Book Review: The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King


Author: Maxwell King
Title: The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
Narrator: LeVar Burton
Publication Info: Oasis Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I know a bit about the life of Fred Rogers from watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and reading articles about him.  But I couldn’t resist listening to the first book-length biography of Mr. Rogers narrated by another PBS hero, LeVar Burton.  King does a good job of getting a clear picture of Rogers’ background, starting from childhood.

His family was wealthy, which allowed Rogers the opportunities to try his new ideas, but his parents’ philanthropy and noblesse oblige also contributed to his humility and simple lifestyle.  Rogers was also affected by instances of childhood bullying and the sense that he could find support in the neighborhood of his hometown of Latrobe, PA.

As a young man, Rogers learned television production and studied for the ministry, with the unorthodox plan of putting both callings toward educating children.  The big question of this book is whether the Mister Rogers we see on tv represents the real person, with the unanimous response of “yes” from people who know him.  So this book won’t expose any “dark secrets” but it is a very good glimpse into how a wonderful man formed his philosophy for teaching children.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 9


Twenty Thousand Hertz  :: Baby Shark

The long history of the ubiquitous children’s song that became an unexpected hit this year.

Lost at the Smithsonian :: Archie Bunker’s Chair

Norman Lear’s groundbreaking show All in the Family depicted the real divisions within American family.  The famed overstuffed armchair remains on display at the Smithsonian as recognition of the show’s place in history. By the way, I’ve never before noticed how much Donald Trump’s vocal intonations resemble Archie Bunker’s.

Throughline :: No Friends But the Mountains

A history of the Kurds, a people without a nation.

Wedway Radio :: The Evolution of Disney Lands

Breaking down how Disney parks have created lands that evolved from a loose collection of attractions around a theme to fully immersive experiences.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

TV Review: Further Tales of the City (2001)


Title More Tales of the City
Release Dates: 2001
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 3
Summary/Review:

I’ve finished off watching all the televisual adaptions of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books with 2001’s More Tales of the City.  This is the shortest of all the miniseries and apparently was released in three episodes, although the version I watched on YouTube was edited together into a single three hour movie.  The brevity actually benefits the film, because this is the weakest of all 9 Tales of the City books and consolidating the story actually improves the narrative a bit.

More Tales of the City revolved a ludicrous, plot-twist filled story about an Episcopalian cannibal cult. Further Tales of the City revolves around a ludicrous, plot-twist filled story about cult leader Jim Jones living in San Francisco three years after the Jonestown massacre.  This main story line has DeDe (Barbara Garrick) and her adorable toddler children returning home after having gone to live at Jonestown, surviving the massacre, escaping to Cuba, and then being expelled for being lesbian.  The story does give Garrick a part with more gravitas which she performs well and makes me wonder why DeDe was played mostly for laughs in the 2019 miniseries.

Another central character is Prue (Mary Kay Place), a friend of DeDe’s who had only a small role in previous series, but is the one who discovers and befriends Jim Jones, using the alias Luke (Henry Czerny), when he was living in a maintenance shed in Golden Gate Park.  Her sidekick is Father Paddy, a gossipy and secretly gay priest, played by Bruce McCullough (the second member of Kids in the Hall to appear in Tales of the City after Scott Thompson played a bit part in the previous installment). Another newcomer is a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Sandra Oh as news anchor Bambi Kanetaka, who is Mary Ann’s rival at the tv station and who’s mistreatment by the 28 Barbary Lane family reflects poorly on them and is another reason I like this book the least.

The other storylines seem to be treading water.  Mary Ann (Laura Linney) and Brian (Whip Hubley) are in a long-term relationship now, but straining over Mary Ann’s career focus (something that is better developed in the later books).  Michael (Paul Hopkins) has broken off with Jon (Billy Campbell) basically because of low self-esteem and has a series of flings with an actor (a character Maupin based on his real life lover Rock Hudson), a cop, and a cowboy.  And Mother Mucca (Jackie Burroughs) introduces Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) to a man named Royal Reichenbach (John McMartin) in a story created solely for television.

It’s a shame that they were never able to continue adapting the books with the original-ish cast.  Book 4, Babycakes, is my favorite of all the books and all three of the books from the 1980s are more character-driven and deal with more serious issues, especially the AIDS crisis.  Maupin was one of the first authors to include depictions of AIDS in fiction.  Alas, to what could’ve been.

