Category Archives: TV Review

Snowpiercer (the series)

[3 stars]

This is a series, thanks to all its delays, who’s timing should have been perfect. It’s all about inequality, authoritarianism, prejudice, and governance based on lies. But the show didn’t quite have the courage it needed to really attack all that. It kept getting blunted by a slightly soapy mentality. Which isn’t to say that relationships aren’t a necessary underpinning of good drama, but the balance wasn’t quite right.

But let’s wind this back just a little before diving in. The source movie of this series was dark, funny, fascinating, and complete. There wasn’t a reason to have to go back. More, it isn’t a world you want to spend a lot of time in. Not only is it restricted in scope, the fantastical aspects are outlandish…fine for a single movie, harder to support in an ongoing tale. And, as this is a prequel (only 7 years into the ride), we already know what happens or the extent of what can happen in many ways.

Fortunately, Daveed Diggs (Velvet Buzzsaw) and Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) are solid actors, and they are supported by many other good performances. Connelly, in particular, is a study in control and nuance. She navigates the complex position she bears at the helm with amazing grace and poignancy. Diggs has layers, but, frankly, they’re nothing we haven’t seen before by him or similar characters. It’s thanks to these two that the show has any real legs at all. However, that doesn’t overcome the base challenge.

I struggled to watch through to the end to see if they could find a rhythm and momentum. It didn’t even get intriguing until the fourth episode, when they smartly decided not to draw out the initial mystery, only to reveal another. But the pacing and motivations and decisions were often all a muddle, though it picks up pace as it goes along, with the final three episodes being an almost continuous run. In addition, their bible is sloppy on some things; for instance, distance is fungible based on their needs. Either the train is 5 mi long or it isn’t. That  is a lot of distance to cover and can add to plot tension, but they seem to be able to do it in a couple minutes of walking when the plot demands.

There is a lot of potential buried in Snowpiercer. More, I will admit, than I thought they’d be able to find. But I’m not sure it hit its moment nor will be able to catch it on the back-end of their return. And, honestly, I was rather frustrated with their huge cliffhanger of an obvious ending. But, perhaps, the happenings of the last six months will more completely inform the storyline going into series 2 coming next year.

Snowpiercer Poster

A series of series…

What is the collective noun for a bunch of series? A fiction? A stream? A numbing? A time-suck? A profit? There must be one. In any event, there has been a number of series I’ve plowed through, but haven’t felt they needed a separate write-up, so I’ve collected them here. It is a broad range of subjects and providers in no particular order.

Warrior Nun – An imperfect, but engaging fantasy series that got me to check it out through its title alone. But, as it turns out, they hit the jackpot with some of their casting (though not all). Alba Baptista drives the series, coming across, in a positive way, as a young Ellen Page and very credible American. She’s joined by a few solid, and relatively unknown, supporting actors like Kristina Tonteri-Young, Toya Turner, and Olivia Delcán. The plotting is often weak or ill-researched, but the effects and some of the battles are pretty well executed. And the dialogue is often amusing. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what comes next…even if I curse them for a massive and cheap cliff-hanger ending to the season.

Warrior Nun Poster

Perry Mason – overlaps heavily (and unfavorably) with City of Angels. It covers the same period of time and with similar nods, but it simply doesn’t manage to capture the era in the same scope. Oh, and yeah, it is only Perry Mason in title… this show just didn’t know what it wanted or needed to be. Couldn’t stick with it despite the cast and my love of murder mysteries.

Perry Mason Poster

Crossing Swords – South Park meets Lego. Almost enough said, but I was surprised to see the silly antics and crazy storylines actually form a seasonal arc. For all the insanity, there is a purpose…well, OK, at least a shape. I couldn’t really binge this show, but it was a fun distraction to fill in 22 minutes when needed. And the voice talent is pretty surprising.

Crossing Swords Poster

Love, Victor – There are a number of solid moments and concepts in this series that make it a sweet and clever spin-off of Love, Simon. But, honestly, it doesn’t earn its stripes, but I’ll get to that. If you haven’t heard of this story, it explores the struggles of Michael Cinimo in the title role coming to terms with himself, similar to Simon in the source material, but with more challenges. Rachel Hilson (This is Us), George Sear (Alex Rider), and the somewhat over-the-top Anthony Turpel (The Bold and the Beautiful) fill out Cimino’s inner circle and focus.

To its credit, the show isn’t quite all rainbows and butterflies…Cinimo’s family is a bit screwed up and the world isn’t a perfect place. It’s simplified, to be sure, but it keeps it from being ridiculous. It also provides it some grist to grind on for the series length with multiple layers on the subject of relationships and love. And the easier resolutions provide hope to their target audience.

