TV Review: Luke Cage (2018)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

The second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage is a lot like the first season in that it has some remarkable high points that make it compelling television, yet is mired with so many writing, storytelling, and acting flaws.  I find myself rooting for Luke Cage to be the stylish, yet socially conscious drama that examines the problems of contemporary Black American communities through the lens of superhero tropes it wants to be, and constantly disappointed when it fails.

Let’s focus on the good first:

Acting – there are once again some excellent performances that help carry this show.  I’m particularly impressed by Theo Rossi as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez who really came into his own in a bigger role this season, and his troubled friendship with Comanche is especially well acted.  I was kind of hoping that Shades wouldn’t so much turn good by the end of the season, but at least become a “frenemy” who works with Luke, which I suppose is still possible in future episodes.

The new antagonist John “Bushmaster” McIver played by Mustafa Shakir is also a good addition.  Bushmaster’s Ahab-like obsession gets kind of ridiculous, so it’s a credit to Shakir that he does so well with the convoluted writing and characterization.  Bushmaster is a brutal and cruel character and yet I was really able to feel empathy for him, and again was kind of hoping he would be redeemed and ally himself in some way with Luke.

Other good performances include: Reg E. Cathey bringing gravitas to underdeveloped role as Luke’s father, James Lucas. Chaz Lamar Shepherd provides a humorous spark as Raymond “Piranha” Jones.  And Rosario Dawson is good as always as Claire.  Alfre Woodward tends to get melodramatic as Mariah this season, but it’s still Alfre Woodward, who is always worth watching.

Direction – The show has a distinctive style of cinematography and staging that I really enjoy.  The show’s makers do a good job of choreographing fight scenes, and filming even simple conversations from intriguing angles. It’s also really good at just showing Harlem, and making Jamaican Crown Heights look distinctively different.

Music – Live performances at the Harlem Paradise are a highlight of any Luke Cage episode.  This season we get to see Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Faith Evans and Jadakiss, KRS-One, and Rakim, among others.  The music used to score the episodes is also universally well-selected and suited to the scenes and stories.

And I’m surprised to say this, but Danny Rand’s guest appearance actually worked well.  Danny and Luke have good chemistry, and if this was a trial balloon for a Luke Cage/Iron Fist spin-off comedy/action/drama, I’m all for it.

And now the bad:

Gratuitous violence – a crime drama is going to have it’s fair share of violence, but Luke Cage seems to revel in depicting it this season, particularly in a key scene of a massacre in a Jamaican restaurant.  Not only does the camera linger on the most gruesome aspects, but the entire scene is replayed as a flashback in the next episode! In a media environment where Black bodies are often seen as disposable, it’s particularly troublesome to see this done in a show that is supposed to be empowering.

Inconsistent characterization – A lot of the characters seem to have their motivations shift constantly to whatever the plot needs them to do.  This is especially true of Luke Cage is constantly said to struggling with things – his father, Claire, being a hero – and then having those struggles easily resolved or dropped until they’re needed again to create “drama.” The apparent heel turn he takes at the end of the season really feels like it came out of nowhere.

Misty Knight was one of the best characters of the first season, but here her story arc is that she’s a renegade cop reacting against the bureaucracy.  Except for most of the season, everything she does makes her look like a really crappy cop, which makes the character look stupid rather than heroic.

Finally, there’s Gabrielle Dennis as Tilda Johnson, Mariah’s estranged daughter.  She goes from compassionate doctor to dupe to righteously angry to femme fatale on whatever whims the plot needs her for.  Could be she’s a bad actor, could be bad writing, probably both.  Regardless, Tilda’s entire story arc is a wasted opportunity.

Repetition – All throughout the season entire scenes take place that give us the exact same information revealed in earlier episodes.  And the speeches – God help us, the speeches – that are repeated again and again. Luke musing on being a hero, Mariah preaching about family first, and Bushmaster relentless tirades on revenge.  The repetition just makes them look ridiculous rather than thoughtful.

Failure to heed the writing advice of “show don’t tell” – Both the inconsistent characterization and repetition are partly the result of the writers wanting to tell the audience things rather than show them.  For example, we’re constantly told that Luke is going through internal struggles, but are rarely shown this excepting a few good scenes such as his fight with Claire early in the season.

