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TV: Master of None (Season 2)

June 18, 2017

It’s not often I’ll recommend a show with merely adequate acting, but Master of None is an exception. The second season of Aziz Ansari’s increasingly experimental project is wonderfully restless, heartfelt, and funny, and while not all of its strategies pay off, many do, and its unpredictable approach makes it a joy to watch.

The season begins in Italy, where frustrated actor Dev (Ansari) has changed course, learning how to make pasta in a small town. Dev’s experiences in Italy send him back to New York in a different frame of mind, and inform his acting career when he lands a gig hosting a food channel TV show. The trip also introduces him to Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), the beautiful — but engaged — girl of Dev’s dreams, with whom he enters into a romantic non-romance when she visits America.

Master of None doesn’t have much in the way of a high concept; indeed, it’s rather Seinfeldian in its episodic comedy approach, reveling in observational humor about nothing in particular. But Ansari is clearly passionate about certain subjects — especially dating and food — and season two leans further into these interests. The results are mixed, but gloriously so, resulting in a number of setpiece-episode gems. Season opener “The Thief” is an early standout, a modern-day riff on classic Italian cinema, but the season really gels with a pair of mid-season outings. “New York, I Love You” is perhaps the series’ most delightful episode so far, ricocheting away from Dev and his crew to celebrate New York’s hilarious, beautiful diversity in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Similarly successful in “Thanksgiving,” a flashback history of Dev’s recurring holiday meals with his close friend Denise (Lena Waithe), a lesbian who struggles over the years to come out to her initially unaccepting mother (Angela Bassett, in a spirited guest spot). These high-concept, one-off episodes are somewhat more successful than the “arc” episodes, which focus on Dev’s professional and romantic life. Dev’s TV hosting gig introduces him to jerky celebrity chef Jeff (a perfectly cast Bobby Cannavale), leading to new career successes and challenges. But much of the season’s structural weight hinges largely on the Dev-Francesca flirtation, which, while peppered with effective, emotionally true moments, is somewhat hamstrung by forced chemistry between the leads.

Minor drawbacks aside, Master of None is a charming, effortless watch, its mix of observational humor and heart growing more infectious with each new experiment. Hopefully it will get another season to take Dev’s career in unexpected new directions.

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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

TV: The Twilight Zone (Season 1)

June 18, 2017

Several months ago, it struck me that my knowledge of The Twilight Zone — which is surely one of the most influential science fiction shows in television history — may in fact be inadequate. Indeed, it’s impossible to read SF TV criticism today without bumping into comparisons to this classic series. Yet I’ve always known it more by reputation than direct experience, so I decided to bone up, and while it’s not quite compelling enough to truly marathon, I’ve been working my way gradually through it with multiple mini-binges. By turns, the effort has proven exciting, disappointing, and illuminating.

The Twilight Zone is an anthology show, each installment focusing on a different character in a different scenario, always with a fantastic or science fictional premise. The episodes often have an eerie, unsettling ambience, and frequently end with a chilling twist. The series launched way back in 1959, and it’s impossible to view it outside that historical context. On the content level, for example, the seasoned SF fan in me couldn’t help but notice the simplistic and unsophisticated manner in which the science fictional ideas are often handled. Alas, the concepts that were mindblowing in 1959 have rather lost their capacity for surprise and wonder since then. It takes a certain effort of will, therefore, to place yourself in the era for which the stories were intended, an appreciate them for the ground they broke at the time. Then there’s the production level, which the film buff in me enjoyed immensely, as the Hollywood stars of yesteryear — some at the tail ends of their careers, others getting an early break — randomly turn up for a spin on the show’s spooky dance floor. With production values often one step removed from those of a stage play, the special effects and filmmaking techniques are quite limited and rudimentary — and yet, ironically, the limits of the medium are often stretched to powerful effect, as creative sound and visual design elevate the material and contribute to the atmosphere. Finally there’s the level of sociopolitical subtext, which is where The Twilight Zone has aged the most poorly. The show very much feels like the product of the Mad Men era, rampant with malecentric story-telling and frightfully casual misogyny. It’s a fascinating, and at times shockingly disappointing, window onto the norms of an earlier era.

