Wednesday, June 20, 2018

MARVEL'S CLOAK & DAGGER

Article first published as TV Review: CLOAK & DAGGER on Seat42F.


Marvel’s newest drama, airing now on Freeform, is CLOAK & DAGGER. Even if you’re familiar with the comic book version (or, more accurately, versions) of the characters, there are some differences in this incarnation, as is customary with each new Marvel venture. The central dynamic is intact, though, as two individuals develop powers that associate with light and dark. When they combine them, they are more powerful. Just don’t ask how.
As the television show begins, Tandy Bowen is a young girl interested in ballet. Riding with her father one night, their vehicle goes off a bridge. He perishes, but she is hit with a powerful energy wave. At the same time, young Tyrone Johnson watches his brother gunned down by police for a crime he didn’t commit. Diving into the water after his sibling’s body, Tyrone is hit with the same energy wave at the same time.
Jump to years later, Tandy (now played by Olivia Holt, I Didn’t Do It) is a teenage criminal. Living in an abandoned church because she doesn’t get along with her drug-addicted mother, Tandy, with the help of her boyfriend, robs rich people. Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph, The Night Of) seems to have things a bit better, going to a private school and playing basketball. But he’s haunted by his loss and obsessed with revenge against the cop who got away with the murder. When Tandy and Tyrone bump into one another, though, their powers are activated and things begin to change.
One would expect CLOAK & DAGGER’s protagonists to be adolescents, given the target audience and peer programming on Freeform, so that choice makes sense. The show is definitely geared towards that demographic, with romance being soap opera-ed as many a teen drama does, and high school junk crowding into daily activities. Superpowers and some actual issues, drugs and violence, deepen the concept a bit. But at the end of the day, the program embraces more tropes of the genre than it rejects.
This isn’t as much of a detriment as the pacing, though. After a really exciting pilot, the next two hours (I screened both parts of the premiere and this week’s upcoming episode) plod along very slowly, keeping the characters apart as much as possible. Even after they interact, their connection and powers aren’t clear, and CLOAK & DAGGER is more interested in exploring backstory and personal relationships than fleshing them out.
Normally, I would applaud a series who cares about the personalities more than the problems the characters face. Yet, in a show such as this, the premise needs to come along with it, and it doesn’t. Many more questions are posed than answered, but rather than presenting intriguing mysteries that will be solved, the plot seems to gloss over key elements. Presumably some of these things will have to come out as the series goes on, but viewers will be left scratching their heads about the rules of the world they’re watching and unsure as to why they’re being kept in the dark about them. Also, there’s no clear bad guy or shady organization to focus on.
Add to that the CLOAK & DAGGER is created by Joe Pokaski, one of the man responsible for the meandering and disappointing NBC series Heroes, which suffered and never recovered from some of the same shortfalls, and it’s hard to have faith that it will be worth watching.
Both Joseph and Holt seem talented and charming, right for the roles. Their mothers are played by Gloria Reuben (ER) and Andrea Roth (Rescue Me) respectively, and both actresses add a great deal to the story. However, I don’t think even the magnetism of these four will be enough to save a show that is close to being good, but not quite hitting the mark,
MARVEL’S CLOAK & DAGGER airs Thursdays on Freeform.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

CONDOR Takes Flight

Article first published as TV Review: CONDOR on Seat42F.


I’m not a big fan of military or spy thrillers. I like some OK, especially if they incorporate comedy or psychological aspects into them, but in general, they’re not really my cup of tea. So when I saw just a bit about CONDOR, a new drama on the Audience Network for AT&T and DirecTV subscribers, I can’t say I was all that enticed by it

As I sat down to watch the show, it started out as a series that backed up my negative impression. There’s a murder in the desert, followed by the introduction of a strong, somewhat silent, lonely, muscular leading man. It begins to look like a bunch of other shows that did fine during their runs, but weren’t all that gripping, in my opinion.

