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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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Non-Fiction, Television

Non-Fiction: TV (The Book) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz

December 30, 2016

 

No history of television can ever truly be complete while the medium still exists, but TV (The Book) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz is a commendable effort, providing an overview of American television both broad and deep, current right up to its September 2016 publication date. The book’s primary aim is to rate the top 100 shows in American television history, which the authors attempt by means of a robust rating system and more than a little friendly argument. But because they’re passionate critics with an extremely large knowledge base, they don’t stop there, extending the discussion to dozens of other shows, from the popular to the obscure.

The challenge of comparing such a huge number of dissimilar shows is a daunting one. This struggle is best illustrated, perhaps, in an early chapter in which the authors wrestle with a five-way tie for first place between Breaking Bad, Cheers, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, and The Wire. How can you hold up modern dramas against classic sitcoms, or live action to animation? How can the simple conventions of 1950 compare against the more sophisticated techniques of 2015? Questions like these abound, and the only answers, really, lie in that early chapter: a fair amount of debate and subjectivity is involved. Every entry in the top 100 pantheon is essentially an argument in favor of the show’s belonging, and some arguments are more convincing than others. Their extended debate about the top five, for example, is highly persuasive. The entry about Seinfeld, on the other hand, seems to rank the show much higher than the authors’ passion for it. Overall, though, the top 100 list is impressive, even if at times the rating system elevates popular, mediocre shows over more groundbreaking or interesting ones. (I would argue against Everybody Loves Raymond and How I Met Your Mother, for example, being top 100 shows over better and more innovative shows like, say, The Good Wife, Mission: Impossible, and Treme.)

One can quibble with the inclusions and omissions, but the authors are true to their methodology, and broaden their coverage in appendix chapters discussing shows that are still in-progress (and therefore not ranked), honorable mentions, miniseries, and TV movies. By and large it’s an impressive achievement, providing an enlightening collective overview of the medium’s history. I suspect it won’t be long before the passage of time demands a new, revised edition, but for now it’s an entertaining, enlightening look at the medium that should provide most casual viewers with plenty of ideas for their next binge.

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Science Fiction, Television

TV: 3% (Season 1)

December 27, 2016

Is it possible for art to be highly derivative and still feel wholly original? Look no further, perhaps, than Netflix’s Brazilian science fiction import 3%, a dystopian allegory that conjures memories of many genre ancestors, but is ultimately very much its own thing, fresh and different and powerful.

In a stark Brazilian future, wealth, power, and privilege is rigidly controlled by the Process, a yearly rite of passage whereby 20-year-olds participate in a series of tests for a chance to join an elite caste. The winners move on to the utopian society of the Offshore, while eliminated candidates return to the squalid slums of the Inland. Among the many hopefuls this year: the steely, determined Michele (Bianca Comparato); kind, wheelchair-bound Fernando (Michel Gomes); Rafael (Rodolfo Valente), a cocky rogue who will do anything to advance; Marco (Rafael Lozano), who hails from a long line of successful Process candidates; and tough, no-nonsense Joana (Vaneza Oliveira). These five, and others, provide candidate’s-eye views of the Process’s many difficult challenges.

Running the Process, meanwhile, is the calculating Ezequiel (João Miguel), whose control of the Process is called into question by a visiting Offshore agent named Aline (Viviane Porto), who arrives to monitor and possibly undermine his work. Ezequiel’s position is further endangered by intelligence that this year’s Process may have been infiltrated by an agent of “the Cause,” an underground protest movement. The system has been in place for over a hundred years, but weaknesses are starting to show and resistance is mounting. Is everything about to change?

The answer, of course, is hopefully3% is clearly an extended metaphor for the world’s current ills: the inherent inequality and injustice of neoliberal capitalism, where society’s citizens are pitted against each other in systemic, dog-eat-dog competition. The show’s world mirrors our reality, using the language of SF to render its harsh rules explicit, shining a light on just how heartless and entrenched our ways truly are. Even at its most obvious, it’s a raw, powerful political critique. As Michele, Fernando, and the others work their way through the constantly mutating trials of the Process, its rules grow increasingly random and arbitrary, calling attention to every unfair twist of fate that dooms candidates to impoverished obscurity in the Inland. Through it all, Ezequiel plays god, an emblem of the system’s cruel design. This is a sham meritocracy, where worth is defined less by character and ability than by ambition, luck, and sheer ruthlessness.

But there’s hope within this cruel system, and not just because the establishment is under siege — both from the Cause, and from internal politics, both of which threaten to tear down the system. The many well defined characters moving through the Process, even as they desperately seek to claw their way to a brighter future, occasionally show sparks of kindness, connection, and cooperation. Clearly, these moments suggest, there is a better way to run this world — and by extension, our own. From time to time, the bleakness of the setting is mitigated by this hopeful insight.

