Carnival Row

For a long time, I was all in on Netflix originals. I still am, I guess. I try to give most of what they put out a try and have watched or intend to watch most of their movie output. While I am still in on a bunch of Netflix shows that have not yet been cancelled, lately I have found myself favoring Amazon Prime’s approach to original content.

Netflix’s strategy, though it may be starting to change, seems to have been to throw money at any and every project it can get its hands on. This led to a lot of weird interesting stuff, as well as simply bad stuff. I don’t think any one else would have given us something like American Vandal, for example. Amazon Prime has always felt more curated than Netflix. They are going for a specific tone and quality, like a network trying to create an identity. Even if Amazon’s output has been more consistent, I don’t think Amazon’s approach has resulted in appreciable better content.

That said, over the last year or so I have come to a greater appreciation of Amazon Prime’s output, and this year they have released several shows that reveal their target consumer appears to be me specifically. The adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens was delightful. I wound up really enjoying The Boys and the unfortunately cancelled The Tick. John Krasinski sells Jack Ryan despite the shows dodgy politics. There is more Homecoming on the way at some point. And while its second season was dreadful, I have hopes that Goliath can right the ship.

That brings us to Amazon Prime’s latest release targeted to my sensibilities and actual subject of this post: Carnival Row.

The reviews I’ve read of Carnival Row have been middling at best, and I can’t really disagree with most of the reasoning within those reviews. (I saw most, calling it out for not being the next Game of Thrones is nonsense.) Carnival Row is a strange beast, a Victorian-ish fantasy mystery show. I don’t know that Carnival Row is actually any good; that doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is that I loved watching it.

Carnival Row combines many elements that I enjoy individually. It is structured like a murder mystery, which I love. The setting is a kind of Victorian-ish steampunk fantasy world, another thing I greatly enjoy. Honestly, I am kind of a sucker for Victorian romances, which a major subplot of this show apes quite effectively. Nearly all the building blocks of this show are precisely calibrated for me to enjoy, so long as they executed halfway well at all.

The story is a little more uneven than the setting, but it mostly works. The mystery isn’t quite there because the most obvious answer after the initial couple of episodes turns out to be the culprit. I kept expecting a twist, but it was more waiting to learn the why rather than the who and there is no real way to speculate on that. Early on the show sets up a lot of threads that appear to be unrelated. Cara Delevingne plays Vignette Stonemoss (this show has top tier names), a fae refugee who shows up in the Burgue and finds out her supposedly dead lover is still alive. That lover is Orlando Bloom’s Rycroft Philostrate (told you about the names). Philo is a detective who is investigating a serial killer who has been killing fae in the slums. The two of them struggle to deal with their reunion as Vignette tries to get used to living as a refugee in the racist Burgue. Also involved are Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose, a pair of impoverished nobles trying to hold on to their lifestyle. They meet up with a rich faun, Agreas Astrayon, who is trying to make inroads amongst the upper class. Finally, there are the Breakspears, the prime minister and his family as they deal with some family problems. While Philo and Vignette are connected, the rest of them do not appear to be at first. The only thing truly connecting them are the setting.

Carnival Row is driven by an obvious and effective racism metaphor that is wrapped up in a solid exploration of colonialism. The fae and other related fantasy races are called “critch” by the people of the Burgue and treated like second class citizens. The fae in the Burgue are refugees from Tirnanoc, the site of a war between two colonialist powers that the Burgue lost. When they withdrew they left the fae that had supported them on their own. With their homeland destroyed, many had no choice but to flee to the Burgue. It creates a toxic stew on the titular Carnival Row, where the fae refugees do what work they can, largely as servant or sex workers, and the Burgue citizen resent them as a drain on the city, especially as the city’s power fades.

Philo and Vignette are co-protagonists, and they give two different and sympathetic points of view. Vignette has trouble dealing with the powerlessness and unfairness of the situation. She goes from working as a servant, with the Spurnroses, to realizing she has no recourse when the master of the house tries to force himself on her. Then she works with a criminal group, which is dangerous because they have to maintain secrecy to keep ‘safe.’ Meanwhile, Philo has a position as a constable, but he has trouble with his fellow cops because he isn’t racist. She gets to see things from the fae side; he sees it from the human. The clarity of its messaging, for the most part, makes up for its simplicity.

The show isn’t exactly fast paced, but it keeps the action coming at a steady clip. It is best when it is the most focused. The first few episodes are the weakest because it is not clear how all the characters relate to each other or how their stories are in any way connected. Some of those connections are not apparent until very late in the show. But strong performances all around and a generally entertaining setting and concept make for a strong show.

Magnum PI

Magnum, pi went off the air more than 30 years ago. I mean, I guess it came back on the air with a remake that started airing on CBS last fall, but the original Magnum, PI’s last episode was in May 1988. I was only two years old at that time, but through reruns, the show made a big impression on a very young me. Still, my memories of it were vague. I remembered the sun and beaches, the car and the helicopter, the music and the mustache. I started watching it on Amazon Prime expecting another piece of 1980’s camp that has little to offer now other than nostalgia. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Magnum, PI is that stuff, but it is also much more. There are some things that are very much of the 1980’s, but in many ways this show could come out today and fit right in in the upper echelon of television, especially broadcast television. (I know there is a remake show happening right now; no, I haven’t seen it.) It is sometimes silly, sometimes thoughtful, but nearly always entertaining. One of Magnum’s strengths is something that likely gets it dismissed from any serious conversation these days: Magnum, PI is almost completely episodic. With a few exceptions, this is not a serialized show. That works with Magnum’s job. He is a private investigator and each episode is a new case. That allows the show to be a lot of things, and only rarely do those things feel like they clash. It allows the show to bring all the elements of its setting to their fullest strength, depending on the episode. They don’t all work, but more work that don’t. The set up allows for one episode to pit Magnum against a dirty magazine publisher in softball game with the estate as the stakes and for another to feature a Soviet plot with ties to Magnum’s time in Vietnam, with each feeling like a part of the same show.

