Friday, July 20, 2018

Round Two: A Very English Scandal

A Very English Scandal: Season 1, Episode 2 (B+)

This second installment was a fine follow-up to the first, continuing along the story in the same buoyant fashion. I love that Jeremy started casually talking to Peter about where to dispose of the body the moment they stepped out of a heated Parliament session, never letting up on just how much he wants to happen even if the people he’s relying on to get it done are determined to stall so that eventually he’ll forget all about it. The moment that Jeremy actually saw Norman right in front of him riding a horse made clear that he’s never going to let it go, and the way that this hour ended cemented Jeremy’s closing threat from the first installment and made sure that, even if he wasn’t the one who (tried to) pull the trigger, Jeremy is going to go down for his act of attempted murder. There exists such a disparity between the life experiences of Jeremy and Norman, no starker than in how they respond to the deaths of the women closest to them. We didn’t see Jeremy cry for a moment, and instead he invoked the car crash as a way of baiting a political nemesis who tried and failed to take him down. Norman seemed genuinely horrified, and he’s fighting as hard as he can to stay on the right path after getting beat down by those well aware of both his sexual orientation and his addiction. Norman’s insistence while reporting on his affair with Jeremy on his status as a lover rather merely a footnote in his story was interesting, signifying the strength of the connection that goes far beyond simple tabloid fare.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

What I’m Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 2, Episode 11 “Holly” (B+)

One of the ways in which this show succeeds most formidably is the way in which it portrays the repression that the handmaids and others not in power in this society experience, especially in contrast to the liberties they previously had. Hannah having trouble separating before school one day was a harmless enough memory that obviously has far more meaning to June given her present situation, and watching her curse Luke out and yell about the wrong song coming on during her first labor was a far cry from the cold, lonely, painful delivery that she managed to pull off in the abandoned house where no one knew to come looking for her. Fred and Serena showing up shouting for Offred was most notable because their fighting felt far more contemporary than the more antiquated style that Gilead usually uses, showing that they too are putting up a front and would much rather be free to speak freely in a way that allows them to truly be themselves. Offred shooting them from above would have been too easy, and the fact that she now has a child in the middle of the freezing woods with no one but people who think she’s run away coming to look for her means that she’s essentially hopeless. Naming the baby after her mother cements a connection with this offspring that soon may not belong to her, and hearing the radio of the American government in exile was a nice glimmer of hope that’s all too rare on this show.

What I’m Watching: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4, Episode 5 “Kimmy and the Beest!” (B)

This half-hour wasn’t quite as good as the last one, but it did still contain its share of (mostly) controlled ridiculousness. The idea that Titus was a jock in high school who never did any of the things that we now see him do on a regular basis, like act and sing, has been absurd all along, yet we know all he really wants is the spotlight and therefore he was more than ready to do the exact same thing and suppress the hopes and dreams of rising star Hudson. I'm not surprised that this is Tituss Burgess’ Emmy submission since it does give him a pretty superb showcase, though new viewers to the show might find his performance hard to relate to given that it’s a deep dive into his highly contradictory background. It’s funny seeing Bobby Moynihan as man’s man Fran Dodd now that his cancelled show, “Me, Myself, and I,” is dropping its remaining episodes since it’s a completely different role. I like that Kimmy easily beat him in an arm-wrestling competition and got so angry at every single thing that he said which made absolutely no sense. It’s funny that Jacqueline and Lillian both use Kimmy’s office as if they work there when they really don’t, and they managed to pull off a great feat when they didn’t blink in front of the parents and instead got an entirely different audience to attend the (pubic) school play at an incredible premium, with the trauma they inflicted on the kids an added bonus to their victory.

