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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

TV: Fortitude (Season 2)

April 24, 2017

The first season of Fortitude was a glorious achievement in genre television, so it’s unsurprising that its sequel year doesn’t quite match up. Even so, it does shift the series in new and different directions, and ultimately remains impressive, providing a superb mix of small-town mayhem, science-based mystery, and gruesome horror.

As the year begins, Fortitude is still recovering from its recent traumas, and it’s an epic struggle. The island’s erstwhile sheriff, Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), has gone AWOL, leaving the tiny police force in the hands of inept deputy Eric Odegard (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). The government in Norway, in a vote of no-confidence, has saddled governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) with a scheming new advisor, Erling Monk (Ken Stott). Meanwhile, key members of the community are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, handling the loss and turmoil of the recent past in numerous unhealthy ways. With nerves on edge, limited law enforcement resources, and Monk’s officious interference, Fortitude is woefully ill-equipped to handle a new, rapidly escalating crisis: a series of brutal murders that may or may not be tied into ancient spiritual rituals, a bizarre drug subculture, nefarious goings-on at the science research center, or a complex combination of the above.

One of the masterful aspects of Fortitude’s first year was the way it walked the line between the scientific and the supernatural; as the gripping mystery unfolds, it keeps the viewer guessing as to the true source of town’s terrifying evils. Since the question appears definitively resolved by season’s end, I was surprised to see this edgy ambiguity successfully restored in season two. It keeps Fortitude squarely in Twin Peaks/X-Files territory, which is an effective and compelling space for it. On the other hand, it thrusts the series toward new extremes of gorey, shocking violence, leaning heavily into more standard horror tropes and tactics. This adds plenty of suspense and surprise, but also elevates the camp factor, somewhat to the show’s detriment.

It also lacks the structural finesse of season one, weaving a more complex web of subplots. It’s a bit of a kludge, but it’s certainly a fascinating kludge. One thread involves a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman named Michael Lennox (Dennis Quaid), battling financial worries and concern for his wife Freya (Game of Thrones’s Michelle Fairley), who is slowly dying of an incurable disease. Another involves Hildur’s political jousting with Monk, which finds her investigating a scientific mystery that dates back to World War II, and puts her on the scent of a diabolical new conspiracy. Yet another involves an inscrutable new scientist at the research station, Dr. S Khatri (Parminder Nagra). And then, of course, there’s the primary murder mystery, in which the police struggle to make sense of a new string of horrific killings. Somehow, all these disparate threads weave together, and it does add up to something complex and engaging, if not quite as refined and neat.

Still, gripes aside, I suspect fans of the first season will find it eminently watchable, and engrossing for all its rough edges. It still has the stunning cinematography, memorable vistas, and unique international flavor. It still has the compelling intrigue, unsettling ambience, and nerve-tingling suspense. The cast, anchored by an increasingly demonic Dormer and increasingly sympathetic Gråbøl, is rock solid, and many of the first season’s survivors stand out thanks to the show’s unflinching look at the after-effects of trauma. Particularly noteworthy characters are romance-under-fire scientists Natalie Yelburton (Sienna Guillory) and Vincent Rattrey (Luke Treadaway), and earnest, overwhelmed constables Ingrid Witrey (Mia Jexen) and Petra Bergen (Alexandra Moen). The newcomers add plenty of new dramatic fireworks, with Ken Stott’s bloviating bureacrat Monk often stealing the show. Quaid struck me as odd casting at first, but eventually integrates nicely into the ensemble, while Nagra elevates a necessarily cryptic character with riveting presence.

All things considered, Fortitude’s second season only falls short when held up against its own rigorous standard. It’s still a remarkable show, addictive, intense, and absolutely unique. Brutal as the island is, I hope we get to see more of it.

 

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Music, Spies, Television

Music: Mission: Impossible – The Television Scores

April 17, 2017

I’ve written a boatload of words about the original Mission: Impossible, but one aspect of the series I haven’t mentioned much is the music. This is unfortunate; music is the show’s secret weapon, consistently contributing to the suspenseful atmosphere and jazzy style of the series. Fortunately, by releasing a six-disc compilation of Mission music, La-La Land Records has given me the perfect excuse to rectify this oversight. Without quite knowing it, I’ve been waiting for Mission: Impossible – The Television Scores for decades; little did I know it had been out for over a year and a half already.