What this all adds up to, then, is a series that is often difficult to appreciate by modern standards, but just as often impressive when examined as an important ancestor to modern television. The quality rollercoasters wildly. In order to get to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a chilling Red Scare metaphor about an alien invasion, you have to suffer through “The Lonely,” in which a prisoner on an asteroid is given a lifelike female robot companion. To enjoy the creepy skiffy fable of “People Are Alike All Over,” you have to put up with the silly, male wish-fulfillment fantasy of “A World of His Own.” And then there are the episodes that give you both ends of the spectrum at once, like the famous “Time Enough at Last,” a nuclear paranoia tale that serves up an unnerving, radiated apocalypse, but not before painting its protagonist with unconsciously misogynystic chracteristics that make him difficult to care about.

For all its problems, the show’s reputation for mystique is completely warranted. A major factor contributing to this is the high quality of the narration, which is consistent throughout. For all his flaws, Rod Serling can write and deliver eloquent turns of phrase with the best of them, and his stylized intros and outros are almost uniformly brilliant — both at establishing the series’ dark tone, and distilling each episode’s message with insight that manages to be simultaneously penetrating and elliptical. Even when the episodes don’t work, Serling’s little monologues often elevate the experience. This lends a certain charm to the simple mysteries of “A Stop at Willoughby” (in which James Daly escapes the daily rat-race by visiting a town that doesn’t exist on his commute home) or “The Hitch-Hiker” (in which Vera Miles’ cross-country drive is haunted by a creepy drifter who continually outruns her progress). And it adds a playful frame to light-hearted fare like “Mr. Bevis,” about a peculiar, hard-luck fellow (Orson Bean) whose guardian angels delivers an unexpected gift. Then there are episodes that just aim for good old-fashioned creepout effects, like “The After Hours,” which sends the bemused Anne Francis to an otherworldly level of a department store that nobody else can visit.

By and large, I suspect to the modern viewer The Twilight Zone will fall down a little more frequently than it holds up. But even with its problems and dated aspects, one can see how it’s an essential step in the development of the medium. Revisiting it is a worthwhile exercise, rewarding particularly for its stand-out moments and episodes.

 

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Spies, Television

TV: London Spy

June 12, 2017

The conspiracy thriller genre lives on in London Spy, a solid British miniseries that transcends its hopelessly lukewarm title. Created and scripted by spy novelist Tom Rob Smith, it’s a deliberate, intriguing slow-build of contemporary espionage that benefits from a killer premise, terrific acting, and a strong emotional core.

Danny Holt (Ben Whishaw) is a hard-partying loner in London and a hopeless romantic. After a rough night, Danny has a chance encounter with an attractive jogger named Alex (Edward Holcroft), who briefly elicits a heartfelt show of concern before jogging off into the morning. Detecting a spark of interest, Danny labors to encounter Alex again, and when his efforts pay off the two strike up a gentle friendship that soon escalates into romance. Danny feels he’s found the love of his life — but then one day, Alex vanishes. Danny’s investigation into the disappearance ensnares him in a perilous worldwide conspiracy, forcing him to hack through a tangled skein of lies to get to what may well be the ultimate truth.

Unfolding in a leisurely, incremental manner, London Spy will likely repel impatient viewers, but to me it felt perfectly clocked, its weighty build-up making every timely reveal and emotional payoff feel that much more earned. The plot is intricate and slickly executed, and the MacGuffin driving it may be the ultimate conspiracy thriller premise for the post-truth era. But while its spy-genre street cred is impeccable, London Spy really goes the extra mile in its human story. The Danny-Alex romance is one area where the careful, patient storytelling pays off, as is Danny’s friendship with an older government official named Scottie (Jim Broadbent) with whom he shares a storied history. It’s a rare spy story where cynicism, while absolutely warranted, does not entirely win the day over hope and love. I do wish it had labored for a more relevant and evocative title, and a crucial line delivery in the final scene struck me as tonally odd and jarringly out of character. But overall, this is a well constructed spy mystery with heart, its high stakes both geopolitical and emotional.

