TV Picks: 'Sherlock,' 'Powerpuff Girls,' Comedy Central comedies
By By Robert Lloyd and Los Angeles Times Television Critic
Jan 16, 2014 at 8:22 PM
"Sherlock" (PBS, Sundays). Wreathed in the glory that is Benedict Cumberbatch's current status as an international sex symbol -- "The Thinking Woman's Crumpet," he has been called, in the land of crumpets -- comes the third season of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's 21st century update of Arthur Conan Doyle's deerstalkered sleuth. Its return, certainly in public television terms, but beyond them as well, constitutes a bona fide event. If it is not the only 21st century update of Conan Doyle's deerstalkered sleuth currently on television (elementary, my dear readers, there's "Elementary"), it is the one with the pop cultural weight (and the crumpet). (All right, Jonny Lee Miller, you are hot, too.) And it is the one that more fully inhabits the Now, the sparkly and unsettling world in which the present looks like the future; it is full of visual tricks 'n' tropes more usual for EDM videos than for narrative melodrama, as Sherlock (it's all first names here) slips in and out of his "mind palace," wherein the workings of his Ferrari intellect and server-farm memory are three-dimensionally externalized. At times, it runs pretty close to science fiction.
The new season -- which, in imitation of its 19th century original, brings its hero back from what the world believed was a fatal fall -- will eventually get around to explaining that "magic trick," but not before it spins you around a few times, picks your pocket and sends you flying with a kick in the pants, in a friendly, comical way. I would have to revisit past seasons to be perfectly sure, but my impression is this is the series' jokiest year yet. And while there are crimes to solve and atrocities to prevent, much of its matter is devoted to exploring (exploiting is perhaps the better word) the asymmetrical bromance between Sherlock and his Watson, John Watson (Martin "The Hobbit" Freeman). As the current series gets underway -- after a gap of two years, both in its fictional timeline and that of the one we are living outside the television -- Watson (or John, rather) has acquired a mustache and a girlfriend, both of which will give Sherlock pause, and one of which he will shortly lose. As in other things Moffat (he's the writer in charge of "Doctor Who"), the intertwining plots are twisty thickets, complicated almost to a fault -- some would omit the "almost," though not I -- but mathematically sound. Probably.
"The Powerpuff Girls Special: Dance Pantsed" (Cartoon Network, Monday); "I Wish I Was a Powerpuff Girl" (online now, and below). A guarded recommendation, to fans of the super-powered kindergartners, born of sugar, spice and an accidental addition of Chemical X. You will be courting disappointment here. Yet the Powerpuff Girls only turn 15 once, and you can surely spare them half an hour to see how they're getting on in this world they helped make. To be sure, this is not "The Powerpuff Girls" so much as it is "A Variation on a Theme by Craig McCracken," who is now over at Disney Channel with "Wander Over Yonder" and palpably absent from this project. (The corporation, not the creator, owns the brand.) But reunions are hard, in any case, sometimes even with the original team intact, as old-time's-sake albums by formerly disunited rock bands often show. (The original cast has returned, and to the extent the Girls and their cohorts still live, it is in these voices.) Nevertheless, as a great fan of the original series, I was never not going to watch this sequel special.
As far as reboots go, it is no "Doctor Who," or even the post-Fleischer "Popeye." It lacks the personal touch, that would, for instance, find McCracken dropping French director and actor Jacques Tati into a crowd scene. (Tati's "Mon Oncle" also provided a model for the Girls' Mid-century Modern manse.) The script unavoidably piles on the local tropes, almost too obviously at times; there were, I believe, two references to "saving the world before bedtime," the show's old tag line, and in a moment of apparent defeat, the Professor wails, "I've lost my sugar, spice and everything nice … forever." There is nothing here as fresh or clever as Mojo Jojo (the Girls' simian super-nemesis) turning everyone into dogs, or the episode in which, stuck at home on a rainy day, the girls play at being their superheroic selves.
