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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Rescue 9-1-1

Article first published as TV Review: 9-1-1 on Seat42F.


Before watching, one can be forgiven for dismissing the new FOX series, 9-1-1, as a typical procedural. After all, it stars firemen, police women, and EMTs, and the people they help don’t carry over from week to week. But there is a lot more to it than that, even if it’s hard to define exactly what the quality is that it exudes. Let’s try to break it down, shall we?
First, there’re the brains behind 9-1-1: Ryan Murphy, Brad Fulchuk, and Tim Minear. These guys are known for a variety of high-quality cable shows in recent years, most notably American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Feud. Given those credits, it’s hard to believe they would deliver anything at all close to a run-of-the-mill, case-of-the-week series. And they do not.
The next clue that this will be better than usual are the actors who signed up. Angela Bassett (American Horror Story, Olympus Has Fallen) is Athena Grant, the main police person we see in the cast. Peter Krause (Parenthood) is Bobby Nash, the fire captain. Kenneth Choi (Sons of Anarchy, Last Man on Earth), Aisha Hinds (Underground, Dollhouse), and Oliver Stark (Into the Badlands) all play characters who work for Bobby. Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, Nashville) is a 9-1-1 operator named Abby Clark serving as go-between for all of these people, making it a rounded series. While it’s true that none of them have spotless resumes, to have so many great performers in one series says something.
The premise itself does feel a bit formulaic when described. In the pilot alone, the characters respond to several calls for help, and deal with the issues. One of the ensemble gets in trouble at work for acting inappropriately, one is a recovering alcoholic, and Athena is dealing with marital issues with husband Michael (Rockmond Dunbar, Prison Break). None of these things sound like they belong to a new, promising show.
However, there is something more to 9-1-1 that transcends the formula. It’s an ineffable element that is hard to define completely. The best way I can describe it is that there is an urgency, a pacing and tone, that belongs on a high-quality cable show, and feels very out of place on a broadcast network. No scene comes across as cheesy, everything is done with sincerity, and when paired with the performing talent, it rises above the sum of its parts.
The primary thing I can say is that numerous bits of the pilot moved me deep in my gut. I welled up, but not in the way This Is Us makes me. I experienced adrenaline rushes, but not as I do when watching 24. I was scared, but not like a bad slasher flick evokes. I really felt the emotions the characters were feeling, and I have to say, that is quite a feat to do in an hour procedural, let alone multiple times. Maybe it was the mood I was in, but having just reviewed a terrible show right before it, I don’t think so.
Some will dismiss this assertion and find it ridiculous. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I’ve already seen some negative reviews of 9-1-1. But I loathe crime procedurals and watch far too much TV to think I haven’t become desensitized. What I can tell you is that this one feels different. This one makes me eager to watch more. It might be the best show FOX has aired in years, and I don’t think that’s making a questionable boast. This is what a procedural should be, the best of its genre.
9-1-1 airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on FOX.

Friday, January 5, 2018

GROWN-ISH Immature

Article first published as TV Review: GROWN-ISH on Seat42F.


GROWN-ISH, a spin-off of the hit ABC sitcom Black-ish, premieres this week on Freeform. Centering around Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) as she goes off to college, the series seeks to show a unique, yet familiar, point of view in the way that Black-ish does, albeit for a different demographic. It also looks to continue to be closely connected to the mother show.

Besides Zoey, who fans of Black-ish are already very familiar with, we are quickly introduced to the rest of the ensemble. There’s Nomi (Emily Arlook, Shitty Boyfriends), a closeted bisexual. Aaron (Trevor Jackson, American Crime) is super woke. Vivek (Jordan Buhrat) is far too obsessed with wealth. Luca (Luka Sabbat) is very fashionable. Sky and Jazz (R&B duo Chloe x Halle) aren’t as perfect as they pretend to be. It’s a more diverse, modern Breakfast Club, which Grown-ish goes to great pains to point out.

Many pilots go through meeting the various leads in hokey ways, bringing the main characters together in a single half hour through less than realistic means. Grown-ish sort of avoids that cliché by introducing Zoey to a new group of friends all at once, who happen to be in the same class as her, which makes sense.

