Did The Muppets Improve?

The fall of 2015 saw the triumphant return of The Muppet Show, simply called The Muppets, to television. After a Jason Segel Muppet Movie in 2011 (The Muppets), and a Ricky Gervais With Muppets Movie in 2014 (Muppets Most Wanted), the time had come for a weekly dose of everybody’s favorite hand-puppetry. The triumph, however, lasted only for about a week or so.

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Courage
It just wasn’t very funny. The first episode of The Muppets 2015 style reassembled the band, took all the iconic characters out of the theatre and into Miss Piggy’s very own late night talkshow. Kermit the Frog was made producer, Fozzie Bear the standup/warmup comedian and the rest, well, their roles didn’t really matter; they were Muppets. Everything seemed to have been constructed logically, and indeed, it was nice to have America’s favorite plush family back, but the jokes just weren’t there. Over the course of the first half of the season – 10 episodes – the ratings went down quickly. No one dared to say it. No one was able to find the courage in their hearts to pop the question. No one but John Oliver, who just flat out said it: ‘How is this still on?

Cramped
Even the funniest of Muppets, in my opinion, Pepe the King Prawn, lost his touch. The prawn had cramped up. It was like the whole cast was under a lot of pressure, and one by one they folded. It made me wonder if Pepe was still Pepe. I was almost certain he’d been replaced by another voice actor, but that wasn’t the case. Bill Barretta’s still voicing him from under the hood, ever since his first appearance on Muppets Tonight. So why didn’t it work? Creators Bob Kushell (3rd Rock from the Sun) and Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) obviously knew what they were doing, given their sitcom experiences, right? Something just wasn’t right, and ABC stepped in. The Muppets would be back in 2016, but it needed a serious retooling. Kushell was out, Kristin Newman (Chuck, Galavant, That 70’s Show) was in.

Improvement
My expectations weren’t that high, for episode 11, ‘Swine Song’, but I kind of assumed we’d see the Muppets exit the late night talkshow formula and move back into a banged up theatre, or get on the road. I should’ve known better, though. Hollywood is absolutely terrified of change. Even if things don’t work, they’d rather cancel a show altogether. Tweaking the format a little, that’s usually not an option; too scary. So when they do, because it’s the Muppets – and you do not cancel the Muppets – it’s going to be some half heartedly, watered down improvement that’s hardly noticeable.

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UberPepe
That about sums it up. The Muppets are still working on ‘Up Late with Miss Piggy’. Pepe and Rizzo the Rat are still perfunctorily wisecracking behind the scenes. Kermit is still running around. Miss Piggy is still in charge as her egocentric self. Bobo’s still mumbling. The (human) guest stars are still overacting. Jokes are still absent. The only shiver of retooling is a couple of new segments on Piggy’s show, like Pepe driving an Uber cab. It’s a nice idea, but nice isn’t nearly enough.

Denise
The story of the episode revolves around the network sending somebody over to retool the show (hello, fourth wall), but he’s not doing anything, except walk around all hipster-like. Everybody’s scared of him nonetheless, and because of all this commotion, Kermit fails to give his girlfriend Denise his undivided attention. When he sings an old corny song with Piggy, Denise feels it’s time to take a break. In other words, The Muppets is going to focus on segments the real talkshows are doing much better, and some romance – either between Kermit and Denise or him and Piggy. If I may quote John Oliver: ‘How is this still on?’

The Spot-on Comedic Timing of Galavant

It’s the musical comedy no one expected much of, last year, but sometimes it’s hard looking away from quality. Galavant mashed up Blackadder with Glee and out came a delightful, silly, medieval school play-ish comedy series that was actually very funny and well made. It embraced all the cliches and tore them down one by one, scene by scene, song by song. The dark horse of ABC programming didn’t exactly became a hit, but got enough traction to justify a second season.

