TV Review: Stranger Things (2017)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 9
Summary/Review:

When Stranger Things appeared on Netflix seemingly out of nowhere last year, it was the surprise hit of the summer.  Stranger Things 2 came with huge expectations, and I’m happy to see mostly lives up to them.

The strengths of Stranger Things is that it uses the tropes of horror and suspense films to explore issues like trauma, grief, friendship, and facing mortality.  The multi-episode set-up also allows it to delve into developing characters more than the films it emulates.  Plus, it has a terrific cast, especially the youngest actors, who continue to impress.

The nine episodes of the second season easily split into three sections.  Episodes 1-3 feel very much a continuation of the first season with the characters still dealing with the after effects of what happened a year earlier.  Episodes 3-6 raise the stakes, both with the growing threat of the Shadow Monster and Eleven discovering her own past.  Episodes 7-9 really take a left turn from anything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things, most especially in the controversial episode 7 “The Lost Sister” which features only Eleven/Jane from the regular cast as she visits Chicago to meet up with a gang led by another young woman with powers from the Hawkins Lab.  I’m glad the Duffer Brothers decided to experiment and push the limits of the show, although I also have some problems with the episodes that I’ll go into later.

The second season introduces several new characters.  Bob Newby is Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, which is a direct tie to one of the 1980s movies that influenced this show, The Goonies.   I never saw that movie, but I thought that Bob had a lot in common with another Astin character, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, in the way that both Bob and Sam loyally help out the best they can and show surprising bravery even when they don’t know what’s going on around them.  Bob is a charming character and a great addition to the show.  Paul Reiser, known for his duplicitous character in Aliens, plays the Dr. Sam Owens who has taken over leading the Hawkins Lab.  It was an interesting decision to have Hopper, Joyce, & Will forming an uneasy détente, and Owens lends a funny, more compassionate face to the lab, but since he’s played by Reiser, you trust him anyway.  Finally, there are the step siblings Max and Billy, played by Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery.  Max is a new addition to our party of nerdy middle schoolers, and I thought Sink did a great job with developing Max in limited time.  Billy is the new bully in town, and Montgomery plays him convincingly creepy, but he seems one-note especially for Stranger Things which is usually better at letting characters develop organically.

If there’s one major problem of this series is that all the new characters and multiple plot lines happening at once make the show feel crowded and it works against Stranger Things strengths.  That being said, there was some great development for returning characters as well.  Will was missing for most of Season 1, so it’s a revelation to see that Noah Schapp is just as good an actor as his contemporaries and really sells Will’s fear, confusion, and possession.  It was also great to see Dustin and Lucas develop, really showing that they’re growing up, and getting to see into their homes and meeting their families for the first time.  Steve Harrington, the first season bully, has now fully transitioned from his experiences into a “great babysitter” leading the youngest characters against the demodogs and winning the hearts of Tumblr fans everywhere.

On the downside, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike seems underused this season, although his delivery of the line “It was the best thing I’ve ever done” was the most tearjerking moment of the season.  Similarly, Natalia Dyer’s Nancy and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan have a subplot that’s okay but just doesn’t seem as interesting as what those characters could be doing.  Then there are some out of character moments. It seems unlikely that a smart kid like Dustin would continue to protect D’art after he knew it was from the Upside Down.  And I don’t think Eleven would be jealous of Max to the point of hurting her.  It would’ve made more sense if she overheard a conversation of how Mike and his friends were still in danger from the Hawkins Lab and that helped prompt her journey of self-discovery.

Which leads us to the final three episodes.  I can understand why people don’t like “The Lost Sister,” although I also understand and appreciate what The Duffer Brothers were doing.  It was good to take a risk and try to expand what was happening in Hawkins into the larger world as part of Eleven’s story, but for Stranger Things, it was rather trite.  Kali’s gang were a note-perfect recreation of a 1980s movie idea of a punk rock gang, but that was it, there was no effort to develop these people as real characters.  And Eleven’s Yoda-style tutelage under Kali happened so quickly that I can understand why a lot of viewers felt it was unnecessary to happen at all.   The final two episode have a lot happening and it seems that a lot of the dialogue is reduced to the characters providing exposition for the audience.  By this point, Stranger Things has developed their characters enough to coast on plot conveniences, but I thought the way that everyone came together in the conclusion of the first season happened more naturally.

The final moments at the school dance are charming and well-earned, and are built on what this show does best.  While there was some unevenness in the second season, overall I’m pleased, and I’m glad there will be another season.  There’s a lot of stories that can built on in future seasons, especially if they work on Eleven/Jane integrating into everyday society for the first time.  I also have many questions that may or may not be answered.

