Amazon Contextual Product Ads

Saturday, January 20, 2018

BLACK LIGHTNING Strikes The CW

Article first published as TV Review: BLACK LIGHTNING on Seat42F.


If you’re a big fan of the CW’s Arrowverse, a collection of television shows based on DC Comics properties that connect with one another, you may have mixed feelings about new series BLACK LIGHTNING. Although it joins the network with like source material, it is tonally quite different than the other series, and for now at least, it isn’t connected into the bigger picture. But if you just like superhero shows, this one is a fine addition to the genre.
BLACK LIGHTNING centers on Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams, Hart of Dixie), a metahuman who used to fight crime as the titular hero. Nine years ago, urged by his now ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Jefferson hung up the mantle and focused on making a difference in his troubled community as a high school principal. Now, however, gang violence is on the rise. After his younger daughter, Jennifer (China Anne McCalin, House of Payne), gets pulled into the mess, Jefferson decides to go back to his previous vigilantism. This is much to the delight of Jefferson’s dear friend and helper, tailor Gambi (James Remar, Dexter), who has an upgraded suit ready to go for him.
The central gang are known as the 100, headed by Jefferson’s former arch-nemesis, Tobias Whale (Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III, Harry’s Law). Whale is a lead character, which indicates something hinted at in the pilot, “The Resurrection” : BLACK LIGHTNING will not a villain-of-the-week procedural. Instead, it is about the environment of one city, with past playing into present, and the situation is more complex that can be boiled down to a sound bite or trailer.
We see this most prominently in Jefferson’s friend, William Henderson (Damon Gupton, Criminal Minds). William is a detective on the force who thinks law enforcement should handle the situation. But clearly, the cops aren’t doing enough, as the 100 operate relatively openly. Even Jefferson has been complicit in their activities, working out a truce to keep them out of his school. So as BLACK LIGHTNING jumps back into the fray, the balance will be upset, which will likely give both good guys and bad reasons for concern.
This is also very much a family drama. Jefferson wants nothing more than to get back with Lynn. While Lynn pressured Jefferson to give up the crime fighting, when their children are put at risk, she doesn’t raise objection when he does what he has to to bring them home safe. Jennifer is rebellious, but seems to have a good heart. Older daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams, Twin Peaks), the more obedient and politically active young adult, will be involved in multiple aspects of her father’s life, revealed in a twist at the end of the hour that comic fans will see coming. So there’s a lot going on here.
There will be inevitable comparisons of BLACK LIGHTNING with Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, especially as this series focuses on the larger neighborhood and the past relationships of the characters, making for a similar premise. BLACK LIGHTNING suffers by comparison, not taking its time as much, nor going as deep. But it is a solid series on a non-cable network, which, because of easy access, has the possibility of reaching a different audience. And the lead characters are separate enough in makeup, having some very significant differences, so there’s certainly room for both on the air at the same time. Thankfully, the CW DC shows all go for something a bit different from one another and their competition.
While I love the world building, I think it is smart not to immediately connect BLACK LIGHTNING to the other Arrowverse properties because it is more grounded, more serious than its fellows However, I do hope someday to see the worlds collide, as it’s a cruel tease to fans to have the crossovers so close to reality and not seem them to fruition. If it happens, though, I do hope care is taken to keep Jefferson true to the soul of his own series, and not sanitize him down just to involve him in the larger group.
BLACK LIGHTNING airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on the CW.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dreaming ELECTRIC DREAMS

Article first published as TV Review: ELECTRIC DREAMS on Seat42F.


Amazon has joined the sci-fi anthology trend with PHILLIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS, which premiered yesterday. Each installment of the ten-episode season is based on a different novel or short story by the prolific author. The writers and directors are given wide latitude to adapt the source material as they see fit. A strong roster of actors rotate through the various parts, which have different running times, but are generally between 40 and 50 minutes, so about the length of an hour-long drama sans commercials.

I viewed the first two installments in preparation for this review. “Real Life” finds a future cop named Sarah (Anna Paquin, True Blood) dealing with the aftermath of a massacre. Her wife, Katie (Rachelle Lefevre, Under the Dome), suggests a VR ‘vacation’ to live out another life that her own mind makes up. Sarah accepts, and finds herself in the past from her perspective (roughly our present) as George (Terrence Howard, Empire). George recently, tragically, lost his wife, Katie (also Lefevre), and has invented a VR headset to escape into. But what quickly becomes confusing to Sarah/George as she/he goes back and forth is, which is the real world and which is the dream?

