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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 naïve 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.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

LIAR, Liar

Article first published as TV Review: LIAR on Seat42F.


Sundance has a new drama premiering tonight called LIAR. It’s actually a co-British program that is being aired here on Sundance at the same time it’s still running across the pond, albeit viewers in the UK are a few weeks ahead of us in the story. In LIAR, schoolteacher Laura Nielson accuses surgeon Andrew Earlham of rape after a first date. The audience is left to wonder which one of them is telling the truth as Andrew insists the intercourse was consensual, and Laura apparently finds forged evidence. So it’s a psychological thriller mystery.

The lead performers, Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) as Laura and Ioan Gruffudd (Forever) as Andrew, are excellent. We’ve seen Froggatt play a rape victim before and Gruffudd do creepy and mysterious, so they do feel very familiar in the parts. But there’s also new ground here, with the slow pacing and the surprise reveals, each sticking very firmly to their own version of events. For much of the first hour, I wavered back and forth over who was telling the truth.

I do think society influences our impressions and how each person would approach this. My instinct is to trust the woman making the accusation, and others will, too, although some will fall on the other side, especially when Laura’s mental stability is called into question. Part of the value of LIAR is making us think about our preconceived notions and evaluate them, as well as call attention to some of the complex issues and difficulty building a case in situations like this. For that, it is invaluable.

In terms of storytelling, I’m not sure about this show yet. By the end of hour one, I felt like I had a plenty good idea of what happened, and was no longer on the fence. Reading a review of hour three, which aired this week in Britain, it seems viewers that far along are all falling on one side. Though, I expect there are still some twists to come that may shift things back the other way, or further explain what’s been revealed. This is the kind of thing you’d really have to watch all six parts of before deciding if the tale was well done or not, the conclusion mattering as much as the journey.

There are some very positive signs, besides the excellent acting. For one, the series is by Harry and Jack Williams, the brains behind The Missing, another excellent, twisty thriller. For another, the production is high quality, looking fantastic and grounded, paced pretty good, no obvious plot holes, fine scoring, terrific directing, all pluses. Some of the characters have major possibility, like Andrew’s son, who is Laura’s student, and Laura’s ex-boyfriend who is not what he initially seems. The supporting cast, including Zoe Tapper (Mr. Selfridge), Warren Brown (Luther), Shelley Conn (Terra Nova), Richie Campbell (Eve), Jamie Flatters (So Awkward), and Danny Webb (Humans), seem solid, too.

On the negative side is how every character seems to have their secrets, not just the leads. This can be all right, and may still be here. But other shows have fallen into the trap of making every single other person the leads cross paths with too shady or untrustworthy. I hope LIAR doesn’t fall into that trap. I don’t think it will, despite a couple things that seem a bit forced in the premiere, but that’s something to be careful with.

Having only seen a single installment, I am willing to tentatively recommend it. My feeling is that it will be worth your time, although, as I’ve cautioned, I can’t guarantee it at this stage. However, if you like a good British mystery-thriller, this will probably be right up your alley, and the pilot is already better than most others in the genre I’ve seen.

LIAR airs tonight at 10 ET on Sundance.

Friday, September 29, 2017

THE Merely GOOD DOCTOR

Article first published as TV Review: THE GOOD DOCTOR on Seat42F.


ABC premieres yet another medical drama tonight, one of the most common types of shows made. This one, called THE GOOD DOCTOR, follows a young man named Shaun Murphy, who has Autism and Savant syndrome. Shaun is hired as a pediatric surgical resident at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. Most of the staff, including the head of surgery, do not want him there, feeling his limited ability to recognize and express emotion will make it impossible for him to be proficient at the job. But with strong support from the president of the facility, Shaun is allowed to give it a go.

Shaun is played by Freddie Highmore, a brilliant actor who is fresh off a starring role in the series Bates Motel. Highmore makes Shaun as interesting and well-developed as his Norman Bates was, and it is immediately clear that Highmore will do a great job. Joined by the excellent Richard Schiff (The West Wing) as Aaron Glassman, the aforementioned president, as well as several other capable, sometimes terrific, actors, it seems there is the framework in place for a very solid show.

Furthering the points in THE GOOD DOCTOR’s favor is the creative team behind it. This show is based off of a successful South Korean series, and was developed for the U.S. by David Shore (House) and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost). Shore definitely knows something about making strong dramas in the genre, and Kim is well respected as a performer, which sometimes makes for a good guiding hand in production.

Here’s where the review takes a turn, though. Despite everything working in its favor, THE GOOD DOCTOR is merely the adjective the title uses – good. You may ask, what’s wrong with good? Indeed, many merely good series are watched by a great number of people week after week, year after year. But this is 2017, the era of peak TV, and there are many, many more innovative, complicated, and compelling options available. Good is no longer good enough.

