SON OF ZORN, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKE, FLEABAG, HIGH MAINTENANCE

First Look/Last Look: September 11–17, 2016

Every year, in “First Look/Last Look,” I pan for TV gold in the fetid riverbed of the new fall season. While I always hope this experiment will yield at least one show that I want to add to my regular viewing—if not reviewing—schedule, I’m not holding my breath. Call me pessimistic, but, in most cases, I expect my first look to also be my last.

Last week I liked everything that premiered, which—to be honest—I found disorienting and slightly troubling. This week it is a much more comforting mixed-bag, but there are at least two shows I watched that intrigued me enough to want to see more. (After a long trek through the barren television wasteland of late summer, my viewing schedule has suddenly become very crowded.)

But have no fear. It's next week—when all the broadcast networks start rolling out their half-baked and re-heated wares—that I expect to fully restore my faith in Sturgeon's Law, and fully justify the "Last Look" part of this feature's title. Stay tuned.

SON OF ZORN (FOX, Sundays 8:30/7:30c)

High-concept, meet low-brow. Son of Zorn—from executive producers Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne, who created the similarly difficult-to-explain Wilfred—is a classic fish-out-of-water sit-com in which the fish in question happens to be an animated character. Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) is a He-Man/Herculoid-type action hero who decides it's time to get to know his estranged, live-action family. Alas, his ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines) has a quiet life in the suburbs with her new boyfriend (Tim Meadows), and Zorn's son Alan (Michael Cera-clone Johnny Pemberton) is a gentle, soft-spoken vegetarian who can't really relate to his sword-wielding barbarian father.

Son of Zorn's pilot generates a few laughs from the culture clash of an ultra-violent '80s cartoon character with 21st century California sensibilities, but they're largely obvious laughs without any real cleverness or insight. Zorn is an amusingly vain, blowhard character in the mold of the protagonists of Archer or Bojack Horseman, but I see no evidence from the pilot that this series has either the audacious wit of the first or the genuine emotional depth of the second. It's admittedly a snap-judgement—that's what I do here in "First Look/Last Look"—but Zorn seems to be a one-joke show, and I suspect that joke could get very stale over not very many episodes.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKEahs-roanoke

My relationship to Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story anthology is a patchy one, and largely unhealthy. I reviewed the first series, "Murder House," an experience that began as bemused disbelief and ended as full-on hate-watching. My investment in each subsequent series has progressively diminished: I think I watched all of "Asylum," but only reviewed a couple of episodes. With the latter entries—"Coven," "Freak Show," and "Hotel"—my wife and I watched as many episodes as we could stand, until something so ridiculous or offensive or just plain bad led us to swear that we would never watch another episode. (Each season, the "fuck-this-show" moment seemed to come a little earlier in the proceedings.)

And yet here I am again, admitting to myself that I will probably dance the same dysfunctional steps all over again with American Horror Story: Roanoke. (Or American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare: it's unclear which is meant to be the official title.) Drawing—loosely, one assumes—on the mysterious disappearance of the 16th century Roanoke colony, Roanoke finds a married couple, Matt and Shelby, purchasing a ridiculously large, run-down old house in the North Carolina woods, and almost immediately being set upon by horrors that would lead any sane person to flee the state. Murphy is trying to do something a little different with this installment, though to what purpose it's hard to tell: the first episode, at least, is structured as a "dramatic reenactment," with Lily Rabb and André Holland playing the "real life" couple in interviews, and Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding, Jr. playing the same characters in the drama. (Adina Porter and Angela Bassett join the dual-role cast as Matt's disgraced police detective sister Lee.) The device—so far, at least—doesn't make a lot of sense, and doesn't really work. (The "reenactments" don't seem like reenactments, and the framing interviews would seem to remove any tension about whether these characters will survive their ordeal.)

But none of that matters. American Horror Story is TV crack: bad for you, and easy to overdose on, but designed to provide cheap, addictive highs until the inevitable crash. Murphy's throw-everything-at-the-wall, subtlety-free style of storytelling is compellingly—if repellently—incoherent: you watch just to see how ridiculous things will get before they become too ridiculous to stand. My prediction is that I'll last about three or four episodes before this The-Amityville-Horror-meets-The-Blair-Witch-Project pastiche drives me back onto the AHS wagon.

FLEABAG (Amazon)fleabag2

Much more promising is Fleabag, a British series making its U.S. debut on Amazon Video. The creation of English playwright Phoebe Waller-Bridge—who also stars—Fleabag is the story of a funny, filthy, unapologetically amoral young woman trying to survive in modern London. (“I have a horrible feeling that I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist,” she confesses to her father. "Well, you get all that from your mother," he dryly responds.)

Nothing we see "Fleabag" do—lying, stealing, trying to pick up semi-conscious drunks for random sex—would seem to challenge her candid self-assessment, but Waller-Bridge's fourth-wall breaking delivery alone makes this intensely dislikable woman strangely endearing company. (This should be a star-making performance for Waller-Bridge, who has brilliant comedic timing, and puts remarkable intelligence and wit into even the grossest of gags.) At the end of the first episode, however, a surprising revelation leads us to reconsider the emotional subtext beneath Waller-Bridge's already impressive performance, and forces us to recalibrate our reading of just how lost and damaged this character really is. I've only watched the first episode so far, but there is a joyful binge in my immediate future.

HIGH MAINTENANCE (HBO, Fridays 11/10c)high-maintenance

To be honest, I don't quite know yet what to make of High Maintenance. (My confusion, no doubt, comes from my lack of familiarity with the original, critically-acclaimed web series created by Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, of which nineteen 10-15 minute episodes were produced online before HBO picked the series up as a half-hour show.) But I'm impressed, and I'm intrigued. I like it—I'm just not sure I understand yet what it is.

Based solely on this premiere episode, it appears to be something of an anthology series of observational short stories, loosely linked around a gentle, soft-spoken pot dealer called simply "The Guy" (Sinclair). The pilot opens with The Guy's humorous encounter with his disapproving barber, segues to an amusing short about his delivery to an aggressively obnoxious body-builder, then finally settles in to a longer and more tangential story about a gay publicist who hates his needy, self-absorbed female roommate so much that he joins a meth rehab group to complain, in metaphor, about how she controls his life.  

Are these recurring characters? Are there any recurring characters besides The Guy? I don't yet know, and I guess I don't much care. Each of these sequences is funny and sharply-observed, and the free-form, slice-of-life structure is definitely intriguing. The show does a remarkable job of quickly fashioning real characters, not caricatures, from its selected survey of Brooklynites. And High Maintenance seems to be a completely different kind of storytelling than we're used to on TV, which is something that's very welcome. So I'm in, and may even find time to go stream the original webisodes to see if I can better adjust my rhythms and expectations to this peculiar but promising show.

NEXT WEEK

It's a huge week for network premieres, with probably more shows than I can comfortably cover—especially since I'm not expecting much from any of them. I'll definitely watch The Good Place (NBC, Mon. at 10/9c), This is Us (NBC, Tues. 10/9c), Designated Survivor (ABC, Wed. 10/9c), Pitch (FOX, Thu. 9/8c), and The Exorcist (FOX, Fri. 9/8c). I may fit in a couple of other things if I have the time. (Several critics I respect have tweeted that they like FOX's new Lethal Weapon series, but I feel certain they must have been joking.)

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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