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Monday, August 21, 2017


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

You may have been waiting impatiently for years now for Netflix’s Marvel’s THE DEFENDERS, the small screen version of the Avengers team-up. After all, the first series in the build-up, Daredevil, was released back in the spring of 2015. Through Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, a second season of Daredevil, and yes, even the less-lauded Iron Fist, fans of the Marvel Universe have been lapping up the installments, waiting eagerly for these D-list (see what I did there?) heroes to come together. But just because THE DEFENDERS finally went public today doesn’t mean the wait is entirely over.

THE DEFENDERS is an eight-episode miniseries, and thus takes its time getting to what the fans want: the four primary characters meeting one another. Instead, episode one is all about checking in with where our people are and meeting the villain. It isn’t until late in episode two that any of the quartet run into one another, and it’ll be later still before they get together as a group.

I like this waiting strategy more than I thought I would. Yes, I would rather THE DEFENDERS had arrived earlier. But now that I’ve begun watching, I want the story to progress naturally. It takes time for the story to weave each individual together, and that’s OK. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist (Finn Jones) is seen first, kicking off the event with an action-packed battle in the sewers. Although we don’t see the face of his shadowy opponent, we do know who she is, which will become clear soon enough. He and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) are still hunting The Hand, and their mission, while starting overseas, soon brings them back to New York.

Danny isn’t the only one on a mission. Luke Cage (Mike Colter), fresh out of prison, begins looking after a kid around his neighborhood that needs help. Meanwhile, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) takes a case that leads her to encounter the same mysterious woman from the opening. This isn’t a surprise, because it shouldn’t take the audience long to figure out that all three investigations are leading to the same central baddie. They are well woven, and this is the primary reason I’m fine with THE DEFENDERS taking a while to bring its leads together.

In fact, even as other characters like Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Misty Knight (Simone Missick), and Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) cross worlds, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is the hold-out outsider. Having rejected the mantel of Daredevil and busy with pro bono legal cases, he’s the one remaining unaware of what’s happening. This will not last, as the end of the second hours reveals, but it’s cool to have someone not falling into the pattern that the others do.

I have to admit, upon realizing that The Hand would be the villains in THE DEFENDERS, I wasn’t very excited. After all, Iron Fist, though not as terrible as some have claimed, is the weakest link, and its recently-released season featured The Hand prominently. Yes, they also appeared in Daredevil, too. But why bring over the criminals from the series no one liked?

That feeling goes away the moment we meet Alexandra (the great Sigourney Weaver), a woman so formidable that even Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) cowers before her. Alexandra does much with few scenes and few lines, a great presence that instantly makes The Hand interesting again. She exudes danger as much as she does gravitas, and she is the perfect foe for this adventure.

Two hours in, I am hooked. While not as powerful in its messaging as Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, it is much more gripping than Iron First or Daredevil, and its fewer number of episodes makes for a carefully-plotted, well-paced miniseries. It balances the faces we want to see with the story that needs to be told, and somehow combines the tonality of all of the series it brings together. It even finds a way to make the unavoidable fight between heroes caused by a misunderstanding work. It’s been worth the wait, and I plan to savor the remaining installments. I recommend you do the same.

THE DEFENDERS is available today on Netflix.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Your ATYPICAL Sitcom

Article first published as TV Review: ATYPICAL on Seat42F.

I hesitate to peg Netflix’s new series, ATYPICAL, as either a drama or a comedy. Yes, that’s true of a lot of shows these days, especially on premium cable or streaming services, but I feel like this one’s a bit harder than most. Pressed, I guess I’d say it’s a comedy based mainly on the running time, which clocks in at under forty minutes per episode. But it’s a very serious topic being delved into, and the level of discomfort in many of the characters keep this from being too funny.

At the center of ATYPICAL is a family of four, the Gardners. Sam (Keir Gilchrist, United States of Tara) is an eighteen-year old high school student with autism. His sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine, Irrational Man), looks out for her brother, and mostly ignores boys while she concentrates on her studies. Mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Weeds, The Hateful Eight) is unhappy in her marriage and considering an affair, while father Doug (Michael Rapaport, Justified) never figured out how to connect with Sam the way he does with Casey, though he loves both of his children.

Yes, this is a pretty typical family unit, and with some slight tweaks, could be a typical sitcom. What raises it above that is the cast, which is outstanding. Aside from Lundy-Paine, who is relatively new, the actors have a lot of experience, and including Lundy-Paine, a lot of talent. The clan feels very authentic, with complex, nuanced emotional feelings towards one another.

And yes, Sam’s autism is a big part of the show. How can it not be? It not only affects his life, but the lives of those around him, especially now that he wants to start dating. But it’s not the be-all, end-all of the show. There are other things going on, and even without the autism, this show could still exist (though it might have been a harder sell to Netflix).

Other series have started to put autism on screen lately; Parenthood springing to mind. I feel like it’s something not everyone understands right now, and getting to see portrayals of it on television is important. Familiarity breeds acceptance. While some may discount television’s influence on the culture, and while hatred does still exist, I feel credit is due to the small screen for helping ease racial and sexual tensions over the years. Autism doesn’t evoke the same strong negative reactions, usually, but it certainly can’t hurt for people to understand people with it a little better, whether you think it’s a disability or not.

The supporting cast is delightful. Amy Okuda (The Guild) plays Julia, Sam’s therapist, which I already see an obstacle coming from after episode one. Graham Rogers (Quantico) is Evan, a love interest for Casey. Nik Dodani is Zahid, Sam’s best friend. Raul Castillo (Looking) serves as a temptation for Elsa, hopefully one she won’t give in to.

I have seen reviews for ATYPICAL that range from praising it for being the best Netflix show ever, to those who find it offensive or trite. Thankfully, most are positive, and while I wouldn’t go so far as that first reviewer I mentioned, I would say it’s a solid addition to the service’s lineup. It’s fresh, surprising for a series that looks pretty standard on paper, and as mentioned, the cast is excellent. The direction and production value are good, and I became emotionally invested very quickly when watching the pilot. There is a healthy dose of realism without being gimmicky or gritty, and it has good balance for its leads and themes. I have no problem recommending this one.

All eight episode of season one of ATYPICAL are available now.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Watch Out For MR. MERCEDES

Article first published as TV Review: MR. MERCEDES on Seat42F.

Coming to AUDIENCE Network, AT&T presents MR. MERCEDES. You might already know this is the title of a book by Stephen King, the first of a trilogy, in fact. But if you don’t know what it’s about, I’ll tell you. Detective Bill Hodges, recently retired, cannot let go of a serial killer case he never solved. Though, admittedly, it’s probably harder to let go when the murderer is stalking and taunting you, as is happening to poor Bill. Thus begins our cat and mouse game.

I went in cold, knowing nothing about this show, and that was apparently a mistake. The opening sequence is interesting, introducing a couple of sympathetic, engaging characters, and it’s easy to get drawn into their story. Except, their story is short-lived because of a horrific event, one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on television, and it makes it very hard to get back into the series as we move past the beginning.

