Category Archives: Television

Back on Tatooine with Old Ben

More Star Wars, more Tatooine.  I say yet again, this planet is so important in the galaxy that I don’t know why the Republic or the Empire don’t keep it constantly staffed with masses of troops.

And Disney+ brings us back, this time to follow in the footsteps of Obi-wan Kenobi in order to fill in the gap between Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One, because the company is sure we don’t want any NEW adventures in the galaxy, just an ongoing attempt to fill in any possible gap in the Skywalker narrative.  What did Obi-wan get up to while waiting for Luke to grow up?

More Star Wars because more is better

Ten years down the road from the rise of Darth Vader, Obi-wan is living in a cave in the desert and making ends meat by working at the local Hormel meat processing plant where they are stingy with wages, but don’t seem to mind him cutting off a slice at the end of the day to feed his mount.  Maybe it is in the union contract.  He doesn’t really hide what he is doing.

He tries to keep an eye on Luke, but uncle Own isn’t too keen on that, so Obi-wan becomes a creepy middle age guy with binoculars.

Then there is Leia, a precocious 10 year old on Alderaan, who is living the good life while her twin brother helps eke out life on a moisture farm in the desert.

And, finally, there are the inquisitors, under the command of Darth Vader, who spend their time tracking down Jedi because, as I have suggested elsewhere, the success of Order 66 seemed to be mostly imperial propaganda.

All three of these intersect and Obi-wan has to dig up his lightsaber, leave Tatooine, and get mixed up with the empire again.  He and Darth Vader meet up, Obi-wan discovers that Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker, which I guess could have been a thing… though Anakin getting left for dead and a week later the Emperor has a powerful new Sith Lord by his side seems like it would raise at least a few “so where did he come from?” question in the tabloids… they fight, and then part ways because the beginning and end states of the stories were already set in stone.

Some interesting characters pop up, a few people die, but in the end Obi-wan is back on Tatooine hanging around waiting for Luke to grow up while desert life changes him from 51 year old Ewan McGregor into 63 year old Alec Guinness… I guess that age gap kind of works, which kind of worries me because I am the middle of those two ages… while Darth Vader… I guess completely forgets this whole episode?  I don’t know.  Again, in his place I might have kept a closer eye on Tatooine going forward given how much shit seems to just happen there.

Was it any good?

Sure, it was fine.  I enjoyed it.  There were some very good performances.  It was originally slated to be a movie, which is how I suspect it got such a good cast… though maybe just being in a Star Wars series is enough.  The story kept my interest despite being bound within the constraints to the overall story arc.  There were a few insights into the characters that might have been worth the effort.

It didn’t grab me like The Madalorian, where a new and interesting character led us through a different aspect of the Star Wars universe.

But it was much better than The Book of Boba Fett, where we spent four episodes being force fed a dull, and eventually inconsequential, backstory before The Mandalorian came in and dragged the story away from bacta tank flashbacks into the present day.

Anyway, if you’re into it you’ve probably already watched it as well.  I mean, the next season of Westworld didn’t even start until the last episode was already live.  But, if you decided to give it a miss, you can get the summary with some good visuals from the Honest Trailer.

And, if you’re like me, you’ll watch the commentary for that as well, where they dive into discussing the series.  I wasn’t engrossed enough to watch the weekly episode discussion videos, but an overall run through I was good for.

Related:

Binge Watching into Another Season

Back again with more TV that we have been watching.  There isn’t, technically, a pandemic right now.  We’re all back to pretending COVID is gone, though the case numbers are rising again.  But now we’re in the habit and routine of watching a lot of TV.  So here we go again.

Severance

In some not too distant future… or past, the time line is ambiguous… Lumon Corporation has perfected a technology called “severance,” which allows them to split the conscious brain into two parts, separating a person’s work life from their outside and home life.

If you have the procedure, your work self knows nothing about your outside life and vice versa.  In fact, your work life has no outside memories, it only knows work.  Every day when you arrive at work you pass through an elevator that activates the change to work.  The work version of you… your “innie” in the slang of Lumon… only knows an endless existence of entering the elevator to leave, then immediately exiting the elevator, back at work for another day.

The procedure is controversial, but Mark, the lead character, has chosen it because his wife recently died in a car accident and being able to forget that for the work day seems like a blessing.

Meanwhile, what he and his team do an Lumon is a mystery, even to them.  They have quotas to meet, which earns them rewards like a waffle party, but they have no idea what they are actually accomplishing.  Meanwhile, Lumon has a cult-like corporate culture, with a handbook of quotes from the founder, and an obsession with security even within the severed portion of the company.  The groups there are kept apart through a labyrinth of corridors.

The series starts slowly, kicking off with a new employee, Helly, being brought into the group, and seems very strange, but you do get some payoff by the end of the season as to what is going on.  A slow burn, but it kept me hooked.

The Flight Attendant

Flight attendant Cassie is living the carefree airline lifestyle, traveling the world, drinking to excess, partying, and sleeping with people she has just met.  And then she wakes up next to one of them, a first class passenger who was on her flight to Bangkok, to find he is dead.  She was in an alcoholic blackout and doesn’t know if she killed him or what happened.   She panics, cleans up the crime scene, then gets on her flight back to the US, where she and the rest of the flight crew are questioned by the FBI because the body has been discovered and the Thai police are following up leads.

She isn’t a suspect, but panics and ends up doing a bunch of dumb things that bring more attention to her, while also somehow unraveling by accident the actual conspiracy that led to the murder.  It is dumb but fun, and Kaley Cuoco, best known for her role in Big Bang Theory, is probably the perfect actor to pull the whole thing off.  It isn’t a huge stretch from the BBT role.  So it is fun and silly and full of “that’s not how this really works” moments, but whatever.  You’re there for the ride, and the first season pays off pretty well.

And then there is season two, where the manic quirkiness… well, it isn’t over, but it isn’t quite the same either… changes but the “that’s not how things really work” aspect is doubled down on and I couldn’t make it past the second episode.  But we’ll always have the fun first season.

Vikings Valhalla

A follow on to the Vikings series, which I have not seen, this takes place 100 years down the road, opening with Æthelred, King of England, unleashing the St. Brice’s Day massacre, an attempt to slay all the Danes living in England.  This pisses off the Danes, who sail for England to exact revenge.

