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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fully LOADED

Article first published as TV Review: LOADED on Seat42F.


AMC’s newest series is a British import adapted from an Israeli series, and yet, you won’t be able to watch it without comparing it to a popular U.S. program. LOADED tells the story of four entrepreneurs who make it rich with a game they developed. Through a series of bad decisions and dumb mistakes, they frustratingly begin losing the money just as quickly as they acquired it.

Yes, if LOADED sounds a bit like HBO’s Silicon Valley to you, that’s because they two programs are very similar, down to some of the characters that populate it. The main differences are that LOADED is starting from a point of success, the core characters actually love one another, and this is a drama infused with comedy, rather than a comedy infused with drama.

That last may be a slight distinction, but it’s also an important one. There are fewer laugh-out-loud moments in LOADED than there are in Silicon Valley, but there is more complexity in the characters and the relationships. For instance, one of the four, Watto (Nick Helm, Uncle), is struggling with his sobriety. The way he hangs onto it in episode one is hilarious, but there’s true darkness and pain lurking right below the surface.

The two most central figures are Leon (Samuel Anderson, Doctor Who) and Josh (Jim Howick, Yonderland), who appear polar opposites at first. Leon spends his cash on a Ferrari, champagne baths, and a revenge barbershop quartet, while Josh wants to invest in a living space of his own (he shares a flat with the other three). But even in the pilot, Leon wises up in some ways, and Josh gets more reckless in others. We see how they balance one another out, and the deep respect and affection they have for one another. Together, they make for good leadership. Separately, they’d probably fall apart.

Rounding out the quartet is Ewan (Jonny Sweet, Together), who, at first, I believed to be there only for comic relief, similar as he is to Silicon Valley’s Jared. But then I realized there’s more there. He is the one who is overlooked, forgotten about. Even on a lawsuit against the company, his name is left off of the writ. And we see him work to correct that imbalance, overcompensating in a sad way.

Along with these four, there’s Casey (Mary McCormack, In Plain Sight, The West Wing), their overbearing “sexy Darth Vader” American boss, and Naomi (Lolly Adefope, Rovers), Casey’s assistant who is the true character just there for a joke. Together, the ensemble is a strong one, with a lot going on, and plenty of possibilities for the eight-episode first season.

The question becomes, despite the good characters, is it worth watching if you’re already into Silicon Valley, given how alike the two series are? I can’t say for sure. I don’t mind watching British versions of shows I’ve already seen in America, and that’s kind of how I see this (even though the British is a remake of a show from elsewhere). But with everything that’s out there, does anyone really have time to watch two of (essentially) the same show right now? That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.

I will say, I am most displeased that AMC has censored LOADED so much, forcing reshoots of scenes and the limitation of how many and which curse words can be said per episodes. Some basic cable networks are loosening up their restrictions, and I think AMC should follow suit, especially because HBO places no such requirements on Silicon Valley, and that makes LOADED come off as a tamer version. Plus, the characters suffer from it, feeling not quite as realistic. It’s just language, and LOADED airs late at night. What’s the big deal?

LOADED airs Mondays at 10/9c on AMC.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE

Article first published as TV Review: FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE on Seat42F.


First, there was Seinfeld. Then It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Happy Endings. Now, we have FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE, premiering tomorrow on Netflix.

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE is another comedy about a group of pals who aren’t all that likeable, and yet, because of terrific actors and magnetic, entertaining personalities, we’ll want to keep watching them, if not rooting for them.

This series isn’t a retread, though; it’s the natural evolution of the trend. Seinfeld was a light, fun, nonsense sitcom, and proud of it. Sunny took it a bit dirtier, while Happy Endings matured the emotional heft. FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE deals with real issues and isn’t laugh-a-minute with one-liners, but it is amusing, and it does feel like a premium cable comedy, something that would also be at home on HBO, as well as its berth on Netflix.

We begin with Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele) and Sam (Annie Parisse, Person of Interest), carrying on an affair they’ve been having since college. Both are married, but both unions have some serious problems, so they regularly hook up when they can. It’s that not often, since they live in different cities. As the pilot begins, Ethan announceshe’s moving back the Big Apple, restoring their friend group from their Harvard days, but complicating the tryst.

Ethan and Sam are the most central characters at first, so even though they may not be likeable, they need to be people we can relate to. And they are. Ethan loves his wife, but he doesn’t always want what she wants. He’s an author considering breaking into Young Adult fiction, tired of his award-winning novels not selling, but detests the genre for reasons that perfectly describe him. Sam thinks her husband is dumb, and is a little more desperate for escape, though she clearly likes her (rarely seen on screen) children.

Yes, these are people with arrested development, lacking the emotional maturity they need to progress. We all remember times like that, or may still be struggling with some of the emotions (although hopefully making different choices). I am eager for the affair to become public knowledge to see what happens, but at the same time, I worry what that would do to the friend group at the center of FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE.

The other four primary players are: Ethan’s wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother), who has just taken a job at a horrible hedge fund; rich trust fund lothario Nick (Nat Faxon, Married); aspiring (and failing) actress Marianne (Jae Suh Park, The Big Short); and oft-overlooked book agent Max (Fred Savage, The Grinder, Wonder Years). Lisa has the most material of the four in the first half of the season, and Cobie excels at it, but Max has the funniest bits, and Marianne seems like a simmering cauldron ready to erupt.

Yes, they are all too involved in one another’s lives, and it’s not entirely realistic they are all still so close, but it’s a premise one can overlook to enjoy all of these great actors playing together. Toss in Max’s partner (Billy Eichner, Difficult People), who doesn’t like Max’s friends, and Sam’s husband (Greg Germann, Ally McBeal), who seems to have levels that haven’t yet been explored, and this is the makings for a long-term series I’d enjoy watching. I hope Eichner and Germann are promoted to series regular in season two, as I love how they are outsiders who don’t get the friend group, which is a valuable thing to have when telling this story.

While this may not be completely original territory, and as I’ve said, it’s hard to like most of the characters, I could not stop watching, plowing through half the season before pausing to write this review, and eager to watch the second half as soon as I’m done. This is a great cast, and the story, while at times frustrating, is compelling. I hope it runs a good, long time.

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE will release all eight episodes of season one tomorrow exclusively on Netflix.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Seeking SALVATION

Article first published as TV Review: SALVATION on Seat42F.


CBS has a new summer drama premiering tonight, SALVATION. Humanity is only six months away from being wiped out by an asteroid impact, but almost nobody knows it. When MIT grad student Liam Cole brings the event to the attention of billionaire inventor Darius Tanz, Tanz rushes to the Pentagon to assist in a plan to stop it. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Harris Edwards, assures them that it’s already under control, but he’s definitely lying, even to his inappropriate sweetheart, an employee under him, Pentagon Press Secretary Grace Barrows. Can Tanz and Cole save mankind without the government’s help?

