Amazon’s Mad Dogs Goes For A Walk In Pilot

It seemed a little odd early in the pilot of Mad Dogs, a new Amazon original series, when the four main characters received handheld video cameras as gifts in their limo ride from the airport. Smartphones have made them obsolete to all but the biggest traveling dorks so you could guess at some point there had to have been a reason for not only giving one to each of them, but for featuring them. Sure enough, there was.

That’s kind of how the Mad Dogs pilot went. Four college buddies reunite in Belize at the sprawling mansion of the fifth friend, the one who chased the dream and struck it rich. You see the set up and you know exactly what’s coming:

  • They will party;
  • One will have an attack of conscience;
  • One is a sleaze ball;
  • One is a screw up;
  • One missed his chance to cash in;
  • The rich one is a prick and everyone gets mad;
  • Someone will appear wearing an animal head.

There were times during the 60 minutes when I would think Okay, Steve Zahn isn’t going to do something a Steve Zahn character would do. Then he would. It was disappointing when the premiere got to the point where I realized all it would do is go down the checklist and dutifully mark the story points as it passes them by. By the time the bizarre animal head appeared, it had no impact. Of course someone walked into this completely open Central American mansion wearing a giant animal head.

I wasn’t a fan of Amazon’s adaption of The Man In The High Castle, but at least that had ambition. Bosch, which I sped through but haven’t written about, was formulaic but at least based on a book. Needless to say, Amazon’s original content hasn’t struck with me yet.

Mad Dogs is adapted from a UK show of the same name, by the same creator. Based on its pilot, it’s going to be more Gracepoint than it is House of Cards.

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Take yourself Hostages

Image credit: CBS.comWe all take the risk of being wrong or exposing our stupidity when publish our thoughts, and I don’t want to mock someone else whose opinion turns out that way. But when someone is so completely and spectacularly wrong I can’t help but point it out. I did it last summer with a guy who thought watching television was a waste of time, I’ll do it today with this guy who thought the new CBS drama Hostages was terrible.

His brilliant “review” began with this sterling exhibition of prose:

“Who gives a damn. This show is unlikeable.”

Wow. I’m convinced. Hostages must be pretty bad. LOL. He goes on to judge the whole episode based on his belief that the opening scene should have been longer. Not whether or not it was any good. Nope. Just thought it should be longer. Instead of taking the show as a whole he seemed to stop thinking about it right there.

By doing so he completely missed what Hostages is about: The hostages versus their captors. In trying to sound like a sophisticated critic who could tear down a show, the genius expected the entire story to play out in its first episode.

Look at some of his assertions and how they are now known to be completely wrong.

There is no background about the president. He is correct in the sense that the president didn’t figure prominently into the premiere but wrong to think he has to be a central figure in the show. The writers outsmarted him and came up with a creative way to tell a story about an assassination attempt that doesn’t revolve around a presidential character. Making the president secondary reenforces the fact that the show’s central conflict is the Sanders family versus Agent Duncan Carlisle.

The Sanders family is not endearing. Labeling them all unlikeable blinded him to the beginning of the storylines that have played out since. The father’s affair, the daughter’s pregnancy and the son’s drug problem all played major roles in advancing the story and the characters later on. They helped pull the family together for its attempt to escape, which cemented us on their side in their fight against Agent Carlisle. Speaking of…

Carlisle is dumb. He was sort of right in asserting Duncan Carlisle was not smart enough to execute an assassination plot because the show has since revealed he is not the mastermind. We’re getting glimpses of who might be, and I expect we will soon know for sure as we head into the second half of the season. Then we will fill in the answers the reviewer claimed should have been answered in its first episode.

In his last attempt to sound intelligent, the author posits that Carlisle and Dr. Sanders know each other. It’s pretty sad, really, watching someone grasp at straws to prove his value as a blogger. It’s especially sad in this case, because the blogger is me!

I really blew it on this one. I was certain Hostages stunk. The early ratings backed me up and continue to with last week’s episode hitting a series-low 1.1 share. But I can’t hide behind the ratings.

Hostages has done a great job of giving us a story I didn’t see coming. I was so focused on the “assassinating the president” part that I didn’t see what the pilot put in front of us. It isn’t about the president at all. It’s about how this doctor and her family – her imperfect family – handle Duncan Carlisle holding them hostage.

It resembles Lost in that way. Being taken hostage and ordered to kill the president is the Sanders’ Flight 815. Being followed and monitored every hour of every day is their struggle to survive on the island. They all must confront mistakes from their life before captivity. The father had an affair, the daughter became pregnant, the son owed money to a drug dealer. Dr. Sanders faces the moral dilemma of her family’s life versus the presidents. When I said I could get behind a good story, this is what I meant!