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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

TV: The OA (Season 1)

June 11, 2017

For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I went into The OA (Netflix, 2016) with a degree of internal resistance. Is there something too New-Agey about it? Is it too artsy-fartsy? Does its wiggly genre content occasionally feel silly? Possibly all of these are true, but ultimately I didn’t care: I quite liked this unusual series.

Brit Marling stars as Prairie Johnson, a young blind woman who resurfaces after a seven-year disappearance with her sight miraculously restored. Returned to the custody of her baffled parents (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson), Prairie reacclimates, becoming a controversial new figure in her sleepy midwestern town. The mystery of Prairie’s lost years eludes her parents and the FBI, but she does lure in a new inner circle of misfits to whom she can tell her story: violent drug-dealing Steve (Patrick Gibson), stoner Jesse (Brendan Meyer), meek transgender boy Buck (Ian Alexander), poor straight-A student Alfonso (Brandon Perea), and unhappy schoolteacher Betty (Phyllis Smith). They gather regularly in an abandoned house, where Prairie spins a wild tale involving near-death experiences, alternate dimensions, and reality-warping superpowers. Because of their own personal struggles, the group relates to Prairie, which helps them to overcome their skepticism to become believers in her tale. And ultimately they join her in a mission to save her fellow captives, including the young man, Homer (Emory Cohen), with whom she fell in love while in captivity.

The OA isn’t exactly flawless science fantasy, occasionally coming across like a literary writer’s attempt at exploring SFnal ideas for the first time. Indeed, the script is at its least convincing when directly addressing the specifics of its skiffy concepts. But what The OA does get right is its emotional content, and I found this more than enough to carry the narrative. Prairie’s experience is fraught with emotional abuse, a traumatic prolonged captivity that the narrative explores with sensitivity and insight. Will it resonate with actual sufferers or PTSD, or people who have undergone difficult experiences? I can’t speak to that; it did strike me that it might be interpreted by some to sensationalize the suffering of its characters. But from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like it has its heart in the right place.

Meanwhile, its deliberate, mesmerizing direction is quite compelling. Director Zal Batmanglij — a frequent collaborator with Marling, with whom he co-wrote the series — does effective work, particularly in the way he conveys a haunting, melancholic character to the bleak subdivision where Prairie’s story unfolds. The pace will surely be too slow for some, but I found it effective for the material, and the structural ricochets from present to past and back again are seamless and effective. So are the visual shifts from mundane reality to eye-popping flights of fancy. And by and large the acting is solid from everyone, especially Jason Isaacs, who couldn’t be more perfectly cast in a nuanced “mad scientist” role, and brings next-level credibility to what could have been a cartoonish villain.

I have reservations about giving this one a blanket recommendation. I’m not schooled enough in trauma and disability to know how well those aspects were handled; it may be problematic for certain viewers. From time to time the script trips over itself, trying to be eloquent. But it’s also a show with some truly powerful and beautiful moments, and the way it gradually reveals its mystery is wholly engrossing. Best is the inspiring way its invests you in the struggles of two different created families, in two different timelines, simultaneously. The emotionally satisfying climax risks looking ludicrous, but somehow manages to work. This one may well be polarizing, but I found it earnest, unusual, and emotionally affecting.

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History, Television, World War II

