Category Archives: Television

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.

Still Pandemic Binge Watching Like it was 2020

The CDC dropped the surprise “Masks while vaccinated? LOL no way!” guidance on us about a month back leaving state and local officials scrambling to come up with a coherent plan to transition into what we all hope will be the post-pandemic era.  My state this week then said, “whatever” and masks and the pandemic were ruled over I guess.  But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped watching way too much TV.

I thought I had read a couple years back that Archer was going to end with season 10.  I certainly had that in my brain somewhere, so dismissed the thought even when Hulu kept putting it up in front of me on login.  Then I went to go watch an old episode and discovered there was a whole season I had missed and that season 12 was coming at the end of this summer.

We left off at the end of season 10 with Archer waking up from his coma, there having been three seasons of coma induced dreams that puts Dallas to shame, so season 11 starts with Archer returning to work to find it running like a well oiled machine.  Competence abounds and nobody is using “phrasing” any more, all seemingly due to Archer not being there to drive everybody crazy.  So the season is essentially Archer returning to form and getting the agency back to its old levels of dysfunction.

The problem is that it feels kind of flat.  A return to form after three outrageous, yet unsatisfying, dream sequence seasons should be a cure but instead seems to remind me why we got the triple season experiment in the first place.  I watched it all, and will no doubt watch season 12 too, based on H. Jon Benjamin delivery of the character… I watched most of Archer while mixing in episodes of Bob’s Burgers, where HJB is also the main voice, which was an oddly satisfying pairing… but it feels like the show isn’t really stretching… though, neither does Bob’s Burgers of late, so maybe you can only ride on delivery for so long.  Or maybe I just miss that “phrasing” is no longer a thing.

We’re not really zombie aficionados, but in looking for something to watch we do end up finding more and more entries in the genre.  Black Summer is the anti-Walking Dead.  To start with, the dead are truly terrifying as they run, full speed, after people all the time.  It also isn’t clear if the whole “kill the brain” tactic works on them, mostly because they don’t shamble slowly and let you hack them with whatever object you have to hand.  They aren’t exactly the ninja-zombies of Army of the Dead, but they will go straight for you.

Also, the storytelling is very much a break from The Walking Dead.  You can go for episodes and learn almost nothing about the people that have been thrown together to face the apocalypse.  The series starts with a retelling of the same day from multiple perspectives… a burning Jaguar became an anchor point for me… and then goes on following several people as they move from place to place just trying to survive.  It cannot maintain tension and action constantly, but it tries to make every moment an experience in a way that The Walking Dead never did.  That said, as a viewer, I do kind of want a “what the hell is going on?” answer at some point.  I don’t need a flashback, backstory episode for every primary and secondary character, but seriously, what is going on?

Atlanta follows Earnest “Earn” Marks, who is from a poorer, African American part of the city, and his struggles with both the system being stacked against black men and his own community’s seeming acceptance of the way things are.  Earn is smart, got good grades, and got into Princeton, but then dropped out and ended up back in Atlanta and a cycle low pay, dead end jobs and trying to make ends meet.

He becomes the manager for his rapper cousin “Paper Boi” and they navigate the Atlanta rap scene where, as with the life in general, Earn is endlessly frustrated with how things are.  He knows they should be better, but cannot change the system or the people around him who also buy into and support the system that also hold them back.  Early on in the series Earn and his cousin are arrested and Earn is punished for being outside the system.  His cousin, having been arrested before, is released almost right away, but Earn has never been arrested so he has to stay over night in a limbo-like waiting room, neither in jail nor free, while he is added to that particular aspect of the system.  Played as comedy at times, and tragically hilarious at times, it is very much social commentary.

As we’re noticing that the zombie genre just keeps going, the same goes for the superhero graphic novel adaptions.  And so it is with Jupiter’s Legacy.  Superhero shows and movies tend to be either origin stories… how many times must I witness the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents… or into the action and central issue, allowing a bit of back story to creep in when needed.  JL tries to have it both ways, with each episode split between the modern day, when the Union of Justice faces problems with a new generation of super heroes coming into the fold… or rejecting it… and 1929, when the events around the stock market crash set a group of people on a journey that ends up with them obtaining super powers and forming the Union of Justice.