Duncan Carlisle is a hostage in his own life, pinned in this plot he did not conceive. He cannot walk away and must, just like his captives, improvise his way through a situation that was never supposed to go on this long.

If I though it was so bad, why did I watch after the premiere? I’m not sure. Maybe I didn’t trust what I wrote. I enjoyed finding ways to say it stunk and got so caught up in the fun that I wrote what I thought would be entertaining instead of being accurate. Hostages is what I profess to enjoy about TV. Its characters are real and their decisions are driving the story, and I missed it.

CBS, like all networks, stupidly does not keep shows online during their first season. I cannot for the life of me understand why. If a new show picks up buzz halfway through its season, wouldn’t they want new viewers to be able to catch up? Instead they’re telling us, “Too bad. We don’t want you watching our new shows unless you were there in the beginning.” They learned nothing from the way Breaking Bad grew its audience through Netflix.

Unfortunately that means if you took my advice and stopped watching or never watched Hostages you don’t have a way to catch up. Blame me. When it comes on Netflix I encourage you to check it out. It’s good stuff.

Image credit: CBS.com

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Coven and two comedies

The second of two posts running down new fall shows on my schedule. Catch up with part one.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – ABC Tuesdays

SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson played by Clark Gregg.
SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson played by Clark Gregg.

Every few years I pull out my old comic book collection from the early 90s and re-realize I outgrew them. It took the first half of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D pilot for me to re-re-realize it. I didn’t think it was bad. It just wasn’t for me.

After hearing good things about it on social media I gave it a second look. It is actually not too bad. Yes, it’s very comic book-ie, but it seems to do it well. I have even less familiarity with the Marvel universe than I do the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow so most of the mythology goes over my head. Otherwise it’s clean, simple fun.

American Horror Story – FX Wednesdays

The yearly telenovela from FX normally gets its own treatment but until it proves it can match its first season it will stay here with crap like Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Season one was a fantastic mix of acting and demented storytelling. Dylan McDermot and Connie Britton left for other projects (Nashville and, now, Hostages, respectively). Jessica Lange and Evan Peters stayed to be joined by Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe and James Cromwell in season two but they couldn’t rekindle the magic. The scene in season one when Britton and McDermit’s daugther, played by Taissa Farmiga, tried running away but only ended up running in circles into and out of the house because she was dead remains one of my favorite scenes in any show. AHS didn’t come close to that level in season two.

Nor has it so far in season three. Lange and Paulson continue to star as witches at a coven in New Orleans. Farmiga is the latest young witch to be taken in by the group. Peters takes on the role of a frat boy killed in a bus accident and sewn back together in a scene so amateur hour that it felt like an after school special on the Hallmark Channel.

None of the new story is interesting. Jessica Lange was gold in season one but seems to have only played diluted versions of the same character since then. The Harmon’s haunted house featured a dead maid trying to seduce Dylan McDermot; the coven in season three was stormed by zombies.

Maybe it’s time we all admit season one was as good as it’s going to get.

The most unbelievable thing I will probably ever write here…

I’m liking some sitcoms.

Falling for Criminal Minds forced me to question everything about my post-Lost television snobbery. Falling for a couple of sitcoms this fall is personally shocking but I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. You’re always allowed to enjoy funny.

Mom – CBS Monday

You’ll always have me at Allison Janney and Anna Frris, I will say that upfront. Faris got pregnant as a teenager with her daughter who is now, you guessed it, a pregnant teenager. Janney was a terrible mother who drank, ran drugs and gave her daughter several potential stepfathers. This makes the humor quite a bit more adult than I was expecting on a primetime network, but I’ll take it. A little sanitized dirty humor never hurt anybody.

Beyond the laughs — I can’t believe I’m going to say this — I. Like. The. Story. Of. This. Sit. Com. And. I. Care. A. Bout. The. Charac. Ters. Faris wants to be a better mom for her kids than she had and gets sympathy when her pregnant daughter turns to Janney for support. Janney, in turn, sees that she can be as a grandmother what she never was as a mother. It’s all very nice and the timing between Lanney and Faris is perfect.

Despite being mostly panned before its premiere CBS picked up Mom for a full season.

Trophy Wife – ABC Tuesday

The melded family ensemble show works as well as its kids, and Trophy Wife has good kids. Two teenagers from Bradley Whitford’s first marriage are as funny and awkward as you’d expect them to be. His adopted son with his second wife is the overly-smart provocateur who tends to speak Yiddish. The wives are stereotypical and Whitford’s new wife, Malin Akerman, is trying to make herself look legitimate in everyone’s eyes after meeting him in a bar.