Everyone’s familiar with Lalo Schifrin’s iconic Mission: Impossible theme song, the explosive, urgent 5/4 track that’s been parodied into the ground and has followed the franchise throughout its history, including the recent film incarnations. That original theme song may be one of the most perfect TV tracks ever recorded — indeed, it’s so perfect, every subsequent reimagining of it has just sounded wrong to me, including the alternate versions on this set. But the theme is just the tip of the Mission music iceberg, as this robust, limited-edition box set points out.

Unsurprisingly, my favorite compositions tends to correspond to my favorite seasons. Season one’s scores, which set the tone for the show’s musical style, are almost uniformly outstanding. Particularly brilliant is Schifrin’s pioneering work for three early episodes: the pilot, “Memory,” and “Operation Rogosh.” Emerging from these scores the IMF theme “The Plot,” an addictive melody that would often be deployed as a musical cue to the team’s arrival onscreen. “The Plot” ultimately has more staying power and versatility than the theme song does; its melody would be repurposed inventively throughout all seven seasons. There are times when its presence feels like overkill, but it’s an infectious melody that Schifrin and the show’s other composers work creative variations on.

Schifrin has impressive help in the early seasons. There’s Walter Scharf’s lovely “Old Man Out” score, and Gerald Fried’s lively Meditterrean-flavored tracks from “Odds On Evil.” Jack Urbont contributes jazzy backgrounds for “The Ransom” and romantic string work for “The Short Tail Spy.” These composers would continue into season two, which also added composers Robert Drasnin (“The Slave”) and Jerry Fielding (“The Council”). Their work would become familiar and influential in later seasons. The music continues to impress through seasons three and four, with Schifrin’s “The Heir Apparent” score a particular highlight. The blend of upbeat jazz and symphonic orchestration contribute energy, tension, and class to the series’ classic early years.

Season five’s drastic shift in style, which includes an inferior version of the theme song, would send the show in a slightly different direction — often, I think, to the detriment of the music. Attempts to make the music more “contemporary” (at the time) made it more dated. Even so, Schifrin works some groovy twists on “The Plot” for his “Takeover” score, and certain atmospheric sections from the later seasons blend seamlessly with the early classics. I’ve taken to playing the entire set on random, and it makes spectacular background music, especially for a spy fiction writer. With six discs and nearly eight hours of music, Mission: Impossible – The Television Scores is a must-have for series diehards.

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Television

TV: Angie Tribeca (Seasons 1 & 2)

April 10, 2017

 

This will be an odd review wherein I point out there are reasons to watch Angie Tribeca, even though it’s kind of terrible. Indeed, it’s one of the stupidest things on TV. In this new Platinum Age of Television, or whatever the hell we’re calling it, how is there room for something this weak? Yet there’s something endearing about how whole-heartedly this show leans into its stupidity. Maybe the world needs that sort of thing every now and then.

Los Angeles cop Angie Tribeca (Rashida Jones) is a lone wolf, a rebel on the force, she doesn’t play nice with others, you get the drift. So naturally her hard-nosed lieutenant forces a new partner down her throat: Jay Geils (Hayes McArthur). Together they solve crimes.

That’s about it. Angie Tribeca is a send-up of the formulaic, cookie-cutter cop shows that have littered the airwaves for the past thirty years or so, culminating in episodic franchises like Law & Order and CSI. On points, I think NTSF:SD:SUV does the same thing better, but the genre is a ripe target, and Angie Tribeca, when it works, takes the piss out of it effectively enough. It’s kind of a throwback, with an old-fashioned style of humor that dates back to things like Police Squad! (in its better moments) or Get Smart (in its worse ones). Oh, there are glimmers of comedic spark. The performers — led with conviction by Jones, McArthur, Deon Cole, and Hoffman (a German Shepard) — are game for anything, so when the script dishes them a good line or a decent sight gag, the jokes do land. And there are genuine laugh-out-loud highlights: the Gary Cole chase scene in the pilot, a guest appearance from Maya Rudolph as a romance writer, Keegan-Michael Key as “Helmut FröntBüt,” a clever Mr. Robot parody.

