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Worthy 21st century Rockford Files
A lot of predictable, humorless crime dramas have come and gone since James Rockford left us forty years ago. None have had its irreverent wit or had a smart, cynical, once-shady underdog who keeps getting beaten up for his troubles. Stumptown is Rockford reincarnated as a hard drinking, PTSD laden, gambling addicted, one night stand seeking, crash test proven, bisexual woman who finally finds her true calling as an aspiring private detective because she's broke. Just like Rockford's, her cases often turn out to be much more complicated and twisted than her clients let on, and require her to be able to withstand multiple punches and concussions. Oh, and there are wild, frequently necessary car chases, too. How could I forget to mention that?
All in all, this is not deep TV, but it is happily smarter than average and wry enough to keep me smirking. Glad to see Donal Logue coming on board, too, as he did the similarly worthwile and Rockfordesque series Terriers a few years ago on FX.
Fewer lawyers, more drugs, guns, and money
Glad to see that the Breaking Bad recipe for tense drama still works. I've felt that Better Call Saul divested itself of drugs, guns, money, and the constant specter of violence in favor of tensions between scheming lawyers, and it lost what made Breaking Bad must see TV. El Camino kept me on the edge of my couch wondering what would happen next to Jesse and his surviving friends and family, just like in the good old days when he and Mr. White were usually just one step away from being caught or murdered. I'd have given it a perfect rating, but it did lack a couple of things. There was very little comic relief, which Breaking Bad could often introduce with a strange camera angle or over the top characters like Tuco, his tio, or the twins. El Camino made me worry, but it didn't make me laugh. Secondly, there were almost no women anywhere. It may be that drug dealing and the violence that goes with organized crime are mostly the domain of men, but not exclusively so. A story without a major female character is always missing something. Lydia gave it that in BB, along with Skyler and her sister. There is no one like that here.
One Dollar (2018)
On the same plane as The Wire, like reading a great novel
A good mystery that could give The Wire a run for its money on realism, intelligence, depth, ironic humor, and character credibility. Bingeworthy. The only thing I didn't like about it is that, although we follow a lot of characters and their complex connections to the main mysterious crime, this is a story about that one crime. So it's more like a mini-series than a renewable, multi-season show that could go on for as long as they keep coming up with story ideas.
What's truly wonderful are the scripts. It's so rare to find a show where the dialog seems like something real people would really say. There are no stereotypical, typecast characters here like "the good guy," "the hero private eye," "the hero's wife," or "the damsel in distress." There are no mindless, predictable car chases or CGI-augmented, but implausible action scenes. It's interesting because you believe all of the people involved can think and have choices, same as you or me. I watch because I want to know what they'll they're going to do next, or what they have done that's brought them into a mess. And from time to time the dialog is clever and funny.
I recognized a few faces in the cast like Deidre O'Connell, John Carroll Lynch from The Drew Carey Show, Greg Gerrman from Ally McBeal, and a couple of Boardwalk Empire veterans, Aleksa Palladino and Erik LaRay Harvey. There are no megastars. Everyone turned in good work, usually playing someone completely different from the roles that made them famous. Kirrilee Berger, literally a teenager playing a teenager (they're usually twenty-five year olds playing 18, right?), steals every scene she's in. She's magnetic, sympathetic,graceful, and convincing. I'm sure she's bound for great things.
There should be more TV like this. TV with brains and heart, that doesn't make us feel foolish for wasting our time on it. Like after finishing a good novel, I felt very satisfied when it ended. Hope to see the creator do something just as good soon!
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Better and much less predictable than I was expecting
One of my favorite recent Star Wars movies alongside Rogue One. It has one of the strongest casts, including the most major female characters ever in a Star Wars film. Donald Glover is a complete natural as Lando Calrissian, worthy of his own sequel. Emilia Clarke is alluring and mysterious as a heroine who may or may not also be a femme fatale. New Chewie is every bit as great as old Chewie. Thankfully, most of these actors can do comedy. That's what was once so terrible about Lucas's prequels. The comic relief fell flat.
