Tag Archives: Hulu

Binge Watching Prime Suspect

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

Prime Suspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it goes.

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 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.

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 Some More Channels

Previously on Pandemic Binge Watching I wrote about the three long established streaming services that have been staples of our watching habits, even before the current series of unfortunate events.

Hulu is the little channel that could.  We originally got it in order to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, then cancelled.  But it is the service I keep coming back to.  I had to get it to get through all of Archer after that fell off of Netflix.  At one point a year of so back I had a plan to simply replace our Comcast cable lineup with the local channel and sports package you can through get through Hulu, but was brought up short on the details.

My wife is a hockey fan, and we can get the channel that carries all the Shark’s games, but on Hulu it runs 20-30 seconds behind the cable broadcast and my wife was quickly annoyed that her game night texting buddies would announce somebody scored before it ever made it to our screen.  That is literally a deal breaker here it seems.  A pity, because I was good with every other aspect of it, especially picture quality.  Comcast put in a really bad compression algorithm a year of so back, so their HD service barely looks like HD anymore.  The streaming services look much better.

Hulu has a lot going for it.

Upside:

Some very good original content.  I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale already, and did a post previously about Catch-22.

The channel really excels at being the place to go watch seasons of things once they have wrapped up on cable channels that do not have their own streaming service yet.

Hulu has a bunch of subscription options.  You can go cheap if you can handle some commercials, or opt to pay a bit more to remove them, and add on a number of additional options, up to and including a basic cable replacement.

Downside:

Their interface hides the depth of the channel more so than some competitors I could mention.  If Netflix is a hyper puppy trying to get your attention, Hulu is an old sheep dog that can’t be bothered some days.

Not so much original stuff as you might imagine.

Really needs some of the features that Prime and Netflix have adopted to skip show intros and the like.  I realize this is related to the relationship they have with networks and what not, and that they are getting some of the features going, but still.  I do get a bit pissy when content from other networks won’t even let you fast forward past promos.

Current Status:  Subscribed and using the service to subscribe to Showtime rather than get into Showtime’s app.  Also still watching Bob’s Burgers.

 

On paper Disney+ should be a subscribe and never leave channel for our family.  It has all of the MCU movies, all of the Star Wars movies and (almost) all the shows, all of the Disney catalog that they’ll still admit to, and it has every episode of The Simpsons.  I should literally be parked in front of that channel forever.

Upside:

Inexpensive at $7.00 a month.  Can get it bundled with Hulu.

Literally everything 14 year old me could want.

The Madalorian was pretty good.  We watched that every week through its first season.

Downside:

The Hulu bundle made you take the ad sponsored version of the service last I checked, plus you have to take ESPN as well, in which I have no interest.  The faux seasons pro sports are putting on now are not enticing at all.

I’m not 14 any more.  I have seen almost everything on the service already.  Hell, I have a significant fraction of it on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Not much new/original content

No Star Wars Holiday Special?  Are you kidding me?

Current Status:  Currently not subscribed, but another season of The Mandalorian is coming up soon.

Starz came to us when they had an offer back in March to get 6 months of their service for $30.  The thought was that we could finish up Outlander, but that stopped clicking with us after a couple seasons.  We came for that, but stayed for The White Queen and its follow on series, which I mentioned previously.

Basically Starz is a lesser version of HBO, an old school cable movie service that has expanded into some original content and its own stand-alone streaming app.

Upside:

Always has dozens of movies available to watch on demand.

Some very good original content

Downside:

Really a lesser version of HBO in too many ways.  Not so many movies you’d watch, not so many original series that you’d stick around for.

The UI design of their app always leaves me feeling I need to press the button to start a show or movie one more time that other apps.

Easily the hardest app for me to read text on from the couch.  They expect you to read the show/movie titles from the thumbnail.

Current Status:  Just lapsed, but The Spanish Princess 2 is coming up, so could return I suppose.

Apple TV+ is the latest channel we’ve tried.  I have been wary of it in the past because Apple has run it like the iTunes store in the past, where it is essentially a store front to sell you content, and there are a lot of other options in that market.  Also, it required an Apple device in the past.  Recently they have made it an app that I can get on our Roku and they have added a subscription and some original content.

