Monday, August 31, 2015

Learn From NARCOS

Article originally published as NARCOS Review on Seat42F.

Narcos Netflix

NETFLIX’s latest drama, NARCOS, takes a different tact than most of the previous series do. The story of infamous Columbian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, is mixed with the DEA agent that hunts him, Steve Murphy, to give viewers a history lesson. It’s scripted drama based on a true story, one bloody and fantastical.

The first thing that strikes me about NARCOS is that it really is a history lesson. Not one that could be used in history classes, given its graphic, violent content, but still, there is a lot of truth in the way it unfolds. It feels, in many ways, like the film Argo, with more voice-over exposition. Not everything that happens on screen is factually true, I’m sure, but it’s close enough to qualify as educational as well as entertaining.

The authority in which the narration is done gives the show some gravitas. I compared it to Argo, and I’m sure that comparison was drawn by the production on purpose. NARCO has the feeling of a high-quality biopic in that regard, and uses the common trope of mixing the famous (Escobar) with the lesser-known (Murphy) in telling the complete story. The audience will learn much more about Escobar than they did watching Entourage.

Of course, NARCOS has ten hours to tell its tale, versus the two a movie gets, and so can take its time. It zooms through the first couple of years in a single installment, beginning with Escobar (Wagner Moura, Paraiso Tropical) not even involved in the cocaine world to running a full-fledged empire. But Escobar stayed in power for many years, so there’s at least a full season in this, and I assume things will slow down as it goes on.

Most of NARCOS’s premiere installment is focused on Escobar himself, which seems a little strange, since Murphy (Boyd Holbrook, The Big C, Gone Girl) feels like the lead. I like that we’re not just viewing things from the law enforcement perspective, though, getting a behind-the-scenes look at how Escobar makes things work, and the series is kind of presented as Murphy’s telling of the whole thing after it’s been complete, making me think he will survive, unlike so many other players.

More of a wild card is Murphy’s partner, Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones, Graceland). He intrigues early in the pilot, then disappears as the show flashes back and builds back up to the time in which Murphy actually gets to Columbia. It is hard to get a read on his role at first, so I look forward to seeing more of that, as he seems like he may be a catalyst to even more violence.

One thing that confuses me is the tendency NARCOS has to mix the real stuff in with the fiction. I have no problem with the show using actual footage of Nixon and Reagan because they aren’t characters, existing only on the TV screens. But when a mug shot of Moura’s Escobar is suddenly replaced with the real man, it takes viewers out of the world a bit, re-emphasizing the documentary aspect at the expense of storytelling.

And really, that’s my problem with NARCOS. While it seems very well made, and I will likely watch more of it myself, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It’s teaching too much and too dry in places to hit the mass appeal of the action-loving crowd, yet too gritty and bloody to strike the fancy of many of the family-friendly documentary niche. It sidetracks to give us a human element, such as showing the death of a pregnant mule, but that takes us away from the characters. It is worth watching and I’m sure will find fans, but by not picking a path and committing to it, it risks alienating many of what could be its core viewership.

The full first season of NARCOS is available now on Netflix.

Friday, August 28, 2015

PUBLIC MORALS Cartoonish, But Good

Article originally published as PUBLIC MORALS Review on Seat42F.

TNT goes in a bit of a different direction with PUBLIC MORALS. A 1960s-set crime drama from Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, The Brothers McMullen), it tells the tale of cops and robbers in New York City. It’s the Mad Men era, but this is the other side of the tracks, those lower income people who think the laws are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Does the series work?

Well, at first I was taken aback by the style. It’s very specific and consistent, but comes across as cartoonish. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, though. After watching the pilot, it is clear that the characters and plot are in this same vein, so the costumes and set decoration match the tone that the series is going for well. While PUBLIC MORALS is a hyper reality, no one ever said every TV show must be totally grounded.