There is an even better aspect here: a lot of ambiguity about what categories the characters fit into. They aren't clearcut good guys or bad guys. Each plot twist brings them to a crisis where they have to decide whether to do the selfish or the compassionate thing, whether to play it safe or go for broke, cheat or stick to the deal. Unlike previous stories, they each make different decisions and develop in unexpected ways. I was often surprised, and that almost never happens when I watch a new Star Wars flick.
I'm not sure why some users are trashing this one. Maybe they disagree with its politics, although it really only takes the traditional pro-freedom anti-imperialism stance thst all Star Wars movies have always taken. If anything, I was reminded of old Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall films where they were contemplating how to stand up to the Nazis or to organized crime without being part of an army or a police force. This is a story about estabishing one's independence as an individual in an oppressive, poverty-stricken universe. This is a story about going solo.
weak tea in pretty colors
Like the team sent in to investigate the mysterious phenomenon, Annihilation lacks the boldness and resolve that could have made it more interesting. I found myself missing the competence and confidence of a Kirk-Spock-McCoy landing party. We shouldn't chalk that up to this being an all female team, either. Janeway, Princess Leia, or a dozen other more real-life female characters would have held their own, too.
As many others have already said, this is beautifully and creatively filmed. The colors would make a spectacular screen saver, and make up for the slowness of pace. It reminds me of Sunshine in many ways. As in that film about heroes sent in to refuel a dying sun, the plot is overshadowed by whimpering, psychologically unstable characters who are seeking the first excuse ro fall apart, flip out, a fade away. That's not compelling. It's a downer.
The Last Post (2017)
Love story, period piece with universal themes and even women
I enjoy a very well written and we'll acted historical fiction about a forgotten little war. It is ambitious, current, and filled with the kind of sentiment we wish truly drove events, but, unhappily, usually doesn't. The Last Post also includes a point of view we don't often get to see in military dramas, how women, even from the back seat, are affected and can profoundly alter courses. I especially admired one of the themes it hammers on: do words really matter? For that matter, are individuals sayong them of any significant importance compared to institutions like nations, rebellions, and causes? Our real life experience teaches us that we can't swim against the tide and hope to survive. The Last Post gives us some examples about how that can be true, but also how the tide can be overcome. In that sense it is a very beautiful story where earnest love, bravery, and forgiveness for one another counts. Perhaps that is fantasy, but it is still a beautiful one.
The Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home of Star Wars. Humor returns!
The worst sin of Lucas's prequels was that they couldn't make a grown-up laugh. The Last Jedi finally rectifies that. At last, we have characters who dare not to take everything so seriously all the time and who have some wits. We also have unpredictability, the hardest thing to produce in the ninth iteration of a series. Yes, it's still a recycled plot line from Empire Strikes Back, but it's much more creative than that. Rian Johnson takes a lot of risks here, and I'm glad he did. I almost thought I was getting too old to be a Star Wars fan. Now I can relax and enjoy myself again.
Discovery is finally, truly special. A perfect episode!
Maybe the best-written, best-paced Star Trek episode I've seen, and I've seen them all. Funny, unpredictable, tense, and even romantic. This was like a 45 minute movie. I was a little skeptical of this series after the pilot, but now I'm sure it's in good hands. Even the gay characters are turning out to be much more than just "Look at us! We're the first gay TV Star Trek characters!" This next episode will be the first episode of anything on TV that I'll really, really be looking forward to since Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica both wrapped up years ago. Discovery is now, officially, in my book, special.
Star Trek: Discovery (2017)
Not awful, but, like the new movies, spends too much time on action and dazzle
Discovery's formula is much more like the new line of Star Trek movies than any of the TV series. It wants to grab you with action and spectacle, taking little time to develop characters in realistic scenes and conversations. Some people will like that, but, as with other scifi TV of late, I feel a little overwhelmed with a lot of over the top CGI. It makes you wonder if the actors are truly just on a big green screen stage, with everything except for the chairs they're sitting in being painted in later.
