July 23, 2021

Crime Scene Kitchen was Too Flavorful

It’s the summertime, and that means it’s time for the broadcast networks to fill up their primetime slots with unscripted reality and game show content. It’s cheaper, and in these COVID times, easier to produce in a bubble. And because I’ve binged everything else, I found myself tuning in. 

Crime Scene Kitchen promo poster
This dessert does not appear in the show.
Source: imdb.com
Joel McHale brought his signature sarcasm to a new FOX show, hosting (and executive producing) Crime Scene Kitchen. If that title sounds like the height of gimmick to you, you’d be right. Here's how it works: Two mystery desserts are baked in the titular Kitchen each week, and teams of two are charged with using the clues they find there to identify and recreate them.

Like crumbs showing through the cracks of a hastily draped fondant, the ingredients that went into the recipe for Crime Scene Kitchen are clearly visible. Its format, style, and humor are sampled from other baking shows. 

The rounds are essentially a reinvention of the technical challenge from The Great British Bake Off (aka, The Great British Baking Show), wherein contestants are given ingredients and vague instructions and tasked to make the same dessert. The more glaring theft is CSK's “Showpiece” round, a clear rip off of Bake Off’s “Showstopper.” 

But not every dessert presented is a triumph. Because the teams occasionally get the clues very wrong, and also occasionally get it right, but do poorly, the show simultaneously tries to revel in the #fail like Nailed It!

Perhaps the subtlest of all CSK’s inspirations is the way it is stylized like a YouTube show. The production aspects of the show are lampshaded, as if to tell the audience, “we know you know how TV is made by now, so we’re all in on the joke, right?” This is largely thanks to host Joel McHale, who takes far too many opportunities to call for lighting cues and talk about how cool the set is. His joke calling the stand where the mystery dessert is revealed the “Confectionator 3000” should have died after its first telling, but no - it gets repeated every week.  The fact that one of the two judges, Yolanda Gampp, is (we’re repeatedly told) a Famous Youtube Pastry Chef is the frosting on this internet popularity cake.

The trouble is, none of these concepts complement each other. Every Bake-Off fan knows that the audience wants to see successes, not failures. And if we wanted to watch a YouTube show... well, we'd just watch YouTube. 

Gampp and her fellow judge, Michelin-starred chef Curtis Stone, make subjective judgments about which bakers win each challenge. On this show, being “Star Bake…” er, I mean, “Top Dessert Detective” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best baker, or even that you made the best dessert. It just means you got closest to the “mystery dessert.” And while many skills that reality competition contestants hone are not applicable in the real world, using clues in a meticulously staged kitchen to identify and reproduce a dessert seems particularly useless.

The final challenge of the finale episode threw the premise of the show in the trash, and let contestants build on a handful of ingredients to essentially make whatever sort of cake they wanted. Frustratingly, this new format quite obviously bent the competition in favor of the eventual winners. (The prize was $100,000, but also an engraved cake stand - now, where have I seen one of those?)

Selfie of Judges Curtis Stone, Yolanda Gampp, guest judge Ken Jeong, and host Joel McHale
Curtis Stone, Yolanda Gampp, and Joel McHale
pose with guest judge Ken Jeong.
Source: facebook.com 
This wasn’t the only surprise format change. About half the episodes included a celebrity guest judge, for some reason. There was near constant reinvention what constitutes a “clue” in the kitchen. Mystery too hard in the first couple of episodes? Add something more obvious - a list of potluck items and a coordinating name on a coffee cup will make it simpler. The show failed to copy Bake Off's trick of having the contestants and judges wear the same outfits on multiple days of filming, so exposition edited in after the fact was obvious. All of this made the whole show feel like somewhat of a work in progress.  I wonder if any play testing occurred before the game began filming? I'd bet not.

Because the show is aimed at the casual summer viewer who happens to tune in, it spends precious time constantly reiterating the premise of the show. All this wasted time is probably why only two challenges fit in each episode, and why the slate of contestants had to be split into two groups for the first six episodes. Perhaps the makers of Crime Scene Kitchen will have perfected the recipe of the show before filming a second season? The trophy cake stand optimistically read: "Season 1 Crime Scene Kitchen Champions."

May 16, 2021

Superman & Lois and Viewers Like Me

The following will contain spoilers from the first 6 episodes of Superman & Lois. 