The problem is that neither story really grabbed me.  The origin story, since it needs to be told in parallel with the current tale, drags along unnecessarily, waiting for the modern times side of things to get somewhere.  Meanwhile, the current timeline stuff is mostly The Utopian, head of the Union of Justice, being disappointed with kids these days and their not being down with the “no killing, no politics” rules of the union, though even he wonders whether sitting out WWII to catch bank robbers and such was the right call.  Basically, some times a slow burn isn’t a burn at all.  Sometimes it is just slow, so slow that when you get to the big reveal in the final episode of the season you don’t even care.

My wife wanted to watch this, though I was less than enthusiastic. My wife and I watched Friends and Seinfeld pretty regularly when we moved in together, but I didn’t watch either before that, mostly because I didn’t have live TV or cable for a chunk of the mid 90s.  So I am good for the last 6 or so season of Friends, and I’ve never had the urge to go watch it in re-runs.

The special itself tries to find something for everybody, which meant that there were bits I liked… mostly about the history of the show, how casting decisions were made, and the sort of behind the scenes trivia I generally like to read about… and bits that I could have skipped.  The obviously staged and rehearsed opening felt… obviously staged and rehearsed I guess.

But it was less than two hours and it had some heft to it at points.  I didn’t complain while watching it though, as with the series, I have no urge to go back and watch it again either.

The show follows Mare Sheehan, played by Kate Winslet, a police detective in the city of Easttown Pennsylvania.  It is a smallish place and she has lived there her whole life so nearly everybody she runs into who isn’t a friend of colleague is a friend of a friend or somebody’s cousin.  It is run down and the sort of town you get away from if you have any grand aspirations in life.

Mare, in her 40s, divorced, with a daughter at home, a son who killed himself, her mother living with her, and still in the town where she grew up, starts investigating the murder of a young woman.  In a way, the show reminds me a bit of Broadchurch, in that various suspects get thrown in her path and we have to dig through everybody’s story to get to where we need to go.  Fortunately, it does this better than Broadchurch, which felt like it had been jerking me around for seven episodes before suddenly saying, “Hah, the killer was right here the whole time!”  Mare of Easttown keeps you going, “Ah, it must be him/her!” only to find that flimsy theories don’t stand up to the facts, but then never letting go of those suspects because their tales help build to the final outcome.  I enjoyed the whole thing.

Pandemic Binge Watching Fear the Walking Dead

At some point I am going to have to stop pretending we’re binge watching this much television just because of the pandemic.  We do tend to do this in fair times as well, it is just somewhat more pronounced now due to not being able to go out to dinner or a movie or leave the house without a mask on.  Now that we’re fully vaccinated and the mask thing might be going away, we’ll just be binge watching.

But when it came to Fear the Walking Dead, we were still in pandemic stay-at-home mode, so it counts.

West Coast Walking Dead

After having watched ten seasons of The Walking Dead, you might have thought we were ready for something else.  Alas, no.  The lure of a different telling, a west coast suburban telling of the tale of the zombie apocalypse, seemed like a good idea.

And, I will admit, the first season was very strong.  Or, at least it delivered on the promise of a different and somewhat more relatable telling of the story.

The Walking Dead opens up with the main character waking from a coma to find the zombie apocalypse already in full swing.  Then, save for some time spent in Atlanta and looting the Smithsonian in Washington DC, it spends most of its time in rural settings.  At best you get small town zombie America.

Fear the Walking Dead opens up in a suburb of LA, which looks much like most suburbs in the coastal population areas, including my own, before the rise of the zombies occurs.  Or just as it begins.

And the story, which follows a family, one partner’s ex-wife, their kids, plays out how I imagine the zombie apocalypse would.  Everybody’s daily life and problems has their focus as hints of their impending doom start to show up.  There is a news report about a police shooting, a Vine video about some shambling homeless, the elderly neighbor growling through the fence.  Since you know what is coming… right, the title isn’t hiding anything… you want to yell at them to pack up and run for the hills.  But you also know how it goes in the suburbs.  Everything is fine and normal until suddenly it isn’t.