The main reason I quickly got over my hesitation and embraced PUBLIC MORALS is because of the cast. Burns not only writes and directs, but stars as Terry Muldoon, who isn’t in charge, but is definitely the most defined force in this world, feeling totally authentic for the piece. Burns has surrounded himself with an excellent ensemble including Michael Rapaport (Justified), Robert Knepper (Prison Break), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Castle), Neal McDonough (Desperate Housewives), Brian Dennehy (First Blood), Elizabeth Masucci (Shame), Timothy Hutton (Leverage), Wass Stevens (The Wrestler), Katrina Bowden (30 Rock), and more. Many of these supporting players are doing some of the best work I’ve ever seen from them, and those that already have impressive resumes feel like they get this project and meld in seamlessly.

Together, they create a complex world that thrives on shades of gray. As Burns says to his son, the line between hero and asshole is a thin one, with the cops substituting the letter of the law for their own moral code, and working hand in hand with the bad guys when the bad guys stay in line. There are a number of differing relationships between the characters, and PUBLIC MORALS does a good job of painting its reality in just that first hour.

Once introduced to the status quo, the show also spends little time upheaving it. A new officer joins the plain clothes force, and it’s hard to tell if he’s going to be on board with their schemes or a hindrance. Someone who seems like a main character in this initial installment is killed off at the end, which will surely shake up several of the other players and provide a driving force through the season.

PUBLIC MORALS isn’t as brilliantly groundbreaking or as beautifully artistic of many of the cable shows on the air, and it feels a bit strange to be praising it, as those high-quality, original dramas make up much of what I gravitate towards. TNT doesn’t really have any of those, so that’s not surprising. Not everything that happens is realistic, and while some of the story is a slow boil, there’s a lot of fast talking and bits of action, too, so it never gets boring. True Detective or The Killing, this is not.

However, the program knows what it is and makes the best example of the genre that it can, and there’s a lot to be said for that. When coupled with magnetic personalities that suck the viewer right into the world, I find little to complain about. Honestly, I went into this expecting little, and now plan on setting a season pass on my TiVo because I really want to find out what happens next. That’s just about all I can ask for from a pilot, and I look forward to seeing what they do with the rest of the season.

PUBLIC MORALS premieres Tuesday, August 25th at 10 p.m. ET on TNT.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Article originally published as FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Review on Seat42F.

Fear The Walking Dead Cast AMC

As a television critic, I watch way too much TV. There are many drawbacks to this, such as not reading nearly as much as I’d like to, but there are also some benefits, such as that I feel I have a large perspective on what’s good because I have a wide understanding of what is out there. Even though I hate zombies, The Walking Dead is my favorite current show because it has the richest and most original characters and scenarios and the most complex, make-you-think writing on the tube, which, in my opinion, is what makes great TV right now. (It also has terrific acting and design, but so do many others.) So my expectations were high for FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, the prequel spin-off practically sharing the title, which premiered last night

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD is not The Walking Dead; this much is clear pretty early on. Someday it may be, but it is not from the get go. I’m not saying that in the way that The Walking Dead was great at the beginning, but took some time before it became as awesome as it is now. Pilot versus pilot, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD falls short, with its family being less compelling than Rick and their world being much more familiar.

But honestly, it only falls slightly short, still making it one of the best things on, and something I will look forward to tuning in each week.

Part of this inferiority may be necessary because of the structure of the first episode, given where the series is starting from. The Walking Dead had the luxury of a man alone in the world, which is easy to focus in on. FEAR THE WALKING DEAD begins in a bustling city, still very much alive and operating, so there is, by necessity, a lot more distraction.

The distraction is well used in most cases. The first sequence ends with a pull back on the lively city, and this makes an impact. It doesn’t make an impact on its own, because lots of series could show a similar shot with little effect. It makes an impact because the vast majority of viewers are familiar with what this world is about to become, and an impending sense of doom hangs over L.A.