That isn’t the most rousing summary of a good show but the adults are good and the writers let the kids do their thing. Akerman downs a water bottle full of vodka to cover for the teenage girl in one episode and gives the adopted boy an iced coffee in another after letting him stay up all night. In one episode they learn the oldest daughter is hooking up with “Ace McBrady” and confront her about it in a party scene that had me on the floor.

ABC released the pilot online weeks before it aired and critics like it. You can jump in at anytime without missing a beat.

Sleepy Hollow, The Blacklist top new fall shows

Every season new shows pop up that I enjoy but don’t earn enough time and thought to warrant the kind of attention I give to Revenge, Person of Interest and others. I broke these into two posts, the second will include two shows that I never, ever in my wildest imagination thought I would talk about on my blog.

Part One: Sleepy Hollow, The Blacklist, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Part Two: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., American Horror Story, and two surprises.

Sleepy Hollow – FOX Mondays

I came into Sleepy Hollow knowing none of the background. My ignorance made the first 45 minutes of the pilot pretty difficult as a headless horseman ran around town swatting heads of unsuspecting residents. The first to go was the sheriff who Lost fans know better as Kelvin Inman. What a let down.

The last 15 minutes roped me in. Mysterious devils appeared, a man got his neck snapped completely backwards. That’s what I’m talking about! I posted a snap reaction with more thoughts if you care to read them.

Sleepy Hollow has stayed pretty good since then but it is falling under the post-Breaking Bad hangover I mentioned in my Minnesota Bloggers Conference recap. After watching the crisp seriousness of Walter White’s story arc I can’t get into a headless horseman the way I could before the binge. I still enjoy it, but I don’t take it seriously.

Hostages – CBS Mondays

I savaged the pilot but will have more to say soon.

The Blacklist – NBC Mondays

James Spader
James Spader as Raymond Reddington on NBC’s The Blacklist.

If any show on this list elevates to more regular postings it will most likely this one. I read the pilot script from Alias right before I watched The Blacklist for the first time and couldn’t help but feel some similarities. There’s spying, a young woman, some mysterious CIA and FBI types. Okay that’s probably where the similarities end, and I must confess to never seeing an episode of Alias. Give me a break, I needed an intro.

The Blacklist is a list kept by Raymond Reddington, played wonderfully by James Spader. “Red” went off the grid 20 years ago to live a life in the information trade, before suspiciously turning himself in in the series’ opening scene. He will only work with Elizabeth Keen, a young FBI profiler played by Megan Boone. It is not a coincidence that Spader’s character re-emerged on her first day with the Bureau.

The first few episodes give us a look into Keen’s past but not a complete look. Reddington is tantalizing her with insinuations that there is more to her life than she is aware of (that’s an Alias similarity!), starting with her new husband. After he is brutally attacked in their home, Red prompts her to find a box hidden under their floor. It’s full of passports. Suddenly the man with whom she is going to adopt a child is a suspicious mystery.

Each episode features Reddington trying to take down one of the international bad guy son his list of names. Each plot gives us a little bit more of the story so we know it is clear his targets are linked for some reason and the reason likely has to do with Keen.

I like The Blacklist because it gives the clear indication that there is a lot more to what we’ve seen in its first month. Give me a show with some depth, a few shady government types and some decent drama and I’ll give you my attention. I’m a little apprehensive about Spader’s character turning into one of the good guy/bad guy roles TV has become infatuated with (see: Ben Linus, Walter White, et al). But that’s a concern for another day.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – FOX Tuesdays

Andre Braugher is back! I was excited for Brooklyn Nine-Nine only for this reason.

What a disappointment. It is as if you took the worst parts of The Office and gave it the most stale jokes Twitter has to offer. It is not funny or entertaining. After the pilot I proclaimed I would burn my television and move to Dubai if it got more episodes than the great Last Resort, Braugher’s 2012 fall effort. Brooklyn got picked up for a full season, so very soon I will come to you and admit I broke this promise.

Free yourself from Hostages

Hostages has a great premise: Force a doctor to choose between the president and her family. Will she slip him a fatal poison on the operating table or will she risk her family being killed and let him live? Or will she turn the tables and fight back against their hostage takers?

Who gives a damn. This show is unlikeable.

While most pilots come out swinging with an extended opening sequence, Hostages went for a family sitting on a couch for 38 seconds. KA-POW! No, not ka-pow. Dad looks up and sees a masked man. That’s it. To recap: A show named Hostages opened with a family being held hostage. Therein lies the problem I have with the pilot: It is simply an extended version of everything you knew if you saw the promo. It is not an introduction to what will unfold over its 15-episode season. If that’s what CBS and its writers were intending, they failed big time.

