Tag Archives: Netflix

Binge Watching Too Many Mysteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stranger is such a common title they had to specify

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

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

Stay Close to what now?

  1. Stay Close – Netflix

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

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

Post-Wallander Wallander

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

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

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

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

The good title cards were all in portrait mode

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

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

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

Finally, a decent title card

Raised by WolvesHBO Max

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

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

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

Binge Watching into the New Year

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

The wheel weaves yadda yadda yadda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful and pretentious

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

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

Those opening credits

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

I was all into this.

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

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

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

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

Expansive

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

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

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

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

Binge Watching into Another Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Zombies Eleven

When I saw trailer for the Netflix movie Army of the Dead I knew we had to watch it… and not just as revenge for my wife making us watch all of season six of Fear the Walking Dead.  This looked like what I refer to as a “Friday night movie,” which in another era might have been a drive-in movie special, a title you watch expecting it to bad and silly and are ready to embrace it as such.  This is Job Bob Briggs territory, not Siskel and Ebert.

Army of the Dead

I’ve seen a number of people online complaining about this movie, saying it is bad, confused, lacks a coherent plot, among other things.  And, to me, that just means they came in with the wrong set of expectations.  I am more than willing to allow for a lot of unforced errors in pursuit of a great goal.

Which isn’t to say the film lacks for problems.  It is a Zack Snyder movie, which means that it probably spends way too much time building back story and character motivation than it really needs to.  Being a Snyder cut, the film weighs in at 148 minutes in a genre where two hours generally pushes a story well beyond anybody’s ability to care.

I will say that, were Warner Bros. left alone with the print, they could (and probably would) trim out a good 45 minutes of the run time and end up with something arguably as good, if less coherent, but the run time didn’t really weigh on me all that much.

The premise, which plays out in the intro scene and opening credits, if that a zombie being transported by the military in a secure container escapes just outside of Vegas.  It immediately heads to the Las Vegas strip, biting as it goes, turning people into zombies.  The military, which includes Dave Bautista and some companions, including his wife, manage to contain the zombie outbreak, walling in Las Vegas with shipping containers.

The George Romero rules of zombies apply.  If you get bit, you get the zombie fever, die, and become a zombie.  Bautista’s wife gets bit and turns after they get out and he has to kill her.

Then we skip forward a bit and Bautista is working at a fry cook at a roadside greasy spoon where he is approached by a casino owner who wants him to go in and retrieve $200 million that is still in the vault.  The US government is going to nuke Vegas to “solve” the zombie problem due to public pressure, so the idea is that Bautista and team can slip in, steal the money, get out, and any evidence will be vaporized.  For this Bautista and his team will get 25% of the take.

So it is really a heist movie.  A Vegas, zombie apocalypse, casino heist movie.  You have to respect that.  Also, that explains the title of the post, if you didn’t make that leap already.

So Bautista has to go assemble a team, make a plan, get the access codes from the casino owner, reconcile with his estranged daughter, and deal with the “totally not the Carter Burke role from Aliens” observer the casino owner sends along as a technical advisor (who is played by the same actor who played John Dorie in Fear the Walking Dead), get into Vegas, grab the money, and get out.

Bonds are forged, betrayals are acted out, dear friends die, guns are fired at full auto, things explode, a father daughter relationship is restored, zombies bite people, and a nuclear weapons destroys Las Vegas.

I will say that I kind of like the Army of the Dead zombies better than The Walking Dead zombies.  They have more depth, they dry out in the sun, come back in the rain, hibernate when bored, can zombify animals, and have a zombie hierarchy.  Yes, a shot to the brain kills them, but these zombies would own the zombies from TWD.  These zombies are also more contained, there being no “everybody who dies for any reason becomes a zombie” virus going around.

In the end, the cast and the special effects sell a movie like this.

The cast was very solid.  Dave Bautista, and I say this in the most respectful way possible, is where you go when you can’t get Dwayne Johnson, does not disappoint.  He is the anchor, and the rest of the ensemble falls into some of the heist movie roles, from flamboyant to world weary to suspicious to the clearly going to die in the first big fight.  And you barely even notice that Tig Notaro was digitally injected in post production to replace Chris D’Elia, which probably made the whole thing just a bit better on all fronts.  She is much better at being world weary and cynical.

And the special effects worked well.  There were a couple of things I expected to see that didn’t come to pass including on that was technically not real “Checkov’s pistol” error because they ended up using it, but when you show a daydream sequence of somebody churning a zombie with a big power tool, you kind of expect it to happen, so a spiritual violation of the rule at least.  If you show a pistol on the wall in the first act I don’t think you’re excused if somebody uses it to open a beer in the third act.

Overall, I had a good time.  It is a dumb movie and easily could have been a bit stronger or a bit tighter or maybe had a good memorable catch phrase of three.  But, as I said above, I came in with my expectations set correctly and was thus not disappointed.  That, as far as I can tell, is the secret of life.  This is a silly, dumb, Vegas, zombie, heist movie.  If you’re expecting zombie Casino or some other Scorsese level effort, pick up the remote down and press “stop.”

I probably wouldn’t watch it again outside of a group drinking movie night, but it was still more fun and excitement than any four TWD or FTWD episodes.

Of course, if you’re not keep to spend the time… and I can’t really blame you… then Honest Trailers has you covered on the picking the movie apart front.

Also, Screen Rant’s Pitch Meeting is on the job as well.

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: