Category Archives: TV Review

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

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The Librarians (series 3)

[4 stars]

The Librarian movies weren’t brilliant pieces of fantasy adventure, but there was something wonderful about the concept and the characters in the franchise. The first movie, in particular, struck a chord. Then it began a long slide into silliness and, frankly, weaker and weaker writing. Entertaining, but not memorable.

When it was reimagined into a series, it carried that sensibility with it and, through sheer energy, overcame the overly simplistic, Nickelodeon-style approach to the tales. Nothing brilliant, but some fun distraction that I certainly took part in, being the geeky book collector and lover of genre that I am.

With season three, the show found its footing again. The story plots are full of short-cuts on the order of Scooby Doo, but the subject matter is, at its core, stuff adults can appreciate too. It has fun while being entirely self-conscious of its intentions. Much like a good library, the goal is to pull in younger viewers and excite them to learn more about all the stories and history. I don’t really classify this as educational TV, but it certainly plants seeds and introduces those who are curious to ideas and facts that could take root later.

The cast have always worked well together but, like their characters, they’re cooperative energy has gelled in their third season. Christian Kane (Leverage), Lindy Booth (Kick-Ass 2), and John Harlan Kim are more a cohesive unit and Rebecca Romijn (X-Men: First Class) more of the leader she needed to become as Noah Wyle (Falling Skies) has stepped further away from being the overriding authority. And, of course, John Larroquette (Me, Myself, & I) always brings a fun energy and delivery. Each season has its particular arc, and this one brings in Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) to provide the friction. She provides a nicely myopic antagonist and walks a good line for younger and older viewers alike.

The writing and directing are less bombastic this season, which has helped its sensibility. Sure there are prat falls, but far fewer. And the scenery is only mildly chewed upon by the cast, and only on occasion. It is a fun run and suggests a stronger season to follow if they can stick to their creative guns and direction.

The Librarians

Strike

[3 stars]

The Robert Galbraith (better known as JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike detective series has enjoyed a good deal of notice in the UK, though less so in the US. It is an engaging series with likeable characters who have interesting quirks; just what you’d love in a BBC/HBO mystery.  And this adaptation is definitely worth some time investment thanks to some clever writing and even cleverer hand waving to avoid issues.

Led by Tom Burke (Musketeers) in the lead role with Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) as his second, the stories are complicated and entertaining all at once thanks to their interactions. There is also a nice path to grow both of their stories separately and together.

The series is launched with two tales, The three-part Cuckoo’s Calling, and the two-part The Silkworm. A third story, Career of Evil, has yet to be scheduled or released anywhere, but I am looking forward to see where the characters go. The initial mystery is nicely twisty and fun to follow as is the relationship of Strike and Robin. The second installment is an interesting concept but, frankly, very hard to follow. Compressing the complicated mystery with so many characters into two episodes did it no favors. However, it is really about the solidifying of the detective agency dynamic, and that takes the fore.

Police procedurals are always tempting to write, but a bear to get correct. Anything that is off in terms of evidence gathering, interviewing, court room process, or even jailhouse interaction can blow the credibility out of the water. Making the lead a PI rather than a cop (though he is an ex-cop, and ex-military) was a smart move by Rowling and provides a lot more leeway in action and story. Strike is entertaining and reasonably credible with characters you’ll want to learn more about and root for.

Strike Poster

The End of the F***ing World

[3.5 stars]

Evil, evil fun (with a point) in the vein of Skins meets Misfits meets Perks of Being a Wallflower. It even brought to mind God Bless America and not a small dash of Bonnie & Clyde, though this takes place in England. I hate trying to describe things by comparing it to other offerings, but sometimes it is the best way to get across a sense of what a non-traditional or surprising bit of media is like. And, boy, is this surprising.

Jessica Barden (Penny Dreadful) and Alex Lawther (A Brilliant Young Mind) create compelling teens struggling through the hell of adolescence by creating strong facades. We get to hear their inner voices as well as watch their actions, which adds to both the pain and the humor. Let’s face it, there isn’t a person who survived into adulthood who hasn’t lived through at least a moment of that kind of duality. Their journey, while alternately absurdist and hyper-realistic, will resonate with most people if they can get past the violence of it all. 

Wunmi Mosaku (Fearless) and Gemma Whelan (queers.) are the officers in pursuit of these hapless teens. Mosaku is starting to get type-cast a bit in her cop roles, but Whelan got to try out some new moves and layers. This isn’t a police procedural or typical UK suspense. The relationship between these two characters is reflective of the kids they’re after, directly in their relationship to one another and indirectly as a representation of the “world that is against them.”

