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.

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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.

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.