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Anchor
Like last year, the episodes air in pairs, starting with ‘A New Season AKA Suck It Cancellation Bear’  (it doesn’t get any more tongue-in-cheek than this, folks) and ‘World’s Best Kiss’. In the premiere, we check in on our hero Galavant (Joshua Sasse), on a pirate ship, who’s trying to find land while his ‘BFF’ King Richard (Timothy Omundson) is sea sick. The only way to cheer him up is by… singing a song. That’s the kind of logic Galavant is made of. After the song (and, by the way, all the songs on this show are highly infectious and funny) they spot land, and Richard knows the perfect place to go for anchor. The next shot shows them all shipwrecked, stumbling out of the water onto the shore, with Richard dry-wittedly saying to himself ‘I do not know what I was talking about’. I understand if most of the humor isn’t your cup of tea, but lines like these must bring a smile to your face.

Kylie
The pirates run off, probably to build another boat, so it’s just Galavant and Richard, on their way to rescue Isabella (Karen David), who’s about to be wed to her 11-year old nephew. However, they walk right into the ‘enchanted forest’. Richard’s uncle had once set foot in it and he never returned. But they quickly discover ‘The Enchanted Forest’ isn’t the forest itself, but a forest bar. With a proper sign (and happy hour). They walk in and there are only guys (including Jean Hamm, a second-or-so cameo by John Stamos) – but Richard’s completely oblivious – like always – and doesn’t realize it’s a gay bar. Then the Queen of the gays appears: Kylie Minogue, doing a great song and dance number, while Galavant gets stripped and put behind the tap. She forces the two of them to stay. Galavant has been bringing in too many tips to leave.

Ladies Room
They’re rescued by Richard’s uncle, who shows them the secret passage of the bar: through the ladies room – which would never be used anyway and therefor was never finished (does this mean Kylie is a Drag Queen?). Meanwhile, Isabella has gotten the key through the creepy chef couple, to get out of her barbie doll cage, and Gareth (Vinnie Jones) has finally persuaded Madalena (Mallory Jansen) to call him King.

Bad Reception
In ‘World’s Best Kiss’, Gareth and Madalena settle their differences with… a song. Galavant and Richard walk, walk and walk some more, until Richard walks the soles of his boots. He’s going to get it fixed in the nearest village, where they meet a fortune teller. Quite an accurate fortune teller, in fact, with a kind of cell phone device inside his staff. Now they can communicate with Isabella’s big purple jewel, which turns out to be a wifi hotspot as well. There’s just one problem: the reception’s as bad as in the 21st century. Words get cut off, which makes everything Galavant says come through to her in the worst way possible. She hears the exact opposite of what he means to say. Isabella, on the brink of escaping, resides back in her cage, convinced Galavant doesn’t love her anymore.

Goofy & Corny
It’s a goofy, witty, hilarious and corny show and there’s nothing like it on television. Galavant continues to fully commit to the ridiculousness of its concept and it’s great.

Quantico: Inside

The 11th episode of Quantico – the one-word titled ‘Inside’ – serves as the so-called ‘Fall Finale’. In eleven weeks, Alex Parrish hasn’t exactly made any progress, finding the one(s) responsible for the bomb that went off in the pilot. Every single trainee has got something to hide; there’s no clear suspect yet. It’s just one beat around the bush at a time. Also, another bomb should’ve gone off long ago, but for some reason still hasn’t.

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Happy Holidays
We fall right in the middle of Christmas time at Quantico, FBI training center. Some people went home, because, you know, Christmas, but some decided to stay. Working cases that no one’s ever managed to close. Alex (Priyanka Chopra), Shelby (Johanna Braddy), Natalie (Anabelle Acosta) and Nimah (Yasmine Al Massri) are going to try to solve unsolvable cases, from inside a campus building. At least they’ve got something on their hands, while not spending the holidays with their loved ones.