CBS likes to do light science fiction fare in the summer, and SALVATION is no different. Like The Dome or Zoo, it involves a disaster, though this one is a bit less mysterious, and a couple of heroes that must save everyone because, apparently, they are the only ones capable of doing so. It’s like a popcorn action movie spread out over ten to thirteen episodes, with only superficial or generic characters development amid the emergency that the focus is on. It would not be a bad concept to do in the 1990s. In the middle of Peak TV, shows like this are likely to be ignored, not enough quality present to compete with year-round great series.

The biggest thing the show has going for it at the outset is casting Jennifer Finnigan (Tyrant, Close to Home) as Grace. Finnigan is a fun actress who I have enjoyed in many projects previously, and was the biggest reason I had hope for this show. Her primary story is a predictable, though. She’s at the verge of changing careers so she can be with Edwards (Ian Anthony Dale, Hawaii Five-0), but then learns he is keeping secrets from her, casting her decisions in doubt. Another subplot involving her daughter works for the emotional heft needed in episode one, but doesn’t seem to have legs. I hope she is better used going forward, but there’s just not enough meat for Finnigan in the pilot.

The male leads, Santiago Cabrera (Heroes, The Musketeers) as Tanz and Charlie Rowe (Red Band Society) as Liam, aren’t bad, but neither are they magnetic. Instead, they seem to be relatively stock characters themselves, with their complexity coming straight out of a dozen other stories featuring leads that are strikingly similar.

Somewhat interestingly, Liam begins a romance with an aspiring science fiction author, Jillian (Jacqueline Byers, Roadies), just before things get started. If the relationship weren’t so rushed and stereotypical, I might be more interested in how fiction will clash with reality, which is an avenue worth exploring. Provided, of course, SALVATION doesn’t go the Castle route and just make it ridiculously unrealistic, ignoring the actual possibilities of such a plot. (I maintain Castle worked because of Nathan Fillion; anyone else would have struggled to make it watchable.)

I don’t dislike Salvation. As someone that enjoys the genre, I am tempted to watch. The problem is, there needs to be some hook besides the general premise. For instance, last year’s BrainDead was quirky and charming, with great musical recaps at the beginning of each episode, plenty to keep me hooked through the whole single-season run. SALVATION seems to lack that.

In short, there’s a compelling storyline in here somewhere, and there are even some intriguing elements to SALVATION that could make it must-see for sci-fi fans. However, it seems underdeveloped, its characters superficial, which is disappointingly as-predicted for broadcast network summer fare. If CBS would just take the season a little more seriously, get some heft behind a project like this, they would be back in competition with the superior cable networks. But it’s clear already that SALVATION is not going to be the vehicle to do that.

SALVATION premieres tonight at 9/8c.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Light SNOWFALL

Article first published as TV Review: SNOWFALL on Seat42F.



FX’s new drama, SNOWFALL, is about the beginning of the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. Set in 1983, the series follows several people who have different connections to the burgeoning industry. Splitting the action by ethnicity and lifestyle, SNOWFALL attempts to give us a wide-ranging overview of how this trend started.

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris, Farming) is the true lead of SNOWFALL. A young, African-American adult looking for his path, he seems trapped between childhood and the real world. Franklin decides to move from selling pot to the harder stuff after a run-in with a crazy gangster, despite knowing that his family, whom he is close to, doesn’t approve. Whether that is a decision that will pay off for him, or whether it will end tragically, that remains to be seen. I’m guessing the former if the show wants to run for any length of time, though there’s likely to be severe cost.

Coming in just behind Franklin in importance are Gustavo ‘El Oso’ Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Resident Evil: Afterlife) and Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson). Gustavo is a professional fighter who is joining a family of crime, while Teddy is a CIA operative who is being allowed to sell drugs to help balance tricky relations with a foreign power. Both seem over their heads more than Franklin, and it’s unclear if either can make what they’re trying to do work for them. They seem like the types of players that may have a more limited run.

There is nothing wrong with a period drama that tells the tale of a significant event or era. HBO had Boardwalk Empire and AMC had Hell On Wheels and Mad Men. But one thing those have in common is that they prioritized complex characters over illustrating the facts. Franklin may qualify, Idris keeping the role interesting, but I hardly think the other two do, nor do the myriad of supporting players. This is where SNOWFALL lacks.

Where SNOWFALL tries to make up for it is the production design, which is aces. The program shows us a full-fledged world that looks both authentic to the time and slightly magical, a little hyperreal. There are a couple of scenes where SNOWFALL beats its setting over our heads a little bit, but for the most part, this is an asset, not a liability.

The program also brings the sexiness, going a little further with mature content than I think I’ve ever seen on a basic cable series. It’s not premium network level, not like the shows on HBO for example, but there are tantalizing and explicit scenes you will not want your kids to see. Which works in SNOWFALL’s favor, as it would be nearly impossible not to go there with the content of the story, at least if they want to keep it fairly accurate.

My most recent review before this one, of Netflix’s Gypsy, lamented how well-made TV isn’t necessarily good television any more, not with the glut of really fantastic series out there right now, and the ability to go back and re-watch so many classics of the past. SNOWFALL does better than Gypsy in providing something interesting and fresh, but has the same drawback in that it could be better. Much better. And that shows.

The bottom line is, SNOWFALL lacks a strong hook that will immediately send viewers scrambling to set a season pass. Without such a thing obvious in the first episode, especially on a network like FX that is known for very strong series (I’d rank it up there with HBO and AMC for producing some of the best), this one falls a little short of the mark. Not so far that it can’t come back from it, but will people stick around to give it a chance? I don’t know, and I’m not sure if you should.

SNOWFALL premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE SERIES

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In: The Complete Series' on Blogcritics.

Before there was Saturday Night Live, there was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Hilarious, topical, sometimes controversial, the comedy program began as a one-time special, and eventually racked up a six season run. Starring an eclectic group of individuals, some of whom built memorable careers, and featuring a bevy of terrific guest stars, recurring sketches and one-liners filled the 140 episodes, some of which did not air until well after cancellation. Now, the entire Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series is available on DVD from Time Life, and most of the episodes getting their first-ever home release.

Launching as a series in January 1968, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was over long before I was born, fifteen years later. But the reputation and jokes lived on, permeating pop culture. Of course I’d seen the clips of Richard Nixon calling out “Sock it to me,” Goldie Hawn go-go dancing, and Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the annoying telephone operator. Having long been a fan of late-night comedy, this was a series I was very curious about, but never sure where to get a hold of it until this set came along.

The number of talented people the series attracted is amazing. Besides Hawn (The First Wives Club) and Tomlin (Grace & Frankie), regulars included Larry Hovis (Hogan’s Heroes), Eileen Brennan (Clue), Richard Dawson (Hogan’s Heroes), Henry Gibson (Boston Legal), Dave Madden (The Partridge Family), and Johnny Brown (Good Times). Perhaps more impressive were the guests stars, with Flip Wilson, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis Jr., Rock Hudson, Dinah Shore, Tim Conway, James Garner, Vincent Price, Buddy Hackett, Michael Caine, Charles Nelson Reilly, Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Rod Serling, Liberace, and Lena Horne being just some of the folks who returned multiple times for guest spots.