Viewers see this again and again throughout the first hour, this program playing off the expectations and tropes of the other, with a wink and a nudge. A hunching administrator isn’t a zombie, but he could be soon. A dying man in the hospital hasn’t turned, but any time now, all dying men will. An attack on police by a motorist moments ago lying dead on the road is strange, but to the characters, it doesn’t spell the end of civilization, just the spread of a mysterious illness.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that FEAR THE WALKING DEAD wasn’t giving us a macro image of the descent of the city and the country. Then, I realized that was because of whose perspective it was being told from. The pilot opens with Nick Clark (Frank Dillane, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) high on drugs, then in the hospital. The other three core players, Nick’s mother, Madison (Kim Dickens, Treme, Friday Night Lights), his sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey, The 100), and his step-father, Travis (Cliff Curtis, Gang Related), are all focused on what’s going on with Nick. Of course they aren’t glued to the news. Not yet anyway.

I can’t fault these characters for their concerns, and I can’t fault FEAR THE WALKING DEAD for zooming in on them. After all, at the start of this review, I admitted that the characters are what drive the parent show, so choosing to keep the story personal in this other chapter is a smart move, one that will surely help it in the long run.

Then there’s the simple fact that these people and their lives suck me in so completely. The concern, the desperation, the frustration they experience is highly relatable and compelling because of the top-notch performances. Few shows have the power to grab my full attention and not let go. This is one of them.

So maybe it has a few flaws, skimming over some things, using a couple of characters for cannon fodder, Madison not being more interested in why the school is suddenly empty. But the pilot is very good, and being set in a densely populated city, I am incredibly intrigued to watch the collapse of civilization from people on the front lines, many of whom surely won’t survive. This is a family unit that cannot possibly make it out of the City of Angels without loss, and I already care enough about them to be invested in their continued survival. Great job, all around, for making a worthy expansion of a wonderfully wicked world.

My only question is this: where is our Talking Fear hosted by Chris Hardwick?

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

HELL ON WHEELS Season Four On Blu-ray

Article originally published as Blu-ray Review: 'Hell On Wheels: The Complete Fourth Season' on Blogcritics.

AMC’s Western series about the construction of the railroad, Hell On Wheels, is finally releasing its fourth season on Blu-ray and DVD (season five premiered a couple of weeks ago). Picking up four months after the events of season three, not every character shows up in the first episode, and for those that do, many have gone through some changes in circumstance. But as much as some things change, some stay the same, and the paths of several should land them, more or less, right back where we’re used to seeing them, at least for a time.

how4The biggest question on many fans’ minds is if Elam (Common) survived the bear attack that left him lying, bloody, on the ground. Hell On Wheels has an interesting way of storytelling in that it lets arc progress naturally, which often means characters sit out for episodes at a time, and Elam does not return right away when the season kicks off, though fans will eventually learn his fate.

While some series may contract their principal players for only a certain number of episodes to save budget, it seems like Hell On Wheels limits screen time when the story warrants. For instance, the season premiere has several threads to tug on and explore, but leaves out characters such as Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) and Louise (Jennifer Ferrin), who are still with the show. I kind of dig that the writers don’t squeeze in people when they don’t fit, even if I’d like to know what they’re up to, and eventually it will get back around to them.

The main character whom the entire show revolves around, and thus he has to appear every week, remains Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). Awaiting the birth of his child by Naomi (unfortunately recast as a noticeably older-looking Mackenzie Porter), Bohannon tests the boundaries of his dynamic with The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), still posing as a Mormon bishop as The Complete Fourth Season begins. While Bohannon’s usual foe, Durant (Colm Meaney), is selfish and despicable, there is something even more magnetic about The Swede, making for some truly excellent scenes between Mount and Heyerdahl as the nemesis they play dance around one another. The struggle that Bohannon goes through is the central thrust of Hell On Wheels.

There are other characters that matter, too, though. Eva (Robin McLeavy) brings the pathos this year, mourning Elam and once more having to pick herself up and start over. This frontier is not kind to a single woman, but Eva is nothing is if not resilient, and finds yet another way to go on and try to build a life for herself and her baby. I mentioned Durant above, and he remains around as an antagonist. But he also has other layers. It is he, of all people, who tries to light a spark in Eva, the writers once again striving for the unexpected, though not so much so that it feels unnatural, as Durant has taken an interest in her before, if only occasionally. I don’t think Durant will be winning over many friends in the near future, but it’s nice to see there’s more than one side to a person, especially when Hell On Wheels has The Swede to be the cold, calculating, evil player.

