Prevalent Riffing & Inner Focus: Returning Television – Fall 2011 – Part I

Animation and improvisation doesn’t always go hand-in-hand much like live action riffing but this first batch of returning shows highlights the ability to work both sides of the line. “South Park” is the most prevalent of these with the ability to turn headlines within the week though its dramatic subtlety is becoming more defined as time goes on while “Archer” while smaller in its amount of episodes is becoming more highly ironic. “Community” is moving into left field with some great elements of spontaneity but needs to find its inner focus while “Fringe” has purely reinvented itself while keeping everything that has made it an exceptional show.

Archer Coming back with an abridged mini-season in a three-episode arch entitled “Heart Of Archness”, our oft-maligned and inspid hero has vanished for a couple months after the death of his Russian fiance. We find him on an island screwing newly honeymooned women until Rip (played with Peppard accuracy by Patrick Warburton) comes at the request of his mother to take him back. Archer makes the seaplane crash and they are capture by pirates. Archer ends up killing alot of them on an ambush back to their fortress island and he becomes “Pirate King”. The progression of that is what we come to expect from Archer: ideas that might work in a feature film but perverted to a point as to make it totally ludicrous.

South Park The continuing intensity of off-shot humor especially where Cartman is concerned knows no bounds except when it takes a toll on his mental health. Whereas Kenny will always be the poor kid, Cartman is coming face to face with his own mortality on more than one occasion. While Kyle is dealing with a more homeward-bound problem, Cartman is having to deal with more deep seated personality issues. While this element of poverty, reliance issues and “Assburgers” are all done in jest, the intermittent darkness seeping through the cracks is making the show all the more dexterous in its ability to tackle pretty exceptional drama under the guise of comedy.

Fringe Perceiving the idea of life without Peter Bishop does alot to reset the stakes of what is possible in the universe, even parallel ones. In creating this new paradox, the series has done something undeniably clever: reset the clock in terms of mythology as well as romantic and dramatic tension. The alternate universe creation might be resolved but the problems within the personal structure in terms of Walter and Olivia are not because they don’t understand or embrace what Peter is. Meanwhile new alliances are formed and Fringe level events still go on without the worry of disbelief. Peter Bishop is the man out of sync with the world and yet he is the only one who knows what is going on. Succinct storytelling is exampled but with an innate sense of keeping the audience on edge.

 

Community The team seems to innately run more in the stratosphere but not with the same creativity they have showed in the past couple years though the moments of levity still come quick and unabated. It is almost as if they know how far they can go so the line isn’t as much of a taboo thing anymore. Consequently the stories tend to lean more towards morality tales which the participants perceive as “dark” though the climactic paintball episode last year stretched the limits. The series has undeniably set characters now that the audience can run with but without a structured base of where they need to go, their lives may or may not be complete.

Comedic Reptile Wranglings: Returning Spring 2011 Television Shows – Review – Part I

The inevitable question of would-be sophmore season series relies in their ability to find an identity without changes the superstructure against what was their initial construct. With certain shows like “V”, the progression is based on an inevitable conclusion while “Archer” and “Parks & Rec” rely on a more uncertain endgame. “Community” is the most surpruising simply because its evolution has found itself in a time vaccuum giving the characters unlimited current pastiche to explore a variety of genres.

V The progression of this alien sci-fi series always leads to the structure of what will transpire and how cataclysmic it will be. Morina Baccarin as the Queen Snake has the undeniable feline/reptilian phase structure going on. The tendency is to look down at the human race as a little bit slow on the take because they cannot see their inevitable doom. That taken, despite some grand set pieces (which are done with placement on matte and green screen), the series plays primarily to a soap rhetoric despite its more lofty ambitions. As Erica, Elizabeth Mitchell from “Lost” works as specifically as she can against the material moving it towards a knowledge of heart but the reality is that the narrative needs to move more as exposition is flowing. Ultimately the power struggle doesn’t specifically nature itself to any true drama.