So those are my thoughts on a mostly good show that frustrates because it could be a great show.  The final episode of the show felt really out-of-place with the rest of the season, almost as if it were the opening of the next season rather than the conclusion to this season.  I don’t know where they’re going with Luke becoming a crime boss or if that’s a show I even want to watch, but I guess I’ll find out if and when season 3 is released.

 

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TV Review: Jessica Jones (2018)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

I’m not much interested in superhero origin stories, and this whole season is basically a backdoor origin story for Jessica Jones. <HUGE SPOILER ALERT> In this season we learn that not only did Jessica’s mother, Alisa, survive the family’s car crash, but also has powers stronger than Jessica’s and has rage issues that turns her into a mass murderer.  The whole season is uneven and poorly plotted, although I think there are good episodes in the beginning and the end, with a muddle in the middle. While the first season was good at metaphorically good at exploring the ideas of the entitlement of men and the trauma of sexual abuse, this season does a poor job of trying to explore addiction and mental illness in a similar way.  The motivations of a lot of characters, especially Trish and Alisa, just don’t make a whole lot of sense. And Jeri Hogarth’s story seems to be it’s own tv series, one that is intent on showing that a lesbian woman can be a leering creep just like a man, especially in the bizarre episode where Jeri indulges in hookers and blow. Meanwhile, Jessica goes from hating to loving her new super in another incredulous subplot. It’s a good thing that there is a team of terrific team of actors to make all this bad writing bearable.

TV Review: The Defenders (2017)


Title: The Defenders
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

Following up on watching Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, I decided to watch this crossover miniseries because Marvel requires you to watch every single damn thing to have the background for the next thing.  It’s good to see Jessica and Luke working together, although a little disappointing that they seem to be supporting characters to the other two members of the team.  One of them is Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, who is a rich kid with a bad tattoo. He seems to be a dumb character with a dumb superpower and every time he’s on the screen the script gets dumber.  Much more interesting is Matt Murdock – a.k.a. Daredevil – a blind lawyer and devout Catholic with a ambiguous relationship to his superpowers.  I might look into watching his show.

The funny thing about this series is that it seems to pick up for Jessica Jones just after her struggle with Kilgrave, with her apartment still severely damaged and her not taking on private detective work.  Meanwhile, Luke has had time to move to Harlem, have everything that happened to him in season 1 of his own series, and spend a not insignificant time in prison.  Despite these inconsistencies and the shortness of this series, the show is brave enough to set up the plot for each of the four characters to naturally get involved in the mystery and only come together to fight their foe at the end of episode 3. Then they spend much of episode 4 getting to know one another over a meal at a Chinese restaurant.

The villain in this series is well cast, Sigourney Weaver playing Alexandra, the leader of the Hand, a group of people seeking immortality.  Weaver is always calm and measured with impeccable fashion sense and even her hair is never out of place.  This sets her apart from the more cartoonish villains of other Marvel stories, and when she finally gets angry, it really means something.  The other great part of this series is the way in which the supporting characters of the four individual series are brought in to work together.  Sometimes they commiserate over dealing with a super person in their life, sometimes their complementary skills work together to advance the plot.

This series is no masterpiece of television and it has a lot of flaws, but it is a fun gathering of local superheroes saving their city with their combined abilities in a series of action sequences, and sometimes thoughtful, quieter scenes.

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2015)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

This Marvel tv series picks up with the titular character working as a private detective and dealing with PTSD through avoidance and alcohol abuse.  Jessica Jones has super strength but has abandoned being a hero due to her guilt and trauma, yet still tries to help people in her own way.  The arc of the series relates to the return of the major cause of her trauma, Kilgrave, a man who can control minds who held her captive for six months and caused her to commit murder.

I watched Luke Cage previously and the two shows have a lot in common with their main character coming to terms with their troubled past and making good use of the powers that they never asked for.  They’re also similar in that they do a great job of creating a mood, focusing on the interpersonal relationships, and taking time to let the story breathe.  At least in the first half of the season, but much like Luke Cage, the later episodes of Jessica Jones get too connected to their comic book origins and become just a little silly and overdone.  There’s also far more gore and brutal violence than I prefer to watch.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about this show. Krysten Ritter puts in an excellent performance as Jessica Jones, seemingly dead on the outside, while boiling over on the inside.  Rachel Taylor plays her adoptive sister Trish Walker, a child star turned talk show host who displays her own form of strength and determination. Ritter and Taylor play well off of one another.  David Tennant is terrifyingly creepy as the evil Kilgrave, and I resent that I’ll never be able to watch him in Doctor Who the same way again. I knew Luke Cage appeared in this show, but didn’t realize he played such a significant role, and it’s interesting to see how Mike Colter plays a supporting character differently than when he’s on his own show.

