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Welcome back!  We’re about to enter the TOP TEN of my list of My Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017!  Click here for part one, click here for part two, and click here for part three.

And now, onward…!

10. Silicon Valley: “Terms of Service” (season four, episode two, aired on 4/30/17) — A comedic highlight of the fourth season of Silicon Valley, and the show as a whole, was this brief, beautiful moment in which Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) ascended to CEO of PiperChat … and then flamed out spectacularly.  Mr. Nanjiani has been a secret weapon on the show since the beginning, and he killed it in this spotlight episode.  I loved watching the arrogant, drunk-with-power Dinesh, but the brilliant comedic beauty of the moment in which Dinesh realized how badly he had bungled things and just how far over his head he was, was astonishing.  It was one of the funniest moments in any TV show all year long.  (The continual pinging sound effect throughout the scene, as more and more under-age users sign up for PiperChat and Dinesh finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble, took a great scene and made it amazing.  It’s a piece of comedic genius.)  The entire ensemble was on fire in this episode.  Throw in the welcome return of Matt McCoy’s sad-sack lawyer (“My shame will linger long after my voting rights are restored”) and a great final moment with series villain Gavin Belson as his triumph turns to ash (when he realizes the truth about PiperChat) and you have a winner of an episode.  (Click here for my full review of Silicon Valley season four.)

9. Sherlock: “The Final Problem” (season four, episode three, aired on 1/15/17) — What just might be the final episode of Sherlock that we ever see (though I hope that’s not the case!) was one of the series’ darkest and most nail-bitingly intense.  After a lot of teasing, this episode confirmed that the big bad villain of the season was the never-before-seen third Holmes sibling.  Sian Brooke was terrific as the dangerous and insane Eurus Holmes.  For the first time in the series, both Sherlock and Mycroft seemed truly outmatched.  This episode wrought tremendous tension out of Eurus’ torturing of her brothers and John Watson, as she presented them with a series of increasingly impossible challenges.  This was as grim as the show has ever gotten, as time and again our three heroes were powerless to stop innocent people from being murdered by Eurus all around them.  I could hardly believe what I was watching.  The show has never looked better — every aspect of the production seemed to be firing … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Call Saul Season Three!

So, I am late getting this review together!  I finished watching season three of Better Call Saul last spring, but for whatever reason haven’t found the time to get my review finished until now.  In short: it’s great!  I have adored the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul since the very beginning.  In fact, as I have written before, there have been times when I have thought that Saul might be an even BETTER show than the undeniably great Breaking Bad.  That is staggeringly impressive.

Season three of Better Call Saul takes some dark turns.  This is a grimmer, more downbeat version of the show.  This was inevitable, as we knew since minute one the sad fate that would await Jimmy McGill at the end of Breaking Bad.  (Not even the end.  Forget what happens to him by the end of the series; the man called Saul Goodman is already a sad fate for the good-hearted Jimmy McGill when we first meet Saul in Breaking Bad.)

When Better Call Saul began, I, like most viewers, thought I’d be a rush for the show to show Jimmy’s transformation into Saul, since Saul was such a fun presence on Breaking Bad.  But it is a mark of how great this show has been that that I quickly fell in love with Jimmy McGill and have been dreading his transformation to the immoral Saul.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much FUN I found Better Call Saul to be in the early going.  Breaking Bad certainly had some funny moments, but as a whole that series was so bleak that I often found it hard to watch, even as I always has great respect for how terrific a show it was. But Saul, while always having rich emotional stakes, was a hoot to watch!  That changed somewhat this season, as things turned sour for many of the characters.  Saul is as good a show as it has ever been, perhaps BETTER, but as the series has gotten closer to its Breaking Bad end-game, there was no way for the fun not to start to fall away as the tragedies began to mount.

This season had an unusual structure in that I felt the emotional climax came in episode five, “Chicanery,” in which Jimmy and Chuck confronted one another in court.  Things had been building to this since the very beginning, and it was incredible to see the two brothers finally do battle with one another, and in such a public way.  In an incredibly astute move by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and their writers, they finally gave Jimmy an unabashed win over his brother, exposing his mental illness for all to … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Better Call Saul Season One!

