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Friday, November 17, 2017

Welcome to WESTWORLD

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Westworld: Season One' on Blogcritics.

Westworld is, in my opinion, the best new show of 2016. Based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name, it’s a high-concept series about an advanced theme park populated by super sophisticated robots. But as in Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park, the creators of the place can’t control what they’ve built and things go very wrong. That is only the start of the story, which explores sentience, humanity, morality, perception, and so much more.

Why do I bring up this show now, a year after it aired? Because with season two scheduled for 2018 on HBO, Westworld: Season One: The Maze is available now on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital, just in time for the holidays.

The Story

It’s hard to talk about too much without giving away the brilliant twists, so I’ll only describe the setup in the broadest of terms. The characters in Westworld can be divided into three categories: the robots, the park workers, and the guests. Right away, there is some blurring of the lines between the divisions. In general, though, the guests are interacting with the robots in the park (which shares a name with the show). The workers try to keep things running smoothly, and address any glitches that come up.

Behind-the-scenes, founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is nearing retirement. The board that runs Westworld would like to see him pushed out. His protege, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), supports him, but has his own concerns to deal with.  Namely, that some of the robots are beginning to have memories they shouldn’t, and act in ways contrary to their programming. The park has been around for decades, and there are hints that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

At the same time, things within the park are just as chaotic. The Man in Black (Ed Harris), a frequent guest over a long period of time, is looking for the entrance to the fabled Maze. He believes this will allow him to enter a higher level of the game, and he is obsessed with finding everything the park has to offer. Is he right? And if he is, what does this mean for those that dwell within the programmed scenarios?

The Production

Westworld is full of fantastic actors. Hopkins and Wright are terrific, of course. Luke Hemsworth, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Shannon Woodward also play employees with varying motivations for their presence. Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes are guests, which provide an entry point for the audience.  This is especially true of Jimmy, whose William is there for the first time. To the credit of all of the above, they can compete with the robots for attention. The humans also are just as complex as the non-humans, which makes for a busy show.

While the guests may be relatable, the artificial constructs are probably more interesting to most viewers. Evan Rachel Wood outdoes herself in her intricate portrayal of Delores. She is the oldest robot in the place, and one who begins experiencing issues. She is joined by Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, and Angela Sarafyan, among others playing artificial life forms. Their task is not an easy one, finding a way to portray life awaking within machine. Yet, across the board, they deliver impressive performances.

Quality is maintained in every aspect of the production, from the writing to the set design to the location shoots to the scoring. Just as great care for attention to detail would be taken in the real Westworld, it is on this show. Breathtaking vistas mixed with unique sci-fi elements make for a really interesting overall world. It is a pretty immersive experience to watch.

The Extras

For some releases, featurettes dispel a bit of the magic. Showing us the nuts and bolts behind the creation is interesting, but can demystify. Westworld: Season One provides that, but somehow, pulling back the curtain only makes what’s been done more impressive. As we hear about the creation of the look, the title sequences, and filming in those sweeping landscapes, it hits home just how much went into this program. Combined with some bits on the premise and actors, as well as a light gag reel, there’s a lot here, most of it solid.

Westworld: Season One also includes “The Big Moment” featurettes that often air right after the episodes. This is a good idea because it breaks down key moments in the series one at a time. Spreading them across the discs is smart, too, because they appear where they will be easiest to access. In fact, where all the extras are spread is well thought out, making for a nice, enhanced viewing experience.

Conclusion

It will come as no surprise to you that I recommend this set. Everything about it is neat, and rewatching it only builds anticipation for the show’s return. This is a series that begs repeat viewings to fully grasp it, so owning the set is helpful for that purpose. With solid bonus material, it makes it worth going beyond just rewatching the streaming episodes. This is a great release, and one I am happy to add to my shelf. My only regret is that I don’t yet have the capacity to watch it in 4K Ultra HD, which I will definitely do in the future.

Westworld: Season One: The Maze is available now.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

HUMANS 2.0

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Humans 2.0' on Blogcritics.