There are some highs and lows in this season, some ridiculous coincidences, and some side plots that don’t seem to go anywhere, but it was good enough to be worth checking out the second season.

 

TV Review: American Experience: Walt Disney


TitleAmerican Experience: Walt Disney
Release Date: September 14, 2015
Director: Sarah Colt
Production Company: WGBH Educational Foundation
Summary/Review:

This two-part documentary attempts to unravel the man behind the myth of Walt Disney.  It begins rather ominously with a series of quotes showing people who knew Disney describing him as autocratic.  Yet, the first half is largely a positive appraisal of Disney as a man with a great imagination who found ways to make his dreams come true and share them with an appreciative audience.  Time and again, Disney makes a daring risk – to move to Los Angeles to start an animation studio, to create a feature-length animated film, to build a large & state of the art new studio, and later on to invent a theme park where guests could enter into stories. Walt’s brother Roy is the financial wizard who generally disapproves of Walt’s ambitious dreams but knowing he can’t stop his brother from pursuing his dreams finds the means of funding them.

Despite Disney’s belief that his company is like a family – and insisting on his employees calling him Walt instead of Mr. Disney – he seems to have an inability to see the negative effect he has by micromanaging and seemingly taking credit for all the studio’s work.  In the 1920s, almost all his animators leave him for another company and in 1941, the Disney Studio goes on strike due to low pay and inequitable conditions for many of the employees.  Disney seems totally blindsided by each of these events and years later testifies before HUAC that the strike was motivated by Communist infiltrators rather than recognize that his management had failed in any way.

Another theme of the movie is how much of an innovator and outlier Disney was in Hollywood in the 20s to 40s, but by the 50s & 60s, Disney had become a representation of conservative, middle-class white values (or a source of those values by some estimations). A story about The Song of the South is telling, as the studio sought advice from Black leaders on how to adapt the Uncle Remus tales, but Walt chose to ignore it.  Disney also hosted the premier in the same Atlanta movie theater where Gone With the Wind debuted a few years earlier, meaning that the star of the movie James Baskett could not attend the premier due to segregation.

Peeling back the layers of the real Disney is hard to do, and I don’t think that this documentary is able to achieve it. Disney may be a tyrant but he also was an innovator and entertainer.  Even Walt admitted that charming, avuncular individual hosting the Disneyland program was a character rather than a real expression of himself, but in many ways that is who Disney wanted to be, which also says a lot.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Luke Cage (2016)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

Luke Cage is a Marvel series about a man in Harlem with bulletproof skin and superhuman powers who reluctantly becomes a vigilante hero. Unlike Marvel movies, the series has a lot of space to breath allowing characters space to grow and creating an atmosphere steeped in the culture and history of Harlem. It’s more violent than I typically enjoy in my entertainment but the absence of nonstop action-adventure also makes the scenes of violence more pointed and realistic. There’s also some brilliant acting. Mike Colter holds his own as Luke, but his supporting cast really make the show. Simone Missick plays Misty Knight, an idealistic NYPD detective trying to cleanup the neighborhood, Rosario Dawson plays Claire Temple who basically has super nursing skills and acts as friend and mentor to Luke, and Mahershala Ali plays Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a nightclub owner and an organized crime leader. And then there’s Alfre Woodward, who is wonderful in everything she plays, as Mariah Dillard, a city councilor and cousin of Cottonmouth who wants to improve Harlem, but is not above looking past and even encouraging Cottonmouth’s criminal activities. The show also has terrific music with live performances by artists Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Charles Bradley, Jidenna, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and Method Man (the latter has an extended cameo that is hillarious, albeit absurd).

I felt the season was strongest in the first 6 episodes which almost feel like there own story arc with a new season starting in episode 7. The mood and the atmosphere of Harlem was especially strong in these episodes, and Luke Cage’s story intersected with social problems of the carceral state, violence in Black communities, and gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods. The latter half of the season is more action-adventure oriented, with increasingly silly plot twists, and overall feels more, well, comic book-ish. The biggest problem is that Cornell Stokes is replaced by a new antagonist who is nowhere near as well-developed or acted (more on that below).