However, Grown-ish still seems to feel the need to toss in the hokey circumstances. It details how each student ends up in a less-than-ideal midnight marketing class through zany sequences that prevent them from getting to the registrar in time. Thus, while avoiding the awkward setup initially, through flashback, it falls back into that familiar trap.

This is far from the only thing Grown-ish does wrong. The pacing is constantly interrupted by extended freeze frames, often with hashtags attached. The narration provided by Zoey is overacted and cheesy. Including fellow Black-ish character Charlie Telphy (Deon Cole) is a huge stretch that feels inauthentic. Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live, Suburgatory) once again shows up as a goofy, out-of-touch authority figure; I love Parnell, but enough with this type for him, or characters on TV in general. A lot of the plot feels stilted and as predictable as it is uninteresting.

There are promising bits, though. The pilot has an important lesson to teach involving fellow student Ana (Francia Raisa, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), and it eventually does get around to it. It may be slightly preachy, but it’s something kids should see. There is a well-defined point-of-view from not just Zoey, but the other characters, too. The basic premise is relatable and has legs for at least a little while. Some plot twists keep things interesting. The backgrounds of some of the characters aren’t nearly as sanitized as one would expect from Freeform, the show being OK with flaunting illegality to serve realism.

I also like that Grown-ish seems determined to stay connected to Black-ish, keeping the world together. A brief cameo from Andrew (Anthony Anderson) promises more to come, which makes sense for a father-daughter relationship, especially when the college is geographically close to their home. Shahidi is supposedly still going to be recurring on the original. And Cole is apparently doing double-duty, starring in both shows at once.

But overall, I did not find the Grown-ish pilot very watchable. Sure, there are some good elements, and if they are developed further, focusing on those rather than other bits, there could be a decent show here. But the essential structure itself just doesn’t feel very well done, and some choices to inject off-tone humor distract from the cohesiveness of other threads. It might be moderately successful on the Freeform network, but I can’t see it really hitting a broad audience, or even bringing along much of the Black-ish following.

Grown-ish airs this Wednesday, January 3rd, on Freeform.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Wear THE CROWN Again

Article first published as TV Review: THE CROWN Season 2 on Seat42F.


Netflix’s THE CROWN has returned for a second season. The series follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the latest batch of episodes focuses on the mid-1950s into the 1960s. This will be the last season with the original cast, as the producers have said they will be switching performers every two seasons (which cover roughly twenty years of time). In general, season two seems to have mostly maintained the good quality of season one.

Picking up near where last year left off, things have gotten more complicated for Elizabeth (Claire Foy) in both the personal and professional realms. Concerning the latter, she no longer has Winston Churchil (John Lithgow) to rely on. Difficult as he could be, the new prime minister, Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), doesn’t have the same wisdom or competence. This almost immediately puts Elizabeth in a complicated place as tensions erupt in Egypt.

At the same time, Elizabeth fears her husband, Philip (Matt Smith), may be cheating on her. This is not helped at all by his louse of an assistant, Mike (Daniel Ings). Their relationship has been rocky ever since she was made queen, but this concern is new. In the first hour of season two alone, we see Elizabeth and Philip at their highest and their lowest points, as they continue to try to figure out how her official role fits into their marriage.

While I like seeing the contrast, I am going to take a moment to complain about the opening scene of season two, which takes place five months after the rest of the hour. It has become a far-too-common crutch for television shows to do a flash forward to try to hook the viewers before jumping back to the more ‘mundane’ parts of the story. It’s especially bad here because I feel the narrative would be far more powerful if we saw Elizabeth start on a high note and watched things fall apart, rather than knowing with certainty (for those not super familiar with her history) where it’s going before it takes a turn.

But that is my only real gripe about what I’ve seen so far of season two. Yes, there’s a bit of a hole without Lithgow’s constant presence. However, at this point viewers should be suitably invested in Elizabeth, Philip, and Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) enough that the story remains compelling. With terrific performances and wonderful sets, props, and costumes, it’s still a very impressive production.

I am most intrigued by what role Dickie, also known as Lord Mountbatten (Greg Wise), may play in this season. The first year found him often an antagonist, though not a particularly diabolical one, while the premiere of season two already casts him in a more positive light. Complex characters like Dickie, and ones who aren’t as famous as Elizabeth and Churchill, provide a good hook to the drama.

