Category Archives: Reviews

The Newsroom Fails to Live Up to Its Potential

There are countless TV shows that are instantly doomed to fail. They either have a terrible premise, inexperienced writers or a cast that doesn’t gel. Look through the lists of new shows on the Big Four networks and you’ll see several every year.

Then there are the more frustrating shows that seem to have every ingredient needed to be interesting and successful, but manage to screw it up. Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom fits into that second category.

The Newsroom marks Sorkin’s third time creating a show that analyzes how TV itself is made, following 1998’s Sports Night and 2006’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This time around, Sorkin tackles cable news programs and their clear bias in reporting.

The concept of poking holes in the reporting of major cable news has made household names of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, so it isn’t completely new ground. But while The Daily Show and Colbert Report focus strictly on satirical comedy, The Newsroom aims to show how cable news can better serve the public.

That premise is rife with content, and there is an elite level of skill both in front of and behind the camera on The Newsroom. It should be a transcendent show; one that can both entertain and inform. It clearly wants to be that kind of show, but largely fails to live up to the billing.

The Newsroom has one significant flaw, and it brings down everything else around it: The insistence that its characters tackle real-world events that already have occurred.

The show jumps from one major event to the next, leaving large gaps in time between episodes. The show’s timeline has gone from April 2010 to June 2011, meaning it covered more than a year in the span of nine episodes.

Through all that time, there is almost no narrative continuity. The News Night team just wants to do the news well and tries to show up the competition. There are two inherent problems with that storytelling model.

For one, Sorkin now has the benefit of hindsight, so he can have his characters cover every story as they should and how their competitors didn’t. The result is an almost infallible leadership structure that manages to gather key information that nobody would have thought to ask about at the time.

We can now wag our fingers at CNN and MSNBC for not covering the BP oil spill in detail from Day 1, but there was no way anyone at the time could have known what a disaster that would turn out to be.

Because the show so routinely points out the way in which other networks are failing to cover events in as much depth, there is a veiled implication that the people who covered events at the time didn’t do their job well. Almost as if to say, “If you had worked hard enough, you would have discovered what our characters did.”

I’m fine with criticizing networks for being biased in their presentation of the news, but I think it’s unfair to imply that they weren’t trying hard enough to find out the information.

But The Newsroom characters manage to get every morsel of information they need from their impeccable web of well-connected sources. Every character seems to have a friend or relative somehow connected to every major government entity, making information retrieval significantly easier than it would be in real life.

Those characters in general also are The Newsroom’s second inherent problem. Their problems run from week to week as they would on any sitcom, but unlike a random sitcom, The Newsroom can have six months separating two episodes.

The show tries to have its cake and eat it too; it wants you to follow the timeline in the major events it covers, but not follow the timeline when it comes to the characters’ everyday lives.

The result is a cast of cardboard cutout characters who are very difficult to care about. They pop in and out of the main plot as needed, and spend the rest of their time getting into romantic entanglements (a well Aaron Sorkin loves to revisit ad nauseum).

We know almost nothing about what makes any of them tick or why they behave the way they do. We know that they love doing the news, and that’s it. So why should we care when three of the supporting characters become involved in a love triangle? Especially when that love triangle still exists after a year and has seen no progression.

What little character history the show does reveal almost seems exploitative. When all of the main characters are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re suddenly told that Kaylee – a character who had been in approximately three scenes in the entire season – had a family member who died in the World Trade Center attacks.

Later in the same episode, a random unnamed character puts on an FDNY hat while the news of bin Laden’s death is read. Instead of those moments seeming deep and resonant, as they should have, they seemed more like Aaron Sorkin pointing a finger and saying, “Here are people who have been touched by tragedy. You should feel sorry for them.”

Those kinds of moments show an almost lazy approach to the nuts and bolts of the show. There is almost no depth to any of the characters, and any time something is supposed to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, we’re basically told what we should be feeling.

Strong TV shows are supposed to depict interesting and fully-formed people who seem real, as if cameras just happen to be following this group of people around. But The Newsroom constantly feels forced and staged.