WARNING: SPOILERS IN THE REMAINDER OF THIS POST.

The sixth episode ends with Cornell Stokes arrested and the story arc seemingly complete, but hints that police and political corruption will make it harder for charges against Stokes to stick. We seem to be set up to explore that outcome in episode 7 when in a shocking twist, Mariah brutally murders Cottonmouth, and the opportunistic Shades helps her pin it on Luke Cage. This would seem to set up Mariah as the main antagonist, but she actually fades into the background for many episodes, which is a shameful waste of Alfre Woodward, Netflix! Instead, a new villains emerges in the form of Willis “Diamondback” Stokes, played hammily by Erik LaRay Harvey, who is supposed to be the brilliant arms dealer behind the crime organizations of Harlem, but comes of cartoonish as he spouts bible verses and basically just kills everyone for no good reason. Diamondback is just not as compelling a villain as Cottonmouth and the back end of the season suffers for it.

TV Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2018)


TitleUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 4, part 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

Netflix recently released 6 episodes of what it says will be the 4th and final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (another 7 episodes will be released in January 2019).  While not quite Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, the half-season definitely has the feel of a contractual obligation rather than hilarious and insightful comedy of the first three seasons. Very little in these episodes made me laugh and the social commentary is smug rather than observant.

A key theme of the season thus far is women’s rights and sexual harassment, which is very topical, but the humor is done poorly.  For example, in the first episode, Kimmy in her new HR job tries to fire a male employee in a “friendly way” that comes off in classic sexual harassment tropes.  The joke completely misses the mark and is doubly unfunny since it doesn’t recognize Kimmy’s own history of sexual abuse by the Reverend.  Speaking of the Reverend, he returns in the third episode, a laugh-free parody of a cheap documentary by a famed DJ who looks to the Reverend as a hero, and eventually turns the documentary into a mens’ rights crusade.  As much as people (rightly) like John Hamm, the biggest mistake of this series is having the Reverend character return after the first season.

In other plotlines, there is a continuing mean spirited line of jokes about nerds (because punching down makes good satire?) which culminates in the punchline of Titus saying that nerds are actually real people with real feelings.  Titus, Jacqueline, and Lillian seem to be treading water through these episodes which is disappointing since they’re all portrayed by wonderful actors who have brought so much growth to these characters over three seasons.  It’s unfair to reduce them to caricatures of themselves at this point.

Tina Fey’s previous serious 30 Rock hit a low point before recovering and finishing strong in it’s final season.  One hopes that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can accomplish the same feat in a more compressed time period.

Rating: *1/2

Previously Reviewed:

TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2018)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

The second year of this Netflix series adapts books five through nine.  As such, it suffers some of the problems as the books in the repetitiveness of the plots and the extreme frustration with the adult characters’ persistent obliviousness and casual cruelty.  Neil Patrick Harris’ hammy performance as Count Olaf has its moments but too often veers into just plain annoying (especially in The Vile Village when he’s disguised as Detective Dupin).

But this series is saved by the women.  In The Austere Academy, Kitana Turnbull as Carmelita Spats is absolutely hilarious as the evil, secretly cake-sniffing brat. Then in The Ersatz Elevator, Esme Squalor makes her debut as the most-stylish villain, wonderfully portrayed by Lucy Punch who basically steals the screen from Harris for the rest of the series (no small feet).  One of the biggest changes from the book is greatly expanding and changing the role of Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue, into a librarian at Prufrock Academy who becomes a VFD agent and delightful – if short-lived – ally of the Baudelaires.

Another great addition to the cast for this season is Nathan Fillion as Jacques Snicket which allows for a long-awaited reunion with Harris of rivals from Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  Isadora and Duncan Quagmire make their debut, although there part is smaller than I remember in the books (perhaps I’m conflating with later books in the series?). But the Baudelaires are what really makes this show succeed: Malina Weissman as Violet Baudelaire, Louis Hynes as Klaus Baudelaire, and the greatest toddler actor ever, Presley Smith as Sunny Baudelaire.  This season shows them grow as characters, becoming more confident in their abilities, and willingness to stand up against those cruel, clueless adults.