Things start getting out of hand, neighbors start holing up in their homes, and then the national guard shows up to help maintain control.

The family, including the ex-wife and a couple and their daughter who were picked up along the way as the panic started, are in a “safe zone,” fenced in and guarded by the military.  Others outside of the are evacuated and the national guard has orders to shoot any infected outside the safe perimeters… and they shoot first and skip asking any questions.

Anybody sick in the safe zone… because the zombie fever is already a thing… gets shipped off to a secure hospital for observation.  The family gets split up that way and it turns out that the Salvadorian barber, who the family is helping, turns out to be a former member of the Sombra Negra death squad and, when he feels that the guard isn’t telling them things they should know, captures a guardsman and tortures him into revealing the reality of the situation.

But things are ready to fall apart anyway.  The guard pulls back or deserts and the family goes to the secure hospital to rescue their family members.  There the oldest son has been befriended by Victor Strand, a confident man with a plan.  He leads them off to a boat and then to Mexico.

Because if you’re white suburban Californians who can barely speak menu Spanish and are ignorant of the culture, why wouldn’t you run to the country next door with a worse gun violence problem than your own?

There the tale becomes more akin to the original series.  You get armed gangs, people denying the apocalypse, people who think the zombies are still the people they were before, looting, shooting, and people generally becoming a worse problem than the zombies.

Still, that goes somewhat well, story wise.  They spend a season in Mexico, then get caught at the border by an armed group as they try to get back into what was the US, end up in a land dispute with Native Americans in New Mexico and eventually blow up a dam in the season three finale that is yet another testament as to why we cannot have nice things.

Then season four hits.  Despite good ratings and reviews, they decided to shake the show up.  The timeline was sped ahead to bring it into sync with the original series.  Both timelines started in 2010 in the shows, but the TWD launched five years ahead of FTWD.  They spend season four cleaning house, killing off much of the old cast and introducing a bunch of new characters, including a cross over character from the original show because… reasons.

Oh, and the show moved the setting to Texas with the fast forward and, like many Californians drawn to Texas, they find that the benefits (lower taxes, cheaper land) comes with many of the same old problems (traffic and/or zombies) with a few new twists (toll roads, hurricanes, ice storms, and heavily armed neighbors with strange beliefs).

And it all felt very much like a purge, like  they were sick of the old story line and the original family from episode one.  And yes, even in TWD they have killed off most of the early cast, including disappearing the episode one protagonist, but this felt different, even if the first person they injected into the new series was from episode one of the old. (Yeah, they couldn’t stop at just one.)

The stories get less compelling, more erratic and nonsensical, and you know that every time anything seem to going well somebody is going to show up and ruin everything.  Oh, and zombies.  They become a plot device more than a threat, though props to the one group who hooked several up to a capstan and created a perpetual motion machine used to pump oil.

As we got towards the end of season five I was suggesting loudly that we could maybe pick up with the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale or one of the movies on my watch list.  My wife can attest that on at least three occasions I swore that if the show did what I thought they were going to do I would turn it off and never watch it again.  Of course, they did the dumb thing I expected every time.  But we still rode it out to the end of the season.

By the end though I was convinced you could play a game RimWorld, note down the events, and write a better show script than what we were getting from seasons four and five. (Of course, I write that and wonder if there is a RimWorld mod for a zombie apocalypse scenario.  That would be some fun base building.)

Overall I enjoyed season one, largely due to being able to see the zombie apocalypse unfold in familiar territory.  Seasons two and three were fine, if headed down a predictable path.  I was surprised how quickly they got on board with “slather yourself with zombie guts and you’re safe to walk around.”  Then seasons four and five sucked the life out of the show by being both dumb and predictable.

I have heard that season six gets better… but I also saw somebody on Twitter declare they were done with the show due to events in that season.  I am fine giving season six a pass, but my wife seemed disappointed when I refused to subscribe to AMC’s streaming service in order to carry on.  I might be alone in my opinions in our house.