There are plenty of factors working against THE GOOD DOCTOR, starting with how the story is very cliché. Despite being somewhat character-driven, it appears poised to feature mainly stand-alone episodes. The way Shaun’s thought process is depicted is a step above what House did, graphically speaking, but not unusual when compared to other, more recent series. The climax feels forced, and the resolution, unrealistic. Characters are almost two-dimensionally against Shaun for the wrong reasons, and viewers are hand-fed manipulative emotional scenes.

So what could THE GOOD DOCTOR have done better? Well, let’s start with the other characters having more nuanced opinions of Shaun. Why be so certain he’s going to fail before a person has even met him? Or worse, once they see Shaun impressively figure out a tough puzzle, why do they still write him off so quickly? In stark contrast with Highmore’s performance, it’s glaringly bad. It would also be interesting if the show was more focused on communicating Shaun’s experience, rather than using it as set dressing against a more mediocre storyline.

The one thing it probably could not have done better is choose better actors, and that’s probably why I’m so disappointed. We have enough melodrama on TV, and there are plenty of fine thespians to handle those. With people the likes of Highmore and Schiff, far above average, the project could and should have had more weight.

In fact, the thing I would most relate this show to is a formulaic, feel-good Disney film about overcoming diversity, with the struggle simplified to a sugar-coated, nutritionally-lacking, tasty but unsatisfying snack. This is the television version of that. Airing on Disney’s ABC, that might work out for it. But for the discerning viewer who only has time for high quality and freshness, this won’t make the cut.

THE GOOD DOCTOR premieres tonight at 10 ET on ABC.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Discover new STAR TREK

Article first published as TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY on Seat42F.

SPOILER ALERT: Towards the end of this review, I do talk about the events of the second episode, available only on CBS All Access, where the rest of the series will be released.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was a child. I asked my dad to pick up Star Wars at the library for me, and he brought me Star Trek: The Motion Picture instead. Widely regarded as a weaker film for the franchise, it was still plenty enough to get me hooked, and I devoured most of the episodes and movies made, usually many times over. Today, I co-host the re-watch podcast It’s All Been Trekked Before and still eagerly look forward to any new material from the title. Hence, I was super psyched for last night’s premiere of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Thankfully, it lived up to the hype.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY stars Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) as Commander Michael Burnham, first officer on the U.S.S. Shenzhou. Raised by Sarek of Vulcan (James Frain, Orphan Black) after her family was killed in a Klingon attack, Burnham returns to humankind under the command of Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who helps her find her humanity and emotion. When the Shenzhou runs into a new sect of Klingons trying to unite the 24 houses of the empire, emotional and physical battles erupt.

This spin-off is set in the same familiar universe of most Star Trek (aside from the most recent films, which take place in an alternate timeline), and that is apparent. The ideals and diversity and mission feel the same. Uniforms and ship design and aliens match up with what we’ve seen before. The crew is heroic and dedicated.

What’s different is the complexity. From the stunning designs to new special effects, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY looks cinematic and larger-scale than any other Star Trek television show, and all of the older movies, too. This matches the character development, which is much more central, driving the story. The tale itself is serial, and the pacing a lot slower than any previous part of the franchise. So this is the grown-up, modern, better version of the universe, with clear influence from co-creator Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), who is sadly no longer with the show.

Lest you think that makes it a stark departure from traditional Star Trel, I would argue that it isn’t. Serial storytelling was explored in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, my favorite of the spin-offs. (It’s too early to rank this one.) Voyager and Enterprise, which came after DS9, were less so, but did retain some of the ongoing elements. The more episodes that are made, the more we got into the makeup of the species and characters. And Burnham is sort of echoing Commander Sisko from Deep Space 9 with her tragic backstory and the battle we witness in the first two installments. So STAR TREK: DISCOVERY builds upon what’s come before without going too far off the rails.

That being said, there are some mistakes or stretches in the continuity. For instance, the delta insignia worn by all Starfleet officers is not appropriate to the time, as in the Original Series (set ten years later than the newest incarnation), each starship had a different logo. The uniforms and bridge layout pull from Enterprise more than the Original, even though STAR TREK: DISCOVERY is a lot closer in time to the Original (though it is said that the Shenzou is an older ship). It’s possible, but unlikely, that Burnham and her history with the Klingons wouldn’t have ever been mentioned by Spock, even though she was apparently raised by Spock’s parents when she wasn’t much older than he was. And the Klingons feel pretty different than those in the original, not just in look, but in culture, too.

Some of this could be explained away, and I hope it is. Under the leadership of T’Kuvma (Chris Obi, American Gods) and Voq (actor not revealed, despite getting a character poster), the Klingons are likely to undergo a dramatic shift as a species. If STAR TREK: DISCOVERY is partially about how the Klingons become the Klingons we know, that would be neat. And maybe the Spock stuff will be explored, too. Given how well made this series is, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Besides the Klingons, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY has a lot of other cool alien species. The most prominent non-human is Lt. Saru (Doug Jones, Hellboy), the Kelpien science officer of the Shenzhou. He is biologically prey, which means he isn’t as bold as some other crew members. But in Jones’ hands, he’s also a very interesting personality who I hope will continue to appear.