The show remains a visual treat and is full of more memorable gags than I can document here. This show was made to be GIF-ed on Tumblr.

 

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Movie Review: Secrets of Underground London (2014)


TitleSecrets of Underground London
Release Date: 21 May 2014
Director: Vicky Matthews and Gareth Sacala
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

Not secrets of the London Underground (although there are some) but of 2000+ years of history hidden beneath the surface of England’s capital.  There’s a lot of nifty bits of subterranean trivia in this admittedly corny and sensationalist documentary, including:

  • ruins of the Roman amphitheater
  • Black Death plague pits
  • the labyrinthine Chislehurst Caves where miners extracted chalk for rebuilding London after the Great Fire
  • the innovative Victorian-era engineering of the Thames Tunnel
  • London Underground stations used both as air raid stations and to hide treasures from the British Museum during World War II
  • Churchill’s War Cabinet rooms
  • the lost Fleet River
  • the construction of an expansion of the British Museum into a new space four stories undergroun

Rating: **1/2

TV Review: American Experience: Blackout (2015)


Title: Blackout
Release Date: 14 July 2015
Director: Callie T. Wiser
Production Company: A Five O’Clock Films Production for American Experience.
Summary/Review:

This documentary tells the story of the night New York City hit rock bottom, July 13, 1977, when the power went out and the city’s poorest neighborhoods erupted in looting and arson.  There’s a lot of great archival footage in this movie, much of it filmed by flashlight and candle lending an eerie sense of a city crowded with people operating in the darkness.  The filmmakers eschew experts and show interviews with people who experienced that night – a firefighter, a police officer, shop owners, a man who witnessed looting and arson as a child, and an employee at Windows on the World who witnessed the city lights blink out, and then see the high-class clientele remove their coats and ties and enjoy the free champagne.

The Window on the World stories offer a perspective into the often-forgotten reality that in many parts of New York, the blackout was a convivial occasion and most New Yorkers were unaware of violence occurring in other parts of the city.  All the same, this documentary doesn’t do a good job of explaining that looting and arson were heavily localized to particular areas.

On the other hand, the lesson that many took from the blackout back in 1977 – that New York was a dangerous place full of bad people – receives a more nuanced take in the documentary.  They do a good job of detailing the effects of white flight, the financial crisis, and the austerity programs forced on the city by the Ford administration had created a sense of abandonment and desperation among the poorest people of the city.  Many of the people arrested that night had no criminal record, they just wanted some diapers for their babies.  There’s also a curious decision by the NYPD to have off-duty officers report to the precinct closest to where they live, and since police officers didn’t live in the poorest neighborhoods, those areas were left with practically no police protection.

I feel that 53 minutes is not enough time to tell this story.  A longer documentary would’ve allowed for more interviews offering more perspectives, more details on how Con Ed caused and recovered from the blackout, and more on the long term outcomes of the blackout (such as the emergence of hip hop).  Still it’s an illuminating depiction of New York’s darkest night.

Rating: ***1/2

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: 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)

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: Game of Thrones (2017)


TitleGame of Thrones
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 7
Number of Episodes: 7
Summary/Review:

The seventh season of the epic fantasy series is a big turning point for the show, albeit one in which the pieces on the chessboard are being set up for the final series 8. For the first time all the action is set on Westeros and for the most part only main characters are left, so there are reunions, the first meetings of characters we’ve seen grow over 6 seasons, some dramatic set pieces, and one very satisfying death.  One big criticism of the series I’ve seen elsewhere is that suddenly the characters seem to move over great expanses at swift speeds and the show has lost the space to grow and develop the story.  While depicting exacting verisimilitude of long journeys is not necessary, the least they could do is show some indication of the passage of time in the script.  Game of Thrones is mind candy, but it’s good mind candy, and the characterization and acting are usually good enough to overcome its flaws.  I look forward to season 8.