Anyway, the first five seasons are available on Hulu.

Pandemic Binge Watching and The Walking Dead

Every so often when we’re looking for shows to watch I dig into award winning series and put them on the list for potential viewing.  In the past this has sometimes been a bit of wrestling match with my wife who, for example, had no interest in watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. I had to start watching them myself and let her come in and settle in after a few episodes, like luring a wild animal.  I actually went back and re-watched the first four episodes of The Wire because it took that long for her to find something interesting and then she wanted to start from the beginning.

But that was fine.  I could watch the first two seasons of The Wire on repeat.

That history helped me lever in The Walking Dead (TWD going forward) once I had mentioned it was long running, award winning, popular, and all of that.  It helped that she knew people who were into the show.

TWD is here

Her primary objection was that she wasn’t all that into horror movies and the like.  I am not really either, not any more, though I did stay up and watch Night of the Living Dead back when Bob Wilkins ran it on Creature Features and one of my brothers, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, expressed a desire to live in some sort of Dawn of the Dead mall scenario.  So I am at least versed in the zombie genre and the George Romero zombie rules, which TWD mostly sticks to.

On the other hand, TWD is a series which has run ten seasons so far, has an eleventh season filming, and a spin-off series that is into its sixth season, all of which means that, unlike a movie, which has to come to a resolution in 90-180 minutes, TWD has to keep the party rolling.

Somewhere into the second season my wife commented that the story certainly didn’t seem in any hurry to get anywhere fast and I responded that this was, after all, the “walking” dead and, as such, speed was not on the table.

The Story

The tale starts of with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes who, in the first few minutes of the show, gets shot and ends up in a coma.  He later wakes up and the zombie apocalypse has already hit and so the view is on a voyage of discovery with him.  And that is a decent vehicle to bring the viewer into the world of the show.  That lasts for about a season.  Another season or so goes by where zombies are really the main antagonist of the show, after which the real villains emerge; people.

People are just horrible to each other in stressful situations, like zombie apocalypses.  The show is then less about the zombies which, while always a looming threat, can go missing for long stretches while the humans battle each other and make each other miserable.  Basically, at any point in the show where the situation of the main cast seems to have settled down, some other group is going to show up and bad stuff is going to happen. (Unless they’ve decided to suddenly inject a back story episode, which happens now and then.)

I will say, however, that TWD has few compunctions about killing off members of the cast.  It wasn’t too far into the show when I remarked that after Game of Thrones got a reputation for killing off main characters, TWD clearly said, “Hold my beer!”  That said, once they establish that reputation, they play on it a few times by setting up a character who looks like they are as good as dead at the end of an episode, only to find out they had a miraculous escape.

Zombies

Zombies are, of course, the raison d’etre of the whole show.  It is the zombie apocalypse.  And, as I noted above, they remain a looming threat all the time.  Early on the show cannot resist putting zombies around just for mood.  There will be a lone zombie in a field or a couple shuffling along in the distance, which really adds to the creepiness.

But after a couple of seasons zombies are more like the weather.  It only rains or zombies only show up when the plot requires it or if the writers feel we need to be reminded that they’re around.  Some main character is going into an empty building, well we had better put some zombies in there.  They go from constant menace to plot device.

The zombies follow the “Romero Rules” for zombies.  They are slow, hunger for human flesh, and can only be killed by a blow to the brain.  Anybody who dies becomes a zombie, and being bit by one gives you the zombie fever, which kills you and then you become a zombie.  A fair number of cast members who die get their turn in the makeup chair to be the zombie versions of themselves.

Other than that, they tend to be whatever the plot needs them to be.  The shamble slowly and make lots of noise… except when the plot needs them to be silent or move quickly or whatever.  They are dumb and get caught up on very simple traps and get stuck behind waist high walls… unless the plot needs them to be wily and able to climb, jump, or otherwise demonstrate exceptional athletic feats.

We eventually had to set a house rule about not trying to evaluate or define zombie logic.  And both of us seriously have to be reminded of this rule now and then as we’ll get that sudden indignant rush when a zombie is suddenly driven by the plot outside of the usual behavior pattern.  The other just has to say, “zombie logic” to shut that down.

