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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Star Trek: Discovery - Is It Worthy?

Article first published as 'Star Trek: Discovery' - Is It Worthy? on Blogcritics.

I have been a Star Trek fan almost as long as I can remember. When I was very young, I asked my dad to pick up Star Wars for me from the library. He brought me Star Trek: The Motion Picture instead, and I was hooked.

This past fall and winter brought the first season of the latest Star Trek television series, Star Trek: Discovery. Disco, as fans are already calling it, is set in the prime universe (a.k.a. where all Star Trek has taken place except the most recent three films). It takes place ten years before the original series, and about two years after the first pilot, “The Cage.” Now, with the fifteen-episode first season complete, it seems an opportune time to ask, is this the triumphant return of Star Trek on the small screen?

The following contains major spoilers from throughout the first season, including the finale.

Idealism and Morality

The most obvious way Disco matches up to its predecessors is keeping the spirit of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, the military and political organization portrayed in the franchise, alive. Despite the darkness of war that pervades this run, our central crew is committed to the right ideals. While Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) seemed to stray early on; the revelation that he was Mirror Universe Lorca the whole time made his actions make sense. In the end, even when Earth itself was threatened, and with a wavering Admiral Cornwall (Jayne Brook) and Ambassador Sarek (James Frain) considering genocide, the crew of the Disco demanded better.

Besides the obvious saving of the Klingon home world, the best example of these values comes in the penultimate episode, when Ash Tyler (Shazard Latif), exposed as being a surgically-altered Voq, feels ashamed and alone. Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) sits at his empty lunch table with him and others follow suit. Also, the way the tardigrade is freed without consequence when its pain is realized is excellent. This proves that the Starfleet attitude we know is alive and well in the new series.

Diversity in the Production

This trend of inclusion and acceptance continues behind-the-scenes, as well. Obviously, the cast is quite diverse, probably the most ever for Star Trek. Though the series has always had a history of showing different peoples working side-by-side in common cause. Disco boasts the first African-American female lead for Star Trek in Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Her captain in the first two episodes, Georgiou, is played by Michelle Yeoh. And this is backed up in the production, which also has a wider range of people than previously working in almost any television show. Just look at the credits, and you’ll see what I mean.

There has been some backlash to the casting online, but to borrow from the Vulcans, there doesn’t seem to be any logical argument against it. If you think Star Trek should just be white men, you’re missing the message of what the show is and has always been. Even looking back to the 1960s episodes, Star Trek was about diversity. In this regard, it pushed the boundaries of what they could get away with on network television, showing non-white-males in positions of power. Star Trek boasts the first interracial and first homosexual kisses on broadcast network television, and had African-American and female captains leading spin-offs in the 1990s. The haters can’t possibly be real Star Trek fans.

Where It Fits

Back to the story itself, Discovery tells a missing part of Star Trek history and does it without majorly disrupting continuity. The Klingon-Federation War was a bad one, as has been referenced, so it’s understandable why the first season isn’t as bright and cheery as past entries. It was also set in more dangerous times than we see in most series. After all, Captain Pike wasn’t all that upbeat in “The Cage” following a tragedy. This tone shift makes sense.

We get a deeper look at the Klingon Empire and why they came into conflict with the Federation, which had little to do with the U.S.S. starships themselves. Yes, there are more aliens serving on Disco than one might assume were in Starfleet at that point from past entries. But that can be traced more to budgetary limitations of the past than what was supposed to be. And characters like Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson taking over the role originated in the 1960s by Roger C. Carmel), Sarek, and Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner) are shown earlier in their time line.

Disco is careful to pay homage to the classic while looking modern. The special effects and sets are thoroughly of today, as they should be to avoid looking dated. But tricorders and phasers and transporters are close enough to what’s been shown before to satisfy. The uniforms are more Enterprise than TOS, but it looks like the finale showed us background glimpses of the classic look, which I expect Pike and crew will be wearing next season.

Continuity

The only major complaint I have here is the delta emblems everyone on the Disco, the U.S.S. Shenzou, and the admiralty all seem to be sporting. In classic Trek, only the Enterprise crew wore this particular symbol, with other ships and stations having different icons. However, it’s possible that everyone originally wore the deltas, briefly switched to individualized badges ten years after this, then switched back later, as shown in the spin-offs and films. Given how Disco seems to later fix things that look to be wrong, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here.

