of the space-time continuum especially if you meet yourself coming and going. Those are examples of plot driven technology where you manufacture the rules of time travel to avoid dealing with paradoxes and other storytelling impairments.

The premise behind Frequency cleverly avoids many of these issues. Because events in the past and present remain linked by a fixed length of time and events unfold in the two time periods in lockstep parallel fashion, there is no opportunity for a second do over. You get one chance to fix it and if you fail there is no further recourse. The limits on the technology seem to flow naturally out of the circumstances. We don’t need to know why the two time periods are linked. We don’t need some sort of technobabble explanation of why we can or cannot do certain things. While it is true that this particular model of time travel does serve our storytelling purposes, it doesn’t have the same artificial feel that you usually get when such rules of time travel are explained. To me this makes for a more intelligent and thoughtful storytelling premise than you often get in these situations.

Because time continues to flow unceasingly at both ends of the story, it allows for dramatic tension that you’re facing particular deadlines. If you don’t solve the problem in enough time, all is lost. Cutting back and forth between the two time periods adds to the drama. Overall it is a very well done and very satisfying experience for the audience.

I mentioned the other new time travel series Timeless which I will review in my next installment and while I will recommend it to hard science fiction fans, this one is a little bit more accessible to a wider audience. Is more of a typical action-adventure police procedural type of show was a little sci-fi thrown in on the side. The father daughter relationship is also compelling and adds an extra something to make the show even better. We want to feel for our characters and in this instance we really do. The show has a lot of heart.

I’m giving this one a rating of “I like it” and strongly recommend it unless you really hate sci-fi.

Exorcist Reboot Fails to Capture the Magic

In 1973 when “The Exorcist” was released to theaters, it created a huge sensation. People were shocked by the bizarre supernatural events depicted in the film. The mystery surrounding the whole idea of demonic possession and the church’s position on the topic added to the controversy. There were news reports that people had fainted while watching the movie which added to the hype surrounding it even though it was later revealed they were grossed out by a rather gory depiction of a medical procedure rather than anything supernatural. While the makeup effects and other special effects today would seem timid compared to modern horror films, they were state-of-the-art at the time and they added to people’s fascination with the film. The green vomit and the head spinning 360 degrees became iconic and have been offered parodied. It earned a best screenplay Oscar, best drama Golden Globe, and numerous other awards and nominations.

So now we come to the second of three new TV series based on classic movies. It’s hard to imagine that turning this classic horror film into a weekly TV series could generate even a fraction of the fascination of the original. So it’s no surprise when the new series on Fox titled “The Exorcist” would fall far short. Although the character names are different and the setting slightly different, the basic plot is the same. A family believes that their teenage daughter’s strange behavior is a result of demonic possession. They seek the help of a young priest who in turn recruits the assistance of an older priest who is an experienced exorcist.

Geena Davis does a decent job of portraying the mother at least as well as Ellen Burstyn did in the original film. The rest of the cast is mostly people you won’t recognize or at least I didn’t. After watching 2 episodes I am totally unimpressed with the whole thing. The biggest plot hole is there jump to conclusions that this is something supernatural. There is absolutely zero evidence of that until the final minutes of the opening episode. The mother somehow jumps to this demonic possession conclusion simply because her teenage daughter has been moody, reclusive, and there are strange noises coming from upstairs. Hell that’s called having a teenager. While many parents of teens may wonder what possesses their children, rarely do they take that word so literally.

I’m not sure how many episodes have been ordered for this series but IMDb.com shows at least six. I just don’t see how you can take a story that was easily told in a two-hour film can be stretched out over six or more TV episodes. While we have seen some supernatural manifestations exhibited so far, after two episodes we’ve only barely gotten into territory that could not be explained by psychological issues.

The subplots surrounding the older priest’s previous history fighting demons and the younger priest’s questionable yet platonic relationship with a woman don’t really do a lot to improve the story or give you much deeper insights into the characters. The girl’s father and sisters are simply window dressing to add nothing of substance to the story.

I had initially intended to say that the best part of this series was that it retained classic Exorcist theme song “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield however we only got a brief clip of it near the end of the first episode. It is not the opening theme song for the show and the song did not appear anywhere in the second episode.

