Category Archives: TV Review

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Fall 2018 TV – The New Stuff (and what survived)

I’m being very, very picky this season about broadcast TV. Just too much out there to watch streaming to add mediocre or underwhelming shows to my already long committed list. (Updated 19 Nov.)

Keeping

Connors – I was impressed with how they handled the hard pivot into the post-Barr show. The show proved it could still handle hard subjects with a sense of reality and humor. Sure there is a political element keeping me here, but I am also being entertained, so win/win.
Murphy Brown – It doesn’t have the same snap and energy as the original, but it has guts and a great cast. The additions of Jake McDorman and Tyne Daily were inspired, and Nik Dodani is holding his own.

On the Bubble

Manifest – nothing particularly new, but nothing particularly frustrating about it at its launch. Curious enough to give it few more to cement its place in my schedule, but they have to get better writing, especially around police and fed procedure or it will be too painful to continue. And unless the uber-conspiracy vibe abates, it will be tossed like last week’s trash.
Charmed – it is as light as the first go-round, and without any of the charismatic star power of Combs and Milano, but it appears to have enough to survive. It could still fall victim to the axe, but it was one of the more complete pilots put out there this season. However, as the season progresses, it is clear they don’t have the chemistry of the first, and some of the writing and acting is a problem. This may fall even further to being axed.
Single Parents – the kids are great but the writing barely pulls it together by the end of each episode. We shall see.
New Amsterdam – intriguing characters, but a somewhat cookie-cutter formula with very weak research, at times. Whether it survives for me will be whether it can find some new take on the medical venue.
The Cool Kids – a great cast and silly humor, but executed by a solid cast despite painful scripts at times. I’m giving it more time. It may never be great, but it could be a nice and empty weekly 22 minutes of escape.

Forget it

I Feel Bad – this came so close, but just doesn’t have the writing to sell it for me. The characters, particularly the gaming programmers, are just absurd.
Hang Ups – the cast is what convinced me to watch…the writing drove me away. It had its moments, but the lack of any sense of reality left it untethered and, ultimately for me, unfunny.
Magnum PI – not bad, but nothing overly compelling. To be fair, the original casts a long shadow and dims this reboot’s hopes.
REL – writing was weak and broad and just not landing for me.
God Friended Me – actually relatively good writing and acting, but I don’t see where this can go that we haven’t been before. Life’s too short to see it all again. Also, I’m not confident the message will be universal enough rather than targeted.
The Neighborhood – just a bit too forced, for all its moments of truth, to work for me for longer than a couple episodes.
Happy Together – despite the potential and the chemistry, just didn’t grab me. Two main issues: lack of credibility and the broad humor.
FBI – While there are a couple of great cast members, neither of those are the leads, who are wooden and the least credible special agents I’ve seen in a while. Add bad procedures, even if with clever plots, and this just isn’t up to the Law & Order level of interest.
Million Little Pieces – This latest This is Us cum 30-Something copy-cat has a good cast and writing with possibility, but was quickly becoming a slog of a soap-opera. Cast and writing or not, just didn’t need that in my weekly lineup.
The Kids are Alright – the writing and cast aren’t bad, but I am definitely not its audience. Too broad, too loud, and too silly.
The Rookie – Really, I’m only here for Nathan Fillion, Melissa O’Neil, and Richard T. Jones. It is possible this survives if it can find something to say without trying so hard, like the pilot did. I didn’t hold out much hope…and I was right.

The Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

A six part series that can keep you off balance to near the end is a rarity. The Bodyguard delivers on this point. Richard Madden (Oasis) is the largest part of that success. He brings painful and unexpected layers to the character willing himself between ice block and utterly vulnerable.

In addition to Madden, UK mystery/suspense stalwarts Keeley Hawes (High-Rise), Gina McKee (Line of Duty), and Pippa Haywood (Scott & Bailey) each bring different kinds of strong women to the tale. There are some other familiar faces, such as Stuart Bowman (Versailles), but despite a male lead, this is a heavily female-driven tale. One real standout is Anjli Mohindra (Bancroft) who has really grown up since the Sarah Jane Adventures.

