Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
New television rests for no one. The new year may be just beginning but the wheel keeps spinning and spitting out new shows. The first few weeks of January will see the return of “The X-Files” on FOX, the premiere of Lena Waithe’s “The Chi” on Showtime, and the debut of Ryan Murphy’s highly anticipated second installment of “American Crime Story,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” on FX. While those three programs are garnering increasing (and mostly positive) buzz, they’re not actually the first two new shows out of the gate. The “FIRST!” title this year belongs to a pair of FOX offerings, a comedy called “LA to Vegas” on January 2nd and a drama called “9-1-1” the next night. Both programs hint at a network struggling with its identity, unsure of what to offer viewers in the modern, overcrowded era. Both shows feel like throwbacks, although one comes much closer to connecting with the legacy of television it recalls while the other indicates just how far we’ve improved.
You should know that I’m often an advocate for the old-fashioned sitcom, praising how deftly Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” updates Norman Lear’s progressive comedies from the ‘70s and even remarking on the comic timing of the cast of “Will & Grace.” I haven’t missed an episode of “Superstore,” and am increasingly convinced that “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is the most underrated laugher on television. So, the right ensemble, the right timing, and the right writers can make a classic concept work. I mention all of this so you don’t think I’m being overly pretentious when I say I don’t think I’ll see a worse new comedy in 2017 than FOX’s “LA to Vegas,” a strikingly unfunny piece of television that produced not a single laugh for me in its 22-minute premiere. The pacing is atrocious—you can practically see the jokes hitting the floor—and it dawned on me that this may be a concept that co-creator Steven Levitan had sitting around from his “Just Shoot Me” days, when a laugh track could tell viewers when they were supposed to chuckle. I had no idea half the time here.
I think the lead of “LA to Vegas” is the harried flight attendant Ronnie (Kim Matula), who hates the titular route she’s forced to run every week. She wants a cross-country route and applies for a new job at Delta, only to learn that her dreams won’t come true and she’s stuck with the eccentrics taking the state-hopper to the city of sin every weekend. This includes regular gambler Artem (Peter Stormare), Ronnie's co-attendant Bernard (Nathan Lee Graham), stripper Nichole (Olivia Macklin), love interest Colin (Ed Weeks), and wannabe playboy pilot Captain Dave (Dylan McDermott). In the premiere, Nichole tries to convince a young lady going to get married in Vegas that she should be a stripper instead, Dave struts up and down the aisle looking for attention, and Ronnie basically spirals when she learns she’s stuck with these lunatics. It’s wildly broad and unrealistic—which isn’t a dealbreaker if it’s funny—but it also contains not a single likable or funny character. Worst of all is the timing. Comedy has always and will always come down to pacing and rhythm, and it’s just off here in every conceivable way. I watched the premiere with such a stunned look on my face that it would have been funnier if FOX just recorded me and aired that instead.
Much more successful is the star-driven “9-1-1” from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the men behind the “American Horror Story” franchise. Here, they’ve turned their eye to the classic “heroic workplace” drama—think “ER,” or the Windy City shows like “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Fire,” in more recent years. The show is headlined by a trio of excellent actors in Connie Britton, Peter Krause and Angela Bassett, and they all do a great deal of heavy lifting in the premiere episode—the only one sent for press—especially when it comes to the more melodramatic and overwritten aspects of their personal lives. This show hums when focused on the incidents and accidents that force people to call for help but falters when it then tries to take us into the personal lives of the responders.
Britton plays the operator who does her best every day to connect those in need with those who can help them, but she struggles with a sick mother at home. Bassett is the cop and Krause the head firefighter. It’s an interesting and ambitious dynamic to basically separate the lead trio of the show, allowing them to intertwine on major events like the home invasion that ends the premiere, but also forcing them to spend most of the show apart. Of course, with Murphy’s name involved, you know none of the 911 calls are going to be of your typical “cat up a tree” variety. The premiere is packed with 911 oddities like the man who thinks he hears a baby in his wall, the snake owner who almost gets choked by her pet, and the child who’s home when her house gets robbed.
For the most part, “9-1-1” works. When we go home with Krause, Britton or Bassett, it stumbles—Bassett’s husband has a coming-out scene that’s embarrassingly written and directed. And even some of the calls start to feel manipulative—I cringe when any show ends with a “kid in jeopardy” plotline as it often feels like cheap writing, even if it is well-directed here. What will likely keep people engaged with “9-1-1” is the talent of the trio of actors at the center (and the supporting cast of new faces seems well-assembled too). Will people fall for these heroes the same way they have “Chicago Fire”? Only time will tell, but FOX sure hopes their first offerings of the year will still be on when it ends.
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