As much as it’s fun to watch a bunch of familiar, famous faces parade through the series, Laugh In‘s  real staying power is in the writing. Dan Rowan’s straight man to Dick Martin goofy comic inhabit first segment, leading to mod dance parties, “Laugh-In Looks at the News” (a predecessor of Weekend Update), and though to applause at the end that extends long into the closing credits.

The series has a very specific, signature style with regular inserts and asides. Some strong, some less so, they impart a unique comic tone to the series. Characters like Wolfgang the German Soldier, Gladys Ormphby, Edith Ann, the sock-it-to-me girl, Uncle Al, and more, are memorable to anyone who has seen them. Yes, it is absolutely a product of its era, and the hippie, zany sensibilities are ever-present. But it’s also genuinely funny something that can still make us laugh many decades later. Whether you were a fan back then, or just have an interest in classic television, this is a good DVD set.

The just-released box contains thirty-eight discs, including the pilot special and all the regular episodes, complete and uncut. The show has been remastered, and while it shows its age, it looks pretty good, much better than any clip I’ve seen from it. It’s certainly not high-def ready, but what do you expect from a show so old? The point is, there isn’t the graininess that distracts, and it’s OK if Laugh-In shows its age a little. It’s earned it.

Six hours of bonus features round out the set. The most sizable are a 25th anniversary cast reunion (filmed way back in 2001) and a booklet full of some of the best quotes from the show. There are interviews, bloopers (which aren’t always as funny as the written jokes, but still good to include), a tribute to producer George Schlatter (the late clapper), Schlatter’s Emmy speech, and more. About 100 minutes of it are on a special bonus DVD, while the rest (mainly cast interviews) are scattered among the various season sets, each packaged separately in the larger box.

Personally, I find this DVD set right up my alley, and I enjoyed it immensely. I know it’s not for everyone, but if you like classic or late night comedy, it’s a must-see. And I suspect a great many other people, who aren’t particularly into those things, would find it entertaining, too. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, available now from Time Life, comes with my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Wandering GYPSY

Article first published as TV Review: GYPSY on Seat42F.


GYPSY, Netflix’s newest drama, has a tantalizing premise. Jean Holloway (Naomi Watts) is a therapist with a double, sexy life. She seems, more or less, happily married to Michael (Billy Crudup), with whom she is raising a nine-year-old daughter (Maren Heary) with gender identity issues. But Jean also pretends to be Diane Hart, a journalist, as she engages in a heavy flirtation with younger rocker Sidney (Sophie Cookson). Will her two worlds collide? Almost certainly, considering she is definitely mixing her alter ego into the personal lives of people important to her patients.

That’s a heck of a story, with all kinds of intriguing and attractive possibilities. On Netflix, where there is no hesitation to make adult content, the leash is off and GYPSY can fully explore the concepts it has set up. This could be a very popular show that wins all kinds of awards.

Yet, I don’t think it will be. There is something essential missing, a key ingredient that has been left out of the recipe, that leaves the whole thing feeling flat. Jean isn’t all that compelling, there is no reason to root for her, nor is there exploration of her own psychological profile. The plot lacks urgency, telling us right up front things are going to fall apart (not that we need to be told something so obvious), but more than takes its time getting to anything tension-filled happening.

This is the golden age of antiheroes on television, or, at least it has been for the past decade. That means when a new series enters this particular fray, it must come with a strong, fresh identity that makes it stands out and gives viewers a reason to sign up for another half dozen seasons or so. GYPSY not only fails to do that, it fails to do anything else that makes it stand out, wasting a concept that should be a no-brainer.

I am not sure where the fault lies exactly. It certainly isn’t with Watts, Crudup, Cookson, Heary, or the rest of the cast, who are turning in consistent, fine performances. It doesn’t seem to be in the direction of the series, which fits very well with the tone GYPSY is trying to set. It isn’t in the sexiness, which does come through despite how dull most of the running time is. The parts just don’t add up to a high enough sum for the show overall, and the only thing I can think is to blame the writing, though without comparing script to screen, I can’t say that’s for sure what it comes down to.

I’m not saying GYPSY is terrible, just very mediocre. Granted, if the series had premiered fifteen years ago, I’d likely be hailing it among the best of what the small screen has to offer. Instead, it’s coming long after AMC, HBO, FX, and Netflix itself have shown us what the medium can be, and is immediately held up for comparison to all of the other fantastic programs in the present and recent past. It does not come out well when judged against its peers.

I can’t not recommend GYPSY, because, as I said, it’s hard to point out what it does wrong, other than that perhaps the writing needs to be more aggressive and contain more depth. But I can’t in good conscience recommend it, either, since, despite a few things I really like about it, it is just not going to make my list of shows to watch. I want it to, but it does not.

Netflix will need to be more careful moving forward. It still has some of the best series out there, and it likely will have other great ones in its future. But as it begins pumping out more and more content, the streaming service will lose its cache of good will if it churns out a bunch of hours that aren’t so promising. The brand is measured by everything it produces, not just the best of the bunch.

The complete first season of GYPSY is available now exclusively on Netflix.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

VIXEN - THE MOVIE

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Vixen - The Movie' on Blogcritics.

I’m sure most people interested in superheroes know of The CW’s excellent DC lineup, which includes Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But did you know that The CW Seed, the online off-shoot of the network, also has a DC animated series called Vixen? Originally released as two seasons of a handful of short installments ranging from four to seven minutes in length, all of the run has now been combined into Vixen – The Movie, available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.

Vixen - The Movie does sort of feel like a movie. It isn’t super obvious where one episode from the web series ends and another begins, other than if you assume it happens at scene changes. And while the overall run is kind of segmented into three parts – season one, a fifteen-minute interlude, and season two – the story of Mari McCabe (Megalyn Echikunwoke, The 4400, House of Lies) finding her identity and her powers, which involves controlling the spirits of animals, does help it gel together, albeit without a very definitive ending. Still, the whole thing, overall, comes across as more cohesive than I expected.

The weakest point actually is the new stuff, which is inserted into the middle. While it is relevant to Mari embracing the Vixen identity and learning how to control her powers, it also feels weird and out of place, with no virtually no continuity crossover into the two seasons. This is because Mari already seems to have a decent handle on things from instinct in the first thirty minutes, so it’s almost a step backwards to struggle with how to use them later, and we don’t see her continue the job she accepts into the latter section. I would rather the story had just skipped the year that follows to get to the last thirty minutes if they weren’t going to connect it better. Though, is a running time of less than sixty minutes long enough to be considered a movie?

Vixen isn’t as good as the other DC shows, mainly because the world it portrays is even simpler and more two-dimensional than the live-action incarnations. With most superhero series, there’s a certain amount of black and white in how characters view the world, and that’s an accepted part of the genre. But certain occurrences in Vixen – The Movie, such as Mari forgiving Macalester (Sean Patrick Thomas, The District) so easily, or the handling of what a small world Mari is from in Africa, seem cartoonish, rather than real.