And from there we follow the stories of King Cnut, Lief Erikson and his sister Freydis, and the schism between the Vikings who have turned to Christianity (with a very Viking aggressiveness) and those who still follow the old ways.  I wasn’t expecting much from it… it seemed to lack in Skarsgards for something Nordic… but I ended up quite liking it.

Slow Horses

In MI5 Slough House is where you get sent if you have screwed up just shy of being fired.  There Cold War burn out Jack Lamb is in charge of keeping those sent to this purgatory busy with a mix of menial tasks, like sorting through and cataloging the garbage of a somebody who isn’t really suspected of much, and a steady diet of scorn and derision.  Those assigned, the “slow horses” of the title, can put up with it and maybe get back into a better position or resign.

Up and comer River Cartwright, whose grandfather was a major player in the service, makes a very public mistake and is sent there, but cannot leave well enough alone.  He does his tasks but also carries on with some extra curricular activities which Lamb tells him to stop, but then grows interested himself, in his own scornful way, as it turns out Cartwright is on to something and it leads back to Slough House.

Fun, dynamic, and it has Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott Thomas.  What else do you need?  I actually waited until the series was complete… Apple insists on the one episode a week drip… so my wife and I could binge it if we wanted… and we did.

Reacher

Jack Reacher has been done before.  The popular 26… soon to be 27… book series has already had two movie adaptations starring an unconvincing Tom Cruise as the title character.  I’ve read a few of the books… not a huge fan as the quality of the early books varies quite a bit… and Jack Reacher, who everybody just calls Reacher, is a muscular 6’5″, while Tom Cruise is a wiry 5’7″ on a good day.  There is only so much suspension of disbelief he can carry.  Also, Tom Cruise only knows how to be Tom Cruise.  He is very good at it, and if you have a role written for Tom Cruise, only Tom Cruise will do.  But Jack Reacher isn’t a very Tom Cruise role.

Alan Ritchson though, the star of the Amazon Prime series, he very much sells the Jack Reacher role.  If you have read the first book… and the series starts with the first book, unlike the movies, which picked up in the middle of the series… the first episode of the series will seal the deal.  You don’t get the inner monologue from the text, but Reacher doesn’t waste words, and when he does speak he tends to hit the mark hard.  A couple people I know who love the books were big on the series as well.

And if you haven’t read the books, the first season is still very good without that knowledge.

Binge Watching Too Many Mysteries

The TV stays on and we keep watching most evenings.  Mysteries seem to be the neutral ground for my wife and I, a genre we enjoy together.  The problem starts when you watch too many and you start to unravel how they work and so we’re constantly calling out what will happen next, and rare is the program that fools us without cheating. (Looking at you Click Bait and Broadchurch. )

But the other shared ground for us, science fiction, doesn’t have as many options popping up.  I am going to guess that the effects and props budget for mysteries are a lot smaller.

Not even a title card, but this image makes sense if you watch the series

The full title is actually The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window, but it was supposed to be just The Woman in the House early on in production.  Also, that fits more easily on the page as a bullet point without wrapping.

Why the change to the long, silly name?  My guess is that was a flag to ensure people got that the series was trying to parody such mystery thrillers.  That it needed to raise such a flag probably says more about the genre than the attempt to parody it.  A good parody immerses itself in the material it is poking fun at, but the genre has been a bit off the rails, so it can be tough to tell if something was supposed to be funny or just trying to one up something else.

Anyway, it is fine as a parody, and better than some serious mysteries we’ve watched of late.  Kristen Bell is solid and the show hangs on her.  It was worth the eight episode investment.

The Stranger is such a common title they had to specify

A strange woman in a hoodie, the “stranger” of the title, tells a married man that he needs to look into something about his wife.  When he finds the information, she asks him for more time before she explains, then disappears.  Meanwhile, the woman is also blackmailing some people with information she has found, and the man, who is a lawyer, is trying to keep some old neighbors house from being knocked down, and the company trying to knock the place down turns out to be run by the mans estranged father.  Also, Jennifer Saunders is in it, briefly.  That sounds like trivia, but it was the selling point for us to start watching it.  Anyway, several people end up murdered, then it turns out key people are related and everybody tries to just forget it all happened.  In the end, it was society or middle-class values to blame.

This was a few steps from being a parody of the mystery genre itself.  It did get us hooked with the first episode, but by about the half way point we were mostly watching just to see which next twist would get thrown into the mix.  I will give it credit for keeping us from guessing what was going on too early on in the show.

Stay Close to what now?

  1. Stay Close – Netflix

Also a Harlan Coben novel made into a series, and probably the leading indicator that we have been watching too many mysteries.  It was only eight episodes, but my wife kept saying, “Oh, we’ve seen this one already.” through the first three, because… well, because there wasn’t a lot to set it apart.

And I almost forgot to add it to this post because I keep forgetting the title and what it was about.  Seriously, in my notes I wrote “the one I keep forgetting” because I couldn’t remember it.  Eddie Izzard is in it, if briefly, as is the lead actor from The Stranger (same author but not the same character or story… I think…), and an English actor who kept pulling faces that reminded me of Titus Welliver in Bosch.  Too dull to be a parody I think… but I really cannot recall it well enough to be sure.

Post-Wallander Wallander

I enjoyed the moody, introspective, and empathetic Kurt Wallander played by Kenneth Branagh, which came to the states over a decade back via the usual BBC ratline to the Americas, US public television.  The moody bleakness of Sweden makes such a good background for murder.

That show was a success and when you can’t make more of them, you make a prequel!  It worked for Lucas!  Right?  RIGHT?

So now on Netflix we have two seasons of Young Wallander which, in an odd twist that most people won’t care about, takes place in the present day, which means technically Young Wallander happens after Wallander.  How can old Wallander be hopeless with tech while his younger, future self seems comfortable with it?  Also, insert Benjamin Button joke here.

