Tag Archives: Amazon Prime

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 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 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.

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!”

Reflections on a Year of Binge Watching

I can be a bit of a luddite when it comes to television.  There are times when I miss the warmth of the cathode ray tube and the warmth of its colors… and its ability to render black and white shows and movies correctly.  I am certainly in no hurry most days to jump on whatever the latest trend is.

On the other hand, I do eventually catch up and have been at times in the vanguard.  We had a DVR from ReplayTV back before Tivo came and went as a generic term for the device.  With streaming channels we were able to start off with Netflix and Amazon on our PlayStation 3 when they launched.

But a combination of events pushed us into streaming as the default television mode at our house, and the first of those events was Baby Yoda.  Or Grogu, as we now know his name.

My wife wanted to watch The Madalorian, which was only available on the newly launched Disney+ service.  However, as the PS3 was days from going out of support Disney declined to build an app for it, so we needed another device.  I got a recommendation from a friend who works over at Roku and we picked up one of their Roku Stick devices in order to stream.

Then, or course, came the pandemic.  That meant we were home a lot more watching TV.  But sports were cancelled… my wife watches ice hockey… so we were looking for something to fill the void on that front.

And then there was Comcast/XFinity, which implemented a new compression algorithm which makes their HD channels look as grainy and dull as standard definition.  In comparison content streamed through the Roku look sharp and clear.

So from some point in February forward we have pretty much watched only stream on demand video content.  The only ads we have seen are the previews for other titles that sometimes get padded into the front end of shows on demand.  We have watched when we wanted to, often as many episodes in a row as we have wanted to, all from the comfort of our couch.

Based on that, I have the following thoughts.

  • No commercials is pretty nice

I would have underestimated this, but then we went to watch 60 Minutes live on cable to see the presidential candidate interviews and the commercials were interminable.  Even when we record things on the DVR I have to fast forward and skip back to get past them… and the cable channels are wise to this and have deliberately started injecting quick scenes from the show your watching into the middle of five minute commercial blocks to make you stop and check to see if you’ve missed something.  Not dealing with that at all… and not watching any commercials… has changed my tolerance level for them.

  • I still won’t buy pay-per-View

I like a service where you pay a monthly fee and can watch all you want from their selection.  And since that is readily available in the form of Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and even HBO, the value proposition of spending $6-$20 on a single showing of show or a movie when there are so many other options is a non-starter for me.  If it is special enough that I need to see it now, I’ll go see it in the theater… back when they re-open.  And the idea of “owning” digital content that the provider can take away from you later is ludicrous.  Comcast has literally screwed me on that with the one thing I bought from them.

  • There are too damn many streaming services

I mean, we knew this already.  But when you go to the Roku channel store and see the multitude of services available, you start to get a feeling of how big the eventual culling will be.  And even the big channels are eyeing some consolidation.  Hulu has had all of the FX stuff folded into it and it feels like Hulu and Disney+ might eventually co-join.

  • Finding things is hard

The most difficult part of coming to the end of a show is that you now how to find something new to watch.  My wife and I spend time comparing notes with friends and reading online articles about the ten best things to watch on this service or that.  And it is a multi layer problem.  The UI on any given service is quickly overloaded by too much choice.  There are multiple services and some content swaps between them.  And when you can find things, then figuring out what is worth the effort and investment can lead to decision paralysis.

  • I am torn on weekly versus all at once content

I complained in one of my binge watching posts about services that still dole out episodes once a week rather than just giving us the whole series to consume at once, the way Netflix does.  But for a popular show, where everybody watches on the same day lest they be beset by spoilers, or when everybody in our house is invested in the show, the once a week schedule still works out and becomes a point in time when we all get together on the couch.

  • We have been biased towards shows versus movies

For whatever reason our pandemic binge watching has been heavily biased towards series.  When we sit down in the evening a two hour movie is a commitment, but a show that is 22-60 minutes per episode is something you can take in pieces.  The irony here is that we almost inevitably watch two hours or more when we settle in after dinner, but we have this idea that a movie is too much.  Well, that and movie selection can be odd.  There is still a very old school, HBO monthly selection situation going on where movies come and go and are on this service then that for short stints.  So even finding a movie you want to watch on a service to which you are currently subscribed can be even more of a chore than finding shows.