Fortunately the acting's pretty good, and lead character Sonequa Martin- Green comes from out of nowhere to dominate the cast. I was very impressed with her, and you need to be, because side characters seem mostly to get ignored through the first two episodes. They serve as foils or mentors for Commander Burnham. That's something I miss. Discovery feels too rushed to get to know anyone. There will be no Lower Decks card games or evolving friendships or slow burning romances here. There may be only one season and only 15 episodes, so they move quickly into bad guys and combat. We won't be pondering the meaning of life here, or even the value of restraint in wartime. He who hesitates is gonna get whacked.
The Klingons, on the other hand, talk slowly and act predictably in scenery so busy it's difficult to make out what we're supposed to appreciate, as if everything is taking place in an acid flashback. Poor choices all around.
Sadly, to pull in more casual viewers who want a quick action fix, the old faithful fans are taken for granted. It's good to see Star Trek alive and well, but its personality has become a cold ghost of its once genial, welcoming warmth. We must be trapped in combat for the duration.
Really just an extended version of the trailer
I don't think I'm giving away much by saying the trailer is a miniature version of the film itself. I'm not sure why suspense movies give so much away in order to lure moviegoers into buying a ticket. Spoiler: how many of our little Indians will survive? As usual, not many.
If you've seen any Alien movie at all, there's nothing new to you here. Elements of Gravity have been added, as we're on an orbiting space station in trouble. The plot is predictable. The character development is slap-dash to keep the movie short, and interaction between the characters is bland, astronaut cliché dialog. "Being up here in outer space is so cool! Blah, blah, blah. I hope we kill the monster so we can go home. Blah, blah, blah. It sure is cold in here with the power off. Blah, blah, blah." There is no uniquely memorable line to cite. No one dared to be creative or found any inspiration.
If you want to see a more original movie about dangerous life from Mars, a movie that worked hard to make you get to know and care about its characters, check out Red Planet. It didn't get great reviews, but I was riveted when I saw it for the first time, and I've gone back to re-watch it several times for its unique and original scenarios and special effects.
If you love outer space movies for the vicarious joy of feeling like an astronaut for 90 minutes or so, this is OK. If you need more entertainment than that to satisfy you, you'll probably be wasting your time on this one.
Don't assume anything from the title, this is a dark and smart comedy
Thankfully, this is anything but a paint-by-numbers action series about spies starring somebody like Chuck Norris. This is a quietly hilarious black comedy about the snowballing consequences of acting on inaccurate intelligence information. It's not funny in a slapstick, goofy, unrealistic way like Get Smart of Spy Hard. It's more like Breaking Bad. The comedy surprises you by putting our hero, an intelligence agent, in absurdly bungled situations. These are usually not his fault and almost always made worse by what he has to do to carry out his mission. Shellshocked by what his trusted colleagues' mistakes (maybe even outright incompetence) have put him through, he puts his sadness into autobiographical musical lyrics for folk songs. He plays these with his guitar on park benches and coffee houses in countries where, hopefully, people who hear them won't understand English and rat him out.
His father, a distinguished former Congressman now working for the State Department as his boss, his brother, a loyal but childlike successor to his father's Texas Congressional seat, and his faraway wife help him along and keep him from quitting, getting arrested, or losing his mind. I can't describe to you how much I laughed in the first ten minutes of this pilot or how much I look forward to seeing the rest of them when they're finished. This is something new and unique like (as another reviewer mentioned) the first Coen brothers movie I ever saw. You don't know what's going to happen next, but you know it's going to be wickedly entertaining.
Either you'll like the surprise twist or you won't
Arrival reminds me of a long episode of The Outer Limits. You're plunged into an exotic and mysterious science fiction scenario. You know the outcome all depends on a "big reveal" that will come almost at the very end of the story, and you will judge it based on how cool that reveal turns out to be. I wasn't as impressed as I was hoping to be.