The show works hard at laying the groundwork for the the Branagh version of the character, perhaps too hard and too obviously, but then doesn’t do much to make the young one very interesting.  It was good enough to get a second season, no doubt based on the popularity of the original, but it could have been much tighter if it had used the old show’s shorter format.  Like a lot of shows, it seems to spend time looking for ways to fill out all the episodes it was contracted to provide.  Very much not a parody.  Also, how can you set a show in Sweden and have nobody in the main cast with blonde hair?  One of the detectives actually dies her hair blonde in the second season, and I think it was just to get past this obvious error.

The good title cards were all in portrait mode

The series opens up with an Irish tourist in Australia being chased by a truck, a turn of events that ends up with him in the hospital with amnesia.

“Oh no, the amnesia trope!” I hear you say, and would tend to agree that it is a bit cheesy.  However, the show sticks with it firmly, even while half the characters seem incredulous about it.  But it does allow you to go on a voyage of discovery with the tourist, who is trying to piece together who he is and what happened to him… and why somebody was trying to kill him… which, of course, he doesn’t remember so has to find out about afresh.

The whole thing is very improbable, and close to parody itself at times.  Or maybe it was parody.  Parody is generally cast as comedy, and there is comedy in this show.  But sometimes comedy is just comedy.  It is one of those shows where the little details can be quite amusing.  Overall a fun ride.  If you watch through some of his dream sequences, make sure to pause the video and read all the signage.  Unusual for an HBO Max series as they dropped all the episodes at once.  But it was a series they bought, so maybe they don’t bother with those.

Finally, a decent title card

Raised by WolvesHBO Max

And, finally, a science fiction show and not a current day mystery!  Or a parody!

Earth is wracked by a war between religious zealots, the worshipers of Sol, and the unbelievers, and all life on the planet seems likely to be wiped out shortly.  An unbeliever scientist reprograms a combat android and a utility android and sends them off to Kepler 22b, a potentially Earth-like planet (which was also mentioned in a show we started watching), with a supply of embryos in order to ensure the survival of the human race.

But both sides in the war know about the planet and soon both sides are there and seem intent on finished the work started on Earth.  The first season starts strong… hey, Ridley Scott directed the first two episodes… but then it meanders for a few episodes.  The second season, which is two episodes shorter, stays more on point.  The second season wrapped up last week, so it is available for full binge.  Strange but compelling.

Binge Watching in a Dusty Shade of Yellow

Are we still watching television?  Yes we are!  So it is time for a few recaps once more.

In Montana, not Wyoming

Some friends kept recommending this, calling it the “Cowboy Sopranos,” but I think it is more like “Cowboy Succession.”

The first problem was finding a way to watch it without paying $1.99 an episode, because there is no TV series on earth that is worth that kind of money.

We found that the NBC streaming channel, Peacock, had the first two seasons of the show and that we didn’t even have to pay to see it.  It was one of those things that if your local cable service had the channel, you could use the streaming app.  You have to watch some ads, but not nearly as many as you would on live TV.  The only jarring bit is that the show is cut into acts so ad breaks can be inserted between them and the Peacock ads DO NOT get injected into those transitions.  Dumb, but what can you do?

Anyway, the show is about the Dutton family, headed by John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, who is as Kevin Costner as he always is.  Some actors can become characters, other actors have the roles become them… he and Tom Cruise are in the latter category.  The Duttons own a giant ranch in Montana called Yellowstone, which is close by the boarder of the national park of the same name.  The park figures into none of this save for a tangential mention now and then, and a sly reference to the “zone of death” related to the park.

John Dutton has four children all in various states of relation to him, either rejecting him, trying to please him, doing his bidding, or working against him, depending on the situation.  He manipulates them all with disappointment or praise as suits his plans.

The ranch is threatened by various real estate developers as well as the adjacent Indian reservation, the residents of which can’t go half a dozen sentences without reminding everybody with ear shot that the ranch used to be their land.  The Duttons and their ranch hands handle problems in the cowboy way, which generally involves violence when the law won’t suffice.  They beat people, threaten them, and murder now and then.  They pretty much had to bring in a worse group in season 3 because the Duttons were very much shaping up to be the bad guys until then.  They look more sympathetic against straight up kidnappers and murderers.

Meanwhile, their dysfunctional family and complicated relationships, as I noted above, remind me of Succession.  And since somebody said Succession is pretty much a billionaire version of Arrested Development, I guess they are really the “Cowboy Bluths,” though missing the mediating presence of Michael.  Like the Roys, I am not really sure who to root for because they’re all problematic in their own ways.  But the show is still entertaining in a way that Succession has fallen away from.  Lots of daily antics and arguments to amuse.  Also, it has normalized drinking Coors beer, which is my old man brew of choice.

And then came season four, which is NOT on Peacock, but on the Paramount Network, which has its own app with the same deal about your local cable service and ads.  However, our local cable service doesn’t carry the right channel, so we’re locked out until the season comes to Peacock or something else we can watch.  But the first three seasons were worth the time, so we’ll wait for the fourth to come around.

It is the school mascot, nobody gets stung

We picked up Showtime for a month to watch something else.  Then, with the time left on the clock, we hunted for something else to watch, landing on Yellowjackets, which had just wrapped up its first season.  We got hooked immediately.

The story revolves around a girls high school soccer team in mid-90s New Jersey that goes to the national championships, which are being held in Washington state.  They board a chartered flight, but crash somewhere in the Canadian wilderness, where they have to survive for a year and a half before finally being rescued.

The story splits between modern day and the events on the ground after the crash, weaving the two parts of the story together very successfully.  A lot of shows do this, but I haven’t watched one do it this well in a long time.

At the crash site, most of the team survives, though only one adult makes it through the crash, and they are badly injured.  The team has to figure out how to survive as it becomes more and more obvious that immediate rescue isn’t in the cards.  The radio beacon on the black box is on the fritz and it is 1996 and nobody has cell phones with a GPS in their pockets. (Also, nobody watched Gilligan’s Island, because there were at least half a dozen things they would have picked up from that show about getting rescued.)

Then there is modern day, where it is quickly obvious that there are a lot fewer survivors who made it back than who were alive after the crash.  The baggage of those events weighs on the adults we see.  They agreed on a basic “we survived” story and have otherwise remained quiet about events in the woods, though they remain local celebrities.  But somebody is suddenly interested in what happened.