Aaron Sorkin has a message to send about the state of American news journalism, and it’s a message I agree with. News programs have become ongoing jokes that pander to one side of the political aisle, and they’re steadily growing worse.

Everything revolving around that specific message on The Newsroom is well written and usually interesting. But Sorkin doesn’t seem to have given much thought to everything else going on around the show-within-the-show.

That would be fine if Sorkin were making a documentary about news journalists, but he isn’t. Strong characters are the foundation for any great TV show, and The Newsroom has none.


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What Makes Party Down Great

Films and TV shows have told countless tales of people moving to Hollywood and making something of themselves, becoming rich and famous, and living happily ever after. And while those do happen, it is far more common for people to get there and utterly fail. Party Down chooses to focus on those stories.

Party Down has often been dubbed the “anti-Entourage,” and in some ways the comparison is appropriate. Rather than engaging in constant wish fulfillment, the Party Down writers choose to dwell on harsh reality.

The concept for the show started with a simple question: What would happen to the Verizon “can you hear me now” guy when that well runs dry? People would recognize him for one distinct ad campaign, but he still would struggle to make ends meet. He would get all the pitfalls of stardom without any of the perks.

Filling that role is Henry Pollard (played by Adam Scott), who was in a series of beer commercials with the catchphrase “Are we having fun yet?” He occasionally is spotted by people who recognize him, and the one line for which he is famous now haunts him.

Henry’s rise to semi-fame and then meteoric fall to normalcy have left him jaded and unenthusiastic about pretty much everything, and he is forced to go back to his old job as a caterer. There he is surrounded by a pack of starry-eyed dreamers who all are waiting for their big break.

Joining Henry on the catering staff are aging actress Constance (Jane Lynch), hard sci-fi writer Roman (Martin Starr), wannabe comedian Casey (Lizzy Caplan), self-believed renaissance man Kyle (Ryan Hansen) and boss Ron (Ken Marino), whose only desire is to open his own soup restaurant.

All those staff members are chasing their own version of the American dream, and they all are in various stages of failure. Yet they keep fighting the good fight, convinced they will one day make it.

The majority of the show’s humor stems from juxtaposition, starting with a downtrodden main character surrounded by hopeless career romantics and extending to their daily job.

Part of the genius of Party Down is that it technically is a workplace comedy, but never feels like it. The workplace changes every episode as the catering company works a new event surrounded by new people.

The result is that every episode feels fresh and unique. Workplace comedies tend to have a particular shelf life because they become stale after years of the same people stuck in the same place. But Party Down keeps everything fluid, which allows the writers to think of new and ridiculous places to put their characters.

Roman is lonely and sex-starved, so the crew works a porn party. Ron is constantly looking for validation, so he works his own high school reunion. Constance and Kyle have overinflated senses of self worth, so they work a party packed with just about the only people who have actually seen their movies.

The writers have a deep understanding of all their characters, allowing them to create situations specifically geared around each individual. And since they can choose to set each episode anywhere they want, there is no limit to their creativity.

All of the comedy of Party Down comes organically. It comes from the situations in which the characters are placed, their reactions to those situations and how they play off each other. The writing is witty, but never feels forced. It doesn’t follow the simple “setup-joke-punchline-repeat” formula that is the bane of most sitcoms’ existence.

Because each of the characters is suffering through their own private battles, it is much easier to relate to them. The series may be set in Hollywood, but the theme of failure is universal.

It helps that Party Down has one of the most talented crews for a comedy in recent memory, both in front of and behind the camera. It features a writing team of Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd), Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge and John Enbom (the trio responsible for Veronica Mars), and direction by Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) and Bryan Gordon (Curb Your Enthusiasm).

In addition to the superbly talented main cast already mentioned, Megan Mullally replaced Lynch in Season 2, and recurring guest stars included Kristen Bell, J.K. Simmons, Jennifer Coolidge and Ken Jeong.