There are also countless Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed, from Tribbles to Centaurian slugs. These are great for the fans. Georgiou talking of “bread and circuses” might feel slightly odd, but it’s appreciated. Even Clint Howard’s weird cameo as an Orion was great. (Howard previously guest starred in TOS, DS9, and Enterprise). These little nuggets are perfect and appreciated.

Changes

There are some notable changes to the way Discovery is presented as opposed to other Star Trek series. The most important is that we finally get a serial, complex story. This isn’t the first time Star Trek has done this; Deep Space 9, and to a certain extent, Enterprise, pursued long-running arcs, as well. But Disco is the first show to fully realize this superior method of story-telling, with only one of the fifteen hours seeming mostly stand-alone. This change allows for better character development and growth. For instance, Commander Saru (Doug Jones) goes through quite an arc, from disapproving coward to wise captain. This would not have been possible, certainly not in a single season, in the past.

Some big swings Disco takes, like the spore drive, seem ridiculous to exist without mention down the road. But because of how Disco fixes things, as mentioned above, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for now that it will make sense later. Spock not mentioning a sister, similarly, I can overlook because Spock is very private. Besides, she’s not the first surprise sibling he’s sprung on us.
Additionally, the captain is not the lead, and that is welcome. We finally get a different perspective on the starship, with a show mostly told from below-decks. Both Tilly, a lowly cadet, and Burnham, not even a commissioned officer for most of the season, give us fresh insight that is more than welcome.

Weaknesses

For much of the year, I thought the biggest weakness was going to be how the show handled the Voq / Ash Tyler twist. It was all over the Internet long before the story was ready to reveal it. However, in retrospect, I wonder if that wasn’t a genius distraction to keep the real twist, Lorca being from the Mirror Universe, completely off the radar. If so, brilliantly done.

Disco is not without its share of missteps, though, and a lot have to do with production decisions. For instance, almost every episode is right around forty-five minutes, the length of a regular broadcast installment. Being on a streaming service, it shouldn’t try to squeeze into such a narrow box. The result is plots that sometimes feel wrapped up too quickly or missed opportunities between characters. Did the way the handling of the bomb in the season finale make total sense? No, and another minute of dialogue could have fixed that. But I feel like these aren’t too distracting, and the show overall remains strong.

Of course, the worst thing about Disco is that it’s exclusively on the way-overpriced CBS All Access service. But that can be blamed on CBS bullying the fans, not a Star Trek misstep.

Conclusion

Is Discovery the Star Trek we deserve? I think it’s a little early to tell. A show like this takes time to prove whether its journey is worth it, and that’s a good thing. This type of storytelling is more ambitious, and when it succeeds, it’s aces. When it fails, it’s frustrating as hell. I do think the signs so far are that it’s a very good show. As long as it doesn’t screw anything huge up in the mythology, it’ll go far.

Some will argue that The Orville, a new show on FOX, is the Star Trek heir apparent. But despite sharing some strong DNA with The Next Generation, the Seth MacFarlane-led dramedy doesn’t quite have the same traditional Star Trek spirit that Discovery does. For this reason, as much as I like The Orville, I disagree entirely with this assessment.

Whether you’re a Trekkie or not, I recommend giving Discovery a chance. It’s a pretty solid show by just about any measure. I hope it lives long and prospers (preferably after moving to CBS-owned Showtime). It certainly had an interesting freshman year, and the cliffhanger of seeing the Enterprise promises more goodness to come.

Catch Star Trek: Discovery‘s full first season through CBS All Access.

Friday, February 9, 2018

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX

Article first published as Review: THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX on Seat42F.


The following contains spoilers about The Cloverfield Paradox.

Surprise! Viewers of the Super Bowl were not expecting to learn that a new Cloverfield movie was on its way. But that’s exactly what happened when, with only a trailer played during the football game, Netflix dropped THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX Sunday night.

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is the third film in the loosely connected series produced by J.J. Abrams. The first, titled simply Cloverfield, was a found-footage monster movie that put the audience in the perspective of someone running from a Godzilla-like creature. 10 Cloverfield Lane was mostly a bottle suspense thriller set in an underground bunker after a post-apocalyptic event. The third film is set on a space station in the future, and their experiments to find an unlimited energy supply for mankind rip a whole in space-time that unleashes monsters and other strange things across multiple dimensions. So this movie is both a sequel and prequel to the others which are, presumably, set on different Earths.

