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Josh Reviews Luther

Idris Elba (The Wire) stars as DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) John Luther in the BBC television series Luther.  Luther is a brilliant investigator but he always seems to tread right up (and sometimes over) to the boundary separating a by-the-book police officer with someone willing to step over into the dark side and do whatever he feels it takes to see the guilty punished.  Five short series (seasons) of Luther have been released since 2010.  The series was created by Neil Cross, who has written every episode.  Over the past several months, I slowly made my way through the series.  I thought Idris Elba’s performance in the lead role was phenomenal, though the unrelenting bleakness of the show made it difficult at times to get through.

Idris Elba’s extraordinary work as Stringer Bell in The Wire made me an instant fan, and I’ve enjoyed his work in a variety of projects ever since.  He’s been great as Heimdall in Thor and a variety of subsequent Marvel movies, and his work has always impressed even in otherwise mediocre movies (such as Pacific Rim, Star Trek Beyond, Prometheus, and American Gangster).  His presence as the lead in Luther is what made me want to watch the show, and there’s no question that it’s his intense, live-wire of a performance that is the best thing about it.  Mr. Elba’s presence dominates the screen in a way that few actors can manage.  The series provides a fantastic showcase for his talents.  The show’s storytelling is 100% focused on Luther.  There are some wonderful actors in supporting roles, but none of those characters are very fleshed out.  This is the Luther show, through and through.  Mr. Elba’s passion and magnetism sucks the viewer right in, and you travel with him through these stories.  He is tremendous, start-to-finish.

In the past decade-plus, we’ve seen a lot of great shows about charismatic but deeply messed-up male leads.  (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Shield, Boardwalk Empire, and many more.)  Luther fits squarely into that mold.  It can a bit of a tiresome structure for a show; it’s one that I don’t think has aged well since the series premiered in 2010.  My interest has waned in that type of show, and there were times when I felt Luther teetered on the edge of becoming a show I didn’t want to watch.  But Mr. Elba’s magnificent performance always pulled me back in.  I loved this character and ultimately I wanted to follow his journey!

Though, wow, it was sometimes hard, because I found the show’s unending horror to be difficult to stomach.  First of all, every episode is about some sort … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Undone

Amazon’s gorgeous, emotionally rich animated series Undone centers around a young woman named Alma (Rosa Salazar), who feels stuck in the mundane routines of her every-day life.  When her younger sister Becca announces her engagement, Alma begins to spiral into insecurity and frustration and loneliness.  After a car crash — the result of her running through a stop sign — lands her in the hospital, Alma begins seeing visions of her dead father (Bob Odenkirk).  He begins to teach Rosa shamanistic techniques to untether her mind from her linear reality, allowing her to experience different moments in her life and explore her past, and that of her father’s.  Has Alma taken the first steps into connecting with her family’s Nahuatl roots and learned how to see time and the universe in an entirely new way?  Or is this all in her head, and she is sinking into the schizophrenia that destroyed her grandmother?

I adored Undone.  This eight-episode series is a beautiful, complex character study of a deeply broken young woman, and at the same time it is a gloriously mind-bending sci-fi tale.  Both aspects of the series work wonderfully and enhance the other.  The series was created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg and directed by Hisko Hulsing.  (Mr. Bob-Waksberg created Bojack Horseman, and Ms. Purdy was a writer and producer on that show.)

Even without the sci-fi elements, Undone would be a deeply entertaining and moving series.  I loved the way the show slowly and carefully allowed us to peel back the layers of Alma’s personality and history.  Alma is incredibly well-developed as a three-dimensional protagonist.  She is deeply flawed, and the series doesn’t shy away from frankly depicting her poor decisions and upsetting, selfish behavior.  At the same time, the show never condemns her for those choices.  And while in the hands of less-skilled storytellers these choices might have turned off the audience, I found that they only rendered Alma even more interesting and sympathetic a character.  I couldn’t help but connect to how human and real she seemed.  Rosa Salazar’s phenomenal performance was rich and nuanced; she floored me with her work time and again over the course of these eight episodes.

Undone was created through rotoscoped animation.  Actors performed the scenes on a soundstage, and then that footage was used as the basis for the show’s gorgeous animation.  (Click here to read more about the process.)  The result is a unique and dazzlingly beautiful show.  The approach is perfect for executing the show’s regular dips into mind-trips and other brain-bending scenarios.  As co-creator Kate Purdy points out in that article: “We thought the show should be live action [at first]… but then if you … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Disenchantment Season Two

Matt Groening’s animated Netflix series, Disenchantment, doesn’t seem to me to have made much of an impact on the pop-culture scene.  And, let’s be honest, Disenchantment isn’t The Simpsons.  It doesn’t come near to approaching that series’ transcendent heights.  And it’s not even Futurama, Mr. Groening’s sci-fi comedy that, while it hasn’t made a hundredth of the cultural impact of The Simpsons, might just be even more beloved by its true fans — including me.  So, OK, Disenchantment isn’t as good as two of the greatest animated TV shows ever made.  I still think it’s quite good!  If you’ve previously enjoyed either The Simpsons or Futurama, Disenchantment is worth a look.  (It was one of my favorite TV shows of 2019!)

Disenchantment is set in a medieval fantasy world, and the writers have fun playing with the tropes that fans of anything from Game of Thrones to Dungeons & Dragons might expect.  As was the case on both The Simpsons and Futurama, Mr. Groening and his team have done a great job at developing the reality of this universe.  I enjoyed the many nooks and crannies that were developed and explored here in season two.  It’s fun to feel like you’re getting to see a fully-realized new world, one that has been carefully thought about and designed.

The Simpsons has always been very episodic.  Futurama was too, though that series gradually developed a very enjoyable continuity.  The characters were able to stay in their archetypical status quo, but at the same time, their personalities and relationships developed.  Meanwhile, as Futurama continued, viewers discovered that there were all sorts of fun mysteries built into the world, which were gradually revealed.  Disenchantment has been designed to move even further into serialization.  It’s a choice that makes sense, both as a reflection of the modern television landscape and also as a way to bring momentum to these short (10-episode) Netflix seasons.  Disenchantment is more about the series larger story-lines than Futurama was.  There are times when the show seems to value these unfolding storylines above the need to have a funny joke every few seconds.  Disenchantment is a very funny show, but I’ve never found it to be fall-off-your-seat funny the way The Simpsons and Futurama were at their best.  That’s not a criticism at all, just an explanation that the show has a different “vibe” than either The Simpsons or Futurama.  I like the choice.  There are hundred and hundreds of hours of those two previous shows.  It’s nice for Disenchantment to be able to be its own thing.  At the same time as the show has embraced serialization, it never falls into the trap of being a movie chopped … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Spy

Netflix’s six-episode mini-series The Spy tells the true story of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy in Syria in the 1950’s.  This was one of my favorite series of 2019, but I realized I’d never finished & posted my full review — time to remedy that!

I watched all six episodes of The Spy with my stomach tightly clenched.  The series is a wonderful exercise in sustained tension.  I found it so intense and gripping to watch that I had almost a physical reaction watching the episodes.  I was literally perched on the edge of my seat, with my whole body tense.  This was a very intense experience.  As a result, it was almost a relief when the series arrived at its conclusion.  But that only illustrates how well-crafted this series was.

This is an incredible true story.  Eli Cohen, an Israeli who was born in Egypt, volunteers to serve his country in an extremely dangerous manner: creating a completely false life for himself in Syria.  All six episodes of The Spy were directed and co-written by Gideon Raff.  Max Perry has the other half of that co-writing credit.  (Mr. Raff created the Israeli series Prisoners of War, which was adapted by Showtime and became Homeland.)  The Spy is based on the book L’espion qui venait d’Israël (The Spy Who Came From Israel), written by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat.  Eli Cohen’s story was previously depicted in the 1987 film The Impossible Spy.  (My father says it’s a good movie, so I’ll have to check it out!)

The series is very well-paced.  I’m pleased that the show was structured in a way that allowed us to spend time with Eli before he ever begins working for the Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency).  We see what drives him to undertake this extraordinarily dangerous mission, one for which he proved to be uniquely well-suited.  This is so critical for our investment in the character.  Once Eli begins his undercover mission, I loved the way the show filled out the details of how Eli slowly built his cover and created a complete second life for himself.  I loved all the little details of his spycraft.

Sacha Baron Cohen is fantastic in the lead role.  I’ve always been impressed with Mr. Cohen’s ability to vanish into a character.  Usually that’s in service of a comedy, though I’ve enjoyed, for example, his supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  That was a drama, though Mr. Cohen still scored several big laughs.  Here, he plays things completely straight as Eli Cohen.  And he’s phenomenal; completely convincing as this character, and compelling to watch go on this journey.

The Americans’ Noah Emmerich … [continued]

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Just Reviews Stumptown Season One

I enjoyed the first episode of Stumptown, and I’m pleased that I continued to enjoy the subsequent seventeen episodes of this first season.  Stumptown is based on the fantastic comic book series written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by first Matthew Southworth and then Justin Greenwood.  It centers on Dex Parios (played by Cobie Smulders), a private investigator in Portland, Oregon.

Stumptown is a fun adventure series.  It’s episodic by nature, but the formula works fairly well, and I enjoyed the show’s tongue-in-cheek, just slightly off-kilter sensibility.  The individual cases have danger and drama each week, but the show maintains an enjoyably comedic tone.  It’s a series that regularly returned to the status quo at the end of each episode, but it was able to zig where the standard sort of network procedural would have zagged enough to keep my interest.  I loved, for example, the show’s many unusual music choices used to score its action sequences.  I loved the use of a freeze-frame (that would then cut to an illustrated-looking version of the freeze-frame) that takes us into the opening titles each week.  (It was used to great comedic effect, and it looked cool!)  And while the show was generally episodic, they enjoyed throwing in a good cliffhanger on a regular basis, to help ensure viewers would return for the next episode.

It’s been a while since I’ve watched an episodic network show like this.  Even though I enjoyed the pilot episode, I was a little worried that the series would fall into a boring regular pattern.  But I enjoyed the outlandish cases in which Dex found herself involved week after week.  There were some fun and memorable installments in this first season!  If the show had a failing, it was its over-reliance on soap-opera-ish melodrama.  I found myself a little bored by the love triangle between Dex, Grey (Jake Johnson) and Hoffman (Michael Ealy) and the predictable sitcom-ish misunderstandings and bad-timing complications that arose between them.  Similarly, while I like that Grey had a tougher edge than the Grey in the comic series, I didn’t love the outlandish way the show wound up continually pushing him back into criminal-adjacent situations.

The show’s greatest strength is its cast.  Cobie Smulders is terrific in the lead role as screwed-up, P.T.S.D.-suffering P.I. Dex Parios.  She’s endearing and engaging and completely believable as this tough, don’t-mess-with-her young woman.  She can effortlessly play the drama while also demonstrating very solid comedic timing (clearly honed by her decade on How I Met Your Mother).  I’ve really enjoyed the dimension that Jake Johnson has brought to Grey.  Like Ms. Smulders, Mr. Johnson is very skilled at playing both the dramatic beats and the comedic … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Fourth and Final Season of Brockmire

Hank Azaria’s series Brockmire has consistently been one of my very favorite shows these past few years.  (Season three was one of my favorite TV shows of 2019.)  Each eight-episode season has been a small slice of pure pleasure.  The series is fiercely hilarious while also telling emotional stories about the broken characters featured on the show.  This fourth and final season was absolute perfection.  The series’ love of baseball, and its commentary on today’s world mixed beautifully with the way they wrapped up all of the main characters’ storylines… without ever being afraid to pause to allow Hank Azaria’s Brockmire to deliver a scorchingly profane punchline.  I miss this show already!

As I have written before, Jim Brockmire is the role that Hank Azaria was born to play.  Mr. Azaria is screamingly funny, while also able to skillfully bring a lot of pathos and emotion to his depiction of the character. I love how the series has chronicled Brockmire’s slow, painful journey back from being disgraced and in the gutter.  It’s an insane idea that, here in this fourth and final season, Brockmire has somehow managed to become the Commissioner of baseball, but it’s absolutely perfect.  The series mines a lot of comedy from the profane, rough-and-tumble Brockmire’s new role as an administrator, and it’s fun to see the show explore a new side of the world of baseball.  (Also: I’m glad we got one final very funny Joe Buck appearance!!)

A key element in the first season of Brockmire was Amanda Peet as Jules, the woman with whom Bockmire falls in love while working as a play-by-play announcer in Morristown, a small Pennsylvania coal town.  I missed Jules’ regular presence in seasons two and three, and so I was delighted that she was back as a full-time player here in the final season.  Ms. Peet and Mr. Azaria’s comic energy remains spectacular, and I was very pleased to see that Brockmire and Jules’ on-again off-again relationship was given a satisfying resolution.

This final season of Brockmire is, for the most part, set in the future: specifically, the year 2033.  It’s a bold choice, but one that turns out to be beautifully serendipitous.  The show was completed long before the start of this pandemic, but began airing right as COVID-19 was spreading.  This makes the show’s social commentary far more biting than might have been expected.  Brockmire’s depiction of the United States of America is a scary (but horrifyingly possible) future, in which the country has continued to slide into a chasm of haves versus have-nots; many Southern states are now lawless “Disputed Lands”; and climate change has wreaked havoc, not the least of which appears … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Triumphant Final Season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars!

I quite enjoyed the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars series when it ran on Cartoon Network from 2008-2012.  Although the series started out a little wobbly (the first four episodes, which were edited together into a film that was released theatrically, were mediocre at best), it gradually grew into a wonderfully rich and complex series that fleshed out the Star Wars universe.  I was sad when the show was cancelled before its planned eight seasons could be completed (a casualty of Lucasfilm’s purchase by Disney).  I was thrilled that Dave Filoni & co. were able to sneakily bring back several characters and storylines from The Clone Wars into their next animated series, Star Wars: Rebels, thus giving Clone Wars fans some much-needed resolution.  I never dreamed we’d ever see an actual return of the series, and so I was blown away last year when the news broke that The Clone Wars would be returning with twelve additional episodes to wrap up the series!

This final batch of twelve episodes, which were released on Disney+, consisted of three four-episode stories.  The first two story-arcs were enjoyable.  The final four episodes were, without question, the best new Star Wars stories I have seen in years.  I am not exaggerating!  I was BLOWN AWAY by the final four episodes!!!  The animation was spectacular, beyond anything the show had done before.  But it was the character storylines that made these episodes so jaw-dropping.  Deeply emotional, richly nuanced, these episodes gave us the payoff to more than a decade of story-telling, and it was incredible.  This was ESSENTIAL Star Wars, and cements the legacy of this Clone Wars series as a critical part of the Star Wars saga.  I wouldn’t have said this before these final episodes, but I’ll say it now: if you haven’t seen these episodes, you haven’t seen the full Star Wars story.

If you haven’t watched The Clone Wars, but you’re swayed by my bold statement above that this is critical Star Wars storytelling, where to begin?  It’s tough, because while I think most of the show is watchable, there’s no question that the early seasons are a little shaky and more kid-focused.  But you can’t just skip the first few seasons, because you’ll miss a lot of important character-development and world-building.  So my suggestion is this: watch the final episodes of what Disney+ lists as season six (these were the “Lost Missions,” a final batch of completed episodes that were first shown on Netflix, after the show was cancelled on Cartoon Network).  The final four episodes are: “The Lost Ones”, “Voices”, “Destiny”, and “Sacrifice”.  Those four episodes tell a complete story that is super-awesome and ties very closely into … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Things Season Four

Pamela Adlon’s magnificent TV series, Better Things, seems to get better and better with every season.  The ten episode fourth season was another wonderfully memorable, moving and funny installment.  I love this show, and if you’re not watching it, I highly recommend you change that forthwith!

Better Things was co-created by Pamela Adlon, who also plays the lead role, writes most of the episodes (she wrote or co-wrote five of the ten season four episodes), and directed ALL of them.  I have a particular love for TV shows that feel like the strong expressions of their creator/showrunner, and Better Things is a prime example of this.  The show feels so personal and autobiographical for Ms. Adlon, even as I recognize that it’s a work of fiction.  But there are clearly many levels of underlying truth to the stories being told; this makes the show so compelling to me.  It is also, as I have written before, a magnificent showcase for Ms. Adlon’s talents.  I love that she has created a show that is so wonderfully unique.

The show is a beautifully-made character study, allowing us a peek into the life of Sam, her three daughters (Max, Frankie, and Duke), her mother Phil, and many of the other women in her life.  The show is focused on exploring the lives of these women; not in a tacky or superficial way, but through rich, complex, nuanced storytelling.

There is plot to be found in Better Things, but unlike most TV shows, the series is never really about the plot.  It’s about these characters.  The show is, at the same time, bracingly realistic and lifelike, while also being dreamlike and playful.  As the narrative flows onwards, we’re carried forward from vignette to vignette.  Sometimes we linger to dig deeply into a moment and then we move on (often skipping the type of plot-driven connective-tissue scenes found in other TV shows).  The result is a beautiful ensemble character piece.

The cast is amazing.  I’d enjoyed Pamela Adlon’s work before Better Things (she was so memorable in her sporadic appearances on Louie), but now that I’ve seen this show I am cemented as a fan for life.  The three young actresses who play her character’s daughters — Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward — get better each season (and they were terrific to begin with).  I was particularly pleased that this season gave Frankie (Hannah Alligood’s character) a number of interesting stories, allowing her to mature out of the angry phase we saw her in for most of season three.  (I also love how delicately the show continues to address Frankie’s fluid sexuality without making it into a Big Deal.)  Celia Imrie continues to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Modern Love

May 18th, 2020
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Amazon’s series, Modern Love, is based on the New York Times column of the same name.  Each episode of this eight-episode anthology series adapts a specific Modern Love column.  Each episode tells the story of a romance; though the episodes feature different types of love stories featuring characters of different ages, genders, and situations.

I wouldn’t have expected this to be up my alley, but I found myself rather taken by this show.  This isn’t ground-breaking television by any means, but it’s endearingly warm-hearted.  Anthologies can be a tough sell, but I enjoyed the way each episode in this series was completely different.  It helps that the cast they assembled for these eight episodes was quite extraordinary (see more on this below).  At a brisk eight-episodes, the series didn’t overstay its welcome.

Here are my (mostly spoiler-free) thoughts on the series:

Episode 1: “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” — Cristin Miloti (How I Met Your Mother, the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror) plays Maggie, a single young woman living in New York City who has a very close relationship with her building’s doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa).  This slight tale is a nice intro to the series, though ultimately I found it to be one of the weaker entries.  Both my wife and I thought the show was going to be about Maggie ultimately falling in love with her father-figure of a doorman, an idea that we both found very creepy.  Ultimately the episode went in a different direction (thankfully), but because that’s what we thought was happening for most of the episode’s run-time, it cast a shadow over our enjoyment of the story.

Episode 2: “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist” — Catherine Keener (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Being John Malkovich) plays Julie, a reporter interviewing a young man, Joshua, played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom), who has started a successful dating app.  Over the course of the interview, Joshua tells Julie tells the story of the woman he loved who he let get away, and Julie tells Joshua a similar story from her own past.  I really liked this episode, and I was particularly taken by Julie’s story of how she reconnected, late in life, with her old flame, played by Andy Garcia.  I liked Julie’s story even more than the “main” story of Joshua and Emma (Caitlin McGee)!  I thought Mr. Garcia and Ms. Keener had terrific chemistry, and I was moved by their melancholy story of missed opportunities.

Episode 3: “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am” — Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs, Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) plays Lexi, a woman … [continued]

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Josh’s Guide to Watching Battlestar Galactica!

I hope you enjoyed my recent series, giving a step-by-step guide to watching (and falling in love with) Star Trek!  After getting to Deep Space Nine, my strong recommendation is that, rather than continuing with any of the mediocre series or movies that came after Deep Space Nine, you shift to a different show that, to me, is a perfect next step after watching DS9: the reimagined Battlestar Galactica!  

The “reimagined” Battlestar Galactica was a reboot of the original Galactica series from 1978.  This new Galactica ran for four seasons on the Sci-Fi network between 2003-2009.  That show was created and overseen by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick.  Mr. Moore was one of the best writers from Star Trek The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.  Battlestar Galactica was a huge leap forward in the types of stories that Trek had been developing through Next Gen and then DS9.  It’s much darker than Trek, and the episodes are much more tightly connected than Trek episodes ever were.  But it’s very cool to see how ideas (characters, themes, approaches to storytelling, etc.) that Mr. Moore and the other Trek writers were playing with were taken to the next level on this different series.

If you’ve followed my recommendations and watched and enjoyed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the end of DS9 will flow very smoothly for you into the start of Battlestar Galactica.  And, of course, the series completely stands on its own, so even if you’ve never seen ANY Star Trek, I highly recommend you give Battlestar Galactica a try!

I really love this show.  It’s one of my favorite sci-fi shows ever.  But, seriously, Battlestar Galactica is not just an amazing sci-fi show, it’s an amazing TV show, full stop.  Don’t let the title stand in your way!  If you like ambitious modern TV dramas, you will enjoy Battlestar Galactica!  As co-creator David Eick once famously put it: “we set out to make a space opera that would be appealing for people that hated fucking space operas.”  The series was included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time; Time Magazine called it one of the 10 best shows of the 2000s; Alan Sepinwall included a lengthy section on the show in his wonderful book How the Revolution was Televised, about groundbreaking dramas that changed TV forever; I could go on and on.

The series began with a two-part, three-hour mini-series (which is terrific), and then it ran for four seasons.

It’s all pretty fantastic!!  (I will be upfront that the fourth and final season is a bit wobblier than I wish it was.  That season … [continued]

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How to Start Watching (And Fall in Love with) Star Trek — The Conclusion!

We’ve arrived at the end of what history shall surely judge the most important blog series I will ever write: a guide to how a newbie should discover Star Trek!  In part one, I recommended fifteen stand-out episodes of the Original Series.  In part two, I recommended that, as a next step, a newbie watch the following four original Trek movies: the informal trilogy of Star Trek II, III, and IV, and then skip to Star Trek VI for the grand finale of the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the Original Series cast.  In part three, I gave detailed instructions for what to watch and what to skip when diving into the first great Star Trek spin-off, Star Trek: The Next Generation.  In part four, I gave a guide for watching my VERY FAVORITE Star Trek show: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!

After completing Deep Space Nine, you should definitely watch the 2019 documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  This beautiful, heartfelt look back at Deep Space Nine, overseen by DS9 show runner Ira Steven Behr, is a terrific salute to the show.  Click here for my full review.

What’s next?

The Deep Space Nine series finale aired in June, 1999.  There’s been a lot of additional Star Trek made in the subsequent years, but sadly there’s nothing that I can wholeheartedly recommend to you.  (However, if you’re impatient, scroll down to see another sci-fi show that I STRONGLY recommend you watch after Deep Space Nine…!)  Meanwhile, let’s take a look at the other Star Trek series and movies:

Star Trek: Voyager The next Trek spin-off aired from 1995-2001.  I don’t care for Voyager.  For a long time, I considered it by far the worst of all the Trek shows (though the most recent Trek makes Voyager look great by comparison).  The show had an interesting premise — enemy crews (the U.S.S. Voyager and the Maquis rebels they were chasing) are flung 70,000 light-years from home, and must work together in order to survive in an uncharted, dangerous area of space.  The idea of throwing off the familiar to tell new stories with new aliens in an entirely new part of the galaxy seemed like a great idea, and the story conflict between the two crews seemed ripe.  But the series immediately abandoned its premise.  The Maquis rebels are all wearing Starfleet uniforms by the end of the pilot episode.  The series never actually explored the realities of life all alone, decades away from home or support.  The premise seemed designed to embrace the continuity of storytelling that had made DS9[continued]

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How to Start Watching (And Fall in Love with) Star Trek — Part Four!

May 7th, 2020
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Welcome back!  We’re drawing to the end of the most important blog series I will ever write: a guide to how a newbie should discover Star Trek!  In part one, I recommended fifteen stand-out episodes of the Original Series.  In part two, I recommended that, as a next step, a newbie watch the following four original Trek movies: the informal trilogy of Star Trek II, III, and IV, and then skip to Star Trek VI for the grand finale of the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the Original Series cast.  In part three, I gave detailed instructions for what to watch and what to skip when diving into the first great Star Trek spin-off, Star Trek: The Next Generation.  And now, in part four, we arrive at my VERY FAVORITE Star Trek show: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!

I adore Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

I think DS9 seasons 4-7 are my favorite seasons of a Trek show (only rivaled by TNG seasons 3 and 4), and they for sure the best extended run of episodes that Trek ever had.  It does take the show some time to arrive at the greatness it would become, but I will guide you around the potholes.

Season One:

Here in season one, I think the pilot episode is fantastic. When I first saw it, back in 1993, I found it a little “talky”, but now it is my very favorite of all the Trek pilot episodes.  I think it’s emotionally rich and complex and does a great job of introducing all of the characters.  These days, when I want to rewatch a DS9 episode, this is my go-to episode (even before some of the huge action episodes of later years).

What follows that pilot episode is a run of six of seven decent stand-alone episodes.  The show falls back, here, on a TNG model of stand-alone sci-fi adventure stories each week.  Compared to today’s TV, and also to where the show will go in the 2nd half of its run, it feels like a very old-school style of storytelling.  But I think the first half of the season has fun stories, and they do a nice job developing and exploring the characters.  I think the second half of season one is a mess, and I will mostly have you skip those episodes.  The season ends very strong, with two terrific episodes. “Duet” is, I think, one of the best Star Trek episodes of all time, of any series.  This strong ending will lead into a fantastic three-part opening of season two (Trek’s first three-parter!), and we’re off to the races.

I will say … [continued]

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How to Start Watching (And Fall in Love with) Star Trek — Part Three!

May 6th, 2020
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Welcome back to the most important blog series I will ever write!!  This is a guide to how a newbie should discover Star Trek!  In part one, I recommended fifteen stand-out episodes of the Original Series.  In part two, I recommended that, as a next step, a newbie watch the following four original Trek movies: the informal trilogy of Star Trek II, III, and IV, and then skip to Star Trek VI for the grand finale of the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the Original Series cast.

If you’ve followed my instructions so far, I highly suspect that, by this point, you will be hooked!!

After watching Star Trek VI, you could go back and watch more of the Original Series.  (In part one, I listed many additional great Original Series episodes.)

But my general recommendation would be to buckle up and take a deep dive into the first live-action Star Trek TV show spin-off: Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Produced between 1987 and 1994, TNG ran for seven seasons and a total of 178 episodes.  That is a LOT!  The first two seasons were very rough, but by season three TNG had developed into a magnificent show, and there is SO MUCH amazing storytelling in seasons three through seven!  If you read on, I’ll give you my detailed instructions as to how to watch TNG, skipping all of the bad episodes to get quickly to the great stuff.  Be warned, though, whereas my initial list of Original Series recommendations was relatively short — 15 episodes out of the full run of 79 — I think it’s worth spending a lot more time with TNG.  But don’t worry — I suspect that, at this point, you’ll be into Star Trek and well-primed for the amazing journey that awaits you watching TNG.

First, an overview.  Star Trek: The Next Generation is a terrific Star Trek show.  For many fans, it’s the best of all the series.  It is certainly the most popular of all the Trek spin-off shows that came after the Original Series.  (Personally, I feel – correctly! – that Deep Space Nine is the best of all the Trek spin-offs.)

Just as I was upfront about some of the flaws in the Original Series, let me be honest about the problems with TNG.  First off, the first season is TERRIBLE and the second season is also PRETTY STINKY.  It doesn’t really become the show it would be until season three.  (Therefore, as you’ll see below, I’m going to suggest you skip most of those first two seasons!)  Second, aspects of TNG haven’t aged so well.  Interestingly, as a kid watching … [continued]

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How to Start Watching (And Fall in Love with) Star Trek — Part Two!

Yesterday I posted part one of this, possibly (probably!) the most important blog series I will ever write!  It’s my guide to how to start watching (and fall in love with) Star Trek!

Yesterday I suggested that a newbie begin by watching a select group of episodes from the Original Series.  I listed fifteen stand-out episodes.  My general recommendation is to move on to the movies at that point… but for anyone who’s really digging the Original Series, I also listed about 20 more episodes that you could watch and enjoy before diving into the film series.

(Interlude: But what about The Animated Series?  Many people don’t know this exists, but from 1973-74, twenty-two episodes were made of a half-hour, animated version of Star Trek!  The animation was done on the cheap, but the series was overseen by talented Original Series Trek writer D.C. Fontana, and many other key Original Series people were involved behind the scenes.  In my opinion, this is absolutely canonical Trek.  It’s aimed for kids, but there are still a number of very watchable episodes in the mix.  For newbies, I recommend skipping this and moving straight on to the films, but its something you might want to revisit at some point.  If you want to watch just one episode to get a taste for the series, I’d recommend “Yesteryear,” which in my mind is the clear stand-out of the series.)

And now, on to the original six Star Trek films!

For a newbie, my advice is to skip Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  This is somewhat painful for me, because I have a lot of love in my heart for this film.  There is a lot that is interesting and enjoyable in this film, but there’s no question that it’s a misfire.  The tone is off.  It’s a very cerebral, intellectual story — which I like, actually, but it’s missing the warmth that Trek should have, and large chunks of it are, let’s admit it, boring.  TMP, made in 1979, was far more influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey than by Star Wars.  Actually, I love the boldness of that very unusual choice, but it results in a film that is somewhat unsatisfying and, for long stretches, dull.  The visuals shift between amazing (I love the redesign of the Enterprise, with the story reason being that the ship was refitted following the conclusion of the five-year mission — the refit Enterprise is my favorite spaceship design of all time; how’s that for a bold statement!!) and terrible (whoa boy are the new uniforms horrific).

(If you do watch TMP, the best version is the Director’s Edition, made in 2001.  This was one of … [continued]

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How to Start Watching (And Fall in Love with) Star Trek — Part One!

May 4th, 2020
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Welcome to the most important blog post I might ever write!

I love Star Trek.  

I think that, of all of the series/franchises/stories/universes that I love, whether they be in movies, TV shows, novels, comic-books, or whatever the media, Star Trek will always be my favorite.

I love Star Trek for its optimistic, utopian vision of the future.  I love Star Trek for its strong focus on humanistic values and moral messages.  I love Star Trek for its respect for science.  I love Star Trek for its many beloved characters.  I love Star Trek for its complex continuity, for its world-building, for the feeling that all of these different stories, told over more than fifty years, matter and fit together into a cohesive universe.  I love Star Trek for its heady intellectual ideas and also for its kick-ass space action/adventure.  And that’s just a start; I love Star Trek for so many more reasons.

Over the years, I have frequently talked with fellow lovers of movies, TV shows, novels, comic books, etc., who weren’t big Trek fans like me.  For many of them, they were potentially interested in Trek, but they didn’t know where to begin.  At this point, there have been thirteen Star Trek movies and eight different TV series (Star Trek, Star Trek the Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard).  Not to mention a wealth of spin-off materials in other media like novels and comic-books.  Where should someone begin when trying to discover Star Trek?  It can feel overwhelming.

Rest easy, friends!  I am here to give you my expert guidance on how to start watching (and fall in love with) Star Trek!

I strongly suspect that, if you are a reader of this site but you don’t yet consider yourself a Star Trek fan, if you gave it a try, you will like (and probably love!) Star Trek.  

With my guidance, I can show you how to dip your toes into this vast ocean.  There is a whole universe of amazing story-telling out there, just waiting to be discovered!!

Several times in the past few years, I have tried variations on the approach that I will outline here.  It has not failed yet!  That statement is not about tooting my own horn, but rather as evidence of how great Star Trek is — even (or maybe I should say, ESPECIALLY) the Original Series, which is now more than fifty years old.

OK, so where to begin?

Part One: Star Trek: The Original Series

I suggest that, to begin your journey into Star Trek, that you start by watching between about 15 episodes of the Original Series.

It’s astonishing how … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season Seven!

After being cancelled two years ago by Fox, Brooklyn Nine-Nine roared back on NBC with possibly its strongest season ever.  The recently-concluded season seven can’t quite top that magnificent season six, but it’s still a terrific season of comedy that demonstrates that this veteran show continues to have a lot of gas in its tank.

The first few episodes of season seven were OK but not spectacular.  I was a little surprised that the show didn’t manage to milk more comedic energy out of the season six cliffhanger in which Captain Holt was demoted to walking a beat.  I’d thought the show would get a lot of mileage out of the idea of the Nine-Nine’s boss now being a subordinate to all of them, but that plotline didn’t seem to build to much.  I was thrilled to see Vanessa Bayer (SNL, Trainwreck, Office Christmas Party) join the ensemble as Holt’s new beat-partner, but while I loved her initial oil-and-water pairing with Holt, I didn’t like the u-turn to make her pretty much insane in episode five, “Debbie,” after which she was gone from the show.

I did love episode three, “Pimemento,” a brilliant title for a fantastic Memento parody that brought back Jason Mantzoukas as Adrian Pimento.  I love Mr. Mantzoukas’ crazy energy, and this loony story was a good match for his character.

I enjoyed the way several episodes last season played with the show’s usual format, and so I was pleased to see that kind of creativity again on display in episode six, “Trying,” which took place over six months.  Six months in twenty-two minutes is no easy feat!  The episode depicted Jake & Amy’s unsuccessful efforts towards Amy’s getting pregnant.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine has often experimented with weaving the occasional serious emotional story in with all the cartoon craziness.  Sometimes that merging of disparate tones can be awkward, but I was pleased at how funny and also heartfelt this episode was.  I particularly loved the bold choice to not end the episode with a happy ending; instead, we see Amy learning in the final seconds of the show that she has again failed to get pregnant.  (I only wish they didn’t jump into Amy’s actually getting pregnant at the end of the very next episode.  It would’ve been better to have let the ending of “Trying” linger for a few more episodes.)

The season’s five final episodes were all terrific, a fantastic run of hugely funny shows.  In episode nine, “Dillman,” the great J.K. Simmons turned in a phenomenal guest appearance as the super-skilled detective friend of Captain Holt.  In episode ten, “Admiral Peralta,” Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) returned as Jake’s not-so-great … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Call Saul Season Five

Better Call Saul season five was magnificent.  I have been saying for years now that I have enjoyed watching Better Call Saul even more than Breaking Bad, and this triumphant penultimate season has only further solidified my opinion.  (It’s also interesting to see a growing critical consensus seem to be coming around to that idea.)

There will be SPOILERS ahead, gang, so if you’re not yet caught up, please come back once you are.

Better Call Saul was set up to be, primarily, the story of how a nice but flawed guy named Jimmy McGill became the scheming, no-morals criminal lawyer Saul Goodman.  It’s an oft-repeated story that the show’s creators and writers had originally expected Jimmy to transform into Saul much earlier in the show’s run.  (You can see how the season one finale was designed to make that happen.)  But they so fell in love with Bob Odenkirk’s work as Jimmy, that they decided that didn’t want to see him disappear into Saul too quickly.  For me as an audience member, that was the central magic trick of the show’s early years.  I started watching excited to see more of the funny scumbag Saul, and at first I was impatient for Jimmy to become Saul.  But I too fell in love with Jimmy, and gradually the idea of Jimmy’s becoming Saul became even more of a tragedy than the moral disintegration of Walt in Breaking Bad.  Saul has gotten more emotionally rich with each season, because the looming tragedy of the birth of Saul Goodman has become more and more heartbreaking to me, as someone watching and rooting for Jimmy.  Bob Odenkirk’s work has just gotten better and better and better.  This talented comedian has so perfectly meshed with this role, and his work this season reached new heights of subtlety and humanity.

Adding to the growing tragedy of the looming loss of Jimmy has been how deeply I, as an audience member, have grown to care about Kim Wexler.  Rhea Seehorn has grown into the show’s most indispensable actor.  Her fierce, deeply nuanced, emotionally rich work is absolutely astounding.  Was there a greater TV moment in the past year than when Kim Wexler tore Lalo a new one at the end of his terrifying visit to her and Jimmy’s apartment in episode nine?  As much as I have grown to care about Jimmy, I care about Kim even more.  For the past few seasons, I’ve been getting more and more worried about Kim’s ultimate fate.  I desperately wanted (and still want) her to have a happy ending at the end of the show.  I’ve been wondering whether we should be worried or relieved that we never heard … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Living with Yourself

In the Netflix mini-series Living with Yourself, Paul Rudd stars as Miles Elliot.  Miles has a lovely wife, a nice house, and a good job.  And yet, he is deeply unhappy.  When we meet Miles in the first episode, he seems to be locked in a cycle of misery and mediocrity.  Desperate for something to change, he takes a co-worker’s advice and visits a mysterious spa for a treatment.  During the treatment, Miles falls asleep; he awakens to find himself mostly buried, alone in the woods.  Distraught and confused, he eventually makes it back to his house, only to discover that he has been replaced by an identical clone of himself.  Except this clone is a far better version of himself than he ever was!

This is a nutty premise, but one of the best aspects of Living with Yourself is how wonderfully far the show runs with this set-up!  I love how deeply the show explores the reality of this crazy sci-fi notion.  I love how grounded every other aspect of the show is, with the exception of this crazy cloning premise!  (In that respect, the show reminds me, quite favorably, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) 

Paul Rudd is fantastic in the dual role of Miles and his clone.  Mr. Rudd is perfectly cast, and he’s every bit as great as I’d wanted him to be.  I love how perfectly Mr. Rudd is able to differentiate these two different versions of Miles.  There is never any question about who is who.  This is an acting triumph.  (The seamless special effects are spectacular and also really help sell the reality of the show.)

The series was created by Timothy Greenberg, who wrote all eight episodes.  All eight episodes were directed by the team of Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, who directed Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes.  These are names I’ll be paying close attention to, after having watched this series!

Living with Yourself is a very funny show, but this isn’t a silly spoof.  The show is based firmly in drama, and in exploring the emotional complexities of this situation and of the affected characters.  Mr. Rudd’s skills are perfectly suited to striking this delicate tone.  He is able to be absolutely hilarious one moment, without undercutting the drama and emotion of the next moment.

The eight episodes are beautifully structured.  I love how we’re continually shifting back-and-forth between the different perspectives of the two Miles (and then eventually, in one of my favorite episodes, into the perspective of Miles’ beleaguered wife Kate).  In less-capable hands, these perspective-shifts might have been confusing, but they’re beautifully well-executed on the show.  I was never confused about where … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Russian Doll

In Netflix’s eight-episode series Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne stars as Nadia, a young woman who, on the night of her 36th birthday, dies over and over again, continually finding herself resurrected back to life at the same moment, in the bathroom at the start of the party thrown for her by one of her friends.  Yes, it’s Groundhog Day: the series, but don’t let that already-excellently-done idea cause you to underestimate this show.  Russian Doll is a terrific play on this concept, spinning a riveting yarn that is very funny and also psychologically rich.  I loved it.

Created by Ms. Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, Russian Doll is a fiendishly clever story.  I love how intricately structured the eight episodes are, and how beautifully everything fits together in the end.  This is a tough show to stop watching (by design, of course).  I was hooked immediately by Ms. Lyonne’s wonderful lead performance and by the mysteries of the show’s set-up, and each episode ended with a delicious cliffhanger that propelled me into the next episode.

Ms. Lyonne became a big star in the late nineties (especially with 1999’s American Pie), and she’s had something of a career resurgence recently with her terrific work in Orange is the New Black.  Despite my being familiar with her, I was blown away by how fantastic she is here in this series.  This feels like the part she was born to play.  Ms. Lyonne effortlessly carries the series on her shoulders.  She’s incredibly funny and at the same time heartbreaking in her depiction of this damaged young woman.  I love the way the show allows us to gradually peel back the onion of who Nadia is and, more importantly, why she is the way she is.  It’s beautiful work, and Ms. Lyonne sells every moment of it.

I don’t believe I’ve ever before seen the work of Charlie Barnett, but he’s terrific as Alan, a man who, we discover, has an unexpected connection to Nadia.  I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’m going to be vague here, but let me say that Mr. Barnett is a terrific yin to Ms. Lyonne’s yang.  I love how he portrays this unusual young man; allowing us to emphasize with him and quickly grow to love him despite his at-times off-putting behavior.  (That’s a great description of Ms. Lyonne’s work on the show, as well!)

The rest of the cast is great: Yul Vazquez (I am the Night) as Nadia’s older ex-boyfriend; Elizabeth Ashley as Nadia’s psychiatrist and mother-figure; Greta Lee & Rebecca Henderson as Nadia’s friends Max and Lizzy; Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black) as Alan’s girlfriend Beatrice; … [continued]

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Josh Reviews I Am the Night

In between making Wonder Woman and the upcoming sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine continued their collaboration with the six-episode TNT mini-series, I Am the Night.  The series was created by Sam Sheridan, who wrote five of the six episodes.  Ms. Jenkins directed the first two episodes, while Victoria Mahoney directed episodes 3-4 and Carl Franklin directed episodes 5-6.  Set in the 1960s, the series follows the journey of young woman Pat Atman (India Eisley) to discover the truth about her family.  Pat, who was raised by a single African-American woman, appears to be white, but has grown up believing herself to be bi-racial.  However, when she finds a birth certificate with another name — Fauna Hodel — in her mother’s belongings, she realizes that she was adopted.  As she starts looking for her birth mother and family, she is swept up into a dangerous world of crime and privilege in Los Angeles.  Pat/Fauna’s unexpected ally in her search for the truth is a washed-up, drug-addicted reporter, Jay Singletary (Chris Pine).  Jay’s life was destroyed when he wrote a series of articles attempting to expose some of the secrets that Pat/Fauna’s birth family have been hiding.  Jay sees in her a chance to perhaps finally be able to prove the truth.

I Am the Night is an interesting bird.  It’s a competently made series.  The mystery is twisty and engaging.  The acting is top-notch.  (Chris Pine is particularly great.)  The direction is compelling and the production design is terrific; the series looks great, beautifully bringing to life a variety of different locations of the era.

The series’ main weakness is that its mix of true and fictionalized events felt somewhat uneven to me.  After watching the first episode, I wasn’t quite sure what exactly this series was about (though that did eventually become clearer), and I found myself wondering whether this was supposed to be a true crime series or a fictionalized story.  There wasn’t any text at the beginning saying that this series was based on actual events or anything like that… but then at the end of the episode (and every subsequent episode) we saw several of what looked like photos of the characters who were played by actors on the show.  The on-screen credits say that the series was “inspired by the life of Fauna Hodel.”  What exactly does that mean?  After watching the series I did some reading about it and was able to shed some light on this.  The series is based on Fauna Hodel’s memoir One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel.  Fauna really existed, and much of the story of her quest to uncover the truth about … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 10

We had to wait a long time between the eighth and ninth seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm (over five years), and when that ninth season of Curb finally arrived, I felt the show had lost its way somewhat.  It was still extremely funny, and jam-packed with wonderful and crazy ideas.  But the longer-running episodes felt shaggier, and more hit-and-miss.  Plots didn’t fit together with the clockwork precision of earlier Curb (and, of course, Seinfeld).  It still made me happy, but I felt the show’s best days were behind it.  I’m thankful that we only had to wait two years between the ninth and tenth seasons of Curb.  This tenth season isn’t a reinvention of the show; it’s stronger than season nine, I think, but I doubt anyone would argue this is one of the best seasons of the show.  Still, not being as good as the best seasons of one of the best TV shows ever made is not a crime!!  I really enjoyed this season, and I think this show still has a lot of life left in it.  There was plenty that didn’t quite work here in season ten, but there was so much to enjoy it’s hard for me to really complain.  Let’s dig in…

The first three episodes of the season had me very concerned.  Those episodes focused primarily on Larry’s running afoul of the #metoo movement.  The idea that the ornery, prickly Larry of Curb — who also happens to be a wealthy, privileged, older white man — would find himself the subject of ire from the #metoo movement is an idea with a lot of merit.  However, I felt those first few episodes made the mistake of drifting into mockery of the #metoo movement.  There’s a subtle but critical difference between mining comedy from that movement (and Larry’s being made a target of it), versus belittling the movement and the women who accuse men of misdeeds, and I think the show was on the wrong side of that line.  The women who were accusing Larry of misconduct were depicted as buffoonish and ridiculous, which I think was a big mistake.  I don’t think this was a good look for the show.  Frankly, I didn’t find it funny; I found it almost unpleasant.

Thankfully, the show moved away from those stories, and the main season-long story-line wound up being the far more interesting (and far better basis for great comedy) story of Larry’s feud with coffee-store owner Mocha Joe (Saverio Guerra), leading to Larry’s opening up a “spite store” — his own coffee shop, Latte Larry’s, right next door to Mocha Joe’s.  The whole idea of a “spite store” is brilliant.  Who hasn’t ever … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Imagineering Story

I loved every minute of this six-part Disney+ documentary series, exploring the history of Disney’s theme-parks and their rides.  The series was directed by Leslie Iwerks, who is the daughter of Disney Imagineer Don Iwerks and the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, who co-created Mickey Mouse.  So she knows a bit about Disney!  Yes, of course this is a pro-Disney piece of propaganda.  But it is magnificent, well-earned propaganda!  The series digs deeply into the ins and outs of the different Disney parks and all of the best attractions, from the Pirates of the Caribbean to Star Tours to the Enchanted Tiki Room to Space Mountain to the Tower of Terror to Soarin’ to so many more.  Through this mini-series, we get to meet many of the talented men and women who helped create these attractions, and we learn many of the secrets of the parks and their history.

Episode one detains the almost-insane, unbelievable effort and expense of building the first Disney theme park, Disneyland in California.  What an extraordinary vision Walt Disney had!  It’s really quite amazing.  We get to see incredible footage of the park’s 1955 opening, and then we see additions and enhancements to the parks made in the following years, which established the concept that the Disney parks would always be changing and updating.  We see the 1959 Tomorrowland redesign, the construction of the Matterhorn (the park’s first thrill ride), the redesign of the jungle cruise that added humor to the ride, and the addition of the monorail.  I loved getting to see insights into the building of iconic Disney rides the Carousel of Progress, It’s a Small World, and Pirates of the Caribbean.  The episode ends with Walt Disney’s death at the age of 65 in 1966.  It’s heartbreaking to see how sad so many of Walt’s co-workers are — even in the interviews done in recent years — regarding his death.

Episode two explores the making of the Haunted Mansion, giving some very cool glimpses into how the ghost illusions are made.  We get to see the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971, the first (but far from the last) expansion of the Disney theme park empire.  I loved the tour we got of the secret underground city beneath Walt Disney World, used by cast-members and employees.  I really dug the exploration of EPCOT (still my favorite of the Disney parks!), and how Walt Disney’s idea for an actual sustainable modern city morphed into an educational theme park.  I was delighted to learn that Ray Bradbury wrote the original script for Spaceship Earth.  And it was cool to see the development of the circle-rama technology used in some of the EPCOT … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Season Finale of Star Trek: Picard

Star Trek: Picard has been a very mixed bag for me.  I’ve enjoyed watching it, and I think it’s been far better executed than the two seasons of Discovery we’ve gotten so far on CBS All Access.  On the other hand, in my opinion Picard contains many of the same flaws that Discovery has had: plots that doing make sense; storytelling that moves too fast to adequately explain what is happening; thinly-developed characters, many of whom have motivations that either are kept secret from us or that don’t make sense; and a lack of continuity with previously established Star Trek.  The Picard season finale, “Et in Arcadia Ego” part 2, is very much of a piece with the first nine episodes of this season.  There are some wonderful individual moments; the cast is great; Sir Patrick Stewart in particular shines as always; and the visuals are beautiful.  I just wish it all came together in a more satisfying way.

Let’s start with what works.

The show, as always, is beautiful.  The production values on this series have been extraordinary, and it’s awesome to see television Star Trek realized with feature film caliber attention and budget.  There are lots of great locations in this episode: the crashed Borg Cube, the crashed La Sirena, the androids’ utopian complex, and the bridges of several starships.  Seeing the Orchids take on the Romulan fleet in orbit is particularly spectacular.

There are some delightful character moments: Riker’s triumphant return, back in uniform and back in the Captain’s chair on a starship.  (I wish it was the Enterprise.  The series never revealed what happened to the Enterprise...!  I’d love to see her in season two…!)  Picard bidding Riker adieu.  Rios’ and Seven’s sharing a drink, looking out at a gorgeous vista.

And, of course, the scene between Picard and Data.  I’m thrilled that Brent Spiner was back as Data in the finale, beautifully bookending his appearance in the premiere.  (Mr. Spiner also appeared in these last two episodes as Dr. Alton Soong, however that character wasn’t very successful in my opinion.  I just don’t buy that Dr. Soong had a song about the same age as Data who we never heard of before and who never had any interaction with Data while he was alive.)  The survival of Data’s consciousness doesn’t make any plot sense to me, but the scene is so emotionally moving that I can mostly forgive the show for this.  (Though, seriously, as I’d commented at the start of the season, the idea that Data’s consciousness could be reconstructed from one fragment of his positronic net is the sort of magic fake-science I hate to see on Trek.  Also, if Alton … [continued]

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Josh reviews Episodes 7-9 of Star Trek: Picard!

We’re almost at the end of the first season of Star Trek: Picard.  I enjoyed the premiere, but then I felt episodes 2 and 3 were very mediocre.  The show has been better since then (click here for my reviews of episodes 4-6), and I am enjoying watching it.  At the same time, I continue to be disappointed by some baffling story choices that just don’t sit too well with me.  Let’s dig in.  (Beware some spoilers below.)

Episode 7: “Nepenthe”

* There’s a lot to enjoy in this episode.  Seeing Riker and Troi again is an absolute delight.  Both Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis are great, so comfortably reprising their beloved characters.  There were so many wonderful moments between them in the episode.  I loved hearing Riker yell “shields up!” just like old times when he realizes Picard might be in danger.  I love how Troi immediately senses Picard isn’t OK.  I love how quickly Riker puts everything together about Soji.  (I loved that the actress who played Soji mimicked the way Brent Spiner would tilt his head as Data — I recognized that immediately, and I was pleased that Riker did as well.)  I loved hearing Riker call Troi Imzadi.  I also quite enjoyed Lulu Wilson as Riker & Troi’s daughter, Kestra.  (I love the deep cut that their daughter is named Kestra, the name of Deanna’s dead sister as revealed in the TNG episode “Dark Page”.)  This precocious kid could have easily been very annoying, but I quite liked her and I enjoyed the way she and Soji developed a quick and easy bond.  (It’s reminiscent of the way Data connected so easily to children.)  I loved hearing Kestra question Soji about whether she could play the violin, if she liked Sherlock Holmes, etc. (all things Data loved).