The American-British, AMC-Channel 4 co-production, Humans, based on the award-winning Swedish series, is back for a second season. The show takes place in a world where ‘synths,’ essentially advanced androids, are prevalent and used for a variety of business and household needs. In season one, the Hawkins family, an average, middle-class clan in England, stumbles into a quartet of more developed synths. These synths have their own consciousness. In season two, more synths begin ‘waking up,’ and the only thing that’s certain is that the effects will be far-reaching.

Catching Up With the Characters

The Hawkins family has relocated as Humans 2.0 begins, starting over in a new city. Father Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) is soon made redundant at work by an artificial life form. Son Toby (Theo Stevenson) is interested in a girl (Letitia Wright, Black Panther) who is pretending to be a synth. Toby’s younger sister, Sophie (Pixie Davies), seeks to emulate this newcomer. Other sister Mattie (Lucy Carless) begins working on a code that will give all synths consciousness, using the discarded Odi (Will Tudor) to test it on. Mom Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson) is approached by synth murderess Niska (Emily Berrington). Niska wants to turn herself in, but only if she will be tried as a human.

Our lead synths are also facing complications. Mia (Gemma Chan) has gone back to living as her non-conscious alter-ego, Anita, and falls in love with a human (Sam Palladio). Karen (Ruth Bradley) continues her relationship with the accepting Pete (Neil Maskell), though worries her secret will come out to others. Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Leo (Colin Morgan) concern themselves with finding ‘awake’ synths and saving them. Milo Khoury (Marshall Allman, True Blood) and his evil corporation is their competition, trying to snatch up the woken synths.

The Issues

The issues with what defines sentience and how mankind will deal with artificial intelligence of their own creation are explored in these eight episodes, as indicated in outlining the activities of our leads above. Humans is beloved for its complex take on such matters, and 2.0 continues that trend. Whether Niska has rights in the judicial system is at the forefront early on. Her case will set a precedent for other synths, one the humans are reluctant to allow. But it’s not like the genie can be put back in the bottle; Mattie isn’t the only one trying to let it out. So while people may want to put off changing the way they think about androids, they don’t really have much choice in the timeline.

A good chunk of Humans 2.0 takes place within Milo’s company. Specifically, the focus is on Dr. Athena Morrow (Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Jones, The Matrix), who lost her daughter and seeks to create an A.I. version of her. Can the human soul be transferred to a machine, as Athena and other characters might like to have happen? Or, as Karen would like, can a machine’s mind be put into a human? Both are on the table in this series as possibilities, and it certainly makes one think. Especially when children, who are not currently allowed to be built as synths in this world, enter into the mix.

Primarily, it’s these plots, these notions that are raised but not necessarily answered, that are the reason to watch Humans 2.0. This is solid sci-fi, well-produced and well-acted, that explores both technology and the human condition. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, this series will give you something to think about.

Extras

Humans 2.0 is not strong on bonus features. There are six short featurettes, all on the second disc, most, five minutes or fewer. A couple of these are promotional, and would be more valuable to watch before viewing episodes, slightly awkward since the material is placed on the second disc and not at the start of the first. There’s a worthwhile 10-minute feature that gets into some of the meat of the season and 30 minutes of B-roll, behind the scenes footage, played without commentary. Something only fans and film nerds might appreciate.

Conclusion

Even without a lot of extras, I highly recommend Humans 2.0 because of the content, characters, and quality of the production. It is enjoyable and a fascinating, relevant series.
Humans 2.0 is available now from Acorn.

Friday, November 3, 2017

STRANGER THINGS 2 REVIEW

Article first published as TV Review: STRANGER THINGS 2 on Seat42F.

 Caution: This review contains light spoilers from the first three episodes of season two.

Netflix’s 1980s-set sci-fi horror Spielberg-esque hit, STRANGER THINGS, is back for a second round! Similar to a movie series, it’s being titled STRANGER THINGS 2, which seems appropriate, given the feel of the program. Like before, it features a scant number of episodes (nine this time). But also like before, this makes for a concentrated, intense story about weird occurrences in a small town. All of your favorite players have returned, plus a few new faces, and the quality seems to have been maintained. The stakes have even risen a bit.

