Tag Archives: tv

Recommended For Cuba

Cuba is going to be free.

If you’re a fan of human flourishing, this is a good thing. The loosening of the US embargo is on net a very good thing, but the final nail in the coffin of tyranny is going to be a relatively little-noticed development: the availability of NetFlix in Cuba. The company announced today that it will sell subscriptions to Cuban residents, although given the pricing (same as in the US), spotty internet access in Cuba, and the need for a non-Cuban electronic method of payment will probably limit the audience at first. In the long run, though, it may be one of the biggest contributors to Cuban freedom.

I’m not exaggerating for effect here. There is a reason why countries like Cuba or (worst of all) North Korea exclude outside information: it makes it impossible to avoid change. A dictatorship, of course, doesn’t want change – they have everything to lose and little to gain. (On the other end, a well-functioning democracy is the institutionalization of constant change.) That’s why repressive regimes have to keep out new ideas, and that’s why NetFlix is so important. TV and movies are, at their core, reflection of ideas.

It’s not even important what the intended idea of a movie or TV show is. What’s important is the setting which in the West mostly reflects freedom of some kind – on any given TV show, women are relatively equal, free speech is exercised, etc. This has worked before:

In the last decade, cable television has arrived in remote Indian villages, bringing with it commercial television programming heavy on game shows and Indian soap operas. Before you laugh—a feminist Days of Our Lives?—consider that the most popular Indian series take place in urban settings. Their emancipated female characters are well-educated, work outside the home, control their own money, and have fewer children than rural women. So, Jensen and Oster asked, does the arrival of these shows change attitudes in ways that improve women’s lives?…

What’s the effect? In the places that didn’t get cable by 2003, and in the places that already had it at the beginning of the period studied, attitudes concerning women remained relatively stable. (They were more pro-women in places that already had cable.) But in the 21 villages that got cable between 2001 and 2003, women’s attitudes changed quickly and substantially.

After a village got cable, women’s preference for male children fell by 12 percentage points. The average number of situations in which women said that wife beating is acceptable fell by about 10 percent. And the authors’ composite autonomy index jumped substantially, by an amount equivalent to the attitude difference associated with 5.5 years of additional education.

TV got Indian women more cultural acceptance and more freedom. Just wait until NetFlix (and everything else) enters Cuba. It won’t be a panacea – nothing is – but the flow of ideas can’t be stopped.

This is a good thing.

Netflix Review: Dan Cummins, Colin Quinn

Dan Cummins: Crazy With A Capital F

Dan Cummins had a decent Comedy Central special almost a decade ago, and his style hasn’t changed one bit in the interim. Short, well-constructed jokes told by a part-time sociopath. (“I hate pet sympathy cards. I wanna write one. ‘I hear you’re torn up about your dead cat. At least you’re not literally torn up like your dead cat.”) Cummins loves to construct crazy scenarios and take them to their conclusions, like getting a thousand garden gnomes into your yard and letting neighbors wonder (“I can’t control those bastards forever!”), or giving the finger to the elderly (“Once. Well, twice. She deserved it once.”)

A solid hour of comedy. Recommended for a rainy day.

Colin Quinn: Long Story Short

A good friend of mine once called Colin Quinn “tragically unfunny,” an assessment I don’t generally disagree with. In this special, Quinn seems to have overcome this obstacle for an hour of competent if not surprising comedy. Taking an Eddie Izzard approach, Quinn walks us through the history of Western Civilization and jokes along the way. The historical take is surprisingly insightful, and the jokes are well above “tragically unfunny.” They require a little too much context for me to repeat them here, but it’s a watchable one-man show.

 

 

Netflix Review: Tom Segura, Lewis Black

Lewis Black: Old Yeller

I’ve never been a huge fan of Lewis Black, but that’s because I prefer comedians who tell jokes. It’s been a long time since Black told one of those, and his curmudgeonly act has worn pretty thin. In Old Yeller, we might be seeing him cross into downright hack material (which historically he hasn’t done). Facebook is silly! People spend too much time staring at their phones! This is hardly groundbreaking stuff, even when yelled by an angry old man. I won’t say I never laughed – Black is very good at what he does, I just happen not to like it – but I also can’t recommend it. Considering his success, of course, I’m probably in the wrong here.