Better known as an actress in shows such as Marcella and Cucumber, writer Charlie Covell tackled the adaptation of Forsman’s graphic novel brutally and without flinching. It took some serious guts to even consider the tale and serious skill to sell it with the nod and wink she did; and she even manages a stark and effective conclusion.

The series itself is designed like the serial graphic novel that was its root. It is broken into 8 2-part shots, each shot about 10 min. It isn’t a long commitment, but it is a wild ride right up to the final unforgettable moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can ifnd it, this is definitely worth your time.

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The Child in Time

[2.5 stars]

I completely get why Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Kelley MacDonald (T2: Trainspotting) tackled these complex and subtle parents working through tragedy. They are a different take on an all-too-common theme, and they have a different path to travel than you’d expect. Likewise, their mirror couple in the piece, Stephen Campbell Moore (Burnt) and Saskia Reeves (ShetlandThe Worricker Trilogy) had their own acting challenges that were probably irresistible.

For the acting and the sense of honesty in the tale, I enjoyed the trip till near the end. Director Julian Farino (The Oranges) navigates a layered story that isn’t very obvious and does what he can with Stephen Butchard’s (Falcon) adaptation.

But there’s the rub. You can see the beauty of the original book behind this adaptation. The story, ideas, and language are all what you’d expect in an Ian McEwan story. The problem is that as a movie, it just doesn’t quite work. It ends up feeling a little wrong and cheap by the end, even though you can see the intent.

Overall, I don’t think it really works, or at least it didn’t for me. Perhaps if the rest of McEwan’s five book series is done it would come together, but that’s no reason to give this telemovie a break; it should stand on its own believably, and it misses for me at the conclusion.

Rellik

[3 stars]

We’ve all seen stories told in reverse before, but you’ve never seen anything quite like Rellik. It sustains the trope for 5 of the six episodes in its story (5 of the 6 hours) and keeps working its way backwards in varying increments to reveal the surprises. I still got well ahead of it, but that didn’t really matter because the reverse telling keeps you off balance. Your sense of narrative is totally mucked because you keep trying to think forward but are going backward. Honestly, it was a lot of work and probably drawn out too long. Still, it had quite the list of revelations to play with, though it certainly lost track of some folks as they became unimportant in the past (a flaw in the design since they become important again in the future).

The writers, who also created The Missing, played fast and loose with medical and police matters. But as a mystery and and a police suspense, it kept my attention despite any missteps.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the performances as, again, we watch them devolve rather than evolve. In particular, Richard Dormer (Fortitude) felt wrong going in this direction while Jodi Balfour (Primeval: New World) managed to stay in focus for me. Rosalind Eleazar also manages a rather interesting and creepy character for the run.

It isn’t a perfect mystery/suspense, but it is somewhat unique if you can deal with the effort. Sometimes “new” is enough. Certainly the gaps weren’t with the performers or director. Any weak choices for me came from the script, especially the forced denoument of discovering the killer’s identity with such hand-wavy tech that I actually threw insults at the screen and then got on with it. It certainly isn’t the first show to go with an easy answer because they watch too much CSI, and it won’t be the last. It wasn’t enough to spoil the trip which, in the end, is all that mattered.

Rellik

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

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Fall TV 2017: The New Stuff

OK, I can’t (and don’t want to) watch everything. But here are my initial impressions of the new crop of stuff after the first episode (or so). I’ll likely post what survived my schedule later this fall.

In no particular order:

The Orville
I expected to really dislike this show, but it continues to surprise me. For all its weakness (usually around its broad humor moments), it is trying to ride the line of satire and homage and doing it well. In many ways it is more Star Trek than the latest Trek offering, which makes the timing of this drama especially interesting in contrast to Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Discovery
The franchise had a middling opening on the script and acting front, but no worse than Next Generation’s launch. It’s easy to forget just how bad the first season of TNG was, but it was really pretty bad. It survived due the vacuum of similar shows and went on to become something rather good.

Discovery is burdened by a future we know, so it really will be the characters that sell this, not the plots, per se. So far, the characters aren’t particularly compelling..so much so that even the first two hours didn’t elicit from me a gasp. And the technology and creature anachronisms are frustrating.