The action picks up roughly one year after the events of the first season. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is still haunted by his time in the Upside Down. Mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) hopes these are just flashbacks, as Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser, Married) seems to indicate. Will’s brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), is there to help his brother through. But Owens may have ulterior motives, working with the government agency that has kept a tight lid on the alternate dimension, forcing all who know of it not to tell anyone, and it soon becomes clear that Will is being warned of a new, bigger threat.

Meanwhile, Will’s friends all have their own things going on. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is interested in the new girl in town, video game master Max (Sadie Sink, American Odyssey). Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has an odd pet. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) has some serious emotional issues. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) isn’t sure she’s made the right choice in staying with Steve (Joe Keery). Even Joyce has a new steady, Bob (Sean Astin, The Goonies).

These are all interesting stories, some more than others, but they do an important thing. As much as I liked season one, the story was concentrated on a few members of the large ensemble, with others regulated to supporting status. In STRANGER THINGS 2, the plot is more balanced, incorporating more of the cast on a regular basis. There are more moving pieces of note, which makes for a denser story. This isn’t a knock on season one, which made the right choice for the initial outing. However, it’s a satisfying development for the sequel, now that the world is more established.

It’s also nice that Barb figures into STRANGER THINGS 2. Yes, she’s still dead, and I don’t think it likely that she undergoes resurrection. She was the also-missing in season one, someone who caught audience attention, but didn’t have much traction on screen. A subplot involving her parents, who have still not been told of her death, is moving and heart-breaking, giving more meaning to everyone’s favorite redhead downer.

Many fans tuning in are probably most curious about Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who we last assumed was hiding out in the woods. She is, courtesy of Jim Hopper (David Harbour), protected and hidden from friends and foes alike. While I don’t mind this in of itself, it is made better by the flashbacks to show what happened and how it happened between Eleven and Hopper in between seasons. This better informs the relationship between the cop and his sort-of-adopted-daughter, as well as the motivations both are facing now.

I think STRANGER THINGS 2 totally lives up to year one. It’s enticing, well-made, beautifully produced, and has fine performances, including the newcomers, who easily slide right in. It deepens a complex mystery, and both scares and touches you at the same time. The wonder and charm have been retained, even while what is terrifying has gotten more so. As important, it remains grounded. There are plenty of places for this show to go, and I’m happy to be along for the ride.

STRANGER THINGS 2 is available now on Netflix.

Monday, October 16, 2017

MINDHUNTER Good Brain Game

Article first published as TV Review: MINDHUNTER on Seat42F.


Netflix’s newest drama, MINDHUNTER, is a period place. Set in the late 1970s, it follows FBI Special Agent Holden Ford, who is a hostage negotiator. Assigned to teach at Quantico, and meeting and falling for a sociology major who challenges his beliefs, Holden begins to wonder if the agency’s ignorance of psychology is holding them back. Setting out on the road with senior agent Bill Tench to educate and learn from local police departments, Holden looks for a better way to do things.

Holden is brilliantly played by Broadway heavyweight Jonathan Groff (Looking, Glee). No, the agent doesn’t sing, but Groff is talented beyond the realms of musicals and comedy. He captures the nuance of a man who is both masculine and sensitive, bucking the stereotype of what an FBI agent might think he should be, just as Holden seeks to change the way of thinking of law enforcement about criminals. There is a lot of nuance Holden, struggling with his own preconceptions, wanting to be open, seeking to improve himself, and above all, dedicated to his mission. Groff gets all of this, and there’s as much acted beyond the dialogue as there is spoken words. He is a key part of why MINDHUNTER is great.

The supporting cast is also excellent. There seem to be three of note in the pilot: Holt McCallany (Lights Out) plays Tench, who will clearly be the one, aside from Groff, with the most screen time, as he’s sort of Holden’s partner. Cotter Smith (The Americans) is Shepard, Holden’s boss at the onset, who has faith in Holden, but doesn’t always understand his motivations or ideas. Hannah Gross (I Used to Be Darker) is Debbie, the love interest and intellectual equal (or possibly superior) of Holden, who sparks more than an academic interest from him. Each have terrific chemistry with Holden, and seem to be the stars in their own stories, not just existing to serve our lead. Granted, we may not see their stories, but they don’t act like their world revolves around Holden, a trap too many television characters fall into.