But as the first hour unfolded, slowly CONDOR began to get under my skin. Joe Turner (Max Irons, The White Queen), despite looking like a boring leading man and being frustratingly unforthcoming with a girl he’s interested in, has layers. He struggles with morality and the part he plays in a deadly program based on predictive models, not evidence. He’s at odds with the CIA, who use his work. While parts of him are very formulaic, there’s also a charisma about him that is compelling.

Then the supporting cast took shape. Kristoffer Polaha (Life Unexpected) as Joe’s friend Sam Barber? Yes, please! Kristen Hager (Being Human) as Sam’s feisty wife, Mae? Even better. Brendan Fraser (The Mummy), who hasn’t been seen in a long time, as a bad guy? All right, I’m on board. Bob Balaban (Capote, The Monuments Men) and William Hurt (Humans, Avengers: Infinity War)? Now we’ve got some gravitas going on.

At last, the story begins picking up. I’m not saying it should have jumped into the action sooner; no, CONDOR does a terrific job of slowly unspooling things you need to know before it gets intense. Early parts of the episode are interesting, but much more so as the later scenes unfold. By the time we reach the climax of the pilot, I’m already very into it, and as the closing credits roll, I’m disappointed to find I don’t have a second episode.

What is it about CONDOR that makes it worth watching? Well, it certainly poses some big questions that are worth asking and evade easy answers. If you suspected, without a shred of proof, that someone would hurt lots of people, should you take them out? Are a few mistakes of this nature worth it when balanced against the tens of thousands or more you might save when you get the right person? This is definitely relevant today, as it has been throughout human history, and will be for the foreseeable future. Only now, we actually have to look at such a question in more than a hypothetical manner.

It also just feels authentic. From the beautiful DC setting, to the dynamics of the characters, to the subtlety present in almost every scene, there’s a real, fully-formed element to the production. It’s well acted, well written, and the pacing is perfect. I really didn’t find much to nitpick, other than where it falls into stereotypes, which thankfully it doesn’t do too often.

I don’t want to gush too much. It hasn’t cracked my Top 10 list of must-see shows, and it’s hard to imagine how CONDOR could sustain and repeat the shock value of its pilot. But there are some very strong pieces making up the whole, and it’s an excellent first episode, so I would recommend watching it.

CONDOR airs Wednesday evenings on Audience Network, and the pilot can currently be viewed for free on the network’s website.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Going to DIETLAND

Article first published as TV Review: DIETLAND on Seat42F.
 

Erin Darke as Leeta, Julianna Margulies as Kitty, Ricardo Davila as Eladio, Will Seefried as Ben, Robin Weigert as Verena, Tramell Tillman as Steven, Rowena King as Cheryl, Adam Rothenberg as Dominic, Joy Nash as Plum Kettle, Tamara Tunie as Julia – Dietland _ Season 1, Gallery – Photo Credit: Erik Madigan Heck/AMC

AMC’s news drama, DIETLAND, feels like a bit of a departure for the network. While they have done shows that border on the fantastical, the tone of this one is silly, and yet deeply dark. It revolves around several different women, including some involved in a cult-like conspiracy, as they maneuver the modern world and current political climate post-#MeToo. There’s also a mystery unfolding in which men who have been cruel to women keep winding up missing and often dead.

Joy Nash (Stallions de Amor) stars as Plum Kettle, a ghost writer who handles the Ask the Editor questions for Daisy Chain magazine, a lifestyle advice rag. Underpaid, underused, and underappreciated, Plum is weighed down with the depressing material of others’ letters, while struggling with her body size and lack of romantic life. Plum is intelligent, an excellent baker (a skill she tries to ignore), and determined to improve herself, having no patience for the ‘fat is beautiful’ set. She is also ripe to picked up by a group of women trying to fight back against the current system.

