Category Archives: TV Review

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.

The Great Upload on Avenue 5

Here are a few more streamers. Two worth your time and one that is entirely up to your sense of humor. Then again, I suppose they all depend on your sense of humor, but let’s just say I found the first two to have more of an easy entry and wider appeal, but that may just be me…

The Great (Hulu)
If The Favourite had spawned a series, in style and concept, this would have been the result. I know it is actually based on different IP (a play) but you can’t help but see the parallels, especially with Nicholas Hoult (The Current War) in one of the leads.

But this is really Elle Fanning’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) moment, her chance to take the reins and reign as an adult. Watching her navigate her world, and the absurd situations, is a riot and, at times, terrifying. Helping her along in her conspiracy to bring sanity to Russia are Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) and Pheobe Fox (Eye in the Sky). And Belinda Bromilow (Doctor, Doctor) and Sebastian De Souza (Medici) add a wonderful counterpoint and humor to it all. Even Charity Wakefield (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Adam Godley (Umbrella Academy) add a sort of caustic and clever nastiness. Honestly, there are too many good performances to call them all out. If you’re up for some (sort of) period comedy, this one is worth the effort.

The Great

Upload (Prime)
A little bit science fiction, a little bit rock-n-roll… ok, more a little bit Sleeper with a huge dash of Her, though both with backflipping twists on the approach. Robbie Amell (ARQ) and Andy Allo (Pitch Perfect 3) drive this show wonderfully. Allo, in particular, skips through emotional changes like a quick-change artist. Creator Greg Daniels brought his Parks and Rec comedy chops, but with a bit more restraint, to sell this entertaining satire that also comes with a nice mystery embedded. The first series is a solid start, but while it gets to a pause-point, it definitely ends on some serious cliffhangers. Fortunately, it is already renewed, so you won’t be left hanging forever.

Upload

Avenue 5 (HBO)
Yeah, I’m sorry, I just don’t get the appeal of this one. And it’s not because Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) isn’t great fun. Nor is it that Lenora Crichlow (Collision) doesn’t manage to balance out the craziness. It’s that the writing and, particularly, Josh Gad (Little Monsters) just don’t know how to set limits that keep it all fun.

What could have been the black humor counterpart to Aniara, turns into a broad comedy mess without much to say for itself.

Avenue 5

War of the Worlds (2019 v2)

[4 stars]

In a weird confluence there were two War of the Worlds adaptations recently. The 3-part BBC broadcast, which was quite true to the original material, and this updated version by Howard Overman (Crazyhead, Misfits), originally for Epix.

It’s important to remember that HG Wells’ source tale is allegorical, and so is also full of plot holes in the logic because it wasn’t intended as truth, but as example. It’s still a rollicking adventure with a message. Overman took that and then interrogated the story to ask the questions we all think (like: why invade? why approach it they way they did in the original? etc).  His rethink results in a solid bit of science-fiction and story-telling with interesting characters and unexpected twists and issues. It is also rather dark and unforgiving at times, which war is.

In addition, Overman gives us more than a single point of view of the invasion, with the action spread across France and England. We’ve a scientist in each locale, Léa Drucker and Gabriel Byrne (Hereditary), both following threads that lead to revelations. And, of course, we’ve survivors and families working their way across the devastation to various points and for various reasons, and finding others along the way. Stephen Campbell Moore (Red Joan) and Natasha Little (Absentia) provide one set of nodes. Elizabeth McGovern (The Wife) adds some nice variables, while Daisy Edgar-Jones is enjoying multiple notable performances with her concurrent role in Normal People.

My only gripe with this series is that it ends on a set of massive cliff-hangers with only the smallest bits of resolution. Given that it is still not renewed I don’t know if the story will ever be completed. Despite the ending, it is still one of the best thought through stories of its kind in a very long time and worth your time.

War of the Worlds

Into the Night

[3.5 stars]

In many ways this feels like an unauthorized and unofficial sequel to Hard Sun, not that any of the same people are involved; I speak only in terms of story. Or, if you prefer, a new twist to On the Beach. But Into the Night is far from laconic. It has a very clever conceit and structure which keeps the suspense at a constant high, and a credible backstory and clues to keep you engaged.