Meanwhile, back in the woods in 1996, you can see a Lord of the Flies scenario starting to emerge as the very competitive and athletic girls work out how to survive.  There is something strange in the woods as well.  But we only get glimpses of it before the season wraps up, leaving lots of questions and angry looks at the calendar knowing it will probably be a year before we get any more details.  It was a good show, with a tight story and good acting, leaving you hungry for more even after ten episodes.

Another brother Ray

Three items in and I have already fallen off the color theme.  Whatever.  And I am not here to endorse this item really, but figured I would bring it up as this was the reason we picked up Showtime for a month and ended up watching Yellowjackets.  Backstory.  You like backstory right?

I wrote about the six seasons of Ray Donovan previously, a mixed bag of a show.  But we went the distance with it, so the finale, the movie wrap up of the series seemed to be a must.

It wasn’t, really.

The series spends a lot of energy hinting at what happened back in Boston when Ray was a kid and why he and his father Mickey are at odds so often.  If you were paying attention, they pretty much laid out all the key points about their past, so I wasn’t really worried about it.  I wanted to see the current day resolved in some way.

But the people making the show really felt we needed a ride back to the 70s to go through, in detail, what happened back then, all as a flashback from the current day.  Unlike Yellowjackets, this isn’t two stories being twisted together in parallel, this is more like a “remember when…” clip show, only the clips are brand new.

So, if you wanted to see the family history played out, how Ray got where he ended up, why Mickey went to jail, the story of Ray’s sister, and a pack of other details, you are set.  I was there for the 70s cars and styles, but didn’t walk away thinking, “Now that is how you end a series.”  It was fine fan service, and filled in some details, but didn’t thrill me.

Let the Star Wars spin-off multiply and conqueror

If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.

-Luke Skywalker, wrong as usual

I am going to have to do an inventory of how many of the Star Wars films and shows spend at least some time on Tattooine.  If as much stuff went down there as I recall, either the empire or the republic should have a much more serious presence close to hand.  And it is sandy, and sand is yellow, so back on the color theme, right?

Anyway, the last season of the Mandalorian introduced a bevy of characters set for spin-off shows, and the first of those to land was The Book of Boba Fett.

Of the seven episodes, the first four are basically setting the scene for the post-Mandalorian era events, telling parallel tales of how Boba got out of the sarlacc pit and where he went and what happened after he ran into Mando and him setting up shop on Tattooine.

Again, in comparison to Yellowjackets, this was an attempt to twist to timelines together.  The problem here is that I just didn’t care.  I was never a fan of the Fett,  I wanted to be Han Solo, not some background bounty hunter whose costume looked like low rent cosplay.  But he was popular beyond the extent of his roles in the original trilogy, and Han Solo shouted his name Return of the Jedi, so he has a fan base.  I’m just not in that crowd.

As such, I wasn’t really invested in what he did before or after his appearance in The Manalorian, and the show plodded along with the assumption that anybody watching would think this was key to the Star Wars universe.  Four episodes of that was too much.

Then for episodes five and six we left Boba Fett behind and the show became The Madalorian again, and was much more interesting to me.  I really liked Mando on the ring habitat.  I was having Ringworld flashbacks.  Good times.

But Mando has to find his way to Tatooine, because of course he does, it is the literal bright sandy center of the Star Wars universe, drawing all plot lines to it, and hooks up with Boba to help solve his gang lord turf battle, with the final fight playing out in very predictable fashion.  I don’t mind playing to the western theme, but when I know something mentioned in a previous episode has to come up in the final fight to turn the tide before it happens, then they might not be working hard enough.

Anyway, it was fine.  So not great, nor as enjoyable as the first two seasons of The Mandalorian, but it was probably better than the last three films.  Jon Favreau is probably channeling the best post-Lucas look into Star Wars we could reasonably hope for.  Meanwhile, Amy Sedaris channeled many fan thoughts when she told Baby Yoda… because of course he shows up again… that Grogu is a horrible name and we’re not calling him that.  #TeamBabyYoda

This being a Star Wars series, there are some other opinions on the series out there if you prefer:

Binge Watching into the New Year

There was a lot of free time over the holidays, which meant lots of time for TV.  We managed to get through three new series.  We were a bit late to the party for the first two… though that was fine, because it meant we didn’t have to wait week-to-week for new episodes.

The wheel weaves yadda yadda yadda

I was probably the ideal audience for this show.  I am familiar with the material, having read… or at least listened to in audio book form, which at least means I know how to pronounced things, sort of… the whole series.

But that was more than a decade ago for most of the series, and I didn’t come away as a huge fan of the tale, so I am not wed to the idea that every word is sacred and must be reproduced on screen as the late Robert Jordan intended.

I know the basic tale, am hazy on the details, and happy enough to see them bypass huge tracts of text to winnow the story down to something that can be told in less than a thousand one hour episodes.  So I enjoyed it, remembered enough so I was never really lost, and felt they got through first book just fine.  Just a dozen more to go!

The casting might have been the weak part of the show, not that I don’t love Rosamund Pike, and having Sophie Okonedo, who we last saw as the boss in Flack, as the Amyrlin Seat sparked some amusement, but the kids from the Two Rivers were all kind of bland.  We’ll see how they develop over time I suppose, but I’d like to get some more of the cast of Flack into the Aes Sedai.

The hard core Wheel of Time fans though, there are some very unhappy people in that group.  And I get it.  I like about 1.5 movies out of the six that make up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  But I also try to remember that bringing something to a different medium makes it a different story almost by default.  Of course, that is easy to say when I’m not invested in the tale.

My wife was on the other end of the spectrum and knew nothing about the story and just had to go with what was on screen and the bits of clarification I could provide.  But even with that, she was on board.  We’re looking forward to next season.

Beautiful and pretentious

Another one where I might theoretically be a prime candidate.  When I grew up the science fiction club in middle school had drawn a line between those who worshiped Asimov and those true to Heinlein, and the weirdos like me who were off reading Niven or Burroughs learned to keep clear of the holy war between the two factions.  And while I warmed to Asimov later, the Foundation series has always been ill considered pretentious schlock in my book. So color me happy to see somebody re-interpreting it, because it always felt like it needed another pass to make it worth reading.  And the series looks so good.  Production values worthy of the tale.