Related posts:

TV Review: More Tales of the City (1998)


Title More Tales of the City
Release Dates: 1998
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

Having watched the new Netflix series Tales of the City and then rewatched the classic 1993 miniseries Tales of the City, I dug up the sequel to the original, More Tales of the City on YouTube of all places. This miniseries suffers from the fact that it’s based on one of the weakest books in the Tales of the City series and can’t improve on its source material. The series also  anfeatures several characters cast with new actors that can be jarring.

Paul Hopkins takes over as Michael Tolliver and he end being my least favorite of the three actors to play Michael, as he overdoes the Southern accent and seems to lean in to hard on playing a stereotype of 70s gay man. Nina Siemaszko is somewhat more successful as Mona, playing the character with more vulnerability, but also looking like she’s cosplaying Chloe Webb as Mona. Diana Leblanc takes over for Frannie Halcyon who has a much bigger role in this story, and bears a startling resemblance to Barbara Garrick who plays her onscreen daughter.  Françoise Robertson takes over for D’orothea and also is an improvement for a character getting a bigger role.  Finally, Whip Hubley plays Brian, and while he looks too much like a 70s sitcom character, he does inhabit the role well.

The miniseries overall does have more of a sitcom feel and a lot of the cinematography and direction that made the original Tales of the City great is replaced by more pedestrian styles. I find the plot twists over-the-top (SPOILER) such as Beauchamp dies in a car wreck, Michael is suddenly paralyzed by Guillain–Barré syndrome, and Burke uncovered a Episcopalian cannibal cult! Again, though, those all come from the original source, so they do the best they can.

The main plots of the story involve Mary Ann (Laura Linney) and Michael going on a cruise to Mexico.  Mary Ann finds romance with a man who has amnesia regarding his time in San Francisco, Burke (Colin Ferguson), while Michael is reacquainted with Jon (William Campbell).  Meanwhile, Mona, feeling lost in life, journeys to Nevada where she ends up working as a receptionist at a brothel for Mother Mucca (a cracking good Jackie Burroughs who is actually 8 years younger than Olympia Dukakis, despite appearances).  Brian, enjoying voyeurism from his new penthouse apartment, starts a long distance fling with a mysterious woman (Swoosie Kurtz, 14 years younger than Olympia Dukakis) in another building via binoculars. DeDe has her babies with the help of her new friend-come-lover D’orthea.

It was interesting to finaly see this after 21 years, but unlike the original, I don’t think it would be worth an additional viewing.

TV Review: Tales of the City (1993)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 1993
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

After watching the new Tales of the City miniseries on Netflix, I saw that this original miniseries is also on Netflix and had to rewatch.  As good as the new series is, this original is really a masterpiece of television.  There’s a lot about it I love – the dialogue, the pacing, the way San Francisco is incorporated as a character, the camerawork (I especially enjoy how many scenes are shot through windows), and the music, both the period-specific pop tunes and the original score for the series. The new series, and well, a lot of television misses these deft touches.

I also like how it slowly reveals that in a city where no one seems to have any secrets that everyone has deep secrets indeed.  I like how well they handled a romance between an older couple – Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) – something you rarely see depicted on film.  Marcus D’Amico is really the most heartwarming perfomer as Michael Tolliver, and I really loved his strong friendship with Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb). That Michael in the new series doesn’t share any memories of Mona and even changes the story of how he met Mrs. Madrigal is all the more disappointing.

Even though I haven’t watched this in at least 20 years, I was surprised how well I remembered so many scenes.  The big exception is that I forgot the whole thing about D’orothea (Cynda Williams) pretending to be Black and Mona trying to appeal to her with sould food, which is one of the big misteps of this whole series and worth forgetting about.  Otherwise this is a terrific show and if you have Netflix give yourself a treat and watch it.

TV Review: Tales of the City (2019)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

25 years ago, my sister introduced me to the PBS miniseries Tales of the City, which proved to be an eye-opening experiencing of seeing the intertwined lives of a group of people in San Francisco in the period of Gay Liberation and Sexual Revolution of the 1970s.  A couple more miniseries were made for a cable channel that I never saw, but I did end up reading the Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin multiple times.  Maupin began Tales of the City as a newspaper column in 1974 and then compiled the stories into five novels through the 1970s and 1980s.  Maupin tied up the series with an original novel in 1989, but a couple of decades later he returned to the characters with three new novels published between 2007 and 2014.