  • I could cut the cord were it not for sports

Seriously, I could turn my back on the cable company… well, except for the fact that they are also the internet company.  But my wife likes to watch hockey and texts back and forth with her pals about the game and, while I can get the games on a stream, they are inevitably 30-60 seconds behind what is on cable and my wife hates hearing that one side or the other has score before it happens on our screen.

  • It really sucks when the internet goes down

The cable company is also the internet company… that is our only high speed internet option and we live in the middle of Silicon Fucking Valley… so when they go down or are doing maintenance, you get a quick and hard accounting of just how much you depend on that pipe for your entertainment.

  • It does not replace the theater experience

I know a bunch of people who are not at all sad that movie theaters are in trouble and that many may not open back up when the pandemic passes.  I still value the theater experience though, and miss it.  Seeing something on the big screen, like a James Bond or a Star Wars film, is not something that can be at all replicated in our living room, no matter how big of a TV we purchase.  Of course, most everything I would have gone to see on the big screen has been delayed due to the pandemic, so if there are theaters this summer I hope to return.

  • I still cannot watch exactly what I want on demand

I wrote a few years back that the most cost effective way to watch exactly what you want is to get an old fashioned, disks through the mail, Netflix subscription and get things that way.  That remains true today.  I saw that Geoffrey Palmer had passed away and wondered if I could watch some of the early things he was in, like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

Nope.  Not available.  I could get it on DVD from Netflix through the mail, but even the niche British TV streaming services like BritBox, GranadaVision, BoB, and Acorn, don’t have it.  There isn’t even a pay per view option, not that I would use it.

Others on this topic:

Pandemic Binge Watching with More New Seasons

And we’re back with more TV that we have watched while the pandemic has kept us home… not that we would have gone out all that much, but we used to go out to dinner and a movie one in a while.  Anyway, some new seasons from older shows and some first seasons from new shows to talk about.

The Boys Season 2- Amazon Prime

I loved season one of this, with the super heroes as real people run by a corporation focused on profit and image and putting out the next film starring their heroes.  Heroes are not uncommon, and the prime group is The Seven, seven heroes who represent the top of the brand.  It is a gritty world where those seven all have their own personality issues and problems with the job, the public, and the company itself, while the company will do anything to protect their image.

I won’t spoil season one with too much detail, but it builds the world where a group led by Carl Urban… The Boys of the title… are trying to expose the whole thing for what it is.  And then, in season two, they have to kind of run with the big build up behind them and… it kind of falls a bit flat.

The problem is, after the first season, our ability to be shocked that, say, a super hero is a legit Nazi, has been expended.  We know they and the company are bad, we’re now just haggling over how bad.  I think the writers/producers knew this, because they dialed up the sex/violence/gore meter a few notches over season one, but that doesn’t really offset the fact that we get the situation already.  Meanwhile, The Deep joining a cult was a bit of a drag on the plot.

Still, the second season isn’t bad, and I’ll watch the third season to continue the crazy, frenetic soap opera that the show can be, but it is now hard for them to shock the audience after the first season.

The Mandalorian Season 2 – Disney+

Okay, I know, we’re not even done with the full season yet, but after episode 5 I am ready to pass judgement.  This is the way.

Unlike The Boys above, season one only laid the groundwork for the show.  There is a lot more to explore and discover in the post-Endor galaxy far, far away.  The season starts a little slow, but the show has already decided it moves only at a walking pace as we go from adventure to adventure.  We’re happy with that at our house as long as the quips are good and baby Yoda is cared for.  But then, in episode five, things get real and the connection to the rest of the Star Wars universe is well and truly establish.  And then episode six comes along and doubles down! This is the show that Star Wars fans deserve.   I don’t want to spoil it, but it is pretty cool.

Anyway, we’ll keep subscribing to Disney+ so long as they keep making this show.  I might also have to go back and watch Star Wars: Rebels while we’re subscribed.

The Crown Season 4 – Netflix

There was word that the royals were not fully happy with how they were portrayed in season 4, to which I respond with, “Are you serious? This monarchy porn isn’t fawning enough for you?  Try making your own!  Oh, right, you did that in season 3, didn’t you?  And it sucked, didn’t it?”

The lot of them should be grateful for the casting alone.  It wouldn’t take much for this to have turned into a live action Spitting Image.

That said, season four was kind of a transition for us, as we moved from “things I read about or knew from history” into things we remember from the news coverage at the time.  My wife got up at 3am to watch Charles and Diana get married.