A pity it is both pretentious and as dull as dishwater, though I suppose in that they have captured the original.  We plodded through, though I will probably need a serious “previously” recap when the next season drops… because it was good enough to get renewed for a second season.

Those opening credits

And a third series for which I was well primed, this time because I had never seen the original so I was not going to rend my garments every time something varied from the expected.  Overall the show had great casting, great music, tons of style, and really worked for me for the first eight episodes.  I very much enjoyed the practical set dressing, the retro-futuristic kitsch theme, the music, and the way the story kicked off.  I liked the opening credits so much that I didn’t even skip them after the first couple of episodes.

I was all into this.

The biggest chore was watching it with our daughter, who had seen the original, though she seemed mostly okay with this live action remake.  The problem was that she only wanted to watch one episode a night, and what kind of binge watching is that?

As it turned out, that managed to expand my enjoyment over more than a week.  On New Years Eve we watched the final two episodes and… well, we’ll always have the initial eight.  If they had stopped at eight and teased a bit of what was to come, we might have had a season two in the works.

They ran into what I think of as the Burn Notice problem, where there is a story arc for the season, but a lot of time is spent on quirky, fun side adventures that let you get to know the characters, but don’t always advance the main story.  And then in the last two episodes they went all in on the main story arc, with a whole episode of flashback and then a final conflict episode… and I really missed the quirky, fun side adventures.

We had also just watched The Last Duel, and there were some odd parallels between that and the final episode.  Anyway, the end wasn’t as satisfying… so much so that there will be no second season.

Expansive

Somewhere in season four the series kind of lost us.  But, the books also lost me at about the same point, so I guess that all adds up.

The cast is still good, the sets and effects remain top notch, and there are occasionally things going on that I follow and understand, but we were pausing and asking each other, “So what is going on here?” a little too often.  I think there is an argument here for waiting for a show to be done and binging the whole arc in succession so as to not lose the threads of the plot.  The wheel weaves erratically at times, such that even having to go a week between episodes left us a bit lost.

I don’t know why Amazon insists on weekly episodes.  If there is one streaming service we’re never going to cancel, it is Prime, because we use the subscription for other things as well.

Anyway, we muddled though, saw Holden as the reluctant hero once more, and saw some state of accord come to the solar system for a bit.  I’m just not sure what the scenes on the planet through the gateway were about and, honestly, I kind of missed the simplicity of “whose got the proto-molecule?”  But this was the final season, so I guess we’re done with that.

Binge Watching into the Holidays

The holidays meant time off which meant all the more time left to spend sitting on the couch burning through TV shows.  And so my wife and I carried on with our now familiar binge watching habit.

I steered away from this one for a while because nothing could have been possibly as funny and charming as people were claiming this show was said to be.  Eventually we got down our list of things to watch and there was Ted Lasso, with a new season even, so we gave it a shot.

And, it is as funny and charming and nice as people said it was.  Jason Sudeikis in the main role is great, but the series is really a combo of great performances that come together.   Brett Goldstein’s grumpy veteran Roy Kent is perhaps my favorite role in the series.  We binged through most of the first season on a Sunday afternoon and it was fun.  I don’t have any urge to go back and rewatch any of it, but it was a good distraction.

Another show I was tempted to steer clear of.  I run hot and cold on Steve Martin and more cold than hot on Martin Short, so the two of them together seemed like it might be a bit much.

I groused about Clickbait last time around, annoyed at its surprise ending not really being a surprise because they don’t give you the clues you need until the very end.  Only Murders in the Building manages to do this in the right way in the guise of following the podcast format made famous by Serial.  It can be very silly at times and the Martin and Short characters are quirky and then some, but Selena Gomez hold the podcast crew together and, in the end, the murderer was actually a surprise.

I suppose I should be happy they didn’t dive into the opioid epidemic for season two, but instead they decided to make season two the Covid season.  They frame things up right away in the first episode that things are picking up in late 2019 and we’re going to see Covid unfold in the background of the remaining conflicts at The Morning Show.

And so we see events as they passed, cruise ships and lockdowns and what happened in China and Italy all through the eyes of a group of people who are really more interested in ratings, salaries, and who gets to host the presidential debates.  It, rightly enough, feels like a TV show about the thing that people who produce TV shows love most… TV shows.  So it quickly goes from “hey, I remember that” to ” who cares what these horrible people want.”  And yet I finished watching the whole season, so helped with the ratings on that front!

The second season of The Great suffers from the problem of going all in on the first season… and I am sure they were not sure they would even get a second season, the Russian aristocracy not being a well trod avenue to comedy success in the US… and then having to come back and deliver something for another ten episodes.  The essential conflict had been pretty much resolved at the end of the first season and, while I know the reign of Catherine the Great had much going on, the writers couldn’t let go of Peter and the first season cast and didn’t want to dive into the possibly less comedic reign of Catherine, so the show spends time trying to revive the initial conflict between Catherine and Peter, a cow that had been milked of most of its potential in the first ten episodes.  I wanted to like it, but it felt a bit dull.

Another Netflix series, this one felt pretty good in the first couple of episodes.  Monsters are real and there is a secret government organization out there… men and women not necessarily in black… protecting humanity, with the story centered on one husband and wife team and their kids, who are not in the know.

When I looked the show up as we started watching I was disappointed to see that it didn’t make the cut for a second season, that Netflix had canned it, after it started off so strong.  And then we got into the season and it became clear that the story stemming from that good solid start wasn’t going anywhere all that interesting.  It was kind of neat.  I don’t regret watching it.  But I can see why it didn’t get a second season.

I read the suggestion that Succession should be viewed as humor with the Roys as a high end dysfunction version of the Bluths in Arrested Development.  The problem is that there is no sane person in the middle of the chaos, no Justin Bateman there to represent us in the middle of the misfits.  It is my habit to latch on to one character as my guide in a show like this, but there is literally nobody to root for among the Roys.