However, I do have one, not so little, issue with the story. Our hero Victor, while really capturing the confusing nature of growing up, is depicted as falling for Hilson’s character by getting to know her while really only lusting for Sear’s Benji without much sense of who he is. Realistic? To a degree, but it cheapens the inner struggle and diminishes the message that both attractions are real and equal. And it also costs them any credibility in the season one, inevitable, finale. Which was truly a shame as it could have really had a solid season with a little more effort on the writer’s part.

Love, Victor Poster

Killing Eve (1-3) – I never wrote up this series as, frankly, it was getting more than enough press. My thoughts were completely unnecessary. However, having recently completed the third series, I was struck by how the plot has evolved each year. I was impressed with the evolutions of Fiona Shaw (Mrs. Wilson) and the addition  of Harriet Walter (Black Earth Rising) in particular. Not that the rest aren’t great and fun, Ken Bodnia (The Bridge) has some particularly wonderful moments, but I’m doing this as a drive by. The third outing is definitely a shift in presentation and tone, but I still find the story pulls me in and the disintegration and remaking of Sandra Oh’s (Last Night) Eve and Jodie Comer’s (Doctor Foster) Villanelle fascinating. I’m very curious to see what comes next and if they can sustain it; but I’m also hopeful that they’ll wrap it up soon and let it enjoy a completion. It can only be milked for so long without completely devolving or getting boring.

Killing Eve Poster

Upstart Crow – Such great, silly, and very clever fun. In fact, the series only improved as it went along. From one of the minds that helped birth Black Adder, comes this great social satire through the lens of Shakespeare’s life. With a solid cast and tight writing (and wonderful nods to the canon itself) this is one of the better half-hour concept comedies I’ve seen…if nothing else for the impressive scripts.

Upstart Crow Poster

Cardinal (series 4) – This could well be the end of the series, though they’ve left a nice trapdoor to keep it going. Previous series were good and interesting, but not brilliant. With this fourth outing, the writing has suddenly gelled even as they wrap up some long arcs that began with the first episode. This is, by far, the best written and delivered tale so far. I’m hoping they get to continue with the stories and these characters, but I wouldn’t feel left hanging if this was the end.

Cardinal Poster

Before We Die – Another Scandinavian police procedural, yes, but definitely with its own unique set of characters and the dark malaise that hangs over all that genre. It starts with a strong statement and quickly knots up the characters into an intriguing tangle that unspools through the series.

 

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Space Force

[2 stars]

OK, I’m throwing in the towel on this one.

Up front, I am not and never was an Office fan. The humor just never worked for me…not that I hadn’t lived the cube-life at points, and not that I hadn’t seen a good deal of the truth in the satire. However, mean humor just doesn’t entertain me, it angers me. So, sort of counter-productive. Because of that, it was with trepidation that I entered into the world of Space Force. And it was pure stubbornness that I delayed and delayed this write up trying to watch more of the show even though it left me empty of joy.

What made The Office work was its core truth and that its audience knew, and had internalized, that truth. This satire has none of that advantage. It needed to find something more human for us to latch onto. Frankly, it reminds me of a lot of the issues Avenue 5 has.

The fact is, at least in this household, that despite a cast packed with talent, the show feels surprisingly lifeless. It has moments, but because it isn’t in a familiar setting, and because its inception itself feels like a national joke (something they lean into), it’s hard to relate to or support the characters. We may understand the military, but most of us don’t live it, unlike office life. In other words, we can’t quite grasp all of the intent and, frankly, based on some of the people I know, I know they got a lot of it completely wrong.

With all that said, I couldn’t make it past the second episode, even with John Malkovich (Velvet Buzzsaw) chewing up the scenery in a most satisfactory way. I tried. You may find it more to your liking than I did…humor is highly individual, afterall.

Some COVID Fun – No, Really

There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.

Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.

While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.

Staged

What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.

Staged Poster

Unprecedented 

There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation Poster

Dark PSA

Just a friendly reminder that the third (and final) series of Dark drops on 27 June. Start rewatching now if you want to be ready and don’t want your head to explode while trying to watch it all.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, Dark is one of, if not the most, complicated plot I’ve ever seen on a TV serial. Possibly the most complicated I’ve seen in any visual media. So far it has managed to stay consistent through two series, but following it is a Herculean task of names, time-frames, and story threads. And yet it is worth every bit of struggle and pain because it all pays off.

The 18 previous episodes that lead to the final round can only be ingested at a moderate pace (one or two episodes a night at most). If you don’t have the time, find your favorite online resource for tracking all the characters… trust me, without one, the other, or both, you will be utterly lost.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see if they can pay this all off.