There is beauty in the shows simplicity. It is set in sun drenched Hawaii. Thomas Sullivan Magnum is a private investigator. He is also a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam. He lives in the guest house of a rich author, the unseen Robin Masters, and nominally works as the head of security on Masters’s compound. In that capacity, he clashes with Higgins, the estate’s majordomo. On the side, he takes private cases. Magnum is aided by two old Navy buddies, helicopter pilot TC and club operator Rick. Magnum is a kind of a blue collar guy stuck in a white collar living situation. This set up works for all kinds of stories. The connections with the rich and famous through Mr. Masters allows Magnum to get involved in some of the sillier and more ridiculous cases. Meanwhile, his military past allows for more serious stories. His job as a private investigator works is malleable enough for all kinds of mysteries, thrillers and adventures.

Like any long running show, Magnum evolves as it goes along. As it nears the end of its run, it really pushed the boundaries of its malleability. Unlike the usual arc with long running shows where they grow more ridiculous as they get older, Magnum gets darker and more violent. With Amazon Prime being short the sixth season, the jump from the fifth to the seventh is the jarring. The show just keeps pushing farther to the extremes of violence and darkness that it shows. It is hard to quantify; the show was always a violent show. Magnum and his friends are all Vietnam veterans, and there are numerous references and flashbacks to their time in the military. One episode is essentially a TV version of Rambo II. The show never loses the lighter episodes, but even those seem more likely to involve shoots outs with machine guns.

With season 7 it is part of an arc, or at least something close to an arc, ending with Magnum’s apparent death at the end of the season. I knew of that episode before watching it. Before season 7 that ending would be completely out of sync with the rest of the show; the brightness always seemed greater than the darkness. But season 7 flips that, you feel the danger of Magnum’s world.

Magnum, PI remains a very watchable, entertaining show. Plus, I can see its DNA in some of my more modern favorites like Psych, another sun-drenched crime/mystery show. I still have the last season to get through, and season 6 which is not on Amazon Prime with the rest of the series, but the hundred plus episodes I’ve seen are mostly excellent. This is one memory from childhood that is at least as good as I remember it being.

Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

It was a pretty good year for TV. Here’s my list for the ten best shows of the year:

10: Lady Dynamite – Weird and surreal and completely hilarious.

09: GLOW – It takes a little while to get going, but the payoff is worth it. This show does a great job building up a cast of character worth watching going forward.

08: Wet Hot American Summer Ten Years Later – I hope they keep making Wet Hot Summer, because it keeps getting weirder while maintaining the same level of funniness.

07: Outlander S3 – The book this season was adapting, Voyager, is a tough nut to crack. It jumps all over the place in space and time, with few recurring characters. It also has some terrible moments, offset by some terrific ones. The show did a good job of turning that into a season of TV, though it couldn’t shake the unevenness. Still, I liked it.

06: Legion – It definitely goes its own way with X-Men lore, but it was a wild entertaining ride. I really need to rewatch it now that I know where it goes.

05: American Vandal – This came out of nowhere and the first time I watched it, it wasn’t near the list. But I felt compelled to watch it again and I liked it even more that time. It just does too many things well to mention them all here.

04: Fargo S3 – I’m not sure this season came together by the end, but I know that I really loved the journey. It set up a lot of compelling characters and scenarios, and mostly played them out satisfactorily, though with more coldness than the first two seasons.

03: The Good Place – The show is phenomenal. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it pivots into something else, something even more interesting and funny than what came before.

02: Stranger Things 2 – The titling of this show tells it all, this is a sequel, not a continuation. It all worked for me. It pushes right up to that edge of being genuinely scary, but is mostly in that Jurassic Park range scariness that is about the most I can take. It move all the characters forward and introduces some great new ones. I loved it.

1: Master of None – There are like three of four masterpiece episodes in the second season of Master of None, the standout being Thanksgiving. Aziz and Alan Yang crafted a perfect comedy romance over the 10 episodes of this season. I loved it.

Honorable Mentions: There was a lot of good TV that would fit somewhere between five and ten, but a lot of them couldn’t fit on the list. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return was good, especially after the first few episodes and got into a rhythm. I don’t know that the most recent season of Bob’s Burgers was the best the show has ever had, but I did finally realize that it is one of my all-time favorite shows. Dear White People was a insightful look at race relations in 2017. Riverdale is delightfully bonkers. Taboo was enjoyably gross. Little Witch Academia is the most I have enjoyed a new anime series in some time, though with the caveat that I don’t watch all that much anymore. And lastly is Snatch. There is a significant possibility that Snatch would not hold up to a rewatch and I seem to be one of the few people that liked it, but I thought it was good fun that captured the tone of the movie even if it wasn’t quite up to that quality. I really wanted to put it on the list, but it was more of a good not great show that I wanted to bring up.

Let’s hope 2018 brings as much good TV as 2017, while being less of a shitshow in nearly every other regard.

