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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

June 14th, 2017
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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

April 21st, 2017
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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

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

February 10th, 2017

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

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

September 19th, 2016
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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

June 20th, 2016
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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 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

March 21st, 2016
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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!

March 7th, 2016
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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!

March 4th, 2016
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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!

February 8th, 2016
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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

December 14th, 2015
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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

December 2nd, 2015
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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 Schroeder.  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

September 18th, 2015
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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.

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As I have written before, I was dubious about the animated Rebels series when it debuted last year, but the last several episodes of the season were spectacular.  The season one finale teased fans by bringing Vader into the story, and the season two premiere wasted no time before making good on that promise.  Vader is all over this episode, tasked with hunting down the small band of rebels who have been making trouble for the Empire on the planet Lothal.

Somehow they got James Earl Jones to reprise the voice of Vader, and it is an incredible delight to hear new Vader dialogue spoken by Mr. Jones.  Even better, the characterization of Vader is absolutely spot on, a triumphant return of Vader at the height of his villainous powers.  This is a Vader who is enormously powerful with his mastery of the Force.  When Vader confronts the show’s two Jedi characters, Kanan and his young Padawan Ezra, Vader easily overpowers them, as well he should.  The rebels try to stop Vader by blowing up two huge Imperial Walkers and toppling them on top of him.  But in one of the show’s best moments, Vader uses the force to lift the wreckage and strides confidently out of the flaming debris, Terminator-style.  (Compare that sequence of badass Force mastery with the great effort all the Jedi seemed to need in the Prequels just to lift small objects, all despite our learning from Yoda in Empire that “size matters not.”  That really bugged me in the Prequels.  It’s great fun here to see Vader as a hugely powerful Force-user.)  The show also nails the casual cruelty of classic Vader.  In this episode, Vader has an imperial governor killed in front of the characters trying to rescue her, he burns a refugee town to the ground in an effort to flush out the rebels, and when he defeats Kanan and Ezra he uses the force to have Ezra almost decapitate himself with his own lightsaber.  (The kid is rescued in the nick of time, but I love that Vader wouldn’t even trouble himself to walk over there and kill Ezra himself.)

But the best Vader sequence comes later, when … [continued]

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“Bravo.” Josh Bids Farewell to Mad Men!

May 20th, 2015
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Mad Men season one was, I am pretty sure, the first TV show set I ever owned on blu-ray.  It was a gift, given to me soon after I bought my first blu-ray player.  At the time, I’d heard about but had never seen this new cable show, and also I wasn’t sure if I ever intended to own any TV shows on blu-ray (as opposed to the at-the-time far cheaper sets available on DVD).  Mad Men season one made me a fan of both the show and the format.  (Lord did that gorgeously filmed first season show off how beautiful a blu-ray image could look!)  It’s hard to believe that was almost a decade ago.

I was immediately captivated by Mad Men, and I was impressed by how complete a piece of work that first thirteen-episode season was.  In 2007, I feel like the idea of a short season of a cable show (as opposed to the usual 20-24 episode run of a network season) was still a fairly new idea (though of course the Brits had been doing short “series” of their shows for quite a while), and Mad Men dazzled me in how effortlessly it used that compact length to tell a complex story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.  Had there been no more Mad Men after that first season, I would have been completely satisfied.

But, of course, luckily for us, we got a lot more.  I watched seasons two and three the same way I had watched season one — all at once when those seasons were released on blu-ray.  Season four was when I found I couldn’t wait any longer and started watching the show as it aired on AMC.  I’m not sure if it’s connected, but season four is also when I truly fell in love with the show.  I had always enjoyed it, and intellectually recognized the greatness of the show.  But I also found it difficult to watch in those early years.  With so many unpleasant and unhappy characters, I found Mad Men to be a tough show in which to invest.  There were few characters I found I could really root for, and whenever I found such a character it was painful to watch unpleasant things happen to him/her, or to watch said character brutally sabotage him/her-self in the way that so many Mad Men characters so often did.  So it took a little while for the show, and its characters, to really grow on me.  But by season four I was well and truly hooked.  I found I could love watching even the most scoundrel-like character on the show.  I also found myself discovering and enjoying … [continued]

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Catching Up! Josh Reviews Powers Season One, Star Wars The Clone Wars “Bad Batch”, and Batman vs Robin

On my desk I keep a list of the various movies and TV shows that I’ve watched that I intend to write about here on the site.  Lately that list has been growing very long!  I have fallen somewhat behind on my blogging.  So I’m going to try a new format here and post some “Catching Up” blogs in the coming weeks, with short reviews of some of the stuff I’ve seen.  Let’s dive in!

Powers Season One — For fifteen years Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers has been one of my favorite indie comic books.  For about that long, Powers has been “in development” in Hollywood for a movie or TV adaptation.  It looked like it would never happen, but then miraculously the series became the initial TV show produced by Sony’s Playstation network.  It seemed to me like a perfect fit.  The show would have the freedom to faithfully adapt Mr. Bendis & Mr. Oeming’s profane, sexy, violent, weird, wonderful series.  I was very excited.  But I’m sorry to say that this first season of ten episodes disappointed me.  I wrote about my initial lukewarm reaction here, and unfortunately the series never improved much for me.

Powers should be edgy, it should be cool, and above all else it should have the wonderfully witty & gritty dialogue that Mr. Bendis is justifiably famous for.  But I found the show to have none of those things.  It was stiff.  It was cheap looking.  Shockingly cheap-looking.  The sets looked like sets and what few super-heroic moments we saw were painfully primitive.  (I mean, the wire-work was just horrendously awkward.)  But I could forgive that if the series told a cool story.  Sadly it did not.  The show has a great ensemble of actors but there was never a moment when I felt that the show ever truly came alive and took flight.  There was little momentum from episode to episode.  With the involvement of the talented Mr. Bendis and crime-writer Charlie Huston, I was excited to see a ten-episode super-hero murder mystery.  But that never really came together.  The murder of big-time super-hero Olympia that kicked off the series, was quickly forgotten about in place of a lot of boring soap opera between former friends Walker, Johnny Royale, and Wolfe.  There was never any momentum to the show, just a lot of dithering about and back-and-forth between these flat characters.  Hardly any character actually DID anything.  Worst of all was that the comic’s central relationship, that between partners Walker and Deena Pilgrim, felt ignored by the show.  Deena herself was marginalized in the second half of the season, and that was a big disappointment.  Who’d … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Daredevil: Season One!

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Let’s cut right to the chase: Netflix’s thirteen-episode first season of Daredevil is a triumph, a gloriously dark, gritty, adult depiction of The Man Without Fear.  Netflix’s Daredevil is the finest super-hero television show I have ever seen.  Am I exaggerating?  I don’t think so.  I am hard-pressed to think of anything that even comes close.  Only a few episodes in, my wife asked me: how is this show so good and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so bad?  Good question!

When Netflix first announced that they would be producing four Marvel TV shows that would eventually connect together, I was excited.  But as the release of Daredevil approached, I must admit that my expectations had dimmed.  I was troubled by the departure, mid-production, of original show-runner Drew Goddard, a terrific talent (responsible for The Cabin in the Woods with Joss Whedon).  Surely his leaving the show spelled trouble?  The early images and trailers for the show also didn’t inspire confidence.  What we saw of Daredevil — not in costume, but instead in a rather ordinary-looking black outfit — made me fear that this show was embarrassed by its super-hero content and/or didn’t have the production value to depict super-heroes well.  The show looked small and it looked silly.

But holy cow was I wrong.  Daredevil is an exceptional piece of work, a confident, bold piece of story-telling.  First of all, I was very impressed by how adult the show is.  There’s some tough language and a lot of truly brutal violence.  This isn’t a kiddy, all-ages show like Marvel’s ABC shows (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter).  This is a tough show, one far more inspired by the intensity and adult-content of a show like Game of Thrones.  (Though of course Daredevil doesn’t go quite that far — there’s no nudity or sex in this show, and not the same level of gore — but I am complimenting Daredevil by putting it in the same league as GoT.)  The adult nature of the show isn’t only the violence and language.  The whole approach to the world and the story-telling is very adult.  Daredevil is a super-hero show, so there are clear heroes and clear villains, but at the same time the show is nimble at presenting us with a complex world filled with moral grays and difficult decisions for our characters.  This is not a show in which the heroes always win by the end of each hour.  Our heroes take some tough, tough lumps as the show goes on (both physically and emotionally), and throughout I was impressed by this adult, compelling approach to presenting a super-hero story.

I love the concise, finite format of Netflix’s thirteen-episode … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Josh Reviews The Jinx

March 30th, 2015
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HBO’s riveting six-episode true-crime documentary series, The Jinx, is one of the most compelling pieces of television I have seen in a long time.  This is edge-of-your-seat television, and the twists and turns of the story are so staggeringly jaw-dropping because these things really happened.  The events you see unfold in The Jinx are so extraordinary, so unbelievable, that they feel like this must be fiction.  But all of these events actually happened!!

The Jinx has been in the new quite a lot recently, as it’s main subject was arrested on the eve of the airing of the finale.  But somehow, luckily, though I had seen the headlines, I had avoided reading too much about the show.  When I started watching the first episode, I went in pretty cold.  I didn’t really have any idea what The Jinx was going to be about, or what sort of story it was going to tell over the course of its six episodes.  The show immediately sunk its hooks into me, and I could not stop watching.  I marathoned all six episodes in one afternoon.  I was home sick for the day, and though it wasn’t my intention to spend the entire afternoon on the couch watching TV, once I started watching The Jinx I could not turn it off.

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The Jinx focuses on Robert Durst, now 71 years old.  Mr. Durst is a member of an extremely wealthy family of real estate developers in New York City.  Unbelievably, Mr. Durst has been suspected of involvement in the deaths of three separate people over a span of 33 years.  In 1982, his first wife, Kathleen Durst disappeared.  In 2000, Mr. Durst’s close friend Susan Berman was murdered in her home.  And in 2001, Mr. Durst dismembered his neighbor in Galveston, Texas, and threw the dead man’s body parts into Galveston Bay.  Mr. Durst was tried for that third death, and even though he admitted to killing the man and to cutting up his body and throwing the pieces, wrapped in garbage bags, into the bay, Mr. Durst was acquitted.  (His lawyers argued that the man’s death was self-defense, not murder.)

The story of how The Jinx came to be is almost as fascinating as that of Mr. Durst (though less violent!).  In 2010, Andrew Jarecki directed a feature film called All Good Things that told the story of Robert Durst and the disappearance (and presumed murder) of his first wife Kathleen.  The film starred Ryan Gosling & Kirsten Dunst.  Following the release of that film, Mr. Jarecki got a phone call from his film’s subject: Robert Durst himself.  Surprisingly, it was not an antagonistic conversation.  In fact, Mr. Durst expressed an interest in … [continued]

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Powers is a TV Show At Last! So is it Any Good…?

I’m a huge, huge fan of Powers, the self-published comic book series written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming.  I bought the very first issue back in 2000, and I have been following it monthly (or as near-to-monthly as the series gets) ever since.  (I wrote about Powers here and here!)  While I think the series has dipped in quality a little bit in recent years, it’s still a terrific book and one of the more brilliant premises for a series that I have ever come across.  Detective Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim are homicide detectives.  But they live in a world of super-heroes and super-villains, and they investigate Powers-related homicides.  That is a genius-level idea (one that has been imitated in the years since).  Combine that great hook with Bendis’ incredible gift for dialogue and Oeming’s wonderful stylized artwork and you have the recipe for a classic comic book series.

Hollywood clearly thought so too, because Powers has famously been in development ever since the second issue was published.  For years and years it was being developed as a new TV series by FX, and in 2011 they actually filmed a pilot episode.  But I guess it wasn’t that successful, because FX declined to continue on to make a series.  At first they announced that they’d be re-working that pilot, but then the project was dropped.  (I would LOVE to see that original Powers pilot someday!!)  But in a crazy twist, Powers wasn’t dead.  Instead, it was picked up to become the first show for the newly developed Playstation Network.  A new cast was brought in and new writers were hired, and, after 15 years of “development hell,” Powers actually existed as a 10-episode TV series.  The first three episodes were released last week, and a new one will be released every Tuesday (starting tonight!) for the next seven weeks.

So, after this crazy fifteen years of development (and boy, I really hope this means Bendis will get around to writing a sequel to Fortune and Glory some-time soon!!), is Powers the Playstation Network TV show any good?

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Well, the jury is still out.  It is hood, but it is not the home-run I had been hoping for.  There are a lot of aspects of these first three episodes that are a lot weaker than I’d expected.  However, by the end of the third episode, I could see the potential in this series, and I can envision a scenario in which I will be very, very satisfied by the end of the ten episode first season.  I can also see a scenario in which I will be very, very let down!  We’ll see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars Rebels Season One

The first twelve episodes of the first season of Star Wars Rebels were entertaining, good-not-great pieces of all-ages fun.  The thirteenth and final episode of the first season was terrific and really made me sit up and take notice, and I started to get excited for the potential of this animated series.

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Set five years before the events of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, Star Wars Rebels is an animated series which tells the story of the exploits of the crew of the Ghost, a young, rag-tag group of privateers out to make a buck and, hopefully, thumb their noses at the Empire.   Over the course of the first season, the group transition from being mostly concerned with staying out of the Empire’s way to becoming more involved with active efforts to undermine the Empire.  In the finale (which I will discuss more in a moment), we see that the crew of the Ghost are but one group of players in the burgeoning Rebellion against the Empire.

Setting the show in the “dark times” between the prequels and the arrival on the scene of Luke Skywalker is a great idea, as this time period is ripe for some great untold stories.  The early episodes of this first season were a bit contradictory in that, on the one hand, the writers seemed to want to avoid telling grand, galaxy-in-peril stories (of the type that its animated predecessor, The Clone Wars, had gotten so good at doing), instead just focusing on the relatively small-scale adventures of this one little ship and crew.  On the other hand, they seemed to enjoy playing the prequel game and dropping in a surprisingly large number of familiar Star Wars faces.  I didn’t enjoy seeing C-3pO and R2-D2 so early in the show’s run, but damn if hearing Billy Dee Williams on again playing Lando (in this case, a young, even-more-roguish version of the smuggler and scoundrel) wasn’t a heck of a lot of fun.

At first I was dubious of the idea of Rebels.  I was still smarting from the abrupt cancellation of the Clone Wars animated series, a show that had blossomed into a wonderfully epic, complex, dark series.  I felt that the show was snatched away from us just as it was really getting good, and just as it was approaching the show’s whole reason-for-being, the moment in which the show’s characters and story-lines would catch up with Episode III.  I am still bummed that we’re never going to get to see that.  And so, at first, Rebels seemed like a poor substitute.  Even the title, Rebels, was annoying to me, as it seemed like a tease and that the show … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Agent Carter: Season One

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I had high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it launched last year.  The idea of a Marvel TV show was of course of interest to me, but what really excited me was that, as opposed to the various DC Comics superhero shows over the years, this new Marvel TV show would be set in continuity with the Marvel movie universe.  It seems like a total no-brainer of an idea, and yet, nothing like this had ever been done before.  I was super-excited.

And yet, right from the pilot, I was underwhelmed.  Despite the involvement of some great talent both in front of and behind the camera (particularly the show-runner husband-and-wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, of whom I have been a far for years), the show seemed surprisingly lifeless.  The characters were dull, the writing was flat, and the episodic structure did not engage me.  Things picked up a little towards the end of the season, when the series’ story-lines took a major turn in connection with the revelations about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The first half of this second season has seen the show continue to improve, and I’ve enjoyed the way the show has utilized elements of the mythology of the Inhumans, a classic group of Marvel Comics characters.  But I still think the show is surprisingly mediocre, lacking either the fun or the edge-of-your-seat intensity I was hoping for.

I was excited to hear that Marvel would be launching a second TV series (a mini-series of sorts to fill the time-slot during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season hiatus) that would allow Hayley Atwell to reprise her role as Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger.  I loved everything about that idea.  Ms. Atwell was marvelous as Peggy — she was one of the best things about that first Cap film.  I felt there was still a lot of life left in that character, and I loved the notion of seeing what happened to her in the years following the loss of Cap.  I also loved the idea of a period-piece show; that seemed like a lot of fun, and something unusual for a superhero TV show.  And considering the revelations in Captain America: The Winter Soldier about the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D., suddenly a show about the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed ripe with potential.  We’d seen that this premise had juice in the wonderful Peggy Carter one-shot short film attached to the DVD of Iron Man Three.  Frankly, the only thing that had me worried was the mediocre quality of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — would Agent Carter be of just as middling a level of quality?

Well, … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to Parks and Recreation

Last week Parks and Recreation signed off after seven pretty fantastic seasons.  I can’t believe how sad I am that the show is over.  It has hugely grown on me over the years, to the point that it is now one of my very favorite TV comedies of all time.

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I barely made it through Parks and Rec’s first six-episode season.  It launched back when the American version of The Office was in its prime, so I was excited to see what had originally begun as an Office spin-off.  What aired was not a direct spin-off of The Office (Rashida Jones transitioned from The Office to Parks and Rec, but she was playing a new character), though both shows felt cut from the same cloth.  Both used the fake-documentary style, and both focused on a clueless main character who was a source of ridicule for his/her co-workers and the audience.  I was not taken with the new show.  The episodes were more painful to watch than they were funny.

But then, interestingly, Parks and Rec made exactly the same type of course-correction that The Office did after its first sub-par six-episode season.  The tone of the comedy shifted from laughter centered around awkward/painful moments to more heartfelt humor.  More importantly, they shifted the character of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from someone who was pathetic and socially oblivious and pretty much a failure to someone who was actually damn good at her job.  She was still something of a weirdo and a social outcast, but suddenly we liked Leslie because of her incredible good nature and her drive to do good.  Leslie’s force of personality began to cause her co-workers to look up to her, rather than ridiculing her, and just like that the seeds for the show’s magic were sown.  In the early first-season episodes we’d hear Leslie describe her aspirations of being a great leader who would stand with the great women of the planet, and those dreams were pathetic because of how inconsequential Leslie actually was.  But gradually those dreams became to seem not nearly so far-fetched, and we the audience saw Leslie as easily standing among those great women she idolized, even though she just worked in the parks department of a small Indiana town.

The season two premiere was an immediate and powerful announcement of the show that Parks and Rec could be.  Leslie performs a fake marriage of two penguins at the Pawnee Zoo as a stunt to promote the zoo, only to cause a huge uproar because it turns out both the penguins were male, and thus Leslie had performed a gay marriage.  It’s such a great hook for the episode, and immediately … [continued]

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I hope you’ve all been enjoying my journey back through the great TV of 2014!  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, the conclusion.  Here are my five favorite episodes of TV of 2014:

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5. Sherlock: “The Sign of Three” (season 3, episode 2, aired on 1/5/14) — Each hour-and-a-half-long installment of the BBC’s brilliant Sherlock series is an event in and of itself, as each episode is really it’s own movie.  All three episodes of the show’s third season (or series, as those in the U.K. prefer) were strong, but it was the middle one, “The Sign of Three,” with which I was particularly taken.  The set-up is pure gold: it’s John (Martin Freeman) and Mary’s wedding, and Sherlock Holmes is the best man.  Combine Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch)’s usual discomfort in normal polite society with a mystery regarding an attempted murder and you have a classic episode.  I love the structure of the episode.  Almost the entire run-time is structured around Sherlock’s bizarre, weird, funny, awkward, rambling Best Man toast to Watson.  In addition to the main mystery, we get tantalizing glimpses into a number of Sherlock & Watson’s other cases; we get an oh-so-brief return of the wonderful Irene Adler; we get suspense and comedy (I adore the flashback reveal of Sherlock’s intimidation of Mary’s friends and family) and so much more.  I was pleased by the balance between mystery/suspense and the show’s joy in exploring its characters and watching them play.  This episode leans more strongly towards the latter, and it works because of how sharply written the show is, and the incredible talent of all the performers, most particularly, of course, the incredibly talented duo of Mr. Freeman & Mr. Cumberbatch.  Gold.  (Click here for my review of Sherlock series three.)

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4. Game of Thrones: “The Lion and the Rose” (season 4, episode 2, aired on 4/13/14) — Game of Thrones episodes usually jump all over the fantasy world of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, usually only spending a few minutes at a time in one location, and with a certain set of characters, before leaping elsewhere.  As the show has gone on and its cast of characters has grown ever more sprawling, this narrative structure has begun to chafe with some fans.  I’m not one of them, but I do nevertheless cherish the show’s habit of using the penultimate episode of the season to tell an important story in just a single location.  (This was most notably done in season two’s “Blackwater,” though this season’s “The Watchers on the Wall” was also … [continued]

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The Top 15 Episodes of TV in 2014 — Part Two!

I have expanded my usual end-of-the-year list of the Top Ten Episodes of TV to a Top Fifteen list for 2014!  Yesterday I wrote about numbers fifteen through eleven, discussing stellar episodes of Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Fargo, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Black Mirror.

And now, let’s continue!

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10. Family Guy: “The Simpsons Guy” (season 13, episode 1, aired on 9/28/14) — In this hour-long special, the Griffins leave Quahog and travel to Springfield, where cartoon universes collide.  I never ever thought that a) I would actually see a Simpsons/Family Guy crossover, or that b) it would be made with such obvious love for both shows.  This crossover was made by the Family Guy team, and the first few minutes (in which Peter gets into trouble for his controversial political cartoons) are pure Family Guy.  But once the show heads to Springfield, I was delighted by the clear love and respect on display for The Simpsons, and also by the depth of attention which the Family Guy creators brought to their exploration of the Simpsons universe.  There are obvious pairings that are mined for a lot of fun (seeing Homer and Peter drinking together, and comparing Duff Beer to Pawtucket Patriot Ale, is of course a hoot), but we also get to dig deeper into both cartoon universes as, for example, Carl meets Cleveland and Mayor Quimby meets Mayor Adam West, and the Simpsons version of James Woods meets the Family Guy version of James Woods.  Is the epic Homer/Peter Chicken Fight way longer and more violent than it needs to be?  I suppose it is, but that’s part of the joke, isn’t it?  It certainly worked for me.  Throw in Kang and Kodos in a rare non-Halloween episode appearance and a callback to Homer’s skateboarding over the Springfield Gorge (a classic early Simpsons gag) and you have a terrific love-letter to both of these animated shows.  (Click here for my original review of “The Simpsons Guy.”)

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9. Mad Men: “Waterloo” (season 7, episode 7, aired on 5/25/14) — What a powerhouse of an episode.  The political machinations in the office run thick as Don receives a letter stating he is being fired for breach of contract, only for Don to call a meeting that turns the tables on Jim Cutler and Lou Avery.  Roger then negotiates with another agency, McCann Erickson, to buy SC&P as an independent subsidiary of McCann, but has to get Don and an increasingly depressed Ted Chaough to agree.  The show finally arrives at the dramatic events of July 20th, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walks on the moon.  At the last minute, Don decides that Peggy should give the … [continued]

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The Top 15 Episodes of TV in 2014 — Part One!

A few years ago, I had a hard time writing my list of the Ten Best Episodes of TV for that year.  I felt I had a hard time coming up with ten truly great episodes, and I was also discouraged because I was way behind on much of the TV that everyone else seemed excited about that year.  Well, this year I still feel like there is so much great television that I have not had a chance to watch.  I still haven’t finished Breaking Bad (my wife and I are currently in the middle of season three), and I haven’t had a chance to watch any of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, The Americans, Hannibal, and several other shows that sound amazing.

But, for all the probably-great TV that I HAVEN’T had a chance to watch this year, there is so much great stuff that I DID have a chance to see.  So much so that, just as I felt the need to expand my usual Top 15 Movies list to a Top 20 this year, I have expanded my usual TV Top Ten list to a Top Fifteen.

And so, without further delay, here is my list of the Top Fifteen Episodes of TV of 2014!

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15. Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper” (season 4, episode 8, aired on 6/1/14) — I keep waiting for Game of Thrones to slow down or to loose some of the intensity that was so intoxicating when the show began, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Thank goodness!  Season four was incredibly strong, and almost any episode could have made this list.  There are a lot of great moments in “The Mountain and The Viper.”  Arya’s explosion of disbelieving, cathartic laughter when she and the Hound arrive at the Eyrie only to discover that her aunt, Lysa, has just perished, is amazing.  I loved Tyrion’s conversation with his brother Jamie about their slow-witted cousin.  It was incredible to, FINALLY, see Sansa Stark take control of her destiny for the first time on the show, as she puts on a magnificent act in front of the ruling council of the Eyrie in order to convince them that Littlefinger, who murdered Lysa, is in fact innocent of the crime.  But the reason this episode is on my list is because of this episode’s crazy cliffhanger, a standout even for this show that excels for its crazy cliffhangers.  After a season of build-up, Tyrion’s trial by combat begins as Oberyn Martell and the Mountain do battle.  It is an incredible action sequence, one that had me on the edge of my seat as I wondered just what the heck would happen.  I … [continued]

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Josh Steps Into the Black Mirror

January 2nd, 2015
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So a few weeks ago, within a few days of one another, I suddenly heard from several friends who each told me that I must, underline must, watch this new show called Black Mirror.  I was struck by this confluence of recommendations, so I felt it was my duty to track down the show’s six episodes that are now streaming on Netflix.  (A seventh installment, a Christmas Special, is as of now only available on Direct TV.)  Holy cow.  My jaw is still on the floor.

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Black Mirror is a British anthology show in the vein of The Twilight Zone.  The first series of three episodes were broadcast in the U.K. back in 2011, and the second series of three episodes appeared in 2013.  The show began streaming here in the States on Netflix last month.

Each episode of Black Mirror stands alone.  There is no continuity between episodes, and each episode features an entirely different setting and cast.  Each episode presents a scary picture of a world that has been changed in some way by technology.  Not for the better.  The Black Mirror of the show’s title makes me think of stepping through the looking glass into a world not like our own but terrifyingly possible.  Series creator Charlie Brooker has also described the Black Mirror as that on all the screens that increasingly surround our lives: our computers, our ipads, our phones, etc.

Each episode of the show is a unique, gorgeous, terrifying mini-movie.  Of the six episodes, I truly don’t think there is a weak link.  Each episode is a parable for the dangerous ways in which technology that might at first seem beneficial can have the power to have a significant negative effect on our lives and our society.  Some episodes take place in a world that is almost identical to our own.  (The very first episode, “The National Anthem,” feels like the closest to our own.  There is no notable technological difference to this society — it’s our world, we just see someone use the technology that we have in a horrifying new way.)   Some episodes take place in a world similar to our own but where a certain technological advance has changed society, which is then explored in that episode.  One episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” takes place in a more futuristic setting.  Each episode presents a fully-realized world, one in which a very specific idea is being explored in the story.

That first episode, “The National Anthem,” absolutely blew my mind.  It was quite horrifying to watch.  Not because we saw anything gruesome on screen, but because of the screw-tightening intensity of the story.  As the episode unfolds, you witness an insane but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Louie Season 4

December 24th, 2014
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After so thoroughly enjoying the second and third seasons of Louis C.K.’s amazing FX show, Louie, when I watched them this fall, I was excited to continue and to dive into season four.  It’s a pleasure to finally be caught up with this phenomenally entertaining and clever show!

One of the unique aspects of the very first season of Louie was the show’s stubborn disinterest in continuity or anything resembling the usual narrative flow of a TV show.  Louis C.K. would craft stories that would last exactly as long as he wanted them to, in order for him to make a point or get to a punchline.  Each episode was a stand-alone story, and often within an episode there might be two, even three, entirely separate stories or sequences that had nothing whatsoever to do with one another.  I loved this about the show.  It gave the series a rapid-fire energy, and a very unique feel.

What’s fascinating about Louie season four is how far the show has now gone in the other direction.  Here in season four, Louis C.K. has embraced longer-form story-telling.  The first three episodes of the season are stand-alone installments, but even those three episodes begin some character-arcs and story-lines that will be carried through the season (most notably the issues facing Louie’s youngest daughter Jane).  Then follows a six (!) part story, “Elevator,” that forms the centerpiece of the season.  This is followed by two three-part episodes.  “Pamela” is three separate episodes, interrupted (between parts 1 & 2) by “In the Woods,” which is a triple-length episode that was shown all in one night (sort of like a Louie feature film!).

I love both versions of Louie — the staccato pace of season one and this more complex, more in-depth version of season four.  Both versions have their charm.  Here in season four, it’s fascinating to see Louis C.K. take his time with the storytelling, developing his scenarios across multiple episodes.  The show remains as weird and idiosyncratic as ever, but now the show feels more leisurely, more relaxed as the stories unfold.  It’s an interesting spin on the show that I already loved so much.  I applaud Mr. C.K.’s creativity in not resting on his laurels, instead pushing himself to experiment, to be bold and to continue to try new things with the structure of his show.

The season’s first episode, “Back,” is solid, but episode two, “Model,” is terrific.  The Seinfeld stuff is fun (it’s funny seeing Jerry as such a cold prick) although I didn’t love this depiction of a more hapless than usual Louie.  But then we are presented with the bizarre, almost Twilight Zone-esque scenario in which Louie … [continued]

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“What Kind of Day Has it Been” — Josh Bids Farewell to The Newsroom

December 22nd, 2014
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I have enormous respect for the talent and skill of Aaron Sorkin.  He has written the screenplay for some of my very favorite movies (A Few Good Men tops the list, but I also love The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and many others), and he is responsible for two of my very favorite TV shows of all time (Sports Night and The West Wing).  His third TV show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, didn’t connect with viewers or critics and was cancelled after a single season.  When it was announced that Mr. Sorkin was returning to TV with a new show for HBO, this was exciting news.  I was eager to see Mr. Sorkin return to form after the failure of Studio 60, and working with HBO seemed like a match made in heaven.  (Fewer episodes, high production values, and a reputation for prestige productions.  What could possibly go wrong?)

Unfortunately, from the beginning, The Newsroom seemed to repeat many of the mistakes of Studio 60.  While both shows featured some wonderful actors and episodes filled with clever Aaron Sorkin-written verbiage, both shows seemed to be missing that special je ne sais qua that made both Sports Night and The West Wing so magically delicious.

It seems to me that The Newsroom had two main faults from the outset.  Number one, the shows’s central device, of being set several years in the past so that we could see the show’s characters report real-life news stories, never really worked.  It removed a lot of tension from the show, because we knew how all of these events turned out.  It also resulted in the show’s having a feeling of smug superiority as we watched these characters do a better job reporting these events than any actual reporters did, often leaping ahead to conclusions far faster than anyone had done at the time.  This often felt unrealistic, as the benefit of hindsight allowed Mr. Sorkin to write his characters as being consistently ahead of the curve.  While I loved the bold political point Mr. Sorkin made in the season one finale, in which he (through the voice of Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy) accused the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, I often found the show to be a very preachy polemic.  (The West Wing was a very liberal show, but I rarely felt that show to be preachy.)