But this is a cartoon, and the target audience is more than likely children. For this, it works. It is better than other children’s superhero cartoons I’ve seen, including the two episodes of the short-lived Justice League Unlimited included in this release’s extras. It’s entertaining, Mari’s powers are cool, and there are decent action scenes. The family drama is interesting, and the hero herself is at least lightly layered. I do wish the characters weren’t so still when they aren’t talking or fighting, but I did find Vixen – The Movie enjoyable.

If you’re a fan of the DC shows on The CW, Vixen – The Movie fits into that universe well. Among the characters crossing over into the animated world are Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), The Flash (Grant Gustin), Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), Black Canary (Katie Cassidy), The Atom (Brandon Routh), and Firestorm (Franz Drameh and Victor Garber). These give the universe some cohesion, and make the new film feel a part of the cannon, which it is.

I also like the performers they’ve recruited just for this project, which include Echikunwoke, Neil Flynn (Scrubs, The Middle), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Black Sails), and Anika Noni Rose (The Good Wife, Dreamgirls). So again, overall, pretty good cast.

Sadly, Vixen – The Movie is lacking in bonus features. There are the aforementioned episodes of Justice League Unlimited episodes from more than a decade ago, which feature Gina Torres (Suits, Firefly) as Vixen. I find both of them boring and not great examples of children’s entertainment. Then there’s a very brief documentary about how Vixen fits in the DC landscape, which is interesting, but at only about six minutes, far too short. So the extras are not going to sway a would-be-buyer to make the purchase.

Though, if you’re already a fan of The CW shows, or you have a child who needs a good female superhero role model, or even just a bit of light entertainment, I recommend checking out Vixen – The Movie, available now.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Return to TWIN PEAKS

Article first published as TV Review: TWIN PEAKS on Seat42F.


More than twenty-five years have passed since the cult favorite TWIN PEAKS left the airwaves after a mere thirty episodes. Last night, it returned to television with a brand-new season on Showtime. The two-hour premiere was met with much anticipation. Does it live up to the hype?

I recently binged the entire thirty-episode original run, plus the film Fire Walk With Me and the ninety minutes of deleted scenes known as The Missing Pieces, and I loved every minute of it. I don’t fully get why some people consider the second season and movie so inferior. Yes, it becomes less focused in year two, but I still enjoy it a lot. So I am going into the new stuff super pumped, definitely a fan.

But I have to say, I was left underwhelmed by the premiere episodes. This, despite all of the beloved returning characters and an immediately dive further into the mystery of the Black Lodge. Having slept on it to reflect, I think I can pinpoint why.

The lifeblood of TWIN PEAKS (film aside) is Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and, to a slightly lesser extent, his relationship with Sheriff Truman. I like the other characters, but the story flows best when we are watching these two investigate together. The utter joy Cooper exhibits at the simplest things, such as cherry pie, bring an innocent magic that is enhanced whenever he is hanging out with his best bud. These initial hours lack that entirely.

Yes, Cooper is still essentially the lead, but he spends the entire two hours in the Black Lodge, where he can’t be himself. It’s impossible, given the structure of that place, and while that can make for a cool sequence or two, Cooper needs to get out before things can really start. MacLachlan also plays the evil doppelganger of Cooper, but again, this version lacks the charisma and magnetic personality of the real Cooper, so it’s not the same at all. And since Truman isn’t returning for the new episodes, we definitely don’t get any of him.

We do see other familiar faces in hours one and two. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) and Hawk (Michael Horse) are the best of those because they actually have plot, reopening the case of the missing Dale Cooper. Sadly, Coulson passed away, so she’ll have to exit the story soon. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) also furthers things a little, albeit confusingly (which I have no problem with, and seems consistent with the old). But most of the others don’t have any kind of story to speak of, basically just making cameos so we can see them again. They all need their separate subplots that eventually intermingle in order to make them interesting. Lacking that, most feel gratuitous.

There are a slew of new characters with story, and multiple new settings are introduced, which is cool. I like that TWIN PEAKS is no longer confined to the town. I’m especially interested in what’s happening in New York City, and I always enjoy actress Madeline Zima (Californication). Unfortunately, much more screen time is spent on Evil Cooper and Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard, Scooby-Doo, The Bridge), who are far less compelling. I don’t blame either actor, their story just isn’t at the same level as classic TWIN PEAKS story so far.

I understand that the new TWIN PEAKS, in keeping with its earlier incarnation, is a marathon, not a sprint, and so may end up being worthwhile and engaging as it plays out. Still, I feel that it needed to start strong in the first two hours, and by withholding the best version of Cooper, focusing largely on uninteresting new roles, and doing little with most of the returning cast, it totally misses the mark. Things needed to happen a little quicker at the front, at least providing a hook for the fans, and these episodes didn’t really do that.

Thankfully, Showtime has already put out episodes 3 and 4 on their streaming service, so I’ll be checking those as soon as possible to see if it improves.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Worship These AMERICAN GODS

Article first published as TV Review: AMERICAN GODS on Seat42F.


Anticipation is high for Starz’s newest drama, AMERICAN GODS, premiering tonight. Based on the popular book by British geek-god Neil Gaiman, and developed by the great Bryan Fuller (along with Logan’s Michael Green), it tells the story of a mortal man caught in the middle of a war between gods, old and new, as things come to a head between the factions. It’s unknown if our hero is working for the right team or not, but the danger is real, and the urgency is immediate.

AMERICAN GODS has a lot going for it, both behind and in front of the camera. While it is not as highly stylized as other Fuller projects (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies), he is able to make the fantasy sequences amazing, vivid, and imaginative. Lead Ricky Whittle (The 100) and lesser known performers like Bruce Langley (Deadly Waters) and Yetide Badaki (Sequestered) quickly establish themselves as people to watch, terrific in their roles. The bench is deep with familiar faces, too, including the likes of Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, Raising Hope), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Emily Browning (Sucker Punch), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked), Orlando Jones (Sleep Hollow), Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie), Jeremy Davies (Lost), Jonathan Tucker (Kingdom), Joel Murray (Mad Men), Beth Grant (The Mindy Project), and, of course, Ian McShane (Deadwood).

If a long list of talented names doesn’t impress you, though it should in this case, I’d like to stress how well cast each of them are. Stormare brings a certain likability to his chillingly creepy Czernobog. Anderson IS Lucy Ricardo, talking out of the screen of the television. Schreiber will seriously make you think twice about teasing a leprechaun. Browning is haunting as the deceased wife who doesn’t seem deserving of our protagonist’s love, and yet has it deeply. McShane watches over it all with a bemused charm that doesn’t allow audiences to question for a moment why Shadow Moon (Whittle) does what Mr. Wednesday (McShane) tells him to.

It’s been a few years since I read the book, but the two hours of AMERICAN GODS I’ve seen feel very faithful to it. This show finds a way to be episodic while maintaining the important through-line of the novel. The format of a road trip is helpful, as there are built in stops and sequences along the way. But there are also the threats of Technical Boy (Langley) and the erotic side trips with Bilquis (Badaki) that prove there’s something more to look forward to than just the next god to encounter.

