Category Archives: TV Review

Stargate Origins: Catherine

[2 stars]

Stargate was a fun and long-running show. Even its spin-offs managed to be entertaining, if not long-lasting. They never quite found the chemistry of the first show again, try as they might. So, when it ended, there was a sense of relief (much like when Enterprise finally died).

But studios are loathe to give up properties they think they can milk, and so Origins was born as a way to sell one of the first digital streaming services. This movie is a compilation of the that one-season attempt of 10-ish minute episodes. It is…well, not very good.

The story picks up a well known storyline from the original series and movie, and shoe-horns in a tale that, by the skin of their teeth and with obvious tricks, manages not to entirely blow up canon. But the acting is cardboard at best. The story is forced and retreads a lot of different aspects of the shows that came before. It is far from satisfying on its own, and leaves little sense of how they could build on the story. Especially true given how many of the holes have already been filled through our time-travelling and flashback buddies over the years in the previous series.

What is clear is that the brains and abilities that provided over a decade and three series of shows were nowhere to be seen. The look is similar and the background established, but the talent is a gaping void. In other words, the only reason to torture yourself with this movie is a sense of complete-ism. Expect to grit your teeth a lot and to feel you haven’t learned much of anything new or, for that matter, of value to the original series.

Stargate Origins: Catherine

Star Trek: Discovery vs Orville (Round 2)

[3 stars]

It is really impossible to talk about either of these shows without referencing the other. They are both reactions to the previous decades of Trek and are being run by competing ex-Trek production staff with (clearly) different visions. Their first seasons established unique directions and sensibilities from what we knew as Trek and from each other. However, both Discovery and Orville somewhat lost their way in their second series. Oddly, while at opposite ends of the spectrum (dark action vs satire), they both moved more centrist. In doing so, they both lost their edge and uniqueness but never quite gained the chops to carry off their more standard action/adventure sf intentions. And what makes them even more comparable again is that they tackled similar uber-arcs to their seasons, which I won’t discuss, but certainly stood out for me.

Let’s start with the official franchise. Discovery has drifted slowly and deliberately from its very bleak prequel universe. That darkness had really set it apart from previous series and allowed for some good characters, all of whom have now become somewhat bland. Worse, the move for the series was from a female dominated to a male dominated one; very disappointing. Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) is still the focus of stories, but she has taken a backseat to new arrival Anson Mount’s (Inhumans) Pike and other men on board rather than being the main driver of the action and plots. Her Vulcan-ness has likewise diminished, though I can see an argument for that choice. There was a drive for the first several episodes to inject wry humor to balance the sturm und drang, but it was often tossed off and felt forced, or simply got lost amidst more important information. Eventually, they just gave up. Basically, it has become more standard Trek and less something unique. In fact, in some ways this season as a whole could simply be titled The Search for Spock.

I have to admit, I had trouble letting go of the dark roots of Discovery’s first season’s going into the next iteration. And make no mistake, season two  is a whole different animal. In some ways I love the tight banter and wry humor, even if the audio mix often made it challenging to hear clearly. I like that they didn’t just forget season one, but grew on it, even though they remade the show entirely and left a lot of what made it something new, something not standard Trek, behind. Bryan Fuller’s vision for Discovery was refreshing for me. Even if he didn’t get to see it through, you could feel him in the bones of season one.

And then there was the season finale, which was unforgivable. Loaded with, and led to by, stupid choices and bad writing. It also had a critical element only from the Short Treks, which I’d not seen. The frustration is that if you’re going to make something an integral element of the season, it should be part of the season. Otherwise, it is fine to have nods and gifts from the other material (SHEILD and others have done this), but nothing core as not everyone would have the information necessary.

I will grant that the scope of the season, in terms of the overall plot and ongoing arcs, was impressive and gripping. It managed to be somewhat episodic and still have a much larger story pulling it along. But as a rehash of Enterprise’s failed attempt at the same idea it is full of the same kinds of plot holes and issues. It also took a stab at the now standard trope of revisiting the original series that began with the Tribbles episode in DS9; but they didn’t manage it effectively or with any real emotional weight.

But worse, depending on how they resolve the finale in the next season, the reset of the universe was more than a little cheap and frustrating (both in choice and method). I don’t quite know how they follow up this season in a satisfying way…but they have succeeded in bringing what was a brave new show back to the well-trod Trek center, and making it a lot less interesting.

The Orville has swung in from the opposite direction, trying to become more Trek and less satire of that genre. It essentially gave up what made it unique and left us with middling writing and lackluster plots for most of the season. However, a lot of that middling slog was worth it to get to Menosky’s Sanctuary, which picks up the Moclan tale from season one (Ja’loja) in earnest. It is loaded with guest stars and great moments and hits the exact balance of honest and satire that made the first season so much fun. It is also one of the few MacFarlane didn’t write this Sophomore season.