The time frame is essentially the Margaret Thatcher era, who is portrayed by Gillian Anderson with a hard shell of hair and a back brace to keep her posture as rigid as possible. (That last bit is conjecture on my part.)  She looks and sounds contrived, but so did Thatcher at the time, so spot on I guess.  She is shown in the mix of her achievements.  She is a heartless conservative who could care less about apartheid or the poor.  But she is also of middle class origins, believes in her cause, and works very hard relative to the indolent royal family (and pretty much everybody around her), whom I honestly expected to reprise the Maggie Smith line, “What is a ‘week end’?” when the Thatcher’s are invited for dinner.  They disdain her and her middle class ways.

(And word is that conservatives in the UK want the show conspicuously labeled as a “work of fiction” because they too are not fully happy, this time with how Maggie was portrayed.  I suppose one could allow that many of them are experts on fiction.  Just look at the Brexit campaign.)

Much of the season is the poor royals, trapped in their roles and longing to be free… so long as they can keep their titles, wealth, and privileges.  The Queen, Anne, and Margaret are probably the most sympathetically played this season.

Charles and Diana make up much of the season.  Charles is probably the most likely to be aggrieved by his portrayal as they push his slouch and mannerisms to exaggeration, and he comes off immature, petty, self-absorbed, and uninterested in much beyond polo and Camilla.

Diana is a bit of a mystery.  Being from a similar background, she fits in with the royals initially.  She is one of them and her first weekend with the royals juxtaposes the Thatcher weekend.  But after the wedding that seems to stop.  She is lonely and the fairy tale is a sham, so she starts to find ways to fill her own needs even as she starts to outshine Charles in the public eye.

Anyway, it was all charming and well done and I await season five when the Queen orders the SAS to kill wayward Diana… or however they’re going to play that.  Didn’t we have a whole movie about the aftermath from the same person?

Roadkill Season 1- PBS via the UK

I am pretty sure I read somewhere that the stated objective of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater is to get us to fawn endlessly like stricken colonials over all things British.  And it seems to be a viable plan, since it has kept going as a show over here since the early 70s.

This time we’re back with Hugh Laurie whom I think I first saw when Masterpiece brought over Jeeves and Wooster back in the 80s, long before he showed up in House which, when I first saw it, made me ask, “Why is he speaking with that horrible parody of an American accent?”  But I gather I was in a minority on that front.

Anyway, we like him around our house, so we decided to watch this when it came up and… it is kind of hard to peg.  We have him as Peter, a British politician in some political hot water who is part of the cabinet and everything seems to be working against him, including the Prime Minister, and then things just sort of work out in the end for him.  While the journey had its interesting points, it is sort of like House of Cards... original or remake, take your pick, right down to a dead female investigative reporter… with all the hard edges sanded off.

Is it a commentary on ruling class privilege, the nature of politics, how some people can get away with anything and still succeed?  And what does that title mean?  And what was going on with the Prime Minister’s right arm?  I really don’t have any answers.  I realize everything doesn’t have to have a universal message at the end, but you want something to hang your hat on.

Finally, while I liked Hugh Laurie in it, this did feel like more of a Hugh Grant role, where just a bit more charm would have had it all make some sense… maybe… but I guess he was busy using that charm to hide malice in The Undoing.

Away Season 1 – Netflix

This follows an international crew on the first manned mission to Mars.  There is the brash American who is leading the mission, because the Americans are clearly paying most of the bills for this, the salty Russian who has more time in space and feels he should be leading, the handsome Indian Air Force Group Commander who is also second in command, the unsmiling Chinese chemist there to represent the party, and the Brit botanist who was probably as surprised as the rest of us that the UK was even included.  But he makes up the majority who force English to be the language for the mission.

This is less science fiction and more space soap opera.  There are some science bits and problems to overcome, but the show is mostly focused on the personal strengths and weaknesses of the crew and how they cope together locked in a metal cylinder headed towards Mars.  Not a bad show, but it was cancelled after the one season, so you can imagine this as the prequel to some more exciting movie like The Martian or  Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Treadstone Season 1 – Hulu

Time to try and capture some more of that Jason Bourne magic, so Project Treadstone has been shaken back to life as we discover there are all sorts of other sleepers like Bourne out there, called “cicadas,” and somebody is waking them up for some sinister purpose.