What I Watched in February 2016


Jane Eyre – This is a good adaptation of one of my favorite classic novels. Fassbender and Wasikowski give really good performances as the lead characters and it is moody without being completely oppressive. Like all adaptations, it is missing some things from the book that I love, but it is still a very good version of this story that retains the core. ****

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – review here. **1/2

Hail, Caesar! – review here. ****1/2

Zoolander 2 – review here. **1/2

Snowpiercer – This is an amazing film. The world it presents is just so weird and awful that it is hard not to get caught up in the protagonists’ quest. It’s got some really great action scenes and Tilda Swinton is perfectly awful as the villain early in the film. You should see this movie. ****1/2

Man of Steel – I rewatched this because with Batman v Superman coming up people are letting fly remembering how shitty it was, which didn’t match my recollection. While I have some fundamental problems with this version of Superman, this is still a largely enjoyable movie. If it weren’t for the pointlessly destructive fight at the end and the worst possible Pa Kent, I would call it damn good. ***1/2

Deadpool – review here. **1/2

The Wolverine – This movie oscillates between being a somewhat thoughtful, interesting superhero adventure and the goddamned dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. It comes really close to being the Wolverine solo movie that everyone has wanted since the first X-Men movie, but the last big action scene is just painfully bad and stupid. The rest is too somber for a the campy action movie it is and too stupid for the mournful action drama it wants to be. I might be tickled to see Wolverine give himself open heart surgery while people swordfight on top of him, but it is really, really dumb. ***

The Punisher (2004) – It is a bloody, violent cartoon. It is set up much like a call back to revenge movies of the 70s and 80s, but it also has a lot of Western overtones. But it is just too stupid to really pull it off. The darkness of it is constantly offset by stupid one liners and clownish characters. Not much to recommend here. *1/2

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny – see review here.  ***


Marco Polo – This show has a lot going for it, from a great concept to really high production levels, but it just isn’t that good. The protagonist doesn’t quite sell the emotion and the show takes way too long to establish its characters. It sort of meanders through some vaguely interesting scenarios without ever really giving anything any personal stakes. I think Netflix renewed it for a second season, I hope they work out some of the kinks.

Mad Men S7 Part 2 – If I didn’t know that everything I would want to write about this show has already been written I would try to examine this show in depth. It is worth it, but it has also been done and by better writers than me. This last batch of episodes is an odd yet oddly perfect ending to the show. It gives the characters an ending without actually making it an ending because life goes on. I like to think that Don has found some peace by the end of the series, after spending the whole show avoiding the lie that has defined his life. Great, great stuff.

Poirot S7-9 – This show gets a lot stronger when the episode length gets trimmed by about ten minutes here. It just feels snappier. I don’t know that I have much more to say about this show. Its good.

Broadchurch S1 – It plays out its mystery slowly, really letting the viewer come to know each character and formulate theories about who the killer is. Broadchurch succeeds more on the quality of its performers than anything else, though. It probably didn’t help my enjoyment that I saw the somewhat mediocre American remake first, but I liked this well enough that I’ll be back for what I’ve heard is the disappointing second series.

Fuller House – Terrible, corny schmaltz. It isn’t even on the level of the original series, which was never good but did occasionally provide some corny entertainment. This is incredibly badly, lazily written. The bones are here for a moderately good show and all the adult stars are capable, but the material and the children really let them down. Those with fond memories of the show should likely check out the first episode, but know that miserable half hour is the pinnacle of the series.

Supergirl – This show isn’t quite Flash good, but it is charming and Melissa Benoist is amazing. The first episode after the initial 13 order felt like a little bit of a realignment, which I think this show needs. It has a few too many characters that aren’t really connected.

The Flash – Hoo boy, this months’ worth of episodes were something else. While the Zoom story in this season is turning out to be an inferior retread of last season’s Reverse Flash, the individual episodes have been largely very good. Take the most recent one, where the Flash faced off with King Shark. It was amazing to see King Shark on TV, but it was also just another monster of the week episode. The Earth 2 episodes, though, were great. I can’t wait to see this one come down the home stretch.

Arrow – This is turning into a bounce back season after the disappointing last season, but it still isn’t on the level of The Flash. The Vixen episode was pretty good, but the quality of this season is going to hinge on how well the central arc with Damian Darhk is tied up by the end. I do have to say that the flashbacks have become incredibly pointless and disconnected from everything else. I hope they drop them entirely next season.

Agent Carter – I missed the last two episodes, but the rest of this mini-series has been excellent. I don’t know that I like it as much as Supergirl, but it is more focused and it is certainly better than Agents of SHIELD.

DC Legends of Tomorrow – This show is not good in any real sense. It provides remarkable action on a TV show budget and has a handful of performers who are just a blast to watch, but it doesn’t really feel like doing anything with all of its characters. It has lots of action and brings in an absolutely absurd number of great concepts, but a lot of the plotting feels like unfocused wheel spinning. Really, it is the TV equivalent of a middle of the road crossover event. While I acknowledge its flaws, I am still enjoying the crap out of this show. It is some great cheesey entertainment.