Triple C
Until Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers) walks back in. He’s in need of a quick tuxedo change. Bored out of their minds (you can only stand on one leg for so long), the girls decide to go with him, to the party of his parents. Shelby meets her father- and mother-in-law, and I would’ve expected something of an attraction between her and Caleb’s dad Clayton (Mark Pellegrino), but no. The moment when their sparks seriously started flying is saved for another day. Shelby’s mostly bonding with Caleb’s mother Claire (Marcia Cross) – a lot of C’s in the Haas family, aren’t there?

Trouble in Several Paradises
Shelby loves Caleb, she ‘really does’, but she doesn’t share his quest for truth. Especially now she’s learnt about the time he joined a cult and wanted to blow himself up, for a good cause. He was ‘just seventeen’, which is, like, just a few years ago, I imagine? Anyway, it’s enough reason for Shelby to end their on and off relationship.
One relationship already broken, is the one between Alex and Ryan (Jake McLaughlin). Ryan’s at the party, too, as ‘fate’ would have it, in full undercover mode, playing husband and wife with his former wife Hannah (Eliza Coupe). For another year, at least, they have to pretend playing house, according to Hannah. Alex is beyond jealous, but there’s not much to be done, except act like a jealous teenager who regrets ever dumping this pretty good guy. A brief kiss in an empty room is all she gets.

Do We Care?
The question is, why should we care about all of this? Showing the Quantico training period was a nice plot device, because there’s a mole, but it’s about time they’d focus on the more serious problem at hand. Like stopping another bomb from going off in the heart of New York City, nine months later.

Nine Months Later
Elias (Rick Cosnett) comes walking into the command center, with a head wound. Somebody tried to push him in front of oncoming traffic. Or so he says. Wouldn’t that have been a nice stunt, for the show? Why didn’t we see it, then? Perhaps because it never happened. When he tells Liam (Josh Hopkins) and Miranda (Aunjanue Ellis), the team flies out to investigate. Elias walks away with a smile on his face. Okay, that was too easy. Every time Quantico tries too hard to serve up one of the characters as the bad guy, it’s not that simple.

Blackmail
And it isn’t. The team discovers Simon (Tate Ellington), taped to a chair and detonator. If he lets go, a bomb will blow. Elias, after some persuasion, comes clean. He’d been blackmailed. He kidnapped Simon, hoping to lead the team to him and then find a way to dismantle the bomb, but his little plan blows up in his face.
They do find the bomb, the bomb squad freezes the timer so it doesn’t go off, so Simon can let go. When he does, the bomb goes off anyway. A different one. Somewhere else. When they step outside, they see the command center has been destroyed.

Patience, Man
At least Elias is no longer a suspect. He did however frustrate an FBI investigation. The only way to avoid jail time, is to jump out of the window backwards, which he does. So what have we learnt, after 11 episodes? The mole is still in their midst. His or her motive is unclear. His or her goal is unclear. I guess it will take another 11 episodes before he or she’s finally revealed, and then we’ll have the joy of rewatching the whole first season and pick up on all the clues that we’ve missed. It’s a risky move, though. It really tests the patience of the audience, especially now the soapy side plots are starting to get a little annoying. Quantico could use a little Wayward Pines truth serum, explaining the conspiracy in a single episode and go from there.

Wicked City: Running with the Devil

Honestly, I was going to let Wicked City pass. Too run-of-the-mill. A serial killer in love (Ed Westwick – what’s in a name), crossbreed between Robert Pattinson (Twilight) and Jason Priestley (Beverly Hills 90210), like a terribly gone wrong Brandon Walsh, raising havoc in the eighties. The same eighties that don’t seem to add an extra flavor to the show. Everything that happens could easily happen in the present, too. Just change Billy Idol for Lady Gaga, Def Leppard for Coldplay.

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Origin Story
Where the pilot made the series look like your average catch-me-if-you-can story, ‘Running with the Devil’ explains in disturbing fashion what this show is really about. Serial killer finds love, love joins the serial soon-to-be family business – like an origin tale of Natural Born Killers. It’s hard to imagine why creator Steven Baigelman (Miles Ahead) felt the need to explore this particular concept, other than use it as a knack to include everything that draws in ratings; guns, girls, murders and interrogations. Supposedly, because even though Wicked City crosses off all those things, it’s not doing well.