There is a fair amount of speculation as to how accurate THE CROWN is. While the major sweeps of plot can be fact-checked, this royal family is notoriously private, and it’s hard to know for sure if, for example, Philip really did cheat on Elizabeth. I feel THE CROWN handles this delicately, though, hinting when it isn’t sure, and leaving enough open to interpretation to avoid going too far off the rails, while still preserving the drama.

I very much enjoyed THE CROWN’s first season. While I’m not far into year two yet, I can tell I am going to enjoy this run, too. It’s a feat to bring history to life so vividly and interestingly, especially when the story revolves around characters who might not scream drama themselves. The raw, layered portrait painted manages to make for a fascinating series.

THE CROWN season two is available now on Netflix.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

KNIGHTFALLs Heavily

Article first published as TV Review: KNIGHTFALL on Seat42F.


ALERT: This article contains spoilers from the KNIGHTFALL pilot. It does not spoil anything beyond episode one.

History channel has a new drama called KNIGHTFALL. Following the Knights Templar in the 14th century, we see the titular group trying to recover the Holy Grail, which they lose when fleeing their stronghold. The action quickly picks up fifteen years after that event in Paris, in the final days of the Knights’ existence. What will they accomplish before they disappear from history, and will they recover their most holy of artifacts?

KNIGHTFALL reminds me a lot of Vikings, a sister series on the network. It focuses a lot of violence and brutality. There are slow-motion fight scenes with plenty of blood punctuated throughout the first hour, and presumably, each hour after. The political drama is secondary, though there is also focus on sex and personal relationships. Characters don’t age as much as they should. In those aspects, KNIGHTFALL tries to build upon Vikings’ success.

Another thing KNIGHTFALL has in common with Vikings is that it is set during an era and concerning a people whom very little is known about. There are rumors and myths mixed with fact, and a lot of gaps exist in the history books. This allows the show to take much creative license without worry of offending anyone or being challenged too much by those who study the era. Though, in my opinion, it does tarnish the authenticity of the network’s name.

KNIGHTFALL does not have a very recognizable cast, a rarity in a television show today, though not necessarily a bad thing. Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey) is the lead, Landry, and perhaps the most well-known face in the pilot. Landry has just been put in charge of the Knights as KNIGHTFALL gets under way, a strange decision since the previous leader didn’t exactly agree with much of what Landry urged him to do. But he is a typical Hero, so there’s no doubt he can guide the group through whatever is coming their way.

Of course, given that KNIGHTFALL is airing in this particular age, the Hero must be flawed, too. We soon find out that Landry has a lover, a big no-no for members of the group. Worse, his sex partner is none other than Queen Joan (Olivia Ross, War & Peace), whose husband, King Philip (Ed Stoppard, Upstairs Downstairs), trusts Landry. (This isn’t, by far, the only glaring mistake Philip makes. He is not a wise monarch.) So we have the added, forced drama implicit in such a triangle.

It’s decisions like these that keep KNIGHTFALL down. It chooses to follow worn-out plots and open easy doors to drama, rather than trying to build something special. It may well satisfy the audience History is going for, but it tends to take some of the weaker parts of Vikings and ignore the better ones, at least in the pilot (the only episode I’ve seen). This is not the recipe for a ground-breaking show, but it’s fine if you just want popcorn entertainment.

I will say, KNIGHTFALL looks pretty good. I don’t know how accurate it is, and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a Game of Thrones in sweeping vistas. But it’s pretty enough, foreign and dated, and the costumes are pretty cool. This will lend it some legitimacy to the casual viewer, and also means if the writers do find their groove later on, some of the ingredients are already in place for a superior recipe.

KNIGHTFALL isn’t terrible, it just isn’t great, and in this day and age, that’s a dangerous thing to be if it wants any critical attention or to compete for viewers outside of a narrow demographic. Which doesn’t mean it won’t do well if it finds the right audience.

KNIGHTFALL airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on History.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

THE MAN FROM EARTH Comes Home

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Man From Earth: Special Edition' on Blogcritics.

Ten years ago, The Man From Earth was released to the world. Not in theatres; the low-budget, indie film went straight to DVD. But with an excellent cast and cred for the writer, the movie went on to critical acclaim. It scored nominations, awards, and topped the list of Best Films in its genre. It was also, unfortunately, heavily pirated. Now, with an impending sequel, the original gets a remastered Special Edition release.

