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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.