Get drawn back in, you will, though. Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Edge of Tomorrow) is terrific as Bill, a grumpy old man who want the kids (‘ tennis balls) to stay off his lawn. The source material is well reviewed, and the great David E. Kelley (The Practice, Boston Legal) serves as showrunner and frequent writer. The supporting cast is, across-the-board, fantastic, the direction is great, the pacing is swell, and the villain gets quite a bit of screen-time, too. So it’s nearly impossible, if you don’t turn the show off five minutes in, to not want to watch more.

Does this mean the beginning was a mistake? No, not exactly. Yes, MR. MERCEDES did not have to make us care about its victims right off the bat, nor make the attack itself so damn gory. However, I think by doing it the way the show does, it effectively communicates the brutality of this killer, the randomness of his targets, the danger present, and the stakes of the tale. So as much as I did not like what happened and have no desire to see it again, I can’t be upset at the choices the series makes for pure quality of storytelling. It’s not gratuitous, it’s purposeful, and that’s the bar by which I measure whether violence is acceptable.

The heart of the piece is the contest between Bill and Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway, Penny Dreadful). Both men are explored pretty in-depth, Bill through his interactions with neighbor Ida (Holland Taylor, The Practice), lawn mower Jerome (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight), and former partner Dixon (Scott Lawrence, JAG), and Brady’s with his mother Deborah (Kelly Lynch, Magic City), coworker Lou (Breeda Wool, UnREAL), and boss Robi (Robert Stanton, Jason Bourne). Each of these supporting players makes an impression with how they interact with the leads, but also stand out themselves as well-developed individuals, which is quite a feat for an hour-long pilot. Somehow they simultaneously exist as the stars of their own worlds, and support that central dynamic.

And we haven’t even gotten to the introduction of Janey, another lead not in the pilot, played by the always-magnetic Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds).

Sadly, Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) was slated to play Brady before he died. I could totally see him in that role, and I think he would have been great. But Treadaway is a fine replacement, and I don’t think anyone will remember that he wasn’t first choice. Ditto Taylor as Ida, as Ann-Margaret previously had that role before illness forced her to step aside.

King’s adaptations are hit or miss, and usually have what I think of as a very specific, not super high quality, tone. But like the best screen work that’s come from him, like Kubrick’s The Shining, MR. MERCEDES doesn’t feel like it fits that mold. Instead, it’s an intense psychological drama that stands apart as its own thing. I think this could be a really strong series to watch, though unfortunately it’s not on a network most people get, viewership confined only to DirecTV and AT&T U-verse subscribers. I wish it had broader reach.

MR. MERCEDES premieres this Wednesday.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: THE GUEST BOOK on Seat42F.

TBS has some bizarre sitcoms, and their newest, THE GUEST BOOK, should fit right in among them. Created by Greg Garcia, the mind behind My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope, the show is sort of an anthology series, in that each episode stars brand-new characters in self-contained stories as they check in for a few days at Froggy Cottage and write their stories in the guest book there. I say sort of because there is also a group of locals who have ongoing arcs on the fringes throughout most of the episodes, culminating in a wacky season finale.

Yep, I know how it ends because I watched all ten episodes of the first season in one sitting. While not the most ground-breaking or fresh new comedy I’ve ever seen, I was thoroughly charmed by Garcia’s sense of humor, as I have been many times in the past, and impressed by the parade of performers who came through. This combines the quirky charm Garcia is known for, portraying “regular” middle Americans, with another interesting premise.

The four-member lead cast includes: Vivian (Carly Jibson, One Mississippi), a blackmailing stripper who owns Chubby’s Bikini Bar; Wilfred (Charlie Robinson, Night Court), the elderly gentleman who rents Froggy Cottage, and who becomes Vivian’s target when he’s just trying to reinvigorate his marriage to Emma (Aloma Wright, Scrubs); Frank (Lou Wilson, Tween Fest), Vivian’s good-hearted step-son and employee; and Officer Kimberly Leahy (Kellie Martin, the Mystery Woman TV movies), a cop who develops a crush on Froggy Cottage’s neighbor, Doctor Andrew Brown (Garret Dillahunt, Raising Hope).

Besides Dillahunt, Eddie Steeples (My Name Is Earl) plays another recurring local. This is notable because both starred in previous Garcia efforts. Other Garcia alum, such as Shannon Woodward (Westworld) and Jamie Pressley (Mom), pass through, and there are a host of references to Garcia’s past shows. This continuity, Easter eggs for fans of the writer’s work, is pleasing and makes the show more interesting. It helps create a feeling of family and warmth.

There are also some really clever, unique elements to THE GUEST BOOK. For instance, every episode (after the first) begins with two guys at a computer store recapping the ongoing plots in the context of a buddy trying to get his friend to watch the show. And there’s essentially a ‘house band’ that plays things out and provides bridges on a regular basis. These things kick the show up a couple of notches further.

I’d say the best way to judge the quality of such a show, though, is too at who the series got to headline the various installments, and that list is impressive to modern comedy and television fans. Stockard Channing (The West Wing), Jenna Fischer (The Office), Danny Pudi (Community), John Ortiz (Togetherness), Michaela Watkins (Casual), Arjay Smith (Perception), Lauren Lapkus (Orange Is the New Black), Laura Bell Bundy (Hart of Dixie), Kate Micucci (Garfunkle & Oates), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Andrew J. West (The Walking Dead), and my personal favorite from this season, Michael Rapaport (Prison Break), are among those who parade through. The great Margo Martindale (The Americans) also plays a recurring role. Having this kind of talent keeps the main plot engrossing, and is a good balance to the stories of the community.

Will this top anyone’s must-see list? Probably not. But is it an enjoyable way to pass a few hours? Absolutely. Garcia does ‘nice,’ non-judgmental, inclusive comedy as few others do, and I am always entertained and delighted by what he has to offer. Even in an increasingly crowded field of high-quality entertainment, he has a specific voice and style that is worth keeping around, and THE GUEST BOOK gives him time to really focus on key elements of the show in a way that he didn’t have the luxury to do on longer, broadcast-network seasons.

One last note, THE GUEST BOOK, interestingly, comes right on the heels of HBO’s Room 104, another anthology series set in a rental lodging, but the two could not be more different. If you want dark and science-fiction-y, go for Room 104. If you just want to laugh, and occasionally get your heart strings tugged on, then go with THE GUEST BOOK.

THE GUEST BOOK premieres tonight at 10/9c on TBS.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


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

USA premieres THE SINNER tonight, an eight-episode miniseries based on the novel of the same name. The international best-selling book by Petra Hammesfahr is a different take on the crime drama, as is the show. Different because it starts out by introducing us to a protagonist who, midway through the pilot, we’ll see do something truly horrible and violent in full public view. There is no question as to whether she is guilty or not, but rather, the drama stems from why this seemingly normal wife and mother would do something so heinous?

There is definitely a reason, and THE SINNER lets us know that, if not the details of it, pretty early on. As we meet Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel, 7th Heaven, The Book of Love), she is acting strange. She doesn’t look happy or comfortable in her job, working for her husband’s family. Her marriage to said husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott, Girls), is strained, at least from her side; it’s not clear Mason really sees there is a problem. She is haunted by some bad memories, and even appears like she might be leaning towards suicidal.