Weirdly enough, Party Down shares its blueprint for greatness with Game of Thrones. The two may seem diametrically opposite, but they have more in common than you would think.

Both present a story that takes place in a kind of fantasy world. In Party Down it’s Hollywood, in Game of Thrones it’s a fictional place. But with those fantasy worlds as the backdrop, both focus on brutal realism with relatable and understandable characters.

In Party Down, part of you wants the characters to succeed because they’re easy to root for. But another part of you hopes they keep failing because they’re just so damn entertaining as they do it.

**Note: I am well aware that this is the most obscure of the three shows in this “Greatness Analyzed” series. For that reason, I highly recommend you check out Party Down, currently available on Netflix’s Instant Stream, if you haven’t already.**

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What Makes Game of Thrones Great

The medieval fantasy genre has stayed in a very distinct wheelhouse for a very long time. Dark forces gather and threaten everything that is good and pure in the world, forcing a band of heroes to struggle against seemingly impossible odds to save the world.

The formula has worked in varying degrees for years, with the most obvious success story being Lord of the Rings. One of the few medieval fantasies to see mainstream success, the film trilogy made more than a billion dollars in box office revenue alone, was critically lauded and earned several Academy Awards.

While the Lord of the Rings films made fantasy more acceptable to the masses, the effect did not carry over to television. The majority of the attempts to bring the genre to TV came in the form of throwaway shows geared toward teenagers and young adults.

But HBO’s Game of Thrones has changed all that by turning the genre’s conventions on their heads. Instead of presenting a classic story of good against evil, Game of Thrones chooses to dwell on the gray area in between.

There is no “great evil” for a group of heroes to fight, at least not one that is central to the plot. Instead, the story focuses on the interplay of a wide variety of deep characters. And those characters cannot be restricted to generalizations.

Some are more sympathetic than others, but none are easily defined. The supposed hero of the story is fatally flawed, while the villains are the smartest and cleverest. Just when you think you have someone figured out, they prove otherwise.

We’ve all grown up on stories of the little hero vanquishing the big bad guy, to the point that it has become expected. But that is not what Game of Thrones delivers. The people you cheer for fail more often than they succeed. They fight and they die, regardless of their allegiances.

As the plot unfolds, there are also subtle questions asked of the audience that again do not have black and white answers. Is mercy always right? Do good men make good leaders? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Or does power attract people who already are corrupt?

These are the kinds of questions we’ve been trained to answer easily, but in the Game of Thrones universe things are not as simple. The show indirectly asks you a question, but never answers it. It leaves that up to you. It doesn’t spoon feed the audience, instead allowing each viewer to personalize the experience with their own opinions.

The world of Game of Thrones may be fantasy, but the people in it are realistic. They are not idealistic principles to which all people should aspire, but rather they are what all people already are. They love their children and will do anything for them. They want to be great, but often are foiled by their own imperfections.

We get a full understanding of their hopes, fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses. Even when we hate what someone does, we understand why they do it. We can relate to both their internal and external struggles.

On top of all that realism is peppered a very small number of mystical elements that add an additional layer of dread to the proceedings. Characters are fighting personal battles while the threat of an endless winter and monster invasion hang over their heads, with some of them paying the threat no mind.

The ways in which Game of Thrones has altered the traditional fantasy formula are staggering and give it the potential to be a truly revolutionary TV show. The production matches the detail of the story, and the opening title sequence alone shows more creativity than some entire series.

HBO has made sure to get every detail just right, from the food to the costumes to the set pieces. Everything has been meticulously created, making Westeros seem like a living and breathing place. It becomes easy to lose yourself in such an expertly developed world. It speaks volumes that I have read the books and know what will happen, yet I still have been on the edge of my seat in every episode.

Thus far the series has been a ratings success for HBO, rising in total viewers almost every week. With two episodes left in its first season, it already has been picked up for a second season and has been nominated for Best Drama in the Critics’ Choice Awards.

