Category Archives: TV Review

It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

Star Trek: Discovery (series 3)

[3 stars]

In its third season, and practically third incarnation, Discovery has finally bridged the divide that has separated two sets of fandom for decades by dropping Trek characters into a Star Wars-like universe. The highly anticipated third launch of this show starts off with a bang and quickly resets the style, sensibility, and characters … yet again. Has any show changed this much series to series other than Fringe (and even that had some consistencies) or The OA (had it been allowed to continue)?

I actually rather enjoyed the first season. There was some daring darkness and an attempt to remake the franchise into something new. The second season was a bit more confused. Interesting, but confused. Character motivations changed, the politics and focus shifted. The outcome and climax were a bit rushed and not entirely satisfactory. However, that finale opened the door for the series to completely leapfrog all known Trek canon and forge their own path.

And that brings us to the current series, 900 years in the future and several hundred years beyond any known story. There are immediate references to past events setting up mysteries and possible eddies from the time jump to keep us anchored. But the most notable aspect is how changed Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael is. Her entire demeanor has shifted. By the end of the  second episode, many others from the crew will have begun down new paths as well. Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas), in particular, is being set up for some incredible fun.

But, of course, these shifts created a problem for the series…it had to start all over again. With the characters, with the plots, and with the Federation. So, after a solid 2-part opening it devolves for a good part of the season into providing stories for these new beginnings which are wrapped up in Star-Trek-easy confrontations and solutions to get them on the path.

While some characters are jettisoned, others, like Oded Fehr (Resident Evil), Ian Alexander (The OA), and newcomer Blu del Barrio bring some new life to the show. Their insertion into the story is forced at times, but all provide new directions. Admittedly, this is also often at the cost of not getting to see some of the characters we’ve already invested in as much as we’d like to. And with all these encapsulated stories everything comes across as a bit too easy and fast to resolve because they have limited time to get it all done in one episode and/or one season. And the big mystery is scarily bad, hand-wavy science, and the entire season is overly earnest, in that very Trek way, particularly near the end of the season.

But, ultimately, this season is a brave and interesting choice for the show. It definitely feels like something new and unique in the Trek ouvre, and it’s relatively self-contained as a new jumping off point. The real question now is, can they build on it rather than panicking and remaking the show yet again in the fourth season?

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Two Weeks To Live

[3 stars]

If you like the nihilist humor of The End of the F***ing World, the wry and sad romance of Dead Pixels, and enjoy watching Maisie Williams (iBoy), this one’s for you. Especially as Al Campbell, the man who directed Dead Pixels, directed all these episodes as well.

Two Weeks, as a title, is a little misleading. The reference is an oblique nod to events. But, ultimately, it’s metaphorical and the driving sensibility to choices that need to be made. Primarily, the show is really a vehicle for Williams, though she has some nice support from Sian Clifford (Fleabag) and Mawaan Rizwan who provide solid backboards for her humor.

When you’re looking for short and amusing, with some entertaining surprises, this will do. It’s a bit violent and the ending certainly sets up another round, but the six half-hour episodes tell a complete story. For a bit of dark funny, it certainly worked for me.

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

[3.5 stars]

When we left off series 12, there was a major cliff hanger and change was very much in the air. And, I will admit, that my opinion of this current season has improved a little after rewatching it in prep for this holiday special, which also serves as the technical end to the 12th series.

I’m going to have to be brief here as almost any discussion is going to be full of spoilers…and I’ve some really intriguing ideas of where this all may be going. It isn’t the best of the specials, but it is definitely a bridge to what’s to come.

And, like so many of the specials, the show landed a special cast to help spice it up. Harriet Walter (herself) Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Soulmates) were fun additions. And the return of  Chris Noth reprising his series 11 character was initially concerning, but it ends up working in some fun and cheap ways. And, of course, John Barrowman finally making good on his earlier promise was a hoot. Honestly, he’s the best recurring character in the Who-verse. And, other than the Master, may be the most recurring.