But we don’t know why she’s so troubled. Things seem good. She and Mason have a little boy she adores, and their home and careers seem stable, childcare taken care of, food on the table. They may be around Mason’s family a bit more than Cora would like, but there’s nothing glaringly wrong that would drive an otherwise normal woman to act that way Cora acts.

I debated even mentioning that Cora snaps in this review, so unexpected was it to me, going in cold. But the show description on the official website gives it away, and this is the premise, so it had to be said.

Biel is fantastic as Cora, playing the lead in a way that is engaging and complex. My instinct is to feel sorry for Cora, sure there’s a good reason for her mental instability, rather than condemn her. What trauma has caused her to act like this? How can she get the help she needs, rather than rot away in a prison cell where she doesn’t belong?

Which begs the question, how close is something like this to real life? How many women are there even now sitting behind bars who should instead be in therapy to get better? How many men? THE SINNER really calls into question motivation and how life experiences shape a person. One cannot excuse what we watch Cora do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel for her, and think there’s not a better path for her than a long stint in prison. She’s not a psychopath.

As much as I was sucked into Cora’s story, and to a lesser extent Mason’s, where THE SINNER slows down for me is any time it shifts to the third lead, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Independence Day). No offense to Pullman, whom I often enjoy, but I just don’t care about the law enforcement officer trying to understand Cora. What we do see of his character doesn’t paint him in a good light, and for some reason, I had less desire to understand him than I do Cora. Though presumably he recognizes something in her no one else does, which says something about him.

THE SINNER is being billed as a close-ended series, and I’m sure it will be. But it also seems like USA might like to continue it somehow. With True Detective coming back, I’m not sure we need another gritty crime drama like this. But if another protagonist as good as Cora can be found for a second outing, I might be up for it. And I haven’t even watched that much of Cora’s tale yet, which I would very much like to see through.

THE SINNER premieres tonight at 10/9c on USA.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: MANHUNT: UNABOMBER on Seat42F.

Discovery Channel’s newest series, MANHUNT: UNABOMBER, premieres this week. Unlike most of the programming on the network, this one is completely scripted, with a cast of familiar actors playing the roles of actual people, rather than interviews with experts and historians. I’m not sure why Discovery needs scripted shows, but given the focus on forensic linguistics, a practice largely dismissed at the time of the events depicted, this makes sense as the type of program that their core audience will likely be interested in.

Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) stars as Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the FBI agent who gets inside the head of serial killer Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany, The Avengers movies) and brings him to justice. Fitz is a loner himself, smarter than most people, and he comes to understand Ted in a deep way that is, at times, disturbing. As Ted complains about how society is changing, Fitz can’t help but see his point, which does allow him to save lives, but screws up his own pretty completely in the process.

Worthington’s performance, full of complexity and nuance, is worthy of a feature film, and the style and tone of the program seems to bend that way as well. While watching the two-hour premiere, I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the theatre, similar as MANHUNT: UNABOMBER is to films in the genre. In fact, other than its clunky title, it seems like a pretty quality feature.

The supporting cast helps, too, with Keisha Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones), Chris Noth (Sex and the City), Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight), Jeremy Bobb (The Knick), Brian F. O’Byrne (Aquarius), Mark Duplass (Togetherness), Brian D’Arcy James (Smash), Lynn Collins (John Carter), and Jane Lynch (Glee) making for a pretty formidable ensemble. And that’s not even a full roster.

But where MANHUNT: UNABOMBER suffers is where it differs most from a feature film: the running time. At eight hours, it is too long, telling a story that would have been hard to cram in two, but isn’t interesting enough for a full miniseries. Yes, I make that claim after having only watched twenty-five percent of it, but the amount of wasted screen time in those initial two hours is why I feel comfortable saying it.

A lot of time is given over to Fitz begging his bosses to let him use his talent, do his thing, and his bosses refusing him, telling him to just follow orders. Now, I like the point this makes, as Ted’s whole thing is about not being blindly obedient to the system. But it could have been told in one scene, not many. It started to feel pretty repetitive by the third time it happened. And it’s not like seeing it over and over built much suspense because, given the framework story, even those who didn’t follow the case as it was playing out know that eventually the higher ups will listen to Fitz.

I didn’t care for the framework story in general, either. Showing us what happened to Fitz later on, starting just before he goes to talk to Ted, who is awaiting trial, could be an interesting tale. But it’s a different tale than most of the rest of the episodes are telling. It gives away an ending unnecessarily, and is actually quite a bit less interesting than the investigation itself. Maybe it would have worked if it was saved for the conclusion, showing the arc of growth over time, rather than revealing it right away. But what’s here just doesn’t feel all that well planned out.

So, I like MANHUNT: UNABOMBER for its cast, performances, and style. But I probably won’t finish it because the pacing and story just doesn’t engage the way it should.

MANHUNT: UNABOMBER premieres this Tuesday at 9/8c on Discovery.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: THE LAST TYCOON on Seat42F.

Last year, Amazon released the pilot for THE LAST TYCOON as one of the shows under consideration for series. Based on the unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald book of the same name (published posthumously), the story is centered on a Hollywood producer battling his boss as 1936 Germany tries to exert control over the American motion picture industry. Thankfully, this terrific series, based loosely on real people and real events (though with fictional names swapped in) was picked up, and tomorrow, eight more episodes will be available, in addition to the already-streaming pilot.

Matt Bomer (White Collar) is great as Monroe Stahr, the Jewish producer who works for Brady-American studios. He has a complex role to play, having not-too-long ago lost his beloved wife, Minna (Jessica De Gouw, Underground), and not able to get past her ghost. The professional conflict Monroe is dealing with comes mainly from that relationship he can’t let go of, though there are some romantic angles worked, too.

Equally central and equally terrific is Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) as Pat Brady, Monroe’s boss. Pat values Monroe, who helped him build the studio into the success it is, but is also a slave to keeping the gears turning. He justifies his rolling over for the Nazis by claiming it’s about keeping everyone employed, and there’s a moment in the first episode where he looks pretty altruistic. He sees himself as the hero, even as Monroe accuses him of being a coward, which seems to hit Brady a little hard. Their relationship is very interesting, close but strained.

To complicate matters even more, there’s a third lead, Celia Brady (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror), Pat’s daughter. Celia is infatuated with Monroe and is determined to wed him, despite his lingering grief and health issues. This infuriates Pat, of course, even though Monroe is only interested in her talent, which, it turns out, she actually seems to have quite a bit of. This makes her invaluable to him, and turns the whole triangle into a mess. Thus, THE LAST TYCOON has plenty of drama.

While there are elements of the pilot that I found hokey and unrealistic, in general, this is a compelling show. It is a bit emotionally manipulative with the Nazi stuff, but in a good vs evil classic form, made more relevant by the current rise of a would-be totalitarian in the White House currently who seeks to discredit the media and control his coverage, an event that couldn’t have been foreseen as this series was ordered. There is a love story, Monroe’s to his deceased wife, that makes the conflict personal, even as the audience will root for the overall bend towards freedom and civil rights. But while the Germans are two-dimensionally evil, the other Hollywood types aren’t. Flawed, yes, but not flat. And even our heroic lead has some shameful things in his life to make him a little less noble.

