Will Arnett and Margo Martindale (dancing center)
Three fairly high-profile network series premiere tonight, two on NBC, one on CBS. All three have some amazing actors in their casts, and all three are criminally let down by their writers.
My hopes probably are highest for The Millers, premiering tonight on CBS in the coveted time slot following The Big Bang Theory, partly because this new comedy, which is filmed in front of a studio audience, is the brainchild of Greg Garcia, who recently has given us such winning shows as My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope.
The Millers is far more old-fashioned than either of those two quirky hits, though. Emmy winners Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale star as Tom and Carol Miller, a long-married and eternally bickering couple who decide to move in with their daughter, Debbie (Jayma Mays, Glee) after Tom inadvertently floods their basement. Again. Hardly have they arrived, however, before long-simmering resentments reach the boiling point and Tom and Carol decide to end their 43-year marriage, with her moving into the upscale home of their son, Nathan (Will Arnett), who’s currently working as a roving correspondent for a local TV station.
What Nathan, the golden boy of the family, hasn’t told his parents is that he and his wife (Eliza Coupe of Happy Endings in a recurring role) divorced three months ago. Carol initially is horrified by the news, but soon starts trying to resume her long-ago role as the most important woman in Nathan’s life, which means ignoring boundaries at every turn (she clips Nathan’s toenails while he’s asleep and discusses her and Tom’s sex life with upsetting explicitness).
This isn’t a bad set-up for a sitcom, but in tonight’s premiere episode, the jokes are mainly broad and fairly vulgar. Martindale has been on a career hot streak lately, recently scoring another Emmy nomination for her striking guest role in the FX thriller The Americans, but here she is reduced to an extended string of jokes about her character’s tendency to pass gas on a regular basis. Bridges’ role is even more one-note: See Tom fumbling with the coffee maker and microwave and appear perpetually confused by the household’s remote controls! Ha!
Garcia is a funny, funny man who writes brilliantly about dysfunctional families, so I’m hopeful he’s going to give his strong cast the kind of material they deserve in future episodes. Fingers crossed.
The same thing goes for Sean Saves the World, Emmy winner Sean Hayes’ new NBC sitcom premiering tonight opposite CBS’s Robin Williams comedy The Crazy Ones, last week’s top-rated comedy premiere. Like The Millers, Sean Saves the World is filmed in front of a studio audience and has a strong cast, including sitcom veteran Linda Laviin (Alice) and Smash survivor Megan Hilty, as well as Reno 911! madman Thomas Lennon. Tonight’s premiere, however, feels tired and old-fashioned (Hayes also is an executive producer on the decidedly old-fashioned but frisky Hot in Cleveland).
In his new show, Hayes stars as a divorced gay dad who recently assumed fulltime custody of his teenage daughter, Ellie (Samantha Isler). Now that Sean’s former wife no longer is in the picture, his formidable mother, Lorna (Lavin), is trying to swoop in and fill the maternal vacancy, to the pronounced displeasure of Sean’s best friend, Liz (Hilty). Sean’s attempts to be the perfect dad, though, are compromised by his demanding new boss (Lennon), a smothering, hands-on type who wants his staff to have as little of a social life as he does.
The comedy pros in the cast make quite a few of the tired jokes in tonight’s premiere sound, if not fresh, at least less wilted, but it’s discouraging to see such a heavy reliance on uninspired slapstick in the very first episode. I like the show’s main quartet enough that I’ll be sticking around for awhile, but this cast deserves much better. That said, I do think my many colleagues who have put Sean Saves the World on their lists of the fall’s worst shows are going a little far. Sean won’t even save NBC, let alone the world, but it’s not a crime against nature.
Nor is tonight’s other NBC premiere, Welcome to the Family, although it’s far and away the worst of the three. The lone single-camera (no laugh track) series among this trio, this sitcom stars the usually endearing Mike O’Malley (Glee) and, especially, Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) as Dr. Dan and Caroline Yoder, who are enthusiastically looking forward to their imminent empty nest situation now that beautiful but dim daughter Molly (Ella Rae Peck) has defied all expectations and actually graduated from high school.
Plans to ship Molly off to a party school are derailed, however, when the Yoders discover that Molly is pregnant by a boyfriend they didn’t even know existed: Junior Hernandez (Joey Haro), a Stanford-bound Mathlete and class valedictorian. The pregnancy horrifies his proud father, Miguel (Ricardo Chavira, Desperate Housewives), especially after Miguel discovers that Molly’s dad is the jerk he clashed with that same morning at Miguel’s gym (in a contrived argument that’s only there so these two characters can hold a grudge against each other). Junior’s mom, Lisette (Justina Machado, Six Feet Under), like Caroline, tries to act as peacemaker in this volatile situation.