So here’s where we get spoiler-y. The first episode, which aired on CBS, is only half of the original pilot, ending in a massive cliffhanger. Which is smart if they want to force Star Trek fans to purchase CBS All Access, the network’s way-overpriced streaming service where the rest of the episodes will be released. The second half of the pilot was made available last night, too, and was quite shocking, ending with the deaths of both T’Kuvma and Captain Georgiou, and the destruction of the Shenzou.

This changes the direction of the show entirely, which makes since, given that Yeoh is listed as a ‘special guest star’ and we haven’t even met some of the show’s leads, like Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs, the Harry Potter films) and Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp, Rent). However, what that means is that these two hours are basically Sisko at the Battle of Wolf 359, a small part of the DS9 pilot, elongated and enriched. Burnham, stripped of her rank and sentenced to life in prison, has a very challenging hero’s journey ahead of her.

Burnham is a truly fascinating individual. She is the reverse Spock, trying to become more human and less Vulcan. Clearly, seven years on the Shenzou have worked wonders, as Burnham’s actions in the pilot are extremely emotional, including killing someone she really should have captured out of a sense of revenge. She has now heavily contributed to starting a war, and that will surely weigh heavily on her. Hopefully, we have flashbacks with Georgiou to show her evolution pre-series, the way we see Burnham as a child with Sarek in the initial offerings.

Despite my complaints about the price of CBS All Access, which I say again, is absolutely ridiculous for a single network and not worth it, I will pay it because they’re holding me hostage with my beloved Star Trek. It makes me hate the network more, but I love Star Trek too much not to subscribe. And STAR TREK: DISCOVERY seems to be the fulfillment of the promise Star Trek always held but often didn’t quite live up to. Until now. So how can I wait a year for the home release, which will likely be cheaper than paying for All Access? Ugh.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY releases Sundays at 8:30 ET on CBS All Access.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

ARROW Shoots Mostly Straight for Fifth Time

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

The fifth season of the CW’s Arrow comes with much anticipation for long-time viewers, and it’s now available to own. Beginning shortly after the death of Laurel Lance, fans know we will get to see Oliver tested. We’re not sure if he will try to rebuild a new team or fall back to his bad habit of shutting people out. In these twenty-three episodes, we get into the makeup of the lead character, and see how he has matured in the way he deals with events.

Changes

Oliver (Stephen Amell) has changed over the years. He doesn’t deal with setbacks the same way he used to, showing that growth arc. It was not long ago that Oliver had to be convinced not to be a lone wolf. He has now matured. The Complete Fifth Season brings that to glorious fruition as he adds four new members to his vigilante squad. (Later, four becomes five with the inclusion of Dinah (Juliana Harkavy).) Oliver has to trust these people, let them in. And he can’t take years to get to know them the way he did with Diggle (David Ramsey) and Felicity (Emily Bett Rikards). Almost surprisingly, he does.

That trust doesn’t come without its complications. Each of the four, Curtis (Echo Kellum), Rene (Rick Gonzalez), Evelyn (Madison McLaughlin), and Rory (Joe Dinicol), have their own pasts and demons. Two of them don’t make it through the season with the team. It doesn’t go smoothly for the others, either. There are a lot of added complications with these new characters, as well as subplots for them. They nicely expand the universe without taking away from the core of the show.

Mr. Mayor

What we see of Oliver expands, too, as he now spends his days as mayor of the city. Obviously, it isn’t easy for a superhero to also have such a demanding day job. Arrow doesn’t always handle the balance realistically, at times minimizing the time he spends in the office. But there are certain situations that get very interesting with Oliver’s dual role.

It makes sense to include Thea (Willa Holland) and Quentin (Paul Blackthorne) in this thread. Adding Adrian Chase (Josh Segarra) to the mayor’s side of the story is a good decision, too. Although, ultimately, I wish they hadn’t gone the way the writers did with Chase. Not that I have a problem with what Chase represents, just that I wish it had been someone else.

Tying Up the Past

A big element of Arrow has long been flashbacks to his life during the five years he was missing, just prior to the series’ beginning. These usually end up dragging down the show, and so it’s great to know that The Complete Fifth Season contains the last of them. As fascinating as Anatoly (David Nykl), the main addition to these sequences this year, is, like in past years, Arrow spends too much time on this subplot. By halfway through, one is just waiting for it to end. Unfortunately, the conclusion, which was full of promise since it needed to connect to the pilot, didn’t land all that well.

This is in stark contrast to the excellent ending of the main story. This season cleverly brings back a lot of characters from years past, many who died, and things are tied together satisfactorily. There is real emotional heft in these installments. I’m glad the show will continue, but this definitely feels like the end of a major chapter of Arrow.

Bonus Features

Arrow – The Complete Fifth Season comes with a slew of extras. One featurette focuses on the new team, appropriate and solid, and at about ten minutes, a good length. Another tackles the primary villain from this season, as it should. There is a gag reel and deleted scenes. I usually complain about including last year’s Comic Con panel instead of the most recent one. However, it works here because there are plenty of tidbits that aren’t just about this season.