If you have an unquenchable craving for a story about demonic possession and exorcisms that lives up to modern day envelope-pushing effects and storytelling then I went have to recommend the Cinemax series “Outcast” from Robert Kirkman who also created The Walking Dead. I’ve only seen one episode of Outcast and I may at some point do a review of it. My quick impression is that they are seeking to push the limits of what the audience will tolerate in the way of shocking story and visuals. While I can’t yet recommend it based on one episode, it is probably more worth your time than this movie reboot.

I’ve already wasted two hours looking for something watch worthy here and was unable to find it. I’m giving this one a rating of “skip it”. Unless you are a rampant Geena Davis fan who is desperate to see her on TV or you are possessed with an irresistible desire to watch a bad reboot of an old movie I suggest you skip it as well.

“Lethal Weapon” is a Satisfactory Reboot

In these reviews we’ve already lamented the fact that there’s nothing new under the sun with the reboot of MacGyver and a Kevin James sitcom that is essentially a reboot of his previous work. Many of the other new shows we’ve seen are extremely derivative of other shows. But there is also a trend towards turning hit movies or movie franchises into TV shows and there are three such offerings this season. We will look at each one in a separate review.

The first is “Lethal Weapon” based on the four comedy buddy cop movies of the same name starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as NYPD detectives. In its TV incarnation Glover’s character Roger Murtaugh is played by Damon Wayans. In both the film and TV versions he has a family man and is a pretty much “by-the-book” detective. In the film he was days away from retirement and waiting to just coast through his final days on the job. In the TV version Murtaugh is on his first day back on the job after having a heart attack. He has been told to return to work but keep stress to a minimum which of course will be difficult to do with his crazy new partner.

Mel Gibson’s character Martin Riggs is a nearly suicidal hyper risk-taking cop who acts insane most of the time but always gets the job done even if he does use extremely unorthodox methods. I don’t recall the back story on this character from the original film but in the TV version we meet him six months after the loss of his pregnant wife in an automobile accident. Still distraught over the loss he too is borderline suicidal. The TV version is played by Claryne Crawford who most recently appeared in the TV series Rectify but is mostly unfamiliar.

Wayans does an excellent job of re-creating the original character but Crawford not so much so. He is still unstable, constantly wisecracking, completely rogue, unconventional, and undisciplined. I guess for me Gibson has his own brand of insanity that cannot be re-created but the new character is good enough to make the entire thing work. After seeing only one episode the main thing that we miss is Joe Pesci as informant Leo Getz who joined the films in its second installment.

There is still plenty of action in the TV series with explosions, shootouts, and car chases as is the original films. On Riggs’ first day of the job he walks into a bank robbery hostage situation while pretending to be a pizza delivery guy. While in there he dares the robbers to shoot him. He ends up overpowering the robbers and saving all of the hostages. One of the bad guys that he killed has a bomb strapped to his chest. Riggs casually walks out of the bank eating a slice of pizza just seconds before the whole building blows up. It’s been years since I’ve seen the films but I seem to recall similar scenarios.

There isn’t a whole lot else to say about the show. It’s basically a satisfactory re-created of the original. Nearly as funny. Lots of action. Lots of fun all around. If you liked the original movies then I highly recommend you check this out. I’m rating it “I like it”.

“The Good Place” is Ridiculously Bad but Fun

Generally I don’t bother to review really bad stupid sitcoms but unfortunately “The Good Place” has somehow become a very guilty pleasure for me. I really didn’t want to watch another totally ridiculous show because I already am thoroughly hooked on “The Last Man on Earth” which is very decidedly stupid. But this particular new entry from NBC is ridiculous in new and different ways.

The show begins when Elinor Shelltrop is notified by a man named Michael that she has died. She wants to know is she in heaven or hell? Michael explains to her that the major religions of the world have totally missed understanding the afterlife. They only have about 10% of it right. But basically rather than traditional heaven or hell he describes the options as the Good Place or the Bad Place. He is pleased to tell her she’s in the Good Place.

Elinor is played by former Gossip Girl Kristen Bell and Michael her guide is played by Ted Danson.