I have been tempted to try it if only to watch The Morning Show, which has gotten good buzz, but my wariness as to what else one gets with their subscription has left me cold.  It is easier to figure out the difference between HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO Max that to get that info out of Apple.

But then Long Way Up was announced and my wife is a big Ewan McGreggor fan and watched Long Way Round and Long Way Down, so suddenly we had to give it a try.

Upside:

At $5.00 a month, the cheapest subscription service so far.

Available soon in a bundle deal with Apple Music, Apple Arcade, and iCloud.

Some original content, including Greyhound.

Some additional content from other sources available as well.

Splashy fresh UI.

Apple has the cash to fund content worth watching.

Downside:

Easily the most annoying service to sign up for in my experience so far.  You cannot sign up through Roku… somebody tell Epic Games… their web site is barely functional, and it is unclear to me if you can even sign up if you don’t have an iOS device.  I mean, I think you can, but my experience suggest it won’t be easy.

The original content is extremely limited.  I think I’ve named most of it already.  There is not a lot of “there” there.

Plays like an old school service, metering out an episode a week for their shows… though I suppose they really need to, given how little of it there is, in order to keep people subscribed.

The additional content is nothing special.  I think it is literally a subset of what I get on Hulu as part of that subscription.

98% of the service is there to offer you up rent or buy options.  It is the iTunes store on your TV.

That splashy, fresh UI is overwrought and unclear at times and doesn’t always render correctly on the Roku.  But their website doesn’t always render correctly on anything besides Safari, so go figure.  But at least it mostly works on the Roku.  Apple does not make a Windows or Android client.

Hard to tell if it is a work in progress that needs more time or if Apple arrogance levels have exceeded their eWorld peak, back when I heard Apple execs saying they would own the online experience because they could rebrand a literal copy of AOL.

Current status: Subscribed at least until we finish up get the last episode of Long Way Up.

Pandemic Binge Watching Part One

The Covid-19 pandemic has kept many of us at home for more than four months now.  All that staying home has led to a demand for entertainment.

Oddly, video games haven’t proven quite the outlet for me that you might imagine.  The problem is that I have also been working from home for more than four months, so I spend 8-10 hours a day sitting at my desk in front of a computer.  When work is over, I often feel strongly that I need to get up and go somewhere else in the house rather than switching over to play a game at that very same desk.

So, for my wife and I, with no movies, no going out to dinner, and not even any sports, the television series has become the entertainment outlet for us.  We are subscribed to a few streaming services which offer us up full seasons of shows, and so we have spent time binging on those.  I’m often tempted to write something up about each as we finish them, but that means going back to my desk again, so I have been slacking on that.

Now, however, I am going to sum up some of what we watched both as a public service as well as a reminder to myself as to what we have watched.  This is in some sort of order close to chronologically related to when we watched them, but there was some overlap.  The bullet points are the title and the service on which they are currently available.

That is a three-fer right there.  Based on the books by Philippa Gregory, they cover the War of the Roses and its aftermath, spanning a time frame that covers a few of Shakespeare plays.  They represent and ongoing story, though each series was filmed independently and is a complete story on its own.

A good set of tales, if not fully historical at times, they point out the key problem of the War of the Roses, which was too damn many people named Henry, Edward, Elizabeth, and Margaret.  Seriously, at one point I think there were four Henrys, three Edwards, two Elizabeths, and two Margarets in play, and more came and went.  We had to pause to establish which Henry or whoever was being referenced at times.

Also, a completely new set of actors takes over for each series, which can be a bit of a test when the same characters can span series.  Still, some good fun, if you like that era.  I enjoyed watching the 1995 film version of Richard III after this to see how many of the same people were treated by the two perspectives. (Also, that movie is a must for the casting alone.)

Starz had a $25 for six months deal on their streaming service, and these three made that worth the money.

Good for: Tolerant history buffs, people named Henry, and people keen for drinking games related to spotting actors from other shows.