I started watching Breaking Bad on DVD right as the show was ending.  There was so much critical love for that show, particularly in the months leading up to its finale, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about!  I thoroughly enjoyed Breaking Bad as I made my way through the series, but somewhat to my surprise I never found myself as head-over-heels in love with the show as so many others seemed to be.  I respected the show enormously for what a quality piece of work it was, with incredible writing and performances (by Bryan Cranston in particular but also by all of the show’s wonderful ensemble) and extraordinarily top-notch production values.  But I never found myself in LOVE with the show.  I think this was because the show was so successful at being emotionally wrenching that I found it difficult to watch. Usually with shows I love, I tear through the episodes at a rapid clip.  But Breaking Bad was a show I needed to take my time with.  Even though many seasons ended on cliffhanger, I often found that I needed to wait weeks if not months before I was ready to move on to the next season.

And so, even though by the time I had completed watching the final season of Breaking Bad, the first season of the spin-off show Better Call Saul was already available, I hesitated to dive in. It wasn’t until last month that my wife and I finally sat down to watch Better Call Saul season one.  I am sorry I waited so long, because this first season of Better Call Saul was magnificent!  I think I enjoyed this season more than any season of Breaking Bad!  (Save perhaps for Breaking Bad’s riveting final run of episodes.)

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The show begins with a wonderful tease, a black-and-white sequence of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul living a solitary life working at a Cinnabun in a mall.  This little mini-movie is a gloriously brilliant way to open the show, as the audience is forced to look carefully for clues to determine when in the timeline of Saul’s life that sequence takes place.  The answer is perfect, and a perfect way to set the tone for this prequel series.

Bob Odenkirk’s Saul was a lot of fun on Breaking Bad, a bright splash of color in the dark world of Walter White.  I’d imagine that a perfectly entertaining show could have been made just watching the goofy, fast-talking Saul’s adventures as a “criminal” lawyer before he got mixed up with Walt and Jesse.  And yet, thankfully, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have set out to do something more difficult, something … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews the Final Season of Breaking Bad!

I am certainly late to the Breaking Bad party, having only begun watching the show’s first season on DVD in the days following the airing of the season finale.  All of the hub-bub over the show’s final season finally got me to try the show, and I’ve been slowly watching it on DVD ever since.

Watching Breaking Bad, there is no question that this is one of the best-made television shows in recent memory.  Every aspect of the production of the show is spectacular, though at the top of the list is the writing, spearheaded by creator and show-runner Vince Gilligan.  This show has been a creative triumph in terms of its perfect pacing, and the way it was able to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, chronicling an every-man’s transformation from timid, emasculated science teacher into a ruthless criminal.  Breaking Bad is a perfectly serialized show, with each episode telling a complete story in and of itself, while also flowing seamlessly into the next episode.  It’s been staggeringly, jaw-droppingly dark and grim.  I cannot believe the places this show has gone.  I truly can’t think of another TV show that has explored such darkness so unflinchingly, and been so ruthless with regards to the terrible fates that have befallen so many of its minor and major characters.

This is what makes Breaking Bad amazing, although it’s also what’s made me often keep the show somewhat at arm’s length, emotionally, as a viewer.  Most of the television shows I have truly loved have always left me desperately eager for the next episode.  And yet Breaking Bad was never like that for me (at least, not until this magnificent final season — more on that in a moment).  As I have written before in my reviews (click here for my thoughts on season one, here for my thoughts on season two, here for my thoughts on season three, and here for my thoughts on season four), there has been so much unrelenting unpleasantness depicted in this show that I often felt I needed a short break after watching each episode before moving on to the next.  And similarly, after completing each of the show’s seasons, I’ve paused for a while to watch other things before diving back into the next season.  As a result, it’s taken me two years to watch this show in its entirety, even though the whole series was available to me almost right from the beginning.

