HIGHLIGHTS

Netflix had a big decision to make with House of Cards, the remake of the BBC political drama that it outbid HBO and AMC for.  Once the first season had been completed, did they release it one episode, one week at a time, or let its customers decide how to watch the show.  They went with the latter, making all 13 episodes available at once.  I suspect that no matter how viewers thought they were going to consume the show, they wound up much like I did.  I sat down to watch the first few episodes, only to stagger off to bed 7 hours later, bleary eyed, only to wake up the next morning and dive right back in, finishing the season in less than 24 hours.  I couldn’t help myself.  House of Cards is that good.

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House of Cards
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“I love that woman like a shark loves blood.”    That unusual phrase is our introduction to Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as he discusses his wife Claire (Robin Wright).  While House of Cards is a grand story in the grandest of arenas – the seat of power in America – it is, at its core, a character study of two incredibly complex individuals.  Francis and Claire seem to love each other, yet we quickly learn that perhaps that love is only a mask for public consumption.  Their pairing is actually one of political convenience, mutual backscratchers of the highest order who maneuver and cajole through their spheres of influence each to benefit the other and vice versa.  And yet that description eventually seems inadequate to describe these characters’ interactions.   Francis and Claire DO love each other, but it is possibly the strangest portrayal of love I have ever seen.

Spacey and Wright are both indescribably exquisite in their respective roles.  Their chemistry is multi-layered and unique.  How can these ruthless, scheming people be so readily sympathetic and accessible?  That is a testament to Spacey’s charismatic charm and Wright’s creation of believable picture of a woman who couldn’t possibly exist (could she?).

Political Animals:  Spacey & Wright
House of Cards, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright
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With Spacey and Wright setting the bar so very high, it makes the supporting performances that much more remarkable for also standing out.  Corey Stoll is brilliant as a conflicted congressman trying to escape the demons of addiction while simultaneously being lured by the temptations of power.  Michael Kelly is inscrutable as Francis’ hatchet man, and he invites to dig to search for the remorse he feels even as he unwaveringly acts without it.  Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes is a bit of an annoying climber, but she’s also smart, resourceful and cagey, and she makes a great foil for Spacey’s Underwood, using him even as she’s being used in return.  The stories of any of these secondary characters are so well crafted they would sustain a show all by themselves.  When you add them to the masterful storytelling and intensity of the leads, you wind up with one hell of a show.

House of Cards has drawn favorable comparisons to The West Wing and The Wire, and for good reason.  This show deserves to be in that company and it is instantly one of the best dramas on TV (er, not on TV.  Netflix, remember?).  The first season ended on what was not quite a cliffhanger, but with a ton of story left to tell.  For my part, I find myself wishing I had 12 more weeks of episodes to view, although I iknow there’s no way I could have stopped watching once I was invested.  Like I said, House of Cards is THAT good.

SEASON 1 OF Syfy’s Being Human closely tracked its UK predecessor as it introduced the story of a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost living together in Boston.  Season 2 jumped ahead a bit in the storyline and also introduced new elements unique to the American version of the show.  But in season 3, the show is now completely distinguishable from the British version, having taken its story to an entirely new place.

At first, I wasn’t sure this was going to be a good thing, as seemingly ALL of the elements that defined these characters in the first two seasons were discarded.  Josh (Sam Huntington) is no longer a werewolf, having been “cured” by murdering his maker.  Sally (Meaghan Rath) is no longer a ghost, she’s now a reanimated living corpse (not nearly as extreme as it sounds – the major drawback is that anyone she sees who knew her when she was alive dies), and Aidan (Sam Witwer), who spent two seasons rebelling against vampire authority suddenly finds himself alone, the rest of the vampire community having been wiped out by a virus.

This is new territory indeed, and it’s challenged the actors to really stretch their skills as their characters adapt to their changing circumstances.  And despite all the changes, Being Human has retained its emotional power and even ramped it up a bit.  The new storylines have resulted in an expanded role for Kristin Hager (YAY!) as Nora, Josh’s still-a-werewolf girlfriend, and letting Meaghan Rath change her clothes instead of always wearing that dingy grey sweater is certainly not a bad thing.   The addition of Lydia Doesburg as a teen wolf-girl who comes under Josh & Nora’s tutelage adds tension to the extended-family dynamic and Amy Aquino is shaping up to be a terrific Season 3 villain as the double-crossing witch who brought Sally back under false pretenses.

