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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

GAME OF THRONES - The Complete Sixth Season

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: "Game of Thrones - The Complete Sixth Season" on Blogcritics.

HBO’s Game of Thrones hits Blu-ray, digital, and DVD with its latest season just in time for the holidays. By now, anyone who might be interested in this release, The Complete Sixth Season, already knows the players and settings pretty well, hooked into the battle of sex, violence, and political intrigue for years. Who will end up ruling Westeros, and who else among our favorites might survive the bloody, never-ending conflicts? The sixth year continues those threads and tees up the final two, shorter seasons, set to air next summer and the year after.
A lot of exciting stuff happens in sixth season. The North descends further into chaos as Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon) secures his hold on the land. At the same time, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and a resurrected Jon Snow (Kit Harington) build an army to unseat Bolton, the bastard sitting in their departed father’s chair. Further north, the brothers at The Wall are thrown into chaos, and beyond that, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) reappears after a season off, and we finally learn the story behind fan-favorite Hodor’s (Kristian Nairn) name in a very memorable episode.
Looking south, King’s Landing is a mess as Cersei (Lena Headey) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) each try to bend the ear of the ineffectual King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), who continues to be stream-rolled by The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). A clear winner emerges by the end of the year, probably surprising even Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who has come home to the capital. However, the new ruler shouldn’t get too comfortable, as the vengeful Sands steal control of Dorne and look towards the Red Keep.
This isn’t even taking into account what’s going on across the sea, with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) training to take her revenge, and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) trying to hold a city together for the MIA Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). And off the coast of Westeros, Yara (Gemma Whelan) and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) struggle with murderous family members to attempt to hold onto their own lands.
This is all only a very brief overview of a busy ten episodes, which include many more characters and scenarios. The pacing is excellent, everything constantly in motion, and the various threads balanced beautifully. The world created continues to be grounded and compelling, and it’s very easy to see why this is one of the most popular series being made right now.
However, as a fan of the books first, I still find it a bit hard to overlook the horrible way in which the TV show departed from the source material. For four seasons, Game of Thrones was a pretty faithful adaptation of the novels. Beginning in season five, and continuing even more blatantly this year, the story has gone in a myriad of different directions, thumbing its nose at the author, George R.R. Martin. I get that a video medium needs to take certain liberties, but either it stays fairly true or it is its own thing; I can’t recall another example of a show that started the former and changed to the latter mid-stream. While part of this may be because the show has gotten ahead of the books in many regards, Martin being a notoriously slow writer, it still feels fundamentally wrong, a betrayal of the fans.
And yet, I can’t stop watching. I have come to love these actors and their portrayals of the characters, and if I can push the books out of my mind, it’s still a very good show. It makes me supremely sad that such an excellent show is tainted in this way, but at this point, it’s too late to change that. I am committed to seeing it through to the end regardless, even as I already long for a re-do in the future.
HBO usually takes good care of its viewers in terms of extras on their home releases, and Game of Thrones – The Complete Sixth Season is no exception. Besides the expected deleted scenes and audio commentaries (thirteen for ten episodes!), there is an in-episode guide that seems invaluable for such a complex, interwoven tale. The guide also provides background info for the series, not just the story, which means there is useful trivia even if one is already well-versed in all things Westeros. Adding to the mythology are a batch of “Histories & Lore,” as told by the characters.
Beyond that, there is an in-depth look at the impressive Battle of the Bastards sequence and a peek at the work done in Paint Hall. We also get to see how the Dothraki made their come back in the production after having been out of the story so long. So there is quite an impressive array of bonus material.
Despite my reservations about Misters Benioff and Weiss, the show-runners, and some of the (in my opinion) poor decisions they’ve made of late, Game of Thrones remains a must-see program, and this set is well worth a look.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Not So GOOD BEHAVIOR

Article first published as GOOD BEHAVIOR Review on Seat42F.


TNT’s latest drama is GOOD BEHAVIOR, premiering tonight. Based on the book series by Blake Crouch (The Wayward Pines Trilogy), the program follows an alcoholic con artist on parole from prison who gets drawn back into the underworld in a big way. She’s just a small-time thief, but when she steals from an assassin, she suddenly goes even deeper into the dark side with no clear path back.

Our protagonist, Letty Dobesh, is played by Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame. While Lady Mary could be a bit of a jerk from time to time, she certainly would not approve of Letty’s behavior, and it’s quite a different role for her. Gone is the British accent, and in its place are wigs, a bunch of role playing, and some guns. Dockery does all right, but I just don’t know if she’s the right person to lead GOOD BEHAVIOR.