On the upside, the show is well acted and has excellent production values.  USA, where it was original aired, and the crew that created the show can be proud of that.

The downside is that it the plot itself is a confused mess that has at least three major plot lines that never quite run together, including a diversion back to 1973 and the Soviet program that inspired the Americans to create Treadstone.  So you get tense situations and some very good action, but you’re left wondering how that connects with the guy back in the US and the woman in Korea and the woman in Russia on the farm with the missile that the woman in London was talking about and what that part from the 70s added to anything.

So the show was cancelled, though I am sure the real reason why it got shut down wasn’t its complexity, but its failure to adhere to the Robert Ludlum rule: Three Word Titles.

Pandemic Binge Watching and Some More Shows

The pandemic is still here… and it has been getting worse rather than better of late… so we’re still spending a lot of time at home in front of the TV consuming huge servings of streamed shows.  You can look at the Binge Watching tag to see this and other posts on the topic.

We started watching this because it had a bit of the same vibe in the ads as Succession, the HBO series that we both enjoyed.

It features the ongoing struggle between the CEO of an investment firm, played by Damien Lewis, and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, played by Paul Giamatti.

Unlike Succession, which was about a rich and powerful family being horrible to each other, and fully deserving it most of the time, Billions tends to be more about the rich (Lewis) and powerful (Giamatti) abusing their power for their own agendas, which is less fun, being closer to the reality where the everyday person just gets crushed if they get in the way.

Also, the show doesn’t really go anywhere.  There are four and a half seasons available on Showtime and when we got to the end of season four I commented to my wife that after 48 episodes everything was pretty much back where it started.  A lot of details changed, but the essential conflict remained practically as it began.

The redeeming grace of the show is the supporting cast, who are often more fun an interesting than either of the two primary characters.

A science fiction series originally aired on Starz, the premise is that in the late 80s in Berlin some scientists broke through a barrier and discovered a parallel, identical Earth.  Or maybe they created it, as everything was exactly the same there.  And everybody has a double on the other side that is an exact copy of them.  But then the two worlds began to diverge.

30 years down the road, the two worlds are very different, with research and technology having progressed differently.  The two worlds maintain embassies with each other and negotiate trades of information, but the relationship is tense.  Both sides distrust the other and spy while trying to keep their own secrets.  The whole thing has been kept under wraps from the general public and is run by a group referred to only as “Management.”

The show only ran for two seasons, which I suspect may have been due to a lack of “stars” to bring in an audience.  I mean, I like J. K. Simmons a lot, but stars maybe don’t do insurance commercials.  Or maybe the slow pace did it in.

But the two season thing turned out to be a bit of a benefit.  I think they knew going into the second season that they would have to wrap it up, so they did.  The first season brings you into the conflict between the two worlds and sets a plot in motion.  The second season resolved the plot, answers a bunch of questions, and tidies things up at the end, making it a 20 part story.  And it is all kind of fun because a lot of the actors get to play two versions of themselves.

Ewan McGregor is back with his childhood pal Charley Boorman for another motorcycle adventure.  It has been a long time since they did Long War Round and Long Way Down, but the two are back again for another adventure, and one I figured they would do eventually.

Sort of.

I figured Alaska to Tierra del Fuego would be a natural.  However, that is another “down” journey, so they decided to start in Tierra del Fuego and go north, thus the title.

The big twist, besides everybody being older, grayer, and less spry, is that they decided to do the ride on electric motorcycles.  They got two prototype electric motorcycles from Harley Davidson for the run.  And, to go with them, were two prototype electric trucks from Rivian. (An old friend works for them, so I’ll have to ask if he got to meet Obi-wan.)

That is kind of an interesting twist, but it also meant that the first three episodes were largely focused on battery life charging time, and whether or not they have the right plug adapter.  The vehicles all run down at some point, but they have a van and a generator truck on call at times.

After that it settles down into the usual routine from the earlier shows, where they alternate between cool local sights and culture and figuring out how they are going to overcome some obstacle or make it in time for a ferry.

Also, they don’t go all the way to Alaska, settling on LA to end the trip, which is where Ewan lives.  Driving up Interstate 5 to Canada and then the ALCAN Highway to Alaska is probably less exotic than they wanted.

Basically, if you like the first two shows, this is a bit more of the same.