The production is, overall, excellent. The writing is smart and meaningful. The look and direction is terrific. An early hostage scene in which the camera is far away from the perp really sells to the audience the frustrations of the situation and the gap between Holden and his query. The pacing is perfect, taking its time, but not too slow. Period-wise, it looks appropriate for the time without leaning so heavily into it that it feels dated. With episodes ranging from 36 to 60 minutes, it is clearly content to go at its own speed, not beholden to confining structure. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, and find no cause to complain.

The subject matter is important and timely, today’s mass shootings replacing yesterday’s serial killers in the forefront of our cultural consciousness. As Holden points out late in the pilot, philosophers and writers have been struggling to understand why anyone would do anything since the dawn of man, and we still don’t get it. But we’ve made progress, and those who need to know these things should be aware. MINDHUNTER may cause viewers to rethink their own views, considering the perspectives of others, and challenging the existence of broad generalities. It’s a thinker, in a good way.

MINDHUNTER has been getting rave reviews, and I fully agree. I’ve seen it compared to Mad Men, a complex glimpse of one slice of society at a transformative time, and it is that. But it’s also entirely its own thing, an original work that explores something worthwhile. It has already been renewed for a second season, a deserved vote of confidence from Netflix. I cannot recommend it enough, and can’t wait to jump into the other nine episodes.

MINDHUNTER’s complete first season is available now exclusively on Netflix.

Friday, October 6, 2017

KEVIN (PROBABLY Might) SAVE THE WORLD

Article first published as TV Review: KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD on Seat42F.


This week, ABC presents the new program KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD. Kevin Finn is an awful human being who has valued material things and having money above the feelings of others, including his own family. This obviously isn’t a strategy that is going well for him because, shortly before the series begins, he tries to kill himself. With nowhere else to go, he returns to his hometown while he figures things out. While there, he meets a messenger from God (don’t call her an angel) who tells Kevin he is the last of the righteous, and must improve himself and anoint others to save the Earth.

This premise feels familiar because it borrows from a few others in the past. Touched By An Angel and Eli Stone spring readily to mind, and KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD goes for a middle ground of the two. It’s less sentimental and preachy than Touched, but not nearly as whimsical or fun as Eli.

It’s a relatively heavily religious series, though it avoids getting into specific scripture, at least in the pilot. This is a good thing for a time when atheism is on the rise. You may say, “but this show isn’t for those that don’t believe in God.” I think that would be a na├»ve position for a mainstream network to take, and hopefully the series will continue be as vague as it has been on the deity Kevin is expected to serve.

Like most programs these days, KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD has a decent cast. Jason Ritter (Parenthood) is Kevin and JoAnna Garcia Swisher (Better With You) is his sister, Amy. Both performers have done well in ensemble and guest roles, and I think they can probably carry a show as its leads. Kimberly Herbert Gregory (Vice Principals), who is the messenger, Yvette, is not someone I am familiar with, but she immediately stands out. J. August Richards (Angel) has a small part as a local deputy, and India de Beaufort (Jane by Design), Chloe East (Liv and Maddie), and Dustin Ybarra (We Bought a Zoo) round out the group. These aren’t generally household names, but most will at least look familiar, and none seem out of place in the show.

The show itself does seem designed to emotionally manipulate. It may not necessarily be trying to get you to go to church on Sunday, but it definitely is pushing a certain philosophy in a very strong way. And while being good to others is laudable, I’m not sure it will achieve its goal if it comes on too strong. The pilot fluctuates on either side of that hard-to-define line, and it’ll be interesting to see where it lands.

The best parts of the episode are Yvette trying to coach Kevin, especially when she messes up, and the budding relationship between Kevin and his niece, Reese (East). Honorable mention goes to the one real conversation between Amy and Kevin on the porch. Some of this works because it finds humor in the situation, and others because they demonstrate real human connection. Kevin’s interactions with the other main characters are less effective because they don’t feel as natural. So those dynamics will need to be figured out before the show goes on too long.