Haunting
The second episode spends a great deal with Kent (Westwick) and his true love, single mom Betty (Erika Christensen), in long, haunting scenes. Detective Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto) is kept to a minimum, let alone everybody else, including his daughter Vicki (now we know why Anne Winters never went back to Abuddin, in the second season of Tyrant) and his colleague at the precinct, Eileen Miller, played by Sara Mornell.

Real
And that’s the transition I was looking for, review-wise. Because yes, Wicked City would’ve been on and off my to watch list before you could say ‘Plato’. However, after my piece on the pilot episode, last week, I received a lovely message from that same Sara Mornell. Suffice to say, she particularly appreciated the part about ‘real women’ getting through to Hollywood. Of course, other people didn’t like the term ‘real’, and I suppose it’s not the most accurate description, but I think everybody immediately knows what ‘real’ in this context means.

Blink of an Eye
So that’s why I tuned in again this week; that Miller character. Unfortunately, no Miller, because I accidentally blinked at one time. But all (half-)kidding aside, Mornell isn’t just an actress, she’s an acting coach as well. I must say I’m not familiar with the whole Hollywood acting coaching scene, but it’s hard even for me, to imagine anyone better as a teacher. Just look at the demo reel on her website. There’s some seriously powerful acting stuff on there. Every look she gives, every word she speaks is a testament of complete control. Some actors tend to bluff their way through dialogue, like giving off tells that they’re acting instead of being. Not Sara Mornell. She’s got the chops, and that’s one of the reasons it’s a shame her role on Wicked City is so small. It’s an eye blinking embarrassment on the part of the writers.

Transformation
I’ll check in on the show later, but for now, it’s all a little too gore-y and disturbingly far-fetched to stay with it. It’s clear that their goal is to transform Betty into Kent’s lover and partner in crime, but in any case, this is coming about way too fast. Either she’s the most naive and callow canvas of a woman that ever existed, or Kent’s found the one person with the same brain defect as he has. The chances of either of these things happening are slimmer than getting hit by lightning twice on the same day. According to current lightning statistics, as well as those in the eighties.

Wicked City: Pilot

We didn’t actually want to watch it at first, that’s how bad the trailer looked – that’s how low our expectations were for Wicked City. But one’s memory can be an unreliable thing. That godawful trailer couldn’t be accessed anymore, so how bad could the show be, is what we were thinking and put the pilot on. Indeed, maybe not as bad as we thought, but yeah, bad.

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All the Rage
I can understand why procedurals use serial killers every now and then. You’ve got a detective solving crimes every week, catching bad guys, so even from a statistical standpoint the bad guy has to be a serial killer sometimes, right? However, when a series is serialized, using just one antagonist for at least a season, why make the killer serialized as well? I guess the only show that found an original hook, was Dexter, but 9 out of 10 times, it’s just boring, because serial killers tend to be quite one-dimensional.
I’m not saying Hannibal Lecter was, though, but I never got into Hannibal. I surely didn’t care much for Charles Manson on Aquarius (that show’d be better without him, actually), and now there’s Wicked City, a tale about a disturbing young man with a knife, a car, a personal vendetta against a police detective (where have we seen that before?) and he likes to request songs on the radio.

Like a Natural Woman
Let’s first list the things I do like about the show, because it’s not all bad. I’ve always liked Jeremy Sisto (Suburgatory, Law & Order, Six Feet Under), but he doesn’t have the weight for a leading role, for some reason. It’s like he misses the edge of Jack Bauer, the coolness of Don Draper and the scruffiness of Kurt Weller. He does have a colleague, Eileen Miller, played by Sara Mornell (Six Feet Under, Judging Amy, Becker) and finally, finally, it’s not a thin as a rail young blonde tough but sexy, sexy but tough female detective, but a woman. A beautiful woman, sure, but one with actual curves. Not sexy, necessarily, but natural. It’s kind of ridiculous, how pleasantly surprised I was by seeing a real woman walk into view, but I guess my eyes have been Hollywood-polluted with a parade of assembly line actresses, that Mornell looks like a rarity. An exotic surprise, even. Anyway, she should’ve been the lead character, me thinks, but another female action star this year may have been pushing it. It would’ve been smart, though, given the success of Blindspot and Quantico.