TV: The Dawns Here Are Quiet

June 8, 2017

Recent Russian miniseries The Dawns Here Are Quiet (2015) possesses a peculiar blend of contemporary filmmaking gloss and old-fashioned sensibilities, which bears out its origin as a remake of a patriotic, Soviet-era war epic. During World War II, a discarded Russian officer named Vaskov (Pyotr Fyodorov) commands a small anti-aircraft detail that guards a railway junction far from the front lines. His biggest problem is keeping control of his soldiers, so when his men finally get reassigned for making too much trouble, he requests replacements that are teetolaing non-womanizers. Much to his surprise, he’s sent just that: an all-female unit. Vaskov’s awkward interactions with his new outfit develop into a true leadership challenge when German paratroopers are observed nearby. Vaskov deduces they must be the vanguard of a German attack, their mission to sabotage Russian supply lines; he therefore sends for reinforcements. But all he receives is approval to take a squad of five soldiers with him to deal with the threat. It will put his tactical abilities to the test, and also give him a new appreciation for the bravery of the women under his command.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet is a lavish, attractive production that refreshingly gives voice to the stories of women in wartime. Since Russia is the only nation that employed female combat soldiers during World War II, this tale is every bit as action-packed as any other war epic. On the other hand, while the female soldiers are clearly revered by the story, they’re also characterized a bit stereotypically. There’s an element of protective male-gaziness to this celebration of their heroism. While the women are given flashback histories, their backstories aren’t particularly interesting, and the series very much belongs to Vaskov, whose initial reluctance to lead these women evolves first into grudging acceptance and then to downright love and respect. The story is at its most effective as a suspenseful slow-build, as Vaskov ponders out thorny battlefield tactics that continually paint his small, inexperienced unit into tighter and tighter corners. (Unfortunately, this plot’s unnerving forward momentum is frequently disrupted by the less-interesting flashbacks.) The women are effectively played by Anastasiya Mikulchina, Evgeniya Malakhova, Kristina Asmus, Agniya Kuznetsova, and Sofya Lebedeva, and the camaraderie the group develops with their new commander is inspiring. But considering the female focus, it feels very much a man’s story. Still, it is a compelling watch on many levels, and made me curious to see the original film upon which it is based.

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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

TV: Sense8 (Season 2)

May 30, 2017

Throughout the second season of Netflix’s remarkable Sense8, I repeatedly marveled over its brilliant opening credit sequence, which may be one of the most powerful in television history. Watch it with the sound turned down, and it presents as a wild, frenetic celebration of the world in all its diversity, but once you add the music — a pulsing, ominous escalation — suddenly that wonderful world is facing dire threat. It’s a work of art, really, and it couldn’t be more appropriate for our times: the rivalry of tolerance and blind hate, hope and fear, sense and nonsense that dominates our sorry political discourse. It symbolizes the strong, mindful messaging that makes Sense8 essential TV in an era of increasingly stiff competition.

Sense8 chronicles, in complex, mosaic fashion, the lives of eight individuals across the world who happen to be telepathically linked. They are “sensates,” a connected cluster of metahumans whose individual lives are challenging enough, but become even more complicated when it becomes clear they’re mysteriously connected. Season one explored this robust premise by gradually bringing the cluster together; season two builds on the group’s legacy as they work together to stay free and survive, despite the efforts of a nefarious group called the Biologic Preservation Organization. BPO’s mission is to track down and scientifically exploit the world’s sensates, which — as it turns out — are more numerous than our heroes were aware. Indeed, our heroes encounter other clusters this season, full of sensates just as paranoid and frightened of BPO and its chief headhunter, Whispers (Terence Mann). With knowledge of their situation growing, and their comfort level with their sensate powers increasing, the cluster continues its struggle to support each other in the face of ruthless forces working against them.

Structurally, Sense8 is all over the map, and even the most enthusiastic viewer will most likely notice the show’s rough edges. Frenetic cross-cutting alternates with indulgent slow-motion. Eloquent speeches give way to clunky exposition. Touching sentiment clashes with exploitative violence. And the show’s depiction of international culture remains on the cliched side. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to watch this show without tripping over imperfections. And yet, somehow the show just works, even when it’s not working. Perhaps because it paints on such a broad, metaphorical canvas, its flaws feel organic to the scenario. The world is flawed, is it not? I find it easy to forgive Sense8 its missteps because they feel true to message. In a big, beautiful, messy world, why shouldn’t we have a show that is equally big, beautiful, and messy?

If season two lacks the inaugural year’s joys of discovery, it still manages to conjure magic moments with stunning regularity, even as its many plot threads vary wildly in quality. This season’s episodes lean too much on some uninspired storylines: the daddy issues of Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian T. Smith), a good girl/bad boy romance between sensates Kala (Tina Desai) and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), and some expected fugitive hacker episodes for Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman). It also struggles to find a role for Icelandic DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton). But it’s also got inspiring sequences for Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), whose acting career takes dramatic turns, and Capheus (Toby Onwumere), whose notoreity in Kenya steers him unexpectedly into politics. Kala’s science and her awkward arranged marriage to Rajan (Purab Kohli) finally start to factor into things a bit, and then there’s Sun (Doona Bae), who spends the year in the show’s most linear, action-packed subplot, wherein she tries to wriggle out of a murder frame and exact her revenge. Sun’s story is like an over-the-top, ultraviolent martial arts film in the midst of all the science fictional intrigue, and while it contains some of the season’s biggest reaches, it’s also thrilling and emotional stuff.