To be fair, few actresses would be great in this series, and that’s more the fault of the program than the performer. It’s pretty messily plotted, with twists coming quickly and too conveniently, motivations barely examined before rocketing on to the next thing, and an emphasis on flash over substance. It’s laid out as sort of a case of the week, but wrapped in a serial story. So that fact that Dockery can’t make it believable isn’t entirely surprising.

GOOD BEHAVIOR does try to flesh Letty out by giving her a child she’s trying to regain custody of and a far-too-lenient parole officer, Christian (Terry Kinney, Billions, Oz). Yet, rather than providing context for Letty, these seem to be set dressings. If Letty were really devoted to her kid, she might try harder to turn over a new leaf. And if Christian were even a little good at his job, he wouldn’t allow her to walk all over him. It feels flat, elements stolen from better stories to try to dress up a mediocre show.

The chemistry between Dockery and Juan Diego Botto (Zorro, Roma), who plays the killer, Javier, whose thumb Letty gets trapped under, isn’t bad. In fact, I’d bet that GOOD BEHAVIOR is banking on the steamy, dangerous romance as the primary draw. Will they sleep together? Almost certainly. Will they fall in love and allow that to get in the way of their criminal activities? That’s a little less obvious, but if the series runs for a few years, almost equally certain.

The problem is that a little flirtation doesn’t make up for the weak overall presentation. With only four main characters, the fourth being Lusia Strus’ (Wayward Pines) Estelle, there’s a lot of lingering focus on the main players, especially the central pair. So when the plot is flimsy around them, without totally showing a realistic relationship or reasons for what the players are doing, then the whole thing doesn’t hold up very well.

I do think TNT has been trying to make better dramas lately. But most of their shows tend to be like GOOD BEHAVIOR, interesting ideas that are not as well developed as the same series might be on their leading basic cable competitors, FX and AMC. I will give TNT credit for having a brand and sticking with it, but I can’t help but wish they allowed themselves to get a little more complex in their storytelling. Letty would be a much more interesting character if the series toyed with ambiguity and shades of grey, which in this case are minimized in favor of action.

So should you watch GOOD BEHAVIOR? Well, if you like other TNT series, you probably are already adjusted to the lowered expectations that come with viewing that network, and may enjoy this one, too. If you’ve wanted to watch TNT, or have occasionally given in only to be disappointed, this program is not going to change your mind; stay away.

GOOD BEHAVIOR premieres tonight at 9/8c on TNT.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

HELL ON WHEELS Stop Turning

Article first published as 'Hell on Wheels - Season 5, Volume 2' on Blogcritics.

AMC’s Hell on Wheels, often ignored, but worthy of the great network it aired on among peers like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, came to an end recently with its final seven episodes. Centered around the building of the transcontinental railroad, the series followed some really good characters, as well as a depiction of racial relations at the time, as the workers labored to connect America coast to coast following the Civil War. Now, those last installments are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with some extras.

What strikes me about this final batch of episodes, which I eagerly devoured in two sittings, is that they are, on balance, more character-driven than most of the seasons. Don’t get me wrong, Hell on Wheels has done some beautiful and disturbing stories featuring its players over the years. But usually those are scenes intermixed with larger arcs and many moving plots. Here, four of the seven episodes really zero in on one or two faces, with much of the main cast sitting out multiple installments, and the finale serves pretty much all of those left standing. This leaves only two hours for the basic narrative about the railroad as a whole.

This works very well, even if it does depart from what most long-time viewers might expect from the show. The completion of the tracks still gets its due near the end, with one more really good story about pulling together and doing the impossible, the two companies racing one another to the finish line. However, by often focusing even more than ever on the central characters, it allows solid endings for a lot of the players we have come to deeply care about. And though many of them either die or leave before the end, each hour shedding another face or two, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to send the show off.

Among those who get an appropriate goodbye are: Fong (Angela Zhou), the woman disguised as a man; Maggie Palmer (Chelah Horsdal), the hotel owner who sees the best in people; Psalms (Dohn Norwood), the former slave with whom our once-slave-owner protagonist forms a bond; Naomi (MacKenzie Porter), the young Mormon wife of our hero, from whom he’s been physically separated; Chinese mob villain Chang (Byron Mann); and, of course, The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), the primary antagonist from Norway who has been permanently scarred by the horrors of war.