What I’m Watching: Humans

Humans: Season 3, Episode 5 (B+)

There’s a lot going on right now, and for all the positive developments, there are some much more disconcerting negative ones that seem ready to implode as early as next episode. Mattie was excited to have made a friend, but she should have known that it was too good to be true. I feel like someone who hated synths and wanted to hurt her would have been better than the truth, which is that a journalist is planning to expose Mattie as the hacker behind Day Zero, which itself is worse than just trying to arrest her since her entire family is going to be put in danger once it all comes to light. Mia getting the equivalent of a police escort with supporters all around her was a victory, and Lord Dryden agreeing to see her was another win. Max seems happy, but he has no clue that Anatol is actively plotting against him, seemingly with the previously innocuous and polite Stanley as a plant ready to kill at his command. I’m intrigued by Leo realizing that he isn’t cataloging his memories properly and that he may be experiencing a new one, and I wonder if that can somehow help the good, peace-loving synths. It was sweet to see Sophie help Sam try to come to terms with the fact that Karen is gone, expressing unhappiness at her not being there and amusement at the distracting games that Sophie taught him to help him be something close to a normal kid.

What I’m Watching: The Affair

The Affair: Season 4, Episode 3 (B+)

This was nothing if not a very watchable hour of television, with some intriguing developments that are mostly lamentable and predictable but dramatic nonetheless. Noah making a case for his troubled star student got complicated when he found out that he was the principal’s son and that Janelle had failed him when she really didn’t need to. Inciting a walkout based on the lack of diversity of writers he was teaching in his own class was a very self-centered action, and he quickly saw that it had disastrous implications, with police showing up within minutes hardly eager to put up with what they deemed a threat. Getting interviewed on television and quoted as the principal was an enormous blow to Janelle’s already almost nonexistent ego, and of course they were going to make out and start a relationship that will only further drive a wedge between her and her teachers when they found out that he’s only taking her side, from their perspective, because they’re sleeping together. Helen’s time didn’t go all that much better, with Vic completely in denial about his very serious cancer diagnosis. She wasn’t pleased at all with Trevor’s comment that he got his science acumen from Vic, but obviously that’s what Vic is holding onto most, the notion of extending his legacy in some way. It’s hard to imagine Helen wanting to have a baby right now, but I think she needs to hold on to whatever is left in her marriage to stay anchored.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

What I’m Watching: 12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys: Season 4, Episode 3 “45 RPM” (B+)

I’ll be honest – it’s been a while since I felt like I really understood how time worked on this show, if I ever did. What our friends do in the past may in fact already have been done, and I couldn’t tell you which version of Cole that was who saved Jennifer when she dove onto the train tracks and told her to get another version of him a cheeseburger. I’m also not sure who Olivia’s baby is going to be, whether it’s important, and if we’re already supposed to know his or her identity. Either way, I’m following along closely and trying to make sense of it all. Olivia going back through her own mind to get answers about what’s changing and seeing her future self as the Witness was pretty trippy, and possessing her younger self to explain that it was her and not Vivian was a freaky but crucial revelation. Vivian was eerie enough with her steadfast devotion to the mission, and now she sacrificed herself so that her daughter, who will become the evil Witness, can live. Maybe it’s a good thing that she was more powerful in the past and now she’s stuck interrogating Deacon, who is hardly going to give her the answers she wants. Cole knowing how to open something because of his father’s story was cool, and, once again, if I’m understanding correctly and we don’t yet know, I think that Cole’s father is the baby that Olivia is going to have. We’ll soon see, I guess!

Pilot Review: A Very English Scandal

A Very English Scandal (Amazon)
Premiered June 29

There are many different ways to tell a story. Doing so through present-set conversations interrupted by flashbacks to key events is a very common one employed, and it can quickly become tiring if it’s not used properly. But there are cases in which it’s exactly right, and for this three-part BBC One miniseries available on Amazon Prime, it’s perfect. Where it proves most helpful is in covering a lot of material in a short period of time, with this first installment, running less than an hour, managing to paint an incredible portrait of its protagonist. Hugh Grant has been back in the spotlight lately after a successful career in the early 1990s and 2000s, and previously bounced back after his own public relations incident following an arrest for having sex with a prostitute. He has received accolades for his performances in “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Paddington 2,” and the role of Jeremy Thorpe as written here is one he seems born to play. The way he speaks matches the tone and meter of this show, which is assisted by a wondrously buoyant score that makes this story extremely entertaining. Alex Jennings, who played the Duke of Winsdor on “The Crown,” is a great scene partner for Grant as Peter, who helped him suppress much of this scandal, and Ben Whishaw, who voiced Paddington and appeared in many films including “The Lobster,” does a great job making Norman into just the kind of person who could fall completely in love with this JT before spiraling out of control and becoming a total liability. I didn’t expect to want to continue with this show, but given its energetic pacing and sharp editing, I think I can stick around for two more episodes to find out how it all plays out.