Tom Segura: Completely Normal

I had never heard of Tom Segura before but at this point Netflix will offer me any standup comedian they have. Segura is clearly a veteran with a strong stage persona, a weirdly demure and low-key R-rated (and worse) style. In parts he’ll venture into Lewis Black territory (“The worst persons are those waiting outside the grocery store with a clipboard for you to sign.”) but rather than count on his anger to bring the humor he actually develops a story (“Do you want children to die in the streets?” “Now that you ruined my day, I do. I want you to die first, but then all of them.”) His storytelling style is hard to quote but he establishes the right mood for the jokes to work.

Worth checking out. Adults only.

Amazon Review: Eastbound & Down

Eastbound & Down was an HBO show, which permits it to explore areas a network or basic cable show could not. As a result, it’s hard to pass an overall judgment on this show: on one hand, it’s daring and even experimental; on the other, it indulges some of the worst sitcom tropes. Overall, though, it’s more of the good than the bad.

Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), briefly dominant as a relief pitcher in the major leagues, has fallen the heights of fame to being a guest in his brother’s house in suburban North Carolina. Forced to actually work for a living, Kenny becomes a substitute teacher in his old high school, where his old flame (Katy Mixon) is engaged to the principal and a former nobody named Stevie (Steve Little) is still in love with the idea of Kenny as a supercool celebrity. This is an interesting start that the show takes across multiple countries and states as the four seasons carry on, a bold move made possible only by Danny McBride’s fearless Kenny. In this regard, the show is commendable – a network show would never get away with the setting changes that accompany Kenny. As a celebrity in his own mind, one that is close to returning to the glory days, Kenny is fascinating, especially when forced confront the reality of his situation.

However, while the experimental side of the equation works out, the show fails some basic sitcom tropes. Stevie’s mancrush on Kenny, while sometimes funny, often forces him into situations that are both unrealistic and unfunny. While Kenny’s ignorance of his effect on others can be endearing, Stevie’s complete lack of success and confidence wears on the viewer. The buttmonkey just isn’t funny, and the more the show dumps on Stevie, the less funny it is.

The show’s 29 episodes contain a few missteps – Will Ferrell’s cameos are surprisingly disappointing – but on balance, it works.

The Anthology Solution

I wrote a while ago about how single-season shows can be awesome, and why the economics of TV make it unlikely that we’ll see them anytime soon. However, a solution to this problem, at least a partial one, was mentioned in that article by my friend and industry expert Simon Pulman. I quote his insight here:

One final thought on your original question – though I don’t watch it, I think the “American Horror Story” model is interesting. One “brand,” but an anthology format that allows self-contained stories and flexible talent scheduling.

I didn’t think of it much then because I also don’t watch American Horror Story and because I had not seen Blackadder yet. More recently, I read a few pieces about HBO’s True Detective, which I haven’t seen but which has received critical acclaim. These articles pointed out that the show has an “anthology format,” using completely different casts and storylines each season under the True Detective brand. This is slightly unlike Blackadder (which uses the same core cast), but they’re just variations on the same format.

In effect, the anthology format allows for one-season shows of the kind I championed in my earlier post. It doesn’t require writers to maintain a premise or a character longer than it can be sustained, but it gives them significantly more time to develop the plot. It’s a near-perfect substitute for a single-season show, and all the benefits thereof I have been espousing.

Here’s hoping it continues, and kudos to Simon for calling it.

NetFlix Review: Weeds

Several people had recommended Weeds to me over the years, but I never got around to it, and at times I outright refused to watch it because so many people told me to watch it. I’ll admit that, for the most part, those people were right: Weeds is pretty good. In fact, second to Breaking Bad, it’s probably the best argument in favor for the drug war. (In the sense that, if we didn’t have the stupid drug war, shows like this wouldn’t be possible because they derive their suspense from the illegality of the underlying activity.) The show is certainly more comedic than Breaking Bad, but the “good person goes into drug trade” premise also provides plenty of drama.