But the real question is was it any good? The answer is mixed. This is neither a stand-alone nor a completely integrated episode. After taking another look at the rest of the season that leads to it, there is a certain amount of completion and resetting for the Doctor. Not all aspects of the story are dealt with in depth, or even believably in some ways, but she has to come to terms with all the new information and her own sense of self. And, frankly, there was a lot to take in. Time became meaningless and her isolation/imprisonment became a gift for her. But it is all solved pretty easily and the main plot, the Daleks, is ultimately a Macguffin (and a bit of a mirror) without a lot of teeth, despite some nice battle effects.

Who, as a series, is still going through its transition with Chibnall pulling hard on the reins taking her to a new path. And Chibnall is still learning how to be a show-runner at this level. I can see a destination that would blow people’s minds, but I honestly don’t know what he has in mind. The show is definitely playing a long game. I do continue to be on board to see what it may be. Most importantly, Jodie Whittaker continues to be entertaining and able to add depth to a character that has been around for over 50 years. I can’t wait to see what the next series brings.

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Soulmates

[3 stars]

Soulmates starts with a fabulous premise: what if you could identify your soulmate? How would that affect current couples? How would it change how you date or your expectations. It doesn’t make life as simple as it would seem on the surface.

Unfortunately, after the great premise, and admittedly some interesting situations and events, frankly the show fails to meet expectations. In trying to be the answer to Black Mirror, and to stay in the mainstream, it also avoids all the other lovely complications that, say episode one of Weird City was more than happy to tackle, or even Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers. That said, the main writers/creators William Bridges (Black Mirror: USS Callister) and Roy Kent (Ted Lasso) are both very talented. I just don’t think they had the freedom or, perhaps, the guts to really tackle the possibilities.

Fortunately, the episodes are chock full of talent to carry off the stories they did offer. Some highlights are Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami), Malin Akerman (Rampage), Sarah Snook (Winchester), Bill Skarsgård (It: Chapter Two),  Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Utopia), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things),  Tom Goodman-Hill (Residue, Humans), and Steven Mackintosh (Rocketman). You may have noticed a number of Europeans in that list… and you’d be right. It is part of the odd feel of the series as they are almost all playing Americans (or North Americans, at any rate).

I’m not saying avoid this series. It’s definitely thought provoking and often clever. It just didn’t quite meet the expectations it set for me given the writers involved and the foundation of the premise. But I’d love to see if they could grow on what they’ve started and really expand their thinking and risks in a second series. And, in the meantime, we get these six stories to whet our appetite.

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Love Life

[3 stars]

Basically, if you’re an Anna Kendrick fan, this one’s for you. She isn’t the only character in this series, her roomates Zoe Chao (Where’d You Go Bernadette?) and Peter Vack (Mozart in the Jungle) add to the fun, but this is a vehicle that spins around her and her sense of humor. And humor there is.

We follow Kendrick’s search for “the one.” Narrated (yes, yet another show with an unseen narrator) by Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread), we get to relive and cringe and wonder at her choices and situations. Think a more focused, less-soapy Sex in the City. But it is entertaining and does build on itself nicely. And to its credit, it doesn’t take the easy or expected (or even feared) paths.

What we’re left with is a fairly honest, if somewhat idealized, look at life and growing up. It isn’t always pretty, but when you keep moving forward, you actually get somewhere you want to be.

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Bridgerton

[3 stars]

If you like your edgier Austin, such as the recent Emma, you are probably the audience for this latest period soap to hit the streams. It’s a richly appointed drama full of intrigue, romance, and manners. Coming from Shondaland, the creators of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, you likely have a good sense of how the 8 episode first series is shaped.

Certainly, one of the highlights is the unseen narrator played by Dame Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins Returns). Her daily paper helps drive the plot along, even as everyone attempts to use the soapbox as a weapon of societal war. While the venue is familiar, it’s a fictionalized and remade London, peppered with subtle anachronisms in phrases and music that help make it feel familiar even as you’re dazzled by the production values.