AMERICAN GODS is sure to work both because of its quality, and because it shares similarities with another network hit, Outlander. Outlander is also based on a novel, and strings along a narrative that stays tight on a couple of characters, with most of the cast only appearing in a small number of episodes. That can be frustrating for those who want more Mr. Nancy (Jones) immediately, and you will. But at the same time, it keeps the plot purer in that Shadow and Mr. Wednesday are the people that count most, and the rest of the cast is truly there to support them.

I knew I would be blown away going into AMERICAN GODS, and it did not disappoint my high expectations. It’s gripping, has terrific pacing, feels very authentic, even in the elements that completely lack realism, and has a strong point of view. Fantasy won’t be for everyone, and this is definitely fantasy, but it also contains social commentary that’s worth paying attention to, along with some stellar performances. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t help Starz get on the Emmy stage.

AMERICAN GODS premieres tonight at 9/8c on Starz.

Friday, April 28, 2017

THE HANDMAID'S TALE Creepily Relevant

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



Hulu has had a few good dramas over the past year or two, but I am hard pressed to think of one as well made and as engaging as THE HANDMAID’S TALE, which premieres this week exclusively on the streaming service. Based on the 1985 book of the same name by Margaret Atwood, and already adapted into a movie almost three decades ago, the story takes place in a dystopian future in which the rapidly decreasing number of fertile women are pressed into slavery to help those in power reproduce.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE feels especially prevalent right now. Despite all the strides made in gender equality since the novel was published, America recently elected a president who brags about sexual assault and at least partially ran on a sexist platform. We’ve also never been closer to a destabilizing war in most of our lifetimes, with an erratic, ignorant leader in the Oval Office. One can’t help but wonder if there’s some probability of the events of the series coming true as political situations unfold. Now, that may sound far-fetched to some, and I do not seek to turn off anyone by making this too political. But the possible parallels are too striking to ignore, and Trump’s election only makes this series more important.

Taking THE HANDMAID’S TALE at face value, it’s a chilling portrait of one woman who is old enough to remember a time before this system, having had a husband and child, and now has to put up with the subjugation, seeing no way out, even though her entire being screams that this is wrong. It’s a plight that viewers may not quite be able to relate to, at least not at the raw level depicted, but one we can comprehend and be freaked out by.

Elisabeth Moss, the excellent actress from such critically acclaimed hits as Mad Men, The West Wing, and Top of the Lake, once again chooses her projects wisely, taking the lead role of Offred, the Handmaid belonging to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, American Horror Story: Asylum, Flashforward). Desperate to escape to look for her daughter, mourning those she has lost, Offred isn’t even allowed to keep her name as she is trained under the strict rule of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, The Leftovers) and raped while lying in the lap of Waterford’s jealous wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, Chuck, 24: Live Another Day). She isn’t even allowed to leave the Waterford’s house without being accompanied by another Handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel, Gilmore Girls).

Offred’s predicament is absolutely heart breaking. As we see what she has gone through and what she has lost, we cannot help but feel for her. Moss makes us cry, and lets us experience the terror her character is living. When she gets angry and acts out violently, we understand why and instantly forgive her. Any tiny hint that things might change for her is cheered, but those are few and far between.

While Moss is the most obvious person to give credit to, I would be remiss if I didn’t praise the rest of the cast as well. Dowd, Fiennes, and Strahovski are creepy and complex, adding to the dreary atmosphere. Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) is terrific as Offred’s friend from her past, and Bledel keeps us guessing as to whether we can trust Ofglen or not, a huge if in the current circumstances. There is no weak link in this cast, which is large enough to include several more regulars.

Everything from the production design to the score to the pacing to the direction reinforces the central warning message of THE HANDMAID’S TALE. There appears to be a singular vision, and each element contributes to a high-quality whole. Depressing and disturbing as the show can be, it’s also magnetic and engrossing. The pilot alone has stuck with me and occupied my thoughts for days, and I feel compelled to finish the other hours as they are released.

Several hours of THE HANDMAID’S TALE will be available to Hulu subscribers this Wednesday, April 26th, with the rest of the season doled out weekly thereafter.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Meet Your GIRLBOSS

Article first published as TV Review: GIRLBOSS on Seat42F.



Netflix’s latest series is GIRLBOSS. It’s the story of Sophia, a young woman who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life, and so bounces between jobs and casually breaks the law while sleeping with drummers. You know, just a typical story. In the process, however, she sort of accidentally starts her own business and becomes a powerhouse entrepreneur worth millions. And it’s (very loosely) based on a true story.

Britt Robertson (Life Unexpected, Tomorrowland) stars as Sophia, and brings just the right mix of moxy and snark to the role. Sophia is not very likable when described outside of the story, and yet, there’s something magnetic about her. You may, as I did, find yourself rooting for her to succeed, even as she’s ripping people off and showing utter disrespect to those who don’t deserve it. She’s a rebel who refuses to play by established rules and cuts her own path, which is a much harder way to go through life and not always necessary (as it isn’t here), and yet could end up being more rewarding. I’ve long liked Robertson, but this may be my favorite role for her yet in its complexity, another well-deserved series lead.

Sadly, if you look into the person Sophia is supposed to be in real life, any success will be fleeting, as the company just getting started in this dramedy series, Nasty Girl, recently filed for bankruptcy.

Robertson is joined by an absolutely terrific cast that includes Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Jim Rash (Community), RuPaul (RuPaul’s Drag Race), Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Alphonso McAuley (Breaking In), Johnny Simmons (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Ellie Reed. Not all of these are well known, but all are good, mixing younger, fresher faces with experienced, lauded performers. Robertson sort of spans the two groups, talented without a lot of high-profile parts to date, so it works out very well.

The plot itself is pretty good, though after two episodes, I’m not sure it’s completely good enough for the actors. The story itself is relatively predictable and familiar. Coming on the heels of Girls, GIRLBOSS might lack the attention it would otherwise receive. Arrested development has been done before, and somewhat more edgy or raw than it is here. This is like a slightly sanitized version of the too-soon-gone How to Make it in America.

I’m not completely sold on the idea of this being a period piece. 2006 isn’t long enough ago to feel all that different, and aside from the clunky cell phones and a well-placed The Devil Wears Prada billboard, I can’t say it feels all that different from today. The fact that the characters go out of their way to make pop culture references, which do feel shoe-horned in, makes me wish they’d just set it in the present. I don’t know that anything is really added to the story by going backward.

And yet, the truly excellent performances raise the overall profile enough to totally hook viewers in and make you want to watch more. In peak TV, the show might not be good enough to stand out, but I doubt audiences that give it a chance won’t want to see it through. I know I’m full invested already to watch the series until cancellation, whenever than may be.

In all, I do recommend GIRLBOSS, but not unequivocally. This isn’t a show I would tell people they have to watch, but I did enjoy it and do plan to binge it myself. Take that as you will.

GIRLBOSS’s thirteen episode first season is available on Netflix today.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

DOCTOR WHO Season 10 Premiere Event

Article first published as TV Review: 'Doctor Who' Season Ten Live Premiere Event on Blogcritics.