What I Watched in Jan ‘16


Star Wars The Force Awakens – see review here. ****1/2

The Revenant – see review here. ****1/2

The Hateful Eight – see review here. *****

The Ladykillers – This is not a Coens’ movie that gets a lot of attention. After watching it, I would say that it doesn’t really deserve much attention. It isn’t bad, but it is slight. There just isn’t a lot here. It’s a well-executed farce, with JK Simmons and Marlon Wayans, of all people, giving really good performances. Fun, but forgettable. ***1/2

Shawshank Redemption – Yeah, it’s great. I don’t have a lot to say. *****

Hot Rod – I am not always a fan of Andy Samberg, but he is really great here. This movie kind of meanders around and loses momentum at times, but it has a lot of really funny people and some really funny scenes. This is a great movie to watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon. You don’t really have to pay attention and each little bit is entertaining on its own. A solid little comedy. ****

Galaxy Quest – Alan Rickman’s passing made me want to revisit my favorite of his films. This Star Trek pastiche is simply great. It is that oddly prevalent mixed up take on the Magnificent Seven with actors taking the place of the fighters, like A Bug’s Life or The Three Amigos. Galaxy Quest might be the best executed of those, and Rickman’s utter contempt for everything with his old TV role is one of the highlights. This is just a great comedy. ****1/2

The Four Falls of Buffalo – I love 30 for 30. The tale of these Buffalo Bills, the best team to never win the Super Bowl, is kind of heartbreaking. This is pretty well made, since they got most of the big players in to talk about it. To come that close that many times and not come away with a victory is crushing. ***

Pride and Prejudice – This 2005 adaptation of Austen’s novel is really good. It is solidly acted all around and as true to the source as a two hour version of a novel can be. Kiera Knightley is just about as Elizabeth, with the right amount of satisfaction in her witty retorts. It also establishes a sense of scene and time that goes beyond what would be expected. Really, there are some great shots and settings in this film. ****

Paprika – This was recommended to me in a list of the 50 best animated films decided by people voting in their personal top 25. This was one that made the list that I had never seen, so I picked up the Blu-ray on the cheap. It is really good, kind of like Inception (which I have to assume took at least some inspiration from this) without the need to be tethered the reality of having to be filmed. It is also lacking Inception’s explanations. The whole movie is just sort of strange and simply dropped on the viewer. Paprika is excellent. The English dub does not have the most natural translation, but point gets across. Also, some of the sequences are perfectly mind bending. I think some of the character work is either lacking or was lost in translation, but other than that I really liked this movie. ****1/2


Detectorists – For a show that never goes too far in any direction, this turned out to be a complete delight. Andy and Lance are detectorists, guys who spend their free time with metal detectors. Their devotion to their hobby can be a little pathetic at times, but they know that. The show flits from being mildly pleasant to somewhat uncomfortable at times, never being a complete delight or a total drag. The show doesn’t want to beat its protagonists down completely, but it also isn’t going to have them realize all of their dreams. It ends up feeling real, mostly on the back of some strong writing and performances. I can’t wait to see the second series.

Making a Murderer – This is pretty chilling. A great, entertaining documentary. It didn’t convince me one way or the other about Steven Avery’s guilt, but it did leave me questioning the idea of fairness in our justice system. It is rather chilling how they lied to and railroaded the younger of the accused. The whole thing illustrates how the justice system is not after justice, but after a conviction. Really, it is just really well-made.

Poirot Series 5 & 6 – I need to be more considered when writing about this. It is still good, if dry. It is very slow paced, letting the mysteries unfold in their own time. It is a big change from current TV and takes a little getting used to. It also switched from hour long episodes to episodes that are nearly two hours long, which is just a little too long. Still, Suchet does a great job in the title role and they are largely well acted and made. I am going to stick with it until the end.

Galavant – God, I love this show. I hope that we get more of it. I missed about half the episodes when they aired; catching them later on Hulu, but this show is still just delightful. It is lightweight, but it is also thoroughly enjoyable. I don’t really have very much to add, other than hope for a DVD release.

Always Sunny Season 10 – This show somehow keeps getting better and better. This season got really dark at times, in the best possible way. The stars have honed their characters into increasingly deranged collections of neuroses. They react to the situations they are put in in natural and hilarious and awful. That is pretty much this show in a nutshell: hilarious and awful. Just really great stuff.

The Spoils Before Dying – I really liked the sheer goofiness of The Spoils of Babylon and this follow up is more of the same. The same sort of overblown artiness and complete incompetence is on display, along with some wonderfully off performances. It is just so absurd and ridiculous. It can be a lot to take all at once, but it is mostly delightful. Some of Will Ferrell’s episode opening and closing rants by Eric Jonrush were misses, though. The good ones are some of the best parts of the show, but the others are sadly not funny or interesting.

Parks and Rec Season 7 – I thought the end of season 6 was a fitting ending to this show. While I wasn’t going to say no to more Parks and Rec, I really felt like the show had already gone out on a high note. Season 7, though, proved me wrong. This was the perfect ending to the show. It was a well-deserved victory lap for one of the best shows of this last decade. A show as consistently upbeat as this one needed an ending that was equally upbeat.

Super Hero TV Shows: With only a few weeks of shows, I don’t have much to say about the panoply of superhero shows currently airing. I will say that the Flash is still great; it feels like they are building some good stuff here. Supergirl is really coming into its own, with Martian Manhunter really being the perfect mentor and ally for Kara and Cat Grant is getting more focused. Agent Carter came back this year with some great episodes and Arrow has largely recovered from the scattered third season.