How will it work as a series? Both men were involved in serious relationships with women that weren’t going well for different reasons, Jeremy’s because he is, as he says, 80% gay, and Norman because of his dependence on drugs and alcohol. Norman calling Jeremy’s wife to demand his insurance card means things are going to fall apart quickly, especially considering Jeremy’s response to those events, which should be plenty interesting and thrilling.
How long will it last? Reviews seem to be pretty good, and I think that Amazon audiences will want to watch both because of Grant’s involvement and because of this saga’s historical nature. Regardless, I think the whole story is told within these three parts, and therefore this is one of those rare miniseries that just won’t continue beyond its initial order unless there’s another similarly English scandal to be spotlighted.

Pilot grade: B+

What I’m Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 2, Episode 10 “The Last Ceremony” (B+)

This show doesn’t take a lot of time to break down what has become the new norm in this scary future and how those who think it’s completely absurd and unacceptable have to cope with it. Showing how all the handmaids are raped by the commanders and their wives on a regular basis was made all the more impactful and devastating when Fred and Serena held Offred down while she was protesting to try to induce the baby. Emily refusing to move to help her passed-out commander was a sign of a far more removed and resigned response, one that pairs with her sense of having given up when Offred tried to give her some bit of hope. While I don’t think that Offred knew she wasn’t going into labor, Serena was probably right that she was happy the baby didn’t come, if only to prove how ridiculous the simulation of labor that Serena went through was. Fred telling Serena that he’s spoiled Offred made his subsequent decision to allow Offred to be reunited with Hannah puzzling, but it’s possible that he used it to get rid of Nick and to be able to punish Offred for the crime of trying to run away again. Nick not even pretending to care that Eden kissed another man was hardly a smart choice, and it seems that he’s going to pay for it dearly now. Hannah not recognizing June and then becoming so attached to her within moments was difficult to watch, and the amount she comprehends about what is happening is really very disturbing.

What I’m Watching: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4, Episode 4 “Kimmy Disrupts the Paradigm!” (B+)

After that questionable mockumentary installment, it’s nice to see an episode like this that highlights what this show does best. Kimmy’s outlook on the world has always been impossibly naïve, and therefore it’s great to watch her figure out how to live within it. Heading to a conference where she was operating a booth that she couldn’t hope to understand was a fun setup, and naturally she gravitated towards the one guy who also thought that all this technology nonsense was bogus. I was pretty sure I recognized actor Drew Gehling, who played Danford, and after looking up his page on IMDB and finding nothing, I realized my initial hunch was correct: he was in the Broadway version of “Waitress” in a far more noble and likeable role. Kimmy exposing him by having him fail to define “disrupting the paradigm” was fantastic, and Lillian did her best to make her own realizations after trying to find a replacement for Artie in elder holograms and other absurd inventions through all the technobabble from Fred, playing by Jason Jones from “The Detour.” The back and forth between Jacqueline and Titus are great, with Titus’ reaction of “Gross!” to Jacqueline telling him she was going to give it to him straight as a particular highlight. Titus speaking up for the nerds and hitting the principal with the football was a nice win, and I’m sure his antics as a schoolteacher working on building up his acting resumé are going to be well worth watching.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What I’m Watching: Humans

Humans: Season 3, Episode 4 (B+)