The thing I liked most about Weeds as a TV fan is its willingness to experiment. Over its eight seasons, the show has at least four settings that last at least one season, and several more that last for multiple episodes. The show expands and contracts the cast with reckless abandon, and is willing to go big or small when needed. This doesn’t always work, mind you – season eight is particularly pointless – but it often does, and the show manages to keep you on your toes because it shows early and often how willing it is to abandon the status quo. The early seasons are more stable but they make up for the developments with nearly flawless pacing. The action and plotting are usually fast-moving, even into the middle seasons. It’s only later that the show tries to play longer games, setting up pieces that pay off later in the season. This works very well sometimes (season 5) and fails at other times (season 8). Any TV fan should watch this show just to get a sense of the possibilities that a show can take advantage of and maintain its core audience. (Also to see sudden and otherwise pointless sexual encounters.)

The central character of Weeds is Nancy Price Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a SoCal suburban housewife whose husband dies at a young age. To maintain her social standing, the otherwise unskilled Nancy proceeds to sell pot to her suburban neighbors. Her attempts at small-scale dealing eventually draw her further into crime, and she becomes involved with local gangs, rival dealers, and Mexican cartels. Nancy’s slippery slope is handled with a very soft touch, and that makes it more powerful. Nancy wants to maintain control, but her new enterprise makes that nearly impossible. Her struggle to stay in charge of her destiny is what makes Weeds so compelling.

Nancy’s two sons, Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould) each develop issues of their own – Silas wants to become a dealer himself, and Shane loses his sense of right and wrong as he grows up fatherless and, essentially, motherless. Their father figure, in a sense, is their uncle Andy (Justin Kirk), a character I find mostly irritating but one that apparently was one of the fan favorites. (Fans can be stupid.) Andy starts out as a manchild, though the writers seem eager to make him seem irresistible to women, but he ends up less shallow and more grounded than the first few episodes would imply. He’s a less realistic character than Nancy, but not so far as to make the show a farce.

Making the show a farce is Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon), Nancy’s accountant and best customer. He’s one of the mainstays of Nancy’s suburban life, joined by Celia Hodes (an excellent Elizabeth Perkins) and her husband Dean (Andy Milder). Isabelle Hodes (Allie Grant), their youngest daughter, is used for some comic relief and handles it well. Nancy’s initial are suppliers Heylia James (Tonye Patano) and her family — Conrad and Vaneeta, (Romany Malco and Indigo,), who tie the white suburbanite Nancy to the black criminal underworld.

There are plenty more characters who show up and leave, and many who leave permanent marks. I won’t list them here so as not to spoil any details. What’s important is that this show is willing to make the changes to the status quo that others are afraid to make. Like I said, it doesn’t always work, but it’s fun to watch them try.

Recommended, especially for fans of TV qua TV. The soundtrack is also a winner.

Netflix Review: Fawlty Towers & Blackadder

Continuing with British shows, as the Netflix algorithm clearly thinks I should.

FTFawlty Towers

When I first read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, I chuckled a few times at how many cliches of the noir detective were present. They seemed silly at times, even though I consciously knew that The Big Sleep was the origin of the cliches and not a hackish amalgamation thereof. I felt an analogous feeling while watching Fawlty Towers, one of the original great sitcoms of our times.

The plot centers on Fawlty Towers, a hotel & restaurant combo somewhere in England (I admit many UK-specific geography jokes went over my head). The key players are Basil Fawlty, the cynical and witty proprietor, his shrewish wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), adorable maid Polly (Connie Booth), and hapless Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs). The episodes aren’t particularly sophisticated or complex in plot design: usually, a farcical situation becomes worse as Basil tries to cover up one lie with another. (It’s even the trope namer at the library of such things.) What these episodes are, however, is funny. Despite the farce and physical comedy, the catch phrases and the unrealistic actions, the show will make you laugh.