After only the first episode of the spring freshman show Superman and Lois had aired, The CW announced the show was renewed for a second season. Whether it was the high viewership ratings, what the producers had seen in the dailies, or just the network's historic success with DC franchise shows, I can't say. (The network has shown itself to be eager to renew.) But what I can say is that the pilot episode of this show was good. Not great, not the best I've ever seen, but compelling. 

I do not read or collect comic books, but Superman is my favorite superhero. I was a faithful viewer of two past television iterations of the character and his story: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), and Smallville (2001-2011). Plus, I'm one of what I'm sure is a relatively small subset of people who own a copy of the soundtrack to the short-lived Broadway musical It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman. So it was with this casual fandom and the memory of a handful of Superman movies as reference that I arrived at Superman & Lois. 

Promotional poster for Superman & Lois
Source: cwtv.com

Like Smallville, Superman & Lois is set in the town of Clark Kent’s childhood. But this is not the story of his adolescence; here, Clark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Lois (Elizabeth Tulloch) have returned to his hometown following Martha Kent's death to tend the family farm and raise their twin teenage sons. It's an untried premise for the character, at least on television. A big question hanging over the pilot is whether his boys - Jonathan and Jordan - will inherit Clark's super-abilities. (One does.) Clark must also strive for that unreachable work-life balance, made more difficult since his work is, well, saving the world. The series finds Lois in her classic reporter job, but not at the Daily Planet. Clark was laid off and Lois unceremoniously quit after wealthy business tycoon Morgan Edge bought the paper. She soon finds herself at the Smallville Gazette, with Edge as the primary target of her investigative journalism. 

Image of a desolate looking Kent Farm from Superman & Lois
The Kent Farm in Superman and Lois
Source: Arrowverse Fandom
The world of Superman & Lois is full of dark colors, muddy boots, and moody high schoolers. Even when the sun shines, the landscape of Smallville seems desolate. The single hallway we see at Smallville high is dimly lit. Even a scene set at the town's Harvest Festival is subdued; there is no blinking neon midway. The dark tone is also metaphorical. The town is economically depressed. Folks are out of work, we're told. And they've come to see wealthy business tycoon Morgan Edge and his plan to retrofit local mines as their way out. 

Superhero stories have been getting progressively darker in tone throughout my lifetime. I like humor, and I prefer the bright colors and wisecracking villains of earlier shows about Superman. But the era of "camp" in superhero media is long gone, and dark, satirical takes like The Boys are the future. So it comes as no surprise that Superman & Lois would look for that angle. The show proffers itself even darker storyline options with the introduction of a villain from an alternate universe: one "Captain Luthor." He seems to come from a timeline where Superman is evil and vindictive, more like The Boys' "Homelander." Consequently, this Luthor turns all his villainous energy toward our Earth-Prime Superman, building an armored suit and attacking power stations to lure the hero and learn how he operates. Between the otherworldly Luthor and earth-bound Edge, the foes of this show seem indomitable. Little room is left for quirky villains like a "Prankster" or a "Toyman." 

Because I have not watched other DC shows in the current CW lineup (with the exception of a few early episodes of Supergirl), I don't have a frame of reference for the villains or lore of this series. After it became clear that alternate realities/universes will play a significant role in the story, I had to look up whether the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" crossover was something I needed to know to understand Superman & Lois. Morgan Edge (who is a DC character, but not one with which I'm familiar) seemed at first to fill the Lex Luthor role in this series, but then the pilot ends with the reveal of Captain Luthor. 

All this left me wondering who this show was made for, and indeed, was it made for a viewer like me? Can I watch this series independent of the rest of the Arrowverse? Will I be constantly wondering what connections I might be missing? Superman is my favorite superhero because he is unreservedly good. He is not brooding or mercurial. He stands for truth and justice, and he always has. I think Hoechlin is actually very good casting, which is a stroke of luck since he was originally cast in the role in Supergirl. Hoechlin exudes the boy scout energy necessary for the character. Can I watch a dark take on my favorite bright superhero? Do I in actuality know too much, and not too little, about Superman to enjoy this show? 

The CW would not have renewed Superman & Lois if the network didn't believe it would have an audience. And I have been captivated enough to be a part of that audience for half a dozen episodes. But will I stick around through Season 2? When it returns this week, I'll tune in, and I guess I'll find out. 