If Game of Thrones can continue to build viewership and garner more seasons, it has the potential to become one of the most memorable shows created in recent years. Part fantasy, part historical fiction, part family drama, it manages to combine several elements together seamlessly to create one of the most engaging experiences currently on television.

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What Makes Friday Night Lights Great

When Friday Night Lights first premiered, NBC executives made the mistake of pitching it as a show about football. While football is the central premise on which the show is based, that is not what it’s about.

The true heart of Friday Night Lights comes from the personal experiences of the coaches and players associated with the team. Football is simply a means to bring the characters together, but it is everything else that makes the show one of the best dramas in recent memory.

The fictional city of Dillon, Texas, is inhabited by a seemingly endless slew of flawed people. Every character faces monumental challenges, with some having more success overcoming them than others.

More importantly, the issues faced by individual characters reflect large-scale societal problems: Poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic abuse, absentee parents and racism. These are very real troubles faced by countless everyday Americans, and rarely are so many found in one network TV show.

What keeps the show grounded and interesting is that the writing never gets too fixated on those problems in and of themselves. They are always present, like a dark cloud hanging over characters’ heads.

But the writing is not about the cloud, it’s about how characters struggle to get out from under it. That is what makes everything so relatable. Every character has a battle they must fight every day, and we as an audience can empathize with what they’re going through.

The writers manage to avoid the old TV cliché of easily-solved issues. Other shows have their characters run into a problem, and then after a few episodes they resolve it and move on. Then a few weeks later they’re presented with another problem. Rinse and repeat.

But on FNL, the writers examine the different ways in which one basic factor of a character’s life seeps into everything they do. That one aspect of their life continues to pop up week after week, breeding new small obstacles to overcome.

A prime example is the character arc of Matt Saracen. The one central issue of his life is the deployment of his father to war overseas. That one issue breeds countless others: He must get a job to support his family, he is forced to balance his time between three things pulling on him at once, and he struggles to keep everybody in his life happy.

Week after week, the audience sees Matt suffer through a daily battle until he finally breaks down. He faces much more than any teenager should, but it is all because of one significant episode of his life. (unfortunately I can’t embed this video, but take the time to watch this clip. You won’t regret it)

That pattern holds true for just about every character. Jason Street is paralyzed after a hit in the pilot episode, Smash’s family lives in poverty, the Riggins brothers have no parents, Vince’s father has been imprisoned. Every one of those characters has demons to overcome, and all of them can be traced back to one significant issue.

It’s that constantly-running narrative thread that makes all of the characters seem like real people rather than just actors playing a role. And because the characters are so fully realized, the actors are able to display pure and raw emotion.

Television directors and showrunners often shy away from having too many intense emotional moments for fear that it will be too disturbing to the audience. Viewers tend to want feel-good moments without any emotional buildup, which could be one of the reasons why Friday Night Lights never garnered a large audience.

The show makes a conscious effort to get in the audience’s face. Cameras zoom in until the only thing in frame is one actor’s face, and the frame shakes slightly as the emotion ramps up. Actors are allowed to show all the emotion they can muster, and the camera work gives each of them their own spotlight.

The result is that the audience stops noticing it is watching a TV show and instead feels like it is spying on a personal and private moment. Sometimes those moments are angry, others sad and others sweet. But in every episode, there are scenes that you could swear were part of a documentary they feel so real.

And that is where the greatness of Friday Night Lights lies. It has nothing to do with football. It’s in scenes of emotional distress, when we have such a vivid understanding of a character that we do not need to be told why they are reacting the way they are. When the writing, acting and direction combine to create one of the most realistic and raw moments of which television is capable.

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Guest Column: An Alternate Take on the Game of Thrones Premiere

**Note: I wrote my review of
Game of Thrones yesterday from the viewpoint of someone who has read the books. Now today, guest writer Blake Dilliner – who is new to the series – shares his opinion on the premiere**

Winter is coming… So, what does that mean? I had never heard of A Song of Ice and Fire, not until I started to see articles pop up online previewing the upcoming HBO series. As a big fan of HBO period pieces – mainly Rome and Deadwood – I was intrigued.