You can see the Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods) influence on the bones of this show, but his exit and subsequent rework by Paramount is leaving it in an uncomfortable place. The energy is odd and the sensibility feels at war with itself. It may find its feet over the season, but I can’t say the pilot filled me with curiosity to come back for more the way The Orville did. And by the end of the third episode I was left wondering if they were trying to remake themselves in the image of Babylon 5 (even more so than DS9 did).

There is a big universe for Discovery to play with, though it feels like a lot more of the same. That can be good and bad. TNG and DS9 both expanded the Star Trek universe in different ways to differing success with the same underlying issue. But is it worth a separate subscription fee to see every week? Right now, I’m thinking not, though if it were on free broadcast I’d probably give it more time. We shall see how it develops.

Good Doctor
Weak start but with some stuff to build on. Unless the writing picks up, however, the story alone isn’t enough to hold it together or keep me coming back. Just too many medical gaffs and overwrought moments. It was good to see Antonia Thomas (Lovesick/Scrotal Recall) in a larger production to get her broader exposure. And, writing issues aside, while Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) has created an interesting character in the lead, Graham Verchere as his younger self just isn’t up to the task which is weakening the story.

Young Sheldon
Surprisingly engaging for a spin-off tale. Keeping the Sheldon we know as a bridge definitely helps, but the solid relationships and struggles of the family are also well done. While the young Sheldon is good, Raegan Revord as his twin sister and Zoe Perry (No Pay, Nudity), as his mother are the real stars of this sitcom so far.

Me, Myself, & I
Had to see this for the cast and the conceit. As it turns out, it was better than I anticipated, though not brilliant. The 30 minute format is very tight for 3 characters across time every week. Very frenetic to follow. The potential is there. It is up to the writers to make it work. So far, they are not impressing me.

Will & Grace
Seriously it is like there wasn’t a 10 year gap, which is bloody impressive. From the opening moments through to the end, the show still has its original, ephemeral magic. You either love or hate, but you can’t fault it for maintaining the magic.

Inhumans
An incredibly weak launch to a show that had huge potential and one of the longest set-ups (via the Marvel movies and Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D) I can ever recall. Even the solid talent, like Iwan Rheon (Residue, Game of Thrones) and Ken Leung (Lost, Star Wars: Force Awakens) couldn’t overcome an obvious, plodding, and ill conceived story. The world is incompletely thought through, the rules nebulous at best, and with a depth measured in millimeters. While I will give it another episode or so to see if it finds its feet, after the end of the double-episode launch, I was gnashing my teeth at the ‘surprise’ ending. If it is emblematic of the kind of scripts, and it appears it is, that are to come, it isn’t going to keep me in attendance. And I thought Iron Fist was going to be the nadir with the hope that it would serve as the TV division’s Iron Man 2; I wish I’d been right.

The Gifted
Another incredibly weak start for an action/adventure in a crowded and over-worked field. I’ll give anything with Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing) a shot, but this only gets one more before a decision is made. Just too serious and too much of the same, even if it is spawned from one of my more favorite branches of the X-Men universe.

10 Days in the Valley
While intense, this is a slow burn of a train wreck and tragedy. It is good to have Kyra Sedgwick (The Edge of Seventeen) back on screen, but not sure I’m looking for this kind of a character and story at this time. I do have some police procedural frustrations with the show, but I could get over them. Really the issue is timing.

9JKL
Great concept and some talent in the cast, including Linda Lavin, David Walton, and Liza Lapira. But the writing and directing are just awful. This one died on my list in the first episode. I didn’t even see any hope for it.

Kevin (Probably) Saves the World
I have to admit this one pulled it out at the very end for me…at least enough to give it a shot. It has that Joan of Arcadia feel to it, amusingly given Jason Ritter’s (Carrie Pilby) presence. It could quickly get tiresome, but they avoided some initial pitfalls. And I have to admit I enjoyed the heavy Amy Adams/Arrival vibe they gave the first episode. Still, it isn’t like we haven’t seen this story in the past (usually as horror) and their rules are squishy at best…either he is the only one or the other 35 meteorites anointed the rest of the gang and the rest is just for comedy. Will give it another round to see where it goes, but it will need to step up its game to keep me.

Ghosted
So this is The Orville of X-Files. It was just good enough in its launch to get another shot, but it only made it the first 15 minutes of the second. It just isn’t written well enough nor are the main characters all that engaging for me. I imagine it will find an audience out there, but it may not be enough to survive.