Oh, and I hadn’t gotten to this yet, but the county’s economic depression also plays into the plot, and not just as it pertains to studio finances. Which adds more depth to the situation, and helps ground it.

We’re seen other old-Hollywood pictures before, more in films than in an ongoing series, but this one still feels fresh. Perhaps that’s because it’s about more than making movies, and has some truly engaging characters in it. Yes, it comes a little close to the fantastic Feud FX anthology series, but the material is different enough that THE LAST TYCOON should stand quite comfortably on its own.

Buoyed by a supporting cast that includes Dominique McElligott (House of Cards), Rosemarie DeWitt (Mad Men), Enzo Cilenti (The Martian), Bailey Noble (True Blood), and Koen De Bouw (Professor T.), I am very hopeful about the continued quality of THE LAST TYCOON, and looking forward to watching more episodes.

THE LAST TYCOON’s first season drops tomorrow on Amazon.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

ROOM 104 Dark and Dreary

Article first published as TV Review: ROOM 104 on Seat42F.

The Duplass Brothers, the brains behind the television series Togetherness and films such as The Skeleton Twins, have another new show on HBO, premiering this week. Called ROOM 104, it’s an anthology series, with each roughly half-hour episode featuring a self-contained cast and story, all set in the same dreary motel room.

Half a dozen installments were made available for critics (not the first six, but a selection from throughout the season), and I reviewed two of them in preparation for this article. In the premiere, “Ralphie,” a babysitter watches a kid named Ralph, who has an evil side named Ralphie. Or does he? The third episode, “The Knockadoo,” finds a woman seeking spiritual guidance to transcend, a task made difficult by a memory from her past.

Going by these two installments, I’d say that ROOM 104 is going for creepy and supernatural in the makeup of the program. Both episodes have things that cannot be explained by science (or possibly reality in general), they’re both a bit scary, and they are both very dark in tone and lighting. They did kind of feel like the same episode in a lot of ways, with the narrative arc and ‘twist’ endings following a similar, broad pattern. I am slightly curious if that trend will continue, not something you necessarily want in a series like this.

They’re also both kind of ambiguous about what’s going on. While one may think they’ve surmised what they’ve seen based on what plays out on screen, there are multiple ways to interpret the endings of them. When done well, this is a great element for television shows to make use of. But when done in a mediocre or gimmicky manner, then it’s an obvious and annoying ploy. In ROOM 104, it’s sadly the latter. Or, at least, it fails to feel fresh and interesting.

I kind of found the entire thing lackluster. While I have enjoyed the Duplass Brothers’ comedy writing and acting roles, sometimes they go into weird territory that I do not want to follow them into. This series is that, seemingly weird for the sake of being weird, no clear vision or point really coming across, at least not in the two episodes that I’ve viewed.

In general, I like anthology shows. Black Mirror is a terrific example of the genre, The Twilight Zone is a classic, and I even enjoyed Metal Hurlant, which never really took off in popularity here. It’s a cool format in which to tell very different tales, explore a short-form topic, and pose questions to make one think without having to deal with continuing consequences or reset to a baseline.

But it’s tricky to do well, and I just don’t feel ROOM 104 goes deep enough. While the endings may not be completely clear, neither episode left me with anything to consider, or challenged my assumptions and views in any way. I didn’t feel any type of connection to them, can’t imagine bringing them up for discussion with anyone, and didn’t feel like the installments had anything to say.

I don’t want to trash the Duplass Brothers. As I said, they’ve made many worthwhile contributions to the media landscape, and I have been a fan of much of their past work. I just think this one falls short for them, or perhaps it just isn’t for me. The production design seems solid, I just didn’t think the stories were as innovative or engaging. Maybe some of the other episodes will prove me wrong. The nice thing about a series like this is there are new chances every single week to get it right.

ROOM 104 premieres Friday on HBO.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Flee to OZARK

Article first published as TV Review: OZARK on Seat42F.

Netflix’s newest series, OZARK, is a prime example of a streaming series that takes more than one episode to make a true pilot. The first hour sets up the lead character, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman, who is also producing the series and directing four episodes), who the man is and the situation that drives him to desperation. But it won’t be until subsequent installments for viewers to get to know much of the rest of the cast and plot threads.

As OZARK begins, Marty has just found out that his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney, The Big C), is cheating on him. Before he decides what to do about it, his blowhard business partner, Bruce (Josh Randall, Quarry), is caught skimming money by the drug kingpin they launder for, Del (Esai Morales, Caprica). Del wants revenge, but Marty thinks fast, saying Chicago is too hot to keep working in, and proposes a move to the Ozarks instead. Del accepts Marty’s offer, albeit on a sort of probation. So Marty packs up his family and moves, which is when much of the ongoing story will probably begin.

Despite realizing that much of what unfolds over episode one is just set up, I found it a compelling, intense hour of drama. Given that this is a streaming series, and that I did not check cast list nor press release prior to viewing, the installment contained many surprises, and I wasn’t quite sure what would happen. Even a couple of familiar faces don’t survive the initial offering, and so one can’t take for granted who the players of the show are, or how things are going to shake out.

While Netflix made more than one episode available, I wanted to write this review before watching further. Knowledge colors perspective and what would be said, and on a show like OZAK, I feel the fewer spoilers, the better. If the other nine hours can come even close to reaching the stress-inducing pace of the first, this will be a show people will binge and talk about. I’d like to preserve the specialness of that status, as I am hooked by the premiere.

Bateman and Linney are great, of course. Linney is easy to hate right off the bat, and the ‘twists’ she is part of, while predictable, are also necessary to get things rolling. I assume there will be more to her. Bateman, on the other hand, seems like such a good guy, the put-upon hero, that it’s hard to match that up with the illegal activities we find out he’s been engaging in for some time. Unless his quietness is guilt. OZARK doesn’t treat Marty as an antihero or a shady character, not at first anyway, but we know he absolutely is. Which is a testament to what Bateman can do with a role.

OZARK will be the kind of show to make you question not only your own life choices, but wonder about the friends and family you think you know. Who’s really out to make a quick buck, and what moral lines will they cross (or not cross)? Who can you trust, and at the end of the day, is everyone really just selfish? Can love motivate people to set aside their own self-interests? These are just some of the musings I’ve had after watching the first episode.

One of the creators, Bill Dubuque, is the writer behind The Judge, The Accountant, and A Family Man. The other, Mark Williams, produced two of those films. Which should tell you the tone and type of plot to expect from OZARK. I certainly feel it right away, and am excited to see a premise like this played out over seasons, rather than a mere two hours. OZARK is not entirely different than other series running right now, but has a specific take that makes it worthy.

OZARK’s first season releases tomorrow for Netflix subscribers.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: LOADED on Seat42F.

AMC’s newest series is a British import adapted from an Israeli series, and yet, you won’t be able to watch it without comparing it to a popular U.S. program. LOADED tells the story of four entrepreneurs who make it rich with a game they developed. Through a series of bad decisions and dumb mistakes, they frustratingly begin losing the money just as quickly as they acquired it.