I admired the style and the imagery of the film. I enjoy nearly all scifi and I particularly enjoyed this director's previous big movie, Sicario, about the drug war in the Southwest and Mexico. However, I was unexpectedly bored most of the time while I was watching this one. For one thing, as is true of most hard scifi scripts, the majority of ordinary humans are dismissed as hysterics or religious zealots. That left me cold. Any movie that casts Forest Whitaker, no matter how many awards he has, is going to make me wish all of his scenes had subtitles as a hurriedly mumbles through all his lines. Finally, the whole "the world as we know it will melt down into an apocalyptic disaster unless our hero gets this right" is almost always an unconvincing crisis. I never felt like anyone was really in the kind of imminent danger the author wanted me to feel, so all there was to do was admire the scenery and the occasional special effect. The story needed more characters, more tension between them, and more interesting and less predictable dialog. Nice try.
More like a play than a movie, and not bad
Five people penned in a box, supposedly for their own safety, but with lots of room for doubts about what's really going on. Shelter isn't an action scifi movie, it's more like a tense little play. The scenes have been shuffled out of order to keep the reality of the box and the fates of the characters mysterious for as long as possible, much like Lost. And it succeeded in keeping me curious about that until the very end. The characters are believable. The acting was good enough to keep me immersed in their reality. I get the comparison with The Divide, but I wasn't able to stay interested in The Divide's mysteries long enough to finish it. And even though The Divide has many more recognizable faces in it, I didn't find its characters to be plausible or even likable. The writing in Shelter is much better, more like real life than a science fiction comic book. I look forward to seeing more of what the creators can do. It's obvious they don't need big money and fancy actors to do something compelling. Rock on.
Cute, pretty, funny, but shallow and not especially interesting
The new Star Wars has spot on casting, is beautiful to look at, and is a familiar adventure. However, it lacks the spiritual depth of Lucas's original vision. You also can't use the word original to describe it, because everything in it has been recycled from the most popular of the other Star Wars movies. The one thing it does improve upon is the comic relief, which is the only thing that surprised me. Without the new humor and the chemistry between Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, this would just be a very predictable and sparkly retread.
I watched Ridley do some promotional interviews and there was nothing about her that stood out other than her youth, but she is marvelous in this. You might even say she does the best acting of anyone in any Star Wars movie, and she carries the dramatic parts of the film on her own. Her screen buddy, Boyega, is more of a Spencer Tracy to her Katherine Hepburn, and gets all the good one liners. Oscar Isaac, who had the best résumé of any main character, unfortunately gets nothing to say that hasn't been said in a previous film. This is the downside of being "the hotshot pilot" instead of the main protagonist . All of his lines are clichés. The baddies are all reruns of their predecessors, only with a few women baddies this time. That's another good thing about this movie. In most action movies, 90% of the characters are men. In this one it's more like 60%, and why not? It's refreshing to see more women, as opposed to more creatures or droids who only beep or growl.
The special effects are what the film needed to prove itself. All the ships look like their counterparts from the good old days, only shinier and cooler, and remarkably sturdy. Kinda like the way the new Battlestar Galactica looked just like the old one, only much, much better. If only they had done more to similarly upgrade the writing here.
Without giving anything away, if that's even possible in a film this predictable, most of the scenes are written as homages to scenes in the previous films. Sometimes there is a twist, but in the other umpteen times and things feel very copy and paste. Abrams did this to Star Trek, too. Any time he could have done something boldly creative like everything he did with Lost, he instead chose to play it safe and retread an old idea. There is nothing new to take away with you and ponder after the film. Most noticeably and sadly, there are no insightful words of wisdom from Yoda or Obi wan.
So, The Force Awakens is a crowd pleaser which, like the new Star Trek movies, will make a lot of money. It will not, however, inspire anyone to a thoughtfully idealistic perspective, which was what made the early movies so special. It is, in the end, a movie that will only be remembered for the financial records it set, and that is disappointing for those of us who love spiritual icons like Lost and Yoda.