The rest of the cast is certainly solid, but only a couple performances really stand out. Claudia Jessie (Their Finest) as a middle sister is certainly among them. She is delightfully acerbic and frustrated, hemmed in by the mores and morays of the society she was born into. Similarly, but from an older generation, Adjoa Andoh gets to command the screen and shake things up. This is a decidedly female driven cast and story, despite the male dominated world around them. Even Regé-Jean Page (Mortal Engines), as sexy and complicated as he is, doesn’t do more than run the maze the women around him construct.

The blind casting of the show has been the subject of much debate. Frankly, I found it done fairly well. With rare exception, it isn’t used as commentary or anti-commentary…it just is. That doesn’t mean you can’t infer or otherwise reflect on the impact of the choices, but it really tries to be color blind.

If you’re missing your Downton Abbey and are done with Versailles and need something both amusing and a touch steamy, but definitely still a comedy of manners, this may fit the bill. Even I, who am so not an Austin fan, found myself sucked into the story. I will admit that the first half of the series was more to my taste than the latter half, when the plot becomes a bit more in period/genre rather than pushing against it. But, at only 8 episodes, I didn’t feel like I was wading too deeply into a dark, treacly pool that wouldn’t let me escape.

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Queens of Mystery

[3 stars]

A delightfully wry and witty, semi-cozy mystery with an 80s TV vibe, down to its washed out color pallet. Add in a narrative riff like Pushing Daisies, carried by Juliet Stevenson (Atlantis), and you’re set for an amusing evening with some deadly serious murders.

The series spins around Olivia Vinall (Roadkill) and her three mystery writing aunties. The trio of surrogate moms includes an amusingly and uncharacteristically edgy Julie Graham (Bletchley Circle: San Francisco).

The series creator, Julian Unthank, wrote for several seasons of Doc Martin which should give you some sense of the level of humor. The show is full of silly characters, complex tales, and one over-arching mystery surrounding Vinall’s parents. Frustratingly, that mystery is left very much in its box, though they play around the edges of it the entire series. It’s a short season of three 90 minute stories, but the individual stories are all engaging and I am looking forward to seeing what they’ve got when they return.

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Helstrom

[3 stars]

Hulu’s latest Marvel adaptation is quite the dark ride. A cross between Constantine and Legion, it’s a psychological and (literal) hell-ride for a pair of sibs battling their past and fighting for their future.

The pacing is a bit slow, but the intensity remains high. So does the hyperbole. Subtle writing this isn’t, nor does it have many surprises. There are a few, however, and they are big ones.

While Tom Austen (The Royals) and Sydney Lemmon (Velvet Buzzsaw) are the center of the show, it’s really more carried by the side characters. Elizabeth Marvel (Manifest), Robert Wisdom (Motherless Brooklyn), and Alain Uy (The Passage) all have better lines and more interesting challenges, whereas the main characters seem somewhat hemmed in by the genre. I will grant that Lemmon has a nice arc while Austen is just relentlessly earnest.

As a series Helstrom has more promise than delivery, but there is definitely promise and I’d like to see where they go next and if they can raise the bar. Here’s hoping for a second season and a bit more rigor.

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Monsterland

[4 stars]

Hulu’s new anthology series returns horror to its roots. Sure it’s full of shocks and disturbing images, but the stories are about people. The horrors we encounter in the series are all reflections of, or serve to highlight the monsters in us.

Because it’s an anthology, I’m not going to enumerate any of the specific tales. However, I will say that they consistently surprised me, taking plots in unexpected ways and they were willing to look into the deepest, darkest crevices of the human psyche without apology. This makes the episodes as intriguing as they are disturbing to watch. And unlike Black Mirror, you’re forced to confront the revelations within context of our real world.

Helping along the success are a host of solid acting and creative directing. The show took chances with unknown and lesser-known actors as well as approaching the story-telling in unexpected ways. The series is also very cinematic, feeling like a series of hour-long movies rather than a bunch of loosely related episodes.

Monsterland may sound like a timing mismatch (like Brave New World or Utopia were) but because it is horror, it had just enough mental distance to keep me watching. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for something with a unique and new voice, not just in the genre, but in television.

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