TV loves recycling almost as much as movies do, and this week we have a movie adaptation and two shows that are variations on established successes.

So….How did they do?

12 Monkeys

At first blush, Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece time travel and biological apocalypse epic is a perfect candidate for adaptation to the small screen, especially in the current climate of sci-fi friendly programming.

But the fact is, 12 Monkeys the movie isn’t really about time travel or about biological apocalypses, it’s about madness, and when I watch the TV series I found myself missing the disorienting blurry camera close ups and discordant accordion music that so perfectly captured the state of altered reality in which 12 Monkeys lived.

In the TV adaptation, the simple minded rage of Bruce Willis’ James Cole (his finest performance as an actor, for my money) is replaced by a more conventional leading man in Aaron Stanford.  Stanford’s Cole is sharp, clever and driven, everything Willis’ character wasn’t.  Similarly, the organic mania of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goins has been replaced by the post-traumatic stress reaction of the perfectly cast Emily Hampshire’s Jennifer Goines.  Jeffrey’s madness was never explained, it just was, as opposed to Emily’s whose detainment in a mental institution is actually the key to unlock the underlying mystery of 12 Monkeys.

And that’s sort of the problem with the TV show.  12 Monkeys is a very well written show, moving its interesting plot lines along and providing just enough suspense confusion with its time travel elements to keep you on your toes, but it’s more related to a conventional apocalypse show like The Walking Dead than to its namesake.  Gone are the isolation and madness (this James Cole even has a best friend – can you imagine?!) replaced by carefully crafted planning and a heroes’ instinct to save the world.  It’s not that this is a bad thing, but it’s not what made the movie special.

Backstrom

After Hugh Laurie’s performance in House M.D., there were a flurry of shows that featured characters who were gifted in their fields but completely anti-social in their attitudes.  This created an actual subgenre of comedy-dramas that you might call “problem child genius” shows.  Needless to say, none were as good as the original and they all went away eventually.

But with the success of Elementary, apparently someone thinks it’s a good time to bring these types of shows back (forget that Elementary is a great show in spite of its similarities to House and not because of them).  Enter Backstrom, a Rainn Wilson cop show vehicle about, you guessed it, a gifted detective with anti-social attitudes.

All the elements are here.  Substance abuse?  Check (drinking).  Physical limitations?  Check (Everett Backstrom has to be examined by the department doc regularly to see if he’s going to drop dead).  Breaking the rules?  Ha!  On Backstrom, he breaks the rules not because they serve his ends but simply because they are rules.

Rainn Wilson, Backstrom

Nothing says anti-social genius like squalor

And I guess you see the problem.  Backstrom is a one-dimensional rebel without a cause.  Wilson does his best with his joke lines, which seem out of place in the rather dreary regular setting of a murder investigation, and the character’s genius routinely takes on an annoying deus ex machina quality to resolve plot holes.

I can’t imagine this show lasting too long.  Still, at least they didn’t try to an Office spin-off with Dwight Schrute.  That would never have worked.

Empire

Part Nashville, part Scandal, Fox’s hip-hop drama Empire explores the world of music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrance Howard), who discovers he has just a few years left to live and must decide who will take over his empire when he is gone.  That task falls to his three sons.  There’s Andre (Trai Byers), the bi-polar business whiz who’s married to Lady MacBeth.  Then there’s Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a talented and inspiring musician who’s fallen out of dad’s favor because he’s gay.  Finally there’s Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), who’s dad’s chosen one but is ill suited to be the man in charge.  Enter Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), recently released from prison and now looking for her pay day from her ex.

With the players in place, Empire succeeds or fails on three elements.  First there’s the music.  So far, there have flashes of greatness, but the show has yet to produce a truly memorable song.  I remember after watching the Nashville pilot I almost immediately went on youtube to watch a couple of the songs again just because I wanted to hear them.  Empire needs to produce those kind of musical moments.

Second there’s Henson’s scene-stealing ability to run roughshod over questionable dialogue or shaky storylines.  She’s more than up to that task.

empire tv show recap

Who’s the most fabulous of them all?

Third, there’s everyone else.  So far, Howard has been disappointingly boring as Lucious.  This guy is supposed to be an authentic rags-to-riches rapper from the streets, like Dr. Dre?  He doesn’t capture that, or at least he hasn’t yet.  There are varying results among the remainder of the cast.  Smollett has been a musical standout, at least.

I’d like to see Empire resolve it’s troubles, because even though it’s derivative of other music-based shows, there simply aren’t enough of them on TV for me not to want one more good one.

Reality Check

After Joan Rivers’ death, a bevy of comics, especially female comics, came forward to salute her as an early inspiration in their careers.  But truth be told, there are really two heirs apparent to Joan.

One is Chelsea Handler, who just left having her own show on E!

The other is Kathy Griffin, and Griffin is the one they tabbed to be Joan’s sit-in replacement on Fashion Police, the weekly celebrity bashing (and sometimes star gazing) roundtable that lives for personal appearances and red carpets and the clothes that wind up on display.  Griffin has proven to be a good replacement.  Fashion Police is a funny, fast-moving hour with good chemistry on its panel.  And who doesn’t like to see celebrities get taken down a notch?

Educational TV

Things we learned from watching TV this week: 1) You can’t just go out and buy jokes (Late Night With Seth Meyers); 2) Charlie Rose is a natural sleeping aid (The Late Show With David Letterman); 3) At a gay wedding, don’t turn down the complimentary MDMA (This is Not Happening).

Looking Ahead

The Walking Dead and Talking Dead return to AMC on February 8.

The series premiere of The Jinx airs on HBO on February 8.

Better Call Saul debuts on February 8 on AMC.

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is back on HBO on February 8.

The BAFTA awards air on February 8 on BBC America.

The series premiere of Schitt’s Creek airs on PopTV on February 11.

The series premiere of The Slap airs on NBC on February 12.

NBA All Star Weekend airs on TNT on February 13-15.

 

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:  [email protected]  I welcome your input!

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