Michael goes on to congratulate her for all the great things she did during her life that earned her a trip to the good place. He believes her to be a lawyer who got innocent people off of death row and did other international humanitarian work. The problem is he’s got it all wrong. She actually was a very unlikable person who made a living knowingly selling worthless supplements to sicken elderly people. She treated people terribly throughout her whole life and was basically a pain in the ass towards everyone she ever met. But she has to hide the mistake from him so that he won’t send her to the bad place.

The Good Place is divided up into tiny little neighborhoods of 400+ people all designed to provide them with a happy afterlife. Each person is also paired up with their soulmate. Her designated soulmate is a guy named Chidi who was an ethics professor from Senegal. She eventually confides in him that she doesn’t really belong there. Throughout the course of the show he tries to teach her how to be a good person.

Michael is not only the guide through this journey, he was responsible for designing the neighborhood and seeing to it that everyone has a happy afterlife. This is his first neighborhood he was allowed to decide after spending centuries as an apprentice angel or whenever his job title is. However the design is always in a very delicate balance and if anything is out of place the entire infrastructure falls apart. Bizarre things began happening in the neighborhood and they are all tied to the fact that Eleanor doesn’t belong there. We later there’s at least one other person in the neighborhood who has been put there by mistake.

The entire show is ridiculous, over-the-top, juvenile humor. For example you’re not allowed to swear so every time you try to say something nasty, different words come out of your mouth. For example F bombs get translated into the word “fork”. I thought that joke was going to get very tiresome very quickly but somehow every time someone shouts something like “What the fork is going on around here?” I still snicker.

The neighborhood is populated with lots of other goofy characters that I won’t bother to describe. Let’s just say it’s a very rich tapestry for silly humor.

If my DVR starts to fill up it’s going to be the first row that I delete. But for some bizarre reason it tickles my funny bone and I continue to watch it. I can’t really recommend it unless you’re looking for a mindless diversion. I’m rating it a very weak “I’m watching it”.

“Conviction” is Best New Legal Drama but That’s a Very Low Standard

ABC continues to expand its collection of primetime soap operas this time combining one of them with a procedural police/legal drama. The show is called “Conviction” which appears to be a little bit of a play on words. It is about a small team of lawyers and investigators in the New York City DAs office that reviews old cases to see if people were wrongly convicted. One might think it would be called “Wrongly Convicted” or something similar but I think the pun is that this really is about the characters conviction for various reasons to do this particular job. Each of them seems to have a somewhat hidden motivation for going on this crusade and it is not necessarily because they want to see justice done.

Hayley Atwell who you will most recently remember as Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel’s Agent Carter this time plays activist and lawyer Hayes Morrison. She is the daughter of a former president and a bit of a socialite. The New York prosecutor who is often her adversary makes a deal with her to sweep under the rug the fact that she was found to be in possession of cocaine. In exchange for the deal she agrees to head up his “Conviction Integrity Unit” which will re-examine old cases which show some signs that a person was wrongly convicted. They make a big deal about the fact that this is not be “Innocence Project” and their goal is not to advocate on the behalf of convicted criminals. If anything it’s a bit of a publicity stunt to ward off criticism of the prosecutor’s office. Morrison therefore is a reluctant participant in the entire project who initially only wants to see herself as a public figurehead. She knows she was tricked into this job because of her notoriety as the former First Daughter. While it’s great to see Hayley Atwell back on TV so quickly, if you’re looking forward to her charming British accent you will be disappointed because she does a great job of covering it and sounding All-American in this show.

She is surrounded by a small team of people to help her re-examine these cases. Sam Spencer previously worked as a prosecutor in the city’s gang unit. He was supposed to be the head of this new unit until Morrison was recruited as the new leader. He is played by Shawn Ashmore whom you will recognize as playing Iceman Bobby Drake in the X-Men movies. You may also recognize him from his sci-fi series Killjoys, Warehouse 13, and playing the young Jimmy Olsen in Smallville however you would be wrong. Although he was Bobby Drake, those other three roles were played by his twin brother Aaron Ashmore. Until I wrote this article I never knew they were two different people.

Also of the team is Maxine Bohen a former NYPD detective played by Merrin Dungey who has been most recently seen as Ursula on Once upon a Time. There is Frankie Cruz is the units forensics expert and ex-con who had a romantic relationship with his former cellmate. He is played by Manny Montana who you have most recently seen in USA Network’s Graceland. Finally is Tess Larson who is a paralegal and alumni of the Innocence Project. She has first-hand experience with wrongful convictions because as a child her faulty eyewitness testimony set an innocent man to jail. She is played by Emily Kinney who is most famous for her role as Beth on The Walking Dead.