Episode two, “Autofac,” is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where the surviving humans are being killed off by pollution from the still-running factories. Emily (Juno Temple, Vinyl) and her friends concoct a plan to contact the artificial intelligence running the factory, which sends a customer service bot (Janelle Monae, Moonlight) to meet with them. Will Emily’s plan to shut down the machines work? Or has the Autofac out-thought her every move?

Both of these are entertaining, if dark, installments. They have high-quality concepts that mess with one’s mind and have one guessing the nature of reality. Some of the twists you may see coming, but certainly not all of them. Written by Ronald D. Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica) and Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim) respectively, they make these ideas understandable, couched in relatable characters who are also complex. They also look visually stunning, especially the future parts of “Real Life,” which features flying cars and giant, electronic advertisements.

And yet, ELECTRIC DREAMS is no Black Mirror. It’s hard to put my finger on why exactly it falls short by comparison to today’s defining sci-fi anthology series, which recently released a fourth season on Netflix. Both are similar in makeup and the talent behind them. But ELECTRIC DREAMS just seems a little less cohesive, a little more quickly done, and little cheaper, for lack of a better word.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be held up against one another, as similar as they may be, because there are important differences, and with short seasons, there are room for both. It’s a pleasure to get so much quality science fiction in this era, and no one need choose between the two. Though, if you had to, I think it’s a pretty clear choice in Black Mirror’s favor.

Perhaps because the writers are reigned in a bit by having to go off of Dick’s works, as brilliant as they are, it gives them a little less room be imaginative. That may not be the real issue; I’m really having trouble figuring out what the difference is. That’s just the only thing I can think of that would change the approach in how these stories are told.

Still, it’s not like ELECTRIC DREAMS is bad. I am interested enough to see what other concepts are explored. I just don’t think it will be giving its peer a run for it’s money at the top of the heap.

PHILLIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS is available now on Amazon, free to Prime members.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Rescue 9-1-1

Article first published as TV Review: 9-1-1 on Seat42F.


Before watching, one can be forgiven for dismissing the new FOX series, 9-1-1, as a typical procedural. After all, it stars firemen, police women, and EMTs, and the people they help don’t carry over from week to week. But there is a lot more to it than that, even if it’s hard to define exactly what the quality is that it exudes. Let’s try to break it down, shall we?
First, there’re the brains behind 9-1-1: Ryan Murphy, Brad Fulchuk, and Tim Minear. These guys are known for a variety of high-quality cable shows in recent years, most notably American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Feud. Given those credits, it’s hard to believe they would deliver anything at all close to a run-of-the-mill, case-of-the-week series. And they do not.
The next clue that this will be better than usual are the actors who signed up. Angela Bassett (American Horror Story, Olympus Has Fallen) is Athena Grant, the main police person we see in the cast. Peter Krause (Parenthood) is Bobby Nash, the fire captain. Kenneth Choi (Sons of Anarchy, Last Man on Earth), Aisha Hinds (Underground, Dollhouse), and Oliver Stark (Into the Badlands) all play characters who work for Bobby. Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, Nashville) is a 9-1-1 operator named Abby Clark serving as go-between for all of these people, making it a rounded series. While it’s true that none of them have spotless resumes, to have so many great performers in one series says something.
The premise itself does feel a bit formulaic when described. In the pilot alone, the characters respond to several calls for help, and deal with the issues. One of the ensemble gets in trouble at work for acting inappropriately, one is a recovering alcoholic, and Athena is dealing with marital issues with husband Michael (Rockmond Dunbar, Prison Break). None of these things sound like they belong to a new, promising show.
However, there is something more to 9-1-1 that transcends the formula. It’s an ineffable element that is hard to define completely. The best way I can describe it is that there is an urgency, a pacing and tone, that belongs on a high-quality cable show, and feels very out of place on a broadcast network. No scene comes across as cheesy, everything is done with sincerity, and when paired with the performing talent, it rises above the sum of its parts.
The primary thing I can say is that numerous bits of the pilot moved me deep in my gut. I welled up, but not in the way This Is Us makes me. I experienced adrenaline rushes, but not as I do when watching 24. I was scared, but not like a bad slasher flick evokes. I really felt the emotions the characters were feeling, and I have to say, that is quite a feat to do in an hour procedural, let alone multiple times. Maybe it was the mood I was in, but having just reviewed a terrible show right before it, I don’t think so.
Some will dismiss this assertion and find it ridiculous. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I’ve already seen some negative reviews of 9-1-1. But I loathe crime procedurals and watch far too much TV to think I haven’t become desensitized. What I can tell you is that this one feels different. This one makes me eager to watch more. It might be the best show FOX has aired in years, and I don’t think that’s making a questionable boast. This is what a procedural should be, the best of its genre.
9-1-1 airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on FOX.