But oh, when this show fails, it fails spectacularly. Its unfunny episodes may well be some of modern TV’s absolute worst. Still, there’s something about its utter lack of pretension that makes this palatable, even as you’re groaning at it — or worse, staring quietly at it while mechanically eating a sandwich. It’s not so much that it’s “so bad it’s good” (although sometimes that applies). It’s that it’s so bad and it doesn’t care. It just does what it does. There’s something pure about that. Maybe when the competition is so fierce, one way to carve your niche is to be comfortably, unselfconsciously terrible. That’s Angie Tribeca. You shouldn’t watch it, but for some reason, I do.

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Spies, Television

TV: Berlin Station (Season 1)

April 3, 2017

I’ve been shouting Olen Steinhauer’s name from the rooftops for years now, so it should surprise no one that his first foray in episodic television, Berlin Station (Epix, 2016), met with my fervid enthusiasm. Happily, my excitement was rewarded; playing out like one of the author’s intricately plotted novels, Berlin Station’s first ten episodes comprise one of the best seasons of spy television ever produced.

Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) is a CIA analyst who, after ten years behind a desk, returns to the field as a man with a mission: uncovering the identity of “Thomas Shaw,” an anonymous whistleblower who’s been causing chaos by strategically leaking the agency’s dirty secrets. Having identified who he thinks is Shaw’s press courier, Miller is assigned to Berlin Station to investigate the lead. Outwardly it’s a routine posting, but he soon finds himself ensnared in the complex station politics of its principal officers. The station chief, Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins), is a cagey forty-year veteran of the service whose faith in the mission is starting to waver. His deputy, Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser), is a fiery, foul-mouthed patriot. Then there are the case officers: the steely Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes) and the shifty, haunted Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), with whom Miller shares a storied past. Miller’s arrival portends a tumultuous turn of events at the station, as his investigation interfaces awkwardly with the many schemes and motives of the players, turning Berlin into a hotbed of American foreign-policy controversy.

Sometimes the weight of expectation leads to disappointment, but Berlin Station delivers on nearly every level. Steinhauer’s densely woven storytelling sensibility works just as effectively onscreen as it does on the page, and indeed the author’s scripts are standouts, from the gripping intrigue of the pilot to the miraculously tight resolution of the finale. The cast is a treasure trove of talent, led unsurprisingly by the sensational Richard Jenkins, who perfectly mixes world-weary cynicism with exhausted emotional turmoil in an awardworthy turn. Armitage, who proved his mettle in a similar role during his MI-5 stint, makes for a dependable central presence, while Forbes and Orser provide fiery, convincing support as high-ranking officers. Meanwhile, Ifans’ Hector DeJean is a riveting, scene-stealing figure whose grim, callous outlook gradually achieves a richly imagined, heart-breaking backstory. In unsure hands, the kind of detailed, complicated story-telling Steinhauer favors can come across as torturous and mechanistic, but there’s so much humanity to the characters and urgency to the scenario that no such problem befalls Berlin Station. Indeed, the performances inject that little something extra to make the drama special.

This is also a potently political show, and fearlessly so, in a manner that will probably be off-putting to the militantly right wing, but makes for wrenching, scathing critique for the rest of us. In a genre where the heroes often labor in support of a safe, conventional status quo, Berlin Station makes for a fierce, angry counterpoint, savaging not just the methods of the spy business, but the cruel political systems that prop it up. The finale manages, with astonishing success, to thread together the many characters and subplots into a conclusion both structurally and thematically satisfying. It mercilessly — but also beautifully — turns a mirror on the viewer for their complicity with the world’s systemic injustice.