And now Tales of the City returns to tv with a Netflix miniseries that draws on both the recent novels and the  1993 miniseries, with additional new characters and plots.  The story is set in the present day which creates a big cognitive roadblock for me as a Tales of the City fan.  The characters should have aged 40+ years since 1976, but the actors playing them have only aged 25 years and thus much of their backstories don’t add up.  With a large part of the story focusing on generational differences, we have the original Boomer characters and the new Millenial characters, but Generation X is completely erased (except, of course, that Gen X actors are playing the Boomers).

Leaving that aside, this version of Tales of the City viewed on its own is an excellent work of television.  In additon to the generational conflicts, the show focuses on truth, family, forgiveness, and how gentrification disrupts community and history.  LGBTQ actors are cast to play LGBTQ characters and the new cast brings a greater racial diversity.

Olympia Dukakis returns as Anna Madrigal, one of the great characters of literature and film.  Under threat of blackmail, Anna decides to sell her Barbary Lane apartment building.  A flashback episode to 1966 depicts Anna’s arrival in San Francisco and a shocking secret.  Young Anna is portrayed magnificently by Jen Richards, who is actually a transgender woman unlike Dukakis.

Laura Linney returns as Mary Ann Singleton.  Her character returns to San Francisco after 20 years to attend Anna’s 90th birthday party, and decides to stay when she realizes how much she misses it as her home.  Mary Ann dives into solving the mystery of why Anna is selling Barbary Lane. Initially, her character is off-putting, a pushy and privileged white woman from Connecticut, but over the course of the series she softens back into the Mary Ann we loved.

Murray Bartlett joins the cast as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and despite being way too young to play Michael, he does a great job inhabiting the character and has great chemistry with the other actors as if he’d been there all along.  Michael is dealing with a much younger boyfriend Ben (inspired by, but different from a character in the books and played by Charlie Barnett), and the return of an old lover who’d abandoned him, Harrison (Matthew Risch playing a character who as nothing in common with Michael’s former book boyfriends, Jon and Thack).

Paul Gross returns as Brian Hawkins, Mary Ann’s ex-husband, who raised his adoptive daughter as a single father and runs a garden nursery with Michael.  He is looking to get back in the dating game but keeps meeting up with women who remind him of Mary Ann.  He also attempts a relationship with his best friend Wren (played by Michelle Buteau, a really great character inspired by a book character of the same name, who should have had a bigger part).

The new, younger characters are also great.  Ellen Page plays Brian’s adoptive daughter Shawna, who is unaware that she was adopted and resents Mary Ann for leaving her behind (this was definitely NOT a plot in the books).  She’s pansexual and works for a radical cooperative burlesque bar that is central to many scenes of the series. And since Page is playing a character who is the biological child of a character played by Parker Posey, I now need to see Page and Posey together in a movie.

Other Barbary Lane residents include transgender man Jake Rodriguez (Garcia) and his partner Margot Park (May Hong).  Jake is realizing he is now attracted to men, while Margot regrets losing her lesbian identity from before Jake’s transition, leading to tension and eventual breakup.  Jake is a character from the newer books but characterized somewhat differently here, including having him be of Latinx heritage, while Margot is a characer new to the miniseries.

The other residents of Barbary Lane are a twin siblings Jennifer (Ashley Park) and Jonathan (Christopher Larkin) who dedicate their lives to performance art in hopes of becoming successful Instagram influencers.  Unfortunately, most of their plot is cliched Millenial sterotypes, although they are good comic relief.  They also are tied in with another returning character, DeDe Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), a wealthy socialite delighted to have young people make use of her mansion for their performance parties.

One frustrating element is that when Anna’s blackmailer is revealed, they are portrayed as a cartoon villain, ruining what I thought had been an intersting, nuanced character up that point.  Barring that, Tales of the City is a touching, funny, and thoughtful story and a  worthy addition to the ouevre.

TV Review: Russian Doll (2019)


Title: Russian Doll
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

This clever tv show features the comedic talents of Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who dies repeatedly and keeps returning to relive her 36th birthday party.  The time loop concept is similar to Groundhog’s Day, a similarity the show doesn’t try to hide.  I also felt it shared some qualities with Donnie Darko, and Run, Lola, Run, especially in that the show feels like a video game character that dies and always returns to the same starting point.  Not coincidentally, Nadia is a software designer for a game company who created a particularly difficult game.

The twist here – and this is a SPOILER if you haven’t watched the show – comes in the third episode cliffhanger where Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett, who could easily be cast in an Alex Rodriguez biopic), a young man who is also repeatedly dying and coming back to life.  While Nadia is struggling with her troubled childhood with her mentally ill mother (who died at the age of 36), Alan is challenged by being dumped by his long-time girlfriend on the night he planned to propose to her. The great thing about this show’s plot is not only to they have to come to terms with their problems in order to get on with their lives (literally here, but also metaphorically) but they also have to help one another to do so.