This conspiratorial group, hidden within the walls of Daisy Chain, is led by sweet-yet-tyrannical Julia (Tamara Tunie, Law & Order: SVU). Working right behind the back of the editor herself, Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife), Julia uses Leeta (Erin Darke, Good Girls Revolt) to gather intel on targets, which she then might send to Verena (Robin Weigert, Big Little Lies), the daughter of the founder of an extreme weigh loss program built on lies. Plum becomes their latest target, though it’s not immediately clear why exactly (although multiple explanations are presented to viewers), or how many others might have been singled out before her. What is shown is that the operation seems professional and wide-reaching.

The mystery of the shadowy group, mixed with an Ugly Betty-like office, makes for an interesting setting. However, Plum often works from home, so other scenes take place at her residence, her weight loss support group, a doctor’s office, and a cafĂ© run by her best friend, Steven (Tramell Tillman). It’s a wide-spread number of locations for a sprawling narrative, which, although entangled within itself, feels very far spread.

I mentioned the tone being silly earlier, and yes, there’s a layer of odd comedy over the whole thing. Plum begins hallucinating. It’s unclear what exactly causes the hallucinations. Could it be stress? Withdrawal from a medication? Maybe there’s something in the makeup Julia gives her? These visions match the crazy theme song of the show, but while they are unfolding in-story, they aren’t explained.

There’s also a possible love interest / danger for Plum in Detective Dominic O’Shea (Adam Rothenberg, Ripper Street), who may want to date Plum, but may just be using her to look into a hack at Daisy Chain. With Dominic and reporter Cheryl Crane-Murphy (Rowena King, Shut Eye) among the leads, there’s definitely more dominos to fall as secrets come out.

What DIETLAND has going for it, besides being created by the talented Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UnREAL), is a timely message and a lot of mystery. There are compelling characters, a fleshed-out world, a seemingly intricately plotted story, and a delightful tone.

What works against it is that it is very dense and a lot of questions go unanswered, likely for the foreseeable future. Some of the best television mysterious unfold a clue at a time, whereas DIETLAND just drops you into a puzzle that reveals pieces all around, without context. It can be overwhelming and messy, and that will likely make it difficult to access for some viewers.

I, however, like it, and plan to watch more. DIETLAND airs Mondays on AMC.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Meet PATRICK MELROSE

Article first published as TV Review: PATRICK MELROSE on Seat42F.