Previous post: Stranger Things (2016)

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TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2017)


Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

The season 3 finale of BoJack Horseman put the series at a crossroads, where the lead’s characters selfish and self-destructive behavior was on the verge of making the show unbearable to watch, but on the other hand a show about a “reformed” BoJack wouldn’t be interesting to watch.  The series creators have done a good job of putting BoJack on a patch to recovery while not ignoring the lasting harm he has done to his relationships.  For this reason, the series feels more like several recurring stories focused on the lead characters rather than one narrative.  The show creators emphasize this decision by not even BoJack appear in the first episode of the season.

BoJack’s story involves the arrival of a young horse girl, Hollyhock, who believes BoJack is her biological father and wants his help finding her mother (since she already has 8 loving adoptive dads).  At the same time, BoJack must take in his deteriorating mother Beatrice despite his unhidden antipathy and resentment toward her.  Mr. Peanutbutter decides to run for governor and the depiction of the clueless celebrity stumbling into electoral success seems all too real to be funny nowadays, and leads into the series’ hamfisted attempts in political humor related to gun violence and fracking.  Luckily, the story takes a turn mid-season to exploring the effects of the election, and Mr. Peanutbutter’s way of life in general on Diane and their marriage.  Princess Carolyn attempts to find success in her business and settle down with Ralph, but runs into heartbreaking roadblocks.  Todd has less of his own storyline through the series, appearing as a supporting character to the other storylines, but does provide some great representation for asexual people as he tries to learn more about his identity.  Later, he becomes involved in one of his crazy Todd plans involving clown-dentists, a recurring joke that is far funnier than it has any right to be.

While there’s nothing as remarkable as Season 3’s “Fish Out of Water” with its mostly wordless underwater scenario, there are some standouts in this season for storytelling and animation artistry.   “The Old Sugarman Place” sees BoJack returning to his family’s summer home and befriending a crotchety dragonfly, while flashbacks of his mother’s childhood play superimposed with the current events on the show.  This develops a theme of generational depression that continues in “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” narrated by Bojack’s internal monologue constantly berating himself for his failures and slights.  “Time’s Arrow” is depicted through Beatrice’s decaying memories, filling in the story of her unhappy childhood and early marriage, and providing Hollyhock’s history as well.

Ok, so I’ve gotten this far and haven’t noted that this is a show where animals intermingle with humans in scathing satire of the Hollywood lifestyle filled with visual puns.  But really, I think BoJack Horseman may be the most affecting and honest show about the human condition on “television” today.

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TV Review: Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later (2017)


Title: Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review: The cast of Wet Hot American Summer were already too old to play teenagers when they first appeared in the 2001 movie, and way too old to play even younger teenagers in the 2015 tv series.  So it makes sense to have them return for a tenth reunion set in 1991 playing something closer to their middle age selves.  At this point, if you’re invested in the Wet Hot American Summer franchise it’s because of the characters rather than any homage/parody of 80s comedies.  That being said, I have trouble keeping all the characters in mind so I was totally fooled when they splice in two new characters, Mark and Claire, and acted like they were there the entire time.  They were more deliberate in making the fact that Ben looks different in the plot, a nod that he’s now played by Adam Scott instead of the busy Bradley Cooper.  The show gets the feel of the early 1990s clothing and music, rightly recognizing that all the tropes usually associated with The Nineties hadn’t happened yet, although Paul Rudd’s Andy now has a proto-grunge look that fits the character.  The show has fun catching up on what these characters might be doing in their late twenties and fitting them into pastiches of dramedies like The Big Chill and Singles, as well as a subplot about a psychotic killer nanny (played hilariously by Alyssa Milano).  Unfortunately, this show brings back one of the worst aspects of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the Ronald Reagan as a cartoon villain trying to destroy the camp plot, this time adding an equally bad George H.W. Bush character.  Too much of the series is centered around the Reagan/Bush absurdity that the whole series suffers as a result.  Still, WHAS fans will get some good laughs from every episode.

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TV Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2017)


Title:  Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review: The third season of the Netflix comedy series continues to be laugh out loud funny and thought-provoking.  Despite having her name in the title, at this point the show is about more than Kimmy Schmidt, but equally the stories of four major characters.  Kimmy continues to seek her place in the world attending college at Columbia University, but really wants to become a crossing guard after a test says it’s her most suitable job.  She finds a new romantic interest in Perry (Daveed Diggs) but her past with the Reverend (John Hamm) continues to haunt her.  Titus (Titus Burgess) returns from performing on a cruise ship unwilling to talk about what happened there and breaks up with Mikey (Mike Carlsen) in a ploy to win him over that backfires.  Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) continues to use her privilege for good and attempt to get the Washington Redskins to change their racist name, but hits a snag when an accident makes her fiance Russ (David Cross) more handsome causing him to become more shallow.  Lillian (Carol Kane) becomes a city councilor fighting gentrification, but ends up falling for Artie (Peter Riegert), the owner of the new high-end grocery store in the neighborhood.