What I Watched in December 2015


  • The Master – This is a case of a movie that is clearly excellent, but somehow I didn’t end up liking it.  Part of that is due to how good some of the performances are.  Joaquin Phoenix does an outstanding job, but his character is too convincing at being off-putting and uncomfortable.  He is hard to watch.  He is also the center of this film, Hoffman’s turn as the titular Master notwithstanding.  Having a character that makes everyone, the viewer included uncomfortable makes for a hard movie to watch. ****
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall – This wasn’t anything outstanding, but it was a funny movie full of generally funny people.  I just think it hovered between trying to have some kind of real heart and being really funny, without committing fully to either idea.  The result is pleasantly enjoyable, but not outstanding.  ***
  • Punch Drunk Love – I started to watch The Ridiculous 6, but after a few excruciating minutes I switched over to this. I doubt any would call this Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, but it is likely Sandler’s.  He plays a business owner, henpecked by his numerous elder sisters who occasionally have violent outbursts.  He meets a woman, finds a harmonium and makes a call to a phone sex line.  While his relationship with the woman deepens, he has to deal with blackmail attempts. It is a strange, off kilter romance that is highly enjoyable.  ****
  • In the Heart of the Sea – see review here.  **1/2
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – see review here.  ****1/2
  • Kill Me Three Times – This movie really wants to be some kind of Tarantino, or at least Guy Ritchie, crime movie, but it just isn’t that good.  That is not to say there is nothing to like in what is mostly a limp, mean effort.  Simon Pegg is clearly having a lot of fun playing the villain and the way everything twists around to everything together. Still, too much of it is just poorly explained.  It isn’t a good movie, but there is some enjoyment to be gleaned from it. **1/2
  • Mission Impossible Rogue Nation – Just as good on DVD as it was this summer.  It is certainly better than the limp Bond offering from this year. ****
  • Whisper of the Heart – A Ghibli movie that had slipped by me until my brother got it for Christmas.  This movie is amazing, a perfect expression of the yearning and dreams of childhood.  One of Ghibli’s best, and that is saying something.  *****
  • High Road to China – This is something of a bone thrown to Selleck after he was forced to pass on Raiders of the Lost Arc, and while it does have some superficial similarities to Indy’s first outing, it is something else entirely.  While it is an adventure movie, it is not much of an action movie.  It does feature some great biplane action, I guess.  I think it is telling that at the end it is not Selleck’s O’Malley that gets the triumph, but his love interest.  Still, it is a fine, unfairly forgotten film. ***1/2
  • Quigley Down Under – Tom Selleck plays a cowboy in Australia, first hired then hunted by Alan Rickman’s villain.  It is a well-done western that somewhat updates the formula, if only by setting it in Australia rather than actually in the west.  Rickman’s villain is a conscious lover of the west, but Quigley shows him that all his aping of cowboys doesn’t make him one.  It also allows the main character to call out the racism of the west without actually doing so.  It is not a great movie, but I would definitely call it a good one. ***1/2
  • Electric Boogaloo – I was not super knowledgeable about Cannon Films going in, but this documentary was great.  It perfectly shows what made them interesting even if it didn’t make their movies any good. They churn out schlock, desperate to make it in Hollywood.  Their occasional hits seem to be more the result of just how much they throw against the wall than any sort of plan, but they did have them.  Still, I think the film world was better off with them churning out schlock than without them.    ****


  • Daredevil – As with Jessica Jones, there is a sense of diminishing returns with Daredevil.  There is a lot of really good show here, but I can’t help but think it would be better if it was ten episodes instead of thirteen.  I’m not sure Daredevil really uses its running time wisely, since despite all the buildup they had for the Kingpin, he falls rather easily.  The second half never touches the heights of the beginning, but it is never really bad.
  • Poirot S3 & 4 – I really like this show, even though it can be slow and dry.  They are well done adaptations of Christie’s stories, with little frills or flash.  Suchet does a great job as Poirot, and most of these are really good stories.  Solid is, I guess, the best way to describe this show.
  • Fargo S2 – This is the best show on Television, even with its all too frequent references to Coen Brothers films, not just Fargo.  This season jumps back to the early eighties, and has a hapless couple accidentally pitting a local crime family against a big one from KC.  It nails pretty much every character and story beat perfectly.  The show is just great.
  • Supergirl – There are still flashes of greatness here, especially Melissa Benoist in the lead role, but it still hasn’t managed to pull all of its various characters and setting into a cohesive whole.  It is getting closer, though, and the good has always outweighed the bad.  Hopefully the second half of the season brings it all together.
  • Flash & Arrow – I’m putting these two together because the big episodes for each in December were the crossover episodes.  And man, what a crossover that was.  The Flash still manages to delight at every turn, and Arrow has been much better this season that last.  I’m not sure how much I like Hawkman and Hawkgirl, but still, seeing both gangs together to fight Vandal Savage was great.

Superhero TV Show Round Up

Much like they have taken over cinemas over the last few years, superheroes are also taking over television.  This isn’t a new trend, some of the shows are starting their 3rd or 4th season, but last year marked the start of a full takeover and this fall shows the trend growing in strength.  The stalwarts of the genre are CW’s Arrow and ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, they were joined last year by The Flash, Gotham, and Agent Carter.  This year has already added Daredevil, and will see Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Legends of Tomorrow and Heroes Reborn.  That’s a lot of TV superheroes.  To help out viewers that don’t have the time or inclination to sort through the chaff to find wheat, I will lend my largely non-existent expertise to point out the shows most worthy of your time.