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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: Doctor Who (2017)


Title: Doctor Who
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 10
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

The 10th series of Doctor Who includes several landmarks.  First, it is Peter Capaldi’s third and final series as The Doctor.  I’ve grown to love his performance and wish he could stick around for one more series.  Of course, I thought that about previous Doctors too, but Capaldi has joined the ranks of my favorite Doctors of all time.  Second, this is the sixth and final series for Steven Moffat as showrunner.  Moffat has been an innovator and changed Doctor Who for the future.  He does have a habit of repeating himself in his themes and ideas, though, so it may have been better if he’d finished a little earlier.  He apparently intended to leave after series 9 but was asked to do one more series, but oh wouldn’t Hell Bent been a story to go out on.   Nevertheless, series 10 shows that Moffat had a few more good story ideas left.  Third, the series sees the return of Matt Lucas as a full-time companion Nardole, a decision that seemed odd at first, but paid off across the season. Finally, this series introduced Pearl Mackie as the new companion, Bill.  As a young, working class woman of color and a lesbian, Bill is a unique character in Doctor Who history, and Mackie shined with her humor, intelligence, and clear chemistry with Capaldi.

Moffat stated that the season was a jumping on point for new viewers and the first four episodes followed a familiar pattern for new companions: meeting the Doctor in the first episode, traveling to the future in the second episode, an historical adventure in the third episode, and the supernatural intruding into the companion’s everyday life in contemporary times in the fourth episode.  All of this is undergirded by the mystery of what The Doctor is keeping in a vault underneath the university.  The middle four episodes took a huge left turn and were more reminiscent of highly experimental style of series 9.  First there was Oxygen, one of the standout episodes of the series that is a caustic critique of capitalism, and features a grave threat to Bill and The Doctor making a sacrifice.  This is followed by three episodes linked together as “The Monks Trilogy,” although each episode features a different screenwriter and director.  Moffat introduces a major new villain in the Monks but unfortunately they’re too reminiscent of previous villains the Silence and the Headless Monks.  The trilogy starts off well with Extremis which could easily be edited to make a stand alone episode, but there are diminishing returns in the ensuing two episodes.  There are good parts to each story, although I don’t know if it would be possible to pare it down to just one or two episodes instead of three. The final four episodes feature a couple of more episodes that fit more into the theme of Bill discovering the thrills of travel in time and space, while also incorporating Michelle Gomez Missy into the Tardis team (spoiler: she’s what was hidden in the vault).  The concluding two-part story World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is a tour-de-force that explores Missy’s efforts to try to be “good,” the return of John Simm as an earlier incarnation of the Master, and some extreme body horror in the form of the Mondasian Cybermen.  Capaldi, Gomez, Simm, and Mackie all put in a remarkable performance in a mindblowing and heartbreaking story.

The mid-season “Monks Trilogy” derail makes it hard to give the series as a whole top marks, but for the most part it’s some excellent television and a fitting finale to the Capaldi era.  Now Christmas needs to get here so we can say farewell to these characters and meet our first woman Doctor!

Below are links to my reviews of each episode from my Doctor Who sideblog on Tumblr:

  1.  The Pilot (7 of 10)
  2.  Smile (5 of 10)
  3.  Thin Ice (8 of 10)
  4.  Knock Knock (6 of 10)
  5. Oxygen (8 of 10)
  6. Extremis (8 of 10)
  7. The Pyramid at the End of the World (6 of 10)
  8. The Lie of the Land (5 of 10)
  9. The Empress of Mars (7 of 10)
  10.  Eaters of Light (8 of 10)
  11. 12. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (8 of 10)

A note on ratings:  A score of 5 is the baseline for a decent story from end to end with 10 being an all-time classic and 0 being an utter stinker.  Basically, any story rated 8-10 is a great story, 5-7 is good and worth watching, 2-4 has its moments but can be passed, and 0-1 is only for the Doctor Who completionist.

TV Review: The Race Underground (2017)


Title The Race Underground
Release Date: 31 January 2017
Director: Michael Rossi
Summary/Review:

The American Experience documentary adapts a portion of the book by Doug Most relating to Boston’s effort to create America’s first subway.  As a Boston partisan myself, why not leave out the portion of the book about New York City, even if they built a far more extensive subway system very swiftly after Boston’s first tunnel opened?  Kidding aside, it is a dramatic figure focusing on key figures such as Frank J. Sprague, who invented the electric trolley car, and Henry Melville Whitney, who consolidated the trolley lines into the West End Street Railway Company and persuaded city officials to approve the first tunnel.  There are challenges along the way including negative popular opinion, graves of Revolutionary War era soldiers, and an explosion, but the subway is completed and convinces the doubters.  The documentary is well-illustrated with photographs and vintage film, and is a delight to watch.
Rating: ***

 

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.