Yes, if LOADED sounds a bit like HBO’s Silicon Valley to you, that’s because they two programs are very similar, down to some of the characters that populate it. The main differences are that LOADED is starting from a point of success, the core characters actually love one another, and this is a drama infused with comedy, rather than a comedy infused with drama.

That last may be a slight distinction, but it’s also an important one. There are fewer laugh-out-loud moments in LOADED than there are in Silicon Valley, but there is more complexity in the characters and the relationships. For instance, one of the four, Watto (Nick Helm, Uncle), is struggling with his sobriety. The way he hangs onto it in episode one is hilarious, but there’s true darkness and pain lurking right below the surface.

The two most central figures are Leon (Samuel Anderson, Doctor Who) and Josh (Jim Howick, Yonderland), who appear polar opposites at first. Leon spends his cash on a Ferrari, champagne baths, and a revenge barbershop quartet, while Josh wants to invest in a living space of his own (he shares a flat with the other three). But even in the pilot, Leon wises up in some ways, and Josh gets more reckless in others. We see how they balance one another out, and the deep respect and affection they have for one another. Together, they make for good leadership. Separately, they’d probably fall apart.

Rounding out the quartet is Ewan (Jonny Sweet, Together), who, at first, I believed to be there only for comic relief, similar as he is to Silicon Valley’s Jared. But then I realized there’s more there. He is the one who is overlooked, forgotten about. Even on a lawsuit against the company, his name is left off of the writ. And we see him work to correct that imbalance, overcompensating in a sad way.

Along with these four, there’s Casey (Mary McCormack, In Plain Sight, The West Wing), their overbearing “sexy Darth Vader” American boss, and Naomi (Lolly Adefope, Rovers), Casey’s assistant who is the true character just there for a joke. Together, the ensemble is a strong one, with a lot going on, and plenty of possibilities for the eight-episode first season.

The question becomes, despite the good characters, is it worth watching if you’re already into Silicon Valley, given how alike the two series are? I can’t say for sure. I don’t mind watching British versions of shows I’ve already seen in America, and that’s kind of how I see this (even though the British is a remake of a show from elsewhere). But with everything that’s out there, does anyone really have time to watch two of (essentially) the same show right now? That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.

I will say, I am most displeased that AMC has censored LOADED so much, forcing reshoots of scenes and the limitation of how many and which curse words can be said per episodes. Some basic cable networks are loosening up their restrictions, and I think AMC should follow suit, especially because HBO places no such requirements on Silicon Valley, and that makes LOADED come off as a tamer version. Plus, the characters suffer from it, feeling not quite as realistic. It’s just language, and LOADED airs late at night. What’s the big deal?

LOADED airs Mondays at 10/9c on AMC.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE on Seat42F.

First, there was Seinfeld. Then It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Happy Endings. Now, we have FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE, premiering tomorrow on Netflix.

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE is another comedy about a group of pals who aren’t all that likeable, and yet, because of terrific actors and magnetic, entertaining personalities, we’ll want to keep watching them, if not rooting for them.

This series isn’t a retread, though; it’s the natural evolution of the trend. Seinfeld was a light, fun, nonsense sitcom, and proud of it. Sunny took it a bit dirtier, while Happy Endings matured the emotional heft. FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE deals with real issues and isn’t laugh-a-minute with one-liners, but it is amusing, and it does feel like a premium cable comedy, something that would also be at home on HBO, as well as its berth on Netflix.

We begin with Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele) and Sam (Annie Parisse, Person of Interest), carrying on an affair they’ve been having since college. Both are married, but both unions have some serious problems, so they regularly hook up when they can. It’s that not often, since they live in different cities. As the pilot begins, Ethan announceshe’s moving back the Big Apple, restoring their friend group from their Harvard days, but complicating the tryst.

Ethan and Sam are the most central characters at first, so even though they may not be likeable, they need to be people we can relate to. And they are. Ethan loves his wife, but he doesn’t always want what she wants. He’s an author considering breaking into Young Adult fiction, tired of his award-winning novels not selling, but detests the genre for reasons that perfectly describe him. Sam thinks her husband is dumb, and is a little more desperate for escape, though she clearly likes her (rarely seen on screen) children.

Yes, these are people with arrested development, lacking the emotional maturity they need to progress. We all remember times like that, or may still be struggling with some of the emotions (although hopefully making different choices). I am eager for the affair to become public knowledge to see what happens, but at the same time, I worry what that would do to the friend group at the center of FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE.

The other four primary players are: Ethan’s wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother), who has just taken a job at a horrible hedge fund; rich trust fund lothario Nick (Nat Faxon, Married); aspiring (and failing) actress Marianne (Jae Suh Park, The Big Short); and oft-overlooked book agent Max (Fred Savage, The Grinder, Wonder Years). Lisa has the most material of the four in the first half of the season, and Cobie excels at it, but Max has the funniest bits, and Marianne seems like a simmering cauldron ready to erupt.

Yes, they are all too involved in one another’s lives, and it’s not entirely realistic they are all still so close, but it’s a premise one can overlook to enjoy all of these great actors playing together. Toss in Max’s partner (Billy Eichner, Difficult People), who doesn’t like Max’s friends, and Sam’s husband (Greg Germann, Ally McBeal), who seems to have levels that haven’t yet been explored, and this is the makings for a long-term series I’d enjoy watching. I hope Eichner and Germann are promoted to series regular in season two, as I love how they are outsiders who don’t get the friend group, which is a valuable thing to have when telling this story.

While this may not be completely original territory, and as I’ve said, it’s hard to like most of the characters, I could not stop watching, plowing through half the season before pausing to write this review, and eager to watch the second half as soon as I’m done. This is a great cast, and the story, while at times frustrating, is compelling. I hope it runs a good, long time.

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE will release all eight episodes of season one tomorrow exclusively on Netflix.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: SALVATION on Seat42F.

CBS has a new summer drama premiering tonight, SALVATION. Humanity is only six months away from being wiped out by an asteroid impact, but almost nobody knows it. When MIT grad student Liam Cole brings the event to the attention of billionaire inventor Darius Tanz, Tanz rushes to the Pentagon to assist in a plan to stop it. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Harris Edwards, assures them that it’s already under control, but he’s definitely lying, even to his inappropriate sweetheart, an employee under him, Pentagon Press Secretary Grace Barrows. Can Tanz and Cole save mankind without the government’s help?

CBS likes to do light science fiction fare in the summer, and SALVATION is no different. Like The Dome or Zoo, it involves a disaster, though this one is a bit less mysterious, and a couple of heroes that must save everyone because, apparently, they are the only ones capable of doing so. It’s like a popcorn action movie spread out over ten to thirteen episodes, with only superficial or generic characters development amid the emergency that the focus is on. It would not be a bad concept to do in the 1990s. In the middle of Peak TV, shows like this are likely to be ignored, not enough quality present to compete with year-round great series.