The second, and more serious, problem with The Newsroom was that I really didn’t care about any of its characters.  When the show began, I was struck by how derivative all of the show’s characters and relationships were of the far better, far … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Louie Season Three

November 21st, 2014
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I loved the first season of Louis C.K.’s FX show, Louie, but it took me a while to track down and then find the time to watch season two.  But after tearing through season two in just a few days (click here for my review), my wife and I didn’t waste much time before moving on to season three.

The show has not dipped one iota in quality.  Season three is just as funny and weird and unique as the first two seasons.

Thinking back on this season, I am immediately struck by three scenes that rank among the funniest things I have ever seen on television:

First there is Louie’s long, rambling, neurotic monologue that he delivers when asking out Parker Posey’s character in “Daddy’s Boyfriend” part 1.  This is a classic comedy moment, and something that would have felt at home in the middle of a classic Woody Allen film.  Genius.

Then there is the reaction of the women in the strip club in “Barney/Never” to learning of the death of comedy club owner Barney.  I won’t spoil it here, of course, but I almost fell out of my chair.

Then there is Louie’s crazy lunch with his uncle (played by F. Murray Abraham) in “Dad.”  It’s great seeing F. Murray Abraham back on the show (he played the swinger’s husband in the season two finale), and once again I love Louis C.K.’s willingness to cast the same actor in multiple roles, without worrying about the continuity of the show.  This scene is laugh out loud hysterical, so crazy.  Mr. Abraham creates such a wonderfully unique, memorable character.  I can’t believe he’s just in that one scene!!

Other thoughts on the season:

The great opening credits sequence is still here, though Louie gets a little more creative with how he uses it, sometimes using a shortened version and sometimes eliminating it altogether and just starting the episode.  The other new story-telling device is that for the first time Louie occasionally stretches a story out over multiple episodes.  In the two-part “Daddy’s Boyfriend,” Louie asks out an attractive woman (played by Parker Posey) who works at a bookstore he visits.  Parker Posey is spectacular in this guest role, and the long weird date that she and Louie spend together in the second episode is extremely memorable.  Then there is the three-part “Late Show,” in which Louie is tapped by CBS to potentially replace a retiring David Letterman as host of The Late Show.  That three-parter is a gold-mine of inside-Hollywood stories, and I loved the depiction of everyone lying and scheming to get Letterman’s spot (including Louie’s two “friends” Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, who both … [continued]

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Late to the Party: True Detective Season One

October 24th, 2014
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It took me a while to find the time to watch True Detective — I’d been interested in the show ever since I first read about it but was so busy last Winter/Spring that it took me a few months to get to it — but holy cow was it worth the wait.  I was absolutely dazzled by this dense, dark noir, brought to life with gorgeous cinematography, brilliant actors, and a rich, complex script.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the first season of True Detective follows the difficult partnership of Louisiana detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrison) and “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey).  The show’s story unfolds simultaneously in two timelines.  In 1995, we see Hart and Cohle investigate the murder of Dora Kelly Lange, who is found displayed in a ritualistic fashion, bound and posed with a “crown” of antlers on her head.  In 2012, long after their partnership dissolved in acrimony, Hart and Cohle are questioned, separately, about the events of their investigation.

I was blown away right from minute one by this incredible production.  The story is incredibly complex, as we follow Hart & Coehle’s labyrinthine murder investigation while also trying to puzzle out many other questions about what happened to these characters and the others in their orbit in the years between 1995 and 2012.  While the central murder mystery is a compelling hook for the series, what really engages the viewer are the characters. I am hard-pressed to recall such an in-depth character study that I have ever before seen on TV.  Over the course of these eight episodes, we dig deeply into these two incredibly complicated, rich characters of Hart and Coehle.

The casting of friends Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaighey was inspired.  I’m sure it helped the show get made that these two big stars were attached.  But the show works because both men turn in incredible performances, among the very best of their two careers.

It’s amazing how Woody Harrelson once used to be so indelibly defined as the goofily simple, naive Woody Boyd from Cheers.  It’s impressive that he has managed to avoid being type-cast by that iconic role.  Martin Hart is about as far from Woody Boyd as you can get.  Mr. Harrelson is incredible in bringing this arrogant, dick-swinging tough-guy to life.  Marty Hart is a train wreck of a man, and he does some pretty despicable things, but Mr. Harrelson never loses sight of the character’s humanity, and his force of personality is magnetic.

Speaking of magnetic, there is Matthew McConaughey’s home-run of a performance as the withdrawn, mysterious Rusty Cohle.  Rust is just as damaged an individual as Marty is, perhaps even more so.  Whereas the audience thinks … [continued]

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Catching Up on My Cartoons: Star Wars Rebels and a Return to The Simpsons

Well, the jury is still out on the over-all success or failure of Disney XD’s new Star Wars animated show, Rebels, but boy, including the droid Captain Rex from Star Tours in the second episode sure makes it hard for me to dislike the show!!  More on that in a moment.

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars ran for five seasons on Cartoon Network, but was cancelled when Lucasfilm was sold to Disney.  That show started out with a truly dreadful animated movie, but somewhat miraculously turned into a pretty great show.  The animated that started out clunky became gorgeous (this season 5 trailer is a great example) and the story-telling, while still designed for an all-ages feel, became much more sophisticated.  The series shifted into a multi-part format, with most stories running for three or four episodes by the show’s end.  Over the seasons, we got to really dig into the scope and breadth of the Star Wars universe and the galaxy-wide Clone Wars in a way that was far more satisfying than the taste of the Clone Wars that the prequel movies gave us.  Eight seasons were planned, which would have taken the show right up to the start of Episode III; it’s a huge disappointment to me that we’ll never get to see this story’s proper conclusion.

But many of the show’s key creative personnel moved right into a new Star Wars animated show for Disney.  This is Star Wars Rebels, which takes place about five years before A New Hope.  The show focuses on a motley band of friends on the run from the Empire.  So far I’ve seen two episodes, the double-length premiere, “Spark of Rebellion,” and a second episode, “Droids in Distress”.  I’ve read some rave reviews of the new show on-line, but I’m not there yet.  I enjoyed these first two episodes enough to keep watching, but I’m not in love with the show yet.  It’s fun, but whereas The Clone Wars felt like it was telling the important stories that the prequel movies skipped, Rebels feels fairly irrelevant, since we know the main story of the fall of the Empire was told in the Original Trilogy.  But I’m hoping that, like The Clone Wars, this series will richen as it ages, deepening the characters and telling more compelling stories.  I’m also hoping that this series will eventually pick up story and character threads left dangling by the never completed Clone Wars.  Obi-Wan Kenobi popped up in the premiere, and I was particularly delighted that Bail Organa appeared in “Droids in Distress.”  If this series eventually builds to tell the story of the formation of the Rebel Alliance, I’d be thrilled for … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Girls Season 3

October 8th, 2014
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Judd Apatow’s involvement piqued my attention in the first season of Girls.  My wife and I enjoyed that first season, and even though I read many critics who felt the show took a downturn in season two, my wife and I enjoyed that season as well.  We’ve had the third season sitting in our DVR for almost a year, but for whatever reason we kept putting off watching it until just a few weeks ago.

I seem to be somewhat in the minority in that while I enjoyed seasons one and two, I had a tough time getting through season three.  The season starts off strong and, thank goodness, ends strong.  But there is a rough stretch of episodes in the middle that I found very off-putting.  The central problem, for me, was just how unlikable I felt all four of the main girls became, and how little interest I found I had in any of their stories.  An unlikable character or characters can certainly anchor a series, but it’s tough for me to remain engaged if I have zero affection or empathy for any of the main characters.

It’s funny to look back, now, on the first season, in which I liked all four of the girls but thought that the show’s biggest weakness was how terribly the guys were all depicted.  The three main guys — Adam, Charlie, and Ray — were all such weirdos and morons that I felt it made the show a little too off-balance.  I’d have preferred to see the girls interacting with slightly more “normal” guys.

Cut to season three.  I’m amazed (and pleased!) at how the show has rehabilitated Adam, and Ray has become the most normal character on the show.  The four girls, on the other hand…

As I wrote above, the season started off strong.  The first three episodes were great, with the show funnier than it’s ever been.  I really enjoyed the new dynamic of Hannah and Adam as a relatively healthy couple.  I loved the road trip in the season premiere (watching Shoshanna and Adam interact was gold), and the third episode, “She Said Ok,” was one of the show’s best.  My biggest complaint about season two was how the four main girls spent most of the season separated and estranged, so it was great to see them all together at Hannah’s birthday party.  (The episode was filled with great moments, from Marnie’s crazy youtube video to Adam interacting with Hannah’s parents to David kicking Ray’s ass.)

But things turned sour for me with the fourth episode, “Dead Inside.”  In this episode I felt Hannah wasn’t just unlikable, she was sociopathic.  Her trying to get help on her … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Louie Season Two

October 3rd, 2014
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I am a huge fan of comedian Louis C.K.’s stand-up work.  I think his recent stand-up films: Hilarious, Live at the Beacon Theater, and Oh My God, are among the finest stand-up performances I have ever seen.  I really dug the first season of his FX show, Louie (click here for my review), but it took me a while to get to season two.

I can’t believe I waited so long, because season two is amazing, and my wife and I tore through it in just a few days.  (The season is just twelve short 21-ish-minute episodes, so it’s easy to watch very quickly.)

For season two, Louis C.K. has stuck with the show’s great opening credits sequence (the plotless sequence in which we see Louie walk through the streets of NY, scarf down some pizza, then head into the Comedy Cellar, all while the great song “Brother Louie” by Stories plays on the soundtrack) as well as the show’s basic structure.  Just like Seinfeld, the show is a mix of Louie’s raucous, ribald stand-up and a depiction of his day-to-day adventures as a working comedian.  But any similarities to Seinfeld end there (other than both shows being great).

Louie often lets his stand-up bits go on for far longer than ever happened on Seinfeld, when they’d be used more as zippy zingers.  Louie often lets us get far deeper into his bits.  And whereas Seinfeld was a very tightly-plotted show, with intricate inter-weaving story-lines, Louie is the exact opposite.  The show has a dreamy, almost stream-of-consciousness feel.  It’s boldly unconcerned about any sort of continuity, either between episodes (in one notable example, Louie has to take custody of his niece at the end of episode 12, “Niece,” but then the girl is never seen or heard from again) or even within an episode (in which the episode’s first half often has nothing whatsoever to do with the story of its second half).  I love this about the show.  It’s as if we stay with the stories for exactly as long as Louie felt they’d be interesting, and not a moment longer.  It’s like the “best parts” version of a TV show.

The show also has something of a fantasy feel, as if we’re watching Louie’s dreams more than his actual life.  Episode 5, “Country Drive.” really nails this point home, and shows the way the show can dig deeply into the minutiae of life that most shows would ignore, and then veer into the wildest of fantasies.  In that episode, Louie takes his two daughters on a long car-trip to meet his great aunt Ellen.  As the drive goes on, there is an amazing sequence in which … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 2

My wife and I tore through the first season of Orange is the New Black in about a week last October.  (Click here for my review.)  It’s been a long wait for season two!

There are some shows that build gradually to popularity (like Seinfeld), while others explode onto the scene right out of the gate (like Lost). For that latter type of show, the second season can be quite a challenge for the men and women behind the scenes at the show.  There’s a huge challenge to match the excitement and success of that first hit season.  Often, the particular alchemy that made a show successful can be hard to define, even for the key creative people who worked on it, and it can be a harder than expected challenge to capture that lightning in a bottle.  I’ve seen many shows have a great first season and then stumble.

So I was curious, a year later, whether the second season of Orange is the New Black would be able to maintain the quality of the first year.

For me, there’s no question that, watching season two, some of my initial excitement for the show had worn off.  There wasn’t that same thrill at the originality of the premise, nor that same sense of discovery of this new show and all its wonderfully rich characters.  But, of course, that’s to be expected.  The real question is, with that first blush of enthusiasm past, did the second season of Orange is the New Black have as much enjoyment to offer as the first?

I think it did, and watching this second season unfold I was interested to see some of the ways in which creator Jenji Kohan and her fellow creative voices were starting to position the show and its characters for the possibility of a long run.  Some of those ways were a little too writerly obvious.  For instance, early in the season Piper commits perjury in an effort to protect her on-again/off-again flame Alex Voss, which leads to the possibility of an extended prison sentence for her.  This was a little too on the nose for me.  (If she commits more crimes, she can spend more years in the prison, so we can have more seasons of the show!)  But other adjustments were far more clever.

It’s become clear to me, in watching the second season, that the show’s main weakness is that its main character — the white, privileged Piper Chapman — is possibly the least interesting character on the show.  I found her love-her/hate-her ups-and-downs with Alex to be increasingly annoying as the season wore on.  (Something which Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) enjoyably called her towards … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones Season Four

I keep waiting for Game of Thrones to stumble, but so far show-runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have continued on an impressive winning streak, with each season successfully building on what came before.  I wondered, in my review of season three, how the show would continue after it seemed like all of the main characters who I had been rooting for had been killed off.  I knew the show would go on, but I worried that I wouldn’t be as invested in the continuing narrative as I had been.  Thankfully, this didn’t wind up being an issue for me at all.  Season four gave us ten episodes filled to the brim with extraordinary drama on a small and large scale, and an array of incredible moments that I still cannot quite believe all happened in one ten-episode season.  There are some SPOILERS ahead in this review, friends, so beware!

Season four had so many spectacularly gasp-inducing and/or nail-bitingly suspenseful moments.  Joffrey & Margaery’s wedding.  Tyrion’s trial.  The Mountain versus Oberyn Martell.  Brienne of Tarth versus the Hound.  Arya’s laughter at the news of Lyssa’s death.  Mance Rayder’s army’s attack on the Wall and the Battle at Castle Black.  The revelation that Littlefinger’s role in the death of John Arryn, and as such the start of the whole Game of Thrones story.  Our first glimpse of Braavos.  Sword-wielding skeletons.  And so much more.  Did all of this really happen in just one season??

As I have written before in my previous Game of Thrones reviews, I have not yet read any of George R. R. Martin’s novels.  I am definitely interested in doing so, but I am enjoying the show so much that I don’t want to read the books until the show is finished.  That might sound weird, but I can’t recall the last time I have been this gripped by a TV show, one that has been able to so consistently thrill me with the story’s unpredictable twists and turns and with so many shocking deaths.  I don’t want to be spoiled by the books!  I want to continue to enjoy this show without having any fore-knowledge of what is going to happen next.

While there is a lot that is great about Game of Thrones, my favorite thing about the show is this way that it is able to continually shock me.  As I noted above, I worried about a decrease in my investment in the story and characters following The Red Wedding and other events of season 3, but if anything I have become even more invested in what happens to my favorite (surviving) characters.  As an example let’s take two moments from the season … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mad Men Season 7.1

June 16th, 2014
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It’s a very rare thing when a TV series is able to end at a time and place of its creators’ choosing.  There are many things that are problematic with today’s TV landscape, but I must say the recent trend of more TV series having this sort of opportunity is extremely refreshing.  Certainly there are older shows that didn’t just fizzle out but were allowed to have a well-crafted ending (such as M.A.S.H. or, more recently, Seinfeld and Friends).  And certainly today there are still great TV shows that are brutally cancelled without allowing the creators to provide any sort of closure for the audience.  But more and more, particularly with series that become successful and click with an audience, I am seeing creators allowed to design and execute an ending to their series.  Just look at how many great series-finales were in last year’s list of my Top 10 Favorite Episodes of TV in 2013!

Mad Men is one of those shows that is being allowed to end at the point at which creator and show-runner Matthew Weiner wanted it to end.  This is a terrific opportunity, and also, of course, a make-or-break moment for the series.  The strength of a show’s ending plays a huge part in determining the over-all success or failure of a show.  For five seasons I thought Lost was one of the greatest television shows ever made, but the total catastrophe that was the show’s final season really ruined the whole show for me.  (If the creators weren’t going to bother to answer the vast majority of the questions they’d set up in the previous five seasons, why would I ever want to re-watch the show, knowing it would end with only disappointment?)  On the other hand, I love the finale of Babylon 5 — a good-to-middling sci-fi show — so much that to me it elevates the entire series.

I’ve been watching Mad Men since the show began.  As I’ve written about before, for the first three seasons I liked the show more than I loved it.  It was clear, right from the first episode, that this was a fascinating, extraordinarily well-crafted show.  But so many of the characters were so mean and so nasty that I found it off-putting.  I respected the show intellectually more than I actually enjoyed the experience of watching it.  But gradually that changed, and I began to fall in love with all of these characters, despite their continuing self-centeredness and bad behavior.  By season four, I was hooked in hard, and I thought that last season, season 6, might have been the best of the show’s run.  I have noticed that the show … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1

It picked up a little bit in the final third, with the episodes set after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but nevertheless it’s hard to characterize the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as anything other than a colossal  disappointment.

When the show was first announced, I thought it was a brilliant idea.  Any type of TV show based on characters from Marvel Comics would pique my interest, but the notion of setting the show in the same continuity as the Marvel Studios films, and to actually have the show weave around the events of future films as they were released?  How cool was that idea!  It was such a clever combination of never-been-done-before gall and so-obvious-it-hurts common sense.  I wasn’t initially wild about the idea of resurrecting Agent Coulson (so memorably killed off in The Avengers), but I loved Clark Gregg’s performance in the role and was not unhappy to get to see more of him.  I’ve loved the work of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen before, so I was thrilled to see them in place as the show-runners, and with Joss Whedon directing the pilot, the series had a can’t-miss feel.

And yet, right away from the pilot (click here for my initial review) it was clear that something wasn’t altogether right with this show.  The writing didn’t have the spark I had expected, and the look of the show seemed surprisingly cheap.  Worst of all, the characters were flat as can be.  I suppose it’s not fair to compare to compare this show to one of the greatest television shows ever made, but compare this cast of characters to that of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, another fantasy-set motley-band-of-heroes-against-the-world show.  By the end of the pilot episode of Firefly, I loved those characters.  I wanted to know more about each and every one of them, and I was hooked in and ready to watch many, many more episodes with that crew.  (Sadly, that never happened.)  But even after 22 episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., even in the final episodes of the season, when the plot was flying fast and furious, I really didn’t care one whit for any of these characters.   That’s the sin that most sinks the show for me, because if I don’t really care about the characters, the show doesn’t work.

It’s a shame, because once we got to that final batch of episodes, set after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we got to see some very cool ideas that the writers had clearly had in mind from the very beginning of the show.  They knew that the events of The Winter Soldier were coming, and so the show … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Final Episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Shockingly, the animated TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars has, over the years, grown into a pretty terrific show and a fascinating expansion of the Star Wars saga.  When the animated film was released to theatres back in 2008, I skipped it.  I was totally soured on the prequels, and the animated project didn’t interest me at all.  The CG animation looked stiff and fake, and the project seemed too kid-focused to interest me.  When the series began airing on cartoon network, I avoided it at first, but eventually watched a few episodes.  It wasn’t great, but it was good enough to keep me periodically checking back in with the show.  There were a lot of episodes I missed, but I’d catch one here and there.  By the third or fourth season, I felt the quality had increased dramatically, and I started watching the show more regularly.  When it was announced at the end of the fifth season that the show was being cancelled, I actually found myself rather upset!

I was disappointed at the end of a show I’d been enjoying, and more to the point I was disappointed that the story was being left incomplete.  Half the fun of the show wasn’t just my enjoyment of the episodes themselves, but my growing interest in how all of the character-arcs and story-lines would be wrapped up, as the show inched closer and closer to the events of Episode III — which would, of course, mean the brutal, tragic deaths of all the show’s characters!  Just like the whole point of the prequels was to eventually get to the end of Episode III and the events of Anakin’s fall and the destruction of the Jedi, it feels like half the point of this show was to arrive at that same end, and to see the story cut down in the middle was extremely frustrating.  (I’ve read the show was planned to last eight seasons.)

It’s all the more painful that the show was cut down at its creative height, and for something as stupid as the corporate bottom line.  (From what I understand, once Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, Disney didn’t want to be locked into Cartoon Network’s ownership of the show.)  And the show really was at a creative height.  The animation had improved dramatically, to the point where I found the episodes to be quite gorgeous.  This show gave us some phenomenal fight sequences: massive space battles; complex planet-based fights on land, in the air, and in the sea; and some extraordinary lightsaber fights.  We really got to explore the universe of the Star Wars, and the epic conflict of the Clone Wars, far more than the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sherlock Season 3!

I fell in love, last year, with the BBC’s modern-day reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, when I watched the first two seasons on DVD.  Starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, the show is a dynamic, clever spin on the Holmes mythos.  (Click here for my review of season 1, and here for my review of season 2.)  It’s been a long wait for season 3 (even longer for everyone who watched season 2 when it originally aired), and I was thrilled to have this great show back.  (Albeit briefly!  The show’s unique structure is that each season consists of only three hour-and-a-half long episodes.  I love that the show-runners focus on just telling three great stories each season rather than stretching things out.  Still, it’s hard not to wish for more!!)

Here are my thoughts on Sherlock season three:

“The Empty Hearse” — The first episode has the unenviable task, first and foremost, of resolving last season’s cliffhanger satisfactorily.  At the end of “The Reichenback Fall” we saw Sherlock apparently fall to his death.  In the two years since that show aired, fans have speculated endlessly as to how Sherlock could have possibly survived.  I suspect that the show’s ever-growing popularity combined with the unexpectedly long hiatus between seasons (caused primarily by the very busy schedules of stars Cumberbatch and Freeman) caused the fan-focus on that cliffhanger to have grown far more intense than the show-runners intended.  After so long, it’s hard to imagine their spinning a suitably satisfactory resolution without it feeling like a cheat, and, indeed, I don’t think they did.  I am of a mixed mind concerning the approach they took, that of showing us various possible answers without actually revealing which was the real one.  On the one hand, I think it’s a clever way to play with the audience’s expectations, and to deflect too much scrutiny being placed on the one “real” answer to the cliffhanger riddle.  On the other hand, it still feels like something of a cop-out to me.  I will say that Mr. Cumberbatch’s delivery of the line “You know my methods, John” (in response to Watson’s pushing Sherlock for the true answer as to how he survived) is magnificent and goes a long way towards justifying this approach to resolving the cliffhanger.

I also appreciated the episode’s focus, not so much on the mechanics of Sherlock’s survival, but on the emotional impact his feigning death would have had on his friends and allies, particularly Watson.  I was not expecting the show to emulate our real-time two-year wait for more episodes by jumping ahead two years following Sherlock’s apparent death, but I loved that approach and felt it led … [continued]

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“…To Miss New Orleans” — Josh Bids Farewell to Treme

January 10th, 2014
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I think that The Wire is probably the greatest TV show ever made.  And while my crazy love for that show has ensured that I will eagerly watch any future which in which David Simon (who created and ran The Wire along with Ed Burns) has a hand, I never expected that any of his future projects could possibly equal The Wire.

And then came Treme.  Created and run by Mr. Simon & Eric Overmyer, Treme in its three and a half seasons has chronicled the lives and struggles of a variety of different people in the days and months following the disastrous hurricane Katrina and the government’s botched response.  While I think The Wire still stands as the greater achievement in television, I think I have actually grown to love Treme more!  I adore all of the characters in Treme in a way beyond even my attachment to all of the wonderfully flawed figures from The Wire.  And while Treme shares The Wire’s cynicism about the sad state of formerly great American cities, and the corruption and often incompetence of our institutions (the government, the police, etc.), Treme had a joy and, yes, a stubborn optimism that The Wire never had, and I think that has allowed the show to hook its way into my heart in an even deeper way than did The Wire.

I just love all of these characters so much!  Treme has been blessed by an incredible, extraordinary ensemble of characters, brought to life by an impossibly talented group of actors.  I know some people complain that not much happens in Treme.  For a while, I agreed, feeling actually that his was part of the show’s unique charm, that it was more about the atmosphere of New Orleans — the food, the music, the people — than it was about actual plot-development.  But looking back on the show now, I would argue that anyone who says nothing happens in the show is entirely missing the point.  Think about the incredible journeys these characters have gone on!  Think about how different the trombone-playing Antoine, the rebellious D.J. Davis, the former drug-addict Sonny, the fiery chef Janette, and so many other characters, have changed from the beginning of the series to its end!  The genius of Treme is that it is in fact jam-packed with plot, but not plot of the type we’re used to seeing on TV.  There are very few big exciting TV events in the show — dramatic police investigations, exciting trials, great adventures, that sort of thing.  Instead, the plot found in Treme is all on a much smaller, much more personal scale.  But consider all that has happened to these characters … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season One

I’ve been wanting to start watching Breaking Bad since it first started.  I never watched Malcolm in the Middle, but it seemed clearly to me that Bryan Cranston was a great actor, and seeing him in a dramatic role was appealing.  And as a die-hard X-Files fan, I of course knew the name of Breaking Bad show-runner Vince Gilligan as one of the best writers from that show.  But for whatever reason, I just never got around to watching Breaking Bad, and as the seasons went on I knew that starting from the beginning would require an ever-increasing time commitment.  It’s sort of funny, then, that I finally took the plunge and watched season one just as all the hoopla was happening around the broadcast of the show’s final episodes.

In case anyone doesn’t know, Breaking Bad tells the story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who has been living a sad, fairly pathetic life.  His discovery that he has lung cancer, which might only allow him a few years more to live, sets about a profound internal crisis in Walt that eventually leads to his pairing up with a young druggie named Jessie, to together cook and sell crystal meth.  Walt, at first, knows nothing about the drug world or the criminal element, but he knows everything about chemistry, making him an extraordinarily skilled cook of crystal.  As the seven episode first season progresses, we see the timid Walt take his first steps into the “dark side” and, in so doing, suddenly develop a spine and a courage he never knew he had.  So what if it is illegal and his brother-in-law heads up the local DEA?

The first seven-episode season of Breaking Bad is terrific, everything I had hoped it would be.  The pilot episode is tremendous, a strong statement as to what sort of show this was going to be, something intense and dark and original.  Sometimes plots can be wobbly, with the filmmakers unsure of exactly what show they are making, and/or burdened by a lot of boring character exposition.  But the pilot episode of Breaking Bad is magnificent, focusing right in on the character of Walter White and taking its time in introducing us to all the misery in his life BEFORE he learns of his cancer diagnosis.  That’s a smart storytelling choice.  Walt’s main problem isn’t his cancer — it’s everything else that has gone wrong in his life.  The pilot is intense and gripping, and of course it gives us the the now-iconic image of Walt with no pants, in just a shirt, boots, and his tighty-whiteys, holding a gun.

The next two episodes, “Cat’s in the Bag…” and “… And the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season One!

A few weeks ago, my wife convinced me that we needed to check out Netflix’s series (that was released over the summer) Orange is the New Black.  I am glad she did, because we tore through the series’ thirteen-episode first season in just a little over a week, and I am thrilled that work is already underway on a season two.

Created by Jenji Kohan, the series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.  The set-up of the show is strongly based on Ms. Kerman’s memoir, though from what I have read of the book it seems like the show starts to go in some very different directions by the end of the first season.

The series begins on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)’s first day in prison.  Piper is a happy yuppie, engaged to be married to Larry (Jason Biggs), when she is arrested for smuggling drugs — a crime she committed a decade earlier.  She self-surrenders, and in the blink of an eye everything she knew of her life is changed, and she is in prison.  The series follows Piper’s attempts to navigate the completely unfamiliar and sometimes scary world of a women’s correctional facility, while also trying to hold on to what had been her “normal” life on the outside through her phone calls and visits from her fiancé and family.

More than anything, I love the tone of Orange is the New Black.  The show is a drama, and doesn’t shy away from dealing with some tough territory.  We see the many small (and occasionally large) humiliations that Chapman (all the inmates refer to one another by their last names, rather than their first) must undergo, and as we get to know many of the other inmates who she encounters, we learn about their stories — almost all of which are terribly sad.  But this isn’t Oz.  The show is, surprisingly, very seldom downbeat.  There is a lot of humor to be found in Orange is the New Black.  The show is goofy at times.  More than that, while I wouldn’t say that the stories on the show are life-affirming — one of the saddest aspects of the show is how utterly without hope so many of the inmates are, in comparison to Chapman, who feels like she is just passing through — but there is a joy to the show in the way it brings to life all of the incredibly unique women who Chapman encounters in prison.

Although the early going focuses on Chapman, the show quickly begins to flesh out many of the other women, and by the end of the thirteen episodes we … [continued]

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Josh’s Thoughts on the Pilot Episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

Well, this past week the much-hyped premiere episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally arrived!  (That is a lengthy title, and I think for simplicity’s sake I will just be referring to the show as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from here on in.)  I am excited and intrigued by this show, both because of the never-been-done-before conceit of having the show set in the continuity of Marvel’s continuing series of movies, and also because of the pedigree of the men and women behind the show.  The pilot was written and directed by Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed The Avengers and will be doing the same for the sequel coming in 2015, not to mention having helmed several brilliant other TV shows you might have heard of), and though he won’t be the show-runner moving forward, that responsibility lies in the incredibly talented husband-and-wife hands of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.

So what did I think of the pilot?

In a nutshell, good not great.  I wasn’t exactly blown away, but the show was definitely good enough that I am along for the ride for now.

The pilot was a lot of fun, made so primarily by a lot of wonderful Joss Whedon-scripted snappy dialogue.  I was quite taken by the light, this-may-be-serious-business-but-we’re-gonna-have-fun-along-the-way tone.  It’ll be interesting to see how the Joss-free scripts for the next few episodes turn out.

I love how unabashedly the show is set in the Marvel movie universe, with lots of references to the battle of New York in last summer’s The Avengers (though it is weird that we don’t see any lingering devastation from the carnage of the alien invasion — one line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s involvement in the clean-up wasn’t really enough for me) and to the Extremis virus from this past summer’s Iron Man 3.  There were also plenty of other little winks and nods to the wider Marvel comic-book universe, with mentions of Project Pegasus, a play on the classic Spider-Man “with great power…” line, and more.  If done right, this show could be an incredible way to explore many of the nooks and crannies of the Marvel universe that would never be able to make their way into the big movies.  I for one am hoping in particular to see a few of the famous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents from the comics (Contessa!  Clay Quartermain!) pop up in the show down the line.