We started off initially with Kendell being the cast as the hero, but he is no Michael Bluth.  He is flawed and dumb and full of himself and can’t pull off lunch plans, much less corporate takeover plans.  Shiv is the outsider of the kids, but is just as corrupt and self-serving as any of her siblings.  Her husband Tom is no hero and cousin Greg is just trying to say whatever it takes for somebody to like him.  And then there is Roman, who is a fun character to watch, but can’t even manage to be the anti-hero.

I kind of want to like Connor Roy, because he is played by Alan Ruck from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but he is almost the worst in his self-delusion as a character.

I enjoyed the first two seasons of the show but, like Billions, it has gotten to a point where there is nobody to root for.  There isn’t even an outsider.  Everybody who wanders in is just as bad as the Roys. I made it through season 3, though it was slow going for the first few episodes and I am sure I’ll peek in when season 4 lands.  But the show better come up with some new cards to play because the surprise at the end of season 3 was just another round of some of the Roys screwing over some of the others in completely predictable ways.

Binge Watching into Another Autumn

The pandemic isn’t over and we’re still staying home rather than going out as much as we used to, so I’m back again with another post about what we have been watching on TV.

This was one we were going to give a pass to, then we heard some good things, watched a couple of episodes, stopped watching, and then several people told us we had to finish it because there was a huge surprise twist involved or some such.

And I guess, technically, if I let you watch episode one and told you how it ended up, you would indeed be surprised.  But each episode is designed to pull the viewer’s attention in a different direction, so whatever you thought was going on in episode one will be superseded by episode two and so on.  There isn’t a big surprise twist at the end because you don’t even get the information to know it was possible until the next to last episode, at which point you’ve been yanked around so much that your reaction is likely to be just, “are we there yet?”

The biggest deal about this show for me was that according to IMDB, it was mostly filmed in Australia, but it takes place in Oakland California, so I spent a lot of time looking for details that were wrong.  They did a pretty good job on that front. (I can’t really ding them for making up a fictional University of Oakland to give the story setting I suppose.)  Still, didn’t really do much for me as a show overall.

Billy Bob Thorton is back for the final season of the series and it takes place in San Fransisco.  Or is sort of takes place there.  There are a lot of exterior shots that are clearly from the city by the bay, but Billy McBride lives in a strange side street in Chinatown where it is always either raining or has just stopped… it feels like a set from Blade Runner at times… and I want to know where in the Bay Area it rains that much, because the weatherman isn’t telling us.

Anyway, Billy is up in SF for an opioids case, because the TV and movie production pipeline has finally caught up with the opioids epidemic.  A really sold and strange performance with J. K. Simmons and Bruce Dern in the mix.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.

A dead body is found by a US Marine Fisheries agent near Provincetown, MA.  The case is picked up by the state police task force as the victim was involved in an investigation into a local drug ring, and also the opioid epidemic is in there somewhere.  The agent is also a drug users and turns out to be connected to the murder indirectly and tries to get clean and interferes with the investigation and we spend a lot of time with their problems, which keep bringing them back to the whole crime, while the lead from the state police task force sleeps with the stripper wife or the imprisoned drug kingpin who… oh, I don’t know, it is kind of a mess.  It was okay, and was popular enough to get a second season, which is out now, but I was fine with stopping at the end of season one.

Jeff Daniels as a small town police chief taking on the scourge of the… wait for it… opioid epidemic.  Jeff Daniels gives a solid performance and I quite like him, but the whole thing felt like it had been done with Mare of Easttown already. (About which I wrote here.)  Small town, murder, drugs, woods, relationships, something about a union, and opioids.  It isn’t bad, but it felt like ground already covered a lot of late, small town America, poverty, and opioids.  Also, it ends somewhat abruptly.  At the end of episode nine I assumed there was another episode to be seen, as there was enough left unresolved to fill out another hour.  But no, that was it.

Ten final episodes to wrap up the series, though there really felt like the writers only had about five episodes of content to work with, so there is a lot of what feels like filler as Lucifer has to solve a time traveling mystery that involves his daughter, Chloe, and whether or not he wants to take up dad’s position and run the universe.  You could probably just watch episode 10 if you needed closure on the series.  Otherwise is suffers from what I call Castle-syndrome, where once the Lucifer and Chloe love connection gets resolved, the show has to fish around for a reason to continue.

We watched the first episode of this back when the first season landed, didn’t like it, and stopped watching.  Then, two years later, with a second season available and it still lingering in my “continue watching” queue, we picked up with episode two and watched both seasons.  So maybe episode one is optional?

Anyway, aliens show up on Earth at some future date where we also have a spaceship with faster than light travel tech, so Katee “Starbuck” Sackhoff flies off to find the source of the aliens while her husband leads the research team that is trying to figure out what is going on with the monument the aliens dumped on Earth.  Also, they have a daughter who, in any sane world, would have been picked up by child protective services half way through the show.

The show kind of builds roughly, as the FTL ship runs into trouble and they have to hang out on a couple of planets to find food and on both somebody in the crew takes their helmet off and you just know that is going to end badly… and it does.  While the show veers off course now and then and gets caught up in some crew drama, we did watch it all the way through and were eager to see how they wrapped up season 2.

Binge Watching Prime Suspect

When digging through Hulu, which has a pretty poor interface for discovering content, and I say that comparing it to a field of apps that are all pretty bad at that, I stumbled upon the entire Prime Suspect collection.  Having watched the original back when it premiered in the US in early 1992, I decided to give it a go to see how it has stood up over time.

Prime Suspect

The series stars Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Jane Tennison who is the only woman of that rank at her station in the London Metropolitan Police.

British crime dramas have taught me that DCI is the rank at which you personally run a major investigation into something like a murder and people are supposed to call you “Guv” or “Boss.”  DCI Tennison, as the first series opens, has yet to be given her own case despite the obvious competence that got her into the otherwise male dominated command structure.

And then, in the midst of a grisly murder investigation, the DCI running it dies of a heart attack.   Her superintendent’s first action is to find another male DCI from another station to step in and take over the case.  Tennison points out that she is a DCI, in the building, with no current assignment, and pushes to get the case assigned to her.