More historical tales, this one is a comedic look at Catherine the Great and her early time in the court of the Czar.  I had to double check that this was a US produced series, as we’re not usually that big on European history that doesn’t involve us directly.  Very funny at times, often crude, and feeling no need to adhere to any particular historical accuracy, it can be quite a ride.  The main problem was it felt like about 8 episodes worth of content in a 10 episode series, so it flags a bit towards the end.  Still, I was good with it.  Huzzah!

Good for: Really tolerant history buffs and people who kind of miss Blackadder.

I don’t think I have laughed out loud as much in a long time as I did during the first two seasons of this series.  Hank Azaria’s character is relentless.  This humor is often crude and rarely strays from sex, drugs, alcohol, and his character flaws.  Very much not for children.  Gets serious at the end of season two and into season three, then completely flies off into a bizarro future history in season four, but is still pretty damn funny.

Good for: Hank Azaria fans, baseball fans, and anybody who might like a Filipino knock-off of Hart to Hart.

A solid interpretation of the novel by Nick Hornby, transplanted to New York City in the current era, so mix tapes are out and play lists are in.  Vinyl though, that is eternal.

The cast is very good and the story flows well enough.  My main problem is that this series exists in the same universe as the 2000 film version of the novel which is a favorite of mine.  The series seems tame and a bit flat compared to the manic energy and comedic rhythm of Jack Black and John Cusack in the film.  Also, the characters in the TV series are not even half as obsessed about music as the film cast is, and that obsession really drives the characters at times.

Basically it is the same issued I had with the Catch-22 series; if I already like the existing film version a series really has to work to get away from that comparison.

Good for:  People who haven’t seen the movie… or read the book probably.

I think Hulu is our best value for streaming services at this point.  Also, another series that is based on the same work as an already existing film that I like.  A Terry Gilliam film no less, so you know I have it on DVD on the shelf already.  Oh, and the series is literally based on the film so, while I don’t know how that works legally, it certainly qualifies as a great big “Danger Will Robinson.” (Which reminds me, I need to put Lost in Space on the list for next time.)

That said, the series didn’t just copy the movie.  I suspect the lack of a popular novel as the original source material meant that they didn’t have to go scene for scene to meet expectations and could run with their own plan.  And that plan seemed to be to illustrate that no simple plan ever ends as expected.

The first season is a non-stop roller coaster of “if we just jump somebody back in time to save a person, kill a person, or stop an event, then our problems will be solved.”  That never happens.  I mean, of course it doesn’t or it would be a very short series.  But you do end up with a lot of plans and time spent figuring out what they missed and the jump back in time to fix that only to find there is some other complication.

Season two is a little less jumpy on the timeline, but still full of paradoxes and unanticipated results.  We haven’t started on season three yet.  We’re still a little dizzy and needed a break to watch something else.  The acting is good and I like most of the cast.  It will hold your attention.  Just don’t expect resolution, or even answers half the time.

Good for: People who like their time travel shows to be complicated.

Next time: Maybe something not on Hulu.

Catch 22 on Hulu

I was interested to see the opening of the just released Hulu series Catch 22, and was not disappointed.

The thing is, Catch 22 is a complicated topic.  There is, of course, the sprawling 1961 novel by Joseph Heller which I first read in high school and have re-read several times since.  Clocking in at 472 pages in the 70s pocket paperback version I still have on my shelf (published in the UK under the Corgi imprint) and over 500 pages in the 50th anniversary paperback version I picked up a few years back (the German language version I set myself to read one summer in the late 80s is only 441 pages, but it is in the smallest font size I’ve ever seen in a paperback, so would probably swell to 600 pages in a legible font size), the novel wanders through a series of characters with intertwined stories and strange players who come and go and the whole thing is told out of chronological order. It is not a work that lends itself easily to other mediums.

Not that it has not been tried.

There is, of course, the 1970 film version that attempted to take on the novel, compressing it down into just two hours.

I love the film.  It is, at best, an imperfect vehicle, a sketch of what the book contains, but a beautiful sketch.  The audio commentary on the DVD version I own of director Mike Nichols talking to Steven Soderbergh about the trials of making the film is an epic tale on its own.