The final featurette concerns Arrow‘s 100th episode. This also happens to be the show’s contribution to a four-show crossover. In my opinion, this is the weak link in the event because much of it takes place in a fantasy world Oliver and friends are trapped in. This might have been appropriate for such a monumental episode of Arrow. Having to tie it into the crossover story waters it down. The result is something pretty disappointing. It’s easy to see why when you think about all the elements going into it.

Conclusion

In all, though, this is a strong season of Arrow. There are great new characters, a few surprising twists, and a clear evolution of an aging series. Arrow – The Complete Fifth Season is available now.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

RED RUE Rules

Article first published as TV Review: 'Red Rue' on YouTube on Blogcritics.

I recently had the opportunity to review the first half season of Red Rue, a new streaming series from Albertane Elm premiering on YouTube this week. The project is part love story, part trying to prevent the end of the world, with a healthy dose of a mystery that must be solved tossed in.

The story begins when Katie (Laura Spires, Hype) moves in with her college roommate, Justine (Cat McAlpine, Holding Patterns). What Justine doesn’t warn about Katie is that the house is haunted by a ghost named Rue (Colleen Dunne, Don’t Fall Asleep), a woman who died of influenza and a broken heart more than a century ago. And, while Rue is definitely a friendly spirit, some evil Hunters are very close to capturing her and opening the gates of Hell. So it’s safe to say hat Katie has a bit more adjustment to make in her new home than most of us after a move.

The series hinges strongly on the blossoming relationship between Rue and Katie. Unlike most people, Katie can see Rue right away, and Rue can definitely see Katie, judging by the lingering stares the spirit casts on the mortal. Katie, for her part, yammers away in that familiar style of someone who doesn’t know how to deal with her own budding feelings, especially coming right off a break up, and the chemistry between them is electric. Dunne and Spires convey a lot beyond the dialogue, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of them.

Speaking of the dialogue, that’s something Red Rue does very well. While there are some contemporary references that may make it feel dated before long, most of what is said is snappy and authentic. The characters are all very genuine, and they relate to one another well. Rue herself speaks with an older speech pattern, even as her vocabulary matches her present-day friends. This, along with a nice set and production design, really helps the viewer get into the show, all at a higher quality than most web series I’ve seen.

There are a lot of unanswered questions when Red Rue begins, and it would be very easy to get bogged down in explaining things, repeating oneself, or convincing each new character why they need to get involved. It’s refreshing that this series doesn’t do that, providing plausible explanation as to why Katie would be on board so quickly, and how translator Stella (Anna Leeper) comes to join the group a few episodes in. Instead, writer / director Michelle Hanson wisely spends her short running time on setting up the mythology and central conflict piece by piece, with clues dropped early on paying off later.

Given how things fall into place, I recommend not binge-watching Rue. I did with the episodes I had access to, and it made some of the connections hinted at later feel stronger than they probably will be if you watch it twice weekly upon release. There will be plenty of time to go back later and re-watch parts back-to-back, picking up anything you may have missed. I think it would be more enjoyable not to do so with the first viewing.

Making use of its platform, Red Rue is presented with a single camera angle and set, at least from the episodes I’ve seen so far. The explanation is that the bad guys, Hunters Christopher (Stephen Woosley, Dad Bod: By Calvin Klein) and Rob (Andy Woodmansee), are spying on our heroes via their hacked webcam. It does seem odd that the girls don’t take any steps to stop this, especially considering they muse that the Hunters might be doing so early on, so I kind of wish they hadn’t mentioned it at all. But I like the conceit, providing a nice way to do a natural POV format.

The cast is terrific all around. Besides those mentioned above, there is also Hardy (Kyle Jepson, Frat House Massacre), Justine’s friend. All the performers, lead and supporting, are acting every second they’re on screen, something lacking in many a show. Some of the subtle reaction moments are absolutely terrific, the actresses always staying in the moment. This is some top-notch work by this roster, and I would gladly watch any of them in other projects in the future.

In all, I definitely recommend Red Rue without hesitation. It’s going to appeal to lovers of the supernatural and lovers of love alike, with steady pacing, an engaging story, well-done production, and a great theme song by So Long, Stargazer. This is a fine example of what a web series should be.

Red Rue airs new episodes Mondays and Wednesdays at 6 ET beginning this week on YouTube.

Friday, September 22, 2017

THE Just-As-GOOD PLACE

Article first published as THE GOOD PLACE Season 2 Premiere Review on Seat42F.