Cleese’s Basil is at the center of the comedy, put upon by the incompetent staff and his wife’s demands and yet sardonic and cynical to guests and bystanders. The timing and pacing of the show is close to perfect, and it’s at its best when the frantic energy of the rapidly disintegrating plan gets Basil interacting with the moving pieces of the scheme of the day. There is usually a moment in which Basil appears defeated and his exuberance goes into a biting, self-deprecating sarcasm that gives us some of the show’s best lines.

The supporting cast is just that – a set of props for Basil to interact with. Not to denigrate the actors, who do a great job in support, but the show is at its best when it centers on Cleese and his adventures.

Recommended, and at 12 episodes, a quick watch.

Blackadder

Blackadder

Blackadder is less a TV show and more a fantastic conglomeration of extended sketches, each a tightly wound season of smart humor. Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder) and his sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) star in each season, with various other top-notch comedic actors participating in multiple seasons – Brian Blessed, Stepheny Fry, and Hugh Laurie play extended parts. (Americans in particular will appreciate seeing Dr. House as an upperclass twit in the later seasons.) There’s a special bonus for those who know their history, as references to actual historical events are plentiful.

The first series takes place in the 15th century, with The Black Adder an overlooked second son of a nobleman, forever scheming to reach higher levels of power and nobility. His sidekicks, Baldrick and Percy Percy, participate in these (generally failed) attempts. Atkinson is at his weakest here, as the show takes away his wit – although you won’t notice until the next series when it shines through. It was a funny show, but I have to say that it’s easily my least favorite season.

In the second series, the show is set in late 16th century in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (a delightful Miranda Richardson). Stephen Fry also joins as a nemesis to Edmund, Lord Blackadder. Atkinson again does his best to rise in the Queen’s esteem, and Baldrick again supports the effort. This Blackadder is sarcastic and witty, a much more sophisticated social climber than the original.

The third series jumps to the turn of the 19th century and into the rise of democracy (and associated corruption), and features an excellent Hugh Laurie as the Prince of Wales. The show is a clever commentary on the fall of the aristocracy and the injustices of the system, and Blackadder’s ambitions more muted and less ridiculous than in previous seasons. His wit, however, only sharpens.

The fourth and final full series is set in a trench during World War I, where Atkinson, Robinson, and Laurie try to survive while Fry hides safely back at headquarters. The fourth season is a triumph of television at its best, leading up to a final episode that is as good as any in television history. The series was criticized in the UK as perpetuating a false history (“lions led by donkeys”) but it is an excellent show in the abstract: war sucks, and no sane person would want to be a part of it. The fact that the show drew humor from this premise is a credit to its writers and actors.

Netflix also has A Christmas Carol, a one-off special that is a great retelling of Dickens’s original. There are several other short specials of Blackadder (the Cavalier Years and Back & Forth) but they are unavailable on Netflix.

Highly recommended, though Series 1 isn’t an absolute must.

Netflix Review: Saving Grace

Continuing my ongoing project to watch TNT shows that I skipped over in the past decade…

Saving Grace has two separate stretches – the first two seasons are essentially a well-serialized police procedural with a supernatural aspect. The third season is much more weighted toward the latter, and reminds me in part of Lost’s last season. The quality is consistent, but the focus changes.

The plot focuses on Grace Hanadarko (Holly Hunter), a smoking, heavy drinking, and promiscuous Oklahoma City detective. She’s a dedicated detective (a fact the show never forgets to point out) and a fun-loving girl. Her team at work consists of Ham Dewey (Kenny Johnson), Butch Ada (Chase), Bobby Stillwater (Gregory Cruz), and Captain Kate Perry (Lorraine Toussaint). Grace is also Dewey’s ongoing affair, and Ada is very, very handsome. Grace’s best friend, Rhetta Rodriguez (Laura San Giacomo), is almost the perfect opposite of Grace: married, stable, and a believer when Grace tells her that she’s encountered an angel. The angel, Earl (a fun Leon Rippy), finds Grace after she drunkenly hits a pedestrian, who turns out to be Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine), an inmate on death row. Also there is Grace’s nephew and some siblings. The setting is Oklahoma City in the years following Timothy McVeigh’s bombing, and the cowboy bars of OKC are frequent settings. College football fans will also get their share of references.

