Category Archives: TV Review

The Discovery & 13 Reasons Why

Both The Discovery and 13 Reasons Why ask the same two questions: What is life? Why stick around for it? They come to roughly the same answers, though by very different routes.

The Discovery does this through the lens of science fiction. It asks: What if we knew there was something after death? And then it goes on to explore the impact, but tries to remained focused on the smaller stories. It is a rumination on “what if,” bordering on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in feel.

13 Reasons Why does this from the 7th circle of Hell, otherwise known to most people as: High School. 13 Reasons tries to expose the realities of teenage perspective by offering up multiple stories and, potentially, the different variations of truth to them as we learn more. Ultimately, this is more a tale in the vein of Veronica Mars than it is a deep psychological expose, more structured as entertainment than open discourse, but it manages to make its points.

Their overlapping discussions of suicide make them a natural and topical pairing.

In The Discovery, suicide becomes a real, and less scary option for many people. Frankly, I think probably on a much bigger scale than the show posits. The script doesn’t try to simplify the risks or answer questions unequivocally, but it does nicely, if narrowly, follow enough characters to explore the idea.

Robert Redford (Pete’s Dragon), Jason Segel (The Muppets), and Rooney Mara (Lion) topline this intellectual thought experiment. With such a great cast, and a neat premise, it could have been so much more. But it is still engaging and thought provoking. And the ending is anything but passive for the viewer.

13 Reasons Why has a number of strong performances, but the primary standouts are Kate Walsh, Katherine Langford, and Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps). Walsh delivers a solidly heart-breaking performance of a mother dealing with loss and guilt. Langford lays out a progression of decisions and emotional fractures that help you follow her path, if not totally agree with the results–all the more impressive as it is her lead acting debut. And Minnette is a perfect “every kid” lost in the political tides of adolescence and inside his own head.

It is the confluence of these presentations that makes them so interesting to me. Either alone would have been something to notice. But two major releases, and even other shows like Transparent jumping onto the suicide depiction train (and there are many, many more, like Collateral Beauty), speaks to a subject in the air that needs dealing with in some way. Perhaps the documented rise of clinical depression over the last six months, particularly in women, is part of the explanation.

Regardless of the deeper zeitgeist, both of these streams deserve your time for their performances and their ideas. As to the bigger picture…time will tell.

The Discovery 13 Reasons Why

Cardinal

Apparently, the new Norwegian substitute is Northern Canada. In this case, north of Toronto. Like Bellevue, Cardinal is a serial murder procedural in the thinly populated, icy north of Canada. Billy Campbell (Helix) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) deliver nicely conflicted detectives in the introductory series (based on Forty Words for Sorrow) to what could be a good run of stories to come.

It is a dark tale, and a tad graphic, but all in service to understanding the characters. A good part of that darkness, and its effectiveness, is down to Brendan Fletcher (The Revenant), who has a ridiculously long cv for his career. Along with Allie MacDonald (Stories We Tell), the two are a twisted pair who we can’t help but want to watch, even if we don’t root for them.

Originally aired on CBC, it appears to be difficult to find, so the best I can say is watch for it when it airs elsewhere (and it will).

Cardinal Poster

Girlboss

Silly, crude, empowering, oddly romantic, and not a little embarrassing, this is a fun series. And, yes, here we go again with Brit Robertson (A Dog’s Purpose). Seriously unintentional… just a matter of timing.

With this series, Robertson hard turns from young, sure teen to the kind of trainwreck most suitors can’t resist and yet should probably run away from. She cuts loose as the driven, and not a little scary, Sophia, who is trying to figure out her life while simultaneously blowing it up (including dating a drummer).

Her anchors, Jonathan James Simmons (The To Do List) and relative new-comer Ellie Reed, provide both encouragement and guidance, though not always the right kind. But all work well together and balance nicely. And, as her father, Dean Norris (Men, Women, Children) adds a solid sense of familial love and strife.  To add to the fun, there area host of recurring guest appearances by folks such as Melanie Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Jim Rash, Louise Fletcher and the infamous and fabulous RuPaul.

The show is full of humor and reality… and quite a bit of reality stretching, but that is admitted to right up front. Created and written by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect 2), she brings the same kind of humor and heightened reality she loves playing in. The series is a fun distraction, with some reasonable life lessons, and a moment to mark for Robertson, as she has definitely left her child-actor years behind her.

Girlboss

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

[Updated 1 June, 2017: And this is why fans have such trouble committing to great shows: Sense8 is officially cancelled]

Sense8

Samurai Jack (series 5)

After a 13 year hiatus, there was definite trepidation around how this magnificent series would revive; the dead so often don’t return with their souls intact. I needn’t have worried. Despite the gap in time (appropriate in some ways) and the move to computer graphics, Samurai lost little, if any, of its original sense and sensibility. Its minimal graphics were very much in its favor, and the return of Genndy Tartakovsky to oversee and run the result kept it on track. Even the loss of Mako as the voice of the great evil Aku didn’t slow it down.