Only a few nitpicks mar the season, and just barely. David Bowie notwithstanding, the credit sequence lyrics are rather on-the-nose. A couple of key side characters meet disappointingly expected, and sociopolitically unfortunate, fates. And a handful of predictable TV tropes, especially common to the spy genre, make unwelcome appearances. These blemishes are surrounded, however, by so many sparkling moments, and integrated into such a robust, thoroughly thought-out scenario, that it’s hard to take the show to task for them. Ultimately, Berlin Station is a near-masterpiece of the genre, in my view ranking alongside The Honourable Woman, season six of MI-5, and Rubicon as one of spy TV’s best seasons of all time.

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Fantasy, Television

TV: The Returned

March 27, 2017

Slow-building supernatural mysteries can be a double-edged sword: explain too little and there’s no payoff, explain too much and the intrigue is demystified. The French series The Returned (Les Revenants) (2012, 2015) is an effective example of how to walk that line, a brooding and atmospheric ensemble piece that powerfully blends potboiling horror with spiritual allegory.

It takes place in a small alpine town riddled with tragic history, including a school bus accident that claimed the lives of many local children. The drama begins when one of that accident’s victims, Camille (Yara Pilartz), turns up on her family’s doorstep ten years later, miraculously back to life at the same age she died. Camille’s family — mother Claire (Anne Consigny), father Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot), and older sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) — are shocked, of course, but Camille is just as confused, with no memory of her death, and no understanding of what has happened to her. She turns out to the be tip of an iceberg, however, as other “returned” start showing up to haunt the town’s citizens. Among them are suicides, the murdered victims of a cannibalistic serial killer, and the many, many dead of a massive dam collapse thirty-five years in the past. It’s a vast, inexplicable mystery that comes to consume the entire town, living and dead alike, and it seems to revolve around an inscrutable, haunted little boy named Victor (Swann Nambotin).

Considering the glut of zombie show on television these days, The Returned may seem like one too many for some viewers, especially considering its glacial pacing. But it’s a quiet, almost literary take on the concept, more invested in thematic subtext than grizzly horror tropes. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a potently creepy atmosphere throughout, and indeed it’s punctuated by moments of graphic terror. But these genre components are deployed sparingly in favor of subdued human (and undead) drama. The first season in particular builds a masterful, compelling ambience, raising intriguing questions and delivering ambiguous but strangely satisfying answers. The finale delivers some epic imagery and resonates powerfully past its final moments.

The momentum slows considerably in season two, unfortunately, when the strain of sustaining the complexly spun supernatural lore starts to show. Indeed, the second season is, on some levels, unfavorably reminiscent of Lost, another series that gripped its viewers with early mysteries it couldn’t hope to successfully resolve. Even so, its season (and most likely series) finale does a commendable job tying together the narrative threads in a thematically satisfying package.

By then, perhaps some of the shine has worn off, but in my view the emotional philosophizing of the final hour is really the one logical way for the story to have played out. It’s executed in a classy, satisfying manner that leaves just enough ambiguity to provoke thought. Ultimately, The Returned is another worthy descendant of Twin Peaks, a compelling ensemble drama where the geography is the creepiest character. In my view it doesn’t quite match up to Fortitude or The Kettering Incident, but it is effectively of a piece with them, if not an influence. Fans of this kind of show likely won’t be disappointed with The Returned.

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Music, Television

TV: Mozart in the Jungle (Season 3)

February 21, 2017

Many shows start strongly, then grow increasingly tired as they stretch the limits of their concept. Mozart in the Jungle doesn’t have that problem, perhaps because it relies less on concept than on its subject matter: music. By embracing music’s endless variety and the many facets of its world, it continues to find interesting new stories to tell, and does so in a manner as varied and unpredictable as music itself.

An intractable contract dispute leads management to lock out the New York Symphony, leaving the orchestra’s members to get by in other ways. For conductor Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), that means a spontaneous new gig organizing a concert for opera diva Alessandra (Monica Belluci). For oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), it means a new gig touring Europe with asshole ‘cello sensation Andrew Walsh (Dermot Mulroney). When Hailey’s job melts down mid-performance, she falls back into Rodrigo’s intoxicating orbit in Venice, where their erratic relationship undergoes further chaotic contortions before sending them back home.