The present episode includes an origin story for Professor Utonium, with a payoff in the climax, and a kidnapping plot (by Mojo Jojo, naturally, exhibiting none of his famous rhetorical redundancy), whose victims include a Ringo Starr-voiced Fibonacci Sequins, a mathematician in a reflective coat, for the sake of the pun. (The coat is better developed than the character.) There is also a video-game-addiction plotline -- the titular reference is to something called Dance Pants Revolution -- which proves a mostly excellent device.
Visually, things are more interesting; instead of the full-blown 3D CGI makeover that has given other once-two-dimensional cartoon characters the look of extruded plastic, a workable and often very productive compromise has been reached, with lighting and focus effects applied to characters who remain more or less flat, in a more open, airy space. (They have also lost their heavy outlines, which is subtly disturbing at first.) The color design is beautiful, as well. Unavoidable comparisons with the perfect original aside, it's a pleasure to behold. Even if I can't quite regard it as canon, I would watch it if you were me.
Sent into the world to promote the special, the accompanying "I Wish I Was a Powerpuff Girl" is, on the other hand, recommendable without reservation, except as an example of good grammar. It's a music video essentially, with the Girls merely as guests (and inspiration). The song, in which an animated Ringo expresses his dream to "wear a ribbon in my hair / wear a dress / and save the world," drops measures to catchy effect, has a Beatle-y bounce and lilt and all in all has been well tailored to the singer's strengths and persona. A minute and 14 seconds that will do you no harm, and possibly much good.
"Kroll Show" (Comedy Central, Tuesdays); "Broad City" (Comedy Central, Wednesdays); "Workaholics" (Comedy Central, Wednesdays). "Something familiar," Stephen Sondheim wrote in the opening number of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum. "Something peculiar. A comedy tonight." Other adjectives follow: appealing, appalling, convulsive, repulsive. The comedy he was writing about was Plautine, by way of Larry Gelbart -- and the more things change, et cetera, et cetera. This week brings the return of two appealing, appalling, convulsive, repulsive, peculiar and familiar series to Comedy Central, and the arrival of a new one, which may already be familiar to users of the Internet. All do their own thing, though all inhabit the new comic space where sex and drugs are played with in ways that not so many years ago would have been unthinkable on television. (Embarrassment is truly generational.)
Back for a second season is "Kroll Show," starring Nick Kroll, also of FX's "The League." Leaning to genre parody, it's a sort of adults-only, 21st-century "SCTV" -- including, in the "Degrassi"-esque "Wheels Ontario," a take-off of Canadian television -- with superior production values and a single, mutable star. (A host of recurring guests, including Jenny Slate, Chelsea Peretti and Amy Poehler imply a company around him; John Daly, also a writer and producer on the series, gets a co-star credit.) Reality television, with its cadres of socially illiterate dunderheads at each end of the economic scale, is the main target. It is very funny and full of lines I am unable to quote in a family newspaper. "Workaholics," starting a fourth season -- "'Workaholics,' Season Four" is not a phrase many people could have expected to hear -- is Three Stooges by way of "Office Space" by way of Cheech and Chong (and Cheech). A trio of idiots -- roommates and co-workers -- attempt to have a good time, or get one up on life, and mostly fail; its humor is low, and much of it sounds impromptu, but the sitcom roots run deep; I am going to go ahead and call it neo-classical and see if anyone objects. (And it is the only place you are likely to hear a fish-based pun on the name Rob Corddry.)
The new, assured-out-of-the-gate "Broad City," which has Poehler as a producer, is a televisionification of an Internet series from Upright Citizens Brigade veterans Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. It also boasts a Lucy-and-Ethel classicism, but feels as well like "Flight of the Conchords" crossed with "Girls." (It's a best friends-with-bickering comedy.) I like it oodles. A long review is coming. And now I'm wondering what "I Love Lucy" would look like shot on the streets of New York.