Entering the fray this year is the new Governor of Wyoming, John Campbell (Jake Weber, Medium). Like General Grant, Campbell is a real person in history, though surely fictionalized enough to ratchet up the drama. Coming into town, he is likely to spur with Durant, Bohannon, and the now-mayor of Cheyenne, Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke). This provides even more drama in an already dangerous place.

I like that the characters on Hell on Wheels often aren’t friends. The Wild West, mainly seen as Cheyenne currently, is a dangerous, unstable place. Alliances are struck, only to be broken and re-formed when convenient. This makes for unpredictable storytelling, keeping the plot engrossing. Conflict is rampant, and that can be even better than the heart-warming uniting of those coming together for a common purpose, which the program only occasionally shows.

The Complete Fourth Season maintains what Hell On Wheels has built, but also gives us some new places to go. With the railroad nearing completion and season five already announced as the last, there are only a limited number of stories left to tell. I’m glad it gets the chance, though, to tell its full tale, especially because this one is so good.

There are a number of bonus features included in this release. Featurettes look at the season as a whole, as well as the new characters and the Cheyenne set. There are also specific focuses on single episodes, and bits on the set with Meaney and Weber, our less-scary villains. It seems like a relatively average amount of bonus material is present, nothing super exciting, but neither is it less than what most of its peers put out. The Blu-ray quality is about what one expects, and one can truly appreciate the setting, details, and soundtrack when experienced in crisp high definition.

I recommend this release. I’m a fan of the show, and I think it often unfairly gets overlooked. These people are doing a wonderful job telling a story that feels different than just about any other program. Season four is no different, reinforcing the unstable nature of the environment in the way it presents the characters. If you haven’t seen any episodes at all, you have to start with season one. But please do so, because you’ll want to watch these discs.

Hell On Wheels: The Complete Fourth Season will be available Tuesday, August 11th.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Divergent Series: Insurgent' on Blogcritics.

This week, the second film in the Divergent Series, Insurgent, is released on 3-D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD.  Divergent is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the remaining humans have been sorted into castes based on their abilities. One girl defies the framework and challenges those who wish to manipulate it for their own gain. Picking up just a few days after where the last Divergent movie ends, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) must bring the fight to Jeanine (Kate Winslet) before she destroys their society, pinning death and chaos on the pair. Jeanine’s tool to do so happens to require Tris, and the trippy adventure to get there is action-packed and visually impressive.

InsThe story behind Insurgent is interesting, if a little underdeveloped. The plot rockets through four different groups of people in two hours, while still trying to grant some character development to the leads. This means little insight into the various factions and their leadership structures, even as each new corner of the world begs to be explored. And it’s a fascinating world.

Most of the action is focused on Tris, the emotional entrance to the film’s heart, and I understand the desire to maintain the focus there, but it feels like there are wasted possibilities constantly plucked and then discarded.

As a result, those plot threads are neglected, minimizing the roles of terrific actors, new to the sequel, including Octavia Spencer (The Help), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost). I find myself wishing for more story in each of their zones. The talented new cast members, join the already impressive cast from the first movie (which, alongside Winslet, includes Ashley Judd, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Miles Teller, Maggie Q, and more).

The overall story arcs feel a bit weak at times. For instance, Tris is able to resist the mind-controlling serum in the first movie because she is Divergent, but quickly succumbs to Candor’s truth juice? The powers of a Divergent aren’t quite clear. And why does Candor have its own guards? It also seems like Jeanine has a lot of power, but then has no idea what is going on in other parts of the city, though the soldiers that work for her always seem to show up when the movie requires another shot of adrenaline.