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And so, at last, I have arrived at the final season.  (This production season of 16 episodes — the show’s longest — was aired in two batches of eight episodes each, … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season Four

I started watching Breaking Bad a few weeks after its series finale aired, and I’ve been slowly catching up ever since.  Click here for my review of season one, here for my review of season two, and here for my review of season three.

I found season four to be very strong, building nicely on the narrative momentum set up in season three.  It’s fun to see a show at the top of its creative game.  And, because creator and show-runner Vince Gilligan was given the luxury of ending the show at the time and place of his choosing, watching these middle seasons unfold it’s a delight to relax and know that the story is heading somewhere, that it’s all heading towards what I expect to be a mighty crescendo in the show’s final season.  This is a rare privilege for a show-runner, to be able to craft one’s final seasons to build to an ending that comes when you want it to come, and watching season four I could see the creative confidence in every frame of the show.

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(Please beware some spoilers as I dig into my thoughts on season four, friends.  If you haven’t yet watched this season of this show, you probably want to stop reading here.)

Season four picks up right from the terrific cliffhanger that ended season three, with Gus and Mike ready to terminate Walt and Jesse with extreme prejudice, a pickle the boys only wriggle out of with Jesse’s murder of chemist Gale so that Gus once again needs them to cook their product for him.  The season premiere, “Box Cutter,” is a hell of an episode, tense and twisty, and a great way to kick off the season.  I’d commented in my review of season three that I enjoyed that the show seemed to be taking its time with the development of new villain Gus Fring, and I was glad to see that continue throughout season four, which is basically structured as one long duel of wits between Walt and Gus.  Gus, played so memorably by Giancarlo Esposito, is an incredible character, one of the most iconic TV villains of all time.  He’s a phenomenal foil for Walt, just as fierce and intelligent as Walt is.  As the season progresses, it’s fascinating to see just how similar Walt is to Gus, as our hero slides further into anti-hero.  (I was stunned to learn at the end of the season that it was Walt, not Gus, who was responsible for the poisoning of young Brock.  Can I still root at all for Walt after that?  We’ll see when I move on to season five…!)  I was very happy that … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season 3

I am slowly, slowly getting caught up with Breaking Bad!  Click here for my review of season one and here for my review of season two.

Much has been written about the way the Breaking Bad burns through story-lines, taking plot-lines that other shows would drag out for years and dispensing with them in just a few episodes.  In watching season three I was struck by how much less that was the case than in the first two seasons.  I found season three to be far more leisurely paced than I was used to the show being.  I like this adjustment!   Don’t get me wrong, there is a LOT of plot and circumstance crammed into season three, but I was pleased that the show took a little more time than before to explore these characters and situations.

Prime example: the finale of season one introduced a new big bad drug-lord, Tuco.  But he was dispensed with by the end of season two’s second episode.  In similar fashion, at the end of season two we met Gus the Chicken Man.  But rather than knocking him off quickly, I was pleased that the show kept this character around throughout all of season three and, presumably, now into season four.  Season three was a little more of a slow burn than previous seasons.

I disliked the plane crash ending of season two, and was eager for that to be forgotten about and for the show to move on.  And while I was pleased that, with the season three premiere, the show was indeed moving on, in hindsight I am glad they didn’t just totally ignore such a major event and that there were some references made to the plane crash and to the tragic fates of Jane and Donald (John DeLancie).  (I was thrilled to see that Walt’s involvement in Jane’s death wasn’t ignored, and that it became such an important plot point in the episode “Fly.”  I really thought Walt was going to spill the beans to Jesse in that episode!!!  I suspect this isn’t over…)

The show takes its sweet time in bringing Walt and Jesse back together at the beginning of season three.  While I was a little impatient for that inevitable event to happen, keeping them apart for a while makes sense following the events at the end of season two.  I am glad the show didn’t rush the two back together in the premiere, and I thought the exploration of Jesse’s grief and guilt following the death of his girlfriend Jane at the end of season two was the most compelling story-line we had seen for the character thus far.