Showtime has adapted the five PATRICK MELROSE novels by Edward St. Aubyn into a five-episode miniseries currently airing. Each book gets an hour to unfold, with a different chapter in the life of the titular character presented. Plagued by childhood trauma, addicted to drugs to help cope with his past, Patrick is anything but healthy. But at least he realizes that he’s in a negative cycle and would like to break free. Will he be able to?
Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Doctor Strange) is excellent as Patrick. The actor has some experience playing eccentric, substance-abusing men, and only gets better with each iteration. He captures the subtlety of the emotional journey, and somehow keeps Patrick somewhat sympathetic, even in his darkest moments. This is important when the central protagonist is not very likeable, as Patrick isn’t from the moment we meet him. It’s a case study of a broken man, and Cumberbatch exceeds expectations.
Despite Cumberbatch’s work, though, PATRICK MELROSE is still hard to watch. It is hard to see someone you care about, as viewers are apt to care for Patrick, wrestle with their demons. It’s difficult to see a battle being fought and lost. It’s even more wrenching when one knows Patrick’s problems stem from things that are not his fault, and you desperately want him to be able to claw his way out of the hole, even knowing there is nothing you can do to help. It’s easy to identify with the supportive characters in the series. Except when it isn’t because of the circumstances Patrick lives in.
It’s interesting that PATRICK MELROSE reverses the order of the first two books in the series. Part two, “Never Mind,” is an origin story of sorts, taking place when Patrick is just a boy (played by newcomer Sebastian Maltz). With Cumberbatch’s version in the throes of withdrawal, flashing back to his childhood, the installment mainly shows us Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Atypical) and David Melrose (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), and how they fail as parents at every opportunity. It provides much-needed insight, mostly missing from the first part, “Bad News.” The omission means it takes awhile to really root for Patrick. And while the boy isn’t immediately recognizable as the adult, given a pattern of behavior merely glimpsed in this one weekend, it’s clear how he could eventually become so.
There are questions raised here on nature versus nurture. How much of who Patrick turned out to be is the fault of Eleanor and David? How much is he responsible for his own actions, now that he is out of their home and his own man? At some point, personal responsibility must kick in, but the man is operating at such a deficit that it’s hard to fault him for much of what he does, especially when we only see him hurting himself, not putting anyone else in danger. Not yet, anyway.
It’s sort of a problem that Patrick is rich. Without money, he could not afford to behave as he does. He’d be penniless, on the streets, begging for his next fix. Arguably, a poor Patrick would be a more important and common story. Instead, this Patrick lives relatively free of consequences. This gives him the space and opportunity to figure himself out, a luxury most people would not have. But it’s also possible such a tale wouldn’t play out under other circumstances, with an earlier, more tragic ending. Many viewers may have to confront a bias against such a person to try to appreciate the story.
The first hour of PATRICK MELROSE is hard to get through without having the understanding of the second, though it makes sense to get Cumberbatch out in front at the start of the miniseries. Still, even as the backstory is revealed, and amid terrific performances, the miniseries is a hard one to sit through. Patrick isn’t a character most people will relate to, and as sympathetic as his upbringing makes him, his wealth is almost used as an excuse, at least by the character. Bad behavior unchecked is also depressing. Whether it will be worth it in the end remains to be seen.
PATRICK MELROSE is currently airing Saturday nights on Showtime.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Is It SAFE?

Article first published as TV Review: SAFE on Seat42F.


NETFLIX recently added a French series to their drama lineup called SAFE. While it is technically a production of France, the series is set in Britain, the characters speak English, and Netflix is carrying it globally. It also stars a familiar face to the United States, Michael C. Hall, so it is plenty accessible to an American audience.
SAFE feels like a typical British crime show. It is eight episodes long, with an ongoing story confined to a single season. (I assume; I’ve only watched six of the eight hours so far, but that’s the typical pattern for such a show.) The parent-looking-for-child plot is a common one in recent memory. The characters are more complex and the story more compelling than an American procedural, but it’s still a relatively formulaic structure that matches other similar shows.
What is a bit unique about SAFE is how many dark secrets are harbored by all the residents of the gated community in which the series is set. It reminds me a bit of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, except because of the narrowed point of view (the series mainly following two characters), the audience is less clued in until the twists reveal themselves to one of the protagonists. A good number of these twists fit together in surprising ways. It seems a well-thought-out series, with defined characters who serve specific purpose, tight in its execution.
The storytelling is mostly linear, but there are occasional flashbacks to give us pieces of the puzzle. These are handled well, natural to the way the investigation is unfolding, and don’t feel forced or gimmicky. Dividing each episode into “Day One,” “Day Two,” and so forth is actually more misleading, as the installments aren’t confined to a day, even in the present-day story line. The inclusion of those words at the start is unnecessary and awkward.
Many reviews of SAFE have complained about Hall’s atrocious British accent, so I won’t go there. I didn’t find it distracting, and Hall is an excellent dramatic actor. His character of Tom Delaney, a man who is obsessed with investigating his daughter’s disappearance despite warnings from the police and his girlfriend not to, is different enough from his Dexter and Six Feet Under characters to feel fresh for him. Even if the role is a bit stock, Hall does it very well.
Besides Hall, the second most familiar face is Amanda Abbington, who played Mary in the BBC series Sherlock. She is the second lead in SAFE, a cop who is estranged from her husband and sleeping with Tom. She is also the one doing the official investigation into not just Tom’s daughter’s disappearance, but a murder and a pedophilia charge, as well. Abbington is terrific, and it’s nice to see her in a bigger role after her previous turn.
The rest of the cast, while not as recognizable, is also strong. There do not seem to be any weak links among the actors. In fact, many of them leave me wanting more screen time, though in a quick series like this, that won’t happen. At least not unless it comes back for a second season.
Overall, I like SAFE. It plays it a little safe (hehe) by sticking to a structure that has been tried and found true many times across the pond. But it also has its own little touches and performances that make it a high quality offering in the genre. If you’re looking for something ground-breaking, this isn’t it. But if you just want a good mystery to pass the time, SAFE is one of the better available candidates.
SAFE’s entire first season is available now on Netflix.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