The final few episodes of the Orville season redeem it…right up through the finale. I am hoping that it indicates a recognition of where they drifted from their mission and that they will return renewed and refocused. Orville may never have been great, but it was entertaining and a good escape. Sure it catered to the geek crowd, especially in its humor, but it had potential. Making the Trek-like universe something a bit more realistic instead of aspirational in its society is not only a rising trend in the written genre, but a hunger in the audience who are tired of the sanitized worlds that had been on offer for decades.

Yes, I will be back for both of these shows, assuming both are back. Only Discovery is officially renewed as of this writing. There is potential in both and both shows have a willingness to take chances and change. I just hope they learned the right lessons from this past year.

Fosse/Verdon

[3 stars]

I usually wait for a series to complete before writing it up. But watching the initial episode of Fosse/Verdon I was struck by a couple of aspects immediately that brought me to post.

First, if you really want to see the genius that was Fosse, see All That Jazz. The infamous movie covers many of the same questions and issues (not to mention scenes), but presents it much better. And, as meta to the whole thing, Fosse directed which gives you a real example of what a great editor Fosse was in pulling that film together.

Second, was that Michelle Williams (Venom) makes a very credible Gwen Verdon, much more so than Sam Rockwell (Vice) does Fosse. Rockwell has none of the charisma nor physicality that was Fosse, he just comes across as sweaty and slimy. Williams, on the other hand, had Verdon’s look, sound, and movement down beautifully. The story also gives Verdon her due for her own genius and contributions to what we think of as Fosse alone in the general public history.

But the bigger question is why do we need this series when there are hours and hours of archival footage, as well as some of the principals still being alive? I imagine you could argue that this was intended as a dramatization to help us see more, but the drama isn’t that gripping and the ‘impersonators’ aren’t that good…but, then again, we are still seeing some of these people walking around, so why try to imitate them. Why not wait another 10 or 20 years when a retrospective look as a drama may be less haunted by the present?

Admittedly, it is early in the series, and perhaps I know more than the average or intended viewer about this power couple that helped set the template for modern musicals. But, generally, the audience for this story is going to be older by virtue of the subject…and Fosse and Verdon aren’t history to them, they’re a part of their lives. Creators and writers Thomas Kail and  Steven Levenson certainly have a love for the subject, but they aren’t up to the task of emulating Fosse or Verdon in pulling together this story. Frankly, it is best seen as an appetizer to digging into the opus of both those artists rather than as an end unto itself. And, perhaps, that makes it valuable to a new generation of viewers who weren’t aware of these two Broadway and film greats.

I’ll be giving it an other episode or so to see if they can pull me in, but my first impressions aren’t overly enthusiastic, even if they aren’t completely negative.

 

Pose

[4 stars]

What makes Pose brilliant isn’t it’s use of transgendered actors (been done before in Transparent, Boy Meets Girl, Orange is the New Black, etc). It isn’t the exposè style of the Balls (been shown before in Paris is Burning and Saturday Church, and elsewhere). It isn’t even the heart-felt tales of the characters (we’ve seen a lot of these kinds of tales before).

No, the genius of Pose is that it treats its characters as normal; that you cannot help but see them as they see themselves, especially the women. In particular Mj Rodriguez  and Indya Moore, from Saturday Church, and Dominique Jackson whose stories dominate the eight episodes. But there are rooms-full of these incredible women struggling for recognition, in every way you can define that.

But it isn’t just about the women. Billy Porter (American Horror Story) brings an energy as MC to the Balls and to the series. He navigates his own complicated tale and manages to draw on his wide variety of talents. Newcomer Ryan Jamaal Swain delivers a sweet and vibrant ball of hope to story while his dance teacher, Charlayne Woodard (Glass), provides some additional outside perspective.

The other contributing factor to the genius of Pose is that it also manages to bring the late-80s period piece into current political and cultural relevance with the parallel storylines of Evan Peters (American Animals), Kate Mara (Morgan), and James Van Der Beek (Downsizing). The reflections and tangling of the two worlds offers surprises and insights as well as a few dark laughs.

Ryan Murphy’s breadth of genre and his ability to make them each so personal, be it high school, horror, or history, continues to surprise and find success. Pose isn’t perfect. It is a tad arch, which isn’t surprising, and some of the actors are natural, but a little untried. But the overall impact and journey is surprisingly effective and avoids feeling exploitative or in any way disingenuous.

New and Continuing Foreign Series

Baptiste
At the core of The Missing was the calming and obsessive Detective Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. He was never the focus, but was the uniting factor of the series, and in many ways one of the more interesting characters. Well, now he has his own series. With the story solely on him, it is a bit lower energy but just as dark. Tom Hollander (A Private War) adds an interesting counterpoint, and a very complex character to the mix. And Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) provides a suitably evil opponent for both. There are some strong women in this series, and some damaged ones [Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Space and Time), Anastasia Hille (Tulip Fever), Barbara Sarafian, Talisa Garcia] but it is driven by the male characters.

