TV Review: Stranger Things (2019)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The phrase “trying to catch lightning in a bottle” comes to mind as I ponder the third season of Stranger Things. The first season of the show came out of nowhere with a perfect recipe of writing, acting, setting, mood, and nostalgia. It’s a tricky thing to repeat, and just as the show was diminished some in season 2, it falls a bit further in season 3. By no means am I saying Stranger Things 3 is bad, I care about these characters and enjoy the stories, but feel it fails to live up to the high standards set by season 1.

At the core of Stranger Things is a pastiche to 1980s American culture.  In this season, the story draws upon the renewed Cold War hysteria of Reagan’s America and the trope of the “evil Russian” that found its way into propagandist movies such as Red Dawn, Amerika, Rambo, Top Gun, and The Day After.  There’s no deconstruction of the trope as the show plays it straight depicting the Soviets having the ability to secretly build a massive laboratory under the Starcourt Mall in the heartland of America at a time when the real Soviet Union was crumbling.  In a show with monsters that invade from a decrepit mirror universe, I found this premise to still be too unbelievable.

Much as the 1980s Cold War hysteria was a gritty callback to the Cold War panic of the 1950 and 1960s, the 1980s was a time when classic horror movies were remade with graphic violence and gratuitous gore.  Stranger Things 3 draws a lot of influence from horror movie remakes such as The Thing, The Blob, and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (which was made in 1978, but I’m including in this list because it is clearly referenced). As a result, this is the goriest and most violent season yet, the sequel that decides to be a full-on action film.  In a great moment of metafiction, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) explains his love for New Coke as it being a remake, like The Thing, that he thinks improves upon the original.

The heart of Stranger Things is its characters, and this season’s biggest struggles are with characters being too broadly characterized.  This is true for Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) who was the creepy, abusive metalhead teen with a traumatic past in season 2, and becomes the creepy, possessed by the Mind Flayer teen with a traumatic past in season 3.  Billy deserved better characterization, especially to make his ultimate heroic moment pay off. Priah Ferguson returns as Lucas’ little sister Erica, bumped up from a bit character to one of the main storylines, and although she’s very funny she’s written entirely as a sassy, precocious kid, a la Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes. The final episode seems to indicate a new role for Erica in season 4, and one hope that they flesh out her character.  And really, there was no reason to bring back the obnoxious Murray (Brett Gelman), who appeared in a couple of episodes in season 2, much less make him a character who seems to get more screen time than the core children.

My biggest disappointment with this series is with the character of Jim Hopper (David Harbour).  He’s always been depicted as a cop who will punch first and ask questions later, but previous seasons revealed that under his gruff exterior is a gentle heart.  It’s really distressing to see Hopper’s anger over El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) spending too much time together, and worse, threatening Mike.  Later in the season he completely brutalizes the mayor of Hawkins (Cary Elwes cosplaying the mayor from Jaws, right on down to be named “Larry”).  One of the most moving parts of the season is Hopper narrating a letter to El about his feelings, but I’m distraught that this side of Hopper’s character was ignored for the previous 7 episodes.

Like in previous seasons,  large cast is split up into different storylines that come together at the end.  The kids are becoming teenagers, and Hopper is right about Mike and El spending too much time together. El breaks up with Mike and Max (Sadie Sink) breaks up with Lucas, and in some wonderful scenes El and Max become closer friends.  Meanwhile, Will (Noah Schnapp), who lost part of his childhood to the Upside Down, wants to cling to being a kid a bit longer and play D&D.  The teenagers from the earlier series are becoming adults.  Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) attempt to prepare for a career by interning with the local newspaper.  Steve (Joe Keery) works for a paycheck, and maybe to meet girls, at the ice cream shop in the mall alongside an “alternative” girl who he never paid attention to in high school, Robin (Maya Hawke). Robin is the breakout character of the season and seamlessly fits in with existing characters, but I can’t help feeling that she looks like a time traveler from the 1990s (perhaps because Hawke is the daughter of iconic 90s stars Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke).  And the grown-ups, Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder), are concerned for the kids, challenged to move on from previous traumas, and resisting their attraction for one another.