Friday, January 5, 2018

GROWN-ISH Immature

Article first published as TV Review: GROWN-ISH on Seat42F.


GROWN-ISH, a spin-off of the hit ABC sitcom Black-ish, premieres this week on Freeform. Centering around Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) as she goes off to college, the series seeks to show a unique, yet familiar, point of view in the way that Black-ish does, albeit for a different demographic. It also looks to continue to be closely connected to the mother show.

Besides Zoey, who fans of Black-ish are already very familiar with, we are quickly introduced to the rest of the ensemble. There’s Nomi (Emily Arlook, Shitty Boyfriends), a closeted bisexual. Aaron (Trevor Jackson, American Crime) is super woke. Vivek (Jordan Buhrat) is far too obsessed with wealth. Luca (Luka Sabbat) is very fashionable. Sky and Jazz (R&B duo Chloe x Halle) aren’t as perfect as they pretend to be. It’s a more diverse, modern Breakfast Club, which Grown-ish goes to great pains to point out.

Many pilots go through meeting the various leads in hokey ways, bringing the main characters together in a single half hour through less than realistic means. Grown-ish sort of avoids that cliché by introducing Zoey to a new group of friends all at once, who happen to be in the same class as her, which makes sense.

However, Grown-ish still seems to feel the need to toss in the hokey circumstances. It details how each student ends up in a less-than-ideal midnight marketing class through zany sequences that prevent them from getting to the registrar in time. Thus, while avoiding the awkward setup initially, through flashback, it falls back into that familiar trap.

This is far from the only thing Grown-ish does wrong. The pacing is constantly interrupted by extended freeze frames, often with hashtags attached. The narration provided by Zoey is overacted and cheesy. Including fellow Black-ish character Charlie Telphy (Deon Cole) is a huge stretch that feels inauthentic. Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live, Suburgatory) once again shows up as a goofy, out-of-touch authority figure; I love Parnell, but enough with this type for him, or characters on TV in general. A lot of the plot feels stilted and as predictable as it is uninteresting.

There are promising bits, though. The pilot has an important lesson to teach involving fellow student Ana (Francia Raisa, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), and it eventually does get around to it. It may be slightly preachy, but it’s something kids should see. There is a well-defined point-of-view from not just Zoey, but the other characters, too. The basic premise is relatable and has legs for at least a little while. Some plot twists keep things interesting. The backgrounds of some of the characters aren’t nearly as sanitized as one would expect from Freeform, the show being OK with flaunting illegality to serve realism.

I also like that Grown-ish seems determined to stay connected to Black-ish, keeping the world together. A brief cameo from Andrew (Anthony Anderson) promises more to come, which makes sense for a father-daughter relationship, especially when the college is geographically close to their home. Shahidi is supposedly still going to be recurring on the original. And Cole is apparently doing double-duty, starring in both shows at once.

But overall, I did not find the Grown-ish pilot very watchable. Sure, there are some good elements, and if they are developed further, focusing on those rather than other bits, there could be a decent show here. But the essential structure itself just doesn’t feel very well done, and some choices to inject off-tone humor distract from the cohesiveness of other threads. It might be moderately successful on the Freeform network, but I can’t see it really hitting a broad audience, or even bringing along much of the Black-ish following.

Grown-ish airs this Wednesday, January 3rd, on Freeform.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Wear THE CROWN Again

Article first published as TV Review: THE CROWN Season 2 on Seat42F.


Netflix’s THE CROWN has returned for a second season. The series follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the latest batch of episodes focuses on the mid-1950s into the 1960s. This will be the last season with the original cast, as the producers have said they will be switching performers every two seasons (which cover roughly twenty years of time). In general, season two seems to have mostly maintained the good quality of season one.