It was great seeing Agent Coulson (the magnificent Clark Gregg) back, and I’m intrigued by the mystery of his resurrection.  However, while it’s great fun having Coulson back — and at the center of things, now! — there’s no question his resurrection dilutes the power of his death in The Avengers.[continued]

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Josh Reviews The Newsroom Season Two

September 25th, 2013
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The two-hour finale of The Newsroom season two, “Election Night” Parts I & II, were in my opinion probably as good as the show has ever been in its two short seasons on HBO (ten episodes in season one, only nine in season two).  This is good news and bad, as on the one hand I quite enjoyed these two episodes, while on the other hand I think The Newsroom remains the weakest of all four of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows.  (Yes, my feeling right now is that this show is weaker than the much-criticized Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, though I have never re-watched Studio 60′s single season, so I readily admit that perhaps absence has made my heart grow a tad fonder for that show without good reason.)

In The Newsroom season two, Aaron Sorkin took a different approach than he did in season one.  While the show continued to be set in and around the real history of  2011 and 2012, allowing the characters to be involved with actual news-stories and political events, this season Mr. Sorkin crafted a season-long story-arc that was focused on a completely fictional event: the news-team’s discovery of an operation called Genoa, in which US troops used illegal Sarin gas during an operation in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, as was made immediately clear in a framing sequence right at the start of the season two premiere, the story that News Night (the fictional news show featured on The Newsroom) reported about Genoa wound up being completely false, a huge journalistic screw-up that threatened to end all of our characters’ careers.

This story-line was hit and miss for me.  On the one hand, I loved the idea of a season-long story-arc.  While I enjoyed the device in season one of having the fictional show take place in and around real-life events, by the end of that initial season I was tired of Mr. Sorkin’s approach to those events, because usually they were used to make his News Night characters appear smarter thany all of the real-life journalists who reported those events.  It seemed a little too much to me.  I am all for TV characters being idealized — and that certainly worked perfectly in Mr. Sorkin’s greatest TV triumph, The West Wing — but in this case it seemed like all of the characters on The Newsroom were just a little too good, a little too perfect, for the show to be at all realistic.  It’s easy to criticize the media, looking back two-to-three years late with 20-20 hindsight, and making his characters super-perfect robbed the show, in my opinion, of some of its story-telling strength.

So I was excited by the story-telling … [continued]

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“Not Great, Bob!” Josh Reviews Mad Men Season 6

August 28th, 2013
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Yes, I know the sixth season of Mad Men wrapped up a few months ago already, but it’s taken me a little while to catch up with this, the penultimate season of the show.  What a fantastic season of television.

I have written before that I enjoyed Mad Men from the beginning, and always respected the hell out of it as a tremendously well-crafted show, but it wasn’t until around the fourth season when I really fell in love with the show.  The characters were all a little too unlikable, a little too off-putting for me at first.  But somewhere along the way I found myself growing quite attached to all of the flawed, selfish, insensitive bastards at Sterling Cooper (and then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and then SCDPCGC…).  And now I can’t get enough of watching these oh-so-human characters, and I am saddened that we only have one more season to spend with them.  (Matthew Weiner has stated repeatedly in interviews that season seven will be the show’s last.)

Season six was a hell of a season. First and foremost, the stories this year fulfilled the promise of the closing shot of season five, in which it looked like Don Draper was up to his old tricks again.  Indeed he was, spending much of this season involved in a new affair — with his downstairs neighbor, no less!  Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir, all grown up!!) was a tremendous addition to the Mad Men ensemble as Sylvia Rosen, Don’s new mistress.  Finally here was a woman who could say no to Don Draper.  Seeing Don get dumped (in “Man With a Plan”) was a first for the series, a great moment in a season filled with great moments.

The standout event of the season was, of course, the shocking merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with their competitors Cutler Gleason and Chaough in the middle of the season (in the final moments of “For Immediate Release”).  Suddenly everything I thought the season was going to be about, and where I thought the stories were headed, changed completely.  I adored that plot-twist, and it gave a terrific narrative thrust to the back half of the season as we got to watch the chaos that seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time merger unleashed.

There were some great new characters this year.  I already mentioned Linda Cardellini’s terrific work as Sylvia Rosen, and I also loved seeing the always-great Brian Markinson in a terrific role as her brilliant but cuckolded surgeon husband, Dr. Arnold Rosen.  Mr. Markinson’s scenes with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper really crackled.  I was also terrifically impressed by Harry Hamlin’s great work as Jim Cutler, the Roger Sterling of Cutler, Gleason … [continued]

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The Newsroom Returns For Season Two

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has returned for season two, and I have seen the first two episodes.  If you loved season one, I think you will love season two. And if you hated season one, I think you will hate season two.  Because not much has changed.

For me, I find myself caught in the middle.  There is quite a lot to appreciate about The Newsroom.  The production values of the show are tremendous — the series looks absolutely gorgeous — and each episode is replete with phenomenal Aaron Sorkin banter and bon mot that is so unique and so unlike any other dialogue you will find on TV.

At yet the show also remains frustrating, in that — shocking for an Aaron Sorkin TV show — I find myself staggeringly unattached to, and almost actively disinterested in, any of the main characters on screen.  After his wonderful dialogue, I have found one of Mr. Sorkin’s greatest skills to be the way he is able to combine the main topic of his show (politics, sports, television production, etc.) with screwball comedy and romantic story lines, in which many of his main characters find themselves caught longing to be with the person they are not with.  This has been a key aspect of audience engagement with Mr. Sorkin’s shows, I think, as we have rooted for Casey (Peter Krause) and Dana (Felicity Huffman) to get together, and for Josh & Donna and Charlie & Zoey and Sam Seaborn & Mallory and Toby & Andrea and C.J. & Danny and even for Matt (Matthew Perry) and Harriet (Sarah Paulson).

But I don’t particularly like or root for any of the characters on The Newsroom.  Well, that’s a little harsh.  I do quite enjoy the character of Will McAvoy.  I think Jeff Daniels is dynamite as the show’s lead.  He is able to make Will endearing even though the character often behaves like a prick (or, as MacKenzie colorfully describes him in episode two of season two, “a douchebag”).  But I am not all that taken with the low-boil romantic tension between Will and MacKenzie, and I am painfully bored by the Jim and Maggie (Allison Pill) storyline.

In the first episode of season two, when we see the two of them stealing longing looks at one another while seated at their desks across their crowded workspace, my wife turned to me and said “It’s just like The Office!”  Except that Jim Harper is no Jim Halpert.  And Maggie Jordan is definitely no Pam Beesly.  One of my favorite moments in episode two of season two was when Maggie’s former best friend Lisa absolutely eviscerates Maggie for her terrible behavior.  It’s a satisfying … [continued]

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Arrested Development Lives! Josh Reviews Season Four

“I think movies are dead.  Maybe it’s a TV Show.”

For three wonderful, beautiful shortened seasons on FOX that aired from 2003-2006, Mitchell Hurwitz and an extraordinary team of writers and performers spun comedic gold out of the misadventures of the spoiled, selfish, oblivious Bluth clan.  (I describe them as shortened seasons because only season 1 was a full season of 22 episodes.  Season 2 consisted of 18 episodes, while season 3 was only 13.)  Arrested Development stands, without a doubt, as one of the finest television shows ever made, absolutely hilarious but also fiendishly brilliant in its complicated structure of long-running gags, subtle call-backs, and jokes piled upon jokes piled upon jokes.  It certainly ranks among my very favorite TV series of all time.  (I know some who feel that season 3 was a small drop in quality from seasons 1 and 2, and while that might be true, it meant that the series went from being solid-gold perfection to being merely genius and hilarious.)

Fans like me were crushed when the show was cancelled after that truncated third season, and dreamed that the show’s final scene (in which Maeby pitches the idea of a TV show about her crazy family to Ron Howard, who dismisses the idea but then muses “maybe a movie…”) might some-day become a reality.  I never believed we would ever see any more Arrested Development, so like everyone else I was delighted and stunned when the news broke that, while plans for a movie were still in-the-works, the show would be returning on Netflix for fifteen brand new episodes.  Not only were we actually going to get more Arrested Development, but rather than a two-hour movie we’d be getting fifteen new episodes??  Phenomenal!!

I tried to moderate my expectations, but as the day of the show’s release on Netflix grew nearer (as I suspect everyone reading this knows, Netflix released all 15 episodes of season 4 all at once), I found my excitement building to great heights.  I resolved not to rush watching all of the episodes all at once, but to try to space them out.  (This was made easier by how insanely busy I have been lately, meaning that I couldn’t have watched all 15 episodes that first weekend, even if I’d wanted to!!)

Having now finished watching season 4, I can report that while this Netflix season is without a doubt the weakest season of the show — it really doesn’t hold a candle to any of the three original FOX seasons, even the often-maligned season 3 — I still found it to be terrifically entertaining.  There was, of course, the level at which it was just a thrill and … [continued]

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“You Know Nothing, Jon Snow” — Josh Reviews Game of Thrones Season 3!

It seems like the third season of Game of Thrones began just a few minutes ago and now, ten pretty terrific episodes later, it’s over and the long, long wait until next spring and the next season begins.

Overall, season 3 of Game of Thrones was another phenomenal season of this spectacular show.  I have found the first three seasons of the show to be remarkable consistent in style and quality.  If you really made me list my favorites, I’d say that season 1 still remains my favorite season of the show, with season 3 coming in just a hair better than season 2.  (By the way, friends, as I often do, I will try to avoid any outright spoilers in this review, but I can’t avoid discussing certain plot twists when discussing the season, so please be warned.  There be spoilers here!!)

In season 2, my two biggest complaints were how uninteresting I found the stories of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.  I had loved both characters in season 1, but in season 2 it felt like both of their stories were just treading water.  Their stories felt totally disconnected from all of the other story-lines in the show, and I found it hard to really care about what was happening to them.  I was pleased that, in season 3, both characters were given far better story-lines.  I loved watching the evolution of Jon Snow’s relationship with the wildling Ygritte.  The actress playing Ygritte (Rose Leslie) is dynamite, and I felt Jon Snow’s character came to life when paired up with her.  Suddenly I cared about Jon Snow again, because I was invested in his relationship with this girl.  Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, I was also more interested in Deanerys again, mostly because they managed to incorporate some great visual effects sequences and some fun action into her story.  I loved getting to see her dragons wreak havoc in episode 4, “And Now His Watch is Ended” when they destroyed Astopor, and I also loved getting to see Sir Jorah, Grey Worm, and Daario kick some ass at Yunkai in episode 9, “The Rains of Castamere.”  I also loved the return of Ser Barristan (last seen in season 1 being unceremoniously shown the door by Cersei and Joffrey).

Speaking of “The Rains of Castamere,” that shocking episode is, of course, the heart of season 3, and I suspect one’s feeling about that episode will affect one’s over-all judgment of the season.  The Red Wedding (which I had heard mentioned, but about which I remained, thankfully, totally unspoiled) arrived and quite a few of the show’s most beloved characters were brutally massacred.  It was an incredibly shocking, brutal turn … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to The Office

May 20th, 2013
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As a big-time fan of the British version of The Office, masterminded by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, I was, like many, extremely dubious at the prospect of an American interpretation of the show.  The Office was so magnificent, so brilliant and so unique, how could an American remake be anything other than a disappointment?

Mostly out of curiosity, I watched the six-episode first season of the American version of The Office, and I was not impressed.  The pilot was a direct remake of the first episode of the British version, and it was a real clunker, nothing more than a homogenized, watered-down version of what had been a great TV show.  The remaining five episodes, while featuring original stories, still felt highly derivative to me of the British original.

I didn’t watch the show when it returned for season two, but a few months later my sister convinced me that I had to give the show a second try.  I grudgingly agreed, and was immediately shocked by how great the show had become.  I was quickly hooked, and relished the chance to catch up on the beginning of season two when the DVD set was released.  I have been following the show ever since (with only one exception which I’ll get to in a minute).

The makers of The Office made two extremely canny changes, between seasons one and two, that in my mind were critical to the show’s longevity.  One, they shifted the show’s tone.  Season one had attempted to imitate the British version’s uncomfortability.  Ricky Gervais’ version of The Office was often absolutely unbearable to watch, in the very best possible way.  He made an art of mining the worst sorts of awkward, uncomfortable moments for the show.  Those terrible-to-watch moments are really what the British version were all about!  The first season of the American version did the same thing, but not as successfully.  But with the start of season two, the makers of the American version seemed to me to shift their focus, slightly, from the uncomfortable more towards the funny.  The show became a little gentler, the edges of the characters (especially Steve Carell’s Michael Scott) were softened just a little, and the show became a LOT funnier.  Not that the show didn’t continue to mine the awkward and the uncomfortable.  (I know some friends who detested season four’s “The Dinner Party,” but that episode’s depiction of a nightmarish dinner hosted by Michael and his then-girlfriend Jan is one of my very favorite episodes.)  But it seemed to me that the show regularly focused more squarely on just being funny, and my goodness were the show’s writers able to be successful at that.

The … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Bored to Death Season 3!

Last year my wife and I discovered the brilliant HBO series Bored to Death… just as the news broke that it had been cancelled.  Aaargh!  We tore through seasons one and two on DVD (click here for my review of season one, and here for my review of season two), and then had to wait impatiently for season three to be released on disc.  I am pleased to report that season three is just as terrifically entertaining as seasons one and two!

The lamentably now-cancelled Bored to Death was an HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson as three Brooklyn-dwelling friends.  Jason Schwartzman is Jonathan Ames (named after the show’s creator and show-runner), a lonely not-that-successful writer who finds that he has tremendous passion (and a surprising amount of success) as a private eye.  Zach Galifianakis is his friend Ray, a socially awkward (even more than Jonathan) comic book artist.  Ted Danson is Jonathan’s other close friend and father figure, the wealthy, pot-smoking, good-times-loving George Christopher.  All three actors are phenomenal in their roles, but it has always been the incredible joie de vivre that Ted Danson brings to his performance as George Christopher that I have loved the most.  It seems sacrilegious to say this, but despite Mr. Danson’s so famously playing Sam Malone for a decade on Cheers, I think George Christopher might be his very best role.  That Bored to Death, starring these three comedic masterminds (all of whom are pretty big stars in their own right), did not attract a wider audience is something of an enigma to me.

The chemistry between these three men has always been the strength of Bored to Death, and one of my favorite things about season three of the series is that the writers no longer had to concoct convoluted reasons for Ray and George Christopher to get involved in Jonathan’s cases.  No, at this point in the series, both Ray and George Christopher know all about Jonathan’s private eye work, and they both get the same thrill out of being involved in his on-the-edge-of-dangerous cases as Jonathan does.  So the three main characters are all able to be involved together in Jonathan’s cases this season, which leads to a whole lot of fun with the characters.  Bored to Death is at its best when the three leads are together in scenes, bouncing off of one another, and season three has plenty of opportunities for that.

There are some great new story-lines in this final season.  George Christopher decides to open a restaurant (shades of Ted Danson’s involvement in opening a restaurant with Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm’s season three!) … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys “The Best of Both Worlds” on the Big Screen!

In a very cool effort to promote the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation on blu-ray, Paramount/CBS/Fathom Events have held a few events screening some of the newly-remastered episodes on the big screen, in select theatres around the country.  I wasn’t excited by the two season one episodes they chose to screen last year, and while I wanted to see the two season two episodes shown in the fall, I wasn’t free the night of the screening.  But when they announced a few months back that they would be screening the two parts of “The Best of Both Worlds,” edited together into a movie-length presentation, I made damn well sure to arrange my schedule so that I could be there.  This past Wednesday night, I was delighted to join fellow Trek fans in enjoying one of the high-points of televised Star Trek, gorgeously presented on the big screen.

Part one of “The Best of Both Worlds” was the moment when Star Trek: The Next Generation exploded.  Star Trek had never before done a season-ending cliffhanger, and while some shows certainly had before (the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” being one of the most well-known examples), those sorts of cliffhangers where no where near as ubiquitous back in 1991 as they were today.

After two shaky seasons, in its third year Star Trek: The Next Generation really came into its own.  Under the hand of new show-runner Michael Piller (who deserves almost all of the credit for the lasting success of Next Gen) and a group of phenomenal new writers, many of whom would go on to extraordinarily successful careers in Trek and elsewhere (Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Ira Steven Behr, Rene Echevarria, Naren Shankar, and more), suddenly The Next Generation transformed itself into a confident, ambitious sci-fi series.  Season three of Star Trek: The Next Generation is arguably the best season of a Star Trek show ever.  (In fact, back in one of my very first blog posts for this site, I sang the praises of Next Gen season three!)  There is not a clunker in the bunch, and many of the very best Next Gen episodes come from this season.  There’s “Sins of the Father,” in which we visit the Klingon homeworld for the first time as Worf returns to challenge the accusation that his dead father committed treason.  There’s “The Offspring,” the heart-wrenching story of Data’s failed attempt to build an android child for himself.  There’s “Deja Q,” in which Q becomes mortal.  There’s “The Defector,” a phenomenal Cold War-type tale of a possible Romulan defector.  There’s “Hollow Pursuits,” the episode that introduces the wonderfully flawed, holodeck-addicted Lieutenant Barclay.  There’s “Sarek,” in which Spock’s father appears and … [continued]

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Game of Thrones Returns!

I love the cable model of short seasons presented all in one burst, as opposed to the network model of 24-or-so episodes strung out over a whole year.  But boy, sometimes it is really hard to wait for the many months between seasons of those cable shows!!  After an excruciating wait, my favorite show on TV these days has returned — Game of Thrones season three launched this past Sunday!

It’s fantastic being back in this world, and season three’s premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” is a strong return for the show.  Over the course of the hour, we check back in with many of our characters (though many major characters are absent.  I guess we’ll have to wait until next week to see Arya, Theon Greyjoy, Jamie & Brienne, and Hodor & the little Stark kids who fled from Winterfell at the end of last season).

Right away, the premiere episodes addressed two major gripes I had with the end of last season.  First of all, I was very disappointed that, after getting quite a lot of development over the course of season 2, Bronn was totally absent from the season 2 finale!!  That was a real head-scratcher to me, and I have been left for months to wonder about his fate.  (I have not yet read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, and at this point, I don’t plan to until the TV series is done.  I am relishing not knowing where this story is going, and I don’t want to lose that.)  So I was delighted to see Bronn reintroduced very early in the season 3 premiere, and I was happy that he got several very nice scenes in the episode.  I am glad his friendship/partnership with Tyrion will continue, at least for now.

Secondly, I was very pleased to see the return of the pirate captain Salladhor Saan.  There was a whole big scene in season two in which Davos brokered a deal for Salladhor and his men to fight with Stanis Baratheon.  And then, we never saw him again!  That really made me wonder why the heck they had wasted our time showing Davos and Stannis’ meeting with the pirate captain in the first place.  So I was very pleased to see the character re-enter the story.  That was a pleasant surprise.

There was quite a lot to enjoy in this episode.  I was thrilled to see the return of the old, former Captain of the King’s Guard Barristan Selmy.  That was a great surprise, and I am intrigued to see where this heretofore minor character is going to go. That Daenerys just loves to collect washed-up old soldiers, doesn’t she?  Ser Jorah better watch out!  Speaking … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to 30 Rock

February 15th, 2013
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I know I’m a little late on this one, but things have been busy, so I’ve finally caught up with the final episodes of 30 Rock.

It’s hard to believe we’ve arrived at the end of the seventh season of this funny little show that I never expected to run more than one or two years.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought that this TV show about the behind-the-scenes life of an SNL-like TV show would get trounced by the much higher profile OTHER TV show about the behind-the-scenes life of an SNL-like TV show that NBC launched back in 2006.  That would be Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and while I think that show was somewhat underrated (no question it was a disappointment, coming after the brilliance of Sports Night and The West Wing, but I would have loved to have seen where Mr. Sorkin would have taken the series), after only a few weeks of the 2006 television season, it was clear to me which show was superior.

The moment of clarity came several episodes into the first season of 30 Rock, when they introduced the subplot of Jenna’s starring in a movie with an impossible-to-pronounce title: The Rural Juror.  I remember laughing so hard at that joke, and it was my first glimpse of the absurd comedic heights to which 30 Rock would often reach.  The other key moment for me, in that first season, was Paul Reuben’s brilliantly deranged guest appearance as an inbred Austrian prince (in episode ten, “Black Tie”).  Not only was this the first of many brilliant guest-star appearances from big comedy names (is there any show in recent memory that has had more success in integrating famous guest-stars in such clever, funny ways?), but it was a big step away from a show concerned with the “reality” at life behind the scenes of a TV show, and into a world of silliness where, as long as it was funny, anything could happen.

It took the show a little while to find its feet, true, but not that long.  The key for me was the switch in Jack and Liz’s relationship.  In the pilot, Jack was introduced as the obstacle for Liz, who was the hero of the show.  Jack was the non-creative money-man who cared nothing about television, imposing his will over NBC and over Liz.  But it was only a few episodes in (right around the time when they first introduced Dennis Duffy, one of the show’s magnificent coterie of recurring characters) when the writers shifted their relationship to one of mentor-mentee.  This was key, as Jack and Liz’s weird friendship and eventual … [continued]

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The Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2012 — Part One!

I hope you’ve been enjoying my Best-of-2012 lists so far!  Follow these links to read my Top 15 Movies of 2012: part one, part two, and part three, and my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012: part one and part two.

When writing my Top 10 Episodes of TV list last year, I wrote that I’d considered not doing a best-of-TV list anymore, and the same thought crossed my mind this year.  My life has gotten so busy these past few years, and as a result I watch far, far less TV than I used to.  I manage to do a pretty good job of still seeing lots of movies, but I am much more of a niche TV viewer these days.  There are not that many new shows that I watch, and much of the TV that I see is actually old stuff in the form of DVD season sets.  But I do still love me some great TV, and so here is my list of the most wonderful television I watched this year.  One last caveat before I begin: know that I have not seen seasons 2 or 3 of Louie or seasons 2 or 3 of Boardwalk Empire, or any episode of Breaking Bad and Community. All of those are shows that I would love to catch up on, and I actually have DVDs of all of those shows sitting on my to-watch shelf.  Someday!  OK, enough delay, here’s my list:

10. Mad Men: “The Phantom” (season 5, episode 13, aired on 6/10/12) — This was a spectacular season of Mad Men, possibly my very favorite season.  The year was stuffed with memorable moments and fantastic episodes.  I thought about including on this list the season 5 premiere, “A Little Kiss,” for the Zou Bissou Bissou scene; or “Tea Leaves” for the fantastic comedy of Harry and Don Draper back-stage at a Rolling Stones concert; or “Signal 30” for the hysterical and awkward dinner party in which Pete and Trudy host Ken and his wife and, of course, the fantastic moment in which Lane punches Pete.  But, instead, I opted for “The Phantom,” the fifth season finale.  There’s a lot of greatness in this episode, moments both comedic and very sad, including the connections between Lane’s suicide and that of Don’s brother , Adam (from season one); Peggy and Don at the movies; and Roger on acid again.  But what earned this episode a spot on my list is its closing shot, that iconic image of Don Draper, in all his James Bond badass glory, walking away from his wife on a brightly-lit soundstage and into the darkness of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Treme Season 3

January 11th, 2013
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I find Treme to be so much better than pretty much everything else on television these days, so it was with great sadness that I watched the final episode of Treme’s ten-episode third season.  (The show will apparently be coming back some-time next year with a five-episode fourth season, and then that’s all she wrote.)

I don’t know any other show on television structured the way Treme is.  The show has at this point amassed a ginormous number of characters, and each week we flow around the Treme area of New Orleans and its surrounding environs, checking in with one character for a few minutes before moving on to catch up with another.  Most character arcs don’t advance too significantly over the course of just one individual episode.  Instead, the character arcs are spread out over an entire season of the show, and things tend to progress fairly leisurely from episode to episode.  Each episode flows smoothly into the next, and as each season of the show reaches its conclusion, the grand tapestry of the Treme’s story-telling stands revealed.  Despite the leisurely pace, almost every single character in the show is in a dramatically different place at the end of the season than at the beginning, with every character’s status quo being changed more than in the entire run of most TV shows.  Treme is a show that rewards the patient and attentive viewer.  I find this type of story-telling to be incredibly bold and exhilarating.

This story-telling model works because of David Simon (mastermind behind The Wire), co-creator Eric Overmyer, and their team of writers’ careful attention to each and every character’s story.  There really isn’t a weak link in the show’s huge cast of characters.  The writing is extraordinary, and the actors are phenomenal, each and every one of them.  When the show began, I didn’t have much patience for D.J. Davis, but now I think he’s become one of the show’s most compelling characters.  I found his story-line this season to be particularly interesting and ultimately heartbreaking, as we see him hit the wall of the financial realities of the music business in his attempts to create meaningful music and then actually get it released so someone other than he and his friends could hear it.  (When Davis, beaten, comments sadly that “I just feel like, at this point in my life, I want to have more control,” my artist’s heart broke for him.)

It was interesting this season to see several characters fail in their endeavors, but find unexpected silver linings.  Sonny fell off the wagon but found unexpected support from his Vietnamese girlfriend’s father, who he’d previously seen as impossibly overbearing.  Meanwhile, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the BBC’s Sherlock Season Two!

October 25th, 2012
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A few weeks ago I wrote about the BBC’s excellent modern-day reinvention of Sherlock Holmes in Season One of their show Sherlock. When the credits rolled on the last episode, I quickly ordered season two from Amazon.

Season Two is of even higher quality than Season One!

With their second series of three episodes (as in Season One, each episode is an hour-and-a-half-long movie), the makers of Sherlock set the bar very high for themselves.  They decided to tackle what are probably the three most famous aspects of the Sherlock Holmes mythos: the professor, the woman, and the hound.

The first episode of Season Two, “A Scandal in Belgravia” (based on the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) focuses on the woman: that is, Irene Adler, the one woman who was Holmes’ equal.  I absolutely adore the series’ version of Irene.  When we first meet her, we learn that she is a dominatrix who apparently is in possession of some photographs of a member of the Royal Family in, apparently, a compromising position.  But we quickly learn that there is a lot more to Ms. Adler than just being a beautiful blackmailer, and as the episode goes on we (along with Sherlock) are subjected to reversal after reversal, never quite sure where Ms. Adler’s loyalties lie.  In the episode, Irene Adler is played by Lara Pulver, and she is absolutely magnificent.  Yes, it’s true that I, like Holmes, might have been a bit easily smitten seeing as how the lovely Ms. Pulver performs most of her initial scenes with Holmes in the nude, but I was quickly taken by the character’s ferocious intelligence and cunning.  This woman is truly Holmes’ equal, and we’re never quite sure, as the episode progresses, whether Holmes is one step ahead of Adler or whether she is one step ahead of Holmes.

“A Scandal in Belgravia” is the best episode of Season Two, and the best episode of the series so far.  More than any other episode, this one takes place over a lengthy period of time (almost a year, I believe), and as such, it is densely packed with circumstances.  In the opening of the episode, there’s a brilliant montage in which we watch Sherlock and Watson solve a progression of cases.  It’s a terrific, fast-paced series of mystery after mystery (many of them referring to various Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle) that not only serves to show that these two men have now been on many adventures together, but also to show their growing friendship (bizarre though it may be).  If there’s one thing I thought might have been missing from Season One, it’s a development of the friendship between Holmes and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the BBC’s Sherlock Season One

Back in 2010, I started hearing about the BBC’s new Sherlock series.  The word was overwhelmingly positive — people seemed to love this new reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes character and mythos, set in modern-day London.  I was interested, but frankly having just recently seen and thoroughly enjoyed Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Junior’s own recent reinvention of Sherlock holmes, in the film Sherlock Holmes (click here for my review), I wasn’t sure I was really all that interested in yet another version of the characters.

Well, I’m kicking myself for resisting for as long as I did, because the BBC’s Sherlock is absolutely magnificent.  If you haven’t yet seen it, I strongly encourage you to seek it out!

Sherlock Season One, like most British TV series, is short.  It consists of three hour-and-a-half-long episodes, each basically a movie in and of itself.  Each episode adapts a different Sherlock Holmes short story.  Sherlock is set in modern-day London, and I found myself continually delighted by the way the writers adapted the Holmes stories to modern-day times, while still preserving the heart of the original stories (as well as their delightful complexities).  It’s great fun to see the way cell-phones, the internet, GPS tracking, and modern-day science and forensics evidence are seamlessly incorporated into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories.  It all works because the makers of this show are focused on preserving the core aspects of the original stories, rather than just jettisoning everything other than the character names.  Instead, it’s as if the writers have asked themselves, how could Conan Doyle have written this story had he been alive today?  Their answers are fiendishly clever.

The two leads are both excellent.  Benedict Cumberbatch has created, in just three episodes, an absolutely iconic portrayal of the great detective.  His Sherlock is an incredibly cold creature, someone who prides himself on not feeling normal emotions and, instead, seeking complete intellectual detachment from his cases.  The show is not afraid to dare the audience to dislike its main character!  But Mr. Cumberbatch always shows us the human heart beating beneath Sherlock’s intelligence and his often cruel demeanor.  Meanwhile, Martin Freeman (Tim from the original British The Office, as well as Arthur Dent from the film adaptation of The Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy) adds another classic everyman character to his resume with his portrayal of John Watson.  When we first meet him, in the opening scenes of the series, Watson has just returned from military service in Afghanistan (just as the character had in the original stories — a canny bit of serendipity), and he is emotionally lost.  Of course, he eventually crosses paths with Sherlock, and a great partnership … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Season Five of Mad Men

July 1st, 2012
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Mad Men took a little while to grow on me.  Right from the beginning I recognized it as an extremely intelligent, well-made show.  But while I respected the audacity of crafting a show around a group of pretty much entirely unlikable, despicable characters, I found that kept me at a distance from the show in those early days.  (Click here for my review of Mad Men season one.)

(I suppose one might argue with my describing the ensemble as being comprised of entirely unlikable characters, but I stand by my assessment.  The characters were well-rounded, but so filled with flaws that it was hard to find a character to root for.  Even Peggy, who was perhaps the most endearing character introduced in that first season, was tremendously off-putting at times.  Now please understand, this is not a criticism of Mad Men. Quite the contrary, the series’ eschewing of the usual TV need to make every lead character “nice” is a major aspect of the show’s brilliance.  But it also was part of why it took a while for me to really fall in love with Mad Men, even as I was intellectually impressed by what I was watching.)

For me, it really wasn’t until season four that I began to truly LOVE Mad Men. I think it took that long for the characters to really grow on me.  Whereas at first I found it hard to really care all that much about what happened to Don Draper and co., by that fourth season I was really hooked.  It’s possible that the recently-concluded fifth season was the show’s strongest season yet.  I certainly was captivated by the goings-on as I’d never been before.