Darkly comedic dramedy, less ambitious and lighter version of The Wire in London
Bitingly funny and relentlessly profane take on public relations and police work in London. As someone who thinks The Wire is the best TV series ever made, I was very happy to find something with a similar, dirty yet hilarious tone. Like in The Wire, we follow both the people at the top and a couple of different groups of cops in the streets. There is no educational angle on what life is like for the criminals, though, or how institutions are affected by a serious social problem like the black market drug trade.
Our very self-righteous heroine is an American PR social media guru brought in to help the police reform their image. It's an uphill battle, and the street cops (think Herc, Carver, and Fuzzy Dunlop now) provide wonderful, reckless everyday examples of why. People used to stuffy British crime mysteries will not enjoy this show's sense of humor, which is irreverent and often comes from the gutter and the gallows. This is not your grandmother's Masterpiece Mystery. But if a quip from a lout that reminds you of how contemporary blue collar cops might really act makes you laugh then you're in the right place. Nesbitt is especially witty as the stern, snarling commissioner who snaps out sarcasm through gritted teeth to his smiley-faced softie aide. Danny Boyle has cooked up another something special. Definitely more like Trainspotting than, say, Millions, though. Dark.
Prime time soap opera bomb
Anything with Howard, Henson, and Yoba in it has some potential, enough for me to round up from 2 to 3 stars out of 10. But this is really just a lame soap opera about black music industry stereotypes. The characters fall into one of two categories, malevolent and annoying or just annoying. A lot of the rest of the cast look like they belong on a soap opera, that is, they could be models and they do more posing than talking. Hard to like anyone enough to watch them, though. Anytime someone gets killed off or diagnosed with some terminal disease you may feel a little guilty, but you can be pretty sure TV land is a happier place without them.
World War III (1982)
Plausible script, even in 2015
Like many other reviewers, I loved this when I was a child (about 11). The Carter grain embargo had just ended, the Soviets seemed to be unopposed in Afghanistan, and the Cold War could go either way. I had collected toy soldiers by the hundreds and could gravely reenact the film's last stand battle over and over again. Now that it's finally easy to buy on DVD, I saw it again. In spite of how long it's been, every word of dialog had stuck with me and I hung on each one. This is a very well-written story that refuses to follow tried and true Hollywood formulas. The actors, with Rock Hudson in his last role, gave some of their finest performances for this weightiest of subjects. The heroic little battle reminds me of movies like Zulu and other classic Army fort vs. Native siege flicks. The larger and even better story is the spiraling tensions between the world leaders caused by the this desperate, badly miscalculated gambit. As in Fail-Safe, neither side can win if total war breaks out and cool heads seem to have the upper hand. The constantly shifting assumptions about who is a trustworthy negotiator and who can truly afford to back down is what really makes the movie fascinate like only something like a major plane crash can. This should not happen. Responsible people will of course prevent this from happening. So why haven't they been able to stop it yet? Watch it to find out whether the world gets saved or not. But is it still relevant?
Today's newly militarized Russia is tied down in Ukraine and its economy is tumbling as it blames surprisingly effective Western sanctions. The US is likewise happy to be even more dependent on domestic oil production than in 1982, so a showdown over dwindling essential resources could be as plausible now. I have since added a hitch as a soldier, a political science degree, and three decades more experience in the real world, so I should be so much more skeptical of almost forgotten TV miniseries scripts, right? Not this one. It's like a great novel. The more often you replay it for its depth and unique combination of realistic elements, the more you enjoy it.