  • Agents of SHIELD:  This show is starting its third season and has yet to show any of the energy or excitement that makes Marvel’s movies so popular.  It gets by on a tenuous connection to those movies, but is otherwise completely dull and forgettable.  I guess you can give a shot on Netflix, but I would recommend skipping it.  Watch it: No
  • Agent Carter:  Unlike the show that this spun off from, Agent Carter does possess much of the energy of its big screen cousins.  Hayley Atwell does a great job with title character and the period setting gives it a hook.  The first season was a solidly interesting mini-series; hopefully this year’s will be more of the same.  Watch it: Yes
  • Arrow:    Starting its 4th season, Arrow is the elder statesmen of this crop of superhero TV shows. It has its strengths, like surprisingly well shot fight scenes for broadcast TV and some interesting original characters; it is also a show that occasionally (i.e. frequently) overplays the melodrama.  Last season was considered by many to be the show weakest, though it did have its moments, but this season appears to be somewhat brightening the tone and changing things up a little.  I don’t know how attentive I will be.  Watch it:  Yes, probably
  • Daredevil: Season 1 is already up on Netflix and Season 2 is due sometime in the first half of next year.  Much like the Daredevil comic, the show is self-serious and almost comically dark, but it also is easily the best made show on this list.  This feels like a superhero show with prestige budget of something like Game of Thrones, as opposed to The Flash’s Dr. Who-like cheesiness.  If that is your thing, go for it.  Watch it: Yes
  • Flash:  The Flash is doing true superheroics, not just costumed karate-man stuff like Daredevil and Arrow, on a limited budget. Instead of trying to mask its cheesiness, it revels in it, making it one of the most entertaining shows on TV right now.  This is the show that best captures the blue skies heroics that make best comics so much fun.  Watch it:  Yes
  • Gotham:  A Batman show without Batman. That should tell you all you need to know about this show.  Despite some solid acting performances, the show can’t hide that it is all prologue.  The end is that Bruce Wayne becomes Batman; everyone knows that.  While a good show could be crafted out of this, so far there is no fun to be had watching the sausage being made.  Watch it: No, aside from some hate watching
  • Heroes Reborn: Didn’t we all learn our lesson last time as the solid first season imploded at shocking speed?  There is no reason for this, the first show thoroughly eradicated any goodwill anyone felt for it.  Watch it: Not a chance
  • Jessica Jones: This is Netflix’s second dose of Marvel goodness and despite some reservations I have about Daredevil’s tone I see no reason not to expect this to exhibit a similar level of quality.  I do wonder how well the shows will connect, considering that the original plan was that they would be 4 mini-series leading to a Defenders show, but when this hits in November I will be jumping right on it.  Watch it: Yes
  • Legends of Tomorrow: The third of the CW’s superhero shows, this one looks to be the most ambitious.  All of the other shows either star one hero or even a team of not actually super powered character.  This appears to be the first attempt at a genuine super team show.  Can they possibly do the Avengers on a CW budget?  Not likely, but the attempt will be interesting.  I also really like the proposed team they’ve set up.  It could be a train wreck, but it could also be great.  Watch it:  Yes, at least initially
  • Luke Cage: This one likely won’t be on until February or March, but much like the other Netflix shows, it should be at least well-made if not actually any good.  It also stars a better character than the previous two. (Yes, Luke Cage, Power Man is a better character than Daredevil) Watch it: Yes
  • Supergirl:  The early returns on this show make it sound very Flash-like.  That is a good thing.  Unlike recent Superman movies, this seems to actually be letting a Super-character be light.  This looks really, really good.  Watch it: Yes

That looks like a lot of TV watching, but only Arrow, Flash and Supergirl are full seasons.  The Netflix stuff is easy to marathon over a weekend or two and Agent Carter and Legends are both going to abbreviated runs.  It is more than likely that I don’t keep up with any of them beyond the Flash.  Still, it is a good time to be a superhero fan.  

All Things Must End

Recently the last season of Psych hit Netflix. I didn’t remember liking most of those episodes when they aired, but I do remember being largely satisfied with the ending. Watching the season again mostly confirmed those memories. I have also been watching 30 Rock. It has a really truly terrific ending. I wanted to write about how these shows shook the trend of TV shows falling apart at the end and having terrible endings. The problem is, the more I thought about shows that I like, the more I realized that most of my favorite shows have really good endings. In fact, I can think of more good endings than bad. Honestly, as much as I like it, Psych kind of gets stuck in that bad ending rut, if the whole season and not just the last episode are taken into account. Coming up with a satisfying ending for a long running TV show is clearly hard, though not surprisingly, good shows manage to do this more often than not.

The problem is with the nature of American TV. Shows are designed to be eternally in the middle act. There is a pilot, an opening, but after that most shows are not really moving anywhere. They are telling stories, but the action is designed to leave the characters right where they started. Seinfeld is not building to anything and there is no natural end point for Friends. Psych is set up to tell mysteries, the characters may grow and change some, but the central relationships are firm. The longer a show runs, the more likely it is that things start to break down. One change causes another change, then another, rippling out until the changes start to tear the fabric of the show apart. The trick is getting the most out of a show but ending before it changes into something else entirely.

Shows tend to end badly for two reasons. Or possibly for one reason depending on how one looks at it. They either end too soon or end too late. Take My Name is Earl, for example. It is, or at least started as, a pretty darn good show. (That first season is excellent, but the show kind of lost its way but the end.) Still it is a show with a built an out. Earl has a list; the show ends when he completes that list. However, the show actually ends on a cliffhanger, with a shocking revelation about Earl’s black son, Earl Jr., having a different father than everyone suspected. The show has the worst kind of ending: no ending at all. It is hard to say that a show with 4 seasons was cancelled too soon, especially one that was as far off track as Earl by the end, but it still deserved some kind of resolution. That is a show that ended too soon. On the other hand there are shows like Scrubs, which clearly went on too long. For give or take four seasons, Scrubs was some fine television. However, the show stayed on the air longer than was good for it. So long that most of the original cast moved on. It is hard to find a satisfying conclusion for a show that ran for the better part of a decade when the characters that everyone loved are no longer part of the show. That show hung on way too long. Good shows can make the best of those situations. Arrested Development certainly ended too soon, but its first ending, the end of season 3, was as good a wrap up as possible. And The Office went sorely off track in the later seasons, only to rally in its final season and go out with a truly excellent final episode.