I love the unpredictability of Mad Men. This is a show where I find it almost impossible to predict where it’s going next.  Season five contained some bold narrative moves.  (Beware spoilers as we proceed.)  The demise of a major character was of course one shocking development (made all the more potent by the writers’ cleverly playing off of the parallels between that death and the season one death of another person in Don Draper’s life).  But I was also surprised to see Peggy leaving the agency (a move I never expected to see), by Joan’s divorce, by the side-lining of Betty Draper and the tremendous prominence given to Megan, the new Mrs. Draper.

Speaking of new characters, I was worried at first by the introduction of Michael Ginsberg (played by Ben Feldman).  When we first meet Ginsberg in the second episode of the season, I found him terribly annoying.  I also worried that they were piling on the Jewish stereo-types a little too high.  (In … [continued]

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“The Worst Ones Always Live” — Josh Reviews Game of Thrones Season Two

I have never read any of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels.  But I was hooked relatively quickly into HBO’s first season of Game of Thrones, and the masterfully crafted second-season, which just concluded, was equally enthralling.  (I am a bit torn, now, having enjoyed the show so much, as to whether I should start reading the novels.  Part of me thinks I definitely should — since I’m loving the adaptation so much, why not dig into the actual source material?  But on the other hand, I am having so much fun discovering the story through the show that I am reluctant to lose that thrill.  Game of Thrones is a story where anything can happen and no character is safe.  I’m LOVING the thrill of not knowing what is ahead for any of the characters, and I’m not sure I want to give that up…)

The first season of Game of Thrones was very strong, and it really built up a head of steam as the ten episodes progressed.  The last three-to-four episodes of that first season were absolute dynamite.  There’s no moment in season two that ever quite equaled, for me, that “Oh my god I am in LOVE with this show” moment of the shocking character death in the penultimate episode of season one, but that’s hardly surprising.  There’s a thrill of discovery that is hard to equal as a TV show goes on.  But I adored season two of Game of Thrones, and as TV fantasy spectacle goes, the Battle of Blackwater in the second season’s penultimate episode, “Blackwater,” was pretty extraordinary.

Make that VERY extraordinary.  That episode was an amazing achievement, capturing a huge-scale fantasy battle at sea and on land that was viscerally exciting and gripping and epic in scope.  It looked gorgeous, but more importantly than that, the show sold the life-or-death stakes for the characters, resulting in a nail-biting hour that was everything I’d hoped it would be.  This one is going to be hard to top.

The cast of Game of Thrones dramatically expanded in the second season.  Even though the show is fearless in knocking off major characters left and right, season two was still jam-packed with people and places.  It’s a huge ensemble, and the quality of the performances across the board is phenomenal.

While Ned Stark was clearly the main character in season one, season two belonged to Tyrion Lannister, played by the spectacular Peter Dinklage.  Mr. Dinklage does absolutely extraordinary work in the role, and Tyrion has already become one of the great, iconic TV characters of all time.  It helps that the writing for Tyrion always crackles — he always … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Bored to Death Season 2

After tearing through the first season of HBO’s Bored to Death on DVD (click here for my review), my wife and I couldn’t wait to jump into season 2.  I’m pleased to say the second season was just as much fun as the first!

Picking up just a few months after the end of season one, Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is still a writer living in Brooklyn who also works as an unlicensed Private Eye (getting clients from his ad on Craigslist).  Though season one ended triumphantly, things have taken something of a turn for the worst for our three heroes here at the start of season two.  Jonathan’s book was rejected by his publisher, and he’s had to take work as a night-school writing teacher (which seems like a drag, though Jonathan seems to enjoy the chance to teach and perhaps inspire other young writers).  Leah (Heather Burns) has broken up with Ray (Zach Galifianakis).  And George (Ted Danson)’s magazine has been bought by a right-wing Christian company, and he’s begun to find himself more and more marginalized by the new management.

The season kicks off with a bang, as the first episode “Escape From the Dungeon!” is absolutely hysterical and showcases everything that is great about the show.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun, but suffice it to say that the adventure culminates in Jonathan’s having to interrupt George’s meeting with his new Christian parent company while dressed in a full-body black-leather S & M “gimp” suit.  But that’s not even the funniest part!  No, that comes when George leads Jonathan out of the meeting, down the hall to his office (where he hopes to find some tools to help Jonathan out of the S & M suit he’s been locked into), and the two men hold hands while walking down the hallway.  There’s something so funny and so wonderfully sweet about that tiny moment, so in contrast to the insane circumstance we’re watching.  It’s just brilliant.

The rest of the season continues strongly from there.  You’ve gotta love these HBO short seasons — at only eight episodes long, there’s no filler.  Each of the episodes is very strong, filled with great moments.

I was a bit surprised at the show’s slight step into more-serious ground with a subplot in which George is diagnosed with prostate cancer.  It occasionally makes it a bit difficult to enjoy all the fun, but the storyline gives Ted Danson even more room to show just what a phenomenal actor he is.  There’s a scene, late in the season, in which he expresses his fear about the way he could just be “turned off” like a light-switch that is absolutely … [continued]

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“Winter is Coming” — Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: Season One

March 30th, 2012
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I’ve made various comments, here and there over the past several months, about how much I dug the first season of Game of Thrones, but I realized I’d never really written about it in-depth here on the site.  After recently tearing through the blu-ray release of the first season (in anticipation of the launch of season two THIS WEEKEND!), I figured now was as good a time as ever!

I have never read any of the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, but I was intrigued by what I had read about HBO’s epic adaptation.  After a good friend impressed upon me how much he loved the series, I decided to sample the HBO show, last year, to see if it struck my fancy.  I enjoyed the first couple of episodes but wasn’t exactly blown away.  But then something weird started to happen.  I slowly got more and more sucked in, and by the time the sixth or seventh episode rolled around I was good and hooked.  When a major character’s head got lopped off at the end of the penultimate episode, I became a fan for life.

Game of Thrones tells the story of a group of families all warring for power, influence, and control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.  The titular throne is the “Iron Chair” — the seat of the king of the Seven Kingdoms.  The focus of this first season (adapted from Mr. Martin’s first novel in the series) is primarily upon the Stark family.  In the opening episode, Ned Stark is forced to leave his home in Winterfell (the Northern city his family has apparently ruled for generations) to serve as the Hand of the King.  It just so happens that the King is Robert Baratheon, Ned’s old friend and comrade-in-arms.  Ned was a key player in helping Robert to win the throne eighteen years previously.  But while Ned has little patience for politics, he is thrust into the scheming, back-stabbing world of King’s Landing, the empire’s capital city.  Meanwhile, threats to the kingdom have begun to brew on all sides.  Some sort of supernatural menace appears to be brewing north of the Wall, the humongous barrier at the northernmost tip of the “civilized” realm.  And in the East, the two surviving children of house Targaryen, the family who ruled the Kingdom before being deposed by Robert, have allied themselves with the fierce horse-riding nomads the Dothraki, with the apparent goal of raising a huge army to invade Westeros and recapture the kingdom.

My plot summary doesn’t do any justice to the series’ wonderfully rich, sprawling narrative.  Over the course of the first season’s ten hours, we meet … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Bored to Death Season 1!

What a terrific show!

I feel like I’ve been discovering a wealth of TV show genius on DVD recently: Party Down (click here for my review of season 1, and here for my review of season 2), Louie (click here for my review of season 1), Boardwalk Empire (I am making my way through season 1) and now Bored to Death!

Created by Jonathan Ames (who also wrote or co-wrote all of the episodes), the series stars Jason Schwartzman as a fictionalized Jonathan Ames, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson.  The trio are marvelous, and the wonderful way those three marvelous actors inhabit their three characters, and the way the three totally different men are drawn together over the course of the season provides the heart of the show and the main reason why I found it so enjoyable.

Jason Schwartzman plays Jonathan Ames.  Like the show’s creator with the same name, he is a writer living in Brooklyn.  Unlike the show’s creator, boredom crossed with a mounting desperation at his inability to start work on his second novel prompts this Jonathan Ames to post an ad on Craigslist advertising himself as an unlicensed detective.  To his surprise, he begins getting calls from people asking for his help.  To his even greater surprise, he finds himself throughly enjoying this new persona he’s able to create for himself, and the fact that, in his bumbling way, he’s actually passably good at being a Private Eye!

Ted Danson plays Jonathan’s mentor, George Christopher.  The wealthy, dapper George is the editor of a prominent New York Magazine.  I was blown away by Mr. Danson’s performance — he might be my very favorite aspect of this series.  I of course loved Mr. Danson’s work on Cheers back in the day, and more recently he’s been entertainingly acerbic on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  But, hang onto your butts, George Christopher may just be his best role.  Am I overstating things?  Well, probably.  But Mr. Danson is lovable and hysterical as George, a man who is on the one hand at the height of the New York City intellectual elite, but also incredibly childish — innocent and filled with child-like glee at everything that Jonathan is involved in.  Mr. Danson brings incredible joie de vivre to every scene he plays, and it’s quite beguiling.

The final third of this trifecta is made up of Zach Galifianakis as Ray, Jonathan’s schlubby comic book artist Ray.  Ray is as much a man-child as George (and, I suppose, as Jonathan himself), though far less successful, and with far less self-confidence.  Where George is suave, Ray is a bull in a china shop.  But he, too, … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Louie Season One

February 13th, 2012
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I discovered the comedian Louis C.K. when he appeared in a recurring role during the second season of Parks and Recreation, and I fell in love with his work after watching his concert film, Hilarious. I’ve subsequently devoured all of his stand-up comedy CDs that I could get my hands on.  I knew that Louis C.K. had a show on FX, as well, and as as I started reading the rave reviews for the show’s second season over the past few months, I knew that this was something I had to track down.  I’m so pleased that I did!

The structure of Louie resembles that of early Seinfeld episodes.  Louis C.K. plays Louie, a fictionalized version of himself: a divorced stand-up comedian with two kids.  The narrative of each episode is punctuated with several clips from Louie’s stand-up routines, which usually have a tangential connection to the stories being told.

But Louie is a far weirder concoction than Seinfeld, and I love it for that.  For one thing, whereas Seinfeld became known for it’s densely plotted, clockwork-like stories, many episodes of Louie barely have any plot to speak of.  Episodes often consist of two or three extended vignettes that have entirely nothing to do with one another.  It’s bizarre, and quite off-putting to anyone weaned on the familiar rhythms of the sitcom.  But the technique is so determinedly idiosyncratic that I find it makes the show extremely endearing.

Louie is, often, extremely hilarious.  In particular, I find Louis C.K.’s stand-up bits to be phenomenal.  These stand-up routines (and they’re usually lengthier, meatier bits than the short snippets of stand-up seen in Seinfeld episodes) tend to be the highlight of the episodes for me.  But the show is unafraid to have extended sequences that are not funny at all.  Sometimes that’s because we’re watching something serious (such as the lengthy conversation, right at the start of the second episode, between Louie and his friends as to whether it’s OK for him to use the word “faggot” in his stand-up routine).  Sometimes it’s because we’re watching something teeth-grindingly awkward (such as some of Louie’s failed dating experiences).

The show doesn’t shy away from digging deeply into serious issues.  The episode “God” is a notable example, in which we watch an extended flashback of a brutally unpleasant experience young Louie had at a Catholic religious school.  By the way, this episode is particularly notable for the way in which we see the real Louis C.K. throwing traditional notions of structure right out the window.  The flashback sequence takes up almost the entire run-time of the episode, which is a surprising and unusual choice.  The episode also raised some eyebrows for Louis’ casting of … [continued]

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The Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2011 — Part One!

Well, we’ve finally arrived at my last Top 10 list for 2011.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the previous lists!  (Follow these links to check out my Top 15 Movies of 2011: part one, part two, part three, my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2011: part one, and part two, and my Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2011.)

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to put together a Top 10 Episodes of TV list this year.  For a whole host of reasons, I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to.  I’m super-busy, and there just aren’t that many shows that interest me enough to want to watch religiously these days.  And a whole heck of a lot of the TV I watched this past year was OLDER TV — in the form of DVD box-sets (of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Party Down, etc.).  There’s a lot of current TV that interests me that I just haven’t had time to watch: Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Community, Homeland, Louie (season 2 — I have watched season 1 on DVD and LOVED it — I’ll be posting a review soon), Bored to Death (I also just finished season 1 on DVD and loved it — I’ll be posting a review of this soon, as well, and I’m hoping to get to seasons 2 and 3 soon).  All of those shows look interesting and I do hope to eventually sink my teeth in them all via the magic of DVD.

So I felt weird putting together a list, seeing that there’s so much probably-great TV out there that I haven’t seen.  But when I sat down to start to compile the list, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily the top ten choices manifested themselves.  I guess I DID watch some great TV this year!  But keep the above list of TV-I-haven’t-yet-seen in mind when perusing my choices.  OK, enough intro, let’s dive in:

10. Game of Thrones: “You Win or You Die” (season 1, episode 7, aired on 5/29/11) — I’ve never read any of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, and I wasn’t immediately taken by the first few hours of the HBO adaptation.  But after a few episodes, the complex fantasy story started to get its hooks in me, and by the time I arrived at this stand-out episode I was loving this show like few other things on TV.  Pretty much all of the show’s continuing story-lines jumped to the next level in this installment, which left me absolutely desperate for the next episode … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)

I’m very excited for the new film adaptation, starring Gary Oldman, of John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but really hope to get to it soon.)  But the release of this new film adaptation spurred me to at last track down something that had been on my “to-watch” list for years: the BBC’s 1979 six-part television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring none other than Sir Alec Guinness in the lead role as George Smiley.

(I wrote six parts because that was how the show was presented in the DVD that I have.  I am aware that the show was aired in seven parts on the BBC, and re-edited into six parts for the American release back in 1980.  I actually didn’t know that until reading up on the mini-series after I’d watched it and, while watching it, I didn’t notice anything that would have lead me to suspect that the series had been re-edited.  Nothing seemed to be truncated, and the end-points of each of the six episodes felt natural to me.  In hindsight, the film-purist part of me wishes I’d seen the original British seven-part version, but the six-part American version certainly worked for me so I have no complaints.)

George Smiley is a getting-on-in-years British intelligence expert who was forced out of the British secret intelligence service (which all the characters refer to as “the circus”) following a power-play in which his mentor, the head of the agency who was known as Control, was pushed out.  But Smiley is brought back into the game when a government official becomes aware of the existence of a possible mole deep within the Circus.  It turns out that Control had been aware of the existence of the mole, and had narrowed down the possibilities to five suspects, nicknamed “tinker,” “tailor,” “soldier,” “poorman,” and “beggarman” (from the words of a British children’s rhyme).  Smiley is given the near-impossible task of spying on the spy-masters.  He must infiltrate the circus and uncover the identity of the mole, all under the noses of the current head officers of the circus, any of whom could be the mole.

I absolutely adored this mini-series, but it’s not for the casual viewer.  One has to pay very close attention to the story to suss out who everyone is and what exactly is happening.  Although it’s very languidly paced, the mini-series doesn’t stop to hold the viewer’s hand to explain who the different characters are, or what the heck they’re talking about.  All of the information you need to understand the story is there, but the viewer has to do a lot of the work to … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Party Down Season Two!

Last month I wrote about the terrific first season of Party Down. I wasted little time in devouring the show’s second season, as well.  Sadly, these two short seasons represent the entire run of the show, but I can’t recommend them highly enough to you.

To re-cap, Party Down focuses on the sad-sack employees of Party Down, a small Hollywood catering business.  Pretty much every single one of the Party Down staff are wannabe actors, hoping for their big break while toiling away at a menial job they detest.  The genius of the show’s structure is that every episode is set at a different Party Down event/party.  So each episode becomes its own self-contained little movie, with totally different locations and guest-stars.  It’s a brilliant structure for a TV show, and one that could have provided endless story-telling opportunities.  Sadly that was not to be.

Season two of Party Down begins a few months after the end of season one.  Ron (Ken Marino)’s Soup R Crackers franchise has failed, and he slinks back to Party Down as a depressed, angry slacker.  With Henry (Adam Scott) now team leader, the first few episodes of the season revels in the reversal-of-roles.  (Now Ron is the difficult one, and Henry is the exasperated boss trying to keep him and the rest of their motley crew in line.)

The only major cast change is that Jane Lynch had left the series (to appear in Glee), so season two introduces us to a new character Lydia (Megan Mullally).  Ms. Mullally is phenomenal as the loopily deranged Hollywood mom, trying to guide her pre-teen daughter to super-stardom.  The show’s creators wisely chose to create an entirely different character from Lynch’s Constance.  While I missed Jane Lynch, of course, Megan Mullally is so entertaining that I quickly accepted her addition to the cast.

Season two of Party Down again blesses us with some terrific guest-stars.  J.K. Simmons, Joey Lauren Adams, and Kristen Bell all return from season one.  Dave (Gruber) Allen (guidance counselor Jeff Rosso on Freaks and Geeks) gives a memorable turn as a sci-fi author having a brush with Hollywood.  But the season’s best guest star, and the star of arguably the season’s best episode, is Steve Guttenberg.  That’s right, Police Academy’s Steve Guttenberg.  In the episode “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” Mr. Guttenberg hires the Party Down crew to cater his birthday.  But his friends throw him a surprise party the day before, and he forgets to cancel the booking.  So when Party Down shows up at his house, Mr. Guttenberg (playing himself) decides to invite the gang into his house to have a party with him.  It’s a crazy premise, but the half-hour … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Party Down (Season One)!

Wow!  Add this series to the list of brilliant, cancelled-before-their-time TV shows!

I don’t think I even heard of Party Down during the two seasons it was on the air, on Starz, in 2009-10.  But every now and then, since it’s cancellation, I’d hear or read a mention of it, mostly in connection to being a prior great role of Adam Scott’s, who I’ve been so enjoying as Ben Dywer on the terrific Parks and Recreation.  A sale on Amazon lead me to buy the first season on DVD, and I was blown away!  I’m already almost finished with season two, and deep in mourning that there are no more episodes of this fantastic show!

The series focuses on Party Down, a fairly low-quality Hollywood catering company, staffed primarily by out-of-work actors and actresses.  The show is a true ensemble, but if I had to identify a lead character it would be Adam Scott as Henry.  Henry was once a struggling actor whose big break came on a commercial, saying the catch phrase “Are we having fun yet?”.  Sadly, that break-out role also destroyed his career, forever type-casting him as the “are we having fun yet?” guy.  His dreams pretty much crushed, Henry is fairly rudderless when we first meet him, having sworn off acting, but not sure what he should do with his life instead of that.

He’s hired to work with Party Down by an old friend, Ron, played by Ken Marino.  The two used to party together, back in the day, but Ron partied too hard and too long.  He’s sworn off all booze and drugs now, and he sees his job as Party Down team leader as a stepping-stone towards his dream of one day owning a Soup ‘R Crackers franchise.  While everyone else treats their gigs catering with Party Down with apathy or downright loathing, Ron takes things totally seriously, leading to a lot of (very funny) butting heads with his team of misfits.  Ron is so sincere, he’s pretty impossible not to love.

The only part of working for Party Down that is remotely appealing for Henry is the presence of Casey, played by Lizzy Caplan.  Although Casey is married when we first meet her in the pilot, the show wisely avoids any prolonged will-they-or-won’t-they Ross/Rachel tension by immediately getting the two together.  Casey is struggling mightily to succeed as a stand-up comic, and though she’s been pretty beaten down by rejection she sees right through Henry’s “I don’t care anymore” attitude.  Lizzy Caplan had a very small role in Freaks and Geeks, but I recognized her most from her role as Marlena in Cloverfield.  She’s absolutely dynamite here, tough and … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Larry Sanders Show: Season Two

August 12th, 2011
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Last month I wrote about season one of Garry Shandling’s magnificent HBO series from the ’90s, The Larry Sanders Show.  Season one had been previously released on DVD, so I’d seen all of those episodes many times.  But NONE of the subsequent seasons had ever before been released on any home video format (except for a few episodes in the series-spanning best-of DVD collection from a few years ago, Not Just The Best of The Larry Sanders Show), and I didn’t start watching The Larry Sanders Show when it aired on HBO until around season four, so there were a TON of season two episodes that I’d never seen before.  So I was VERY EXCITED to finally have the chance to dive into this season!  The Larry Sanders Show is one of my favorite TV shows of all time, and suddenly having new episodes to watch that I’d never seen before was something of a small miracle for me.

Security Expert: “I’m just trying to give Mr. Sanders the cold, hard reality of the situation.”  Artie: “We don’t usually operate that way around here.”

And I was not disappointed!  Season two of The Larry Sanders Show is, I believe, the longest of the show’s six seasons.  It clocks in at seventeen episodes, and the season premiere is actually a double-length episode.  That’s an impressively-sized season for a cable show, and as with season one, there really isn’t a clunker in the bunch!  The hour-long first episode, “The Breakdown,” is a terrific way to kick off the season.  Larry’s wife is divorcing him, which sends Larry into a spiral of misery.  The only woman he finds himself able to connect with turns out being his first wife, Francine, much to Artie and Hank’s horror.  (In the next episode, “The List,” Artie remembers in shock how Francine once destroyed Larry’s People Choice award trophy.  Larry points out that this was only because she found out he’d cheated on her.  Artie’s response: “So you cheated.  Don’t take it out on your People’s Choice award!”)  That episode, “The List,” is one of my favorites of the season.  Larry and Francine decide to undertake the (foolhardy) plan of each creating a list, to share with one another, of all the people they’ve slept with since their divorce.  Needless to say, that doesn’t go well.

“The Hankerciser 200” blesses us with another great Hank Kingsley product endorsement — that of an exercise system that turns out to have the nasty habit of nearly crippling those who use it.  This is a great highlight in a season that features a year-long storyline about another crazy Hank scheme — the street-level revolving restaurant (“Hank’s Look-Around Cafe”) … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: From the Earth to the Moon

In 1998, HBO aired From the Earth to the Moon, a twelve-part mini-series produced by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Michael Bostick.  The series chronicled the Apollo program, the massive American space-flight initiative that ran from 1961-1975 and which resulted in the first human being landing on the moon.

I am a nut for all things related to space-travel, so I eagerly devoured From the Earth to the Moon when it originally aired.  I have re-watched the series all the way through several times in the intervening years, and most recently re-watched it with my wife last month (who had never seen it before).  Although the series has nowhere near the intensity of Tom Hanks’ later HBO historical mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it still holds up as a phenomenal work of television, electrifying and informative.

What’s fun about the mini-series is that each episode has it’s own style and rhythms.  Obviously there is continuity from one episode to the next, as the stories have to fit together chronologically to tell the story of the developing Apollo program.  But each episode was written and directed by different individuals, and the creative team clearly took great pains to give each hour its own specific feel.  The first episode, for instance, titled “Can We Do This?” (which has to cover a lot of ground in setting up the story and summarizing the entire Mercury program — which was the focus of the superlative film The Right Stuff) is separated into a series of individually titled chapters — basically little vignettes that together paint a larger picture.  The third episode, “We Have Cleared the Tower,” is presented as the work of a documentary crew which was filming the preparations for the Apollo 7 mission.  Episode 5, “Spider,” (one of my favorite episodes of the mini-series) shifts the focus to the incredible amount of work done by all of the designers and engineers who constructed the lunar module.  Episode 10, “Galileo was Right,” focuses on all of the archaeological work that the astronauts had to accomplish (and the extraordinary amount of prep work that they needed to put in in order to do so).  These are just a few examples.  It’s a very clever strategy, as it keeps each episode fresh and new for the viewer.

There are a lot of visual effects throughout the series, and for the most part the quality is high.  There are several sequences of space-flight and Earth orbit that are very beautiful.  But this area is where the seams of this 1998 production show a bit.  I’m sure that today’s technology would have allowed for the creation of far more elaborate special effects.  … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Larry Sanders Show: Season One

Last week I wrote about season one of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the ahead-of-its time sitcom created by and starring Garry Shandling, that aired on Showtime from 1986-1990.  As I have been watching It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, I have simultaneously been re-watching Mr. Shandling’s second TV show, The Larry Sanders Show, which aired on HBO from 1992-1998.  (It’s absolutely incredible to me that, after a LONG wait, BOTH of Mr. Shandling’s TV shows were released in complete-season sets within just a few months of each other last year.  I was originally going to watch It’s Garry Shandling’s Show all the way through, and then revisit The Larry Sanders Show, but frankly I just couldn’t wait that long before diving into one of my favorite television shows of all time.)

Garry Shandling plays talk-show host Larry Sanders, and the show is clearly inspired by Mr. Shandling’s many years on the talk-show circuit, both as a frequent quest and eventually as a regular guest-host for Johnny Carson.  (Mr. Shandling was at one time a candidate to replace Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show — but ultimately he decided he’d rather play a talk-show host on TV than actually BE one.) In every episode, we see some snippets of the Larry Sanders Show talk-show, though the bulk of each episode takes place behind the scenes, as we follow all of the Hollywood back-biting, self-aggarndizement, and other forms of ridiculousness involved in creating a five-nights-a-week talk show.  In one of the show’s most brilliant creative conceits, the footage of the Larry Sanders talk show was shot on video, while all of the behind-the-scenes material was shot on film.  This simple visual device is a great hook for the show (and also an easy way for less-attentive TV viewers to keep track of what’s what in each episode).

Mr. Shandling is supported by a remarkable ensemble, most notably Rip Torn as Larry’s loyal, bull-dog producer Artie, and Jeffrey Tambor as Larry’s dim side-kick Hank Kingsley.  Artie and Hank represent two of the greatest characters ever created on television — a testament to the magnificent writing on the show as well as the formidable acting talents of those two men.  I’m laughing right now, as I type these sentences, just thinking about all of the ridiculous antics those two characters got up to over the course of the show’s run.

The rest of the group is pretty phenomenal, as well.  Janeane Garofalo turns in a star-making performance as Paula, the show’s deadpan, seen-it-all booker.  Jeremy Piven and Wallace Langham are a riot as the show’s two head writers, each of whom presents a sarcastic, tough-as-nails affect but who are both actually hopelessly needy … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show Season One

For as long as I can remember I’ve been hearing and reading about It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the innovative sort-of-sitcom comedy show that Garry Shandling created and starred in on Showtime from 1986 to 1990.  I adored The Larry Sanders Show (Mr. Shandling’s second TV show, which aired on HBO from 1992-1998), and when I began getting into stand-up comedy, during the years that Larry Sanders was airing, it became clear to me that Garry Shandling was a fellow of uncommon creative genius.  I’ve long wanted to check out Mr. Shandling’s first show, but there was no easy way to get ahold of those episodes — until now!  Last year, the fine folks at Shout! (whose exceptional TV on DVD sets I have often praised on this site) outdid themselves with the release, not just of one season, but of the complete series of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.  My good buddy Ethan Kreitzer (who wrote a phenomenal write-up, last month, of an Albert Brooks appearance that he attended — it’s a great read, you should take a look if you haven’t read it yet) was kind enough to lend me his copy of the set (and he’s been VERY PATIENT with me as the months have gone bye!) so I could, finally, see what everyone has been talking about.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is a wonderfully playful version of a sitcom, created and produced by people who clearly grew up watching and loving sitcoms.  From the characters’ personas to the look of the sets and lighting, the show is packed full of familiar sitcom tropes.  But that’s entirely the point.  Throughout these early episodes, the show has great fun constantly exposing all of the silly conceits and traditional devices used by TV comedies.  Those conceits and devices are mocked, but what’s so endearing about It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is the way that the mockery is all done with love.  If I got the sense that Mr. Shandling and his team of writers HATED sitcoms, and just wanted to expose how stupid and fake they are, I think that would get old very quickly.  But it’s clear that Mr. Shandling and his crew LOVE sitcoms, and the sense that they’re all absolutely tickled to be in a sitcom of their own comes across loud and clear.

What also comes across loud and clear is that Mr. Shandling and the show’s team are far too creative to be beholden to the way sitcoms usually are.  Indeed, they blow apart the form with enormous relish.  (I’m reminded of the creativity shown by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David when creating Seinfeld, and the glee they took in doing everything their … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to Smallville!

It’s pretty hard to believe that Smallville has been on the air for ten years, and I am even a little bit more astonished that I’ve been watching the show for pretty much all of those ten years!  From the very beginning, I have found watching Smallville to be a somewhat frustrating endeavor.  I’d be hard pressed to name a show that’s been so wildly inconsistent in quality.  A spectacular, exciting, complex episode will be followed by an agonizingly painful, awkward, juvenile installment.  But the good episodes have been good enough to somehow keep me watching even through the bad ones (and there have been plenty of bad ones).

Smallville is probably the best argument for the strength of the British TV model (and the increasingly common HBO/cable model) of shorter (8-12 episode) seasons rather than the standard American network TV seasons of 20-24 episodes.  Over the years I’ve read fans writing off this season or that season of Smallville as garbage, while praising other years.  Personally, I think pretty much every season of the show has had merit, and has had some great episodes.  But boy oh boy have I felt (right from season one) that the story-lines were padded and stretched FAAAAR beyond what made any logical narrative sense.  The years and years of yes-they’re-a-couple, no-they’re-not-a-couple Clark Kent/Lana Lang soap opera antics is the most annoying example of this, but even in the later, more focused seasons this has been a problem.  The show actually found interesting ways to incorporate Doomsday and General Zod as villains (in seasons 8 and 9, respectively), but by making us wait through the WHOLE long season for Clark and his Big Bad villains to finally come to loggerheads stretched my patience well past the breaking point.  Out of the ten seasons of Smallville, I’d say there’s probably a terrific four year-run of a great super-hero show.

That is not a very good record!  But Smallville did have a number of moments of real greatness, and those moments kept me from ever giving up entirely on the series.  There have been some episodes that have been among the very best live-action depictions of super-heroics that I’ve ever seen, in movies or on TV.  (The season two episode, “Rosetta,” guest-starring Christopher Reeve comes to mind, and the show consistently did season-finales like nobody’s business.)  The visual effects are not great, but they’ve been good enough to be decently entertaining week in and week out.  But when the show was great, it wasn’t because of visual effects, it was because they found a sweet spot between incorporating aspects of the Superman mythology while keeping the over-all narrative fun, engaging, and accessible.

When Smallville was … [continued]

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Farewell, Michael Scott

For seasons 2-4, I thought the American version of The Office was one of the funniest shows on television — hitting near genius-level comedy with extreme regularity week-to-week.  Things started to slide a bit during season 5, and I thought the last several years have been pretty hit-or-miss.  One of the big problems with the show, I think, is how they’ve lost the thread of the Jim character (played by John Krasinski).  For the first several years, he was the real hero of the show.  Oh, sure, he shared screen time with all the other major members of the ensemble (all of whom are very talented and funny in their own right), but I always thought that Jim was the major audience surrogate character.  We saw the office, and all the characters who populated it, through Jim’s eyes, and we invested in the emotional ups and downs of his love for Pam.