In a town with both a Mind Flayer and evil Russians at work, bad things are going to happen.  El, Max, Mike, Lucas, and Will discover that Billy is possesed and recruiting more people for the Mind Flayer, and attempt to stop him. Nancy and Jonathan’s investigative reporting uncovers strange behavior in rats that leads to even stranger behavior in humans.  The Scoop Troop – Steve and Robin joined by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica – investigate Russian ham radio messages and strange goings-on around the Starcourt Mall.  While the “Evil Russian” plot is ludicrous, these four definitely get the best storyline, dialogue, and character development.  Joyce investigates why magnets are suddenly falling of her refrigerator and convinces a reluctant Hopper to join in. I really like how Ryder plays Joyce as someone who has seen weird shit before, was right about it, and defeated it so now she has a greater confidence and seems more relaxed as she jumps into doing it again.  Along the way they capture a Soviet scientist named Alexei (Alec Utgof as the other breakout character of the season despite speaking no English) and get Murray for translation.

While I’ve expressed my reservations about Stranger Things 3 not living up to its potential, the show clearly attempts and succeeds at trying new things, drawing on new influences, and building on the existing story.  It’s a great bit of mind candy – with both brains and heart – for summer viewing.  I look forward to a fourth season and becoming further acquainted with these characters.

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TV Review: Jessica Jones (2019)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2010
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

I kind of felt compelled to watch the third and final season of Jessica Jones on Netflix, despite my disappointment in the previous season.  This season starts of strong with some well-paced, character-focused episodes but about a third of the way through the season, the carpet is pulled out, and once again we’re stuck with ludicrous plot twists and lazy characterization.

The season starts with the newly-powered Trish (Rachael Taylor) working on becoming a hero by solving her own cases.  Naturally, Jessica  and Trish begin following the same guy and sooner than you’d expect they begin to work together and sort-of reconcile.  Jessica also has a new “hook-up” (it seems too much to say “romantic interest”) in Erik (Benjamin Walker), a man with the very mild power of getting severe headaches around evil people, a power he uses for blackmailing, but becomes key in helping Jessica and Trish solve cases.

After a few false starts, a big bad is revealed in the form of serial killer Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb).  Salinger is played like every stereotypical psycho killer you’ve ever seen on a detective procedural show, and is fine when his machinations are backdrop to the main characters’ actions, but BORING AS FUCK when he’s on the screen for more than 15 seconds.  So of course, he’s allowed to eat up tons of screen time over the season.  I also don’t understand why Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) is still in this series because her story of trying to win back an old lover, while well acted, feels like an entirely different tv show has been spliced in.  When she takes on Salinger as a client and decides to take on powered people through the law, it feels like a desperate attempt to shoehorn her character into the story.

But the worst element of this season is that (SPOILER) they decide to make Trish an eviiiiiiiil powered person who just ups and start killing people for no good reason (/SPOILER).  I think what bugs me most about this show is that it comes so close to being a great use of superhero tropes and detective stories as an outlet for exploring deeper human relations and behavior, but they never seem to have the confidence to follow-up on that. Instead the show relies too heavily on ridiculous plot twists and undermining character work for shock value.  Oh well, at least there won’t be any more Jessica Jones to underwhelm me in the future.

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TV Review: Fleabag (2019)


Title: Fleabag
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

The second season of Fleabag is even better than the first. These tightly scripted and plotted episodes tell a story of human fraility and resilience that is full of laughs and heartbreaks.  The series begins a year after the first series and Fleabag has been ostracized by her family in the interim due to her actions in the first series.  But the show begins with the family reunited for Dad and Godmother’s engagement dinner. Claire is still with Martin, but commuting regularly to Finland for her new job there.  A sixth guest at the table is the priest who will preside over the wedding.  Christened on social media as “Hot Priest” and portrayd by the excellent Andrew Scott, he has a lot of similarity to Fleabag, including the tendency to say inappropriate things out loud and drinking too much, but the good qualities as well.  The main focus of the series is the friendship and the illicit romance between that grows between Flebag and Hot Priest.  But the show also delves further into Fleabag’s trauma over the deaths of her mother and her best friend, Boo, as well as her efforts to repair the relationship with her surviving family.  It’s an excellent, bawdy comedy that somehow also delves right into the heart of humanity and relationships.