All these crazy, disparate threads are woven together in a matter that shouldn’t always work, and probably doesn’t entirely, and yet the fact that it works at all is so logistically impressive that it doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that with the exception of Lito, the sensate cluster is more full of types than actual characters. Somehow even that works, because as something of a telepathic gestalt being, they’re really all different aspects of one character. As those aspects interact, you find yourself cheering for them collectively as much as individually. One sensate’s triumph or tragedy is every sensate’s triumph or tragedy, and those moments of connection, commiseration, and celebration feel somehow universal, a coming together of disparate points of view in a common cause. Considering how fractured and polarized and tribalist the world has become, the notion that there are people all across the globe who can care about each other, despite great distances and cultural barriers, is intensely powerful. Sense8 doesn’t get everything right, but I’ll forgive it just about anything provided it keeps sending that much-needed message. We need it now more than ever.

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Television

TV: Rectify (Season 4)

May 15, 2017

It’s the rare show that lasts precisely as long as it should. The eloquent, moving Rectify is one of them. This haunting drama closes it final season on a perfect note, more than justifying all the emotional struggles and painful tragedies that lead up to its final moments.

Rectify chronicles the efforts of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) to re-enter society after nineteen trying years of solitary confinement on death row. Exonerated on late-to-develop DNA evidence, Daniel returns to his small hometown of Paulie, Georgia as a divisive figure and a lost soul. The black clouds that follow him create emotional turmoil for everyone around him — and even more for himself. Through three seasons, Daniel’s guilt or innocence remained a mystifying puzzle, even to Daniel, who’s traumatic prison stay thoroughly warped his memory of the events that changed his life. As season four begins, Daniel has relocated to Nashville as part of a plea deal, fulfilling the terms of a banishment from Paulie. With the help of a halfway-house program, he’s landed a low-paying warehouse job and is quietly struggling to make a new life for himself. But despite his every coping mechanism, the traumas of his past continue to haunt him — until a chance encounter with a complicated artist named Chloe (Caitlin FitzGerald) finally starts to erode his defenses. Meanwhile, back in Paulie, Daniel may no longer be around but his presence is still sharply felt, his absence now a powerful void that continues to trouble the members of his family, especially his mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and brother-in-law Teddy (Clayne Crawford). But a kind of resolution may be in sight: Daniel’s steadfast lawyer Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) just can’t shake the feeling that there’s still legal hope to truly clear Daniel’s name, and comes back to town to pursue promising new leads.

With its stately pace and emotionally fraught subject matter , Rectify likely won’t connect with certain viewers, but I think it’s a subtle masterpiece, one of the most emotionally satisfying dramas of the modern TV era. Young’s touching performance serves as the mesmerizing centerpiece of a talented ensemble that expertly enacts the smart, powerful scripts that patiently solve the decades-old mystery at the series’ heart. But as compelling as its plot may be, Rectify excels most in its moments: its beautiful imagery, its poetic turns of phrase, its spine-tingling emotional insights. Perhaps the fourth season’s most impressive feat is creating a new world for Daniel, away from everything he (and the viewer) knows — the season opener, “A House Divided,” eases us poignantly into this new world, which is just brilliantly cast. In an absolutely crucial role, Caitlin FitzGerald couldn’t be more perfect, and by season’s end I was just as invested in Daniel’s new life as his old one. But the denizens of Paulie aren’t neglected either, and somehow the writers manage to bring satisfying emotional closure to every plot thread and relationship, even as they avoid easy solutions.

Rectify isn’t the most electrifying show, and it’a not terribly diverse, but it’s an engrossing, confident, and memorable series that more people should know about. The series’ hopeful final moments will stay with me for a long time.

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Television

TV: Iron Fist (Season 1)

May 8, 2017

When it comes to entertainment, I tend to finish what I start. It’s not often this completism feels like a burden, but Iron Fist (Netflix) really put me to the test. This final build-up series to The Defenders is slow, overlong, boring, miscast, and inept.