She gets it, though it is clear that it is somewhat probationary and the male DCI they were considering is always just a phone call away.  Meanwhile, the team she inherits is not all on board with a woman DCI either.  And when the late DCI who had been running the case is found to have been hiding some evidence due to his own association with the case, her looking into that makes everybody bristle because she seems to be trying to tear down her well liked predecessor.

So it goes.  But her hard work and insight win over key members of her team and, when her superintendent is pressured to replace her with the male DCI waiting in the wings because the case isn’t moving along fast enough, her teams stands up for her and the progress she has made even as she is hiding from her boss to avoid being dismissed.

This was 1991 after all.  No email, no texts, no mobile phones, except for one giant car phone that is seen in the first act.  You had to find somebody to talk to them.

Anyway, the ploy works, she gets a reprieve, and eventually solves the case, cementing her position as an effective DCI.

The series carries on to follow her career.  It isn’t really a series in the same way that TV shows tend to be.  The format for each season is generally a pair of episodes each formatted for a 2-hour block of TV time, with obvious spots for commercial breaks. A season generally follows one case in detail, though season four breaks the trend in being three episodes, each one about a different case.

The case is always murder, but the themes vary with each season, though Tennison’s struggle to maintain her place in what remains a very male dominated world from start to finish is a universal thread.  She manages to be promoted to Detective Superintendent, which mean the DCIs report to her.  But well groomed and correctly bred male sergeants and inspectors who serve under her early in the timeline sometimes come back as her boss or her boss’s boss as things progress.

Seasons explore immigrants, racism, gay and trans acceptance, the drug trade, street gangs, pedophilia, government corruption, and police involvement or indifference in all sorts of crime.

The show overall is a solid, gritty police procedural that focuses on the dedication and investigative work that it takes to solve a crime; not a lot of car chases or gun battles.  It takes place primarily in London, though Tennison is banished to Manchester for a season and visits Bosnia for a brief bit in season six.

And, as with any British series of any length, a number of notable actors wander through including Tom Wilkinson, Peter Capaldi, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, David Thewlis, Brendan Coyle, and Ralph Fiennes.

But the whole thing is carried on the shoulders of Helen Mirren’s Tennison.  The character works because Tennison doesn’t bring magical female insight into the role, though a knowledge of how a woman’s body actually works is useful now and then, but is just more tenacious and hard working than anybody around her.  She is as tough on herself and does the difficult tasks rather than delegating, which earns her the respect of her team.

She also has many of the issues of her male colleagues.  She works long hours, can’t give up smoking, drinks too much, sleeps too little, neglects her personal and family life, makes poor choices with whom she sleeps occasionally, and generally puts the job ahead of everything in her life.  She won’t play the promotion game, except through hard work and success, or work a case in a way just to please her superiors. Her affinity is with the gruff old guy who has been a detective sergeant for 20 years rather than the up and coming bright starts looking to tick the boxes on their way to higher rank.

And she doesn’t cut her female colleagues any extra slack.  No sisterhood here.  She opens one season trying to kick a female detective inspector off her team because she goes home at the end of the work day to be with her husband and kids rather than putting in the extra hours than Tennison does.

In season seven, when Tennison has been on the force for 30 years and the powers that be are pressuring her to retire, she does question whether it was worth it.  She is 54, her mother has passed, her father is dying, her sister has a husband and a family, and all she has had is a string of short term relationships and an obvious problem with alcohol, with no real place to go if she retires.  The force has been her whole focus for almost her entire adult life.

So ends her career and the force goes on looking not much different than it did when we first saw her fifteen years back, though everybody does seem to have a cell phone on them at the end.

The seven seasons run from 1991 through until 2006, with a rather significant gap between season 5 (1996) and season 6 (2003).  The early seasons have been cleaned up a bit and made to work in HD.

I had only watched the first three seasons previously, but the series holds up well enough through all seven.  Season four is the odd duck, as mentioned, being three episodes about three different cases.  The stories are all a bit weak, even the third one, which goes back to the original season one case when some copy cat killings bring her conviction under scrutiny.  But I suspect that the inability to pull together a single strong story probably necessitated the variation.  Sometimes plot ideas don’t pan out.

More recently somebody went back and tried to make a prequel series, Prime Suspect: 1973, charting the rise of Jane Tennison.  But not everybody needs an origin story and it lasted a single season.

So it goes.

Binge Watching Ray Donovan

Seven seasons and a movie.  That does Community one better than its goal.

We started watching Ray Donovan and I swear to you we were not two episodes into the show before I started referring to it as Showtime Sopranos.

Seriously.  While I have absolutely no insight into the development of the show, it felt like somebody at Showtime was jealous of HBO and how popular The Sopranos were and figured they could play mix and match with the formula… we’ll make the family Irish, not Italian, and they’ll be from Boston rather than Jersey, and Ray won’t be in the mafia, he’ll be a fixer for the rich and famous… and come up with a winner.

Of course, by the time they got everything together and going The Sopranos was over and HBO was winning again with Game of Thrones, but whatever.  At least Ray didn’t have to go head to head with Tony.

Anyway, Ray is this big time fixer in LA, where most of his family has ended up, having migrated from Boston to the west coast to be together I guess.  The set is made complete when Ray’s father Mickey gets out of prison, where he had served 20 years for murder, and comes to LA to be with his family… and get in trouble.

The series is best summed up as a series of plans that all go wrong, but Mickey is the king of the disasters.  An old school drug dealer and bank robber, he has an endless series of plans to get rich, usually dragging in one of his sons to help, which inevitable go badly off the rails, often landing his partners in jail and causing no end of headaches for Ray.

But Ray’s services are so much in demand by the rich and the powerful that he somehow manages to make things right, getting people out of prison or out of trouble with gangsters, before the next scheme gets everybody back into trouble again.

The series is seven seasons of plans gone bad, dead bodies being hidden, disappearing Boston accents (except for Abby, who is on always on point), and plot lines left unresolved.  I mean, I swear there is at least one thing every season that, when the next season rolls, I ask aloud, “So what happened to… the Russians or the White Supremacist prison gang or the FBI investigation or whatever” because they clearly want to just “Yadda Yadda Yadda” themselves past a few things.