NBC’s most innovative current sitcom, THE GOOD PLACE, is back for a second season this week. The story picks up right where last year ended, with Michael resetting his world of psychological torture and starting over with his quartet of victims, who discovered they were actually in The Bad Place. Things in the premiere begin slowly, following the lead humans one by one as they re-enter Michael’s new version of hell, with only Eleanor’s confusing clue, hastily stuffed in Janet’s mouth, to guide them back to the truth. But true to form, THE GOOD PLACE doesn’t stop there, barely a pause before it jets off to something else.
What I love best about THE GOOD PLACE, besides the excellent cast, beautiful production design, imaginative spirit, direction, plot twists… OK, so I love a lot about this show. But one of the things that really stands out in the freshman year is that every time viewers think they know what’s going on, the premise takes a sharp turn in another direction, constantly keeping you on your toes. The plot doesn’t move in a straight line, zig zagging all over the place, rarely predictable.
Having watched the first four half-hours of season two, I can happily confirm this trend very much continues. Beginning the experience over again is merely a starting point, not a roadmap for the entire season. There are some very unexpected occurrences, culminating in what the ‘new normal’ becomes in episode four, which looks like it could hold steady for a bit. But the only thing I’m certain of is, that framework probably won’t last very long, either.
That doesn’t mean things are completely unfamiliar in season two. Besides the well-established personalities of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), we now know a lot of rules and elements that make up this world. For instance, Michael (Ted Danson) is the architect, but he answers to mean boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson, Thrilling Adventure Hour), who doesn’t approve of Michael’s experiment. Janet (D’Arcy Carden) is the artificial intelligence assistant to everyone, and is reset every time the participants are. Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) exists in a space between the Good and Bad places. I don’t mention all of these just for fun; they all are part of the series’ fabric, and thus are things that can be used again without needing to slow down and explain them. Meaning the pacing picks up in this second batch, rejuggling familiar elements, while tossing in new ones.
One of the prime new things worth talking about is that the demon denizens of The Good Place are starting to develop personalities. Or, they probably always had them, but we finally get to see them. While we still don’t know ‘Real Eleanor’s (Toya Sircar) name, she is definitely more active in the proceedings than she was. Through her and others, we get more information about how Michael is viewed by his peers and underlings, and it is enlightening. I’m hopeful other recurring players will get more material in the coming weeks, too.
All of these things make for a very enjoyable experience, comfortable, yet still fresh. I don’t know for sure that the writers, led by Michael Schur, know where they’re going. But there are enough elements introduced previously paying off now that I feel there’s at least a pretty good handle on the world and its rules. As to how long this chaos can be kept up, that’s anyone’s guess. But I’m quite happy to have the show back, and bingeing four episodes back-to-back did nothing to lessen my anticipation of the next installment.
THE GOOD PLACE returns with an hour-long premiere Wednesday at 10 ET on NBC.

Monday, September 18, 2017

More BANG Ready For Your Bucks

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Big Bang Theory - The Complete Tenth Season' on Blogcritics.

CBS’s The Big Bang Theory completed a full decade on the air last spring. The 24-episode Complete Tenth Season, now out on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital, brought some changes to the sitcom. Relationships matured and deepened, the family expanded, and scientific advancement came with some challenges. While perhaps not as fresh as it once was, the series does remain entertaining, and this was a pretty good batch.

The biggest changes in The Complete Tenth Season revolved, predictably, around Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Amy (Mayim Bialik). Early on, they move in together. Unsurprisingly, it takes an abnormal event to push such an overdue, big step in their union. And yet, Sheldon handles it a lot more gracefully and openly that he would have even a year or two ago. Which makes their subsequent coitus more genuine. Sheldon will always be the Sheldon we were first introduced to in many ways. More important than these steps are the ways in which we see Amy soften him in all aspects of his life, as well as how he has matured in handling disruption. This is key for a series that’s been on this long.

A little less groundbreaking is how the arrival of Howard (Simon Helberg) and Bernadette’s (Melissa Rauch) baby is dealt with. Yes, the inclusion of Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and Stuart (Kevin Sussman) in the plot make it a little more screwball. In general, though, there isn’t much difference in The Big Bang Theory‘s approach than how other situation comedies have done the same thing previously. The best parts are when we see Bernadette struggle with going back to work and Howard doubt his abilities as a father because of his own upbringing, and I’m glad they didn’t lean into either too melodramatically. Also, tying baby Hallie (Pamela Adlon, Better Things) to Howard’s departed mother is a great move. But I still wish they’d found a more original approach.

Rounding out the ensemble, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) are feeling pretty solid and comfortable this year, especially after their second wedding. Raj slowly gets his love life and independent finances in order. These both show evolution, but like the above, they contribute to The Big Bang Theory‘s leveling out, with less departure from the typical fare in the genre every year. There are some truly funny bits, such as how the pregnancy is revealed to certain characters. But overall, it feels like it might be time to start looking for an end game. Or switch to shorter, more focused seasons like some of the revivals are doing these days.

As in the past, The Big Bang Theory – The Complete Tenth Season, has plenty of great guest stars. Besides the returns of Judd Hirsch, Laurie Metcalfe, Christine Baranski, Keith Carradine, Brian Posehn, Riki Lindhome, and the too-long-gone Brian Thomas Smith, we get Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future), Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy, Married… with Children), and Dean Norris (Breaking Bad). The show stays focused on its leads, as it should, but it has done a good job of filling in other key roles with terrific and appropriate performers, some of whom viewers anxiously await the return of.