Anyone who has been watching TV for awhile will recognize the exhausted premise for this show, which stretches all the way back to the 1967-70 sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie, which was based in turn on a 1920s play called Abie’s Irish Rose. I wish I could report that Welcome to the Family reinvents that heavily diluted formula, but sadly, that’s not the case: The show just kind of plods along on its thrice-familiar path, dutifully ticking off scenes that we’ve seen so many times before. Even a fade-out “surprise” for Caroline at the end of tonight’s episode is something you’ll probably see coming a mile off.
I really want O’Malley and McCormack to figure out a way to turn this seemingly ill-fated vehicle around, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. Unless the writers can come up with some fresh ideas and jokes, this Family won’t be overstaying its welcome.
I have to confess up front that I am a latecomer to what I’ll call Nouvelle Cinemax, the programming facelift intended to elevate HBO’s kid sibling channel that some derisively have dubbed Skinemax in years past due to the softcore erotica that filled its late-night lineup.
As part of its image rehab, Cinemax has joined the growing horde of channels investing in original scriped series, and I heard good reports about both Strike Back, an ongoing action drama, and Hunted, a BBC-Cinemax co-production from former X-Files writer-producer Frank Spotnitz that reportedly is being streamlined and retooled for a second season.
I still wasn’t prepared, however, to be so pleasantly surprised by Banshee, the relentlessly entertaining and occasionally completely deranged action thriller created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, with Emmy and Academy Award winner Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) among its executive producers. Why do I call it deranged, you ask? Well, its featured characters include a transgender computer hacker named Job, a ruthless crime lord who is a shunned former member of an Amish community and a homicidal Ukrainian gangster named Mr. Rabbit. And that’s just for starters.
Set primarily in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the head-spinning story opens with the parole of the central character (New Zealand actor Antony Starr) after serving a 15-year prison sentence for stealing a cache of diamonds from the aforementioned Rabbit (Ben Cross). Reconnecting with Job (Hoon Lee), his former accomplice, the ex-con learns that his former heist partner and lover (Ivana Milicevik) was last seen in Banshee, but when he arrives in that sleepy (and fictional) Pennsylvania town, he discovers that the beauty he once knew as Ana has reinvented herself as Carrie, now married to Gordon Hopewell (Rus Blackwell), the district attorney in Banshee.
Although her ex got arrested and sent to prison because he sacrificed himself to save her, Carrie is dismayed when he tries to re-enter her life, threatening the serenity of her family, which includes two children. Stricken by her rejection, our protagonist retreats to a local bar run by former boxer Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison) to lick his wounds and reconsider his options. In a freaky twist of fate, another patron at the bar is Lucas Hood, a newcomer on his way to meet the mayor of Banshee and become installed as the new sheriff. Unfortunately, when he tries to stop two thugs from robbing Sugar, Lucas is killed, along with both intruders, giving the recently paroled stranger a crazy idea: Why not steal Lucas’s identity and take on the sheriff gig himself?
That masquerade kicks the story into high gear, as the new Lucas struggles to pass in this assumed guise while working with a diverse team of deputies who can’t help noticing that his approach to law enforcement is unconventional, to put it mildly. Carrie, meanwhile, grows ever more paranoid that Lucas’ reckless gambit will somehow draw Rabbit’s attention to Banshee, which would be very, very bad for both of them.
Superficially, Banshee follows many of the standard conventions of the action genre, including some hard R-rated violence. Every episode includes at least one instance of extended mayhem, and I found parts of episode eight, where the violence is directed at Carrie, almost impossible to watch (there’s also a featurette in which Milicevic talks about the grueling workday she spent getting knocked around for hours in front of the camera).
But Banshee breaks away boldly from action clichés in the show’s character writing and performances. Starr and Milicevik may look at first glance like your standard-issue Action Stud and Babe, but both actors also clearly reveal Lucas’ and Carrie’s pain, vulnerability and, on occasion, stark terror. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen is sensationally good as Kai Procter, the shunned Amish gangster whose soft-spoken exterior masks his psychotic true nature. In a much smaller role, Matthew Rauch is both scary and hilarious as Procter’s sidekick Burton, who appears to have the killer instinct of Smithers on The Simpsons, yet is capable of inflicting horrific pain behind closed doors.
The Blu-ray set comes loaded with special features, including the usual deleted scenes and commentaries from the cast and creative team, but the most helpful feature (also included on the standard DVD set) is “Town of Secrets,” a collection of very short “prequel” clips that set up many of the relationships and motivations of the events in the main episodes. You can fuilly enjoy Banshee without watching these short clips afterwards, but if you do make time for them, you’ll find yourself going, “Ohhhhh.” Also, be sure to stick with each episode through its end credits, because there’s a brief scene tagged at the very end of each.
Cinemax already has renewed Banshee for a second season, scheduled to air in early 2014, but this handsome set will bring you up to speed on the fascinating, unconventional series. Just be advised, it’s not for the squeamish.