Review: “HAPPYish” Premiere is More of a Tragedy than Comedy

Steve Coogan plays the role of Thom Payne in "HAPPYish" in a new series. Photo: Showtime

What’s the key to happiness? Steve Coogan plays the role of Thom Payne in “HAPPYish” in a new series. Photo: Showtime

Caution: This review contains spoilers on the first episode of “HAPPYish.”

There seems to be a fascination with covering the world of advertising and new marketing. Sure, there’s the social media obsession, but it’s more or less overkill to situate an entire television series in that world. 2013 brought us “The Crazy Ones,” which at least started well on CBS. Then last year, ABC brought “Black-ish,” which some may argue, adds the element of being African American to the mix; however, I find it often disintegrates to low humor and gimmicks. The most recent (and hardly improved) endeavor comes from Showtime in Shalom Auslander’s “HAPPYish.”

The comedy-drama focuses on Thom Payne (Steve Coogan), who has reached his 44th birthday. He’s got a great job as a creative director for MGT, a marketing agency. Two Swedes (Nils Lawton and Tobias Segal) are now his bosses, a move that leaves everyone fearful of losing their jobs. His immediate supervisor, Jonathan (Bradley Whitford), advises him to “rebrand” himself and follow whatever the Swedes say.

Thom is married to his lovely wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and they have a cute son, Julius (Sawyer Shipman). Perhaps he should be happy, but he isn’t. That feeling isn’t being helped by the questions about his relevance. His friend, Dani (Ellen Barkin), insists that everyone has a “joy ceiling” and maxes out on happiness.

The name Thomas Payne seems to be a harkening back to the more significant man in history (albeit with a slightly different spelling of Paine), who penned “Common Sense” and inspired the American Founding Fathers. Auslander evokes those allusions right away by bringing Mount Rushmore and the head of Thomas Jefferson into the opening frames. Yet, this Thom Payne is of a different sort of mettle. A discussion leader at the local gym poses the question, “How many of you think Thom Payne is capable of revolt?” Unsurprisingly, that’s a resounding “No” by the group of young people. The references to Jefferson, Camus (listed in the opening credits), and others comprise perhaps the most clever aspect of this premiere installment.

Indeed, Thom’s frustration finally boils over into a workout enhancer-induced rant and a very bizarre (and graphic) dream featuring the Keebler Elves. Keebler really could have done better than “HAPPYish.” It all results in a show that is laden with the overused mid-life crisis theme, stereotypical career woes and personalities, and plenty of time for big brands to have their names dropped in rapid succession. “HAPPYish” offers a couple of promising moments, but it emits a sense of arrogance and anger that is more likely to chase away rather than draw in viewers before Thom even has a chance to engage in any substantive or game changing revolt.

The “HAPPYish” premiere was first released on Youtube. The series debuts on Showtime on Sunday evening, April 26, at 9:30|8:30c.

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Season 2 of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” Streams on Youtube Early

Caution: This post contains spoilers on the second season premiere of “Penny Dreadful.”

If you haven’t watched “Penny Dreadful” yet, now would be the perfect time to tune in and catch up. The series focuses on the supernatural talents of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), as she works with others to combat threats in Victorian London. It has a level of action and intrigue that “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman” or “LXG” should have striven for in its 2003 theatrical release.

Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is at it again on "Penny Dreadful." Photo Credit: Showtime

Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is at it again on “Penny Dreadful.” Screenshot from Youtube

The Showtime premiere of the second season is available for viewing on Youtube in advance of its scheduled release on the regular channel. The latest installment is quick to draw the battle lines, pitting Vanessa and the team against the machinations of Madame Kali and her Nightcomers (or witches). Ethan (Josh Harnett), originally intent on leaving London, decides to stay and protect Vanessa, after she is attacked by three Nightcomers. Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) is quite creepy and interesting all at once as a main baddie, in everything from her bladed ring to her literal blood baths. Also, Ethan’s trail of destruction has attracted the attention of Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) at the Mariner Inn, which is sure to arise as a problem later in the season.

Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) is determined to have a bride, a project that the scientist is working on. Sadly, the role will be fulfilled by Brona Croft (Billie Piper), who suffered from consumption and also died at Frankenstein’s (Harry Treadaway) hand. Was anyone else disturbed by Frankenstein’s attraction to her submerged body? The Creature succeeds in obtaining a job at the nearby Waxworks gallery from Mr. Putney (David Haig). However, he may face marital woes soon, as he appears to be falling for Putney’s blind daughter.

Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) has an ugly discussion with his wife at Mina’s grave, but returns to London soon after. We know from Madame Kali’s plans that he is a major target to draw out Vanessa. However, I wonder if the evil lady has underestimated him as much as she and her witches have misjudged Vanessa. Generally, it’s a terrible idea to assume that it’s easy to take down the old man.

It’s a rather good idea for Showtime to attract viewers ahead of its regularly scheduled premiere. “Penny Dreadful” is a strong series that will undoubtedly bring in new fans. One hopes that the rest of the season will also carry the same pacing and excellent plot development. The other free show available on Youtube today is “HAPPYish,” the new comedy-drama starring Steve Coogan. I will admit that I found “Penny Dreadful” to be much better, since “HAPPYish” fails to deliver (quite painfully) in the laughter department.

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“Fortitude” Season One Finale is Hardly a Buzzworthy Finish

Caution: This post contains spoilers. “Fortitude” is for mature audiences only.

After such a gain of momentum throughout the first season, “Fortitude” descends into quite a lackluster series of events in its finale. Many of you who have stuck with each installment may also be mourning the loss of arguably the best character, DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci), in the penultimate episode. I’d been dreading that outcome, too, yet it was expected that Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon), another fantastic character, would eventually crack entirely and wreak havoc. When these characters, particularly the former, are not present, both are greatly missed. Meanwhile, the scientific investigations have led to another dissection, showing that the psychotic and murderous tendencies of some townspeople could be traced back to parasitic wasp larvae.

The finale picks up here, with Vincent (Luke Treadaway) in a desperate situation as wasps emerge from the body of Dr. Allerdyce. (Phoebe Nicholls of “Downton Abbey” never gets a break in this series, does she?) He formulates a plan of triggering a gas explosion to destroy the wasps. It’s a laughable scene though: how does he survive a huge blast that knocks Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) off his feet? Also, it appears that the Ichneumon wasps did not infect Vincent, but we’ll know for sure later on. Is it possible to develop a better weapon to use against the wasps? Flamethrowers are neat, but it doesn’t seem wise to set fire to all of Fortitude.

Unfortunately, Elena (Verónica Echegui) has been infected and acts strangely by smearing jam on her face. Her decision to handcuff herself is also unsettling; was she trying to protect Carrie (Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips)? It’s not enough to stop her from attacking the young girl. Dan arrives and he is forced to shoot Elena to thwart her psychotic intentions, despite his vow in the previous episode that he would never hurt her. Will he ultimately kill himself for harming Elena? When Elena wakes up, will she try to harm herself for hurting Carrie? The cycle just continues on the downward spiral, as seen with Jason (Aaron McCusker), who couldn’t deal with the violence replaying in his head from what he unleashed on Ronnie (Johnny Harris).

The other relationships in this series do not feel as strong. There’s a bit of a happy ending for Hildur and Eric when he returns with the drill. It’s debatable whether that fits the tone of the show or if it’s believable, given how set Hildur (Sofie Gråbøl) was on cutting ties with Eric (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). It’s possible that she’s holding onto whatever she can, because the glacier hotel has slipped from her grasp. Her control over the town has also loosened as fear and panic have crept in.

The wasp explanation was not particularly astonishing in itself. (The actual wasps emerging from Dr. Allerdyce is an entirely different story.) There were hints dropped nearly every episode in everything from the repeated shots of the mammoth to the soundtrack complete with fluttering and buzzing noises.

More importantly, what makes “Fortitude” compelling and amazing to watch is the superb camera work that is used to bring the town and Arctic region to life as well as to make us squirm in our seats with trepidation. On the one hand, there are so many sweeping shots of the landscapes; Dan’s last words about his obsession with Elena might easily describe what one might say about the majestic mountains around Fortitude.

Photo Credit: Pivot

Photo Credit: Pivot

At the same time, there are also repeated sequences wherein nature dwarfs man and even isolates him from civilization. Take for instance, one of the last frames at the close of the finale. Even though Dan stands above the town, the haze and smoke almost seem to taunt him. Despite being in a position of authority as sheriff, he is still rather powerless to get things under control.

Dan surveys the damage in Fortitude. Photo credit: Pivot

Dan surveys the damage in Fortitude. Photo credit: Pivot

Such imagery also appears to be a play on the ruckenfigur, a visual trope made popular by the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. We’re invited to join Dan in his state of powerlessness, shock, and horror at what’s transpired in the past 12 episodes. In spite of its name, Fortitude has not weathered these storms well.