The show itself is what you would expect from a legal drama covering this topic. It’s your basic legal/police procedural in which the case goes back and forth where you yourself are not certain whether the person is really guilty or not. It leans a little bit more towards your typical ABC primetime soap opera with lots of beautiful people in powerful positions throwing their weight around and having affairs with one another.

Most of these types of shows increase their drama by some sort of deadline before the client gets the electric chair or something like that. Because not all of these are capital cases, the deadline gimmick comes from their charter which says that they can only spend five days on each case that they examine. While the show is nothing extraordinary, I can’t really complain about it. My favorite legal show in recent years The Good Wife wrapped up last season. The only other new legal show Bull is not as bad as my original review would suggest but it still isn’t great. While Conviction is not up to Good Wife standards it will do for now to fill my fandom of legal dramas and I would recommend it over Bull. For now I’m giving it an “I’m watching it” rating.

“No Tomorrow” is the Lighter Side of the Apocalypse

I recently reviewed a number of zombie/vampire apocalypse TV shows but there is one more semi-apocalyptic show that’s new to television this season. CW network as a lighthearted one hour romantic comedy called “No Tomorrow“. While there are no zombies or vampires were big special-effects or blood or gore it does loosely deal with the end of the world.

It stars Tori Anderson as Evie was a rather timid woman with a boring job in a warehouse/distribution center who falls in love with Xavier played by Joshua Sasse who is a free-spirited risk taker who has concluded that the world is going to end in eight months because of an approaching asteroid. He spends his days spending money that he doesn’t have and during various adventuresome things on his bucket list which he calls his apocalist. I don’t recognize Anderson from other programs but Sasse recently played the title role in the comedy musical series Galavant.

Is a typical romantic comedy where boy meets girl, they have an instant attraction, a bit of awkward stalking by both parties until they finally hook up with each other. She has another boyfriend who ends up proposing to her but she can’t make up her mind between the boring boyfriend and the exciting devil-may-care adventurer.

It is an interesting premise for a romantic comedy and it does provide some reflection for anyone who regrets the road not taken. It’s not totally ridiculous but don’t expect much of any substance. Given that CW network’s demographic is young adult I’m predicting it will probably do well. The acting is adequate as is the writing. If you’re looking for a pleasant diversion I suppose it’s okay but for my part I am rating it “skip it”.

New SyFy Channel Offerings Join Crowded Zombie Apocalypse Genre

SyFy Channel is trying way too hard to cash in on the zombie apocalypse craze with two new series “Van Helsing” and “Aftermath“. Given the massive success of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and its spinoff series “Fear the Walking Dead” we can understand why people want to try to replicate that success.

FX network has succeeded with “The Strain” currently in its third season. It describes its creatures as “strigoi” rather than zombies and they drink blood sort of like a vampire rather than eat your brains like a zombie. But let’s face it they are still zombielike creatures who convert you into one of them with a bite and they are bent on overtaking the world. It has an excellent mix of compelling stories, interesting characters, lots of gore, and state-of-the-art special effects.

SyFy Channel has already had some success with “Z Nation” currently in the third season. It has more traditional brain-eating zombies but plays everything as a comedy. Also CW network takes the comedy approach with “iZombie” which will start its third season in the midseason sometime in 2017. In this show the zombies are fully functional people living “normal” lives except for the fact that they have to eat brains to live. Their main character works in city morgue where she has a good supply of brains for food so she doesn’t have to kill. The innovation in this one is that when she eats someone’s brains, she begins to take on the personality of the dead person and has flashes of their memories. She uses that capability to solve the murders of the people whose brains she consumes.

But really we’re here to talk about the two new series on SyFy Channel. First “Van Helsing” which starts deep into a vampire apocalypse. The main character is Vanessa Van Helsing who is a descendent of the famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. She is played by Kelly Overton whom you may recognize from True Blood or Legends. She wakes up in the hospital to discover the world has been taken over by zombielike vampires. It’s a wonder that Robert Kirkman creator of The Walking Dead doesn’t sue because it’s exactly how his story opens with the protagonist waking up in a hospital to discover a zombie apocalypse.