This is also a tale where no one is safe, which makes every one of the six episodes high-stakes. And, though we deep-dive on different individuals in each segment, they are not the sole focus of their titled vignette. In other words, trying to predict this one is a solid challenge and a compliment to adaptor/writer Jason George. His directing team however, Inti Calfat and Dirk Verheye, were a bit less adept. Some of the characters are portrayed a bit, well, extreme. The story attempts to provide reasons for that, but doesn’t always fully succeed. And there are some liberties taken with time and how long certain efforts might take which put some cracks in the foundation. However, generally, it remains fairly true to its choices.

The ensemble, as a whole, is fairly good. Pauline Etienne, Laurent Capelluto (Mr. Nobody), Stefano Cassetti (Rosemary’s Baby), and Mehmet Kurtulus are the strongest and most complicated players. But everyone on the flight has a tale to tell and something to lose.

Ultimately, the first series pays off nicely and has plenty of runway for the next set of installments…assuming they get to continue. I’m certainly hoping they will if they can keep up the intensity and the story so we can answer some of the open questions.

Into the Night

I Am Not Okay With This

[3.5 stars]

This odd, 7-episode season inhabits a fun place in the streaming pantheon somewhere between Heros and The End of the F***ing World. Frankly, if it had done more than just barely set things up for the next series I would have rated it quite a bit higher, but little is resolved by the end and far too little really happens to make it feel complete.

That said, the journey is really quite a bit of unexpected fun. Sophia Lillis (Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase) continues to expand her range and work on her delivery. She is magnetic and quirkily charismatic as she negotiates her High School and evolving powers. Joined by fellow It alum, Wyatt Oleff, we see well into the lives of their families, often without having to see it explicitly. The work by creator/director Jonathan Entwistle (The End of the F***ing World) to expose by inference and off-screen action is one of the more powerful aspects to the show: the implied, the hidden.

Sofia Bryant (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children) adds both bridge and irritant to the relationship of the main characters, and access to the other cliques at the school. The three, together, form an odd set of bonds and uneasy relationships that typify late teen years…especially those who are more self-aware.

Entwistle has a solid vision and ability to navigate  heightened truth and make it feel utterly imperative and real. In other words, he can tap his inner teen really, really well. This slightly less offensive (by typical standards) series show he’s also getting more savvy in his content pics without compromising his desire to live at the edge. I’m curious to see where he takes this, as his follow-up series to The End of the F***ing World really didn’t sustain its impact and unique qualities. But this has more potential and more of an open-ended tale, so I’ve hope.

I Am Not Okay with This

Homebound entertainment across the streams

Far from exhaustive, here is a collection of a few I’ve been chomping on during the quarantine.

Netflix

Altered Carbon 2
Living up to the first season of this adaptation was never going to be easy. Anthony Mackie (The Hate U Give) does a solid job of picking up Kovacs and carrying the torch forward. And Simone Missick (Iron Fist) adds a nice subplot to it all as does the duet between Poe and his brethren driven by Chris Conner and Dina Shihabi (Jack Ryan). The major plot lines aren’t as well disguised in this series and it departs a great deal from the order of the books, but it is overall consistent and expands the world nicely. And, yes, sets up a third season which I’m there for with bells on. It continues to be solid science fiction with enough intelligence and action supporting it to keep me coming back for more.

Locke & Key
I wanted to like this more than I did in the end. It is solid for the first several episodes and then, around ep 7, some of the writing and choices get too forced. That said, it is a lot like a less dark and less competently written Umbrella Academy. There is a lot of mystery, some complex plotting, and healthy disregard for cliches (except when there isn’t). Despite any weaknesses, I’d be back for the second season to see if they pull it off and to see where it might go. For now, it was an enjoyable enough ride. 

Prime
Tales from the Loop
Imagine a weaker Black Mirror, something like Eureka meets Twilight Zone or perhaps a more grown up Amazing Stories. Tales from the Loop focuses nicely on emotions but is afraid to delve too deeply into the dark recesses of humanity nor the flat out uncaring of the universe. It is lighter fare, despite its trappings, aimed at young adults and those not looking to think too much. Well acted and produced, it will distract, but it isn’t going to feed the minds of those looking for something more complex. 