SWEET and BITTER

Article first published as TV Review: SWEETBITTER on Seat42F.


One of Starz’s newest half hour dramas is SWEETBITTER, based on the Stephanie Danler novel of the same name. In it, Tess slips away from her home to move to New York City with barely any money or possessions to her name. Finding a cheap flat, selling her car for rent money, she desperately looks for work until she lands at one of the best restaurants in the city as a waitress. But will she survive the demanding work and low pay in the service industry to find her dreams realized? And what exactly are those dreams?
SWEETBITTER doesn’t make clear what Tess (Ella Purnell, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) wants or what she’s doing in the Big Apple in the first episode. Instead, it seems the audience is just expected to understand her passion, shared by so many who have come before her. Tess’s journey is so much a trope that, until one stops to really consider it, it’s easy to miss the most basic, all-important details about the protagonist are entirely missing. We’re not even really told or shown where she’s from. This is just the stereotypical young person fleeing to the big city plot, a classic coming of age in a fresh, exciting world for a fish out of water, that has been done so often.
That being said, SWEETBITTER isn’t terrible. The cast is filled with fine performers like Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex), Paul Sparks (House of Cards), Tom Sturridge (On the Road), and Evan Jonigkeit (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Sparks, in particular, stands out, always great at playing the observer in a busy situation. Here, he’s Howard, the boss in the restaurant, but he still listens more than he talks, exuding quiet authority. It’s an ensemble cast that works, and that’s why one may forget about the glaring omissions. For a little while, anyway.
What is more concerning is the question, does SWEETBITTER know where it wants to go? The entire first episode is just Tess looking for employment, meeting all the other characters, and working through her first shift in the restaurant. The majority of the running time is spent on the last item of that list. So while we can see the type of person she is in a particular situation, we’re not sure what she hopes to accomplish or why she came, which means it isn’t clear where the story is heading. If the writers know this, great, but eventually they’re going to have to start showing it.
Instead, the series seems more concerned with the journey, which is a valid choice, if there were only a little bit better established structure around it. Tess takes moments in the chaos to savor an exotic food or talk to an old lady, and that’s fine. Those are interesting moments. But they would be all the more poignant if we understood the context or what they mean to her, rather than just taking at face value that these things are helping her to grow. How? And towards what?
SWEETBITTER seems to be all style and tone, without the depth of substance to support it. It’s enjoyable, but superficial. Given that it is based on a novel, presumably there’s a story set to emerge. But what works in the written world, a slow set up, may not be as satisfying in the television industry, where the end is less defined and there’s less certainty of a payoff, even a less than satisfying one. Hopefully, the next few installments will fill in the gaps, essential if the series wants to attract much of an audience.
SWEETBITTER airs Sundays on Starz.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Dyin' La VIDA Loca

Article first published as TV Review: VIDA on Seat42F.


Starz premiered a pair of two new half hour shows this week. While traditionally half hour programs are comedies, Starz has broken that mold more than once, and VIDA, one of the newbies, is certainly a drama. When the titular character dies, unseen by viewers, sisters Emma (Mishel Prada, Fear the Walking Dead: Passage) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera, Siempre Tuya Acapulco) return home for the funeral and to take care of her affairs. But secrets come out and circumstances conspire to keep the two tied to the Eastside of Los Angeles, the heavily Mexican-American neighborhood they grew up in.