The Story

The story is a great thought experiment. Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith, CSI: Miami) is packing up to leave town unexpectedly. A group of his colleagues insist on having a going-away party. When he slips out, they follow him and demand an explanation for his attempted disappearance. John tells them he’s actually a 14,000-year-old caveman who moves along every ten years before people notice that he doesn’t age. Of course, no one believes him. But the more they try to poke holes in his story, while he can’t prove what he’s saying is true, they fail to disprove it, either.

The Man From Earth plays very much like a play. Almost all the action is on one set, taking place in a single day. The ensemble by and large all stay on camera for the duration, making it a dialogue-heavy conversation piece. There isn’t any action, per se, just an intense examination of the claim and the ramifications of such a thing, exploring both the practical and the historical. Given that the characters are college professors, the conversation is high-brow and intelligent, covering a wide variety of angles.

Sci-Fi Cred

This is about what one might expect from writer Jerome Bixby, who literally finished this story on his death bed. Jerome is best known for “It’s a Good Life,” a short story that was turned into a seminal episode of The Twilight Zone, and for writing multiple episodes of the original 1960s Star Trek series, most notably “Mirror, Mirror.” (Another Star Trek episode he wrote, “Requiem for Methuselah,” has parallels to this tale.)

The ensemble cast also has plenty of Star Trek cred in it. Among them are John Billingsley (a lead in Star Trek: Enterprise), Tony Todd (guest star in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and Star Trek: Voyager), and Richard Riehle (guest star in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise). Rounding out the cast are Ellen Crawford (ER), Annika Peterson (Tanner Hall), Alexis Thorpe (Days of Our Lives), and William Katt (Carrie). While not a highly recognizable troupe, these are all working actors who do a good job.

Ten Years Later

The Man From Earth holds up very well as a story. The plot is engrossing, the actors are natural, and there are enough surprises to make it worth it to pay attention. While it doesn’t answer every question that could be posed, it covers a lot of ground, and Bixby did a great job trying to anticipate what viewers would ask. I’m glad it’s getting a re-release to bring more attention to it.

But despite the expense spent on upgrading the film to HD (which it was not filmed in), I’m not sure the job was good enough to justify it. Sure, the original quality is soft and a bit blurry, but the new version is harsh and grainy. Watching the side-by-side comparison in the Blu-ray special features, I personally appreciated the original better. I’m not saying The Man From Earth couldn’t be made to look higher-quality, but I don’t think this release does it.

Extras

There are a wealth of bonus features on the Blu-ray. We get trailers for both the original movie and the upcoming sequel. There are two audio commentaries to choose from. There’s a very entertaining, very short film called “Contagion.” A few featurettes are interesting.

I am loathe to complain about a behind-the-scenes feature, as most are too short for my taste, but the one here is actually too long. Perhaps it would be better split into chunks, as it runs roughly the same length as the film. But I’m not sure that would help much, as there are a lot of unnecessary conversation in it. It’s cool to hear most of the cast, Bixby’s son, a producer, and director Richard Schenkman talk about the unique filming process and the piracy issues. However, there’s repetition and tangents that make it drag on. So for once, I have to say this one could use some editing down.

Conclusion

This is a great film, and I’m very glad to get to see it. It feels indie and low-budget, but that might be a plus for this particular story. The extras, despite my minor complaint that the main one could use some editing down, are plenty and mostly enjoyable. I recommend Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth, available now.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Blu-ray Review: 'The Vampire Diaries - The Complete Series'

Article first published as "Blu-ray Review: 'The Vampire Diaries - The Complete Series" on Blogcritics.

The CW, once a struggling also-ran broadcast channel, though still lower than its peers in the ratings, has established itself pretty firmly as a network this past decade or so. One of the series instrumental in building that brand was The Vampire Diaries. Throughout its eight years, it mixed soapy teen angst with a supernatural fun ride. These are the two primary genres that the CW has become known for. This melding of story is not unusual right now in pop culture, but rarely is it done as well as it is here. You can see what I mean as The Vampire Diaries – The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Love Triangle

The Vampire Diaries began as a love triangle between two brothers and a girl. Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) was the ‘good’ guy and the obvious choice. Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) was the brooding bad boy. The Salvatores were vampires, so of course they’d done horrible, murderous things. But Stefan was sorry for them, while Damon seemed completely unapologetic. Elena Gilbert’s (Nina Dobrev) choice was clear, right?