I am torn on this one. There is some solid potential in KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD, and I am curious enough to give it a little time to grow into itself. Especially if what we’re told is happening at the start isn’t what the actual story is. The 10PM time slot means it doesn’t have to stay as tame as it starts out, and it might be a good thing to mix edgy with the source material, as they dabble in sci-fi at the start (more of that please). But if it gets too heavy into evangelism or too cheesy in its emotional moments, that’s where it’s likely to lose some, myself included.

KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD premieres this Tuesday at 10 ET on ABC.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Halcyon

Article first published as TV Review: THE HALCYON on Seat42F.


Ovation has imported the ITV series THE HALCYON, premiering tonight in the states. Set in a five-star hotel in London England in 1940, early in World War II, the show follows people of all classes, from the owner of the establishment and his family, down to the staff that keep things moving. The premise obviously sounds like Downton Abbey, but THE HALCYON is more gritty, with those coming to stay there engaged in a variety of scandalous, and in at least one case, Nazi-supporting, behavior that makes it more drama-filled than that former series.

At the center of things is Richard Garland (Steven Mackintosh, Luther), the general manager of the titular waystation. Richard is very customer service oriented, working to keep his employer, Lord Lawrence Hamilton (Alex Jennings, The Crown), happy, even when that goes against the wishes of Hamilton’s wife, Priscilla (Olivia Williams, Manhattan). Things get more difficult when Hamilton’s outspoken mistress, Charity Lambert (Charity Wakefield, The Player), decides to take on a more public persona. This does not go unnoticed by American reporter Joe O’Hara (Matt Ryan, Constantine), who is staying at the hotel. And then there’s Garland’s daughter, Emma (Hermione Corfield, xXx: Return of Xander Cage), who has a flirtation with Hamilton’s eldest son, RAF pilot Freddie (Jamie Blackley, If I Stay), who is in a relationship with someone else.

That is just the tip of the iceberg of events at THE HALCYON, which boasts a sprawling cast and many plot lines. It’s a classic soap opera, with lots of drama, too much at once to be thought realistic. The pacing is quick, moving through various threads, and it’s hard to keep track of everyone and their relationships to one another at first viewing.

It’s a very beautiful show, the production design and set decoration superb. Part of the joy of watching the series is just to imagine oneself in the hotel. Most of the characters, despite their bad behavior, adhere to the classiness of the setting in outward manner, painting us a picture of a specific place and time, or at least a fictionalized version of it. The world is enticing enough to quickly get sucked into the plot.

While not as high-quality as Downton Abbey in terms of storytelling, there’re enough elements to satisfy most. The lack of believability hurts, but the actors play the roles earnestly enough to keep viewers interested and invested. Coincidences may stretch the bounds, but there aren’t any big or obvious plot holes in the first hour.

In fact, my only complaint about the premiere is that it starts with the end of the season, then jumps back seven months. This has become overdone enough that I automatically roll my eyes at any series that dares still do it. However, for THE HALCYON, it’s less annoying than in most because with the density we’re about to jump into, it does provide an intriguing hook to get the audience to expend the effort learning all of the players.

My main caution with this show, though, is that it has already been canceled, and does not contain a definitive ending. Because it aired early in the year in Britain, you can google fan reaction, and a very vocal group are calling for its return to, in part, resolve major cliffhangers. As pretty as THE HALCYON is, knowing it is incomplete and extremely unlikely to be concluded is enough to make it a pass for me in the age of so many other options. Were it airing simultaneously and its future in doubt, I’d be tempted. As it stands, I don’t see the point of spending my time on it.

THE HALCYON premieres tonight at 10pm ET on Ovation.

THE GIFTED Is Special

Article first published as TV Review: THE GIFTED on Seat42F.


With the glut of superhero programming, do we need another series featuring people with powers? DC is dominating on the CW, less so on FOX, while Marvel has solid offerings on Netflix and inferior ones on ABC. The newest entry, THE GIFTED, is the second X-Men show in a year (technically Marvel via the comics, but not part of Marvel Studios), and proves that mutants still have something interesting and fresh to say. It’s not as trippy and unique as Legion, FX’s X-Men program, but it is still very worthwhile.

THE GIFTED is centered on the Strucker family. Patriarch Reed (Stephen Moyer, True Blood) helps capture mutants, though he insists only those who have broken the law. But when his own children, Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind, The Goldbergs) and Andy (Percy Hynes White, The Grand Seduction), violently exhibit abilities, he doesn’t hesitate to join with wife Kate (Amy Acker, Person of Interest) in taking the clan on the run.