Iron Fist tells the story, such as it is, of Danny Rand (Finn Jones), who vanished during a plane crash over the Himalayas as a child. The son of a billionaire, Danny was the primary heir to the massive Rand Corporation. Fifteen years after his disappearance, he turns up in New York City, miraculously alive — much to to the consternation of his childhood friend Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) and her brother Ward (Tom Pelphrey). Joy and Ward now run the Rand Corporation, but there’s a hidden figure guiding their hand — their father Harold (David Wenham), who supposedly died years ago but is secretly alive and scheming, with the reluctant help of Ward. Danny’s return is met with initial disbelief from the Meachums, but eventually becomes a problem for their corporate politics.

But what about Danny’s mysterious disappearance? Turns out he survived the plane crash and was rescued by monks from the magical nation of Kunlun, a place only accessible from Earth once every fifteen years. Raised by the monks, Danny became a kung fu master, and eventually won the the title of “Iron Fist,” his job to guard the pass to Kunlun and destroy the evil forces of The Hand. So why did he abandon his post and return to New York?

Alas, the show doesn’t really know why, and can’t make us care. It’s so trendy to bash on Iron Fist these days that I almost feel guilty piling on, but the show really is a catastrophe. Among its many flaws are three that, taken alone, might have been debilitating, but together are fatal: the source material, the writing, and the star.

It’s possible Iron Fist was doomed to failure by the property itself. Marvel’s tendency to reimagine and reboot its heroes in the comics hasn’t extended to its Netflix TV properties, which means this show was shackled from the start to problematic, uninspired source material: an unfortunate “white savior” narrative for its Tarzanesque origin story, and a main character who is basically the Richie Rich of superhero alter egos. The latter problem is more prominent, perhaps because so many of the characters here are wealthy and we now live in a world where greedy, cruel oligarchs are basically dismantling civilization for personal profit. The Rand Corporation, where far too much of the story unfolds, requires us to care about the whims and desires of people who have experienced little to no suffering. The fraught dilemmas they find themselves in inspire no sympathy.

Still, it’s the job of the writers to spin this material, to find and enhance its strengths. They fail almost completely. For the first couple of episodes, Danny (on the surface) and the show (underneath) whine stridently about why we should care about Danny Rand or the Iron Fist, without presenting a convincing case. And almost immediately, the plot spins its wheels in mud, and spends thirteen interminable episodes trying to find traction. Danny’s return to civilization, his attempts to reintegrate into the Rand Corporation, his mission to destroy the Hand, his tragic past — every single thread falls flat. So does the obvious villainy of Harold Meachum and the corporate angling of Joy and Ward. And the Hand, represented repectably by Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao, is mostly an offscreen threat, its motives vague, a simplistic boogeyman. But the writing flaws are more than structural. Iron Fist has dialogue so unconvincing that it visibly sets the actors apart based on ability. When Claire Temple wades into this mess, Rosario Dawson feels like a heavyweight boxer, beating the living shit out of a lousy script.

Which is in stark contrast to Finn Jones. There may be an actor capable of bringing charm, intensity, and gravitas to the poorly conceived and written Danny Rand, but Finn Jones is not that actor. He is neither dramatically nor physically convincing as Iron Fist, his performance made all the more awkward by writing that renders him bratty, naive, impulsive, and dim. It’s hard to rally around a poor actor whose character is in an untenable position when you’ve got Rosario Dawson undermining his logic with convincing counterarguments. The fault’s not all on Jones’ shoulders — really, there isn’t one scene here that feels like it’s the right length, and some of the lines truly are horrible. But he does not help.

So is there anything worthwhile in Iron Fist? Precious little, outside of some performers who rise above the scripts. As kung fu instructor Colleen Wing, Jessica Henwick is a minor bright spot, continuing the Netflix/MTU trend of female costars outshining the male protagonists in their shows (see Karen Page, Misty Knight). And Jessica Stroup should get noticed for her performance as Joy Meachum, bringing depth and humanity to her scenes; she elevates an extremely thin character and is far better than her material. But that’s about the extent of it.