Cars

Lots of old cars.  I realize the show started in 2010, but as something of a car buff in my youth, I keep spotting a lot of cars from the 80s and 90s rolling around. (And not a few from even the 70s.)  I am kind of used to that being a thing living in California where the main weather effect on cars is fading paint from all the sunshine and I get that if you want cars as props you go to the junk yard and not a dealership, but still… there seemed to be an unlikely over representation of cars that were 25-30 years old on set, even in a world where the average age of cars on the road is something around 12 years.  Of course, I am that person who feels they need to ID every car I see on screen that is older than 20 years, so I might be on the rare end of noticing this.  Or it could be my own bias in noticing every old car but passing on anything new.

Guns

Guns, the acquisition there of and the use against zombies and other people make up a key part of the first six or so seasons.  This is not surprising.

The surprising bit is the marksmanship performance of various cast members depending on the target.

A neophyte shaking a revolver with a 2″ barrel vaguely in the direction of a zombie seems capable of putting a shot through its eye at a distance of 20-50 feet on the first try.

But give a trained police officer a fully automatic AK-47 with a full magazine and a human target ten feet away and they’ll blaze away all 30 rounds and not hit even once most of the time.  Along with “zombie logic” I have been known to say “plot armor” as well.  Seriously, I was reminded of The A-Team, a show where people would expend huge numbers of rounds and would never hit anybody.  The phrase “A-Team violence” became a derisive term for that sort of thing among my friends at one point.

Basically, there is a whole lot of silly going on with guns, and it keeps escalating until everybody seems to have a fully automatic weapon and, despite the scarcity of ammunition and the previously demonstrated uncanny accuracy against zombies with single shots, everybody commences to blaze away, emptying full magazines at everything, zombies, humans, or shadows in the night.

Also, there are a lot of “that’s not how guns work” moments.  Sheet metal tables and filing cabinets are not, for example, bullet proof.  Nor are most car doors, sheet rock panels, and a lot of other things people hide behind only to have squibs go off against them.  And most of the guns don’t make a loud, audible click when you pull the trigger on an empty magazine.

Eventually I think even the writers started to realize they had gone over the top on guns and there is a sudden change between seasons and guns disappear for the most part, though not before a horrible gun plot point that made my eyes roll one last time.

Hair

Everybody in the apocalypse seems to have enough time to keep their hair looking good.  Seriously, where do they find the time and the product?  Even Daryl, whose hair is always a mess and hanging down in his face, always has exactly the same style and hair in his face… and the same level of stubble on his chin… even as we get years into the story.  Yes, I get this is television and everybody has their level of vanity, but still.  Also, shoes seem to be fashionable and longer lasting than any pair I have ever owned… and some items of clothing.  Only Bart Simpson’s clothes have lasted longer.

Actually Watching the Show

The first nine seasons were available on Netflix when we started, which was a big reason why we dove right in.  The episodes, without commercials, tend to be about 43 minutes long and, skipping the opening and end credits, get close to 40.  There are occasional long episodes that ran in 90 minute time slots for season openers or mid-season events.  Those run close to an hour without commercials.

The first season is just six episodes and fairly well concentrated.  Things move along.  After that the seasons expand to 13, then 16, then 22 episodes and you end up with a lot more of what I call “bridging” episodes where not a lot happens other than wrapping up the previous episode, setting up the next, and characters expressing their feelings about this or that.

There are often a couple of story lines… or at least points of view on a story… running and the writers are very good at ending episodes on a cliff hanger on one line, then spending the next episode on something else before getting you back the resolution you were waiting to see.

And then there is the tenth season, which you can buy on other services or watch for free, with commercials, on AMC’s streaming channel.  However, this is worse than it sounds.

Being a traditional cable TV show, TWD is set up in acts that break for commercial breaks… again, often on a point of suspense.  But the method used to inject commercials into the streaming service ignores that and just cuts off the show to feed you two minutes of ads… often the same ad repeated… in the middle of somebody speaking or an action sequence or some other point when there was clearly not a commercial break set.  So, in addition to stretching the episodes from 40 minutes to an hour, we also had to sit through the same five commercials over and over an badly timed intervals.