And yeah, I realize this is a fantasy story and not a period piece, but that just opens up the story and intrigues me more. Usually when I know a television series is based on a book or series of books, like Dexter, I will go to Wikipedia and read about the plot and characters.

I made a conscious effort to go into this new series cold, hoping to like it for exactly what it is and to be able to judge it on its own merits. I have been waiting for a new, high-quality epic series to come to TV. The Tudors is over, Camelot on Starz has been a bust so far, and Spartacus is on an extended hiatus.

My expectations are obviously going to be a lot lower than those of fans of the books, but they are still high. I know when the Dark Tower movies and TV series comes out, I will be hyper critical and disappointed at anything less than greatness, so I hope Game of Thrones lives up to the hopes of its fans. So far, I have been pretty impressed.

When I watched the Lord of the Rings movies, I had also never read the books. And while they were great movies, I felt like I didn’t quite know what was going on most of the time. Within about three minutes of this episode I began to feel the same way. After the initial scene, my fears started to abate.

The intro and opening credits incorporate a map of the world that is Game of Thrones. I paid close attention. I thought this was a clever way to give the viewer some knowledge of the world without lengthy dialogue or prior knowledge of the story.

While I am bad with names, and without going to IMDB I can only remember a few, I felt almost every character introduced was fleshed out very well for a pilot episode. While most series rarely hold true to their initial characterizations, Game of Thrones has the advantage of being a developed story, so I expect most the characters are already rather robust.

It seemed like the writers, with this existing wealth of information, have already begun to write some complex characters. For example, the king is a whoring glutton, but we find out the woman to whom he was originally betrothed – the sister of Lord Stark (Sean Bean) – is dead. This little bit of information makes him a three-dimensional character and someone I can both pity and root for. This also explains Stark’s loyalty to him.

While meeting a large number of characters, we are also introduced to several distinct settings and, kingdoms? I bet they are called kingdoms (see I don’t know yet). Each kingdom has its own distinct environment and landscape. The set and costume designs are immaculate. Thank God this show has access to an HBO-size budget (I imagine the cost of all the hair bleaching is staggering).

From what I can tell, most scenes are shot on location, and I for one am happy for a lack of CGI. The different settings of the kingdoms make the story more manageable and easier for the viewer to follow the shifting subplots.

I have to applaud the pilot episode for introducing a clear picture of the show’s premise despite such coarse subject matter. There are the obvious heroes (the Starks) and two groups of villains (The Lannisters and the Targaryens); both are families looking to claim the king’s crown as their own.

There was only one scene I had trouble following: The first scene at the capital city overlooking a funeral and consisting of a conversation between the Lannister siblings, but by the end of the episode I got the point.

All of the roles seemed to be cast well (unlike King Arthur on Camelot). I’ve been a fan of Sean Bean since he played 006 in Goldeneye and have often wondered why he doesn’t get more leading roles. Lena Headey has been on my crush list since 300 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles (it’s on Netflix, go watch it) and I think she will make an excellent villainess.

The actress who plays Princess Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is beautiful and a great little actress. These three are the standout characters in my mind. Also, the Stark children are especially likeable and I want to play with their puppies.

I’m already getting attached to some of these people…which makes the end of the episode even more sad (but I won’t spoil it for you). I do have one complaint, though. The Imp is played by what I can assume is the only dwarf actor in Hollywood. This guy is in everything! His name is Peter Dinklage (there’s a “dinky” joke in there somewhere). However, I guess I will reserve judgment until he has a bit more screen time.

Overall, I thought this was a strong pilot episode. There were no throw-away scenes or missed steps. It fits a good amount of exposition into a single episode while setting up a season, or series worth of plotlines. Two or three in particular look to be addressed immediately, while others seem to be left for the future. Most of all, it did what any pilot should do. It made me want to watch next week.

So, now I have been introduced into the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and while I’m sure I don’t really know what’s going on, I feel like I have an idea. It appears to be a story of medieval politics and intrigue, but I’m guessing it is much more.