3%’s many stylistic progenitors are legion. The thematic approach resembles that of The Twilight Zone, in which the tools of SF are leveraged to touch on universal truths. The high-stakes tests capitalize on a potent reality show energy: think Survivor, but ratcheted up in intensity in the manner of Lord of the Flies or, more pertinently, The 100. (This peaks in episode 4, “Gateway,” in which a team challenge takes dark turns reminiscent of the Stanford prison experiment.) The systemic, age-based trials conjure comparison to Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, while enormous, post-industrial interiors and quirky fashions harken back to Logan’s Run. And then there’s a certain skiffy, thought-experiment ambience to the whole exercise that brings to mind many low-budget, high-concept SF films (many of which are streaming on Netflix) such as After the Dark, Circle, Cube, and Exam. There’s even some structural shades of Lost, as pre-Process flashbacks reveal backstory, peeling away layers of mystery.

But for all these ancestors, ultimately 3% has its own distinctive angle, its own feel. Some of this is surely cultural, a Brazilian voice examining the issues from a slightly different perspective. It could also be the unabashed way it leans into a rather unsubtle visual style, particularly in the set design and costume departments; it wears its messaging on its sleeve, but with such surreal conviction that it actually strengthens the emotional truth. It manages to stand outside its influences even as it slots quite comfortably among them.

Subtext may dominate, but 3% also boasts a sparkling surface. The cast is capable and charismatic, with Valente, Oliveira, and especially Comparato standing out. With one exception — episode 5 (“Water”), in which Ezequiel’s manpain-heavy backstory slows things down — its episodes possess compelling tension and urgent pacing. The sound and visual design is consistent, moody, and unnerving. Even its occasionally weak special effects, particularly the unrealistic CGI longshots, manage to contribute to an effective allegorical feel. Overall, it’s an impressive creation that manages to feel familiar and different, specific and universal, all at the same time. Recommended.

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Television

TV: The Code (Season 1)

November 21, 2016

the-code-season-1-posterThe conspiracy thriller continues to be a thorny genre in the post-truth era, but fortunately they still get made, because they still make for great drama. My latest watch in this category is the Australian series The Code, and while I think its idea is somewhat better than its execution, overall it’s an effective example of its type.

The action begins with a car accident in a remote corner of New South Wales: a girl is killed, and the surviving boy is so traumatized that he can’t entirely remember what happened. A government cover-up glosses over the story, but a whistleblower steers it toward journalist Ned Banks (Dan Spielman), who works for an online magazine called Password. Ned’s investigation takes him to the small town of Lindara, where, with the help of the boy’s schoolteacher Alex Wisham (Lucy Lawless), he begins to uncover a connection between the accident and a biotech firm called Phylanto. Ned’s autistic younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), who also happens to a brilliant computer hacker, gets wind of Ned’s investigation and can’t resist getting involved, hacking into Phylanto’s computer network to gather evidence. The hack, however, lands him and Ned — along with Jesse’s hacker friend Hani (Adele Perovic) — in serious hot water, when their pursuit of the story lands them in the crosshairs of various government agents, corrupt politicians, and ruthless mercenaries.

The Code is impeccably acted and boasts some beautiful cinematography, leveraging both the urban and rural landscapes of Australia to great effect. (I was particularly enamored of its time-lapsed establishing shots, a striking stylistic flourish.) Visually, it’s like the flip side of Fortitude, particularly when it ventures to the unforgiving desert locations. The narrative is suitably complex, entwining its heroes with a shifting roster of potential allies and enemies, among them Rectify’s Aden Young. Spielman and Zukerman are both excellent, and the fraught, convincing relationship between the two brothers provides a solid emotional core to the convoluted plot. Adele Perovic is also quite appealing in a key supporting role, and by the way, the theme song and credit sequence are absolutely first rate.

Unfortunately, while it starts well and ends satisfyingly, certain parts of the journey are a bit muddy and confusing; shows of this nature benefit from clockwork pacing, and The Code isn’t quite there, its moving parts occasionally grinding. The action unnecessarily veers into triggery violence and torture at times, and the “autistic computer genius” characterization does feel a bit like a shopworn trope, at this point. These imperfections aren’t deal-breakers, however, and overall I think The Code does a good job balancing its taut story mechanics with an engaging human story. Looking forward to the second season.

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Comics, Television

TV: Luke Cage (Season 1)

November 20, 2016

luke-cageNetflix’s corner of the Marvel universe continues to expand in Luke Cage, its latest Defenders run-up that ties into the worlds of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. I wish I had better things to say about the first season of this stylish but ultimately underwhelming show, which, while not without its assets, doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a good and decent man, trying to live life on the up-and-up with modest, low-paying jobs in Harlem at a barber shop and a music club. But Luke is also a man with a troubled past, one that both caused and made him reluctant to use his unlikely powers: super strength and bullet-proof skin. Luke’s attempts to blend into the background are destined to fail, however. His boss at the club, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), is tied into Harlem’s underworld, a criminal enterprise Stokes’ scheming cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) clandestinely works to legitimize from her position on the city council. When Cottonmouth’s criminal activity coincidentally starts following Luke around, Luke becomes a potential suspect for sharp Harlem detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who sees him as a key figure to unraveling the neighborhood’s criminal mysteries. Trapped between the good guys and the bad, Luke is finally forced to choose a side and make use of his abilities.