The biggest thing the show has going for it at the outset is casting Jennifer Finnigan (Tyrant, Close to Home) as Grace. Finnigan is a fun actress who I have enjoyed in many projects previously, and was the biggest reason I had hope for this show. Her primary story is a predictable, though. She’s at the verge of changing careers so she can be with Edwards (Ian Anthony Dale, Hawaii Five-0), but then learns he is keeping secrets from her, casting her decisions in doubt. Another subplot involving her daughter works for the emotional heft needed in episode one, but doesn’t seem to have legs. I hope she is better used going forward, but there’s just not enough meat for Finnigan in the pilot.

The male leads, Santiago Cabrera (Heroes, The Musketeers) as Tanz and Charlie Rowe (Red Band Society) as Liam, aren’t bad, but neither are they magnetic. Instead, they seem to be relatively stock characters themselves, with their complexity coming straight out of a dozen other stories featuring leads that are strikingly similar.

Somewhat interestingly, Liam begins a romance with an aspiring science fiction author, Jillian (Jacqueline Byers, Roadies), just before things get started. If the relationship weren’t so rushed and stereotypical, I might be more interested in how fiction will clash with reality, which is an avenue worth exploring. Provided, of course, SALVATION doesn’t go the Castle route and just make it ridiculously unrealistic, ignoring the actual possibilities of such a plot. (I maintain Castle worked because of Nathan Fillion; anyone else would have struggled to make it watchable.)

I don’t dislike Salvation. As someone that enjoys the genre, I am tempted to watch. The problem is, there needs to be some hook besides the general premise. For instance, last year’s BrainDead was quirky and charming, with great musical recaps at the beginning of each episode, plenty to keep me hooked through the whole single-season run. SALVATION seems to lack that.

In short, there’s a compelling storyline in here somewhere, and there are even some intriguing elements to SALVATION that could make it must-see for sci-fi fans. However, it seems underdeveloped, its characters superficial, which is disappointingly as-predicted for broadcast network summer fare. If CBS would just take the season a little more seriously, get some heft behind a project like this, they would be back in competition with the superior cable networks. But it’s clear already that SALVATION is not going to be the vehicle to do that.

SALVATION premieres tonight at 9/8c.

Saturday, July 8, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: SNOWFALL on Seat42F.

FX’s new drama, SNOWFALL, is about the beginning of the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. Set in 1983, the series follows several people who have different connections to the burgeoning industry. Splitting the action by ethnicity and lifestyle, SNOWFALL attempts to give us a wide-ranging overview of how this trend started.

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris, Farming) is the true lead of SNOWFALL. A young, African-American adult looking for his path, he seems trapped between childhood and the real world. Franklin decides to move from selling pot to the harder stuff after a run-in with a crazy gangster, despite knowing that his family, whom he is close to, doesn’t approve. Whether that is a decision that will pay off for him, or whether it will end tragically, that remains to be seen. I’m guessing the former if the show wants to run for any length of time, though there’s likely to be severe cost.

Coming in just behind Franklin in importance are Gustavo ‘El Oso’ Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Resident Evil: Afterlife) and Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson). Gustavo is a professional fighter who is joining a family of crime, while Teddy is a CIA operative who is being allowed to sell drugs to help balance tricky relations with a foreign power. Both seem over their heads more than Franklin, and it’s unclear if either can make what they’re trying to do work for them. They seem like the types of players that may have a more limited run.

There is nothing wrong with a period drama that tells the tale of a significant event or era. HBO had Boardwalk Empire and AMC had Hell On Wheels and Mad Men. But one thing those have in common is that they prioritized complex characters over illustrating the facts. Franklin may qualify, Idris keeping the role interesting, but I hardly think the other two do, nor do the myriad of supporting players. This is where SNOWFALL lacks.

Where SNOWFALL tries to make up for it is the production design, which is aces. The program shows us a full-fledged world that looks both authentic to the time and slightly magical, a little hyperreal. There are a couple of scenes where SNOWFALL beats its setting over our heads a little bit, but for the most part, this is an asset, not a liability.

The program also brings the sexiness, going a little further with mature content than I think I’ve ever seen on a basic cable series. It’s not premium network level, not like the shows on HBO for example, but there are tantalizing and explicit scenes you will not want your kids to see. Which works in SNOWFALL’s favor, as it would be nearly impossible not to go there with the content of the story, at least if they want to keep it fairly accurate.

My most recent review before this one, of Netflix’s Gypsy, lamented how well-made TV isn’t necessarily good television any more, not with the glut of really fantastic series out there right now, and the ability to go back and re-watch so many classics of the past. SNOWFALL does better than Gypsy in providing something interesting and fresh, but has the same drawback in that it could be better. Much better. And that shows.

The bottom line is, SNOWFALL lacks a strong hook that will immediately send viewers scrambling to set a season pass. Without such a thing obvious in the first episode, especially on a network like FX that is known for very strong series (I’d rank it up there with HBO and AMC for producing some of the best), this one falls a little short of the mark. Not so far that it can’t come back from it, but will people stick around to give it a chance? I don’t know, and I’m not sure if you should.

SNOWFALL premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


Article first published as DVD Review: 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In: The Complete Series' on Blogcritics.

Before there was Saturday Night Live, there was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Hilarious, topical, sometimes controversial, the comedy program began as a one-time special, and eventually racked up a six season run. Starring an eclectic group of individuals, some of whom built memorable careers, and featuring a bevy of terrific guest stars, recurring sketches and one-liners filled the 140 episodes, some of which did not air until well after cancellation. Now, the entire Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series is available on DVD from Time Life, and most of the episodes getting their first-ever home release.

Launching as a series in January 1968, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was over long before I was born, fifteen years later. But the reputation and jokes lived on, permeating pop culture. Of course I’d seen the clips of Richard Nixon calling out “Sock it to me,” Goldie Hawn go-go dancing, and Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the annoying telephone operator. Having long been a fan of late-night comedy, this was a series I was very curious about, but never sure where to get a hold of it until this set came along.

The number of talented people the series attracted is amazing. Besides Hawn (The First Wives Club) and Tomlin (Grace & Frankie), regulars included Larry Hovis (Hogan’s Heroes), Eileen Brennan (Clue), Richard Dawson (Hogan’s Heroes), Henry Gibson (Boston Legal), Dave Madden (The Partridge Family), and Johnny Brown (Good Times). Perhaps more impressive were the guests stars, with Flip Wilson, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis Jr., Rock Hudson, Dinah Shore, Tim Conway, James Garner, Vincent Price, Buddy Hackett, Michael Caine, Charles Nelson Reilly, Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Rod Serling, Liberace, and Lena Horne being just some of the folks who returned multiple times for guest spots.

As much as it’s fun to watch a bunch of familiar, famous faces parade through the series, Laugh In‘s  real staying power is in the writing. Dan Rowan’s straight man to Dick Martin goofy comic inhabit first segment, leading to mod dance parties, “Laugh-In Looks at the News” (a predecessor of Weekend Update), and though to applause at the end that extends long into the closing credits.

The series has a very specific, signature style with regular inserts and asides. Some strong, some less so, they impart a unique comic tone to the series. Characters like Wolfgang the German Soldier, Gladys Ormphby, Edith Ann, the sock-it-to-me girl, Uncle Al, and more, are memorable to anyone who has seen them. Yes, it is absolutely a product of its era, and the hippie, zany sensibilities are ever-present. But it’s also genuinely funny something that can still make us laugh many decades later. Whether you were a fan back then, or just have an interest in classic television, this is a good DVD set.