There are a lot of funny plots and gags, but not everything goes well.  One of the most publicized gags of the season is Titus “Lemonading” but there seems to be no joke here other than a large, black man reenacting Beyonce’s music video.  There have been times in the past when I’ve wondered if Tina Fey is secretly Republican and that continues here.  The depiction of Columbia University students as social justice warriors who suppress free speech comes straight from Fox News and Breitbart.  Artie is presented as a compassionate millionaire bringing groceries to the poor and Lillian a loony leftist (although I do appreciate Reigert’s performance with his charm and dry humor).  On the other hand, the attempt to depict the NFL team owners as rightwing loons also misses the mark, so maybe Fey just can’t do political humor without being ridiculous and over the top.

All the same, I love these characters and their stories.  Excluding the “Lemonade” gag, Titus Burgess remains one of the funnies people on tv.  I look forward to seeing where the show goes in its next season.

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TV Review: Master of None (2017)


Title: Master of None
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

The second season of Aziz Ansari’s sitcom/romantic comedy/social satire picks up where the previous season left off and continues with the laughs and impresses with the experimental approaches to television.  Following up on the season 1 cliffhanger where Dev went to Italy to study pasta making, the first two episodes are set in Modena and the opening episode is filmed in black & white and stylized like a classic Italian film.  These episodes introduce Francesca, a new love interest for Dev, complicated because she is engaged to someone else.  This story plays out over the course of the season culminating in the hour-long final episode “Buona Notte” which is almost like a feature film.  In between there are episodes focusing on religion, Dev’s dating life, and Dev’s unhappiness as the host of a cupcake cooking competition reality show and efforts to create something new with celebrity chef and producer Jeff.  A couple of episodes stand out, and both rely on the talents of the supporting cast and guest stars.  First, is “Thanksgiving” which starts with Dev & his friend Denise as children, and Dev attending her family’s Thanksgiving dinner.  Over the years, Denise comes out to her family and then begins bringing her dates to Thanksgiving as well.  It’s an amazing, heartwarming story and features Angela Bassett as Denise’s mother.  My favorite episode of the season is “New York, I Love You” which is built on the conceit that the incidental characters we see in tv shows and movies have fascinating lives of their own.  In 30 minutes we see a doorman named Eddie struggling with difficult tenants, a deaf woman named Maya who works in a corner store argues with her boyfriend about her unsatisfactory sex life (this segment has no sound), and Samuel, a Burundian immigrant who drives a taxi, tries to enjoy a night out clubbing with his friends.  I would watch a spinoff series about any of these characters!  Overall, Master of None is a well-acted, well-written, thoughtful, and hilarious show.

TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The adaptation of the Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) novels is a great success, capturing the humor, tragedy, and pedagogy of the Baudelaire orphans sad tale.  It’s been over a decade since I read the books, but the tv show appears to be largely to the books with the exception of the introduction of some characters and the themes of the VFD that actually play a bigger role later in the series (not a bad idea for the tv show).  Neil Patrick Harris gets a lot of attention for his performance as the evil Count Olaf, and he chews the scenery in a way that will delight most viewers (although I can also see how he could irritate some).  The thing is, NPH isn’t even the best thing about this show.  The main cast of young actors includes Malina Weissman as Violet, Louis Hynes as Klaus, and the greatest baby actor ever in Presley Smith as Sunny.  Patrick Warburton offers a dry delivery of the narration as Lemony Snicket and K. Todd Freeman is the forever clueless, and coughing, Mr. Poe.  The guest cast includes spectacular performances by Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Catherine O’Hara, and Rhys Darby. And kudos for the diversity in the casting decisions not necessarily indicated in the source material. The surreal sets and the brightly-colored costumes lend an unworldly effect to the Snicketverse.  This is a brilliant show, and despite the warning from the opening title song to “Look Away,” this is definitely a show to watch and enjoy.

TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana.  There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others.  Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own.  I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well.  Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.

What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes.  A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness.   A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally.  Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that  Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.

The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue –  with a few scares thrown in.  It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2016)


TitleBoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:  This is the third series of the animated Netflix show that is laugh out loud funny, acerbically satirical, emotionally raw, and thoroughly depressing.  Two plots are intertwined through the series: BoJack making the circuit of appearances in hopes of getting an Oscar nomination for the biopic of Secretariat and flashbacks to 2007 when BoJack helped create a tv show that flopped (kind of eerie how the show makes 2007 feel like a long time ago!).  Both plots deal with BoJack’s inability to feel happiness, his capacity for self-sabotage, and his unreliability to friends and colleagues.  Looking back on the season it seems so glum, it’s hard to remember that there was a lot to laugh about, but BoJack Horseman is all about using humor to peel back the most painful wounds.  The highpoint of the season is episode 4, “Fish Out of Water,” where BoJack goes to a film festival in a community under the sea and thus there’s almost no dialogue in the entire episode as the undersea world is brought to life with fantastic visuals, sound effects, and music.  It’s a tour-de-force in what is a really well-done season of television.