TV Review: Fleabag (2016)


Title: Fleabag
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

Fleabag is a British comedy series created and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  In the show, Waller-Bridge portrays a 30-year-old woman in London who is sarcastic, has several strained relationships, and engages in lots of recreational sex. At first I thought this was going to be one of those “a person in their 20s sleeping around and having a wacky life, isn’t it so relatable” types of shows that I never find relatable.  Thankfully, it is not like that at all.

Waller-Bridge’s character has sexual relationships with three different men over the course of the series, but they are negligible compared with her relationships with her family and friends which are the focus of the show.  Her mother died three years earlier and her father (Bill Paterson) has been distant ever since, but does things like send her and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) to feminist lectures and silent retreats.  Things with her older sister are also not so good as Claire is much more serious and is married to her absolutely awful husband Martin (Brett Gelman).  Her father is also romantically involved with their Godmother (Olivia Colman), far too soon after their mother’s death.  Colman is an actor I always enjoy, but her portrayal of the absolute worst kind of pretentious, manipulative, and passive aggressive person is so good that I want to hate her.  Finally, Waller-Bridge’s character feels grief and guilt over the recent death of her best friend and business partner Boo (Jenny Rainsford, who appears in flashbacks) who was hit by a car.

All the actors in this show are absolutely spectacular. Over the course of the series, their stories are woven into wacky adventures, and somewhere along the way, we the audience find ourselves caring deeply for these people even if they can be kind of awful.  One of the features of the show is Phoebe Waller-Bridge frequently breaking the fourth wall to bring us into the situation with a wisecrack or look.  This mannerism could be irritating in other hands but Waller-Bridge never fails to be funny, and she has the most expressive face.  And after all the laughter, don’t be surprised if you find yourself crying at the end of the series because it’ll hit you in the feels.

By the way, it wasn’t until after I watched the entire series that I discovered that “Fleabag” is the name given to the main character!  She’s never referred that way on screen, perhaps its meant to represent the way she thinks of herself at her most self-loathing.

 

TV Review: Tuca & Bertie (2019)


Title: Tuca & Bertie
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

This new animated comedy from Netflix has a lot in common with one of my favorite shows, BoJack Horseman.  For one thing, Tuca & Bertie‘s creator, Lisa Hanawalt, served as production designer and producer for BoJack Horseman.  For another, Tuca & Bertie are anthropomorphized birds living in a city of anthropomorphized animals and even anthropomorphized plants (they’re so cool!).

Nevertheless, Tuca & Bertie isn’t a spinoff of Bojack, nor is it even the same universe.  Tuca & Bertie has a brighter color pallette and, for lack of a better word, a “bouncier” animation style that frequently veers into surreality.  That is an even more surreal than a world with talking bird people.  Also, BoJack is a show that keeps returning to the inevability of misery and that other people will disappoint you.  Tuca & Bertie is more positive and shares its belief that one can count on the people you love to get you through troubled times.

Despite it’s wacky humor, Tuca & Bertie reveals more serious undertones over the course of the season.  Tuca is an outgoing toucan and free spirit who has no filter between her brain and mouth.  It’s established early in the season that she’s alcoholic and six months into living sober, and confronting supressed anxieties for the first time.  Bertie is a songbird with more open anxiety issues and people pleaser. She struggles at work with men speaking over her and sexual harrassment.  Yet we see her assert herself to get a new position as senior operations analyst at her publishing firm and explore a second career as a baker. The two characters are rightly depicted as a yin-yang late in the season because they complement each other so well.

This is a bright and heartwarming show, and just delightfully weird.  I especially like the music – both the electronic dance background music and the fact that characters narrate their life in song.  If you decide to watch it and it doesn’t work for you at first, give it a few episodes to sink in.