Separately, we meet a group of mutants in hiding led by Lorna Dane / Polaris (Emma Dumont, Bunheads). The daughter of Magneto, she has stepped up when both the X-Men and the Brotherhood disappeared. (Where they went is a mystery.) She is joined by Marcos Diaz / Eclipse (Sean Teale, Reign), John Proudstar / Thunderbird (Blair Redford, Satisfaction), and Clarice Fong / Blink (Jamie Chung, Once Upon a Time) in helping others who manifest more-than-human traits stay ahead of the evil Sentinel Service that pursues them, personified in Jace Turner (Coby Bell, The Game).

THE GIFTED is very ambitious, but it also has a lot going for it. By stating up front that the X-Men and the Brotherhood are gone, viewers won’t be waiting for the more-famous characters like Professor X, Cyclops, Magneto, Wolverine, and the rest to show up. It’s clear that this cast are our heroes, and that’s how it’ll likely stay. The X-Men film franchise has always been shaky on continuity, so THE GIFTED isn’t tied to anything else going on in other mediums, designed to stand on its own. Without the restrictions of movies and super familiar personalities to adhere to (some will know these characters, but not nearly as many as who know the X-Men themselves), it has the freedom to do something different.

Some are likening this show’s premise to an Underground Railroad situation. The mutants are a persecuted class, fleeing from people who fear or hate them. They have to operate in secret, and move a lot to stay ahead of those who would do them harm. Most haven’t actually done anything wrong, attacked for who they are, not their actions. The diverse cast modernizes the story, but the parallels are still obvious.

THE GIFTED is also a family show. We see the pain and suffering of parents Reed and Kate, and their love and dedication to their children. Reed, especially, is expected to question if he should be protecting Andy and Lauren, but he doesn’t. His job as their father wins out over his profession. But without powers himself, is he up to the task of protecting them? Will he have to learn to accept that his kids can keep him safe more than the other way around? And what is his role in the family then? Kate is less developed in the pilot, but I assume she will face similar issues.

This series is smartly written, well-acted, and with pleasing special effects, among the best the usually-lazy broadcast networks have to offer, feeling more like cable programming. It embraces the comic book world it hails from, but isn’t defined by it, making a dark drama full of social commentary that stands on its own. I didn’t expect such a high quality from creator Matt Nix, formerly of Burn Notice, but he has definitely grown into his role as a respected showrunner, and I’m excited to see where he takes things from here.

THE GIFTED premieres Monday, October 2nd at 9PM ET on FOX.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

GHOSTED Thin Enough to See Through

Article first published as TV Review: GHOSTED on Seat42F.


Tonight brings the premiere of FOX’s GHOSTED. A disgraced scientist, now book store clerk, who studied the theoretical multi-verse and claims his wife has been abducted by aliens, is kidnapped and partnered with a once-great detective, who blames himself for his former partner’s death and now serves in mall security, by a top-secret organization known as the Underground Bureau. Together, they are tasked to find a top agent who has gone missing. It’s going to take all their skills and more in this paranormal twist on the buddy cop genre.

The lead characters in GHOSTED are Max Jennifer (Adam Scott, Parks & Recreation), the scientist, and Leroy Wright (Craig Robinson, The Office), the detective. Both are brilliant men who have fallen from grace, but not lost any of the things that made them so good in their chosen professions. Max is the believer, and Leroy is the skeptic. It’s sort of like The X-Files mixed with Lethal Weapon mixed Men in Black with a large dollop of I don’t even know what.

Casting Scott and Robinson is the best thing GHOSTED has going for it. Both are vastly funny, almost as if by second nature, skilled and experienced in the art of sitcom. They have terrific timing and solid chemistry. All the best moments from the pilot involve their interactions. They strike the right balance between acting the story and going for the gag, and I find no flaw in their performances.