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TV Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2016)


TitleUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is  the type of tv comedy that if you explain the premise it sounds like it would be absolutely awful, but somehow it works. In the first season Ellie Kemper’s titular character is rescued from an underground bunker where she’s been held for 15 years after being abducted as a child by a doomsday cult leader.  With the naivete of a child from the 90s in a woman’s body, she decides to move to New York where she successfully finds a place to live, a job, studies for a GED, and even finds love (although most of this falls apart by the end of the season).

In season 2, Kimmy’s characteristic cheerfulness and optimism begin to break as she’s unable to suppress the trauma of her childhood and the stress of trying to hold her new life together.  And yes, as I said above this is a comedy, but one that deals with deep and dark issues hilariously, in a manner that is just dense with jokes. Part of the success of the show is the ensemble cast of Kimmy’s friends and colleagues.

There are three standout characters.  Jane Krakowski plays the Manhattan socialite Jacqueline Voorhees having divorced on Kimmy’s advice is now trying to work her way back into wealth and power but with a nagging sense of conscience thanks to Kimmy.  Krakowski has always played funny characters in the past but she brings a lot of depth to Jacqueline who could otherwise easily be a vapid caricature.  Kimmy’s landlady Lillian Kaushtupper is played by Carol Kane who has a much bigger role in this season and just may be favorite character.  Throughout the season Lillian tries to stop gentrification in her neighborhood but only ends up making matters worse as incoming hipsters consider her charming local color.  Finally, a new character Andrea portrayed by show creator and writer Tina Fey is a straightlaced therapist by day and an obnoxious drunk.  Again, it’s a premise that sounds ridiculous, but Fey provides a realistic portrayal of addiction while keeping it funny, and provides a foil to Kimmy dealing with her own inner demons.

Not everything works. The episode “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” is a mean-spirited response to critics of the show who objected to casting a white actor as a Native American in the first season.  Kimmy finally consummates her relationship with on-again/off-again boyfriend Dong in episode 8, and then his character is deported and never mentioned again.  But overall this a sharp and unique comedy that will have you laughing but also keep you thinking.

Rating: ****

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2014)


TitleBoJack Horseman
Release Dates: August 2014
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

This is a show with a big premise, a world in which anthropomorphic animals live and work among humans.   One of them,  BoJack Horseman, was the star of a popular 1990s sitcom in which a horseman adopts human children.  In the current day, BoJack is a washed-up drunk, living in a Hollywood mansion and trying to regain his relevancy by writing his autobiography.  In the first episode Diane Nyugen is introduced as his ghostwriter, and their relationship is the core of the season.

The show is deeply satirical and is reminiscent of The Simpsons, 30 Rock, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show! for it’s combination of satire, spoof, sight gags, and sensitivity.  There are a lot of gags and it’s funny when a anthropomorphic animal character acts on their animal instinct.  But there’s a lot of serious undertones to this show as well, and it’s often just as heartbreaking as it is funny.
Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015)


TitleWet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Release Dates: July 2015
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

Gonna try something new here.  Since I’ve been binge-watching tv shows on Netflix and elsewhere, I may as well post a few thoughts here.  Thus this is my first TV Review!

This tv series is a prequel to the 2001 movie, with the same actors returning to play teenagers even though everyone is 15 years older and looks it (especially the men).  This is played for a good gag at the end of the series. Like the movie, the show is a loving spoof of 1980s movie tropes, not just camp movies but across genres.  And like the movie, a lot more happens than could possibly happen in a single day.  Surprisingly, I think the tv series is actually funnier than the movie, perhaps because over several episodes they’re able to build up the characters and scenarios to make the gags pay off.

It’s not perfect, but if you’re looking for some dumb fun, here it is.
Rating:***

Movie Review: Keith Richards: Under the Influence


Title: Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Release Date: 2015
Director: Morgan Neville
Summary/Review:

This Netflix documentary follows Keith Richards as he works in the studio on new songs and travels through America to sites connected with American music. Theses scenes are intercut with archival footage of Richards and the Stones. The influences in this movie are musical – Blues, Country, & Reggae – and Richards talks about his love for music and how he creates his own. Musicians talking about music is the best kind of music documentary. It has all the joy and none of the bitterness of Richard’s autobiography.  As an added bonus, Tom Waits appears for a few scene-stealing interviews.
Rating: ****