Technically the creatures in the show are described as vampires but as I alluded to earlier these are bloodsucking zombies as opposed to brain eating zombies. They are not your sexy vampires like True Blood or Twilight. Most of them are mindless creatures spreading a plague that has destroyed civilization. However there are some of the vampires in this series who are sentient beings that retain control of themselves.

The back story is that the vampires have been living among us in secret for centuries but there is a major volcanic eruption in the Western United States that rains down ash everywhere. With the sky permanently darkened by the volcanic clouds, the vampires see an opportunity to come out of hiding and take over the world. When they bite you, you almost instantly turn into a mindless vampire. The other gimmick in this version is that Van Helsing has the ability to heal herself magically along the lines of Wolverine from X-Men. She is not only immune to the disease of the vampires who bite her, her blood can also turn them back into normal human beings. Of course there are limits to her healing ability. Otherwise she could just go out and walk the streets to let the vampires bite all they want and she would convert them back into humans.

As I mentioned before, the show starts with her in a coma in a hospital. She has been there for three years while the apocalypse has ensued. When she awakens in the hospital she is being guarded by a couple of Marines who had been told to guard her as she lies there in a coma. They have only been told that she is special and needs to be guarded at all costs. Her only desire is to go out into the world and find her daughter despite the fact that they have tried to tell her that the daughter is likely dead along with most of the rest of civilization.

There are numerous flashbacks to the pre-apocalypse. In fact the entire second episode is almost entirely flashback to the events that put her where she is when the show opened. You won’t find the gore like shows like The Walking Dead. There’s lots of machine-gun fire to kill zombies. Most of it takes place in extremely dark settings which of course saves on special effects and detailed makeups because much of the time you can’t really see what’s going on anyway. The story is not especially compelling or dramatic.

Although I have watched three episodes I’m not sure that it’s going to stay on my menu of shows to watch. In a crowded genre there isn’t much to stand out in this particular show.

The other offering from SyFy Channel that is new this season is Aftermath. Similar to Feel the Walking Dead, it follows the adventures of one particular family in the early days of the apocalypse so it is unoriginal in that respect. The biggest problem is it cannot decide what kind of a show it is. Early in the opening episode you think it’s going to be a more scientific end-of-the-world type of show. There are unusual numbers of earthquakes and mega storms scouring the earth. There are meteor showers and solar flares which are hinted to be the possible cause of all the strange occurrences. The show is set in the Pacific Northwest and begins with a mega storm. The storm brings about strange occurrences such as tons of fish, snakes, and other bizarre debris falling from the sky resembling a biblical plague. It is explained as being debris picked up by the storm.

If the show it continued in that vein, it might’ve been pretty interesting. But for some reason they decided to mix this traditional hard science apocalypse by also introducing some sort of contagious plague that causes people to act in bizarre and violent ways. Again if they had only added this one additional element to the story it might’ve been a good show. But they had to take it one step further.

The show also introduces a supernatural element. Some sort of ghostlike creatures are possessing people and causing them to do supernatural things. For example the daughter of the family gets dragged out of the house by a person who then flies up into the air and drags her off into the sky. The family goes chasing after her expecting to find her alive beyond all reason. In the next scene she is lying unconscious on the ground along with the man who flew off with her. The spirit which had possessed him and given him the supernatural ability had left his body and he was as clueless as she was asked to what actually had occurred. There is speculation that these supernatural creatures are manifestations of an ancient Native American legend called Skin-Walkers who rise from the underworld to possess the living.

In spite of all of these flaws and mixed messages, the show looks like it has potential. It would definitely be a much better show if it could make up its mind what kind of show it was. Is it a physical science end-of-the-world scenario with solar flares, meteors, earthquakes and storms? Is it a plague driven semi zombie apocalypse? Is it a show about supernatural possession? It tries to be all three and it is a distraction to the rest of the story telling. I’m hopeful that as the show progresses, the schizophrenic genre approach becomes less of a distraction and we can begin to appreciate the basic storytelling and characters. I have more hope that this will eventually be a watchable program than is Van Helsing.

Ultimately though we have to wonder that in a crowded field of zombies, vampires, and other apocalyptic stories if there is any room at all for either of the shows. For now I’m reading both of these as “could be watchable” with Van Helsing at the lower end of that scale and Aftermath at the upper end.