Picking up near where last year left off, things have gotten more complicated for Elizabeth (Claire Foy) in both the personal and professional realms. Concerning the latter, she no longer has Winston Churchil (John Lithgow) to rely on. Difficult as he could be, the new prime minister, Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), doesn’t have the same wisdom or competence. This almost immediately puts Elizabeth in a complicated place as tensions erupt in Egypt.

At the same time, Elizabeth fears her husband, Philip (Matt Smith), may be cheating on her. This is not helped at all by his louse of an assistant, Mike (Daniel Ings). Their relationship has been rocky ever since she was made queen, but this concern is new. In the first hour of season two alone, we see Elizabeth and Philip at their highest and their lowest points, as they continue to try to figure out how her official role fits into their marriage.

While I like seeing the contrast, I am going to take a moment to complain about the opening scene of season two, which takes place five months after the rest of the hour. It has become a far-too-common crutch for television shows to do a flash forward to try to hook the viewers before jumping back to the more ‘mundane’ parts of the story. It’s especially bad here because I feel the narrative would be far more powerful if we saw Elizabeth start on a high note and watched things fall apart, rather than knowing with certainty (for those not super familiar with her history) where it’s going before it takes a turn.

But that is my only real gripe about what I’ve seen so far of season two. Yes, there’s a bit of a hole without Lithgow’s constant presence. However, at this point viewers should be suitably invested in Elizabeth, Philip, and Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) enough that the story remains compelling. With terrific performances and wonderful sets, props, and costumes, it’s still a very impressive production.

I am most intrigued by what role Dickie, also known as Lord Mountbatten (Greg Wise), may play in this season. The first year found him often an antagonist, though not a particularly diabolical one, while the premiere of season two already casts him in a more positive light. Complex characters like Dickie, and ones who aren’t as famous as Elizabeth and Churchill, provide a good hook to the drama.

There is a fair amount of speculation as to how accurate THE CROWN is. While the major sweeps of plot can be fact-checked, this royal family is notoriously private, and it’s hard to know for sure if, for example, Philip really did cheat on Elizabeth. I feel THE CROWN handles this delicately, though, hinting when it isn’t sure, and leaving enough open to interpretation to avoid going too far off the rails, while still preserving the drama.

I very much enjoyed THE CROWN’s first season. While I’m not far into year two yet, I can tell I am going to enjoy this run, too. It’s a feat to bring history to life so vividly and interestingly, especially when the story revolves around characters who might not scream drama themselves. The raw, layered portrait painted manages to make for a fascinating series.

THE CROWN season two is available now on Netflix.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

KNIGHTFALLs Heavily

Article first published as TV Review: KNIGHTFALL on Seat42F.


ALERT: This article contains spoilers from the KNIGHTFALL pilot. It does not spoil anything beyond episode one.

History channel has a new drama called KNIGHTFALL. Following the Knights Templar in the 14th century, we see the titular group trying to recover the Holy Grail, which they lose when fleeing their stronghold. The action quickly picks up fifteen years after that event in Paris, in the final days of the Knights’ existence. What will they accomplish before they disappear from history, and will they recover their most holy of artifacts?

KNIGHTFALL reminds me a lot of Vikings, a sister series on the network. It focuses a lot of violence and brutality. There are slow-motion fight scenes with plenty of blood punctuated throughout the first hour, and presumably, each hour after. The political drama is secondary, though there is also focus on sex and personal relationships. Characters don’t age as much as they should. In those aspects, KNIGHTFALL tries to build upon Vikings’ success.

Another thing KNIGHTFALL has in common with Vikings is that it is set during an era and concerning a people whom very little is known about. There are rumors and myths mixed with fact, and a lot of gaps exist in the history books. This allows the show to take much creative license without worry of offending anyone or being challenged too much by those who study the era. Though, in my opinion, it does tarnish the authenticity of the network’s name.

KNIGHTFALL does not have a very recognizable cast, a rarity in a television show today, though not necessarily a bad thing. Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey) is the lead, Landry, and perhaps the most well-known face in the pilot. Landry has just been put in charge of the Knights as KNIGHTFALL gets under way, a strange decision since the previous leader didn’t exactly agree with much of what Landry urged him to do. But he is a typical Hero, so there’s no doubt he can guide the group through whatever is coming their way.