With the news of another season for “Fortitude,” one wonders what will come next, since many of the characters have died already. Richard Dormer is perhaps the next strongest actor in the cast, but I don’t think he can carry an entire season on his own shoulders. Both Hildur and Morton have said that others will come from London or the mainland; that casting decision may be pivotal in determining whether the second season will succeed. (Naturally, I couldn’t resist using the word “pivotal,” considering that distribution rights are held by the Pivot network!) Or will we end up with a situation like “Broadchurch,” where the first season was stellar overall and then the second season just left everyone scratching their heads? I am hoping that the creative team behind “Fortitude” will come through and deliver more surprises and “fun” next season.

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A Fantastic Summer at the Art Museum: “Guarding Leonardo da Vinci”

Yes, it’s April 15th, which means your Federal income taxes are due today. On a much more positive note, it’s also the birthday of celebrated Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, who lived from 1452-1519. I’m always excited about Leonardo because I studied Art History as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, situated within a day’s drive of our nation’s capital: Washington, D.C. The close proximity is quite nice, as it affords me with the opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art on a regular basis. The NGA is the only museum on the Western Hemisphere that houses a Leonardo painting.

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474/1478. Oil on Panel. National Gallery of Art, Washinton, D.C. Photo by Pat Cuadros.

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474/1478. Oil on Panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo by Pat Cuadros.

The Ginevra de’ Benci, executed in oils during the 1470s, is a rather masterful portrait that still continues to marvel visitors today. It was purchased in 1967 with funds from Alisa Mellon Bruce. I sat down recently for an interview with my co-worker, Toni Engel-Gonchoroff, to explore the impact that Leonardo da Vinci’s work has had on her life. She worked as a museum guard at the NGA, keeping a close eye on the Ginevra during the summer of ’68.

Check out the interview below or via Youtube. I’ve also included a montage of my own artistic endeavors. As an aside, this video was my first foray into the realm of film editing programs such as iMovie and Adobe Premiere Pro. In spite of the challenges, it was quite exciting to pull this project together!

As I mention in the video, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty” runs from today (April 15th) through June 14, 2015 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. The same exhibition concluded last week in at the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Williamsburg, Va, as well as the Leicester Codex viewing at the Phoenix Art Museum. The Ginevra de’ Benci is part of the permanent collection at the NGA, so there’s no need to hit both Boston and D.C. on the same vacation if you’re on a tight schedule. Finally, this year marked the limited release of  “Inside the Mind of Leonardo,” with Peter Capaldi (“Doctor Who”) as the Renaissance artist. What will 2016 bring for us to enjoy from Leonardo da Vinci?

Thank you again to Toni for agreeing to share her story.

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News: ‘Veep’ Creator’s Surprising Departure, an Advance Screening of ‘Mr. Holmes,’ and More

If you’re wondering what on Earth happened to my blog, rest assured that I will return to the full swing of things by the end of next week. I’m working on my debut interview project on film with a planned release date of April 15th.

Anyway, let’s touch on a couple news stories that are circulating today. Firstly, there is the surprise announcement that Armando Iannucci will be leaving “Veep” after 4 seasons, as reported in an exclusive release by The Hollywood Reporter. The creator of the HBO series is returning to the U.K. where his family still lives. David Mandel has been put forward as Iannucci’s replacement.

While “Veep” fans may be shocked, if anyone pays attention to the U.K. press, the development is perhaps not so astonishing. It’s potentially an occasion for “Doctor Who” fans to celebrate. Nearly 3 weeks ago, The Guardian reported that Iannucci wants to write an episode of “Doctor Who” for Peter Capaldi, the 12th Doctor. Such a venture would likely bode well for the BBC series because it’s a reunion of the creative masters that brought us both “The Thick of It” and “In the Loop.”

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Is “Doctor Who” getting the “Malcolm Tucker Experience” anytime soon? (Personal Photo)

Will the Doctor channel more of Malcolm Tucker, spin doctor and “dark lord of 10 Downing Street,” if Iannucci gets his chance to pen an installment? In the eighth season premiere, the Doctor knew he’d seen a face similar to his regeneration; is it an opportunity for Steven Moffat and others revisit the question with Armando Iannucci? Fans of those shows might relish it, but these aren’t angles that need particular embellishment, as both Malcolm and the Doctor are imposing enough figures on their own terms.