The finale episode is this show’s only real stumble. The breathless rush to the ending confrontation is well orchestrated but is done primarily to (hopefully) keep you from noticing the bad plotting and choices. It works emotionally, but it is utterly wrong technically. Squint a little and you’re fine. It frustrated me mainly because up to these moments it had been so well done. The show as a whole is still very much worth the viewing time, but it is a slightly flawed resolution.

Bleach (2018)

[3 stars]

Live action adaptations of anime and/or manga via anime often fail miserably. (Consider the recent Attack on Titan attempt.) Usually it is due to assumptions the audience will know the story or an insulting approach as to what they’ll accept. I have to admit Bleach surprised me. I wasn’t very familiar with the story, but there was enough in the movie to help me understand and to invest in the characters.

This isn’t a great movie, as movies go, but it was entertaining if you like the genre; I do. Director Shinsuke Sato gave me characters with motivations. He also provided fun fight scenes, a bit of humor, and probably a bit too much high school romance forced in (it simply goes no where in this short-ish film). It didn’t hurt that there was some very competent actors driving the piece like Hana Sugisaki and Sôta Fukushi, both from Blade of the Immortal. Even the side characters have some cred, such as Miyavi (Kong: Skull Island).

It succeeded enough that I’m now curious to explore the anime series and its various movies to see what else goes on…there are several sequences to Bleach and this covered just one of them. And while I’m sure it was in a highly compressed way, the movie didn’t feel overly cheated.

Cardinal: Blackfly Season (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first series for Cardinal was highly personal, very twisted and very bloody. This second series picks up the story where it left off with Billy Campbell (Modus) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) putting their lives back together and expanding their partnership to catch killers. And, yes, this one is as gruesome as the first, though with considerably fewer unknowns.

Campbell’s story this round revolves around the return of his wife and the challenges of mental illness. Vanasse’s story is less clear this time and, frankly, rather side-lined. Overall, this felt like a transition series where the writers were trying to get the characters to a new place, but chose not to jump there. Instead, we are taking the long journey. While that works with a darker, slower-paced show like Wallander, it made this series drag a bit with a lack of energy, despite all the events.

On the wrong side of the law are two rather chilling, and very different, sociopaths embodied by Bruce Ramsay (Behind the Candleabra) and Dan Petronijevic (19-2). Unfortunately on this side of the story, though we also have Alex Paxton-Beesley (Copper) and Jonathan Keltz (Reign), there is nothing much sympathetic about any of them. The result is that we don’t invest overmuch in the outcomes. In the first series, we had characters to care about on all sides, so this was a definitely step backwards.

The series remains hard to get a hold of, but I expect it will eventually get wider distribution as it is about to go into its third series on CBC. If you like the darker suspense mysteries, this is one to add to your queue.

Cardinal Poster

Quatermass and the Pit

[3.5 stars]

I would have sworn to you that I’d seen this before. But when I got the opportunity to “re-watch” it recently, I discovered I was very wrong. What I had seen was 5 Million Years to Earth. That flick is a condensed, movie-version of this 6-part serial by the same writer, Nigel Kneale. Confusing matters is that 5 Million Years to Earth is also a title that has been used for the series at times through the years.

[As a side note if these titles sound familiar, don’t confuse it with their contemporary, 20 Million Years to Earth, which is a whole different thing and a classic in its own right.]

Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the show is a victim of its era, but it is also decidedly ahead of it in some ways. In fact, it is rather on point for today’s rise in xenophobia. It’s even brave enough to reuse film from the Blitz as part of its action and message barely ten years after the events. Also, the female assistant,  Christine Finn, who’s voice you might recognize from the original Thunderbirdsis about the most competent of the adults in the room.

Now, it also depicts government types as bullheaded and uneducated… OK perhaps that’s on point for our times as well more than we’d like to admit. However, generally, it was just an easy way out to write the plot, which is more complex and deeper than you’d expect for a 1958 genre classic. And, of course, there are the buckets of tea made by characters when things get dicey.

Adding to the fun and the history of it all is that Quatermass is also a direct pre-cursor to Doctor Who, which would launch 5 years later. Whether in the air or as an influencer, it is an unavoidable comparison. Seeing the bones of what inspired Who was really quite eye opening. The first Doctor even has a lot of the same mannerisms and demeanor as André Morell’s Quatermass, particularly in this sequence of the on-again, off-again show. By the way, his colleague in the plot, Cec Linder, and he both worked in TV and film until they died…these were two solid actors who gave it their all, even in this off-beat BBC offering. 