* On the other hand, I’m speechless at the incredibly dumb plot point that Riker and Troi’s son Thaddeus died because, after the Federation’s ban on synthetic life forms, they couldn’t get what used to be an easily-acquired cure from something cultivated in a positronic matrix.  Whaaaa…???  How/why could a medicine be cultivated in an android’s brain?  Do the writers even know what a positronic matrix is??  This is ludicrous, a dumb way of trying to connect Riker-Troi to the series’ over-arching story about synthetics.  (If they HAD to make this sort of larger thematic connection, why not say the medicine that could have cured Thaddeus was from Romulus, and so unavailable after the Federation abandoned the Romulans when their sun went super-nova?  That would have made a lot more sense, right?)  (By the way, I’ve been saying all along that Picard’s leaving Starfleet in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews For All Mankind Season One!

I signed up for Apple TV, just so I could watch this new show from Ronald D. Moore.  And I have no regrets!  Mr. Mooore was one of the best writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and he was the creator and show-runner of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, a show I absolutely adore.  For All Mankind, created by Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, tells an alternate history of what might have transpired had the Russians won the space race and beat the U.S. to landing a man on the moon in 1969.  That sounds like it could be a dark version of history, but the show is remarkably positive and aspirational, taking the approach that the continued competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. led to the U.S.’s not abandoning the Apollo program after Apollo 17 in 1972.  This was one of my very favorite TV shows of 2019!

The show depicts this alternate history in a fascinatingly considered, documentary-like approach.  The series isn’t a fake-doc, but it has the gravitas of a period piece chronicle of an important time in history; it just so happens that this history is fake!  It feels like an alt-history version of From the Earth to the Moon.  I thought it was fantastic, a wonderful piece of speculative fiction that was fascinating and thrilling.

I was delighted by the many little details and moments that show us how the show’s alternate history diverged from our reality.  It’s fascinating to hear, on the radio, that Ted Kennedy cancelled his party at Chappaquiddick in order to attend NASA hearings following the Soviet’s moon landings… and then, later in the show, we learn that, untarnished by that tragedy, he’s elected President!  (It’s also fascinating to hear reports, later in the season, that President Ted Kennedy winds up embroiled in a sex scandal involving Mary Jo Kopechne — who, in reality, died at Chappaquiddick in 1969.)

As I noted above, I was very surprised and taken by the idea that, far from this show’s being some sort of dystopia, we see that many remarkably positive events spiral out of the U.S.’s loss of the space race to the Russians.  We see that NASA succeeded in creating a lunar habitat; that public pressure led to the inclusion of female astronauts far earlier than actually happened, and how that change then led to the passage of the E.R.A. in the seventies (while the E.R.A. was never, in reality, ratified).  These are just a few of many examples!  I love how, on the show, the discovery of ice on the moon in 1971 (far earlier than happened in … [continued]

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TV Viewing Recommendations for Your Coronavirus Isolation!

March 18th, 2020

Hi everyone!  Earlier this week I posted a number of movie recommendations that I hope are helpful for people looking for entertainment suggestions for their coronavirus isolation.

Today, let’s look at some TV show ideas…!

The Good Place – This is the show I have been most evangelical about recently.  I adore The Good Place.  It’s so funny and also so clever, with lots of deep stuff to say about ethics and morality.  The show’s cast likes to describe it as the smartest dumb show on TV, and I agree.  I HIGHLY recommend this show!!!!  Click here for my review of season one — but don’t read it until after you’ve seen the season, because you don’t want to be spoiled!  Where to watch: Netflix.

Fleabag This very clever (and – beware! – very raunchy!) comedy won a ton of Emmys this year, and they were well-deserved.  Phoebe Waller Bridge created and stars in this show about a messed-up young woman whose best friend and confidant is you, the person watching her show.  It’s only two short seasons of six half-hour episodes each; you’ll blaze through them and wish there was more!  Click here for my review.  Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video.

Catastrophe This amazing, hilarious show was written by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who also star as Sharon and Rob.  Rob is American and Sharon is British — their brief fling turns into a relationship when Sharon gets pregnant, and these two hot messes decide to try to make a go of it together.  This show is insanely funny and also staggeringly, shockingly profane.  It’s not for the easily-offended but wow do I love it a lot.  Click here for my review of season one.  Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video.

Atlanta – Donald Glover’s amazing show about a group of young African Americans is super funny and heartbreaking and weird and unique.  I was so intrigued by every single episode.  This is masterful filmmaking.  Click here for my review of season one.  Where to watch: Hulu, or available for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Black Mirror – I love this very dark anthology show about the dangers of technology.  Each episode is its own stand-alone story.  I suggest starting with “The Entire History of You” from season one.  I think it’s the show’s best episode.  If you like that episode, then dig into the rest.  Click here for my review of the original six British episodes.  Where to watch: Netflix.

Brockmire – Hank Azaria plays the greatest role of his career as disgraced former baseball announcer Jim Brockmire.  The show is incredibly raunchy and fall … [continued]

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“Destiny is on the phone!” Josh Reviews The Tick: Season Two

I have loved Ben Edlund’s superhero parody, The Tick, in all of its iterations.  I read the original black-and-white comic book in the late eighties and early nineties.  I enjoyed Fox’s animated Saturday morning cartoon version, that ran from 1994-1996.  And I loved Fox’s short-lived live-action version from 2001, which starred Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton as the Tick.  But I think my favorite of these three TV versions of The Tick is easily Amazon’s wonderful new live-action version.  And so, of course, the show was cancelled by Amazon last year, soon after the second season was released.  Dammit!

I loved the second season of the show, and it made my list of my favorite TV shows of 2019.  If you haven’t yet seen the show, it’s still available on Amazon Prime Video, so I encourage you to start from the beginning and check it out.  (Click here for my review of the pilot, and here for my review of season one.)

The show is a very funny parody of super-hero tropes.  At the same time, this isn’t just a spoof — this version of The Tick works as a comedy but also as a fun super-hero action-adventure.  There are real stakes, both physical and emotional, for all of the characters.  I love the balance the show is able to strike between these two sides of its story.

I’ve really grown to love the ensemble cast of this show.  Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians of the Galaxy, Spy), is absolutely perfect as the Tick himself.  Mr. Serafinowicz has the physicality for the character, and he perfectly nails the Tick’s “hey, chum!” enthusiasm and innocence.  Griffin Newman is a fantastic partner for Mr. Serafinowicz as Arthur, the not-so-superpowered friend/partner/sidekick of the Tick.  I love the humanity that Mr. Newman brought to Arthur.  Arthur is a nerd, but he’s noble and brave and heroic in his own way, and Mr. Newman’s performance really allows those elements of the character to shine.  Valorie Curry was terrific as Arthur’s sister Dot.  She was my favorite character on the show!  I loved how central the show allowed Dot to be.  The writers served up a great twist this season, when Dot begins to develop a precognition super-power, and I loved her bizarre relationship with Overkill.  Speaking of which, Scott Speiser was so great as the grim, dour Overkill — a parody of grim, dour super-hero vigilantes — who the show gradually developed into a very endearing character.  Yara Martinez continued to be so funny as Miss Lint.  I loved seeing Lint experiment this season with being a hero, under the new identity of Joan of Arc.  It was fun to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Deuce: Season Three

You didn’t watch The Deuce?  Even though it was the latest show masterminded by David Simon, who created The Wire?  Look, I get it.  A TV show about the porn business in New York City in the seventies and eighties was a tough sell for many people.  I wasn’t even sure, at first, if I was going to watch it.  But I am so, so glad that I did.  I cannot recommend this show highly enough.  (Just make sure your kids and your parents are in another room, because there is a lot of, um, frank content on this show!!)  (Click here for my review of season one, and here for my review of season two.)

This latest series from David Simon (the mastermind behind The Wire), co-created with George Pelecanos (who wrote many episodes of The Wire and Treme — another of Mr. Simon’s shows that I dearly love and strongly recommend to any and all fans of good TV) was a brilliant, gripping, heartbreaking experience.  This was an exploration of another broken great American city; just as The Wire dissected Baltimore across multiple levels (from the drug-dealers on the corners, to their drug-lord bosses, to the cops on the street, to the detectives in their offices, to the people in city hall, and lots more), so too did The Deuce explore the people involved in the sex trade in the area that would become Time’s Square across all social strata: the prostitutes on the street and the pimps behind them, the street-cops making busts, the politicians looking to clean up the streets so big business interests could move in, the pornographers shooting dirty movies, the people working behind the counter in the local greasy spoon cafes and the bars, the mob men behind those bars, and on and on.

The Deuce was an epic saga at the same time as it was an intimate character drama.  As always, Mr. Simon and his team were able to create an enormously vast ensemble of characters, each of whom were astonishingly well-fleshed out, with their own human stories that developed across these three seasons.  As I felt in The Wire, and again in Treme, I deeply, dearly loved every single one of these characters, and I rooted so hard for each of them to find their way to some happiness.  Some of them did, and many of them didn’t.  But that only gave the show its power and emotional heft.

What a cast this show had.  Let’s start with James Franco, who was as brilliant as he has ever been, playing the dual role of twin brothers Frankie and Vincent Martino.  Seriously, this was an extraordinary performance.  I’ve been … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Episodes 4-6 of Star Trek: Picard

I enjoyed the premiere of Star Trek: Picard but I thought episodes two and three were very mediocre.  Thankfully, I thought the next three episodes were a significant improvement, though the show is still far more flawed than I would have hoped.  Let’s dig in.

Episode 4: “Absolute Candor”

* I liked the time given to the lengthy opening flashback, and I enjoyed the sweet scenes seeing Picard’s connection with these Romulan women and especially with the young boy, Elnor.  It could be seen as out of character for Picard to be so close to a child — since the character, when first introduced on TNG, famously hated children — but Picard had already significantly mellowed by the end of TNG, and this flashback is set many years further after “All Good Things…”  So this works for me.  The real problem, though, is that Picard is coming off as worse and worse with each subsequent episode-opening flashback!  It’s HORRIBLE to think that Picard would abandon these people, and that child.  He never once even tried to come back to that planet ever again??  He never once even contacted them on subspace after he left Starfleet??  That’s what’s out of character for Picard (not his friendship with the boy)!!  The backstory for Picard on this show is a huge problem for me.

* I love the idea of Romulan warrior nuns!  And I really loved the actress, Amirah Vann, who plays the main Romulan woman (Zhani).  I loved the young kid who played Elnor as a boy.  Grown-up Elnor seemed OK, too, but it was hard to judge in this episode since we didn’t spend much time of him.  (Between his name and his look, he’s a little too Lord of the Rings elf-ish to me, at first glance…)

* I love hearing Picard say “Jolan Tru”.  (Nice callback to TNG episodes like “Unification”.)

* While the plot is still moving glacially slowly, I was, for the most part, more involved with this episode because the dialogue was better/more interesting than what we got in episodes two and three. If the plot isn’t progressing, I at least want good character moments, and we got some good stuff here.  I really liked the “secret meeting” scene on the holodeck (though, wow, what a transparent way to continue using the set of Picard’s home built for the first episode), and all of the character interaction there.  I enjoyed the funny banter among the characters.

* The idea that the rule of law is breaking down on the edges of Federation space is interesting.  But here again, the show needs to do the work of better developing the backstory of what’s been happening … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season Three!

In the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge is on tour, opening up for the popular singer Shy Baldwin.  Susie remains at her side, while also working to keep her second major client happy: famous female comedian Sophie Lennon.  Sophie wants Susie to turn her dream of starring on broadway into a reality.  Midge’s parents, meanwhile, are starting to feel the financial crunch with Abe’s having lost both of his jobs, while Joel Maisel pursues his new dream of opening a nightclub.

I was pleasantly surprised by how thoroughly I enjoyed this third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel!  I felt the first season was a very satisfying complete story.  While of course I understand the realities of television, I wasn’t sure any further seasons were necessary.  I enjoyed season two, while also feeling at times that the main story of Midge’s leap into independence and the world of stand-up comedy had already been told.  But season three demonstrated to me that there are still many more stories to be told with these characters.

The show looks amazing.  The production values are top-notch, and I love how the show so effectively recreates a bygone era.  I was delighted by season two’s recreation of the Catskills resorts that were so central to the lives of Jewish families of a certain financial class for so many years.  Here in season three, it was a pleasure to see nineteen sixties Las Vegas brought to such vivid life.  The show’s sparkly clean, peppy vision of the sixties is, in many ways, a fairy tale version of history… but wha a fairy tale!  I am continually impressed by the scale of the series, from the full-blown USO show from the premiere through to the Vegas hotels in which we see Shy & co. perform.

Rachel Brosnahan continues to impress as Midge Maisel.  Ms. Brosnahan has great comedic timing, and she effortlessly sells the series’ distinct (fast) pacing and rat-a-tat-tat rhythm.  There were times in the first two seasons in which I found Midge’s self-absorption to be tiresome, but for the most part here in season three I quite enjoyed watching her journey.  It’s fun to see her able to perform comedy successfully at a high level.  I was annoyed, though, to see the season-ending climax hing upon Midge’s putting her foot in her mouth in a disappointingly foolish way.  I didn’t buy that Midge, at this stage in her career, would be so clueless.

Alex Borstein has long been the series’ comedic secret weapon as manager Susie Myerson, and she got lots more gold material to play here in season three.  I loved seeing how good she was at her job, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Picard Episodes 2 & 3

I quite enjoyed the premiere episode of Star Trek: Picard.

Unfortunately, the next two episodes (“Maps and Legends” and “The End is the Beginning”) were rather disappointing.  The same thing happened with Star Trek: Discovery — I really enjoyed the premiere and then things immediately took a downward turn.  I’m hoping Picard can rally.

I have two main problems so far.  First, almost nothing significant has happened in these last two episodes.  Picard at the end of episode three is in basically the exact same place he was at the end of the premiere: ready to leave Earth in an attempt to find and protect Dash’s twin sister.  Yes, we’ve met a few new characters (Raffi, Rios), but basically it’s been two episodes of narrative wheel-spinning.  That’s a LOT of wasted time in an eight-episode season.

More problematically, I’ve seen what to me feels like the exact same sort of lazy, muddled storytelling that so often beset Discovery.  What do I mean?  Here are a few examples:

* Why are the Romulan bad guys having trouble finding Soji when she is WORKING AT A ROMULAN FACILITY??

* We have all sorts The Force Awakens type of problems with the show being unnecessarily muddled with regards to the status quo of the universe and the characters.  Why is the secretive, paranoid, militaristic Romulan empire allowing Federation civilians to operate inside their salvaged Borg cube?  Wouldn’t they keep that technology to themselves?  What in fact is the status of the Romulan empire following the destruction of Romulus?  Does the Romulan empire even still exist?  Who are the Romulan bad-guys and what are they after?  Why do they hate Synthetics?  Have the Romulan bad guys infiltrated Starfleet or are they working with Starfleet?  (I have grown very weary already of the mustache- twirling Commodore Oh and her EVIL Romulan side-kick.)  (Also, do the writers know what a Commodore is?  That rank doesn’t make sense to me for the head of Starfleet Security.)  It’d be helpful to have some clarity on these story-points; I’d enjoy the stories more if I better understood what was going on and who wanted what.

* The idea of another Romulan secret organization hidden inside the Tal Shiar (a Romulan secret organization) seems silly and unnecessary to me.  (And the idea that they have hated Synthetics for “thousands” of years seems like a mistake to me.  “Thousands” sounds cool, but really that should have been “hundreds” of years, right?  The Romulan are at about the same level of technology as the Federation, so does it make sense they’d have had Synthetics on their world to hate and fear THOUSANDS of years ago?  On the other hand, the Romulan did … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Good Place: Season Four

February 10th, 2020
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I’m not sure I am emotionally ready yet to bid a final farewell to The Good Place, which has been one of my most dearly-loved TV shows these past few years.  And with the beautiful, devastatingly emotional series finale, Mike Schur’s show about four dim bulbs in the afterlife who somehow become responsible for saving the fates of all humanity has cemented itself as one of my very favorite TV shows of all time.  The show was funnier than almost anything else on television.  It created a vast, Simpsons-like universe of supporting characters.  It had a main cast of brilliant actors doing the work of a lifetime, creating six characters who I grew to love incredibly deeply by the time the series ended, in the way that happens sometimes with special characters on special shows.  And, most important of all, The Good Place was a show with something to say.  This was a show that often tackled deep topics of ethics and morality and theology.  Again and again and again, it reminded us of the simple lesson that there is nothing more important in this world than simple acts of human kindness.  Who’d have thought, when the show began, how radical and how critically important that would be in our lives today.

Here in this fourth season, and especially in the poignant series finale, Mike Schur and his amazing team of writers brought this story to a deeply satisfying conclusion.  I am so pleased that the show was able to end on its own terms, at a time of its creators’ choosing.  The result is a beautifully complete four-season story, one that not only charts the personal journeys of our six main characters (the four human morons, plus immortal beings Michael and Janet), but also, in the end, the destiny of all mankind.

I love these characters, and I am now a fan-for-life of all of the wonderful actors playing these roles.  Let’s start with the two already-known stars.  I have, of course, been a fan of the great Ted Danson ever since the early days of Cheers.  One might have thought he could never top Sam Malone, but he has been amazing in a host of wonderful subsequent TV series.  One of my personal favorites was the noir-ish comedy Bored to Death.  But he has found yet another “role of a lifetime” here as Michael, the immortal being who designed and oversees the Good Place neighborhood in which our four human characters find themselves after they die.  At first, Michael seemed like a constant, unchanging character, but actually, his journey towards humanity has been one of the richest on the show.  Mr. Danson’s innate goodness shines through, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Mandalorian: Season One

I loved the first episode of The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars TV show, and the rest of the eight-episode Disney+ series did not disappoint!

Creator Jon Favreau (who wrote six of the eight episodes) has accomplished an incredible feat.  He has created a series that feels completely, 100% like Star Wars, while also telling new stories with new characters.  This is what I want from my Star Wars, and it’s a needle that the movies have often failed to thread.

I love the retro feel of the show’s episodic structure.  It’s weird, I spent my childhood watching sci-fi and fantasy TV shows and longing for more continuity, rather than the “everything back to the status quo” episodic structure that was standard for most television for so much of its history.  But, as I have written about here before, I think many modern streaming shows have leaned too far into that direction.  The “10-hour movie” approach (or 8-hour, or 13-hour) results, too often in my opinion, in series that sag in the middle because they don’t quite have enough story to sustain viewer interest throughout the entire season.  And so I loved how The Mandalorian mostly told 1-and-done stories, with each episode having a satisfying beginning, middle, and end.  There were of course stories and charcater arcs that carried across all of the episodes, but each individual episode felt satisfyingly complete.  By the way, I also was very happy with the individual episodes’ relatively short run-time.  (Most episodes ran about 40-45 minutes.)  I appreciated the concision and efficiency of the story-telling.

Mandalorians and their armor have fascinated Star Wars fans since our first glimpse of Boba Fett.  I love the concept of this show’s main character being a Mandalorian bounty hunter, and I enjoyed the way the series explored and fleshed out the world of the Mandalorians.  I loved getting tidbits of information about Mandalorian society, their beskar armor and the rituals surrounding that armor.  I loved seeing the Armorer (the first female Mandalorian character we’ve seen in live-action).  I was delighted to see a group of Mandalorians in action and kicking ass in the climax of episode three.  (It was awesome getting to see them use their rocket packs!!)  We’ve barely scratched the surface in these first eight episodes; so I look forward to more.

The series was filled with memorable characters.  Pedro Pascal was very strong as the titular, unnamed (until the last episode) Mandalorian.  It’s amazing that “Mando” has characteristics that we can understand and connect with, despite Mr. Pascal’s face being entirely covered by his mask.  What a bravura acting performance!

The big secret of the show was “baby Yoda.”  I am so impressed … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Premiere of Star Trek: Picard!

Set decades after the events of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the new series Star Trek: Picard reintroduces us to Jean-Luc Picard.  No longer the captain of the Enterprise, or indeed a Starfleet officer of any kind, Picard lives out his days overseeing his family winery, assisted by two gentle aides.  But when a young woman on the run seeks him out, and Picard discovers that she shares a connection to one of his former Enterprise crew-mates, the former captain must re-enter the world he has been hiding from for so long.

I grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I remember being so excited for the premiere, “Encounter at Farpoint,” and I watched every episode of the series as it came out.  (Many of those episodes I have rewatched at least a dozen times, likely more!!)  I loved that show and I loved those characters.  I was disappointed that the movie franchise never really took off.  (I get a lot of enjoyment out of Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, even though I think both films are deeply flawed.  Star Trek: Insurrection is forgettable and Star Trek: Nemesis is an abomination before the Lord.)  I never expected to see Patrick Stewart back in this role ever again.  But the creative and critical success of Logan, in which Mr. Stewart returned to portray an elderly version of Professor X, surely paved the way for his return, here, to the character of Jean-Luc Picard.

I was excited for this show, though very dubious.  I can’t say I have much faith in Alex Kurtzman, who is the current steward of the Star Trek franchise.  I didn’t love any of the three rebooted Trek films that Mr. Kurtzman was involved with (they’re fun but deeply flawed, and even when I love them they don’t really feel like true Star Trek to me); I have found Star Trek: Discovery to be a huge disappointment; and the “Short Trek” short films have been very hit-or-miss.

But I am pleased to report that I thought the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, titled “Remembrance,” was pretty great!!

It’s a pleasure to see Patrick Stewart back in this iconic role, and Mr. Stewart is, as always, fantastic.  He still has an incredible magnetism that is on full display whenever he is on-screen.  His commanding presence reaches out and grabs you.  It’s fascinating and sad to see Mr. Stewart play this older, damaged version of Picard.  This is still Picard — Mr. Stewart shows us Picard’s intelligence and empathy and warmth.  But this Picard has been changed by the events that have transpired since last we saw him.  Mr. Stewart … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite TV Series of 2019 — Part Five!

Huzzah!  We’ve arrived at the end of my lengthy list of my favorite TV series of 2019!  Click here for numbers twenty-five through twenty-one, click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.  And now, without further delay or fanfare, here are my five favorite TV series of 2019:

5. The Mandalorian The first live-action Star Wars TV show was a revelation!  Created by Jon Favreau, this new show made the new Disney+ streaming service an essential purchase.  Each of the eight episodes in this short first season were near-perfect.  I loved how wonderfully retro they were in their approach of telling a complete story in every single episode.  Set several years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the series follows a Mandalorian bounty hunter who finds himself on the run from the bounty hunter guild after deciding to rescue the asset that he was hired to deliver to an aged Imperial officer (played beautifully by Werner Herzog).  Of course, we all know by now that the asset was a child that we all refer to as “baby Yoda”.  The series is a wonderful expansion of Star Wars lore.  It’s awesome to see lots of new planets as well as some familiar ones (episode five took place on Tattoine).  The series is filled with nods and references to the history of Star Wars (we get to see Battle Droids, Jawas, an Ugnaught, etc.) while doing what I want the film series to do: telling new stories with new characters set within the Star Wars universe.  (The influence of Dave Filoni, who masterminded the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, was clearly felt.)  The series is gorgeous to behold — it’s visually stunning.  The production values are incredible — absolutely movie-quality, not at all cheapened for TV.  The cast was spectacular: Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) was fantastic as the titular Mandalorian, despite having his face concealed behind a mask; I fell in love with the Taika Waititi-voiced IG-11, as well as the Ugnaught voiced by Nick Nolte (“I have spoken”); I already mentioned Werner Herzog, and I also loved seeing Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) as Moff Gideon; Gina Carano was perfect as the ex-Rebellion shock trooper Cara Dune… and I haven’t even mentioned Amy Sedaris, Ming Na-Wen, Clancy Brown, and so many more great actors who filled out this universe!!  Each episode was an absolute delight.  I cannot wait for more to come next year.  (Click here for my review of the Mandalorian premiere.  My full review of this first season … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite TV Series of 2019 — Part Four!

All right!  We’ve entered the TOP TEN of my list of my favorite TV series of 2019!  Click here for numbers twenty-five through twenty-one, click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen through eleven.

10. Legion The best super-hero show that no one I know was watching.  Created by Noah Hawley (Fargo), Legion was a gloriously weird, outlandish, surprising series that eschewed all the tropes of a standard super-hero TV show.  Every time I thought I might know where the show was going, I’d be surprised to, instead, get a dance number!  Or a bizarre digression into, say, watching a Japanese-language explanation of the rules of time-travel!  This show was an incredible visual feast, filled with extraordinarily unusual and memorable sequences.  This third and final season took a deep dive into the X-Men mythology, exploring the events in which a young Charles Xavier fell in love with an Israeli woman, Gabrielle Haller, and confronted the powerful psychic villainy of Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King.  This was thrilling to see on-screen.  At the same time, the show moved even further away from the type of standard super-hero narrative that one might expect, choosing instead to get weirder and wilder.  There was never anything on TV quite like this show.  I miss it already.  (Click here for my full review of season three.)

9. Better Things Pamela Adlon’s gloriously strange, personal, funny, moving show is one of the most unique and wonderful series currently being produced.  It is phenomenal expression of Ms. Adlon’s enormous talent: she wrote almost every episode (eight of the season’s twelve episodes), and she directed ALL of them.  This show focuses on an incredible array of strong and interesting women: single mother Sam Fox (played by Ms. Adlon), her mother Phil, and her three children Max, Frankie, and Duke… and also the many other interesting women in Sam’s life!  Ms. Adlon’s storytelling is hyper-focused on honesty, specifically when it comes to depicting the real-life joys and struggles and sorrows of life as a working single parent of kids.  She seems to revel in showing the audience real-life moments we’ve never seen on TV before.  (As a prime example: episode seven, “Toilet,” chronicles Sam’s preparations for her colonoscopy.)  Season three was the first season created without the involvement of Louis C.K., but the show didn’t miss a beat and, if anything, was even better in that it became more personal than ever for Ms. Adlon, completely infused with her life and her experiences and her perspective.  If you’ve never seen this show, you should remedy that immediately.  (Click here for my full review of season three.)… [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite TV Series of 2019 — Part Three!

Welcome back! Click here for numbers twenty-five through twenty-one on my list of my favorite TV shows of 2019, and click here for numbers twenty through sixteen.  Shall we proceed…?

15. The Tick Amazon’s fantastic super-hero comedy-adventure was sadly cancelled after only two seasons.  There have now, unbelievably, been three different TV versions of Ben Edlund’s The Tick (which began as an independently-published, black-and-white comic book-series in 1988), and they’ve all failed.  But I’m thankful these two great seasons of this latest version exist!  I don’t know anyone who watched this show, but you’re all missing out!  This joyous, sweet, funny series was a constant delight.  The cast was spectacular: Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians of the Galaxy) was absolute comedic perfection as the Tick; Griffin Newman was the every-man anchor of the show as Arthur; Valerie Curry was terrific as Arthur’s sister Dot; Yara Martinez was a deadpan delight as the villainous Miss Lint; Scott Speiser was great as the growling, hyper-violent vigilante Overkill, and Alan Tudyk (Firefly) was hilarious as always as Overkill’s partner, the sentient boat Dangerboat.  These two seasons are still available on Amazon — go watch them now!  (Click here for my review of The Tick series premiere.  My full review of season two is coming soon.)

14. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Tina Fey & Robert Carlock’s brilliant, hilarious, criminally-underrated show was every inch as brilliant, hilarious, and criminally-underrated as always in its fourth and sadly final season.  I already miss this show so much!!  This was one of the funniest shows on television, with an insane joke-per-second pace.  It was also one of the sweetest, with a heart-warming emphasis on positivity and niceness.  The perennially good-hearted Kimmy was the role that Ellie Kemper was born to play, and Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane, and Jane Krakowski were unendingly amazing.  Females are stong.  Dammit!  (Click here for my full review of season four.)

13. Brooklyn Nine-Nine This amazing show was, thankfully, saved from cancellation by NBC.  This sixth season was a gift, and I would have been thankful had it just been an indulgent victory lap.  But what we got was possibly the best season of the show!  From the origin of Hitchcock and Scully, to Gina’s farewell, to the episode (“The Crime Scene”) that unfolded over weeks and months, to the episode (“Ticking Clocks”) that took place in real time, the show was always inventive and playful.  The main cast is one of the best on television (Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Stephanie Beatriz, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti, etc.), and the guest stars this season were amazing: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sean Astin, Ike Barinholtz, and … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite TV Series of 2019 — Part Two!

Welcome back! Yesterday I began my list of My Favorite TV Shows of 2019!  Let’s continue:

20. The Imagineering Story I loved every minute of this six-part Disney+ documentary series, exploring the history of Disney’s theme-parks and their rides.  The series was directed by Leslie Iwerks, who is the daughter of Disney Imagineer Don Iwerks and the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, who co-created Mickey Mouse.  So she knows a bit about Disney!  Yes, of course this is a pro-Disney piece of propaganda.  But it is magnificent, well-earned propaganda!  The series digs deeply into the ins and outs of the different Disney parks and all of the best attractions, from the Pirates of the Caribbean to Star Tours to the Enchanted Tiki Room to Space Mountain to the Tower of Terror to Soarin’ to so many more.  We get to meet many of the talented men and women who helped create these attractions, and we learn many of the secrets of the parks and their history.  This was pure joy for me.  I could have happily watched six hours more.

19. The Spy I watched all six episodes of this magnificent Netflix mini-series with my stomach tightly clenched.  This true story of an Israeli spy in Syria in the 1950’s, directed and co-written by Gideon Raff (with co-writer Max Perry), was intense and gripping.  Sacha Baron Cohen is fantastic, playing things completely straight as Eli Cohen, an Israeli who was born in Egypt who volunteers to serve his country in an extremely dangerous manner: creating a completely false life for himself in Syria.  The Americans’ Noah Emmerich is great as Eli’s Mossad handler Dan Peleg.  The series beautifully captures the look and feel of Israel and Syria in the fifties.  It’s a fantastic achievement and a great exercise in tension and suspense.

18. Silicon Valley I was sad to see this wonderful comedy draw to a close this year!  It went out at the height of its powers, with a final seven-episode season that could stand with the very best of the show.  In this final year, the Pied Piper team finally found success, but that didn’t mean that things were any easier for them.  What an ensemble: Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Amanda Crew, Matt Ross, and more.  Any one of those talents could have head-lined their own show!  I will miss every hapless member of the Pied Piper team.  (Click here for my full review of season six.)

17. Stranger Things Season three of this show was every bit as much fun as the first two.  This loving homage to eighties horror and adventure, and to the books of … [continued]

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I am excited to begin my Best of 2019 lists!  Let’s kick things off with my list of my favorite TV series of 2019.  What a year this was for TV!!!  I watched SO MUCH great TV, and even so, there were still so many shows I wanted to see but didn’t get to, including but not limited to: the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Russian Doll, Barry, Living With Yourself, Undone, The Expanse, Fosse/Verdon, Chernobyl, Unbelievable, Ramy, Modern Love, Sex Education, and so many more shows.

Despite that, I had no trouble coming up with a whopping TWENTY-FIVE shows from 2019 that I absolutely loved.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

Before we dive in, though, please allow me to make a request for you to support my work here by clicking through to Amazon from any of the links on this site.  If you do, I’ll get a tiny percentage of the price of any purchase you make on Amazon for the next 24 hours.  You can use the Amazon banner ad at the top of the page, or any specific Amazon link within one of my blogs.  You don’t have to purchase the specific item I linked to!  Just use one of my links to get to Amazon, and then purchase whatever you normally would.  If all the readers of this site would just click through to Amazon through one of my links, whenever you do your shopping, it’d be a huge help towards keeping the lights on here.

OK, here we go:

25. From the Earth to the Moon OK, I’m starting the list off with a cheat.  This HBO mini-series came out back in 1998!  But this year, the series was released on blu-ray.  It was extraordinary to see the show in HD, and I was delighted that they took the time to redo the series’ visual effects, which were originally created in Standard Definition!  That was very cool and not anything I’d ever expected.  (The series would be even higher on my list if they hadn’t made the boneheaded decision to crop the original 4×3 full-screen presentation to a 16×9 image.  Growing up, I hated when widescreen films were cropped for 4×3 TVs, and the reverse is no better!!)  I adore this mini-series, executive-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, which charts the Apollo missions that first put a man on the moon.  It’s as entertaining, and vitally relevant, as it ever was.  If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.  Each one of the series’ twelve episodes is magnificent.

24. Jessica Jones The biggest disappointment of the inglorious end of Marvel’s Netflix shows … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jack Ryan Season Two

In the second season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan, Jack finds himself in the middle of turmoil in Venezuela.  After his friend Senator Moreno is murdered while part of a delegation in Venezuela, Jack tirelessly tries to weed through the complicated local politics to find the people responsible for Moreno’s death… a trail that Jack soon comes to believe will lead straight to Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Reyes.

I loved the first season of Jack Ryan.  While this second season was also enjoyable to watch, it didn’t work for me nearly as well as the first season.

Tom Clancy wrote so many Jack Ryan novels, and even the ones that were adapted for the screen had a lot of liberties taken with them.  This means that there is a wealth of as-yet unseen-on-screen material for the Jack Ryan show-runners to pull from.  So I was surprised that this season borrowed so heavily from Clear and Present Danger, most notably the van attack in episode one that starts this whole story in motion, as well as the story-line of a group of U.S. black-ops soldiers operating in the jungle behind enemy lines who are eventually betrayed by their supervisor in the U.S. government.  That van attack in particular is probably the most memorable element of the Clear and Present Danger film.  So why re-do it for the show?  It gave this season a feeling of been-there, done-that familiarity to me right off the bat.

I also didn’t love the angry this-time-it’s-personal attitude that Jack had throughout this season.  (This was visually embodied by his scruffy beard, just in case we needed this spelled out for us.)  I didn’t feel the show really earned the grief and anger that they told us Jack was carrying (we don’t really know Jack’s Senator friend who gets killed in the first episode, so his death doesn’t have the weight the writers wanted it to have), and I found it a little boring as a narrative short-cut to pathos.  This angry-and-detached Jack wasn’t as interesting to me as the smart-and-passionate Jack from season one.

As it was in season one, the show continues to be carried by the terrific work of John Krasinski and Wendell Pierce as Jack Ryan and James Greer.  I love these two and their versions of these characters.  I was glad that this second season gave them a number of great moments together and allowed their often-abrasive relationship to deepen.  Mr. Krasinski’s every-man quality continues to serve his interpretation of the character well.  Jack does all sorts of super-human stuff, but Mr. Kransinski is able to keep even the wildest twists grounded and believable (well, mostly), and his inherent likability keeps us rooting for … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to Silicon Valley

I came to Silicon Valley late, first watching the show in 2017, around the time of its fourth season.  I loved it immediately, and I quickly caught up with those first four seasons.  I’m sad to see the show end, but I was pleased that this final seven-episode sixth season saw the show still in top comedic form, and I’m happy that the show-runners were allowed to end the series way they wanted.

After six top-notch seasons, I can certainly understand why the show-runners felt it was time to wrap things up.  I thought the show was still going strong in season five, but I could start to see the narrative wheel-spinning as the writers had to continually find ways to prevent the Pied Piper team from ever truly succeeding… but they also couldn’t ever be allowed to completely fail, because either outcome would mean the end of the show.  I don’t think this is a premise that could have continued for ten more seasons.  Six seasons feels right to me.

And so, with season six being the final season, the Pied Piper gang were allowed to both succeed and fail spectacularly.  The season begins with Pied Piper about as successful as we’ve ever seen them.  The company has grown to a huge size, with swanky offices, and Richard is called to testify before Congress about internet privacy.  It’s crazy to think the show has come so far that it’s plausible that Richard Hendricks could be called to testify before Congress!!  The idea of social-misfit Richard testifying before Congress is a beautifully genius idea, and the actual staging of that sequence didn’t disappoint.

In this final season, the show remained as funny as it ever was.  The escalating madness of Gilfoyle’s using a Gilfoyle A.I. (“Son of Anton”) to respond to Dinesh (which then winds up interacting with the Dinesh A.I. that Dinesh created) in the season premiere was as funny a story as the show has ever done.  And I howled with laughter during Richard’s episode-two confrontation with billionaire investor Maximo, during which birds continually keep ominously killing themselves by flying into Maximo’s huge window-wall.

I felt the show erred in making Richard a little too unlikable in seasons four and five, so I was pleased that pendulum thankfully swung back a little here in the final season.  This later-season Richard is still more conniving than I’d like to see, but I was glad they allowed Richard (Thomas Middleditch) to be endearingly funny again, whether that was tearing out the microphone from his table during the Congressional hearing in the season premiere or vomiting onto the plate-glass window of his office in episode three.

Long-suffering Jared (Zach … [continued]

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“Mind the Eggs” — Josh Reviews HBO’s Watchmen Series

December 16th, 2019
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Damon Lindelof’s magnificent nine-episode Watchmen series has exceeded even my highest expectations.  I was blown away by the series premiere, and the eight episodes that followed surpassed even that strong start.  I don’t know what exactly I expected, but Watchmen is far different and far better than I’d hoped.  It’s dazzlingly dark and dense and shocking and heartbreaking.  The series is consistently surprising and original, with each episode filled with memorable imagery and moments.  It is large in scale and contains many wonderful elements of the fantastic and super-heroic.  But this is an adult drama firmly rooted in compelling characters and their stories.  And, like the very best sci-fi/fantasy stories, the series is very much about today’s world, and it has a heck of a lot to say about who we are as a society here in the United States at the end of 2019.  I don’t know what’s next for this show (Mr. Lindelof has questioned, in interviews, whether there will be another season and, if there is, whether he’d be involved), but I will treasure these nine episodes, and I am sure I will rewatch them many more times in the years to come.

There are several key, brilliant decisions that lie at the core of the show’s greatness.  The first is the decision not to do a straight adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1985-86 comic book series (the way Zack Snyder’s flawed but underrated film adaptation did).  Rather, the show is set in the world of Watchmen but takes place in 2019, decades after the events of that original story.  This allows the show to be new and original and inventive, rather than just a recreation that would surely suffer in comparison to the near-perfect original source material.  The second key decision, which followed from the first, was to populate the show with mostly new, original characters.  Because it’s set decades after the events of the comic, it makes sense that most of the characters on the show are new ones we’ve never met before.  Here too, this allows the show to be original and inventive.  And it means that when characters from the comic do appear, it’s a pleasurable surprise.  The third and final key creative decision was the choice to, like the original Watchmen, be strongly ABOUT something.  But rather than retreading the comic’s focus (on a deconstruction of super hero comic book tropes and on Cold War fears of mutually assured annihilation), this 2019 Watchmen focuses on racism and the dangers of white supremacy.

There is so much to unpack and discuss.  These nine episodes are rich in plot and character and meaning.  I’m sure I’ll be thinking and … [continued]

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The Best Superhero Show You’re Not Watching: Josh Reviews Legion Season Three

December 9th, 2019
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There are very few people I know who watched Legion, Noah Hawley’s magnificent, mind-bending three-season series based on the somewhat obscure X-Men character David Haller, who was created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz in the eighties.  I keep saying to people: you’re missing out on one of the best, most delightfully bizarre and original super-hero TV shows ever made!!  The show’s eight-episode third and final season brought the series to a satisfying conclusion.  I’m still not certain I understood half of what was going on, but I hugely enjoyed the journey.  (Click here for my review of Legion season one, and here for my review of season two.)

Legion is unlike any superhero TV show I’ve ever seen.  The show has very complicated storylines, but at the same time, I often felt like the show wasn’t really focused on the plot-lines.  Similarly, while Legion is packed with fascinating characters, I often felt like the show wasn’t really focused on the characters.  Noah Hawley and his team’s goals seemed to me to be more about the experience they were creating for the viewer, watching the show.  Legion is stuffed to overflowing with incredibly bizarre and memorable imagery; sequences and moments that were completely unexpected and out there.  The show doesn’t follow any sort of standard narrative path.  There are none of the expected super-hero/super-villain punch-em-ups one might expect from a show like this.  Legion is a much weirder, much more unexpected experiment in telling a story about super-heroes and super-villains that avoids all of the cliches and expected paths of the genre.  All of this sounds like it could have/should have been a mess.  But in the capable hands of Mr. Hawley and his team, I have found Legion to be a riveting experience, one that continually delighted me with its surprising twists and turns, and one I have been thinking about for quite a while after finishing watching it.

Legion’s main character is a relatively minor X-Men villain/supporting character, David Haller.  David first appeared in New Mutants #25 back in 1985.  He was revealed to be the son of Charles Xavier and Gabrielle Haller; he was a mutant with extraordinary psychic powers (rivaling those of his father), but who was also beset by a multiple personality disorder.  Although a sympathetic character, David was generally presented in the comics as a villain.  I was at first surprised that this minor villainous character would be chosen as the main character of an X-Men TV show, but I assumed it was just a way to tell stories in the X-Men world on TV without connecting in any way to the X-Men movies.  It seemed clear to me that … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Veep Seasons 3 and 4!

Last year I finally found the time to start watching Veep, Armando Iannucci’s raunchy Washington satire, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer.  I loved the first two seasons, and I was eager to continue with the show!

Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to be perfection as the petty, narcissistic, power-hungry Selina.  This is a spectacular performance, and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus deserves all of the accolades she has received for her work on this show!  The entire ensemble is spectacular.  I love the group of borderline incompetents Selina has gathered around herself: Tony Hale as Gary, Anna Chlumsky as Amy, Reid Scott as Dan, Matt Walsh as Mike, and Sufe Bradshaw as Sue.  Season two added Kevin Dunn as Ben and Gary Cole as Kent, and at this point I could not imagine the show without those two weirdos.  Speaking of weirdos, of course, there is Timothy Simons as Jonah Ryan, the loudmouthed doofus constantly flitting in and out of Selina & co.’s orbit.  There’s also Sarah Sutherland as Selina’s much put-upon daughter, Catherine.  What a powerhouse ensemble!!

Season three adds Sam Richardson to the group as the pleasantly dim Richard Splett.  Richard enters the show by filling in for Gary on Selina’s book tour (where he proves to be a huge annoyance for her), and he continues to stick around in a variety of roles.  Mr. Richardson is so funny as this character!!  I also really enjoyed Diedrich Bader as Bill Ericsson, a campaign manager Selina considers hiring instead of Amy or Dan.  Another great addition was Christopher Meloni as Selina’s new personal trainer, Ray.  (Selina quickly starts sleeping with Ray, to the chagrin of most of her staff, particularly Gary.)

Season three charts Selina’s campaign for the job she has always longed for: the presidency.  The show mines a lot of fun out of the rituals of a modern-day campaign, from Selina’s book-tour through Iowa to the announcement of her campaign to the media furor when Selina tries out a different haircut.  I was also pleased that Danny Chung (Randall Park) and George Maddox (Isiah Whitlock) continued to appear, as Selina’s main opponents in pursuit of the presidency.

That Jonah could hold down a job in the White House seemed somewhat absurd to me, so I enjoyed that season three began with him out of work, trying to get back into a position of importance by starting a political gossip blog (“Ryantology”).  It’s a fantastic commentary on the media landscape that Jonah’s profane, the-truth-is-irrelevant style would allow him to succeed in this type of role!!

Other great moments in season three: Watching Amy and Dan fiercely compete over who gets to be Selina’s campaign manager; seeing Gary thrown into … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jessica Jones Season Three

November 18th, 2019
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Back in 2015, the Marvel Netflix shows launched with such promise.  Daredevil came first, and I thought that first season was extraordinary: dark and complex and adult.  Then came the first season of Jessica Jones, and it was as good if not better.  I loved this character from the comics (she was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos in their series Alias, and then Mr. Bendis made her an important character throughout his long run on The Avengers), and I was so excited to see her on screen.  I couldn’t have been happier with the sophisticated, compelling first season.  But then we had to wait three long years between season one and season two (though Jessica did appear in the six-episode Defenders crossover series in between), and while I enjoyed season two very much, I thought it was significantly inferior to season one.  We only had the standard one-year wait between seasons two and three, but by the time season three launched on Netflix this past season, my enthusiasm had cooled.  None of the subsequent Netflix shows/seasons came anywhere close to the greatness of those first two seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and the third season of Jessica Jones launched as a lame duck, as the show had already been cancelled months before that third season was released, as part of Netflix’s decision to end its connection with Marvel.  So when Jessica Jones’ third season did come out on Netflix, it didn’t shoot to the top of my to-watch list.  Nonetheless, I was interested to see how the series wrapped up, and so recently I found time to watch it.  Daredevil season three brought the series to a satisfying end… would Jessica Jones season three do the same?

I have very mixed feelings about this third season.  For the most part, I quite enjoyed it and while it doesn’t equal the greatness of the first season, I thought it was a solid improvement on the second season.  So I was quite happy right up until the finale, which disappointed me.  The finale felt like a season finale, not a series finale, in that it left many of the characters in places that felt like we were still in the middle of their stories, rather than having arrived at a satisfying conclusion.  (This might not be the writers’ fault, as I’m not sure at what point in production they learned that the show had been cancelled.)  Either way, I was left unsatisfied by where many of the show’s main characters wound up in the end, which I’ll discuss more below.

Krysten Ritter continues to be terrific in the lead role as Jessica.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the First Episode of The Mandalorian!

It’s here!  Disney+ has launched and the very first Star Wars live-action TV show has arrived: The Mandalorian.  Two talented craftsmen are at the helm: this first episode was written by Jon Favreau, who created the series, and it was directed by Dave Filoni.  Many Star Wars fans know that we’ve already been shown that Star Wars can succeed as a TV show, and that’s mostly due to the talents of Mr. Filoni, who oversaw both Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, two wonderful animated series that have done a spectacular job of expanding the canvas of Star Wars, telling new stories that feel completely of a part with the universe that George Lucas created.  That is no easy task, and Mr. Filoni and Mr. Favreau have accomplished that very feat here with The Mandalorian.  I don’t know where this series is going, but I was continually delighted by this first episode, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

What struck me most about this first episode is how absolutely gorgeous it looked.  Mr. Filoni’s direction, combined with scene after scene of truly spectacular visual effects work, is breathtaking. This first episode gives us a widescreen, big-budget feel.  This isn’t some cheap-looking version of Star Wars, a poor TV imitation of what we’ve gotten to see on the big screen.  If anything, this first episode was even MORE spectacular than the films!  The visuals are enhanced by the show’s comfortable pace, which allows us to live in the quiet moments of these characters moving through this world (moments in which the fast-paced films would generally not allow us to linger).

The show gives me exactly what I want in a new Star Wars adventure (in whatever the medium might be — film or TV), what I’d mentioned right in the first paragraph.  I want a new story with new characters, new settings, and new situations… that also feels like it fits into the established universe that I love so much.  The Mandalorian beautifully threads this needle.  There is so much gorgeous imagery in this first episode!  There are so many beautiful new alien landscapes!  I am already dreaming about many of them, eager to learn more.  And there are so many wonderful aliens!  We see many familiar Star Wars species (more on that below) and many new creatures, all of whom are beautifully realized.  I have no idea what was CGI and what was prosthetics and what was makeup and what was puppetry.  The series brilliantly blends these many techniques to create a feast of new alien characters who just feel REAL, which of course is the most important thing.

This first episode is chock-full … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Season Five of Black Mirror

I think the first six episodes of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s haunting anthology series that explores the many (mostly negative) ways in which technology has and will continue to affect our lives, are a triumph of television.  I love all six of those original UK-produced episodes.  I’m thrilled that the series has found a new life on Netflix, and I’ve quite enjoyed the new Netflix episodes as well, even though I’ve fallen a bit behind on the show.  (There is so much great TV being made these days, it’s hard to keep up!)  I thought that Bandersnatch, the 2018 Black Mirror special that utilized a choose-your-own-adventure type interface to create an interactive experience with the viewer at home, was spectacular.  I’ve recently caught up with the three new episodes released this past summer, and they’re all strong new installments of the series.

Striking Vipers Anthony Mackie (who plays the Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) stars as Danny, who has a comfortable suburban life with his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) and their young son.  Danny is reunited at his birthday party with his old friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who played Black Manta in Aquaman and is also part of the cast of HBO’s new Watchmen series), who gives him a new video game as a birthday present.  The game is Striking Vipers X, a new virtual reality version of the fighting game the two used to play when they were young.  Now the two can actually inhabit the characters they used to play on a screen: Danny as the buff Lance and Karl as the hyper-sexualized Roxette.  With the VR world, Danny and Karl start having sex in the form of their characters.  The intense sensation of sex within the game begins to make everything else in their real lives feel lesser, and Danny and Karl struggle differently with how to respond.

Striking Vipers was wrenching to watch.  Despite the fantastical aspect of the VR video game, this is a pretty grounded story about a marriage in trouble and two men questioning their sexuality.  The actors are all very strong.  The lead trio of Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Nicole Beharie are all terrific, and bring so much humanity to this story.  It was painful watching them all suffer.  This was the hardest-to-watch episode of this trio of new episodes, because the drama felt so real to me.

The depiction of the video-game world come to life in the Striking Vipers game was amazing, a perfect extrapolation of what one of those classic street-fighting video games would look like in the virtual world.  The visuals were very cool.  Pom Klementieff (Mantis from Guardians of [continued]

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Josh Reviews Amazon’s Adaptation of Good Omens

This past summer, Amazon released a six-episode adaptation of Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the wonderful novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I love the novel.  It’s a deliriously funny, clever romp that reminds me very much of the work of Douglas Adams.  The mini-series, like the novel, charts the unlikely friendship between an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley.  When the Antichrist is born on Earth, and the sides of Heaven and Hell ready for war, Aziraphale and Crowley, having grown to quite like life on Earth, realize they have no choice but to work together to try to prevent the end of the world.