It’s nice to see a rare win for a while, even if it’s not celebrated in such fashion. The visit to the Railyard was full of possibilities for implosion, starting with Lord Dryden’s refusal to shake Max’s hand when he extended it in friendship. Max, to his credit, also set certain boundaries, choosing guns in their homes over having the repressed orange-eyes paraded around within their walls. Keeping Agnes locked up ahead of time was obviously the right choice giving that she showed up with a knife, and Max has clearly lost patience for her, locking her in a shipping container once she proved completely incapable of coalescence. I wasn’t sure where the opening scene of the hour was coming from, but it made sense to understand Agnes’ fear of dark places, which now a synth has trapped her in similar to the way that her first human oppressor did. Ed returning to help Mia up after she got pushed over by the mob was an unexpected development, and Mia greeted him with one hell of a resounding punch to the face that felt much more like something Niska would do. I like that Niska managed to overcome what should have been possible when the bomber was trying to frame her for his crimes, demonstrating that she truly is advanced and evolved to a degree no longer measurable by technology. Sam falling in public and bleeding blue blood was a moment that quickly turned deadly, as Karen somehow managed to contradict her programming and presumably sacrifice her own life to ensure Sam’s survival, theoretically making Joe the new guardian of this synth child.

Pilot Review: Secret City

Secret City (Netflix)
Premiered June 26

Netflix is importing many foreign series these days, and it’s helpful when the show is in English and features stars that American audiences know well. I never much liked “Fringe,” though I will admit that, even over just the span of this ninety-minute pilot, Anna Torv was far more emotive than she ever seemed on that show and on her recent arc on the first season of “Mindhunter.” She was immediately defined here as one very committed journalist, set on getting the truth no matter how many people she had to piss off. Alan Dale continues to be typecast as the most powerful person in every television universe he inhabits, here playing the Prime Minister of Australia. Jacki Weaver, who made her international breakthrough with “Animal Kingdom” and then starred in “Silver Linings Playbook,” is the senator who makes sure to manipulate events to her advantage, a role that gives her plenty of scenery to chew on in a large cast, which also includes an unexpected American face, Mekhi Phifer, as the ambassador representing America. Opening with a protestor setting herself on fire to call attention to the cause of Tibet was certainly eye-catching, and after the events of this lengthy pilot, it’s clear that Torv’s Harriet should keep pushing because there’s much to be uncovered and exposed. I wish that I felt more invested in these characters and these stories after such an immersive debut, but it just didn’t grab my attention in the way I might have hoped.

How will it work as a series? Four more episodes seems like just the right amount to explore these storylines, though it’s similar to all the other recent international miniseries that only run four to six hours and could probably go longer if they really wanted to get to know every member of their large ensembles.
How long will it last? This show debuted back in June 2016 on Foxtel in Australia, and it was renewed for a second season, which will feature the same characters and a different storyline, back in February of this year. While I doubt that it will rank anywhere near Netflix’s highest-rated show, import or otherwise, there seems to be me to be no reason that Netflix wouldn’t stream whatever installments are broadcast in its native country.

Pilot grade: C+

What I’m Watching: The Affair

The Affair: Season 4, Episode 2 (B)

Though Maura Tierney does give a compelling performance as Helen, I find that the storylines involving Alison and Cole do tend to be more interesting these days. There’s recently been a trend for these threads to be completely separate, with the former couples interacting on a regular, usually volatile basis, but the two who had the affair that provides this show’s title rarely seeing each other. Starting with Cole’s perspective after beginning the first installment of the season with Helen’s also shows this series’ investment in the characters it highlighted more later, just as crucial, if not more so, to the story as the two leads, and inarguably much more likeable. Alison and Cole continuing to work together in business doesn’t seem like a great idea, and though we got both perspectives on how her appearing at their meeting very late happened, they’re clearly not close to over each other. Luisa, who I’m hoping will soon get her own opportunities, maybe along with Vic if he’s still alive, to have her perspective shown, got particularly angry at Cole for the way that he behaved and obsessed over the woman who’s no longer supposed to be the most important person in his life. She had the two best lines of the hour: “You’re clearly not leaving me today, Alison is busy” and “You can’t shoot someone just because they drew on your face.” His casual response to her getting pulled over by a cop demonstrated how different a world he lives in. Showing up to help fix her car was reminiscent of Noah’s act of heroism in the pilot, and as she starts fueling her attraction to a new person, it’s interesting to see that things haven’t changed all that much, there are just new people filling the same old roles.