The important thing for an ending is tone. While something more poignant is possible and sometimes fitting, with a show that has been running the better part of a decade cheese might be the best option. At least for a comedy, with a drama that is a different proposition. Malcolm in the Middle’s ending is occasionally preposterous, but also touching. Completely fitting for the show, though. The idea that Lois has planned out Malcom’s future entirely, right down to how he becomes President, is equally ridiculous and expected. It is a perfect example of what shows should strive for. It feels momentous, clearly an ending, but still a part of the show.


Psych is a show that seems to have held on a little too long. There are still some good episodes in the last season, but it feels very flabby. The mystery plots are muddled or nonexistent. The show is more concerned on how it is going to bring the series to a close. Characters are moving around. First, Chief Vick is removed. Then Lassiter is made chief. Then Juliette leaves with Chief Vick. The central character relationships that were the heart of the show break down over these last ten episodes and it feels drawn out. There are highlights, like the first episode of the season which is a Guy Ritchie pastiche filled with Harry Potter jokes and one last Cary Elwes appearance. Honestly, it is one of the great episodes of the series. Then there is the last episode, titled The Break Up. Shawn is trying to break up, not with Juliette but with Gus. He is going to San Francisco to be with Juliette. This decision is made easier with the new head detective, who is good enough that she doesn’t need Shawn and Gus to help. It is amazing how well the episode manages to give a fitting ending to each and every character. Lassiter is chief and has a wife and kid, eternal whipping boy McNabb finally gets a promotion to detective and Henry stumbles into teaching criminology. Shawn relocates to San Francisco to be with Juliette and work with Chief Vick (with a bonus shout out to Monk thrown in there) and finally proposes to Juliette. There is a decent mystery tangled up in there, but it is mostly tying a bow on everything. Season 8 of Psych is not a good season of TV, but it does manage a quality ending to the series.

The other ending I recently watched was that of 30 Rock. I didn’t give that show its due when it was on the air. I don’t like being told what to watch. I take a slightly absurd amount of pride in the fact that I came across Arrested Development early in its run. I started watching it somewhere around episode 10 when it originally aired. I was the one telling all my friends and acquaintances to watch it. The same goes for The Office, which I discovered at the start of its second season. With 30 Rock, I was seeing all the gushing love for it online, but to me it seemed to come at the expense of shows I like more. I was a fool. I’ve now watched the show through on Netflix several times. Every time I watch it I like it more. The ending, specifically the last three episodes, are just about perfect.


30 Rock is a show with high peaks, but no significant troughs. It nearly captures the manic pace and interconnectedness of Arrested Development and keeps it up for more than twice the run time. It should be no surprise that it has a great ending. Still, it ends as well as possible. With a show about a show, the ending is obvious. The show must get cancelled. This happens in A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World, the third from last episode. It has Liz desperately trying to save TGS while Criss prepares for the arrival of their adopted kids. Also, Jack looks for his replacement. It ends in what could have been the last episode of the show, with TGS cancelled and Liz meeting her kids, who act just like Tracy and Jenna. But that is not the ending; there is a two episode coda. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Liz tries to deal with being a stay at home mom, but it isn’t for her. She ends up doing one more episode of TGS to avoid paying Tracy thanks to an odd clause in his contract. How it ends is known, but it lets the show give the characters an extended farewell, one last chance for everyone to shine. It is a perfect encapsulation of the show. Perfect character beats between silly pratfalls and constant in jokes. The show goes out on a song from ‘The Rural Juror,’ Jenna’s movie from way back near the start of the series. It is funny and touching and perfect.

30 Rock is the perfect example of how to end a TV show, though few shows have been consistently well written enough to pull it off. Psych does things less well, but it still manages to salvage things, leaving a largely pleasant taste in the viewer’s mouth. Both of these are good shows, and they have good endings. Which the more I think about it the less it seems exceptional. I hope the few show currently running shows I’m into can have as good of endings as these two shows did. Let’s hope Parks and Recreation goes out on top, and Always Sunny in Philadelphia can go out on the bottom. And if we are all lucky, maybe someone will perform a mercy killing on The Simpsons and Family Guy. But that is another subject entirely.

Watching Home Movies

Around the start of the aughts there was a rash of animated sitcoms that hit TV. While a couple showed lasting appeal, most fell by the wayside. Futurama is one of the all-time great television shows and somehow the soulless husk of Family Guy is still being broadcast, but who remembers Mission Hill, The Oblongs or The PJs? Despite being an undeniably great show, Home Movies seems to have fallen into that latter category. That is a real disappointment; Home Movies is every bit as good as Futurama.


For those not fortunate enough to have seen it, and yesterday I learned that the whole series is up on Youtube so there is nothing stopping you, Home Movies is about Brendan Small, an eight year old kid who makes movies in his basement. He is helped by his friends Jason and Melissa, and gets advice from his Mom, Paula, and significantly more dubious advice from his soccer coach McGuirk. The show was never destined for big success. The style of the animation is not all that appealing. The first season is in “Squigglevision,” the same scratchy looking animation technique used on Dr. Katz, but the entirety of the show uses the borderline abstract character designs and flat, sparse backgrounds. While one grows to appreciate the look of the show, it is not initially appealing. It is a somewhat ugly show, but its look perfectly fits the combination of normality and weirdness.