There is a nice mix of mystery and suspense, though Karyo’s Baptiste seems to get to move with near impunity through the legal system of more than one country. But the show also continues the threads of his home life and past, which expands on what we know in interesting ways. Whether this show can be sustained over more than this limited story, I’m not sure. Karyo isn’t young and the character himself is winding down in his abilities as part of the plot. And the end of this clever and twisty six-parter was a bit rushed and, in some ways, forced. To their credit, it is satisfying and allows it to feel complete without closing the door to further stories.

Shakespeare and Hathaway (series 2)
The first series of this silly series was amusing…even more so if you know the plays of the Bard…but the mysteries were never brilliant. This second round is still fun, but the writing is much more hit and miss. In fact, the first half is painful at times, but they finally find their footing about episode 5. The main issue is more around police procedural and willfully stupid choices by characters. But this isn’t necessarily a show you want to over-analyze anyway. If you liked the first series, the second will happily distract you. If they can get more consistent writing, it has a chance for a long and amusing life.

Trapped (series 2)
The second series of Trapped takes on immigration and hate crimes on top of the delicate politics of country and family that the first series tackled. It picks up some time later from the first go-round, with some significant changes and some continuing tropes and battles. The mystery gets off to an immediate start and spins out from there intriguingly playing in the overlap between the far right and environmentalism. While the first series traps its characters literally, this series a more psychological reading of that title. Many first series characters recur and their storylines and tensions continue. The story itself unfolds very slowly, constantly going in new directions until the full tale is revealed and resolved.

Endeavour (series 6)
The latest 4 installments of Endeavour are coming back around to establishing the quirks and mannerisms of Shaun Evans’ (The Scandalous Lady W) titular detective. The last couple sequences laid some groundwork, but it was all inferred rather than direct. One of the things that made the first two series so great was watching Morse being born. This sequence really sets the stage for the relationship with Sean Rigby’s DS Strange and James Bradshaw’s  Dr. DeBryn, as well as tackling some challenges with Roger Allam’s (The Hippopotamus) DI Thursday and Anton Lesser’s CSI Bright.

There are still a few years to go before the series hits the wall it cannot pass (overlap with the original series and the elevation of Morse to DCI in the 80s). With the next series, they launch into the 70s… but they could continue there for years at a paltry four episodes a go, which either means great news for lovers of the show or danger of spinning wheels and driving it into a hopeless rut. Given how carefully Russell Lewis has tended to Colin Dexter’s characters and has conspired to give us this early slice of Morse, I’m hopeful he can sustain the effort.

Shetland (series 5)
Shetland continues its travels with its characters and its dark mysteries across harsh landscapes. And, if its been a while since your last visit it may take a bit to get your footing with the characters and their relationships. Douglas Henshall’s (Collision) dark but seethingly emotional detective remains at the center of the mismatched family on the tiny and battered island. Mark Bonnar (Line of Duty), Steven Robertson (Luther),  and Alison O’Donnell remain core to the story with him and to each other. In many ways, this is one of their best crafted seasons; it has a complex mystery with many switchbacks and character growth in parallel over the six episodes. Not that previous series weren’t equally complex, but this one felt the most evenly put together. Interestingly, series 5 is also journeying along similar ground as Baptiste and Trapped, taking on human trafficking as a core issue.

Maniac

[4 stars]

Yeah, I’m a bit late on this one. I started to watch it early and, frankly, while it had caught me, I wasn’t driven to get back to it too quickly. I am, however, glad I went back.

With Emma Stone (The Favourite) and Jonah Hill (True Story) driving the tale, and Justin Theroux (On the Basis of Sex), Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), and Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians) supporting it, there is some serious talent brought to bear. That talent saves the series, selling the odd and weird with commitment and nuance. Because despite all the clever aspects to the story and presentation, it really is a tortured and overly drawn-out metaphor, however entertaining.

Ultimately Maniac is an intriguing look at love, life, and schizophrenia, helping to make it one of the oddest love stories ever devised. Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Patrick Somerville delivered a series that is, at turns, intriguing and amusing…and ultimately affecting.

Grantchester (Series 4)

[3.5 stars]

The first three series of this entertaining mystery show twisted emotionally around the heartache and confusions of the vicar of the titular town, James Norton’s (Flatliners) Sidney. Series four goes about remaking the show with a fascinating transition. And much like the recent Father Brown sequence, it is also bringing in more of the current world in reflection.