But for the past few years, with Jim and Pam a happy couple, it’s seemed to me that the writers haven’t known what to do with him.  He’s faded to the background in many episodes, and when he does have a central part to play, it’s often been to appear incompetent.  (His hapless efforts co-managing the office come to mind.)  That can sometimes be good for a short-term laugh, but I’ve felt for a while that it seemed like a betrayal of the Jim we knew and loved for the first several years of the show.  I always though that if that Jim Halpert ever actually tried to work hard and apply himself, he’d quickly be running the office — or, more likely, he’d leave Dunder Mifflin and find himself a more rewarding gig.  That neither has happened has puzzled me, and the inconsistent and often uninteresting characterization of Jim lately has been disappointing and, I think, a large reason as to why my interest in the show has started to wane.

In Jim’s place, Michael has stepped to the forefront as the hero of the show.  Don’t get me wrong, Steve Carell was always the biggest name in the cast and the star of the proceedings.  But in terms of the actual narrative of the show, he seemed to me to be mostly there as an impediment/frustration for Jim.  But with Jim sliding into the background, the last three seasons have seen Michael in the more heroic role — achieving victories (most notably the triumphant ending of his “Michael Scott’s Paper Company” story-line in season five) and winning the girl (the delightful Amy Ryan as Holly Flax).

And so I am very curious as to what sort of show The Office will become now that Steve Carell … [continued]

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“Accentuate the Positive” — Treme Returns!

April 27th, 2011
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It’s been a long wait since last summer, but one of my favorite series from 2010 finally returned with new episodes this past Sunday night — David Simon (The Wire) and Eric Overmyer’s Treme!

Season two picks up about six or seven months after the events of the season one finale.  It’s been fourteen months since Hurricane Katrina, but the city of New Orleans and its denizens are still struggling to get back on their feet.  Many who left the city after the flood have returned, but so too have many additional problems — including a sharp uptick in violent crime.

“Accentuate the Positive,” the season two premiere, is a leisurely paced re-introduction to the series and its large cast of characters.  There are no earth-shattering developments or plot twists in this episode, but I adored the gentle way we’re dipped back into the experience of life in New Orleans.  You’re got to pay attention to keep up with everything, as the show is constantly cutting from one location to another and from one character’s story to the next, but it’s all very skillfully put together.  Watching the episode unfold, we can see the interconnected fabric of the lives of all of these struggling men and women. Sure I want to have seen more of every one of these characters, but we’ve got the rest of the season for that!  And it’s a testament to how well-written and well-performed the show is that there wasn’t a single character or story-line that I felt was a waste of time, resenting the time that we could have spent following another character.  No, every one of these characters could be the lead in their own show, and that’s a key ingredient to the success of this ensemble.

I wrote, above, that the characters are “struggling,” and sure enough they are — pretty much everyone one of them.  But as with season one, this episode manages to remain fairly up-beat and full of life, despite the heavy subject matter.  There’s humor to be found, and joy, amidst the heartbreak.  That balance of tone is one of the reasons I love this show so much.

And, of course, there’s the music.  This episode was packed to the gills with amazing music of all styles and types.  It’s the music that the makers of this show use, primarily, to set the scene and to illustrate for the viewer the changes in location.  It’s an extraordinarily clever approach, and I’d say it’s become this show’s trademark.  It’s the music, as much as the plot developments or the character arcs, that propels Treme along from start to finish, and it provides an endlessly rich backdrop for … [continued]

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The Top 10 Episodes of TV of 2010 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my list of the Top 10 Episodes of TV of 2010.  Here now is the rest of the list, numbers 1-5!

5. 30 Rock: “Reaganing” (season 5, episode 5, aired on 10/21/10) — Jack boasts that he has reached a 24-hour state of perfection that he called “Reaganing,” in which he is unable to make any mistakes.  But his perfect game is challenged when he’s faced with helping Liz sort out her latest sexual hang-up.  The episode is packed with terrific moments: Kelsey Grammer helping Jenna and Kenneth scam a local bakery; Tracy’s incredible inability to deliver a single line necessary for a commercial; and the revelation of the origin of Liz’s sexual problem.  (Hint: it involves Tom Jones.)  Very funny stuff.

4. The Pacific: Part Ten (aired on 5/16/10) — I’m a big fan of the final chapters of The Return of the King that chronicle what happened after the victorious destruction of the One Ring and the defeat of Sauron.  I also love the voluminous appendices, that detail the final fates of all of the main characters.  Most stories choose to end at the moment of our heroes’ triumph, but I find something powerfully sad about exploring what happens in the days afterwards.  This might help to explain why I was so taken with the final episode of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s HBO mini-series The Pacific. This episode is set after the end of the war, and we see our characters — most notably Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie — return home and attempt, each in their own way, to rebuild their lives which were forever changed by their experiences in combat.  I found the whole hour to be devastating, particularly the moment when we see Sledge’s father standing quietly, helplessly, outside his son’s bedroom door as he listens to the wails of his son who lies within, unable to sleep because of the haunting effects of the conflict.  The series could have easily ended after Part Nine, but it’s the events of Part Ten that, to me, raise The Pacific to the level of greatness.

3. Parks and Recreation: “94 Meetings” (Season 2, episode 21, aired on 4/29/2010) — Yep, I’ve got a second episode of Parks and Recreation on my list.  Ron Effing Swanson is threatened with actually having to do some work when he discovers that April has scheduled all of the meetings that he’s put off all year-long for one single day.  The wonderfully rich ensemble of the show (which has been so beautifully fleshed out during the show’s second season, after a shaky start in the six-episode first season) gets to shine, when Ron solicits everyone’s help in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series!

November 15th, 2010
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Andy Richter has headlined two terrific but quickly-cancelled TV series.  A few years after the demise of Andy Richter Controls the Universe (which was cancelled after FOX aired 14 of the 19 episodes produced), Mr. Richter stepped into the lead of Andy Barker, P.I. on NBC.  The peacock network cancelled that show after a mere six episodes.

After waiting years for both series to see the light of day on DVD, I was overjoyed when both Andy Richter Controls the Universe AND Andy Barker, P.I. were released in complete series sets late last year!  (Click here to read my recent review of the DVD set of Andy Richter Controls the Universe.)

Andy Barker, played by Mr. Richter, is a mild-mannered accountant who has just opened up his own office on the second floor of a small mid-western strip-mall.  What Andy doesn’t realize is that the previous tenant of that office space was a private eye.  When a mysterious damsel arrives at his office door, seeking help finding her husband (she thinks the office still belongs to that of an investigator), Andy finds himself drawn into the world of crime.  No one is more surprised than he to discover that he actually enjoys working as a private eye, and that he’s pretty good at it as well!  Thus begins his career as the world’s first accountant/P.I.

I found Andy Richter to be just as engaging and entertaining a series lead here as he was in Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  Andy Barker is far less zany than the character of Andy Richter was — while much of the comedy in Andy Richter Controls the Universe was mined from the crazy imagination of the character Andy Richter, the joke in Andy Barker, P.I. is just how honestly wholesome and white-bread Andy Barker is.  This could be a really boring character, but the actor Andy (Richter) imbues the character Andy (Barker) with an enormous amount of heart and likability.  Plus, Mr. Richter has just enough of a gleam in his eye that we can tell that his Andy Barker isn’t just an average boring accountant (no offense to any accountants out there!) — something that is highlighted by just how much fun Andy Barker is clearly having when he dips his toes into the world of criminal investigations.

Andy Barker, P.I. has just as wonderful an ensemble of actors as did Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  If anything, this show displays an even greater assemblage of talents!  The late, great Harve Presnell played Lew Staziak, the private eye into whose office Andy has moved.  In the pilot, I thought this character was a one-off portrayal (as Andy tracks … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Andy Richter Controls the Universe: The Complete Series!

November 8th, 2010
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One of the many, many great TV shows that aired briefly on FOX before being cancelled well-before-its-time was Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  This short-lived show, which aired in 2002-03, was Andy Richter’s first TV series effort after leaving The Late Show with Conan O’Brien.

I loved this show when it originally aired, and I’ve been hoping for years now that the show would someday get released on DVD.  That day has finally arrived!  Readers of this site might recall that I gave the complete series DVD set of Andy Richter Controls the Universe a brief mention in my list of the Best DVDs of 2009.  I purchased this set at the end of 2009 and hadn’t had a chance to watch it yet when I wrote my Best of 2009 list, so I didn’t feel like I could include it, but I did want to make mention of how extraordinarily pleased I was that this set had finally been released.

Once the summer ended, I had a chance to, at last, make my way through this DVD set.  All nineteen episodes of the series have been included — including, to my surprise and pleasure, five installments that FOX never aired.  (Four of which are really, really funny.)

While some of the series’ playful story-telling techniques — such as the quick-edits, the voice-overs, and the regular shifts into fantasy sequences — don’t quite have the innovative quality that they had back in 2002, I’m pleased to report that Andy Richter Controls the Universe has aged very well.  I found the show just as funny and enjoyable as I had remembered.

Andy Richter is a terrific comedic lead.  His fearlessness that was so often utilized to comedic effect on The Late Show (this is the man, after all, who once famously wandered naked onto the set of The Today Show) is well-suited to this show’s flights of fancy.  A lot of laughs are mined from the crazy things we see Andy doing in his mind’s eye, whether that be arriving to work dressed only in women’s lingerie or diving out his office window or prancing about in a suit made from shredded documents.  Andy is able to come across as a fairly normal “everyman,” while still maintaining his comedic edge.  He’s also lovable enough to make the audience want to watch his adventures every week.

Mr. Richter is surrounded by a strong ensemble.  James Patrick Stuart plays Andy’s best friend Kieth, a man so good looking that life has been incredibly easy for him.  In unskilled hands, this could have been a really annoying character, but Mr. Stuart brings a surprising amount of sweetness to the role … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews John Adams (2008)

June 21st, 2010
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I can’t believe it took me this long to get to the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams!

This seven-episode miniseries introduces us to John Adams as a prominent lawyer in Boston, defending the British soldiers who shot and killed several Americans in the so-called “Boston Massacre.”  Throughout the rest of the series, we follow John Adams’ long and eventful life through the American Revolution and the fifty years of American history that follow.

This miniseries is a monumental achievement.  Each episode is truly a mini motion picture.  (And not so “mini” at that — most episodes run WELL over an hour in length.)  The production design, the costumes, the sets, and the visual effects that filled in the environment beyond the sets all combine to create an astonishing recreation of pre-and-post-Revolutionary America.

I happen to be fascinated by the American Revolution, ever since taking a class back at Brown with the scholar Gordon Wood (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, as well as one of the writers quoted by young Will Hunting in the “how about ‘dem apples” scene of Good Will Hunting), and I really enjoyed seeing that period of history brought to such vivid life.  Based on the book John Adams by David McCullough (another extraordinary writer and historian), the miniseries is filled to overflowing with fascinating historical details both large (for instance, I had no idea that Mr. Adams spent so much time abroad, working to garner international support for the fledgling nation during its revolutionary conflict with Britain) and small (I was intrigued to observe the changing fashion in wigs of American intellectuals and politicians).

The sprawling cast is top-drawer.  The series is headlined by several “big name” actors who are, to no one’s surprise, quite terrific — but the cast is also filled out by some very talented lesser-known faces.  The series rests, of course, on the performances of Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.  The two are absolutely wonderful, capturing the fierce intelligence and stubbornness of both Adamses, as well as the tender love that they shared throughout their lives.  I wasn’t expecting this miniseries to present a portrait of such a strong marriage, but that is a strong through-line to the story.  David Morse creates an exceptional George Washington (ably assisted by some terrific hair and make-up).  Morse’s Washington might be the most idealized character in the piece, but this ideal come to life is so much fun to watch that I have no complaints.

The biggest surprise of the miniseries, for me, was the quiet, underplayed performance of Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson.  I can’t speak to the … [continued]

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“We’re Running Out of Time!” — Josh Bids Farewell to 24

May 25th, 2010
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I was a fan of 24 from the very beginning.  However, despite my long-held allegiance to the show, I have not once regretted my decision to sit season eight out.  I had become so frustrated by the show’s descent into endlessly recycled story-lines (to a degree that verged on self-parody) that I felt it was time for me to move on.

But having followed the travails of Jack Bauer since his very first really bad day, I couldn’t resist tuning back in for last night’s series finale.

Even though I hadn’t watched any of season eight so far, it only took me a few moments to figure out what was going on.  24 is never that complicated, and it was pretty clear who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.  In some respects, I think I probably enjoyed the events of this installment more than I might have had I had to sit through the previous 22 hours of circular storytelling and familiar 24 tropes of moles in CTU, double-crosses, assassinations, and Presidential moral conundrums.  It’s sort of like tuning in to the final few minutes of a close-score basketball-game — I can get a lot of enjoyment from the tense final minutes without having to have watched the whole two-hour back-and-forth that got us there.

I found myself quite enjoying the first hour of this two-hour finale event.  There were some great tense sequences, such as Jack’s kidnapping of Pillar (and let me say that it was a pleasant surprise to see Dollhouse‘s Reed Diamond) and President Taylor’s manipulation of Dalia Hassan.  It was interesting to see how far President Taylor had slipped towards the dark side since I’d last seen her, and it’s always fun to see Jack when he’s in full-on Righteous Hand of Vengeance mode.  I felt like this was the fun, fast-paced 24 that I’d loved years ago.

Unfortunately, things slowed down significantly in hour two.  I had no patience for all of the silliness with the data-card that everyone was after, and Chloe seemed unusually hapless (particularly considering that she somehow seems to now be in charge of CTU).  Most problematically, though, was how quickly Jack got taken off the board.  After his confrontation with Chloe, he’s completely passive for the rest of the hour.  I can’t say I thought that was a wise narrative choice for the final hour of this action-adventure series.

I don’t want to spoil every detail of the ending, but to me it was a big let-down.  It felt like a series finale, not a season finale.  Yes, Jack is in a difficult spot when the hour draws to a close, and he’s forced … [continued]

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“See You in Another Life, Brother” — Josh Bids Farewell to Lost

May 24th, 2010
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So that’s it.  We’re done.  “The End,” the epic-length two-and-a-half-hour finale of Lost that aired last night, was a magnificent episode.  It was pretty much everything that I could ask a series finale to be: both a thrilling, emotional episode on its own as well as a wonderful capstone to the series as a whole.

Too bad it comes at the end of one of the most disastrously terrible seasons of a previously-great show that I can remember.

Spoilers obviously lie ahead for the finale of Lost, gang, so be warned!

The Lost finale reminded me of everything about the show that I used to love.  From start to finish, “The End” exuded a narrative confidence that has been sorely missed.  A two-and-a-half-hour finale could very easily have been a bloated, indulgent exercise, but I found the episode to be exquisitely paced.  Yes, they took their time with the story, but I felt this was worth it in order to give all of the wonderful reunions in the sideways world their due.  The writers cashed in every single chip they had in terms of the audience’s investment in these characters, but I thought those moments paid off phenomenally well.  It was delightful to see so many of the familiar faces return, and each reunion felt like a powerful emotional payoff to six seasons of storytelling.  (But where were Michael and Walt???  More on this later.)  And those slow, emotional beats were well-balanced by some terrific, tense sequences on the island.  (I thought the take-off sequence aboard Ajira 316 was particularly compelling.)

Yes, the exact nature of the sideways world was left vague, but that is the kind of narrative vagueness that I have no problem with.  I don’t exactly understand whether that universe was intended to be a glimpse at what awaits us all after death, or whether it was (as Christian Shephard seemed to hint) something magical that was somehow created by the collective unconscious of all the castways.  Either way, I don’t really understand why the characters didn’t immediately remember who they were — why they each had to somehow be “woken up.”  But, you know, I don’t really care.  J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t precisely explain the nature of the Gray Havens in The Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t necessary for him to do so.  What was important here at the end of Lost was the idea that, somehow, all of our characters got a taste of the happiness they’d all been chasing — and that we, the audience who had invested in those characters, also got to taste that happy ending.  That the ending was tinged with the bittersweet — since the show made … [continued]

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In Which My Hopes For The End of Lost Wind Up Deader Than Nikki & Paulo

May 14th, 2010
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I entered season six of Lost with enormous enthusiasm.  After re-watching the first five seasons on the show, I had gained a newfound respect for the wonderful, overall tapestry of the show, and I was beyond excited to see those myriad story-threads get pulled together over the course of the final season.

That didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped.

A few days late, last night I finally had a chance to watch the series’ antepenultimate episode “Across the Sea.”

I don’t, frankly, really even know where to begin.

But looking back, I’ll remember this as the moment when I gave up my last embers of hope that the show would reach anything resembling a satisfying conclusion.

Instead of dissecting the flaws of the episode, let me direct you to this interview with the two show-runners, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, conducted by the great Alan Sepinwall (who has just started a new blog over at Hitfix.com).

I have been reading and listening to interviews with Mr. Lindelof and Mr. Cuse for years now, and they’ve always struck me as funny, intelligent men who really knew what they were doing in charting this weird, complex show.  But now their comments just make me sad.

There are two exchanges that are really worth noting.  Here’s the first:

 

As we’ve gone into this final season and you’ve introduced new characters like Dogen and Lennon and the other Temple people, and new mysteries, there have been some people who’ve said, “Okay, they don’t have to answer all the old mysteries if they don’t want to, but it’s not fair for them to keep introducing lots of new ones at this late date.” How do you respond to that?

DL: Are there any readers who actually like the show?

 

Many readers like the show. I like the show. But these questions are out there.

CC: We feel that we as storytellers, basically can only approach the storytelling the way that we do, which is it felt like there was no way that we could just be answering existing questions without the show feeling didactic. There would have been no larger narrative motor. For the show to devolve into running through a checklist of answers, we would have been, honestly, crucified for that version of the show. It’s ironic that the episode that’s generating so much controversy is one in which we answered questions, but it’s not surprising to us. Between what the audience thinks they want and what they will find entertaining – we have tried ot make the show in a way that people would find it entertaining, moving engaging. To do that required having new [continued]

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A Farewell to Jack Bauer

April 9th, 2010
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By now, you’ve all probably heard that this season will be the last for 24.

I was an enormous fan of 24 when it began.  I still remember, a few days after the premiere episode aired, my folks sitting me down and insisting that I check it out.  (Fortunately they had taped that first episode.)  I was blown away, and I remained gripped throughout that phenomenal first season.  The production values were extraordinary — it was like a mini-movie every week, filled with incredible action and nail-biting suspense.  I was also really taken by the “real-time” conceit of the show: that each of the twenty-four episodes of the season was one hour in the no-good, terrible, very bad day of beleaguered super-agent Jack Bauer.

I still hold the first two seasons of 24 as two of the finest seasons of television ever forged.  (The gutsy death of a main character in the season 1 finale remains a high-point for me, and it helped cement my love for this dark show.)  Sure, there are some weak spots in those first two years (mostly pertaining to the misadventures of Kim Bauer), but having watched those seasons through several times, over the years (bless you, DVD — let’s not forget that 24: Season 1 was one of the first-ever full-season DVD sets ever released), I think they hold up remarkably well.

Things began to go awry in season 3, when the writers decided to abandon all of the dangling story-lines left hanging by the cliffhanger end of season 2, and instead create an entirely new scenario, with Jack involved with drug-dealers in South America.  In hindsight, I respect the writers’ attempt to find a whole new paradigm for the show (something that, sadly, they’d never attempt again, much to the show’s long-term detriment), but at the time, Jack Bauer’s adventures in South America seemed like a big mis-step.  Things picked up in the second-half of the season, when suddenly the show became about stopping the release of deadly nerve gas in LA (the first but not the last of the show’s mid-season story-telling about-faces).  But looking back this signaled the end of the show’s ability to create a unified story for  each season that could sustain over the full 24 episodes.  It also signaled the unfortunate end of the writers’ interest in maintaining any semblance of plausibility to the “real-time” aspect of the show’s story-telling.

Though I kept watching, with each subsequent season I became more and more frustrated with 24.  It boggles my mind why the writers continued to re-use the same tired story-lines again and again and again.  How many moles in CTU could there possibly be??  How … [continued]

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“Cause That’d Be Ridiculous!” — More Thoughts on Lost Season 6

April 5th, 2010
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I received a lot of response to my post last week in which I discussed my disappointment so far with Lost‘s sixth and final season.  Some people vehemently disagreed with my assessment, while others were pleased that I had come around to their way of thinking.

Here’s my more specific episode-by-episode run-down of the season so far:

6.1/2 — “LA X” — A strong start to the final season!  All the stuff on the plane was a lot of fun.  Here in this initial installment there was nothing but promise to the alternate-universe story, and I was intrigued to see where that half of the story is going.  (Sadly, after ten episodes, it seems to be going nowhere…)  Glad to see that Boone is still a numbskull in any universe, and I was pleased to see Jack again desperate for a pen to help with a medical procedure.  The dude should just start carrying a couple in his pocket at all times.

I was also pleased to see several mysteries get addressed right up front, such as the Locke/smokey revelation (which I called before the show aired, thank you very much, no applause, just throw money).  I was also intrigued by the Other Others inside the Temple, particularly the Dennis-Hopper-in-Apocalypse Now translater dude.  Is the asian Other Other related in some way to the enigmatic Alvar Hanso?  I would love to learn that Hanso had once spent time on the island, the way Charles Widmore did.  (Sadly, we have so far gotten little-to-none of the backstory of this Temple-dwelling group of Others.  One more unanswered mystery to add to my list…)

Why did all the time-jumping castaways on the island stay in the positions/locations they were in at the end of last season when Jack dropped the bomb, except for Kate who was suddenly up in a tree?

6.3 — “What Kate Does” — After a strong start with the premiere, season 6 took a big nose-dive in this, one of the worst episodes of the entire series.  Aside from the title, which was a clever play on the title of the season 2 episode “What Kate Did,” there was nothing of interest happening here.  The Claire/Kate stuff, which was supposed to be the dramatic centerpiece of the episode, was absolutely ridiculous.  I guess we’re supposed to understand that there’s some sort of connection between the two women, even in this alternate timeline, and that’s why Claire trusted Kate.  But it didn’t really work for me.  Plus, why weren’t there a thousand police cars following Kate out of the airport??  Why didn’t Claire call the police after getting out of the cab, rather than just waiting … [continued]

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Lost Season Six So Far

March 29th, 2010
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I’ve been a fan of Lost since the beginning, and I have always been confident that the writers had a plan for the show, and that much of what seemed bizarre or unexplained at the time in the early seasons would ultimately be explained.  Even in the somewhat uncertain 2nd & 3rd seasons, I remained a “man of faith” (to borrow a common phrase from the show).  With the absolutely spectacular 4th & 5th seasons, I felt that my faith had been rewarded, and I entered the sixth (and final) season of the show with enormous enthusiasm.

Well, my friends, my faith is now wavering, and wavering big-time.

It seems to me that, so far, season six has been by far the most mediocre season of the show so far.  The problems are myriad.  The alternate-universe storyline, which seemed so intriguing in the season premiere, has started to feel more and more like a time-waster to me.  This is exacerbated by my frustration that the storyline on the island has been moving so slowly.  Of my enormous list of the show’s unanswered questions, what have we learned so far this season?  We now know the nature of the undead Locke/smoke monster/MIB, and we know Richard Alpert’s story.  Is there anything else that has been definitively answered for us?

This is extraordinarily disappointing, and it has caused me to begin to resent the time spent, each week, on the alternate-universe stories.  It seems to me that that is valuable episode-time that could be better spent paying off some of the many story-lines that the show has built up over its first five years.

As episode after episode ticks by, my hope that my many questions will be answered begins to fade, and this is really starting to honk me off.  And as the burden of these unanswered questions grows from week to week, the same thing is happening to me that happened as I watched the final run of Battlestar Galactica episodes — my growing frustration is impacting my enjoyment of episodes that, in previous years, I would have quite enjoyed — such as last week’s Richard Alpert installment.  Yes, it was phenomenal to see Richard finally get the spotlight!  But did that episode really tell us anything that attentive viewers hadn’t already guessed?  Had that episode aired during the 4th season I would have called it brilliant.  At this point in the final season, though, I’m just left scratching my head about issues like Jacob’s motivations.  (Why does his long-held commitment to non-involvement suddenly switch to his being willing to guide, through Richard, all the people he brings to the island?)  And if the wine-in-a-bottle metaphor is all the … [continued]

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The Great Lost Rewatch Project — More Thoughts on Season 5!

March 16th, 2010
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Here we go — my final post giving you my thoughts on my Great Lost Rewatch Project!  Yesterday I began my analysis of season 5.  Let’s continue, shall we?

“What lies in the shadow of the statue?”

Favorite Episodes

5.2 “Jughead” — We open with Penny giving birth to her son with Desmond, who we learn at the end of the episode is named Charlie.  Nice.  Three years later, we follow Desmond’s efforts to find Daniel Faraday’s mother, Eloise, and we learn more about Daniel’s time-travel experiments that eventually got him thrown out of Oxford and that apparently left his former girlfriend in a vegetative state.  Back on the island, we see that our castaways have time-traveled back to the 1950’s.  There we meet a young Eloise Hawking and Charles Widmore, and discover that the U.S. Army had been using the island as a site for the testing of nuclear weapons.  Meanwhile, Locke meets Richard Alpert, and since this Alpert of the ’50s doesn’t know him yet, Locke tells Richard the exact date and place of his birth which will happen in 2 years.  Locke suggests that Richard come see him – thus explaining Richard’s interest in Locke throughout his youth that we learned of last season in “Cabin Fever.”  This is a dazzlingly dense episode, filled to the brim with dramatic revelations and fascinating connections.

5.6 “316” —  This episode declares its awesomeness right from the opening seconds — a phenomenal re-creation of the opening scene in the pilot. Jack again wakes up alone in the jungle – but this time it’s after the crash of Ajira flight 316. He’s back.  In flashback, we see how this all went down. The episode is filled with amazing moments, from Hurley’s attempt to buy up all the empty seats on the plane to Lapidus’ perfectly-delivered comment of resignation (see the title of yesterday’s post) when he sees the Oceanic 6 on board.  You gotta feel for the guy!!

5.8 “LaFleur” — After Locke disappears down the well, Sawyer & co. see the enormous statue (of which we saw a four-toed fragment back in season 2’s finale and hadn’t been seen nor mentioned since). Guess they’re pretty far in the past. Then they flash again, more violently this time – and seem to settle in one time period. It seems Locke has succeeded in his efforts to stop the time-jumping.  For the rest of the episode, we cut back and forth between the next few days in 1974 and 3 years later, in 1977, at which point Sawyer and co. are completely ensconsced in the Dharma Initiative.  It’s a lot of fun to see how Sawyer, Juliet, and … [continued]

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“We’re not going to Guam, are we?” — The Great Lost Rewatch Project: Season 5!

March 15th, 2010
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It’s time to begin wrapping up my post-game assessment of my Great Lost Rewatch Project by beginning my thoughts on season 5!  Click here for my thoughts on season 1, season 2, season 3, and season 4.  As always, folks, MAJOR SPOILERS lie ahead, so beware.

“OK, so what?  We’re gonna go back and kill Hitler?”  “Don’t be absurd. There are rules. Rules that can’t be broken.”

Coming after the magnificent season 4, my favorite season of the show since the first year, I wasn’t sure if season 5 would be able to maintain that high level of quality and narrative momentum.  But I shouldn’t have doubted.  Season 5 is another home-run, one that deepens our understanding of the show’s characters and of the larger backstory of the island.

Here in season 5, Lost fully embraces the sci-fi aspects that have often been a peripheral element of the show, as the writers dove into a complex time-travel storyline to begin the season.  Lost has played tentatively with time-travel before, most notably in the two Desmond episodes “Flashes Before Your Eyes” (click here for my detailed thoughts on that critical episode) and “The Constant.”  Those episodes had allowed us to begin to get some sense of the “rules” of time-travel in the Lost universe.  This isn’t Back to the Future type time-travel, where one could alter the past and thus change the future.  Here in the world of Lost, it seems that “whatever happened, happened” — that making major changes to the timeline are impossible.  (Season 6 will tell us definitively, one hopes, whether that is indeed the case.)

After Ben moved the island in the season 4 finale, something goes wrong and our castaways find themselves unstuck in time, jumping around into the past and the future.  Over the course of these jumps, much of the secret history of the island and its inhabitants is peeled back for us to examine.  We travel back to the ’50s, meeting a young Eloise Hawking and Charles Widmore (I LOVE the revelation that he was once an Other!) and learning of the US Army’s use of the island as a test site for nuclear weapons.  We learn the reason for Richard Alpert’s interest in a young John Locke (see in last season’s “Cabin Fever”).  We see what befell Rousseau and her team.  We see how Ben came to raise Alex.  And we learn a LOT more about the Dharma Initiative.

The time-jumping storyline is great fun, but things get even more fascinating once Locke turns the frozen donkey wheel himself.  The castaways (Sawyer, Juliet, Miles, and Daniel) wind up back in 1977, and become members of … [continued]

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The Great Lost Rewatch Project — More Thoughts on Season 4!

March 9th, 2010
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“She’s not my daughter. I stole her as a baby from an insane woman. She’s a pawn, nothing more. She means nothing to me.”

Yesterday I began analyzing Lost season 4.  Here are some of my favorite and least-favorite moments from that over-all terrific season!

“Is he talking about what I think he’s talking about?”  “If you mean time-traveling bunnies, then yes.”

Favorite Episodes:

4.2 “Confirmed Dead” — A great episode that begins to introduce us to the “Freighter-Folk” and raises a whole heck of a lot of new mysteries.  We see Daniel Faraday watching the discovery of the Oceanic 815 wreckage and crying.  We see Charlotte investigating an archaeological dig in Tunisia, where the skeleton of a polar bear (with a Dharma collar!) has mysteriously been found in the middle of the desert.  We learn of Mile’s ability to communicate with the dead.  We see Laipdus, who was also watching footage of the Oceanic 815 recovery, at which point he becomes convinced that the bodies are not actually those of the survivors, and we learn that he was supposed to have been the pilot of 815 that day.  We see Naomi being recruited by the mysterious Abbadon.