I also really like the supporting cast. Ally Walker (Profiler, Colony) has a fantastic spirit as the hard-nosed boss, Captain Ava Lafrey. Amber Stevens West (The Carmichael Show) balances things as the sweet, technologically gifted Annie. Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager) is just plain bizarre as co-worker Barry, a good energy for a show like this. While the focus will likely stay on the partners, these three do make things entertaining when the action shifts back to the workplace, nicely fleshing out the world of GHOSTED.

Where I have to stop heaping praise is when we get to the writing. The pilot contains numerous plot holes or unrealistic stretches. GHOSTED decides to get right into the story as early in the running time as possible, which means the characters don’t have enough time to bond before they have to start acting like a team. There’s a lazy attempt to right this with a 48-hour window Leroy and Max are initially given, but there’s no real effort to stick to that premise, tossed out as soon as it’s convenient. The investigation itself proceeds very weirdly, and the time line doesn’t quite make sense if you stop and think about it. Concepts are introduced and then quickly moved past without explanation.

I wonder about the decision to do this, knowing that going the other way is also risky. Sometimes a series takes too long to set up the premise, or just does it in episode one, which feels very generic. But I feel there has to be a middle ground. Events must feel fluid and natural, not just jammed in. The coincidences, such as a big reveal at the end of the pilot, are even OK in this context. I just want GHOSTED to catch its breath and make sure everything adds up before they jump into filming the episode. Hopefully that happens in subsequent episodes, as there is mega potential here.

I’ll end with another bit of praise, and that’s that the special effects look great. Technology has bounded ahead in recent years to the point where even a broadcast network sitcom can do zany, supernatural and otherworldly stuff and pay for it to look good. I have nothing bad to say about the production design and SFX.

GHOSTED premieres tonight at 8:30 ET on FOX.

Monday, October 2, 2017

INHUMANeS

Article first published as TV Review: INHUMANS on Seat42F.


MARVEL’s newest show, premiering tonight on ABC, is INHUMANS. The eight-episode miniseries presents the first two installments this evening. The show finds the Royal Family of the Inhuman moon settlement the victims of a coup. Fleeing, they must find one another again, then figure out how to wrest control of their home and their people back from the traitorous relation that took it over.

If you’re a fan of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which also airs on ABC, you are already familiar with what Inhumans are – people that have some alien DNA mixed into their genetics, which gives them power when exposed to Terrigen Mist. The compound was released across the planet in S.H.I.E.L.D., and now there are Inhumans everywhere.

INHUMANS is not about those Inhumans, though. The city of Attilan, where the story begins, is actually above the Earth, on the moon, hidden for many years. (The show doesn’t say how long they’ve lived there.) These Inhumans go through a gentler process of transformation than their counterparts on Earth, as they’ve been doing for generations, and the Mist isn’t harmful to those even who don’t have latent powers. Instead, the Inhumans without abilities form a lower caste to support the hierarchy of the city.

It is convenient to make these Inhumans distinctly different. For one thing, it allows INHUMANS to use the familiar characters made famous in the Marvel comic books, which were never mentioned on S.H.I.E.L.D., so could not realistically exist on the planet in the form we’re used to seeing them. Instead, we get to see a fully-formed society headed by Black Bolt (Anson Mount, Hell On Wheels), Medusa (Serinda Swan, Graceland), and the rest without interferences from other Marvel properties.

Unfortunately, INHUMANS begs to be tied in. It’s such a sweeping, important, powerful group, that one really wonders why they haven’t been involved yet. Yes, I buy their isolation. Yet, at the same time, it feels like they should have made some efforts to contact the Earth Inhumans before Triton’s (Mike Moh, Empire) tentative attempts in the pilot.

Mount is a terrific Black Bolt, even with the sign language added in, which feels unnecessary and trite for the character, he conveys the power of the man that doesn’t dare speak for fear of destroying everything. Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones) also makes a stupendous Maximus, the conflicted brother of Black Bolt who feels he must rule the people to save them. Maximus doesn’t see himself as evil, and Rheon captures that nuance. I also like Isabelle Cornish (Puberty Blues) as Crystal and the way the show has CGI-ed giant dog Lockjaw.