Fury has one of those "the only good morality in wartime is no morality" themes. I admired the sound effects in the battle scenes. They'll probably win an award for those. But I hated the script and the dialog and gave up on it altogether after about 40 minutes. It lacks class. It is in many ways the opposite of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, which were about redemption through suffering and sacrifice under extreme duress. Fury was about degeneracy becoming the new righteousness. Ugly, and maybe even downright revisionist and historically inaccurate. Almost like a pornographic comic book version of history designed to appeal to adolescent boys raised on Game of Thrones episodes and Grand Theft Auto video games. As somome who actually spent a couple of years as a cavalry scout in the army, I can also say that the battle scenes lacked authenticity. Particularly in the amateurish way the troops talked to each other and moved during combat. Again, much more like a dumbed down and superficial comic book or a video game than something trying to simulate historical reality.
imperfect melodrama, but overall well-scripted and acted dilemma
This modern military drama reminded me of By Dawn's Early Light and Lebanon. In all three, we watch a military crew in charge of a combat vehicle who have some serious decisions to make based on limited evidence. The consequences for not using deadly force could be just as disastrous as using it, to potential casualties and also to the careers and even the freedom of the actors involved. In all 3 films, we are limited to only seeing and knowing what the people in the bomber, the tank, or in this case the drone control shed can see and hear. The atmosphere becomes ever more intense as the consequences of their choices become less and less possible to avoid. There are some technical shortcomings to the film, such as background music that often overpowers the actors' voices. I was still quite impressed with the plausibility of the situation, even if the exact circumstances of the setting are an extreme example of brinkmanship and interpersonal conflict that could most likely only appear in a script. The dialog is authentic enough to pass muster. There are no obvious plot holes, and both characters seem to be trying their very best to do the right thing ethically while considering the awful, irreversibly life altering consequences of being wrong. Worth seeing and worth thinking about, because war is always messy and soldiers will always have to make life and death decisions based on disturbingly incomplete knowledge.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Predictable comic book Japanese monster movie
Let me just get my one spoiler out of the way: Idris Elba's character dies, as his characters always seem to in whatever he's in. It's like he's the new Liam Neeson or Steve Buscemi, or Kenny on South Park. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed in the flick, even after going in with pretty low expectations. The main problem here is that the script is aimed so squarely at 10-year-old boys who want to see giant robots fighting giant monsters and imagine themselves as the top guns piloting those robots. If you're older than that, unless you're a fanboy of some kind, there's not much appealing about the movie. Sure, there are a lot of interesting CGI effects, mostly night scenes of intricately lit robots fighting monsters with glow-in-the-dark saliva. Everything else about the movie is just so juvenile-- the characters, the dialog, the action movie formula that anyone over 10 has probably seen dozens of times. I was hoping for much more from charismatic actors like Elba (The Wire, Luther, Prometheus) and Rinko Kukuchi (The Brothers Bloom, Babel), but they really just showed up for their blockbuster movie payday. Kukuchi, who was so intriguing in Babel and so funny in Brothers Bloom, is especially disappointing as a 32-year-old playing someone who acts like they're 17. Most of the action is filmed so close up that it's hard to see exactly what's happening, only that a giant robot is in a wrestling match with a giant sea monster. Charlie Day, who is the comic relief Giovanni Ribisi-type geeky scientist, was the highlight of the movie for me. But in the end I left the theater feeling like I'd sat too long, heard too much palaver, been punished with too many explosions and hackneyed martial arts fights, and seen absolutely nothing new.
I understand that Hollywood likes to make these big budget action movies with very little dialog because they do well overseas and that's a big new source of revenue. I really don't want to contribute any of my own revenue to wriggle uncomfortably in my theater seat anymore, though. Give me a script for grownups with some more originality and wit, and I might reconsider. Probably won't happen in my lifetime, but one can hope.
Imaginative premise, great villains, clever plot twists and otherworldly scenery
New movies can't have female villains. Women are supposed to be the pretty victims of bad guys-- serial killers, stalkers, wife-beaters, criminal masterminds, terrorists, rapists, what have you. If you're as tired of that unrealistic premise as I am, you might take a little extra pleasure from this creatively twisted scifi adventure.