I didn’t have any background on this one, but it had John Cusack in it, so we gave it a watch. Starting off it felt very much like a comic book adaptation, with the over the top graphic violence and crazy conspiracy theories… oh, and it revolves around a pair of comic books which a group of “enthusiasts” believe foretold and can foretell disease outbreaks in current times.

But it is actually a remake of a British show of the same name from seven years back.  I suppose the source material doesn’t matter, but it felt like what it felt like.

Anyway, conspiracies are true, diseases are planned, and an evil corporation has an evil plan to remake the world in a way that at least two Bond villains would approve.  The whole disease and vaccine and media influence aspect of it was very on the nose in 2020 I guess, but after a crazy and sometimes shocking start, the whole thing felt a little flat by the end.  It was only eight episodes, but it was no Umbrella Academy.

In the middle of the pandemic and the election and all of the rather tense shows we’ve been watching, it was nice of Netflix to import four seasons of silly sitcom for us.

The show feels straight from 70s/80s mold of family sitcoms.  It features the Kim family and centers around the convenience store they run.  The parents immigrated from Korea, but their two kids have grown up in Toronto and are much more Canadian than Korean in ways the second generation often are as part of the immigrant experience.

Light, airy, and easily digested in 22 minute doses, we ran through all four seasons pretty quickly.  It isn’t Derry Girls hilarious, but it is pretty funny.  You can get wrapped up in whether or not the ethnic humor aspect of it should be a thing, but at its core it is a family sitcom with many of the same setups as sitcoms from bygone days.

Also Mr. Kim, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, got his own sneak attack, appearing in last week’s episode of The Mandalorian.

Honest Trailers Looks at Streaming Services

I just want to point out that I wrote my two posts about streaming services, yesterday’s and the previous one, before this video came out.

That said, the profusion of streaming services and their popularity now during the pandemic makes it a timely topic, and the Screen Junkies teams looks into services beyond what I have explored so far.

 

Of course, since I just wrote about some of those services, it is interesting to see where my opinion aligns or diverges from theirs.  Also, I forgot that Netflix was no longer the place to watch Friends as HBO paid a bunch of money to have it on HBO Max.  I might know that if I could access HBO Max rather than whatever HBO service I’m allowed to have on the Roku.

Still, I feel solid with my own assessments.

And even Honest Trailers cannot plumb the full depth of channels out there.  My wife keeps asking me at bed time, when the lights are out and I have no electronics handy, if we can get Acorn or Britbox or some other oddball channel because she saw an ad for a show that we might want to watch and it is on that particular service.  And don’t get me started on trying to explain how the PBS app works.

If you are really hot on this topic, then you will probably enjoy the Honest Trailers Commentary video that goes along with the above, where they run through the trailer and talk about why they said what they did and expand upon their opinions.  I enjoyed it.

Pandemic Binge Watching and the Big Three Channels

Let me just get out the obligatory “TV was a lot different when I was young” before we move on.  I tell my daughter about the days before DVRs or VCRs, when you had to be there and ready to watch at a specific time in order to see a show or movie.  A whole weekly magazine was devoted to the TV schedule, which was kind of amazing logistically because the channels were different in every major media market.  The LA TV Guide was useless in Chicago or New York.

And don’t even get me started on the pre-cable days and fiddling with an antenna to get the TV signal.  And I am just old enough to remember pre-solid state TVs, where you had to turn them on and allow a couple of minutes for them to warm up before a clear picture would resolve itself on the screen.  Or a fuzzy picture, if the antenna wasn’t just right.  It was a different time.

Today we have a Roku Stick that juts out from the side of our 46″ LCD TV.  I bought that back in December because there was demand in our house for the Disney+ channel and the PlayStation 3, our streaming device up until that moment, was just seconds from being completely out of support, so no new apps were being made for it.  And, when I looked at it a couple month later, all the old apps were dead too.  So it was just in time.

And, as the pandemic has gone on, we have spent more and more time streaming content over the Roku and very little time watching traditional commercial television.  I’d cancel the cable TV service, but Comcast would raise my monthly charge to just have internet.  So we just leave it there, idle, though I may go in and trim some features, like the extra we pay for HD channels.  The Comcast Xfinity HD compression algorithm was changed a couple years back and what you get now looks pretty bad.  If it even qualified as 720p I’d be surprised.  Maybe sports will come back and we’ll want to watch something like that.

