October 26, 2015

Supergirl: "Pilot"

CBS's new DC Comics adaptation Supergirl aired tonight and all I can say is WOW. I was more impressed with the show than I expected I would be, and my expectations were high. What made this show so great? Classic comic elements, positivity, and subtle relevance.

Source: cbs.com
Probably assuming that most viewers would have a basic knowledge of Superman mythology, the writers kept the exposition at the start of the show brief. (Even briefer was the Dean Cain cameo. It doesn't matter though - even a voiceless five seconds warmed my 90's L&C fangirl heart.) Before the show jumped too deep into the comic book archives, we got to see Kara as she has been pre-this pilot episode - a normal young woman looking to find her way in the professional world. In other words, the writers found a way to make her relatable before she started beating up evil aliens escaped from the Phantom Zone. (And speaking of villains, I was hoping that the General they spoke of would be Zod, but I'll take "Astra" if it means we get to see more of the incredible Laura Benanti.) It seems Supergirl won't shy away from mixing DC canon with new creativity. There you have it - a little mythology, relatable heroes, and a prison full of villains. Add to that better CGI and special effects than I've seen on TV in a while, and you've got yourself a superhero show.

Melissa Benoist, the somewhat unknown star of the show, got the majority of the screen time, but Kara was surrounded by as many friends as foes, including a supportive sister. A little love triangle between our hero, James Olsen, and IT guy Winn may be forming, but if the pilot is any indication, romantic love won't be the center of the show. Instead, the center of the show will be well, Supergirl! A hero whose debut filled her with a radiating joy. I was thrilled to see that Supergirl is a hopeful, positive show with a hopeful, positive leading lady. Someone who seeks to do right, and be true to herself, but also be the person the world needs her to be. Does that sound cheesy? I don't care. This is a feel good show. And that's what TV's audience needs it to be.

While this Supergirl might also be "The Feminist Superhero TV Needs," the show didn't hit us over the head to make a statement. Rather, it let a host of characters make all kinds of points. From the diner waitress who simply said she was glad her daughter would have a female hero to look up to, to Cat Grant's unexpectedly legitimate defense of the word "girl," Supergirl isn't out there to make a statement, but to tell a story. If that story makes a statement along the way, great! But I'm guessing it will be a nuanced, honest statement about what it means to be real and strong, and a woman. Similarly, the show didn't hit us over the head with its modern relevance. The cultural touchstones that made the show stick to our day and age - downsizing of print media, online dating, the ubiquity of smart phone cameras - were subtle, and natural enough to set the story and its characters in what seemed like a real (albeit science fictional) world. Supergirl, who wikipedia tells me first appeared in comics in 1958, is placed neatly and believably in 2015.

The marketing for the show ramped up as the "most anticipated premiere of the season" approached. A "Who's Your Supergirl?" campaign invited potential viewers to shout out to the women in their lives with a personalized image to share on social media. CBS crafted a sweet and inspirational video of mothers and daughters previewing the show. Benoist has been doing the rounds on morning shows, and appeared tonight on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  The show was even strategically aired - immediately following the ever popular Big Bang Theory, whose Tuesdays at 8 PM slot Supergirl will now take over. And the odd 8:30 start time and the omission of the new comedy Life in Pieces were surely meant to keep the TBBT audience from channel flipping and failing to return by 9 PM. In some clever cross-channel marketing, an ad for The Flash on CBS's sister network The CW aired before the final Supergirl credits. In short, Supergirl is a show CBS is banking on to be a hit in their new fall lineup. Tonight's premiere tells me this is a show worthy of their investment - and yours.

October 4, 2015

Summer TV Binge Part II: The Good Wife

Although the central conceit of this blog is and always has been broadcast (non-cable) network TV that I watch through my rabbit ear antenna, I could not be a bigger fan of streaming internet platforms. Not only because they let me binge on yes, even cable shows (I adore Mad Men), but also because they allow me to catch up on broadcast shows that are still airing in time for the new season's premiere. 

Such is the case with CBS's The Good WifeWhen I tell one of my friends (a young adult like myself) that I started binging on this show, I inevitably get the same response: a slight smirk and the statement, "My mom loves that show." It's uncanny. Happens every time. But just because I may not be the show's target demographic doesn't mean I don't find this show fantastic.

Here's why I love the show your mom loves: 

The Good Wife Universe

The show masterfully weaves character development and all kinds of conflict - interpersonal, intrapersonal, romantic, professional, political, familial - through its overarching storyline.

Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth on The Good Wife
Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth on The Good Wife
Source: cbs.com
The title of the show is transparently tongue in cheek. Alicia is no more a "good" wife than the cheating Peter is a "good" husband. Instead, what draws the audience in is the authenticity of her choices. Not in the sense that they are choices I - or most viewers - will ever have to make, but because they are the choices we might make were we in her position. There is a distinction between relatable and realistic. This show is not one where you see yourself in the characters, but it is nonetheless believable. This is due in large part to the political nature of the show and its setting in Chicago, a city with real-life political scandals that make the Florrick's problems seem tame. The corruption, the infidelity, and the lies are nothing new to any American viewer who even passively follows politics. More than that, the show is realistic because the heroes are flawed, and they don't always win. (And when they do win, there's a cost.)

The writers of this show understand that believability is in the details; the lawyers, judges, and politicians whom the viewers meet on the show return again and again, just as they would in reality. There is a limited supply of judges in Chicago, after all. And these recurrences allow the faithful (or binging) viewer to get a more complete picture of the universe in which Alicia Florrick lives and practices law.

The Overarching Plot and the Stand Alone Episodes 

My one (peer) friend who does watch this show doesn't watch it consistently, and yet still really loves it. She's a fan of the TGIT ABC dramas, so I'd guess that some of the soapier, relationship aspects of The Good Wife are what appeal to her. And yet The Good Wife is not overwhelmingly soapy. The characters' relationship arcs feel poignant and significant - not unnecessarily dramatic. They give us enough to go on that we can 'ship one couple and hate another, but those relationships don't overwhelm the episodes. And when a relationship is worn out, the writers know how to kill it. (Yes, sometimes by killing off a character.)

Matt Chzuchry plays Cary Agos on The Good Wife.
Matt Czuchry plays Cary Agos on The Good Wife.
Source: cbs.com
All this to say, you can watch a single episode of the show and still follow along. That's because, in the great tradition of American legal/crime dramas, the writers are not afraid to craft episodes "ripped from the headlines." The cases that the main cast of lawyers face and settle and try each episode are intriguing in and of themselves, independent of the larger story. And each case is new and different, with its own legal complexities. That keeps the show interesting.

It's that larger story, too, that kept me watching. (I binged on six seasons of the show in about three months...) That wouldn't have happened if this were a run-of-the-mill procedural. Each season had its own fascinating campaign, business deal, scandal, affair, or legal battle storyline running through it. The arrest and imprisonment of Cary Agos in Season 6 had me on the edge of my seat episode after episode. That plot line was inspired. So was the dramatic irony of the Season 5 NSA wiretap plot. The Good Wife does so many things well, one of which is giving the audience just enough information that we feel knowledgable, but utterly powerless. (Which, of course, we are - but that powerlessness means we feel like we're a part of the characters' universe. That is good storytelling.)

The Guest Stars 

A lot can be said about the cast of this show, who deserve the accolades they've received. Julianna Margulies, who plays the titular character, has two Emmy wins and another two nominations for the show. Archie Panjabi scored an Emmy and two additional nominations for her role as Kalinda. Alan Cumming has three nominations for his portrayal of Eli Gold. These three have stood out to me as the most impressive in a cast full of very impressive actors who bring the universe of The Good Wife to life.

Jeffrey Tambor guest stars on The Good Wife
Jeffrey Tambor guest stars on The Good Wife
Source: cbs.com
What's been more striking to me as a binge viewer though, is the seemingly impossibly long list of guest stars - huge names from the stage and screen who fit so seamlessly into the Chicago The Good Wife has designed. Names like Matthew Perry, Audra McDonald, America Ferrera, Martha Plimpton, Kristin Chenoweth, Wallace Shawn, Ana Gasteyer, Jeffrey Tambor, Anika Noni Rose, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, Nathan Lane, and Michael J. Fox. And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head! The show is stacked with these stars - many of whom have had recurring roles. The best part is that these stars aren't being used as bait to draw in viewers. This show doesn't need bait. Rather they are being utilized to make a good show consistently great by surrounding a stellar main cast with equally stellar guest actors to work with.

The writing, the acting, the direction - The Good Wife is a triumph. It's original, captivating, quality television, airing in an era when it's easy for broadcast network TV to be anything but. It's been my favorite summer binge, and I can only hope it will be one of my favorite shows to watch this fall.

The Good Wife returns tonight at 9 PM on CBS.