The first time we see Dr. Ellen Sanders as a doctor is in a press conference with the president. He selected her over the chief surgeon from Johns Hopkins to remove a nonmalignant mass from his lung. This is also the first time we the president whose fate Sanders will determine in the face of danger to her family. Instead of making him a character, Paul Kincaid is meaningless but for holding the title of President of the United States. Because this is television I don’t have to care about whether he lives or dies, but I was surprised and disappointed to see the show not even try to make me care.

The night before the surgery, a traitorous FBI agent leads a team of ninjas onto the Sanders’ unguarded property. As the hostage-taking unfolds we start to see cracks in their all-American family. Her husband is having an affair, her daughter is secretly pregnant and her son is dealing weed. They are not the Seavers. They are two brats, a jerk and a working mom. We have no reason to hope the crisis draws them together. Hostages needs viewers to hope the family does exactly that because, like with the anonymous president, the show’s drama relies on it. If I don’t care about the family then I don’t care if the mom kills the president or not. If I don’t care about that, then why am I even watching this show?

For the bad guys to win? FBI Special Agent Duncan Carlisle is no one special. He is just an angry husband whose wife is suffering from cancer. Is he the ringleader of a presidential assassination plot or just a pawn? At first he seems like the ringleader, but when he is revealed to be partnering with someone inside the White House that becomes less clear. I love shows that put viewers in the position of liking the bad guy. Hostages doesn’t even give us that. Carlisle is the kind of loser who in real life might get it in his mind to kill the president only to end up getting arrested on Pennsylvania Avenue.

If I don’t care about the president, or the family, or the bad guys…?

I can get behind a great story. That is the number one reason I watch any television show. But Hostages passed on illuminating any of the things that had to happen leading up to the opening scene. Why did the president insist on this doctor instead of the one his wife mentioned from Johns Hopkins? The political benefit of trusting his life to a woman? Maybe it is something more sinister. His aide, Quentin, is part of the plot, so did he intentionally steer the president in this direction. Why? We don’t know and the show never made any attempt to lay the groundwork for exploring it.

Nor do we know why they want the president dead. Killing the president is a pretty severe obsession, don’t you think? All the pilot gave us was a vague reference to Carlisle’s wife having cancer and wanting to get back to “the way things were.” You can’t skip over the motive in a show about trying to kill the president! It needed to be a major part of the pilot.

We don’t even get to see why Ellen is a great doctor. The president doesn’t just get a binder full of female surgeons to pick from when he needs surgery. Something had to make her stand out. A colleague tells Ellen she is a rockstar who was picked because she is the best, not because she is a woman. Not good enough. We need to actually see her being a great doctor. How hard would that have been? A basic doctor-performs-a-miracle scene is the staple of television staples. Hostages couldn’t even give us that much.

Throw me a bone, reel me in, give me just one hint that there is a bigger story here! I want to like it!

But I can’t. This show is arrogant. It throws you into an opening scene that lasts all of 38 seconds with characters you ultimately cannot like. It expects you to be riveted just because it wants you to be, taking for granted all the storytelling that goes into developing a compelling drama. It asks you to completely overlook the fact that a doctor about to perform surgery on the President of the United States is allowed to just waltz home the night before to a completely unguarded home. It asks you to be dumb.

The worst moment came when Carlisle and his team (who we know absolutely nothing about) took their masks off in the Sanders’ living room. The daughter panics and tells her father that they are more likely to be killed if they see the bad guys’ faces. There’s nothing better than a self-aware television show.

One thing did catch my eye. I’m not sure if it was because it was really there or I was looking so hard that my imagination went into overdrive: Does Dr. Sanders know why she was put in this situation? The way Carlisle calls her by her first name and how she completely breaks down in front of him could suggest these two knew each other before he took her family. Perhaps she was involved with his wife’s care and the whole assassination plot is his way of getting back at her? That could explain why the president received so little attention.

At the very end, does the television news crawl matter when it says, “…corporations are people. Terrorist has cooperated since clandestine guilty plea.” Ultimately, because of all the faults listed above, I just don’t care.

Good pilots surprise you. They tease you and they tantalize you. You don’t want a good pilot to end. When it does you want the next episode right now because it left you craving more. Were you on the edge of your seat when Hostages ended? I wasn’t. Nothing I saw made me want to see another 14 weeks of Doctor Ellen Sanders playing cat and mouse with Duncan Carlyle.