Of course, given that KNIGHTFALL is airing in this particular age, the Hero must be flawed, too. We soon find out that Landry has a lover, a big no-no for members of the group. Worse, his sex partner is none other than Queen Joan (Olivia Ross, War & Peace), whose husband, King Philip (Ed Stoppard, Upstairs Downstairs), trusts Landry. (This isn’t, by far, the only glaring mistake Philip makes. He is not a wise monarch.) So we have the added, forced drama implicit in such a triangle.

It’s decisions like these that keep KNIGHTFALL down. It chooses to follow worn-out plots and open easy doors to drama, rather than trying to build something special. It may well satisfy the audience History is going for, but it tends to take some of the weaker parts of Vikings and ignore the better ones, at least in the pilot (the only episode I’ve seen). This is not the recipe for a ground-breaking show, but it’s fine if you just want popcorn entertainment.

I will say, KNIGHTFALL looks pretty good. I don’t know how accurate it is, and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a Game of Thrones in sweeping vistas. But it’s pretty enough, foreign and dated, and the costumes are pretty cool. This will lend it some legitimacy to the casual viewer, and also means if the writers do find their groove later on, some of the ingredients are already in place for a superior recipe.

KNIGHTFALL isn’t terrible, it just isn’t great, and in this day and age, that’s a dangerous thing to be if it wants any critical attention or to compete for viewers outside of a narrow demographic. Which doesn’t mean it won’t do well if it finds the right audience.

KNIGHTFALL airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on History.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

THE MAN FROM EARTH Comes Home

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Man From Earth: Special Edition' on Blogcritics.

Ten years ago, The Man From Earth was released to the world. Not in theatres; the low-budget, indie film went straight to DVD. But with an excellent cast and cred for the writer, the movie went on to critical acclaim. It scored nominations, awards, and topped the list of Best Films in its genre. It was also, unfortunately, heavily pirated. Now, with an impending sequel, the original gets a remastered Special Edition release.

The Story

The story is a great thought experiment. Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith, CSI: Miami) is packing up to leave town unexpectedly. A group of his colleagues insist on having a going-away party. When he slips out, they follow him and demand an explanation for his attempted disappearance. John tells them he’s actually a 14,000-year-old caveman who moves along every ten years before people notice that he doesn’t age. Of course, no one believes him. But the more they try to poke holes in his story, while he can’t prove what he’s saying is true, they fail to disprove it, either.

The Man From Earth plays very much like a play. Almost all the action is on one set, taking place in a single day. The ensemble by and large all stay on camera for the duration, making it a dialogue-heavy conversation piece. There isn’t any action, per se, just an intense examination of the claim and the ramifications of such a thing, exploring both the practical and the historical. Given that the characters are college professors, the conversation is high-brow and intelligent, covering a wide variety of angles.

Sci-Fi Cred

This is about what one might expect from writer Jerome Bixby, who literally finished this story on his death bed. Jerome is best known for “It’s a Good Life,” a short story that was turned into a seminal episode of The Twilight Zone, and for writing multiple episodes of the original 1960s Star Trek series, most notably “Mirror, Mirror.” (Another Star Trek episode he wrote, “Requiem for Methuselah,” has parallels to this tale.)

The ensemble cast also has plenty of Star Trek cred in it. Among them are John Billingsley (a lead in Star Trek: Enterprise), Tony Todd (guest star in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and Star Trek: Voyager), and Richard Riehle (guest star in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise). Rounding out the cast are Ellen Crawford (ER), Annika Peterson (Tanner Hall), Alexis Thorpe (Days of Our Lives), and William Katt (Carrie). While not a highly recognizable troupe, these are all working actors who do a good job.

Ten Years Later

The Man From Earth holds up very well as a story. The plot is engrossing, the actors are natural, and there are enough surprises to make it worth it to pay attention. While it doesn’t answer every question that could be posed, it covers a lot of ground, and Bixby did a great job trying to anticipate what viewers would ask. I’m glad it’s getting a re-release to bring more attention to it.

But despite the expense spent on upgrading the film to HD (which it was not filmed in), I’m not sure the job was good enough to justify it. Sure, the original quality is soft and a bit blurry, but the new version is harsh and grainy. Watching the side-by-side comparison in the Blu-ray special features, I personally appreciated the original better. I’m not saying The Man From Earth couldn’t be made to look higher-quality, but I don’t think this release does it.

Extras

There are a wealth of bonus features on the Blu-ray. We get trailers for both the original movie and the upcoming sequel. There are two audio commentaries to choose from. There’s a very entertaining, very short film called “Contagion.” A few featurettes are interesting.