I love the way that this series evolves. I am ignoring the first season for the simple reason that I don’t own it on DVD and am therefore not as familiar with it. The second season is all about the movies that Brendan is making in his basement. There are plenty of other goings on, but they are filtered through his movies. As the third season goes on, the movies start to fade in importance. In the fourth season, they are often dropped completely. This isn’t a case of the show losing sight of its focus; it is Brendan growing up. Everyone was eight at one point; everyone had something that meant everything to them as child. Very few people are still in love with the same activities that they were at eight. At that age I was in love with dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), everything I did revolved around them. That fascination was short lived, though. It is the same with Brendan and his movies. They were what brought him and his friends together, but as they grow up the movies start to become less important. It is brought home in the last episode when he drops his camera outside of the car and barely seems to care. He has moved beyond his movies.


While there is change, it is amazing that Home Movies has such well-defined characters when improvisation played such a big part in the scripting. Most of the show is at least partly improvised. Still, the core of the cast comes out as very real characters. Brendan, Paula, Jason, Melissa and Coach McGuirk are all great characters. Having a handful of them in a scene to play off of each other is just amazing. It has a lot of pithy one-liners. Characters will face a completely ridiculous problem that every character not directly involved recognize as ridiculous. They react with very adult sarcasm. The show really takes off, though, when the secondary characters become more prominent and start getting thrown in with different configurations. Characters like Walter and Perry, Mr. Lynch, Fenton and Duane. They all add something fun and new to the mix.

It is sad that Home Movies is gone, but its spirit lives on in the shows its creators, Loren Bouchard and Brendan Small, are doing now. Brendan Small went on to do Metalocalypse, a show about a crazy Death Metal band. Music was a big part of Home Movies, Brendan (the character) spent a lot of time working on the sound for his films with Duane, his slightly older friend with a band. Metalocalypse is a different show from Home Movies, but there are times when the patter of dialogue is similar. Loren Bouchard went on to make Bob’s Burgers, which in tone is much like Home Movies. It is about a weird family and weird neighborhood. Bob’s Burgers is the show that really keeps the spirit of Home Movies alive. Home Movies is on Youtube for anyone to watch, you should do that. It is one the best animated shows from an era full of great animated shows. Then watch Bob’s Burger’s on Netflix.

Arrested Development Season 4


It has been more than a year since Season 4 of what I consider the greatest show to ever air on American television premiered on Netflix. I had planned to write a review of it after I gorged on the fifteen plus-sized episodes, but after a couple abortive attempts I gave up on it. A few weeks ago I found myself watching through the show again and when I got to the new stuff, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I liked it the first time, but this time through it really clicked for me. While this new season is a different beast than the original run it is almost as good. I think it is a shame that many people seem to have written it off as a poor addition.

It does have its faults. The first and biggest one is that they couldn’t get the entire cast there at the same time for the bulk of the episodes. The busy schedules of the stars more than half a decade after the show ended is the unfortunate reality we live in. In order to get any new Arrested Development at all we had to accept that the cast was going to be scattered. This does kill one of the best parts of the show, the crack timing of all the characters in every scene. Season 4 is at its best when it has most of its characters together; scenes which are all the more notable for how infrequent they are. By giving each of the characters room to breathe on their own it becomes apparent that most of them are wholly unlikable. Early on even the usually relatable, though never as good a person as he thinks he is, Michael looks incredibly bad.

The second big problem is the ending. Spoiling as little as possible, I have to say that it is unconscionable that they ended it with a cliffhanger. The show has already gotten one miracle revival. No matter what hopes the creators and cast have for a movie or another Netflix season, they needed to end this with some closure. Instead, many of the plot threads only sort of tie together into an opening for the next story. Much like how the bulk of the episodes end. If there was a solid guarantee of more Arrested Development, then maybe the ending would be acceptable.  Since there isn’t it makes the ending we received somewhat tragic. Especially in light of the nearly perfect conclusion Season 3 had.

Still, Season 4 works. Individually, each episode may not be perfect, but the season as a whole tells a great story. It is still subtle, clever and layered, but the usual 3 episode story is blown up into a 15 episode season. It works even better on second viewing; once the viewer knows what’s coming many of the jokes hit all the harder. It is like getting tiny glimpses of the gears in a watch. At first you can only see a few of the moving parts and have no idea how it all fits together. Each episode shows another small part, but each glimpse tells more the bigger picture. Once it all is revealed, the intricate nature of how it all works together is apparent. What is most amazing about this is that they manage to do without the character actually interacting, other than in pairs and with Michael.

They actually make the separated cast work with the story. Without Michael there to keep everyone together, the family has dispersed over the six or so years since the show ended. Lucille has gone to prison, George Sr is near the Mexican border scamming CEO’s, George Michael has gone to college, etc. While most of their circumstances are roughly the same, though their precise situation is different, when the show starts Michael has hit rock bottom. It is hard to see him like that. The others are awful enough that the viewer can enjoy their failures. While Michael tends to be self-righteous and smug, but he is usually a smidge or so better the rest of his family. It’s not a lot, but he at least seems redeemable. At the start here he is pushed to the worst possible level of his indulging his faults. The whole season seems to be Michael’s refusal to actually climb back out of that hole. Every time he gets close, he jumps right back in. In the last episode, when George Michael finally punches him in the face it feels well-deserved.

Once I accepted that the show can’t be exactly like it was before, I gained a greater appreciation for what Season 4 is and what it does. Instead of futilely trying to recreate the magic of the original run, it keeps many of the same traits and does something slightly different. Season 4 is not the continuing misadventures of this horrible family; it is one big overarching episode in their story. And it is a pretty damn good episode. I only hope they get the chance to finish the story.