The cases of the week are well-executed, and the ensemble cast makes the show work even in down weeks. The show dares to have big events, like a tornado ripping through Oklahoma City, and handles them competently. The x-factor of the show is its supernatural aspect, and it’s probably the most inconsistent feature. Grace handles the presence of an angel in her life the way a normal person would react to a new coworker, and it takes a while for Earl to play as significant a role as you think AN ANGEL should. Once the supernatural takes its rightful place in the show, the serialized plot grows much stronger. The show still struggles in parts – there’s a very confused theology in the middle of this that offers no real answers to any questions worth asking – but at least the show is taking chances. This sort of risk-taking is the show’s greatest strength, even when it fails. This is never more apparent than when she show tries to answer mankind’s biggest questions without offending.

The character work is very solid – Hunter plays “fun yet self-destructive” to perfection, and her cop team is composed of well-rounded characters. I would especially emphasize the great work done by Bailey Chase as Butch Ada, but that is only because he very handsome. This is not a bad group of people to hang out with.

I wouldn’t exactly recommend this show, but I wouldn’t tell anyone not to watch it, either. There are better shows to watch from beginning to end, but if you choose to go this route, you get 46 episodes of solid TV. That’s not bad.

Netflix Review: Terriers

After my praise of the idea and execution of the one-season show, a friend recommended Terriers, which lasted 12 episodes on FX a few years ago. I remember when this show was first promoted on FX, and the show is nothing like I expected based on the previews, of which I only remember silence and the opening notes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Down Boy.” I wish I had given it a chance when it aired, though I wouldn’t have saved it from cancellation. FX (or whatever it’s changed to now) has put together an excellent lineup of shows, and Terriers is no different. There was plenty of critical praise heaped upon it when it first aired, and much of it is deserved.

terriers
Ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) partners with his best friend, former criminal Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), in an unlicensed private investigation business. Dolworth’s ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn) and Britt’s girlfriend Katie (an excellent Laura Allen) are the ladies of the piece, but the cast also features a deep bench: Hank’s former partner Mark (Rockmond Dunbar), who provides ties into the police department, and the pair’s lawyer Maggie (Jamie Denbo) stand out.

The setup is that simple, but the plotting and pacing are very well executed. The show is almost entirely serialized (which didn’t help it survive), and the master plot (regarding some shady land dealing in the San Diego exurb of Ocean Beach) ties the episodes together. There are shorter plots involving the pair’s PI jobs, which are good in themselves and are inserted into the larger plot without slowing it down. (Whoever wrote this show wasn’t struggling to buy time to fill a season.) I could get into the details of the various large and small plot movements, but the show is at it best as a whole, so I won’t get into details.

As for characterization, the show dares to give you complete characters across the board, including many of the minor recurring characters. Logue particularly excels as Hank, and I’ve already mentioned Laura Allen as Katie. You quickly get a sense that you’re dealing with real people, with all the complication that brings. The show handles it very well.

Recommended.

NetFlix Review: Better Off Ted & Breakout Kings

The two shows below are both available on NetFlix, although I saw them both when they aired originally. They probably both deserved more than the two seasons that each got, but alas, life is not fair.

Better Off Ted

Better Off Ted is a workplace comedy centered on Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), a single father and head of a research and development department at a soulless corporation (does Hollywood know another kind?) Veridian Dynamics.  Surrounding him are his boss, Veronica (a delightfully amoral Portia de Rossi), co-worker and love interest Linda Zwordling (a cute Andrea Anders), his daughter Rose (Isabella Acres), and laboratory scientists Phillip Myman (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem Hewitt (Malcolm Barrett).