Kevin can Wait is King of Queens 2.0

Kevin James is back on television after taking time off to appear in several films after his former series King of Queens wrapped up in 2007. If you’re looking for a change of pace from his former character Doug Heffernan you will be disappointed. His new character Kevin Gable is pretty much indistinguishable from every other character you have ever seen him play.

Rather than a delivery truck driver he now plays a retired police officer. Again he has a hot looking wife who is clearly out of his league but that’s pretty typical for sitcoms. He has kids this time which he did not have in King of Queens. In place of his goofy father-in-law who lived in the basement which was played by Jerry Stiller the over-the-top comedy this time comes from his daughter’s boyfriend who rents a room in the garage. A recurring character of his brother is played by Gary Valentine who happen to be Kevin James’ brother in real life. Valentine also played his cousin on King of Queens.

There really isn’t much to say about the show. If you liked King of Queens you will probably like this show and if you didn’t like it you will not like the new one. For the time being it’s rated “I’m watching it”.

Designated Survivor is Designated Viewing

First a disclaimer… I will watch absolutely anything starring Kiefer Sutherland. I even liked him in Melancholia which was a terrible movie. So my review of his new dramatic thriller Designated Survivor is naturally going to be biased. The title comes from the fact that whenever the president, vice president, cabinet, and Congress gathered together for the State of the Union Address, they always designate a low-level cabinet member to go to an alternate location in case of some disaster that would wipe out everyone. That way there would be a continuity of government because the Constitution says that after vice president and Speaker of the House the line of succession falls to individual cabinet members in a particular order.

Kiefer Sutherland plays the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman who is appointed just such a designated survivor. Earlier in the day the president tells him that he has been “promoted” to an ambassadorship which is basically saying that you’re fired from the cabinet. But before that promotion/demotion is official, there is a terrorist attack on the capital building leaving Kirkman as the sole survivor of the administration and by default becomes the president.

Although Kirkman is much more mild-mannered than Sutherland’s more famous character Jack Bauer from “24“, you cannot look at the man and not say to yourself “Wow… Jack is back. And he’s in the Oval Office as president!” It’s sort of reminiscent of the series of Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy in which CIA agent Jack Ryan eventually becomes president in a backdoor kind of manner.

Kirkman is a family man. His wife is played by Natascha McElhone whom you may recognize for playing the wife of David Duchovny on Californication. He has a teenage son and a younger daughter who are whisked away into the White House and struggled to adapt to the new surroundings.

Other characters include a speechwriter played by Kal Penn and an FBI agent played by Maggie Q. Most of the people of the government don’t believe Kirkman is qualified to be president and he himself is uncertain of his role but determined to prove himself.

The show is portrayed reasonably believably. There is one scene in the opening episode where Kirkman wanders out to the White House portico to collect his thoughts shortly after the attack. There is no way the Secret Service will allow him in the open like that even within the secure confines of the White House. Especially just a few hours after a terrorist attack. He would either be locked in the underground bunker or in the air in Air Force One escaping the capital for security purposes.

There really isn’t a lot more to say about the show except that it’s very engaging and well done. I highly recommend it especially if you are a Kiefer Sutherland fanatic. I’m going to rate it “must-see” but keep in mind my bias.

Speechless Hits Close to Home

There is a new sitcom on ABC that tells the story of a high school student in a wheelchair. His mother goes to extreme measures to get him out of a special education program and into the regular high school. She’s constantly arguing with school officials and anyone else who will listen as she complains about the inadequacies of the handicap accessibility features. For some bizarre reason this show is not titled “The Fran Young Story”. After watching 2 episodes of the show I commented to my dad “a lot of this strikes very close to home.” His reply was “I don’t need to watch the show… I lived it”

The name of the show is “Speechless” because the young man named JJ has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak. He rides around in a power wheelchair and he communicates by pointing at a message board using a laser pointer strapped to the side of his head. Someone then looks at the board and follows the pointer as he either points to common words or spells out words. As is the case with most TV shows and movies featuring someone using an alternative communication device, they do not burden the audience with the tediousness of such forms of communication. It shows the young man pointing at the screen moving his head back and forth for a few seconds and then someone who is supposedly interpreting for him spits out an entire sentence faster than anyone could have possibly typed it out. We’ve seen the same thing in numerous movies about physicist Stephen Hawking whose voice synthesizer is controlled by a single pushbutton and other TV shows where characters have used extremely slow methods of communication.