What I’m Watching: Westworld (Season Premiere)

Westworld: Season 2, Episode 10 “The Passenger” (B)

I consider it a small miracle that it took me nearly three weeks to watch the season finale of one of the most buzzed-about and popular shows on television and I didn’t have a single thing spoiled. That and I didn’t finish it until a couple days after the Emmy nominations, where this show performed very well with a staggering 21 nominations, including a surprise bid for lead actor Ed Harris, who has grown even more unlikeable all season long. Part of the reason I think I didn’t know what was coming is that I’m still not entirely sure what happened, and I’m trying my best to analyze this episode without reading other recaps to confirm what I think. Early on in this epic ninety-minute finale, Maeve pulled off another mesmerizing feat of mind control, but it was her final effort to hold off the hordes of violent hosts egged on by Clementine that was the most impressive. I still don’t really comprehend what death means in this world since all the hosts should be able to be revived, but things seemed pretty finite when it came to Teddy and some of the others. I loved that Lee stepped in to take Hector’s place and deliver the battle speech that he wrote, sacrificing his own life because he believed in the cause of those he had created. Bernard’s out-of-time experiences were certainly trippy, and after he killed Dolores, it was pretty shocking to see a host version of Charlotte emerge and kill the basis for her existence, a revelation that there was a whole plan all along to truly infiltrate the highest levels of humanity responsible for the creation and manipulation of Westworld. How Bernard is still alive and what that means is a mystery, as is the post-credits sequence in which William discovered that he might be a host (I’m really not sure). What the valley beyond actually was is also incredibly intriguing, and I can honestly say that I have no clue what comes next in season three. I still contend that this is one of the most fascinating shows on television, but I didn’t feel that this year was quite as strong or even as season one.

Season grade: B+
Season MVP: Thandie Newton as Maeve

Monday, July 16, 2018

What I’m Watching: 12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys: Season 4, Episode 2 “Ouroboros” (B)

As I write this, I’m well aware that the final season of this show has already completed finished airing, but I still have a full nine hours left before I’m all done with this wild time-bending adventure. We’ve reached a point typical of shows at this point close to the end of their runs, which allows characters to relive past moments and see better, or at least naiver times, once again. Often, shows have transformed so much from their starts to their ends that newly important characters play an overly crucial role in current events even if they haven’t been stalwarts the whole time, and this show is a fortunate exception. Not only can its characters actually travel through time, but we’re getting to see them go back to the formative moments that got everything started, with the reintroduction of Ramse as a particularly sentimental inclusion. Cole suggesting that Jones should walk around as herself since their former selves were only looking for scavenging intruders and not their mirror images was clever, and it’s incredible to see just how much Jones knows about her own future as a result of repeated non-paradox visits from those with information about what will come in her life. Cassie going back to 1971 to kill Olivia with no tether was made all the more impactful by her appropriation of Cole’s “This was always a one-way trip” catchphrase, cementing the fact that she’s become the most hardened of all these time-travelers, a major difference from how she was when she first started. As I stated in my review of the season premiere, I really do wish that Jennifer’s hallucinated self who evaporated into oblivion had died a real death, but I’m on the edge of my seat with curiosity after her latest move to fall back onto the train platform with a certainty that she wasn’t alone.

What I’m Watching: Goliath (Season Premiere)

Goliath: Season 2, Episode 1 “La Mano” (B)

I liked this show a lot back when it premiered in October 2016, and it was a long wait for this second season. One of the best parts about its first year was the ensemble cast, with Danny and his reluctant allies going up against a true goliath that included his former partners, both personal and professional. In this premiere, it’s hard to tell who’s still around and exactly what the focus is going to be, with only a repentant Brittany and a much older Denise returning. I didn’t expect that most of the characters, especially the opposing legal team, would be back, but it’s hard to get quite as excited without all of the supporting players on board. I got confused watching Lou Diamond Phillips as the owner of a bar since I saw him in a similar light for the past few years on “Longmire,” and while he helped to introduce this season’s legal storyline, it doesn’t look like he’s going to survive past the end of this hour. The two prominent faces we did see were Ana de la Reguera from “Cop Out” and “Narcos” as a prominent mayoral candidate and Mark Duplass from “Togetherness” and so many other things as an apparent fixer who really likes to talk. It’s still not so apparent where this season is going, with arms being cut off and other lovely moments from this premiere, but given how engaging season one was, I’m willing to stick around and see what’s coming.