Prada and Barrera are excellent as the two siblings at the center of VIDA. Their interactions reveal gobs of backstory. While much of their rocky relationship seems familiar and relatable, they are fully formed individuals, not stock characters. This allows us to both quickly understand the dynamic between them, but also not to give away a predictable story. The best scenes of the pilot are any time the two of them are talking to one another. Thankfully the premise sets this up to be a big part of the series.

Their first obstacle, and probably the biggest they face, is that their mother’s property is to be split three ways, not two. The reveal that Vida’s roommate, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui, East Los High), is actually her widow is far from a surprise, obvious from the moment the character is introduced. But despite the stereotype the character visually appears to be, she quickly reveals herself to be a more rounded personality, sympathetic and warm. Eddy is much more than a side player, and her existence plays into a lot of possibilities moving forward. Hopefully, VIDA will give her as much prominence as the other two.

More of a trope is Johnny (Carlos Miranda, The Bling Ring), Lyn’s ex who is engaged to the mother of his soon-to-be-born child, but who of course falls right back into sexual relations with Lyn. This is a very overdone type, and not one I’ve ever encountered in real life. He is there to add tension, but unless they develop him beyond the superficial, and they may, there’s not much point in having him around beyond how he informs on Lyn’s character.

The wild card is Johnny’s sister, Mari (Chelsea Rendon, Bright), who is a rebel with some causes, seemingly. She is fighting back against the gentrification of the neighborhood, though she is doing so in such an extreme way that it’s clear she won’t succeed. Not that one would expect any single person to be able to stop a trend like this, but she is going about it in probably the least productive way. After episode one, it’s not clear exactly how she will figure into the sisters’ tale, though given their desire to sell the bar and apartment building their mother owned, there will likely be a bit of overlap.

I liked VIDA, but I didn’t love it. The characters and world are very specific, in a good way, with a well-defined universe to exist in. There is representation in the cast and story that don’t often show up on television, and the social issues raised are timely and important. There pacing is fine, and the direction is interesting. It feels like an indie drama film about a family, stretched out a bit.

Yet, it lacked a strong hook. I’m curious about what will happen next, but there’s not a character that stands out or a part that really draws focus to latch onto. The evenness of the quality is generally a good thing as a show goes on, but the pilot needs something special to really make a broader audience take notice. I can’t say I really saw that in the first episode of VIDA. Though, at only six episodes in the first season, and the apparent quality of the production, it’s probably worth giving it a chance.

VIDA airs Sundays on Starz.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

THE HANDMAID'S TALE Continues

Article first published as TV Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE Season 2 on Seat42F.


Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE is back for a second season this week. The streaming service released two episodes last Wednesday, with additional installments spooling out weekly over the coming months. The tale of women in a strongly religious, male-dominated society continues, and we immediately get to see different corners of the world than previously shown. Viewers finally witness what life is like at the dreaded colonies first-hand, as well as get a glimpse at an underground railroad-type situation for ladies fleeing their forced fate. Somehow, none of the shock value has worn off, as things get darker still.

June Osborne, a.k.a. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), is left in a precarious position last season, having led a peaceful protest against Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) to save Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) life. Aunt Lydia promised consequences, and they unfold right at the start of episode one. While the actual threat is obviously just that, merely a threat, as fertile women are too precious a resource in this reality to waste, it’s easy to see how the victims of it would be terrified, believing it real. They’ve been treated so poorly and terrorized so much, they can be forgiven for not thinking the situation through logically.

June herself, however, is spared as soon as her pregnancy becomes known. This gets into a psychological game, as June is immune from some, but not all punishment, and she is still vulnerable to being shamed in front of the others. Or is she? We know June has a strong fortitude, and her battle of wills with Aunt Lydia, much of it non-verbal, is gripping in this initial hour. June has additional scenes throughout both installments where Moss shines with physical performance and facial expression.