As far as extras go, the series brings back the charming #JustAskBBT segment, where cast members answer fans’ questions. There’s a featurette on family, which makes total sense, given the role relations played in several of the stories this year. There’s another on some of the more interesting props, one on the baby, and a humorous gag reel.

The Comic Con panel from 2016 is also included, too late as in most releases. But what’s cool about this one is that it’s the writers and other behind-the-scenes people being interviewed, not the actors, and Rauch serving as a very energetic moderator. That makes it more fun than some of the other panels I’ve seen lately.

The Big Bang Theory – The Complete Tenth Season is on sale now.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

THE ORVILLE Soars

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


There have been rumors of a Galaxy Quest television show for years. I’d love to see that. But for now, the closest we’re going to get is THE ORVILLE, a new sci-fi dramedy coming to FOX. Though not exactly the same sense of humor as the beloved Galaxy Quest movie, THE ORVILLE does take the adventure and wonder of Star Trek, mix it with Seth MacFarlane’s trademark brand of humor, and keep it grounded and dramatic enough to actually build a cohesive story with characters you can invest in. It is no small feat to get such a thing right.
As THE ORVILLE begins, as you likely have already heard, Ed Mercer (series creator Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy) has just been given his first command: the Orville. It’s not top-of-the-line or anything too fancy, but it’s a nice little sleek exploratory starship that will leave Earth and explore the galaxy.
Ed gets to choose one crewman, his best friend Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes, American Dad!), but most of the compliment is already set. And the last addition, which he has no control over nor prior knowledge of, is his ex-wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who will serve as his XO. Kelly cheated on him, and Ed is predictably not eager to have her back.
That in of itself is a humorous concept, but thankfully THE ORVILLE doesn’t go too far into sitcom territory with it. There is tension between the couple, yes, and that drives their interaction. Equal side-by-side seats on the bridge of the ship probably don’t help Ed feel any more in control. But their chemistry, while not entirely new, does seem fresh in the performances, and they seem to be a pair audiences will root to get back together. They could bicker just as effectively in a relationship, and there are clearly still feelings between them. Palicki and MacFarlane are great together.
The diverse crew include a robot, Isaac (Mark Jackson), a member of a single-gender species, Bortus (Peter Macon, Shameless), and a young woman named Alara who is out to prove herself (Halston Sage, Neighbors). It is a solid mix of varied personalities, with several species represented, and while many of the actors are not well-known, they all handle themselves well. The show doesn’t hesitate to explore the differences, and delights in the alien characteristics that humans will not understand, something sometimes minimized in other science-fiction or reserved for ‘special’ episodes.
Lest you worry about cred, Penny Johnson Jerald (Star Trek: Deep Space 9, 24) is the wise Dr. Claire Finn, chief medical officer, and producers and directors also carry over from Star Trek. Toss in some stellar guest stars like Jeffrey Tambor and Victor Garber, and this show has unexpected gravitas. It is far more than just a dumb comedy, and while it could not exist in the Star Trek universe, it also wouldn’t fit in the realm of Family Guy or American Dad! either. THE ORVILLE is its own brand.
The humor comes in the authentic moments. Crewmen talk to one another the way people do now, not as some high-minded advanced society, but as relatable folks. THE ORVILLE stops short of going full-out MacFarlane, and instead drapes the jokes over a serious plot with actual drama and danger. The humor bolsters, rather than distracts, and I would not classify this anywhere near a strict comedy. And Gordon’s introduction is one of the funniest bits.
THE ORVILLE is imaginative, clever, and darn fun to watch. I went straight into the second episode, and will definitely be tuning in weekly. This show, at least in the first two hours, deftly sticks a complicated landing.
THE ORVILLE premieres September 10th on FOX.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

THE FLASH Comes Back Around

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

The Flash – The Complete Third Season has arrived! The show’s junior year begins with Barry Allen having altered time to save his mother’s life. Unfortunately for Barry, that comes with a whole host of unforeseen consequences. Barry seeks to reverse the new timeline, dubbed Flashpoint, but despite his best efforts, things don’t exactly go back to normal. There are many consequences for him to deal with, testing the superhero in new and challenging ways.

I like The Complete Third Season‘s premise a lot. Many shows and movies have dealt with time travel, but few have gotten into the realistic intricacies of it. The fact that Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash (Grant Gustin), changes something doesn’t meant it can easily be undone. In The Flash, time is portrayed as a fragile thing, and while much can be set back to the way it was, there will always be differences that cannot be undone. Barry learns his lesson early in the year not to screw with the past again, though he has to deal with the fallout from his actions for a long time to come.

The character-driven story goes hand-in-hand with the neat science fiction element. The best superheroes aren’t perfect, and learn the hard way that their actions have consequences. Even if they do something with the noblest of intentions, the world doesn’t always let them off the hook. This is a very hard lesson to learn, but an authentic tale to tell. The weight of it gives a new angle to Barry that I enjoyed very much.