Homecoming (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

The first season of Homecoming was a twisted tale of mind-bending fragments that coalesced into something more pedestrian and down-to-earth. That wasn’t a bad thing…it was honest and logical. The perspective was from inside the mystery and it added great suspense and confusion. But now we know the truth.

What we get with the second series is a look at some of the peripheral aspects and the extension of the fallout as we follow the thread left by Stephan James’s (21 Bridges) character. And there are some interesting paths and aspects to explore.

But the best reason to see this second round is Janelle Monáe (Welcome to Marwen) and Hong Chau (Watchmen). They are natural and unforced as a couple. They also each have their own stories and arcs to travel. Chau’s starts in the first season, but this provides another angle on the wonderful final moments she is part of. And Monáe fits seamlessly into the twisted world we traversed as if she’s always been there.

Like the first round, there is a mystery to unravel, though with fewer surprises. And it is full of suspense with bursts of activity. I was with the story completely (despite some willful stupid moments) until the final 10 minutes or so.

The ending didn’t ruin the ride for me; I can understand the decisions that were made. However, it left me very conflicted. To my mind it was out of proportion in scope and depth for the plot. Basically, it violated my sense of balance and left me without sympathy for the characters we probably should have had some sympathy for. Was it a fair choice by the writers? Maybe, but it wasn’t the satisfying punch I think they were hoping for. More importantly, it makes me question whether the third round, assuming it happens, is something I want to see.

Homecoming Poster

 

Ad Vitam

[4 stars]

What if you could live, essentially, forever? How would that change you and the world? And what about those who couldn’t or those that have to wait for treatment? There have been plenty of stories based on this idea…few have thought through the implications in interesting ways. Altered Carbon certainly did, but that’s far future. Ad Vitam is a look at a similar impact in the near term.

Thomas Cailley created a result that is a great mystery wrapped in a very human story. And, yes, it is all very French, as the saying goes. But it is solid story-telling with plenty of surprises and resolutions. Led by Yvan Attal as a detective approaching the end of his career and a young woman connected to a past crime, Garance Marillier, who is the thread that unravels the story.

It is a typical mystery/suspense set up in a very new setting. If you like dark tales of the world and a look at the psyche of our species, this one is for you. While you can just let the story wash over you, it’s hard to ignore the bigger picture and commentary as the truth is uncovered. It is also a self-contained 6 episodes, making it a very satisfying viewing.

Ad Vitam

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

[4.5 stars]

In her follow-up to Nannette, Gadsby once-again defies tradition and description. It isn’t quite the power-blast of Nannette, but it is a brilliantly structured piece of comedy. She starts exactly where she needs to and drags you laughing through to the end, pulling everything together as she does.

Whether or not you liked Nannette, you should see Douglas. It has its serious comments, but it is very much a comedy special put together with deft hands and a wickedly sharp mind.

[But if you haven’t seen Nannette as well, you should. It is a different animal, but it is a brilliantly, near-perfect, piece of stage craft.  It isn’t comedy, per se, but it is funny, and cathartic, and a wonder to behold]

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

Motherland: Fort Salem

[3 stars]

I wasn’t looking for this one. I tend to find alternate history shows more than a little frustrating as so few really find a good hook in or follow through with their logic. Motherland is sort of a grown up Charmed (or rebooted Charmed if you prefer), though still aimed at the younger, and particularly female, set. But it is more empowering and with significantly more grit than the CW show.

One of the things that sets this show apart is the complexity of the magic and the depth of the rules. Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) spent time on his creation to be sure it remained consistent rather than just inventing rules as he needed them to support his plots. This is what makes great fantasy, and it’s a rare commodity. It is building to be as complex as Buffy, though without that level of dialogue and cast chemistry (but what does?).

That doesn’t mean to say the cast is bad. Taylor Hickson (Deadly Class), Amalia Holm (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), and Ashley Nicole Williams form the primary triumvirate and center of the show. They’re not an entirely balanced ensemble, but they slowly come together over the season and each has a particular charisma. With the help of Jessica Sutton (Escape Room), Demetria McKinney (House of Payne), and Lyne Renée (The Hippopotamus), among others, the world is filled out and made complicated.

The inaugural season as a whole starts strong, but does make one huge and cheap leap to take the turn to the finale in the final episodes. It is only one major miss-step, so I’ll give it to them, but it was unworthy writing compared to what had come before. And it was completely avoidable and lazy. The finale was also rushed, pulling together a number of threads, not entirely satisfactorily, and leaving you with multiple cliff-hangers rather than a comfortable pause. In other words, it was sort of cheap. Those two aspects, more than anything, are why I dinged its rating. That said, I’m glad they’re renewed and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series may go. I just hope the quality that I can see in there is nurtured more in the next round.