Our hero describes himself as part of a mopup crew in a post-alien invaded, devastated Earth being readied for final evacuation. Our first clue that something's amiss comes when he also tells us that he received a "mem wipe" to accomplish his mission of maintaining the machinery that is packing up Earth's water for a trip to humanity's new home on Titan. He and his female partner, in every sense of the word, are due to leave for good in only a few weeks when he picks up on a few other clues that start to jog his repressed memories. Is he really a hero, or is he being manipulated? I loved the imagery of this movie. Iceland's barren and bizarre terrain is as awe-inspiring as any alien world might be. The machines themselves are also beautiful, graceful and clean, much like the futuristic flying EVE robot in WALL-E, only fierce. Even though the movie ran longer than I expected, I was glad that gave me a chance to soak up more of the scenery, like an extended stay in some fantasy paradise. Buy a ticket, see the show. You'll be glad you visited.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
TOO much action, not enough of anything else
The Star Trek franchise is, unfortunately, falling into the same trap the Star Wars movies once did. George Lucas, at the peak of his success, wisely pointed out that a special effect without a story is a very boring thing-- then forgot his own lesson and overdid the special effects in his last three films at the expense of story and characters. I'm sure when JJ Abrams and his crew do interviews about what they've done for Star Trek, they brag about how much action they've been able to pack into a mere two hours of screen time. The problem is fast-paced hand-to-hand combat can be a very boring thing when you always know who's going to win. If the outcome is bound to be a happy ending, why not take some more time for the characters to have interesting conversations, explore strange new worlds, and the like? James Kirk, once a romanticized character, has been replaced by a bratty, brash bad boy who specializes in one night stands, not romance. That's what the new Star Trek films remind me of, a series of standalone one-night stands full of sound and fury, which are ultimately meaningless, soulless, and unmemorable. Nice special effects, granted, and pretty good casting, but there's just no there there. It might as well be a music video.
The Americans (2013)
2010s plot and villain clichés in a 1980s cold war setting
Based on FX's slick music video trailers, complete with a cleverly chosen 1982 Eminence Front track, I was really looking forward to some smart TV. Having seen the pilot, I'm a little disappointed with its shallowness and preoccupation with contemporary sex and race clichés, but I haven't given up on its potential yet.
I was a kid and young adult in the 1980s and eventually enlisted in the Cold War era army. The cloak and dagger intrigue was a big part of popular culture then, both in movies and spy novels. This series reminded me much more of our 2010s obsession with sex crimes and white male bashing than the 1980s, though.
First of all, our sleeper agent couple just happen to run into a bizarrely overt pedophile hitting on their thirteen-year-old daughter at the mall. He is, of course, a balding, middle-aged white male, the demographic for all villains in 21st century pop culture. Secondly, it turns out the female half of our undercover couple was raped while she was in training by, of course, a (Soviet) white, middle-aged male. Coincidentally, the rapist later defects and our couple are tasked with kidnapping him. Finally, the last of the three main characters of our story is an FBI counterintelligence agent who spent quite a bit of time undercover investigating (of course) middle-aged male white supremacists. Never mind that the KKK had become virtually extinct by the 1980s and had nothing to do with the cold war. Sigh.
Naturally, our Soviet spy hero proves his worth, in spite of his communist upbringing and increasingly wavering loyalty, by killing the rapist and beating and threatening to kill the pedophile. His fake wife rewards him with post-disposing-of-the-body-of-the-rapist sex while Phil Collins music plays loudly in the background.
Needless to say, none of these events have anything to do with the 1980s as I experienced them, or the cold war for that matter. The Americans has embraced a revisionist, PC condemnation of non-gay white males that we've also seen done in a more plausible and artistic way in A-list nostalgic shows like Mad Men. The Americans is trying to blend feminist Mad Men nostalgia with the double agent intrigue from Homeland. So far it is not as smart, original, or convincing as either. One has to do more than just carefully select good 80s music for the soundtrack to take us back to the 80s. As another reviewer has said, let's hope it gets better.