4.5 “The Constant” – A phenomenal episode, without question one of the very best of the series. Leaving the island, Lapidus is forced by a storm to shift slightly off the precise bearing that Daniel gave him. As a result, Desmond’s mind is somehow thrown back in time and exchanged with that of his younger self, still serving as a soldier in the Scotts Royal Regiment. Over the course of this mind-bending hour, we are given an enormous amount of information about Daniel Faraday’s time-traveling experiments (information that will prove critical to our understanding of season 5).  We also see, in an intriguing scene, Charles Widmore at an auction, bidding on the first mate’s log from the Black Rock (the ship we know is beached on the island), which we learn had formerly been in the possession of Tovar Hanso (an apparent ancestor of the founder of the Dharma Initiative).  Suddenly we are forced to reconsider Mr. Widmore — he’s not just Desmond’s troublesome potential father-in-law, he’s a man with some sort of connection to the island.  But, of course, none of this fascinating back-story would matter at all if not for the episode’s emotional center: the star-crossed love story of Desmond and Penny.  Their tearful reunion, when Desmond calls her from the freighter’s radio room after having obtained her phone number in the past, is wonderfully powerful stuff, and a highlight of the season (and the series).

4.9 – The Shape of Things to Come – In one of my … [continued]

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“If anything goes wrong, Desmond Hume will be my Constant” — The Great Lost Rewatch Project: Season 4!

March 8th, 2010
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My season-by-season analysis of Lost continues!  Click here for my thoughts on season 1, here for my thoughts on season 2, and here for my thoughts on season 3.  SPOILERS ARE AHEAD, gang, so beware!

“Rescuing you and your people… I can’t really say it’s our primary objective.”

There were times, watching seasons 2 and 3 of Lost when they originally aired, when I must admit that my faith in the show wavered.  There were so many mysteries raised but not answered, and after the terrific first season there seemed to be many times when the show was spinning in circles, narratively.  But season 4 firmly established Lost, in my mind, as one of the greatest TV series of our time, as opposed to a show that started off brilliantly but then slowly settled into mediocrity (cough 24 cough).

The writers brilliantly reinvigorated the show by abandoning their signature story-telling device, the use of flashbacks.  Instead they began presenting us with tantalizing flash-FORWARDS that hinted at what would befall to our castaways in the time between the on-island events of 2004 and what we glimpsed of 2007, when we met the desperate, suicidal off-island Jack in the season 3 finale.  That finale set up all sorts of questions: How did the castaways get off the island?  Why did only SOME of the castaways leave?  What happened to everyone else — were they dead, or did they decide to stay for some reason?  What happened to Jack (and the other Oceanic Six) in their three years off the island?  What drove Jack to become the destroyed, shell of a man that we saw in the season 3 finale?  Whose body was in that coffin??

One of the great strengths of season 4 is that way that, in decidedy un-Lost fashion, every one of those above questions were answered by the end of the season.  Season 4 feels like the most complete of all the seasons of Lost, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and in which all of the major questions raised at the beginning of the season (well, really by the finale of season 3) were answered by the end of the season.  That all this was accomplished despite the fact that the season was truncated due to the lengthy writers strike is quite astounding.  (Season 4 was scheduled to be 16 episodes long — much shorter than the 24 episodes-per-season that seasons 1-3 were — but it was shortened to only 13 episodes because of the strike.)  In many ways, I suspect the shortened length of the season turned into one of its greatest strengths.  There’s no flab in season 4 — with only 13 … [continued]

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The Great Lost Rewatch Project — More Thoughts on Season 3!

March 2nd, 2010
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Yesterday I began my look back at season 3 of Lost.  Click here to check out my thoughts on season 1, and here to read my thoughts on season 2.

“This is future crap, isn’t it?”

Favorite Episodes

3.7 “Not in Portland” — Juliet gets a terrifically juicy flashback as we see her performing secret (and somehow unethical?) research on her sister, who Juliet is able to help get pregnant despite her being stricken with cancer.Richard Alpert makes his first appearance as a well-dressed representative of Mittelos Bioscience who tries, repeatedly, to recruit Juliet to come work for him in Portland.We see a few glimpses of Ethan, who has apparently been hanging around Juliet’s place of work, and who is perhaps the one who brought her to Richard’s attention.We see Juliet frustratedly confess to Richard that she can’t work for him because her ex-husband (and boss) would never allow her to take her research elsewhere, and she hysterically wishes that he’d get hit by a bus.Which he does.At which point Alpert tries again to convince Juliet to come work for him, admitting that they don’t really have offices in Portland…

3.8 “Flashes Before Your Eyes” — Click here for my detailed thoughts on this bombshell episode!

3.10 “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” — Oh my goodness do I have great and powerful love for this episode.  Hurley finds an overturned, rusted old Dharma van.  Convinced that the gang needs a win, he sets out to repair it, with some help from Charlie, Jin, and Sawyer.  And repair it they do.  In flashback, we meet Hurley’s dad, played by Cheech Martin.He apparently left Hurley’s mom when the kid was about 10, but she doesn’t seem all that sore about it, as she welcomes him back into her life after Hurley wins the lottery.I guess he’s a jerk for ditching them all those years ago, but he seems like a good-hearted fellow who is genuinely concerned with the depressive spiral that Hurley has fallen into because of the curse he feels is upon him.We see good evidence for that curse early in the episode, when an unfortunate reporter, the titular Tricia Tanaka, perishes when an asteroid (or meteor?) smashes into the Mr. Cluck’s that Hurley purchased.  D’oh!  There are so many great moments in this episode.All the silliness with the head of Roger, Workman (who, in a terrific turn, we later learn is none other than Ben’s dad, Roger Linus).Jin and Sawyer drunk on decades-old Dharma beer, and Sawyer teaching him the English phrases he’ll need to keep a woman happy.Hurley looking death in the face.Fantastic.

3.14 “Expose” — Oh boy, another FANTASTIC episode.  The wildly unpopular Nikki and Paulo get their … [continued]

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“We have to go back, Kate!” — The Great Lost Rewatch Project: Season 3!

March 1st, 2010
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Click here for my thoughts on Lost season 1, and here for my thoughts on Lost season 2!  Remember, there are LOTS OF SPOILERS ahead, so be warned.  OK, let’s dive into Lost season 3!

“The man from Tallahassee?  What is that, some kind of code?”   “No, John, unfortunately we don’t have a code for ‘there’s a man in my closet with a gun to my daughter’s head’.  Although we obviously should.”

Whereas season 2 broadened the canvass of Lost to include the characters of the Tailies and their stories, season 3 expands the focus even further to begin shedding light on the heretofore enigmatic figures of the Others.

In many ways, season 3 represents a mid-series turning point for Lost.  Towards the end of the original airing of this season, it was announced that the show’s producers had come to an agreement with the network on an end-date for the show.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this announcement (quite unprecedented for a successful network TV series), literally saved the series.  There were points in season 2 that felt like treading water, and I got that same sensation more than once in the early going of season 3.  But the announcement that the series had a definite end date restored narrative thrust and energy to the show, and allowed the writers to begin parcelling out answers to long-held questions and moving forward on the storylines and plot-twists that they had intended for the end-game of the show.

“Pushing that button is the only truly great thing that you will ever do.”

Season 3 began with a “pod” of six episodes.  When watching these episodes originally I found them to be excruciating, as all sorts of weird things seemed to be happening with no explanation whatsoever.  At this point in the run of the show I was long-since ready for some answers, and I had hoped that this batch of episodes — in which Jack, Kate and Sawyer found themselves held captive by the Others and so we were at last taken inside the Others’ community — would give us some insight into just what the heck had been going on for the first two years of the show, but that was not to be.  To say that this was frustrating would be putting it mildly.  In addition, over the course of these 6 episodes we continued to have to suffer through watching our beloved characters treated incredibly cruelly (something that I mentioned that I found bothersome during season 2 as well), abused mentally and physically by the Others.  This is tough to watch, and as I commented in my write-up of season 2, the Others’ continued … [continued]

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The Great Lost Rewatch Project — More Thoughts on Season 2!

February 23rd, 2010
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Hope you enjoyed my thoughts about season 2 of Lost! Here are some of my favorite and least-favorite moments:

“Boy when you say beginning, you mean beginning.”

Favorite Episodes:

2.3 “Orientation” —  What a wonderfully bizarre and perplexing episode.  While the opening courts my annoyance by showing us (for the THIRD time!) the held-at-gunpoint scene between Jack, Locke, and Desmond, we finally get some tantalizing new pieces of the story of the hatch and the larger back-story of the show.  We get to watch our first Dharma video (the Swan Station Orientation video) which is a tour-de-force of hints and questions.  We learn that the Swan is only one of several Dharma stations on the island.  We learn that the Dharma Iniviative was funded by Danish Indistrialist Alvar Hanso.  We see the model of the swan station that we’ll see Radzinsky building in season 5.  We hear about “an incident” that lead to the button-pushing being necessary.  Awesome.

2.7 “The Other 48 Days” —  A genius episode, in which we follow the Tailies from the crash of the plane right up through Ana Lucia’s shooting of Shannon.We get lots of information on what happened to this group of survivors (who had it a lot tougher than our castaways), who they are and what makes them tick, and also some intriguing hints about the mysteries of the island and the Others.  (I love that they find an old-style army knife on the body of one of the two Others killed by Mr. Eko.A souvenir of the army team supervising Jughead, I presume?)  I also love that we learn that Bernard was on the other side of Boone’s radio call from the Nigerian plane.  Didn’t see that one coming!

2.10 “The 23rd Psalm” — I love this episode.  It blows my mind.  Eko gets a flashback and we discover how he used to be a violent mercenary, and it was his brother who was a priest.  Eko gets his brother killed and, when he’s then mistaken for a priest, steps into that role.  We learn that the plane carrying drugs in Virgin Mary statues that crashed on the island was actually sent by Eko (though his intention wasn’t for the plan to crash on any mysterious island, of course!!), and his brother’s dead body is aboard.  Crazy.  In this episode we also get our first full glimpse of the monster, and see it’s black-smoke-like nature.  Eko stares it down, and as he does the camera passes tantalizingly THROUGH the monster, thus giving a work-out to the pause button on DVDs world-wide.

2.19 “S.O.S.” — Bernard/Rose get a spotlight!!  In flashback we see how the two met, and we learn that Rose … [continued]

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“See You in Another Life, Brother!” — The Great Lost Rewatch Project: Season 2!

February 22nd, 2010
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Last week I began my look back at Lost with my thoughts on Season 1.  Time now to move on to season 2!

“This is not your island.  This is OUR island.”

There’s a whole heck of a lot to enjoy in season 2 of Lost.  I had a great time revisiting this season during my rewatch project, but I strongly remember how tough this season was to watch, at times, when I first saw it week-to-week on TV.  There are a number of reasons for this, I think.

Season 2 of Lost goes to some dark places.  Many of the characters find themselves regressing and forced to continue struggling with the demons that we might have thought they’d conquered in season 1.  This is realistic storytelling, in which one’s issues can’t necessarily be put to bed so easily, but it also lent season 2 a feeling that we were treading water, narratively.

The same held true for the flashbacks.  This innovative storytelling device (that is so easy, looking back now, to take for granted), is a big part of what gave season 1 its narrative power.  But in many of the season 2 flashbacks, I didn’t feel that we learned much new about our castaways.  (For example, what did we learn in “Adrift” about Michael and his wife that we hadn’t already learned in “Special” from season 1?  What did we learn in “Everybody Hates Hugo” about Hurley that we hadn’t already learned in “Numbers” from season 1?)

Also, in this season the writers expanded on the fractured story-telling style they had played with at times during season 1, in which often they would only give us one piece of what was happening, making us wait to get the rest of the pieces until later episodes.  This is in evidence right from the start of the season, in which, for instance, in each of the first 3 episodes we get a different character’s perspective on what happened down in the hatch after Locke and the gang went down.  Re-watching the show now on DVD, this splitting up of the narrative makes a certain amount of sense, as it enables each episode to have a focus, as opposed to feeling the need to jam updates on every single character into every single episode.  However, I clearly remember watching these episodes when they aired weekly on TV, and this storytelling style was TORTUROUS.  I was desperate throughout the season premiere, “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” to learn what happened to the folks on the raft, and I was desperate throughout the second episode, “Adrift” (and, frankly, throughout the entire rest of the season) to learn more about just … [continued]

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The Great Lost Rewatch Project — More Thoughts on Season 1!

February 16th, 2010
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Yesterday I gave my over-all impressions on Season 1 of Lost.  Today I’m going to get a bit more specific about some of my favorite and least favorite episodes and moments of the season!

“There’s a fine line between faith and denial.  And it’s much better on my side.”

Standout Episodes:

1.3  “Walkabout” — Our first spotlight on John Locke.  The ending, in which we learn the truth about his “condition,” still packs an emotional wallop even knowing what’s coming (and totally blew me away the first time I saw it).

1.14  “Special” — Michael and Walt get their flashback and it is HEARTBREAKING. It’s one of the strongest, most poignant flashbacks the show ever did, in my mind. Poor Michael gets screwed over by the cold, cold Susan (Walt’s mom) who leaves him, taking Walt and moving out of the country and eventually shacking up with her boss. Contrary to what we had assumed so far, we learn that Michael desperately wanted to be a part of Walt’s life but that Susan shut him out, going to the point of not even giving young Walt all the letters that Michael wrote him over the years. Then there’s the scene in which Charlie wrestles with himself over whether or not to read Claire’s diary — this is comic gold, and a terrific example of what a brilliant performer Dominic Monaghan is.

1.18 — “Numbers” — At last, a Hurley flashback!!  And it rocks.  If the purpose of the flashbacks is for us to learn things about the castaways that we wouldn’t otherwise expect, and to set the stories on the island in a dramatically different light, then this episode succeeds in spades.  The whole scene in the insane asylum (when Hurley goes to visit the fellow, Lenny, who gave him the numbers) plays a whole lot differently now that we know that Hurley was an inmate there.  (That also explains Hurley’s angry reaction here when Charlie tells him that he’s acting like a lunatic.)  It’s great to see Hurley succeed in finding Rousseau (and getting her to give them a battery to use for a radio in Michael’s raft) despite everyone’s disbelief that he could do so.  Hurley can charm anyone!!

1.23 “Exodus” Part I — A terrific, terrific episode. Through a series of flashbacks we get intriguing glimpses of each of the castaways (including Boone, back for this episode!) in the hours before Oceanic flight 815 launched. We also meet Ana Lucia (who will be such a key character in season 2) for the first time! (It was very clever of the writers to introduce her here, at the end of season 1.)  There are a ton of … [continued]

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“Live Together, Die Alone” — The Great Lost Rewatch Project: Season 1!

February 15th, 2010
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As I’ve mentioned in my recent posts about Lost (my discussion of the implications of Desmond’s time-traveling in the season 3’s “Flashes Before Your Eyes” and my voluminous list of the burning unanswered questions still hanging at the end of season 5), my wife & I have been engaged for several months now in a massive (and massively entertaining) project of re-watching the entire series in preparation for the beginning of the show’s final year.  (I am pleased to say that we just made it in under the wire, finishing the season 5 finale mere hours before the airing of the season 6 premiere!!)  Over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the series, in a season-by-season run-down.

As with all of my Lost posts, these articles will be replete with spoilers — there’s just no way to discuss the series without mentioning some of its plot twists — so anyone who hasn’t seen the show should read on at their own peril.

OK, here we go!

“Guys… Where are we?”

It’s extraordinarily impressive to me just how well the show’s pilot and early episodes fit with the show today.  Those early installments all “feel” like true Lost episodes, unlike many shows whose first season episodes bear little resemblance to what their shows ultimately became.  The biggest difference, of course, is the amount of time spent with characters who are no longer around: Michael, Walt, Charlie, Boone, Shannon, Claire (though hopefully she’ll be back in season 6!).  Also surprising is just how little screen time John Locke has in the pilot – though his “do you want to know a secret” line to Walt remains a powerful and mysterious introduction to that compelling fellow.  I am also impressed how nothing that we’ve learned about any of the characters in the subsequent seasons makes anything in the pilot not work (because the writers hadn’t figured out “x” aspect of any character’s back-story yet).  Rather, the iconic character traits of many of the castaways are established right from the beginning — Jack’s desire to always fix things, Kate’s instinct to run away, Locke’s mantra of “don’t tell me what I can’t do,” etc.

It is interesting, though to see how far John Locke has strayed from the person he was when he first crashed on the island.  I really like the Locke that we see in the first half of season 1 — I miss him!  This Locke has great moral certainty, he’s very helpful (keeping his cool when Charlie stumbles onto the hornets’ nest; trapping, killing, and cooking boar for everyone to eat) and I find myself agreeing with him a LOT in these early episodes.  (The … [continued]

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Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2009 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my list of the Top 10 Episodes of TV from 2009.  Click here for numbers 10-6.  Now here is the rest of the list!

5.  Lost: “The Incident” (season 5, episodes 16/17, aired on 5/13/09).  Everything comes together, questions are answered, and (of course) new questions are raised.  We finally get to meet the oft-discussed Jacob, and we see how this apparently ageless man has interacted with the lives of many of the castaways long before they ever crashed on the island.  In the ’70s, Jack seeks to change the future by detonating a hydrogen bomb, thus destroying the island.  This once again puts him in conflict with Sawyer, who believes that “what’s done is done.”  In 2007, Locke, Ben, and the mysterious other survivors of Ajira flight 316 converge in the shadow of the statue, we learn the true final fate of Jeremy Bentham, and a shocking murder is committed.  The cliffhanger ending leaves us in the dark as to whether Jack’s audacious plan has succeeded, or whether he has just caused “the incident” that we’ve been hearing about since “Orientation” in season two (that necessitated the construction of the Swan Station and the button).  Either way, this was a magnificent two hours of television.  It’s been a great delight watching the makers of Lost weave together the show’s many characters and story-lines as we prepare for the show’s final year.  I have high hopes for what’s ahead!

4.  Parks and Recreation: “The Hunting Trip” (season 2, episode 10, aired on 11/19/09).  I thought that Parks and Recreation was extraordinarily mediocre in its first season, but just as NBC’s The Office only found its footing during its second year, Parks & Rec has really turned things around this season.  Many weeks I consider it — are you sitting down? — the strongest of NBC’s Thursday night comedies.  “The Hunting Trip” is a prime example as to why.  Ron prepares to take the men in the office out on their annual hunting trip, but Leslie (Amy Poehler) wants the girls (and Tom Haverford) to be included too.  Since Ron is legally forbidden from excluding them from what is tenuously a work-related outing, the whole gang heads out to the woods, rifles in hand.  What follows is an escalating series of madness that culminates in poor Ron getting shot (not fatally, of course!!).  The whole episode is a riot, in which every member of the ensemble gets a lot to do.  But Leslie steals the show when she realizes that she cannot reveal the identity of the person who shot Ron to the ranger who comes to investigate, so she tries to take the fall … [continued]

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Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2009 — Part One!

January 18th, 2010
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Hi everyone!  It’s that time of year again — welcome to the first of my four Best of 2009 lists!  We’re kicking things off today with part one of my list of the 10 Best TV Episodes I saw in 2009!

Let’s dive in, shall we?

10. Lost: “Jughead” (season 5, episode 3, aired on 1/28/09).  The craziness of Lost‘s superb time-hopping fifth season kicked into high gear with this episode, and all sorts of fascinating connections were made.  Trapped in the past, Locke meets a young Charles Widmore and Richard Alpert and we finally get an explanation for Alpert’s weird childhood visit to Locke (that we saw in “Cabin Fever” ).  Meanwhile, Daniel Faraday discovers that the American army came to the island in the 1950’s to test hydrogen bombs, explaining a lot of tiny references that have been layered into the show since back in the second season (such as Ana Lucia pointing out to Goodwin that the Other they killed carried an army knife from decades ago).  But this episode gets the nod because of its focus on one of my very favorite Lost characters: Desmond, who spends the hour attempting to unravel the secrets of Daniel Faraday.  Mind-bending Lost at its best.

9.  Dollhouse: “Belonging” (season 2, episode 4, aired on 10/23/09).  Oh Dollhouse, we hardly knew ye.  Though Joss Whedon’s short-lived series was frustratingly hit-or-miss, episodes like this make we wish fervently that the show was continuing.  This episode spotlights Sierra, one of the “dolls” (men and women regularly programmed with completely new personalities in order to meet the whims of the Dollhouse’s wealthy clients), and we learn how the young woman once named Priya came to be a doll.  It is a twisted, heartbreaking story, and an absolutely riveting hour of TV.

8.  The Office: “Broke” (season 5, episode 23, aired on 4/23/09).  I’ve been a bit let-down by The Office this year, but the mid-fourth season run of episodes centering around the Michael Scott Paper Company were classic, and this episode provided a note-perfect culmination of that storyline.  Michael & co. have finally succeeded in cutting into Dunder Mifflin’s business by undercutting their prices, but that action has also left Michael’s company penniless (and unable to afford even a delivery van for the paper they’re selling, as we see in the episode’s opening).  Luckily, David Wallace decides to try to buy Michael out.  The negotiations that follow are hysterical — and also a stunning moment as Michael rises to the occasion by serving as a surprisingly sly negotiator.  Also, Charles Miner (The Wire‘s idris Elba), who has been running the Scranton branch in Michael’s absence, is finally undone … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Spaced (The Complete Series)

A little over a year ago, I wrote that I was excited to have begun watching the newly-released (and long-anticipated) DVDs of Spaced: The Complete Series.  Well, I can’t believe how long it took me a while to finally finish the set (despite there only being two seasons of seven episodes each, Steph and I decided to draw out our viewing to savor the enjoyment — we didn’t want the series to end!), but I’ve finally done so.

I am happy to report that the series is every bit as wonderful and weird as I’d been hearing for all these years!!

Spaced was a short-lived British TV show that had two seasons (or “series,” as they like to call them across the pond) of seven episodes each (with the first batch coming out in 1999 and the second in 2001).  It was written by and starred Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and now Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) and Jessica Hynes, and was directed by Edgar Wright.

Simon and Jessica played Tim and Daisy, two mismatched North Londoners who pretend to be married in order to qualify for renting an affordable flat that they both had their eye on.  The series follows the misadventures of Tim and Daisy and their small and bizarre group of friends: the military-loving Mike, the delightfully daft Twist, the depressed conceptual artist Brian, and Tim and Daisy’s droll, alcoholic landlady Marsha.

What’s so wonderful about the series is the way that it doesn’t idealize the lives of these sort-of-lost (mostly) young people.  This isn’t Friends, where everyone is perky and lives in extraordinarily large and beautiful apartments.  Tim and Daisy are both unendingly lazy and unambitious, and their flat is endearingly small and believably cluttered.

But the series isn’t depressing — rather, it is a ridiculous amount of fun.  Though each character is filled with quirks, they all quickly become surprisingly lovable, and it is great fun watching them go through their little day-to-day adventures.  Also, the series is practically built around an ever-increasing number of rapid-fire references to (and parodies of) a wide variety of movies, TV shows, and all sorts of other aspects of sci-fi, comic books, and lots more geeky stuff.  The closest thing I could compare all of this silliness to is the fantasy sequences found in Scrubs — though the fantasies here are much more elegantly done and more intricately woven into the narrative.  It is great fun spotting all of the little winks and nods included in each episode.  (There’s even an homage-o-meter included as a special feature on the DVDs.)  Some of the references are a little dated … [continued]

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Josh Relives the Adventures of Young Indiana Jones

One of my earliest posts for this blog last year was a list of a bunch of DVDs on my “to-watch” shelf that I hoped to get to some time in the near future.  One item on that list was the first set of DVDs collecting The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.

Well, it took me quite a while, but I am pleased to report that almost a year later I have made my way through that DVD set!  (It’s the first of three sets that collect the entire run of the series.)

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones was a TV series that ran, somewhat sporadically, from 1992-1996.  Alternating episodes would follow the adventures of 10 year-old Indy (played by Corey Carrier), and teen-aged Indy (played by Sean Patrick Flanery).  In each episode, Indy would find himself in adventures in varying parts of the globe, each time running into many real-life historical figures, Forest Gump style.  ABC cancelled the series after its second season in 1993, but the USA network picked it up and aired a number of new episodes in two-hour mini-movie formats until 1996.

For the 1999 release of the series on VHS, the entire series was re-edited chronologically, with each episode paired with the next one in sequence to form a two-hour mini-movie (similar to the way the episodes were aired on USA).  In so doing, all of the framing device scenes with a very Old Indy (93 year-old Indy was played by George Hall) that used to start and end each episode were completely removed.  These are the versions that have been released on DVD.  Also in 1999, Lucas, ever one to re-name his work (Star Wars eventually becomes Episode IV: A New Hope; Raiders of the Lost Ark eventually becomes Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), at this point also changed the name of the series from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.  (And thank heaven for wikipedia for that little tidbit.  Writing this whole review I kept writing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but I could see that the title on the DVDs was The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.  I had no idea why I kept getting the title wrong!  Well, it’s because I always knew this show as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles! Sheesh!)

(By the way, here’s another amusing tidbit.  Does anyone but me remember how, when this series was released on VHS in 1999 in the form of 22 mini-movies, each labeled “chapter 1” through “chapter 22,” Lucas also re-released the Indy movie trilogy, labeling the movies “chapter 23″ through” chapter 25″??  This … [continued]

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The Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek — Part IV!

May 1st, 2009
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At last!  The conclusion to my list of the Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek!  Click here for numbers 20-16, here for numbers 15-11, and here for numbers 10-6.

5.  Cause and Effect (ST:TNG season 5, episode 18) — The Enterprise blows up.  Over and over again.  What a great idea for an episode!  This is a classic Next Gen spatial anomaly mystery/mind-bender, as the Enterprise gets caught in a temporal loop in which the ship meets with terrible catastrophe over and over again.  I know some people find this episode to be boring (it basically depicts the same events, five times), but I absolutely adore the way subtle differences start to emerge with each repetition, as the crew slowly realizes what is happening to them and try to come up with some sort of way out.  From the intense opening tease (where the Enterprise is annihilated right in the middle of Picard’s desperate cry for all hands to abandon ship) right up through the end (with Kelsey Grammer — Frasier!! — guest starring as the unfortunate Captain Morgan Bateson), this is one of my very favorite hours of Trek.

4.  The Inner Light (ST:TNG season 5, episode 25) — Captain Picard is struck by a beam from an alien probe and awakens on an alien world.  As months and then years pass, Picard eventually gives up hope of escape or rescue and settles into a life with the friendly people of that planet.  Right away it is made clear to the viewer that all of this is happening only in Picard’s mind (as there are occasional cut-backs to the Enterprise crew, trying to awaken their Captain, in which we can see that only minutes are passing for them while years pass for Picard).  While there is a mystery aspect to the episode as the viewers wonder what exactly is going on, the real focus is on the wonderful, touching story of Picard finding for himself the peaceful family life that his devotion to Starfleet has always prevented him from having.  In the end, Picard comes to realize that the probe contains the records and memories of an alien culture that has long-since been wiped out by a terrible natural disaster.  The people who Picard (and we) have come to love — his friends, his wife, his children, and his grand-children — are all long-since dead.  It is a sad, haunting episode, and one that has colored the character of Picard ever since.  The mournful flute melody that Picard learns, and that plays over the final moments of the episode, is one of my favorite musical motifs of the show, and a not-to-be-overlooked key to this … [continued]

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The Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek — Part III!

April 30th, 2009
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My list of the Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek continues!  Click here for numbers 20-16, and here for numbers 15-11.

10. All Good Things (ST:TNG season 7, episode 25) — The two-hour series finale of Next Gen is not just a phenomenal finale but also one of the greatest episodes of the series.  Picard finds himself moving back and forth through time, bouncing between the present day, a time just before he took command of the Enterprise D (in the series premiere, Encounter at Farpoint), and 25 years in the future.  It’s fascinating to take a look back at the show’s early days (the mimicry of the costumes from that first season is particularly fun, as is the reappearance of deceased security officer Tasha Yar), but it’s the peek at the future of the Next Gen crew that, I think, really captured the fans’ imaginations.  A wonderful reappearance by Q further strengthens the “full circle” connections to the show’s premiere.  The episode boasts some terrific visual effects and a wonderful sci-fi paradox mystery makes the whole enterprise (sorry, couldn’t resist) truly compelling.  Finally, there is the magnificent last scene, which ends the show and the series on a perfect note.  The sky’s the limit, indeed.

9. Sarek (ST:TNG season 3, episode 23) — In its early years, the Next Gen writers strove to avoid any mention of characters or storylines from the Original Series in an effort to make sure this new show could stand on its own.  But fans were delighted when, in this third season episode, Mark Leonard reprised his role as Spock’s father Sarek.  That guest appearance alone would make the episode a winner, but it’s shot into the stratosphere by a terrific storyline about Sarek being affected by an Alzheimer’s-like disease that begins to weaken his mental controls, and by the absolutely amazing performances by Mark Leonard and Patrick Stewart.  Stewart’s monologue (after Picard has mind-melded with Sarek and is being affected by the ragingly intense emotions that the elderly Vulcan has kept bottled up for almost two centuries) as the camera slowly circles around his face and Picard is pummeled by a roller-coaster of rage and grief is absolutely magnificent.  My favorite moment:  Picard/Sarek’s one subdued, lonely cry for his estranged son: “Spock.”

8. The City on the Edge of Forever (Star Trek season 1, episode 29) — One of the most well-known episodes of Star Trek, and for good reason.  Harlan Ellison wrote the script for this, one of the most powerful and moving episodes of the original (or really ANY) Trek series, one that is also filled with a lot of terrific, unique sci-fi ideas.  The … [continued]

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The Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek — Part II!

April 29th, 2009
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Yesterday I began listing the Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek.  (Click here for numbers 20-16).  Let’s continue, shall we?

15. Treachery, Faith, and the Great River (ST:DS9 season 7, episode 6) — The title of this episode sums up everything that DS9 was about — character, faith, and politics.  It’s a small episode, with little of galactic import happening, and yet it is a critical episode nonetheless.  A familiar Vorta offers Odo important information about the Dominion in exchange for Odo’s protection if he defects, and back on the station Nog utilizes all of his Ferengi wiles to help Chief O’Brien track down the equipment he needs to repair the Defiant despite shortages caused by the war.  In this seemingly minor episode, we learn an enormous amount about the cultures, history, and beliefs of the Ferengi and the Vorta, as well as so much about many of DS9′s regular characters.

14. The Measure of a Man (ST:TNG season 2, episode 9) –Not only is this one of the few watchable episodes from Next Gen‘s first two seasons, it is also (as you can see by its inclusion on this list) one of the finest Trek episodes ever crafted.  A Starfleet scientist wants to disassemble Data in order to learn how his positronic brain works, in order for Starfleet to construct more androids like him.  When Data refuses to submit, he is ordered to do so.  What follows is an emotional, thought-provoking examination of what makes someone a sentient being. Is Data a man, or is he a piece of property?  Witness tour-de-force performances by Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart as well as Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan (in one of the best Picard-Guinan scenes of the entire series).