In some ways, this is the best of the series. Before it was very episodic without much of a trajectory other than the increasingly scaling fights with Aku. The universe always expanded with new characters and ongoing interactions, but seasons never felt like they had a shape. This final series has a very definite shape and a eye to its ultimate ending.

If you like Samurai Jack, you have to see the end of the saga. If you somehow missed it before, discover it now and not have to wait over a decade to have your hunger sated for an ending. Samurai remains as good as ever and as beautiful and as poetic as it began.

Samurai Jack

Prime Suspect (1973)

Dame Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty) cemented Jane Tennison as one of the bedrocks of British mystery, and one of the strongest and most complicated women to make it to screen. You cannot think of Jane Tennison without thinking of Helen Mirren in that role. The show had a much vaunted 7 series run (1991-2006) that still enjoys reairs today.

But how did Tennison become the ballsy, broken, insightful DS we bade farewell to 11 years ago? Since 2006 several other unforgettable detectives have been given the prequel treatment. Endeavour and Young Montalbano come immediately to mind as especially successful forays into that territory.  These shows provide(d) both a continuation of series when the original show either had no where to go or when the original actor was no longer available, and an opportunity to understand the characters in a new way. We love their quirks (good and bad), but rarely know how they came about. For instance, Morse’s love of Opera, Montalbano’s love of seafood, and, of course, their love lives and tendency to drink.

Tennison was definitely ripe for this treatment. However, while the casting physically wasn’t bad, with Stefani Martini (Emerald City) in the lead role, the writing by series creator, Lynda La Plante, and Glen Laker just wasn’t as complex and solid as their competition. Had this series come out five years ago, I think I would have been much more impressed. But what the other two examples manage, and which this missed, was the steady building up of the character we know. Every episode of Endeavour, for instance, adds one of his traits or clearly leads to it.

Compounding my frustration with the series, I just couldn’t see Tennison in Martini. Even by the end of the 6 episode arc, there is only the barest hint of the Tennison we followed for over a decade. Whether that issue should be laid at the feet of Martini (lack of research?) or director Caffrey, I can’t be sure, but the fault doesn’t matter so much as the effect. What I got was a good mystery, but not so much a peek into the driving formation of Tennison herself. Or, not as much as I’d have hoped over 6 episodes.

I am willing to give them another bite at the apple on this one. The story of this particular series was interesting. The cast solid, especially with Alun Armstrong (The Hollow Crown), Jessica Gunning (Pride), and slew of other recognizable faces. It isn’t bad and there is definitely potential and room for growth. I would hope they would look around and realize that these kinds of shows require something just a bit different than the typical Brit mystery. They have a legacy to support and an audience to re-engage.

I have to say that with all these prequel and existing series running, I now have a dream to have a cross-over that starts with Endeavour, goes to Prime Suspect, then into George Gently, and finally ends, years later, as a cold case for Vera. For fun, you could involve Montalbano somewhere in the Gently cycle as I think they’d overlap by the next Gently series. As long as each kept their own sensibility, it could be a fabulous romp. If you really want to go crazy you could bring in a few of the longer running, cozy mystery series as well, but I think that would shatter the illusion of a single world.

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Anne (Anne with an E)

When I was probably the right age to be reading Anne of Green Gables, my nose was, instead, buried in books like Stranger in a Strange Land. Which is to say, I missed this literary series growing up. And, in truth, given its sensibility, it wasn’t high on my radar, which is why this CBC production surprised me so much. I had no intention of watching the 8-part broadcast. But the lead, Amybeth McNulty (Morgan), was so engaging and the writing so clever at times, that I found myself sucked in. In fact, there was only one episode I cringed through (the 4th, as I recall).

There is quite the ensemble that support McNulty and pull together this series. They are primarily led by her adopted parents, Geraldine James (45 Years), and R.H. Thomson (Jesus Henry Christ). In addition, Lucas Jade Zumann (20th Century Women) fills an important smaller role. Like McNulty, his character feels out of time on the Island and in that period. He was a bit more jarring in his portrayal, but his character was very accessible. 

As I said, I haven’t read the books so I had no expectations around the tale. From those that do know the books, I’ve heard there are some big changes. Not all of those changes are being happily embraced, though some are. Like any classic series, there is risk when adapting it. I can say that as an outsider, I didn’t find any of the choices objectionable given the genre of the story.

Though it was aired originally on Canadian TV, it turns out this will soon stream on Netflix under the new moniker, “Anne with an E”. Give it a shot, you may may be as surprised as I was. Do bear in mind that it is set up for a second series (whether that matches the books, I have no idea, but I doubt there is a correlation). It isn’t overly cliff-hangery, but there are definitely some purposefully loose threads. I will admit, however, that the set up for going forward is less intriguing to me than I’d like it to be given this inaugural season.

Anne

Marvel’s Iron Fist

This is by far the most disappointing of the Marvel Universe series that Netflix has produced, which is why it has taken me so long to complete the run. It is the weakest writing and the least stylistic. It is, however, steeped in the mythos of the other tales: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. These aspects make it more interesting than it has earned, frankly.