Russian Doll is by turns really dark, acerbically funny and very sweet.

 

TV Review: Doctor Who (2018)


TitleDoctor Who
Release Dates: 2018
Series: 11
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

This is going to be tough because I love this show so much, yet I’m going to have to state some unpleasant truths.  This was not a very good series of Doctor Who. The baseline of competency was met again and again, and no episode was truly awful, but this series never seemed to aspire to anything beyond sheer competency.  There are a lot of people involved in creating a television series, but I believe that a lot of the blame for the failures of Series 11 can go to the showrunner Chris Chibnall, who scripted 5 of the 10 episodes, and co-wrote another.  I had concerns about Chibnall going into the series based on his previous work for Doctor Who and Torchwood, but had also admired his work on Broadchurch, at least the first season.

Compared with the previous showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, who each contributed numerous innovations to Doctor Who storytelling, Chibnall did not seem interested in taking many risks in that area.  I should note though, that there was some risk-taking in this series.  For one, this is the first time a woman – Jodie Whittaker – was cast in the role of the Doctor, and while that shouldn’t be risky in 2018, it was nevertheless, controversial.  The consequence though is that Chibnall and company appeared not to want to make any further waves and wrote the Doctor as a very passive character, to the point of criminal indifference, which is not something you want to see paired with your female representation.  The optimist in me thinks that now that the writers have seen how Whittaker performs the Doctor, and with one season under their belt, that they will be willing to take more risks with her character next series.  At the very least I hope they cease writing dialogue where Whittaker is forced to just describe what is in front of her much of the time.  These writers need to heed the advice to show not tell.

Another big risk is that Chibnall chose to cast three different companions, creating the largest Tardis Team since the Fifth Doctor also traveled with three companions in the 1980s.  It was also the first time that 4 major characters were introduced in the same episode since the premiere of the series in 1963.  The consequence of this risk is that there was very little time to develop four new characters and tell new stories at the same time.  Yaz was particularly effected by the crowded Tardis in that the audience never seemed to learn much about her despite her having the potential to be the most interesting character as a foil to the Doctor.  She’s also the most competent character, so her quietly getting things done didn’t leave much time for interesting character beats.  Ryan and Grahams were served better as they had the theme of there growing familial relationship as they mourn Grace to carry them through the series.

Chibnall took risks in how the series is presented.  Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, a series has had 12-to-13 episodes, 45 minutes in length, plus a Christmas Special.  Chibnall cut the total number of episodes to 10, but extended the length of individual episodes to 50 minutes.  The problems of character development may have been better addressed with 2 or 3 more stories.  While previous series usually had some two-part episodes, and at least a semi-serialized nature where the series built on a story arc or theme, Chibnall chose to have all the episodes of series 11 be stand-alone stories, with the exception of an episode 1 villain ineffectively returning in episode 10.  The structure of a Doctor Who episode was modeled on the procedural drama genre of television for the first time.  I can’t criticize that choice because Doctor Who should be able to function in any genre, even if it didn’t work for other reasons.

The series was a commercial success with better ratings than Doctor Who has had in some time.  The argument can be made that more straightforward, stand alone episodes attract a larger number of viewers who can pop in to watch an episode without having to know a lot of the details behind the story.  I’m pleased that Doctor Who is succeeding, even if it’s not the type of Doctor Who I enjoy.  But I would also contend that television viewers – including children – are more sophisticated viewers than they were a generation or two ago and can handle more complex stories and serialization.  Not the least because a large percentage of people who end up viewing this show will do so by bingewatching on streaming services rather than watching each episode as it airs.

Despite my heavy criticism of the show, there was a lot I enjoyed about it.  Whittaker was excellent in portraying the Doctor as funny, compassionate, and a strong leader.  She deserves better material to work with.  I also love all the new companions, they are great characters and each bring something to the team. The production values were excellent for the most part including cinematograpy, sets, costuming, and music.  It was a pleasurable program to look at the vast majority of the time.  While the politics of the show seem to be moving rightward overall, it’s also important to recognize the representation in this series.  Women and people of color are appearing in the show, as well as writing and directing, more than ever before, and telling stories previously ignored in the previous 36 seasons.

Here are my thoughts on an episode by episode basis with links to full reviews.  The number in parentheses is a rating on a scale of 10.