Connecting them in this way is pretty smart for a franchise that doesn’t want to tell a linear story. We now have the origin of sorts for the very different monsters we see in all three films, an explanation as to why these things are happening, and endless possibilities for future installments. As a connecting thread, THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX works very well. It’s even better that it comes so late in the series, letting the mystery linger for years before solving it.

However, THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is, by far, the weakest of the three installments.

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX suffers from being split into too many pieces that fail to form a cohesive narrative. Our international crew of astronauts, comprised of Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle), Kiel (David Oyelowo, Selma), Schmidt (Daniel Bruhl, Captain America: Civil War), Monk (John Ortiz, Kong: Skull Island), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids), Volkov (Aksel Hennie, The Martian), Tam (Ziyi Chang, Memoirs of a Geisha), and Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby) start off in a somewhat straight-forward, save-the-Earth mission. This morphs into a cross between Alien and Apollo 13 as technology goes wrong and things (oddities, not monsters) haunt the ship. Eventually, as the cast is picked of one-by-one, it feels very familiar.

This in of itself should have been the movie, and it would have been OK if it had a few different elements to keep us guessing where it was going. While parts of it feel like remakes of other films, there’s enough originality to forge its own path, and an interesting story boosted by some terrific performances and spectacular special effects. But there are also very weird things, like an intelligent hand and arm, that just aren’t satisfyingly explained and make the whole thing uneven. There are also characters who act out of character or make ridiculous decisions no one in their right mind would make, sending the plot off course. Inconsistencies plague this work.

Add to this, THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX forces the DNA of the previous two movies into this one by following Hamilton’s husband, Michael (Roger Davies, Family Affairs), back on Earth. Michael first finds himself in a city being actively destroyed by very big creatures, a la the original, and then takes shelter in a creepy bunker, as in the sequel. These comparisons feel forced and unnecessary, distracting and off-tone. It also spoils what could have been a twist ending otherwise.

There’s also a bit of exposition when an apparent conspiracy theory nut (Donal Logue, Gotham) warns a reporter (Suzanne Cryer, Silicon Valley) about what might happen with the space station. He ends up being right, but I couldn’t help but feel this was a bit more hand-holding that viewers needed. Unless Donal is a set up for another film, in which case, I like him enough to overlook this.

I think if the writers wanted to keep all the pieces they force in, THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX would have worked better as a television miniseries or season. That way, it could take its time exploring each of the facets of the tale in a longer narrative arc. Hamilton could even visit herself on the other Earth, and really dig into what the multiple dimensions presented mean. It also would make more sense to keep Michael in it for a potential second season. In this way, nothing would need to be cut out, and it would almost guarantee more forthcoming story (J.J.’s name and a big budget making a two-season order on a streaming service likely). If they wanted to keep this as a movie, they really should have narrowed in on a few choices and ditched much of the material they went with.

I will say, I did enjoy the other J.J. references present. Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll see homages to 2009’s Star Trek and the television show Alias, as well as hear some regular Abrams cast voices, such as Simon Pegg and Greg Grunberg.

Overall, I didn’t hate THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX. Like I said, there are some really good elements, and in terms of defining the franchise, it does its intended job. However, there are enough plot holes and weaknesses to keep it from being a thoroughly enjoyable watch, and certainly makes it the low point of the series so far. The potential is strong enough that I want to see it developed further. But care must be taken to make sure the next installment doesn’t go off the rails like this one did, which would surely kill any future stories any time soon.

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is available now on Netlfix.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Netflix ALTERED CARBON

Article first published as TV Review: ALTERED CARBON on Seat42F.


Netflix’s newest drama, released yesterday, is ALTERED CARBON. Set centuries in the future, it is part science fiction adventure, part murder mystery. In the ten-episode first season, Takeshi Kovacs, a violent mercenary, is woken from a 250-year slumber at Alcatraz. He is told he can either go back to prison forever, his sentence, or solve the murder of an extremely wealthy man, Laurens Bancroft. Obviously, Takeshi chooses the former, and he sets off into the world he knows little about to investigate a crime of which he knows even less.

Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, House of Cards) stars as Takeshi, which ties into a few important things. One, part of the premise is that the essence of people have been boiled down into “stacks,” basically big computer chips that can be inserted into any body, deemed “sleeves.” While Takeshi is Japanese and Eastern European, played by Will Yun Lee (Falling Water, True Blood) in flashback, he now inhabits a different ethnicity form. There is certainly an argument to be made that the series whitewashes its lead, but the cast is pretty diverse, and from a story perspective, the swap makes sense. So ALTERED CARBON tries to make up for that in other ways. (Whether it does or not, I leave for someone more qualified to decide.)

Bancroft is also a white man, played by James Purefoy (The Following, Hap and Leonard), as is the AI construct Poe (Chris Conner, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story). But others are not. The love of Takeshi’s life is Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The Good Wife, original cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton). Takeshia’s sister, Reileen, is played by Dichen Lachman (Dollhouse, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The primary cop who is interested in Takeshi is Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda, Royal Pains). ALTERED CARBON also stars Ato Essandoh (Copper), Kristin Lehman (Motive), and Trieu Tran (The Newsroom).

The series itself is getting mixed reviews, and that’s fair. There’s certainly a large amount of exploitation of women in the dark corner of the world Takeshi is dropped into, prostitution, physically real or not, abundant, and drugs rampant. Little about the underworld isn’t a trope, and the main plot seems to be a basic murder mystery, albeit the intended victim isn’t really dead because his stack was backed up by a very expensive satellite, so all he lost as nearly two days of memories.

However, I found it an exciting romp with a complex, if a little two-dimensional, world. The visual effects are absolutely stunning, the futuristic city, including buildings that extend above the clouds, seeming very real. The rules of the world seem to be incredibly well thought-out and stuck to, though not overly explained, and there’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding Takeshi’s circumstances. Certainly this is more than just an episode of CSI stretched out. The acting is also pretty solid across the board, though I don’t yet see many similarities in personality between Lee and Kinnaman’s portrayals, so I’d like, over time, for the show to establish a more solid link.

There is also a trippy aspect to the production because Takeshi, as part of the side effects from being asleep so long, hallucinates people that aren’t there. This potentially calls into question the reality of what we’re seeing in every scene, even when he’s sober, and will have viewers looking for clues that things might not be real. That is an exciting element to toss in, especially when it’s so well integrated to the story.

Having only seen one episode so far, I can’t contradict entirely the uneasiness of other reviewers. What I can say is that as soon as I turn this in, I’m jumping right into episode two because I was left very much wanting to see more.

ALTERED CARBON season one is available now, streaming on Netflix.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Paramount is WACO

Article first published as TV Review: WACO on Seat42F.


You likely haven’t heard of the Paramount Network. After all, that network name has only been on air for about ten days. The channel formerly known as Spike TV, and before that, as TNN, has changed names once again. And with that change comes a new direction for the network, as evidenced by their miniseries WACO, which premiered this past week. I can’t imagine WACO airing under their past network names.

WACO tells the story of the FBI and ATF seizing the Waco, Texas ranch of cult leader David Koresch back in the spring of 1993. The six episodes cover the lead up to the 51-day stand-off, through the event itself. The story as portrayed here is based on two biographies, one from each side of the conflict. The first was penned by David Thibodeau, a survivor who joined the commune about nine months before the famous proceedings. The other is from the perspective of hostage negotiator Gary Noesner. Both play significant roles in the miniseries, and it provides some balance to get the law enforcement and a commune member’s point-of-view.

At the center of the cult is charming, relatable, earnest David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights), a man who claims to have biblical visions. He has surrounded himself by many followers who buy into his words. Some, like Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks, House of Cards), are educated, and some, like Thibodeau (Rory Culkin, Signs) are not. WACO explores some of the mentality of a person who would follow Koresh, and how that can span across different demographics.

Tension within the commune starts well before the feds arrive. David has made everyone swear themselves to celibacy, except himself and the women he chooses to lay with. He calls it a sacrifice, but his best friend Steve doesn’t appreciate it when his wife, Judy (Andrea Riseborough, Bloodline), becomes pregnant. Nor does David’s main squeeze, Rachel (Melissa Benoist, Supergirl), seem all that happy about her man fathering a child by someone else. So it is clear there are issues long before things get violent.

At the same time, Gary (Michael Shannon, Boardwalk Empire) provides a look at how the FBI and ATF don’t exactly have it together, either. There is a culture that demands results and covers up mistakes. Funding is at stake, and not everyone seems determined to do the right thing to keep the money flowing. Gary is seen as the stereotypical hero, a man who will stick to his personal moral compass no matter what. Yet, Gary isn’t the one in charge. With all of the disagreements and political motivation shown, it’s no wonder that things don’t go smoothly when they’re asked to take down the ranch.

