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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Glutton For THE PUNISHER?

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


If you’d like to watch a Marvel television show, but are concerned that the mythology has become too dense with all the Netflix series, ABC programs, and films already out, THE PUNISHER is for you. Released on Netflix, and featuring characters and settings introduced in other series on the streaming service, it also stands completely on its own. It can be enjoyed without prior knowledge, which is a bit refreshing, a self-contained story that is intense and enticing.
As THE PUNISHER begins, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead) has completed his revenge mission. He has killed everyone involved with the death of his wife and children, his sole mission in life these past years. Six months later, he still hasn’t reengaged with the world, and avenging their tragedies hasn’t brought him peace. What will he do now?
Well, The Punisher as a character has a very clear focus: take down people who have done wrong, often in brutal, merciless ways. Even if his own personal journey is complete (something that may or may not actually be true), his talents can be put to use for other causes. And while Frank isn’t a team player that’s going to go sign up with a group of, say, Defenders, nor will he be embraced by law enforcement because of his methods. So solo vigilantism seems to be his best choice, and he certainly has opportunity to do so.
Like other Marvel shows on Netflix, THE PUNISHER begins slowly enough. We get Frank’s story first and foremost, but because there are thirteen hours to fill, we are introduced to a few other characters. David Liberman, a.k.a. Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Girls), has a similar story to Castle’s, though his wife (Jamie Ray Newman, Bates Motel) and children are still alive. Still, he’d like Frank’s help. At the same time, Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah, Indian Summers) has been called back from overseas as she sticks her nose in where it isn’t wanted. Her mission, assisted by black sheep agent Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson, The Knick), is sure to bring her into Frank’s orbit soon.
The Punisher is a tough character to do on screen because he likes to wall himself off so much. Sure, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, True Blood) and Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) may have made inroads that he tolerates, but Frank doesn’t surround himself with friends or family. And that’s a problem on a long-running story, forcing a very narrow focus. Only two episodes in myself, I don’t know if THE PUNISHER can sustain its momentum. But from what I’ve seen, I think it certainly has added enough to stay engaging as a show without ruining the core of who Frank Castle is.
I can’t say this is my favorite Marvel Netflix series so far; Jessica Jones and Luke Cage both had some strong takes on the world with important messages. But what I like about THE PUNISHER is that it truly is a character study on a unique individual, one far more violent than most of us would ever consider being, but who also is someone to root for, at least partially. With Bernthal doing a terrific job as the taciturn non-hero, I do greatly enjoy seeing the personality built in a complex, fully-formed way.
I like THE PUNISHER. I’m too early in the run to make any sweeping judgments on the series as a whole, but the first two hours show a lot of promise, and I definitely will commit to watching more. It’s already better than some of the other Netflix Marvel shows. And while I’m the type who like a bunch of shows tied together, I also dig that THE PUNISHER provides an alternate option, without abandoning the shared world altogether.
THE PUNISHER season one is available on Netflix now.

Friday, November 24, 2017

RUNAWAYs

Article first published as TV Review: RUNAWAYS at Seat42F.


The latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is RUNAWAYS, premiering this week on Hulu. Based on the Brian K. Vaughn (Saga) comic of the same name, and developed by Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl, Chuck), the show follows a group of high schoolers who, a long time ago, used to be friends. A tragic loss a year ago of one of the gang has split them apart. When they reunite one evening, witnessing their parents doing unspeakable evil brings them back together. But I’m definitely getting ahead of myself.

RUNAWAYS lacks any immediate connections to the rest of the MCU, film or television series. It is the first of several new series with young protagonists, and the first for the streaming service Hulu. Without name dropping any famous heroes, though, or perhaps because of it, RUNAWAYS carves out its own time and place. Even if a few of the adults act like villainous guest stars in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Like this review, RUNAWAYS takes its sweet time getting started. Over the first hour (actually, about fifty-three minutes), we are introduced to our six core teens: Alex (Rhenzy Feliz, Casual), Nico (Lyrica Okano, The Affair), Chase (Gregg Sulkin, Faking It), Karolina (Virginia Gardner, The Goldbergs), and sisters-by-adoption Molly (Allegra Acosta, 100 Things to Do Before High School) and Gert (Ariela Barer, Yo Gabba Gabba!). These peeps will have powers, but the show holds those close to its vest, instead just giving us peeks at each’s starting personality. Which we know will soon be changing because of circumstances.

At the same time, as Savage and Schwartz did in Gossip Girl, the action is balanced with the ten parents of these six teens. Although the grown-ups don’t get as much development, initially among the actors portraying them are familiar faces like James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Ever Carradine (The Handmaid’s Tale), Annie Wersching (24), Kevin Weisman (Alias), Angel Parker (Trial & Error), Ryan Sands (The Wire), and Brigid Brannagh (Army Wives). So there’s some cred here, especially in genre TV.

The thing is, though, with sixteen leads, not one of the characters is shown in any depth in the pilot. Nor is the plot really moved forward all that much, with the action not getting moving until the very end of episode one. Perhaps that is why Hulu is making three episodes available right away, before doling out the rest weekly. RUNAWAYS certainly needs more than a single installment to hook potential viewers.

I feel like I’m being a bit vague because so is this series. The deceased member of the group, Amy, is Nico’s sister, but that’s as deep as we get into her in the first hour. We know her passing has affected the kids, and to a lesser extent, or so it seems, their parents. But other than that, we don’t know much about the mystery. We don’t know how she died or why that has created a wedge among friends. We don’t know how this past event will play into the current story.

Honestly, the best scene in episode one is the one in which the parents meet shortly before their ceremony. In it, we see all their various personalities and how they clash. One wonders how the group came together at all, but clearly there is a shared, powerful purpose, a key element for groups of superheroes and supervillains in any decent series. If RUNAWAYS had more of this, I think it would be more compelling.

As it is, the show isn’t bad, just slow, and seemingly unnecessarily so. I applaud the writers and producers for not rushing into the central thread too quickly and making us learn about the characters afterwards, which has unfortunately been done too many times lately. But if we’re given fifty minutes to get to know our players first, delaying the jump into the premise comic book fans are already familiar with, let’s get to know them, which I don’t feel is done very effectively. Many of the earlier scenes don’t seem like they’ll pay off later.

Still, Marvel has a pretty solid track record, and this series looks to be well-made and well-cast, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for now. Even if episodes two and three don’t quite get things moving as rapidly as I’d like following the plodding pilot.

RUNAWAYS’ first three episodes are available on Hulu this Tuesday, with subsequent installments to follow weekly.

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 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.