Hulu Live

High Fidelity
There is one reason and one reason alone to see this series: Zoë Kravitz (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald). She is just a wonder to behold. Not because of her obvious beauty, though that doesn’t hurt, but because she is utterly natural on screen. Her relaxed and open demeanor shatter the fourth wall and make you her intimate. The cast supporting her are all fine, and even better than fine at moments, but Kravitz makes this work in a way few others might have been able to do.

Devs
You have to love, or at least I do, a show that tackles complicated questions from physics and philosophy…especially when it is done with some actual understanding (however twisted that understanding becomes). That isn’t to say it isn’t stretched, nor that the show itself doesn’t have some painfully poorly written moments (particularly in the 7th episode). But, overall, there is some entertaining meat to to chomp into and Nick Offerman’s (Bad Times at the El Royale) obsessed tech guy makes up for any flat aspect that Sonoya Mizuno (Maniac) brings to her efforts.

Endlings
A perfectly fine children’s show, but not much to chomp on for adults. It is far too cute in its approach and brash with its message. For grade schoolers it is probably a great deal of fun.

Utopia Falls
This Hunger Games wannabe doesn’t even try to pretend they aren’t ripping off the obvious. And that would be fine if it also didn’t dip into the absurd. Seriously, a dance off for identifying the “chosen” of a society … and that between 16 year olds (who are more like 25 year olds)? At least The FP (one of the worst films I’ve ever seen) didn’t pretend it wasn’t absurd. This is a complete miss on ever so many levels.

The Magicians (series finale)

[4 stars]

I honestly didn’t think Magicians was going to survive the transition from season 4 and the exit of a major character. Not because they were such a great character but because they were a central lynchpin for everything else around them. It was part of what made the finale last season so effective. But where do you go from that?

The answer is to shake it all up. The loss is still there as an emotional ghost driving the machine, at least as a starting point. Characters all deal with the loss in different ways. But, smartly, the show has gone deeper into those remaining characters and, more importantly, even upset the seasonal structure. This round has a unique shape and, possibly, one of the best time-loop stories ever put together; certainly one of the best in a very long time.

This final season managed to be two seasons in one, packing a huge amount of story into the 13 episodes. And the last two episodes manage to wrap up a bundle of threads that leave it all very satisfying without closing off potential. The creators always knew this might be their last, so they worked hard to make this a season as well as a series finale, should it have to be. There is none of that lingering bitter aftertaste of incomplete tales.

The Magicians, overall, is a nicely arc’d five seasons. Sure it is loaded with angst and gratuitous sex and violence (and occasionally forced and overwrought), but all to make it feel different. This isn’t a pretty fantasy world, it’s dark and real and messy. Actions have consequences and people (and gods) disappoint… often. But it is ultimately satisfying and fun, even if it drifted so far from the original book material as to be practically unrecognizable to Grossman fans.

Cyrano de Bergerac (2008)

[4 stars]

I haven’t seen Cyrano for many years…and had totally forgotten just how wonderful a story it is. And this production of it, with Kevin Kline (Last Vegas) as the titular man with the nose, is transcendent. His control of the language and the emotion is gripping.

And then there is the rest of the cast. While Jennifer Garner (Wonder Park), as Roxanne, eventually finds her feet in this play, she’s nothing particularly wonderful. On the other hand, Chris Sarandon (Fright Night) is more than up to the task of playing Kline’s nemesis, as is Daniel Sunjata (Manifest) for playing his handsome but dim-witted rival.

Filmed stage plays aren’t always successful. They often feel too distanced or too forced. But director Matthew Diamond guided the play and preserved the performance wonderfully. And the staging and set are clever, functional, and flexible. In other words, it is a feast for all the senses and aspects of theatre love.

Make time for this when you can. Honestly, it is so much better than you likely remember, in large part due to the fabulous Anthony Burgess translation, but also for the sheer romance and comedy of it all, no matter how dark some of it may get.

Cyrano de Bergerac