Battlestar Galactica (2004)
the show you waited your whole life to see!
This is the best kept secret of wonderful TV adventure dramas, kept hidden away by a the offputting title borrowed from the scifi-for-little-boys 1970s Star Wars knockoff. Battlestar Galactica has everything you've always wanted in a drama. It does for scifi what The Wire did for crime shows -- take it to a level no one had ever thought possible. Where to begin? Most importantly, the writers, actors and everyone involved have created an immersive, believable, compelling adult world. This is not the cheesy comic-bookish scifi we grew up with in the 70s. The plots are devilishly unpredictable and sophisticated, defying all conventions and formulas of that genre. There's no geeky technobabble to decipher. Big spaceships can go faster than light. Human-looking robots have surpassed their human creators and want to wipe them out. That's the whole BSG techno-Encyclopedia in a nutshell. Instead of inventing new technospeak vocabulary, the writers spent their time avoiding stupid plot holes and inconsistencies.
Almost as important is the credibility of the characters. These survivors fleeing genocide are a flawed, devastated, but shrewd, philosophical, and awfully interesting people. Some are noble. Some are drunks or whores. Some are treacherous or cowardly. About half are female, perhaps the rarest of rarities in male-dominated scifi. Some are deeply religious, another rarity. Best of all, they're all a lot smarter than the kinds of heroes and villains stereotypes we're used to seeing in scifi. That being said, there are no child characters in BSG, and I'm not sure that kids would even understand the show. It's only for those who've outgrown Saturday morning cartoons and crave meatier content.
Best of all, every episode will leave you pining to find out what happens next. Months between cliffhanger-ending seasons were agonizing to we fans. Kobol's Last Gleaming, the last two episodes of the first season, are sublimely creative and full of imaginative surprises. They left us all hanging with the excruciating burden of fired up curiosity. THEN what happened??? Will there be a season two? Will we make it to the end of the story??? Thankfully, yes. There are four seasons and even a couple of movies and some webisodes to satisfy us. If you've never seen the show, I envy the joy you're about to experience. You're in for a hell of a ride!
Falling Skies (2011)
War of the Worlds as family TV series
Spielberg's done this before with Saving Private Ryan-- if a storyline makes for a good 2-hour movie, why not extend it into a series? Falling Skies is like a softer, less scary version of Spielberg's terrifying remake of War of the Worlds. It has a lot in common with other post-apocalyptic shows like Jeremiah, Jericho, and The Walking Dead, and borrows many concepts from them. Many reviewers are panning it for being too derivative or unoriginal, and I agree that it can be predictable and formulaic. It's not as creative as the much more ambitious Battlestar Galactica, Lost, or Sarah Connor. On the other hand, it is consistently well made and often eloquently written.
It has about three themes that it harps on repeatedly: the war against the alien occupation is akin to the American war for independence, family and tribal loyalty is important, and religion is a force that gives the survivors' struggles meaning. The last one used to be a commonplace theme in American television up until the rise of premium cable TV in the 1980s (full frontal nudity made religion seem prudish), and it's kind of refreshing to see it make a comeback.
On the nitpicky side, it's odd to see people behaving so normally and even sloppily considering the menacing presence of superpowerful alien overlords and their war machines. That element of terror from War of the Worlds had been lost. Characters in, say, The Walking Dead are always conscious of things like noise and light discipline, always walking on pins and needles for fear of being discovered and consumed by the enemy. Is this only because a convoy of refugees wouldn't look a cinematic if they drove without their headlights on at night? (Spoiler) I suppose could be because the aliens say they aren't necessarily bent on complete genocide, as is revealed in season 2. Still, the tone of the show always seems a bit too easy-going considering the fall of civilization and near genocide. Maybe it's so the kids in the audience won't have to hide under the bed.
In any case, I can still recommend the show as above average Vancouver scifi. It won't knock your socks off, but it's good enough to keep me coming back for more.