February 28, 2021

Yes, Call her Kat, because she's NOT Miranda

The farcical British comedy series Miranda aired between 2009 and 2015 on the BBC. It was semi-autobiographical, based upon the life and standup persona of comedian Miranda Hart. It is very funny, very British, and very specifically suited to its creator/star. 

In January of 2021, the new sitcom Call Me Kat, a adaptation of Miranda, premiered on FOX starring Mayim Bialik. Both shows are about a single, business-owning woman in her thirties whose social awkwardness leads to the comedic situations of the genre. But while Miranda worked, Call Me Kat simply doesn't. I've analyzed two episodes of the American adaptation, comparing them to their source material, to try to figure out why.

In "Vacation" (Call Me Kat, S1E3) and "Holiday"(Miranda, S1E4), the titular character tells her friends and mother she's going overseas for a solo vacation, when in fact she's simply staying at a local hotel. Both "Therapy" (Call Me Kat, S1E4), and "Just Act Normal" (Miranda, S2E5), find Kat/Miranda and her mother at a psychiatrist's office. 

Changes to the storyline in both of these adaptations highlight some of the structural and tonal problems with Call Me Kat. Consider the inciting incidents and ultimate resolutions of the stories:

Miranda goes "on holiday" in her hometown because she has no desire or inclination to go anywhere else. "A night out for me is going into the garden, coming back, ahh, home at last!" Miranda tells the audience. She tells her friends she's going to Thailand to get them off her back. Kat checks into a hotel in her hometown because she chickens out of going on a free trip to Puerto Rico alone. “I got freaked out. It’s my mom’s fault," she tells her friend Max. The result is a Kat less self-possessed than Miranda, less confident in her own choices and the life she leads. Miranda brings awkwardness to situations because she's confidently strange, and that's presented to the audience through her little habits (e.g., singing or dancing in public for longer than anyone should, making socially inappropriate observations). Kat seems like a mostly normal person who occasionally does something odd like eat a massive plate of crab legs at a hotel buffet. She might declare that she is comfortable being herself, or that she is eccentric, but the story doesn't support it. 

Kat and Sheila. 
Source: telltaletv.com
The first 8 minutes of "Therapy" are spent in setup, with Kat fighting with and needling her mother (Swoosie Kurtz), who she then "jokes" she'd like to murder (!!!). It is this argument, and the suggestion of her friends, that lead Kat and her mother Sheila into therapy. The entirety of "Just Act Normal" takes place within the psychiatrist's office. We don't find out why Miranda and her mother Penny (Patricia Hodge), are in therapy until midway through the episode, when the two of them comically reveal the circumstances that led to this court-ordered appointment. The humorous back and forth between the two of them is the joke, in stark contrast to the bleak setup of Call Me Kat. In an even bleaker turn, the resolution to Kat and Sheila’s time on the couch is the discovery of their mutual depression over the death of Kat's father. (Where did this even come from? Miranda's father is very much alive, and his relationship with Penny is the source of many laughs!) Call Me Kat attempts to layer depth and sincerity atop a premise of absurdity. The show is so wrapped up in offering a Very Special Episode about therapy and antidepressants that the humor is lost altogether. And by the way, it is possible to make a defense of those things successfully in a comedy. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did it repeatedly. But Call Me Kat fails in both humor and message. 

Miranda and Penny.
Source: bbc.co.uk
Miranda and Penny eventually bond not over a diagnosis, but their mutual annoyance with the psychiatrist. The dialogue doesn't need to tell us the two of them are alike because the episode has shown us that all the way through, via synchronous dancing and line delivery, and even in the recounting of the absurd ice cream van debacle that led them to the office in the first place. 

I mention the length of time spent on the setup because it affects a joke that is in both versions of the story.  The psychiatrist in each episode remains silent at the start of the scene. In "Just Act Normal," he speaks for the first time nearly 10 minutes into the episode, startling Miranda, causing her to spill coffee on her trousers, and subsequently turn a tablecloth into a sarong.  Kat and her mother don’t arrive at the psychiatrist’s office until the 8 minute mark, and the doctor speaks just 1 minute later. There is no comedic payoff to the joke, not only because the timing is truncated, but also because Kat’s mother simply says, “Oh, you can speak!” Not much of a punchline.