Hanging over the whole season is another time-travel related problem: tossed briefly into the future, Barry sees Iris West (Candice Patton), the love of his life, perish at the hands of Savitar, the Big Bad this year. Obviously, Barry wants to change this future, and has a very hard time doing so. This opens up the dichotomy of time also being hard to change, and even after learning a lesson, there may be a desire to repeat the mistake. This complexity, combined with the above, makes for a very pleasing run of episodes.

There are many other highlights in the twenty-three episode season. I loved the musical crossover episode with Supergirl, “Duet,” which made good use of the strong singing talents of both casts. Patton did an excellent job portraying an Iris that could accept her fate. Cisco’s (Carlos Valdes) flirty relationship with new frenemy Gypsy (Jessica Camacho, Sleepy Hollow) is fun, as is the inclusion of H.G., the third major character played by Tom Cavanagh in three seasons. Adding Julian Albert (Tom Felton, the Harry Potter films) to the cast nicely shook up the dynamic. A visit to Gorilla City made for a cool way to play up the different worlds The Flash deals with. And it is very hard not to be delighted by Caitlin’s turn as Killer Frost (Danielle Panabaker), evil as she may be.

The Complete Third Season does expose a glaring problem with setting multiple television series in the same universe, though. Savitar is a truly terrible villain, and the possibility of losing Iris is just about the worst thing Barry can imagine. Yet, Barry doesn’t call upon the Green Arrow, Supergirl, or any of his other super-powered friends for help (save a one-episode appearance by Snart (Wentworth Miller)). Given how serious the situation is and how desperate he becomes, Barry should be making use of any avenue available to him, so it doesn’t make sense that he doesn’t recruit his pals from the other shows. The mid-season crossover event was OK, but there really should be more integration in a story with such intense stakes.

The Flash – The Complete Third Season comes with a wealth of extras, including TEN featurettes! Unfortunately, one of them is the 2016 Comic-Con panel for the show, and as covered in other recent reviews, sticking it on the last disc of the set isn’t very helpful; we really need next year’s panel, or, at minimum, put it on the first disc to view before the episodes. But the other featurettes, covering a variety of topics, are good, and there are also deleted scenes and a gag reel.

The Flash – The Complete Third Season is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Monday, September 4, 2017

GOTHAM - The Complete Third Season

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

Despite the failures of the big screen DC efforts of the past decade, there are some really good shows representing that comic company on the small screen. Gotham is a DC show that sometimes baffles me because it has some really cool elements and can be quite gripping at times, while other arcs are lackluster and plodding. Three years in, it seems like the series is pulling itself together, as I would argue that Gotham – The Complete Third Season has many of the best episodes of the show, and certainly the strongest run when taken all together due to its complexity, the cast becoming more comfortable in their roles, and writers’ ability to still surprise.

Gotham‘s third season begins with two major developments: Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is no longer an officer with the Gotham City Police Department, and Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) are best friends. The first of those is important because Gordon’s role with the GCPD is a vital part of his identity, and dictates the daily activities of the most central character of the ensemble. The latter makes a difference because those are two very formidable villains, Nygma more so as the season goes on and he becomes The Riddler, so they are in a position to cause much trouble indeed when their forces are combined.

These elements also echo a greater trend. The subtitle for the first past of the season is Mad City, and Gotham certainly falls under that descriptor. Penguin is elected mayor early on. The mysterious Court of Owls is seen to be pulling the strings of both sides of the law for their own purposes. Law enforcement is in chaos, unable to contend with the bad guys who seem to keep multiplying. With the metropolitan area under such pressure and conflict, what can be done to right the ship?

Well, while the villains are gaining the upper hand, there are a number of signs that things will come around, starting with the subtitle for the end of the season, Heroes Rise. Gordon, as we know he must, does go back to the GCPD. Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) inches ever closer to becoming Batman, something that seems poised to happen in season four. Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) plays a larger role in these episodes. That tells me that, as bad as things are, there is help on its way.

Gotham is a show with an extremely large cast and a lot of subplots intertwining at once, so it would be impossible to get into everything that happens in season three in this review, even just looking at the lead characters. However, there are a few things worth mentioning about The Complete Third Season. Barbara’s (Erin Richards) growth, furthering her independence, is quite pleasing. This season brings the return of Jerome (Cameron Monaghan), Hugo Strange (BD Wong), and Carmine Falcone (John Doman), who all seem to have plenty of potential left in them. Villain Jervis Tetch (Benedict Samuel, The Walking Dead) would work better as a guest character, rather than artificially keeping him around all year. New, grown-up Ivy (Maggie Geha, Ted 2) is pretty cool, once they started to develop her character in the back half of the season. Chelsea Spack’s reprise is interesting, until she is wasted without resolution. The way Gordon and Lee (Morena Baccarin) are kept apart feels forced. Alexander Siddig (Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Deep Space 9) is pretty awesome, so I’m glad to see him show up in a neat way. It’s a mixed bag, but I’d say it’s more good than bad.