In the mini-series adaptation, Michael Sheen plays Aziraphale and David Tennant plays Crowley.  This is genius casting for both characters, and what I liked best about this mini-series was seeing these two characters brought to life so well, and watching them bounce off one another.  Both Mr. Sheen and Mr. Tennant are absolutely perfect, and they both have tremendous comedic timing which is put to good use here.  I loved their scenes together.  I was particularly taken by episode three, “Hard Times,” one of the few times in which the show diverged from the novel, showing us the history of Crowley & Aziraphale’s strange friendship over the centuries, from Noah’s ark through the time of Jesus to the modern day.

This mini-series is one of those curious projects which is incredibly faithful to the source material and yet still, somehow, winds up missing the certain spark that made the source material so special.  The mini-series lacks the comedic pulse of the novel, and its light tone.  Most importantly, the novel is so, so funny, and unfortunately the mini-series isn’t.  It’s a shame, because I was generally impressed with how carefully they adapted the story.  The six-episode length gave the show plenty of time to fit in almost all of the novel’s many twists and turns.  They even included the narration, using the great Frances McDormand to play the narrating voice of God.  This inclusion of the narration is a great example of where the mini-series wound up going just a tad bit astray.  Including the narration — unusual for a TV show to have — allows the mini-series to include many of the book’s best jokes.  But on the other hand, I found the narration slowed down the show and prevented me as an audience member for connecting as deeply with the characters as I might have expected.  The narration kept me at a distance.  And as such, I found the jokes in the narration didn’t land nearly as well as they did in the novel.

The … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Three

In Stranger Things season three, we rejoin the kids (and a few heroic adults) of Hawkins, IL in the summer of 1985.  The kids are enjoying summer and the brand new Starcourt Mall that’s been built in their town.  Mike and Eleven are a couple and are inseparable (to the frustration of El’s adopted father Hopper).  Steve is working at the mall’s ice cream shop.  Nancy and Jonathan are working as interns at the Hawkins Post, but Nancy’s desires to be involved in real news reporting are constantly thwarted by the condescending men who work there.  Dustin has just returned from a science camp, and detects a strange Russian transmission on the radio he sets up.  Will is frustrated that the gang seems to be drifting apart, and is alarmed when he begins to feel hints that the Mind Ripper has returned.

Season three of Stranger Things is, overall, a terrific new installment of this loving pastiche of the 1980’s films of Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, the stories of Stephen King, the films of John Carpenter, and more.  (Click here for my review of season one and here for my review of season two.)  These eight new episodes are fun and exciting.  The story moves along at a rapid clip.  (We don’t get any episode-long digressions in the manner of season two’s much-criticized Eleven adventure “The Lost Sister”.)  I’m pleased to see the story and the characters moving forward.

My main complaint is that I wanted more!  We had to wait over a year between seasons one and two (from July 2016 to October 2017) and almost two whole years between seasons two and three (October 2017 to July 2019).  After so long a wait, I watched these eight new episodes in about a week.  It’s all over and done far too soon to suit me!  I know this is the model these days… and I prefer eight tight episodes to a longer season that drags in the middle.  But it seems to me that, despite how ambitious this show is, they should be able to get us eight new episodes annually.  After waiting almost TWO years for this new batch, it wound up feeling a little anticlimactic to me after so much anticipation.  I hope the Duffer Brothers and Netflix are able to bring us season four on a shorter timetable.

I also have to point out that the show is running into trouble because the show’s narrative timeline is unfolding far more slowly than the production schedule of actually making the show.  Season one took place in November 1983, season two took place in October 1984, and season three is only 9 months later, in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Premiere of Watchmen

Watchmen, the 1986-87 mini-series/graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is probably the single greatest comic book story ever made.  The collected graphic novel was selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 greatest English-language novels of the past century.  (I waxed poetic about the themes of Watchmen here.)  The long considered unadaptable story was adapted into a film by Zack Snyder in 2009.  I quite enjoyed that film and think it’s very underrated, even while I acknowledge that Mr. Snyder failed to incorporate much of the subtext and meaning that made the story so powerful.  (I think the film’s “Ultimate Cut” is a far superior version.  That much-longer version combines an Extended Cut of the film with the animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences.  If you’re going to watch the Watchmen film, the “Ultimate Cut” is unquestionably the way to go.)

Now Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) has brought Watchmen to TV, in a nine-episode new series for HBO.  Mr. Lindelof and his team have taken a fascinating and unexpected approach.  This Watchmen show is not an adaptation of the comic.  Rather, it is a new story set in the world of the Watchmen comic, taking place thirty-plus years after those events.  I have watched the series premiere, and I thought it was thrilling and shocking.  I was completely gripped; so right now I am all-in on this new version and very excited to see where this goes.

This first episode of Watchmen contains a number of small touches that tell us that we’re in the same universe as the original Watchmen comic-book, but this first episode presents us with an entirely new story and new characters.  The episode opens with a riveting sequence, set in Tulsa in 1921.  We’re thrust right in the middle of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a horrifying explosion of racial violence and one of the worst riots in U.S. history.  (I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about this horrible incident and I had to read up on it after the episode.  I feel a little bit better that creator Damon Lindelof admitted — in this wonderfully in-depth interview conducted by Alan Sepinwall — that he too knew little about this massacre when he first came across the story.)  This is not at all how I expected a Watchmen TV show to begin!  It’s only the first of many wonderfully surprising and unexpected choices made by Mr. Lindelof, and it’s a fantastic opening to the show.  (In a separate article by Mr. Sepinwall, who is one of my very favorite TV reviewers, Mr. Sepinwall makes the astute observation that this opening also presents us with … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The New Breaking Bad Netflix Movie: El Camino!

I am thrilled that Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan has made such a thrilling return to the world of the series with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which Mr. Gilligan wrote and directed!  I loved every minute of this surprisingly deep dive back into this universe and these characters, and the long-awaited and well-deserved focus on Aaron Paul’s character of Jesse Pinkman.

Breaking Bad is without question one of the great television achievements of all time.  Vince Gilligan and his astoundingly talented team of collaborators were able to craft a magnificent character study of a hugely flawed middle-aged white American man, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), charting his transformation from mild-mannered high school science teacher into a criminal overlord and monster.  (“From Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as goes the phrase often used by the folks behind the show.)  The show was breathtaking in the way it plumbed the worst depths of Walter White (and many of those around him).  The show could mount a viscerally exciting action sequence and also be very funny, but most of all it was heartbreaking.  A carefully structured, serialized show, Breaking Bad ended at a time of Mr. Gilligan’s choosing, and the phenomenal final season brought the show to a nearly perfect ending.

I was completely satisfied with the five seasons of Breaking Bad.  And yet, in the years since the finale, the show’s universe has expanded.  Mr. Gilligan and Peter Gould launched a prequel spin-off series, Better Call Saul.  To my enormous surprise, not only is the show great, I think it has grown to equal and possibly even surpass Breaking Bad!  I am completely captivated and I eagerly await the coming fifth season.

As Better Call Saul has progressed, gradually catching up to the timeline of Breaking Bad, I’ve been wondering whether Saul will ever directly cross over with events from the original show.  Many Breaking Bad characters have appeared on Saul (beyond Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut, the show’s two lead characters, both of whom originated on Breaking Bad).  But would we eventually get to see the events of Breaking Bad from the perspective of Saul’s characters like Jimmy and Mike and Kim?  Might we even actually see Walt or Jesse appear on the show?  Better Call Saul’s post-Breaking Bad “Cinnabon Gene” sequences also have served to hint that the show might eventually move beyond the timeline of the events of Breaking Bad, and perhaps show us more of other Breaking Bad characters’ final fates.

But I never in my wildest dreams expected that Vince Gilligan would one day mount a full-on Breaking Bad sequel.  And yet, here we are with El Camino: A Breaking Bad [continued]

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Josh Reviews the New “Short Treks” Star Trek Short Film: “Q & A”

October 14th, 2019
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Last year in the months leading up to the launch of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access posted a series of four Star Trek short films, which they nicknamed “Short Treks.”  In the months leading up to the start of the new Picard series, it looks like they’re doing the same, with a new round of six new short films.  The first one, “Q & A”, was recently released.  It depicts Spock’s first day on board Christopher Pike’s Enterprise (prior to the events of the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” as well as the events of Discovery’s second season), in which he and Number One get trapped in a turbolift together.

I love the idea of these “Short Treks” as a way to give us vignettes set across the Star Trek universe, in different times and different locations.  The Star Trek universe is vast and deep, and there are so many wonderful areas and settings and characters to be mined for new stories.  One of the most fan-favorite aspects of Discovery’s second season was the way they incorporated Christopher Pike (now played by Anson Mount) and Spock (now played by Ethan Peck) as important characters, so the idea of returning to those characters and setting makes sense for this first new “Short Trek.”  Discovery season two also recast the role of Pike’s first officer, Number One (played by Majel Barrett in “The Cage” and by Rebecca Romijn in her brief appearances on Discovery).  I was bummed that Number One had so little to do on Discovery, so I was pleased that she and Spock would be the focus of this new short film.

But I wasn’t as taken with “Q & A” as I was with the four previous “Short Treks,” and I found it vastly inferior to Michael Chabon’s previous effort, the beautiful “Calypso” (which represents possibly the best 15-ish minutes of new official Star Trek in a decade).

The short is cute, with some nice banter between Spock and Number One as they while away the hours stuck in the turbolift.  But I didn’t find the banter to be nearly as funny or interesting as I’d expected, nor that revelatory for either of their characters.  We never got to know Number One that well in “The Cage,” but the Number One in this short strikes me as a very different character than the woman we saw in “The Cage.”  The Number One of “Q & A” is surprisingly snarky, and I just don’t buy that this stiff, buttoned down woman would ever start singing in front of a man who she’d just met that day.  The short is supposed to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fleabag!

I’d been hearing about Fleabag for years, ever since the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show was released back in 2016.  The acclaim for the show’s second season, released this past March, bumped the show up higher on my (lengthy) to-watch list.  About a week or two before Ms. Waller-Bridge cleaned up at the Emmy Awards, I finally wised up and started watching.  Thank goodness!  I tore through the show and was done with the two six-episode seasons in less than a week.  I’m sorry I waited so long to watch the show and equally regretful that I devoured all of the episodes so quickly, because this show is phenomenal.  It’s quickly become the TV show I am most evangelical about these days.  I think it’s an absolutely brilliant accomplishment.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the show (based on her one-woman play).  She wrote every episode, and stars as Fleabag, the unnamed woman at the center of the story.  (Ms. Waller-Bridge has suggested that the name refers to the messy reality underneath the main character’s put-together exterior; the character is never actually referred to by the nickname “Fleabag” on-screen.)  To tell you too much about the show would be to spoil its many wonderful surprises and layers.  Suffice to say, Ms. Waller-Bridge’s character is a bit of a mess, a young woman who owns her own cafe but who is drowning in debt and floundering in her personal life.  Ms. Waller-Bridge is magnificent in the role; funny and heartbreaking and immediately captivating for the audience.  She invites us into her life and we dive in with enthusiasm.

That’s one of the keys to the show.  Ms. Waller-Bridge’s character often speaks directly to us, the TV viewer watching at home.  We’re her confidantes; her secret friends.  It’s a device that pays off emotional dividends, as we are drawn in to her life and her story and are made, in many ways, a part of that story.  It’s also the set-up for many, many magnificent jokes.  Ms. Waller-Bridge can get more comedic mileage out of a quick glance into the camera than anyone since Johnny Carson.

Fleabag achieves the impressive tightrope-balance of being incredibly, extraordinarily, astoundingly funny — fall-off your seat funny — while also gradually building to be a story of great depth and emotion.  (Although they are very different types of shows, I am reminded of Catastrophe, which strikes a similar balance in tone.  The two shows also share a ribald, very raunchy sense of humor.)  I can’t believe that a show exists that, in only two short seasons (each consisting of six half-hour episodes), can be at the same time so hilarious and so poignant.  I was deeply moved by … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Premiere of Stumptown!

Stumptown is a magnificent comic book series written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by first Matthew Southworth and then Justin Greenwood.  It centers on Dex Parios, a private investigator in Portland, Oregon.  The series has been published periodically between 2009 and 2016 (though I continue to hope for new installments…).  I was excited when I heard that the series was being turned into a TV show for ABC starring How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders in the lead role!

I watched the first episode, and I was pleased!  It wasn’t flawless, but it was an entertaining hour of television and I think the series has a lot of potential.

This first episode is a loose adaptation of the comic book’s first story-line, “The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)”.  Dex is broke and owes the local casino, run by the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast, $11,000.  The head of the casino offers to wipe out Dex’s debt if Dex will help find her granddaughter, who has gone missing.  Dex agrees, and quickly finds herself in a world of trouble she didn’t expect.

The comic’s first issue opens with Dex getting shot, and then the story flashes back to retrace the steps of what happened.  This episode takes a similar approach, though it borrows a scene from a later Stumptown story, in which Dex gets thrown in the truck of a car by two coffee-loving goons.  This opening sequence of the show is terrific — probably the best part of the episode.  It’s very funny (the goons start singing along to the Neil Diamond song playing on Dex’s car’s broken tape-player) and then turns into a terrific action sequence, as Dex breaks out of the trunk and attempts to subdue the two guys, while the car careens out of control through traffic, leading to the car’s taking a huge jump off of a bridge (which is also a callback to a famous moment from the comic).  The show then flashes back, as the comic did, to show us how Dex got locked in that trunk in the first place.

What follows is a decently compelling mystery.  I love that Dex actually finds the missing girl, Nina, fairly quickly — but that turns out to be just part of the larger story.  That’s a clever twist.  This first episode has a lot of ground to cover, introducing the whole cast and Dex’s world, while also telling this mystery/investigation story.  It’s all done fairly well.

Cobie Smulders is well-cast as Dex.  I think she’s a strong choice to carry the show.  She’s beautiful and she can kick ass, and she has the acting chops … [continued]

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“Going From Drunk Asshole to Sober Asshole Isn’t the Dramatic Makeover You Think it is” — Josh Reviews Brockmire Season Three!

September 25th, 2019
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I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write about Brockmire season three, which I devoured quickly upon its release last spring.  I absolutely adored season one and season two of Brockmire, and season three did not disappoint!  This is one of my very favorite shows currently being made!

Brockmire has charted the slow climb back up of Jim Brockmire, a disgraced former baseball announcer who years ago destroyed his life and career in a drunken on-air rant after discovering that his wife was cheating on him.  The show is one of the funniest shows on TV today, while also at the same time being a deeply moving story about real, flawed humans beings doing their best to get through the day.

As I’ve said in all of my previous Brockmire reviews, the main reason to watch Brockmire is to see Hank Azaria give the greatest performance of his career in this, the role it seems that he was born to play.  Mr. Azaria is magnificent, able to deliver devastating punchlines as the show’s jokes come fast and furious, while at the same time mining deep, moving pathos out of the story of this former scumbag inching his way, maybe, towards something better.  Every moment Mr. Azaria is on screen is a master’s course in comedic and dramatic acting.  It’s truly extraordinary.

The show’s season one set-up felt like something that could have lasted for many years, with Brockmire working as an announcer for a podunk team in a tiny town, flirting with local bartender Jules (Amanda Peet).  I was surprised in season two that the show shifted locations, as Brockmire got a new job working for a minor league team in New Orleans.  I was excited to see the show and the characters move forward, though I missed having Jules as a series regular.  Here in season three, the show has again reinvented itself, as Brockmire has gotten sober and gotten himself a job back in the Major League, calling games for Oakland.  (The show doesn’t actually mention the A’s by name.)  I miss Jules (who returns for one episode) and Charles (who was elevated to the series’ second lead in season two, but who, like Jules, only appears in one episode here in season three).  On the other hand, I think it’s incredible that the show doesn’t rest on its laurels.  Too many TV shows insist on staying put in their status quo year after year.  I think it’s fascinating and exciting that Brockmire has reinvented itself completely with each new season.

Not just the show, but the main character himself!  In the first season, Brockmire was an alcoholic and drug addict, and much of the humor … [continued]

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Catching up with Legion Season Two

September 19th, 2019
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I was blown away by the first season of Legion back in 2017.  I thought it was magnificent; hugely creative and weird and unique.  It was a gloriously mindbending experience that pushed the boundaries of what a television show could be.  I loved it.

But by the time season two came out, I felt that I needed to rewatch the first season to refresh my memory of everything happening on this twisty, complicated show.  And so I held off on watching season two until I had a chance to rewatch season one.  Although that first season was only eight episodes, in this age of “peak TV” I found it hard to find the time!  I kept deciding to watch something NEW as opposed to going back to rewatch something I’d already seen.  But I finally made the time, and I’m so glad I did, because it was a delight to rewatch season one — there were so many nuances I caught, knowing where that season would wind up.  And I am certain I got a lot more out of season two having season one fresh in my mind.

So what did I think of season two?  I loved it!

This second season was a wonderful expansion of everything we saw in season one.  I was intrigued to see the way the show took our main characters from season one and pushed them all in unexpected directions.  (This is NOT a show that returns go the status quo at the end of every episode, and I love it for that!)  I enjoyed meeting tons of fascinating new characters.  Most of all, I was delighted that the show continued to be every inch as wonderfully bizarre and unexpected as season one!  Season two was packed full of strange imagery and moments, and the show continued to be playful with its very structure as a TV show, throwing in narration and asides and digressions so that I as a viewer was constantly surprised by the directions in which the show was taking me.

That is what is most memorable and praiseworthy, in my opinion, about Legion.  Creator Noah Hawley and his team are constantly pushing against the limits of what a TV show can be, and the conventions of “normal” TV narrative.  Legion is constantly surprising in terms of what we’re seeing on screen.  Suddenly we’re watching a dance sequence!  (David’s dance-off showdown with Farouk!)  Suddenly we’re listening to narration (by Jon Hamm!!) of how a delusion develops, an idea memorably depicted by showing chicks hatching from eggs (ideas) and a horrifying black goo monster (a delusion).

Visually this show is extraordinary!!  It’s jam-packed with strikingly original, memorable images.  I am haunted … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season Six

A little over a year ago, at the end of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s fifth season, the show was cancelled by FOX.  I was so sad to read that news!  For me, it was a wake-up call as to how much I’d grown to love this show.  I didn’t realize how much I loved Brooklyn Nine-Nine until, suddenly, it was gone.  But then, miraculously, it wasn’t!  NBC rescued the show, picking it up for an eighteen-episode sixth season.  These things don’t usually happen!  Despite fan outcries when their shows are cancelled, it’s very rare for a show to actually find another home after a cancellation.  So the simple fact of the existence of a sixth season of the show was quite a gift.  I’d have been happy with almost anything.  What we got, stunningly, was by far the best season of the show so far!

The season began by quickly resolving the season five cliffhanger over whether or not Captain Holt was promoted to commissioner.  The season-opener was good, but it was the second episode that really caught my attention.  “Hitchcock & Scully” gave the focus to the two oafish supporting characters, showing us a flashback to when they were young and effective detectives.  It was a genius concept — showing us that the dumb and lazy dup were once muscled eighties action-star officers — and executed marvelously.  From that point on, I thought this season was on fire.

We got fantastic continuations of many of the series’ annual traditions.  Craig Robinson returned as Doug Judy, the “Pontiac Bandit,” in “A Tale of Two Bandits,” in which Nicole Byer also appeared as Doug Judy’s sister, Trudy Judy.  Mrs. Beyer was so funny!  (She also killed on her one-off appearance on The Good Place last season, in an episode that aired only a few weeks before this one, as a very jovial lady in the Good Place.)  I hope she appears again in the future!  In “Cinco de Mayo,” the gang’s Halloween Heist competition was moved to Cinco de Mayo in order to take the stress off of Terry, who was preparing for his Lieutenant’s exam.  (Because this new season didn’t begin airing on NBC until well after Halloween, this was a clever way to continue this annual tradition!). In the season finale, “Suicide Squad,” we get to see an alliance of many of the show’s (villainous) guest stars, including the Vulture (Dean Winters), Madeline Wuntch (Kyra Sedgwick), and C.J. Stentley (Ken Marino).

In recent years, the show has occasionally dipped its toes into more dramatic territory.  This season saw a few examples of that.  In “He Said She Said,” Amy reveals the harassment that she suffered coming up as a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Things Season Three

Pamela Adlon’s show Better Things continues to be one of my very favorite TV shows currently being made.  I recently caught up with season three, and it’s every bit as magnificent as I had hoped.  (Click here for my review of Better Things season one, and here for my review of season two.)

Better Things was co-created by Pamela Adlon, who also plays the lead role, writes most of the episodes (she wrote or co-wrote eight of the twelve season three episodes), and directed ALL of them in season three.  This is a magnificent showcase for Ms. Adlon’s talents, and I love that she has created a show that is idiosyncratic and unique.  Better Things is unlike most other television.  The show zooms from comedy to heartbreaking drama and back again at a moment’s notice.  It has a loose approach to narrative structure, with some episodes containing several vignettes that have little to nothing to do with one another, and some story-lines carrying through multiple episodes while other single episodes represent completely stand-along mini-movies or tone poems all their own.  There are many reasons why I love this show; one of the best is that, from episode to episode and moment to moment, I never know what I’m going to get.

I love that the show’s focus is firmly on Sam (Ms. Adlon’s character), her three kids Max, Frankie, and Duke, and the other women in their lives.  There are male characters on the show and many of them are great and interesting.  But this is a show that is about these women and their experiences.

Ms. Adlon seems focused on honesty, on depicting the real-life joys and struggles and sorrows of life as a working single parent of kids.  She seems to revel in showing the audience real-life moments we’ve never seen on TV before.  (As a prime example: episode seven, “Toilet,” chronicles Sam’s preparations for her colonoscopy.)

There are times when the show seems to idolize Sam a bit too much.  (“Your mother may be the greatest mother in the world,” Sam’s brother Marion (Kevin Pollak) tells her young daughter Duke at one point.)  But on the other hand, the show again and again shows Sam’s flaws and bad behavior.  So it works that the show is structured so as to put Sam’s hard work as a parent up on a bit of a pedestal.  Sam is a great mother not because she is perfect.  Far from it, she screws up and makes questionable decisions in nearly every episode.  But her effort day in and day out, and her unconditional love for her kids, and her stubborn refusal to stick to the path that most … [continued]

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Josh Reviews True Detective Season Three

Like many, I loved the first season of True Detective.  The ending was a little disappointing (in that the many plot threads weren’t wrapped up as neatly as I’d hoped), but I thought it was a riveting, smart, adult drama.  The writing was sharp, the directing was memorable, and the acting was magnificent.  Season two was a bit of a letdown, but while most of the world seemed to hate that season, I enjoyed it a lot.  After that second season was so poorly received, it seemed that True Detective was dead.  And so I was delighted when, a few years later, word came that a third season was happening.  Lo and behold, I think season three might be the best season of the show!

Mahershala Ali stars in season three as Detective Wayne Hays.  As was the case in season one, the season-long investigation unfolds over three timelines, which we follow simultaneously throughout the season.  In 1980, Detective Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) investigate the disappearance of two children, Will and Julie Purcell.  In 1990, the unsolved case is reopened when video footage seems to show that Julie Purcell is still alive.  In 2015, an elderly Hays is interviewed about the case for a True Crime TV show.  (I love that the show found a way to incorporate the True Crime trend that has bloomed in popularity over the past several years.)

Whereas season one had two leads and season two had four, season three focuses on one single main character: Mahershala Ali’s Detective Hays.  This is a terrific choice.  I have enjoyed Mr. Ali’s work for years, ever since he was the best thing about the sci-fi show The 4400.  He’s become a successful movie star now, but I’m thrilled he continues to work in TV as well.  (He was one of the best aspects of Luke Cage season one.)  True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto has crafted a showcase role for Mr. Ali, who proceeded to knock it right out of the park.  Mr. Ali is absolutely riveting from start to finish.  I love how he is able to successfully craft different versions of Hays at these three different points in his life.  Mr. Ali’s magnetic intensity is perfect for bringing the audience along through this complicated story taking place across decades.

One of the best things about True Detective season three is that the central mystery wraps up in a more satisfying, comprehensible way than it did in either season one or two.  The show is still fiendishly difficulty to follow — which I believe is by design.  It’s unlikely a viewer will be able to get ahead of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Atlanta Season Two: Robbin’ Season

I was a few years late, but recently I finally caught up with the first season of Donald Glover’s show Atlanta.  It was every bit as fantastic as I’d heard!  (Click here for my full review.)  I didn’t waste any time before moving on to season two, which I enjoyed just as much as season one.

Atlanta Season Two is subtitled Robbin’ Season.  The first episode kicks off with a lengthy sequence of the robbery of a fast-food joint.  This vignette features characters we haven’t met before and won’t see again, but it sets the tone for this thematically rich and endlessly compelling and original season of television.  Darius explains to the audience soon after that robberies increase in the lead-up to the annual holiday season, because “everyone got to eat.”  As the season unfolds, we witness several more literal robberies (Al is ripped off by his long-time drug connect, and in a later episode is held up at gunpoint by three fans on the side of the road; Tracy brazenly steals a pair of shoes from a mall shoe-store; Al’s barber engages in a series of escalating grifts; the gang all get their gear destroyed, and Earn has his laptop stolen, after a college campus performance goes wary).  But more than that, we see many of the show’s characters, particularly Earn, pushed to the brink of desperation by their need to eat, to find a way to keep their heads above water as the world seems to conspire against them.  Atlanta can be a very funny show, but the reason it’s a great show is because of its complexity and depth.

The season started off in a fairly low-key manner, with a series of episodes that were fun and funny and caught us up with the gang in the time that had passed since the end of season one.

Creator and star Donald Glover’s Earn was clearly the main character of season one, but in season two Earn took a step back to let others into the spotlight.  (Earn hardly appeared at all in a three-episode stretch in the middle of the season.)  Al (Paper Boi), played by Brian Tyree Henry, really stepped into focus for me this season.  We got to get to know Al much deeper this year.  We saw his struggle to “keep it real” at the same time as his star is rising.  (We see this most powerfully in “Woods,” in which Al argues with the young woman he is hanging out with over her manipulation of social media to increase her fame; in that same episode, Al’s attempt to walk home like a normal person gets him stuck in an increasingly terrible … [continued]

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“And Now Our Watch is Ended” — Josh Bids Farewell to Game of Thrones

Looking back on eight seasons of Game of Thrones, I am in awe of what creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have been able to accomplish.  They brought the novels of George R. R. Martin’s to glorious life, hooking me deeply into the stories and characters.  It’s been a while since I have been so emotionally invested in a TV show.

In the early seasons, I wondered how long the show could sustain itself.  But the series grew and grew, becoming emotionally richer as it went on, not to mention ever-more visually impressive. The show smashed every expectation I ever had for what a fantasy TV show could deliver on a TV budget.  Game of Thrones gave us a visually stunning movie every single week.  Having not read George R. R. Martin’s novels, the show continually blew me away with its total disregard for storytelling conventions, killing off characters and having the good guys defeated and humiliated and destroyed at every turn.  Again and again and again, this series surprised and shocked me, and I loved it for that.  And I loved the (surviving) characters more and more with each passing episode.  Here in the final season, I was deeply invested in what would happen to these characters, hoping that some of them would find a happy ending.

Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this final season, even though I think the show has stumbled in some of its storytelling choices.  These final six episodes have each been HUGE, filled with series-altering events, both small-scale interpersonal moments and enormous fantasy sequences of armies and zombies and dragons.  To say I was gripped would be an enormous understatement.  Watching this final season has ben a rollercoaster, and I mean that as an enormous compliment.  What a ride this has been.  Rarely have I been this captivated by a TV show.  The week-long wait between episodes has been torture.

The biggest failing of this final season was that, despite the extra-long episodes, it feels to me like there was far too much story jammed into these six episodes.  My favorite episode was episode #2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which was entirely focused on our characters at Winterfell, waiting through the night for the final battle with the Night King’s forces.  I loved that the show took the time to pause and let us enjoy these characters.  That episode was filled with scene after scene of amazing, wonderful character beats that paid off years of storytelling.  It was amazing.  But often in the other five episodes, I felt that events blew by too fast for them to have the impact they should have had.  This was most problematic in terms of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: “The Bells”

Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode came close to greatness, which makes the places where it fell short all the more painful.  Let’s dig in.  Obviously, SPOILERS below, so for the love of the old gods and the new, don’t read if you haven’t seen the episode!

“The Bells” was as humongous and epic as the show has ever been; it was a triumph of visual effects, special effects, costuming, set decoration, editing, directing, and more; the culmination of eight seasons of ever-more-impressive production values.  Amidst all the spectacle, this episode was also filled with a number of tremendously powerful, emotional character beats, many of which paid off arcs going all the way back to the very beginning of the show.  It was exciting and gripping and heartbreaking.  I watched white-knuckled from the first second to the last.

This episode also had several enormous flaws, most critically that I simply do not buy Daenerys’ sharp turn into madness.  It’s just not working for me that the show took this character who we’ve been following and rooting for since the series premiere and suddenly turned her into a murderous maniac.  Now, Dany has never been perfect.  She has made mistakes, and she has shown a ruthlessness and viciousness throughout the run of the series.  But while perhaps her singleminded belief that her destiny was to rule Westeros was egotistical or even fanatical, Dany has always seemed genuine in her desire for justice.  That’s why Dany was so successful at amassing so many followers who loved her and were willing to die for her over the years, from Ser Jorah to the Dothraki and the Unsullied.  In the last week, I’ve seen some people mention her execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly as evidence that Dany has always had these mad tendencies.  But I don’t buy it.  Yes, ordering the roasting-by-dragonfire of those Tarlys was cold and even cruel.  But killing the heads of a house that had stood against her is a far cry from the total massacre of a city-full of innocents that we witnessed in this episode.  That Dany, a woman who has always been particularly concerned for the plight of the common people oppressed by uncaring rulers, would so callously butcher all of the civilian inhabitants of King’s Landing is unfathomable to me.

If they were going to try to convince me that this turn for Daenerys was justified, then having her vanish from the entire second half of the episode was not the way to do it.  We see Dany’s angry face as she decides to ignore the bells launch her dragon into city-destroying action, but then we never return to her again.  What a bizarre and disappointing … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Two-Part Finale of Star Trek: Discovery Season Two: “Such Sweet Sorrow”

Well, I’ll give them some credit, the folks behind Star Trek: Discovery did their best to pull out all the stops for this two-part season finale.  There were huge spaceship battles and hand-to-hand combat sequences, there were big emotional moments, and attempts made to not only answer all of this season’s long-running questions but also to tie up some of the continuity issues that have been present since the start of the series.  Unfortunately, as seems to usually be the case for this show, the things that worked were, in my opinion, vastly outnumbered by all the things that didn’t.

Let’s dive right into the big stuff.  (I’m going to dig deeply into spoiler territory here, folks, so beware.)  The core mystery this season was of the seven signals that appeared simultaneously across the galaxy.  That’s how things were set up in the season premiere.  But then, as the season progressed, new signals kept appearing.  That was a contradiction that never made sense to me.  Were there the seven original signals plus the new signals the Discovery kept encountering?  In this episode, we go back and retrace the steps of the signals that Discovery encountered: four in previous episodes and three more over the course of this two-parter.  That’s seven total, so the original set-up of seven mysterious signals that all appeared at the start of the season has been totally contradicted.  It’s shocking to me that the show could fail so completely on even being consistent and clear with its set-up at this most basic, can-you-count-to-ten level.

We learn in the finale that it was Michael Burnham herself who set the signals.  In theory I like the idea that the events we’ve been following this season are a loop, and that the source is one of our characters and not some made-up external new antagonist or protagonist.  But think about this for even just a few seconds and it all falls apart.  How could Michael create these enormously powerful signals (so powerful that they could be detected from across the galaxy) with just her tiny little suit?  Even if I accept the idea that a human in the years before the Original Series could create a perfectly-functioning time-travel suit (and that Michael could build a new one and learn how to operate it in less than a day), how could this time-suit move Michael, not just through time, but also through space, allowing her to journey back and forth across the galaxy in an instant?  The finale explains that while it was Michael’s mother who traveled through time to interact with Spock as a young boy, it was Michael herself who was behind everything else this season and all … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: “The Last of the Starks”

“The Last of the Starks” was a very solid episode.  There was lots of great character stuff, some heartfelt goodbyes, and a death that landed more powerfully than any of the ones from the previous episode.  It also had some weaknesses, notably more of the lack of attention to any sort of sense of geography and/or actual military strategy that we’ve seen too often in the post-novel seasons of the show.

As I’d expected, it looks like somehow there are still lots of people still alive in Winterfell, even though last week it looked like almost every last fighting man had been slaughtered.  (I’m happy there are more than ten people left alive in the North.  My criticism is really with the staging of last week’s episode.)  There were a few references to the “surviving Dothraki”, which is weird since last week it looked like they were totally annihilated (and we didn’t actually see any remaining Dothraki onscreen this week).  I was glad that we did get some sense, throughout this episode, that Dany’s forces were seriously depleted (rather than being magically restored to full strength).  When they arrived for the parlay at King’s Landing at the end of the episode, it looked like there were only about 50 Unsullied there with her!

The opening funeral sequence was poignant, with a moving speech by Jon.  I’m pleased the show didn’t fast-forward too immediately past the horrors that everyone went through in the previous episode.

The dinner that began silent and solemn and that gradually escalated into rampant debauchery was wonderful.  This is the type of masterful sequence that I have truly loved in the show’s later years.  I love that they took their time with this sequence, showing us one wonderful character moment after another.  I loved Gendry’s becoming a Lord.  I loved Tyrion and Davos’ conversation.  I loved Sansa’s showing kindness to the Hound.  (Though, while I like that Sansa is strong and not spending time weeping over the tragedies that have befallen her, there was something a little unsettling about her suggestion that getting repeatedly raped by Ramsay Bolton was good for her, in the end.)  I loved the drinking game between Tyrion, Jamie, Brienne, and Podrick.  I loved Tormund’s joyful camaraderie with Jon, and his lovesickness over Brienne.  I loved all the tension at the head table between Sansa-Arya-Jon-Dany.

I like that the show has made me unsure who to root for, as the secret of Jon’s true identity quickly spread.  Dany isn’t perfect, but as a viewer of this show I like and trust her more than Sansa and Arya do.  While Jon has many great qualities, we’ve seen his failings as a leader, too.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: “The Long Night”

April 30th, 2019
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In “The Long Night,” the third episode of Game of Thrones’ final six-episode season, the epic battle between the forces of life and the forces of death, between fire and ice, between humanity and the Night King has, at last, arrived.  The show has been teasing this confrontation ever since the opening scene of the series premiere.  And, as I had expected/feared, coming after the masterpiece that was episode two, I found this episode to be surprisingly so-so.

The spectacle was extraordinary.  While I personally responded far more to the humongous battles in “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards,” it would be a mistake not to appreciate the incredible achievement that this episode represents.  This is one of the longest Game of Thrones episodes ever, clocking in at 82 minutes, and it is entirely devoted to the battle.  (For the second episode in a row, we stay entirely at Winterfell, never cutting back to Kings’ Landing or any other location.  This is such a change of pace for this show!)  This is easier said than done.  Fans (of many different franchises!) are always clamoring for longer and larger-scale action, but to actually maintain suspense and tension over the course of nearly an hour and a half is an extraordinary achievement, a strong testament to the skill of director Miguel Sapochnik (who has helmed many of Game of Thrones’ best episodes).  I was gripped throughout this episode, which demonstrated an impressive mastery of pace and tone.  They were able to take us through the many distinct phases and locations of the battle and constantly weave vignettes with all of our characters into the shots of large-scale carnage.  This kept my interest hooked and never allowed the audience to get bored or overwhelmed.

I loved the mostly dialogue-free opening minutes of the episode, which were dripping with tension — thus drawing the audience right into the hopeless situation these characters were facing — and also did a beautiful job of establishing the geography of the battlefield in and around Winterfell.  This was important to our being able to follow the events that would unfold over the course of the next hour-plus.  (While the episode’s very dark color palette did result in unnecessary confusion — more on this below — one thing I can state is that I thought the episode demonstrated a wonderful clarity of geography, as I never questioned where we were in or around or above Winterfell throughout the complicated action.)

There was a lot of gorgeous, haunting imagery throughout the episode.  The shot of the Dothraki horde vanishing into the darkness and the lights from their flaming swords snuffing out, one by one, was phenomenal and hugely … [continued]

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Game of Thrones: “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

April 23rd, 2019
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I thought this second episode of Game of Thrones’ final season was magnificent, a high water mark in the series.  I know of some people who have complained that these first two episodes have been boring, and I truly don’t know what to say about that.  The character moments in these episodes have been amazing.  This is why I watch and love this show, because of the characters, not because of the zombie action.  (That’s just the gravy!)  I was nervous going into this final season about how the show could possibly be brought to a satisfying end in only six episodes, and I am still nervous about that, but after these first two episodes I am as excited for this show as I have ever been, and I am all-in on the journey on which we’re being brought in this final stretch.

This episode was filled with some of the series’ all-time greatest moments.  I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anything better than the spectacle of Tormund Giantsbane’s smitten attempt to impress Brienne of Tarth by retelling the story of how he suckled at a giantess’ breast for three months, prompted by his guzzling of that horn of booze (or giants’ milk??) that he’d brought with him.  But then we got to the scene that gave this episode its title.  I was heartbroken that, even on the eve of death and sitting in the company of this group of men who all accept and respect her, Brienne still felt that she had to lie and say that she never wanted to be a knight, when that was so obviously her heart’s desire.  And then my heart broke again, but this time out of happiness, when Jamie finally realized how he could repay the debt he owed her for setting him on the path to redemption.  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s gentle delivery of the oath was beautiful, and then when Gwendoline Christie rose, and gave that beautiful smile (was that the first time in the entire series we’d ever seen Brienne truly smile?), my heart just sang.  Amazing.

And by the way, there were several other great Jamie and Brienne moments.  I loved seeing her stand up and vouch for him in front of the assembled Lords of the North, and it was beautiful to see how much weight her words carried, particularly with Sansa.  And then, later, when Jamie humbly asked to fight under Brienne’s command — wow!  Who could ever have imagined that Jamie Lannister would ever be willing to serve under ANYONE else??  What a beautiful payoff to their relationship, which has been one of my very favorite character arcs in the entire series.

That opening scene, in which … [continued]

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Game of Thrones Returns with “Winterfell”

April 17th, 2019
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After an almost two years’ wait, Game of Thrones’ six-episode final season has, at long last, begun!  I thought this first episode, “Winterfell,” was a fantastic beginning to this final run of episodes.

Let’s begin by discussing the gorgeous new opening credits!  It’s about time!  I was thrilled to see these beautiful new opening credits.  It makes sense to focus on only a few locations now, because all of our characters have come together at a few key spots.  The detailed new looks inside these cities (into the crypts beneath Winterfell, or into the throne-room of King’s Landing) were fantastic.  And I loved the device of showing us the movement of the army of the dead.  Will future weeks also show us the movements of the other armies?  I can’t wait to see…

I am, of course, nervous as to whether this show will be able to reach a satisfying conclusion in only six episodes.  One might accuse this first episode of being guilty of wasting time, as not much of consequence politically or militarily occurred in Westeros.  There were no battles, and no one was killed off.  I admit that, watching this episode, there were a few moments in which I wondered to myself, “hadn’t they better hurry things up already?”

But that would be to miss everything that was great about this episode.  Yes, we’re all excited to see the big battles, and yes, we’re all anxious to see who will live and who will die.  But after seven seasons of television, I am delighted that the show is taking its time to allow us the wonderful character moments with which this episode was overflowing.  It is a delight to see new character pairings and, even better, reunions that have been so many YEARS in coming.  Let’s review:

Jon and Arya — these two haven’t seen one another since the SERIES PREMIERE, at the end of which Jon went off to join the Night’s Watch.  I’d forgotten that Jon had given Arya Needle!  It was gloriously sweet to get to see them embrace… and also painful to hear Jon asking Arya, cluelessly, whether she’d ever had an opportunity to use Needle.  It’s a potent reminder of how much they’ve each been through.  But I also hope that the show will show us that these characters do take the time to catch one another up on what they’ve been through.  I don’t actually need to see those long scenes of catch-up, but I want to get the sense that these characters communicate with one another.  That’s important, because while of course I understand that this show thrives on drama and friction between the characters, at this point in the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Perpetual Infinity” and “Through the Valley of Shadows”

We’re heading into the home stretch of Star Trek: Discovery season two.  I’m finding things to enjoy in every episode, but the show is far shakier than I’d hoped (and that the stronger episodes at the start of the season had led me to anticipate).

Episode 10: “Perpetual Infinity” — after two episodes I was not that into, things picked up significantly in this installment, which I enjoyed quite a lot.  (For the most part.  As usual, there are some storytelling decisions that make me crazy.)

The heart of this episode, Burnham’s emotional reunion with the mother she thought long-dead, and the story of what happened to Dr. Gabrielle Burnham in the intervening years, is very strong.  While the device of Burnham’s watching her mother’s logs stretched credulity a bit (both that the logs captured all of this critical information and that Burnham would have the time to sit and watch all these hours of logs while a race-against-the-clock crisis was unfolding), emotionally the scenes worked.  I loved the opening flashback of Michael Burnham’s memories of her last happy moments with her parents, and I enjoyed the structure of following Gabrielle’s life in the series of flashbacks interspersed into the episode.  Guest star Sonja Sohn (Kima from The Wire!!!) was fantastic.  The strength and believability of her performance is a huge component of this episode working.  The other component is Sonequa Martin-Green, who is absolutely spectacular in every moment of this episode.  Ms. Martin-Green has, from the beginning, been one of the best aspects of this show.  She is amazingly talented, and while the show has veered perilously close into soap opera territory with the number of reasons they’ve given Michael Burnham to cry this season, I was gripped by the visceral emotion Ms. Martin-Green brought to every moment in this episode, particularly the scenes she shared with her mom.

I was happy that we get a satisfactory answer to why Gabrielle, who was in possession of a time-travel suit, couldn’t have done more to actually affect positive change to the time-line.  I’d been wondering this for weeks, and the answer (that after been shunted a millennia into the future, Gabrielle couldn’t spent more than a few moments in the past before being snapped back to that future time) is reasonably satisfactory.  (There ARE still plenty of problems with this time-travel story; see below.)

Spock is finally acting like Spock, and I found myself enjoying Ethan Peck’s performance more than ever.  This Spock is smart, calm, and kind, the way Spock should be.  Spock had several great moments with Burnham this week, but the best was the their terrific final scene together, in which Spock quietly re-sets the three-dimensional chess … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars: Resistance Season One

The latest Star Wars animated series, Resistance, is set in the months prior to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Kazuda Xiono is a young pilot in the Resistance, recruited to act as a spy on the Colossus, a refueling platform in the middle of an ocean on the planet Castilon.  General Organa and Poe Dameron suspect that the First Order is up to something on or near the Colossus, and they want Kaz to find the truth.  And so the enthusiastic, bumbling Kaz finds work as a mechanic on the Colossus, in the employ of Jarek Yeager, a grizzled former Rebel pilot.  Kaz befriends fellow mechanics Neeku and Tam, while secretly trying to uncover the details of the First Order’s plot.  Meanwhile, Kaz dreams of being a great pilot, and, like most others on the Colossus, looks up to the “aces,” a squadron of pilots who engage in dangerous races around the Colossus.

Star Wars: Resistance is a very kid-friendly show.  Although stories carry through across this first season, for the most part the show is very episodic, with each new episode giving us a new adventure for Kaz and friends.  Although the First Order is present as a looming threat, the tone of Resistance is, for the most part, light and silly, and things tend to work out for our heroes by the end of each twenty-ish-minute episode.

There is a lot about this first season of Star Wars: Resistance that reminded me of the first season of the previous Star Wars animated TV series, Star Wars: Rebels.  Rebels also started out as a very kid-friendly show, and that’s a main reason why I was quite mixed about Rebels as I watched that first season.  It was enjoyable, but it didn’t feel that interesting to me.  However, by the end of Rebels’ four-year run, that show had deepened into an enormously sophisticated, emotionally rich show.  I have hope that the same transformation will occur for Resistance.  However, while the closing episodes of Rebels’ first season started to demonstrate what the show would eventually become (with a terrific three-episode arc featuring Tarkin), Resistance hasn’t yet made that turn.  (Resistance’s final two-part episode felt like a move in that direction, as those were the most compelling episodes of the season so far, but I’m still not quite hooked.)  But I have hope (rebellions are built on hope), and I am eager to see where the show goes in season two.

Resistance has a very different look than Rebels and The Clone Wars, the two previous Star Wars animated shows, did.  The show has a flatter, 2-D look as opposed to the rounded, computer-generated three-dimensionality of … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to Catastrophe!

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s brilliant, brutally funny series Catastrophe gripped me from the very first episode.  And now, after four short but nearly perfect seasons, it’s gone, way too soon to suit me.  I miss it already!!

The series was created and is overseen by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who also star as Sharon and Rob.  In the pilot episode, the two meet when Rob is in England for a week for business.  After a torrid few days of enthusiastic sex, Rob goes home and neither expects to see the other again… then Sharon discovers that she’s pregnant.  So Rob moves to London and he and Sharon decide to make a go of being a couple.  The four seasons that follow depict the ups and downs of their adventures in parenting and in their relationship.

Season four is pretty much perfect, in my opinion.  We get six new episodes that unfold in the classic Catastrophe fashion, with moments of painful emotion right next to moments of outrageously hilarity.  This series is as funny as anything else on television these days.  It’s also blisteringly profane.  Four seasons in and I am still shocked (in the best possible way) about some of the things that the characters on this show (especially Sharon and Rob) say and do.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney are both spectacular in the lead roles.  They have written themselves roles for which they are each absolutely perfect.  I adore their chemistry.  There is a magic to seeing them on-screen together, especially when they are lobbing outrageous comments back and forth to one another.  The show has not avoided showing rough patches in their marriage, but in my opinion the show is at its best when Rob and Sharon are on the same side, together against the world.  This is the case, thankfully, for most of season four (somewhat of a relief after season three), at least until the finale which I will discuss in a moment.

Season three ended on a worrisome note, with Rob having been in a car accident and admitting to Sharon that he’d fallen off the wagon.  The start of season four picks up the story from right that cliffhanger ending, but thankfully the tone is one of high comedy rather than lugubrious drama.  Rob and Sharon’s appearance in court (and the way in which Rob immediately throws Sharon under the bus) is hilarious, a high mark in the series.  This was a terrific way to start the season.  What a joy it was to have Catastrophe back in perfect form!  Throughout the six episodes, the one-liners come fast and furious.  I need to find time to watch all these episodes again … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Project Daedalus” and “The Red Angel”

Here are my thoughts on the most recent two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season two.

Episode 9: “Project Daedalus” — The set-up of this episode is just terrible and had me repeatedly rolling my eyes.  But then, out of nowhere, the last fifteen-to-twenty minutes turn into a rollicking good time with great suspense and action and a surprisingly moving ending.  This is Discovery at its best and at its worst.

What’s bad?  Where to begin.  Star Trek: Discovery has demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of Section 31 since the beginning, and things just get worse and worse in the opening of this episode.  Admiral Cornwell reveals that “Control” is a computer system into which Starfleet admirals feed information and from which they get strategic recommendations.  Cornwell describes this system as critical to the successful running and defense of the Federation.  Oy!  I didn’t love the suggestion in David Mack’s novel Section 31: Control that the secretive Section 31 was run by an A.I., though I admit to being tickled that this idea from the books has made it into onscreen canon.  But in the books, the existence of this A.I. was a tightly-kept secret, even from most 31 operatives.  Here, Cornwell describes the entire Federation admiralty taking advice/orders from this A.I. system, which feels colossally stupid.  And now they’re shocked that this A.I. has become sentient (or is… trying to become sentient?  The episode is vague on that point) and is causing problems??  Do the Terminator films not exist in the Star Trek universe?  And then Cornwell tells us that Section 31 is headed up by a Vulcan Admiral who is a “logic extremist,” which the show has established as violent terrorists.  How does it make any sense that a Starfleet admiral is a terrorist?  None of this makes any sense and it’s all very silly, and just serves to make the leaders of Starfleet look extremely dumb.  (Maybe the show-runners think that “logic extremists” are something other than how I’m defining them?  I allow this possibility only because, as I have complained about before, the show has been annoyingly vague about who these people are, despite their having a critical role to play in Burnham’s backstory and in her schism with Spock — because we learned that Burnham fled Sarek and Amanda’s home because she feared that these logic extremists would return to attack there and would put Spock and his family in jeopardy.)

There are moments when I was interested in the tense Spock-Burnham exchanges (and I enjoyed that this played out over a game of 3-D chess, which we first met Spock and Kirk playing in Star Trek’s second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”), … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Atlanta Season One!

I’ve read a lot about how great Donald Glover’s show Atlanta was, but I never found the time to check it out.  But it’s stayed on my to-watch list, and I am delighted to have finally gotten a chance to watch the first season.  It’s as fantastic as I’d heard!

The show was created by Donald Glover, who also stars in the lead role as Earn, and who also wrote or directed many of the first season’s ten episodes.  This is a fantastic tour de force, and although the shows are very different, it reminds me a lot of what Aziz Ansari achieved with Master of None.  Both shows represent a powerful creative vision, bringing a very new type of TV show to the screen.

Atlanta follows the struggles of Earn, a young, poor man who talks his way into becoming the manager for his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who has started to make a name for himself as the rapper Paper Boi.  Earn has fathered a child with Van (Zazie Beetz), who the two are raising together, but he and Van aren’t married and, at various points in the season, aren’t even together as a couple.  Finally, Lakeith Stanfield plays Darius, Paper Boi’s bizarre friend and right-hand-man.

The show is loosely about Earn’s struggles with poverty and his attempts to succeed, for the first time in his life, in his new role as Paper Boi’s manager.  We also follow Earn’s on-again, off-again relationship with Van, and also Alfred’s struggles with his first brush at fame, which proves to be not entirely what he’d expected it to be.