In both "Therapy" and "Vacation," the momentum of Kat's story is continually interrupted by the B stories  about the supporting cast. Secondary stories can be useful when they say, release or raise tension. But here they just interrupt the flow. It’s as if the show doesn’t trust the audience to live in the tension of a scene, wonder about anything, or wait longer than 60 seconds for an explanation. Or else the show distrusts its actors to hold the audience’s attention between planting and payoff. 

Further frustrating the use of the side characters is their poor connection to Kat herself. Two employees in her cafe can deliver a few one-liners, sure. But they are no replacement for Miranda's Stevie (Sarah Hadland), who is best friend and foil to Miranda. They play off one another in both dialogue and physical comedy and clearly inhabit the same world. It pains me to say a bad word about Swoosie Kurtz, but she does not work here. Sheila is stiff, overbearing, not funny, and not fun. Penny, by contrast, is "SUCH FUN." 

A few other things do get lost in translation in the adaptation. One is the breaking of the fourth wall that Miranda featured heavilyThe asides to the audience work well in Miranda because of Hart's comedic timing and stand-up skills. She's speaking to the audience to entertain them. Kat is just kind of, providing exposition, maybe? The camera work and direction fail Bialik here, too. Miranda's asides are framed tight against her face; her acting alone doesn't need to distinguish these moments (though it could.) All Bialik does during these digressions is turn her head to face a camera (and her intonation and delivery doesn’t change.) 

Maddeningly, the creators of Call Me Kat seem to have attempted to recreate Miranda's family's poshness by making Kat's mother... friends with the Governor of Kentucky? By putting her in a ball gown? This is a massive translation error. The UK social strata cannot be replicated in a US sitcom and TV writers need to stop trying.

Miranda feels like a spiritual successor to I Love Lucy, with Hart excelling as a physical comedian.  I'll say for Bialik that she actually holds her own with the physical comedy, but because Call Me Kat lacks the absurdist tone and company of characters that Miranda has, those pratfalls are out of place. Instead, Call Me Kat rests on the boring premises and basic delivery of every dull sitcom you’ve ever forgotten about. The only positive thing I’ve left to say for Call Me Kat is that it inspired me to rewatch Miranda.

January 30, 2021

All Creatures Great and Small: "Andante"

After watching the first two episodes of the new Masterpiece series All Creatures Great and Small, you'd be forgiven for thinking that each episode will end happily for all the animals you encounter. The bucolic setting and guileless protagonist lend themselves to uplifting stories. But the life and work of a country veterinarian can be difficult and unpleasant, too. 

The series is based upon the book of the same name, a memoir by James Herriot, chronicles of his early years as a vet in Yorkshire in the mid 20th century. In the book's fifth chapter, Herriot must euthanize a horse who is suffering great pain and a slow death as a result of a torsion of the bowel. The young vet must then await confirmation of his diagnosis via a postmortem conducted by his boss, Siegfried Farnon. It is this chapter that is adapted into the third episode of the PBS series. 

James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) examines a patient.
Source: pbs.com

The series's creators and writers deftly adapt the source material. The characters of Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) and Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) are bought forward to expand the main cast, and a romantic rivalry between James and Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis) for the affections of Helen is added. Herriot's accounts of his patients are lifelike on the page, and the series pulls a few of the vignettes from in the book into each episode, creating a vivid picture of his work.  In episode 3, writer Lisa Holdsworth builds the bulk of the story out of the seven short pages of Chapter 5, and only makes additions that either raise the stakes or enhance character development. 

While the horse in the book is both beloved and valuable, tension is added in the episode by also making the stallion a racehorse. Unnamed in the book, the horse is called Andante here, and is the also the favorite to win the upcoming Darrowby Classic. Every local at the pub has put their money on it. Everyone, that is, except Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse). Seigfried's brother finds himself in a bit of a tight spot, having accidentally spent the payments he was supposed to have collected from the local farmers. Seizing rather questionably upon the not-yet-public news of Andante's death, Tristan puts what's left of his money on the second favorite, ultimately recouping his losses. By making Andante a racehorse, James and Tristan's storylines can be woven together. Plus, we get the chance to see another little scheme of Tristan's. While not drawn directly from the pages of the book, it's behavior consistent with the character the reader meets there. 

The postmortem examination looms over Herriot for the second half of the episode. Confident as he was in his diagnosis, television James second guesses himself in the face of angry and litigious stable owner Hugh Hulton. Book James has no such reconsiderations; the postmortem is standard, expected, and comes and goes within a few paragraphs. By letting the viewer live in Herriot's fears for the night, awaiting confirmation of his decision, the stakes are raised. Strangely, we viewers find ourselves relieved to ultimately find out that the horse was, in fact, dying at the start of the episode.