But the rest of the production just feels relatively thin I don’t see Swan as Medusa, and Ken Leung (Lost) feels a bit, well, lost as Karnak, while Eme Ikwuakor (Extant) is one-note as Gorgon. Lockjaw’s efforts to save the royals feels weird and inefficient. A plot that leaves most of the characters stranded in Hawaii seems like a network television stunt, rather than a well-considered story. The pacing is sluggish and the script plods. I was frequently bored, and INHUMANS failed to spark the same wonder and excitement that Marvel routinely does in their feature films (and occasionally does in their other small screen projects).

Admittedly, there are worse things on TV, and because it’s Marvel, I’ll probably still watch it. By keeping INHUMANS to eight hours, it won’t be allowed to meander too much before it wraps up the central storylines. A second season might even produce something more entertaining and interesting. But as a first effort, this is a disappointment, not among the best Marvel has to offer, and misses the mark greatly on what should have been a really awesome group of characters. These should go back to the drawing board.

INHUMANS premieres tonight at 8 on ABC.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

SHAMELESS Growing Up

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Shameless - The Complete Seventh Season' on Blogcritics.

Love it or hate it, Showtime’s Shameless has been around for quite awhile at this point. The dramedy about a lower class family dealing with social, moral, and drug issues while scraping by on the South Side of Chicago recently released The Complete Seventh Season on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital. It’s an aging program that has grown along with its characters. As much as these twelve episodes continue the story, they also mark a new chapter in the life of the Gallaghers. The result is very satisfying.

Growing Up

Most of the characters are changing in The Complete Seventh Season. Fiona (Emmy Rossum) finally begins putting herself first, above family and men. To do this, she tries managing and running a few businesses. Lip (Jeremy Allen White), worried about turning into his father, struggles with sobriety. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) has things together as he works as an EMT and expands his sexual orientation. Debbie (Emma Kenney) finds out what it takes to be a mother to her infant. Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) ponders what it means to be a man. Frank (William H. Macy) realizes he hasn’t been the father he should be, and wants to do better, though he doesn’t quite know how to do it.

All of that might sound rather noble and wholesome, but those are two words that often don’t describe the Gallaghers. As they go along the journeys listed above, each at least consider illegal actions, many committing crimes. Past loves and bad relationships threaten to derail progress. Best friends Kev (Steve Howey) and V (Shanola Hampton) get into a thrupple with their employee, Svetlana (Isidora Goreshter). So there is still plenty of the mess fans are used to seeing from the clan and those around them.

Family

A theme this year is family. V and Kev redefine theirs, and aren’t sure they like it. Fiona, who has always been the rock, largely abandons hers in the pursuit of economic success. Debbie seeks to build a new family to help raise her child. When the kids he created reject him, Frank looks elsewhere to find the love he seeks. Carl leaves his home to improve himself.

Yet, while things get crazy, the Gallaghers have never seemed stronger. More of them are adults now, and so contribute financially and emotionally. They take care of one another in more meaningful ways, and their conflicts matter more. The show keeps the same spirit it has always had, but grows along with the cast. It’s a very satisfying run.

Extras

Of course, Shameless would not be Shameless without some great guest stars shaking things up. Zack Pearlman (Dragons: Race to the Edge), Ruby Modine (Central Park), and Elliot Fletcher (The Fosters) join the show as new love interests for various characters. June Squibb (Nebraska) and Sharon Lawrence (NYPD Blue) enter to interact with Fiona. Mickey (Noel Fisher) returns with typical craziness, and matriarch Monica (Chloe Webb) vastly changes things when she blows back into town late in the year.

The release also contains bonus material. One very good featurette centers on Ethan and Emma, two of the lead performers, and how they have grown up on set. Other cast members, crew, and the actors’ parents contribute their thoughts, and it’s a fascinating insight. A far less interesting short concerns the political leanings of Frank Gallagher. There are also deleted scenes for just about every episode in the set. It’s not a huge amount of extras, but the first featurette is great, and some of the deleted scenes are worthwhile, so it works.

Conclusion

Shameless is not getting old. I mean, yes, it’s been on for awhile. But it’s just as entertaining as ever, and if anything, more thought-provoking. If this is the kind of good stuff in The Complete Seventh Season, I look forward very much to year eight.

Shameless – The Complete Seventh Season is on sale now.