 

TV Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2019)


TitleUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 4, part 2
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

The final six episodes of the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are technically part of the 4th season, but tonaly are different from the six episodes released last summer.  I was disappointed by the mediocrity of the first half of season 4, but the final 6 are something of a return to form.  Perhaps it’s not as strong as the series was in its first three season, but they’ve avoided the unfunny mean-spiritedness that marred last summer’s episodes. A highlight of the season is an episode that parodies the movie Sliding Doors and shows all the characters’ alternate lives in a way that’s funny and actual develops the characters too.  All in all, this is a satisfactory farewell to a great tv show that may have overstayed its welcome.

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TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2018)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 7
Summary/Review:

The third season of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events adapts the final four books in the series.  With the final book, The End, told in in one episode, it also the shortest of the three series at only 7 episodes.  This season takes some strange tonal shifts from the earlier season, but that is also true to the books which became darker, sadder, and well … stranger than the earlier books.  The Baudelaires find themselves trapped in an increasingly Kafka-esque world, and the quest for the sugar bowl seems to take precedence over their desire to just escape Olaf and get on with their lives.  And then The End reveals that an entirely different story is being told about the loss of childhood innocence, mortality, and the impossibility of trying to escape to a quiet, safe place.

It’s been a dozen or more years since I read the books and I found myself constantly uncertain if the show was changing things from the books or if just forgot major details.  I believe the direct involvement of Lemony Snicket in the Baudelaire’s story and the flashback to the opera are major enhancements of the books.  And Kit revealing what the sugar bowl contains, rather than leaving it a mystery, is a somewhat unsatisfactory twist for something that was essentially a MacGuffin.  But it’s most likely that the show is largely faithful to the books and I just plum forgot the details so I got to be surprised by them all over again.  Either way, it’s time to reread the book.

As always, the acting is top notch, the gags are funny, and the set designs and costumes are eye-catching!  This is a show that should be watched and enjoyed.

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TV Review: Derry Girls (2018)


Title: Derry Girls
Release Date: 2018
Creator and Writer: Lisa McGee
Director:  Michael Lennox
Production Company: Hat Trick Productions
Summary/Review:

I visited Derry, Northern Ireland in the 1990s and this nostalgic comedy seems to fit my memories of the city.  Derry is known internationally for being at the heart of The Troubles – the ongoing sectarian fighting, riots, and terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.  But I also remember Derry being something of a party town.  Derry Girls captures the everyday life of the city’s citizens amid bomb threats that cause traffic delays, soldiers inspecting a school bus, and a family taking a holiday to avoid the Orange Orders’ “marching season.”

The core group of teenagers in this show are Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her live-in cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), Erin’s friends Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and Michelle’s English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn), who is the only boy at their all-girl Catholic school because it’s feared that his English accent would make him a target for violence at the boys’ school.  The quintet get themselves in all manner of trouble at school with the misanthropic Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney). Erin’s family also play a big role and they’re all generally awful in amusing ways.

The show is kind of an odd cross of “The Facts of Life” with the movie Heaven Help Us and and “Father Ted,” with some sectarian violence thrown in.  But really, despite the unique setting, the show is strangely relatable.

 

TV Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)


Title: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 1
Summary/Review:

Before watching this ostensible gritty reboot of the 1990s sitcom Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, I learned a few things I didn’t know.  First, Sabrina originated decades earlier as a comic book character.  Second, Sabrina lives in the same universe as the Archie comics!  Third, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina originated a few years back as a comic book. So essentially this a television adaptation of a gritty reboot of a comic book.  It’s a good concept though as it naturally follows that if you’re going to tell a story about a teenage witch that you should follow through on the full meaning of witchcraft and Satanic worship.

Let it be known that this is NOT for kids (well, young ones, teenagers will probably love it).  Granted, much of the horror is jump scares and creepy creatures, but there’s also a horrific scene of ritual cannibalism and a lot of violence.  Much of the show is highly stylized, with it being hard to tell what decade this is supposed to be happening in.  Apart from actual witches living among the mortals, the town of Greendale just feels a strange place, not like a real American town, but an amalgam of television towns.