The crusading mother is played by Minnie Driver. For some reason I’ve never cared for her as an actress. She seems to have annoying mannerisms in every part I’ve ever seen her play. In this particular story she’s supposed to be an annoying person and she does a reasonably good job of it. I can watch the show without thinking about how much I personally dislike her. As a character herself she does not remind me of my mother at all. But her dogged insistence that everything be perfect regarding accessibility and the extremes to which she takes her arguments is what reminds me most about my mother. Of course this is very much a comedy and she plays a part that most people would describe as “over-the-top”. If you had ever seen my mother in her “mother tiger defending her cubs” mode you would realize her performance was not as over-the-top as you might think it was. My mother could crusade on my behalf as ridiculously as this character does.

The reaction of JJ and the other members of the family where they sort of roll their eyes as if to say “oh no… there she goes again” is extremely familiar to me and dad and although I’ve not discussed the show at my sisters I’m sure they would see the same things we are.

The stereotypical condescending ways in which other people treat JJ are a bit exaggerated caricatures of the people I have encountered. I admit that some people I’ve met were very nearly as ridiculous as what is depicted in the show. As I said it’s all played for laughs in an exaggerated way. But it would only need to be toned down a tiny bit to make it really realistic.

One of the plots of the first two episodes is the struggle to find an attendant to help JJ with his daily living activities as well as speaking for him by reading the communications board to which he points. Those of you who know me know that I’ve been in a several month long struggle to get a home health aide so the portrayal of the difficulty of finding the right person is spot on. And when he finally does find an aide, his relationship with that man is very well portrayed.

The opening episode shows that the family has moved to a new house in order to get into a different neighborhood so that JJ can attend a regular high school instead of special education. That part of the story will strike home more closely to my uncle, aunt, and cousin. When my cousin Nancy was young there was no special education program in Lawrence Township so they had to sell their house and move into the Indianapolis city limits so that she could attend a special education school where I attended. Then both my cousin and I later made special arrangements to get out of the special education school and to get mainstreamed into regular education. Fortunately my family never had to move and she did not have to move again in order to get out of special ed and into a mainstream regular education program like they did in the show.

There haven’t been very many shows that dealt with disabled characters as main characters. In 2014 there was a short-lived sitcom called Growing Up Fisher starring J.K. Simmons as a blind father of three kids . I never watched it and don’t know much about being blind. My favorite show that dealt with the issues most realistically with a dramatic series Joan of Arcadia in which the main character Joan would get messages from God. She had a paraplegic brother so in that case he wasn’t the strangest character in the family. There were dramatic moments of that show that I thought built very realistic with the family issues surrounding someone with a disability. Walter White and Breaking Bad had a son with cerebral palsy but he was a relatively minor character.

JJ is played by actor Micah Fowler who himself does have cerebral palsy although my speculation that he is not so severe that he is unable to speak. I’ve known people with cerebral palsy who were for the most part speechless and they were much more severely spastic that JJ.

The father in this family comedy is played by John Ross Bowie who you will recognize from his recurring character Barry Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. I think it’s ironic that his character on Big Bang Theory speaks with a lisp but he’s on a show now named “Speechless” about a kid who can’t talk at all. There’s no sign of a speech impediment in the character on the new show. In fact it’s a little bit strange to hear him speaking plainly when we’ve gotten so used to him playing Barry.

There are two other kids in the family a son and a daughter. Part of the show is their reaction to their mother’s antics and it does touch a bit on the fact that JJ gets much of the attention of the parents. However there is some balance between the characters. Some of the plots deal with the everyday issues that the other children in the family deal with that are not related to having a brother with a disability. So overall it’s a general family comedy that doesn’t constantly deal with the disabled kid.

My criteria for any sitcom is always “Did it make me laugh?” and this one definitely did. I’m giving this one a rating of “I like it”. And if you’re looking for a new sitcom that is admittedly a little bit goofy, check this one out. I’m pleased to hear that ABC has ordered a full season of 22 episodes.