The just-released box contains thirty-eight discs, including the pilot special and all the regular episodes, complete and uncut. The show has been remastered, and while it shows its age, it looks pretty good, much better than any clip I’ve seen from it. It’s certainly not high-def ready, but what do you expect from a show so old? The point is, there isn’t the graininess that distracts, and it’s OK if Laugh-In shows its age a little. It’s earned it.

Six hours of bonus features round out the set. The most sizable are a 25th anniversary cast reunion (filmed way back in 2001) and a booklet full of some of the best quotes from the show. There are interviews, bloopers (which aren’t always as funny as the written jokes, but still good to include), a tribute to producer George Schlatter (the late clapper), Schlatter’s Emmy speech, and more. About 100 minutes of it are on a special bonus DVD, while the rest (mainly cast interviews) are scattered among the various season sets, each packaged separately in the larger box.

Personally, I find this DVD set right up my alley, and I enjoyed it immensely. I know it’s not for everyone, but if you like classic or late night comedy, it’s a must-see. And I suspect a great many other people, who aren’t particularly into those things, would find it entertaining, too. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, available now from Time Life, comes with my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Wandering GYPSY

Article first published as TV Review: GYPSY on Seat42F.

GYPSY, Netflix’s newest drama, has a tantalizing premise. Jean Holloway (Naomi Watts) is a therapist with a double, sexy life. She seems, more or less, happily married to Michael (Billy Crudup), with whom she is raising a nine-year-old daughter (Maren Heary) with gender identity issues. But Jean also pretends to be Diane Hart, a journalist, as she engages in a heavy flirtation with younger rocker Sidney (Sophie Cookson). Will her two worlds collide? Almost certainly, considering she is definitely mixing her alter ego into the personal lives of people important to her patients.

That’s a heck of a story, with all kinds of intriguing and attractive possibilities. On Netflix, where there is no hesitation to make adult content, the leash is off and GYPSY can fully explore the concepts it has set up. This could be a very popular show that wins all kinds of awards.

Yet, I don’t think it will be. There is something essential missing, a key ingredient that has been left out of the recipe, that leaves the whole thing feeling flat. Jean isn’t all that compelling, there is no reason to root for her, nor is there exploration of her own psychological profile. The plot lacks urgency, telling us right up front things are going to fall apart (not that we need to be told something so obvious), but more than takes its time getting to anything tension-filled happening.

This is the golden age of antiheroes on television, or, at least it has been for the past decade. That means when a new series enters this particular fray, it must come with a strong, fresh identity that makes it stands out and gives viewers a reason to sign up for another half dozen seasons or so. GYPSY not only fails to do that, it fails to do anything else that makes it stand out, wasting a concept that should be a no-brainer.

I am not sure where the fault lies exactly. It certainly isn’t with Watts, Crudup, Cookson, Heary, or the rest of the cast, who are turning in consistent, fine performances. It doesn’t seem to be in the direction of the series, which fits very well with the tone GYPSY is trying to set. It isn’t in the sexiness, which does come through despite how dull most of the running time is. The parts just don’t add up to a high enough sum for the show overall, and the only thing I can think is to blame the writing, though without comparing script to screen, I can’t say that’s for sure what it comes down to.

I’m not saying GYPSY is terrible, just very mediocre. Granted, if the series had premiered fifteen years ago, I’d likely be hailing it among the best of what the small screen has to offer. Instead, it’s coming long after AMC, HBO, FX, and Netflix itself have shown us what the medium can be, and is immediately held up for comparison to all of the other fantastic programs in the present and recent past. It does not come out well when judged against its peers.

I can’t not recommend GYPSY, because, as I said, it’s hard to point out what it does wrong, other than that perhaps the writing needs to be more aggressive and contain more depth. But I can’t in good conscience recommend it, either, since, despite a few things I really like about it, it is just not going to make my list of shows to watch. I want it to, but it does not.

Netflix will need to be more careful moving forward. It still has some of the best series out there, and it likely will have other great ones in its future. But as it begins pumping out more and more content, the streaming service will lose its cache of good will if it churns out a bunch of hours that aren’t so promising. The brand is measured by everything it produces, not just the best of the bunch.

The complete first season of GYPSY is available now exclusively on Netflix.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Vixen - The Movie' on Blogcritics.

I’m sure most people interested in superheroes know of The CW’s excellent DC lineup, which includes Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But did you know that The CW Seed, the online off-shoot of the network, also has a DC animated series called Vixen? Originally released as two seasons of a handful of short installments ranging from four to seven minutes in length, all of the run has now been combined into Vixen – The Movie, available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.

Vixen - The Movie does sort of feel like a movie. It isn’t super obvious where one episode from the web series ends and another begins, other than if you assume it happens at scene changes. And while the overall run is kind of segmented into three parts – season one, a fifteen-minute interlude, and season two – the story of Mari McCabe (Megalyn Echikunwoke, The 4400, House of Lies) finding her identity and her powers, which involves controlling the spirits of animals, does help it gel together, albeit without a very definitive ending. Still, the whole thing, overall, comes across as more cohesive than I expected.

The weakest point actually is the new stuff, which is inserted into the middle. While it is relevant to Mari embracing the Vixen identity and learning how to control her powers, it also feels weird and out of place, with no virtually no continuity crossover into the two seasons. This is because Mari already seems to have a decent handle on things from instinct in the first thirty minutes, so it’s almost a step backwards to struggle with how to use them later, and we don’t see her continue the job she accepts into the latter section. I would rather the story had just skipped the year that follows to get to the last thirty minutes if they weren’t going to connect it better. Though, is a running time of less than sixty minutes long enough to be considered a movie?

Vixen isn’t as good as the other DC shows, mainly because the world it portrays is even simpler and more two-dimensional than the live-action incarnations. With most superhero series, there’s a certain amount of black and white in how characters view the world, and that’s an accepted part of the genre. But certain occurrences in Vixen – The Movie, such as Mari forgiving Macalester (Sean Patrick Thomas, The District) so easily, or the handling of what a small world Mari is from in Africa, seem cartoonish, rather than real.

But this is a cartoon, and the target audience is more than likely children. For this, it works. It is better than other children’s superhero cartoons I’ve seen, including the two episodes of the short-lived Justice League Unlimited included in this release’s extras. It’s entertaining, Mari’s powers are cool, and there are decent action scenes. The family drama is interesting, and the hero herself is at least lightly layered. I do wish the characters weren’t so still when they aren’t talking or fighting, but I did find Vixen – The Movie enjoyable.

If you’re a fan of the DC shows on The CW, Vixen – The Movie fits into that universe well. Among the characters crossing over into the animated world are Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), The Flash (Grant Gustin), Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), Black Canary (Katie Cassidy), The Atom (Brandon Routh), and Firestorm (Franz Drameh and Victor Garber). These give the universe some cohesion, and make the new film feel a part of the cannon, which it is.