Archer Moving into its second season, Archer knows exactly what it is: a sex comedy peppered with a little bit of spy. The animation itself (likely due to increased support from FX) shows a little more flash at least in the season opener where Archer needs to protect the daughter of a billionaire who is a possible donor for the cash-starved ISIS. Her topless ride through the snow drifts plays to the notion of what James Bond was always thinking in the back of his mind when going down slopes with various women. The continual episodes rage in the interesting purveyance of the flu and baby daddies which of course gives way to the great joke (if not utterly impractical idea) of a candy wrapper as a condom. “Archer” is fun to watch because it knows that it is not serious at all. Just animation positioned in a great superstructure with room to play.

Parks & Recreation At the end of last season, the group was running at a fairly good pace with all the characters finding their voices with undeniable forthcoming. Amy Poehler did pause production per se because of said baby with Wil Arnett. However the requisite adding of new cast members in Rob Lowe and Adam Scott seem a bit floundering in their use because it almost belittles the cast. All the characters from Tom to Andy to Ron and back were just hitting their stride. The possibility that must be considered is that the women weren’t getting their due (though April is the heart of the show). Lowe and Scott fill that quota but interestly enough not as cameo day players but rather as full-fledged cast members. Now granted this is used also a plot ploy to create the essence of Pawnee’s Rec Department being threatened to be shut down. The solution is the Harvest Festival and while this idea is building, the best episode so far has revolved around Swanson and his rapid ex-wife Tammy who pulls him into a black hole of sin. It is these kind of off-the-cuff shenanigans that “Parks” (like “Community”) is great at. The question becomes one of balance. Send Andy on a quest. He’ll love it.

Community As compared to the early episodes in the first season, this show has truly found its footing. Like fellow sophomore series “Cougar Town” but from a completely different angle, this half hour tome realizes that you don’t have to stay within the box to truly make the jokes work. Pushed back into trying its wares again after members of the cast seemed so ethusiastic at TCAs about a “Dungeons & Dragons” episode just filmed, the modulation simply stuns because of the volley ability of the cast. All the characters get equal time, almost in a “Cheers” functionality which allows the perfect pairing of Donald Glover and Danny Pudi as the misfits to shine. Chevy Chase is truly recognizing the possibilities as well. The key to maintaining its creation is to not oversaturate its own self identity because once it becomes too aware of itself, the whole game’s over.

Archer – Sneak Peek – TV Review

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The essence of “Archer”, animation newest entry (premiering on FX) is one of subterfuge, most specifically the emotional kind which is at the heart of this character’s perception. Brought together by the brains behind Cartoon Network’s “Frisky Dingo” and “Sealab 2021”, this new cartoon sneak previewed its pilot episode in advance of its January bow. The key here is tone but also maintaining a standard of quality consistent with FX. Cartoon Network has a very separate trajectory in terms of its Adult Swim content so the maintainence here rests between appealing to a separate audience but also switching over some of the old ones to a new home. The humor tends towards the blue with an intent of a rather pointed stand off at the end of the episode. The overarching mischief is that Archer seems to know where he’s going but just doesn’t have a clue how to get there. Now this might be part of the charm but the essence is time. As indicated as the TCAs, the key is no big set pieces. The aim is to keep the intersections domestic but with Archer’s mom in control of the madhouse and Archer’s ex-girlfriend wanting to chop off his extremities at any opportunity, Archer should tread lightly. But that is not his way. Ignorant and blatantly oblivious of it, he has a rocky road ahead. In terms of the series though, the key lies with the banter and the narrow line it walks…for better or worse.

Outlaws, Espionage & The Battle For Story: The FX TCA Summer 2009 Press Tour – Feature

In comparison to Fox proper, FX has always been about darker elements and pushing what is available on basic cable. This has not been more prevalent lately than in the criminal family drama “Sons Of Anarchy”. With new elements in the way in terms of animation (“Archer”) and a new drama: “Lawman” from “Speed” writer Graham Yost, the expansion of the interesting continues.