Anyway, this will be a few posts running down of the channels in order of length and depth of investment in each, and I will start with the big three staples of our house currently.

HBO, or Home Box Office back in the day, is probably the first premium channel I ever ran into.  Our friend Gary had a bootleg HBO receiver on their antenna mast back in the day when it was broadcast via line-of-sight transmission from Mount Umunhum into the valley.  It was just movies back then, and the occasional filler 30 minutes of Video Jukebox, which might have pre-dated MTV.

I have subscribed to HBO as part of cable or satellite or streaming a number of times over the years, and I always end up cancelling it after a while.  They never have many movies that interest me, and for a long time they only had a few shows, and none of this was on demand.  But that has changed.

Upside:

Usually has a couple of recent release movies we might want to watch.

Has a deep field of good TV series that they have produced on which to binge like The Wire, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Succession, Generation Kill, and a few others.  I could watch the first two seasons of The Wire on repeat.

Downside:

Priced at a premium tier.

Like a lot of movie channels, there are a bunch of movies you’ll skip right past because you’ve seen them or know you’ll never watch them.  Oh, and they come and go monthly, so you have to keep an eye on that.

Has some series that are decent but which got cancelled quickly, so you have a few episodes and a longing for more.

The UI of the app is not very sophisticated, though I will admit that the UI of none of the streaming apps are ideal.  We are once again up against the limitations of screen real estate and exactly how big things need to be to be able to see/read them from the couch.  But HBO, for all its prestige of being one of the elder services, is behind the pack when it comes to features, at least when compared to the two services below.

Has clung to the old school “episode every week” format for new show content.  This works for topical shows, like Last Week Tonight, and worked during Game of Thrones, when everybody was talking about that at the water cooler on Monday, but that was an exception, not the rule.  Most of the time it feels like they drag shows out week by week because they have nothing else new coming and just want to keep you subscribed.  Our general house rule is to let a series get at least six episodes in so we can watch them in pairs, though it is better still if we just wait until the season is over and watch at our own pace.

I also remain confused as to their branding.  I have HBO Now, or I did, but there is now HBO Max, which I cannot have because they are in a fight with Roku, though I can get HBO Max if I cancel HBO Now and subscribe to HBO via Hulu.  Or something like that.  I am not sure what I am missing by not having HBO Max.  Also, wasn’t there HBO Go for a while?

Current Status: Still subscribed.  Waiting for Lovecraft County to get further along.

Our original stop for binge watching, back when Netflix used to just send disks through the mail.  We burned through seasons of the show 24 three disks at a time.  With no commercials and using the chapter advance to get past the “previously” and the credits, each hour long episode boiled down to under 30 minutes, so we would watch a disk a night.

Eventually Netflix managed to get to the “net” part of its name and started streaming back before that was much of a thing.

Anyway, fast forward to today where Netflix is your prime location for streaming old episodes of Friends, a show we only used to watch because it was adjacent to Seinfeld at one point and the once place where you can watch Tiger King.

Upside:

Overall, lots of stuff available.

Lots of new and original content showing up all the time.  When they drop a new series, it is all episodes on the table, ready to binge.  And they have hit the mark multiple times with shows like Stranger Things and Tiger King.

Top of the class when it comes to features like “skip the ‘previously’ segment” at the start of a series show and “skip credits” so you can get straight into the content.

Tries really hard to flag content you might like based on your viewing, and isn’t that bad at it.  And it allows you to make profiles so when your daughter binges anime on her profile you don’t end up with the weeabo selection on your own recommendations.

Downside:

Has, over time, dramatically decreased the amount of third party content they have licensed.  There are still some good third party items in the mix, and of course Friends, but they are more about their own stuff these days.

A lot of their own content isn’t that great.  Some of it is okay.  I was good with a pass through once on things that otherwise got mixed reviews, but it can be really hit and miss.  A bunch of it is foreign television that has been dubbed in English and branded as “Netflix Original” and dumped into the listings.  Some dubbed stuff is okay, though a dubbed show really has to have a strong underlying plot for that not to become a distraction.

Really wants stuff playing on your screen.  The only service where I will leave something selected, walk away to do something, and come back to find myself starting episode three already.  You can tone that down some in the settings, but they don’t make it easy.

Current Status: Still subscribed, waiting for the next bit of binge fodder to drop while I get through Parks & Recreation.

Amazon Prime is the streaming service we sort of backed into because we had Amazon Prime for free delivery and suddenly it included a video service.