I loved the continued involvement, throughout the … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Fargo (The Series)

When I first read that Fargo, the wonderful Coen Brothers movie, was being adapted into a TV series, I was not remotely interested.  Can you blame me?  When is the last time a good movie was successfully turned into a TV show that was remotely worth one’s time?  But then a funny thing happened.  This show I had completely dismissed started getting positive review.  Very positive reviews.  As 2014 drew to a close, I started seeing FX’s Fargo TV show listed on Best TV of the Year lists.  Again and again.  Had I made a mistake in writing off this show?  And so, at the very end of 2014, right before putting together my own Best TV of 2014 list, I watched the whole first season of Fargo.

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I was not at first bowled over by the pilot episode.  It was extremely well-made, gorgeously shot, and certainly filled with a wonderful ensemble of actors.  But I was surprised that this was the same show about which I had read such effusive praise.  I had two main problems with the pilot.

Number one, I wasn’t pleased by the way they seemed to take some of the iconic Fargo moments and characters and remove much of what, to me, had made them special.  A famous shot in Fargo is when a sleeping Marge (Frances McDormand) is awoken early in the morning.  We see Marge’s husband’s arm draped over her.  One of my favorite aspects of the film Fargo is the beautiful relationship between Marge and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), which is a reverse of the standard movie-cop archetypes.  It’s the woman who is the tough, smart cop, and the man who is in the stay-at-home, supportive role.  But in the show, when we see that shot, it seems that we’re back to the usual archetype with it being the woman’s arm draped over a man: the police chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle).  How boring to take that great Fargo flip and to flip in back to the original cliche!  Things got worse for me when we actually got to the Marge (Frances McDormand) character — in the TV show, the character is called Molly (and is played by Allison Tolman).  In the film, we first meet Marge when she is investigating an abandoned car and a dead body that have been found by the side of the road.  Marge is sharp and gets right to the important details.  She is way ahead of all the other cops.  In the show, we meet Molly in a similar way, but here, she makes some mistakes in her deductions and has to be corrected by the man, chief Thurman.  I was surprised … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Breaking Bad: Season Two

Yes, I know I am hugely late to the party on Breaking Bad.  Just as everyone was getting excited about the finale of the show, my wife and I were just starting to watch it from the beginning.  I enjoyed season one, though I found the show hard to watch at times because of how unhappy so many of the characters were.  Still, I recognized it as very well-made television, and I was eager to move on to season two.  (Click here for my review of season one.)

I enjoyed season two just as I had season one, though it took me far longer to get through the thirteen-episode season than I had expected.  There is no question that it’s a unique, bold show, one that is the product of a team of extraordinarily talented people.  But man I found it hard to watch.  So much so that after watching the first few episodes of the season I stopped, and it took me a while to get back into it to finish out the season.

I am sure this is not news to anybody, but Breaking Bad is a very bleak show.  That is part of what makes it so compelling and bold, but it also for me makes the show tough to get through.  I watched many of the episodes with my stomach twisted all in knots as  terrible thing after terrible thing happens to (and by) the main characters in the show.  It is rough.

I am definitely not someone who things that all good TV should be simple and happy.  Quite the opposite!  I already love and respect Breaking Bad for its incredible quality and its breath-taking freshness.  I am just being honest that I have a tough time watching it!!  (As I noted in my review of season one, I felt this way, to a much lesser degree, about the early seasons of Mad Men, but I eventually grew to fall totally in love with that show and its characters.  I am curious to see if the same thing winds up happening to me with Breaking Bad.)

One thing that immediately impressed me about the show is the way it never let’ the views off the hook by skipping over anything in a way that would let the audience say, OK, well, they did such-and-such and I don’t need to think about why or how, they just did it.  No, instead the show always digs deeply into the details.  For instance, season one ended with Walter and Jesse making a deal with the drugs-dealer Tucco.  I had expected season two to pick up the story weeks or months later, with the boys … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Spectacular Now

I am a sucker for a good coming of age story, and this season has seen a couple of excellent ones.  I was over the moon about The Way Way Back (click here for my review) and I was equally smitten by James Ponsoldt’s new film The Spectacular Now.  It’s a beautiful, powerful story about two young people finding themselves in the closing days of their high school years.