In video you can capture a sweeping landscape or a vision of chaos with a pass of the camera, summing up in seconds what might take several paragraphs.  But a film has trouble telling the audience things, passing on relevant details, without having characters say them aloud.  The importance of a breathtaking vista or a harrowing bomb run can be lost without somebody explaining aloud what is going on.

And since the characters cannot possibly speak every line in the novel and keep things in a reasonable time frame… I had an abridged audio book version of Catch 22 that was six hours long… huge sections of the novel had to be lopped off for the film version.

But here is the thing.  For all its faults, the film is my baseline for everything.  This is because long before I ever picked up the book I had seen the film.  Or at least part of the film.  After its theatrical run it made its television debut in… by my recollection… 1974 on a Sunday night.  This was back when showing newer movies on TV was kind of a big deal and would get weeks of ad spots on the network to herald its coming.  And my dad, ever the poor judge of what was appropriate, let me sit up and watch part of it.

This is probably why Alan Arkin is Yossarian in my head.  Well, that and the audio book I mentioned was read by him, which no doubt reinforced the whole thing.  Seeing just the first half of the movie set most of the characters in my head, so when I think of them I think of the people who played them in the film.  This was helped by the fact that the cast was an ensemble of well known actors.  So when I read the book I already had faces in my head for many of the roles.

Which leads me back to Hulu.  A mini-series has more time to deal with a book as complex as Catch 22, and so I was glad to see that it started somewhere besides the isle of Pianosa, the central location where the film grounded itself.

Instead it starts at the US Army Air Corps training base in Santa Ana with Yossarian and Clevinger and Lt. Scheisskopf (and his wife) and the obsession with marching in formation.  This is a major story arc in the book that is alluded at the very end of the film when you see the base turned out to march as Yossarian runs for the ocean.

We were going to get more of the story than the film gave us.  The mini-series was going to find its own way through the novel.  They even avoided using the name Yossarian, which is uttered, mumbled, and shouted throughout the film, referring to the lead character as Yoyo, his nickname.  I was good with that.

The whole thing emphasizes different aspects of the story than the film does.  Chaplin Tappman is a passing character.  The relationship with Orr is not as key.  Lt. Col. Korn has a much less aggressive role.  And they decided to include the tale of Maj. ____ DeCoverley and the great big siege of Bologna and the bomb line.

On the other hand, I was a bit dismayed at the introduction of the cast standing in formation in Santa Ana.  They were a series of actors so similar in appearance that I could not tell one from the other.  This was, perhaps, intentional, in order to emphasize the interchangeability of men in war, where  death leads to a replacement, where turnover in the squadron in the book highlights Yossarian’s alienation.  The only person who stood out was Christopher Abbott, who plays Yossarian.  I can see the point of that, signalling right away the main character.  And Abbott does a credible job in the role, though his version of the character is somewhat more subdued that the sometimes manic Alan Arkin performance in the film.

Christopher Abbott as John Yossarian

And things start off well.  After training Yossarian and his class from Santa Ana all end up in the Mediterranean theater together, during which the mini-series can tell its own version of the story, even throwing in early on the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, something an avid fan of the book will no doubt remember.

But it cannot stay away from scenes covered by the film as well, and at times it comes off poorly in comparison.  Yossarian and Doc Daneeka talking about the circular logic of “catch-22” on the flight line is one of the great early moments of the film.  The same exchanges has to take place in the mini-series.  In cannot go anywhere without setting that down.  But it doesn’t have the same punch.

Likewise, the story leads up to the scene with Yossarian and Arfy, where Arfy has raped and murdered the housekeeper and the sirens are blaring and Yossarian is telling Arfy they are coming to arrest him for this horrible act as the MPs are pounding on the door.  But the scene in the mini-series doesn’t live up to the same one in the film, in part because the mini-series hasn’t built up Arfy enough, but mostly because it simply couldn’t top the performances of Charles Grodin and Alan Arkin.