Of course not. As the series went on, layers of complexities were added to all three that muddy the waters. Sometimes it was predictable, the show firmly playing to tropes and familiar conceits. But other times, it found its own unique footing, and had some surprises. Over the course of eight years, the relationships between all three were explored in-depth, and romance was merely one facet of a messy grouping.

Fleshing Out the World

The Vampire Diaries wasn’t just about three people, though. Magic, witches, doppelgangers, family and local history, and werewolves were just some of the elements added as the program went on. Dobrev also played the role of Katherine Pierce, a vampire the Salvatore brothers had history with. Among the main cast members were Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham), whom found power within herself, Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino), who became a furry beast, and Alaric Saltzman (Matthew Davis), a teacher and historian.

Some of the characters seemed to be a stereotype, but went through major growth arcs. For instance, Caroline Forbes (Candice King) was just the pretty, popular girl at first. Then she hooked up with the wrong guy and became much more interesting. Matt Donovan (Zach Reorig) was the safe, nice guy who stayed away from the supernatural for the longest time, but eventually found his place in the crazy. Ancient, ‘original’ vampires like Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) seemed very mysterious at first, but eventually were fleshed out and went over to their own spin-off.

So The Vampire Diaries may have seemed relatively familiar in makeup at the start, but with the longevity of the series, it had the freedom to go quite a bit further, and it did.

The Blu-ray Release

All eight seasons are packaged in this latest set, on shelves just in time for the holidays. Inside the outer shell, a tasteful design featuring most of the show’s longest-serving leads, there are separate sets with the artwork used when first marketing each season, though the cases are uniform. The appearance is pleasing and looks like it was just put together.

Start opening them up, though, and it’s clear that the older releases were just boxed together. For example, season one contains an insert for The Secret Circle ‘Thursdays this fall.’ That was a short-lived series from many years ago. That in of itself isn’t much of an annoyance, but the fact that only two of the eight seasons contain codes for digital copies is. There are a plethora of bonus features, the same ones previously available, seemingly nothing new added for the incarnation.

The Verdict

The Vampire Diaries was an excellent show, this is a good looking set, and there’s a lot here. The episodes alone will keep you busy for months. Add the extra features, and you’ve got an extensive collection. The disappointing thing is that they didn’t include digital copies for all the seasons. And there is nothing new to make this set worth it if you already own most of the seasons. I do recommend getting The Vampire Diaries. But I only recommend The Complete Series if whatever seasons you don’t already own price at more than this package. Hopefully, one day we’ll get a more retrospective set; this one is just to complete your collection of episodes.

The Vampire DiariesThe Complete Series is available now.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Glutton For THE PUNISHER?

Article first published as TV Review: THE PUNISHER on Seat42F.