In the film, Miles Teller plays Sutter.  He’s a good looking, fast-talking, confident high school senior.  Sutter is the king of his high school hill.  He’s a popular guy with a pretty girlfriend.  He loves to party and to have a good time, and he’s never really thought about aspiring to anything beyond that.  But when his girlfriend breaks up with him, Sutter finds it harder than he’d expected for his nothing-can-bother-me, it’s-all-good attitude to keep out the pain.  Suddenly his hardy-partying ways seem less like the antics of a fun-loving high school kid and more like a crutch.  It’s after one-such night of drinking that Sutter finds himself passed out on the lawn of his classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley).  Aimee is sweet and kind and smart, and as something of a bookworm she is not at all in Sutter’s social circle.  The two begin an unexpected friendship, and soon — to surprise of both of their sets of friends — they begin dating.

From that point, I was expecting the film to go in one of two directions.  Either we’d get the story of the special girl who makes the boy into a better man, or the story of the innocent girl who is seduced by the appeal of the bad egg, almost allowing him to ruin her life before she sees the error of her ways.  But The Spectacular Now, luckily, is a much more nuanced film than that. The film doesn’t go down such expected directions, and though there are aspects of both of those ideas I just mentioned in the film’s story, the heart of the film lies in the many, often unexpected ways in which Sutter and Aimee affect one another.  Some of those changes are positive, while others are more up for debate, and the film is surprisingly deft at not drawing judgments and allowing the audience to make their own evaluations.  (I am thinking specifically of the way Aimee starts drinking once she begins seeing Sutter.  I was all ready for that to lead her down a dark road, and while there is not question that there are some ways in which she is negatively affected by her new taste for alcohol, the film has a more nuanced perspective on her new … [continued]

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No Flipping! The Larry Sanders Show on DVD

One of the first full-season-of-a-TV-show DVD sets that I ever purchased was Season 1 of The Larry Sanders Show, released back in 2003.

After having risen to prominence as a stand-up comedian in the 1970’s & 80’s, Garry Shandling became a fixture of late-night television as a regular guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.  In 1985 he created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran on Showtime through 1990.  (I have heard that It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is a magnificently bizarre, surreal adventure in television, although I have never seen a minute of it.  I live in hope of an eventual DVD release!) 

In 1992 Shandling created The Larry Sanders Show for HBO.  Sanders was a sharp satire of the world of late-night comedy which Shandling knew so well, and was notable for including various celebrities (actors, comedians, and musicians) in each episode, poking great amounts of fun at their public personas.  The show was also notable for its look, which mixed footage shot on video (the segments of the show which chronicled Larry Sanders’ late-night talk-show) with footage shot on film.  Nothing like this had ever been done for television before.

The comedy is powerful and brutal, and revels in awkward moments and painful situations.  (In this way it can be seen as a direct forerunner of the original British version of The Office.)  And yet, the beauty of the show is that you can’t help but fall in love with the show’s central trio: the neurotic Larry Sanders, the clue-less and self-absorbed side-kick Hank, and the fiercely loyal and astonishingly profane Artie, the show’s producer.  A great number of talented comedians and actors also did great work in supporting roles: Janeane Garofalo, Penny Johnson (Sherry Palmer on 24 and Kassidy Yates on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe on 24), Sarah Silverman, Bob Odenkirk, Scott Thompson, Wallace Langham, and many many others. 

I discovered The Larry Sanders Show fairly late in its run.  My parents taped many of the episodes of the last few seasons for me when I was away at college.  So I was thrilled when Season 1 was released, as I finally had a chance to watch the earlier episodes that I had never seen.  I quickly devoured the 13 episodes on the set, and waited patiently for the release of season 2.

And waited.

And waited.

No other season of The Larry Sanders Show has ever been released on DVD.  The information I have been able to find on-line seems to indicate that there is an issue with the exorbitant cost of licensing all the music featured on the show.… [continued]