The show walked a tight rope between complete farce and serious workplace comedy, and by common agreement, it nails it. Think Archer meets The Office, and you start to understand the general feeling of this show. It’s at times ridiculous – Phil and Lem’s research projects can be downright ludicrous, at times touching (Linda and Ted have these moments). The cast’s chemistry is off the charts, and it’s used very well; the pairing of Veronica and Ted is particularly fantastic, and Ted and Linda’s will-they-won’t-they rings true because the actors just work well together. I found Ted’s daughter to be more of a distraction than an asset, but it did give the show more options.

This is a well-crafted comedy, highly recommended, and at 26 episodes, a nice weekend watch.

Breakout Kings

I never saw Prison Break so I have no idea if and how this show features into that universe. As a stand-alone show, it’s pretty average fare that kept me engaged because it had high potential which it reached just often enough to make me stick it out for a few more episodes. The writing was uneven, but at its best, it was some of the most thrilling TV I can remember. The last episode of the second season – what turned out to be the show’s last episode – was one of the best-written, plotted, and paced hours of television I’ve ever seen, and you know that’s not faint praise. I remember just one false moment in the entire episode, and that’s only because I hate how TV characters use threats to get information in a way that doesn’t really happen in real life.

The show centered around a US Marshal who puts together a team of convicts with a history of escaping to assist with catching other escapees (something that seems to happen a lot). Every successful recovery gets the cons a month off their sentence and a stay in a cushy minimum security facility, while any attempt to escape would double their sentence in a maximum security prison. Our cast is:

  • Laz Alonso portrays Charlie Duchamp, a Deputy U.S. Marshal and head of the task force. He’s under pressure to make the task force work.
  • Domenick Lombardozzi portrays Ray Zancanelli, a former Deputy U.S. Marshal who lost his job after he was convicted of stealing money from a crime scene to buy his daughter a car. He has a spotty reputation with the Marshals’ Service and some of his bosses have it out for him as a result.
  • Malcolm Goodwin portrays Shea Daniels, a former gang leader whose criminal enterprises (drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, etc.) covered most of the United States. His experience and “street smarts” allow him to provide a working knowledge of how convicts think and move.
  • Serinda Swan portrays Erica Reed, a bounty hunter and expert tracker. She was convicted of a gun charge when her killings of the men who killed her father could not be proven in court.
  • Jimmi Simpson portrays Dr. Lloyd Lowery, a former child prodigy and a behaviorist with a Harvard degree. He uses his psychology skills to anticipate escapee behavior. He was jailed when a prescription he wrote illegally (to fund his gambling) killed a college girl. He’s also very entertaining and a mama’s boy.
  • Brooke Nevin portrays Julianne Simms, a former top student in the law enforcement training program who suffers from various anxiety disorders that make it difficult for her to function in the field. She is, however, adorable.

The show, as I mentioned, is uneven. It is at its best when the convicts actually use their insider convict knowledge to do their job. At its worst, it’s like any other procedural where you wonder why the marshals even bother with the cons, since they don’t contribute anything that other marshals couldn’t. The show struggles at times to justify the presence of the cons, but when it does, it’s good television.

The serialization part of the show is well-executed, though usually in the background of the case-of-the-week. The dynamics between three people who get to go home at the end of the case and three people who go back to a jail cell are believable – Goodwin and Lombardozzi in particular nail the two sides, with the former’s bitterness and the latter’s annoyance at the ingratitude coming to the forefront.

The second season gives the show its first real “Big Bad” and it’s used to a pretty good effect. With more time under its belt, there could have been more there. The show ended on a massive cliffhanger – one that I wasn’t sure the writers could resolve believably. As it is, they never had to.

I wouldn’t recommend this, per se, but I also wouldn’t say to stay away. It’s a fun enough show, but there is just so much good stuff out there that I can’t fault anyone for not having time for this.

PS: The reason I started watching Breakout Kings, other than Jimmi Simpson, is the song used in a preview, reproduced here in its entirety.