Gotham – The Complete Third Season has a pretty good batch of bonus features. There’s a featurette on the Court of Owls, and another on the new villains. Star Ben McKenzie makes his directorial debut this season, so there’s material on that. Deleted scenes are scattered across the four-disc set. The 2016 Comic Con panel is pretty useless after the season has been viewed, and given it’s on the last disc, that’s likely to be when people see it. (This is not a complaint specific to Gotham, as other recent releases have done the same thing, which does not make it better.) In summary, a decent lineup.

Gotham – The Complete Third Season is available now on blu-ray, DVD, and digital download.

Monday, August 28, 2017

SUPERGIRL Returns

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

Supergirl, formerly of CBS, moved to the CW network this past year, joining fellow DC properties Arrow, The Flash, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. This did result in some changes, though most of the core cast and tone stayed the same. If you haven’t had the change to see what’s different and what’s not, you’ll now have that opportunity, as Supergirl – The Complete Second Season is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

The biggest change you’ll see in The Complete Second Season over the first is a more serial nature. CBS is known for doing stand-alone procedurals. Supergirl departed from that formula more than most shows on the network, but more often than not, there was a villain-of-the-week for the Girl of Steel to face. Season two was much more ongoing, with plots not resolved for many episodes, and forcing viewers not to miss a chapter or risk being lost.

Another change is that Supergirl was able to participate in crossover events with the other DC shows. This series does take place on a different Earth than the others, but the producers found a way to make it work. In season one, Barry Allen / The Flash (Grant Gustin) made a one-episode appearance in Supergirl, but that’s about as far as things got. Although Supergirl didn’t have a full “Invasion!” installment like the others this year, the hero herself did take part in the other episodes, and she wasn’t the only character that was allowed to come over. There was also a musical hour that combined the casts of Supergirl and The Flash, and Supergirl was given a device to allow her to travel back and forth again in the future, a convenient plot twist. So lots more synergy.

Those are all positives, but there was one big negative to the change in venues. Because Supergirl moved its production to Canada, where the other CW shows film to save on costs, cast member Calista Flockhart departed as a lead. She did appear in the first two episodes of the season, and then returned for the final two. For awhile, the in between was so good that I forgot to miss her. But the moment she returned, it was like a gut punch, as no one replaces her presence, and the series would be better with her more regularly in it.

Which is not to say there weren’t good parts of season; remember, I just said I forgot to miss her. I loved new character Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath, Merlin) as a friend for Kara (Melissa Benoist). Snapper Carr (Ian Gomez, Cougar Town) was a great presence. Desperate Housewives Brenda Strong and Teri Hatcher (the latter also a former Lois Lane) made absolutely wonderful villains, and no one can complain about Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman) as President. And Supergirl greatly expanded its roster of aliens, introducing viewers to many different species and worlds as it presented allegory and metaphors on race relations and the failings of our current president and the hatred he spews (sometimes a tad too heavily, but mostly fine).

There was also a lot more romance in season two of Supergirl, though thankfully it never took over the course of the show and was handled well. J’onn (David Harewood) got into a very complex relationship with fellow Martian M’gann (Sharon Leal, Dreamgirls) in a Nazi-like story (her type of Martian committed genocide against his). Winn (Jeremy Jordan) was played by an alien named Lyra (Tamzin Merchant, Salem), until he wasn’t. Alex (Chyler Leigh) came out of the closet and into the arms of Maggie (Floriana Lima, The Family). In fact, just about everyone but James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) got some love, which is fine, since he was pretty much the only one getting any in season one.

The one complaint some fans have is that they didn’t like the introduction of Mon-El (Chris Wood, The Vampire Diaries) as a partner for Kara. I actually don’t mind Mon-El himself, finding him an unobtrusive presence, sometimes bordering on sweet. I do think the show used him mainly the same way a female love interest might be used for a male superhero in the past, often staying at home and out of danger. But that’s OK, overdue in 2017.

My only real complaint is that Supergirl did go a little overboard with proving that the title character was better and stronger than Superman (Tyler Hoechlin, Teen Wolf). I think there was a way to do it without making the legendary hero look like an inept buffoon, and unfortunately, this show went too far tearing him down to make her look good. It’s Mon-El’s job to be Kara’s inferior, not Superman’s.
And I’m just going to say it, I didn’t care for James as The Guardian. I found the subplot boring.
But overall, a strong season, well worth the watch, and an improvement over the first year. Now if only they could convince Flockhart to make it up to Vancouver a little more often…

As far as extras, Supergirl – The Complete Second Season does pretty well. There are five featurettes, four of them good. (I hate the obligatory wrestling episode in this genre, and didn’t need a featurette on it.) There was audio commentary on one episode, which I would like more of. There were also some very short bits that I wish we could hit ‘Play All’ on. But again, overall, I found most of the material enjoyable and informative.

Check out Supergirl – The Complete Second Season on blu-ray, DVD, and digital now.