I don’t think I would like the show’s writing or stories all that much if it wasn’t for the excellent cast who carry the show.  Lucy Davis plays Sabrina’s goofy and more lenient Aunt Hilda while Miranda Otto regally portrays her more elegant and stern Aunt Zelda. Chance Perdomo is effortlessly cool as Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose who is living under house arrest and casually helps Sabrina with her misguided plots.  Michelle Gomez follows up her genius Doctor Who role as Missy by playing Sabrina’s teacher Ms. Wardwell, who offers guidance to Sabrina while secretly guiding her into a sinister plot.  Sabrina’s best mortal friends are Roz (Jaz Sinclair) a young activist at her high school and Susie (Lachlan Watson) who is bullied by jocks and experiencing gender dysphoria.  Roz and Susie both give a Sabrina a realistic strong tie to the human world while also helping tie together the supernatural events with the social issues they symbolize.

A couple of things stand out as problems with the show.  One is the performance of Kiernan Shipka as the lead character.  She always seems to respond to everything with a deadpan expression and very little real emotion, even if a tear is rolling down her cheek.  I don’t want to say she’s a bad actor but it strikes me as a curious decision to have her play the character that way.  The other thing is that Sabrina’s knowledge of witch history and spell casting seems to vary on what is convenient to the plot.  She pull of amazing spells in one scene and express basic ignorance about things in the witching world the next.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is good but not great tv but definitely some cotton candy fun worth a binge.  I expect I’ll be back for more

TV Review: Broadchurch (2017)


Title: Broadchurch
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

I recently watched the third and final series of the the British program Broadchurch.  I watched the first two series a few years ago back before I started writing reviews of tv series so I’ll sum up my thoughts on them first.  Series 1 focuses on the murder of an 11-year boy in a small, coastal town of England and the effect that the murder and mystery has on that town. It’s visually striking, well-acted, and takes the time to explore the feelings of grief, anger, and suspicion among the characters.  The second series focuses on the trial of the murderer intercut with the investigation of an unrelated cold case.  This series veered into being too silly and contrived and paled in comparison to the first series.

I really enjoy the work of the actors Olivia Colman and David Tennant as the detectives Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy.  They play ordinary, rumpled people with complicated lives, not at all the typical glamorous television detective.  I love the interplay between them and how amidst the bickering they develop mutual respect and friendship.  The rest of the cast are made up of talented British actors, and a large number of them have been involved in Doctor Who (as has the creator and writer of Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall, who is now the showrunner for Doctor Who).

The third series takes place a few years after series 2, with the focus set on the rape of a middle-aged woman named Trish (Julie Hesmondhalgh).  The explores her personal trauma as well as effect the crime has on Trish’s family, friends, and the townspeople in general.  The first episode is a very stark portrait of Trish being taken into the rape crisis response system.  Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) – the mother of the murdered Danny from the first two series – returns, now working as a Sexual Assault Response Association counselor assigned to work with Trish.

While Beth works to channel her grief into helping crime victims, her estranged husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) can’t let go of Danny’s murder and becomes increasingly unstable. Meanwhile, the men in Trish’s life, even those she’s tangentially associated with her all seem to have secrets and lies, and histories of bad behavior.  Ellie and Alec soon have a long list of suspects as they find toxic masculinity and rape culture at every corner of this small town.  The whole series is best summed up by Alec when he says “What’s bothering me about this case is that it’s making me ashamed to be a man.” Even when the actual rapist is identified, you’re left feeling concerned that there are so many scuzzy men walking free in this town.

Series 3 is a definite improvement over Series 2, although it falls a bit short of Series 1.  It’s good in how it takes the time to respectfully and realistically depict a rape case.  The show feels even more bleak this series, not that you’d consider a show about a murdered child to have much humor, but it did have more light moments than this series.  On the downside I think the mystery part got a little too contrived with a half-dozen suspects all having done something nasty and creepy related to Trish.  It’s weird too that everyone seems to know one another and get together for soccer games or flashlight marches, but don’t seem to know one another at other times. Overall though, this is a well-acted – if harrowing – procedural drama.