But the show is at once much larger and much smaller than those plot points.  I was impressed how carefully Atlanta was able to focus on these wonderful characters, giving them each a lot of love and attention and fleshing them all out to great depth over the course of just these ten short episodes.  I was particularly pleased by the attention the show gave to Van.  She could easily have fallen to the side in favor of a focus on the three guys, but I loved that the show often paused to give her spotlight and agency.  I think my favorite episode of the season was the Van-focused “Value,” in which we follow her along on an awkward evening with a sort-of-friend (their very different social strata presenting one of many obstacles between the two), and then Van’s creative but ultimately failed attempts to beat a drug-test at work the next day.

Atlanta is technically a comedy, and there are some very funny sequences in this first season.  (The sight of Van accidentally popping the urine-filled condom in her … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt!

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Tina Fey’s 30 Rock nearly as much as I did.  (That first season, it was Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that was the “behind-the-scenes at an SNL-like show” that I was most interested in.  But Studio 60 was gone by the end of the year, whereas the joys of watching Jane Krakowski say “the Rural Juror” cemented my love for 30 Rock.)  When 30 Rock ended, I was eager to watch Ms. Fey and Robert Carlock’s follow-up series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Right from the beginning I knew that Kimmy was something special.  I wish the series had run as long as 30 Rock.  Sadly, these final six episodes conclude Kimmy Schmidt’s fourth season and, it seems, the series.  (However, rumors of a follow-up Netflix movie persist, so hope springs eternal!)

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a wonderfully endearing, original creation.  I feel like the show has been under-appreciated while it was around; I hope and expect that its renown will grow in the years ahead.  The show is hilarious.  It’s as stuffed-full with jokes as the very best TV comedies of the modern era, shows like The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and the previously-mentioned 30 Rock.  This is a show with gags piled upon gags piled upon gags.  (For one tiny example, just look at the fake titles of the kids’ books around Kimmy in the image above!)

At the same time, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an unwaveringly positive, life-affirming show.  The show believes fully in its core messages of niceness and positivity.  Kimmy herself is one of the most positive, joyful lead characters on a TV series in recent memory, and the show has gotten a lot of mileage out of showing how Kimmy’s unbreakable core of moral strength and sunniness have positively affected every character with whom she interacts.  I love that about the show.

This season, the show has focused itself on the issues of how women are treated in today’s society.  This has always been an aspect of the show, as the premise is about how Kimmy and other women were kidnapped and half captive by the Reverend (Jon Hamm, in a hilarious and disturbing series of guest appearances).  So this show has always dealt with how women are (mis)treated by men.  But, energized by today’s #MeToo movement, the show has found a new energy in addressing those issues head-on.  This finale batch of episodes dealt with a number of stories that explored those issues in different ways.  Most primarily, there was Kimmy’s transition into becoming the J.K. Rowling-like author of a fantasy book series called “The Legends of Greemulax,” which was all about teaching boys how … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Light and Shadows” and “If Memory Serves”

We’re at the midpoint of season two of Star Trek: Discovery.  I’ve been enjoying these episodes a lot more than I did season one, so that’s encouraging.  (Though the episodes are still burdened by a stunning disregard for Star Trek continuity and frequently lazy storytelling.)  Let’s dig in:

Episode 7: “Light and Shadows” — Burnham returns to Vulcan where she is finally able to locate Spock, while the Discovery attempts to rescue Pike and Tyler, who are trapped on a shuttlecraft within a temporal anomaly.

The biggest event in this episode is that we finally get to see Spock.  I am glad the show has stopped teasing us regarding Spock and that finally he is on the show and Burnham has found him.  It’s hard to judge Ethan Peck’s performance as Spock yet in this episode, as he doesn’t get much to do other than mumble incoherently.  It’s distressing to see Spock in such an out-of-his-mind state, but I’ll withhold judgment until I see where this all is going.  I’m not sure quite what to make of the revelation that Spock, as a child, had to overcome a learning disability similar to dyslexia.  I suppose there’s nothing canonical that explicitly contradicts this, but I’m not sure I understand the point of adding this major element to Spock’s backstory that we’ve never heard of before.

More distressing is the depiction of Sarek and Amanda.  The two have a tense argument over Spock, where all sorts of elements over Spock’s childhood and the difficulties that the human Amanda and the half-human Spock had growing up on Vulcan come into play.  On the one hand, it’s interesting to see an exploration of what I can see would have been the many, many hard aspects of life on Vulcan for Amanda and her half-human son.  On the other hand, I hate the implication that Amanda and Spock were mistreated by Sarek.  Amanda slaps down Sarek by accusing him of never being willing to live with her and Spock on Earth.  I hate this.  It suggests that Amanda was weak and subservient to Sarek’s wishes, that she was forced to live on Vulcan because Sarek wouldn’t live on Earth.  I never ever saw their relationship that way.  Ever since the characters were first introduced, walking side by side, with their fingers interlocked, in the Original Series episode “Journey to Babel,” I always saw them as partners.  Is it weird, perhaps, that the human Amanda chose to live her life and raise her son among the unemotional Vulcans?  Sure!  But I always saw that as HER choice.  My assumption was that she and Sarek made their life choices TOGETHER.  The suggestion here that Amanda was almost … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Daredevil: Season Three

Daredevil season three reminds me of the early days, when Netflix’s Marvel shows were exciting.  I was blown away by the first season of Daredevil and the first season of Jessica Jones.  These shows were adult, intense, and exciting.  They were gorgeously well-made, with great action and compelling drama.  They took the characters seriously but were still hugely fun pieces of entertainment.  But then things started to go awry, and while I have found moments to enjoy in the shows and seasons that followed, the Marvel Netflix productions settled into mediocrity.  And then Netflix, apparently no longer interested in shows it didn’t completely control/own, cancelled all of them.  (Daredevil was cancelled just a few weeks after season three dropped, despite the positive reviews the season received.  Jessica Jones hasn’t even released its currently-in-production third season, and that show has already been cancelled!)  All of this conspired to make me not exactly in a rush to watch the latest season of Daredevil.  But I knew that I’d loved season one (and enjoyed season two, despite its flaws), and so I did finally decide to watch season three a few weeks ago.  I am delighted I did, because it is TERRIFIC.  This is the strongest season of a Netflix Marvel show since those first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  If this is the last we see of this iteration of these characters, I am left completely satisfied.

Daredevil season three picks up the story from the end of The Defenders, after the First Midland building exploded and crashed down on Matt.  But other than that plot-point as the starting-point from the season, the show mostly ignores the events of The Defenders.  There were a few times when this was annoying to me, as I wondered why Matt didn’t call any of his new super-powered friends to help him in his struggles this year.  (This reminds me of the occasional problems in the first few post-Avengers MCU films, as it was hard not to wonder why each individual hero didn’t assemble the full Avengers team every time they were beset by a new super-villain.)  But as the season progressed, I grew to see this as a strength, as Daredevil threw off the shackles of having to maintain an interconnected TV-universe and instead focused back in on the story-lines and characters that made this series so great in the beginning.

The result is a phenomenal season of TV.  Everything I loved about Daredevil back at the beginning is back.  This is an unapologetically dark, adult show, in which bad things happen and things don’t go magically back to normal at the end of each episode.  There is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season Two!

I rather enjoyed the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but I had a smidge of hesitation entering into season two.  That first season was a wonderful concoction, fun and original, and it felt like a complete story.  Was this a story that had legs, to continue successfully into multiple further seasons?  Did I really want to continue following these characters?  I’m pleased to report that I found season two to be very enjoyable over-all, displaying an impressive amount of craft in front of and behind the camera.  The season does have some flaws, which I will discuss below, but there’s enough about this show that’s good-to-great that I enjoyed making my way through this sophomore season.

As season two begins, we see that Midge Maisel is now working as a stand-up comedian.  She seems to have skill in the craft, and she and Susie have started to scrape together a career for her.  But the two women face several challenges.  The first is Midge’s resistance to fully embracing this new path (she never considers canceling her usual summer vacation trip to the Catskills) and to being honest with her friends and family about what she’s doing.  The second is Susie’s inexperience as a manager and her persistent money problems.  The third is the walls that both women repeatedly encounter as they attempt to succeed in a man’s world in the late nineteen-fifties.

I was surprised and pleased by the degree to which this season, particularly the first few episodes, focused on Midge’s parents, Rose and Abe.  Rose in particular was mostly in the background in season one, but I was delighted by the way the season premiere allowed us into this character, exploring how trapped she felt in New York and the pull of a life on her own in Paris (where she’d enjoyed herself as a younger woman).  This was a surprising and compelling way to begin the season.  Marin Hinkle really shined as Rose in this moment in the spotlight.  I was a little bummed that, once Rose and Abe returned to New York, Rose faded back into the background somewhat.  Now that we’ve proven that Rose is a fully-realized character, I hope the show continues to explore her, and to allow her to have greater agency in the stories to come!

Tony Shaloub’s Abe was a stand-out character in season one, and season two continued to give this great character a lot to do.  Abe was still lovable and Mr. Shaloub’s comic timing and note-perfect line-delivery makes him one of the show’s comedic powerhouses.  But this season didn’t shy away from challenging Abe, as he was forced to confront martial issues and Rose’s unhappiness, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “The Sound of Thunder”

Click here for my review of episodes 1 and 2 of Star Trek: Discovery season two, click here for my review of episodes 3 and 4, and click here for my review of episode 5.

Episode 6: “The Sound of Thunder” — Picking up the thread of the Saru-focused short “The Brightest Star,” as well as the events of episode 4, “An Obol for Charon” (in which Saru survived what he thought was the Kelpian death-cycle, thus realizing that his people had been tricked for generations about the nature of their existence), this episode sees the Discovery led to Saru’s home planet by a new red signal.  There, Saru and the audience finally learn the answers to so many of the questions posed in “The Brightest Star” about the true nature of the Kelpians and their oppressors, the Ba’ul.  This was a terrific episode and for much of its run-time I was extremely happy with how much I was enjoying it!  Things fell apart somewhat in the final minutes, but I still think this was an extremely good episode, one of Discovery’s best.

Things start out with a big contrivance.  I’d expected that, following the dramatic end of “An Obol for Charon,” that Saru would be desperate to return home to reveal the truth to his people.  Strangely, Saru’s transformation was ignored in the the following episode, “Saints of Imperfection,” and here, the sighting of a new red signal in proximity to Saru’s homeworld gives Saru and the Discovery a reason to go there.  Wow, that was easy!  I can live with this coincidence for now, because these episodes are strongly suggesting that the appearances of the red signals are NOT random, but are happening for a specific reason that is connected to Discovery.  I hope the explanation for all this, when we get it, is satisfying.

For now, I was OK with this contrivance because I was excited to return to Saru’s homeworld, and the episode did not disappoint.  Things were firing on all cylinders.  We got a lot of wonderful dramatic, character-based scenes.  I loved the escalating tension between Saru and Captain Pike, first when Saru insists on being allowed to beam down to the planet and later when he angrily interrupts Pike’s conversation over the comms in order to confront the Ba’ul.  This is great drama driven naturally from these two different characters and where they come from.  I also loved Burnham’s confrontation with Saru in the transporter room, when he was about to beam down after the Ba’ul threatened to destroy his sister’s village.  I liked that Burnham was smart enough to predict Saru’s actions, and I like that Saru knew … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Saints of Imperfection”

Click here for my review of episodes 1 and 2 of Star Trek: Discovery season two, and click here for my review of episodes 3 and 4.

Episode 5: “Saints of Imperfection” — Picking up immediately after the cliffhanger at the end of the previous episode, the Discovery crew bands together to rescue Tilly from the mycelial network.  For the most part, I thought this was a very solid episode, though it was bogged down by the unwanted (by me) return of Ash Tyler and Mirror-Georgiou.  Star Trek novel author Kristen Beyer wrote the script for this episode, and I thought she did a great job.  As with most Discovery episodes, events unfolded at a very fast pace — I enjoyed the tension of the rescue mission (though there were a few moments where I thought there was an incongruity between the slow-paced conversations Burnham and Stamets & co. were having in the Upside Down and the escalating destruction happening on the Discovery back in “our” universe.  I kept almost shouting at my TV: “hurry up, already!!”)

I liked the concept of the Discovery half-jumping into the mycelial network, keeping half of the ship anchored in “our” universe while the other half entered the mycelial network so as to access Tilly.  The visual effects of the ship half-in and half-out of that other universe looked amazing, and I enjoyed the ticking-clock tension of the mission.

As soon as May mentioned a “monster” damaging her home, I knew it had to be Dr. Culber, and sure enough, at long last, the bad-decision of killing him off back in season one was undone.  Was this the plan all along, or did they alter course after the initial fan backlash?  I’ll give them credit and assume the former, though I still think it was a bad decision.  Seeming to destroy the first happy homosexual relationship ever seen on Star Trek was needlessly painful to a lot of fans, and I’m just not a huge fan of these sort of fake-death fake-outs.  But, whatever, I am happy that Dr. Culber is back alive and well, and I am pleased that in season two Discovery seems to be correcting so many of the mistakes from season one.

Two other season one mistakes, though, returned, to my disappointment and this episode’s detriment.  As I have written before, I am just not into the evil version of Georgiou.  They took an interesting and noble character and turned her into a one-dimensional villain.  This episode tries to hint that maybe Mirror-Georgiou isn’t all-evil, but they haven’t taken the time to allow us to explore and get to know this character.  So my assumption is that any seemingly-altruistic … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery “Point of Light” and “An Obol for Charon”

I was relatively happy with the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season two.  (Click here for my thoughts!)  Episode three was a huge step in the wrong direction, but then the fourth episode might have been the best episode of the new season so far.  So things are looking up!  Sort of.  Please read on for my detailed reviews:

Episode 3: “Point of Light” — I had my quibbles with the first two episodes of Discovery season two, but for the most part I thought they were a strong start to the season.  Things took a step backwards in this third episode.  Blech, this one was weak in the extreme.

Though I will freely admit that, for the most part, the stuff in this episode that took place on Discovery was good-to-great.  It was everything else — all that nonsense with the Klingons and Mirror Georgiou and Section 31 was just terrible, just a huge swing-and-a-miss, in my opinion.  This episode also struggled where the first two episodes succeeded in finding a balance of episodic versus the more common every-episode-leads-right-into-the-next approach of many streaming shows today.  I like continuity.  Strike that, I LOVE continuity.  I WANT these episodes to connect to one another, and to fit together as they tell a story-arc over the course of the season.  But I also want each episode to feel like an episode, to feel like it has its own structure and a definitive beginning-middle-end, even if that ending is a cliffhanger leading into the next installment.  The first two episodes of season two found that balance very well.  But this third episode just feels like a lot of random scenes strung together, continuing stories that were mostly begun back in season one (both the Klingon/Georgiou stuff as well as the spore that had infected Tilly), without actually resolving much of anything.

Let’s start with what’s good, which is most of the Discovery stuff.  I’m worried that they’ve already over-used the plot device of “Tilly does something crazy that turns out to be motivated by a good reason, worries she’s going to be kicked out of the Starfleet command training program, and then is reassured by Saru.”  But that being said, I enjoyed this story even as I want the Discovery writers to find new and better ways to use Tilly.  I enjoyed the mystery of her “I see dead people” friend, and I was pleased they didn’t try to milk the idea of Tilly’s being crazy for too long, allowing Burnham to quickly help Tilly figure out that there was a real scientific explanation for her visions of her dead friend.  I’m glad they didn’t let the mystery of … [continued]

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Star Trek: Discovery returns for Season Two!

After a long drought since the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005, Star Trek returned to TV last year with the launch of Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access.  I was very excited, and while the new show started off strong, I wound up being quite disappointed by the very uneven first season.  The show looked great and had a strong cast, but I thought the storytelling was a mess, and the show made a hash of established Star Trek continuity (causing me to ask, again and again, why the show was a prequel when they seemed to have no interest in connecting with the look and feel of the Original Series in any way.  Why not just set this show a few decades AFTER Next Gen/DS9/Voyager, thus freeing them up to do whatever they wanted with the show??)  But I thought the four Short Trek short films released in the last few months were all very strong, and so I entered season two with renewed excitement.  Having now seen the first two episodes, what do I think so far?

It’s not bad!

Although the premiere opened with a long “previously-on” assemblage of clips from season one, I was pleased that, for the most part, these new episodes make a clean break with season one’s main stories (the Klingon war and the long journey to the Mirror Universe) to tell a new story, centered on seven mysterious red bursts that have appeared across the galaxy.  (I wish they’d skipped that needless and confusing long “previously on” clip assemblage and began, instead, with the wonderful actual first sequence of the first episode: Burnham’s “space: the final frontier” monologue.  That would have been a much stronger opening and I wish they’d trusted it to be so.)

The main change from season one is that the villainous Captain Lorca has been replaced by Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike.  (Captain Pike, of course, was the captain of the Enterprise before Kirk.  Pike was played by Jeffrey Hunter in the original pilot for Star Trek, “The Cage,” which was eventually repurposed into the Original Series season one two-part episode “The Menagerie.”  In J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Trek films, Captain Pike was played wonderfully by Bruce Greenwood.)  What a difference it makes to the entire show to have the captain be a noble, heroic figure, rather than the duplicitous and ends-justify-the-means Lorca!  As a long-time Trek fan, I am sensitive to the strong moral core that has been at the foundation of Star Trek since the very beginning.  I often felt that was missing from Discovery season one (as well as from the J.J. Abrams films), as I was often unsure whether … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Episodes of TV of 2018 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my list of My Favorite Episodes of TV of 2018, and click here for part two.  And now, onwards to my top five!

5. Black Mirror: “Bandersnatch” (released on 12/28/18) — This was the most impressively surprising TV experience I had all year.  I’d never have dreamed that such a thing could be possible, but somehow, Black Mirror found a way to replicate the feel of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a TV show.  I loved those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books as a kid, and having that experience recreated by a TV show was extraordinary.  Every few minutes (and even more frequently at times), you are prompted on screen to make a decision as to what Stefan, the main character in the episode, should do.  You make your choice via your remote control, and then the film unfolds based upon that choice.  Just like in a real “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, sometimes those choices take you out of the story quickly, in which case you are allowed either to exit the film or retrace your steps and try again.  Apparently, there are many hours of footage that can be discovered based on the choices you make as Stefan during the film!  “Bandersnatch” is an extraordinary achievement in both technology and narrative story-telling.  I loved it.  (Click here for my full review of Black Mirror: “Bandersnatch”.)

4. Star Wars: Rebels: “Family Reunion — and Farewell” (season four, episodes fifteen and sixteen, aired on 3/5/18) — Star Wars: Rebels aired its final two episodes back-to-back, and together they provided a note-perfect ending to, not just this series, but all of the animated Star Wars adventures fans have been following since The Clone Wars began a decade ago, in 2008.  This finale successfully managed to maintain a sense of fun adventure that has always characterized the best Star Wars stories, while building to an extremely moving, heartfelt climax.  There were so many amazing moments: Ezra’s temptation by the Emperor (voiced by Ian McDiarmid, reprising his role from the films!); Agent Kallus’ final redemption; great stuff for Rex and the surviving Clone Troopers (including, at long last, confirmation of the fan theory that the old bearded guy on Endor in Return of the Jedi was Rex!!); some great villainous moments from Thrawn (a character created by Timothy Zahn in his amazing “Heir to the Empire” novels, who I was delighted to see brought to animated life on Rebels); hearing John Williams’ magnificent Jedi theme play when Ezra steps out of the shadows, Loth-Wolves right behind him, and silently ignites his green light-saber; and so much more.  But the reason this … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Episodes of TV of 2018 — Part Two!

On Wednesday I began my list of my favorite episodes of TV of 2018!  Let’s continue…

12. Star Wars: Rebels: “A World Between Worlds” (season four, episode thirteen, aired on 2/26/18) — Star Wars: Rebels developed into a magnificent show, a super-fun expansion of the Star Wars universe.  The entire fourth and final season was terrific, but this episode from the final run of shows was a standout.  Reeling from the death of a major character, the young Jedi-in-training Ezra discovers an ancient Jedi Temple hidden somewhere beyond space and time, where those who enter are somehow able to access all of time at once.  This was a huge leap into new territory for Star Wars, and for our understanding of the Force.  The look of the Temple was striking (I loved the stark black and white, and the designs of all the doors/portals).  The sound-design in this episode was incredible, seeding in dialogue from not just all of Rebels but all of the Star Wars movies, including the new films.  It felt like the entire Star Wars saga came together in this gripping episode.  We got to see a major emotional moment in the growth of Ezra, we got to see the Emperor (voiced by Ian McDiarmid, who played the Emperor in the movies!)… and, of course, the biggest delight was the return of Ahsoka Tano.  Ahsoka was introduced in the very first episode of the animated Clone Wars series, but her ultimate fate was left hanging when that show was cancelled before its timeline could meet up with that of Episode III as had been originally planned.  I was delighted when Rebels brought Ahsoka into its story, but I thought we’d seen the last of her after witnessing her climactic duel with Vader in “Twilight of the Apprentice.”  Seeing her return here was shocking and emotional.  (Click here for my full review of Star Wars: Rebels season four.)

11. Star Trek: Short Treks: “Calypso” (season one, episode two, released on 11/8/18) — Wow, a Star Wars episode and a Star Trek episode, back-to-back on my list??  This is a great time to be a sci-fi fan!  As readers of this blog well know, I was very disappointed by the first season of Star Trek: Discovery.  But I was surprised how much I enjoyed the four Short Trek short films that were released in the run-up to the start of season two.  My favorite was this one, the second of the four, written by Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay!  It was super-cool to have as talented and high-profile a writer as Mr. Chabon involved in Trek, and even more gratifying … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Episodes of TV of 2018 — Part One!

Ok, here we go!  I’m a bit later that usual launching my annual Best of the Year lists (I’ve been working on some illustration projects that have been taking up all of my free time — click on my updated portfolio page for a few teases, with more news hopefully coming in the next few months), but I’m here now and ready to go!

This annual list began as a Top Ten list and last year ballooned to a Top Twenty-Five!  This year it’s a Top 19.  What can I say, that’s a weird number, but there were 19 shows/episodes that I wanted to highlight!

I always begin these lists with a list of the shows I HADN’T watched but wanted to, and this year that list of shows I missed is longer than ever.  I mean, insanely long.  I keep a running list of shows that interest me and that I wanted to watch, and while I watch a lot of TV, I nevertheless wasn’t able to get to: Atlanta, Barry, Homecoming, Killing Eve, A Very English Scandal, Bodyguard, Bojack Horseman, The End of the F***ing World, Counterpart, American Vandal, Maniac, Patriot, Altered Carbon, The Expanse, and The Romanoffs.  Then there were the returning shows whose latest seasons I still haven’t found time to watch: Black Mirror season four (I watched the first few episodes but never finished), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season two, Legion season two, Westworld season two, Iron Fist season two, and Daredevil season three.  Aargh that is a lot of fantastic TV that I wasn’t able to see in 2018!!  I’m hoping to catch up with some of those shows in 2019… even though there are lots of new 2019 shows already out and/or coming soon (True Detective season three, the final episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, etc.)!!  Sigh.  The joys and pain of “Peak TV”.

But, OK, enough moaning, there WAS so much great TV that I DID see in 2018 and am so excited to celebrate.  Here we go:

19. The Simpsons: “My Way or the Highway to Heaven” (season thirty, episode three, aired on 10/14/18) — Wow!  For very first time since I started writing these lists a decade ago, The Simpsons makes an appearance!  I started watching The Simpsons a few episodes into season one, and I watched it religiously through around season 15, but then I drifted away.  I started watching again after The Simpsons Movie (which I loved) and watched for about half that season, but it didn’t hold my interest.  I’ve dipped back in occasionally over the past decade, but it wasn’t until this past year that I watched several episodes in a row that made me … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

January 16th, 2019
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I adored “Choose Your Own Adventure” books as a kid.  I was totally hooked on them, reading them over and over.  In this seemingly endless series (many of which were written by R. A. Montgomery), every few pages you, the reader, would be presented with a choice as to what the main character (you) should do, and then you’d be directed to the page to turn to based on which choice you made.  As a result, there were many different ways the stories could play out.  Many of the endings resulted in the main character meeting an unfortunate end.  But perhaps, if you kept trying, you’d find a way to survive and make it through to a happy ending.

I’d never have dreamed that such a thing could be possible, but somehow, Black Mirror has found a way to replicate the feel of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a TV show, with the special, feature-length episode “Bandersnatch.”

Black Mirror is, of course, the spectacular anthology series created and run by Charlie Brooker.  It’s a modern-day Twilight Zone, with a focus on stories that explore how technology unchained can lead to tragic results.  (Click here for my review of the two original British seasons, and click here for my review of Netflix’s third season.  I actually still haven’t finished watching the fourth Netflix season, which was released about a year ago — life has gotten in the way!! — but when “Bandersnatch” came out, I jumped into watching it right away.)

“Bandersnatch” was written by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade.  Set in 1984, “Bandersnatch” tells the story of a young man named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, who was the lead in Dunkirk), who is working on his own to create a Choose Your Own Adventure style computer game, based on a book he loved called Bandersnatch.  He brings the idea to a computer game company called Tuckersoft, where he meets the head of the company Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) as well as his idol, the famous video-game creator Colin (Will Poulter, from Son of Rambow, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Revenant). 

Incredibly, this entire special Black Mirror episode plays out as an interactive experience for the viewer.  Every few minutes (and even more frequently at times), you are prompted on screen to make a decision as to what Stefan should do.  You make your choice via your remote control, and then the film unfolds based upon that choice.  Just like in a real Choose Your Own Adventure book, sometimes those choices take you out of the story quickly, as things unfold poorly for poor … [continued]

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The Office’s Rainn Wilson Shines in the Final “Short Trek” Short Film!

Although I was very lukewarm on the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I have been extremely impressed with all four of the “Short Trek” short films that have been released over the last few months, as a lead-up to Discovery season two.  They stuck the landing with “The Escape Artist,” which focuses on Harry Mudd.  This charismatic scoundrel appeared in two Original Series episodes, played by Roger C. Carmel, and he also appeared in two Discovery season one episodes, where he was played by The Office’s Rainn Wilson.  Mr. Wilson returns in this Mudd-centric short film, which he also directed!

In “The Escape Artist,” we see that Mudd has been captured by a Tellarate bounty hunter, who is eager to claim the reward that Starfleet has put out for Mudd’s capture.  As Mudd attempts to cajole and scheme his way out of this situation, the short keeps flashing back to Mudd in a variety off similarly sticky situations.

I really like Rainn Wilson and thought he was a great actor to reprise the role of Mudd on Discovery, but I didn’t love the way Discovery portrayed Mudd.  On the Original Series, Mudd was a con-man and a thief, but a mostly jovial one… whereas on Discovery, Mudd was a lot more vicious, to the point of being a murderer.  “The Escape Artist” bridges those two versions of Mudd nicely.  This Mudd feels cleverer and more of a threat that the Original Series Mudd, but we get back to a more fun, good-natured Mudd who is more about scheming to get the good life for himself than he is about causing harm to others.  This is cleverly done.

This short is very funny, which I was glad to see!  The writing was sharp, and played well to Mr. Rainn’s comedic strengths.  Mr. Rainn is great in this role, and this short film gave him his best showcase yet.  I’m also very impressed by the skills demonstrated by Mike McMahan in his script for this short.  Not everyone can write comedy, and not everyone can write for Star Trek, and combining the two is even harder.  But McMahan strikes a perfect tone.  (Mr. McMahan is also apparently overseeing the comedic Star Trek animated series, “Lower Decks,” that is in development.  This short gives me hope for that project.  Mr. McMahan also has a very funny twitter account, @tng_s8, that imagines — with a twisted comedic bent — what Star Trek: The Next Generation season 8 might have looked like.)

As with all the “Short Trek” short films, I’m impressed with the visual scale and scope of this short!  These four shorts seem to have been getting more and more ambitious … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Deuce: Season Two

Because (or perhaps despite) The Wire ruining television for me forever (because nothing will ever be as good), I am a forever fan of writer and showrunner David Simon, and I will follow him to whatever projects he undertakes.  I have never once regretted it.  The Deuce, which Mr. Simon created along with George Pelecanos (a crime-writer who wrote many episodes of The Wire and Treme), is his latest masterpiece.

It’s an unlikely subject for a great TV show: the lives of sex workers and the growth of the pornography business in the seventies and eighties.  That sounds naughty and more than a little unpleasant.  But I should never have doubted.  Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos, and their extraordinary team of collaborators, have brought all of their craft to bear on telling this story.  The Deuce is one of my favorite shows on TV these days.  I loved season one, and I thought season two was equally compelling.

As is Mr. Simon’s usual approach, the show’s focus is at once laser-fine and also expansive.  Mr. Simon and his team are once again telling a story about the state of a modern American city (in this case, New York, as opposed to The Wire’s Baltimore) and, even more than that, about modern American society.  They are doing this by focusing on one very specific topic.  For The Wire, it was the drug trade, for The Deuce, it is porn. But within this narrow area of focus, the show’s scope is wonderfully, deliriously broad, depicting characters involved in porn/sex in all sorts of different ways, from all sorts of different socio-economic strata. The Deuce is about whores and pimps, sure, but it’s also about cops and politicians, high-level mobsters and low-level street toughs, bar owners and bartenders, the people running sex parlors and the people answering the phones at those parlors, porn stars and also porn producers and directors and editors and agents… not to mention the wives (and mistresses) and children of all of these people… and I have barely scratched the surface.

I wouldn’t have thought I’d be at all interested in a show about porn, but I am obsessed with it because these characters are all so wonderful.  I can’t believe how large the ensemble is on The Deuce!  And, even more than that, I can’t believe how many characters are so important to the show.  On The Wire, “all the pieces mattered.”  Mr. Simon and Mr. pelicans and their collaborators continue to follow that philosophy, but on Treme and now here on The Deuce, that has subtly transformed from a statement about plot to one about character.  Every one of the show’s humongous array of characters … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Third New Star Trek Short: “The Brightest Star”

The third of four new Star Trek short films, dubbed Short Treks, has arrived: “The Brightest Star.”  This short story presents a concise version of the origin of Saru, the Discovery’s Kelpian science officer played by the phenomenally-talented Doug Jones.  The story is set before Saru left his planet to join Starfleet.  For the first time, we get to see Saru’s home planet Kaminar, and we meet Saru’s father and sister.  The short quickly sets up the sad life of the Kelpians, who wait to be harvested by an unseen alien race called the Ba’ul.  (We don’t see exactly what happens to the harvested Kelpians, who we see vanish in a flash of light, but we assume the worst.)  Saru questions why this is the way life must be, but his father, who appears to be some sort of religious figure who oversees these harvests, attempts to squash his questioning.  When Saru gets his hands on a piece of alien technology, he uses it to send a signal off-world.  But who will answer…?

With “The Brightest Star,” these Short Treks are now three for three.  This was a great short film.  It looked absolutely gorgeous, and it provided us with a wealth of fascinating information about Saru’s backstory.

I love how different all three of these Short Treks have been from one another.  The first, “Runaways,” was a great little character piece for Discovery’s Ensign Tilly.  It didn’t feel essential, but it was a great showcase for Mary Wiseman’s Tilly and a lovely chance for her character to step into the spotlight.  The second, “Calypso,” (written by Michael Chabon) was set 1,000 years after Discovery and felt like totally it’s own thing, a complete short-story set outside of current Trek continuity.  I hope this story will be followed up on someday, but if it never is, I’ll be OK with that.  This third short, though, feels like an essential piece of critical backstory for one of Discovery’s main characters, and it leaves so many questions hanging that it feels like a story that demands a follow-up.  (Rumor has it that there will indeed be a Saru-focused episode in Discovery’s second season that will pick up threads from this short.)

I hope that turns out to be the case, because this short film left me with a million questions.  Who are the Ba’ul?  What do they do to the harvested Kelpians?  Why do the Kelpians go along with this so docilely?  What is that obelisk-like device around which the Kelpians gather to be harvested?  What would we see if the camera had ever panned up — does that object connect to a ship, or is … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Veep Seasons One and Two!

Julia Louis Dreyfus’s show Veep always interested me.  I was, of course, an enormous fan of Ms. Dreyfus from Seinfeld.  The cast looked great (Arrested Development alum Tony Hale’s involvement got my attention), and the political setting really interested me.  But somehow, I never got around to watching the show!  Thankfully, I have finally remedied that, tearing through seasons one and two on DVD, and I love this show as much as I had expected to.

Created by Armando Iannucci, Veep stars Julia Louis Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, the Vice President of the United States.  This political satire follows the misadventures of Ms. Meyer and her somewhat hapless team as they try to navigate the shark-infested political waters of Washington.

Julia Louis Dreyfus is superlative as Vice President Meyer.  She is so effortlessly perfect in this role.  Above all else, she is toweringly funny.  I mean, ridiculously, amazingly, note-perfectly funny.  She’s able to play Meyer as a little dim, a little self-centered, a little bumbling, but also as a good-hearted underdog who we root for as she is ignored by the president, critiqued by the press, and surrounded by a staff who don’t exactly feel like the Washington A-team.  This is an amazing balancing act.  There is a slim club of actors who get to play an iconic character on TV.  It’s almost unheard of to get to play two.  Ms. Dreyfus makes it look easy.

Anna Chlumsky (all grown up since 1991’s My Girl) plays Amy, Selina Meyer’s Chief-of-Staff.  I love Amy, a tough, smart Washington warrior who is also human and not above an occasional (ok, more than occasional) screw-up.  Ms. Chlumsky’s unflappable demeanor is comedic gold.  Tony Hale plays Selina’s body-man, Gary.  Mr. Hale is hilarious as the fiercely loyal, puppy-dog-like Gary.  This is a classic, instantly iconic TV character.  (Remember what I just wrote about how amazing it is that Julia Louis Dreyfus was able to play two iconic TV characters on two different shows?  Same goes for Mr. Hale.)  Matt Walsh (founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, who has also popped up all over the place, in films such as Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, The Hangover, Cyrus, I Love You, Man, Role Models, Step Brothers, and Be Kind, Rewind) plays Communications Director Mike McLintock, and Mr. Walsh is the show’s comedic sneak weapon.  I find the way he plays the weary and idiotic Mike to be hilarious perfection.

Reid Scott plays Dan, the young, ambitious smooth operator who joins Selina’s team in the pilot episode.  Dan starts off, by design, as very unlikable.  (We the viewers don’t like him because Amy and the rest of Selina’s team don’t like him.)  But … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Smiley’s People (1982)

November 19th, 2018
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A few years ago, before the American film adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was released, I watched the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation, which starred Sir Alec Guinness.  I loved that miniseries, and quickly looked to track down the BBC’s follow-up from 1982, Smiley’s People.  But for whatever reason, life got in the way and I never wound up watching it.  A few months ago, I finally read le Carré’s original novel Smiley’s People, and afterwards I decided that the time had come to watch the BBC miniseries version.  I am sorry it took me so long to get to, as it is magnificent!

Set several years after the events of Tinker, Tailor, George Smiley (Alec Guinness) is once again on the outs with the circus (le Carré’s name for the British secret service).  But he’s called in when an old Russian general, who Smiley had handled back in the day, is shot in the face soon after calling the circus with an urgent demand to meet with “Max” (the name by which he knew Smiley), saying that he had information concerning “the Sandman” (which Smiley recognizes as a reference to the mysterious Russian spymaster — and Smiley’s nemesis — Karla).  As Smiley begins piecing together the chain of events that led to the general’s murder, he begins to suspect that he has last found the key to exposing and defeating the wily Karla.

This six-part miniseries is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of le Carré’s novel.  Just like the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, this adaptation takes great care to bring le Carré’s novel to the screen with a minimum of adjustments.  It’s fun — and rare! — to see such a faithful adaptation.  The six-episode format gives the miniseries the time to do so, without the necessity of condensing things to fit into the format of a two-hour movie.  It’s a testament to the strength of le Carré’s original novel that the story works so well on screen, without needing all sorts of changes.

The BBC’s adaptation of Smiley’s People is a wonderful follow-up to their previous version of Tinker, Tailer.  Sir Alec Guinness is back as Smiley, of course, but so are most of the rest of the important supporting cast-members.  It’s a great pleasure seeing these actors — and these characters — again!  I love how smoothly Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor fit together, due to this continuity of the cast.  I loved getting to see more of Anthony Bate as Oliver Lacon, Beryl Reid as Connie Sachs, Siân Phillips as Ann Smiley, and especially Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase.  I was particularly taken with Mr. Hepton’s work as Toby, and I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Star Trek Short Film “Calypso,” Written by Michael Chabon!

Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, has written a Star Trek short film!  It’s called “Calypso,” and I loved it.

“Calypso” is the second of four Star Trek shorts, called Short Treks, being released in the lead-up to Star Trek: Discovery’s second season.  The first, “Runaways,” focused on Discovery’s Cadet Tilly, and the other two also look to focus on Discovery characters.  But “Calypso,” although taking place on-board the Discovery, seems to be its own thing altogether.  Set a millennium further in the future than the 23rd-century-set Discovery, far beyond the future of any other Trek story we’ve seen before, “Calypso” tells the story of a man called Craft who is rescued from his battered escape pod by the Discovery’s now-sentient computer, who calls herself Zora.  The Discovery is empty of all life, and apparently has been for a thousand years.  Craft is fleeing a war and attempting to return home to his family.  “Calypso” tells the story of the bond this lonely refugee and the A.I. Zora form with one another.

I loved this short.  It’s a beautiful tale with two complex, interesting characters, a fascinating mystery backdrop, and intriguing mythological undertones.

It’s hugely exciting to see such an enormous talent as Michael Chabon writing for Star Trek.  In addition to writing this short, Mr. Chabon is apparently also on the writing staff of the recently-announced Captain Picard show, which will see Patrick Stewart reprise his iconic role!  This is very, very exciting.  As a Star Trek fan, I love seeing writers of this caliber involved with the franchise.  And “Calypso” shows that Mr. Chabon’s skills as a storyteller make him a great fit for Star Trek.  (The story credit for the short film is given to Michael Chabon and Sean Cochran.)

In less than eighteen minutes, “Calypso” does a great job of introducing and developing two entirely new characters.  Aldis Hodge plays the main character, Craft.  Mr. Hodge is fantastic.  He’s alone on-screen for most of the short’s run-time, but he easily commands the viewer’s attention.  Annabelle Wallis voices Zora, and she is equally great, bringing life and humanity to the (mostly) disembodied voice of this sentient computer.  Mr. Chabon skillfully brings these two characters to life, and makes us care deeply about them, in just the short eighteen-ish minutes of the short.

By setting “Calypso” a thousand years in Trek’s future, this short is pleasingly unburdened with any continuity, and thus is free to tell it’s own stand-alone story.  This works very well for this short film.  This is a character-study that can easily be enjoyed no matter one’s knowledge of Trek lore.  (This is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Disenchantment Season One!

Disenchantment is the new Netflix animated series created by Matt Groening.  Mr. Groening, of course, created The Simpsons, as well as Futurama (a criminally undrappreciated sci-fi comedy that is one of my all time favorite shows).

Disenchantment is set in a medieval fantasy kingdom called Dreamland, and tells the story of a young princess named Bean.  Feisty and rebellious, Bean would far prefer to go out and have fun drinking with her pals than act like a respectable princess.  In the first episode, she befriends a runaway elf named Elfo, as well as a Luci, a tiny demon.  The three get up to a number of misadventures in these first ten episodes.

I really enjoyed this show!  Disenchantment represents Matt Groening’s first project with Netflix, but Disenchantment looks and feels like a classic Groening project.  The character design reflects the familiar Groening overbite look, and the show combines heavy joke density with a strong eye for characters — the familiar magic balance that made The Simpsons and Futurama so great.

I used the word familiar a few times in the previous paragraph, and for me there is a comfort in the way that Disenchantment embodies a tone and feel that is familiar to fans of Mr. Groening’s previous shows.  If it ain’t broke…!  But there is enough that is new and different in Disenchantment that this doesn’t feel to me like just more of the same.

I enjoyed the show’s fantasy setting.  Mr. Groening & Josh Weinstein (who co-developed the show) and their team mines a lot of comedy out of the way they play with the settings and character-types that one might expect in fantasy stories.  If you love Game of Thrones and other fantasy sagas, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Disenchantment.  but I think this show’s appeal can stretch far beyond the fantasy audience.  Any fans of comedy (and who isn’t?) will easily love this show.

The show looks gorgeous,  As I mentioned above, the character designs fit into the Groening oeuvre, but it’s fun seeing these Groening-style characters in a fantasy world.  The backgrounds have a lush, painted look.  The artwork is gorgeous, and the level of detail on the backgrounds and characters is impressive, beautifully fleshing out this world.

As one might expect from a Groening-led production, the cast is terrific.  Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson is perfect as Bean.  She’s so funny, with perfect comic timing, and she’s also able to bring a lot of warmth to Bean.  This is a character who misbehaves a lot, but Ms. Jacobson’s gentleness makes sure that the audience cares and roots for Bean.  That’s critical.  The secret of Mr. Groening’s shows have always been that, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Six

I mostly enjoyed the season-long prison-riot storyline in Orange is the New Black season five.  But as I was watching it, as I noted in my review, I found myself repeatedly wondering how the show could ever return to any sort of normalcy following those events.  Season six presented creator and show-runner Jenji Kohan’s solution, as the show left behind the minimum security prison that had been its setting for the first five seasons in favor of a new maximum security location.

This was a strong choice.  I respect Ms. Kohan’s willingness to shake up this show in its middle age.  Season five had a completely new structure, with the whole season being set over the course of just a few days’ events.  And now season six has abandoned the familiar Litchfield minimum security prison and moved to an entirely new location.  I like these changes.  On the other hand, this new maximum security prison wound up being fairly similar in many respects to the minimum security facility, enabling the show to return to some more familiar rhythms after the season five riot story.

If my wife wasn’t such a fan if this show, I am not sure I would still be watching this deep into the series.  Orange is the New Black is a different type of show than what I usually watch, but I am continuing to enjoy it.  The show’s ensemble of actors is incredible, and when it can successfully balance the humor and the drama, it has a flavor that I dig.  Sometimes that balance can be off.  (For a show that often winds up in the “comedy” category at awards shows, this can be a tough show to watch at times.  Some of those fast shifts from comedic to tragic don’t quite work for me, and there are times I wish the show would pick a direction and either be more serious/dramatic or lean more heavily into the comedy.)  And sometimes I think the show can lose track of its huge cast, leaving some great characters on the sidelines for too long.  But all that being said, I have grown to be quite invested in the stories of this group of women (and a few men), and I am happy to continue to follow them.  This show features characters and stories that are usually ignored on TV, and I sort of love the show for that.

So, what worked here in season six?

I enjoyed the new setting, and I was pleased at the large number of new characters, guards and inmates, who were introduced.  This show already had an enormous ensemble, so adding in so mnay new characters was a risk, but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars: Resistance

Star Wars: Resistance is the latest Star Wars animated TV show.  Coming on the heels of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, this new show is, intriguingly, set in the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

The show takes place on the Colossus, an aircraft-refueling station on an ocean planet.  The Colossus is a hub for pilots who compete in dangerous races in the air around the facility.  The main character on Resistance is a young man named Kaz, who is recruited by Poe Dameron to work as a spy, looking for evidence of the First Order.

I have watched the two-part premiere, and the two half-hour episodes that have followed.  So far, I quite like this show!

Resistance is clearly aimed at kids, which makes it a bit lighter than I’d ideally like.  But it’s compelling enough, so far, to be of interest to adults as well.  Both Clone Wars and Rebels also started off as very kid-focused, and then both developed into far more interesting, sophisticated shows.  So I have hope that Resistance will do that same, and I’m not turned off by these early, more kid-focused installments.

So far, I am enjoying this new cast of characters.  I like the main charater, Kazuda Xiono.  He’s a bit of a doofus, but as a good-hearted youngster, he’s a Star Wars hero in the classic mold.  His mechanic boss is a man named Yaeger.  The show has teased us with hints about Yaeger’s past as a rebel pilot who was at the battle of Jakku.  I look forward to learning more of his story.  Neeku is the very friendly, very literal first friend who Kaz makes on the Colossus.  These sorts of comic relief sidekick characters are very easy to screw up, but I think Neeku is great, very sweet and very funny.  Tam is the far-more talented young mechanic who also works for Yaeger.  She seems like she could be a very interesting character, but the show hasn’t allowed us to get to know too much about her yet.

I suspect there are a number of other characters who will eventually become important, such as the star pilots on the Colossus.  The early promotional material for Resistance focused on those characters, but we’ve seen very little of them so far.  (For example: I was excited that Scrubs’ Donald Faison would be playing a character named after him, Hype Faison, but he hasn’t really been in the show at all so far!)  Hopefully these pilots will enter the story in a more significant way as the show progresses.  I am interested by the slow-burn approach the show is using so … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Call Saul Season Four

They made us wait over a year after the end of Better Call Saul season three for the start of season four, but boy was the wait worth it.  Season four was another home run from this show, one of the rare spinoffs to be as good if not better than its fantastic, much-loved predecessor.

When Better Call Saul premiered, I was surprised that Bob Odenkirk’s character had a different name and a very different personality than the Saul I had come to know and love on Breaking Bad.  At first I was antsy for Jimmy McGill to transform into Saul Goodman, but the genius of Better Call Saul is that I very quickly grew to love Jimmy so much that his eventual transformation into the morals-free, criminal lawyer (emphasis on criminal) Saul Goodman became something I started to dread.  On the mothership, Breaking Bad, Walter White’s transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” was a tragedy, but though I knew things wouldn’t end well, I was generally eager to see Walt break fee of his inhibitions and embrace his dark side.  But on Saul, I have been fearing it.  I want to see the kind-hearted Jimmy, and also Kim Wexler (who has become the character on the show I am most rooting for), to somehow find a happy ending, even though we know from Breaking Bad that this is (most likely) not going to happen.

And so, for me, Better Call Saul has gradually transformed into an even richer, more heartbreaking tragedy than was Breaking Bad.  I thought Breaking Bad was a magnificent achievement in television, but I love Better Call Saul even more.

Here in season four, co-creator and co-showrunner Peter Gould stepped into the forefront, as Vince Gilligan (the mastermind behind Breaking Bad who also co-created and co-ran Saul for seasons one through three) stepped back from showrunning to focus on other projects.  This might have been a cause for concern, but I didn’t detect the slightest shift in quality.  If anything, the show was even better this year than it had ever been.

The first season of Saul had a lightness that I loved, in contrast to the grim, often hard-to-watch Breaking Bad.  As Jimmy McGill has slowly slipped into darkness, the show has darkened, with season four representing the show at its most emotionally wrenching so far.  I was absolutely gripped, from start to finish.

After the season three finale, I wondered if Michael McKean was truly out of the show.  I miss this great actor, but I am glad they didn’t walk back the events of that finale in an attempt to maintain the status quo.  I am pleased that the writers had the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the First New Star Trek Short: “Runaways”

In the next few months, before the launch of Star Trek: Discovery season two, we’re going to get four new “Short Treks,” Star Trek short films.  I love this idea.  The people currently running CBS and Trek these days have made a number of statements to the press about how they want to have lots of Trek on CBS All Access, with multiple different projects in the planning stages.  My hope is that the next few years will see a lot of experimentation in terms of the type of Star Trek product we’ll get.  Rather than just one Star Trek show running for seven seasons, I’d love to see a mix of mini-series, TV movies, short films, and longer-running continuing series.  This would allow for the telling of all sorts of different styles of Star Trek shows, ideally spotlighting a rich variety of different Star Trek characters from across the previous series and eras, as well as the introduction of new characters and settings.  This would be very exciting for me as a Star Trek fan.  And so I was pleased by the announcement of these four short films, a dipping of the toe into the waters of possibilities for this franchise.

This first “Short Trek,” entitled “Runaways,” focuses on Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman).  Following a somewhat tense/awkward conversation with her overbearing mother, Tilly stumbles across an alien stowaway aboard the Discovery.  This alien turns out to be a young woman, who has run away from home for reasons that we will discover.  She and Tilly are able to forge an unexpected bond.

I thought “Runaways” was pretty great.  Running less than 15 minutes, “Runaways” tells a compact little story that is very satisfying.  It has a number of fun moments and interesting character beats for both Tilly and the new alien.

I enjoyed the spotlight on Tilly.  I wasn’t wild about this character when she was first introduced on Discovery, but she very quickly grew on me.  (Some day I will rewatch Discovery’s very uneven first season, and I’ll be interested to see if I think more highly of Tilly’s portrayal in those early episodes, now that I know the character better… or if I still feel that it took the show a few episodes to find this character.)  I loved seeing Tilly’s mom here in “Runaways.”  That one conversation sheds a world of light on who Tilly is and where she came from.  And Tilly’s adventure with the young alien woman gives a wonderfully efficient spotlight on everything that is interesting and unique about this character.

The young alien was also great.  Played wonderfully by Yadira Guevara-Prip, she has a great look (terrific makeup and prosthetic effects … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Brockmire Season Two!

September 6th, 2018
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Season one of Brockmire was one of my favorite television discoveries from last year, so I was super-excited for season two!  I loved these eight new episodes, and I continue to highly recommend this show!

Brockmire stars Hank Azaria as disgraced former major league announcer Jim Brockmire.  The show charts Brockmire’s attempts to rebuild his life and return to a big league announcing booth, years after a drunken outburst destroyed his career.  While most shows with that sort of premise would probably depict a main character who is now trying to live life on the straight and narrow, the crazy beauty of Brockmire is that the main character is still a pompous, profane alcoholic jerk.

After only two short seasons, I think Brockmire might be my favorite live-action role of Hank Azaria’s career. It feels like the role he was born to play. The role is a perfect showcase for Mr. Azaria’s impeccable comedic chops.  The man can deliver a punchline like nobody else on television.  But the show also feels like the payoff to all of the dramatic work that Mr. Azaria has done over the past two decades.  Attempting, I suspect, to demonstrate that he can do more than lots of funny voices on The Simpsons, Mr. Azaria has done a number of straight drama projects over the years.  Often, frankly, these didn’t interest me, because personally I got far more enjoyment from Mr. Azaria’s being funny than his being serious.  But Brockmire feels like the perfect combination of all of Mr. Azaria’s strengths.  He is able to be supremely funny, while also seemingly effortlessly carrying the dramatic weight needed to make the character, and the show, feel real.  Brockmire season two goes to some dark places (more on this in a moment), and Mr. Azaria is incredible in the way he is able to plumb the dark depths of where Brockmire is at this season.  In the finale, Mr. Azaria has a dramatic scene with Tyrel Jackson Williams as Charles — this is a moment of pure heart-wrenching drama, no comedy in sight — and Mr. Azaria is absolutely incredible.