If you’d like to watch a Marvel television show, but are concerned that the mythology has become too dense with all the Netflix series, ABC programs, and films already out, THE PUNISHER is for you. Released on Netflix, and featuring characters and settings introduced in other series on the streaming service, it also stands completely on its own. It can be enjoyed without prior knowledge, which is a bit refreshing, a self-contained story that is intense and enticing.
As THE PUNISHER begins, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead) has completed his revenge mission. He has killed everyone involved with the death of his wife and children, his sole mission in life these past years. Six months later, he still hasn’t reengaged with the world, and avenging their tragedies hasn’t brought him peace. What will he do now?
Well, The Punisher as a character has a very clear focus: take down people who have done wrong, often in brutal, merciless ways. Even if his own personal journey is complete (something that may or may not actually be true), his talents can be put to use for other causes. And while Frank isn’t a team player that’s going to go sign up with a group of, say, Defenders, nor will he be embraced by law enforcement because of his methods. So solo vigilantism seems to be his best choice, and he certainly has opportunity to do so.
Like other Marvel shows on Netflix, THE PUNISHER begins slowly enough. We get Frank’s story first and foremost, but because there are thirteen hours to fill, we are introduced to a few other characters. David Liberman, a.k.a. Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Girls), has a similar story to Castle’s, though his wife (Jamie Ray Newman, Bates Motel) and children are still alive. Still, he’d like Frank’s help. At the same time, Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah, Indian Summers) has been called back from overseas as she sticks her nose in where it isn’t wanted. Her mission, assisted by black sheep agent Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson, The Knick), is sure to bring her into Frank’s orbit soon.
The Punisher is a tough character to do on screen because he likes to wall himself off so much. Sure, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, True Blood) and Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) may have made inroads that he tolerates, but Frank doesn’t surround himself with friends or family. And that’s a problem on a long-running story, forcing a very narrow focus. Only two episodes in myself, I don’t know if THE PUNISHER can sustain its momentum. But from what I’ve seen, I think it certainly has added enough to stay engaging as a show without ruining the core of who Frank Castle is.
I can’t say this is my favorite Marvel Netflix series so far; Jessica Jones and Luke Cage both had some strong takes on the world with important messages. But what I like about THE PUNISHER is that it truly is a character study on a unique individual, one far more violent than most of us would ever consider being, but who also is someone to root for, at least partially. With Bernthal doing a terrific job as the taciturn non-hero, I do greatly enjoy seeing the personality built in a complex, fully-formed way.
I like THE PUNISHER. I’m too early in the run to make any sweeping judgments on the series as a whole, but the first two hours show a lot of promise, and I definitely will commit to watching more. It’s already better than some of the other Netflix Marvel shows. And while I’m the type who like a bunch of shows tied together, I also dig that THE PUNISHER provides an alternate option, without abandoning the shared world altogether.
THE PUNISHER season one is available on Netflix now.

Friday, November 24, 2017

RUNAWAYs

Article first published as TV Review: RUNAWAYS at Seat42F.


The latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is RUNAWAYS, premiering this week on Hulu. Based on the Brian K. Vaughn (Saga) comic of the same name, and developed by Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl, Chuck), the show follows a group of high schoolers who, a long time ago, used to be friends. A tragic loss a year ago of one of the gang has split them apart. When they reunite one evening, witnessing their parents doing unspeakable evil brings them back together. But I’m definitely getting ahead of myself.

RUNAWAYS lacks any immediate connections to the rest of the MCU, film or television series. It is the first of several new series with young protagonists, and the first for the streaming service Hulu. Without name dropping any famous heroes, though, or perhaps because of it, RUNAWAYS carves out its own time and place. Even if a few of the adults act like villainous guest stars in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Like this review, RUNAWAYS takes its sweet time getting started. Over the first hour (actually, about fifty-three minutes), we are introduced to our six core teens: Alex (Rhenzy Feliz, Casual), Nico (Lyrica Okano, The Affair), Chase (Gregg Sulkin, Faking It), Karolina (Virginia Gardner, The Goldbergs), and sisters-by-adoption Molly (Allegra Acosta, 100 Things to Do Before High School) and Gert (Ariela Barer, Yo Gabba Gabba!). These peeps will have powers, but the show holds those close to its vest, instead just giving us peeks at each’s starting personality. Which we know will soon be changing because of circumstances.

At the same time, as Savage and Schwartz did in Gossip Girl, the action is balanced with the ten parents of these six teens. Although the grown-ups don’t get as much development, initially among the actors portraying them are familiar faces like James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Ever Carradine (The Handmaid’s Tale), Annie Wersching (24), Kevin Weisman (Alias), Angel Parker (Trial & Error), Ryan Sands (The Wire), and Brigid Brannagh (Army Wives). So there’s some cred here, especially in genre TV.

The thing is, though, with sixteen leads, not one of the characters is shown in any depth in the pilot. Nor is the plot really moved forward all that much, with the action not getting moving until the very end of episode one. Perhaps that is why Hulu is making three episodes available right away, before doling out the rest weekly. RUNAWAYS certainly needs more than a single installment to hook potential viewers.

I feel like I’m being a bit vague because so is this series. The deceased member of the group, Amy, is Nico’s sister, but that’s as deep as we get into her in the first hour. We know her passing has affected the kids, and to a lesser extent, or so it seems, their parents. But other than that, we don’t know much about the mystery. We don’t know how she died or why that has created a wedge among friends. We don’t know how this past event will play into the current story.