I also like the performers they’ve recruited just for this project, which include Echikunwoke, Neil Flynn (Scrubs, The Middle), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Black Sails), and Anika Noni Rose (The Good Wife, Dreamgirls). So again, overall, pretty good cast.

Sadly, Vixen – The Movie is lacking in bonus features. There are the aforementioned episodes of Justice League Unlimited episodes from more than a decade ago, which feature Gina Torres (Suits, Firefly) as Vixen. I find both of them boring and not great examples of children’s entertainment. Then there’s a very brief documentary about how Vixen fits in the DC landscape, which is interesting, but at only about six minutes, far too short. So the extras are not going to sway a would-be-buyer to make the purchase.

Though, if you’re already a fan of The CW shows, or you have a child who needs a good female superhero role model, or even just a bit of light entertainment, I recommend checking out Vixen – The Movie, available now.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Return to TWIN PEAKS

Article first published as TV Review: TWIN PEAKS on Seat42F.

More than twenty-five years have passed since the cult favorite TWIN PEAKS left the airwaves after a mere thirty episodes. Last night, it returned to television with a brand-new season on Showtime. The two-hour premiere was met with much anticipation. Does it live up to the hype?

I recently binged the entire thirty-episode original run, plus the film Fire Walk With Me and the ninety minutes of deleted scenes known as The Missing Pieces, and I loved every minute of it. I don’t fully get why some people consider the second season and movie so inferior. Yes, it becomes less focused in year two, but I still enjoy it a lot. So I am going into the new stuff super pumped, definitely a fan.

But I have to say, I was left underwhelmed by the premiere episodes. This, despite all of the beloved returning characters and an immediately dive further into the mystery of the Black Lodge. Having slept on it to reflect, I think I can pinpoint why.

The lifeblood of TWIN PEAKS (film aside) is Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and, to a slightly lesser extent, his relationship with Sheriff Truman. I like the other characters, but the story flows best when we are watching these two investigate together. The utter joy Cooper exhibits at the simplest things, such as cherry pie, bring an innocent magic that is enhanced whenever he is hanging out with his best bud. These initial hours lack that entirely.

Yes, Cooper is still essentially the lead, but he spends the entire two hours in the Black Lodge, where he can’t be himself. It’s impossible, given the structure of that place, and while that can make for a cool sequence or two, Cooper needs to get out before things can really start. MacLachlan also plays the evil doppelganger of Cooper, but again, this version lacks the charisma and magnetic personality of the real Cooper, so it’s not the same at all. And since Truman isn’t returning for the new episodes, we definitely don’t get any of him.

We do see other familiar faces in hours one and two. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) and Hawk (Michael Horse) are the best of those because they actually have plot, reopening the case of the missing Dale Cooper. Sadly, Coulson passed away, so she’ll have to exit the story soon. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) also furthers things a little, albeit confusingly (which I have no problem with, and seems consistent with the old). But most of the others don’t have any kind of story to speak of, basically just making cameos so we can see them again. They all need their separate subplots that eventually intermingle in order to make them interesting. Lacking that, most feel gratuitous.

There are a slew of new characters with story, and multiple new settings are introduced, which is cool. I like that TWIN PEAKS is no longer confined to the town. I’m especially interested in what’s happening in New York City, and I always enjoy actress Madeline Zima (Californication). Unfortunately, much more screen time is spent on Evil Cooper and Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard, Scooby-Doo, The Bridge), who are far less compelling. I don’t blame either actor, their story just isn’t at the same level as classic TWIN PEAKS story so far.

I understand that the new TWIN PEAKS, in keeping with its earlier incarnation, is a marathon, not a sprint, and so may end up being worthwhile and engaging as it plays out. Still, I feel that it needed to start strong in the first two hours, and by withholding the best version of Cooper, focusing largely on uninteresting new roles, and doing little with most of the returning cast, it totally misses the mark. Things needed to happen a little quicker at the front, at least providing a hook for the fans, and these episodes didn’t really do that.

Thankfully, Showtime has already put out episodes 3 and 4 on their streaming service, so I’ll be checking those as soon as possible to see if it improves.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


Article first published as TV Review: AMERICAN GODS on Seat42F.

Anticipation is high for Starz’s newest drama, AMERICAN GODS, premiering tonight. Based on the popular book by British geek-god Neil Gaiman, and developed by the great Bryan Fuller (along with Logan’s Michael Green), it tells the story of a mortal man caught in the middle of a war between gods, old and new, as things come to a head between the factions. It’s unknown if our hero is working for the right team or not, but the danger is real, and the urgency is immediate.

AMERICAN GODS has a lot going for it, both behind and in front of the camera. While it is not as highly stylized as other Fuller projects (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies), he is able to make the fantasy sequences amazing, vivid, and imaginative. Lead Ricky Whittle (The 100) and lesser known performers like Bruce Langley (Deadly Waters) and Yetide Badaki (Sequestered) quickly establish themselves as people to watch, terrific in their roles. The bench is deep with familiar faces, too, including the likes of Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, Raising Hope), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Emily Browning (Sucker Punch), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked), Orlando Jones (Sleep Hollow), Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie), Jeremy Davies (Lost), Jonathan Tucker (Kingdom), Joel Murray (Mad Men), Beth Grant (The Mindy Project), and, of course, Ian McShane (Deadwood).

If a long list of talented names doesn’t impress you, though it should in this case, I’d like to stress how well cast each of them are. Stormare brings a certain likability to his chillingly creepy Czernobog. Anderson IS Lucy Ricardo, talking out of the screen of the television. Schreiber will seriously make you think twice about teasing a leprechaun. Browning is haunting as the deceased wife who doesn’t seem deserving of our protagonist’s love, and yet has it deeply. McShane watches over it all with a bemused charm that doesn’t allow audiences to question for a moment why Shadow Moon (Whittle) does what Mr. Wednesday (McShane) tells him to.

It’s been a few years since I read the book, but the two hours of AMERICAN GODS I’ve seen feel very faithful to it. This show finds a way to be episodic while maintaining the important through-line of the novel. The format of a road trip is helpful, as there are built in stops and sequences along the way. But there are also the threats of Technical Boy (Langley) and the erotic side trips with Bilquis (Badaki) that prove there’s something more to look forward to than just the next god to encounter.

AMERICAN GODS is sure to work both because of its quality, and because it shares similarities with another network hit, Outlander. Outlander is also based on a novel, and strings along a narrative that stays tight on a couple of characters, with most of the cast only appearing in a small number of episodes. That can be frustrating for those who want more Mr. Nancy (Jones) immediately, and you will. But at the same time, it keeps the plot purer in that Shadow and Mr. Wednesday are the people that count most, and the rest of the cast is truly there to support them.

I knew I would be blown away going into AMERICAN GODS, and it did not disappoint my high expectations. It’s gripping, has terrific pacing, feels very authentic, even in the elements that completely lack realism, and has a strong point of view. Fantasy won’t be for everyone, and this is definitely fantasy, but it also contains social commentary that’s worth paying attention to, along with some stellar performances. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t help Starz get on the Emmy stage.

AMERICAN GODS premieres tonight at 9/8c on Starz.