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Archer This new animated series, with a bit of the flash structuring in its edgy demeanor, comes from the mind of Adam Reed who was the madman behind “Frisky Dingo” and “Sealab 2021” on Cartoon Network, In translating to FX, the key becomes sizing and viciously attacking the demo making them see things your way. The concept of the series is based in espionage in the style of “Mission Impossible” and “Man From U.N.C.L.E” but with a bit of heinous characterization. Archer, played by H. Jon Benjamin (who has also done voices forr “Assy McGee” and “The Venture Brothers”, both on Cartoon Network), is a hero who has mommy issues. He is sent back to the office and now has to deal with his ex, Lana, an oversexed and seemingly vindictive co-worker played by The Boondocks’ Aisha Tyler. Hijinks ensue.

Reed says he likes taking familiar genres and subverting them as much as possible. You build on the backdrop and then skew it as badly or horribly as you can. The most important relationship in the series for him is between Archer and his mom. It undermines everything. FX seemed like a good fit for it and Reed thought so after seeing “Its Always Funny In Philadelphia” which is one of his favorite shows. He says that the spying is hard to animate so they just don’t do it a lot of the time. In terms of his background, he never went to school for this. Cartoon Network was his training ground and, in his own admission, animation cuts you a lot of slack.

People can do very bad things but you have to have your characters doing even worse. It has to be completely divorced from reality. Reed also hints that Ron Perlman who is on the TCA FX Press Tour with “Sons Of Anarchy”as well talked to him at the party for Fox the night before about playing a villain on the show. Reed seems to love that.

Aisha Tyler reflects that Lana was drawn before she came to the project…but the girl was stacked, and she seemed to like it. Tyler says there has been a lot of cackling in the booth. The aspect of doing these type of animation projects is that you can say and pursue angles of dialogue that you could never get away with in live action. Beyond that though, she says that there is a beauty to the animation in “Archer” much like “The Boondocks” but in a different way.

The key is the balance between the subversive, the comedy and the through progression on the series. While this style might have worked on Adult Swim, transitioning it into a larger world and staying there requires planning and effectiveness. Time will tell. The show does not have a premiere date yet but will likely be sometime in the fall.

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Sons Of Anarchy This show came out of nowhere last year. I had rounded up a lot of episodes and, on a plane trip back from overseas, watched a lot of them back to back. Seeing the progression within, there is intense visceral nature to the show. It blends at kind of grounded darkness with elements of classical-based character dramas, most similarly to “The Godfather”. This is a show undeniably about family beyond anything else. Love is a hard thing and these these people beat it to death while still still staying the course: protect the club (in this case Sam Crow) at all costs.

Creator Kurt Sutter who is married to series co-star Katey Sagal, doesn’t pull his punches. The darkness that she has to confront in the premiere of the second season alone apparently changes a lot of things. Kurt wants to believe that the way he pushes the envelope is never gratuitous but instead grittingly real and engaging. The premiere he says creates an emotional engine for Sagal’s Jemma and creates the season’s overarching progression. Sending Jemma on a spiritual path is a tricky and ultimately a personal progression. The importance of family is paramount but, at times, you have to take creative liberties to make it work. Emotions dont happen in a vacuum and with these kind of characters. The kickback, as a result, is unbelievable.

Charlie Hunnam, who plays Jax, creates an organic and ultimately brilliant characterization of a young man caught between two worlds. The way he is able to play both viciousness, conscience, violence and love, all within a certain time is phenomenal. But this is only possible because of the cast around him. After the panel I talked one-on-one with Ron Perlman for nearly 15 minutes. He and Charlie are good friends off set and he sees something so soulful, good natured and brilliant in this kid that it is very hard when they really have to go at it which he says is even more hard edged this season. This world for Ron is uncomfortable to play and that is the challenge of it. The physicality of the this man Clay he plays, the emotional structure, the notion of leadership…all these figure into it. It is another in a string of wonderful career moves for Perlman following such iconic roles in “Hellboy” and “City Of Lost Children”. He says his fortune is blind luck and when Kurt came to him on this role, there was just a power to it. He also says that the premiere episode changes the relationship among many, especially with Jemma, his wife, played by Sagal, For him he said it is quite a ride, scary but fulfilling.

Charlie says that evolving Jax is the structure of the setting that the character finds himself in. He has spent times with guys who live that  style and you learn. He says that his best friend went to Sturgis in North Dakota which is one of the biggest bikers rallies in the nation and that the show is embraced by many in the biker community. In terms of the throughline, Jax is steadfast as he has been all along. His allegiance lies with the club and his future lies within the club, whatever form it may take.