Wisdom of the Crowd
Probably the most attuned to the sense of the day and with a great conceit. Admittedly, it is a bit forced and it dances around the law quite a bit. But for all its weaknesses in credibility, it is terrifyingly willing to tackle some real social issues and technology. In addition to Jeremy Piven (Mr Selfridge) we also get Natalia Tena (Game of Thrones) to help drive it forward and both have some good chops to do so.

The Orville vs. Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek is a cultural institution, pretty much world-wide. Now, after a multiple year gap of all things Trek on the small and large screens, we are suddenly being handed two very different options in what has grown from a property to a genre in itself.

The Orville, brainchild of Seth McFarlane (Ted, Million Ways to Die in the West, Family Guy), takes the formula we’ve known for decades and gives it a hard look with both a jaundiced eye and a big hug. It is neither fish nor fowl, approaching the world it has created as satire, but tackling real storylines at the same time.

If I had any doubts about whether Orville could find its footing, its third episode, “About a Girl,” proved they were serious about their television mission. Bringing Brannon Braga, main helmer (and some think destroyer) of Trek since Next Generation, on to direct indicated that as well. The melding of the two men’s sensibilities brings an uncomfortable detente to the series, but one that somehow works. It allows us to laugh at the absurd seriousness of the situations and still enjoy and invest in them.

Discovery, on the other hand, takes a different approach. When it was original conceived with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods, Pushing Daisies, WonderfallsDead Like Me) at the helm, I was excited (despite the CBS All Access plan). Fuller had the potential to bring a level of dark reality to a franchise he had written for in the past, but which had drifted to become a bit too mainstream, too predictable, and without a  lot of teeth.

But somewhere along the development process, Fuller exited and the studio took over. Honestly, I’ve not dug into the what and whys, I just didn’t care enough. When Fuller left I was pretty sure the series would devolve back into its rut. Fuller likes living on a knife edge of sensibility. He has created, wrote, and run some of the best television out there, all of which got cancelled before their time but which became instant cult favorites. And Hannibal may even be resurrected.

Discovery is burdened by the very fabric in inhabits. 50+ years of history drape and inform it. But what has always made Trek work wasn’t the stories, it was the characters. Discovery doesn’t really have that chemistry at its outset. I don’t see or feel it either from the main individuals (except for the blue guy) or between these people who have supposedly served together for years. The first double-episode should have felt solid and shocking. Instead it had me in a wait-and-see sensibility.

To be fair, not all shows can be hits out of the gate. But I am more impressed with The Orville for feeling like it has its act together with no history to back it than I am with Discovery, who has a known property and a solid universe to build from. Discovery, especially because of its subscription wall, has to hit it out of the park to keep me around. I don’t see that happening at the moment… and I have suffered through every other Trek series to the bitter end on both principle and doggedness. We’ll see if my sense of completeness insists on my attendance going forward.

The Orville 

Cleverman (Series 1 & 2)

[3 stars]

If it weren’t for the politics and events of the last 8 months or so, Cleverman would just be a middling science fiction series discussing the endemic social schisms that exist today. Despite some good, as well as internationally recognizable talent such as Iain Glenn (Game of Thrones) and Frances O’Conner (The Missing), it is often ham-handed and rushed.

The first series was intriguing on a purely cultural level for me. Out of Australia, this show uses the aboriginal myths and template to posit a recently discovered race of long-lived, powerful hominids that have co-existed with humans. All manner of racism and fear ensue (and a lot of really, really bad wigs). But by crossing the idea with aspects of The Dreaming, other metaphysical concepts, and some truly screwed up families, you got enough to keep you watching the journey of the main character played by Hunter Page-Lochard (The Sapphires). It built to an inevitable crescendo of violence that ensured you’d watch the next series.

Series 2 improved a little in its subtleties and information. We get to understand more…and cringe more. The family drama continues to compound and the relatively unknown Rob Collins tries to bring credibility to a ridiculously overwrought story-line. With only six episodes again this series, the writers were forced to rush their ending and left us hanging in rather frustrating, if again intriguing, ways. I (think) I know how they write themselves out of the final moments, but I’ve no clue where they are going to take it from there that won’t make the series more Planet of the Apes than, say, Gattaca.

Generally, Cleverman isn’t a great series, but it is probably different enough, and short enough in episodes, to keep you hooked. Given the improvements from the first series to the second, I’m hoping that a final or continuing series will continue to build on lessons learned.

Cleverman