At the end of season one, we saw Brockmire make a choice that I, as an audience-member who had been rooting for the character, thought was terrible.  I’d expected the start of season two to hit the reset button and quickly undo that choice.  For so many years, that was the way that television worked.  But, thankfully, the Brockmire team went in a different direction, and all of season two is spent exploring the fallout of that choice, and the ways in which Brockmire’s life slowly unravels.  It’s a bold approach, and one that I applaud.

It … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Jack Ryan: Season One

I loved The Hunt for Red October when I first saw it when it was released back in 1990, and to this day it remains one of my very favorite movies.  None of the follow-up Jack Ryan films was able to match it.  I like the two Harrison Ford films (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), though I dream of an alternate universe in which Alec Baldwin returned as Ryan rather than being replaced by Ford.  I don’t think The Sum of All Fears is as bad as most people do, but there’s no question that attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan film franchise didn’t work.  It was, however, far superior to 2014’s abysmal Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, about which the less said, the better.  Now comes Amazon’s eight-episode Jack Ryan series.  So what did I think?

I quite liked it!  This first season of Jack Ryan is strong, exciting television.  The show is superbly made, with a great cast and an epic scope.  This first season was exciting and tense, with great action and compelling cliffhangers that hooked me in and resulted in my blazing through the entire season in short time.   Show-runners Carlton Cuse (who ran Lost with Damon Lindelof) and Graham Roland have done strong work here.

Just like The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, this new Jack Ryan show again reboots the story to zero and retells us Ryan’s origin.  While I find this repeated rebooting to be tiresome, I can understand why a new Jack Ryan TV show would feel the need to do this, and thankfully, they’ve found some interesting new spins on the tale of the young analyst Ryan getting swept up in action and espionage in the field, so the show doesn’t feel like a rehash of stuff we’ve seen before.

While I still long for a great Ryan movie that can rival Red October, after watching these eight episodes, it’s clear that a TV mini-series is the perfect format for telling a Tom Clancy-style story.  (This series isn’t directly adapted from any of Mr. Clancy’s novels, but the type of global terror-threat story it depicts feels very much in the style of Mr. Clancy’s work.)  The eight-episode season gives the show plenty of time to tell a far-reaching, complicated story taking place in many different countries, and allows us to follow many different characters, good guys and bad guys.  The show is able to tell a complex story that has the room to breathe, as opposed to having to squash everything into a two-hour film.  The result is the first truly successful new filmed Jack Ryan story in quite a long while.

I’d at first … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season Four Part One!

I’ve enjoyed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt right from the get-go, and I’m bummed that this fourth season has been announced as the last.  (I am hoping that rumors of a concluding movie aren’t just wishful thinking!)  This fourth season so far shows that the show remains at the top of its comedic game.

Unlike the previous three seasons, this fourth season has been broken up by Netflix into two parts.  The first six episodes are available now, with the concluding episodes not coming until January, 2019.  On the one hand, I hate having to wait so many more months for the concluding episodes!!  On the other, though, I could get behind this sort of release pattern for more streaming shows.  The way so many shows work now, we get all 10 or 13-ish episodes of a season dropped on the same day, and for the shows I love I often wind up watching them all very quickly.  I’m not the type of person to binge a whole season in a day or two, but particularly if we’re only talking about half-hour episodes, I could easily get through a season in a week.  Then I have to wait a whole year (or more!!) for additional episodes.  That long wait between seasons is painful.  So I don’t think I would mind if more shows started breaking up their seasons into two or three smaller groups of episodes to drop at different points during the year.  But I digress…

These latest episodes of Kimmy Schmidt continue the style begun by Tina Fey’s great show 30 Rock of super-fast-paced comedy, with tons and tons of jokes crammed into every minute of every episode.  (I often have to go back and rewatch a scene because there were so many jokes on top of jokes that I missed many of them the first time through.)  Kimmy has also continued 30 Rock’s somewhat fantastical approach to reality, unafraid of bizarre and very silly digressions.  I loved those qualities in 30 Rock, and I love them in Kimmy.  

While Kimmy might not quite be able to match the comedic highs of 30 Rock (and no character on Kimmy can top the powerhouse comedic creation of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy), I’ve come to love all of the Kimmy main characters more than I ever quite connected to any member of the 30 Rock ensemble.  Top of the list is Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy.  The indefatigably sunny Kimmy is not only an evergreen fountain of comedy, but also a character for whom it is impossible not to root.  She’s a wonderful anchor for the show, and she gives the whole enterprise an uplifting, good-for-the-soul feeling.  It’s easy to take Ms. Kemper’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the SyFy Channel Adaptation of Childhood’s End

June 18th, 2018

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, first published in 1953, is a magnificent novel, a triumph of science fiction that is riveting and heartbreaking. It’s a ripe subject for adaptation, and I’m pleased that I had a chance to catch up with the SyFy channel’s three-part, four-plus hour mini-series adaptation, which originally aired in December, 2015.

The miniseries, like the novel, begins when enormous spaceships descend over major cities worldwide.  Though mankind at first fears the alien visitors, who the people of the world dub the “overlords”, the aliens — through their spokesperson, Karellen — vow to help humanity eliminate war, poverty, pollution, and all the other ills facing the planet.  And they do!  In so doing, they help humanity transition to — well, that would be telling!

The miniseries is a very solid and enjoyable, if not exactly spectacular, adaptation of Mr. Clarke’s wonderful original story.  The production values are (mostly) impressive and the cast is (mostly) great.  The writers made significant changes, but they (mostly) preserved the flavor of Mr. Clarke’s original story and the most important beats of the tale.

Mr. Clarke’s story is divided into three sections, which fits nicely with the miniseries’ three-part structure.  However, while Mr. Clarke’s novel takes place over about a century, the miniseries unsurprisingly condences the bulk of story into around twenty years, so they can have the same actors playing the same characters from start to finish. I can understand this choice, though I think the book’s timing makes more sense, as it stretches credulity that everything that transpires in the story happens across only twenty-to-twenty five years.  Also, they don’t make any effort to age the actors at all, which is weird. The young farm couple Ricky & Ellie look about 30 at the start of the story and still look exactly the same at the end, two-plus decades later.  It’s distracting.  (They throw in a line about how the improvements to the planet have caused people to age more slowly, but still, it’s extremely silly that everyone looks exactly the same a quarter century later.)  (I also think they lose the effect that recasting some of the characters to be played by older actors in the later parts would have given the story.  The climax would have been more effective had we felt this story as a generational tale, as the novel was.)

For the most part, I thought the mini-series looked great.  The visual effects of the Overlords’ ships, and the handful of other outer-space effects shots, and also the brief glimpses we get of the Overlords’ home planet, were all very well done.  This is an epic story, and for the most part I felt the mini-series … [continued]

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“I Always Wondered How This Was Gonna End” — Josh Reviews the (Series?) Finale of The X-Files

June 14th, 2018
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After a weak opening episode, I have been very impressed by how great the subsequent eight, mostly stand-alone episodes of The X-Files season eleven have been!  Click here for my review of episodes 1-3, here for my review of episodes 4-6, and here for my review of episodes 7-9.  And now, on to the finale:

My Struggle IV — After the beautiful ending of “Nothing Lasts Forever,” I was bracing myself for a return to the terrible with the finale.  The previous three “My Struggle” episodes by Chris Carter (that opened and closed the 2016 season, and that opened this new season) have all been a mess.  It’s remarkable to me how, for the longest time during the show’s prime, the mythology episodes were so spectacular and it was the monster-of-the-week episodes that, even when they were great, often stretched my patience.  But in these two revival seasons, the mythology episodes have been disastrous and the stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes have been far more successful and entertaining (particularly in this season).

“My Struggle IV” isn’t quite as catastrophically bad as the previous three “My Struggle” episodes have been, but it’s still a disappointingly wobbly ending to the season and, perhaps, the show.

The episode opens with a narration from Mulder and Scully’s son William.  (Since the first three “My Struggle” episodes were narrated by, respectively, Mulder, Scully, and the CSM, I was really hoping that Skinner would get to open this one!!)  I was pleased to see William back in focus.  While I don’t think it’s been well-executed AT ALL, I can at least say that I was happy that these two revival seasons chose to pick up the story of Mulder and Scully’s baby, since that was a pretty huge thread left dangling from the original run.  Particularly in those final two original seasons (seasons eight and nine), we heard again and again and again that their baby was “important,” but we never understood why.

Sadly, we STILL don’t understand!!  Yes, William has psychic powers.  We knew that ever since we saw him as a baby moving the mobile above his crib.  But why does he have these powers, and why is this so important to CSM and all the other conspiracy people??  There have been plenty of super-powered people on the show before.  Why do they all “need” William for some reason?  What does any of this have to do with the alien plague that CSM threatens to unleash upon the world (and that we saw happen in “My Struggle II” which turned out to be, ugh, just a dream/prediction of the future by William and/or Scully)?  Why doesn’t the CSM unleash the plague if that … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to The Americans!

I started watching The Americans very soon after I’d finished watching Breaking Bad, and right away from the pilot episode I was struck by the similarity of the set-up: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings had to hide their criminal activities from Stan Beeman, their FBI-agent neighbor, just as Walter White had to hide his criminal activities from Hank Schrader, his DEA agent brother-in law.  Of course, the two shows went in very different directions and turned out to have very different styles of story-telling.  (I loved them both!)  But as The Americans entered its sixth and final season, I wondered to what degree the endgame of the two shows would be similar.  The final run of episodes of Breaking Bad were among the series’ best — once Hank found out the truth about Walt, all bets were off and things got crazy.  Surely Stan would finally discover the Jennings’ secret before the end, right?  When would that happen, and what would happen once that revelation finally occurred??

What’s fascinating to me about this final season of The Americans is the way in which things unfolded not at all like how I’d expected — and yet, somehow, exactly in a way that, upon reflection, makes sense for this show and reflects the type of show this has been since the beginning, and the very specific, methodical way in which creator Joe Weinberg and his partner show-runner Joel Fields have told this story.

Breaking Bad went crazy in those final run of episodes — I found that final half-season to be a visceral, thrilling ride.  I’d expected The Americans to similarly ramp up the pace in this final ten episode season (all its previous seasons have been 13 episodes long), but instead, the show came back as the same show it had always been: a deep-dive into these characters and their lives, both personal and professional; steadily-paced and taking the time to show us all the details.  I was surprised at first that the show was taking so much time in this final run to introduce lots of new characters and situations for the espionage in which Philip and Elizabeth were engaging.  (Well, mostly Elizabeth, since the season began with Philip’s having been out of the game for three years.)  We spent a LOT of time in the early going this season with Sofia and Gennadi (the Russian hockey player) and with the dying artist Erica Haskard.

That’s a risky approach, but as I look back now on this final season, for the most part (and I’ll get to a few concerns in a moment), it worked!  I wasn’t impatient for The Americans to hurry up and get to the “good stuff,” … [continued]

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“Nothing Lasts Forever” — Josh Reviews the Final Episodes (For Now?) of The X-Files

June 7th, 2018
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Although I was not that taken by the 2016 six-episode relaunch of The X-Files, I found myself quite enjoying this year’s new batch of episodes.  Click here for my review of the first three episodes of this new 10-episode season, and click here for my review of episodes 4-6.  After a strong run of episodes, how did this season’s concluding installments turn out?  Read on…!

Rm9sbG93ZXJz — This is yet another strong stand-alone installment, as this new season continues to fire on all cylinders.  In this nearly dialogue-free episode, a mishap at an automated sushi restaurant leads to increasing peril for Mulder and Scully.  This is the X-Files’ version of a Black Mirror episode, a very plausible vision of a world right around the corner from our current reality, in which the increasing computerization and atomization in all of our lives, combined with our reliance on our phones and all of the technology in our homes, cars, offices, etc., might lead to negative, unintended consequences.  This is a very different style of X-Files episode, but I love this type of experimentation and I was delighted by this sort of alternate-universe X-Files episode (where the computerization of Mulder and Scully’s lives is just a few steps ahead of what we see today, thus giving us a frightening look at where all of our lives might be heading in the very near future).

Admittedly, this sort of stand-alone experiment would be even more delightful if we were actually getting ten new episodes of The X-Files annually for the foreseeable future, rather than these ten episodes quite possibly being the final episodes we will ever see.  I have commented repeatedly in my reviews of the 2016 season and this new season that Chris Carter and co. took the curious approach of these new episodes being a relaunch of the show, rather than the conclusion.  Whether we ever do actually get future seasons will determine whether or not we look back on this approach as a mistake and a huge missed opportunity for the closure the show never got at the end of its original run.  More on this later.

Meanwhile, this episode was filled with a number of lovely moments, from Scully’s security password (Queequeg!!) to Mulder’s (attempted) enjoyment of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.  I was intrigued to see Scully’s very nice apartment!  Though saddened that, despite the events of “Plus One” from earlier in the season, Mulder and Scully still live apart.  (Was their dinner together at the start of the episode a romantic date?  Or just friendly colleagues together at the end of a long work day?  The episode does not shed much light on this.)  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Season Five of Brooklyn Nine-Nine!

In a tumultuous week right before its season five finale aired, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was unceremoniously cancelled by Fox… and then, a few days later, miraculously resurrected by NBC who announced that they’d be picking up the show for a thirteen-episode sixth season.  Huzzah!!

I was devastated when I thought the show was dead and gone.  Over the last five years, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has grown into one of my very favorite TV comedies.  It’s not edgy and it might not be groundbreaking “genius” comedy — but it has grown into the very best sort of TV comfort food: consistently hilarious and filled with characters with whom I absolutely adore spending time.

I realized, in those days in which I thought the show was cancelled, that I had been taking Brooklyn Nine-Nine for granted!  Though the show has popped up on my end-of-the-year lists of my favorite episodes of TV, I haven’t ever given it one of my regular season-ending reviews that I write about almost every other show I watch.  It’s time to stop ignoring this show!

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur.  Mr. Goor worked on The Daily Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Parks and Recreation.  Mr. Schur was a key creative player on the American version of The Office, he co-created Parks and Recreation with Greg Daniels (and served as the primary show-runner), and he also created The Good Place.  Looking back, I can see why Brooklyn Nine-Nine has slipped through the cracks for me, despite the fact that I’ve been enjoying it for so many years now.  The show doesn’t have the attention-grabbing hooks of The Good Place’s twists, or the way Parks and Rec’s gloriously large and unhinged ensemble served as a sort-of live-action version of The Simpsons.  Those two shows, along with The Office, all seemed like cutting-edge “cool” comedies that drew a lot more attention.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine never quite had that.  From the beginning, it felt a little squarer, a little more family-friendly, a little less boundary-pushing.  But the show has blossomed into a true comedic gem, with an ensemble as skilled as any on TV today and one that can go head-to-head with any of the other shows I just listed above (and many beyond those).

Andy Samberg is terrific in the lead role of Detective Jake Peralta.  Mr. Samberg demonstrated back in 2012 with Celeste and Jesse Forever that he had acting chops, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine perfectly utilizes his comedic talents and his man-child persona.  Mr. Sandberg effortlessly anchors the show, and remains one of the funniest elements of it.  The key casting coup of the show is Andre Braugher as … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season Five!

I was somewhat late to the party with Silicon Valley, but I loved the show when I started watching it last year, and I quickly devoured the first four seasons.  I was so happy that I didn’t have too long to wait before season five.  As the season begins, the Pied Piper gang are hard at work on bringing Richard’s “new internet” idea to life, and they are once again locked in competition with Gavin Belson’s Hooli, who is working on a very different type of technology, Gavin’s “signature box 3”.

Season five of Silicon Valley represents an interesting point in the life of the show.  There was a comedic and creative spark to the first several seasons that isn’t quite present now — that joy of discovery of the “new” is gone now (at least for me), as the show has settled into a comfortable middle-age.  The narrative wheel-spinning is somewhat more pronounced than it was in the early years, as the show has to keep this gang of misfits struggling and failing (in order to preserve the basic set-up of the show), in a way that can feel somewhat frustrating after five years of watching these characters and wanting them to succeed.

On the other hand, this latest batch of eight episodes is fantastic, filled with some truly great and very funny comedic moments.  I love these characters at this point (even a “villain” like Gavin Belson), and it remains great fun to be in these characters’ company and to follow their continuing misadventures.  So while the show might not feel quite as fresh as it once did, there is clearly still plenty of comedic life left in this show and its premise and characters.

At only eight episodes long, season five of Silicon Valley is the shortest season since the first year (seasons two, three and four had ten episodes each), and so the season zips along at a fast clip and doesn’t outstay its welcome.  Quite the contrary, at the end of episode eight I was bummed that there weren’t more episodes to watch immediately!!

T.J. Miller was written off the show at the end of season four.  This concerned me when the news broke, as Mr. Miller had been a key member of the ensemble.  It’s usually a bad sign when main characters leave TV shows, “rats leaving a sinking ship” and all, and the show that remains is often not quite the same.  But I must say, while I loved Mr. Miller on this show, I didn’t miss him at all.  Season five still has a large and highly-skilled ensemble, and so there were plenty of characters and story-lines to more than carry … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

I’ve been a huge fan of Garry Shandling for as long as I can remember.  Mr. Shandling was a genius-level stand-up comedian, and he masterminded two of the greatest television shows ever made: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show.  It was Larry Sanders that made me a forever fan of Mr. Shandling’s, and that drove me to go back and discover the rest of his amazing work.  I’ve spent uncounted hours watching old clips of Mr. Shandling on the stand-up circuit and on The Tonight Show, and I have watched and rewatched The Larry Sanders Show many times.  (“It was a back tooth, Hank,” might be one of the funniest lines ever spoken on a TV comedy.)  When Mr. Shandling passed away in 2016, it was a huge loss.

I have also been a huge fan of Judd Apatow’s for quite some time, ever since Freaks and Geeks (the amazing series created by Paul Feig and produced by Mr. Apatow back in 1999-2000).  I continue to adore Freaks and Geeks to this day, and I have rewatched those eighteen near-perfect episodes many times.  I also loved Mr. Apatow’s follow-up TV show, Undeclared (also killed before its time after one fantastic season), and I have followed his movie career avidly:  The 40 year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40, and Trainwreck.  Mr. Apatow has also shown his talents as a skilled and prolific producer, helping to shepherd projects such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Superbad, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Pineapple ExpressWalk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids, Wanderlust, The Five-Year Engagement, The Big Sick and many more!  That is quite a list of incredible comedic films with which Mr. Apatow has been involved, no?

Mr. Apatow wrote for The Larry Sanders Show and eventually served as a co-executive producer.  In many interviews over the years, it’s been clear how much of a mentor Garry Shandling was to him.  Mr. Apatow’s appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, filmed not long after Mr. Shandler’s death, is almost more about Garry Shandling than it is about Mr. Apatow himself!

And so I was not at all surprised when I read that Mr. Apatow was working on a documentary film about Garry Shandling.  As a huge fan of both comedic talents, I was excited to see what Mr. Apatow would create.

The result, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, is a behemoth: an almost five-hour film, shown in two parts on HBO.  But I’m here to tell you, I could have watched … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season One

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the latest show created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, and produced by Ms. Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, the duo behind Gilmore Girls.  Set in New York City in 1958, the show tells the story of Midge Maisel, who discovers that she has an aptitude for stand-up comedy and sets out to try to make it in the business.

I have never seen Gilmore Girls, though from what I have read about it I suspect I would have enjoyed the writing.  I certainly quite enjoyed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Centering on a smart, strong female character, the show feels wonderfully of the moment, and while there are many reasons why the show works, Rachel Brosnahan’s spectacular performance as Miriam “Midge” Maisel is the key.  This is a great blend of character and performer.  Midge isn’t perfect.  She can be a little blind to what those around her are thinking and feeling, and she sure can talk a LOT.  But she is fiercely intelligent and admirably persistent at striving towards her goals.  She is a fascinating character, and Ms. Brosnahan easily shoulders the weight of the show.

I recently wrote about The Deuce, a show that explores the seedy underbelly of New York City in the 1970s.  Compared to that, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, set a little over a decade earlier, feels like a fairy tale.  And perhaps it is, but there’s nothing wrong with that!  What I appreciate about the show is that it creates as distinct and complete a portrait of New York City as The Deuce does, albeit one that is very different.  (One example of the gulf between the two shows: I believe that mob boss Rudy Pipilo is the only major character on The Deuce who is nearly as affluent as the majority of characters on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

I was intrigued by how Jewish The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is.  Midge and the majority of the characters on the show are Jewish —even the comedians like Lenny Bruce, more on him layer — and the show takes the care to allow this Jewishness to be a major part of these characters’ lives, as of course it would be, without skewing into caricature.  There were a few mis-steps that caught my eye (many TV shows make the mistake of showing a rabbi wearing a tallit outside of prayer services, and in the pilot we see the rabbi wearing a tallit at Midge and Joel’s wedding dinner, which no rabbi would actually do), but overall I was pleased by how smoothly these Jewish elements were integrated into the fabric of the show.

After Rachel Brosnahan as Midge herself, I was most taken … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews The Deuce Season One

The Deuce is the latest television masterpiece from David Simon (The Wire, Treme, Show Me a Hero) and George Pelicanos (novelist and a key writer on both The Wire and Treme), set primarily around Times Square in the seventies, chronicling the legalization and growth of the porn industry.  This is an eyebrows-raising subject for a TV show, but I am glad I didn’t let that keep me away.  The Deuce is a fantastically rich piece of work, an intimate character piece with a sprawling ensemble that is, in turns, very funny and absolutely heartbreaking.  In other words, just what you’d expect from these two men who were part of the core of creators behind The Wire, which is possibly the greatest TV show ever made.

I’ve been surprised, actually, that I know several people who watched The Deuce and found it to be just mediocre.  I don’t know what show they were watching!  I have heard complaints that the show is too slow, and that nothing jappens.  Those complaints sort of boggle my mind.  Yes, The Deuce is leisurely paced, and yes, the show’s naturalistic approach to story-telling means that there aren’t a ton of Big Dramatic Events packed into every episode.  But The Deuce isn’t that sort of standard television show.  Like all of David Simon’s shows, the focus of the story-telling is fixed, laser-like, on the characters, and the many small events that transpire in their lives.  By that viewpoint, the show is packed with plot.  It’s just small-scale, human drama, rather than the type of big fake drama that makes up a lot of what you see on TV.

Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos have always been masters of this type of detail.  In The Deuce, this manifests in two different main ways.  First, in the way that the show tells it’s over-all “plot”: the story of the explosion of the porn industry in the seventies.  This story isn’t told through a series of BIG dramatic TV moments but, just like in real life, through the accumulation of small events.  Throughout these first eight episodes, the show explores, deeply, many different characters and situations, showing us the burgeoning porn industry at many different levels, from the girls walking the streets, to the pimps, to the guys selling magazines and video reels in sleazy storefronts, to the mob guys who opened the early “massage” parlors, and lots more.  Through this gradual accumulation of detail, the larger story comes into focus.  I love this approach to story-telling.  This is a novelistic approach, which makes sense since many of the show’s key creatuve players are also novelists.

This attention to detail also comes into play, as I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Good Place: Season Two

I didn’t watch the first season of The Good Place last year.  But when season two began in the fall, I wondered, why am I not watching this new show by Mike Schur, who has been behind so many other great shows that I have loved (particularly Parks and Recreation)??  So I went back and started streaming season one, and I immediately fell in love with this wonderful comedic creation.  I tore through season one and loved every minute.  That first season’s delicious twist ending was fantastic, and made me so happy that I wouldn’t have to wait a year before watching season two!  I am pleased that the second season was just as fantastic as that first year.  The Good Place is easily one of my very favorite shows currently on TV.

So much of season one was structured to build up to that wonderful twist at the end of the year.  And so I had to wonder, would the new season be able to top that?  What would the show look like now that we knew the truth behind the situation that Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) had found themselves in?

This post-twist season two could have easily felt like a let-down, but the miracle of what Mr. Schur and his collaborators have created here is that, post-twist, this second season wound up feeling even more fun and crazy than ever before!  This season burnt through plot like few shows I have ever seen — in this respect, it reminded me of Breaking Bad in its prime.  Eleanor and co. figured out what was up with Michael’s “reboot” of the Good Place by the end of the two-part season premiere, while the second episode (the best episode of the season — it made my “Best TV of 2017” list) burnt through hundreds of years of in-show continuity!!  While season one was a slow burn building up to that end-of-the-year twist, season two was a fast-paced roller-coaster, in which the show completely transformed itself almost every single episode.

That amazing second episode, “Dance Dance Resolution,” showed just how daring and inventive Mr. Schur and his writers were capable of being. I think it was that episode, even more than Michael’s laugh at the end of season one, that sealed my love for this show.

The main ensemble continued to be just as fantastic in season one as they were in season two.  Ted Danson continues to prove how effortlessly incredible he is.  This man is a master of the sitcom form.  He allows Michael to be both villainous and empathetic, and oh-so funny.  It’s fantastic work.  Michael has … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The X-Files: Season 11 — Part Two!

March 26th, 2018
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Click here for my comments on the first three episodes of The X-Files: Season 11.  And now, onward!

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” — Darin Morgan only wrote four episodes from The X-Files’ original run, but they were among the series’ very best installments.  (Mr. Morgan’s “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is probably my single favorite X-Files episode.)  He wrote and directed one episode in the 2016 re-launch, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Man,” and it was by far the best episode of the bunch.  And so it was with great excitement that I began to watch his contribution to this new season.  I am pleased to say that it is once again spectacular.  After two great monster of the week episodes and now this one, I am delighted that this new season is on quite a roll!

As with the best of Mr. Morgan’s other work, this episode manages to be extremely silly and weird, while also being a little bit melancholy.  There’s pathos in this story, despite how ridiculous it gets, and that is the magic of why it works so well.  The episode is jammed-full with craziness.  There are so many wonderful little jokes and references that I know I’ll need to rewatch the episode several more times before I catch them all.  The episode opens in a way I never would have expected: with a gloriously perfect version of a Twilight Zone episode that never was.  It’s something that will make the hearts of all true sci-fi fans sing.  But the highlight of the show for me was the insane and hilarious montage of old X-Files episodes with “Reggie Something” inserted into the old adventures alongside Mulder and Scully.  (We even got a version of the show’s opening credits, with Reggie replacing Skinner!)  I was on the floor with laughter.  So brilliant.

I also appreciated the episode for it’s meta commentary on the way that our memory plays tricks on us, and how we all misremember things that we believe to remember with perfect clarity.  Just as the show itself is attempting to recreate something that existed twenty years ago with this new season of episodes — and fans have to wrestle with comparing these new episodes to our blurred-with-time memories of the show’s original run — this episode seems to acknowledge, sadly, that you can’t go home again.  “I want to remember how it was,” Scully says at the end of the episode. “I want to remember how it all was.”  It’s a touching, and somewhat sad, moment.

This episode is also notable for its fairly brutal critique of modern American society and the way that, somehow, “truth” no longer seems to matter.  While … [continued]

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Josh Looks Back on Star Trek: Discovery Season One

I have been thinking a lot about Star Trek: Discovery since the series wrapped up several weeks ago, and I have been having a lot of spirited conversations about the show with my fellow Trek fans.  There is quite a range of opinions about the show among the Trek fans that I know.  I am happy that a number of my friends quite enjoyed the show.  I wish I was one of them.

There is a great Star Trek TV show lurking somewhere inside Star Trek: Discovery.  I know there is.  The elements are there.  The main cast is strong.  In particular, Sonequa Martin-Green is fantastic, a perfect choice to build a new type of Star Trek show around.  The production values are extraordinary — Star Trek has never looked better on TV.

And yet, for the most part, I found this first fifteen-episode season of Star Trek: Discovery to be a big swing and a miss.  I am fundamentally baffled by the creative choices made by the show’s creators.  Repeatedly, while watching this first season, I asked myself: what is this show ABOUT?

At first, based on the pre-show interviews and press, I thought the show would have two major themes: 1) that, unlike all (well, most) previous Trek, the show would not be based around the captain and the main bridge command crew, but instead it would be about lower-ranked officers who weren’t always in the middle of the action, characters like the disgraced Michael Burnham and her new friend Tilly, who was just a cadet, and 2) that it would be about the Klingon-Federation conflict that erupted a decade before the events of the Original Series (which depicted the Federation and the Klingon Empire locked in a Cold War stalemate), but that it would make an effort to depict both sides of the conflict, with several Klingon characters in major roles on the series.  Both of those are great ideas with the potential to be the basis for an exciting new Star Trek show.  But neither panned out.  Discovery IS about the leadership characters on the ship, and Burnham and Tilly, though neither are commissioned Starfleet officers, always found themselves at the center of the action.  And while the first two episodes spent a huge amount of time with the Klingons, we never really got anything more than superficial insight into their characters and/or perspectives, and those Klingon characters quickly fell away as the show progressed.

Then, for the bulk of the rest of the first half of the season (that initial batch of nine episodes), the show seemed to flirt with the idea of being about whether Starfleet ideals and pacifism could be maintained when … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The X-Files: Season 11 — Part One!

March 20th, 2018
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Back in 2016, The X-Files returned from the dead for a short sixth episode tenth season (what Fox called at the time an “event series”).  Since 2002, I had been lamenting that it was a tragedy that The X-Files had been left without a proper ending.  (The show ended in 2002 with a lot still up in the air, and the series of X-Files movies that everyone involved with the show used to talk about never materialized.)  I had long dreamed for a third X-Files movie to wrap up the series, but I thought a six-episode return to TV was even better.  Six hours would, I thought, give Chris Carter & co. plenty of time to wrap everything up.

But that six-episode run wound up being something entirely different than what I’d expected.  Whereas I’d thought we’d get a concluding six-hour mini-series, Mr. Carter and his team treated those six episodes like a relaunch of the show.  They put Mulder and Scully back in the places they used to be during the series, as FBI agents investigating the paranormal; they returned to the series’ usual format of “mythology” episodes interspersed with stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes; heck, they even went back to the series’ original opening credits!  On the one hand, I was disappointed these six episodes didn’t provide the closure I’d been hoping for.  (The mythology was left even more muddled than it had been before, and the sixth episode ended with an enormous cliffhanger.)  On the other hand, since Mr. Carter’s two mythology episodes (that opened and closed the season) were such a mess, it was a relief that the four stand-alone episodes weren’t burdened with all that baggage and allowed the show to give us four solid classic-style X-Files episodes.  Also, the idea of the show returning as a series of shorter-run seasons was appealing to me!  If we got six new X-Files episodes a year for the next few years, I’d be happy!

But then we had to wait two long years before getting another season… and as this new ten-episode season 11 was finally arriving, Gillian Anderson announced that it was not her intention to play Scully ever again after these episodes.  So whatever dreams Chris Carter and Fox (and audience members like me) might have had of a new multi-year run of The X-Files seemed to die aborning.

So, where did that leave this show, and its fans?  Though I braced myself to expect that season 11 would be structured exactly like season 10, I dared to hope that 1) the quality of this new run of episodes would be higher than that of the very mediocre six-episodes from 2016, and 2) … [continued]

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Josh Reviews American Gods Season One

A few years ago I read and absolutely loved Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.  It was weird and wonderful and funny and heartbreaking and I pretty much loved every page.  I was of course interested when I heard that there would be a TV adaptation, and then when when it was announced that Bryan Fuller (whose name I first got to know as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and who has subsequently created and run several acclaimed shows) would be the show-runner, I was very excited.

The show, like the novel, begins with Shadow: a man released from prison only to discover that his wife has a) cheated on him and b) died while doing so.  At a loss as to what to do with his life, his path crosses with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who convinces Shadow to come work for him as his driver and assistant.  It turns out that Mr. Wednesday just might actually be the god Odin, who is own a mission to gather the many other Old Gods living across the United States to fight back against the New Gods who Wednesday feels are preparing to destroy them.

Mr. Gaiman’s original novel is centered around upon the intriguing notion that anyone who believes something manifests that belief into the actual deity, and their belief and worship gives that deity power.  And so, as immigrants came to America across the centuries, they brought many of their Gods with them.  But now, in a pointed critique of modern American life, the book suggests that we have turned away from those Old Gods and, instead, given form to New Gods who express the things we worship today: media, technology, etc.  This is a delicious idea.  The novel works because it is filled with fascinating concepts and compelling characters — Mr. Gaiman is a master at making each of his characters interesting and unique.

The eight-episode TV adaptation is a mixed bag.  It’s not at all what I would call a success, but there are too many fascinating and compelling ideas and moments in it to consider it a failure, either.  There are scenes in these episodes that count among the most striking and interesting things I have seen on TV in a good long while.  But unfortunately it doesn’t all come together in a satisfying way, as I will attempt to explain.

Let’s start with what works: the cast is fantastic.  I wasn’t at all familiar with Ricky Whittle before seeing him as Shadow here in this series, but he’s great.  He combines the physicality of a tough guy with a gentleness of voice and manner that is perfect for Shadow.  We have to invest … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Series Finale of Star Wars Rebels!

It is an incredibly rare thing these days for a popular ongoing story, in whatever medium — but particularly film or TV — to be given the opportunity for a proper ending.

This is something I have written about a lot on this site.  Generally franchises are either struck down before their time (by cancellation or some other situation) or continue long past their prime until they gradually peter out.  I doubt Star Wars will ever have an ending; not in my lifetime anyway.  It did once: the saga began with Star Wars and ended with Return of the Jedi.  I am thankful that Star Wars has expanded far beyond those original three films, and look forward to many future Star Wars movies as well as adventures in a variety of other media.  But the downside is, I doubt this enormous franchise will now ever get a true ending.

Back when George Lucas and Dave Filoni launched the first Star Wars animated TV series, The Clone Wars, I was intrigued and excited by the potential for stories that would expand upon the much-dreamed-about Clone Wars, a galaxy-shaking event first referenced in the original Star Wars (when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke that he fought with his father in the Clone Wars), that was, shockingly to me, basically skipped over in the time-jump between the end of Episode II and the opening of Episode III.  And, indeed, while The Clone Wars animated series had some shaky episodes, over-all it fulfilled that promise of bringing to life the many, many stories that together made up this galaxy-wide conflict.  But pretty early on, a lot of fans, myself included, began to be consumed with speculation as to how the series would end.  What would happen to the many characters introduced in the series, most of whom we never saw in the Original Trilogy?  What would become of the Clone Troopers that we were following throughout the show?  And, above all, what would happen to the young girl, Ahsoka Tano, introduced in the show as Anakin’s Jedi apprentice?  Yoda told Luke that “when gone am I, the last of the Jedi will you be,” so that meant Ahsoka couldn’t be around during the Original Trilogy, right?  Would the show really kill her off?  If not, what would be her fate?

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, they cancelled the Clone Wars show after its fifth season (out of a planned eight), meaning fans never got answers to any of their questions.  This was extraordinarily disappointing at the time.  And so, when a new Disney-owned Star Wars animated show launched, Rebels, I must admit I had a chip on my shoulder about it.  For this kids-focused show they … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars Rebels: Season Four

Tonight, Star Wars Rebels will draw to a close with the three-part finale.  I am super-excited, and I am very much hoping that Dave Filoni and his team can draw this story to a proper close.  So far, season four of Star Wars Rebels has been ferociously entertaining, filled with exciting action-adventure, great character work, and a fantastic attention to detail in the way the stories have explored previously unseen corners of the Star Wars universe, while also connecting these stories and these characters more closely to the films, particularly the original Star Wars, whose events take place only a short while after these episodes.

When Rebels first began, I was still smarting over the cancellation of the previous Star Wars animated series, The Clone Wars, before that series could reach its planned conclusion.  (I still hope that, someday, those stories will see the light of day.)  When the new show, Rebels, first began, I was put off by what looked like the show’s more kid-friendly focus, and I wasn’t immediately taken by the new cast of young characters.  That first season was a little shaky, but by season one’s final episodes I could begin to glimpse the show that Rebels would become.  Rebels roared out of the gate at the start of season two, featuring Darth Vader as the main villain and presenting us with perhaps the best canonical on-screen version of the in-his-prime, fully evil Vader that we hadn’t really seen since 1981’s The Empire Strikes Back.  I was also delighted that the show began to reintroduce characters and storylines that had been left hanging by the cancellation of Clone Wars.  Season three expanded and deepened this corner of the Star Wars universe.  I was delighted by the connections to Rogue One (bringing in the character of Saw Gerrera, voiced by Forest Whitaker), and thrilled to see Grand Admiral Thrawn, a memorable character from Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novels (that helped carry the torch for Star Wars fandom in the post-Return of the Jedi, pre-Prequel years), finally brought to on-screen, canonical life.

Season Four was incredibly enjoyable from start to finish.  It was satisfying to see how far these characters had progressed over the course of these four seasons, and fun to see the skillful way that show-runner Dave Filoni and his team were able to be able to weave back together a variety of story threads that had run through the show since the beginning.

The season kicked off by bringing the story of Sabine’s family and the planet Mandalore, including threads that had begun back in The Clone Wars, to fruition.  The Mandalore stuff hasn’t been my favorite aspect of Rebels, but I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Final Season One Episodes of Star Trek: Discovery

Well, Star Trek: Discovery has wrapped up its first season.  What did I think of this final run of episodes?

What’s Past is Prologue — This conclusion to the extended Mirror Universe string of episodes was a high-point of the season for me.  I think it’s crazy that this show — theoretically designed to broaden the appeal of Star Trek and attract new fans to the franchise — has wound up spending such a long time in the Mirror Universe (which seems designed to please long-time Trek fans but befuddle newbies), but if you put that baggage aside, this multi-episode romp in the Mirror Universe has been a hoot, and things got even crazier and more fun in this episode.  With Lorca revealed as a Mirror Universe baddie, this episode careened from one juicy action sequence to the next, as Burnham and the Mirror Georgiou fight for their lives on the run from Lorca and his goons.

The episode looked gorgeous.  It was filled with a number of beautifully designed unusual shots (director Olatunde Osunsanmi did a terrific job) which highlighted the show’s production values.  The sets, the props, the costumes, everything looked great.  (Totally wrong for this prequel era of Star Trek, but if you can put that aside…)  And the outer-space visual effects were magnificent, as we finally got a truly great Discovery space-ship action scene as the Discovery attempted to attack and destroy the Empress’ enormous city-ship, the Charon.  Great stuff.

I loved seeing Landry (Rekha Sharma), who was originally killed off way too early and stupidly, back on the show.  I loved seeing Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) again, and I enjoyed the interplay between her and Burnham.  These are two great, strong female characters.  I loved seeing how competent and effective Saru was, in command of the Discovery.  I liked the idea that Mirror Lorca wound up in the Prime universe via a transporter accident during an ion storm, the same as happened with Kirk & co. in “Mirror, Mirror.”  (And I appreciated that the show actually showed us a glimpse of an ion storm, though I wish that had looked a little cooler.)

It was interesting that Voq/Ash was absent from this episode.  I was surprised that was the case, after all the buildup, but I didn’t miss him in all this Mirror Universe fun craziness.

I’m not sure I understand the nature of the threat to the mycelial network, or why the destruction of this network would destroy all life across the multiple universes.  I wish that had been fleshed out more.  But again, in the short term, I didn’t mind that too much in the midst of all this Mirror Universe fun stuff.

My … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017 — Part Five!

And so, we arrive, at last, at My Five Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017!  (Click here for part one of my list, click here for part two, click here for part three, and click here for part four.)

5. Brockmire: “Rally Cap” (season one, episode one, aired on 4/5/17) — We enter my TOP FIVE with what is probably my favorite new show of 2017, Brockmire.  Hank Azaria stars in the role he was born to play as Jim Brockmire, a disgraced, alcoholic former baseball announcer hired to do play-by-play for a tiny minor league baseball team in a small, middle-American town.  This is a brilliant comedic set-up, and Hank Azaria bites into the role of the brash, profane, and deeply broken Brockmire with aplomb.  Mr. Azaria can make anything sound funny with his “baseball announcer” voice, but the miracle of the show is how they are able to slowly craft Brockmire into a fully-realized character, not just a one-dimensional punchline.  Amanda Peet has perfect chemistry with Mr. Azaria as Jules, the baseball-loving team owner who hired Brockmire.  Every single one of their scenes together is dynamite.  I almost put episode six, “Road Trip,” on this list, for the insane and hysterical scene in which Brockmire accidentally snorts Jules’ abortion pill, but in the end I had to go with this first episode, which was a note-perfect introduction to these characters and this world.  It also contains the moment which made me laugh harder than almost anything else I saw on TV in 2017: a drunken Brockmire’s post-it-note suicide letter, which he asks Jules to give to his ex-wife who humiliated him (“She’ll know what it’s in regards to”).  It was very dark and jaw-droppingly hilarious.  I loved it.  (Click here for my full review of Brockmire season one.)

4. The Good Place: “Michael’s Gambit” (season one, episode thirteen, aired on 1/19/17) — Far too many TV shows these days are built around twists or “surprises” that the audience figures out way before the show wants us to, resulting in disappointing and anticlimactic story-telling.  So bravo to Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur for crafting this incredible first season of The Good Place, which culminated in this staggeringly good twist that reshaped everything we thought we knew about the show.  The first season of The Good Place was fantastic even before the twist (which is where most shows built around twists fail), and it holds up marvelously well even when you know the twist, because of how perfectly everything fits together (which is where most OTHER shows built around twists fail!).  I loved this season from start to finish, but it was … [continued]

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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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I have been reviewing My Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017!  Click here for part one, and here for part two.  And now, onward to part three:

15. The Tick: “Party Crashers” (season one, episode four, released on 8/25/17) — Just as Arthur is getting drawn deeper in the world of super-heroes (embodied by the Tick and the vigilante Overkill) and super-villains (Miss Lint and the Terror), he has to attend his step-father’s birthday party in the suburbs.  Of course, both the Tick and Miss Lint crash the party, and the result is the comedic highlight of this very funny first batch of episodes.  Peter Serafinowicz is amazing as the Tick, and he’s particularly funny when placed into the very non-superhero-like setting of a birthday party in the suburbs.  This was also the episode in which I fell in love with the beleaguered former super-villain hench-woman Miss Lint.  (The scenes with her ex-husband Derek, with whom she is apparently still sharing an apartment, were so funny.)  Miss Lint is the best new character in this version of The Tick.  I was also so happy to see François Chau (Pierre Chang from Lost!) as Arthur’s stepfather Walter.  I have loved The Tick since its humble beginnings as an independently published black-and-white comic book in the eighties, through all three (!) of its TV incarnations.  This Netflix version might be the best one yet — if your’e not watching it (and most of you aren’t), you should remedy that immediately.  (Click here for my full review of The Tick: season one, part one.)

14. The Good Place: “Dance Dance Resolution” (season two, episode two, aired on 9/28/17) — The season finale of The Good Place’s first season (which, ahem, I will discuss in detail later on in this list) upended the show’s status quo in a magnificent and surprising way.  I thought that meant that the second season would tell a similar, season-long story in this new set-up, but this second episode of season two threw that all out the window in a spectacularly audacious manner.  I am reluctant to say too much, because if you haven’t yet seen this show I don’t want to spoil any of the fantastic surprises that await you.  Let me say that this wonderfully insane episode takes place over the course of hundreds of years and demonstrated that this is a show in which anything can happen, one in which the writers will fearlessly take the characters and the show in dramatically new directions when you least expect it.  Narratively bold and, as always, absolutely fall-on-the-floor funny (I laughed so hard at Michael’s description that the time when even Jason was … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017 — Part Two!

Click here for part one of my list of My Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017!  Let’s continue…

20. The Defenders: “Royal Dragon” (season one, episode four, released on 8/18/17) — Just as Marvel Studios’ Phase One of super-hero films culminated in the unprecedented crossover film The Avengers, Netflix’s Marvel shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist) were similarly structured to culminate in a crossover show featuring all four main characters, The Defenders.  Overall The Defenders was more mediocre than I’d hoped (mostly because of its bungling of the Hand and lack of a compelling villainous threat for our heroes to face), but the highlight was this episode, which finally brought its four main characters together.  Actually, the four had already come together for a fight sequence at the end of the previous episode, but this episode, set almost entirely inside a Chinese restaurant where our heroes stop to regroup and have a bite after the fight, allows the characters to truly interact with one another.  And it is a hoot.  I love that the show allowed for this “pause” episode, giving the characters and the audience a chance to catch their breath.  It’s a great idea that the heroes would want to stop and actually have something to eat, and it allows for a ton of fun character moments as we get to see these four very different characters size each other up and begin to work together.  I wish the rest of the show had been as much fun.  But for this episode, this was exactly the show I wanted it to be.  (Click here for my full review of The Defenders.)

19. The Americans: “The Midges” (season five, episode three, aired on 3/21/17) — This was another great taut episode of The Americans, an under-watched show about Russian spies in the U.S. in the eighties.  Philip and Elizabeth break into a facility that they believe is developing midges that will attack Soviet wheat, and an unfortunate worker in the wrong place at the wrong time is brutally dispatched (as the show again tests the audience’s bonds with its two central characters).  Meanwhile, we see that Oleg, who has grown into probably the show’s most sympathetic character, is in trouble because he had done the right thing and helped Stan Beeman.  But this episode made this list for the phenomenal, blink-and-you’ll-miss-her reappearance of Martha (seen shopping, alone, in a sad, barren Russian market that Oleg had just visited)!  Fans wondered whether we’d ever see Martha — formerly one of the main characters — when she boarded that plane for Russia back in season four, and so this moment … [continued]

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I am super-late putting together my Best of 2017 lists — sorry about that!  I’ve been so busy that I wanted a chance to see a few more 2017 shows and movies, and indeed in the past few weeks I have been able to catch up with some terrific entertainment that wound up making it onto my lists.  But as we’ve gotten deeper into January I’ve had to accept that there is way more great stuff than I’ll ever have time to get to, and I didn’t want to wait any longer to get these lists out into the world.

And so, buckle up!  Let’s begin with my Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017!

When I began making these lists, I did this as a Top Ten.  But in today’s era of Peak TV, this has ballooned to a Top Twenty-Five!!  Wowsers!  My apologies!  Is this indulgent?  Well, yes, but there is so much great TV out there that this could have easily been a Top Fifty!!  I tried to limit myself to just one episode from every TV show I loved — though there are a few shows for which I couldn’t resist including two episodes.

Even with a list this long, there were other shows that I quite enjoyed this year that didn’t make the cut, including: Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, Vice Principals, Orange is the New Black, and American Gods.  I have loved Seth Myers’ “A Closer Look” segments this year, and I wish I’d had a spot to highlight those.  And if this had been a Top Twenty-Six, that slot would have gone to the Star Wars Rebels episode “Twin Suns” (season three, episode twenty, aired on 3/18/17), in which the show visited Tatooine and a pre-Star Wars, in-hiding Obi-Wan Kenobi for an emotional final confrontation with Darth Maul (a character who had been resurrected and surprisingly well-developed by the previous animated Clone Wars series).  It’s an essential piece of the larger Star Wars story that also, stunningly, puts a fascinating new spin on all of that “Chosen One” nonsense from the Prequels.

Reading this lengthy list, you might think that I watched a lot of TV in 2017 — and you’d be right!  But in this era of Peak TV, there are still a LOT of interesting-looking shows that I did not get to this year (and that I hope to catch up with eventually!), including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which I am actually watching now, and loving), The Handmaid’s Tale, The Leftovers, Halt and Catch Fire, Mindhunters, Fargo season 3, Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty, Review, Glow, Veep, and I am sure there are lots more … [continued]

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Josh Catches Up with Star Trek Discovery’s Journey into the Mirror Universe

It’s a sign of how mediocre I found the first half of Star Trek Discovery’s first season that I didn’t rush to jump back into the show when it returned a few weeks ago.  But I’m caught up now.  Has the show improved?  Read on…

Despite Yourself — This episode doesn’t waste much time in confirming that, as almost every Star Trek fan had already guessed, Discovery has journeyed into the Mirror Universe.  Once again, I find myself confounded by the choices made by this show.  The first question is: why didn’t they give us this reveal at the end of the previous episode?  That would have been a fun way to end the first half of the season, instead of the lame pull-back-to-nothing that we got at the end of episode nine.  Since this episode spilled the beans on the Mirror Universe almost immediately, it seems to me they should have given us that reveal as the final moment before the mid-season break.

But the bigger question is: why is this where the show is going in the back half of its first season?  Look, I love the Mirror Universe.  But 1) it’s another huge continuity bungle for this prequel show to have Discovery discover the Mirror Universe BEFORE Kirk and co. did (yet again, this wouldn’t be an issue if the show was set AFTER the pre-existing Trek shows rather than before), and 2) for a show that feels like it is designed to expand the appeal of Star Trek beyond pre-existing fans (something I support, by the way), why are we already digging into this pre-existing Trek concept only 10 episodes into the new show’s run?  It’s a bizarre choice, in my opinion.  Then they go and bring up the U.S.S. Defiant, which is a VERY deep dive into Trek continuity.  (The Defiant was lost in the Original Series episode “The Tholian Web,” and then decades later the Enterprise two-parter “In a Mirror, Darkly” revealed that the Defiant had wound up in the Mirror Universe, a century earlier.)  I certainly loved hearing about the Defiant, but for a show that has shown a complete disregard to Trek continuity, why this deep-dive reference?  It will totally confuse non-fans, and seems like a weird bone to throw to long-time Trek fans who would have already been very turned off by Discovery’s disrespect of Trek continuity.  I just don’t get it.