Season three plays out, in fact, as two mini-seasons. The first five episodes take place in Venice and focus on the concert, a storyline which deploys Bellucci to terrific effect as a temperamental manipulator who gives Rodrigo a run for his money in the fiery artist sweepstakes. The second half returns the focus to New York and efforts to bring the lockout to an end, reuniting the symphony. Both sequences are confidently executed, displaying the series’ characteristic stream-of-conscious restlessness, randomly bouncing from comic absurdity to dramatic beauty and back again. But running through it all is the complex core relationship between Hailey and Rodrigo, which Bernal and Kirke pull off with effervescent charm. If this thread possesses the show’s one truly expected angle — a will-they, won’t-they rom-com familiarity — it also provides an anchoring through-line that becomes more interesting the more the show treats Rodrigo as something of a personified metaphor for music. After all, Hailey’s relationship with Rodrigo is just as fraught, flighty, and multifaceted as her relationship with music, the primary source of her frustration, her sense of purpose, her deepest disappointments, and her most transcendently beautiful moments. In this sense, Mozart in the Jungle continues to tap into and skillfully depict the struggles and joys of artistic ambition, in an energetic and addictively unpredictable way.

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Science Fiction, Television

Lightspeed Review: Black Mirror

February 14, 2017

In my opinion, Black Mirror is one of the best science fiction television shows ever made. Have you watched it yet? If not, perhaps my review of this remarkable anthology series — now online as part of Lightspeed’s February issue — will tempt you. Check it out, and enjoy some great fiction while you’re there!

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Television

TV: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 2)

February 13, 2017

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend set the bar pretty high in season one, and while its sophomore year doesn’t always clear that bar, it starts strongly enough and ends with such brilliant, disturbing resonance that its midseason lull is perfectly forgivable. It remains one of TV’s most inventive and addictive properties.

After a year of mad scheming to win the man of her dreams, Rebecca Bunch (the amazing Rachel Bloom) finds herself in a pickle to start season two: her longtime crush Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) is finally within her reach, but she’s starting to wonder if she made a mistake, missing out on true love with snarky Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana). This is just the starting point for this year’s emotional roller-coaster, as Rebecca’s self-centered love life generates strife with her best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), leads to an unexpected friendship with Josh’s ex Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), and reveals hidden depths to Rebecca’s intense mental issues.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is wickedly entertaining dark comedy, a gleefully subversive thrashing of rom-com tropes that manages the hair-splitting trick of making its problematic protagonist — played with spectacular conviction by Bloom — both relatable and repulsive, in the tradition of modern TV’s best antiheroes. Its first five or six episodes click along with the same manic energy and confidence as its freshman year, and contain similarly inspired musical numbers like “Love Kernels,” “The Math of Love Triangles,” and the hilarious “We Tapped That Ass” (possibly the best number the show has ever done). Perhaps  due to the logistics of television production, the season loses some of its luster and momentum in a flagging middle stretch, and suffers from some awkward reaches at times. But the season finale is a marvel of dark comedy mindfuckery, sticking the landing in a powerful and surprisingly harrowing way, that suggests even darker and weirder turns for the future. If you haven’t watched this one yet, I highly recommend it: it’s wildly fun and absolutely unique, with far more dark layers than you might expect at first glance.

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Science Fiction, Television

TV: The Kettering Incident (Season 1)

January 24, 2017

It’s a good time to be alive if you’re a fan of atmospheric chillers where geography is character. The Kettering Incident is the latest in my queue to fit that mold, doing for the rainforests of Tasmania what Bloodline does for the Florida Keys, or — perhaps more relevant — what Fortitude does for its majestic Arctic island. It’s unsettling, gorgeously shot television that tells an intriguing story and transports the viewer to stunning, faraway places.

Dr. Anna Macy (Elizabeth Debicki) escaped a troubled childhood in the small logging town of Kettering, Tasmania in the wake of a tragedy, when her best friend Gillian disappeared. This “Kettering incident” hangs over the hard-luck town like a curse, and while it’s been dormant for fifteen years, it’s about to be reawakened. Anna, a hematologist who suffers from inexplicable blackouts, wakes up back in Kettering one day, not knowing how she got there…all the way from London. The villagers remember her, and not fondly; she’s emblematic of the troubles that loom over the community, which involve not just Gillian’s disappearance, but a faltering economy and an ongoing clash between millworkers and environmentalists. Only one person seems interested in Anna’s return: Chloe Holloway (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), an impetuous teenager whose brief involvement with Anna portends a new tragedy, and starts to peel away the edges of an intriguing local mystery.