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7) – A good introduction, that swiftly brings together our new Tardis Team with good character beats for each, and keeping Jodie Whittaker on her toes as she resolves both the problem and her new identity.  Sure, the villain is rubbish, but monsters are only secondary to this story and we’re never going to see Tim Shaw again, right?  The biggest downer is that Grace, one of the most compelling characters and a natural for the companion role, dies just as we’re getting to know her.
  2. The Ghost Monument (5) – The first episode introduced all of our new characters, while the purpose of this episode is to reunite the Doctor with her Tardis.  Along the way, the new companions get their “wow, we’re on another planet” moments.  The plot seems only incidental and is discarded once the Tardis is found, setting a pattern of Chibnall-authored stories that are unresolved.
  3. Rosa (7) – The first historical of Series 11 is set in 1950s Alabama and does a great job of capturing the period and the pervasive nature of Jim Crow racism.  The message of the show, that social change occurs only when great individuals like Rosa Parks take small actions (and that they will suffer to achieve incremental changes) seems out of touch with what audiences need from Doctor Who in 2018, though.
  4. Arachnids in the UK  (6) -The return to Sheffield episode does a good job of introducing us to Yaz’s family and setting up an adventure involving giant spiders, and even make us sympathetic to the monsters.  The story once again ends with a feeling of loose ends untied.  And while Doctor Who certainly can’t depict the overthrow of Donald Trump, they could at least offer consequences to a Trump surrogate.
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum (7) – I seem to be alone in liking this space adventure, and certainly think it’s the best Chibnall-authored script of the season.  For one, it actually tells a complete story with beginning, middle, and end.  And the other, all the characters – regular and guest – play a part in the story and have significant character moments.  It’s also funny.  I guess people just don’t like cute monsters.
  6. Demons of the Punjab (8) – This Yaz-centered story travels back in time to visit her grandmother in 1947 during the partition of India and Pakistan.  The personal story of one family set against tragic historical events is definitely the best story of the season.
  7. Kerblam! (5) – Honestly, this story is not as bad as it’s rating.  It’s well constructed and entertaining, and I suppose a good example of Right Wing Science Fiction.  But it loses points because the Doctor being not only indifferent to, but tacitly supporting, the suffering and exploitation of labor is counter to everything I know about the Doctor.
  8. The Witchfinders (8) – Another entertaining historical with Alan Cumming guest starring in a wonderfully hammy performance as King James I.  The Tardis Team have come into their own and work together to solve the problem.  And Whittaker’s Doctor, for once, isn’t hopelessly passive, taking action even when it may be changing history.
  9. It Takes You Away (6) – A strange, entertaining story with a few twists, and a talking frog.  I didn’t think the story was the best, but I did enjoy the bonkers quality of it, and the sign that Chibnall-era Doctor Who was recognizing the previous 10 series of Doctor Who and finding new ways to build on it.
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4) – A total bummer of a finale that seems only to function as a sampler of the worst aspects of Series 11.  The rest of the series looks worse in retrospect because one could no longer believe it was building to something meaningful.

If you have time and desire to read more about Series 11, check out this excellent post from the Movie Blog.

Okay, now we move on to the New Year’s Day Special!  I have high hopes.


Series 11 episodes ranked:

  • Demons of the Punjab (8)
  • The Witchfinders  (8)
  • The Tsuranga Conundrum (7)
  • The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7)
  • Rosa (7)
  • It Takes You Away (6)
  • Arachnids in the UK  (6)
  • The Ghost Monument (5)
  • Kerblam! (5)
  • The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4)

Related Posts:

Science Fiction Double Feature – Vanity Edition


Last night I watched on Netflix an episode of Star Trek and an episode of The Twilight Zone back to back.  The thread that connected these two tv shows together is their guest actor, a man who shares my name, Liam Sullivan.  Despite my best efforts, he is probably the most famous Liam Sullivan of all time, known for his many appearances on television shows, particularly as a villain (albeit I’d argue he plays a sympathetic character in The Twilight Zone episode).

Sullivan is quoted as saying about his villainous roles:

“Playing truly evil people is a great way to release tension and anger and disgust with humanity. Show bad people what they really look and act like and maybe they’ll recognize themselves and change. Who knows?”

I remember seeing Liam Sullivan’s name in the credits of tv shows when I was growing up and it was a treat.  Unlike the present day when the name Liam is a frequent top ten baby name for boys, it was an unusual name outside of Ireland in the 1970s and 80s.  It’s all the more remarkable that the actor Liam Sullivan was born and named in Illinois in 1923.