And then there are seasons six and seven, when the whole family relocates to New York.  All the key players magically end up in the Big Apple.  Not Boston, where they are from, but New York City where, if the show is to be believed, you can find parking right across the street from where ever you are headed.  Apparently Liev Schreiber, who plays Ray, got divorced during season five and his ex-wife (Naomi Watts, who will always be Jet Girl to me, and who I always confuse with Rachel Griffiths for no good reason… Australians I guess…) and kids moved to New York so he wanted to move shooting there so he could be close to his sons.  Maybe dysfunctional families do move across country together.

Still, there is a train wreck like fascination that grows on you as you watch the show because literally every plan, every aspiration, even the most simple of intentions, manages to fall through into some sort of disaster.  I stopped with references to The Sopranos and started calling the show Mickey Wrecks it All.  Also, there is an easy drinking game built into the show.  Every time Ray says, “Sure” in that curt, unconvincing way he has, take a drink.  You’ll be plastered before the end of most episodes.

The series was cancelled after the seventh season, which was almost a relief because I am not sure how much more Ray could take without straining even willing suspension of disbelief beyond all possible limits.

However, Showtime relented, and there is now a movie in the works to tie everything together.  I wonder if it will be complete fan service, like the Downton Abby film, allowing Ray to finally have a plan come together, or if it will just be Mickey finally bringing the whole family down with another of his bad ideas.  We’ll see when it comes out.

But Abed from Community would be proud.  His measure for success in television was six seasons and a movie.

Binge Watching in the New Normal

Pandemic restrictions have been lifted, but just last week I was buying some KN-95 masks because I live in California where things are just on fire for months at a stretch.  There was a brief conspiracy theory about why we all had masks on hand when Covid hit, and then we reminded people it was literally raining ash over most of the state during the summer of 2019 so we needed them to breath.

All of which is just another reason to stay inside and watch TV.

The show is about an aging stand up comedian, Deborah Vance, who was an early female presence in the genre (think Joan Rivers) and who has been doing a Las Vegas show for many years running on the same material.  Her agent sends out a 25 year old female comedy write who was just fired from her last gig for being too controversial on Twitter in an effort to get Deborah’s act to appeal to a younger demographic.  The two meet, don’t like each other, and the usual generational sniping begins which ends with grudging acceptance than a genuine relationship.

This could have been a very predictable show.  In fact, it often is very predictable.  I am not spoiling anything in my description above because you’ll see it coming a mile away.  But Jean Smart’s performance as Deborah Vance manages to make it rise above what could have been another throw away series about show business and the generation gap.  I don’t want to sell the rest of the cast short.  There are plenty of good performances, but Jean Smart is the anchor that sells it.

In the air flight 828 experiences some severe turbulence.  When they land in New York the passengers and crew find that five years have passed since their flight departed.  They have been missing, presumed dead for most of that time.  The government wants to know what is going on, a shadowy defense contractor is very interested in the passengers, a scientists fringe theories seem to be born out by the event, and a semi-religious following starts obsessed with the people who disappeared and were returned with flight 828.

Meanwhile, the lives of the passengers all moved on while they were away.  Kids grew up, spouses found new partners, jobs and technology and science went along without them.  And some of the passengers start hearing voices in their heads, giving them vague instructions or showing them visions.

There is a lot of possible content there to mine to drive a story.  But the writers try to have it all, and in trying to cover all the possible angles, end up with a show that feels like it doesn’t deliver fully on any front.  The episodes jump around, dealing with relationship issues, the NSA investigation of the passengers, the defense contractor’s odd motives and experiments, seeded with plenty of Walking Dead-like flash backs to make sure we know everybody’s store.  The whole thing just didn’t jell for us and we stopped after the first season.

The show follows the aging Sandy Kominsky (Micheal Douglas), a one time aspiring actor from New York who ended up in LA and never quite made the cut.  So he became an acting coach and opened his own school of acting, which he runs with his daughter.  He has still lived the LA lifestyle, has been married three times, has slept with numerous stars, and tends to favor much younger women.

The show begins by contrasting him with his best friend, Norman Newlander, who came out from New York with Sandy and who found great success as an agent and runs a major talent agency in LA.  He is also Sandy’s agent, but never finds Sandy any work.  Norman is played by Alan Arkin in that very typical cranky, cynical character that has worked for him for so much of his career.

The show is very good and we burned through all three seasons pretty quickly.  It does remind me a bit of Brockmire in form, if not in content, as it starts off as a pretty light show about two cranky old guys complaining about their prostates and Norman chiding Sandy about who he is sleeping with, and then develops into a much more serious show about death, children, and one’s legacy.  But it remains funny and and not too heavy.

This has been floating around in my periphery for a while.  Netflix kept pushing it at me as a recommendation for years, and it has a reputation as a show with a cult following, but the show’s description on the service did not spark any interest, nor did the title card featuring Ken Jeong dressed as Napoleon.  Not that I dislike him, but a little bit of Ken Jeong can go a long way.

And then I found out that Rick & Morty season five wasn’t going to be on any of my streaming services until the season was complete… looking at you HBO Max after you made a big deal about how you now have the show… you can get first run movies but can’t get an Adult Swim cartoon until it has been aired elsewhere I guess… and started looking up Dan Harmon to see what his problem was and made the connection with Community, which is basically the show he did before Rick & Morty.  So I started to watch it.

The basic, first episode premise, is that now ex-lawyer Jeff Winger, having be caught out lying about having a bachelor’s degree, enrolls at Greendale Community College in an effort to find the shortest path between him and a degree so he can get back to what he is good at.  His plan involves finding a study group that he can use to help him along.  He lies to them about being a professional tutor to get them to join him, but they somehow become a solid group.

While Jeff is the main character and the de facto leader of the group, it is TV and movie obsessed Abed who is their soul as well as being the wink towards breaking the 4th wall as he describes their situations in movie and TV tropes and cliches which the show often then embraces.

Anyway, I am through season two and am hooked.  It is a show that I laugh out loud at regularly, as my daughter can attest.  My main problem is that I started watching it on my own, and now I wonder if I should go back and rewatch the first two seasons with my wife, get her to just pick up in season three, or simply keep the show to myself.