WACO is an entertaining and compelling miniseries. A top-notch cast ensures that it flows and the characters are understandably complex. At the same time, the various elements thrown together here provide a pretty detailed, comprehensive picture of the situation. They foreshadow the things that go wrong by showing us how the event didn’t unfold in a vacuum, and neither side was perfect. I don’t seek to excuse a cult leader, and I don’t think WACO does, either. But it does try to be fair in its storytelling, and I think it succeeds pretty well at that.

I liked the first episode of WACO a lot, and hope to catch the other five hours. If this smart, enjoyable, well-made series is the type of thing viewers should expect from the Paramount network, I think it will do its movie namesake proud and Paramount could become a cable player. Though it has awhile to go before we can call that for sure.

WACO airs Wednesday evenings on the Paramount network through February.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

THE ALIENIST Sans Aliens

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


TNT begins a new chapter in their programming with THE ALIENIST. An alienist has nothing to do with extraterrestrials, though TNT has done their share of that type of show. Instead, the term, considered archaic now, refers to someone who practices psychiatry. Which, if you’re following along, means the series is about a person who studies the human psyche in a bygone era. A period piece drama is not the normal fare you’d expect from the network. But does it work?
Not quite. The pacing is slow and the plot is dreadfully plodding. The first word that comes to mind to describe THE ALIENIST is boring. I don’t care about the characters, nor their motivations, which is not a sustainable model for a television show.
TNT is known for works that are fast-paced and somewhat cheesy, so THE ALIENIST is a departure, and that by itself is good. Care has been taken with sets and costumes, so it looks good. This is especially true in an early sequence on a wooden bridge. There aren’t the usual plot holes and cliché dialogue that other programs on the network have contained. The acting is quality, as is the directing. So it’s not the individual elements that are the problem here.
THE ALIENIST stars Daniel Bruhl (Captain America: Civil War) as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a doctor who works with the mentally disturbed and tries to treat them. Not cure them, mind you, but make their conditions more manageable. He is assisted by John Moore (Luke Evans, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast), an illustrator who helps Dr. Kreizler see things he cannot, a second pair of eyes who provides other perspective. Rounding out the central trio is Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning, The Runaways), a police clerk who is interested in following the law, but is intrigued by the doctor’s work when it seems more reliable than the old techniques.
These three are decent actors, as anyone who’s seen them in other works can attest. Fanning, once a child actor who has starred in respected films, makes her first foray into series television, and Evans and Bruhl have had some success on screens both large and small. I can’t point to any of the trio as a weak link.
The three begin by trying to clear the name of a man sentenced to death. I would say there is some moral quandary as to whether they should, as the accused is suffering from painful, incurable syphilis anyway. But as all good classic heroes, they are committed to truth and justice, and so seek not just the extension of their ground-breaking work, but to use it to help people, too.
It’s not this somewhat tired premise that spurs the bad review. Although it seems similar to a couple of recent streaming and cable shows, also period pieces, the trappings of the setting and the way the story plays out distract enough from the common formula. It’s just the overall tone, which doesn’t rise to the level of the style of the piece.
THE ALIENIST is also very gory. Gory enough that I couldn’t see it on basic cable in the pre-Walking Dead days. This choice fits well with the story they’re telling, being brutally up front at showing things, not glossing over and romanticizing. In that, I do think the show made the right decision, supporting the premise and plot.
In the end, I must conclude that the show is decent, certainly a step up for TNT, but lacks the charm, intensity, and magnetism that many of the best shows today have.
THE ALIENIST airs Monday evenings on TNT.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Another AMERICAN CRIME STORY

Article first published as THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY on Seat42F.


THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY, the second season of the franchise, kicked off its run this week with episode one, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue.” Set in both 1990 and 1997, we see the eventual killer, Andrew Cunanan, as he first encounters the legendary designer, as well as the murder and its aftermath. The mostly non-fiction story apparently seeks to examine the relationship between the two men, as well as the manhunt for Cunanan, and how Gianni’s sister, Donatella, steered the company following her brother’s death.