Bonnet
A few more things I liked: Erika Christensen, who totally transformed herself into this insecure single mother of two. To be honest, I didn’t know it was Christensen, that’s how different she looked. I thought it was Ashley Jensen (Extras, Ugly Betty).
I also like the visuals. I don’t know why it’s set in the eighties – other than have an excuse to incorporate Billy Idol – because it doesn’t really look like the eighties, but I do like the direction. It’s not shot with a bonnet over the camera, like Aquarius, so that’s a plus.

Asleep
That’s about it. I couldn’t care less about the story – if it’s time to list everything I don’t like and this is me writing it, so yes, it is. There’s room enough for Billy Idol’s complete anthology to fit in my yawn, that’s how dull the whole concept is. Sisto’s character has got an affair with an (undercover) cop, his boss gives him a partner he doesn’t get along with (now, we haven’t seen that before, have we? No, wait a minute, we have) and what else? He’s chasing leads and always just missing the bad guy. I’ve just fallen asleep.

Blood & Oil: Pilot

We’ve let the first weeks go by, just because from the likes of it, the oil show didn’t look like something worth watching. Just another variation on Dallas. Of course, if the internet had exploded – like it does – there’d be more than enough reason to jump in. But it’s been a deafening silence.

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The Don
What is about Don Johnson that makes people cringe or giggle, when it’s announced he’s in a movie or new TV series? People tend to laugh behind their hands, whether his name’s attached to the new Tarantino or a high profile show about the black gold rush in North Dakota, formerly known simply as ‘Oil’, ABC’s Blood & Oil. Is it because Nash Bridges? His singing career? Marrying (and divorcing) Melanie Griffith twice? Surely it can’t be because of Miami Vice. I must say, Johnson does have a distinct way of acting, or should I say talking. Every word seems to come from grinding; vocal chords are left out of the equation. But hey, let’s not sell him short. The man can act. Especially tough guys.

Hap & Darla
And a tough guy it is. 65-year old Hap Briggs doesn’t take shit from anybody, including his children. His wife, 41-year old Darla (Amber Valletta, Revenge, Legends) is just as tough. They haven’t styled her with Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in mind for nothing. In the ratrace world of oil, she’s the ice queen.

Laundromat
You’d think Johnson plays the main character, but you’d be wrong. Blood & Oil really is the story of a naive couple. Billy (Chace Crawford, Gossip Girl) and Cody LeFever (Rebecca Rittenhouse, Red Band Society). He’s even a tad more naive than she is. They’ve heard about the black gold rush in North Dakota and head out to cash in. A laundromat, is what they’re going to start. A perfect investment in a place where people must be dirty all the time, with all the oil lying around. Or however they came up with the idea. They borrow money from their families and friends, drive out, with a pickup truck full of washing machines, but Billy gets spooked by two big trucks coming towards him and drives off the road. Everything comes flying off and is destroyed. Billy and Cody don’t have a scratch on them, though.

Fault
Because they’ve never been to North Dakota, didn’t think to make a reservation at a motel or anything and forgot to get some insurance, they’re screwed. All the money’s gone. Prices of rooms are hugely expensive. There are too many people and not enough jobs. O, and to top it off, Cody’s pregnant. You could think they’ve brought it on themselves – it’s no one’s stupid fault but theirs – however, they’re the main characters. You’d better care, otherwise you’re just going to be annoyed.

Millionaires
Now, Cody’s alright. She gets herself a job at a pharmacy, but Billy couldn’t even wipe his own ass if it weren’t for her. But there’s the miracle: they blackmail – sort of – Hap and Darla. That takes enormous balls (or an unlimited supply of naivety). It’s all about a new oil site, which will make them all millionaires.