Lest I delve too much into the realm of speculation, let’s move on to the second piece of interesting news: Sir Ian McKellen has been cast as Cogsworth in the live-action film, “Beauty and the Beast.” Again, The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed the details for a film that already boasts a star-studded cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, and more. Now in his 75th year, McKellen displays no signs of slowing down. If you’re in the San Francisco area, you’ll want to book tickets to the advance screening of “Mr. Holmes” later this month. McKellen plays a 90 year-old version of the famous detective, based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind.” He comes off as a very aged but still impressive Holmes in the promotional tweet below:

The news about both Iannucci and McKellen could make for some very riveting releases in the near future. Stay tuned for updates and more discussions!

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TV Review: Polar Bear Gives Answers in “Fortitude”

Caution: This review contains major spoilers on the eighth episode of “Fortitude.”

DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) peers in a window in "Fortitude." Photo: Sky/Tiger Aspect Productions

DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) peers in a window in “Fortitude.” Photo: Sky/Tiger Aspect Productions

If you haven’t watched the new Arctic thriller “Fortitude,” you are missing an amazing and riveting series. Unfortunately, it’s not a program that airs on cable television in the United States, but rather through the millennial-targeted distributor Pivot TV or through streaming afterwards on the Xfinity service. UK viewers can watch on Sky Atlantic. I’d mentioned “Fortitude” before its premiere in an earlier post and it’s a relief that the series delivers the quality that the previews appeared to promise. It traces a series of murder investigations by outsider DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) in the town of Fortitude, which hasn’t been hit by any murders before. As we might expect, the supposedly quaint but freezing locale is rife with secrets.

This week, the scientific research of Vincent (Luke Treadaway) and Natalie (Sienna Guillory) continues to grow as a convincing and alarming explanation behind the odd behavior of both Shirley (Jessice Gunning) and Liam (Darwin Brokenbro) in the attacks (and murder for the latter) on Dr. Allerdyce (Phoebe Nichols) and Professor Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston). Read the rest of this entry »

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TV Review: Lackluster “Blacklist” with “The Major”

Caution: This review contains spoilers.

Reddington Goes After the Major - Photo Credit: NBC

Reddington Goes After the Major – Photo Credit: NBC

Despite the mounting troubles for Agent Liz Keen (Megan Boone), last night’s episode of “The Blacklist” was rather disappointing. It seems nearly every television show throws away an entire installment in dedicating an hour to flashbacks to earlier episodes. We have yet to encounter the deus ex machina of “It was just a dream.” Liz’s secret (holding Tom Keen as prisoner) is catching up to her, as Judge Denner (John Finn) interviews her in his chamber about Reddington and later her involvement in the death of the DC Habormaster. She digs a deeper hole for herself with further lies, that she killed Tom months before the incident. Ballistic evidence emerges as well to poke holes in her testimony.

I’ve always found extended recaps to be tiresome. This one was particularly trying, as we don’t really uncover anything new on her end. We hear more about how she lost her “perfect life.” Denner is also boring, as it’s already well-established in the beginning that he is a staunch advocate of government transparency. Most of his interview sequence could have been posted on the NBC site as a webisode instead of aired on television. The most compelling aspect of “The Blacklist” has always been Raymond Reddington (James Spader), whose charisma and dangerous side do much to keep viewers both amused and on the edge of their seats all at once.

One would hope that things will get more exciting next week, as Reddington’s activities yesterday set him in a good position to get to Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold). Tom, the one man who can get Lizzie out of her bind, is busy in Germany trying to infiltrate a group focused on the weapons market. Last night we also discovered a little more about Tom, whose real name is Jacob. He was found by the “Major,” a man who cultivates young delinquents into agent-material available to do dirty work for high-paying clients. Tom was originally contracted to Reddington by the Major (Lance Henriksen), who changed gears when Berlin offered double the money. As we know full well, Red always collects from those who cross him.

Moving forward this season, two main threads are being unraveled here. The first is the story of Tom Keen and what sort of threat he still poses to Red, as his name seems to be next on the Blacklist. It’s interesting that Red hasn’t already killed Tom, given his possessive streak with Liz Keen. The other item of business is whether Denner is worth our concern, or is a threat that will be dealt with swiftly by Red’s blackmail or tactics of making “mutual arrangements.”

“The Blacklist” airs Thursday evenings on NBC at 9|8c.

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