Podcasts of the Week Ending October 12


BackStory :: Darkness Over the Plain

The history of the bison in America, their demise, revival, and symbolism.

Decoder Ring :: Bart Simpson Mania

Hop in a time machine to the early 1990s when an animated character of a 6-year-old became  the center of  social and political debate.  I’d totally forgotten about the bootleg Black Bart t-shirts.

Lost at the Smithsonian :: Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers

This new show hosted by Aasif Mandvi explores different objects at the Smithsonian Institution.  Many people visit the Smithsonian to see the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, but did you know that there are at least six pairs of slippers and the Smithsonian has a mismatched set?


 

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

TV Review: Good Omens (2019)


Title: Good Omens
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Neil Gaiman
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Production Company: Narrativia | The Blank Corporation | Amazon Studios | BBC Studios
Summary/Review:

Having finished re-reading the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens, I binged the miniseries adaptation on Amazon Prime. It’s largely entertaining, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching it, but it’s a bit disappointing based on the source material and the talent involved in producing the adaptation.

The strength of Good Omens is the casting of David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale who team up to try prevent Armageddon.  The miniseries increases the focus on these two characters and their centuries-long friendship, which is a good decision because they are talented comic actors who fill their characters fully.

Unfortunately, the adaptation is almost too faithful to the book. Several scenes feature dialogue word-for-word from the book.  There is a lot of heavy foreshadowing of gags to come, and excess narration from Frances McDormand as God.  While the authors of the book enjoyed digressing into silly tangents featuring supporting characters, the straight adaptation of these scenes to tv just don’t work as well.  There’s too much icing on the cake!

Good Omens the novel was published in 1990.  While the tv series is not a period piece set in the 90s, there’s only a slight effort to update the story to the present day, so it comes off feeling dated.  I think the satirical take on pop culture tropes was groundbreaking in 1990, but has become commonplace in the ensuing decades, so that Good Omens the tv show is the victim of the success of Good Omens the book.

A ton of notable actors from the UK in the US appear as supporting cast and cameo roles.  These include Nick Offerman, Anna Maxwell Martin,  Jon Hamm (as the Archangel Gabriel, a role greatly expanded from the novel, and one of the strongest parts apart from Tennant and Sheen), Miranda Richardson, Michael Mckean, Bill Paterson, Mark Gattis, David Morrisey, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Josie Lawrence.  Again, there is nothing wrong with any of these performances, but it often feels as if the creators of the miniseries weren’t ambitious enough to go beyond eliciting the reaction of “hey, there’s that funny actor I like doing something funny.”  No one really inhabits their roles the way that Sheen and Tennant do.

There is some promise in some of the lesser known actors, for example, Adria Arjona as Anathema Device.  She seems to be weighed down by having to do nothing more and nothing less than what was written for her character in the book.  Ironically, Anathema’s character’s life was defined by following the predictions written in a book by her ancestor, so it’s sad that Arjona was similarly constrained.

Okay, this sounds like a bad review.  But, again, Good Omens was a perfectly fine show to binge over a few days.  It’s only six episodes long, which may actually be one episode too long for the material, but nonetheless a worthwhile enjoyment.

 

TV Review: Derry Girls (2019)


Title: Derry Girls
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Lisa McGee
Director:  Michael Lennox
Production Company: Hat Trick Productions
Summary/Review:

The second series of Derry Girls shows no sign of a sophomore slump.  In fact, the show is funnier and more confident than it was in the first series.  Set against the backdrop of the last days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Erin, Clare, Michelle, Orla, and James are, well, not ordinary teenagers, but motivated by their daily teenage dilemmas rather than their geopolitical situation.  The adults, primarily Erin and Orla’s parents and grandfather, have a bigger part this season, and get some adventures of their own, which are just as wacky as the kids.  And Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) steals every scene she is in with instantly GIF-able quotes.

The series begins with the Girls enduring excruciating 1990s-style team building exercises with a group of boys from a Protestant school.  In the next episode they take inspiration from a new English teacher,  Ms De Brún, in a parody of Dead Poets Society, complete with the kick the ball/poetry sequence replaced with hitting a ball with a hurley and shouting something that makes you mad (James does not like that people in Derry refer to things as “wee” even when they’re not small).  Then they take a bus trip to Belfast to see a Take That concert even though their parents forbade them over fears of an escaped polar bear.

The fourth episode shows an Irish wedding (complete with a choreographed group dance to “Rock the Boat”) and an Irish wake (with hash scones).  An episode about a 50’s style prom at the school has one of the sweeter moments when James shows up to take Erin after her date stands her up.  And the finale contrasts the excitement of President Bill Clinton and family visiting Derry (complete with actual archival audio) and James preparing to return to England with his mother (and another touching finale).

 

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.

Previous posts:

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.

Previously Reviewed:

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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