Tag Archives: Binge Watching

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!”

Pandemic Binge Watching and HBO Max

Last month HBO and Roku worked out whatever it is that was keeping me from being able to access the service on my Roku Stick, so I now have access to all the wonder and majesty that is HBO Max.  And it is a bit of a mess.

It is fairly obvious what the plan for HBO Max is in the evolution of HBO overall.  Back in the day, HBO was a service that let you watch a few movies that had recently been in the theaters along with a haphazard selection of older movies.  Then they started producing some original content with things like comedy specials and shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.   With Game of Thrones their original content was clearly the biggest draw for the service.  And now, in the world of the pandemic and theaters being closed, HBO has leveraged the situation to get some films to open on their services at the same time as their theatrical release.

Also, Netflix and Hulu have been doing pretty well with a bunch of old but popular shows, so HBO wanted to jump on that bandwagon as well, which brings us to HBO Max, which attempts to bring all of that together into a single user interface.

As I mentioned, it is a bit of a mess.

That doesn’t mean it is bad.  They have added some features that they were lacking when compared to other services.  You can now have a user profile, something I think Netflix has had for a decade at this point, so if your kid binge watches Sesame Street you don’t have that polluting your recommendations.

You can also skip over ads for other shows or the opening credits or the series summary with a press of a button now.  And these are good things.

But, at its heart, HBO Max is an attempt to have a lot more content without making finding something you want to watch any easier.  This is a problem every service has, so it is a matter of where it stands in the hierarchy of channels we use.  HBO Max does this a bit better than Amazon Prime or Hulu, but not as well as Disney+ and not nearly as well as Netflix.

Which is odd, because HBO Max was clearly trying to emulate Netflix in their own way.  But despite the fact that a lot of the same categories are up at the top of the page when you open the service… just added, popular, continue watching, items from your list… and despite my occasional annoyance at how brazenly eager Netflix is to start rolling video the moment you pause on some title… Netflix just does it better.

Part of this is that Netflix is easier to read from across the room on the couch.  They have titles in big bold print, while somebody at HBO decided that the title card for a show or movie has the name on it and that is good enough, forgetting how often that text can be tiny, in a frilly script, or made otherwise unreadable to older eyes.

And part of this is that HBO Max just doesn’t run very well on the Roku.  It is slow to load and slow to respond to inputs, which is a bad look next to Netflix, which is light and nimble and responsive even as it is more active and throwing video at every turn.  How can Netflix be so smooth with dynamic responses to selections and streaming clips on the fly as you move through a list while HBO Max, which is relatively static, chugs along, responding eventually to your inputs?

But there is also just the simple ability to find something to watch.  Maybe because my Netflix account is now about 20 years old, counting the old disks by mail era, they know what to serve up to me as options.  Maybe their algorithms are more sophisticated.  Maybe they just have better content.  But if we sit down on a Friday night and I pull up Netflix I am generally able to find something for us to watch on which we can both agree.

And, in the end, finding something to watch is the most important thing.  HBO Max promises more movies coming with their theatrical release dates, while Netflix has been telling me they’ll have a new movie every week this year.  We shall see how these two services compare over time.  While we are currently subscribed to both, I have to give the nod to Netflix at the moment.

Pandemic Binge Watching in the New Year

Just because the world is falling apart doesn’t mean we’ve stopped watching TV.  Sometimes we watch more.  Back on the 6th I had the TV on and tuned to CNN… live freaking television… almost all day.  I don’t think I’ve done that since the Gulf War back in ’91.

But aside from insurrectionist farces involving people who probably lack the self reflection to ever achieve the “Are we the baddies?” epiphany they rightfully deserve, we have watch a series or three.

A powerful mixture of the ordinary, the supernatural, and the Jim Crow reality of the US in the 50s, it follows Atticus, an African American veteran of the Korean War, whose father publishes a travel guide akin to the Green Book and whose family history is mixed up in things alleged to have inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s tales or horror.  Based on a book of the same name, it is disturbing, confusing, and compelling by turns, it isn’t done until you get to the final episode.  Oh, and time travel… there is time travel in there too.

There are seasons where I feel like I needed to re-watch the previous season to understand what is going on and there are series where I feel that maybe I should have read the book (or the books in this case) in order to have gotten the most out of them, but here we have a rare combo of both.

We watched the first season when it came out and then, a year later, picked up with the second season only to not really get a grasp of what was really going on.  The basics were there in the “previously” summing up segment, but the “why do I give a shit here?” was sadly lacking.  Lots of stuff goes on in the parallel worlds, the visuals are magnificent, and I could sit and watch stylishly attired Ruth Wilson and her vicious monkey familiar… demon… whatever… all evening, but at the end credits of the final episode of the season I was left feeling a bit… so what?