Honestly, the best scene in episode one is the one in which the parents meet shortly before their ceremony. In it, we see all their various personalities and how they clash. One wonders how the group came together at all, but clearly there is a shared, powerful purpose, a key element for groups of superheroes and supervillains in any decent series. If RUNAWAYS had more of this, I think it would be more compelling.

As it is, the show isn’t bad, just slow, and seemingly unnecessarily so. I applaud the writers and producers for not rushing into the central thread too quickly and making us learn about the characters afterwards, which has unfortunately been done too many times lately. But if we’re given fifty minutes to get to know our players first, delaying the jump into the premise comic book fans are already familiar with, let’s get to know them, which I don’t feel is done very effectively. Many of the earlier scenes don’t seem like they’ll pay off later.

Still, Marvel has a pretty solid track record, and this series looks to be well-made and well-cast, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for now. Even if episodes two and three don’t quite get things moving as rapidly as I’d like following the plodding pilot.

RUNAWAYS’ first three episodes are available on Hulu this Tuesday, with subsequent installments to follow weekly.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Welcome to WESTWORLD

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Westworld: Season One' on Blogcritics.

Westworld is, in my opinion, the best new show of 2016. Based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name, it’s a high-concept series about an advanced theme park populated by super sophisticated robots. But as in Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park, the creators of the place can’t control what they’ve built and things go very wrong. That is only the start of the story, which explores sentience, humanity, morality, perception, and so much more.

Why do I bring up this show now, a year after it aired? Because with season two scheduled for 2018 on HBO, Westworld: Season One: The Maze is available now on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital, just in time for the holidays.

The Story

It’s hard to talk about too much without giving away the brilliant twists, so I’ll only describe the setup in the broadest of terms. The characters in Westworld can be divided into three categories: the robots, the park workers, and the guests. Right away, there is some blurring of the lines between the divisions. In general, though, the guests are interacting with the robots in the park (which shares a name with the show). The workers try to keep things running smoothly, and address any glitches that come up.

Behind-the-scenes, founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is nearing retirement. The board that runs Westworld would like to see him pushed out. His protege, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), supports him, but has his own concerns to deal with.  Namely, that some of the robots are beginning to have memories they shouldn’t, and act in ways contrary to their programming. The park has been around for decades, and there are hints that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

At the same time, things within the park are just as chaotic. The Man in Black (Ed Harris), a frequent guest over a long period of time, is looking for the entrance to the fabled Maze. He believes this will allow him to enter a higher level of the game, and he is obsessed with finding everything the park has to offer. Is he right? And if he is, what does this mean for those that dwell within the programmed scenarios?

The Production

Westworld is full of fantastic actors. Hopkins and Wright are terrific, of course. Luke Hemsworth, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Shannon Woodward also play employees with varying motivations for their presence. Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes are guests, which provide an entry point for the audience.  This is especially true of Jimmy, whose William is there for the first time. To the credit of all of the above, they can compete with the robots for attention. The humans also are just as complex as the non-humans, which makes for a busy show.

While the guests may be relatable, the artificial constructs are probably more interesting to most viewers. Evan Rachel Wood outdoes herself in her intricate portrayal of Delores. She is the oldest robot in the place, and one who begins experiencing issues. She is joined by Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, and Angela Sarafyan, among others playing artificial life forms. Their task is not an easy one, finding a way to portray life awaking within machine. Yet, across the board, they deliver impressive performances.

Quality is maintained in every aspect of the production, from the writing to the set design to the location shoots to the scoring. Just as great care for attention to detail would be taken in the real Westworld, it is on this show. Breathtaking vistas mixed with unique sci-fi elements make for a really interesting overall world. It is a pretty immersive experience to watch.

The Extras

For some releases, featurettes dispel a bit of the magic. Showing us the nuts and bolts behind the creation is interesting, but can demystify. Westworld: Season One provides that, but somehow, pulling back the curtain only makes what’s been done more impressive. As we hear about the creation of the look, the title sequences, and filming in those sweeping landscapes, it hits home just how much went into this program. Combined with some bits on the premise and actors, as well as a light gag reel, there’s a lot here, most of it solid.