Iron Fist, as a character, has somewhat nebulous powers and rules, and his backstory is only marginally interesting for most of the series. Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) manages a sweet demeanor, and the somewhat lost vibe of a young child in the world, but he is also just plain dumb as a character, making foolish choices. If this is the absolute best that Kunlun has to offer, they need a bigger population. And how did this simpering, whiny, tantrum throwing kid make it to Iron Fist anyway?

More generally, motivations for all the characters are hard to believe and understand. Tom Pelphrey (Banshee) and David Wenham (Lion) are all over the map on their choices and drives. Sure all of the men, including Jones, have some intense backstories, but I’d expect a clarity of purpose to be driving them so I can understand when things change.

The women fair a bit better for most of the series. Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Force Awakens) has nice levels and some obvious secrets. Jessica Stroup (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is a tough character but hard to pin down because she is unevenly written and used. By the end of the sequence, they have squandered her completely and weakened her unforgivably.

It is really the two returning characters are best served because they have actual history to draw on: Wai Ching Ho (Daredevil) and Rosario Dawson (Gimme Shelter). Both are easy to understand and, in the case of Ho, we finally get to learn a lot more about this enigmatic kingpin.

There really is only one reason to watch Iron Fist, but you’ll need to see the whole series to understand why and, even then, you’ll have to make a logical leap beyond their unearned finale. Marvel was due a weak delivery after all its high powered hits. And, to be clear, this isn’t awful, it just isn’t in the same class as its colleagues. Better writers and directors would definitely help. Some more time in the writers’ room to break out the episodes and season more interestingly wouldn’t be amiss either; creator/producer/writer Buck (Dexter) just didn’t hit his mark. I am hoping that as the story carries forward, the Iron Fist will find more solid story-telling.

Image result for iron fist

Codebreaker

When I first saw The Imitation Game, I felt it was missing something. It was well done and superbly acted, but there was so much more to the story than it covered… much I knew and some I didn’t. At the time, I had tripped across this 2011 documentary from the BBC but I only finally got my hands on it recently.

I admit that it is a bit staged in its re-enactments, but they are all based on recorded facts and add a level of humanism to what is a fascinating and tragic story. A story, I must say, feels even more relevant today than when it was released or even since Imitation Game hit screens a few short years ago.

This is as much a story of modern computing (with a bit of a snub to Babbage and Lovelace) as it is about prejudice, governments, and abuse of power. All very topical subjects these days.

Paul McGann (Luther) narrates well and unobtrusively. Turing, played by Ed Stoppard (Youth), equals Cumberbatch in skill, though with only short scenes to go by it isn’t a completely fair comparison. And Henry Goodman (Avengers: Age of Ultron) as his psychologist, friend, and confident is suitably open and sympathetic. These dramatized moments interposed with interviews and explanations very much help to ground the story and give is a face. In the end, it is a view of Turing that even Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, didn’t manage to fully capture because in both cases, movie and stage play, they decided to pick a focus rather than to absorb the whole.

If you have an interest in Turing or want to know more about the genesis of the modern computing age, this is an excellent way to learn more.

Codebreaker

Amazon Pilot Season

The democratization (bad or good) of TV with open pilot seasons at Amazon is fascinating. We used to get to see some pilots on TV and vote by ratings. That approach has evaporated  and has been replaced with other selection methods, particularly with the short series approach.

Amazon offers up 5 new shows this round. Only 3 even caught my attention. Two were really quite good. If you haven’t put in your votes yet, do. You only have yourself to blame for what they offer if you don’t vote (kinda like other things in this country). Of course, any selected tend to have their series delivery lag by months (if not longer) since the entire season has to be in the can before it is released. Frustrating when you’ve seen something you enjoy.

In order of decreasing potential:

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

By far the best of the lot. But that is no surprise given its pedigree. This 1950s/1960s romp through stand-up and Upper West Side life is from the Sherman-Palladino’s (Gilmore Girls). The dialogue and character work is great fun and is just barely getting started. The dynamics will be familiar, but the cultural pieces are pretty new for television. At its center is the dynamic Rachel Brosnahan (Crisis in Six Scenes) who chews up the screen and spits it out in colorful bits of art as homecraft. She already has a nice career, but this could be an amazing break-out given its scope.

Oasis

Based on Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, this large-scale and philosophical science fiction epic has real potential. It will all depend on where they take it and how it develops. But the pilot is certainly intriguing. Starring Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and with other faces like Mark Addy (Atlantis), Zawe Ashton (Nocturnal Animals), and Haley Joel Osment (Tusk), it also some some good bones holding it all up.

The Legend of Master Legend

The weakest of the three I sampled. John Hawkes (The Driftless Area) is committed to the role, but watching self-destructive or pathetic behavior just isn’t my sense of humor. Despite some very nice family dynamics and possibilities, I can’t see watching this show, though others may well love it.