What’s good in the episode:  The Mirror Universe remains a pleasingly fun concept.  I enjoyed the Mirror Universe version of the Discovery’s uniforms.  I enjoyed Captain Tilly.  It was great to see the Shenzhou back, in Mirror Universe form, and to see many of her crew … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season Three

I fell very quickly in love with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in its first season.  While the show shared a certain comedic rhythm with Tina Fey’s previous show 30 Rock, I loved Kimmy Schmidt for its unique premise, wonderful characters, and, most of all, for Kimmy herself, a wonderfully positive, upbeat female character.  (Click here for my review of season one.)  I enjoyed the second season as well, which was unafraid to dig deep and explore the darkness inherent in the show’s premise of Kimmy as a kidnapping survivor.  (Click here for my review.)

Kimmy Schmidt season three feels a little more scattershot than the previous two seasons.  There were times, particularly in the early-going, in which it felt as if the writers were straining somewhat to find new situations for the show’s characters.  But the season took off for me with episode six, “Kimmy is a Feminist!”, which culminates in an insane and hilarious farce in which Jacqueline attempts to keep Russ’ brother Duke (Josh Charles) attracted to her without actually cheating with him, while Titus pretends to be Jacqueline’s gay best friend Flouncey McGoo who also has a thing for her.  (It’s complicated!)  I am a sucker for those sorts of madcap farcical situations (Frasier in its best years was a master at this sort of thing), and that episode had me on the floor.

What this season might lack in narrative cohesion it made up for in the continuing joy of watching these crazy characters bounce from one nutty situation to the next.  The show’s fast-paced style is a virtue, as before one might begin to tire of one situation the show is already on to the next one.  And no other show television packs as many gags per second of screen time as does Kimmy Schmidt.

Ellie Kemper is, once again, brilliant in the lead role.  Kimmy Schmidt is a perfect melding of actor and role.  I enjoyed the way the show has allowed us to occasionally see the very human cracks in Kimmy — she hits a low point at the end of this season — while never losing sight of her inherent goodness and unbreakable, sunny core.

Tituss Burgess just gets better and better as Titus Andromedon, and I was pleased at all the wonderfully nutty stuff the writers gave Mr. Burgess to play this year.  His attempting to play a “bro” lusting after Jacqueline in episode six was a highlight for me, but I also enjoyed his battle of wits with a gas-station attendant (Ray Liotta) in “Kimmy Pulls Off a Heist!”, and the collapsing of his relationship with cruise-ship mentor-turned-rival Dionne Warwick (played to a T by Maya … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Amazon’s The Tick

I read and loved The Tick way back when the first black and white issues of Ben Edlund’s super-hero parody masterpiece were published in the eighties, and I have followed the big blue goofball’s adventures through both of his two previous TV incarnations, an animated series in the nineties and the killed-way-before-it’s-time live-action series on FOX in 2001.  I was delighted when Amazon announced they’d be taking another swing at a Tick adaptation, and I loved the pilot episode they produced last year.  They released an additional five episodes a few months ago, and I am pleased to report that they are terrific!

The new episodes pick up right where the pilot left off, and maintain a wonderful consistency of look and tone.  (Strangely, the only major change I noticed was that they changed the look of the costume of the Tick himself. The version in the pilot did look a little, well, mushy, but the more blocky new version isn’t much better in my opinion.)

The show belongs to Peter Serafinowicz, who is fantastic as the Tick.  Mr. Serafinowicz is able to give the Tick all of the superheroic bombast that he needs, while maintaining the gentleness at the character’s core. Mr. Serafinowicz is very, very funny in the role.  At first I missed Patrick Warburton (who was so great as the Tick in the FOX version), but very quickly I felt Mr. Serafinowicz owned this role completely.  He makes every single line a comedic home run.  This is not an easy role too play — it could easily veer too far into the corny or the ridiculous.  But Mr. Serafinowicz is pretty much perfect.

Griffin Newman and Valorie Curry were both great in the pilot as Arthur and his sister Dot, and they continue to be great in these new episodes.  The pilot left open the possibility that Arthur really was crazy and the Tick was only in his head, which was an intriguing choice, and that continued at first in this new run of episodes. But the show did away with that pretty quickly and established that other characters could, indeed, also see the Tick.  I was a little sore to see that resolved so definitively so quickly, though that was probably the better choice in terms of the show’s longevity.  (The idea of other characters always just-missing the Tick would probably get old pretty fast.)  I liked the choice to make Arthur’s sister Dot a major character in the pilot, and I loved that Dot continued too play a major role in these subsequent episodes.  Ms.Curry is terrific, and I love the added dimension that this gives to Arthur and the show, by exploring Arthur’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season Five

Wow, I can’t believe Orange is the New Black is already five years old!  While I have found the series to be somewhat inconsistent, I have enjoyed the ride, and season five was no exception.  The new season picks up seconds after the cliffhanger ending of season four, with Diaz holding a gun to one of the guards.  The entire fifth season follows the events of the prison-riot that follows.

I was excited to see creator Jenji Kohan and her writers explore this new narrative structure, with the entire season depicting the crazy few days of this riot.  It was fun to see the show try out this new structure, and by diving so deeply into the hours of these events, we were allowed to spend a significant amount of time with almost every member of the show’s sprawling ensemble, to see how these events affected each of them differently.  The best aspect of this season was the way it allowed us a deeper focus on so many of the show’s characters.  (The show mostly dropped its flashback format this year, and I am happy about that.  Those flashbacks were great at first — albeit hugely derivative of Lost — but I’d long-since grown tired of them.  I am glad this season mostly focused on the events happening in the here-and-now at Litchfield prison.)

While the first season was primarily about Piper (Taylor Schilling), the show has long-since re-structured itself to have Piper be just one member of a much larger ensemble.  This was a smart change to make.  I enjoyed following Piper’s story in season one, but Orange is the New Black became a much more interesting version of itself as it transformed into such a strong vehicle for telling stories about women of many different colors.  The show has sometimes struggled with trying to still find interesting things for Piper to do.  (I thought the whole business of Piper starting an underground underwear-selling company which then sort of turned into a gang war to be the weakest part of seasons three and four.)  I was pleased that, here in season five, we still followed Piper’s story (in a refocusing on her relationship with Laura Prepon’s Alex Vause) without having to have Piper involved in every single important event of the riot.

Danielle Brooks has been a standout since the very beginning as Taystee, and she really got to shine this season, as we followed her impassioned efforts to try to get some sort of justice for the murder of her friend Poussey.  Ms. Brooks is absolutely amazing.

I missed Natasha Lyonne as Nicky Nichols after she seemed to get abruptly written off of the show in season three, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Vice Principals: Season Two

I quite enjoyed the first season of Danny McBride & Jody Hill’s latest collaboration, Vice Principals.  (Mr. McBride starred in Mr. Hill’s first film, The Foot First Way, and the two co-created Eastbound and Down.)  That first season chronicled the messed-up partnership between the two vice principals of North Jackson High School, Neil Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), working to take down the newly-appointed principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), since they both wanted her job.  At the end of the season, it looked like Gamby and Russell had finally defeated their nemesis and driven her away, but then, well, things went in some even crazier directions.

There’s a lot to enjoy in season two of Vice Principals, as long as you don’t mind a plentiful amount of both raunchiness as well as humor borne from extreme awkwardness and uncomfortable situations.  Personally, I preferred the first season, both because I found the balance between laughs and awkward cringes to be tilted a little more towards the laughs, and also because it felt a little more straightforward, narratively, to me.  The show was over-the-top right from the beginning — I believe that it was only in the second episode in which Gamby and Russell burned down Dr. Brown’s house! — but as crazy as it got, I liked the central concept of these two horrible people, Gamby and Russell, united together in pursuit of their shared, very selfish goal.  Without Dr. Brown as a central enemy for these two numb-skulls to work against, season two bounced all over the place.  The individual episodes were mostly strong, but the story as a whole didn’t grab my interest as much as the first season did.  It felt a little like they didn’t quite have enough story to stretch over two full seasons, which is something of a surprise seeing as the show was, from the beginning, designed to run for just these two seasons.  (What a rarity that is, to have a show created right from the beginning with a planned beginning, middle, and end!)

On the other hand, I love the way the show allowed you to sort-of root for these two a-holes in season one, and then turned the tables in season two as they, and the audience, were forced to reckon with what they had done.  That’s careful, crafty storytelling there.  I also want to emphasize that, despite my criticisms, the show in season two still had the ability to make me laugh out loud and gasp in horror at what was unfolding.  I couldn’t look away, even when the characters were at their most distasteful!

Danny McBride is, as always, fantastic as the dim bulb … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season Nine!

I thought for sure that we’d seen the end of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but after a hiatus of six years, the longest break in the series’ history (and the longest break I can think of in between series of a show that was not officially cancelled), lo and behold, we got a ninth season of Curb this year!

I thought seasons seven (which gave us a Seinfeld reunion) and eight (with such all-time classics as “Palestinian Chicken”) were among the show’s best.  Sadly I can’t say the same about season nine.  I know some critics have really trashed this season, which I don’t think is warranted.  I still got a lot of enjoyment out of watching each episode of the misanthropic Larry David’s misadventures.  But things were noticeably uneven this year.

Each episode was jammed full of a TON of wonderful ideas.  It’s as if Larry David had been keeping an enormous notebook of ideas for all the years the show was away, and decided to pack several seasons’ worth of ideas into this one season.  But the problem this created was that most episodes felt overstuffed, with great ideas that weren’t given the room to breathe and so were then tossed away too quickly, without having the time needed to build to a proper comedic punchline.

This season’s episodes were, mostly, longer than usual.  Most clocked in at around 35 minutes in length.  But I still felt that the episodes were overstuffed and, at that length, started to feel shaggy.  In a connected problem, for the most part the multiple storylines in each episode didn’t all tie together at the end, as had long been the hallmark of this show (and Seinfeld before it).  And so lots of great jokes or bits would up feeling like throw-away ideas that went nowhere, rather than the way all of the show’s comedic ideas used to weave together by the end of an episode.

Still, this season was packed with so many classic comedic ideas: The “accidental text on purpose”; Larry’s representing himself in court (and “yoo-hoo”ing a judge); “patient-doctor confidentiality”; Larry’s offending an Uber driver having a catastrophic effect on his uber rating (not to mention the whole idea of ranking one’s datability by an Uber-style rating); Larry’s refusal to say “thank you for your service” to a veteran like everyone else automatically does; pants with a short fly; a deep analysis of the face made by a restaurant chef after a patron requests a change to the way a dish is prepared; men’s obsession with opening jars; Larry’s advising a prostitute on her wardrobe; “foisting” a terrible employee on an unsuspecting friend; Larry’s distaste at public displays of affection… and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Things Season Two!

I loved the first season of Pamela Adlon’s show Better Things, and the recently-concluded second season was every bit as fantastic.  I feel like this show has been flying under the radar for many people, and that’s a shame.  It’s one of the best currently-running TV shows out there.

Pamela Adlon plays Sam Fox, a working but not super-famous actress, raising three girls on her own.  Better Things is fictional, but it draws heavily from Ms. Adlon’s real-life as a working but not super-famous actress raising three girls on her own.  The show is incredibly rich, focusing deeply on exploring the lives of Pam, her three daughters, and also Pam’s mother Phil who lives next-door to them.  Better Things can be very funny, and also absolutely heartbreaking.  It’s a marvelously heartfelt, idiosyncratic show that is truly unlike anything else on TV these days.

As I discussed in my review of season one, the show has a remarkably playful approach to narrative.  Better Things rejects all the usual ways that you would expect stories to play out on a TV show, both within a single episode and over the course of the season.  Some episodes explore a single story over the course of a half-hour episode, while other episodes are composed of a series of vignettes (that might be connected thematically or emotionally, but whose stories have little to do with one another).  Some episodes are plot-heavy, while others feel more like a “slice of life” exploration without much significant plot.  Several episodes early-on this season focus on Sam’s beginning a new romantic relationship.  I expected this to be a story that would run through the entire season, but after a few episodes that focused on this new man in Sam’s life, this story was completely pushed aside, with most of the major subsequent developments in the relationship happening off-screen.  It’s a fascinating approach, one that in less-skilled hands might have been frustrating.  But part of the greatness of Better Things is the way it explores aspects of people’s lives that TV shows usually skip over or ignore.  (I will never forget the extended sequence in season one of Sam silently walking around her house, starting up at her smoke alarms trying to determine which one is beeping because its battery needs to be changed.  Who hasn’t done that??  And yet, that’s not something I have ever before seen on a TV show!)

I love that Better Things features so many fascinating, strong but flawed female characters.  I love that the show is more interested in getting inside what makes each of them tick than it is in following usual TV-show story-arcs.  Each of the main women in this show … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Two!

Like most everybody else, I quite enjoyed the first season of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things last year.  (Click here for my review.)  But while I enjoyed that first eight-episode installment, by the end of it I wasn’t sure the show could sustain a multi-season run.  Would the show’s eighties-homage nature get old?  More problematically, while the final two episodes of season one were thrilling, I was disappointed by the number of narrative threads left hanging (read to the end of my review to see what I’m talking about); and if the show couldn’t be bothered to resolve these plot holes, it didn’t seem to me like a strong foundation for a lengthy run.

So color me pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season two of Stranger Things.  While this second season doesn’t have the joy of discovery of this new and unexpected show that was part of what made watching season one so exciting, I actually think season two is a stronger piece of narrative story-telling, compelling from start to finish and with a more tightly plotted story.

I’ve read some complaints that the season starts too slowly, but I didn’t feel that way at all.  I enjoyed the way the show took the time to re-establish the characters and where they all were at, emotionally, a year after the events of the first season.  The obvious question was, why would any of these characters stay in Hawkins, but the show smartly answered that.  (Showing how Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper have become reliant on the scientists at the lab to monitor Will was a clever way to keep the characters tied to Hawkins.)

As always, all of the main kids are terrific, and the show smartly gave each of the main boys their own individual story-line here in season two.  We see that Mike has fallen into something of a depression at the disappearance of Eleven, while Dustin comes to care for a baby monster he nicknames Dart and Lucas begins to fall for the new-girl-in-town, Max.  Season one focused on the search for the missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), but that meant that Will wasn’t actually in the show very much.  Here in season two, Will steps to the forefront, and we discover that young Noah Schnapp is a fantastic actor, taking Will on quite a harrowing journey as he begins to succumb to the influence of what the boys nickname the “Mind Flayer” from the Upside Down.  There were more than a few scenes in which I was stunned by how great Mr. Schnapp’s performance was.

The older kids remain very interesting as well in season two.  Though Nancy ended season one in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Star Trek: Discovery Mid-Season Finale: “Into The Forest I Go”

The first batch of Star Trek: Discovery episodes came to a close with the mid-season finale, episode nine, “Into the Forest I Go.”  The Klingon “Ship of the Dead” arrives at Pahvo, and Burnham and Tyler sneak aboard in an attempt to locate critical information required to allow Federation starships to penetrate the Klingon cloaking device.  As part of the plan, Stamets is pushed to the breaking point, utilizing the Discovery’s Spore Drive to execute 130 jumps in short succession.

As has been consistently the case with Discovery so far, there is a lot to like in this episode and also a lot that is incredibly frustrating.

Let’s start with the good.  The character stuff between Burnham and Tyler is terrific.  The tender scene between the two of them on the couch in Tyler’s quarters, in which he haltingly finds his way to admit the way he was tortured and sexually abused by the Klingons, is touching and tender.  It’s interesting to see the show embrace this aspect of Tyler’s back-story that had been suggested but not explicitly stated unto this point.

(Of course, that tender scene — which tells us everything we needed to know without getting too explicit with the details — is soon after followed by Tyler’s nightmare-flashback which gives us the Klingon nudity that no one was asking for.  So much for subtlety.  Also, as I have been writing for several weeks now, it’s hard to engage in the Tyler-Burnham relationship when it’s been clear that Tyler is the Klingon Loq in disguise, so none of this was genuine.  This episode suggests that Tyler/Loq is a sleeper agent who doesn’t remember being Loq.  I wish the show had laid its cards in the table and allowed us to follow Loq/Tyler’s story as it unfolded, rather than trying to keep all this as a surprise.  Had I known all along that Tyler really did believe himself to be a human prisoner of war, I would have engaged more deeply with that tragic story, as opposed to doubting every scene that the character was in because I believed him to be Loq telling lies.)

It’s nice to see the Klingon-Discovery stories intersect for the first time since the two-part premiere, and we get some nice Discovery-Klingon combat (both of the outer space and Mekleth variety).  The production values of this show continue to be extraordinary.  It’s great to see Star Trek looking so well-produced on TV!!  The sets are fantastic, and the visual effects are terrific.  There are some particularly gorgeous visual effects shots this week.  My favorite is the scene when you see Kol and the other Klingons on their bridge, while through the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 8: “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”

In Star Trek: Discovery episode eight, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” Burnham, Saru, and Tyler investigate an alien planet with a unique rock formation that Starfleet believes can be turned into a giant antenna to detect cloaked Klingon ships and help Starfleet win the war.  But the planet turns out to be not quite as uninhabited as the Discovery crew had initially thought…

“Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” is a solid episode.  Discovery seems to have settled into a nice groove.  This is not the show I wanted it to be, and each episode continues to be weighed down by narrative inconsistencies that I wish weren’t there, but the characters are interesting, the show is visually gorgeous, and these episodes are entertaining.

It’s nice to see the Discovery crew get to leave the ship and investigate a strange new alien world.  Coming after last week’s time travel episode, I’m pleased to see the show embrace these classic sorts of sci-fi stories.

(On the other hand, part of me wishes that Discovery would lean more in the other direction and forget about these standard types of Star Trek stories.  If this is truly intended to be a different sort of Star Trek series, then maybe they should more strongly resist the urge to give us these familiar time-travel and away-team-investigates-a-mysterious-new-planet types of stories.  For a show that was advertised as being about seeing the Federation at war, we have seen shockingly little of the Klingon-Federation conflict in the series following the two-part premiere.)

But that being said, there was a thrill in getting to see Brunham, Saru, and Tyler investigate a new alien planet, which was gorgeously realized by the show’s visual effects team.  We’ve never gotten to see televised Star Trek executed on this scale before, and I loved the way the show brought to life this beautiful alien planet (and its inhabitants).

It was clear from the first episode that Saru was going to be a standout character on Discovery.  He’s been in the background for the past few episodes, so I was delighted to see him step back into focus in this episode.  The way the events on the planet explore the nature of his character, and how he has lived his whole life in constant fear, was lovely.  It was also fun to learn more about his physicality.  In this episode we see that Saru is super-strong (look how he crushed those communicators in his hands!) and super-fast (we hadn’t ever really seen his feet before!).  It’s interesting to give this fear-filled character such super-human abilities.  I hope this duality is explored further in future episodes.

It was nice to get to see a glimpse of Klingon-versus-Federation … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 7: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

In Star Trek: Discovery episode seven, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” (I always appreciate alliteration), Harry Mudd, having escaped from the Klingons, is out for revenge on Captain Lorca.  So Mudd sneaks on board the Discovery, determined to learn the secret of the ship and sell it to the Klingons.  While one man might ordinarily have no hope of sneaking on board a starship, Mudd has access to a device that allows him to repeat the same 30 minutes over and over again, thus giving him opportunity after opportunity to achieve his goal (and also to repeatedly murder Captain Lorca and other members of the Discovery crew).  The Discovery’s only hope of stopping Mudd is Lt. Stamets, whose experimentation with the Spore Drive (which is a silly-sounding thing that everyone on Discovery says very seriously) have left him with an awareness of these alterations to the time-stream.

I was worried when I heard that Discovery was doing a time-travel episode so early in its run.  On the one hand, many of the very best Star Trek episodes (and movies) involve time travel, and this is a classic type of Star Trek story.  On the other hand, I felt that by the end of Enterprise, all of the post-Next Gen Star Trek spin-offs had dramatically overused time travel, to the point that it had started to become cliche and boring.  I wasn’t eager to see Discovery go back to that well.

However, my fears were thankfully not realized, as “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” was a compelling, fun episode (making that two strong Discovery episodes in a row, after last week’s “Lethe”).  This episode gave a different spin to the familiar type of Star Trek time-travel story.  (We’d seen a lot of “temporal anomalies” and that sort of thing, but this was a story of a villain purposefully manipulating time.  Voyager’s “Year of Hell” two-parter had a similar framework, but that story went in a different direction.  This episode was far more reminiscent of Next Gen’s “Cause and Effect,” but with Mudd as a more dangerous, immediate threat.)  Although this episode presented dramatic, life-or-death stakes for our heroes on the Discovery, I enjoyed how playful the episode was at times, leaving plenty of time for some humorous, enjoyable character interactions, and the entire episode was edited in a wonderfully propulsive, fast-paced style that gave this episode a very different feel than most previous Trek time travel tales.

The Harry Mudd we have met in these two Discovery episodes bares little to no resemblance to the somewhat humorous con-man character we knew from the Original Series.  (I was shocked to see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season Four

I was late to the party on Silicon Valley.  But once I watched season one earlier this year, I quickly fell in love and zoomed through season two (click here for my review) and season three (click here for my review).  This show is such a wonderful skewering of this very specific sub-culture, the tech start-up world in Silicon Valley, and it is so funny with such a magnificent ensemble of actors.

Season four started off just about as funny as the show has ever been.  I LOVED the idea of Dinesh stumbling his way into the position of C.E.O. of Pied Piper.  What a wonderful way to showcase the great Kumail Nanjiani!  The only thing funnier than watching Dinesh achieve power and success was watching him lose it all.  That scene in which Dinesh realizes the magnitude of the trouble he’s in, all the while we keep hearing the sound-effect in the background of new (under-age) people signing onto the app was a highlight of the series for me.

But something went awry in the season’s back half, and in the end I found that season four was the least satisfying season of the show for me.  My main complaint was the dark turn that Richard’s character took.  I understand that in a TV show they need to find new and interesting things for characters to do.  I am OK with characters changing, and I am OK with characters making bad decisions.  But Richard is supposed to be the main “every-man” character on the show who we are rooting for.  Watching him turn nasty and unpleasant, willing to lie and to push away his friends in order to succeed, was unpleasant.  I think it was an unfortunate misstep for the show to take.  It curdled the comedy for me; I couldn’t believe there was a stretch in which I didn’t find Silicon Valley to be all that funny!

I commented in my review of season three that Silicon Valley was keeping its characters in the status quo, but was doing so in so entertaining a way that I didn’t mind.  Well, a few episodes into season four, I found I was starting to mind.  Four seasons into the show, it started to seem silly to me that the Pied Piper gang couldn’t seem to succeed at anything, that they were all still living and working in Ehrlich’s house, etc.  There were lots of great new ideas in season four that I loved, such as Dinesh as C.E.O., or Richard and Gavin working together on a new project, but the show seemed to toss away those new ideas way too quickly.  I’d have preferred had … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 6: “Lethe”

On a mission of peace, Sarek’s shuttle is damaged by a Vulcan extremist’s bombing, leaving him lost and on the brink of death, adrift in a nebula.  His mental link with his ward Burnham allows her to sense his peril, but how can she find him lost in the vast nebula?  Meanwhile, Captain Lorca’s old friend Admiral Cornwell begins questioning his mental state.

Putting aside a lot of the baggage that continues to weigh down this series (the pointless prequel setting, the disregard for Trek continuity) and taken on its own, “Lethe” is a pretty strong episode, probably my favorite episode so far since the opening two-parter.  The episode is anchored by two strong character stories, both of which I found compelling.  This gives this episode both a narrative focus and an emotional underpinning the last several episodes have been lacking.

The episode’s main story is the way Burnham is forced to wrestle with her complicated relationship with her adoptive father Sarek, and the many ways in which she sees herself as having disappointed him.  We have seen hints of this before, such as the early flashback of young Burnham in the Vulcan learning center, and here we see that Burnham’s human heritage led to her being rejected from acceptance into the Vulcan Expeditionary Force.  Time after time Burnham has striven to be the figure of Vulcan perfection she believed Sarek wanted her to be, and time after time she failed.  This episode begins to explore just what that did to her, and how that shaped the broken person she is now.  At the same time, the episode builds to an emotional crescendo in which we also see Sarek’s shame at the ways in which he feels he failed Burnham.  This leads to head-spinning continuity problems, which I will discuss in a moment, but emotionally this is a rich central story for this episode.

The show has danced around the existence of Spock so far, but I loved the way the show dealt with Spock head-on in that climactic scene with Sarek, in which we see that he was forced to choose Spock over Burnham by the Vulcan leadership.  And in a rare example of the show paying attention to Star Trek continuity, it was neat to see how the way Spock would later turn down the Vulcan Science Academy (an established piece of backstory that was a key element of the beginning of the 2009 rebooted Star Trek film) made Sarek feel that his impossible choice was all for nothing.  That is clever, character-based storytelling.

In the secondary story, we see Admiral Cornwell fly out to Discovery to confront her old friend Captain Lorca after he (ridiculously) disobeys and … [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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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 5: “Choose Your Pain”

In Star Trek: Discovery episode 5, “Choose Your Pain,” Burnham becomes convinced that the “Tartigrade” creature that is the key to Discovery‘s fantastic new drive system is suffering each time the drive is used.  She wants the Discovery to stop using the system until they can figure out a way to use it without harming the creature, but with Captain Lorca kidnapped by the Klingons, the drive is essential to the Discovery crew’s being able to mount a rescue.

Egad, I really want to like this show, and there is a lot in “Choose Your Pain” that I enjoyed.  But the show is continually limited by plot problems up the wazoo and its almost mind-boggling disregard for Trek continuity.

What’s good?  The central premise of this episode, in which our heroes discover that their fantastic new invention might be harming a sentient creature, and yet that invention is critical to their being able to rescue their captain, is a perfect Star Trek sort of premise.  So too is the idea of a crew falling into conflict without their captain, and eventually being forced to put aside their differences to find a way to save the day.  (Echoes of “The Tholian Web.”)  These are classic Star Trek ideas, and yet given a slightly different spin with these new situations with the Tartigrade and the Klingons.  I liked all of that.

There was a lot of great character stuff in this episode.  Once again all the interactions between Saru and Burnham was great.  These are two great characters and the conflict between them feels real and interesting. I am really enjoying getting to know Lt. Stemets more, and this episode gave him a good spotlight as we saw him wrestle with the moral issue of the possibility that his invention is harming the Tartigrade.  I liked that the Doctor, Culber, got some good scenes this week, and I liked that the episode finally confirmed that he and Lt. Stemets are in a relationship.  This is Star Trek’s first major canonical gay couple, and so far I have loved the non-sensational way in which this couple has been presented to us.

Also: I loved getting to see the show’s version of a 23rd century toothbrush!

Aren’t those matching space-jammies absolutely adorable?

Seriously, that scene of Stemets and Culber getting ready for bed was great; this is the type of below-decks stuff that we’ve never seen before in Star Trek, and I am enjoying when Discovery allows us to see what goes on onboard a starship when the main command crew is not on the bridge.  I’d like to see more of this.

As I wrote last week, I hated Ensign … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 4: “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For the Lamb’s Cry”

In Star Trek: Discovery episode 4, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” an important Federation dilithium mine comes under attack by the Klingons.  With no starships in range, everyone in the mine will die and the Federation’s war effort will be crippled unless the Discovery’s experimental drive can allow the ship to arrive in time to defend the mine.  Meanwhile, Burnham is tasked with learning how the monster captured in episode 3 was so effective at killing Klingons, but she suspects the creature might not be inherently violent and, in fact, the key to an important scientific discovery.

This episode is, in my opinion, a stronger effort than last week’s episode.  It flows much better, with a nice Star Trek story at its heart and some exciting action.  But while I mostly enjoyed the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, these last two episodes are forcing me to realize that this is probably not going to be the show I’d hoped it would be.

As I wrote in my first review, what I liked so much about the first episode of Discovery, which enabled me to forgive the show’s rampant disregard for Star Trek continuity and other problems with the narrative, was that I felt the show embraced the humanism and morality that was at the centerpiece of all the best Star Trek.  Here’s what I wrote: “For the first time in a very long time (including the three recent J.J. Abrams rebooted movies, and even much of the previous two Trek shows, Enterprise and Voyager), the Starfleet officers on this show, so far, behave like Starfleet officers.  The first episode emphasizes this repeatedly.  “We come in peace… isn’t that the whole idea of Starfleet?” Burnham states in her very first line of dialogue.  YES.  The opening scene with Georgiou and Burnham has them working to help an endangered alien race without violating the Prime Directive.  YES.  “Starfleet does not shoot first,” Captain Georgiou declares in a tense standoff with Burnham.  YES.”

But after those first two episodes which took place on the U.S.S. Shenzhou with Captain Georgiou in command, Discovery has turned into a very different type of show, on board the U.S.S. Discovery, a ship with a mysterious purpose and a nasty, war-focused captain (Jason Isaac’s Captain Lorca).  I have no objection to war and violence on a Star Trek show.  (My favorite Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine, featured a multi-season-long war arc.)  But a Star Trek show featuring war and violence should focus on Starfleet characters struggling to keep their morality in place while doing what they need to survive.  That’s what so many of the best DS9 episodes were … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Angie Tribeca Season Three!

Angie Tribeca is this era’s Police Squad, a very funny, very silly show about L.A. detective Angie Tribeca, played by Rashida Jones, and her coterie of fellow homicide investigators on L.A.’s “Really Heinous Crimes Unit.”  But Angie Tribeca is not a cop show, nor is it really a parody of a copy show.  Rather, the cop show framework is used as a scaffolding upon which one delightfully nutty stream of consciousness gag after another can be hung.  The show has far more in common with Airplane! and The Naked Gun than it does with any standard TV detective show.

In its third season, Angie Tribeca doesn’t have the surprising freshness that so delighted me back in its initial season.  But the show has settled into a wonderfully pleasing groove.  This is not genius-level innovative television.  But it is tremendously enjoyable and rather unique in today’s television landscape.  This is a show that values being silly above all other virtues, and I sort of love it for that.

This ten-episode third season remains mostly episodic, with each episode standing on its own while several plot threads run across the season.  The best new development this year was the inclusion of Chris Pine as a Hannibal Lecter-like character to whom Rashida Jones’ Angie turns for help.  I have enjoyed seeing movie-star Chris Pine pop up in some small comedic roles on TV (most notably his terrific guest appearance in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp), but I was not prepared for how amazing he would be here.  Mr. Pine is absolutely the best thing about this season of Angie Tribeca.  His warped impression of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lecter is brilliant and fall-on-the-floor hilarious.  This is a home run.

The show’s main cast, anchored by the amazing Rashida Jones, continues to be terrific.  This team of performers are all very funny and game for absolutely anything.  I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see quite so much of Alfred Molina this year, but he was a pleasure whenever he did pop up.

There were quite a few fun guest stars this season.  After Chris Pine, my favorite would have to be Natalie Portman, who appeared in “This Sounds Unbelievable, but CSI: Miami Did It” (that is a terrific episode title, by the way!) as a NASA scientist who nevertheless looked and acted like a cliche 60’s housewife.  Ms. Portman plays this brilliantly.

Heather Graham, Randall Park, Rob Riggle, Ed Helms, Lizzy Caplan, Rob Heubel, Rachel Dratch, Constance Zimmer, Ernie Hudson, Jean Smart, Mary McCormack, Stephen Root, and Jack McBrayer all pop up at various points during the season, and they are all very funny.

I enjoyed this … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Good Place Season One!

I’m a big fan of Michael Schur.  He was involved with the American version of The Office and he created (with Greg Daniels) and ran Parks and Recreation, which is an amazing TV show that I loved dearly, and created (with Daniel Goor) and ran Brooklyn 99, a very funny show that, while it’s not genius-level TV, is consistently funny and joyous.  So why didn’t I watch The Good Place, the new show created by Mr. Schur, when it premiered on NBC last year?  I’m not entirely sure!  I think there was something about its bright, primary-color color palette that rubbed me the wrong way when I saw glimpses of the show in previews; and I think I am somewhat mistrustful of new shows anchored by big-time stars (in this case, Ted Danson and Kristen Bell).  But when the second season premiered a few weeks ago, I said to my wife, what are we doing??  Why have we not even tried this new show by the guy who made these other shows we loved?  So we decided to watch the first episode on Netflix, and a few days later found we’d sped through the entire thirteen-episode first season.  What a great show this is!

When the show begins, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), awakens in the afterlife.  She is relieved to be informed by Michael (Ted Danson), that she is in “the Good Place.”  But while Eleanor’s name is indeed Eleanor Shellstrop, she is not the saint that Michael seems to think she is — she has somehow been brought to the Good Place by mistake!

I really enjoyed this show.  Like most of Mr. Schur’s prior work it is very funny, very clever, and with a sense of optimism and sunniness that I find to be extremely endearing.

The show is very clever, with an impressive attention to detail.  I loved all of the worldbuilding that we were given in season one, as Mr. Schur and his team fleshed out this afterlife and how everything worked.  Most impressively, none of this felt like chunky exposition.  The show always found fun, character-based ways to explore this world and to answer questions that we the audience might not have even realized we had.

The Good Place strikes a great balance between episodic and serialized.  Each episode successfully stands on its own and tells a complete story.  But most episodes end with a wonderful cliffhanger that made me eager to move on to the next episode.  This was a fun show to binge-watch!  Mr. Schur and his team have impressively solved the problems that beset so many serialized shows these days.  I was delighted to discover the shape of the full story … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 3: “Context is for Kings”

I seem to be in the minority of the Star Trek fans I know in that I mostly liked the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.  I hate all the continuity problems caused by the show’s prequel setting (ten years before Kirk/Spock/McCoy’s adventures on the Original Series) — I wish dearly the series was set 100 years AFTER Star Trek: The Next Generation, which would make all of these continuity problems vanish.  But putting those continuity problems aside (which is, admittedly, hard to do), I enjoyed Discovery. It looked great, and I was happy that the show seemed to embrace classic Star Trek themes and morality, portraying heroic Starfleet officers behaving (mostly) the way I believe Starfleet officers should (something that the last three rebooted Trek movies, and even the last two TV series Voyager and Enterprise, often failed to do).  I was interested in the new characters introduced and excited to see a Trek series made with modern-era production values and storytelling approaches (such as serialization).  I was intrigued that these first two episode were basically just a long prologue to whatever the main story of Discovery is going to be — it’s nice to see the time taken to explore this backstory — and I was interested to see what episode three would be like, since presumably this would now start to establish exactly what sort of show Discovery is actually going to be.  Unfortunately, I found episode three, “Context if for Kings,” to be very problematic.  If this is what Discovery is going to be, then we might be in trouble.

Six months after the events of the first two episodes, the Federation and the Klingons are at war and Michael Burnham is in prison.  But while being transferred, her shuttle gets into trouble and she is rescued by the U.S.S. Discovery, an enormous new starship.  Burnham is tasked with assisting with some sort of top-secret experiment that the officers on board Discovery are conducting, an experiment that led to the destruction of Discovery’s sister-ship and the loss of all hands.  Yadda yadda yadda, it’s no surprise that Burnham winds up a member of Discovery’s crew by the end of the episode, albeit reluctantly.

I have a lot of problems with this episode, primarily boiling down to these areas:

Number one (see what I did there?), there is a LOT of important information that is withheld from Michael, and therefore the audience, and so for much of the episode we have absolutely no idea what is going on.  I am not a fan of this Lost type of storytelling, in which the viewer is kept in the dark about the motivations of characters and … [continued]

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Star Trek Returns to Television (Sort Of) With Star Trek: Discovery!

The first time I can remember being aware of and excited about Star Trek was when Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home came out in 1986.  I must have been exposed to Star Trek before that, because I was excited to see that movie in theatres.  But I don’t think I’d seen the prior movies, because when I saw it, I was confused as to what was going on (what had happened to Spock?  What had happened to the Enterprise?), and I remember going home afterwards and watching the first three Trek movies on VHS with my father to get caught up.  So I’m not sure when I first actually saw Trek or what made me want to go see Star Trek IV — maybe watching the reruns of the Animated Series on TV? — but seeing those first four Trek movies started my love for Trek, and when Star Trek: The Next Generation launched the next year, I was hooked from the very first episode.  I have been, ever since, an enormous Star Trek fan.  It’s been a long time since Star Trek was last on TV.  Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled after 4 seasons, and aired its last episode in May, 2005.  I love the big Trek movies, but I firmly believe that Star Trek belongs on TV.  And so I was extremely excited when, at long last, a new Trek series was announced: Star Trek: Discovery.  I was thrilled when names like Bryan Fuller and Nicholas Meyer were announced as being involved with the new Trek show, though my heart sank as the series was delayed again and again and Mr. Fuller left (or was pushed out?).  But I resolved to reserve judgment until I could actually see the show.  Well, I have seen the first two episodes (episode 1, “The Vulcan Hello,” aired on CBS, and episode 2, ” Battle at the Binary Stars,” is available for streaming at CBS All Access), and I am here to share my thoughts.

Let’s cut right to the chase: while I certainly have questions and issues with some of the creative choices made in these first two episodes, overall I am very happy and excited to see more of the series.  The visual effects are spectacular, and the show so far is rooted in interesting character drama and interstellar politics in equal measure, which is exactly how I like my Star Trek to be.  Star Trek: Discovery FEELS like Star Trek (FAR more than the three J.J. Abrams-rebooted recent Trek movies), and that makes me very happy.

Set ten years before the events of the Original Series (Kirk/Spock/McCoy and their adventures on the original U.S.S. Enterprise), Star Trek: Discovery[continued]

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Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season Three

I really loved the first two seasons of Silicon Valley, a show chronicling the long road that a young engineer Richard Hendricks and his team of co-workers and friends face in trying to successfully navigate the business and technological challenges of creating and successfully releasing their new platform. (Click here for my review of season one, and here for my review of season two.)  Season three sees the show continuing to operate in peak form.  (Yes, I know I am still behind — season four aired this past spring — but I am working to get caught up!)  If anything, Silicon Valley has gotten even better as we have spent more time with Ricard and the Pied Piper team. The show remains extremely funny and clever, and with a short season of only ten half-hour episodes, it never overstays its welcome.

Once again this season puts Richard and his friends and co-workers through a roller-coaster ride of small successes and huge failures.  It’s always one step forward and two steps back with this crew and this show.  It can be a bit frustrating at times for the audience, since by this point we’ve grown to love these characters and want to see them succeed.  But the show is so consistently funny that it’s hard to complain.  Plus, watching these bumbling nerds on their Sisyphian journey is what this show is all about!

Stephen Tobolowsky’s “Action” Jack Barker was a phenomenal addition to the show’s cast this season.  Jack provided a great new foil for Richard.  I loved seeing how the show tweaked its own status quo by installing Jack as the new C.E.O. and nemesis for Richard; briefly moving the gang out of Ehrlich’s house and into spacious new offices; and setting up Jack’s “box” scheme as something for the Pied Piper folks to struggle against.  These were great story-lines that kept the Piep Piper team as underdogs while allowing the show to explore some different situations.

The show’s main ensemble was running on all cylinders at this point.  Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods are a murderers row of incredible actors and comedians.  They own these characters at this point, and each had plenty of opportunities to shine in season three.  I was a little disappointed that season 2 seemed to sideline Amanda Crew’s character Monica, and so I was glad that she was a little more involved here in season three.  (Though I am intrigued as to why the show’s creators seem to have dropped any hint of a romantic attraction between Richard and Monica.  I thought that was a sweet aspect of season one, but it’s vanished from season … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Netflix’s The Defenders!

September 4th, 2017
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Way back in October, 2013, Marvel and Netflix announced that they would be collaborating on four TV shows — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist — whose characters would then cross over into a combined series The Defenders.  This would be a TV version of the approach Marvel had taken so successfully with their cinematic universe, releasing individual films that then crossed over in The Avengers.   I was excited by that idea, and bowled over by the excellent, adult-in-tone, dark and gripping first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones For those two seasons alone I am glad this Netflix Marvel venture exists.  I also quite liked Daredevil season two, though I felt its ending was somewhat anticlimactic.  Luke Cage had moments of greatness but was mostly disappointing, with a particularly dull second half of the season.  Iron Fist was by far the weakest of the series, with little characterization to speak of and a terribly miscast lead role.  And so it was with excitement but also trepidation that I approached the long-anticipated crossover series, The Defenders, here at last.

The Defenders is an enjoyable romp, and at only eight episodes in length it never over-stays its welcome, nor suffers from the way nearly all of the other 13-episode-long Marvel Netflix shows felt like they didn’t have quite enough plot to actually fill their 13-episode length.

The biggest pleasure of the show comes from seeing these characters on screen together.   Charlie Cox as Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, and Mike Colter as Luke Cage are all terrific.  I love those actors and I love those characters, and it is a hoot to get to see them bounce off of one another.  The best episode of the show is the fourth, “Royal Dragon,” the one that spends most of its time with the four main characters hanging out in a Chinese restaurant together.  I still think that Finn Jones is woefully miscast as Iron Fist, but he’s a little more tolerable here than he was in his own show.  It helps that all the other characters on the show (except for Colleen) seem to find Danny as annoying as I do!

Anyways, as I was saying, it’s a huge amount of fun to get to watch these actors and these characters play together.  The show wisely takes pains to explore their different perspectives and background, which result in their usually being at odds with one another.  This could feel fake, false drama or manufactured disagreements just to prevent the heroes from working together and thus defeating the villains too quickly or easily.  But as executed on the show, for the most part I felt … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones Season Seven!

August 30th, 2017
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It’s hard to believe that we have arrived at the endgame of Game of Thrones.  It wasn’t so long ago that I remember watching the first few episodes of the show, and slowly falling in love with its vast array of characters, its wonderful fantasy world-building, and its ruthless style of “no one is safe” storytelling.  (Seven years and many TV imitators later, it’s easy to forget how shocking GoT’s willingness to kill off major characters was back at the beginning; this might be the show’s most lasting influence on television as a whole.)  Around season three and the Red Wedding I started to get impatient with the show, with the way it frustrated the audience by torturing and killing all the characters we loved and denying them, and we viewers, any reunions or happy developments.  But the show has managed to remain consistently thrilling and entertaining throughout, broadening the scope of its visual effects (to create epic fantasy spectacle of a type never before seen on TV) while at the same time bringing its characters and story-lines together in a way that demonstrates the storytelling potential of well-made serialization.  Season seven of Game of Thrones was the show’s shortest season, clocking in at only seven episodes (though many of those episodes ran well over an hour).  Having moved well past the events of the books published by George R.R. Martin, the season represented a different type of story-telling, far more rapidly paced than ever before and filled to the brim with long-awaited reunions and incredible action sequences.  There were times when this faster-paced story-telling didn’t work for me, and it felt like the show was skipping important steps and moments in its breakneck race to the finish.  But as a whole this seven-episode season was ferociously entertaining and gives me confidence that the show will be able to stick its landing and bring this vast saga to a satisfying conclusion with its final six episodes (to air who knows when, probably over a year from now).

As the season began, I worried that this seventh season would be all wheel-spinning, holding back all of the “good stuff” until the show’s final season.  The show seemed to twist itself around in circles to keep giving Daenerys reasons to stay on the island of Dragonstone as opposed to marching her Unsullied and Dothraki troops and flying her dragons directly to King’s Landing to end this “Game of Thrones” in one fell swoop.  While the season six finale showed us that Dany had also allied with the Iron Islands as well as Dorne, the show quickly stripped those allies from her in a series of tactical errors that made … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Catastrophe Season Three

July 19th, 2017
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I absolutely adored the first two seasons (or series, in the British parlance) of Catastrophe, which I tore through in short order last year.  (Click here for my review of season one, and click here for my review of season two.)  I have been waiting with great anticipation for more episodes, and the six-episode third season did not disappoint!

Catastrophe tells the story of Sharon (played by Sharon Horgan) and Rob (played by Rob Delaney), who hook up for a weekend of passionate sex when Rob is in England on business.  When they discover Sharon is pregnant, Rob decides to move to England and he and Sharon try to make a go of being a couple.  The first six-episode season chronicled the nine months of Sharon’s pregnancy, while the second season jumped ahead a few years to show Sharon and Rob as parents to two young kids.

This third season picks up right after the end of season two, in which Rob has discovered that Sharon secretly had a pregnancy test, afraid that a drunken hookup when she was pissed at Rob had resulted in her getting pregnant.  (It didn’t.)  The show makes quite a meal out of Rob and Sharon’s dancing around one another in the opening episode of this season, with each having knowledge the other doesn’t think they have.  It’s painful but very, very funny.

Which is a great description of the show as a whole!  All of the characters in Catastrophe are flawed, and the situations they encounter are painfully real and human.  At the same time, the genius of the show is the way it’s able to be howlingly funny at the same time!

If I have any quibble with season three, it’s that just as in season two, it is hard sometimes to watch these characters I have grown to love be so unhappy.  Back in season one, both Sharon and Rob were scared and sometimes lost, but they weren’t as put upon by life as we have seen them be in seasons two and three.  That gave season one a fun and a lightness that the subsequent seasons have somewhat lost.  But on the other hand, the show has gotten to a deeper place, which is impressive considering the short run-time of these seasons.  The subtlety with which season three explored the impact of Rob’s falling off the wagon was impressive.  There’s no simplistic, comedic drunkenness here.  Rob is, for the most part (things get worse as the season progresses), a functional alcoholic, and I don’t recall ever seeing that explored in as honest a way on TV as it is here.  I like that, early in the season, we … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season Two!

I am way behind on Silicon Valley (which is currently airing its fourth season), but after watching season one last month, I quickly plowed ahead into season two.  I’m pleased at how smoothly the show entered its second season, maintaining an impressive consistency with the great season one.  This show is every bit as funny, fascinating, and filled with hilarious and painful frustrations for all of its characters as it was in its terrific initial season.

Season two picks up right after Pied Piper’s unexpected victory in “Tech Crunch” at the end of season one.  While that victory saved the company, that burst of success has quickly led to scores of new problems.  With Peter Gregory’s passing, Richard and his team have to look elsewhere for funding, which is how they find themselves in bed with the fast-talking, self-centered, expensive-car-driving Russ Hanneman.  Meanwhile, Hooli C.E.O. Gavin Belson sues Richard, claiming that Richard developed Pied Piper while still working for Hooli and that, as such, Hooli owns Richard’s compression algorithm.

Season two is a blast, hugely funny and filled with lots of great moments.  It’s also heartbreaking, as we watch Richard and his well-meaning group of friends and co-workers at Pied Piper running up against hurdle after hurdle after hurdle.  Season two makes clear that one of the main themes of the show is about how almost-impossible it is to actually succeed at creating a new tech start-up.  Far from idealizing this process, the meat of the show’s story-telling comes from exploring the many agonies and humiliations that anyone pursuing this goal has to go through.  It’s tough to watch how Richard’s every little victory soon turns into an even larger problem, but this is a central aspect of the show’s story-telling.

The death of actor Christopher Evan Welch, who played Pied Piper’s financial backer Peter Gregory in season one, was a huge loss to the show, and in my review of season one I wondered at how the show would replace him.  At first, in season two, it seemed that they chose to replace him by creating a female version of him: Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer).  Ms. Bream seemed to be just as socially awkward and abrupt as Peter Gregory was.  It made for some very funny scenes, but I admit to being somewhat disappointed that the show would replace the great character of Peter Gregory with one so similar.  I wonder if the show-runners had the same realization, because while at first it seemed that Laurie Bream would step right into Peter Gregory’s role in the show, the third episode introduced Chris Diamantopoulos as Russ Hanneman, a very different type of boss for Richard and co.  While Russ at … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Master of None Season Two

The wonderful and dearly-missed Parks and Rec made me a big fan of Aziz Ansari, and so I eagerly followed him to Master of None, a show he created (along with Alan Yang) and ran (ditto) and also starred in.  I thought the first season was marvelous, funny and heartfelt.  It felt adventurous; the work of a small group of young, talented artists eager to stretch what a TV show could be.  Season two is even better and bolder, brimming with confidence, as if Mr. Aziz and his team were saying to us, “OK, now sit back and see what we can really do.”

Just as the first season had, as its narrative backbone, the relationship between Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Rachel (Noël Wells), season two follows the slow course of the friendship and maybe-romantic relationship between Dev and Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), a beautiful young Italian woman who Dev meets in Modena.  As was the case in season one, the strong writing and terrific performances quickly hooked me into this story-line.  As an audience-member you quickly grow to care for both Dev and Francesca (as we had previously with Rachel), and root for their happiness.

While that story-line gives the season a structure, and a momentum from episode-to-episode, I love that Mr. Ansari and Mr. Yang have continued to resist the newly-popular, and somewhat problematic, format of having all the episodes of a streaming season run one into the next like one long movie chopped into little bits.  To my delight, this season strikes a perfect balance between telling a complete story from start to finish while also allowing each individual episode to be distinct on its own.

The story-telling and stylistic inventiveness that I enjoyed in season one has been taken to an even higher level here in season two.  Each individual episode of the season demonstrates a near-boundless freedom to explore different directions stylistically and in terms of content, topic, and structure.  It’s marvelous to behold.  Here are just a few examples: The first episode, “The Thief,” finds Dev in Italy learning to make pasta, and the entire episode is filmed in black and white in homage to the Italian films we learn Dev enjoys, particularly Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.  What an adventurous, clever way to begin this new season!  In “First Date,” we follow Dev through a series of first dates with women he has met on a dating app, some more successful than others, which are all edited together, allowing us to bounce back and forth from date to date as if they were all happening on the same night.  It’s a master class in writing and editing and performance, and the result is … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season One!

Quite a few friends have recommended Silicon Valley to me, but for one reason or another it took me a while to find the time to start watching the show.  I am sorry I waited so long, because now I am hooked!

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Created by Mike Judge (Office Space), John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, the series follows the trials and tribulations of a group of Silicon Valley programmers involved in a small start-up company.  Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) is a small fry working for a huge Google-like company called Hooli.  Like many in Silicon Valley, in his side time Richard is working on an app, which he calls Pied Piper.  It’s intended as a music app, but in creating it Richard has also created a potentially revolutionary compression algorithm.  This attracts the interest of Hooli founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), who offers Richard ten million dollars for his app.  It also attracts the interest of venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), who offers Richard a much-smaller $200,000 investment in exchange for a five-percent ownership in Pied Piper.  Richard passes on the easy money from Gavin and takes Peter Gregory’s offer, excited by the chance to build his own company.  As the series progresses, we see Richard discover that it’s a lot harder than he thinks.