That’s a lot to cover, but it doesn’t seem like too much for nine hours of television, which is how many episodes this will run. By keeping the story focused to only four leads (the three above plus Versace’s long-time partner, Antonio D’Amico), it avoids the sprawling that some such dramas get into, and provides a cohesive narrative, even as the timeline jumps back and forth.

THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY feels very Ryan Murphy. What I mean by that is, like other Murphy properties, there are strong, colorful characters, sometimes understated, at its center, the direction and design are artsy while remaining relatively grounded, and the pacing is slow but purposeful. There’s a certain tone and style that has become a Murphy hallmark, and even with most of his familiar band of recurring actors absent from this outing, his fingerprints are noticeable on the work.

As usual in a Murphy show, the casting is spot-on. He brings back Glee’s Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, who appears to be the lead character in the first episode. Criss is a talented man, and this role stretches him. Cunanan is a habitual liar, acting his way through life, and it’s hard to gauge his sincerity, even in the moments where he is alone. Criss balances this while still showing us why people would fall for Cunanan’s falsehoods and charm. It’s a complex and difficult performance, and Criss nails it.

The other leads are Edgar Ramirez (Gold) as Gianni Versace, singer Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico, and an almost unrecognizable Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as Donatella Versace. Ramirez doesn’t have a whole lot of chance to show his skills yet, almost being set dressing in his own show, but Martin and Cruz prove themselves right away.

They are joined by a whole bunch of great recurring players, including Will Chase (Smash), Dascha Polanco (Orange Is the New Black), Jay R. Ferguson (Mad Men), Max Greenfield (New Girl), Jose Zuniga (Snowfall), Joe Adler (Grey’s Anatomy), Annaleigh Ashford (Masters of Sex), and more, with Judith Light (Transparent) and Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story) slated for later this season. So the troupe should be solid.

The setting itself is necessarily opulent. Versace did not live simply, as one might expect, given what he’s known for. And Miami Beach in the 1990s was not a boring place. This makes for a locale that looks almost Hollywood glitzy, but is true enough to the reality. It makes one think of the trappings of wealth and celebrity, and the murder itself shows how none of that protects anyone from the darkest parts of the human soul. I don’t mean this to sound overly metaphorical, because it’s not; it’s a grounded show.

The frequent back-and-forth time jumps aren’t my favorite way to tell a story, but are the right choice for THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY. There’s really no other way to depict both the lead up and the aftermath without it feeling like two separate shows. By splitting it in this manner, it helps with overall cohesion.

THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY airs Wednesdays on FX.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

MOSAIC Unclear

Article first published as TV Review: MOSAIC on Seat42F.


Note: this review is about the television miniseries MOSAIC. It does not review the app.

HBO is premiering something quite experimental this week. Called MOSAIC and presented on five consecutive nights, the six-hour story concerns the murder of children’s author Olivia Lake and its four-year aftermath. With an all-star cast, Steven Soderbergh cuts together a narrative first developed for an interactive app, which allowed users to follow one of two murder suspects through the story, as well as view related ‘evidence.’ The result here is a professional director’s combining of the plotlines.

Soderbergh (Red Oaks, The Knick) is well-respected and often well-reviewed, known for balancing multiple narratives, a la Traffic, so he seems a natural choice for such an ambitious, ground-breaking project. Not just anyone could pull such a thing off, and so it makes sense that HBO would entrust a talent like his to get it done. He has a certain style that does show up in the series.

The cast has been stocked with some very talented performers, including Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct, Casino) as Olivia and Garrett Hedlund (On the Road) and Frederick Weller (In Plain Sight) as the two main suspects. The supporting players include Jennifer Ferrin (Hell On Wheels), Beau Bridges (Masters of Sex), Jeremy Bobb (The Knick), Paul Reubens (Pee-wee’s Playhouse), Maya Kazan (The Knick), Michael Cerveris (Fringe), Allison Tolman (Fargo), James Ransome (Bosch), and many more. So the cast is certainly not the reason it would fail.

But, in my opinion, despite the immense talent involved, it does fail. As a narrative, it is disjointed, jerky, and boring. I found it extremely hard to follow, and the characters less than interesting. I don’t know if the app provided a better experience, but at least in the one hour I viewed, I found it far below the quality level I’ve come to expect from HBO shows. I was delighted to learn it is a miniseries, played out quickly, airing in a single week, than a drama that would potentially run for a long time. Mainly because of the chance I am wrong and it resonates with critics at large, forcing me to play catch up just to stay current on television, which will be unnecessary for a miniseries.