Episode two divides its time between some former newspaper offices, where horrible acts were carried out, and one of the colonies, where Emily (Alexis Bledel) has been sent for hard labor. I’m not sure what I pictured the colonies as being like, but the bleak, desolate, radiation-filled landscape is not exactly it. This feels even sadder, more isolated, than I imagined, and life is extremely hard there. A subplot involving a new arrival at the colony (Marisa Tomei, The Big Short) is moving and shocking, but also feels a little bit satisfying, which is needed every now and then in the series.

One thing that is different about THE HANDMAID’S TALE from other shows is that it saves all its credits for the end, so you’ll never know which characters will be showing up. This works very well in this particular program, as it allows a larger element of surprise. The end credits also only list the stars of that particular hour, so Alexis Bledel’s name isn’t in the premiere, leaving you to wonder how much she’ll be involved in the season. Similarly, Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes aren’t in the second hour, so their names aren’t present. Will they be back? Who knows? There is a freedom for the story to go anywhere without being beholden to past places and characters when even the central cast isn’t listed in this manner.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE continues its customary flashbacks in both parts. Normally, this is a conceit in a television show I would grow tired of pretty quickly. And there are times in these initial offerings where it’s easy to become impatient, wanting to get back to the main timeline. However, Emily’s bit in episode two is particularly moving, and both episodes help fill in exactly how this oppressive regime was able to take power, thankfully shown indirectly. It’s helpful for understanding the situation, and also as a warning not to allow current political forces to move in the same direction. It’s uncomfortably easy to imagine how it might.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE remains powerful, timely, and intensely compelling. Watch it exclusively on Hulu.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

LOST IN SPACE Again

Article first published as TV Review: LOST IN SPACE on Seat42F.


Amid a flurry of reboots and revivals, Netflix rolled out a brand-new version of LOST IN SPACE this week. A sort of sci-fi Swiss Family Robinson, the current series, like the original, finds the Robinsons crash-landing on an alien world. With no way off and only so many supplies, they will have to rely on one another and adapt to the environment. Of course, they have the help of Robbie the Robot and must watch out for the nefarious Dr. Smith.

The new LOST IN SPACE looks fantastic. That shouldn’t be surprising, as recent television series have been able to make good on special effects, even with a small screen budget. The world looks fantastical, the technology is cool, and Robbie himself is fully CGI-ed. The sequences with the spaceship are stunning, and I had no problem believing the setting as it is shown.

The story is, as it should be, focused on family dynamics. In this iteration, flashbacks are used to show us the Robinsons were far from perfectly happy prior to events. Father John (Toby Stephens, Black Sails), often away on military missions, was well on the way to divorce with his brilliant wife, Maureen (Molly Parker, House of Cards), who was tired of keeping the home running without him. Elder daughter Judy (Taylor Russell, Falling Skies) was totally devoted to the clan, even willing to give up escaping a dying Earth if her little brother, Will (Maxwell Jenkins, Sense8), couldn’t go, too. But that left middle child Penny (Mina Sundwall, Maggie’s Plan) unsure of her own place.

This is more nuanced and interesting than the original. LOST IN SPACE lacks the cheese it was previously known for, and instead attempts a more ambitious, modern narrative. This is extended to the supporting players, including a faux Dr. Smith (Parker Posey, A Mighty Wind) whose intentions are kept hidden from the audience and other characters. And by keeping it focused on the family, viewers only get things outside the scope of their experience in tidbits, leaving a lot of questions to be answered in small spurts over a longer period of time.