But the Who link isn’t the reason to make time for the series. Quatermass tackles questions that are still debated today and, unabashedly, suggests some answers. Given the recent discovery of a liquid lake on Mars, perhaps not entirely nutty answers. Yes, it is low-fi in its presentation, but it dose a lot with what it has, often by only inferring what you see. Yes, the plot is pushed along by less than delicate means at times. But it is just as often surprising and is undeniably captivating if you enjoy the genre at all. Make sure you see this rather than being sure you have. It wouldn’t be a waste to rewatch it, but it would certainly be a shame to never have.

Quatermass and the Pit

Ordeal by Innocence

[3.5 stars]

The latest evolution of Agatha Christie continues. Unlike the better known story Murder on the Orient Express, however, this particular stand-alone mystery is less familiar, though it was turned into a Marple mystery and a separate movie. I’ve seen both of these versions, but frankly don’t remember them that well. This incarnation, however, is a gripping three-part drama that keeps you guessing till the very end.

Sarah Phelps, who also wrote the recent and wonderful Witness for the Prosecution, adapted and constructed this mystery to provide a number of believable suspects. Director Sandra Goldbacher (Me Without You) controls the mystery and motives to keep you rethinking your options. The field of possible murderers doesn’t even start to diminish until the last 30 minutes of the three episode series, as the truth fully comes out.

Casting certainly was in their favor as well. With Bill Nighy (The Limehouse Golem) leading the family along with Anna Chancellor (Shetland), there is a great dynamic that sets the tension. The family of adopted children each bring their own sensibility and motivations. Anthony Boyle has the most complex role of the sibs, but he is well supported by Christian Cooke (Witches of East End), Crystal Clarke (Assassin’s Creed), Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Eleanor Tomlinson (Death Comes to Pemberly). A couple of outsiders bring in the final ingredients: Luke Treadaway (Fortitude) and Matthew Goode (Self/less).

To be honest, it isn’t an entirely fair mystery; some information is held back till the final episode. Some of the blind spots are obvious (we see the murder multiple times from different time frames and angles) but some are about hidden relationships. However, even though the “who” is strung out, the clues and other aspects of the construction are beautiful. It all adds up to a much more believable story than we usually get to see, and one that is delightfully dark and satisfying through to the final frame.

Humans (series 3)

[4 stars]

Talk about picking up on a zeitgeist before it peaks. The third series of Humans picks up a year after the arrival of consciousness for the synths globally. The fallout for the synths and the family we’ve come to know is the focus of the 8-episode offering.

There are some inevitables in the story, though how it all plays out will keep you guessing, even through most of the final episode. The series is packed with threads and commentary that is more than a little timely for the world today despite being written and filmed almost a year earlier.

Make time for this show, if you haven’t already. It is painful to watch at times, as mirrors often are, but it is worth every minute to see this complex tale. It is unclear whether there will be a fourth series, though there is certainly an interesting path forward if they do.

Humans

Jessica, Luke, and Iron Fist

Jessica Jones [3.5 stars]

The second series of this dark, intense drama delves into Jessica’s origins and the continued fallout from the first season. It is also dominated by female writers and directors. There is a dark beauty to this series…even when it is formulaic it delivers with a punch and enough emotion to let you go with it. By the end of the series all the characters are somewhere new, setting us up for an intriguing set of confrontations to come. That said, some of the writing was more forced than the first series. And Rachael Taylor, in particular, seems to dissolve in weird ways. On the other hand, Eka Darville and Carrie-Anne Moss really come into their own this season. Darville with a cleaned-up act and growing maturity (if also sleight stupidity) and Moss with some actual human stuff to tackle. And, of course, Janet McTeer bashes her way through as the overcharged Frankenstein’s monster she has become wonderfully. Amidst all this, Krysten Ritter’s Jessica gets positioned for a whole new life that makes a series three intriguing.