A likely first impression of The Kettering Incident is that it’s the Tasmanian Twin Peaks, right down to the logging mills and troubled teen girls, the drug-running high schoolers and the sinister, scheming conspiracies. It’s also resonant of the spooky mysticism of The X-Files and Millenium, soft SF with a patient, super-serious tone. While it owes a debt to these trailblazing genre shows, it reminds me most of Fortitude, a similarly brilliant, slow-building creeper of horrific science fiction with intrinsic environmental themes. Fans of the above shows will find it appealing, then, but it’s also a distinctive show in its own right, with a haunting ambience that’s addictively immersive.

Alas, one area it doesn’t quite match Fortitude is in the strength of its characters. Debicki is mesmerizing as the haunted Anna, and there is some effective supporting work from the likes of Matthew Le Nevez, Henry Nixon, Damon Gameau, and Tilda Cobham-Hervey, among others. But the residents of Kettering aren’t nearly as quirky, diverse, or memorable as those of Twin Peaks or Fortitude. The breathtaking landscape, however, almost makes up the difference. Tasmania’s broad vistas and encroaching, lush forests paint an unforgettable picture of this unique, remote corner of the world, which serves as the perfect backdrop for a spine-tinglingly creepy story. There are a few slow patches on the journey from its masterful credit sequence to its jaw-dropping final moments, but they’re worth weathering. The Kettering Incident might not gets its hooks into everyone who tries it, but for the rest it will be difficult to forget.

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Fantasy, Television

TV: The Good Place (Season 1)

January 23, 2017

The era of Peak TV may be dominated by dark visions, but fortunately there’s still room for upbeat fare like The Good Place, an unusual, smart, and effervescent genre comedy about the afterlife. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens in Heaven, which turns out to be a bright, relentlessly pleasant neighborhood full of pristine people with spotless track records from their former lives. As the village’s architect Michael (Ted Danson) explains, only the very best people get to go to the Good Place, where they’re paired with their soul mates to live out eternity in perpetual happiness. Everything would be great, except that the Good Place seems to have confused Eleanor with someone else. She’s actually a pretty terrible person who totally doesn’t belong in Heaven, a fact that starts to unravel the very fabric of the afterlife.

In some respects a conventional sitcom, The Good Place has a unique feel thanks to playful fantasy worldbuilding. Anything can happen in this malfunctioning, malleable corner of the afterlife, and so of course it does, quite unpredictably. Unlike creator Michael Schur’s other work like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the show doesn’t generate laugh-out-loud moments so much as sustain a pleasant, happy grin. Its twenty-odd minutes go by very quickly thanks to a speedy pace and jam-packed plotting, which culminates in an ingenious finale. Kristen Bell is terrific in the lead; indeed, this may be the perfect vehicle for her. But she’s matched step for step by William Jackson Harper, who plays her frustrated ethics professor soul mate Chidi, and Danson, whose sitcom timing is as strong as ever. Jameela Jamil, D’arcy Carden, and Manny Jacinta provide consistently amusing support. Great show that deserves a lot more eyeballs, and hopefully a renewal. We could use a few more insightful shows about ethics these days.

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History, Spies, Television, World War II

TV: The Heavy Water War

January 15, 2017

With resistance to tyranny much in the news lately, The Heavy Water War (2015) is highly relevant viewing. But this historical drama is just as much about complicity with tyranny, an angle which lends a tragic aftertaste to its annals of remarkable heroism and horrifying moral conundrums.

Set during World War II, The Heavy Water War follows the story of Germany’s efforts to develop the atomic bomb. According to brilliant German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), the key to their research is deuterium oxide (“heavy water”), which is being produced at Norsk Hydro in Norway. After the German invasion, the Nazis install Erik Henriksen (Dennis Storhøi) as Norsk’s director in order to increase production. But the British, when they learn of this initiative, quickly move to stop it, with the strategic assistance of escaped Norwegian officer Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner). Together with British officers of the Special Operations Executive, Tronstad plans a number of daring commando raids on the plant to foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions.