Most of these adjustments are good and needed, but where it feels a little weird is in Robbie the Robot himself. By the end of the first hour, we’ve met Robbie, but there are some pretty big questions surrounding him that make him hard to trust. This adds some uncertainty and threat, and yet it’s hard to believe any LOST IN SPACE would not make it turn out all right. Given Robbie’s pop-culture status, it seems odd to treat him this way. It also makes his uttering of the iconic catchphrase feel forced and jarringly out of place, especially as he doesn’t say much before or after.

It seems unlikely that any member of the Robinson clan will die even though they are surrounded by things that are trying to kill them. That doesn’t gel all that well with the complex serial story. (Individual episodes have some procedural plot, but there is definitely an important ongoing element.) Audiences of this kind of show are used to there being some sort of cost or sacrifice over time, and LOST IN SPACE doesn’t really make room for that in sticking with the family framework.

The result of all this is something pleasant and entertaining, but lacking the teeth needed to make it a fully realized and compelling story. It’s pretty good television, not great television. Which would have been fine ten years ago, but may leave it struggling to find a passionate fan base in this day and age.

LOST IN SPACE’s ten episode first season is available now on Netflix.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

KILLING EVE Slays

Article first published as TV Review: KILLING EVE on Seat42F.



WARNING: Some relatively light spoilers contained within.

BBC America’s newest drama, premiering tonight, is KILLING EVE. Based on Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novellas, the series is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between a serial killer and a super smart intelligence agent. While that does sound a bit done-to-death as a premise, the lead performers, their individual personalities, and the dynamic between them, makes this one highly compelling and totally worth watching. With some great supporting characters, a few stereotypes tossed on their heads, and beautiful settings throughout Europe, it is one I can definitely recommend.

KILLING EVE takes its time getting started. When we first meet Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh, Grey’s Anatomy), she is working as an assistant at MI-5. Although she is smart and obsessed with female serial killers, she doesn’t have much authority to investigate. When she raises solid, valid points to her superiors, they are quickly shot down. This obviously can’t be where she operates from for the course of the series, but it’s not until episode two where she really settles down into what will be her base of operations, in the role she needs to front this story.

On the other hand, the hired assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer, Doctor Foster), is pretty much fully formed from the beginning. Traipsing across the continent towards whatever target she is sent to next, she enjoys her job and is very good at it. Villanelle isn’t the master of her destiny, but she acts like she is, rebelling when those who would direct her do things she doesn’t agree with. She is probably insane, definitely psychopathic, and also highly intelligent. I wouldn’t want her attention on me.

The two women do cross paths directly early on, which is appreciated, rather than keeping them apart for a very long time, as one might expect the series to do. The scene is magnetic, and communicates much of what the rest of the season will surely be, layered with delicious, beautiful tension. While they really don’t start their personal game until the very end of the second hour, this meeting helps drive through all the set up, hooking viewers early on, rather than making them wait until the plot is fully formed.

Comer and Oh are fantastic, and while they steal focus in every scene, they have plenty of help to build up the world. Kim Bodnia (The Bridge) manages to convey danger and threat while appearing not at all dangerous and threatening. David Haig (Penny Dreadful) plays the epitome of mentor, knowing what buttons to push to properly guide and motivate Eve, while also seeming like an every man, in a good way. Fiona Shaw (the Harry Potter films), always excellent, is terrifically understated here. Owen McDonnell (An Klondike) plays the supportive husband as more than just a trope, someone who both truly understands and doesn’t at all get his wife, Eve. Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Barry) is just plain fun at this point. Together, they effectively help sell the show.

KILLING EVE is on BBC America, and I’d say it shares some DNA with one of the network’s best former series, Orphan Black. It has a similar dark tone, with a slightly offbeat story and a solid ensemble. Once again, it’s a magnetic female lead, two this time, that will be the number one reason to watch, while giving them a fleshed-out framework to be supported by. Other than that it once more involves law enforcement and a criminal, a conceit extremely overused on modern television, this is a really great series, and definitely one I want to continue watching. Thankfully, it’s already been renewed for a second season.

KILLING EVE premieres tonight on BBC America.