The women on the show are very strong which is another aspect that very much elevates the show above others. Kurt says that there are multiple women in the writing room and that perspective is necessary, especially in such a testosterone fueled show. Maggie Siff, who plays Tara who is in love with Jax and ultimately is pulled into his life, knows how intense it can be. In mentioning a killing scene in a bedroom during the first season, she says that that was a severe edge they have to walk and sometimes cross.

Kurt told me later that they had to make adjustments to that scene to get it past the censors because after Jax kills Kohn who is the man stalking Tera, they make love but they (the writers and the production) had to make it so the bloody body of Kohn was half in the bathroom and not in the room with them. Kurt thought that this little fact, just because of the irony, was amusing

Katey says that while she and Tara still go to a head, there is more of an understanding between them in terms of love for Jax but the key is that Tara  understands one thing: always protect the club. Sagal also said the six weeks she had to exist in this new structure that her character undergoes was difficult since they have to go home to their kids (Kurt is her husband). The series is not for the faint of heart but its effectiveness speaks volumes.

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Show Runners Panel In an interesting amalgamation, FX brought together the bulk of their showrunners to discuss the status of the industry and their part within in. With the Leno debate of 10pm skewing a lot of scripted programming, basic cable is the last stand against a new order. With USA and FX taking the forefront along with AMC, the stand off is approaching, Graham Yost, whose new series “Lawman” starring Timothy Olyphant, premieres later in the fall, says that because they shot the pilot late, already 40 people in terms of writers had been put out by the NBC decision. He had had a previous series at that network which had been cancelled before the last shows aired, The episodes ended up doing OK and they thought about making more but the team had already dispersed. His philosophy is when you are doing good, think about the worst thing that you have done…and prepare for that. Kurt Sutter, who runs “Sons Of Anarchy”, again pulls no punches saying that NBC is “the one to hate right now”. He doesn’t know what is going to happen. However, in his perspective the move put a lot of people on leave which, in his opinion, “sucks”. 

Todd Kessler, who runs the Glenn Close-starrer “Damages”, says that a year from now we will have a very different conversation. It might not work out. The one thing he does cite about FX is that when they give you a 13 episode order, you get to make the 13 and not worry about ratings until after the fact. Some other networks, NBC among them, do not guarantee the full airing or even production at times. Kessler says that, by comparison, FX has been true to their word and stood by them,

Peter Tolan, who runs “Rescue Me” with Denis Leary, addresses the aspect of time shifting and DVR watching as a deterrent, pointing to the fact that a very small portion of the audience actually watches every episode of your show. He spotlights that NBC (which is now a center of discussion) was known for very elegant work. He cites “Hill Street Blues” as a prime example. He says now that there is not as much spirit as in evidence there. Personally, he doesn’t care when the audience is watching as long as they “are” watching. Tolan highlights that the business is cyclical and reality will come down. 

Shawn Ryan, who was the show runner on “The Shield” and recently took over NBC’s “Lie To Me” starring Tim Roth, speaks about the attention and hand holding at FX compared to other networks. He says that the notes are comparable to the writing on the episode. If something needs to be changed, it usually makes sense. It starts new with each show. This year he is new on “Lie To Me” and they are trying new stuff so Fox’s eyeballs are on them. His perception with the Leno 10pm quandry is the perspective of the value of a show after it has aired. He says that “Heroes” is a good example. Even though it is expensive, it has significant value overseas. When these shows work, they make a lot of money. He suggested we (the TV journalists) put NBC’s “feet to the fire” and take them to task. He says that the key is to do more development and make more successful shows. Originally in the list of important things when making a show, hiring a writer was 6th. Now with the success specifically of “CSI”, that is changing.

The future is coming. But, of course, that too, is a matter of perspective.

FIRST LOOK: Archer – FX

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FX provided IR with this promo image for “Archer”, a new animated series from Adam Reed, creator of “Frisky Dingo” & “Sealab 2021”, which was presented during the TCA Summer 09 Press Tour in Pasadena, CA.