Westworld: Season One also includes “The Big Moment” featurettes that often air right after the episodes. This is a good idea because it breaks down key moments in the series one at a time. Spreading them across the discs is smart, too, because they appear where they will be easiest to access. In fact, where all the extras are spread is well thought out, making for a nice, enhanced viewing experience.

Conclusion

It will come as no surprise to you that I recommend this set. Everything about it is neat, and rewatching it only builds anticipation for the show’s return. This is a series that begs repeat viewings to fully grasp it, so owning the set is helpful for that purpose. With solid bonus material, it makes it worth going beyond just rewatching the streaming episodes. This is a great release, and one I am happy to add to my shelf. My only regret is that I don’t yet have the capacity to watch it in 4K Ultra HD, which I will definitely do in the future.

Westworld: Season One: The Maze is available now.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

HUMANS 2.0

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Humans 2.0' on Blogcritics.

The American-British, AMC-Channel 4 co-production, Humans, based on the award-winning Swedish series, is back for a second season. The show takes place in a world where ‘synths,’ essentially advanced androids, are prevalent and used for a variety of business and household needs. In season one, the Hawkins family, an average, middle-class clan in England, stumbles into a quartet of more developed synths. These synths have their own consciousness. In season two, more synths begin ‘waking up,’ and the only thing that’s certain is that the effects will be far-reaching.

Catching Up With the Characters

The Hawkins family has relocated as Humans 2.0 begins, starting over in a new city. Father Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) is soon made redundant at work by an artificial life form. Son Toby (Theo Stevenson) is interested in a girl (Letitia Wright, Black Panther) who is pretending to be a synth. Toby’s younger sister, Sophie (Pixie Davies), seeks to emulate this newcomer. Other sister Mattie (Lucy Carless) begins working on a code that will give all synths consciousness, using the discarded Odi (Will Tudor) to test it on. Mom Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson) is approached by synth murderess Niska (Emily Berrington). Niska wants to turn herself in, but only if she will be tried as a human.

Our lead synths are also facing complications. Mia (Gemma Chan) has gone back to living as her non-conscious alter-ego, Anita, and falls in love with a human (Sam Palladio). Karen (Ruth Bradley) continues her relationship with the accepting Pete (Neil Maskell), though worries her secret will come out to others. Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Leo (Colin Morgan) concern themselves with finding ‘awake’ synths and saving them. Milo Khoury (Marshall Allman, True Blood) and his evil corporation is their competition, trying to snatch up the woken synths.

The Issues

The issues with what defines sentience and how mankind will deal with artificial intelligence of their own creation are explored in these eight episodes, as indicated in outlining the activities of our leads above. Humans is beloved for its complex take on such matters, and 2.0 continues that trend. Whether Niska has rights in the judicial system is at the forefront early on. Her case will set a precedent for other synths, one the humans are reluctant to allow. But it’s not like the genie can be put back in the bottle; Mattie isn’t the only one trying to let it out. So while people may want to put off changing the way they think about androids, they don’t really have much choice in the timeline.

A good chunk of Humans 2.0 takes place within Milo’s company. Specifically, the focus is on Dr. Athena Morrow (Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Jones, The Matrix), who lost her daughter and seeks to create an A.I. version of her. Can the human soul be transferred to a machine, as Athena and other characters might like to have happen? Or, as Karen would like, can a machine’s mind be put into a human? Both are on the table in this series as possibilities, and it certainly makes one think. Especially when children, who are not currently allowed to be built as synths in this world, enter into the mix.

Primarily, it’s these plots, these notions that are raised but not necessarily answered, that are the reason to watch Humans 2.0. This is solid sci-fi, well-produced and well-acted, that explores both technology and the human condition. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, this series will give you something to think about.

Extras

Humans 2.0 is not strong on bonus features. There are six short featurettes, all on the second disc, most, five minutes or fewer. A couple of these are promotional, and would be more valuable to watch before viewing episodes, slightly awkward since the material is placed on the second disc and not at the start of the first. There’s a worthwhile 10-minute feature that gets into some of the meat of the season and 30 minutes of B-roll, behind the scenes footage, played without commentary. Something only fans and film nerds might appreciate.

Conclusion

Even without a lot of extras, I highly recommend Humans 2.0 because of the content, characters, and quality of the production. It is enjoyable and a fascinating, relevant series.
Humans 2.0 is available now from Acorn.