Insurgent is not a bad film. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in some really neat shots. I wish I’d been sent the 3-D version of this film to review because I am sure it would be cool to see all of the visual effects with depth. As it stands, even the  Blu-ray version is pretty good looking. Some wide shots and crowd scenes are identifiable as computer-generated, but everything that happens to Tris, and there’s a lot of mind-confounding stuff for her to go through that isn’t set in reality, is very well done. As a blockbuster-type movie, Insurgent delivers on the expectation for big, flashy scenes.

The special features on this set are also much better than most recent releases I’ve seen. “The Ultimate Behind-the-Scenes Access” is the entire length of the movie, often showing the film in a small box while talking about different aspects. This is more than just fluff, giving real insight into a variety of pieces of the production. There’s also a separate audio commentary, and several featurettes about adapting the book, the cast in general, a break down on a scene, and a look at perhaps the most interesting character, Peter Hayes (Teller). Most of these are not on the straight DVD, so that means blu-ray is recommended, though I’d imagine 3D is the best way to go if you have a 3D television and player.

In short, while Insurgent has some flaws, the package has a lot of value to it. It may not be as good as some other recent entries in the genre, but there is a lot of clever, original material here, too, which will give the savvy viewer much to ponder long after the film is over. Combined with a great array of extras, I’m glad to add this to my collection.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent will is available August 4th.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Article first published as WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP Review on Seat42F.

Wet Hot American Summer Netflix

I love that we live in the modern age where television can be done in many different models, not just the strict, twenty-some episodes per year for an indeterminate number of years commitment. If things had not been shifting as they are, we would never get a gem like WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP (premiering this week on Netflix) due to actor availability alone. Just look at the cast list, which includes Janeane Garofalo, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Christopher Meloni, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, H. Jon Benjamin, John Slattery, Josh Charles, and many more. It would not have been possible to get them all together in a longer-format series.

WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP is actually a prequel to the 2001 film, Wet Hot American Summer. Whereas the movie covers the last day of the year at Camp Firewood, the eight-episode series is set eight weeks earlier, to the first day of the season. Practically all of the adult actors from the original, both major and minor characters, reprise their roles, with a new batch of kids tossed in, and a ton of guest stars who are often as famous, if not more so, than the central cast.

The question might occur to you, as it did me, is this necessary? The movie is terrific; I just re-watched it last night and laughed frequently. But it’s also irreverent, with a loose plot and relatively under-developed characters. It succeeds because of the jokes and the performances, not because of its depth.

Well, if the new version were an exact copy, I’m not sure it would work. Sure, we could enjoy a goofy sitcom over a longer period of time, but it would certainly get tiring if binge watching, as many Netflix subscribers prefer to digest their shows. Instead, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP builds a much more complex story (i.e. can of vegetables), interweaving a number of running subplots, intriguing mysteries, and origin stories fans may not have known they even wanted.

Lest you worry that will take away from the style of humor that worked for Wet Hot American Summer, it does not. The silly gags are still present, Arty (recast) still the radio station, and the characters are the same as they ever were. They just have a little more to do, and what they do sometimes (but not always) has a little more importance. Continuity remains intact, as much as it ever was.

Given the short bits this four-hour comedy is broken up into, not everyone can show up right away. Most of the biggest stars are back in episodes one and two, with a lot of the smaller ones joining in episode three. The original ensemble is supplemented mostly by cast members from writer David Wain’s other TV show, Childrens Hospital (which also has Wet Hot American Summer stars), and Mad Men alum, along with Wain himself, so it takes even longer to get around to everyone.

Yet, it doesn’t feel crowded. Sure, Michael Ian Black, for one, doesn’t have a lot to do in the first few installments, but I’m optimistic that will change as the season goes on. Like the movie, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP jumps around a lot, and that allows for lots of subplots.

Most importantly, though, it just feels like the magic is back. True, the actors don’t pass for sixteen-year-olds, but they didn’t in 2001, either, and the only adds to the conceit. I was enjoying the show so much, I couldn’t stop to write this after one or two episodes, and barely tore myself away after the third. As someone who loves the film, I think this iteration adds to, not takes away from, the work. I hope we eventually get to see even more of this terrific summer of 1981.

WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP was released last Friday on Netflix.