Luke Cage [3 stars]

One of the intriguing aspects of the Marvel series has been their different sensibilities and how they are melded together. Last series for Luke was distinct in its 70’s feel with an empowering take-back of black exploitation.  It was full of jazz and funk and plenty of action and politics. This second go-round seems to be off-rhythm. The pacing  drags and it is less smooth in the integration of music and feel. The entire first half to two-thirds of the series are set-up, but you spend a good part of that time frustrated with the characters and their choices. After that the payoff feels a bit blunted.

But it isn’t just the rhythm, it was the diminishing of the powerful women in the show that was so disturbing. Alfre Woodward was turned into a whining coward. Even Rosario Dawson comes across as an almost fawning second-fiddle to Luke while Simone Missick is, at best, erratic in her loyalties and choices. Michael Colton did manage to move Luke into a new phase of his hero’s journey…dripping with hubris, hell-bent for leather, and doomed for a fall…but it simply becomes painful at times watching obvious mistakes. The last chunk of the season found its feet a little better, but, even with the clever reversals, the characters are less than credible. The one subtle-ish theme I will give them props for is the game of thrones idea they are playing (and mirroring) right up till the finale.

Iron Fist [3.5 stars]

Like many, I was not impressed with the first season of this show.  It had possibilities, but a weak lead in Finn Jones and weak writing generally. There were good things too, particularly Jessica Henwick and some of the cross-overs. But it wasn’t enough to make me happy. The series was only necessary as a bridge to The Defenders, so I took it like bitter medicine.

With series 2, Danny Rand’s testicles seem to have finally descended. In fact, I had to redo my title for this post which was originally Jessica, Luke, and Iron Weenie…he just didn’t deserve that slam. The whining is gone and there is a hero there who seems capable and able to succeed thanks to who he is, not despite it. Alice Eve was a great addition and had some serious fun with her character and challenges. And the continuation of Sacha Dhawan’s story to drive the series was necessary and, ultimately, interesting even if a bit forced.

And, while there is some nearly unforgivable comic book logic writing particularly around police work, they manage to pull off a great series and shift in the show, redeeming it from its freshman season. After this round, I’m actually looking forward to seeing these characters and their travails again, be it here or in the next series of The Defenders. They’ve really got some stuff to work with.

Frankie Drake Mysteries

[3 stars]

I was originally going to just let this show slide by uncommented upon. It was the Canadian answer to Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, but without the writing and acting. In other words, diverting enough to watch, but nothing to recommend or run from. Well, I almost ran from it…the hour-long comedy/drama was a lot of time for little return. But then something interesting happened. About halfway through the inaugural season they went on a typical hiatus, and when they returned the writing had massively improved. The mysteries got better, the characters started to add depth, and the acting got beyond surfacey silliness.

In the title role, Lauren Lee Smith (Ascension) began this series rather ham-handedly. She had no sense of what it was to be a flapper and the costumers and writing did her no favors. She came across as weak copy of Fisher. As Frankie’s partner, Chantel Riley (Race) had real potential, but no storylines to really explore any of it. But around episode 6 they found their footing and refocused the show. Riley gets a family and some real plot opportunities. Smith becomes more of a person and less of a cartoon cipher with an excuse to play 1920s dress-up.

Not all characters got to grow as much. Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini & Doyle, Alias Grace) remained primarily comic relief. However, her abilities were expanded upon. I’m looking forward to seeing how they flesh her out in the next season.  On the other hand, Sharron Matthews as the coroner starts off strong in the series and only gets better as it goes along. The show also manages some fun guest stars through their freshman series.

You may have noticed I’ve only called out women. One thing I can say about Frankie Drake is that it really is only about the women. There are male colleagues, victims, and criminals, but it is driven by the four women.

I don’t know if Frankie can sustain its return from the edge of extreme mediocrity, but I’d like to believe they discovered their issues and are now on track. OK, it does stumble a little in the last couple episodes, but one is a wrap up to discard a character that needed to be flushed, and the finale is a little over-edited, but provides some solid history to grow from (again from the Fisher playbook, but done well). Give it a shot when it arrives on air or streaming. Stick it out for the first five or six episodes to watch it turn the corner. It isn’t bad for the first five, but knowing it improves makes it worth the wait. Whether it can survive to renewal remains to be seen.