I can’t say the hour is totally without merit. Most of the actors do deliver good performances. Stone herself is fantastic, and the bits of MOSAIC that do captivate me, few and far between as they are, generally involve her and Reubens, who I also really enjoy. Some of Weller’s stuff, including his chemistry with Stone, is also very good. But those moments are not enough to hold my interest in between.

The story itself just doesn’t feel all that well constructed. There are a LOT of characters and connections to keep track off, and with the constant, abrupt movements in setting, it becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. There just isn’t enough time spent with certain individuals for the audience to grasp who they are and what they want before it moves on, usually to something totally unrelated, or so it seems. Parts shown out of order don’t help. Perhaps if I binged the whole thing at once, some general picture would emerge, mosaic-like, from the fray. I just don’t see the draw in episode one.

Now, I concede there are likely fans of the app who got really into solving the mystery and following all the clues. Those people might like to see the whole story edited together like this into one narrative, and already having prior knowledge of the proceedings, could follow it more easily.

But if you’re just planning to tune into MOSAIC as a show, I’d recommend skipping it.

MOSAIC premieres Monday at 8/7c and runs throughout this week on HBO.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Part / COUNTERPART

Article first published as TV Review: COUNTERPART on Seat42F.


COUNTERPART is a new drama premiering on Starz tonight (though fans of Outlander might have already seen the pilot, which aired ‘sneak preview’ style after the recent series finale). The story follows a mild-mannered man who has spent his career in an unsatisfyingly low-level job within a secretive part of the UN. Said man, Howard Silk, has his life suddenly disrupted when he finds out that his employer is actually guarding a gateway to a parallel reality. And he learns this because a tough, commanding version of himself crosses over to defect and help them stop a serial killer.

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, Spiderman) is brilliant as both versions of Silk, the leading role he deserves. Simmons is one of those performers who got the supporting player and character roles for far too long, but can totally handle headlining. It almost seems like COUNTERPART is making it up to him by giving him two such roles at once, and complex ones at that. For Simmons alone, I would like to watch this show.

He is joined by a brilliant supporting cast. Harry Lloyd (Manhattan) plays his boss, Peter Quayle. Olivia Williams (Manhattan) is Silk’s wife, Emily, who seems to have quite a different relationship with the protagonist on each side. Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) is Emily’s tool of a brother. Sara Serraiocco (Worldly Girl) is the enigmatic, gender-fluid assassin. There are quite a few more characters, too, but these are the ones that stand out the most in the pilot.

In terms of genre, COUNTERPART crosses a couple of them. Its narrative structure is that of a spy thriller. There’s a cat-and-mouse aspect to the espionage, and real danger. Violence is a tool, not the point of it all, and there is plenty of mystery. There is a Cold War feel to the hunt, two sides who could cause great damage to one another, staring across the abyss, full-fledged conflict threatening to erupt. And, of course, one cannot deny the strong science fiction aspect.

Speaking to the sci-fi, there is a promising premise here to be explored. It’s interesting that they establish these two realities used to be one, splitting off at a defined point. Given how different things have gone on each side, one really wonders about specific events and their importance. I think it would behoove the show to explore the past as well as the present as the tale unfolds, as viewers will be curious at how some of the divergences happened. Plus, we don’t yet know all the rules of the separation and what might be done, nor much about the code work Silk was doing, which definitely seems to have larger meaning than we see in episode one.

In short, I really, really dig COUNTERPART. While it shares some familiar elements with other series, it also appears to have its own, strong identity, and a rich world to explore. I have no idea where things are going, which is a big plus on a show like this, but I can’t wait to see them play out. With the stellar cast, especially Simmons, it seems likely that even weaker moments will play well. Though, the pilot seemingly lacked those weak moments, which hopefully keeps up as the show goes on (always an iffy prospect for high-concept sci-fi, which often stumbles when forced to explain everything).

Starz has a great series here. I only wonder why they didn’t keep it paired with Outlander. I feel like there is enough common DNA, though the two shows are very different, that it could keep some of the same audience. True, Starz might want to maintain the viewers when Outlander isn’t on, but they seem like such a natural pairing, it looks to be a missed opportunity to air them in different seasons.

COUNTERPART premieres tonight at 9/8c on Starz.

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.