After two episodes we were willing to pay money.  Lucky for us, AMC had a 7 day free trial for their premium service and we were able to grind through the remaining 20 episodes in season 10 before that expired, though we may have wasted most of a Saturday getting there.

Overall

It’s good…. or good enough.  It is, as noted, much more of a zombie apocalypse soap opera where living are far more of a problem than the dead.  We enjoyed it and obviously kept watching to the end through all 153 episodes currently available.  It is easy enough to knock out two or three episodes with dinner… though maybe dinner isn’t the best time to watch as somebody will inevitably disembowel a zombie as I am taking a bit of food.  And we will probably set aside time at some future date to watch season 11, another 24 episodes, which will finish the series, though we will probably wait until it is done and binge it.

That said, I am not sure it is a great show, at least after one pass.  Unlike, say, The Wire, I cannot see myself going back to re-watch any of it.  A lot of the show is less interesting and more about finding out what happens next.  Once you know how any situation gets resolved there isn’t a whole lot of other substance holding things together.  It isn’t all that memorable and the characters are not as deep.  It is a soap opera in that it is always moving towards the next problem or conflict.  Seriously, as I said above, any time things seem peaceful or settled in an episode, or the characters have time to sit around and talk about their feelings, you know something new is coming.

But for a one pass show it is good.

 

Godzilla vs Kong

The week before last we took a short break from our series binge watching to have a movie night.  I declared a movie night and my wife brought home Red Vines and popcorn from the store and I cooked up some hot dogs so that we could simulate something of a theater experience.

The reason for this was the premiere of Godzilla vs Kong which, in addition to landing in theaters, was available on HBO Max so we could watch it from the comfort of our own couch, avoiding the ongoing pandemic and all that.

The Aqua/Red tone thing keeps showing up in the film

I am not a huge fan of such movies, though I am pretty sure I saw all of the early Godzilla movies, they being something of a staple of Sunday afternoon television for the low budget UHF channels in the area back when I was a kid.  But I was okay with the 2014 remake of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island was another good Friday night movie at our house, complete with Samuel L. Jackson.  And I have tried to make Friday night movies a thing around our house, favoring mindless action and explosions and such, so the premiere of Godzilla vs Kong seemed like the right moment to revive this idea.

Let me just say up front that this is a dumb movie and trying to think too hard or force logic on it is a futile effort.

But that aside, the whole thing spectacular in a very raw and visceral way.  There is a story there… and a too complex by half story at that… but the film makes no bones as to what it is about.  Godzilla shows up and wrecks some of Florida while the team watching over Kong declares that the two will end up fighting in less than ten minutes.

And fight they do.  This is what the film is about.  Giant monsters fighting and smashing stuff.  They fight at sea, with Kong and Godzilla duking it out on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Kong lands a solid punch

Kong fights stuff in the secret center of the earth, where giant monsters seem to live, with perhaps the best grab and smash routine since Hulk smashed Loki repeatedly in one of the MCU films.  Then, after Kong somehow jumps through a hole Godzilla burned into the center of the Earth… don’t think, just roll with it… Kong and Godzilla go at it again, destroying most of Hong Kong as they fight in the middle of the city.

See, lit in that aqua/red lighting yet again

And, of course, there is an evil corporation involved who have built their own Pacific Rim-esque Jaeger which has to get into the mix for the finale.

When it was over my wife was shaking her head at just how dumb the whole movie was, which I had to admit was true, but my own reaction was that I wish I had seen it on a big screen in a theater.  This is the sort of mindless spectacle that was made for a huge screen in a dark room full of strangers.

Godzilla vs Kong delivered exactly what I expected, with the effects dialed up to eleven.

And, because it appeared on HBO Max with the premiere, Honest Trailers already has their video about it up and ready.

It contains spoilers, but if you’re not going to watch the film anyway, this will dig into its essentially silliness.