13. The Way of the Warrior (ST:DS9 season 4, episode 1) — After three somewhat uneven seasons, DS9 reinvented itself with this amazing two hour episode that turned the show around and set the stage for the ground-breaking storytelling of seasons 4-7.  The Klingons send an enormous task force into the Bajoran sector, ostensibly to help defend against the Dominion.  But several troubling incidents make clear to Captain Sisko that the Klingons have a hidden agenda.  In order to help him ferret out the truth, Starfleet assigns Worf (without a posting after the destruction of the Enterprise D in Star Trek: Generations) to DS9.  Worf’s discovery tears apart the Federation-Klingon alliance (which had been a centerpiece of the 24th century Trek shows), and leads to what was by far the best sci-fi action sequence ever televised at that time (and still one of the greatest today) in which the Klingon fleet brutally attacks the … [continued]

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The Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek

April 28th, 2009
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I have watched a lot of Star Trek in my day.  A LOT of Star Trek.  And quite a lot of it was pretty damn good!  Here’s what I feel is the best of the best.  (Hmm, no episodes of Voyager or Enterprise to be found on this list…!)

20. Unification Part I (ST:TNG season 5, episode 7) — A high-ranking official of the United Federation of Planets is believed to have defected to the Romulans, and Captain Picard is sent after him.  The individual in question?  Ambassador Spock.  Having Leonard Nimoy reprise his role in this Next Gen two-parter was an astounding moment, something the fans never thought would happen.  But as great as all the Spock-Picard-Data stuff is in part II, I’ve chosen part I (in which Spock only actually appears at the very end) for the brilliance of its gripping build-up in Picard’s, ahem, search for Spock.  My favorite moment?  The late great Mark Leonard’s show-stopping scene as Spock’s father Sarek, at death’s door and suffering from a debilitating neurological disease, who delivers a monologue that is one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating things I have ever seen on television.

19. Rocks and Shoals (ST:DS9 season 6, episode 2) — In the middle of the Dominion War arc, Sisko and his crew have commandeered an enemy Jem’Hadar warship behind enemy lines.  In the exciting opening moments of the episode, they are shot down on a desolate planet.  But a small group of Jem’Hadar have crashed on that planet with them.  The focus of this episode isn’t on the action — it’s on a fascinating exploration of the Jem’Hadar.  Phil Morris (most famous as Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld) is fantastic as the central Jem’Hadar character.  (“Then we will hold this world for the Dominion.  Until we die.”)  But what really gets this episode onto this list is it’s cold, tragic ending.

18. Penumbra (ST:DS9 season 7, episode 17) — Deep Space Nine’s “final chapter” (the last nine episodes of the show’s final series) begins with this engaging installment, in which so many long-running character story-lines and plot developments begin to weave together for the show’s denouement.  Worf is lost in the Badlands after a Klingon attack group is destroyed by the Jem’Hadar, and Ezri Dax sets off on a desperate mission to find him.  The female changeling in charge of the Dominion’s forces in the Alpha Quadrant begins to succumb to the plague that has stricken the Great Link.  A weary Damar sinks further into a daze of alcoholism, but is spurred into action by a visit from Gul Dukat.  And Captain Sisko finally proposes to Kassidy Yates, although a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Season One of Mad Men!

April 15th, 2009

I was excited, last month, to finally sample one of the best-reviewed new shows of the past several years: Mad Men.  No surprise, Steph and I made pretty short work of the 13-episode first season on DVD.

Mad Men depicts the lives of the men and women who work at Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960’s.  It’s a tough business, but one in which the successful have the opportunity to taste great wealth and privilege.  It’s also a rapidly changing world, as social mores shift and the concepts of traditional “family values” and the strictly defined roles of men and women begin to adjust.  

Mad Men is notable for its sharply-written dialogue and its extraordinary ensemble of actors.  Jom Hamm plays the lead character, Don Draper, a enormous success both as an ad man in the office and with the women in his life, although as the season progresses he finds himself struggling to cope with the secrets of his past and to adjust to the new world of the 60’s.  The aforementioned women in Don’s life include his wife Betty (January Jones), who is devoted to Don but also beginning to chafe at the edges of her housewife life, and Rachel Menken, one of the few Jewish clients of Sterling Cooper to whom Don finds himself immediately attracted.  Much of Mad Men focuses on the hierarchical structure of the Sterling Cooper ad agency.  There are the men on top, like Don and Roger Sterling (the absolutely terrific John Slattery, a real stand-out).  There are the younger executives beneath them, looking to get ahead in any way that they can.  These include Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton), Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the head of the design department, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt).  Then there are the secretaries.  The show’s pilot takes us through the first day at work of Don’s new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, Zoey Bartlet from The West Wing).  One of the first people she meets is the queen bee of the office, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, a familiar face to fans of Firefly).  The complex interactions between these characters (along with a variety of supporting players and guest stars), each fighting in some way against the confines of his/her job and obligations, each looking for some way to get ahead, and each flawed in his/her own way, make up the meat of the show’s drama.

Of course, along with the talented writers and actors, we must also praise the amazing production team for the great success of the show.  From the sets, to the wardrobe, to the hairstyles and make-up, Mad [continued]

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“Will You Join Us?” — Josh Reviews Season Two of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

April 14th, 2009
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In my review of season one of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as well as my review of the season two premiere, I indicated that while there was a lot that I enjoyed about the show, I also felt that it was far from living up to its potential.

Now that season two has drawn to a close with the airing of “Born to Run” this past Friday (which just might turn out to be a SERIES finale, not just a season finale, as the Fox has not yet announced whether it will renew this ratings-challenged show), do I still feel the same way?

There is so much to enjoy about this exploration of the Terminator franchise.  The acting is solid, both amongst the main cast (particularly, to my great surprise, 90210‘s Brian Austin Green as Derek Reese, brother to the ill-fated Kyle Reese from the first Terminator film) and a high caliber group of guest actors that includes Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing), Dean Winters (Oz, 30 Rock) Stephanie Jacobsen (Battlestar Galactica: Razor) and, in the finale, Joshua Malina (Sports Night, 30 Rock).  The action and special effects are terrific, quite consistently impressive for a weekly television series.  We got to see a lot of great Terminator-on-Terminator combat, and some exciting peeks into the post-Judgment Day devastated future.  

The writers were ambitious in their story-lines, bringing back all sorts of characters and story-threads from the first two Terminator films (the show’s continuity ignores the third one), and taking viewers along on some fascinating explorations of the Terminator world and mythos.  I was overjoyed when the very first episode of season two introduced a new liquid metal T-1000 (like Robert Patrick’s fearsome character in T2).  That was a development I never expected to see.  One of my favorite episodes of the season also had one of the show’s most direct ties to the Terminator films — “The Good Wound,” in which a grievously wounded Sarah Connor hallucinates visions of the long-dead Kyle Reese. I mentioned above that we got some fascinating looks at the post-apocalyptic future that was briefly glimpsed in the two Terminator films, and I loved that the show wasn’t afraid to explore that time-line along with Sarah and John Connor’s adventures in present-day.  Stand-outs in this respect would be the episodes “Allison from Palmdale” in which we learned some of the background of Cameron, the female Terminator played by Summer Glau, as well as the really excellent two-part “Today is the Day,” which depicted an ill-fated submarine expedition lead by a Terminator that had been reprogramed by John Connor.  Or so everyone thought.

What was … [continued]

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Family Guy’s Star Trek: The Next Generation reunion!

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I’d been reading about it for months now, so I was very pleased to watch this Sunday’s episode of Family Guy, “Not All Dogs Go to Heaven,” which featured the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The episode opens with the Griffin clan attending a Star Trek convention at the Quahog Convention Center.  Unfortunately, this leads to a number of very obvious “Star Trek fans are hapless geek” jokes, which was a little disappointing.  In all of the interviews leading up to this episode’s release that I have seen and read, Seth McFarlane and his team seem to genuinely be big fans of Star Trek.  There have been a lot of Trek references and jokes (and Next Gen references in particular) on Family Guy even before this episode, many of them quite obscure references that could only be dreamed up by serious fans.  (My favorite was the ending of the “Stewie Kills Lois” cliffhanger, with ended with the words “to be continued” reproduced in the exact same font, with the exact same music, as the end of Next Gen‘s season three-ending cliffhanger “The Best of Both Worlds.”  How many people in the world got that joke??  Me, I loved it.)  Anyways, all of that made it a bit of a let-down to see the writers go for the easy, lazy jokes at the expense of Trek fans in these opening minutes.

Things pick up from there, however, when Stewie — angry that he didn’t get to ask a question of the assembled Trek cast members — constructs a working transporter in his room and beams in the entire Next Gen cast, so that they can spend the day together.  The cast are portrayed as amicable but with about the intelligence of a kid Stewie’s age.  This leads to some fantastic scenes in which Stewie attempts to corral the hapless gaggle of actors into a trip to a fast food joint and a bowling alley.  There are some funny Trek jokes (such as Stewie’s immediate execution of Denise Crosby, whose character Tasha Yar bought it during Next Gen‘s first season; the revelation of what Levar Burton really sees through that visor of his; and Stewie’s inability to properly pronounce Wil Wheaton’s name) mixed with the usual Family Guy style of random lunacy (Patrick Stewart’s refusal to remove his loafers at the bowling alley; Michael Dorn’s insistence on ordering a McDLT).  

The other story-line of the episode, in which Meg finds God after watching Kirk Cameron on TV when she’s home sick with the mumps, sounds like a funny idea but in execution I found it to be a bit slow.  I kept waiting … [continued]

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Josh’s Least Favorite TV Series Finales!

Last week I waxed poetic about my favorite TV series finales.  Today let’s examine the other side of the coin — what I feel are the three WORST series finales that I’ve ever seen!

One quick note, before we begin: St. Elsewhere is renowned for having one of the most ludicrous series finales ever, in which it was revealed that the entire show was just the dream of an autistic child.  However, since that wasn’t a show that I ever watched, it’s finale isn’t on my list.

So what is?

The West Wing — “Tomorrow” — I thought the show would be lost after the departure of Aaron Sorkin at the end of season 4, and the limp season 5 didn’t do much to discourage me of that notion.  Season 6 started off just as badly, but about halfway through that season the show completely reinvented itself.  Suddenly the story focused on the race for the White House, following a variety of characters, new and old, through their involvement in the primaries and, ultimately, in the Presidential election.  Not only did this change bring a lot of new energy and intensity to the show, but by moving the show outside the confines of the White House and into new territory, it made it easier for viewers to stop comparing the new episodes to the Sorkin classics.  I got really into the show again, and was very excited for the finale to wrap things up in grand style.  Sadly, what we got was a tepid, boring hour in which nothing really happened.  The much-heralded return of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) turned out to be barely more than a cameo.  Many long-running characters and storylines were ignored entirely (Toby doesn’t appear at all??  No resolution to the long-simmering Charlie-Zoey romance?) or handled in an entirely trivial, superficial manner (Gee, President Bartlett sees Charlie as his son?  That was obvious ever since the first season!).  Most disappointingly, the first episode of season seven had opened with an intriguing “three years later” flash-forward.  It had seemed clear to me that the questions raised in that scene would be addressed in a book-end scene at the end of the finale.  And yet, nothing!  Why include that scene at all in the season premiere if they weren’t going to go anywhere with it?  What a let-down.

The X-Files — “The Truth” — Although the show definitely should have ended after the seventh season, when David Duchovny (who played series lead Fox Mulder) left, I’m not one of those fans who thought the final two seasons to be entirely without merit.  There were still a lot of great spooky adventures to be had, and I … [continued]

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“You know he doesn’t like that name” — Josh bids farewell to Battlestar Galactica!

So, it’s over.

I can count on one hand the number of truly great science fiction TV shows.  As I look back at Ron Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica, there is no question that this epic tale is high on that list.  Seeing the show come to a close is a great loss — although I am comforted to know that in the often-brutal TV marketplace that’s out there, Moore & his team were able to end the show on their own terms, when they felt their story was finished.  This is a saga that I am certain I will revisit many times in the year to come.

It is staggering to consider all the little choices that Moore & co. made correctly, right from the beginning, that all came together to make BSG such a masterpiece.  The brilliant casting of the enormous ensemble.  The decision to forgo most of the Star Trek ideas that were so innovative 30 years ago but that have become such sci-fi cliches over the past four decades (such as aliens with strange foreheads in funky suits, magic transporters, view-screens, a bridge with a big captain’s chair in the middle of it, super-duper shiny computer consoles everywhere… I could go on!) and create a retro look for the show.  The fearlessness with which the writers tackled the inherent darkness of the premise — the near-total annihilation of the human race — and all of the logical questions and struggles that would come out of that apocalyptic event.  (What will our society be like?  Will we have a government?  Courts?  Freedom of the press?  Where will we get fuel, or food, or water?  What happens when we start running out of supplies like medicine, or toothpaste?  Who will be in control, the military or the civilians?)  And finally, the choice to center the stories not in sci-fi mysteries (no time-travel, no alternate universes, no weird astrological phenomena to investigate, no aliens to make contact with) but in characters.  There were no cardboard cut-outs, perfectly moral characters to be found on this show.  No, everyone (even the robots!) were completely human — flawed, imperfect, and capable of making terrible decisions (even our most heroic characters!).

The show has made some mis-steps over the course of its run, there’s no question about that.  I, for one, felt that it nearly lost its way in the latter half of season 2, after the Pegasus three-parter concluded.  There were a couple of stand-alone episodes there that were weak in the extreme, particularly the notoriously terrible “Black Market” (by the way, if you haven’t heard it, Ron Moore’s brutally honest mea culpa podcast for that episode is a must-listen).  But as I … [continued]

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“And the two grand ladies made their escape together” — Josh’s Favorite TV Series Finales, Part II!

The great Battlestar Galactica saga comes to an end, tomorrow.  I am trying to be brave!  In preparation, I have been thinking about some of my favorite series finales.  Click here to see numbers 10-6.

5.  Arrested Development — “Development, Arrested” — Cut down before its time, creator Mitch Hurwitz and co. at least had enough notice to be able to craft a fantastic finale.  Structured to echo the events of the pilot (I love it when series finales bring things full circle like that), it’s another momentous party-boat ride for the Bluth Clan.  Young George Michael confronts his feelings about his cousin Maeby (Michael: “How long has this been going on?”  George Michael: “I don’t know… about 53 weeks?”).  Lindsay stresses about getting older (“I’m going to be 40 in three years!”  Michael:  “You know, being twins, our birthdays are pretty close to one another…”).  Tobias… well, remains Tobias (“Perhaps I should call the hot cops and tell them to come up with something more nautically themed.  Hot Sailors.  Better yet, hot se–” Michael, interrupting: “I like hot sailors!”  Tobias: “Me too.”).  And many, many long-running jokes are revisited (“Ann.” — “Her?”  — “That was a freebie” — “I think I’ve made a terrible mistake” — “Annyong!”)  You might have noticed yesterday in part 1 of this list that I focused a lot on the final scene as the true measure of a series finale’s worth.  No surprise, the geniuses behind this show bring it all home in a note-perfect epilogue, in which Maeby attempts to sell the Bluth family story to Ron Howard (who was, of course, the narrator of the show for its entire run).  Says Howard: “I don’t see this as a series.  Maybe… a movie?”  We can only hope!!

4.  The Wire — “-30-” — As the fifth and final season of The Wire unfolded, I was petrified as to what would happen, in the end, to all of the beloved, damaged characters on this take-no-prisoners show.  Would ANYONE get a happy ending?? Somehow this finale managed to bring proper closure to almost every member of this amazing, one-of-a-kind sprawling ensemble cast.  Without breaking from the tough, down-beat tone of the series, I still felt throughly satisfied with where everyone wound up — quite a feat.  This episode is filled with all of the intensity and emotion that made this series such a powerhouse.  In particular, the Irish wake for one of our good friends was a profoundly effecting scene.  And the final montage of life in Baltimore?  Phenomenal.  Makes one want to watch the entire series through again.

3.  Quantum Leap — “Mirror Image” — To be honest, while I really enjoy Quantum Leap[continued]

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“Sorry, we’re closed” — Josh’s Favorite TV Series Finales!

As I prepare for this weekend’s series finale of Battlestar Galactica (and contemplate life without that brilliant show, one of the greatest of the last two decades), I’ve been thinking about some of the great series finales of the recent past.  Here are some of my favorites, counting down from ten!

10.  Cheers — “One For the Road” — Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) returns in an attempt to re-kindle her romance with Sam (Ted Danson) in this extra-long finale.  To be honest, it’s been years since I’ve seen this one, but my recollection is of really enjoying it.  Bringing back Shelly Long, who was pretty much the star of the show (along with Danson) for the first half of its run, was a brilliant idea.  And the final scene is perfect — Sam waving away a customer while saying “sorry, we’re closed.”  Sniff!

9.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — “What You Leave Behind” — I am giving props here to the entire 10-hour, 9-episode “final chapter” of this, the greatest of the Star Trek series.  The show finally becomes what it has always flirted with: a true serial, as seven seasons worth of storylines come to fruition over the course of this magnificent final epic run of episodes.  The Dominion War escalates, a secret section of Starfleet’s complicity in attempted genocide is revealed, and Captain Benjamin Sisko must finally fulfill his destiny as Emissary of the Prophets (a story thread begun in the series’ pilot episode). The show was notable for its enormous cast of recurring characters, and everyone gets his/her due here (with quite a number of popular characters meeting their demise!).  The show gets bumped down a bit on my list because the actual final two-hour episode isn’t quite as great as the episodes leading up to it (it looks like they used up their special effects budget, as one of the major battle sequences is composed almost entirely of recycled footage, something that eagle-eyed fans like me noticed).  Still, the melancholy tone (so unusual for a Trek series) and the sad, final shot of Jake Sisko looking out the window for his lost father as the camera pulls back and the station slowly fades away into the blackness of space is just perfection.

8.  Justice League Unlimited — “Destroyer” — Classic DC Comics villain Darkseid launches a full-scale invasion of Earth, and even the combined might of practically every character (hero & villain) who ever appeared on this amazing animated show are powerless to stop him.  In an epic battle atop the ruins of the Daily Planet building, Superman ultimately falls before the might of Darkseid.  (That sequence, by the way, is a showcase for the … [continued]

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“I Am The Night” — The Very Best Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series

March 2nd, 2009
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Last week I wrote about the terrific new soundtrack collection of music from the early episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.  That got me reminiscing about that amazing cartoon series, and so of course I busted out my DVDs to enjoy a few episodes.

Several few years back, I was rather shocked to discover that one of my good friends who dug comics had never gotten into Batman: TAS.  So I put together a collection for her of several of my favorite episodes — everything I could squeeze onto one VHS tape.  A few days ago I happened to stumble across the list of the episodes I’d selected (yes, I save everything), and I thought I’d share it with you all.  

So what follows are some of the best half-hours of animated television you’re ever going to find, and also among the most perfect non-comic book depictions of Batman.  If you’ve got these episodes on DVD or on tape, then dust ’em off and give ’em a watching!  If you don’t, then go out and find a friend who does!!  

 

1.  The Demon’s Quest , Parts I & II — Batman traces a criminal conspiracy across the globe, in an effort to locate a kidnapped Robin.  Liam Neeson was fine in Batman Begins, but if you want to see the REAL Ra’s Al Ghul, check out this version, voiced by the incomparable David Warner (Time Bandits, Star Trek VI).

2.  I Am The Night — A depressed and disillusioned Batman goes into an emotional tailspin when Commissioner Gordon is shot during a botched stake-out.  

3.  It’s Never Too Late — There are no supervillains to be found in this episode — it’s just a small, personal story about an aging mobster’s fall from grace.  This is why this series is awesome.  

4.  Robin’s Reckoning, Parts I & II — Perhaps the series’ finest hour.  Batman and Robin’s relationship is strained to the breaking point when the man responsible for the murder of Robin’s parents returns to Gotham City.

5.  Legends of the Dark Knight — This episode pays homage to some of the most iconic comic book depictions of Batman over the years, from Dick Sprang’s Batman of the ’50s to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns from the ’80s.  

6.  Mad Love — A disturbing examination of the twisted relationship between the Joker and his “hench-wench,” Harley Quinn.  Plus, Harley asks the Joker the question that comic fans have been wondering about for over 50 years.

7.  You Scratch My Back — I really enjoyed how, over the life of the series, we saw a noticeable passage of time.  This episode from late in … [continued]

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Desmond is my Constant! (Lost Returns!)

January 23rd, 2009
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With Battlestar Galactica, Scrubs, 24, and now Lost all returning to life within the past two weeks, I feel like this year’s TV season has finally gotten underway!

Wednesday night saw the airing of the first two new episodes of Lost in quite some time:  “Because You Left” and “The Lie.”  Typical of a Lost season-opener, it began with a totally unexpected and bizarre scene:  Dr. Marvin Candle (or Edgar Halliwax, or Pierre Chang — this man has gone by a different name every time we’ve seen him!) recording another Dharma instructional video and being interrupted by the discovery of the power source (and giant wooden wheel) at the heart of the Island.  What a great way to dive right back into the weirdness that is Lost!  

I’ve been wondering for a while whether the Dharma videos that have been popping up every now and then are real insights into what the Dharma Initiative was up to, or if somehow they’re just a put-on, to distract from whatever was REALLY going on.  At first, when we see Candle/Chang being recorded in this year’s opening, it looks very much like he’s sitting on a set, leading one to suspect that my initial idea is correct.  But then he seems genuinely concerned about the potential danger of the energy source discovered, so that would seem to indicate that the Dharma folks really WERE investigating all the weirdness of the island (including time-traveling bunnies).  SO I remain uncertain on this issue.  But intrigued!

There were a lot of balls in the air, story-wise, in these two episodes.  I was fascinated, and also a little nervous, by the distinct sci-fi elements of the story: that is, time-travel.  Time-travel is a tricky, tricky thing.  It has become a most over-used story device in sci-fi/fantasy TV shows and movies, and it is very tricky to tell a time-travel story properly.  The jury is still out as to how this time-travel story will shake out on Lost.  While one might not have predicted all the craziness on display in this season premiere, attentive viewers knew that this sort of time-travel story was on the horizon.  We’d already been introduced to Desmond’s mis-adventures through time, and the mysterious importance of finding one’s “constant” to keep from becoming unglued in time… and we’d also seen Faraday discover some sort of time-differential between the Island and its surroundings.  So clearly some time is not always quite linear on Lost.

I am excited to see these background story-elements get pushed front-and-center.  (As we enter the penultimate season, we need to have some of these long-running mysteries addressed and solved.)  But so far, as usual with Lost, I have far … [continued]

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Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2008 — Part Two!

Today we continue my list of the 10 best things I saw on TV in 2008!  (Click here to read yesterday’s installment, listing numbers 10-6 and several honorable mentions, if you missed it.)

5.  Battlestar Galactica: “The Hub” (season 4, episode 9, aired on 6/6/08).  Trapped on a Cyclon basestar with Gaius Baltar, cancer-stricken President Laura Roslin begins seeing visions of her long-dead friend (who bought it on Kobol in season 2) Elosha, and Helo is given an order that puts him at odds with his conscience (as well as his Cylon wife).  In one of my favorite moments of the entire fourth season, Baltar attempts to preach to a mechanical Cylon Centurian.  But the emotional climax of the episode comes at the end, when Roslin must decide whether to let Baltar, who she now knows to be responsible for the genocidal Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies that nearly eradicated humaity, bleed out and die.  In any other show we’d be certain that, by the end of the episode, she’d “do the right thing” and let him live.  In Battlestar Galactica, in which there are never any easy answers or easy decisions, the result is terrific suspense and gripping character drama of the best kind.

4.  30 Rock: “Believe in the Stars” (season 3, episode 2, aired on 11/6/08).  30 Rock has made great use of some phenomenal guest stars in the past (Steve Martin, Jennifer Aniston, Carrie Fisher, Paul Reubens, Isabella Rossellini, Edie Falco, Matthew Broderick, Will Arnett, Rip Torn, and so many others), but Liz Lemon’s hilarious plane ride seated next to Oprah Winfrey takes the cake.  That story-line alone would make this episode a winner, but there is so much more fun to be had as Jack puts Kenneth’s country-boy morality to the test and Tracy and Jenna begin a bizarre social experiment in order to see who has it harder in America: blacks or women.  Best line of the episode comes from Tracy:  “I watched Boston Legal nine times before I realized it wasn’t a new Star Trek!”

3.  Robot Chicken Star Wars Special: Episode II (aired on 11/16/08).  I’m not sure what more can be said that I didn’t already cover in my initial review of this special on 11/24/08.  For 22 gut-busting minutes the Robot Chicken gang mercilessly skewer all six Star Wars films in their second Star Wars special.  The jokes are delightfully random, from the House parody “Dr. Ball, M.D.” (“she lost the will to live?  What is your degree in, poetry??”) to the Cantina Band’s attempt to pitch a commercial jingle (“it works better as an instrumental”), to an awkward meal on Cloud City (Leah to … [continued]

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Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2008 — Part One!

January 21st, 2009
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Hi everyone!  Welcome to the first of my four “Best of 2008” lists.  In the coming days I’ll be sharing my Top 10 Movies, Top 10 DVDs, and Top 10 Comic Books of 2008.  Today we kick things off with my 10 absolute favorite things televised during 2008, starting with some honorable mentions and then counting down from number 10.  (Special thanks to TV.com for helping me to find all the original air-dates!)

Honorable Mention #1 — Battlestar Galactica: “Revelations” (season 4, episode 10, aired on 6/13/08).  Plotlines converge in this mid-season finale as the Cylons and the Colonial Fleet race to discover the location of Earth.  There’s been a lot of discussion, over the brutally long hiatus, about the Planet of the Apes ending, but for me it all comes down to the nail-biter of a scene in which Lee Adama orders Colonel Tigh, now revealed as a Cyclon, into an airlock for his execution.  (Why isn’t this in my top 10 list?  I just wasn’t wowed by the “surprise” ending.)

Honorable Mention #2 — The Office: “Goodbye, Toby” (season 4, episode 14, aired on 5/15/08).  Michael is so excited by the imminent departure of his “nemesis,” the sad-sack Toby Flenderson, that he commands his party-planning committee to throw the greatest celebration the Dunder Mifflin office has ever seen.  The Jim-Pam story is a bit of a downer, but guest Star Amy Ryan (The Wire) positively killed, and her storyline, in which she becomes convinced that Kevin is mentally challenged, is pure genius.  (Why isn’t this in my top 10 list?  The Jim-Pam story felt too much like a writers’ device to keep their relationship from moving forward.)

OK, and now here’s the top 10:

10.  Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles: “The Demon Hand” (season 1, episode 7, aired on 2/25/08).  Would that every episode of this uneven show were as good as this one.  In a surprising move, the show reprises a number of storylines and characters from James Cameron’s T2, including psychologist Dr. Silberman (played here by the terrific Bruce Davison).  Sarah and John Connor struggle with her guilt and his anger over her seeming abandonment of him during the years when she was institutionalized, and Agent James Ellison (Richard T. Jones), the Jean Valjean of the show, confronts powerful evidence that everything he thought he believed about Sarah Connor might be wrong.  Great drama, great action, great exploration of the Terminator mythos.  I loved it.

9.  Battlestar Galactica: “The Ties That Bind” (season 4, episode 3, aired on 4/18/08).  Lee Adama, now out of the military and serving as a member of the governing Quorum of Twelve, must decide how far his loyalty … [continued]

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“Sit Down, Cylon!” — Battlestar Galactica Returns!

It has been a long, long wait for the Sci-Fi Channel to begin airing the final 10 episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  (The first ten episodes of BSG’s fourth season aired from April 4th through June 13th, 2008.)  At last, this past Friday, the wait was over.

For any of you who haven’t been following this spectacular series (without a doubt one of the best shows currently on television), Battlestar Galactica is a “reimagining” of the classic (yet, let’s admit it, also pretty unwatchable) series that lasted one season in 1978.  Galactica follows the last survivors of humanity (the military folk on the Battlestar Galactica and a rag-tag fleet of civilian survivors), following the annihilation of the Twelve Colonies of the human race by the robotic Cylons.  In one of the great reversals of standard heroic television & movie behavior, the series began with the humans deciding to flee the Cylons, rather than stay and fight to the last man.  Of course, things weren’t quite that easy.  Over the course of the series we have seen the men and women of the Galactica struggle to survive, and to keep some semblance of human civilization together, in the face of crises and horror at every turn.  To say the show is gripping would be an understatement of the highest order.

The latest episode, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” picks up with the crew of Galactica at their breaking point.  Having been searching for so long for the salvation they thought the fabled “Earth” would bring, in last year’s cliffhanger they finally found Earth — only to discover it was a wasteland (having suffered the same fate of nuclear annihilation as did their Twelve Colonies).  This year’s premiere doesn’t contain any action-adventure whatsoever.  Rather, the show takes an unflinching look at the reactions of all of the show’s characters to this crushing disappointment.  Most of them do not react well.

One of my favorite things about BSG is the way the characters in the show are always depicted as real people, with real human failings.  I have seen plenty of sci-fi adventure shows in which we see heroic characters always making the right decisions.  Not BSG.  “Sometimes a Great Notion”  is a prime example of that.  

Spoilers from here on out, gang, so if you haven’t seen this episode yet I suggest you move on.

The biggest shock of the episode came from the suicide of Dualla.  I was totally caught off guard by this moment.  Dee has been in the show since the mini-series, and she was always one of the sweetest characters on the show.  It was a total shock to see her fire that gun (particularly since the few … [continued]

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News around the Net and 24 Returns!

January 13th, 2009
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Not to distract anyone’s attention from MotionPicturesComics.com, but I wanted to point out to y’all that Drew McWeeny, one of my favorite writers over the years at Aintitcoolnews.com, is now writing for HitFix.com and his blog (about movies, DVD, and lots of other fun, related stuff) is definitely worth checking out.  I’ve always enjoyed Drew’s writing over the years (he was known as “Moriarty” over on AICN), particularly his articles on all of the many many DVDs that he watches.  Those DVD pieces, in particular, were among my inspirations when I started this blog.  

McWeeny’s new blog attracted a lot of attention last week when he posted a lengthy open letter from one of the producers of Watchmen about the on-going litigation between Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox over the film (and Fox’s attempts to stop Warners from opening the film as scheduled in March).  If you are at all interested in this story, you should click on that link and read this fascinating letter.  Another recent post of interest drew my attention to a phenomenal evisceration of Ben Stein’s recent “documentary” Expelled (if you haven’t heard about this film, it’s a defense of creationism and an attack on the theory of evolution) by none other than famous film critic Roger Ebert.  This is an older article (Expelled was released last year), but it is a terrific read.