What hasn’t changed is the mysteries solved by teaming up with Robson Green’s (Being Human) Geordie. They are often violent, socially reflective, and interestingly twisted at times as they squeeze through a constabulary that wants things to be easy, even when they rarely are. But we also get some interesting side plots as threaded arcs through the series. While the lives of the others in the vicarage were always part of the tales, these are more pointed and very separate. Kacey Ainsworth finally gets a bit more of a life outside Geordie’s and Tessa Peake-Jones gets to settle into the marriage from the previous series while retaining her connection running the household. And Al Weaver (Colette) expands on his delicate and tragic course.

New additions are the main engines for the changes that take place. Most notably, Tom Brittney (Humans) who brings an equally committed and conflicted sense of religion and life to the show. In many ways his energy is much more welcome as it is more vibrant and less maudlin than Sidney’s character.

The series itself has a very complicated but controlled arc over its six episodes. Watching it all being torn apart and put back together, while getting some good stories to carry it along, is really quite entertaining. If you haven’t found Grantchester yet, start at the beginning as otherwise much of this latest series will be lost on you. If you have been enjoying it up till now, be assured the story continues to grow and satisfy, even as all the characters are forced through reckonings and realizations.

Umbrella Academy

[4 stars]

What a wonderfully weird and dark world. There are enough twists and turns amid the obvious and predictable to keep the inaugural 10 episodes of this series gripping. The production rides the line of comic book and real life beautifully, crossing back and forth between the natural and the absurd.

The ensemble is varied and impressive, much like the Academy was meant to be. And they all commit and deliver at every step, with their (eventually revealed) back-stories supporting their choices nicely. The core group is primarily lesser known talent with Tom Hopper (I Feel Pretty), David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Robert Sheehan (Mortal Engines) each having some great stories to tell. And then there’s Ellen Page (Flatliners) in a truly challenging role, who does well, but she is the least credible for me. Page delivers, but a lot will depend on the anticipated second season as to whether I fully buy into her choices. However, if there is anyone who really gets to dominate this series it is Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, who graduates from Nickelodeon to adult fare. Coming across believably as a 50-something year old man in a 15 year old’s body isn’t easy at the best of times, but Gallagher has an amazing energy and ability to pull it off.

The world of Umbrella Academy is much larger than its homebase. Kate Walsh (13 Reasons Why), Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes), Cameron Britton (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Godley (A Young Doctor’s Notebook), Colm Feore (Anon), John Magaro (Overlord), and stalwart Sheila McCarthy fill out the story and world with a mountain of award-winning talent, giving the show many levels and perspectives to latch onto.

Umbrella is first and foremost a comic adventure. Expect extremes and complexities. Expect the unexpected and the genuinely obvious. But mostly expect to be entertained and to have a rollicking good adventure that will have you trying to put the pieces together till the end. This sits in temperament somewhere between the Marvel and DC universes, delivering humor but also the gravitas and the dark. Think of it as a twisted, dark X-Men sequence by way of St. Trinian’s. It even echos a lot of the sensibility of Utopia (which is also being remade for US television). I had a great time with the result and, if you like these kinds of stories, you will too.

[And then there was this clever bit of launch event on Netflix’s part: https://deadline.com/2019/02/umbrella-academy-reigns-over-nyc-fans-wedding-with-times-square-parade-1202562593/]

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.

The ABC Murders

[3 stars]

I have to give writer Sarah Phelps credit. After successfully tackling several of Agatha Christie’s other works (Ordeal by Innocence, Witness for the Prosecution, And Then There Were None) taking on Poirot took guts. It was a fool’s errand, but guts nonetheless.

The problem is that unlike Marple or Christie’s stand-alones, we know all of Poirot’s life; Christie made sure of that. So remaking the story of such a beloved character is dicey at best.

John Malkovich (Bird Box) tries to tackle Poirot with energy, but he is no David Suchet, nor does he have the accent or the mannerisms to pull off the little Belgian. At least Branagh’s recent attempt was much more palatable in Murder on the Orient Express. Malkovich’s credibility wasn’t helped by resetting the story later in Poirot’s life, and veering off the known path. The push and pull between he and Rupert Grint (Moonwalkers) just feels all wrong, not unbelievable, just wrong for the character.

Eamon Farren (Winchester), as the main focus for the deeds, delivers a delightfully creepy and broken man. Along with Andrew Buchan (Broadchurch), Shirley Henderson (T2: Trainspotting), Anya Chalotra (Wanderlust), and Freya Mavor (Skins) the world is filled out with interesting characters and clues. All of this helps sell an otherwise foolhardy adaptation.

If this weren’t Poirot, it would have been an interesting and fun story. Phelps can write and understands the sense of Christie while being able to update them enough for today’s sensibilities. But, in this case, with the weight of expectations about Poirot around its neck, it simply keeps clunking. If you can keep the spectre of what you know about Poirot out of your mind, this is definitely worth your time. If you’re hoping for a new Christie adaptation that can launch a revival, go elsewhere for now, you’ll simply be disappointed.