Rath, Witwer & Huntington
Being Human, Meaghan Rath, Sam Witwer, Sam Huntington
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Being Human has outgrown its roots, and its emerging cast has stepped up to make these characters unique and memorable.  The writing has progressively gotten better as the series has gone on and there’s every reason to believe that the American version of this show will actually outpace its excellent British forerunner when all is said and done.

LAST SEASON, I gave Smash tons of leeway, because I wanted the show to succeed so badly.  Being a huge fan of Broadway, I kept waiting for Smash to find its high note, hit it and hold it.  By the end of season 1, I was still waiting.   Smash was not a good show, it was a mediocre show with a lot of very good moments in it.

After watching Nashville, the bar on Smash is set even higher.  It is, in fact, possible to do a weekly show that is heavily infused with (or even plotted around) big musical numbers, and have the show create a dramatic story set in the entertainment world (and not have that show be called “Glee”).

Season 2’s 2-hour opener, however, left me with mostly the same complaints as I had during season 1.  This show STILL only seems to know how to use Megan Hilty correctly.  Having the big voice of Katharine McPhee and the gigantic voice of Jennifer Hudson get together to riff on George Benson’s classic On Broadway should have been a softball to arrange, yet what came out was an insipid, uninspired rendering right out of partner night at the karaoke bar.  I could have crafted a better arrangement of this song in my living room.

Hudson & McPhee
Smash, Jennifer Hudson, Katharine McPhee
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Adding Hudson and Joyful Noise’s Jeremy Jordan adds musical punch (Jordan, at least, got to belt out a big, Broadway-licious song called Broadway Here I Come that marked one of the opener’s high points), but adding more characters to a batch where I’m still struggling to care about half of them (normally loveable Debra Messing is still so whiny and annoying you want to just slap her) may not cure what ills Smash.

Still, there are reasons to hope.  While the inclusion of pop songs in season 1 was almost always a disastrous clumsy change of tone, Smash skillfully worked in a couple of pop songs (not including that On Broadway fiasco) and had them sound good, in particular McPhee & Hilty jamming to The Eurythmics’ Would I Lie To You.  Moreover, just 97 minutes into the 2 hour premiere, they finally found something good for Katharine McPhee to sing and she made the most of it.  It doesn’t really make sense that terrific singers like Hudson and McPhee would be content to get so badly upstaged musically for no reason other than the producers don’t know how to pick songs for them.

The real smash:  Megan Hilty

Smash, Megan Hilty

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Then, of course, there’s Hilty, who’s well on her way to being a superstar if this show can last long enough for people to learn who she is.  As usual, the blonde Broadway veteran had THE showstopper of the night, a brilliant cool then hot torch song called They Just Keep Moving The Line that she knocked out of the park, out of the stadium, and right through your TV screen.  With all of its problems, I have to admit, if Smash can give me one song like that every week, I’ll keep watching, even though I know the show is capable of so much more.

QUICK TAKES

Speaking of Nashville, it’s spread the musical wealth around among its many performers, with the possible exception of Hayden Panettiere, whose character is supposed to sing syrupy bubble gum songs, so she hadn’t really had a show stopper.  Until now that is.  Her Juliette Barnes character decided to get serious on stage and Nashville created yet another irresistible musical moment as a result.

Educational TV.  Things we learned from watching TV this week: 1) Even when they’re mean, Canadians are polite about it (How I Met Your Mother); 2) Easy Spirit is a shoe worn by people whose spirits have died (2 Broke Girls); 3) The tank in Halo 4 handles a lot like a 1970 Pontiac station wagon (Conan).

Scandal has somehow managed, once again, to resolve major portions of its storyline while simultaneously opening up new ones.  I don’t know how long this show can continue to walk its plot tightrope before each new twist starts wearing out the audience, but so far, it’s been able to have the story flow smoothly along, even as the rest of us of are jerking and lurching around, trying to figure out what just happened.

Can I somehow advocate that NBC move Community to pretty much ANY time slot other than Thursday night at 8:00 against The Big Bang Theory?  When both of these shows are cooking, the funniest hour of television every week only lasts 30 minutes.

Looking Ahead

The Grammy Awards air on CBS on February 10.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome airs on Syfy Channel on February 10.

The Walking Dead returns to AMC on February 10.

The BAFTA awards air on BBC America on February 10.

The State of Union Address airs on various networks and cable outlets on February 12.

The series premiere of Zero Hour airs on ABC on February 14.

Reality shows Freakshow and Immortalized debut on AMC on February 14.

TV’s a big place and I haven’t been to all of it yet.  Got a favorite show you’d like me to comment on?  Post a comment below, contact me on twitter @RobLazlo. or shoot me an email:  RobNJ564@yahoo.com.  I welcome your input!