There aren’t enough superlatives to convey how much I loved Luke Cage’s audio-visual style, which launches the series with confidence and energy. There’s an effective retro 1970s vibe permeating the soundtrack, anchored by a superb Lalo Schifrinesque theme song, which lends the show an infectiously stylized ambience. Marvel’s recent Hollywood fare isn’t known for its racial or gender diversity, but Luke Cage bucks that trend with a refreshing focus on African-American characters, many of them female, and at times speaks powerfully to their experience in an increasingly hostile political environment. Especially in the early episodes, the characters are well drawn, with Ali’s Cottonmouth, Missick’s Misty Knight, Frank Whaley’s Detective Scarf, and Theo Rossi’s criminal thug Shades making the strongest impressions. Later, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) shows up, improving on her Daredevil and Jessica Jones appearances to prove herself as the essential glue of Netflix’s “MTU.”

Unfortunately, the show’s early sure-handedness eventually starts to sputter. Like the other series, it starts to feel flabby and padded in its middle episodes, but unlike those shows it fails to regain its magic down the home stretch, leading to a clumsy, unsatisfying conclusion. Colter is tremendous physical casting and does a good job with what he’s given, but Cage’s origin story isn’t terribly inspired, and in the end he feels like a hole in the middle compared to the more present and proactive Misty and Claire, whose more organic heroism is ultimately sidelined. The show also relies on a trio of villains to carry its narrative power, and only one of them — Ali’s impressive Cottonmouth — truly holds up his end. Woodard’s Mariah Dillard simply isn’t interesting or formidable enough, but even less inspired is Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), easily the weakest Netflix villain both in affect and backstory. The story hangs a lot of its story-telling hopes on Diamondback, and it doesn’t pay off.

That said, the show’s drawbacks aren’t so dire as to put me off the sequence entirely. I’m still invested in seeing how the world develops, and how the various solo sequences weave together into a team project. And oh, that fantastic style! But hopefully, having dispensed with its origin-story formalities, Luke Cage can up its storytelling game in its next season.

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History, Television, World War II

TV: Foyle’s War

November 16, 2016

foyle1Mixing together history, mystery, and memorable characters, Foyle’s War (2002-2015) is a classy British procedural that spans from the early days of the Second World War to its conclusion, and then onto the early stages of the Cold War. Detective Chief Superintendant Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is a widower, a father, and a policeman in southern England, based in the city of Hastings. He’s also a veteran of the Great War, and if he had his way, he’d be doing his bit against Hitler as well. Unfortunately, his military enlistment is blocked by his superiors, who think he’s too valuable where he is. Foyle’s none too pleased by the arrangement, but he’s too good at his job not to carry it out, and with his driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and subordinate Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) by his side, he soon finds himself contributing to the war effort on the home front, one nefarious crime at a time.

Foyle’s War is classy, authentic, and a little bit cozy, an addictive, dark mystery series that builds its world convincingly and peppers its intriguing plots with interesting bits of historical detail. It develops, and quickly perfects, a winning formula: first, a picture is painted of its world, then a crime is introduced, then Foyle and his team are deployed to solve it. While that skeleton framework does get repetitive, it never fails to work, thanks largely to the chemistry of the heroes. Kitchen is especially good as the mysterious, understated Foyle, whose unassuming demeanor conceals both penetrating intelligence and a fierce sense of right and wrong — which often boils over in eloquent, brilliant argument when confronted with selfishness and injustice. Foyle’s subdued, bleak eye is countered by his underlings, especially the good-hearted Sam, played winningly by Weeks. The father-daughter rapport between Foyle and Sam serves as the core of the show’s continuity as circumstances and characters and world events swirl around them.

The first five or six seasons are superb, at once entertaining procedurals and insightful windows onto the era. As the war comes to a close and the series reorients in a logically different direction, however, I found it losing its hold on me slightly. Perhaps the long production gaps changed the flavor, or marred the actor continuity too much, and Foyle’s role in the proceedings feels rather reduced down the home stretch. I’m also disappointed they never quite developed Sam beyond her cheerful, occasionally clumsy persona as Foyle’s aide and sounding board. Despite this slight decrease in quality, the final couple of years are still quite good, and Kitchen’s memorable protagonist is ever worth the price of admission. Well worth a look, especially for fans of British period mystery.

foyleswar

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