The Sum
It’s not really original, but the show’s got nice sets. And drone shots. And Rebecca Rittenhouse. And Delroy Lindo (his role’s kept to a minimum in the pilot). And yes, Don Johnson. But the driving force of the show should’ve been the story and even though all the elements are in place, the end result, the sum of all parts doesn’t grab me. There’s a constant feeling of ‘who cares?’ and that’s the worst feeling a show could invoke.

Quantico: Cover

Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) was found in the middle of Times Square, tattooed all over, no, wait a minute. She’s the one who found the Pre-Cog, right? No. Lives in Berlin? Hit a guy who crashed headfirst through the windshield? No, and no. It does show Hollywood has finally put women front and center, and an even bigger surprise: the series they carry are actually quite good.

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Chapter 3
Chopra’s the FBI recruit who’s been framed, and the name of the show is Quantico. After ‘Run’ and ‘America’, the third episode is called ‘Cover’. Expect one word titles for the remainder of the series. It very much has a been there done that feel to it. A nice gimmick, maybe, twenty years ago. At least choose interesting words, if you desperately want to commit to it. They must surely think the viewer doesn’t care about titles anyway, but I for one do. It’s a (very, very small) disgrace (too hard to see with the naked eye) that, for example, Episodes and House of Cards don’t have titles at all. It’s just Chapter this, Chapter that. That’s lazy.

Squeeze Her
Anyway, Quantico. It has no intention of slowing down. It’s one quickly paced (sometimes helped by the editing, which occasionally just speeds things up when people take a second too long to walk from point A to B) scene after another. Most dialogues consist of a total of only four lines, until it’s on to the next one. It’s professionally done, don’t get me wrong, but you want a little breathing room sometimes. You also want time for tension to build up, like when the FBI brings in Parrish’ mother. When Liam (Josh Hopkins) promises the viewer to squeeze her like a wet towel, in order to get the information he wants, there needs to be suspense. What’s he going to do, how far is he willing to go? But because of the wham bam editing, that suspense never has a chance to grow. It’s not like the scenes fell flat – that’s how good this show is – but the whole interrogation was over before you knew it.

Startup
Parrish is still on the run, and if you were wondering what happened to all the other recruits in the present, the show gives you one answer. She shows up at Simon’s (Tate Ellington) doorstep. He’d been cut from the recruiting program and is working at a startup company. Their first conversation is a bit weird and not because Parrish is all over the news. She’s like: I’m sorry you were sent away, but I liked you. And he’s like: Look at me, I’m a loser, because I’m working for an app company. He’s living in quite a big, spacey, modern house, by the way. So she’s like: You’re doing alright for yourself. And he smiles – which means he agrees. So why be such an aggrieved dick at first? That doesn’t make much sense to me.

Thumb Scar
But he helps her, by scanning the stuff she took from her apartment, running her fingerprints, the usual. They figure out she was framed by one of the other recruits, and was probably handpicked right at the beginning of the program. During Quantico, she got a scar on her thumb. That scar must’ve been there on the fingerprints found on the planted evidence, but isn’t.

Always Go for the Blonde
The show clearly wants you to guess who the terrorist is. And it could be anyone, of course. Everybody’s acting strange. But I’d pick the blonde. The least predictable choice. Shelby (Johanna Braddy) is the lovely country girl, so therefor the ideal suspect. This week we’ve learnt her father died on 9/11. She didn’t say how, or on which side. Later, she’s making a wire transfer of a million dollars. That’s actually too suspicious. It’s almost like they want us to put our money on her, which makes me doubt my choice.

Jakob
And there’s a new boss on the block. Deputy director Clayton’s played by the actor who’ll always be known as Jakob: Mark Pellegrino. He’s working around Liam, and seems to be the one who secretly recruited Simon. Any other show would feel contrived, but Quantico is just great fun.