Pandemic Binge Watching as We are All Still at Home

Back again for more shows we have binged through as we stay home, waiting for the vaccine queue to finally get down to reasonably healthy non-essential workers in their 50s.  It seems like forever-ago that we were watching Tiger King.  ?Anyway, there is still likely time for a lot more TV before we’re going out again.  But on to what we’ve seen.

The tale of Assane Diop, a Frenchman of Senegalese descent who models himself on the Lupin books of Maurice Leblanc, which makes him a one-man Ocean’s Eleven at times, and his search to find evidence to exonerate his father who was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.  Fun, stylish, compelling, and the dub into English over the French was very well done.  A bad dub can be a distraction, but I barely notice this one.

However, there was one huge problem with the series… we only got half of it.  We went in not knowing that we were getting five episodes now and five at some point in the future.  So now we wait.  Merde!

Cynical, biting, and funny by turns, this look at public relations focuses on Robyn as US born PR exec living in London trying to balance her love life, family, friends, addiction, and self with a job that doesn’t want to allow time for any of that.  And then there are the clients, as she spends times spinning stories to bail them out of their own self-made messes.  Probably the most compelling episode takes place with her sitting on a trans-Atlantic flight next to a client who tells her about a problem after take off that she needs to solve before they land.  Quite enjoyed the whole thing.

What?  A lawyer show from David E. Kelly?  Crazy, right?

This time around we have Billy Bob Thorton playing cynical, brunt out, alcoholic lawyer Billy McBride who lives/works out of a motel by the beach near the Santa Monica pier.  When he isn’t in his room/office, he is drinking at the bar next door, only occasionally heading down to the court house to find clients like “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill.  And then a case he doesn’t want to take gets under his skin and we’re off to the races as he comes out of his daily routine to fight against his old partner.  Billy Bob Thorton excels in the part.

There are three seasons, and the first two don’t have much to do with each other, but then we get to the third season where the past comes back on Billy in unexpected ways.  Good, in a strange way, and season 3 involves irrigation rights in the California central valley, which is always an issue when we have a drought… and we’re pretty much permanently in a drought at this point.

My desires for The Expanse at this point are pretty simple.  I want some spaceships, some Earth/Mars/Belter politics, a few dramatic visuals, an existential threat, Amos being Amos, and an elegantly dressed Chrisjen Avasarala swearing at inappropriate moments.  Give me that and I am set.

Which is why season 4 was kind of a let down for me.  We spent most of the season with Holden and his crew on a planet on the far side of the ring, away from our solar system, trying to remake Prometheus.  Or maybe it was Defiance.  I don’t know, but it wasn’t all that satisfying.

Season 5 though was back in the black, with spaceships and Belter plots and and Holden trying to get the band back together and what was hiding under Fred Johnson’s bed this whole time.  Good stuff… only now we have the long wait until season 6.  I hate that part.

Billed as a documentary about Elizabeth Carmichael and her attempt to create a lightweight, fuel efficient car in the 70s, if that was all it was about it wouldn’t have needed four hour long episodes.  I am pretty sure John Oliver could have given us all the relevant facts, made it funny, and still had time to review the new and have two “and now this…” segments without going over his usual 30 minutes.  But this is also the history of a con man with ten kids, trans gender acceptance, and where all those guys selling flowers on the side of the road in Texas came from.  Strange stuff, and oddly illustrated, but after seeing Tucker Carlson’s dad one can at least say that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the asshole tree.

A detective in Japan, his dead brother, a murder in London, a missing family sword, and a bunch of actors that might wife and I kept identifying from other shows from which we knew them.  The whole thing doesn’t quite fit together into a story that I was willing to believe in.  Too many complications that worked themselves out, too many “no person in position x would do that right?” moments, too many people suddenly willing to work against interest.  It was kind of forgettable… proven by the fact that I forgot all about it until Netflix reminded me about it under the “watch it again” header and I suddenly went, “Oh, right, the one with the woman from Boardwalk Empire, the acolyte from The Fifth Element, and the “I’m a Mac” guy!”

That said, we did watch the whole thing.  So there was enough there for that.  And that makes me wonder if I should do a post about the shows where we watched an episode or three and said, “Nope!”