I am loathe to complain about a behind-the-scenes feature, as most are too short for my taste, but the one here is actually too long. Perhaps it would be better split into chunks, as it runs roughly the same length as the film. But I’m not sure that would help much, as there are a lot of unnecessary conversation in it. It’s cool to hear most of the cast, Bixby’s son, a producer, and director Richard Schenkman talk about the unique filming process and the piracy issues. However, there’s repetition and tangents that make it drag on. So for once, I have to say this one could use some editing down.

Conclusion

This is a great film, and I’m very glad to get to see it. It feels indie and low-budget, but that might be a plus for this particular story. The extras, despite my minor complaint that the main one could use some editing down, are plenty and mostly enjoyable. I recommend Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth, available now.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Blu-ray Review: 'The Vampire Diaries - The Complete Series'

Article first published as "Blu-ray Review: 'The Vampire Diaries - The Complete Series" on Blogcritics.

The CW, once a struggling also-ran broadcast channel, though still lower than its peers in the ratings, has established itself pretty firmly as a network this past decade or so. One of the series instrumental in building that brand was The Vampire Diaries. Throughout its eight years, it mixed soapy teen angst with a supernatural fun ride. These are the two primary genres that the CW has become known for. This melding of story is not unusual right now in pop culture, but rarely is it done as well as it is here. You can see what I mean as The Vampire Diaries – The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Love Triangle

The Vampire Diaries began as a love triangle between two brothers and a girl. Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) was the ‘good’ guy and the obvious choice. Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) was the brooding bad boy. The Salvatores were vampires, so of course they’d done horrible, murderous things. But Stefan was sorry for them, while Damon seemed completely unapologetic. Elena Gilbert’s (Nina Dobrev) choice was clear, right?

Of course not. As the series went on, layers of complexities were added to all three that muddy the waters. Sometimes it was predictable, the show firmly playing to tropes and familiar conceits. But other times, it found its own unique footing, and had some surprises. Over the course of eight years, the relationships between all three were explored in-depth, and romance was merely one facet of a messy grouping.

Fleshing Out the World

The Vampire Diaries wasn’t just about three people, though. Magic, witches, doppelgangers, family and local history, and werewolves were just some of the elements added as the program went on. Dobrev also played the role of Katherine Pierce, a vampire the Salvatore brothers had history with. Among the main cast members were Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham), whom found power within herself, Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino), who became a furry beast, and Alaric Saltzman (Matthew Davis), a teacher and historian.

Some of the characters seemed to be a stereotype, but went through major growth arcs. For instance, Caroline Forbes (Candice King) was just the pretty, popular girl at first. Then she hooked up with the wrong guy and became much more interesting. Matt Donovan (Zach Reorig) was the safe, nice guy who stayed away from the supernatural for the longest time, but eventually found his place in the crazy. Ancient, ‘original’ vampires like Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) seemed very mysterious at first, but eventually were fleshed out and went over to their own spin-off.

So The Vampire Diaries may have seemed relatively familiar in makeup at the start, but with the longevity of the series, it had the freedom to go quite a bit further, and it did.

The Blu-ray Release

All eight seasons are packaged in this latest set, on shelves just in time for the holidays. Inside the outer shell, a tasteful design featuring most of the show’s longest-serving leads, there are separate sets with the artwork used when first marketing each season, though the cases are uniform. The appearance is pleasing and looks like it was just put together.

Start opening them up, though, and it’s clear that the older releases were just boxed together. For example, season one contains an insert for The Secret Circle ‘Thursdays this fall.’ That was a short-lived series from many years ago. That in of itself isn’t much of an annoyance, but the fact that only two of the eight seasons contain codes for digital copies is. There are a plethora of bonus features, the same ones previously available, seemingly nothing new added for the incarnation.

The Verdict

The Vampire Diaries was an excellent show, this is a good looking set, and there’s a lot here. The episodes alone will keep you busy for months. Add the extra features, and you’ve got an extensive collection. The disappointing thing is that they didn’t include digital copies for all the seasons. And there is nothing new to make this set worth it if you already own most of the seasons. I do recommend getting The Vampire Diaries. But I only recommend The Complete Series if whatever seasons you don’t already own price at more than this package. Hopefully, one day we’ll get a more retrospective set; this one is just to complete your collection of episodes.

The Vampire DiariesThe Complete Series is available now.

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.