But enough of all that — let’s talk about the first four hours of 24‘s much-delayed seventh season (it was supposed to have launched LAST YEAR at this time, but was scuttled by the writers’ strike), which premiered on Sunday and Monday nights.

I have made no secret of my opinion that, for some time now (since, oh, I’d say about season four) 24 has been crying out for a total reinvention.  Keep Jack, keep the adrenaline-pumping real-time format, but start telling some entirely different types of adventures.  For too long now, 24 has been telling the same types of stories over and over and over again, usually involving some variation on the following themes:  a terrorist captures someone and forces them to help with a nefarious plan… Jack tortures someone for information… there’s a lot of technical talk about access codes and opening sockets and someone gaining access to a weapon or a code or a piece of equipment that they can use to menace the United States… Jack winds up on his own with no one to trust, because there’s a mole or multiple moles in the government agencies trying to stop the bad guys… and meanwhile there’s a lot of intrigue in Washington involving the President trying to make some big decisions about important world … [continued]

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No Flipping! The Larry Sanders Show on DVD

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

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

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

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

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

And waited.

And waited.

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

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My Farewell to Heroes

December 4th, 2008
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I suppose I have high standards for the TV shows that I watch.  Is that a bad thing?  I don’t watch TV casually.  I don’t sit down and flip around to find something that looks interesting.  There are a bunch of shows that I watch, and I watch them religiously — every week, every episode.  That’s how I watch TV.

Why am I talking about this?

Well, I decided last week that I think I’m done with Heroes.

Much has been written in the past few months about the show’s creative decline.  Entertainment Weekly wrote a scathing cover story about the show’s woeful third season, and (possibly in response) two of the show’s head writers (co-executive producers Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander) were unceremoniously canned

I certainly agree that the third season has been dreadful.  But let’s be honest with ourselves — the show was never really that good to begin with.

I resisted watching Heroes throughout its entire smash-hit first season.  There was something about the show, from all that I had seen and read, that just seemed off to me.  I got the sense that the show’s creators were a little embarrassed that the show was about super-heroes.  Sort of the way J.J. Abrams seems to be trying to get non-Star Trek fans to go to his new Star Trek movie by proclaiming to everyone that he’s not a Star Trek fan, I read a lot of interviews and articles where the Heroes cast and crew kept saying, “come watch us, we’re not just about tights and spandex, we’re really a drama!” or “we’re really a character study!” or “we’re really a mystery!” or something else like that.  

But when the first season came out on DVD, after so many people I knew encouraged me to give it a try, I finally gave in.  And I must admit there was something there in that first year.  The show was silly and astoundingly derivative (of other movies, of other TV shows, and especially of LOTS of great comic book stories), but there was still a goodly amount of entertainment to be found.  I enjoyed the continuity — the cliffhangers that ended each episode were fun, and it was neat how the season really attempted to tell one long, interlocking story.  And the production values were, for the most part, pretty impressive for a weekly TV series.  We got to see a lot more super-hero action than I had expected.

But the holes started to show even towards the end of that season.  Much has been made of the first season finale, which many felt was anticlimactic after all that had been built up over the … [continued]

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The Redemption of 24?

November 27th, 2008
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When the new TV-movie 24: Redemption begins, television super-hero Jack Bauer is in Africa, helping out at a school for orphans and trying to avoid a subpoena that would summon him back to the States.  However, this being 24, it isn’t long before a perfect storm of evil warlords, conniving businessmen, and some pretty bad luck result in Jack being stuck in the middle of a coup, determined to protect the school’s kids and get them safely to the American embassy.

And, hey, I sort of remember why I used to like 24 so much, back in the day!  

For the record, my position on 24 is as follows:  the first two seasons were pretty much genius (except for the occasional stupidity with amnesia and Kim Bauer in jeopardy); the first half of season 3 (Jack Bauer fighting drug lords in Mexico) was dumb, but the second half (which, as I recall, dealt with the potential release of a horrible toxin) was better; season 4 started off great with some interesting new characters (“Behrooooz!!”) but quickly got bogged down in ridiculousness; season five was pretty much the same; and season six was, for me, just unwatchable.

But this new installment is pretty entertaining.  Not phenomenal, mind you, but better than 24 has been for years.

What’s good?

The story is stripped down — gone are almost every familiar character and location.  This enables the writers to jettison all of the baggage of the last several seasons and concentrate on telling a tight, exciting story — Jack’s mission to protect the kids and get them to the embassy.  It’s a very linear action-adventure.  (The only two characters other than Jack who we’ve seen before are Powers Boothe as President Daniels, on his last day in office, and Peter MacNicol as his advisor Tom Lennox.  Frankly, I wish the writers had gone all the way and gotten rid of these two characters as well.  First of all they remind me of annoying past storylines that are far-better forgotten.  Secondly, both play one-note, unlikable characters.  Its good to have villains, but that’s not these guys.)

Wait, I was talking about what I liked!  Robert Carlyle does some great work as Jack’s old friend Carl Benton.  Its nice to see another character on 24 who is as capable and heroic as Jack.  I liked seeing Tony Todd (Worf’s brother Kurn from Star Trek: The Next Generation), although he has a very small role here as the evil Colonel Juma.  Hakeem Kae-Kazim gets a lot more time on-screen as the Colonel’s right-hand man, and he’s a lot of fun to watch.  Note to Powers Boothe: this is how you play a villain — … [continued]

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Spend a Threevening with Kevin Smith & Robot Chicken!

I’ve seen some very funny movies in the theatres lately, but let me tell you about the two best pieces of entertainment that I’ve seen this week:

Sold Out: A Threevening With Kevin Smith — Back in 2002, film-maker Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, etc…) released a two-DVD compilation of the best moments of five lengthy Q & A sessions he had held at various college campuses.  This little slice of comic genius was called An Evening With Kevin Smith.  It is a raucous, profane, and relentlessly entertaining four hours spent learning FAR more than you probably ever wanted to know about Kevin Smith’s life, career, show-biz interactions, and sexual habits.  The kids ask Smith questions on all sorts of topics, and he answers with surprising honesty and brilliant humor.  The man is a spectacular story-teller.  There are so many gems to be found on this DVD set (one of the most-watched in my large DVD collection), but my two favorites concern Smith’s experiences filming documentary footage for Prince (“Chaka mad?  Chaka real mad!”), and his lengthy tale of the year he spent, in the late 90’s, working on a Superman movie script for Warner Brothers.  In addition to being one of the funniest stories I have ever heard (as Smith goes into painful, hilarious detail of the ins and outs of trying to get the relaunch made in crazy Hollywoodland), that tale also serves to explain (to me, at least) why so many big-budget Hollywood movies wind up being so awful.  Oh, and the epilogue to the story, about Smith’s public fight with Tim Burton, is a classic as well.  Oh, OK, and I must also mention the tale of Smith’s first hook-up with the woman who would become his wife.  This story might sound innocuous, but it has to be heard to be believed.  (Remember what I wrote before about Smith’s honesty?  Let’s just say that it is on full display here.)

In 2006, Smith released An Evening With Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder.  While bearing a phenomenal title, this set contained footage from just two Q & A shows, and as a result it was a bit weaker.  (There was less material to draw from.)  However, that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of fun to be had.  The discussion of Jason Mewes’ “half-half-whole” technique (which I will not explain any further here) in particular is a winner, and left me anticipating the hopeful future release of a third DVD set.

Which brings us to Threevening.  This double-DVD contains footage from just one show, but it’s a doozy: Kevin Smith’s celebration of his 37th birthday with an almost … [continued]

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“I fought with your father in the Clone Wars”

October 7th, 2008
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After much debate, I decided to skip the animated Star Wars Clone Wars movie that was released to theaters in late August.  It is almost unimaginable to me that I wouldn’t rush out to see a new Star Wars ANYTHING on the big screen.  But as I read bad review after bad review, claiming that the Clone Wars movie was chock-full of all the worst aspects of the prequels — stupid, juvenile jokes, wooden characters, etc. — that, in short, it was a movie clearly made for KIDS and not adults, I decided to pass.  Why go see something that it was certain I’d hate?  

When the Clone Wars TV series began this past week, I again had a decision to make.  Should I tune in?  (You see, the Clone Wars movie was the first three episodes of this new show edited together.  It was really just a splashy launch for the new, half-hour weekly animated show.)  But this time, the decision was much easier.  These shows were on TV — it was free, after all, and if they stunk I could always turn them off.  

So I checked out the first two episodes, which Cartoon Network aired back-to-back.  Things started off strong with the first episode, “Ambush.”  Yoda and a group of clone troopers head to the planet Toyndaria (the species to which Watto of Episode I belongs) to negotiate for permission to construct a Republic military base.  Of course, Count Dooku and the separatists are interested in the planet as well, and Yoda and three clone troopers quickly find themselves on the run from a horde of Battle Droids.  This was a solid episode — very fast-paced, with a ton of great Yoda-vs-droid action, and surprisingly good characterization for Yoda, Dooku, and the clones and Toyndarians.  With almost no human characters to be found, this episode also showcased what the computer animation does best — droids, ships, and actions.  (As became apparent in the second episode, the animation of humans is rather weaker, displaying a lot of the same problems seen back in the first Toy Story movie — the humans wind up looking rubbery and weird.)

The second episode, “Rising Malevolence,” reintroduces us to many of our familiar characters — Anakin Skywalker is the focus, but we also see R2D2, Obi-Wan, Mace Windu, and others.  Anakin and his padawan apprentice Ahsoka (a young girl apparently introduced in the Clone War movie — and how young Anakin has a padawan of his own is a mystery to me) investigate a new ultimate weapon that Dooku and General Grievous are testing.  We also spend time with Jedi Knight Plo Koon (a character seen but not given much to do … [continued]

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On the Fringe

September 23rd, 2008
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I love sci-fi.  Movies, TV shows, novels, comics, whatever.  If its sci-fi, I’m interested.

I’m also a big fan of J.J. Abrams.  Not of everything he’s done, mind you.  (I certainly was never interested in Felicity, and despite sampling episodes during each of the five seasons of its run I just could never get into Alias.)  But I adore Lost, and I also really enjoyed Mission Impossible III (which Abrams directed) and Cloverfield (which he produced).

And so it was that I tuned in to the first two hours of J.J. Abrams’ new series, Fringe.  

Its been getting a lot of hype, so most of you probably know what its about, but just in case: the series features an FBI agent named Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) who, during the circumstances of the pilot, finds herself paired up with sort-of-sketchy Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and his kooky-but-brilliant father, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble, who played Denethor in The Return of The King).  Together, they investigate all sorts of strange and paranormal events, which have been nicknamed “the pattern.”

Abrams, along with writers & executive producers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (who together wrote Transformers and the script for the upcoming Star Trek re-launch, which is being directed by Abrams), have stated that, in creating this show, they were inspired by Robin Cook’s ComaTwin Peaks, Real Genius, and Croenberg’s The Fly among other things…but if you think the description (a male and a female investigate paranormal phenomenal) sounds a lot like The X-Files, you’re not alone.  Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The X-Files was great, so more television like that would be OK in my book.  But for Fringe to be enjoyable it would need to re-create some of what made the X-Files so enjoyable, while at the same time being new and different enough that viewers won’t feel “been there, done that.”

So does Fringe succeed in that?

While I really wanted to like it, I must say that, so far (I’ve seen the first two episodes that have aired), it doesn’t.  The lead actors are all likeable, and there’s an interesting dynamic between them.  But so far they don’t have a lot of life — they’re more vehicles for the weird, paranormal stories than they are interesting, three-dimensional characters in their own right.  Which is fine — but I can’t help but think back to our first glimpses of Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the pilot of The X-Files (it helps that I’ve recently re-watched the first season of the show, as I wrote about here a few weeks back).  They both seemed so REAL, … [continued]

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The Chronicles Continue

September 11th, 2008
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Since I decided to write an in-depth dissertation on Season 1 of Terminator: The Sarah Chronicles a couple of weeks ago (back on August 29th), it seems like I also should weigh in on the season premiere that aired this past Monday.

Over-all, it was a lot of fun — although since so much of the episode was SO good, the few parts of the show that were dumb were VERY annoying.

What did I enjoy?  The episode was INTENSE — right from the terrific opening sequence, picking up seconds after the end of season one’s finale, the show never stopped until the final moments.  Cameron, the Terminator protector played by Summer Glau, has had her control chip damaged, and she reverts to her primary programming: kill John Connor.  That was a great twist, turning the dynamic of the show on its ear.  There was some great action — several sequences with various cars and trucks getting mangled really were exciting.  Most of all, I really liked the DESPERATION of Sarah and John in this episode.  They were alone, injured, and on the run from an unstoppable Terminator for almost the entire hour.   I liked how everything they tried, until the end, failed to work.  About half-way through the show they’re able to knock Cameron out with an electrical surge, and John tries to pry open the panel in her head to remove her chip which, as we saw in other first season episodes (and in the extended version of T2), would shut her down.  Watching that, I thought — oh, so that’s how they’ll make Cameron a good guy again, that’s sort of lame — but IT DIDN’T WORK, and Cameron gets right back up and begins chasing John again.  That was a nice surprise.

Props to Summer Glau.  In some respects, as enjoyable as I’ve always found her to be, she has sort of played variations on the same not-quite-human character in Firefly, The 4400, and now in Terminator.  But her protrayal of the now-evil, damaged Terminator in this episode was really impressive.  Watch the way she moves — so different from the stealthy, lithe model she had been portraying in season one.  She really created a different character.  And she was scary.  Very impressive.

I should also add that I was really excited to see a new, somewhat familiar character be introduced in the closing moments of the show.  A GREAT introductory scene.  I really can’t wait to see where that goes.  

So what didn’t I like?  Well, I mentioned above that I enjoyed Sarah and John’s desperation in this episode — alone and on the run.  Part of what contributed … [continued]

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The DVDs are Out There

I love movies, and I love watching movies on DVD in the comfort of my own home.  Here are some of the great DVDs I’ve watched recently:

Heist and State and Main — I’m in the midst of a sort of David Mamet retrospective, tearing through a number of his earlier works, many of which I haven’t seen in years!  I’ll be writing a more detailed piece about my journey into Mamet-world in a few weeks, so keep your eyes open for that.  Next up, I’ll be watching Spartan (which I’ve only seen once and am eager to revisit) and The Spanish Prisoner (possibly my favorite Mamet film after the incomparable Glengarry Glenn Ross.  “Will you go to lunch?!!”)

Wonder Boys — What a masterpiece.  Having just completed the summer of Robert Downey Jr. (in Iron Man and Tropic Thunder), it was a lot of fun to re-watch his magnificent turn in this film.  Tobey Maquire is also great, as a talented but rather messed-up youngster.  (Its sort of bizarre to watch Maguire and Downey Jr. in this film, having seen them together in one of the fake trailers that preceded Tropic Thunder.  If you’ve seen it, you know exactly which one I mean!)  The always terrific Frances McDormand is quietly touching as the university chancellor torn between two men.  But this film belongs to Michael Douglas.  He plays college professor Grady Tripp, a man who once wrote an extraordinarily successful first novel and has seen his life slowly crumble as he has struggled, over many many years, to write a follow-up.  Wonder Boys is a coming-of-age story — for Maguire’s character, and also for Douglas’ Grady.  Its a rare movie that can balance deep laughs and powerful poignancy, and Wonder Boys just nails it.  I give director Curtis Hanson a lot of credit for that, as well as Steve Kloves for the sharp screenplay.  This movie sits next to Igby Goes Down on my DVD shelf.  The two films have a lot of similarities, both in terms of tone as well as the themes explored.  If you’ve seen and enjoyed Wonder Boys but have never seen Igby, I encourage you to check it out.

City Slickers — Boy, I haven’t seen this movie in YEARS!  I remember going to see the sequel, The Legend of Curly’s Gold, in theatres when it came out and being so disappointed that I don’t think I ever watched the original again.  The film is a bit dated — its not quite as timeless as When Harry Met Sally — but it was a lot of fun to return to Billy Crystal’s little ode to suburban men looking … [continued]

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Familiar Faces

September 3rd, 2008
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Its always fun to be watching an old episode of a favorite TV show and spot a great guest star actor you’d never realized was there before.  This happened twice to me recently.  

I was watching an old episode from the first season of The X-Files called “Shapes.”  Its about cowboys, Indians, and werewolves.  Its a decent first season episode — solid, but nothing spectacular.  But, even though I’d seen this episode a few times before, I was startled to notice that one of the cowboys was played by Donnelly Rhodes, none other than Doc Cottle on Battlestar Galactica!  He looked totally different — in this X-Files episode he was all decked out in cowboy gear, with grey whiskers — but that gravelly voice was unmistakable.

The same thing happened only a day later.  I was watching an old Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode called “Shakaar.”  It’s a third season episode that introduces us to several of Kira’s old chums from the Bajoran resistance movement (including their leader, Shakaar).  In the course of this episode, Kira and her old mates wind up taking up arms again, and find themselves pursued by other Bajorans — lead by a tough general named Lenaris Holem.  Now, I’ve seen this episode many many times before — but not since having devoured all five seasons of The Wire last year.  And so it was with delight that I realized that General Lenaris was played by John Doman — Rawls himself!  (According to imdb, its one of his earliest film credits.)

Who knew?… [continued]

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Chronicling the Chronicles: Season 1 of The Sarah Connor Chronicles Reviewed

Most of the sci-fi franchises that I grew up loving haven’t been doing too hot this past decade.  The lame AvP movies.  The disappointing Star Wars prequels.  And there hasn’t been any truly great Star Trek around since Deep Space Nine (by far the best series of the franchise) went off the air back in 1999.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  I caught a bunch of the episodes last spring, and this week watched (in pretty short order), all nine episodes now available on DVD.  My reaction?  Well….sort of middle-of-the-road.  Actually, I feel about this series almost exactly the same way that I felt about the third, James Cameron-free Terminator film: there’s a lot to enjoy, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared, although its still a long way from the brilliance of the first two films.

The series starts off with a bang, with a cool apocalyptic vision of what will happen if Sarah and John fail to stop all the robots — nuclear armageddon, with a metallic Terminator robot, wreathed in flames, choking the life out of Sarah after having just shot John.  Of course, its just a dream — but its a pretty great way to kick off the series.  Not only does the sequence clearly remind the audience of what the stakes are, but its also a chance for the show to showcase some pretty snazzy effects.  I was rather impressed with the visuals throughout the first season — there’s a lot of great action stunt work (car chases, Terminator battles, etc.), and the show is able to show the fully robotic Terminators (as opposed to the ones clothed in flesh that can be played by an actor without special effects) a lot more often, and more convincingly, than I’d expected.  (I have no way of knowing, but I wonder if the show’s effects artists haven’t been able to capitalize on the groundbreaking work in this area done by the folks over at Battlestar Galactica.  They’ve been able to beautifully incorporate the full metal “toasters” into their live action shots for years now.)

Unfortunately, after the kick-off, things slowed down for the next several episodes.  We spend time with a computer programmer Andy Goode, whose chess-playing computer nicknamed “the Turk” may or may not be a first step on the road to Skynet…and with John and Cameron (his female Terminator protector, played by Summer Glau from Firefly) in school…and none of that really held my interest.  While there was some interesting serialization beginning to happen (Andy and the Turk’s storyline played out over several episodes, for example), there was also a paint-by numbers … [continued]

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The Greatest Generation

I have been (and always shall be) a die-hard Star Trek Fan. But this past decade has been a rough time to be a Star Trek Fan. The last two Star Trek TV series have been terrible (Star Trek: Voyager) and mediocre (Star Trek: Enterprise). The last two Star Trek movies have been mediocre (1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection) and terrible (2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis). There is a new hope (ahem) on the horizon with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek

relaunch scheduled for next summer, but that’s a long ways away.

These days Star Trek seems to be, in many ways, dead dead dead. My
sci-fi passions are fueled by other shows like the amazing Battlestar Galactica and the late lamented Firefly. But this past weekend, while working on a variety of illustration projects, I popped my DVD set of Star Trek: The Next Generation season 3 into my player. And while drawing and painting away, I proceeded to tear through the entire season. What a magnificent season of science-fiction, and of television period. My goodness I had forgotten.

These episodes originally aired in 1989-90. This was a groundbreaking season for Next Gen. For the first two years, the show had struggled to find its footing. It was popular, but the quality of the episodes were wildly uneven. The writing staff went through constant upheavals. But in Season 3, a talented writer named Michael Piller took over as the show-runner, and proceded to do two important things. One, he re-focused the show on the CHARACTERS. Two, he brought on board a number of incredibly talented writers who would proceed to guide the Star Trek franchise for many successful years to come. These include Ronald D. Moore (who, post-Trek, would go on to create and run the new Battlestar Galactica), Rene Echevarria (The 4400), Jeri Taylor, Brannon Bragga, and many others.

What’s incredible about Next Gen‘s season 3, looking back on it, is just how well it holds up today (as opposed to, say, season 1, which today I find to be pretty much unwatchable). Here are just a sampling of the greatness of this season:

Yesterday’s Enterprise — The Enterprise C travels to the future and accidentally changes history, creating a tme-line where the Federation and the Klingons are locked in bitter, unending war. And Tasha Yar dies again. Time travel has become a much over-used TV sci-fi device, but this dark tale is one of the best.

The Offspring — The android Data takes it upon himself to create a child. Haunting and poignant, its a classic.

Deja Q — The omnipotent Q loses his powers and … [continued]

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Season Finale Round-up

Well, its been a somewhat bizarre strike-interrupted TV season. The most exciting new program I watched this year was The Wire which, as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, is what got me through the months-long writers strike. But there was still a lot of fun TV-watching to be had, and these past few weeks of season finales was no different.

30 Rock — In a show that has had no shortage of terrific scene-stealing guest-stars, Matthew Broderick’s appearance as “Cooter” (so nicknamed by President Bush) was one for the books. Jenna’s concept of “backdoor bragging” as well as the explanation as to the cause of Liz’s pregnancy scare were also highlights. A hilarious end to a terrific season.

The Office — Speaking of guest-stars, The Wire‘s Amy Ryan was absolutely terrific as Toby’s replacement, and the genius notion of her thinking Kevin has “special needs” had me howling with laughter. I was a bit put off by the somewhat glum Jim-Pam story, which seemed like a bit of a transparent way to extend their courtship…but that was somewhat redeemed by Andy Bernard (Ed Helms)’s antics as well as Angela’s perfectly-played response to his proposal. “I SAID OK!”

Scrubs — This imaginary fairy tale was pretty terrible, sadly. I can’t totally blame the show’s creators, as NBC made the poor decision to run the episode out of sequence (the show was meant to have taken place earlier in the season), resulting in such oddities as Bob Kelso still working at Sacred Heart despite his having left earlier in the season. Guess NBC assumed that we stupid TV viewiers wouldn’t notice. Still, I can’t imagine this episode would have seemed much funnier even in its proper spot in the season.

Lost — While not quite on par with last season’s phenomenal flash-forwarding season-ender (“we have to go BACK!”), this was a very solid ending to what has been, in my opinion, the best season of Lost since the first. We got some definitive answers to some burning questions (Why is the island so hard to keep track of? Who was in the coffin we saw in last season’s finale?), while also lots of new questions were posed — specifically, about what has transpired in the 3 years since the Oceanic Six were rescued…and about if/how they’ll be able to get back to the island as Ben wants them to. It was a particular kick seeing Walt again — I only wish his scene with Hurley had been longer. Hopefully we’ll see him again next season. I was pretty convinced it was going to be Ben in that coffin…but I was intrigued by the person it was. Can’t wait for next … [continued]

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See what I mean?

Just a quick note today.   In yesterday’s blog I referred to what I called “The Wire Effect.”   And what do I read this morning?   Amy Adams – so terrific in The Wire as well as in Gone Baby Gone – is set to appear in the season finale of The Office.

I can’t wait!   Here’s hoping all of the other amazing actors from The Wire continue to get work…… [continued]

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“A Man’s Gotta Have a Code…”

So my wife Steph and I were watching Gone Baby Gone last week, and I must confess that we both let out a bit of a squeal at a certain moment during the flick.   No, it wasn’t during the nail-biting quarry shoot-out in the middle of the film.   No, it wasn’t during scene with the Jamaican.   And no, it wasn’t during the devastating moment of choice that forms the crux of the end of the film.   All of those moments are terrific, don’t get me wrong – Gone Baby Gone is one of my favorite movies from last year.

But the moment where Steph and I really sat up and took notice was during the funeral scene, when Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) catches the eye of a police offer who he knows.   Steph and I looked at each other.   “Is that…OMAR???”

And indeed it was.   Michael K. Williams, who has basically one scene in Gone Baby Gone (but it’s a doozy — the steakhouse meal with Patrick), is the same actor who portrayed the shotgun-carrying, drug-dealer-murdering, criminal-with-a-code Omar Little for five amazing seasons on HBO’s The Wire.

And this is what I refer to as The Wire Effect – the phenomenon on which one is so in love with the characters in a beloved TV show that you sit up and take notice whenever they appear elsewhere.   Part of the reason we were watching Gone Baby Gone in the first place was because, after watching Amy Ryan on The Wire, Steph and I wanted to see her performance in GBG again (since the first time we saw the flick was before we’d ever seen The Wire).   I love Lost – but I lost it even more this season when Lance Reddick (Lt. Cedric Daniels on The Wire) appeared briefly as the mysterious “assembler of freighter folk.”   Heck, I even got excited by The Sarah Connor Chronicles when I saw Andre Royo (“Bubbles”) appear on that show as a resistance fighter (in a tiny role that was a sad waste of his enormous talents).

This has happened to me with other shows.   I got very excited when Alexander Siddig, who played Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (by far my favorite of the Star Trek series) appeared last season on 24.   (And I was very very annoyed when he was unceremoniously killed off-screen after only a few episodes.)   And a grin always appears on my face whenever I see an alumna of the late, great Arrested Development like Jason Bateman or Michael Cera or Will Arnett.   (He’ll always be GOB Bluth to me!)… [continued]

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How I survived the TV strike (Part II)

Here are five more DVDs (continuing my list from yesterday) that I loved loved loved this winter, when the pleasant caress of new TV shows had been denied me:

VI.   Eastern Promises — I have seen this movie 3 times now since it came out last year, and I enjoy it more every time.  (And I liked it quite a lot the FIRST time I saw it!)  Viggo Mortensen gives an amazing you-just-can’t-look-away performance as the deadly Russian Nikolai, whose path crosses with a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts).  And let’s not forget the amazing Armin Mueller-Stahl, who is as amazing as he always is.  (I must admit, though, that I’m such a geek that whenever he’s on screen, in this or any other movie, I always hear him in the back of my head saying: “not even zey…can stop ze future.”  X-Philes know what I’m talking about…)

VII.  House of Games: The Criterion Collection – A terrific new DVD of the first film that David Mamet directed (from his own script).  I’m a big Mamet fan.  There are some flaws in the story, sure…and I’ve never been, as a viewer, quite fooled by the central con of this flick.  But the simple joys of watching the great performers (Joe Mantegna, Rickey Jay, the late great J.T. Walsh, among others) mouth Mamet’s rat-tat-tat tough-guy dialogue is more than enough for me.

VIII.  Volver – Pretty surprising for a sci-fi nut like myself, but I found myself completely swept up by Pedro Almodovar’s story about the intersecting lives of various women in Madrid.  Penelope Cruz is spectacular.

IX.  The Best of the Dick Cavett Show: Stand-Up Comedians – This DVD set contains several notable episodes from the great Dick Cavett’s 1970’s talk-show, in which he engages guests in fascinating hour or hour-and-a-half long (really!!) conversations about their lives and work.  This set focuses on his interviews with stand-up comedians such as Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, and many others.  I love the Daily Show and all of today’s late-night talk shows, but after watching these incredibly in-depth interviews its hard to take any of today’s five-minutes-then-you’re out “interviews” seriously.  This is the way it should be done.  If you have any interest whatsoever in stand up comedy, you need to track down these DVDs.

X.  The Wire – My sister got me the 1st season set for my birthday earlier in the year – and my wife and I promptly devoured the entire 5 seasons of the show.  Truly one of the greatest TV shows ever made.  I’ll discuss this in greater depth at a later date, but for now, let me just say that I … [continued]

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How I survived the TV strike

I’m a bit of a TV nut.  So, like so many of you, I had to go through a bit of an adjustment this winter without any new installments of Lost, The Office, and all my other TV pals.

How did I survive?  DVDs, my friends.  God bless ‘em.

Here’s just a sampling of the Digital Video Devicey goodness that I enjoyed over the past few months:

I.  Futurama: Bender’s Big Score – There aren’t a lot of shows (only Firefly and Arrested Development come to mind) whose cancellation burned me more than that of Futurama.  My goodness I loved this show. I still remember the moment when I first understood that this Matt Groening creation was a thing of awesome beauty and genius.  It was season two’s episode “I Second That Emotion,” (that’s the one where the Professor installs an empathy chip in Bender), in which it was revealed that the colony of underground mutants (long story) worshipped an unexploded nuclear bomb but, as one of the mutants commented, “its really just a Christmas and Easter” thing.  Any show that makes Beneath the Planet of the Apes jokes (that’s where the whole mutants-worshipping-an-unexploded-nuclear-bomb thing comes from) without care as to the tiny amount of viewers who would actually get that joke is a show that guaranteed itself my viewership until the end of time.  Anyways, this DVD movie was the 1st of 4 DVDs rescuing the show from oblivion.  It’s the bees’ knees, baby.

II.  Battlestar Galactica: Razor – Another direct-to-DVD continuation of a brilliant TV show.  If you’re not watching Sci-Fi’s stunningly amazing reinvention of BSG, then I have only pity in my heart for you.  This installment was, no surprise, gripping and surprising…in particular, the multi-layered structure of flashbacks-within-flashbacks was super-cool.  And we got to see a young William “Husker” Adama battling “toasters” in the First Cylon War!

III.  Zodiac – I totally missed this David Fincher film, about the real-life Zodiac murders of the 60’s & 70’s, when it was in theatres…and I don’t know quite what prompted me to pick it up on DVD.  But I found this film to be completely gripping.  A terrific cast,  including Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Junior, and many many other familiar faces really kept things moving.  And the beautiful set design & costuming combined with some really beautiful but extraordinarily subtle visual effects work brought San Francisco through the years to gorgeous visual life.

IV.  Igby Goes Down – Check out this cast:  Kieran Culkin, Clare Danes, Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet, Ryan Phillipe, Bill Pullman, and Susan Sarandon.  Find it.  Watch it.  You won’t regret it.

More DVDS I watched and loved this winter coming tomorrow!… [continued]