With assistance from Nick Arganbright

Doctor Who is back for the 10th (!) season premiere, and Fathom Events recently made sure it was done with style. Hosting screenings across the country, Fathom presented the Who franchise’s latest installment on the big screen, with some cool extras. I was lucky enough to attend one such gathering (thanks Fathom!) this week.

Things kicked off with some Doctor Who trivia, which is an enjoyable way to begin. The questions were light and fun, and called to mind fan-favorite Doctors and occurrences from the recent past.
After that, the pilot for Class, the new Doctor Who spin-off, was presented. Fans have been eager for an expansion of the world since the end of Torchwood, and anticipation was high for the new series. Unfortunately, while there are some interesting concepts, and I personally couldn’t get enough of Katherine Kelly’s Miss Quill, Class fails to ignite interest right from the start. It may grow into itself,  but episode one isn’t one that will instantly hook itself a new batch of viewers.

Class presents a diverse group of high school students who end up having to battle aliens and monsters from another realm while attending Coal Hill Academy. Coal Hill is an institution periodically seen in Doctor Who from the beginning, most recently as companion Clara’s place of employment. One of the students in the cast is even an alien himself, the last of his kind hiding on Earth, and I think the idea is a relatively solid one. But the presentation feels artificial, the characters gelling together in a way that doesn’t come across as natural. It’s like the formula for popular young adult shows has been co-opted in an effort to bring in ratings, but they’re trying too hard.

Still, that is only episode one. It may yet grow into itself.

After Class, we got a lovely short about Pearl Mackie “becoming the companion.” Pearl plays the Doctor’s newest traveling buddy, a young, gay, African-American woman named Bill. She (the actress) is charming, and the bonus segment flowed nicely, introducing us to her and getting us psyched up for the episode that followed. I never liked Clara all that much, so am very excited that the new cast member is as instantly likeable as she is.

The Doctor Who 10th season premiere itself does not disappoint in the slightest. It has the whimsical sense of adventure that the best Who episodes do, a genuinely scary villain, real mystery, and not only is new companion Bill magnetic and awesome, but the very amusing Nardole (Matt Lucas) returns as well, presumably to stay for awhile. Plus, a cameo by The Doctor’s most serious foe! What more could anyone want?

The first regular episode in more than fifteen months, we catch up with The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) working as a professor. He meets cafeteria worker Bill (Mackie) when she finds a sentient puddle, whom The Doctor assumes has come to take something from a vault he’s guarding. A girl is killed, and the TARDIS races through the universe and time stream to try to gauge the range of the creature and find a solution to the threat it poses. (The vault, presumably, is a teaser for a future hour.) The episode is called “The Pilot,” which seems tongue-in-cheek for what is essentially yet another reboot of the long-running franchise. I really have no complaints at all about the hour.

I am very grateful that Doctor Who was shown after Class, the opposite of broadcast order on BBC America, where they are currently paired up (though Class aired last year in the UK). Had the spin-off come second, it is quite possible people would be let down. Instead, it’s a light, not terrible, but somewhat flimsy opening act for a stellar main attraction. With Capaldi’s Doctor making a brief cameo in Class, anticipation builds appropriately, and I felt the whole night was very well organized.

In all, I enjoyed Fathom Events, well, event, and I hope they do it again soon. Doctor Who looks fantastic on the big screen, and with the way it all came together, the inclusions that were part of the night, I had a good time and I think others did, too. The only drawback was that attendance was sparse, perhaps because it came a couple of days after the television airing of the premiere, but I would recommend to lovers of the series to go out to the next one. You’ll probably be glad you did.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Not Much CLASS

Article first published as TV Review: CLASS on Seat42F.



BBC’s Doctor Who has had a couple of spin-offs, but none are currently running. Given how infrequent new installments of the parent show are, it’s almost always welcome when there’s some continuation or extension set in that world to fill in the gaps. The newest series, though, at least in America, doesn’t come in the off-season, but instead will air in parallel with new Doctor Who, beginning this weekend.

Called CLASS, the show tells the story of four students and a teacher at the infamous Coal Hill Academy. Renovated and fancied up since the last time we saw it, the school having been periodically featured in the series since the beginning, most recently as Clara’s workplace, this allows both a familiar and fresh setting for the new show.

The ensemble is as diverse as it can be in the British school-limited setting, with multiple races and sexual preferences represented in the five-member troupe. There’s: Ram (Fady Elsayed, My Brother the Devil), who dreams of being a football (soccer to us Americans) star; April (Sophie Hopkins, Brackenmore), the mild-mannered nerd who helps care for her mother; Tanya (Vivian Oparah), a Nigerian prodigy; and Charlie (Greg Austin, Mr. Selfridge), an alien price, the last of his race, who has a crush on a Polish boy, Matteusz (Jordan Renzo). They are watched over by Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly, Coronation Street, Mr. Selfridge), also alien, also last of her race, enslaved to protect Charlie.

So yes, the character descriptions give you a bit of the ongoing plot right away. With two extraterrestrials hiding out and trying to keep their races from going extinct, any number of baddies will come to the school looking for them. Then again, that institution has always attracted more than its fair share of trouble, with a body count well above average. So multiple elements converge on a place that is sure to see exciting things happen on a regular basis.

I do admit, I found CLASS a little hard to access at first. The core group seems so different from one another, and it feels weird to see them all drawn together artificially early, not by the monster, but prior to that. It was especially bizarre when they all sat next to one another in class. I think most shows would have circumstance bond them, or focus on an already solidified friend group, but CLASS tries something different, and I’m not sure it quite works. Or maybe I’m applying an American cultural filter to a British series; I’m just not sure.

The first episode itself is interesting, setting things up nicely, while still having an urgent plot driving it as well. There are some fun references, such as when the school is said to be essentially sitting on a Hellmouth. The problem with that is, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best shows of all time, and inviting comparison is risky. The saving grace is that Buffy didn’t have a strong first season, so it also asks viewers to give CLASS a chance if it doesn’t immediately hook them.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) makes his inevitable cameo, as we know he must, but I found it a disappointing one. Not in of itself, as I loved seeing him, as it fits into the whole. CLASS is trying to set itself and its heroes up, and having The Doctor burst in at a key moment feels like cheating, robbing the protagonists of their chance to really stand up for themselves. We do get some other opportunities to see the cast in action, and The Doctor does provide some welcome wisdom. But it still didn’t feel quite right.

I like CLASS. It has a talented ensemble, and I cannot get enough of Kelly as Quill. But it doesn’t have the charm of Doctor Who (except when The Doctor is present), and it struggles to find its own identity in episode one. It isn’t as instantly gripping as Torchwood, a prior spin-off. With seven more episodes in this run, we’ll see if it develops into something worthwhile, or sputters out.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

How Many REASONS Do You Need?

Article first published as 13 REASONS WHY Review on Seat42F.


Last week, Netflix released the new drama 13 REASONS WHY (or TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY in the opening title sequence), based on the novel by Jay Asher. By now, many people have had time to check out at least a few of the thirteen episodes available, and reviews have been strong. But in an age of peak TV, you might be wondering just what this show is and why you should watch it over the plethora of other excellent choices. This article seeks to answer that question.