I can only assume the wolves end up fighting some dragons, and Stark’s bastard son ends up being an important soldier or future leader, and the youngest Stark girl becomes a warrior, and the hot blond betrays the bad guys because they mistreat her… I’m right aren’t I? Wait, don’t tell me!

But anyway, George R.R. Martin fans, don’t pity me, because I have something you don’t: No idea what happens next.

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Game of Thrones: A Strong Start to a Complicated Tale

As a long-time fan of George R.R. Martin’s work, I have been impatiently waiting for the Game of Thrones television premiere. All of the effusive praise the show received raised my expectations even higher, and the premiere did not disappoint.

The world of Game of Thrones is a complicated place, full of lots of important characters with their own unique voices. I was worried it would be difficult for viewers new to the work to keep up with everyone, but I think the writers have made the wise decision of introducing people in bunches.

In the premiere they made sure to spotlight the Stark, Lannister and Targaryen families and detail how the three are intertwined. Every character in those families got their own brief time in the spotlight (except Robb Stark, who mostly was left with nothing to do).

There are plenty of other characters who were featured early in the books, but did not get the same treatment in the series. Primary among them is Theon Greyjoy, who had one of the best tone-defining moments in the first pages of the book (he kicked the head of the executed Night’s Watch deserter). It was a perfect microcosm of his personality.

In the premiere, I don’t believe he was ever even mentioned by name. He was shown several times and got a few lines, but that was it. And I think that was the right move. He doesn’t become important until later, so it is wise for the TV writers to let their audience get to know the core group of characters first.

I’m sure there are several fans of the books who did not like the changes simply because they were changes, but I do not fall in that category. I understand that when adapting such massive books as Martin’s, it is necessary that some elements be reduced or altered. I think it is best to view the show as its own entity, or else I would go crazy noting all the tiny changes the show made.

Besides, some of the changes were for the better. We got a much better understanding of the Lannisters early in the series than we did in the books. Added scenes provided strong character moments for Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion each.

Speaking of Tyrion, it’s already obvious he will remain the most interesting character. Peter Dinklage looked like he was having a blast playing the part, which could be because it was the biggest no-brainer casting decision of all time.

While Dinklage, Sean Bean (Eddard Stark) and Mark Addy (King Robert Baratheon) all gave solid performances, the ones requiring special commendation were the young and new actors who kept up with the veterans.

Of the actors playing the Stark children, only Richard Madden (Robb) has any previous screen acting experience. And yet they all performed their parts well and encapsulated their characters’ personalities in very few scenes.

But the jewel of the group seems to be Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), who had to do a lot of acting with facial expression and body language. She had to sell her fear of both her brother and her new husband without saying much, and she managed to pull it off. Daenerys is among the most interesting characters of the series, so it will be interesting to see how Clarke plays her from this point forward.

It is impressive for so many young actors all to have such a vivid understanding of the parts they’re playing, and credit goes to the Game of Thrones’ casting director for finding all of these skilled neophytes.

The only real weakness I could find in the premiere was one I was expecting. Because of how complicated all of the relationships are between the characters, a lot of exposition was necessary. That is often the case in premiere episodes of large-scale series like this one, but Game of Thrones required even more than usual.

There was very little action to be had in this episode, which undoubtedly turned some people off. But the writers made a very smart decision to end the episode where they did. Bran’s fall happens significantly later in the books, but is the first of many “Holy ****!” moments they deliver.

It was the right note on which to end the episode, because it showed the kind of thing the audience can expect from here on. Not every episode will feature so much talking and background information, so it was the right hook to keep people interested in the series.

Overall, the first episode was exactly what I hoped it would be. It was very well-acted, well-directed, and featured exquisite CGI renderings of the major cities and huge set pieces that established the grand scale of the series. The dark lighting and somber mood also helped establish the proper tone.

This is not your typical fantasy story with frolicking nymphs and happy-go-lucky hobbits. It is a dark story of betrayal and the thirst for power, and this is only the beginning. I only regret I have to wait another week to see it continued.

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Happy Endings: The Benefit of Low Expectations

ABC’s Happy Endings is just the latest in a series of new network TV shows following the same concept. A group of friends stand in various stages of relationships, and the show follows the progression of those relationships (be they romantic or plutonic).

Happy Endings follows in the footsteps of fellow ABC show Better With You, NBC’s Perfect Couples and FOX’s Traffic Light. They all want to be the next Friends, and of those other three only Traffic Light has shown any real promise. So I had very little hope or expectation that this newest version would provide anything worth watching.

Which is why I’m surprised to say that the premiere of Happy Endings Wednesday kind of, sort of wasn’t awful. It was expectedly derivative, but it had several funny moments. From “drowning in chicksand” to satirizing the concept of stereotypical TV gay men, there were moments I was impressed with the show’s banter and one-liners.

I was expecting to give the show 10 minutes of my life, then turn it off and move on. But I found myself sitting through the entire hour of back-to-back episodes, and I didn’t feel like my time had been wasted.

I basically only tuned in because of my affection for Scrubs alum Eliza Coupe, who performs well as the snarky and egotistical Alex. Damon Wayans Jr. also performs well in a limited capacity as her husband and token black guy Brad, but it’s Adam Pally’s Max who stole the show in the first two episodes.

Max is a gay man who shows no signs of the conventional TV cliché. He acts just like any other guy, with the exception that he is a little extra self-conscious about his appearance.

Pally’s delivery made every line funnier, and his chemistry with Wayans was immediately apparent. Almost all of the best humor in both episodes came from the two of them bantering back and forth. It’s refreshing to finally see TV writers realize a gay man doesn’t have to be over-the-top flamboyant to be funny.

Wednesday’s second episode played with that concept by juxtaposing Max with a walking gay cliché. It was funny and fairly well done, and it was impressive that the show managed to introduce and then lampoon its own elements within its first hour on air.

While there were some surprisingly funny elements, there also were some warning flags for the future of the show. Coupe, Wayans and Pally’s characters are well-conceived and well-acted, but their three counterparts … not so much.

The first two episodes centered on Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) and the epic flameout of their long relationship. They dated for the majority of their adult lives and were about to be married when Alex left Dave at the altar.

Glossing over the fact that the “leaving the groom at the altar” bit is almost a carbon copy of where Friends’ Rachel story began, the two characters involved also are boring.

It seems like the writers thought the fact that the characters split at their wedding made them inherently interesting and decided not to give them any other defining characteristics. The result is two bland characters with actors who don’t really seem to know what to do with them.

But bland is better than outright annoying, which is what the final character Penny is. Played by Saturday Night Live’s Casey Wilson, Penny is frustrating at every turn.

She is ultra-competitive and desperate for male attention, to the point that she lied about being Jewish to get on J-Date and then lied about her age to impress her ensuing date. And this happened at her own birthday party, when she didn’t tell her friends about either lie.

And therein lies another problem. Only two episodes in, Happy Endings already has fallen on some pretty tired TV tropes. In addition to Penny’s generic “lie to one person and nobody else to create constant misunderstandings,” Dave’s storylines also showed a lack of creativity.

After being jilted at the altar, Dave predictably jumps into bed with random strangers. The first of which turns out to be barely legal, and the second becomes impossible to dump. As Dave tries to get rid of her by being an ass, she finds it refreshing and becomes increasingly attached.

Those kinds of plotlines should only be seen in a show’s fourth or fifth season, when the writers are running out of ideas. But the fact that those are the first ones the writers could come up with is worrisome, especially because there is some potential here.

According to other reviews, Penny becomes less of a romcom cliché as the first season goes on. So if the writers can manage to make Dave and Alex interesting, there is a real possibility of finding a sweet spot with at least relative quality.

But I’m worried that a more legitimate possibility is that the writing becomes frustrating. The writers already have shown a fixation on Max, which has led to him being hilarious but everybody else being tossed to the side. If that trend keeps up, the potential will be wasted.

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