I love shows and movies that explore a particular sub-culture, and Silicon Valley is a wonderful exploration of the intersection of technology and business in this particular corner of the U.S.  This is a show that I suspect people who really know this world will dig for its attention to detail, while also being completely accessible to anyone (like me) who doesn’t know much of anything about this sort of thing.

The show is fantastic, absolutely hilarious and filled with wonderful, compelling characters.  Every member of the ensemble could carry his/her own show.  As Pied Piper’s nervous, frazzled new C.E.O., Thomas Middleditch is fantastic.  I could see a less interesting version of this show in which Richard was the straight person, surrounded by all the weirdos he has to work and live with.  But Mr. Judge & co., along with Mr. Middleditch, have made Richard just as interestingly flawed and bizarre as all the other characters in the show!  But, importantly, they’ve also given him an honesty and a earnestness that makes you want to root for this character.

T. J. Miller (Cloverfield, Deadpool, Office Christmas Party) goes big, and then bigger, as Erlich, the blustery, full-of-himself owner of the incubator where Richard and his co-workers live and work.  Erlich got rich when his own app was sold for millions, and so now he fancies himself as a wise mentor … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Brockmire Season One

In IFC’s new series Brockmire, Hank Azaria stars as the titular Brockmire.  Once a major league baseball play-by-play announcer, Brockmire had a spectacular public flame-out after discovering that his wife had been cheating on him.  After disappearing for ten years, Brockmire is hired by Jules James (Amanda Peet) to do play-by-play for the mostly-ignored minor league team she owns in a small middle-American town.

Brockmire is fantastic, my favorite new show of 2017 so far.  The series is hilarious, ribald and fall-on-the-floor funny, while not being afraid to explore its dark, broken main character.  The ensemble is spectacular and, at only eight episodes, the first season zips along at a rapid clip and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  I loved every second of it.

The series is a tremendous showcase for Hank Azaria.  His “broadcast announcer” voice could have been a one-off joke (the character previously appeared in a “Funny or Die” short), but Mr. Azaria and the show’s wonderful writers dig deeply into the character and create a real person out of that incredible voice.  We still get plenty of jokes based on the idea of how silly that broadcaster voice sounds outside of the context of calling a baseball game (Brockmire’s announcer-like narration of sex with Jules is a high-point of the show), but Mr. Azaria is able to also create a fully-rounded character.  This is a fiendishly complex circle to square, and Mr. Azaria makes it look easy.  I love this performance, and I love this character.  Outside of The Simpsons, I think Jim Brockmire has already become my very favorite Hank Azaria role.

Amanda Peet is also terrific as Jules, the woman who hires Brockmire to help save her team.  She and Brockmire share a love of baseball and a love of alcohol, and the pairing of the two is what gives life to the series.  Ms. Peet is so funny, able to go toe-to-toe with the great Mr. Azaria in the series’ big comedic moments, and also in its big dramatic ones.  Their chemistry is terrific.

Tyrel Jackson Williams completes the main threesome as Charles, the young internet-savvy kid hired by Jules to help promote Brockmire and get some attention for her mostly-ignored minor league team.  Mr. Williams makes an art out of looking some combination of surprised, amused, and horrified by what comes out of Brockmire’s mouth.  He is so funny without even saying a word, just using his expressive eyes.  Of course, he’s also great when he does get to deliver dialogue.  Charles represents the voice of normalcy between the loony Brockmire and Jules, but over the course of this first season we also get to see Charles be bizarre and funny.

I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Five

After the end of The Americans season four, it was announced that the show was being renewed for two additional seasons that would wrap up the story.  I love that, in today’s television landscape, more and more serialized dramas are being allowed the time to end their stories properly, on their own terms.  (Yes, of course great shows are still cancelled before their time, but let’s focus on the positive of the minor miracle that this terrific show, which nonetheless has a relatively small weekly audience, has been allowed to tell a complete story over the course of six seasons.)  If there is any downside of this final two-season extension, it’s that season five has a ton of setup for the final season that hasn’t paid off yet, whereas most earlier seasons felt more complete to me.  That being said, this was still a tense, nail-biting season that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I cannot wait to see how this all wraps up in the final season next year.

We’ve seen plenty of collateral damage before from the work of Soviet spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), but season five of The Americans dug deeply into exploring the impact their work has had on the children in their lives.  Paige (Holly Taylor) has lost her innocence and her sweetness, spending much of this season in something resembling a shell-shocked daze.  (The revelation that she spends many nights sleeping on the floor of her closer was horrifying.)  The episode “Darkroom” showed us plain as day the permanent damage that Pastor Tim was convinced Philip and Elizabeth had done to their daughter.  Meanwhile, after a while in which Henry (Keidrich Sellati) had almost completely dropped out of the show, the character popped back into the foreground this year, suddenly seeming to be far more put-together than his older sister, who previously had always been the best student and the most responsible one.  But looming over all those scenes of a happy Henry, who was excelling in school and finding a great relationship with his friend Chris, was the Sword of Damocles represented by his parents’ secret.  It’s hard to imagine Henry’s life not being destroyed by whatever goes down in the show’s final season.  Then there is Philip’s Russian son Mischa.  The first half of the season spent a lot of time with lonely Mischa’s desperate quest to find the father he never knew, an effort thwarted by Gabriel and the Centre.  This season also introduced us to the young Korean agent Tuan.  At first I just pitied Tuan for all the time the poor, lonely kid had to spend all alone in that house, with his fake parents Philip and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Iron Fist

Netflix’s Marvel shows came out strong from the gate, with the one-two punch of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  Both of those first two seasons were extraordinary, with adult, sophisticated story-telling brought to life by a phenomenal cast of actors.  Both shows looked gorgeous, and were fun and action-packed.  Things started to slip a little with the next two Netflix shows, though.  I liked Daredevil season two more than many people did, but I freely admit the season ended in an anticlimactic whimper rather than the epic finale I’d been hoping for.  As for Luke Cage, I loved the cast and I loved the look and feel and music of the show, but narratively it was a bore.  Things have gotten worse, not better, with Iron Fist, which is huge misfire and Netflix’s first big disappointment of a Marvel show.

As the show opens, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) has returned to New York City after 15 years away.  As a child, his parents were killed in a plane crash.  The world thought that Danny, too, was dead, but Danny survived and was raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun.  There, he trained to become a living weapon, the Iron Fist.  Returning to New York, Danny expects a joyous reunion with childhood friends Joy and Ward Meachum, but in Danny’s absence Joy and Ward have turned their parents’ company, Rand Corporation, into a global behemoth and they are not eager for Danny to come in and mess things up.  Danny is also shocked to discover that the Hand, the ancient enemy of K’un-Lun, is operating in New York, and that the Hand is using the Rand Corporation as their tool.  With enemies all around him, Danny’s only ally is his new friend, the martial arts instructor Colleen Wing.  But even Colleen has a secret that she is hiding from Danny.

That plot description sounds like the basis of a cool TV show.  Unfortunately, Iron Fist does not deliver on that promise.

The biggest problem with the show is Finn Jones as Danny.  The biggest strength of both the Marvel Studios movies, as well as the Marvel Netflix shows, has been their perfect casting of their lead characters.  But they’ve stumbled here with Danny.  I am sure Finn Jones is a great actor and a fine human being, but to me he seems totally miscast as Danny.  I also have to put a lot of fault on the show’s writing, which failed to craft a story for Danny that a) makes much sense and b) allows the audience to engage with his character.  Together, this proves to be a problem the show is unable to overcome.

Let’s start with the … [continued]

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Mystery Science Theater 3000 Lives!

Almost twenty years after the last new episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired (“Danger, Diabolik!” On August 8, 1999, though true MYSTies know that one additional episode, intended for earlier in the final season, actually aired later, in September 1999, because of an issue with the rights for that episode’s movie), an incredible FOURTEEN new episodes of the show launch on Netflix TODAY.

Our modern era of what TV critic Alan Sepinwall calls “peak TV” has witnessed some joyous resurrections of long-dead TV shows, from a fourth season of Arrested Development to last year’s six-episode run of new X-Files episodes, but the return of MST3K is particularly exciting.  And, in the end, far more creatively successful than either of those other two resurrections I just mentioned.

The brainchild of Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has always had a gloriously simple premise: a guy and his two robot friends riffing on old movies.  This was a groundbreaking idea for a television show when Mr. Hodgson and his team first launched the show thirty years ago.  For ten seasons (first on local KTMA in Minneapolis, then on Comedy Central and then on the Sci-Fi Channel), Joel and then replacement host Mike Nelson riffed on an array of endearingly goofy old movies.

In the years since the show went off the air, several of the key creative players have been involved in efforts to continue the idea behind the show in different ways.  Creator Joel Hodgson, along with Trace Beaulieu (the original voice for Crow; he also played Dr. Forrester), Josh Elvis Weinstein (the original voice for Tom Servo), TV’s Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) formed Cinematic Titanic.  They traveled around the country, performing live shows riffing on old movies projected on the big screen.  I caught one terrific performance back in 2009.  Meanwhile, Mike Nelson, along with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (the lead players of MST3K during its later years), launched Rifftrax, which applied the MST3K idea to modern, well-known movies (rather than old, obscure ones), allowing folks to download audio tracks to play along with moves at home.  I have enjoyed many terrific Rifftrax over the years.  The players from both groups have continued to collaborate with one another, most notably Rifftrax’s recent MST3K reunion show.

But now, finally, the mothership has returned.  Joel Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign last year which resulted in an extraordinary success, eventually crowdfunding a whopping fourteen new episodes, and then landing a deal with Netflix to stream the new episodes.  All fourteen shows are now available on Netflix as of today, so you can go watch them right now!!

The new episodes were made … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Legion Season One

In much the same way that I never imagined a TV show based on the Coen Brothers’ magnificent film Fargo could possibly be any good, when I first read about Legion, a new TV show based on a minor character from the X-Men comics, I was not at all interested.  I’ve been burned by many previous super-hero shows, and with the X-Men movie franchise floundering without much direction, this looked like a cheap way to cash in on the X-Men name.  Well, Noah Hawley has proven me wrong twice now.  I will never doubt him again.  Just as Mr. Hawley’s reimagining of Fargo was an incredible success, so too has he created a rich, thrilling, wonderfully bizarre version of a super-hero show with Legion.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

Based on story-lines written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz in the X-Men spin-off comic book The New Mutants from the 1980s (as well as some key issues written by Mr. Claremont in the main Uncanny X-Men book), Legion tells the story of David Haller, a young mutant with incredible psychic powers whose apparent schizophrenia makes him an enormous danger to the people around him and perhaps the entire world.  As the series begins, we see that David has been institutionalized, but he soon falls into the hands of a mysterious agency called Division Three.  They suspect what David will soon learn, that what he has always thought were his deep psychological problems might be a manifestation of his incredible mutant abilities.  David is rescued from Division Three by a group of fellow mutants, though neither they nor David realize that he had been hiding, deep within him, a powerful evil.

That brief plot description doesn’t begin to capture the head-spinning complex narrative that Mr. Hawley and his team have crafted, a joyously madcap journey through David’s past and present in which one can never be quite sure what is real and what is imaginary.  The entire structure of Legion has been designed to put the audience right into the middle of David’s madness and his broken mind.  Its fiendishly clever.  Watching the show becomes an incredibly fun exercise in attempting to unravel the tangled of mystery of David’s past.

Every inch of Legion has been crafted with great care.  The overall narrative, as I have just described, is an impressively clever piece of work.  Beyond that, time and again the show delights in zigging when you would expect it to zag.  We spend several episodes wondering about the mystery of Melanie (Jean Smart)’s frozen husband Oliver.  When we finally meet him, or at least his astral projection, its in the instantly iconic, and very … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sherlock Season Four!

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ wonderful series Sherlock returned in 2017 for a three-episode series four.   I have adored this series, a modern-day reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, since the beginning.  I admire its intelligence and sophistication and the way the series has allowed us to fall in love with these wonderfully bizarre characters.

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As always, three episodes feels like far too little after such a long wait for new installments.  Because of such a long wait between series (or seasons, in American parlance), and because we get so few new episodes each time, I feel like the producers put an impossible amount of pressure on themselves to make each of the rare new episodes perfect.

Well, none of the new episodes in series four are perfect, and there is a plot twist at the end of the first episode that I didn’t care for at all, and that colored this whole new series in an unfavorable way for me.  But these three new episodes remain wonderfully entertaining, impressively-crafted pieces of television entertainment.  The third episode is probably the most ambitious episode the series has ever done, with an extraordinary scope and amazing production design.

This is a darker season of the show than we’ve seen before. Generally, this show has been able to be fun while also maintaining true dramatic stakes for all the characters.  The plot twist at the end of episode one, though, throws all that out the window.  While I understand the show-runners’ desire to shake up the status quo and not just keep doing the same things, and while I was ultimately satisfied with how the story begun in that terrible moment resolves itself by the end of episode three, I felt that event unbalanced this season to a degree that bothered me.  It was hard to find much joy in Sherlock after that moment.  The writers clearly understood that and went there anyways.  For me, personally, I wish they’d have made a different choice.

OK, let’s take a deeper dive into these three episodes! Beware SPOILERS ahead.

The Six Thatchers We get several engaging mysteries in this episode.  First is the mystery of the college student found dead in a car in his parents’ driveway, despite his being abroad at the time and in fact having Skyped with his father at the moment he was apparently killed.  Then there is the titular mystery of a series of apparently unconnected crimes linked only by the commonality that a statue of Margaret Thatcher was destroyed in each instance.  Then there is the more important-to-the-series exploration of the backstory of John Watson’s wife Mary’s mysterious past, and the apparent resurrection of her former soldier/assassin partner … [continued]

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Josh Reviews O.J.: Made in America

March 1st, 2017
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I was blown away by how much I enjoyed Ryan Murphy’s ten-episode The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.  I loved it so much that I was eager to stay in that world and learn still more about everything and everyone involved in the O.J. trial.  As much as I had been hearing, for months now, how great The People v. O.J. Simpson was, I’d also been hearing incredible things about Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J.: Made in America.  So, after finishing The People v. O.J. Simpson, I did not delay in diving in to O.J.: Made in America.  I was astounded to confirm for myself that Made in America is at least as good as, if not better than, The People v. O.J. Simpson.  It is an extraordinary achievement in documentary filmmaking and a riveting, incredibly relevant piece of modern American history.

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O.J.: Made in America is a five-part documentary series, made by ESPN Films for their 30 for 30 series.  Produced and directed by Ezra Edelman, it runs a staggering eight hours in length.  That might make it seem like watching O.J.: Made in America is a daunting undertaking, but I found this documentary to be hugely gripping from start to finish.

Whereas The People v. O.J. Simpson told the story of the O.J. trial, Made in America tells O.J.’s complete life story.  We don’t even get to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman until part three.  You might think the story of O.J.’s early life would be boring, and that as a viewer you’d be eager for the documentary to hurry up and get to all the juicy intrigue of the trial.  But I was instantly engrossed and fascinated by the story of O.J.’s rise to fame and stardom, on the football field and off of it.  It was interesting to explore O.J.’s step-by-step rise to his status as a well-known and beloved star.  It’s also incredibly sad.  Watching the early footage of a happy, smiling young O.J., you can’t help but wonder, just how did it all go so wrong?  That is one of the main stories of this documentary.

But what I hadn’t realized going in was that Mr. Edelman’s documentary wasn’t designed just to chart the rise and fall of one man, Orenthal James Simpson.  No, Made in America is also a fascinating and insightful history of race relations in Los Angeles.  The most revelatory section of the documentary, and the episode that made my Best Episodes of TV in 2016 list, was “Part Two,” which dug deep into the years of abuse (both real and perceived) of the African-American community by the L.A.P.D. (Los Angeles Police Department).  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

I’m late to the party on this one.  I vividly remember all the hoopla surrounding the OJ Simpson trial twenty years ago, and frankly I wasn’t in a rush to revisit that tragic circus.  And while I respect what Ryan Murphy has accomplished in television over the past decade, none of his shows have particularly interested me.  But for months now I’d been hearing about how spectacular The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was, and so I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about.  Holy cow, why did I wait so long??

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This ten-episode mini-series is a masterpiece.  It was created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who are executive producers along with Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson, Ryan Murphy, and Brad Simpson.  The American Crime Story show is intended as an anthology series.  This first season, titled The People v. O.J. Simpson, is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

It’s staggering to me that the O.J. trial was twenty years ago.  I am confident I am not alone in feeling like those events happened only recently.  I remember so many different aspects of this saga, and the incredible media circus that surrounded it for so many months, so clearly, from watching the Bronco chase to Johnnie Cochran’s famous: “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”  Even more than specific events, I have distinct memories of so many of the cast of characters involved in the trial: Mr. Cochran and Robert Shapiro, Marcia Clarke and Chris Darden, Judge Lance Ito (particularly immortalized in my mind by Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos”), Mark Fuhrman, Kato Kaelin, and so many others.

The People v. O.J. Simpson succeeds both at perfectly dramatizing the moments that are indelibly seared in my (and so many others’) memories (such as the Bronco chase and O.J. trying on the glove), while also shedding light on so many other aspects of the trial that I was never aware of, despite the near-constant media coverage at the time.

What’s even more remarkable is the way that The People v. O.J. Simpson manages to humanize almost all of the individuals involved in the trial, so many of whom were reduced to caricatures by the media coverage and the late-night mockery.  The show demonstrates an extraordinary tenderness in its approach to presenting these famous people as human beings trying to do their best.  This approach is used for both sides of the case.  Much has been written, and rightly so, of the show’s incredible job at resuscitating the reputation of Marcia Clark, so brilliantly played here by Sarah Paulson.  And, indeed, this is amazing work.  But I … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016 — Part Four!

We’re at the end of my look back at the best TV of 2016!  Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.

And now, here are my Top Five Episodes of TV in 2016:

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5. Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” (aired on 1/5/16) – I was tickled by the idea of taking Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s modern-day interpretations of Sherlock Holmes and setting them in the Victorian era from which the Holmes stories originated.  Had this been an entirely out-of-continuity caper — as I thought it would be, going into the episode — I’d have been happy.  But I was delighted to discover that, instead, this story connected directly to the cliffhanger ending of season three, and allowed us to explore the idea of Sherlock’s “mind palace” that was first raised back in the season two finale.  This episode was filled with many fun little moments, from Mrs. Hudson’s complaining that John never gives her any lines in his stories to the 19th century version of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting (as originally depicted in “A Study in Pink”).  And things got suitably mind-bending as the episode progressed and the story began jumping more frequently between the Victorian setting (happening inside Sherlock’s brain) and the modern-day events on board the plane, with Moriarty’s apparent return from the dead presenting a frightening new threat.  I adore this series and, if we couldn’t get a full three-episode new season of Sherlock in 2016, this one-off was a fine substitute.  (By the way, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the recently-aired season four of Sherlock soon!!)

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4. The X-Files: “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” (season ten, episode three, aired on 2/1/16) – I had hoped and dreamed for years that The X-Files, one of the great, unfinished stories of the modern pop-culture landscape, would one day be given the conclusion that once-great show so dearly deserved.  I rejoiced at the announcement of a new six-episode run (a superior format to a movie, in my mind, for the show’s return), though the relaunched show wound up mostly disappointing me.  With this one notable exception.  Darin Morgan wrote four episodes during the original X-Files run, and they were among the very best episodes the show ever did.  “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is without question my favorite episode of the entire series.  And so I was ecstatic when I learned that Mr. Morgan would be writing one of these six new X-Files episodes.  He directed this episode, too, and boy did he not let me down.  This episode is so joyous, so funny and so … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016 — Part Three!

My list of my Twenty Favorite Episodes of TV in 2016 continues!  Click here for the beginning of my list, numbers twenty through sixteen, and click here for part two, numbers fifteen through ten.

Let’s continue as we enter my Top Ten!

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10. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (season one, episode six, aired on 3/8/16) – I vividly remember the events of the O.J. trial, and at first the idea of a TV dramatization of those events didn’t hold much appeal for me, but like everyone else I was blown away by the riveting ten-episode The People v. O.J. Simpson.  I was incredibly impressed with the way the show humanized so many of the men and women involved in the trial, even those who at the time I saw as villains or cartoons.  The show’s greatest triumph was its complete redemption of losing prosecutor Marcia Clarke, who was brutalized by the media and much of the public at the time.  This incredible episode of the show shines a spotlight on this particular issue, showing the many ways in which Ms. Clarke was run through the public ringer as she attempted to prosecute the case.  The show, and this episode, hold out Ms. Clarke as a hero, someone attempting to navigate the impossible collision of prosecuting a hugely public case while also attempting to maintain a private life and be a mom to her kids, all the while going through a nasty divorce (and the way that divorce was thrust into the public eye), as well as incredible sexism and judgments about her appearance (her outfits, her hairstyle) made by the general public and colleagues alike.  We see Ms. Clarke forced to grin and bear snide comments not only from Judge Lance Ito but even a nameless check-out clerk when she’s buying tampons.  It’s heartbreaking.  This performance was a triumph by Sarah Paulson, who was able to bring Ms. Clarke to life with enormous dignity and grace, and who with just a tiny movement or look could bring the audience right into Ms. Clarke’s heart and mind.

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9. Black Mirror: “San Junipero” (season three, episode four, released on 10/21/16) – I rejoiced that Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s marvelous British anthology series exploring the dangers of technology, was resurrected by Netflix for a third season.  This new season didn’t wind up matching the greatness of the first two seasons, but one standout was this episode, “San Junipero.”  In the 1980′s, we follow the gentle story of the flowering relationship between Yorkie (The Martians Mackenzie Davis), a tentative young woman first taking ownership of the idea that she is a lesbian, … [continued]

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Let’s continue my look back at The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016!  Last week I presented part one of my list, with numbers twenty through sixteen.  Onward!

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15. Brooklyn 99: “9 Days” (season three, episode twelve, aired on 1/19/16) – Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) get the mumps and are quarantined together for nine days.  “9 Days” has one of the most ridiculous premises of any episode of Brooklyn 99, and yet, somehow, it also manages to be one of the funniest.  The Peralta-Holt pairing has always been comedy gold for the show, and this episode really lets Mr. Samberg and Mr. Braugher go at it, assisted by some comically over-the-top make-up effects to depict their mumps-swollen faces.  Gems in this episode include watching the two men discuss their testicular pain, hearing Holt yell “CASE” as Jake tumbles to the ground, and this exchange: Amy: “I’m immune to stuff you haven’t even heard of.”  Holt: “But not immune to braggadocio.”  I enjoyed seeing The Office’s Oscar Nuñez pop up as the doctor who gives Jake & Holt their diagnosis, and I loved Boyle’s description of Rosa as having a “motorcycle helmet for a heart,” as well as his advice on grief: “Real men don’t cry for more than three days.”  And let’s not forget Gina’s comment that: “C-minus is the perfect grade. You pass, but you’re still hot.”  Also: the name of Amy’s trivia team is “Trivia Newton-John”?!  Genius!

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14. Luke Cage: “DWYCK” (season one, episode nine, released on 9/30/16) – This episode, late in the run of the first season of Luke Cage, came at a time in which the Netflix show seemed to be spinning its wheels, stretching time to fill out the 13 episode run by having Luke (Mike Colter) and Claire (Rosario Dawson) inexplicably leave town while the bad guys wreak havoc in order to track down the doc who had a hand in Luke’s super-hero origin.  While I didn’t have much patience for that story development, it allowed room for this episode’s welcome and wonderful spotlight on Misty Knight (Simone Missick), the NYPD officer who has been Luke’s friend and also his most dogged enemy.  I have always loved the character of Misty from the comic books, and I never thought we’d ever get to see this wonderful character appear on-screen, let alone as perfectly realized as she was on this show.  Ms. Missick was a revelation, phenomenal at bringing this strong, honest African-American woman to life.  This episode begins with Misty on suspension, having lost her cool when Claire was in police custody.  Over the course of the episode, we follow Misty’s grilling by a … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016 — Part One!

I hope you all enjoyed my list of the Twenty Best Movies of 2016!  And now, onward to TV…

Just like I felt when considering all the movies I’d seen in 2016, on the one hand I feel like I watched a lot of amazing TV in 2016, and on the other hand, in this era of Peak TV I feel that what I saw was just a drop in the bucket compared to all the great TV that is out there.  I never found time to watch: Veep, Transparent, Silicon Valley season 3, Horace and Pete, Atlanta, Better Things, Roots, The Man in the High Castle, Preacher, Powers season 2, Documentary Now!, Halt and Catch Fire, Red Oaks, Lady Dynamite, Fleabag, Search Party, Rectify, The Good Place, and many other great shows.

But, on the other hand, I saw so much great TV that I felt the need to expand what had once been a Top Ten list and which was, in 2015, a Top Fifteen list, to a TOP TWENTY list this year.

And so, I am proud to present to you my list of the Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016:

20. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: “President-Elect Trump” (aired on 11/13/16) — Week in and week out in 2016, John Oliver solidified his claim as heir to the throne of Jon Stewart (whose tenure as host of The Daily Show was deeply, profoundly missed this tumultuous election year).  I was all set to write about Mr. Oliver’s searing indictment of Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump in his “Make America Drumpf Again” episode (watch it here), or his warnings about the dangers of Brexit (watch it here), and yet following the upheaval of November 8th I found I could only post Mr. Oliver’s final show of 2016, which aired just a few days after the election.  Mr. Oliver perfectly summed up the emotions felt by the almost 66 million Americans who cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.  You can watch the whole episode at the link above.  It’s been a rough past few weeks without Mr. Oliver’s presence and I can’t wait for his return in early 2017.

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19. Daredevil: “New York’s Finest” (season two, episode three, released on 3/18/16) — The second season of Netflix’s Daredevil wasn’t as consistently spectacular as season one, but other than the anticlimactic rooftop ending I still thought it was a great season of superhero TV.  This third episode was a standout, possibly the high point of the season-long story of Daredevil’s confrontation with violent vigilante Frank Castle (“the Punisher”).  This episode begins with DD defeated and chained up on a roof in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Season Three of Black Mirror!

I adored the original six episodes made of the British TV show Black Mirror.  Series creator Charlie Brooker had made a riveting modern/day Twilight Zone, with each episode a completely stand-alone installment presenting a look at the ways that technology has the potential to be terribly destructive to our lives. Those first six episodes, made between 2011-13, are brilliant, and if you haven’t yet seen them I implore you to drop everything and go check them out — they are available to stream on Netflix.

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I was very excited when I read that Netflix would be resurrecting the show, allowing Mr. Brooker to create six new episodes. I took my time watching the new episodes, both because I didn’t want them to be over too quickly and also because these episodes are very intense and I couldn’t handle too many too quickly! But now I have completed the new season and am eager to share my thoughts.

While there is nothing here in season three that equals the best of the original six episodes, I enjoyed most of these new episodes very much. Mr. Brooker has brought in some talented people to help create this new season, and it’s interesting to see the resulting slightly-different spins on the show.  (Though, rest assured, these new episodes all thoroughly feel like Black Mirror.) None of these new episodes reach the genius level that so many of the original six episodes did, and a few are weakened by some flaws I’d have preferred to have seen corrected along the way. But all six episodes are interesting and have a lot to enjoy. While this third season might just be “very good” rather than “genius,” that is still something for us to be thankful for. I am very glad that six more episodes of Black Mirror now exist! (With the possibility of more on the way!)

Here is my episode-by-episode rundown. I’ll avoid major SPOILERS but, still, I highly advise stopping here if you haven’t yet seen these episodes.

Nosedive — the new season gets off to a somewhat shaky start with this first installment.  “Nosedive” has a brilliant, terrifying-in-its-possibility premise, but it suffers somewhat in execution. In the not-too-distant future, everyone can use their cell-phones to rate their interactions with every person they meet, and those scores accumulate into a person’s average score that is constantly visible (because of special contact lenses that everyone wears) whenever you see anyone else.  Bryce Dallas Howard is spectacular as a young woman, Lacie, trying to nudge up her personal score. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that these scores classify each individual into a certain social class. (The story is instigated because Lacie wants … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Westworld Season One!

December 26th, 2016
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I’m a little bit behind on all of my TV watching.  In this era of Peak TV, there is so much great television to watch that I find it hard to keep up!  Being a fan both of sci-fi and HBO, I was of course hugely excited last year as I read about the development of Westworld.  I’ve never seen the original film, written and directed by Michael Crichton, but the premise seemed ripe for a deeper exploration on TV.  I wanted to start watching the show immediately when it started airing on HBO a few months ago, but life got a bit away from me and the episodes began to pile up in my DVR.  Thankfully, over the past two weeks I was able to tear through season one, and I am now caught up with the rest of the world.

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There’s a lot to love about season one of Westworld.  I was very hooked into the show right away, fascinated at the slow peeling back of the onion of this sci-fi/fantasy world and the show’s many mysteries.  The production design is gorgeous, and the show boasts one of the finest assemblage of incredible actors that I can ever recall seeing before.  (Many TV shows have great ensembles, but usually these successful TV shows make stars of their previously-unknown actors.  Has there ever before been a TV show so jam-packed with already-famous, incredibly talented performers?)

The show’s weakness is it’s Lost-like willingness to ask all sorts of questions that it never seems that interested in answering.

I will avoid major SPOILERS as I proceed with my analysis, but I do warn anyone who has not yet completed season one to perhaps stop here and return when you are caught up.

Despite my arriving to the show a little late, I miraculously managed to remain free of spoilers, which was a blessing in a show as filled with mysteries as this one.  I hadn’t expected Westworld to be a show that would have so many narrative mysteries at its core; that was a surprise to me as the show unfolded.  In many respects, I enjoyed the mysteries.  It was fun to try to puzzle out just what the heck was going on with Dolores, Ford, Bernard, the Man in Black, Theresa, Charlotte, and so many of the show’s other inscrutable characters.  Here was a surprising benefit of being late to the show and, rather than watching it over the course of ten weeks, viewing it at a much faster pace over the course of just a week-and-a-half to two weeks.  Once I finished the show, I began reading about it on-line and it became apparent to me that, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Angie Tribeca Season Two!

Last spring I devoured the first ten-episode season of Rashida Jones’ Angie Tribeca, a wonderfully clever, gloriously silly show.  In my review of season one I compared Angie Tribeca to a modern-day version of Police Squad.  The show follows a team of homicide detectives but it’s not really a police procedural parody.  It’s more like the show uses the framework of a police procedural to cram in as many crazy, often-very-random jokes as humanly possible.  I loved that first season and so I was delighted that only a few months later a second ten-episode season was released on TBS.

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Unironic silliness can be hard to achieve, but Angie Tribeca nails it.  The show is a riot, chock full of absurdity and craziness, puns and sight-gags and slapstick and wordplay and lots more.  The jokes are piled high, with gags coming fast and furious.  This is a show that makes me laugh a lot.

Once again, Rashida Jones plays the titular Angie Tribeca, a Los Angeles homicide detective.  The whole gang from season one is back, including Hayes MacArthur as Angie’s partner Giles, Jere Burns as their boss (and my favorite character on the show) Lt. Atkins, Deon Cole as DJ Tanner (a great Full House joke), Andree Vermeulen as medical examiner Dr. Scholls (come on, all of these character names are so great!), and Alfred Molina as Dr. Edelweiss.

Rashida Jones is, as always, terrific in the lead role.  Alfred Molina’s one-scene-per-episode is always a highlight, allowing the great Mr. Molina to act increasingly crazy to enormous comedic effect.  I commented above that Jere Burns as Lt. Atkins is my favorite character on the show, and though he has fierce competition from Mr. Molina’s Dr. Edelweiss, I stand by that assessment.  I have fallen in love with Mr. Burns’ crazy deadpan, half-yelling delivery.  It’s amazing.

Season two had an incredible parade of amazing comedic guest stars.  Jon Hamm, Busy Phillips, Heather Graham, Mary McCormack, Maya Rudolph, Newsradio’s Vicki Lewis, Saul Rubinek, and many more familiar faces all appear in season two and are so, so funny.  I also have to highlight Noah Wylie and Eriq La Salle, who pop up in a brilliant E.R. reunion in “Organ Trail.”  But my favorite cameo of the season has to be Kevin Pollak’s appearance as the punchline to a brilliant A Few Good Men joke in “Beach Blanket Sting-O.”

Whereas all ten episodes in season one were pretty much stand-alone installments, here in season two they have opted for a different tack.  Each episode does still have it’s own distinct, usually outlandish murder investigation, but the whole season is linked together by several running story-lines, including Angie’s split from Giles (and a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Call Saul Season Two!

I loved the first season of Better Call Saul I was blown away by Bob Odenkirk’s performance in the lead role, and by the extraordinary groups of actors with whom he was surrounded, most notably fellow Breaking Bad alum Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, along with new faces Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler and Michael McKean as Charles McGill.  I found that first season to be tense and gripping while also being a huge amount of fun.  This is an incredibly impressive balance of tone.  I wrote in my review that I enjoyed that first season of Better Call Saul more than any season of Breaking Bad except for Bad’s final run of episodes.  Soon after finishing Saul season one I eagerly dove into season two.

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While perhaps not quite as perfect as season one (and without the thrill of discovery of this new show), Better Call Saul season two remains a master class in television craftsmanship, hugely enjoyable and gripping, fun and also heartbreaking.  I loved it.  I tore through it at a rapid pace and am left eagerly counting the days until season three.

Season one began with a wonderful black-and-white vignette, a peek at the fate of Saul Goodman following the events of Breaking Bad.  I didn’t think we’d ever see any more of that time-period until the end of Better Call Saul’s run, but I was delighted to have been proven wrong as the first moments of season two gave us another look at the sad, lonely life being lived by Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman after his life had been torn apart by his relationship with Walter White.  It was fascinating to note that in the tiny, desperate bit of graffiti left behind by Jimmy/Saul, he identified himself not as Jimmy, but as Saul.  Watching the first season of Better Call Saul, I was stunned by how much I grew to love Jimmy McGill.  Rather than being impatient for the show to hurry up and get to Jimmy’s transformation into Saul — the fun, fast-talking, morals-free dude we’d gotten to know and love in Breaking Bad — I was dreading the day when the sweet, good-hearted Jimmy would be replaced by Saul.  And yet, while I as a viewer might lament the coming loss of Jimmy, it was fascinating to see in this intro vignette that, even after arriving at the sad lonely end of Saul Goodman’s road, this man considers himself Saul rather than Jimmy.  It’s heartbreaking and also a tantalizing glimpse of where this show is going.  Two seasons in, I am still not sure how the Jimmy who I have grown to love so much will eventually be crushed and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Luke Cage!

Season one of Netflix’s Daredevil was a revelation.  I was blown away by that gritty, intense, adult take on Marvel’s blind super-hero.  Season one of Jessica Jones was just as good if not better: a riveting take on a character whose life was torn apart by a trauma and a chronicle of her achingly slow, step-by-step effort to put her life back together.  I also quite enjoyed the second season of Daredevil, with its great take on the Punisher (presented as he should be: not as the hero of his own story but as the complicated villain of Daredevil’s story), though they dropped the ball somewhat with the season’s ending.  So I was pumped to watch Luke Cage, Netflix’s third super-hero show and fourth super-hero season.

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There is a lot to like about Luke Cage.  I love the atmosphere of this show, the characters, the music, the idiosyncratic camerawork.  I love that this show, about a proud, strong African-American super-hero, has so many African-Americans involved creatively, both in the cast and behind the scenes.  This gives Luke Cage a strikingly different look and feel from the other three Netflix super-hero seasons we’ve seen so far, and I love that.

The problem is that the story-telling here in this first season of Luke Cage is extremely weak.  Character-arcs are disjointed and disconnected, and plot twists are either head-scratching obvious or so out of left-field as to be equally frustrating.  This show makes the narrative stalling of Lost seem incredibly fast-paced; shockingly little actually happens over the course of these thirteen episodes.

The result is that while I certainly enjoyed watching this season of Luke Cage, this was unquestionably the weakest of the Marvel Netflix shows so far.

Let’s circle back to what’s good.  The cast is phenomenal.  Mike Colter was immediately amazing and iconic as Luke Cage when he appeared in Jessica Jones, and he easily shoulders the burden of being the lead now in his own series.  I love Mr. Colter’s performance as Luke, he absolutely nails this character.  He is noble and courageous while never losing the reality of what it would be like to be this man, gifted with bulletproof skin but who doesn’t consider himself a hero.

I have been a fan of Mahershala Ali ever since he appeared in the short-lived sci-fi series The 4400.  (Back then he was credited by the even longer and more amazing name of Mahershalalhashbaz Ali.)  He was phenomenal back on that show, probably the best thing about it, and I have enjoyed his work in the years since in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Predators, and the Hunger Games sequels.  He’s terrific here … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Night Manager

The Night Manager is a six-episode mini-series based on the novel by John le Carré.  The adaptation was directed by Susanne Bier (who just won an emmy for her work directing this mini-series) and written by David Farr (a writer who also worked on the British TV show Spooks, called MI:5 here in the U.S.).

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a former soldier who now works as the night manager at a fancy hotel in Cairo.  One night, the beautiful mistress of a powerful Egyptian man gives Jonathan evidence that her husband is involved in arms sales to terrorists.  Jonathan manages to pass this info on to an old friend in the British military, but this action winds up getting the woman, with whom Jonathan has fallen in love, killed.  Jonathan flees Cairo, adopts a new name, and tries to forget everything that happened and begin a new live in isolation in Switzerland.  But a chance encounter brings Jonathan face to face with the man he believes responsible for his lover’s death: the wealthy British CEO Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).  Believing that this man who purports to be a social justice warrior is actually someone who profits off of death and destruction across the globe, Jonathan agrees to work with an outsider British intelligence officer in an attempt to infiltrate Richard Roper’s organization and bring him down.

As can be expected from a story based on the work of John le Carré, The Night Manager is a wonderfully tense, twisty spy caper.  It takes a little while for the story to get moving, but once Jonathan has come face to face with Roper and begun to earn his trust and get inside his operation, the show really comes to life.  The charisma and chemistry between Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Laurie is tremendous, and it’s great fun watching these two intelligent men cagily circle one another.  This sort of story only works if you believe that a) the mole is smart enough and clever enough to have a chance to actually succeed in infiltrating the bad guy’s operation without getting immediately found out, and b) that the bad guy is smart enough and clever enough to be fully capable of discovering what the hero is really up to, thus giving the story exciting dramatic tension.  The Night Manager succeeds on both counts wonderfully.

The story is leisurely paced but that works well in allowing us to gradually discover these characters and the world they live in.  Once Jonathan is in and the screws start to tighten, I was thoroughly hooked.  Six episodes feels like the perfect length for this story.  It’s long enough to allow for greater complexity, and a more … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Vice Principals Season One!

I remember reading about The Foot Fist Way, the 2006 low-budget film directed by Jody Hill and starring Danny McBride.  It got a lot of positive press and so I tracked it down and saw it during the film’s limited run in theatres.  It was very funny and very uncomfortable.  This seems to be the combination of feelings that Mr. Hill and Mr. McBride have continued to pursue over the course of all of their fruitful collaborations.  Honest admission: I totally missed Eastbound and Down (their previous television collaboration) — the first season has been sitting on my DVD shelf for years but for some reason (not lack of interest) I’ve never gotten to it.  Someday.  But ever since The Foot Fist Way I have been paying attention to the work of these two.  Jody Hill directed Observe and Report, a deeply weird and deeply unsettling comedy starring Seth Rogen, and of course Danny McBride has been killing it in a variety of comedic roles in films over the past decade, including Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Your Highness, 30 Minutes or Less, This is the End, and many more.  The two reunited for the two-season HBO show, Vice Principals.

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In Vice Principals, Danny McBride plays Neal Gamby, while Walton Goggins plays Lee Russell.  Both men are Vice Principals at North Jackson High School, and they each believe that they should be promoted to principal when the school’s long-standing leader, Principal Welles (played by Bill Murray in a note-perfect cameo in the first episode) retires.  However, the school board decides to bring in someone else entirely to be the new principal: college professor Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).  Shocked by this turn of events, Vice Principal Gamby and Vice Principal Russell agree to team up to take down Dr. Brown.

This nine-episode first season (the show is reportedly structured to run for only two nine-episode seasons, with the second season coming some time next year) is, exactly as I had expected, powerfully funny and also profoundly uncomfortable.  This is a raunchy, pull-no-punches show, and this tone is certainly not for everyone.  But I loved it.  I had a great time watching these first nine episodes and I can’t wait to see what sort of craziness the back half brings.

Danny McBride has made a career out of playing this type of character: a profane, low-watt-bulb man-child who comes off as loud and blustery but is sweet and insecure on the inside.  Neal Gamby feels like the apotheosis of these character traits; this is the most Danny McBride character Danny McBride has ever played.  It’s great fun — and often stomach-churningly painful — to watch.  Watching … [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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Tales From the Blu-Ray Shelf

Not long after checking out the extended cut of Batman v. Superman (click here for my review on this “Ultimate Edition”), I decided to watch the recently-released-to-disc extended cut of Ridley Scott’s The Martian.  I adored that film when it was released (and it was my second favorite film of 2015), and Ridley Scott has released some wonderful extended directors’ cuts of his films (most notably, as I mentioned in that Batman v. Superman review, Mr. Scott’s magnificent extended version of Kingdom of Heaven, which transformed a disastrous failure into a near-masterpiece), so I was curious to see this extended version of a film I already loved.

Whereas some extended editions transform a film, the extended version of The Martian is only very marginally different than the theatrical version.  It’s about ten minutes longer, but the vast majority of the additions are subtle extensions to previously-existing scenes; an extra line of dialogue here, an extra beat there.  The only completely-new sequence that I noticed was a brief bit (taken from the book) in which we see Mark Watney working to finish the science experiments that his crew-mates left behind when they aborted the mission.  These additions are nice and allow the story to breathe a bit, but they don’t substantially change the film.  I am not sure what my preferred version of The Martian will be going forward; I suspect it might be the slightly-more-concise theatrical cut.

The blu-ray of the extended cut also has a more substantial set of special features than the original blu-ray/DVD release.  Charles de Lauzirika has, for years, been creating extraordinarily in-depth “making-of” features for the DVD/blu-ray releases of Ridley Scott’s films.  This new blu-ray features the expected complete “making-of” documentary that I was surprised was missing from the original release; albeit one that is shorter than usual for Mr. Lauzirika’s usual work for Mr. Scott (running about an hour and ten minutes).  It’s a wonderful documentary, though one that doesn’t ever get quite as in-depth as those Mr. Lauzirika has created for some of Mr. Scott’s other films.

Speaking of which, a few weeks ago I watched Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings for the first time (click here for my review).  While that film was a failure, the blu-ray release contained an extraordinary, two-and-a-half-hour “making-of” documentary by Mr. Lauzirika.  I am surprised that Exodus, which was a dud, has such an elaborate “making-of” documentary while The Martian, which was a far more successful film, has a less-substantial one.  It’s weird.  Regardless, watching the “making-of” documentary for Exodus is arguably more fun than watching the film itself.  It’s fascinating (and a little sad) to see the incredible effort that so many … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Four

The fourth season of Orange is the New Black picks up right after the end of season three with the arrival of a large batch of new prisoners to Litchfield.  The new prisoners, along with a new cadre of COs led by the military Piscatella, added a variety of interesting new characters and stories to the series this season, though I was also pleased by the way season four continued to explore and deepen so many of the familiar characters who make up the Litchfield prison inmates and staff.

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I am pleased that I am enjoying Orange is the New Black as much as I am, this deep into the show’s run.  The show has wisely done what many felt it should have done from the beginning — pushed Piper somewhat to the background, shifting her from being the lead character to being just one member of the show’s vast ensemble.  Piper made sense as the audience surrogate character back in season one.  A key element of that first season was the way the show put the viewer into Piper’s shoes, exploring what it would be like for a relatively sheltered middle-class white person to suddenly be sent to prison.  That worked great in season one.  But the great discovery of that first season — and, I think, the main reason the show worked as well as it did — was the extraordinary richness of all the other (mostly non-white) characters in the prison.  As the show moved into seasons two and three, the Piper character began to feel far less interesting than so many of the other characters, and I started to resent a bit the time spent with her.  I like the new balance that season four has struck.  Piper is still an important character on the show, but she doesn’t feel dramatically more important than Red, or Taystee, or Crazy Eyes, or any of the other characters, and the time given to each of their story-lines felt more balanced to me.

The show has an embarrassment of riches, now, in terms of great characters.  There are so many wonderful characters, all of whom need to be serviced by the show, that this means that sometimes great characters have to be pushed into the background for a time — for instance, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) doesn’t have much to do this season until the final few episodes — which is a shame but understandable.  For the most part, I was very pleased with the way the show gave time and attention this season to so many of its characters.  OK, there wasn’t such a meaty story-line for Crazy Eyes, but on the other hand there was GREAT stuff … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things

Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, is an eight-episode Netflix mini-series.  Set in Indiana in 1983, the story begins with the disappearance of twelve-year-old boy, Will Byers, in mysterious and possibly supernatural circumstances.  Will’s three best friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin set out to investigate what happened to their friend.  They soon meet a mysterious, near-mute girl who goes only by the name Eleven who seems to have telekinetic powers.  Does the government facility from which Eleven has apparently escaped have a connection to Will’s disappearance?  Will’s distraught mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is also desperately searching for her son, and she becomes convinced that she has been able to be in contact with him somehow through the electronics in her house.  Although the town Sheriff, Hopper (David Harbour), who has a past with Joyce, is at first dubious of Joyce’s claims, he gradually becomes convinced that she might be on to something.  Mike’s sister Nancy is going through her own drama, entering a new relationship with Steve Harrington, one of the most popular boys at school.  But when she sees something terrible in the woods behind Steve’s house, she and Will’s weird, outsider brother Jonathan start doing their own looking-into the weird happenings in their small town.

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Stranger Things is a lot of fun, and I very quickly got sucked right into the story being told.  The series is a loving homage to a whole host of influences that many who were kids in the eighties (as I was!) likely have a wonderful warm nostalgic feelings for: Amblin Entertainment and the films of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; and also The Goonies, which was directed by Richard Donner and released by Amblin; and also the novels of Stephen King.  There are a lot of common narrative threads that run through those stories, which have been adapted here in Stranger Things: a story set in a small American town with supernatural elements, focuses on a group young kids who come together to go on the adventure.  The combination of a coming-of-age story with some sort of adventure/supernatural/sci-fi element proved a potent combination for so many of those great movies/novels/etc. in the eighties and the combination works every bit as well here in Stranger Things.  The show is filled with lots of little touches that are designed to strike that nostalgia chord in viewers, such as the very distinct font for the show and episode titles in the opening credits, as well as the sight of the boys riding around their small town on their bicycles.  These elements are fun, but luckily they don’t overwhelm the show to become nothing more than reminders of things we’ve seen in other things … [continued]

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The Winds of Winter: Josh Reviews Season Six of Game of Thrones!

August 15th, 2016
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I am hideously late in posting this review, but I had a lot to say about season six of Game of Thrones.  First and foremost, while I have read a lot of criticism of this season online, I found season six to be thrilling, with the show as good as it has ever been if not better.  How many shows demonstrate such storytelling strength this deep into their run?  For me, Game of Thrones has been getting better and better with each season.  The show briefly threatened to lose me in the third season, as I began to tire somewhat of the endless misery being forced upon the characters I had grown to love, and impatient with the way the show kept pulling the characters further and further apart from one another.  But with season four I was happy that some of the show’s disparate story-strands and characters began to at last be drawn together, and the show has been on a narrative build since then that is tremendously impressive.

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With Jon Snow’s death in the final moments of season five, the event fans had wondered about since the very beginning finally happened: the show caught up with George R.R. Martin’s novels.  As pretty much everyone knows, with season six the show burst ahead of the novels to venture into unexplored territory.  It will be fascinating, in the years ahead, to look back at season six of Game of Thrones (as well as the not-yet-made seasons seven and eight) and compare it with Mr. Martin’s final two (or more?) novels to see how similar or dissimilar they wind up being.

For me, the most noticeable difference between season six and the previous, adapted-from-a-book seasons was that the pace of the storytelling felt dramatically sped up.  Back in season one, it took Catelyn Stark half the season to journey from Winterfell to King’s Landing.  I loved that about the show, that it took the time to dig into the details and develop the reality of the world of Westeros.  But here in season six characters bounced all over the place in no time at all.  For the most part this worked, as this deep into the show I was eager for the story to start reaching some conclusions and din’t want to see characters knocked out of the story-telling for lengthy amounts of time as they traveled from place to place.  (The one bridge to far for me, though, this season was the silliness of Varys’ getting from Dorne to back on Daenarys’ boat in the final few minutes of the finale.  That stretched my credibility a bit too far…)

The highlight of the season for me was unquestionably the … [continued]

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Josh Suffers Through Netflix’s Love

Love is a ten-episode Netflix show created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust & Lesley Arfin.  The show chronicles the slow steps along the way of two single people, Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), as the find their way into a relationship with one another.

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I was interested in watching Love because of the involvement of Judd Apatow.  I started watching Freaks and Geeks back when the pilot originally aired, and I was immediately hooked on Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s gloriously unique, funny and heartbreaking creation.  I have been a huge fan ever since of pretty much every person who was in front of and behind the camera on Freaks and Geeks.  I eagerly followed Judd Apatow to his next TV show, the equally great (and, sadly, equally unsuccessful) show Undeclared.  When Mr. Apatow found big-screen success, I was thrilled, and I have enjoyed all of his films.  I adore The 40 Year Old Virgin, and even Mr. Apatow’s lesser big-screen works such as Funny People and This is Forty have given me a lot of enjoyment.  When I read that Mr. Apatow would be returning to TV a few years ago, producing HBO’s Girls, I was excited, though I quickly discovered that I did not really enjoy that particular show.  I stuck with Girls through its first three seasons before giving up.  I respect it as a well-made and unique piece of work, but I ultimately found all the characters to be so unlikable that I found watching the show to be a chore.