Then there’s our remaining central quartet, who have been through so much together on on their own, and whom get more than a single hour to wrap their own stories up. Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) is not just the central figure, but a man who learns a lot over these past years, and who finds himself at his most vulnerable as things come to a close. Bohannan says so much without words, and I continue to be impressed at Mount’s performance. Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) is the crooked boss, through whom we begin to wonder if the ends might just justify the means. Eva (Robin McLeavy) is the girl who is perhaps the ultimate survivor, going from prisoner to whore to entrepreneur. Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke) is the Irish immigrant pursuing the American dream, learning it costs a heck of a lot to achieve. Each of these have very touching moments as their threads tie off.

Hell on Wheels is not a happy ending type of a show. Many beloved characters have passed over the years, and happiness routinely eludes just about everyone. These people live a harsh life with a gritty reality, and that continues through the finale, with no artificial wrap up that’s too neat for their existence. That being said, there’s a full circle to be found, and the conclusions are satisfying in keeping with the series overall.

The extras in Season 5, Volume 2 are unfortunately thin. Three featurettes run less than five minutes each. A little more valuable are the “Inside the Episode” bits, which are about five minutes each, and there’s one for every hour in the set. Still, I wish the producers were a little less taciturn than the characters, and really examined what the show has accomplished over its six-year run.

In the end, though, I greatly enjoy Hell on Wheels, and will certainly miss it. If you didn’t catch it during its original airing, now is your chance, as all of the episodes have been released, ending with Hell on Wheels Season 5, Volume 2, on sale now. The Complete Series is also available. I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Welcome-ish, PEOPLE OF EARTH

Article first published as PEOPLE OF EARTH Review on Seat42F.


TBS is a network for experimental sitcoms, so their latest offering, PEOPLE OF EARTH, should fit right in. An accomplished journalist is assigned to cover a support group for people who believe they have been abducted by aliens. Anxious to get past that waste of time and onto something meaningful, he barely gives the theories of the crazy people a second thought… until he has an extraterrestrial encounter of his own.
Yep, it sounds like a bizarre premise, and it is. It gets even more bizarre when viewers get to start seeing the aliens, knowing this isn’t just conspiracy theories, and is actually a real problem. The aliens plan to take over the world and aren’t too happy that our hero, Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac, The Daily Show), is onto them. After all, no one is going to listen to a bunch of crackpots, but an actual reporter who is determined to find proof? That could threaten all of their plans!
I like the cast of this show. Besides Cenac, the large ensemble includes Ana Gasteyer (Suburgatory, Saturday Night Live), Luka Jones (Up All Night), Brian Huskey (Another Period), Michael Cassidy (The Magicians), Oscar Nunez (The Office), Nancy Lenehan (My Name Is Earl), Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Selfie), Alice Wetterlund (Silicon Valley), Daniel Sherman (Run All Night), and Tracee Chimo (Orange Is the New Black). This isn’t an A-list bunch, but there are quite a few familiar faces, and some very funny people on the list.
I also like the concept. Alien abductions are usually dismissed as nonsense, and if they were to be played for laughs, it’s by laughing at the characters. Here, we have some people who fit that stereotype of someone who isn’t to be believed, but knowing they’re right changes the dynamic and feel of the series. It’s kind of a weird world that doesn’t feel like our own reality, even though it looks and sounds like it, which makes for an interesting watching experience.
Where it goes wrong for me is the execution. The aliens themselves aren’t portrayed nearly as well as they could be. They are an inept bunch, even though they’ve been able to operate in the shadows for some time. They’re too sloppy to feel realistic. There are plot holes, one of the invaders making a very strange decision in retrospect, which feels very obvious by episode two. We’re still very much in the dark about who they are and what they want, but there doesn’t appear to be a cohesive idea behind them that will make the mystery worth it. And, while some have cool designs, others are pretty lame.
Because of that, I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not that interested in finding out. If PEOPLE OF EARTH can’t get through two half-hour installments without making me doubt the reality they’re presenting, I don’t know that I can stomach a weekly show that may not pay off.
The one aspect that gives me a bit of hope is that delusions that Ozzie experiences. By setting the narrator up to be unreliable, there is a possibility that the inconsistencies and plot holes could be purposeful, clues that not all is as it seems to be to those of us watching at home (another level beyond the ignorant, unprepared humans who don’t know the aliens are coming). If this were embraced more fully, PEOPLE OF EARTH could be a ground-breaking sitcom.
I just don’t think that’s where it’s going, though, so while I was amused and interested in the first couple of installments, I’m not sold on continuing, especially on a network that had yet to distinguish itself as consistently reliable in the comedy realm, airing both good series and total duds, often at the same time.
PEOPLE OF EARTH premieres tonight at 10/9c on TBS.