The Heavy Water War dramatizes its corner of history quite effectively, an educational and rather suspenseful look back at a lesser-known struggle of the Second World War. Evidently some of its characters are fictitious, added for dramatic effect; Anna Friel’s intelligence officer Julie Smith, for example, is inserted in an expected but well executed romance-under-fire subplot. But overall the series’ mission is to depict the exploits of the men who risked their lives to keep the atomic bomb out of German hands, as well as the impossible moral decisions of the officers in charge of the sabotage. Like many great war epics and spy films, the thorny politics of cost-benefit analysis come into play. But the series also has insightful subtexts about the insidious lure of complicity, as shown in the shady, opportunistic paths followed by Heisenberg and Henriksen, who sacrifice all decency in the name of ruthless personal ambition. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even if the details of its history don’t deliver the justice of its message, The Heavy Water War comes down on the right side of this moral argument.

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Science Fiction, Television

TV: The 100 (Season 3)

January 12, 2017

The 100 Season 3 PosterThere’s something about The 100 that makes me forget, between seasons, just how very good it is. I suspect it’s the same thing that delayed my interest initially: it simply doesn’t look like it should be that good. But every season, after a few episodes of warm-up, it quickly reveals itself to be one of the most engrossing, thoughtful, and powerful narratives on television, if not one of the most ambitious.

As season three begins, the young survivors of the hundred — along with the many other adults who survived the failing space stations — have established themselves in the wreckage of their ship, now the city of Arkadia. In the wake of the vicious clash which saw Clark (Eliza Taylor) and the hundred triumph over the treacherous citizens of Mount Weather, Arkadia is looking to forge a peaceful way forward. To that end, Clark, whose leadership against Mount Weather has gained her notoreity and respect, is working to leverage her influence with their leader Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) to become a new Grounder tribe, “Skaikru.” Unfortunately, the arrival of a new group of space survivors turns up, led by the fiery Charles Pike (Michael Beach), who has lost so many of his friends to Grounder brutality that he can’t accept the attempts of Clark and Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick) to make peace. Meanwhile, Theolonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington), who has left the group in a quixotic, spiritual search for the fabled “City of Light,” actually finds it — but his discovery, which may explain the mysteries of the end of the world, only leads to new threats.

Over its first two seasons, The 100 evolved from YA survival drama to a complex, gripping war epic. To start, season three continues in that vein, and felt like a show creatively spinning its wheels: new factions arrive to perpetuate the conflicts that previous events may otherwise have resolved, forcing the heroes to evaluate their moral codes and make new decisions. More of the same, in other words, well enough executed but not particularly innovative by the show’s standards. But about seven or eight episodes in, the season turns the corner, enlivening its science fictional scope and raising the stakes astronomically with an ingeniously conceived new threat. The second half of the season not only justifies the slow-build of the first, but redeems an extremely controversial mid-season plot twist — one that justifiably enraged large segments of The 100′s fan base, and yet ultimately serves the logic of the greater narrative.

Meanwhile, the show continues its impressive track record of thrusting its characters into thorny, moral gray areas, and carefully shading their points of view to make them relatable, even when their decisions are questionable. Survival ethics continues to be a major theme, but the show also looks at religious zealotry, the politics of fear, and the severe emotional consequences of grief, guilt, and trauma. The huge, diverse cast does a fantastic job with the material, even at its most melodramatic: it’s a particularly strong acting year for Lindsey Morgan (Raven), Devon Bostick (Jasper), and Marie Avgeropoulos (Octavia), but really there isn’t a weak link in the cast. My favorite character is still the snarky, resourceful neutralist Murphy (Richard Harmon), who always seems to be accidentally in the thick of things.

Transcending a slow start and the show’s familiar imperfections (questionable medical science and superhuman pain resilience continue to plague the show), the third season of The 100 ultimately escalates into another first-rate science fiction drama, with a truly epic finale. Looking forward to the next chapter.

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