The farmer at James's next appointment rather distressingly refers to him as "horse killer." This and other contemptuous reactions from the Darrowby locals are not found in the book, but are believable. In both book and adaptation, the young vet faces an uphill battle toward acceptance in the community. In "Andante," Herriot's newfound reputation gives Siegfried (Samuel West) an opportunity to defend his assistant. Here, Siegfried is offered the position of veterinarian at the Darrowby racetrack, if he fires James. But Siegfried defends James. Perhaps more importantly, he defends James's veterinary philosophy. "Yesterday, you agreed the welfare of the animal came first. Today, it seems that's not the case," he tells the racetrack manager. The reader comes to know Siegfried as a soft-hearted, if a bit irascible, man. The episode allows the viewer to see that as well. 

Turning the short chapters of a long book into one-hour episodes of television cannot be an easy task. This is not the first adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small, but it is a successful one. This is because the writers understand the source material; while the stories are embellished, the setting and characters are true to their inspirations. Furthermore, those embellishments only serve to enhance the stories, adding the tension necessitated by the medium. 

January 21, 2021

Superstore: "Hair Care Products"

When scripted TV returned to production in the midst of COVID-19, writers and showrunners had two choices: continue with their story as if the pandemic never happened, or incorporate it into the plot. I have preferred the former. If ever there was a time for escapist TV, this is it. To say nothing of the ever changing experience of the pandemic. As EW's James Hibberd put it, "Nobody can correctly make an authentic drama about this pandemic right now. It’s been noted many times before that you cannot make a great movie about a war until years after the war has ended.” Can the experience be accurately fictionalized when it has not yet been fully lived?

Mateo and Cheyenne watch the ceremonial
unlocking of the hair care case. 
Source: tvfanatic.com
Superstore opted to try to find out. In the season 6 premiere, the titular Cloud 9 Superstore is facing the same pandemic the viewers are, and the episode drags as a result. The premiere also prolonged the exit of series lead America Ferrera, a departure which would have been tidier as the season 5 finale. By its title, the second episode of season 6 is actually the second half of the season 5 finale, but the COVID-themed opener "Essential" interrupted the two. In these first few episodes, there are jokes about mask wearing and about who might be contagious, but nothing about it feels unique to the show or even relatable to the viewer, despite the similarity to our own lives. Maybe it's because we've heard those jokes. We've made these jokes. The show is just slapping a mask on a cardboard cutout mascot. 

So imagine my surprise when the fifth episode of the season, "Hair Care Products" finally delivers a snapshot of COVID that feels true to life with a punchline that's true to the show. The B plot of the episode sees Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) and Mateo (Nico Santos), the break room's popular crowd, decide to do something "so nice" for the less popular Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and invite her to their upcoming movie night. Sandra politely declines. When pressed, she reveals she's not comfortable with Mateo and Cheyenne's loose adherence to COVID guidelines. It feels like a real conversation. Heck, you've probably been on one side or the other of that same conversation. But unlike earlier jokes in the season where the punchline was just, "Oh no! He's contagious," the humor here is in watching Mateo and Cheyenne bend over backward to accommodate the one person they didn't intend to invite in the first place.

Earlier seasons of the show tackled timely and heavy topics like parental leave, PTSD, and even an ICE raid. It comes as no surprise that they'd try to tackle COVID. The pandemic isn't even the heaviest or timeliest topic in this episode. The A plot sees Garrett (Colton Dunn) begrudgingly lead the employees in developing anti-racist policy suggestions for corporate. And if that feels like way too big a task for a single retail store to handle, it's because it is. And fortunately, Superstore knows that. When corporate decides to reverse the policy on keeping Black hair care products in a locked cabinet, white characters' responses are mostly tone deaf. Meanwhile, Garrett is eager to point out the puniness of the change, but is frustrated when asked to speak and lead on behalf of all Black people. "It's not my job to call out every racist thing I come up against," he says. "It's my job to announce sales and pretend not to notice when people return used swimsuits." 

I'm glad to see that Superstore is back to its solid formula of addressing real world issues in their own little big box store, with their signature character-based humor. If the rest of Season 6 proceeds like this, I'll keep tuning in.