In the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” (1968), Sullivan plays Parmen, an immortal with telekinetic powers who cruelly bullies and torments the crew of the Enterprise.  This is third season Star Trek episode so you have to look past some plot and dialogue absurdities to appreciate the actually very strong acting performances put in by both the series’ regulars and guest actors like Sullivan and Michael Dunn.  This episode is famous for the interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura.  The kiss is actually forced by Parmen in his efforts to humiliate the crew, so hey, someone named Liam Sullivan is behind one of the most famous moments in television history.

The Twilight Zone episode “The Silence” is a rare instance of the show not featuring a supernatural or extraterrestrial element, and is in fact based on an Anton Chekov story called “The Bet.”  Sullivan plays Jamie Tennyson, a young member of a gentleman’s club who talks constantly much to the irritation Colonel Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone).  Sullivan appears much younger in this show although it’s only 7 years earlier than Star Trek, and appropriately, is ruggedly handsome.  Taylor proposes a wager that Tennyson must remain silent for twelve months under observation of club members, and should he do so would win half a million dollars.  Since Sullivan doesn’t speak for much of the episode, it is remarkable how well he conveys emotions through facial expressions and movements.  This is especially true when Taylor begins to realize he may lose the bet and starts to cruelly torment Tennyson. The episode has a twist at the end as you might expect, one which I’m not sure would actually work physically, but shocking all the same.

So that’s the story of my name in lights.  Who is the most famous person that shares your name with you?  Do you feel any kinship with them?

Related post: People Who Are Not Me

TV Review: Game of Thrones (2016)


TitleGame of Thrones
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 6
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

In the brutal winter of 2015, I idly decided to give this Game of Thrones show a chance (my wife is a huge fan of the books) and ended up binge-watching all four seasons then in existence.  Medieval fantasy is not usually my thing and the violence on this show can be overwhelming, but I got sucked into the stories and the performances, particularly by Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Rory McCann, Conleth Hill, John Bradley, Jerome Flynn, Liam Cunningham, Gwendolyn Christie, and Natalie Dormer.  So then I listened to all five of the audiobooks, and was ready just in time to watch season five as it was broadcast.

And I was disappointed.  The show not only went off-the-book, it went off the rails.  The Dorne plot – a dull tangent in the books – became even more pointless in its tv adaptation.  Ramsey Bolton was repeatedly depicted as senselessly cruel turning a menacing character into a caricature.  And interesting characters like Brienne, Arya, and Daenerys tread water for much of the season.  So I was not looking forward to season six.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised.  Season six sees an improvement in writing, several startling revelations, and most impressively some really fantastic directing and cinematography.  This is particularly true of the final two episodes, “Battle of the Bastards”  and  “The Winds of Winter,”  both directed by  Miguel Sapochnik. This season also re-introduces the Greyjoy story on the Iron Islands and the story of Bran and his companions north of the wall, although both stories felt rushed, it was good to see these characters again.  In retrospect, I think it would’ve been wiser of Game of Thrones to spend more time with these stories sprinkled over seasons 5 and 6, rather than their half-assed attempt at the Dorne story (which they literally killed off in season 1.

Some highlights of season 6:

  • The rise of the High Sparrow in King’s Landing (Jonathan Pryce does a great job of making a religious fanatic seem to be the most reasonable person around)
  • The return of Jon Snow
  • The reunion of Jon and Sansa
  • Bran’s visions of his family’s past
  • Theon reuniting with Yara and supporting her as Queen
  • Daenerys victory over the khals
  • The death of Hodor – “hold the door!” – <sniff>
  • The return of The Hound and the Brother Ray’s pacifist community
  • Lady Mormont in every single scene she appears in
  • Arya recognizing her identity and purpose
  • The “Battle of the Bastards” is an amazingly filmed and choreographed with scenes unsettlingly reminiscent of the Hillsborough Disaster but with swords and pikes.  It was amazing work of film, but so disturbing I don’t think I’d ever want to watch it again
  • The building tension of the scenes leading up to the destruction of the Great Sept and the heartbreaking simplicity of the depiction of Tommen’s suicide
  • Sam’s joy at seeing the library at the Citadel
  • The revelation of Jon’s parentage
  • Daenerys making Tyrion the Hand of the Queen

There are still moments of the season that missed the mark, with some poor leaps of logic, but overall this season showed the best of what Game of Thrones can be and established the setting for the climactic final seasons.

Rating: ****