Upside:

Has content for Prime members, which occasionally has a movie I want to watch when I want to watch it.  I caught The Battle of Britain the other day.

Continues to ramp up some decent original content like The Man in the High Castle, The Boys, and Hanna.  If you’re going to dub something, Comrade Detective is how you do it.

Has caught up to Netflix on the “skip this” features without trying to start playing video at you every time you pause the cursor for a moment.  Also, just added profiles.

Can subscribe to a variety of other services like Showtime or Starz in their interface.  Also has a huge library of pay per view titles in its catalog.

Downside:

Not a lot of selection when compared to Netflix when you consider the price differential.  But maybe the free shipping takes a bite out of the content options.

Not as easy to navigate as Netflix.  Not that Netflix is great, but on Prime everything is smaller and less intrusive and feels like they are not trying as hard.  Prime also lists out each season of a show as its own entry, which feels like they are trying to look like they have more content than they actually do.

Searching for titles will lead you to a lot of things that are pay per view.  This sets it apart from the other two where everything you find on the service you can watch without additional payment.

The last time I tried a pay per view movie I had to get up from the TV and go into my office to order it on my computer before I could watch it on the TV.  I guess that keeps down the accidental purchases.

Some spotty or indifferent shows.  Also clings to the “one episode a week” idea of content deliver, except when it gets impatient and suddenly releases half a season, the doles out the rest more slowly.

Status: Still subscribed for free shipping, Twitch games, and other stuff, while finishing up Counterpart and waiting for all the episodes of The Boys season two to become available.

Next time I’ll look at Hulu, Disney+, and Starz.

Free Final Fantasy XIV Maybe

I continue to maintain that few things in life are actually free, and this is no exception.

IF you are an Amazon Prime member and you have a Twitch account and you have linked your Twitch account to your Amazon account then, right now through May 4, you can get a free copy of the Final Fantasy XIV Starter Edition through Twitch.

Free for a while

It took me a bit to figure out where to claim this.  I saw it mentioned on Twitter and we know that Amazon and Twitch have a couple of methods for handing out free stuff.

As I have mentioned in the past, there is the Twitch Prime page where you can claim games to download via the Twitch client.  It is available there, but due to the way the page is sorted, it is down at the bottom of the list as opposed to up with the free games.

You can also find it via the main Twitch site in a browser.  It is in the Prime Loot menu, the little up at the top of the page.

Prime Loot

You cannot find it in the Twitch Client.  At least I could not find it in the Twitch Client.  It seems like the integration with the client is less than complete.

Claiming your copy seems simple enough.  You click a button to get a code for the game, the follow the link provided to the download page.

Having never played FFXIV, and feeling that was perhaps a bit of an omission on my part, I decided to grab a copy.  I wasn’t burning to play it RIGHT NOW, but could foresee a time in the spring or summer, before WoW Classic looms into view, where I might have the time and inclination to give it a try.  So I downloaded the installer to at least get it setup.

Unfortunately, that is about where my journey ceased.  When I run the installer I get the option to select my region and language:

That’s me!

And then I hit “accept” and the dialog goes away for a flash, only to return and ask me again… and again… and again… and off into the distance so far as my patience will sustain me.

I did the usual thing, ran it as Administrator, but that didn’t help.

The install page, which seemed a little behind the times, suggested that I run it in Windows Vista SP2 compatibility mode… let me remind you that Windows Vista came out in 2006, or a good seven years before FFXIV… but I gave that a shot.  I tried the various Windows 7 modes.  I turned off the virus protection.  I Googled around for some other options, but found mostly variations on the what I had been trying, none of them successful.

I did run across one thread that said if you were running on Windows 10, as I am, that you needed to install DirectX 9 manually first.  That seemed an unlikely solution, since DX9 was from the Windows XP era and we were now getting into things more than a decade before the game launched.

Thinking that there must be an updated installer somewhere, I went poking around for that as well.  I had no luck on the Square Enix site, where downloads were behind a $19.99 barrier.  Likewise, I figured there must be an installer that worked over on Steam.  But that too had a $19.99 tariff in the way.

So I set it aside.  Like I said, I wasn’t in a hurry to play it right away.  I copied the code off for later use.  I’ll poke around a bit more later.  But the option is there.  You can get a free copy, if you have met all the criteria and can get the installer to run.