13 REASONS WHY begins in the aftermath of Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford, Daughter) suicide. Hannah is, er, was a high school girl, newish in town, average by most standards. Various members of the community are quite shaken by her demise, including her parents (Private Practice’s Kate Walsh and Smash’s Brian d’Arcy James). Why did she do it? Ah, well that is the mystery.

Our conduit into this question is Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette, Scandal, Saving Grace), a boy who had a crush on Hannah, and who is reeled not only be her taking her own life, but by what comes after it. A box is delivered to Clay’s doorstep containing seven cassette tapes, six recorded on both sides, detailing the thirteen sides of Hannah’s story. Hannah says at the start that everyone who receives these recordings figures into her decision to end herself, and Clay is freaked out as he listens to each one, getting through one tape side per episode.

There are a lot of unanswered questions as we start this. Why did Hannah kill herself? What is her true purpose in recording the audio? Why does Clay, who seems like a mild-mannered, ‘nice’ guy get the tapes? Who had them before him? Who will get them after him? What will Clay do about it?

The material is dark, of course. While the plot does revolve around high school kids and the characters feel authentic to the age that they are, there is weighty subject matter in the suicide and fall out from it. High school is a strange place, a setting where kids turn into adults, some quicker than others, and this is well illustrated by exploring very mature themes in this locale. 13 REASONS WHY deftly captures the duality and dynamic period that is both relatable and a bit foreign to anyone who might watch it.

Kicking the series up another notch is the non-linear way in which it unfolds. Jammed with flashbacks, Hannah is as much a character as anyone, second only to Clay in screen time, and while Clay is on a set journey, his thoughts don’t always stay on the path. This makes it more complicated to follow, although that is helped along by a visible facial injury early in episode one. It still feels very natural, though, mimicking the process one’s mind might go through while facing the complex reality.

Sealing this one for me are a pair of authentic, deep performances by Minnette and Langford. Given that they are the central characters, they are the ones most responsible for keeping 13 REASONS WHY from feeling like a trite young adult novel, not an easy feat. Yet, the do it almost effortlessly, impressing viewers for their acting ability; they are talented for any age.

All of these elements combined are why I have no reservations about recommending 13 REASONS WHY. It’s a well-told, well-executed production about important matters. It avoids the traps many series or films in this movie fall into, and while not totally unique, this is certainly among the best examples on the subject. Although twice the age of the lead, I found it very compelling and easy to feel for Clay, and Hannah has piqued my curiosity, especially in the elaborate way she set up her project with (I assume purposely) outdated technology. I look forward to seeing this through.
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13 REASONS WHY is available now on Netflix.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Does IRON FIST Punch Land?

Article first published as MARVEL'S IRON FIST Review on Seat42F.


MARVEL’S IRON FIST released today. The fourth in a series of Netflix shows from the comic creator, it is designed to set up the final piece of the quartet for The Defenders team, a crossover series coming soon. In an effort to get you a review in as timely a manner as possible, this only covers the first hour of IRON FIST (mainly spoiler-free), although all thirteen have been released.

We open with our hero, Danny Rand (Finn Jones, Game of Thrones), returning to New York City for the first time in fifteen years. Barefoot, dirty, and scraggly, Danny fits in better with the homeless denizens of the park than he does in the upscale home and office building of his youth. Reintegrating back into the life he has been missing from is, predictably, not an easy task. Especially when his childhood friends, siblings Joy (Jessica Stroup, The Following) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey, Banshee), think Danny died in a plane wreck with his parents and don’t trust his sudden reappearance.

There’s no suspense for viewers as to whether Danny is who he says he is. He is the title character of the show (Rand is famously Iron Fist in the comic pages), so Marvel wouldn’t tease us by focusing a series on an imposter. His martial arts skills and seemingly superhuman moves confirm that for any who might still wonder, though we don’t get the First itself right away.

What there is suspense about is what the motive of the central villain is. It takes quite awhile for IRON FIST to even get around to showing us the presumed bad guy, though he is there before the end of the hour, and even after the reveal, little is known about him. While other Netflix Marvel shows have taken their time in their reveals, we usually get a bit more than this in the early stages.

Instead, we’re focused on Danny’s core problem: no one knows, or believes, who he is. This makes it impossible for him to start over, and fans will probably be unsure as to why he even wants to now. Why has he come home and what does he want? That isn’t stated. Instead, the focus just seems to be on how Danny will eventually convince the Meachums that he is legit, a frustrating and anticlimactic question.

There are some twists in the pilot, and while some are obvious ones, some are not. This means it is entertaining and moves along. The pacing is in line with the other Marvel shows, and the lack of information given to the audience does entice me to want to watch more right away. This isn’t a show meant to be served in single-hour portions.

But what works against IRON FIST is that it doesn’t have as strong an identity as Jessica Jones or Luke Cage. Both of these quickly came out of the gate with an obvious style and mission that made them unique. IRON FIST seems much more a typical superhero show, with Danny’s own abilities making him look more like Spiderman without the sass, and his upper crust upbringing not feeling especially unique.

Will IRON FIST overcome these drawbacks, its lack of immediate hook and more typical tone? Or will this be the weak link of the Marvel franchise, the one Netflix series from the studio that doesn’t earn itself a second season? I like Jones and Stroup, as well as Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones), who plays likely love interest and Danny’s tie back to Asia Colleen Wing, so I hope there’s something here. One hour is just not long enough for me to make that determination.

MARVEL’S IRON FIST complete first season is available now on Netflix.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Back UNDERGROUND

Article first published UNDERGROUND Season 2 Premiere Review on Seat42F.


WGN America’s UNDERGROUND begins its second season this week. Starting about five months after the freshman run’s finale, we quickly pick up the stories of most of our characters, more or less where we left them. Time has passed, but it’s been relatively uneventful. Something tells me, after watching the first episode, that that won’t be the case for very much longer.
UNDERGROUND is interesting to me because it’s not obvious at first who the leads are in the first year. There is a large ensemble full of talented performers, and while many of them are removed as the story progresses, there are still more important roles than the five who are listed as the primary cast, which includes only Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Noah (Aldis Hodge), Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), Cato (Alano Miller), and August (Christopher Meloni).
Thankfully, the show has been successful enough to expand that ensemble in season two. The most important of the four new leads is Ernestine (Amirah Vann), Rosalee’s mother, who always had her own plot arc, but now is officially among the principal players. UNDERGROUND season two has also added characters named Georgia (Jasika Nicole, Fringe), Clara (DeWanda Wise, Shots Fired), and Harriet (Aisha Hinds, Under the Dome, If I Stay).
Harriet, as in Harriet Tubman. Clearly a recast from the brief shot of the legendary figure from last year’s finale, it’s kind of cool that she is now part of the group. Previously, I’d worried that adding someone with such name recognition might distract from the core narrative. However, after checking out the start of season two, I don’t think that will be the case.
UNDERGROUND remains focused on the stories of the characters from year one. While Rosalee, Noah, and Elizabeth were just dipping their toe into the secret movement to free the slaves, they’re now larger players in the game, so it makes sense they’d come across Harriet. Harriet doesn’t get any more precedence than the others, less than the returning main players, so she’s an interesting element that signals our players have gotten deeper into the action, rather than a shift to a new direction.
We’ve also got some new locations. Most notably, Ernestine has left Macon Plantation and is (sort of) settling into a very different type of community. Between that and the scenes in Ohio and Canada, we begin to get a fuller picture of different parts of the United States, all of which were affected by the slave industry and those who opposed it.
There are some terrific surprises, too. As with the first year, audiences may think they know where things are heading, only to have the rug yanked out from under them by the unexpected. This is a sign of good storytelling, and an example of how UNDERGROUND roots itself in reality. While there are some fantastical coincidences and run-ins, for the most part the series keeps viewers on their toes in an authentic manner, and there’s at least one big twist in the initial return that leaves me wanting to jump right into the next episode.
Not everyone you expect to see is in the second year’s premiere. There is a lot going on in UNDERGROUND, so it doesn’t feel empty that some faces may have to wait a week for us to catch up with them. Instead, it’s a busy, satisfying hour, and I’d rather a few people take this installment off than force hokey subplots to include them.
In all, I’d rate the premiere pretty high, accomplishing what it needs to accomplish, building the established world larger, and still maintain the things that makes this show compelling. UNDERGROUND returns Wednesday at 10/9c on WGN America.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

