Entertainmental: It’s Not TV, It’s…

One piece of overdue but bittersweet news: NBC officially announced this third season of Hannibal will be the last. This is bittersweet because it’s a great show and I’ll be sad to see it go, but simultaneously once it’s gone, I can look forward to never again having to type the initials “NBC.” The network is officially over.

OK, One Last Time…
Well, that was fast. One last mention: NBC News also officially (and belatedly) announced Brian Williams will not be returning to the anchor desk at the network news behemoth. Instead, he will become the face of the already failing cable sister network MSNBC. This seems like it’s designed to provoke something out of Williams. I just can’t tell if they’re trying to get him to quit or kill himself.

Good News for Fans of Good Things
Chris Provenzano has announced he’s bringing another Elmore Leonard novel to the screen as a TV series with Gunsights for AMC. The late Leonard’s last TV vehicle was the six-season standout Justified, which ended its wonderful run just a few months ago, and Provenzano was one of the major factors behind its success. Leonard has at least 10 more books that would serve as great jumping-off points for TV shows. Previous failed but still valiant attempts include the short-lived Maximum Bob and Karen Sisco, both at ABC, which were ahead of their time, and would likely fare much better in the current climate. Here’s hoping Gunsights, which takes place in the actual Wild West instead of a modern version of it like in Justified, is half as good as its recently departed big brother.

Sunday Premieres
There have been some waves growing from corners of the Internet that the new wave of HBO shows, which premiered this past Sunday, are a letdown from the traditionally high standards we’ve come to expect from the big papa of original programming. These rumors, though surprising, are not exaggerations.

After extremely strong finishes for Veep, Game of Thrones, and Silicon Valley, HBO is following up with a highly anticipated return (True Detective) and two untested new entries, Ballers starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and The Brink starring Jack Black, Tim Robbins, and Aasif Mandvi. I watched the first night of these shows and came out feeling pretty “meh,” though still invested, on the whole experience.

True Detective
Sometimes a show does something so well that after it returns from a layoff, it seems like a sad cliché ripping off itself. Lost is a great example of this phenomenon, as is Sons of Anarchy. Now you can add True Detective to the list.

The first season of this bleak mystery anthology show was so “real” it was hard to watch. It was so elegant and evil, so depressing and brilliant, that it instantly became the most compelling TV of the year. Now we have a new cast of characters, including Taylor Kitsch as a cop with PTSD, Colin Farrell as a dirty cop with a terrible wig, Rachel McAdams as a cold and efficient cop with family issues, and Vince Vaughn as a vaguely sinister businessman who bends the rules but loves his family.

The reason none of this sounds groundbreaking, like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, who waxed about concepts so bleak I had to step away from the TV occasionally to contemplate suicide, is because absolutely none of it is. It’s so patently a stitching together of four characterizations so worn and familiar you could have muted half the dialogue and still known exactly what they were saying.

Also not in favor of the second season is that it took nearly a full hour just to communicate the exposition behind these clichés, when literally a 35 second montage of them all just drinking bourbon would have covered it.

Did I mention Rachel McAdams plays a character named Antigone? And guess what? She has daddy issues! Yikes. This premiere was indeed an unmitigated stinker that failed to grip in the way the show did last year. But I’m sticking with it, because as I said, some of this cliché is created by the show’s own pedigree, and it couldn’t get worse… could it?

In an appropriate representation of just how underwhelming the Sunday HBO premieres were, Ballers, a lukewarm comedy about the world of NFL players and their agents, was probably the most successful of the lot.

Dwayne Johnson plays a retired Miami Dolphins defensive back who has become an agent. Rob Corddry plays his scumbag boss (almost identically reproducing the role he played as Jeff Winger’s scumbag boss on Community). Pretty much everything else that happened in this mildly edgy half-hour sitcom was completely forgettable.

Again, the clichés abounded, killing an otherwise promising concept. Part of the problem is that ESPN already tried this exact same show 12 years ago with the unfortunately cancelled-after-one-tilt drama Playmakers. That was an actually edgy and engrossing behind-the-scenes look at the pros that pulled no punches. Unfortunately it had no cooperation from the NFL, used fake teams and logos, and was pushed off the air by ESPN’s powerful partner. Now, HBO has resurrected the concept, is seemingly less restrained by partnerships with the NFL (though they do notably air Hard Knocks, an NFL co-production that follows a different team in the offseason each year), and almost unbelievably, they took all the teeth out of the show, settling instead for familiar rote territory we’ve all seen a million times before.

In its favor, Johnson is undeniably magnetic and perfectly cast for the role. Corddry is reliably decent in his role, and there are even a few possibly intriguing storylines buried in the mess somewhere. Will the show last long enough for them to develop? I tend to doubt it.

The Brink
Wow, the word of the night for HBO really is cliché. I wish there were more synonyms or a better word to describe the problems that befell all three shows in the block, but there just isn’t one. And no show was more cursed by clichés than the monumentally disappointing The Brink.

The premise is promising enough: Jack Black is a bumbling, low-level diplomatic goon and Tim Robbins is a much less bumbling, but appallingly amoral diplomat who wields actual power. The two of them get in varied depths of trouble stationed in Pakistan while a third lead, Pablo Schrieber (most recognizable as Pornstache in Orange Is the New Black), plays a drug-dealing fighter pilot who is set to accidentally plunge the region into World War III.

From there it’s just one forced routine after another as Black walks a*s-first into a sea of semi-amusing predicaments (aided by maybe the only funny character on the show, played by the talented Aasif Mandvi). It would only be considered unpredictable in the sense that even a rookie screenwriter would probably avoid most of the mistakes made here, and thus the viewer tends to expect they won’t keep making them.

The show is clearly trying to be Dr. Strangelove meets The Thick of It, and coming off the heels of the wildly popular Veep, not to mention our current confusing political climate, this feels like a solid enough idea.

It just all falls flat. So, so, flat. As Robbins bangs his way to the middle and Black stumbles his way to the bottom, you’ll find you’re repeatedly asking yourself why on Earth anyone actually pushed this through despite the clearly underwhelming results.

But who knows? Maybe it gets better in the second episode.

True Detective airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on HBO followed by Ballers at 9 p.m. and The Brink at 9:30 p.m.

By Ygal Kaufman