When I read that Mr. Apatow would also be producing a new Netflix show, Love, I was again excited.  Unfortunately, I feel about Love very similarly to the way I felt about Girls.  I hugely respect it as a well-made show, and it’s great to see such a specific, idiosyncratic voice brought to life on TV.  It’s clear that with both Girls and Love, Mr. Apatow is allowing his co-creators’ unique voices to shine through.  (With Girls, that would be Lena Dunham and Jennifer Konner, while here in Love it’s the married pair of Paul Rust — who also stars as Gus — and Lesley Arfin.)  It’s great to see these new, unique voices.  Sadly, it’s just that I don’t find myself enjoying either of these shows.

Freaks and Geeks was painful and awkward, but I adored each and every one of the characters, and so I could go along for the ride even when it was painful.  And the show was often able to be hugely, fall on the floor funny.  I can’t say that either of those things are true of Love.  There were a few big laughs, for sure, but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Four

While there are many shows that take a while to find themselves, The Americans was strong right out of the gate.  I was hooked very quickly in the first season, and the show has continued to develop and deepen.  The recently concluded fourth season was superb, very possibly the show’s strongest season ever!  (It’s hard to say for sure, because in this era of Peak TV — a term popularized by Hitfix’s amazing television critic Alan Sepinwall — there is so much great TV out there that it is incredibly rare that I have a chance to watch anything twice.  This makes it a lot harder for me to compare and contrast different seasons of shows, because without having an opportunity to re-watch things, it’s harder to remember the specific details of individual episodes or seasons.  Ahh, the curse of too much great TV!)

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For those of you looking to be kept completely spoiler-free, let me just say that this was a terrific season of a terrific show.  If you’re looking for a new dramatic series to watch, I highly recommend The Americans.  For everyone who is looking to dive into my analysis of The Americans season four: onward!

Last year’s terrific third season of The Americans focused on Paige and the question of when/how Philip and Elizabeth would reveal the truth to her about their identities, and if/when they did, whether they would permit the Centre to begin to develop her as an agent.  I expected that story — and the repercussions of the season three cliffhanger in which Paige spilled the beans to Pastor Tim — to be the main driving story-line of season four.  And so I was surprised — though very pleasantly so! — that, instead, the first half of season four focused on the endgame of Philip’s long relationship with Martha.

Back in season one, the Philip/Martha story-line was my least favorite aspect of the show, mainly because I felt it stretched the boundaries of my plausible belief in the show beyond what I was comfortable with.  I just didn’t understand why Philip and Elizabeth’s kids didn’t question why their dad didn’t come home for multiple nights every week.  As the show developed, and in particular as I was won over by Alison Wright’s tremendous work as poor Martha, I engaged more fully with this story and with Martha’s plight.  Back in season one, I had expected Martha to get killed off or written off fairly quickly, because how long could this story possibly sustain?  But by now, I had been lulled into believing that this status quo would continue until the show’s end.  That, plus the season three Pastor Tim cliffhanger (which made … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Catastrophe Season Two!

May 24th, 2016
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I absolutely adored the first season of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe, so of course I quickly moved on to season two.  Thank goodness, it’s just as brilliant, hilarious and absolutely filthy as season one.

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For those of you not in the know, Catastrophe tells the story of Sharon and Rob (fictional characters although they are played by the creators who have the same first names), who hook up for a weekend of passionate sex when Rob is in England on business.  When they discover Sharon is pregnant, Rob decides to move to England and he and Sharon try to make a go of being a couple.  The first six-episode series chronicled the nine months of Sharon’s pregnancy.  It was an extraordinary delight, fall-on-the-floor funny and with a level of blunt raunchiness — pulling no punches in its depictions of the realities of sex and pregnancy and everything that comes with both of those things — that made me quickly fall in love with it.

The very first scene of the first episode in season two is playful in terms of misleading the audience as to when this second series takes place.  But since all the promotional images for the show depict Sharon and Rob with two kids, I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by saying that this second season, in a somewhat surprising move, takes place several years after season one.  Their first child is a few years old already and, in the first episode, Sharon gives birth to their second.  I praised the first season of Catastrophe for many reasons, one of which was that I loved how quickly they moved through the nine months of Sharon’s pregnancy, rather than doing what many American sitcoms would do and milking the show’s set-up for years.  Here again I applaud Ms. Horgan and Mr. Delaney for having the courage to move the show, and its characters, forward by several years so that we can see how they have developed and so the show can tell different stories here in series two.

Season two expands the focus beyond Sharon and Rob.  Many of the show’s supporting characters, most particularly Chris (Mark Bonnar) and Dave (Daniel Lapaine), get some interesting development here in season two.  The show is suddenly unafraid to spend time with these characters when they are away from Sharon and Rob.  It’s an interesting development, and one that I enjoyed, even though it led to a few more somber moments (as both men struggle mightily with their loneliness) that interrupted the show’s fun.  But I enjoyed this broadening of the show’s horizons.  These story-lines also seemed to indicate that Mr. Delaney and Ms. Horgan are envisioning … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Catastrophe Season One!

Amazon’s six episode series Catastrophe, which originally aired in the U.K. on Channel 4, is a concentrated burst of comedic genius, fall-on-the-floor funny and staggeringly profane. I loved every minute of it.

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The series was written by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who also star as Sharon and Rob.  The two meet when Rob is in England for a week for business, and they have a torrid few days of enthusiastic sex.  Then Rob goes home and neither truly expects to see the other again.  Until Sharon discovers she’s pregnant.  So Rob moves to London and he and Sharon decide to make a go if being a couple.  The series follows the following months of Sharon’s pregnancy.

Catastrophe is a magnificent creation.  It doesn’t go easy on either of its characters or the problems they face trying to get through a pregnancy and build a life together.  It’s a show that is very frank and honest about how hard this situation would be for Sharon and Rob, rather than giving us the gauzy-eyed rom-com version of this story.  But it does so without ever being anything less than blisteringly funny.  The jokes come fast and furious.  That the show is able to so deftly balance feeling so real, with being so consistently funny, is astounding.

I adore both Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in these roles.  They are so funny, and also so human.  These are magnificent performances in instantly iconic roles.  I was not familiar with either Ms. Horgan or Mr. Delaney before watching Catastrophe, but believe me I will now be paying close attention to anything they do in the future.  Catastrophe works because of the delicious chemistry between these two leads.  (And remember, they also wrote the show together!)  I love the way they can each say truly horrible (yet very funny) things to the other, and then give a small grin to show how much they like the other, and that the way they bait each other is a part of the special and unique way that these two characters connect.

There’s a sweetness to Catastrophe underneath all the filthy jokes that surprised me, but that is part of why I loved the show so much.  Thankfully, though, the show is careful to never over-step into treacly over-sweetness.  In the finale, Mr. Delaney and Ms. Horgan give us one of the show’s most tender moments, in which Rob is willing to cut Sharon’s toenails on their wedding night, and immediately follows it up with their harshest, meanest argument.  That argument was deeply unsettling to watch, but I can understand why they included it.  As I commented above, this is a very human show.

For a tremendously … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Spoils of Babylon

April 26th, 2016

How did I miss this??  The Spoils of Babylon is a brilliant, hilarious six-episode IFC mini-series from 2014 that parodies televised “event” mini-series, featuring an extraordinary cast that includes Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Tom Robbins, Haley Joel Osment, Michael Sheen, Jessica Alba, and Val Kilmer.  I adored every minute of this.

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Each episode of The Spoils of Babylon begins and ends with an “interview” with the mini-series writer/director Eric Jonrosh, played to note-perfect perfection by Will Ferrell from within an enormous fat suit.  Jonrosh is a corpulent Orson Welles-like figure, a perfect parody of full-of-themselves “artistes”.  Though I suppose my describing him as such is a terrible insult to Mr. Welles, who was actually a genius.  Jonrosh, on the other hand, seems to just THINK that he is, and his pompous, drunken ramblings at the start and end of each installment are absolutely wonderful and hilarious.  Take care to pay close attention to the fine print under Jonrosh’s introductory title at the start of each episode, listing his many interests/professions.  Some very good jokes in there!

Within that framing device is, amusingly, another framing device, as the dying Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire) tells his life story as he bleeds out from a gunshot wound.  (Each of these second introductions at the start of each episode ends with an overhead shot of Devin’s hand on the microphone he is using to record his tale, with increasingly copious amounts of his blood spilling out onto the table.  I may be a disturbed individual, but that made me laugh a lot.)

In the tradition of the epic mini-series, we follow the Morehouse family through many decades.  We first meet Devon as a young boy, when he is adopted by Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) after being found on the side of the road.  Devon and his adoptive sister, Cynthia Morehouse (Kristen Wiig), immediately fall into forbidden love, a passion that will drive them together and pull them apart over the course of the rest of their lives.

That leading trio are absolutely perfect.  I feel like Tobey Maguire has fallen out of Hollywood’s favor in recent years, but this miniseries reminds you of his talents.  He’s wonderful here, over-acting to the exact right amount to land the jokes of this overwrought parody of a drama.  This is great casting, as Mr. Maguire’s natural intensity only makes his performance that much funnier.  He’s a completely different type of actor than is Ms. Wiig, but somehow their pairing works absolutely perfectly.  These two are brilliant together.  Ms. Wiig gets many of the mini-series’ best moments, as she follows Cynthia from young, naive girl to tough-as-nails, cynical titan of industry.  Whereas both Mr. Maguire and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the BBC Adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

April 11th, 2016
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Over the winter I read Susannah Clarke’s magnificent novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  I loved it, and highly recommend reading it.  The book tells the story of two magicians attempting to bring magic back to England in the late 1800s.  The novel is one of the best examples of fantasy world-building I have come across in years.  Clarke’s marvelously entertaining novel is rich in intricate details of this alternate universe England.

This compelling fantasy novel was ripe for an adaptation, and so I didn’t wait long after finishing the book to track down the BBC’s recent seven-episode miniseries adaptation.  First of all, thank heavens this novel was adapted into a miniseries rather than a film, as the seven-episode structure allows the story to breathe in a way a movie wouldn’t have.  (Even at seven episodes, the miniseries is very packed with plot and incident and struggles at times to tell the full story of Ms. Clarke’s sprawling novel!)

Overall I quite enjoyed the miniseries and highly recommend it.  Though let me be clear that Ms. Clarke’s wonderful novel is superior to the adaptation in every way.  If you’re considering diving into this story and this world, I strongly recommend reading the novel.

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The miniseries chiefly succeeds in the strength of its casting if the two leads.  I have often enjoyed the work of Eddie Marsan (who has appeared in both of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, along with V for Vendetta, War Horse, and The World’s End), and he is perfectly cast here as the dour, bookish Mr. Norrell.  What a great pleasure it is to see this wonderful actor given a chance to shine in this leading role!  He is magnificent, keeping Mr. Norrell watchable as the lead while but never hesitating to show us this mousy little man’s many flaws.  As the miniseries progresses Mr. Norrell is both loathsome and very sympathetic, and Mr. Marsan’s strong work makes those shifts perfectly believable and compelling.

Equally magnificent us Bertie Carvel, an actor I had never heard of before seeing him here but who gives an astoundingly great performance as the second magician, Jonathan Strange.  Mr. Strange is the opposite of Mr. Norrell in almost every way, handsome and outspoken and charismatic, and Mr. Carvel absolutely commands the screen whenever he is present.  This is a triumphant performance and, I think, the best aspect of this adaptation.

The miniseries also, thankfully, features all of Ms. Clarke’s wonderful supporting characters.  Sir Walter and Lady Pole, Arabella, Drawlight and Lascelles, Childermass and Vinculus, John Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, they’re all here and lots more.

It’s interesting, this isn’t a case like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil!

I thought that the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil was spectacular, dark and complex and very adult, a triumphant declaration of intent for Netflix’s Marvel shows.  Jessica Jones, the second Marvel show, was every bit as good, telling a wrenching story of a young woman trying to put her life back together after a terrible assault.  (Click here for my review of Daredevil season one and Jessica Jones season one.)  Luke Cage (a character introduced so wonderfully in Jessica Jones) is scheduled to be the third Netflix Marvel show, but I was delighted that first we got a second season of Daredevil.

This terrific run of thirteen episodes make Netflix three for three, as they have followed up Daredevil’s terrific first season with an encore that is every bit as compelling and thrilling as season one.  I have read some reviews on-line that felt this season didn’t live up to the promise of season one, while others felt that it blew season one out of the water.  I didn’t have either reaction — instead, I was impressed with how consistent in style and tone and quality this second season was to season one.  (This is particularly impressive because of some behind-the-scenes change-ups that I have read about.  At the start of this second season Daredevil was on its third set of show-runners, which is not usually a good sign.)  I loved the vast majority of season two, and though I felt they stumbled a little bit at the end, this is still a phenomenal season of television and probably the best superhero TV show I have ever seen.

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With the Kingpin off the streets, at the start of season two all seems well for Hell’s Kitchen and Matt Murdock.  But that happy status quo is quickly upset by a series of challenges.  While the city has begun to embrace the vigilante Daredevil, those tentative good feelings are shattered by the arrival on the scene of another, more violent vigilante, the Punisher, who murders criminals.  Daredevil and the Punisher immediately come into violent conflict.  Then, Matt’s long-lost love Elektra returns to the city and his life.  Elektra is revealed to be involved with the same war against an ancient evil that Matt’s old master Stick has been fighting, and Matt soon finds his city overrun with the vicious ninjas known as the Hand.  Will Elektra fight on Matt’s side or will she turn fully to the darkness inside of her?

Daredevil season two is filled with a LOT of plot and a LOT of characters, and I was impressed with how well the show was able to juggle everything.  I commented in my review of Jessica Jones[continued]

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Josh Reviews Agent Carter: Season Two

I really enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s character, Peggy Carter, in 2011’s Captain America, The First Avenger, and I was thrilled when her character spun off as the lead of a TV miniseries last year, Agent Carter.  That first season was solid though not spectacular.  Ms. Atwell was terrific, a superb leading lady, and the show was entertaining if not hugely compelling.  (Click here for my full review of Agent Carter season one.)

(Quick summary of my thoughts on Marvel’s TV shows: I adored both Daredevil season one and Jessica Jones season one, two dark, adult shows with rich characters and a thrilling intensity. In contrast, I have been very disappointed by CBS’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that I feel has been very flat since its beginning. That show has a decent cast but it’s failed to make any of its characters interesting or compelling, and the story-lines have been dull and simplistic. I finally gave up on the show this year.)

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Agent Carter season two picks up a few months after season one, and the location has shifted from New York City to Los Angeles.  Peggy Carter quickly finds herself in the middle of a situation with a crazy woman infected by a powerful substance from another dimension (“Dark Matter”), and a secret cabal of men working to take control of the United States.

For the most part, I feel that Agent Carter season two is very consistent with season one.  That’s good and bad, as the show is certainly enjoyable but it doesn’t elevate into something really great.  Compared to the brilliant Marvel Netflix shows, this network effort feels very simplistic.  Still, Ms. Atwell is phenomenal, effortlessly shouldering the burden of her leading role. The show is fun, with a fairly light, banter-filled tone. The “pulpy” story-lines keep the audience interested, and once again the show mines great fun from the period setting.  (At first I was disappointed when I realized this season would be set in LA rather than New York, but in the end I loved the switch as 1950’s LA proved a fertile ground for the show, and its bright sunny scenery was a good match for the show’s light tone.)

The biggest problem with Agent Carter is that Agent Carter is by far the most interesting character in the show.  I wish Ms Atwell was in a better show, surrounded by more interesting characters and more compelling story-lines.  While the show didn’t lose my interest at any point, neither was anything that happens in this season all that exciting or gripping.  Last season, the show squandered the potential of Leviathan, which was billed as a vast criminal organization that was instead, … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Three!

I loved season one and season two of The Americans, so of course I had to continue ahead with season three.  I am thrilled to have caught up with this great show in advance of the start of season four, which begins soon!

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One of my favorite story-lines from the end of season two was the suggestion that The Centre wanted Philip and Elizabeth to bring their daughter Paige in on their work as spies.  That gave the final episodes of season two a wonderful tension, and I was thrilled that this continued as a major story-line in season three.  With Elizabeth in favor of the idea and Phillip horrified at the notion, this provided a great, natural source of tension between Philip and Elizabeth throughout this season.  It was also nice to see a spotlight shine on Paige (Holly Taylor, who has grown into a terrific young actress).  (Poor Henry didn’t have much to do yet again this season — other than play Strat-O-Matic football with Stan and look at a secret hidden photo of Sandra Beeman — but I’m OK with that.)

When the moment finally arrives late in the season (in the episode “Stingers”) that Paige learns the truth about her parents, it’s a shocking moment, a thrilling turning-point that gave the show with an extra boost of narrative energy that shot it right through to the finale and the delicious cliffhanger with Paige on the phone with Pastor Tim.  The only bit of weirdness that jumped out at me in those final episodes was that I wondered why we never saw Philip or Elizabeth actually take the time to sit with Paige and explain WHY they are spies (that is, why they think the Soviet Union is a better country with a better system than the capitalist United States) and to answer the million questions she seems to have.  Wouldn’t have have been more effective than letting her just stew and wonder on her own?  (It reminded me in a not-great way of Lost, in which the show constantly prevented the characters from taking a minute to have the normal conversation that any rational person would have in those moments, just because they wanted to keep information away from certain characters and the audience.)  But I love that we are now deep enough into the life of The Americans that we can start to see the show upending some of its status quo, most notably the dramatic revelations this season to Paige and Martha.

We’ve seen Elizabeth and Philip do some nasty, nasty things in this series so far, but that didn’t make Philip’s assignment to seduce young Kimmie (the daughter of the head of the … [continued]

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Digging Deeper into The X-Files 6-Episode Event Series!

Earlier this week I posted my overall thoughts on The X-Files six-episode event series (or “season 10” as it is being referred to in many places).  Here now is a more detailed episode-by-episode analysis:

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Episode 1 — “My Struggle” — This was a very rocky beginning to the relaunch.  One of the biggest surprises/disappointments of this six-episode event season was the low quality of the three episodes that X-Files creator/show-runner Chris Carter wrote and directed.  His two “My Struggle” episodes (that bookended the season) were just terrible.  This felt like the “Cliff’s Notes” version of an X-Files episode, with way too much plot jammed into the hour.  Nothing had time to breathe and none of the characters behaved in a way that made sense to me.

In the timeline of the show, Mulder and Scully have now been away from the X-Files for well over a decade.  The event that brings them back to the FBI needs to be MOMENTOUS.  But in this episode, it’s a nothing.  The Bureau contacts Mulder and Scully just because a right-wing talk-show host (Joel McHale) wants to speak to them?  Why is this the inciting event for these new episodes?  Why, at the end of the events of this hour, do Mulder and Scully decide to return to the FBI?  Why does the FBI take them back?  None of that is clearly established.  The episode also fumbles on explaining what Mulder and Scully have been up to since the events of 2008’s second movie, I Want to Believe.  That film was all about the two of them getting their faith back, each of them in what they want to believe.  But what have they been up to since then?  I am OK with breaking the two of them up, even though it smacks of a desire to reset everything to the old status quo of the original series.  (One of the huge mis-steps of the later years of the show, and that second movie, was having Mulder and Scully get together OFF CAMERA.  We still never learned exactly how and why they got together after years of sexual tension.  Nor was it ever made 100% clear that Mulder fathered baby William.  But more on that in a moment.)  But since it was established in the second movie that these two had been a couple for years, I would have liked this episode to have more clearly established what went wrong.

A lot of things happen in this episode but not much of it makes any sense.  Why does one conversation with this young woman Sveta (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru, a wonderful actress totally wasted here) convince Mulder that everything he has believed in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The X-Files 6-Episode Event Series

March 2nd, 2016
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My father convinced me to start watching The X-Files about half-way through its first season, back in late ’93 or early ’94, and I was quickly hooked.  I became a huge fan of the show, and I have been ever since.  Seasons two through five of The X-Files are pretty spectacular, and what other TV series in recent memory has transitioned into a feature film in the middle of its run?  It’s unprecedented, and only serves to illustrate what a behemoth The X-Files was back then.

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That 1998 movie (which fans like to call Fight the Future but which, back then was just known as The X-Files movie) was the first time the series stumbled.  In the years since, I have grown to love that first X-Files film.  I recently re-watched it, and now it looks like a time capsule of The X-Files at the height of its power.  I’d hold it up as one of the best examples a classic X-Files story, twisty and thrilling, gorgeous to look at and with some terrific humor and character beats.  At the time it disappointed, though, mostly because it didn’t provide the definitive answers that fans of the series had expected.  Seasons six and seven of the series, after the movie, were still solid, though the bloom was somewhat off the rose.  The biggest problem was that, by that point, the show’s mythology — what had been one of its greatest strengths — was starting to become a weakness, too convoluted to make much sense.

The finale of season seven was designed to possibly serve as a series finale, since when the episode was filmed it was uncertain if the show would return.  (This is a terrible way to treat a long-running successful show.  Today, huge hit shows tend to be more able to end at a time of their own choosing, and thus able to craft a more satisfying ending.)  Looking back now, in many ways I wish the show had ended after season seven, because when the show returned it was without David Duchovny, who appeared only sporadically in those final two seasons.  I don’t want to overly bash seasons eight and nine, as I actually think that most of the individual episodes were still pretty great.  But the show had to twist itself around narratively to explain Mulder’s absence in a way that I felt damaged the show and the characters.  (I just don’t buy Mulder going on the run and leaving Scully, it doesn’t feel like something that character would do.)

I have often lamented on this site how seldom it is that a pop-culture juggernaut is able to have a definitive, satisfying ending.  As I noted … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Two!

After hearing rave reviews for The Americans for years, I was pleased to finally have a chance to watch season one a few months ago.  I thought it was pretty great (click here for my review) and so didn’t waste too much time before moving on to season two.  The continuing story of Philip and Elizabeth, Russian spies posing as a normal suburban American family in the 1980’s, remains twisty and thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable.

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Season two of The Americans succeeds in addressing my main complaint about season one, which was the ups-and-downs of Philip and Elizabeth’s constantly shifting relationship.  (In season one that relationship felt like a crazy pendulum, with Philip in love with Elizabeth but her hating him in one episode, and then in the next swinging around to Philip hating Elizabeth but her in love with him, and back and forth and back and forth.)  Here in season two, there is still tension in the relationship (which makes sense, as a source of drama for the show), but it felt to me like it unfolded far more smoothly over the course of the season.  It’s also fun, and interesting, to see Philip and Elizabeth in the type of real, emotionally-involved relationship that they both (at different times) seemed to want in season one.  It’s a nice progression for these characters.

In this post Breaking Bad world, many shows have adopted that show’s groundbreakingly speedy way it burned through plot-lines.  For years I was often frustrated how TV shows would generally stick to their status quo, long-past the point when it made sense based on all the stories that had come before.  That’s not much of an issue for most TV shows today, and The Americans is one of the more successful examples of this.  There’s not a lot of fat in this thirteen episode season.  Events unfold fast and furious.

Even so, the show surprised me by how quickly the Nina Sergeevna/Stan Beeman story-line unraveled in the latter half of the season.  I enjoyed the introduction of Oleg Igorevich Burov at the start of this season as a new challenge for Nina and, eventually, a third player in her complicated romantic relationships.  Once he started blackmailing Stan, it felt like that brought new life to the Nina-Stan story-line, and so I was surprised by how quickly that plot moved forward in the latter half of the season.  That’s not a complaint, it made for exciting TV.  Once Stan got backed into a corner, I think he made the only choice he could, and so I guess there wasn’t much farther that story could go.  Still, I love Nina — she might be my favorite character … [continued]

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The Top Fifteen Episodes of TV in 2015 — Part Three!

Last week I listed by Top Twenty Movies of 2015.  (Click here for part one of my list, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part three of my list, numbers ten through six.  Click here for part four of my list, numbers five through one.)

This week I began listing my Top Fifteen Episodes of TV in 2015.  (Click here for part one of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part two of my list, numbers ten through six.)

And now, my Top Five Episodes of TV in 2015:

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5. Daredevil: “Cut Man” (season one, episode two, released on 4/10/15) — I really, really loved the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil show.  It was a bold announcement of the type of Marvel show that Netflix would be creating, something far darker, more complex, and more adult than almost every other super-hero TV show out there.  This, the show’s second episode, is filled with greatness.  I was particularly taken by the conclusion in this episode of the flashbacks, begun in episode one, of the death of Matt’s dad Battlin’ Jack Burdock, and the repercussions of the accident that blinded Matt but gifted him with super-normal powers.  I love this show’s depiction of the relationship between Jack (wonderfully well-played by John Patrick Hayden) and his young son Matt.  This enhances the gut-punch of the moment we all know is coming when Jack gets killed.  I like that the show takes the time to develop Jack, as his presence will continue as a shadow over Matt Murdock for the rest of the season.  I also enjoy the way this episode introduces Claire (Rosario Dawson) and begins to develop her relationship with Matt in the present day.  But the reason this episode is on this list is because of the magnificent one-take action sequence that closes the episode.  This incredible action set-piece absolutely blew me away.  In one long, slow take, the camera slowly glides down a long, dingy corridor, as Matt Murdock battles his way to rescue the young girl being help captive in the room at the end of the hall.  The sequence is a triumph of staging and stunts, as Daredevil and an array of bad-guys crash in and out of rooms, in and out of doors, sometimes in view of the camera and sometimes not, as Daredevil fights his way down that hallway.  (It’s also a triumph of sound-editing as there are times when we can’t see what’s going on in the rooms beyond the corridor, but the soundtrack tells us everything we need to know.)  … [continued]

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The Top Fifteen Episodes of TV in 2015 — Part Two!

Last week I listed by Top Twenty Movies of 2015.  (Click here for part one of my list, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part three of my list, numbers ten through six.  Click here for part four of my list, numbers five through one.)

Yesterday I began listing my Top Fifteen Episodes of TV in 2015.  (Click here for part one of my list, numbers fifteen through eleven.)

And now, onward!

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10. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: “Edward Snowden” (season two, episode eight, aired on 4/15/15) — While I wish that John Oliver had stuck around The Daily Show a little longer so that he could have taken over that show following the departure of Jon Stewart, I must admit that I’ve been very impressed with the way Mr. Oliver has created a distinct new vehicle for himself with Last Week Tonight.  The show has a very similar tone to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show while also creating a show with a distinct style and format all it’s own.  (I’d never have predicted the success Mr. Oliver would find with devoting his show to longer, more in-depth looks at particular topics each week.)  But the moment when Mr. Oliver truly staked a claim to Jon Stewart’s legacy was with this extraordinary, extra-length interview with Edward Snowden.  Mr. Oliver’s lengthy interview was truly something special: a very funny, very angry, and very human exploration of what Mr. Snowden had done, why he did it, and what the consequences have been for him.  Whether you agree with Edward Snowden or condemn him, every American should watch this interview.

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9. Jessica Jones: “AKA Ladies Night” (season one, episode one, released on 11/20/15) — Netflix’s second Marvel mini-series was just as great if not better than last fall’s Daredevil.  Jessica Jones (created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos in the phenomenal comic-book series Alias) is a woman who has been deeply scarred by a trauma in her past.  When we meet her, she is struggling mightily to create some semblance of a life for herself, working as a private eye.  But her past quickly catches up with her as she learns that the mind-controlling Killgrave who’d destroyed her life is not nearly as dead as she had believed.  Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is a wonderful character, a hugely flawed but nonetheless noble woman struggling to make the best of an impossible situation.  The show surrounds her with a rich coterie of complex, interesting female supporting characters such as Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and the tough attorney Jerri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss).  … [continued]

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The Top Fifteen Episodes of TV in 2015 — Part One!

Last week I listed by Top Twenty Movies of 2015.  (Click here for part one of my list, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part three of my list, numbers ten through six.  Click here for part four of my list, numbers five through one.)

Now I am excited to look back all of the great TV we were blessed with in 2015.  This was a tremendous year for TV.  I watched a LOT of great TV.  And yet, as always, there was a lot of great TV that I didn’t get to.  More than ever, it felt like!  Our current age of “Peak TV” (click here if you don’t know what I’m talking about) is a blessing and a curse.  2015 TV series that I didn’t have time to watch include: Fargo season two, Better Caul Saul season one, The Americans season three (I’m still catching up with season two, only a few episodes to go), Transparent, Justified, The Man in the High Castle, Review, Documentary Now!, Halt and Catch Fire, The Leftovers, Red Oaks, Silicon Valley, The Knick, The Last Man on Earth, Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, and more.  That’s a lot of amazing TV that I didn’t get to see!  All of those are shows that I hope to catch up with, one of these days.

But enough lamenting the TV I didn’t get to watch.  Let’s bask in the glow of my Fifteen Favorite Episodes of TV in 2015!

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Honorable Mention: Robot Chicken DC Comics Special 3: Magical Friendship (aired on 10/8/15) — I’ve loved Robot Chicken’s two previous DC Comics specials and his third one did not disappoint.  While there are several of the expected random skits, this special has a more distinct than usual for Robot Chicken story that carries through the episode, a focus on the very funny friendship/rivalry between Batman and Superman that was introduced in the previous two specials.  Robot Chicken co-creators and show-runners Breckin Meyer and Seth Green voice Superman and Batman, respectively, and they are magnificent.  In this installment, Superman and Batman’s escalating rivalry builds to a spot-on spoof of DC’s regular “Crisis” events, one that allows the Robot Chicken gang to jam in all sorts of wonderfully obscure jokes and references, including great appearances by the Batman and Robin of the 1960’s TV show, with both Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles.  Great fun.

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15. Show Me a Hero: “Parts 1 & 2” (aired on 8/16/15) –The Wire’s David Simon returned to TV with this gripping miniseries, telling the story of the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jessica Jones

I was excited when Netflix announced that Daredevil would be the first of their Marvel universe TV shows.  But I was even more excited when Netflix announced that Jessica Jones would be their second.  I was also somewhat concerned, since as an enormous fan of the character I was worried about whether she would be faithfully translated to the screen.  I adored Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ twenty-eight-issue series Alias (published from 2001 to 2004) in which Mr. Bendis & Mr. Gaydos introduced the character of Jessica, and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Bendis’ depictions of the character ever since (in his follow-up series The Pulse as well as various issues of The Avengers).  Jessica Jones is one of most interesting and complex new characters introduced to the Marvel Universe in the past several decades.  The potential of seeing her brought to life on a new TV show was delicious, but I also would have hated to have seen the character not done justice.

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Thankfully, Marvel’s Netflix team is two for two as, just like they did with their tremendous first season of Daredevil (click here for my review), they have created in Jessica Jones a show that is thrilling, sophisticated, dark and very adult that is also a huge amount of fun and a delightfully riveting adventure.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

(Please note that I will be discussing this show in some detail.  I will try to avoid major spoilers, but there’s no way to discuss the show without also talking about some of its plot twists.  If you haven’t yet watched this show I advise you to go watch it immediately — really, it’s excellent, you’ll thank me later! — and then come back to read this review.)

When we are introduced to her, Jessica Jones is private eye in the Marvel Universe.  Though not a very successful one.  She’s reduced to mostly taking photos of cheating husbands on behalf of their broken-hearted wives.  Jessica has super-powers: she’s very strong, able to run fast and jump high.  But Jessica is no super-hero.  She is gruff and grumpy, short-tempered and hard-drinking.  As she tells Like Cage early in the show: “I don’t get asked on a lot of second dates.”  But what we gradually learn as the show unfolds is that Jessica has become who she is because she has been deeply broken by a trauma in her past.  A trauma with a name: Killgrave, a super-powered individual whose voice gives him absolute command over anyone within earshot.  At some point before the show begins, Jessica fell under Killgrave’s control for many long months, and I probably don’t need to go into … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Master of None: Season One!

I discovered Aziz Ansari on Parks and Rec, and was immediately a big fan.  (Moment of somber reflection for Parks and Rec, a wonderful show that I miss terribly!)  Parks and Rec led me to his stand-up, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  And so I was excited and intrigued when I learned that Mr. Ansari would be creating a new show for Netflix.  Master of None captures Mr. Ansari’s comedic voice in a very specific, very enjoyable way.  Mr. Ansari created the show with Alan Yang and stars as Dev Shah, a 30 year-old struggling actor living in New York City.

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I’m hugely impressed by the growth Mr. Ansari has displayed, moving from a supporting character on a network TV show to co-creator of his own unique cable show.  Master of None feels like as specific, unique an expression of Mr. Ansari’s comedy and personality as Louie is of Louis C.K., and I’m not sure what higher complement I can give to Mr. Ansari and his show.

Master of None is phenomenal, a wonderful creation that feels like a very personal work for Mr. Ansari.  The show is clearly based on many of his experiences and topics to which he has given a lot of thought, from romance and dating in this modern era to the American experience of immigrants and their assimilated children.  The show has a very specific, unique rhythm, and I love how Mr. Ansari and his team have balanced the comedy (the show is very funny) with an interesting, well-fleshed-out dramatic story for Dev.  I love also how Mr. Ansari and his team have created a show that has a distinct arc, a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end that stretches over the ten episodes, while also allowing each individual episode to live and breathe as a distinct episode all on its own.  I’m a huge fan of serialization, and it’s been interesting to see how many cable shows over the past few years have leaned more heavily into serialization, with stories carrying over from episode-to-episode.  I love that in many respects, but it’s also started to lead to individual episodes losing any sort of distinct identity.  Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix recently wrote a great piece about this phenomenon.  I just finished Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and I’ll be writing more about that show here soon.  The show was phenomenal, but it was an extreme example of this sort of serialization.  I can’t imagine ever just randomly watching a middle episode from Jessica Jones.  If I want to experience the story again, I’ll watch the whole season start-to-finish.  By contrast, I was extremely impressed to see how Mr. Ansari and his team took a … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans: Season One

I’ve been reading praise for The Americans for several years now, so I’m glad to have finally found the time to dive in myself with their first thirteen-episode season.  The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a husband-and-wife pair who own a travel agency and who live with their two kids in the suburbs of Washington, DC in the early eighties.  Except that Elizabeth and Philip aren’t actually the average American suburbanites they pretend to be.  They are Russian moles, deep-cover secret agents who have been living a lie for twenty years.

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The Americans is every bit as good as I’d heard it would be.  The series is a great nail-biter of a suspense tale while also being a wonderful character study of these two fascinating people, spies who have been living a lie for most of their adult lives.

Having just finished a long project of watching Breaking Bad from start-to-finish (click here for my review of Breaking Bad’s final season), I was taken aback when the pilot episode of The Americans seemed to set up a premise remarkably similar to that of Breaking Bad.  When FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in right across the street from the Jennings, I felt like I was right back to watching Walter White’s cat-and-mouse game with DEA agent Hank Schrader.  Luckily, after the pilot that sense of familiarity faded as The Americans took its story in different directions.

I’ve never watched Felicity, Keri Russell’s breakout TV show, though I’ve enjoyed her work here and there (in films like Mission: Impossible III and Waitress and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).  But I’ve never seen her as fiercely inhabit a character as she does here with Elizabeth.  She is dynamite in the show, beautiful and complex.  It’s as much fun watching Elizabeth kick ass as it is to watch her struggle with her conflicted feelings towards her undercover “husband” Philip and her occasional beau Gregory (Derek Luke, written out of the series far too soon for my tastes) and fence verbally with her KGB handler Claudia (Margo Martindale, absolutely wonderful).

I wasn’t familiar with Matthew Rhys prior to watching this show, but he’s terrific, every bit Keri Russell’s equal.  I love watching these two characters together.  The best scenes of the show are when these Elizabeth and Philip are together — either working together or bitterly tearing each other down — which is why The Americans works as well as it does.  I am fascinated by the relationship between these two characters.  In this first season, the show dives deeply into the complex relationship between Elizabeth and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Louie Season Five!

November 20th, 2015
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Last month I had the pleasure of catching up with the fifth season of Louie C.K.’s fantastic FX show, Louie.  I’ve been a fan since the beginning of Louie.  It’s such a unique show, one that feels like a very personal expression of Louie C.K.’s very particular voice and sense of humor.

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While season four experimented with longer story-telling arcs, with stories that ran across multiple episodes, season five returns more closely to something approaching the flavor of season one, with each episode feeling entirely like it’s own thing, a stand-alone loony adventure in Louie’s life.  I loved the ambition of season four, but in my heart I think that this is the flavor of Louie that I love best.  Each episode feels like its own weird little flight of fancy.

Season five is far shorter than the previous seasons, clocking in at only eight episodes.  I’m not sure why there were so few episodes this time around, but I’m thankful for what we got.

After the disappearance of the great opening credits and theme song in season four, I was happy to see them return here in season five (albeit occasionally in a somewhat truncated form, presumably to make room for everything else that Louie wanted to fit into the episode).

Once again Louie C.K. wrote, directed, and starred in every episode.  The show continues to be a tour de force work for Louie, a hugely original piece of work that feels like a direct conduit into his mind.  I love that about the show.  It continues to be quite unlike anything else on TV.  The show rigorously refuses to be pinned down to a certain style or tone.  The show can veer from hilarious to serious to out-of-left-field loony, often within minutes.

The premiere, “Potluck,” feels like a classic Louie idea: Louie goes to a potluck dinner at the home of a parent of one of the girls in one of his daughter’s class.  But he mistakenly goes to the wrong apartment and a potluck dinner of a group of an entirely different sort, something that Louie (and we the audience) only gradually realizes.  This is a great set-up, but also in classic Louie style, while Louie finds a lot of humor for the situation, he doesn’t solely mine the situation for jokes.  The episode goes to places I didn’t expect.

My favorite episode of the season was “Sleepover,” in which Louie hosts a sleepover birthday party for all of his daughter Jane’s friends.  Watching Louie navigate a hyper group of tween girls is hilarious, but the episode goes to far crazier places when Louie gets a frantic call from his brother Booby, who is in jail and … [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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Josh Reviews Show Me A Hero

Is there a greater master of television working today than David Simon?  Had he never done anything else of consequence after the triumph that was The Wire (and seriously, if anyone reading these words has never watched that show, you really need to drop everything and remedy that immediately) then he would still be a master of the medium.  While The Wire remains his magnum opus, I was a huge fan of his follow-up show Treme (cut short too soon after four too-short seasons, though I thank the TV gods and HBO for those four seasons that we got) and now Mr. Simon has given us another magnificent piece of work, the six-episode mini-series Show Me a Hero.

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Show Me a Hero is based on the 1999 book of the same name written by Lisa Belkin.  The story, taking place between 1987 and 1994, follows the fight to desegregate Yonkers.  A Federal Judge, Leonard Sands, had ruled that Yonkers was required to construct 200 units of public housing on the white, more-affluent side of the Saw Mill Parkway.  This became a huge issue in the city, with many of the white population protesting this decision.

Show Me a Hero’s main protagonist is Nick Wasicsko, a young Yonkers city council member who was able to unseat the long-term Yonkers mayor, Angelo Martinelli, because Nick makes an issue of the fact that Martinelli had voted not to appeal the judge’s decision.  However, once he takes office, it becomes clear to Nick that there is no viable legal challenge to the judge’s ruling.  Nick, a former lawer, believes in the rule of law, and as such eventually becomes a supporter of enforcing the judge’s decision.  This is an extremely unpopular move in Yonkers.  The show follows the many years during which this argument raged in the courts, in the city council chambers, and on the streets of Yonkers.

The show presents us with a vast array of characters from all sides of the issue and from many different social strata.  This has always been a hallmark of Mr. Simon’s work.  It was one of the most remarkable aspects of The Wire, and its a huge component to the success of Show Me a Hero.  Throughout the six episodes we meet the Yonkers city-level politicians who support and oppose the housing initiative.  We meet the citizens leading the protest movement.  We meet Judge Sands and the architects and lobbyists pushing the housing initiative.  We meet many African-American families who will, when the new housing project finally becomes a reality, choose to apply to live in the new units.  Mr Simons and co-writer William F. Zorzi show great compassion for all of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season One

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have followed up the magnificent 30 Rock with another wonderfully unique, funny, sweet creation: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  The show was developed for NBC who, for some unfathomable-to-me decision, passed on the show after the entire thirteen-episode first season had been completed.  Thankfully Netflix rode to the rescue to release the first season (and commissioned a second one!).

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Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids) stars as the titular Kimmy Schmidt who, when the show begins, has just been rescued from 15 years of captivity underground, where she was held along with three other women by an apocalyptic cult leader.  Ready to start a new life, she moves to New York City where she finds an apartment to share with the jovial, wannabe-Hollywood star Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and a job as a nanny for the wealthy, neurotic Jacqueline Vorhees (30 Rock veteran Jane Krakowski).

What’s so remarkable about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its tone.  The show manages to pull off an unapologetically positive, upbeat vibe, something very rare in a post-Seinfeld era of snarky comedies.  Note: I am not criticizing all snarky comedies, and I think Seinfeld is one of the greatest TV shows ever made.  But what a refreshing delight it is to watch a comedy that manages to be very funny and also so life-affirming and upbeat.  As we get to know Kimmy over the course of these first thirteen episodes, we see that her positive outlook on life has made her spirit “unbreakable”, and the show shows us how her sunny disposition is able to positively affect those around her.  This is a very sweet idea for a show, and it’s impressive that Ms. Fey & Mr. Carlock and their team are able to pull this off so smoothly.  (I love that all of the show’s episode titles end with a jovial exclamation point!)

And make no mistake, the show is very funny.  Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt possesses the fast-paced loopiness and quotability that made 30 Rock so endearing, as well as that show’s ability to dive deeply into a gag.  As an example: Titus’ “Pinot Noir” music video from episode six, “Kimmy Goes to School!” is a triumph, and one of the best things I have seen on TV all year.

The show represents a star-making turn for Ellie Kemper.  Ms. Kemper has demonstrated her comedic chops on TV (The Office) and on film (Bridesmaids), but in Kimmy she has found her greatest role so far.  Ms. Kemper is tremendous in the role, able to sell both Kimmy’s toughness and her sweet innocence.  She’s able to play both the straight-woman (particularly in any scene with Tituss Burgess or Jane … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 3

The first season of Orange is the New Black was a delight, a show that felt hugely original and stuffed full of wonderful, complex characters.  The main hook of that first season was the journey of Piper, a relatively ordinary upper middle-class white woman who suddenly found herself in prison.  The Piper character was a terrific audience surrogate as the show explored the world of a woman’s minimum security prison and as Piper, and we, got to know the fascinating array of characters — inmates and guards — found there.  In season two, the Piper character took a backseat as the show dove more deeply into all of the exploring characters.  The season had a strong narrative thrust in the story of Vee, whose arrival at the prison shook up almost all of the characters.

Season three of the show was very enjoyable, though it has neither the excitement of discovery of the first season nor the strong central story-line of the second season.  At this point, the show seems to have settled into something of a comfortable, “comfort food” middle-age.  I continue to enjoy spending time with all of these rich, complicated characters, though perhaps the show has lost some of the creative energy it had at the beginning.

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With the return of Laura Prepon, who plays Piper’s on-again-off-again nemesis-slash-love-interest Alex Vause, I’d expected Piper to return to center stage this season.  But instead, I found her pushed more to the background than ever.  I am not sure whether or not this was intentional on the part of creator and show-runner Jenji Cohen.  Is Piper still supposed to be the lead character of this show?  Or have they decided that we no longer need this “audience surrogate” character and that the show is now less interested in Piper and more interested in the deep bench of other characters of so many ethnicities and backgrounds?  I’m not sure if Jenji Cohen has become less interested in Piper, but I certainly have.  Taylor Schilling does the best she can with what she is given, but I was not at all interested in Piper’s flirtation with new sexy inmate Stella (played by Australian Ruby Rose) nor her turn as panties-selling crime-lord.  Piper has always been portrayed as flighty, but both seemed like sharp left-turns that made it difficult for me to sympathize at all with Piper any more.

The biggest pleasant surprise of season three was the new focus on the Litchfield prison guards and administrators.  Who ever would have though that Caputo (Nick Sandow) — such a despicable figure in season one, masturbating at his office computer — would become one of the show’s most endearing characters?  The present-day story-line casts … [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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Josh Reviews Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

David Wain and Michael Showalter’s cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer is not a film for which I ever expected to see a sequel made.

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The film did not succeed upon its theatrical release back in 2001.  But then a strange thing happened, which sometimes occurs with films whose style or content fall somewhat outside what one might deem the “mainstream” (and this seems to particularly be the case with comedies): the film slowly began to build a passionate group of fans who love and quote the film endlessly.  At the same time, so many of the performers in the film, who were small-potatoes when it was released, exploded in popularity in the years to come: performers like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and many others.  Looking back on the film today, Wet Hot American Summer feels like an incredibly prescient film, one that magically brought together an insanely talented array of performers.

And yet, despite the film’s eventually earning a beloved status amongst many comedy fans, who ever thought that a sequel would ever be made?  What flop ever earns a sequel?  And Wet Hot never felt to me like one of those films that is begging for a sequel.  The film’s story, about the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood in 1981, felt like a complete story.  And how on earth could all of these now-very-popular and successful performers ever be united?

And even if one dared to dream that perhaps someday some studio could be convinced to front the money to make a sequel for a film that flopped, there are all the other challenges of making a sequel to a comedy.  I could probably write a book analyzing all the reasons why this might be, but for now let’s just cut to the chase to state that making a comedy sequel is incredibly hard.  There are very, very few comedy sequels that are any good.  (Go ahead. Try to name one.)

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter have managed to surmount every single challenge that stood in the way of crafting a satisfying and entertaining sequel to the original film.  I don’t quite know how they did it, but they did!  And so, lo and behold, Netflix’s eight-episode Wet Hot American Summer mini-series is now something that actually exists that I have seen with my own two eyeballs.

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter managed to lure back every single cast-member of note from the original film.  That in itself is a triumph of staggering performers.  To reunite that enormous ensemble, all of whom are big comedy names?  Crazy.  (Along with the names I listed above, back for the mini-series … [continued]

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Josh Reviews True Detective Season 2

I watched both the first and the second seasons of True Detective several months after they aired.  For season one, after months of reading rapturous praise for the new show, I just had to see what all the fuss was about.  (Click here for my review.)  For season two, after reading critic after critic trash the show, I was deeply curious to see if the sophomore season was truly the train-wreck that everyone was claiming.

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It is not.  True Detective season two is a far cry from the masterpiece that was season one, but it’s not the catastrophe you might have heard it was.  Season two has some deep flaws, but I nevertheless found it to be a wonderfully complex, delightfully grim and nihilistic piece if work. It’s a great noir for television.

This season has two main weaknesses.  First, it’s nearly impossible to follow.  I had praised season one for being unapologetically adult and complicated in its storytelling.  This was a show with a tremendously complex plot, and it didn’t slow down to hold the audience’s hands and explain things.  I loved that about season one, even as I was certain there were details I was missing on a first viewing.  I like a show that will reward multiple viewing.  But I feel that here in season two that has been taken too far to an extreme.  There are so many different characters and agendas in season two, and such a complicated web of plot and circumstance, that I had an enormous amount of difficulty in following it all.

The season’s second, and connected, weakness is its failure to properly identify all of the supporting characters.  There are a lot of background characters who I feel the show, to have worked this season, needed to more clearly define and identify for viewers.  Here’s an example: Frank is upset by Stan’s death in the third episode, “Maybe Tomorrow,” but we never really knew who Stan was or what he meant to Frank.  This is exacerbated in the sixth episode, “Church in Ruins,” when Frank and Jordan visit Stan’s widow and son.  It took me a long while to figure out just who the heck they were visiting.  Vince Vaughn was wonderful in the scene with Stan’s son, but that whole scene would have meant so much more had we had time to care at all about Stan and his death.  This failure to clarify the identities of all of the supporting players really cripples the show when the reveals start to come in the later episodes of the season.  Characters refer to names of characters as if they were supposed to mean something, but I had little to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: Season Five!

August 14th, 2015
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I fell in love with Game of Thrones fairly early in its first season.  I keep waiting for the show to falter, but I am continually impressed and amazed by this spectacular show which seems to continue building and deepening the characters and the world.  No show in years has held me as spellbound from start-to-finish each week, and as desperate for the next episode the instant the one I am watching finishes.  Season five was a terrific ten hours of entertainment and, as usual, it also felt far too short and left me head-spinningly crazy with desperate anticipation for the next season, which is a long ten months away.  Sigh.

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For its first several years, Game of Thrones’ storytelling was all about taking the characters we liked, most of whom were together at Winterfell in the first episode (even Tyrion was there!), and scattering them to the winds.  Towards the end of season three I started to get a little weary of the show’s delaying of any gratification in giving us any reunions of these loved but terribly-tortured-by-the-events-of-the-show characters.  One of the chief delights in season five was in seeing some of these characters finally starting to get drawn back together.  The season was filled with wonderful character pairings, from Stannis and Davos at the Wall hanging with Jon Snow; to Jaime and Bronn, Varys and Tyrion and then Jorah and Tyrion, Sansa’s reunion Theon (now Reek), and, of course, to the absolutely delightful bringing together of Tyrion and Daenerys (pictured above).

The pairing of Tyrion and Daenerys was one of my very favorite aspects of the season.  It’s a brilliant move (particularly considering that, apparently, the characters have not yet met in George R.R. Martin’s books).  I was excited when, in the season premiere, it became clear that Varys was steering Tyrion towards Daenerys, and I was thrilled by how quickly Tyrion actually arrived at Mereen and met Dany.  I’d been expecting far more delays, and was impressed that this was one time when the show didn’t put a billion obstacles before a character, preventing him/her from getting to the place that we the viewers desperately wanted him/her to get.  Bringing Tyrion to Mereen was a genius move, as it uses the best character on the show (Tyrion) to suddenly up the interest factor of the show’s longest-running storyline (that of Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons) that has been almost totally disconnected from everything else happening since the very first episode of season one.  One of my main complaints with the season five finale is that, despite how right it feels to have Dany back with Dothraki, it felt like a pretty silly way to again separate Dany … [continued]

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Welcome Back, Darth Vader!

I just recently watched “The Siege of Lothal,” the one-hour second-season premiere of Star Wars Rebels.  It’s a terrific episode, the best Rebels has done so far.  The main reason why it’s so good?  The welcome return of Darth Vader.  And when I say the return of Vader, I mean the evil, unbeatable, kicking-ass-and-taking-names version of Vader from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.  This is the top-of-his-game, evil and terrifying Vader we haven’t truly seen since 1980.  It’s joyous to behold.