The other show I wanted to watch on Apple TV.  Inspired by, rather than based on, a book, this is a look into the world of morning television in the US centered on the fictional The Morning Show.  The series opens when the male co-host of the show, played by Steve Carell, has been fired due to allegations of sexual harassment, leaving Jennifer Aniston, whose character had worked side by side with him for years, alone hosting the show.

The show follows who is complicit and who knew what was going on, the network’s attempt to cover things up, and the infighting over who runs the show and whether or not Jennifer Aniston will remain in the host.

It was… okay.  I know it was nominated for a bunch of awards, something I attribute partially to it being about the one thing the industry loves most; itself.  And it has some good performances, with a lot of the supporting actors carrying water for the show.  But the main cast let me down.  Steve Carell comes with a lot of baggage having played so many clueless comedic roles that his lack of self-awareness steers a little too close to that.  Jennifer Aniston might have peaked as Rachel Green in Friends, because her performance feels like we’re revisiting the same character 20 years down the line.  And Reese Witherspoon is unsurprisingly cast as the outspoken southern woman who is a bit of a loose cannon.  Go figure.

Another Netflix series that was getting a lot of buzz a while back, so we were perhaps a bit late to the party.  Though, I say that as somebody who follows Netflix on Twitter and they retweet positive reactions to their own shows, so sometimes I am fooled by that.  But not this time.

Chess, drugs, orphans, Soviets, and the 50s and 60s all based on a novel from 1983, this wrapped up into a surprisingly compelling package.  We would have burned through this over a weekend if our daughter hadn’t been home from school and watching it with us, and she has a two episode limit when it comes to watching TV in the evening.  I quite enjoyed the whole thing, even though the rules of television plot did dictate the ending somewhat.

Scandal, mild intrigue, and ever so many romantic complications in Georgian period piece.  The London season is upon us and grand balls and matchmaking the order of the day.  But the mysterious Lady Whistledown has been publishing a fliers that dish the dirt on seemingly everybody and many are keen to find out who she is, including the Queen.  It doesn’t have the gravity of, say, Dangerous Liaisons, and feels a bit stretched over eight episodes, but it isn’t bad.  My wife seemed to enjoy it immensely.

There are two tidbits I want to bring up.  First, Nicola Coughlan, who plays the 16 year old Penelope Featherington, and was also the teen Clare Devlin in Derry Girls, is in her freakin’ 30s.  That is beyond Beverly Hills 90210 level of playing a character younger than yourself, and she nails it.  I only noted her age on reading up about her.  She is amazingly youthful.

Second, as with The Great, which I wrote about previously, the cast is multi-ethnic rather than just being pasty white Brits.  That’s fine.  It isn’t like we haven’t heard about Hamilton around here, so roll with it.  And nobody within the show mentions it, so it isn’t a thing… until one short scene mid-season when Lady Danbury mentions to the Duke of Hastings, who are both played by black actors, that he needs to hold up his end of things because they’re only in the heights of society because George III married the black Queen Charlotte, introducing a measure of racial equality and tolerance.

At that point I figured that the racial makeup of the cast was going to become a thing… and then it was never mentioned again.  If you’re not going to do something with a revelation like that, just don’t bring it up.  I imagine somebody management got nervous and felt the need to quickly explain the racial makeup of the cast.  Maybe they should go see Hamilton.

Still, fun and extravagant and fun and if you listen closely to the music you might find you’re not getting what one might expect.

Something old.  I was bemoaning my inability to find The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on any streaming service when I summed up some of our binge watching, and on my subsequent mental list of shows I would want to go through again was The Sandbaggers, another one of the shows from the UK that found its way to the US in the 80s via public television.

Having been recorded/produced on standard definition video tape, which was the standard of the time, rather than 35mm film like some earlier television, has no doubt held it back from the transition for formats beyond DVD.  (Hogan’s Heroes for example, was all on film, which was why it made it to HD early and why you can find the whole series on Blu-Ray today.)  As such, I had little hope of finding it anywhere save for some episodes somebody dumped onto YouTube.

On a whim I used Roku’s search, which goes through all the services they support, and I found it on a service called Tubi, which was purchased by Fox last year, which puts it in bed with Hulu and Disney+ at this point.  You don’t have to subscribe, but you do have to watch commercials.  There is always a price.

But for The Sandbaggers and its focus bureaucracy and policy fights over Bond-like action I’ll put up with a few commercials.  And at least they show it in 4:3 aspect ratio rather than trying to stretch it awkwardly in order to fill up your HD screen.

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.