Those are, of course, my problems and not the problems of the mini-series.  A normal person probably wouldn’t be drawn to those.  But the mini-series has its own issues.

First, there is a seeming need to compress the set by putting characters from the books in different positions in the planes so as to cram everybody into the same scene.  The book is primarily about a group of offices, pilots, navigators, and bombardiers.  But they need to get Nately in the plane with Yossarian and so he ends up as a tail gunner.

While they visually references some of Orr’s quirks… he is clearly fiddling with the gas stove that so infuriated Yossarian in the book… they never establish any real relationship between Orr and Yossarian and, while they set up Orr’s eventual fate, it lacks any real punch.

The mini-series also eschews any attempt at non-linear story telling… even the film kept that aspect of the book in its two hour run… and bowls through events chronologically.  This takes a bit of the bite out of the changing number of missions to be flow, used as a marker in the book to keep the reader sync up with where the story lay at the moment.

Not very far in Milo starts to overwhelm the story.  In the end Yossarian is the cornerstone of the story, and while Milo plays into it, it feels like Milo gets about a third of the mini-series.  And, while it is fun to see his ever expanding empire and the inevitable contract bombing raid for the Germans, in the end he is a metaphor and not a key player.

Meanwhile George Clooney was an odd choice for Scheisskopf.  He is the big name in the production and his being in that role causes somebody who is at best a secondary character in the book to suddenly overshadow those around him.  I know he wanted to be in the mini-series, but that wasn’t the spot.  He is also too old for the role, starting off the whole things as a Lieutenant in the army.  He was originally supposed to be cast as Col. Cathcart, which I think he could have pulled off well enough.  Instead we have his outsized presence in an unsuitable role.

Then there is Maj. ____ DeCoverley, who is bizarrely played by Hugh Laurie.  I am a huge fan of Hugh Laurie, but he is a man of words and some sophistication, and plays his character as such, while Maj. ____ DeCoverley is so named because he is gruff and intimidating to the point that people are afraid to ask him his first name.  He is, as readers may recall from the end of the loyalty oath crusade in the book, not a man of subtlety or sophistication.  So I appreciate the inclusion, which is pretty much required as part of the great big siege of Bologna story line, which the film omits, but I am not sure it was well cast.

And finally, the whole story goes off the rails somewhere in episode five, leaving the original tale behind to forge its own story, stopping every so often to cram in some scene from the book to ground its otherwise odd turns.  It reminds me a bit of the end of Game of Thrones on HBO, only the team doing the mini-series had the ending rather than having to make it up.  That they chose to make it up seems… worse maybe?

Add in some unnecessary stumbles… when a man with sergeant’s strips on his sleeves shows up and introduces himself as Lieutenant Newman I rolled my eyes so hard I may have detached a retina… and the end, the whole thing feels unsatisfying, leaving off with Yossarian’s essential problems unresolved.  He still has more missions to fly and people are still trying to kill him.  I don’t know.  Maybe they are planning a season 2.  But they’ve already pass through so much of the book that I don’t know what they would do with six more episodes.

It isn’t all bad.  I was certainly on board with it for the first three episodes and had to sit on my hands and not spoil thing for my wife, who watched that far with me, as I spotted this and that from the books while the story moved along.

It was certainly adequate visually.  I suspect that the production had access to maybe three actual B-25 bombers for the filming… well short of the full squadron of flying examples the film had… in addition to a T-6, a C-47, and a JU-52.  From that they were able to CGI the flying scenes well enough.

The choice to keep the story line completely linear was probably correct.  Cutting back and forth in time is jarring enough without having to keep track of where you are across multiple episodes.

And Giancarlo Giannini as the old man in the brothel was an inspired choice.  Maybe the only right choice for that role.

But overall I am not feeling it.  I binged through it in an evening and morning and am not thinking about a re-watch.  Clearly many of my issues are because of the lens through which I viewed the series, a lens distorted by familiarity with both the book and the film.  I cannot see it independently of that context.  And the reviews for it seems to be overwhelmingly positive.  So maybe it is good and it is just grumpy old me who cannot see it.