I am slated to review The Defenders for Lightspeed later this year, so I felt obligated to watch Iron Fist out of a sense of professional duty. I’m sorry to report it truly is as bad as its reputation.

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Television

TV: Superstore (Seasons 1 & 2)

May 7, 2017

Over the past several months, I’ve been quietly growing quite fond of Superstore, a refreshing, low-key comedy about the quirky employees of a Target-like big box emporium in the midwest. Boasting a terrific cast and a charming, simple sensibility, Superstore stars America Ferrera as Amy, the snarky, chronically disappointed floor manager of a “Cloud 9” franchise in St. Louis. Stuck in a bad marriage and trapped by long-ago life choices, Amy is a pretty good romantic match for new employee Jonah (Ben Feldman), a college-dropout intellectual who hasn’t quite realized his potential. Neither of them acknowledge this chemistry at first, of course, but their will-they, won’t-they friendship becomes a source of increasing support for one another in the daily grind of their lower-class lives.

Superstore has a classic workplace ensemble comedy feel, and excels by playing its diverse, peculiar cast of characters against each other in familiar sitcom hijinks. Smart, subtle writing gives voice to a supporting cast full of personalities that will ring true to anyone who’s worked in a dispiriting group environment. The main players include petty tyrant Dana (Lauren Ash), sarcastic, apathetic Garrrett (Colton Dunn), obtuse teen mom Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), and haughty apple-polisher Mateo (Nico Santos), but there are plenty of memorable recurring parts like the brilliantly meek Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and the inscrutable Brett (Jon Miyahara). Running the show — well, more or less — is Glenn (Mark McKinney), a character whose flamboyant Muppet persona is initially off-putting but becomes increasingly inspired as the series progresses. Amy and Jonah serve as sensible windows onto this zany, low-income subculture, as the absurdities of their situations entangle them in the dramas of their flawed but loveable coworkers.

But Superstore has heart to go along with its antics, and while there’s a sense of melancholy underlying its world, there’s also a kind-hearted, positive energy. The romantic comedy framework serves as a unifying, under-the-radar narrative glue, but there’s also a charming teamwork vibe to this unlikely bunch. Superstore combines the created-family joy of Parks and Recreation with the frustrated workplace striving of Party Down. While ultimately it doesn’t quite reach the heights of either of those series, it’s a worthy descendant of that style of comedy that is gradually becoming a personal favorite.

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Television

TV: Grace and Frankie (Season 3)

May 6, 2017

The third season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie continues the show’s pleasant, unassuming mix of old-fashioned sitcom miscommunication and bawdy, contemporary subject matter. This year the primary arc involves the attempts of Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) to launch a new business selling vibrators to the elderly. It’s an amusing enterprise fraught with missteps, humiliating defeats, and family drama, and ultimately threatens to tear the unlikely best friends apart.

While the overall quality is perhaps a step back in season three, Grace and Frankie continues to be a pleasant, diverting watch, carried by the effortless rapport of Fonda and Tomlin and supported by increasingly comfortable ensemble chemistry from a talented cast that includes Sam Waterston, Martin Sheen, June Diane Raphael, Baron Vaughn, Ethan Embry, Brooklyn Decker, and Ernie Hudson. From time to time, the show plays up its characters’ conservative/liberal divide a bit too obviously, such as in a gun rights subplot that threatens to shatter the core friendship. But the characters continue to gain layers and nuance as the actors more thoroughly inhabit them over time, and the show continues to show plenty of comedic spark. Much like the product its heroes bring to market, Grace and Frankie continues to effectively service its niche. (Uh, did I just say that?)

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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

New Review in the May 2017 Lightspeed

May 1, 2017

The May 2017 Lightspeed is out and it’s got another stellar line-up of genre fiction talent, including Tobias S. Buckell, Amal El-Mohtar, Bruce McAllister, and Seanan McGuire. Amidst these luminaries, there’s also another contribution from me, this time in collaboration with Jenn: a conversational review of the underrated CW science fiction show The 100. This one’s a little different from my usual review, a hot-typewriter discussion of this oft-overlooked post-apocalypse serial, from a couple who can’t always agree on what to watch together!

The review will be posted later this month, but as usual you can support Lightspeed by purchasing the whole issue today.

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