No FEUD Over This One

Article first published as FEUD Review on Seat42F.


Ryan Murphy, who has had great success with the anthology series format on FX in American Horror Story and American Crime Story, brings his next show to television tonight in FEUD. The first season is subtitled BETTE AND JOAN, and covers the film the two legendary actresses made together, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? As you might expect, FEUD is excellent.

Jessica Lange (Big Fish, Horace and Pete) has been Murphy’s muse before, and as a grand lady herself, it makes sense for her to play Joan Crawford, the catalyst that gets the plot moving. Once a big Hollywood star, now a widow who hasn’t worked in awhile, Joan is disappointed by the dearth of strong roles for women of a certain age and sets out to force her own picture through. Latching onto the book What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, she recruits director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina, The Normal Heart, Spider-Man 2) and her long-time rival, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, Thelma & Louise, The Lovely Bones), to help with her comeback. That’s where this story begins.

I cannot emphasize enough the quality of acting in FEUD. Alongside Molina, we get Judy Davis (Maria Antoinette), Jackie Hoffman (Birdman), Stanley Tucci (Spotlight), Alison Wright (The Americans), Kathy Bates (American Horror Story), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Reed Diamond (Underground), Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men), and more. Each delivers a quality, layered performance that greatly enhances the world of the series and puts the audience right into this time and place, both familiar and interesting.

None of these actors compare, though, to our two leads. Sarandon and Lange are masterful here, as they have been so often in the past. These are two ladies who can capture a moment like few others. There’s a bit in the pilot in which Lange, as Crawford, has to act in a scene for the movie, and she is brilliant, highlighting the actress as much as the character.

There’s a certain parallel that cannot be avoided that Sarandon and Lange are women of a certain age, just as Bette and Joan were. The difference here is that they can get good work, as evidenced by both FEUD and all of the other projects they continue to do. The very existence of this show proves how far things have come.

Yet, at the same time, the sexism highlighted in FEUD is still an issue, timely in its expression. While Hollywood may be getting better, there is still a long way to go, and with the current political climate, some of the small-mindedness is currently front and center.

Those themes aside, though, FEUD would stand on its own in any time simply because it involves terrific performers doing impressive things in a highly-stylized, yet crumbling, world. The glamor that everyone wants to pretend is there stands in stark contrast to the reality of pretend that reigns in Los Angeles. FEUD shows us both sides, the charade and what’s behind it, in delightful ways. Far from being fake, the actress’ (and others’) attempts to present their best selves is calculated and says a lot about the authentic personalities behind it, which each shot seemingly carefully constructed for maximum dynamic impact.

I’ve only watched one episode so far, but I can already tell that Ryan Murphy has done it again. Far from complaining about all his varied works on the network, I appreciate that he keeps churning out such good stuff with such a strong cast month after month. We’re in the golden age of television, and FEUD is a worthy example of that era. Expect to see it garner a lot of nominations, and hopefully even wins, come award season.

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Not TAKEN With This One

Article first published as TAKEN Review on Seat42F.


Tired of the trend of movies turned into television shows yet? Me, too, but that doesn’t mean the networks are going to stop trying any time soon. Tonight, NBC jumps in with TAKEN, a prequel to the movies bearing the same title. Well, sort of a prequel because the technology used by the characters is from our present day, not set in the past. But character-wise, this is the back story for the lead guy.

TAKEN the series begins with Bryan Mills (Vikings’ Clive Standen taking over for Liam Neeson) out of the special forces, but not yet working for the CIA. He has done things that have made some people mad, terrorists mostly, and they want revenge. So the people that Bryan cares about are put in danger as his past catches up with him in violent ways. Yep, consistent with the big screen Mills.

This violence is the core of TAKEN, as far as I can tell. In the first hour alone, I’d estimate almost half of it involves sneaking around, fighting, and shooting. From the adrenaline-pumping, tragic opening, to the climactic showdown, this is, by and large, a popcorn adventure, with much more focus on action than on character development.

In fact, while there are some character moments in this pilot, I would argue that there really isn’t any notable character development in the first episode, nor will I expect to see any in future episodes. Bryan seems more or less the same person at the beginning as he is at the end, and will remain roughly the same individual in the films. There is a very stagnant consistency that is disappointing. It would be far more interesting to see Bryan grow into a badass than to have him ready-made this way. Though, given his established background, I guess TAKEN would have to start much earlier in his story to do that kind of arc.

While everything is happening to Bryan and he’s running around, the perspective does frequently switch back to Christina Hart (Jennifer Beals, The L Word, Flashdance) and her CIA team. They are watching Bryan, trying to decide when and if they should recruit him. Given that Beals and several of the others are listed as main players, it should be no surprise that they make a decision in the affirmative pretty quickly; Bryan has to join them before things can really start. But the inclusion of the various team members that make up the core ensemble indicate that TAKEN will be a series of procedural missions, the obvious way to go with this series, and a format TV definitely does not need any more of.

I will say, given that TAKEN is on NBC, rather than CBS or FOX, it does feel a little less formulaic than it otherwise might. NBC doesn’t typically box in their series so stringently, and that does come across in episode one. There are also some shades of the network’s Hannibal (a beautiful, brilliant show that is the exception to the bad adaptation rule) in the tone and style, though that comparison only hurts TAKEN, as it doesn’t live up to that other work by any measure. But what I’m saying is, while TAKEN isn’t good, it could be worse if airing elsewhere.

The best thing that could happen to TAKEN is a quick death. It doesn’t appear it’ll be one of the greats, and the last thing we need is another mediocre series. A fair number of people like the movies (not myself, but I know a few), so why not let those stand on their own for what they are instead of tainting them with a lackluster pseudo-prequel? It would be a mercy to the fans and viewers in general for this to get yanked quickly.

TAKEN premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC.