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.

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 20th


To the Best of Our Knowledge :: Pick Your Poison

The most stunning segment of this episode on poison regards “The Radium Girls” of Ottawa, Illinois, who were poisoned painting clock dials with radium.  It’s another example of cruelty of capitalist greed, misogyny, and indifference to human suffering.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Theremin

I’m fascinated by weird instruments like the theremin and the career of Bob Moog, and this podcast has a lot of both.

Fresh Air :: Don’t Be Fooled By The Talking Horse — ‘BoJack’ Is A Sadness ‘Sneak Attack’

I’ve written reviews of BoJack Horseman here stating it’s the “best show on television,” and Terry Gross’ interview with its creator is revelatory.

99% Invisible :: The Worst Way to Start a City

What if a city was born by just having 100,000 people show up at once and claim their spot?  That’s the weird story of Oklahoma City.  Listen to this just for the “Oh, Joe – here’s your mule!” part.

TV Review: Class (2016)


Title: Class
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

This spinoff series from Doctor Who was designed as a young adult science fiction drama with the scripts being written by popular young adult author Patrick Ness.  It’s curious that in many ways Class is darker and more mature (and more gory) than Doctor Who, although teens actually do like that kind of thing, tv productions don’t generally recognize it. The premise of a team of people fighting off the monster-of-the-week that emerges from a rift in space and time is very much reminiscent of the very grown-up Torchwood.

The show is set at the Coal Hill School, a frequent setting of Doctor Who going back to the first episode in 1963.  Because of the Doctor’s frequent visits to Coal Hill with the TARDIS time and space have become unstable creating the rift.  The Doctor has also placed two alien refugees at the school, disguised as human for their protection: Charlie, the prince of the Rhodians, and Ms. Quill, a revolutionary from the same planet who is tied to Charlie by a mental link that forces her to act his protector.  They are each the only survivors of their species after genocide by the Shadow Kin.

The rest of the kids are ordinary, highly-intelligent students with the typical problems of teenagers. Ram is talented football player who grieves the loss of his girlfriend to the Shadow Kin.  April is nerdy and well-behaved, but hides a troubled past with her father.  Tanya is the youngest in the group having moved up three years at the school and comes from a Nigerian immigrant family.  Matteusz is a Polish immigrant who is ostracized by his parents for being gay, and has a romance with Charlie.

The cast are all really charming and the show does a great job at developing their characters, albeit sometimes unevenly to serve the plot.  The scripts are especially good at exploring grief and young people learning to trust and work with one another. Ms. Quill is a scene stealing anti-hero, revolutionary become physics teacher.  The Shadow Kin are the main villain in this series and the four episodes they appear in are strained by the Shadow Kin being rather ridiculous and uninteresting.

The best two episodes come near the end of the series.  Episode 6 – “Detained” – is a bottle episode where the five students are shoved out of normal space-time and encounter a creature that makes them confess uncomfortable truths.  It’s good drama and also symbolic of young people learning to communicate with one another honestly.  The next episode – “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” – features Ms. Quill on adventure using a TARDIS-like device to travel into metaphysical realities in search of regaining her free will.  It’s a very imaginative and really lets Katherine Kelly to expand her character and acting chops.

Unfortunately, Class was canceled after one season, which is possibly a good thing because the cliffhanger hints at a premise that I don’t think would’ve worked well.  If the showrunners had known that they had only one season I think that they could’ve have reshaped these 8 episodes into a more self-contained miniseries.  But now we’ll just have to use our imaginations – and Big Finish audio dramas – to find out to find out what happens next.

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2018)


Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 5
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

There are a lot of reasons why people would want to avoid a cartoon about anthropomorphic animal satirizing Hollywood excess, but I’m increasingly coming to believe that they would be missing the best show on “television” today.  The fifth season of BoJack Horseman relies on the audiences accrued knowledge of the characters and their situations for a somewhat quieter and subtler form of storytelling.  At least by BoJack Horseman standards.

Every season of BoJack Horseman has at least one highly experimental episode. In season 3, the nearly dialogue-free “Fish Out of Water” showed BoJack trying to navigate an undersea world, while last season’s “The Old Sugarman Place” explored generational depression by having scenes from BoJack’s grandparents’ life play out simultaneously with BoJack’s story.  This season provides it’s most affecting episode with very little flash.  Instead “Free Churro” features Will Arnett voicing BoJack’s episode-long monologue as a delivers the eulogy at his mother’s funeral.  The very next episode, “INT. SUB” is narrated by a married couple, a therapist and a mediator wonderfully voiced by Issa Rae and Wanda Sykes, using ridiculous fake names and descriptions to protect their clients’ identities.  Thus BoJack becomes BoBo the Angsty Zebra and Princess Carolyn is more surrealistically visualized as Tangled Fog of Pulsating Yearning In The Shape Of A Woman.  The inherent silliness masks the darker plot unfolding which makes it hit all that much harder when the conclusion is shown with the “real” characters.

As typical of previous seasons, each of the main characters has a personal storyline woven into the series arc.  BoJack curiously feels like a supporting character early in the season, but the seeds of his story are subtly dropped into those stories that come to fruition in the back end of the season. Namely, after injuring himself doing a stunt, BoJack becomes addicted to painkillers and increasingly is unable to distinguish his real life and his character on the detective drama “Philbert.”

Diane searches for her own identity after divorcing Mr. Peanutbutter, particularly well explored in “The Dog Days Are Over” where she visits Vietnam and struggles with being fully American but looking Vietnamese (a meta commentary on the fact that Diane is voiced by the white actor Alison Brie).  Meanwhile, Mr. Peanutbutter has a much younger new girlfriend and begins to get insight on why his three wives outgrew him, particularly in “Mr. Peanbutter’s Boos” where scenes from four different Halloween parties (with four different dates) are intercut.

Princess Carolyn seeks to adopt a child while continuing to produce “Philbert” and put out everyone else’s fires.  For the first time we get her backstory, including flashbacks to her childhood in North Carolina.  Todd’s asexuality is explored in an odd sex comedy farce parody, and after realizing that a relationship with Yolanda isn’t working, seeks to rekindle a relationship with Emiliy.  Being Todd this involves a wacky scheme to build a sex robot which becomes a recurring gag that is the one big dud of this season.

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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.

 

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.